Tag Archives: marilyn monroe

Cooling Down

Maybe if I took the little fan, put it in the icebox, left the icebox door open, then left the bedroom door open, and soaked the sheets and pillowcase in ice water… no, that’s too icky!

Since America’s presently in the midst of a July heat wave, now seems as good a time as any to write about The Seven Year Itch (1955), Billy Wilder’s feature-length paean to air conditioning in the summer. Adapted from George Axelrod’s play of the same title, the film doesn’t hide its theatrical origins: most of it takes place in a single set, the Manhattan apartment of its seven-years-married protagonist Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell). There, he monologues and fantasizes about infidelity, turning his abode into a psychic echo chamber—and turning The Seven Year Itch into the comic, gender-flipped cousin of Repulsion.

Fundamentally, this is a film about paranoid masculinity, about men who are only capable of viewing women as wives or sex objects. To the audience, “The Girl” played by Marilyn Monroe is a real, complex person, and indeed Monroe plays her as more than just a ditzy blonde. She’s new to New York and happy to have a friend in her building; a little naïve, but driven by innate sweetness and thrilled by an impromptu performance of “Chopsticks.” To her, Richard is a chance to combat both loneliness and, via his AC, the summer heat.

To the solipsistic Richard, however, The Girl only exists insofar as she plays into his fantasies, all derived from pop culture and peer pressure. His visions are alternately self-aggrandizing and self-loathing: first he’s an amorous, Rachmaninoff-loving nobleman and Monroe’s his Obscure Object of Desire; later, he’s the sex-crazed “Mad Lover of Liepzig” and Monroe’s a proto-feminist bitch out to ruin his marriage and reputation. This is Wilder at his most Tashlinesque, inflating gendered behavior until it’s cartoonish and extreme. Hilarious, too: Ewell’s body is the ideal vehicle for Richard’s neuroses, which manifest themselves in dances, tics, pratfalls, and grotesque visual gags.

The Manhattan that surrounds Richard is no less broad and garish: his male acquaintances include his boss at the publishing house—a bellowing summertime hedonist—and the janitor Mr. Kruhulik, a bawdy, intrusive blue-collar caricature. (Robert Strauss, who plays Kruhulik, should’ve gotten an Oscar for his insinuating delivery of “big, fat poodle” alone.) Although Monroe is so often described as an exaggeration herself, as this ne plus ultra of femininity, she actually gives the film’s subtlest performance; her “playing dumb” looks especially restrained and unaffected next to all these histrionic men.

This is part of why I love the short monologue cited above: while Richard’s in the kitchen fixing drinks and holding a one-sided conversation about civilization and its discontents, she isn’t being a sexpot—she’s just curled up in a chair, pondering the best way to sleep comfortably. She’s oblivious, yes, but also guileless, unaware of the obsession that drives this “family man” to try and fuck a younger woman. The Seven Year Itch is very much a movie of the ’50s, about a postwar era when prosperity and hypocrisy went hand in hand. With a satirical slant, it navigates a culture of quick fixes and consumerist highs, of advertising, pop psychoanalysis, and health food.

And, of course, pathological self-absorption. Richard’s lost his up his own ass, whipping up rationalizations and projections to claim that he’s a good guy, that she’s seducing him, that his wife is probably off cheating, too. For all the film’s jokey, pastel lightness, it’s surprisingly dark at heart: no matter how much he deludes himself, Richard is still a pathetic, manipulative scumbag, a regular “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” And he’s the film’s idea of a typical American husband and father. Maybe The Seven Year Itch is closer to Wilder’s acidic black comedies than we realize. It’s silly and farcical, yeah, but you can distill its impression of the American family down to one line uttered by Richard’s boss: “On the surface, clear-eyed and healthy… but underneath, dry rot.”

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One More Look at John Huston

Since the Icebox Movies John Huston Blogathon concluded yesterday (sort of), I hope now to wrap up my meandering thoughts on Huston’s expansive career. (For previous meanderings, see my posts on the director’s modernist tendencies and his film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Since I’ve only seen a fraction of his films, it’s difficult for me to make any kind of grand statement about Huston’s obsessions or visual style. But I’ll at least take a stab at identifying a few definite preoccupations I’ve noticed and, finally, at that beloved question of the latter-day cinephile, “auteur or not?” So, to put it in appropriately daring Shakespearean terms, “Once more unto the breach!”

As I glanced over some of Huston’s films for this blogathon, one consistent feature of his mise-en-scène struck me: an emphasis on faces. I’m not talking about Bergmanesque portraiture, where it’s about the face’s subtle power of expression. I’m talking about the use of faces as another visual piece of the total film, akin to the costuming or the landscapes. Look at Clark Gable in The Misfits. This is Gable’s last role, and in it you can make out phantom images of his past stardom. Gay, with his rambunctious youth soured into whiskey-drenched obsolescence, could be It Happened One Night‘s Pete Warne, 30 years down the line. And it’s all embedded in his dirty, cavernous visage. He looks just as tired and ready for the end as his poor dog, Tom Dooley, or the mustangs he’s rounding up. Gable’s face here is that of a once-handsome icon who’s teetering at the edge of death, and that real-world anguish gives the film additional gravity.

But Gable as Gay is just the most obvious example I saw of Huston using faces as crucial scenery. Really, every face in The Misfits is loaded in one way or another; just look at Perce – played by Montgomery Clift, a victim of ongoing tragedy – with his glassy stare from drunkenness and brain damage, his broken nose, all topped with an incongruous cowboy hat. Similarly, some of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre‘s effectiveness toward the end is inherent in Bogart, Holt, and W. Huston’s ragged, sand-swept faces. I’m not proposing this as the crux of visual artistry or acting in Huston’s films; rather, it’s just a curious method of harnessing actors’ appearances, of highlighting facial features with perhaps a caricaturist’s sensibilities. For further evidence, just see The Maltese Falcon‘s villains and how they’re shot: Peter Lorre, the egg-headed, bug-eyed puffball; Sidney Greenstreet, the eyebrow-raising, belly-patting Santa Claus; and Elisha Cook, the compact, long-faced hothead who never smiles.1

So in short, Huston’s depictions of human bodies had a slightly cartoonish quality to them, as if endeavoring to sum up personality traits through the right camera angle or simple gesture; he needed such forms of visual shorthand, because he made movies about ideas reified and in action.2 Tonally, Huston’s films strike an odd balance, coupling severe visions of mortality with the sense of boozy, mordant humor I described in my Treasure of the Sierra Madre piece. But even with this edge of humor, even in a film as jokey as Falcon, one pervasive attitude joins nearly all of Huston’s characters: desperation. This might be the most common thematic thread in Huston’s entire career, since rarely can I describe his characters’ actions or desires without terming them “desperate.” They’re frequently backed into financial or ethical corners and are scrambling to find any way out. Certainly this fits the whole food chain of The Asphalt Jungle, and it’s just this desperation, on the part of criminals and cops, that leads our protagonists to jail.

Or look at Billy in Fat City: he just wants one more opportunity, and he’s sure he can make it count. Ruben is desperate enough to spread hype about every one of his prospects, and struggles to believe it. Everyone in Stockdale is either frantically looking for a new dream, or else resigned to the fact that none of them will ever come true. With such thick fatalism, Huston’s films could easily turn dour if they weren’t leavened by the saving grace of dark humor – supplied, in this case, by the perpetually soused Oma.3 Ultimately, this omnipresent mood of desperation is a direct product of that persistent modernist/existentialist crisis of self-definition, of determining one’s own beliefs and values independent of any absolute authority. Because even at their most downtrodden, his characters are possessed of a raw, primordial energy; the question they’re desperate to resolve is, how to use that energy? And why?

Consider The Asphalt Jungle‘s famous quote, “Crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor.” This is the underlying ethos I’m getting at: Huston’s characters have the potential to embark on these ambitious endeavors,4 but the issue is whether they’re right- or left-handed. Judging by these films, I get the sense that Huston saw human nature as capable of good or evil, but always driven by an innate compulsion to just act. These people can compete in the rodeo and boxing ring, despite defeat after defeat; they can dig and hunt and head down the river; they can stage massive, clever con games. These are all possibilities. The question is what personal, self-motivated beliefs guide these actions.

Some of these conclusions may be too broad, and some of my analysis might be wrong-headed, but these are the ideas I find at the core of Huston’s filmography. I’ll be interested to view more of his films and see how well they synch up with these theories. And so, since his films display a unified creative personality with a distinct vision of mankind, told cinematically with elements of a clear visual style, I believe – based on my understanding of the term, as used by Truffaut and Sarris – that John Huston is, in fact, an auteur. Thank you for reading my contributions to the John Huston Blogathon, and thanks to Adam of Icebox Movies for providing the spark that flamed into these analyses. Now get thee to a DVD player and watch The Asphalt Jungle, if you haven’t already.

1 I could happily go on supplying examples, but I’ll restrain myself outside of mentioning Sam Jaffe’s professorial benevolence and Sterling Hayden’s hulking presence in The Asphalt Jungle.

2 Given these conclusions, maybe it’s strangely fitting that Huston directed and starred in a segment of Casino Royale (1967), a film that took James Bond’s premise to nonsensical comic-book extremes.

3 However, the greatest embodiment of this kind of humor is Thelma Ritter in The Misfits; she served a similar role in films like Rear Window and, more sadly, Pickup on South Street.

4 Like criss-crossing the globe in search of a jewel-encrusted statue, or journeying into the wild to spend months digging for gold, or single-handedly taking down and tying up an angry stallion…

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John Huston, Modernist and Anti-mythologist

What’s more fun than participating in a blogathon about a great director? Possibly a barrel of monkeys, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I’m participating in the John Huston Blogathon being hosted between today (Huston’s 104th birthday) and next Thursday by Adam at Icebox Movies. So definitely go there and read some other blogalicious, Huston-centric musings, and watch Adam’s John Huston impersonation video. Now, I’ve been uncertain about how best to approach Huston’s formidable career and larger-than-life personality. So first I want to give a brief overview of – dare I say – the man who would be John Huston.

  • At different times, Huston wasn a boxer, soldier, journalist, and painter.
  • More pertinently, he was an actor, writer, and director on countless films spanning from about 1930 to his death in 1987.
  • His films as a director ran from film noir to biopics to earnest literary adaptations to action-adventure and war movies to period dramas to a biblical epic to the musical Annie, and beyond. Whew.
  • He was the patriarch of a Hollywood dynasty that includes his father Walter, his daughter Anjelica, and his son Danny; he directed both father and daughter to Oscar-winning performances.

In short, he’s a pretty intimidating figure to write about. So I’m planning to spread out my analysis of his films across a few different posts. The basic question Adam’s asking with this blogathon is, Can we call Huston an auteur? Well, maybe I can answer that question indirectly by examining the cinematic commonalities and discrepancies across a small portion of his career. But first, I want to talk to about one of my favorite Huston appearances outside of his directorial oeuvre: as the consummate villain Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Starting in the 1960s, Huston acted in a lot of weird, bad movies (like Myra Breckinridge, eww!), but none of his performances even came close to the monster he created in Cross, who wore his aura of corrupted authority as if it were a halo. (Barring possibly the Lawgiver in the last Planet of the Apes movie; Huston was born to wear that ape makeup.)

In Chinatown, Huston gives an easygoing, paternal warmth to a grizzled industrialist who’s ravaged both the land around Los Angeles and his own daughter without suffering any legal consequences, let alone pangs of conscience. The sheer scope and certainty of Cross’s evil acts astound his nemesis, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a small-time private eye who’s clearly out of his league. Cross is a depraved, unabashed behemoth of amorality, yet he’s so outwardly affable and grandfatherly, even during the film’s miserable climax. It’s an infuriating, understated, terrifying performance. And even though Chinatown isn’t a “Huston movie” per se, it’s still worth discussing in relation to his filmography. His presence in Chinatown‘s rotten core is an example of the cleverly meta-cinematic casting that Polanski excels at,1 a casting decision whose tendrils extend back through the decades into the heart of studio-era Hollywood and with it, film noir.

As James Naremore says in More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, Huston’s role in the movie is, in part, Polanski and producer Robert Towne “acknowledging [their] indebtedness to The Maltese Falcon” (205). Since Chinatown is at once a throwback to and a recontextualization of film noir conventions, what better way to forge a concrete link with the past than by casting the man who’d codified many of them with Falcon, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle? In Chinatown, then, I see a kinship with classical film noir in general, and Huston’s earlier films in specific. In the film’s vision of 1930s Los Angeles, wealth trumps morality or the law; it’s a city where each individual must find their own meaning, whether in the unrestrained exercise of power (Cross) or the simple desire for the truth (Gittes). In some ways, Cross’s unbound ubermensch is a grotesque exaggeration of the vaguely existentialist ethos promoted by Huston’s own films.

Like much of film noir, after all, Huston’s films largely took place in that gray space between law and anarchy. His characters wander a world in which traditional authorities, whether in terms of morality, religion, or epistemological certainty, have been dethroned, forcing them to discover the right path on their own, according to their own self-determined values. Basically, I’m locating Huston as fundamentally modernist in his outlook and style. I’m also generalizing like crazy, of course, so I’ll be open about which sample of his output I’m using: I’ve recently watched The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits, and Fat City, so my forthcoming arguments will be primarily concerned with those films. (I’ll probably make detours into Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King, and Under the Volcano as necessary.)

So: John Huston’s films are, on a very basic level, concerned with the effects of modernity. Like existential seismometers, they detect a rupture in the circle of life; in The Misfits, for example, American family life has fallen prey to divorce, disease, war, and poverty. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) and the cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) try to piece together a relationship, but they’ve been so battered by the world – or in Gay’s case, rendered obsolete – that now they can’t even connect to other human beings. Even nature, one of Huston’s abiding interests, can’t stave off the encroachment of modernity. As Gay observes, the wild mustangs used to be given to children as presents, but now kids just ride motor scooters, so the mustangs must instead be ground into dog food. It’s a brutal metaphor that applies broadly to all of these Huston protagonists, displaced men searching for a new home or trying to return to a lost one, as with Dix’s dying pilgrimage at the end of The Asphalt Jungle.

The nature of “home” is also the subject of scrutiny in Huston’s work. In The Misfits, Pilot (Eli Wallach) has an unfinished house, abandoned after his wife’s death, which Roslyn and Gay appropriate as the site of their own domestic fantasies. But these efforts are doomed from the beginning, and the contrast between their reality and the “American dream” ideal proves the film’s bitter truths. In Fat City, washed-up boxer Billy (Stacy Keach) and barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell) initially live together in a shrill burlesque of marriage. But inevitably they go their separate ways, and it’s because the American dream of marital bliss was not designed for a pair of alcoholics in desolate small-town California. Huston was intent on demolishing these myths on which much of American life was based, revealing the sickness and falsehoods underneath. And so, to come temporarily full circle, isn’t that what Huston was accomplishing by starring in Chinatown? He was at once Noah Cross, titan of industry, but also Noah Cross, the dirtiest of old men.

In that role and in many of his own films, Huston also undercut capitalist myths that underlie the “American way of life.” But I’ll get into that in my next post as I delve into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

1 See also Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby or Lionel Stander in Cul-de-Sac, who dragged their cinematic pasts into the roles with them.

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