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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #27: A Handy Man (Opening Scene of Beware, My Lovely)

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(I'm playing catch up, so I only had a chance to skim the replies in this thread--apologies if I repeat something that was already mentioned).

 

I love that not once but twice we see Howard literally being framed: first by the window, then in the small mirror.

 

There's a nice jolt that goes against your expectations when he first opens the closet. We've been set up into a "rule of threes". First we're able to see Howard outside because he's standing in a window. Second, we're able to keep watching him behind the door because he's reflected in the mirror (a much smaller, tighter frame than the window). So when he opens the closet door, I was expecting to see what was inside. Instead we linger on not knowing, only seeing his horrified reaction.

 

His instinct to flee (and his comfort in hopping a train) is so strong that you know there has to be a history there. This isn't just a drifter who is worried that he might catch the blame--he seems like he's undergoing a serious trauma from seeing her body.

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I'm glad this Daily Dose asked us to consider the use of the Salvation Army in this scene. Initially I didn't give it much thought, to be honest. It was a detail that didn't resonate for me. On further consideration, if one views the Salvation Army as a symbol of physical and spiritual relief, it provides a nice contrast to the horror/nightmare that is happening in Robert Ryan's world. It also serves as a reminder of hard economic times, the recessions of a postwar period (both in the time the film is set in, and in the time the film was shot in), and a reminder that Ryan, being a handy man, is dependent on the community for opportunities to earn a living. In this way, Ryan seems to be a very "noir" male character.

The mirror, the closeup, the highlight around the victim's face, the high angle shot: all very noir!

My favorite part about the opening of this film is that the viewer simply doesn't know, at this stage, whether or not Ryan is a killer. This scene is thick with uncertainty and confusion.

By the way, has anyone been listening to Karina Longworth's podcast called You Must Remember This?
For Ida Lupino fans, I recommend episode #9:

http://www.vidiocy.com/youmustrememberthispodcastblog/the-many-loves-of-howard-hughes-part-2-the-many

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Salvation Army Set Up:  No Salvation

 

The Handyman Walter scratches the dirt of the window, revealing the horrific realism to come.   He dumps out the dirty water, turning on the hot water to clean it.  However, we are told he will not be able to clean it or anything, for when he discovers the dead woman he leaves the water running as he escapes – a symbolic “no amount of water” is going to clean this Noir mess.

 

He makes his escape across a jarring, disorienting, endless morass of railroad tracks, he jumps into a moving train car – his image hidden in the smoke.  He has entered the Noir universe and the train of salvation will be no salvation at all!       

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When a resource or a style gives result, becomes something sure to follow, at the beginning we see resources already used, the band playing in the square,  refers us to an atmosphere everyday, like Robert Ryan routine cleaning actions... All this serves to contrast with the vision of the corpse. Here the music changes abruptly... and the face of the main character prepares us for what already Intuit... behind the door is the corpse of the woman...  Images after the glasses, or reflected in a mirror, close-up of a terrified face, fled across the railroad tracks, with the character running and the camera showing a general, are some of the elements that can be considered common to the noir

 

 

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Music and cinematography are definetely strong linked with noir classical elements in this opening scene. Also the pessimism and the world's bad mood are all there.

 

The Salvation Army band is a huge irony right in the beginning of the movie, once there is no salvation for the story we're about to watch. That man will probably have no salvation at all.

 

1918 was only one year after World War I, so the whole world was still feeling its implications in society and everyday life. The late 40's weren't different from that. Here we see a man performing house work, generally linked with women. the world was changing definetely, and that change wasn't necessarily positive.

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Poor Howard.  How awful to find your employer dead like that.  And he runs, not only away from the scene, but out of the town, as if he had something to hide.  Maybe he did do it and his mind doesn't remember it.  It could be that he has had similar trouble in the past and he runs thinking that everyone will blame him for it.  Howard is finished cleaning up for his employer.  She left his wages for him, but she doesn't answer when he calls her to let her know that he's done for the day.  Then he finds her dead.  Maybe he blames himself for her death and that's also why he runs away.  He may have heard something, but decided not to find out what was going on.  Then again, what ever happened to her, may have been so sudden that there was nothing to be done. 

 

The Salvation Army has been around for a long time.  It has a history of being a helping hand for those in need.  Perhaps the SA helped Howard to find his handyman job.  It is rather odd to have a charity group like that open a film.  It may put the audience off the scent of the noir story about to take place.  The opening didn't make me feel anxious, or nervous, just interested in finding out where this film is going.

 

There is a death.  How did it happen?  If someone is involved, who?  Howard runs as fast and far as he can go away from such a terrible sight.  The opening doesn't give the impression that Howard is barely hanging on.  When he runs away, is when I get the feeling that there is more to Howard than meets the eye.  He has something he's running away from and it's not just his former employers demise.  Howard finding her dead, was a trigger for something else.  When he is on the train, running away from that scene, I want to know what it is he's running from.  What happened to Howard that made him run in terror?  How is he going to resolve what he's going through?  Now, this is interesting.  This is one classic element of noir films that has to be there, or there is no film. 

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This a rare type of film noir.  A noir not set in the 1940s-1950s.  It is set in a smalll town in the Midwest.  The movie starts out like a regular day.  Suddenly, a body is found in the closet.  This small town will never be the same.

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This a rare type of film noir.  A noir not set in the 1940s-1950s.  It is set in a smalll town in the Midwest.  The movie starts out like a regular day.  Suddenly, a body is found in the closet.  This small town will never be the same.

 

What decade was the setting if not the late 40s, early 50s?    Maybe you meant to say not set in a big city like LA, or NYC?

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This opening feels a lot like Alfred Hitchcock. The bright unshadowed daylight and the low angle shots of the 1918 Salvation Army opening magnifies the stereotypical small town narrow mindedness and charity with strings attached; a happy life through conformity.

 

The poor man outside the happy downtown circle cleans the last bit of goo off a window; a menial job for a man of his age.  He proceeds inside to finish his job and tidy up. These shots are taken in close up and medium close up in a small crowded kitchen.  The discovery of the body is shown first in the man's reaction, then briefly as a startingly upside down face with dead eyes.  We don't yet know what in his past makes the man runs after his discovery, but he goes from a job, however mindless, to hopping a freight train, rootless and out of the mainstream.

 

The 1950s has been shown to be an age of conformity not unlike the timeframe shown in this opening clip.  In both eras the cost of stepping out of line is exile and ostracism, themes explored over and over in films noir.

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The Salvation Army sign tells us someone out of the "kindness of their heart" will end up in a "boiling pot" of trouble!

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Describe the noir elements, in terms of style and substance, in this opening sequence.

 

The man opens the door and sees the woman, lying on the floor, probably dead. He's terrified, shocked. We actually think he will go for help, call the police, but he flees instead and jump into the first train passing by. We are really puzzled, because we know he didn't do it. Maybe he is an escaped convict and is afraid to be involved? Maybe some bad people are chasing him and he realizes they have just found him? The man is not scared, he is really terrified. Hmm, maybe a war veteran with psychosis and seeing another dead body caused such panic? He didn't even turned off the water!

 

What do you make of the film opening with the Salvation Army band playing and the prominent Salvation Army sign in that first shot?

 

The Salvation Army means charity and this guy seemed to be helping this lady so maybe it tells us that he is a good guy, an innocent man and a victim of circumstances. He seems to be rather gentle and caring. What's more it suggests that this is a quiet town where such things are not common, they rather shock the community.

 

Even though it is set in 1918, how does this scene reveal some of the typical noir themes of the 1950s?

Typical noir theme of the 50's in this picture is fear, paranoia, panic and war trauma.

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The mirror shot as the handyman puts his coat hidden to us but for his reflection is a film noir trope. It is stretched though by it's juxtaposition with the later shot as the handyman opens the pantry door. We don't see anything but his reaction, which like the mirror, in a way, is the reflection of the horror that is lying on the pantry floor.

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The presence of the salvation army, as well as the wholesome, community feel of early 19th century America does a good job of lulling the audience into a false sense of security. This is indicative of what is happening to Howard onscreen as well as to what is happening to Americans offscreen with the threats of Cold War, Communist invasion of Eastern Europe, and nuclear annihilation happening overseas.

 

The smudge on the window is greatly symbolic of the main character- an otherwise amiable, good-natured character, but there is something in his psyche that randomly sets over the edge, to commit violence. However, just as Howard cleans the smudge off the window, knowledge of his crimes are completely erased from his memory, as if a different consciousness took over whenever he had one of his violent “tics.” Other than that, the opening is pretty standard with using noises- running water, train whistles, and images of a dead body and aerial long shot signaling the loneliness and seclusion of a fleeing man across a series of remote train tracks- to build up the tension of the scene.  

 

Just as the men of post WWII America become unsure and insecure of their gender roles, character and masculinity, as well as fear for their safety- elicited by the cold war and red scare- Robert Ryan’s Howard also shows that fear. In a non-noir, anyone that finds a dead body would immediately report it. But, Howard does not do that. He’s become frightened and unsure of his environment and of himself. He is alone, isolated without anyone or anyplace to turn to. So his only option is to run.   

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