Thursday, November 30, 2023

Medea (1969)

To describe Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969) as an adaptation of the 5th century BC play of Euripides would be a bit misleading. Pasolini uses the play as a jumping-off point. Pasolini was making a movie and movies being a visual medium he eliminated most of the dialogue, choosing to tell the story visually.

It’s the story of Jason (as in Jason and the Argonauts) and Medea. Jason’s kingdom was stolen from him. To retrieve his kingdom he has to bring back the Golden Fleece. It doesn’t enable him to regain his kingdom but he does acquire a wife, a princess (and sorceress) of Colchis named Medea.

The ambitious Jason heads for Corinth and his ambitions are about to be realised. He is to marry a second time, to the daughter of the king of Corinth. A very advantageous match from Jason’s point of view. At which point Medea takes her revenge.

This is not a story of a woman scorned. There is much more going on here.

Jason was raised by a centaur who told him that there is nothing natural in nature. This is the key to understanding the society from which both Jason and Medea come, and Pasolini spends much of the early part of the movie world-building, immersing us in an extraordinarily alien world. This is a world in which everything is understood in terms of myth and ritual and magic. There is not even the slightest hint of rationality in this world. In this world reason explains nothing; myth and ritual and magic explain everything.

If we do not understand just how alien this society is we cannot understand Medea’s later actions and we might make the mistake of regarding her as a madwoman. She is not mad. She simply views the whole of life in terms of her own culture and religion, and from her point of view her actions are not merely justified but necessary.

Medea has certainly suffered a grievous insult in being discarded in favour of a much younger woman but it is a double betrayal. By taking her to Corinth Jason tempted Medea to abandon her culture and religion and her thoroughly pre-modern pre-civilised view of the world.

There is an interesting scene that takes place shortly after Jason’s theft of the Golden Fleece. Jason’s sailors make camp for the night. Medea is terrified, horrified and bewildered when they fail to perform the necessary rituals (or what she considers to be the necessary rituals).

It’s possible that Pasolini is trying to make a point about the alienating nature of civilisation and the way it strips life of its magic and its meaning. Not every viewer is necessarily going to be in sympathy with this. It doesn’t really matter whether you agree with such a view or not. What matters is that there is a very real and profound clash of cultures and beliefs and that Medea certainly feels alienated from the more modern more civilised cultures and beliefs of Corinth. The movie still works whether you agree with the message or not.

Pasolini’s own views on culture, politics, religion and cinema seem to have been constantly changing and also seem to have been contradictory and confused. That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw in a film-maker. He can use the opportunity to work though his ideas.

Maria Callas was the world’s most famous soprano at the time but she had the reputation of being an opera singer who didn’t just sing her parts but acted them powerfully as well. She was an inspired choice to play Medea. No-one else in the movie can act at all, but that works in a way. This is not a realist movie. Pasolini’s cinematic roots may have been in realism but Medea makes no concessions to realism. The stiff artificial performances of the other cast members enhance the film’s artificiality, and also serve to focus our attention on Callas.

This is not a stagey film but that artificiality is constantly emphasised. Jason was raised by a centaur. The centaur does not look the slightest bit convincing. He looks like a stage centaur. In fact he probably looks the way a centaur would have looked in a fifth century BC theatrical performance.

The location shooting (in Turkey, Syria and Italy) is stunning. Pasolini uses locations and architecture to emphasise his points. In Colchis we do not see a single straight line. Every building, every habitations, looks like it grew out of the soil. In Corinth everything is ordered. Nothing looks organic. Everything is constructed according to perfect classical proportions.

Medea is a movie you’re either going to love or hate. It depends on whether you’re able to immerse yourself fully in its world. If you are able to do that then the film is a strange magic experience. I enjoyed it a great deal. Your mileage might well vary.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad, released in 1924, is the greatest of the 1920s Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers. It’s one of the greatest swashbuckling adventure movies of all time, and in my opinion it’s the greatest Hollywood movie of the silent era. Fairbanks considered it to be his best movie, and he was right.

It was not the huge box-office bonanza that had been hoped for. It’s an ambitious demanding movie and audiences looking for pure escapist entertainment found it a little bewildering. It has long provoked conflicting critical assessments, but then great works of art tend to do that.

There have been many movies since that have been inspired by the Arabian Nights but none have surpassed the Fairbanks film.

By 1924, in the wake of box office blockbusters such as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Robin Hood (1922) Fairbanks was a huge star. He had a great deal of creative control. He conceived, produced and wrote his 1920s swashbucklers and had major input into every aspect of these films. For The Thief of Bagdad he was also lucky to have very talented collaborators. Raoul Walsh directed and William Cameron Menzies was the art director. But there is no question that this is Fairbanks’ movie. The idea was his and the movie is his vision. He supervised every aspect of the production. Fairbanks was very much an auteur, possibly the outstanding example of a producer-star as auteur.

Fairbanks plays a thief in Bagdad. The Caliph’s daughter is to be married but her husband has not yet been chosen. Three of the greatest princes in the known world have arrived as suitors. They are not merely keen to marry a beautiful princess. Marriage to the princess will make the successful suitor master of Bagdad one day. One of the suitors, the Prince of the Mongols, intends to take Bagdad by force if his suit is unsuccessful.

The princess is superstitious and believes that the man who first touches the rose-tree beneath her window is the man she should marry, and she knows that her father will accept her choice of husband.

The thief sees an opportunity to enrich himself. He steals expensive clothing and presents himself as a fourth suitor, the prince of an entirely mythical land. Of course when he meets the princess he genuinely falls in love with her. And of course his imposture is revealed and he is whipped for his presumption.

A holy man tells him that he must earn the right to the princess’s hand by undergoing a series of quests. If he succeeds then he will surely be enable to marry the princess.

The princess, in order to buy herself time (she dislikes the other three suitors intensely) proposes a quest for the suitors as well. She says she will marry the man who bings her the most fabulously valuable gift. The suitors set out to find suitable gifts which naturally must have magical properties.

The princess has a spy in her midst, a treacherous slave-girl (played by Anna May Wong) who serves the Prince of the Mongols.

It’s a fine story but it’s the way Fairbanks unfolds the story which is entrancing.

In 1924 techniques for moving the camera did not yet exist. F.W. Murnau and his cinematographer Karl Freund are usually given the credit for inventing these techniques in Germany at around this time although the truth is slightly more complicated. In the case of The Thief of Bagdad it doesn’t matter. There are many ways of bringing a sense of movement and dynamism into shots without moving the camera and both Fairbanks and Walsh were keenly aware of the importance of avoiding a static feel. With a star like Fairbanks that was easy. The man was a human dynamo who never stopped moving. If he did stop moving he had the ability to make you think he was about to burst into action again any second.

All the cast members are constantly in movement. Also utilised is the very effective technique of having things happening simultaneously in different parts of the frame. The editing is also lively and very modern. While Walsh must be given some credit it is clear that his job as director was simply to help Fairbanks realise his vision.

One of the most impressive things about this movie is the extraordinary sense of scale that it achieves. You know the sets cannot possibly be that big and yet you find yourself believing that you’re seeing enormous palaces and vast caverns. And in fact the sets really were enormous - the biggest ever built in Hollywood. The movie is extraordinarily successful in achieving a genuine sense of a fantastic world of unreality, a world in which you believe even while acknowledging its unreality. This really is the Arabian Nights brought to life.

The look of the film was heavily influenced by Léon Bakst’s designs for Diaghilev’s ballets, especially Scheherazade.

When watching movies from this period you have to remind yourself just how new was the technology of motion pictures. Motion pictures were being made in the late 1890s but in 1924 the feature film as we know it was only a decade old. Taking this into account the special effects in The Thief of Bagdad work pretty well. How well the special effects work is unimportant. It is the beauty and grandeur of the images and the soaring imagination required to create those images that is breathtaking.

It’s interesting to compare this movie to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), made in Germany the same year. Fairbanks had been impressed by Lang’s films, especially Destiny. Fairbanks set out to surpass the German masters, and to a certain extent he succeeded.

Fairbanks brings power and manic energy to the rôle of the thief but also extraordinary grace. He is like an athlete and a dancer rolled into one. Julanne Johnston is both sweet and clever as the Princess. Most reviewers focus quite a bit on Anna May Wong but while she’s fine she has no more than a minor supporting rôle.

The Eureka Masters of Cinema release includes the movie on both Blu-Ray and DVD, with various extras. The transfer is excellent and most importantly it preserves the tinting. Tinting was an important technique is silent film and Fairbanks used it to perfection.

Fairbanks was one of the grand masters of cinema. The Thief of Bagdad is very highly recommended indeed.

Monday, November 20, 2023

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

The Bob Rafelson-directed 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of several screen adaptations of James M. Cain’s famous novel. There are those who think Luchino Visconti’s 1943 version, Ossessione, is the best. It’s certainly very very good. The most famous is the 1946 MGM version with Lana Turner and John Garfield, which was severely constrained by the Production Code and is a bit too clean and glossy to capture the essential James M. Cain spirit.

This movie can be considered a neo-noir but it needs to be pointed out that Cain’s greatest novels, this one and Double Indemnity, don’t strictly follow noir conventions. We don’t have a reasonably OK but slightly morally compromised protagonist led astray by a femme fatale. Both stories include a femme fatale (and Phyllis Dietrichson and Cora Papadakis are memorable femmes fatales) but in both cases Cain offers us two people, a man and a woman, who are both equally morally corrupt and rotten. They lead each other even further along the path of corruption but the moral corruption and rottenness are there from the beginning.

The 1981 version offered an opportunity to create the authentic James M,. Cain atmosphere of desperation, lust, greed, sleaze, sweatiness and general scuzziness. For the most part it succeeds in doing that. It certainly had the right leads in Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Jack Nicholson was born to play this role.

The decision was made to give the movie a 1930s setting. This was the correct decision. The novel was written in 1934 and it’s very much a Depression-Era story that would have seemed out of place in the 80s.

One potential problem was the the combination of a period setting and colour cinematography would result in a movie that was much too pretty. For the first half of the movie the subdued earthtone-based colour palette helps to avert that danger and it looks every bit as seedy as it should look.

Frank Chambers (Nicholson) is a drifter and small-time con artist. If he can con his way into a free meal he thinks he’s a winner. When he arrives at Nick Papadakis’s isolated roadside diner and gas station he manages to do just that. Instead of getting mad Nick offers him a job as a mechanic. Frank doesn’t want the job, until he spots Nick’s wife Cora (Jessica Lange).

Pretty soon Frank and Cora are having dirty rough sex on the kitchen table. Frank was the instigator but Cora gets into the spirit of the thing pretty quickly. You couldn’t call it love-making. It’s more like animalistic mating.

Frank and Cora develop quite a sexual obsession. Frank is a loser and a sleazebag and there’s an edge of violence and cruelty to him. This turns Cora on a lot. Cora isn’t glamorous but she has an earthy animal sexuality and she’s a bit of a tramp. This turns Frank on a lot.

Eventually the idea was going to occur to them that if Nick wasn’t around they’d be able to have rough dirty sex on the kitchen table whenever they felt like it. You know where this is going to lead.

We get to the dramatic climax of the movie, which is fine and quite clever. But then it just keeps going. And going on and on and on, with totally irrelevant subplots being thrown in as the movie self-destructs.

The first half of this movie is superb. This is James M. Cain in all his seedy squalid glory brought to the screen. The second half seems like a totally different movie, or possibly bits and pieces of several different movies. Apparently Bob Rafelson and screenwriter wanted to do a film noir blended with a love story. Why any sane person would think it a good idea to use a James M. Cain novel as the basis for a love story is beyond me.

Worse still, the two lead characters become totally different people. This means we no longer believe in the characters and consequently we no longer care about them.

And the contrived ending is the final nail in the movie’s coffin.

There are things like a great deal about the first half of the movie. Nicholson and Lange smoulder with lust and greed. The sex scenes are incredibly sleazy and dirty as they should be in a James M. Cain story. Nicholson and Lange are superb in those scenes. The production design is excellent. This is the 1930s totally stripped of glamour.

Unfortunately their performances become increasingly incoherent and confused.

One gets the impression of a movie made by a director and screenwriter (David Mamet) who had an idea of what they wanted to do but their idea was ill-judged and unworkable and inevitably resulted in a movie that loses its way completely.

This movie represents a spectacular missed opportunity. The production designer and cinematographer give it the perfect visual style. It has a dream cast. It should have worked. It does work superbly for the first hour. Then it falls apart.

Is Rafelson’s 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice worth seeing? In some ways yes, but it’s a very deeply flawed movie. The 1943 Italian version and the 1946 Hollywood version have problems as well. No-one has yet made the definitive film adaptation of this novel.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Hangman (1959)

The Hangman is a slightly odd but interesting 1959 Michael Curtiz-directed western starring Robert Taylor.

Taylor plays U.S. Deputy Marshal Mackenzie Bovard who finds that bringing in a wanted man presents a few problems. For starters Bovard has no idea what the fugitive, an ex-cavalryman named Butterfield, looks like. It’s also a certainty that Butterfield will have changed his name.

There is one person who could identify Butterfield. That person is Selah Jennison (Tina Louise). She’s a pretty young widow eking out a miserable existence working in a laundry. She and Butterfield had been sweethearts but he married another girl. Bovard is confident that the $500 reward will be sufficient to persuade Selah to turn Butterfield in.

Bovard is cynical, hardbitten, ruthless and unsentimental. He has no love for the human race. He believes that everyone can be bought. You just have to offer them the right price. Bovard himself is scrupulously honest. His cynical view of human nature is so extreme that it may have distorted his view of reality. As a lawman Bovard has gained such a reputation for remorseless efficiency that he has gained the nickname The Hangman.

Bovard has a lead. He believes he knows where Butterfield is. It’s a peaceful small town. Bovard soon picks out a likely suspect, a teamster named Johnny Bishop (Jack Lord). Everyone in the town is aghast at the idea that anyone could suspect the popular Johnny Bishop of being a desperate criminal involved in a stage coach robbery that ended in several murders.

The sheriff, Buck (Fess Parker), is an easy-going kind of guy and he also refuses to believe that Johnny Bishop could be a criminal.

Bovard however is convinced that he has his man and he’s convinced that Selah can identify him. His only doubt is whether Selah will go through with it.

There is some action but this is far from being a blood-drenched western. The emphasis is on the characters, not the action. Principally the emphasis is on Bovard and Selah. And there are all sorts of complex emotional undercurrents involving the four main characters.

Bovard is honest but the job has made him hard and cynical. He’s forgotten how to trust people. The job has become an obsession. He grows steadily more obsessed with a touch of paranoia thrown in. He thinks everybody in the town is conspiring against him to stop him from bringing a guilty man to justice. He’s also bitter towards Selah but in a complicated way. First he despises her for agreeing to help him find Butterfield, because it makes her like everyone else he has ever encountered - willing to betray an old friend for money. Then he gets angry at her when he thinks she won’t help him. His conflicted feelings about Selah reflect his conflicted feelings about himself. Maybe she’s right. Maybe he’s become just as bad as the bad men he hunts.

This is the kind of complicated conflicted rôle that Robert Taylor did so well in the 50s, when he shed his lightweight matinee idol image and started taking on much darker rôles. Not necessarily villains. He came to specialise in worldweary morally compromised characters and brought a great deal of depth to such parts. Taylor has never achieved quite the recognition he deserves.

I must confess that when I hear the name Tina Louise I immediately think of Gilligan’s Island. Her character here is a million miles away from movie star Ginger. In her own way Selah Jennison is just as worldweary and cynical as Bovard. She doesn’t want to be an informer but she needs the five hundred dollars. She hates herself for being tempted by the money, and Bovard despises her for betraying her ex-lover for money. In her own way she’s as conflicted as Bovard. Tina Louise does a pretty impressive job in a demanding part.

There’s no real good vs evil theme in this movie. There are just people who have landed themselves in difficult situations and they’re struggling to figure out what they should do.

This is a very low-key western. There are no spectacular action sequences, no sweeping western panoramas, no epic feel. And, unusually for 1959, it was shot in black-and-white. It feels like a B-movie in some ways but that works to its advantage. The viewer is not distracted by spectacle and has to focus on the intimate psychological dramas. With an intelligent script by Dudley Nichols and fine performances by Robert Taylor and Tina Louise it’s an intriguing movie that deserves more attention. The ending breaks many of the rules of the genre but while it won’t please everybody I thought it worked. The Hangman is highly recommended.

The Olive Films DVD release looks just fine.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947)

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome was the last of the four RKO Dick Tracy B-movies made between 1945 and 1947.

Chester Gould’s The Dick Tracy comic strip enjoyed huge popularity in the 1930s. Inevitably Hollywood took an interest. Republic made four serials in the late 30s and early 40s with Ralph Byrd as Tracy. The four feature films from RKO followed. Morgan Conway played Dick Tracy in the first two films and Ralph Byrd returned to the rôle for the last two.

Gould wrote the comic strip from 1931 until 1977. The two-way wrist radio that later became such a recognised trademark of the strip did not put in an appearance until 1946 and therefore does not feature in either the serials or the movies.

The movie opens with a sinister figure (Boris Karloff) entering a bar. We’re not surprised to learn that he is known as Gruesome. Karloff is not wearing actual monster makeup but he is subtly made up to look slightly monstrous. He’s looking for his buddy, a piano player nicknamed Melody. Melody tells Gruesome he has a job lined up. We never doubt for a moment that it’s a criminal enterprise of some sort. Gruesome goes to meet the guy organising the job and finds himself waiting in a scientific laboratory. Rather unwisely he uncorks a test tube and has a sniff. He then goes reeling out into the street.

A beat cop, assuming he’s a drunk, picks him up but by the time he gets him back to headquarters the supposed drunk is as stiff as a board and obviously dead.

Since this is Boris Karloff and he has star billing we know he can’t be really dead, and he isn’t.

Shortly afterwards Gruesome gets up off the slab in the morgue and walks out. This certainly puzzles homicide cop Dick Tracy.

It was that chemical that Gruesome sniffed. It has the effect of causing temporary total paralysis.

That chemical will be the key to pulling off a successful bank robbery. If everyone in the bank - the staff, the security guards, the customers - is paralysed then robbing the bank will be child’s play. It gets better. Afterwards the person remembers nothing of what happened around him during the period of paralysis. That means that not only can he not interfere with the robbery, he can’t be a witness. It’s the key to the perfect crime.

Of course in practice it turns out to be not so perfect. Dick Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Anne Gwynne) just happens to be in the bank at the time of the robbery and she was in the telephone kiosk so she escaped the paralysing gas. So Dick Tracy has a witness. Tracy gets another break as well, due to bungling by a member of the gang.

There’s not enough evidence to make an arrest. Tracy thinks the key is to find the source of that gas. A frightened scientist may offer a clue.

Tracy has to take a big risk to crack this case but he’s used to doing things like that.

This movie has hints of both the film noir and gothic horror visual styles. Content-wise it’s a typical hardboiled crime B-movie except for the addition of the science fiction element of the paralysing gas.

Ralph Byrd is a fine Dick Tracy and looks the part. Karloff plays Gruesome as a mean hoodlum and does a splendid job. Skelton Knaggs as X-Ray (one of the gang members) adds a subtle touch of weirdness.

This is a movie based on a comic strip and it does have a bit of a comic-strip feel, which is as it should be. It manages to be hardboiled and at the same time just a trifle outlandish and exaggerated. It’s an approach that works.

I have this movie in one of those Mill Creek 50-movie public domain collections. The transfer is remarkably good.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome is fast-moving well-crafted entertainment with a slightly unusual feel.

I’ve also reviewed the first two movies in the series, Dick Tracy, Detective (1945) and Dick Tracy vs Cueball (1946). Both are worth seeing.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Trader Horn (1931)

MGM’s Trader Horn was the first major feature film (as distinct from documentary film) shot on location in Africa. It cost a fortune to make but was a major box-office hit. It’s a kind of jungle girl adventure film.

It was based (loosely) on the memoirs of the real Trader Horn, Alfred Aloysius Horn, a celebrated ivory trader.

In the movie the middle-aged Trader Horn (Harry Carey) is introducing the son of his late partner to the like of a trader in Africa. The young man is named Peru (Duncan Renaldo).

They encounter a famed woman missionary, Edith Trent (played by Harry Carey’s wife Olive). Edith has been searching for twenty years for her daughter Nina, carried off as an infant in a native raid. She believes she now has a fair idea where her daughter might be found. It means travelling into very dangerous country indeed. She extracts a promise from Horn - if she is killed he will continue the search for Nina.

Soon afterwards Edith is killed, and Horn is determined to keep his promise. Horn, Peru and Horn’s gun bearer Rencharo set off to find Nina.

They find Nina (played by Edwina Booth). She has been raised by an isolated tribe that has had no contact with Europeans. The tribe worship Nina as a kind of goddess. Horn, Peru and Rencharo are captured and are about to be sacrificed but Nina decides she can’t let that happen. Accompanied by Nina they make their escape in a canoe but the tribe is in hot pursuit. The second half of the movie is an extended chase through the wilds of Africa.

Nina is blonde, gorgeous and sexy and both Horn and Peru fall for her charms. So we have a classic romantic triangle setup.

The acting is a mixed bag. Harry Carey is pretty good. Edwina Booth is perfectly adequate and manages to look like a very glamorous jungle girl. Duncan Renaldo’s performance on the other hand is excruciatingly awful and irritating.

The making of the film was not without its problems. Two members of the crew were killed during the location shooting in Africa (according to one story a cameraman was eaten by a crocodile). Edwina Booth became very ill. There were problems with the sound recording and as a result some scenes had to be reshot in the studio. It was an incredibly ambitious movie. It has to be said that the location shooting is very impressive. Some additional scenes were shot in Mexico.

This was long before the age of television nature documentaries but in the 1920s and 30s documentary films shot in exotic places were hugely popular. The director of Trader Horn, W.S. Van Dyke, had actually made such films.

Trader Horn ends up being a cross between an adventure story and a travelogue. The travelogue elements slow the movie down (and at just over two hours this movie is much too long) but audiences at the time were entranced by the location shooting.

The pacing is a real problem. There’s nothing wrong with the plot, it’s a standard jungle girl story which hadn’t yet become a cliché, but there’s just not enough plot to stretch out for two hours.

Does it have any pre-code elements? Not many, but Edwina Booth’s costume is pretty revealing and would have caused problems with the Production Code after 1934.

There was another Trader Horn movie, with a totally different plot, made in 1973.

The 1931 Trader Horn has some truly spectacular visual moments and it is a jungle girl movie and I love jungle girl movies. Just don’t expect it to reflect the social attitudes of 2023. It has some entertaining moments but it’s so very slow that it’s difficult to recommend.

The transfer on the Warner Archive DVD is acceptable.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

The Woman Between (1931)

The Woman Between (later retitled Madame Julie) is a 1931 RKO pre-code melodrama.

Doris Whitcomb (Miriam Seeger) is very excited because her brother Victor (Lester Vail) is coming home from Europe. He’s been away for several years, since their father’s remarriage. At the time Victor was outraged that his father had dared to remarry after the death of Victor’s mother. Doris was not overly pleased by the marriage either.

The father, John Whitcomb (O.P. Heggie), chose for his second wife a glamorous French fashion model named Julie. Julie (Lili Damita) now runs a dress shop called Madame Julie’s. It’s more than a dress shop. It is the most exclusive and expensive fashion house in New York. Julie has been away in Europe as well, on a short business trip.

There’s naturally going to be a dinner party at the Whitcomb house to celebrate Victor’s return. Doris and her friend Helen (Anita Louise) are very excited. It’s obvious that Doris hopes that romance will blossom between Victor and Helen.

Romance has however already blossomed for Victor. It was a passionate whirlwind shipboard romance with a beautiful sophisticated Frenchwoman. Victor doesn’t want that romance to end. He suspects that the lady is a married woman but he doesn’t care. He is sure she can’t possibly be in love with her husband. He will persuade her to get a divorce and they’ll be married.

What poor Victor doesn’t know is that the sexy sophisticated Frenchwoman with whom he had dallied on the ship is his stepmother Julie. He had walked out of his father’s house without waiting to meet wife number two so he had never set eyes on her before their shipboard fling.

He also doesn’t want to believe that Julie is a married woman who is perhaps no stranger to adultery.

Naturally things get a bit tense at the dinner party when Victor is introduced to his stepmother.

Things get more tense later when Doris figures out what her brother and stepmother have been up to.

Victor wants Julie to run off with him. Julie doesn’t know what to do. She loves Victor but has no desire to hurt her husband.

To make things more difficult John Whitcomb (who has no idea what is going on) has suddenly decided to quit his high-powered business career to devote himself to making Julie happy.

This is a pre-code movie so it deals with the situation in a realistic grown-up way. Julie doesn’t want to hurt either Victor or her husband but one of them is inevitably going to get hurt. Emotional entanglements are like that.

Had this movie been made in the Production Code era the situation would have been resolved very simply. Julie would pay for her wickedness by dying horribly. Victor would have to pay as well. Virtue would be triumphant. But this was made in the pre-code era, when writers and directors were free to tell stories the way they wanted to and endings were not predictable. There was no obsession with the punishment of sin. Life was treated as something that was complicated.

It should also be mentioned that this was 1931, a time when women’s fashions were remarkably glamorous, elegant and slinky. The three main female characters are gorgeously dressed which gives the movie an added touch of class.

There’s some humour here but essentially this is a grown-up romantic melodrama. The Woman Between is fine entertainment and is highly recommended.

This movie is one of five included in the excellent Kino Classic RKO Classic Romances pre-code DVD boxed set. The transfer is a good one. The set also includes The Lady Refuses (1931), Kept Husbands (1931), Millie (1931) and Sin Takes a Holiday (1930). They’re all worth seeing, making this set a must-buy for pre-code fans.