Film History 101 (Part 4): Dark Places

When we last left off, it was 1941 and Orson Welles had just been given the boot from RKO. This was after creating what many people consider to be the greatest film ever made: “Citizen Kane.” RKO’s slogan that year became “Showmanship, Not Genius“. It was a direct slap at Orson Welles, and a signal that they intended to return to traditional fare. But the executives at the studio were left in a quandary. How to increase their business, but having to do so without having the money or resources of the bigger studios?

Looking around, they saw that the Hollywood studio most similar to them size-wise was Universal. And at the time, Universal was raking in the cash by recycling all of their monsters from the 1930s. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man were starring in a slew of sequels and creative pairings. The light bulbs must have gone off in the Executive Board Room at RKO. The studio made the strategic decision to get into the horror movie business.

Toward that end, they hired a young producer named Val Lewton. At the time, Lewton was a direct assistant to David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone With the Wind. His tutelage under Selznick had given him a strong foundation in the mechanics of movie making.  He had already been an assistant producer, director, scriptwriter, and most importantly to RKO, knew how to manage a budget.

To lure him away from Selznick, RKO offered Lewton a multi-picture deal and complete and total creative control over his projects. That was, as long as he met three very interesting conditions: 1). Each picture Lewton made had to be under 75 minutes in length. 2). The budget for each picture could not exceed $300,000 under any circumstances. (Even in 1942, this was a very low figure.) And most interesting of all was condition number 3). Lewton could make any picture he liked, with any script he chose, as long as he used the titles given him by RKO’s marketing department.

And what titles they were: Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam. In all, Lewton would make 9 horror films for RKO. And they all sounded like ideas dreamed up by kids sitting around a campfire. But for Lewton, the naming conventions for his titles were a moot point. They had been handed to him and he was told to take it or leave it. He did the former.

But in choosing Lewton, in many ways the RKO executives who hired him couldn’t have made a worse choice. At least as far as getting someone who was going to deliver traditional fare.  Like Welles before him, Lewton had no interest in making typical Hollywood films. He was looking to break new ground and create something that approached art — rather than just make disposable entertainment for a quick buck. For Lewton, dealing with silly film titles was a small price to pay for this chance. Creative control was something everyone wanted, but few people actually had. And Lewton intended to make the most of it. He assembled a trusted team around him, and set out to make literate, intelligent films designed to scare the pants off an audience. It was the birth of the modern psychological horror film.

Up until Lewton, horror films were variations of people (usually attractive women) being chased around by someone in makeup. We love the old Universal horror films, but let’s be honest–at their core, that’s all they boil down to. Lewton had something different in mind. He wanted to scare people by placing capable, rational characters in situations that the audience could relate to. Where the supernatural was always at the edge of everyday life, just out of reach of what you knew to be real, but more than capable of intruding into your world.

A woman walking home in the dark through the park, with someone or something following her….Being thrown into an insane asylum by an evil magistrate where you’re the only person who’s rational….A young girl begging to be let in the front door of her house only to be silenced suddenly by a thud and a pool of blood spilling in under the door….Being trapped on an island where the walking dead seem to be taken for granted by all the inhabitants…Dealing with devil worshippers who seem more rational than anyone else around….Hearing the screams of someone buried alive….These are just some of the scenarios that Lewton exploited using shadows, expressionist lighting, sound effects, and sometimes even complete and utter silence.

These kind of films were a complete break with what had gone before them, both in terms of horror and suspense. Their plots were often unpredictable, and were full of artistic touches. (e.g. I Walked With a Zombie is really a remake of Jane Eyre). William Friedkin, who went on to make The Exorcist lists The Leopard Man as a major inspiration in teaching him how to construct stories designed to scare people. Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) also lists Lewton as a major influence. Robert Wise, who went on to direct West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and countless other major films first became a director under Lewton.

In addition, Lewton’s films did make money. Cat People as a major hit for RKO, and all of the subsequent films turned a small profit. But, alas, not as much as RKO wanted. They were baffled at what they were getting. They began to pressure Lewton to make horror films like Universal’s. They demanded to see more monsters. They even brought over Boris Karloff from Universal to work with Lewton. To their dismay, they found out that Karloff also wanted to make the same kind of sophisticated films that Lewton was working so hard at. The two instantly became friends. The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, and Bedlam all starred Karloff, but were the last three films Lewton did for RKO.  For when his contract was up, they cut him loose.

Lewton never found steady employment again and after taking odd jobs at some of the other studios died a few years later. At the time, he was broke and all but forgotten. It wasn’t until years later, that people began to appreciate what he had created, that his place in film history (or at least horror film history) was secured. Lewton had demonstrated that what you didn’t see on screen was sometimes even more important than what you did. Against huge odds, not the least of which was the mindset of the time, he had shown the way for virtually every suspense or scary movie we see today. (Funny how that works sometimes). But in addition to inspiring major filmmakers and writers later on, Lewton had also made major contributions to the film genre that the 1940s is probably most famous for: Film Noir.

Film Noir (or film black) is a term given to a range of films with certain similar characteristics. They typically deal with the dark side of humanity. Murder, blackmail, corruption, adultery, gambling, robberies…these are the mainstays of film noir. Usually, even the main character isn’t even likeable. The dialogue has a terse, unsentimental style, and you never knew who you could trust. Usually the scripts were adapted from books by people like Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammet.

Film Noir’s lighting also had a lot in common with Lewton’s films. More often than not, the parts of the frame in shadow were often just as important as the action in the parts of the picture that you could see. Other trademarks include a cynical private eye, femme fatales, silhouetted characters, dark, damp streets, lots of night scenes, a voice-over narration, and a convoluted plot.

Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, Robert Montgomery, Dana Andrews, Fred McMurray, Edmund O’Brien, Barbara Stanywick, Veronica Lake, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall…these were some of the stars of Film Noir. But there were many others. Classics of Film Noir from the 1940s include Murder My Sweet, The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, Double Indemnity, Laura, The Postman Always Rings Twice, They Live By Night, Detour, Force of Evil, Crossfire, Criss Cross, The Set-Up, and The Killers.

There were many more. In fact, the genre never really went away. We see solid examples of Film Noir all through the film world from the 1940s on. Even though it usually doesn’t get mentioned as a major type of film genre, it’s just as common as Westerns, Science Fiction, Romantic Comedies, or Costume Dramas.

Blade Runner, Sunset Boulevard, Basic Instinct, LA Confidential, Body Heat, Sin City, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Jagged Edge, Blue Velvet, Se7en, or the majority of films produced by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers fall squarely within the confines of Film Noir. Films as diverse as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Police Squad, and The Dark Knight have to be considered an offspring of this type of film born in the 1940s. And let’s not forget Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry.

But perhaps the biggest thing to happen to Hollywood in the 1940s wasn’t on any movie screen. It was in the court room. In 1947, the Justice Department won a lawsuit, claiming that the Hollywood studios constituted a monopoly. It was determined that each studio controlled three separate elements of the film industry: production, distribution, and exhibition. A federal court ruled that each studio could take it’s pick, but had to divest itself from one of these three elements. All of the studios chose exhibition as the part of their empire to get rid of.

It’s hard to believe now, but prior to 1947, when you went to your local movie theater, you only saw the films of the studio that owned that particular venue. Warner Brothers specialized in gangster flicks. So, all of the gangster movies played in only one theater in town. If you liked musicals, you most likely headed for the local theater owned by MGM. The Three Stooges were under contract with Columbia, so you needed to find a Columbia theater if you wanted to see one of their shorts before the main movie. And, if your town was small enough to only have one theater….well, you were just out of luck depending on the kind of film you wanted to see.

But after the court ruling, theaters became independent chains. Why did all of the studios pick theaters as the odd man out? Simple. They made the least amount of money for the studio. That trend continues today. When you shell out $10 (if you’re lucky) to see a movie, the theater taking your ticket only gets to keep about 75 cents. Where does the other $9.25 go? To the distributor, who also has a deal with the production company (or studio).

So, how do local theaters stay afloat if they’re only pulling in 75 cents per patron? One word: Concessions. Selling tickets is just an excuse to get people to buy popcorn and soda. And the markup there is unbelievable. That $5 cup of Cherry Cola you purchase only costs the theater about 5 cents. Popcorn is about the same. The biggest expense AMC or Regal has is labor. And that’s minimized by hiring teenagers who work for minimum wage. Now you know 1) why mostly young people work in movie theaters and 2) why theater managers go apoplectic when you try to bring in your own snacks and soda from outside.

In no particular order, here are some other films from the 1940s you might want to check out:

The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed, another big fan of Val Lewton, it’s a classic film about corruption and deception in post-war Vienna, Austria. They still show the English version every week right near the center of that city.  And you can also still ride the ferris wheel where Orson Welles made one of the greatest ad-libs in film history. To paraphrase: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

DOA. Edmond O’Brien has been given a slow acting poison for which there is no antidote. Given only 24 hours to live, he spends his final day trying to find out who killed him, and why. A great film with a plot that just flies along. With all of it’s false moves and dead ends, it’s the cinematic equivalent of racing through a maze.

Gilda. Rita Hayworth is just phenomenal. The movie’s not bad either.

Out of the Past. Quite possibly the perfect Film Noir. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also made three films for Val Lewton, it has all the elements. Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas all sparkle. It was remade in the 80s as Against All Odds.

White Heat. James Cagney as the quintessential gangster: a certified psychopath with migraines and a mother complex.

Kiss of Death: This is the one where Richard Widmark pushes the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs. Pretty chilling stuff, but it made him an instant star.

The Big Clock. Ray Milland tries to outwit Charles Laughton and prove his innocence when all of the evidence he uncovers points to himself. It was remade almost exactly as No Way Out with Kevin Costner. Really.

Shadow of a Doubt. Alfred Hitchcock once claimed this was his favorite out of all the films he directed. Joseph Cotton is a serial killer who moves in with relatives in a idyllic small town. Teresa Wright is the niece who suspects that wonderful Uncle Charlie is really the personification of pure evil. Hitchcock obviously enjoyed juxtaposing good and bad and seeing the sparks it created. And Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie is really, really bad. (People really into Hitchcock have pointed out that everything in the film occurs in pairs. There are two murders, two attempted murders, two Charlies, two detectives, literally almost two of everything. It’s a hidden narrative device that goes all the way back to vaudeville, which Hitchcock borrowed when he got to Hollywood).

Samson and Delilah. It’s full of REALLY corny dialogue, and gross overacting. So, do what we do and forward to the end when the temple collapses. It’s still mighty spectacular.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. For some undefinable reason, everything clicks as the comedy and scares blend perfectly in this one. Parts are laugh out loud funny, while Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man all play it straight. Bela Lugosi has never looked so relaxed on screen. A fitting send-off to all of the classic monster movies of the era. (And yes, that’s Vincent Price uncredited at the end as the Invisible Man).

Mighty Joe Young. The 1940s produced very few good fantasy or imaginative films. But this is the exception. The special effects are nothing short of marvelous in one amazing trick shot after another. It was also Ray Harryhausen’s debut as an stop-motion animator.

The Heiress. One of the most emotionally gut-wrenching films you’ll see from old Hollywood. Olivia DeHaviland won an Oscar in a film which explores how utterly cruel people can be. Tom Cruise was all set to do a remake of this film in the 1990s, but after he saw it, he and his producer nixed the idea. They claimed there was no way to improve upon the original, and that any remake would be a waste of time.

The Best Years of Our Lives. One of Hollywood’s all time best. It tells the story of three different men home from World War II who are trying to readjust to their civilian lives. You’d think that it would be dated, or boring. But for some strange reason, the characterizations ring true to the point that you could swear you were watching a contemporary film. After more than 60 years, it still has a lot people can relate to.

As the 1940s closed, the film industry had no idea of the major changes coming in the next decade. The advent of television would force Hollywood to respond with technological innovations of its own. In the process it helped pave the way for the widescreen viewings and multi-soundtracks that we today view as an essential part of both the movie and home theater experience. That will be the next part of film history in 1950s.


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