Then Playing — The Hard Way; The Lady Gambles; Leave No Trace

The Hard Way (Vincent Sherman, 1943). This drama about a young woman named Katie (Joan Leslie) making her way in the ruthless world of showbiz has some real grit to it, distinguishing a storyline that otherwise hits familiar beats. It helps quite a bit that Ida Lupino plays the behind-the-scenes general of Katie’s relentless match. As usual, Lupino crackles with authority and intent, bringing welcome gravitas to even the most throwaway moments and scenes. Director Vincent Edward does his best to balance everything out, but the era-specific demand that the film be a melodrama, a moody noir, and a stealth musical all at once sometimes gets the better of him. The gears show. In addition to Lupino’s laudable work in The Hard Way, there’s a great supporting turn by Gladys George as an aging diva, playing the weariness of survival with piquant truthfulness and just the right dash of salty ham.

The Lady Gambles (Michael Gordon, 1949). Barbara Stanwyck plays Joan Boothe, the wife of a reporter (Robert Preston) who accompanies her hubby on a business trip to Las Vegas. While he’s out researching hydroelectric dams, Joan gets her beak wet in the casino. Although she’s initially a novice at the various games, Joan quickly falls into a gambling addiction. She stays up all night and fritters away her hubby’s expense account advance. The story gets darker from there. Although it strives for the sordidness of a film noir, The Lady Gambles plays like a stilted issues picture. Michael Gordon directs with a numbing plainness, even in the moments of stark danger. Even Stanwyck seems a little cloistered by the film, unable to really dig her nails into the part.

Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018). Debra Granik’s fiction film follow-up to the superb Winter’s Bone continues her instinctual sympathetic treatment of society’s castaways. Ben Foster plays Will, a military veteran and widower who’s been diagnosed with PTSD. The pain he carries is significant enough that he’s withdrawn almost entirely from society, living with his teenaged daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), in a makeshift campsite in the dense forestry of public lands in Oregon. When the authorities discover them, Will and Tom are forced to try to adapt to a more conventional living arrangement. Granik approaches the material with emotional acuity and resolute restraint, qualities that both her lead actors bring, too. Leave No Trace is piercing as it traces the pain and uncertainty at the heart of the characters’ march through a world that has no real place for them. It is a work of wounded beauty.

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