Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bitches and Blaggards: James Mason and Jane Greer

This is the fourth in the "Bitches and Blaggards" series; monthly posts devoted to my favorite movie bad girls and roguesA bitch is a selfish, malicious woman. A blaggard is a villain, a rogue and a black-hearted man. Both are bad, both are devastatingly alluring.


Jane Greer

This was one femme fatale with a heart of cracked ice. Her performance as Kathie Moffat in 1947's "Out of the Past" puts her in the Bitch Hall of Fame. Sadly, her career was spotty, since she was one of those gals whose career was controlled, stalled and pretty much ruined by Howard Hughes. Possibly because she is so rarely seen, there is an unequaled quality of mystery about this actress. She is elusive, delicate, deadly and unknowable - in other words, a delicious film noir desert. Her two films with Robert Mitchum were memorable, not only for her allure, but for their outstanding chemistry.

Out of the Past
Who does not love this dilly of a film?The utter coolness of the sexual heat between Jane and Robert Mitchum is almost too hot to handle. They are both so beautiful, your eyes hurt just looking at them. Mitchum had great chemistry with another HH/RKO Jane, that being Ms. Russell. Jane Russell matched Mitchum in toughness and cynicism (and beauty), Jane Greer is the bad beauty that Mitchum can't kick.
Of course, the fact that Jane's character has the heart of a snake makes her that much more alluring. With her Mona Lisa smile and her what-is-she-thinking eyes, she manages to hook, seduce and double-cross both Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Alas, as must most femme fatales in the 1940s, she came to a bad end (but she almost made it out of Dodge with the dough). Her Kathie is enterprising, duplicitous and, hooray, always thinking. This is a fabulous noir without the usual suspects, which makes it so captivating.


The Big Steal


None of Jane's subsequent films are in the "Out of the Past" league, but she did get to team up with Mitchum again in "The Big Steal," and got to play a character named Chiquita Graham. This film is more of a comedy/noir with the RKO stock company present (and Ramon Novarro and Don Alvarado thrown in for all of us great-lovers-of-the-silent-screen hounds), but it's a bunch of fun to watch Jane and Mitchum heat up the screen. She's not so much a bitch as a toughie here, but, hey, any girl that can point a gun like she is doing in the above photo can't be a Pollyanna.


Jane Greer had a curious career. Hughes, ostensibly because Greer would not engage in a romantic relationship with him, held her career up and refused to let her work from 1949 to 1951. She made some interesting, more sympathetic, appearances after that, but the momentum of "Out of the Past" had passed. She worked occasionally in television in the 1970s and 1980s.


In 1984 she made news when she was cast in "Against All Odds," the remake of "Out of the Past," as her earlier character's mother (now called Jessie instead of Kathie). The remake was good in its own way, but anyone who has ever seen Jane Greer's performance in "Out of the Past" will never forget her.





James Mason

Oh, that voice! In the history of talking films, the velvety full-of-disdain British tones of James Mason have to be in the top 5. James Mason was so much more than a blaggard, but he fits that role so nicely! He was such a talented actor that he could be bad, good, tough, tender, and all of the above rolled into a complicated one. However, with his ever-present five o'clock shadow and sneering scowl, he had the intelligence and the vague aura of dissatisfaction with the world to make him a first-class blaggard. 


The Wicked Lady


James Mason's role in this film defines the word blaggard. As the highwayman and rapist Captain Jerry Jackson, he is a romance novelist's dream. The film is all Margaret Lockwood as the much too lusty lady who longs for excitement, but her meeting and mating with Captain Jerry proves even too much for this scheming wench. "The Wicked Lady" is such fun and is much beloved in Britain. Captain Jackson gets shot in the end, but his lustiness lives on! 

North By Northwest


Anyone who tries to hurt Cary Grant is a blaggard in my book, but James Mason's Phillip Vandamm is a bit of a complex blaggard. We know he's bad (although we are not quite sure what he's up to), but he seems so reasonable. if only Cary will give up the information he doesn't have, Van Damm is willing to strike a deal. Plus, he seems to really have a soft spot for double crossing Eva Marie Saint. When she faux-shoots Cary in the cafeteria at Mt. Rushmore, his first impulse is to go to her. It's the focused-on-the-mission-at-hand Martin Landau that sets the evil plan back on course. There is nobody smoother than Mr. Grant, but James Mason, with his black heart and cultured manner, gives him a run for his money. 


Lolita

Freaky Humbert Humbert is the blaggard of blaggards and James Mason lets his freak flag fly as much as possible (given the censorship constraints that existed in 196s). Pedophile, murderer, miserable, and snob, what more can you say about this bastard and fool? Mason is totally despicable and even the tiniest self-serving plea for some sympathy can't erase the utter contempt we have for him. A great performance in a disturbing film.


There is just so much more to say about James Mason. He lent authority and depth to virtually everything he touched. He was bad in so many other films, but he was never a one-dimensional baddie. The blaggards never are. They charm, they deceive and, even though they need to get it in the end, we miss them when they are gone.


The Bitch and Blaggard of May will be Judith Anderson and Basil Rathbone.

21 comments:

Mythical Monkey said...

Love Jane Greer. As I've said before, she's the only femme fatale I would let shoot me.

whistlingypsy said...

Marsha, yes I do love this film; your description of Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum as both “so beautiful your eyes hurt looking at them” is exactly what you need in a film noir. I’m convinced the legendary French film critics who invented the term “femme fatale” did so after watching Jane Greer as Kathie. Her performance, aided by Jacques Tourneur’s advice, created the quintessential woman of fatal tendencies. I agree “The Big Steal” is not quite in the same category, but as you pointed out it is a chance to see both Ramon Navarro and Don Alvarado. I don’t know if it was Howard Hughes intention, but he insured Jane Greer’s place as an alluring and enigmatic actress in the imaginations of future classic film fans. I’ve never seen “The Wicked Lady”, but your description certainly gives this film a place as inspiration for the later “bodice rippers” with titles such as “The Flame and The Flower”. I have seen “North by Northwest” but for me it is “Pandora and the Flying Dutchmen” that created the notion of James Mason as a complicated character capable of sympathetic and wicked motives. He used his, as you described it, “velvet voice” and his soulful eyes to great advantage as an actor. The combination works in much the same way as Jane Greer’s, you are captivated and by the time you learn the truth you’re lost.

monty said...

Both great choices in Greer and Mason. And terrific post Marsha! Well done!

Caftan Woman said...

What a combination! Wouldn't it have been swell to see Jane and James together in a picture?

I get the biggest kick out of "The Big Steal". It took me a second viewing because I was expecting something akin go "Out of the Past" the first time. Once you let go of that, you can relax and have fun with "The Big Steal".

The first time I ever saw Mason was in "20000 Leagues Under the Sea" (Thanks, Walt). He was intriguing and touching - and, oh, that voice.

readerman said...

Great post! Out of the Oast has to be in the handful of best noirs ever made. Greer is stunning and so deliciously devious. As for her second film with Mitchum, The Big Steal, it's no noir and quite disappointing given its cast. I agree with you about Mason's voice. His, Ronald Coleman's, and Claude Rains are my favorites.

FlickChick said...

Ha ha, Monkey - you have great taste. Hey, if someone has to shoot you, it might as well be Jane Greer!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Gypsy. There were so many choices for James Mason. Pandora could certainly have been one. As for Jane Greer, there really is only one film, but what a film it is.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Monty. I do appreciate your comment.

FlickChick said...

CW - ooh, James & Jane together - that would have to constitute a quadruple cross! I almost used 2000 Leagues as a spotlight for Mason's blaggard-ness, but there were just too many to chose from! Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

FlickChick said...

Readerman - yes, the Big Steal is disappointing, but Jane was given so little to work with after Out of the Past. At least she got to be reunited with Mitchum one more time. That Hughes was a real life blaggard!

The Lady Eve said...

FlickChick, Your description of Jane Greer nailed her character, Kathie of the cracked-ice-heart, in "Out of the Past." Greer is the noir femme fatale to beat, in my book. I didn't realize that Howard Hughes was the blaggard behind the failure of her promising career. I've always thought Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat" was modeled on a combination of Greer in "Out of the Past" and Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity." Wasn't Eva Marie Saint a fortunate girl in "N by NW" to have both Cary Grant and James Mason mad for her? And, Mason as Humbert Humbert in "Lolita" was one of the great performances of his career, I thought. For me, he managed to elicit some sympathy for the despicable character.

Great choices, FC, and - as ever - fabulous post.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Lady Eve. It's such a shame that Jane Greer didn't get better roles, but at least we have Kathie. I almost hesitated to add James Mason to the article, as I am trying to avoid really major stars (like Barbara Stanwyck or Robert Mitchum, who could be very bad, but also had more rounded careers), but I just couldn't resist - he's so bad!

KimWilson said...

James Mason was definitely a blaggard-playing actor. He seemed to relish playing such parts, which makes me wonder if he had a dark side outside of the celluloid world.

FlickChick said...

Kim - they only thing I know about James Mason other than his acting is that he was a real cat lover, so he couldn't have been that much of a blaggard in real life!

Rick29 said...

Superb choices! I'll watch anything with Jane Greer or James Mason.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Rick. It seems there isn't a man on the planet that would not mind following Jane Greer anywhere she lead.

ClassicBecky said...

Where have I been, Chick? I LOVE this series. What a great line about Out of the Past: "The utter coolness of the sexual heat between Jane and Robert Mitchum is almost too hot to handle." Good writing, girl. And James Mason *sigh* -- what a man! I loved your comparison between him and Cary Grant: "There is nobody smoother than Mr. Grant, but James Mason, with his black heart and cultured manner, gives him a run for his money." He certainly does in that movie!

I can't wait for Judith Anderson and Basil! Perfect fodder for this topic!

FlickChick said...

Thanks so much, Becky. James was such a smoothie, but a rather irresistable one.

Samantha said...

I didn't know much about Jane but I am glad I know more now.

stefmagura said...

James Mason and Jane Grier were in a film together in which they played the bad guys; I think Greer's character even got killed. It's the 1952 version of the Prisoner of Zenda, and Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger were in the cast.

stefmagura said...

Sorry. I meant Greer.