Sunday, August 30, 2020

Muriel Box's SUBWAY IN THE SKY

In 1947, she won an Oscar for co-writing the Best Original Screenplay. The movie was the British psychological drama, THE SEVENTH VEIL starring James Mason and Ann Todd. Through the 1950s, she took her place behind the camera and directed several feature films. She directed Shelley Winters, Peter Finch, Julie Harris, Laurence Harvey, and Peggy Cummins, Glynis Johns and Sir Ralph Richardson. Those were noted actors. So why, even in today's discussion of female directors past and present, do we never hear any mention of director Muriel Box? I feel the late director still suffers from the absolute, undiluted, 100% misogyny of the male film critics in her day. I've read reviews of her films. Some were unjustly, uncomfortably harsh. It seems that she never had a champion, never had anyone to applaud her breaking the glass ceiling of the British filmmakers boys club. Why didn't the American film critics give her any encouragement? An Oscar-winning female screenwriter became a British film director working through the 1950s. That was quite an achievement. Director Muriel Box is a forgotten trailblazer in the category of female filmmakers -- and that needs to change.
Maybe she wasn't a David Lean, Carol Reed or Lina Wertmüller. Maybe some of her dramas didn't have the overall gritty and concise punch of the Hollywood films actress Ida Lupino directed in the early 1950s. Nonetheless, Muriel Box gave moviegoers some entertaining features that boasted fine performances.
I written blog posts about films directed by Muriel Box that I've seen. The films are: BOTH SIDES OF THE LAW (1953), CASH ON DELIVERY (1954), SIMON AND LAURA (1955), EYEWITNESS (1956) and THE TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN (1957). Overall, her films were just as entertaining as Hollywood films from 20th Century Fox in the early 1950s. I thought of the Fox dramas DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK and VICKI. I thought of the early '50s Fox comedies LET'S MAKE IT LEGAL and WE'RE NOT MARRIED, both featuring Marilyn Monroe. Shelley Winters as the lovable, brassy American babe in England trying to claim an inheritance in CASH ON DELIVERY was just as much fun as those two Fox comedies directed by men. Had it been a Hollywood project at Columbia Pictures in the late 1940s, the studio probably would've tooled it for Lucille Ball like it's 1949 comedy, MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND, co-starring William Holden. Here's a photo of director Box with Shelley Winters.
Box's comedy, SIMON AND LAURA, lampooned live reality TV in the early days of the BBC decades before reality TV became standard TV fare. BOTH SIDES OF THE LAW is a solid crime drama focused on the hard work of policewomen. Not only was Box a divorced female director (when married, Sydney Box was her co-screenwriter of THE SEVENTH VEIL), her directorial trademark was to focus on the female experience be it funny or serious.

Saturday, I found another film directed by Muriel Box. She directed another Hollywood actor. Van Johnson starred in the military murder mystery, 1959's SUBWAY IN THE SKY. I had a good time watching this mystery/romance. SUBWAY IN THE SKY is another Box film that made me think of the Hollywood films from Fox in the early '50s. In fact, I could see the SUBWAY IN THE SKY script having been tailored as a film noir-ish drama for Betty Grable, something like her 1941 movie, I WAKE UP SCREAMING.

The scene is Berlin. We see a U.S. military jeep speeding back to the base. A sergeant is killed in the woods. The search is on for the killer. In the city, lovely and sophisticated Hildegarde Knef  appears as Lilli. She's renting a deluxe apartment for six months. She's renting it from a rather nervous woman named Anna who's quickly leaving Berlin to care for her terminally ill sister. She dodges leaving a forwarding address. Lilli is with a friend who would like to be more than a friend. However, Lilli tells him honestly that she treasures his friendship. However, she now loves being single and independent. She was married. She loves her job and she loves her life as a single woman who can take care of herself. Lilli sings at a classy nightclub. Says Lilli, "I always wanted to live in a penthouse..." and "...I fancy myself as a spinster."

While alone, Lilli is frightened to see a U.S. soldier enter her apartment. He had a key. He's Baxter Grant and he's wanted as a deserter. How does he have access to the apartment? He's the husband to Anna who's later described as "unstable, neurotic." Baxter deserted because he was framed for a crime. He was a medical officer framed for peddling drugs. This all ties in to the murder. Lilli allows him to hideout and be her roommate while she goes to work and tries to deflect U.S. military police from searching her apartment. The plot may be a bit far-fetched. I think the best way to view this movie is as an enjoyable B-movie mystery.

One of the highlights of the movie is Lilli at work. Dressed like she's ready to be photographed by Richard Avedon for the cover of a glossy fashion magazine, Hildegarde Knef, with her throaty voice, sings a tasty jazz tune called "Love Isn't Love."

Baxter and Lilli will fall for each other. To show how their attraction has progressed, there's a scene that would've been forbidden in a Van Johnson Hollywood film of the 1950s. The camera travels into Lilli's room. We see clothing strewn about on the floor and on furniture and then it pans over to show us her double bed. He's lying shirtless on one side under the covers. We see that a head had rested on the pillow next to his. Then we hear Lilli in the shower. That was pretty sexy for 1959.

After that, the hunt to find the killer intensifies.  As for the odd title, it came from Baxter's childhood. In New York, he got lost once on the subway and felt helpless. Now he has that same feeling of helplessness in Lilli's -- sing it along with me -- "deluxe apartment in the sky -- hy..."

SUBWAY IN THE SKY directed by Muriel Box runs about 90 minutes.

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