June 26, 2009

FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949)



One of the troubling aspects of watching film noir pictures sixty years after their theatrical run is our tendency to overlook that the directors and producers of these movies weren’t aware of the scrutiny their work would eventually fall under. They didn’t have a “Film Noir for Dummies,” or some other silly thing to make sure their movies wrapped into neat little packages for film buffs examining them more than half a century later. What’s more is that unlike Westerns, which have both period and geography in common; or gangster films, which share specific character and narrative structures, noir films are considerably more ambiguous. There are few common threads that unite them (ironically, ambiguity being one of them—oh, and irony too), and there are certainly no hard and fast rules. As a matter of fact, much of the writing about film noir fails to even establish a working definition. Scholars and historians even seem unable to agree as to whether film noir is a genre, movement, cycle, or style. I’m with Eddie Muller on this—I’m not sure I care. 

While Follow Me Quietly defies that image of a neat little package, it’s very much a film noir—and in some ways a textbook example. The story follows the police’s pursuit of “The Judge,” a serial strangler who claims his victims on dark and rainy nights. The lead detective on the case is played by William Lundigan, a cop obsessed: he broods over the case constantly, labors at his desk through the night, envisions his quarry when he closes his eyes, and bristles at the notion of being pulled from the case. When the police attempt a rudimentary criminal profile of the Judge by constructing a life-sized dummy, Lieutenant Harry Grant (Lundigan) catches himself secretly whispering his dark secrets to the thing. The movie begins with the police already deep into the investigation, though they’ve have made frustratingly little progress despite a wealth of forensic clues. Their evidence is stored in a glass curiosity cabinet near Lundigan’s desk, his shrine to the wanted man.

Although the obsessed cop is a noir archetype, and the defining characteristic of Follow Me Quietly, Lundigan fails to imbue Grant with anything approaching the neurotic vitality of say, Dana Andrews’ Mark McPherson in the earlier Laura. Contrary to his obsession, which the film asserts much more than it actually depicts, Grant appears well adjusted in his life away from work. Unlike McPherson, he pals around with other cops at the local watering hole, and is able to laugh at himself. His romantic connection with girl crime reporter Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick) is established early on and swells throughout the film; by the end their shared future is a given. Their healthy relationship, which doesn’t seem to fit comfortably into the film noir vernacular, is a holdover from the popular screwball mysteries of the previous decade—the kind of pictures that featured Glenda Farrell as Torchy Blane, the girl reporter with a cop boyfriend. This formulaic relationship captured and held the attention of film, radio, television, and comic strip audiences for decades. The inclusion of a female reporter allowed filmmakers to inject some romance into otherwise butch crime stories. Her press credentials conveniently provided her with access to crime scenes—which would allow her to aid her cop boyfriend in solving crimes. In Follow Me Quietly, it’s important for the resolution of the movie’s loose ends that the hard-nosed Grant eventually soften, and how else is he to do so, if not romantically? Even the stoic Mark McPherson got his girl in the end, and she started off that picture as a stiff.

In the last few decades, the serial killer has become a popular character type in American films. So much so that in recent decades Academy Awards for Best Actor and even Best Actress have been awarded to performers in the roles of serial killers. Modern film and television audiences are obsessed with criminal psychology, and are often more interested in the psyche of the killer than they are in the detectives who seek them. Convention thus requires current filmmakers to equip their malefactors with elaborate and appropriately traumatic backgrounds, so audiences will feel that they have the complete story and be able to empathize with the murderer on some level. With this sort of cultural conditioning in mind, the character of the Judge in Follow Me Quietly is frustrating. We never learn more about him than he tells us through the fetishes he leaves for the police at his crime scenes: calling cards with words and sentences formed from letters clipped from magazines, in which he announces to the city that he has “been ordained to destroy all evil. Beware!” Little more is divulged until the end, when viewers finally come face to face with the Judge. It’s evident that the killer’s identity and history were of little interest to the filmmakers, who were confident their audience felt the same as they did.

Unlike the mystery films of the thirties and early forties, to which this movie owes much, the killer turns out not to be the butler or the best friend, but a completely anonymous figure—another crucial point in understanding Follow Me Quietly as a film noir. The Judge turns out to be the boogeyman, a phantom, the hand of dreaded fate, a deadly instrument of bad luck preying on those who choose to reside in the “naked city.” That his victims have nothing in common, are clearly not “evil,” and are of both genders makes his deeds even more ominous. After all, even after his face is shown, he remains just another middle-aged schmuck in a suit, hat, and glasses. He’s no ogre, and there are a surely millions of others just like him. Ed Max, the actor who played the Judge, was probably cast for his slightly off-center looks more than for his acting ability. It’s his awful performance in the film’s climactic sequence that diminishes the experience more than anything else.

At only 59 minutes, the lion’s share of the running time is necessarily focused on plot development. To the film’s great credit, its lasting impression is not one of brevity, but rather of fullness. The well conceived story and workmanlike direction are bolstered by a striking visual atmosphere. Some movies announce themselves early on as noir films, and this is one of them: the opening titles play against a tight shot of Dorothy Patrick’s gams, as she paces nervously along a dark, rain-soaked street. The visual of the rain is often repeated to heighten the sense of tension that anticipates a Judge murder. Photographer Robert de Grasse’s excellent night work depicts a full tonal range with rich, deep blacks and vivid highlights. His foggy streets and lingering downpours suggest a world in which visibility is obscured, and danger lurks unseen around each corner. Atmosphere again reinforces narrative at the ultimate moment in the story. As the police finally uncover the identity of the Judge, and the hunter becomes the hunted, the skies above are clear and the screen washes over with a searing white daylight. The affect of this change in weather along with the suddenly deserted streets causes the Judge to flee for his life—he sniffs trouble as he mounts the stoop of his tenement; the cops lie in wait just inside. He flees to a vacant refinery, where he and Lundigan finally have it out. One of the film’s most noirish touches occurs in that moment when the Judge falls from a catwalk to his death: it isn’t Lieutenant Grant that stops him—it’s the ever-present hand of fate—proving that no killer is immune from the whims of destiny.

Most of the chatter about this film centers on its credentials as a film noir, and the jury appears to be locked. Popular consensus is a shoddy way of establishing a movie’s film noir credibility, and Follow Me Quietly has suffered from it. Despite an upbeat tone, a Hollywood ending, and no femme fatale; the movie features an alienated and obsessed detective, a killer who embodies the finality of anonymous, random, urban death, and a stylishly dark and oppressive mise-en-scène. Admittedly, it isn’t especially hardboiled, but it certainly comes up to snuff as a film noir. Put a Mark in the “yes” column.

Follow Me Quietly (1949)
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cinematographer: Robert de Grasse
Screenplay: Lillie Hayward, based on a story (unpublished) by Anthony Mann and Francis Rosenwald
Starring: William Lundigan, Dorothy Patrick, and Edwin Max.
Released by: RKO
Running time: 59 minutes

9/17

June 17, 2009

BEWITCHED (1945)



Considering many viewers don’t seem to care for Bewitched, there’s a lot of ink floating around out there about this slick little second feature from MGM. I find myself in the minority, because I think it’s a gem. Make no mistake, in one important way (depending on your point of view) it hasn’t aged well: it’s a rather crude look at schizophrenia in its most sensational form — multiple personality disorders. And because of the era’s (or rather, Hollywood’s) limited understanding of psychology and the movie studio’s propensity to take dramatic license with existing scientific knowledge, the film does a disservice to those whose lives have been touched to one degree or another by mental illness. Be that as it may, the problems are easily forgiven, and what remains is a well-made and inventive thriller with a few great moments. 


Why here at WDL? Bewitched is also distinctive as a prototypical film noir.


The story goes down smooth: Joan Ellis is a pleasant young woman with everything life has to offer, particularly a fine family and loving fiancé — but hang on — she hears a nasty voice in her head that wants to be in charge, to be “let out.” 


Fearful of a scandal, Joan skips her small mid-western town and makes for New York City, where she finds work as a cigar counter girl. Soon, she’s wooed by Eric, one of the building’s many attorneys (Stephen McNally). At first she’s skittish but after he comes on strong they are quickly engaged. Just when Joan feels that everything is once again coming up roses, she discovers her old fiancé waiting for her in her room — he’s tracked her down and wants to take her back home. As he packs her bag for the return trip, the voice in Joan’s head finally speaks up: it doesn’t want to leave the big city for Dullsville, so it commands Joan to pick up a pair of scissors and kill — which she does!


Jump to a quick trial where Joan’s sweet nature guarantees that she’ll beat the rap. Just as the not guilty verdict is being read, the voice speaks up, telling Joan how kill again and again in the future. Not wanting this to happen, Joan blurts out a last second confession and Bewitched begins to take some strange turns….


The voice in Joan’s head belongs to Audrey Totter, of Tension fame. Though Totter is uncredited, she really sinks her teeth into her part and although there’s a campy quality to the way she taunts and jeers at Joan, it works. The presence of Totter also lends Bewitched some extra credibility as a film noir, though it isn’t needed. The fascinating aspect of Joan’s dichotomy is that each half of her mind represents an archetypical film noir woman — Karen is a femme fatale and Joan is the good girl.


The femme fatale part is a no-brainer: Karen is a black widow — she uses Joan’s good looks to attract men, in order to act out her violent impulses. She kills Joan’s first fiancé, and warns her that she’s ready to kill the next, and then the next after that. Joan herself is both the pure innocent and the noir anti-hero: she’s cruelly victimized by fate and by chance, through what her psychiatrist calls “one birth in a million.” Like other noir protagonists, most often males, Joan is forced to ride out her predicament, with only the merest illusion of the outcome fate has in store for her. Despite this trauma, Joan’s actions are heroic: she attempts to save her family from the stigma of scandal by fleeing her hometown; and when presented with the unvarnished truth of Karen’s intentions at her trial, she sacrifices herself in order to kill Karen. Phyllis Thaxter’s performance deserves praise: she is able to make Joan and Karen appear dramatically different, without stooping to Jekyll and Hyde style preening. Her timing is good, and she is able to make her violent scenes creepy, if not actually frightening.


In addition to the role of fate and the thorough characterization of Joan, there are some exciting visual moments in Bewitched, including an expressionistic street sequence featuring an elaborate tracking shot: Joan is caught late at night on a deserted street, where she encounters a few real-life manifestations of her inner turmoil. The noirish quality of the atmosphere is excellent, though it doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the film. Bewitched also uses montage to great effect, although the primarily to keep the running time brief. Joan’s entire arrest, booking, and courtroom experience is summarized in a fast cut, claustrophobic, and for lack of a better term — sweaty — montage that shows attorneys, witnesses, and jurors all grotesquely leering at the accused. Oboler’s direction is competent, but he doesn’t maintain a noir vision for the duration — after all this was only 1945.


Mental illness was popular fodder in film noir, especially in the years just after the war. The idea of a film protagonist being stricken by something so arbitrary and invisible (and at the time: fantastical) was a trendy way to demonstrate how an everyday Joe or “Joan” can get worked over by cruel fate. What separates noirish takes on the subject from more “serious” productions is that the illness in noir invariably becomes an excuse for violent crime. So in this regard film noir is quite exploitative of mental illness, which is why viewers shouldn’t knock the manipulative and melodramatic treatment of multiple personalities in Bewitched. If the subject was treated clinically instead of tongue-in-cheek, the film just couldn’t have been made. The one place where we can gripe is the whitewashing of Joan’s “cure.” It’s disappointing to think that even in 1945 audiences would believe a ten-minute hypnosis session with a psychiatrist would cure Joan of her demons. It smacks of witch-doctoring, and actually makes the finale somewhat droll. It would be more in keeping with the tone of films to come, and with the fact that the character had actually killed, if audiences thought Joan was obligated to bear her burden uncertainly into the future. In the end though, the trick to enjoying this picture is to take it with some salt. Bewitched isn’t The Three Faces of Eve or The Snake Pit — it’s a sensationalist second feature with roots in radio drama and isn’t meant to be viewed as anything more than diversionary entertainment. After all this is MGM, not Warner Brothers.

Bewitched (1945)
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Director: Arch Oboler
Cinematographer: Charles Salerno Jr.
Screenplay: Arch Oboler
Starring: Phyllis Thaxter, Edmund Gwenn, Audrey Totter (voice only).
Released by: MGM
Running time: 65 minutes

June 15, 2009

GUILTY BYSTANDER (1950)



One preliminary note: As someone who loves the posters for classic movies almost as much as the movies themselves (I’m a graphic design professor), I was punched in the gut by the poster for Guilty Bystander. The artist remains anonymous, but the work is magnificent. The poster has a more contemporary feel than most others of the era: Scott looks directly out of the picture plane, his hang-dog expression telling you everything you need to know about his character.  His extra-large form confronts the viewer while the typical illustrated scenes from production stills occupy the cloud shapes in the foreground. Certainly they are intrusive, but were likely required to be included by the bosses — a necessary evil. Most other posters offer little more than a loose composition of illustrations made from stills — and while they are well done and vintage-cool, this one really stands out: it has scale, contrast, and a focal point. It’s clear to me that this poster was developed from a series of sketches inspired by the conceptual thrust of the film more than a stack of photos. The juxtaposition of the imagery and the type is skillfully done, and the typography itself is balanced and striking. To whomever created this one: well done.


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After spending a few weeks immersed in mid-fifties films about political corruption and organized crime, Guilty Bystander presents a welcome change. The film is a low budget parade through the pathetic underworld of 1950 Gotham, and includes a cast of colorful grotesques who are all surprisingly effective in spite of the film’s many handicaps. Bystander’s greatest attribute is an oppressively sleazy worldview that is only rivaled by another 1950 New York City film noir: The Tattooed Stranger. The premise is relatively simple: alcoholic ex-cop gets a shot at redemption after his infant son is kidnapped in the course of a botched smuggling scam.


Zachary Scott plays the schmuck, and he gives the performance everything he’s got. The trajectory of his career as an actor is somewhat unusual. Scott dove right into the deep end in 1944 with The Mask of Dimitrios, and followed it up with starring roles in prestige films such as Mildred Pierce, The Southerner, and Flamingo Road, before spending most of the later fifties until his death in 1965 working in television. He was suave and good looking in a greasy, unwholesome kind of way. The fan magazines of the day made him out to be some sort of a tinsel town bad boy, which was an image his studio bosses were more than happy to cultivate. These characteristics made him a good fit for the lead in Guilty Bystander — it’s so easy to understand how such a man, once a ranking police detective with a picture-perfect home life, could fall victim to the pressures of conformity and consequently curl up in a bottle — and yet, when life gives him a second chance, audiences will pull for him. Scott understood pathos.


The plot of the film is incredibly, and unnecessarily, convoluted. Having viewed it twice, it’s still unclear why Scott’s son was even kidnapped; though in all likelihood such a crime was the only thing the filmmakers could come up with enough oomph to get Scott’s character to raise his head out of the gutter. The little fellow is never actually shown until the movie’s final shot, which only serves to provide an out-of-place “all’s well that ends well” wrap-up, and a convenient visual backdrop for the end titles. 


The snatch takes place when Scott’s ex, played by Faye Emerson, is inexplicably drawn out of her house on an errand for her deadbeat brother and conveniently leaves the child unattended. It’s in this notion that the movie fails to generate much sympathy for Emerson’s put-upon hausfrau, though audiences of the day were likely meant to feel some. She’s punished for placing her hoodlum brother ahead of her innocent child, yet the movie somehow still wants us to feel sorry for her. 


No matter how or why it happened it’s the kidnapping that brings the distraught mother to Scott’s ramshackle flophouse room where he earns his meager keep as the house detective. Emerson’s begging, combined with Scott’s private yearning to reclaim his life, gets his motor started. He uses his hard earned contacts in the underworld to launch his investigation, primarily via the owner of the flophouse, played by a frighteningly bedraggled Mary Boland. The majority of Guilty Bystander’s remaining running time is concerned with Scott following a linear path from one crook to the next. Along the way he gets beat up, shot, lied to, arrested, drugged, rolled — and stinking drunk. Just as he finally smacks rock bottom the needed answers rise to the surface — thanks to a nifty plot device involving a pack of cigarettes and a stirring speech from Emerson begging her ex-husband not to give into despair.


The film is great noir, even if it isn’t great otherwise. The shots are put together on the cheap — often composed with just a single key light illuminating the actors. The technique is surprisingly successful, and evokes a feeling that is at once reminiscent of Caravaggio, while also serving to make the frame more claustrophobic, with the unknown pressing in from all sides. The character types may be unimaginative, but the portrayals are refreshing and original — as if director Joe Lerner wanted to compensate for the meager budget with a troupe of performers dead set on good work. The standout in the bunch is Romanian character actor J. Edward Bromberg, who plays hypochondriac waterfront boss Varkas. He’s one of the steppingstones on Scott’s path to his son, and their meeting in his dockside office is one of the better scenes in the film. Bromberg is a heavy-lidded and pot-bellied troll with dozens of pill bottles arrayed across his blotter. His affected performance builds up to a good moment when he gives Scott a violent smack in the mouth, betraying the facade of a man who constantly bemoans his own weak heart.


In the end the film does little to rise above its low-budget foundation, but in this case the meager budget is somehow fitting. Guilty Bystander offers viewers a well-imagined and uncompromising world of lowlifes and losers, with a main character that not only moves among them, but belongs. The final moment of sunlit reunion notwithstanding, the film is almost entirely devoid of hope, which is rare even in film noir.

Guilty Bystander (1950)

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Director: Joseph Lerner
Cinematographer: Russell Harlan and Gerald Hirschfeld.
Screenplay: Don Ettinger, based on a novel by H. William Miller.

Starring: Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, and Mary Boland.

Released by: Film Classics

Running time: 91 minutes

June 13, 2009

MIAMI EXPOSÉ (1956)




Sun drenched.


By the mid 50s it seems that film noir had moved south in search of better weather. Despite the vacation locale, had Miami Exposé been shot just five years earlier, the result would have appeared darker, drearier, and smelled a little less like coconut oil. Times change and film styles change with them, so in lieu of the Kefauver senate investigation into organized crime and its growing hold on major American cities, as well as Hollywood’s new propensity to make the government happy, the subject matter of films that had previously been steeped in the noir tradition became brighter and more oriented to rooting out corruption on a large scale, as opposed to films that had theretofore more concerned with the struggles of the lone individual against an oppressive and fatalistic system.


If there was a strong holdover as film noir evolved into.......something else, it was the cynicism — at least as far as cops are concerned. In the 1940s film noir transposed the cynical detective of the pulp novel to the big screen, where he prospered, and has more or less been going strong ever since. In the late 50s noir went into hibernation for a decade and a half, more or less, and reemerged with new vitality in characters such as Popeye Doyle and Eddie Coyle. Though I tend to think of him as a poor man’s Robert Mitchum (with not an iota of disrespect to either man intended), Lee J. Cobb was perfectly suited for cop roles in the 50s. Tough, cynical, perpetually tired, yet still likable, (remember that Arthur Miller wrote Willie Loman for him) Cobb injected gravity into every part he played. His personal life caught up with his screen persona at the time — he was called to testify before HUAC in 1953, and like so many others he named names in order to save his career, though the scars of having done so were permanent. Just a few months prior to making Miami Exposé, Cobb had to be removed from the production of William Castle’s The Houston Story, when he was too exhausted to finish his scenes and had to be rushed to the hospital with symptoms of a heart attack. It would actually be a heart attack that killed Cobb in 1976 at the relatively young age of 64. He does for Miami Exposé what Dan Duryea does for World for Ransom — without him, it just wouldn’t be worth the time.


The big problem with Miami Exposé is that it shoots off like a rocket, fizzles, and plummets back to earth. The film is introduced by, of all people, the mayor of Miami, Randy Christmas. He speaks to the audience from behind his desk (adorned with brass placard reading “Mayor Christmas”), with an air that I’m certain he hoped was presidential, or at least gubernatorial, about the creeping terror of organized crime, no longer confined to just New York and Chicago. The film then cuts to aerial footage of Florida cities, while a narrator describes the current economic climate and population boom in the Sunshine State. He speaks directly to the viewer, and rattles off statistics about interstate highways and vacation dollars as the scene vacillates between sandy beaches, pleasure boats, and the recurring shot of a commuter plane winging its way to South Beach. His closing remarks are a harsh reprimand: “Yes, you should have thought about these statistics, they might have saved your life!” As the passenger plane suddenly explodes into a million pieces, leaving viewers quite startled just as the titles finally appear on the screen. An auspicious start full of sensationalism that the film fails to maintain longer than the opening titles.


We learn later that the plane was blown up by the mob, at the cost of all 41 passengers and crew, in order to eliminate a single man who stood in the way of a plan to legalize gambling in the state. This sort of overkill, especially the kind that involved the murder of civilians, was a popular story device in films such as this one. Whether an airline crash, an apartment fire, gas explosion, or smallpox outbreak, filmmakers were always certain to show that the actions of the racketeers were deadly where the general population was concerned. The strangest aspect of the film is the casting choice of Alan Napier for the leader of the mob. He’s the man behind the plan to manipulate the ballot provision that would legalize gambling, and then gain control of those rackets, making Miami the Las Vegas of the east, and him the boss. Most people will remember Napier as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred from the campy Batman television series, but that aside, it strains credibility to think that the head of the criminal organization in the film, of which all the hoods are typical filmdom Mafioso, is a genteel bespectacled Englishman. The excuse given is that he learned that rackets through decades as a scum bag defense attorney, but it just doesn’t play given all we know about how the real Sicilian mobs actually operated.


Cobb’s part of story is more laden with cop clichés than Swiss cheese is with holes: He’s set to retire from the force, but his partner is killed, which sucks him in deeper than ever before. It turns out someone saw the killing, and it’s a she. She’s the ex-showgirl moll of a gangster, and she’s scared to death that her name is now on the hit list. Cobb has to protect her, but the two can’t seem to get along. He hides her in a shack in the Everglades, but the pinstripe suits find out where and swoop in via a commandeered fan-boat. Cobb shows up in the nick of time, Tommy gun blasting, and saves the day. All of the derivative pieces of the story would add up to something unwatchable were it not for the surprisingly good technical filmmaking. The film positively glitters with daylight — and on location shooting in Miami, even a few scenes in Havana, provides an interesting respite from Hollywood back lots and dreary Manhattan streets. Car lovers will find much to enjoy here — there aren’t really any chases in the film, though there are unlimited shots of Cobb and other characters driving from place to place in shiny Buick and Cadillac convertibles.


Patricia Medina, who was married to Joseph Cotten for more than thirty years, plays the girl. It’s surprising to learn she was British, considering she did American so well in this film. Medina is a real bright spot, it’s a shame she wasn’t better known, though she did have a long and active career in Hollywood. In looks and style she evokes Jane Russell. Also notable is the presence of Edward Arnold in his final film appearance. As others have noted, it’s unfortunate that this film was his last, as his part isn’t a good one — he’s a political stooge and a sap — and he looks totally spent in the film. A job’s a job, but it’s only out of respect for his great career that the word pathetic isn’t used. Score one for Eddie though, in spite of his sad part in the film, he obviously still had the star power to rate the lion’s share of the movie poster — his huge face leers down at Medina’s swimsuited cleavage.


Miami Exposé is a cookie cutter film from a cookie cutter period in filmmaking. However it does provide a glimpse into the heavy handed way Hollywood responded the political happenings of the Eisenhower era, and the painful diminishment of the film noir style.

TCM Clip Three


Miami Exposé (1956)

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Director: Fred F. Sears
Cinematographer: Ben Kline
Screenplay: Robert E. Kent
Starring: Lee J. Cobb, Patricia Medina, Edward Arnold, and Alan Napier.
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 73 minutes

June 12, 2009

WORLD FOR RANSOM (1954)



You’re no Galahad.

(Spoilers abound) World for Ransom is a clunker, but a fun one with a some upside. A youthful Robert Aldrich shot it in under two weeks for next to nothing, which is a bit less surprising when you take into account that the production took advantage of all of the sets and some of the performers from Dan Duryea’s hard to find China Smith television series, the popularity of which this was created to cash in on. Aldrich himself had even cut his teeth on a few episodes of the series. Interestingly, no director is credited—take that as a sign. 

World for Ransom rates as a film noir on the strength of Duryea’s character, a typical noir antihero. Mike Callahan is a basically decent fellow who moves with ease and experience through the criminal underworld of the Orient, occasionally breaking the law himself. At his core, he lives according to a set of moral absolutes that revolve around doing the honorable thing. Even in a film as slight and inconsequential as this one, the notion of the “existential samurai” (which is how I often think of the noir / hardboiled / detective film protagonist), is realized rather vividly through Duryea. It’s in this, as well as Joe Biroc’s sharp camera work, that World for Ransom has value.

Despite backlot filming with repurposed sets and props, Joe Biroc was gives World for Ransom a distinctive visual style that holds up against many more highly regarded film noirs. Without his work and Duryea’s charisma, this would be just another forgettable poverty row programmer. Biroc is one of those Hollywood types who no one, not even film buffs, seems to remember, despite an extraordinary body of work. He shot his first film in 1929 and his last in 1987. That’s a career that touched seven decades and included such films as It’s A Wonderful Life, Red Planet Mars, The Amazing Colossal Man, Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas, Blazing Saddles, Airplane and many more good movies. Like any director of photography that’s worth his salt, Biroc uses his shots in this film to reinforce character development. Here he consistently captures Duryea in a way that suggests the claustrophobic and densely layered underworld his character inhabits. Duryea is often stuck between areas of extreme light and shadow, obscured by louvered windows and grates, or caught from areas of concealment. Mike Callahan is situated in a world of intrigue and danger. 



The story is trite, so don’t be fooled by a poster that evokes the Ringling Brothers and promises as much excitement. Having watched this twice, I can assure you that the stakes are pretty low, there’s no “incredible plot to destroy the world.” What we get instead is a convoluted mess of international intrigue surrounding the kidnapping of one of the world’s leading H-Bomb men. This idea of a Shanghai job on a nuclear scientist toyed with the atomic-age audience’s fear that somehow capturing a lone scientist and ransoming him to the Soviets could jeopardize the fate of the world. It gins up a shot of pre-bottled tension that the script would never be able to generate by other means.

Callahan gets pulled into the case when he learns that his longtime pal from the British army, Julian (Patric Knowles), is somehow mixed up in the kidnapping. He is also carrying a torch for lounge singer Frennessey, who just so happens to be Julian’s girl. Callahan’s secretly hoping that by pulling his buddy’s fat from the fire, the songbird will see the error of her ways and choose him instead. In the best noir tradition, the hero has blinders on wherever women are concerned. Frennessey embodies the inner turmoil in Callahan’s character: he desires her and the glossy magazine ad fantasy life she represents, but she’s attached to the pal that his system of values tells him that he must save, even if it costs him a chance with the girl. Callahan’s code determines his course of action whether he likes it or not. It’s in this determined fatalism that he embodies film noir.

Most of the remaining action concerns Callahan’s efforts to stay one step ahead of the British Colonial Police as he searches for the scientist. After a climactic gun and grenade battle at the jungle hideout of the crooks, in which the now completely corrupt Julian is killed, Callahan returns to Frennessey, only to be spurned. The femme-fatale’s reassurances of her rekindled love for Callahan were merely a ruse to enlist his aid in the safe return of her lover. The film ends as Callahan, crushed not by violence but by his unrequited obsession, vanishes in the fog-shrouded streets of seedy bars, opium dens, and fortunetellers.

World for Ransom (1954)
Director: none credited (Robert Aldrich)
Cinematographer: Joseph Biroc
Screenplay by Lindsay Hardy and Hugo Butler
Starring Dan Duryea, Gene Lockhart, Patric Knowles, and Marian Carr
Released by Allied Artists
Running time: 78 minutes

June 9, 2009

THE TURNING POINT (1952)




Released in the same year as Robert Wise’s The Captive City, William Dieterle’s The Turning Point covers similar territory: The corrosive effect of the rackets on the post-war American way of life. The film’s primary mission was to deglamorize the mobster, to teach audiences that although racketeers may seem like legitimate businessmen who do little more nefarious than booking a few bets, they are in fact monsters with utter contempt for human life if it stands in the way of their rackets or their freedom from prosecution. Edmund O’Brien plays a law professor enlisted by the governor to lead a commission charged with investigating organized crime in the state’s largest city, as per real-life Senator Estes Kefauver. Given seemingly the same freedom as Elliot Ness to form his own team of racket-busters, O’Brien’s John Conroy recruits his reporter friend Jerry McKibbon, played by a perfectly cynical William Holden; Mandy, Conroy’s sweetheart and girl Friday; and finally his detective father. The problem is that unbeknownst to the younger Conroy, the elder Conroy is crooked, and mixed up with the same syndicate he’s been appointed to take down.


A few words about the girl are in order. Alexis Smith was never as well known as she deserved, and isn’t a household name today, if she ever was one — yet she was a good actress with a fine body of films to her credit. Her problem was that her rather contemporary style didn’t quite fit her era, and she probably would have been more bankable now than then. Nonetheless, she’s well cast here and delivers. Bookish, smart, wry, and a bit cool, she foils Holden’s natural cynicism — and while she clearly sees the world for what it is, her attraction to Conroy’s boyish idealism is entirely believable. It would have been difficult for another actress to play the part and not come off as either duplicitous or petty. It’s probably not fair to think of her as a femme fatale in The Turning Point, though someone prone to reaching might make the case. Her part in the film is essentially that of cheerleader to Conroy and conscience to McKibbon, and it’s after her prodding to do the right thing that he meets his ultimate end. She technically lures him to his doom, but her intentions were good.


The Turning Point smacks cynical from the get-go. No one actually believes that naïve do-gooder Conroy will make any hay, boyhood pal McKibbon thinks he’s destined to bang his head against the wall — the rackets are too well organized, run too deep, and after all — everyone likes to put down a bet once in a while — where’s the harm? It appears that all but Conroy himself know he’s little more than a gubernatorial poster boy for the coming election. In order to reinforce the everyday nature of corruption, and the idea that the modern gangster doesn’t sport a zoot suit or a violin case, the cockroach in The Turning Point has the banal name of Neil Eichelberger. Ed Begley, in a crackerjack, Oscar-worthy performance, brings Eichelberger vividly to life. Begley vacillates between stern, kindly, suave, and manic. He plays the crook as an upstanding middle-aged businessman, almost grandfatherly, who considers his criminal enterprise in business terms: people are going to bet, people need loans, someone has to take the bets and loan the money, why not me? He’s savvy, sophisticated, and manages avoid the typical movie cliché of underestimating his opponent. In fact, he recognizes early on that Conroy is able to get to him, and in a pivotal moment he responds to his adversary’s legal resolve with an act of cold brutality that is hardly matched elsewhere in film noir.


The important notion of the ease with which criminal forces can corrupt is represented by the elder Conroy (Tom Tully). Matt Conroy is basically good cop and decent man (after all, he raised one helluva son), who finally took the easy money after years of pounding the beat and seeing his family go without. In a lengthy monologue to McKibbon, he explains that he went crooked because a cop even has to “pay for his own bullets when he shoots a crook.” By the time he realized he was in over his head, it was too late to get out. The film’s best use of irony surfaces when Conroy is finally taken down by his own son, by the law school education his graft paid for all those years before. When he decides for his son’s sake to double-cross Eichelberger by copying incriminating files, he learns the extent of the mob’s influence — he’s ratted out by the lowly clerk at police headquarters. The scene in which he is killed is a gem. The syndicate boys contrive a grocery store heist just as Conroy passes by. He’s shot down by a hired gun just as he draws his service piece. The young thug is in turn silenced neat-as-you-please by two Eichelberger men concealed in the back of a truck and firing through a hole in a fruit crate. Taking place at street level in broad daylight, the scene has an elaborate, yet natural realism that’s heightened by the public nature of the action.


Another notable sequence is the televised Kefauver-style hearing that places Conroy and Eichelberger face to face. Clearly drawing inspiration from the real life hearings of 1950-1951, a Senatorial road show that visited a dozen cities and was viewed on television by an astonishing thirty million Americans, the actors and cameras bring to mind the real-life events of the source footage. O’Brien, shown in close profile, plays it tough, while Begley sweats, squirms, shrugs, and consults his attorney, hand covering the nearby microphone as flashbulbs explode in the background. It’s following the hearing that Eichelberger decides to get clear by destroying the books at the securities firm where he keeps all his proverbial dirty laundry. The problem is that Conroy is beginning to recognize the importance of Eichelberger’s connection to the brokerage, which is just a front for his loan sharking. Realizing that destroying the books themselves is tantamount to a confession, Eichelberger decides the best course of action will be to destroy the entire building. When his stooges remind him that dozens of families live in the floors over the firm, Eichelberger coolly points out the bright side: not even a jury would believe they’d kill all those people just to destroy the books. The fact that the crooks actually execute the plan is quite powerful, and meant to be so. It’s the sort of nefarious movie crime that we come to expect to be averted at the last moment — but it isn’t. In the aftermath, McKibbon and Conroy walk among the burning remains of the building in shock at the dead bodies strewn all around them. The effect is chilling, as the set up of Eichelberger’s character as a harmless businessman is revealed to be a sham.


Feeling guilt over his father’s death and the murder of the families in the building explosion — and with his idealism crushed, Conroy decides to give up. He’s brought back to his senses by a pep talk from McKibbon, who despite his rampant cynicism insists his pal finish what he started. McKibbon is also able to deliver the goods in another way: the widow of the man who shot Conroy’s father has information that can put Eichelberger in the little green room, if only they can find her. With Conroy’s determination renewed, McKibbon gets a call arranging a meeting at the fights, where he’ll learn the whereabouts of the missing girl, now the most sought after informant in the city. It’s a trap of course, and Eichelberger’s gang has hired a killer, in the form of iconic film noir heavy Neville Brand, to do the job on McKibbon at the arena. He succeeds, in another expertly filmed sequence, just as the missing girl stumbles into Conroy’s headquarters on her own, sealing the fate of Eichelberger. Conroy fails to make it to the arena in time to save his friend, and the film closes as he and Amanda walk down the deserted corridor of the arena, McKibbon’s words hanging over them: “Sometimes, someone has to pay an exorbitant price to uphold the majesty of the law.”

The Turning Point (1952)

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Director: William Dieterle
Cinematographer: Lionel Lindon
Screenplay: Warren Duff
Story: Horace McCoy
Starring: William Holden, Edmund O’Brien, Alexis Smith, and Ed Begley
Released by: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 85 minutes

June 6, 2009

OUTRAGE (1950)



It’s one thing to say that a film is a “product of its time.” I do this fairly often since I’m normally focused on “the time” as much as I am the film. One of the great things about classic movies is that contemporary viewers are able to immerse themselves in the period of the film in question — the clothing, the dialog, the scenery — even the morality of the day, as suspicious as it often was. There’s something comfortable about “sinking into” a picture and becoming, if only briefly, a part of its world. However, in the case of Ida Lupino’s Outrage, what’s depicted on film is far from comfortably sentimental. It’s no coincidence that Outrage is often considered a film noir, as the central act of the film is a rape (though the term is never used), and it subsequently examines the alienation of the victim from her family and her community. Lupino sets this all up during the title sequence: as the credits flicker across the screen we get a bird’s eye glimpse of Mala Powers as she staggers through a forbidding maze of urban streets, constantly stealing glances over her shoulder for an attacker who is long gone. In the wake of her ordeal Powers is set adrift, isolated, a theme that Lupino expands upon throughout the film. Finally, through the ramifications of the rape the film illuminates the underside of the seemingly idyllic 1950s American small town. 

Powers, in her first adult role, turned out to be a solid choice for the lead. Part Jean Hagan and part Judy Garland (minus the charisma and some of the talent), Powers’s “every girl” persona is well suited to the part of Ann Walton, girl-next-door who is viciously assaulted by the scarred counterman at the factory lunch stand. Despite the fact that the crux of Outrage lies in what happens afterwards, the most stylish and viscerally memorable sequence in the film is the attack itself, as Ann, caught late at night in the wrong place at the wrong time, is pursued through a vacant industrial landscape. Lupino alternates high- and low-angle shots as Ann darts through a maze of deserted alleys, piled high with crates and barricaded by semi-trailers. At one point she crouches along a wall plastered with circus posters, beneath grotesque clowns who sneer down and ogle her every step. After pleading for anonymous help and blaring the horn of a parked truck, she finally succumbs to terror and to fate. As the busted horn caterwauls, Ann curls into a fetal position and awaits the inevitable. As the man closes in, her attention is transfixed not on his face, but on the long scar that adorns his neck — redolent of the red slash of the clowns’ mouths. The attack itself is not depicted. Instead the tableau closes as an old man in an apartment just around the corner, aroused from sleep by the moan of the horn, glances unconcerned and oblivious before slamming his bedroom window.

The middle of the film concentrates on the days immediately following the crime. Ann staggers home to a mother so stunned that she gapes wordlessly at her daughter. The police are summoned and Ann is given the once over by the family doctor — whose treatment essentially starts and stops with sedation. The cops are amiable but helpless in lieu of Ann’s shocked inability to identify her attacker beyond his gender and his scar. It has been noted by others that the term “rape” is never heard, with the more subjective term “criminal assault” used in its place. Although the police have little to go on they manage to mount an impromptu lineup for Ann’s benefit, and Lupino effectively uses the scene to focus on the absurdity of the practice. No soundproof room, no one-way glass — Ann sits in the front row of a makeshift theater as a troop of scarred and scary hoodlums is paraded by. As each man looks down at her, shows his profile, and exposes his scar, Ann is asked over and again if he is her attacker. Lupino makes it understandably clear that even had Ann recognized her assailant, she’d be hardly likely to admit it in this setting, being too aghast and terrified to think coherently. Through close ups, fast cuts, and shifting camera angles, Lupino establishes the sort of stifling, consumptive fear that anyone would feel in similar circumstances.

After reading her name in the paper and hearing herself whispered about by friends and neighbors, Ann returns to work. Constantly reminded of the attack by the judgmental stares of her coworkers, her resolve to endure finally breaks, and she decides instead to flee. Totally divorced from her community, Ann boards a bus for Los Angeles. After hearing a radio announcement that she is being sought as a missing person, Ann wanders away on foot, and eventually collapses by the roadside. Her body is plucked from the apron by a dark character in a jalopy who drives away with her in the back seat. Lupino uses this moment to again show the irony of the girl’s precarious situation: The traumatic effect of the assault on Ann’s mind is such that she leaves behind the frying pan to risk the fire — half-dead and helpless on a deserted road. It’s no mistake that Lupino depicts her rescue ambiguously, a medium-long shot of an unknown man picking her up and placing her limp form in his car — and also no mistake that she makes us wait a time before we are certain of his good intentions.


Ann comes-to in strange surroundings and has a few frightened moments before she learns that soft-spoken preacher Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews), rescued and gave her into the care of a family of fruit farmers. The story then contrives to establish Ann in a new life at the grove. It turns out that she has much to offer, and they take her in without asking many questions. As the weeks and months pass, she carves out a place for herself and tries to forget her previous life. She can’t escape her past that easily though, which comes rushing back after she violently clubs a man at the annual harvest festival. Ann’s moment of self-defense is the most important in the film. It happens when some yokel comes on too strong at the picnic, and she whacks him on the head with a wrench because won’t keep his hands off. She again flees, only to be delivered to the authorities by a concerned Bruce. It’s at this point that Outrage takes a shocking turn and lives up to its title in an unintended way: Ann is arrested for assault. Although Lupino gives us a textbook lead-up to rape — including the dominant male figure pushing the girl to the ground in spite of her repeated protests, kissing at her and making his intentions very clear — it is the woman who is accused of a crime for defending herself. The farm hand’s part in the event is dismissed, as he’s widely known to be a “decent fellow.” In a film full of ironies, the most significant of all is that Ann, who previously submitted to her attacker and accepted her rape as inevitable, is treated as a criminal in the very moment she gains the resolve to defend herself. In the aftermath the only thing that keeps her out of Tehachapi is Bruce, who takes up her cause, guaranteeing psychiatric treatment for at least a year. Ann remarks at her hearing “Maybe I am crazy — sometimes I feel as if the whole world is upside down.”

Unfortunately, Outrage no longer functions as entertainment. The retrograde attitudes are so prevalent that the world of the film is not one we wish to enter, nor thankfully should we. Ida Lupino, always ahead of her time, deserves all the credit in the world for being the first to address the consequences of a rape in a major motion picture, but her pandering to the misogyny of the day is painfully dated and casts a horrible pall over the whole film. Nevertheless, it can often be enough to open the door, and Lupino opened many.

Outrage (1950)
Director: Ida Lupino
Cinematographer: L.C. Stoumen and Archie Stout
Screenplay: Collier Young, Malvin Wald, and Ida Lupino
Starring: Mala Powers and Tod Andrews
Released by: RKO, via Filmmakers (Lupino's independent production company)
Running time: 75 minutes