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Deadline at Dawn (1946)
A very sticky summer night in the city
When a blind ex-husband wearing a boutonnière shows up late in the evening demanding $1400, a good night is probably not in store. Especially when his former spouse's drunken excuse for not paying is "that sailor" must have stolen it. Thus begins Deadline at Dawn, an early noir that's not only a taut and agreeably complicated little mystery but that also aspires, and largely succeeds, in constructing an urban microcosm.
The sailor (Bill Williams) on shore leave has, as sailors on leave do, drunk too much, gambled away his money, been lured up to a wicked woman's apartment, and fallen into a blackout. (The movie's based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, writing as William Irish, who knew whereof he wrote.) When he climbs back out, thanks to black coffee supplied by a kindly newsie, $1400 tumbles out of his pocket.
Trying to piece together the evening, he strays into a dime-a-dance palace, where he meets a would-be hard case (Susan Hayward in her 24th movie!). Making small talk with his bored-to-the-bone partner, Williams speculates whether a rainstorm might break the heat wave. "Such things have been known to happen," replies Hayward, thereby lowering the thermometer pronto. (The quirky, bristling dialogue by Clifford Odets is one of the many amenities of Deadline at Dawn.) Of course, Hayward inevitably thaws enough to offer counsel to Williams and serve as sidekick in his quest to make amends (he's a square-rigger right out of one of the square states). They return to the robbed woman's apartment only to find her (Lola Lane) dead. It's unclear to the befuddled Williams, and to Hayward, whether he might indeed have been the culprit. Trouble is, he's taking a 6 a.m. bus back to Norfolk, where he's stationed; there's only a few hours left to clear his conscience or fess up to the police.
An immigrant cabbie (Paul Lukas) improbably volunteers as a third ally, and the three, together and separately, embark on various sleuthing expeditions through the dark and soupy streets of Manhattan. For a movie that clocks in under an hour and a half, Deadline at Dawn boasts a cast just short of epic. Among the principals who intersect are Joseph Calleia, as a ruthless yet debonair gangster; Osa Massen as a lame housewife expelled from the rubble of Europe; and Steven Geray as a well-mannered stalker. Joining them are countless players with brief walk-ons, comic or poignant, of the 8-million-stories-in-the-naked-city variety, giving the movie the sole directorial effort by east-coast theater maven Harold Clurman its distinctive tone and texture. (Jules Dassin must have borrowed greedily from it when he came to film his own The Naked City during the sweltering New York summer of 1947.) Deadline at Dawn falls short of perfection. It's too short for all it contains, it's a bit sooty from all the red herrings, and its way out verges on the-butler-did-it (or maybe Roger Ackroyd). But a lot of RKO talent went into its making (in addition to the above, Nicholas Musuraca photographed it, and Hanns Eisler later to become a serious Leftist composer in East Germany wrote the score). But it has its own sweaty, big-city flavor, a pungent New York Story, and a prototype of many noirish delights yet to come.
Hell's Five Hours (1958)
Taut hostage thriller proves eerie preview of catastrophes to come...
Released in the late '50s when paranoia about thermonuclear annihilation was running rampant through America, Hell's Five Hours looks not at Communist operators but at a disturbed individual with access to one installation of the nation's military-industrial complex. It's set at night, in cozy Meritville, a little town whose chief employer is a huge and ominous rocket-fuel plant (in an expressionist touch, it registers as a looming bank of lights in the dark distance).
When a disgruntled worker (Vic Morrow) gets fired, he straps dynamite around his chest activated by a mercury-switch detonator if he topples over (from a rifle shot, say), the bomb goes off anyway. (It's Morrow's own appropriation of the Doomsday Machine.) His goal (which "voices" told him to accomplish) is nothing less than igniting a catastrophic explosion that will flatten the town and unleash clouds of deadly cyanide gas.
When his first attempt to break into the plant undetected goes awry, Morrow slinging a corn-pone drawl patterned after the late James Dean realizes that he'll need some unwilling accomplices. So he turns up at the house of the plant's chief engineer (Stephen McNally), abducting his wife (Colleen Gray) and son. He then tears back to the plant, with Gray his hostage.
The only movie ever made by Jack L. Copeland (who wrote, produced and directed), Hell's Five Hours is little more than a prolonged standoff between Morrow and McNally's forces, but it abounds with deft touches. Those that aren't so deft leave clues as to how society during the second Eisenhower administration was portrayed on contemporary film. (Atop one of the massive fuel tanks, which supposedly has a weak roof, Morrow orders Gray to test its strength by walking across it; so she does, in the same pair of high heels she had been wearing, late in the evening, at home.) With its premise a deranged terrorist stalking a sleepy, complacent hamlet in dead of night, with plans to kindle Armageddon, Hell's Five Hours stands as an uneasy preview of events that would occur years later: Three Mile Island, Bhopal, even 9/11. In 1958, it may have been received as alarmist; today, we, alas, know better.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
The Big Street updated to the sleazy '60s, still sentimental but mainly unpleasant
The only X-rated movie ever to nab the Academy Award for best picture, Midnight Cowboy plays like a druggy, grind-house remake of 1942's The Big Street, a Damon Runyon vehicle in which endearing simpleton Henry Fonda pushes wheelchair-bound witch Lucille Ball from the cold streets of Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel and all the way to balmy Florida, where she dies.
The Fonda character is taken by Jon Voight as Joe Buck, a six-foot slab of blond beefcake out of Texas (where a dimly referenced past seems to include a history of sexual abuse by a grandmother plus a homosexual gang rape). He rides the Big Dog to New York, where he hopes to cut a wide swath as a swain to wealthy women. Instead, he crosses paths with a "crippled" street-smart street person, played by Dustin Hoffmann as Rico ("Ratzo") Rizzo the Ball part. And the only emotional thrust in the movie lies in their sexless, antagonistic romance (and the heat kindled by its two stars offscreen, two New York actors on the make as single-mindedly as the characters they portray).
Other than that, the movie's off-puttingly chilly, almost repellently misanthropic. Director John Schlesinger turns an avid eye on the grotesques and misfits and just plain wretched of the earth who seem to reach critical mass in a metropolis, but shows scant pity for them they're just dress extras for his soulless carnival. He enlists a whole ladies' auxiliary of over-made-up old Janes gawking at the goings-on, as though it weren't the director himself doing all the gawking.
In scene after scene, shot after shot, he opts for the cheapest gimmick, squelching any hint of complexity in his vast cast of supporting players. John McGiver, for example, may well be a pitiful old queen who got religion once he could no longer score tricks, but the pulsating plastic Jesus behind the bathroom door of his seedy, SRO hotel lingers as a spiteful, unwarranted detail. Just as unconvincingly unworthily staged are Buck's encounters with over-the-hill rich roundheels Sylvia Miles (where she out-hustles the hustler out of 20 bucks), scared-stiff schoolboy Bob Balaban (in the balcony and bathroom of a 42nd Street sex-and-cinema palace), and mama's-boy oldster Barnard Hughes (who gets a telephone receiver crammed into his dentureless mouth instead of what he hoped and paid for).
Schlesinger was good with actors, and was in the vanguard in pushing for edgy material particularly about homosexuality long before it became reasonably mainstream (he was gay himself and open about it in a Hollywood which preferred circumspection, i.e. the closet). Though it may be unchivalrous to speak ill of the recently departed, he was an uneven, almost mediocre director. His work suffered either from suffocatingly stately and prim taste (Far From The Madding Crowd) or catastrophic lapses of it (Day of The Locust). If he made one movie that approaches a masterwork, it's not Midnight Cowboy, it's Sunday, Bloody Sunday. And even there he can't take a lion's share of the credit, which belongs to actors Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson, and most luminously to the writer of its unforgettable script, Penelope Gilliatt.
Les Miserables updated to sunny post-war California
As Jean Valjean had his implacable persecutor in Inspector Javert, so Barry Sullivan finds his in Charles McGraw. The setting, however, is not Europe's great capital Paris but Los Angeles, that post-war cynosure of middle-class dreams where orange groves and jobs in the aerospace industry beckon.
Working contentedly at his wicket in a staid savings-and-loan office, Sullivan has the misfortune to be on duty during a robbery. It's not hoodlums in masks waving guns, but a visit by a bevy of bank examiners come to check that everything's on the up-and-up. Trouble is, there's one more of them than there ought rightly to be, and while a platinumed moll (Mary Beth Hughes) diverts Sullivan, the phony inspector (Don Beddoes) coolly lifts $49,900 from the till. Counting his cash over and over, Sullivan can't believe that he's so much short. So instead of reporting the shortfall, he goes home.
Home is the cozy little bungalow he shares with wife Dorothy Malone, who can't believe that her straight-arrow of a husband didn't report it, either. Promptly on Monday morning he does so, and all seems to looking good until the bank's bonding company is informed. Though most of the staff come to think Sullivan's telling the truth, one of them, McGraw (an ex-cop who "resigned" from the force) issues a no-appeal "guilty" verdict and makes it his private and personal mission to hound Sullivan 'till he fesses up. Fired from job after menial job thanks to McGraw's vendetta, forced to sell the bungalow and relocate to a cramped apartment, Sullivan finally realizes it's up to him to clear his own name....
Loophole's an unusual movie in that its all but exclusive focus is on the unjust persecution of a plainly innocent man (in this sense foreshadowing Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man by a couple of years). It's tense and economical, if Beddoes and Sullivan do pass one another like ships in the night rather too often, in scenes closer in spirit to farce than suspense (and if the action-packed ending leaves a loose end or two). But the dark star of Loophole is McGraw, gleefully playing as despicable a character as he ever played in the noir cycle and that's saying something.
Derivative, sure, but a surprisingly taut, claustrophobic entry from waning noir cycle
There were still a few surprises to come in the noir cycle (Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Combo, The Killing, Touch of Evil), but by 1954 just about every theme and plot point had already been used and recycled. Still, Pushover has its own distinctive cachet. Visually, it's a gloomy, almost Stygian piece of film, harking back to the lowest-budget releases of 1946 and 1947 like Fall Guy or The Guilty. And there's a mood of furtiveness of voyeurism that remains arresting.
For openers, we witness a bank robbery where deaths result, but the mastermind (Paul Richards) eludes the law. Next, we watch Kim Novak (in her movie debut) exiting a cinema where It Should Happen to You and The Nebraskan constitute the double bill. Deftly, she circumvents an opened ladder, but still her car won't start. Luckily Fred MacMurray happens by to proffer his assistance. Soon they're enjoying cocktails in a cozy bar and later at his place ("Suprise me," she tells him) while waiting for her auto to be delivered from an all-night shop.
Neither the pick-up nor the malfunction underneath the hood was, however, quite a matter of chance. MacMurray's a police detective, and Novak is Richards' moll. No fool she, Novak picks up on the truth but trumps his duplicity with her own: They can kill Richards and vamoose with the loot from the bank job. MacMurray, reprising the not-so-bright-as-he-thinks ladies' man from Double Indemnity, falls for the bait....
Pushover revels in its claustrophobia. Almost all the action takes place, at night, in the U-shaped apartment building where Novak lives. Across the way, the law stakes out a dark and abandoned suite where they spy on Novak through binoculars and monitor her phone calls. Another unwilling beneficiary of their surveillance, certainly without benefit of legal documents allowing it, is nurse Dorothy Malone, who's Novak's next-door neighbor and whose quest for more ice during a late-night party becomes a crucial juncture in the plot.
The well-laid plans that MacMurray and Novak follow meet, inevitably, some snags, as a result of which one of his colleagues, an honest if alcoholic cop (Allen Nourse) looking forward to his pension check, gets not-so-accidentally killed. But MacMurray, his options folding one by one, slogs along, desperately trying to play both sides of his duplicitous game....
Derivative it may be (corrupt cop, duplicitous blonde), but Pushover exemplifies the swift, hard-edged and unsentimental turn that film noir had taken during the Eisenhower Administration; it's still one of the better titles from the dwindling days of the cycle.
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
The best Raymond Chandler adaptation and the best Philip Marlowe? Chandler thought so.
Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet was one of the clutch of American movies finally released in France after World War II that led Nino Frank to coin the phrase "film noir." (And the world hasn't been quite the same ever since.) The term was in startled reaction to the darkened, fatalistic look and sensibility that had crept into America's perpetually sunny cinema. And while less than a perfect recension of Raymond Chandler's more discursive and ruminative novel Farewell, My Lovely, (which had been filmed if butchered the year before, as The Falcon Takes Over), the movie remains, at more than 60 years, a hellishly entertaining thriller and one of the more emblematic titles of the noir cycle which it helped to inaugurate.
Picking up where the (just) pre-war The Maltese Falcon left off, Murder, My Sweet takes us down those mean streets of Los Angeles that were to become, immortally, Chandler's milieu. As opposed to Dashiell Hammett's cynical, hard-as-asphalt gumshoe Sam Spade (the role, along with his Mad Dog Earle in High Sierra of the same year, that made Humphrey Bogart a big star), Chandler's Philip Marlowe was a more sullen, complicated and emotionally involved private eye; while Hammett told Spade's adventures in the third person, Chandler let Marlowe's unfurl, tellingly, in the first he's plainly the major character in his stories. And in Dick Powell, reborn from '30s light leading man into rough-stubbled tough guy, Marlowe finds an ideal embodiment: Testy, reluctant and often befuddled, Powell intuitively gauges and portrays Marlowe's range and personality more convincingly than his rivals Bogart (in The Big Sleep) or the various Montgomerys (Robert and George, in The Lady in the Lake or The Brasher Doubloon, respectively) came close to doing.
Murder, My Sweet gets narrated almost entirely in flashback. We open in a police station where Marlowe, his eyes bandaged owing to gunpowder burns, undergoes a grilling about a bloodbath. But soon we're back in Marlowe's office at the beginning, where his creep-in client Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) looms up spectrally, reflected in a night-darkened window (the responsive photography is by Harry Wild, whose work would dignify many fine films from The Magnificent Ambersons to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
Next, we travel out the window through a neon-lit nightscape to the faded allure of Florian's Bar, in pursuit of Malloy's old squeeze Velma Valento, who has seemingly vanished from the crust of the earth while he spent eight years in stir. A lot changes in eight years, including Florian's, no longer a night spot with a stage but a hard-hat bar. Nobody there claims to have heard of this Velma, but Mazurki trashes the joint anyway.
With the help of a phone book, which obliging lists (as "wid Mike") the former proprietor's wife, Marlowe pays a visit, bottle of top-shelf booze in hand, to Jesse Florian, a blowsy old streel played to the hilt by Esther Howard (whose face looks like "a bucket of mud"). Ostensibly (and habitually) drunk, she has enough wits about her to steer Marlowe wrong about the whereabouts of the elusive Velma and to place an ominous phone-call at his parting.
With the introduction of what seems to be a sub-plot, Murder, My Sweet pays belated homage to its predecessor. A dandified client (Douglas Walton) plays the Joel Cairo role from The Maltese Falcon ("He smells real...nice," the elevator boy tips off Marlowe). It's a story about a rendezvous to score back some stolen jade, and he wants Marlowe to serve as bodyguard; Marlowe ends up sapped, and his client ends up dead.
Feeling he's failed however doubtful a client, Marlowe follows the trail of the purloined jade. His quest leads him to monied Brentwood and the many-acred manse of Judge Grayle, an old eminence equipped with a wife decades his junior (Claire Trevor). When His Honor, in need of an emergency nap, departs, his wife continues to entertain Marlowe ("Let's dispense with the polite drinking, shall we?" It's less a question than an invitation).
From then on, it's a trip up and down the many interlocking strata of Los Angeles society, from Grayle's daughter (and Trevor's stepdaughter) Anne Shirley (in her last role), to quack psychic Otto Kreuger, who operates a sinister sanitarium on non-existent Descanso Street. It's a trip into a shadow world where furtive connections, made or broken years ago, come unwillingly into the light. But, as a man true to his chivalric code, Marlowe persists, even when it leads him, at least three times, into the "dark pool" of unconsciousness (the phantasmagorical sequences owe a debt to the "guilty" nightmare in Boris Ingster's Stranger on the Third Floor). Ultimately, his persistence leads him to lock horns, if not quite lips, with the most unregenerate of femmes fatales....
Murder, My Sweet's a bit too short to do full justice to Chandler's rich web of duplicity and dead ends. But it stays closer to the author's vision, and his protagonist's code, than the most popular version of his work, The Big Sleep, where Bogart played the most Hollywoodized of the Marlowes. Here, Powell hews close to Marlowe's ambivalence, even squeamishness, about the messes he's paid to clean up. And Chandler's almost puritanical distaste for the matters he chose to write about surfaces, most notably in Shirley's tirade near the end (she had started out talking about why she hates men, but expertly shifts gears): "I hate their women, too. Especially their big-league blondes, beautiful, expensive babes who know what they've got...but inside, blue steel cold." At least one of those blondes started out as a redhead, singing at Nick Florian's bar....
Murder, My Sweet revivified the careers of its two stars, Powell and Trevor. And it helped prime the stalled pump of the noir cycle, which would roll along for another 15 years or so. And, as one of its best achievements, it ages well, even into a new millennium.
Flamingo Road (1949)
Curtiz, Crawford reunite to rekindle Mildred Pierce by camping out on the South Coast.
Trying to pass off Joan Crawford, then heading toward her mid-'40s, as a plausible nautch-dancer in the side-show of an itinerant carnival proves a misstep from which Michael Curtiz' Flamingo Road barely recovers. But, once the layers of accrued campiness that cling to it are peeled back (and once Crawford discards her Salome-like veils), the movie, far-fetched as it is, generates some interest.
Owing to unpaid bills or some such, the traveling show, in which Crawford was a steamy if not entirely fresh attraction, blows town. Sheriff's deputy Zachary Scott, sent across the tracks to make sure the whole unsavory business has packed up, finds only Crawford, listening to her radio in a mildewed tent. Sparks are struck; he invites her back to town for the blue-plate special in the local beanery and finagles a job for her there as a waitress.
His superior, corrupt sheriff Sydney Greenstreet, sniffs out the burgeoning romance and vows to quash it; he has plans to run Scott for the senate of their anonymous Gulf state (its capital is Olympic City and its capitol a lovingly detailed piece of scenery painting), prerequisite to which is a proper marriage to a bona-fide local girl. Scott glumly acquiesces to the plan, drowning his doubts in drink ("I crawled into a bottle and can't get out"), while Greenstreet frames Crawford on a morals charge and runs her out of town.
New to the mix is David Brian, boss of the state political machine, whose eye is caught by Crawford (now back in town working in the obligatory "roadhouse" operated by Gladys George). He has a whopper of a hangover ("A party's like insurance the older you are, the more it costs," he says), which Crawford assuages with an eye-opening whiskey sour followed by a home-cooked breakfast. Never underestimate the power of a well-scrambled egg. Next thing, they're married and living in a mansion on high-toned Flamingo Road (complete with a housemaid with the voice and the brain of a parakeet, as in the earlier Curtiz/Crawford Mildred Pierce, except that this time she's not Butterfly McQueen and is, amazingly for the era, white). But Greenstreet starts pulling even filthier strings than Brian for once, a passably good egg can countenance. Whereupon, after a drastic development involving the besotted Scott, Crawford slips a handgun into her clutch-bag and pays Greenstreet an amicable visit....
With at least two sensational movies behind him (Casablanca and Mildred Pierce), and one ahead of him (The Unsuspected), Curtiz can be forgiven for Flamingo Road. He brings it some verve, but its identity as yet another of Crawford's rags-to-riches vehicles gets the better of him. While his star supplies some startlingly naturalistic acting (and while the uncharacteristically clean-shaven Scott and the characteristically portly Greenstreet are dependably professional), Flamingo Road has fallen, rather unarguably, into the disreputable if transfixing gulch called camp. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Monroe, as dangerous force of nature, rivals the Falls themselves
Picturesque Niagara Falls, the honeymoon capital of the world, comes in two pieces: The American and the Canadian. Recent but not fresh newlyweds Jean Peters and Max Showalter (here, as Casey Adams) cross the border into Niagara Falls, Ontario on a delayed trip he won from his job. His prize-winning promotion was a turkey stuffed with shredded wheat, so small wonder he's more enthralled by the sight of the cereal's flagship factory across the river back in the states than in the majesty of the great, roaring cataracts.
But the cabin the belated honeymooners had reserved hasn't yet been emptied of Marilyn Monroe and her "unwell," older husband Joseph Cotten. Obligingly, Peters and Showalter take another one, with a less spectacular view. But later that evening, Monroe and Cotten put on a spectacle of marital discord right in the middle of the motor court that trumps the sights of both the cereal plant and even of the falls. Unwillingly, Peters and Showalter become drawn into an eddy as lethal as any out in the whirling rapids themselves especially once Peters espies, in the Cave of the Winds, Monroe in a clinch with a hunk who decidedly is not Cotten. From then on, Niagara turns into cat-and-mouse game of adultery and murder....
Had Hathaway kept his arc of tension more taut, Niagara might have been extraordinary. But the buffoonish Showalter is miscast, lending an untoward antic note, one amplified by the quite unnecessary arrival of his boss, complete with wife in tow (Don Wilson and Lurene Tuttle). Documentary and promotional material intrudes as well. Barely a tourist-trap goes neglected, from the Maid of the Mist to the carillon in the bell tower to the Cave of the Winds. And so Niagara joins that subset of mid-1950s movies that, with the democratization of travel and the pervasiveness of Technicolor photography, were in part turned into big and glamorous postcards boosting tourism to the locales where they were filmed (Dangerous Mission and I Died A Thousand Times come to mind).
Deployed as a ditzy sexpot, in both walk-ons and starring roles, throughout most of her (brief) career, Monroe had another, possibly more powerful side. Though her husband (Joseph Cotten) is supposedly the mentally unbalanced half of the couple, Marilyn Monroe comes across as disturbingly dangerously unstable. It's the same kind of riveting unbalance that she projected the year before in Don't Bother To Knock, potent and unpredictable. And without her coloring outside the lines of how her character was sketched the conventionally duplicitous younger wife Henry Hathaway's Niagara wouldn't be half so absorbing. And in fact when she leaves the screen for good, and when the movie resorts to the high-adventure peril of approaching the brink of the falls, most of our interest has already left, as well.
Dark Passage (1947)
Bogart, Bacall reunite in Delmer Daves' durable San Francisco noir
Along with Jim Thompson, David Goodis stood in that second tier of hard-boiled writers whose work would generate several titles in the noir cycle and its aftermath: The Unfaithful, Nightfall, The Burglar, Street of No Return, and Dark Passage. In this last, Delmer Daves wrote the passably tight script (a few holes remain undarned), which he then directed, resulting in one of the more memorable San Francisco noirs.
We open on an oil barrel teetering around on the back of a truck. A pair of hands on the rim (from within) indicate that its occupant is trying to dislodge his container from its berth, which he does, as well he might, as he's an escapee from San Quentin, in for murdering his wife three years ago. We know from the iconic voice, with its wisp of an impediment, that it's Humphrey Bogart, but we don't get a glimpse of him for quite a while. Fired up by the dubious "subjective camera" technique of the Robert Montgomery's recently released The Lady in the Lake, Daves, too, casts the camera as his main character's eyes. Luckily, he's inconsistent in using this conceit, and once Bogart gets a face job, that's the end of it, and not a second too soon.
After hitching a ride with too inquisitive a driver (Clifton Young), whom he pummels into silence, Bogart is picked up by Lauren Bacall, who seems to know all about him and whisks him back to her moderne two-floor apartment in the city (the lighted elevator glides up and down a glass-brick column; the building, by the way, still stands). Bacall took an interest in his case since her own father was wrongly executed for murder (in the newspaper clipping she keeps, Daves' photograph does service for Dad). What's more, she travels in the same ritzy circles as did Bogart and his defunct wife, and do viperish Agnes Moorehead and coveted man-about-the-town Bruce Bennett.
Bacall sequesters Bogart as long as she can in her more than comfortable digs, what with a well-stocked liquor cabinet, home-cooked dinners by candlelight and Jo Stafford styling torchy numbers from the radio. But comes the time when Bogart must exchange his mug for a less recognizable one, and the movie must go down the mean streets of film noir. Young's distinctive convertible jalopy parked outside is the first clue that's something's amiss, but Bogart takes heart from good-hearted cabbie Tom D'Andrea, who not only drives him to the spartan rooms of his best friend, a jazz trumpeter (Rory Mallinson), but who just happens to know an unlicensed sawbones who specializes in $200 plastic surgeries. Bogart plans to stay with Mallinson for his week of recuperation, but finds him dead, bludgeoned with his own trumpet. Bandaged up like The Invisible Man, he makes his way back to Bacall's layout, determined to smoke out his wife's killer....
Despite jumping rather impulsively from one plot strand to the next, Dark Passage keeps up a not-so-slack pulse of tension. Daves works up a few evocative and suggestive sequences. Houseley Stevenson delivers toothsome little character study (sinister? Benevolent?) of the back-alley surgeon, and when Bogart strikes out on his own, wanting little more than eggs-over-easy at a diner, he's spotted by a police detective who comes on like a Gestapo agent it's a neat way of expressing the vulnerability that Bogart thinks even his new visage can't disguise.
Dark Passage is far from flawless. In their third major screen pairing (Two Guys From Milwaukee is best overlooked), off-screen couple Bogart and Bacall fail to generate the playful erotic spark that Howard Hawks coaxed out of them in To Have And Have Not and The Big Sleep; granted, Dark Passage is plenty shy of playfulness. Worse, the various strands of the story often come across as episodic, unconnected; Daves (or Goodis) doesn't weave the tenuous but tough web of murky connections that a Raymond Chandler could. Still, as one of Daves' better efforts, it still holds up and it's fascinating to watch that elevator slide up and down its crystal sheath.
Body Heat (1981)
A sultry, sweaty update of Double Indemnity
The coastal Florida town in Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat brings to mind remote colonial outposts in movies like The Letter (nearby Miami, here, seems as far away as London). A sweltering spell of weather settles down for a long roost, and the distant glow of an old hotel a relic of the peninsula's past as an exotic getaway for northerners with money lights the opening scene; it's been torched for the insurance, an occurrence so common as to warrant little comment.
It's a town where William Hurt, a lawyer who's neither very bright nor very scrupulous, ekes out a modest existence that seems to suit him; he can dine at the best restaurant in town once a month so long as he doesn't order an appetizer. The rest of his time he spends lazily with bourbon or beer or in bed with whoever obliges him.
Then he meets up with Kathleen Turner, who hangs around cocktail lounges when her wheeler-dealer husband (Richard Crenna) is out of town, which is a lot. After the ritual game of cat-and-mouse, Turner and Hurt kindle a torrid romance, despite the enervating heat that keeps everything else limp as dishrags. Soon, the pillow talk works around to murder....
Of course, Body Heat is a latter-day version of the story for which Double Indemnity serves as archetype: Duplicitous woman seduces lust-addled stud into killing rich older husband, then leaves him to twist slowly, slowly in the wind. There's not even enough wind to stir the chimes that festoon the porch off Turner's bedroom -- can't the rich old cuckold spring for air conditioning? Hurt and Turner are reduced to emptying the refrigerator's ice tray into the post-coital bath they share -- but Hurt's left twisting nonetheless, in one of the better updates of this ageless tale.
In her movie debut, Turner makes her deepest impression with her best asset, that dimple-Haig voice of hers, all silk and smoke (but neither she nor Kasdan, who also wrote the script, quite justify her character's long and intricate back-story of ruthless scheming). With his long, lithe college-boy's build and wife-swapper's mustache left over from the '70s, Hurt embodies the self-satisfied patsy whose zipper leads him through life. Crenna (who played this Walter Neff role in the 1973 TV remake of Double Indemnity) now takes on the role of the disposable husband, the victim (or rather, the first victim).
But it's two smaller parts that give the movie a special shine. Mickey Rourke, as the local arsonist whom Hurt once helped out of a jam, ups the voltage in his two scenes, warning the heedless Hurt, then warning him again when it's all but too late. And, as Hurt's amiable adversary in the town's tiny legal circle, Ted Danson proves surprisingly spry and intuitive an actor (and he contributes a lovely little idyll, doing a soft-shoe routine under a street lamp on a pier). There's a twist or two too many in Body Heat -- it's a bit gimmicky -- but, after watching it, you feel as though you, too, should be stripping off your clothes, if only to wring them out.
The Sun Sets at Dawn (1950)
A gratifying success from a washed-up director and a fleabag studio
If there's an object lesson in the gap between expectation and reality, The Sun Sets At Dawn may be it. A product of the Holiday Pictures division of Eagle-Lion Films (which is sort of like saying Starvation Alley off Poverty Row), and the work of a director, Paul Sloane, whose career began in the First World War and who hadn't worked for 11 years (and who had one more Japanese movie left in him), it doesn't inspire much confidence. But it has an imaginative narrative structure and a mood and, so much as its pitiful resources would allow, even something of a look.
Patrick Waltz (here billed as Philip Shawn) is a young man awaiting execution on death row. Though of course he protests his innocence, there's not much news there. But it so happens that he'll be the first consumer of the anonymous state's newly-installed electric chair (replacing the old-fashioned, and possibly more humane, garrotte). This shift of lethal mediums has the warden and the executioner and the staff all a-twitter, leaving them little time or empathy for the human side of the story which also involves the condemned man's girlfriend (Sally Parr), who has been brought to the prison but whom he refuses to see.
The newfangled hot seat has drawn a large cadre of newspaper reporters (Percy Helton is but one of the many noir stalwarts among them), gathered at Pops' Place. This is a last-ditch bus depot/greasy spoon/post office/truck stop and motel out in the sticks, where they wait for a jitney to transport them to the prison. And here's where the movie takes its most arresting turn. In dialogue that might almost have been lifted from a Eugene O'Neill reject, the ink-stained wretches start reminiscing and speculating, cumulatively telling the story of the convict whose death they're shortly to witness and other stories which start to intersect with it.
The plot moves slowly, as piece after piece drops into place. Sloane (who also wrote the script) intercuts between the terrified young man awaiting his quietus and these old hacks who think they've seen it all (they haven't). Meanwhile, a trusty from the prison comes to collect the mail, and spots a wanted poster on the bulletin board which sets him to thinking, too....
Basically, The Sun Sets At Dawn remains little more than another death-row beat-the-clock thriller. The plot, which accommodates more than a twist or two in a 71-minute running time, is admittedly contrived, but Sloane has the decency (and wit) to justify his every contrivance. And even if its turnings leave you unimpressed, you'll have to admit that the movie's dialogue-free opening, at night at Pops' Place, is as bleak and transfixing as just about anything in the noir cycle (shoestring-budget division). The Sun Sets At Dawn proves itself a keeper, and a fitting memorial to the unsung Sloane.
Joe MacBeth (1955)
Shakespeare reworked as UK-made 'American' crime drama: Nice try, no cigar
Before his befuddled attempt to rework Shakespeare's tragedy into an urban mob movie, Philip Yordan had more than an honorable career as a screenwriter: When Strangers Marry, Whistle Stop, Suspense, The Chase, Reign of Terror, Edge of Doom, Detective Story, Johnny Guitar, The Big Combo (to cite only titles in or near the noir cycle). Perhaps Joe Macbeth's production in the United Kingdom proved the impetus for its being adapted from the ill-starred 'Scottish play,' adding one more element originating in Great Britain to satisfy all the codicils in the deal. But Yordan's writing is far from the major shortcoming in a movie that, despite occasional spurts of interest, falls short of satisfying.
For starters, it's hard to buy the usually sympathetic Paul Douglas as a plausible pretender to the throne, even a weak-kneed and vacillating one (Douglas was nearing 50 as well as the end of his life at the time). True, his striking at the king is prompted (if not prodded) by his ambitious wife Ruth Roman, here steely and matronly (she was a sadly underused actress). But both are upstaged by Bonar Colleano as a smoldering agent of revenge and retribution in much too underdeveloped a role.
Then, the milieu, which seems to be New York City and an estate on Long Island, strikes an inauthentic note, having been filmed on sound stages across the big pond (the street scenes are shabbily Victorian rather than raffishly New World). In a genre where atmosphere ought to be preeminent, Joe Macbeth stays imprecise and generic.
Last, the direction fell to the workmanlike Ken Hughes, who had some experience in British suspense thrillers, including some that might now be termed 'Britnoir:' The House Across The Lake and The Long Haul are two of the more notable of them. But he really doesn't have much to bring to the party, and once or twice stoops to low-comedy touches grindingly at odds with the tone of the movie.
The most arresting aspect of Joe Macbeth (and aspect, alas, which becomes an albatross), is a misguided fealty to the Bard of Avon. Lest anyone overlook its Elizabethan pedigree, Joe Macbeth piles on the homages. Banquo becomes 'Banky' (the ever watchable Sid James) and MacDuff 'Duffy;' the three witches are downsized to one, a has-been actress reduced to telling Tarot cards (Minerva Pious, in a delightful turn; her cauldron becomes a kettle where she boils chestnuts on a pushcart); we even have Roman doing the 'Out, damned spot' scene (luckily, Douglas was spared 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow'). The trouble is, when you start noticing all the literary allusions and waiting for the next one to pop up, the movie you're watching has ceased to engage you on its own terms. Nice try, but no cigar.
The Walls Came Tumbling Down (1946)
One great painting, two Good Books, a few murders...
Several shady characters in pursuit of an elusive but fabulous treasure, à la The Maltese Falcon, is an all but sure-fire formula for success (sure, sometimes it misfires: See The Argyle Secrets). When The Walls Came Tumbling Down is no black bird, but neither is it an unpaired old sock. It's an entertainingly cheesy, semi-hard-boiled mystery with Humphrey Bogart's gumshoe replaced by ace reporter Lee Bowman, who apes the long-in-the-tooth, desperately debonair style of the first filmed Sam Spade, Ricardo Cortez.
He's on the scene along with the cops when his old parish priest appears to have hanged himself in the rectory. The discreet cover story fed to the press is a heart attack, but Bowman knows it's not mortal sin but murder. (There's some anticipation, in this homicide of a holy man, of the much better Red Light of three years later.) But who would want to kill the beloved old rector?
Dressed to the nines, in slithers Marguerite Chapman (who never made it to a really good movie), claiming to be an old chum of the padre from San Francisco, an alibi Bowman quickly pierces by getting her to confabulate about Bellini's Restaurant on 3rd and Broadway in the city by the bay, which of course is nonexistent.
Other unbidden visitors show up, too. George Macready as a phoney missionary, accompanied by his horror of a wife (Katherine Emery) and worse horror of a goon (Noel Cravat), seeks a pair of Bibles the murdered priest had in his possession. Equally eager to lay hands upon the Good Books are J. Edward Bromberg, posing as Chapman's unhinged father, and his legal custodian Edgar Buchanan. All the fuss about the Bibles owes to their concealing clues to the whereabouts of a lost masterpiece, Leonardo Da Vinci's 'The Walls of Jericho'....
There's a lot of not-quite-first-string character talent in the cast, and the story comes courtesy of Jo Eisinger, who penned Gilda and Night and the City, her most unimpeachable credits. But director Lothar Mendes, a German immigrant whose last movie this would be (and he hadn't worked much in the previous few years) doesn't bring any spark or pace to the action.
Coupled with the lackluster Bowman in the sort of part that Bogart and Dick Powell and even Mark Stevens were doing with panache, it doesn't make the movie much of a keeper. (The picaresque incidents grow too far-fetched as well, culminating with an exhumation in a boneyard one dark and stormy night.) Nevertheless, the movie has its own low-grade integrity, with brief flashes emanating from Macready, Chapman, Bromberg and Buchanan. The Walls Came Tumbling Down makes no honor roles, but gets at least a passing grade.
The crafty Preminger's coded, high-style murder mystery hasn't lost its perdurable appeal
Rashomon-like, Vera Caspary's clever suspense novel Laura falls into five sections and five separate voices, telling its story from the viewpoint of each of its principal characters. It was too cumbersome a structure for a 1940s mystery, so the script (by Jay Dratler and others) simplifies and concentrates the narrative for director Otto Preminger to play with. Judith Anderson as Laura's aunt Ann Treadwell, a vain and silly society dame, and Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter, a 'male beauty in distress' and on-again, off-again paramour both to Treadwell and to Laura, find themselves demoted to supporting players (if still a couple of satisfyingly kippered herring). Caspary's pentacle gets rejigged into an old-fashioned triangle, with viper-tongued newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and wise-mouthed police detective-lieutenant Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) locking horns over the elusive Laura (Gene Tierney). Elusive isn't the half of it. For the first half of the movie, she's presumed dead, her face obliterated by a load of buckshot when she answered the door of her apartment one stifling Friday night in New York City. MacPherson's on the track of her killer and pieces together her story: How through brains and determination (not to mention looks) she rose in the advertising industry, how she met the powerful Lydecker by seeking his endorsement for a fountain pen (first meeting a rebuff on the grounds that he writes with 'a goose quill dipped in venom'), how they became a high-profile, May-December couple in Manhattan society. But to Lydecker's sniffy chagrin, Laura didn't see herself as his exclusive chattel. There were other men: The painter who did her portrait that hangs over her fireplace, for instance (out of spite, Lydecker demolished him in the press), and then the indolent hulk Carpenter. MacPherson learns most of this while interviewing Lydecker in his bath, where the feared and lionized wordsmith fashions his prose on a typewriter perched atop a trestle across his marble tub ('It's lavish but I call it home'). With his imperious queenly airs, Webb takes his performance as Lydecker into a rarefied realm that can't have failed to register even in 1944, that of the closeted, elegant gentleman critic using the glamorous Laura as his beard (it's a dimension that was far fainter in the novel). But his full-tilt camping makes his desperate obsession with Laura if taken at face value too perfumed a lozenge to swallow. MacPherson's obsession, however, looks like the real McCoy. The testimonials to her beauty, her vibrancy, her elegance start to work on him, until he finds himself holed up at the crime scene her apartment gazing at her portrait while drinking himself into a trance (to David Raskin's entrancing title song) and falling asleep in her armchair. (As Lydecker puts it, he's fallen in love with a corpse.) When he awakens, it's to find Laura, come back from the dead actually from her country place where she's spent the weekend, oblivious to her supposed murder. (The victim turns out to be a model who worked at her agency.) Laura's eerie reemergence reactivates all the tensions and antagonisms slackened, or frozen, by her presumed death. With Laura now among the living, Lydecker finds in MacPherson a more formidable 'disgustingly earthy' rival than the penniless playboy Carpenter, while MacPherson finds himself working not on a remote case but seeking the perpetrator of the attempted murder of a woman he's infatuated with (who, since there was in fact a corpse, finds herself a suspect as well).... One of the more perdurable movies of the 1940s, Laura nonetheless remains perplexing. Set in the upper-crust New York of terraced penthouses and chic boîtes and the Algonquin Hotel (where Lydecker's prototype, Alexander Woolcott, held court at the fabled Round Table), it gives off more than a whiff of the Gothic, of tales set on the moors or craggy seacoasts. (Echoes of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca abound, above and beyond the presence of Judith Anderson, as do those of a more contemporary New York story, I Wake Up Screaming). It's a stylish and stylized murder mystery that finds the tangled liaisons among its characters more absorbing than what clues may be hidden inside the grandfather's clock. Those characters have been written off as superficial, and their liaisons as implausible, a point which carries some validity. The making of the movie was troubled, with producer Darryl Zanuck replacing Rouben Mamoulian with Preminger, then clashing with Preminger over his casting of the flamboyantly gay Broadway star Webb. Preminger was a shrewd and worldly man who surely knew how Webb would 'read' even to audiences in the boondocks (not to mention his casting of Price and Anderson, two more actors about whom rumors persist). So there's little getting around the fact that Laura stands as what has come to be called a 'coded' movie, brimming with subtext. But coded how? Preminger saw his movie as less about heterosexual passion gone homicidal than about a superficial culture of celebrity and hype and image. Lydecker's obsession was not so much with Laura's flesh as with fantasy a rising star to which he could he hitch his jaded wagon. He's a demented fan who fancies that only his own enthusiasm and puffery make her shine. It's the only version of reality that the narcissistic, grandiose Lydecker can accept, with himself as both creator and custodian of her legend. It was the world Laura, too, occupied and enjoyed, if fitfully, a world which she departed for meatier trysts, albeit with lovers who lived in the same fairyland of ritzy illusion. Until she met (and almost too late) MacPherson, a prole without affectation who came to love her as a physical organism rather than as a creature of publicity, a fabulous freak of the zeitgeist. Under a veneer of arch sophistication (aptly captured by director of photography Joseph LaShelle), Preminger found an affirmation of bedrock American values. But he burrowed into that bedrock by the most oblique and unlikely of routes, having himself a great deal of perverse fun along the way. As crafty in his own way as Caspary was in hers, Preminger managed to satisfy wartime ticket-buyers, and he continues to satisfy decadent cinéastes six decades later.
Short Cut to Hell (1957)
In sole directorial effort, Cagney remakes This Gun for Hire
Towards the end of Short Cut to Hell, with the two principal characters holed up in an abandoned underground storage bunker and the police cars massed outside, there's a long quotation from the doom-freighted score Miklos Rosza wrote for Double Indemnity. It's one of several arresting details the movie provides (another is a newspaper from the previous decade, with the headline 'Allies Cross Siegfried Line'), details that pique interest but go nowhere in attempting to satisfy curiosity.
Short Cut to Hell is an all but forgotten movie but a noteworthy one nonetheless, if only as the only title James Cagney ever directed. Night of the Hunter it's not (the sole directorial effort of Charles Laughton), but another point of engagement is in its being a remake of the 1942 Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake vehicle This Gun for Hire, drawn from the Graham Greene 'entertainment' of that name.
The Ladd/Lake allure didn't last into a new millennium (who knew?), but in 1957 both of them were still reasonably active, their less than glamorous (all right, alcoholic) endgames still a few years, or decades, off. Cagney chose to update them using actors without much in the way of either past or future.
In the Ladd role of the icy, isolated killer-for-hire, Robert Ivers is little more than a trenchcoat and a topper, skin and bones, who brings to mind an unlikely amalgam of Elisha Cook Jr. and James Dean. Finding himself set up through marked bills, after carrying out the two brutal murders contracted by pompous 'fatso' (Jacques Aubuchon, whose indulgences are pretty young things and peppermint patties), he eludes police, taking as hostage Georgann Johnson, a lounge singer engaged to police detective William Bishop.
Johnson proves a game gal, but in the wrong way. She has a way with a wisecrack, but it's not in the flirtatious Veronica Lake way (nor that of Lauren Bacall or Gloria Grahame); the spin she gives is more in the Eve Arden-ish, vinegar-virgin mode, less seductive than matey, even matronly. So the chemistry between captor and captive (our old friend The Stockholm Syndrome) rarely reaches reactive force. (Nor, for that matter, do the reactions between Johnson and Bishop.)
Notwithstanding its unknown cast, Short Cut to Hell doesn't have the look or feel of a B-movie, and Cagney keeps a good pace and an acceptable amount of tension (a few quite brutal scenes help to quicken the pulse as well). It's not quite clear why Cagney chose this material to direct, and he makes (or had to accept) some less than ideal choices, but he'd worked in movies long enough to insure that the movie he directed was brisk and absorbing, a better little movie than its obscurity might suggest.
Streets of San Francisco (1949)
The city by the bay as sketched by Norman Rockwell
The Streets of San Francisco, a late '40s Republic crime programmer, shares nothing in common with the popular Karl Malden/Michael Douglas TV drama of the '70s but its name. Even back in 1949, audiences already teethed on those gritty, bottom-of-the-bill features that would come to be known as film noir might have found this title a bit short in the tooth department. It's short, sentimental, and today would probably be applauded for its 'family values' it has little else going for it.
Playing hooky, the young son (Gary Gray) of a gangster witnesses his dad gun down a man for his briefcase crammed with a million in currency. Police detective Robert Armstrong tracks him down, deciding that the kid will be more willing to talk in homey security than in juvenile hall. So he drags him home where his wife (Mae Clark) bakes fudgey cakes and his ex-cop father-in-law (J. Farrell MacDonald) gets to share his bedroom with the prospective stoolie. The smart-mouthed 12-year-old shows his contempt for this shabby middle-class paradise whenever he can, until Armstrong buys him a kit of tubes and tools to repair the broken radios that clutter the apartment. Gray finds MacDonald cool, and a plot is hatched for legal adoption. Then the gang finds where Gray's holed up, and decides he knows too much....
Ever the trouper, Armstrong was nearing 60 when he made The Streets of San Francisco, the glory days of his most famous credit, King Kong, long behind him yet he's always a seasoned and welcome screen presence, and had another 15 years of work in him. Little of it, alas, was to be in good vehicles. The Streets of San Francisco can't be numbered among his better credits, but he comes across as the tough but lovable guy any street urchin might want as his foster dad.
Money Madness (1948)
Low-end Poverty Row programmer showcases Hugh Beaumont at his sleaziest
A starvation-budget noir riddled with implausibilities, Money Madness might have been a better movie given a snappier script and an inventive director. That said, it's not that bad. We open in a courtroom where a young woman (Frances Rafferty) is being sentenced; rushing to a phone booth, a reporter tells his rewrite man 'You never know what'll come in on the noon bus.'
Next, the noon bus pulls in, disgorging Hugh Beaumont (it's not entirely clear until the end of the movie that we're now in flashback). In his satchel is $200,000, loot from a bank robbery. But he takes a crummy room and gets a job driving a hack. Picking up some fares one night, he encounters Rafferty, out on a bad date. He either falls for her or sees in her his opportunity.
Rafferty lives in a stuffy old mausoleum on the charity of her crabby old aunt (Cecil sometimes Cecile Weston). Beaumont hatches a plan to bump the old witch off, marry Rafferty and say his money was stashed up in the attic of the house. He forges ahead despite Rafferty's reservations by dint of cajolery and intimidation. All unfolds according to plan, but for the fact that Rafferty's lawyer (Harlan Warde) takes a shine to her as well...
Before hitting the big time of '50s TV, Beaumont appeared in dozens of Poverty Row pictures (often, as here, starring). He was never memorable but, like the movie, he wasn't too bad, either. In fact, he's rather effective as the manipulative, controlling bastard (who may be a little bit mad). The movie, though, relies too optimistically on convenient coincidences (when the landlady of Beaumont's rooming house finds Warde rifling his quarters, she calls Rafferty's house to issue an alert. How did she know where to find him?) Money Madness' place in the alphabet is considerably south of B, but it's not quite into the letters that get the highest points in scrabble, either.
Road House (1948)
Behind a white piano gouged with cigarette burns, Lupino proves her mettle
'...and then by bus to a throaty restless obsessed temptress 'thrush' slouched in mortal danger atop a white piano, singing the blues and chain-smoking, somewhere in the long, dark, wet and winding night between Chicago and 'the coast.' James McCourt, "Mawrdew Czgowchwz"
Jean Negulesco's Road House must have inspired that sentence (or rather fragment). With her voice shredded by Scotch and Luckies, Ida Lupino is the thrush, the canary, whose smoldering cigarettes leave a bar-code of burns scarring the smart paint of her white piano. She's been brought up from Chicago by Richard Widmark to lure paying customers into the cocktail lounge of his establishment Jefty's Road House up in the piney woods a few miles from the Canadian border. (On one side, it's a bowling alley that kind of joint; the only game in town).
In the past, Widmark has been known to engage no-talents who strike his romantic fancy. So when Lupino arrives, Widmark's boyhood pal and now Man Friday Cornel Wilde, cruel to be kind, tries to send her packing. He fails ('Silly boy,' she scolds him after slapping his face). But Wilde was wrong; Lupino brings down the house at her debut, with a gravelly, sprechstimme rendition of the Mercer/Arlen 'It's A Quarter To Three.' ('She does more without a voice than anybody I've ever heard,' marvels Celeste Holm, another worker toiling under Widmark's thumb.)
Maybe it would have been better had she packed. Widmark assumes that Lupino's as mad about him as he about her and runs off to get a marriage license. But after starting off on the wrong foot, Wilde and Lupino find a grudging romance kindling between them, to Holm's chagrin she assumed she was Wilde's girl. (The whole plot's based on unfounded assumptions.)
When Widmark stumbles upon the truth, he frames Wilde for stealing the week's take. And that's only the start of Widmark's delusional plot to redress the wrong he thinks been done him, to an extent that Lupino turns on him: 'And you know what else? Your mind's gone. You're crazy, Jefty. Crazy!' Since, in film noir, that's about the worse thing you can say to someone with a mad little glint in his eye (and demented giggles to match it), Widmark goes totally unhitched....
Like the following year's Beyond The Forest, Road House is an overheated melodrama set in the cool climate of hunting lodges and icy lakes where loons (not only the avian kind) call through the dusk. It's a pastoral backwater where routine passions build up to explosive force, without the many vents cities offer for release. (We see it in a drunken bear of a backwoodsman who comes violently onto Lupino, thinking her torch songs were sung not for a paycheck but expressly for him.)
Negulesco was working at the top of his game in Road House, as was Widmark (though we had seen his gleeful psycho before). With his constitutionally dour manner (maybe it's just his face), Wilde was not one to set celluloid aflame, but the part of victim fits him; Holm, alas, has to grapple with a thankless, ill-thought-out character (it's an Eve-Ardenish part that needs another splash of vinegar).
But Lupino gets one of her best roles, and runs with it. Scion of a British theatrical family whose roots go back to Renaissance Italy, she never received the star treatment or the prestige productions her talents deserved (she did, however, help to shatter the directorial glass ceiling). As Lily Stevens, world-weary chanteuse of a certain age, she stays the headliner in a dark, accomplished and entertaining movie. It's a late-show treasure that makes a television an appliance worth having.
Rogue Cop (1954)
Robert Taylor rises to a personal best in grim look at urban corruption in mid-20th century America
By 1954, the noir cycle had already sounded most of its dissonant themes. Audiences had seen the crooked cop with the straight-arrow younger brother (The Man Who Cheated Himself); the shantoozie with a past (Gilda, Dead Reckoning, The Last Crooked Mile); the slick mobster beyond the reach of the law with his alcoholic, trophy mistress (Key Largo, Railroaded,The Big Heat); the street-savvy old jane who passes on scuttlebutt for a price (Pickup on South Street). But, as Roy Rowland's Rogue Cop demonstrates, there were still changes to be rung on those themes, jazzed up with fresh casting and pithy writing.
Here, the cop gone sour isn't a homicidal brute like Edmond O'Brien in the same year's Shield For Murder (both movies were adapted from books by William McGivern, as was Fritz Lang's The Big Heat). He's dapper, laid-back Robert Taylor, known by his `brothers' on the force to be on the take but given a wide berth despite it (it's the thin blue line's equivalent of omertà).
When his younger brother Steve Forrest, also a policeman, identifies a connected hit-man, Taylor receives a summons from his paymaster, crime boss George Raft. Either Forrest recants his testimony, in return for a $15-grand payoff, or he'll be killed (the accused knows too much and might sing if convicted). Upon delivering the ultimatum, Taylor gets rebuffed by Forrest; he then tries to blackmail his brother's fiancée Janet Leigh, a nightclub singer, into trying to change his mind. Taylor doesn't really want Forrest to go bad, he just doesn't want him dead.
But Raft plays tougher than Taylor imagines. Lulling Taylor into thinking he still has time, Raft has Forrest shot in the back. And so the worm turns: Using both Leigh and Raft's discarded moll Anne Francis as his allies, Taylor swears vengeance....
Crisply photographed by John Seitz, Rogue Cop burrows snugly into its rotten urban core a city of dreadful night. With its large and aptly chosen cast, it nonetheless rests squarely on the shoulders of its central character, Taylor, who comes through with the performance of his career. At age 42, he passes muster as a burnt-out cop who's sold out for easy money in this urban jungle, corruption is just another perk passed up only by fools -- but still has the wits and the will to spring a few surprises when cornered.
There's plenty of brutal, even sadistic, action, but Rogue Cop is less an action picture than a character study that Taylor, somewhat surprisingly, manages to pull off. With its siblings The Big Heat and Shield For Murder, Rogue Cop makes up a grim tryptich of big-town America in the mid-20th century.
John Payne makes smart his move to the newborn noir cycle
Like Dick Powell, John Payne was another crooner and hoofer from 30s musicals a light leading man who saw new opportunities waiting in the changing Hollywood of the late 40s and seized them. Eschewing also-ran roles in prestige pictures (The Razor's Edge, Miracle on 34th Street), he found he was better off taking top billing in the grittier Bs of the newborn noir cycle. It was a smart move. With rugged good looks but no glamour boy, a strong, silent type who didn't make it a gimmick, he turned into a plausible and appealing Average Joe, without ever fading into the generic. In the half-dozen or so noirs he starred in, he straddled both sides of the law, though he usually found himself stranded in a no-man's land in the middle.
In Larceny, he's one of a gang of con-men led by Dan Duryea. They've just finished a grift in Miami Beach, so Payne is sent to the far coast, to `Mission City,' to lay groundwork for the next job. He poses as an old service buddy of a slain war hero so the widow (Joan Caulfield) will spearhead a fund-raising drive for a memorial sort of a posh Boy's Town for underprivileged youth that, of course, is nothing more than a scheme for bilking donors.
But that mischievous cherub Cupid throws a few monkey wrenches into the works. First off, Payne starts developing protective feelings for Caulfield and, more slowly, she for him (she's been playing Vestal Virgin at her husband's altar for so long she finds her own feelings a betrayal). Even worse, Duryea's moll, a `boa constrictor in high heels' (Shelley Winters, in full blonde-bombshell mode) carries such a torch for Payne that she follows him out west, by bus yet. The sicker Payne grows of her, the needier and more reckless she gets their unstable chemistry threatens to blow them both sky high. The plot executes several quick turns when the possessive Duryea shows up (as does the victim of the Miami scam), when Caulfield reveals that she plans to put up all the money herself, and when Winters decides to take matters into her own pistol-packin' hand....
The violence in Larceny is toned way down, confined mainly to Winters' being slapped around (but she slaps back). It relies instead on a tight script, bristling with smart-mouthed cracks: `[Winters] is like a high-tension wire. Once you grab on, you can't let go even if you want to;' `You kiss like you're paying off an election bet;' `I said I'm sorry but I'm not going to write it on the blackboard 100 times.' It allows Percy Helton and Dorothy Hart space enough to flesh out their small parts (Hart does a scrumptious riff on Dorothy Malone's bookstore clerk in The Big Sleep). All in all, Larceny proves a congenial vehicle for Payne's welcome arrival in dark city.
City That Never Sleeps (1953)
A satisfying, big-city movie sort of a Grand Hotel or Dinner At Eight gone noir
Contrary to the croonings of Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra, The City That Never Sleeps is not New York, New York but Chicago, Illinois. At least it is in John H. Auer's 1953 movie of that name, sort of a noir-inflected Grand Hotel or Dinner At Eight, that opens and closes with floodlit vistas of the wedding-cake Wrigley Building. Several characters' lives intersect in an urban crime drama that even offers a touch of the fanciful.
Gig Young, at the center, plays a cop who's dissatisfied with his job and with his marriage (his wife, Paula Raymond, makes more money than he does). Off hours, he hangs around a strip club called The Silver Frolics on Wabash Avenue to see, both on stage and backstage, headliner Mala Powers. That relationship is a rocky as his marriage, and she's as unhappy with her lot as he with his (`Whaddaya want me to do? Crawl into a deep freeze?' she taunts him during yet another breakup). Then Young heads to the precinct for the graveyard shift, riding in a prowl car with a new partner he's never met before (Chill Wills, who also plays the unseen `Voice of the City').
During Young's nocturnal tour he meets up again and again with the various players in the plot. There's rich, crooked lawyer Edward Arnold, who blackmails him into burglarizing some incriminating papers; his two-timing wife, Marie Windsor; former magician turned criminal William Talman; his own brother (Ron Hagerthy) who's now Talman's apprentice; his pop (Otto Hulett), a police veteran; and a `mechanical man' (Gregg Warren) who entertains passersby in the Silver Frolics' window.
Some of the ties among the characters are up front, others furtive, to be doled out as the plots thicken. By the end (Poverty Row having learned the lessons MGM taught a couple of decades earlier in the titles cited above), there's tragedy and heartache, reappraisals and reconciliations. There's even a character who vanishes as mysteriously as he materialized a whiff of the supernatural which curiously fails to leave any influence on the way the stories unfold.
The City That Never Sleeps shows the right breadth for a big, urban story from Arnold's moderne penthouse to Young's middle-class flat to the raffish alleys running off Wabash Avenue. Director of photography John Russell (later to film Psycho) helps Auer out with some crafty touches (a telephone dial glowing from a flashlight shone upon it comes to mind). It's not a haunting movie, but it's a satisfying one a title that did Republic Pictures proud.
Shield for Murder (1954)
Edmond O'Brien as bad cop in brutal Eisenhower-era look at police corruption
In Shield for Murder (a movie he co-directed with Howard Koch), Edmond O'Brien plays a Los Angeles cop `gone sour.' Bloated and sweaty, he's a sneak preview of another bad apple Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. In a pre-title sequence, he guns down a drug runner in cold blood, relieves the corpse of an envelope crammed with $25-thou, then yells `Stop or I'll shoot' for the benefit of eavesdroppers before firing twice into the air. When his partner (John Agar) arrives, there's only a few hundred dollars left on the body, and it looks like a justifiable police action though O'Brien's shock tactics have already drawn the unwelcome attention of his new captain (Emile Meyer).
O'Brien wants the money to buy into the American Dream to put a down-payment on a tract house, furnished (oddly enough) right down to the table settings. It's a bungalow to share with his girl, Marla English, as well as a handy place to bury his cash in its yard. But a couple of things go wrong. First off, a local crime boss wants back the loot O'Brien ripped off and dispatches a couple of goons to retrieve it. Then, though there were no eye-witnesses to the murder, there was in fact an eavesdropper an old blind man whose acute hearing picked up a sequence of shots that don't add up to the official story. When this good citizen decides to tell the police what he heard, O'Brien decides to pay him a nocturnal visit....
Based on a novel by William McGivern (who also wrote the books from which The Big Heat, Rogue Cop and Odds Against Tomorrow were drawn), Shield For Murder embodies some of the shifts in tone and emphasis the noir cycle was showing as it wound down. Its emphasis is less on individuals caught up in circumstance than on widespread public corruption; its tone is less suggestive than ostentatiously violent. The movie ratchets up to a couple of brutal set-pieces.
In one, O'Brien, knocking back doubles at the bar in a spaghetti cellar, is picked up by a floozie (Carolyn Jones, in what looks like Barbara Stanwyck's wig from Double Indemnity). `You know what's the matter with mirrors in bars?' she asks him. `Men always make hard faces in them.' While she eats, he continues to drink. When the goons track him down there, O'Brien savagely pistol-whips one of them (Claude Akins) to the horror of the other patrons who had come to devour their pasta in peace. Later, there's an attempted pay-off (and a double-cross) in a public locker-room and swimming-pool that ends in carnage. It's easy to dismiss Shield For Murder it has a seedy B-picture look and a literalness that typified most of the crime films of the Eisenhower administration. But it's grimly effective almost explosive.
Dinner at Eight (1933)
A starry showcase (and all but grand exit) for consummate scene-stealer Dressler
Among the great actresses who have helped to illuminate the silver screen, Marie Dressler may be Chateau d'Yquem a grand premier cru, in a class all her own. As aging star of the theatuh Carlotta Vance, a living relic of the 'Delmonico' era in New York, she walks away with an immortal movie, as entertaining a contraption as the studio system ever confected. And she does it effortlessly, despite some very tough competition the most lustrous talent MGM could summon in the worst year of the Depression, and maybe the best it was ever able to gather together in the many constellations it assembled.
Dressler heads a large ensemble cast, with several distinct but interlocking stories, all leading up to (but never quite making) a posh dinner party at the mansion of Billie Burke, wife of shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore. Desperately trying to snag (the unseen) Lord and Lady Ferncliffe moldering aristocrats she once met at Cap d'Antibes Burke bullies and badgers everybody she can think of to seat a swank table. Worrying about nothing so much as how 'dressy' the aspic will be it's the British Lion molded out of a quivering gelatin she's oblivious to the human dramas whirling around the people on her guest list.
For starters, her husband is not only seriously ill but close to bankruptcy, to boot. Down in his nautical offices on The Battery, he's paid a visit by an old (and older than he) flame, Dressler; a bit down on her luck herself ('I'm flatter than a pancake I haven't a sou'), she wants to sell her stock in his company. Another visitor, one of the sharks circling around to feast on his bleeding empire. is Wallace Beery, a loud-mouthed boor whom Barrymore nonetheless cajoles Burke into inviting, against her snobbish sensibilities. Beery, a politically connected wheeler-dealer, has problems of his own, namely his wife Jean Harlow. She lounges luxuriously in bed most of the day, changing in and out of fur-trimmed bed jackets and sampling chocolates while waiting for her doctor-lover (Edmund Lowe) to pay another house call under the pretext of tending to her imaginary ailments.
Burke's and Barrymore's young daughter, meanwhile, conceals a clandestine affair with 'free, white and 45" marquee idol John Barrymore, a washed-up drunk whose grandiose airs can't even fool the bellboys he sends out for bottles of hooch (a storyline in the screenplay, co-written by the also alcoholic Herman J. Mankiewicz from the George S. Kaufmann/Edna Ferber stage hit that can't have been comfortable for the similarly afflicted Barrymore, who's even referred to in the movie by his emblematic sobriquet 'The Great Profile').
Those are the major strands of the story, but there's even more talent on board: Louise Closser Hale as Burke's pithy cousin; May Robson as the cook in charge of the ill-starred aspic; Lee Tracy, as John Barrymore's exasperated agent; and, deliciously, Hilda Vaughn as Harlow's mercenary maid.
The goings-on range from the farcical to the tragic, and for the most part, the cast does proud in coping with the often drastic shifts of tone (true, some episodes carry more weight than others, some players less inspired than their colleagues; it's an episodic movie, at times dated, from the infancy of talkies when scenes were not a snappily edited few seconds but prolonged and often stagy).
Still, in this starry cast, Dressler shines brightest. A Canadian gal who started in the circus, she worked in vaudeville, theater, and, in the last few decades of her life, in Hollywood. Despite her girth and the delapidations gravity had worked on her face, she's never less than transfixing. She tosses off the requisite comedy as effortlessly as that oldest of pros that she had become, yet can draw the camera to her deeply kohled eyes when she imparts some very bad news and turn it into a few seconds of threnody. (Only Barbara Stanwyck commands so boundless a range, which we have the luxury of observing over several decades of her career; what survives of Dressler dates only from her few last years.) Dressler would make but one more movie before her death, but it's chivalrous to think of Dinner At Eight as her grand exit.
As Dinner At Eight winds down, the aspic never makes it to table, nor do some of the expected guests. But life plods on, if capriciously and unfairly. Burke, at the end of her tether, utters a plangent cry that sums up man's impotence against the cruelty of fate: 'Crabmeat...CRABMEAT!'
Tawdry but effective suspense film about Multiple Personality Disorder
For whatever it's worth, Lizzie is the best movie Hugo Haas ever directed. And that's not a left-handed compliment. Based on a Shirley Jackson novel, Lizzie remains an effective, if tawdry, glimpse into Multiple Personality Disorder, a controversial syndrome that understandably lends itself to exploitation (hence the suspense mechanisms of the plot). But Lizzie ends up rendering better justice to its subject than the more prestigious The Three Faces of Eve of the same year.
Eleanor Parker plays Lizzie. She also plays Elizabeth and Beth, two other facets of her character's (characters'?) fractured psyche. By day, she's mousy Elizabeth, boring her fellow-workers at a museum with complaints about constant headaches; she also keeps finding poison-pen letters from somebody named Lizzie. At closing time, she goes home to the house (a stark horror) she shares with her aunt (Joan Blondell), who slouches around in a horse-blanket bathrobe while killing still another bottle of bourbon. They cohabit in an uneasy truce, broken by unseemly episodes such as Blondell's being called, from the top of a steep, shadowy staircase, a `drunken old slut.'
Another of Elizabeth's litany of complaints is that she can't sleep. Little does she know that live-wire Lizzie emerges at night, slapping on the makeup with a trowel and then heading out to a piano bar where Johnny Mathis sings. There she guzzles the bourbon she claims to hate (hence those headaches) and picks up men, including a handyman from the museum whom she doesn't recognize next morning.
When Blondell catches her red-handed (ungrateful Lizzie polished off the bottle), kindly neighbor Haas suggests that maybe it's time, as Ann Landers would have phrased it, to `seek professional help.' Richard Boone seems an unlikely candidate for a psychiatrist, but he proves a surprisingly reassuring and compassionate one. Using hypnosis, he uncovers the three layers of his patient's personality. The problem lies in coaxing the well-adjusted Beth (whom nobody has ever seen or heard) out of her psychological shell....
Near the end, Haas overreaches briefly with a dream sequence that recalls the loony phantasmagoria of Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood's autobiographical essay on the torment of the cross-dresser. And of course Lizzie's tidy wrap-up, in uplifting Hollywood fashion, is so much dollar-book Freud. That aside, the movie draws upon on a more valid explanation of MPD than does the de-fanged and disingenuous The Three Faces of Eve. Not until Sybil, a hair-raising 1976 TV movie, would a more candid exploration of the traumatic roots of the syndrome appear, for which Sally Field copped an Emmy. Small wonder: Parts like this are like catnip for scenery-chewers and rarely fail to wow critics (Joanne Woodward won an Oscar for her Eve). It all but defies the order of nature that Susan Hayward didn't, somehow, manage to grab the role of Lizzie. But then again, she always played Lizzie.
De Toth's subversive look at the organization man gone astray
Andre De Toth's Pitfall opens in the shaky sanctuary of post-war domestic bliss. Jane Wyatt cracks eggs into a cast-iron skillet, to be served to her insurance-claims adjuster husband Dick Powell and their tousle-haired young son; the cozy breakfast nook where they exchange morning what-if banter looks out upon a vista of the New California of subdivisions and revolving credit and sunny possibilities yet to be realized. But, as Wyatt drives Powell into downtown Los Angeles (two-car families still being around the corner), he grouses absently about his routine job and clockwork schedule before giving her a perfunctory peck on the cheek. The canker has invaded the rose. As he later confesses, he feels he's in a rut `six feet deep,' and yearns for freedom adventure. He gets more than he bargained for.
Waiting for him in his office is `Gruesome,' private investigator Raymond Burr, who's done some legwork concerning a convicted felon who has defrauded the company. The felon (Byron Barr) squandered most of his ill-gained money showering his girlfriend (Lizabeth Scott) with furs, an engagement ring and even a little speedboat. Burr, in the course of his sleazy sleuthing, has taken quite an obsessive fancy to her, but Powell warns him off, saying he'll wrap the case up himself.
At first Scott dismisses Powell as just `a little man with a briefcase,' an assessment that tallies too well with his own worst self-image. But to no one's surprise, in this climate of Pacific air and marital dissatisfaction, he ends up taking his own fancy to her, one that turns out to be mutual. They tear around the harbor in her boat, then fritter away the rest of the afternoon in a dim cocktail lounge. He doesn't get back to hearth and home till the wee small hours.
One night when his son is awakened by nightmares, Powell lectures him: `Take only good pictures and have only good dreams.' It's a case of do what I say, not what I do. By veering off from the straight and narrow, Powell has set into motion a chain of baleful events. The vindictive Burr assaults him outside his garage. Scott discovers that Powell's been hiding his life as a married father. Ex-cop Burr starts visiting Barr in stir, sowing seeds of jealousy and plans for revenge. Events converge one dreadful night with an unplanned pair of killings that leave the quick, arguably, worse off than the dead....
Jay Dratler's script (from his own novel) shows a progressive streak in dealing with the short and unpredictable fuses of controlling, potentially violent males stalkers. The script also serves the assembled cast well. True, there's not much to be done with Wyatt, with her cap-sleeved house-dresses and finishing-school elocution, but she's more plausible than she would be two years later as a highly unlikely femme fatale in The Man Who Cheated Himself. Here, she's the distaff side of those male dictators, a wife whose ideals of suburban decorum are chiseled into cold marble (she's a faint forerunner of Joan Crawford's Harriet Craig).
But Powell gets to tap deeply into his key emotion, snappish discontent, and lets it deepen into something close to small-time tragedy. Scott, always an iconic presence but an actress with limits, finds a comfortable part as a bewildered and vulnerable victim of the men who come into her life, bidden and unbidden. Burr, billed fourth (after Wyatt!), possibly fares best. Much in demand in the late 40s as one of the creepiest heavies, he earned that demand by providing extra (and maybe unasked-for) dimensions to the thugs he played. Like the giant Fafner in Das Rheingold, he lets a bit of yearning, of desperation, show under all his intimidating bulk (and in sheer avoirdupois, it's one of his biggest roles).
De Toth, better remembered for his westerns and 3-D horror pix like House of Wax, made, in Pitfall, one of the more distinctive titles of the noir cycle. Not often mentioned in top-ten lists, even those of black-and-white crime films of the post-war era, it has the effrontery to situate deceit and duplicity and betrayal where it surely ought not to belong not in road houses or tenement flats but right at the heart of a storybook American family (it's one of the more subversive films of the era).. Yes, there are lapses, chief among which is a score that keeps trying to crack corny little jokes. But in the denouement far from unleashing a hideous storm of terror, De Toth opts for cold detachment he casts a chill that lingers still.