The Gritty, Edgy Moodiness of Film Noir: 24 Classic Examples

nighthawks_by_edward_hopper_1942 Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

If she is rude to the waiter, she will be rude to you.

If your dog dislikes him, walk away.  Slowly.

There is always a price to be paid for crossing the line.

Listen to your intuition.

Navigating through life would be so much easier if one always followed simple rules.   Too frequently, emotion trumps the rational mind, but a diversion away from one’s true course can provide an opportunity to learn valuable lessons — if one should be fortunate enough to survive, that is.
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Cinematic exploration of the triumph of passion over common sense is the domain of Film Noir, an outgrowth of European Expressionism, which flourished in America from the early 1940s through the late 1950s.  The creators of Noir crafted their gripping stories by thrusting realistically flawed characters into morally challenging situations; then, rather than fashioning contrived outcomes, stood at a discreet distance and allowed human nature to take its course.
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Most Noir films are “B” movies, the shorter pictures produced as undercards to the marquee features.  Constrained by small budgets, Noir offers crisp and sharp dialogue and tight plotting.  Short running times permitted none of the directorial self-indulgence endemic in modern-day film.
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The genre’s archetypical black-and-white photography (budget-driven, once again) and the predominance of nighttime or half-lit daytime settings infuse atmospheric moodiness with menace.
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Invariably the setting of a Noir — whether an opulent, hilltop apartment building in San Francisco, an unlit New York warehouse, a lonely desert road, or a dingy block of flats in a bleak Los Angeles neighborhood — is as essential to the story as any character in the film.
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Because the contemporaneous Hays Code governed the messages and images films were permitted to convey, a fortuitous circumstance for lovers of the genre, in Noir films all crimes, all sins, and all errors of judgement are punished.
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Inasmuch as motion pictures were a 20th-century contribution to the age-old tradition of transmitting life lessons through storytelling, Noir offered mid-century movie audiences a chance to engage in thought experiments — What if I were to give in to temptation?  What if I succumbed to the lure of something for nothing?  What if I took the wrong path?  What might happen? — within the safe realm of fiction.
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There are hundreds of films in the Noir anthology.  Today I would like to recommend to you two dozen sparkling gems for your viewing enjoyment.  Accompanying each title you will find a list of stars, the name of the director, the setting, a brief description, and a theatrical trailer.
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Classics of the Genre

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The four films listed here number among not only the best Noir of all time but also the best films of all time.

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Director: John Huston
Setting: San Francisco
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For a newcomer to Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon is a must-see.  Boasting a tight, brilliant plot, impeccable dialogue, and several iconic and career-defining performances, gets better with each subsequent viewing.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: New York City
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A stylish, taut, and riveting drama.  As police detective Mark MacPherson (Andrews) gradually falls in love with the brunette (Tierney) whose murder he is called to investigate, he finds he is not alone in his obsession with the stunning Laura.
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Director: Billy Wilder
Setting: Los Angeles
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In this simple and compelling cautionary tale about the perils of passion, insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray) finds the lure of illicit financial gain irresistible when his partner in crime is a knockout blonde (Stanwyck).
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Director: Tay Garnett
.Setting: the southern California coast
Drifter Frank Chambers (Garfield) succumbs to the charms of a blonde bombshell (Turner) after a chance stop at her husband’s gas station.  His motive for subsequent criminal acts — avarice, lust, or a desire to save a damsel in distress — becomes moot as a series of irreversible decisions dooms him and his paramour.
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The Element of Chance

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Some of Noir’s most compelling stories place characters in hazardous situations not entirely of their own making.  Three highly recommended masterpieces —

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Director: Rudolph Maté
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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To my mind, this film is a must-see.  It employs a brilliant and innovative premise: after discovering to his horror that he has been poisoned, a very ordinary accountant (O’Brien) devotes his few remaining hours on Earth to identifying his murderer.
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Director: Otto Preminger
Setting: the central California coast
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Having run out of money to pay his fare, drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) stumbles off a bus at an unfamiliar hamlet on the central California coast, where he finds himself drawn into the inhabitants’ rivalries, hatreds, and crimes.  Preminger’s trademark mastery of atmosphere keeps viewers transfixed through the denouement.
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Setting: Los Angeles
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As amnesic U.S. Marine (Hodiak) returning home after World War II finds himself mistaken for a wanted murderer.
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Unwillingness to See or Reluctance to Act

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“If only he had seen her as she really was.”

“If only she had recognized the danger before it was too late.”

“If only he had had the strength of character to take the difficult stand.”

Human frailty provides a treasure trove of source material for Film Noir.  Three to watch —

Impact (1949)

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Stars: Brian Donlevy, Helen Walker, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn
Director:Arthur Lubin
Settings: San Francisco and Sausalito, California; Larkspur, Idaho

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Businessman Walter Williams (Donlevy) pays dearly for idolizing his glamorous and much younger wife (Walker) and refusing to see her as she is.
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Director: Robert Siodmak
Setting: urban eastern U.S.
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Washed-up boxer Ole Andreson (Lancaster, in his film debut) rejects the offer of a police job and opts instead for a criminal path that ultimately costs him his life.
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Settings: Multiple, including Lake Tahoe, California; Acapulco, Mexico; and New York City
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When an unexpected visitor turns up at the gas station he owns, retired private investigator Jeff Markham (Mitchum) finds to his chagrin that he cannot escape the errors of his past.
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Consequences of a Single Decision

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The knife-edge, yes/no decisions made in a fog of emotion and without sufficient input from the cerebral cortex produce fascinating storylines for Film Noir.  At times a viewer wants to reach through the screen to shake sense into a self-destructive character.  Five of the best —

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Director: Andre De Toth
Setting: Los Angeles
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A classic Film Noir set-up: insurance investigator John Forbes (Powell) is bored with his job and suffocated by the financial responsibility of supporting his loving wife (Wyatt) and exemplary young son in post-War Los Angeles.  When in the course of his work Forbes meets a beautiful gangster’s moll (Scott), he sets his feet on a path sure to destroy his life.
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Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Settings: Reno, Nevada; rural Arizona; Los Angeles
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Embittered jazz pianist Al Roberts (Neal) makes a split-second decision to hide the body of a man he did not kill and thereby seals his own fate.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: Rural southern California; Baja California, Mexico.
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Two southern California pals (O’Brien and Lovejoy) tell their wives they are on a fishing trip when in fact they are bound for Mexico in search of extramarital excitement.  A stop to pick up a hitch-hiker upends their plans.
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Director: Ida Lupino
Settings: San Francisco and Los Angeles
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Lonely San Francisco businessman Harry Graham (O’Brien) pursues a friendship with the attractive and intelligent Phyllis (Lupino) during his frequent work-related trips to Los Angeles.  A one-night tryst puts Phyllis and Harry into a bind that Harry resolves by breaking the law.
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Settings: Rural Wyoming; Los Angeles
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Two friends on a hunting trip (Ray and Albertson) stop to help two stranded motorists who turn out to be bank robbers on the lam.
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Capers and Action Films

Seabiscuit and John "Red" Pollard finally won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940, defeating stablemate Kayak II. It was Seabiscuit's third attempt to win racing's biggest prize at the time. They had been beaten a nose by Rosemont in 1937 and a nose by Stagehand in 1938. Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

Keeneland Library/Morgan Collection

By virtue of its taut plotting and crisp dialogue, Noir produced numerous riveting and satisfying films centered upon action and well developed set-piece capers.  Six not to miss —
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Director: Stanley Kubrick
Setting: Los Angeles
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Career criminal Johnny Clay (Hayden) decides to undertake one last heist, a burglary of Santa Anita racetrack, before settling down to marry his girl (Coleen Gray).
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Director: Raoul Walsh
Setting: California, especially Los Angeles
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Brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini (Raft and Bogart) struggle with loan sharks, hitch-hikers, rough terrain, sleepless nights, and conniving women as they endeavor to scratch out a living in the trucking business.
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Director: Jules Dassin
Setting: California, especially San Francisco
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With the help of other drivers and a local prostitute, wildcat trucker Nick Garcos (Conte) wages war on an unscrupulous produce supplier (Cobb) in order to save his family’s business and preserve his father’s honor.
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Setting: Aboard a train from Chicago to Los Angeles
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A police seargent (McGraw) charged with escorting a gangster’s wife from Chicago to a Los Angeles courtroom, where she will testify against her husband, finds he is sharing the train with the hitmen she is trying to elude.
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Director: Don Siegel
Setting: San Francisco
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A San Francisco dope-smuggling ring that slips packets of drugs into tourists’ luggage is stymied when a drug shipment disappears from the custody of an innocent mother and her little girl.
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Director: Edward Dmytryk
Setting: San Francisco
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A mentally ill man terrorizes San Franciso by killing women with a sniper’s rifle, all the while penning desperate letters to the police in hopes that they will catch him.
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Relationships on the Edge

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The gritty realism of Film Noir produced some fascinating character studies focused on male/female relationships.  Three of the most engaging (and most chilling) —
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Director: Nicholas Ray
Setting: Los Angeles
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A budding romance between tempestuous screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) and his new lady neighbor (Grahame) is badly strained when the police suspect Steele of murder.
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Director: Fritz Lang
Setting: Monterey, California
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Restless “black sheep” Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her family home after an ill-fated love affair.  She finds herself torn, with nearly disastrous consequences, between a level-headed man (Douglas) whom she finds boring and a difficult hothead (Ryan) whom she cannot resist.
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Director: David Miller
Settings: A cross-country train; San Francisco
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Successful playwright Myra Hudson (Crawford) falls deeply in love with and marries dashing actor Lester Blaine (Palance).  Her discovery that he plans to betray her transforms her passionate love into murderous hatred.
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Revisiting Brideshead, Remembering Love, Recovering Hope

Castle_Howard_and_Fountain Castle Howard in Yorkshire

How does one in middle age recover the lost joy, innocence, and love of youth?  Is this possible?  Where does one start?

Such a quest frames the narrative of Brideshead Revisited (1981), one of the most highly acclaimed British miniseries ever produced.  Adapted from the novel by Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited centers on 40-year-old army officer Charles Ryder as he reflects upon his past in search of meaning.

JI_Soldier  Jeremy Irons as the 40-year-old Charles Ryder

Bored, apathetic, spiritually moribund, and middle-aged in every sense of the term, Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) finds himself unexpectedly billeted in 1944 at the grand country house, Brideshead, where he has known his happiest moments and greatest loves.  Serendipitously reintroduced to Brideshead, Charles embarks upon a voyage of recollection.  Most of the series’ narrative is presented in flashback.

Charles is introduced to Brideshead during the spring term of his first year at Oxford.  Through a series of memorable events ranging from the redolent to the sublime, Charles meets Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), the second son of the aristocratic Roman Catholic Flyte family.  Smitten with Sebastian’s golden-haired beauty and warmth, and overwhelmed by the Flytes’ wealth and sumptuous surroundings, Charles becomes Sebastian’s closest friend and constant companion.  Together they share holidays at Brideshead, where Charles becomes acquainted with Sebastian’s family.

JI_AA_Beautiful Charles and Sebastian at Oxford

The Flytes’ Roman Catholicism affects each member of the family differently and profoundly.  A self-consciously passive observer, Charles nevertheless finds himself embroiled in the family dramas.

Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom), inherited Brideshead as the sole surviving heir.  She is a devout Catholic whose primary concern is the family’s welfare.  Whether Lady Marchmain utterly fails to understand Sebastian’s character, or whether she understands him only too well, is a central question the series leaves unanswered.

CB Claire Bloom as Lady Marchmain

Sebastian’s father, Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier), converted to Catholicism in order to marry into the Marchmain family.  When we first meet him, he has fled England and the Catholic church and set up housekeeping in Venice with his beautiful Italian mistress.

LO_2 Laurence Olivier as Lord Marchmain

Sebastian’s older brother, Lord Brideshead, or “Bridey,” (Simon Jones) is a serious Catholic intellectual who is thoroughly content shaping his life around his Church.  Bridey’s fluency with Catholic principles and his inclination to introduce them into casual conversation are alternately fascinating and frightening to the defiantly Agnostic Charles.

SJ Simon Jones as Bridey

The glamorous Lady Julia Flyte (Diana Quick) is a fallen Catholic.  When we meet her, she has just finished her first London season.  Acutely aware of the limits her Catholicism imposes on her marital prospects and of the restrictions the Church places on women, Julia struggles to reconcile her desire for a modern life with the dictates of her ancient faith.

DQ Diana Quick as Lady Julia Flyte

Lady Cordelia Flyte (Phoebe Nicholls) is a 13-year-old convent school pupil when the series begins.  She is a fervent Catholic who eventually answers the Church’s call to service during Europe’s chaotic 1930s.  Cordelia is also the only character in the story who understands Sebastian and possibly the only one who loves him.

PN_1 Phoebe Nicholls as Lady Cordelia Flyte

Sebastian is the emotional center of Brideshead Revisited even when he is absent from the screen.  Anthony Andrews infuses the character with such beauty, grace, and poignant vulnerability that the viewer falls in love with Sebastian as Charles does.   Sebastian’s burgeoning personal struggles through the series’ first several episodes are devastating to watch.  His absence from later episodes is an inevitably painful void.

AA_Seb_SadAnthony Andrews as Sebastian

The source of Sebastian’s anguish is never made clear.  Having seen the miniseries several times now, I am inclined to agree with the adult Cordelia’s belief that all of Sebastian’s problems stem from his resistance to his true vocation.

Sebastian’s heart is riven by diametrically opposed impulses, one, a longing for the comforts, rules, precepts, and promise of redemption offered by the Catholic church; the other, his rejection of Catholicism and its proponents in his life – most especially his mother – that drives him to destroy the repository of his Catholic impulses, himself.

Because Charles is not a Catholic, and because (as we learn in the series) he is markedly lacking in compassion, he is ill-equipped to understand Sebastian’s behavior.  Sebastian’s gradual alienation from his only friend exacerbates his misery and accelerates his decline.

When we last encounter Sebastian, he has fallen into a perverse living arrangement that enables him to indulge simultaneously his penchant for Catholic service and his impulse for self-destruction.

JG  John Gielgud as Edward Ryder

The Brideshead Revisited miniseries is an artistic masterpiece.  Its writing is outstanding.  The acting is uniformly excellent.  Especially noteworthy are John Gielgud‘s wickedly funny turn as Charles’ passive-aggressive father Edward Ryder and Nickolas Grace‘s portrayal of the flamboyant Anthony Blanche, voluptuary and sage.

NG  Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche

The production spared no expense in presenting a visual cornucopia of settings, costumes, vintage cars, trains, and Art Deco interiors.  Brideshead’s stand-in, the stunning Vanbrugh-designed Castle Howard, is a character unto itself.

Here Sebastian introduces Charles to the Brideshead estate during a magical summer holiday.

 

In this scene set in Venice, Lord Marchmain’s mistress, Cara, tactfully cautions Charles about the Marchmains and Sebastian.

 

At least as indelible in memory as the series’ lavish settings is its plaintive, iconic chamber music score composed by Geoffrey Burgon.  An except of the score is presented here.

 

Brideshead Revisited is somewhat unusual among dramas written in first person in that the narrator is not a completely sympathetic character.  As the story unfolds, the viewer sees that Charles can be cold, selfish, cruel, standoffish, and judgmental to an extent to which he himself is apparently unaware.

As an aside, Charles Ryder is the first in a long line of obsessed characters portrayed on film by Jeremy Irons.  (See The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Damage, M. Butterfly, Die Hard with a Vengance, Lolita, and Longitude.)

The Brideshead Revisited miniseries is available in a new 30th Anniversary DVD or Blu-ray collection.  Complete episodes are also available on YouTube.

Since this snowy winter promises to linger for weeks to come, I strongly recommend Brideshead Revisited as a sumptuous, heartwrenching, and thought-provoking viewing experience.  I promise you will never forget it.

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Ninety Minutes that Changed the World: “Conspiracy” and the Wannsee Conference

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Seventy-three years ago, on the bitterly cold afternoon of 20 January 1942, 15 men representing a patchwork of National Socialist (Nazi) military and civilian bureaucracies gathered in a villa outside Berlin.  For 90 minutes they met in formal conference and informal discussion.  They drank beer and scotch and enjoyed a buffet luncheon of the finest delicacies available in wartime Germany.  By all surviving accounts, the conversation over food and drinks was convivial and relaxed.

The goal of the meeting – its “deliverable,” in modern business jargon – was approval of a document to be disseminated to the heads of the departments represented around the table.  Before the meeting adjourned, each of the 15 men present had officially endorsed the document.  Each departed the villa with instructions to communicate details to his superiors and to no one else.

An SS officer edited the meeting’s transcript and distributed numbered copies to the attendees with orders that the transcripts be destroyed after reading.  Fortunately for posterity, one attendee disobeyed that order and kept a transcript in his files, where it was discovered by an American investigator in 1947.

That meeting –  the Wannsee Conference – forged the Schutzstaffel (SS) plan for the assembly-line deportation and murder of all of Europe’s Jews.

In addition to a fundamental opposition to Communism, the precepts underlying Nazi ideology were based upon “racial hygiene,” i.e., a belief that Germans were superior to all other races and a belief that Germans were therefore not only entitled but required to conquer neighboring lands and eliminate or enslave “undesirable” races, thereby appropriating Lebensraum (room for living) for their master race.  The Nazis especially hated Jews.  When the Nazis rose to power in January of 1933, the persecution of Jews, which had been widespread and informal in Europe for many centuries, became codified official state policy.

The April 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service and other similar laws barred Jews from serving as lawyers, teachers, musicians, doctors, tax consultants, judges, and civil servants.  The Nuremberg Laws, passed in September of 1935, defined racial Jewishness, outlawed the social mixing of Germans and Jews, and stripped Jews and other non-Germans of citizenship.  Throughout the 1930s, systematic persecution destroyed many Jewish-owned businesses and forced Jews from their homes.

Some Jews chose to remain in Germany, believing that since they and their families had been German for centuries they would be spared.  Others fled.  By the beginning World War II in September of 1939, roughly 250,000 of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had emigrated.

Some Jews who wanted to leave Germany were unable to do so because of strict immigration quotas, exorbitant fees, and restrictive visa laws in receiving nations, including the United States.  U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Roosevelt’s advisors, and many members of Congress were unwilling to increase quotas on Jewish immigration in spite of horror stories reaching them from across the Atlantic.  Although the U.S. did admit quite a few Jewish actors, film directors, musicians, writers, and scholars fleeing Nazi persecution, Jewish refugees with less impressive curriculum vitae were turned away.  The shameful saga of the MS St. Louis, a ship full of European Jews turned away from the U.S. and sent back, is especially egregious.

During World War II, the Nazis committed against non-Germans atrocities too numerous to list here.  Months before their invasion of Poland, for example, the German leadership ordered the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia and others in the Polish ruling class.  By the end of 1939, approximately 65,000 civilians in Poland had been murdered by specialized Einsatzgruppen.

The Nazis officially planned and carried out mass starvation of Slavic peoples – considered by them to be inferior – in order to secure a steady supply food for themselves.  By the end of the war, an estimated 4.2 million people in portions of the Soviet Union occupied by Germany had died as a result of such deliberate and strategic starvation.

For the Jews, the Nazis planned not population reduction (as for the Slavs) but total annihilation.  Extermination of the Jews was a central goal of Nazi war plans.  Near the end of the War, when the German military badly needed resources and personnel in order to conduct its operations in the field, it was on the evacuation and murder of Jews – and especially of Hungary’s Jews – that the German leadership focused its efforts.

Early in the War, the Nazi approach to eliminating Jews was ad hoc and varied, at times spearheaded by official military Einsatzgruppen and at other times carried out by enthusiastically anti-Semitic natives of conquered lands.

In July of 1941, Reichsminister Hermann Göring ordered Reich Security Chief Reinhard Heydrich to formulate a “total solution to the Jewish question,” an official protocol for the elimination of Jews from German-held territories, which they intended would ultimately encompass all of Europe and the British Isles.

Heydrich’s original plan involved deportation of all Jews to slave labor camps in Siberia, where they would be worked to death.  When the tide of war turned against Germany in late 1941 (as a result of Germany’s declaration of war against the U.S. and a successful Soviet counterattack in Russia),  Heydrich, whom even Hitler described as “the man with the iron heart,” and who was known as “The Butcher of Prague” for his barbaric suppression of Czech resistance movements, shifted his strategy from deportation of the Jews to wholesale slaughter.

Heydrich devised a detailed scheme whereby Jews from all regions under German control would be evacuated to camps in Poland, where they would be exterminated.  The plan was to be overseen and carried out entirely by the SS, which would have jurisdiction for the purposes of Jewish affairs over every agency in Hitler’s complex web of sometimes redundant bureaucracies.

Wannsee Conference invitees were told in advance that at the meeting they would discuss the disposition of “the Jewish question.”  As lawyers, accountants, military commanders, and stake-holding representatives of government departments, the invitees must surely have believed that they would be able to contribute useful ideas to the discussion.

In reality, plans for The Final Solution had already been drawn up in advance of the meeting.  Heydrich’s true purpose was to present the plans to representatives of the most affected agencies, extract acquiescence from each attendee (via threats, if necessary), and assert the supremacy of the SS in all matters related to Jews.

Heydrich’s management of the meeting was menacing and brilliant.  While feigning openness to discussion, he presented his fait accompli, demanding obedience and simultaneously rendering each attendee complicit in mass murder.

The Wannsee Conference has been dramatized twice for the screen.  I have not seen the 1984 German production entitled Die Wannseekonferenz, which is reputed to be excellent.

The 2001 HBO film Conspiracy is outstanding.  I highly recommend it for its historical content and for its top-flight acting, writing, cinematography, and art direction.

As is the case for the German film, the meeting scenes in Conspiracy hew faithfully to the surviving transcript.  The characters’ informal conversations are cleverly written to introduce personalities and to plausibly set up some of the exchanges that take place at the conference table.

Conspiracy features Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich – a role that he described as one of the most difficult of his career.  Branagh delivers a charming and coldly psychopathic Heydrich who anchors the story with soft-spoken menace.

Stanley Tucci portrays a hyper-controlled Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who at the Wannsee Conference was Heydrich’s subordinate but who was to assume control of The Final Solution following Heydrich’s assassination by Czech partisans in June of 1942.

Colin Firth delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Nuremberg Laws co-author Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, who, though a rabid anti-Semite himself, eloquently and vehemently opposes the SS extermination program on legal grounds.

Firth_as_Stucker Firth as Stuckart in Conspiracy.

The great Shakespearean actor David Threlfall portrays Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery, whose impassioned pleading offers the strongest opposition to the meeting’s deadly plans before he finally capitulates in the face of Gestapo threats.

The rest of the cast is a terrific ensemble of some of the decade’s best British actors.  Many have since achieved fame through parts in popular TV series and films: Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey), Ben Daniels (House of Cards), Brian Pettifer (Hamish Macbeth), Nicholas Woodeson (Rome), Ian McNeice (Rome), Kevin McNally (the Pirates of the Caribbean films), Jonathan Coy (Downton Abbey), Owen Teale (Game of Thrones), and Peter Sullivan (The Borgias).  A young Tom Hiddleston appears in a small role as a radio operator.

I have seen Conspiracy several times and derive new lessons from each viewing.  One clear message is that a civilized nation must have founding principles and a written constitution to which all laws must be securely anchored.  Without such principles, law becomes arbitrary, and the civilized and consistent Rule of Law can be replaced by the capricious Rule of Men (which inevitably becomes Rule of the Most Heavily Armed and Most Unscrupulous Men).

The individual characters’ dramas in Conspiracy serve as warnings about “The Banality of Evil” – a term coined by Hannah Arendt to characterize a particular form of human evil resulting from unquestioning conformity, poor quality of thought, formulaic reaction, and other sheep-like behavior.  Like other horrors perpetrated by 20th-century totalitarian states, the Nazis’ Final Solution was carried out by individuals “following orders,” who did not want to “make waves,” and who were unwilling to take principled stands against the evil around them.

In the memorable words attributed to Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), “All that is required for evil to flourish in the world is for good men to do nothing.”

 

Quote for Today

“Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East.  Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes.  The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival.” – SS-Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant-General) Reinhard Heydrich

 

 

 

Cinematic Chestnuts: My Favorite Films for the Holiday Season

LiW_Tree Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter.

In the United States, this week marks the beginning of a five-week-long revel of holidays that opens with Thanksgiving – a day set aside every year for feasting and a celebration of gratitude – and closes with the New Year.  In between will fall St. Nicholas Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Boxing Day (or St. Stephen’s Day), each of which can be rich with family traditions and history.

The cornucopia of dramatic material inherent in the winter holidays, coinciding as it has with the demand presented by generations of cold-weather filmgoers, has yielded a wealth of winter holiday films.

I offer for your enjoyment some of my family’s holiday season favorites, all of which I recommend highly.

Thanksgiving Films

There is no shortage of movies that explore emotional minefields vulnerable to exposure at family Thanksgiving dinners.

Here are two lighter offerings set in the days around Thanksgiving.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy
Synopsis: A wealthy businessman and a traveling salesman share a series of madcap adventures as each struggles to get home in time for Thanksgiving.
Recommended for: Hilarious pratfalls and excellent timing from two of the 1980s’ best film comedians punctuate an ultimately touching Thanksgiving story.
Appropriate for: A PG-13 audience (language).

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Stars: Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne
Synopsis: A department store Santa Claus claiming to be the real thing teaches a little girl, her divorced mother, and her mother’s young attorney suitor a lesson in faith.
Recommended for: The original film of Miracle on 34th Street is the best.  Edmund Gwenn steals the show as the enigmatic and avuncular Kris Kringle.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

Christmas Films

I understand that while some of you who read this blog are Christian, others are non-Christians who celebrate Christmas, and still others do not celebrate Christmas at all.  With that in mind, I rated the religious content of each of the films listed below.

Many of the best Christmas films address the season’s important themes – hope, goodness, and generosity of spirit – without reference to religion.  Yet others are stories for which Christmas is an incidental frame of reference.

Here are several can’t-miss greats!

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Timothy Dalton, Nigel Terry, Jane Merrow
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: A Christmas court in 1183 erupts into an extravaganza of power struggle and diplomatic wrangling among England’s King Henry II; his wife and sparring partner, Eleanor of Aquitaine; his three ambitious sons; and the young King of France.
Recommended for: One of the best screenplays of all time.  Phenomenal acting.  The finest balance of comedy and tragedy ever committed to film.
Appropriate for: High school-aged children and older.

 

 

Die Hard (1988)

Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, Bonnie Bedelia, Hart Bochner
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: New York cop John McClane must save the day when a Los Angeles company Christmas Eve party becomes a lethal hostage situation.
Recommended for: Highly entertaining, nonstop action.  A very funny script.  Delightful, just-this-side-of-camp performance by Alan Rickman as the film’s arch-villain.
Appropriate for: This film should be a PG-13, because of some graphic violence, a brief few adult scenes, and rampant blue language.

 

 

Die Hard 2  (1990)

Stars: Bruce Willis, William Sadler, Fred Thompson, William Atherton, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Franco Nero, and Dennis Franz
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: John McClane finds himself in a race to save passenger flights held hostage by a group of terrorists that seizes control of Dulles Airport on Christmas Eve.
Recommended for: A rare sequel that lives up to the standard set by the original film.  Another engaging and very clever action plot.  Amusingly tongue-in-cheek (although rather blue) screenplay. Impressive stunts.
Appropriate for: A PG-13 audience (a great deal of violence and strong language).

 

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Stars: Animation.
Religious Content: One character recites the Nativity verses from the Book of Luke (KJV) at a pivotal point in the story.
Synopsis: Perennial loser Charlie Brown searches for the true spirit of Christmas amidst a fog of secular commercialism.
Recommended for: This made-for-television classic never grows old.  It was groundbreaking in 1965 for its use of child voice-actors, its pioneering jazz score, and its direct invocation of a passage of the New Testament.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Stars: Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart
Religious Content: Minimal; some Christmas carols appear in the score.
Synopsis: The Christmas rush wreaks havoc on the personal lives of staff in a Budapest gift shop.  A Christmas spirit of patience, generosity, and forgiveness helps to set everything aright.
Recommended for: This heart-warming gem of a film is infused with gentle pre-War courtesy and innocence.  Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are terrific as star-crossed lovers courting by mail.  Frank Morgan is poignantly gruff as the lonely storeowner.  Felix Bressart plays the warm-hearted, sensible, behind-the-scenes hero whom anyone might want as an uncle.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sakall.
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: A single career woman who impersonates a married domestic goddess for a magazine column finds herself in a bind when a war hero asks to spend Christmas in her home.
Recommended for: Very much a period piece, this film showcases the comedic talents of one of the 20th century’s best actresses, Barbara Stanwyck.  The lovable and always smiling S. Z. Sakall saves the day.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester.
Religious Content: A bishop’s crisis of faith is central to the story.
Synopsis: In the days before Christmas, an angel visits a harried Episcopalian bishop in order to restore the bishop’s faith and raise spirits in his congregation.
Recommended for: This is a beautiful movie.  Cary Grant delivers a subtle and poignant performance as an angel who has to give up the woman he loves.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Scrooge “A Christmas Carol” (1951)

Stars: Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Kathleen Harrison, Jack Warner, Michael Hordern
Religious Content: Christmas is central to the story, but there are no overtly Christian references.
Synopsis: This outstanding version of Charles Dickens’ classic emphasizes character development and presents a tragically sympathetic Ebenezer Scrooge.
Recommended for: This is one of the two best film versions of A Christmas Carol.  I highly recommend it.
Appropriate for: The ghosts, and especially the ghost of Jacob Marley, might be too scary for young children.

 

 

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Stars: George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, David Warner, Susannah York, Edward Woodward, Roger Rees, Michael Gough, Angela Pleasence
Religious Content: No overtly Christian references.
Synopsis: An excellent made-for-TV version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Recommended for: This version of Dickens’ classic is visually sumptuous.  The script and cast are strong.  George C. Scott was born to play Ebenezer Scrooge just as he was born to play General George S. Patton.
Appropriate for: The ghosts might be too scary for young children.

 

 

The Nutcracker (1977)

Stars: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Alexander Minz, the American Ballet Theatre
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: From her mysterious uncle, a young girl receives on Christmas Eve both a Nutcracker doll and a magical dream.
Recommended for: Mikhail Baryshnikov may be the greatest male ballet dancer of the 20th century.  His TV production of The Nutcracker with the American Ballet Theatre is a gorgeous masterpiece.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

White Christmas (1954)

Stars: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Jagger.
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: Two ex-army buddies take their successful musical revue to Vermont in an effort to save their former Commanding Officer’s hotel.
Recommended for: White Christmas showcases its cast’s tremendous singing, dancing, and comedic skills through a series of musical set pieces.  Danny Kaye is, as always, brilliant, warm-hearted, and hilarious.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1987)

Stars: Denholm Elliott, Mathonwy Reeves, Jesse McBrearty.
Religious Content: Minimal, beyond Christmas carols.
Synopsis: On Christmas Eve, a Welsh grandfather regales his grandson with stories of his early Christmases.
Recommended for: Deeply engaging, alternately poignant and humorous, this exquisite dramatic realization of Dylan Thomas’ most famous poem is a nostalgic celebration of Welshness and childhood.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Star in the Night (1945)

Stars: J. Carroll Naish, Donald Woods, Rosina Galli
Religious Content: This film is a clear allegory of the Nativity.
Synopsis: A mysterious stranger brings about a series of miraculous events on Christmas Eve at what had been a dismal desert motel.
Recommended for: This short (30-minute) film is a refreshing and touching reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.  The film is available among the Special Features on the DVD release of Christmas in Connecticut.  It is also available on YouTube (linked below).
Appropriate for: School-age children and above.

 

 

 

Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Stars: Robert Powell, Olivia Hussey, Anne Bancroft, James Earl Jones, Caludia Cardinale, Christopher Plummer, Ernest Borgnine, Valentina Cortese, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, Rod Steiger, Peter Ustinov, Ian McShane, James Farentino, Stacy Keach, Tony Lo Bianco, James Mason, Donald Pleasence, Anthony Quinn, Fernando Rey, Michael York, Cyril Cusack, Ian Bannen, and many more.

This spectacular six-hour TV miniseries is Franco Zeffirelli’s retelling of the life of Jesus, beginning with the betrothal of Mary and Joseph and ending with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  Zeffirelli treated the material with great reverence and attention to detail – even thinking to have the village dogs bark at the Holy Ghost – and created an artistic triumph.

The cast is staggeringly good.  The script is spare and economical.  The narrative is well structured.  Details such as costumes and architecture are correct for the period.

Whether one views the miniseries as Biblical history or as a dramatization of a story which has been hugely important in the history of western civilization, Jesus of Nazareth is a compelling and high-quality piece of TV drama.

The Christmas story is presented in the series’ first seventy minutes with moving, rustic simplicity.  The stable is no more than a cave, and the shepherds are realistically ingenuous.

Because Zeffirelli freely depicts the New Testament stories’ violence (including the Slaughter of the Innocents), Jesus of Nazareth is not appropriate for young children.

The entire miniseries is available on YouTube.

 

Quote for Today

“What shall we hang — the holly, or each other?”

Christmas Eve 1183
Chinon Castle
Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Lion in Winter

Uneasy Lay the Heads that Wore the Crowns

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William Shakespeare was undoubtedly a genius.  His plays are a linguistic treasure trove that enriched the English language with at least 491 new words and a wealth of idiomatic phrases in common use today.  In Hamlet alone, one finds these examples, among many others.

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” – Polonius, Act 2 Scene II

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” – Polonius, Act 2 Scene II

“To thine own self be true” – Polonius, Act 1 Scene III

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  – Queen Gertrude, Act 3 Scene 1

“I must be cruel only to be kind;” – Hamlet, Act 4 Scene IV

“…what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…” – Hamlet, Act 3 Scene I

Beyond their exquisite verse, Shakespeare’s plays offer trenchant insights into human nature, especially into human weaknesses and the natural consequences thereof.  Particularly rich in lessons about human nature are Shakespeare’s histories, which, unlike the comedies and some of the tragedies (e.g., Othello and Romeo and Juliet), do not rely upon such plot devices as disguise, missed communication, and mistaken identity.

Although Shakespeare distorts some timelines for narrative effect, his history plays are with two exceptions (Richard III and Henry VIII) faithful to historical events.  Henry VIII glosses over or avoids the title character’s most egregious behavior.  Richard III may actually be a falsehood from beginning to end.  The misrepresentations in Richard III and Henry VIII can be understood as pro-Tudor propaganda contrived to enable Shakespeare, writing in the time of Elizabeth I, to keep both his job and his head.

The BBC’s An Age of Kings (1960), which presents abridged versions of Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1 – 3, and Richard III in 15 hour-long black-and-white segments is excellent, early-TV production values notwithstanding.

But the BBC Television Shakespeare productions of the history plays from the 1980s are outstanding, and I recommend them highly.  The series stars Derek Jacobi as Richard II, Jon Finch as Henry IV, David Gwillim as Henry V, Peter Benson as Henry VI, and Ron Cook (a.k.a. Mr. Crabb in ITV’s Mr. Selfridge) as Richard III.

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(Ron Cook is the best Richard III I have ever seen, bar none!)

Especially fascinating to me in the history plays are the poignant lamentations on the burdens of kingship delivered by four Plantagenet kings in remarkably similar speeches.

Richard II speaks thus upon learning after his return to Britain that his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, has usurped his crown in his absence.

RII Derek Jacobi as Richard II.

Richard II, Act 3, Scene II:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Henry IV, formerly Henry Bolingbroke, paces his bed chamber, tormented by his own treachery and by burdens of state:

HIV Jon Finch as Henry IV.

Henry IV Part 2, Act 3, Scene I:

How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Henry V, eldest son of Henry IV, walks the plains of Agincourt among the tents and campfires of his soldiers late on the eve of battle against an overwhelming force and muses thus:

HV David Gwillim as Henry V.

Henry V, Act 4, Scene I:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear’d
Than they in fearing.
What drink’st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison’d flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think’st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command’st the beggar’s knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream,
That play’st so subtly with a king’s repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know
‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running ‘fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill’d and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm’d with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year,
With profitable labour, to his grave:
And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country’s peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.

In one of the most beautiful scenes Shakespeare ever wrote, Henry VI – effete intellectual, inept ruler, and son of the hero of Agincourt – voices his yearnings for a simpler life.

HVI_2 Peter Benson as Henry VI.

Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene V:

O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean:
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass’d over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?
O, yes, it doth; a thousand-fold it doth.
And to conclude, the shepherd’s homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle.
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree’s shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince’s delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,
When care, mistrust, and treason waits on him.

I find it interesting that Shakespeare did not write a burden-of-kingship speech for either Richard III or Henry VIII.

Quote for Today

“Oh God, but I do love being king!” — Peter O’Toole as Henry II, first Plantagenet king (1133 – 1189, r. 1154 – 1189) in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter

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Falling Hard for Captain Poldark

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How inspiring it is to see someone transform what might have been a discouraging setback into a rewarding career, especially if he has already enjoyed great success in a different field.

I first saw Robin Ellis in an episode of Granada Television’s wonderful Sherlock Holmes series starring the late Jeremy Brett. (If you haven’t seen Jeremy Brett’s intense and nuanced performances as Sherlock Holmes, I recommend that you do so.  I believe Jeremy Brett was put on this earth to play that part.)

The episode I saw on the fateful night, “Shoscombe Old Place,” dealt with a racing stable owner in financial straits, but the show’s plot was of secondary importance.

“That’s ROBIN ELLIS!” declared one of the viewing party, a lady of my parents’ generation.

“Who’s Robin Ellis?” said I, not at that moment terribly impressed, because the character was boorish and uninteresting to me.

“POLDARK!!!” was the response.

At the time I  knew of Poldark only as a Masterpiece Theater offering whose praises I had heard my parents sing, and whose name had sounded indecipherably odd to my childish ears.

After the BBC finally released Poldark on DVD in 2008, I had the pleasure of seeing the entire series for myself.

Now I get it.

Poldark comes from a richly textured series of novels by Winston Graham.  The title character, Captain Ross Poldark, returns from fighting on the losing side in the American Revolution to find life in his native Cornwall irretrievably altered.  The woman he loves is engaged to another man, his father is dead, and his family estate is in sad disarray.  Also, Ross himself has changed.  Inspired of the American Colonies’ meritocratic social mobility, Ross chafes at Britain’s rigid class structure.  He feels a deeper sympathy for Cornwall’s working poor, and, although he is a natural leader among his peers, he finds himself increasingly out of step with the local landed gentry.

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At 6’3”, and blessed with a rich baritone voice, strong cheekbones, and a magnificent head of thick, wavy hair, Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark was everything a girl could want in a chivalrous late 18th-century television hero.  His characterization blended romantic masculinity with thoughtful intensity and a stubborn impulsiveness that often got Ross into trouble.

Gripping storylines, strong performances by Ellis and the rest of the cast, and Cornwall’s breathtaking scenery made the 1975 – 77 Poldark series wildly successful.  It was shown in more than 40 countries, and on video it has outsold every BBC costume drama except for the 1995 Pride and Prejudice.

Poldark continues to inspire such passion in its fans that they create tribute videos such as

and

.

If you have not seen Poldark, I strongly recommend it as an engaging drama full of complex, realistic characters.  The series is available on DVD as well as on YouTube.

Robin Ellis’ career has featured many wonderful performances, especially in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, but it is as Ross Poldark that he is best known.  (His fame in the late 1970s was so great that he once had to duck out of a theatre via a back exit in order to avoid a crowd of love-struck Irish schoolgirls.)

Now 72, Ellis resides with his wife in the south of France.  He continues to act occasionally — most recently in a cameo role in an upcoming remake of Poldark — but he has built a new career for himself as a cookbook author and blogger.

Ellis professes a decades-long love of cooking, inspired by his mother’s resourcefulness in lean post-war Britain and nurtured by his experiences cooking for himself as a young adult.  After being diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 1999, Ellis decided to fight the disease head-on by changing what he prefers to call his “style of eating” rather than his “diet.”  Kitchen experimentation led to culinary successes, which in turn led his friends to suggest that he collect his recipes and compile them into a book.

Although initially resistant to that idea, in part because of the glut of cookbooks already on the market, Ellis began writing down his “very simple” recipes.  A fortuitous connection with the right publisher led to the creation of Ellis’ first cookbook, Delicious Dishes for Diabetics: Eating Well with Type 2 Diabetes, in 2011.  The first book was so well received that Ellis published a second, Healthy Eating for Life: Over 100 Simple and Tasty Recipes, in 2014.

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Today, one can keep up with Robin Ellis through his blog, http://robin-ellis.net, on which he offers recipes (illustrated with his wife Meredith’s photographs), reflections on recent World War anniversaries, and slice-of-life stories about rural southern France, featuring pottery fairs, farmers’ markets, village fêtes, and hedgehogs, among other topics.

He is on Twitter at @RobinPoldark.

Quote for Today

“Ross Poldark was a man outside his time. He was exceptional because he dealt in human beings rather than establishment creeds. He was willing to break barriers down. He cared about his miners and knew conditions were bad because he went down into the mines. That in itself was unusual. He was often ashamed of his fellow gentry, of their atrocious behavior. His marriage to Demelza proves that he was prepared to go against convention and marry out of his class.” — Robin Ellis (IMdB)

Close Encounters of No Kind in Particular

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Have you ever had a serendipitous encounter with a famous person?  I don’t cotton to celebrity worship, but a chance meeting can be fascinating.

Fifteen years ago I saw O.J. Simpson in the Minneapolis airport.  He was riding a conveyor sidewalk at rush hour.  Passengers clustered every three feet or so along most of the conveyor’s length, but O.J. and his very young and adoring female companion stood in a thirty-foot dead zone.  O.J. had been acquitted of double murder by a Los Angeles jury, but the court of passenger opinion on that day rendered a different verdict.

Years before, at an event in Washington, D.C., when I was 15 years old, I met Gloria Vanderbilt.  She was warm and very personable.  After signing an autograph for me, she complimented my dress.  (!)

My younger sister Diana, a scientist, has a truly uncanny talent for running into famous people.

She enjoyed an extended tête-à-tête with Robin Williams on the set of Patch Adams at Berkeley.

A few years later she met Russell Crowe as he was filming A Perfect Mind in Princeton.

She met Matt Damon at a communal Thanksgiving dinner in North Carolina.

She ran into Carl Sagan on the Berkeley campus and was thrilled to be able to tell him how his Cosmos TV series had changed her life.

Later, on a trip to London, Diana lucked into last-minute tickets to the closing night of a play starring the elegant Anthony Andrews.  Because she had recently seen Brideshead Revisited and fallen hard for Andrews’ character Sebastian Flyte, she was over the moon to be able to meet him at the stage door.

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My parents saw Ralph Nader navigating the crowds in the Atlanta airport in the late 70s.  We ran into Gary Hart at Dulles airport in the late 80s.

My paternal grandparents, lifelong Democrats, bragged of having had tea at the White House with Eleanor Roosevelt.  Thirty years later, they attended the same Washington Baptist church and the same Sunday school class as Jimmy Carter when he was President.  They also saw Henry Fonda at National airport, although they might have been less pleased had they known that Fonda was a lifelong Republican.

My mother saw JFK in person during his Presidential campaign and says that he was “absolutely radiant.”

My favorite close encounter story stars my maternal grandparents.

It was the spring of 1959, and they were living on an Army post in West Germany.  On their first trip to Paris, they made their obligatory trip to the Louvre.  Upon arriving at the museum, my grandparents felt themselves strangely drawn to the Venus de Milo.  On this particular weekday morning, the museum was nearly deserted.  Standing alone before the statue was a tall, beautiful woman.  My grandparents walked up and stood silently nearby, gazing at the statue.  After some moments had passed, the beautiful woman turned to them, smiled, and said, “I always come here first when I visit the Louvre.  This is my favorite part of the museum.”  They struck up a friendly conversation.  She offered to give my grandparents a personal tour of the artworks that she loved best.

After a pleasant hour, my grandparents and the beautiful woman shook hands, wished each other well, and parted.  Never once during their magical time together had my grandparents let on that they had recognized their gracious tour guide, Ingrid Bergman.

Do you have stories about chance encounters with famous people?  I would love to hear.

Quote for Today

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895)