First, the usual disclaimer: I don't own Gene Hunt, Alex Drake, and Luigi, or, for that matter, anybody or anything in MGM or Warner Brothers films. No copyright infringement is intended.
This thing seemed to come out of nowhere. Personally, I blame Canadian television, which once upon a time was my source for interesting and perhaps neglected Hollywood classics. (This was before the Internets, children). And for what it's worth, I have no idea what sort of films the BBC was showing back in 1982.
As always, I welcome comments, questions, and reviews.
One You Haven't Seen Yet
The nights were the worst.
It wasn't so bad when they were all together in Luigi's, talking and arguing and laughing amid a sea of alcohol and a haze of cigarette smoke. But once Alex went upstairs, wiped off her makeup and got out of her clothes, there was nothing, no one, to keep her company but for the radio and the TV, and maybe the lingering odor of Gene's tobacco of choice.
Her flat ought to have been a refuge, but instead the demons, every last one of them, were invariably waiting for her there. They came out when she was unguarded, when she was desperate for rest, distraction, something -- or someone -- to make her forget what she had lost.
The 1940s film series on the telly had seemed a godsend, then, when Alex first stumbled on it. She had a soft spot for Hollywood's golden age -- all those films with wit, romance, and, more often than not, an endearing innocence and optimism. She had felt something similar when first she'd heard Glenn Miller's recordings, so redolent of other times, other places, other lives and memories.
How was it possible that people who had known little beyond the cataclysms of the 20th century -- depressions, world wars -- had produced such hopeful music and films? Perhaps hope had been all they had -- that and each other.
Whatever it was, it had been enough to take Alex out of herself, if that was even still possible.
The very first film she'd watched had been Adam's Rib -- surprisingly progressive for its time, even daring, but fair too, with Tracy and Hepburn taking turns getting the better of each other. Alex loved their chemistry, their sexual charge -- Tracy tough and vulnerable at once, Hepburn flinty and witty and radiant, and, for all that, so completely his. Take a very masculine man and an utterly feminine woman, add complications and stir. Just delicious.
After that Alex had watched How Green Was My Valley. That too was wonderful, though in a different way, and it was a good deal less comforting. In fact she had found herself crying throughout it and couldn't quite decide why. Had it been the story of Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd? The suggestion of the fragility of a way of life, of family, of human relationships in any form?
The following week the scheduled film was Between Two Worlds, which Alex had never even heard of, despite familiar figures in the cast: Sydney Greenstreet, Edmund Gwenn, Paul Henreid, and John Garfield.
Garfield, of course, was always worth watching. Handsome, masculine, and intense, he was also dark and brooding but definitely not the silent type. Mouthy, Gene might say.
Alex had seen Garfield in a few things – as Gregory Peck's friend in Gentleman's Agreement, for instance, and as the violinist in Humoresque. Thinking of the latter film, though, brought forth a host of images and sounds Alex didn't care to remember, particularly Joan Crawford's pale, haunted face, and the strains of the Liebestod.
Alex pushed Tod of any variety out of her mind and moved on to other films. Garfield had done The Postman Always Rings Twice, of course, where he'd seduced – or been seduced by? – Lana Turner. Very daring for its time, though that film too had ended in tragedy, and for that matter so had Garfield's life not many years after. He had died young -- in his 30s, Alex thought, though she now couldn't recall why or how, and it wasn't as though she could look it up on the Internet now.
Anyway, best to remember him as he had been.
Right. Between Two Worlds. Alex settled in in front of the telly, box of tissues at the ready.
Alex started awake, her body going rigid. Dull light filled the room, and rumblings from outside gave notice that early morning traffic had begun in earnest.
The television was still on, though the film had been over for hours. Alex looked towards the set with trepidation but for once found no unsettling images there, and allowed herself to relax. She'd spent yet another night on the couch, but at least there had been no nightmares to speak of, not this time.
Yet it had been as though she had continued Between Two Worlds via her dreams, less through its images than though its voices. She smiled to herself, thinking of the plummy tones of Sydney Greenstreet and Edmund Gwenn, and of Paul Henreid's dry, understated Central European accent, and of course the unmistakable New Yorkese of John Garfield.
But it was all a jumble of phrases, at best.
The only thing you can do now is just go on, as though nothing has happened...
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child…
You can't run away from yourself here...Now and for the rest of time you'll face the truth...
Go to him...Stay close to him...
Benedictions? Warnings? Sheer bollocks from her subconscious? Alex was no longer sure.
"Not firing on all cylinders, are you, Bollyknickers," said Gene after Alex almost nodded off over a file. "If I didn't know better, I'd say someone's been keeping you up nights – or at least awake," he added, a little too loudly.
"If you must know, I haven't been sleeping particularly well," said Alex, making an effort to sit up straight and look directly into Gene's eyes. "It's hardly a hanging offense."
"Course not, Bolls. Besides, Mr. P's 'ung up his noose, so to speak, not that you bleeding 'earts mind that.
"But I want 200 percent from my team while they're under my nose. I will not 'ave you or any of this worthless lot nodding off on my watch. Comprende?"
"Perfectly, Guv," she sighed, turning her attention back to the file.
Shazzer had seen that Alex was exhausted, and of course so had Gene, and she might well have excused herself immediately when nearly the whole of CID repaired to Luigi's later on. By then, though, Alex had got her second wind, and besides, she hated to think of going up to her flat alone, leaving everyone amid the happy bustle downstairs.
Still, it was film night again, too, and with that thought came a sudden inspiration. Silently monitoring the level of Gene's drink, and of her own, Alex gradually finagled seat next to her DCI.
"I was wondering, Guv –"
"Wondering what, Bolls?"
"That is, I don't know whether this is really to your taste, but -- "
That caught his attention. "Try me," he said, grinding out a cigarette.
Alex realized her hands were shaking, and she set down her wineglass. "I was thinking it might be fun to get some takeaway and a bottle of wine, and watch a film," she said slowly, turning her eyes on him.
"And who would be 'aving this particular fun?" he said evenly, looking her straight in the eyes. He would have to make this difficult for her, wouldn't he?
Still, she pressed on. "You know perfectly well that I meant you and me."
"Do I, Bolls?" He took up his glass and drained it.
"You haven't eaten yet, and neither have I," she continued silkily.
"You 'aven't eaten since Maggie Thatcher was a backbencher, from the look of things."
"Oh, forget it. Just forget it."
"Au contraire, Bolls. I'm in." He pushed his glass aside and turned again to look at Alex, the expression on his face betraying nothing. "What's the video?"
"No video, a film on the telly." She could feel herself blushing. "And it's an old one," she added, half apologetically, half defensively. "But a classic. Ball of Fire, with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper."
"Cooper? Is it a western?"
"No, a romantic comedy."
"Cooper did a lot of comedies, Gene. It wasn't all Sergeant York and High Noon and The Pride of the Yankees."
"A film critic are we, Bollyknickers? What made you the expert?"
"If you must know, Google and IMDB."
"Pull the other one, Bolls. What've googlies and IBM got to do with –"
"I'm joking. I'm joking. When I was at university, I was in a film club. We saw a lot of things: Fellini. The French New Wave. Powell and Pressburger, of course," she added crisply. "Satyajit Ray and Kurosawa. American films of the '30s and '40s -- Frank Capra, John Ford. You've seen Stagecoach?"
"Of course I 'ave.'
"I loved that one," she sighed. "A group of people thrown together on a dangerous journey, and you find out who's brave and noble, only it's not who you think it's going to be."
"Never is, Bolls," said Gene, lighting another cigarette.
"Anyway, Ball of Fire," continued Alex, almost businesslike. "I'll understand if you aren't interested –"
"Don't be daft. It's Cooper. 'e wouldn't 'ave made rubbish."
Of course there would be the ordeal of extracting themselves from the midst of CID, and enduring an almost oppressive solicitude from Luigi -- who, after Alex and Gene had first been sidetracked by an argument about the comparative merits of curries and kebabs, won out as their restaurateur of choice -- before they could escape upstairs.
Alex started to wonder what she'd let herself in for when they got up to the flat, which suddenly seemed particularly small and inordinately warm.
"Kitchen?" asked Gene curtly, clutching two bags of takeaway in his hands.
"No, coffee table. Might as well be totally decadent." She immediately regretted the turn of phrase, but Gene appeared not to have noticed it. He set all the food in the living room while she popped into the kitchen for cutlery, crockery, and wineglasses.
"Right. You settle in, and I'll be back in a tick." Between the warmth in the flat and the abundance of Italian delicacies before her, Alex wasn't about to try eating while she was still poured into skintight jeans. She'd had to stop herself, though, from announcing she would slip into something more comfortable. This would turn into farce if she wasn't careful.
In the bedroom she peeled off her jeans and top and put on a t-shirt and shorts. A dress seemed too formal, and anything else too warm. By the time she came back into the living room, Gene had made himself comfortable too, but only superficially. Tie and jacket discarded, sleeves rolled up, drink in hand, he was seated on the edge of the couch, his legs wide, booted feet firmly on the floor. Ready for the showdown. Or to get out of Dodge, if it came to that.
Still, she couldn't miss the once-over he gave her as she emerged from the bedroom, or the expression in his eyes as his gaze traveled up and down her body. Was he pleased or disappointed? Maybe, despite her casual tone, she had given him the wrong impression.
No, that was unfair; it was all down to his perfectly filthy imagination, or her imagination of his imagination. If he'd had his way, she'd have come prancing out of the bedroom wearing a suspender belt, stockings, and heels. The very thought made her giggle, though it was a decidedly tired giggle.
"What's the joke, Bolls?"
"Joke? Oh, no joke. I was just thinking --"
"God 'elp us all."
"I was just thinking fashion has really gone downhill since Hollywood's golden age," she said demurely, slipping onto the sofa and accepting a glass of wine from Gene. "All those elegant frocks and smartly tailored suits, and here I am, wearing shorts and a t-shirt and serving takeaway. Gary Cooper wouldn't look twice at me."
"You'll do, Bolls," said Gene gruffly. But he clinked his glass against hers.
"I'll save the marabou-trimmed dressing gown for another occasion, then, shall I?" purred Alex.
"Nothing, nothing. Let's have dinner." She set down her wineglass and opened one of the containers. "Oh, no," she groaned, looking in dismay at a dish of pale little lumps covered with an equally pale sauce.
"What the 'ell is that?" said Gene. "Bollocks au gratin?"
"Potato dumplings with cheese," sighed Alex. "Or, as I like to call them, carbohydrates with saturated fat. Luigi's idea, of course. 'Signorina, the gnocchi alla gorgonzola, they will melt in your mouth!'" she added, assuming an Italian accent. "Still, I am starving."
"Right. Tie on the feedbag," said Gene, handing her a plate. For a few moments they concentrated on negotiating the takeout containers, filling their dishes and refilling their glasses, until at last Alex settled herself cross-legged on the couch, and Gene leaned back, full plate in one hand and fork in the other.
"Not bad," he said when he'd finished a mouthful of gnocchi. "Come on, Bolls. 'ave a taste," he added, aiming a forkful in her direction.
"I suppose I must, mustn't I? I wouldn't want to hurt Luigi's feelings," she said, opening her mouth to be fed, moaning as she caught the flavor of the gnocchi and cheese. "Mmm, that's lovely. Rich, though," she added, running her tongue along her lips to catch any lingering sauce. She took another sip of wine and over the rim of the glass saw Gene watching her. "What?"
"Nothing, Bolls. Just like to see you enjoying your food. Eat up now; there's a good girl."
After that it was easy to relax, at least for a while. There seemed to be a great variety of food -- Luigi had outdone himself this time, truly he had -- and for fully half an hour it seemed that Gene and Alex were working their way through a gastronomic map of Italy.
"You're trying to fatten me up," murmured Alex at one point.
"You make that sound like a bad thing," Gene shot back. He gulped down another mouthful of house rubbish. "Anyway, it's Luigi's doing, and 'e knows what 'e's about. You ever seen an Italian bird with a scrawny little arse?"
"Strewth." He helped himself to a bit of veal. "Pleasures of the flesh and all."
"I'll plan on a Sophia Loren film next time, then."
Next time. God, what was she saying?
"Of all those lush, ripe Italian birds," he said, glass halfway to his mouth.
"Well, I can think of worse fates than being marooned on a Mediterranean island with Giancarlo Giannini," Alex said, smiling to herself. "Though I draw the line at Roberto Benigni. Too frenetic for my taste."
"What're you on about, Bolls?"
"I am just saying," she said lightly, lifting her glass, "that on the whole, no, I wouldn't trade places with any Italian woman. At least not in this moment."
Alex, having endured several nights of troubled sleep, had been groggy all day, and she hadn't improved things much by consuming alarming quantities of both wine and carbohydrates. In fact she was no longer certain she'd be able to keep her eyes open through the film, and therein lay two dilemmas.
First dilemma: Should she unceremoniously toss Gene out in favor of her beauty sleep? No, that would be farcical, to say nothing of cruel. Besides, she didn't want him to leave.
Second dilemma: She wondered if he knew that the invitation to watch a film had been just that -- pure Gary Cooper, no second feature starring Gene and Alex under her duvet, however much they'd both had to drink.
Surely Gene would not think to take advantage of the situation. What was it that Jimmy Stewart had said to Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story? There were rules about these things.
Oh, for God's sake. The Gene Genie didn't follow rules, he broke them. And as for herself, what was she, a Victorian maiden? Take advantage of. Such an expression.
Right. Priority number one: film. Priority number two: keeping the Gene Genie in his bottle, the Manc Lion in his cage.
Maybe the whole idea had been a mistake.
Alex wondered as much when she turned round from switching on the telly and caught Gene right in the middle of a long, highly appreciative look at her bum. It was the perfect opportunity to toss a snarky comment in his direction, but she pushed all such thoughts aside, merely giving him a smile and taking up her place beside him, curling her legs up on the the couch and picking up her wineglass.
The film began appropriately enough, with the familiar logo and roaring lion. Still, Alex was a little unsettled when a bookish-looking Cooper made his entrance, surrounded by a bevy of character actors. He was no Will Kane, no Alvin York, no Lou Gehrig, not this time.
But Gene made no objection and indeed seemed to warm to the film once Barbara Stanwyck, in spangly midriff- and leg-baring nightclub garb, made her appearance.
"So 'e's posh and she's common."
"Gene Hunt, film scholar and cultural critic," said Alex. "Well done. I doubt Billy Wilder himself could have put it so elegantly. Still, it seems somehow unfair to call Barbara Stanwyck common. She was pure magic on screen, from everything I've seen."
"Good-looking bird," agreed Gene. "Legs that go on for miles." But he tore his eyes away from Stanwyck long enough to shoot a glance at Alex's thigh, which was nearly at his elbow. Maybe the shorts had been a bad idea.
Alex pushed that thought from her mind and took another sip of wine. "She is, as you say, showing a disconcerting amount of leg. They must having been having fits at the Hays office."
"The 'ays office?"
Gene snorted. "''eart attacks all round, cast included. Coop looks like a starving man who's just spotted a banquet."
"And doesn't she know it." Really, it was impressive to see Stanwyck taking charge of things, with Cooper -- and all the men in the cast, actually -- dancing to her tune.
Gene chuckled as roly-poly S.Z. Sakall demonstrated a move during the conga sequence. "I've seen that geezer before, but I can't think where or when."
"Casablanca," prompted Alex. "He was the headwaiter at Rick's."
"That's the one. And that bloke over there – I know 'im too."
"That's Henry Travers -- Jimmy Stewart's angel in It's a Wonderful Life."
"Never seen it. No, 'e must have been in something I watched with me mam. She likes the old films and all."
Gene's mam. Alex tried to remember when last he'd spoken of his life in Manchester, how much he'd even hinted at --
"Are we keeping you up, Bolls?"
"What?" she said, stifling a yawn. "No, I -- who's 'we,' Gene?"
"Me. Gary Cooper. Barbara Bloody Stanwyck, if you like."
"Don't be daft."
He actually smiled at that, perhaps due to the phrasing, and for a few moments they watched in silence.
Dilemma one: solved. As for dilemma two...
She only had to say one word, she knew. When the film was over, and they were confronted with silence and a riot of takeaway containers and empty wineglasses, she need only say one word.
No, that was wrong. You didn't tell the Manc Lion, "Stay," as though he were a dog.
And she was tired. In fact it was a struggle to keep her eyes open, and as she drifted between consciousness and oblivion, she was aware of strange, incongruous thoughts flitting across her brain, blurring the line between the present, or whatever this was, and the past, the future. She had a sudden memory of Molly trying to keep her own eyes open when Alex had allowed her up past her bedtime.
Suddenly Gene's voice broke through all of it.
"'ere. What's this?" he said, indicating a tear on Alex's cheek. "Coop always have this effect on you, Bolls?"
"No, I was just thinking of -- I was just -- excuse me." Alex rose from the couch and made a beeline for the bathroom.
"It's nothing," she called back.
With the door shut and locked safely behind her, Alex collapsed against it and into tears, fairly gasping for breath as sobs overtook her. "Molly. Oh, God, Molly --"
"Bolls." For a moment she paid no attention to the voice coming through the bathroom door, but it would not stop. "Bolls." Gene must be right outside. Had he heard her?
"Bolls, you all right?"
For whatever reason, his voice had fairly pulled her back, and after drawing a few deep breaths she felt equal to a lie. "I'm going to the loo. Out in a minute."
Alex looked into the bathroom mirror. Watery mascara was pooling beneath her eyes, leaving her looking like something out of Thriller. She turned on the tap, dampened a bit of cotton wool, undid most of the damage to her makeup, even if her eyes were still red. And Gene would see. She knew he would see.
But also she knew she couldn't stay in the bathroom all night.
By the time she got back to the living room Gene was on the couch again, looking a bit less at home than he had a half-hour previously.
"Look, Bolls," he began awkwardly. "You don't 'ave to --"
"Don't be silly," she said, sitting down next to him and making an effort to smile. "I want to see how it ends."
But saying that had felt equivalent to pushing him away physically -- he was giving her a long, searching look -- and she wondered again if the entire evening had been a mistake.
Especially when he abruptly stood up.
"I'll be back."
"Like the Terminator?" she said fondly.
To her astonishment he headed for the bedroom, not the bathroom, and came back with an armload of pillows, which he arranged behind her.
"'ere. If you're that knackered, you'll need these and all."
She felt like crying again, but only gave him another smile. "Thank you," she whispered, nestling into the pillows.
"We aim to please, Bolls." One arm went around her, but gently, and she didn't pull away. As she closed her eyes and relaxed against Gene, she was just vaguely aware of a jacket being flung over her bare legs.
She'd done it again. She'd spent the whole night on that bloody couch.
Alex tentatively raised her head from the pillow. She wasn't in the throes a full-blown hangover, but had just enough of headache -- a little calling card from the house rubbish -- to make getting up a delicate procedure.
Fortunately it was mercifully quiet in the room, and still fairly dark. Both the lights and the television were off, too, and that wasn't all that was unusual. There was a light blanket tossed over her. Gene's doing, Alex realized suddenly. Oh, God, she'd not only fallen asleep during the film, she'd fallen asleep on Gene. She'd mull over an apology as soon as she could get some coffee in her, assuming it was still possible for her to stand up and walk to the kitchen.
As she gingerly swung one leg off the couch a strong hand gripped her bare ankle.
Alex's scream was sufficient to wake the dead, or at least Luigi.
"Bolls. BOLLS!" Gene, hair and shirt and face equally rumpled, was sitting up beside the couch.
"Mind where you step, Bolly," he said sharply. "Almost put your foot in it. Or on it."
Alex's head cleared just enough to allow her to smile, though it almost hurt to do that, and to giggle.
And to contemplate the situation.
"You've been there all night? On the floor?"
"Yeah. Well, I started on the couch. Turns out your rump takes up more space than I'd thought."
"Why didn't you wake me?"
"Couldn't, Bolls. Not when you were that knackered."
"You didn't need to stay." The moment she said it, she realized it was the wrong thing -- there was an unmistakable look of hurt in Gene's eyes -- yet she couldn't take it back.
"Yeah. Well." He passed a hand through his fair hair. "Didn't want to leave you on your own, Bolls."
She smiled at him, hoping to make up for what she had just said. "You should have at least had the bed."
"A kip on the floor's good for the back. And I had me pillow."
"You should have had the bed," she repeated, slowly pulling herself to the edge of the sofa and groaning as she did so. "I'll get you some coffee, assuming I can still find the kitchen." With an effort, she stood up. "Oh, I missed the rest of the film! You'll have to tell me how it ends. Does he at least get the girl?"
"'e's Gary Cooper. Of course 'e gets the girl!"
"Good." She smiled again, despite her aching head. "I love a happy ending."
"Me too, Bolls. Me too."
Alex's post-dream reverie quotes from the 1944 film Between Two Worlds, screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, who adapted Sutton Vane's play Outward Bound. The last time I checked, Between Two Worlds was available to watch online.