Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Dark Knight Trilogy As Done by the Golden Age of Cinema

With the recent announcement of Ben Affleck to play Batman in the forthcoming team-up of Batman and Superman (a first for live-action film), I got to thinking about who else might've been in the running for the role, and then decided that that conversation wasn't interesting enough to me.

I started to thinking of an alternate universe-type thing (not uncommon to a comic book fan) and imagined a world where Batman as a serious movie series had been done years earlier. I tried to think of a good period in history to do this, and eventually settled on the Golden Age of Cinema: the time of studios, a huge roster of A-Listers, and some of the most timeless and impeccable movies ever made. And not just movies, but films. But I'll have to save the discussion of that distinction for another post. For now, Batman.

It's amazing to believe that Batman is a character more than half a century old at this point, having debuted in 1939. Much of his mythology remains unchanged, although writers, artists, actors, directors, and even fans of all eras have added, modified, and enhanced aspects of the character to be more attune to their own lives and messages and as always, to remain relevant to the world around them. When the world needed fun and escapism, and easy entertainment was all the rage, Batman, with Adam West under the cowl, went into silly and delirious camp. And when the world looked to find a grittier realism, uncompromising in its delivery to youth, we got Batman: The Animated Series, which has since influenced every incarnation that followed.

What is presented here is an imagined outline of what took place had the Dark Knight Trilogy as we know it, a world created by Christopher Nolan, populated by the likes of Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Anne Hathaway, and embraced as a truly complete, serious, fully realized incarnation of Batman on film, was instead attempted several decades earlier, by an era that turned in some of cinema's most important work. I'll try and explain my reasoning along the way, but most of it takes place "in-character", as it were. Make sure to read the footnotes though, as they go into further details!

Without further ado:

The Dark Knight Trilogy
The year is 1946. A year into the post-war era, the boys are home, and the families are all looking for some good old family entertainment. The recent rise in popularity of "comic books" heralds the arrival of larger than life characters, superheroes. With a somewhat war-torn world to rebuild, the world is ready to embrace them and it isn't long before the question arises of how long before we start to see these larger than life characters up on the larger than life big screen?

A lack of capabilities hindered getting a certain superpowered Kryptonian to the screen, so they had to settle for what some people considered a rather bland, "oddly costumed", detective, known as The Bat-Man.

The firmly entrenched studio system was still steadily churning out new movies, so no one at the larger four of the "Big Five" studios really had much of an interest in turning a "pulp fiction" into a movie.
But an executive at the most unassuming of the Five, RKO Pictures, was adamant that in a few years, comic book movies would be all the rage, and insisted on trying to get a director on it.
Though the studio wanted it to be a family entertainment, with the studio being known for its more musical films over the years, and the post-war haze still thick with nostalgia and reminiscence, the only director available was a rather stoic British fellow who wasn't particularly keen on making a family film.

His name was Alfred Hitchcock. [1] He was on loan, but he was no stranger to the noir, and that was the tone that this film was going to require. It was exactly because everyone around him seemed to think it was beneath them to do a movie adaptation of a comic book that he decided to do it, and it was exactly because of the studio's want of a family friendly film that Alfie decided to do it his way.

Upon reviewing some of the comics, particularly "The Batman and How He Came To Be", which told of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce's parents, and how this led him to travel abroad and eventually take the law into his own hands, Hitchcock realized how much of a noir anti-hero Bruce Wayne and Batman was. He was quoted as saying, "The Bat-Man is not so unlike [Humphrey] Bogart, whose intentions are good, though his attitudes be cynical."[2]
There was even rumor that Bogart was approached to star as the titular character, but the team-up of Bogart and Hitchcock never happened.[3]

Hitchcock's film, simply titled "Batman", was not thought of highly in the trades, and went into production largely unnoticed. Most assumed Cary Grant would take on the lead role in the latest Hitchcock, but he decided to do a different movie with the director [4] when he decided the role, as written, was too dark for him, and he feared too many roles in a row playing against type.[5]

Batman (1946)
As a young boy, Bruce Wayne witnesses the murders of his parents one evening after the opera. 
After years of boarding school and traveling abroad, he returns, the forgotten son of Gotham City, to take over Wayne Enterprises, his father's company that had made him a millionaire. Unbeknownst to everyone though, Wayne harbors a secret. He is actually The Batman, a masked vigilante who stops criminals who have been thus far aided and abetted by the corrupt police force. They are mostly under the control of one crime lord, Oswald Cobblepot, alias 'The Penguin', who will stop at nothing to keep his grip on the city. It is the first testing grounds of The Batman, and he must understand what is needed of him, in order to be a hero.

[1] - Hitchcock would have had a field day with Batman; possible twist endings to each of the movies, psychological analysis of its tortured main character, scenes of action and violence, plus an uncompromising vision of grit.
[2] - The quote is made up, but Bogart had starred in The Maltese Falcon, in 1941, which many argue was the first successful film in the noir genre. 
[3] - And it probably wouldn't have anyway, not with the studio system in place. Bogart went on to become one of the most important commodities for Warners, and wouldn't have lent him out for a Hitchcock.
[4] - Grant did Notorious around this time. It was a somewhat lighter role, and more in line with the kind of roles he was doing.
[5] - There's no real documented evidence that Grant was afraid of his reputation. That was more of a concern of the studio and of Hitchcock himself. Spellbound, the movie the pair had done previously, featured Grant in rare form as a killer, but Hitchcock made the ending more ambiguous so as not to indict Grant outright. 
[6] - This plot essentially mirrors that of Batman Begins. The major difference is that Ra's al Ghul had not been created yet, so I consolidated his plot with that of Jonathan Crane's Scarecrow. Crane spends the entire movie as Bruce's ally, while Crane, unbeknownst to Bruce, parades around at night as the Scarecrow. The audience doesn't know either, we find out with Bruce, the movie unfolds similarly from there. It's more in keeping with Hitchcock's style, providing a twist ending, while also showing the psychological vulnerability of having it be a trusted ally.

The film was an early success for Hitchcock, with a stellar cast and his penchant for accuracy. Gotham City, while many feared would not be "bought into" by the cinema audience because it was not a real city, evoked enough emotion through its architecture and vague familiarity (Hitchcock recreated a few LA landmarks in warped ways) that audiences were taken in. Praise though, especially went to the stellar performances of the cast.

Batman, whom Hitchcock decided was around his late 20s, early 30s when he returns to Gotham, had decided instead of Grant, to cast a rugged, rough and tumble rogue, whom he had used in the previous year for Spellbound.
Peck's prowess allowed him charm as millionaire Wayne, and menace as the detective Batman.
Gregory Peck "enjoyed immensely, playing such an action-packed role" and performed many of his own stunts. [6] Hitchcock was extremely pleased with the performance of Peck, as he had been nervous of Peck wearing the Bat mask and being unable to connect with the audience. But he admitted to underestimating Peck saying, "The man is a true actor, more than able to make up for half his obscured face, as if he could have done entire films with his back to the camera." [7]

Faithful and British, Hitchcock demanded only one name for the role of Wayne's butler, Alfred Pennyworth, the only other character in the film to know the double identity:

For years, Rathbone was known as Sherlock Holmes, and now was playing Alfred, a father figure to Holmes' spiritual successor.
Basil Rathbone was more than pleased by Hitchcock's offer to "shake the shadow of the Baker Street Detective." It was later theorized that Hitchcock most likely had a hand in Rathbone's retirement from the character. [8] But the irony of Rathbone doling out idioms to a young detective who was more or less in his charge, was not lost on him, and Rathbone took to the part with gusto.

Originally, Hitchcock had wanted Batman to operate alone, despite the presence of the character of Jim Gordon from the beginning. But when cuts of the film were seen by RKO executives, they deemed the corrupt police force "dangerously unsympathetic" and pressured Hitchcock to insert the character. "Only if Tom Joad is available!" Hitchcock was rumored to have yelled, and it turns out he was.

Fonda's demeanor and disposition by himself more than appeased executives as Commissioner Jim Gordon.
Having just returned from the war, Fonda was in no hurry to return to the rigorous filming schedules of a full-time contract and so was taking his time coming back to movies. Executives approached him at a lovely time, as the commitment to play Commissioner Jim Gordon was light. The on-screen partnership of Fonda and Peck was a prime example of the movie's ability to add gravitas to what was seemingly a ridiculous on-screen character like Batman. Fonda's humanity and earnestness made him a critical favorite and there was Oscar buzz for Fonda a second time in his career. [9]

For the villains, Hitchcock wanted some well-known character actors who were capable of what he called "quiet intimidation, an off-putting sense of control over subtle sociopathy." He managed this in spades.

Lorre was delightfully ruthless as The Penguin.
Chaplin brought a nuance to Jonathan Crane.

Hitchcock had long wanted to work with Chaplin and considering Charles' current standing with the public, between his vocal political views, and his questionable moral actions, it was suddenly not above Chaplin to play a villain. Within the movie's framework, Dr. Jonathan Crane is not initially a villain, but begins as Wayne's psychiatrist when he returns from abroad. Using the Batman as his impetus, Crane decides to unleash his own alter ego, that of The Scarecrow, and uses a psychedelic drug to enhance the fears he is able to play upon in his victims, fears brought about by the vigilante Batman and where his allegiance lies. Chaplin proved more than capable: a subtle antagonistic presence throughout the film, preying not only on the insecurities of the citizens of Gotham and of Batman himself, but also of the audiences. [10]

Chaplin would express his distaste later on with the role and with Hitchcock as a director. The two would not work together again. [11]

On the other hand, Peter Lorre as The Penguin was easily the movie's stroke of genius. Lorre, a wonderful character actor in the Hollywood horror days, was becoming a popular mainstay of film for his distinctive look. Hitchcock did not want to compromise Lorre's look too much, and left many of the more "penguin-like" physical traits out of the picture. This led to Lorre taking The Penguin into a more physical place, and giving him what he called a "Napoleon complex," due to his stature. Lorre said of the role that he "imagined 'Penguin' was not unlike a nickname bestowed on him by a bully; a moniker he could not remove, and one that he wanted to prove wrong. A penguin is deceptively sinister." [12]

Hitchcock's trademark cameo is about an hour into the movie, he is one of the police officers, carrying in one of the henchmen, from the previous scene's raid.

* Footnotes
[6] - Peck did perform his own stunts in film, and occasionally accidentally harmed other actors while doing so.
[7] - Hitchcock never said it, but Peck is a truly great actor.
[8] - Rathbone retired from playing Sherlock Holmes in 1946, a role he had begun playing in 1939. In reality, he had grown tired of them, obviously Hitchcock had nothing to do with it, but in this timeline, I'd like to imagine that scoundrel had a hand in it.
[9] - Fonda had been previously nominated for Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
[10] - Chaplin at this time was dealing with critical fallout from his movie The Great Dictator, political troubles because he protested the anti-Communist trials, legal troubles in a paternity suit and an affair, and waning public regard because of his shift away from the iconic Tramp character.
[11] - Chaplin, much like Hitchcock, was very much a perfectionist, and notably difficult to work with. It's obvious when you realize most of the films he starred in he also directed himself. It's unlikely even a first outing would have ever burgeoned between the two.
[12] - Many believe The Penguin to have been inappropriate for the universe of the Nolan trilogy, but I tend to disagree. If it had been done at this time, with someone capable like Lorre, The Penguin could have easily risen to the occasion.

Few believed Batman to receive much success but fans of the comic were particularly enthusiastic, while the rest of the audience, seemingly willing to grasp on to anything new and exciting, kept coming back. The movie was a sleeper hit for RKO and executives, as well as Hitchcock, were ready to capitalize with a sequel. But several obstacles suddenly rose: RKO itself experienced a severe downturn when it was purchased by Howard Hughes, Fonda wanted to continue his semi-retirement, and the rights of the character Batman were being sold to Warner Bros. [13]

But Hitchcock, who had worked with Warner Bros. previously wanted to continue to use Peck, and secured a deal with Paramount for Peck to be "on loan", which was good because Warner wasn't willing to pay extra for him, despite eagerly wanting to capitalize on the popularity of the Batman character. Rathbone was re-signed, as was Fonda, though he had worked out a deal wherein if the picture didn't require him, he wanted to be released from obligation of doing it. Lorre's character had been killed off, and Chaplin's had not, but his name was conspicuously left off the table.

For the second installment, Hitchcock was ready to use an iconic repeating villain who was garnering a lot of attention because of his darker nature; the fact that he had killed dozens of innocents within his first few appearances was intriguing to the director, and he wanted to see if he could bring this character to the screen.

Batman: Rise of the Dark Knight (1952)
With Commissioner Gordon in full control of the police department and Wayne Industries cleaning up Gotham's manufacturing and commerce, it is time for a political poster child to stand out in the ranks. But the forthcoming election may be put in the ground, by the appearance of the Prince of Chaos, known only as The Joker. Gathering the remaining, splintered mob bosses under a single banner, The Joker presents Batman with his first real challenge. Can the Dark Knight Detective rise to the occasion?

[13] - All relatively real. Hughes did drive RKO into the ground a bit; Fonda actually stayed out of movies for eight years after 1947; Warner Bros. and DC Comics actually merged later, in 1969.
[14] - The political race plot of the second movie is somewhat different from the shoe-in plot of Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, Harvey Dent does not appear as a character until the Silver Age of Comics, otherwise I would have used his plot more prominently. My pick would have been Jimmy Stewart to play Dent/Two-Face. Possibly Warren Beatty, but I like the idea of Stewart so much better as Dent. As it is, the plot is very Hitchcock: Batman is still an ordinary person, now dealing with an extraordinary killer in the Joker, who has no regard for human life. Particularly in Cagney's hands though, The Joker fits right in with Hitchcock's own "Rogues Gallery."

The second time's a charm with Rise of the Dark Knight. It garners big attention, being a somewhat political year in 1952, with Truman announcing he would not be seeking reelection, and the campaign between Stevenson and Eisenhower. And its writing and direction are even more honed, plus Warner Bros' bigger budget for the film, allowed the set and costumes "to breath" and "give the audience a true sense of life from these inanimate objects that are so important."

Hitchcock was unsure of who would take on the mantle of the Clown Prince of Crime and it was actually Jack Warner who suggested the actor who had recently played a psychotic in White Heat. [15]

Cagney combined his two opposing types to form an unforgettable performance as The Joker
Cagney had been mostly known for playing gangsters, and was most recently seen as a psychotic killer. Eager to play The Joker, but unwilling to play him similarly to his character from White Heat, Hitchcock suggested "adding some Cohan", referencing another of Cagney's notable roles, a departure from hard-edged gangsters, the sensitive and patriotic composer, George M. Cohan from Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney was intrigued by the idea, and amongst his psychopathic disregard for human life, he would throw in "some clown work, some tap dance, and inappropriate, light laughter" throughout. Cagney was unsettling and disturbing in the role.

Hitchcock's cameo in the second movie takes place at the dinner party, where the Joker interrupts the festivities. The Joker pushes him aside as he exits the elevator and he spills some drinks.

[15] - Warner was always a big fan of Cagney, and Cagney was notorious for being uncompromising in his onscreen roles.

Just a couple short years later, Warner Bros. was ready to commit to a sequel and Hitchcock, whose own stock as a filmmaker was rising, was ready to be done with the Batman, and put a lid on it, as it were. [16]

Hitchcock was drawn back in by the idea that this third film would present both a more physical and a more cerebral challenge to the Batman character. Peck was also intrigued by the prospect. Those around Hitchcock had presented him with the unique character of Dr. Hugo Strange, as well as the shapeshifter Clayface.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1954)
A mysterious figure whose face is unknown, is reeking havoc within Gotham's prison, Blackgate, killing inmates one by one. Batman must enter the forbidden fortress to bring the criminal to justice. Meanwhile, the former boss of Jonathan Crane, Dr. Hugo Strange, through his review of the case study by Crane on Bruce Wayne, deduces that Wayne is in fact Batman, and will stop at nothing to destroy him. It is revealed that through mind control, Strange dictates Clayface to kill prisoners, one for every hour Batman refuses to reveal himself.

[16] - Nolan wanted his trilogy to be a complete story, a complete arc. He ends his sequels out of a  narrative motivation. I'd like to imagine Hitchcock ends his out of artistic motivation.
[17] - The plot of the third movie doesn't bear too much resemblance to The Dark Knight Rises. This is for several reasons: Again, Ra's al Ghul does not exist yet, so a subplot with his daughter Talia cannot exist. Bane also does not exist in the comics yet. I decided instead to go with Dr. Hugo Strange, and much of the plot actually reflects the video game Arkham City, where the main thrust of the plot is Protocol 10, which basically grants Strange the power to destroy Arkham City and all the inhabitants, inmates deemed irredeemable and incurable. The moral dilemma faced by Batman is that no one should die, not even those who have done wrong, but he must sacrifice his secret identity to save them. The end of the movie does this, with Bruce Wayne "dying", actually going into hiding, and the trilogy ends much like it did in our time. I also think the villains present a more interesting parallel to Hitchcock's style of villains. Strange and Batman share a similar distaste for injustice, but Strange is dealing with it, and Batman finds a shred of guilt in himself, questioning whether or not he himself should be killing these criminals.

For the final movie, Hitchcock asked Peck whom he wanted to play Selina Kyle, the Catwoman, in what was essentially Batman's only leading lady for the film series. Peck went with his recent co-star who had recently gained some attention not only for her acting but her beauty.
Hepburn added the needed female sensuality and smarts needed for a proper Catwoman.
Hepburn was relatively new and a Paramount girl now, with Roman Holiday. She did not come at an easy price, but Hitchcock was of course stubborn in his vision for the film. They eventually got her, and she received some of the highest praise for her Catwoman who was both "enamored by Batman, but able to stand on her own two feet as it were, and is in some ways stronger than Batman." It would lead her down a fascinating path of intriguing female characters, known for their abilities and feminine demeanor. [18]

In the role of Doctor Hugo Strange, Hitchcock demanded an actor "capable of standing toe-to-toe with Peck in that black mask and not look ridiculous." Only one man of course could do it.

Price's distinctive voice added back some of that needed horror to the role of Hugo Strange.
Vincent Price described Strange as "not a physical threat to Batman. He knows this. That's why he has Clayface. But mentally, intellectually, he is every bit Bruce Wayne's equal, and most likely his superior. It is only his hubris that gets in the way." Price plus the casting of the other villain were praised as a beautiful throwback to the old-school Hollywood horror genre which both these men had made famous.[19]

Karloff was the only choice for Clayface's alter ego, Basil Karlo.
The comics made specific reference to Karloff as an inspiration for the character of Basil Karlo, an increasingly irrelevant movie actor, driven to kill those in the film industry that was slowly pushing him out. While Karloff very much loved the part and the send-up, he wanted to be clear that "I do not actually feel this way!" Karloff was also aging himself, and occasionally unable to fulfill the physical demands of the role, in which case a body double substituted for him in the suit, but he dubbed in all his lines. Karloff and Price were highly praised for their roles.]20]

Hitchcock's cameo is right at the end of the movie, in the cafe, where Wayne and Selina are sitting, and he is the waiter who brings them their drinks.

A "tag scene" was added to the very end, after a very brief blackout following the cafe scene.
Bruce Wayne is sitting alone on a park bench and a young man approaches him. The dialogue is as follows:

MAN: Mr. Wayne? Mr. Bruce Wayne?
WAYNE: Bruce Wayne is dead.
MAN: I know who you are. I know you were Batman.
WAYNE: And who are you?
MAN: My name is CLARK. I work for a newspaper. I have some questions for you.

The scene was to serve as the launchpad for the Superman film series which was what Warner Bros. wanted to move on to next. A relatively unknown James Dean was cast in the part of Clark Kent for the single scene and three lines. Tragedy struck and delayed the series, with the death of Dean just a year after the movie's release.[21]

[18] - I mean, think about what followed for Hepburn: Breakfast at Tiffany's, Sabrina, My Fair Lady...Also, almost any of the women of the Golden Age could have easily owned Catwoman, but I think Hepburn would have brought a refreshing, more subtle demeanor to it. My other choice was Rita Hayworth.
[19] - I wanted Price in this trilogy, but I at first didn't know where. He didn't fit Penguin or Alfred, and he was too old in my mind for Jim Gordon. Hugo Strange was my favorite possible fit for him.
[20] - The age of the actor aside, it's impossible for me to think of anyone else for Basil Karlo/Clayface in this era. I thought at first of going with a younger star, or maybe even Jack Lemmon, but even with his age at the time, who could deny the power of Karloff?
[21] -  Dean died in 1955, and I had originally picked 1954 for the third movie on a whim. When I saw that it lined up with Dean's death, he was my only pick for the Superman cameo. I'm not sure how he would have actually done as the Big Blue Boyscout, but I guess we'll never know in either timeline, will we?

Thanks for reading!