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Category Archives: Film Noir

Angel Face

 I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind that pretty little face of yours; I don’t want to. But I learned one thing very early. Never be the innocent bystander; that’s the guy that always gets hurt.

The femme fatale, the deadly woman, the one whose duplicity, self-interest and machinations lure the protagonist towards danger and doom is widely considered to be a staple of film noir. I’ve even seen some argue that such a figure is an essential element of this style of filmmaking, though I wouldn’t go as far as that myself. And yet she is an important figure, one who has achieved iconic status and entered the everyday vocabulary of even casual film fans. There have been outstanding examples of the femme fatale committed to film: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Ava Gardner in The Killers and Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross to name just a handful of notables. Those women were all devious, alluring and lethal, and all of them were entirely conscious of their inherent malice. But what of those characters who fall almost accidentally into the category of the fatal woman? What if a woman, by her actions, becomes a femme fatale while her motivations and psychological profile are wholly different? As far as I can see, Angel Face (1952) provides an example of just such a case – a dangerously attractive female of deadly intent who’s also a mass of complexities and contradictions.

An ambulance is called to a Beverly Hills mansion late at night. Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil), the owner, has almost died in a gas-filled bedroom. It might have been an attempted suicide or an attempted murder, but in the end everyone seems satisfied that it was probably just one of those unfortunate accidents that occur in the home. With the emergency apparently over and people about to head home, Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum), one of the ambulance drivers, pauses in the hallway, his attention caught by the figure of a girl at the piano in the drawing-room. This is Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), the owner’s stepdaughter. As Frank stops to offer a word of reassurance, we get a glimpse of the fragile instability of the girl; she’s edgy and prone to hysterics. But more than that, there’s an impulsive, neurotic side to  her. The former is immediately apparent when she follows Frank and essentially picks him up as he ends his shift. The latter, the neurosis, is revealed more gradually as she sets about seducing Frank and drawing him ever deeper into the complicated affairs of the Tremayne household. Diane’s father (Herbert Marshall) is – or rather was – a celebrated writer who has let his talents go to seed, mostly as a result of the pampered lifestyle brought on by a comfortable marriage. In Diane’s eyes her father is, and always will be, her whole world. As such, Catherine is the enemy, the cause of her father’s creative decline and her own consequent dissatisfaction. Almost every noir scenario revolves around the weakness of the protagonists, often their inability to accept responsibility for their own situation in life. And so it is with Diane, everything could be hauled back onto an even keel if only Catherine weren’t there: her father would recover his desire to write and she would be free to make a life with Frank. However, fate has an unfortunate tendency to throw a big awkward spanner in the works and even the best laid plans can go disastrously awry.

It’s very often the case that the most compelling movies had a troubled production history. I don’t know whether it’s down to behind the scenes tensions lending an air of urgency to events on the screen or the people involved becoming more focused on their task. Either way, there are plenty of examples of a poisonous atmosphere bringing about a fine movie. With Howard Hughes in charge of RKO there always seemed to be ample opportunity for discord on the set. Angel Face was essentially a film born of pettiness. Hughes wanted Jean Simmons but she’d recently married Stewart Granger and was having none of it. The upshot of all this was Simmons struck a deal to make a handful of films quickly and thus get out of an unpleasant contract. Her dislike of Hughes and his unwelcome attention was so great that she even chopped off her hair crudely and so was forced to play her role in the film with a slightly odd-looking wig. On top of all that, there were issues with director Otto Preminger. Simmons’ first scene in the picture involved her descending into hysterics and Mitchum bringing her out of it with the application of that cinematic staple, the open-handed slap. Well Preminger apparently didn’t like the way Mitchum pulled the blow, claiming it was going to look phony in close-up. So he had him do it again, and again, and again. With Simmons in tears and Preminger relentless, Mitchum apparently turned on the director and either gave him some of the same treatment or threatened to do so – for more on the tumultuous production, see Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care by Lee Server pp 288-291. Maybe nobody was having a particularly good time on the set but the end result was the taut, highly strung atmosphere of the Tremayne house feels completely authentic.

Angel Face is Jean Simmons’ picture all the way, and gave her one of her most interesting and complex roles. As I said in the introduction, she’s unquestionably the femme fatale of the film, her actions causing chaos, death and misery. Yet she brings an emotional immaturity and insecurity to the part that sets Diane Tremayne apart from the classic interpretation of the femme fatale. If her behavior is seen as selfish, then it’s only a childish form of selfishness. Her hatred for her stepmother only exists as a result of her love and devotion for her father, and her ultimate destruction of Frank is an unwanted side-effect – there’s no malicious calculation involved. Where Simmons really excelled was in her portrayal of the brittleness of the character; her every gesture is suggestive of a young woman tiptoeing around the rim of a moral abyss. Mitchum of course was a past master by this stage at playing the kind of weary types who had bid farewell to hope long ago. The deceptive sleepiness and detachment he’s often accused of perfectly suits the character here – a disillusioned veteran half adrift in a world that he only thinks he’s got a handle on. The supporting cast all do fine work too, the highlights being: Herbert Marshall’s dissipated joviality, Barbara O’Neil’s cool take on the society matron, and Leon Ames as the twisty, unctuous lawyer.

Angel Face is available on DVD via Warner Brothers in the US, and the disc sports a very nice transfer. Everything’s crisp and clean and Harry Stradling’s cinematography always looks good. The DVD also carries a commentary by noir specialist Eddie Muller. Otto Preminger’s noir films are all worthwhile, classy efforts. This one may have had something of a sour background but what we see on screen is hard to fault. For me, the performance of Jean Simmons in a difficult and demanding role is the best thing about it all, but that’s just the icing on the cake. I reckon it’s a must see film noir.

 

 

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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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Night Has a Thousand Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Color Noir

Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? There are those who have deep reservations about applying the noir label to any film not shot in black and white. Personally, I don’t share that feeling but I can understand where those who hold the view are coming from. In purely visual terms, film noir inhabits a landscape of shadows and high contrast photography. Effects such as those are much more difficult to achieve when shooting on color stock, although it’s certainly not impossible.

Of course this also raises the question of whether or not one ought to define film noir in visual terms alone. I don’t see how such a narrow definition can be applied to so amorphous a style of filmmaking. For me, film noir must have an essential darkness, a bleak view of humanity and human relations, at its heart. I guess the point I’m leading into here is that there are a good many movies that utilize classic noir imagery and visuals yet couldn’t, by virtue of their theme, be considered true film noir. The 1940s in particular boast an abundance of movies, especially although not exclusively crime thrillers, which look like typical examples of film noir, but clearly they are not. As such, is the reverse not also true? Can’t a movie be shot in vibrant color but still contain that dark core that is unmistakably noir?

Wikipedia offers a list of movies which it claims are films noir shot in color:

  • Accused of Murder
  • Bad Day at Black Rock
  • Black Widow
  • Dangerous Mission
  • Desert Fury
  • Hell on Frisco Bay
  • Hell’s Island
  • House of Bamboo
  • I Died a Thousand Times
  • Inferno
  • A Kiss Before Dying
  • Leave Her to Heaven
  • Niagara
  • Party Girl
  • Rope
  • Second Chance
  • Slightly Scarlet
  • The Trap
  • The Unholy Wife
  • Vertigo
  • A Woman’s Devotion

While I haven’t viewed every one of these, I have seen the majority. I suppose I would have a few quibbles but I reckon the list is a reasonable one overall. How do others feel about this? Would you exclude the above titles on the basis of their being shot in color? Or, neo-noir excepted, should that list be expanded?

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2013 in Film Noir

 

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Heat Wave

These days it’s hard to think of Hammer Films without recalling visions of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee battling it out in luridly colored horror movies. The British studio earned an iconic place in the hearts of film lovers for their almost single-handed revival of the Gothic horror picture. More than anything else, this is what Hammer is and will be remembered for. However, things didn’t start out that way. Before their successful reinvention of Dracula, Frankenstein et al Hammer were churning out a series of low budget crime movies. A distribution deal struck with Lippert in the US meant that these cheap and cheerful pictures that flirted with the noir sensibility featured a succession of Hollywood performers, often those nearing the end of their star careers. The resulting movies were of varying quality, but a handful are of particular note. Heat Wave (1954) is among the very best of this bunch, featuring a better than average script, a well-chosen cast, and a mood and atmosphere that comes closer to classic US noir than many a British production.

The story is told in the form of one long flashback, narrated by a resigned and slightly drunk Mark Kendrick (Alex Nicol). Kendrick is a struggling hack writer, an American residing in Britain, who has rented a lakeside cottage to get away from it all and try to make good on his latest commission. In Kendrick’s own words, the whole affair began one sultry evening as he sipped his drink and gazed across the lake at the lights of the house opposite. There’s a party going on, and Kendrick is the kind of man who is easily distracted from responsibility and work. A phone call from the hostess, Carol Forrest (Hillary Brooke), informs him that there’s a problem with the launch meant to ferry the guests to their destination, and see if he would mind using his little motor boat to carry them. Kendrick doesn’t need much persuading to take a break from the book he doesn’t feel like writing, so he duly obliges. On arrival, he gets his first glimpse of Carol and the various dissipated revelers she has invited. Straight away Kendrick has Carol pegged as a lady with a wandering eye and pretty flexible morals. While it’s clear enough that Kendrick isn’t exactly the upstanding sort himself, he’s not really interested in what he sees on offer at this point. All noir needs something to draw the hapless anti-heroes deeper into a dangerous situation: Carol certainly represents the bait to pique Kendrick’s curiosity, but the hook comes in the form of her husband, Beverly Forrest (Sid James). Beverly is one of those salt of the earth types, a self-made tycoon with a likeable side. Kendrick spends the evening playing billiards and boozing with his host, and the result is that he’s made himself a new friend. Beverly may be a rich man with a desirable trophy wife, but he’s also lonely and dissatisfied. He’s a man surrounded by sharks, people whose only wish is to get as much as they can from him. In Kendrick he sees something different though; he senses that here’s a guy who isn’t on the make and is good company to boot. However, Carol’s allure is powerful, and her appetite is whetted by the apparent nonchalance of Kendrick. The truth is this broke writer is unquestionably drawn to Carol in spite of his fondness for and loyalty to her husband. Factor in Beverly’s heart condition, his determination to see Carol cut out of his will, her own thirst for money, and the all the ingredients are in place for a classic noir triangle.

Heat Wave was written and directed by Ken Hughes, adapted from his own novel High Wray. Hughes had already worked on a handful of shorts in the Scotland Yard series for Merton Park and brought the sense of urgency and economy that such experiences demand to bear on the movie in question. The running time of Heat Wave is just shy of 70 minutes, and the pace is necessarily brisk throughout. In short, Hughes never wastes a moment, and ensures that everything we need to know is imparted with the minimum of fuss. British attempts at film noir could be a hit and miss affair, often not quite striking the right tone to make them convincing. However, Hughes’ writing and direction probably get as close to the American template as any Hammer production. The flashback device and Alex Nicol’s weary narration of the unfolding events create a sense of fatalism and poor judgment. In addition, Hughes aims for the shadowy, ambiguous appearance of classic US noir – it doesn’t always come off, but when it does the results are fairly impressive.

I think the casting in these Hammer noir pictures wasn’t always ideal, with some of the imported stars not looking quite comfortable in their surroundings. However, the leading trio in Heat Wave work well together and suit their roles. Alex Nicol was good at portraying weak-willed villains and, although his part here is more anti-heroic than outright villainous, that quality is used very effectively. Kendrick is essentially a washed-up loser, and Nicol captures that aspect perfectly. I’m not one of those who believes that film noir has to have a femme fatale character to work, but such a figure does add something if it’s properly realized. As such, Hillary Brooke’s scheming and ruthless wife is a major plus point for the film. Her cold, naked self-interest contrasts nicely with the slightly befuddled and indecisive Nicol, and her sympathetic husband. Which brings me on to Sid James. Here is a man who seemed to turn up in every other British movie of the 1950s. The South African born actor is now best remembered for his many appearances in the long-running Carry On series of comedies, but he was more than just a comic figure with an infectious laugh. Those familiar, battered features graced movies of a whole variety of genres and he was more than capable in dramatic roles. One thing that’s beyond dispute about Sid James is the sheer likeability of the man on screen. He looked, moved and sounded like a man who had lived a great deal, and that rumpled face had all the humor, regret and understanding of long experience etched in every line. Maybe he isn’t the first guy you’d think of when the image of a tycoon comes to mind, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else capable of drawing the viewer completely to his side. There’s good support from Alan Wheatley as the dogged detective – it may just be my impression but I felt he was channeling Peter Cushing at times. The only weak link, as far as I was concerned, came in the shape of Susan Stephen, appearing far too earnest and middle-class to be convincing as Sid James’ daughter.

Heat Wave is readily available on DVD from VCI  as part of the Hammer noir series. Hammer Film Noir Volumes 1-3, offering a total of six movies on three discs, represents good value for money. Generally, VCI releases tend to sport medium grade transfers, and that’s a fair assessment of how Heat Wave is presented. The image could be a little sharper and it’s interlaced as usual – in addition, this film really ought to be presented widescreen. Still, it’s hard to be overly critical when the price is so reasonable. Heat Wave isn’t a perfect film – it is after all a low budget programmer – but it is one of the best of Hammer’s early efforts. I’m fond of British thrillers from the 50s and 60s so I may be a little biased here, but I do feel this movie has points of interest for fans of film noir in general and British crime pictures in particular. Anyway, for those who think Hammer stands for horror and nothing else, Heat Wave is a good indicator of the versatility of that legendary studio.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in 1950s, Film Noir

 

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Fallen Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Party Girl

Last time, I had a look at a gangster/noir crossover movie, an early example of the emergence of a darker sensibility in crime movies in Hollywood. Let’s jump ahead almost two decades, to the point at which film noir was nearing the end of the classic cycle. Again, the film in question is something of a hybrid, a fusion of styles and influences, but the principal elements remain the gangster story and shadowy world of the dark cinema. A lot of film noir throughout the 1950s featured the involvement of organized crime so Party Girl (1958), despite abandoning the more usual contemporary setting, can be viewed as a continuation of that trend. Having said that, the movie could be classed as a marginal entry – it’s shot in lurid technicolor and at times resembles a hard-boiled variation of the classic studio musical. However, in spite of what sound like stylistic contradictions, Party Girl is categorized by many writers as a genuine film noir, and I guess its themes do have the requisite darkness and ambiguity to qualify it for inclusion.

Chicago in the early 30s – Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor) is a mob lawyer, and a successful one. He’s respected and feared by judges and prosecutors not simply due to his connections but because he’s the top man in his line. Farrell is first glimpsed at a party thrown by crime kingpin Rico Angelo (Lee J Cobb) – actually it’s as much a wake as a party since Rico is laying to rest a broken heart on hearing the news that Jean Harlow, whom he’s adored from afar, is to be wed – and he’s surrounded by a group of city dignitaries hanging onto his every word. One might assume that Farrell has it made, but this is only the silver lining obscuring the cloud. Farrell is almost a cripple, his hip and leg twisted as a result of a youthful escapade gone wrong. It is often the case in movies that physical imperfections are mirrored by deeper psychological scars, and so it is with Tommy Farrell. This man who glides effortlessly through the powerful social milieu in spite of his pronounced limp is emotionally wounded. His beautiful but callous wife left him since she couldn’t overcome her disgust at his physical deformity, and Farrell has been unable to heal that emotional wound. However, his rehabilitation begins at Rico’s party when he agrees to escort home Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), a dancer and one of the “party girls” hired for the evening. Although the evening ends with a rather gruesome discovery, Farrell and Vicki do make a connection that will blossom despite a few bumpy stretches along the way. The whole movie is principally concerned with Farrell’s rediscovery of his self-respect after years of loathing himself. Running parallel to the developing relationship with Vicki is the thread that follows Farrell’s attempts to distance himself from Rico and the corrupt and violent world he inhabits. Just when it looks like the hero may have achieved the spiritual peace he’s long been seeking, Rico’s machinations and threats haul him back to defend one of his paymaster’s psychotic associates. However, having had a taste of life beyond the cheap neon glamour of the underworld, Farrell is determined to get out for good. The trick is to find a way to protect Vicki, bring down Rico, and save his own skin at the same time.

Nostalgia for certain periods tends to come in waves, and the late 50s saw a resurgence of interest in the old gangster movies. Party Girl tapped into that vibe and director Nicholas ray added his own personal touch to it. Ray only made a handful of noir pictures altogether – all are interesting in their own way, and two (In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground) are pure bred classics. All of Ray’s best movies dealt with those who were in some way removed from the mainstream of society, and Party Girl follows that template. Farrell is superficially a man at the heart of city life. Yet, he’s an outsider in every sense; a lawyer who essentially makes a mockery of the law, an apparent mob insider who is revolted by the crassness and brutality around him, and a man bedeviled by his own sense of inadequacy. Aside from the fact that the mobsters and hoodlums who populate the film are themselves social pariahs, Vicki is another character existing at the periphery of decency. The struggle which Farrell and Vicki undertake to break free of the dark influences that threaten to drag them down is classic Ray material. Another feature common to Ray’s work, and seen in abundance here, is the unrestrained use of color. Party Girl is a riot of technicolor hues that seem to allude to the heightened emotional state of the characters.

Even though I’m a great admirer of his work in general, I think it’s fair to say Robert Taylor gave an excellent performance as Farrell. As he aged, and his looks took on more character, he did some first-rate work in westerns, and the same can be said about his noir pictures. He brought a dour toughness to his role as the tortured lawyer, and worked well with Charisse. For her own part, Charisse adopted the right kind of world-weary air that befits a woman who has spent her time dodging unwanted passes and living off dubious handouts in seedy nightclubs. She was of course an immensely talented dancer, one of the greats, and the movie features a couple of set piece numbers designed to show off her moves. With the club setting, and her character’s profession, these sequences are blended seamlessly into the narrative. They may capture the look and feel of a musical yet they never have that jarring, artificial sense that such movies frequently evoke. The other big hitter in the cast was Lee J Cobb. This was an actor who could explode out of the screen at times, his inherent power always in danger of turning into bombast. In Party Girl, Ray managed to get the right kind of balance from Cobb for the most part. Sure there are instances where he drifts awfully close to scenery chewing, but there are some quietly effective moments too – his chat with Taylor where he blackmails the lawyer into cooperating under the threat of disfiguring his girlfriend is all the more chilling due to Cobb’s restraint. The supporting cast was headed up by the ever reliable John Ireland as Cobb’s slimy and dangerous right hand man. Also featured were Kent Smith – despite his long and varied career, I’ll always associate him with one of his earliest roles in Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People – as the straight arrow prosecutor, and a manic Corey Allen as the unbalanced hood Cookie La Motte.

For a long time, Party Girl wasn’t the easiest movie to see. However, it has been released on DVD in France and Spain and as a MOD disc via the Warner Archive in the US. I have the old French Warner Brothers DVD which is pretty good. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the print used for the transfer seems in good shape. There’s plenty of clarity, the colors are strong and quite vibrant, and damage (if there is any) is so slight I can’t say I noticed. There are no extra features on the disc – subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu. The blending of styles and genres just about works in the movie, drawing in elements of melodrama, the musical and a crime tale to create a fairly unique film noir. Aside from a trio of good performances, what holds the whole thing together is the direction of Nicholas Ray. In the hands of a lesser director, the disparate elements could well have pulled the movie apart. As it stands, Party Girl remains one of Ray’s interesting experiments which I feel more or less succeeds. Of course much of this depends on how one reacts to Ray as a filmmaker; as such, it’s another of those films that I’d cautiously recommend.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in 1950s, Film Noir, Nicholas Ray, Robert Taylor

 

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99 River Street

There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.

I guess it’s no secret that I have a real fondness for low budget movies; there’s something fascinating about seeing how filmmakers are able to stretch their resources. There have been a fair few highly successful film noirs that fall into this category, and that shouldn’t be all that surprising. Noir is arguably the type of movie best suited to budget filmmaking, relying less on location and high production values than almost any other style of picture. In truth, a clever director and cameraman can not only transcend the limitations of a tight budget, but can actually turn it to their advantage. Those directors who spent much of their early careers working in the B units were able to capitalize on their years of experience, and the better ones could make a virtue out of austerity. Phil Karlson was one of those who managed to make quality movies even when the finances were severely restricted. 99 River Street (1953) may be his best film noir, Kansas City Confidential would possibly challenge it for that honor though, and it’s certainly among his better films.

For Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) it wasn’t so much that he could have been a contender – he was. The opening sees Driscoll slugging it out in the ring during a world heavyweight title fight. He actually floors the champion and is just ten seconds away from glory. However, Driscoll is a classic noir protagonist – fate has got his number – so his opponent picks himself up, lands a lucky punch that opens a bad wound over his eye, and wins the bout on a TKO. Just to underline Driscoll’s fall from the big time, the camera pulls back to reveal that the fight scene we’ve been watching is in reality a syndicated rerun on TV. Driscoll’s sitting there, reliving every blow traded, torturing himself, as the pain flickers across his battle-scarred features. With his boxing career in tatters, Driscoll makes a living as a cab driver. He’s not exactly thrilled with this, but that’s nothing compared to the contempt felt by his disgruntled wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Pauline is a former showgirl, bitterly disappointed at the way things have turned out and convinced that Driscoll is nothing but a loser. She may have a point too; not only is Pauline about to run off with a small time hood, Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), but Driscoll finds himself suckered into believing a melodramatic tale spun by an aspiring Broadway actress, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes). The point here is that Driscoll is one of those eternal fall guys, the kind of man who has bad things happen to him just because. As such, it’s no major surprise, least of all to Driscoll himself I guess, when he finds himself framed for murder and on the run. Nevertheless, he does have a few things in his favour – a kind of two-fisted toughness and never say die tenacity, and a couple of friends in his boss (Frank Faylen) and a repentant Linda. With the odds heavily stacked against him, and time running short, Driscoll has no option but to scour the city at night in pursuit of the real murderer in the hopes of catching up with him before he skips the country.

Lots of movies tend to get tagged as gritty, and not all of them deserve it. 99 River Street is the real deal though – positively brimming with lowlife characters, sudden and brutal violence, and the stench of hard luck. Driscoll is marked as a loser right from the first scene, but just about every character we meet fits that description to a greater or lesser extent. The strongest examples of film noir introduced viewers to a gallery of misfits, chiselers, cheats, and saps. 99 River Street seems to have nothing else but such people, and director Phil Karlson positively revels in the sordid, seedy world these guys inhabit. The movie studiously avoids any sense of glamor, telling its tale against a backdrop of run down stores, dingy back rooms and waterfront bars. The decrepit city setting was a staple of many a noir picture, and Karlson uses it well to evoke a world of lost hopes and broken dreams. He also keeps the pace brisk and that helps add to the sense of urgency of Driscoll’s quest. Stylistically, the film only intermittently features what could be termed classic noir visuals in the first half – the “confession” by Linda in a deserted theater being one example – but cameraman Franz Planer does turn it on as the climax approaches. The final chase and fight along the dockside makes use of a selection of long, medium and close-up shots, and bathes them all in atmospheric, inky shadows. Karlson was doing some great work in the 50s, and a movie like 99 River Street genuinely celebrates the meanness and toughness of film noir at its best. It’s also interesting to note the way the movie plays around with the viewer’s perceptions of reality – the opening sequence that turns out to be a television recording, and the theater scene that tricks both the audience and the lead character.

John Payne is something of a forgotten man these days, probably due to the fact that most of his best work was done in B movies and programmers. Starting with The Crooked Way in 1949 though, he made a series of tough and entertaining noirs and westerns, frequently working for Karlson or Allan Dwan. He had a rough, lived-in look about him that made him believable in these movies, and 99 River Street drew on that weary, beaten appearance. Payne gave a very edgy performance, full of rage, frustration and a kind of bitter misogyny. He completely convinced as a man who knew himself for a sap, who allowed himself to be strung along by the wrong kind of women all his life, and despised himself and them for it. His sudden bursts of violence when provoked too far had a ring of authenticity to them – whenever he landed a punch you could tell he meant it to do the maximum damage. Of course, a hard character like this needs something or someone to balance them, to ground them and stop them sliding too far into macho aggression. Evelyn Keyes was nearing the end of her big screen career, having hit the heights in Gone with the Wind, and so had just the right kind of faded disillusionment for her role. Initially, she comes across as slightly skittish and flaky, but soon proves her worth when the chips are down. There’s a common misconception that the only interesting women in film noir are those who play the femme fatale. However, I’m of the opinion that the frequently unsung Girl-Friday parts are every bit as significant. Keyes’ role here is vital in eliciting sympathy for Payne – without her presence and loyalty, there’s a danger of his less attractive qualities running out of control. That’s not to say the femme fatale, Peggie Castle in this case, is unimportant here. However, her role is much more one-dimensional and consequently less interesting. The film features a particularly strong supporting line-up: Frank Faylen is very likeable as Payne’s stoic boss, and Brad Dexter does a nice line in smarm and self-interest. Rounding out the cast is Jay Adler as a vindictive fence and Jack Lambert as his strong-arm sidekick.

There are a few options as far as DVD editions of 99 River Street are concerned. The film has been released as a MOD disc in the US via MGM, and it’s also available on pressed disc in Spain from Art House/Paycom. I have the Spanish release, and the transfer is pretty good. There are some instances of softness here and there, but it’s clean and sharp for the most part. One criticism I do have is that I found the sound a little low at times – not very poor, but noticeable. The disc has no extra features and subtitles are not forced – they can be disabled from the setup menu. All in all, I think 99 River Street is a fine example of early 50s film noir, exhibiting a harder edge than the usual 40s variety. It also shows off Karlson’s ability to shoot lean, tight little movies economically. He’s a director who’s not really known outside of film buff circles and I think his stronger films, such as this one, deserve a bit more attention. It’s worth checking out.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2013 in 1950s, Film Noir, Phil Karlson

 

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The Fallen Sparrow

Wartime propaganda movies can be a bit of a mixed bag when viewed with modern eyes, the passage time allowing them to be considered more objectively as pieces of cinema. Some fare very poorly, with weak, stereotypical characterization tending to be the principal fault. On the other hand, there are others which hold up better, which use a little more subtlety and whose stories are more engrossing. The Fallen Sparrow (1943) is one of the stronger efforts, thanks largely to its star and cinematographer. However, it’s not a movie without its faults, most of which stem from an inability to fit comfortably into any one category: it’s a spy thriller with an antifascist message, a film noir in visual terms, and a psychological melodrama. I think it’s the propaganda aspect that lets it down the most though, not because it’s especially dated but more because the motivation of the villains is hard to swallow.

John McKittrick (John Garfield) is a war veteran, not of WWII but the Spanish Civil War. A policeman’s son, he fought on the Loyalist side, was captured and held prisoner long after the conflict had ended. We first see him on a train bound for his native New York. There’s a nervy urgency about the man, and a glimpse at a scrap of newspaper tells us that he’s heading home as a result of an apparently accidental death. A boyhood friend took a dive from a high-rise apartment, and it’s soon made clear that McKittrick is unsatisfied with the official version of events.So far the plot has all the hallmarks of a standard mystery thriller, but it’s McKittrick’s back story that gives it an added twist. During his incarceration in Spain McKittrick was a victim of prolonged sessions of torture, and he only escaped due to the intervention of his recently deceased friend. The effect of this is twofold – McKittrick suspects that the death was no accident and was actually linked to events in Spain; additionally, those years in the dungeons suffering at the hands of faceless tormentors have left him in a psychologically fragile state. With the police keen to give him the brush off, McKittrick sets about looking into the circumstances of the death himself. This leads him into the slightly surreal world of the refugee community – where exiled aristocrats keep company with night club musicians and the granddaughter of a prince (Maureen O’Hara) sells hats to society matrons for a living. Within this odd milieu lurks the threat of a fascist cell and its preoccupation with the recovery of one of the more unusual spoils of war. Teetering on the brink of sanity, McKittrick weaves his way through this group of blue bloods, spies and assorted lackeys in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery and exorcise his personal demons.

Richard Wallace isn’t a director i can say I’m all that familiar with. He’s probably best know for taking charge of Sinbad, the Sailor with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, but he also made a moderately good noir, Framed, with Glenn Ford. Both Framed and The Fallen Sparrow show that Wallace had some talent for the dark cinema, and this movie in particular features a few very nice touches. I guess the fact that Nicholas Musuraca, who photographed some of the most visually interesting film noirs, was behind the camera helped a lot, and the pair conjure up a handful of scenes whose atmosphere wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie. There are plenty of impenetrable shadows that whisper menace, and architectural features like pillars and balustrades are used to pin the hapless and haunted McKittrick in place. The overall effect is to heighten the sense that the hero of the movie is still trapped by the ghosts and monsters of his past, and he frequently seems to be as much the prey of the dark forces crowding around him as the hunter he’s trying to be.

The film very much belongs to John Garfield, although there’s good support from Maureen O’Hara and Walter Slezak. I think Garfield is one of the most tragic figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age – a man of immense talent and raw power doomed by poor health and the political climate of the times. He always came across to me as the tough guy with the soft center, possessed of a streetwise cockiness and vulnerability that, while an elusive quality, was a key ingredient of the finest noir protagonists. His career lasted only thirteen years and by 1952 he was dead, aged just 39. He suffered from a heart condition and it’s highly likely that his hounding by HUAC during the McCarthyite Red Scare of the late 40s and 50s was a contributory factor in his early demise. However, in the short time he graced the screen with his presence, Garfield made some terrific and memorable movies, especially noir pictures. Body and Soul, Force of Evil and The Breaking Point are all genuine classics as far as I’m concerned, and even his lesser works like The Fallen Sparrow show how good he could be. I think the most interesting thing about this movie isn’t really the plot, instead it’s Garfield’s portrayal of a severely damaged individual, a psychologically shattered man clinging to the remnants of his sanity. His terror, as the nights draw in and the shadows lengthen, is palpable. The viewer really gets to share in his dread, boxed up in his apartment and sweating despite the snow falling outside, as the dragging footsteps of the limping man of his nightmare past echo in his mind. Walter Slezak brought a creeping menace to many roles, not least Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, and his turn as a crippled intellectual fascinated by man’s cruelty to man is well realized. The early scene where he softly lectures a drawing-room of stuffy society types on the delicacies of the torturer’s art, as Garfield stands awkward and withdrawn before him, is a chilling moment. Maureen O’Hara is only one of three women linked to the mystery – the others being Patricia Morison and Martha O’Driscoll – but she gets the meatier and more significant role. She’s not an actress that you would automatically associate with film noir but does fine as a possibly duplicitous woman with divided loyalties.

The Fallen Sparrow was an RKO production and is now widely available in DVD in Spain, Italy, France and the US (via the Warner Archive). I have the UK edition of the film released by Odeon and it’s a reasonable transfer. The image is fairly sharp and has good contrast levels to show off Musuraca’s photography. However, it has to be said the print is quite dirty, with plenty of speckles and instances of minor damage. The disc is completely free of extras, just the option to play the movie or select a scene. The movie is adapted from a book by Dorothy B Hughes and while it’s not up to the standards of the best versions of her stories – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – I reckon it’s still a movie that most fans of film noir would want to see. I feel that aspects of the plot, derived from the overdone combination of propaganda, espionage and melodrama, do hurt it. Having said that, Garfield’s intense performance and Musuraca’s beautiful, atmospheric photography raise the quality quite a few notches. All in all, it’s an enjoyable if not wholly successful film.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2013 in 1940s, Film Noir, John Garfield

 

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The Big Sleep

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. (Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, 1950)

That quote from Chandler is a distillation of what he felt were the characteristics of the fictional private eye, and it’s a view that continues to endure. The reason for the popularity of this particular representation is understandable enough: not only does it portray the detective as the classical hero, it also allows the audience to identify with him, to see in him the kind of man they’d probably like to be themselves. Chandler’s knight errant Philip Marlowe has appeared on screen a number of times with varying degrees of success, but the incarnation that I, and I guess a lot of other people too, have the highest regard for is Humphrey Bogart’s take in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946).

Some aspects of the plotting of The Big Sleep are notoriously complicated – the story goes that screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, along with director Hawks, were so confused about who committed one of the murders that they contacted Chandler for clarification. Apparently, the author found himself similarly stumped. The thing is that the murders, motives and twists of the plot pile up so relentlessly that it does take a fair bit of concentration on the part of the viewer to keep up with it all. However, that’s not really the point of the movie and the basic thrust of the narrative is easy enough to follow in itself. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is the private detective engaged by the ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to take care of a blackmailer who is putting the squeeze on Carmen (Martha Vickers), the younger and wilder of his two daughters. In the course of his investigation, which rapidly descends into a murder case, Marlowe finds that the elder sister, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), appears to be tangled up in things too. Vivian’s a cooler, more composed customer than her sister, yet her involvement with a shady gambler, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), indicates that she too is keeping dangerous company. I’m not going to go into the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot here, firstly to avoid spoilers, and secondly because it will likely serve to do nothing more than confuse readers. Suffice to say the stories of General Sternwood’s two girls eventually dovetail and all the various plot strands are drawn together satisfactorily. Yet, as I said before, you don’t watch The Big Sleep just to find out who did what to whom, when and for what reason. This is truly one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination. As we follow Marlowe around a moody and threatening Los Angeles, we go on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the city. Even though the time is spent in the company of high rollers and the glamorous set, it’s all merely a glittering veneer for a world of pornography, drugs, deviance, betrayal and violence.

Vivian: I don’t like your manners.

Marlowe: And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

One of the great pleasures of The Big Sleep is the dialogue. Most of the memorable lines and passages, such as the little sample above, are lifted almost directly from the pages of Chandler’s novel. However, Brackett, Faulkner and Jules Furthman did have to make some alterations to turn in a workable script, both for storytelling reasons and to ensure the finished product was going to get past the Hays Office. Therefore, the more overt references to the unsavory nature of the blackmailer’s racket had to be toned down for example. The infamous production code is often criticized, and with good reason, for imposing draconian and logic-defying restrictions on what could be shown on the screen. The thing is though, a good deal could be implied if not directly stated, and clever writers could exploit this loophole. In a sort of perverse way, the very restrictiveness of the code meant that filmmakers were forced to be more creative in their efforts to circumvent it; I think The Big Sleep stands as an excellent example of this apparent paradox. The two houses in which much of the tale plays out are the Sternwood mansion and the home of Geiger, the blackmailer. Hawks and his crew succeed in bathing both locations in such an atmosphere of decadence and iniquity that it needs little imagination to appreciate the depravity lurking beneath the surface. Perhaps Hawks’ greatest triumph in the picture is the way he manages to ensure that style rises above substance throughout and he creates a crime story where the crimes and their resolution become secondary to our enjoyment of the ride through Chandler’s twilight world.

While The Big Sleep benefits enormously from a snappy script, strong source material and a first class director, what helps elevate it to true classic status is the casting. The second collaboration of Bogart and Bacall builds beautifully on the foundations already laid in To Have and Have Not. The movie took their on and off-screen courtship to new and more sophisticated levels, and the air fairly crackles whenever they share a scene. I think Bogart was born to play Marlowe, he perfectly encapsulates the weary nobility of Chandler’s creation like no other actor before or since. The part can be seen as an extension or refinement of Hammett’s Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, but there’s a greater sense of honour and less aggressive smugness this time. I already mentioned this in an earlier post, but Bogart’s delivery of his lines is perfect, so much so that it’s very hard to read the novel and not hear him saying the words. On the receiving end of much of Bogart’s wise-cracking, and pitching back every bit as good as she got, was Bacall. Watching her performance today, it’s hard to believe that Bacall wasn’t much past twenty years old when the movie was shot. There’s an air of assurance and worldliness about her that belies her years, the hard-boiled dialogue flowing smoothly as though from a woman who’d been around a long time and had seen all there was to see. In truth, the whole cast does excellent work, but the women in particular stand out. Martha Vickers is all coy treachery, and there are fine and memorable bit parts for Dorothy Malone and Sonia Darrin. Of the men, I feel Elisha Cook Jr deserves a mention for another of his characteristic turns as an unfortunate fall guy. I guess the only real weakness was John Ridgely, it’s not that he gives a poor performance but he never fully convinces as a dangerous mobster – having said that, he does get one fantastic send off.

The US R1 DVD of The Big Sleep contains two versions of the movie (as far as I know the R2 doesn’t offer this choice) – the preview version and the theatrical cut. I mention this mainly because there are some notable differences in the two cuts. I’m not going to laboriously list all the changes here, that information is readily available elsewhere online, but I will say that they change the feel of the movie significantly. In short, the preview cut is an altogether blander affair, although it helps to make the plot more comprehensible. The theatrical version is much more stylish, placing more emphasis on the Bogart/Bacall dynamic while sacrificing some of the narrative coherence. Personally, I far prefer the theatrical cut, and not just because it’s the more familiar of the two. While the preview version does offer more exposition, it throws the pacing off balance and fails to fully capitalize on the chemistry of the star pairing. It’s nice to have it available for comparison purposes but that’s about it for me. The transfer is reasonable enough, maybe not up there with the best that Warner Brothers have done in the past but it’s certainly not poor. The disc also offers a short feature on the differences between the versions of the movie, and is useful in giving an overview if you don’t feel inclined to watch both cuts all the way through. This movie and The Maltese Falcon helped cement Bogart’s image as the archetypical private eye. Others have played the part of Marlowe, and others have taken on the role of various private detectives, but Bogart nailed it. The film as a whole, can be viewed as a film noir (although of the lighter variety), a crime/detective story, or simply as an outstandingly well-crafted piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. It comes most highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2013 in 1940s, Film Noir, Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart

 

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