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Category Archives: Barbara Stanwyck

The Man with a Cloak

Lots of different things draw us to movies. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of Gothic mysteries, particularly those where the Hollywood majors cooked up that special atmosphere that could only exist within the carefully crafted confines of a studio set. Add in a rare adaptation of the writings of John Dickson Carr and I’m hooked. The Man with a Cloak (1951) combines both of these elements, and it was a film that had intrigued and eluded me for years. It’s been quite some time since I read Carr’s short story The Gentleman from Paris, but I remember enjoying it and was keen to see how the film version worked.

It’s 1848 in New York, the year that saw revolutions breaking out in so many parts of the world. Against this turbulent backdrop a young woman arrives in the US seeking help. She is Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron), a somewhat unlikely fundraiser for a political cause. Her mission is to seek out the assistance of her fiance’s uncle, Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern), now living in dissipated and debauched exile in the wake of Napoleon’s downfall. Madeline had been expecting to be introduced to a distinguished gentleman, instead she finds a half-crippled drunkard seeing out his days in decaying splendor. Thevenet’s alcohol sodden existence is being overseen by a trio of servants and retainers under the supervision of Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck). Two things are clear right away: Madeline’s presence is unwelcome in this household, and Thevenet’s protectors are no more than vultures patiently circling their dying master. And so it all comes down to money, Thevenet’s got it and everybody else wants it. While Madeline cannot prove that Lorna and her cohorts are actively plotting to murder the old man, she knows that it’s clearly in their best interests to see that he doesn’t hang around long enough to make any changes to his will. Into this little circle of greed and deceit steps Dupin (Joseph Cotten), the mysterious poet of the title who spends his days cadging free drinks from a sympathetic barkeep. Dupin isn’t motivated by the promise of money, though he’s clearly badly in need of it, rather he’s drawn to the simple faith in life of Madeline and a desire to see an injustice averted. It’s Dupin’s arrival that forces Lorna’s hand and brings the two mysteries of the film center stage: the puzzle of Thevenet’s will, and the real identity of the enigmatic poet.

The Man with a Cloak was directed by Fletcher Markle, a man who is probably better known for his television work. There are some highly effective scenes and a handful of noteworthy visual flourishes, and yet I can’t help feeling that the potential of the story and its setting weren’t fully exploited. The film has that polished look that MGM typically brought to its productions, and the studio sets are faultless. Still, the tension is allowed to slacken too often and that’s partly down to the failure to make the most of the visual opportunities. As for the plot, it’s solid enough but it’s perhaps overly dependent on building up an aura of mystery around the character of Dupin. While it’s adapted from a reasonably entertaining Carr story, it’s not one that highlights the author’s real strengths. In short, there’s arguably too much emphasis on who Dupin actually is – the film is liberally sprinkled with clues and it shouldn’t prove all that difficult to work out for any fairly literate viewer.

While the direction and scripting of the movie are always competent, they are nothing exceptional either. What does give the film a boost though is the acting. Both Stanwyck and Cotten were seasoned professionals, capable of tackling a variety of roles. Cotten spends most of his time hovering around the borders of sobriety, and gets to deliver some witty and telling lines. His character displays a weary cynicism, a sort of metaphorical cloak for the unnamed sadness he carries within himself. Against this is ranged the steely pragmatism of Stanwyck. Her outer gentility and polish masks a barely repressed sensuality and a deep streak of bitterness – after all, we’re talking about a woman who feels she has been robbed of ten of the best years of her life. While Cotten and Stanwyck rarely put a foot wrong, Louis Calhern almost effortlessly steals just about every scene. I sometimes think that if you want to capture a visual representation of regret for a life of unfulfilled promise, then you need only watch one of Calhern’s performances from around this time. In the face of such stiff competition, Leslie Caron fades into the background most of the time. It’s not that her portrayal of a frightened and confused ingenue is especially poor, just that she lacks the presence to make her mark among these heavy hitters. It’s a rare film that doesn’t benefit from a strong supporting cast, and The Man with a Cloak is no exception. Margaret Wycherly looks like she had a ball as a cackling old crone, and Jim Backus is a delight as the Irish bartender trading philosophical jibes with Cotten.

The Man with a Cloak was until recently another of those films that I began to think I was fated never to see. However, it became available via the Warner Archive, and shortly afterwards was given a pressed disc release in Spain via Llamentol. I watched the Spanish disc the other day and, judging from some screen captures I’ve seen, it looks like a clone of the US disc. Generally, the transfer looks pretty clean and sharpness and contrast are quite acceptable. This release offers no extra features whatsoever, just the film with its original soundtrack and the option to watch it with or without Spanish subtitles. I’ve seen people allude to the film’s noir credentials before but I feel the link is tenuous at best, and it’s not a title I’d be comfortable labeling in this way. For me, The Man with a Cloak is simply a Gothic mystery with a generous dollop of melodrama added. Overall, I found this an enjoyable and entertaining movie, though it’s not without its faults. I guess the presence of some big name stars and the fact it was sourced from a John Dickson Carr tale raised my expectations perhaps a tad too high. Nevertheless, I couldn’t say I was especially disappointed. If the direction is a little flat at times, the performances do compensate. Anyone who enjoys these studio bound mysteries, likes Carr’s writing, or is a fan of Stanwyck and Cotten should find enough to satisfy them here.

Those seeking another take on the film should pop over to Paul’s place at Lasso the Movies.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2013 in 1950s, Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten, Mystery/Thriller

 

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Ten of the Best – Noir Stars

Seeing as 2012 is drawing to a rapid close, this is likely going to be my last article of the year. It’s been the first full year blogging on the new site and I have to say it’s all turned out far better than I could have anticipated. I consider myself very fortunate to have built up a loyal little band of followers and the feedback that I’ve been consistently receiving is both gratifying and informative. My last entry, on western stars, offers ample evidence of that, turning out to be the most popular piece I’ve posted by some considerable margin. I’d mentioned that I was intending to do something similar on my other great cinematic passion, film noir, and so it’s time to make good on that. Again, I’ve deliberately restricted myself to ten stars who made an impact on cinema’s shadowlands. Film noir isn’t a genre like the western; it’s a more nebulous form where the convergence of melodrama, crime and fate all become bound up in the creation of a cinematic demimonde that defies definition yet is immediately recognizable. To be honest, I had a hard time deciding on only ten men and women who portrayed so many memorable cops and private eyes, grifters and chiselers, dames on the make and hoods. Anyway, here’s my selection.

Robert Mitchum

Mitchum’s omission from my western list sparked a good deal of comment. He started out playing cowboys, and there’s a case to be made that his western roles are by and large superior to his noir ones. A number of his noirs are weak or flawed productions, particularly those made when Howard Hughes was running the show. However, even when a film was less than successful, it would be difficult to single Mitchum’s performance out for criticism. Besides that, he took the lead in two of the finest noirs: as the classic dupe in Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and as the evil killer in the oneiric The Night of the Hunter.

Burt Lancaster

Lancaster made his debut in what I reckon is one of the top three film noirs, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers. This flashback reconstruction of what led one man to lie in a darkened room, calmly awaiting those who have come to murder him showed that Lancaster had the kind of soulfulness and sensitivity that can be used to such great effect in film noir. He would return to the dark cinema frequently, producing fine work in the likes of Criss Cross and Sweet Smell of Success.

Barbara Stanwyck

One of the best known features of film noir is the figure of the femme fatale. Not every picture has one, but if you asked the average film fan to list the characteristics of noir you’d likely hear the name. Barbara Stanwyck has the distinction of playing arguably the greatest deadly woman of them all in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. She did a lot of work in noir, and I’m very fond of her turn as the panicked and bedridden heiress in Sorry, Wrong Number, Anatole Litvak’s study in mounting paranoia.

Edward G Robinson

This mild and cultured man made his name in the early 1930s in Warner Brothers gangster pictures, most notably as Rico in Little Caesar. He worked successfully in a variety of genres throughout that decade but really hit his stride in the 40s with two films for Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) and one for Wilder (Double Indemnity). While those three roles are quite different, they do share one common feature – Robinson was playing men who, in one way or another, are trying to close off their minds to unpleasant realities, and all of them are ultimately tragic figures. This actor was among the best Hollywood ever produced, and his efforts in the world of noir are highly significant.

Robert Ryan

With some actors, it’s fairly easy to pick their best work. When it comes to Robert Ryan though, I find myself so spoiled for choice that it’s nearly impossible. His 40s and 50s output is peppered with excellent performances in noir pictures made for Dmytryk, Renoir, Wise and Ray. Even a piece of flummery like Beware, My Lovely benefits from Ryan’s intense presence. However, I’m going to single out Robert Wise’s tight and economical The Set-Up for attention. Ryan’s portrayal of a washed up fighter (he was once a boxer himself) determined to bow out with dignity, even if it kills him, gave him a break from playing the heavies he’s so often remembered for.

Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame has always been a favorite with noir fans, her unique brand of sexuality managing to blend quirkiness and vulnerability with a hint of inner steel. Perhaps her part as the good time girl deformed by an enraged Lee Marvin in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat sums up that aspect of the actress best. She also brought something special to her role in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, opposite a fiery and abusive Humphrey Bogart – I’ve heard it said that the relationship depicted had parallels with her marriage to Ray at the time.

Glenn Ford

Another guy who had strong claims for inclusion on my recent western list, Glenn Ford started out strong in film noir playing off Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Ford had that everyman quality and, as I’ve remarked when discussing some of his roles on other occasions, a vague sense of discomfort with himself that was ideal for noir pictures. I think Lang brought out the best in him in The Big Heat; his avenging cop is almost a force of nature and his barely contained rage is something to behold in a film that’s got a real mean streak running through it.

Dana Andrews

A little like Ford, Dana Andrews was another actor with whom you could almost see the wheels going round just below the surface. He too seemed to exude some of that inner dissatisfaction that translated into fatalism and disillusionment on the screen. His series of movies with Otto Preminger in the 1940s represent his noir work best. Laura may well be the best known, but Where the Sidewalk Ends offered him a meatier part and stretched him more as an actor. That movie, along with The Big Heat and On Dangerous Ground would make an interesting triple bill on violently unstable lawmen.

Marie Windsor

The queen of the B noirs, Marie Windsor had good roles in both Force of Evil and The Narrow Margin. She had a real knack for playing the cheap schemer better than anyone else I’ve seen, and her role in Kubrick’s The Killing was a perfect fit. As Sherry, the wife of everybody’s favorite sap and loser Elisha Cook Jr, her greed sees her trying to play everybody off against each other and is instrumental in bringing a tragic end to the heist.

Humphrey Bogart

And so I come to the last, but by no means the least, of this brief selection. After a long apprenticeship in supporting roles, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon saw Bogart define the noir lead for the next decade and a half. Tough, chain-smoking and moody, he seemed to encapsulate all the weary cynicism that the war and its aftermath ushered in. His portrayal of Sam Spade was, and remains, hugely influential, and then he went one further and truly nailed the essence of the private detective in The Big Sleep. In fact, I find it impossible to read Chandler’s text now without hearing Bogart’s distinctive delivery in my mind.

So there we have it. When I made that western list I made the point that I wasn’t claiming it as any kind of definitive one. I’ll say the same again here – these are just the ten names that I feel offered something of worth and value to film noir over the short span of its classic period. In their different ways, I think these people helped sum up what noir was all about and shaped its development. I’ll admit I struggled to decide on ten actors for westerns, and this was actually tougher. The fact that I included both actors and actresses meant that my options were increased while the overall parameters remained the same. Of course I could easily have split this into two sections, or expanded it to twenty. However, in the end, I decided to stick to ten as it forced me to apply a more ruthless approach, and give it all a lot more consideration, than I might otherwise have done. Once again, all comments, arguments and protests are most welcome.

 

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Cry Wolf

The popularity of certain genres, or perhaps sub-genre is more accurate in this case, is always subject to change. Old dark house movies seem to have lost a lot of their appeal; I think they would have to be accompanied by significant quantities of gore to generate a lot of interest these days. Such films rely heavily on atmosphere and a sustained level of tension that is hard to achieve in the age of lightning editing and a succession of jump-cut shocks. Cry Wolf (1947) is one of these vaguely old-fashioned yarns where mood and setting play a major role in maintaining the suspense. I would term it a moderately or intermittently successful vehicle; the plot is serviceable without being particularly remarkable, but the look of it all and the unexpected casting makes for interesting viewing.

The opening has a breathless, intense quality: a black automobile hurtles along winding rural roads while a rider on horseback tracks along and ahead. As the horse clears a boundary wall, the car pulls up in front of an imposing mansion. Two figures, a man and a woman, alight and are admitted by the help. These two people are Senator Caldwell (Jerome Cowan) and Sandra Marshall (Barbara Stanwyck), and they’ve been racing through the countryside to attend a wake. An interview with Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn), the senator’s brother and head of the house, establishes the fact that Sandra has arrived at this place of mourning to pay her respects to her late husband. Sandra claims that she was married to the deceased, the nephew of Mark and the senator, and has come to see the instructions he left in his will are carried out. It transpires that the dead man was extremely wealthy, his fortune held in trust and administered by Mark until he should turn 30 or marry. His sudden departure means that Sandra now stands to inherit a substantial fortune, providing her claims bear scrutiny of course. Mark is naturally suspicious of this unexpected widow, but that feeling is reciprocated. The death of Sandra’s husband is accounted for in fairly vague terms, the casket has been sealed, and the entire household appear to be held in the grip of some nameless dread. If Mark wants to find out a little more about Sandra’s assertions then that’s as nothing compared to her determination to dig deeper into the Caldwells’ past. She instinctively knows that something doesn’t ring true; there are little details that niggle, but the main issue is the sinister atmosphere that hangs over everybody and everything. The presence of a fragile, neurotic niece, the mysterious laboratory where Mark works late at night, and the awful, unacknowledged screams that echo along the corridors in the darkness all combine to drive Sandra to investigate further. It’s tempting to try to predict the outcome of this story and the trail is littered with clues and allusions, but there are various red herrings present too. By the time the tale twists its way to the climax I reckon it would take a very savvy viewer to step around the pitfalls and reach the correct conclusion.

I haven’t seen too much from director Peter Godfrey apart from the Bogart/Stanwyck feature The Two Mrs Carrolls. This movie shares the same feeling of overheated melodrama, and both films tend to disguise a mediocre script through the use of heavy atmosphere. I don’t usually comment on matters such as set design, but Cry Wolf, with its predominantly indoor setting, relies quite a lot on this. The sprawling Caldwell mansion and estate becomes almost a character in itself, a kind of brooding edifice that’s full of secrets and menace. Godfrey and cameraman Carl Guthrie use the architecture well to build mood – shooting from below and through the balustrades to achieve the classic noir imagery of characters pinned in place by shadows and bars, and mix this up with high angle shots from the gallery that coldly objectify the small figures milling about below. Even the outdoors scenes, with their matte paintings as backgrounds, blend in well. Theoretically, this ought to give the movie a cheap, B picture vibe but it actually adds to the air of unreality, heightening the sense of the characters inhabiting a world apart in much the same way that Hitchcock employed such techniques.

Errol Flynn rarely gets a lot of credit for his acting abilities. He even admitted in his (fantastically entertaining) autobiography that, especially in the post-1942 years, he was often just going through the motions, basically churning out pictures simply to cover his expenses. He was always at his most memorable in swashbuckling action roles, yet he was capable of more subtle performances whenever the opportunity arose. Cry Wolf offered him something quite different, a calmer, more thoughtful and genuinely ambiguous part. Perhaps some thoughts of his own father came into play when he assumed the role of the slightly aloof, pipe-smoking scientist. While he could be criticized here for a certain stiffness, I think he hit the right note under the circumstances; the character of Mark Caldwell is, after all, a man living under intense pressure with a lot of skeletons rattling around the family closet. I guess it could be said though that he doesn’t bring a strong enough sense of menace or threat to his performance to make it as convincing as possible. In something of a reversal of roles it’s Barbara Stanwyck who gets to do all the proactive stuff in the movie: riding horses, clambering across rooftops, dangling through skylights and generally toughing it out. As such, this was a perfect piece of casting since Stanwyck was one of the few actresses of the period who could credibly pull off this kind of thing. She was enormously versatile, at home in most any genre, yet particularly suited to playing gritty heroines who remained unfazed by physical danger. I’ll also give a mention to Geraldine Brooks who was highly effective and quite moving, in her debut role here, as the emotionally brittle and highly strung niece.

As far as I know, the only way to get Cry Wolf on DVD at the moment is via the Warner Archives disc. I remember buying this title on VHS way back in 1989 and I have to say that it looks very much like the same master has been used for the DVD. That’s not to say the image is poor, but there are plenty of speckles and damage marks, not to mention a general lack of crispness, that betray an unrestored source. The disc, as is usual with these MOD products, is very basic: no extra features whatsoever, a generic menu and standard ten minute chapter stops. I’ve tagged this picture as a film noir, but the truth is that it’s a borderline entry at best. The plotting has more in common with a Mary Roberts Rinehart style of mystery – a gutsy heroine blundering into a perilous situation. However, the dark mood and the atmospheric photography do earn it a place on the periphery of the noir world. Personally, I’m a fan of both the stars and I like the fact that it has Flynn playing against type for a change. It’s by no means a perfect film though it is a lot of fun – therefore, it earns my qualified recommendation.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in 1940s, Barbara Stanwyck, Errol Flynn, Film Noir

 

The Furies

You’ve found a new love in your life, haven’t you Vance? You’re in love with hate.

In some earlier pieces I wrote about the westerns of Anthony Mann, the matter of the order of production of his first few efforts came up. One of this site’s regular visitors, Blake Lucas, was kind enough to clear up what is often a confusing issue. Anyway, in connection with that, we also touched on the evolution of Mann’s style as he settled into his western period. The Furies (1950) was his second foray into the genre, and it seems to me at least that the film bears the hallmarks of a transitional picture. Mann started out making noir thrillers, and polished, highly regarded ones at that, before changing tack and moving west. His first three westerns, partially as a result of the use of black and white photography, retained some of film noir’s mood and sensibilities. The Furies is a very dark film, visually and thematically, yet suffers from a fault that shouldn’t be all that surprising when we consider its place within Mann’s filmography. I think it’s fair to say the director hadn’t fully found his feet in the genre, the upshot of which being a film that’s something of a mash-up of genres and styles, perhaps a reflection of a filmmaker who had not fully decided on the direction he wanted to follow.

The Furies is a ranch, a vast New Mexico spread presided over by the flamboyant T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston). Jeffords is one of those self-made men so common to the western, a latter-day empire builder who has stamped his authority on the section of the frontier that he seized, tamed and held. Such men are frequently given to expansiveness in word and gesture, I guess we could say they earned the right, yet are also prone to all the petty weaknesses that afflict lowlier individuals: jealousy, vanity, loneliness and greed. Of these, perhaps vanity is the most treacherous, for powerful men have the means and ruthlessness to indulge it. Tellingly, Jeffords has a grand portrait of himself dominating the entrance hall of his home, and sits in his study flanked on one side by a bust of Napoleon and on the other by his own likeness. He’s lord of all he surveys, even going so far as to issue his personalized local currency. But a man like this can only extend his authority so far, and in Jeffords’ case the one person capable of challenging him is his daughter. Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is a wilful and headstrong young woman, cast in the same reckless mold as her father. She is first seen, on the eve of her ineffectual brother’s wedding, brazenly trying on her late mother’s gown in the bedroom her father has forbidden all to enter. There, in a nutshell, we have a neat summation of the relationship between Vance and Jeffords; she has, to all intents and purposes, taken on the role of her departed mother. However, any such relationship is fundamentally flawed for the simple reason that the parties involved must naturally look outside for genuine fulfillment. In Vance’s case it appears that she is drawn to the roguish Mexican, Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), who has been a squatter on the Furies from way back. Still, this isn’t a tale where anything can be taken for granted, and it turns out that another man is vying for her affections. Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) is a professional gambler with a grudge against Jeffords based on the dispossession of his family. If Jeffords feels some dissatisfaction at his daughter’s choice of suitors, it’s as nothing compared to the violent dislike she feels for the woman he brings into their home. Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) is a self-confessed adventuress, trading her political influence for a share of Jeffords’ wealth. Such a charged situation is almost bound to tip over into violent confrontation, and does so in highly melodramatic fashion. A memorable and disfiguring assault with a pair of scissors leads to a hanging, and the die is cast. Father and daughter are pitted against one another in a struggle for ultimate control of the Furies.

The Furies derives from a novel by Niven Busch and, like Pursued and Duel in the Sun, mixes in a lot of dark Freudian themes. Personally, I like this kind of stuff but I guess it can come across as a little too ripe for some tastes. The confused relationships that constitute the core of the story are all based on a warped blend of love and hate that reach near mythical proportions. Of course the title itself has its roots in the classical myths – the Furies being the three snake-haired goddesses charged with handing out punishment and retribution – and is highly appropriate given the personal trials all the main characters are destined to suffer at one another’s hands. I think Busch is probably the most melodramatic writer to work within the western genre, but this quality works well enough with films of the period. It also tended to attract directors who had experience of film noir and the kind of off-centre psychology that such pictures often dealt with. Anthony Mann’s noir roots are very much in evidence here, with an abundance of low angle shots picking out ceilings in the interiors to emphasise the tense and restrictive aspects of the story. There’s also an unremitting darkness about it all; much of the action takes place either at night or in the half-light of dusk or dawn, with figures frequently shot in shadow or silhouette. I see this film as a hybrid noir/melodrama/western, a halfway house for Mann if you like. Still, there are plenty of examples of the visual motifs he would later develop as he grew more comfortable with the genre. He draws attention to the stark, barren landscapes dominated by rocks. And then there’s the trademark focus on high places and the struggles that take place there. The film’s key scene, where Jeffords and Vance’s fates are sealed, occurs during the siege of the Herrera home high atop a forbidding rock formation.

The Furies really showcases the talents of both Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck. Huston had a distinguished career on both stage and screen and this was to be his last role - he passed away shortly after completing the film. As it happens, the part of T.C. Jeffords was a fitting one to sign off on. Huston drew on all his vast experience to give a well-rounded portrait of a complex man. Jeffords is neither hero nor villain; he’s capable of hanging a man out of pure spite, of blackmailing another to achieve his ends, yet he’s also charming, resourceful and philosophical enough to accept his own limitations. Even though we see him behave selfishly and ruthlessly towards those who cross him, it’s impossible not to admire him and feel sympathy too. In short, Huston presented the viewer with a flesh and blood man, a real person whom we ultimately judge on those terms. Stanwyck too got her teeth into the part of Vance, and transformed what initially seems something of a caricature into a woman the audience could respect. As someone who could move easily in both the noir and western worlds, Stanwyck was ideally cast. You never feel there’s anything affected about her toughness, and her rage, when provoked, is as raw and livid as the disfiguring wounds she leaves on her rival. Gilbert Roland didn’t have a huge part in the movie, but it is a significant one in relation to the plot. I’ve always enjoyed the swaggering, swashbuckling machismo that came naturally to him, and as Juan Herrera he had ample opportunity to show that off. He also brought a real sense of dignity to his character, especially as prepared to meet his fate. When I looked at Pursued, I commented on how well Judith Anderson handled herself. The Furies saw her taking on an entirely different character and she demonstrated just how versatile she could be. Flo Burnett starts out as someone whose obvious insincerity does grate, but the transformation she undergoes, as a result of her physical trauma, is well realized. By the end, she commands your sympathy. In the midst of all these strong performances, Wendell Corey suffers somewhat. He was never the kind of actor to grab the attention at the best of times, possessing a quiet, understated quality, and I’m not sure westerns were his ideal environment. Mind you, it doesn’t help that he had to play a pretty obnoxious character whose cocksure smarm feels a little misplaced. In addition to the leads, there were nice supporting turns from Albert Dekker, Thomas Gomez and Beulah Bondi.

The Furies is out on DVD in the US from Criterion, and it’s one of their usual, very professional packages. The image is in good shape, although I have seen more sparkling transfers from the company, but it does have one irritating issue. Criterion went through a stage of issuing Academy ratio movies in pictureboxed format (essentially, a black border running around all four sides) supposedly to compensate for overscan on CRT sets. I never liked this practice; the gain is minimal, the resolution is lessened, and the whole idea is increasingly redundant as HD and HD ready sets become more common. In terms of extras, this is a pretty stacked edition. Firstly, the movie comes in an attractive slipcase that also includes a copy of Niven Busch’s novel. Then there’s a 36 page booklet containing an article on Anthony Mann by Robin Wood, and a translation of an interview with the director carried out for Cahiers du Cinéma by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol. On the disc itself, the highlights are a commentary by Jim Kitses, a 1967 interview with Mann, a 1931 interview with Huston, and a video interview with Nina Mann, the director’s daughter. As I said earlier, I regard The Furies as the work of a director in transition. I hope that doesn’t appear to be a negative assessment of the film as there’s a lot to admire in it. Still, I do feel I ought to point out that the blending of styles isn’t always as smooth as it could be. Overall, I think the performances and visuals carry the day and point towards even more accomplished work to come. Even if it’s not Mann’s best movie it makes for interesting and rewarding viewing.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in 1950s, Anthony Mann, Barbara Stanwyck, Westerns

 

Sorry, Wrong Number

Poster

I’ll start off by saying that I like films that employ flashbacks in the telling of the story. Of course, if this technique is going to be used it needs to be done well. An example of its misuse/abuse would be Passage to Marseille; where there are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks to the point that the viewer is driven half crazy and loses all sense of time and place. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) avoids falling into this trap. Here, those trips down memory lane are necessary to drive the story forward and they work perfectly.

The film was adapted from a radio play and summarising the plot is not so easy without giving away too much, and thus ruining it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Almost all of the action is played out via a series of telephone conversations involving Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck). Leona is introduced as a rich, pampered invalid who lives in luxury in Manhattan and, alone and bed-ridden, has only her telephone as a means of communicating with the outside world. As a result of a crossed line, she overhears a conversation between two unknown men as they finalise the details of a murder soon to be committed. Naturally alarmed, Leona first tries to tip off the police but they profess an inability to act given the sketchy information available. Her next thought is to get in touch with her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), but that proves more difficult. Her attempt to contact him results in a series phone calls (and accompanying flashbacks) which gradually build up a complete picture of Leona, Henry and their life together. With each call another piece of the puzzle falls into place, and Leona slowly arrives at a horrifying realization.

Harold Vermilyea explaining that Mr Evans may be found at Bowery 2-1000

Barbara Stanwyck has come to be regarded as something of a noir icon, largely through her icy portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Where that film cast her as the archetypal femme fatale, Sorry, Wrong Number has her play the helpless woman in distress. She does well here with a character that starts off as an unsympathetic figure. As Leona moves from an initial petulance, through frustration to panicked terror, she manages to avoid the temptation to overact. All the emotions on display fit in with the type of woman revealed over the course of the film. Burt Lancaster was in the middle of a series of noirs, or noir tinged movies, at this point and he’s pretty convincing in the role of Henry. He begins as a blue-collar bit of rough who catches Leona’s fancy, becomes her pet plaything, and finally allows his simmering frustration and innate greed to draw him into criminality. There are also plenty of good turns from a support cast which boasts Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, Leif Erickson and William Conrad. While this is a movie full of flawed and unsavoury characters, the one sympathetic figure is Harold Vermilyea’s Waldo Evans. He’s the soft-spoken little chemist who dreams and saves in the hope of owning a farm where horses can roam free. When Henry spins him a tale that promises enough cash to realise this dream, the poor sap falls for it and his fate is sealed.    

Sorry, Wrong Number fits the noir bill by delivering a story where there are no winners and no happy endings. We have a roster of characters whose greed, selfishness and weakness set them on a path towards their own self-destruction. The moody photography of Sol Polito is another essential ingredient, and it’s at its most effective in the scenes on Staten Island. This desolate setting, especially the decrepit 20 Dunstan Terrace, is a place where you just know darkness lurks.

The film has long been available on DVD in R1 from Paramount, and it’s a pretty good transfer. The print used is clean but it does display very heavy grain, particularly in the darker scenes. As usual from Paramount there’s not much in the way of extras, just a theatrical trailer. Still, the disc can be picked up for very little and the quality of the movie alone is more than enough reason to justify a purchase.

 
 
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