Gordon Douglas | Subjects
| Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style
Films: The Falcon in Hollywood
| Dick Tracy vs. Cueball
| San Quentin | I Was a Communist for the FBI
| Them! | Sincerely Yours
Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors)
| Mathematics and Visual Style
Gordon Douglas was a Hollywood film director.
Gordon Douglas: Subjects
- Highly educated, older British men who help the hero (film producer: The Falcon in Hollywood,
Vitamin Flintheart: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, scientist Gwenn: Them!, psychologist: The Detective)
related (Scotland Yard man the same age as hero helps him: Walk a Crooked Mile)
- Strong working women (taxi driver: The Falcon in Hollywood, policewomen: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
top expert assistant of physics research, landlady: Walk a Crooked Mile,
settlement workers: Mr. Soft Touch,
police radio dispatcher, nightclub singer: Between Midnight and Dawn,
teacher, principal: I Was a Communist for the FBI, woman scientist: Them!,
secretary: Sincerely Yours,
WAVE in World War II: Up Periscope)
- Heroines who take on undercover roles (Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, San Quentin,
in laundry: Walk a Crooked Mile,
Naval Intelligence: Up Periscope)
- Impersonation (hero pretends to be laundry worker: Walk a Crooked Mile,
hero pretends to be a friend to fool police: Mr. Soft Touch,
hero pretends to be professor: Sincerely Yours)
- Children (autograph seekers at racetrack: The Falcon in Hollywood,
kids playing in front of rooming house: Walk a Crooked Mile,
teens and Christmas tree: Mr. Soft Touch,
little girl in desert: Them!,
at concert, Alvie: Sincerely Yours)
- Cities under siege (Pittsburgh infiltrated by Communists: I Was a Communist for the FBI,
ants attack Los Angeles: Them!, big rich run slum housing: The Detective)
- Sympathetic clergymen (minister, priest, rabbi work together to aid convicts: San Quentin,
priest confidante for hero: I Was a Communist for the FBI)
related (Communist villain masquerades as clergyman: Walk a Crooked Mile)
- Recruiting among the poor into social movements (Prisoner Welfare League: San Quentin,
settlement house: Mr. Soft Touch,
recruiting blacks into Communism: I Was a Communist for the FBI)
related (encouraging kids' interest in classical music: Sincerely Yours)
- Working class settings (ship workers: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
garage, drug store, prison labor: San Quentin,
rooming house in San Francisco: Walk a Crooked Mile,
Italian restaurant: Between Midnight and Dawn,
factory: I Was a Communist for the FBI,
country store: Them!,
poor woman marries into wealthy family: Sincerely Yours)
- Minorities shown in groups (blacks at Communist meeting: I Was a Communist for the FBI,
gay hang-outs: The Detective)
- Corrupt leaders betray subordinates (prison escapees abandon wounded convict: San Quentin,
Communist leaders betray workers, blacks: I Was a Communist for the FBI)
- Government workers coerced into unpleasant roles by their suave superiors
(cops try to coerce the Falcon: The Falcon in Hollywood,
undercover hero: I Was a Communist for the FBI, Fess Parker's pilot: Them!,
hero's mission and romance: Up Periscope)
- Militarized or quasi-militarized worlds, filled with men in uniform
(ship and officers: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, prison and guards, Army: San Quentin,
top secret lab and guards who are ex-soldiers: Walk a Crooked Mile,
police: Between Midnight and Dawn,
military fights ants: Them!, Navy submarine: Up Periscope)
- Institutions (film studio: The Falcon in Hollywood, prison: San Quentin,
top secret research laboratory: Walk a Crooked Mile,
settlement house: Mr. Soft Touch, factory, high school: I Was a Communist for the FBI,
asylum, alcoholism ward: Them!, submarine: Up Periscope)
- Food used to characterize people at parties (cake and coffee with reformed convicts: San Quentin,
champagne and fancy food for corrupt Communists: I Was a Communist for the FBI)
related (birthday cake for Tracy: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, promotion cake for Alan Hale: Up Periscope)
- Christmas (Christmas tree in settlement house: Mr. Soft Touch,
tree and presents: Sincerely Yours)
- Pianos (replacing piano in settlement house: Mr. Soft Touch,
Liberace: Sincerely Yours)
- Climactic fires (hero's car after accident: Walk a Crooked Mile,
settlement house: Mr. Soft Touch,
burning ants nest: Them!,
on Japanese island: Up Periscope)
- Drivers (woman taxi driver: The Falcon in Hollywood,
Cueball drives cab: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
prison guard as driver: San Quentin,
FBI agent pretends to be cab driver: Walk a Crooked Mile)
- Insects (jeweled butterfly pin: San Quentin, ants: Them!)
- Listening technology (bugging and recording: Walk a Crooked Mile,
bug, listening through police radio: Between Midnight and Dawn,
bugging: I Was a Communist for the FBI,
binoculars and lip reading: Sincerely Yours,
listening to enemy from submarine: Up Periscope,
psychologist's recordings: The Detective)
- Police communication technology (teletype, switchboard: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
room: San Quentin,
car phones, radio, teletype: Walk a Crooked Mile,
police communication center, radio cars: Between Midnight and Dawn,
comedy about plane radio: Them!)
- Photography (movie, ultraviolet, through one-way mirror: Walk a Crooked Mile)
- Information gets leaked because it is written down (bad guy's address: San Quentin,
leak at finale: Walk a Crooked Mile,
letter to son with hero's secret: I Was a Communist for the FBI,
Japanese code book: Up Periscope, ledger: The Detective)
- Hiding places (gun in suds: San Quentin,
secret formula concealed in painting: Walk a Crooked Mile,
money in trash can, ceiling fixture: Mr. Soft Touch,
diving equipment buried in sand: Up Periscope,
tape recording: The Detective)
- Tailing (Falcon trails actress from racetrack to studio: The Falcon in Hollywood,
Tracy tails woman, Pat tails lapidary: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
hero pursued in car: San Quentin,
FBI tails suspects: Walk a Crooked Mile,
police watch on singer: Between Midnight and Dawn,
Communists tail hero: I Was a Communist for the FBI,
tracking ants: Them!,
following Avie and grandfather: Sincerely Yours)
- Heroes enter dangerous places for information (laundry: Walk a Crooked Mile,
ant nest: Them!, enemy island during war: Up Periscope)
Gordon Douglas: Structure and Story Telling
- Films which do not fit into standard genres, or which combine genres
(a whodunit-like film without mystery: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
whodunit with location shooting: The Falcon in Hollywood,
film noir and sentimental Christmas story: Mr. Soft Touch,
political film and semi-documentary hybrid: I Was a Communist for the FBI,
science fiction / semi-documentary hybrid: Them!,
melodrama and concert film: Sincerely Yours)
Gordon Douglas: Visual Style
Architecture and Design:
- Strange changes of scale, affecting everyday objects
(model airplane at film studio carried under arm: The Falcon in Hollywood,
giant ants: Them!, tiny piano-shaped music box: Sincerely Yours,
man whittles model sailboat out of wood: Tony Rome)
related (large piece of cake: San Quentin,
tall Christmas tree: Mr. Soft Touch)
- Model airplanes (model airplane at film studio: The Falcon in Hollywood, kids' toys: Them!)
- Unusual California settings, shot on location (RKO Studios as a location, LA Coliseum: The Falcon in Hollywood,
factory, San Francisco bridge and freeway: Walk a Crooked Mile,
LA storm sewers: Them!)
- Underground chambers (basement prop room: The Falcon in Hollywood,
secret room under Flora's office, lapidary's basement: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
basement used by FBI for recording: Walk a Crooked Mile,
gym with Christmas tree in settlement house basement, bookie parlor: Mr. Soft Touch,
LA storm sewers, ant nest, basement in country store: Them!,
submarine: Up Periscope, hero's cabin below decks on boat: Tony Rome)
- High-ceilinged rooms (room with Christmas tree: Mr. Soft Touch,
lobby of building with hero's office: Tony Rome)
- Circles (on actress' hat at racetrack, warning signal on soundstage door: The Falcon in Hollywood,
prison, saloon, cake, convicts make moving circle around bad guy: San Quentin,
turning movie camera, record on turntable, round corner windows, view through telescope, view through binoculars, ultraviolet light,
electronic eye, rotating discs on wire recorder, evidence clamp, lab heater, ammonia stand, mark of glass: Walk a Crooked Mile,
ant holes, loudspeakers, bazooka, flame throwers, flash bulb on camera, lanterns, lights on vehicles in tunnels: Them!,
escape hatch, submarine gauges and equipment, oxygen tank, light in code room: Up Periscope)
- Red, blue and yellow (beach romance: Up Periscope)
- Extreme, loud pinstripe suits (Dick Tracy: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
Lawrence Tierney: San Quentin,
John Ireland: Mr. Soft Touch,
young hood who runs nightclub: Between Midnight and Dawn,
hero, Communist speaker: I Was a Communist for the FBI)
- Leather jackets (Cueball: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
friend's bomber jacket: San Quentin,
cops, young thief: Between Midnight and Dawn,
jacket hero wears for factory job: I Was a Communist for the FBI,
Major, LAPD: Them!)
- Shiny black clothes (Liberace's tuxedo: Sincerely Yours, diving suits: Up Periscope)
- Masks, technological (goggles, gas masks: Them!, diver's mask: Up Periscope)
The Falcon in Hollywood
The Falcon in Hollywood (1944) is a fun entry in the whodunit series.
While mainly this film falls into the whodunit genre, it has some unusual features. The extensive
location shooting is unusual, and anticipates the semi-documentary crime films to come. The film
takes place at a fictional film studio, Sunset Pictures Inc., and is shot on location
at the real-life RKO Studios (the producer of the Falcon series). This inside look at a movie studio is one
of the main appeals of the film. Later, there is a scene shot a the LA Coliseum, a giant sports arena.
The huge scale of the arena, and its open space, anticipates the drainage canals shown in Them!.
The British producer is one of a series of English intellectuals who run through
Gordon Douglas' work. Like the others, he is wonderfully articulate and intellectual,
and full of erudite monologue: here quotations from Shakespeare. Unlike other such
characters in Gordon Douglas, he is not an ally of the hero, being a suspect in the mystery instead.
The two policemen start out by trying to coerce the Falcon. They do not get very far
with this tactic. Later government officials in other Douglas films will be far
more successful at coercing hapless good guys.
Gordon Douglas once again goes underground. There is a basement prop room, reached by steps from outdoors.
This is where the body is discovered.
Dick Tracy vs. Cueball
Character Types - in common with Them!
Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946) shows approaches in common
with Gordon Douglas' later classic, Them! (1954). Both films are
adventure stories, whose heroes are a whole group of good guys.
Some of the good guys are members of an official group (the police
or military); others are gifted amateurs who work with them. Both
groups fight against a spreading menace that erupts on many fronts:
here it is a diverse group of crooks engaged in diamond smuggling.
In both films there is a middle aged man who helps the good guys.
He is a fabulously articulate intellectual with a colorful background
and rich personality. Both characters are played by gifted, veteran
character actors; here it is Cecil B. De Mille veteran Ian Keith,
playing Dick Tracy's friend Vitamin Flintheart. Both men are British,
kind hearted and friendly. Both are clearly admired by the director,
and are there to show the joy of intelligence and intellectuality.
This is Vitamin Flintheart's first appearance in the Dick Tracy
movies; later films in the series will bring him back.
Both films have a wide diversity of characters, including people
of all ages and social classes. One suspects that old Hollywood
wanted people in films with whom all age groups in the audience
could identify. Esther Howard, the expert comedienne who was a
veteran of most of Preston Sturges' films, does a great job here
as saloon keeper Filthy Flora. She is richly tacky as the proprietor
of this dive. She is always sympathetic. One suspects that most
women could identify with her struggles to survive in a harsh
Both films also have woman characters who are taken seriously
as part of the good guys team. There is a consistent women's lib
point of view here. The women are professionally qualified people
who do good work on their jobs. In Dick Tracy vs. Cueball,
we have the four policewomen who Tracy interviews. (The film also
has a sympathetic non-professional woman, heroine Tess Truehart,
who undertakes an undercover role, like the similar amateur heroine of
San Quentin to come.)
Both films deal with sinister underground passages, here the secret
room under Flora's office. This aspect will be much more developed
in Them!. There is also the basement at the lapidary's house.
What Genre is This? Maybe it's a Whodunit Without Mystery
This film does not fit directly into either main classification
of 1940's crime films, the whodunit and film noir. It is not a
whodunit: there is no mystery to be solved, and the audience is
kept fully informed of all plot events without any mystification.
And it is not a film noir: there are no signs of the alienation
and obsession that Alain Silver has identified as earmarks of
the genre. Rather, the film is delightfully comic in tone. It
has an upbeat quality, and a sense of joie de vivre.
The film is closer in tone to whodunits. Although there is no
mystery, it has such whodunit features as:
All of this makes it like a "whodunit without mystery":
a film which is otherwise like a typical Hollywood whodunit, but
which lacks a mystery to be solved.
- being part of a series of B-movies
- a police detective hero
- the detective's idiotic comic assistant
- many character studies among the crooks encountered
- a lack of realism and much stylization among the exclusively
- lots of comedy relief
- bright dialogue
- romance for the hero
- beautiful clothes for everybody (although this was also a
feature of many noirs)
- a series of murders, which often take place at night in spooky
- a balance between scenes showing the heroes, and those showing
- characters who less represent people in real life, and more
escapist creatures of fantasy.
Dick Tracy's clothes are visually heightened and exaggerated,
perhaps to recall those in the comic strip. He wears some of the
loudest pin stripe suits in the history of Hollywood. He
looks great in them. Still, most Hollywood leading men would have
been given a subtler, less vivid chalk stripe in their suits.
They give the hero a vivid, hero of a fantasy type appearance.
Tracy also wears a spectacular, full length overcoat. It
is light colored; although one cannot tell in this black and white
film, one suspects the coat is the same yellow as Tracy's famous
overcoat in the comic strip.
Tracy's assistant Pat Patton is in the trenchcoat that was so
popular for film noir heroes.
Villain Cueball is in the leather jacket, that is the other main
outfit for Gordon Douglas men in this era. He takes on a number of
working class roles: at one point he impersonates a cab driver.
He also pretends to be a member of a ship's crew, a group of
rough, tough, but wholesome working class men.
The crew are directed by ship's officers, in very dressy uniforms.
The ship becomes another of Douglas' militarized worlds.
San Quentin (1946) is a melodrama, centering on prison
reform at the famous federal prison. Unlike many prison movies,
much of this one takes place outside the prison. Much of it is
a gangster thriller.
There is some interesting stock footage of San Quentin, especially
near the start. But this footage never contains the film's actors.
Like the settlement house to come in Mr. Soft Touch, the
Prisoner Welfare League in San Quentin is an institution
designed to improve the lives of the working class and poor.
Later, in I Was a Communist for the FBI, the Communist Party
is a crooked, dark parody of such institutions: one that is pretending
to help working people, but which is merely exploiting them instead.
Like other of Gordon Douglas' works, San Quentin takes place in a militarized world.
The hero (ultra-tough guy Lawrence Tierney) is just back from
World War II in the Army, and wears his Sergeant's uniform in
much of the early film. The prison scenes are full of uniformed
guards. The later parts of the film outside of the prison are
full of police characters. All of the this contributes to a world
in which the men are in military or quasi-militarized institutions.
The collaboration between the minister, priest and rabbi to aid the convicts
is notable. It conveys a powerful sense of mutual respect.
San Quentin has a working class feel. The factory and quarry
in the prison are manual labor. The hero wants to run a gas station,
and his friend works in a garage. The drug store features a hard working clerk.
The refreshments served at the party make a commentary on the milieu:
an approach found elsewhere in Douglas. In the San Quentin party,
there is no booze. The good guy reformed convicts are drinking coffee
instead: a sign of their reformed, sober life styles. The cake (it looks like
chocolate) is a working class treat: an expression of joy, but not of luxury.
The young convict is abandoned by the hoods he's idolized during the breakout.
Betrayal by leaders is a Gordon Douglas theme: the Communists will betray their
followers in I Was a Communist for the FBI. (The naive young hood is played
by Robert Clarke, a prolific actor who would star in
Beyond the Time Barrier (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1960).)
We briefly see a police communication room.
The hero gets tailed at night by another car. This is one of several scenes
of tailing in Douglas.
The paper with the address for the bad guy falls out of the hero's pocket,
and is picked up by the cop. This anticipates the letter the hero drops in
I Was a Communist for the FBI.
Men and Woman Friends
The hero has strong relationships with both men and women. And both the male and
female friends want ties to the other group:
The hero's Army veteran buddy (Lee Bonnell), will help the hero. At one point,
the handsome friend will urge the hero the sleep in his bed. This is a bit
of imagery with homoerotic undertones. The buddy is a 100% good guy,
whose actions genuinely help the hero.
- The heroine wants to "play on the hero's team" of men friends fighting crime
and helping the Prisoner Welfare League. Her goal has feminist aspects: a woman wanting
to be part of a productive, previously all-male group in society. She winds up
taking on an undercover role, like heroine Tess Truehart did in
Dick Tracy vs. Cueball. Both heroines do a good job with these roles.
- The hero's best friend "Broadway" treats the hero's marriage to the heroine
as something that includes him too. This is treated as a joke at the end.
But it is also clear that it contains underlying truth. After all, the two
men will have a long term business partnership, running a service station.
San Quentin contains some circular forms:
- A circular drive and architecture at the prison is seen under
the director's name in the credits.
- The convicts make a moving circle around a bad guy, while working in
the prison quarry.
- The fancy saloon that is robbed is circular. It has a circular bar, and
a circular wall.
- The cake at the party is circular.
Changes of Scale
The huge piece of cake cut by Broadway is perhaps related to the
changes of scale found in Gordon Douglas.
The costumes continue Douglas' enthusiasm for an almost exaggerated
version of 1940's macho. When Tierney finally gets out of uniform
and starts wearing civilian clothes, he is in one of the loudest
pin stripe suits in the history of the movies. It is dark, with
heavily accented lines. It looks terrific, but it is very underlined
and emphatic. He also wears his hat too, and is a natty dresser
in double breasted suits throughout the film. His police detective
nemesis is also well dressed in suits.
Tierney's Army veteran friend (Lee Bonnell) wears a leather bomber jacket, one of
several mid-1940's movie characters to wear leather jackets, a new fashion
trend of post World War II America. The friend's jacket is
perhaps linked to his garage job. Please see the article on
Leather Jackets in Film.
The driver of the warden's car during the attack is a prison guard.
He is wearing an unusually spiffy uniform. He has his cap carefully
set on a jaunty tilt. The hero Tierney also wears his hat at a stylish angle
in this scene. Drivers of cars run through Gordon Douglas films.
The heroine wears a jeweled butterfly pin, when she goes undercover.
This bit of winged insect imagery anticipates the ant queen in
I Was a Communist for the FBI
Far Right Wing Politics, Anti-Communism, Defense Committees
I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) is about the most
far right wing film made in post-1929 Hollywood. It depicts much
of the racial tension and labor unrest in America as being directly
Communist inspired. It also glorifies the House Un-American Activities
Committee (HUAC). These are not attitudes expressed briefly in
passing; instead, the film offers very detailed commentary on
all of these subjects. It is odd to see this film being distributed
by Warner Brothers, which just a few years before, had made equally
extreme Communist propaganda movies like Mission to Moscow
and Watch on the Rhine. The film is unusual for its detailed
commentary on domestic American politics. Most Hollywood films
about Communism in America are spy thrillers, with little to say
about politics: for example, Robert Stevenson's I Married a
Communist (1950), Leo McCarey's My Son John (1952)
and Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1954).
By contrast, at least half the screen time of I Was a Communist for the FBI
is devoted to a detailed exposition of its filmmakers' political beliefs.
The film is particularly negative about "defense committees",
which raised funds for minority group members accused of crimes.
The film repeatedly suggests that these are nothing but fund raisers
for Communism. It explicitly mentions the one for the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930's.
By contrast, The Underworld Story (1950),
made by the soon to be blacklisted Communist director Cy Endfield,
had glorified such defense committees. I am not a professional
historian, and am unable to comment about the accuracy of depictions
in such films. In real life, Orson Welles
and boxer Joe Louis had appeared at such a fund raiser in 1946.
The film does mention that the national CIO is trying to get rid of the local Communists
who've infiltrated the labor union. So the film does not claim that the
labor union movement as a whole is Communist.
Oddly enough, leading man Frank Lovejoy had just appeared in Cy Endfield's
Try and Get Me! (1950). The two films are among the few
leading roles for character actor Lovejoy, who had a radio background.
What Lovejoy is doing working first for a Communist, then an anti-Communist,
is anybody's guess.
Strong Working Women
The film shows some of Gordon Douglas' personal traditions. Active, capable
women are a constant feature of Douglas' films:
- Women are shown as being heavily involved with Communist party
- The high school has a woman principal, and a woman teacher is a major
character in the film.
- There are also women working at the FBI, but they seem to
be entirely in subordinate positions. The main FBI agents in this
film are all male.
Semi-documentary film noir: Undercover FBI agents
Several aspects of the film are in the semi-documentary
All of these are features of the semi-documentary tradition.
- Most of these films starred a government institution. Here
we get an inside look at the FBI.
- A government agent goes undercover, infiltrating the bad guys.
- There is much about the use of high technology in their work,
in this case, listening devices.
- There is a thriller sequence involving an industrial structure,
in this case, a railroad bridge. But it is not at the film's end,
unlike the typical industrial episode in a semi-documentary.
- The film is based on a true story, and much of it is shot
on location, here Pittsburgh.
The film is another look at undercover FBI agents. Here, the agent
has spent nine years in his undercover role. This is a new dimension
to the depiction of undercover activity. Most of the semi-documentary
films had depicted undercover assignments as being brief in duration.
The film recalls Anthony Mann's T-Men
(1947), in that it shows the undercover hero as living inside
his role, being cut off from his loved ones, and paying a huge
personal price. These aspects of the film are really depressing.
The film's tone is grim, and it has little entertainment value.
Ancestors to the TV Series Wiseguy
Like William Keighley's The Street
With No Name (1948), this film is directly ancestral to the
1980's TV show Wiseguy.
Both I Was a Communist for the FBI and Wiseguy deal
with FBI agents in long term undercover roles, who experience
great stress. Both come from highly traditional ethnic families,
who live in old fashioned houses. In both, the hero experiences
anguish because he cannot tell his aged mother that he is an honest
man. In both, the only person outside of the FBI that knows his
true honest nature is a priest who is his confidant.
The men here continue to wear the extremely flamboyant double
breasted suits favored by Gordon Douglas. These too are part of noir
Agents Coerced by Superiors
The FBI agents who are the hero's superiors seem to
be much younger than he is. Unlike many films, in which the FBI
agents tend to be played by tough types, here the FBI agents are
played almost by juveniles. They are very handsome and polished
looking. These men are always dressed to the teeth. They have
authoritative suits and big offices. They are always sending the
hero out on miserable assignments, always with a straight face
and for the good of the country. There is no camaraderie between
these superiors and the hero. One hardly gets the feeling that
these are all FBI agents working for a common cause. Instead,
the hero seems to be regarded as being on an inferior plane by
these men, someone they are there to order around, arm twist and
coerce. They seem to have absolute confidence that they are on
a higher level than the hero.
The agents treat the hero more as if he were really the criminal
he is pretending to be. They seem certain that they are the source
of correct procedure for undercover assignments.
Douglas does something similar in Them!, where the agents
cause the pilot to remain in his role at the asylum, against his will.
The young government agent absolutely coerces the Texas
pilot, forcing him into a role. Once again, it is for national
security. In Them! the enforcement is made doubly secure by being
unbeknownst to the pilot, who is lied to.
In both films, the man in the enforced role seems of lower class
origin. This contrasts with the polished upper middle class image
of the FBI agents. He is definitely below them in social status.
It gives their treatment of him as a subordinate an extra forcefulness.
In I Was a Communist for the FBI, there are signs that
this status differential is artificially created by the FBI. They
have created the hero's undercover role. They made sure it was
purely working class, and restricted to his job at a factory and
life in a working class neighborhood and school system. They also
made sure that the hero is entirely alone in his role, without
any support. By contrast, they always meet with the hero as a
One can compare these films to 1950's detective novels by
Harold Q. Masur. In Masur's
You Can't Live Forever (1951) and Tall, Dark and Deadly (1956),
his lawyer hero turns into a suspect and gets interrogated by unsmiling government and police officials,
who always seem to include some of the hero's friends.
Semi-documentary - but science fiction, not a crime thriller
Them! (1954) deals with a militarized America. Virtually everybody
is part of some government institution, whether police, military or scientific.
In this it has a certain affinity to the semi-documentary film
noir. This is a science fiction film, not a crime thriller, however,
and the sinister "gang" the good guys are going after
consists not of human crooks, but of giant ants. Still, the emphasis
on men in uniform recalls the semi-docs; so does all the high
technology used by the good guys. So do the huge personal sacrifices
ultimately extracted from the heroes of the film. As in the semi-docs,
the principal emotional relationships of some of the heroes, notably
James Whitmore's cop, seems to be mainly with his partner.
The finale of Them! takes place in the storm drains under
Los Angeles. These had previously been seen in Anthony Mann's
He Walked By Night (1948). There is even a repeat of the
same statistic used in the earlier film, that there are 700 miles
of such drains under the city. The way Them! has a finale
in an industrial area underscores its relationship to semi-documentary
Gordon Douglas films like to go to unusual locations near Los Angeles.
The whodunit The Falcon in Hollywood (1944) goes backstage
at a movie studio (actually RKO Studios), and gives a guided tour
of the place.
The swinging ceiling lights, in the country store, are a film noir image.
They especially appear in films by Anthony Mann.
Links to Shadow on the Wall
The opening scenes in Them! with the little girl recall
a crime film: Patrick Jackson's Shadow on the Wall (1950),
based on the novel Death in the Doll's House (1943) by
Hannah Lees and Lawrence Bachmann.
Deal with a little girl who is terribly traumatized
after seeing the killing of a family member.
This is another link between Them! and film noir.
- Treat the girl in a hospital, under the care of highly competent female psychologists.
- Center on a attempt to get the little girl to remember the events she has witnessed
but repressed, and to speak out about them.
The opening half hour treats the events in the desert as a mystery.
More and more clues build up: the footprint, love of sugar,
indifference to money, the tearing outwards of walls, the formic acid.
One suspects that most viewers of Them! already know the solution
to this mystery, before watching the film. And that this was true of the original theatrical audience,
as well as subsequent television viewers. However, this mystery structure
allows for clear, logically organized story telling. It thus has a benefit,
even if the audience already knows the mystery's solution.
Science and Society
Them! pays enormous attention and respect to science and scientists.
It is part of a rationalist era in American life, in which there was a broad social consensus
that science was accurate and relevant.
Them! shows its scientists warning the world that events are putting the planet in
terrible danger. Both individuals and government heed this warning and act on it.
The attitudes shown in Them! have a great lesson for us today, in facing
the very real crisis of Global Warming.
Changes of scale
In Them!, ants grow to giant size, and ant architecture,
such as ant holes, tunnels and anthills, also grows enormously.
Such "changes of scale" also show up in other Douglas
films. In The Falcon in Hollywood, part of the backstage
tour of the studio shows us the workshop where miniatures are
made, for special effects. There is a neat shot of a man who puts
an airplane under his arm - it's a miniature model.
Even before the scenes in ant tunnels and the storm sewers, we
see an underground chamber at the country store. It is accessed through a
Them! contains some circular forms. These include the entrances to the ant holes.
Some of the technology used by humans to fight back is circular:
- The loudspeakers in the streets.
- The bazooka.
- The flame throwers.
- The lanterns carried during the first visit into an ant's nest.
- The lights on the vehicles in the underground tunnels.
- The flash bulb holder on the heroine's camera.
Sincerely Yours (1955) is a mixture of melodrama and concert film, starring Liberace.
Liberace: Crossover Music
In the 1940's Liberace was a crossover figure, starting out in classical music,
but adapting its techniques to pop. He is a real life antecedent of the crossover musician protagonists
in Edgar G. Ulmer's classics Detour (1945) and Carnegie Hall (1947),
two of the finest films of the later 1940's.
During this era, the idea of fusing classical music and pop or jazz was widely discussed.
Sincerely Yours shows Liberace performing both classical music and pop standards.
Both are treated with respect and enthusiasm.
Sincerely Yours also shows Liberace promoting and performing folk music.
The alliance of classical music and folk songs goes very deep, and has a history of hundreds of years.
Classical composers like Beethoven arranged folk songs. Others like Dvorak and Vaughan Williams
included folk songs in their work. Major figures in classical music like Bartok
served as folk song collectors.
Sincerely Yours shows Liberace promoting an interest in classical music among children.
He takes their requests, and encourages their interest.
I am disturbed by the tendency to treat Sincerely Yours as Camp.
One can legitimately agree or disagree with its idea that it is good to fuse classical music with pop and folk songs,
or to use showmanship to encourage mass audiences or children to attend classical recitals.
But it seems like a poor idea just to snicker at the film, and dismiss its ideas out of hand.
Its enthusiasm for bringing music to the mass public might have lessons for us all.
And maybe we should view Liberace in it with respect.
More on Liberace
Like the hero of Detour, many classical musicians faced great financial hardship.
Liberace was one of the many musicians who survived the Depression by being employed by the WPA,
the US Government work program.
Government support for the arts made a big difference: something we should remember today,
when radical right-wing libertarians seem bent on destroying both government and the arts.
The Offer (1983) is an episode of the TV series Hotel.
Liberace plays himself, and helps an elderly couple celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary (Margaret O'Brien, Donald O'Connor).
The Offer was a favorite of my parents, who felt it portrayed everything that was wonderful about Liberace.
My parents, Midwesterners from working class families, loved Liberace, and visited the Liberace museum in Las Vegas.
The Offer shows Liberace being warmly responsive to his audience, taking requests and playing their favorites.
Similar scenes are throughout Sincerely Yours.
Links to Mr. Soft Touch
Sincerely Yours (1955) has links in subject matter to Douglas' Mr. Soft Touch (1949). Both:
- Take place at Christmas, and feature Christmas trees.
- Involve pianos.
- Have the hero meet the heroine while impersonating someone else.
- Involve the hero in a world filled with people with problems.
Links to crime films
Sincerely Yours is utterly non-crime: it has no crime or suspense elements.
But is does have links to techniques used by characters in Douglas crime films:
Sincerely Yours also has documentary-like features: The scenes of Liberace playing the piano,
are straightforward renditions of a Liberace concert. Some Gordon Douglas crime films
fall into the semi-documentary tradition.
- It has listening technology, with binoculars and lip reading used to learn what people
in the distance are saying.
- Trailing is performed, not of criminals by the police, but by the hero following Alvie and his grandfather.
Changes of scale
The kid gives the hero a music box in the shape of a tiny piano.
The piano seems like a transformed version of the normal size pianos throughout the film.
The shiny black tuxedo Liberace wears at the benefit actually looks good.
Some of the flamboyant clothes Liberace was famous for in his stage and TV acts look outre and silly today.
By contrast, this tuxedo, while very flashy, is actually flattering and well-designed.
Most men would look good in it. The costumes for Sincerely Yours are by Howard Shoup,
who specialized in giving flair to men's clothes.
The tuxedo is consistent with the heightened, flashy clothes often worn by men
in Gordon Douglas films.