August 16, 2009

99 RIVER STREET (1953)

“There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.”

Dig this: you’re a prizefighter in the heavyweight division — a real comer after more than sixty bouts, never once knocked down­ — and you finally get a shot at the greatest crown in sports. Going into the last round up on all cards, you get a deep cut from an accidental bump and the ringside doc sends you to the showers — the loser. As if that weren’t enough, the state athletic commission bars you for life, claiming that another hard pop could punch your ticket. Three years later you pay the rent driving a cab through the five boroughs, and not one of your fares gives you a second glance. Your nag of wife has been working too many late nights, and now she’s flashing jewelry that you didn’t buy her — maybe that’s what you get for marrying a showgirl. You’re a nobody. A sucker. Just another schmuck in the big apple.

That’s how it is for Ernie Driscoll at the beginning of 99 River Street — one of the most hardboiled, brutal, and inexplicably forgotten films of the noir cycle. Self-pity is the deadliest of emotions and it defines Driscoll. There’s a certain kind of guy who, having fought for the heavyweight crown and lost on an accidental cut, would strut through life like a big shot. He’d hit the bars after his shift to tell fight stories and relive the good old days — jabbing and hooking to the applause of drunks and floozies. John Payne’s Driscoll isn’t that guy. Instead, after coming so close and having it all snatched away, he’s a bitter, brooding, short-tempered hulk who considers his ring years a waste. Yet he’s also like the schoolgirl who’s had her heart broken — not eager to stick his chin out again. So what’s a guy like him, stumbling through life in a daze, angry at the world and hating himself for it, choose for a dream? He wants to buy a gas station. Saving up his tips to pump gas along some suburban highway is an absurd an ambition for a man who recently stood toe to toe with the champ, but everyone, including Ernie, knows he’ll probably never make it happen. Driscoll is a man devoured by his own failures, consumed by self pity. Payne’s performance sweats with pathos and verisimilitude.
The story is a knockout. Phil Karlson takes a complicated script and delivers a fast-paced and coherent movie that plows ahead with well-drawn, convincing characters. A plot summary would read like an unwieldy mishmash so I’ll omit it — and besides, some of the film’s best moments are meant to surprise. The picture opens with first-rate ring footage where a beefed-out Payne makes like a real fighter. Heads snap from punches that resound with the crash of hammer blows. In one of 99’s clever directorial nuances, what at first appears to be a live event turns out to be a televised ‘classic fights’ rerun that Ernie is watching on the small set in his dingy flat. Payne is transformed from hero to hangdog with one simple camera movement. Wife Pauline, played by Peggie Castle, turns the set off in a bickering exchange that is pure Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo: “I’d have been a star if I hadn’t married you,” she says, and he fires back, “You were a showgirl — I could have been champion.” To which she smirks with venom and sarcasm, “Could have been.” Ernie then shuffles off to his cab for a night that will change his life forever. Before the sun rises again he’ll discover the truth about his marriage, and then scramble to steer clear of cops and crooks after Pauline turns up stiff in the back seat of his taxi.

The supporting cast is made up of a broad pastiche of downtown night dwellers — from hoodlums and hustlers to philanderers and insomniacs. Whether through lucky casting or plain good direction each role is strikingly realized. Evelyn Keyes, coffee shop habitué and Broadway wannabe, is Linda, the gal pal who makes a chump out of Ernie (in the film’s slickest and, possibly, most memorable scene) and then has to get square. Fighters and their trainers are never far apart in classic films, so it makes sense that Ernie’s best friend and former corner man is also his dispatcher at the cab company. Frank Faylen (who in a strange bit of movie serendipity played a cab driver named Ernie in It’s A Wonderful Life) is Driscoll’s pal and confidant, though his part is the least colorful in the cast. Brad Dexter plays John Rawlins, the reptilian jewel thief who cuckolds Driscoll. He’s even more memorable here than he was three years earlier as a crooked investigator in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Both parts call for the same sort of viperous scumbag, but Dexter is better in this film if for no other reason than his role has more meat. The best support in the film is offered by Jay Adler as Christopher, pet shop owner by day and big time jewelry fence after dark. Adler, with his quiet demeanor and air of almost grandfatherly respectability, makes Christopher into the most coolly terrifying presence in the film. Even amongst such a strong cast Adler is the scene-stealer.
The film’s brutality is plentiful and vividly cinematic. Films of this period often age poorly due to the artificial quality of their violence. Not so here. From the beginning boxing match to the climactic sequence at the titular address, the punches, slaps, gunshots, and crashes are unusually authentic. Blood spreads across cheeks and foreheads with surprising regularity and loving care. The film embraces the spectacular physicality of criminal life, and lingers blithely on those moments. Jack Lambert plays in many of those scenes, his face instantly recognizable as one of the more grotesque hoodlums in film history. Here he’s Mickey, an ambitious young thug who works for Christopher. In once scene, Pauline and Rawlins visit the pet store that serves as Christopher’s front. As they enter Mickey feeds milk to a puppy from a baby’s bottle, but within minutes he’s slapping Pauline to the floor while holding Rawlins at bay with a .38. Later he gives Driscoll the third degree, punctuating each question with a heavy chop, Ernie’s head jarring from one side of the screen to the other. Yet Mickey takes the beating of his life when he discovers, the hard way, that Driscoll was just waiting for an opening. Ernie makes the hoodlum pay for not remembering him as he unloads every ounce of pent up frustration onto poor Mickey’s face — and we get to see every punch. The closing set piece is potent and rewarding, and includes one of the best “deaths by car” in noir history, as well as an operatic climax where cruel fate finally rewards Driscoll: he’s shot, he’s exhausted, and he’s nearly broken, yet he’s given the chance to rise to his feet and answer that bell one final time.
Within the canon of film noir there are numerous fight films — from the famous Body and Soul and The Set-Up to the slightly less well known, yet equally brilliant, Champion with Kirk Douglas. 99 River Street isn’t a boxing film per se, but it is a story concerned with a boxer whose life and sense of self are defined by the events of one fateful night in the ring. In part what makes noir films so wonderful is their oppressive atmosphere of alienation and menace. However that atmosphere needn’t carry beyond the conclusion of the story — the film noir hero can occasionally live happily ever after. The doomed lovers from such archetypical examples as Criss-Cross, Double Indemnity, and Out of the Past don’t survive their respective films, yet despite the extraordinary popularity of those pictures they represent a fairly small percentage of noirs where the protagonist doesn’t end up alive, kicking, and somehow redeemed through his ordeal. For every cocksure Walter Neff who deserves the hand fate deals him there’s an Ernie Driscoll who endures circumstances worthy of Job in order to claim his own fair share of redemption. 99 River Street screams “Look at this sap. Life gave him a kick in the teeth and he deserves better, but brother, he’s gotta pay for it.” Things are grim for Ernie in the beginning and they get worse as the reels unspool, but the same narrative convention that assures us Walter Neff will get his in the end also promises that Driscoll will come out on the other side, and that payoff is what keeps us watching. We ache for slobs like Ernie — we want to see him get clear of his bad luck and find some sort of happiness. Despite its violence, cruelty, and capricious fates, in the end 99 River Street reveals itself to be a film that rewards our hopes.
99 River Street (1950)
Director: Phil Karlson
Cinematographer: Franz Planer
Screenplay: Robert Smith
Story: George Zuckerman
Starring: John Payne, Evelyn Keyes, Peggie Castle, and Brad Dexter.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 82 minutes

August 11, 2009

THE WEB (1947)

Look, Ella Raines is in it. Now go find it and watch it.

That’s not advice — it’s just how I tend to Ella Raines pictures. There are only about twenty or so out there, and I savor each one of them (well, maybe not Singing Guns). As a Raines film noir The Phantom Lady has no peer, but The Web is a good film with a big role for the elegant brunette. Most of the conversation about The Web tends to focus on whether or not the movie is a true film noir or a straight mystery / thriller. For what it’s worth: it is a film noir, albeit a lesser one, written and filmed in that brief window of time following the war when the fear of nuclear devastation hadn’t yet permeated the American psyche, and the ensuing cynicism and paranoia hadn’t taken root in film noir. That’s not to suggest that the film is without cynicism — the presence of Edmond O’Brien guarantees it. Instead, The Web is a film noir with roots in the mystery tradition of the 1930s. Working against it is a lack of hopelessness and a dogged determination towards a positive outcome. It is different from the more iconic films to follow only in that it occurs earlier in the cycle — a cycle with evolving conventions.

The story is intriguing: A little old man named Kroner does five years in stir after getting caught selling a million dollars’ worth of forged T-bonds. He clams up, knowing that if he does his time he’ll be taken care of when he finally gets to breathe fresh air again. Meanwhile, his partner in crime figures it makes more sense to kill him than to pay off, so he sets up a patsy to do the job. After the deed is done the patsy gets wise and sets out to bring down the one who hired him. In addition to a guilty conscience he realizes that he has fallen for the man’s secretary / girl Friday. In the end though, the patsy and the girl are caught in the downward spiral of cruel luck, unable to save themselves (there’s the noir!) until fate takes a hand and the bumbling, overconfident killer foolishly incriminates himself.

 The scheming businessman is Vincent Price, the patsy is Edmond O’Brien, the girl Friday is Ella Raines, and the smug cop investigating them all is big Bill Bendix. Price was born for these sorts of parts, his mannered performance here reminiscent of his work in Laura. Replace Shelby Carpenter’s whininess with smooth self-confidence and you’ve got The Web’s Andrew Colby. Price may have even borrowed from another “web” — Clifton Webb, his costar in Laura. One way in which this can be seen in Price’s character is the suggestion of his homosexuality: Colby spends his days and evenings with Raines’ Noel Faraday, and although their relationship is more than merely professional, the film carefully avoids any suggestion of romance, which clearly defies Hollywood convention. In many ways their relationship is similar to that of Waldo Lydecker and Laura Hunt — except that in The Web Colby encourages Regan’s passes, demonstrating his lack of romantic feelings for a woman so beautiful that other men fall over themselves to be near her. And make no mistake, the typical noir villain had no problem using his own woman as a pawn in his scheming. In The Mob, a man actually convinces his own wife to come on to Brod Crawford, fully expecting her to come back home to him after the deal was closed.

O’Brien is well-cast as attorney Bob Regan — smugness being an integral part of O’Brien’s screen persona. His brand of confidence is usually perceived as arrogance, which is exactly how he is meant to be seen in The Web. His comeuppance when he discovers he’s the sucker somehow seems all the more real or gratifying to audiences when the joke is on O’Brien.

Raines’ beauty was more sophisticated than sexual, and it’s obvious in The Web that Noel Faraday is a match for any man in the film. Though she plays Colby’s secretary, she’s clearly his right hand and first choice for advice. The script calls for Regan to come on like a drooling heel when they first meet, though it’s apparent the scene is intended to develop her character much more than his, by showing us how deftly Noel fends him off. The script is talky, but Raines does a plum job of making the conversations seem believable, even contemporary. The typical blunt noir dialog is replaced with slick witticisms, especially between Regan and Faraday. Even Bendix gets the intellectual treatment in The Web. His signature physical presence is diminished by his character’s sarcastic and biting remarks. Big Bill even wears glasses!

In spite of the good dialog in The Web, the plot suffers from a large glitch that strains credibility. Needing the old accountant, Kroner, dead and gone, Colby contrives to have Regan shoot and kill him. Remember, his whole plan hinges on Regan killing the old jailbird, but it can only succeed if Kroner is shot cold dead — if he is merely wounded and has the chance to tell his story, Colby knows he’ll get the hot seat at Rikers Island. Sure, it’s possible to imagine that he could scheme to get Regan to pull the trigger, but no reasonable man would take such a chance. But that’s how it plays out. The scenario is repeated with a different victim at the film’s climax, when Colby himself guns down an employee who might incriminate him — while framing Regan for the job. In the film’s best use of irony, the police inform Colby that his victim is still alive, and he’s finally undone when he sneaks into the wounded man’s room late that night in order to finish the job.

The Web’s production values are middling. In film noir it’s crucial for the film’s visual crew, the director of photography, art directors, and set designers to accentuate character emotions and reinforce specific aspects of the narrative through visuals. In other words: form follows function, especially in noir. DP Irving Glassberg disappoints. He captures Raines well, but his attempts to make The Web distinctive fall short, resulting in a film with little more going for it than lackluster surface gloss. There are some dark corners and foggy streets, but what separates the great noirs from the not so great are the reasons for all those velvety shadows. What does that dark corner hold? What do the elongated shadows, absurd camera angles, and extreme close-ups suggest? What do they tell us about the protagonist’s predicament or state of mind? In late 1946 Glassberg didn’t know. The lighting is especially weak, and eventually becomes annoying. All of the scenes, regardless of staging, are photographed with a single key light, which creates a theatrical quality. Also suspect are the exterior back lot exteriors, which fail to properly evoke New York. The promising opening titles roll against a car’s-eye view of Manhattan streets, but the film fails to follow up. 

The Web is an entertaining crime thriller with a good script and a good cast. though it fails to distinguish itself as a film noir.

The Web (1947)

Director: Michael Gordon
Cinematographer: Irving Glassberg
Screenplay: William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser.
Story: Harry Kurnitz
Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Ella Raines, Vincent Price, and Bill Bendix.
Released by: Universal International
Running time: 87 minutes

August 2, 2009


On the one hand, if you are going to call your movie Suspense, try to make sure you’ve got some. On the other, unless you can imagine someone walking up to the box office and asking for a pair of tickets to “Turgid Potboiler,” Suspense ain’t so bad.

There are about a dozen standard plots that account for at least half of the movies ever made. It might be fun to figure them all out at some point, but it’s enough to say that Suspense implements one of the doozies: Down-on-his-luck guy breezes into town and finds a chump job. Through some stroke of genius (or luck) he quickly becomes the boss’s right hand man. Guess what? The boss has a honey of a wife, and she and the new boy light a fire together. The boss feels the heat and all of a sudden he isn’t so chummy with his right hand anymore — and the dame is stuck in the middle. Something’s gotta give and someone’s gotta go — the hard way. Sound familiar? This story has been played out in films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gilda, The Strip, and a million more stretching all the way back to Josef von Sternberg’s iconic Underworld. The trick to using such an old saw effectively is to sharpen it up somehow — in the case of Suspense screenwriter Phillip Yordan put the production on ice — literally.

Maria Belita Jepson-Turner, known in film just by the exotic moniker Belita, was only twelve when she skated for Britain in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, finishing well back of Norwegian gold medalist Sonja Henie. With a face and figure to die for, Belita skated after Henie to California to make it in the picture business. While Henie landed at Fox and began appearing in frothy romantic comedies with Tyrone Power, Belita ended up at Monogram. The studio, one of the better B factories, was home of the Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, The Shadow, Joe Palooka, and Cisco Kid franchises. Monogram had scored a huge hit in 1945 with Lawrence Tierney in Dillinger. (On a side note, the bosses at Monogram knew you just can’t beat a well-made gangster picture — following Suspense, they would reteam Belita, sans skates, with Barry Sullivan in The Gangster.) In an attempt to achieve big boy status for the studio, the Dillinger profits were pumped into Suspense, the only truly big-budget picture to bear the Monogram trademark. Both Suspense and The Gangster did fair box office, though not enough to elevate either Monogram’s status as a studio or Belita’s as a star. She made a picture a year in the forties, and appeared in a few more in the fifties, then retreated to life on the road as a professional figure skater.

Look, Suspense isn’t a very good picture, but nevertheless it is interesting. What makes it so is its absurdity. Postman’s banal roadhouse becomes a neon nightspot with an ice show in Suspense. Incandescent sweater girls like Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth had that magical something that allowed them command audiences while standing still. Not so with Belita —  she’s forced to skate about in sequined outfits and soar through hoops ringed with razor-sharp swords. In an effort to cash in on her talents, the movie is punctuated every fifteen minutes or so with an ice number, leaving contemporary viewers is perplexed — as in ‘Were there really night clubs with ice shows in the forties?’

In a sense the viability of the plot is beside the point, as the film was trumped up in order to cash in on the public’s new interest in skating, and grab some of Henie’s audience for Monogram. The movie is remembered today primarily as a film noir, but at the time of its theatrical run it was first and foremost an ice skating picture, and the skating sequences play with much more verve than the story.

Phillip Yordan’s screenplays in the mid-forties were derivative — he still had a way to go before penning The Big Combo. Yet with Yordan’s pulpy story and Frank Tuttle’s direction a film noir was inevitable. Tuttle doesn’t rise to the level of This Gun for Hire, but the fault lies in the screenplay rather than budget or talent. Yordan’s dialog doesn’t approach that of Graham Greene, and the screenplay borders on obnoxious — filled with contrivances that add at least 20 minutes of unnecessary prattle to the film. Worst of all, the darn thing doesn’t generate a lick of the promised suspense.

Still, the movie has its saving graces. Bonita Granville is one of them. The star of the late-thirties Nancy Drew franchise did a fair impersonation of Dick Powell and reinvented herself as a tough broad in the 1940s. In Suspense she plays the Barry Sullivan’s jilted lover from Chicago. She makes a delectable woman scorned and pumps a ton of life into Suspense — if only she could skate. Also of note is Eugene Pallette, appearing in his final film. Pallette was a fixture in classic movies, and one of those guys with an unfamiliar name but instantly recognizable face — and voice. Many will recognize him as Henry Fonda’s father in The Lady Eve. Here he plays the sort of character who serves as a bridge between the two male leads. He’s older, and consequently non-threatening to either man — a confidant to Albert Dekker’s man in charge and a mentor to Sullivan’s boy on the make. Pallette’s presence has the same affect of someone like William Bendix — the film feels a lot more comfortable with him in it.

Also of note is the cinematography. If I’m putting a beating on this film, noir purists will still want to see it for it for Karl Struss’s camera work. Suspense is really Struss’s only film noir, which is a shame. This is the guy who won the first Academy Award for shooting Sunrise, and went on to DP The Great Dictator and Limelight for Charlie Chaplin. Suspense has overwhelmingly dark look, more shadow than light, yet still seems bright and sharp because Struss’s use of high contrast. 

In the end Suspense is a film that leaves you wanting: wanting a more original story and better dialog, wanting more Bonita Granville, and wanting more Karl Struss. But it doesn’t leave you wondering what’s gonna happen — you’ll figure that out in the first ten minutes.

Suspense (1946)
Director: Frank Tuttle
Cinematographer: Karl Struss
Screenplay: Phillip Yordan
Starring: Barry Sullivan, Belita, Albert Dekker, Bonita Granville, and Eugene Pallette.
Released by: Monogram Pictures
Running time: 101 minutes