Sunday, January 31, 2010

#80: The Big Steal (Don Siegel, 1949)

Released: July 9, 1949

Director: Don Siegel; Screenplay: Gerald Drayson Adams and Daniel Mainwaring based on a story by Richard Wormser; Cinematography: Harry J. Wild; Music: Leigh Harline; Producer: Jack J. Gross; Studio: RKO

Cast: Robert Mitchum (Lt. Duke Halliday), Jane Greer (Joan Graham), William Bendix (Capt. Vincent Blake), Patric Knowles (Jim Fiske), Ramon Novarro (Inspector General Ortega), Don Alvarado (Lt. Ruiz), John Qualen (Julius Seton), Pascual Garcia Pena (Manuel)

Here it is: the lightweight, stepsister of the all-time classic Out of the Past. Not all of the elements are the same, but there are enough similarities to warrant the comparisons. The most obvious are the two headliners, who comprise arguably the most electric on-screen pair in the history of film noir, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, once again working as a couple on the run. Once again, Mexico plays a central role in the romance and the chase. Both are playing different characters, with Mitchum’s Duke Halliday much looser than the sullen Jeff Bailey, but as someone who can’t picture them as anyone but Bailey and Kathie Moffat, it is hard for me not to continually compare the two distinct pairs. Also on board for this film is screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who once again turns in a witty, entertaining script. But it is mainly the Mitchum-Greer pairing that leads to the inevitable comparisons and contributes to The Big Steal being looked at as a lightweight follow-up to one of the greatest noirs ever made.

I can’t really dispute that classification – I do tend to view it as a lightweight follow-up to Out of the Past. But you know how many other films, let alone noirs, that I think are even close to the level of Out of the Past? Well, I place it at #6 when I made a rough personal Top 100 films of all time list, so that means very few. The Big Steal lacks the apprehensiveness that lurks at every turn of Out of the Past, but it never really tries to match such foreboding. This is more of a comedy-noir (if such a category exists), with the twists, turns and double-crosses of the best noirs being done almost tongue-in-cheek and with a sly grin. It’s not as dark as many prefer their noir, but it’s a rollicking, fun ride.

Lt. Duke Halliday and Joan “Chiquita” Graham (Jane Greer) are chasing and being chased across Mexico. They are chasing Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles), Halliday to clear his name after being framed in a payroll robbery and Graham in order to recover the money that her ex-fiance Fiske ran off with. Complicating things for Halliday is Capt. Vincent Blake (William Bendix), an Army investigator who is after him in order to arrest him for the payroll job. Nonchalantly watching all of this action unfold is Mexican Inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro), who realizes very early that something is not right about this cast of characters. He sits back, allowing each party to work their plans, and watches for the right moment to swoop in and peacefully resolve everything.

With Don Siegel in the director’s chair, it also means that there will be outstanding action sequences, which is certainly the case. The car chase foreshadows the reputation that Siegel would come to acquire as a tense action director. The effects used to produce the speeding car chases may appear dated now, but they are impressive when compared to other attempts of the era. The story itself has some head-scratching sequences – why would Halliday and Graham ever abandon their car?! – but the plot almost becomes secondary to just watching, and listening to, the interaction between the principals. Mainwaring’s script may not be his best in terms of story development, but it once again shows him to have been one of the finest dialog writers of his time. The banter between Mitchum and Greer is fantastic – Greer as the cynical love interest and Mitchum mastering the humorous tough guy. The work of Mainwaring, both as a screenwriter and of source material for other films, is appreciated by all with an interest in noir, but his name is one that deserves to be even more well-known by general movie fans. Truly an unsung luminary of the era to the general public.

This is the simple formula that led to me to enjoying this one. Rather than comparing it to Out of the Past, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. I reveled in the give and take between Mitchum and Greer, enjoyed seeing a brighter Mexico than was explored in Out of the Past, and appreciated the uniqueness of a comedy noir.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Recently Watched Section Added

Just throwing up a quick post to tell everyone about a small little list I've added to the sidebar on the left side of the blog. It's just below the "Perfect 10 Reviews" section. Completely ripping off the feature that I noticed over at John's Twenty Four Frames, I thought it was a great idea to add some sort of space where I could keep a log of movies I've recently watched that don't fit into what I'm writing about for the blog at the moment. It's just a simple running list, with a simple 10-point rating. But it will be fun for me just to continually put up the latest movies I have watched.

Other than that, we soldier on with the noir countdown... we're moving to some great films!

#81: Road House (Jean Negulesco, 1948)

Released: September 22, 1948

Director: Jean Negulesco; Screenplay: Edward Chodorov based on a story by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul; Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle; Music: Cyril J. Mockridge; Producer: Edward Chodorov; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Ida Lupino (Lily Stevens), Cornel Wilde (Pete Morgan), Celeste Holm (Susie Smith), Richard Widmark (Jefty Robbins), O.Z. Whitehead (Arthur), Robert Karnes (Mike), George Beranger (Lefty), Ian MacDonald (Police captain), Grandon Rhodes (Judge)

- "She does more without a voice than anybody I've ever heard!"

A strong case can be made for classifying Road House as a straight melodrama. In terms of plot and progression, it probably is more closely related to traditional lovers triangle stories, where two friends both become infatuated with the new girl in town. Rather than the dark, haunting urban cityscape setting, this takes place entirely in or around a road house saloon near the Canadian border. Although Ida Lupino’s sultry and cagey Lily Stevens comes close, there really is no traditional femme fatale to manipulate the fighting men into their flap. And until the battle over the love interest, there is no central crime or shady activity taking place, no career criminals or unending scheming. Still, all of the uniformly outstanding lead performances contain noirish elements and the cinematography from veteran Joseph LaShelle manages to make the rural setting of Jefty’s Road House as mysterious as any city street.

Things center on Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde), who manages the road house and bar owned by his good friend Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark). Jefty provides the capital necessary to keep everything going, but it is Pete that truly runs the business. When Jefty returns from a trip to Chicago, he brings back with him a lounge singer he met in the city. Lily (Ida Lupino) might not have much of a voice, but she has stage presence that makes her an instant hit at the bar. Jefty is crazy about Lily, although his new employee begins to show more of an interest in Pete than in the man who brought her there from the city. With Jefty away on a hunting trip, Pete and Lily develop a close relationship and ultimately begin plotting to run away together and get married. When Jefty catches wind of the plot, he frames Pete for theft at the road house in order to foil the plans. To play the good guy, Jefty then has Pete released into his custody, but all of these machinations are not enough to stifle the love affair between Pete and Lily. When Jefty realizes that the two still aim to be together, he begins to violently unravel.

Any opportunity to watch Richard Widmark as a sociopath should be taken advantage of, and he does not disappoint here. But even the madness of Jefty is not the high point of the film. The catalyst to the success of the movie, and really the centerpiece of the entire story, is Ida Lupino’s Lily Stevens. In the entry for The Hitch-Hiker, I promised that there would be more Lupino in the countdown, and here she quiets any reservations one might have about considering her a top-flight actress. Lupino oozes sensuality, but in a different manner than someone like, say, Marilyn Monroe in Niagara. Lily is a tough, sarcastic personality that may know that she is beautiful, but does not intend to rely solely on attractiveness to make her way in the world. There is something equally alluring (if not more so) in watching her sit at the piano and deliver a gravel-voiced rendition of “One For My Baby” as in seeing the eye-popping Monroe lounging in a pink dress. The edgy, cynical personality of Lily also provides more character development than a character like Rose Loomis. While not a femme fatale, Lily is the impetus to the entire drama and Lupino is more than up to that task. The limits of the entire production become obvious as the film progresses, showing why the script had already been passed over by three previous directors before Jean Negulesco decided to make it. It is very much tied to the soundstage sets, with varying degrees of success. When set inside the road house, Joseph LaShelle and Negulesco do impressive work to make locales like a bowling alley or simple bar appear shadowy. The ventures to the border and outdoors are much more artificial.

This was the last noir that Negulesco ever made and it is certainly a solid way to end his foray into the field. It might not be his best, but it is still an entertaining, distinctive noir.

Friday, January 29, 2010

#82: Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)

Released: January 21, 1953

Director: Henry Hathaway; Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch; Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald; Music: Sol Kaplan; Producer: Charles Brackett; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Marilyn Monroe (Rose Loomis), Joseph Cotten (George Loomis), Jean Peters (Polly Cutler), Max Showalter (Ray Cutler), Dennis O’Dea (Inspector Starkey), Richard Allen (Patrick), Don Wilson (Mr. Kettering), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Kettering), Russell Collins (Mr. Qua), Will Wright (Boatman)

- “You have to start laying your plans at thirteen for a dress like that…”

Compiling this list of my 100 favorite noirs reminded how underappreciated Henry Hathaway is. Film noir fanatics certainly recognize his talents, but even with a lot of enthusiasts, it is usually his masterpiece Kiss of Death that receives all the attention. In fact, noirs probably aren’t even the first style of films that people associate with Hathaway. Instead, the average classic movie fan will remember him for his westerns of the 1960s. But there is much more to his output and he made a number of outstanding films during the noir era. He was successful making a number of varied films within the genre, ranging from the newspaper noir of Call Northside 777 to the gangster revenge scenario of Kiss of Death, and so much more. Taking the time to watch these films for the second and third time has me appreciating what a tasteful, stylish director Hathaway was.

His visual style is enough to lift this run-of-the mill noir melodrama much higher than it would have placed in this countdown if a less interesting director had been at the helm. The main limitation of this 1953 release was likely the strongest selling point upon its initial release. Darryl F. Zanuck, then head of 20th Century Fox, thought that budding starlet Marilyn Monroe would fill the role of Rose Loomis perfectly, and thus saw the project as a star vehicle to further her popularity. This meant that large sections of the story were centered on showcasing the still-developing actress, depending almost entirely on the sheer allure of her sexuality to carry the story in places. She very nearly succeeds, but even the blond bombshell is not enough to completely hide flaws in the story.

Monroe is Rose Loomis, a gorgeous woman who is staying in a cabin at the Niagara Falls resort with her husband George (Joseph Cotten), a man recently released from a veterans mental hospital. Even into the 1950s, George remains scarred by his experiences in the Second World War. Also staying at the cabin are Ray (Max Showalter) and Polly (Jean Peters) Cutler, a recently-married couple who are finally taking a delayed honeymoon. The Cutlers instantly begin to question what is keeping the other couple together, as George never leaves the darkened hotel room, while Rose walks around the resort in a tight-fitting pink dress with the intention of turning the heads of every male in the zip code. While sightseeing around the Falls, Polly spots Rose kissing another man. Slowly, it begins to emerge that the two may be plotting to rub out George. Soon afterward, George is reported missing and Rose feints when called to the morgue to identify a recovered body. Assuming that George has died, the Cutlers carry on with their honeymoon as best they can – until Polly believes that she has spotted George at the Falls. Ray assures Polly that she is seeing things, but Rose knows the truth and begins scrambling to make a getaway.

The screenplay is limited, with a few implausibilities in the narrative and a somewhat predictable storyline. But the principal actors still manage to deliver convincing performances. Monroe’s Rose is put over on the sheer sexual magnetism she is able to exude on the screen. Rather than using such a description to degrade her acting ability, I think it’ s a compliment, as this is what the character calls for. Joseph Cotten shows some versatility in delivering one of the more unusual, sinister roles of his career. And Jean Peters is a good counterpoint to the vibrant Monroe, playing Polly as an intimidated wife, daunted by the spell that Rose is capable of casting over men. It is an interesting comparison between the two, as Peters as Polly Cutler is beautiful as well, but even still she is no match for the splendor of Rose.

Regardless of performances and screenplay, it is Henry Hathaway that elevates the entire production. Teaming with cinematographer extraordinaire Joseph MacDonald (who is already making his third appearance in the countdown!), they make spectacular use of Technicolor, while maintaining the sinister atmosphere on display in the best of noirs. The setting is conducive to memorable scenic shots and many of them are stunning, such as the entire late-night party scene outside of the cabins at the resort. Shots of characters in a darkened room, peering through venetian blinds toward a nighttime view of the Falls are gorgeous. Such particular scenes are very impressive, with Hathaway displaying the skills of a seasoned silent film director, expressing emotion without a single line of dialog. The murder sequence, with the sound falling out and the cuts to shots of the hanging bells, is spectacular. The guilty realization of the act by George, after spotting the red lipstick is equally impressive. So while it is not the best Hathaway has to offer in noir, it might be his most impressive achievement, as the movie likely should not come across as well as it does.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

#83: Night Has a Thousand Eyes (John Farrow, 1948)

Released: October 13, 1948

Director: John Farrow; Screenplay: Barre Lyndon and Jonathan Latimer based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich; Cinematography: John F. Seitz; Music: Victor Young; Producer: Endre Bohem; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Edward G. Robinson (John “The Mental Wizard” Triton), Gail Russell (Jean Courtland), John Lund (Elliott Carson), Virginia Bruce (Jenny Courtland), William Demarest (Lt. Shawn), Richard Webb (Peter Vinson), Jerome Cowan (Whitney Courtland)

- “I had become a reverse zombie… the world was dead and I was living.”

The second film in the countdown to be based on a Cornell Woolrich, and this one is just as pulpy or over-the-top as the first entry (Phantom Lady). It might be so outrageous as to turn some viewers off. The tale follows the travails of John Triton (Edward G. Robinson), the man billed as “The Mental Wizard” who tours the country putting on vaudeville shows. In these shows, he and his partners, consisting of his fiancée Jenny (Virginia Bruce) and friend Whitney Courtland (Jerome Cowan), put on mind-reading shows to make ends meet. However, during one of the performances, Triton has a vision of an audience member’s son being killed in a fire. He quickly instructs the woman to get home immediately, and it turns out that had he not had the vision the boy would have perished in a fire. Triton continues to have premonitions in the weeks to come, which he and his partners are able to parlay into successful business investments. He becomes badly shaken by these visions, however, when he has a premonition of Jenny dying in childbirth. Believing this to be an accurate prediction, Triton decides that the only way to stop it from coming true is to leave Jenny and keep her from bearing children.

Triton thus abandons the act, completely cutting off ties from the two longtime friends. Whitney has become wealthy due to business tips from Triton’s premonitions, and after Triton’s unexpected exit he marries Jenny. Unfortunately for the newlyweds, Triton’s vision comes true in giving birth to their daughter Jean (Gail Russell). Still, Triton is too frightened to contact the family, although he lives near them in Los Angeles. Instead, he continues having his deadly visions and keeps them to himself. This all changes when he has a vision of Whitney’s death, which comes true. He decides to end his self-imposed exile in order to try and forestall his next ghastly dream – the death of Whitney’s daughter Jean.

Sound too pulpy? Too outrageous to be taken seriously? In most cases, it probably would be. There is definitely a camp quality to some of it. And based on the description, it might not even qualify as a noir according to a traditional definition – just reading what I wrote as a summary sounds like a film closer to a Val Lewton horror film than a film noir. So why do I include it in a countdown of film noir? And more importantly, why do I rank it ahead of some other noir classics? I usually don’t quote others in my write-ups and reviews, but well-respected film noir scholar Eddie Muller summed it up best in his book Art of Noir when addressing this film:

“No film more faithfully captured Woolrich's sense of doomed predestination than Night Has a Thousand Eyes.”

Doom hangs over everything that happens. Almost all of Triton’s visions involve some type of death or injury. So at no point does the viewer expect anything less than tragedy. The helplessness of Triton’s dilemma is continually driven home, as he is a man who envisions horrific events but seems powerless to stop them from happening. This mood is aided by the creepy score of Victor Young and the cinematography from the always dependable John Seitz. But in the end, I have to credit the story that I earlier described as “over-the-top” and the way that John Farrow directs it. Farrow plays it completely straight, depicting all of Triton’s visions and predictions as being credible. There really is never any gray area – the story is filmed as if everything that Triton is claiming is absolutely true. Thus, rather than allowing the viewer to wonder whether Triton is genuine or simply a huckster, the focus is instead on the fact that he is condemned to a life of envisioning tragedies that he is incapable of preventing.

This is a little seen film that is definitely worth seeking out. Perhaps the camp elements will be not be so easily brushed aside by everyone, but I find it to be a wonderfully undervalued noir.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

#84: Thieves' Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949)

Released: October 10, 1949

Director: Jules Dassin; Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides; Cinematography: Norbert Brodine; Music: Alfred Newman; Producer: Producer: Robert Bassler; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Richard Conte (Nico “Nick” Garcos), Valentina Cortese (Rica), Lee J. Cobb (Mike Figlia), Hope Emerson (Midge), Percy Helton (Roadside Bar Manager), Barbara Lawrence (Polly Faber), Millard Mitchell (Ed Kinney), Joseph Pevney (Pete), Jack Oakie (Slob)

- “Everything happens to me. The whole street, he's gotta break down in front of my place.”

Yes, more Richard Conte. Going into this countdown, I knew that a core group of actors and actresses would emerge, popping up in almost every entry in the series. So far, it has been the Richard Conte and Edward G. Robinson Show, with both already making multiple appearances. The great thing about Conte in this era was the versatility in his acting. He could play the innocent fall guy, such as his role as the wrongly imprisoned Frank Wiecek in Call Northside 777. He could be equally believable as the ambitious reporter in The Blue Gardenia. As will become obvious with later entries in the countdown, he could portray an out-and-out villain as well as anyone else in Hollywood. In the case of Thieves’ Highway, his Nick Garcos is a genuine good guy, albeit a brash man bordering on overconfidence.

Coming home from the war, Garcos returns to the farm country of California to find that while he was away his father was crippled in a suspicious truck accident. Furious over the poverty that his family has been forced to live in due to his father’s inability to work, Garcos vows revenge on the man that he holds responsible for the accident – a shady produce dealer named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Taking the money he saved while in the service, Nick decides to invest in a surplus troop truck and begin hauling produce, teaming up with friends and acquaintances of the family. When he and partners Ed (Millard Mitchell), Pete (Joseph Pevney) and Slob (Jack Oakie) begin hauling two loads of apples for San Francisco, they believe they are in line for a big payday. Instead, when they reach the markets, Nick is lured to the room of a beautiful temptress (Valentina Cortese) at the order of the shifty Mike Figlia. While Nick is being wooed by the woman, Figlia swoops in and sells the load of apples himself. Thus, what ensues is a tale of revenge and cutthroat business dealings, set against the backdrop of fresh food markets, an industry notorious for its corruption.

Directed by Jules Dassin and with a script by the great A.I. Bezzerides, a jaded observer could view the entire production as a leftist critique of America and the capitalist system. This would be an easy route to take, as Dassin’s troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee are well documented and he would flee the United States entirely four years later. Bezzerides’ travails are not as well known, but he too experienced intermittent difficulty finding writing jobs because of his “leftist sympathies.” All of these points are well and fine, but I think that the critique put forth by Dassin and Bezzerides can be acknowledged by any free-thinking minds at the other end of the political spectrum. The critique is not a simple: “Capitalism is horrible!” declaration. It is instead the apt acknowledgment by a grizzled writer like Bezzerides of making it in the business world can be a truly ruthless enterprise – perhaps justifiably, perhaps not. Unfettered free enterprise can be a dangerous thing, even in something that could seem as trivial as the sale of fruit. The character of Mike Figlia is the obvious manifestation of this fact. In Nick Garcos and his partners, we see men trying to figure out how to deal with such powers. Comply? Resist? In the end, neither option seems to offer a consistent answer.

I maintain that the three key personalities of the film – Dassin, Bezzerides and Conte – would all go on to even greater heights. In the case of Dassin, he had already made superior films, and would do so again in the future. Bezzerides and Conte had all-time classics awaiting them in the years ahead. But in Thieves’ Highway, they came together to make a film to make you ponder important issues.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

#85: Journey Into Fear (Norman Foster, 1943)

Released: February 12, 1943

Director: Norman Foster; Screenplay: Joseph Cotten, Richard Collins (uncredited), Ben Hecht (uncredited) and Orson Welles (uncredited) based on the novel by Eric Ambler; Cinematography: Karl Struss; Music: Roy Webb; Producer: Orson Welles; Studio: RKO

Cast: Joseph Cotten (Howard Graham), Dolores del Rio (Josette Martel), Ruth Warrick (Stephanie Graham), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Mathews), Jack Durant (Gogo Martel), Everett Sloane (Kopeikin), Eustace Wyatt (Professor Haller), Frank Readick (Matthews), Edgar Barrier (Kuvetli), Jack Moss (Peter Banat), Stefan Schnabel (Purser), Hans Conreid (Oo Lang Sang), Robert Meltzer (Steward), Richard Bennett (Ship Captain), Orson Welles (Colonel Haki)

More controversy over the credits to a film noir! Much like the previously-reviewed He Walked By Night, Journey Into Fear has long been the subject of discussion concerning who should truly receive credit for directing. It remains officially credited to veteran Norman Foster, a somewhat forgotten figure that I personally find to be an outstanding director. But the shadow of Orson Welles looms large in the entire production – he appears to have been involved at every stage. He worked with Joseph Cotten to develop the adaptation of Eric Ambler’s novel. His Mercury company produced the film. He contributed his services as an actor. And, for many years, it has been assumed that he, and not Norman Foster, was the one directing.

The most obvious reason for why such rumors have persisted for well over sixty years is that it has the look and feel of an Orson Welles film. According to the textbook definition, it is only marginally a film noir. Rather than the traditional urban, inner city setting of most noirs, Journey Into Fear instead takes place abroad during the height of World War II. Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten) is an engineer for the United States Navy who is traveling with his wife (Ruth Warrick) and returning from a conference in Istanbul. Fellow employees persuade Graham to spend a night with them at a local nightclub, and in the process Graham’s eye is caught by dancer Josette Martel (Dolores del Rio). When an attempt on Graham’s life fails, he is ushered out of the club and into the hands of Turkish authorities. Realizing that Graham possesses information that can assist the Turkish anti-Nazi war effort, Col. Haki (Orson Welles) warns the American to get out of the country. He offers to protect him, putting him aboard a steamship with a number of shady characters.

A lot of the visuals look like pure Orson Welles. There are his typically unique camera angles, showing his ability to heighten the impact or tension of a scene by something as simple as camera placement. Knowing the work that Welles would go on to direct in the years to come, the style of this film is in the same vein as later works like The Lady From Shanghai. Welles himself would add to the controversy over who was the true director. In his book with Peter Bogdanovich,This is Orson Welles, Welles seemed to make it clear that he was only an actor and that Foster was in sole control as director. This would appear to end any possible interpretation, but doubts still linger. In the past, Welles had also remarked that production was so hectic that who directed each scene was determined simply by whoever was closest to the camera. My guess is this second explanation is nearest the truth. I don’t think that Norman Foster was incapable of doing work like this on his own – as I said, I think that he was a fine director in his own right, particularly of noirs and he will appear more later in this countdown. But so much of the film bears the hallmark of Welles, that it is hard to believe that he was not involved in the direction.

Journey Into Fear
also bears the unfortunate trait of an Orson Welles film of being completely butchered by studio heads. The original running time came in at right around 90 minutes, but the brass at RKO chopped it down to 69 minutes. Some scenes were deemed too sexual in nature, in addition to censors taking offense to what they perceived as far too political for release. Restoration efforts in later years would restore a fraction of the lost footage, but one still wonders what the hour and a half version would have been like. And I still personally marvel at how anything with Welles attached to it was eventually mangled by studio brass.

This is not a conventional film noir. For whatever reason, the story never feels anywhere near as dark as the visuals would lead you to believe it should be. There is a foreboding atmosphere on the boat, but it’s not quite as sinister as the experience of some other, darker noirs. Part of this can be attributed to the carefree nature of Joseph Cotten’s narration. But the main reason is just the quirkiness of everything. This is a genuinely bizarre film, and one that will alienate many viewers and have them scratching their heads as to why it made this countdown. At its core, it might be nothing but a simple, entertaining spy thriller. If you can embrace the offbeat, experimental nature of it all, it can be quite a fun ride.

Monday, January 25, 2010

#86: Tension (John Berry, 1950)

Released: January 11, 1950 (some list it as November 23, 1949)

John Berry; Screenplay: Allen Rivkin based on a story by John D. Klorer; Cinematography: Harry Stradling; Music: Andre Previn; Producer: Robert Sisk; Studio: MGM

Cast: Richard Basehart (Warren Quimby/Paul Sothern), Audrey Totter (Mrs. Claire Quimby), Cyd Charisse (Mary Chanler), Barry Sullivan (Police Lt. Collier Bonnabel), Lloyd Gough (Barney Deager), Tom D’Andrea (Freddie), William Conrad (Police Lt. Edgar “Blackie” Gonsales), Tito Renaldo (Narco)

- “Where's the gun? Why don't you ask my wife?”

I’ll start this review with an admission, or perhaps acknowledgment is the better term, concerning some of the noirs of this era, some of which will be found in this countdown. In a few of them, there comes a time when a plot detail either has to be accepted or dismissed – something that is potentially so over the top, that you either accept it and go on to enjoy the movie as it progresses or that you see as so outlandish that it spoils whatever else happens. John Berry’s Tension is a case in point. The key point to the entire film is that Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart), a mild-mannered pharmacist, plans to adopt an alter ego and use this new character to murder his wife’s lover. The new “person” looks kind of different, with a changed hairstyle and no glasses. Still, to be completely honest, this hidden identity angle is tough to digest, seeming too implausible to believe. I would imagine that based on this point alone, many viewers would be turned off from the entire film. And this would be a shame, because once you get past it, a good little drama unfolds.

I understand that it’s asking a lot to just overlook such a major plot point, but I honestly didn’t have much of a problem doing so – primarily because the performance from Audrey Totter was so strong that I wanted to see how she would manipulate the entire situation. Totter plays Claire Quimby, the wife of the gullible pharmacist Warren (Richard Basehart). She is obviously promiscuous, routinely meeting her dates just outside the pharmacy that her husband manages. Totter’s Claire is a ruthless femme fatale. Berry, working with Rivkin’s screenplay, gives only enough background on Claire to make her all the more shadowy, hinting that at one time before the marriage she may have operated outside the law. Watching the early scenes of Claire meeting men at the lunch counter of the pharmacy, the impression I got was that she is operating much as a prostitute would have done. Obviously, with the Hays Code in full effect, such information would not have been made explicitly clear, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to make that assumption.

It’s a testament to Berry that the movie remains at all interesting. It is sometimes billed as a thriller, but the tension builds very slowly. Rather than moving quickly toward the planned murder, Quimby’s off the wall plotting proceeds leisurely toward the conclusion. Along the way, he meets an innocent photographer named Mary Chanler, played by the absolutely stunning Cyd Charisse, and begins dating her as his Paul Sothern persona. Despite the lack of action, things remain interesting due to (besides Totter) the combination of Berry’s camera work and the alluring score from Andre Previn. It’s nothing overly flashy, but it’s enough to draw you in. Previn’s music is melodramatic throughout, particularly with the constant strains of a saxophone playing whenever Claire is on-screen. Perhaps even this element could be perceived as too over-the-top, but it adds to feeling of melancholy that seems to accompany every relationship Claire is involved in.

Director John Berry was another unfortunate casualty of the House Un-American Activities Committee. When friend Edward Dmytryk decided to testify before the HUAC in 1951, Berry was one of the names he gave up as being a communist in Hollywood. After entering the dreaded blacklist, Berry opted to leave the United States and move his family to Paris. He directed a number of films in France, also became involved in theater productions throughout Europe, but his career in Hollywood would never be resurrected.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

#87: The Big Clock (John Farrow, 1948)

Released: April 9, 1948

Director: John Farrow; Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer based on a story by Kenneth Fearing; Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp and John F. Seitz; Music: Victor Young; Producers: John Farrow and Richard Maibaum; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Ray Milland (George Stroud), Charles Laughton (Earl Janoth), Maureen O’Sullivan (Georgette Stroud), George Macready (Steve Hagen), Rita Johnson (Pauline York), Elsa Lanchester (Louise Patterson), Harry Morgan (Bill Womack

- “He doesn't want to let his left hand know whose pocket the right one is picking.”

Among those that have seen it, I’m guessing that they rank this one a bit higher than I do here. It is certainly an engaging mystery. The central storyline, of ace reporter George Stroud using his team of investigators to examine a murder, continually turning up evidence that points the finger at Stroud himself, is highly entertaining. It is due to minor subplots and some of the acting witnessed along the way that this convoluted murder mystery is not inching toward the top 50 or 60.

Ray Milland stars as George Stroud, the editor of Crimeways Magazine, a publication following crime throughout the nation that is renowned for the ability of its staff to track down fugitive criminals. Crimeways is owned by publishing tycoon Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), a tyrannical millionaire who demands absolute subservience from the employees at his many publications. When George is on the verge of leaving for a much-awaited vacation with his wife (Maureen O’Sullivan), Janoth insists that he delay the vacation even longer to stay at the office and work one more story. When George quits the magazine in response to Janoth’s bullying tactics, he goes to a local bar for a drink. There, he meets a woman named Pauline (Rita Johnson) and spends the evening with her, standing his wife up at the train station. The next morning, Pauline shockingly turns up murdered. George realizes that he could easily be identified as having been with Pauline the night before her death. When Janoth calls to get him to return and work the case, he decides to return to Crimeways, in order to throw his staff off of his trail and try to catch the true murderer before he is suspected.

Sound convoluted? It is, and this is part of what lends it such a noir feel. Stylistically, it does not boast the usual abundance of dramatic lighting and abstract compositional elements. But I think it most certainly qualifies. The story is told in flashback, from the point of view of George as he is hiding in a dark corridor and recounting his harrowing situation. That most classic of noir scenarios – a regular guy being thrust into horrible predicaments by chance or an innocuous meeting – is played out as George slowly begins to realize that Janoth is manipulating evidence along the way. I still consider Laughton to be one of the premier actors in the history of cinema and he plays the megalomaniac publisher very well. Some of the mannerisms adopted for the role are a bit over the top – such as always rubbing his mustache – and add a cheese-factor to some scenes. On the whole, though, performances are generally solid, although none are exactly standouts.

The most impressive aspect of the film to me is the overall design and look of the publishing industry. And by look, I’m not referring strictly to cinematography, as is normally my focus. I mean the entire set design and atmosphere created in the Janoth building, particularly the massive Janoth clock on the front of the headquarters, from which the movie derives its title, and where George is hidden as he recounts the story. I love how Farrow uses a simple elevator ride to introduce various magazines in the Janoth publishing empire, showing how the man has a publication to cover almost any topic imaginable. It creates a unique impression of the cutthroat, ultra-competitive world of publishing, painting leaders in the field as shady characters.

It is also worth nothing that the script by Jonathan Latimer is also able to incorporate a bit of humor into the murder mystery. Most of this comes from Elsa Lanchester’s Louise Patterson character, the eccentric artist. Lanchester was also at this time the real-life wife of Charles Laughton.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

#88: The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946)

Released: April 19, 1946

Director: George Marshall; Screenplay: Raymond Chandler; Cinematography: Lionel Lindon; Music: Robert Emmett Dolan, Harry Simeone, Bernie Wayne and Victor Young; Producer: John Houseman; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Alan Ladd (Johnny Morrison/Jimmy Moore), Veronica Lake (Joyce Harwood), William Bendix (Buzz Wanchek), Howard Da Silva (Eddie Harwood), Doris Dowling (Helen Morrison), Hugh Beaumont (George Copeland), Tom Powers (Captain Hendrickson), Howard Freeman (Corelli), Don Costello (Leo), Will Wright (Dad Newell), Walter Sand (Heath), Fran Faylen

To this day, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake remain one of the most celebrated pairings in Hollywood history. They made four films together and have been inextricably linked ever since. Whenever I hear one name, I instantly think of the other, and my guess is that many others reading this article have a similar reaction. Although I find their work to be a tad overrated, the noirs that they made together are historically significant, with films like 1941’s This Gun For Hire remaining a seminal part of the noir canon. Many point to that film as one of the first true noirs. The next year’s The Glass Key is also well-regarded and another that I too enjoy. The Blue Dahlia, also enjoys a favorable reputation, but is generally viewed as being inferior to other Ladd-Lake efforts. For me, though, it remains my favorite film that the couple made, although not because of the efforts of the two headliners.

Two other key elements fascinate. The first is that this is the only original screenplay ever written by legendary pulp author Raymond Chandler makes it essential viewing. His shadow already loomed large over all of film noir, with a number of his classic novels and stories being adapted for the screen in previous years. Chandler had also already been involved in screenwriting by this point, having collaborated with Billy Wilder in penning the screenplay for an adaptation of James N. Cain’s Double Indemnity. For this film, he creates a story of post-war malaise, following the reentry into society by returning veterans. Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), a returning war hero, comes home to Los Angeles with two close friends, Buzz Wancheck (William Bendix) and George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont). Life does not simply return to normal for the men – Buzz now has a steel plate in his head that prompts fits of rage and amnesia, while Johnny returns to his home to find his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) being intimate with Blue Dahlia nightclub owner Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). Leaving his cheating wife, Johnny meets the beautiful Joyce (Veronica Lake) and joins her at a Malibu diner. While there, he learns that his wife has been murdered. Realizing that he is going to be the prime suspect, Johnny returns to L.A. and begins his own search for the true killer.

It is far from Chandler’s best story or script, but I don’t think it is as weak as I’ve seen it described. The classic biting dialog remains on display. Still, it is not nearly as dark or foreboding as his other classic noirs, and is probably closer thematically to a film of post-war disillusionment and malaise like The Best Years of Our Lives than to hardboiled noir. Legend has it that Chandler himself pushed for a darker tone, particularly for the conclusion, wanting one of the returning veterans to be the killer. The implication would be that the soldiers had become completely desensitized to violence. The studio objected, forcing Chandler to instead solve the mystery in more socially-acceptable fashion. It would have certainly added to the overall “noir feel,” but since my definition is wide anyway, it doesn’t affect its status in my mind.

The performance to remember comes not from Ladd or Lake, but instead from the always-dependable William Bendix. Bendix is one of this classic era character actors that always shines in whatever screen time his character receives. Buzz in particular is the character best-written by Chandler and Bendix is perfect in delivering the wisecracks and zingers. He actually adds a bit of comedy to the story in parts, although his amnesiac fits are certainly not intended to be humorous. I can agree with the assessment that the direction is rather average and there is nothing particularly catching about the cinematography. But it remains a film that I continue to enjoy. Perhaps it is all a bit contrived, but there remains something charming about it for me.

Friday, January 22, 2010

#89: The Street With No Name (William Keighley, 1948)

Released: July 14, 1948

Director: William Keighley; Screenplay: Harry Kleiner; Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald; Music: Lionel Newman; Producer: Samuel G. Engel; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Mark Stevens (Gene Cordell/George Manly), Richard Widmark (Alec Stiles), Lloyd Nolan (Inspector George A. Briggs), Barbara Lawrence (Judy Stiles), Ed Begley (Police Chief Bernard Harmatz), Donald Buka (Shivvy), Joseph Pevney (Matty), Joseph McIntire (Cy Gordon)

- "What's the use of having a war if you don't learn from it?"

The remake of this 1948 film, House of Bamboo, has already been featured in this Top 100 and now we come to the original source. Writer Harry Kleiner pinned the script for both films, and while the exotic nature of the remake makes for an interesting experience, I think that the original is the superior of the two.

It would be easy to dismiss William Keighley’s The Street With No Name as a large-scale propaganda project that gained the full endorsement of the most notorious of curmudgeons, J. Edgar Hoover. That’s probably how Hoover viewed it – as a vehicle that could be used to cast his FBI agents in the best possible lights, as defenders of justice who always catch their man. Accordingly, he gave the go-ahead for actual F.B.I. agents and personnel to be used as actors in the film, in addition to an on-screen message to open the movie that is attributed to Hoover himself:

“The street on which crime flourishes is the street extending across America. It is the street with no name. Organized gangsterism is once again returning. If permitted to go unchecked three out of every four Americans will eventually become its victims. Wherever law and order break down there you will find public indifference. An alert and vigilant America will make for a secure America.”

Following this idealistic message from the esteemed #1 G-Man, the movie then jumps right into the middle of a crime spree in Center City. A roadhouse and a bank are robbed within a matter of days, resulting in two murders that are linked to the same gun. Realizing that this is the work of a growing gang of criminals, FBI Inspector George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) recruits another agent to go undercover and try to infiltrate the gang. Agent Gene Cordell (Mark Stevens), posing as a thief named George Manly, begins to try and get close to local fight promoter Alec Stiles (Richard Widmark). After passing Stiles’ initial test, involving framing Manly for a robbery to see if he is an undercover, Manly then begins to get close to Stiles and his gang. Reporting back to his case agent (Joseph McIntire) on the planning of the gang, things are going smoothly until an informant in the police department tips off Stiles to the fact that the law is onto his plans. It then becomes a race to see if the FBI can keep their man safe and uncover the gang before the gang deals with the agent themselves.

So it’s set up to be one gigantic cheerleading session for the clearly delineated “good guys” to catch the evil criminals. Fortunately, due primarily to the outstanding photography from Joseph MacDonald, things never feel that straightforward. MacDonald also did the cinematography for House of Bamboo, which was outstanding. But here, he is working with the traditional black and white of noir and he is able to use the shadows and darkness to make all of Center City feel corrupt. It becomes a guessing game as to who is legit and who is on the take.

Mark Stevens does a fine job as the agent in peril, but it is, quite predictably, Richard Widmark that owns most of the film. This was only his second film, coming a year after his debut in Kiss of Death. No one ever matched Widmark’s ability to play the sinister villain with an unexplainable touch of likability.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

#90: Illegal (Lewis Allen, 1955)

Released: October 28, 1955

Director: Lewis Allen; Screenplay: W.R. Burnett and James R. Webb based on a story by Frank J. Collins; Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley; Music: Max Steiner; Producer: Frank P. Rosenberg; Studio: Warner Brothers

Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Victor Scott), Nina Foch (Ellen Miles), Hugh Marlowe (Ray Borden), Jayne Mansfield (Angel O’Hara), Albert Dekker (Frank Garland), Howard St. John (E.A. Smith), Ellen Corby (Miss Hinkel), Edward Platt (Ralph Ford), Jan Merlin (Andy Garth), Robert Ellenstein (Joe Knight), Jay Adler (Joseph Carter), Henry Kulky (Taylor), James McCallion (Allen Parker), Addison Richards (Steve Harper), Lawrence Dobkin (Al Carol)

- “I don’t blame people… I bury ‘em.”

Yes, more Edward G. Robinson. I have very good reasons for ranking this one where I do, most of them centering on showcasing the varied talents of Mr. Robinson. Perhaps the epic fall, rise and consequent fall of attorney Victor Scott becomes too melodramatic in spots, but it gives the opportunity to show that Robinson can be equally impressive as both a hero and a heel. He does both in the same film here and it’s quite entertaining to watch. This is far from the epic or great ride that many films in this countdown remain, but I find it hard to believe that someone wouldn’t be able to get lost in this one for an afternoon or evening. Is it forgettable afterward? Maybe for some, but it’s the kind of pulpy yarn that I’m a sucker for.

Robinson is District Attorney Victor Scott, an unbeatable prosecutor who always convicts his man. His perfect record is blemished, however, when a man that he convicted and sent to the electric chair is proven to have been innocent. Unable to live with the guilt, Scott becomes a hopeless drunk and completely loses the life he built for himself. The only person to stick by his side is his former assistant and surrogate daughter Ellen Miles (Nina Foch), who does her best to take care of the ailing man. Things turn for Scott after his own run in with the law – while waiting to appear before a judge, he gives some legal advice to a fellow inmate. He then realizes that he has the legal acumen to make a living as a defense attorney. A string of successes brings him to the attention of local crime boss Frank Garland (Albert Dekker), and Scott is slowly sucked into the underworld that Garland controls. Becoming house counsel to the crime lord, Scott becomes increasingly enamored by the money and power the job entails. But when Garland’s organization and planning begin to threaten the freedom of his beloved Ellen, Scott sees that he is going to have to find a way out of Garland’s grasp.

There are other principals that should at least be acknowledged – the always entertaining Albert Dekker is very good as the smug crime boss and Jayne Mansfield makes her film debut as a Garland gun moll. Nina Foch and Hugh Marlowe are solid as Scott’s dependable aides at the District Attorney’s office. Lewis Allen’s direction is honestly rather pedestrian, although the sequence with people scrambling to stop the execution of the innocent man is worthy of praise. There is nothing particularly memorable about the cinematography. The great Max Steiner contributes the score, but even that isn't unforgettable. Through it all, it’s Robinson that carries it for me. As I said earlier, it is interesting to see the two sides to Robinson’s on-screen personas within the same film. The man who became famous playing the callous Rico Bandello shows himself to be every bit as sleazy as Victor Scott the defense attorney. Yet, you also the get the do-gooder, looking for the truth Robinson exhibited in classics like Double Indemnity. Illegal came at a time when Robinson was still trying to recover his reputation after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s and reluctantly giving names of communist sympathizers. Although it saved him from significant trouble with HUAC, it meant that few in Hollywood was quick to pass on prime parts to him as they had in the past. This meant that he took leads in a number of lower-budget crime films and this is the best of his pre-The Ten Commandments work.

Thanks to the wonderful Warner Brothers Film Noir Collection Vol. 4, Illegal is now easy to get hold of and watch. I’m under no illusion that everyone will like it as much as I do. But it’s one any fan of Robinson needs to see, if for no other reason than to be reminded how long he remained a great actor.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

#91: Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

Released: September 1, 1948

Anatole Litvak; Screenplay: Lucille Fletcher; Cinematography: Sol Polito; Music: Franz Waxman; Producers: Anatole Litvak and Hal B. Wallis; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Leona Stevenson), Burt Lancaster (Henry Stevenson), Ann Richards (Sally Hunt Lord), Wendell Corey (Dr. Alexander), Harold Vermilyea (Waldo Evans), Ed Begley (James Cotterell), Leif Erickson (Fred Lord), William Conrad (Morano)

Anyone that has followed the site knows the love I have for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window and I can’t help but think about that all-time favorite whenever I consider this similar, but lesser film from Anatole Litvak. The similarity comes from the simple setup of having a character that is confined to a single room, who by chance uncovers a horrendous crime. In this case, due to crossed telephone wires, Barbara Stanwyck’s Leona Stevenson, an invalid, uncovers the planning of a murder. When she tries to contact police and tell them what she heard, they say that they can do nothing on such speculative information. Alone in the house and scrambling to find out why her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) has not returned home, Leona begins to worry and reminisce about her past.

As the story unfolds through flashbacks, recounting the courtship and marriage of Leona, a well-to-do heiress to a chemical fortune, and Henry, the high school dropout that the heiress becomes infatuated with, clues begin to highlight the constant tension of the marriage. Slowly, things begin to emerge that reveal that Henry has been the target of an extortion plot by a shady character named Morano (William Conrad) and has been scrambling to come up with a way to pay him off. He attempts schemes like stealing a valuable pharmaceutical from his father-in-law’s company and even hastening the death of his invalid wife so as to inherit her fortune and pay Morano off. Ultimately, it becomes obvious that the murder plot that Leona overheard on the crossed telephone lines was actually killers discussing her own murder. It then becomes a race as to who will get to Leona first, or if she can alert someone before it is too late.

The movie is based on an original radio play by screenwriter Lucille Fletcher. The radio program was only 22-minutes long, so the flashback sequences had to be added to the script in order to flesh the story out to feature-film length. This fact becomes obvious on repeat viewings, meaning that certain sections of the narrative feel like they were added simply to extend the length of the overall product. This is not to say that the story is necessarily a negative. There is undeniably fluff, though. Still, the story is the most appealing part of the film for me. Performances are just solid, nothing spectacular from anyone involved – even from noir heavyweights like Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. The story can be unnerving in the way that the Leona character is characterized and photographed. This is a woman who is bedridden entirely because of her own mental problems. There is nothing physically wrong with her – Dr. Alexander (Wendell Corey) makes this clear when he tells Henry that there is nothing that he can do for and that she needs to see a psychiatrist. But these mental problems mean that she has confined herself in her own personal prison. And this is how Anatole Litvak shoots her bedroom, like a dark, foreboding prison cell. Things become unsettling because you are watching Leona trapped in this claustrophobic environment, knowing that physically she could get up and get herself out of danger at any moment, but understanding full well that she likely won’t.

Sorry, Wrong Number also takes itself incredibly serious, perhaps too much so, which is in direct contrast to the dark humor found throughout Rear Window. It’s certainly not in the same league as the Hitchcock masterpiece, but fans of Hitch should definitely check it out and view it as something along the lines of Rear Window’s distant, slightly-older cousin.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

#92: The Stranger (Orson Welles, 1946)

Released: May 25, 1946

Director: Orson Welles; Screenplay: Anthony Veiller (screenplay), Victor Trivas (story and adaptation), Decla Dunning (adaptation), John Huston (uncredited) and Orson Welles (uncredited); Cinematography: Russell Metty; Music: Brownislaw Kaper; Producer: Sam Spiegel; Studio: International Pictures/RKO

Cast: Orson Welles (Franz Kindler/Professor Charles Rankin), Edward G. Robinson (Mr. Wilson), Loretta Young (Mary Longstreet Rankin), Philip Merivale (Judge Adam Longstreet), Richard Long (Noah Longstreet), Konstantin Shayne (Konrad Meinike), Byron Keith (Dr. Jeffrey Lawrence), Billy House (Mr. Potter), Martha Wentworth (Sara)

As amazing as it is to consider, at the time that Orson Welles made The Stranger in 1946, he was viewed as something of a financial black hole. Viewing it from the 21st century, it’s easy to just look at the fact that at this point in his career he had already directed two of the most celebrated films in the history of American cinema – Citizen Kane in 1941 and The Magnificent Ambersons just a year later. Although critical successes (which in fact have done nothing but increase in stature over time) neither of them were particularly successful at the box office. Naysayers argue that he was thus forced into making a film like The Stranger, with the explicit goal of producing a picture that would turn a profit. While that may certainly be the case, that shouldn’t be viewed as too great a knock. It still has one of the greatest directors of all time both behind and in front of the camera, teaming up with the peerless Edward G. Robinson. It might not be Welles at his best, but few films from any director stand up against the onetime boy wonder at his peak.

The story is intriguing, if lacking a bit in believability. Nazi hunter Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is an investigator for the United Nations who is on the trail of fugitive war criminal Franz Kindler. Kindler managed to escape Germany at the end of the war and has effectively taken on the new identity of Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) in the United States, taking a job as a professor and marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). Determined to locate Kindler, Wilson has the ingenious idea of releasing one of his former compatriots and then following him to his prey. When the man he is following turns up dead before he can identify the true Kindler, Wilson realizes that more detective work will be necessary to unearth the fugitive. Many tension-filled sequences ensue, which I’ll leave unsaid for those that haven’t seen it.

The lead performances are as good as one would expect from titans like Robinson and Welles. I know that there are many people that are not fans of Welles the actor, but I most certainly _am_. I thought he was outstanding in Kane, is outstanding here, and would go on to top them all as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil. Certainly, his role here as Professor Rankin is the least of those three, but it is a satisfying performance. Rankin is not the towering magnetic presence of Charles Foster Kane or the memorable curmudgeon that is Quinlan. Here, Welles has to use facial expressions, tone of voice, and other clever tricks to establish Rankin as the devious war criminal Wilson suspects him to be. As for Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson… well, Robinson is all over this countdown, so his credentials are well established. I will say, though, that few can play the cunning investigator as well as Robinson.

The believability factor comes into play with the complete naïveté of Rankin’s wife Mary (Loretta Young). Perhaps such a literal reading of the character is beside the point, as I have seen it hypothesized that the character was simply meant to symbolize the dangers that can creep even into small town America. Either way, the character was not the equal of Welles’ and Robinson’s roles.

Throughout it all, though, anyone watching knows that they are watching an Orson Welles film. The minor visual flourishes and shots are familiar to anyone who is a fan. The knock that this is Welles at his most conventional is reasonable, but regardless it is still Orson Welles. That’s enough.

Monday, January 18, 2010

#93: He Walked by Night (Alfred L. Werker, 1948)

Released: November 24, 1948

Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann (uncredited); Screenplay: John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur based on a story by Wilbur; Cinematography: John Alton; Music: Leonid Raab; Producers: Bryan Foy and Robert Kane; Studio: Eagle-Lion Films

Cast: Richard Basehart (Roy Martin/Roy Morgan), Scott Brady (Sgt. Marty Brennan), Roy Roberts (Captain Breen), Whit Bissell (Paul Reeves), James Cardwell (Sgt. Chuck Jones), Jack Webb (Lee)

The countdown now hits Poverty Row with a release from the B-movie specialists at Eagle-Lion Films. It is also can be argued that He Walked By Night marks the first appearance in this countdown by renowned noir and western director Anthony Mann. Although Alfred L. Werker is the director of credit here, and Mann is not officially given recognition for any particular role, it is commonly reported that Mann was ultimately brought in to take over the film after the project was started under Werker’s control. Almost all classic movie guides and books on the history of noir repeat the assertion Mann was the true guiding force. I am not personally knowledgeable enough to point out precisely which sections are the work of Werker and which are Mann's. Looking at other work from around this period, though, makes it obvious that Anthony Mann played a significant role.

I say this because the focus on minute police procedural details and the showcasing of what at the time would have been cutting edge law enforcement technology is similar to Mann’s 1947 T-Men. The semi-documentary police narrative used here is very similar to that superior film, leading one to reasonably conclude that Mann must have been the hand behind both. This theory is also lent credence by knowing how well that Mann and longtime collaborator John Alton worked together. They had already teamed up for T-Men and Raw Deal (also released in 1948), resulting in films that are today still esteemed as prototypes of the “film noir look.” Alton shines in all three of the films mentioned here, but as good as his work in the two Mann-credited films, I think a strong case can be made the he is just as good, if not better, in He Walked By Night. Without question, it is Alton’s photography that is the highlight of the entire movie. The most celebrated sequence of the entire film is the climactic chase through the sewers of Los Angeles. Alton’s use of contrast and shadows was never better than in these scenes. And one has to wonder, if this sequence had any influence on the more well-known chase through drains that Carol Reed used a year later in The Third Man?

The deficiencies of the film are significant though, as character development is almost nonexistent. Richard Basehart is Ray Morgan, a thief who specializes in burglarizing high-tech electronic equipment. When a policeman witnesses him trying to break into an electronics store, Morgan turns his gun on the officer and kills him. This sets off a massive manhunt, leading to the police working to lay a trap for the unknown burglar they are hunting. The way that the story is told, focusing on the progress of the police investigation, means that we never get to really know any of the principles – be it the killer or the officers chasing him. The cat-and-mouse game remains tense the entire way through, however, which makes you forget about such flaws while watching it.

Beyond the qualities of the movie itself, He Walked By Night was also hugely influential in what it spawned. Jack Webb played a minor role as a lab technician in this film, but was inspired by the story to create the hugely popular Dragnet series. Perhaps that is the greatest legacy of the entire project, but this remains a film that is valuable in its own right. You might not get to intimately know the characters, but the story is told so well that at the very least you become interested in seeing what happens to them.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

#94: The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)

Released: April 29, 1953

Director: Ida Lupino; Screenplay: Collier Young (screenplay), Ida Lupino (screenplay), Robert L. Joseph (adaptation) based on a story by Daniel Mainwaring (uncredited); Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca; Music: Leith Stevens; Producer: Collier Young; Studio: RKO

Edmond O’Brien (Roy Collins), Frank Lovejoy (Gilbert Brown), William Talman (Emmett Myers), Jose Torvay (Captain Alvarado), Wendell Niles (himself), Jean Del Val (Inspector General)

- "I had a watch like this once when I was 17. Nobody gave it to me. I just took it."

Ida Lupino is a unique figure among Hollywood personalities. She is rightly acknowledged as an outstanding actress, leading to her persona during the 1930s and 40s as the B-movie equivalent of Bette Davis. She is a prominent figure in a number of outstanding film noirs – ones that will be featured later in this countdown – with versatility to play vulnerable, compassionate characters or an unabashed temptress. But her greatest legacy remains her pioneering efforts as a female director. While by no means the first woman to become interested in directing, she was unique in film noir, a type of film normally identified with hardened, masculine characters and gritty storylines. Not only was Lupino undaunted by such characteristics, but as John Greco points out in his excellent review of this film, she proved herself to be every bit the equal of tough directors like her mentor Raoul Walsh in handling the violent themes seen in The Hitch-Hiker.

It is a simple story, told in simple fashion, but the straightforwardness of the production is what allows the movie to be so tense. A good majority of the film is actually little more than two weekend fishermen, Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), driving their car while the crazed hitchhiker they graciously picked up, Emmett Meyers (William Talman), sits in the back seat intimidating them into compliance. Teamed with legendary cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, Lupino’s decision to keep key sequences at close quarters creates a sinister feeling that keeps what would otherwise be mundane situations quite interesting. The scenes of the trio driving, Roy and Gilbert nervously sitting in the front, and the demented Meyers shrouded in shadows in the backseat are akin to something you would see in a horror movie of the era. With the exception of John Alton, I don’t know that any directors of photography of this era were more skilled than Musuraca at using shadows to such great effect. The images of the fisherman staring straight through the windshield, nervous about their trip, and the killer peering through the dark to keep them in line are the most memorable of the entire film.

O’Brien is a veteran noir actor, underappreciated by the public at large, but well known to all that enjoy films of the era. But the true virtuoso performance of this film comes from William Talman. Emmett Meyers has affectations that could come across as very camp or kitsch, so credit goes to Talman in having the ability to make Meyers a truly menacing character. Things like the inability to close one of his eyes, allowing him to keep his hostages guessing as to whether he is ever truly sleeping, might seem ludicrous to some. But when watching the film, after seeing the look that Talman is able to maintain, it gives one pause as to whether Roy and Gilbert should be attempting to make a run for it.

This film is routinely cited as being the first film noir directed by a woman. I have no way of verifying that, but to my mind that is an unnecessary descriptor. Lupino made The Hitch-Hiker with just as much grit, brutality, and cynicism as any male director could have. If not for losing a bit steam at the end, when things branch out from the close quarters of the car, this one would be much higher on the countdown. As it stands, it’s still an excellent noir thriller that has visual stylistics to give it the proper look.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

#95: Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)

Released: February 1, 1948

Director: Henry Hathaway; Screenplay: Jerome Cady (screenplay), Jay Dratler (screenplay), Leonard Hoffman (adaptation), Quentin Reynolds (adaptation) based on articles by James P. McGuire and Jack McPhaul; Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald; Music: Alfred Newman; Producer: Otto Lang; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: James Stewart (P.J. McNeal), Richard Conte (Frank Wiecek), Lee J. Cobb (Brian Kelly), Helen Walker (Laura McNeal), Betty Garde (Wanda Skutnik), Percy Helton (Mailman), George Tyne (Tomek Zaleska), Kasia Orzazewski (Tillie Wiecek), Paul Harvey (Martin Burns), John McIntire (Sam Faxon), Howard I. Smith (Palmer), E.G. Marshall (Rayska)

- “That's the trouble with being innocent… you don't know what really happened.”

After venturing to postwar Tokyo yesterday, the countdown returns to the traditional urban settings of noir crime dramas. Although, we do so with a movie that some will argue is not truly a film noir. There is no femme fatale or the expected flawed central character scrambling to self-created obstacles. I stand by the contention that this is definitely a noir, possibly the preeminent example of the “newspaper noir” subset that I have seen, and that the cynicism that pervades the best noirs is displayed here, it is just that it is seen in different places.

Call Northside 777
is loosely based on the true story of a skeptical Chicago reporter that worked to prove the innocence of a man convicted of murdering a police officer. The reporter, P.J. McNeal (based on real-life reporter James P. McGuire), is portrayed by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart, an excellent casting choice. When you see Jimmy Stewart, you know that the character is someone that will fight for the “good side” all the way to the end. In this tale, he is assigned to the story after his newspaper superiors come across a classified ad taken out by an aging woman (Kasia Orzazewski) that offers $5,000 to anyone that can provide evidence to exonerate her convicted son. Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) was picked out of a lineup by a witness to a grocery store robbery (Betty Garde) and sentenced to life imprisonment. At the time of his meeting with McNeal, Frank had already served eleven years. Disbelieving at first, McNeal gradually comes to believe that Wiecek’s professions of innocence are the truth. The newspaper then picks up the story as a crusade to free an innocent man, with McNeal leading the charge. When the paper bales on the campaign, McNeal refuses to give up and continues the search throughout the city of Chicago.

It is this trip through 1940s Chicago and the Polish neighborhoods of the Wiecek family and other first and second generation immigrants that add color to a familiar storyline. The tight-knit quality of these communities comes through strongly as McNeal navigates through the tenements, bars, and back allies of the area. The storytelling is done in documentary style, relying heavily on the nature of the work of reporters. The camera simply follows McNeal as he pounds the pavement, chasing down every possible lead, interviewing personalities as he finds them, and continually pouring over stock files and photos, hoping to unearth a detail that had previously been overlooked.

The skepticism is found here in the realization that almost everyone that McNeal encounters is at least somewhat cautious in their responses. Whether true or not, it appears to McNeal – and, by extension, the viewer – that people are being guarded in everything that they do. People are not necessarily downright “dirty” or deceptive, but they are certainly reluctant to admit wrongdoing. So we see things like the police believing that justice has been served when Wiecek is originally convicted, but then becoming unwilling to admit to wrongdoing or assist McNeal in his investigation when evidence begins to turn up showing that they may have jailed the wrong man. Similarly, it is never suggested that Wanda Skutnik maliciously intended to identify an innocent man. The procedure used by the police was flawed, allowing Skutnik’s faulty identification. But her obstinacy in admitting her mistake means that the innocent man will continue to sit in prison. And so we actually do see the dynamic of a single character fighting to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Perhaps they do not arise out of his flawed nature, but they are there all the same.