Posted by: gdevi | August 21, 2014

The Allegorical Lauren Bacall

In a passing reference, Haruki Murakami’s protagonist in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World refers to Lauren Bacall’s performance in John Huston’s Key Largo (1941) as “allegorical.” The word “allegorical” affected me the first time I read it; allegory defines an otherworldly difference–something that is currently in this world but is substantially and intrinsically outside of it, in another system, and with a corporeal definition of its own in some other dimension.  Murakami’s observation is spot on for Lauren Bacall as a film noir actress; as a noir actress, she is very much in the muck and mire of the noir world, and yet, completely outside of it, and untouched by it. It is a precious balance, and she plays it well.

Bacall’s popularity as a noir actress rests primarily on The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, 1947), and Key Largo (John Huston, 1948), all movies in which she played the central female character against the male protagonist played by her husband, Humphrey Bogart.These three noir movies show a departure in how the female character was conceptualized in the noir world. The femme fatale, a character-type closely associated with the noir genre recedes in the background in these films, and is replaced in the foreground with sexually chaste, care-giving female characters who almost harken back to the women of the Hollywood melodramas in the early 1940s. Almost, but not completely. Bacall’s characters are not suffering. They are autonomous women with  a strong will to do good. Bacall plays these chaste, autonomous women characters, a novelty noir feature, whose hallmark feature is care-giving. Viven Rutledge in The Big Sleep cares for her wayward, promiscuous sister who is at the heart of the blackmail and murder scam; Irene Jensen in Dark Passage takes care of Vincent Perry wrongfully accused of killing his wife; and Nora Temple in Key Largo literally takes care of her wheelchair bound father-in-law.  The femme fatales exist in the films as full-fledged characters; the subtle ways in which these movies portray wayward sexuality and sexual jealousy  are quite arresting for its times — the promiscuous sister Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep, the murderous scorned woman Madge Rapf in Dark Passage, and the drunken vamp and night club singer Gaye Dawn in Key Largo — but these films domesticate the hardboiled male world with a female ethos that is chaste and care-giving, something not associated with the noir genre at all.  The function of these care-giving female characters is to domesticate the male protagonist looking for a home. The noir world is built on the dismantling of homes. In Bacall’s noir films, these care-giving female characters build the homes.,%20Lauren/Annex/Annex%20-%20Bacall,%20Lauren%20(Big%20Sleep,%20The)_01.jpg

Indeed, in Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep, Vivien Rutledge, Bacall’s character, is portrayed as someone who knows that her sister Carmen killed Sean Regan, which would have made her efforts to protect the sister illegal.  But in the movie version, this detail is changed in order to completely eliminate any illegal associations with the care-giving character. The obvious selection and attraction between the male protagonist and these care-giving female characters–between Vivien and Philip Marlowe (Bogart) in The Big Sleep — bring an element of true romance in these films. They are not melodramas, since both the male protagonists as well as the care-giving characters have very quiet emotions, and quiet screen time. They are outside the scams. These are romances springing out of the noir world.

The romance element is nowhere more evident than in Dark Passage with its highly contorted plot involving a man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife played by Bogart, who is not seen on screen for the first half of the movie; the woman who intervenes to help him escape from the police, played by Lauren Bacall, and the murderous scorned woman, Madge Rapf played lethally by Agnes Moorehead. If Bacall is allegorical, Dark Passage provides the archetypal matrix for this allegorical quality. Bacall’s character Irene Jensen is a young woman with a strong sense of justice, or the lack of it, and decides to help Vincent Perry (Humphrey Bogart) escape from the law, even helping him with a surgery to change his face, and escape to Peru, South America.

The noir genre’s complete dismissal of the law and order establishment ritual, sometimes wrong-headed and corrupt as in the wrongful conviction of Perry, scaffolded within the spectacular, but overbearing laborious compositions of the city of San Francisco, is epitomized in the protracted existential drama involved in Perry acquiring a new face, Perry escaping from San Francisco, and in the film’s final resolution of Perry and Jensen meeting up with each other in South America. In a highly iconic scene, we see Perry at the train station making his escape from San Francisco, sitting next to a young widowed mother with two small children, and a young man. It is not a naturalistic scene at all, but vicarious in its attributed perspective on domesticity.  Its foreshortened purpose is to make visible the trope of domesticity and family, which is the overdetermined end sought by Vincent Perry and Irene Jensen. The young man tells the young mother that they are similar in that they are both alone; as passengers board the bus, the young man and woman take the children and board together. We see this scene through Perry’s eyes. When Irene Jensen comes to Perry in the resolution of the film, it is towards this union.  Fake marital unions are a standard trope in genre noirs. Dark Passage alludes to the noir ethos for fundamentally different purposes. Already, the noir is relegated to an allusion in Dark Passage in favor of a genre romance. However, the noir ethos is much more strongly present in Dark Passage than in The Big Sleep. For instance, Perry can never be a free man in America, where he is wrongfully accused of murder and where his name can never be cleared; the cornered murderer commits suicide in order to stop Perry from ever clearing his name. Dark Passage is an ethical noir.

John Huston’s Key Largo based on Maxwell Anderson’s play (Anderson and I share the same alma mater–University of North Daktota! — how cool is that eh? — I was totally impressed when I was at UND and found out that the author of Key Largo studied at UND!) takes this proxemic alienation experienced by characters inhabiting the noir world literally to the extreme ends of the world; the Florida Keys in the southeastern tip of the United States.  If Vincent Perry left America because he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit, Key Largo’s Johnny Rocco, played unforgettably by Edward G. Robinson, is trying to reenter the United States from Cuba where he is in hiding from American authorities for a series of organized crimes connected with the mob. Edward G. Robinson is scary, really scary; the only other screen villain I can think of in the same category is Max Cady from Cape Fear (both Robert Mitchum in the 1962 version and Robert de Niro in the 1991 version). In fact, I am sure that both Robert Mitchum and Robert de Niro must have practiced their villains against Robinson’s Johnny Rocco. I am thinking particularly of the final scene on the boat with Rocco and McCloud, and Rocco’s monologue to tease out where McCloud is hiding. This scene shares the same composition of menace that defines the relationship between the protagonist and the villain in both movies. But whereas the lawyer Bowden in Cape Fear is a shifty character himself, Frank McCloud in Key Largo is a soldier with nothing to loose making a professional decision; he will kill Rocco just because it has to be done. Largo is essentially Bogart’s film. McCloud (Bogart) decides to kill Rocco because he primarily knows that there is no god that is going to help the innocent people trapped by the vicious Rocco and his thugs. He watches Rocco shoot and kill the police officer. He watches Rocco sexually harass Nora. He watches Rocco consistently abuse his drunk former lover, the night club singer Gaye Dawn, played with great virtuosity by Claire Trevor (apparently the performance was based on Bogart’s ex-wife who was an alcoholic and given to public spectacles; Trevor won an academy award for her performance.) He watches the wheelchair bound old man Temple pray to god to destroy them all in the storm, but also destroy Johnny Rocco. His decision to go out on the wild sea and steer the mob boat to Cuba and kill them on the way is taken in perfect equanimity. The dock scenes are spectacular. The final scene on the boat with McCloud and Rocco, and Bogart’s face are unforgettable.  The motif of domesticating the noir world centers on the bond between McCloud and Nora. McCloud, a world weary war veteran who has nowhere to go finds a home in the keys with Nora and the old man Temple. What makes their relationship so very memorable and unique in the noir register is the masterful screenplay and direction, which draws our attention to the world outside the noir universe: the Indians, McCloud and Nora docking the boat together, and closing the shutters against the storm. These are beautiful scenes. The character of the soldier also undergoes an allegorical critique in this movie, and by extension, the nation state itself. There is a conscious equation drawn between the nationspeak that endorses the killing of enemies of the nation–during the war, for instance–and Rocco, as an enemy of the state. Thus, McCloud’s killing of Rocco is shown as a “soldierly” act; indeed, Rocco addresses him “soldier” the entire time. Thus, if genre noirs show crooks breaking the law, Key Largo shows a soldier upholding national values by eliminating a crook. McCloud uses the “Mayday” distress code in order to get the coast guard to help him back to the shore after Rocco and his thugs are killed at sea. The nation critique continues in the old man Temple’s observations about the Indians as well. The Indians come to the hotel for safety during the storm, where, unbeknowst to Temple, they are turned away by Rocco.  Earlier in the movie, we are told that the Indians depend on Temple and Nora and the hotel in an almost paternalistic relationship; America takes care of the Indians they colonized. Many of them perish in the storm.  When he learns of what Rocco has done to the Indians, including scapegoating the Osceola Brothers in the killing of the cop–a criminal act Rocco committed; the Osceola Brothers are killed by the police, in turn–Temple observes that “we are of no use to them. Even when we try to help them, we hurt them.” In other words, the America portrayed in Key Largo is qualitatively not the America of the noirs; its black, white and grey are much more complex than in the genre noirs.  It is a place of impotent historical consciousness. Anderson’s screenplay, Huston’s direction, and Lionel Barrymore’s old man Temple are just terrific.

When we look at the world of noir films, Bacall’s noir films are an anomaly. She does not play the standard noir characters. These movies are not the standard noir movies. The genre noirs represent a material world of greed and sexual corruption, which always has relevance in the symbolic realm. The noirs Bacall made with Bogart direct our attention to another level of allegory with equal symbolic relevance for all times. While these films deal with greed and corruption, they also project the dream of family, marriage and love. Bacall’s characters embody this unexpected dream within noirish nightmares.





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