Tag: Thelma Ritter

All About Eve (1950)

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis become deadly rivals in All About Eve

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Thelma Ritter (Birdie), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Marilyn Monroe (Claudia Casswell)

At a theatre awards ceremony, a table of people watch Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) collect the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. She thanks them all effusively. They stare at her with mute loathing. I guess that’s show business. Mankiewicz’s biting and witty film boasts possibly one of the greatest scripts for the movies ever written, a biting expose of rivalries and backstage politics, that also manages to find a lot of warmth for its characters. Arch, but in its own strange way tender hearted and hopeful, its Mankiewciz’s greatest achievement.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a gifted actress and one of the leading lights of Broadway, as well as the on-stage muse of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), close friends with his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) and in love with her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merill). But Margo is just beginning to worry, now she has reached her forties, that her parts are drying up. Into her world arrives Eve (Anne Baxter), a besotted fan who swiftly becomes first her assistant then her understudy and eventual replacement. Despite her sweet exterior, Eve is fiercely ambitious determined to find fame and success – and only cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) seems to notice.

All About Eve cemented Mankiewicz as Hollywood’s go-to for high-brow literary entertainment. Which is odd when you think about it, because what makes All About Eve work – and enduringly popular – is that it’s a fantastically quotable soap, played with relish. It’s not a million miles away from a ten-part, cliff-hangers aplenty Netflix drama. But it stands out because of Mankiewicz’s craft – when you pen lines as cutting, acerbic, tender and true as those in All About Eve, is it any wonder that Hollywood sees you as the next Fitzgerald?

And the dialogue is sparkling, from start to finish. From a cuttingly dry opening voiceover from George Sander’s Addison DeWitt – beautifully delivered, crammed with cynicism, cattiness, pride and purring contempt (“Minor awards are for such as the writer and director since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.”) that it sets the tone for a film where dialogue is king. Mankiewicz is not much of a visual stylist – only the final shot, a besotted fan starring into an endless series of mirrors – sticks in the mind, and his approach as a director is intensely theatrical, but it doesn’t matter when his dialogue sings.

All About Eve works as both a supremely entertaining peek behind the curtain and also a neat parable about ageing, change and relevance. Perhaps there are few better examples of the changing of the guard, than the impact of growing old on a woman in theatre: from girlfriend to mother, with hardly a role in between. It’s the change Margo is dreading. And as she grows too old for her leading lady roles, what has she actually to show for it? Not much in the way of family or happiness.

If Eve looked closer, perhaps she’d wonder if it was worth it. As Margo makes clear in her dressing room and at a party thrown for Bill, she’s not got much to look forward to. (It’s not often commented on that the film’s most famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night”, is followed by an evening of Margo’s maudlin self-pity). For all her glamour and fame, it’s clear Margo is unhappy: “So many people know me. I wish I did” she says at one point, and for all the whirlwind of her life, she’s not exactly over-burdened by close friends.

It’s easy to forget, because All About Eve is so well known for being a bitchfest – and Mankiewicz’s cutting one-liners are genius – that you forget its lead is a sad and lonely figure, and the film presents a conservative view of motherhood being a crucial role for a woman. We don’t automatically remember this speech’ but it’s crucial for Margo: “There’s one career all females have in common – whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed – and there he is.”

Margo is the signature part for Bette Davis, but memory has distorted it. You can expect it to be a parade of sharply barbed attacks, but it is much more than this. Yes, she does these with aplomb (“I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be”), but under the regal grande dame, there is a rather vulnerable woman, scared about where her life is going and terrified of being unloved. For all the Davis fireworks, it’s an affecting – and perhaps this is why it became such a gay icon, during those years of people forced into the closet –vulnerable and lonely performance.

That vulnerability contributes to the sense of vampire story. Eve arrives in the dead of night, inveigles her way into Margo’s life and then slowly takes that life over. Eve is almost draining Margo’s life force, leaving her even more aware of the lonely impact of her choices. There’s the suggestion of sexual obsession in Eve – standing on stage, holding Margo’s costume in front of her and imagining the applause, Eve seems as much besotted with Margo as she does with becoming her. And of course Eve is a unknowable fake. Anne Baxter’s gentle, butter-wouldn’t-melt sweetness is just the right side of phoney. Only Thelma Ritter’s (very funny) bitchy dresser detects dictates her invented backstory about a deceased husband is baloney (“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”).

Later Birdie will comment Eve is studying to become Margo – and that’s spot on. As Eve moves further up the ladder, Baxter drops her gentleness and becomes increasingly steely. “A contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition – and talent. We deserve each other” Addison will tell her – and he’s spot on. Eve’s driving motivation is ambition, and anyone is fair game if it will help her move up the greasy ladder of theatrical success.

Eve uses everyone. She manipulates Karen into making Margo missing a performance – then invites the press in advance to her performance, which is met with raves. Afterwards Eve gives an interview in which she lacerates Margo as a bitter has-been holding her back. It’s enough for Karen – and Celeste Holm is very good as this gently supportive woman, with the firmest principles of anyone on show here – but the men can’t let go. It takes an attempted seduction to drive away Bill, but the weaker Lloyd seems to be sucked into her web (the film is coy about the implied affair). It should be clear that Eve is a force draining energy out of everything she can, determined to get to the top.

And we know she gets there: after all we’ve seen her win the Sarah Siddons prize! But Eve has none of Margo’s soul. The film ends with her meeting the even more vainly empty Phoebe, who Addison immediately recognises is intent on the same scheme as Eve was. And so, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. Eve has learnt everything from Margo, except how to be a human: she has all her technique and none of her heart. The film even manages to feel a bit sorry for her – a woman who has achieved everything she wants, and finds it makes her neither happy nor popular.

It’s the heart of Mankiewicz’s film, perhaps even its warning message. What is the point of all this greatness, if all you have to show for it are false-friendships with poisonous pals like Addison? It’s the moral message behind a film filled with one-liners and wonderful speeches, a masterclass in theatrical writing for cinema. Bette Davis is superb, funny and heartfelt. Baxter is quietly terrifying. Ritter and Holm are superb and Sanders is so well case in this role, you wonder if Mankiewicz somehow invented him specially for it. All About Eve may be grand, soapy entertainment – but soap has never been smarter than this.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

Burt Lancaster excels in prison drama Birdman of Alcatraz

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Robert Stroud), Karl Malden (Harvey Shoemaker), Thelma Ritter (Elizabeth Stroud), Neville Brand (Bull Ransom), Betty Field (Stella Johnson), Telly Savalas (Feto Gomez), Edmond O’Brien (Thomas E Gaddis)

What is prison for? Is it just a cage – or should it offer reform and self-improvement? Debates like this have existed from the moment the first mass-prison opened. Birdman of Alcatraz taps into this, presenting a romanticised image of the life serving time of Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster), a double convicted murderer (including killing a guard in prison) who narrowly escapes a death sentence, sentenced to a lifetime in solitary confinement. Stroud develops a passion for ornithology, eventually becoming one of the world’s experts on avian disease – all while confined to his cell.

Front and centre in Birdman of Alcatraz is Burt Lancaster. Made by his production company, and hand-picked director (after firing Charles Chrichton), Lancaster’s prickly persona and patrician distance is wonderfully re-directed as a man who, for much of the film, carries a strong whiff of danger and violence. Surly, bitter and unrepentant, Lancaster brilliantly captures Stroud’s monomania which blossoms into a realisation his own life has been wasted. Oscar-nominated, Lancaster makes Stroud hard-to-like, but one who we slowly relate to as his brutality into a sort of recognisable humanity, however sharp-edged and un-appealing he can be.

Frankenheimer’s well-made film – it’s strikingly less flashy than much of his early work, instead using a restrained sense of documentary realism – is one I found both entertaining and involving, but also strangely troubling. But first the positive: there is no doubt this is a great “prison” movie, perfectly capturing the monotony and boredom long-term solitary confinement brings. It reduces the world into something small and oppressive – Stroud has a cell, a corridor and an exercise yard – and Frankenheimer pours on the sympathy for prisoners who are caged in a system that removes any individuality from them to turn them into docile drones.

Stroud faces a permanent struggle to win the right to keep and study his birds – including going into business selling his bird illness remedies – in the face of a system that wants him to sit in his silently in his cell. It’s hard not to be engaged with Stroud, and the lengths he must go to sustain the new hobby that has given him a reason for living. A birdcage is fashioned out of a crate after months of work. Endless variations on cures are attempted to deal with an outbreak of disease. There is even a bureaucrat warden – well played by Karl Malden as a functionary who is all duty and no imagination – who strongly believes indulging this nonsense is letting him off lightly. And maybe he’s right.

And it’s that issue which I find troubling at a film. This is a conscious attempt to turn Stroud into a sort of Mandela of Ornithology. But, scratch the surface of researching the film, and you discover Stroud was a man repeatedly diagnosed as a psychopath, who committed acts of brutal murder. This is a film that asks us to look at a man and sympathise with him, based on his passion for his hobby – like a Herman Goering biopic that focuses on his love for art. Reflecting real life, in the film Stroud never expresses a jot of regret or remorse for his crimes. The film argues his work with birds shows he has been rehabilitated – but I would argue his utter inability to recognise any moral responsibility for his actions, shows he is in no-way suitable for release.

Let this idea trip into your head and then, no matter how well made the film is made – or how well acted or engaging the story is – you suddenly twig this is a film about a man who forms stronger relationships with birds than he does with other human beings. Stroud will slave for months to save his bird – but barely bat an eyelid at the death of a man. His closest bond seems to be his antagonistic relationship with Malden’s warden, while even his closest prisoner companion (an Oscar-nominated Telly Savalas) is someone who passes out of his life for years at a time with no reaction from Stroud, and who seems capable of more regret and reflection than Stroud.

Fitting his sociopathic profile, Stroud’s only real human contact is formed with his mother. And, like White Heat’s Cody Jarrett, they have the same all-encompassing (and damagingly facilitating) relationship. His mother – played with a skilful sense of control and emotional manipulation by Thelma Ritter – constantly excuses her son’s sins, while demanding she remain his principle (ideally only) personal contact. To her, all other people – especially women – are a dangerous corrupting influence. This is not a healthy relationship, but the film doesn’t explore it, other than positioning the mother as a beast, who furiously drops her son when he decides to marry (for convenience so she can visit him) a fellow ornithologist, played by Betty Field.

In real life, Stroud was a brutal killer – not the rogueish old man he becomes by the film’s end, charming journalists – but his personality is re-positioned to take a stance on the ethics of prison reform. The film has, not surprisingly, an optimistic 1960s feeling that free-will and independence should be prioritised and that the system only crushes those feelings. Life isn’t as simple as that, however much Birdman of Alcatraz wants it to be. However, it shows you can still hugely enjoy a film that you disagree with. I guess that’s the sort of oddity that makes us human.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Richard Widmark and Jean Peters feel the heat from the cops, the commies and their own passion in Pickup on South Street

Director: Samuel Fuller

Cast: Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Moe), Murvyn Vye (Captain Tiger), Richard Kiley (Joey), Willis B Bouchey (Zara), Milburn Stone (Winoki), Henry Slate (MacGregor)

It’s 1950s, and the biggest bogeyman in America is the Commies. Candy (Jean Peters) is one of their unwitting couriers, funnelling top secret microfilm for her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) to pass to his Moscow superiors (poor Candy just thinks she engaged in helping Joey with some good-old All-American industrial espionage). Trouble is, while the Feds are trailing her, they watch her being pickpocketed by career thief Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Skip now has on his hands on some serious state secrets. Should he return the film to the police who want to lock him up? Or make a big score by blackmailing the Commies who want to kill him?

What makes Pickup on South Street so intriguing is it’s not necessarily as straight forward as you might think. Fuller’s film is an anti-communist film – the sort of “reds under the bed” scare that terrified millions in a country still reeling from Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs. But this isn’t your standard Red Scare film. Because our heroes have about as much stake in the USA as they do in the USSR. They are the down-trodden, the under-class, the grifters. At the end of the day, I’m not sure Skip McCoy really cares who ends up with the MacGuffin. He’s motivated firstly by financial gain and secondly by personal revenge. No appeal to flag and country cuts any ice with him.

Making the hero this sort of anti-social career criminal was a master-touch as it not only enriches the entire perspective of the film – what has their country ever done for these people – but also adds an air of uncertainty over the whole thing. There would never be any doubt if the microfilm had fallen into the hands of a clean-cut Henry Fonda type. The fact that it’s Richard Widmark – who always looks like he’s torn between laughing in your face or punching it – means you never quite know what he’s going to do. If it works out best for him to hand that film over the Russkies, you can be sure he will.

That’s despite the heavy-handed entreaties of the cops and feds. Skip faces a barrage of hostile interrogations, vague promises, handcuffs and searches from law agents who are damn sure he has the film, but can’t prove it. Like many Fuller films, there is more than a hint of roughness and violence in every frame – and the law and order figures aren’t averse to this. Captain Tiger (what a name!) has already served a suspension for beating Skip in custody. An illegal search or two isn’t beyond them. You can see why the FBI was unhappy with this film – not least because it shows them constantly out-thought by a pickpocket.

The Commies though are a thoroughly bad lot. After all, it’s still an anti-Communist film. Richard Kiley’s snivelling coward Joey is no true believer, but the kind of low-breed opportunist tempted by a quick buck. The other communists we meet are corrupt, shady types, sitting in backrooms puffing pipes and casually handing out death sentences. Kiley’s weak-willed and increasingly desperate Joey becomes more and more despicable as the film goes on, desperation to save himself from the fury of his paymasters leading to ever lower and despicable crimes.

So the only people who really come out as truly decent – and playing by a very fixed moral code of their own – are the criminal underclass. In this world, everyone knows where they stand. Skip isn’t angry at stool-pigeon Moe, who carefully trades information with the police – everyone has to make a living he observes. Skip will pick pockets to earn his keep, and punch back when he’s attacked, but there is no sense that he has any taste for the crimes of the Communist agents. He’ll sell on the microfilm to them – but that’s only because his own government offer him nothing but hot air and empty promises. And, as the unspoken message of the film goes, what difference would it really make to Skip and his like anyway where the film ends up?

Instead Skip becomes motivated by personal feelings – specifically his feelings for Candy and Moe. There is a genuine sexual frisson between Skip and Candy from the start: Skip’s pickpocketing of Candy is shot like a sex scene, all sweaty brows, heavy breathing and close-ups (with Skip’s hands ‘penetrating’ Candy’s handbag with all the metaphorical energy of a train speeding into a tunnel). As events draw them closer together, the two maintain this electric sexual energy – whether arguing or fighting or lying to each other they seem unable to take their hands off each other – and the intimacy of close-ups and low angles Fuller uses for this brings a real sexual charge to their scenes. Widmark – superb as a heavy with a (hidden) heart – and Peters are also great, with Peters bringing a real roughened hinterland of disappointment to her role.

The other motivator for Skip becomes the stool-pigeon Moe, brilliantly played with an eccentric bag-lady energy by an Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter. Moe is a grifter, selling ties by day and trading information on the side. She embodies the underdog nature of the criminal world, wanting nothing more than to earn enough to buy a decent funeral when she goes. Ritter has a marvellous speech on just how tied she feels from this constant scramble of scrapping by on the edge of society. A surrogate mother figure of a sort to Skip, Ritter’s performance is a classic piece of character acting.

Fuller’s scene is lean, short and fast-paced. Like many of his films there is a lot of violence – beatings, fights, shootings – all shot superbly with the camera pulling back to soak up the action. Sex and violence go hand in hand – Skip accidentally punches out Candy thinking she has broken in to kill him, and the two of them are in a passionate embrace moments later. Mixed in with touches of reality, that bring the tough urban world the characters live in, Pickup on South Street is a lean and mean film that manages to be more than just a straight anti-Communist film. It doesn’t just give us something to fight against: it also asks how we might give people something to fight for.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern and Jeanne Crain read over the eponymous Letter to Three Wives

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Cast: Jeanne Crain (Deborah Bishop), Linda Darnell (Lora Mae Hollingsway), Ann Sothern (Rita Phipps), Jeffrey Lynn (Brad Bishop), Paul Douglas (Porter Hollingsway), Kirk Douglas (George Phipps), Thelma Ritter (Sadie), Barbara Lawrence (Babe Finney), Connie Gilchrist (Ruby Finney), Florence Bates (Mrs Manleigh), Hobart Cavanaugh (Mr Manleigh), Celeste Holm (voice of Addie Ross)

It’s strange to think that, back in 1949, this slight story of three women one of whose husbands might have run off with another woman (the film’s narrator, the omnipresent Addie Ross, coolly voiced by Celeste Holm) was garlanded with multiple Oscars. It’s the sort of material you half expect would make an episode of Desperate Housewives– although of course today the whole thing would have been sorted out in a few minutes with mobile phones (A WhatsApp to Three Wives?). What makes it work so well is Mankiewicz’s dialogue, which lifts this slight melodrama of suburban couples into something that feels like it has more weight and intelligence than it really does.

Anyway, our wives are a mixed bag living in a commuter town “just outside the city”, all from middle-class or lower upper-class backgrounds. Seconds before taking some underprivileged children for a boat trip and picnic, insecure Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), blowsy Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and ambitious Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) receive a goodbye letter from their “friend” Addie Ross, who announces she has left town with one of their husbands. But which one? Is it Addie’s ex-boyfriend, privileged Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn), her school-yard sweetheart, academic George (Kirk Douglas), or her admirer, businessman Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas)? As the poster says, “While they wondered, one of them wandered”!

If that sounds to you like a rather small-scale storm in a teacup – well you’d probably be right. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to care which of these husbands might have headed into the sunset with the arch Addie Ross, since most of the characters seem at first rather smug, self-centred or tiresome. It takes time to warm up to these guys, but eventually Mankiewicz’s sparkling dialogue starts to work some magic and you invest in a clichéd little story (based, bizarrely, on a glassy magazine short story).

At one point the film was entitled A Letter to Four Wives – until studio executives decided that was one too many (bad news for Anne Baxter who had been cast as the final wife). That speaks to the episodic nature of the film. It has a clear five act structure – the set up, an act establishing the backgrounds of each of the marriages, and a final act that reveals who went where and wrapping the plot up. It’s a simple structure, and today it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.

Mankiewicz’s framing device for his flashbacks may be a bit contrived, but he puts it together with skill. Each flashback is cleverly introduced with an intriguing device where various mechanical items near the women slowly take on a voice of their own, echoing their inner dread back to them. It sounds a bit odd – and it is at first – but it sort of works as an unsettling reflection of the unease of the central characters.

Once we get into the flashbacks themselves they are a mixed bag. The weakest by far is the first, focusing on Jeannie Crain’s Deborah Bishop. Rather plodding and dated – and forced to also introduce all the characters – it’s a shapeless section of reflection in which Deborah comes across unengaging, sulky, insecure and tiresome. Mind you that’s as nothing compared to her husband Brad, played with utter forgettability by Jeffrey Lynn, who is nothing more than a self-important idiot. Frankly, you end up thinking Deborah might be better off without him. The sequence focuses on the possibility that Brad might think Deborah is a little beneath him – compared to his old love Addie – but basically serves as a teaser for the next two flashbacks and an intro to the more interesting couples we are going to spend time with.

Our second sequence offers several comic highlights as it follows Ann Southern and Kirk Douglas (both very good) as the Phipps, middle-class intellectuals. George is an academic, Rita a writer for radio soaps, and the flashback revolves around their dinner party for Rita’s bosses, two radio-and-advert obsessed moneybags who demand the meal is interrupted so they can listen to episodes of assorted radio shows (accompanied by a long discussion of their advertising slots). Plenty of comic mileage comes out of George’s irritation at their vulgarity, but also serves to demonstrate the tensions in the Phipps marriage – George believes his wife is wasting her talent, Rita thinks her husband isn’t taking her career seriously. But underneath that is a nice little commentary on the insecurity of men returning from the war to find their wives have made professional lives of their own – and in this case, even become the main breadwinner in the household.

Our final flashback is probably the finest, around white-goods factory owner Porter Hollingsway (a bombastic Paul Douglas, with a touch of self-loathing) and his secretary turned wife Lora Mae (Linda Darnell, brassy self-confidence hiding vulnerability). Largely set in Lora Mae’s family home, a house on the wrong end of the tracks which hilariously has a train track running past its window (which at frequent occurrences leads to the whole house shaking, an action the family responds to with a casual familiarity). The drama here revolves around the couple’s feelings for each other – Porter can’t believe Lora Mae isn’t a gold digger, Lora Mae can’t believe her husband genuinely loves her for herself – but it’s told with a real sense of comic vibe laced with emotional truth. It’s the finest – and funniest – sequence and leads to a pay-off that really works.

A Letter to Three Wives maybe a little too soapy and frothy to be much more than an entertainment, but it is at least a very entertaining one. At all times this is due to Mankiewicz’s witty, sparkling and truthful dialogue that hums in every scene and gives all the actors some of the best opportunities of their career. Linda Darnell in particular is outstanding – warm, witty, fragile – but each wife has her moments, and Kirk Douglas is charm itself as George with Paul Douglas’ fragility under the surface eventually quite moving despite his bullying exterior. There is also fine support from Thelma Ritter among others. It’s a fine film, handsomely mounted and offers more than enough laugh-out-loud moments and moments of sweetness to make it really work.