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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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Criss Cross

“From the start, it all went one way. It was in the cards, or it was fate or a jinx, or whatever you want to call it.”

Burt Lancaster, Robert Siodmak, a heist, a hero doomed by fate and his own stupidity, and a rotten to the core femme fatale – all of this sounds a little like a brief synopsis of The Killers. In fact, it refers to Criss Cross (1949), a near relative of that earlier work and a film that vies with it for the honour of being hailed Siodmak’s best movie. Apart from the pairing of director and star, both these films share a similar theme and structure, and I find it almost impossible to decide which is the better one. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – I like them both and they are two of the strongest noir pictures to come out of the 1940s.

The title of this movie is a highly appropriate one for a tale where the paths of all the main characters are continually intersecting in a web of deceit and betrayal, each crossing up the other at the first opportunity. At the centre of it all are three people – Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster), Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) – bound together by an unholy combination of love, lust and greed. The opening shot, with the camera swooping ominously down from the night skies of LA, sees Anna and Steve caught in a clinch in the parking lot of a nightclub. As the lights suddenly pick them out, their startled and guilty reaction indicates that this is an illicit rendezvous. The fact is further underlined by the terse, tense dialogue – this couple is planning something dangerous, and the possibility of discovery holds a terrifying threat for them. Anna is married to local hood Slim Dundee, but she and Steve were once wed too. Their passionate embrace makes it clear that they have rekindled their old relationship, with the flame burning brightest for Steve in particular. And it’s from the point of view of Steve that the story is primarily seen, with the others moving in and out of the picture at various intervals. He’s a classic noir protagonist, a fairly ordinary guy with limited prospects and a blind spot where no-good females are concerned. A lengthy flashback sequence, accompanied by a suitably weary and resigned voiceover by Steve, spells out exactly how the lives of these three characters converged and the complex ties that continue to bind them together. In short, Steve’s job as a guard for an armored car company has led to his conspiring with Dundee to raid one of the secure vehicles. However, in the noir universe there’s no such thing as honour among thieves and everyone has his own hidden agenda. Steve is the only one of the trio whose motives have some semblance of decency – he’s driven by a kind of desperate love for Anna – and the aftermath of the heist shows just how deep the fault lines of treachery run in this uneasy alliance.

Apparently the untimely death of Mark Hellinger meant that the original script was revised and certain aspects of the story were changed. Be that as it may, the movie that we ended up with is almost impossible to fault and Daniel Fuchs’ script successfully blends the heist and Steve’s obsessive love to powerful effect. Flashback structures can sometimes be confusing or upset the mood of a film but in this case it works perfectly, coming at precisely the right point and filling in the background details that are vital to understanding the nature of Steve and Anna’s relationship. With a tight script, and Franz Planer’s photographic talents, in place, director Robert Siodmak was free to put it all together with his customary visual flair. The opening, which I referred to earlier, pitches the viewer headlong into this complex tale of dishonour and betrayal in incredibly stylish fashion. And it never really lets up from that moment, with one memorable and superbly shot scene following hard on the heels of another. Siodmak uses every trick up his sleeve to manipulate the mood and perspective, from coldly objective overheads to disconcerting low angles and close-ups, interspersed with fast cuts and dissolves. For me, the real stand out scenes, although there’s hardly a poor moment throughout, are the ones in Union Station and in the hospital. The former not only gives a fascinating glimpse of contemporary LA bustle, but also shows the director’s skill in composing a complex series of shots in a crowded environment while retaining control of the geography. In the latter, he uses the reflection from the mirror in Steve’s room to break up the static nature of the setup and extract the maximum amount of tension at the same time.

If the technical aspects of the film are straight out of the top drawer, then the same can also be said for the acting. Burt Lancaster kicked off his career with some finely judged playing as the doomed Swede in The Killers, and Siodmak got him to tap into that same vibe to coax another wonderfully nuanced and sensitive performance from him. Once again he hits all the right notes as the big palooka whose dark romanticism sees him suckered by the machinations of a conniving woman. Every emotional state the script calls on him to display is carried off convincingly, from fear and disenchantment right through to the calm acceptance of his fate at the end – from the dumbfounded look of a guy who’s just had his guts kicked out by the woman he loves to the cloying sense of panic of a man under sentence of death and trapped in an anonymous hospital ward. Yvonne De Carlo didn’t have to go through quite as many stages, yet she’s still excellent alternating between the sassy, sensual broad that forms her public persona and the nervy, desperate woman she becomes in private. When she drops all pretense in the climax and reveals her true character to Steve and the audience there’s a tangible shock to be felt. Dan Duryea was an old hand at taking on the role of the slimy villain, and to that he adds a layer of menace as Slim Dundee. He manages this so well that it’s easy to understand the level of fear and trepidation he provokes in Steve when he contemplates the consequences of crossing him. While these three actors carry the movie, there’s real depth in the  supporting cast too. Stephen McNally is solid and sympathetic as the cop whose friendship for Steve leads him to inadvertently push him into crime. In fact, there are lovely little cameos all through the movie: Percy Helton’s chipmunk featured barman, Joan Miller’s garrulous barfly, Griff Barnett’s kindly and lonely father figure.

Criss Cross has been out on DVD for many years now, and the US disc from Universal is an especially strong effort. It offers a near perfect transfer of the film with clarity, sharpness and contrast all at the high end of the scale. My only disappointment comes from the absence of any extra features, bar the theatrical trailer, for such a quality movie. One shouldn’t really complain, in these days of bare bones burn on demand discs, but this film does deserve a commentary track at the very least. Still, we have got an excellent piece of the filmmaker’s art looking great. Criss Cross is a highly rated production that occupies a prominent position in the noir canon, and it has earned that honour. It’s one of those rare films that checks all the boxes and never puts a foot wrong from its dramatic opening until it’s darkly cynical final fade out. Those who are familiar with the picture will know exactly what I’m talking about, and those who are not owe it to themselves to discover this little treasure. This is unquestionably one of the real jewels of film noir.

 
 

The Spiral Staircase

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There are certain settings that immediately draw me to films, trains usually work work for me as do stories taking place in old, dark houses hiding even darker secrets. By happy coincidence, The Spiral Staircase (1945) derives from the pen of Ethel Lina White who also provided the source material for probably the finest example of a movie set aboard a train – The Lady Vanishes. I guess there’s something tremendously reassuring about watching a cast of characters in mortal danger in a spooky old mansion, lashed by fierce storms, for it’s a formula that’s been used again and again down through the years. The Spiral Staircase works very well as a gothic noir melodrama that’s strong on atmosphere. If it’s approached as a whodunit the effect is lessened considerably – the identity of the killer is pretty obvious right away – but I don’t believe it was ever conceived as such anyway.

Events unfold at some unspecified time in the early years of the 20th century in a small American town. A serial killer is busy in this close community, specialising in the dispatch of young women displaying some physical defect or imperfection. The film opens with one of these murders, a girl with a pronounced limp is done in while downstairs a crowd of townspeople sit in rapt attention at the screening of a silent movie. Among the audience is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), housemaid for a local well-to-do family. Helen’s enjoyment of the silent picture is maybe heightened by the fact that she herself lives in a world of silence – we later learn that Helen is a mute as a result of a childhood trauma. It doesn’t require any great leap of deductive reasoning to see that Helen is likely to feature highly on the killer’s list of potential victims. Indeed, shortly after arriving back at her employers’ creaking old mansion just as a storm of near biblical proportions is breaking that fact is confirmed. As Helen pauses on the landing to check her appearance in the mirror the camera zooms in on the eye of the killer as he watches her secretly. This provides one of the film’s creepiest moments as we see the girl from the deranged perspective of the murderer, her face reflected back from the mirror without a mouth. As I said, the identity of the villain is fairly easy to spot when we’ve been introduced to the various occupants of the house. The owner is a bed-ridden old battle-axe, Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore), who shares her home with her two sons (George Brent & Gordon Oliver) – the former a serious minded academic, the latter a wastrel playboy with a roving eye. The rest of the household is made up of a motley collection of servants, although the spectre of Mrs Warren’s late husband hangs heavily over them all. It’s this unseen figure who actually provides the motive for the villain’s urges and forms the basis for the cod psychological explanation that’s practically obligatory in thrillers of this period. The story plays out in fairly standard form, with the heroine’s danger and isolation increasing incrementally as the subsidiary characters are lured away or disposed of one by one. Still and all, the whole thing is done with considerable style, the suspense and atmosphere building steadily towards a satisfying conclusion.

Dorothy McGuire being stalked by a shadowy killer in The Spiral Staircase.

As far as the acting is concerned, The Spiral Staircase really belongs to the female cast – George Brent, Gordon Oliver and Kent Smith are all passable enough without being especially memorable – and Dorothy McGuire was excellent in conveying mounting fear and paranoia with nothing but facial expression and gestures at her disposal. Both Ethel Barrymore and Elsa Lanchester were inveterate scene stealers and never miss a trick when they’re on screen. Barrymore does tend to slice the ham a little thick on occasion but her scenes are immensely watchable and her verbal jousting with Sara Allgood, as her put upon nurse, is a pleasure in itself. Having said all that, the real star of the show is director Robert Siodmak who moves his camera around the elaborate sets with fluidity and makes optimum use of light and shadow. The climax, taking place largely on the rear staircase, constitutes a virtual checklist of noir motifs, from high and low angle shots through to the shadows of railings creating bars to pin the protagonists helplessly in place.

The UK DVD of The Spiral Staircase from Prism treats the film quite well. There’s good contrast and the image is reasonably clean and sharp with no damage to speak of. There’s a gallery included as well as text bios for members of the cast and crew. To me the movie represents an exercise in how to maintain suspense and atmosphere from a slightly predictable story. The combination of pleasing performances and Siodmak’s assured and professional direction adds up to a very enjoyable movie – it may not hold too many surprises but there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak

 

The Dark Mirror

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The 1940s saw a run of movies that attempted to cash in on the craze for psychoanalysis. Probably the most prominent among these was Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but there was no shortage of imitators (there was even an entire series based on this premise, namely Columbia’s Crime Doctor pictures starring Warner Baxter). Generally, such films used large dollops of cod Freudian psycho-babble to simultaneously jazz up and lend a touch of gravitas to the plot. Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror (1946) is one of the more successful efforts, helped largely by an outstanding central performance from Olivia de Havilland.

The Dark Mirror is basically a murder mystery that uses the gimmick of having a crime committed by one of a pair of identical twins – the problem for the authorities (and the audience) is working out which one did the deed, and how to prove it. The opening shot is of the apartment of the victim with the corpse lying sprawled before a symbolically broken mirror. At first the case seems clear cut as the detective in charge, Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell), has witnesses that can easily identify the woman seen leaving the scene of the crime. Well, we’d be looking at a pretty short movie if that’s all there were to it. The problem is that the woman in question is either Terry or Ruth Collins (Olivia de Havilland), one of whom has a cast iron alibi for the evening – but which one? With the official investigation grinding to a halt due to the impossibility of the circumstances, Stevenson turns to analyst Dr. Elliott (Lew Ayres) for help. Elliott agrees to undertake a private examination of the twins to try and discover which one has the psychological profile consistent with a murderess. In so doing he utilizes all the recognisable tools of the trade from ink blots and free association through to a polygraph. Although he satisfies himself as to which sister is the most likely culprit, the proof remains stubbornly elusive. What complicates the situation even further is the fact that Elliott finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to the “good” sister while the other jealously works behind the scenes to undermine her sibling’s sanity.

Two for the price of one - Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror.

From a purely technical point of view the illusion of having the same actress playing scenes in a dual role works extremely well. One scene in particular called for one of the twins to sit next to the other and rest her head on her sister’s shoulder, and it’s a compliment to the film’s level of technical accomplishment that this effect is carried off so believably. Personally, I was really only aware that I was watching process work in one slightly ropey shot late in the movie where one sister addressed the other, who was positioned behind her, via an artificial looking mirror setup. Aside from this, Siodmak’s direction is assured throughout, and he wraps the whole thing up in a tight and pacy 82 minutes (PAL). As I said at the beginning, Olivia de Havilland’s performance is one of this film’s great strengths. It’s no mean feat to play twins with markedly different characters and remain convincing, but she managed it with aplomb. Thomas Mitchell’s cop is there to help ground the story for the viewer, and he plays his part well enough – if I have any criticism it’s that he imbued it with a little too much lightheartedness. Lew Ayres, on the other hand, was the weak link for me, never completely selling me on the idea that he was an eminent psychiatrist. 

Working out where the rights to a film lie can sometimes be akin to blundering one’s way through a minefield. This was originally an International picture, later to be combined into Universal International, but the R1 home video rights don’t seem to belong to Universal now. A few years ago, when the rights to the Republic library reverted back to Paramount from Artisan they announced this title (along with a few others complete with artwork) for release on R1 DVD. However, Paramount then promptly licensed the library to Lions Gate and those titles disappeared off the schedule. Bearing all that in mind, I’d imagine the chances of The Dark Mirror making an appearance on DVD in R1 are slim to non-existent at the moment. However, the film did get a release in Germany late last year via Koch Media (I think there’s also a French disc out there, but something tells me it suffers from the dreaded burnt in subtitles) and it’s a very attractive disc. It comes in a book style digipack with a booklet – 10 pages, but all in German – and boasts a nice transfer. The image is generally very strong and sharp, although there are a few instances of weakness and heavier grain. All told, it’s a pleasing disc of a hard to find movie. Slowly, more and more of Robert Siodmak’s noir films are making their way onto DVD and I found this latest addition very welcome. I’d place it somewhere in the mid-range of the director’s work, which should be recommendation enough in itself.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak

 

Christmas Holiday

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Following on from my previous post I’ve decided to have a look at another seasonal noir. Christmas Holiday (1944) is a movie that seems to slip under many people’s radar, and that may be partly down to both the title and the casting which are apt to give a false impression. At first glance, this is a film that might appear to be horribly miscast but the fact is it works very well. Having said that, the production remains a little odd, but I can’t quite put my finger on the reason. Like Lady in the Lake, the  story unfolds over Christmas but, once again, that’s really nothing more than an incidental detail – the timing could easily be changed without affecting the plot in the least.

On Christmas Eve, a newly commissioned army officer, Lt. Mason (Dean Harens), is preparing to fly to San Francisco to marry his sweetheart. However, just before he leaves, he receives a cable informing him that the deal’s off and she’s married someone else. Regardless, he decides to board his flight anyway but neither he nor the audience can be quite sure what he hopes to achieve. As it happens he never makes it to his destination, bad weather forcing his plane to make an unscheduled stop in New Orleans. He allows himself to be talked into visiting an out of town club (basically a bordello, but you couldn’t come right out and call it that under the production code) by the establishment’s PR man/pimp. It’s here that Mason meets Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin) and later hears her story. The character of Mason doesn’t really serve any purpose other than that of a narrative device – he’s simply there to provide an everyman perspective, the eyes and ears of the audience as a tale of deception, murder and obsession unfolds. Jackie explains that she’s been using an assumed name, her real one being Abigail Manette, since her husband’s conviction for murder. Via two separate flashbacks she relates how she met, fell in love with and married Robert Manette (Gene Kelly). Manette turned out to be a wastrel blueblood, fallen on hard times, with unsavoury characteristics that are mentioned only in the vaguest terms. This is all pretty standard fare for a noir thriller, but it’s the creepy relationship between Manette and his mother (the Spiderwoman herself, Gale Sondergaard) and the stifling home atmosphere that sets this movie apart. I’ve come across a few theories which try to explain exactly what’s “wrong” with Manette and the nature of his relationship with his mother, but I’m not entirely convinced by any of them. The script makes it clear enough that this is a man with a deeply flawed character but that’s about it. However, I haven’t read the Somerset Maugham story on which the film is based so I don’t know if that casts any further light on the subject.

Deanna Durbin & Gene Kelly

Deanna Durbin is credited with being the saviour of Universal as a result of the popularity of her lightweight musicals in the 40s but Christmas Holiday was a major departure from the usual formula for her. She does get to sing two songs, in her role as night club “hostess”, but this is a straight dramatic role. I thought she performed very well, and managed to handle the necessary transition from wide eyed innocent to world weary fallen woman quite convincingly. Gene Kelly is another performer not normally associated with dark, dubious characters but his Robert Manette is not at all bad. Seeing this jaunty, amiable figure jarringly transformed into a mother-fixated murderer has an unnerving quality that’s highly effective. Gale Sondergaard always brought an eerie, otherworldly feel to the parts she played and it fits right in here. The middle section of the film, told in flashback, takes place mainly in the confines of the Manette house, where Sondergaard seems completely at home amid the relics of a faded past. It’s this part of the movie that lends the slightly odd sense that I alluded to at the beginning. Maybe it’s the curious family dynamic, or the feeling of stepping into a world removed from the present – I honestly can’t say, but everything just feels a little off-centre in these sequences. This was Robert Siodmak’s second Hollywood noir, following on from Phantom Lady. It’s not quite up to the standard of his previous picture and lacks a little of the visual flair that he usually brought to the table. However, he does some good work in the club scenes, and the unusual architecture of the Manette house offers opportunities for some interesting shots.

As far as I know the only DVD of Christmas Holiday is the UK R2 from DDHE (EDIT – it appears there’s a Spanish release also available – see comment #1 below). It offers a pretty good transfer of the movie with no major damage or distraction on view. The only extra feature provided is a gallery of production stills. All in all, this a satisfying little noir that moves along nicely and has good performances from all the main players. For me, the casting of Kelly and Durbin worked, although I can see how it might lead to the film being ignored by some – fans of the two leads may be alienated by the atypical roles and storyline, and noir lovers may be put off by their presence. Nevertheless, I think the movie has a unique quality and is definitely worth a look.

With the Christmas juggernaut bearing down ominously, I doubt if I’ll find the time to post another piece before the holidays. So, I’d just like to take the opportunity to wish all those who have followed, commented on, or simply dropped by this blog from time to time the best of everything over the holiday period. Here’s hoping you all enjoy a happy and peaceful Christmas.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak

 

Phantom Lady

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Most people are aware that revisiting a movie can be either a rewarding or a disappointing experience. For myself, subsequent viewings have more often than not proved to be positive. That may say something about me, or it may be a result of the kind of movies I tend to gravitate towards. Phantom Lady (1944) was a film I’d seen a good few years ago and one which, at the time, I thought was OK but nothing special. Anyway, having recently bought the DVD I decided to give it another go. I thought it was fantastic, like watching a completely different film – everything just seemed to click into place. I have a hunch that a large part of the reason behind this reappraisal is due to the use of one major plot device which bugged me on my first viewing. Naturally, I knew what was coming this time around, so it didn’t bother me in the least – in fact, I found it to be one of the film’s better ideas and, lo and behold, the whole thing worked for me.

The film begins much like a standard murder mystery. Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is an engineer with marital problems. After an argument with his wife he heads to a bar to drown his sorrows, and finds himself seated next to a woman with a big hat and her own troubles. Since he’s got a couple of theatre tickets and nothing better to do, he takes her along to the show. The lady in question sets just one condition – no names and no details. At the end of the night the two of them bid each other farewell, and that ought to be the end of that. However, on returning home Henderson finds his wife murdered and the police anxious to learn how he’s spent his evening. The woman who could furnish him with an alibi would seem to be an easy one to trace, after all she had drawn the attention of a number of people. But no, no-one remembers her, or if they do they’re not saying. So Henderson is tried and convicted of murder. Just when all seems lost, however, Henderson gets a lifeline. His loyal secretary (Ella Raines), his best friend (Franchot Tone) and a sympathetic cop (Thomas Gomez) take it upon themselves to try and find the mysterious Phantom Lady.

The idea of an innocent man pitched into a nightmare world where no-one believes him is a staple of noir, and Phantom Lady has an excellent pedigree as it originates from the pen of Cornell Woolrich (although this novel was written under his William Irish pseudonym). The plot device which I alluded to above is the revelation of the killer’s identity about halfway into the film. This has the effect of transforming the story from a straightforward mystery into a taut suspense picture, and it’s all the better for it. Since the viewer now knows more than the characters do, he is free to concentrate on other aspects of the film – and there’s much to admire here. The lengthy sequence where Kansas (Raines) mercilessly stalks a tight-lipped bartender is masterfully shot. From the long shot of her mask-like countenance staring at him down the length of the bar, along the slick and rainy sidewalks, on a deserted platform, to his final demise under the wheels of a truck, you can feel the tension rise and the man’s fear become palpable. This neatly reverses the roles one expects to see in a movie of this vintage, and has the effect of putting a fresh spin on a potentially trite situation. In fact, Phantom Lady is ahead of its time in a number of ways, not least the atmosphere of sexual tension it creates. Another memorable scene takes place in a back street jazz club, where a bunch of stoned and liquored up musicians do a little after hours improvisation. The edge here comes from the sight of Kansas, looking cheap and provocative, driving an ill-fated drummer (professional squirt Elisha Cook Jr) half crazy with lust. The close-up of the expression on his face as his drumming grows more and more frenzied is pure gold, and must have raised a few eyebrows at the Hays Office.

Skewed perspective - Ella Raines in Phantom Lady

Despite being billed second, the real star of the show is Ella Raines. Her part as Kansas (at the time it was a kind of fashion to hand nicknames to female leads in movies: Lauren Bacall becoming Slim in To Have and Have Not and Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning getting saddled with Mike!) is the most substantial one in the movie and offered her ample opportunity to show what she could do. I’ve already mentioned a couple of scenes above but she holds the attention throughout, displaying a tough, almost masculine, determination without ever being anything less than a woman. Franchot Tone, who received star billing, does well enough even though the nature of his role was one that encouraged a touch of overacting. Alan Curtis generally gets overlooked or dismissed by critics of the film, but I feel that’s a little unfair as he doesn’t get the opportunity to do much in the second half. When he is on screen he performs capably and believably enough – he’s no standout but he is acceptable. Thomas Gomez and Elisha Cook Jr were fine character players in many films and their presence adds some more class to proceedings. Phantom Lady was Robert Siodmak’s first in a series of excellent noir pictures throughout the 40s. All of his films made fine use of atmosphere, imagery and lighting, and this was no exception. There are countless examples I could cite, including the weird, tortured sculptures dotted around the killer’s apartment. However, aside from those already mentioned, there’s a marvellously shot scene where the killer lectures one of his victims on the ways a man can use his hands for both good and evil. As he talks the camera concentrates on his own hands, picked out stark white by a spot, while the man himself blends into the background shadows.

For some reason Phantom Lady has yet to be given a DVD release in R1 by Universal. However, it is readily available in R2 (France & Spain) and R4 and, although I can’t be sure of this, I have a feeling all these versions are sourced from the same print. I watched the R4 from Aztec (licensed from Universal) and the transfer is a good one. There hasn’t been any work done on it, evidenced by the presence of some scratches and speckles and a fine vertical line that appears on the right of the screen at one point for six minutes or so, but it is very sharp and has strong contrast. The R4 comes on a barebones, single layered disc but the relatively short running time means it doesn’t appear to be over-compressed. I don’t believe I’ve seen a poor film noir from Robert Siodmak yet and my repeat viewing of Phantom Lady has elevated its value in my opinion. This is a movie I can see myself returning to fairly often and I would certainly recommend any noir fans pick up a copy.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak

 

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

 

The Killers

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I did something wrong…once.

So says the Swede (Burt Lancaster) as he lies in bed bereft of all hope, and calmly awaits his end. I love that scene near the beginning of the 1946 version of The Killers. It is one of the great moments of film noir and says so much about the genre – if you can even call it a genre. A good deal of its bleak power comes from the fact that it seems to run contrary to all normal human instincts. If someone were to burst into your room and breathlessly inform you that a couple of mean-looking hitmen had just rolled into town with the express aim of rubbing you out, most people would take the opportunity to make tracks fast. But Lancaster just remains prone in the shadows and delivers that line in the detached tone of a man already dead; when fate pays that last call there’s no ducking out. 

Robert Siodmak’s film takes Ernest Hemingway’s short story (and it’s a very short story) and uses it merely as the jumping off point. The rest of the movie follows insurance investigator Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) as he tries to find out why the Swede ended up in a small New Jersey town waiting passively to greet a hail of bullets. The story is revealed by a succession of characters who had known the Swede, and a number of flashbacks gradually piece together all the events that brought about his demise. The Swede starts off as a medium grade fighter who, after breaking his hand and ending his career, begins the slow descent into the criminal underworld. This culminates in a payroll heist, the aftermath of which leads to the eventual downfall of just about everybody involved. The character of the Swede is basically a good-natured oaf whose desire for easy money allows him to be dazzled and duped by the grasping and predatory Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). In a sense the whole film is as much about Kitty as anyone else; as we see her manipulations provide the catalyst for the betrayals that litter the story.

An eternal triangle - she's lookin' at him, lookin' at her.

The Killers marked the screen debut of Burt Lancaster and his tough vulnerability is shown to good effect in the movie. There’s enough innocence in the Swede for you to genuinely sympathise with him and despair at the big lug’s stupidity as Kitty plays him for the ultimate sucker. Ava Gardner’s Kitty gets the classic femme fatale intro; we first see her as the Swede does – seductively clad in black satin and vamping for all she’s worth in a night club. Her character is rotten all the way through – effortlessly hooking the smitten Swede, playing the gang off against each other, and finally, tearfully begging a dying man to save her neck by damning himself. The role of Edmond O’Brien is to offer perspective and lead the viewer through the labyrinth of deceit; he’s really the linking device between all the small episodes that make up the whole. O’Brien’s own guide along the way is police lieutenant Lubinsky (Sam Levene from the Thin Man movies) and there is good support from gang members Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert and Jeff Corey. However, two of the most memorable turns come from William Conrad and Charles McGraw as Max and Al, the killers of the title. Their roles don’t extend much beyond the first ten minutes of the film, but those are ten truly magical minutes. They get some of the choicest dialogue (and deliver it perfectly) as they simultaneously mock and menace the occupants of the Brentwood lunch counter.  

We're killing him for a friend. William Conrad & Charles McGraw.

Robert Siodmak made some of the best noirs of the forties and I feel The Killers is his standout work. This is one of those films where plot, direction, characterization and photography all seem to come together harmoniously. Deep, dark shadows are everywhere and only the policeman’s terrace, where the ideal wife serves lemonade on a hot day, seems to rise above the murkiness. I should also say a word about the powerful score by Miklos Rozsa which is especially effective whenever Messrs Conrad and McGraw make an appearance.

The Killers is out on DVD from Criterion in R1 and from Universal in R2. I can’t comment on the presentation on the R2 disc as I haven’t seen it but bitter experience has taught that Universal’s UK releases are a hit and miss affair, with a high proportion of misses. The Criterion is everything you would expect from them with a beautiful, clean transfer to show off those deep, black shadows. As you would expect, the film comes packed with useful and informative extras – and, best of all, it is paired with Don Siegel’s 1964 remake (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film version). All in all, this represents the definitive presentation of what is probably my favorite film noir.

 
 
 
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