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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.