Monday, October 20, 2008

Movies: Crime Without Passion (1934)

This film stands apart from most other old movies, because the screenplay, written by Ben Hecht, intends not to entertain, but to instruct (though it lacks the hokey didacticism of Back Door to Heaven). The hero is Lee Gentry, a standard Hechtian (or Randian, if you're unfamiliar with Hecht—the approximation is close enough) ├╝bermensch, a misanthropic, calculating criminal defense lawyer with little respect for anything but the power of his own mind.

He no longer cares for Carmen, a cabaret singer he's dated for two years (having stolen her from his once friend, Eddie White), and he's moved onto a sturdy blonde, but he can't seem to break it off with Carmen—she is too melodramatic and he hasn't the heart. But his blonde demands it, and so he crafts a scheme, to "catch" her cheating on him with Eddie White (though she did nothing of the sort) and thereby grant himself the right to break it off.

This plan works, until he gets a raving telegram from Carmen, in which she threatens suicide. At her house, he and she fight over a pistol, and he accidentally shoots her—she falls down dead. The phone rings. An apparition of his ego appears, and instructs him; answer the phone, but mask your voice. Pocket the gun; pick up your crumpled boutonniere; go to the theater to create an alibi. Gentry seems to have structured things perfectly, but, in a Dostoevskyan twist, he is wracked with guilt, and confesses to the blonde. Revolted, she leaves him.

Again, the apparition appears, explaining to Gentry that this is perfect; he can now go to Carmen's theater for her show—demonstrating that he doesn't know she has been killed. But there, things don't go well. He runs into another showgirl who says she saw him at the theater when she was waiting for her new boyfriend—but an hour later than the time Gentry insists it was (which is the time he was in Carmen's apartment). Worried, he decides to silence her with romance, madly promising her furs and jewels, if only she'll leave with him immediately.

Cut to the dressing room, where Carmen is lying down, but insisting she's well enough to go on—she's not dead at all! Only had been in a faint all along. Back outside, while Gentry's hands are on the showgirl, her new boyfriend comes in; it's Eddie White, again. The two men scuffle and Carmen's gun, still tucked in Gentry's pocket, goes off. Eddie White is dead; Gentry is immediately arrested—it's an open and shut case with one hundred live witnesses and a clear motive.

At the police station, Gentry, alone for a minute, receives another visit from the apparition; it tells him to kill himself immediately, rather than wait for the chair. Gentry puts the gun barrel in his mouth, but his hands shake; he can't do it. The police officer confiscates the weapon, and the film is over, with the certain implication of Gentry's death by electrocution.

Hecht was, for a time, my favorite author (the time that I was between 17-21 years old, wore black ball gowns and Victorian boots, and saw nothing wrong with Ayn Rand's conception of the world). There is still something about his self-punishing snootiness (like all his heroes, he was too intelligent for his society, too good for this earth, and therefore suffered suffered suffered) with which I still guiltily identify, something that I don't want to be but feel that I can't help being. It is the thing that made me ask to play Lady Macbeth in grade school Shakespeare productions, the thing that made me read Nietzsche in college. Like Hecht, I fight it, lest I end up like one of his sick characters.

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