‘Flames of Passion’ in ‘Brief Encounter’

With this post, I inaugurate a new tag: “Double dip.” It indicates films that have a movie-in-movie scene, and are also watched in a movie-in-movie scene in another film. The only other one I can think of at the moment is The Shining, which has a scene where characters watch Summer of ’42, and which is screening on the doomed drive-in in Twister. Come to think of it, there’s actually a sort of triple dip there: Summer of ’42 has a scene in which characters are watching Now, Voyager. Watch this space for a fuller account.

The topic for today is Brief Encounter, which has been used in more than a dozen films and television shows. The star-crossed, married-to-other people lovers in David Lean’s 1945 classic, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard), meet once a week for a day in town, and part of their routine is going to the cinema. We see them there twice. One of the films they watch is real but unidentifiable; the other is deeply fanciful.

First we see Laura and Alec watching a preview for the made-up film, Flames of Passion, evidently a sort of King Kong epic, which is everything Brief Encounter is not, starting with the exclamation-pointed self-proclaiming adjectives: Stupendous!, Colossal!! Gigantic!!! Epoch-Making!!! All the stuff that is repressed and suppressed in Lean’s film (made and released during World War II, set in 1938) is right out there in Flames; with its restive natives, stampeding elephants, and passionate kisses, it’s so blatant and on the nose that even the typeface for the title is made out of flames.

 

This movie is definitely fictional, but Flames of Passion has been used as the title of several films, most prominently a 1922 British melodrama and a 1989 gay love story, very loosely based on Brief Encounter.

The following week, they go back to see Flames of Passion, but first, a Donald Duck short. (IMDB identifies it as the 1938, “Donald’s Better Self,” but there’s no way to know for sure, as all we hear are some Donaldian quacks.)

 

Everybody laughs uproariously at the low comedy, which appears to offer not only relief but a sort of release from the world’s burdens — a familiar motif from Sullivan’s Travels, Sabotage, and Hail, Caesar!. What’s not familiar is the elevated level of Laura and Alec’s analysis, at least to those of us used to in-theater comments on the order of “Don’t go in there, you idiot!” (The screenplay, I should have noted earlier, is by Noel Coward.)

Alec: “The stars can change in their courses, the universe go up in flames, and the world crash around us, but there’ll always be Donald Duck.”

Laura: “I do love him so … his dreadful energy, and his blind, frustrated rages.”

Then the music starts and Alec says, “It’s the big picture now. Here we go. No more laughter. Prepare for tears.”

We see the opening title:

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A lot to parse there. First, the Roman numerals affirm the year as 1938. The apparent 180-degree transformation of Gentle Summer to Flames of Passion is presumably a sardonic commentary on Hollywood’s tendency to bastardize source material. And (the fictional) “Alice Porter Stoughey” refers to the then prominence of three-named, six-syllabled American female authors, such as Alice Duer Miller, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and especially Olive Higgins Prouty, whose 1941 novel Now, Voyager became the aforementioned hit Bette Davis melodrama the following year. (Prouty was an interesting figure, in part because of her subsequent close relationship with the much younger Sylvia Plath. Wikipedia tells us that she “supported Plath financially in the wake of Plath’s unsuccessful 1953 suicide attempt: Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, would later refer in Birthday Letters to how ‘Prouty was there, tender and buoyant moon.’ Many, including Plath’s mother Aurelia, have held the view that Plath employed her memories of Prouty as the basis of the character of ‘Philomena Guinea in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar.“)

Lean and Coward’s final comment on Hollywood is that the next thing we see is Alec and Laura leaving the theater. She says in voiceover narration: “It was a terribly bad picture. We crept out before the end, rather furtively, as though we were committing a crime.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Maresi’ (?) in ‘The Third Man’

In writing the previous post, on the use of Brief Encounter in numerous films, I learned that the British Film Institute once chose The Third Man (1949) as the greatest British film of all time. I was therefore happy to have a chance to see Carol Reed’s noir classic recently, on the big screen of the Prytania Theatre in New Orleans, in magnificent black and white.

And what do you know, there is a movie-in-movie scene. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), an American just arrived in post-war Vienna, finds himself investigating some shady doings. In this scene, accompanied by actress Anna Schmidt (Allida Valli), he is about to question the porter of an apartment building. However, it turns out that the porter is dead, and his little son points to Holly as being the killer. There ensues an almost comically low-speed chase, accompanied by the movie’s defining zither music, with the little kid somehow being the fastest pursuer.

Holly and Anna duck in to a movie theater, which inspired me to add a new tag to the blog: “On the run.”

 

 

As you’ve observed, we don’t see the movie, only hear it. That makes it hard to identify, even more so when (like me) you don’t understand German. A clue is the title on the marquee of the theater:

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IMDB reveals that Maresi was indeed an Austrian film, released in 1948, and starring Maria Schell. The indefatigable Ben Zimmer has unearthed a plot summary (translated from the German by Google Translate): “An aging nobleman shoots his favorite horse, Maresi, who has sunk to the cab of a hawk, to spare him a dignified age – at least to him.”

Of course, movie continuity follows its own rules: the interior scenes might have been shot in a different theater or a sound stage, and the audio might have been from a different film.

So I appeal to speakers of German and/or scholars of Austrian film? What can you tell me about the movie that’s playing while Holly and Anna plot their next move?

Update: Hari List, who runs Bruttofilmlandsprodukt.net, a blog and podcast dedicated to Austrian film and TV, responded to my request for information on Twitter, where his handle is @HariLi. He reported that he was unable to find out anything about the soundtrack we hear when Holly and Anna are in the cinema.

It sounds “old”, as in bad speakers or gramophone. The dialogue is pretty basic, borderline nonsensical. It could be from an old movie that has been badly dubbed, but the dialogue stops when Holly and Anna talk and then resumes. Has to be a nondiegetic track, probably recorded just for that, which makes sense from the filmmakers standpoint. [“Diegetic music in a film or TV programme is part of the action and can be heard by the characters.”–Cambridge English Dictionary.] Also the audience smirks don’t fit, because nothing funny or in anyway emotional was said.  Lastly, the movies listed out front: Irrtum im Jenseits is Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death, Feuervogel is part one of the two-part cinema cut of the western series Miracle Rider (1936) with — as  seen — Tom Mix. On top it probably says Glück muß man haben (You have to be lucky) …which is a German film from 1945, that premiered 1950 – so again some timeline issues but it says “our next movies”, so it’s an announcement. Vier Humoresken was probably an individual comedy shorts program. Btw the cinema still exists, but is a stage theater now.”

 

‘Task Force’ in ‘White Heat’

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Verna, Ma, and Cody at the drive-in

The heyday of the American gangster movie lasted eighteen years. It started in 1931 with Little Caesar, 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.

 

“Saboteur”

In 1942, six years after Sabotage, Alfred Hitchcock made the similarly titled Saboteur. But so much had changed. Hitchcock was now based in America, and Saboteur–an earlier-day North By Northwest, in a number of ways–was his first film to exploit the landmarks of what would become his adopted country, including Boulder Dam, the Statue of Liberty, and, in the movie-in-movie scene, Radio City Music Hall.

The main character, competently played by Robert Cummings, works in a munitions plant in Los Angeles (which in the movie is always pronounced “Los Angle-ese,” the way I remember the baseball announcers of my youth saying it). Falsely accused of setting a fire, he goes on the lam and eventually crosses the country, along the way finding the real Fifth Columnists.

One of the traitors is played by Norman Lloyd, whose career has stretched from his debut on the New York stage in 1933 to a role in 2015’s Trainwreck (and included a memorable turn as Dr. Auschlander in the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere). The cops are on to him and track him down in Radio City, filled with folks watching a melodrama.

 

It’s a great set piece but a strange one. The audience is tittering, then laughing uproariously, at the film on the big screen (which isn’t a real movie but a scene shot by Hitchcock with B-list actors), even after jealous-husband Henry pulls out a gun and threatens to use it. At that very moment, the Lloyd character, cornered by the cops and hiding behind the movie screen, shoots through it with terrible consequences. Henry starts shooting, but the audience incongruously keeps  roaring with laughter–until a woman screams. Lloyd moves in front of the screen and darts across it, creating a riveting image that may have been Hitchcock’s most self-conscious commentary on reality and artifice and terror, and how mixed up they can become.

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“Playful Pluto” in “Sullivan’s Travels”

Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is one of the most meta movies that came out of Hollywood, at least before post-modernism reared its self-conscious head. It opens with an action scene–a fistfight on top of a train, with both protagonists falling to a watery grave. But then, the words “The End” appear in the water–it was only a movie. Three men get up from their screening-room seats, and one of them, director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), argues to two studio execs that what they and we have just seen is just the sort of socially conscious document Depression American needs.

Sullivan (aka Sully) is ashamed of the escapist fare that has made him rich–trifles like Ants in Your Plants of 1939, Hey Hey in the Hayloft, and So Long Sarong. (Either the last is an amazing coincidence or Sturges knew that Pardon My Sarong, starring Abbott and Costello, was in production and would be released the following year.) He wants to make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!

Exec: But with a little sex in it.

Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!

Exec: But with a little sex in it.

Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.

Unfortunately, Sullivan, a product of boarding school, has no experience with the suffering of humanity, and therefore resolves to put on hobo clothes, go out on the road, and obtain some. Complications ensue, notably involving Veronica Lake, identified in the credits only as The Girl. “How does the girl fit into the picture?” a cop asks Sully. He says, “There’s always a girl in the picture. What’s the matter, don’t you go to the movies?”

There’s lots of other self-referential lines, including knowing mentions of Sturges’ colleagues Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch. At one point, Sully, in trouble yet again, breaks the fourth wall, remarking, “If ever a plot needed a twist, this one does.”

The movie can be said to be structured around three movie-watching scenes. The first is the fight sequence that opens things up. The second comes when Sully is taken in, and taken to a picture show, by two maiden ladies. Here the camera stays on the audience and all we get from the movie is some lachrymose music–the dialogue is drowned out by the sounds of kids sniffling and people munching on snacks, all combining to give the sense of a pretty miserable cinematic experience. As Sully and his companions leave, we see from a lobby card that a triple bill is playing: Beyond these Tears, The Valley of the Shadow, and The Buzzard of Berlin.

The third movie-within-the-movie is the climactic scene of Sullivan’s Travels, and the only one that’s an actual movie. Through plot machinations, Sullivan has found himself a prisoner on a chain gang, subject to miserable conditions. For a rare respite, the prisoners are brought to a rural African-American church, where a movie is projected on a white sheet that serves as a makeshift screen. The selection of the day is a 1934 slapstick (rather Warner Brothers-y, in fact) Disney short, “Playful Pluto.” As Sully watches, he begins to have a revelation.

 

Through more plot machinations, he is released. News of his adventures have created a nationwide sensation, and the studio execs are now eager to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?  One of them says, “It will put Shakespeare back with the shipping news!”

But Sully will have none of it. He wants to make a comedy. He says, as the picture comes to and end, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”