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Category Archives: Richard Conte

The Big Combo

First is first and second is nobody.

As classic film noir moved into the 1950s, one noticeable change was the increased emphasis on stories involving mafiosi and various syndicates. If you consider that the movement was born out of changing moods and social circumstances in the US in the early 40s, then this shift is not altogether surprising. The whole issue of organized crime was back in the headlines and this concern seemed to have overtaken the more personal, individual angst that had dominated tales in the preceding decade. The Big Combo (1955) is based around such a premise, although it doesn’t really reveal any startling or particularly deep insights into the workings of the mob. But then that’s not the point of the movie, this being principally an examination of two obsessive men and the woman who stands between them; the fact that one is a cop and the other a mobster is mostly by the by.

Where more traditional crime sagas tend to chart the evolution of an investigation, The Big Combo eschews the slow build up and instead plunges right into the story at crisis point. The opening shot has a frantic Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), long time companion of mob luminary Mr Brown (Richard Conte), running through the anonymous and shadowy corridors of a boxing venue. This woman is obviously in a highly emotional state, and it’s no real surprise to learn that she has tipped a bottle of pills down her throat in a desperate suicide bid. This draws in the third figure in the triangle at the heart of the movie, Lt Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde). Diamond’s a driven man, his expenditure of time and money in a quest to bring Brown to book has brought censure from his superiors. However, Diamond isn’t merely a crusader against crime in the conventional sense; his pursuit of Brown is closely linked to his interest in Susan. So, when news of her hospitalization filters through, Diamond naturally seeks her out. Matters are clearly coming to a head for all concerned, and the root lies in a name – Alicia – that Susan has realized carries some special meaning for Brown. Diamond’s appreciation of this fact affords him the leverage he needs to force the tiny crack in Brown’s armour into something more substantial and damaging. Even so, the path is by no means free of obstacles – after all, he’s got nothing more than a name to go on. Before Diamond can piece it all together he will have to see witnesses conveniently disappear, undergo torture himself and inadvertently allow his lover to be gunned down. All the while though, the focus remains firmly on the personal battle between Brown and Diamond, with the issue of the former’s crimes only acting as something of a blind. In reality, it’s a duel to the finish motivated by both men’s desire to possess Susan.

The final fade out has become one of the most iconic images in film noir, stills derived from it appearing in just about every book dealing with the subject. The two figures frozen in silhouette against a background of glowing fog seems to perfectly capture the look and the essence of noir. This ought not to be any surprise due to the fact The Big Combo was lit and shot by the legendary John Alton. Of course it’s not the only memorable moment, the film is littered with shots that are beautifully composed and realized. Alton and director Joseph H Lewis managed to both disguise and turn to their advantage the small budget they had available. The movie boasts a significant number of basic, stripped down sets, yet the director and cameraman artfully cover these deficiencies through the use of clever lighting and framing. Backgrounds tend to dissolve into inky blackness as the key lights pick out and draw attention to the characters. Alton’s take on the dramatic potential of darkness and light is neatly summed up in this extract from Painting with Light (MacMillan, 1949):

To realize the power of light and what it can do to the mind of the audience, visualize the following little scene: The room is dark. A strong streak of light sneaks in from the hall under the door. The sound of steps is heard. The shadows of two feet divide the light streak. A brief silence follows. There is suspense in the air. Who is it? What is going to happen? Is he going to ring the bell? Or just insert a key and try to come in? Another heavier shadow appears and blocks the light entirely. A dim hissing sound is heard, and as the shadow leaves, we see in the dim light a paper slip onto the carpet. The steps are heard again…This time they leave. A strong light appears once more and illuminates the note on the floor. We read it as the steps fade out in the distance. “It is ten o’clock. Please turn off your radio. The Manager.”

I’ve mentioned the climax in the airport hangar, but there’s another wonderfully judged moment that takes place at the same sparse location earlier on. I guess what follows constitutes a mild spoiler, so anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the film might want to skip over this part. Just as it appears Brown’s empire is crumbling, his subordinate McClure (Brian Donlevy) decides to step in and take advantage of the situation by having his boss assassinated. However, he miscalculates badly and finds the guns of the hitmen turned on him instead. McClure backs up against the wall, stricken with terror, but Brown assures him he doesn’t need to worry, he won’t hear the shots. McClure’s little nervous smile of relief is short-lived though. Brown jerks the hearing aid from McClure’s ear and steps away. The camera cuts to the gunmen and the now silent muzzle flashes of their tommy guns. Very simple and very effective.

Richard Conte was a fine villain in a number of noir pictures, and Mr Brown must surely rank as one of his best roles. He is the absolute epitome of cool arrogance and sadism, wearing a permanent smirk as he raps out Philip Yordan’s slick dialogue. The casual insolence he injects into the delivery is like a contemptuous slap in the face to whoever happens to be on the receiving end. It’s this overwhelming self-assurance and disdain for everyone that ultimately leads to his downfall, but it’s masterfully built up. His first encounter with Wilde in the hospital corridor sets the tone right away; not only does he insult and belittle his nemesis but he does so through an intermediary, not even deigning to address such an inconsequential figure directly. Wilde, on the other hand, plays a repressed and frustrated character. His frustration is twofold: his sense of professional impotence at failing to nail Brown despite investing so much time, money and effort, and his inability to compete on equal terms for the affections of Susan. I thought Wilde carried this off well, his emotions seething just below the surface and only held in check by his dubious morality. He covets Brown’s woman yet is simultaneously repulsed by his knowledge that her purity has been tarnished by her association with the mobster. On top of that, there’s his vaguely puritanical priggishness (note his comment about suicide breaking God’s laws) which is contradicted by his on-off relationship with a showgirl. As the object of Wilde and Conte’s obsession, Jean Wallace didn’t come across so successfully. There’s a blank quality to her performance although, in fairness, that may be intentional as she’s clearly supposed to be a character near the end of her tether psychologically. Wallace was married to Wilde at the time, and it seems he was less than pleased at the infamous scene where Conte starts kissing her neck and then continues working his way down as the camera zooms in on Wallace’s face. This also raised concerns as it was pushing the limits of the production code of the time. When questioned about where Conte went as he descended from view, Joseph H Lewis replied: “How the hell do I know? What does an actor do when you move in on a close-up of someone else? Go sit down somewhere, I guess.” In addition to that, the movie also features a couple of hitmen (Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman) who, while it’s never explicitly stated, are clearly involved in a homosexual relationship – strong stuff for a 1955 production.

The Big Combo is one of those films which has been poorly served on DVD. Although none of the available editions are truly awful, they aren’t especially satisfying either. I understand the US release by Image may offer the best transfer but I don’t have that one to comment for sure. I used to own a weak Geneon disc which displayed a fair bit of combing and motion blur but replaced it with a Spanish release by Sogemedia/Regia. This disc doesn’t have the combing issues but it’s still only a low-medium grade transfer. The biggest problem is a general haziness and softness that dilutes the work of Lewis and Alton. I continue to cling onto the hope that someone, somewhere will see fit to release this great film with a restored image and in the correct aspect ratio. Leaving aside the less than stellar DVD presentations, I can’t praise the movie itself highly enough. The dialogue, plotting and photography are all pure noir, and the two strong central performances ensure it’s a film worth revisiting.

 

The Blue Gardenia

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There are lots of sub-categories within film noir, and one of my favourites is what is sometimes termed nightmare noir. Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953) fits this description by presenting a protagonist whose world gets turned upside down after making one ill-judged decision. This kind of story offers all sorts of opportunities for some of the staple ingredients of noir – paranoia, suspicion, the idea that bad luck is waiting just around the corner, and the fact that the course of one’s life can hinge on something as simple and inocuous as a mix up over a phone call.

Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) is a switchboard operator who leads a fairly humdrum life, sharing an apartment with two other single women and biding her time till her lover comes back from Korea. However, it doesn’t take long for things to start to unravel and for life to hand her the first in a series of unexpected kicks in the teeth. She’s just bought herself a new dress, cooked a special meal, and plans to sit down and share it with her absent G.I. boyfriend. So, with his photo propped in front of her, she opens his latest telegram and starts to read. It’s a brush off, he’s met a nurse, fallen in love and plans to marry her. Norah is naturally distraught and more than a little bitter, so when she takes a call meant for one of her flatmates she makes that one bad decision. On the rebound, she agrees to a date with the slightly sleazy ladies man Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). During the course of dinner Prebble ensures that Norah gets well and truly tanked on cocktails before taking her back to his apartment. When he starts to get a little too friendly, Norah struggles with him but quickly blacks out. On awakening, she finds Prebble dead on the floor, his head smashed in with a poker. Panicking, and with only the haziest of memories of what went before, she flees the scene of the crime but leaves a few clues behind. The rest of the movie involves Norah’s attempts to evade the law, while playing a cat and mouse game with smooth newspaperman Casey Mayo (Richard Conte). The only real problem I had with the film was the fact that the element of doubt doesn’t really work for the viewer. While Norah and the characters around her cannot be sure of her guilt or innocence, it’s fairly clear to us. For this kind of story to work properly it’s preferable if the viewer experiences the same level of uncertainty the lead feels. 

Fear and paranoia - Anne Baxter in The Blue Gardenia.

Anne Baxter takes centre stage as the haunted and hunted Norah, and does a pretty good job of conveying her mounting sense of paranoia and isolation without resorting to histrionics. Richard Conte is reliable as usual in the role of the reporter who has his doubts. Raymond Burr was still at that stage of his career where he seemed to play nothing but heavies, but he did it well and his Harry Prebble has a nice touch of the sinister about him. However, while those three turned in fine performances, the picture really belongs to Ann Sothern. Her sassy turn as Norah’s seen-it-all-before flatmate is the highlight, and she walks away with just about every scene she appears in. Lang’s direction is as classy as one would expect, and the themes involved are right up his street. He seemed to have a thing for artists and reporters, and both play a prominent part here – although his most biting critique of the media, the ascerbic While the City Sleeps was still a few years down the road. There are strong noir credentials throughout the movie with Vera Caspary (Laura) providing the source material and Nicholas Musuraca working his magic behind the camera – the shadowy shots of the deserted newsroom at night being especially atmospheric.

The R1 DVD from Image is generally quite good, although there are a few damage marks here and there. It’s a totally barebones disc but should be available fairly cheap. The Blue Gardenia was originally distributed by Warner Brothers but is thankfully no longer controlled by them – I couldn’t imagine writing that just a few months ago, but this is the kind of film that might well be consigned to the appalling Archive programme now. All in all, it’s a fine noir that I’m happy to recommend.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, Film Noir, Fritz Lang, Richard Conte

 

Cry of the City

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He’s out there somewhere…in an alley, on a roof…looking for a way out.

One of the most interesting, and the most enjoyable, aspects of the best noir pictures is the blurring of the lines between the hero and the villain. In a way, the noir world doesn’t have any real heroes, just people forced to make the best of whatever circumstances life pitches at them. Characters may be stylised, situations may be exaggerated, but the dilemmas and bad breaks that have to be faced are issues that most people can identify with on some level. I think it’s this ambiguity that ensures the enduring popularity of these films. While fashions, speech patterns and social attitudes are obviously changing all the time, human nature remains constant. Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948) is a classic manhunt thriller that toys with the viewer’s sympathy by presenting both hunter and hunted as two sides of the same coin.

Martin Rome (Richard Conte) is an Italian American hood who’s just taken one chance too many. A botched hold-up has left a policeman dead and Rome badly wounded and clinging to life. As his family and priest gather at his bedside to pray for him, the law in the shape of Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) hovers in the wings, waiting to hand down retribution. Rome is a doomed man, his killing of a cop can have only one outcome. But doomed men can be of value to desperate men, and so the vultures circle. With the knowledge that Rome has no future, crooked lawyer Niles (Berry Kroeger) tries to coax him into confessing to a murder that would let his client off the hook. When this approach doesn’t meet with any success, Niles makes the mistake of threatening Rome’s girl, Teena Riconti (Debra Paget). Now, he has a reason to live; both the police and Niles want to get their hands on Teena for their own ends. Rome needs to get out of the prison hospital, track down Niles and his accomplices, protect Teena, and try to make good his escape. All the while he’s dogged by his nemesis, the tenacious Candella, a man who seems to be on a personal crusade to run him to ground. As Rome runs and Candella pursues him, we get to see the contrasts and similarities between the two men. Both come from essentially the same background, namely poor immigrant families, but both have chosen different paths out of the urban squalor. Candella walks with the righteous, but the face of the law he presents is a rigid and largely inflexible one. He shows no mercy in his dealings with all the little people who offered assistance to the fugitive, promising instead only prosecution and punishment. As such, it is notable that Candella never receives any willing help whereas Rome has no shortage of people prepared to go the extra mile for him, albeit for their own reasons. Also, when Rome lay wounded in hospital he was surrounded by family and friends, but when Candella later suffers a similar fate his only visitor is his partner.

Hope Emerson putting the squeeze on Richard Conte.

Richard Conte’s smooth talking gangster is a fine performance. You know he’s no good but can’t help rooting for him. The fact that he gets to deliver the best lines of the script and enjoys the lion’s share of screen time is helpful of course. It’s also significant that the killing for which he’s originally wanted is never shown and is only referred to briefly. When he does off someone on screen, that character is such an unpleasant slimeball that you feel he’s justified in doing so. Victor Mature’s persistent detective, on the other hand, is hard to like. He plays a cold, judgmental man with only a trace of humanity; the scenes where he visits Rome’s family are where he comes off best, yet even there his sincerity is open to question. It’s not really any surprise that his character has doors slammed in his face where Conte has them opened invitingly to him. The supporting cast is excellent, although the real stand out is Hope Emerson. This imposing figure of a woman is a genuinely unnerving presence, and you feel she could crush Conte’s ailing Rome just for the sadistic pleasure of it.

Robert Siodmak made a lot of noir pictures, and I don’t believe any of them were poor. Cry of the City may not be his very best but it’s not far off. There are some beautifully framed shots on view, not the least of which is the final showdown between the two protagonists. He also handles the more suspenseful passages, such as Rome’s brazen escape from the hospital with a deft touch and excellent camera placement. The whole film exudes the noir atmosphere with plenty of wet sidewalks, flashing neon and wailing police sirens. I think what helps the film succeed the most is the inclusion of all the incidental characters and situations, from the Rome’s apartment with the Amercan and Italian flags hanging side by side above the mantle to the frightened immigrant doctor who’s willing to risk imprisonment to find the cash to care for his sick wife. I can’t help seeing some parallels between this film and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out in terms of theme and narrative structure, although Conte never achieves the level of pathos seen in James Mason’s dead man walking. I’d also like to mention the great score by Alfred Newman; this music was used on a number of occasions in Fox movies but its melancholy notes are the ideal accompaniment to this fatalistic production.

Cry of the City is available on DVD in a number of editions in R2. I have the German release, and I understand it’s the pick of the bunch. It was previously only possible to buy this in combination with Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo but it is now available in a stand alone edition. I couldn’t see anything wrong with the transfer which has very good contrast, is sharp, and displays next to nothing in the way of damage. There have been rumours for some time of this title getting the Criterion treatment but, at the time of writing, it still remains absent in R1. I’m not sure why Fox never went ahead and released this as part of their own noir line and, given recent reports of personnel changes taking place in their home video division, it remains to be seen what will be forthcoming from them in the future. Anyway, I give Cry of the City a big thumbs up, it’s an excellent film noir from a director at the top of his form.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2009 in 1940s, Film Noir, Richard Conte, Robert Siodmak, Victor Mature

 
 
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