Paid to Kill

Previously I made the assertion that instances of bad luck and, let’s say, poor choices when it comes to decision-making were major ingredients of film noir. I suppose rash decisions can and often do count as poor, so this fatal combination makes another appearance in Paid to Kill (1954), an early Hammer production which followed the formula adhered to by the studio back then of using a slightly faded US star in the lead to add greater marketing appeal outside of the UK.

Jim Nevill (Dane Clark) is a businessman and the head of Amalgamated Industries – I’m not sure if the exact nature of the industries is ever mentioned and if it is, I’ve no memory of it. Anyway, the point is that, despite surface indications, Nevill and his company is in trouble. A deal he had been depending on seems to have fallen through and he’s faced with the prospect of professional and personal ruin. This is an unattractive prospect but it’s made even more unpalatable by the fact that Nevill is desperate to ensure his wife, Andrea (Thea Gregory), is not dragged down with him. This is where we come to the rash decision referred to above – he hires (blackmails actually) an old acquaintance with a shady past to kill him so his wife will benefit from a generous insurance payout. Quite aside from the matter of pushing nobility and altruism to the extreme, Nevill has miscalculated badly. What happens when a man who convinced himself he had nothing to live for then discovers that the opposite is the case after those grinding wheels of fate have been set in relentless motion? What do you do when the man you’ve paid to take your life looks like he’s not only determined to fulfill his side of the bargain but has also dropped completely out of sight?

The Hammer name is best known for the horror movies the studio specialized in from the last 1950s onward but the studio was making a lot of these modest little crime movies in the earlier part of the decade. When it came to marketing them for DVD release some years ago they were labeled as noir, although that didn’t really fit in all cases. Having said that, Paid to Kill does live up to the billing and the whole premise of the movie, along with the tone and look, is pure noir. The focus of this site has remained firmly on British crime of late and certain directors have almost inevitably been featured. Montgomery Tully hasn’t been included until now but his output during the 50s and 60s was such that it would be difficult to run through any short series of articles on this theme without coming to him eventually. His work on Paid to Kill is quietly impressive, maintaining a good pace and an attractively dark look.

Overall, I like this film – the story is melodramatic but in a good way, and the direction has a smooth efficiency – but it would be remiss of me if I were to gloss over the deficiencies. To begin with the positive, I feel Dane Clark did well as the lead, hunted and subdued for the most part but also bouncy and pugnacious when the twists of the plot required it. While he’s not an actor I’ve ever warmed to in particular, I’m happy to acknowledge how important he is to the production here. Yet that’s about it as far as the praise for the acting goes. With the notable and laudable exception of Clark, we’re treated to a succession of overly broad, flat or, in a few cases, outright wooden performances. Disappointing.

Paid to Kill was released on DVD by VCI, paired up on the same disc with another Montgomery Tully effort The Glass Tomb. There’s some print damage to be seen throughout and it’s clear that no restoration was attempted. Still, the image isn’t displeasing and that damage isn’t too distracting. OK, I’ve been quite dismissive of many of the performances but Clark is fine and his work, alongside Tully’s direction and the fatalistic plot, more or less compensates. It’s a neat and compact British noir and a good example of early Hammer.

Advertisements

You Can’t Escape

Aside from the visual motifs, film noir leans heavily on the presence of certain thematic elements. Betrayal and suspicion figure strongly, and crime of some form is usually involved, but perhaps the most important ingredient of all is the product of the ill-starred marriage of bad luck and stupid decision-making. It’s difficult to get away from the fact that many (maybe even all) of the hopeless predicaments the characters in the noir world seem to blunder into time and again are essentially situations which could and indeed should have been avoided with the application of a little rational thought. You Can’t Escape (1957) offers a convenient illustration of this very point.

Peter Darwin (Robert Urquhart) is a successful author and a man with a quiet and easy charm. The beginning of the film suggests he’s a lucky guy too, happening to be on the scene to rescue  wealthy and eligible heiress Kay March (Noelle Middleton) and thus embarking on a relationship. Still, Darwin’s smoothness is of the superficial variety, and a late night call from another woman, one who is still in love with him initiates our noir-tinged series of events. Things are looking bad for Darwin – the girl is pregnant and wants him back, so his dreams of marriage and a comfortable future begin to recede rapidly. From here the situation turns increasingly grim as that poor luck results in an accident which sees the girl dead, and then the rotten decisions start to kick in – so begins the descent that is integral to film noir.

You Can’t Escape has no especially big names to draw an audience, at least no names that modern audiences will be all that familiar with. Robert Urquhart,  in the same year as he was starring in The Curse of Frankenstein for Hammer, was and remains probably the most recognizable face for most. He turns in a pretty solid and increasingly repugnant performance as the grasping writer who has plenty of charm but uses it to conceal a hard yet brittle core. He does very good work gradually revealing just how venal and manipulative his character is, a fine piece of villainy. Noelle Middleton is fine too as the woman who covers up for him at first and then slowly sees the error she has made, the monster she has been protecting and appalling way in which her love and loyalty has been misplaced. A good noir should have some kind of triangle and in You Can’t Escape the third arm is provided by the upright and self-effacing Guy Rolfe. Maybe he’s a little too upstanding and noble, and then again maybe he just appears so in relation to Urquhart’s craven chancer. And heading up the supporting cast is a sly Peter Reynolds as a grating journalist with an eye for a story and a penchant for blackmail.

You Can’t Escape has a strong noir look with some very well-lit shots and setups, the kind of thing many a Hollywood major would have been proud of a few years earlier. The man who directed this was one Wilfred Eades. His list f credits as director is a short one and I don’t believe I’ve seen anything else he shot. Mind you, I have seen one picture where he is credited as the writer, the 1958 swashbuckler The Moonraker, and that’s quite an entertaining little movie.

For a fairly obscure slice of Brit noir, Network made a welcome effort with the DVD presentation of You Can’t Escape. The film is offered in both widescreen and Academy ratios, the former is surely the correct one and the print used is in pleasing condition too. As for supplements, we get a trailer and also a gallery. All told, this is a neat example of British film noir and it’s certainly worth a look.

The Upturned Glass

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

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

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

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

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

The Small Voice

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

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

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

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

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

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

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

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

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

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

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

Ivy

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

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

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

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

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

The Shakedown

One criticism sometimes leveled at British crime or noir films is that they were too genteel, seemed too preoccupied with the concerns of middle class protagonists and, consequently, lacked that edge that frequently set apart and elevated their US counterparts. However, like a lot of generalizations and blanket statements it’s not necessarily true; sure examples can be found where this is so but, by the same token, plenty of exceptions to this supposed rule also exist. The Shakedown (1960) is a surprisingly effective British noir that pulls few punches, isn’t overburdened with wholesome characters and looks ahead to the franker approach to social issues that movies in the new decade would increasingly embrace.

Augie Cortona (Terence Morgan) is an angry young man, and one who happens to be spending his last night in prison having served a sentence for running a prostitution racket. Prowling back and forth , full of pent-up energy and resentment, he impresses upon his cellmate (Bill Owen) how he intends to regain his former position of prominence in the underworld. On release, that’s exactly what he sets about doing, despite the warnings from Inspector Jarvis (Robert Beatty) that his every move will be tracked. And obstacles do lie before him, his old operations being taken over by rival hood Gollar (Harry H Corbett) and old friends in no great hurry to renew their relationship. Still, even when it looks like all doors will remain closed to him, he has a chance meeting in a pub with Jessel (Donald Pleasence), a down on his luck photographer. From this he senses an opportunity to strike out in a new direction. All he needs is the money to set himself up and the dubious rewards of a murky blackmail scheme await.

The Shakedown is essentially a classic gangster noir picture, a British variation on the type Hollywood had been turning out on and off since the 30s, a rise and fall saga of crime and criminals. It appears I spend a lot of time on here debating what might or might not constitute film noir, and what can be said to characterize it in any case. This is tricky enough when dealing with the classic American variety but gets tougher still when we move across the Atlantic. There are some instances of the traditional high contrast imagery in this movie but they don’t dominate. Overall, I’d say The Shakedown has more of a flat look, but visuals aren’t the only means of categorizing noir. The tone and mood have to be taken into consideration and are just as important. If director John Lemont merely flirts with shadowy imagery, he and fellow writer Leigh Vance indulge themselves more noticeably when it comes to the theme. The whole thing is seen from the perspective of Augie, a grasping thug with no redeeming features beyond an oily and superficial charm. This is where the real darkness of the picture lies, in the brazen and ruthless manipulation practised by the central character, in his self-serving attitude and in the (for the time) harsh language employed.

As was the case with a lot of British crime movies of the era, and there were a huge number of them, the budget was limited. I’ve noted previously how I don’t necessarily regard such matters as failings and it’s not a major issue here, although it is clear to see. Location work and exterior shots are kept to an absolute minimum and the action is largely restricted to the inside of a handful of buildings. But, as I sad, that doesn’t make the end product less effective. One of the best sequences in the film is the sting Augie arranges to relieve his rival of his ill-gotten gains and thus get himself back in business. It plays out almost exclusively in an elevator and on a landing yet the way it’s shot and edited together means it holds the attention throughout. And that basically sums up the movie – the tension is carefully maintained and the story is solid enough to keep us from paying undue heed to any other shortcomings.

Terence Morgan was a good choice in the lead. Just a few years before he had co-starred in Tread Softly Stranger, another enjoyable British noir, and he was just OK in that one. His role here suited him better as it allowed him to play up the suave nastiness without the need for any nervy introspection. Regardless of the fact we see most of the events from his point of view, no-one can realistically be expected to root for such a mean good for nothing type. Donald Pleasence garners some sympathy, as the photographer who gets duped and exploited but, for all his class and talent, he was never cast as anything other than a supporting character, and isn’t on screen enough, sadly. The person we get behind is Hazel Court as the trainee model, her part develops nicely as the story progresses and a bit more depth is added. Ms Court should of course be familiar to cult movie fans for her work first on a few classic Hammer titles and then later in Roger Corman’s AIP Gothic horrors. The support cast is packed with faces that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen much British film or television – Bill Owen, Robert Beatty (whose talents have been lauded by a few commenters here in recent days), Eddie Byrne, Harry H Corbett (a guy I usually have trouble taking seriously in straight roles), Georgina Cookson, and an especially strong bit of work by John Salew as a blackmail victim.

The Shakedown has been released on DVD by UK outfit Renown and it’s a moderate looking effort. By and large, the image is clean and acceptably sharp, but the aspect ratio can’t be right – it’s presented in Academy ratio and some kind of wide process must surely have been used by 1960. Still, it’s not horribly compromised and I’d imagine it’s as good as the film is going to get. The film is entertaining from start to finish and is one of those that retains a foot in both camps, holding onto a touch of the reserve of the previous decade while also nudging towards the more permissive style that the 60s would become associated with.

The Lady from Shanghai

poster16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Money Trap

It isn’t the money, it never is. It’s people, the things they want…and the thing’s they’ll do to get it.

While the consensus is that film noir, weakened and wounded by a shifting media and social landscape, shuffled off into the shadows at the tail end of the 1950s, it occasionally lurched back out of the alley and onto the slick, neon-lit main streets. Wherever tough luck and the fickleness of fate hang out the dark cinema is never far off, and sightings were reported at various times throughout the 60s. The Money Trap (1965) is one of those later versions of the classic form and, to my mind, quite an effective one too.

It starts, as it ends, with the aftermath of a killing. The camera is high, observing with cool detachment, the familiar urban setting of streetlights reflecting off wet asphalt. A squad car pulls up to the curb and two detectives alight, crossing swiftly to the ramshackle tenement where the night’s latest offering awaits. Joe Baron (Glenn Ford) and Pete Delanos (Ricardo Montalban) are confronted with the dead body of a young Latino woman, lynched in a bordello by her enraged husband. Although this turns out to be no more than an incidental plot strand, it serves to introduce the seedy and morally skewed world – an “honor killing” such as this is spoken of as being at least partially understandable – where we’ll be spending the next hour and a half. We then move on to see how Baron is living an extremely luxurious existence, far beyond that which a cop’s salary could be expected to pay for. And of course it’s no such a surprise when we learn how the finances are actually down to a rich young wife, Lisa (Elke Sommer), but that supply of cash may not be unlimited. So the need for money is our hook, the line is provided by the main investigation – a burglar shot under slightly dubious circumstances by a well-off doctor (Joseph Cotten) – while the sinker will come in the form of a mini-heist that’s doomed from inception. As it all unfolds Baron, who has been treading a variety of fine lines, runs across Rosalie (Rita Hayworth), an old flame and a reminder of simpler times, and something begins to worry his conscience.

The film has two big themes at work on two levels. In a narrower and more personal sense, there is a yearning for some kind of return to innocence, a desire on Baron’s part to regain some of the purity and promise he once possessed. This plays out in the way he’s drawn repeatedly to seek out Rosalie, yet she’s been bruised and broken by the years and we (and I think the same is true of Baron too) know that he’s really just chasing rainbows on that score. The wider picture is all about front and facade, the flash appearances that ensure nothing is quite as it seems and thus nothing can be depended on. Everybody in the movie is carrying secrets and consequently tell lies to conceal them – policemen are corrupt, wives are potentially faithless, friends may be enemies in waiting and the more respectable the surface, the rottener the core. There are angles everywhere and none of them clean. Should we read something into the fact the one man who speaks of integrity and honesty is a police captain (an uncredited Ted de Corsia) who is only seen  in the morgue?

Burt Kennedy’s great strength was as a writer, especially in those films where he worked with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher – even if he had never done anything else outside of those films his cinematic legacy would have been considerable. Nevertheless, Kennedy also worked as a director, albeit with less satisfying results. In that capacity his work tended to be what we might term entertaining without being all that distinguished. A lot of his films have a certain flatness to the visuals, something of the made-for-TV look, although this doesn’t apply to all of them. The Money Trap does suffer from this a little but cameraman Paul Vogel had a sound enough pedigree in classic era noir (High Wall, Dial 1119, Black Hand, A Lady Without Passport, Lady in the Lake etc.) to ensure the right kind of mood was struck when required. Still, I feel there’s some indecisiveness in the overall style of the movie, it’s not a fatal flaw or anything but it is noticeable.

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth made five films together, with Gilda probably being the most famous of those. Naturally, both stars had aged in the two decades which had passed but Ford was in better shape, his features reflecting a man with a bit of living behind him and about the appropriate level of weariness for a man who sees the less savory side of life on a daily basis. Hayworth was playing a woman worn down by years of bad luck and booze, and she looked like she knew the feeling only too well. I understand she had something of a drink problem in reality and there’s a degree of authenticity in her performance.

Joseph Cotten could move easily between heroic and villainous parts; he always had a bit of stiffness about him, a distance or remoteness, which lent itself well to darker or more ambiguous roles as the years went by. As such, he was a fine fit for the doctor with connections and he looked like he was enjoying himself as his character slowly reveals himself. Ricardo Montalban had appeared in a couple of quality films noir before this – Border Incident and Mystery Street – and he brought abundant experience to the table as Ford’s partner on the lookout for any get-rich-quick opportunities. And rounding out the principal cast is  Elke Sommer, always easy on the eye and playing a role that has a touch more depth than initially looks like being the case. In fact, it’s Sommer who makes a major contribution to the resolution, which at least hints at something more positive than the build-up might suggest.

The Money Trap is available as a Warner Archive MOD disc, and there are also copies on sale in other territories. The image is generally quite pleasing, black and white CinemaScope usually is and particularly when the print used has no glaring faults. Anyway, I found this an enjoyable piece of post-noir cinema, well acted and, for the most part, nicely shot.

Kansas City Confidential

Just a glance at the ingredients is sometimes enough to tell you you’re going to like the house specialty. First up, we have a carefully planned and executed heist, added to that is a bunch of edgy and suspicious hoods, a vindictive and brutal police force, and a textbook example of a fall guy. Kansas City Confidential (1952) consists of the kind of components that spell noir in unmistakably flickering neon. It’s all about double-crosses and cheats, keeping the other guy guessing and off-guard while looking out for a chance to get even for the cheap brush-off fate has handed you.

Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is a classic noir protagonist, a poor sap who can’t seem to catch a break no matter what. He’s had an (incomplete) education and a war record to be proud of but he’s also had a little trouble with the law. A mistake on his part has led to his doing some time inside and now his prospects are a little dimmed. We first catch sight of him at work, driving a delivery van for a florist. Someone else sees him too, a man (Preston Foster) across the way with a stopwatch is timing is movements. Why? Because a heist, an armored car raid, is being set up and part of that setup is hanging a frame round the neck of Joe Rolfe. The police will be sweating, and beating, the innocent delivery guy while the real thieves are making their getaway with $1.2 million along for their trouble. The beauty of this raid, aside from the convenient patsy to occupy the law, is the idea to make all the participants wear masks that means their anonymity (and thus their inability to identify or be identified) is ensured. The concept of honor among thieves has always been a sour joke and brains behind this robbery is well aware of that and so has taken these steps so as to avoid having to depend on any such fairy tales. By the time the police have finished pummeling Rolfe and released him he hasn’t much beyond cold shoulders and welfare to look forward to, that and a desire to find the men who put him in this bind. He’s handed one lead – a criminal called Pete Harris (Jack Elam) has recently lit out unexpectedly for Tijuana in Mexico and it’s just possible it may be to avoid the attentions of the law. And so Rolfe heads south, looking for men he’s never seen, money he’s never laid hands on, and a reputation he might never retrieve.

Noir from the 50s has a slightly different feel and flavor to it, the crimes that typically underpin such stories tend to be less personal than those of the previous decade. While the focus remains on the individuals involved and the consequences faced by them, there is an increasing shift towards organized crime and a frequently faceless threat. It’s kind of appropriate, therefore, that the villains of this piece are essentially faceless men, career criminals stripped of all identity beyond their own left-handed professionalism, and answerable only to another disguised figure. Even our hero in this story of deception, deceit and illusion indulges in the same chameleon-like behavior, stepping into the shoes of another man in order to coax his enemies out into the open. The setting is altered too, although the movie opens in an urban environment it soon moves out of the city to a small Mexican vacation resort, a place tourists usually visit for the fishing but the people we’re watching are angling for something else.  Anyway, regardless of what variations on the classic noir formula are on view, director Phil Karlson turns in a characteristically strong piece of work. He moves the camera around with great fluidity, catching every subtle nuance in what is a tricky game of bluff and counter-bluff.

I’ve talked before about John Payne’s noir work and I’ll just reiterate here that he was particularly skilled in nailing the resigned quality that is such an important part of make-up of characters in this type of cinema. The role here suits him well and he has the innate toughness you’d expect of a war veteran, the intelligence of an educated man but also the weariness of one who’s had to face up to the unpalatable fact that life doesn’t play fair all the time. In addition to Payne, there’s a supporting cast to die for. Preston Foster was well cast in a reasonably complex part – it called for a confident, avuncular smoothness in one respect but also required a diamond-hard core.

Coleen Gray is fine too playing a woman who is having the wool pulled over her eyes by just about everyone yet she’s supposed to be on the verge of becoming a lawyer; while this isn’t any criticism of the actress I think the script is probably at its weakest, or least logical anyway, on this score. The other woman in the cast is Dona Drake who was clearly having a good time as a flirtatious souvenir seller. And of course we have the holy trinity of heavies in Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. I sometimes think it’s a shame all three don’t get to spend more time on screen together, but then again it may have just led to character actor gluttony  – one way or another, we do get to see a lot of all of them and there’s really not a lot to complain about.

Kansas City Confidential is a film that spent a long time in public domain hell as far as commercial releases are concerned. For a long time the only way to see the movie was by viewing grotty copies with fuzzy contrast and non-existent detail. Then, some years ago, MGM put out a quality version of the title on DVD in the US and it was a revelation. There have been a few Blu-ray releases since then but, by all accounts, these are waxy-looking affairs which haven’t been restored but simply had flaws (and vital detail too) digitally scrubbed away. As far as I’m aware, the old MGM DVD remains the best edition on the market. Digital issues and quibbles aside, the film is an excellent film noir, a highlight in the resumés of the cast and the director.