Tag Archives: masculinity

Straight Down the Line

Inviting me to select my favorite image from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), as The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series has done this week, is a little like asking that I single out my favorite limb. I’ll make the choice eventually, sure, but it’ll be a reluctant one and involve lots of nervous glances from hand to foot and back again. What I’m trying to say is that Double Indemnity is an unusually beautiful film noir, shot by cinematographer John Seitz as a tapestry of shadows and key lights—a lustrous labyrinth of insurance offices and Venetian blinds leading “straight down the line,” as Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale repeatedly puts it.

But, well, the challenge is to pick one shot, so I picked one, and it’s at least pretty emblematic of Wilder and Seitz’s technique throughout the whole of the film. See, for example, the inventive patterns in which they’ve scattered light across the frame, drawing our eyes straight to the space between Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. The lighting supplements the actors’ already white-hot chemistry, suggesting a downward sloping line from his face to hers and a region of the screen that’s buzzing with sexual magnetism. Mere seconds before this, MacMurray was pacing the room, going on and on in voiceover about how “the hook” (read: his own cock) was pulling him toward her,

so at 8 o’ clock the bell would ring and I’d know who it was without even having to think, as if it was the most natural thing in the world…

And there she is, lit up like a vision from heaven (or elsewhere). The curls of her blond wig are shimmering and her body assumes an irresistible pose beneath that heavy trench coat. This is her about to cross the threshold into his dark bachelor pad, about to make the relationship between them more than just one of flirtatious salesman and client. It’s the seed of her anklet blossoming into adultery, and murder.

I suppose that’s why this shot—which, incidentally, lasts a full minute and fifteen seconds, this image emerging roughly in the middle—calls out to me: it’s so tentative, so teeming with potential. Double Indemnity is like the tale of the scorpion and the frog if it were about two scorpions trying to ferry one another across a river, and this is a shot of those deadly predators, each sizing the other up, separated only by a doorway. A couple other details I enjoy here: the shadow of the rain outside, barely visible on the seat of MacMurray’s pants; and that picture of a bare-knuckle boxer just to the right of the door.

Three more similarly framed prints grace the wall above his couch, and while I’ve never been able to fully integrate them into my reading of the film, they suggest to me an antiquated notion of brawny masculinity. Perhaps they hint at a kind of visceral thrill that MacMurray’s Walter Neff, this bundle of machismo and libido stuffed into a white-collar job, is pursuing whether through his relationship with a married woman or his attempt to “crook the house.” Those boxers, always lurking in the background, could signify the primal man lurking inside the skin of a mild-mannered insurance salesman.


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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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One Hour Mark: The Piano

This is a curious image from 1:00:00 into Jane Campion’s masterpiece The Piano (1993). It’s from a performance within the film – a Bluebeard shadow play that’s just been interrupted by several angry Maoris. The main characters are all in the audience, but for the time being all of the film’s attention is devoted to the chaos onstage. And because this is such an intelligent, well-made movie, even a seemingly insignificant frame like this can speak volumes about the film’s positions and ideas. In its context and composition, I’m seeing a lot being said visually here about race and gender roles in New Zealand.

First, and most obviously: Bluebeard. The plot of the shadow play is a pretty clear parallel the film overall, which contains many outdoor scenes saturated with blue; the wealthy colonist Alistair (Sam Neill) is a stand-in for Bluebeard, while his mute wife Ada (Holly Hunter) is “the sweetest and youngest of all [his] wives.” This is overtly a film about gender relations, power play, and self-expression, with this amateurish performance as a theatrical oversimplification of the rest of the plot. So we also have a reality/fiction divide here, especially since Alistair isn’t so melodramatically grotesque and evil.

Then, continuing along these lines, there’s the reaction of the Maori tribesmen, who perceive the performance as reality. The film’s characters intrude on its own sly self-reference, ruffling up the show and destroying the illusion. Look at the heavy paint on the actors’ faces, and compare it to the ritual self-marking of the Maoris (or “Tā moko”). This frame is a great illustration of gender and race dynamically intersecting. These Maoris don’t appreciate the artificiality of the British traditions imposed upon them, and are reacting violently. But the violence isn’t against the British colonists; it’s against the fictional villain Bluebeard, and the intent is to rescue an imperiled woman. So we simultaneously have a colonist/native culture clash and an exhibition of heroic masculinity.

The charging Maori cries out to Bluebeard as he approaches the stage, and how this cry is rendered in subtitles makes this reading even more explicit: “Coward – bite on my club! … Let’s see how this feels up your arse!” The Maori is metaphorically threatening to rape Bluebeard in the mouth and ass. It’s the collision of highly stylized western storytelling with Maori warrior tradition, and when the shadow play illusion is broken up, it has a “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” effect. As you can see, the actor playing Bluebeard is exposed in his elaborate, ridiculous costume with an expression of terror on his face. He’s vulnerable, he’s immobile – anything but the in-control patriarch he was a moment before. Bluebeard has been totally emasculated by the Maori warrior.

This conflict between masculinities plays out in how the image is put together: the British actors, all rendered impotent, stand and stare at the Maori, who’s the focal point despite being blurry and in motion. He is the active member of this tableau. Yet this whole scene is ironic when you consider the fate of the Maoris as a people. (I’m reminded of a movie I saw last year called Utu, which was entirely about Maori attempts to fight British oppression.) I don’t know to what extent Campion intended The Piano as a broader allegory for New Zealand’s colonial history, but it’s easy to read some complex commentary on nationality, sexuality, and gender. In the end, Ada leaves the possessive Alistair for happiness with George Baines (Harvey Keitel) – and George, an outcast amongst the colonists, has the Tā moko. So I don’t think it’s too extreme to say that the ending might be foreshadowed when the Maori warrior disrupts Bluebeard’s façade of masculine power.

On a broader level, The Piano is a passionate, beautiful, heart-breaking film. I love Campion’s work, having seen her early tale of familial dysfunction Sweetie and her biography of writer Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Both ask questions like The Piano‘s: what is a woman’s place in the world? What is her relationship to the men around her? And in both films, as in The Piano, she engages these problems through the lush, potent realm of visual metaphor. As a filmmaker, Jane Campion is a master of exploring female subjectivity.

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