Caught a movie on TV yesterday I hadn’t seen since it first came out: THE DEVIL AT 4 O’CLOCK.
Not a great movie, in fact, pretty predictable and Hollywood corny, with some blatantly bad acting in some roles.
But Spencer Tracy was so good in it, he had me buying the whole thing.
Frank Sinatra is in it too, and doing his usual tough-little-guy-from-Jersey-who-knows-he’s-kinda-cute act. Which Tracy plays off of perfectly. As always.
Back in the day, Tracy was known as “the actors’ actor” because he was. He was considered by most in the Hollywood movie business to be the consummate actor, because he never seemed to be acting, he always appeared in every moment on screen as though he were really in the situation his character was in and responding naturally the way his character would.
In terms of comparable accolades and success in our time, Tom Hanks comes to mind. But Hanks is much more calculated in the variety of roles he plays and in his roles as producer and sometime director, writer and even composer (see THAT THING YOU DO where he does all of the above and does it amazingly well, in what is a minor classic already, only a few years after it came out).
But the contemporary movie actor who best compares to Tracy is Morgan Freeman. Neither of these cats has ever hit a false note in a flick, nor have they ever seemed to be grandstanding (as Hanks sometimes can when he’s going for the “acting” brass ring, ala FORREST GUMP etc.).
But my main point is that I hadn’t seen this movie since 1962 (it came out in ’61 but in those days movies took their time trickling down to the non-centers of civilization, and I saw it on an Air Force base shortly after I enlisted) and yet I had never forgotten one bit in it in all those years.
It’s a scene where Tracy’s character, an aging, boozing, hardboiled priest who has lost his faith in God after years of service on a godforsaken island, sizes up Sinatra’s, a hardened, career-criminal prisoner-in-transit, on the island with two fellow criminals and prisoners, who are his cohorts (one black, one older and French—the island is a French colony, or was, as everyone “white” speaks English with a mostly phony French accent to their English or, if movie star beautiful women, are described by themselves or others as half-French half-island).
Tracy’s priest guesses from Sinatra’s prisoner’s accent that he’s from New Jersey, maybe Jersey City (“the way you spit out them t’s”) and then adds that he’s “from Hell’s Kitchen” and, as I remembered it for over forty years, adds, “We used to eat punks like you for breakfast.”
When I watched the movie yesterday, that scene went by pretty fast but I think what he actually says is more like “I’m from Hell’s Kitchen where we eat guys like you.” But either way, the intent was there and the resonance of the comparison of toughness from New York’s Hell’s Kitchen to New Jersey’s Jersey City.
Part of the credit for that incredibly powerful insertion into my memory bank goes to whoever created the line Tracy spits out at Sinatra. Most likely the screenwriter, but you never know. Having seen lines I created for movie characters attributed in print to the actor who uttered them, or the director, or credited screenwriter (in this movie Max Catto), or even the writer of the book the movie was adapted from (Liam O’Brien), I know how impossible it is to really know who originated any one specific line in a film.
In this case, it almost seems like Tracy and Sinatra might have come up with this stuff themselves, since each was known, correctly or not, as tough guys from New York City and Jersey. And Tracy’s priest keeps hitting the fact that’s he’s not just Hell’s Kitchen but Hell’s Kitchen Irish, while the Sinatra character is called “Harry” and ethnically indeterminate.
But my main point is simply that the power of movies to imbed memories in our minds that are as permanent as any from our actual lives has always impressed me.
It’s true to some extent of books and art, and obviously of music, though with music the memory is usually associated with our actual lives at the time we were listening to it. But movies, above all other art forms (with TV a powerful second or sometimes a tie) can impact us, or me, as only real life events otherwise can.
I assume that it’s all about moving images and the ways they impress themselves on our consciousness, whether associated with language or not. And I acknowledge that this particular scene resonated with me, especially back when I was still a teenager trying to convince the world that I was, like Sinatra, a tough Jersey guy, and like Tracy, a tough Irish-American.
But even beyond all those considerations, I believe it was mainly a result of Spencer Tracy’s acting skills, which were so powerful, they could create an emotional response in me that imbeded the memory of the words he uttered and the way he said them so deep in my consciousness that I never forgot them.