February 23, 2010

FEAR (1946)

Released by Monogram in 1946, Fear is film noir’s take on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s a little-remembered movie that has all the flaws typical of a Poverty Row production, including a low budget, a less-than-stellar ensemble, and a swiss-cheese storyline. However in spite of those limitations it’s also an inventive, exciting, and thought-provoking little movie. It takes that famous narrative: man desperately needs money, man commits murder to get it, man’s life falls apart — and embroiders it with a series of story developments that are either surprising, inexplicable, or just plain weird. What makes the film truly fascinating is the final plot twist, which leaves viewers wondering if the whole thing was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek gag. Whatever else it might be, Fear is put together with unexpected panache, and the results are as pleasing as they are mystifying.

Peter Cookson stars as medical student Larry Crain. (Fear is his only legitimate leading role, though he was notably married to Poltergeist actress Beatrice Straight for forty years) The opening scene finds a morose Crain in his shabby one-room flat, sodden over a bizarre telegram from the medical school: “Circumstances beyond our control compel us to discontinue all scholarships.” Of all the set-ups in film noir this is one of the most absurd. As an academic of many years, I can assure you that the chances of a school being compelled to ‘discontinue all scholarships’ is pretty far out there. However in Fear, baffling developments are par for the course. Wait and see.

Compounding his troubles at school, Crain’s landlady Mrs. Williams (the ubiquitous Almira Sessions) seems to live outside his door, incessantly badgering him for the rent. Desperate to scrape together even a few smackers, Larry shambles over to see professor Stanley, who teaches at the medical college but makes extra money moonlighting as a pawnbroker. Larry’s lone valuable is his dead pop’s engraved watch, for which the old man offers just a sawbuck. Stanley adds insult to injury by withholding two dollars to cover the vigorish on previous loans. Though it seems a bit too convenient that Stanley must open his wall safe in order to retrieve a measly eight clams, it gives Larry the chance to scope out the wads and wads of cash camping in the professor’s strongbox, as well as a heavy set of brass fireplace tools by the mantle. Larry gets the impulse to kill the professor then and there, but resists. However he’s so enamored by the idea that he walks home in a daze.

Cue the girl. With his eight bucks in hand Larry grabs a stool and a hot meal at the local hangout. He spends more than expected when he has to buy coffee for a girl who appears to have everything in her purse except loose change. The money is happily spent however, when Eileen (Anne Gwynne) agrees to a date. Romance blooms, but as far as the movie is concerned Eileen doesn’t much matter. She gives Larry someone to talk to so the audience can know what he’s thinking: Larry believes that any crime is excusable providing the ends justify the means. What other films accomplish through voiceover narration, Fear provides by giving the protagonist a conversation partner.

Following his encounter with Eileen, Larry returns home to more bad news: a huge tuition bill and an ultimatum from Mrs. Williams: pay up or hit the bricks. He immediately recalls the professor’s strongbox, and decides to do the deed. The strongest segment of the film is the murder sequence, which takes place in Stanley’s tenement house. Director Alfred Zeisler amps up the tension, beginning with Larry’s ascent up the apartment building’s stairs, wary of a black cat lurking along the way. At one landing he pauses outside a flat that is being painted. The painter shimmies his ladder from one spot to another without climbing down, like some grotesque insect on stilts. This interlude turns out to be important rather than just absurd; the painter and the freshly painted room shortly become critical story elements.

When Larry finally rings Stanley’s bell, the academic is reluctant to admit him, considering that the younger man was just there the previous evening. Larry offers a wrapped and tied package that he claims contains a silver cigarette case, though in actuality it’s just a cheap glass ashtray from his own drab room. As the professor struggles to open the bundle, he chastises Larry for wrapping the damn thing so tightly. In a moment where the script really comes to life Larry apologizes, dolefully saying “I’m sorry” as he bends over, unseen by the professor, to pick up that heavy fireplace poker. We don’t get to see Larry land the killing blow — once the camera leaves his strained face, it shifts to capture the prof’s trembling hands as he struggles with the bundle. It’s in this expressionistic moment, and a few others like it, that Fear really scores as a film noir. Just as the wrapping paper finally falls away and Larry’s ruse is revealed, the blow is struck and the ashtray drops, shattering the old man’s glass of port, which spreads against the white table cloth like so much lifeblood.

Larry escapes the murder scene, barely, and makes it back to his room where he passes out, to be roused later by a detective who takes him in for questioning — his engraved watch makes him a suspect. The man in charge of the investigation is the jovial Captain Burke (Warren William, so rakish and debonair that he must think this is a Lone Wolf picture). The two play cat and mouse with each other for a while, until Larry’s mind begins to unravel under the strain. A brief but excitingly expressionistic montage finds him once again wandering the streets in a daze, assaulted by visions of nooses and other portents of death. Fate leads him to a train yard, where he barely avoids being struck by an onrushing locomotive. This brush with death convinces Larry to confess to Eileen — who inexplicably decides to stand by him. He returns home to find Captain Burke waiting to show him the morning’s headlines: the painter from the second floor apartment has confessed to bludgeoning Professor Stanley! Burke clearly stills believes that Larry is the murderer, but in light of the painter’s confession Larry overcomes his conscience and keeps his mouth shut. Nevertheless, in film noir neither fate nor justice can be thwarted — Fear climaxes as an ebullient Larry is struck by a car and killed as he rushes to reunite with Eileen.

Hang on a second. Cue the harp music and the swirling vortex — Larry isn’t dead after all, he was just dreaming! Instead of lying dead in the street we find him lying in bed, yanked from a deep sleep by someone knocking at his door. It’s Professor Stanley, except this time the dear fellow wants to give Larry a loan to tide him over until his scholarship check, thankfully restored, arrives in the mail. As a bewildered but carefree Larry leaves his room to a brighter day he bumps into Eileen in the hallway — except her name isn’t Eileen, it turns out to be Kathy. She’s tracked him down to pay back his sixty cents, and has decided to take a room at Mrs. Williams boarding house as well! Once again, for the first time, Larry makes a date with the girl, and in a moment of Vertigo creepiness asks if he can call her Eileen. Unfazed, she remarks that he “sure must have been in love with that girl!” To which Larry replies, as the screen fades to black and the end titles, that someday he’ll “tell her all about it.”

The ending of Fear is frustrating and silly, though it still begs an interesting question: Why take a film that already closes well and tack on a coda sure to leaves audiences wagging their heads? Maybe to extend the running time: there are several passages in Fear that suggest Zeisler was stretching for length rather than tension. Or perhaps to give viewers a surprise to talk about as they waited for the A-feature to begin. Poverty Row films were usually as derivative as they were low-budget, and Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window had been a hit with a big twist. It’s also clear that Zeisler was enamored of Lang — he was working in the German film industry just as Lang was making his best films. The dreamy denouement, along with a clever smear of white paint on Larry’s jacket strongly argue that Zeisler was paying homage to an admired fellow filmmaker.

It’s also fair to suggest that Larry Crain’s imaginary death, steeped as it is in the relentless fatalism that defines film noir, is only obvious to contemporary audiences as the best spot to close the movie. In 1946, audiences were enamored with the psyche, and the psycho-neurotic dream conclusion would have pressed some topical buttons. For my part, I can only explain Fear’s eyebrow-raising oddities, its plot holes, and its bizarre twists, its general balderdash, by asking: Who says dreams have to make sense?

Fear (1946)
Director: Alfred Zeisler
Cinematographer: Jackson Rose
Screenplay: Dennis Cooper and Alfred Zeisler
Starring: Peter Cookson, Warren William, and Anne Gwynne
Released by: Monogram Pictures
Running time: 68 minutes


February 7, 2010

Edward G. Robinson and BLACK TUESDAY (1954)

(Note: this is a two-part essay. If you'd just like to read about the film, scroll down to the lobby cards.)

When I first discovered Edward G. Robinson he wasn’t chewing the butt of a cigar in a crime picture. He was employing his other screen persona in a light comedy called Mr. Winkle Goes to War. The delightful little film (to my youthful sensibilities) finds Robinson drafted into the army; and to the astonishment of everyone, especially his terror of a wife, he returns from the war a hero. The actor became an immediate favorite, and my opinion of him only grew when I discovered his more fearsome side. Robinson made Mr. Winkle in 1944, between his two most famous noir pictures: Double Indemnity and The Woman in the Window. Since then I’ve managed to see all but the rarest of his films and become quite conversant in the details of his life. My most recent Robinson film was the very difficult-to-find Black Tuesday, made exactly ten years after Mr. Winkle Goes to War. What a difference a decade can make. Robinson’s life when he appeared in Black Tuesday would have been unrecognizable to the high-flying star of the thirties and early forties. Yet throughout his troubles Robinson remained an admirable man as well as a great professional actor. Black Tuesday is a low budget thing, yet Robinson cared enough about his craft (or needed catharsis so badly) that he was able to channel all the bitterness and pain from his private life into his work — resulting in a terrifying new take on the very same screen archetype he practically invented. His work in Black Tuesday is so good, so focused, and so angry it practically hurts to watch.

Robinson was born Emmanuel Goldenberg (hence the “G”) in 1893 in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. He immigrated to New York City with his family at age ten. He became fascinated with acting as a youth, eventually landing on Broadway after paying his dues on the road and in stock. Following a successful theatrical career he signed on for his first significant screen role, as Enrico Bandello in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar. The success of the film cemented Robinson’s future in Hollywood, and over the next fifteen years he enjoyed as much of the American Dream as any man could ask for, with a parade of hit movies and a salary to match.

In contrast to Robinson’s tough-as-nails screen image, the man himself couldn’t have been more different. He was sensitive, educated, and enjoyed the lofty pursuits of the cultural elite: music, theater, literature, and most importantly: art. He and wife Gladys began purchasing paintings during the Depression, and twenty years later their collection was legendary — renowned not only for its numbers but for its good taste. Robinson himself described it as the single greatest collection of Impressionist canvases in America. He was as astute and respected as any art enthusiast in the world — able to start trends and influence market prices by merely contemplating the purchase of a particular work. In today’s market his collection would bring more than a billion dollars.

Robinson was also known for his generosity, if not for his caution — and like the fictional character Mr. Winkle he was a war hero. He donated time, talent, and truckloads of money to the war effort. He was the first Hollywood actor to perform for the troops in France following the Normandy landings, and he lauded the American way of life on the radio. The US and British governments were quick to employ his famous name and astonishing gift for languages (he spoke as many as eight) for a series of propaganda messages disseminated in central Europe. Eddie was also quick to help a friend — just ask Dalton Trumbo. When Trumbo was indicted as one of the Hollywood Ten, he wrote to Robinson asking for financial help for his wife and children. Robinson kept them afloat with a loan of $2,500. His soft spot for those in need coupled with a lack of scrutiny regarding his charitable giving was enough to land him in the infamous Red Channels tract of June 1950, linked to a dozen alleged Communist fronts. He had already spoken before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, and would appear three more times, usually by his own request, following the publication of Red Channels. He was finally cleared in 1952 when he famously said, “Either snap my neck or set me free. If you snap my neck, I will still say ‘I believe in America.’” HUAC considered the screen star a schmuck — committee chair John Stevens Wood of Georgia chastised him as “…a very choice sucker. I think you are number one on the sucker list in this country.” Robinson left Washington as damaged goods. His ordeal with the government was finally over, but Hollywood was reluctant to welcome him back.

Robinson would do very little acting in the early fifties — his life was in shambles. Although he narrowly avoided the Blacklist he was still tainted by it — the job offers dried up, and he entered what he himself called his B-Picture, or “has-been” period. His longtime marriage to manic-depressive Gladys was forever on the rocks — she was prone to bouts of severe despair and was often institutionalized. Gladys was so unstable that she sued Eddie for divorce almost every time she was hospitalized, but would inevitably back off when released. They would eventually formally break when he realized he just couldn’t stand the trauma any longer.

His son was a constant source of anxiety. Edward G. “Manny” Robinson Jr. always seemed to be in trouble. Unable to sustain either a caring relationship with his famous father or endure outside his shadow, teenage Manny began to drink and was a full-fledged alcoholic by the time of his twentieth birthday. He eloped south of the border and was quickly divorced in the midst of an abortion scandal. He wrote bad checks and got probation. He spent weekends in the drunk-tank. He couldn’t hold down a job. In the summer of 1954, around the time his father was filming Black Tuesday, Manny was arrested on suspicion of armed robbery — two cabbies claimed he cold-cocked them with a flashlight and made off with their fares. He was tried in Los Angeles in October of ’54 on armed robbery charges but dodged prison when the jury couldn’t agree. The district attorney eventually decided to let it drop.

With Gladys gone Eddie was so lonely he often stayed with friends rather than sleep alone in a big, deserted mansion. Following the collapse of the marriage and unable to come to amicable terms regarding the art collection, Robinson was forced to sell it off to pay for the divorce settlement. Shortly thereafter Manny was took a DUI rap and did a two-month stretch at the honor farm. Edward G. Robinson had reached rock bottom. 

But he didn’t stay there. He found his way back to the screen, though modestly, in low-budget crime pictures such as Nightmare and A Bullet for Joey. Cecil B. Demille of all people — the conservative patriarch of Hollywood, acting against studio advice, would restore Robinson to studio credibility by casting him in the role of Dathan in his sweeping religious epic The Ten Commandments. From that moment until the end of his life Robinson worked steadily in Hollywood, and even managed to buy back a few of his beloved paintings. He died in 1973, just after finishing the manuscript for his autobiography All My Yesterdays, and completing work on another Charlton Heston project, Soylent Green. Gladys had died the previous year, and sadly, Manny’s day were likewise numbered — he would be found dead at the age of forty, gone less than a year after his father.

Though Robinson is one of the most memorable and recognizable actors in film history he was never nominated for an Academy Award. Considering he could have been honored for many of his films — just pick one, Oscar really blew it in 1944. Even with many of the brightest male leads in the industry away fighting the war, it was a great year for the movies. Going My Way, Gaslight, Laura, Wilson, Lifeboat, Since You Went Away, and Double Indemnity. In Billy Wilder’s landmark crime film Robinson delivers one of the most indelible supporting performances in motion picture history, yet he wasn’t even nominated — a stinging injustice considering Barry Fitzgerald, the winner for Going My Way, was nominated for his role in both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. The Academy finally decided to recognize Robinson with a lifetime achievement award, which delighted the aging star, but he died shortly before the ceremony.  The statuette that had eluded him in life was accepted by his second wife Jane. And though she remarked that Robinson had been thrilled with the award, it was in this writer and fan’s opinion, far too little recognition, offered far too late.

Directed by Hugo Fregonese, written by The Big Heat scribe Sidney Boehm, and photographed by A-Lister Stanley Cortez, Black Tuesday positively crackles. No pun intended. It’s a mean movie — cynical, cold-blooded, and hardboiled as hell. The title refers to the day when death row inmates are fated for their turn in the electric chair. In this particular case it’s a twin bill: the newspaper headlines reading, “Racket King and Bank Bandit Must Die!” The opening scene begins with a long, sweeping camera shot that closes in on the cellblock, then pans slowly from one cage to the next. Edward G. Robinson’s first impression is visceral; swathed in shadow, ‘Racket King’ Vincent Canelli paces from side to side behind the bars of his cell. He moves like a predatory animal, ready to lash out at anyone unfortunate enough to wander too close to the bars. One cell over Peter Graves does best impersonation, but the great man’s screen presence simply cannot be matched. In the background, Selwyn, a black inmate played by former professional wrestler Don Blackman, pounds a wooden stool and belts out the title song in the style of a woeful spiritual from a hundred years before.

Graves costars as ‘Bank Bandit’ Pete Manning, a cop killer who managed to stash his $200,000 haul before being caught, convicted, and sentenced to die. The money is the McGuffin in Black Tuesday — not just the money, but Manning’s abject refusal to divulge its whereabouts to anyone, even his fellow convicts. An early moment finds the warden offering Pete a ten-day reprieve in exchange for the cash. Manning says no dice: “Tell the governor it’s not the bank’s money, it’s mine. I earned it — the hard way.” Pete will give up the loot, but only in exchange for a commutation of his death sentence. But the governor won’t play ball: Manning must keep his appointment with the chair. One of the best things about this film is that it never compromises its dog-eat-dog worldview.

As the level of activity in the prison reaches a fever-pitch, Black Tuesday takes on a documentary tone — denizens on both sides of the law scramble through eleventh-hour preparations for the looming event. Canelli remains the center of attention. He antagonizes everyone from his cell — the guards, the warden, his fellow inmates, even the priest. It becomes clear that he has something planned, and eventually the audience is let in: Vince intends to bust out, and his crew has set an elaborate scheme in motion. The circumstances of the breakout are outrageous and implausible, but who cares? By this point you can’t wait to see what happens when Vince finally gets loose of his cell. Canelli plans to spring himself and Manning, fool the kid into giving up the loot, kill him, and then head for South America with his woman Hatti (Jean Parker) and the money. The thing comes off more or less as planned, though Manning takes a slug in the shoulder during the getaway, and Canelli finds himself babysitting a gaggle of hostages, including the priest, the death chamber M.D., a cub reporter, and the daughter of a prison guard.

The lone detail overlooked by Vincent was where Pete cleverly hid the $200,000 — in a safe deposit box at the First National Bank. A signature is required for access, so the wounded and all-too-recognizable bank robber is the only one who can get it. Canelli, along with the rest of his gang and the hostages hole up in a warehouse while Manning and Hatti attempt to retrieve the cash. They leave the bank with the money in a satchel, but the cops get wise and tail them to the warehouse after a light-headed Pete leaves a bloody fingerprint on the signature card. Black Tuesday quickly shifts gears from the prison break into a standoff set piece between the gangster and the cops.

The final twenty minutes are talky, but worth it — in the hands of a lesser screenwriter the film would have ended quickly and disappointingly under a hail of rote gunfire. Instead Boehm uses the claustrophobic tension of the warehouse to further develop his characters, and in the end offer one of them a sort of redemption. Most of the dialog involves Father Slocum, the prison chaplain, as he desperately tries to save the lives of his fellow hostages. Instead what is revealed is the depravity of Vincent Canelli. Robinson plays it to the bone though — Canelli engages in the conversation yet never softens — even after a ricochet kills Hatti. The film’s harsh milieu is relentless. The cops are equally as fierce in their determination to get their man at any cost, even if it means sacrificing the hostages — realized in one of Black Tuesday’s finest moments, as an anguished police inspector shouts to the captive priest, “I want you to know how it is with me Father. God forgive me, but I can’t help any of you.” It’s Robinson’s matter-of-fact performance that makes it all believable. His character is so authentically, irrevocably  corrupt and untouched by conscience that it’s easy to see how the police could weigh the balance of a few innocent lives in exchange for his. Gone are the nuances of the gangster-hero first brought to life in Robinson’s own little Rico and violently exploded with Cagney’s Cody Jarrett. In Vincent Canelli Robinson strips away the veneer of popular cinematic myth and reveals underneath the underworld figure as a cruel, vicious, and very real psychopath.

In the end, it’s the doomed younger man who sets things right, and achieves some small measure of redemption. As Pete comes to grips with his own destiny and the futility of the situation he makes the only choice that will save the lives of the hostages — he turns on the raging Vince and shoots him in the back. Pete steps through the warehouse door: “I’m coming out Hailey, with a gun in my hand!” and is met with a shower of bullets. The camera lingers on the half-lit doorway for a moment as the music begins to swell, then pans across the shadowy floor to Robinson’s outstretched hand, in death still clamoring for the gun.

Black Tuesday (1954)
Director: Hugo Fregonese
Cinematographer: Stanley Cortez
Screenplay: Sidney Boehm
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Peter Graves, and Jean Parker
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 80 minutes