Manpower (1941)

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With Marlene Dietrich in the lead rôle (and it was she who carried the story), Walsh was trying to make a point about the raw deal women got by just about everyone in the Hollywood establishment. Relegated to the status of ‘Mouse’, or opportune studio whore, there was no respect or admiration for the toughness of American women who took care of their men and got none of the credit for leading America out of the Great Depression, or through the coming war.

Strange that this point had to be made with a ‘foreigner’, and one given a jailhouse history, as if excusing her independence and indifference to just who it is that’s using her. Resigned to the fact she will be used. It is a spit in the face for all religious and conservative theories about women of the times. It is a defiant call particularly appropriate to contemporary America, in which adolescent boys in men’s bodies once again try to reduce the status of women in America to that of domestic slaves or sex toys.

Unfortunately Walsh didn’t really know what to do with the film. There were some great shots of dams and power lines, but not enough of the intricacies of being a bride of convenience, or being taken advantage of by everyone – including the establishment (by metaphorical agency of the cops who arrest everyone in Quinn’s clip joint). I guess the fuckers who run Hollywood won out with some sanctimonious message that didn’t make them look as bad as they really were.

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The Key Largo hypothesis: Brooks and Huston set the noir context

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My re-discovery of Key Largo (1948) unwound in two parts, beginning on an apparently well-known terrain of technique and visible content, but progressing to something else entirely as I fell into the rabbit hole of previously unseen discourses.

Most of what I have to say is from inside that rabbit hole, but it is a journey that may be more explicable if I begin with my own starting point, which was to look again at Key Largo, with a view to adding a critique to my small collection of film noir commentaries.

A re-enounter

Like Dark Passage, Key Largo had struck me as slow and ponderous the first few times I saw it in the 1970s and ’80s, but something else about it grew on me. Perhaps the combination of Edward G Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, or the broodingly oppressive atmospherics simulating the arrival and passing of a Hurricane, which rang intimately true for me after the first tropical cyclone I experienced in the far north of Western Australia during the early 1980s.

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