“Bonnie and Clyde” - Arthur Penn (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was a landmark American film that uniquely combined European art-house aesthetics with mainstream Hollywood cinematics. This commingling of styles, along with problems ascertaining just what the film actually stood for, confused audiences and critics at first.  But it ultimately rocked the American film scene and became a critical and box-office smash.

Actually, the perceived Hollywood/Art-House combination was founded in the script, because scriptwriters David Newman and Robert Benton were big fans of French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) films, particularly Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Newman and Benton initially shopped their finished script around – first to American Arthur Penn (who first declined because he was already busy with another project), and then to Truffaut, and then to Godard.  But for various reasons nothing came of these negotiations.  Eventually Warren Beatty bought the rights to the script and, after further shopping around, finally convinced Arthur Penn to be the director. 

The story of the film concerns the somewhat fictionalized account of two real-life outlaws, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who achieved widespread notoriety for their crime spree in the central United States during early 1930s.  This was the period of the Great Depression, when banks were commonly perceived by the dispossessed poor as tools of the wealthy extractive coalition (a phenomenon that, of course, has always persisted).  So daring bank robberies by poor folks like the Barrow Gang took on the proportions of heroic myths.  In fact Clyde Barrow preferred to rob smaller stores, rather than banks, but in the public’s eyes, they were celebrated specifically as heroic bank robbers and were seen as a modern-day version of Robin Hood’s gang.

Since the movie features romance, comic moments, and generally humanizes people who were ruthless killers, a number of critics denounced the film early on as trash. For example, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther commented [1]
"It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
. . .
Such ridiculous, camp-tinctured travesties of the kind of people these desperados were and of the way people lived in the dusty Southwest back in those barren years might be passed off as candidly commercial movie comedy, nothing more, if the film weren't reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort."
In fact the previews were so negatively reviewed that the producers were thinking of only offering a limited release to drive-in theaters.  But there were a few positive responses that started to turn things around.  For example, Roger Ebert, in the first year of his career as a film critic, wrote at the time [2,3]
"This is pretty clearly the best American film of the year. It is also a landmark. Years from now it is quite possible that Bonnie and Clyde will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s . . ."
Soon the movie became a smash hit and by the end of the year was nominated for 10 US Academy Awards [4].  The naysayers did have a point, though, and I will return to this issue below.

Whatever one’s overall evaluation of the film may be, there is no doubt that the film’s production values were high.  Penn’s stage theatrical experience was probably instrumental in bringing out memorable acting performances.  In fact a number of actors who got their first major public exposure via this film went on to successful careers, including Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder, and Estelle Parsons. And interestingly, many people still remember those actors mostly for their performances in this film.  In addition the film editing (for which Dede Allen won an Oscar) and the cinematography were outstanding.

Those factors gave the film polish, but what ultimately made it fascinating was Penn’s intermingling (via Newman’s and Benton’s script) of existentialist themes (perhaps inspired by French New Wave films) with more traditional American social themes. This was brought about by the elevated significance of the relationship narrative in this film. It is often the case that a film will have two narrative threads – one narrative associated with external events and another narrative associated with the relationship between two principal agents.  Usually the relationship narrative is secondary and supportive of the main external narrative.  But here in Bonnie and Clyde the relationship narrative (RN) ascends to primacy, with the external narrative (EN) receding and then intervening in bursts of violence.

So we can examine these two narrative threads separately. The external narrative concerning the violent criminal exploits of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow covers their life on the run as outlaws.  It does so by vividly contrasting the American (US) cultural traditions of glorifying guns and outlaws with the brutally violent consequences to which those traditions lead.  Americans possess far more guns per capita than any other country, and this leads to far more homicides than, for example, European countries where the gun possession rate is lower [5].  But Americans have always had a love affair with guns and like to point to the fact that gun possession is enshrined as a right in the US Constitution.  In addition, Americans, in common with many people, tend to have a romantic image of outlaws who manage to defy the authorities and escape incarceration.  There is a long tradition of celebrating notorious outlaws such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are also members of this club [6].  Although the real Clyde Barrow was evidenetly a ruthless killer, he is presented in this film in a softer and more sympathetic form.  Yet when the killings take place in the film, there is no reservation and the bloody violence suddenly splashes across the screen.  This back-and-forth contrast between the romanticized images of the outlaws and the explosive moments of carnage is one of the features of the external narrative.

The external narrative (EN), which opens suddenly with no backstory and terminates just as quickly, can be seen to pass through three phases.
EN 1 – Bonnie and Clyde Hook Up
In the first phase, Bonnie Parker (played by Faye Dunaway) is shown lying in her bed and bored with her mundane life.  Looking out of her upstairs window, she notices a young man, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) attempting to steal her mother’s car.  Mischievously excited, she comes down and banters with Barrow and is immediately captivated by his charming bravado.  She dares him to make a robbery in town, and he immediately does so, after which he steals a nearby car.  Thrilled by what she has witnessed, she jumps into the car and immediately starts covering him with kisses while he drives. So from the outset we see what Bonnie and Clyde want: he wants to be a daredevil thief with a trophy glamour girl, and she wants to be with a man who can give her constant excitement.

After some more robberies, they recruit a mousy, but capable, teenage boy, C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) to be their driver, and they rob another bank.  On this occasion, CW’s poor driving messes up their getaway, and Clyde shoots and kills a man who had hopped onto their car as they drove off.  At this point, Clyde is now a murderer and presumably will become known to the police.

EN 2 – The Gang Flourishes

In the second phase, Clyde hooks up with his brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), and they make plans to roam across the central US states and rob banks.  They pull off a number of robberies during this phase.  In the process there are several violent shootouts with the police, but they manage to escape on each occasion. These escapes were facilitated by their crossing state lines, which took them into another police jurisdiction and out of the legal range of their police pursuers.  They also capture a Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), who had been following them, and they taunt him by using their Kodak camera to take humiliating “selfies” with him.  Throughout this period, the Barrow Gang is gaining notoriety in the press, and the gang revels in their daring and breathtaking undertakings.

EN 3 – Downfall
While stopping for the night in Platte City, Iowa, they are recognized by a customer, who notifies the police. That night an armada of police cars ambush the motel, and a violent shootout takes place. Buck is mortally wounded, and his wife is blinded by shattering glass. Bonnie and Clyde are both wounded, but somehow they and CW manage to escape the scene in another stolen car.  On the road again, CW stops their car at an impromptu camp for the dispossessed and asks for some water.  The poor people there recognize Bonnie and Clyde and show quiet reverence for people that have been defying the brutal system that has left them desolate.  Then CW takes them to the home of his father, Ivan Moss. Ivan graciously puts them up, but secretly he goes to meet Frank Hamer, who has all along been trying to track down Bonnie and Clyde. Ivan arranges with Hamer to betray Bonnie and Clyde in exchange for a light prison sentence for his son, CW.  Some days later, when Bonnie and Clyde are driving back home from the town, they are tricked by Ivan Moss into stopping their car, whereupon they are massacred by a fusillade of bullets from police hiding in the bushes.  With that the film comes to an abrupt halt.
Throughout this external narrative Bonnie, Clyde, and Buck are portrayed as relatively innocent, fun-loving characters who just happen to rob banks.  When they kill people, it is usually in the midst of firefights when their own lives are in danger.  By contrast, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and Ivan Moss are shown as particularly unlikable and odious – they are unprincipled, oppressive, and devious. The viewer’s sympathies have been steered towards the Barrow Gang, even though they are notorious outlaws. 

So much for the external narrative, which roughly follows the known facts about Bonnie and Clyde’s activities.  It is the relationship narrative (RN), however, which incorporates the existentialist themes that make the film stand out.  Again there are three phases that roughly overlap with the external narrative.
RN 1 – Bonnie Meets Clyde
Early on when Bonnie madly kisses Clyde after his first holdup, Clyde becomes distressed and warns her that he is not a lover boy.  So from the beginning we have an insight into Clyde’s personal anxieties.  Bonnie is humiliated to have her advances repulsed, but she persists in her admiration of Clyde.  Later, after Clyde committed his first murder, he tells Bonnie that she is still unknown to the police and that she can return to her home.  But Bonnie refuses; she is in love with Clyde.  Her demonstrative love for him inspires Clude to try to make love to her, but he is impotent and humiliated by his inability to do it.  Again she stands by him, even then.  So now both Clyde and Bonnie have suffered extreme personal humiliation and self doubt.
RN 2 – Gang on the Run
In the second phase of the film, Bonnie wants to spend some time alone with Clyde, but finds herself cooped up with the rest of the gang. Buck is jocular but boorish; CW is simple-minded; and Blanche perpetually nags and complains in shrill tones.  We can see that Bonnie is more refined than that – she spends some of her time writing poetry, such as the “Story of Suicide Sal” [7].  She evenetually grows weary of life on the run and finally runs away from them all.  But in an ominously cloud-beset field, Clyde finds her and agrees to take her to visit her mama.

When they make the visit, Clyde tries to be cheerful, but the mood is bleak.  Bonnie’s mama warns Clyde that he better just keep running.  Later, Bonnie also expresses her lost faith,
“When we started out, I thought we was really going somewhere. 
  But this is it . . . . We’re just going.”
RN 3 – A Love Fulfilled
But near the end of the story, after Bonnie and Clyde have made their last escape and have recovered from their wounds, Bonnie recites to Clyde another of her poems, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” [8], which is a paean to their desperate drive for freedom and authenticity.  One of the stanzas reads,
    They call them cold-blooded killers
    They say they are heartless and mean;      
    But I say this with pride,      
    That I once knew Clyde
    When he was honest and upright and clean. 
Upon hearing that heartfelt tribute to their togetherness, Clyde’s self doubts dissolve at last, and he is able to physically consummate his relationship with Bonnie – which gives her the reassurance that he truly loves her. They have finally attained bliss just before they die.
The two narratives of Bonnie and Clyde move through different and contrasting arcs. The external narrative arc moves upward at the beginning and reaches its peak in the middle of the story. Then it comes crashing down to the depths at the end.  The relationship narrative arc starts out with early promise, but then soon moves downwards to a low, before rising up to a high point at the end.

But overall, Bonnie and Clyde’s juxtaposition of contradictory narratives manages to mirror our own precarious existence. We continually construct romanticized narratives of our own lives that feature humanized goals of fulfillment, but these narratives are constantly being interrupted by brute events that often violently disrupt our fantasized stories.  Then we get back on the road and start anew and build up another story.  Bonnie and Clyde takes this process to extremes and reminds us of our limits.  We basically knew from the outset that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were doomed.  But we became immersed in their impossible world and followed along with them.  And when they finally became united in their love, well, . . . what more could they have achieved?

  1. Bosley Crowther, “Bonnie and Clyde”, The New York Times, 14 April 1967.    
  2. Roger Ebert, “Bonnie and Clyde”, RoberEbert.com, 25 September 1967.
  3. Roger Ebert, “Bonnie, Clyde and the Critics”, RogerEbert.com, 10 December 1967.
  4. The following year Bosley Crowther was dismissed as the regular New York Time film critic, and it was widely believed that the reason for his removal was his misreading of Bonnie and Clyde.
  5. The US population possesses 88.8 guns per 100 residents, while in the UK there are 6.6 guns per 100 residents, see “Number of Guns per Capita by Country”, Wikipedia, (21 August 2015).
  6. Note that Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie Parker were all killed by law enforcers in the same year, 1934.
  7. Bonnie Parker, “The Story of Suicide Sal”, (1932), About Education.
  8. Bonnie Parker, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde”, (1934), About Education.

“The 39 Steps” - Alfred Hitchcock (1935)

Of all the great films that Alfred Hitchcock directed over his fifty-some year career, there is one that stands our for me as the ultimate embodiment of his cinematic-narrative craftsmanship: his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Like many of his works, this film tells the story of an ordinary man who, by chance circumstances, is thrust into a dark, confusing world and finds himself being targeted by both unknown assailants and the law-enforcement authorities. 

This kind of story might be dismissed by some people as simply escapist entertainment.  But the way Hitchcock tells it, the story serves as a deep metaphor for man’s existential isolation and fear of obscure threats that appear out of nowhere.  So to my mind, some of these films of his, similar to films noir, strike a disturbing chord that can resonate deep within us.  There is a philosophical point to all of this, because in Hitchcock’s stories, the protagonist persists in believing, despite the deck being stacked against him, that there is a way out.  Action must be taken.

In addition to this basic situation of the existentially isolated and threatened, man, however, Hitchcock often told this story by means of segmented mini-narratives that were sequentially and thematically linked to the overall plight of the protagonist.  In each of these mini-narratives, the protagonist appeared to be trapped and had to find some way to escape his pursuers and continue his quest to uncover the truth that would ultimately save him. Thus each of the mini-narratives had a specific goal and an outcome.  This linked mini-narrative narrative technique was used by Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Saboteur (1942), and North by Northwest (1959), but its most perfect expression was with The 39 Steps, which consisted of seven such sequentially-linked, but self-contained, mini-narratives.

The production of The 39 Steps came right after Hitchcock’s commercially successful The Man Who Knew Too Much, and consequently his production house, Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, rewarded him with a 50% increase for his next production budget. Much of this increase, though, went into paying for the two well-known international stars recruited for the lead roles, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, which was deemed a necessary marketing maneuver to ensure a film’s success at the box office.

Hitchcock chose for his story on this occasion something which had for some time interested him, John Buchan’s 1915 spy novel, The Thirty-nine Steps, which was set in a World War I atmosphere.  He then worked with Buchan to update the story to a non-wartime mid-1930s setting and to create a film script with substantial changes to the plot, all of which I believe considerably enhanced the story (for example all three principal women in the film were additions to the original tale told in the novel).

In addition to Hitchcock’s alterations in the general story structure, however, there are four further aspects of his cinematic storytelling in this film worth noting.
  • Hitchcock heightened the disturbing feeling of existential loneliness and fear of annihilation with expressionistic touches, such as by invoking the primitive fear of falling from a great height.  Just as he did with such shots in Saboteur, North by Northwest, and Vertigo, there is a shot in this film of the protagonist looking downward from a great height and momentarily being frozen by the acrophobic feeling that one is inches away from self-destruction.
  • Related to this fear of self-annihilation is the idea of personal identity – just who are we, and who are those people with whom we interact?  Throughout The 39 Steps, the protagonist finds himself compelled to take on false identities in order to survive.  At the same time he is often interacting with others who are similarly dissembling about who they are.  In the following account, I will highlight some of those false identities by “FI”.
  • Pushing back in the other direction against those forces of enervating terror that make the protagonist want to hide and look for cover in a Hitchcock film is the energetic resourcefulness of the protagonist.  His plucky attitude keeps the energy at a high level.
  • The extraordinary pace of the film is also maintained by Hitchcock’s elliptical omissions of some action details that must have taken place for the protagonist to get to his next place. Of course, we expect some omissions, such as when characters are asleep, but the omitted actions I am talking about are sometimes significant – and the viewer engaged in diegetic story construction must fill in the details in his or her own mind on the fly.  I will identify in the following account some of these missing action sequences by “MA”.
The story of the film is told in seven sequential mini-narratives.  Note that all narratives are characterized by a few basic elements, I will summarize these according to the following scheme:
  • Protagonist(s)
  • Goal(s) – this may not be known at first, but it is the protagonist’s desired end of the narrative.
  • Adversary – something that blocks attainment of the goal.  This can be a natural element, such as a river, or it can be adversarial agents
  • Supporter(s) – instruments or other agents that support the protagonists
  • Gain – something important gained (or lost).  Usually this is new information that has been gained from these events,
  • Outcome – the resulting condition of the protagonist.
In the following, I will describe these elements for each of the seven mini-narratives (although since the protagonist is always the same, his name is omitted in those summaries).

1.  The London Music Hall (19 minutes)
In the opening sequence, Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat), a Canadian visitor to London, attends a music hall performance showing the amazing memory feats of “Mr. Memory”.  Mr. Memory’s stage performance is characteristically signaled by a little onscreen orchestral tune, which will later serve as a leitmotif for a key aspect of the story.

The music hall performance is disrupted by the sound of gunshots, and the crowd stampedes for the exits.  In the midst of the crowded melee, Hannay shelters a beautiful woman to the street, after which she invites herself to visit his apartment.  There is some flirtatious byplay at first, but when they reach the apartment, the woman, who calls herself “Annabella Smith” (Lucie Mannheim), tells Hannay that she is an international spy and concerned about something known as the “39 steps”.  Although she has a foreign accent, she assures Hannay that she is working on behalf of his country (she means England) and that she is trying to prevent an important government secret document from being smuggled out of the country and into the hands of a foreign enemy.

Ms. Smith says that she is being stalked by enemy foreign agents and that her life is in danger – that is why she chose to hide out in Hannay’s apartment for the night.  She warns him that her arch foe working for the foreign power is a deceptive gentleman who is hard to a recognize but who can be identified by the fact that he is missing the end of his little finger. She also asks Hannay for a map of Scotland, because she must go there the next day to see someone.  Then they go to sleep in separate beds. 

Before dawn, however, Hannay is awakened by a noise and sees that Ms. Smith has been stabbed to death.  Her dying words were that they will go after him next.  Hannay realizes that his life is in danger and that he must now escape.  He notices that Ms. Smith had circled a village named “Alt-na-Shellach” on his map of Scotland. So the answers to what he is now involved in may perhaps be found there. Then he looks out onto the street from his window and sees what must be the foreign agents waiting for him to come out. He does manage to get away, though, by disguising himself with the coat and delivery cap of a helpful milkman (FI1).
Mini-narrative 1 summary
Goal: save his life from the foreign agents
Adversaries: two foreign agents
Supporters: milkman
Gain: information – (a) there is a vital secret associated with the 39 Steps that might get passed to a foreign power, (b) there is a dangerous man who is missing part of his little finger, and (c) there is something important in Alt-na-Shellach, Scotland.
Outcome: Ms. Smith has been murdered, but Hannay has escaped, for the moment, from the foreign agents.
2.  The Train to Scotland (7½ minutes)
Hannay is shown buying a train ticket on the Flying Scot to Scotland, and he evidently got there just ahead of the two pursuing foreign agents (MA1). Once underway, Hannay looks at a morning newspaper belonging to a fellow traveler that shows that Hannay is already wanted by the police for Annabella Smith’s murder. He then sees that the police are checking each train compartment, so he ducks into another compartment whose sole occupant is a pretty woman, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and pretends to be her amorous lover by forcefully kissing her (FI2).  When the police pass by the compartment, Hannay tries to explain his problem to Pamela, but she doesn’t believe him and turns him over to the police when they pass by again.  Hannah flees the train compartment with the police in hot pursuit and somehow manages to escape from the train as it is passing over the famous Forth Bridge [1].
Mini-narrative 2 summary
Goal: escape the police and reach Scotland
Adversaries: the police and Pamela
Supporters: none
Gain: information – he now knows that the police are after him, too.
Outcome: he has escaped from the police.
3.  The Crofter’s Farm (10½ minutes)
We next see Hannay walking down a road and coming to a small farm (croft) (MA2: how he got down from the bridge).  He tells the crofter that his name is Hammond (FI3), that he is looking for work, and that he would like to stay for the night. The middle-aged crofter, John (John Leslie) is stern and stingy, while his suppressed young wife, Margaret (Peggy Ashcroft) is sensitive and empathetic. 

In the ensuing brief but memorable sequence, Hitchcock shows how he could sensitively handle human feelings (as he also did in Notorious (1946)), by focusing on the tentative, but innocent, interaction between Hannay and Margaret.  Unlike the more worldly wise Pamela in the previous sequence, Margaret’s open-hearted nature leads her to believe in Hannay’s innocence.  She gives him her husband’s overcoat and helps him evade both the police and her reward-seeking husband’s efforts to have him captured.  Hannay has also learned the directions to Alt-na-Shellach, which is 14 miles away.
Mini-narrative 3 summary
Goal: escape the police and the crofter
Adversaries: the police and John, the crofter
Supporters: Margaret
Gain: new overcoat and directions to Alt-na-Shellach
Outcome: he has escaped from the police.
4.  Alt-na-Shellach (7½ minutes)
Hannay is next shown reaching his destination, a large estate at Alt-na-Shellach, where a wealthy “professor” is supposed to live.  How he evaded John the crofter and the police over the fourteen-mile journey to get there is not clearly shown (MA3).  He gains entry by identifying himself as a friend of Annabella Smith, assuming that the resident professor was her colleague, but he soon learns that Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) is missing half of his right-pinky and so must be Annabella’s evil nemesis.  Professor Jordan ushers Hannay to a small room, takes out his gun, and shoots Hannay dead, as the camera fades to black.
Mini-narrative 4 summary
Goal: to gain information (a) to help thwart foreign agents from stealing government secrets and (b) to clear his name.
Adversaries: Professor Jordan, who is the boss of the foreign agents.
Supporters: none
Gain: information – Alt-na-Shellach is the headquarters of the foreign spy operation
Outcome: Hannay is dead
5.  In the Neighboring Town (13½ minutes)
We next see Hannay speaking to the sheriff of a nearby town.  It turns out that Hannay was not killed by Jordan’s gunshot, thanks to Crofter John’s hymnal that had been in the overcoat pocket.  Hannay had then managed to escape the professor’s estate and reach the sheriff’s office in a nearby town, although this is not shown (MA4).  Hannay tells the sheriff about the spy ring, but he is not believed.  The sheriff immediately orders Hannay’s arrest.  While the police are putting handcuffs on Hannay, he somehow manages to escape from their clutches (MA5) and burst through the front window and out onto the street.

While on the street, Hannay tries to disappear by falling in with a noisy parade and then getting himself roped into making an extemporaneous speech at a local political gathering (FI4).  He almost pulls it off, but Pamela, the girl he had kissed on the train, shows up and recognizes him.  She has him arrested and has him turned over to two plainclothes policemen.

It turns out, however, that the two plainclothes officers are actually the two foreign agents pretending to be police (FI5), and they quickly spirit Hannay and Pamela away in their car.  For security, they handcuff Hannay and Pamela together.  As they all travel down a country road, however, their car is stopped by a herd of sheep in the road, and Hannay uses the occasion to make another escape, even while still handcuffed to Pamela. 
Mini-narrative 5 summary
Goal: escape the police and the foreign agents
Adversaries: the police, Pamela, and the foreign agents.
Supporters: none
Gain: information – local sheriff supports Professor Jordan
Outcome: Hannay, with P as his prisoner, escapes
6.  Hannay and Pamela Together (17½ minutes)
Hannay again tries to plead his case to Pamela, but she still doesn’t believe his spy story.  So in order to enforce her obedience, he confesses that he is a ruthless, serial killer (FI6).  They then make it to a remote inn (how they got there is not shown – MA6), and Hannay secures a room for the night by passing himself and Pamela off as lovers on the run (FI7).

The two foreign agent show up at the inn in pursuit of Hannay and ask to use the phone. Pamela overhears the phone conversation between the foreign agents and Jordan’s wife, which enables her to realize that Hannay’s story was right all along.  Before the foreign agents can snoop further around the inn, however, the kindly and romantic hotel mistress comes out and shoos them away.

With the new information about Hannay, Pamela becomes his ally, and she reports to him that the overheard conversation also revealed that Professor Jordan was going to attend an event at the London Palladium and then leave the country with the “secret”.  So now Hannay and Pamela proceed to rush back to London (MA7).
Mini-narrative 6 summary
Goal: escape the foreign agents
Adversaries: the foreign agents.
Supporters: Pamela and the hotel mistress
Gain: information – Jordan is going to be at the London Palladium that night.
Outcome: Hannay and P, now allies, are free to go to London.
7.  London Palladium (9½ minutes)
The final scenes in London are wonderfully intense.  Pamela visits the Scotland Yard office and tells them about the foreign spies and the threat to the country.  But the government authorities assure her that none of their secret documents are missing.  The police then decide to trail her in the hopes of catching Hannay, who is still wanted for murder.

Pamela then rushes over to the Palladium, where all the principals have converged.  Hannay is there. So, too, are Professor Jordan, Scotland Yard police, and even Mr. Memory. Just as the police are in the act of arresting Hannay, it dawns on him when he hears the Mr. Memory leitmotif tune, just what the ingenious spy strategy was for sneaking secret documents out of the country.  From audience floor, he calls out to Mr. Memory, “What are the 39 Steps?”.  This leads to the melodramatic climax.
Mini-narrative 7 summary
Goal: stop Professor Jordan from sneaking a government secret out of the country and also escape the police
Adversaries: Professor Jordan and the police
Supporters: Pamela
Gain: information – the mystery behind the “39 Steps”
Outcome: the nation is saved
There are a number of scenes in The 39 Steps that stand out in my memory long after viewing the film.  The brief, poignant scene with Margaret at the croft is one.  Another one is Hannay’s desperate attempts to survive by giving a political speech without knowing what to say.  But perhaps the most evocative scene is the ending in the Palladium, with the musical hall comedians performing, the orchestral music blaring, and the chorus-line girls dancing all creating a cacophonous atmospheric background for the final dramatic revelations.   With the final death and the truth revealed, the "curtain" comes down immediately and the film ends.

Alfred Hitchcock was once asked by Francois Truffaut whether  The 39 Steps was his favorite film [2].  His reply was,
“Yes. Pretty much. What I liked about it were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity. . . . . The rapidity of the switches, that’s the great thing about it.  If I did “The 39 Steps” again, I would stick to that formula, but it really takes a lot of work. You have to use one idea after another, and with such rapidity.”
In The 39 Steps it was a formula that was executed to perfection.

  1. It is here that Hannay looks down while hiding behind a bridge girder and has a vertiginous view of the waters far below.
  2. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson, “Conversations About Great Films: The 39 Steps, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (25 January 2005), http://csac.buffalo.edu/39steps.pdf.

“Night and Fog” - Alain Resnais (1955)

Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1955) is a 31-minute film about the Nazi concentration camps that has been called the greatest documentary film every made (indeed, Francois Truffaut called it simply the greatest film ever made [1]). 

Certainly the idea of making a film about such a horror must have been a daunting prospect to a person of Resnais’s integrity, and  when he was initially offered the opportunity to make this film, he declined on the grounds that he did not have the experiences to authentically engage with this subject [2].  He changed his mind when the poet, novelist, and essayist, Jean Cayrol, who himself had been a concentration camp survivor, was brought in as a script collaborator.  Cayrol’s most famous work, in fact, was his collection of poetry, Poèmes de la Nuit et du Brouillard (1946), concerning his sufferings in the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp [3].

Interestingly, a few years later Resnais would have similar misgivings when invited to make a film about the Hiroshima nuclear holocaust. But he changed his mind on that occasion, too, by making something quite different.  For that project he shifted his narrative to a differnt, more personal, level, and crafted another masterpiece in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959).  For the case here of Night and Fog, Resnais and Cayrol managed to come up with something that, in the space of half an hour, did bring about a meaningful presentation about the general topic at hand – the concentration camps.  This was done not by minute documentation of all the horrific details, but instead by providing a meditation into the very problem of trying to grasp just what happened back there in time.

This problem of trying to construct and hold on to meaningful memories of the past is something that has been a general focus of Resnais’s work and was addressed in virtually all of his movies.  Resnais had the key insight that our memories constitute an essential aspect of how we deal with time, itself.  One could say that our very notions of time, and ultimately of our selves, are intimately linked with our memorial representations.

I have discussed in past reviews how we fundamentally understand ourselves, as temporal agents, in terms of narratives [4], and this perspective harmonizes with Resnais’s presentations in his works.  The narratives that we construct about ourselves represent how we see ourselves.  And the narratives we construct about past historical events similarly represent how we culturally view those historical events. Naturally, these two perspectives – our personal views about ourselves and our views about the social world around us – are closely linked.  So then what kind of meaningful understanding can be developed concerning the Nazi concentration camps? 

The numbers on this subject are mind-numbing.  Over the course of the Nazi regime (1933-45), there were thousands (the precise number is disputed, depending on the definition of camps and sub-camps) of concentration camps constructed and millions of people imprisoned in them [5].  Perhaps four million of those imprisoned, more than half of the prisoners, did not survive.  A heavily disproportionate number of the victims were Jewish: at the end of the war, only about 21,000 of the original 600,000 Jews were left in Germany [6].  But statistical and documented accounts like these  [7] are difficult to get a feeling for; and Resnais wanted to pursue a different path toward understanding.

Night and Fog
puts the viewer into the mind-frame of someone actively trying to track down what was the reality of the camps. We start off in the “present” (i.e. 1955) with color footage showing the empty and grass-overgrown grounds of some former concentration camps.  The camera moves incessantly as if searching for something. The tone of the narration is dispassionate, like an objective investigator. We can speculate that the subdued tone perhaps comes from a person like Cayrol who had experienced some of the horrors and is trying to approach the subject with some wounded trepidation.  In any case, the detached tone of the narrator is crucial and more effective than typical emotive narrations about past avoidable human tragedies, such as the US-Academy-Award-nominated To Die in Madrid (1963), which was narrated by John Gielgud and Irene Worth in very emotional tones.  Here in Night and Fog the dry narration and the distancing, almost frosty, music by Hanns Eisler put the viewer into almost a dream state to contemplate the unimaginable.

In those opening color shots of the empty countryside, the narration remarks that even following a pastoral country road can lead one to a concentration camp – just as the camera then pans over to a barbed-wire fence that encloses one such now-empty camp. Then the images shift to black-and-white footage documenting the early activities and decrees in 1933 that initiated the camps.  The film will proceed in this way, shifting back and forth at least twelve times between the color-signified “present” reflective mode and the black-and-white-signified documentary footage of the past.  The durations of the color sequences are actually quite short, but they always feature the prowling, searching camera movement that helps maintain the vitality and pace of the narration. 

Early on, the black-and-white footage shows the constructions and designs of the concentration camp buildings, where were relatively ordinary and mundane.  Then images are shown of the massive round-up activities, as the Nazis gathered the many ordinary people to populate these concentration camps.  In the early stages the prisoners were not specifically targeted to be Jewish.  The Nazis just wanted to imprison those they deemed to be troublemakers – activists, Communists, socialists, slackers, etc.  But after Himmler took over the overall management, they specifically went after “racially undesirable elements”, such as Jews, Romani, homosexuals, and people deemed to be criminals.  Associated with this was the 1941 “Nacht und Nebel” (which means “Night and Fog” in German) decree, which targeted anyone thought likely to support the resistance.

Gradually, the images become even more disturbing.  The workers were just treated like disposable slaves or animals.  An image of some stone steps leading to the Mauthausen quarry is accompanied with the remark that “3,000 Spaniards died to build these steps.” 

Again, in color, the narrator struggles to uncover what really happened in those quarters that looked like ordinary blockhouses. The explorations of the abandoned camp grounds takes the viewer over to some curious buildings: a hospital, even a prison.  The hospitals were often used for experimental amputations, as if the prisoners were laboratory rats.  Similarly, major drug companies tested the effects of danerous drugs on prisoners. The prisons were closed quarters where even more unspeakable torture could be inflicted on those who disobeyed.

Later, some of the camps were turned into extermination camps, specifically designed to kill its short-term visitors.  When new inmates arrived at such camps in boxcars, they were immediately separated: “workers” were instructed to go to the left, while those ordered to the right were destined for immediate execution. The Nazi overseers of the camps strove for efficiency and found that Zyklon B cyanide-based pesticide was particularly effective as a lethal instrument. 

In the end we come to the most devastating images – shots showing the wasted bodies of tortured prisoners, as well as mounds of emaciated corpses.  The Nazis became more efficient in dealing with this wastage, too, replacing their death pyres with new ovens that “could deal with several thousand bodies a day.”

And nothing in the execution camps was wasted.  We see images showing mountains of women’s hair that was used to make clothing material and rugs.  Human bones were used to make fertilizer.  And “with the bodies they tried to make soap.”  Here we see humans being treated like animals.  But in fact we don’t even have to treat animals this way, and we shouldn’t.  I will return to this point.

At the end of Night and Fog, there is the question asked as to who is responsible.
“‘I’m not responsible’, says the kapo.” 
“‘I’m not responsible’, says the officer.” 
“Who is responsible, then?”
The film closes with a warning.  It says there are people around
“. . . who see the monster buried under these ruins. . . finding hope in being finally rid of this totalitarian disease, pretending to believe it happened but once, in one country, not seeing what goes on around us, not heeding the unending cry.”
Here was a concern expressed by Resnais and Cayrol just ten years after the concentration camps were exposed to the world that, as memory fades, people might lose track of what happened there and consider that to have been just one never-to-be-repeated anomaly. Now sixty years further on, the concern should be even greater, because those events have faded even further and are even more abstract in the popular consciousness.  What can we do to hold on to what happened there and help us see how those past events relate to what is going on around us today?   That is what you feel as the film comes to an end. 

To me this film highlighted two things worth considering in this respect.

1.  See this film
You can visit historical monuments and see the sights of historical events, but you are unlikely to be able to fathom what happened.  I have personally visited Dachau and Auschwitz and seen the exhibitions there, which were powerful.  But I got much more out of seeing Night and Fog than from paying those visits.  As the narration in Night and Fog remarks, there are limitations in what you can get from looking at architecture.  I have heard architects say that a building incorporates all the possible "journeys" and processes that can go on within it.  It is true that the building provides a spatially structured context, but it is too general for us to know everything that goes on there.  As the film commentary says,
“The reality of these camps is hard for us to uncover traces of now.”

“No image, no description, can capture their true dimension of constant fear.”
When we see those steps leading to the Mauthausen quarry, it is not evident from the architecture that 3,000 Spaniards died in the construction of those steps.  We have to be told that, and it is best that we are told within the structure of a narrative.  Night and Fog provides that narrative.

The “method of loci” (aka “memory palace”) is a memorization technique that combines architecture and narrative.  It consists of an imaginary journey (i.e. a narrative) through a remembered architecture (the “palace”), during which individual memories are stored in different palace locations.  Since our memories work through the construction and exploration of narrative structure, the method of loci offers up a customized narrative that one can use to store memories.  Resnais has done that for us in Night and Fog.  He presents a prowling narrator who (in color) wanders among the camp ruins and evokes images (in black and white) that fit into this memory-palace journey.  By seeing (and re-seeing) this film, we get a better feeling of what happened there.

2.  Consider the slaughterhouses
As I watched this film, I could see that the prisoners were treated like material objects.  They were put to slavish work in factory hellholes, and then when they were no longer useful, they were exterminated.  Their hair, bones, and bodies were then harvested to make further material objects.  This is the same thing that our modern society does to animals. It is worth remembering, however, that there are several negative outcomes that come from slaughtering animals for meat and material goods, as I have discussed earlier [8].  Such activities
  • worsen our health,
  • reduce the availability of water and arable land,
  • greatly contribute to global warming

Moreover, there are also social issues in this regard that are equally important.  When animals are raised and then sent to the slaughterhouse, they are viewed as objects whose only value is the extent to which they contribute to our material utility.  We eat their meat and use their hair and skin to make clothing.  We close our eyes to the fact that animals are sentient beings who can anticipate and suffer.  When we heartlessly treat animals as senseless “things”, we close ourselves off from our own native capacities for compassion. 

Apart from the inhumanity of treating animals this way, there is a further damaging side effect – the transition from treating animals that way to treating humans that way is not such a big step. That is where the   problem gets worse. It would be better for everyone if we moved our society in the direction of universal compassion  – so that treating any animals, including humans, that way is held to be unthinkable. When I watched Night and Fog, I felt I was exploring animal slaughterhouses for humans, and it made me think of animal slaughterhouses, generally, as well. Maybe you will get that feeling, too, when you watch the film (it is freely available).

  1. Phillip Lopate, “Night and Fog”, The Criterion Collection, (23 June 2003).
  2. James Leahy, “Nuit et Brouillard”, Senses of Cinema, (May 2003).
  3. Cayrol would go on to write the screenplay for Resnais’s Muriel (1963), which was also concerned efforts to fashion and hold on to memories about a disturbing past, in this case the Algerian War.
  4. See for example, my reviews of
  5. “Nazi Camps”, Holocaust Encyclopedia, (20 June 2014), United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, USA.
  6. Roger Cohen, “Europe’s Deepest Debt”, International New York Times, (10 August 2015).
  7. Richard J. Evans, “The Anatomy of Hell”, The New York Review of Books, (9 July 2015).
  8. See my reviews of

“Le Deuxieme Souffle” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1966)

French film noir master Jean-Pierre Melville’s first full realization of his own take on this genre was with Le Doulos (1962). With Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966), however, he plunged even deeper into the expressionistic gloom that pervades the entire world depicted in these stories. In a film noir, most of the characters are isolated and cynical lawbreakers with unknown pasts and uncertain futures.  They are just trying to survive to the next day in a chaotic and immoral universe.

A key aspect of a film noir is its presentation of existential alienation.  This feeling of loneliness and separation is externalized in these films to the entire environment, rather than examined by looking into the mental states of the characters, who are invariably taciturn and uncommunicative, anyway.  This is what makes the best of these film heavily expressionistic – the viewer seems to be inside an expressionistic nightmare that is being dreamed by noone in particular. 

The basic nature of a film noir is discussed in my review of Le Doulos, but here it is useful to summarize the three essential features:
  • Fatalism.  Most of the characters are trying to escape from their pasts and have little hope for the future.
  • Truth.  The world is dark and confused.  Noone seems to know the truth and the full story.
  • Loyalty. Given the pervasiveness of opportunism and deceit, finding someone to trust and being trusted is of life-saving importance. This is often the dominant theme.
Note how a film noir differs from a typical gangster film: 

  • In a gangster film – take Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1976) for example – existential isolation is usually not such a key factor. There is a boisterous community, a brotherhood. People here are constantly making jokes and loud boastful gestures as a way of maintaining their standing in this “community”. Loyalty to the brotherhood is important, but is generally presumed. And a hopeful future is often envisioned.
  • In a film noir, on the other hand, everyone is cut off from each other. The dialogue is minimal, and communication is often conducted by brief glances and minimal gestures.  Loyalty is always in question and of fundamental importance.
In Le Deuxieme Souffle, a quintessential film noir, the features of fatalism, truth, and loyalty take center stage and are the major themes of the film.  The script is based on the 1958 novel by “José Giovanni” (Joseph Damiani), who, himself, was a former criminal and had spent 12 years in prison.  He had also authored the 1957 novel, Le Trou, which was made into the 1960 film of the same name directed by Jacques Becker.

The story of Le Deuxieme Souffle is complicated, and the viewer must struggle with the slow-disclosure revelation of information in order to make out what is happening and the relationships among the characters.  As is characteristic with many of Melville’s films, there are multiple focalizations, and the viewer is placed in the position of an extra “invisible witness” who is trying to get the best view of what is going on.  One can view the narrative as comprising five phases.

1.  Setting Things Up
In the first section of the film, the viewer is introduced to three separate theaters of action, which will eventually come together.  The film opens with a daring prison escape by three inmates – one in his early 20s, one in his 30s, and one in his late 40s.  In the early shots, they have to make a dangerous leap from the roof onto a tall, narrow parapet surrounding the prison.  The thirtyish guy makes the jump, but the younger man fails and falls to his death, while the older man just barely makes it.  Moments later the two survivors make it out and try to jump onto a passing freight train.  Again the older man just barely manages to make it onto the passing boxcar.  These opening images of desperation haunt the rest of the film.  We feel that the older man is unlikely to survive the dangers that are ahead of him.  In fact the English meaning of “Le Deuxieme Souffle” is “Second Wind” (or “Second Breath”), and there is a suggestion that this prison escape gives the older man, Gustave (“Gu”) Minda (played by Lino Ventura) his second wind in life.  But to me it is more like a last gasp, as the story gradually makes clear.   At any rate this first theater of action is centered on Gu.

A second theater of action is in Marseille, where nightclub owner and cigarette trafficker Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin) is making arrangements with a police informer concerning some criminal heist they intend to pull of about six weeks later.  But Paul’s partner Jeannot first wants to make a quick trip to Paris to bump off someone named Jacques the Lawyer, who apparently has double-crossed them (i.e. he has been disloyal) somehow.

The third theater of action is in Paris, where Simone Pelquier (Christine Fabréga), who is known as “Manouche”, runs a posh restaurant affiliated with the Paris underworld.  Her bartender, Alban (Michel Constantin), is actually a tough gangster, but he is the embodiment of fierce loyalty and totally dedicated to Manouche’s welfare. She is being courted by Jacques the Lawyer, when Jeannot, from Marseille, shows up and guns Jacques down in the restaurant.  In the process Jeannot is mortally wounded.

Police commisaire Blot (played by Paul Meurisse, who was memorable in Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955) and Renoir’s Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (1959)) arrives with policemen to investigate. Blot is the face of law and order in the story, but he is utterly cynical about human honesty, truth, and integrity.  He only puts his faith in the scientific findings from his on-the-scene investigations.  At this crime scene he cynically informs Manouche and Alban that their old friend Gu, after having served ten years in the pen, has just escaped from prison, which suggests to the viewer that Gu must have had some past romantic relationship with Manouche.  Blot never tries to restrict or conceal things from the criminals he is watching.  He wants them to be free to make take the actions that will reveal their guilt.

That evening Manouche and Alban come to Manouche’s home, where they are ambushed for a shakedown by two thugs who eventually reveal that they were hired by Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi), Paul’s brother who runs a Paris nightclub.  But Gu makes his way to Manouche’s home and after getting the drop on the two thugs and taking them prisoner, summarily shoots them dead.  So Gu is now an enemy of Jo Ricci.

Up to this point the pace of all these scenes has been very rapid, but now things slow down.

2. Making the Connections
In this section of the film, various factions start coming together. Paul Ricci’s planned caper is revealed to be the highway robbery of a police-escorted truck carrying 500 kg of platinum.  The haul will be enormous, but with Jeannot now gone, Paul needs another trusted person to fill out his four-man team. He talks to his brother Jo and realizes that he can’t trust him.  Then he considers another person, Orloff, who may be available. 

Orloff turns out to be a key figure.  He is the ultimate film noir icon – taciturn, circumspective, always wearing his fedora, even indoors.  Orloff is also, somewhat like Alban, ultimately trustworthy, although because of his reticence he is always under suspicion. Anyway, Orloff is offered the job as the fourth member of the heist team, but he says he needs a week to think about it.

Meanwhile Blot figures, correctly, that Gu will attempt to assassinate Jo, and he sets up an ambush. But on arrival at Jo’s nightclub, Gu gets suspicious and backs away at the last moment.  So nothing happens on that occasion except atmospheric expectation.

Afterwards Manouche convinces Gu to go to Marseille, where she can keep her lover, Gu, in a hideaway and make arrangements to make an escape from France on a boat to Italy.

3.  The Caper
Out of some mysterious feeling of loyalty, Orloff wants to anonymously help Gu.  He arranges for a fake passport for him and gets Paul and his men to accept Gu as the fourth member of the platinum heist team. Paul’s readiness to accept Gu indicates that Gu passes the loyalty test in this noirish underworld. 

The actual platinum theft is shown in detail over 13 minutes of screen time with almost no dialogue.  Everything goes like clockwork.

4.  The Police Response
When the police in Marseille learn about the theft, they spring to action, led by the crude police inspector Fardiano (Paul Frankeur). But Commissaire Blot, from Paris, also arrives in Marseilles, because he suspects that it was Gu who killed the two thugs earlier back in Paris and now he thinks Gu is involved in this affair, too.  He relies on the scientific evidence of examining bullet casings to confirm his suspicions.

But Gu is now sporting a mustache and hard to locate.  His fascination for watching petanque bowling games on the Marseille streets, though, causes him to mingle among a crowd, and he gets recognized by an off-duty prison guard.  Blot then organizes an elaborate ruse to have fake gangsters capture Gu and get him to confess his crime.  The interesting thing about this action is that Blot knows Gu would never confess anything to the police – that would be getting his criminal associates into trouble and would therefore be an act of betrayal.  But Gu is more likely to speak the truth to fellow gangsters.  So Blot’s fake gangsters, equipped with a hidden tape recorder, capture Gu and accuse him of gang disloyalty (disloyalty to an evidently known gangster called “Nevada”).  Gu angrily denies having been disloyal to Nevada, but in the process inadvertently reveals who was involved in the platinum heist.

Gu is then arrested, and his taped confession is used to arrest Paul.  The contrast between the “scientific” Blot and the brutish Fardiano is highlighted here when Fardiano promptly employs torture (unsuccessfully) in an attempt to get Gu and Paul to give explicit confessions.

5.  The Windup
The beaten-up Gu is in the hospital and under police guard. And now, thanks to a false police lead to the newspapers, everyone thinks Gu has intentionally ratted on Paul and will rat on everyone else, too.  So Jo Ricci and Paul’s two still-at-large accomplices, Pascal and Antoine, want Gu to be bumped off.  Orloff, a staunch believer in Gu’s loyalty, says the news reports must be false and remains loyal to Gu.

So everything comes down to loyalty and the “honor among thieves” ethos that dominates the film noir psychospace. For the short-horizon noir characters, maintaining a clean loyalty reputation is more important than long-term planning about a future life.  And so Gu is desperate to break out of the hospital and clear his name.  There is still more than a half-hour of the film left, and you can see for yourself what happens in the end.

There is truly an emphasis in Le Deuxieme Souffle on loyalty and on determining whom one can trust in this dark and desperate netherworld, but the film’s coverage of this topic is not as simple as some people might think.  Considering those people who have a devotion to loyalty, we might identify Gu, Paul, Alban, and Orloff. On the other side, Jo, along with Paul’s other two accomplices, seem to have no sense of honor; they are pure opportunists ready to cash in on every opportunity.  In fact they dismiss Gu as old-fashioned and no longer up to the play of the modern criminal scene.  But is it really just a contest between these two groupings?

A number of reviewers see Gu as something of a dark hero in this story, upholding his honor at the risk of his life.  I do not see much to admire in Gu, other than his grim determination.  He kills seven people in this film, and none of them in self-defense.  He is a total short-term narcissist, who is primarily obsessed with maintaining his face in the underworld – even at the cost of his own life.  Paul is in the same league, having planned a highway heist that necessarily involved the planned murders of two policemen to pull it off.  So these two characters are not honorable, to my mind; they are simply relying on a credo that they have grown up with.  In the same way many of these ruthless gangsters, following their Roman Catholic upbringing, cross themselves when they are in the presence of (and often bringing about) death. There is no depth to their behavior and nothing to admire in their actions.

Moreover, Blot does not really offer a moral alternative.  He is more like a cynical Greek chorus, who watches and sometimes manipulates the events around him.  Although he believes in scientific investigations to uncover criminals, it is not clear that he strives for truth, since he explicitly lies to Manouche at the close of the film.  Whether that lie serves any purpose is not clear.

The two people who do have some honor, Manouche and the mysterious Orloff, are the only ones who are not self-destructively fatalistic and who have some feelings and make some plans for the future – in this case an attempt to secure a future life abroad for Gu.  They are also the most selfless characters in the story (Orloff actually doffs his fedora in the presence of Manouche).  Repeatedly Manouche hints at having a future life in some far away place with Gu.  This idea never really crosses Gu’s mind.  He is really just a ruthless killer living his beastly life from one day to the next – an iconic figure of the film noir nightmare.  We knew he was doomed from the very beginning.  Melville had opened the film, as was his wont, with a textual aphoristic quotation:
“A man is given one right at birth: to choose his own death. But if he chooses because he is weary of life, then his entire existence has been without meaning.”
Gu knew he was doomed, too, and he signaled this when, late in the piece, he shaved off his mustache.  He had become weary of his hopeless life but still wanted to preserve his face.