Tag Archives: cary grant

One Hour Mark: Only Angels Have Wings

By Andreas

This image is from 1:00:00 into Howard Hawks’ adventure yarn Only Angels Have Wings (1939). In the South American port city of Barranca, macho airman Geoff (Cary Grant) sits in his rickety office, facing a tough situation: he has just grounded his closest friend and much-needed pilot Kid (Thomas Mitchell). Despite cheating on countless vision tests, Kid has finally been cornered, and Geoff forces him to admit that his eyesight’s too poor for him to fly.

This scenario, in which Kid’s derring-do clashes with painful reality, is built on clichés that were already hoary in 1939. But in the all-too-capable hands of Hawks, Grant, and Mitchell, they make for essential cinema. Who needs an original plot when you’ve got three men who are the best in the world at what they do? Grant, as usual, plays a handsome daredevil, but he has to suppress his lighter, sillier instincts here as he doles out tough love in order to save his friend’s life.

Mitchell, as usual, plays an avuncular sidekick, but he’s never just a neutral accessory to the protagonist. His narrative role, here as in Gone with the Wind and It’s a Wonderful Life, is tainted with pathos, as he’s becoming old and obsolete. (Mitchell was 12 years older than Grant, and it shows.) Mitchell’s Kid sees himself as a potential hero, but like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, he’s “at times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.” That ridiculousness is compounded by his eagerness to sacrifice his life just so he can keep flying.

In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris briefly notes that “the heroes of Hawks [are sustained] by professionalism,” and that’s really the glue in Geoff and Kid’s relationship. They must balance their personal desires and their love for each other with the well-being of their whole flying team. That’s the pain in this scene, and it’s why they can’t look at each other. How do two rugged men of action express their complex, uncomfortable emotions? They don’t. Geoff castigates, Kid wheedles, and they awkwardly avoid each other’s eyes.

All of that is conveyed very cannily in the composition of this shot. It’s visually clean and legible, with criss-crossing slats and shadows filling in the background, and the physical relationship between the two figures in the foreground. Grant is glancing at the back of Mitchell’s head while assuming hostile body language; Mitchell fiddles with a cup. Hawks communicates emotion through ellipsis, by not saying anything. Their averted eyes say more about wounded masculinity than screams or tears could.

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Bitchiness, Oedipus, and Maya Deren in Hitchcock’s Notorious

I’ve been going back to the basics lately by sitting in on Ashley’s intro-level film studies class. And last night, after a lecture about “the shot” sprinkled with examples from GoodFellas, we were treated to a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). It’s a fun, sexy thriller from the top tier of Hitch’s oeuvre, and while it’s ostensibly about American spies battling former Nazis in postwar Brazil, that’s really just the delivery mechanism for a steamy love triangle and some dazzling camera tricks. It’s a fine exemplar of mid-career Hitchcock in peak form; as such, it’s ripe for picking apart. So for your reading delight, here are a few observations I made.

  • Cary Grant is a bitch.

The film is fundamentally about the misunderstandings and repartee that define the relationship between Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), who must go undercover to learn the Nazis’ secrets, and Devlin (Cary Grant), her handler/lover. However, when Alicia must marry Nazi socialite Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) for the sake of the mission, Devlin gets all pissy. He passive-aggressively clams up and refuses to talk things out; he also makes snide comments basically implying that she’s a total drunken whore. He even does it to her face toward the end of the movie, when she’s being slowly poisoned into a stupor.

So our debonair hero, played by the icon of Hollywood classiness, is also a self-centered, pouting bitch. This actually isn’t too surprising, especially when you consider that Grant had recently starred in Hitchcock’s Suspicion – wherein he plays an even less likeable, more selfish cad. Hitchcock just had a knack for twisting around actors’ usual personas (see: all his collaborations with Jimmy Stewart), as well as the viewers’ sympathies. Thus, Devlin is frustratingly single-minded to the point that it turned Ashley and I off of him somewhat, while Sebastian is pathetic enough to garner some audience pity – especially in the film’s final moments, which becomes a very dark joke at his expense. Which brings us to our next point…

  • Sebastian has some mommy issues.

OK, this isn’t really a clever observation on my part; it’s part of the film’s storyline. But it does bear some examination. Like many of Hitchcock’s other villains, Sebastian is cultured, even elitist, and surrounded by a network of equally high-class friends. But despite being wealthy and sophisticated, he’s also strangely immature. He’s very emotionally dependent on his mother, played by the authoritative Madame Konstantin, and rarely makes decisions without her. Except when it comes to marrying Alicia.

Here, we see shades of Hitchcock films yet to come: Strangers on a Train with Bruno Anthony’s domineering mother; Psycho, which copies a scene from Notorious almost verbatim (specifically, Sebastian and his mother arguing over keys behind a closed door); and The Birds, which has a similar oedipal crisis between Mitch and Lydia, and a similar female interloper in Melanie. It’s patterns like these that make auteurist analyses of Hitchcock especially rewarding. Sebastian’s relationship with his mother is certainly a secondary conflict, but it nonetheless plays a crucial role in determining the narrative’s overall emotional dynamics.

I won’t go into psychoanalytic detail about this strand of inquiry, especially since Robin Wood, Tania Modleski, or some such theorist probably has already. I just wanted to note the resemblance to other Hitchcock characters and the curious place that Sebastian’s developmental hang-ups occupy in Notorious. (I could make similar comments about the whole social makeup of the Nazi circle; Hitchcock was at home when representing widespread perversion.)

  • Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht stole the key motif from Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon.

OK, maybe “stole” is a harsh word, since I can’t say for sure whether Hitchcock ever actually saw Meshes. But I think it’s extremely likely that the dream images of symbolic keys in Meshes had an influence on how Hitchcock filmed the MacGuffin-revealing key to Sebastian’s wine cellar in Notorious. Consider the following: Meshes was released in 1943, Notorious in 1946; both films indulge in some extreme subjective camera techniques; and Meshes literalized many of the psychoanalytical themes that Hitchcock dealt with throughout his career. (Of course, these speculations could always be confirmed or disproved through some historical/biographical research.)

So, since I really like this theory, I’ve assembled a little collection of visual evidence. Click to enlarge:

At the very least, these are some fascinating parallels. I hope you’ve enjoyed my little insights into Notorious. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend that you go check it out. Sure, much of the plot and dialogue verge on the absurd, but Grant and Bergman have such strong chemistry that they threaten to blow a hole in the screen, and that more than makes up for the film’s flaws. Their combined hotness really makes Notorious a movie you just can’t miss.

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Chaplin, screwball, and sexual ambiguity

There’s really so much to blog about, and so little time. I want to dive head-first into the strange intersections of film history and sexuality – for example, Ashley and I have recently been watching many, many Charlie Chaplin films – right now we’re halfway through Monsieur Verdoux. Here he plays a Bluebeard, seducing women and then killing them for their money (to support his ailing wife and child). However, I recently noted that one reason we can sympathize with the Tramp or Buster Keaton is because they’re so unthreatening; they’re lovable and couldn’t genuinely, intentionally hurt a fly. So Chaplin’s turn from harmless icon to mass murderer is pretty astounding, and creates a kind of absurd confusion. It reminds me of the oddity that is Adenoid Hynkel, one of Chaplin’s dual roles in The Great Dictator.

Megalomaniacal whimsy

In the Politics & Film class I took last year, the professor made a note of Chaplin’s hilariously weird movements when he’s dancing around with the globe, as well as the way he scuttles up a curtain when telling his assistant Garbage, à la Greta Garbo, “I want to be alone,” and she suggested that it might indicate some kind of, oh, fruitiness or queerness of his character – thereby implying the same thing about Adolf Hitler (for which I turn your attention to the WWII song “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball“). This makes me wonder about queer characters in classical Hollywood films, and the role of sexuality in a comedy icon as timeless and endearing as the Tramp.

As a little more textual evidence regarding queerness and Chaplin, watching City Lights the other day, Ashley and I noticed a funny little scene where Chaplin flutters his eyes at a half-naked boxer, prompting the boxer to recede out of Chaplin’s view. Maybe it’s the possibility of homoeroticism being played for laughs. But I think it’s at least interesting to see how sexual fluidity works in comedy; another example is Bringing Up Baby, which we watched a couple days ago, where Cary Grant makes the (supposedly) first use of “gay” as a synonym for “homosexual” on film. (Watch it here, at 1:33.)

David: Because I just went gay, all of a sudden.

This, in a totally off-the-wall ridiculous screwball comedy where the rules of the normal universe seem to regularly break down – since identity, social class, dignity, everything is able to bend (and break) in Bringing Up Baby, why not sexual norms as well? And, thinking about all the cross-dressing going on (in Katharine Hepburn’s excessively garish outfits, no less), I remembered that some years later, Grant starred in another Howard Hawks film, I Was a Male War Bride, which also involved cross-dressing. I feel like I need to somehow get a handle on Cary Grant’s on-screen sexual persona.

Since I’m not sure where I’m going with this discussion (this is a relatively short, superficial post), I might as well also touch on another interesting topic brought up by Gloria in a comment on an earlier post:

I often wonder how many comings out of the closet of deceased people are actually true or just the result of unconfirmed rumour… when not the result of fan-fiction!

When personal affairs aren’t meticulously documented, when sources conflict, or for whatever reason, it can be hard to pin down facts about historical personages, even ones who lived in the 20th century. And one aspect of identity that’s especially hard to ascertain is sexual orientation. One reason could be that in many parts of the world, sometimes until relatively recently, homosexuality was considered not just perverse, but also a mental illness, or even a crime. (Cf. the sad case of Oscar Wilde, or the film Victim with Dirk Bogarde.) And so a question can be, does it matter? Do you regard their art, their life any differently whether they were hetero or not? Well, I think I would argue (I’m sleepy, mind you), does it matter if they were male or female? Black or white (or other)? Religious or nonreligious?

I guess this all just goes into this big question of how much life and art do or should interact. Can we set life aside and regard art as detached, or can we even admire someone from a purely biographical perspective? All I know is, I like to know the facts about artists (in this case, in film) who I’m interested in. And just as I enjoy looking at representations of or by female or black filmmakers in an era where their contributions were generally unappreciated, the same goes for queer actors, directors, etc. Just to give a random example, I think James Whale’s sexual orientation is very worth considering when analyzing The Old Dark House or Bride of Frankenstein. Not that the films are brimming with gayness or anything; just that it’s one of many parts of the artist’s identity to take into account.

And so, that brings us to the fact that it’s often hard to determine sexualities in retrospect. This causes all manner of problems; I’d recommend Cheryl Dunye’s intriguing film The Watermelon Woman for an example of this. One scene involves Cheryl interviewing a relative of a lesbian director from the ’30s about her relationship with the titular black actress. The relative, an old woman, is infuriated, insisting that the director was straight and that it’s nothing but rumors. This reaction seems to happen a lot, as if the suggestion that a deceased person may have been queer is akin to calling them a crazed sexual deviant and does a disservice to their memory. Maybe it’s related to the sentiment “speak no ill of the dead”: “speak no sexuality of the dead.”

My point, ultimately, is that as with anything else, we should base our conclusions about people on solid research. Random, poorly-formatted Spanish-language websites that speculate wildly, however entertaining, should not be taken as solid evidence; reputable biographies should. And so, I think I’ll wrap up this little post for now – I want to write about more actors and actresses, but I’m not sure who. I realized that the closest this blog has come to addressing the subject of pussies going grrr is my earlier exploration of the film Cat People, which gets better and better every time it enters my mind. But in the interest of further accuracy to the title, despite my hatred of lolcats, here you go.

Yakov Smirnov, eat your cat out.

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