Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Noirvember 2016 -a before and after pair of criminals

Well, it's that time of year again.  You know. Noirvember-  the one month that sounds good with "noir" portmanteaued onto it. Yeah, I just turned portmanteau into a verb. Well, I wrapped up my annual October horror-viewing marathon early, and got a jump start on this festive time of year with a pair of films that sort of bridged the transition in 2 odd ways: first, I watched the 1964 Bette Davis double-feature (sorry, bad puns are my thing) Dead Ringer, which, if you were going by the image on the posters (and dvd cover), you might think was some kind of horror film. The prominent skull-imagery there originally may have been meant to market the film to fans of Davis's previous creep-show, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, but now probably serves more to confuse folks who wanted to watch Dead Ringers, the Cronenberg-directed creeper from 1988 starring Jeremy Irons.

The second film I watched was closer in style to a genuine noir, but predates the prime years genre by a good 10 years, with a source novel that was written in 1866. I am speaking, of course, of the Peter Lorre- starring Crime and Punishment adaptation from 1935.  Neither of these films is, strictly speaking, film noir.  It was, however, interesting to me to watch them in the light (sorry) of the noir genre, as films influenced by and an early influence of the genre, respectively.

Let's talk about Dead Ringer, first.  Directed by Paul Henreid (who starred in a similar story of stolen identity himself, Hollow Triumph), this film also went by the working title, "Who Is Buried in My Grave?"  Considering how little time we get to enjoy two Bette Davises for the price of one, the working title might have been more appropriate.  However brief that bit of cinematic trickery may have been, it is just as enjoyable now as it was in 1946 when she starred vs herself in A Stolen Life.  This film however is not a remake or sequel to that, but a remake, of all things, of a Mexican film that starred Dolores Del Rio, called La Otra, or, The Other One.

In it, Davis plays estranged twin sisters, one living the high life the other by rights should have had.  The poor relation, Edie, in this case now runs a cheap cocktail lounge, and occasionally goes out with a police sergeant played by Karl Malden.  Naturally, she is dissatisfied with this life, and when she learns how her sister Margaret tricked her out of the husband and life that could have been hers, she plots a carefully executed murder and switched places with her sister, elaborately staging the death as her own suicide.  Then she discovers just how little she really knows her own sister.

This plot, if filmed in the height of the noir cycle, might have been told with the same details, but the tone is different than most films from that period, and places it clearly as being among the more polished, less moody 60's period.  The cool 60's graphics during the titles, and the cool organ-infused jazz played at Edie's place easily identify it as a film from that decade. As for mood, well, instead of the sense of foreboding darkness and disillusionment of the late 40's and 50's, we have a different tone set by both the cinematography and the score. Andre Previn's score is infused with strings and harpsichords in a way that seems intent on making this a sort of Gothic drama rather than a tale of a character who is swallowed up into her own darkness.  The run time also feels more slow-paced than most noir-  at nearly two hours, the film seems at times to drag its heels. Where noir might have tried to ratchet up the tension. this prefers to take us through every excrutiating detail of Edie's execution of her revenge, and the ultimate demise of all her careful plotting.

First we see her carefully arranging every detail of the fake suicide, and then removing the clothes from the corpse to take on the role of the rich society sister she has decided to replace. she changes her hair, jewelry, even stockings, to carefully adjust her appearance to that of her sister's. Then we watch her discover every important detail she has overlooked about her sister's life, and scramble to cover for the differences between them.  When her butler asks her if she'll have the usual, will she know what that drink is?  When she must open the safe, does she know the combination? Will she fool Duke the great Dane that her sister owns? What about smoking? To puff or not to puff? And can she fake the rituals with her newly acquired Catholic in-laws (which includes the humorous performance of Estelle Winwood, who I first enjoyed as Sheela Sugrue in Darby O'Gill and the Little People)?  Even the sleep patterns of the sisters are noticeably different.  She must find creative solutions to the question of signatures, not recognizing friends, and more.  Some of her solutions are more plauible (I started smoking again) than others (Duke was lonely and likes me now).

The one thing she definitely doesn't expect, however, is Peter Lawford.  Frankly, if I were better Davis in 1964, I might not expect him either.  Their age difference (15 years) is notable, but one must accept it to appreciate what follows his introduction into the tale, because with him comes the cruelest twist of all.  After successfully staging the murder as her own suicide, Edie learns her sister has a skeleton in her own closet; one shared by Lawford.


Lawford, it turns out, in Margaret's secret lover, and together they have killed Margaret's husband (who she had stolen from Edie under false pretenses all those years ago).  So just when it seems Edie has gotten away from one murder, she is embroiled in the fall-out from another.  Here we see most clearly the influence of the noir genre, as fate grabs the ankles of another sinner who thought she had gotten away scot-free, and drags her to her final demise.  This ending is not as effective as the best examples of that genre, with some anticlimactic courtroom scenes, a somewhat pointless moment in which the butler reveals he has known all along it was her, but who loyally vows to play it however she wants in court, but the coda that closes the film has definite noir feeling; as Edie is being taken away to be executed, she has one final confrontation with Malden's policeman, who simply must know-  is she really Margaret, or is she Edie?  The answer she gives is perfectly noir in its bitter irony.  "I'm Margaret DeLorca, Sergeant. As you said, Edie would never hurt a fly."

** out of 5

Crime and Punishment (1935) was the next on my double-bill.  I won't try to compare it to the novel, which I have not yet read. Josef Von Sternberg, the director, who was essentially forced to film the script by contract, reportedly dislike it as an adaptation, but I can only take the film on its own terms.  And on those terms, I found it a greatly enjoyable production.

Peter Lorre is first billed here as "The Celebrated European Star," and it is among the very first of his roles filmed in Hollywood.  Considering Peter Lawford's role in the last film, I might have titled this post "A Tale of Two Peters," but I doubt that would've gotten past my editor who has a notoriously dirty mind.

Lorre here plays Roderick Raskolnikov, a brilliant criminology student who becomes so disillusioned and broken by poverty that he turns to theft and murder to provide for his family, which consists of his mother and sister.
The mother is brilliantly depicted by Elizabeth Risdon, an actress whose versatility and chops in the realm of both comedy and drama are equally impressive.  Here she is given a wonderfully broad range of emotion to play from.  Her two most notable moments happen back-to-back When, in one scene she is seen consoling Lorre's character like a small child, and in the next scene, she is uttering heart-rending wails of grief when she discovers the evil crimes her son has committed.
The sister, played by Tala Burell, has plenty of material of her own to work with, not merely as a love interest for Lorre's charming old classmate, who is played by Robert Allen, but also as the object of the affections or desires of both Gene Lockhart, the wealthy possessor or TWO government positions, who promises her comfort and stability - at a price, and of the mysterious Douglas Dumbrille character who was formerly her lecherous employer, and later an apologetic and remorseful pursuer, and a character who is by the end a sympathetic figure who attempts to help the family and Lorre to get out of the troubles brought by Lorre's crimes.  

There are also interesting minor roles - for Thurston Hall as an editor who first takes advantage of Lorre's naivete, then later has the tables turned on him when Lorre summons courage to bluff his way into a better deal for the writing he has done for Hall's publications. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who was once Eliza Doolittle in the original stage production of Pygmalion in 1914, here plays a very different role as a greedy, unsavory pawn broker who Lorre goes to for money, and later kills and robs.

However, the two principle characters with whom Lorre interacts are not among these listed.  The first is a tender yet strong performance of Marian Marsh as Sonya, disreputable young lady of the streets with the soul of an angel, whom Lorre meets at the pawn broker's home where she is selling her greatest treasure, a small family bible, in exchange for money to feed her young siblings.  The development of their relationship turns out to be the ultimate influence in bringing him back out of the depths of his depravity and back among the human race.

The second is the always superb Edward Arnold, here playing a police chief inspector with great panache.  Their first meeting established immediately the contrast between their views on life, crime, and humanity.   On one hand is Lorre, with his intellectual theories of the Ordinary and the Extraordinary, which is echoed by that of the two murderers in Hitchcock's film Rope. His idols are geniuses like Napoleon and Beethoven.  He fancies himself one of them, a pride that ultimately is hus undoing.  Arnold, on the other hand is more practical.  He depends upon the criminal's own sense guilt to eventually reveal himself, no matter how brilliant the man,
Watching Arnold bird-dogging Lorre, one is struck by the skillful way he plies his trade. sometimes canny and coy, then sly, then playing the fool to draw out Lorre's sense of superiority,  It is a brilliant depiction if a highly intelligent investigator, but even this is balanced by something deeper.  Despite a sneer early on that he has no need to "worry about a conscience," he ultimately reveals not only a conscience, but a heart, and a desire not merely for justice, but for redemption.  He plays tough to get his man, but plays even harder for the soul of the criminals he pursues.  

Lorre gives a similarly dynamic performance, with an astonishing array of emotion and attitudes on display; at times playful, petulent, feverish, wrathful, child-like and innocent, indignant and paranoid, then later guilty shamed, and ultimately humbled and repentant,  His character shows early promise in his field, but his pride in his own intellect is his undoing.  His fatal lack of humility is ultimately shown to be at the back of all his troubles, and not The System or The Man, or any other external force he attempts to blame.  Then, after he has has committed murder and theft, we see how it keeps him from confessing even when he is told that it will be better for him to do so, that extenuating circumstances and his own contrition would get a reduced sentence for his actions. He is paranoid and suspicious of everyone around him- not only Edward Arnold's chief inspector, but even his own family and friends, and strangers such as Dumbrille, who he initially thinks is a detective working for Arnold.  My descriptions cannot fully encompass the scope of what he does with this role, except to say weakly that is a bravura performance all around.

I said I would not get into comparisons with the book, and I won't except to surmise that despite the director's distaste for the adaptation, I think possibly it does for the novel what many such adaptations struggle to accomplish-  capture the essence of the philosophical underpinning of the writer's ideas without laying them on so thickly as the produce a work that is overwrought or excessively dense.  Where a writer can afford the space to opine and philosophize, a filmmaker must weave his ideas into the story so that the viewer receives it almost without recognizing it consciously.  It becomes embedded in the entertainment, and is told by the drama, rather than exposition and a talky, dialogue-heavy script that might drag down the pacing of the story. 

The truths the story wishes to convey are revealed not simply through opining narration, but in the actions of its characters.  Ideas of guilt, remorse, repentance, and more all are played out, and we don't mind watching, because it's not preachy like a sermon, but instructive like a parable.  And watching how the story plays out its moral lesson, we find ourselves not merely informed by entertained, a sure sign of great art.

While the film ultimately ends with an uplifting message of salvation though confession, it definitely has same the unflinching view as the later noir genre has of consequences of sin and how they drag a man under to his demise. A good summation of that idea is seen in a conversation between Lorre and Dumbrille, who comes to him seeking an opportunity to apologize to his sister for the trouble he's gone through.  "Haven't you ever done a wrong?" he asks earnestly. "If you have, you'll know - the worse consequences are the unforeseen ones. It's like dropping a stone in a pool, waves spread out in all directions and touch shores you couldn't see before."

**** out of 5

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