November 25, 2008

ABANDONED (1949)


It’s jarring to experience a classic era film that deals bluntly with an issue that remains controversial sixty years later. Message pictures such as Abandoned serve up a healthy reality check for those of us who are easily entranced by the plastic sheen and fake nostalgia of typical Hollywood studio fare.

In postwar Los Angeles, the dime-a-dozen girls who arrive in droves are like cattle to the indifferent denizens of the City of Angels. Abandoned explores just one of the many ways that those girls are treated like a cheap commodity — to be exploited, discarded, and forgotten. Abandoned what? Babies. This is a film about the money that can be made by taking newborns from their terrified mothers and sold quietly to the childless rich. The young mothers themselves? What’s one more Jane Doe in the city morgue book?

Although the setting is never mentioned by name, the opening credits of the film run over a nighttime backdrop of L.A. City Hall, accompanied by a narrator’s familiar admonition that what happens in Abandoned can happen anywhere in the United States. Abandoned could be called an exposé film, but from the outset it is placed visually and thematically smack within the universe of film noir. The story opens with Paula Considine (Gale Storm) entering the missing persons bureau to file a report on her sister, who fled to L.A. to have an illegitimate child far away from judgmental eyes. The male lead, cynical reporter Mark Sitko (Dennis O’Keefe) is the first character to encounter Paula Considine upon her arrival at City Hall. Sitko’s presence is never explained, but when he sees Considine he’s attracted more to her legs than her sob story. That’s the extent of his initial concern. To him, she’s a naïve yokel, and in his zeal to make some easy time he can barely restrain himself. He doesn’t cool his jets and offer to help until he realizes that her trouble might make for a news story. 

The heavies in Abandoned are sleazy private investigator Kerric (Raymond Burr) and his employer, elderly Mrs. Donner (Marjorie Rambeau). Donner is easily one of noir’s most cold-blooded villains; she’s an intriguing variation on the femme fatale. She speaks of murder and the sale of human flesh with a casualness that even gives Kerric pause. The girls she exploits are merely “units” of stock to be killed and discarded, along with their babies if necessary. And make no mistake, Mrs. Donner is certainly aware of Little Lindbergh and the ‘short walk from the cell to the gas chamber.’ It’s her Nihilistic attitude that makes her enterprise all the more shocking, and distinctively noirish. She acquires victims by handing out free bibles at ‘wayward girls’ hospitals, along with promises of things coveted by the young and afraid: money, nice clothes, and kindness. Her veneer of respectability and class accentuates the depth of her evil: an old woman with a cane, motherly, cultured, and wealthy. The notion that danger and evil lurk just underneath the surface in someone who might be your neighbor or grandmother is truly frightening.

In the tradition of many noir films, the plot of Abandoned is intricate and convoluted. The story zips along on the strength of sharp dialog and good direction. Director Joseph Newman does a fine job of creating atmosphere and building suspense from the opening shot of city hall to the expressionistic finale. William Daniels’ cinematography deftly weaves striking exteriors of L.A. with more stylishly contrived set pieces and almost-invisible rear projection. The climactic scene, an intricate sequence staged at a dark and deserted construction site, is a definitive visual expression of film noir. This is a fine contemporary film in a beautiful sixty year-old package.

Abandoned (1949)
Director: Joseph M. Newman
Screenplay: Irwin Gielgud

Starring: Dennis O'Keefe, Gale Storm, Marjorie Rambeau, and Raymond Burr
Released by: Universal International
Running time: 78 minutes

9/17

November 21, 2008

THE NAKED STREET (1955)







The first time I saw the 1941 Greer Garson film Blossoms in the Dust I was surprised that Hollywood could manage an entire production (not to mention one with four Academy Award nominations) about the crusade to have the word illegitimate removed from birth certificates in the state of Texas. Apparently back then, the stigma was enough to handicap the unfortunately labeled child for life. No jobs, no education, no inheritance. There are countless films from the golden era of Hollywood that use scandal (and what characters will do to avoid it) to create dramatic tension. Scandal may be the most utilized filmic mainstay of Hollywood’s golden age that has since lapsed from contemporary film.

In The Naked Street, mob enforcer Phil Regal (Anthony Quinn), who regularly has men beaten and killed, is so frightened of the idea that his knocked-up kid sister Rosalie (Anne Bancroft) might have to raise a bastard child, that he fantastically engineers the release of her beau from the death house at Sing Sing. It is positively stunning to consider that audiences would empathize with the idea that a hardened, violent killer would go to such means to protect his sister and her child from the whispers and smirks of square-type citizens. The young hoodlum and father of the child, one Nicky Bradna (Farley Granger), is currently awaiting the big zap for knifing an elderly clerk during a bungled liquor store heist. Regal hires the best lawyer in New York and intimidates key witnesses into rethinking their testimony just so Bradna can beat the rap and make an honest woman of Rosalie. This outrageous hogwash is what makes The Naked Street so interesting, but the filmmakers’ failure to follow the melodramatic possibilities to the finish make it something of a disappointment.

As the story unfolds the plot twists turn over on themselves. Rosalie loses her baby and Bradna steps out on her, leading Regal to decide that the kid is expendable. He endeavors to have a jewelry fence killed in order to frame Bradna, sending him back to the death house. With the kid back in the big house the movie goes from hard-boiled to preachy. The narration provided by crusading reporter Joe McFarland (Peter Graves) begins to dominate, and the dialogue jumps from melodramatic to overtly socially conscious, especially as Bradna’s date with sparky gets closer.

The film’s only hope lies in making good on the outrageous promises of its first hour—yet it fails to do so, slipping into banal commentary on the justice system. The tension subsides and the denouement becomes obvious and perfunctory, thanks in part to very blunt foreshadowing. A film of this type simply can’t start on one trajectory, no matter how unbelievable, and end on another.

Quinn is typical Quinn in The Naked Street, but pretty boy Granger gets to play a bit tougher than usual. Make no mistake, his Bradna still a naive patsy in The Naked Street, but not to Quinn’s Regal, or even to fate. By 1955 film noir had begun to point at an unjust social and governmental bureaucracy as the latent source juvenile delinquency. It’s the system that is to blame here — Bradna isn’t asked to pay, like Burt Lancaster a decade before in The Killers, for some mistake made long ago. Instead, he’s the unfortunate victim of a social order that has begun to accept gangsters and everything wrought by organized crime as a necessay evil, an everyday aspect of American life. Bradna’s character just doesn’t matter; he’s reduced by an editorializing McFarland to “a victim of the slums, a victim of the rackets, a victim of himself.”

One final note: From time to time I’ll get a sneaky suspicion that no one associated with Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide has actually seen one of the films reviewed. Their one-sentence review for The Naked Street reads as follows: “Capable cast wasted in bland yarn of reporter exposing crime syndicate.”

Ouch.

The Naked Street (1955)
Director: Maxwell Shane
Screenplay: Leo Katcher (Story) and Maxwell Shane (Screenplay)
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Farley Granger, Peter Graves, and Anne Bancroft
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 84 minutes

9/17

November 20, 2008

SHOCKPROOF (1949)



Directed by Douglas Sirk, and with some writing credit to Samuel Fuller, the quizzically titled Shockproof it at little risk of being forgotten by film buffs. However, I’m not sure that this oft-told tale of the parole officer who falls for the beautiful parolee is worth the attention. Let’s not blame Sirk and Fuller too much—Shockproof went through the studio ringer after its original script was mangled by frothy screenwriter Helen Deutsch (Valley of the Dolls). If nothing else, this stands as a testament to what goes wrong when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, in spite of the overwhelmingly collaborative nature of movie-making. 

Cornell Wilde is parole officer and wannabe politician Griff Marat. He’s decent enough, but square, and a bit of a dope. I like him, but I kept imagining what John Garfield could’ve done with the part. The role of the damaged goods is filled by Wilde’s real-life wife, Patricia Knight. It is hard to imagine that the name Marat is accidental, though Knight is no film noir version of Charlotte Corday. She looks like a vamped-up Katharine Hepburn minus the acting chops.

The most interesting aspect of Shockproof, though not surprising given this director, is how it plays with gender roles—the lion’s share of internal conflict here lies with the female. Marat’s defining characteristic is a one-dimensional self assuredness; it’s Jenny Marsh who undergoes a gradual transformation as the film reels unspool. Noirs are often about a good man who is corrupted by a bad woman; Shockproof gives us a bad woman who finds grace through her relationship with a decent guy. And while Marat is certainly sucked deep down into the gutter along the way, his circumstances pale in comparison to those of Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man or John Payne’s in 99 River Street. Marat’s heart may have been in the proper place when he decided to marry his parolee, but he asked for this.

This isn’t much of a noir—it just isn’t bleak enough. It’s too……hopeful. Examples of goodness abound, and love eventually wins out courtesy of a contrived Hollywood ending. The couple’s ordeal, superficial as it is, isn’t a result of a foolish man’s lustful obsession with a manipulative femme fatale. It’s fate putting two young people through the ringer in order to find out whether or not they’re really in love. Griff Marat and Jenny Marsh make awful decisions, but the fates of noir tend to punish only the truly deserving; more often than not, suckers get an even break.

The third act is the most fun: the illicit couple “corrode” as they are forced to take it on the lam. Their marriage amounts to a parole violation; the vows set off a cataclysm of happenstance that eventually brings them to the breaking point. As Jenny’s crooked past resurfaces and tries to steal her newfound happiness, she acts decisively. She and Marat steal cars, hop freight trains, shoplift sandwiches, and finally commit the ultimate break with the social mores of postwar conformity: they litter. At the end of the line, against a surreal backdrop of endlessly churning oil derricks (and the only truly noirish set piece in the film), the newlyweds realize that their ordeal will only end when they give themselves up to the authorities.


 Main Title
 Patricia Knight
 Knight and Wilde
 Knight (as Laura?)
 On the run



Shockproof (1949)
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch and Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr. 
Starring: Cornell Wilde and Patricia Knight
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 79 minutes

9/17

November 19, 2008

COP HATER (1958)





Cop Hater is the screen adaptation of the first of Ed McBain’s numerous “87th Precinct” novels. It’s a pretty damn good B crime picture. McBain’s fictional Isola is transposed to a realistically depicted (yet nevertheless unnamed) New York City, withering under a nearly biblical heat wave. The oppressive heat is the mantle under which all of the characters must make do, and it symbolically heightens the tension and frustration of police detectives unable to find the cop killer on the loose in their city.

Robert Loggia plays Steve Carelli, the detective in charge of investigating these killings that seem to exist only within the universe of the detective bureau. There are no newspaper headlines, no panic in the streets, no rallying cry from a concerned public. It’s all business as usual in the churning machine of the modern city, as the ambivalent public goes about its business. While the other cops in the movie are just punching the clock, Carelli takes the murders personally and is neurotically consumed by the weight of his responsibility. Yet he has little in common with Barry Fitzgerald or Howard Duff in The Naked City. Carelli doesn’t care about reestablishing public order or serving his community — he just wants out of the spotlight. He needs to end the murder spree so that he can return to his comfortably humdrum life of impending marriage, evening highballs, and dancing the cop dance with petty crooks.


Women play an important part in this film. Ellen Parker is Carelli’s fiancé Teddy, a deaf-mute who, despite her handicap, is the most well-adjusted character in Cop Hater. She serves no greater purpose than to be the bright spot in Carelli’s life, and the stereotypical cop’s girl who keeps his motor revving and helps him stave off despair. Shirley Ballard plays Alice, the wife of Carelli’s partner. In the majority of her scenes Ballard is only semi-dressed; her sturdy frame and severe features are the stuff of a Robert Crumb wet dream. Alice is a bundle of clichés, but she’s the most interesting character in the film: a cop’s wife who regrets her choices, who is still young and attractive enough to go out, yet is frustrated by the irregular schedule of her detective husband. Alice is unsatisfied and unhappy, and Ballard’s Amazonian screen persona is perfect for a cooped up cop’s wife. (It is difficult not to notice the similarity between Cop Hater and Basic Instinct in the still shown above.)


The fifties was a transition period for screen acting styles, and Cop Hater benefits greatly from this evolution. Loggia, a native New Yorker, is relaxed in his environment and at ease with the camera. His method-based approach is evident at the film’s climax, as he practically foams at the mouth while beating a confession out of the killer. His violent “Cop hater, hater, cop hater!” smells a lot like Brando. The cast is rounded out with New York actors, including a sweaty, frantic Vincent Gardenia (Moonstruck, among others), and the laconic, iconic Jerry Orbach. They give the seedy lower Manhattan atmosphere of Cop Hater an good boost.

Cop Hater is part police procedural, part drive-in cheesecake, and part late-show mystery. It’s lifted by strong performances from a cast of ambitious up-and-comers, an overarching sense of oppression and gloom; and in spite of its 1958 release date it is presented in the noir style. If nothing else it takes itself seriously — and while certain B movie tropes are unavoidable, this film never feels like camp.



 Main Title
 Robert Loggia
 Shirley Ballard

Cop Hater (1958)
Director: William Berke
Screenplay: Henry Kane, based on the novel of the same name by Ed McBain
Starring: Robert Loggia, Gerald O’Loughlin, Shirley Ballard, and Ellen Parker. Vincent Gardenia and Jerry Orbach appear in small parts.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 75 minutes

2/14, 9/17

November 18, 2008

THE CAPTIVE CITY (1952)


For Robert Wise’s 1952 film The Captive City, former Time magazine scribe Alvin Josephy adapted his own short story of a crusading editor who discovers the big city rackets have quietly taken hold in his small corner of the world. The editor, Jim Austin, is played by television icon John Forsythe (Bachelor Father, Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty); while the wife is Cloris Leachman doppelgänger Joan Camden.


The story is told through flashbacks, and features the kind of opening sequence that was fairly common for the exposé pictures of the day. This one finds the senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, speaking directly to the audience. Kefauver warns ticket buyers to be on guard, and that organized crime is an ever-expanding enterprise from which not even the most rural communities are safe. (Ironically, Kefauver didn’t get much traction as a racket buster, but he sure kicked the stuffing out of the comic book industry.)

On a superficial level, The Captive City is concerned with the obstacles Jim Austin must overcome to root out the corruption taking hold in his town. But where the movie scores as a film noir is through its cynical depiction of the townspeople and their willingness to accept organized crime as part of their daily existence. Austin is a man apart. The town’s lethargic response to his clean-up efforts doesn’t come from fear of mafia violence or shakedowns, but instead from the community’s acceptance of gambling and graft as a necessary—in some cases welcome—part of modern life. The story’s take on the banality of cynicism in postwar America is one of the most unusual in all of film noir.

Ordinary townsfolk keep telling Austin to mind his own business: his business partner, advertisers, cops, and even his wife, after she’s confronted in the street. His pup photographer takes a beating, and only then does the boy’s mother decide to give Austin a piece of her mind. The film does very little to dispel the general attitude that crime is an inescapable fact of modern life, as common as a newspaper tossed into a thorn bush or flies getting in through the screen door. Inevitable, but only annoying.

Surprisingly, the film boasts just a pair of murder victims, two supporting characters who come forward as potential whistle-blowers, both conspicuous in how the movie presents them. Both are outcasts, the most maladjusted townspeople in the movie. The first is a broken-down and discredited investigator who takes divorce work in order to keep the lights on; the other is the drunken ex-wife of the city’s chief bookie. The gray milieu of noir asks us to carefully examine their motives. Are they concerned citizens who care about their civic duty, or are they revenge-seekers with an axe to grind? Regardless, it is made clear that the collective inability of these “misfits” to conform to the community’s general culture of malaise is what really gets them killed.


Although at its heart The Captive City is an exposé picture, its bleak world view, extraordinary cynicism, and pervasive malaise make it an important film noir. There isn’t a moment in the picture that shows the negative effects of corruption on the citizenry. The only characters who suffer harm are the ones that stick their necks out. This unrepentantly bleak outlook is reinforced at the end, when the viewer is surprisingly denied the chance to share in Austin’s ultimate success. When he finally arrives in Washington DC to testify at the senate hearings, we are denied admittance to the chamber—the door is quite literally slammed in our face. We are even begrudged the small pleasure of seeing the gangsters who doggedly chased the Austins across the country get what they deserve. They melt back into the crowds, forgotten by the film and by law enforcement. The film refuses to give us a Hollywood ending, even though (for once) we really want one. Instead we are left with Kefauver, who offers a final message so hollow that it would suck the air out of any would-be do-gooder: that in the wake of his efforts to protect his town, the real Jim Austin is out there somewhere, anonymous, but “still alive.” 

One final note: It’s worth pointing out that poster for The Captive City, a film that deals with the Italian mafia, clearly anticipates the artwork of the dust jacket and movie poster for The Godfather by almost twenty years.

The Captive City (1952)
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Alvin Josephy
Starring: John Forsythe, Joan Camden, Harold Kennedy, Victor Sutherland, Marjorie Crossland, and Ray Teal.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 90 minutes

2/14, 8/17