Sunday, February 28, 2010

#52: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Gordon Douglas, 1950)

Released: August 4, 1950

Director: Gordon Douglas; Screenplay: Harry Brown based on the novel of the same name by Horace McCoy; Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley; Music: Carmen Dragon; Producer: William Cagney; Studio: Republic Pictures/Warner Brothers

Cast: James Cagney (Ralph Cotter), Barbara Payton (Holiday Carleton), Helena Carter (Margaret Dobson), Ward Bond (Charles Weber), Luther Adler (Keith “Cherokee” Mandon), Barton MacLane (Lt. John Reece), Steve Brodie (Joe “Jinx” Raynor), Rhys Williams (Vic Mason), Herbert Heyes (Ezra Dobson), John Litel (Police Chief Tolgate), William Frawley (Byers)

- “And now… would one fugitive from justice care to make another fugitive from justice… a sandwich?”

Find any review of this 1950 James Cagney film and I bet that you cannot make it out of the first paragraph before it's compared to the previous year’s White Heat. The similarities are quite obvious – Cagney playing a sociopathic, ambitious criminal that aspires to rise to the top of the underworld, plus similar criminal scheming and plotting. In fact, many reviews that I have seen in the past look up on Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye as basically being White Heat Part II, seeing very little distinction between the two. The two movies are no doubt similar, but it’s unfair to simply lump them together. They are both strong enough to stand on their own. It is not a stretch, though, to look toward Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye as the younger brother of White Heat. It is not quite to the level of that iconic film, lacking some key ingredients that elevate White Heat to even greater heights. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye lacks the two dynamic female leads that Virginia Mayo and Margaret Wycherly provide as counterpoints to the fierce Cody Jarrett. The cinematography of Sid Hickox trumps anything done here by Peverell Marley. And comparing the directorial skills of Gordon Douglas and Raoul Walsh is a no-contest.

But, I’ll go ahead and let everyone in on a little secret… I think I like James Cagney’s performance here as Ralph Cotter even more than Cody Jarrett. And that alone is reason enough for the high placement in this countdown.

The interesting thing is that apparently Cagney was very reticent to even do this movie, not wanting to do yet another gangster film so soon after White Heat. But the production company that he had formed with his brother William was in financial difficulty at the end of the 1940s and needed to produce a profitable film in order to pay off debts. So instead of searching to find more versatile roles, Cagney reluctantly accepted the fact that him starring in a gangster picture was likely to make money – White Heat had proven that to still be true. When his brother William acquired the rights to Horace McCoy’s novel, James made the correct decision in choosing to star in it. The movie actually was a solid success, earning much needed profits for Cagney Productions.

Cagney plays Ralph Cotter, a vicious career criminal who has escaped from a prison work camp. His partner-in-crime is killed in the prison break, leaving Cotter to escape with his dead partner’s sister Holiday (Barbara Payton) and Jinx Raynor (Steve Brodie). Cotter works his way close to the innocent Holiday by holding over her head the fact that she is now a fugitive for having assisted in the escape. In the meantime, Cotter and Jinx team up in robberies and extortions that bring them to the attention of corrupt local police. When the cops begin shaking them down, Cotter responds with blackmail of his own. Eventually, Ralph concocts a scheme for one big final score, in which he, Jinx and the two corrupt police officers will steal money from the local mob. Adding another layer of complication to everything that Ralph is doing is the fact that he has met the beautiful heiress Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter), whose father Ezra Dobson (Herbert Heyes) is the richest and most powerful man in town. Ultimately, it is this relationship that contributes to Ralph’s complete fall.

I’ve said before in reviews of other Cagney films, but it is worth noting again: even though he is often accused of playing the same role again and again, each character is slightly nuanced from the others. In this case, Ralph Cotter may seem remarkably similar to Cody Jarrett, but in fact he’s even more coldblooded. With Cody, there are some obvious mental issues involved. Ralph Cotter, on the other hand, is in complete control psychologically and is fully aware of what he is doing. He knows how cruel he can be, chooses to use this callousness to his advantage, and does it all with a chuckle. He is what he is and enjoys it. It really is a marvelous performance, among the best that I have ever seen from Cagney, which is really saying something.

The script is surprisingly witty, with biting dialog and one-liners being rattled off by everyone in the film, with Cagney in particularly showing the wiseguy flair that he is famous for. As great a pulp writer as Horace McCoy is, though, the general story is weaker in some spots than others. When the story stays focused on Cotter and his criminal activities – the heists, the scheming, the dealing with dirty cops – it is as strong as the best crime films of the era. When it begins dealing with Ralph’s sudden relationship with Margaret, it really slows things down and feels disjointed. Fortunately, the majority of the focus remains on Ralph’s underworld maneuverings, taking the audience on a ride through a world where everybody is dirty or crooked to some degree. This might be the most underrated Cagney film that I have yet come across. If it doesn’t quite stack up against his truly best films, that is only because those others (Angels With Dirty Faces, White Heat, The Public Enemy) are masterpieces. This one is not quite a masterpiece, but its strong points almost get it there.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

#53: Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950)

Released: November 29, 1950

Director: Norman Foster; Screenplay: Allan Campbell and Norman Foster based on a story by Sylvia Tate; Cinematography: Hal Mohr; Music: Arthur Lange and Emil Newman; Producer: Howard Welsch; Studio: Fidelity Pictures/Universal

Ann Sheridan (Eleanor Johnson), Dennis O’Keefe (Daniel “Dannyboy” Leggett), Robert Keith (Inspector Martin Ferris), Ross Elliott (Frank Johnson), Frank Jenks (Detective Homer Shaw), John Qualen (Mr. Maibus), Steven Geray (Dr. Arthur Hohler), J. Farrell MacDonald (Sea Captain), Thomas P. Dillon (Joe “Bug” Gordon)

And now we come to Exhibit B (Exhibit A is #58 in this countdown) to reinforce the point that I made in my entry for Journey Into Fear. Orson Welles may have been the largest influence over that 1943 effort, but it was not because Norman Foster was incapable of directing a top-flight film noir. As outstanding as Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is, this release two years later remains my favorite that Foster directed. It is another noir-thriller hybrid that continuously amps up the tension until reaching a memorable finish at a beachside amusement park. Basically, this paragraph is a drawn out way of concluding that regardless of his actual role in Journey Into Fear, Foster released two outstanding noirs that cement his reputation as a preeminent director of noir.

Like other great B movies of the era, the action that kick-starts the entire adventure occurs very early. While taking his dog for an evening stroll, Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) witnesses a murder. Hearing the dog bark, the killer turns and takes a shot at Frank, but luckily misses. Fearing that the killer will come back to silence him, Frank slips away from police and goes into hiding. His wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) is enlisted to track down the fleeing Frank. Eleanor and Frank’s marriage had been deteriorating, but old passions are rekindled when Eleanor realizes how much trouble her husband is in. She is assisted in her search by ace reporter Daniel Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe), who shows a determination to see that Eleanor finds her husband. There is a major, if somewhat predictable, plot twist that occurs a little after the midway point that adds yet another layer to the intrigue. I see no reason to give it away, but it certainly works smoothly.

Dennis O’Keefe and Ann Sheridan were known commodities by 1950, so it is no great surprise that they both turn in outstanding performances. As good as O’Keefe always is, though, it is Sheridan that is the powerhouse of the film. Eleanor does a near complete transformation – at the start of the film she is completely uninterested in what happens to her husband and by the conclusion she is frantically scrambling to rescue him. It is a nuanced performance, as Sheridan moves easily from being an intimidated, disinterested wife to a wise-cracking, brash amateur sleuth hot on her husband’s trail. There is a lot to like visually in this B-picture as well, with Foster and cinematograph Hal Mohr taking full advantage of location shooting in San Francisco. They take the viewer throughout late night haunts, bars, and clubs throughout the City by the Bay, while also making full use of ink black nighttime exterior shots.

Much more discussion about the actual story will run the risk of revealing too much for those that haven’t seen it. What I will add is that this is a movie that is in the public domain and can be legally watched at various places online. The quality at places like is not great, but it’s far from unwatchable, particularly if (like me) you have the capability of connecting the computer to your television. But however you get hold of it to watch, Woman on the Run is definitely an essential noir and in my opinion the best movie that Norman Foster ever made.

Friday, February 26, 2010

#54: Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

Released: September 24, 1945

Director: Michael Curtiz; Screenplay: Ranald McDougall, William Faulkner and Catherine Turney based on the novel by James M. Cain; Cinematography: Ernest Haller; Music: Max Steiner; Producer: Jerry Wald; Studio: Warner Brothers

Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce Beragon), Jack Carson (Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (Monte Beragon), Eve Ardin (Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (Veda Pierce Forrester), Butterfly McQueen (Lottie), Bruce Bennett (Albert “Bert” Pierce), Lee Patrick (Mrs. Maggie Biederhof), Moroni Olsen (Inspector Peterson), Veda Ann Borg (Miriam Ellis), Jo Ann Marlowe (Kay Pierce)

- "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea... they eat their young."

On the heels of the placement of Pickup on South Street, which shocked even me as the list-maker, we come to another film that I originally slotted in much higher than it now resides. I re-watched this one in the large batch of noirs that I made sure to get before I started the countdown. This film-watching binge included ones that I had previously and first-time viewings, with the result that an initial rough draft was radically altered in spots. The dropping of Mildred Pierce to here at #54 is not so much a reflection of a decline in my own assessment of the film, but more the result of “new” noirs entering the countdown very high or repeated viewings moving up other strong contenders. This is still a wonderful movie, and the kind of film that reminds one of how capable the Hollywood system of the 1940s was of continually churning high quality melodramas and mysteries.

This is the film that returned Joan Crawford to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. It is easy to repeat this folklore now, but at the time that Mildred Pierce was made, Crawford’s career was waning. Crawford rose to prominence 1920s silent films before moving to MGM in 1930. She worked at MGM for 13 years and arguably became _the_ starlet of the screen – the so-called “First Queen of the Movies.” But by 1943, some of that luster had worn away, and rather than force her to fulfill the one film left on her contract, MGM opted to buy out the $100,000 balance and part ways. She signed at Warner Brothers shortly after the release, and early in her stint there she ran into resistance landing the choicest roles, due to the fact that she was no longer her studio’s marquee star. Bette Davis was the one picking and choosing the top-notch roles and it was only after she declined the lead in Mildred Pierce that Crawford landed the part. Not even veteran director Michael Curtiz wanted her involved in the production, going so far as to demand that the experienced Crawford perform a screen test. She obviously impressed him enough that he relented. The result is another of those fortuitous breaks that seem to be sprinkled throughout Hollywood history.

Crawford turns in a superlative performance as the title character, a woman who leaves her husband (Bruce Bennett) and attempts to survive and support her two daughters independently. Mildred is convinced that her daughters, particularly the oldest Veda (Ann Blyth) deserve more than her unemployed husband can provide and thus is determined to do whatever is necessary to provide it for them. The eternally ungrateful Veda is mortified when her mother takes a job as a waitress, but when Mildred decides to open up her own restaurant, the family fortunes begin to surge. She is assisted by Wally Fay (Jack Carson), her husband’s former business partner, and Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), a wealthy California heir. The restaurant becomes a huge success and Mildred begins showering lavish gifts upon Veda, particularly after her other daughter dies from illness. Along the way, she also is officially divorced from Bert and marries Monte. But her life is complicated even more as the relationship between the unappreciative Veda and her new husband becomes uncomfortably close. Monte then begins playing mother against daughter, with murderous results.

As anyone who has seen the film knows, all of this is told in flashback, with Monte’s murder taking place in the opening moments. This opening sequence contains incredibly impressive photography from Ernest Haller – in fact it’s the most impressive work that I have seen from the veteran cinematographer. The beach house setting feels like it is completely isolated, cut off from everything else, and the shadows literally leap and dance across the rooms. The diagonal angle of the shadows in these scenes is intentionally disorienting and with the deft direction of the continually under-appreciated Michael Curtiz it is all the more unsettling. My love of Curtiz and his work has been well-established on this blog and while I think his two unconditional masterpieces had already been made (Angels With Dirty Faces and Casablanca), this one is just a small notch below.

But let’s not kid ourselves; as outstanding as the work of Haller and Curtiz is, there is a reason that what is most remembered about the film is Joan Crawford. She deserves the praise she gets. What convinces me of this performance’s greatness is how effective Crawford is able to make me believe that she is a woman struggling. This is a huge compliment, because when I think of Joan Crawford I picture a fiery, forceful personality. I know that this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the roles she chooses, but sometimes it can be hard to separate the two. As Mildred, that fierceness eventually emerges, but not before we get to watch her work her to that point after struggling and earning her way through determination and hard work. It really is a performance for the ages.

Oh, and since I routinely give short shrift to scores and composers, don’t overlook the contribution of the legendary Max Steiner. It’s not his best, but it certainly adds to the film.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

#55: Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)

Released: June 17, 1953

Director: Samuel Fuller; Screenplay: Samuel Fuller based on a story by Dwight Taylor; Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald; Music: Lionel Newman; Producer: Jules Schermer; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Moe), Murvyn Vye (Captain Dan Tiger), Richard Kiley (Joey), Willis Bouchey (Zara), Milburn Stone (Winoki)

- "Are you waving the flag at _me_?"

We’re to the point in the countdown now where distinguishing many of the films, and putting them in precise rankings, is a herculean task. I try to be as precise as possible, crafting a favorites list that will hold up for at least some period of time. As all of the other list junkies in the blogosphere know, it’s impossible to create a list that will remain completely fixed and unchanging. So much just depends on one’s outlook, mood, or recent viewing, all of which are things that can change rapidly. At this moment, I could be high on a particular movie, the next my passion might have inexplicably tapered. That’s just how it goes with list making, I suppose, but it’s still worth pointing out, because even I am somewhat shocked at slotting in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street at #55. When I made my original rough draft for the project, I had Pickup in the Top 40 and was fairly certain that it remained my favorite Fuller film. But for the sake of completeness, I re-watched a number of films to solidify the ordering, and this was one that I revisited. As you can probably surmise from this opening paragraph, something about this viewing experience was not as powerful as in the past.

This is not to say I am no longer a big fan – look where I rank it and some of the classics that are solidly behind it in the countdown. I still consider it among my two or three favorite Fuller films. What struck me about Pickup this time around was the impression that, similar to Wise’s Born to Kill, it ultimately comes up a bit short of fulfilling the promise of some outstanding individual elements.

The story is set up right from the opening sequence, as the camera follows the work of professional pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Recently released from jail after his conviction was tossed out due to dubious police practices, McCoy is looking to make a profitable score. Instead, he picks the pocket of Candy (Jean Peters), the girlfriend of a Communist spy. Rather than lifting money, McCoy lifts a roll of microfilm that Candy has been sent to deliver to a Communist cell. The result is that McCoy quickly becomes the target of two very different groups – the police and FBI are after him in order to grab the microfilm before it falls into enemy hands, while the Communists scurry to grab the film before it’s too late. Caught in the middle is Skip, the unscrupulous crook who begins to play both ends against the middle. Things become even more complicated as Skip and Candy begin to develop an attraction, meaning that simple monetary gain does not remain Skip’s only focus.

The high points of the film are quite high. Fuller’s direction is at times flawless. The opening, wordless subway sequence, in which the camera follows the maneuvering of McCoy as he works to stealthily to pick Candy’s pocket, is incredible. The trademark Fuller zooms and close-ups abound, making it obvious who is in the director’s chair. The other Fuller trademark is the ability to create seedy underworlds, subcultures and, even more impressively, the underbelly of legitimate worlds. The three-dimensional feel of the underworld is driven home in the hunt for McCoy, as the police go through a list of usual suspects and informants to track down a single “cannon” as they call him. The Communist ring feels equally as shady, even though very little is revealed about them. Even the police are shown to be far from spotless, as it is revealed that the hard-charging Captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye) has been charged with brutality. Few men could match the ability of Fuller to make the entire world feel so seedy. And this knack is given even greater force by the contribution of Joseph MacDonald. It’s like a broken record in this countdown, but if you still haven’t had the point drive home – Joseph MacDonald is one of the finest cinematographers to ever work in film. Period.

So why did this one not remain in the Top 40 where I originally had it? Like I said, the main reason would be simply that I didn’t respond to it as passionately as I had in the past. Maybe it’s a copout to say this, but it just lacked “something” for me. Pinpointing precisely what that “something” is would be difficult, which is what makes it so easy to attribute it to just a slight shift in mood or personal taste. I do know, though, that outside of Widmark’s fiery performance – he is nothing short of brilliant – the other performances now seem less impressive. Thelma Ritter was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and she is entertaining, but camp elements of the performance stood out to me this time around. Jean Peters is also solid, but the romance between Skip and Candy never feels completely natural. In the end, though, these individual reason are just nitpicking as I try to make out some kind of concrete explanation for dropping it in the rankings. I really don’t have one, other than that mysterious “something.”

This review has been almost entirely critical, focusing on Pickup placing lower than expected, but the only reason that I am this critical is because it is probably a film that deserves to be ranked higher. It is still a very good movie and arguably the quintessential Sam Fuller film. Perhaps I’ll regret the placement when everything concludes, but for now, I’ll stay with my instinct.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

#56: Drive a Crooked Road (Richard Quine, 1954)

Released: March 10, 1954

Director: Richard Quine; Screenplay: Blake Edwards and Richard Quine based on a story by James Benson Nablo; Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.; Music: Ross DiMaggio; Producer: Jonie Taps; Studio: Columbia

Cast: Mickey Rooney (Eddie Shannon), Dianne Foster (Barbara Mathews), Kevin McCarthy (Steve Norris), Jack Kelly (William McIntyre), Harry Landers (Ralph), Jerry Paris (Phil), Paul Picerni (Carl), Dick Crockett (Don)

[NOTE: Parts of this write-up have been taken from a Noir of the Week entry that I penned over a year ago at The Blackboard noir message board under the screenname "BlankSlate." I'm just throwing this note up on the off chance that someone who frequents that board recognizes anything written here and should think that I nicked it. I didn't, it's all my own writing, just adapted for this countdown. Enjoy!]

Here is a very personal selection and one that is likely to puzzle folks. This might rightly be considered my first "reach" of the countdown. I don't know how many people have seen this, but judging by ratings and reviews on sites like IMDB, it connected with me far better than the majority of people. As you can tell, I don't really care. In my opinion, this is a truly overlooked film. Richard Quine in general seems to be forgotten by all but the most ardent noir fanatics. He actually made a few great noirs and this one deserves a larger reputation than it currently has. Plenty of my favorite noirs I went into expecting to be great, because they had a reputation of being all-time classics. This was one that I knew virtually nothing about, but afterward was amazed that it is never discussed or recommended.

Best known for his role as Andy Hardy in a wildly successful streak of films for MGM, it is interesting to consider the performance turned in by Mickey Rooney in Drive a Crooked Road. Rooney had appeared in roles less wholesome than that of Andy Hardy in the recent past (such as Quicksand in 1949), but never was he more effective than in his portrayal of the hapless Eddie Shannon, a lonely mechanic and amateur race car driver who is lured into a heist scheme that – surprise, surprise – does not end well for all involved.

The one place where Eddie Shannon (Mickey Rooney) is sure of himself is behind the wheel of a car. The film opens to scenes of a road race in which Eddie charges to the finish-line and takes second place. In the crowd of fans are two interested observers watching the drivers intently. They are Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy) and Harold Baker (Jack Kelly) and it quickly becomes obvious that they are in need of a wheelman for a job. In zeroing in on their man, Harold remarks that Eddie – with his driving skills and job as a mechanic – is “the ripe type” for their piece of work. So when a few days after the race a bombshell named Barbara Matthews (Dianne Foster) comes into the garage to have her convertible worked on and specifically asks for a man named Shannon to service it, the plot begins to take shape and the audience is given the first hint as to what is likely to transpire. Eddie is clearly intimidated by her beauty. The degree to which he longs for some sort of female companionship is made clear when Eddie coyly pockets a handkerchief he finds in the car that was left behind (intentionally?) by Barbara. Just a simple visit, with only brief interaction, is enough to lay the trap that Eddie eventually walks into.

The next day Barbara calls the garage and claims that her car will not start, so Eddie is sent to her house in order to fix it. Sitting on a front step with a picnic basket and clad in beach wear, she lures Eddie in even closer. After flirting with him, she lets “slip” precisely where she is headed in Malibu and remarks that it is never very crowded there. This is enough to get Eddie to drive to the beach, where the fateful introduction to heist mastermind Steve Norris is made. What Eddie is unaware of, and what the audience gradually comes to learn, is that Steve is really Barbara’s boyfriend and that he has sent her as bait to nab Eddie and convince him to be the wheelman in a bank robbery. It works precisely as planned. That night, after his visit to the beach, Eddie works up the courage to call Barbara and from that point forward he is completely smitten. Since I know how much I personally hate reviews or write-ups of movies that give away every last detail, I will not reveal all that transpires with the plot from this point forward. What I will say is that the filming of the heist scene is very well done. There is a perpetual feeling that the robbery is going to unravel at any moment. Director Richard Quine utilizes this apprehension to his advantage, staging key moments during the course of the robbery that leaves the audience expecting the three men to be caught immediately. The robbery eventually comes off as planned, but when Eddie realizes that he has been used by Barbara, the lives of all involved take an even harder turn for the worse.

Rooney truly is outstanding in this film. The understated performance that he gives as Eddie Shannon is just the way the character needs to be played. The interaction between Rooney and Dianne Foster is good, as he is able to convey enough shyness to make the viewer understand why the character is susceptible to this plot, but not so over the top as to make it farcical. You genuinely feel sorry for Eddie and at every point are begging for him to put the pieces together and figure out that he is being played. Also worthy of praise is Kevin McCarthy. His portrayal of the scheming Steve Norris is perfectly sleazy. He is smooth, always appearing to be completely confident that he can get whatever he wants from whomever he wants – be it Barbara, Eddie or anyone else.

TCM runs this one occasionally, which is how I got a copy. For someone looking to give an unheralded film noir a shot, it's the perfect candidate.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

#57: The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)

Released: May 4, 1952

Director: Richard Fleischer; Screenplay: Earl Felton based on a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard; Cinematography: George E. Diskant; Producer: Stanley Rubin; Studio: RKO

Cast: Charles McGraw (Det. Sgt. Walter Brown), Marie Windsor (Mrs. Frankie Neall), Jacqueline White (Ann Sinclair), Gordon Gebert (Tommy Sinclair), Queenie Leonard (Mrs. Troll), David Clarke (Joseph Kemp), Peter Virgo (Densel), Don Beddoe (Det. Sgt. Gus Forbes), Paul Maxey (Sam Jennings), Harry Harvey (Train Conductor)

- "Sister, I've known some pretty hard cases in my time... you make 'em all look like putty."

For a low budget crime thriller, Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin has acquired a formidable reputation. Just do a quick internet search about the movie and take in some of the superlatives that are showered on it – in a number of instances, it is referred as possibly the best B-movie ever made. While I may stop short of that highest of accolades, I do concede that it would have to be a contender in such a mythical competition. What makes The Narrow Margin such a great movie is that it accomplishes what every low budget film must do in order to succeed: take a simple story, incorporate a believable yet surprising twist, and populate the movie with colorful, memorable characters. And what elevates it even further is the something that cannot be said about many noirs – it’s just plain fun.

Taking place primarily on a train, the story follows the travails of Det. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) who is charged with transporting the widow of a recently-slain racketeer across the country so that she can testify before a grand jury. Along with his partner Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe), they are instructed to pick up the strong-willed Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) and see that she is delivered to the prosecutor without incident. Right from the start it is made clear that this will be no simple job. The uncooperative Mrs. Neall dawdles, leading to a shootout with gangsters sent to silence her. Forbes is killed in the crossfire and it is then left to Brown to complete the transport. Once they make it to the train, Brown realizes that he is essentially battling two equally trying opponents – the gangsters trying to ice his witness and the stubborn Mrs. Neall who is completely ungrateful for the protection provided by Brown. Along the way, Brown befriends Anne Sinclair (Jacqueline White), a young mother traveling with her son and nanny. This association drags Anne into the entire mess, as Brown scrambles to keep everyone safe and complete his job, all the while resisting tempting bribes that are offered at every turn.

It is most often identified for being a “train movie,” which is not surprising, but my favorite moments in the film actually come very early when Brown and Forbes are picking Mrs. Neall up at her apartment. The back and forth between the detectives and the gangster’s wife is as crisp as anything in noir and sets the stage for the moral acrobatics that Brown will play out in his mind throughout the film. Very early on it is made clear that he is upset that the life of his partner – a family man with a wife and children – has been sacrificed so an unappreciative, snobbish trophy wife living off the riches of a criminal can be safely transported. The encounter in the apartment and the ensuing shootout in a shadowy staircase are pure noir, photographed very well by Nicholas Ray favorite George Diskant. The bulk of the action on the train plays more like a conventional thriller than noir, but the snappy dialog and taunting between Neall and Brown keeps it in familiar noir territory.

It’s nice to watch ultimate tough Charles McGraw as a good guy for once, rather than the usual second-rate hoods he plays in so many movies of the era. His Det. Brown is more of a hardened hero, maintaining the cynical outlook that just seems to fit with McGraw’s overall persona. The real treat here, though, is Marie Windsor, who plays Mrs. Neall as hell on wheels. I’ve referred to her as “ungrateful” already in this piece, but even that is an understatement. She openly taunts Brown, as if at any moment she will decide to call the whole thing off and not follow through with her testimony. This is the cause of the distress that haunts Brown, as he does not want to come to the conclusion that his good friend and partner could have potentially died for no reason. Windsor is spectacular, combining sex appeal and pure attitude. She may not follow through on much of what she says, but Windsor’s Mrs. Neall talks as good a game as any other dame in film noir.

There’s a wonderful twist that I have avoided revealing that works quite well, which is to be commended. Too often, a twist like this would not come off nearly well as it does. The number of intense moments that occur in the close confines of the train solidify The Narrow Margin not just as a top-flight noir but also as one of the premier action movies and thrillers of the era also. This is another one that I might ultimately regret not ranking even higher.

Monday, February 22, 2010

#58: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948)

Released: October 30, 1948

Director: Norman Foster; Screenplay: Leonardo Bercovici and Walter Bernstein based on a story by Gerald Butler; Cinematography: Russell Metty; Music: Miklós Rózsa; Producer: Richard Vernon; Studio: Universal International

Cast: Joan Fontaine (Jane Wharton), Burt Lancaster (Bill Saunders), Robert Newton (Harry Carter), Lewis L. Russell (Tom Widgery), Aminta Dyne (Landlady), Grizelda Harvey (Mrs. Paton), Jay Novello (Sea Captain of Pelicano), Colin Keith-Johnston (Judge), Reginald Sheffield (Superintendant), Campbell Copelin (Publican), Leyland Hodgson (Tipster), Peter Forbes (Young Father)

Well, if nothing else, Norman Foster’s hauntingly named Kiss the Blood Off My Hands has to be the leader for best film title in the countdown! There isn’t another title in all of cinema that sounds more perfectly fitting for a noir. Despite this lurid title, it remains a little-seen noir gem, which is shocking considering the stature of the two stars, Joan Fontaine and Burt Lancaster. After searching the ‘net to gauge the consensus opinion of the film, it seems that most of those that have managed to see it consider it to be a bit of a letdown. I have certainly come across positive assessments – Goodfella’s friend Tony D’Ambra acknowledges it to be a fine noir – so I might be among the few that rank it this high in a countdown of this scope. Truth be told, it nearly ended up even higher than this, so there is no doubt in my mind that this has to be considered among the most underrated films of the classic noir cycle.

Lancaster stars as Bill Saunders, a man who has come to England after surviving a Nazi POW camp during the Second World War. His experiences as a prisoner have done sever psychological and emotional damage, leaving him a volatile person. While sitting in a pub, drowning his sorrows in alcohol, Bill gets drawn into a fight that results in him killing a man. Fleeing through the darkened streets of London, he climbs through an open window into the apartment of unsuspecting nurse Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Believing Bill when he says everything was an accident, the two miraculously begin a relationship together. That relationship is interrupted, however, when Bill gets into an altercation with a police officer and knocks him unconscious. Sentenced to six months in prison and a lashing with the cat o’ nine tails, Bill goes off to jail while Jane goes on with her life. But when Bill is released, he seeks out Jane and begins to try and rekindle the relationship. Jane gets him a job driving a truck that makes deliveries of medical supplies to rural districts. This peaceful life is soon shattered, though, when the devious hoodlum Harry Carter (Robert Newton) confronts Bill. Carter was a patron inside the bar the night that Bill killed the man in a fight and wants to use this info to blackmail him. He wants Bill to cooperate on a robbery of one of his shipments, so that the drugs can be fenced on the black market, otherwise he will go to the cops. Bill reluctantly decides to comply, but when Jane decides to come along on this particular delivery, things quickly spiral out of control.

In the entry for Journey Into Fear, which was #85 in this countdown, I mentioned that I didn’t find the style and achievement of that film to be above anything that Norman Foster could have done. I certainly acknowledged the obvious Welles influence, but I pointed out that there were other noirs undoubtedly led by Foster that were superior to the very good Journey. Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is at least one example of what I had in mind. His direction here is superb, with a number of sequences that just ooze noirish atmosphere. The opening of the film, with Lancaster’s Bill dashing from building to building, hiding behind walls and in shadows is a thrilling opening. Director of photography Russell Metty, who is making his second appearance in the countdown (he also worked on The Stranger), truly shines in his use of shadows on the waterfront. Although this remains the most impressive sequence in the film, there are others that are also striking. The other that comes instantly to mind is the staged hijacking sequence, as Bill has second thoughts about going through with the plan. When he exits the truck and, with rain pouring down, approaches the waiting goons, things build to a violent crescendo.

The story is far from flawless. It takes a suspension of disbelief – or, at the very least, a strong belief in some sort of weird Florence Nightingale-like syndrome – to have the budding romance between Bill and Jane feel entirely genuine. What makes such minor complaints useless is how effective everything else is. Bill is the personification of the noir elements of isolation and a life spiraling out of control. Lancaster delivers a seething performance, putting the character across as someone who, even when things are going well, is maintaining only a tenuous control over his emotions. His life, as is shown on screen, is a combination of terrible luck and equally bad choices – think about it, what are the odds of killing a man in a traditional fist fight? It happens to Bill, which could be chalked up to bad luck. But the fact that he constantly finds himself in such situations means that blame also has to be leveled at the man himself. Thus, he is someone that you can’t help but root for, but at the same time realize that he is at least part of the reason for his problems.

This is another one without a proper DVD release and that I’m guessing has little chance of popping up on TCM any time soon. Hopefully I’m wrong on that second point, otherwise it’s burnt DVDs or the Internet for anyone that wants to see it. Even if that’s the case, I’d still recommend the effort. It’s certainly worth it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

This statement could floor someone by its boldness or mean absolutely nothing to those that think he’s done little of value in over a decade – Shutter Island is the best film that Martin Scorsese has made since Casino. Possibly since Goodfellas.

I have no intention of writing a full-scale review, or something approaching the length of some of the posts previously done here. But, being the Scorsese nut that you all know me to be, I couldn’t resist posting something about this highly anticipated release. When I returned from the theater last night and thought about what kind of rating to give Shutter Island, I decided that for the time being I’d throw up an 8/10 to serve as a generic “I liked it, but I need more time to decide what to make of it.” As I expected, I was a bit rash in putting up any kind of rating at all. The film has been running through my mind since I exited the cinema, playing on the seeds of nervousness and terror that are planted throughout its two hours plus running time. The amazing thing – and perhaps the greatest compliment that I can pay to the film – is that despite some admitted predictability in the narrative, the movie remains riveting, and at times downright disturbing, the entire way through.

It can justifiably be classified an “homage film,” as some of the references will be apparent to filmgoers – The Shining, Black Narcissus, Hitchcocks like Vertigo and Psycho, noirs such as Laura. But as Goodfella’s contributor Sam Juliano and I discussed, all of this adds to the pleasure of the entire experience. It is like Marty, being the insatiable movie lover that he is, decided that he wanted to make a movie that combined the finest elements of the films that he has always loved, and just have fun with it. The result is a technical masterpiece. I have praised the excellent work of cinematographer Robert Richardson before, citing his contribution to JFK as one of the main reasons why it remains a favorite film. His work here might even outdo that one, and if it is not worthy of consideration when next year’s awards season arrives then they should just call them all off.

I still have no intention of writing a full length review (for that I’ll point you toward Wonders in the Dark in the next few days), but even in just typing out this short response I’m already going over in my mind how to address the main complaint I keep reading – the red herrings found throughout and being unsubtle in execution of the story. I actually agree that it is not hard to figure a lot of it out, but those that will allow this to ruin the entire experience are completely missing the point. The predictability actually adds to how unsettling everything is. The fact that you can figure out what is likely going on and are then left to watch as it unfolds precisely as predicted, in all of its horrifying glory, is as noir as it gets. The inevitability of it all makes it distressing.

If you’re a fan of Scorsese or any of the films I mentioned earlier, then I urge you to ignore the split critical opinion and get to a theater to see it for yourself. I know I’ll be going back again.

RATING: 9/10

#59: Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson, 1952)

Released: November 28, 1952

Director: Phil Karlson; Screenplay: George Bruce and Harry Essex based on a story by Harold Brown and Harold Greene; Cinematography: George E. Diskant; Music: Paul Sawtell; Producer: Edward Small; Studio: United Artists

Cast: John Payne (Joe Rolfe/ Peter Harris), Coleen Gray (Helen Foster), Preston Foster (Tim Foster), Neville Brand (Boyd Kane), Lee Van Cleef (Tony Romano), Jack Elam (Pete Harris, a.k.a. Johnson), Dona Drake (Teresa), Mario Siletti (Tomaso), Howard Negley (Andrews), Carleton Young (Martin), Don Orlando (Diaz), Ted Ryan (Morelli)

- "What makes a two-bit heel like you think a heater would give him an edge over me?"

This is another movie that I struggled with in finding the proper placement. In my original rough draft, it was much higher, more toward the top 40. After doing some reshuffling, it fell back into the 60s, as re-watching some films moved them above it. Not having watched it in some time, though, this was one that I needed to revisit before I sat down to write any kind of review. Obviously, the experience was a positive one, as I have moved it back into the Top 50. I also think that I have pinpointed why my feelings toward it are constantly fluctuating. The set up and premise to the story is very inventive, in a kind of “that’s a brilliant idea” response to the caper. But things don’t play out as memorably as one would suspect from such a buildup and the conclusion does leave something to be desired. The planning and execution of the heist, along with the settling of the proceeds, is intriguing enough to carry any weaknesses. Perhaps the payoff feels disappointing because the development is so compelling.

How plausible it would be to maintain the secrecy that mastermind Tim Foster (Preston Foster) demands is debatable, but I have to admit that it is an ingenious idea. For weeks, Foster sits in an apartment and watches the routine delivery schedule of an armored car as it makes its usual drops at a Kansas City bank. He has concocted a plan to rob the armored car, using a florist truck as a getaway car, and thus use an actual florist deliveryman (John Payne) as the unsuspecting fall guy. For muscle on the job, Foster recruits three well-known KC hoods, meeting with each of them individually and keeping his face concealed so that he can never be identified. He also forces all of the hijackers to wear masks and to keep their identities secret from everyone but him. The reasoning is obvious – if one of them is apprehended and flips, they can give up nothing on any of the others. The robbery goes off as planned, with the hapless Joe Rolfe (John Payne) picked up for the job. Meanwhile, the actual robbers make their getaway. Foster, known to the others as Mr. Big, tells them that he will hold onto the cash until the heat dies down. They are all to meet up in Mexico when Mr. Big thinks it’s clear to disperse the money. In the interim, Rolfe begins feeling the heat in a major way from the police, as his ex-con status makes him a usual suspect. The police brutally beat him to try and get a confession but are unsuccessful. When Joe is released, he has an underworld friend give him a line on one of the robbers and begins his own search to track down the hijackers and the mastermind.

The robbery, its aftermath in Kansas City, and Joe’s vigilante search for the robbers are the best parts of the movie. It is hardened, at times brutal, stuff as the police are certain that an ex-con in the vicinity of the heist can be no coincidence. Although he is committed to making it in the legitimate world, his life is shattered after he hits the front pages as the prime suspect in the robbery. Thus, he pursues the men who framed with the coldblooded nature of a seasoned assassin. The tension remains relatively high when all of the culprits come together in the bungalows of Mexico. It is a cat and mouse game, as the henchmen begin to suspect who the others are, but none of them want to come right out and reveal themselves. At the same time, Foster realizes that Joe is an imposter, pretending to be one of the robbers, and thus has to proceed with extra caution. His role is further complicated when his daughter Helen (Coleen Gray) drops in for an impromptu visit and becomes attracted to Joe. I will not at all reveal how things play out, but as I said, the conclusion does not maintain the same excellence of the buildup. Still, it’s a hell of a ride getting to that point.

The accomplishment by director Phil Karlson and company is the ability to maintain the anxiety without any real mystery. The viewer knows all of the culprits, knows the intimate details of the robbery, and is fully aware that Joe is a poser. The apprehension results from the dangerous game that you watch Joe playing, wondering how long he can keep his identity concealed. John Payne – a very solid noir actor – gives an impressive performance as a desperate man, driven to taking extreme chances to regain control of his life. It is also entertaining to watch the wonderful supporting case, boasting great character actors like Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, and Neville Brand. This is one that I easily could have bumped up the rankings a bit, but that's how it goes in countdowns like this. It is still an essential noir.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

#60: Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

Released: December 25, 1948

Director: Abraham Polonsky; Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky and Ira Wolfert based on the novel “Tucker’s People” by Ira Wolfert; Cinematography: George Barnes; Music: David Raskin; Producer: Bob Roberts; Studio: MGM

John Garfield (Joe Morse), Beatrice Pearson (Doris Lowry), Thomas Gomez (Leo Morse), Marie Windsor (Edna Tucker), Howland Chamberlain (Freddie Bauer), Roy Roberts (Ben Tucker), Paul Fix (Bill Ficco), Stanley Prager (Wally), Barry Kelley (Detective Egan)

- "What do you mean 'gangsters?' It's business..."

Here we have the first to fall of the films being predicted as legitimate Top 10 contenders. I’m fully aware of the fact that this directorial debut from Abraham Polonsky has a very passionate following and is considered by many to be among the finest noirs ever made. Truthfully, I have only recently warmed to the film, which I came away from somewhat disappointed when I saw it for the first time. If I had judged it solely on that single viewing experience, this would have placed much lower in the countdown, if it was included at all. I’ve now reached the point where I understand that the strengths of the film far outweigh the key weakness that continues to reveal itself each time I watch.

It is an intriguing plot, concerning a numbers syndicate that is striving to convert their interest in the policy racket into a legitimate business. The idea, as conceived by policy boss Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts) is to bankrupt the smaller numbers banks through a fixed drawing. The idea is that the only banks left standing are those in the syndicate that will move in to set up the legal lottery. Leading this push into the respectable business world is lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield), whose perspective becomes increasingly muddled as he is pulled deeper into the underworld. While wanting to help his client Tucker, Joe also feels a small sense of loyalty toward his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), an independent numbers man who refuses to join Tucker’s ruthless combination. Not wanting to see his brother left penniless, Joe first offers him a position in the Tucker group, which Leo sternly refuses. Joe then begins working to try and keep Leo from losing his life savings, while at the same time not ruining the carefully laid plans for the big fix. The deeper Joe gets, the more he realizes that he is going to be forced to make a final decision at some point – either his loyalties are completely with his brother or are completely owned by Tucker.

The general storyline is fantastic, which I assume means that kudos should go to the original source material from Ira Wolfert. The script, on the other hand, is where I find the only glaring flaw in the film. Which is surprising to me, because Polonsky had already proven himself to be an outstanding screenwriter – his script for the previous year’s Body and Soul was wonderful. The issue here is that things are just too damn talky. Characters talk and talk and talk, speaking on topics and things that feel far too unnatural. For instance, when Joe visits Leo to try and bring him into the syndicate, the conversation between the two brothers – both of whom have intimate knowledge of numbers – is like listening to two men recite textbook outlines and definitions of how the policy racket works. Perhaps this is just an artifact of the times and such dialog was necessary to spell out to naïve contemporary audiences precisely how the business works. Still, it doesn’t help the aging of the film. I realize that this might seem like the most minor of complaints, but at this stage such minor issues are what make separating quality films possible.

But the positives far outweigh any negatives, the aforementioned speech included. Even with the awkward monologues outlining underworld schemes, John Garfield turns in his usual sensational performance. There are certainly strong supporting performances from Thomas Gomez and Marie Windsor, but Garfield is the center of everything – his Joe Morse narrates, is the focus of the story, and is the character that the audience becomes emotionally tied to. Few could play the smooth talking tough guy like Garfield. Here he also gives a fully developed performance, showing Joe to be at times sentimental and at times downright ruthless. What becomes compelling is his inability to comprehend the fact that the more he succeeds at his job, the more he hurts people close to him. By the time he comes to this realization, he has lost things that cannot be restored. I don’t think it’s the best performance of Garfield’s career, but that’s only because he has so many impressive achievements on his resume. For almost any other actor, this would likely top a best-of list.

Polonsky shows himself to be very much in control in his debut film. Working with cinematographer George Barnes, the photography is at times beautiful. They also make great use of shadows, although the light-dark contrasts are generally not as stark as other noirs. The location shooting in New York, displaying Wall Street, the Washington Bridge and other locales is very impressive. Some of the sequences truly are remarkable – the ones that instantly come to mind are Joe's stealthy visits to his law office and the final discovery of the body among the rocks under the bridge.

Much has been written about the implications of this film on the lives and careers of director and star. Both Polonsky and Garfield would be blacklisted shortly afterward on the basis of the perception that Force of Evil was an indictment of the capitalist system by the two left-leaning personalities. There is no question of the consequences that resulted from this belief, but I’ve never really examined the movie at this level. I never feel sympathy for anyone in the movie, Leo included, so have trouble distinguishing who is being exploited by the system. I just take it at face value, which means enjoying a damn fine film.

Friday, February 19, 2010

#61: Somewhere in the Night (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946)

Released: June 12, 1946

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Screenplay: Howard Dimsdale (screenplay), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (screenplay), Lee Strasberg (adaptation), and W. Somerset Maugham (uncredited adaptation) based on a story by Marvin Borowsky; Cinematography: Norbert Brodine; Music: David Buttolph; Producer: Anderson Lawler; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: John Hodiak (George W. Taylor), Nancy Guild (Christy Smith), Lloyd Nolan (Police Lt. Donald Kendall), Richard Conte (Mel Phillips), Josephine Hutchinson (Elizabeth Conroy), Fritz Kortner (Anzelmo, a.k.a. Dr. Oracle), Sheldon Leonard (Sam), Whit Bissell (John the Bartender), Harry Morgan (Bath attendant)

What would a film noir countdown be without at least one good amnesiac story? While not used to extremes in noir, it is a fairly common technique, and with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night we have what I consider to the finest use of the plot device. I certainly understand that it can be viewed as gimmicky, but in this case it is a perfect reflection of the times – a returning World War II veteran, unable to remember a single detail of his previous life, struggling to find his place in the world he left behind when he went to war. Thematically, it’s on a wavelength similar to that of The Best Years of Our Lives or, as was discussed previously, even the story played out in The Dark Corner. It asks some very interesting questions that must have been percolating at the time. As the mystery surrounding the past life of George Taylor unfolds, the question becomes unavoidable: is he actually better off not digging too deeply into his past?

John Hodiak stars as George Taylor, a marine injured at Okinawa who is left without any memory of himself or his past. The only clues to his existence are two letters found in his wallet, one written by a spurned ex-girlfriend and the other from a friend named Larry Cravat. Sent back to the States after being medically discharged, Taylor makes his way to Los Angeles in search of the unknown Larry Cravat. Early in his search, Taylor realizes that there is a powerful shroud that his developed around this Cravat character, as no one he talks to wants to give the slightest detail about his existence. When posing questions at a nightclub leads to Taylor being beaten by two thugs, he knows that things are even more mysterious than he thought. When he finds an ally in club singer Christy Smith (Nancy Guild), he gets further help from her employer Mel Phillips (Richard Conte) and his friend Lt. Donald Kendall (Lloyd Nolan). As details about Cravat begin to pile up, the disappearance of $2 million in Nazi money at the start of the war appear to implicate the mystery man in a murder-robbery. But Taylor believes that he too had some role in all of this and continues to dig into his past to find out the truth.

I got through that without any real spoilers, as this is one that you need to go into relatively fresh. I’ve revealed nothing that will spoil the experience for those that have not seen it. The plot sometimes gets a little out there, and might require a slight suspension of disbelief at times, but for all of its supposed outlandishness it follows a surprisingly tight script. Joseph L. Mankiewicz has long been recognized as a brilliant writer and here, in only his third screenwriting credit (co-written with Howard Dimsdale and adapted by legendary Lee Strasberg), he juggles things very well. Mankiewicz was a brilliant dialog writer and he uses this skill to add some lighthearted moments to what is otherwise a rather tense, startling storyline. Perhaps others disagree with labeling the story as “startling” but I’ve always viewed it this way. And what makes it disquieting, I think, is the ability of Mankiewicz to make everything feel like one protracted nightmare. All we know about George Taylor is that he has just suffered through Okinawa, survived a terrible injury and returned to the U.S. The only thing he wants to do is discover who he is. And he can’t do it. He is sent running, chasing, and investigating throughout Los Angeles without any answers until the end. And when he finally gets the answers he is looking for, you have to question whether he should have just left well enough alone.

Mankiewicz would certainly make better and more lauded films in the near future – in fact, he has other noirs that I find superior. But in only his second directorial effort, I think that he fashioned an outstanding film that captures an outlook and feeling of an era. This is an underrated film noir.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

#62: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946)

Released: July 24, 1946

Director: Lewis Milestone; Screenplay: Robert Rossen and Robert Riskin (uncredited) based on the story “Love Lies Bleeding” by John Patrick; Cinematography: Victor Milner; Music: Miklós Rózsa; Producer: Hal B. Wallis; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Martha Ivers), Van Heflin (Sam Masterson), Lizabeth Scott (Antonia “Toni” Marachek), Kirk Douglas (Walter O’Neil), Roman Bohnen (Mr. O’Neil), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Ivers), Darryl Hickman (Sam as a boy), Janis Wilson (Martha as a girl), Mickey Kuhn (Walter as a boy)

- "Couldn't you see blackmail in his eyes?"

If star power appeals strongly to you, then The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is likely one that you feel should be moved much higher in these rankings. It has star power bursting from every crevice. The amount of big names and talent is astounding. The four leads are now seen all-time greats. Barbara Stanwyck had already staked a claim to be the toughest femme fatale in all of noir. Van Heflin was no newcomer, but this would kick off a wonderful noir run. Lizabeth Scott, in only her second film, shows the promise that she would more than live up to over the next twelve years. And making his acting debut, Kirk Douglas began his stellar career with a bang. The music was composed by the great Miklós Rózsa. The list of films with the name of producer Hal Wallis attached to it is unreal – Little Caesar, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, Casablanca to name only a few. The screenplay was written by celebrated writer, and future director, Robert Rossen. Although not a regular in film noir, director Lewis Milestone had already become a prominent figure in Hollywood and snagged two Academy Awards for Best Director. Hell, the assistant director was only Robert Aldrich!

Typing these credentials out still amazes me. I suppose you could look at this one of two ways – that with this much talent involved, it would be hard for a movie not to succeed; or, you can give credit to Milestone, Wallis and company for bringing all of the elements together to create a compelling noir melodrama. I obviously lean toward the second interpretation. Like a great coach winning with the best players, there is something to be said for bringing everything together cohesively. The only knock I have is that although it is obviously well-crafted in every way, it can’t help at times feeling a bit like a run-of-the-mill studio production. Rossen’s script is gritty enough to lift the film above that description and the all-star cast boasts enough talent to sell it all.

The story follows the links in the lives of three childhood friends (or, at the very least, two childhood friends and an acquaintance) that grow up in Iverstown, Pennsylvania. The town is dominated by the dictatorial Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson), who essentially owns the entire town. Her young nice Martha despises the authority of her aunt and rebels by running off with her friend Sam. When the two are caught in a railcar, she is returned to her aunt, while Sam gets away. But when the two meet up later that night at the Ivers home, along with a pal named Walter O’Neil, a supposed accident occurs – Mrs. Ivers is killed and the young Martha inherits an incredible fortune. In the aftermath of the accident, Sam runs away, while Martha and Walter stay behind and grow into adulthood. Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), who busies herself managing her fortune, marries Walter (Kirk Douglas), who is the city prosecutor. When Sam (Van Heflin) wanders back to Iverstown, the quiet life of the couple is thrown into chaos. The problem is that as prosecutor, Walter had convicted an innocent man for the murder of Mrs. Ivers in hopes that it would cover any possible entanglement of Martha in the crime. Seeing Sam as the one person who can implicate them, Walter begins scheming to hustle him out of town. Meanwhile, old passions between Sam and Martha are ignited, which in turn are complicated by the beautiful Toni (Lizabeth Scott).

As I said, what stand out most to me are the Robert Rossen script and the performances that bring it to life. This does not attain its noir status on the basis of expressionistic lighting and inventive camera work found in other classics. Instead, the anguish felt by each character is what validates its inclusion in a countdown like this. All of the principles are suffering from psychological torment. The entire bond between Martha and Walter appears to be built on an uneasy alliance – Martha submits so as not to be implicated in the murder of her aunt, Walter stays in the relationship due to guilt about his sham prosecution. Both are quick to hold these things over the other’s head. Sam is the trigger to send both of them into full-scale panic. And even though he professes a loyalty to the recently arrived Toni, he seems like he is still at times unable to overcome the spell that Martha casts over him.

For those that haven’t seen it (assuming there are some), I won’t reveal anything about the conclusion, except to ask if there is any more iconic finish in noir? I can think of a few that might top it, but it’s as memorable as any other finale.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

#63: Tread Softly Stranger (Gordon Parry, 1958)

Released: August 1958

Director: Gordon Parry; Screenplay: George Minter and Denis O’Dell based on the play “Blind Alley” by Jack Popplewell; Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe; Music: Tristram Cary; Producers: George Minter and Denis O’Dell; Studio: George Minter Productions

Diana Dors (Calico), George Baker (Johnny Mansell), Terence Morgan (Dave Mansell), Patrick Allen (Paddy Ryan), Jane Griffith (Sylvia), Thomas Heathcote (Sgt. Lamb), Russell Napier (Potter), Norman Macowan (Danny), Maureen Delaney (Mrs. Finnegan), Wilfrid Lawson (Holroyd), Betty Warren (Flo), Chris Fay (Eric Downs), William Kerwin (Michael), Joseph Tomelty (Joe Ryan), Timothy Bateson (Fletcher

I’m almost certain that the excellent British noir Tread Softly Stranger is the least-viewed movie in this entire countdown. I know that Sam and Tony have seen it and I am confident that they will chime in with their usually excellent comments, and I’d probably be willing to bet that being from the UK, Judy has probably at least had the opportunity to see it. But outside of them, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if anyone else has watched it. Or, maybe I’m just completely out of it and this is more well-known than I think. I never would have seen it myself if it was not for Sam, who told me that I needed to see it before I completed a list for the noir countdown. He was right, of course, but even more than a placement in the countdown, it also deserves to receive more attention and be more widely viewed.

I have to admit that prior to watching Tread Softly Stranger, I knew absolutely nothing about Diana Dors. I could be wrong, but I’ve since come to the understanding that in the United Kingdom she was akin to the blonde bombshells of Hollywood lore. But don’t let such a label fool the uninformed – this was not just a pretty face, thrown on the screen to draw viewers just to ogle her. Now, granted that I am basing this on seeing exactly one of her movies, but it seems quite clear there was legitimate acting talent with her. Like Marilyn Monroe or other Hollywood starlets, it would be easy to dismiss her as just another pin-up, but that would be an unfair dismissal. Beauty may be the main reason that she was ever given an opportunity, but at least in this case that mysterious magnetism is what makes her character so effective.

The film opens on Johnny Mansell (George Baker), a high-stakes London gambler who has been on a losing streak. With bookmakers calling in his debts, and with no way to make good on his losses, Johnny decides to head back to his hometown of Rawborough until the heat cools. Arriving back home, Johnny takes a room next to his bookish brother Dave (Terence Morgan), an office worker at the local factory. Whereas Johnny has the carefree attitude of any big time gambler, Dave is the much more serious, practical type. But somehow, Dave has managed to land the alluring Calico (Diana Dors), a hostess and dancer at a local nightclub. Calico is a fish out of water in Rawborough, a dreamer who desperately wishes to escape the drab industrial town. Perhaps this is what draws her to Johnny, the fact that he had already shown himself capable of working his way to the big city.

Upon returning to town, Johnny quickly discerns the fact that his brother is struggling from severe financial difficulties. Pressing him for details, he learns that Dave has been embezzling money at the steel foundry in order to keep his hold on Calico. Dave has been cooking the books to cover his trail. But he reaches the point that he is paranoid that the entire office is going to be audited any day and he realizes that he is done for if his “creative accounting" is discovered. It is then that Johnny is told about the plan that Calico has been pressing on Dave – the idea to rob the foundry payroll so that the embezzled funds will be overlooked and the extra profit will set them up for life. Originally dead set against it, Johnny is eventually pulled into the plot, through a variety of noirish twists, which predictably goes haywire from the start.

The entire film has a wonderful working class, pulpy feel to it. The steel town feeling of Rawborough is easily relatable to cities throughout the United States, and presumably around the world, proving once again how universal many noir traits are. Probably the most appealing thing about the entire movie is how real the principal characters feel – the tenet of ambiguous characters that is so essential to noir is illuminated brilliantly. There is no completely good or bad character. As a gambler, Johnny is the one that would traditionally be identified as morally suspect, but as the story progresses he begins to show himself to be the most upright of the bunch. Dave, on the other hand, should be the more admirable of the two, holding a respectable job and working for a living. Instead, Dave too struggles to overcome his weakness for Calico and drags his brother down with him. And then there is the perfectly cast Dors as Calico. Director Gordon Parry introduces her with a memorable entrance and ultimately shows her to be the ultimate seductress.

I’ve read reviews around the ‘net that conclude that Tread Softly Stranger is a B-movie that has some merit but that is ultimately an average noir. Don’t listen to them – they’re dead wrong. This is a wonderful film noir and among the best that I have seen to come out of the UK.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

#64: Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945)

Released: December 19, 1945

Director: John M. Stahl; Screenplay: Jo Swerling based on a story by Ben Ames Williams; Cinematography: Leon Shamroy; Music: Alfred Newman; Producer: William A. Bacher; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Gene Tierney (Ellen Berent Harland), Cornel Wilde (Richard Harland), Jeanne Crain (Ruth Berent), Vincent Price (Russell Quinton), Mary Philips (Mrs. Berent), Ray Collins (Glen Robie), Gene Lockhart (Dr. Saunders), Reed Hadley (Dr. Mason), Darryl Hickman (Danny Harland), Chill Wills (Leick Thome)

- “Ellen always wins...”

John M. Stahl, a master of melodrama in the 1930s, takes this soap opera story and infuses it with noirish themes and images. The story is told in flashback, as one resident of a lakeside community relates the plight of Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), a man recently released from prison who is returning to the city. The man recounts how Harland met the stunningly gorgeous Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) on a cross-country train and the two instantly hit it off. A romance quickly develops, leading to Ellen spurning her former fiancé Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), and becoming engaged to the successful writer Richard. Slowly, it begins to emerge that the root of Ellen’s obsession with Richard likely stems from the fact that he is a dead ringer for her now deceased father. She was deeply devoted to her father and it is believed that she longs for a replacement. When the two are married and move to the Harland home in Maine, Ellen’s mental instability becomes apparent. She is unbelievably possessive of her husband, even to the point of spurning his handicapped brother. Eventually, this obsession begins to lead to even darker things, including murders and mysterious accidents that eventually bring about her husband’s downfall.

This is another example of a movie that does not follow the traditional noir template. The entire story takes place in scenic mountain ranges or inside lush resorts and houses, following characters who are at home in high society circles. These are not the usual everymen or fast-talking dames that populate so many noirs. Even more noticeable is the Technicolor photography. It’s already been established in this countdown that color need not exclude a movie from being considered a noir, but it is used a bit differently here than in House of Bamboo or Niagara. In those cases, a morose atmosphere was created that equaled anything that could have been created in black-and-white. The colors here are at times vibrant, with sweeping landscape shots. The use of these vibrant colors produces such dissonance by contrasting with the incredibly dark personality and behavior of Ellen.

The most famous scene in the entire film more than earns its infamous reputation. Truth be told, the sequence in which Ellen allows Richard’s handicapped brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) to drown is as chilling as any that I have ever seen. It’s amazing that I am saying this about something filmed in 1945, when the Code certainly limited how cruel things could be portrayed. But it’s a credit to how the scene is set up by Stahl. Rather than continue with the Alfred Newman score that accompanies everything else in the film, for this sequence he cuts the music and allows only the natural sounds of the lake to be heard. You hear birds chirping, wind blowing, and the gentle ripple of the water as Danny struggles to continue swimming. You hear Danny squeal for help, begging Ellen to assist him because his injured legs are tiring. After seeing Danny’s head go under for a third time, the camera then turns to watch Ellen sit their motionless, without a hint of emotion on her face. It’s chilling, there’s no other way to describe it.

The deficiencies of the film are certainly visible – I always have trouble warming the pseudo psychology that is often found in films of the era; and the courtroom scenes are atrocious, which was typical of the times – and I definitely think that it works better in certain individual spots than as a whole. But there is too much here too appreciate for it not to be included in this countdown. Leon Shamroy’s cinematography is unique, with everything covered by the faintest orange hue, as if there is something smoldering under every action. And Gene Tierney, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her role (she lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce), gives a surprisingly nuanced performance. The all-consuming obsession that her character is known for is certainly what is most memorable, but before she is consumed by her passions, Ellen is actually sympathetic. You actually feel for her as she is devastated by the loss of her father, which makes it all the more jarring as she starts her decline into paranoia.

Oh, and anyone else agree that a case can be made for Gene Tierney being the most beautiful woman of the entire era?

Monday, February 15, 2010

#65: I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1948)

Released: January 16, 1948

Director: Byron Haskin; Screenplay: Charles Snee (screenplay), Robert Smith (adaptation) and John Bright (adaptation) based on the play “Beggars Are Coming to Town” by Theodore Reeves; Cinematography: Leo Tover; Music: Victor Young; Producer: Hal B. Wallis; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Frankie Madison), Lizabeth Scott (Kay Lawrence), Wendell Corey (Dave), Kirk Douglas (Noll “Dink” Turner), George Rigaud (Maurice), Mark Lawrence (Nick Palestro), Mike Mazurki (Dan the Doorman), Mickey Knox (Skinner), Roger Neury (Felix Walter)

- "For a buck, you'd double-cross your own mother..."

Kirk Douglas opened his acting career by starring in three classic noirs in as many years. Think about it – from 1946 to 1948, Douglas made four total films, three of which will (drumroll please...) find their way into this countdown. The last of those three classics comes in here at #65 and is without question the least-known of the trio. With no proper DVD release (for any region that I’m aware), this is an under-viewed gem that most will only get to see if it pops up on Turner Classic Movies or they decide to track down a DVD-R copy like I did. Led by Byron Haskin making his directorial debut, I Walk Alone takes a unique angle on the ex-con returning to the streets after a long prison stretch. Rather than portraying Frankie Madison as someone trying desperately to go straight, instead he is shown to be a man who is simply determined to claim what he believes to be his. He has no compunction about returning to a life of crime, nightclubs, and shakedowns – as long as he is given what he thinks he earned by doing his stretch. The unique thing about this story is that the criminal world itself appears to have passed Frankie by, rendering him an anachronism in the underworld.

Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster) and his partner “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas) made their mark on the underworld during Prohibition, becoming highly successful rumrunners. On one of their late night runs they became cornered by the police and decided to split up and see if at least one of them could make it to freedom. On the spot, they struck a deal that whoever made it will keep the enterprise going and split all of the profits right down the middle. Frankie was apprehended and gets 14 years, while Dink escaped and began building a semi-legitimate empire in his partner’s absence. The movie opens with Frankie's release, following him as he goes to Dink’s highly successful nightclub with the belief that he is a partner and has a large sum of money coming his way. Unbeknownst to Frankie, though, is the fact that Dink has been using dummy corporations, legal technicalities, and the help of Frankie’s longtime accountant friend Dave (Wendell Corey), to swindle any claims Frankie has to his share. When wooing Frankie with the beautiful Kay Lawrence (Lizabeth Scott) fails to placate him, Dink decides to stand behind the technical safeguards he has assembled. Thus, Frankie comes after him with a group of thugs, but quickly realizes that grabbing his 50% is not as simple as he thought – shell companies, corporate entities, and other legal speak well above Frankie’s capacity make it virtually impossible for him to take over. He simply is not accustomed to this new quasi-legitimate world of crime.

All of the characters are distinctive, and it’s interesting to watch everyone involved looking out for their own best interest. Although a few will eventually make a turnaround, the majority of the film is each person doing their best to maintain what is theirs. Frankie wants his cut of the proceeds and is determined to take them by force if necessary. Dink just wants to maintain the legitimate image and wealth that he has crafted for himself. Dave, who clearly has affection for Frankie, still can’t help but aid his swindle because he recognizes that it will mean a safer life for himself. Even Lizabeth Scott’s Kay, who spurns the femme fatale role that Dink tries to manipulate her into, becomes torn by loyalty toward both Frankie and Dink.

Byron Haskin directed only two noirs in his career, both of which are outstanding. In this film he is very successful in establishing a dirge-like progression to the narrative – at no point do you think that Frankie is going to effectively claim his share of Dink’s profits. But he also shows himself to be capable to creating very intimate, romantic scenes, which helps to quickly establish the connection between Frankie and Kay after just one meeting.

This review also would not be complete without throwing up a link to the New York Times review written by Bosley Crowther shortly after its release. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it hilarious when he declares, “Producer Hal Wallis should have read the Code,” because in his opinion Frankie the criminal is portrayed too sympathetically. While meant to be a criticism, the fact that someone saw Frankie as that sympathetic – to the point of violating the Hays Code – speaks volumes of how effective this movie is.