Fog Over Frisco (1934)
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Bette Davis gives a power-house performance as the venal Arlene Bradford, the criminal step-daughter of a powerful banker. To me it proves how determined Miss Davis was to break the mould and to appear in roles she believed in and that would make her stand out.
Bette plays Arlene Bradford, who is secretly working for a criminal (Irving Pichel) who is involved in stolen bonds. Spencer Carlton (Lyle Talbot) a decent but weak employee at Bradfords bank is engaged to Arlene. It is he who is usually called on to dispose of the bonds - obviously he will lose his job if caught.
But Arlene is playing the sap for a sap and has no intention of marrying him. She is in love with someone else and is soon to receive the same callous treatment she dishes out to everyone else.
Arlene disappears just over halfway through the film and the film is then carried by the two lack-lustre leads. Margaret Lindsay as Val, the "good" sister (I have never really got her - but she was a serviceable leading lady for Warners in the 30s) and Donald Woods. The film loses a lot of the verve and excitement it had in the first half.
The supporting players are far more interesting - Irving Pichell as the owner of the nightclub, the wonderfully suave Douglas Dumbrille as the family lawyer. Robert Barret as Thorne, the butler is the most fascination - there is something about him - but you don't find out until the last five minutes.
Bette Davis' role is eerily reminiscent of what happened to Thelma Todd only a year later. She even looks like her in this film.
Well Fog over Frisco is what a good action film should look like. It is absolutely enough to have a bit more than a hour to tell everything. Of course, Dieterle could easily make a film a bit longer and the plot more understandable, but this amazing pace is what makes this film even more special. You are moving in the spiral of events so fast that it is necessary to see it twice to get everything straight.
But this is not all. We see some really exceptional acting here. Bette Davis makes from one seemingly tiny role more than some leading character actors did in the whole acting career. She is absolutely convincing as Arlene, a spoiled and bored rich girl and you can never see Bette in another film to be so beautiful, glamorous, amusing and enchanting. No wonder that most men in film really seem to be in love with her. Margaret Lindsay, who plays a real head role of her step-sister Val, isn't match for Ms. Davis, however she did her part correctly. Other notable performances include Donald Woods playing Tony and Hugh Herbert playing Izzy, who are convincing as a witty reporter - funny photographer pair.
This film is one of the most underestimated films in the whole history of Hollywood and is a must-see for 1930s film period.
Concealing the identity of the murderer also seems to be another point of comparison in between this movie and Hitchcock's classic. Again -- I believe this is an assumption: being a taut crime drama with a good (if clumsy) note of suspense, the need to leave the audience hanging is an old a trick as time itself. I doubt Hitchcock would have even learned about this movie since his inspiration was the book itself which was a loose account of the Ed Gein murders. If he did see this film, no one will ever know, but I personally believe Hitchcock did not use FOG OVER FRISCO even as a vague point of reference. Perhaps the fact that the movie looks different from a cinematic point of view -- it seems to be experimenting with how to transition from one scene to the next, something that only film noir, Orson Welles, and Hitchcock would engage in during the 1940s onwards. At least, it gave Margaret Lindsay a chance to carry the movie on her own since she tended to play the supporting role and would be Davis' rival in JEZEBEL.
The whole movie centers on a complex securities smuggling racket that involves Arlene using her stepfather's business as a means of laundering the stolen securities - without his knowledge of course. When Arlene turns up dead, there are a multitude of suspects including the girl's own stepfather.
Bette Davis gives an energetic performance that presages the great roles to come, in spite of the fact that she is only in the first half of the film. Hugh Herbert plays the bumbling newspaper photographer who actually stumbles across a key clue. Warner contract player Robert Barrat plays the Bradford family butler, Thorne, who seems way too interested in Arlene's comings and goings.
I highly recommend this one, but only if you have the time to sit through it twice.
The first portion of the film which features Davis in the lead is actually NOT the best aspect of the film. I love seeing her on film, but the film really heats up when her step-sister and a hot-shot reporter investigate. Then, the film accelerates into high gear and is non-stop action and suspense.
All in all, this is a great film for those who just want to turn off their brains and have fun.
Fog Over Frisco is a forgotten gem that deserves to be high on anyone's list. It takes over from the early Philo Vance films in complexity and adds original twists, tension and action. The Warner Brothers stock company players are uniformly good but Bette Davis is amazing. The film doesn't follow a standard mystery format and avoids most of the clichés found in such films. It is fresh, exiting and original. Fog Over Frisco is far and away the best of its kind made up to its time (1934) and perhaps through the entire 1930s.
Margaret Lindsay resembled Maureen O'Sullivan but lacked her charismatic on screen persona, and she received little help from Warner Bros. back-benchers Lyle Talbot and Donald Woods. So what starts out as a potential 'A' picture winds up a 'B', but with a pretty fair mystery plot going for it. It's just that when Bette Davis' character is killed it is a big letdown, as she kept the viewer's interest with a characteristic dynamic performance which the support characters could not sustain.
"Fog Over Frisco" is definitely worth a look, especially for Davis' many fans, but the website has got the rating about right. There are also some interesting shots of San Francisco in the 30's which should interest some natives of the Bay Area. I took note of one shot during a car chase down a steep hill which I think was the same steep hill in a "Dirty Harry" chase scene.
This is a film that would be little remembered were it not for Bette Davis and the full blown performance she gives as a spoiled society girl who works with criminals in laundering stolen securities through her father Arthur Byron's brokerage firm.
Bette tries to drag Lindsay into her criminal work and that's when Lindsay's boyfriend Donald Woods who is a reporter gets his reporter suspicions going.
Sad to say Davis is killed about 45% of the way in the film. Two other people, club owner Irving Pichel and Davis's idiot fiancé Lyle Talbot whom she seduces into her evil web are also killed.
Woods as the reporter gets his roles of fiancé and reporter slightly mixed up especially after the crooks kidnap Lindsay after she discovers Davis's body in the rumble seat of her own car. Why they didn't kill her out right is a mystery to me because they sure weren't squeamish about murder as a cover-up.
Fog Over Frisco is a not well thought out film in many ways. But Davis fans will absolutely love it because this is the Bette we've grown to love and expect.
BTW: I can't recommend the Stanford highly enough. Beautifully restored movie palace featuring live intermission organ music on weekends and the cheapest date in town at only $7/ticket for a double bill. Google Stanford Theatre for the latest program.
*****POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD***** Davis looks terrific at 25 (the same year she played her breakthrough role in OF HUMAN BONDAGE). She moves with all the skill of an actress sure of her authority as a bad girl on the screen. Unfortunately for the viewer, her character gets killed off midway through which leaves it up to Lindsay and bland DONALD COOK to carry the rest of the film.
They do manage to keep the plot spinning along nicely toward a fast and furious conclusion involving the kidnapping of Lindsay and the rescue efforts of all concerned. ROBERT BARRAT is an interesting figure as an eavesdropping butler who turns out to be a Secret Service man on the trail of a gang of gangsters led by IRVING PICHEL. Pichel has an interesting screen presence and would later become a director.
Neat little mystery/suspense film is directed in fine form by William Dieterle.
Trivia note: This is my 3,000th review at IMDb! This will be a wrap for awhile now that I've reached that goal.
The story starts out about a scheme involving securities fraud and turns into a murder mystery about half way through. Arlene Bradford (Davis) fancies herself a high flying society gal but is mixed up with the wrong crowd to the consternation of her father (Arthur Byron) and sister Val (Margaret Lindsay) who looks to her older sibling for inspiration. At just over an hour you would think the story would whiz right by but there's a decent amount of character development along with the set up involving the stolen securities.
Once invested in the story though, a couple of head scratchers did turn up to puzzle this viewer. The first was when we learn that Arlene Bradford was already married to the heel Mayard/Buchard (Douglas Dumbrille) shortly after he throws her over. The difference in their ages was more than noticeable and seemed out of character with the way Davis's role was written. The other was the revelation in the final minutes that butler Thorne (Robert Barrat) was actually a police informant. So how'd he get on the family payroll?
The problem comes when Arlene involves the good sister, Val (Margaret Lindsay), in her plans. Her father (Arthur Byron) becomes even more disgusted than he was before. But there's more trouble to come. One day, Arlene comes home in her car and minutes later leaves in a taxi. She leaves a note and an envelope for her sister and says she may send for it.
This is a fast-moving film sparked by Davis' performance, even though she doesn't have that big a part. I'll be honest and say I'm kind of missing the Hitchcock connection here. I realize the story has a similarity to Psycho, but I didn't really feel this film was done in a Hitchcock style.
Donald Woods plays an earnest newspaper man, and there's a good assembly of supporting players: Douglas Dumbrelle, Alan Hale, William Demarest and Hugh Herbert as Izzy the photographer. Herbert with that odd way of speaking is always funny.