Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932)
"So blondes have all the fun, huh?" asks the platinum blonde goddess Jean Harlow, here sporting a wig so fiery you can practically see the ginger blaze in black and white. The question is less an interrogative than the slap of a gauntlet across the face of those who would deny this redhead her fun. Like Stanwyck in Baby Face, Harlow uses sex to climb to the top. Also like Stanwyck, she's such a sexual force that she barely puts any effort at all into her eyelash-fluttering wilting flower bit, her crocodile tears a half-step above saying "Boo-hoo" in perfect monotone. But when the men fold like deck chairs, why waste time honing the craft? Harlow was never more seductive or unrepentant; her conniving grin presages Jack Nicholson at his most manic, and her asymptotic eyebrows divebomb toward her eyeballs, only to catch a glimpse of the steel and fire in them and make a last-second attempt to break out of their gravitational pull. It gives her a perpetually furious look, and at times you wonder if Cagney put on drag to play this part.
It's amazing to think Conway actually cut this film for Hays Office approval, as its almost combative sexuality and defiance is precisely the reason that office was created in the first place. But no one can resist the sultry charm of the redhead, and the social outrage that greeted the film only drove up its profits further. If you look hard enough at the end, you can almost see Harlow laughing her way to the bank. Grade: B
Waterloo Bridge (James Whale, 1931)
Waterloo Bridge is one of the more disturbing Pre-Code films out there, less for its forthright treatment of social malaise, sexuality and crime than its contextualizing of same around not the sinful speakeasies but war-torn London gripped in panic and confusion. Mae Clarke extrapolates the pain and bewilderment she brought to The Public Enemy to fit the protagonist Myra, an impoverished, American chorus girl stranded in London during WWI, too penniless to return home from the storm. To get by, she turns to prostitution, a plan that jades her but does not wholly rob her innocence, an innocence that comes to the fore when a sweet Canadian soldier (Douglass Montgomery) comes into her life and she can't bear to hurt him. A mournful quality hangs over this film that stresses the weariness of world-weariness. Clarke's hardened exterior soon cracks, and the waves of revulsion and sadness that wash over her face (a face that registers pure helplessness over her situation) are heartbreaking. So troubling are the implications of its view of how poverty and war has the grimmest of consequences, it's no wonder the film met with huge controversy despite clearly portraying prostitution as a bad thing where so many Pre-Codes viewed it as a mere way of life. A sense of pointlessness hangs over this film, and as a depiction of the waste and senselessness of war, it makes the home front as savage and horrific as the trenches of All Quiet on the Western Front. Grade: A
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Arnold's tight 4:3 framing drops a Mentos in a Diet Coke and shakes up the bottle. Her view of a council estate is initially chaotic, wrapped up in aggressive editing, hand-held shots, violence among teens and language so coarse it takes on a physicality of its own; it's a wonder the film doesn't catch fire in the gate. Things smooth into a more coherent portrait of directionless youth with a terrific, anguished performance from discovery Katie Jarvis and a shifting portrayal of emotional stability and warmth in Michael Fassbender's kind but vaguely off-putting Connor. Arnold's crisp imagery is breathtaking, and she never uses it ironically, even when capturing the glint of sunlight through a cheap plastic bottle. It makes everything so much more tragic, the characters unable to see the gorgeous beauty around them for their troubles. A credibility-stretching but harrowing climax drives Mia to the brink, and it's a miracle Arnold wrings some kind of vague, cautious hope out of the end, more so that she does so to the strains of Nas' "Life's a Bitch." Grade: B+