Films: Drama/Romance

by Francis M. Nevins

   Anyone remember a Cornell Woolrich story called “The Fatal Footlights”? It first appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly for June 14, 1941 and finally found a hardcover home when I included it in my Woolrich collection NIGHT & FEAR (2004). The setting is a cheap burlesque house on New York’s 42nd Street and the plot kicks off when the featured dancer, who performs with her body painted gold all over, collapses on the runway during a show and dies.

   We soon learn that it was the gold paint that killed her, and that someone had stolen the paint remover from her dressing room precisely in order to cause her death without laying a finger on her. Of course, what death by gilding conjures up for most of us is not this obscure Woolrich story but the James Bond movie GOLDFINGER (1964) and Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel of the same name. Fred Dannay had reprinted Woolrich’s story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for June 1955 under the new title “Death at the Burlesque,” and if the tale came to Fleming’s attention it was probably by this route.


   For the media the megadeath of April 2016 was that of pop icon Prince. But just one day earlier, on the 20th of the month, death claimed the director of GOLDFINGER — and of several other Bond films. Guy Hamilton was born in Paris of English parents in 1922 and entered the British film industry after service in World War II. In 1952, having put in a few years as an assistant director, he made his first film, THE RINGER, based on something — whether a novel, a story, a play or just the character is unclear — by Edgar Wallace.

   It wasn’t until his involvement with Sean Connery and GOLDFINGER that he came to prominence, and in later years he directed three other Bond films: DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971), again with Connery, and LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), both starring Roger Moore. He also contributed to the more serious type of espionage film as director of FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1966), based on the novel by Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine.

   Near the end of his career he helmed two pictures based on Agatha Christie novels and filmed in the manner of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, with a huge budget and tons of guest stars. THE MIRROR CRACK’D (1980) starred Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple, with guest stars including Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor, while Peter Ustinov took the lead as Hercule Poirot in EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982), with Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, James Mason and Diana Rigg among the guest stars.


   The actress in GOLDFINGER who met her death by gilding was Shirley Eaton (1937- ). As chance would have it, I met Ms. Eaton twenty-odd years ago, at the Memphis Film Festival. We both happened to pick the same time to have lunch in the convention hotel restaurant and out of the blue she asked if she could sit with me, saying she didn’t like eating alone.

   Was I a hot dude in those days or what? No, I didn’t make a pass at her, nor she at me, but in her middle fifties she was still quite lovely. I was interested in Guy Hamilton, GOLDFINGER’s director, and asked if she knew how I could get in touch with him. She told me that she understood he’d retired and moved to Majorca. With no more to go on than that, I wasn’t able to track him down. Now he’s gone for good. Obituaries indicate that Majorca was indeed his final home.


   So why was I interested in Hamilton? Not because of GOLDFINGER, or any other Bond film, and not because of the Christie-based pictures either. Just before GOLDFINGER, Hamilton had directed a picture that fascinated me: a commercial failure, not even mentioned in the New York Times obituary, but one that I was using in my Law and Film seminar at St. Louis University and wanted to write about. Odds are that no reader of this column has seen or heard of it.

   The literary source of the film was the 1959 novel THE WINSTON AFFAIR by Howard Fast (1914-2003), a super-prolific author who was a Communist and, back in the Red Menace era, served a prison term for contempt of Congress. Among general readers he’s best known as the author of SPARTACUS (1951), source of the blockbuster movie with Kirk Douglas; among mystery fans he’s remembered for the whodunits he wrote as E.V. Cunningham.

   No one would call THE WINSTON AFFAIR a mystery but it might be considered a legal thriller. The time is late in World War II and the place is India, which Fast knew well from his work as a war correspondent. Large numbers of British and American troops are serving in the area side by side and tension between the two armies is running high.

   Barney Adams, a West Point graduate and wounded combat veteran, is assigned as defense counsel at a court martial. The defendant, Lieutenant Charles Winston, is a middle-aged misfit who at a military outpost in the boondocks cold-bloodedly shot to death a British sergeant in full view of several witnesses.

   In order to restore unity with their British allies, the American commanders are determined that Winston be tried promptly and hanged. But since Winston happens to have a Congressman as his brother-in-law, the court-martial must be conducted not in the drumhead style but with the facade of due process preserved. It’s made clear to Adams, however, that he is not to raise the only defense available: insanity.

   Everyone with professional expertise admits privately to Adams that Winston was and still is insane but a “lunacy board” with no psychiatric experience has ruled to the contrary. At a press conference before the trial, Adams responds to an Indian journalist’s question with the statement that might does not make right and justice can only exist apart from power. Once the court-martial begins, he jumps the reservation and goes all out to establish an insanity defense, clearly destroying his own military career in the process.

   The biggest problem with THE WINSTON AFFAIR is that, like so much “socially conscious” fiction, it’s heavy on earnest rhetoric and light on drama. In MAN IN THE MIDDLE (1963), the movie based on Fast’s novel, the Debate on Great Issues tone is either scrapped or, where kept, is made subordinate to story and character.

   Let’s compare the first few paragraphs of WINSTON and the first minute or so of the movie. Fast begins with a banal exchange of dialogue between the area’s commanding general and his sergeant. Guy Hamilton opens the movie with a stunning pre-credits sequence as we watch Winston (Keenan Wynn) stride from his quarters to the tent barracks, walk into the British sergeant’s canvas cubicle, take out a pistol and pump four bullets into him. In the novel we never see the murder.

   Barney Adams is the protagonist of both works but his biography differs sharply from one to the other. Fast’s character is a captain, 28 years old, six years out of West Point and an honors graduate of Harvard Law School. The Adams of the movie looks to be in his mid-forties, as Robert Mitchum was when he played the role, and accordingly holds the higher rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

   This version of the character knows next to nothing about military law and certainly never went to a civilian law school. He’s invested much more of himself in his career as a soldier than has Fast’s Adams, and if he sacrifices that career trying to save his pathetic and disgusting client, the stakes are much higher than they are for his novelistic counterpart.

   The ultimate evil in Fast’s novel is anti-Semitism. Winston is a paranoiac who believes he’s being plotted against by “international Jewry, the Elders of Zion, the whole kit and kaboodle of Nazi filth.” A Jewish officer calls him “a decaying cesspool of every vile chauvinism and hatred ever invented…, who spat in my face and called me a kike and a sheeny….”

   Guy Hamilton and his collaborators drop the anti-Semitism theme, a decision which displeased Fast mightily, and anachronistically replace it with what in the early 1960s was much more timely. You guessed it. Racism. The British sergeant he killed, Wynn tells Mitchum, “was altogether an evil man. He’d sit and spout democracy, then he’d go out….Up into the hills, one of these native villages. He had women up there. Black women. I saw him!….I used to follow him up that hill and watch him with those black witches up there. He was defiling the race, Colonel….He wasn’t fit to live in a white man’s world.”

   As Mitchum is leaving the guardhouse, Wynn is taken out for his daily exercise. Guy Hamilton places us with Mitchum, looking down into the sunken prison yard, watching Wynn pace back and forth in an enclosed stone cube that is a perfect visual correlative for his racism.

   I could go on for many more pages — and did just that in a chapter on the movie and Fast’s novel that was first published in the University of San Francisco Law Review and is included in my Edgar-nominated JUDGES AND JUSTICE AND LAWYERS AND LAW (2014) — but space compels me to cut to the bottom line.

   The key to understanding the differences between novel and film is that, during the four years between them, two monumental events occurred: the publication of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1960) and the release of the classic film version (1962) with Gregory Peck. Hamilton’s movie does what Fast’s novel couldn’t have done.

   Robert Mitchum’s version of Barney Adams creates a new type of Atticus Finch figure: tough and laconic, almost a Philip Marlowe in khaki, where Atticus was loving and compassionate; representing not a sympathetic and clearly innocent black man in the South of the 1930s but a guilty white racist of the worst sort. “It’s easy to fight for the innocent,” Mitchum says, perhaps referring subtly to Atticus. “But when you fight for the sick, for the warped, for the lost, then you’ve got justice.”

   His (and Guy Hamilton’s) Barney Adams doesn’t have a license to practice law but, as I see it, offers a more challenging and less reassuring incarnation of the lawyerly ethos that is permanently linked in the public mind with the years of the Supreme Court under Earl Warren.


   We’ve come a long way from Cornell Woolrich and death by gilding and it would be hard to end this column neatly by going back. Since many readers of this column are movie buffs, I’ll close by quoting a letter about MAN IN THE MIDDLE sent to me by Howard Fast early in 1996.

   Most of the shooting, he said, took place “on Lord Somethingorother’s estate about ten miles out of London. I was in London with my family and I watched a good bit of the filming. Bob Mitchum was wonderful. For me he was the best film actor of his time. Each day he sat quietly on the set, putting away a quart of whisky. When his scene came he never flubbed a word, while the British actors were flubbing all over the place. They never had to do a second take because of Mitchum… I was awed by the ability of the British film makers to reproduce an Indian setting there near London.”


SKYSCRAPER SOULS. MGM, 1932. Warren William, Maureen O’Sullivan, Gregory Ratoff, Anita Page, Verree Teasdale, Norman Foster, George Barbier, Jean Hersholt, Wallace Ford, Hedda Hopper. Based on a novel by Faith Baldwin. Director: Edgar Selwyn.

   Although it doesn’t do a particularly good job at introducing its myriad array of characters at the very beginning, Skyscraper Souls ends up being a devilishly enjoyable romantic comedy/drama. What sets this film apart is that nearly the entire story takes place within the confines of a supersized midtown Manhattan Art Deco skyscraper, one that symbolizes its owner’s oversized ego.

   Based on Faith Baldwin’s novel Skyscraper (1931), this pre-code movie features Warren William in a starring role. He portrays Dave Dwight, a selfish and lecherous owner of the aforementioned skyscraper, one that towers over the Empire State Building. Motivated primarily by greed and lust, Dwight has engaged in a long-term extramarital affair with his secretary, Sarah Dennis (Verree Teasdale). Soon enough, however, he has his eye on Sarah’s new and younger assistant, the exceedingly innocent Lynn Harding (a beautiful Maureen O’Sullivan). But Lynn has a suitor of her own, a bumbling, if not handsomely charming bank teller named Tom Shepherd (Norman Foster).

   Not surprisingly, given that the movie was adapted for the big screen from a novel, there’s also a couple of further subplots involving a stock market scam, a lonely jewelry store proprietor who has fallen in love with a girl who seems to bed every man except him, and a down-on-their-luck couple willing to steal in order to get back up on their feet. Plus, there’s a gun, a murder by mistake, and a suicide.

   A combination of romantic comedy, sleaze, and sentimentalism, Skyscraper Souls can feel sluggish at times, which necessitates a degree of patience from the viewer. But it ends up being a rather insightful look into the romantic and working lives of both sexes in the early 1930s and a subtle, but hardly over the top, indictment of hyper-capitalism. All told, it’s not what I would consider a great film, but it’s certainly worth a look.


SIROCCO. Columbia Pictures, 1951. Humphrey Bogart, Marta Toren, Lee J. Cobb, Everett Sloane, Gerald Mohr, Zero Mostel. Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides & Hans Jacoby, based on the novel Le coup de grâce by Joseph Kessel. Director: Curtis Bernhardt.

   Sirocco was hardly Humphrey Bogart’s finest hour. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt, this espionage thriller features Bogie in a role eerily similar to that of Rick Blaine in Casablanca. But Casablanca this is not. Rather, Sirocco is a rather tepid, occasionally soporific affair, about a Harry Smith (Bogart), a cynical high living arms dealer, based in Damascus in 1925 at a time when Syrian Arab nationalists were battling the French military stationed there.

   There is, of course, a girl and a romantic rivalry that has political overtones. In this case, the girl is Violette, a Frenchwoman portrayed by Swedish actress Märta Torén. A fine actress, to be sure; alas, she simply doesn’t have the screen presence of Ingrid Bergman. But then again who does?

   Lee J. Cobb, a fine character actor in some roles, portrays a French Army officer in love with Violette. Did I mention he’s also tasked with rooting out who is selling arms to Arab leader Emir Hassan? Hint: it’s Bogie’s character. That’s basically the whole plot.

   Then again, Sirocco isn’t a total wash. The cinematography is occasionally quite stellar, and Zero Mostel’s scenery chewing performance as a local merchant is quite memorable and downright enjoyable to behold. It’s just that one cannot help but compare this mediocre film with that of Bogart’s best films. Even if they named it Damascus – a far more fitting and preferable title – Sirocco would pale in comparison not only to Casablanca but also to one of my personal favorites, To Have and To Have Not. So, take it from me. It’s okay to forget Sirocco. After all, we’ll always have Paris.


MAN OF THE WORLD. Paramount Pictures, 1931. William Powell, Carole Lombard, Wynne Gibson, Lawrence Gray, Guy Kibbee, George Chandler. Directors: Richard Wallace & Edward Goodman (the latter uncredited).

   For a film with a script written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Man of the World is overall surprisingly bland. That’s not to say that William Powell isn’t a fine actor or that Carole Lombard isn’t dazzling; it’s just that the movie just sort of plods along, without enough tension to keep the viewer fully engaged with the story. True, there’s a surprisingly (spoiler alert) downbeat ending and some rather seedy insinuations about American expatriate life in the City of Lights, but there’s just not enough verbal sparring, let along physical action, to make this programmer anything other than an average pre-Code melodrama.

   Powell portrays Michael Trevor, a former newspaperman living as an expatriate in Paris. He tells everyone he’s an aspiring novelist, but had his run of hard luck and is really part of a small blackmailing ring. They target Americans living and working in France. In order to keep their names out of a scandal sheet that Trevor’s associates run, wealthy Americans end up forking over money to Trevor as a means of guarding their reputations. Little do they know that Trevor himself is the leader of the blackmailers and not the white knight he presents himself to be.

   Things change for Trevor when he falls for the niece of one of his targets, the lovely Mary Kendall (Lombard). He’s then forced to choose between his loyalty to his criminal associates, one of whom is his ex-lover and for his true affection for Mary. Set in the backdrop of early 1930s Paris, Man of the World is neither particularly comic nor romantic. It’s more of a character study of a lonely man who, no matter where he goes, finds he can’t escape what his life has become.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

LA TOUR DE NESLE.. Les Films Fernand Rivers (France), 1955. Released in the UK as The Tower of Nesle and worldwide in English as Tower of Lust. Pierre Brassuer, Silvana Pampanini, Paul Guers, Jacques Toja, Marcel Raine, Constant Rémy, Lia Di Leo. Screenplay by Abel Gance, with dialogue by Fernand Rivers and E. Fuzellier, based on a play adapted by Frédérick Gallardet, based in turn on the novel and play La tour de Nesle by Alexandre Dumas pére. Director: Abel Gance.

   Once upon a time Alexandre Dumas pére was an obscure, if colorful, poet and playwright starving in Paris and dreaming of fame and literary glory. He had not written The Three Musketeers or heard the name d’Artagnan, and he had not conceived the greatest work on revenge ever written, The Count of Monte Cristo.

   There were no Corsican Brothers, no men in Iron Masks, no chevaliers de Harmental, Queen Margot, Queen’s necklace, Joseph Balsamo, no sign that he was to be anything but yet another striving figure in the French literary scene. He was unknown save for being the mulatto son of one of Napoleon’s great generals and outspoken in his politics and artistic designs. He was a physical but not a literary giant.

   That changed in 1832 on the opening night of his first play, La tour de Nesle, a tour de force of blood, murder, incest, and sex that would rocket its author to the stratosphere and lay the ground work for the six hundred plus plays and novels that followed and a virtual assembly line of literature that remains read and loved going on two hundred years later.

   His friend Victor Hugo proclaimed the play the greatest in French history, and it played to packed houses. Overnight Dumas went from obscurity to a hero of the French literary scene and one of the most celebrated men in Paris, having invented the genre that would make him rich and famous, cloak and dagger, in one fell swoop of the quill.

   Little wonder, because the play is a barn-burner. This is all dressed up on stage with red-hooded and cloaked men, graphic strangling, and enough gothic atmosphere to choke a horse. La tour de Nesle is pure gothic in the tradition of Mrs Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Monk Lewis’s The Monk, and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. As a play it falls somewhere between those and the bloody Elizabethan theater of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, which Dumas most assuredly had in mind when he wrote it.

   Abel Gance is one of the great figures in French cinema. La roue, Le fin du monde, J’accuse, and his monumental film Napoleon are among the greatest works of the French cinema. In his own way Gance is to French cinema what Dumas was to its literature.

   You would think …

   You’d be wrong.

   La tour de Nesle is based on an actual incident in French history involving Quenn Marguerite de Bourlonge, one combining all he elements any nineteenth century playwright could ask for in a melodrama. The hero, Buridan (Pierre Brasseur), was the lover of Marguerite de Bourlogne (Silvanna Pampanini) as a youth. They had two children in secret, Phillipe (Jacques Toja) and Gautier (Paul Guers), and Princess Marguerite persuaded Buridan to rid her of her father making her queen at which point she tried to kill him and her sons, a latter day Medea. Young Buridan escapes, believing his children murdered, but Landry (Constant Remy), the man assigned to kill the boys, spares them an raises them, shades of Snow White and the Huntsman.

   Twenty years pass and Marguerite and her ladies in waiting have contrived a scheme to get their thrills with minimum risk. They have made a secret brothel of the tower of Nesle on the Seine where they lure young men for a night of passion after which their minions murder the handsome young men and dispose of them in the Seine (this is the historical part) so they can never expose what the women are doing or cause a scandal, though the number of bodies of young men washing up on shore is starting to get a bit suspicious looking.

   This nice little arrangement is about to get complicated though. Princess Blanche (Lea Di Leo) has fallen for Phillipe, and Marguerite has set her eye on handsome Gautier, unaware he is her own son. Enter the catalyst, Buridan, back from twenty years adventures as a soldier of France, a dashing Captain and early model for d’Artagnan, quick with a sword and his wits. When Marguerite realizes he is alive she determines to kill him, setting in motion her own downfall and a national scandal of epic proportions.

   Despite handsome filming, and considerable nudity, the film just doesn’t work, perhaps because it is never played as fully as it should be. Melodrama — and this is melodrama — must be played as melodrama, never half-heartedly, and this one is half-hearted at best. This kind of thing needs actors willing to take a huge bite out of the part. It needed Hammer and Terence Fisher, not art and genius.

   Should this plot sound familiar, it may be because it has been filmed before, in 1909, 1928, 1937, on French television in 1966, and the version you are most likely to be familiar with, a German fiasco called She Lost Her … You Know What better known on video as The Tower of Screaming Virgins (long available from Sinister Cinema) from 1968 in which Buridan is much more of a Dumas swashbuckler and the two titles should tell you all you need to know of the approach taken — think the nude Three Musketeers and Zorro films of the late sixties. A few minutes of the Gance film are available on YouTube to view and of course you can buy the 1968 version if you have a tolerance for films so bad they achieve a kind of stature all their own.

   Still, for me the Gance film was worth seeing despite the flaws, in part because it is a handsome film to look at, and in part because it is such a full blooded grand guignol plot. Depending on your tolerance for gothic atmosphere and melodrama, it’s worth a look even if you decide not to wade in all the way. Watching it you can at least get an idea what a more full-blooded attempt to tell the story might have been like and a glimpse of a bit of history, the play that launched one of the greatest literary careers of all time.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:

ENEMY OF WOMEN. Monogram, 1944. Re-released as The Mad Lover. Wolfgang Zilzner (as Paul Andor), Claudia Drake, Donald Woods, H. B. Warner, Ralph Morgan, Gloria Stuart, Robert Barra, Byron Foulger. Written and directed by Alfred Zeisler.

   A real oddity.

   An independent production picked up and distributed by Monogram, this was written and directed by Alfred Zeisler, who was born in Chicago but rose to prominence in the German film industry of the 1920s and 30s, with memorable hits like Gold (1934) and Viktor und Viktoria (1933) on his resume. Like many other talents, he was forced out of Germany with the rise of the Nazis and ended up back in America, where he worked mostly on “B” products like this story of the rise and (anticipated) fall of Paul Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and brief successor.

   Given that background, one would expect a strident film here, but Enemy is surprisingly restrained, even gentle at times. It doesn’t try to make Goebbels sympathetic or even likable, and yet ….

   Goebbels is played by Wolfgang Zilzner, an actor usually cast as a sinister Nazi underling in films like Invisible Agent and All Through the Night; the guy standing behind Peter Lorre, with a sullen look and no lines. But here he’s the star, and the film opens on him, with a smooth night-time tracking shot in the rubble of a recently-bombed Berlin neighborhood (tellingly evoked by photographer John Alton, one of the architects of film noir.) Goebbels’ car arrives on the scene and he enters one of the smoldering ruins, preparing a radio broadcast to the effect that the damage was “negligible” but there’s something strange about his manner, and as he slumps into what’s left of a chair, we flash back ….

   What follows is a rather staid account of the fortunes of Joseph Goebbels, starting off with him as a tutor spurned by his young student (Claudia Drake, the woman no one remembers in Detour) and hooking up with the rising Nazi Party more to recover his self-esteem than from any political conviction.

   There are some understated (and economical) vignettes as Goebbels takes power and publishers and broadcasters find themselves out of work or under arrest, usually done in a single scene on one set—an approach that heightens the sense of ruthless Nazi efficiency and saves money at the same time—and a surprisingly lavish bit at a swanky party used by Goebbels to push more propaganda.

   There’s also an unexpected and quite suspenseful sequence where he finds himself scheduled for a visit from the SS and has to get next to Hitler before he can be spirited away by his rivals. It’s one of those moments like the car-sinking scene in Psycho where the viewer finds himself suddenly identifying with a killer.

   In fact, as Enemy of Women goes on, it becomes less about the Nazis and more about Goebbels’ ruthless pursuit of the woman he loves (the Claudia Drake character) a pursuit punctuated by murder, kidnapping and detention, but with none of the gloating villains or noble martyrs so common in movies those days.

   The conclusion is skillfully and intentionally tipped off ahead of time as we suddenly recognize the room where Claudia Drake awaits her unwanted lover and this becomes, of all things, a story of losing the thing one loves by trying to possess it. The flashback ends as the master propagandist of the Third Reich delivers his prepared lies, and his close-up reveals the face of a man who realizes he is the herald of a fallen angel.

   No, there are no brave patriots here, no stirring speeches or beastly villains, but despite the trashy title, Enemy of Women hits its target by humanizing it.

GIRL OF THE PORT. RKO Radio Pictures, 1930. Sally O’Neil, Reginald Sharland, Mitchell Lewis, Duke Kahanamoku, Donald MacKenzie. Based on the story “The Firewalker” by John Russell. Director: Bert Glennon.

   A rare film, this, with no synopsis on IMDb, not a single person leaving a comment nor an external review. What it is is an early talkie that’s better filmed than most, and other than Reginald Sharland, who plays the drunken ex-British soldier who’s stranded himself on one of the Fiji Islands, the acting performances are better by far than many movies made in 1930.

   It may not be his fault. His role is meant to be melodramatic. He is the only survivor of a regiment burned to death by German flamethrowers in the war, and any burst of fire causes him to react in overdramatized panic. (“The flames! The flames!”) Enter Sally O’Neil as Josie, a perky sort of showgirl from Coney Island, as well as other places, who also finds herself at loose ends on Suva, if not desperate straits.

   They make a good pair together, of course, but they soon find themselves menaced and tormented by a white supremacist (Mitchell Lewis) who for all intents and purposes runs the island, and once Josie catches his eyes, watch out.

   It is soon revealed that he’s the worst kind of white supremacist, a half-breed himself. What you might want to know next, I cannot tell you, but if you look at the title of the story this movie is based on, you may be able to work it out on your own.

   Not my usual fare, when it comes to watching old movies, but I surprised myself by enjoying this one.

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