(A fragment from the Mihály Kertész monograph currently under preparation)
"Who would not wish to be more than he is?"
(Lope De Vega)
... film studios cannot afford to loose money today. The utmost they can hope for is that they get away without a deficit. "
The above lines from a 1945 interview with Kertész may well be considered a situation report about the age of regression. The nature of the goals and doubts expressed in it cannot be segregated from the reality-content of the statement quoted: the director saw the only chance for getting out of the crisis in more quality films, while he was seriously concerned about whether the audiences of the "dream factory" were prepared to take these. His prophetic doubts were met with deafness in Hollywood. With the approach of the 50s, quality was more and more sacrificed to financial constraints and the efforts which aimed at mere survival.
From the summer of 1945, the first major earthquake threatening the position of Warner Brothers presented itself in the shape of strikes. The demonstrations initiated by the council of the studio trade union ended regularly with police interference; and The Los Angeles Times did not hesitate to call those who participated in them communist sympathisers. During the autumn of 1946, the events of the previous year repeated themselves, supplying a considerable amount of material for investigation for the hearings of the Committee for the Investigation of Anti-American Activities, launched in January 1947. The committee, headed by J. Parnell Thomas, summoned Jack Warner, director of the studio which formed the hotbed of rioting, among the very first. The documentary shots made of the hearing show Warner as he makes his statements in full compliance with their expectations", later declaring (among others) Clifford Odets and screen-play writers Albert Maltz and John Howard Lawson to be aggressors" in front of the committee. The declaration made by the head of the studio about the aftermath of the Moscow Mission has already been touched upon in this paper.
Jack Warner is wiping his forehead on the shots made during the hearing. In the studio which he was head of, the year 1947 was not only a time of political law-suits ruining artistic careers, but also the last year closed with substantial revenue. The period of the 50s was characterised by a speedy diminishing of profits. In addition to the ground gained by television, even a government resolution was detrimental for the film-moguls who previously enjoyed exclusive rights. As a result of the so-called decision by consent, they were forced to sell their movie theatre networks, having to offer films produced in their studios at substantially higher prices. Due to the restrictive measures, the annual film-yield of the Warner company in this period hardly exceeds the number 20, and the net profit reported by the studio falls from USD 22 million in 1947 to USD 9,5 million in 1951. Two years later, on 9 April, 1953 Jack Warner warns his staff members of a 50% wage reduction. For many, this was the last drop in the cup, and one of them was the once most appreciated director of the studio, Mihály Kertész.
Kertész started his career at the company at the end of the 20s with a salary of 1500 dollars a week. By 1945 his salary increased to 4200 dollars a week, and he was entitled to a considerable percentage of the revenues from films produced. (According to the documents available, he received less than the amount stated in his contract only on one occasion, in the April of 1931.) During the second half of the 40s, however, even he is personally effected by the changes which reshaped the entirety of the studio network: He directed Life with Daddy without a contract in 1946 (although later Jack Warner compensated him with a 50.000 dollar bonus for the security he would have enjoyed with a the help of a formal contract). He sees the positions of his former colleagues taken over by new people every day in the studios. The 57 year old director, - for the first time after two extremely productive decades - has to make a major decision.
The first to approach him with a proposal of a contract is the by then independent film studio, Liberty Pictures, established by Frank Capra, George Stevens and Howard Hawks. Being fully aware of the significance of such a proposal, Jack Warner, as if in retaliation, offers him the responsibility of a producer which entailed greater autonomy as well as the management of an independent "unit" at the company, with a profit share of 51-49% for the benefit of the director. I entirely agree with you, I shall feel better in my own unit" writes Kertész in his letter to the head of the studio dated 26 March, 1946, accepting the proposal.
Michael Curtiz Productions Inc. was formally established on 19 February, 1947. In the next two years it added four films of rather different quality to the archive of films with the label WB. (Aki gyanú felett áll, Románc a nyílt tengeren, Az álmom a tiéd, Flamingó út). The autonomy promised, however, turned out to be an empty shell. Since financial management continued to be concentrated in the hands of Jack Warner, Kertész at times had to modify even his selection of topics or actors in view of Warner's expectations. In addition, he was to face other kinds of problems: the director who spent 34 years in the closest contact with the camera had suddenly to fight with a frustrating amount of administrative work connected to production. In 1949 he decided to word his resignation and, returning to his previous position, signed a contract for 3500 dollars a week.
All this, however, was not sufficient to eliminate the tension of wounded self-esteem created on both sides by the failure of Michael Curtiz Productions. Kertész and Warner knew without open accusations that something had gotten fatally wrong in this machinery which has for such a long time been working smoothly. Kertész remained the director of Warner Brothers until 18 April 1953. Later, from the age of 66, he continued his career in America as a free-lance director. One of the most successful "survivors" will leave the sinking ship only in the last minute. From 1945 until his departure he directed 21 films, setting the label of film noir onto his last Warner-period". Andrew Sarris is absolutely right in contending that Kertész' case reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system better that that of any other director. ...
Radio studio, direct sending. At eight o'clock sharp in the evening, Victor Grandison starts reading out his short crime story.
We find ourselves in a strange world. The pictures are just as bodiless as the mystical sounds of the flute which accompany the words of the director, -they know nothing about the boundaries of space and time. The camera first approaches the clock on the wall, then a loud-speaker. Then, getting out from among the walls of the studio, - countless wipes fly us to the unknown. A train dashes towards us in the night, one of the passengers listens to Grandison's show. The camera searches for the man's face starting from a close take. It follows his look, showing the melting lights on the window. - We are outside again. The flickering pictures of subjective shots lead us through the wet street illuminated with gap-toothed neon-lights quite until Hotel Peekskill. In one of the rooms of this low-grade hotel, a shabby-looking man lies on the bed. The words of the writer resound from his radio: ... the criminal is free. Yet is he truly that? His deeds follow him like a shadow." The room is half-lit, and out of the name of the hotel inscribed with neon-lights by the window all that shows are the letters "kill"
It is the quintessence of the film noir of the 40s" - write Higham and Greenberg about the sequence of pictures from Aki gyanú felett áll (1947) referred to above.
For all this, this film is regrettably rarely shown on television or analysed with its counterparts as one of the products of this dominant style of the age. Yet Aki gyanú felett áll and Mildred Pierce (1945) are perhaps the most significant pieces of the Kertész-oeuvre in the period which followed the creation of Casablanca, and it would be a mistake to disregard the fact that the director had a most excellent command of the grammar of film noir. This excellency is not surprising. Both the films created in Germany which bear the marks of expressionism and his later melodramas and gangster-films made in the 30s provided him with abundant possibilities for preliminary studies about how to visually capture the state of immorality, anguish and a sinister atmosphere. By 1945, the time of filming Mildred Pierce, Kertész discovered, what is more, repeatedly walked through, all the roads leading to the backstreets of film noir. He is well familiar with all the shades of this world which now melt into a picture of America according to a new guiding principle. In propagandistic films about the war, steps taken by politicians and specific threats - mostly the surface - were highlighted. Like cause and effect, later the effects of the transformation of post-war American society on the system of values and patterns of behaviour become the focus of attention. Attention is thus focused on the negative aspects of psychological processes, such as the visual portrayal of pathologically overdriven ambition and immoderate thirst for wealth. The enigmatic playing with light and shadow, the "animated" objects and the sites - dark streets, smoky bars, hotel-rooms, all well-known attributes of film-noir, - are each the external manifestations of internal psychological processes, in a way the extensions of the self.".
Higham and Greenberg highlight one of the picture sequences of Aki gyanú felett áll as the quintessential sum-up of the most typical characteristics of the movement, but one could just as well cite some of the scenes of the other "model film noir", for example Mildred Pierce. Perhaps the reason why the thriller is often preferred are its specifically Hitchcockian solutions as opposed to the more serious melodrama, although both films portray distorted ambition. In Aki gyanú felett áll a successful writer wishes to lay his hands on the fortune of his niece, employing all the tricks of the seemingly harmless villains of thrillers., and the heroine of Mildred Pierce changes the kitchen apron for the hope of fabulous wealth promised by business life in order to satisfy the whimsies of her spoiled daughter as well as her own hidden desires. Perhaps this short synopsis already implies that in Mildred Pierce we are faced with an unusually powerful representation of the victim-ambition formula. While Grandison, an embodiment of exhibitionism and ambition schemes cold-bloodedly, for Mildred her lust for wealth and the seemingly secure welfare to be gotten by a marriage of interest transubstantiates into an essential component of motherhood, almost a obligation. This typical female character of the 40s is to be blamed "only" because she is unable to free herself from the intoxicating attraction of the sex-money-self-interest triangle. The real crime, murder, is not committed by her. She is not guilty of murder, and although no murder is committed in the novel which forms the basis of the film, murder becomes the alpha and omega of the story on the screen.
Jerry Wald had a great liking for the novels of James M. Cain. And since the creators of black films drew their raw-material mainly from the popular literature of the 30s, i.e. the writings of Hammet, Chandler and Cain, knowing the taste of producers, it was more often than not easy to guess the upcoming birth of a new thriller or melodrama. According to the Warner-documentation, with the adaptation of Mildred Pierce, Wald wished to continue the line and success series started by Gyilkos vagyok (1944) and it was his idea to employ the flashback which gave the film its atmosphere of fatality. The producer was inspired by the structure of Gyilkos vagyok and Aranypolgár (1941), both built up according to the same logic. Thus, he certainly cannot be blamed for having set the standard too low. As the film is visited in this paper not in its capacity of adaptation but as a characteristic representation of a movement, we shall only highlight the most apparent differences and meeting points of the film-novel relationship.
We have already touched upon the most important modification. In the novel, Mildred's daughter, Veda, does not kill her mother's second husband, the wealthy Monty Beragon, but seduces him and goes away with him. She realises that although she will never be a successful piano-player, she can still make a career as a singer. In the film, with a typically "warnerian" solution, the grown-up Veda (Anne Blythe) is the mediocre singer of a cocktail-bar and Mildred (Joan Crawford) promises her a suitable social position (i.e. the name of Beragon) if she is willing to abandon her previous life-style. On the one hand the film is therefore substantially more pessimistic by adding violence to the triangle of sex-money-self-interest, yet on the other it utilises the truth-rendering possibility of a happy ending by entrusting Veda's fate to the law. On the last pictures we see Mildred and her first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett), not her daughter and Beragon (Zachary Scott), go away hand in hand. As regards the safest common buttress, that is first of all the cruel holding up of a mirror against the world portrayed. This mirror reflects deformities unforgivingly which again is the resultant of a series of truthful portraits. Out of the director's instructions in support of a truthful portrayal by the actors it is worth mentioning that Kertész shot the scenes of the story built on two long flashbacks in a chronological order to the request of the protagonist Joan Crawford. The Oscar awarded to the actress, as well as the nomination of three further actors for the prize, can therefore also be viewed as an appreciation of the director's ability to instruct his actors.
The letters of the main title are washed away by the waves of the ocean.. The law of eternity is alien to the rules of social climbing. Later, at the police station, a police officer is at a loss about how to name Mildred. Mrs. Pierce. I mean, Beragon." His colleague returns the question: "Which one, then, Pierce or Beragon?" Mildred Pierce Beragon" - is her laconic answer.
The heroine's loss of identity has been a significant component of the psychology of adventure-stories, too. Yet in the case of Captain Blood the negative transformation of the personality could be blamed on external causes, e.g. historical circumstances. Mildred changes the name Pierce for Beragon out of her own free will, and the grey, uniform workdays which sometimes inspire a sensation of security, for the challenges and failures of business life. Every picture of the film wishes to capture this division, when it portrays the fate of the heroine rising from the outskirts to the elegant neighbourhood, from the unemployed real estate agent to the millionaire playboy and from the apron to the fur-coat. The "American dream", of course, is no more true here than in the world of the power-thirsty heroes of gangster films. Yet this time it is no petty pick-pocket or bootlegger who succumbs to the seduction of "yours is the world"; and just a single series of shots is heard instead of the usual street battles, right after the introductory shots showing the wet night harbour.
The bullets meet not only Monty Beragon, but even a mirror, the same mirror to which the camera shyly turns in the past of film-time in order to indirectly show the playboy making love to Mildred on their first night together. The scene of the murder is at the same time the scene of the lovemaking, and the viewer may think that the reason-crime circuit "closes" perfectly. The last word of the man dressed in tuxedo falling to the ground is "Mildred". The camera did not disclose the identity of the murderer, but on the next pictures we see the protagonist roaming by the deserted ocean beach at night in her elegant fur-coat and fashionable hat.. Just like a sleep-walking princess or an elite prostitute" - writes Thomson appropriately in his "America in the Dark".
For the heroes of black film, the experience of confinement becomes unquestionable in urban environments. The same experience is captured also in the specific and symbolic representation of the backstreet and the dead-end street-syndrome. Yet the closeness of the ocean and the wet bunches of light reflected on the stone-pavements of harbours do not promise more than the backstreets of large cities. Especially if one stares so lethargically at the waves that the policeman on duty starts talking to one with suspicion. And especially if a sign emphatically makes us aware that fish dishes are sold in the neighbourhood, and if this information in such an environment does not call the delicious specialities called fruits of the sea to our mind but the insatiable appetite driven by instincts. Signs stay cruel even later on. For sale - declares a sign on the Beragon-house following the pictures of Mildred's and Monty's engagement, implying that the event is in fact a business bargain. I would never sell my pride and my name" - says the playboy before demanding a share of the property of his would-be wife.
The next scene of the twenty minute prologue starting by the night beach is Wally Fay's (Jack Carson) cocktail-bar. A hand spurting soda, noise, crowd. The contrast could well evoke the loneliness of Rick and the crowd at Café American, but instead of elegant guests Mildred in her fur-coat finds no more than drunken sailors here. The robust bar-owner and real-estate agent, who similarly to the other characters would never let a possibility to gain money by personal contacts slip out of his hands, slyly plays the unselfish every time the wife of his friend (Bert Pierce) turns to him for business advice. The present evening, however, surpasses all his expectations, as the woman invites him to her home. Wally throws himself into the adventure with his usual greed, yet he is suspicious, too, as Mildred had never before been so kind to him.
The visual bravado of the trap-scene is characterised by the versatility of takes, the daring contrasts of light effects and subjective shots which result in unexpected effects. As Mildred and Wally enter the Beragon-house, the camera for a second lets them leave our view and slides to the corpse on the floor. This refers to the cause of this weird rendezvous. Then the camera keeps its eye on the two, following their movements. The scene is wrapped in a special atmosphere by the lights reflected on the ocean. We see shapes and figures vibrating and trembling on the ceiling, forming our vague suspicions into a picture. The same suspicion takes gradually hold on Wally. When Mildred disappears from the house, he is still unaware that his perspective role is that of the scapegoat. Then the scenes of latent tension change into those of unrestricted anger The entrapped Wally bangs desperately - and this gigantic fight of the instinct of life is portrayed by a huge shadow. Yet his cry of help is drowned in the sound of a car-horn. The prisoner of the Beragon-house is running from door to door, then hopes to escape by way of the spiral staircase. One of the most powerful effects of the film: a subjective shot from above of the staircase circling in the deep, and immediately afterwards its reverse: Wally's insignificant figure on the top, seen from the bottom of the stairs.
Is it still not enough of wicked tricks?
Real punishment comes only now. Wally, staggering around in the room, bumps into a lamp and is astonished to find the corpse lying in front of the mirror. The confusion is now followed by a play of sharp lights. First the background is highlighted with the man stumbling around the corpse, then we see the telephone ringing in the hall and Wally's hesitating hand which eventually pulls the plug out of the socket with a single movement. But it is too late. Outside we hear the horns of police cars.
Sound effects are important components contributing to the creation of the atmosphere of the police headquarters, too. The crackling which accompanies the sharpening of a pencil, the rustling of the newspaper, the ticking of the clock all make the dialogue-fragments, i.e. the fragmented dialogue of the accused and the interrogators, even more unnerving. Mildred, who has been "informed" of the death of her husband in her own house, is sitting in the middle of a dim room, her face is half-lit. This preferred portrayal by film noir is especially expressive here, as it is a story portraying moral split. Mildred knows that the murderer is her daughter, yet during the interrogation she keeps accusing herself for what had happened. Only I am to blame" - she says to the police officer after having been faced with her divorced husband, suspect number one. The prologue ends with this sentence, and the pictures of the narrative leading over to the first flash-back already recall the events of four years ago and the borderline between the "two worlds" of Kertész.
In the image-world of film noir, of course, the "castle" wins a lot more ground from the "forest" than in other films of the director, and we continue to feel the atmosphere of depression even when the pictures of the police headquarters change for a sunlit street in the outskirts of the town. " I used to live in a street where every house looked the same" - these are the words by which the narration which bridges the gap between the two layers of time introduces the images of dissatisfaction. Although at first glance the family we see seems an ideal one. The wife is bustling in the kitchen, and the photographs of two beautiful young girls stand on the piano in the drawing room. The hidden problems of petite-bourgeois life are revealed after the entrance of the father. As the arriving Bert lies leisurely down on the couch and starts criticising Mildred for the new dress bought for the elder daughter and the piano lessons he considers superfluous, the audience perhaps even agrees with him, and all the more so as so far the pictures encouraged a dislike of the protagonist. After what is shown in the prologue, the audience is reluctant to take the side of Mildred even if she shows the characteristics of an excellent mother and housewife. "I shall do everything for my children. In this house, children come first, before either of us." Yet on the other hand, seen in the light of this exemplary motherhood, the unemployed Bert comes across as an unreliable man, one who is unable to provide material security for his wife and daughters.
Who is right, then?
The dispute-scene holds the audience in suspense and lets their sympathy change at every minute, once encouraging them to hold with one character, then with the other, yet the scene is clearly manipulative as well. The close-ups helping identification are absent, the family dispute is recorded by "impartial" seconds made of lengthy cuttings, reinforcing the mental claustrophobia implied by the small kitchen and the social prejudices of the characters. The remaining one hour of the film is the continued vibration of this same dispute, a demonstration of the arguments and counter-arguments so typical for the characters.
Rosenzweig set up three categories for social climbers. Veda and Wally find their place on the negative pole of the scale, Mildred in the middle, and Mildred's female friend, the restaurant owner, somewhere closer to the positive pole, but not yet there. In his view, Ida is the Shakespearean clown, who sets her finger on the core problem through her bitter remarks, supporting the pessimistic assumption that objective evaluation is a prerogative reserved for the outsider. Yet we need not go back hundreds of years in time. In Casablanca, the role of the fortune-teller/advisor was given to Sam, the piano-player. He interprets the events for the characters and the audience. And although Ida sees Monty, Bert and Veda exactly in this way, her words show her just as much an emancipated woman as the decisions of the ambitious Mildred show her. "Men! (...) Sometimes I wish I could live without them! Every man I meet is allergic to the engagement ring." Rick's pianist was a sexually "neutral" character, as most black men in films made in the 40s. But Ida, who works as a waitress in Mildred's restaurant, is first of all a female, whose sexual frustration, and not careerism, thrusts her to the world of the divided and distorted souls of film noir.
But the others are not like her! Wally Fay knows exactly how to separate business from pleasure when Mildred is about to playfully kiss him in her joy over their fist common business success. He turns his face away with pretended coldness. "It was purely business" - he says nastily, but contradicts himself later: "the only reason why I helped (i.e. in purchasing the house on the Beragon-estate which later becomes Mildred's restaurant), was to be by your side when you change your mid." Wally helps Mildred at least as long as her interests do not conflict with his, and thus we can consider him to stand higher on the moral scale than Veda, who has a specially developed sense for abusing the unwitting sympathy of her environment.
The first pictures of the prologue and the flashback show the white-clothed and white-ribboned Veda Pierce as a spoiled teenager. Informed of the financial consequences of her parents' divorce, she tears off her dress she was given as a present with the whimsical outrage of a child, but seems very much like a calculating adult when attempting to persuade her mother to marry Wally Fay. The attitude of the child, described as "contempt" and "hatred", is the natural consequence of the conflict of the "anger" and "selfishness" episodes. And the higher Mildred steps on the social ladder, the lower her daughter slides on the moral scale referred to above.
Veda despises Mildred while her mother makes the living of all the three of the family by working as a waitress. Pictures of the music and dancing lessons of the daughters are inserted in between the images of the mother's daily toiling. We understand the puzzle exactly, but Veda does not. Mildred is already the owner of a successful restaurant-chain, but not Mrs. Beragon as yet, when her daughter marries the wealthy Ted Forrester with the intention to divorce him in order to squeeze money out his family by allusions to a child never conceived. "This money will at last help me get away from you, your chicken, your cookies, this kitchen and everything that stinks with oil." - she slings at her mother the critique of a social layer.
Michael Wood writes that the experience of belonging to a specific social layer and the consciousness of being American is the hidden or at least only partially highlighted, but most central theme of film noir. In Mildred Pierce, we encounter a most astonishing form of snobbery, i.e. an importance attached to origin which almost equals the Victorian. Mildred and Veda are deeply appalled by the street where every house looks the same and are magnetically attracted by Monty Beragon's spacious home with its glass doors opening to the ocean.
By the Forrester-mariage, or rather by the divorce, it is the first time Veda sells her womanliness for financial advantages. As she returns from the court hearing, she triumphantly kisses the 10 thousand dollar cheque, which is then immediately torn to pieces by her mother. And with this movement, it is not simply the magic piece of paper which she tears apart. ... The next step in the excessiveness - selfishness - contempt sequence is Veda's hatred.
Mildred was set in the moral focus by the makers of the film, indicating that the protagonist is not merely the representative of a specific set of values but even that of a point of reference. She provides an excellent background for highlighting Wally's cynical nature, Veda's cruelty and Ida's sober resignation. The two husbands, Bert and Monty, belong to a different category, because although both own a different social position, ambition is not typical for either of them. Bert's character is not as elaborated as the others, we could say he is almost insignificant. Yet for Mildred he represents stability and continuity, the world from which she starts at the beginning of the story and were she returns at the end. Beragon is not much more complex either. He is the embodiment of a world characterised by status symbols. The fire-place, the soft music and the roaring of the sea is just as much the surface as the playboy's wit, charm, and words of love whispered into Mildred's ears. The melodramatic confession, which inspires laughter, is an attribute which again warns about the falsity of emotions, especially in the light of the fact that in a previous scene we could see a collection of bathing suits in Monty's wardrobe which belonged to his "younger sisters".
The mysterious light effects in the house by the ocean are set in the focus already in connection with Mildred's first visit there. These light-effects, which by day-light create a pleasantly rocking sensation, gradually turn into ominous figures as if a reflection of the development of events. In the evening, they are joined by the dancing of the flames of the open fire, reflected on the wall of the bedroom during the love-making watched by shy curiosity through the mirror
And then? Darkness and pouring rain, the well-known punishment of Kertész-heroes, the beginning of the suffering which is their due. One must agree with Higham and Greenberg, who contend that romantic image-creation is a component of the stylised world of film noir which renders this visual style using pessimistic visions similar to entirely different genres, e.g. the musical or the comedy. This hidden common thread strengthens the dominant function of the atmosphere as opposed to the sphere of action which in these genres is less significant. Like in Casablanca or in Kreolkirály, rain stands for fatality, anticipating the death of Kay, the younger Pierce-daughter. By he death of her child, Mildred is not only punished, but is torn away from the Pierce-world for ever, as since her divorce her second daughter represented the only tie to it.
"She had a single goal after this, to make the restaurant profitable." The narrative that follows the darkened pictures of the tragedy does not yet lead us back to the present, but merely adds a few remarks to the events rolling before our eyes that open a new era in the heroine's life. Unusually, he creators of the film do not return to the present at he point expected by the audience, they delay this return somewhat. Kay's death is thus embedded among the images of a night of love-making and scenes of the bar which regularly follow in the footsteps of business success, criticizing the prospective Mrs Beragon more cruelly at every word. Even now, Veda Pierce does not see her would-be step-father in her mother's partner selected as a result of business considerations. The conflict of the Pierce and the Beragon worlds, however, is not yet revealed in this triangle, but at a later point in time, when, following a remark of Beragon about Mildred, ("One man's meat is another man's poison") Bert knocks the glass out of the playboy's hand with wounded pride. Kertész prepares this action with a scene built on the principle of the rapid pan, demonstrating the voltage of the circuit between the two men with the movements of his camera. As Bert, entering the bar, asks Mildred to come aside with him, Monty, standing by the counter, watches all the three of them in the large mirror which hangs on the wall. The camera records once the real-life, once the mirror-image. On the former, we see the whispering Mildred and Bert, on the latter the coldly glittering glasses standing on the counter and Monty pouring drinks. The whispering two seem defenceless behind him. The one-time husband is about to leave, when Beragon impertinently asks him to toast the health of the newly wed. And this conflict is a true reason for interrupting the image-sequence of the flash-back and for Mildred to turn to us and say: " I did it".
We returned to the present for Veda's sake and she remains the central figure of the opening images of the flashback. Everything happens because of her. That she may dance at an elegant bar, that she drives away in a brand-new limousine are all to be thanked for the seemingly passive observer, Mildred. Yet this is no merit in the world of film noir, Mildred is no passive character, and the luxury of the teen-age girl has no real radiation. Following Veda's divorce as described, Mildred escapes the city for the first time. "I travelled, but not far enough". - can we hear in the narrative that accompanies the image of the rolling train. While the heroes of Kertész' adventure films may have personal happiness in addition to power, Mildred must choose between money and human contacts. Within the structure of the second flashback, three attempts at making peace following three conflicts demonstrate the heroine's movement towards the positive pole of the moral scale, giving an account of the alternatives open to her while emphasising the responsibility of making a choice. The first trinity is made lively by the sequence of dissonances resulting from the alienating effect of money, while the second comes alive through the desire to eliminate it. Mildred quarrels with Wally, the man who paints the downsides of her relationship with Beragon in vivid colours and reminds her that Monty exploits her and even drives Veda away from home. When a possibility of a solution fails to present itself even after the images of the escape, which divides the two trinities as a very clear border-line, Mildred marries Monty in order to be able to call her daughter home, and after the murder she returns to her first husband, Bert Pierce.
The scene when Bert returns with the "converted" Veda into the Beragon-home, following the bargain between Mildred and Monty ending in their marriage, is an allusion to the complexity of human relationships and the difficulty of making a choice. As a result of the movement of the camera and the characters, - in which movement the typical diagonal line of film noir is dominant, the entire story can be re-read in this single image sequence.
When Mildred and Veda meet, Bert leaves our view, and the camera comes close to the two women. A cutting, and we see the three of them from a new perspective: in the left hand foreground we see Mildred and Veda, on the other side, in the background, the disappearing Bert. As Mildred starts out towards the man to thank him for the "present", the camera follows her, then, as if towards the third angle of a triangle, immediately draws back again to capture Monty appearing in the right-hand foreground. Beragon - as if closing the triangle - hurries towards Veda in front of the camera, which only follows him half-way, thus it is the departing Mildred and Bert again whom we see. Only afterwards can we see Veda and Monty together, who are later joined by Mildred.
Kertész attempts to capture psychological processes in images by shots which Rosenzweig calls the "images of watching and seeing". And he does not only mean traditional subjective positions, but primarily the images alluding to the limitations of visual perception. The heroes of Mildred Pierce often see each other reflected in mirrors and through windows, and as if the strict contours of these objects would at the same time restrict the possibilities of the cognitive process, they are unable to see clearly. In the prologue to the film, Wally catches sight of the approaching Mildred from the bar window, and Mildred's eyes later follow her children and Bert going for an excursion from a window. She is deeply moved as she watches Veda try out the dream-car she received as her birthday present. After these images of watching, the statement of a desperate Mildred has a reinforced message as she talks to her daughter after the divorce hearing: It is like I truly saw you for the first time." Should we believe that Mildred has truly come to know Veda? Although she hears Ida's allegory about the alligator devouring her children, (this again is a motif of greediness!), in spite of all that happened, she is unable to conquer her motherly sentiments by rational arguments. When, to her request, Veda returns to her, she catches sight of her through the window of the Beragon-house.....
This time again, glass proves to be the false representative of the surface. This is the message of the last scene of the flashback, the image sequence of the murder which now discloses its antecedents. When Mildred understands that her enterprise is bankrupt as a result of her husband's measures, she hurries to the house by the ocean with a pistol in her pocket. But Beragon is not by himself. His arguments subdue his wife's anger but deeply wound Veda's vanity who dreams of marriage. When the shot is heard, the camera turns towards the murderer.
Thomson directs attention to the contrast of scenes of day and night and their close juxtaposition segregated by sharp contours. The action of the closing image sequence, which is a solution in itself, is at the same time the diluting of formal lines: it is dawning as Mildred and Bert leave the police station and disappear in the waking street accompanied by the unambiguous sounds of bells woven in the fabric of the film-music.
While Mildred Pierce inspires the analysis not only of film noir and melodrama but also of the issue of women's emancipation, professional literature classifies Aki gyanú felett áll (The Unsuspected /1947/) in that small category of black film where the visual elements of the genre dominate, built on the action as if on a skeleton. The story built on a writing of Charlotte Armstrong (the screen-play writers are Bess Meredith and Ronald McDougall) is therefore a film noir-antology, the basis of which is the unreal-mystical but exciting story of the thriller. The viewer will be happy to find that some of the characters and certain points of the psychological labyrinths lead over to the films entitled Gyanakvó szerelem (1941), Gázláng (1944) and Éjféli csipke (1960).
We have a beautiful and defenceless heroine whose guardian and ambitious cousin schemes to lay his hands on her inheritance, we have a seemingly well-intentioned uncle, who is also a well-known radio-personality, who, in order to gain access to the wealth of the naive Matilda Frazier "eliminates" the all-too-knowledgeable characters of the live story, his secretary and less wealthy niece, Althea, in the style of the characters of crime radio plays. And we have the mysterious and charming benefactor, who, pretending to be the husband of Matilda whom everybody believes to be lost, attempts to throw light on the conditions around the death of her fiancée, the secretary. Among these well-known characters, we encounter the killer as well as the drunkard, weak husband. The latter is a "bounty" initially thought to be precious and won from Matilda by the jealous Althea.
If the introductory image-sequences of Kertész films seemed decisive and of general applicability from the perspective of the world depicted, then the first images of Aki gyanú felett áll can well be viewed as a micro-world built out of the elements of film noir. The subjective camera pans an elegantly furnished home, its look turning towards a painting depicting a female figure. It is night-time, and the only thing lit in the room is the painting. At the same time, the light upon it makes the movements of a figure in a hat visible. Thin light filters through from the next room and we hear the noise of typing. As the camera shows the secretary, suddenly the annoying sound of a telephone bell is heard. The images of the scene from where the phone-call is made are inserted in the fabric of light and shadow/silence and noise with the effect of diluting the tension. We see a party, and because of the noise coming into the booth we can hardly hear the words of the person called - only her scream. A cut, then a face distorted with fear, a receiver swinging on its string in close-up. At the party, the woman ringing asks for the time. At the other place, telephones start ringing again and we see the shadow of a figure hanging on the chandelier. The victim.
The heading of Radio Semi Weekly reporting the "suicide" is the link between the introduction and the typical image sequence quoted at the beginning of this chapter, to which the images of doubt and insecurity are added following the threateningly glittering neon-lights of "kill". "He who is unsuspected may be everywhere, at any time" - says Grandison (Claude Rains), while a detective pushes about unsigned letters with a desk-knife. His tired face is reflected in the dark surface of the desk. The characters we met at the party also listen to the program, " We may all be murderers" says someone with the logic of Agatha Christie's heroes.
The "real" characters of the story turn up at the time of the radio-play which mixes fact with fiction. In Grandison's world fact and fiction often embrace. The characters of actual crimes, after having become Grandison-heroes, are reborn in flesh-and blood as a result of the tricks of the popular writer. Because the unsuspected stands before the microphone each night, his accomplice hides in hotel Peekskill. Detective Donovan will soon be a frequent visitor in his house.
We mentioned the name of Hitchcock in connection to the features of the genre in the beginning. Kertész's thriller reminds one of the famous suspense-technique not only by its title. The Unsuspected is full of delayed effects resulting in "suspended tensions" as well as visual and verbal allusions which all serve to raise our suspicion. As the heralds of an attempt at poisoning, trays and glasses take up ominous forms and dimensions near the objective. The chess pieces of Steven Howard (Michael North) investigating the murder-case defeat Grandison's puppets already in the middle of the film. Grandison, before his arrest and in the last show of his career, is describing the "tragedy of the missing head". For the attentive viewer, this excellently portrayed villain by Claude Rains even gives a summary of the basic principle of the suspense-technique. "I have a feeling that something is about to happen." he says just before Matilda (Joan Caulfield), thought to be lost, returns to the circle of her "loving" relatives.
There are quite a few interesting parallels other than the suspense technique between this film of Kertész and some films of Hitchcock. (The author of this paper is convinced that in the present case we should consider the anthological nature of a representative of the genre as our starting point, and not the issue of originality. To illustrate this, a later film by the director of English origin will also be quoted as an example.)
The scene could be mistaken for Manderley, (Rebecca /1944/), everything is so distinguished and mystical. There is the large house with the spacious staircase leading to the first floor, which provides the camera with numerous possibilities to play with the depth of the image. The only difference is that this time the arriving heroine is faced with her very own portrait, deeply hated by others, and not the portrait of her dead rival. Even the portrait calls attention to the bitter humour reminiscent of Hitchcock's witty dialogues. As the unexpected guest of Grandison's birthday-party, Steven Howard, admiring the portrait, asks who the painter was, the somewhat tipsy Althea (Audrey Totter) responds with open sarcasm: "... it was my husband in his sobriety. Before he married me." One is not to wait long for morbid comments, either. The stupid footman welcomes the returning Matilda by saying "we have missed you while you were dead"- The way of the heroine from the airport to the Grandison-house may recall the car-journey of Marion in Psycho (1961) in the viewer. True, Matilda is not alone. She is met at the airport, in pouring rain, by Steven Howard, the "husband" she has never seen before. The film's perhaps least believable motif is that the young woman, having survived a ship-wreck, is willing to believe to story told her by Howard, namely that her amnesia of their couple of day long marriage is the result of the nervous shock which followed the disaster. In both car-journeys, there is an element of dreaminess, (the movements of vehicles is in itself the source of the mysticism in thrillers). In Marion, bad conscious and her nervous state recall the images of the near past, while Matilda wrestles with the missing images of her past, listening to the worlds of the unknown man. It is the positive version of the motif of misleading. Later, Howard becomes the heroine's sole support.
Yet the viewer would suspect even him if he brought Matilda the glass full of the drink towards the end of the film. Kertész directs attention to this glass just as purposefully as Hitchcock did the same while shooting Gyanakvó szerelem. Hitchcock placed a light into the milk-glass which the husband brought his wife fearing poisoning. This common object gains significance through light and perspective in Kertész's film. The camera watches Grandison from above, from behind his back, as he sheds unknown powder into the lit champagne glass. Then, in the next scene, he surprises his audience with yet a new, powerful visual effect. In the foreground, we see the bubbling drink in the glass, and in the background, as if drowned in alcohol, the perspective victim. The next images of the poisoning scene are just as nightmarish. In the devilish play of reflected surfaces Grandison's portrait towers over us, reflected in the glass surface of an oval table, where we can even see empty medicine-bottles and a previously dictated letter of farewell. Its lines melt together in the eyes of Matilda coming slowly to consciousness again. And just like so many times before in this film, yet this time from a subjective perspective, our view catches the chandelier, the threatening symbol of suicide/murder.
In this film, not only "animated objects" but even takes are of a symbolic value. In the first scene, Howard, who in his silk raincoat and hat seems to be a par excellence character of film noir, stands with his back towards the camera. This position remains typical for him long after he has proved that he is unlike the villains of the genre. And if the camera is not indulgent with Howard, it can even less afford to be so with Grandison. The figure of the protagonist as photographed from below is just as ominous as his face reflected in the shiny surfaces of his records. Interestingly, the visual portrayal of the detective bears the closest resemblance to that of the villain. One could view this as the visual interpretation of another, this time lawful, power, yet also as the criticism of this somewhat ambivalent, bad-and-good character of film noir. The perspectives and plans assure us only about Matilda. Kertész transplants the experience of confinement into a modern setting. The same experience was evoked by the image of Dr. Blood looking out from behind the bars of a window in the beginning of the adventure film. This time, the thin female face turns towards the camera from the narrow window of an aeroplane. Matilda's visual codes characterising her are no more encouraging in the Grandison-house or in its wet garden, either. Her solitary figure is captured from a high take by the camera, acting like a detached outsider. The visual motif well-known from Merrie England's films is produced by light here. Matilda is surrounded by shadow-bars as she, suspecting her uncle's doings, searches for the suddenly lost Howard. And it is yet again by side of light, the flames of the fire burning in the fire-place, that Althea Keane proves herself to be the modern offspring of ambitious Kertész heroes. Just like seven hundred years ago in Nottingham, a glass breaks to pieces again.
In George Cukor's memorable Gázláng the light effects which nearly drove the heroine mad grew to be no less than protagonists themselves. For a scene, this special emphasis on these elements of the genre is observable in Kertész's film, too. Matilda is frightened by the light effects which result from the activity required for the reconstruction of the crime (i.e. the repeated turnings on and off of the light). Kertész's detective, by the way, ushers the viewer through the labyrinth of logical arguments with the same confidence as Philo Vance did it in A Kennel-gyilkosság (1934). The outsider is initiated into the process of establishing facts through hidden movements and the close-up of the bullet examined under the lens of the microscope. In the meantime, at the time of visual interpretation, as a proof of the adherence to working models, we are provided with even a verbal explanation. And although the viewer might have expected more inventiveness from these image sequences, it is only to be acknowledged that by the explanation built into the story in the form of the "assumption", the makers of the film manage to avoid the "sum-up" so typically closing crime-stories on film, (e.g. A Kennel-gyilkosság), employing an ending of symbolic significance instead.
A radio studio, direct sending. The interrupted "The tragedy of the missing head" leads us from the mysticism of film noir over to the much rougher reality of prison films.
Beyond the verge of film noir, yet not leaving the thematic-structural attraction field of the films bearing the most typical characteristics of the genre, e.g. Mildred Pierce, between 1945 and 1951 ambition is portrayed as the driving force of the hero and the action in five career and biographical films. These films are partly variations of the already familiar "case-studies" (the "burning the candle on both ends" syndrome coupled with the artist's ambition and the flirtations of the bar-singer with the world of the upper classes ending in a murder). As opposed to these, the portrayal and survey of the possibilities of a career in sports restricted by racial prejudices proves to be a bold and rather timely undertaking. (Jim Thorpe - A valódi amerikai, /1950/). Two out of the five films are especially under the influence of the "kernel" created by the Cain-adaptation. Általánosságban szólva reflects four decades of a changing America in the fate of a woman, and Flamingó út inspired its critics to draw parallels with Mildred Pierce because of the demarcation line depicted in both between the bars and the villas. Yet for all the common roots, the central motif of these two films is different. Perhaps only in Yankee Doodle Dandy can one capture a portrayal of ambition free from dissonant overtones, which inspires a positive attitude to things under all circumstances in the heroine of Roughly Speaking /1945/). She knows that it is not worth to take to arms for what Lane Bellamy searches in vain in Flamingó út, i.e. she knows that the American dream does not necessarily come true on the threshold of sea-side villas. "I do not loose my personality just because I change my name" - says Louise with the firmness of the emancipated woman (Rosalind Russel), and stays true to her promise as the wife of a banker, too. While the story of Kertész heroines in career films is usually the process of the disruption of the personality, this time this inner sphere stays undamaged, standing firm among attacks from both the spheres of private and public life. Kertész adjusts his images to this inner peace - and sometimes a joyfulness found in comedies - taking the message of "roughly speaking" more seriously than required. . With the disappearance of expressionistic effect elements the visual world turns conventional. The events of 40 years roll before our eyes.
It appears to be a homage to A csodálatos Ambersonok (1942) as the introduction of the film made of the autobiographical novel of Louise Randall Pierson conjures up the atmosphere of the beginning of the century and one of the "great families" of the era. We see images of a by-gone world - this is the message of the burial ceremony of the head of the family, and we are reminded of the yet unclouded and festive marriage jubilee two weeks ago by the flashback that follows it. " Never plan small" - is the advice of Mr. Randall to his daughter yet at nursery school.
The present does not wait long with the confutation of possibilities hoped for. "Sold" - can we read the sign on the Randall-estate, which means that from this time on a different era starts for the Randall family. Louise comes from a different background than Mildred, yet for her falling back more than one layer is not as shaking as Mildred's desired "rising" on the social scale. Having stepped forward a rough decade in time, we now see the montage of a typing lesson at a commercial high school, the teacher dictating pace with a chronometer. The team of white-bloused girls persuades the viewer of the joyful optimism of the film. The next stations of the walk of life are lightly sketched, often just indications, and although the effects employed by Kertész are perfectly in place, the repeated wipes and the many snapshots threaten with monotony. This is shaping the literary material into a carefully measured moving picture in strictly restricted two hours. The juxtaposition of the close-up of the male leg thrown upon the desk of the mosaic of "looking for a job" and of the long shot of Louise in the background is an allusion to the sexual vulnerability of the emancipated woman. (the allusion is unambiguous even in Mildred Pierce: in the foreground Mildred stands in high heels on a ladder, behind her the owner of the property, Monty Beragon). The montage based on the humour of repetition makes up the "marriage and children" mosaic: each time the wife arrives with the "wonderful news", her husband listens to music and is absorbed in a cross-word puzzle. Only the facial mimicry discloses the ebbing in time of fatherly enthusiasm, yet at the news of the arrival of the fourth child, even the record-player halts. ...
It is only its humour and joyful optimism which is unusual in this story summarising the general. Louise responds with the alternatives of staying alive to the challenges of historical turning points and of private life. During World War I. she starts growing vegetables, cares for her daughter suffering from polio with indefatigable optimism, and listens to her husband telling her about his younger lover with unbroken pride. Rosalind Russel's acting portrays excellently the barely hidden emotions and impulses of the character, and Kertész compared the honesty of her acting to that of Ingrid Bergman. The husband, himself unemployed, however, only understands the surface of this behaviour. "If I died, all you would see in it was yet another occasion for the development of your personality" - he says, wounded.
A dress-ball, one of the most exciting, whirling scenes of Kertész-films, promises a new beginning for the protagonist. With the miniature copy of a Christmas tree on his tophat, like a lovely, jesting Bohemian does the second husband, Harold Pierson (Jack Carson) appear. The tree takes fire, the charming gentleman escapes to a pond, and the atmosphere of the event proves to be a life-long bond. Humour is presented in a similarly harsh manner only once, in a grotesque situation mixed with self-irony. It is the years of the crisis, when after quite a couple of bankrupted enterprises Harold tries to make ends meet by selling vacuum cleaners, and rehearses the role of the tricky and persevering salesman by ringing into their own apartment, causing quite some turmoil. This is the caricature of the little man during the years of depression in America. His family fails in nothing really important besides making money. Visual humour is followed by the verbal. "I think we should give this country back to the Indians" - says Louise, and her husband responds: If they are as smart as I think they are, they won't accept it."
The film employs the philosophy of optimism as a typically American "filter" when it expresses an opinion about the relationship between the individual, the history of the recent past and personal happiness determined by material wealth. This is the last but one year of the war, and the era of propagandistic films is not yet over. And where else could one expect the story of Louise Pierson to end if not in the real present, in the crowded waiting room of a railway station, among his sons leaving for the front? The closing scene is a strong reference to the title. Following the tense moments of saying good-bye, the camera leaves Louise and Harold encouraging her on a bench, and moving further down, photographs the steps of those hurrying away around us, while we can still hear the couple's already hopeful conversation.
As a heroine and a positive character, Louise Pierson is a distinguished one among the female characters of Kertész-films. (In real life, this has been inspired by a mutually beneficial co-operation with the subject of the auto-biography. To Kertész's satisfaction, the writer compared his English vocabulary sometimes finding expression in bizarre metaphors to the structures of Gertrude Stein's "new language") - Few people would call Michael Curtiz a "women's director" - this was a title reserved for George Cukor in Hollywood -; his "positive" female characters are usually decorative sub-characters or naive, faceless figures. (see: historical and western film, , the Four sisters -trilogy, Átkelés Marseille-be, Janie, Aki gyanú felett áll), while his other characters offering the possibility of a more complex sketching are the embodiments of rather doubtful morals and of spoilt lives. (early melodramas, Kid Galahad, Tengeri farkas, Mildred Pierce). Ilsa in Casablanca - curiously enough - is saved from being put into a "category" exactly by her passivity, and her attitude of "you have to think instead of me" and her core characteristics, purity and helplessness, wrap her in a protective sphere. From the 50s onwards, the portrayal of women in Kertész films changes. They are more realistic and at the same time posses more valuable features. (Doris Day - Fiatalember kürttel, Phyllis Thaxter - Töréspont, Olivia de Havilland - A büszke lázadó). It would be natural to attribute this rather negative picture of the "weaker sex" to the general attitude of the director and the ups and downs of his private life (divorce, affiliation cases). Although the author believes that similar comparisons may be justified mostly in SZERZŐI FILMEK, the possibility of personal roots cannot be entirely excluded. Yet the main role is always played by the material handled and the limitations set by the genre and the screen-play writer.
This assumption is not contradicted by the antecedents of shooting Flamingó út (Flamingo Road, 1950). Kertész probably saw little fantasy in the melodrama transplanting the thematical elements of Mildred Pierce into the Faulknerian atmosphere of a southern town, when he publicly declared that he does not wish to direct the film. As the first man of Michael Curtiz Productions soon to resign, he must have wished to strengthen his professional prestige by this unusual step, especially after having learned that the contract with Joan Crawford had been previously signed on the condition that it will be he who is to stand behind the camera. Flamingó út became the last work of Kertész as a producer.
Due to the fact that this time even political corruption is woven into the fabric of the love-story, preparing a film-version of the play by Robert Wilder was only possible long after the war. Of course the film does not highlight this aspect of the story, and the sphere of private life proves to be a more attractive raw material even here. In France, the film was shown with the title Szenvedélyek boulevard-ja (Le boulevard des Passions), ensuring the audiences with this obviously commercially oriented "rough translation" about the presence of the indispensable elements of melodrama. Jealousy, morbid emotions resulting from suppressed sexuality, suicide and murder committed in heated agitation are all manifestations of a morbidly overdriven passion for possessions. The sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet) lines up with Kertész's diabolical characters as the manipulator of the chess-pieces, tearing away and linking together fates in accordance with his political interests. Originally, one of the most many-sided character-actors, Claude Rainst, has been selected for the role, but even Greenstreet had a certain past with the director, playing similar roles, e.g. Duval of Átkelés Marseille-be. Titus Semple is an obviously very promising effect-element and an advantageous role for an actor, yet his presence shifts this story fed by reality towards unreality in the same way as the role of Grandison did it earlier. And all the more so, as in the earlier case we were witness to the doings of a world which was deeply stylised. On the one hand, the destructive kind of ambition is seen here, and on the other, one can hardly at all talk about individual will. Titus Semple puts and end to the relationship between his subordinate, Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott) and the dancer Lane Bellamy (Joan Crawford) because it violates his interests. He sends the woman to prison and has the man marry the daughter of an influential family. Regaining her freedom, Lane starts working as a waitress in a bar, a meeting point for local politicians, where she learns to know senator Dan Reynolds (David Brian), who promises her marriage and a honourable life in elegant Flamingo Road. As soon as the wedding takes place, however, the machine operated by Titus Semple starts working again. The press makes Lane's past open to every man, and Carlisle, who in the meantime became an alcoholic, commits suicide in her apartment. Revenging herself for the trick that broke the senator's career in two, Lane kills the sheriff during a heated debate. In the end, we see her as a convict, whose husband promises her to wait for her.
Lane Bellamy ventured further on the "boulevard" of passions than Mildred who kept her emotions under the control of a cool head, yet of course (?) a stream of hope remained even for her, even if it was paler than that enjoyed by the protagonist of the Cain-adaptation. If in connection with Átkelés Marseille-be one could say that that was the war to which Rick and Renault started out at the end of Casablanca, then here again we are faced with the logic of "shifting" : this is the murder which Mildred Pierce did not commit even in her utmost desperation. And just like the visual world of the film heavy with shadows, or its impressive couleur local picturing the villas and the bars on either sides of the main road (golden middle way?) the visual solution of the ending of the film, i.e. falling fragments of a mirror breaking to pieces in a scuffle, also calls for drawing comparisons.
Flamingó út started as a copy of Mildred Pierce and also remained that, without the modesty and efforts of the Cain-adaptation to keep emotions under the cool-headed control of reality.
During the shooting of Flamingó út Kertész played a small part in David Butler's "The Great Feeling". According to professional literature, since his departure from Hungary this was the first time he appeared as an actor on the screen, besides the occasion when he replaced the suddenly ill László Bartos in his one-sentence role in his own film, Roughly Speaking. In the episode-role of A nagy érzés, consisting only of 12 words, he played the director, i.e. himself, in his own opinion with little success. In spite of his feverish preparations, (or perhaps as a result of them) the scene had to be taken repeatedly, and in the end Kertész declared himself unfit for the task and vowed never to venture on the other side of the camera again.  It is commonly held that after the event, during the last decade of his career, he became more tolerant towards his actors....
For career story heroes inspired by film noir, so far the story ended right after they had achieved their goal. They could hardly feel the taste of power, a taste which they found utterly different from what they once believed it to be. The tobacco-king of Fénylő levél (Bright Leaf, 1950), a typical figure of the economic reform of the end of the 19th century and of America after the expansion, does not end up in prison and neither does he need to reveal the phases of "becoming someone" in a law-court. In the social and moral conflicts portrayed in the film we recognise those of the earlier melodramas, and only the last question is modified as a result of the freedom of the protagonist which is "how much is power acquired worth? "
Brant Royle (Gary Cooper) arrives to Kingsmount, Virginia with the loneliness and resolution typifying Western heroes in order to take over his inheritance, the little tobacco plant, from his uncle. After the head of the Singleton Tobacco Company (Donald Crisp), with the temperament of a Titus Semple, expels him from the city, he starts fighting for his rights and, destroying his rival, works his way up to become the most powerful company-owner of the region. His personality and his alternatives are shaped by the same forces we saw in Mildred's case. Leaving Sonja Kovac(!), the golden hearted" prostitute (Lauren Bacall), he marries the daughter of Brant's one-time rival, Margaret Singleton (Patricia Neal) who comes from an aristocratic background. Their marriage is like the Pierce-Beragon bargain, developing towards the final, unresolvable, conflict through the same steps of dissonances. Like a motto of destroyed relationships, Brant repeats Mildred's words to Veda almost word for word. " I have never yet seen what you really are".
The tobacco king is just as unable to keep that which the heroes of career film have all lost on their way upwards. Jett Rink in Óriás (1955) by George Stevens is distorted by power into a grotesque puppet, while Brant Royle does not wait that long. He leaves Kingsmount as lonely as he came, alienated from the fruit of his fight, industry, which - as he says - no longer needs him.
More promising material lay hidden in the screen-play of Young Man With a Horn (1955) for the analysis of artistic ambition distorting personality than in the schematic melodramas. As a sign of his interest, Kertész sent a most extensive analysis of the material to Jack Warner and the producer, and personally selected the most suitable child-actor for the role of Rick Martin from among 132 applicants.
Young Man With a Horn is not a musical and not an autobiography, although it could well have become that. On the basis of a novel by Dorothy Baker, the story of Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz trumpet-player, served as the raw material for Rick Martin's story. It is a case-study, a parable of those who are unable to be good stewards of the capabilities entrusted to them. " What I like is playing jazz, not thinking about it" - declares Rick Martin, and his attitude is similar towards real life as well. The internal restrictions of instinctive talent are sometimes more difficult to surmount than the obstacles set up by society - this is the message of this visual warning, emphasised by the appearance of the narrator, Beiderbecke's one-time colleague, Hoagy Carmichel. We are faced with the typical character of the 50s, the revolting hero, and the Warner company meant the role to be played by John Garfield, the first "professional" rebel of American film. Today's celluloid tape only preserves the acting of Kirk Douglas, who, when taking the trumpet (not the horn as promised in the title!) of Rick Martin in his hands, becomes "appeased" only compared to the boxing champion he played in The Champion /1949/.
The first image sequence can be compared to the most beautiful moments of Truffaut's depiction of children. For a long time, reality holds only negative stimuli for the protagonist who is brought up by foster-parents. He repeatedly leaves us sitting in cars with different number-plates for a number of different new "homes", then, getting away from them, hangs around lonely among the skyscrapers of large cities. Seeing this little blonde boy with his soft eyes, wandering in the streets of the large city, says more about loneliness and uprootedness, about a life spoilt in its bud than any excellently composed dramaturgical turning could. This new child protagonist depicted with Kertész's "images of a life without a meaning", however, finds a secure point in the world earlier than Jerry Connely or Danny Fisher, who anticipated his fate. This "redemption" motif, however, becomes specific and at the same time elevated by the selection of the scene. The child's face brightens up for the first time as he accidentally finds himself at a church ceremony and hears the sounds of the harmonium. And from this point on the images which so far infused insecurity are replaced by the visually extremely impressive "images of relationships", creating contact between the protagonist and the images of the outside world with the selection of depth in field and angle. For Rick Martin, a talent who opens his eyes to music and wishes to absorb it, these relations are positive and provide him with a meaning. A "magnetic field" develops between the harmonium photographed close to the objective and the child who appears in the background, in the church-gate. The juxtaposition of the close-up and the long shot renders instrument and musician together also in the atmosphere of a night club heated with jazz melodies. Here the attraction is already mutual. Rick and his would be adopted father, the black Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez) take turns in being in the foreground of the view. - Church and bar, redemption and meaning of life, - these "parallel counterparts" of visual symbolism would seem forced by themselves, if the two scenes did not have visual-dramaturgical counterparts in the film. When, years later, the grown-up Rick enchants the guests of the bar by a brilliant trumpet-solo, he already stands in the first layer of the juxtaposition of close-up and long shot, and Hazzard stands in the background, watching his one-time disciple. The composition symbolising the relationship between the father figure and the protagonist, which is the only valuable human relationship Rick has, is modified with a strange emphasis in the burial scene of the master. Just as in the beginning the camera looked around from the harmonium, it now looks around from the catafalque, showing the benches in the church. But this time the background is empty, nobody stands in the light streaming through the door. And although the electric circuit providing inspiration is broken, the dominant nature of Art Hazzard's personality in the life of Rick Martin can never be denied any more. As the young man says good-bye to his master with the sounds of his trumpet, the coffin is seen in the first layer of the image.
In Young Man With a Horn, the portrayal of the black man at the beginning of the 50s, a period which saw great achievements as to the civil rights of black people, shows a progressive attitude. Thanks to the director, the positive character-traits of the black musician are depicted in an environment of sociographical truthfulness. Kertész personally took part at a black church ceremony and a burial prior to the shooting of the above scenes.
The flow of the "images of positive relationships" may be definitively broken by the death of the master, but their number decreases much earlier, already when Rick grows into manhood. Talent pushes out the restrictions set by society, and the life of the young trumpet-player is portrayed by images of his failure to find his place in society and of his loneliness. At his first work-place, in the empty ball-room of a sea-side bar, Kertész shows him to be an outsider with the methods he used to portray the child in the church-gate. The "secure point" is yet again an instrument and a person. It is the future friend, the narrator of the film, who sits at the piano, but this time it is a mere "everyday" encounter, on one of the insufferably monotonous work-days of the employee of the entertainment industry. And the rebel does not hesitate to show his true nature. During the rehearsals of the orchestra and performances, he "destroys" the tunes to be read from the notes by arbitrary improvisations. " I shall make this trumpet sound as nobody else before me" resounds Rick the statements of Kertész-heroes heated with defiance. But his environment is less tolerant to him than it was to Cohan or Danny Fischer. He must leave everywhere. The Christmas scene completely lacking the loving atmosphere of Kertész's Christmas celebrations adds to the images of uprootedness and is a reference to "Rick's unsuitability for human consumption". The camera looks into a cellar-bar through a snowy window with the word "X-mas", and the bullies, as a climax to their quarrel, pour beer into Rick's trumpet just in the process of improvisation. Let us think of the Christmas of Cole Porter, Phil Davies and Bob Wallace, or of Louise Pierson who managed to create harmony in spite of the economic depression! Of course they had a protective net the existence of which Rick does not acknowledge even though Jo Jordan, (Doris Day) the singer, who truly loves him, sends him signals of it. Here the images of "not being fit for each other" reinforce already existing dissonances of an ambition almost distorted into an addiction. Rick is unable to free himself of the eternal dilemma of Kertész-heroes, and from among two radically different women, he chooses the cold femme fatale, Amy North. (Lauren Bacall).
"I am like an intellectual mountain goat, jumping from rock to rock " - says Amy with sober self-irony of herself. While her husband's lack of self-restraint is roused by obstacles to the unfolding of his artistic talents, such passion is alien to her and she does not manage to realise herself in anything. We see her first appear in a mirror, and her spacious apartment with the white furniture and the talking parrot only reinforce the impression of emptiness. Hers is the world of reflective surfaces and cool exactness. What can a brilliant jazz-trumpet player do in an environment like this? A few scenes anticipate efforts of assimilation. The rendezvous of Amy and Rick takes place in an environment of geometrical forms, (wide staircases, arches) yet the premier plan showing the glass filled to the brink with drink is more honest than the large totals. Rick dances with Amy, but at the same times secretly watches the trumpet player of the orchestra in the mirror. The two worlds which unite for a single false moment in this half-subjective shot extinct each other in reality. When after Hazzard's death Rick returns home in desperation, Amy, with a cigarette in her mouth, plays Chopin on her piano with expressionless face. It is the last drop, also in reality. The images of the addiction to alcohol and of collapse return to the dimension where our story started, i.e. the streets of the large city, the world of skyscrapers. The cameraman, Ted McCord, employed a grey filter for the scene, and thus, exactly as in the beginning and ending images of Dreiser's famous novel, the walls tower over the hero of this American tragedy "grey and high". Only a single one is left from among the "images of positive relationships" the drenched, unemployed musician looks at the trumpet in the shop-window with the same enchantment as the little boy did once. Then it was Hazzard who brought the instrument for him, now it he himself, but the expected redemption does not come this time. Rick Martin's steps are followed by a tilted camera until he collapses near a waste-land.
"Thanks" to the happy-ending-oriented Hollywood machinery, the ending is ill-matched and lacks credibility. The creators of the film wished to retain the dramatic ending of Dorothy Baker's novel, but Jack Warner insisted on a happy one. Obviously, the last images were added to the film following major professional discussions and previews. The narrator appears right after the viewer has seen the protagonist in serious condition as a patient of a sanatorium for alcoholics, and declares that Rick Martin has learnt his lesson and with the support of his friend and Jo Jordan became a happy and successful musician.
A more worthy ending would have been fit for this film, which in its own era was considered as one of the best about the world of jazz.
The structure developing from a retrospection and the images
which disclose causative relationships with depth in field portray
the drama of social rising and falling in the visual context of
the Rick Martin-story also in Jim Thorpe - The All American /1951/.
The framework of the present, which gives a positive colouring to
the story, presents the trap of a mechanic use of the almost
obligatory flashback, i.e. if the framework does not perfectly
fit the image inside it, and a disturbing void is created in
between. The life-story of the multiple gold-medal holder in
track and field of the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games is embedded
in the images of a gala dinner organised for his honour, although
in the last third of the film the one-time star of the sports
world appears as a simple lorry-driver. This dramaturgically
rather unusual solution is to some extent explained by the
equally unusual career of the Indian sportsman. After his Olympic
championship, the NOB - quoting Thorpe's past as a
baseball-player, classifies him as a professional sportsman,
deletes his name from the list of champions, and deprives him of
his medals and the possibility of continuing his career. Warner Brothers
- probably for business reasons, employs him as a doubler and an
episode-actor as well as initiating a campaign for appealing
against the decision. The framework of this 1951 film expresses
this effort, and rehabilitates the champion of pentathlon and decathlon with
its own methods already in his life, 31 years before the official
decision of the International Olympic Committee.
Kertész, a passionate lover of fencing and horse-racing, could still remember Thorpe's 1912 successes when he selected him for one of the episode-roles of Captain Blood in 1935. Prior to the shooting of Jim Thorpe, in a way inspired by the sports scenes promising the dynamism of old adventure films and a topic to his liking, chose two impressive sites for the externals. The scenes of the Pennsylvania Indian School symbolising the hero's years at school were shot at one of the most distant sites from Hollywood, 1800 miles away in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Even the Olympic scenes were shot at a deserving site, the Los Angeles Coliseum housing the 1932 Olympic Games. The title role was played by Burt Lancaster who had a past in acrobatics and who was an ardent fighter against racism. During the time of the shooting he was a personal acquaintance of Thorpe, the technical advisor of the film.
The film traces psychological motifs, the transformation of the personality of the hero under psychological constraints. The film simplifies the story of the biography, condensing Thorpe's three marriages in a single relationship and reducing the number of his six children to one. Yet the real question is whether the hero of Indian origin is capable of breaking through the external walls raised by society and the internal ones as a result of them. The first part of the film answers the latter question with a definitive yes. Like the personality of Rick Martin in the world of music, so does Jim's personality open up on the sports fields, by side of his trainer, Glenn Pop" Warner. Musical instruments are replaced by the ball and the jumping bar in the first layer of the images creating the "magnetic field", while the male figure running forward from the background fills the composition with dynamism. After the decade which passed since the era of adventure and western films, after the long flow of melodramas, the scene is again ruled by the essential element of Kertész films, i.e. sweeping motion. Until the Olympic championship, this is the force which is capable of removing restrictions, and its influence is felt even over the prejudices of the outer world. Thorpe marries a white woman. It is here that the curve of this career film striving upwards reaches its peak, and from this point on the road leads down. The forces which so far worked in a positive direction now thrust the personality of the hero towards the opposite pole. Racial discrimination results in depression instead of a success-oriented behaviour, and the death of Thorpe's son raises the inner walls even higher. Following the departure of his wife, the camera photographs Thorpe, now an addictive drinker, through the bars of the bed, closing him up in the world of the "castle" which has never before been so tight.
We could not follow Rick Martin's life story to where the eternally rising and falling curve of his career comes to a rest as a result of compromises. Jim Thorpe decides to turn over a new leaf both as a human being and a professional as a viewer of the 1932 Olympics. He would like to realise the much "shorter term" goals of being a trainer and a lorry driver. This Indian boy, however, still wins the battle in his own way against a society dominated by prejudices - this is the message of the framework of the present which anticipated official appreciation by three decades. Many of Kertész's films have already dealt with this topic, i.e. the moral victory of the hero who must prove his ability in an alien environment and over his own weaknesses. Only in very few cases are Kertész' heroes born to victory. Most of them have to fight for the position suitable for a winner. Geoffrey Vickers on the slopes of Balaklava, Tom Connors and Rocky Sullivan on their way to the electric chair, Rick Blaine at Casablanca airport, Jean Matrac at an air-base of liberated France. Theirs is no spectacular victory. That is the fate of only a few heroes in adventure films and musicals. In the best of cases, the ending is the ambivalent "good bad-ending" of Casablanca. The smiling close-up before the appearance of "the end" is alien to them and they tend to distance themselves from the camera on the last images of the film. Such unambiguousness would be unfit to their doubts and secret emotions. In their own way, Rick Blaine, Jean Matrac and Jim Thorpe perhaps tell us a little more than Michael Curtiz ever was willing to say about Kertész Mihály.Mihály Kertész at the shooting of Captain Blood - 315 KByte
Image: Mihály Kertész at the shooting of Captain Blood - 315 KByte
1. Robertson, James C.: The Casablanca Man. London, New York, Routledge, 1993, 91. old.
2. Same, p. 95
3. Same, p. 2
4. Higham, Charles-Greenberg, Joel: Hollywood in the Forties. Paperback Library, New York, 1970, p. 27
5. World Film Directors, Volume I. The H. Wilson Company, New York, 1987, p. 178
6. Thomson, David: America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality. William Morrow and Co., New York., 1977, p. 220
7. Rosenzweig, Sidney: Casablanca and Other Major Films of Curtiz. Uni-versity Microfilms International Research Press, Ann Harbor, Michigan 1982, p. 129-132
8. Wood, Michael: America in the Movies. Basic Books, New York, 1975, p.103-104
9. Higham, Charles-Greenberg, Joel: Hollywood in the Forties. p. 21
10. Rosenzweig, Sidney: Casablanca and Other Major Films of Curtiz. p.138
11. Thomson, David: America in the Dark. p. 220
12. Higham, Charles-Greenberg, Joel: Hollywood in the Forties. p. 26
13. Meyer, William R.: The Warner Brothers Directors. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House Publishers, 1978, p. 98
14. Same , p. 98
15. Robertson, James C.: The Casablanca Man. p. 101
16. Király Jenő: Kommentárok Kertész Mihály Casablanca című filmjének repülőtéri képsorához. Filmkultúra, No. 1987/10.p. 3
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