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Category Archives: Film Noir

The Big Heat

Over the years I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about film noir, musing over what it is or isn’t and, perhaps inevitably, looking at quite a few borderline cases. I’m still not sure I could articulate exactly what constitutes film noir – although not being able to do so is hardly a big deal – but I do recognize a clear-cut example when I see it. Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) comfortably fits the bill with its harsh portrayal of a cruel and corrupt world and the merciless way it treats those who would resist it.

The first thing we see is a man reaching for a revolver and then calmly blowing his brains out as he sits at the desk in his front room. His wife (Jeanette Nolan) is alerted by the gunshot and appears shocked, but not too much and certainly not overcome by grief. If anything, she’s drawn more to the document her late husband left behind. The recently deceased was a cop, a dirty one who had been bought and paid for by the mob, and also smart enough to have retained some insurance. As the investigating officer, Bannion (Glenn Ford), remarks, when a cop takes his own life the department is always interested to find out the reason. Initially, there’s no reason to doubt the widow’s claims that her husband was suffering from ill-health and the case looks to be an open and shut one. Even when a girl in a clip joint makes allegations about a less than satisfactory private life, there’s nothing to prove it’s anything other than talk. It’s only after Bannion starts to get gently warned off that he grows more suspicious. As the underworld flexes its muscles and reveals the violence that has been lurking behind the thinnest of veils the full extent of official corruption becomes apparent. Had Bannion been prepared to play the game, matters would have ended there. However, his persistence, and perhaps recklessness or naivety, brings tragedy right into his own parlor. With the whole fabric of his being torn down around him, Bannion moves himself out to the fringes of society where he allows himself to become consumed with hatred, frustration and an unquenchable desire for vengeance.

I’ve never made any secret of the fact I’m a big fan of Fritz Lang, and I’m especially fond of his Hollywood movies. Towards the end of his time in the US the budgets he operated under seemed to shrink but he always had a talent for economy in his storytelling anyway. The Big Heat exemplifies this neatly in the no-nonsense way it plunges headlong into the tale from the very first shot. The whole movie is a lean affair, pared down to its essentials visually, thematically and in terms of dialogue too. There’s no waste – not a word nor a gesture appears which doesn’t serve to drive the narrative on. Even the central idea (that of institutional corruption, an increasing staple of 50s film noir) is addressed in direct, matter-of-fact terms.

One of the most interesting aspects, for me at least, was the contrasting portrayal of family life on view. We’re introduced to Bannion’s domestic setup early on and it’s an attractive one, defined by the affection and banter between the detective and his wife (Jocelyn Brando) and the simple yet wholesome way they’re living. Later, when we’re introduced to the chief mobster, Lagana (Alexander Scourby), it’s a very different world which is presented. Where Bannion’s home is a relaxed place filled with informal conversation, Lagana’s mansion feels like a mausoleum of respectability, a soulless place where no hint of “dirty” talk is tolerated.

The other notable point to be made about The Big Heat is the frank way that violence is depicted. There’s real brutality in the actions of the mob and its principal enforcer (Lee Marvin), a sadistic pleasure derived from the infliction of pain and suffering. The film came along quite early in Marvin’s career and gave him the kind of role that was something of a gift for a young actor. In another of those instances of mirroring Ford’s honest cop is driven right to the brink of sanity and morality – he comes to embrace violence with almost the same gusto as Marvin’s sociopath. The crucial difference here though is that Ford draws himself back before he fully succumbs to his basest instincts. Actually, it’s a very solid part for him, requiring him to exercise a fair bit of range as his character travels along the painful arc from contented family man, through heartbreak and loss, to cold avenger. He’s partially saved or redeemed by his own innate decency, but an even more significant influence is provided by Gloria Grahame’s unfortunate moll. It’s her actions and what happens to her that breaks everything wide open, giving Ford his first real leads and also reawakening his ability to identify and empathize with people again. Ultimately, while The Big Heat is a film which sees very bad things happen to people, its message is a positive one about human nature. Sure society has its share of rottenness and violence may be lurking just round the corner, but decent people remain so at heart and there are always those willing to lay it on the line to help others.

There was a time when it was difficult to see all of Fritz Lang’s films, although that’s no longer the case. Even back in the days when one had to search around for his stuff The Big Heat was one of the more accessible titles – I think it may actually have been one of the first films by the director I ever saw, at a time when his name wouldn’t have registered with me. Now there are a variety of DVDs and Blu-rays available from different territories so there should be no problem finding a suitable copy of the movie to view. I would imagine that most people with even a passing acquaintance with Lang will be aware of this film – it’s generally well regarded and the casting probably helps. Needless to say, it’s highly recommended for anyone who has yet to view it.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2016 in 1950s, Film Noir, Fritz Lang, Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin

 

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The Unsuspected

His day of reckoning must come. He is tormented by fear that someday he will make one false move, one slip that will betray him, and when he does, the lightning of justice will strike… the unsuspected.

Melodramatic words spoken over the air by the protagonist, the smooth and cultured host of a crime based radio show. And they’re appropriate too as The Unsuspected (1947) fully embraces the instances of melodrama blended into  the story. In fact, the film is made up of a variety of styles – the visuals are pure film noir while the theme and structure perhaps edge closer to the motifs associated with the Golden Age mystery, with at least a nod to the earlier “Had I but known” school of writing. This mix is a generally satisfying one and it’s only a couple of casting decisions which weaken it overall.

It starts off with a killing, a murder carefully disguised to resemble a suicide. The victim is the secretary of Victor Grandison (Claude Rains), writer, broadcaster and connoisseur of all things fine. While this is the jumping off point, the tale rapidly becomes complicated and twisty – a surprise birthday party for Grandison sees the arrival of a young man, Steve Howard (Michael North), who claims to have married the former’s ward, Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield), just before she disappeared. Hard on the heels of that revelation comes the news that Matilda has turned up alive and well, but apparently suffering from some form of amnesia as she has no recall of having married, or even having met, Howard. Still with us? Good, for we’re only getting warmed up; the Grandison household is packed full of dysfunctional types – his niece (Audrey Totter) and her drunken, dissipated husband (Hurd Hatfield) – and is a hotbed of plots, counter-plots, jealousy and greed. By the end, another handful of murders will take place and the masks slip far enough to allow the deceptions to be seen for what they are.

Although I deliberately avoided spoilers in the previous paragraph, the identity of the murderer is shown very early on and so this isn’t what we could refer to as a whodunit. If anything, it’s more akin to an inverted detective story where the focus is on how  the killer will be trapped. That aspect, along with the increasingly tangled web of deceit that is spun, is what tips the movie over into noir territory as opposed to a straight mystery/thriller. Added to all that, of course, are the visuals. The Unsuspected is one of those pictures which is largely set bound, perhaps reducing the realism but also increasing the control the director and photographer (Woody Bredell) have over the look and mood of it all. Warner Brothers films tended to have a very distinct look to their sets, and it’s a very attractive one. The studio also had some top professionals on its books, not least director Michael Curtiz. I sometimes think versatility can be a curse for filmmakers, especially when it comes to assessing their critical worth. Curtiz appears to be a prime example of this phenomenon – even a cursory glance at his credits will reveal the sheer number of high-class films he made over his long career and the range of genres he successfully worked in. That ability to turn his hand to virtually every kind of movie the studio sent his way has somehow worked against him  – he’s a man you cannot easily compartmentalize and thus he’s more difficult to  appraise. Yet his work remains immensely stylish and it could be said that his aesthetic goes a long way towards defining the look and feel of Warner Brothers, his long-term home.

Any time you see Claude Rains’ name in the credits of a film you can be reasonably sure of some entertainment. Even when he was handed small supporting roles he always gave value for money. The Unsuspected sees Rains taking the lead and receiving the lion’s share of screen time, and he’s a joy every time he appears – suave, silky and with that shading of understated menace. He’s well supported by Audrey Totter and Constance Bennett, the former slinking around and exuding a feline allure while the latter gets to deliver some great one-liners and wisecracks. Hurd Hatfield is serviceable enough as the washed up artist while Fred Clark and Jack Lambert are welcome faces as far as I’m concerned. All those are positives – however, there are also some less satisfactory elements which need to be acknowledged. Michael North  and Joan Caulfield make up the romantic pairing at the heart of the movie, the couple for whom the audience is supposed to be rooting. And here we have what is arguably the biggest weakness of the movie; both North and Caulfield come across as incredibly flat and frankly dull and it’s quite tough to really care what happens to either one. Bearing in mind that the complex plotting is built around what should be viewer sympathy for this central couple, the disconnect their performances encourage is problematic.

The Unsuspected is available on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive MOD program, and the film was also released in Spain. I have that Spanish edition, which I believe is a port of the US disc. The transfer does have the odd scratch and mark present but it looks quite good overall with nice levels of contrast and detail. Optional Spanish subtitles are offered and there is a 12 page booklet (in Spanish, naturally) included. There’s an awful lot going on in the story but I think everything remains focused in spite of that, and a much bigger issue is the lackluster characterizations in a couple of cases. However, there are enough good performances from others to help gloss over those deficiencies, and Curtiz and Bredell ensure everything looks terrific. I’ve seen comparisons drawn between The Unsuspected and Preminger’s Laura, and I can see where there are some superficial similarities. Still, this movie is a more straightforward affair and doesn’t have the feeling of obsessiveness that characterizes the Preminger film. Sure it has its faults, as I’ve alluded to, but it’s entertaining stuff for all that and worth checking out if you’re not familiar with it.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2016 in 1940s, Film Noir, Michael Curtiz

 

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Backfire

All right. What’s certain? Two things… death and taxes…

There aren’t too many films noir set in and around the holiday season, Christmas Holiday and Lady in the Lake probably being the best known, as it’s clearly more marketable to focus on the upbeat and cheerful rather than the dark or cynical side of life. Backfire (1950) isn’t strictly speaking a seasonal noir but a number of its key events do play out over the festive period. As such, I thought it would be an appropriate choice for what ought to be my last full review piece for this year.

It’s November of 1948, the war’s been over a few years now but the scars haven’t fully healed. In a veterans hospital in California Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) is still recuperating from his wounds, a serious back injury which has required thirteen operations. Still, he’s on the road to recovery and has hopes of going into the ranching business with his old army pal Steve Connelly (Edmond O’Brien), and also of marrying the nurse, Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo), who’s tended him. The holidays are rapidly approaching and Bob is growing anxious that his buddy hasn’t been around of late. Then, late on Christmas Eve as his medication is just kicking in, he has a visit from an unknown woman, a foreigner whom none of the hospital staff can subsequently recall seeing. As he lies in a narcotic haze, she tells him that Steve is in serious trouble, laid up with a shattered spine and desperately in need of help. What’s a guy to do when he learns his best buddy is in such dire straits? As soon as his discharge comes through in the New Year, he resolves to track down the mystery woman and, by extension, Steve. In the world of noir nothing’s quite that simple though, and he finds himself picked up by a squad car upon leaving the hospital. Ferried to the homicide department, our bewildered hero fears the worst, but instead discovers that Steve is top of the police wanted list for the murder of a prominent gambler. And so begins a twisting quest for the truth which dips in and out of the past, a winding path that’s driven by gambling and jealousy, and has death as its final stop.

The problems faced by returning veterans, particularly the difficulty of establishing one’s place back in civilized society, was a recurring theme (perhaps one of the most prominent in truth) in film noir and was arguably the factor which gave greatest momentum to the post-war boom in that genre. Backfire comes at this on three fronts, focusing on the physical, social and psychological barriers to be overcome. While the latter aspect is the one which acts as the catalyst for the violence and tragedy in the plot, its causes are hinted at rather than fully explored – although it does at least make an effort to acknowledge the matter and avoids going down the road that led to such an unsatisfactory conclusion to The Blue Dahlia a few years before. Speaking of which, I have a hunch the coda of the movie here was tacked on as a softening touch – I hasten to add I have no evidence to suggest this is so beyond a feeling that the fade out preceding it may have been deemed a bit too much of a downer.

Vincent Sherman was one of those studio directors who made mainly professional if not wholly memorable pictures. Generally, I’d say I enjoy his work well enough  – Lone Star was quite disappointing but I think Nora Prentiss, The Garment Jungle, The Unfaithful and The Damned Don’t Cry all have worth. The plot does become pretty complicated as it goes along but Sherman uses the flashbacks intelligently and keeps the pace up. There’s some good use of the Los Angeles locations and Carl Guthrie lights the interiors nicely to create the requisite atmosphere.

The poster art is a little misleading, although understandably so in the wake of White Heat. It gives the impression that Virginia Mayo is playing the kind of vampish femme fatale so beloved of noir. The fact is, however, that she’s cast as that other staple of the form, the Girl Friday who lends support to the hero. She’s fine in this role and I think it’s a pity she didn’t get to feature a bit more. Gordon MacRae is the everyman figure who leads us through the complexities – he was primarily a musical star and seems an odd choice at first for this type of film but actually works out OK as the innocent cast into a world which is clearly alien to him. Edmond O’Brien, on the other hand, was very much at home in film noir and does great work (tough, weary but fundamentally decent) in his flashback scenes. While the presence of a femme fatale  – and that doesn’t have to be a “bad girl”, just one whose sexuality leads men into danger – isn’t always necessary, it never hurts either. Viveca Lindfors fits the bill in Backfire, positively smouldering at times and always convincing as a woman unconsciously capable of tempting men to risk it all for. Dane Clark was always busy as an actor but never seemed to really make it as a star; he was excellent in Borzage’s Moonrise and I thought he did well in a number of crime/noir films he made in Britain. His role here is a vital one and he handled it very capably in my opinion. Notable support is provided by the always reliable Ed Begley and John Dehner pops up in an uncredited bit part.

A Warner Brothers production, Backfire is available on DVD as part of that studio’s Film Noir Classics Collection Vol. 5. It’s paired up on disc with Deadline at Dawn and looks good throughout. The transfer is mostly clean with very little damage visible and a nice level of detail. There are no extra features offered. Although this isn’t one of the better known films noir it’s a solid movie with some good performances. The script maybe tries to be a tad too clever at times and I did notice one plot hole which irritated me somewhat (I won’t go into it here as I don’t want to get into spoiler territory) but it remains enjoyable overall. A reasonably entertaining thriller then with a tangential connection to the holidays.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2015 in 1950s, Film Noir

 

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I Confess

Hitchcock films get mentioned and written about all the time, but it’s almost always the same dozen or so that receive all the attention and plaudits. A good many of his movies are really only spoken of in passing, often referred to as bridges between his major works and, while it’s rare to see them dismissed outright, it sometimes seems that the perceived flaws and (relative) lack of success is what draws most comment. I Confess (1953) probably belongs in this category, being regarded as a little too personal and flirting with inaccessibility as far as non-Catholics are concerned. Whatever the popular view might be, it’s a film I’m very fond of, and one which of course contains the now familiar wrong man theme.

The movie opens in a typically quirky and macabre fashion, a succession of street signs flashing before our eyes and leading inexorably to the scene of a murder. As the camera peers through the open window the corpse is laid out on the floor and the door is just closing on the exiting killer. We follow the murderer through the shadowy, cobbled streets, his silhouetted figure suggesting a clergyman. Then, as he casts off the soutane, it becomes apparent that the priestly garb was no more than a convenient disguise, no doubt inspired by the fact that this man earns his keep working for the church. When a man has committed the ultimate sin, has compromised his soul and is wracked with guilt and fear, then it’s not unnatural that he should seek solace and sanctuary in a holy place. The man in question is Otto Keller (O E Hasse) and his entering the church is witnessed by chance by one of the priests, Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift). Keller insists that Fr Logan hear his confession and the latter duly obliges. Much has been made of the fact that non-Catholics may have difficulty appreciating the seal of the confessional, the inability of a priest to ever reveal what he hears under such circumstances. I understand how there are those who might be unaware of this but the absolute confidentiality is made clear in the script so I think it’s not really reasonable to criticize the film on this score. Anyway, both the viewers and Fr Logan are aware of the identity of the murderer almost from the beginning, but further complications are to arise and cast official suspicion in a different direction. If all those signs in the opening sequence led us to a dead man, another set of pointers lead the police, headed up by the dogged and practical Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), towards Fr Logan. The murderer’s literal cloak of convenience helps of course, but the priest’s connections with the victim, a blackmailing, shyster lawyer, fan the flames of suspicion. As the reasons for Logan’s seemingly odd behaviour are laid bare and the object of the blackmail becomes known, the priest’s refusal or inability to speak up damns him in the eyes of the law. With the wheels of blind justice now in motion, Logan finds himself morally trapped and apparently powerless to protect either himself or those he cares about.

Anyone who has ever read anything about Hitchcock will be aware of two facts: his Catholic upbringing, and the distrust he felt for the law and the institutions of justice. Both of these influences on the director’s life are very much to the fore in I Confess. Church dogma colors every aspect of Logan’s behaviour throughout, cutting down his options and, again through no fault of his own, leaving both him and those around him exposed to misguided moral outrage. And of course all this leaves him at the mercy of a justice system which is unsympathetic to what it’s unaware of. Essentially, Hitchcock is presenting us with an ethical conundrum, a true dilemma where betrayal (be it spiritual or emotional) lies in wait whichever path is chosen. Really, it’s a classic noir scenario, with fate seemingly laying a complex and delicate trap for the unsuspecting protagonist – every act, the noble and the innocent most of all, being misconstrued and misinterpreted. Robert Burks’ lighting and photography, particularly the night scenes, is bathed in expressionistic shadow and Hitchcock blends the tilted angles, telling close-ups, tracking shots and deep focus beautifully. You could say the symbolism is laid on a touch heavily at times – the allusion to the trek to Calvary springs to mind immediately – but it’s all so wonderfully composed that it sounds a little churlish to harp on it too much.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the Method approach to acting, finding it phony and distracting for the most part. However, there are always exceptions, and it’s nice to be able to highlight a positive example. Montgomery Clift was one of the first (perhaps the first?) practitioners of the Method on the big screen, and I feel he was generally very successful. I like internalized performances and I like subtlety, and Clift was a first-rate exponent of this. Great screen acting comes from the little things, the barely perceptible changes of mood and the altered thought processes which we sense as much as see. Clift had many blessings but among the most significant were his composure and his eyes. The early scene in the confession box is a marvelous bit of work with those eyes revealing so much. And the same can be said for every important plot development – the increasing desperation and hopelessness of the situation is perfectly conveyed but never exaggerated. At one time I felt that Anne Baxter was less than satisfactory as Clift’s former love, but I now feel she judged it well enough. Again, it’s a role that calls for as much to be held inside as freely expressed. The longish flashback which clarifies the nature of her relationship with Logan is told from her point of view and it’s probably here that she comes across best. Frankly, there are good performances all round: Malden’s probing and restless detective, Brian Aherne’s rakish prosecutor, O E Hasse as the craven yet pitiful killer, and of course Dolly Haas as his conscience-stricken wife.

A film like I Confess, one which is so heavily dependent on its visuals, needs to be seen in good quality. Fortunately, the Warner Brothers DVD offers a strong transfer that shows off the contrast between light and dark to good effect. It’s clean and acceptably sharp, a solid-looking presentation. The disc also has a “Making of” documentary included, which provides some analysis along with production and background information – a worthwhile extra in my opinion. The film continues to be underrated as far as I can tell, and that probably says more about the strength of Hitchcock’s body of work than it does about the movie itself. I reckon it accomplishes about all it sets out to do but others may disagree with that assertion. Either way, I’d urge people to give it a chance, or perhaps watch it again if they’re already acquainted with it – I believe there are plenty of positive aspects to  focus on.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock, Film Noir

 

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Cape Fear

Recently, I wrote about Brainstorm, commenting on its connections to classic film noir. Another movie from the same decade, albeit a few years earlier, with an arguably stronger affiliation to the world of noir is Cape Fear (1962). Sourced from the hard-boiled, pulpy writing of John D MacDonald, the film is a merciless examination of some of the darkest areas of human nature. While almost all the varied aspects of the filmmaking process, and the artists and craftsmen involved, blend together to produce the finished product, much of its power derives from the central performance of Robert Mitchum. For a man who initially didn’t want to do the picture, Mitchum fully inhabits his part and brings a level of feral brutality to the character that makes Max Cady one of the most memorable and formidable villains the screen has known.

The story is a relatively simple tale of revenge and retribution, a face-off not only between the principal characters but between the law and justice too. Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a successful lawyer, married with a teenage daughter and living in some comfort. A typical noir scenario frequently sees the protagonist cornered by circumstance, and what better way to achieve that than to have the past come crashing violently into the present. In Sam Bowden’s case the unwelcome past is represented by the swaggering, cigar-chomping figure of Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), a man who’s spent eight years in prison on the basis of Bowden’s testimony against him. The question of his own guilt doesn’t occur to Cady, he simply regards himself as a victim of Bowden’s meddling and is thus intent on exacting vengeance for what he considers a life denied him. From his first encounter with Bowden outside the courthouse, a mock affability barely concealing his threats, Cady becomes omnipresent in the attorney’s life. Everywhere he goes, his arrogant nemesis seems to follow, and the veiled intimidation is gradually cranked up with each successive meeting. With the danger to his family becoming ever more apparent, Bowden turns to his friends in the police department in the hopes of using his establishment connections to rid himself of Cady. However, if he thinks he can bend the law to his benefit, he soon finds out how mistaken that assumption is – Cady is clever, cunning and more than capable of turning the tools of Bowden’s trade back on him. Bit by bit, the lawyer is drawn, through mounting desperation, towards that fine line between legality and criminality. Ultimately, Cady’s goading will lead him right up to the rim of the moral abyss and dare him to take that final fateful step.

J Lee Thompson had begun his directing career in British cinema a decade earlier and had made a number of films which showed he had a talent for both action and suspense. While working on The Guns of Navarone, he so impressed star Gregory Peck that he was promptly asked to take charge of this film. There are action sequences in Cape Fear, particularly during the harrowing climax, but it’s primarily a suspense picture, a dread infused journey of terror and moral compromise. As Bernard Herrmann’s ominous score pounds away, Thompson smoothly dials up the tension in tantalizing increments  – clever cutting and camera setups lending an air of danger to such mundane and traditionally secure settings as the family home and the daughter’s school. And cameraman Sam Leavitt plays his part too, alternating between the sun drenched Savannah locations where Sam Bowden walks tall and proud as a leading citizen, and the inky shadows of his home and later the river as his thoughts turn to subverting the law which he serves in order to protect his family.

I said at the start that Cape Fear is a film which benefits from fine work all round. Peck was always good at portraying upright, heroic types. The role of Sam Bowden was a comfortable fit for him, and he catches the slight stiffness that makes the character ever so vaguely unlikable very well; Peck had the ability to convey a kind of prim smugness at times, a quality which fits in nicely in the early stages when he’s calling in favors from Martin Balsam’s accommodating police chief in an effort to run Cady out of town. I found it interesting that Lee Server’s biography claims Mitchum regarded the Peck character as the bad guy until the brutality of the second half of the film clarifies matters. Actually, it not so hard to see where he was coming from with that theory as the story has the establishment figures closing ranks against the outsider in the early stages. Of course the full extent of Cady’s depravity and ruthlessness is starkly revealed as the story unfolds, but that faint touch of ambiguity at the beginning adds further interest to my mind.

Regardless of the solid work from Peck, Polly Bergen, Telly Savalas, Lori Martin, Barrie Chase et al, it’s really Mitchum’s show all the way. He’d proved how well he could take on villainous roles in Charles Laughton’s dreamy and magical The Night of the Hunter but I feel playing Max Cady saw him step up to another level altogether. He’s genuinely electrifying every time he appears on screen, strutting and swaggering and dominating every frame with his sheer physicality. To refer again to the Server biography, it’s said that he invested himself in the role so deeply that he terrified Barrie Chase – something that’s clearly visible in the movie itself – and almost had to be restrained during the climactic assaults on both Bergen and Peck. The film was remade 30 years later by Martin Scorsese, with Robert De Niro as Cady, and featuring cameos by both Mitchum and Peck, but it didn’t work anywhere near as well for me. That remake, despite attempts to add some intriguing new aspects to the characters’ relationships, suffers badly from a cartoonish performance by De Niro that pales before the raw dynamism of Mitchum’s work – the sheer primal power of the man burns itself into your memory.

I just recently watched the film again on Blu-ray, which I picked up bundled with the remake for a very good price, and it benefits from the increased resolution but not in any startling way. If Cape Fear isn’t generally referred to as film noir, then it comes awfully close as far as I’m concerned. It’s dark, brooding and tough – the ending does see justice prevail, just, but it comes at a heavy price and nobody really walks away unscathed. For anyone laboring under the illusion that Mitchum tended to phone in his performances, or that J Lee Thompson was simply Cannon fodder, Cape Fear ought to put those myths permanently to rest.

 

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Jeopardy

You’re smart… honest. I like smart women. They got cat in ’em.

Current trends in cinema indicate that audiences prefer ever-increasing running times, or at least the major studios seem to interpret it that way. In terms of minutes spent in front of the screen, you could definitely say you’re getting your money’s worth out of a movie these days. But is it really possible to reduce the worth of a movie, or any piece of art for that matter, to such crude terms? I’m fine with long films if the story or its telling merits the added time. The problem though is that this is rarely the case; simple stories are padded to the point they lose their edge, and true epics no longer as potent. It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time filmmakers knew that quality and quantity were not equal partners, that it was unnecessary to tie them together in a marriage of inconvenience. Today, let’s look at Jeopardy (1953), a movie that does all it needs to do in under seventy minutes.

There’s something wholesome and reassuring about family vacations, especially the hard-earned ones. Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan), along with his wife Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker), are driving south to get away from it all the stresses and strains of life. They’re heading to Mexico, to a deserted fishing cove Doug remembers visiting with an old army buddy, and everything seems right with the world. As they cross the border and move away from the big towns Helen’s narration catches some of the optimistic flavor of the early 50s – there’s an air of domestic contentment, but there’s an edge to her voice at times that warns of a tale which will take a twist before it runs its course. We get the odd hint of an undercurrent of tension  – Doug doesn’t like being told what to do and Helen is obviously not a woman to be undervalued – but the first real sense of danger comes when the family encounters a police roadblock. The reason for the spot check becomes apparent later. For the time being, things couldn’t be better – Doug finds his secluded beach and the family settle down to relax in glorious solitude. However, to borrow from another noir narrator, fate has put its finger on this particular group of people. While exploring the old jetty, Bobby gets his foot stuck in the decaying timbers and his father has to go and free him. It’s at this point that everything, quite literally, falls apart. The upshot is that Doug finds himself trapped in the shallows by a fallen pile, and the tide is rising. With all attempts to extricate him coming to nothing, Doug convinces Helen to drive back to the last settlement they passed in search of help. Reluctantly, she does so, leaving Bobby behind to keep him company. What she encounters though is Lawson (Ralph Meeker), the object of the aforementioned police dragnet. As the water level rises, and Helen’s sense of desperation matches it, we learn exactly how far a woman is prepared to go to save the life of the man she loves.

I’ve commented before on how there’s something very attractive about John Sturges’ work in the 50s, which is not to say I dislike the bigger, and more ambitious films he made in the years to come. I feel he was at his best in the 50s though; there’s a tightness, a kind of taut economy, in his filmmaking during that period. Jeopardy is a straightforward and direct story – there’s no explanation of who Lawson is or what precisely he’s wanted for, but a handful of telling shots let the audience know all that’s necessary about his character and the things he’s capable of. Time is of the essence for the man trapped on the beach, and Sturges never once lets go of that sense of urgency. The almost constant use of motion – the crashing waves, Helen’s chaotic drive to the settlement, and Lawson’s similarly frantic journey back – offer no respite from the tension. Not a moment is wasted, nor a word uttered superfluously. In visual terms, Sturges was as fine an exponent of the wide screen process as it’s been my pleasure to see. While this film was framed for, or at least is presented in, Academy ratio, the director’s spatial awareness and composition is always in evidence. The high, objectifying angles increase the sense of isolation of the characters in a barren and hostile environment, and the close-ups catch every twitch of emotion on their faces.

Barbara Stanwyck was in her mid-40s when she made Jeopardy, and showing few signs of relinquishing her grip on leading roles. By this stage she’d had plenty of experience playing tough broads who knew their way round the world and were capable of giving as good as they got. Unlike similarly strong actresses like Bette Davis or, more especially, Joan Crawford, whom I often find off-putting, Stanwyck retained that toughness without descending into hardness. While she worked in a variety of genres, there was an edge and earthiness which made her a good fit for westerns and thrillers. Jeopardy gave her top billing and plenty to get her teeth into – the painful decisions circumstances have forced her into making are never shied away from and her reactions to them remain entirely credible. Barry Sullivan would go on to make another two movies with Stanwyck – most notably Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns – and he worked well with her on screen. The film has no shortage of high drama and thus needed a strong, stable presence to anchor it all. Sullivan is very good as the man used to taking charge and calling the shots, who’s reduced to helplessness. Even so he’s stoic throughout, and his interaction with Lee Aaker (who also appeared in Hondo the same year) is genuinely touching at times. Just the other day I saw Ralph Meeker described, not at all disparagingly, as “a poor man’s Brando”, and I can see how that could be the case. He had the kind of brutal machismo that made him a terrific and interesting Mike Hammer a few years later in Kiss me Deadly, and he has ample opportunity to show that off here. I think it’s also worth noting that even in a film as lean and pared down as Jeopardy, Meeker’s character still has the chance to earn redemption by the end.

Jeopardy was released on DVD in the US some years ago as part of a Stanwyck box set, and the disc was also available individually. It shares that disc space with To Please a Lady, and the transfer is quite good. The print is generally sharp, clean and without damage. The theatrical trailer is provided as an extra along with the radio adaptation of the story. I’m very partial to sparse, brisk storytelling, even more so nowadays as it seems to have become something of a lost art; men like John Sturges knew how to do it well, and Jeopardy is a solid example of that.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2015 in 1950s, Barbara Stanwyck, Film Noir, John Sturges

 

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Brainstorm

By the 60s film noir, in its pure form, had become a thing of the past. Still, movies kept coming along that borrowed from its style, wove the imagery and sense of fatalism into their own fabric and produced what I think of as post-noir cinema. I’ve spoken before of the transition which the western was experiencing during this decade but, looking at the movies as a whole, it wasn’t confined to that genre. If society itself was in the throes of major changes, then it’s hardly surprising that the most popular art and entertainment medium should be going through a similar process. Brainstorm (1965) is what might be termed a psychological thriller though it also retains some of the plot devices and photographic style of the classic period of film noir.

When a man finishes work in the evening and sets off home he may have any number of expectations about what lies ahead. Finding a car straddling a level crossing, with the doors locked, a beautiful woman unconscious inside, and a train fast approaching would have to come pretty far down the list though. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what scientist Jim Grayam (Jeffrey Hunter) comes upon after checking out of the research institute where he’s employed. Just managing to get the car clear of the tracks in time, he discovers that the doped up lady in the passenger seat is Lorrie Benson (Anne Francis), wife of his boss. By the time he’s driven her back to the Beverly Hills mansion where she resides the effects of whatever she’s taken are starting to wear off, and it’s clear enough too that he’s just foiled a suicide bid. The husband, Cort Benson (Dana Andrews), is the urbane but stiff type, a man accustomed to possessing and controlling both things and people. Well there’s the setup: a desperate woman trapped in a deeply unsatisfactory marriage, a husband who is aloof and calculating, and a good-looking young man who’s just ridden to the rescue. There are no prizes on offer for guessing the direction this story is going to take, but it’s the intensity with which it’s played out, and the ultimate payoff, that grabs the attention. As Lorrie and Grayam grow ever closer, so the suspicions and ruthlessness of Benson grow ever stronger. With Grayam’s position under threat as a result of an insidious campaign designed to call into question his stability, thoughts turn to murder. The commission of the crime doesn’t appear to pose so many problems though as the efforts to evade the consequences.

William Conrad is best known for his acting roles, especially on TV, yet he also did a fair bit of work as a director. The bulk of his credits behind the camera were in television, and they’re quite extensive. He only took charge of a handful of cinema features – this is the only one I’ve seen so far – and that’s a pity as he clearly had a good eye for composition and pacing. Conrad moved the camera around nicely and created some wonderfully framed shots, the shooting of the interior scenes in the Benson mansion are particularly noteworthy, using the kind of angles and lighting which are unmistakably noir. Still, the film is clearly a product of the 60s, George Duning’s score and the snappy TV-influenced editing are evidence of that. In a way, the whole thing is a reflection of the director’s experience – the strong noir sensibility, obviously gleaned from his early acting roles in the likes of The Killers, and the sharp economy of television. Generally, it all looks good, due in no small part to the decision to film in the always attractive process of black and white scope.

I’ve stuck up for the acting abilities of Jeffrey Hunter before, and I’m more than happy to do so again. He remains an underrated performer, an actor capable of taking on strong, intense roles and carrying it all off successfully. The part of Jim Grayam wasn’t an easy one; it required a steady progression along an arc, which I at least feel (although others may not agree), is foreshadowed or hinted at right from the beginning. Without getting into spoiler territory, let’s simply say that Hunter’s character traces a path of development which demanded a good deal of skill by the actor to ensure it remained believable. The presence of Dana Andrews in a thriller automatically makes me think of his collaborations with Preminger back in the 40s and Lang in the 50s, and provides a strong link to classic noir. His role in this film, while essentially in support, is a vital one. Age and hard living had weathered his features, although there had always been a touch of the implacable about him, making him a good choice as the distant and manipulative tycoon. Frankly, I wasn’t as impressed by Anne Francis – sure she’s attractive and there’s no problem seeing why she should be able to captivate and lead Hunter down a path of destruction, but her character doesn’t seem to fulfill the potential suggested by her early scenes. Viveca Lindfors, on the other hand, is excellent as the enigmatic psychiatrist, leaving both the viewer and Hunter’s lead unsure as to her motivations. There are plenty of familiar faces popping up in bit parts too: Michael Pate, Strother Martin and, in a brief but memorable scene, there’s an appearance by future Bond villain Richard Kiel.

Brainstorm has been issued on DVD in the US by the Warner Archive as part of their MOD program, and it’s also available in Spain on pressed disc via Warner/Impulso. I have the Spanish version, which I’m guessing replicates the US disc, and the movie has been given a nice anamorphic transfer. The print used is in good condition, generally sharp and without any obvious damage or defects. There are no extra features, and although the menu suggests playback of the English soundtrack may force subtitles to be displayed, they can be disabled by simply deselecting them with the subs button on the remote. Brainstorm mightn’t be a very well-known film but it’s a slickly made post-noir thriller with a strong cast, and well worth checking out.

 

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Dark Passage

Lie still. Hold your breath and cross your fingers.

I’m not a great believer in coincidences; sure they occur from time to time but too many of them all together tend to make me suspicious if anything. That’s in real life. In the movies the rules are a little different and I’m prepared to suspend my disbelief in circumstances that might normally give me pause. Film noir, especially its more paranoid and nightmarish examples, frequently thrives on the convenient coincidence. Dark Passage (1947) really piles the unlikely chance occurrences on top of each other to the point where the plot feels extraordinarily contrived and reality appears skewed. And yet it all ultimately works, because of the chemistry of the leads and also the sensitive and assured direction of Delmer Daves.

Amid the rising wail of sirens a truck speeds towards San Francisco, its load bouncing and rattling as it goes. Inside one of the barrels is a man, a man who’s just  broken out of San Quentin. This is Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) and he’s been serving time for the killing of his wife. Parry insists he was framed and seems to have some vague notion of finding the real killer, but first he has to make it into the city. His first attempt, hitching a lift with a weaselly character (Clifton Young) in a roadster, is less than successful and could easily have led to his undoing. However, fate steps in and takes over at this point when a young woman, Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), happens along and smuggles the fugitive past the police roadblocks. And here we have the first of the long series of coincidences that dominate this story. Irene followed Vincent’s trial religiously, seeing parallels with the wrongful conviction of her late father, and even wrote letters to the press in his defense. It’s just by chance that she was passing that stretch of road on the very day Vincent decided to make his bid for freedom, but that’s only the start of it. Vincent seems to be stalked by alternating bouts of good and bad luck, almost everyone he encounters is acquainted with one another on various levels, and then there’s the lonely cabby (Tom D’Andrea) with a very useful contact. I won’t go into the various twists and turns the plot takes here – suffice to say Vincent acquires a new face, learns the truth and has at least the possibility of a new beginning dangled before him. Does he grasp that possibility? Well I suggest each viewer make up their own mind on that one – I feel the ending has the kind of ambiguous quality that allows you to interpret it as you wish.

Dark Passage was adapted from a David Goodis novel (I haven’t read it but I do have a copy sitting on my shelves) by director Delmer Daves and offers up an appetizing slice of noir, where an apparently hapless protagonist finds himself sliding ever deeper into circumstances over which he has little control. Daves indubitably did his best work in westerns but this film also provides plenty of scope for the optimism that runs as a common theme throughout his filmography. Film noir tends to focus on the sourer aspects of existence so it probably sounds a little odd to speak of such a positive characteristic in this context. However, it is there – not only in the solidly hopeful central relationship between Vincent and Irene, but also in the little vignettes that add a human face to the tale. Sam the cabby and his willingness to give a guy a break just because he reckons he has a good face, Irene’s would-be suitor who ought to be bitter but shows understanding instead, the hash slinger in the diner who regrets shooting off his big mouth, and the lonely strangers in the bus station all nudge the story forward in their small ways and afford glimpses of a world where decency hasn’t yet been fully eclipsed by greed and jealousy.

At the heart of it all are Bogart and Bacall, their real life love affair as apparent as ever in their comfort around each other. The fact that Bogart isn’t actually seen for the first half hour, the camera telling the story from a first person perspective up that point, doesn’t harm the inherent chemistry either as it’s all there in the voices and gestures that we do witness. With so many unlikely events coming at us hard and fast, it’s vital that there’s a solid center to hold it all together. The two leads ensure that everything remains grounded by their honest and affecting performances. And of course there’s the ending, an aspect I was unsure how to take for a long time. The noir purist may dismiss the coda as a mere sop to those longing for a traditional Hollywood ending, and it can be viewed in those terms. It could also be read as Vincent’s dream after the emotional phone call in the bus terminal. Personally, I’ve come to see it as a nice touch, open to whatever interpretation one cares to favor depending on mood, and entirely appropriate for a director like Daves.

Dark Passage has been available on DVD from Warner for ages now and the transfer still holds up pretty well. The image is quite crisp and shows off the interior and location photography of Sid Hickox just fine. One could criticize the fact that so many aspects of the plot are that bit too convenient, and the way Daves injects his optimism into the story may leave hardcore noir fans somewhat frustrated. Overall, I find it a very satisfying experience though – it offers plenty of thrills and suspense, and lets you walk away with a big smile on your face at the end.

 

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in 1940s, Delmer Daves, Film Noir, Humphrey Bogart

 

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The Crooked Way

Confusion and disorientation, a world suddenly tipped out of kilter, false and mistaken identities – such phenomena are par for the course in the film noir universe. Taken individually, these elements crop up in countless ordinary thrillers, but mix them all together in an urban setting with a story of organized crime and it moves into noir territory. The late 40s saw the full flowering of this type of cinema, when the initial optimism of the post-war years was just fading enough to allow disillusionment to take a firmer hold. The Crooked Way (1949) is one of those low budget efforts that is easily overlooked – the stars and director are people only familiar to hardcore movie fans, although the cinematographer, quite rightfully, still draws huge critical praise. What’s more this film often gets overshadowed by a glossier, more expensive production with a strikingly similar theme. I reckon it’s a touch unfair as there are plenty of positive ingredients; it’s by no means a perfect movie, but it does deserve a bit more credit and attention than it’s normally afforded.

Eddie Rice (John Payne) is on the point of being discharged from an army hospital in San Francisco. He’s seen sitting in a doctor’s office while questions are fired at him, questions like where he came from and what he did. Well, Eddie doesn’t have any answers for the simple reason that he has no memory. There’s a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain, in an inoperable spot, and as a result he’s suffering from amnesia. All that’s known is that he joined up in Los Angeles using the name of Eddie Rice. The doctor’s advice is to go back to LA, see and be seen, and maybe someone will remember him, give him some lead about his vanished past. So that’s exactly what he does, and no sooner has he stepped out of Union Station than he runs slap bang into two guys who seem to know him very well indeed. These are two cops (Rhys Williams & John Doucette) and neither one is thrilled to run into him. This is vaguely unsettling for Eddie but a greater shock awaits him at the station house when he learns that his real name is actually Riccardi, and he’s got a rap sheet as long as his arm. Lots of films noir feature regular guys stumbling into trouble and desperately trying to escape it, but in this case that’s not possible; whatever else a man can do, he can’t run away from himself. The temptation is there alright and Eddie weighs it up yet there’s that fundamental philosophical desire to know oneself as well as one can. No, he’s going to have to stay, to discover what kind of man he was and why he did the things he did. To do so, he must reacquaint himself with the woman he once loved (Ellen Drew) and the partner (Sonny Tufts) he crossed up and sent to prison. Trying to trace back through the blank pages of his own past is a big enough ask in itself, but Eddie’s quest for his own identity becomes even harder when he finds himself beaten, framed for murder and running from both the mob and the law.

In 1946 Joseph L Mankiewicz made Somewhere in the Night, telling the story of a veteran with amnesia returning to LA to trace his background and unearthing some disconcerting facts. It was produced at Fox and exhibits all the gloss that studio could afford to give its movies. The basic premise is quite similar to that of The Crooked Way and I imagine more people have seen or heard of it – that loaded, evocative title can’t hurt any either. It’s a fairly good picture on its own terms, but if you put these two amnesia films up against each other, then I’d have to plump for The Crooked Way every time. This is partly down to the grittiness which goes hand in hand with a lower budget, and also the strong reliance on authentic LA locations. On top of that, there were two men behind the camera whose presence is a significant part of why the film works for me: Robert Florey and John Alton. I guess few will know the name of Florey nowadays – he was one of those émigré directors who came to Hollywood in the early thirties and worked mostly on B pictures before moving into television, where his credits are extensive. The thing about Florey is he had a background in expressionism and consequently his work has a strong visual sense that’s ideal for capturing mood and atmosphere. In addition to this film, I strongly recommend checking out his direction of Perchance to Dream from The Twilight Zone, one of the finest episodes of that excellent series. John Alton should, of course, need no introduction. A true artist, Alton’s deep black shadows and imaginative lighting are a joy. Any film he worked on bore his unmistakable stamp, and The Crooked Way is no exception.

This is quite a pivotal film in the career of John Payne. George Sherman’s Larceny had got him into crime pictures and The Crooked Way builds upon that. Payne was a good fit for noir in that there was a toughness about him but also a lived-in, kicked around look which such movies required. His role was a demanding one, calling for innocence, bewilderment and a bit of an edge too. The character of Eddie is complex due to the fact he starts out as someone trying his best to be decent yet also lacking assurance. He is, by necessity, a man aware of nothing beyond the here and now but he’s also keen to know how he got to that place, what path in life led him there. When the revelations come, Eddie is shocked and confused since it doesn’t square with the way he feels about himself. Payne is fine at getting across the nervy uncertainty of the character, the flashes of aggression which are buried deep within. The movie was a good stepping stone for him, laying the foundations for strong performances in later noir vehicles like 99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential. Ellen Drew, in the films I’ve seen, often appeared to be handed passive roles. The Crooked Way gave her more to do though by casting her as a woman who’s had a hard enough time and thus encourages a more gutsy performance, even stopping a bullet meant for Payne at one point. As the principal villain, Sonny Tufts is suitably mean, his introduction during the interrogation of a mob informer setting the tone for what follows. In support, there’s good work from Rhys Williams, John Doucette and Percy Helton.

The Crooked Way was released on DVD in the US by Geneon a long time ago now. It’s not a bad transfer, a bit harsh looking in places maybe, but it’s also interlaced. Some of the other titles from that imprint have subsequently appeared or been announced from Olive and Kino, so I’d like to hope a stronger version would hit the market sooner or later – and I’ve just noted that it appears Kino do indeed have plans for this title in the summer. The movie isn’t without its faults of course – there’s a heavy reliance on coincidence on a number of occasions (but, in all honesty, that could be said of a lot of noir pictures) and the ending is just a little too pat. Still, I don’t see these as major flaws of the type to ruin the viewing experience. Overall, this is a good solid noir, based on an interesting premise, beautifully composed and shot, oozing the requisite hard-boiled feel. It’s the kind of half-forgotten film I always like to tell people about, if they have the time or patience to listen to me. I say give it a try, it might surprise you.

 

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2015 in 1940s, Film Noir, John Payne

 

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The Underworld Story

Things are tough all over. Pretty soon a man won’t be able to sell his own mother.

There are plenty of examples of film noir weaving contemporary social issues into the tales featured. Through the 1950s it’s noticeable how the whole matter of organized crime came to play a more significant part in the world of noir. Cy Endfield’s The Underworld Story (1950) is an early example of this trend, although it also takes a look at journalistic ethics, racial prejudice, class divisions, and oblique references to the blacklist. This all adds up to a potent and varied cocktail, one which could easily have become overwhelming in its efforts to cover so many bases. However, the script remains clearly focused throughout and the end product is therefore very satisfying.

Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) is the classic slick city reporter, a man for whom the chance of a scoop and the accompanying paycheck trumps all other considerations. This absence of moral qualms is clearly illustrated by the opening scene of the movie, which sees a mob informant gunned down on the court steps. The responsibility for this killing is laid largely at the feet of Reese, who wrote the story tipping the gangsters off to the location of the stool pigeon. Still, Reese is one of those guys who’s not quite as smooth as he thinks he is – all the angling and sharp patter can’t disguise an unfortunate tendency for things to blow up in his face. While his exclusive story had lethal consequences for one man, it also leads to Reese getting his marching orders. Worse is to come though when he finds his name is poison and he can’t get a job on any paper in town. So what’s a guy to do under the circumstances? In this case, he pays a visit to Carl Durham (Howard da Silva), the mob boss he unwittingly helped out when he put the finger on the informant. With a modest payoff in his pocket from Durham, Reese takes himself to a small town where he can purchase a half interest in a local newspaper. Almost immediately it looks like our “hero” has landed on his feet again. No sooner has he talked the owner, Cathy Harris (Gale Storm), into accepting his offer than a major story breaks right under their noses. The daughter-in-law of a local blue-blood publisher, E J Stanton (Herbert Marshall), has been murdered and Reese scents the opportunity to make journalistic capital out of this. Initially, it looks like a gift, and the revelation that the deceased’s maid may have been involved adds a bit of spice. In reality though, it’s another situation which Reese has misjudged and he soon finds himself getting out of his depth. The draw of a society killing and the allegations that the perpetrator may have been a black woman offers the chance for exploitation and therefore money. But it’s soon made clear to the viewer that the real killer was someone else, someone much closer to the victim. Reese’s cynical and insincere crusade is about to backfire on him as dirty family secrets, racism and an unholy alliance between the mob and old money combine to present the kind of threat his sharp spiel won’t be enough to deflect.

The Underworld Story was one of the last films Cy Endfield made before the blacklist and the HUAC hearings would force him out of Hollywood and send him across the ocean to pursue his career in Britain. It’s easy to see how, in the volatile and paranoid climate which prevailed then, a film like this would have drawn some unwelcome attention. The main protagonist is a man who has himself been essentially blacklisted by his own industry, who digs under the apparently respectable facade of a pillar of civilized democracy (the free press) and reveals corruption, duplicity and outright criminality. The racial aspect adds another layer of unpleasantness, though this is only a small part of the story and handled in a fairly half-hearted fashion anyway. No, the real issue here is the subversion of the press and moral bankruptcy of those holding sway over public opinion. Essentially we’re shown three separate yet interrelated faces of the fourth estate: the weakness and ethical ambivalence of Marshall, the crass opportunism of Duryea, and the naive idealism of Storm. Endfield contributed to the script sourced from a story by Craig Rice (which probably accounts for the touches of light humor sprinkled throughout) and the critique of a society manipulated by corrupt and powerful men is always to the fore – the scene where Marshall sits around with local dignitaries and cronies working out how best to rid themselves of the troublesome Duryea is effective in its repugnance. The cinematography was handled by Stanley Cortez, resulting in some nicely lit images which add to the noir atmosphere.

Dan Duryea was a fine piece of casting in the role of Reese, his frequent portrayal of charming villains setting up the ambivalence of his character well. Reese, at least until he experiences a late change of heart (or maybe even an acquisition of one), is basically an anti-heroic figure. His main concern for most of the film’s running time is the state of his own bank account, and Duryea was very good at getting across the chiseling soul of Reese. Even as he’s doing his level best to sell out sympathetic characters, you can’t help but like him – not an easy role to pull off but one which was tailor-made for Duryea. Herbert Marshall was another guy skilled at playing complex figures, and he had a real knack for displaying a kind of outraged dignity. Again, you shouldn’t really feel anything much for him but Marshall’s talent for bringing a human face to Stanton means his dilemma becomes understandable. For me, a large part of the film’s success comes down to the way both Marshall and Duryea portray the various shades of gray of their respective characters. There’s good support provided by Gale Storm as Duryea’s partner in the newspaper and love interest, but her role is essentially one-dimensional. The same could be said for the other cast members I guess: Howard da Silva has a high time chewing up the scenery as the grinning and uncouth gang boss and acts as a great contrast to Marshall’s refinement, while Michael O’Shea’s DA is mostly driven by vindictiveness, particularly where Duryea is concerned. One of the oddest casting choices was Mary Anderson as the black maid everyone suspects of the murder. The fact that Anderson is actually white, and never really looks anything else (there was no overt black face make-up involved) despite everyone alluding to her race, is a bit distracting. The racial matter does form part of the story but it’s of secondary importance at best. Had it been more central, then the whiteness of the actress would have been more problematic. Anderson’s work is perfectly good but I did wonder why she was chosen for that part in the first place.

The Underworld Story is out on DVD via the Warner Archive in the US and also on pressed disc in Spain from Absolute. I have the Spanish release and it looks pretty good – there are a few isolated instances of print damage but overall the image is quite strong. The  picture is sharp throughout and the contrast levels show off the noir cinematography nicely. There is a choice of the original English soundtrack or a Spanish dub and subtitles are optional – they can be disabled from the setup menu. This is a solid film noir from a director I like and it’s always a pleasure to see Dan Duryea in a leading role. He’ll be best remembered for his villainous turns but I enjoy watching him in those rare movies where he got to play the good guy. The Underworld Story isn’t the best known film noir out there but it’s a good production and worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre, director or star.

 

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2014 in 1950s, Cy Endfield, Dan Duryea, Film Noir

 

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