24 SOMETHING YOU CAN’T EAT
Physical gratification from women other than his wife is not a temptation for Walter White. If he betrays Skyler, it is not about extra-marital affairs. This is odd because the news Walt is given about his cancer precipitates a mid-life crisis. For middle-aged men that usually means indulging in sex or as they say in the North of England, ‘something you can’t eat’. Tony Soprano is an unabashed example of the phenomenon. His criminal racketeering criminal provides him with money, power and status. This rather than charm or physical appeal enables him to seduce women with fewer years than him and figures more trim. Walt is different. He is loyal to his family and either has self-control or is immune to sexual temptation.
When the movie The Blue Angel appeared in Germany in 1930, stories about respectable middle-aged men reduced and ruined by women half their age were already familiar. The sexual and romantic decisions individuals make about other people are the most important choices in their lives. As those decisions are being made by people who not only pretend to others but themselves, the selection of mates is an ill-informed process. Men and women have always wrecked their lives through odd moments of lust that years later make no sense to them.
In Breaking Bad there are women who inspire destructive behaviour in men but these men react through their loyalty to those women. After the accidental death of Jane the instinct of a Jesse consumed with guilt is to self-destruct. Walt is protective of his family and hostile to those who threaten their well-being. Gus and Gail do not have women in their lives. Jesse again becomes violent after he discovers that Gus had killed the brother of his girlfriend Andrea. Hank has eyes that wander to other women but that is the limit of his treachery. Infidelity when it occurs is restricted to a bruised Skyler hopping into bed with the unattached Ted, her caring if crooked boss.
In The Blue Angel middle-aged schoolteacher Immanuel Rath falls for nightclub singer Lola Lola. The movie is great, and the final scenes where Rath expresses his rage by imitating the crow of a chicken are unforgettable. The transformation of a successful man into an animal is repeated in the great film noir movie Nightmare Alley. At the end of that film Tyrone Power is reduced to earning his living in a circus. He entertains the anything but sympathetic customers by biting the heads off the heads of rats. An audience seeing handsome Tyrone Power down in the dark depths realises that complete degradation can happen to anyone.
In 1930 the parents of Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan were probably not born. As we are talking about three schoolteachers, we can repeat the pitch Gilligan made to studios. Breaking Bad would show Mr Chips transforming into Scarface. The likelihood is that Gilligan saw The Blue Angel and the other films of director Josef von Sternberg. Gilligan appears to have seen everything else, so why not. Lola Lola in The Blue Angel is not a typical vamp. Her double name like much in The Blue Angel is meant to be symbolic. It is only near the end of the movie and after Lola meets a handsome Lothario that she is cruel to the schoolteacher Immanuel Rath. Even then Lola has some sympathy for her degraded husband. In her final song she is photographed in full black and white glamour. We observe a Lola who now understands her power over men, a callous human perhaps but one that is realised. The Blue Angel was made in Germany and co-financed by the American studio Paramount. When Josef von Sternberg returned to his USA homeland he was followed by the actress who played Lola Lola. Her name was Marlene Dietrich.
Hollywood understood glamour, and von Sternberg was no slouch. Using back lighting and careful spotlights von Sternberg transformed Dietrich into a smouldering all conquering beauty. Dietrich fluttered her eyelashes and blew almost white tobacco smoke out of the side of her mouth and into the beam of the rear spotlights. Leading men who looked nothing like innocent and overweight schoolteachers fell at her elegant heels.
The tragedies of ageing men destroyed by heartless and exploitative women have constant themes. These themes include human weakness, temptation, revelation, promise and destruction. For Immanuel Rath and the subsequent Hollywood victims of Dietrich the temptation was sexual and obvious. Revelation consists of an alternative to the constriction of sexual frustration. For each man the promise will be different. Rath married a young beautiful women and expected romantic fulfilment. He was misguided and believed that Lola Lola would make him happy.
For others it can be satisfying physical urges. In noir fiction there are cynical alternatives to naïve Immanuel Rath. These men are hard cases. They understand that the women tempting have little merit other than their physical allure. Noir wise guys like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity understand the price that has to be paid for brief ecstasy with a woman that cannot be trusted. Neff and men like him both risk and embrace destruction. In Breaking Bad, and after a meeting inside the local school, Walt has sex with Skyler in the back of their car. The sex is risky and, because of the location, illicit. Walt and Skyler share an ecstasy that had disappeared from their marriage.
The heightened sexual experience between Walt and Skyler is only transitory. The criminal activity of Walt produces secretive and destructive behaviour, and the couple become remote from each other. Noir fiction has been replaced by cinematic alternatives that attempt to avoid misogyny. Walt does not become a criminal because he desires to add frisson to his sexual union with his wife. He needs to make money but more than that he is compelled to add drama and consequence to his life. Meth making not only solves his financial problems, it makes him feel strong, powerful and, as Walt says much later to Skyler, alive. All this happens to Walt but rather than stimulating his sexuality the criminality of Walt helps him to become independent and physically self-sufficient. Once Walt is established as a powerful criminal there is just one scene of sexual intimacy between Walt and Skyler. The scene reveals his need to assert his power rather than express his desire.
Walt is 50 years old when Breaking Bad begins. Emil Jannings, the actor who plays Immanuel Rath, was 46 when he appeared in The Blue Angel. In season one of Breaking Bad, husband Walt is a soon to be father of two children. He may not be seduced by the promise of sexual ecstasy in the same way as bachelor Rath but both men understand that in their lives they have missed something because of the way they have lived and conformed. What they have not experienced is the temptation for them and it is why they are willing to risk destruction. The initial revelation for Rath and Walt promises both delight and rebirth. Although these exist the ultimate revelation is that delight and rebirth have a price. It consists of degradation and spiritual failure.
Breaking Bad and The Blue Angel both have their comic moments. In different ways the two tales are given a cynical edge. Conservative warnings exist, though, alongside the sly humour. Restraint may be imposed through a self-serving hierarchy but it and understanding our limitations are what helps most to survive. At the end of The Blue Angel schoolteacher Rath returns to the school he abandoned. He perishes while hugging his desk. We see a desperate man cling to the security he let slip through his fingers. Freedom from the drudgery of being a schoolteacher for Rath meant stepping into another prison. Before the tragedy of Rath unravels, his housekeeper discovers a dead muted bird in a birdcage. For most of us our efforts to sing are like those of Rath at the end of the film, misguided and pathetic.
Walter White unlike Rath dies with a smile on his face. But Walt had cancer and was without prospects. His behaviour was destructive, and thanks to inadequate self-knowledge he was able to justify his actions to himself. Walt did, though, taste the promise of freedom. His acquired wealth stopped his family being an economic burden and responsibility. His job as a schoolteacher meant he could not even escape the classroom but criminality enabled him to step into the Western wilderness outside Albuquerque. For a while Walt felt alive. There was no prospect of him returning to his high school and hugging his desk. Nor was Walt ever likely to have been tempted by an extra-marital affair. A music hall entertainer that meant a schoolteacher no harm but was unable to appreciate his worth led a flawed Immanuel Rath to his destruction. Walt had too much vengeance in his heart to be misdirected by another human being. Walt was destructive and wilful. His behaviour was often charmless. Rather than seek approval and human warmth and intimacy this frustrated schoolteacher found foes. Walt fought them until the end of his life. And because so many of them died, Walter White triumphed. Walt died with a smile on his face and finally felt alive.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.