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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Happy First Birthday, Northwoods Listener!

Cupcake_Pens

A new adventure!  One year ago today, I published my first Northwoods Listener post, “3, 2, 1,…

Since that day, my 38 posts have drawn 8,449 views.  Readers have hailed from six continents and 82 countries, including such disparate lands as St. Vincent & and Grenadines, Moldova, Uganda, French Polynesia, Namibia, Vietnam, Jordan, Belarus, Indonesia, Slovenia, the UAE, Armenia, South Sudan, and Curaçao.

Twitter (1,418) and Facebook (956) have generated most of the traceable hits.  An additional 467 have come from search engines.  Among the 73 sets of search terms visible to me are these intriguing gems:

  • cary grant sunglasses north by northwest
  • russell wilson myers briggs
  • myers briggs russell wilson
  • cary grant puzzle 1000 pices
  • owen teale and final solution drama
  • frank pembleton ‘get out of my blood’
  • anthony quinn thanksgiving movie youtube christmas
  • the personable robin ellis
  • poldark the breathtakingly beautiful robin ellis
  • robin ellis has such a dreamy voice.

For those who are interested, here are the year’s eleven most popular posts, each of which was read more than 200 times:

1. Falling Hard for Captain Poldark (644 views)
A tribute to Robin Ellis, who portrayed the title character in the 1975 production of Poldark.

2. Going it Alone: Character Lessons from the Gladiatorial Combat that is Singles Tennis (576 views)
Gripping drama on the blazing-hot tennis courts of the 2015 Australian Open.

3. What’s All the Noise About? – A Guide to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections (366 views)
A detailed preview of last November’s U.S. elections, written for an international audience.

4. It’s the Size of the Fight in the Dog: Russell Wilson Proves the Experts Wrong (338 views)
A salute to the former Wisconsin Badger and current Seattle Seahawk star quarterback Russell Wilson, published four months before his catastrophic failure at the 2015 Superbowl.

5. Ninety Minutes that Changed the World: “Conspiracy” and the Wannsee Conference (290 views)
An historical perspective on the Wannsee Conference, the convocation of evil at which 15 representatives of the Third Reich set in motion the machinery for Hitler’s Final Solution.

6. San Francisco Cataclysm, 17 October 1989: The Day Baseball Saved Lives (222 views)
Memories of the magnitude-7.1 earthquake that rocked the Central California coast during the 1989 World Series.

7. Tennis on the Distaff Side: U.S. Open Preview, Part II of III (220 views)
A preview of the women’s singles competition at the 2014 U.S. Open, including players’ noise ratings.

8. I Was There: Remembering the MS Estonia Twenty Years Later (212 views)
My first-hand account of the horrors of the sinking of the MS Estonia.

9. From Forward Roll to Starring Role: Cary Grant’s Conscious Creation of Himself (210 views)
Archibald Leach’s transformation into Cary Grant.

10. Order out of Chaos: Life Lessons Learned by a Puzzling Aficionado (209 views)
The joys and challenges of assembling jigsaw puzzles, and lessons to be learned along the way.

11. Virtuoso Victor Borge, the Irrepressible “Clown Prince of Denmark” (204 views)
A paean to the always delightful Victor Borge, with excerpts of some of his best performances.

Among my personal favorites:

“Homicide, Sweet Homicide.” – Eight Reasons to Check out the Best Series Ever Produced for Network Television

ENFJ? ISTP? – I C U R YY 4 Me!

The Disco Beat: On the Fly with an Avian Impressionist

and

Close Encounters of No Kind in Particular.

 

To all my readers and followers, thank you!

 

P.S. Stick around.  I will return to full-time writing on the first day of September.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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