Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Fixed Image: Bogart, Alexis Smith and the Warners Star System

The Two Mrs Carrolls (1943) and Conflict (1945) are among the least typical but, for me, most interesting films Bogart made at Warners.
Critically, they are not praised, and Bogart himself hated them. But their very unusualness makes them seem more potent today than more conventional product like Across the Pacific or Passage To Marseille.
Made within two years of each other (though Carrolls was
not released until 1947), they have much in common. Both are murder/suspense thrillers fairly unusual for their studio and time, casting Bogart as a man who murders his wife. (In Conflict he is a cold-blooded but rational Columbo-type killer who kills because he is trapped in a loveless marriage and sexually obsessed with his wife's younger sister; in Carrolls he is a barking psychopathic artist and serial wife-poisoner who first paints his spouses as the Angel of Death, then slowly does them in.)
And in both the catalyst is actress Alexis Smith, as the sister in Conflict, and a tarty portrait subject with whom he is having an affair in Carrolls.
Smith was an unusual actress with a somewhat brittle style; like Barbara Stanwyck her features are not beautiful in repose but seem to catch fire on film. She never reaches out to the audience but remains always oddly remote; perhaps we sense something of the disdain she apparently felt for her career in her somewhat icy persona.
In later life she was quoted as saying "When they tell me one of my old movies is on tv, I don't look at it. Those films weren't very good at the time, and they haven't improved with age."
Such films as these are vivid examples of how the studio system worked: Bogart didn't want to be in either of them, he tried everything he could to get out of Carrolls in particular, and they certainly feel like production line filler.
But in those days the studios decided which actors appeared in what films, and those that did not know their place were put on suspension. The general view of their place in the pecking order was summed up by Hitchcock's description of them as cattle, though he later qualified it by saying that what he actually meant was that they should be treated as cattle.
These were the kind of indignities against which the likes of Bogart and Bette Davis so famously rebelled, and it is true that the system as it existed reduced the performers to mere possessions, to be used as the studio heads dictated.
But don't feel too sorry for them - they were only actors, after all, and it's got to be better than working for a living. For jobbing actors, character actors and supporting players it worked fine: regular work, no way of knowing if they were to be a Chinese war lord or an English butler from one week to the next - it sounds like fun to me. Only uppity stars rebelled, either from boredom at always playing the same parts or, as here but less often, from frustration at being cast unsuitably out of type.
Few stars were as constitutionally incapable of being treated like cattle as Bogart, and in these two films - both made during his peak years of popularity and success - he is visibly champing at the bit. But for us today they make a lovely change from his usual formula. They are terrific fun.
Conflict even has a supernatural tinge (as well as giving full vent to Hollywood's obsession with Freud that characterises so many mid-forties titles), though all the ghostly doings - by which Bogart becomes convinced his wife is persecuting him from beyond the grave - are revealed as an incredibly elaborate plot devised by psychiatrist Sydney Greenstreet to make him break down and give himself up, or away.
It's all done with the minimum of believability but buckets of style - dry ice fog, much lurking in shadows and some great model shots.
The Two Mrs Carrolls, though with no such overt spookery, is actually the more horror-filmish of the pair, with Bogey delivering a pretty convincing portrait of creeping insanity, and climaxing with the fantastic image of him bursting through the window-curtains of his wife's bedroom like an enormous vampire bat.
Two things make it seem especially unsuitable as a Bogart property: first, it is set in England, in a typically Hollywood chocolate box village of thatched cottages and church bells, and the idea that Bogie could last a week in such an environment without going stark mad (or, in the context, stark madder) is ludicrous.
Second, he is perhaps cinema's least convincing artist ever. He has the creative angst and the volatile temperament down all right, but the thought of him actually painting is a stretch and a half. Occasionally we see him on the verge of painting, or coming downstairs having just been painting, and he doesn't even do that convincingly. He holds a brush like it's a cosh. If it weren't for the plot device of him painting each wife as the Angel of Death the part would probably have been rewritten as Hemingwayish novelist. That he could have handled rather better.
The other treat the film has in store is the fact that the wife in jeopardy is none less than Barbara Stanwyck, and just as it is always interesting to see Bogart acting alongside Bette Davis, so this one chance to see him share the screen with Stanners is equally to be cherished.
She has done woman-in-peril elsewhere (indeed definitively in Sorry, Wrong Number) but her persona remains basically that of the headstrong modern gal, and seeing her cringing in terror here is as striking a discontinuity as Bogart's own performance.
The film has elements in common with Hitchcock's Suspicion: the central situation, the English locale, the ambiguous villain (though Bogart at Warners has this advantage over Cary Grant: he is allowed to play the villain), a poisoned glass of milk, and the presence of Nigel Bruce as a friend of the family. It also features nice, crackly dialogue typical of its studio and era, and that hard to pin down but unmistakably Warners air of depressed gloom, ladled like thick soup over all their forties pictures. A strange kind of intensity.
Neither film is a masterpiece, but each - and Carrolls especially - has been treated too unfairly too long to not deserve redress. They are amusing changes of pace for interesting stars, and fine examples of just how professional a product the Hollywood studio conveyor belt could turn out, even with the bare minimum effort, when they had the right talent to hand.
But the most striking feature of both films is Alexis Smith, an actress for whom the right breaks never quite seemed to come along, and whose performances in films such as these now seem all the more attractive because of it.
(Re-posted from way back in honour of Alexis Smith, who would have been eighty-nine yesterday, if she hadn't died seventeen years ago today.)