Spin a Dark Web

How essential is the femme fatale in film noir? Sure her presence is one of the characteristics you will hear mentioned time and again should  you ask people to check off a list of the necessary ingredients. But is this presence or absence actually integral, and does it define the style? I’m inclined to think no, I’ve seen plenty of undoubted films noir where this character didn’t appear and I don’t feel their dark credentials were diminished as a consequence. On the other hand, the question represents an itch I get the urge to scratch every so often, especially after watching a movie like Spin a Dark Web (1956), where there is an explicit femme fatale whose malign influence drives the plot.

Whatever else one might say about film noir it certainly requires what might be termed the fall guy, someone who manages to get himself involved in a complex and perilous situation. Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) fits that particular bill here, a Canadian living in post-war London, hanging around the fringes of the fight game and keen to pick up some easy money fast. He’s casually attached to a fight trainer’s daughter, Betty (Rona Anderson), but is restless and hungry for cash, restless enough to drop her if the rewards are appealing enough. Looking up an old friend leads to a encounter with gangster Rico Francesi (Martin Benson) and his predatory sister Bella (Faith Domergue). What follows won’t create too many surprises – Bankley is drawn by the glamor of the rackets and Bella is only to happy to lure him ever deeper into her web. As ever, while the profits of the racketeering and the attentions of the dangerously seductive Sicilian prove attractive, there will be a moment of truth, an occurrence which will bring home to our anti-hero the sourness at the back of it all. And that’s when the real danger kicks in…

I don’t suppose many people will be queuing up to sing the praises of director Vernon Sewell but the fact is I’ve become very fond of his work. He made a series of short and tightly paced movies throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s which are, based on the evidence of those I’ve seen so far, very entertaining and occasionally stylish too. Spin a Dark Web is, as I’ve acknowledged, a standard gangster yarn. Nevertheless, the extensive location shooting, much of which is done in a deliberately impersonal documentary style, adds a grittiness to the movie. Additionally, the planning and execution of the complicated racing sting that fleshes out the middle section of the film is well done and highly absorbing. Throw in a number of tough action set pieces and we’re looking at a solid little noir thriller.

Faith Domergue (Where Danger Lives) is the Hollywood star handed top billing in Spin a Dark Web, and the full-on femme fatale referred to at the top of this piece. She’s the kind of actress I can take or leave, largely dependent on the role she was asked to play. The role of Bella is one that works well in that it uses her cold passion to its best advantage. I think she possessed a detached chilliness and that’s ideal for the part of the self-absorbed and psychopathic woman. Those traits are ideal in the femme fatale, and it’s her conscience-free ruthlessness that makes this film succeed. So, can I answer the question I posed for myself? I’m going to hedge it by saying the femme fatale is essential here; without her deadly allure the fall guy or patsy is rendered meaningless and the film is stripped of much of its potency.

Balance is always important so a counterweight to the femme fatale in the shape of a Girl Friday figure is usually desirable, and it’s hard to think of the better choice for such a part in 1950s British cinema than Rona Anderson. She has the natural grace and charm to offset the driving aggression of Domergue, the selflessness to highlight the hollow appeal of the villainess. What would the British crime film be without Lee Patterson? I liked his work on The Flying Scot when I viewed it a few years ago and Spin a Dark Web again sees him turning in one of those typically dependable performances in a shady, semi-heroic part. I’m not sure I’ve seen much of Robert Arden beyond his central role in Orson Welles’ Mr Arkadin. He has the kind of hulking amiability about him that lends itself well to sidekick or best friend types, and just enough edginess to carry the notion of a man comfortable on the shadowy side of the street. Martin Benson is fine as the chief gangster, although he does stray close to caricature on a few occasions. Finally, there’s good support from familiar character actors Sam Kydd and Bernard Fox.

Spin a Dark Web has been released on DVD in the US by Sony as part of their MOD line. The disc only carries the movie and the trailer but it looks strong and is presented in an attractive 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. The film has also been put out in the just released Noir Archive Vol. 2 on Blu-ray, a set I may well pick up as it contains a number of other interesting sounding films I don’t already have. All in all, I found this an excellent British film noir, well acted and directed and coming in at a snappy hour and a quarter.

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Santa Fe Passage

All westerns are about journeys. In some cases this journey is explicit and external, involving some pioneering trip along or beyond the frontier. At other times it’s implicit, an internal or spiritual quest which the hero embarks on leading to the discovery of some truth or a better understanding of himself. As much as anything it’s the setting of the western which lends itself to stories of this type – if you’re going to tell such a tale, then what better time or place to do so than one on the fringes of civilization amid a harsh and primal landscape. For me, when the two concepts of the journey, the external and the internal, coincide the results are almost always satisfying. Santa Fe Passage (1955) is one of those movies, a case of seeing the hero strike out into the wilderness and simultaneously (impelled by circumstances) delving into his own consciousness to confront his preconceptions and prejudices.

It’s always nice to see a movie come charging out of the starting blocks, and that’s precisely what happens here. Two riders are driving their mounts hard over the baked Utah landscape, one clearly in hot pursuit of the other. The quarry, a Kiowa, is soon overtaken and savagely clubbed to the ground with the butt of his pursuer’s rifle. This is Sam Beekman (Slim Pickens), a wagon train scout, and he hauls his captive back to where his partner, Kirby Randolph (John Payne), is waiting with the westbound travelers. With the Kiowa evidently on the warpath, Randolph hits upon what he thinks is a clever ploy, namely distracting the war party with an offer to trade while the wagons roll ahead to safety. However, he miscalculates badly and only discovers later that those he’s responsible for end up massacred and the few survivors left mutilated. If the guilt for this piece of poor judgment weighs heavily on his soul, it’s as nothing compared to the near universal revulsion and hatred the mere utterance of his name invokes. Randolph becomes an outcast among his own and virtually unemployable. Despite all this, he’s presented with a second chance, an opportunity to redeem himself, when a freight outfit needs a scout. Jess Griswold (Rod Cameron) and Aurelie St Clair (Faith Domergue) are taking a shipment of arms to sell in Santa Fe and, even though the latter voices strong objections based on his tarnished reputation, decide to hire Randolph to see them through safely. The trip will be an eventful one, filled with physical dangers and peril, though none quite as challenging as the psychological hurdles the scout is going to have to negotiate along the way.

Over the years, I’ve managed to feature the work of most of the major figures from the classic era of cinema, particularly those who worked in westerns. A notable exception though is William Witney, a director whose critical reputation has gradually grown, no doubt helped by the fact that people like Tarantino have spoken of his work with admiration. Early in his career, Witney worked extensively on serials before moving on to features and thereafter alternating between those and a significant amount of television work. His output was so substantial that I’m sure most people with an interest in classic cinema or TV will have come across examples of his directing at some point. Unsurprisingly, given his background, action and pace were his forte, and Santa Fe Passage certainly packs plenty into its hour and a half running time. There’s a kind of brutal honesty to this movie, something I recall noticing in one of Witney’s later productions Arizona Raiders too, and is particularly noticeable in the scenes depicting the chilling aftermath of the early wagon train massacre. It’s also to be found in the frank presentation of uncomfortable attitudes and how they are addressed and overcome, which I’ll touch on presently, although this aspect probably has its roots in Clay Fisher’s original story. Additionally, the harshly beautiful Utah locations, where the bulk of the action plays out, provide yet another layer of realism to it all.

What raises this picture above the straightforward adventure variety, not that there’s anything wrong such movies of course, is the characterization of the leads. In particular, the roles undertaken by John Payne and Faith Domergue offer a fascinating insight into guilt, bitterness and self-loathing, all sparked by racial stereotyping and the fear of miscegenation. Both characters carry their burden of guilt for different reasons and this threatens to consume them whole. In Payne’s case, the guilt appears to have twisted around and turned in upon itself; the bitterness stemming from his awareness of mistakes made manifests itself in a violent distrust of the Indian, or even anyone of mixed blood. It sets up a wonderful dramatic conflict as it seems to me that his character is galled by his own prejudice even as he indulges in it. One could argue that the resolution, when it comes around, is too pat and convenient but it’s fitting for all that and it does complete the journey the filmmakers have been on. The whole thing also serves to blur the line between hero and villain, especially when Rod Cameron is cast in such an ambiguous role – he’s more understanding and tolerant than Payne yet behaves treacherously, although his motivations in that regard are not entirely ignoble. The net result of all this is that the viewer is forced to think and weigh up the good and bad in all concerned, and that’s never a bad thing.

I think there may be a commercial DVD of Santa Fe Passage available in Italy, though I wouldn’t be too sure about its quality, and it can be viewed easily enough online. So far, it doesn’t appear to have been granted an official release anywhere and, once again, I’m indebted to John  Knight for his kind assistance in ensuring I was able to watch a good print of the film. As has been noted before, too many of John Payne’s films remain unavailable and this is one of the best examples, in my opinion. This is a fine mid-50s western, the kind that typically offers plenty of food for thought alongside strong entertainment value. Check it out if you get the chance.

Where Danger Lives

Poster

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

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

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

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

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