The Bribe

The last non-western I looked at had Ava Gardner suffering in an exotic setting. The Bribe (1949) sees the same actress back sweating it out in a far-flung place, but the results are much more satisfying this time. The film is a borderline noir that employs some of the staples of the form to excellent effect. There’s also a first-rate cast who work hard, yet it’s not a movie without some problems. It opens and closes very strongly; the issue is the overpadded mid-section which ought to have had some of its excess fat trimmed off in the editing room. Even so, the finished product is still worthwhile viewing, largely due to some highly memorable visuals and a couple of fine performances.

Rigby (Robert Taylor) is a federal agent investigating a racket involving smuggled war surplus engines. He’s first seen on the balcony of his hotel room on a steamy Central American island, one of those places where even the lethargic ceiling fans seem worn down by the oppressive heat. There’s a violent storm brewing outside while an internal one is already in the process of churning up the hero’s emotions. As Rigby sweats and smokes, his weary voiceover leads us into a flashback sequence that will occupy the first half of the picture. It all starts off with one of those earnest briefings by the Feds, so beloved of post-war noir, which establishes Rigby’s undercover role. He’s been sent to the island of Carlotta to nail a gang of smugglers and his only lead is a couple of suspects, a married couple in fact. Tug Hintten (John Hodiak) and his wife Elizabeth (Ava Gardner) are two down on their luck expatriates scratching out a living on the island; he’s an ex-pilot with a drink problem, reduced to slumming it as a bartender, while she sings in the same night club. Almost inevitably, Elizabeth is drawn to Rigby, his quiet assurance contrasting sharply with the drunken pessimism of her weak and ineffectual husband. The problem is that the feeling is mutual and Rigby slowly finds himself torn between his sense of professionalism and his desire for Elizabeth. To further complicate matters, it’s soon apparent that Hintten is not working alone. Carwood (Vincent Price) has the appearance of just another tourist but he’s awfully keen on making Rigby’s acquaintance, and Bealer (Charles Laughton) is one of those rumpled chisellers who always have an angle to pitch. Suddenly, Rigby’s life has become very complicated – he knows these four are all bound together as conspirators and he knows his duty, but his attraction to Elizabeth is skewing his judgement and is also being used by the villains as a lever to encourage him to turn a blind eye. As the storm breaks and the flashback leads us to the present, it’s clear that we’ve reach the critical moment. Rigby stands at a moral crossroads; does he take the path of honour and do his job or does he follow the call of his heart? If he’s to choose the former then he has to find some means of doing so without damning the woman he’s falling in love with. Now this is an interesting setup, but the development of the romance slows the pace of the film badly. It’s only in the second half, when matters are forced to a head, that the movie picks up speed again and coasts along towards a quite literally explosive finale amid the carnival celebrations on the island.

For a man with such an extensive filmography, Robert Z Leonard is a director whose work I’m not familiar with. A quick glance through his credits explains that though – he specialized in movies which hold little or no interest for me. However, he, along with cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg, does a fine job of blending classical noir iconography with a melodramatic crime story. Even some decidedly turgid romantic moments are made all the more bearable by the clever use of shadows and light filtered through louvred doors. The fact that The Bribe was an MGM production might give one pause for though too. It may well have been the studio that best typified the heyday of Hollywood, but I wouldn’t rank it among my favourites. The house style usually demanded a kind of populist gloss that tended to preclude any notion of realism or grit. In the case of this movie though, the artificiality that marked out MGM actually works in its favour, that heightened sense of unreality adding to the exotic flavour of the setting. From a purely visual perspective, The Bribe looks splendid. The biggest issue is the way the script allows the essentially uneventful middle of the story to drag on for far too long.

I mentioned in the introduction that there are a couple of fine performances, but I’ll work up to that gradually. I found John Hodiak’s work the weakest of the five main players. His first scene where he’s supposed to be drunk felt amateurish and unconvincing, like a guy who never touched a drop doing an impression of a lush. However, he spends most of the remainder of the movie laid up in his sick-bed so there’s no opportunity to see whether he could have added another dimension to his role. It has to be said that Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner made for an extremely attractive leading couple, and they do have a certain chemistry on-screen. Gardner looks breathtakingly beautiful in some shots and it’s clear that this was a woman capable of making any man reappraise his ethics. Taylor was an actor who I think gets slated too often by critics. His looks often meant that he was underestimated, but age and maturity came to his rescue. His post-war work gets better with each passing year as his tough reserve was increasingly reflected in his features. I reckon his western roles bring out the best in him but he also made some first class noir pictures too; The Bribe may not be his finest, but it’s not bad either. Vincent Price was another who improved as the years passed, and his role as the slimy and conniving Carwood represents a step along that path. Right at the top of the heap though is Charles Laughton, giving a performance that’s slyly captivating. His perpetually unshaven Bealer is a clever combination of the sleazy and the pitiful. In a role that could easily have become deeply unattractive, his expressive features and carefully modulated voice create a character who pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of being simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic.

A while back, I was on the point of ordering the Warner Archive version of The Bribe, but then noticed that the film was also available on pressed disc from Spain. So, I ended up buying the release from Absolute. From reading online comments and looking at screencaps, I think the Spanish release is broadly comparable to the R1 disc. The film hasn’t undergone any restoration and there are minor scratches and marks on the print. Still, there are no serious issues and the contrast and clarity are generally strong. Absolute provide the theatrical trailer and the English soundtrack only; the Spanish subtitles can be disabled via the setup menu. There’s also a booklet of viewing notes included, in Spanish of course, that features the original poster art and lots of attractive stills. The film is an entertaining  yet imperfect slice of noir exotica. Ultimately, the characters, with the possible exception of Carwood, revert to traditional morality and thus dilute the darkness that the script flirts with. It may not be full-blown noir and the script could use a bit of tightening but it’s well worth seeing, if only for Gardner’s beauty and Laughton’s low-life charm.

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While the City Sleeps

Poster

Crime, betrayal, duplicity and grasping, ruthless ambition. All these are ideal ingredients for any film noir, and when you throw in the hard-bitten and cynical milieu of the newspaperman it serves merely to add a little extra kick to an already potent cocktail. While the City Sleeps (1956) contains all of the above and boasts a cast that’s packed to the rafters with heavy hitters. As if that weren’t enough, it’s directed by a genre specialist whose pre-Hollywood influence on the look and mood of film noir is immense.

The plot involves two parallel stories that slowly converge – the first being an investigation of a serial killer on the loose in New York, and the second a cold appraisal of the backstabbing world of the media. What draws both strands together is the contest engineered by Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) to find a new administrator for his recently inherited media empire. Kyne is a spoiled and idle incompetent who hasn’t a clue how to run the business his father left him. But he’s no fool, and he hits on the idea of playing his top men off against each other with the prize of a newly created executive post up for grabs. Whoever can run down and nail the so-called “Lipstick Killer” will take the honours and the top job. Three men are desperate for this promotion: Mark Loving (George Sanders) – head of the wire service, John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) – editor of the newspaper, and Harry Kritzer (James Craig)  – picture editor. The company’s star TV newscaster, Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), also finds himself roped into this race to find a murderer and thus capture the spoils. The actual investigation of the crime takes a back seat – the audience knows who it is from the pre-credits sequence – and the main thrust is how these media types are prepared to tear each other, the ones they love, and their already slightly tarnished morals apart for the sake of professional advancement. To further complicate matters, the personal relationships of Mobley, Kyne, Loving and Kritzer all become hopelessly entangled as the pressure mounts and the killer remains at large and active. The hunt for the murderer draws to an exciting close in the subway tunnels below the city, but the question of who will walk away with the promotion remains unclear until the very last scene. Along the way, the audience is treated to a marvellous dissection of not only the flexible ethics of journalism, but also the mercenary nature of humanity.

Moralising in the back of a cab - Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews in While the City Sleeps.

After spending twenty years making movies in Hollywood, Fritz Lang was nearing the end of his American career. In terms of look and style While the City Sleeps may seem like a watered down version of his previous noir pictures. However, what it lacks in visuals and budget is made up for in cynicism and sourness. None of the main characters behave in an honourable way either in their private lives or their professional ones. Many newspaper dramas down through the years have used the device of the story being everything, but this time not even that old chestnut holds sway. Everybody marches to the tune of ambition and they’re all ready to go to whatever lengths are necessary to achieve it. Dana Andrews, in between drinks, even sinks so low as to use his own fiancee as bait to smoke the killer out. He is the character the audience is supposed to identify most closely with, being persuaded to take part in the grotesque contest (at least initially) as a favour to a friend. However, he’s a shabby kind of hero who really only redeems himself at the end by finally speaking the truth regardless of the consequences. George Sanders very much conforms to type as the smooth and vaguely caddish wire service boss who knows all the right people but struggles to get to grips with the seedier characters likely to hold the key to this case. Ida Lupino does great work as the gossip columnist and occasional girlfriend of Sanders, who agrees to do his spade work for him. She has some nice scenes with Andrews where they both let their wandering eyes off the leash while simultaneously trying to pump each other for information. In truth, there was far better chemistry between Andrews and Lupino than was the case with Sally Forrest, who played his fairly insipid girl. Vincent Price’s role is all effete indolence without any of the menace that he was capable of conveying. Right up to the end he’s blissfully unaware that his faithless trophy wife, Rhonda Fleming, is carrying on an affair with James Craig’s slippery picture editor. Out of this large ensemble cast, the most sympathetic performance came from Thomas Mitchell – the old school editor/reporter who chomps away on cigars and lacks only the press pass jammed into his hat band. Sure he’s every bit as consumed as the others, but back of those slightly wild eyes there remains a flicker of decency – and it’s him you find yourself really rooting for. The only seriously weak link is provided by John Barrymore Jr as the mother’s boy killer with some major issues. One of the best scenes in the movie – him watching the telecast where Andrews profiles the then unknown murderer in disparaging and insulting terms – is very nearly scuppered by Barrymore’s appalling mugging and overacting.

While the City Sleeps has finally made an appearance on DVD courtesy of Exposure Cinema in the UK. The film is presented in 1.33:1 ratio, and according to the distributors this decision was taken due to the condition of the elements – i.e. the image would have been too soft to matte and blow up for widescreen. It’s an open-matte presentation, the film should have been presented flat 1.85:1 in the US (and probably 2:1 Superscope in Europe), and was clearly protected for possible academy ratio showings. There is plenty of extraneous space top and bottom, which should be apparent from the screencap above, but it’s not seriously distracting. Apart from that, the image is quite clean and pleasing to look at and doesn’t display any major faults. The original trailer is included along with a selection of galleries. All told, the package is a worthy one, and it should be mentioned that while the title is rumoured to be in the pipeline from Warners in the US the chances are it will find it’s home in the Archive. This movie has long been one of my favourite Lang pictures and I’m pleased to have it at last in a worthwhile edition. I’ve heard it said that the film suffers from too much focus on the so-called soapy elements of the story, but I disagree. The real strengths of the film are to be found in those newsroom and bar scenes – the character interaction is what drives everything forward and it would be a poorer piece of cinema without them. I have no problem recommending this one.

The Long Night

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Hollywood has always been in love with the remake, not only of its own domestic product but those originating in other territories too. In the ’40s and ’50s a number of French movies were revisited, Lang’s Scarlet Street and Human Desire being prime examples, with a fair degree of success. Frequently these re-imaginings were (as in the previous examples) the work of directors and crews who had learned their craft in the French and other European cinema industries. Such was the case with The Long Night (1947); a remake of Le Jour Se Leve carried out by emigre director Anatole Litvak. Now I’ve never seen  the original, but a quick scan of the comments at the IMDb tell me that a number of people regard the Hollywood film as inferior. I’ve always been of the opinion that there are both good and bad remakes, and that there are those who display a knee-jerk reaction whenever the term is used. You pretty much have to judge any movie on its own merits and, as such, I think The Long Night stands up well enough.

It’s late in the day in a nameless town and a blind man taps his way up the stairs to his room in a boarding house. His ascent is interrupted as a shot rings out. On the top floor a door bursts open, and a mortally wounded man stumbles out before pitching headlong down the staircase. This was The Great Maximilian (Vincent Price), a second rate conjurer plying his trade in a succession of low rent night clubs across the country. Now he lies dead on a seedy landing in a tenement, gutshot by factory worker Joe Adams (Henry Fonda). That’s how The Long Night opens, and before the end we will learn just how these two men came to this point. For the most part the story is told in flashback from the point of view of Adams, although at one stage there is what you might call a double flashback. Sound confusing? Well, it’s not really, since the story recounted is a fairly simple one. Naturally, there’s a woman involved who acts as the catalyst. She is Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), a virginal young innocent for whom both Adams and Maximilian fall – figuratively and literally. With Maximilian persisting in his attempts to seduce the girl and Adams simmering resentment growing, events slowly build towards the only possible outcome. Along the way, other characters flit in and out of the story, most notably Maximilian’s former assistant and lover Charlene (Ann Dvorak). Her streetwise presence serves both to provide a contrast to the gullibility of Jo Ann and to highlight just what a piece of work Maximilian is. His deceitful pursuit of Adams’ girl is one thing, but it’s a rare kind of S.O.B. who shaves the paws of puppies and burns the skin red raw in order to train them to perform.

Broken glass and broken dreams - Henry Fonda

Made at a time when noir pictures were beginning to move towards a wider use of locations and a more documentary approach, The Long Night is something of a throwback. Shot entirely in the studio and making extensive use of miniatures and forced perspective, the film takes on a dreamlike, otherworldly quality. This works pretty well since Joe Adams spends the film holed up in a bullet-riddled room living within his own mind and memories. Fonda does well in a role that demanded he be breezy and cheerful in the flashbacks, all the while growing more uneasy until he finally starts to lose his grip on reality. He always excelled in his portrayals of average guys who are put upon, and he manages to work in some post-war angst which must have struck a chord with the recently returned WWII vets. In contrast, Vincent Price hams it up in a bombastic performance as the villain who is sly, snide and sneering while retaining a certain pathos. Barbara Bel Geddes, in her debut role, was well cast as the youthful Jo Ann. Superficially, she doesn’t seem to fit the stereotypical image of the femme fatale, but her character certainly has a fatal effect on the men in the picture. Ann Dvorak’s wisecracking dame who’s seen it all is is a joy to behold as she picks away at Maximilian’s carefully arranged image, and seems to be having a ball casually humiliating him whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

The Long Night was an RKO picture but it has been released on R1 DVD by Kino. While the film clearly hasn’t had any significant clean-up done it remains in pretty good shape. There are a variety of damage marks present but, with a few exceptions, the print is clear and very watchable. As is often the case with films like this, the audio can be a bit inconsistent but I can’t see anyone forking out for a full blown restoration so this is probably as good as it’s going to look and sound. The disc does boast some nice extras in the form of a text based feature detailing the meticulous work that went into the production design which gives the film its unique atmosphere. Alongside that, there are  a  couple of clips which compare scenes in the movie with virtually identical ones in the French original. All told this is a fine movie that should please anyone with a taste for noir.