The heyday of the American gangster movie lasted eighteen years. It started in 1931 with LittleCaesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, and The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and ended in 1949 with Cagney’s White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh. (All three are Warner Brothers productions and are on the American Film Institute’s list of the top ten gangster movies of all time. Chronologically, the one after White Heat is Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, also by Warners.)
White Heat pointed the way forward in a number of ways. It had the kind of gritty semi-documentary style scene in crime films of the late ’40s and ’50s like Naked City, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Killing. It had the dark psychological themes of the emerging film noir genre, especially in the portrait of Cagney’s character, sadistic gangster Cody Jarrett. Cody suffers debilitating headaches, comforted only by the Oedipal ministrations of his Ma (Margaret Wycherly), who massages his neck and invites him to sit in her lap.
And it had a modern movie-in-movie scene. It occurs early on, when Cody, Ma, and his girlfriend, Verna (Virginia Mayo), are being chased by the cops. Needless to say, Ma is sitting next to Cody, Verna riding shotgun. He pulls in to the San Val Drive In theater in Burbank (the country’s second drive-in, opened in 1938), as the police cars speed past, sirens blaring. Taking his money, the ticket-taker says, “It happens every night. Ruins the movie.”
The movie is Warner Brothers Task Force, which was still a few weeks from release at the time of White Heat‘s premiere. (And therein lies a goof. A sharp-eyed poster to a website about movie theaters points out that the marquee announces two different 1949 movies, the western South of St. Louis and the exotic fantasy Siren of Atlantis.) I haven’t seen Task Force, but according to the IMDB description, it’s apparently a history of aircraft carriers seen through the eyes of a fictional admiral played by Gary Cooper. In any case, all the explosions and mayhem are too much for Cody, possibly because he feels a headache coming on. After an attendant puts a speaker inside the car (I just barely remember that technology), he orders Verna, “Kill that.”
After Verna’s sarcastic comment about the second feature, Cody outlines his plans for escape. Just before he bolts the car, he kisses both ladies goodbye–lingering just a little more on Ma than on Verna.
I consider The Shawshank Redemption (1994) one of the most entertaining movies of the last twenty-five years, in large part because it has such a great story to tell. And at the heart of that story is the movie-in-movie scene.
As with Sullivan’s Travels and O Brother, Where Art Thou, the movie-watching takes place in a prison. Red (Morgan Freeman) and the other inmates in the Shawshank Penitentiary are raptly taking in Gilda (1946). Specifically, they are taking in the first appearance in the film of Rita Hayworth. Following some banter between Glenn Ford and George Macready, director Charles Vidor shows Hayworth’s glamorous head springing up, nearly filling the frame. The guys in the audience go wild. Inmate Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) sidles in and starts to say something but Red shushes him, “This is the part I really like,” he says. “When she does that shit with her hair.”
The scene is one of the key points on which Shawshank‘s writer and director, Frank Darabont, departs from the movie’s source, Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” King, more realistically, has the prison screening the alcohol-is-bad message movie The Lost Weekend (1945). But Gilda works better, both for the hooping-and-hollering reaction and because it works with what Andy has to say to Red, who’s known for procuring all sorts of goods for the inmates.
“What do you want?” he asks Andy.
“Rita Hayworth,” comes the reply. “Can you get her?”
For the few out there who haven’t seen Shawshank, I won’t spoil their pleasure by revealing what Andy means, whether Red comes through, or what the request means for both of their fates.
There’s probably no more ironic movie-in-other-movie than the use of a scene from the backstage musical Gold Diggers of 1933 in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Aspirational outlaws Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) graduate from small-time heists to a proper bank robbery but the getaway is delayed because their driver, C.W., has unaccountably decided to parallel park the car. A lawman jumps on the running board and Clyde shoots him in the face.
Cut to the interior of a movie theater where the three robbers have sought refuge. As Clyde berates C.W., we see the “We’re in the Money” production number from Gold Diggers. In this Busby Berkeley spectacular, the scenery consists of giant legal tender. Ginger Rogers and the other chorus girls wear costumes made of coins; they wield a giant coin in each hand for a sort of fan dance, while a third one covers their private parts. They sing:
We’re in the money,
We’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money,
The sky is sunny;
Old Man Depression, you are through,
You done us wrong!
We never see a headline
‘Bout breadline, today,
And when we see the landlord,
We can look that guy right in the eye.
(Ginger later runs through the whole thing in pig Latin, in extreme and disconcerting close-up.)
Irony number one: far from being “through,” Old Man Depression would stick around another eight years.
Irony number two: while Bonnie and Clyde may be in the money for the moment, it’s a pretty sure bet–given the ineptitude already on display–that it won’t last.
Set in rural Texas in 1951, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) is informed and sometimes seemingly suffused with the entertainment of the period. That’s most noticeable on the soundtrack. Pop music provides a near-continual backdrop, including such songs (according to the American Film Institute website) as
“Blue Velvet,” “Slow Poke,” “A Fool Such as I,” “Kawliga” and “Jambalaya.” The onscreen credits include the following acknowledgment: “For their music we thank Hank Williams; Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, courtesy of MGM Records; Eddy Arnold; Eddie Fisher; Phil Harris; Pee Wee King; Hank Snow, courtesy of RCA Records; Tony Bennett; Lefty Frizzell; Frankie Laine; Johnnie Ray, courtesy of Columbia Records; Johnny Standley; Kay Starr; Hank Thompson, courtesy of Capitol Records, Inc.; Webb Pierce; Jo Stafford, courtesy of Decca Records.”
The list conjures up on a pre-rock-and-roll world and time all by its lonesome. Bogdanovich frequently uses the music as ironic counterpoint to the characters’ world. In one early scene, the town icy beauty, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shephard), applies cold cream to her face while Tony Bennett’s Hank Williams cover “Cold, Cold Heart” plays on the radio.
And in Jacy’s house the television set is constantly going; on it we see scenes from Your Show of Shows and Strike It Rich. As her parents are wealthy and miserable, the latter game show counts for more ironic commentary.
But the movies are key. Although The Last Picture Show was adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel, both the title and theme were perfect for Bogdanovich, a movie critic before he started directing and, then and now, a champion of classic American film. Both plot developments and the era see to it that the “picture show”–in better times the center of town life–must close. As the cashier/popcorn vendor/manager tells high school friends Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), “Nobody wants to come to the shows no more. Baseball in the summer, television all the time.”
The Last Picture Show is anchored by two movie-in-movie scenes in which the idealized material on the screen contrasts ironically (again) with the grim reality the characters are living. In McMurtry’s novel, the characters go to the movies to see the 1951 Ronald Reagan-Doris Day melodrama Storm Warning, described this way by IMDB:
Marsha Mitchell, a traveling dress model, stops in a southern town to see her sister who has married a Ku Klux Klansman. Marsha sees the KKK commit a murder and helps District Attorney Burt Rainey in bringing the criminals to justice.
Bogdanovich switches it, big time. Early on Sonny meets his steady girlfriend, Charlene (Sharon Taggert) at the picture show to watch a scene in the affectionate comedy Father of the Bride (1950) in which the Spencer Tracy character greets his daughter, Elizabeth Taylor.
Tracy: What’s happened to you? You look different.
Taylor: I do?
Tracy: Yeah. You look all lit-up inside. You’re not wearing your usual deadpan look, your how-did-I-get-in-this-family? look.
Sonny and Charlene move to the back row for a make-out session. All the while Sonny keeps his eyes on the illuminated visage of the girl of his and so many young men’s dreams, Elizabeth Taylor.
At the end of the novel, McMurtry’s characters watch an Audie Murphy western, The Kid from Texas. Bogdanovich swaps this one Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. One possible reason for the switch is that the Hawks film is in black and white, as is The Last Picture Show–a daring move for a studio film in 1971. Another is that Red River is one of the greatest westerns of all time, maybe the greatest. And the scene that unfolds before Sonny and Duane and the other one or two patrons is one of the most thrilling examples of anticipation and release–and use of close-up montage–in the history of movies, the start of the cattle drive. As Duane says to Sonny as they walk out, “That was a good movie.”
One final touch. Outside the picture show lobby in the Father of the Bride scene is a poster advertising a coming attraction, another western, John Ford’s Wagon Master. It happens to have been the first starring role of one of Ford’s company of “players,” Ben Jonson. It’s the same Ben Jonson who plays the moral center of The Last Picture Show, Sam “the Lion,” stealing the picture and winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996) is informed, start to finish, by The Wizard of Oz, but the principal movie that’s actually shown in it is The Shining. The Kubrick classic is on a NIGHT OF HORRORS double bill, along with Psycho, at a drive-in an Oklahoma town where tornado hunters Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt are staying.
The twister arrives in a hurry and transfixes Hunt, who has a Dorothy-like history: Twister opens with a flashback scene in which, as a little girl, she watches as her father is literally blown away. Now, in a nice touch, you can’t tell if her face is illuminated by lightning or by the movie on the big screen. Whatever, she fortunately snaps out of it just in time. Then we see some deft synchronicity: Just at the moment in The Shining when Jack Nicholson has axed his wife’s door to bits, the twister blows the drive-in to bits.
Meanwhile the main characters think they’ve found shelter in a mechanic’s garage, but nuh-uh. In some slightly heavy-handed symbolism, cans of film and then the marquee itself blow through the space, wreaking more havoc and mayhem. You just can’t trust the movies.
I was talking about this blog with the co-screenwriter of Minority Report…
I’ll just pause here and contemplate how cool it is to be able to say that.
Anyway, the writer in question, Jon Cohen, is a friend and neighbor of mine, who actually has moved on from screenplays and now devotes his time to writing novels. When I told him about Movies in Other Movies, he directed me to a scene in the 2002 Spielberg sci-fi movie. The hero, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), wants to escape detection and since everyone is subjected to iris scans wherever they go (a prescient bit!), he engages a sketchy doctor (Peter Stormare) to perform an eye transplant on him.
The movie-in-movie aspect is consistent with the cyberpunk aesthetic of Minority Report. (Apparently, Spielberg instructed his cinematographer to create “the ugliest, dirtiest movie” he had ever made.) In the doc’s tumbledown office, a scene from what appears to be a noir shoot-’em-up is projected on a wall: futuristic technology, retro content. I say “appears” because I don’t know what the film is, and neither does Jon. He e-mailed me, “Whoever did production design or whatever, put that film in the background — it wasn’t in the script.”
I’d really like to know what’s playing, and thus I announce the first Movies-in-Other-Movies contest: the first person to identify the clip (and support his or case) will get a signed copy of my book How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.
When Anderton wakes up post-surgery, another movie is being projected, and there’s no doubt about its identity: Errol Flynn’s The Mark of Zorro (1940). Presumably Spielberg or the production designer chose it because Zorro has a black mask and–at least until he can take off his bandages–now Anderton has a white one.
So let’s hear your thoughts on what the noir film is. And remember: Don’t scratch.
Barry Levinson’s debut film, Diner–which came out in 1982 but is set in 1959–has movies on its mind, specifically ’50s movies. Start with the fact that its story, about a group of buddies in their early 20s who stubbornly refuse to grow up, is loosely adapted from Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), with the setting transferred from Fellini’s hometown, Rimini, to Levinson’s, Baltimore. Beyond that, the Diner kids are movie buffs. Kevin Bacon’s Fenwick has a poster for The Journey(1959) on the door to his room, and a minor character is obsessed with Sweet Smell of Success (1957); he sidles around quoting lines from the Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay, like, “JJ, it’s one thing to wear your dog collar, but when it turns into a noose, I’d rather have my freedom.” Movies even insinuate their way into TVs in the appliance store where Shrevie (Daniel Stern) works; a number of them are showing Little Women (1949) as Shrevie tries to make a sale.
The customer, played by Ralph Tabakin (who had small parts in every Levinson film from Diner through Liberty Heights in 1999), says he isn’t interested in one of the new color TVs. “Don’t like that color for nothing,” he says. “Saw Bonanza at my in-laws. It’s not for me. The Ponderosa looked fake. Hardly recognized Little Joe.” In Levinson’s world, nearly everyone–or every male–is a standup comic in waiting. One of the siding salesman in his 1987 movie about aluminum siding salesman, Tin Men, was played by a real-life comic, Jackie Gayle. He riffed about the successful TV western, too:
You got these four guys living on the Ponderosa and you never hear them say anything about wanting to get laid…. I mean you never hear Hoss say to Little Joe, “I had such a hard-on when I woke up this morning.”… You never hear Little Joe say, “Hey, Hoss, I went to Virginia City and I saw a girl with the greatest ass I’ve ever seen in my life.” They just walk around the Ponderosa: “Yes, Pa, where’s Little Joe?” Nothing about broads. … I’m beginning to think that show doesn’t have too much realism.
A couple of the Diner guys have adventurous tastes, going to an art-house screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). The camera stays on them as they slump down in their seats listening to Bergman’s portentous dialogue.
Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) stage whispers some standup-style riffing: “What am I watching? The movie just started and I don’t know what’s going on.”
Billy (Tim Daly): “It’s symbolic.”
Symbolism apparently doesn’t play in Baltimore; they walk out.
The big movie-in-movie set piece takes place at a showing of A Summer Place, which wasn’t a huge success in 1959, other than its ear-wormy theme, by Max Steiner, but was much more mainstream fare than Seventh Seal. Almost all the guys are there, in large part because they’re in on a bet: whether Boogie (Mickey Rourke) can get some action from his date. He succeeds, but the Fenwick call the bet off because Boog’s methods are deemed irregular.
It’s a noteworthy scene for two reasons. Most obviously, it puts on display the guys’ attitude towards women, which is basically “bros before hoes,” fifty years before the phrase was coined. The interesting thing is Levinson’s attitude toward the attitude. Sometimes–for example the depiction of Shrevie’s lack of interest bordering on contempt for his wife, Beth (Ellen Barkin)–he coldly and convincingly nails it. But other times, as in this scene, it’s played pretty much strictly for laughs and we feel complicit.
The other thing is Levinson’s use of A Summer Place, specifically that film’s last-gasp-of-’50s-repression treatment of sex and sexuality. In 1959, Hollywood’s morals-protecting Motion Picture Production Code (sometimes known as the Hays Office) was being pushed to the breaking point by such films as Suddenly Last Summer and Some Like It Hot. Delmer Daves’ A Summer Place–based on a novel by Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit–wasn’t as explicit as those films. But not only is it suffused with unexpressed sexuality, such repression is one of its themes. In one of the scenes shown in Diner (and by the way, Levinson takes poetic license in this sequence, jumping around and presenting highlights from various points in Summer Place), teenage Molly Jorgenson (Sandra Dee) is on a boat with her father, Ken (Richard Egan), and looks through binoculars at a nearby island.
Molly: There’s a boy up there watching me!
[He runs off]
There he goes. Funny feeling being looked at without knowing it. Remember that family that lived next door to us back home?… Their son used to look at me.
Ken: Without you knowing it?
Molly: Well, his bedroom was right across from mine and… one night I felt naughty and went right on undressing so he could see. Then all of a sudden I… I got terribly ashamed and I ran and pulled the curtains down. I’ll never forget… I had hot and cold flashes all over me afterwards. Wasn’t that awful?
Ken: Well, I guess every human being on earth has a few things he’s ashamed of.
We’re in a sort of time warp. A Summer Place was made and set in 1959 but is a decade or so behind the times when it comes to sex. Diner, you feel, is unrealistic (as Jackie Gayle’s character would put it) the other way; its look back of 1959, while not grossly anachronistic, is colored and informed by all the sexual changes of the ’60s and ’70s.
The other movie-in-movie scene in Diner is short and easy to overlook, but it’s my favorite scene in the movie. Alcoholic, dissipated, and self-loathing, Fenwick is a total fuck-up. But then we see him in his bedroom, slumped in an armchair. On the TV (black and white) is GE College Bowl, a quiz show featuring college students that aired from 1953 to 1970. Every question posed by the host, Allen Ludden, Fenwick nails. We glimpse that maybe he’s not such a loser after all. Then Boogie walks in and asks Fenwick for some money, and the spell is broken.