Thursday, September 05, 2019

"Captain Carey, U.S.A." (1949)

I feel like this movie suffers from having a really bad, boring title.  They could have named it so many more interesting things.  Betrayal or Betrayed or The Italian Betrayal or Betrayed in Italy or The Betrayor or Blamed or They Blamed Me? or... you get the idea.  Who signed off on naming it something so boring?  It's like the studio execs knew that Alan Ladd was a big box office draw and that they probably could have called this Alan Ladd's New Picture and it would have done just as well.  In the UK, it was released under the title After Midnight, but that's also vague and lame.  Sigh.

Today, it doesn't get much attention, and I totally blame the title.   Really dumb, cuz this movie is quite good.  It even won the Best Original Song Oscar for "Mona Lisa" by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston.  If you don't know that song, you can listen to Bobby Darin's version here.  Which you really ought to, and I'm not saying that only because I love Bobby Darin.  His version is not too sappy and not too snappy.  *Please note that this song is not about the painting, but is comparing a living woman to the famous painting.  The words are really interesting in relation to the plot of the film.  I'll get into that in a bit.

ANYWAY.  Time to talk about who we're all here to talk about today.

One of the things I like best about this movie, aside from Alan Ladd in top form, is that it looks at the long-term repercussions of serving in WWII.  I'm nuts about stories that look at the effects of that war (and any war, actually) on everyday people, and Captain Carey, USA has that in spades.

SPOILER ALERT:  I will be discussing this whole film, all the way to the end.  I will try to tell you at what point the spoilers for the ending start, so you can skip to the bottom if you want to remain unspoiled.

I like movies with maps in them.  It makes them feel grounded.

The camera glides in to focus on a man with a guitar who's leaning on a wall on what appears to be a quiet evening in Italy.  He's strumming his guitar idly, dreamily.

Suddenly, his aimless strumming turns into the strains of the song "Mona Lisa," and he begins to sing the song in Italian.  A squad of Nazis come marching past, and he sings on and on as they go by.

Inside that building, four people hear "Mona Lisa" and immediately hide everything they're working on.

Captain Webster "Web" Carey (Alan Ladd) and his pal Frank (Paul Lees) pull out pistols and wait for the Nazis to come smashing through those doors.

But the night goes back to quiet, the lake and mountains and clouds serene.  They're safe... for now.  Still, they decide not to meet at this house anymore, and both Americans leave for their more permanent hidey hole in a big villa across the lake.

They receive a warm welcome from Giulia (Wanda Hendrix), particularly Web.  By the way, Giulia is pronounced just like Julia, but spelled differently so you'll remember she's Italian.

Web and Frank are really excited because they've captured a Nazi dispatch pouch.  Once they're safely hidden in the wine cellar, Web opens it to see if they've stolen anything useful.  Web and Frank are spies in the O.S.S., but they basically wear American uniforms with the insignia removed, which doesn't seem very spylike to me, but that's a very minor quibble.

Down in the wine cellar, there's a hidden panel that opens up into a secret room where lots of family valuables are stashed.  Giulia says that nobody in the family has been able to find that room for hundreds of years, so I'm not sure when the family stashed all that stuff there, or why, but it's a very nifty hidey hole.

I haven't written much Combat! fanfiction for the last few years, but the sight of Alan Ladd in a WWII uniform makes me want to put him in a C! story so bad, I can taste it.  Might just have to do that.

Anyway, one of the things in the vault of family heirlooms is this old painting of the villa.  Giulia says that when they're married, they're going to hang it over their fireplace.  Web says no way, baby, it ain't happening.  He wants to forget all about this place and all the danger and stress.  I'm not sure how he's planning to do that when he's also planning to marry Giulia, but whatever.  People in love are often illogical.

And there's no question about whether or not Web and Giulia are in love.

We all know they are because of how long it takes them to say goodnight.

They linger.  They flirt.

They kiss.

It's like the sun rises and sets in Web's world based on whether or not Giulia is there.  Look how happy and almost worshipful he is.  Awwww.

Upstairs, the villa is mostly closed up, furniture all draped with sheets in a creepy way.  Only Giulia and her grandmother and a few servants live there right now.  Giulia hears a noise and runs to the window.

Nazis!  Someone has betrayed them!

The Nazis break in without even bothering to knock, which is how you know they're evil.  I mean, besides the Nazi uniforms and everything.

Giulia runs to warn Frank and Web, who stop radioing their info to the Allies and start hiding their stuff.

Nazis bash the door with their rifles.  It's a tough door and buys the Americans some time.  Lovely, heroic door.

Web tells Giulia to run.

He says if anything happens to her, he'll never be able to live with himself, that sort of thing.

One last embrace.  I'm not crying, you're crying.

Web and Frank seal up their stuff and prepare to defend it, and themselves.  I don't know why they don't just hide inside that hidey hole with all their doodads, but... maybe they think if the Nazis capture or kill them, they won't look for their secret O.S.S. stuff, like their radio and their box of switchblades and the papers they've stolen?

Frank goes down fighting.  I want to pause here and talk about Paul Lees a minute.  He's in several Alan Ladd movies -- in fact, his first credit on is O.S.S. (1946), which I reviewed a couple days ago.  That's one of the reasons I pair this movie with that one in my mind -- it's like Alan's character there and here are the same guy, using two different names cuz hello, he's a spy, and after the events in France in that one, he got sent here.  Which would work with actual timelines, if Web/John was there until after D-DAY in 1944 but got sent here before the final liberation of Italy in 1945.  (My brain likes to create headcanon, you see.  Occupational hazard of being a writer.)

Anyway!  Paul Lees was blind.  I only just found this out, and it astonishes me, because I had no idea while watching this.  He was also a real-life war hero -- he served in the Marines during WWII and was captured by the Japanese during the battle of Corregidor.  He was blinded by acid during the war, but became an actor after it ended even though he was sightless, and made more than 40 films.  Wow.

Back to the story.  Frank gets killed and Web gets shot.

The Nazis had captured Giulia, but she breaks free of them and rushes to Web.

They drag her away from him and force her back upstairs.

Web's not dead, just wounded, and he's fully conscious, but unable to stop them from hauling Giulia back up the stairs.  She screams, there's a gunshot, and then nothing.  Total silence.  All light and hope dies in Web's eyes.  I cry a little and want to jump through the screen to rescue and comfort him.  Poor Web.

Cut to a close-up on that painting again.

The camera slowly pulls back to reveal Web's reflection in the window where the painting is displayed.

It keeps pulling back to reveal there's a woman with him.  She doesn't get why he's drawn to the painting.  He doesn't tell her.  He barely talks to her.  The war is over, he's a civilian again, she's convinced they're getting married, and he doesn't seem to care one way or another.  The light and hope are still gone from his eyes.  Web Carey is a hollow man, but that painting is about to give him something to fill his inner emptiness with.

Web and his fiancee go inside.  He asks lots of questions about where they got the painting.  The art dealer is very snooty and won't tell him anything.  Fie upon him!

Chicky doesn't get it.  Why does he care about this ugly old painting?

He says it's given him a purpose in life, the purpose he was lacking.  He's going to find whoever sold this painting, and he's going to kill them, because that person betrayed him, and two people he loved died as a result.  And while he's saying all this, Alan Ladd gradually goes from determined to fierce to a little too wide-eyed and kind of unbalanced.  I'm totally reminded of the scene in This Gun for Hire (1942) where his character talks about his abusive childhood.  He doesn't go quite as unhinged, but his balance is definitely askew here.

Back Web goes to Italy.  Without the chick, thank goodness.  Outside the hotel where he'll be staying, a blind man playing an accordion hears Web's voice and begins to play "Mona Lisa."

Web stops in his tracks.  Maybe he's less ready to face his memories than he'd thought.

The village women doing laundry in the town square all stop to listen too.

They realize that song means that he's one of the American spies who was there years earlier.  They're not happy to see him.

Despite a cool welcome in town, Web makes his way across the lake to the villa.  There he meets Giulia's grandmother at last, and also the over-shouldered Baron de Greffi (Francis Lederer) and Giulia's brother.

Who's this lurking in the back of the house?  It's Dr. Lunati (Joseph Calleia), frowning at them all.

And who's that hurrying past the windows?

Duhn duhn DUHN.  Web's whole world tilts sideways.

Giulia is not dead.

(I don't consider this a spoiler because Wanda Hendrix's name is right there on the title card, so you know she's not going to be in just like 20 minutes of the movie and then get killed off.  But Web, within the story, didn't know.)

She does not look happy to see him.  In fact, she looks kind of scared.

Web is confused.  So confused.  But he steps out of the dark house into the sunlight, symbolically crossing from ignorance toward knowledge.  No more wondering and wishing for Web -- he's going to begin learning the truth, starting now.

How is it possible that Giulia is still alive?  And why isn't she happy to see him?  That last one is simple -- she thought Web had died, just like he thought she had died, so she married Baron de Greffi.  Light and hope flicker out again in Web's eyes.  Giulia is once more lost to him.

Stunned and saddened at finding Giulia, then losing her again, Web leaves.  On his way out, Dr. Lunati hurries to meet up with him.  He's so happy to see Web, he calls him "baby" for the rest of the film.  This is weirdly endearing, like he heard Web call Giulia that a lot back in the day (how does Alan Ladd make "baby" sound like a sweet, sexy pet name and not a put-down to all womenkind?) and thinks that's what Americans call people they're friends with.  (Again with the headcanon.  Sorry.)

Back at the village, the streets are deserted.  An old acquaintance of Web's says it's all because he showed up.  Back when he was betrayed, the Nazis executed more than two dozen men from the village in retaliation for them hiding the American spies.  The villagers knew someone had betrayed the Americans, and thus them.  They thought they knew who it was, and they hung him.  Who was that?  This guy's son, the one who played the guitar at the beginning.

Web decides he's learned enough.  He needs to go back to America.  There's nothing left for him here.  Less than nothing, really.  No vengeance, no happy and untainted memories of Giulia, nothing.  He returns to his hotel to change, and then Giulia walks in through the balcony doors.

She wants to explain everything to Web.  Why she married the baron.  Why she thinks the townsfolk lynched the wrong person.  Why it's a good idea for him to leave.  Web's happy to listen, though he pretends not to be.

I go on and on about Alan Ladd's eloquent eyes sometimes.  But with good reason, honest!  Look at these three frames of him reacting to Giulia's words, how much he conveys in just a couple of seconds.

Web assures Giulia he's sticking with his decision to leave, but just then... someone gets murdered!  Knifed in the back with one of the knives that Web and Frank left behind in their hidey hole.  That painting of the villa isn't the only thing someone removed from that stash.  Web's positive that whoever found the secret room is the same person who betrayed them.

Forget going back to America.  You'd need a tank to drag Web away now.  He even testifies at the inquest.  So does Dr. Lunati.

After the inquest, Web and Lunati have a little discussion about just who might have been the real betrayer.  Lunati gives him a few clues.  He says Web ought to talk to the lynched man's widow and son, who have been ostracized by the town for being related to a traitor.

The supposed traitor's son Pietro (Russ Tamblyn, billed here as Rusty) keeps getting beaten up by the other kids because of who his dad was.  I reeeeeeally like Russ Tamblyn, and man oh man, is he young here!  Only like 15!  This was his fifth film, and he's all gangly and adorable.  I love it when he pops up in random movies!

Anyway, Web convinces Pietro's mom that he doesn't believe her husband was a traitor, and that he wants to uncover the truth.  She gives him some clues too, and he heads off to the big city to find answers.

Someone follows him there, and another person gets knifed.  Also, there's this weird interlude with a bunch of shirtless acrobats.  Very random.  But anyway.  This might be a good spot for you to skip down to the picture of the words "THE END" if you want to avoid spoilage.

Web heads back to the village.  Giulia has decided to confess that SHE was the traitor.  She ratted them out to the Nazis.  It's all her fault.  Web doesn't want to believe her.

The villagers hear about her confession and row themselves out to the villa in a big convoy.  They believe her and they're out for blood, though nobody at the villa knows they're coming yet.

Web is unconvinced.  He decides he has to revisit the scene of the crime, so to speak.  Down into the wine cellar he goes, stopping by the bloodstains he left behind there.

The baron accompanies him.  Web reopens the secret vault, wondering if it's been totally cleared out by now.  I'm TOTALLY SPOILING EVERYTHING next, so you've been warned.

Once inside the vault, Web turns around and sees that Baron de Greffi has been joined by a random dude we've seen around the village a few times, Giovanni (George J. Lewis).  They don't look friendly.

Random aside: George J. Lewis is in lots of Alan Ladd's movies, and whenever he pops up, I'm always thrown off by him because I'll recognize his voice, but not his face, and be like, "WHY do I know this guy?  He's so familiar!" and it'll take like three or four minutes for me to realize, "Oh!  That's Diego's dad, Don Alejandro, from Zorro!"  You'd think I'd be used to him popping up in Alan's movies by now, but nope, gets me every time.

Anyway, they don't look friendly.  But that's okay, cuz Web doesn't look too friendly himself.

Meanwhile, the villagers have arrived and are trying to break into the house.

We have a big, exciting showdown in the basement.  Lots of fisticuffs and shooting and impressive stunts.  All of which are really hard to screencap.  The villagers get through the door and seize Giulia, but Just In Time, Web makes it up the stairs and rescues her.  He explains to the villagers who the real traitor was (totally her creepy husband the baron, obviously).

Web and Giulia both kind of collapse against the doorway.  And each other.  It's been a long day.

But why waste time recovering, or mourning your dead husband (who was a traitor AND creepy, so obviously we don't need to mourn him long) when you've got each other again?

Ahhhhghhhghghghhh, look at that sweet, beat-up, undefeated Alan Ladd.

Look at his eyes!  They've got light and hope again.


Oh, wait, I was going to talk about the lyrics of "Mona Lisa" and how they relate to Giulia, wasn't I?  Here are the lyrics:
Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa men have named you --
You're so like the lady with the mystic smile.
Is it only cause you're lonely they have blamed you
For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?
Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa,
Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep,
But they lie there and just die there.
Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art.
Throughout the bulk of this film, until the last few minutes, Giulia has been remote.  Unknowable.  Beautiful, but unreachable.  Did she make Web believe she loved him, but secretly betray him?  Is she smiling now to hide that her heart broke when she thought he died?  Is she aloof because she's lonely, or because she has a terrible secret?  Only by reaching the end of the film will Web -- and the audience -- find out one way or the other.

This has been my second contribution to the Alan Ladd Blogathon hosted by Pale Writer.  I'm sorry if this got too long -- I had a lot to say about this one!

Is this movie family friendly?  Pretty much.  No cussing, one or two chaste kisses, a little violence and suspense.


  1. Lovely review. I REALLY wanted to read the last part, but I also REALLY want to watch the movie, so I decided against reading the spoilers. Tell me, in your opinion, does this rank as one of Alan Ladd's better films? And does it have a semi-happy and non-cynical ending? I would hate to watch it and then find out it has a sad ending. Thanks! :D

    1. Anna & Irene, yes, this is one of Ladd's better movies. It's in my top 15 favorites of his.

      TOTALLY has a good ending with full resolution, no cynicism at all. Not sad.

    2. Oh, goodie! I must now watch it... If I can track it down, that is...
      Thanks for your help!

    3. You're welcome, A&I! Hope you can find it.

  2. Captain Carey has begun to fade in my memory, but many of your screencaps, along with your review slapped my brain into remarkable clarity. I believe this a movie worth revisiting at the earliest possible opportunity.

    1. Caftan Woman, it's definitely worth revisiting! :-)

  3. Enjoyable review, and I especially liked learning about Paul Lees! (In your review you get a little confused and call him Frank Lees, just fyi.) - VT

    1. VT, thanks for catching that! I fixed it, and a couple other typos I found along the way. Thanks!

      Glad you enjoyed it :-)

  4. Saving this review to read AFTER watching the movie. ;)

  5. I've heard about this film for YEARS and have never seen it....thanks for posting all those screenshots, it looks scrumptious! ( I didn't read your descriptions because I don't want to spoil the "freshness" of the first viewing ). I've been waiting for someone to make a post about Maps in the Movies and haven't come across any yet, it looks like this is something I'll just have to write about myself. I'm glad to know that you are another fan of maps in films!

    1. Metzingers, how interesting! I'd never heard of it at all until I bought it because I had to buy ALL the Alan Ladd movies. Didn't even know it's what "Mona Lisa" was from! I hope you can see it soon, because it's loads of fun :-)

      Maps in films are awesome! And in books.

  6. Just watched this film gotta say it was very disappointing. The reason I saw it was to see the film in which the song “Mona Lisa” was introduced. It really didn’t play significantly as a love song… the way it was used, there could have been any song used. I am a big noir fan and I don’t think this opus really is up to the quality of the really great noir films.
    It was really sad, though, when all that wine was lost…Well, that’s my opinion.

    1. Anonymous, well, I can see how you could be disappointed if you expected "Mona Lisa" to be used as a love song in the film, since that's not how it's used. And I suppose, since it won the Oscar for Best Song that year, your expectation would be understandable.

      Do people consider this movie to be noir? I don't -- it's more of an actiony drama with a little wartime flavoring. But I suppose, given the presence of Ladd and Calleia, some people would lump it with their noir films.


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