Criminals-on-the-Loose-at-Christmas Movies

12 Days of Alt Christmas Viewing — #3: Criminals on the loose

Another surprising Christmas movie theme: criminals on the loose, one way or another, for the holidays. On second thought though, it’s maybe not so surprising a theme because it gives these stories the chance to interrogate concepts like Family, Home, Justice, and Love that we take for granted at holiday time. These are holiday fables for adults. There are no Santas or reindeer or snowmen in these tales, but there are ghosts, of the psychological variety, and angels, of the terrestrial type, and magic, of a strictly human nature.

There are probably at least two dozen films in this category. I’m just highlighting a few. Of course they’re all worth seeing (hence the blog post), but this first one, which I’ve just seen for the first time myself, is the surprise treasure of the batch…

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

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[CLIP] (William Dieterle, George Cukor, Selznick Productions)

This forgotten gem was a big hit in 1944. It isn’t as epic as The Best Years of Our Lives, but I’ll Be Seeing You also explores the topic of soldiers struggling to return to “normal life.” This one adds an intriguing twist: the soldier in question, Zach (Joseph Cotten), suffering extreme shell-shock, is on Christmas furlough when he meets a lovely young woman, Mary (Ginger Rogers) on the train. He doesn’t know she is also on furlough… from prison. Like him, she can no longer return to a “normal” life.

I don’t want to tell you why she went to prison, but let me just say: it’s not for shoplifting. This is no comedy. Mary’s past trauma is equal to Zach’s. We never actually see his, but we do see hers in flashback, and it is indeed traumatic. This is undoubtedly one of the darkest Christmas movies you’ll see outside the horror genre.

The film finds all kinds of smart ways to contrast the charmed small town life led by Mary’s Aunt (Spring Byington), Uncle (Tom Tully), and cousin (Shirley Temple) and the tortured experiences Mary and Zach carry with them. And it doesn’t go the blatant, easy path so many screenplays do today. Mary’s carol-singing, plum-pudding-eating, jigsaw-puzzling relatives are charming, warm, flawed people. They try their darnedest to welcome Mary, but they don’t always understand or say the right thing. They keep trying though, and that is the point. Best Years of Our Lives makes pretty much the same point when it comes to traumatized veterans, but what’s intriguing here is that it applies the same message to a victimized woman.

Temple is irresistible as ever as teen-age cousin Barbara who’s discovering her sexuality through “morale building” activities: dating soldiers, letter writing, sending pin-ups. “A girl gets to know medals like she does boogey woogey,” she grins, inquiring after Zach’s purple heart, blithely not realizing he doesn’t want to recount that gruesome tale. On her way out on a date with a dangerously handsome soldier (John Derek), she quips to her mother, “I can take care of myself.” It’s a small moment, but clearly that’s what Mary had thought, so it underscores how vulnerable that simple, American-dream life really is.

The depiction of small town American life here is nearly identical to that in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt a year earlier, also starring Cotten, also set in California. But Joseph Cotten here is the anti-Uncle Charlie. He is all wounded psyche, fractured masculinity, quiet courage, and lovesick nerves.

I particularly like an early scene as the couple exits a movie theater having seen Make Way for Glory. Mary asks Zach if it depicted war accurately.

Well, they have experts making those pictures. I guess that’s the way they see the war: beach a mile long and thousands of soldiers and tanks and machine guns and everything. I guess that’s the way it is… It’s just a difference in size. To a guy that’s in it, the war is about ten feet wide and kind of empty… It’s all kind of mixed up… I guess if you asked a hundred guys what the war is like, they’d all give you a different answer.

A self-reflexive moment! It’s a smart movie in many ways. It’s looking at a couple of really uncomfortable topics and gently questioning — not the war itself, not men taking advantage of women — but instead the preconceptions of society about the victims. Judgements of those whose lives are not touched by combat or life’s other injustices. The depictions aren’t quite as “raw” as we’re accustomed to today, but the film doesn’t shy away from the subjects either. It’s also pretty brave for coming out during war time and questioning home front ideals, however gently.

Incidentally Temple and Cotten had appeared together earlier that same year in another home front melodrama, John Cromwell’s beautiful Since You Went Away.

[On YouTube and on TCM 12/18 8PM EST and 12/25 12:45PM EST]

 Remember The Night (1940)

(Mitchell Leitsen, Paramount) Four years before Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were teamed for this charming holiday melodrama — or is it a comedy? Difficult to say. It is indeed hilarious, but not quite so screwball as you’d imagine with a script by Preston Sturges. It’s also surprisingly dark.

Assistant DA, John Sargent (MacMurray) never loses a case, and he gets off to a good start against high-powered shoplifter Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) but calls for a postponement due to it being Christmas Eve. She’s about to spend the holiday in jail, but Sargent feels generous and arranges to have her bailed. The bondsman, however, assuming Sargent has a different motive, delivers her to his apartment.

Lee has also assumed Sargent had selfish intentions, but when he assures her she’s free to go, she’s happy to stay.

Lee: You know, there’s nothing as dangerous as a square shooter. If all men were like you, there wouldn’t be any nice girls left.

John: Yeah. Well all this is leading into a very interesting and deep-dish discussion which I haven’t time to pursue at the moment.

She has nowhere to go, of course, so he takes her out to his mother’s country home for the holidays. MacMurray’s Sargent is a fun mix of arrogance, snark, naiveté, and do-goodness. Stanwyck’s Lee is pretty similar to Eve in The Lady Eve (also Sturges), but watching her as a street-smart, man-savvy, greedy, manipulative, glamour-puss with a weakness for innocent types never gets old. She’s just so fun. But this familiar character takes on surprising depth when we get a glimpse into her family background which is heartbreakingly grim, and the film builds its inevitable romance directly atop ideas of family and home and, of course, redemption — all in stark contrast to that glimpse of Lee’s unhappy life. In other words, all those niceties are not givens.

Then there’s the cow — what I wouldn’t give to have been present at the shooting of that scene — and MacMurray singing “Swanee River” followed by Holloway singing “The End of a Perfect Day.” I’m not sure which is the more surprising. And Beulah Bondi, the mom everyone must have dreamt of in the 40s. And the big set piece is a New Year’s Eve Barn Dance complete with corsets, overalls, straw and stolen kisses.

Leitsen’s glossy touch is applied equally to city glamour and country charm, and goes well with the Sturges screenplay. (The last Sturges script to be directed by someone else). Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Holloway, and a host of fantastic character actors are the frosting on the gingerbread.

[on TCM 12/18 11:30PM EST and, for the moment, on DailyMotion]

We’re No Angels (1955)

(Michael Curtiz, Paramount) This one is undoubtedly corny, but still fun. The amazing cast alone is worth the price of admission: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, Joan Bennett, Basil Rathbone, and Leo G. Carroll!

Three escaped Devil’s Island convicts plan to steal clothes and supplies from a local store and make their getaway at night. To get access, they offer to repair the leaky roof, but before they can pull of their plan they discover that the Ducotel family who manage the store are in financial peril. Little by little the convicts begin using their talents to alleviate their situation. In the process, they wind up providing Christmas dinner for the family. As they get more and more involved, things get more and more complicated.

[On DVD, streaming on Amazon, and free with Starz subscription.]

The Ref (1994)

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Kevin Spacey and Judie Davis in ‘The Ref’

(Ted Demme, Touchstone) When a Christmas Eve heist goes awry, cat burglar Gus (Dennis Leary) winds up holding an upper class, Connecticut couple (Kevin Spacey and Judie Davis) hostage. Unfortunately for him they are on the brink of a raging divorce, and the grand dame mother-in-law is about to arrive for dinner. This is one of my favorite Christmas movies of all time, as I wrote a short while back… If you’re over-educated, under-actualized, mean-spirited, or a foodie — you definitely need to check this one out!

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