The Bells of St. Mary’s – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This week is Thanksgiving and that means we’ve reached the Holiday season.  And going hand in hand with that is my annual holiday movie watching and reviewing ritual.  In years past I’ve especially concentrated on versions of “A Christmas Carol.”  And rightly so.  It is almost a transfiguration of the generosity of the Christmas holiday into a mythic experience.  There is an actual catharsis associated with experiencing Scrooge’s repentance and rebirth.  So, without a doubt I will have something new to say about Dicken’s classic again this year.

But let’s return to the task at hand.

Tonight, I watched again “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”  I’ve seen it many times before.  First off, it’s not actually a Christmas movie.  The movie begins in the Fall and ends in the late Spring.  There is indeed a scene or two associated with Christmas as it relates to the eponymous Catholic grammar school that is the focus of the film.  But it is incidental, not central to the plot.  Strictly speaking, there is no holiday theme to the movie at all.  What there is, is a representation of an American Roman Catholic parish grammar school from the middle of the twentieth century.  And when I say it is a representation and not an actual reflection, I can speak with all the assurance of thirteen years of Catholic school experience to back it up.  Without a doubt, the priests and nuns that I encountered in school and church bore not the faintest resemblance to the kind, patient, loving and wise religious figures that exist in the film.  Quite the contrary, I know without a doubt that some of the priests, brothers and nuns that I knew were truly evil and committed atrocities for which they can never be forgiven.  So, I have no illusions as to the reality of Catholic education and those administering it.

Also, this is a movie from 1945.  America was close to defeating the Axis powers in World War II when the movie was being made.  The populace was united and determined and looking forward to winning the war and returning to normal life including marriage and children.  Everything about the movie reflects a societal view that was carefully orchestrated by Hollywood and the Federal government to maintain morale for the civilians at home and the troops abroad.  Wholesome entertainment and Christian values were the coin of the realm.  And they were especially important around Christmas time.  So, what we see is the Hollywood idealization of Catholic grammar school life.

Put all that together and you have to conclude that this movie is a lie.  A deliberate fabrication.  Shouldn’t it be derided for deluding the public?  Maybe.  After all, if the Catholic Church has been enabling predatory pedophiles for decades maybe movies like the present one are part of the front that allowed this practice to exist.  That may be true.

But if you watch this movie you see a story about people working together to raise children not only by educating their minds but also by nurturing their spirits.  The pastor and the nuns spend the time to find out what problems the children are experiencing and giving them practical advice and help to overcome their problems and face the real world they will soon be joining.

The portrayals by Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman are extremely enjoyable.  Both of them radiate warmth, intelligence, humor and vitality.  Bergman especially shows us a sensitive woman enduring an extremely confusing and demoralizing reversal in her life.  Some of the other characters and circumstances have some predictable tropes and stereotypes painted on but these do not greatly distract us from the central plot lines and some are quaint in and of themselves.

Overall, I found this movie to be a beautiful story.  Whether it’s classified as a story, a fantasy or propaganda it is emotionally powerful and very enjoyable.  For the Christmas season it provides an idealized version of what the Christian religious community is supposed to be.  If only it truly were like the movie.

Gaslight (1944) An OCF Classic Movie Review

“Gaslight” is a thriller based on a stage play of the same name.  And in fact, our term “gaslighting” is based on the psychological abuse that is featured in this story.

Ingrid Bergman is Paula Alquist.  As a girl she lived with her famous aunt Alice Alquist, a diva of the Opera stage.  But when her aunt is murdered Paula is sent away from her aunt’s home in London to study music in Italy.  As a grown woman she falls in love with a pianist who plays for the maestro that Paula studies under.  Charles Boyer plays her lover Gregory Anton.  He convinces Paula to marry him and then to move back to London and take up residence in her aunt’s former home.

But once they settle into the house Gregory begins a concerted campaign to undermine Paula’s sanity.  He engineers situations where she seems to lose things or moves things without knowing that she’s done it.  And Gregory conspires with the maid Nancy (played by Angela Lansbury) to undermine Paula’s standing in the home by treating her like a feeble-minded invalid.  And she is isolated from the outside world under the pretext that she has become erratic and would embarrass herself if others witnessed her mental decline.

But one person exists who is aware of Paula’s return to London and is interested in her situation.  This is a Scotland Yard detective, Brian Cameron played by Joseph Cotten.  As a boy he had met Alice Alquist and now he is determined to solve the old murder case.  He suspects that Gregory is up to no good.  Cameron employs the local constable whose beat includes the Alquist home.  He encourages the constable to date Nancy the maid and find out what is going on inside the house.  And Cameron directs him to follow Gregory Anton and find out where he goes every night.

And through Cameron we learn from his superior at Scotland Yard that there were missing jewels that belonged to a foreign king who was a lover of Alice Alquist.  He had given them to her but they disappeared after her murder.  Now Cameron has the motive he has always lacked for the murder and soon he’ll have more.

One of the recurring nightmares that Paula experiences is that every night after her husband leaves the house to go to “work” the gas in her room would go down as if someone had turned on another light in the house.  And at the same time, she would here noises from above her room.  But the attic was boarded up so no one could enter it and no one else ever notices the gas change but her.

Eventually Cameron figures out that Gregory enters the vacant house around the block in order to climb on the roof and enter the attic of his own home from the roof.  There he searches for the jewels of Alice Alquist.  Once Cameron figures this out he barges into the Alquist home while Gregory is in the attic and he confronts Paula with the information.  While Cameron is searching Gregory’s locked desk for his gun Paula notices a letter that Gregory had claimed that she had imagined.  This note was written by an admirer of Alice Alquist named Sergis Bauer and had been found in Alice’s papers when she died.  After examining it and comparing it to an example of Gregory’s handwriting Cameron informs Paula that Gregory and Sergis Bauer are the same man.  Now it is clear that Gregory is her aunt’s murderer.

Meanwhile Gregory has finally found the jewels in the attic and Cameron notices the gas light rising meaning Gregory is coming home.  Cameron rushes out of the house to catch Gregory on his way home.  But Gregory no longer needs to keep up a pretense of working outside his home so he comes through the boarded-up attic door inside the house.   When Gregory discovers his desk has been rifled, he accuses Paula.  She declares that a man did it.  When Gregory demands to know what man was in the house the cook lies claiming that no one has been in the house in order to stall for time.  But hearing this Paula begins to doubt her sanity again.   She is just about to collapse into despair when Cameron shows up and confronts Gregory.  A struggle ensues and after a stray shot Cameron disarms Gregory.  Gregory bolts up into the attic and Cameron follows.  Meanwhile the cook has summoned the constable from the street and he bounds up the stairs and the two policemen subdue and tie Gregory to a chair in the attic.

For the finale Cameron agrees to let Paula talk alone to the securely bound Gregory.  Gregory begs Paula to take a knife out of a cabinet drawer and cut him free to allow him to escape.  But now Paula taunts him with his own words.  She says she’s insane so she can’t trust her own senses that something is actually a knife.  Then she throws the knife away and says, “But I seem to have lost it.”  Then by chance she finds a piece of jewelry that Gregory claimed she had lost and she becomes agitated and she declares her hatred for him and her joy at seeing him being brought to justice.  And she opens the door and demands that Cameron take Gregory away to his fate.

Right up front in the discussion I have to state that listening to Charles Boyer’s voice in this movie annoys the hell out of me.  The combination of his accent and his constant hectoring of Paula makes me want to punch him in the nose.  But at the same time Paula’s inability to stand up to Gregory’s bullying is also very annoying.  I want to shake her and slap her in the face and tell her to snap out of it.  Interestingly, Camera Girl has claimed in the past that I employ gaslighting against her.  But I claim it’s just a combination of bad memory and growing insanity on her part.  Silly woman.

Beyond those visceral feeling I enjoy this movie, especially the ending where Joseph Cotten sets things right.  Ingrid Bergman is a very good actress and even in this exaggerated atmosphere of emotional turbulence she provides a very convincing performance.

Highly recommended.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 3 – Notorious – A Classic Movie Review

Of all the films made by Alfred Hitchcock, the one that most closely aligns with the feel of Hollywood’s Golden Era is Notorious.  The action of the characters and the look and feel of the scenes adheres to the conventions and formulas of that period’s filmmaking.  And I mean this in a positive sense.  The production values are excellent.  The actors are the finest.  The dialog and plot are very well done.  A good case can be made that this is the best movie made in Hitchcock’s long and successful career as a filmmaker.  The movie takes place in 1946.  World War II had just ended and Nazis were still topical.  Ingrid Bergman’s character, Alicia Huberman, is the daughter of a German spy recently convicted of espionage in the United States.  She is a loyal American and agrees to help the U.S. government in the person of T. R. “Dev” Devlin played in his typically winning way by Cary Grant.  Naturally they fall in love but the problem is the government wants Alicia to become romantically entangled with a German industrialist living in Rio de Janeiro named Alex Sebastian (played by the inimitable Claude Rains in his remarkably idiosyncratic way).  She is supposed to find out what dastardly plots these escaped Nazis are planning.  This of course leads to jealousy and spite in Devlin and pain and anger in Alicia.  When circumstances force her to marry Sebastian to maintain the espionage this further poisons the relationship between our two star crossed lovers (are there any other kind?).  The plot has twists and turns and uranium salts (which got Hitchcock in trouble with the real US Government) but throughout we root for the love story and hiss at the bad guys (in this case Nazis and the US Secret Service).  The remarkable thing in this movie is that although Claude Rains is the evil Nazi you kind of sympathize with his character at certain turns.  He is the unfortunate man in a house with two women, his new wife and his domineering mother.  And he is haunted by the ubiquitous Cary Grant popping up everywhere and presumably a rival for his wife’s affections.  Who wouldn’t want an atom bomb available under those difficult circumstances?

Hitchcock’s cinematic work began well before Hollywood’s Golden Era and in England.  He continued to create popular and original thrillers well into the 1960s, long after the studio system had disappeared.  Thus, Hitchcock is not defined by or limited to the Golden Era sensibilities.  But Notorious without a doubt possesses the “classic” look of that era and definitely deserves its reputation as a masterpiece.  Anyone interested in Hitchcock or the movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s should consider viewing this film.

Now put all that aside.  Notorious is a great story.  Hitchcock provides all kinds of suspense and intrigue.  Everyone on both sides is hiding something from everyone, including themselves.  So much deception even starts to trip up the deceivers and eventually it all starts to crumble.  The ending is a collapse all around and a fitting finale.  I highly recommend this movie and hope you’ll enjoy the performances not only by the three main characters but also from all those bit part Nazis doing their best to be wonderfully evil.