Canon Fodder: To Be or Not to Be


What's your favorite comedy about the terror of totalitarianism? It's a bit of a surprising topic: mass murder and state terror are, at least in real life and at least most of the time, not laughing matters. And yet, I found myself thinking while immensely enjoying Armando Ianucci’s new film The Death of Stalin, more than once great filmmakers have proved that it’s also fertile ground for humor. The film that probably jumps to mind is Charlie Chaplin’s famous anti-Nazi satire, The Great Dictator (1940), but my favorite film comedy that turns “concentration camp” into a punchline is Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942).

The farcical backstage comedy of To Be or Not to Be concerns a company of actors in Warsaw on the eve of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 (the film, produced while the US and the USSR were allies, elides the fact that the Soviet Union also invaded Poland, from the East). At the beginning of the film, local Warsaw celebrities Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard) are rehearsing a play called Gestapo, intended to be a searing indictment of the dictator on the other side of the Oder River. With tensions rising with Germany, however, the Polish government cancels the show, insisting that they must do whatever they can to placate Hitler.

Meanwhile, by evening, the couple and their company are performing—as, it is implied, is their wont—a rote production of Shakespeare, with Joseph as Hamlet. Maria is being courted by a dashing young Polish pilot named Sobinsky (Robert Stack), who attends the show every night, and whom she arranges to meet backstage while Joseph performs Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Thus, at every performance, Joseph, egotistical and insecure, has his big moment interrupted by the a man in the second row getting up to leave--unbeknownst to him, this is the same man who continually sends his wife flowers.

Soon, though, Germany invades, and Poland falls. The company’s theater is bombed out, Sobinsky joins the Polish military in exile in England, and Warsaw is put on lockdown by the occupying Nazi force, as signified by a montage of curfew notices and legal declarations. Several months later, Sobinsky is parachuted into Warsaw to prevent a list of Polish resistance fighters from falling into the hands of the Gestapo; begrudgingly putting aside his jealousy of Sobinsky for the sake of his country, Joseph decides to dust off the uniforms from the unstaged play, and hatches a plan to retrieve that list.

The deep, sustained humor of the film comes from many sources. For one thing, the seeming incongruity of the subject matter and the form—totalitarianism and comedy—undoubtedly produces much of the humor in a film like this. Part of our laughter is the release of tension that humor allows us, an almost reflexive relaxation of nerves. When Maria Tura, like her husband an actor with delusions of grandeur, insists to the company’s director Dobosh (Charles Halton) that she wear a glamorous, tight-fitting dress for her concentration camp scene, the laughter is more a nervous titter than a outright laugh.


But this kind of laugh, one that makes light of the terrible, can obviously come off as tasteless. One line from the film, when the Nazi Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) tells Joseph, disguised as the Nazi agent Professor Siletsky, that “what [Joseph Tura] did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland,” was the most infamous line from the film when it was released. Even in the mouth of a Nazi character and even before the full extent of Nazi crimes in Poland was known, the joke was seen as a dehumanizing analogy deployed for a cheap laugh -- perhaps rightly.


But in To Be or Not to Be such jokes also serve its story by accentuating characters. The aforementioned Ehrhardt joke may get a guilty laugh by itself, but it also reminds us that the ostensibly doofy Ehrhardt is callous and evil, and it continues the recurring joke of Joseph facing his own inadequacy, even while saving his country. Moreover, the film never seems to be punching down. Both Ehrhardt and Joseph can be petty, equivocating, and buffoonish, but only one of them does so while signing execution orders.

In the film, as one can expect from a great Lubitsch production, one great bit of business follows another: Joseph must pretend to be Colonel Ehrhardt to get the list from Siletsky; he must pretend to be Siletsky to keep the duplicate of the list from falling into the Nazis’ hands; the company must attempt an escape from the country under the mustachioed nose of Adolf Hitler. Each scene is expertly paced, expertly blocked, almost every joke lands; but what is truly remarkable about the film, what makes it the best comedy about totalitarianism I know, is how it uses humor to analyze totalitarianism itself as a “bit of business.”

What I have not mentioned is the film’s masterful opening sequence, in which a disembodied narrator sets the scene on the streets of Warsaw and informs us that, months before the war, Hitler has arrived. How? “Well, it all started at Gestapo headquarters,” he explains, and the film lap-dissolves into a blandly decorated office, featuring a prominent portrait of Hitler above the desk. But this, we will learn at the end of the scene through a sudden cut to the director Dobosh, observing the action, is not Gestapo headquarters: it is a rehearsal of Gestapo, the play. 

This opening sequence lays the groundwork for the film’s satire of totalitarianism by thoroughly confusing the viewer’s understanding of what is real and what is mere performance. Repeatedly, this boundary is blurred in the film: the conversational banalities produced by Joseph-as-Ehrhardt that tip Siletsky off will be repeated word for word by the real Ehrhardt when Joseph meets him as Siletsky; the real Gestapo members respond just as automatically and nervously to “Heil Hitler” as the actors on stage; the real Siletsky will die dramatically on the stage of the Polski theater, just as the curtain comes up. 

What Dobosh doesn’t get in the opening sequence—and what the film will repeatedly show us—is that totalitarianism works by replacing its artificial, performance-world with the real world. The bearer of authority is less the person than the uniform, the gesture, the name, and the little mustache; one’s every utterance must be simultaneously both sincere and conforming to arbitrary standards; the Jews are criminals, and if they aren’t, we will make them so to prove they were. The Nazis were actors, purveyors of an artificial world that nevertheless murdered millions of real people. The actors in To Be or Not to Be—lightly mocked throughout as egotistical, hammy, scenery chewers—realize that they possess precisely the skillset to hoodwink the Nazis. It’s a brilliant, insightful theme, sophisticated in its understanding of the political and ethical implications of real life and totalitarian fiction becoming indistinguishable.

What the film has in common with The Death of Stalin is its willingness to observe the absurdity of totalitarianism, without dehumanizing its victims. (They both also mercifully let their actors speak English in their natural accents, rather than forcing them to fake Eastern European ones.) While each makes dark humor out of horrible subject matter, and humanizes murderers by making them funny, they never lose sight of the fact that the struggle for freedom from oppressive rule is real; what is absurd in the films is not the struggle itself, but that the farcical ideologies of totalitarianism should be able to put existence should be at stake, to make its victims wonder whether they will be or not. 

P.S. Do not watch the Mel Brooks remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983), directed by Alan Johnson. What that movie does to Lubitsch, the Germans did to Poland.

Canon Fodder: The Misfits


I put The Misfits (1961) on my to-watch list after listening to back-episodes of the podcast You Must Remember This a few months ago. On the show, host Karina Longworth details how playwright Arthur Miller agonized over the script he was writing for his wife, Marilyn Monroe, for years, continuing revisions well into the film’s actual shoot. To Longworth (along with many other critics), Monroe’s performance in The Misfits is among her best, but Longworth suggests it was also a role that hit too close to home for the iconic actress. Her character Rosalind is beautiful, clever, magnetic, irresistible to men--but also strangely melancholic, obsessed by death and inevitability. 

The film opens in Reno as Rosalind is preparing, with the support of her landlady, friend, and seasoned divorcée Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), for her divorce. Rosalind needs to claim at the proceedings that her husband abused her, mentally and physically, to establish legal grounds for divorce. But, she complains, this isn’t true; her husband was just unavailable to her. “If I’m gonna be alone,” she opines in one of Monroe’s many incisive one-liners, “I wanna be by myself.” In previous Monroe hits—like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)—such a line would be delivered with ironic naivety, as if Monroe’s character didn’t quite understand the profundity of her amusing paradox. Here, we hear the experience, the malaise, the reflection that underlies Rosalind’s turn of phrase.


The fulcrum of the first half of the movie is the irony, probably more striking to viewers in the early 60s, of Monroe’s famously airy, feminine voice expressing sincere existential doubts. “We’re all dying, aren’t we?” she ponders at one point about the inevitability of change and death, “All the husbands and all the wives.” This sincere philosophizing frequently undercuts—or must be ignored by—men like Guido (Eli Wallach), who overeaglery presume that she’s just a girl who’s down for a good time. 

Gay (Clark Gable), an aging cowboy from outside Reno, is the only one who seems to get her. Alone together in his truck, he asks Rosalind why she always seems so sad; when she replies that men always say she’s happy, Gay probably correctly observes that “that’s because you make men feel happy.” While the romantic pairing of Gable and Monroe is certainly part of a familiar patriarchal pattern, Miller’s script and especially Monroe’s performance make it plausible that this thirtysomething city girl’s only kindred spirit is a sectagenarian cowboy.


In the second half of the movie, Rosalind, Guido, and Gay add a fourth party to their circle, another cowboy named Perce (Montgomery Clift), who is fleeing an Oedipal conundrum back home via rodeos and odd jobs. They recruit him to help them chase down Gay’s white whale: fifteen wild mustangs who have been spotted roaming the mountain valleys. He joins them in exchange for a ride to the rodeo, where Gay and Rosalind’s differences start to come to a head, motivated by their differing life philosophies and Rosalind’s apparent attraction to Perce. Despite her fascination with Perce, Rosalind is horrified by the brutality of the rodeo. And to the movie’s credit, her objections are taken seriously, if not by the cowboys, then by the script: she is not simply a weak-stomached woman, but someone who is capable of recognizing the sanctity of life in a way these men are not.

All this is not to say the film is blameless on the gender-politics front--far from it: even when the film is not reinforcing a certain “masculine” view of things (see: a few reassuring leers at Monroe’s backside, to let us know the film knows she’s got a body), it does essentialize the distinction between male and female reactions to mortality. However complexly each of them is drawn, the male characters in the film share an inability to sublimate their own anxieties into anything but violence or sexual avarice. Most of them, too, are unable to relate to Rosalind as anything but an enigma, which willfully oblivious attitude the film might at times be understood as adopting: who is woman? What does she want? What The Misfits is, in terms of its gender politics, is an illustration of how a film can feature fully fleshed-out, nuanced characters and still be beholden to certain patriarchal tropes.


The film was directed by John Huston, who had also directed Monroe’s entré into major-film-studio acting, The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Huston brings a grounded realism to this MGM production: it is clear that much of The Misfits, particularly its harrowing horse-lassoing climax, was shot on location; but also, the camerawork in the film’s first two acts is pared down and intimate, focused intently on characters’ faces. You can see the low-budget films of the late 1960s emerging from this black-and-white film about everyday friends discussing matters of life and death with one another. Huston doesn’t use a handheld camera, but you can imagine that if the same film had been made a decade later, we would have lingering, unsteady shots of Rosalind’s enigmatic face. 

This is why the film’s score, by Alex North, often feels incongruous. It has all the hyperbolic swells and dips of a grand MGM melodrama, telegraphing the events of a scene in advance or overwhelming the meaning of the image. In, say, a Douglas Sirk film of roughly the same era, the inflated score would have been itself dwarfed by the sumptuous Technicolor image, becoming part of a whole whose overblown emotion was part of its meaning. For such a modestly staged movie consisting essentially of conversations, North’s score is an unwelcome intrusion into all the interesting work going on in the faces of Monroe, Gable, Wallach, and Clift.

The Misfits had a legendarily troubled shoot, and its legacy is as sad as the melancholy its characters are (mostly) trying to hide. Huston spent the whole shoot drinking and gambling; the studio had to cover some of his costs. Production was shut down for several weeks at one point for Monroe to enter a detox program and recuperate. Clift was also struggling with addiction and depression, the byproducts of a serious car accident in 1956. The Miller/Monroe marriage would end during The Misfits’ plagued shoot, taxed by Monroe’s real-life melancholy and the insecurities that Miller distilled into much of the Misfits script. Gable was dead of a heart attack two weeks after the film wrapped. Monroe would also never complete another film, passing tragically the year after its release. Montgomery Clift would make several more films, but his personal downward spiral would end just five years later, when he died at the age of 45.

This context doesn’t itself make The Misfits better, but considering that the film is about the inevitability of death as a part of the larger intractability of constant, universal change, it might help us look a little closer at the performances. There is something sad and broken in the eyes of Clift’s handsome cowboy, an element of truth in the connection and in the differences that arise between the old cowboy and the young beauty, something always-already tragic in the beautiful woman who can’t be happy. An unmitigated flop upon release, it’s now perhaps the best testament to the true talent and ability of a woman who had already been processed into the most iconic image of the 20th century.

Canon Fodder: The Naked City


In Film/Genre, perhaps the best Film Studies book I know of, Rick Altman points out that Hollywood genres evolve through a process of a kind of grammatical synthesis: an existing genre is modified with new elements, which are tacked onto the description of the genre as an adjective. Over time, this adjective becomes a substantive noun, taking the place of the word it used to modify. For example: did you know that when the Hollywood Musical emerged in the late 1920s, it was advertised as “Musical Comedy,” or that Westerns from the teens were actually called “Western Melodramas”?

The point isn’t just about language: the change in terminology signifies a change in narrative form. In this shift, either new elements are dropped into an existing structure (think “Space Western”), or well-worn tropes are revivified by a new narrative structure. The Naked City (1948) is a moment when the very familiar tropes of the urban crime film—what would only later be called film noir—found a new narrative home when they were dropped into a pseudo-documentary structure. What emerged is what we would later call the “police procedural.” You can see in this film shades of the thousands of episodes of Dragnet and Law and Order to come.

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” This, the film’s tagline, is repeated a couple times within the film by its narrator, Producer Mark Hellinger. The line is clearly an outgrowth of the anti-Romantic romanticism of the city typical of film noir, but it also immediately strikes one as similar to the preludes to shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: “... In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” Likewise, The Naked City is, of course, about a salacious, sexually tinged crime: the murder of a shapely blonde model named Jean Dexter.

The voice-over narration is at least partially meant, one imagines, to tie more firmly together the sequence of events in the film. The Naked City doesn’t have much of a main character: it’s certainly not Jean, whose face we never really see (but whose murder is depicted in as much detail as 1948 can muster), and there’s no private eye to shepherd us from scene to scene. The closest we have is Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Irish character actor Barry Fitzgerald) and his young underling Detective Halloran (Don Taylor). But even they don’t direct our attention. Instead, it’s the narrator who shifts our attention between the action of the team of investigators led by Halloran. Being disconnected from its characters allows the film to play a little more loose with convention, however: the narrator sometimes speaks over the characters, when the detectives’ procedure becomes too rote to bother with an elaborated scene, and he sometimes leads us on tangents through the city.

The narrator also grounds the film’s interest in the procedures of policing. The film is fascinated by, and meticulous in depicting, forensic and administrative procedure in investigations. Forensic examinations, processes of deduction, technologies of examination and communication, the functioning of rank within a department, correct protocol for confronting a suspect—the film depicts a world in which these fine-tuned rational methods conquers the ambiguity of events. It defines the agents of this process—its characters—only enough to make them relatable in its isolated moments of drama. Muldoon is Irish, and Halloran is a decent, innocent guy—that’s what I got from 96 minutes of this movie. Hellinger’s narration gives the film character and structure that it would otherwise be hard to find.

That the film has a narrator is hardly strange for the time; that this narrator identifies himself as the producer of the film, and, rather than merely introducing the film, narrates the entire thing, is rather unexpected. Hellinger’s narration provides an objective tone, and sometimes even a bemused detachment, to the film. This quasi-objective stance is in line with the film’s most distinguishing characteristic among Hollywood crime films of the time: it was, apparently, filmed entirely on location in New York City (though one assumes that they at least used the old film studios in Astoria for some of the interior shots). The film takes advantage of its location shooting, with roving aerial shots of the skyline, montages of everyday life in the city, and chases through the streets. It’s striking, even now, to see a detective walk into a jewelry store and see framed behind him through the glass door a real city street

But this form has limitations in all kinds of areas. The purported objective stance of the film is really a kind of fetishization of law enforcement and its methods. The scant characterization sometimes feels cheap: when we see Halloran empathetically refuse to beat his son upon his wife’s request for him to do so, we know he’s in for life-threatening danger later in the film. The insistence on location shooting means, for lighting purposes, that almost the whole film takes place during the day—perfectly realistic, perhaps, but not very cinematic. Where the film noir used urban crime to examine social and existential anxiety, from its foundation the police procedural often slips into affirming easy truths—Police, Criminals, Family, Reason.

Tucked within The Naked City, it’s striking, if not terribly surprising, to find visual references to the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock (in 1948, directors were already using Hitchcock references as cultural capital!). The shot in which Jean’s landlady discovers her (off-screen) body, turns to the camera, and screams, is taken straight from Hitchcock’s Blackmail! (1929). The motif of small girls jumping rope in city streets while the city hunts a murderer comes from Lang’s M (1931)—there’s even a scene in which Muldoon observes their game from several floors up, evoking the high-angle shots in the opening sequence of that film. 

These allusions make sense: with films like M, Lang set the stage for the emergence of the police procedural, and of course, even before Psycho, nobody murdered women like Hitchcock. But those directors’ interest didn’t stop at form or procedure. Hitchcock’s films are dark, often wry looks into the hidden desires of (male) human beings. Lang wasn’t just interested in modern methods of police procedure; he was interested in the order and the chaos produced by modernity, in the alienated and distorted subjects that rationality produces. M ends with a kangaroo court set up by criminals—imitating the form of the legal system—which ends up being incapable of dealing with the twisted soul of a serial killer, answering it only with violence in kind. It’s difficult to extract that kind of meaning from the police procedural: it doesn’t give itself room to reflect on the processes it depicts, preferring to cultivate a sense of “objectivity” in its presentation of the facts. The Naked City may not lie in the way a melodrama lies, but it manages to find its own kinds of untruths to tell.