Tuesday, September 30, 2014


John Farrow, 1948
Starring: Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan, Elsa Lanchester, Charles Laughton

George Stroud, the editor of Crimeways magazine, is fed up with his controlling boss, Earl Janoth, and is ready for a long-overdue vacation with his frustrated wife and young son. Unfortunately Stroud is too good at his job, prompting Janoth to insist that he stay another week in exchange for an all-expenses paid vacation, or be immediately fired. Choosing the latter, Stroud misses the train to go on vacation with his wife and instead gets drunk with Pauline, Janoth’s mistress and one of his only secrets. Pauline convinces Stroud that they should get revenge against the tyrant by publishing a tell-all book, but unfortunately Pauline is killed later that night. Janoth panics and looks for a fall guy, all the while closing in on Stroud, who is the only viable suspect.

Based on Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel, The Big Clock does not quite represent the best of film noir, but comes highly recommended thanks to excellent performances from Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. To be fair, I could watch Laughton (Witness for the Prosecution) in absolutely anything. He’s fantastic as Janoth, the controlling, megalomaniacal, time-obsessed murderer. Bizarrely, he has a Hitler-like mustache that he strokes throughout the film. Through these little details, Laughton is able to add an air of sexual menace to a character that is straight-laced, if not outright repressive, resulting in a villain far more memorable than the film’s plot. Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) nearly steals the film, as always, as an airheaded, yet sympathetic artist who could make or break the whole affair for Stroud.

Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder, The Lost Weekend) is perfect as Stroud. A mixture of sympathetic and slimy, Stroud is inherently flawed, not unlike other film noir protagonists. He purports to hate his job, but refuses to quit and badly neglects his wife – for example, they have been married five years and haven’t yet had a honeymoon. He should be catching a train to meet her, but instead spends the night drinking with his boss’s mistress. These two men seemingly at odds – Stroud and Janoth – fascinatingly have a number of parallels. While Stroud complains that he is overworked, he obviously strives in the fast-paced environment and it is his innovations that have driven up the readership of Crimeways.

The movie’s main flaw is that Stroud and Janoth are not pitted directly against each other. Janoth is searching for a fall man, while Stroud is searching for the real killer (primarily to exonerate himself), though they don’t realize one another’s complicity in the crime until five minutes before the film ends. The film also largely remains in lukewarm moral territory. Stroud neglects his wife and outright ignores her to have drinks with another woman, but in the novel he actually has an affair with Pauline. There is apparently allegedly a gay subplot, which the Production Code would never have allowed to appear in a ‘40s film. Both Stroud and Janoth’s characters, and the cold, modernist office building filled with clocks – a reflection of Janoth himself – hints at deeper resentments, aggressions, and plots. Janoth fires employees on a whim and treats the rest appallingly. Those who do meet his approval, such as Stroud, are manipulated, abused, and overworked.

This was director John Farrow’s earlier films noir, though he would soon turn his attention to the classic Night has a Thousand Eyes, Alias Nick Beal again with Milland, and Where Danger Lives and His Kind of Woman with Robert Mitchum. The Australian-born Farrow (father of actress Mia) began his career as a writer, but pushed for directorial duties and event spent some time serving in WWII with the Canadian Navy. His award-winning war film Wake Island, allowed him the luxury of choosing later projects. His wife, Maureen O’Sullivan (Tarzan and the Ape Man, The Thin Man), was persuaded to leave her temporary retirement to take the role of Stroud’s downtrodden wife. Though she nearly leaves him, she winds up helping to solve the mystery of Pauline’s killer. This resolves things between them, though the film can’t help but end on an uneasy note, as Stroud’s neglect of his wife was largely due to his personality.

There are some nice supporting performances, including George Macready (Gilda) is fittingly slimy as Janoth’s right hand man, while Rita Johnson (Here Comes Mr. Jordan) adds some nice humor in her portrayal of the doomed Pauline. A young Harry Morgan (High Noon, MASH), Douglas Spencer (Double Indemnity), and Lloyd Corrigan (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) round out the cast, while John Seitz (Double Indemnity) provides some lovely cinematography – much of which is clock-themed – and Victor Young (from The Uninvited) delivers an imaginative, somewhat whimsical score, fortunately one that is less clock-themed.

Available on DVD, The Big Clock comes recommended, particularly for fans of Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. And if – for shame – you don’t who Laughton is, then you should definitely give The Big Clock a try. It’s a pleasing film noir that somewhat breaks out of the predictable mold and offers up enough humor and suspense to keep this from being a nihilistic doom-fest (though I personally love those too). Fans of Hitchcock will probably also find this worth watching.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Anthony Mann, 1949
Starring: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell

Pablo Rodriguez, a Mexican agent, and Jack Bearnes, a U.S. officer, team up and go undercover to see if they can locate a ring of gangsters who are illegally transporting migrant workers from Mexico into California. These men are ruthlessly used as slave labor and mistreated at every turn, sometimes even killed. As Rodriguez and Bearnes get closer to the truth and hone in on a local businessman, things get infinitely more dangerous for the pair.

In many ways, Border Incident is a follow up to the previous noir efforts of director Anthony Mann, T-Men and He Walked By Night. All three are based on real events – actual crimes that occurred in the ‘40s – and are centered on different government agencies or police departments. The main characters are all law enforcement officers: Treasury agents in T-Men, police officers in He Walked By Night, and border patrol agents in Border Incident. Here, the barrier between Mexico and the U.S. is far more than just a geographical one and it is implied that unless the two governments work past language barriers, cultural differences, and racism, then this area will utterly sink into a bleak realm of exploitation and violence.

This nihilistic atmosphere is the antithesis of many classic western films and the mythic quality of the American western is utterly absent. There are plenty of daytime shots of desert, intense heat, human toil, and backbreaking labor, but most of the film is shot at night with John Alton’s incredible noir-flavored cinematography. Set in the Imperial Valley and Mexico, this bears more in common with Ride the Pink Horse, another Mexican-themed film noir, than it does with the westerns of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich, or even Anthony Mann himself; he went on to a career as a successful western director, often accompanied by star James Stewart.

Like Ride the Pink Horse and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, this is a rare film noir that steps away from white American society and includes Mexican culture, even featuring a few Mexican actors. Though all of these films step away from high-speed urban life, the quiet desert atmosphere is transformed into a hellish wasteland, an underworld where men in search of freedom are destined to meet their doom. That is perhaps Mann and cinematographer John Alton’s biggest accomplishment with Border Incident. The innocuous title doesn’t betray the film’s desperation and hopelessness. Though some gruesome violence occurs in T-Men and He Walked By Night, nothing compares to scenes of men thrashing around as they asphyxiate to death in muddy quicksand, or the death of one agent, who is wounded, partially buried in the ground, and then slowly run over with a tractor.

Script by John C. Higgins, who also wrote He Walked By Night, Mann’s undercover Federale, Pablo Rodriguez, is one of his most memorable film noir characters. Excellently played by a then up-and-coming Ricardo Montalban (Wrath of Khan), it’s refreshing to see Montalban actually cast as a Mexican for once, rather than a character of nebulous European ancestry. It’s also refreshing to finally see a Mexican person cast in a Mexican role – Hollywood in the ‘20s and ‘30s was particularly guilty of casting white Americans and Europeans in every role, regardless of whether it made sense. Border Incident largely shies away from inherent racism, presents its villains – the excellent Howard da Silva and Charles McGraw – as inherently racist. Like capitalist greed, manipulation, backstabbing, and underhanded violence, it is presented as another vile aspect of their personalities.

Perhaps distastefully to modern audiences, the film concludes with a voice over praising the collaboration of the U.S. and Mexican governments for clearing up the numerous border incidents. It claims they were able to achieve this sheerly through collaboration alone.  This, obviously, is laughable in regards to the history of the past 50+ years, but it’s a jarring note that is easily ignored and, thankfully, it’s the film’s only glaring flaw. Available on DVD, Border Patrol comes highly recommended. Those of you who find film noir too predictable or western not up your alley should definitely give Border Patrol a chance. This is also a must-see for anyone interested in painting or cinematography, as Alton’s work is – as always – incredibly beautiful.

I just wanted everyone to know how difficult it was for me to write this review without making any “Khan” references.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann, 1948
Starring: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Jack Webb

One night in L.A., a man named Roy Morgan acts suspiciously around a store. He is stopped by a friendly police officer, who he shoots in order to escape. Though he leaves almost no clues behind, the L.A.P.D. is hot on his trail, particularly detectives Brennan and Jones. Roy, meanwhile, is revealed to be a loner, hiding out with no one but his dog for company and selling stolen electronic equipment to make a living. Paul Reeves, his buyer, alerts the police that Roy might be their man, resulting in a stakeout and more violence. A forensics specialist helps track him down based on shell casings, but Roy is determined not to be captured alive, leading the entire police force on a dangerous chase through the city’s sewer system.

Allegedly inspired by the crimes of Erwin Walker, a returned soldier who went on a rampage in 1946 Los Angeles, He Walked By Night effectively mines one of the basic noir character types: the disturbed soldier lost in post-war life. Richard Basehart (La strada, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) is memorable as the ice-cold cop killer Roy, an obviously troubled and yet still fascinating man. Like the main characters of director Anthony Mann’s previous two noir efforts — T-Men and Raw Deal — something about Basehart is so nondescript that he easily blends in to a crowd. Basehart fulfills the role of the average, American guy next door, which is why his crimes, including killing a policeman, wounding another, and committing armed robbery, are so jarring.

Mann took over directing duties from Alfred L. Werker (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), though this looks and feels like a Mann film every step of the way. It doesn’t hurt that his regular collaborator, cinematographer John Alton, returned for yet another bout of spell bounding cinematography that helps transform a run of the mill film noir into something eerie and suggestive, symbolic and nightmarish. The noir aspects are more fascinating than the police procedural elements (though I do love that sub-genre), but it’s easy to see how influential this film has become. Roy’s violence is stark, particularly in comparison to that scenes that cushion it: quiet moments of life in late ‘40s Los Angeles, and some dull, dialogue-heavy moments that focus on the more mind-numbing aspects of police work. Thanks to Basehart’s performance and Alton’s camera work, even the scenes of Roy sitting in his dark apartment, listening to the police scanner, and waiting are rife with nervous tension and help build the film’s steadily increasing sense of danger and physical violence. The film’s conclusion — an anxiety-inducing chase scene set in LA’s storm drain system — is unforgettable and really must be seen.

Another worthwhile mention is the presence of actor Jack Webb. He was so inspired by the film’s documentary look, its subject matter, and his role as Lee, the evidence technician, that he created Dragnet, the famous police procedural TV series with docu-noir stylings. On the set of He Walked By Night, Webb also met the police technical advisor and began a friendship that is largely the basis for Dragnet. I’m a huge fan of Webb, as Dragnet was always on Nick at Night when I inevitably couldn’t fall asleep, and he’s perhaps more memorable here than Scott Brady (Gremlins) or James Cardwell (The Fighting Sullivans, A Walk in the Sun) as Brennan and Jones.

He Walked By Night comes highly recommended. If you’re going to watch any film noir that crosses over into police procedural territory, this should be it. Though Anthony Mann obviously deserves credit for his consistently excellent noir and western direction skills, John Alton’s cinematography is the real star. His frugal use of light is the closest to the German expressionist directors and cinematographers that anyone would really get during this period and watching He Walked By Night is akin to a learning exercise of how to the lens as a paintbrush and make an art out of light and shadow. It would be easy to say that his work rises above the subject matter, but I think he compliments it perfectly. Though the film is available in an embarrassingly fuzzy version through public domain, I recommend watching it on DVD, if only for the full, glorious effect of the cinematography.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RAW DEAL (1948)

Anthony Mann, 1948
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, John Ireland, Raymond Burr

Joe Sullivan has been imprisoned in place of an old crime buddy, Raymond Coyle, but breaks out with the help of his girlfriend Pat. Coyle has secretly assisted in the break out, in order to have Joe killed to avoid risking a confrontation – or having to pay out $50,000 of Joe’s rightful share. Joe and Pat hide from the police in the apartment of Ann, a beautiful, naïve social worker who has been trying to help Joe by visiting him in prison. They take her hostage as they travel through the woods towards San Francisco and Joe’s final confrontation with Raymond. But a reluctant, improbable love begins to develop between Ann and Joe, to Pat’s dismay, and it promises to spell doom for them all.

Anthony Mann’s second film noir after T-Men marks a reunion between Mann, cinematographer John Alton, and star Dennis O’Keefe. As with T-Men, this is an incredibly dark film, both in terms of thematic and visual content and plays with certain noir conventions, but forges fresh territory of its own. For example, there is no femme fatale to speak of despite the presence of Pat (Claire Trevor) and Ann (Marsha Hunt). While Claire Trevor was one of film noir’s reining queens thanks to femme fatale roles in noir classics like Born to Kill, Key Largo, and Murder, My Sweet. Here she brilliantly plays against type as Joe’s faithful but neglected girlfriend. It would have been easy to play Pat as much more hardboiled and sexually aggressive, but instead Trevor depicts a woman weighed down and unsatisfied by love. She devotedly follows Joe into a life of crime, always waiting for kisses and caresses or promises of love that never come.

Unusually, Pat is the main character of Raw Deal and – relatively unique to film noir – it is her voice over narration that guides the film to its tragic conclusion. There is a deep sense of romantic tragedy that progresses throughout the film as she discusses her relationship with Joe and his developing feelings for Ann, which she painfully watches develop. Her voice over is oddly accompanied by a Theremin, which gives the film an eerie, nightmarish feeling of doom and foreboding. This is intensified by John Alton’s incredible cinematography, which captures a sense of dream or hallucination thanks to ever-present fog and shadow. Though Joe, Ann, and Pat travel from the prison, through the woods, to a beach, and finally the city, the same dismal air haunts their steps.

Dennis O’Keefe is perhaps more memorable here than he was in T-Men. His presence is thoroughly masculine, but somehow nondescript. He’s also at the center of the film’s strong undercurrent of sexual desire that begins as a faint echo, but makes its way to the forefront by Raw Deal’s conclusion. Though Pat and Joe seem to be partners, and it’s clear she loves him, she states in her voice over that he has never told her that he loves her. Pat’s desire is cruelly repressed again and again when she hopes for Joe to kiss or hold her. Instead, the source of his affection becomes the equally repressed do-gooder, Ann. Prettier and more innocent than Pat, Ann is a source of tension throughout the film and represents Joe’s struggles between his lawless and socialized sides.

Their attraction to one another suggests a degree of sadomasochism. Ann’s fascination with Joe begins when he is behind bars, and she admits to later romanticizing him. Their first physical encounter occurs when he breaks into her room and surprises her in bed. After Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, this is the second film where a violent man running from his crimes breaks into a woman’s room to escape capture and she falls for him. She becomes yet more enamored with him when he forces a kiss on her and love is solidified when she later witnesses him beating two men and shoots one to protect him.

The tense, sadomasochistic sexuality is also present in Raymond Burr’s silkily menacing, yet somehow effeminate Rick Coyle. Rick is a direct contrast with Joe: he refuses to leave his lushly decorated home other than to travel to a fancy restaurant, and is often seen in a satin robe. He fears hard work and confrontation, though has a wide sadistic streak and likely a sexual fixation for fire. Joe explains that he was a pyromaniac earlier in life and he is often pictured with fire, such as lit candles or an expensive lighter. He later burns a woman’s face with a bowl of flaming brandy and threatens to torture Ann with fire so extensively that she won’t be recognizable.

Burr is perfect as Coyle and looks absolutely massive in every frame. In addition to the torture and fire, there is something perverse about his gang of criminals, all of whom are animalistically named. Rick Coyle (coil) is the head of Corkscrew Alley, and his main henchmen are Fantail (a darkly handsome John Ireland) and Spider. Coyle has homosexual or at least bisexual connotations, and there’s a scene where Fantail jokes that Joe mistook a large, stuff bear for Coyle. The first major fight scene – which is between Joe and Fantail, because Coyle is hiding at home -- takes place in a taxidermy shop.

Raw Deal comes highly recommended. It is available from Amazon, but deserves to be restored and released on Blu-ray. It’s considered to be more of a minor effort, but has a hypnotic, hallucinatory quality thanks to John Alton’s cinematography that must be seen to be believed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Anthony Mann, 1947
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder

These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard. 

Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro agree to become undercover agents while the U.S. Treasury Department is investigating a major counterfeiting ring that has a network across of much of the western U.S. In Detroit, they penetrate a branch of the Italian mob and make reputations from themselves. They meet “The Schemer,” a nervous man crucial to the flow of operations, though unfortunately he catches on that Genaro is not all that he seems to be. As the mob begins to close in on the pair, O’Brien gets close to the top of the organization when he pretends to be a fellow counterfeiter.

Director Anthony Mann kicked off his career with this gritty, docu-noir that rises far above the average police procedural. Mann would go on to direct Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), Side Street (1950), and a number of westerns with James Stewart, including Winchester ’73 (1950), The Man from Laramie (1955), and The Furies (1950), as well as period epics El Cid (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and spy-thriller A Dandy in Aspic (1968). This early effort is a collaboration with his regular cinematographer John Alton, responsible for the dark, foreboding, and documentary-style visuals.

Alton captures numerous Detroit and California locations, oppressive urban landscapes with plenty of grit and grime. Much of the film is set in sleazy hotel rooms, forbidding docks, and half-lit offices, as O’Brien and Genaro’s descent into the underworld becomes both a visual and moral journey. This is far more brutal than a run of the mill police procedural and I suspect it is one of the first films to openly blur the lines between gangsters and officers of the law (though Kiss of Death, also from 1947, treads on similar ground). Genaro and O’Brien are responsible for a number of unsavory actions. Though they have difficulty remaining undercover for so long, it is disturbingly easy for them to think and act like criminals. Both the two agents and their supervisors lose sight of the line between justice and criminality in their desperate pursuit to catch the counterfeiters.

Dennis O’Keefe (The Leopard Man, Raw Force) stars as the confusingly named Dennis O’Brien. He has a somewhat nondescript, easy to forget face, which was perfect for this role and he gave a solid performance.  Alfred Ryder (True Grit, Escape to Witch Mountain) is equal to O’Keefe as his partner, Tony Genaro. Genaro is a bit more rounded out and humanized, because of an encounter with this wife (played by June Lockhart of Lassie). The two meet by accident in a crowded market and his wife’s friend insists that Genaro is her husband, though he is desperately trying to hide his identity. His wife catches on and – though her eyes fill with tears – she coldly pretends not to known him. This is the last the two will ever meet as Mann boldly has Genaro killed.

Another incredible scene – one that I’m convinced was lifted right into David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises – involves the use of a disturbingly dark Turkish bath. Moxie (played with menace by Charles McGraw of The Birds) stalks his prey by waiting half-naked in the baths, ready to kill with only his bare hands. He eventually finds his prey and murders him in a terrifying scene where his victim’s death throes can only be seen through the port hole of the steam room door. In addition to McGraw, the film has a number of memorable villains and toughies. Wallace Ford (Harvey, Freaks, and Shadow of a Doubt) is excellent as a character known only as “The Schemer.” He leads Genaro to his doom, but is in turn targeted by Moxie. The leader of the counterfeiting ring surprisingly turns out to be a woman, singer Mary Meade, who is powerful and ruthless.

T-Men comes recommended. It is available on DVD and has much about it to enjoy. The voice over can be a bit much (or provide a lot of laughs), but this is a great introduction to Anthony Mann’s career as a noir stylist. I would have figured I was the last person on Earth who would be excited about a movie that follows around two Treasury Agents, but it’s impossible not to be enthralled by scenes such as the Turkish bath murder – or by a film willing, if not enthusiastic about killing off one of its two protagonists.

Friday, September 19, 2014

THE SET-UP (1949)

Robert Wise, 1949
Starring: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias

A washed up boxer past his prime, Stoker Thompson, is determined that one night he will win and change his fortunes. His wife, who can’t bear to see him beaten again, walks off her anxiety around the city. His manager, Tiny, has taken money from a local gangster, Little Boy, to guarantee that Stoker will lose the evening’s fight. Tiny is so confident that Stoker won’t win, that he’s neglected to mention the bet and the set-up, spelling doom.

Based on Joseph Moncure March’s epic poem about boxing and the sports underworld, The Set-Up is a rare boxing-noir film and is one of the finest boxing films ever made. Though it lacks some of the key noir tropes – the isolated antihero and the femme fatale – it has a pervasive atmosphere of gloom and defeat. Stoker is introduced as a defeated man. Even his loving wife doesn’t believe he will win and has obviously been hiding this from him for such a long time that she has reached a breaking point and – it is implied that this is for the first time in their marriage – she can’t bring herself to attend one of his fights. Noir regular Audrey Totter (The Unsuspected) is at her best here as Stoker’s genuinely concerned wife. The film occasionally cuts to her walking through the city (giving the action a break from the locker room, on occasion) and her sense of anxiety is a palpable undercurrent throughout The Set-Up.

Robert Ryan gives one of his best performances (which is saying a lot) as Stoker, a unique chance for him to play a good guy. The film adaptation strips away the poem’s racial issues (the boxer is black and deals with a variety of prejudice) and also removes the character’s moral ambiguities. Stoker is a decent guy, happily married, and hardworking, while the poem’s hero is a murkier fellow. It is perhaps Stoker’s good-hearted, honest nature and hard-working determination that makes the film so bitter sweet. It is obvious that he probably will win the fight with Tiger, a much younger boxer, but even if he wins, it’s a shallow victory.

Alan Baxter (Saboteur, Judgment at Nuremberg) is memorable as Little Boy, the film’s token bad guy. Little Boy is notable for not giving into the fit-throwing, scenery-chewing, or snappy dialogue of other movie mobsters from the period – thing James Cagney or Richard Widmark – but he’s quiet, with an icy resolve. Organized crime does not play a major role in the proceedings, and is little more than a useful plot element to insure that no matter what Stoker does, he will fail in some way.

One of the first films to make use of a “real time” structure, The Set-Up is incredibly tightly paced and not a moment of its running time (short at 70-some minutes) is wasted. Though much of the film takes place in the locker room, director Robert Wise turns it into a dynamic set where the grime and grittiness of the underworld boxing scene comes through, as do the personalities of the numerous hopeless, helpless boxers, men trying to make a name for themselves in a hostile world. Though I’m generally not a fan of boxing and find films about the sport particularly dull, the fight scene is gripping, despite the fact that it is shot close to the real duration of a boxing match, with excellent pacing and suspense. The film was also shot at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, incredibly famous for its boxers and star-studded audience.

The Set-Up comes highly recommended. It’s available on single-disc DVD or in the excellent Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 1 along with The Asphalt JungleGun Crazy, Murder My Sweet, and Out of the Past. Director Robert Wise had a long, varied career that includes everything from The Body Snatcher and The Haunting to West-Side Story and The Sound of Music. His work on The Set-Up is undeniably excellent and if you find most film noir too predictable, this moving, pensive work might just change your mind. It’s a true classic, thanks to Wise and what is maybe the best performance of Robert Ryan’s career, where he channels the spirit of post-war rage and violence into a character full of pathos and humanity.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Raoul Walsh, 1949
Starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien

Cody Jarrett is the leader of a group of gangsters and suffers from intense headaches and psychotic episodes. He relies on his mother, “Ma,” and mostly ignores his spoiled, unfaithful wife, Verna. After Cody’s gang botches a train robbery, Cody cleverly turns himself in for a much more minor crime, which serves as his alibi and insures him far less jail time. While in prison, an undercover agent, Hank aka “Vic,” is put on Cody’s tail, because the D.A. is determined to catch him for the train robbery or another, new caper, and put him away for life. Cody and Vic bond, but the escape they have planned takes a new turn when Cody learns that Ma has been killed and he slips into a psychotic rage.

Based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, who also wrote the women-in-prison film Caged (1950), White Heat is rightly considered a crime film classic. James Cagney was towards the end of his career here, though he delivered one of his greatest performances as Cody, the maniacal, mother-loving psychopath. Cody was based loosely on the Barker family, two gangster brothers from the ‘30s with a famously domineering “Ma,” and on Francis Crowley. He had a shoot-out with the police and apparently said “Send my love to my mother,” just before his execution. But it is Cagney’s spirited, almost frighteningly intense portrayal that makes Cody three-dimensional, a cut above the generic toughies and gangsters flooding the market thanks to the run of film noir in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Cagney effectively crafted the charming, power hungry, unstable gangster character in The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and in The Roaring Twenties (1939), which he made with director Raoul Walsh. If any two men were suited to producing the last hurrah of the gangster film, it was certainly Cagney and Walsh. In addition to The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, he helmed another gangster-noir classic, High Sierra (1941), which starred Humphrey Bogart as a good-hearted gangster forced to go on the run.

White Heat is like a ‘30s gangster film bred with the post-war psychosis and nihilism of film noir. It contains many noir tropes, including the documentary-style cinematography influenced by German expressionism, location shooting in California, and the use of a femme fatale through Cody’s homicidal, two-timing wife Verna. But, thanks to Cagney and Walsh, Cody’s character is so unlike the standard noir anti-hero or villain. Cody is disturbingly psychotic – so much so that his performance and the constraints of the Production Code barely date the film – and his devotion to his mother is almost openly incestual. He sits on his mother’s lap and nurses from a glass of whiskey, while she lets him nibble some toast. She coddles him, but also takes part in his crimes. He goes on a rampage in the prison after learning of her death in what is surely one of the most physical and demanding performances of the ‘40s. He is responsible for the film’s few genuinely frightening moments, all of which remain a testament to his power as an actor.

There are some strong supporting performances. Obviously Margaret Wycherly (Sergeant York) is excellent as Ma and casts quite an impression over the film, even though she only has a few scenes. Virginia Mayo (The Best Years of Our Lives) is memorably sassy as Cody’s wife Verna, a woman who cares only for her own creature comforts. Edmond O’Brien (The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) nearly steals the film as Hank aka Vic, the brave undercover agent who is clearly a blueprint for later characters of a similar nature.

White Heat is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. If you’re going to see any ‘30s or ‘40s gangster film, this is at the top of the list. It was also hugely influence and it’s easy to pick out characters and scenes that would be borrowed for later films. For example, after White Heat, heist films would play a larger role in film noir with The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and others. The finale is downright apocalyptic and there isn’t much else like from the time period, with Cagney alone, at the top of the world, laughing maniacally as flames surround him.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Frank Borzage, 1948
Starring: Dane Clark, Gail Russell, Ethel Barrymore

The young Danny Hawkins is haunted by his family history: when he was just a baby, his father was hanged for murder. The locals have not let him forget this and he was ostracized and bullied for most of his life. One night, during a dance, he accidentally kills his long-time nemesis and, in a panic, hides the body in the swamp. He also happens to fall in love with the dead man’s girlfriend, Gilly. As their relationship develops, the body is found and Danny descends into a nightmarish world of guilt and paranoia, which culminates in him running from Ginny to hide in the swamps.

A fascinating mixture of grim realism and disturbing fantasy, there is nothing quite like Frank Borzage’s Moonrise. Though generally known as a director of romance and melodrama, he helmed this low budget production for Republic Pictures. Based on a novel by Theodore Strauss, this blend of melodrama, film noir, and Southern Gothic wasn’t appreciated in its day, but has since come to be regarded as something of a forgotten classic. Charles F. Haas's moody screenplay has touches of a fairytale about it and, unlike most film noir, has a hopeful, redemptive conclusion.

Dane Clark (Destination Tokyo) gives his best performance here as the oddly innocent and childlike Danny. The film’s mythic, fairytale quality largely resolves around his adventure that takes him through revenge, guilt, and madness, and towards emotional growth and spiritual redemption. His relationship with Gilly is inherently childish, at least at the beginning. They both have juvenile sounding nicknames (Danny, Gilly). They spend their time playing make believe in an old mansion and attending a carnival, where they ride a Ferris wheel. Gilly is an elementary school teacher, but constantly complains about the children; it is later implied that she isn’t mature enough to handle the responsibility. With Danny in particular, there is the sense that he does not mature into adulthood until he learns his true family history, turns himself in, and walks back to town “like a man.”

The swamp is also a stand-in for the typical enchanted forest setting of fairytales and it is during several trips here that Danny transforms away from his violent, impulsive, and future-less origins. His guardian angel, of sorts, is played by Rex Ingram, in one of film noir’s new non-stereotypical African American roles. Mose is depicted as wise, intelligent, and widely read (one character claims that he’s read every single book that’s ever been written). He’s kind to his dogs and knows the lay of the swamp. Though he is clearly at peace here, he explains to Danny that it’s a great evil to willingly separate yourself from other men. Danny also eventually finds his grandmother deep in the swamp. Played majestically (as always) by Ethel Barrymore, her maternal wisdom sets him straight and allows him to cast aside what he thought was a predetermined future of misery, violence, and death. Even the sheriff (played by Allyn Joslyn) is a voice of quirky, yet rational advice and deep philosophy that steadies the film’s nightmarish visuals.

The swamp setting is eerie, oneiric, and highly stylized. This is mainly due to the fact that Borzage shot on two sound stages to save time. The opening is particularly gripping and unsettling; a man’s feet march towards the gallows and he is hanged in silhouette, a young boy pretends to strangle himself to death, a child is viciously mocked by his classmates. John L. Russell's black and white cinematography (he later worked on Psycho) is claustrophobic, heavily shadowed, and clearly influenced by German expressionism. The rural, small town atmosphere is rare for film noir (some exceptions include The Red House and Nightmare Alley). Enhanced by the gloomy swamp and old Southern mansions crumbling into decay, Moonrise is an odd blend of realism – the kind scene at that time in poverty-focused films like Grapes of Wrath – and the kind of magical realism found in Night of the Hunter and hinted at in The Lost Weekend and Nightmare Alley.

Last but not least, Gail Russell is particularly excellent as Gilly and evokes the otherworldly air that made her such a success in The Uninvited a few years earlier and that would work in Night Has a Thousand Eyes, also in 1948. Clark and Russell have excellent charisma and their love scenes are believable, particularly the scene where they hide out in an abandoned mansion and pretend to dance at a gala ball. It is here that Gilly really falls in love with Danny and the somewhat fantastic, idyllic element of their love is made obvious.

Moonrise comes highly recommended. Unfortunately it isn’t available on DVD – I’d love to see a Blu-ray – but you can find it streaming online. Hopefully someone will rescue it from obscurity and clean up the print, because even if you aren’t as gripped by the story as I was, the visuals are some of the most amazing in all of late ‘40s cinema.


Norman Foster, 1948
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Burt Lancaster, Robert Newton

“Everybody’s against you, everybody!”

One night a former American soldier and prisoner of war, Bill, accidentally kills a man in a bar in England during a minor dispute. He runs from the scene and takes refuge in an open window, which happens to be the apartment of Jane, a nurse. Though at first afraid and suspicious, Bill begins to trust her and explains that the man’s death was accidental. Eventually, the two begin to strike up a relationship, though this is put on hold when Bill is arrested for another violent incident. Jane waits for him during the six months he’s in jail, and then gets him a job as a medical supply driver. Things are beginning to go well for them when Harry, a charming underworld thug, attempts to blackmail Bill.

Despite its incredibly lurid title and the presence of stars Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine, Kiss the Blood off My Hands had largely been ignored by contemporary film noir fans, due to the fact that it isn’t available on DVD and is somewhat difficult to find for home viewing. That’s a real shame, because though this might not be a top-tier genre classic, it’s a doom-laden, worthwhile entry in the noir canon and takes a particularly interesting look at the aftereffects of the war. The shadow of war haunts the film, which is interestingly set in crumbling post-war London, in the process of being rebuilt, and is focused on a character trying to rebuild his life after years in a Nazi POW camp. The stereotypical noir protagonist, Bill is an antihero, an isolated man adrift in a hostile world stifled by feelings of guilt.

There are some wonderful scenes that crystalize Bill’s contrasting persona. He is physically and sexually attractive, but also tormented and menacing. Lancaster’s physicality works perfectly for the role – he was a circus performer before turning to acting – and his normally overwrought acting style fits with Bill’s unstable personality and sense of arrested development. Bill sums up the noir protagonist in the sense that he can best be described as the place where good intentions, bad luck, unfortunate decisions, and violence meet. He’s not inherently a bad guy, but fate seems to be ever working against him. This is easily one of Burt Lancaster’s best roles, where his ultimate angst and scenery chewing don’t feel too over the top. The film makes a lot of sense in hindsight, as his violent behavior, seeming blackouts, and lack of control fits within the realm of post-traumatic stress disorder.

He is largely a source of physical and sexual appeal and it’s easy to see why attracts the lonely, repressed Jane (Joan Fontaine of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion). It’s difficult to accept that after Bill breaks into Jane’s home and holds her captive there during the night, a romance somehow develops between the two of them. But Kiss the Blood off My Hands – as the title may suggest – is steeped in a subtle sense of sadomasochism. In addition to their first meeting, where Bill breaks into her apartment, Bill and Jane’s first date essentially comes about because he stalks her through the city. They meet at the zoo where the sight of caged predators gives Bill a panic attack. Later, there is a scene in prison where Bill is relentlessly whipped with a cat o’nine tails. This sense of menacing sexual is enhanced by a scene in a train car, where man comes on to Jane and Bill later beats him. Finally, it culminates in Harry’s attempted rape of Jane, but she in turn penetrates him with a pair of scissors.

Speaking of Harry, British actor Robert Newton (Treasure Island) shines as the affable trickster trying to edge Bill into the underworld, who soon transforms into a convincingly malevolent force of evil. In many ways, Harry represents the state of the post-war world Bill and Jane inhabit. At first, he seems to be sympathetic, understanding, and helpful. His attempts to coerce Bill into crime are subtle and seem like rational acts – for how else will Bill find employment and make his way into the world? But this benign exterior is soon peeled away to reveal a force of violence, evil, and corruption. Harry engages in blackmail, prepares to steal medicine from sick children and, most surprisingly of all, attempts to rape Jane.

Kiss the Blood off My Hands comes highly recommended. Director Norman Foster delivers what is undoubtedly his masterpiece. Though he was also co-director of Orson Welles’s Journey into Fear, he primarily helmed action films like entries in the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series, Davey Crockett and the River Pirate, The Mask of Zorro, and more. Welles’ occasional cinematography Russell Metty gives the film its menacing, shadowy visuals that are certainly one of the film’s high points. Last, but not least, is the wonderful score from Miklós Rózsa, which, as all his noir works (Double Indemnity, Spellbound, The Killers), is wonderful.

Monday, September 15, 2014


Byron Haskin, 1948
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey

After Frankie Madison is released from 14 years in prison, he goes to see his old rum-runner partner Noll Turner, and learns that Noll has frozen him out and he won't get a share of Noll's successful nightclub business. Noll tries to distract Frankie with Noll's own singer girlfriend, Kay, who works at the nightclub. What Kay doesn't realize is that Noll is planning to marry a wealthy socialite behind her back in order to increase the fortune he's amassing. Frankie begins to see through Noll's schemes and tries to take half of the business by force, not realizing that Noll has cleverly tied everything in paperwork, fake corporations, and other financial tricks. Noll has Frankie badly beaten and framed for murder, which forces a showdown between the two men.

Based on the play Beggars Are Coming to Town by Theodore Reeves, this marks the first collaboration between actors Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, who were in a number of films together, including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Douglas got his start in noir with films like The Strange Lover of Martha Ivers (1946) and Out of the Past (1947). I Walk Alone was only his fourth film role. He gives a solid performance as the slimy, charismatic, and duplicitous Noll, a man with humble origins as a bootlegger whose change of fortunes results in a nightclub. While Noll is a fairly standard character-type, Douglas has a few quirks, including his mounting obsession with money. Presumably, he is marrying the wealthy socialite – also a masochist – in order to insure that if his business fails, he'll have some financial security. A strange motivation for a supposedly assured, confident man. Unlike The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Out of the Past, or the later Ace in the Hole, I Walk Alone just doesn't offer enough in the way of script material for Douglas to shine.

Lancaster also got his start in noir with The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947). Similarly to Douglas, this was Lancaster's fifth film. Despite his powerful physical performances, Lancaster simply doesn't have the acting prowess of Douglas, which is more than evident with I Walk Alone's script. He is unable to carry the numerous melodramatic scenes and one in particular – where Douglas trips him up with miles of red tape and his response is to sit with his head in his hands – come across as a little ridiculous. He is somewhat tempered by Lizabeth Scott, another actress not quite as strong as her competition (such as Lauren Bacall or Barbara Stanwyck), though she's likable and memorable as Kay, a nightclub singer who first seems to be a femme fatale, but is really just a trusting romantic.

I Walk Alone is entertaining, but is not a film noir classic. It mostly suffers from a mediocre script and a sense of too little too late and potential that fizzles out. There are some nice performances – it's worth watching once for Douglas and Lancaster – and a few good scenes, but nothing about it is inspired or original. The confrontation between Douglas and Lancaster happens far too late in the film and a number of unraveling plot threads dissipate the building sense of tension and dread. Though I Walk Alone isn't available on DVD, you can rent it streaming on Amazon. It comes recommended only for die-hard fans of noir, Douglas, Lancaster, or Scott, who gives one of her most likable performances here.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Fred Zinnemann, 1948
Starring: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh

Frank, a war hero, lives in suburban bliss with his wife and young son. While on a fishing trip with a neighbor, a former friend and war buddy, Joe Parkson, begins stalking him. Though Frank tells his wife that Joe is insane, damaged from his war experience, she eventually finds out the truth from Joe himself. He's there to kill Frank, because Frank betrayed Joe and their unit during the war, resulting in the deaths of numerous soldiers and Joe's disfigured leg. Frank was a Nazi informer, trading the location of their escape tunnel for food. Frank won't call the police, but flees to L.A., where Joe chases him through the city with murder on his mind.

Director Frank Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity) made a number of films about the war and about soldiers trying to survive in postwar life: The Seventh Cross (1944) with Spencer Tracy, The Search (1948) with Montgomery Clift, and The Men (1950), featuring Marlon Brando in his debut role. Zinnemann's excellent war films are likely inspired by his personal history. He fled Austria in the late '30s, but his parents remained behind and eventually died in concentration camps. Perhaps as a result, Act of Violence is an inspired meditation on guilt, personal responsibility, and the numerous gray areas of human morality.

Based on a story by producer Collier Young (husband of the period's only female noir director and a regular actress in the genre, Ida Lupino), there is something unique about Act of Violence. There are many film noir efforts concerned with returning veterans coping with a post-war world and transitioning away from a life of violence: The Blue Dahlia, Crossfire, Cornered, Kiss the Blood off My Hands, The Woman on the Beach, and more. Act of Violence is made up of a successful blend of bleak melodrama, suspense, and two powerful performances that convincingly portray good men who are forced to make bad decisions and are pushed to their limits by violence. Both Joe and Frank are painted equally black and depicted as equally flawed. It is difficult to identify with one more than the other, leaving the film with no true protagonist.

This is certainly one of Robert Ryan's best roles, which is saying a lot considering that he was a regular noir fixture in films like Crossfire, Caught, The Set Up, Woman on the Beach, The Secret Fury, and others. His grizzled face and menacing demeanor are used perfectly at the film's opening, which lacks a credits sequence and cuts immediately to a sweaty, anxious, desperate-looking Joe acquiring a gun and heading out towards an obviously dark purpose. Van Heflin (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Possessed) is his opposite: an assured family man living in a Californian domestic paradise. His secret, cowardly side is soon revealed and it is obvious the men are on equal footing.

The film's female performances are nearly equal to Ryan and Heflin. A very young Janet Leigh is his sweet, adoring, and ultimately realistic wife who admits that she knows he is no longer a hero, but just a regular man full of the same base nature that everyone contains. The unfortunately named Phyllis Thaxter (Blood on the Moon) plays a similar role as Joe's girlfriend, a desperate young woman trying to keep the man she loves from the brink of insanity, barbarity, and ruin. An aged Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) nearly steals the film as a hardened prostitute past her prime, and there are memorable appearances from noir regulars Taylor Holmes (Nightmare Alley) as a lawyer of dubious morals, and Berry Kroeger (Cry of the City) as the enthusiastic murderer-for-hire.

Act of Violence is available on DVD as a double feature with Mystery Street and comes highly recommended. Not a moment of the film is wasted and there are plenty of menacing moments where Van Heflin's terror is equaled by Robert Surtees' (Ben Hur) mesmerizing cinematography. The exteriors of nighttime L.A. are breathtakingly beautiful and menacing in equal turns and provide a nice contrast to sunny suburbia. Through Zinnemann's excellent direction and Ryan and Heflin's performances, every setting becomes a place of terror, isolation, doom, and claustrophobia, from the picturesque lake to the rain-slicked city and Heflin's shadowy home.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Robert Wise, 1948
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Preston

Jim Garry, a wandering cowboy, comes across the Luftons, a family of ranchers bitterly protecting their land and cattle against Tate Riling, who just happens to be Garry’s closest friend. Though he initially begins working with Riling as something of a gunman and body guard, he soon begins to realize that Riling is developing a scheme to clean out the generally honest Luftons and though he would make quite a profit – and much to everyone’s surprise – Garry changes sides with predictably violent results.

Based on Gunman’s Chance by Luke Short, Blood on the Moon (what a title) is generally considered a psychological-western or western-noir, which is why I’ve included it with this series – plus Robert Wise is one of America’s finest directors and his films are always a delight. Loosely similar to 1947’s Pursued, another noir-themed western starring the ever-wonderful Robert Mitchum, Blood on the Moon is far darker than the typical western being released during this period. Mitchum is the perfect embodiment of the hard-boiled cowboy and the ease with which he expresses moral ambiguity works wonderfully for the film. Mostly, credit for the film’s success should go to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who turned the frontier into a place of night and shadow, claustrophobia, violence, and murky morality. Famous for his work on Out of the Past (also with Mitchum) and Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), a contender for first-ever film noir, Musuraca really stretched his legs with RKO and Val Lewton on Cat People (1942), where director Robert Wise also worked as an editor and later a director.

Wise, Musuraca, and art directors Albert D’Agostino and Walter Keller played up their noir/suspense strengths – all of them worked at RKO on horror films. Even composer Roy Webb was more experienced writing suspense scores (including Notorious, Out of the Past). Wise would later go on to direct outright noir with The Set-Up (1949) in the following year and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) at the end of the cycle. His strength as a director and his ability to pick a crack team is abundantly available here. Though sometimes lagging in pace, the film is a nice blend of masculine bravado, down-home family dynamics, more typical western scenes, and moments of explosive, realistic violence.

With themes of vengeance, violence, greed, and morality, Blood on the Moon is well worth a look for fans of both westerns and film noir. Robert Mitchum is captivating, as always, and basically carries the film himself with some help from Barbara Bel Geddes (Vertigo, Panic the Streets) as Amy, Garry’s rough-and-tumble love interest who first meets him by shooting at him in a rare, humorous scene. Garry, not one to make exceptions for the ladies, gives as good as he gets, of course. As with many other noir efforts, there is a complex relationship between two leading male characters, one that is often more involved than the protagonist and his love interest. Mitchum and Robert Preson (This Gun for Hire) have great charisma and immediately establish that Garry and Riling (Preston) are incredibly close and have often trusted each other with their lives. In something of a triangle between Amy and Riling, Garry is torn between living in a society made up masculine, power-driven greed and corruption (a typically noir world) or choosing domesticity, honesty, and integrity.

Shot in California and Arizona, the scenery is breathtaking, particularly the gritty fight sequences. There’s plenty of serious fighting and action, including a wonderful chase sequence through the mountains and a tougher, dirtier version of the standard gun battle. Garry and Riling’s close relationship make these fights particularly suspenseful, as it is soon established that Riling isn’t afraid of a few casualties in his path and, ultimately, both men shoot to kill.

Though it’s not available on DVD due to copyright issues, Blood on the Moon comes recommended thanks to the wonderful atmosphere, direction, and performances (one day I’ll figure out why Robert Mitchum is so charismatic and appealing). You can find it on TCM occasionally or streaming online. It had to compete with Howard Hawks’ superior Red River, also released that year, which is possibly why it’s overlooked, but it deserves a resurgence among fans of '40s and '50s cinema, film noir, westerns, Robert Wise, and, of course, Robert Mitchum.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Anatole Litvak, 1948
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster

In Manhattan, the bedridden Leona Stevenson is trying to get in touch with her husband Henry when he doesn’t return home after work one evening. She is accidentally connected to a call where two men discuss a woman’s impending murder, which will occur that night at 11:15 p.m., timed with a passing train to make sure no one hears her screams. Leona, a spoiled heiress, dramatically insists that someone intervene (and find her husband0, but she is ignored by the telephone company, the police, and her doting father, who is hours away in Chicago; they all assume she is ill and bored. But soon, Leona herself begins to put the clues together and, after a series of alarming phone calls, realizes that she might be the murderer’s target.

Adapted from Lucille Fletcher's wildly popular radio play from Suspense, which originally starred Agnes Moorehead, this began as more of a Gothic suspense story, but was transformed into something closer to noir in this film adaptation. Gothic-noir was relatively popular during the period with films like Rebecca, Gaslight, I Walked with a Zombie, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, and others. Sorry, Wrong Number becomes less of a “woman’s picture” (as the above were known) and more a film noir thanks to its use of flash back, the disorientation of time and space, and the drug heist subplot that was played down at the Production Code’s insistence.

The radio play’s constantly building suspense is replaced by a sense of impending doom and the realization that none of these characters are inherently good people – each one leads to Leona’s demise by following their own selfish inclinations. She encounters a fundamentally hostile, callous, and cynical world where no one believes her story, her wealth can’t save her, and her feminine cries for help fall on deaf ears. Known as the “Cough Drop Queen,” thanks to her drug industry giant father, she fits in with the Victorian concept of the “cult of invalidism,” where women spent much of their adult lives in bed due to illnesses that were largely psychosomatic or consciously intended. These women were prone to fainting fits and starvation, they were considered thin, frail, and unwell, and represented the extreme of the Victorian notion that women were dependent creatures unable to care for themselves. This was often associated with wealth and was primarily an upper class plight.

None of the characters, including Leona, are portrayed as inherently evil or immoral – they are ultimately products of their environment, twisted by wealth, greed, possessiveness, and paranoia. Leona’s controlling and selfish nature nearly causes her to become the film’s villain, but director Anatole Litvak (Confessions of a Nazi Spy) makes her a truly sympathetic character by the film’s conclusion by asserting that she may be horrible to her husband, but she was made that way. She is unaware that her illness and weak heart are psychosomatic and this is a major blow that helps her reassess her treatment of Henry – in the little time she has left. Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) – a regular presence in film noir and a powerhouse in her own right -- is excellent here and her scenery chewing and hysterical thrashing about is a sight to behold.

I’ve heard some complaints that Burt Lancaster was miscast, but I think he’s perfect here. He’s the right mix of ambitious, naïve, masculine, and submissive to fall under Leona’s spell and become stuck in a trap between her and her father. Henry becomes addicted to money and success and is a prison of his own making. Robust noir regular Ed Begley (12 Angry Men) is memorable as Leona’s father James and between the two, they build a nearly impenetrable fortress of control, manipulation, jealousy, and possessiveness. The claustrophobic décor in both James’ Chicago mansion and Leona’s New York abode is an accurate reflection of their personalities. While her father’s house is stuffed with hunting trophies, hers is packed with lace doilies and other expensive feminine bric-a-brac. Both have large, somewhat garish portraits of each other hanging on their walls and there is no place for Henry anywhere in the mess.

The film’s main flaw is that sometimes there’s just too much plot – it breaks up the film’s tense pacing and carefully layered suspense. Leona’s story is explained by a series of lengthy flashbacks, all initiated by different phone calls. While the phone – and media and communication in general – plays a role in many noir films, it is perhaps the most menacing here and in Fritz Lang’s The Blue Dahlia. With that said, there are also simply too many unrealistic coincidences. Leona just happens to overhear the phone call ordering her death and Sally, Henry’s ex-girlfriend, just happens to be married to the district attorney prosecuting Henry?

Available on DVD, Sorry, Wrong Number comes recommend. Though I’ve never listened to the radio play, the film definitely becomes its own, solid if overwrought creation with help from Franz Waxman’s score, Sol Polito’s cinematography, full of uncomfortable close-ups, and a great supporting cast that includes William Conrad, Leif Erikson, and Wendell Corey. If Gothic noir doesn’t generally interest you, this suspenseful, nihilistic little film might be what changes your mind. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Abraham Polonsky, 1948
Starring: John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor

A successful Wall Street lawyer from the wrong side of the tracks, Joe Morse, is working under a powerful, white collar gangster, Ben Tucker, who plans to consolidate various small-time gambling outfits in New York City. It just so happens that Joe’s older, harried brother, Leo, owns one such establishment. Though Joe plans to make millions of dollars and help Leo and his small family of loyal employees. Unfortunately a nervous accountant informs on the operation, spelling doom for them all.

While Martin Scorsese has repeatedly stated that Force of Evil was a model for his blue collar gangster films like Goodfellas, it’s also an obvious influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Unfortunately director Abraham Polonsky’s film was all but ignored during its release, receiving mild critical appraise at best and, a few years later, it was used to brand Polonsky as a dissident and traitor. He previously rose to acclaim with his script for noir-boxing film Body and Soul (1947), which also starred John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice). Sadly, both men had their careers stalled by the House Un-American Activities Committee trials, where Polonsky was nailed for being a Communist and was blacklisted from Hollywood in 1951. Though he continued working as a writer under an assumed name and later returned to television and then film, it destroyed his career. Garfield was listed as being uncooperative and suspected of Communist activities alongside other film noir actors like Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni. He died soon after the hearings of a heart attack at age 39 in 1952.

This is the finest film from both men and remains a considerable achievement in film noir and ‘40s cinema. The excellent script from Polonsky and novelist Ira Wolfert, upon whose Tucker’s People this film was based, takes noir stereotypes and turns them into something magical. Joe Morse is the film’s hero, villain, and scapegoat. He’s an incredibly complex character -- charming, ruthless, manipulative, and self-loathing -- that represents both white and blue collar sides of business. Though he is corruptible and his primary goal seems to be amassing wealth, he does have good intentions and desire to help those close to him. Unfortunately, his idea of help is self-centered, impulsive, dangerous, and presumptuous, and leads directly to ruin and even death. Yet despite his handsomeness, charm, success, and skill for manipulation, he is also the film’s whipping boy. Other characters blame their greed, corruptibility, and failures on him, which gradually seep into his identity as he realizes the evils of the organization and tries to right his wrongs.

Much of Force of Evil’s subversiveness comes from its depiction of capitalism as the root of all evil, crime, and corruption. Joe spends much of the first act explaining away his behavior, justifying his beliefs that might and manipulation are simply the rational way to live in a modern world. The blatant abuse of human life that ruins so many of the characters in Force of Evil is clearly the fault of business and capitalism; Tucker is merely one crooked businessman out of many and is not the overarching cause of so much misery and defeat. Many of the film’s characters exhibit a disdain for regular people, a lack of sympathy and emotion that would be described today as sociopathic. Unsurprisingly, this personality type is considered by psychologists to be complimentary for the business world.

Garfield is surrounded by capable and memorable supporting actors. Thomas Gomez (Ride the Pink Horse, Key Largo) is likable and sympathetic as Leo, Joe’s brother, and provides an unforgettable air of tragedy to the film. Their relationship is Force of Evil’s heart and trumps both of Joe’s romantic relationships in its depth and intensity. Though I do have to say that the film’s female characters are far more than stylish window dressing and are critical points around which Joe’s psyche revolves. The innocent Doris represents a doomed hope for a stable domestic future, while the sordid Edna represents the attractive lure that keeps him sunk in a life of crime and corruption. Marie Windsor (The KillingThe Narrow Margin) gives a memorable performance as Edna, Tucker’s wife and Joe’s sometimes girlfriend, and is convincingly slimy and sultry in turns, without overdoing it. Beatrice Pearson is unfortunately the squeaky wheel as Doris, Leo’s loyal employee and Joe’s wholesome love interest. She simply doesn’t have the range or experience of the rest of the cast and didn’t go on to do much after this film.

One of Force of Evil’s strongest points is its near sublime use of New York locations: Wall Street, the Washington Bridge, claustrophobic offices, seedy nightclubs, and grimy little diners. Somewhat miraculously, the set is part of what makes it easy to understand why average, blue collar family-men stray towards lives of corruption, as daily survival is a constant, ruthless up-hill battle. Shot in a documentary style by George Barnes, the film’s memorable visuals were inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper and oddly have much in common with the disorienting Dutch angles of the soon to follow Carol Reed film, The Third Man (1949).

There is much to recommend about Force of Evil and it is quickly becoming one of my favorites in the noir series. There’s a great score from Laura’s David Raksin, a disturbing and poetic finale that is darker and more depressing than notorious downers like Out of the Past or Double Indemnity, and some truly incredible dialogue. The non- stop sense of tension and relentless pacing are bolstered by some great scenes: there’s one wonderful moment where someone attempts to shoot Joe in an office. The lights are switched off and the chair that he occupied a second before spins in the dark, empty, with the leather shining in the glare of a streetlight. Available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, this is the version I watched and it comes highly recommended – the picture looks phenomenal and – even if you aren’t as obsessed with socialist rhetoric as I am -- the film is an obvious influence on the crime/gangster revival of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Monday, September 8, 2014


Robert Montgomery, 1947
Starring: Robert Montgomery, Wanda Hendrix, Thomas Gomez

Lucky Gagin takes a bus to San Pablo, New Mexico and is hot on the trail of Frank Hugo, a gangster who murdered Gagin’s best friend, Shorty. He has accidentally arrived during the local festival and all the hotel rooms are booked up. Despite Gagin’s icy demeanor, mistrust, and determination to be alone, he reluctantly befriends a hard-drinking, jovial Mexican named Pancho. Pancho allows him to take shelter at his merry-go-round. Gagin is also followed and cared for by a strange Mexican girl, Pila, and an FBI agent tries to persuade him to stay away from Hugo before it is too late…

Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel of the same name and adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, Ride the Pink Horse is an oft-neglected but unique take on film noir. Though it has some of film noir’s typical elements – an isolated anti-hero suffering from a serious case of post-war disillusionment, crime, corruption, gangsters, and a femme fatale in the form of Frank Hugo’s double-crossing girlfriend (played by The Beast with Five Fingers’ Andrea King) – the film shines thanks to its more uncommon elements.

To begin with, the New Mexico setting is wonderfully used by director and star Robert Montgomery. It features a poor, rural town in the full swing of the local carnival, Fiestas de Santa Fe (actually the oldest in the U.S.), complete with costumed revelers crowding the streets. Effigies are burned, sweaty couples dance to Mexican-style music, and an antique merry-go-round is the film’s centerpiece.  The real 65-year-old Taos merry-go-round that inspired Hughes' novel was allegedly shipped to Universal and used as part of the film’s set. It helps inspire the fairytale-like tone of the film, which rests beneath layers of violence and gruff masculinity.

In a mythic/fairytale twist, Gagin has three helpers that support him on his journey and literally help to bring him back from death. The first is Bill Retz (Art Smith of In a Lonely Place and Letter from an Unknown Woman), the paternal, stolid FBI agent trying to keep on the right side of the law. Second is Pancho (Thomas Gomez of Key Largo), the jovial owner of a carousel who represents male camaraderie and invites Gagin to sleep near the fantastically-colored wooden horses. Finally, Pila (Wanda Hendrix of Prince of Foxes), the young girl who follows him throughout the film, is presented as mysterious and otherworldly, a being presumably in need of neither sleep nor food until Gagin begins to domesticate her. Though more typical noir stock characters interact with him and offer him help throughout the course of the film, he instinctively chooses the three outcasts and is ultimately rewarded for this. Their often unexplained loyalty is what helps transforms him from a misanthropic “man with no place,” emotion, or hope for the future into a more stable, productive member of society who survives a carnivalesque descent into the underworld.

Actor Robert Montgomery was unceremoniously slid into role of director after he returned from a stint in the Navy. He had a role in John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), but after Ford’s on-set injury towards the end of production, Ford insisted he finish shooting the film. This soon led him to Lady in the Lake (1947), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name. Montgomery starred in and directed the film, choosing to shoot his role mainly in the first person. His dialogue and voice-over is nearly constant, but he is shown only is briefly glimpses of a mirror. I honestly found Lady in the Lake intolerable, which is why I didn’t review it, but it obviously allowed Montgomery to stretch his legs enough that he wound up with Ride the Pink Horse.

This is undoubtedly the best film in Montgomery’s career as a director and, perhaps unusually, plenty of room is given to his costars. Wanda Hendrix is solid as Pila and it’s a shame her career didn’t further take off. Pila’s obsession with and devotion to Gagin is largely inexplicable, but her otherworldliness makes it more believable. Their budding romance never develops to the physical level, adding an air of tension and frustration that works well for the film. Their abrupt, almost stubborn parting is genuinely painful. Gagin’s only friend, Pancho, is played with gusto by Thomas Gomez (Key Largoi), who deservedly received a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars for the role.

Ride the Pink Horse will not be for everyone. It is a stylized story of human despair, but it is somewhat more realistic than many of its hard-hitting noir brethren. Though there are moments of violence in many a film noir, when Gagin is beaten, knifed, and nearly killed he never really recovers and wanders the rest of the film in an almost hallucinatory daze, desperate and close to death. The ending is a mixture of hopeful and frustrating: Gagin never gets a violent, bloody revenge, but instead turns to the law for help. And though he has formed a close bond with Pila, he leaves town abruptly, ready to begin the next chapter of his now more hopeful life elsewhere. The film comes recommended, and though it is not currently available on DVD, you can find it floating around online.