Wednesday, November 30, 2016

2016 Noirvember Cast and Credit Awards

Well, it's that time again.  End of November means it's time to wrap up my celebration of noir by presenting some of the highlights from the films noir I watched this year.  To do that, I find it fun to do hypothetical match-up of key players in those films, in contests for awards they might never have competed for in the Oscars or other annual ceremonies, due to the fact that my viewing has spanned several years worth of noir cinema.  Here then, are the 2016 Noirvember Cast and Credit Awards!

My pick? Nicholas Ray for In a Lonely Place (1950)

The auteur icon here produced a confessional masterpiece, drawing emotional performance from the tough guy Bogart, and somehow maintaining not only a professional working relationship with then-wife Gloria Grahame while undergoing painful, tempestuous private separation, but collaboratively guiding her to one of her best performances ever.  

Honorable Mentions;
Byron Haskin - Too Late For Tears
Arthur Ripley - The Chase
Josef Von Sternberg, Crime & Punishment

My pick? Richard Murphy for Cry of the City (1948)

A tough call, selecting this over the other worthy contenders. The choice came down to the tightness of the structure, and the quintessentially noir dialogue and thematic elements that the story represented.  

Honorable Mentions;
Nunally Johnson - The Dark Mirror
Philip Yordan - The Chase
Alber Beich & Oscar Millard - Dead Ringer

My pick? John Alton for The Crooked Way (1949)

Another difficult decision.  Gilda is such a perfect film, and Dark Mirror’s camera work does such an incredible job at blending the seems that bind Olivia DeHavilland’s dual role together, but my choice of the Crooked Way was mostly based on a combination of style and the way the many artistic flourishes of lighting and framing went beyond merely being flashy show-off moments to serving the story and bringing to light (heh) the dark (heh) subtext in the story, highlighting (heh-heh) the themes of identity, memory, and loss in visual ways.

Honorable Mentions;
Lloyd Ahern - Cry of the City
Franz Planer - The Chase
William Mellor - Too Late for Tears
Ray June - Shadow on the Wall

My pick? Max Steiner - The Man I Love (1949)

Each of these titles has great music.  Gilda has some spectacular song-and-dance numbers that were star-making for Rita Hayworth.  Andre Previn's score from the opening chords painted a vivid portrait of the drama to come, telling a perfect synopsis of the story before the credits ended.  Dimitri Tiomkin masters a delicate balance between high drama and low humor with his score for Dark Mirror. And Alfred Newman's score, while borrowing from his own past hits, still is a perfect encapsulation of the Cry of the City. But I had to go with Steiner's work simply for the dramatic ways in which he used the popular music of tin pan alley, and especially George Gershwin, to weave a tapestry that perfectly fit the story it accompanied.

Honorable Mentions;
George Anthiel - In a Lonely Place
Andre Previn - Dead Ringer

My pick? Humphrey Bogart for In a Lonely Place (1950)

What a lineup! Richard' Conte's breakout leading man role; Glenn Ford in a role that is only dimmed by comparison to the mega-watt turn by his costar Rita Hayworth; Zachary Scott as the good man who too late finds the girl he would do anything for has played him like a rented fiddle; and Dan Duryea as a tough guy with a secret conscience that eats him alive.  Only Humphrey Bogart could manage to top these, with a role that stands apart from his reliably tough, wisecracking cynic.  Here he is not only an unrestrained angry beast with a bad case of road rage, but by turns arrogant and cynical, loyally over-protective, slyly suggestive, perversely provocative, urbanely witty, smitten and enamored, boyishly overeager, vindictively violent, and insanely jealous.  Try wrapping all that into one package and making sense of the whole.  Bogie did it.

Honorable Mentions;
Dennis O'Keefe - Woman on the Run
John Payne - the Crooked Way
Peter Lorre - Crime & Punishment
John Mills - The October Man
William Hartnell - Appointment With Crime

My pick? Ann Sheridan for Woman on the Run (1950) 

Rita Hayworth's role as Gilda is beyond iconic, Olivia DeHavilland manages to keep Dark Mirror from being a gimmick film by her eminently believable sister act, Lizabeth Scott boldly subverts the role of a contented housewife, and Gloria Graham bares her soul with her slightest gestures, Ann Sheridan's role somehow stands out to me for the balanced and multifaceted delivery that defies one-dimensional characterization, more like the real human beings we know and interact with than the hollywood "types" so common (though admittedly enjoyable) in film noir.  She's not merely the "wise-cracking dame," or the "tough, smart heroine," or even the "bitter wife who rediscovers her first love," but embodies all these and more in a single, congruent performance.

Honorable Mentions;
Ida Lupino - The Man I Love
Bette Davis - Dead Ringer
Ellen Drew - The Crooked Way
Virginia Mayo - Flaxy Martin 
Ann Sothern - Shadow on the Wall

My pick? Edward Arnold - Crime & Punishment (1935)

I know this is the least noir of the films listed, but I really dug Arnold's role as the cop with a million tricks up his sleeve to get his man.  He knows when to let the line play out, and when to reel it in, when to play dumb, and when to drop hints as to how much he really knows.  But beyond being merely an inescapable symbol of law and justice, he reveals a side of grace and mercy, compassion and a desire not to merely apprehend, but to rehabilitate and restore the sense of goodness  and respect to Peter Lorre's character.  

Honorable Mentions;
Stephen Geray - Gilda, Woman on the Run
Victor Mature - Cry of the City

My pick? Shelley Winters for Cry of the City (1948)

Young Shelley Winters does more with the 10 minutes allotted her in this early featured role than many a leading lady is able to do with a full 90.   As simple as the role may be on paper, she never lets it be one-dimensional.  No mere cheap moll, this.  She is a creature of flesh and blood, nuanced and breathing, an animate, believable creation.  A girl in over her head by not enough that she can’t keep it on her shoulders and find a way to keep her wits about her in the midst of circumstances thrust upon her that would fluster just about anyone if it happened to them in real life.  She communicates concisely all those emotions as they come to her character, and makes the role memorable despite its brevity, a glimpse of talent that was not yet fully tapped but would only shine brighter as her career developed.

Honorable Mentions;
Jeff Donnell - In a Lonely Place
Nancy Davis (Reagan) - Shadow on the Wall

My pick? Tie between Hope Emerson for Cry of the City (1949)
& Dan Duryea in Too Late For Tears (1949)

Yeah, my blog, my rules. I get to pick both.  I made this category up because I love all the colorful bad guys in noir, and they're seldom the "key" roles, but they deserve to be recognized.  This year these two performers both brought something interesting to the table that frankly surprised and delighted me.  First - it is just so cool to find a role as unique as this lady brute that Hope Emerson embodied (yeah, not the last bad wordplay you'll see from me).  She clearly relishes it, and makes it one that is impossible to forget.  Watching her take Conte by the neck and squeeze, embuing her character with so much genuine, believable menace was impressive.  And as for Duryea, you may watch his slapping Lizabeth Scott around in their first scene and think you're in for a typical Duryea jerk role, but stick around - he makes it interesting and unique (with some help from the script, but it is his performance that sells the part).

Honorable Mentions;
Herbert Lom - Snowbound
Sonny Tufts - The Crooked Way
Robert Alda - The Man I Love
Edward Chapman - The October Man
Barry Kroeger - Cry of the City

My pick? Jack Overman & Elisha Cook Jr. for Flaxy Martin (1949)

I know, not a full 5 picks.  Last year had more to choose from in this category, but each of these thug teams is interesting in its own way.  Herbert Lom and his gang are as diversely vicious as you can get, with Lom as the arch villain, Wheatley as his wry, delicate but crafty adviser, and Ivor Barnard as a bespectacled, atypical hitman.  Steve Cochrane are both good in their roles, but better together for the contrast they offer- Cochrane as the brutish, reckless boss, and Lorre as the aloof but calculating underling.  I ended up landing on Overman and Cook for my pick, though for their purely viceral impact. Overman is ominous as the silent killer, and Cook surprisingly resourceful and smart as the put-upon little guy who's had enough of constant put-downs and jibes at his expense.  Also, he likes the word "Shamus," which I find oddly hilarious whenever he mispronounces and misuses it, as he does repeatedly in this film.

My pick? Tie between Victor Mature for Cry of the City (1948)
& Robert Keith for Woman on the Run (1950)

Again, I do what I want. I like both, I pick both.  First, Robert Keith because I thought he just made a perfect copper, a smart, wise-cracking. cynic who isn't afraid to hurt people's feelings if it helps his protect lives.  Second, Victor Mature for the balance and contrast he gives the Conte's character, as the man who took the other road.  He represents the right choice, and he manages to do it in a way that doesn't make it seems like an easy decision.  Doing the right thing is not easy, especially when you grow up in the rotten world seen in Cry of the City.

Honorable Mentions:
Don Defore - Too Late For Tears
Carl Benton Reid - In a Lonely Place
Nancy Davis - Shadow on the Wall
Robert Beatty - Appointment with Crime
Karl Malden - Dead Ringer

My pick? Cry of the City (1948)

Ok, so these picks are a largely matter of opinion and tastes, and this one’s no different.  I liked this film because it is so representative of the essential elements of film noir, but it still rises above being typical, to being a standout example of the genre at its best.  Others on the list stand out for the variations they play on the theme, and I could easily have chosen one of them for that very reason.  This time I went with the archetypal film, because it represents classic noir in its best light (I warned you it was coming!)
So, I’m interested to hear from others who have seen these films. How does your ballot compare?

In a Lonely Place (1950)

“You're told that the girl you were with last night was found in Benedict Canyon, murdered. Dumped from a moving car. What's your reaction? Shock? Horror? Sympathy? No - just petulance at being questioned. A couple of feeble jokes. You puzzle me, Mr. Steele.”

Even while the opening credits roll, as we watch his eyes darting about uneasily in the car mirror. we can sense something off about Dixon “Dix” Steele, the moody screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart.  To say he is fitfully temperamental is a mild understatement.  The only thing delicate about this artist’s sensibilities is the hair trigger to set him off on unleash the rage locked within.
Witness his angry outburst after an encounter at a traffic light with the car next to him goes sour.  Road rage may be a modern invention, but Dix Steele is clearly the prototype for that trend. Though such pop psychology terms are never used, it is clear he is a man with an unchecked Id. please, someone check his Id.  He shows little self restraint in this or in any of his impulses.

This applies not only to bursts of anger, but to other areas. He is stormy and petulant, yes, but also driven by his desires and pleasures. When he likes something or someone, he will say so, and reach out to take it.  His lustful advances toward neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Graham) are initially rebuffed because he is over-eager, and she (rightly) doesn’t want to be rushed into things.  
And at back of all this selfish behavior is a vastly inflated view of himself.  He looks down at his fellow filmmakers as “popcorn salesmen” like the original hipster, dead set against all sellouts and mercenary entertainers.  His idea of his work is arrogantly superior- the noble artist performing before peasants - if they enjoy it, he’s obviously compromised his art.

It is easy to see in this story and character an introspective aspect from the film’s mastermind, director Nicholas Ray.  Though the story is not his original work, but rather an adaptation by Andrew Solt (and others) from book by Dorothy B. Hughes, it’s clear he felt the portrait he was painting is his own, and that in the story he saw reflections of himself, and that he was using the film to work out his own demons.  Indeed, as has been described in greater detail elsewhere, his own brief marriage to Gloria Graham was disintegrating during the making of the film (though their professional and artistic relationship seems not to have impacted the results seen on celluloid here).  

The ironic, destructive twist that is Dixon Steele’s undoing is that his most gaping flaw is simultaneously the thing about him that attracts people to him.  His agent Mel Lippmann, charmingly embodied by Art Smith, practically says as much, when he explains to Laurel how he has managed to stick with the volatile writer for so many years. “You knew he was dynamite - he has to explode sometimes! Years ago, I tried to make him go and see a psychiatrist. I thought he'd kill me! Always violent. Well it's as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, the shape of his head. He's Dix Steele. And if you want him, you've gotta take it all, the good with the bad. I've taken it for 20 years and I'd do it again.”

Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), the police officer tasked by Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) has a similar impression of Steele from their time together in the army when Dix was his commanding officer.  When Lochner points to Steele’s violent history, Nicolai tries to brush it aside by declaring what a good soldier he was and how well-respected and liked he was by his comrades-in-arms.

The inciting incident that set the plot rolling begins innocently enough when Steele invites Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart - and no, it’s not that one), a naive hat-check girl, to his apartment to describe to him the plot of a book he is supposed to be adapting.  There is a scene when a now-established performer with whom he had a previous relationship ribs him about his real intentions in inviting girls to read for him, “Remember how I used to read to you?”

To which he replies, “Since then, I’ve learned to read by myself” Ah, if only he had... After he tires of Mildred and her humorously fangirl-ish outline of the book’s plot, he pays her off and sends her out into the night to find her own way home.  The next morning she turns up dead on an abandoned stretch of highway, strangled and tossed from a moving car.

As the last person seen with her, and given his history of temperamental problems and constant bouts of violent brawling with strangers, he is pinned as the likely suspect in the case.  Remembering his neighbor Laurel Grey (Gloria Graham) had witnessed him seeing off the girl, he calls on her to supply his alibi.  Though the two had not yet known each other, their meeting at police headquarters has the odd effect of sparking a mutual interest between the two that quickly develops into full-on romance and eventual talk of engagement and marriage.

What does he see in her that draws him when so many others simply repulsed or disgusted him with their shallowness?  Perhaps he sees a bit of himself in her.  Oh, not the violent behavior, certainly, but there is the same definite driven independence and self-imposed isolation from the world he looks down on.  Even her initial rebuffs to his advances only increase his attraction to her.  Though the only mention of a “Lonely Place” mentioned in the script is during Dix’s description of the possible scene of Mildred’s murder, this seems to be the real loneliness implied by the film’s title - separation from humanity.  For a few weeks, these two lonely ones find an escape from it in each other.

But as they grow together, spending hours upon hours working on his screenplay, she as his muse, secretary, maid, cook, and lover all in one, and he as the sun around whom her whole world orbits, eventually, inevitably, she begins to see the beast that growls menacingly just beneath his exterior, and the glimpses she catches of it in rampant action frightens her.  Though initially dismissive of the police theories of his guilt in the Mildred Atkinson case, seeing him lash out at another driver after a near-miss while driving together, and observing how very nearly he came to killing the man in his blind rage, not because of the accident, but merely at the things the man called him, makes her begin to rethink her future with Dix Steele.

She is not the only one close to him who begins to see the dangerous monster growing inside him.  Brub Nicolai also begins to see the danger too, when, upon inviting Steele to dinner, he and his wife both find themselves discomfited by the eager interest he takes in placing himself in the murderer’s shoes to explore how he must have thought and acted and executed the killing.  And even his Agent, Mel Lippemann, who was so forgiving of his roughness in the past finds his cool attitude toward being accused of murder, and the way he almost relishes making others feel uncomfortable about  him by it, unsettling. There is an interesting scene in which Dix takes a perverse pleasure in refusing to deny his guilt to Mel, playfully teasing him about it even when he begins to express his concern at this attitude.

But though the solution of the crime is only concluded near the end of the film, and though the persistent presence of the police and the hovering suspicions over Steele’s own head do not disappear until then, the relevance of the question, “did he do it” is not essential to the core of the story, nor is its solution any less incidental than Anna’s disappearance in L’Avventura.  Indeed, Antonioni could easily have taken notes from this film for his 1960 tale.

Rather, the point seems to be, much like in Matthew 5, when Jesus declares that it is not enough simply to avoid murdering someone, but that simply being angry at one’s brother is cause for judgement.  Though Steele has not actually killed anyone, he has committed murder a thousand times in his heart, and the film’s focus is on how that anger, that mental act of murder brings about his own destruction and downfall, and robs him of his one great chance of happiness with Laurel Grey.

The vivid portrait the filmmakers create of the painful, agonizing affects of this destruction both on Steele himself, and on all the people in his wake is clutching and frighteningly realistic.  That there is nuance to the character only makes the deadliness of his flaws more terrifying.  He shows remorse, and sorrow, even repentance at times (as when, in a moment of reflection, he orders white roses to be sent to the deceased Mildred), but he keeps allowing his wrathful, jealous pride control his action and lashes out continually, obliterating all connections with fellow human beings.  An ill-tempered strike at Mel, breaking his glasses and cutting his cheek, is particularly heart-breaking in its finality, despite Mel’s assurances they are still ok.

When, in the aftermath of their climactic row in the film’s waning moments, a scene that punctuates the finality of the split between Dix and Laurel, she answers a phone call from the police who are calling to let them know he is no longer suspect in the murder, as the actual killer has confessed and committed suicide.  Laurel’s reply is devastating, “ Yesterday, this would've meant so much to us. Now it doesn't matter... it doesn't matter at all.”

But is it true?  One can’t help thinking that though their separation leaves them both once again isolated in the titular “Lonely Place,” both characters are better off with a breakup now than if they had endured years together in an abusive, soul-crushing relationship.  Though Laurel feels painfully the words she quotes back to Dix from his script, “ I lived a few weeks while you loved me,” her goodbye has shades of a relief she may not fully feel for long afterwards, but which nonetheless is real and completely justified.

George Anthiel’s score and Burnett Guffey’s keen cinematography perfectly frame all this heart-rending tale in all its beauty and agony, the rage, the sorrow, and even the moments of humor all woven together into a coherent and relatable, if operatically grand dramatic presentation.  Supporting players populate the story with great variety and entertaining personalities. Jeff Donnell is lovely and appealing as Brub Nocolai’s wife Sylvia, Steven Geray is amusing and wry as Paul, the owner of the restaurant Steele and his circle frequent, and Robert Warwick is perfectly pitched as the washed-up alcoholic Shakespearean thespian friend, Charles Waterman.

If you haven’t seen this essential (if gloriously atypical) noir, you’re due to seek it out and take a gander.

***** out of 5

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Damned Don't Cry (1950)

“Nobody cares about yourself except yourself.”

Ok, so I actually watched this several months ago, but I saved my notes so I could write about it during my favorite film-themed month.  So my memories aren’t as fresh on details.  Instead, I’ll just point out some of the more memorable highlights I can still recall.

First, like any good noir, the film is told in flashback format.  This is a character looking backwards, trying to chart the twisted path that led her here.  Joan Crawford is spectacular in this role, which give her a great arc to travel through as a performer.  Not only is she the femme fatale of the story, but by a miracle of storytelling arts, she is also the antihero protagonist.

The story recounts her life journey from a poor, simple oilman’s wife to a grasping gold digger, to a refined and elegant but deadly grand dame, and back to a poor unknown, a forgotten and unnoticed woman once again.  Her upward journey is incited by an act of fate - “God’s will” as her strictly religious father puts it.  She is happy with her humble marriage and healthy young son until on a whim she buys a bicycle for him with money she doesn’t really have, only to have him killed in an accident, and her husband turn on her, her family cast her off to find her own way.

Embittered, she fights against a system that is rigged against her success, battling her way to wealth and ease by any means at her disposal.  but as her success increases, it is slowly seen that it is not simply a desire for her “fair share” of “the good life,” but an ambitious greed that drives her on, and ultimately drags her back down into to abyss, as her social climbing and the criminal enterprises she uses to pay for it get her tangled up with the mob.

The script, by Harold Medford from a story Gertrude Walker, is ripe with great pulpy noir dialogue that oozes the post-war cynicism that gives noir a healthy portion of its appeal.  The film is directed by Vincent Sherman with appropriate sense of weight and drama, and scored by Daniele Amfitheatrof, with several popular tunes woven into the mix to appropriately punctuate the scenes they accompany.  I couldn’t verify it, but I thought I caught strains of the Victor Herbert melody “Temptation,” which also happened to be the name of the perfume Crawford’s character uses.  Little touches like this added a great deal to the overall effect of the picture.

Supporting Crawford’s performance is an excellent cast, which includes Steve Cochran at his roughest and most brutal, David Brian as an unusual and nuanced mob boss with a soft spot for his mother, and Kent Smith in one of his best roles as an untouchable CPA, an honest joe who’s satisfied with his life’s work and can’t be bought by any of Crawford’s many offers. Selena Royle also puts in a good show as David Brian’s senile mother.

It was an interesting and dramatic choice to have Crawford’s one noble deed in the story be to accept punishment in order to save Kent Smith’s character when the law pins him for the crime she tries to get him to do for her. That the ending lets her live may be a bit of a cop-out, but on the whole this is top-shelf noir, and one of Crawford’s best performances.

**** out of 5

Monday, November 28, 2016

Woman on the Run (1950)

“I don’t know any of his friends.  the dog is our only mutual friend.”

This little-seen marvel was scripted and directed by Norman Foster, a man who worked with Orson Welles early on in career.  He spent some time in the 30’s as an actor, then moved to directing with a feature he starred in called I Cover Chinatown (1936), after which he worked on 6 titles in the Mr. Moto series and a couple of Charlie Chan films.

It is interesting in light of this past work to note the featured appearance he gives to Asian-American actors Victor Sen Yung and Reiko Sato as a team of dancers who get in the way of the killer as he hunts for the man who witnessed his hit job in the dramatic opening moments of the film.  Yung is probably most recognized prior to this as Charlie Chan’s number 2 son Tommy (or number 3 son Jimmy, depending on the film), a comic relief role, but here he is given several minutes to display the broader range of his talents, from song and dance to a dramatic scene that is a far cry from the Chan parts he usually played. Reiko Sato also was generally relegated to generic Asian supporting roles, but here is featured in part that holds one of the keys to identifying the killer, shortly before she herself becomes one of his victims.  Both actors had bigger and better parts after this, but props are due to the film for giving them this early chance to shine outside the one-dimensional roles Hollywood previously would have limited them.

The story is co-scripted by by Foster & Alan Campbell, and based upon a Sylvia Tate story called “Man on the Run.”  This may have been a more accurate title, but it is easy to see why it was changed for the movie.  The story’s plot is centered around a search for a man named Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) who is witness to murder, but for reasons of his own runs away and into hiding rather than stand before the grand jury to testify.  But for the majority of the film, he is absent, an off-screen presence, a maltese falcon motivating the key players to find him.  The woman in the title is his wife, Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan), and it is she who we follow around the various high and low points of San Francisco as she alternately conducts a search of her own, and dodges police tails that hope to follow her to her husband.

Given how recently it has been finally made available to wider audiences after years as an unknown quantity, I’m somewhat loath to give a detailed synopsis.  This is a story that deserves to be discovered, and not spoiled by my crude outline of the plot.  Instead, I’ll just paint a brief portrait of some of the highlights you will encounter when you watch it for yourself.

Woman on the Run is a delightful treat, a shadowy film filled with nail-biting, labyrinthian twists and turns, taking us on a tour of the city that takes us places most contemporary San Francisco based films never explored. The cinematography by Hal Mohr perfectly captures this mysterious, dangerous parallel world, and the musical score by Emil Newman & Arthur Lange sells us on the soul of the story.

For, as much as this is the story of a manhunt, it is even more a story of rediscovered love.   Eleanor Johnson and her husband have long since grown distant, estranged even while still sharing the same house and pet dog Rembrandt (who has a role of his own to play in the tale’s unfolding). As she traces her husband, she learns things about him (and herself) that she never realized.
For example, far from the hypochondriac she took him for she discovers from his doctor that he is very sick indeed - with a bad heart from hypertension.  Is it her fault? Does she blame herself for the way she has treated him?  Regardless of the cause, she is told she must get his medicine to him before he runs out.

Frank Johnson is an artist, and the trail of sketches, paintings, mannequin busts and sand sculptures he leaves behind tells a story of a man who still loves his wife in spite of the icy wall that has grown up between them.  Some of the drawings are evidence and clues leading to the killer, but more are keys to unlocking Eleanor’s bottled up feelings, and by the time she figures out where he is, a palpable love and concern for his safety is evident in Sheridan’s performance, as it develops from wise-cracking and cynical to concerned and intensely urgent as the pressure and tension mounts.

There are two more principle players I’ve not yet introduced.  The first is Detective Ferris (Robert Keith), a hard-nosed, shrewd investigator who knows his game well- when to put the pressure on, and when to give Mrs. Johnson a long leash and set his small army of tails on her tracks to follow her progress in finding her husband. He is determined not to lose this witness, and is occasionally cruel in the pursuit of his objectives, though driven by righteous intentions, and a desire for justice and the protection of innocent citizens.

The fourth member of the party that hunts for Frank Johnson is “Legett of the The Graphic” a reporter who  in his unshakable pursuit for an inside story, uses his charms to insinuate himself into Eleanor’s confidence. Ferris warns her, “I wouldn’t get too cozy with that guy if I were you. He’d crucify his grandmother for a story.” And as these two follow the leads given them, danger surrounds them and death follows in their wake.

The big climactic set-piece takes place on a roller coaster at a beach-front amusement park, and is a vivid visual metaphor for the emotional drama of the scene as it unspools. The hunt for Frank leads all the principle parties here, and Legett selects a hidden spot at the center of the coaster for a meeting place to interview Frank and get the story. The spot is surrounded by the rumble of thunder and screams from the cars as they roll past.

Eleanor expresses her sense of dread. “I don’t like this place.”

“It’s a good spot,” Legett replies. “I used to come here with my girl when I was a kid.”

“It’s more frightening than romantic,” she observes.

Darkly he notes, “That’s what love is when you’re young... and life is when you’re older.”

Like the coaster itself, the plot of the film is filled with dramatic twists and hairpin turns sure to keep an audience gripping tightly to the seat in front of them  False leads, mistaken identities, mysterious deaths, coded messages, and more, as the late-breaking tips and clues all fall together in a rapid crescendo of intensity like a snowball rolling toward the big finish.  The story is punctuated and lightened by moments of humor that keep things from getting too grim.   There is a comic recurring bit involving the fall-out from an intentionally generic description of Frank Johnson that is given out by police,  as well as the ever-present snappy patter  with which the dialogue is so thoroughly laced.  There’s even some meta-humor, like one line in which a female detective charged with following Sheridan’s character quips, “How could I lose a redhead like that?”

The world is also peopled with a array of secondary characters and bit parts that add color and fun to the journey.  There are funny off-beat moments with incidental characters, like the woman in bar who interrupts the conversation between Eleanor and the bartender to offer her drunken advice on life and love.  John Qualen has an entertaining scene as Maibus, a window-dresser who works with Frank, and recounts to Eleanor the many wonderful hours he’s spent talking with her husband about his adventures.  And reliable character actor Seven Geray puts in a gentle appearance as Frank’s doctor who delicately informs Eleanor of the severity of her husband’s illness while carefully avoiding blaming their relationship for the strain that brought it on.  Also adding comic and dramatic grace notes to the case are J Farrell MacDonald as a sand sculptor/ retired ferry boat captain friend of Frank who works at amusement park, and uncredited Steve Carruthers, who has a funny bit part as an optometrist on the street who Eleanor uses as a diversion to throw the police off her trail.  I’d even swear I heard Mel Blanc’s voice as a cab driver in one off-screen exchange, though I can’t substantiate the claim.

The net total is a thrilling adventure into darkness, and a moving, dramatic journey that will leave you as breathless as a midnight roller coaster ride.

***** out of 5

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Shadow on the Wall (1949)

“Chocolate milk ain’t bitter!”

“This is, it’s nasty and it’s bitter!”

There are but a handful of noir films that revolve around child characters.  The noir world is a dark, adult world into which children enter only rarely, and usually to terrifying results.  Examples include The Window, Bobby Ware is Missing, and this film, which is directed by British director Pat Jackson, with screenplay by William Ludwig, whose prior work was mostly on light fare like the Andy Hardy series, Challenge to Lassie, and handful of screenplays for mgm musicals. This film was adapted from a story by Hannah Lees and Lawrence Bachman entitled, appropriately enough, “Death in the Doll’s House.”  Andre Previn’s score cleverly played upon this theme, opening with lullaby-type music that is instantly smashed by dramatic strains of high tragedy.

The setup is the standard noir melodrama of a wrongly accused man fingered for murder who must find the proof of his own guilt, but from there, things take several interesting and original turns.
First, the accused man, David Starrling (Zachary Scott) spends nearly the entire film in prison, not only unable to defend himself, but through a twist of events unsure that he is even innocent of the crime of killing his wife, Celia (Katherine Miller).  In the moments leading up to the event, while confronting his wife on her unfaithfulness to him, he is holding a gun that he had brought home as a souvenir from the war. Just as he gets close to her, she knocks him unconscious with the first object she can get her hands on, and when he awakes, he finds her dead, and the gun fired.

The second departure from noir norms is the real killer, whose identity is known to the audience from the beginning, rather than a central mystery as is more typical.  This is Starrling’s sister-in-law Dell - played by Ann Sothern, cast against type in a role quite removed from the Maisie-type characters she usually performed.  While her motive is clearly jealousy - her fiancee Crane Weymouth (Tom Helmouth) is the man with whom Celia was seen together - whether she intended to actually pull the trigger is something left somewhat ambiguous by the film. Was the trigger pulled accidentally in her excitement? Or did she really intend in that moment to kill the sister who had done her wrong? Either way, the deed is done, and she flees the scene of the crime, leaving David to take the blame, with all evidence pointing to him, including the prints on the gun, as she wore gloves when she picked it up and put it in her pocket.

The third element making this tale different from the usual is the one witness who holds the key to exonerating David-  his young daughter Susan (Gigi Pereau), who witnessed the death of her stepmother, but is sent to a child psychiatric unit due to the shock of what she has seen, and will not tell anyone who is responsible.

The child psychiatrist working to help Susan overcome her tragic experience is Doctor Caroline Canford (Nancy Davis - better known now by her married name Reagan).  She has many methods at her disposal to help draw the truth out of Susan, including especially the use of play therapy.  She has doll houses made that recreate the various rooms in the Starrling house where the murder took place, and has dolls to represent the family members, coaxing Susan to recreate the events that are trapped in her mind.

Meanwhile, with David in prison, Susan’s Aunt Dell has guardianship of the girl. When Dr. Canford reveals to Dell that Susan has witnessed the murder, she has a very different reaction than David has when he is informed.  Dell suddenly sees that one bad choice leads to another, and that to protect herself from being caught for the first murder, she will have to act to silence the truth from being revealed by Susan.

The way her moral struggle is depicted creates some sympathy for the character, even when she does the most despicable things in her attempts to keep her guilt a secret.  Initially, she writes a confession, and nearly mails it to the police, to keep David from being punished for her sins.  But fear is the stronger emotion than guilt and a desire to protect an innocent man, and she tears up the confession, tossing it into the storm drains in the street.

The fears she has are most effectively depicted in a scene at the hair salon, when a panic attack ensues when she briefly imagines the hair dryer to be the head-piece of an electric chair being lowered onto her.  This moment of terror seems to be the decision point for Dell.  Henceforth, her efforts to stop Susan’s progress escalate, from interrupting a play session that is getting to close to the truth, to a failed attempt to get Susan to drink some poisoned chocolate milk, to actually slipping into the hospital at night while Susan is undergoing water-bed treatment and untying the knots that keep the girl afloat while she sleeps suspended in the warm flowing water.  Even the filmmakers are hesitant to actually show this event, but merely show the loosened knot, and the ominous sound of running water in a darkened hallway, followed by the frenzied efforts of the hospital staff to resuscitate the nearly-drowned child.

Through all this, Sothern’s character is never depicted so much as an evil character, but as one driven by self-preservation to desperate and evil actions. Dell’s sense of guilt and panic is frequently underlined, as she disposes of evidence in the harbor, and redoubles her alarm and dread when she learns from Dr. Canford that the drowning attempt has failed.

Finally though, her efforts are her undoing.  When she gains custody and insists the child be brought to her home in Connecticut, it is her distinctive shadow on the wall (title reference!) as she waits at the top of the stairs to greet the child that awakens the memories that convict her, and caught at last, she tearfully confesses what she has done.

The film has plenty of stylistic flourishes, including a couple of nightmare sequences that are reminiscent of Hitchcockian dreams, sort of a Spellbound for children.  The script is well-structured and ties together all the various elements in effective and artful ways.  Simple things like the humorously-named “Cupid,” an Indian doll given to Susan by her doting father in the beginning, become essential plot points that take on darker meanings and serve to propel the story to its final conclusions.

The cast is all satisfactory in their roles.  John McIntire has a decent appearance as Pike Ludwell, the family lawyer.  Davis is excellently believable as the eminently competent doctor.  and Perreau is quite fine as the shock-stricken child who has lost all sense of childhood vivaciousness, and reduced to a passive zombie who responds emotionlessly to questions from the adults around her, “Ok,” or “If you want me to.”

One telling exchange is when she visits her father in prison (an early attempt to awaken her repressed memories), and he tells he to be obedient to Dr. Caroline, calling her “Aunt Caroline.”

“Is she my aunt?” she asks oddly.

“She’s a new one, and a very nice one.” he says. “Goodbye, Susan.”

“Bye, David.” she responds, the disconnect with her father poignant and mournful, a far cry from the greetings they had first exchanged in the film’s opening, and happily renewed at the tale’s end.

Not everything about the film is believable, and the themes of child endangerment can be quite off-putting at points, the drama is generally engaging and the action interesting. Though not a top-tier noir, Shadow on the Wall has much to recommend it, and is well worth a viewing.

** out of 5

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Crooked Way (1949)

“I could forget a lot if things- you, for instance.”

This picture is directed by Robert Florey, lensed by John Alton, scored by Louis Forbes, and scripted by Richard Landau (whose name you will find attached to several notable early Hammer Films noir titles), from “No Blade Too Sharp,” a radio play by Robert Monroe.

It stars John Payne as a war hero with a silver star and a bit of shrapnel lodged in his brain from the war.   I love how the opening cleverly fakes out the audience with documentary-style narration that transitions to a doctor (Crane Whitley) explaining to Payne the extent of his injury and giving advice on ways to possibly tease some of his memories back by returning to his home town in hopes he may be recognized by someone who knew him before.  If only he had realized he was a character in a noir film, he’d have known that was a bad idea.

As the doctor talks and show x-rays of the injury, Payne’s face is hidden in darkness, just as his own identity and past are hidden from himself and the audience. Lights come up and we see the man he is now- a man known only as Eddie Rice, a blank slate with a an unknown past and uncertain future.
The script does a good job of keeping the audience only slightly ahead of Eddie in his quest for answers, making it more interesting to see how he uses wits to track them down. Amnesia gives him an odd, cool edge that serves occasionally to his advantage but more often gets him deeper into trouble than if he knew the score.

As the scene moves to the city where he lived before the war, the voice-over narrative duties are transferred then to Eddie, who occasionally reveals his thoughts to the audience by this means. Before he has a chance to even leave the train station in town, the first person he meets upon arriving is Lieutenant Joe Williams (Rhys Williams), who scoops him up and takes him to headquarters to talk things out, calling him Eddie Riccardo and hinting that he was not wanted in town when he left 5 years ago. Captain Anderson ( is also introduced at this point, but primary cop-duty on this film is left to Williams for now.

As they have nothing to hold him on, Williams and Anderson let him go, but strongly hint that they’d rather he left town.  Naturally, with his desire to recollect his old self, Eddie has no such intentions.  As he is leaving the station, he is spotted and recognized by a woman (Ellen Drew) across the street who is busy posting bail for a man names “Petey.”

She comes up close to be sure, and speaks to him, but he doesn’t recognize her, taking a blind stab in the dark at her name, based on the initials on her purse.  Seeing his uncertainty, she offers to drive him to a hotel, and probes deeper to see why he’s come back.  At the same time, he is subtly picking up clues about her, since she obviously recognized him but didn’t offer her name at their meeting. He slyly gets her name from her driver’s license.  Nina Martin.  The name still means nothing to us.

While he goes to his room, she makes a call to tell a certain interested party about this development.
The party she calls is gangster Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts), who is in the middle of roughly interrogating a man named Kelly (John Harmon), who formerly was in his employ, bur turned stool pigeon.   This scene serves triple duty 1) in introducing the character as a big shot who doesn’t like stoolies, 2) showing his obsessive focus as he ignores the ringing phone, and 3) setting up Kelly as a corpus electi that will come in handy later on.  Vince has his thugs beat and kill Kelly, then takes them along to visit their long-departed friend Eddie.  His parting words to Kelly cement the image of Vince as a vindictive killer.  “Kelly, You’re dead! Oh, and Kelly- when you get to where you’re going, have ‘em give you a nice even burn.  Don’t let let ‘em just fry you on one side.”

When they show up in Eddie’s apartment to confront him, they are thrown a bit off balance by his claims not to recognize them, but not enough to prevent a thorough and ugly beat-down from occurring.  Vince goes off on how they grew up together, went into the rackets together, and how Eddie betrayed him and let him take the rap for him and go to jail for 2 years.  He stops short of killing Eddie, instead urging him to leave town in 24 hours.

When Eddie recovers, he deduces that Nina was the one who set him up for that beating, and traces her down to find out why.  She learns his amnesia is real, and lets him know just how rotten he used to be, and give him several nasty clues to the full brutality of their past together.  They were once married, and he was an abusive, no-good louse to her.  In spite of seeing how bitter toward him she is, in his desperation, he ends up turning to her for help anyways when he becomes a wanted man, suspected by Williams of working for Vince to execute Kelly. The gradual thawing of their relationship forms the romantic “divorce-reset” fantasy element of the story. If only real life relationship problems were as simple as a case of amnesia.  This aspect of the film almost seems like an early model for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

But when Williams get too close to figuring out Vince is in back of the killing, an alternate plan springs into Vince’s mind to get rid of two birds with one stone.  Kill Williams, frame Eddie. He has his thugs pick up both men, one dead and the other unconscious, and they are left in a car together outside town. Fortunately Eddie awakens in time to get away from this falsified scene of the crime.

He hitchhikes a ride back to town, catching a lift with a passing mortician’s van, “Green Acres Mortuary” which simultaneously symbolizes his potentially riding toward his own funeral, and offers a brief moment of dark humor, as the man driving (Garry Owen) goes on about hoping he’s not missing out on any business, and bragging about his business policies “pick ‘em up while they’re alive, and they won’t forget you when you’re dead!”

With both the police chasing him and the crooks intent on his death, Eddie hides out with Nina and her roommate Hazel, until suddenly the gangsters’ hit man bursts in firing live ones. Nina takes a bullet meant for Eddie.  She hazily looks up to him while watches over her, waiting for a doctor to arrive.

“Light me a cigarette,” she whispers.  As he does so, his face is again shown in total shadow, an echo of opening sequence. His identity has become a mystery to her now, too. This isn’t the Eddie Riccardo she knew, loved, and learned to hate.  He’s a shadow, a phantom, some stranger.  Riccardo is drifting away into the past.  “You’re far far?” she says, perplexed.

“Five years.  A lifetime. Beyond that, a blank.” As he says this, the light slowly reveals his face to her.  Is it Riccardo or Rice that she sees? Can she trust him enough to love again?  He confesses he feels he’s being cornered, forced back into the Riccardo role by fate.  Can her love keep him on the path back into light?

The one person who holds the key to the resolution is Petey, the man she had helped bail out in the beginning.  As memorably played by the familiar character actor Percy Helton (you may recall him as the drunken parade Santa in Miracle on 34th Street), he is a nervous, craven little man with an attachment to his pet cat, Samson. As a potential witness in the cases against Vince Alexander’s organization, he’s been kept in hiding in an old warehouse.

Eddie finds him after a desperate search that leads him through all the darkest, cheapest filthy corners of town.  Knowing that Vince’s gang will be hot on his trail, he tips off his cab-driver to  who he is so that Captain Anderson and his police will end up coming to the same location and force a show-down between the competing hunters out to get Eddie.

Vince is first on the scene, and after his attempts to lure Eddie back to the dark side and death fail, he manages to put a bullet in Petey. Eddie manages to narrow the odds by killing the thugs with Vince, and there is a deadly struggle between these two, brought to a halt only by the arrival of the police, who offer each a deal if they bring the other out with them.

Vince has the upper hand, dragging Eddie out at gunpoint, but Petey manages to crawl to a gun and fire a couple at Vince, whose reaction make it clear to the cops who the real villain is.  All is wrapped up neatly with a bit of exposition from Captain Anderson, and Eddie and Nina  have a chance for their happily ever after.

The film is an exciting exploration of ideas of identity, redemption, and transformation. It dares to ask big questions, like “what makes a man evil,” but dares to keep from ending up too black-and-white in its conclusions.  Despite his forgotten past, Eddie finds himself doing similar things- and with same intense drive- as if he were the old Eddie, Riccardo. Only his intent seems different. The idea of Rice vs. Riccardo is played with in multiple levels throughout the movie, though never losing sight of entertainment as the main objective. The result is an engaging film for noir or any genre.

**** out of 5

Friday, November 25, 2016

Flaxy Martin (1949)

“She’s a great kid- you can always trust her to double cross you.”

This film is something of a surprise in the filmography of director Richard Bare, who somehow managed to slip this one in between his work in short films- specifically the George O’Hanlon starring “Joe McDoakes” series. You know, the ones with the man behind the 8-ball.  He had also worked with star Virginia Mayo a year earlier on a little flick called Smart Girls Don’t Talk, but shorts were where he earned his bread.  This film is similarly anomalous in the filmographies of both screenwriter David Lang, who wrote a handful of low-budget genre films before, and mostly westerns and tv work after, and cinematographer by Carl Guthrie, who spent most of his career on B pictures, westerns, tv, and shorts, including a couple of McDoakes pictures. The score is the work of Bill Lava, who at the time was also working on b pictures and shorts like the McDoakes series. Later, of course, he’d be vilified by cartoon fans for his odd late-series looney tunes mood music.  Somehow, this bunch of artists perennially “behind the 8-ball” (literally) seem to have managed to pull off a minor masterpiece right under the studio’s nose.  

The story opens with breaking glass and a dark figure jumping out of a window, then scrambling across a dimly lit city street. Frantic phone calls to the police and the rapid response are shown in quick montage.

“I’ll never forget that face!” the witness repeatedly says to the police as she shudders in terror while describing her recollection of the murder that has just been committed.  The brute attached to the face she describes is Caesar (Jack Overman), a familiar figure in the underground world of this city. Unlike the more well-known cinematic criminal, “Little Caesar,” He is an imposing giant-a thoughtless animal- with plenty of rage and muscle to do the dirty work for local crime boss Hap Ritchie (Douglas Kennedy), but not enough sense to keep from getting caught.

And caught he is, so Hap calls in his lawyer to get Caesar out on bail. The lawyer he calls is Walter Colby (Zachary Scott), who is none-to-happy to be awakened in the middle of the night for something like this.  Colby protests that this was not what he signed up for.

Walter Colby is an honest-enough, hardworking lawyer who resents having to constantly do this kind of shady legal work for unsavory employers.  But he has a fatal weakness, and if you guessed it’s a girl, you’re right.

Flaxy Martin (Virginia Mayo) may be a cheap nightclub singer, but for Colby, she is his whole world.  As he says himself to her at one point, “When it comes right down to it, I guess I’d do almost anything for you.”  Little does he suspect that her loyalties are stronger to his boss than to him.  She’s the one Hap calls when Colby gets ornery or difficult, and she then works her charms on Colby to manipulate him into following orders he otherwise would find ethically questionably.

This time though, Colby goes to far in protesting his objections, and Hap is convinced that his lawyer is no longer someone he can count on.  It’s time to get rid of him, and he uses Flaxy to make that happen.

Early, Flaxy had hired a girl, Peggy Ferrara (Helen Westcott), to act as a witness to provide Caesar an alibi during the night of the murder.  When Peggy tries to make a little extra on the side by blackmailing Hap, she earns the next spot on Caesar’s hit list.  Hap has Flaxy make Colby think that she herself is chief suspect for Ferrara’s murder, and naturally, Colby tries ever means he can to get her freed from suspicion.

Colby falls right into Hap’s traps by doing this, but he really has himself to blame for what follows.  His love for Flaxy is so loyal and blind, he willingly claims the murder as his own doing, knowing that without any other evidence to support his claim, he will never be convicted.  But in court, a surprise witness supplied  by Hap to the prosecution confirms Colby’s guilty plea, and he is sent up to prison.

This is a unique case of a “Wrong Man” noir in which the man is actually arrested on his own admission of guilt.  It is only after he is convicted that he catches on to what has been done to him, with a little help in the way of a friendly tip given to him by a cab driver he once helped as a lawyer. With his eyes suddenly opened to the double-cross that has been played on him by Flaxy and Hap, Walt grabs his first chance to escape, while on a train en route to the prison.

He is picked up along the road by Nora Carson (Dorothy Malone), an innocent “good girl” type, who kindly brings him to the safety of her own country home, with nary a question as to who he is, or where he’s come from.  The next morning he wakes in this home to find he is suddenly freed from the dark shadows of the city and transported to a place of idyllic bliss among birds and blooms.

Though she learns who he is, Nora continues to welcome him in her home and offers him whatever help he needs.  This taste of real goodness is just what Colby needs to spark that sense of decency in himself, too.  It doesn’t immediately eliminate his desire for revenge, but he at least begins to work his way toward the light, beginning with the resolution he makes to return to the city and face the troubles he has brought on himself, beginning with finding the ones who helped him over that cliff, and bring them to justice.

The resolution is nearly too late. The rosy, Flaxy-free interlude is brought to an abrupt end when a nosy busybody from next door calls the local sheriff to investigate this mysterious stranger in town, and he quickly arrives with cuffs in hand.  This would be bad enough for Colby, but there is a wild-card in the deck to make things even more interesting for him.

That wild card comes in the form of noir favorite Elisha Cook, here playing Roper, a zoot-suited gunsel with inferiority complex, who has to this point only been briefly seen a few times at the apartments of his employer Hap Ritchie.  He is a classically squirrelly and injured Cook creation, who is constantly being goaded and provoked, especially by Colby who frequently gets digs in about his size and intelligence.

When word got out of Colby’s escape, Cook has the smarts to realize there is something more at work than mere survival instinct.  He suspects Colby knows, and hunts him down personally to find out. Roper shows up just in time, pokes his snub nose in through the back door just as the sheriff is questioning Colby at Nora’s front door.  With a manic intensity, he shoves the aging officer into a closet, and cuffing Nora and Walt together with sheriff’s cuffs, drives them away into the woods to kill and bury them.

Walt must do some fast thinking, faster talking, and well-times scrapping to stay alive and escape with Roper’s car.  He knows he is driving right back into trouble but is now doubly determined to save his neck and get the ones responsible for stretching it out for him.

The first name on his list is Caesar, but when he catches up to him, the thug is already dead, shot by Roper, who rings the phone in Caesar’s apartment to taunt Colby from just outside where he is waiting to shoot Colby when he comes out.  A dramatic chase ensues, climaxing in a tense roof-top face-off to the death.

But Colby’s trouble are STILL not over.  He finds Flaxy, who tries to convince him she only double crossed him for his own good.  He isn’t buying it, but he puts on a good show to let her believe otherwise.  They plot together to lure Hap to her apartment and get the getaway money they need from him.  When Hap arrives, Flaxy takes the money and holds both men off at gunpoint, determined to take it all for herself.

Her greed is her undoing, and Colby takes delight in telling her so.  “You double crossed yourself this time, didn’t you, sweetheart? Just like I thought you would.”  The two men team up to back her into a corner, until she must shoot one or the other.  She nails Hap, but Colby wrestles the gun from her and slips out, leaving her for the police to take away.

The only conflict remaining to be resolved at this point is Colby’s battle with his own conscience. Will he take the money and run?  Or will he turn himself in and end up poor but free?  Nora’s loving pleas provide the answer to that conflict, and they live more-or-less happily ever after.

The plot has a few weak spots and some overly-tangled threads that occasionally get snarled up, but there is no shortage of excitement, interesting characters, and murky noir atmosphere to make Flaxy Martin a film well worth viewing.

*** out of 5