The Sign of the Ram

As I was watching The Sign of the Ram (1948) I found myself idly wondering  – and I seem to have a great deal of time for idleness these days – about a number of things, perhaps the least significant of which was a growing curiosity about how many noir melodramas involved grand old houses perched precariously atop dramatic cliffs with boiling seas below. Sitting and admiring the atmospheric matte paintings in the background, I had  hunch there must be lots, but I think now that’s probably an exaggeration on my part. Whatever the number might actually be, it won’t alter the fact that this is a fine setting for a movie, the drama and violence of nature vying for attention with the emotional tempests raging within the quasi-Gothic old pile that houses a host of troubled souls.

Nothing is quite as it seems. Sherida Binyon (Phyllis Thaxter) arrives to take up her new position as secretary to poet Leah St Aubyn (Susan Peters), who is confined to a wheelchair. Her husband Mallory (Alexander Knox) is devoted to her and it’s quickly apparent that everyone in the house, all the children of Mallory’s first marriage, shares these sentiments. On the surface, it looks as though the sweetness and stoic rejection of self-pity on Leah’s part are the inspiration for this. Yet that’s not the case at all; Leah’s disability is the result of her rescuing the younger St Aubyn members during a storm off the coast, a heroically altruistic act which saw her cast upon the rocks and her body broken. Bit by bit, it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s an implicit, unspoken sense of guilt at the back of it all, a tacit acceptance that the lives snatched back from the grasp of the sea represent a debt that is hard to repay. In a savage twist on that old belief that saving a life leaves a person responsible for that life in the future, it is gradually revealed that Leah has manipulated her family’s gratitude into a corrosive form of guilt. And all the while the ocean booms against the Cornish rocks, biding its time till the payment it’s due can be collected.

 

Personally speaking, John Sturges isn’t the first name I’d think of were I asked to name a potential director of a film noir with a strong flavoring of Gothic melodrama. Of course Sturges, like all contract directors in the studio era, worked across a range of genres and was no stranger to film noir – Mystery Street, Jeopardy & The People Against O’Hara comprising a few. Nevertheless, I tend to think of westerns, and as to a lesser extent, war movies when he’s spoken of. He had a terrific eye for composition and the way the framing of a shot could be used to the greatest advantage. This would become ever more apparent in the future when he embraced and fully exploited the potential of the wide screen, and he knew how to place his actors on location too. The Sign of the Ram is set bound though and shot in Academy ratio so it could be said that it wasn’t playing to his strengths. While that may be true to some extent, he does take full advantage of what opportunities are afforded and, aided immensely by the masterly cinematography of Burnett Guffey, shoots from below an above to alter the mood and adds frames within frames to narrow the focus and fasten the viewers’ attention.

Looked at from the perspective of 2020, The Sign of the Ram doesn’t feature a cast full of the kind of names that are going to be immediately recognizable. Despite that relative unfamiliarity, it would be fair to say the film boasts an interesting lineup. The leading lady and prime mover of the whole piece is Susan Peters, and hers is a fascinating and tragic tale. With her star on the rise and only a year or so into her marriage to actor and future director Richard Quine, she was the victim of a hunting accident when a discarded gun discharged and the resultant wound left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was just 23 years old then and she would pass away at the age of 31. This film was to be her comeback and she is fine in her role, carefully hiding her true feelings from those around and only offering hints to her dissatisfaction in her private moments and through her constant chain-smoking. All told, it’s an excellent study of the consequences of manipulation driven by fear.

Alexander Knox is likely to be the best known face on the screen, his long and varied career highlighting his versatility – something I noted before when looking at his excellent work in an unfamiliar western setting in Man in the Saddle – and he gets across the decency of his character in a most believable fashion here. Phyllis Thaxter looks set to enjoy a more dynamic role as the new secretary, a point of view figure for the audience to identify with, but she seems to gradually drift towards the sidelines as the story unfolds. Peggy Ann Garner gets the showier part as the younger daughter in the family while Allene Roberts and Ross Ford are both perfectly acceptable as her siblings. Diana Douglas (the wife of Kirk Douglas at the time) comes more into the spotlight in the latter stages and there’s solid support from Dame May Whitty and Ron Randell.

The Sign of the Ram is a Columbia picture and, as far as I’m aware, has not enjoyed a release on disc anywhere. However, it can be tracked down for online viewing. I guess the lack of big name stars in the cast may have led to this movie being neglected. In addition, I sometimes think that Sturges work overall has not been had the critical attention much of it deserves. Perhaps his move into big budget, popular movies through the 1960s and then the variable quality of his later work is the reason. Whatever the reason, he’s highly rated on this site and I feel this film from early in his career is at least worth a look.

The Two Mrs Carrolls

Every once in a while it’s good to indulge oneself in something which is not overly taxing, which is largely escapist and, in this guy’s opinion anyway, with enough entertaining features to diminish the concomitant flaws. In short, I’m talking about the type of movie to take one’s mind of “stuff” in general. And let’s be honest, current events are leaving all of us in need of a bit of distraction. With that in mind I turned to The Two Mrs Carrolls (1947) the other night. My impression is that this movie  doesn’t enjoy a great reputation but for one reason or another, which I’ll have a go at articulating later, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it.

The relationship between art and commerce has always been an uneasy one and it feels somehow apt that Hollywood, home to many a tempestuous real-life marriage itself, should train a glass on this dichotomy. Maybe it’s down to a familiarity with the inherent duality within itself that has led the film industry to occasionally cast a dubious glance in the direction of artists in general. Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) is certainly a case in point; before the first scene has ended the audience is left in no doubt whatsoever that here is a man who is a clear stranger to emotional stability. He’s been romancing his latest muse Sally (Barbara Stanwyck) while, initially unbeknownst to her, trying to figure out a way to extricate himself from his marriage. In short order we learn that he achieves that by the simple expedient of popping a dose of poison into his unwanted spouse’s milk. This leaves him free to marry the conveniently wealthy Sally. You might imagine that a new life in idyllic surroundings for himself and his young daughter (Ann Carter) would have chased away the demons. However, it becomes clear that the creative juices are drying up again, and then an attractive socialite (Alexis Smith) arrives on the scene…

As I said at the top of this piece, I don’t believe The Two Mrs Carrolls is regarded all that well. In fairness, there are problematic areas, the script and direction allows the story to sag a little in the middle, and both tone and performances can be uneven. On the other hand, the film is, for me anyway, an enjoyable slice of domestic suspense/melodrama. What’s more, it has that attractive visual aspect that I’ve noticed before in the work of director  Peter Godfrey (who has a cameo role as a racetrack chiseler) – both Christmas in Connecticut and Cry Wolf have a visual aesthetic which really appeals to me – and this boosts the pictures stock considerably. Allied to this is that studio recreation/imagining of a kind of fairy tale England (and Scotland in the brief opening scene) which either works for you or doesn’t. Personally, I’m a big fan of the artistry that goes into conjuring up that kind of illusion.

A final reason for my own fondness for the movie, and one I will freely admit is wholly dependent on the individual, relates to the time it is first seen. While I can’t put my finger on the exact time, it would have been somewhere in the mid-1980s when I came across this picture on TV. I would have been in the process of broadening my experiences of cinema (something which I can happily say continues to this day) and was on the lookout for as many Bogart features as I could find. The point is I caught this one at a time when it just clicked for me, and that feeling has never really deserted me ever since.

The Two Mrs Carrolls appears in the middle of an especially strong run of post-war movies starring Bogart. Looked at in comparison to some very strong and memorable work for Hawks, Huston and Daves, it’s perhaps not surprising that the movie is seen less favorably. That said, the star’s performance is inconsistent; the romantic interludes are handled just fine, as are the handful of incidences of hard-boiled insolence, while the manifestations of instability are seriously overcooked. Stanwyck, who rarely gave a sub-par performance at any point in her career,  fares better overall and handles the melodrama with greater assurance.

Alexis Smith had already played opposite Bogart in Conflict and vamps attractively here, trading barbs effectively in a memorable introductory scene. I guess most movie fans will recall Ann Carter chiefly, and quite rightly too, for her excellent playing in the haunting and rather touching Val Lewton/Robert Wise picture The Curse of the Cat People. She’s very good again in The Two Mrs Carrolls and her calm composure offers a neat contrast to some of the adults around her. Irish actors Pat O’Moore and Anita Sharp-Bolster are solid (and amusing) in support, and of course few performers ever bumbled quite so endearingly as Nigel Bruce.

The Two Mrs Carrolls was given a DVD release in the US via the Warner Archive, and clones later appeared  on the European market. As far as I’m aware it’s not been given the Blu-ray treatment as  yet, and I’m not sure  it has a high enough profile to warrant that anyway. Generally, it looks fairly strong in standard definition and I’m pleased just to have it and be able to watch it. Objectively speaking, it’s not one of Bogart’s or Stanwyck’s best movies and I’m not about to sell it as such. It does have its positives though, as is true for almost anything with these stars. Frankly, it’s a welcome piece of cinematic fluff at any time, and especially so at the moment.

Larceny

Larceny (1948) spins a yarn which revolves around a scam, a con. The con man, the grifter if you like, is one who naturally, and as the name implies, trades on confidence. There is of course his own polished brass exterior, his professional mask, but of greater significance is the confidence he inspires, wins, and ultimately betrays in the mark. It’s a dirty business when all is said and done, the sacrifice of something as pure as trust for something as cheap and mired among our base instincts as greed  is the stuff of disillusionment. A famous parting line spoke of the stuff that dreams are made of, but then again it could be said that it’s only a short step from dreams to disillusionment, and therein lies the essence of film noir.

It opens with a sting almost gone wrong. Two sharp and smooth types, Rick Mason (John Payne) and Silky Randall (Dan Duryea), have been bleeding a wealthy Florida citizen and his similarly well-heeled friends, for a yacht club that will never be. They have amassed in the region of a quarter of a million dollars by the time their victim grows suspicious enough to confront them . And so it’s time to move on, this time to small town California and a grieving and gullible war widow. The goal this time is broadly similar: sell the notion of a fictitious war memorial to a scarred soul, and skip out when as much cash as possible has been obtained. A wholly reprehensible scheme, but one with a fair chance of success in a uniquely receptive social landscape, one still reeling from post-war mourning and confusion and casting around for some grain of hope to latch onto. Yet within the soft soap of Randall and Mason there are other gritty little grains: the uncontrolled passion and wandering eye of Randall’s trashy girlfriend (Shelley Winters), the professional and personal jealousy of two mistrustful rivals, an almost impossibly credulous widow (Joan Caulfield) and, most important of all, something called a conscience.

George Sherman is not a man one would normally associate with film noir. This is not to say he wasn’t suited to the form, the movie here is proof he was more than capable of handling its tropes and motifs with great skill, but his real forte lay elsewhere in terms of genre. Sherman’s westerns, particularly those from the golden era of the 1950s, are almost all (those which I’ve seen anyway) imbued with the spirit of redemption and renewal. It’s his apparently natural affinity for and empathy with these positive attributes which make him such a fascinating director of westerns. When it comes to film noir though, these strengths may, for some anyway, be regarded as a handicap. Personally, I don’t buy that; this is partly due to what I’d like to think of as an open-minded or expansionist approach to the genre. Essentially, I’m not keen on locking myself into absolutist positions since it rarely seems to offer us much as viewers if we start excluding and proscribing certain movies as a result of their failure to adhere to rigid, imposed dogma on what should or shouldn’t be permissible. That’s not to advocate a total free-for-all of course, but a little flexibility never hurts.

Just as the director of Larceny didn’t spend his career confined to one genre, neither did its stars. The personnel at the time may not all have been fans but the beauty of the studio system lay in the diversity of material it allowed (or forced, if you prefer) contracted actors and crew to become exposed to and familiar with. John Payne was a personable presence in musicals and romances, but the post-war years saw him shift the focus of his career radically. Larceny represented his first foray into “tough guy” territory and film noir, alongside westerns, saw him do some of his finest work. He’s in great form here, scamming Caulfield, fencing with Duryea and trading clinches and barbs with a spiky and sexy Shelley Winters. And Winters is possibly as good in her role as I’ve ever seen her, firing off some of the finest one-liners anyone was ever handed in a film noir. Duryea is as compelling as he always was (Silky is a superb name for a character and sums up the actor’s manner perfectly) and he displays a marvelous sense of menace. I remember not being all that impressed with Joan Caulfield’s range in The Unsuspected and I found myself having similar thoughts here – I can see how her character needs to project the kind of purity necessary to push the plot in the direction it ultimately takes, but I felt her innocence was overdone at times. But that’s just my take on it. As for support, it’s worth mentioning some fine contributions from Dan O’Herlihy, Dorothy Hart, Percy Helton and Richard Rober.

I would be utterly delighted were I able to post here that I had managed to track down a sparkling and pristine release of Larceny, one which could be eagerly snapped up by fellow movie fans. Sadly, that is not the case; the movie remains, to the best of my knowledge, unavailable for purchase. I watched it online, viewing a print that was very far from optimum condition. This is most certainly not the ideal way to see anything and I only resorted to this as no other option exists at the moment. At the risk of sounding like a hopelessly scratched vinyl recording, I can only reiterate my ongoing dismay at the absence of so many Universal-International title on DVD and/or Blu-ray.

I think it’s worth noting here at the end of this piece that it appears to be the 100th title I have tagged as a film noir, a small milestone. Mind you, I’ve no doubt that a number of those I’ve included over the years will be regarded as some as marginal entries. Ah well, so be it.

The Upturned Glass

The last few entries here have focused firmly on smaller scale, low budget British movies, those with a certain modesty in terms of both production values and artistic aim. Now that’s not meant as a criticism as I feel the films are quite successful judged on the terms which their makers defined for them. Today though, I want to look at The Upturned Glass (1947), which I see as occupying a kind of middle ground – the ambitions of the main movers appear to have been slightly different, although the director is one we have mentioned here in relation to some of the more spare productions he would subsequently be involved in .

The film begins with a lecture, and for most of its 80 minute running time it essentially follows the form of a lecture. That lecture of narration is the work of a doctor, a man who tells his audience he will be recounting the story of one Michael Joyce (James Mason), although we viewers can see clearly from the outset that our narrator and his subject are one and the same. Initially, it appears to be primarily  tale of love which grows out of loneliness and a chance professional encounter. While this early section is vital in setting the scene and establishing motivations, it’s also the stuff of almost impossibly chaste romantic melodrama, painfully strained in its earnestness. However, the tone of the movie shifts all the time as the plot coils and unwinds ceaselessly, and we soon find ourselves firmly entrenched in noir territory, the shadowy world of moral uncertainty and fatalism. Joyce has been lifted out of his well-worn rut and given a glimpse of something unattainable, and now sees even that dream snatched away. The effects will be devastating for him and for those other figures playing their part in the slowly developing tragedy.

Style, theme and structure mark The Upturned Glass out as a genuine film noir – unfulfilled passion, crime in unexpected places, obsessive behavior, and a long flashback with accompanying narration are all active ingredients of this dark drama. The story came from John Monaghan and adapted for the screen by the writer in collaboration with Pamela Kellino, then the wife and ( in this picture) co-star of top-billed James Mason.  The name of director Lawrence Huntington came up in the course of some discussion here the other day and I’ll have to admit I’ve not seen a great deal of his work. That of course is one of the great benefits of the whole blogging business: getting some pointers and encouragement to explore further. I do have a few other movies by this director in my collection and both the recommendations of others and the pretty stylish work on display in The Upturned Glass makes me keen to delve a bit deeper into his catalog.

I believe The Upturned Glass was the last British film James Mason made before heading off to Hollywood and greater fame. I’ve always been a fan of his work, that unique combination of smooth polish and a hint of dangerous unpredictability led to many an interesting performance and it is ideal for the driven and obsessive character he was portraying here. Although Rosamund John played the main love interest, and did so perfectly adequately, Pamela Kellino had the meatier, much more interesting and emotionally involving role. It’s a superb bit of work; arch, shallow and self-serving, yet real enough to avoid caricature and, crucially, capable of eliciting some sympathy from the viewer and therefore adding another layer of complexity.In a small supporting role (and his last of significance before his death) Brefni O’Rorke is terrific as a cynical old GP with a caustic view of humanity in general and doctors in particular, and he gets to deliver some of the film’s sourest and most memorable lines.

The Upturned Glass was released on DVD some 10 years ago by MPI in the US as part of a package of three British thrillers (two early Michael Powell titles were also included) and it looks OK but it could probably be better served. All three films are on the same disc, which is never an ideal state of affairs. As far as I know, this movie hasn’t come out anywhere else since and I feel it is deserving of more critical appraisal and a stronger presentation. Well worth tracking down.

The Small Voice

It’s always nice to come upon a film one had previously been unfamiliar with and realize it’s actually a little gem. British crime and noir movies can be more of a mixed bag than their US counterparts, or at least it sometimes feels that way. Nevertheless, there are plenty of high quality examples to be found and The Small Voice (1948) is one of those. Tight, compact dramas, those which maintain a sharp pace and ensure the plot remains focused, appeal to me and I’m forever on the lookout for a new one. This ticks the boxes for me, featuring enough depth and emotional complexity to hold the attention without slowing down the development of the story.

Murray Byrne (James Donald) is a writer, and an apparently successful one. However, this success doesn’t seem to bring much joy as our first view of him as he’s riding a train back home indicates. He is gruff and brusque with an old school friend he happens to encounter and then continues in a similar vein with his wife Eleanor (Valerie Hobson), who is also the leading lady in his latest play. In short, Byrne is an embittered man, carrying the physical scars of his wartime experiences,, and clearly suffering from a sense of inadequacy which has spilled over into his private life. The marriage is teetering on the brink with Eleanor having essentially decided she can no longer continue, and then they come upon the scene of car accident. Three court-martialed soldiers have escaped from Dartmoor, their violent break for freedom having claimed a number of victims, and it’s this  unhappy couple’s misfortune to cross their path.

The Small Voice, the title referring to the human conscience, is all about a gradual heightening of suspense, the tension growing as the character’s room for both physical and emotional maneuver is increasingly restricted. The meandering paths followed by the protagonists converge on a deserted rural road late at night, their various attempts to reach freedom (either real or imagined) in essence coming to an end as their immediate concern with safety draws them back to the Byrne home. And so begins the waiting game that will fray the nerves of all concerned, yet which will also hold out the eventual hope of redemption, albeit of the backhanded variety in one case, and perhaps the beginning of a kind of personal rapprochement.

The film was the debut of Howard Keel (billed as Harold Keel) and he makes a strong impression as the leader of the fugitive trio, playing it tough and dominant throughout. Now that’s fine in itself, but Keel had something more about him – one can’t have a career which lasted as long as his without that of course – and imbued his role with an extra dimension, lifting it above that of  the standard heavy. James Donald’s character refers to Keel on a number of occasions as “interesting”, which is an apt enough description of the role and the performance. Donald too is solid as the writer uncomfortable with himself and insecure in his marriage and masculinity. His buttoned up quality works well in this situation and his character’s  journey is again an absorbing one. Valerie Hobson will probably always be remembered for her role in James Whale’s impish horror Bride of Frankenstein, but she was a class act in whatever part she played. She gets ample opportunity to show off her strength of character and also her depth and range as she tries to hold both her marriage and her very existence together.

The Small Voice is the type of film which tended to get shown on TV in afternoon filler slots in the past, and then often drifted into obscurity in subsequent years. There was a time when these one-time staples of the schedules appeared more or less lost but have gained a most welcome new lease of life due to DVD releases by the likes of Network and Renown in the UK. The Network disc of the movie is a typically stripped down affair but has the film itself looking particularly well, and that’s surely the most important consideration. Personally, I had a very good time with this film can see myself returning to it periodically.  It’s well made, atmospheric and brisk – I recommend giving it a look.

Manhandled

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself looking a movie that seems to have been marketed as a film noir, or at least as a hard-boiled crime yarn in the days before filmmakers and critics had acquainted themselves with French terminology. I’ve also made the point before that I think of myself as inclusive in my own attitude to what precisely constitutes an entry in this somewhat nebulous category. At a glance, Manhandled (1949) looks like it’s earned its place in the lineup, but the truth is it’s more of a decoy than the genuine article. However, that’s not necessarily any bad thing, just so long as one knows what the score is going in.

Everything begins furtively, the camera hugging the ground and slinking  cat-like around the shadows, revealing only the legs of characters whose voices indicate a jealous, insecure man waiting up for the woman he fears may be cheating on him. They meet, there’s a confrontation, and then a killing. It’s looks stylish and gripping, and the sudden knowledge that it was all a dream recounted by an anxious writer (Alan Napier) to his analyst (Harold Vermilyea) only adds to the noir trappings. When it then looks as if the dream were in fact an omen of the tragedy to come, well one would be forgiven for believing we’re firmly entrenched in cinema’s darker corner. Yet, it’s at this point that the tone alters, despite the presence of noir regulars Dan Duryea and Sterling Hayden, to head off (for the most part) down a lighter path more in keeping with a whodunit murder mystery with a hint of a 30 s or early 40s series picture about it.

I have a hunch there are those who will dismiss this movie for not being a true noir, or perhaps for strongly hinting that it is and then delivering something rather different. I can understand that; the film does appear unsure of exactly what it wants to be and the tone can veer radically from scene to scene, and even within a scene. Frankly, I’m happy to regard it as a mystery which flirts with the trappings of noir without ever fully committing. On that level, it works fine and the jokey, vaguely bumbling cops (Art Smith & Irving Bacon) don’t feel out of place in such a world. I’m being deliberately cagey about the plot in this case as I think any discussion of a film which is essentially a whodunit should steer as far away from spoiler territory as possible, out of respect for any reader who is unfamiliar with the material. Suffice to say, Dan Duryea has a field day trading on his characteristic fake bonhomie, acting as a role model for aspiring chiselers everywhere. Dorothy Lamour does distress well and only Sterling Hayden is a tad disappointing, his typical gruff abruptness not really suiting his role here.

That opening sequence where cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and director Lewis R Foster pull out all the stops is a wonderful hook but, at the same time, it’s perhaps setting up a different picture to what they were planning to present. Ultimately, I have no issue with a film not being as dark as it promises – I like noir a lot but wouldn’t want to see every crime or mystery movie forced to conform to its requirements. As a mystery, Manhandled works well enough, sprinkling suspects and red herrings around to maintain interest. Still, it misses the mark to some extent due to the shifting and uncertain tone.

As with a lot of Pine – Thomas movies, availability can be tricky. I watched this online recently but there has been a DVD released in Italy – I haven’t seen it so can’t make any comment on its quality. So to get down to brass tacks, would I recommend it? Well, I’d have to answer with a qualified yes. The quality of the cast should speak for itself and the mystery at the heart of the story is solid enough to hold one’s interest. Yet that variability in the script has to be noted – if you can accept that and take the film on its own occasionally muddled terms, then there’s fun to be had with it.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

Some titles are just irresistible, catching the eye and positively insisting that you watch them. And if ever a movie title seemed to encapsulate the absolute essence of film noir, then it surely has to be 1948’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. In terms of expectations, it sets the bar pretty high and I wonder if anything could actually live up to the promise.

The film gets off to a flying start with a dangerous and moody looking customer reacting violently to a barman’s attentions. It leads to a scuffle, a fatal punch and then a desperate flight through a grimy studio recreation of post-war London. Bill Saunders (Burt Lancaster) is the fugitive, a former serviceman with psychological scars left by his years as a POW and no place to go. Still, he finds himself running and the only refuge he discovers is the home of Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine), a nurse who’s suffered her own losses in the recent conflict. Out of this reluctant encounter, an inauspicious beginning if ever there were one, grows a fragile romance, the kind one couldn’t envisage outside of times of immense social upheaval. However, the world of noir is rarely concerned with handing anyone an easy time so it’s not long before Bill’s hair-trigger temper and an ill-starred blend of blackmail and black marketeers threaten to sour the relationship.

Director Norman Foster’s biggest credit is probably Journey into Fear, but his work on the Mr Moto and Charlie Chan series is well worth checking out. That low budget background arguably serves him well here as there is a briskness to the movie that’s very welcome. Of course there’s plenty of high quality assistance behind the camera to help things along with cameraman Russell Metty keeping everything shrouded in shadows, while Miklós Rózsa provides the score. I suppose some may complain about the use of sets as opposed to real locations but I’m generally happy to see a nicely designed mock-up  (cult director Nathan Juran’s name is listed in the art direction credits, by the way) as I think this is now something of a lost art and it adds a lot to vintage studio productions. For all that, and as I hinted at in the introduction, the film doesn’t quite attain the heights you might be expecting. This is not to say it’s a bad or poor movie, let me be clear about that. Yet there is a certain weakness in the writing, and I don’t know if that derives from the script or the source novel of the same name, but the build up and visuals suggest a far darker experience than that which is ultimately delivered. Even so, this does not amount to a massive flaw and the film, taken as a whole package, is both entertaining and satisfying.

The action revolves around Lancaster and Fontaine for much of the time, the latter working well and playing to her strengths as she gets the timidity and vulnerability of her character across most effectively. Lancaster is fine but, once again, I feel the writing does him a bit of a disservice by failing to explore as fully as possible the complexity of his role. That said, he makes the most of the material he’s given. The other major part is played by Robert Newton, a man who one always fears may use broader brush strokes than are needed. I don’t believe that’s the case here though and he conveys the oily menace of his part quite credibly.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was a film I wanted to see for many years – as I said above, the title alone sold it to me – and it was always a matter of frustration that it never seemed to be available or to turn up on TV. Fortunately, there is now a DVD on the market as part of the Universal MOD range. Also, the film has been released in Italy in what I suspect will be a port of the US transfer. The picture quality is sound as far as I can tell, maybe not startlingly good but not seriously compromised in any way either. Overall, I’m delighted to have been able to finally see the film and check another film  noir off the list. So, even if it doesn’t quite make the top tier, it’s easily worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time.

Ivy

Film noir has been featured pretty regularly on this site over the years, and anyone who has visited here will likely be aware that I tend towards a reasonably flexible interpretation of the criteria used for inclusion in that category. I wouldn’t dream of trying to persuade those with more purist tastes to come round to my way of thinking, instead I prefer to just present what titles I feel belong according to my personal  (and wholly unscientific) checklist. As such, I’ve always been content to list westerns, color productions and period pieces. It’s to that latter variety that I want to turn our attention today, the relatively small selection of films sometimes referred to as gaslight noir. Ivy (1947) is a title which eluded me for many years so I was pleased to get my hands on a copy recently to see how it fared.

The film opens with a foretaste of what will follow, in fact it involves the title character played by Joan Fontaine stealing surreptitiously along an Edwardian terrace to have her fortune told. That sense of the illicit, of things that “nice” people should not do is further heightened when the seer (a typically eccentric Una O’Connor) alludes to the lady’s unfaithful behavior, and then mutters darkly about the tragedy to come after she departs. This is all very melodramatic stuff, but that’s the nature of the tale being told. It’s soon made clear that Ivy is in an unhappy place in life, married to a jobless milquetoast, Jervis (Richard Ney), and living in correspondingly straitened circumstances while also keeping her options open by toying with the affections of Doctor Gretorex (Patric Knowles). Of course Ivy is nothing if not ambitious, and when an encounter with the extremely wealthy Miles Rushworth (Herbert Marshall) offers the opportunity for even greater riches, well you can probably see where this is all headed. It’s only a matter of time before Ivy realizes her hopes of a comfortable existence would be better served if certain figures were removed from her life. The only question that remains is how best to manipulate people and events to achieve this end.

Ivy is an adaptation (by Charles Bennett) of a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, who is probably best know as the writer of The Lodger. The story unfolds during 1909, established by the fact that Bleriot’s successful flight across the Channel is woven into the narrative early on, and that means we get one of those idealized Hollywood imaginings of London in bygone days – a piece of pure fantasy to be sure but one featuring the kind of sets and art direction that just ooze atmosphere. We’re still firmly in the studio era here and Universal-International always had a knack  for conjuring up these kinds of cinematic neverlands. Sam Woods directed smoothly but the fact the film was produced by William Cameron Menzies and shot by Russell Metty surely accounts for that characteristically attractive look.

I tend to think of Joan Fontaine as an actress best suited to less proactive roles, probably stemming from my first seeing her in Rebecca and Suspicion, the two films she made for Hitchcock. I remember not being especially impressed by her work as an unsympathetic character in Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad, but she is much more effective in this one and is genuinely convincing as a scheming and two-faced woman determined to clamber over anyone to get what she wants. In fact, she’s easily the most dominant  figure throughout – Ney’s character is the epitome of weakness, Knowles is mainly about pained nobility and repressed emotions, while Marshall (easily the most talented one) has limited screen time but does make an impact whenever he is on view. As ever in productions from this period, the supporting cast is a pleasure in itself. Cedric Hardwicke is quietly engaging as the Scotland Yard man whose tenacity and calm thoroughness acts as a stabilizing influence, and there are familiar faces such as Sara Allgood and Paul Cavanagh appearing in key roles.

Ivy was, in my experience anyway, a difficult film to see for many years but I recently came across a DVD release in Italy which not only makes the movie available but also has it looking quite well. The picture quality is generally strong and the image looks crisp and sharp for the most part. However, I had the impression the sound might be slightly out of sync at the beginning, but it seems to improve later – of course it may be that I simply became accustomed to it. The film itself is a very entertaining period noir with that polished studio appearance that can be a real draw when done properly. The cast, especially the leading lady, is more than competent and the only issue I had was that I thought the opening – setting the scene and establishing the complex relationships – perhaps ran longer than was strictly necessary. Having said that, it’s a solid film and one I’m pleased to have finally gotten round to seeing.

The Lady from Shanghai

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Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We’d put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, ’till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse… until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.

That little speech that Orson Welles’ character just casually produces on a nighttime beach in Acapulco in The Lady from Shanghai (1947) neatly encapsulates the frantic greed and self-destructive instincts at the heart of the story. In a way, I suppose you could say it catches the flavor of film noir itself, that bleak and dark form of cinema which emerged in the years when the world was clawing its way out of the financial abyss it had slid into and was poised to dive into another even more nightmarish period. It must have seemed that a humanity drunk on blood lust was bent on tearing itself to pieces. Yet for all its nihilism, film noir was also an ideal vehicle for experimentation, and there were few better qualified than Welles, that natural-born envelope pusher, to try to extend the boundaries a bit further.

The tale told begins in a deceptively simple manner with Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) chancing upon the titular lady from Shanghai, Elsa (Rita Hayworth), as he saunters through Central Park of an evening. There’s a foreshadowing of sorts of the Grand Guignol drama and chicanery to come when Elsa speaks of her White Russian background and spells as a professional gambler in Shanghai and Macao, while O’Hara spins equally beguiling yarns about his opinion of jails around the globe and his having killed a man in Spain. A bit of convenient chivalry and heroics grabs Elsa’s attention and leads to her lawyer husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), offering O’Hara a job. That job is sailing their yacht around the coast, via the Panama Canal, to the west and San Francisco. It’s as this odd party makes its way south, towards the tropics, that the emotional temperature rises correspondingly and approaches feverish proportions off Mexico. As the atmosphere grows increasingly rarefied and O’Hara finds himself falling under the spell of the enigmatic Elsa, he is approached by Bannister’s partner Grisby (Glenn Anders) with an unusual proposition – he wants O’Hara to kill him. A scenario that has been strange and off-center up to this point now spirals down into a positively surreal vortex of cross and double-cross, where motives and desires become hopelessly entangled.

Welles took a twisty, convoluted but not especially remarkable noir story, If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, and ran with its outrageous central premise, that of a man seeking out another who will be willing to take responsibility for killing him. While the essence of the plot is retained by Welles, he opens it out and brings his own characteristic style to bear. Although the scope and geography of the source novel is expanded the vicious intimacy of the amoral group at the heart of it all remains. The shooting style favored by the director and his casting choices mean that the distinctly odd characters of the book are transformed into a veritable gallery of camp grotesques, His real masterstroke was the climax, fitting in a dramatic escape from custody, a chase through Chinatown and that famous final confrontation in the abandoned amusement park, culminating in the hall of mirrors shootout. None of that appeared in King’s novel, which is effectively suspenseful but not really cinematic in any way. Even if what we have today is only an approximation of Welles’ vision, due to studio imposed cuts, it still provides a lesson in how to successfully adapt a piece of literature for the screen – keep important details of the plot intact, and the attendant tension, but have the courage and self belief to add the kind of visually audacious touches needed to create a cinema experience.

I started this post by mulling over some characteristics of film noir, and I’d like to run with that a little further here. As a style of moviemaking or storytelling it can be viewed as a collision of opposite sensibilities: the soft-hearted vs the hard-headed, romanticism vs pragmatism, the idealistic vs the materialistic. And The Lady from Shanghai carries that through in its casting. On the one hand, we have Welles himself, all affected blarney and bemused infatuation. While on the other hand, there’s the venal self-absorption of everyone else. A bleached blonde Rita Hayworth is at the center of it all in a role which sees her beauty exploited to the full as she seeks to beguile Welles on screen and, by all accounts, off it too. Everett Sloane moves jerkily through the tale, his twisted leg defining his physical and psychological weaknesses but, curiously, losing some of the bitterness and regret his character in the book suffered from. Instead we see a more sardonic side to him, and his playing off Glenn Anders’ comically creepy law partner is among the highlights of the picture. Add in a rat-like and oily Ted de Corsia and we have a full house of larger than life performances to enjoy.

The new dual format Blu-ray/DVD from Indicator in the UK is another of their typically stellar presentations. While I don’t have any of the previous US Hi-Def releases of the movie to compare, I’d be surprised if this version has been bettered. The transfer of the film is based on the 2012 Sony 4K restoration and looks terrific. This is a dark film and the deep blacks draw you into the depths of its shadows. It’s been said that high-definition offers a more immersive experience and that’s a term I feel is particularly appropriate in this case. As usual, the supplements are both extensive and attractive. There’s a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich as well as a twenty-minute video “discussion” – carried over from the old DVD – by him. There’s another 20+ minute filmed feature with Simon Callow along with a short extract of a 1970 interview Rita Hayworth did for French TV. Additionally, we get a brief trailer commentary from Joe Dante and an image gallery. The booklet is up to the label’s usual high standards – 40 informative pages with an essay by Samm Deighan, and extract from associate producer William Castle’s memoirs, detailing his experiences in the making of the film, a reproduction of the 9 page memo Welles sent to Harry Cohn regarding the changes made to his work. And all of that is rounded out by some comments by the restoration team on the challenges they faced.

The Lady from Shanghai is a movie whose reputation has grown over the years after its initial poor box-office performance. What we have today isn’t quite what Welles wanted but it’s by no means a poor film – there are flaws to be sure but the flair, inventiveness and sheer passion for filmmaking of its director is apparent in every frame. If you like film noir or Welles, or just absorbing cinema, then it’s a must see. And the new package, transfer and extras, put together for this release is as good as anyone could wish for.

Panhandle

 

poster57_zpsnwhbw2ihCertain plot devices come up time and again in westerns, so much so that they can start to feel like old friends after a while. On occasion we even get a whole cluster of them all intermingled in one movie, although one tends to dominate when such a situation arises. Panhandle (1948) blends together the tale of the town tamer, the outlaw forced back into his old ways, and the perennial matter of settling scores. It’s that latter element – the quest for revenge, or perhaps it would be more accurate to talk of justice here – that comes to the fore in another stylish example of Lesley Selander’s work.

Mexico has frequently been portrayed on screen as a land of opportunity from a westerner’s perspective. Sometimes it has held out the possibility of attaining riches, at others of regaining something of the mythical freedom eaten up by the relentless advance of civilization. And it has also been viewed as the home of the second chance, a place of refuge and redemption of sorts, for the badman in search of spiritual solace. John Sands (Rod Cameron) is one of those men, a gunfighter trying to put his violent past behind him by living a simple but honest existence south of the border. Initially, it looks as though he has achieved some kind of peace selling leather goods, but unexpected news from the north is about to change all that. A young woman (Cathy Downs), unaware of his former identity and notoriety, drops the bombshell that his brother has been murdered in the town of Sentinel in the Texas Panhandle. In that instant, Sands’ life is transformed as he has been forced back to the way of the gun. His mission to exact retribution for the killing means a return to the US, to his own dark past and all the attendant dangers crossing the border represents to him – aside from confronting the guilty men, there’s also the little matter of an outstanding warrant for his arrest still circulating in the Lone Star state. Sands is going to have to negotiate this, and also the attentions of two very different women, before he can reach some form of closure and continue living on the terms he has chosen for himself.

The first thing one notices about the movie is the use of sepia tone, a look that I’ve never been especially fond of. In my mind, this kind of tinted photography will be forever associated with material of a much older vintage – silent films mainly – although that’s perhaps the thinking behind its use here, to reinforce the fact that the tale is unfolding in a different era. Whatever the reasoning, it’s a process that I find I get used to quick enough and it soon ceases to be something worth remarking on. If I have any particular issues, they relate to a few areas of the script that I feel were almost discarded after their introduction suggested something more was to be made of them. The question of Sands’ legal status in the US pops up early on when a lawman, played by Rory Mallinson, tries unsuccessfully to detain him. It’s mentioned again when certain interests in Sentinel make a play for his services as a town tamer, but then is essentially ignored. Even that aspect, the potential hiring of the outsider to clean up the undesirable elements gets elbowed aside when it looks like there might have been scope for some kind of commentary on way those with a less savory past were accepted on sufferance in times of need.

More time is allotted to the suggestion of a romance with Cathy Downs’ character, although this never develops, and a more overt one with Anne Gwynne. The latter situation doesn’t work all that convincingly in my opinion, and I can’t help but feel it’s a shame the storyline featuring Downs wasn’t built up more as there was more potential which could have been tapped into in that situation. Nevertheless, even if these aspects are not entirely satisfactory, they don’t weaken the film. Selander’s sure direction keeps the whole affair moving forward and switches the action smoothly between the studio backlot and the Lone Pine locations. As one might expect from this director, the action is neatly handled too, especially a fine bar room brawl and the climactic shootout on the muddy streets of Sentinel, with the rain pounding down and the harshly lit muzzle flashes signalling death for some and victory for others.

Panhandle was one of a number of films Rod Cameron made for Selander and it offered him a good rugged role. He was one of those actors who looked comfortable in westerns and provided a solid screen presence. This part was a good fit since he was believable as a hero and also as a villain in other films, so playing the outlaw struggling to reform himself was certainly within his range. One of the most enjoyable scenes in the picture comes when he’s pressed by a young Blake Edwards (who also had a co-writing credit for the movie) to divulge the details of the time he faced down Billy the Kid. Cameron draws the tale out wonderfully, holding the younger man rapt and milking the story for all its worth. And then he delivers a punchline that practically floors Edwards, and the viewer too, with its sheer audacity – a lovely moment. Cathy Downs and Anne Gwynne were an extremely attractive pair of leading ladies although, as I said above, it’s a pity the former isn’t used a little better. As for villains, Edwards is fine as the flashy hothead and Reed Hadley does good work too as his suave and deadly boss. In support, it’s nice to see familiar faces like Rory Mallinson and John Ford favorite J Farrell MacDonald, albeit in small roles.

Panhandle is available on DVD in both the US and the UK in Darn Good Westerns collections, from VCI and Odeon (now Screenbound) respectively. I have the UK edition and the transfer is just fair. The image generally looks soft and quite muddy in places  – I think the images i used above (despite the fact they’re reduced in size) give an indication of the picture quality. The disc offers the theatrical trailer as the sole bonus feature. This is a pretty good Selander film told in his usual economical style. The script, a debut effort for both Blake Edwards and John C Champion, has plenty of ideas and even if all of them aren’t as fully developed as they might have been, what happens on screen is consistently interesting. Another solid low-budget production with quite a bit to be said in its favor.