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Category Archives: 1940s

The Third Man

Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

And there we have one of the most impish, mischievous pieces of cynicism ever spoken to the camera, essentially a throwaway moment in a movie yet the one that’s most fondly remembered and perhaps best sums up the nature of the character who delivers it. The Third Man (1949) has come to be regarded not only as a classic film noir but one of the true high points of post-war British filmmaking. It remains a dazzling piece of work, urgent, energetic, inventive and beguiling. I’m of the opinion that the greatest films all share one common characteristic: they can be revisited time and again and still manage to reveal different aspects of themselves to the viewer. There’s either a richness of theme or a subtle shading of the characters that allows for a shift in perspective, meaning that as our moods or feelings change over time the films are capable of addressing or coping with that. That’s what struck me as I watched The Third Man for the umpteenth time the other day, the way I found myself responding to the characters in a different light on that occasion.

The story unfolds over a couple of days in Vienna, a city whose Hapsburg splendor has been stripped naked and ravaged by the obscenity of war. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp westerns, arrives in the city breezy and brimming with confidence having been promised a job by an old friend. Holly’s friend is Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and it appears that he’s going to be some kind of publicist for a vaguely defined medical charity. And yet no sooner has Holly set foot in Vienna than he discovers that instead of coming to praise Harry, he’s come to bury him. It appears that Harry met with a sudden accident: crossing the street to speak to a friend he happened to see, Harry is run over by a truck driven by his own chauffeur before being pronounced dead by his personal physician who was passing that way by chance. All very tragic and all very convenient. But coincidence is the preserve of fiction, and it’s not long before Holly realizes that the Harry he knew was really a work of fiction too. Full of righteous indignation, Holly first believes that Calloway (Trevor Howard), the British major, is besmirching his friend’s reputation before changing tack and coming to the conclusion that Harry was actually murdered. It’s during his blundering but well-meaning “investigation” of the circumstances of Harry’s mysterious end that Holly meets his friend’s lover. Anna (Alida Valli) is an actress, beautiful, tragic and enigmatic, almost a metaphor for post-war Europe itself. With his doubts about Harry’s life and death growing larger all the time, Holly begins to fall under the brittle spell cast by Anna. As he becomes more smitten by her charms, he undergoes another change, the ultimate one. The combination of his love for Anna and his understanding of the true character of Harry leads Holly to a betrayal that’s justifiable, perhaps even desirable, on a moral level yet somehow wrong on a human level.

Much has been written about The Third Man over the years, more scholarly and in-depth analysis than I could hope to achieve so I’m not going to attempt to compete with that. The unique locations, the driven direction of Carol Reed, the iconic photography of Robert Krasker and Anton Karas’ distinctive score all blend together to create a masterpiece of unease. Visually the film captures the fragmented nature of the era where everything felt a little skewed and off-center, a hard to define sense that something isn’t quite right, that all is not really what it seems. Of course all this technical and artistic brilliance is immediately apparent the first time one sees the film, and subsequent viewings only serve to underline that quality. However, as I said at the beginning, repeated viewings have drawn my attention to other aspects of the film, namely the characterization. This comes down to the skilful writing of Graham Greene and the performances of Welles, Cotten and Valli in particular. The shadow of Welles and Harry Lime loom large over the whole production, both the character and his interpretation by Welles. For a long time I was very taken by the Harry Lime character, I guess I still am to an extent, and the fact he inspired both a radio show and a TV series proves how widespread that feeling was. But let’s be honest here, Lime was a rotten and reprehensible character, a self-absorbed sociopath without a shred of pity or decency. It’s Welles’ brilliant portrayal – the modulation of voice, the expressiveness of his features and the fleeting twinkle in the eye – that transcends all that. Had anyone else played that role, it wouldn’t have worked. At all.

However, let’s return to those shifting perspectives I alluded to earlier. While Welles and Lime dominate the movie, I’ve found myself paying more attention to the characters of Holly and Anna. Holly is, I suppose, the nominal hero, the everyman through whose eyes we see the story develop. I came to sympathize with him, with Cotten’s no-nonsense portrayal of a guy who has his illusions gradually pared away until he sees things in the cold, clear light of day. I was rooting for him, wanting him to come out on top and get the girl in the end. That masterful long shot that ends the movie used to break my heart. I could imagine myself as the poor schmo getting out of the jeep and waiting for the girl I loved to approach, and then she just walks straight on, eyes fixed ahead and indifferent. And there was Holly, alone and empty, standing awkwardly on an empty road leading to a cemetery. As I watched the film a couple of days ago I caught myself looking at it from a different angle though. This time I was thinking about Anna and the way she is actually the only one of the central trio who displays honor and true integrity. She’s come to understand that her love for Harry was misplaced, even wasted, yet that realization doesn’t invalidate its truth. It was her loyalty right to the bitter end, her implacable refusal to betray her love, both the man and the ideal, that impressed me deeply. So as I say, it’s a film of many layers and every time I see it I seem to peel away another one.

Fortunately, The Third Man is a film which is very easy to see for anyone unfamiliar with it. There are lots of editions available and most of them are attractive. I have the old 2-DVD set released in the UK some years ago which has a very strong transfer and plenty of good extra features to boot. I’ve thought about maybe upgrading to the Blu-ray as it’s a title that gives me a lot of pleasure but I remain undecided. I have a kind of unwritten rule for myself that I won’t upgrade unless I’m honestly dissatisfied with some aspect of the presentation I already own. Watching this one again, I can’t really say that I am particularly dissatisfied, so we’ll see. Anyway, we’re talking about a bona fide classic here, a film which you can return to many times and it never loses any of its freshness. If you haven’t seen it before, then do so at the earliest opportunity. And if you have, watch it again and see what grabs you this time.

 

 

 
 

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The Suspect

A man trapped in a hellish domestic situation and driven over the edge by intolerable circumstances, challenged by a hydra-like fate at every turn. It sounds very much like a typical noir scenario, doesn’t it? Well, swap the glare of neon on rain-swept sidewalks for the soft glow of gaslight on damp cobblestones and it becomes apparent that The Suspect (1944) is indeed classic film noir. The setting may be Edwardian London but the moral dilemma confronting the protagonist leaves no doubt as to what category the movie falls into.

Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton) is essentially a nice guy, we’re reminded of this again and again throughout the film. He’s first seen on his way home from his job in a London tobacconists, pausing outside his front door to exchange pleasantries with his neighbor. As he enters his home though it becomes immediately apparent that all is not as it should be in his personal life. His bitter and acid-tongued wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan) informs him that their only son is moving out; a temper tantrum and the ensuing actions of Cora having proven to be the final straw for the boy. Marshall himself accepts the news calmly enough, it’s nothing he hasn’t been expecting though it also acts as something of a watershed as far as his own attitude to the marriage is concerned. Exasperated by Cora’s shrewish behaviour, Marshall moves into his son’s old room and seals what amounts to a de facto separation. The situation is reinforced, and is moved onto another level, when he meets Mary Gray (Ella Raines). As these two lonely people gradually embark on a relationship, the first instance of the film’s ambivalent morality comes to the fore. Essentially, Marshall and Mary are indulging in infidelity yet the seemingly chaste nature of their relationship, coupled with the not insignificant fact that both of them appear genuinely happy in each other’s company, encourages us to view it in a wholly sympathetic light. Matters are muddied still further when Cora’s poisonous nature threatens Mary’s future, even though Marshall has reluctantly agreed to end the affair. Everything heats up from this point as Marshall finds himself facing a dilemma, and the only solution he can see is the removal of Cora. Again, our moral sense tells us that this is wrong, and again the vile spitefulness of Cora ranged against the likeability of Marshall (and Mary) means the viewers face their own ethical quandary. The Suspect though is an extremely clever piece of filmmaking, and the decision not to show the murder actually taking place is a further example of its deft manipulation of the audience. By taking this approach, the movie leaves at least a seed of doubt in our minds – it almost feels like it wants to encourage us to believe that Marshall may not really have done away with Cora. Thus far we’ve seen a dysfunctional marriage, an apparently doomed romance, infidelity and murder. However, before the credits roll blackmail, the persecution of the innocent and the possibility of some kind of redemption are all stirred into the mix. I won’t go into details regarding the ending here, but I will say that I felt it adopted a nice ambiguous tone, one that is entirely appropriate given all that’s gone before. Personally, I consider it another example of the film’s skill in sidestepping the strictures of the Hays Code – the door remains open (albeit by only a hair’s breadth) for the kind of resolution the moral guardians of the time would have certainly frowned upon.

Robert Siodmak remains one of the most important figures in the development of film noir throughout the 1940s. His work, taken as a whole, would serve as a pretty good introduction to this style of filmmaking, and his movies are easily up there among my favorites. He started off his noir cycle quite brilliantly with Phantom Lady and then moved on to the odd and unsettling Christmas Holiday. The latter film began to explore the corrosive effects of an unconventional family dynamic and The Suspect continues this focus on troubles in the home, although from a different angle. In fact, Siodmak would go on to expand on this theme in his next noir project too, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry; the films actually have some elements in common, namely Ella Raines turning up to charm lonely men trapped by suffocating domestic arrangements. Much of the movie is consequently shot indoors, particularly in Marshall’s home, and makes good use of the atmospheric set design that was typical of Universal productions. I mentioned before that Cora’s death is never shown, but there is a marvelous sequence where the dogged detective, Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges), visits Marshall and reconstructs the crime. The whole thing takes place on the staircase with Marshall at the foot and Huxley enveloped in the shadows on the landing. As Huxley narrates his theory as to how events may have played out, the detective is literally absorbed into the darkness and the camera darts back and forth between the positions he imagines Marshall and Cora occupied. While it only lasts a few minutes, it really draws you in and neatly highlights the flair and artistry of Siodmak.

Charles Laughton was one of those larger than life actors who was forever in danger of overcooking a performance – anyone who has seen Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn will know exactly what I mean – but could also display great subtlety when handled correctly. Siodmak seems to have reined him in successfully and the result is a finely nuanced portrait of a man resigned to a life of disappointment who’s offered a glimpse of fulfillment. A character such as Philip Marshall could quite easily fall into the villainous category, and it’s to Laughton’s credit (with the assistance of that clever script) that he remains such a sympathetic figure at all times. Of course the fact that Laughton found himself paired off with Ella Raines doesn’t hurt either. At first glance Laughton and Raines make for an unlikely couple. Still, it works on screen, and Raines’ ability to project her particular brand of alluring loyalty (a quality Siodmak clearly recognized and exploited very well in their three collaborations) plays a significant part in that. Rosalind Ivan’s role as Cora is a thankless one in that her character honestly has no redeeming features; every time the audience might feel some vague stirring of sympathy she quickly reverts to type. Nevertheless, as a textbook example of bile and vindictiveness, it’s remarkably effective. The real villain of the piece, the man who elicits the most antipathy, is Henry Daniell. He pretty much built an entire career on playing slimy, scheming ne’er do wells and The Suspect offered another opportunity to get his teeth into such a part. He’s supercilious, unscrupulous and self-absorbed – a character it’s uncommonly easy to despise. And finally, a brief mention for Stanley Ridges. Always a reliable presence in any film, Ridges brings a calm authority to his performance as the detective who appears almost reluctant to do his duty.

Some of Siodmak’s noir pictures have proven pretty difficult to see over the years, though the situation has improved somewhat. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry is currently only available in fairly poor quality (although a pretty good print has been broadcast on TV) but it seems to be earmarked as a future release by Olive in the US. The Suspect is another of the elusive ones; it was released on DVD in Spain a few years back and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy. That edition now seems to have gone out of print, although there do appear to be copies still available. There’s also an Italian release but I can’t comment on that – I do have a few other titles by that company though and have had no complaints thus far. The Spanish DVD is taken from an unrestored print – there are small scratches, cue blips and the like – but it still looks quite nice. The contrast, always important when it comes to noir, is fine and the film has been transferred progressively. There is a choice of the original English soundtrack or a Spanish dub. Also, there are no problems with subtitles – they’re optional and can be disabled from the setup menu. As a fan of Siodmak’s work, I like the film a lot. There is a certain amount of melodrama on show but it’s of the attractive noir variety. Laughton is excellent and admirably restrained, and the presence of Ella Raines is very welcome. Most of all though, I enjoyed the way the tale manipulates and subverts our notions of morality. Overall, it’s a quality entry in Siodmak’s noir series and recommended viewing.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2014 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak

 

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The Black Book

Recently, I’ve been watching a fair bit of film noir, and indeed mulling over and discussing exactly what does or does not constitute noir. And that brings me to a borderline case, a movie that flirts with the notion of film noir, has some of its recognizable characteristics, yet stops short of fully satisfying the criteria. The Black Book (1949) was among the handful of movies Anthony Mann made just before he embarked on his influential and complex cycle of westerns. The film is a historical piece, a mystery/espionage thriller whose visual style is pure noir but whose theme lacks the ambiguity to allow me to comfortably place it in that category.

1794 – France is gripped by revolutionary fervor and the Reign of Terror, presided over by Robespierre (Richard Basehart), is at its zenith. The series of bloody purges have led to an atmosphere of distrust, insecurity and instability. With Robespierre on the verge of absolute power, plans are afoot to overthrow him while there’s still time. But that time is short; within days Robespierre will have maneuvered himself into an unassailable position and the opportunity will have passed. Enter Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings), an agent acting on behalf of the exiled and imprisoned Lafayette. D’Aubigny’s mission is to infiltrate Robespierre’s inner circle, by means of impersonation, and see that the voices of dissent are provided with the means to remove the would-be tyrant before he has them silenced forever. This task is both aided and complicated by two unexpected factors. Firstly, there’s the presence of Madelon (Arlene Dahl), D’Aubigny’s former lover and his principal contact with the anti-Robespierre faction. And then there’s the black book of the title: Robespierre’s death list, a sinister little volume containing the names of those marked down for execution as and when the whim strikes him. It’s this book which forms the basis of Robespierre’s power, it’s impossible to be sure whether one’s name is included and that uncertainty weakens any potential opposition. However, the book has gone missing and the hunt is on to retrieve it before a critical meeting of the ruling Convention. Whoever gains possession of the black book holds the balance of power – able to install Robespierre as absolute dictator or to destroy him completely.

Personally, I feel The Black Book functions well as an allegory for the time it was made. WWII had ended a few short years before and the memory of the terror and slaughter was still fresh in the minds of everyone. It’s no great stretch to see the film as a warning against the dangers of dictatorship; even as the world had witnessed the end of one hateful regime another has risen up to take its place. The purges and sham trials depicted in the film bring to mind the repression and fear of the Stalinist eastern bloc. However, I think too that the critique of the cult of personality and the atmosphere of betrayal and backstabbing can also be viewed as a subtle reminder that even stable democracies can be manipulated by political opportunists under certain circumstances – the paranoia accompanying the red scare of the post-war years was already rearing its head in the US.

Anthony Mann built his reputation on his crime and noir pictures and that influence was carried through to a greater or lesser extent in most of his subsequent films. Thematically, his westerns continued to be psychologically complex even though the visuals (once he began to work in color) moved in a different direction. The Black Book, photographed by John Alton, is much more straightforward when it comes to theme and characterization. The hero is simply heroic; there’s no internal conflict struggling for dominance of the character and no sense that fate has the odds stacked against him. From the viewer’s perspective it’s always very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, even if some of the motives aren’t quite so apparent. Still, the movie looks like a textbook example of film noir. Mann’s composition and Alton’s lighting create a dark and dangerous world for the characters to inhabit: high overhead shots suggestive of detachment, low angle ones bringing ceilings into focus and emphasizing a cramped, restrictive world, deep and impenetrable shadows slicing menacingly across faces or threatening to consume them totally.

Robert Cummings is generally thought of as a lightweight lead and sometimes dismissed on those grounds. I’ve always liked his crime/mystery roles though  – The Chase, Sleep, My Love, Saboteur, Dial M for Murder – and have rarely found him disappointing. If anything, I feel his natural charm lends a touch of vulnerability to his characters. I have no complaints about Cummings’ performance in The Black Book, he handles the tense, suspenseful scenes well and is convincing enough when the need for action arises. Arlene Dahl is good too as the former lover who now has to work closely with the man she once abandoned. A rekindled romance does develop but it never has that tacked on feel that can make such plot devices tiresome. That this aspect works is largely down to Dahl, her coquettish insolence is both refreshing and attractive. Richard Basehart too is very effective as Robespierre; there’s a stillness and calm about him that becomes quite unnerving, only the glittering eyes hinting at the murderous zealot lurking within. As good as the leads are, Arnold Moss steals practically every scene he appears in as Fouché, the oily, Machiavellian politician who’s naked self-interest is a wonder to behold. In support, there are nice turns delivered by Charles McGraw, Beulah Bondi and Norman Lloyd.

For a long time the only way to see The Black Book was via ropey transfers of battered prints. However, Sony put out a MOD disc in the US that seemed to far surpass all previous releases. I never picked up that disc but when Koch in Germany announced their own pressed release of the title I decided to bite. I don’t know if the Koch disc is derived from the same source as the US edition but I can certainly say that I’ve never seen the movie looking better. There are isolated speckles but the print used is in pretty good shape and shows off Alton’s photography to very good effect. Additionally, this disc has the full, uncut version of the movie (as does the US MOD edition) restoring the censored scene that was absent from many of the earlier releases. There are no subtitles offered, just the original English soundtrack and a German dub. Having suffered through some appalling transfers of this film in the past, it’s a real pleasure to be able to see it looking crisp and clean. It may not be proper film noir, but any fan of that style of cinema should get a lot out of this movie – Mann and Alton present some stunning and memorable images. Bearing in mind there’s a satisfying and exciting story here too, I have no hesitation in recommending the film.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2014 in 1940s, Anthony Mann, Mystery/Thriller

 

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Night Has a Thousand Eyes

I’d become a sort of a reverse zombie. I was living in a world already dead, and I alone knowing it.

Film noir is at heart a fatalistic genre. Greed, stupidity, desire and deceit all play a significant part to be sure, but back of it all is the implication that human beings are locked on a predetermined path which circumstance or fate has chosen for them. Whether or not one subscribes to such a theory is neither here nor there; it’s enough to know that it underpins much of film noir. But what if we already knew what lay in store? Would it be possible to cheat fate and regain control of our lives? That’s the basic premise of Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), a noir with a quasi-supernatural slant.

The film opens dramatically with Jean Courtland (Gail Russell) about to take her own life by throwing herself in front of a train. The suicide bid is thwarted at the last moment by Elliott Carson (John Lund), her fiance. But why would a beautiful young woman such as this want to end it all? The answer to this is provided by John Triton (Edward G Robinson), once a small-time mind reader and now a virtual recluse, a prisoner of his own unique talent. Via a series of flashbacks Triton reveals his connection to Jean and the odd events that have shaped his life. Depending on one’s point of view, Triton has either been blessed or cursed with the ability to foretell the future. As his weary narration points out, there were initial advantages to this, such as the knack of predicting how best to make money. Despite these indisputable benefits, Triton gradually came to see that prior knowledge of various tragedies had a corrosive effect on the soul. Slowly, the feeling began to eat away at him that he might be in some way responsible for some of the things that happen. His first reaction was to ignore the premonitions in the hope that doing so might avert them. When that doesn’t work he settles on an alternative course of action; he will actively try to prevent the outcomes that periodically flash before his eyes. And it’s this which leads him into the life of Jean Courtland. Jean is the daughter of his late fiancée, a woman he left and let marry his best friend. That sacrifice failed to save the life of his former love, but a vision of Jean’s imminent death routs him out of self-imposed exile. For twenty years Triton has hidden himself away from the world, shunning human contact. Now however, he decides to take on fate directly. It’s a duel of sorts between a desperate man and the mysterious force that seems to determine all our futures. The prize at stake: the life of a young woman, and the chance for Triton to shake off the unwelcome curse bestowed upon him.

John Farrow is a director I’ve always had a lot of time for. He was extremely versatile, working in a variety of genres and turning out a handful of highly entertaining and well crafted noir pictures. Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a brisk piece of work, yet there’s also a dreamy, melancholic feel to it. The first half is taken up with the flashbacks that explain how Triton’s gift mutated into a curse, and Robinson’s voice-over adds to the noir atmosphere. The latter section sees the focus narrow and is largely confined to Jean’s home, as the police, various retainers and Triton all gather to see if the predictions come true. The fusion of noir motifs and supernatural overtones is unusual and quite successful in my view. While film noir was grounded in at least a superficial reality, there was also an element of the fantastic running through it. I guess the fact this movie was based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, given that writer’s penchant for outrageous and sometimes bizarre plot twists, accounts for this mix. Another point of interest is the sympathetic or tolerant stance adopted towards the whole issue of spiritualism. Generally, film and literature of the 30s and 40s tended to be downright hostile when it came to examining the spiritualist craze that grew out of the aftermath of WWI. Most books and movies focused on debunking the techniques of the fake mediums and phony spiritualists, exposing them for the charlatans they were.

While Farrow’s direction is solid and Woolrich’s material is always interesting, it’s the performance of Edward G Robinson that really powers the film. By his own admission, Robinson possessed an air of menace that was often used to great effect. Yet, in reality, Robinson was a highly cultured man and could impart great sensitivity when he was afforded the opportunity. The role of Triton was such an opportunity, a tortured soul robbed of the love of his life and endowed with a terrible gift. Robinson had wonderfully expressive features and it’s a real joy to see him tuck into a meaty and complex part like this. Although he’s the unquestioned star of the movie, he gets good support from John Lund and Gail Russell. Lund’s role is a bit of a thankless one as the stoical, skeptical romantic lead, but he does all that’s required of him. Russell had that tragic, ethereal beauty that works so well on screen and there’s a vague air of confusion about her, a sense of one lost in the world. Somehow, her magical presence seems entirely appropriate in such a film.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a movie that’s just crying out for a decent DVD release. The film can be viewed online quite easily and there’s a DVD available from Italy but neither option shows the movie in the best light. I have that Italian disc and it has to be said the print used is pretty beat up. It’s taken from an Italian source, the titles and credits are presented in that language, and it’s a dirty, scratchy affair. Despite the poor condition and lack of restoration it does remain perfectly watchable throughout. The disc offers the choice of either the original English soundtrack (no subtitles) or an Italian dub. The theatrical trailer and a text essay (in Italian) comprise the extra features. This was originally a Paramount production so, given the lack of any word of Olive releasing it, I’m guessing the rights now reside with Universal. I can only hope that it gets a stronger release somewhere in the future – it deserves it. Regardless of any complaints about the current presentation and availability of the movie, it remains an intriguing film noir. A neglected little gem, ripe for rediscovery.

EDIT: Laura also wrote a piece on the movie here, which I only just noticed.

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in 1940s, Edward G Robinson, Film Noir, John Farrow

 

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The Mask of Dimitrios

To me the most important thing to know about an assassination is not who fired the shot – but who paid for the bullet.

The passage of time can have a nasty tendency to cloud the memory, to cast a kind of nostalgic haze over things and distort reality. On occasion I’ve found this to be the case with films, where fondly remembered movies, those which have earned themselves a special place in the heart over the years, fail to live up to their promise. It’s quite a crushing disappointment to discover that a film we thought was wonderful long ago falls far short of the stellar image we’ve built up in our imagination. Happily though, that’s not always the case, and sometimes it just happens that the film we saw all those years ago really is the little gem we’ve been yearning to see again ever since. The Mask of Dimitrios  (1944) is one such movie; I caught it once on a late night TV broadcast at some point during my teenage years and it made a big impression on me. However, it never seemed to show up again no matter how carefully I scoured the TV listing pages in the papers. It also remained stubbornly absent from DVD release schedules to the point I began to despair of ever seeing it again. In the interim I’d read the Eric Ambler novel from which it had been adapted, and that actually just served to increase my frustration. Anyway, when I finally learned of its DVD release this year I experienced a rush of excitement tinged with a hint of trepidation. Fortunately, the latter feeling turned out to be misplaced as I realized my memory hadn’t been cheating me. Ah, the ups and downs of being a movie fan!

It’s 1938 and the uncertainty and upheaval of the inter-war years will soon be swept aside by the approaching conflict. In Istanbul a group of children run happily along the shores of the Bosphorus. They halt abruptly, shocked by the gruesome sight before them. The body of a murdered man has washed up and now lies carelessly on the sand. The clothing and papers identify the remains as belonging to one Dimitrios Makropoulos, a Greek national and a man not unfamiliar to the authorities. Later that evening, at a party, the Turkish security officer in charge of the investigation falls into conversation with Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a mystery writer vacationing in the Levant. The tale of the shady character now lying on a mortuary slab intrigues Leyden and piques his writer’s interest. Armed with only a handful of dates and locations, Leyden takes it upon himself to satisfy his curiosity and make a stab at tracing the movements of this notorious figure. Leyden therefore sets out on a journey that will take him first to Athens, then on to Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva and finally Paris. Along the way, via a series of flashbacks narrated by an assortment of middle European types, he begins to piece together a picture of the mysterious and ruthless Dimitrios (Zachary Scott). At every turn though, Leyden’s path seems to cross that of Mr Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), a man whose interest in  Dimitrios surpasses that of the diminutive writer. It soon becomes apparent that the threat posed by men such as Dimitrios doesn’t end with death, and that his malignant influence may even extend beyond the grave.

The Mask of Dimitrios is one of those pictures that sails awfully close to the boundaries of film noir; the fates of Dimitrios’ victims certainly moves it in that direction as does the shadowy photography and multiple flashbacks employed. However, despite the presence of these persuasive factors, it’s the mystery/espionage elements that dominate for the most part. The story comes from Eric Ambler’s finest novel (high praise indeed as the man rarely wrote anything weak) and I reckon the film stands as the best adaptation of his work to date. Generally, Ambler’s stories dealt with men who found themselves drawn unwittingly into the murky world of spying and underground politics. By having the bulk of the action play out in the Balkans, that hotbed of intrigue and shifting loyalties, The Mask of Dimitrios captures the mood of betrayal for profit beautifully. Both Ambler’s writing and Jean Negulesco’s atmospheric direction leave the viewer in no doubt that we’re being taken on a tour of a world of secrets, memories and confidences cherished for emotional and material value. For me there are two standout sequences in the movie. The first is the framing story in a cheap night club in Sofia. Faye Emerson is wonderfully weary and faded as she recounts her past with Dimitrios: the air is thick with a kind of smoky decadence, Emerson’s near lifeless eyes and drawn expression speak volumes, and the band plays Perfidia in the background. The other noteworthy episode is an extended flashback to an elaborate sting in Belgrade, where a minor government official has his own weakness manipulated in order to suck him into committing treason. The combination of Dimitrios’ cold slickness and Steven Geray’s portrayal of the poor dupe whose fragile ego, thwarted ambition and desperate desire to rise in his wife’s estimation makes it quite affecting.

Of the half-dozen or so movies that Greenstreet and Lorre made together in the 40s, The Mask of Dimitrios was the one that gave them the greatest opportunity to shine. Something like The Maltese Falcon handed them fascinating roles, but they were still only there to provide support for Bogart and Astor. This film, on the other hand, places the two men front and center and it’s their partnership as much as anything that carries the whole thing. As Peters, Greenstreet has the more ambiguous part, and gets to indulge in his patented trick of switching from jovial bonhomie to dark menace in the blink of an eye. Lorre acts as the viewer’s guide, half leading and half stumbling his way through the twisting tale. Zachary Scott is of course the true villain of the piece, and the movie offered him one of his best parts. He always had an oily charm that could be used to strong effect when necessary, but this time that quality remains largely buried beneath a cold, calculating facade. As the story progresses the full extent of Dimitrios’ foul character is gradually revealed, and Scott manages to convey very successfully just how dangerous this man truly is.

As I said at the beginning of this short piece, The Mask of Dimitrios was a difficult film to see for a long time. Earlier this year though, it appeared on DVD via the Warner Archives. At the time I felt ambivalent about this fact; I wanted to get my hands on the film but I’ve never managed to completely overcome my aversion to buying DVD-R products. When I learned over the summer that Absolute in Spain were putting out their own pressed disc version of the movie, I decided that was the one I’d go for. Absolute can generally be relied on to produce solid, attractive releases, and this is no exception. The image doesn’t display any noticeable damage and has nice contrast levels to show off the noirish photography. As usual with this company, subtitles are no issue and can be deselected from the setup menu. Extra features consist of the theatrical trailer and a booklet (in Spanish naturally) containing notes on the film and a good selection of stills. OK, so I had been a little fearful that the film wouldn’t prove as entertaining as I hoped, but it ended up being every bit as satisfying as I recalled. Personally, I think it’s a terrific example of the magic that studio bound B thrillers could conjure up when the right cast and crew were handed promising material. Do yourselves a favor folks and check this one out – it comes highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2013 in 1940s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Lorre

 

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Canyon Passage

The western is a genre which, although it’s certainly not the only one, is sometimes accused of being overburdened by clichés.  This is understandable enough; genre pictures by definition have to feature elements that are immediately recognizable to viewers. Canyon Passage (1946) could be said to contain its fair share of these well-worn tropes (crooked financiers, restless wandering types, hostile natives) but part of what raises this film up among the best examples of the genre is the way they are handled. There’s an  air of authenticity about it all, and that filters through into some stock characters and situations, bestowing on them an originality that sets the whole production apart.

While I don’t have any statistics at hand to prove this one way or the other, I reckon it’s safe to say most westerns take place within a rough thirty year period beginning at the outbreak of the Civil War. Sure you’ll get examples set both before and after these dates, but they do appear to be slightly thinner on the ground. Canyon Passage tells a tale of Oregon in 1856, a time of growth and expansion before conflict engulfed the nation. Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is one of those thrusting, entrepreneurial types, never satisfied with what he has and always on the lookout for new opportunities to add to his fortune. Still, he’s not a greedy or grasping man; his ambition is just an integral part of his character, a restless need to range further and in some ways a reflection of the pioneering spirit of his country. Stuart is a man who is going places in every sense: his business is booming, he’s respected within the community and he’s courting Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc), a beautiful English settler. However, there’s almost always a fly in the ointment, two in this case. The biggest and ugliest comes in the shape of the brutish Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), a muscle-bound giant of a man and an amoral counterpoint to Stuart. A further source of anxiety is George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), the local banker and Stuart’s best friend. Camrose is a compulsive gambler, a dangerous trait in a financier in any circumstances but doubly worrying when he’s caught in a run of spectacularly bad luck. While Camrose attempts a precarious balancing act his fiancée, Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), is increasingly  attracted to Stuart. Granted none of this is making his life any easier, but it pales into relative insignificance in comparison to the physical threat represented by Bragg. The hulking bully is borderline obsessive in his rivalry with Stuart, further enraged and embittered by his knowledge that his foe had (and passed up) the opportunity to see him hang. Fueled by hate and frustration, Bragg gives in to his animal instincts and thus imperils not only Stuart but the whole community when his base behavior sparks off a tragic Indian uprising.

Adapted from a novel by prolific western author Ernest Haycox (Stagecoach, Union Pacific, Bugles in the Afternoon, Man in the Saddle etc) Canyon Passage was the first foray into the genre for director Jacques Tourneur. The versatile Frenchman took to westerns right from the beginning, crafting an intimate portrait of frontier society that comes close to the affectionate and mythic vision of John Ford. Cameraman Edward Cronjager captured some truly beautiful and breathtaking Technicolor images that Tourneur then directed with an expert touch. The sequence of the cabin raising is an ode to communal effort and gives a real sense of how inextricably linked the lives of these people were to those of their neighbours. Everything in the movie – the texture of the buildings, the condition of the streets, the language and attitudes of the characters – smacks of a realism that isn’t always present. However, the movie is more than a celebration of pioneering spirit and the social dynamic of the time. Above all, Tourneur was a master of atmosphere and an extraordinarily subtle, understated director. There is plenty of rousing action accompanying the narrative, and again the authentic feel comes across in the depiction of the violence. No doubt Tourneur’s experience working in Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO shaped his approach to filming the more horrific scenes. There is very little explicit violence shown on screen, the director preferring to cut away or obscure the more visceral moments. Yet the effect, as was the case in those Lewton movies, is to force the viewer’s imagination to take over. In my opinion anyway, having to visualize the acts just off screen is more unsettling than seeing some unconvincing mock-up.

With strong source material and first class people operating behind the cameras, the final vital ingredient is the performers. Dana Andrews produced another of those deceptively quiet turns as Logan Stuart. Initially, you’d be forgiven for thinking this man was no more than a hard-nosed and pragmatic businessman. However, as the story progresses, Andrews, as he so often did, reveals new layers to the character. His early scenes with Patricia Roc hint at a tenderness of heart not apparent from his stoic visage, and this aspect is further developed as his relationship with Hayward grows. But really it’s his loyalty to Donlevy that proves how deep his humanity runs. Although Donlevy was of course a great heavy in countless movies, I wouldn’t actually class his George Camrose as a fully fledged villain. Despite some thoroughly reprehensible behavior, Donlevy brought a weakness and frailty to the role, a touch of corrupt romanticism if you like, which helps explain why Andrews stuck by him all the way. No, the real bad guy here comes courtesy of Ward Bond’s portrayal of the monstrous Honey Bragg. Bond did a fantastic job in capturing the physical power, the depravity and animal cunning of this figure. The two main female roles – those of Patricia Roc and Susan Hayward – are careful studies of contrasting women. Roc had the right kind of brittle gentility for an Englishwoman suddenly thrust into a new and dangerous world; her dazed and distant reaction to the aftermath of the Indian massacres struck just the right tone. Hayward, on the other hand, was feisty, tough and earthy – a true frontier gal. In supporting roles, there is some good work from Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine, Onslow Stevens, and the wonderful Hoagy Carmichael.

Canyon Passage is a Universal film, and there are plenty of DVD editions on the market from a variety of territories. I have the version included in Universal’s Classic Western Round-Up Vol. 1 which was released a number of years ago. The film shares disc space with The Texas Rangers but I can’t say I was aware that the presentation suffered from any compression issues. For the most part, the image is very strong with the Technicolor cinematography looking frankly spectacular at times. There are no extra features whatsoever available on the disc, something I think is disappointing as the movie is most certainly deserving of a commentary track at the very least. Regardless of that, this movie remains among one of the very best westerns made in the 1940s. Jacques Tourneur would go on to make a number of high quality pictures in the genre, though I feel this represents him right at the top of his game. There’s a complexity and maturity to the characters and their interactions that help distinguish the movie. Not only would I recommend Canyon Passage to anyone with an interest in westerns, I would go so far as to say it’s essential viewing.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2013 in 1940s, Dana Andrews, Jacques Tourneur, Westerns

 

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The Man from Colorado

The years following WWII saw a number of movies looking at the problems encountered by veterans returning home and the difficulties they faced in trying to assimilate themselves once again into society in peace time. This was a common enough theme in film noir, where the shadowy, paranoid and dangerous world of the dark cinema seemed ideally suited to such tales of detachment and disillusionment. Westerns, on the other hand, would appear an odd choice for exploring these particular issues. However, as I’ve tried to point out in the past, the western was a versatile and malleable genre capable of embracing just about any type of story. The Man from Colorado (1948) deals with a man coming home after experiencing the horrors of a different and more distant war – the Civil War – but the associated problems, especially the psychological ones, are sure to have struck a chord with contemporary audiences. Perhaps more importantly, the film remains relevant for modern audiences as, sadly, new conflicts have a nasty habit of rearing up to rob a little of the soul of almost every generation.

It all starts with a massacre. On the last day of the Civil War a small band of Confederate soldiers are holed up in a box canyon. Faced by a well equipped Union force, these demoralized troops have the choice of making a fight of it or surrendering. Their officer orders a white flag run up, and then watches in disbelief as the Union commander gives the word for his artillery to open up. Owen Devereaux (Glenn Ford) is the colonel who knowingly seals the fate of this group of doomed men. Devereaux is a man not only hardened by battle but psychologically damaged to the extent that his humanity has been all but stripped away. This calculated atrocity is witnessed by his friend and subordinate Captain Del Stewart (William Holden), but his sense of loyalty to his commander, and perhaps his charity to a man he feels has been scarred enough by conflict, leads to his surreptitiously burying the evidence. Devereaux himself recognizes the mental strain he’s suffering from but hopes that civilian life and freedom from official duties will offer him respite. However, that’s not to be; a man with his war record is attractive to those with a political agenda to push, and the local businessmen in his hometown convince Devereaux to take on the role of federal judge. Reluctantly, Stewart agrees to serve as federal marshal under Devereaux, partly because it affords him the opportunity to keep an eye on his disturbed friend. Nowadays, the condition affecting Devereaux would likely be referred to as post traumatic stress disorder and various treatments would be prescribed. However, we’re talking about 1865 and men had to simply soldier on, so to speak. The power and responsibility that Devereaux now holds seem only to exacerbate the problem, and the fact that Stewart is not only his deputy but a rival in love too doesn’t help matters any. As Devereaux, backed by grasping mining interests, develops a kind of callous megalomania that threatens to undermine all respect for the law among the locals, Stewart increasingly realizes that his friend has gone beyond the pale and it’s his duty to take a stand.

Borden Chase wrote the story that The Man from Colorado was based on, although I don’t know how much of that was altered in the finished screenplay. The dark characterizations certainly all bear Chase’s stamp, but the script shows the mine owners and authority figures in a pretty negative light, something that would appear to be at odds with his conservatism. The depiction of a man driven insane by the horrors of warfare and his inability to come to terms with a post-war life is the main theme of the movie, and it’s obviously the most interesting feature. However, the critique of a society shaped and driven by financial interests is never far from the surface either. Taken together, these two aspects are held up to the light in what is essentially an examination of how society treats those it relied on to defend its safety when the hostilities have come to an end. The inference is that, at the time anyway, a man had to deal with these matters himself, or with the help of a handful of close friends at best. Director Henry Levin is one of those figures who worked away within the studio system, making movies in all kinds of genres, without too much fuss or acclaim. His handling of the material in The Man from Colorado shows he was more than capable of telling an interesting story and keeping the pace tight. The film is a mix of interior and location work, with the former dominating for long stretches. For the most part, the action set pieces take place outdoors – particularly the opening and the fiery climax – while the sound stage interiors are used for the more psychologically complex character scenes. At times here, the lighting, composition and musical cues suggest the feel of a film noir, in spite of the sumptuous Technicolor used in the movie.

As far as the performances are concerned, the lion’s share of the work is carried out by Ford and Holden, with the former being the center of attention. The part of Owen Devereaux is arguably the least sympathetic of Glenn Ford’s many roles. He managed to get right into the dark heart of his character, but in doing so missed out on giving him too much dimension. That may be down to the writing as much as anything, but it still means that the central role is robbed of some much needed complexity. Basically, Ford becomes a villainous black hat for the audience to hiss at, and not a lot more. What this means is that Holden’s part is given added interest. A lawman who turns in his badge and joins a gang of outlaws isn’t usually seen as a hero in westerns of the period, but that’s precisely what Holden’s Del Stewart does. There’s considerably more conflict in this character – loyalty, love and social responsibility are all motivational factors for him – and Holden gets to explore his range a good deal more than Ford. Among the supporting cast James Millican has the plum role as the former soldier who insubordination sees him run foul of Ford’s Devereaux. Millican gets to play a great anti-heroic figure and eventually bows out in fine fashion – a terrific actor. Ellen Drew is the only woman in the movie, as the object of both Ford and Holden’s affections, and her role is a weak one; she’s not called on to do much more than look suitably distressed by Ford’s growing excesses. Other parts of note are filled by Edgar Buchanan as a sympathetic doctor and Ray Collins as the mercenary mine owner.

The Man from Colorado is a Columbia production so Sony are responsible for its release on home video. The UK DVD is a very basic disc, lacking a proper menu and boasting no extra features at all, apart from a plethora of language and subtitle options. That notwithstanding, the picture quality, which is ultimately the most important thing, is excellent. The print used for the transfer is in very good condition and displays no damage that I was aware of. The transfer is clean and sharp, and the Technicolor looks to be especially well reproduced – all in all, this is a handsome presentation. Westerns with a strong psychological storyline really came into their own in the 1950s but The Man from Colorado represents a fine late 40s example of this variant. While I think the film could have benefited from a more rounded portrayal of Ford’s character the roles played by Holden and Millican do compensate to some extent. In the final analysis, I consider this to be a solid, worthwhile western that I’d rate as above average.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2013 in 1940s, Glenn Ford, Westerns, William Holden

 

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Fallen Angel

We were born to tread the earth as angels, to seek out Heaven this side of the sky. But they who race above shall stumble in the dark and fall from grace. Then love alone can make the fallen angel rise. For only two together can enter Paradise.

Film noir is primarily an urban-based style of filmmaking, and derives many of its motifs from the faceless anonymity and frequently hostile isolation that characterize big city life. However, it would be a mistake to think that noir cannot exist outside of this particular environment. There are plenty of examples of the form to be found in a variety of settings – it’s this flexibility that is one of its strengths. While the metropolitan sprawl may well offer enhanced opportunities for portraying bleak, fatalistic tales, the small town, with all its attendant possibilities, represents another fertile setting. The more limited environment may not suggest the kind of impersonal alienation of larger urban surroundings, but the sense of community that exists (regardless of whether it’s shown in a positive or negative light) has its own claustrophobic atmosphere. Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945) occupies a kind of middle ground, with the majority of the action taking place in a small tightly knit settlement but also featuring short interludes in San Francisco.

The film actually opens at a sort of geographical mid-point, one could almost say the middle of nowhere. After the credits, inventively flashed up on screen as a series of road signs seen through the windshield of a bus speeding through the night, we’re introduced to Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), and it’s immediately obvious that this is a down on his luck chancer. Not having enough money to ride the bus any further, Stanton finds himself tossed onto the road. With just a dollar in his pocket, he’s stranded in a small town, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s one of those sleepy little places where everybody knows each other and there’s not much to do. Stanton wanders into the local diner, right in the middle of what appears to be some kind of investigation. The owner, Pop (Percy Kilbride), is an anxious man – his waitress has apparently gone missing and he’s clearly distressed. A local cop and a former New York lawman, Judd (Charles Bickford), listen sympathetically and offers reassurance. As Stanton orders some food, the door of the diner opens and a weary but flashily dressed young woman strolls in. This is Stella (Linda Darnell), the source of all the panic a moment earlier. What’s immediately apparent is that Stella is arguably the hottest property in town; Pop is fawning and all puppy-dog eyes, Judd looks on with something approaching warmth, and Stanton too is unmistakably drawn to her. Stanton may be down to his last buck but he’s also the consummate opportunist. Spotting an advertisement for a visiting spiritualist, Stanton talks his way into acting as the promoter for the upcoming spook show. While Stanton might seem like the cat that always lands on its feet, this latest piece of maneuvering will actually drop him right into the centre of a maelstrom of passion lurking beneath the deceptively calm surface of the little coastal town. In falling for the insolent and sensual charms of Stella, he hits upon what he thinks is the perfect plan to win her over; Stella is no fool and wants a man who is willing and able to marry her and take her out of the dead-end job in this backwater. To this end, Stanton hatches a scheme to court and marry a rich heiress, June Mills (Alice Faye), divorce her and run off with Stella. However, it won’t be that easy. Too many men want Stella for themselves, June really falls for Stanton, and a murder will take place. I’m not going to reveal who dies or who did the deed, I’ll say only that Stanton becomes the prime suspect and he will have to unravel the tangled web of deceit and thwarted desire if he’s to have any chance of clearing his name.

Otto Preminger had made his mark with the highly successful Laura, and Fallen Angel can be seen as an effort to build on that, reuniting the director with Dana Andrews along with cameraman Joseph LaShelle and composer David Raksin. There are those who argue that Laura isn’t full-blown noir; while I wouldn’t necessarily go along with that assessment I can see where it’s coming from. With Fallen Angel, however, there can be no doubt about its categorization. The plot, themes, milieu and cinematography are all characteristically noir. In visual terms, this style of cinema is all about light and shadow – thematically, faith and despair are the key. Fallen Angel checks all the boxes on this score. Film noir concerns itself with dissatisfaction and the desire of individuals to escape their circumstances more than anything else. Escape is certainly the prime motivation of all the characters in this movie: we’re taken on a tour of a world populated by people desperate to break free of social constraints, unfulfilling relationships, financial difficulties, and just plain old bad luck. If you watch enough of these kinds of films then, time and again, you run across characters in the concrete jungles champing at the bit to return to the land or to emigrate, while those in the country yearn for the perceived glamor and excitement of brightly lit cities. This is very much the case with Fallen Angel – everybody in the picture has dreams and aspirations, and all of these inevitably descend into nightmare.

Preminger and LaShelle created some wonderful images on the screen, and drew a nice contrast between the small town, where the bulk of the action unfolds, and San Francisco. Contrary to what one might expect, it’s the scenes in the city that have a crisp, clear look whereas the little coastal settlement exists mainly in shadow, reflecting the moral ambiguities and hidden passions that lurk there. It’s also worth drawing attention to the skill and ease with which Preminger moves his camera around, at once building tension and drama, revealing secrets and objectifying characters. There’s one particular scene that illustrates what I’m talking about here, taking place on Stanton’s wedding night. Having slipped out of the house to meet with Stella, he quarrels with her and she storms off to keep her date with her current beau. As Stella strides away, Preminger pulls the camera back to show her getting into her lover’s car before tracking forward to focus briefly on Stanton’s scowling features. Instead of allowing the camera to remain there though, the director maintains the forward movement and passes by Stanton to come to rest on the shadowy background, out of which steps the new groom’s disappointed sister-in-law – a masterfully composed shot.

I’ve written at length about Dana Andrews’ abilities before and Fallen Angel proves yet again what a strong screen presence he had. He did some very memorable work throughout the 40s, and Preminger in particular seemed able to get the best out of him. The noir pictures they made together are all quality productions and all of them offered Andrews the opportunity to explore something different. While he had good support in this movie, his was the central role and he remains the main focus. What we have is an essentially insecure individual who cloaks his own recognized inadequacies with smart patter. It’s only relatively late in proceedings, when he’s on the run and panicked, that he reveals his true character. The nonchalant, worldly veneer that he employs to gloss over his fears and paranoia is stripped away and we get a glimpse of the real man, basically a frightened guy who’s been running from danger all his life. In a sense, the beauty of this film stems from the way Andrews’ character develops as a result of his interaction with two very different women. Of the two, Linda Darnell’s Stella is the one that catches the eye; sultry and seductive, Darnell might at first appear to be the fallen angel of the title but that’s not at all the case. Darnell was a genuine beauty and had an earthy charm that is highlighted in this film. All the main characters are stuck on her, but she flits round them all like a firefly, drawing the best and worst out of them. However, it’s Alice Faye’s June that exerts the most powerful influence on Andrews’ drifter. Darnell provokes the conflict among the men but Faye recognizes and draws forth the humanity and half-remembered decency in Andrews. Not being a fan of musicals, I have to admit that I’m not all that familiar with the work of Alice Faye. Nevertheless, I remain highly impressed with her performance in this film. I understand that a good deal of her role ended up on the cutting room floor, prompting her to walk off the Fox lot, but what we’re left with indicates that she had great dramatic potential. I could go on about the depth and talent involved in the supporting cast, but I’ll confine myself to a few words about Charles Bickford. His role here is a pivotal one, maybe as complex as that of the leads and he carries it off very effectively. For a variety of reasons I want to be brief here, so I’ll just say that Bickford does a marvelous job of conveying reassuring menace.

Back when Fox were running their noir line the choices for inclusion sometimes seemed a little arbitrary. Having said that, Fallen Angel is the real deal, a genuine slice of film noir. The R1 DVD is an excellent presentation of the film – it’s sharp, crisp and boasts very strong contrast that really shows off LaShelle’s cinematography. The extra features consist of a commentary track by Eddie Muller and Susan Andrews (the actor’s daughter), a series of galleries and brief liner notes. If one wanted to be critical, then I guess the plot could be viewed as rather contrived. Even so, the whole thing adds up to a highly polished and attractive package. I don’t believe Preminger ever made a poor noir picture, although I’ll have to qualify that by pointing out that I’ve yet to see The 13th Letter, and Fallen Angel must rate among the better ones. As a drama, a thriller, a film noir, or a kind of cock-eyed romance the movie comes highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in 1940s, Dana Andrews, Film Noir, Otto Preminger

 

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Streets of Laredo

Late 40s westerns are always of interest, existing as they do on the cusp of the genre’s golden age. Some are very clearly products of their era, combining elements that look back feel more light-hearted, while also displaying some of the complexity that would dominate and define the coming decade. Streets of Laredo (1949) fits comfortably into this category by virtue of being a remake of a 30s film (you can read Paul’s take on the original, The Texas Rangers, here), and also the fact that the overall tone of the movie shifts quite dramatically at or around the mid-point. It’s almost as though we’re seeing two different films playing out, though the contrast works quite well and helps focus the spotlight on the journey the characters undertake over the course of its running time.

Streets of Laredo tells the story of three outlaw partners – Jim Dawkins (William Holden), Lorn Reming (Macdonald Carey) and Wahoo Jones (William Bendix). These three have established a profitable line in holding up stagecoaches, and whatever other opportunity comes their way. Theirs is an easy-going partnership, one where friendship reigns supreme and binds them together. The film concentrates on how that friendship is put under pressure by circumstances and is finally broken. The impetus arrives early, but its full import is not realized until later. The fate of these three men is dictated by their stumbling upon a raid on an isolated holding. A man and girl are holed up in a shack while a group of rustlers lay siege. Our three heroes, sensing an opportunity to make a killing at the expense of one party or the other, ride in and drive off the attackers. It turns out the girl, Rannie Carter (Mona Freeman), is the sole survivor in the shack. The gunmen who have been sent packing are led by Charley Calico (Alfonso Bedoya) and are running a protection racket. in the territory. Reluctantly taking the girl along, the trio set off in search of a place where they can leave her safely and satisfy the consciences. However, that encounter with Calico sets in motion a train of events, beginning with an ambush that sees Reming separated from his two friends. In the years that follow, their fortunes are just as divergent as their paths – Reming gains increasing notoriety as a successful bandit while Dawkins and Jones come close to starving. While chance forced the men apart, it reappears and unites them again, albeit briefly. The years alone have cemented Reming’s determination to live outside the law. Dawkins and Jones, while not reformed characters by any means, have yet to become so hardened. The latter two join the Texas rangers, with far from noble aims at the beginning, while Reming plans to use these inside contacts to facilitate his life of crime. Sooner or later, a reckoning must come with the old enemy, Calico, and it’s this which forces all of them to reassess their motives. In brief, Dawkins and Jones have learned that doing the right thing is sometimes reward enough in itself, while Reming has become so used to the outlaw life that he cannot or will not abandon it. And so an uneasy truce is agreed between these men, but can it last? Dawkins and Reming find their approaches pulling them in radically different directions, and the fact that both are attracted to the grown-up Rannie adds even more strain. What remains to be seen is whether the bonds of friendship are strong enough to withstand the pressure of very different sets of priorities.

Along with Whispering Smith, director Leslie Fenton arguably did his best work in Streets of Laredo. These two films saw him collaborating with cameraman Ray Rennahan, and while Streets of Laredo is perhaps not quite as sumptuous, it’s still a handsome looking production. The exteriors, mainly shot on the Paramount ranch as far as I can tell, always look attractive and lend an air of authenticity to the story. And it’s that story (with a screenplay by Charles Marquis Warren), or rather its shape and development, that makes the film worthwhile. The first half of the movie concentrates on the friendship of the three main characters, and does so in a very light and humorous fashion. The comedic aspects of their relationship are played up and take center stage. It’s this section that harks back to earlier films, but the switch takes place at almost exactly the halfway mark. A this point the trio see their easy amiability gradually tested as they begin to drift further apart. Everything takes a much darker turn as Reming starts to reveal the ruthlessness that his eloquence masks. Simultaneously, Dawkins takes his first steps towards eventual redemption, spurred on both by his growing love for Rannie and also his awareness that honesty and ethics have some meaning for him.

William Holden was just about to turn his career around and enter his most successful period at this time. His performance, particularly in the latter half of the movie, looks ahead to that success and also foreshadows the kind of morally challenged heroes that would pop up all through 50s westerns. Holden still had that youthful air about him, but he was also starting to exhibit more of the weariness and self-doubt that he would soon put to good use. It’s easy to see him visibly questioning himself and his previous philosophy as the situation changes around him. As the story progresses, Holden very naturally grows into the part and the Jim Dawkins we see at the end is a very different man to the one who was first introduced. I think that, while the other performances are not without merit, it’s Holden who makes the film what it is. Macdonald Carey was never an actor I could say I was overly impressed by. I don’t mean to say he was poor, but he had a certain blandness that always put me off somewhat. The role of Lorn Reming was a much showier one than Holden was handed, but it was also considerably less complex. Right from the beginning, there’s a glib shallowness about the character, and it therefore requires no great leap to see him stick firmly to the villainous path. However, within the confines of the part, I think it’s fair to say that Carey does pretty much all that’s asked of him.

Frankly, I love watching William Bendix on screen. The man had a wonderful ability to move effortlessly from comedic lug to something altogether more sinister with ease. Bendix was blessed with an extraordinarily expressive face and the camera was able to capture a wide range of emotion there. Streets of Laredo was one of his very few western parts, and I guess my own familiarity with seeing him in totally different settings meant he seemed a little out of place on the frontier. Having said that, he played his part fine; most of the time he’s there for comic relief but he also achieves a measure of soulful pathos that makes his ultimate fate all the more affecting. I was less impressed by Mona Freeman, an actress I haven’t seen an awful lot of to be honest, but that’s maybe down to the way her character was written. She starts out very naive and immature and, despite growing up as the film goes on, never quite loses some of the more irritating traits. The strong supporting cast is filled out by the likes of Ray Teal, Stanley Ridges, Alfonso Bedoya and Clem Bevans.

Streets of Laredo is one of those Paramount productions whose rights now reside with Universal. I don’t think it has seen a DVD release in the US to date. However, there are editions available in various European countries and Australia. I have the German release from Koch Media, which is quite reasonable. Colors appear quite strong and true but the image can be a little soft in places. The print used for the transfer doesn’t seem to be restored as there are various instances of damage visible, although none are especially serious or distracting. The disc offers either the original English soundtrack or a German dub, and there are no subtitles at all. Extra features are a couple of galleries and a booklet (in German) that reproduces the original poster art on the back cover. Generally, I d have to rate this as a satisfying little picture that acts as a bridge between 40s and 50 westerns. The story unfolds nicely and adds layers to the characters as it does so. Factor in a well-drawn performance by William Holden and the result is a better than average example of the late 40s western.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2013 in 1940s, Westerns, William Holden

 

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Johnny Apollo

It seems that I’m drawn back, time and again, to what we can term transitional works, be they westerns or any other genre. I suppose that reflects my own interest in observing the general shape of cinematic development, and the progress of popular culture overall. The more hyperbolic aspects of marketing might like to encourage the perception that new styles or movements suddenly explode onto the scene without warning and forever change the face of entertainment. However, that’s not the case at all, and I doubt it ever will be. No, all things grow out of and build upon what came before, some in a more radical fashion than others. Film noir was the great game changer in Hollywood in the 1940s, and it’s evolution fits the trend I’ve mentioned here. The French critics of the post-war period may have noticed what looked to them like a dramatic new direction in cinema after years of being starved of new US movies. Still, that was just an altered perception resulting from a unique set of circumstances; film noir took form just as gradually as any other cinematic movement. Johnny Apollo (1940) is one of those movies that shows the transition happening, borrowing heavily from the socially aware gangster films of the 30s and blending in the makings of a darker, more fatalistic tone.

The film follows the ups and downs of Bob Cain Jr (Tyrone Power), a carefree member of the wealthy elite who sees his life take a dramatic downward turn. The opening is pure 30s, as a frenetic Stock Exchange suspends trading amid accusations that Cain Sr (Edward Arnold) is an embezzler. This fact, along with his father’s indictment and subsequent imprisonment, leaves the younger Cain in a spot. His privileged upbringing has left him unprepared for such a rapid downfall. His initial reaction is a combination of naivety and a kind of spoiled petulance – how could his father disgrace him and damage his social standing in such a way? At this point, we’re looking at a deeply unsympathetic character, and I think one issue with the film as a whole is the fact that this initial selfishness is never quite overcome. However, Cain Jr soon feels the chill wind of reality as his attempts to make his way in the world get scuppered again and again by his father’s new notoriety. It would appear that all those friends and contacts were all of the fair weather variety. In one curiously satisfying twist, Cain finds himself shown the door by a boss who finds his concealment of his identity particularly distasteful – his own old man having died a drunk in prison. So, with his options running out fast, Cain finds himself drawn into the shady underworld of Mickey Dwyer (Lloyd Nolan), a big-time gangster. It’s here that Cain undergoes a major transformation, adopting the pseudonym Johnny Apollo and using every illicit means at his disposal to rise through the ranks of the underworld, all in the hope of securing his father’s release from prison. Personally, my biggest problem with all this is the matter of plausibility. Gangster movies of the classic 30s period did see honest men drawn into a life of crime by a mixture of social pressure and a desire to strike it rich. The crucial difference though is that those 30s movies generally featured lower class guys whose choices were dictated by their poor backgrounds. Johnny Apollo asks the viewer to accept that such circumstances could lead the wealthy down a similar path. Frankly, I have a hard time buying into that idea, and although the incongruity does recede somewhat as the story moves along it’s difficult to shake it off completely.

Was Henry Hathaway one of the most versatile directors ever? Even a brief scan of his credits would suggest that he may well have been. Hathaway’s career was long, varied and successful, with examples of top class work in just about every genre. It seems that to be considered among the great director’s one needs to have either a recognizable motif, or to have concentrated in one particular genre. Hathaway was one of those thoroughgoing professionals whose dedication to his craft seemed to preclude any of the personal touches we associate with the more highly regarded figures in cinema. From a critical perspective, it was also his misfortune to be such an adaptable filmmaker – it’s much more difficult to put any kind of personal stamp on movies when the style varies so greatly. However, Hathaway remains one of my favourite directors, and I don’t think I’ve ever been completely disappointed by one of his movies. Johnny Apollo is well shot throughout, but the jailbreak finale is probably the real highlight and really ramps up the excitement. Unfortunately, from my point of view anyway, we get a coda tagged on which looks like it’s just there to provide a weak happy ending.

While I’ve admitted that I’m not altogether happy with the plausibility of the central character’s development, I can’t lay the blame for that at Tyrone Power’s feet. I feel he managed to nail the shift quite effectively – from fresh-faced enthusiasm to dismay, and finally a kind of ruthless single-mindedness. His interaction with Edward Arnold was well handled too, and this is crucial since the father son dynamic, and expectations of each, forms the basis of the story. Arnold had the more sympathetic part though; he may be an actor we don’t normally think of in such a light, but he brought a great deal of quiet dignity to his role as the fallen tycoon. However, as is often the case, Lloyd Nolan nearly steals the picture from under everyone’s noses. Nolan was a terrific actor, whose distinctive delivery and likeable demeanor, even when he was being vile, always adds something special to a film. In Johnny Apollo, Nolan was vicious, mean and hypocritical, but you can’t help rooting for him just a bit. I find it difficult to think of Dorothy Lamour without recalling her films with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. She’s good enough as Nolan’s put upon moll, and Power’s object of desire, but the Hope and Crosby connection makes her seem a little out of place in a straight drama like this. I’ll add a word of praise too for fine supporting turns from Lionel Atwill, Marc Lawrence and, most particularly, Charley Grapewin.

I’m pretty sure Johnny Apollo was only ever released on DVD in the US as part of a Tyrone Power box set from Fox. I never picked up that set since the other movies contained didn’t especially appeal to me. Instead I bought the movie when Bounty in Australia put it out as part of their noir line. The film is licensed from Fox and boasts a very strong transfer – it’s sharp, clean and has good contrast levels. The disc is a bare bones effort though with no extra features at all offered. Even though Bounty have marketed the film as noir, as I said in the introduction, this is very much a transitional picture. Frankly, the whole thing has more in common with 30s movies, but the seeds of noir are there too, with the last third delving deeper into the ambiguities of dark cinema. If the film is approached purely as a film noir then it’s likely to prove disappointing. Viewed as a kind of bridge in the evolution of the thriller, it’s altogether more satisfying.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2013 in 1940s, Henry Hathaway, Tyrone Power

 

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