Subconsciousness Raising: Charles Schnee (1981)

It would not be hard to “rediscover” scriptwriter Charles Schnee. Start out with his undisputed terrain, the Hollywood-on-Hollywood film: The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, in themselves sufficient claim to fame. Throw in another couple of unquestioned masterpieces, They Live by Night and The Furies. Revalidate an underrated masterwork, Westward the Women, thereby distinguishing the subtle Schnee touch in the Borden Chase-dominated Red River. Add a genre-sharpening effort, I Walk Alone. Come up with a few flawed but fascinating “explorations”: Easy Living, Scene of the Crime, Right Cross. Gloss over the slick “hack” work – Butterfield 8, By Love Possessed (under the pseudonym “John Dennis”), The Crowded Sky – and attribute to the principle of win some lose some, to the vagaries of genius, or, where applicable, to Dore Schary, the definitely less respectable, not to say off-the-wall excesses of Paid in Full, The Next Voice You Hear, Bannerline, and When in Rome. (For all but the Hollywood 10 and Frank Capra, bathetic idealism is definitely a no-no). End with a eulogy to the unexplored potential of this man, cruelly-struck-down-in-his-prime (at the age of 43), at the height of his powers (right after Two Weeks), and he’s all ready to assume his rightful place in the yet-to-be-charted cosmology of Hollywood screenwriters.

Hardly a graduate of the knockabout colourful-odd-job school of writing, Schnee was a New Englander, a Yalie, and a lawyer in New York for a couple of years, before launching himself (first on Broadway, then in Hollywood). Not too surprisingly, it shows – less in the straight-from-the-book literal matchups of his late glossies (the prominent New England attorney of By Love Possessed or the Yalie lawyer Liggett of Butterfield 8), than in a kind of quiet corporate reality principle. This is already very much in evidence in his first screenplay, I Walk Alone (1947), a taut little gangster-returned-from-prison movie, and one of Byron Haskin’s best directorial efforts. All that Frankie (Burt Lancaster, in an early version of the more-sinned-against-than-sinning ex-con role he practically patented) wants after his fourteen years in Sing Sing is his end of a fifty-fifty split – a sizable sum, to judge by the posh layout of the Regent Club that his luckier partner Dink (Kirk Douglas) now runs. With the help of a motley assortment of left-over pals and psyched-out punks straight out of High Sierra, Frankie tries a good old-fashioned gun-toting takeover, only to find that he’s shooting at paper tigers. It seems the Regent Club is controlled by three different corporations – Regent Incorporated, Regent Associates, and Regent Enterprises – each of which relates to the others in convoluted incestuous patterns, and that Dink’s seventeen-percent share cannot, according to the by-laws, be split, nor, according to Article 6 of the Articles of Incorporation filed with the Secretary of State in Albany, be transferred. Exit Frankie, at least for the moment.

Not that business is all that big, nor all that threatening, but it is all that pervasive. Mike, the cop-hero of Scene of the Crime, 1949 (portrayed, for reasons beyond human ken, by Van Johnson), finds that his dynamic police-trained abilities make him perfect executive material, even in the jaundiced eyes of his wife’s corporation-head ex-beau. When Mike turns down a profferred job as executive in a major steel corporation, wife-solicited corporate pressure is brought to bear to oust him from the police department. The strings consequently yanked are so invasive and so powerful that although Mike can and does resist, knowledge of his imminent departure filters down to small-time racketeers who attempt – in the most friendly, businessmanlike fashion possible – to buy his services.

In Easy Living (1949), a football team can be run by more-than-capable manager Lloyd Nolan with finely balanced equanimity both as a team and as a business. But when football star Victor Mature’s overly ambitious wife (Lizabeth Scott) forays into big business with Lisa Inc., a one-woman interior decorating outfit, she is quickly swallowed up in a morass of blackmail, suicide, high finance, and betrayal. And the alarming ease with which Mature’s hefty pay-cheques sink without a trace in Lisa Inc. complicates the already disastrous consequences of a hitherto unsuspected heart condition (no pensions for football heroes). T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) in The Furies (1950), sees his vast empire come crashing down when his vengeful daughter busy up all outstanding “T.C.”s (Huston’s self-printed I.O.Us, given the status of regularized currency by the tremendous size of his ranch and influence of his person), and purchases his entire stock with wheelbarrows full of the now-useless bits of paper.

Schnee understood the power of money not as a lust or an obsession but as an all-pervasive structuring principle. His films all trace a moment of radical personal and/or socio-economic transition. Indeed, in three of them – I Walk Alone, They Live by Night (1947, rel. 1949), and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) – the change is subjectively intensified through the eyes of one who has long been shut away, behind bars of one sort or another.

In 1947, I Walk Alone’s Frankie is not the only one come back to an alien world charged with vague betrayals by those who stayed at home. Lizabeth Scott, told only to welcome back a man who has been away a long spell, reads his bitterness and estrangement as part of the regulation equipment of the late-returning soldier. (Similarly, the sixteen-year gap in the flow of Red River serves as a rough equivalent of the vast socio-economic and psychological hole blasted in the fabric of Texas life by the Civil War.)

In They Live by Night, two young lovers on the lam – Bowie (Farley Granger), newly escaped from the prison where he has spent most of his adolescence, and his girlfriend Keechie (Cathy O’Connell), stuck in a backwater filling station – have, in the captioned words of the film’s opening, “Never been properly introduced to the world.” Their foredoomed attempt to carve out a personal life of their own in the margins of a society from which they have always been excluded is further undermined by the breakdown of the intricate familial ties which had structured those margins. The Thirties backwoods folk-outlaws by whom they have, by blood or obligation, been adopted, and against whose values they struggle in vain, not only control them but, ultimately, betray them – for love (by Mattie, who trades them in for a long-incarcerated husband) or for money (Keechie’s drunken father).

Nor is the change only recorded in front of the camera. In Two Weeks in Another Town, Kirk Douglas’s actor-hero emerges from a six-year stay in a psychiatric hospital to find that the Hollywood he knew has not only changed, it’s moved – to Rome, the other town of the title.

In the changeover from an almost feudal system (be it Thirties gangsterism, sports, or a Hollywood studio) where power is held through direct possession and imposition of personality, to a more corporate, intermediary, functionalistic power structure, the threat of obsolescence, or non-functionalism, is constant. Heroic status is no longer a self-bestowed investiture: it can be taken away. This threat is at the centre of Easy Living, where Victor Mature’s heart condition will soon reduce him from football hero to embarrassing has-been.

In Right Cross (1950), a broken hand not only cuts short Ricardo Montalban’s promising boxing career and strips him of his title, but also threatens to deprive him of his recognized right-of-manhood among the gringos. Obsolescence, at least in his chosen profession, threatens both Burt Lancaster in I Walk Alone and Kirk Douglas as Jack Andrus, ex-movie star, in Two Weeks in Another Town (“that face, back from the dead”). Cops in Scene of the Crime drop like flies when, through age or failing eyesight, they can no longer make the grade. The reward for those policemen who do not sell out is a desk behind which they cannot sit, suicidally drive to prove that they are still functional. What begins as a Hawksian fraternity of those who are good enough winds up as a graveyard of those who only were.

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It is in Schnee’s Westerns, perhaps, that the sense of loss, of values outlived and acts out-of-synch, is most powerfully felt. The sweeping postwar reworking of the Western with its epic portrayal of a crumbling feudal system, far from unrelated to the cracks beginning to appear in the foundations of the big Hollywood studios, was largely spearheaded by Borden Chase and Niven Busch; it is hardly surprising that, of Schnee’s three Westerns, one was mainly written by Chase (Red River) and another based on a Busch novel (The Furies). Yet in many ways both films reflect concerns that were always Schnee’s. John Wayne’s Mister Dunson in Red River (1948): his literal act of possession is virtually irresistible, now, thousands of acres and thousands of cattle richer, helpless to control the market economy into which he must translate them, still able to burn his brand on everything in sight but unable to manage the people and exchanges they must represent. Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies (1950): they are locked in an Electra-cal clash of iron wills which might have resounded forever in full-bloodied vendettas, had not a gambler-speculator dealer in new money and deferred power (Wendell Corey) tipped the scales, and one form of economic humiliation (Huston paying off suitor Corey as Stanwyck looks on) led to another (T.C. paid in his own T.C.s)

Robert Taylor in Westward the Women (1951), Schnee’s third and last Western, represents a relatively benign form of obsolescence, finally bowing gracefully, even gallantly, to the forces of civilization in the form of a wagontrain of women on their way to matrimony. In many ways, Westward the Women is a kind of anti-Red River. Both storylines concern a long, pioneering, and dangerous trek through virtually uncharted territory: Wayne driving cattle, Taylor driving women. In both films, the contractual no-turning-back nature of the venture creates an increasingly harsh dictatorial me-them, paranoid-sadistic hierarchy between boss and men, leading to whippings, executions, and revolt. Wayne’s destiny, however, unfolds in an atmosphere of Elizabethan sturm und drang, complete with falling dynasties, houses divided, rebellious subjects, ancient retainers, idiot sons, morganic settlements, campfire battle eves, and Hotspur/Hal circling testing rivalries between lieutenants, as all are caught up in the time-honored totemic dilemma: to kill or not to kill the king. They kill him not, but his living ghost, like some human Birnam Wood, fills the horizon behind them. Even the “happy ending” – the old and the new forged in an interlocked brand, furies abated – cannot lessen the sense of a perhaps necessary but tragic passing of the Old West, of heroic possession, that peculiar, self-sufficient, unthinking fusion of act and will.

Westward the Women is, characteristically of Schnee when left to his own devices, far smaller in scale, and successfully avoids replacing the blood-deep tide of elemental forces with the effusive “universal” glow of “exemplary”, carefully-selected moral precepts in the rising new liberal-idealistic Western tradition. To the unified fastness of transported feudality, Westward the Women proposes a ragtail assortment of only slightly microcosmic heterogeneity: an Italian mother, a rollicking nautical widow, two ex-fancy-women, and a pregnant unwed schoolteacher. To the long cranky fidelity of sidekick Walter Brennan and trauma-forged bonds between Wayne and adopted son Montgomery Clift it opposes a tag-along Japanese cook (whose “ha-ha-ha” underscoring of Taylor’s fallibility echoes but weakly Brennan’s inimitably-delivered “You was wrong, Mister Dunson”) and a tolerant friendship between saddle tramp Taylor and his for-this-deal-only boss, John McIntyre – whose quiet town-founder paternalism goes no farther than “his” valley, to which, like Moses before him, he can but lead his chosen women and die, not having chosen one for himself.

Far from mythically enacting historical change, the characters of Westward the Women are swept up in it. Greatness – transient, shifting, almost accidental – is thrust upon, or from, them. The difference can perhaps best be measured by the distance between Wayne’s obsessive drive and Taylor’s bread-and-butter professionalism, the latter is further mitigated by Taylor’s apparently fanatic side-pilgrimage to the grave of his “best friend” Jim Quackenbush, which (in perhaps-unconscious parody of the ubiquitous John Ford graveside colloquy) is unceremoniously dug up to reveal sundry jugs of rum.

Taylor’s fall, hardly from greatness, is more an imperceptible slide, as his function changes from leader of men to teacher of women. The sting of the “them that can’t, teach” role Taylor is left with as almost sole remaining representative of his sex (the trailhands having deserted, almost to a man) is scarcely perceptible as Taylor bullies and taunts the women to further and further tests of endurance. In the labor of the drive, the rock-by-rock, desert-step-by-desert-step heroism of pushing forward, Taylor’s function becomes that of midwife to the birth of a new West, a wondering witness to the gutsiness and alien integrity of the women.

In the “male” heroic world of aggressive confrontation and dramatic death-defying action, however, Taylor increasingly occupies a rear-guard mop-up slot. It is mainly in the subtle, very Wellmanish, use of off-space that the impact of Taylor’s change of status is felt. When one of the women is raped off-screen, prior to the male desertion, Taylor still arrives in time to mete out punishment –although seconded by a female sharp-shooter when a cohort of the man he summarily executes is shot mid-draw off-screen. But in successive action scenes, including a full-scale off-screen Indian attack, Taylor arrives too late to do anything but bury the dead. Transfer of power is accomplished by a strange kind of sexual exchange, the fusion of the old and the new represented by a new sexual duality (a demurely skirted woman jumps off a wagon to reveal the trousers and gun beneath).

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For to Schnee, the indirection of corporate structures relates less to the deep-layered Oedipal configurations that fuel the genre efforts of many of his contemporaries than to the disinherited status and behind-the-throne dealings more often associated with women.

In The Furies, Barbara Stanwyck engineers the alliance of corporate finance with the fall of patriarchal feudalism when her inheritance of the ranch she lives, loves, and breathes is threatened by her father’s impending marriage. Stanwyck strikes out at her father’s mistress, scarring her face, thereby revealing her true enemy: her father, whose patriarchal wrath then encompasses all women (including the mistress who, her beauty made imperfect, loses her function). And, significantly, Huston’s first act is to abolish all pre-patriarchal rights to the land – to drive out the Herreras matriarchy, whose earth-mother respect and fealty to the land predates the patriarchal codes of ownership and exploitation. Depriver of her matriarchal allies, Stanwyck has recourse to exploiting the inborn Oedipal struggle between old money and new, by allying herself with Wendell Corey (whose father was screwed out of his land by her father) in a scheme to hoist feudal absolutism with its own petard. Along the way they are aided by women: the wife of the bank president to whose wifely power Stanwyck defers, scorning to use her feminine wiles directly on the man, thus winning the woman’s allegiance: and the scarred mistress, Judith Anderson, whose surprisingly dignified and consciously non-vengeful turndown of aid to Huston brings him both denial of what he needs and consciousness of what he has denied.

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The shift in the power base and the corresponding phasing out of direct ownership and direct action, signals the emergence of a new power holder: the middleman. Much of Hollywood film has always taken as its hero the middle-man, the “disinterested” detective, seeker after truth or the rugged free-wheeling individualist, fond of his freedom but a sucker for any underdog cause – and Robert Taylor in Westward or Montgomery Clift in Red River certainly do not break the mold. But when John Wayne in Red River is talked out of slapping his brand on every steer he rounds up, and agrees to take them to market and pay their owners x dollars a head, it marks the advent of a different breed of middleman: the dealer in others’ commodities.

In Easy Living, Victor Mature’s wife Lisa (Lizabeth Scott) is advised by a cynical, quietly sadistic, filthy-rich older man (to whom she prostitutes herself in a bid for interior decorating fame and fortune) that she has no taste and no talent. But these are small deterrents in the world of business where, as he points out, talent can be bought and sold, a commodity not a basis of power. Her husband, having outlived his usefulness as a football star, thus has two middleman positions open to him, both doubly removed from direct power: he can become unwilling pimp to his wife’s flesh and fabric peddling; or he can assume the “good”, more creative, more traditional role of molder of the acts and talents of others (lace with a healthy slice of humble pie) – become assistant coach to a college football team.

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But it is in the Kirk Douglas personae that Schnee’s middleman-entrepeneur truly comes into his own. The Douglas trilogy, marking the beginning (I Walk Alone), the mid-point (The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952, which closes Schnee’s first writing stint) and the end (Two Weeks in Another Town) of Schnee’s career, traces the gradual redemption of the Douglas character – from hoodlum to metteur-en-scène in three not-so-easy stages.

Douglas’s Dink of I Walk Alone, an unredeemable bounder and best-friend murderer, has scads of charm: energy and confidence fairly ooze out of him. The overweening narcissism that informs his dealings with the world secretes a kind of sheen which is not entirely unattractive, nor entirely unrelated to his success as the creator of a sleek and shiny posh joint. Handsome, witty, versed in the art of “Handling” people (“handle” is his only verb, “I can handle it/him/her” his litany), the Douglas character is above all a manipulator. But manipulation, of people and objects, is more than an art to Dink; it is a way of life, a confirmation of ego. Thus, although he fears his ex-partner, he cannot pass up any opportunity to do his star turn, stage-managering the confrontations with the same care to detail which characterise his management of the Regency Club – all props in place, all entrances timed, all actors rehearsed.

From here to Jonathan Shields, the Hollywood producer of The Bad and the Beautiful, is but a small step. Both Dink and Jonathan are obsessed with turning out a “class” project. Dink’s miniature model of the future renovated club – complete with tiny figurines of all the personnel, down to the wife and mistress – seems but a scaled-down version of Jonathan’s vast Hollywood sets. Nor do Dink’s floral arrangements (his insistence on orchids, not gardenias, for a countess, despite her unpaid $300 tab) differ greatly from Jonathan’s camera arrangements (his “compromise” in the dispute between his moneyman and his director over a $25,000 platform: “shut your penny-pinching mouth and build him his platform!”).

Jonathan Shields is a perfect example of the changes wrought by the new money structures. When his father, the old kind of producer, with his own studio, own money, own talent, dies in an off-year, Jonathan, left without a penny, must wheel and deal his way to the top, marrying other people’s talents to other people’s money. For Jonathan, like all the Douglas characters, is a talker, a dealer in words. Even when the words are not his [1] , he has the power to involve others in his obsessions, make others’ obsessions his.

Schnee had a great fascination for fast talkers, word charmers. In his John Alden-ish role as friend of all his families, Dick Powell’s reporter figure in Right Cross steals the film from its taciturn, withdrawn ethnic “hero”, Ricardo Montalban, usurping Montalban’s place in all relationships by his ability to articulate – and play with – the tensions and conflicts of the film. Lucille Ball, the femme fast-talker of Easy Living, keeps alive the promise of her one-way love affair with Victor Mature by a two-way verbal intimacy of instantly created catchwords mutually perpetuated into private conceits, thus creating and affirming a long time affection and a bantering denial of more. The fast talkers establish the unique rhythm of Schnee’s dialogue. They think on their feet, pick up, relay, and throw back the conversational ball, involving all in the round-robin play. Thus the birth-of-the-cat-people scene between Kirk Douglas and Barry Sullivan in The Bad and the Beautiful, where with on-the-spot lighting and gestural accompaniment, completing each other’s sentences, or even coming up with ideas in unison, they conjure a film out of nothing. Schnee’s characters are in love with words. They live through and by them. It is their ultimate intimacy and their ultimate act.

Jonathan is the complete producer – an ambivalent enough term in Hollywood history, as none would know better than Schnee, who himself worked as a production slavey under Schary throughout much of his ’49-52 stint at MGM and then abandoned screenwriting for eight years to become a full-time producer. In many ways, most of Schnee’s films are about producing, about coping with corporate structures, balancing business interests with the exigencies of a craft or a sport or an art, about organization of highly complex, divergently peopled projects, developing talents, coordinating actions and personalities, about manipulation and sometimes, often, about exploitation.

From Dink to Jonathan to Jack: Hollywood Past, Present and Future, in inverted Dickensian moral order. All are driven to embody their personality and consciousness in an independent, fully functioning creation, and all are equally ruthless in their exploitation of others toward that end. But the distance from Dink to Jonathan to Jack is greater than the admittedly vast difference between setting up and running a swank nightclub and producing, or directing, a great movie. Dink believes that in the beginning there is the Word – and the Word is Dink. Jonathan and Jack, working in movies, know that after the Word there is the Rewrite. They understand, as Dink does not, that manipulation is a two-way process. They understand change, the alchemy of intersubjectivity in a collective endeavour. Dink dies because he radically misreads the nature of change, believing that he alone changes – upward – while all others remain prisoners of their weaknesses, invariable in their failings.

Dink, used to control, is aware only of others’ vulnerabilities and their possession of skills he lacks and can use. He forgets that Frankie can stage-manage with the best: “disappearing” prior to their meeting so that Dink makes his carefully-timed entrance to an apparently empty room, when Frankie’s off-screen voice orders “Freeze!” Nor does Dink anticipate any alteration in Frankie’s methods. In the role reversal at the end, Dink has the gun but Frankie has the words: calling the roll of gangsters, Ollie Maraffi, Bob Walsh, who’d tried to kill him and died instead; conversationally counting off bullets fired wildly in a blacked-out room. It is Dink who is a prisoner of his past. All Frankie has to do is evoke a few gruesome samplings from that past (Dutch Roth frozen solid in a meat freezer) for Dink to sign his life away with the very same pen, judged mightier than the coat-pocketed gun it mimes, that Frankie – understanding strengths as well as weaknesses, and capable of conscious change – has appropriated in memory of their Dink-dispatched best friend. Those who live by the word shall die by the word.

Jonathan Shields “handles” People not out of a knowledge of their weaknesses and fear of their strengths, but out of a knowledge of his own weaknesses and strengths; he uses others as he uses himself, as raw material for creation. In his Pygmalion-Galatea reclamation of Lana Turner, he uses his own second-generational, son-of-the-great-man hangups to work through and with hers. Catalyst extraordinaire, Jonathan is a born collaborator, his uncanny ability to link into the psychological and creative processes of others allowing him to function as a highly complex, perfectly tuned system of amplification, heightening and perfecting the half-formed potential of others. It is this instinctive, intuitive connection with the fibres of others’ innermost creative energies that, in his own eyes at least, justifies his faro-reaching and often brutal manipulation of their lives. But if Shields cares little what price others have to pay for his own and their own symbiotic creativity, he too pays a price: the emptiness of post-production tristesse, the lonely void at his core when he is no longer “on”. he savagery of his rejection of Lana Turner’s love (after the film’s in the can, natch) is perhaps a measure of an unwilled impotence.

Dick Powell in Right Cross continually asks girls up to his apartment to “make spaghetti”, but when long-wooed, long-resisting June Allyson finally takes him up on it, it turns out he cannot make “spaghetti” in or out of a pot. The extent to which the successful fast-talking middleman-ringmaster forfeits the consummation of his promised romantic sexuality (while using the promise) can perhaps best be attested to by Douglas’s Jack Andrus in Two Weeks in Another Town. If Douglas’s Shields is drive by forces he cannot control to reject Lana Turner, Andrus consciously chooses sublimation over fulfilment. He trades off his soul-healing relationship with a lovely Madonna-like young Roman girl, Veronica (Rossana Schiaffino), for a new career as the ultimate creative talker-manipulator, the movie director – but only after she’s worked her regenerating miracle, of course.

But Jonathan does possess the ultimate redeeming feature of all Schnee heroes: he can learn, never quite enough to make him less of a heel, but always enough to make him a great producer – leaving open the question of whether the two are synonymous. When his unbridled ego gets the best of him so that he fires his fully-competent director and directs the film himself, Jonathan recognizes his failure in the final product – in the Selznick-y overblown big-scene quality of the whole picture – which, like him is always “on”.

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Two Weeks in Another Town is Schnee’s Winter’s Tale of death, decadence, destruction and rebirth, played out against the larger-than-Hollywood panorama of Rome. It’s not sixteen years but six that have separated once-great director Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) from his once-great star and collaborator Jack (Kirk Douglas), back from the dead. And now they are together again, rerunning their love-hate eternal triangles within triangles in a last-ditch cheapo extravaganza that fades in and out of the cacophonous spectacle that is Rome. Last chance saloon – make it here and be recalled to the glories of Hollywood or on to the glue factory.

Two Weeks is definitely a Cinemascope colour comeback sequel to the small-screen black-and-white rise and fall Bad and the Beautiful. The links between the two films exist both behind the camera (producer John Houseman, director Vincente Minnelli, star Douglas) and in front of it, although there the producer, director, and actor functions have been redefined and redistributed. Only the Dick Powell Bad and the Beautiful scriptwriter has been left out – though Douglas in Two Weeks is still carting around the Oscar that Schnee won ten years before for The Bad and the Beautiful, and should anyone doubt that it was B & B he won it for there’s an extended clip from the movie in Two Weeks. By 1962, the producer cum creative consultant has been blown out of the picture. Witness the pointy-shoed international commodity-peddler Tortelli, whose only link to the production, other than the to-the-penny budget, is a cold-blooded sharing with the director of the star’s favohhrs: big-bazoomed Barzelli, hands equitably distributed on each of their thighs in the darkened screening room. Meanwhile, the ambivalent creative aspects of the Bad and the Beautiful producer figure have been split up in a double director figure: Douglas, actor turning director, and Robinson, director turning sour.

It seems that Douglas, former spoiled-brat self-destructive star (George Hamilton as on-the-skids young actor Davie Drew giving a creditable performance as ghost of Andrus past), has turned positively benevolent behind his scarred, shaking-handed, patched-up-wreck-of-former-self façade. Meanwhile, Robinson has gone totally off the guiding rails: re-writing his scripts to hash, badmouthing his actors, arty-fartying up his scenes, the “Kruger touch” evident only in his manipulation of Douglas, playing him on all stops like the crafty old bastard he is. In a triple-generational double play, Douglas, drawing on the two-way educational process of his past collaboration with Robinson, saves the picture, his soul, and for the hell of it, George Hamilton. Robinson is thrown out less by his near-fatal heart attack than by his crazy-jealous wife’s bellowing stokings of his own insecurities.

Amid attempted knifings, suicide attempts, infidelities, wild parties, and heart attacks, a cockeyed principle of reincarnation works itself out: Douglas, whose infidelity in The Bad and The Beautiful nearly caused Lana Turner a fatal car crash, makes up for it in his new, Two Weeks life as victim of a car crash caused by Cyd Charisse’s infidelity. For Douglas’s Jack Andrus takes the curious predilection of Schnee’s characters for driving toward walls or washed-out bridges at death-defying or –encouraging speeds, and goes them one better. After taking six years to recuperate from one smash-up, Andrus decides to run it through again to resolve the age-old question: “did he or didn’t he?” (want to kill himself), and discovers – three stone walls and a quarter-inch later – that he didn’t.

One way to exorcise the demon. For life in the middle takes its toll. Schnee’s characters function in a constant state of stress, the focus of multiple pressure points – familial, professional, sexual – never to be resolved, only to be bargained with. Theirs is not the monkey-on-my-back of full-scale obsession which demands a final clearing out and refocusing of the frame, but a whole mismatched menagerie of interdependencies, desires, priorities held at bay by the ingenuity of inspired patchwork, a precarious compositional surface tension. Denied the irrevocability of physical action or the linear drive of economic necessity, alienated into a creation whose complex needs can never be completely congruent with their own, they cannot act. But action, like murder, will out. And if it cannot out consciously, it will out subconsciously.

It is in the flaming letters of the subconscious that Schnee most characteristically signs his scripts. Few directors care to penetrate as deeply as does Minnelli into the madness-filled moments of subconscious possession – turntabled cars rocketing and spinning the emotion-bloated characters, sobbing compulsively or laughing like hyped-up hyenas, all controls snapped, as the world whirls by in abstracted patterns of lights and walls and death – few directors can or seek to normalize these frenzied action-codas. (Although the two madness-in-a-car scenes in Butterfield 8, 1960, including desperate pursuit ending in Elizabeth Taylor’s fatal crash, come discouragingly close, reducing them to below-cliché matter-of-factness). Sometimes, however, the very flatness of the direction can work to isolate and emphasize the wild disparity between conscious and subconscious desire.

In Paid in Full (1950), directed by William Dieterle, Lizabeth Scott, discovered breakfasting with her sister’s husband (a man with whom she has long been hopelessly and self-sacrifically in love), runs blindly from the sister’s accusations of adultery into her car and backs up – over her sister’s baby girl. True to the title, in one of Schnee’s craziest balancing-of-the-books numbers, Scott then has a baby by her sister’s husband, knowing she will die in childbirth, thereby giving the couple back the baby she has killed. For once in a dingbat Dieterle soaper, the characters are nuttier than the film. Schnee does not share Selznick’s transcendence of logic for love ethos, never confuses his characters’ peculiar psycho-logic with some liebestraum irreality principle.

Schnee’s films are full of pregnant women – from stand-in backdrop (Victor Mature’s “normal adjusted” friends who are expecting a baby in unstated contrast to his own career-tossed home-life in Easy Living), to promise of continuum of the couple beyond death (They Live by Night), to affirmation of life (Westward the Women, bedraggled women grouped in silence around a dilapidated wagon in the desert as A Child is Born), to cockeyed proposed resolution of Oedipal conflict (Joanne Dru’s offer of a strapping little John Wayne Jr. in exchange for a live and kicking Montgomery Clift), to centre-stage main act (The Next Voice You Hear, 1948, revolves entirely around the “dangerous” second pregnancy of Mrs. Joe Smith, American). On the whole, however, pregnant women seem to function less in a Kinder-Kuche context than as a non-alienated form of creation that promises some form of psychic wholeness in the endless struggle of conscious and unconscious forces.

Still, sexual roles are highly problematic in Schnee, and – as in Doctor Dorothy, his unproduced 1943 play about a crusading woman physician – the focus of deep social and psychological contradictions. Barbara Stanwyck’s moment of subconscious possession in The Furies springs from her inability to define her sexual identity. Treated more as a man than as a woman, given free rein to run the land she will inherit, secure in the love and admiration of her father, she is supremely unaware of the mitigated nature of her womanhood. Enter her father’s mistress Judith Anderson – pretty, decorative, politically connected, serene in her wielding of indirect feminine power – and Stanwyck, never quite a man, is no longer quite a woman. Turning from her mirrored reflection, suddenly other than her father and her father-sired self, Stanwyck picks up a pair of scissors and – flings the fate-slicing weapon at her would-be mother, scarring her face, willing the woman to wear the mask of (whose?) infamy. This act, an Athena-like denial that she herself was born of woman, represents both a cutting off and sealing of an unacceptably and inescapable shared femininity.

No Medea invoking ruin, Stanwyck no more consciously wills the waves of destructive violence that her reflex act unleashes than Lizabeth Scott wants to squash her sister’s baby. Nor, for that matter, does Jonathan Shields, in his desire to “get rid of” honey-child Gloria Grahame until hubby Dick Powell can finish his script, thereby will her to die in a flaming plane crash with his great friend Gilbert Roland. It is the enormous disparity between an amorphous subconscious wish and the undreamt of catastrophic realization that measures Schnee’s departure from the rigid Oedipal logic of his contemporaries, and his refusal to confuse conscious translations of subconscious forces with the sublime unreason of the psyche.

Denise Darcel’s pot shot at a passing rabbit in Westward the Women stampedes the horses and triggers the explosion of Robert Taylor’s long-repressed desire for her – so he whips her, savagely. During the ensuing sexual pursuit, red-skinned creatures from the id are busy decimating those they have left behind. This divine retribution, following closely upon Taylor’s breaking of his own trailhand-desertion-causing “celibacy or death” commandments, should by all reasonable psychological rules build up a tidy store of guilt for the hapless Taylor. But as naturally as Lizabeth Scott sacrificed her life to expiate her “crime”, Taylor refuses to feel more than a passing twinge. The very multiplicity of subconscious patterns, and the almost endless possibilities of their interaction, belie any simplistic linear causality.

******

Not all of Schnee’s excursions into the land of the subconscious are violent or destructive. In The Crowded Sky (1961), John Kerr, a man torn between two careers, pilot and artist, having been rejected by his pilot father-figure (in part for replacing the latter in his son’s affection), dream-falls through the rabbit hole in search of inspiration from his late great artist father, Noah (“Après moi le déluge”) …and things get curiouser and curiouser. It all begins when Kerr wakes up in a strange bed under the portrait of a girl he has never seen – although he himself has painted the portrait. The girl of the portrait (Anne Francis) sits opposite him on a matching bed, and they take off on a pilgrimage to his father’s faceless canvases. For all Noah’s paintings are faceless. The poetic dream-logic that makes Noah blank out known features is reversed in his son, who by painting the features of a woman he does not know somehow causes her to appear. [2] But the living woman resists the ease of dream fulfilment, beset as she is by her own dreams and nightmares that call to and awaken his: (her illegitimate son, a minefield for Kerr’s multiple filial anxieties). Kerr is given a miraculous second chance to resolve these anxieties when his father comes back from the dead to the land of the catatonic (he’s been insane for years) where he paints and destroys faceless portraits of his son.

The Crowded Sky, a crockpot kitsch formula airline disaster pic with a few succulent morsels of loco weed among the onions and leeks, is in many ways the antithesis of a Schnee film. For one thing, few of the characters know one another – in contrast to the general highly integrated small worlds of most of Schnee’s films. For another, it’s full of repressed characters. True, these characters are extremely funny: stiff-necked, stiff-backed, stiff-minded Dana Andrews and his (no wonder) problem son; and the equally humorless, but supposedly sympathetic Efrem Zimbalist Jr., with his dissatisfied and unfaithful bombshell of a wife (Rhonda Fleming) and his incestuous love affair with his thirteen-year-old daughter, unrecognized by all parties including the director, but madly emblazoned by Schnee as they engage in fervent “inner-voice”-overed declarations of undying love for each other. But it is extremely difficult to know to what extent the humour comes from Joseph Pevney’s flawlessly imbecilic direction and how much from a deliberate playing it straight of impossibly bent material.

******

For Schnee is certainly not one for repressed heroes, strong silent types that manfully shut their lips tight ‘round their awful secret which willy-nilly recreates itself whole out of whatever dramatis personae and situation are at hand. Schnee’s heroes are never passive pawns of epic primal forces. For one thing, his characters are all graduates of the do-it-yourself school of post-analysis psychology: they are fully aware of their problems. No sudden revelation or re-edited replay of primal situations will resolve their inner conflicts – they’re way past that. If this knowledge shuts them off from the sweeping gestures of the action ethos, it opens up the tunnelling starts, stops, deviations, dynamite blasts, cave-ins, tie-ups, and bypasses of an intricate system that relates the sub-conscious to the conscious to the world of other consciousness.

Schnee’s heroes know their demons well. They live with, work with, play with, experiment with their powers; it is the stuff of which they create, destroy, and recreate their lives and their work. Jonathan Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful works out and through his ambivalent relationship to his father, exploiting it to the extent he can control it to serve his ends – from the grandiose, schlocky and undeniably futile gesture of using the last of his father’s money to hire extras to people his funeral (Jonathan’s first independent production), to his refusal to pay Barry Sullivan because the latter’s disparaging comments belied the mourner’s role he was hired to play (although his own put-downs of his pater go farther: “not a heel, the heel”), to his desire to shove the Shields name down “their” throats, to the half-ironic symbolism of the cracked mug bearing the Shield’s motto “NON SANS DROIT” (a most qualified qualifier, and Shield’s sole carted-round legacy), to Lana Turner’s father’s sketch of Jonathan’s father as horned and tailed devil that vehicles their fucked-up-second-generation relationship, to the ironic sequel to Douglas’s first Val Lewtonish success as a producer: The Son of The Cat People – the grammatically confusing parentage of the hero perhaps pointing to a Shields (Oedipal?) rewrite, perhaps only to the triumph of Hollywood’s reproductive system over nature’s.

Not that these forces can always be kept under sublimated control; witness those lighting-struck acts of subconscious desire, which unleash all the destructive winds of hell and set the hero working like mad to regain control by whatever whacko means at his disposal (including driving toward walls at 60 mph to sound the depth of his death wish.) But this cycle is no Sysisphusian heaving of trauma toward the light, where it totters and crashes back down again, steamrolling its panting hero flat in the process. Schnee perceives a far more dialectical relationship between conscious and unconscious. Even when the destiny of the forces at work overwhelm the characters, they manage to fashion, repeople…and structure their version of it. Thus Bowie and Keechie in They Live by Night – caught as they are in constantly recreated and reinforced familial controls (Bowie’s obligation-forged familial obedience to no-kin-of-his T-Dub) and pawns in a social revolt they can but dimly comprehend (Bowie’s refrain “there oughta be a law”) – can create their own time and space in the betrothal gift of a watch and the subsequent private language of shared and threatened time. In The Furies, Walter Huston must be killed by the crazed, wild-eyed snake-haired Herreras matriarch, but not until Barbara Stanwyck has made her private peace with him, and herself.

Far more importantly, no Schnee confrontation of conscious and subconscious is alike; the dialectic is not linear or single-stranded, but a whole matrix of strange and wondrous possibilities. Each replay brings in variation, rewrites, reversals, and (salvation and damnation combined) new characters. Schnee’s heroes live in densely peopled, highly interactive worlds to which – middlemen by profession, inclination, or an unquenchable taste for life, variety, and people – they are drawn as magnets. Schnee has little interest in the introverts who cut themselves off from others. Even Lancaster’s Frankie of I Walk Alone (and the title should be some indication of his role), despite his fourteen years in the slammer to nurture a full-grown obsession, reveals himself to be far more committed to re-establishing contact with the world than in perpetuating his psychic imprisonment. And the hailstorm of past-doubled misfits, madonnas, succubae, and morons that shriek, jabber, and poke at Andrus’s new-skinned, asylum-emerged, shrinking psyche in garish nightmare tones in Two Weeks are so much needed plasma as he rises phoenix-like from the bacchanalean ashes.

Primary characters, Secondary characters, Schnee doesn’t distinguish, all is grist to the intersubjective mill. Everyone knows everyone else, or can instantly pick on their vibes, and on their lines. Paul Stewart, self-proclaimed jinx in Easy Living, kicks around unfettered by his “role”; he establishes an immediate rapport with Victor Mature’s would-be-if-he-only-wanted mistress, Lucille Ball, in an exchange of wisecracks and yeah yeahs, as he admires and shares in the same contact highs as are awarded the heroes. All the magical little private languages – the loaded-dice roll for luck between husband and wife in Scene of the Crime, French as proof of class in I Walk Alone, which in themselves are almost more pleasurable than any act to which they may refer, are but the mirror of larger shared lingos (cop talk, prohibition names and places), instant re-establishment of ever-forming and reforming links. All conscious relationships radiate out to include, repeat, reform, modify all the ramifying unconscious patterns. A diagram of the interrelationships in a Schnee film looks like nothing so much as a highly complex carbon molecule or a madly incestuous family tree, with all the attendant loves, hates, betrayals, and sacrifices any twelve human beings can handle. Take, for instance, Two Weeks in Another Town.

In the great Hollywood party that is a Schnee film, sublimation has its rewards and the middle class its heroes. Those rewards are the joys of intersubjective exchange; those heroes are the “artists” – and the quotation marks are emblazoned on every page of the script. For Schnee’s cynical Hollywood sense of compromised commercial “artistry” is not limited to movies. Crowded Sky painter John Kerr’s film-closing work is a drawing of a cloyingly cute kitten, bought and billboarded as an ad by Joy Cigarettes (bliss in a box), which, to quote Ann Francis’s excellent assessment, “is enough to make Santa Claus toss his cookies”. But if Schnee had limited faith in the ultimate aesthetic value of the bourgeois Geist, he fully appreciated its intersubjective dynamism. Dink’s con artistry and pretentious jack-napery damn him less than his failure to share, to collaborate. Lizabeth Scott brings nothing and takes nothing from Lisa Incorporated – its very name implies the emptiness upon which she seeks to project herself. Narcissism is not so much morally wrong as socially bankrupt. In a world of connections, failure to connect is the cardinal sin.

******

Yet curiously beneath all the highly-conscious sublimated creative gestalt there is a deep religious, nay Catholic, crosscurrent in Schnee’s films. Not that this aspect is always present or particularly felt as such. Whatever Catholic values underlie the necessity of preserving the mismatch marriage in Easy Living and the consequential denial of a much healthier relationship to Other Woman Lucille Ball are muted by the realism of Lizabeth Scott’s penitent wife coming home only after she’s struck out in the major leagues, and by the bleak improbability of any “happily ever after” after the fade-out. The specifically Catholic iconography – and setting – of Jack Andrus’s Christ-like suffering and redemption in Two Weeks is so fully integrated into Minnelli’s Walpurgisnacht orgy choreography as to appear positively pagan. But only a full-blown guilt-and-expiation cycle can explain the indulgence-pricing implicit in the very title of Paid in Full, or the monastery-for-a-prison swap of When in Rome, 1952 (Holy Week in the Holy City), or the Genesis title cards emblazoned across the ever-appearing cloudy heavens of The Next Voice You Hear.

Certainly the conversion of Anytown, U.S.A, and the blessing of the proletarian status quo by God on the airwaves seem to fully justify the succès de ridicule enjoyed the The Next Voice You Hear. And Schnee does seem to fall prey to some double-standard liberal “protectiveness” toward class and ethnic Others, condemning them to remain objects rather than subjects of salvation, denying them the frame-control of conscious subjectivity that his bourgeois characters revel in. (Ricardo Montalban’s sexually resonant otherness is “legitimized” into the yankee ethos in Right Cross by the constant, if ambivalent intervention of white-man middleman Dick Powell: Montalban’s racial “paranoia” is consistently designated as such by Schnee’s refusal to show it at work anywhere but in Montalban’s mind). Yet The Next Voice You Hear, despite its questionable premise and occasional excursions into ludicrous bathos (such as the reconciliation scene with the hero’s hated boss, which threatens to veer into pure Lloyd C. Douglas) is an extraordinarily, almost coldly analytic film. And its parable-like austerity is less a function of its proletarian protagonists than of its unique child’s-eye view of a child-man society.

The alien quality of Next Voice – its stark other-end-of-a-telescope clarity – translates less as religious “God’s eye” allegory than as a Hollywood or New York version of how the other half lives. Father and son munch away in noisy martyrdom as they consume yet another box of “Crunchies” so Mom can send off the boxtops; Dad, forced to take over Junior’s paper route, instantly regresses to foot-stamping petulance at his temporary loss of grown-up status. A young boy’s disturbed questioning of God-doubled paternal authority (under the shock of a simultaneous discovery of his father’s feet of clay and his mother’s death-threatening pregnancy) offers a perfect vantage point from which to explore the deeper childishness both of the parent and his culture.

The hilarious “test of faith” confrontation between James Whitmore, as “Joe Smith”, and his boss is a case in point. The boss challenges Whitmore’s God to prove himself by answering Whitmore’s oft-repeated prayer: that the boss drop dead and let Whitmore inherit his job. Both men stand around in half-recognised schoolboy-sullen defiant expectation – Whitmore shufflingly, furtively hopeful, uneasily aware of the decidedly unchristian nature of his wish; the boss almost-sure of his safety, only his eyes betraying a flicker of doubt as to the advisability of invoking disaster. That this analysis should lead to nothing more than a deus-ex-machina oiling of the established machinery and a “grown-up” acceptance of a cyclical repetition (Whitmore’s son’s to-the second miming of his father’s off-screen morning ritual; Tom D’Andrea’s lip-synching of the boss’s daily exhortations) and assembly-line contentment (life as the coupling of a succession of small miracles) is unfortunate, to say the least.

******

By his affects, so shall ye know him. Schnee’s Catholicism (which in fact tends far more to enrich his films than impoverish them) is insufficient to encompass the magnificent insanity of his movies’ wildest moments. The sado-masochistic face-off of Elizabeth Taylor and Lawrence Harvey in Butterfield 8, his hand closing hard and twisting on her wrist, her stiletto heel grinding through his soft-leather-covered foot. Barbara Stanwyck galloping endlessly across the plains, pursued by the image of a scar that has marked her too. The two look-alike sharpshooter blondes of Westward the Women whose inexplicable antagonism leads them to escalating violence in their out-of-the-blue attempts to kill each other off. The provocation of Cyd Charisse’s memory-saturated green scarf in Two Weeks as it floats down in mocking underscoring of yet another infidelity. Kirk Douglas driving his death-brushed car off the road directly under a purifying foundation, from suicide to baptism with nary a transitional beat. And, in ways wondrous to relate, out of all this is born some fire-tested, Schnee-patented sanity principle – even if at times it appears stranger than the madness that spawned it.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Greg Ford, Don Rosen of Films Inc., and Emily Seiger of the Library of Congress for their invaluable assistance.

[1] Vide Douglas’ theft of Barry Sullivan’s line – symbolic of a much greater theft of ideas – “I want to direct this movie so much I can taste it”; an archetypal Schnee line found in many of his scripts, the verb only changing, as it does here from Sullivan’s “direct” to Jonathan’s “produce”

[2] This faceless motif reappears in Two Weeks in Another Town where, in a reversal of the usual Christ-Veronica iconography, it is Veronica’s face, not suffering-for-all-of-Hollywood Jack Andrus’s that appears in the blank-faced oval of a street artist’s canvas.

Originally published in <i>Film Comment</i>, Vol. 17 No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1981)
Republished with permission from the estate of Ronnie Scheib.

About the Author

Ronnie Scheib

About the Author


Ronnie Scheib

Ronnie Scheib (1944-1971) was a film critic who wrote for Film Comment, Framework, American Film, 24 Images, Variety and Chicago Reader. She also wrote dialogue for Warner Bros cartoons.View all posts by Ronnie Scheib →