Black-and-white dress shoes -- that’s the kinda things I’m crazy about in old movies!
***BEWARE OF SPOILERS***
In my favorite television show, LOST, all the main characters are depicted as multi-dimensional human beings, no one is purely good or intrinsically bad. However, to remind the viewer of the eternal struggle between good and evil (one of the core themes of the show), the producers of the show, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, insert here and there different items of a symbolic, allusive or referential nature. These visual tokens are intended for devoted fans of the show, geeks like myself. One of the signs that intersperse the LOST universe is the juxtaposition of the black and white colors (sometimes, esp. lately, those are offset by red, but this does not concern me for the moment). If it were not for that LOST allusion, I probably never would have noticed such things in my favorite old Hollywood movies, where everything is black and white.
Sometimes I tend to overanalyze things, and, most likely, that is the case here. Nevertheless, I would take just one B&W article and would try and propose a theory that it is not by chance that this article pops up in the good ol’ movies now and again. The article in question is B&W dress shoes (men’s shoes, of course).
I don’t know whether directors mean to say something when they dress their actors in such shoes, but everywhere I come across this type of footwear I’m on my guards, because I immediately sense that something is amiss with the character wearing them. I instantaneously know that this character is either double-crossing or deceiving others, or is being generally unfair to someone or dishonest or fishy, or has a duplicitous nature, or something like that. Judge for yourself. (I wish I could supply pictures of all of them.)
1. We see them in the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” (1951). Heck, the movie practically starts with them, i.e. with the feet clad in them. I was on the watch at once! And who wears them but Bruno Anthony, the crazy villain we can’t help admiring! Certainly, we must thank the actor, Robert Walker, for depicting such an interesting character, but it were the shoes that alerted me from the start to his potential ambiguity (and dangerous attraction).
2. Vladimir Sokoloff owes his comeuppance to them in William Dieterle’s “Blockade” (1938). When his character first voiced his interest in such shoes, I knew he was playing a double game! And such a nice old guy, too, he seemed. He paid too dearly for running around in smart shoes!
3. Bill Holden sports them when writing his breakthrough script (he thinks) and walking around Paramount Studios in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” (1950). We first see him in these shoes when he lies on a couch reading “The Young Lions” and lies to Gloria Swanson that he’s going to bed soon. Instead, he sneaks out of the mansion and goes to Paramount to meet a younger woman -- to work with her, to be sure, but poor Gloria suspects something else was in the air. And guess what? She is right! Of course, I would not call a down-on-his-luck Joe Gillis a dishonest person, he was just an unhappy lost soul, but if you really wanna play hookey on Norma Desmond, you’d better choose plainer shoes!
4. The lawyer (played by James Stephenson) in William Wyler’s “The Letter” (1940). Here again, we’ve got a typical situation: Bette Davis’s lawyer is uncertain whether he should suppress the evidence for his client’s sake (i.e. do an illegal thing in violation to his professional code of honor) or report his client to the law, or expose her to her husband.
5. In Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past” (1947), Bob Mitchum packs ‘em up in his suitcase when another dimpled cutie, Kirk Douglas, drops in, and boy, is Mitch displeased to see him! It happened right at the moment when Mitch was skipping town with Kirk’s girl (Jane Greer), while Kirk thought that Mitch was looking for that girl for him, and was playing a fair game with him, like he always had. A very telling moment: a double-crosser almost caught en flagrant délit. What spiced up the situation for me was Kirk’s casual remark about the prettiness of those shoes. You fool, you should have smelled something was up when you caught a glimpse of them!!! 6. Rudy Vallee runs a sack-race in them, and all the other crazy races (spoon-and-potato, three-legged, etc.), too. It happens in a delightful comedy, “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” (1947). Ain’t he a fool? Well, I supposed he put ‘em on to impress Myrna Loy, but Cary Grant was around, so it wasn’t enough just to have something smart on to outrun that fella. Rudy wasn’t exactly deceitful or anything, but he gradually turned from a sympathetic guy into annoying, meaning that somehow he was pretending. Consequently, we wish that Cary would win all those silly Saturday picnic races and would get the (older) girl in the end, because he did not pretend at all.
7. Tony Curtis wears those B&W fancy shoes, adding another touch to his deceptive appearance of a millionaire in order to hook Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” (1959). I read somewhere that Curtis was trying to imitate Cary Grant when his saxophonist Joe was impersonating a suave yacht owner. First, I have yet to see this comedy masterpiece in English to make sure if that is so, and, second, of all Cary Grant flicks I saw (about 25 or 30, I think) I don’t remember him wearing such shoes in anything! One would think that a sophisticated person like Mr. Grant would put on those elegant shoes at least once, but no, no way. Maybe because he never played a deceitful character in all his career?
8. Raymond Burr wears these shoes in the beginning of “His Kind of Woman” (1951). To me it seems like a waste of a prop or wardrobe: Who’s gonna look at Raymond Burr’s feet? And his menacing presence (not only in this film but in others as well, from “Raw Deal” (1948) to “Rear Window” (1954)) is enough to let the viewer know that there’s nothing ambiguous about his characters: they are indubitably and unquestionably evil. However, evil or no evil, but who doesn’t like Raymond Burr?!
Here are just a few examples of my favorite footwear in some of the movies I like or love or adore. I am curious to watch more movies and see if other instances of B&W shoes will support or disprove my theory.
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