Tuesday, March 27, 2012

This Happy Breed (1944), at the Criterion Collection

The Siren's essay, "Home Truths," about David Lean's film of the Noel Coward play This Happy Breed, is up now at the Criterion Collection. A brief excerpt is below. You can read the whole thing at the Criterion site; the Siren strongly encourages you to comment over there. And, should the spirit move you, please also click the "like" button at the bottom.

David Lean is a giant, and the Siren is still in (pleasant) shock that when she got a chance to write something for Criterion, it was about one of his movies. She's also developing a greatly expanded appreciation of the breadth and depth of Noel Coward. The piece is part of the booklet to the four-disc boxed set, David Lean Directs Noel Coward. Entirely aside from her participation the Siren tells you, in all honesty, that the set is a honey.

The film opens with the camera gliding across a panoramic view of London, followed by a dissolve to a street of houses. Then we pan again and descend toward the houses’ gardens, continue moving to an open second-story window, and finally dissolve inside to the bathroom. The camera moves past that filthy bathtub, down stairs so ramshackle you feel you can already hear them creak, and finally arrives at the front door just as Frank Gibbons does. This beginning, moving from the epic to the personal with exquisite precision, sets the film’s entire vocabulary. A large-scale interlude establishes the time period—whether it’s the strike or Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich—then there’s a dissolve back to the Gibbonses, and as the family’s scene closes, Lean’s camera pulls away.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Celia Johnson: Acting in a Little Cut-Off Bit of Light

Next week, on March 27, the Criterion Collection releases David Lean Directs Noël Coward, one of their lavish boxed sets. It includes In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit. And the Siren is most pleased to announce that it will include an essay from her about This Happy Breed, the second film that Lean and Coward did together, and Lean's first in color. Brief Encounter is the acknowledged jewel of the set, but after watching, rewatching, living and breathing This Happy Breed for the weeks it took her to write the essay, the Siren stoutly maintains it's a close second. Restored to its full glory by the British Film Institute, the movie is simply dazzling. On the release date, the Siren's essay will go live on the Criterion site, and she'll post a small excerpt and link then, and explain why she thinks This Happy Breed deserves a much higher reputation.

For her research the Siren bought a biography of This Happy Breed's female lead Celia Johnson, written by Johnson's daughter, Kate Fleming. Johnson was married to Peter Fleming, an explorer and writer who was also the brother of Ian Fleming. Their marriage lasted from 1936 to 1971, when Fleming died of a heart attack while on a hunting trip to Scotland. Together they had three children, and the book chronicles Johnson's professional life as well as her efforts to maintain a household with a husband who was frequently absent. (The Siren doesn't know whether it was ever even published here--she had to order hers from a bookstore in the U.K. via ABEbooks, where it can be had quite cheaply.)

The biography has sneakily become one of the Siren's favorites. There's Fleming's attitude toward her mother: love and gratitude. That's it. No grim secrets. No "how I overcame the staggering burden of having a star for a mother." Johnson certainly doesn't come across as a saint, but Fleming believes her mother was a remarkable woman. Fancy that.

The larger reason is that the Siren grew to love Johnson. Fleming quotes her mother's witty, intelligent, loving letters throughout, many of them written to Peter as he journeyed anywhere, everywhere. She tells Peter she wants to get on a boat and cross the seas to get to him: "There I would say 'Where please is Peter Fleming?' They would tell me without hesitation and I should walk rapidly inland avoiding all bandits and fall into your arms."

Johnson never considered herself a beauty of any sort (although the photo above, taken in 1933, offers its own disagreement) and one small subtheme of the letters concerns how lousy she always thinks she looks on camera. She moans over that, but her household burdens merit less complaint. And Johnson had plenty to complain about, had she chosen to do so. She and Fleming bought a house well outside London that required much more commuting time and upkeep than was strictly practical for a working actress. During World War II, including during the filming of This Happy Breed, the Fleming menage swelled to include her widowed sister, her sister-in-law and a total of seven small children, hers and theirs, the men all off at war. The Siren read accounts of Johnson's determination to make her train home without fail, gas for a car being out of the question--and doesn't blame her a bit.

She was a marvelous actress, of course, and that's enough. But how wonderful to open this book and find out, shoot, the woman was a riot. Here she is on holiday in Majorca, mentioning to an American tourist that she had just been working in New York. The American remarks:

'Oh I saw [Raymond] Massey's Hamlet on the first night and couldn't stand the Ophelia--who was that?' In a still small voice I said 'Well that was me'--and [he] spent the rest of lunch apologising and explaining it away, and me by saying how right he was about it over and over again. He has avoided me frantically ever since, smiling nervously when he sees me and immediately starting to talk very hard to someone else.

Johnson's filmography is short, shorter than it could have been, though it includes the indelible Brief Encounter and fine late-career work in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the television drama Staying On. And while she was primarily a theater actress, her list of credits there isn't large, either. She simply didn't pursue or accept roles that would interfere too much with her family. Like most great talents, though, the acting still mattered. It mattered a lot. So the Siren closes with this from Johnson, a piece called "Film Star Manqué" that she wrote in the 1950s and sent to a literary agent, but never published. Johnson's mind never switched off; she saw a great deal more on a set than her own scenes. She starts with a hilarious story about a director who introduces her at a film festival, and she wonders why his speech (in German) is taking so long, until she floats onstage, he thrusts some flowers at her and whispers, "That was a near thing…I had to spin out my speech for ages because I simply couldn't think of your name."

The passage that follows will remain one of the loveliest things the Siren has ever read about film acting.

…Sometimes I get a sort of nostalgia for the actual work of filming. I miss the strange, unmistakeable smell of size and paint that you find on all film sets and the hot powdery smell of the makeup rooms. I miss the curious sort of camera worship that goes on. It has its own devoted band of acolytes who feed it and polish it and push it gently about and shield it from harsh lights. They even fling blondes in front of it like tributes to a savage god. There is an an organised confusion on a film set when nothing seems to happen for hours and then everything goes quiet for a seconds, and in those few seconds you have to try and fit something consistent and true on to something that you probably did days before or have not yet done. There is a challenge in trying to act in a little cut-off bit of light, with no audience but the technicians and a fastidious director. Those technicians not concerned with the take are probably filling in their football pools and if you can make them look up and watch to the end of your shot you have probably achieved something.

I like the dedication that great directors have, when nothing matters except the film they are making and they cannot think that anything matters to anyone else either. I like being measured for focus by a tape from the end of one's nose to the camera and measured for light by the camera-man with his meter and I like to watch the skill of the technicians and I forget all the things I don't like. There were many. Mainly the waiting about, particularly on those depressing days when one had an early call, and that means dawn rising, and then, because of some hold-up, not be needed on the set until dusk. Rushes I never liked. That is when you see the shots of the day before and are horrified at your lack of subtlety or the size of your nose.

I used to be annoyed by what I thought was the waste, but at the same time impressed by the lordly way in which anything--however peculiar, rare or costly--could be produced at a moment's notice. I liked the machine that can make cobwebs, delicate threads of a rubbery solution shot from a spray in a twinkling and the detailed observation shown by the continuity girls, who can tell you the length of ash on your cigarette necessary to match for a close-up. I have always liked professionals and to watch professional film-making from the inside is a pleasure, though not, I think, from the outside, and I am glad that for a while I was able to do this. I never felt anything but surprise at being there, but I also think and hope that I became a professional at it on the set, though never on parade.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1951)

The Siren's mentioned the previous life she spent behind a jewelry counter. She recalls one slow morning spent poring over a society column about a New York designer and his haute summer doings in the Hamptons, and her coworker's loud snort: "Sweetie, don't let the yacht fool you. He started out pushing racks around the garment district. He's tougher than you and me will ever think about being."

This nostalgic vignette came to mind when the Siren spent a sick day watching I Can Get It for You Wholesale, the 1951 Twentieth-Century Fox melodrama about the Seventh Avenue rag trade here in Little Old New York. Fashion has doubled, maybe even quintupled its everyday presence since the 50s. Now we play "who wore it best?" for all the world as though anyone strolling the local mall knows exactly how the latest Alber Elbaz should be draped. But the Siren strongly suspects the industry has stayed as tough as ever. She only wishes this movie, so brilliant through a good stretch of its running time, had done the same.

Filmed on location, I Can Get It for You Wholesale has any number of things going for it, but two stand out. First there's the street photography, night and day, crowds and traffic and windows from Seventh Avenue to Central Park. Director Michael Gordon was, on the evidence of this movie as well as Pillow Talk and Portrait in Black, good, if not quite great; we'll always have a hard time knowing how much Gordon really had, because his career is bisected by the blacklist. Gordon has a flair for amusing shots, like an errand boy with his hand cradling a dress dummy's boob, and the camera tracking around a grand dinner-dance to reveal the main characters stuck out behind a pillar. He could keep the action flowing. And the New York street scenes, via DP Milton Krasner — trust the Siren, you will plotz.

The second, and primary, thing: Abraham Polonsky's script (from Vera Caspary's adaptation), which will put the true lover of New Yorkese into a euphoric trance. Leads and character actors such as Marvin Kaplan and Charles Lane reel out line after glittering line, from the poignant

If I had money, could you learn to love me for my money?

to the flowery

Miss Boyd, you have the simple and astonishing beauty of an old-fashioned straight razor.

to the existentially profound

A young man needs a bankruptcy. It helps him to mature.

to the profoundly vaudeville.

Haven't we treated you right?
You want more money?
We'll give you a raise.
You wanna take your wife to Jones Beach? I'll lend you my Buick.
Take my Cadillac.
Take my wife!

My beloved auteurist friends, this is why the Siren has been known to roll her eyes when told a great director could direct the phone book or whatever platitude you will. In this case, it's the reverse. You'd have to work at messing up that dialogue. The script sings. At times Gordon is just getting the hell out of the way.

Harriet Boyd (Susan Hayward) is a model on Seventh Avenue, back when the profession was a lot more B-girl than Bundchen. She's had it up to her cute little keister with pawing buyers and slick salesmen, and she's ready to use her design talent. Harriet lures Sam Cooper (Sam Jaffe), the "inside man" who can run the dressmaking end, and salesman Teddy Sherman (Dan Dailey, as good as you'll ever see him), with the promise of their own firm, selling frocks at $10.95 in wholesale 1951 dollars. To get what she wants, Harriet will be every bit as tough as that Hamptons-swanning designer. She needs the life-insurance money her mother is hoarding, but Ma wants younger sister Marge to have it so she can start a cozy washer-dryer-baby household, despite Harriet's solid objections:

Harriet: With money she can marry anyone she wants.
Ma: A nice outlook on life.
Harriet: It's the outlook men taught me.

Ma, whose maternal warmth recalls an Easter Island statue, refuses to fork over, so Harriet manipulates sis into giving her the dough anyway, in a set-up worthy of Scarlett O'Hara. (That's a part for which Hayward was a contender, by the by, and here you can tell why that's not so far-fetched.) Afterward sister, Ma and brother-in-law, none of whom are the slightest bit interesting, obligingly take a powder. The partners conquer Seventh Avenue, but Teddy has a yen for Harriet, and there lies both Harriet and the movie's undoing.

The Siren has written before of her soft spot for Hayward, who isn't often trotted out these days when people discuss Great Stars of the Past. Hayward was born Edythe Marrener in Flatbush, and no matter what the role, Brooklyn swung in her stride and sanded the edges of her husky voice. She got her start as a teenaged New York model, which probably gives extra brush to the brush-offs Hayward delivers in the film, but she was no high-flown Method actress. Hayward was one rock-hard cookie.

But the Siren says when the part fit her, Hayward could play the hell out of it. TV Guide has one of the few I Can Get It for You Wholesale reviews on the Web, and it cluck-clucks through a story about Hayward's movie-star airs. Hey, the Siren loves the stars who love their status, whether it's Hayward signing a gazillion autographs, Bette Davis showing up on 1970s talk shows to blow smoke and imitate her imitators, or Gloria Swanson playing herself in Airport 1975 and ruining the suspense because face it, nothing and nobody's gonna kill Gloria Swanson. What's the appeal of someone who approaches stardom like this gal? Brother, says the Siren, in her best Brooklyn, you can have that.

Harriet in all her gimme-gimme glory is Hayward at her best. She moves like she knows she's beautiful, she smiles like she knows what she's gonna get, she snaps her lines like she knows what's working against her.

"Didn't you hear me? I'm proposing to you," says a flummoxed Teddy. "What do you expect me to do, throw my arms around you?" is Harriet's tender response.

One more thing: this is a George Sanders movie, too. He shows up about a half-hour in, at a Dressmakers and Buyers' Ball, where he's seated at the dais. Of course. Did any man in Hollywood history, or indeed the history of anywhere, ever look so completely right seated at a dais? Sanders plays J.F. Noble, the Bergdorf-type magnate who wants Harriet to design evening gowns and who also wants Harriet for himself, a promising development both ways. You don't know how it pains the Siren to reveal that Sanders' appearance signals that we have about 30 minutes of great left. After that, it's comeuppance time for Harriet. Oh, you still get good stuff and standout Sanders, such as, "It seems to me that you could resign yourself a little more gracefully to being rich and famous." And Sanders also manages to turn "Good evening, Mr. Sherman" into one of his funniest lines.

But — and it's so obvious this is where we're headed, the Siren isn't even going to call it a spoiler — it's time for Harriet to Learn a Few Things About Love.

I Can Get for You Wholesale is based on Jerome Weidman's Depression-era novel about a man named Harry who, so Wikipedia tells us, gets what's coming to him and learns to appreciate love. (Later, the story morphed into the Broadway musical debut of Barbra Streisand, which interesting tale can be read here.)

It's a truth universally acknowledged in Hollywood that a single woman in possession of excess ambition must be in want of a man. That she'll die without a man, nothing matters without a man, she might as well call in Mario Buatta and have her uterus turned into a breakfast nook without a man. Still, it would be a mistake to say this applies only to women; many's the manly magnate presumed to need love more than money, too. After all, it is love, or his version of it, that proves the undoing of Charles Foster Kane, and we all know how the Siren feels about that one. And it's a mistake to chalk things up to the era, when here's winsome Anne Hathaway in 2006's The Devil Wears Prada doing the exact same thing.

Over at Senses of Cinema, Andrew Marsden says Polonsky changed the novel's "anti-Semitism arising from its treatment of Jewish businessmen into a story about the oppression of women in the world of business," and adds that Fox "softened" the dialogue. The Siren doesn't know if that softening extended to Harriet's fate, but it should be said that Teddy wants her to have a career, just a career on his salesman-of-the-people terms.

Sweet shade of Fannie Hurst, it's frustrating, though. It isn't that the romantic choice boils down to George Sanders versus Dan Dailey, which is…the Siren doesn't even have an actor-to-actor metaphor for that one. It's more like choosing between a movie star and a windup tin mouse. It isn't even that Harriet's going all mushy is about as believable as when William Makepeace Thackeray tries to convince you that his fabulous Becky Sharp is (dramatic pause) a murderess.

No, the rub is that the trick Teddy and Sam pull on Harriet, an S.O.B. move if ever there was one, is for her own good. Done out of love, you see, which makes it so much more pure than Harriet's own scheming.

Despite her dislike of the denouement the Siren highly recommends the film, which you can see at MUBI. It's one of Hollywood's nasty ironies that the lavishly talented Polonsky, himself no bed of roses, also was defanged by external forces. The Siren likes to believe that Polonsky looked back at Harriet Boyd from time to time and thought she got a raw deal, too.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Woman in the Window (1944)

(Some people find spoiler warnings to be an affected annoyance, but the Siren doesn't write this stuff to lessen anyone's pleasure. And so she warns you that this post concerns the ending of The Woman in the Window. See Lang's great movie before you read this, is the Siren's advice.)

In the comments thread to the Siren's post on You and Me, Kevin Deany told a charming story about Fritz Lang's defensive reaction when asked why his films didn't include humor; and this led to some cracks about the term "German humor," to which sallies the Siren nonetheless has a two-word response. The Siren has written before that she finds Lang's films quite sexy (another quality he's occasionally said to lack) and adds that You and Me is very funny.

Plus, the Siren has her own example of an underrated Lang joke, and it's The Woman in the Window, a film she likes very much indeed.

Edward G. Robinson plays a contented professor of criminal psychology, Richard Wanley, who's adrift in Manhattan on a sultry July evening after he's seen his wife and children off to the country. At his club (do men still have those?), Wanley knocks back a couple with old friends, and on his way home he stops to admire a portrait of a beautiful woman in a gallery window. Suddenly, the portrait's subject is standing beside him, as if conjured by the heat cooking his subconscious. The woman, Alice, is Joan Bennett in her most seductive Hedy Lamarr-lookalike phase, and Wanley needs little persuasion to buy her a drink. They repair to Alice's apartment for champagne, and nothing more than that is happening when Alice's lover bursts in and, without much in the way of preamble, starts to throttle Wanley.

Wanley stabs his attacker dead with a pair of scissors. Flush with the classic film-noir determination to make a bad situation worse, he and Alice decide to cover up the crime. Alas, Dan Duryea arrives, puts two and two together and blackmails them. Alice and Wanley decide to bump off Duryea (also the time-honored choice), but Alice botches the poisoning attempt. With Duryea more disgustingly alive than ever, and demanding even more money, Wanley commits suicide. And then, o then...

We see that Wanley has been having a nap in his cozy club chair. Yes, friends, it was all a dream. Still a little freaked out, he exits the club, walks to the gallery window and looks at the portrait, when who should show up? And Wanley takes off in terror, leaving the puzzled beauty on the sidewalk.

What with sample reactions like "copout," "spuriously happy," "it seemed to be tacked on," and "the ending annoyed me so much that it compelled me to re-watch Scarlet Street"--hm, the Siren detects a certain resistance to accepting "it's all a dream" as any kind of a self-respecting film noir ending. There's a few defenders; Brian Kellow allowed as how it "beautifully underlines the inexorable, dreamlike pull of the story." And this gentleman, who helped restore Woman in the Window (without a negative, no less), hated the ending but thought

the technique used in the transitional shot is amazing...Edward G. is sitting in a big overstuffed chair in an apartment, the camera tracks in to a tight close up of his face, then it tracks back revealling him in an entirely different location. There’s no dissolve so you know the crew was flying walls in and out, changing furniture, replacing props, all in a few seconds. Really a great effect.

Well, the Siren, perverse mortal that she is, likes the ending. She can't claim to have seen it coming, but it made sense. Although it also makes sense that many people would hate it. Laughing Boy Fritz Lang plays a practical joke, and a large segment of the audience reacts the way people do to a practical joke: "That's NOT FUNNY."

But the joke doesn't shimmer in out of nowhere, like Jeeves. Girish Shambu (in a video essay the Siren recommends) says, "I find this film, in its own ironic and grim way, to be quite funny." Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (who admittedly didn't like the end either) wrote some mordantly amusing lines, many delivered by Raymond Massey as Wanley's friend, an assistant district attorney. Massey's fossilized appearance can turn a scene into an instant Charles Addams cartoon anyway, more so when he's patting Wanley's shoulder and saying, "We rarely arrest people just for knowing where the body was." There's also the intrinsically amusing fact that Wanley is a professor of criminal psychology, but for all his ability to plan and execute a crime, he might as well be Father O'Malley in Going My Way.

Fritz Lang spent years telling skeptical interviewers that the Production Code didn't determine the end of The Woman in the Window, he did, and Lang went so far as to tell Peter Bogdanovich that he did it to make the film more plausible. In a way, it does. The film goes from twisted, to bleak, to horrifying, but that's the way a dream often progresses. You're in slumberland, dreaming of, say, a torrid X-rated encounter with Basil Rathbone circa Captain Blood, an example the Siren is pulling out of the purest hypothetical thin air, you understand. And then your creepiest co-worker shows up, and the dream becomes anti-erotic in one quick hurry, and then you hear footsteps on the ceiling and you know the footsteps are after you and when you awake and clutch the sweat-drenched bedclothes, you realize the dream was directed not by Michael Curtiz, but by David Fincher.

Don't lie to the Siren. You've dreamed about sex with a wildly inappropriate partner and found an excuse to skedaddle the very next time you saw the person. Maybe you've even gone to sleep and discovered that your subsconscious has given you permission to go full-dress Raskolnikov on your landlady. Waking up is a release, but there's a catch: Once your mind has revealed all the bits of anxiety playing bumper-cars around your amygdala, you can no longer pretend they aren't there. And Fritz Lang, never one to shy away from bitter truths, says the dream message could be worse.

Wanley says good-bye to his wife, who looks more like his mother than that of his children. And then he goes for a drink and muses that he can't even work up the energy to go see some strippers. And what does his dream bring him? A beautiful woman he never gets to have sex with. A moment of self-defense that he must cover up in the most craven way possible. A co-conspirator who can't manage a poisoning. Consequences he can't evade for acts he didn't even commit. Impotence, in other words, over and over again. Wanley flees from the lady of the evening and his nightmare, but the truth beneath his plumply bourgeois existence is running right with him.

Sure, that's depressing as hell. But it's also pretty funny.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

You and Me (1938)

(Another from the late Nomad Wide Screen, posted in full and slightly revised.)

Discovering You and Me, the oddball three-song musical comedy Fritz Lang made in 1938, is like finding out T.S. Eliot loved Groucho Marx (and he did)--where did that come from? The movie is beyond charming, it’s enchanting, all romance and Damon Runyon quips, mixed with left-leaning social realism that goes down easy in part because it’s sung. Oh, Fritz’s preoccupations are there, all right--double lives, pitiless authority, the tyranny of material needs, the criminal underworld--but the touch is light, despite the shadows on screen. The Siren has been a passionate Lang partisan since viewing M in her early teens, and it was exhilarating to sit in the Film Forum last year, when this was shown as part of a “Fritz Lang in Hollywood” retrospective, muttering, “Damn, he could do charm, too.”

The movie opens with a musical number, “You Can’t Get Something For Nothing,” illustrated with a wonderfully abstract set of images of what you can get for something--everything from carrots to one of those terrifying 1930s permanent waves. We move on to the department store where much of the movie is set, and to Sylvia Sidney, who catches a woman shoplifting and eventually refuses to turn her in.

Then comes one of the most purely sexy moments in any film of the era. Handsome sales clerk George Raft is rebuffing the advances of Joyce Compton (the drawling mantrap with a breezy nightclub act in The Awful Truth). As Raft escorts Compton on the down escalator, we discover why--along comes Sidney on the up escalator. Raft and Sidney's hands meet, then slide apart as they pass, in a touch as erotic as a kiss.

They’re in love, and working in retail, but their problems don’t end there--they are both reformed crooks, which explains Sidney’s lenience with the shoplifter. Raft’s parole has just ended, but Sidney’s has two months to go, and there’s the problem: The terms of her parole forbid her to marry. But marry they do, and move into Sidney’s rooms, presided over by the sort of lovable, affectionate, mom-and-pop landlords common to movies but awfully scarce in modern New York. Sidney can’t bring herself to tell Raft that she’s an ex-jailbird. And Raft has been making a big deal out of full disclosure from any woman he loves. That, plus the fact that the department store is staffed entirely with other ex-convicts, many of them from Raft’s old gang, sets up the conflict.

It plays out in expected ways--Sidney tries desperately to keep Raft from discovering her past, and the old gang wants him back--and yet it stays fresh. Raft is often a self-absorbed presence on screen, a big vortex of narcissism sucking the life out of anyone playing against him, but here he achieves chemistry with his fellow actors and most importantly, his leading lady. There’s that escalator, but there’s also a kiss over a spilled suitcase, where Raft’s hat brim just barely clears the edge of Sidney’s as their lips meet. Raft carries Sidney into her darkened apartment on their wedding night, goes keister-over-teakettle as he collides with a lamp, and the actor laughs at himself as I’ve never seen him do in another movie.

Sidney’s allure was peculiar but potent, focused mainly on a wide-eyed stare that she could use to signal hurt, bewilderment, romantic yearning or granite will. Lang gives her every opportunity to turn on the stare in a big way, notably when she emerges from the shower with her hair adorably soaked, her makeup minimal and her eyes agog for Raft. It’s as beautiful as she ever looked in any movie.

Two scenes in You and Me turned the Siren's infatuation with the movie to outright love. One occurs late, when Raft’s old gang has lured him back and they’re preparing to rob the department store where they work. Sidney has gotten wind of the plan, and together with the kindly department store owner (there’s a combination of words one seldom sees) she confronts them. But instead of giving the men a big speech that will shame them straight, she takes a chalkboard and works out, via simple arithmetic, the fact that their individual takes from the heist will be peanuts. The gangsters sit on rocking horses and doll houses in the toy department, taking in this risk-reward lecture from a gorgeous woman, admiring Sidney’s unassailable logic and graceful way with the chalk.

But the best scene occurs about midway, as the gang reassembles and waits for Raft to appear so they can lure him back. And bit by bit, they roll into a percussive number (via the movie’s composer, Kurt Weill) called “Stick to the Mob”--pounding hands, fists, cups, the cutting getting faster and the lyrics darker and wittier, as they recall their days in prison and the morse-code system of taps they used to get news to one another. It should stop the movie cold, and it does, and it’s even more bizarre to consider that this is the last time a musical number pops up. But it’s superb, irrefutable evidence of why Rob Marshall’s dirge-like treatment of the great “Cell Block Tango” in Chicago was such an almighty letdown. “Stick to the Mob” cements You and Me as a movie where all sorts of improbable things might occur--like having your heart warmed by Fritz Lang.

(Many wonderful screen caps, including some that the Siren used here, at MUBI. Also, click here for a few beautiful shots of Lang directing Lorre in M.)