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August 27, 2005

Two films by Two Oswalds

Crime of Passion
Gerd Oswald - 1957
MGM Region 1 DVD

Different from the Others
Anders als die Andern
Richard Oswald - 1919
Kino DVD

One of the blogs I regularly check in belongs to Girish. About a week ago he was trying to explain to his mother about how his choices in films are usually director driven rather than star driven. A film discussed was Crime of Passion. I hadn't yet seen it myself, but it was on my Netflix list as I've wanted to see more films by Gerd Oswald. My interest in Oswald originates from reading Andrew Sarris' brief essay in The American Cinema, and the later realization that Oswald was a frequent director of one of my favorite television series from the Fifties, Perry Mason. In its own right, Crime of Passion is an interesting film, primarily because of its commentary on gender and society. Gerd Oswald is the son of Richard Oswald, a German director whose career primarily spanned from the silent era until the mid-Thirties, who also was a socially conscious film maker.

The stories of Richard and Gerd Oswald illustrate why film companies need to do a more consistent job of making older films available on DVD, as well as why there are still gaps in films scholarship. Only two films by Richard Oswald are currently available on DVD in the United States. From the evidence of his filmography, Richard Oswald was not only prolific, but worked regularly with several top German actors, primarily Conrad Veidt. In addition to the socially conscious films, the senior Oswald made musicals, horror films and comedies. Gerd Oswald's filmography is much smaller but still has gaps worth filling. Based on what little I could find through a Google search, most of the interest in his career has been for his direction of several episodes of the original television version of The Outer Limits. A major portion of Gerd Oswald's television series work is easily available while only three of his features are on DVD. Gerd Oswald's career influence could be evaluated better if his version of Screaming Mimi becomes available. According to Dario Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh, Oswald's film, along with the original novel by Fredric Brown, contributed to the Italian giallo genre.

Crime of Passion is primarily valued because of its feminist message. Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a female reporter based in San Francisco who is famous for her advice column. Ferguson is a variation of the character Rosalind Russell played in His Girl Friday. She agrees to use her column to lure a murderer who is in hiding after murdering her husband on behalf of two Los Angeles based detectives. Ferguson writes an open letter to the murderer about how woman live in a "man's world with men's rules". Oswald shows several different types of women reading excerpts from the letter such as a housewife, a couple of young woman at a movie theater concession stand, and a couple of butch looking cabbies. For reasons that require a major leap of faith, Kathy decides she is so in love with one of the Los Angeles detectives, Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden), that she ditches a career offer in New York City to be the wife of a Los Angeles Detective. Kathy soon finds that socializing with policemen's wives is less fun than hanging out with the most male reporters, and is frustrated by Bill's seeming lack of ambition. Kathy tries to manipulate Bill's career and her social status by ingratiating herself with Police Inspector Anthony Pope (a relatively svelte Raymond Burr) and his wife, Alice (Fay Wray, playing the wife to someone a bit more proportionate to her than King Kong).

My internet research on screenwriter Jo Eisinger revealed little more than her filmography. With her gender ambiguous name, Eisinger has written both original and adapted screenplays, with films such as Gilda and Night in the City among her credits. One of her later films, Mistress of the World, was directed by William Dieterle. Dieterle began his career as an actor in Germany where one of his directors was Richard Oswald. I am not sure if this is coincidental, but in checking the principal cast, the wives were all older than the husbands. At the age of 50, this was one of Stanwyck's last turns as a romantic lead. Certain aspects of Crime of Passion appear to lend themselves to a "queer" reading. Early on, when Kathy quips that the lovelorn "other woman" should leave a married man and run off with his wife. A conversation between Raymond Burr and Stanwyck takes on a more personal reading especially when Stanwyck mentions "people like us". Crime of Passion concludes with Barbara Stanwyck punished ultimately for having acted against her true nature.

Conversely, in Different from the Others, Conrad Veidt is punished for acting in accordance with his true nature as a gay male. The film can not be fairly evaluated because what remains is only part of the original footage augmented by explanatory titles and stills. The version of Different from the Others that is we see is presented with an explanation of the history of Germany's Paragraph 175 which made male homosexuality illegal. Additionally, the film is placed in the context of film history, made during a time before stricter film censorship, and when film was seen as a medium to educate people on various controversial topics including prostitution and drug addiction. Pioneering sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld contributed to the script and appears as a lecturer. While certain aspects of the film may appear naive, the main message of the film concerning the need of respect for homosexuals is unfortunately is still as needed now as it was in 1919.

Richard Oswald made his last German movie in 1938, and made three American films for "Poverty Row" studios. His last film, The Lovable Cheat seems of particular interest based in the assessment of the contributor to Internet Movie Data Base, although that is contradicted at Answers.com. Maybe this is just an interesting cultural footnote, but I also view it as reason enough for better film preservation and film scholarship.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 27, 2005 10:50 PM