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Category Archives: John Farrow

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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Where Danger Lives

Poster

The films produced at RKO under the stewardship of Howard Hughes were a mixed bag to say the least; the billionaire’s’s involvement lending a crass, juvenile quality to more than one movie. While he led the once great studio along the path to bankruptcy and oblivion, he also introduced the cinema-going public to number of new starlets such as Jane Russell and Faith Domergue. Miss Domergue never made that many memorable pictures, save for Where Danger Lives, This Island Earth and It Came from Beneath the Sea. Of those three, Where Danger Lives (1950) has the slightly odd distinction of presenting her with her best role while also being the least known. In fact, this is a fine movie all round with stylish direction by noir stalwart John Farrow, a powerful lead performance by Robert Mitchum, moody cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, and a Charles Bennett script.

At first glance the film may seem like a standard lovers-on-the-run yarn, but that’s merely the framing device for a tale of obsessive love, deception and madness. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is introduced as an overworked but dedicated doctor who, at the end of his shift, is called upon to treat an attempted suicide. He is immediately attracted to the patient, Margo (Faith Domergue), and soon embarks on an affair. The immediate effect of this is that Cameron develops a callous disregard for both his job and his devoted sweetheart, played by director’s wife Maureen O’Sullivan. The whole point of the story is how lust can blind a man to reality and allow him to be deceived and manipulated. The film is packed with lies and liars and it seems that just about everyone is prepared to bend the truth to suit their own agenda, right down to ambulance drivers and small town doctors. When Cameron receives a blow on the head in a struggle, the resulting concussion gradually impairs his judgement and allows him to be more easily duped. In a marvellously surreal passage, the fleeing couple arrive in a town where everyone is bearded and dressed in western apparel. For a moment it looks as though the action has taken a detour into the Twilight Zone, until it is revealed that Mitchum and Domergue have stumbled into a local festival. The idea of nobody being quite what they appear is nicely highlighted when a local boy draws facial hair onto a photograph of Domergue, while muttering that everyone has to have a beard. From first to last, the movie concentrates on shifting identities and false perceptions.  

Dazed & Confused - Robert Mitchum gropes his way towards the truth.

Robert Mitchum was an old hand at playing noir anti-heroes and the role of Jeff Cameron offers him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He goes from being an upstanding professional at the beginning of the film to a shambling brain damaged wreck of a man by the climax. In the hands of a lesser actor the part could easily have descended into eye-rolling histrionics, but Mitchum’s deceptively lazy style ensures that credibility is maintained as his character’s mental state deteriorates and he floats between clarity and confusion. Faith Domergue’s Margo is a fine femme fatale in the classic mould. Her performance isn’t as controlled as Mitchum’s but she still manages to be convincing. It’s obvious from the start that there’s something not quite right about Margo, but you can’t really put your finger on what. Claude Rains appears in a small but significant part, and adds some real class to proceedings; in his few minutes of screen time he shows us another psychologically twisted character, and his playing is every bit the equal of that of his co-stars. John Farrow always seemed comfortable in noir territory, and does a good job of holding together a story that could have easily spun out of control. Farrow is ably assisted by his director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, whose camera does good things with the bleak desert backdrops and shadowy small towns that dominate the film.

Where Danger Lives comes to DVD, paired on disc with Tension, from Warners in R1 via their fourth noir set. It’s a fine, clean transfer which shows Musuraca’s excellent black and white photography at its best. The film comes with a trailer and a short featurette on the movie. This is a  film that I wasn’t at all familiar with until I picked up the box set. I can’t think why it has been such an obscure and hard to see movie since I’d rate it as an excellent example of classic era noir. Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2008 in 1950s, Film Noir, John Farrow, Robert Mitchum

 

Ride, Vaquero

Poster

Ride, Vaquero (1953) was one of those films that always seemed to elude me. I’d read about it and heard about it often but, somehow, could never manage to see it. Well, I’ve finally got around to it. Robert Taylor wouldn’t be the first actor most people would think of as a western character but the fact is he made a good number of oaters in his time. I’ve been watching quite a few of his westerns recently (the ones in the R1 westerns set, and a TV broadcast of The Hangman) and this would probably be my favourite.

Rio (Taylor) is the right hand man for bandit chief Jose Esqueda (Anthony Quinn), operating along the Texas/Mexico border in the aftermath of the Civil War. The end of the war has thrown up new challenges for these men, namely the arrival of new settlers and the renewed interest of the army and the federal government. Esqueda understands that such developments will spell the end of his reign as the undisputed master of his territory. His preferred course of action is a simple one; drive out the settlers before they have had a chance to put down permanent roots. The toughest proposition Esqueda has yet to face comes in the form of King Cameron (Howard Keel), who has come west with his wife (Ava Gardner) to build a new life. An abortive raid on the Cameron ranch leads to the capture of Rio. Instead of handing him over to the law, Cameron offers Rio the opportunity to switch allegiances and become his partner. He accepts, but the question remains whether his decision is based on a desire to embrace a more lawful lifestyle, or just a desire to embrace Camerons wife.

Anthony Quinn

Director John Farrow manages to throw a number of big themes into the mix – the old ways vs progress, loyalty and betrayal, and a man’s need to hold onto what he has won. Taylor gives a good performance as a man who’s in search of his place in the world. He may seem cold and aloof, but that’s surely an essential part of the character. His precise relationship with Esqueda is not fully revealed until the end, and it goes a long way towards explaining the alienation his character feels. Anthony Quinn gives the lusty, larger-than-life treatment to his role of the bandit king, and it’s very enjoyable. Ava Gardner naturally looks great and brings a credibility to her part as the rancher’s wife with the wandering eye. Howard Keel is just about adequate but, since I believe this was his first non-musical role, I won’t be too harsh on him. There are also small yet memorable parts for Jack Elam and Ted De Corsia. 

Ride, Vaquero has recently been released on DVD by Warners in France. The disc is a barebones affair with removable French subs and, unfortunately, boasts a weak transfer. The image doesn’t seem to have undergone any restoration and looks soft throughout. The biggest problem though is the colour, which has faded badly. The film was shot using the cheap Anscocolor process and if you’ve seen the recent R1 of Escape form Fort Bravo you’ll have some idea of what to expect. That said, the film is well worth 90 minutes of anybody’s time and I’d recommend it, if you can get past the deficiencies in the DVD transfer.

 

Hondo

Poster

There’s a small, isolated western homestead looking out over the harsh wilderness. A lone figure appears in the distance, and slowly makes his weary way towards the house. As he does so, the inhabitants watch his advance warily; does this figure represent hope or danger? While that may sound a whole lot like the opening of 1953′s Shane, it is actually from the same year’s Hondo.

The stranger who appears from the desert turns out to be Hondo Lane (John Wayne), part Indian and a former scout for General Crook’s cavalry. He tells the homesteaders, Mrs. Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her boy Johnny (Lee Aaker), that he  lost his horse a few days before while running from Apaches. He plans to buy a replacement and be on his way, but when he sees that the man of the house is absent, and Mrs. Lowe’s story about his being away in the hills for the day is patently a lie, he tries to make himself useful chopping wood and shoeing horses. He also happens to be carrying dispatches to the effect that the Apache under Vittorio (Michael Pate) are gearing up for war, and tries to impress upon the woman the dangers ahead and the necessity to move out. However, his appeals fall on deaf ears and, being a man who believes in letting people follow their own judgement, he takes his leave the following day. But something about the courage and character of the woman has impressed this fiercely independent man and you know that it’ll only be a matter of time before he returns. Soon after, the farm is visited by Vittorio’s war party, and the Apache chief is so impressed by the grit of little Johnny that he takes a special interest in him. Like Hondo, he feels the woman has no business raising the boy on her own and hands her an ultimatum that unless her man returns by the next rains she must become the squaw of one of his warriors.

By the early 50s, westerns had begun to portray Indians as more than just faceless bogeymen. Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway (both 1950) are generally credited with starting this trend, though you could argue that John Ford had already made moves in that direction a few years earlier with Fort Apache. Although Hondo is certainly no revisionist western it does show the Apache as two dimensional people. The film doesn’t shy away from their brutality with plenty of references to massacres and scalpings, and a scene where the captured Wayne is tortured with burning coals. Nevertheless, Vittorio is shown to be a man of honour who respects guts and, above all, honesty. This essential honesty of the Apache is juxtaposed with the whites’ tendency to be less than truthful in their dealings with friend and foe alike. In fact the issue of truth and lies runs all through the picture, with Wayne’s Hondo emphasising its importance again and again. Of course by the end of the film Vittorio is dead, and the last scene brings home how futile the Apache’s struggle would ultimately be as Wayne laments the passing of their way of life.

John Wayne

Hondo Lane is one of Duke’s better roles; he starts out as a man alone who values integrity and self reliance more than anything. Little by little we learn bits and pieces about him and how he came to this point in his life. There’s a nice scene where he talks about his dead wife, an Apache woman, and tries to express in English exactly what her name meant. It’s a simple little scene but Wayne manages to get across not so much the loss his character felt at her passing, but the wonderful memories that he was left with – memories that might be evoked just by the act of saying her name. Although it’s never directly stated, the inference is that his aloof manner is the result of his grief, and it’s only when he sees something of his late wife in Mrs. Lowe that the cracks begin to appear in his armour. There’s no schmaltz in the scenes with Gerladine Page and Lee Aaken, instead there seems to be a real chemistry. Page was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as the abandoned wife and her performance justifies that; there’s nothing whiny or hysterical about her, just a kind of quiet acceptance. She wasn’t the most striking woman you’ll ever see but I think that’s as it should be for a character who has been dealt a fairly lousy hand of cards by fate and must play them as best she can. The other notable performance is that of Michael Pate. His Vittorio, as I said above, is more complex than many of the stereotypical Indian characters of the time. This is a man who boasts proudly of the number of white men he’s killed yet is human enough to feel protective towards a boy without a father. Hondo was shot in 3D and this obviously influenced the way John Farrow directed the picture. Action and fight scenes in particular are used to highlight the process, with guns fired directly at the screen and arrows and knives thrust dramatically in your face. (I suppose it should be mentioned that a few bits and pieces during the climax were actually shot by John Ford.)

The DVD from Paramount is presented flat in full screen, although I understand it was intended to be projected in 1.85:1 widescreen. It looks then like the transfer is an open matte one as I couldn’t detect any noticeable cropping at the sides. Generally, the image is a very strong and colorful one with only a few shots, especially near the end, looking a bit ragged. The disc is packed with extras: a commentary, a number of featurettes etc. This was one of the Batjac titles which the Wayne estate had kept out of circulation for years, and so the reputation of the film may have suffered a bit. I think it’s a great movie and would rank it as one of Wayne’s best, right alongside his work with Ford and Hawks.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2008 in 1950s, John Farrow, John Wayne, Westerns

 

Plunder of the Sun

It is notoriously difficult to pin down what exactly constitutes Film Noir. Everybody seems to have their own list of titles that will variously include or omit a number of marginal entries. This 1953 movie would seem a likely candidate since it has a number of noir characteristics. The action, for the most part, takes place in Mexico, the lead is a down on his luck type drawn into intrigue, and the plot bears more than a passing resemblance to The Maltese Falcon. Furthermore, the director (John Farrow) had a fair noir pedigree, having overseen the likes of Where Danger Lives, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, and The Big Clock. So, does it qualify? I’m inclined to think not, but I can’t quite put my finger on the reason. The upbeat ending crossed my mind, but I don’t really buy into the theory that the style of everything gone before can be negated by the last few minutes – that would rule something like The Woman in the Window out of consideration as noir. Well, let’s just say that I don’t feel comfortable calling it noir – maybe someone else can offer a definitive answer.

The story opens in Oaxaca, Mexico and – via flashback and a noirish voice-over narration – takes us to Havana to introduce the main character, Al Colby (Glenn Ford), as a man on the bum and desperate to find the means to pay his debts and get back to the States. His hopes seem to be answered when he’s approached in a bar by a girl (Patricia Medina) in the employ of a crippled collector of artifacts (Francis L. Sullivan). Colby accepts the offer to book passage on a ship bound for Mexico with the aim of smuggling in a small package containing an old parchment. On board he meets the other main players, a spoiled rich girl (Diana Lynn) and a sinister archaeologist (Sean McClory). From there the action moves to Mexico and a treasure hunt ensues. So, there’s a race to possess a fortune, some dubious history, a fat man and a pair of duplicitous females – like I said, it all sounds like a cousin of The Maltese Falcon.

Glenn Ford & Patricia Medina

Glenn Ford is always an enjoyable actor to watch and he handles his fairly undemanding part well enough. Irish character actor Sean McClory looks a little startling with bleached blond hair and sunglasses, but his disbarred archaeologist (can an archaeologist be disbarred?), alternating between between charm and menace, is probably the best thing in the movie. Patricia Medina looks exotic and seductive and certainly fares better than the other female star, Diana Lynn, who has little more to do than impersonate Gloria Grahame.

Much of the film was shot on location in and around Oaxaca and makes good use of the ancient Zapotec ruins and pyramids. Paramount put this out on DVD a while back (before they decided to completely ignore their back catalogue) as part of the Batjac line. It looks very good and boasts a fine selection of extras, including a commentary,  featurettes on Sean McClory and the Zapotec locations, trailer etc. Bearing in mind that the movie clocks in at around 80 minutes, it’s a pleasant enough way to pass the time.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2008 in 1950s, Glenn Ford, John Farrow, Mystery/Thriller

 

The Big Clock

The Big Clock is a 1948 thriller about a race against time; a manhunt where the protagonist is essentially hunting himself. Does that sound complicated? Well, the plot is complex but it never becomes incomprehensible.

George Stroud (Ray Milland) is the overworked editor of a crime magazine who yearns for a holiday with his family. Just when this seems in sight his boss, time-obsessed media tycoon Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), insists that he postpone his vacation and follow up on a breaking news story. In a fit of pique, he tenders his resignation and ends up spending a drunken evening with Janoth’s mistress. While exiting the girl’s apartment Stroud sees his boss arriving, while the boss sees only a silhouette. Goaded into a rage by the mistress, Janoth clubs her to death. On the advice of his reptilian chief executive (George Macready) he now plans to pin the deed on the shadowy stranger he glimpsed in the corridor. To this end, Stroud is recalled to co-ordinate the manhunt.

Ray Milland, running out of time inside The Big Clock

This is a great suspenseful picture, and you really sense Milland’s mounting horror as he is forced to use his own investigative team and techniques to gradually build up a profile of the mystery man; a man who he knows better than anyone. The two principal female roles are taken by Maureen O’Sullivan (who was married to director John Farrow) as Stroud’s wife, and Rita Johnson as the ill-fated mistress. I always enjoy anything with that inveterate scene stealer Charles Laughton, and he gives one of his more restrained performances here. There are lots of familiar faces in the support cast, not least Laughton’s real life spouse Elsa Lanchester as an eccentric artist and her turn damn near steals the whole show. Harry Morgan also shows up as a darkly menacing gunman on Janoth’s payroll, made all the more sinister by the fact that his character utters not a word on screen. Seasoned noir watchers may also recognise Harold Vermilyea who remains forever memorable, for me at least, as the doomed Waldo Evans from Sorry, Wrong Number.

If the plot to this movie seems slightly familiar that may be due to the fact that it was remade in the 80′s as No Way Out, with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in the Milland and Laughton roles respectively. That film was not bad but, to my mind at least, not a patch on the original – isn’t that usually the case?

The Big Clock is available in R1 as part of the now, apparently, defunct Universal Noir line. If any fans of classic noir/suspense don’t already own this, I can only ask – Why?

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2008 in 1940s, Film Noir, John Farrow, Ray Milland

 
 
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