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)

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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

2 comments:

  1. Looking at the posters I also thought nothing more needed to be said than that The Web would have to be a must-see with that cast. Fortunately, your review is a useful caution. I'd probably still want to look at it for the performances, but I'll go in with proper expectations now. That's why I like this blog so much. Thanks, Mark.

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  2. Haha, wow...when I first saw the movie poster, I though "Hey, Ella Raines is in it. I need to see that." Then I read your first sentence. :)

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