Friday, July 25, 2014

CHICAGO DEADLINE

Lewis Allen, 1949
Starring: Alan Ladd, Donna Reed, June Havoc, Irene Harvey, Arthur Kennedy

Chicago reporter Ed Adams just happens be in an apartment building when a young woman is found dead. Though no foul play is suspected, Ed snoops around and finds the diary of the woman, Rosita Jean d’Ur, and becomes fascinated by her. In her diary, there is a list of more than 50 names, so Ed decides to call each one and get to the bottom of Rosita’s life – and death. Curiously, no one he speaks to admits knowing her and they all hang up suspiciously. He soon discovers a criminal conspiracy that Rosita seemed to be at the heart of and gets some clues from one of her friends, Leona, who also becomes Ed’s girlfriend. She begs Ed to give up and leave Rosita in peace, but he is determined to finish what he started.

Chicago Deadline is basically a later Alan Ladd vehicle – made after his four-film partnership with Veronica Lake – and it’s easy to see why his career took a down turn. He’s not particularly bad here, but unlike the excellent This Gun for Hire, he’s miscast and is paired with an awful, clumsy script. Ladd’s Ed is just not a believable character in 1949 noir cinema (this is really only loosely noir, or perhaps would have been with a more competent screenwriter). He’s supposed to fit into the hard-nosed, plucky reporter character type, but this feels about 15 years out of date, particularly in light of the impending Ace in the Hole (1951) and While the City Sleeps (1956), both incredibly bleak examples of newspaper noir.

Chicago Deadline – outside of its ambiguous, somewhat absurd title as Ed is not on a deadline of any kind – has all the right elements, they’re just lost in the shuffle. The plot is full of gangsters, prominent businessmen, boxing, beatings, illicit romance, spousal abuse, and more. Unfortunately, there are simply too many clichés, flashbacks, minor plot arcs, and side characters. At several points during the film, Ladd has to stop and actually explain the events, including a long summary at the end of the film. While this works for the charming and wonderful William Powell in The Thin Man series, it falls utterly flat here.

The film’s initial premise – investigating the life of a dead woman through their most recent contacts – is an interesting concept, certainly one used to great effect in films as diverse as Laura (1944) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s obscure but enjoyable New York mystery, Two Men in Manhattan (1959). As with Laura, the main character is investigating a dead woman and becomes somewhat obsessed with her. As with Two Men in Manhattan, the investigator is trying to contact the dead person’s romantic paramours and social contexts to get the story of their last days and is meeting with a hard time.

Donna Reed fares better than Ladd as the tragic Rosita, though the film isn’t quite sure what to do with her. She is sometimes viewed as a troubled woman with a life gone wrong, other times as a tragic heroine, and finally as the victim of a series of unhappy events. Like the real-life Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, Rosita’s life is exaggerated by the press and she’s painted as promiscuous, possibly an escort, but at least a loose woman who spends time with disreputable men. Ed fortunately fights against this notion that she had it coming to her and this becomes his motivation to tell the story of her life. He does get a somewhat troubling start: Rosita’s death isn’t initially suspicious and is explained away as a complication of tuberculosis. Ed, who happens to be in the same building when her body is found by the cleaning lady, “investigates” her room anyway, steals her private property, and essentially begins harassing anyone associated with her. While Laura points a finger at the detective’s obsession with his dead client, Chicago Deadline fails to pursue this morbid aspect.  

I can’t recommend the film, though anyone who enjoys more ridiculous detective films might want to see this out. Keep an eye peeled for Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister, June Havoc, who is actually very likable as Leona, the vapid, melancholy blonde, and it’s a shame she wasn’t given more screen time. The film also has a high body count with seven people dead, including Rosita and seemingly every man that has ever encountered her. This film is not available on DVD, like much of Ladd’s other work, though you can find it online if you look hard enough.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

SAIGON (1948)

Leslie Fenton, 1948
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Douglas Dick, Luther Adler

At the end of WWII, three soldiers decide to stay in the East after Major Larry Briggs learns that his close friend, Captain Mike Perry, is on death’s doorstep, thanks to a terminal brain issue after head wounds suffered during the war. Instead of telling Mike the truth, he and Sergeant Pete Rocco decide to give Mike a hell of a farewell party – a few happy months before his death. To fund this, they take a flying job from Zlec Maris, a sleek, charming businessman who may not be entirely on the up and up. At the time of take-off, Maris is nowhere to be seen and the three former soldiers are stuck with the lovely, but icy and discreet Susan. When Maris shows up being pursued by policemen and gun fire, they take off without him. Though Susan is in a hurry to locate her boss, she has a briefcase full of suspicious money and he blackmails her into sticking around, because Mike has fallen hard. Though Susan and Larry bicker at first, Susan’s good-nature and sympathy wins out. But though she pretends to love Mike, she only has eyes for Larry.

The last of four collaborations between Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, Saigon can only be described as film noir in the loosest possible sense, though it is usually lumped in with their other three noir efforts, This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key, and The Blue Dahlia. Though the plot is essentially about a dirty businessman pursuing his ill-gotten quarter-of-a-million dollars, he is only briefly in the first and third acts. Most of the story focuses on the contentious relationship between Lake’s Susan, a smart, attractive, no-nonsense secretary carrying around a briefcase full of money, and Ladd’s Major Briggs, a tough-as-nails former soldier hoping to show his dying friend a good time.

The film is better than it should be, thanks solid performances from Ladd and Lake, but it suffers from some pretty blatant racism, Mike is cloying and two-dimensional, and the plot wanders around aimlessly for a while. Though the print I watched was from a VHS tape and looked fuzzy and awful, there was still some nice scenery, particularly the depictions of the lush Vietnam. While there are shots of rivers, rice fields, and more, I wish Saigon was more of a presence in the film. Similar to Macao and Calcutta (also with Ladd), it’s fairly obvious this was filmed on a sound stage, but that’s the best you’re going to get in 1948 Hollywood. Considering that this is Ladd and Lake’s final collaboration and one of Lake’s last films for Paramount, it’s fitting that it ends on such a somber note – at Mike’s funeral in Saigon, a particularly lovely cemetery set.

There are some frustrating plot elements that are difficult to overlook. First, Susan is presented as intelligent and self-sufficient. She is the only member of the group who can speak Vietnamese and is not afraid to travel on her own. It’s frustrating that the script didn’t show more of this aspect of her character, which is quickly overwhelmed by the back-and-forth and bickering with Ladd’s Larry. There is a scene where he expresses his dislike for her so much that he makes her leave the hotel and find a room on a boat by herself. He immediately turns around and has to search for her, because Mike pines and wonders where she went. It’s this sort of sloppy writing that holds the film back from its full potential and serves to slow down the pacing.

One of my biggest pet peeves in early Hollywood cinema – and thus with this film – is the casting of Caucasian actors as Asians: Peter Lorre in the Mr. Moto series, Warner Oland in the Charlie Chan films, Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in The Mask of Fu Manchu (though I love the film), Gale Sondergaard in The Letter, and so on. While Luther Adler’s Lieutenant Keon is, thankfully, a decent, kind-hearted, and resourceful depiction of a Vietnam detective, it doesn’t change the fact that Adler is obviously a white person playing yet another generic Asian detective.

Saigon is not available on DVD, though you aren’t missing much. It’s worthwhile for fans of Ladd and Lake, and anyone interested in WWII or post-war era adventure cinema.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

THE BLUE DAHLIA

George Marshall, 1946
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix

“Bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.”

Three Navy pilots return home to California from the war in the South Pacific: Johnny Morrison, George Copeland, and Buzz Wanchek, whose lingering head wound causes him agonizing headaches and periods of black out. Instead of an enthusiastic homecoming, Morrison learns that his wife, Helen, has adopted a lifestyle of constant partying. She has had at least one affair and killed their young son when she drove drunk one night and crashed the car. Feeling murderous, he leaves her. Buzz, meanwhile, gets a call from Helen and goes to her hotel to look for Johnny. Not knowing who she is, he buys a drink and is coerced back to her room. She is also dropped in on by Eddie, her no good boyfriend, and “Dad,” the hotel detective. Later that night, she is killed and Johnny is the main suspect. Johnny, meanwhile, has found a new hotel and has crossed paths with the attractive Joyce. They hit it off, but she also happens to be Eddie’s estranged wife. Can he figure out who Helen’s killer is before he’s arrested?

This is the third pairing of film noir duo Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake after the excellent This Gun for Hire and the mediocre The Glass Key. The Blue Dahlia falls somewhere between the two, thanks to a hardboiled script from the master, Raymond Chandler. Chandler had an odd screenwriting career. Aside from The Blue Dahlia, he adapted James Cain’s Double Indemnity with director Billy Wilder and worked on Strangers on a Train with Hitchcock for a time, though his own novels – Lady in the Lake, The Big Sleep, and Farewell, My Lovely – were all adapted by other writers. He was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Dahlia, though he got stuck on the script and had to go on a massive drinking binge to finish it (he had a life-long struggle with alcoholism and was trying to abstain at that particular time in his career). It is his great dialogue that makes the film, with lines like “You got the wrong lipstick on,” when Ladd punches his wife’s lover in the jaw.

Chandler’s style of writing a mystery often without knowing the ending is obvious here as the film’s conclusion feels a bit slapdash and almost ludicrously tacked on. Buzz was initially supposed to have killed Helen during one of his blackouts. The military protested and objected to this portrayal of a solider as violent, unpredictable, and loose on the home front; their objects were strenuous enough that Chandler was forced to change the ending. Unfortunately his new ending is still overshadowed by the thought of Buzz as the killer, a powerful, frightening insinuation. William Bendix, also cast as the thug who nearly beats Ladd's character to death in The Glass Key, really shines here as the brutish, yet sweet and innocent Buzz, a man who relies utterly on Johnny as the stabilizing presence in his life -- after it has been destroyed by the war.

The Blue Dahlia is ultimately a more minor noir effort that perhaps suffers from miscasting. Ladd and Lake were both an attractive, but wooden pair and the film would have benefited from a more charismatic tortured lead (Bogart) and a leading lady with a mixture of innocent, sexuality, and desperation (such as Gloria Grahame). Though William Bendix practically steals the film from Ladd and Lake, Doris Dowling (The Lost Weekend) is quite good as Johnny’s immoral wife and it’s a shame she has such little screen time. While Buzz is a somewhat realistic portrait of men driven insane by the war and tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder, Doris is a seedy glimpse of the darker side of life on the home front. She hints at numerous affairs, debauchery, and alcoholism, the latter of which is responsible for her own son’s death. Another, somewhat similar victim of post-war debauchery and violence in Los Angeles, Elizabeth Short, was allegedly nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” after this film, which played down the street from a bar she frequented. She was brutally, gruesomely murdered a year after its release.

Though The Blue Dahlia is not a film noir classic, it’s still a worthy entry and fans of Raymond Chandler owe it to themselves to seek it out. Bizarrely, there is no official Blu-ray or DVD release, though it is available in the Turner Classic Movies “Dark Crimes” box set along with Ladd and Lake film The Glass Key, and Phantom Lady, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel. Though the Production Code generally frowned upon references to drinking or alcoholism, this film is full of them – thanks to Chandler, who was allegedly paid for the script with a case of Scotch – down to the famous line where Johnny orders “bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.” Post-war debauchery indeed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

THE GLASS KEY (1942)

Stuart Heisler, 1942
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd

Political boss and gangster Paul Madvig decides to support a candidate, Ralph Henry, because he’s in love with Henry’s cool, blonde daughter Janet. Though she clearly thinks Madvig is a fool, she plays along on her father’s behalf, eventually accepting a marriage proposal. Madvig’s second-in-command, Ned Beaumont, doesn’t trust Janet and can see right through her motives, though he’s also attracted to her. Unfortunately Janet’s brother, an irresponsible playboy, is killed and Madvig is the main suspect. One of Madvig’s enemies, Varna, tries to make the most of this and has Ned beaten when he won’t play along. He manages to escape, badly injured, but will Ned be able to stay alive long enough to find the real killer?

This is the second version of Dashiell Hammett's novel after a 1935 adaptation starring George Raft and the second pairing of stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Though The Glass Key is an entertaining early film noir, it doesn’t quite match up to Ladd and Lake’s wonderful first film together, This Gun for Hire. Ladd does resume his role as antihero and — though not quite as captivating as The Gun for Hire’s Raven — Ned is quite a bastard. There are some very dark scenes in the film, thanks to Ned’s questionable morality. He goes so far as to seduce a man’s wife right in front of him and goads the man into suicide, which is practically shown on screen. His relationship with Madvig is similar to later male relationships throughout noir, when two men become very close and either a woman — or a crime — comes between them. Gilda is a key example of this and in both films, there is an undeniable element of homoeroticism. Ned seems to only care for Madvig’s interests and his well-being, sacrificing Madvig’s own sister, Janet and her family, and others in their political network.

During the film’s most memorable scene, Ned is being beaten by a thug, Jeff (William Bendix in a great side role), who has his arm around Ned and calls him “baby,” “sweetheart,” and other names. This is one of Hollywood’s most graphic beating scenes of the period. Compared to contemporary action films, Ed’s swollen, disfigured face and lengthy healing time in the hospital are quite believable. Bendix apparently actually knocked out Ladd and was horrified, though the two went on to become very close friends. Ladd was beaten, whipped, and terrorized in a number of his films, even more so than Bogart, and emphasizes some of the elements of sadomasochism and homoeroticism inherent in film noir.

The weaker elements include Veronica Lake’s performance. She’s not at her best here, though she’s lovely to look at, but is far too cold and unemotional to summon much interest in her character. Lake uses her facial expressions expertly by throwing disgusted, coy, or calculating glances out in nearly every scene, I only wish there was more of this. All the political intrigue feels a bit pointless and rambling and there are plenty of plot elements don’t make a whole lot of sense — a man alters his political career to marry a woman, but then doesn’t care when she’s in love with this best friend? Speaking of, Brian Donlevy is likable as Madvig, but also overacts. Partly this works, because Madvig is a bit loud and buffoonish, but it also dates the film.
The Glass Key isn’t an absolute must-see, but is a pleasant way to pass the time and will be enjoyed by anyone who loves Ladd and Lake, early film noir, or political melodrama. It’s available in a Turner Classic Movies DVD set with The Phantom Lady and The Blue Dahlia

Friday, July 18, 2014

THIS GUN FOR HIRE

Frank Tuttle, 1942
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Laird Cregar, Robert Preston

A cold-blooded assassin named Raven is hired to kill a scientist and blackmailer, and then recover a stolen formula. His boss, Willard Gates, owner of Nitro Chemicals, double crosses him and pays him with marked bills, then turns him over to the police. Though he wants to spend time with his girlfriend, lovely nightclub singer Ellen Graham, Detective Michael Crane is hot on Raven’s trail, which leads from San Francisco to L.A. It just so happens that Williard Gates is also a club owner and hires Ellen to be his new act. A Senator secretly implores her to spy on Gates, who is under investigation. Ellen and Raven cross paths and Raven takes her hostage, but he later saves her life when Gates tries to kill her. The two reluctantly team up to reveal Gates for what he really is – a traitor trying to sell chemical warfare to the Japanese.

One of the best early riffs on film noir and one of the best thrillers of the war period, the underrated This Gun for Hire was also the first pairing of stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Though the tiny, blonde Lake was already famous by this point, thanks to Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and I Wanted Wings, as well as I Married a Witch, this was one of her most iconic roles. Ladd, who had only been given bit parts or side roles up to this point, became a star seemingly overnight. His portrayal of the ruthless, lonely, and nihilistic Raven is the first of its kind, and This Gun for Hire was an obvious influence on Jean-Pierre Melville’s iconic Le Samouraï (1967). Raven was one of the first cold-blooded, murderous antiheroes in cinema and also one of the first to suggest that an abusive childhood led to his current lot in life.

Ladd’s Raven is truly the centerpiece of the film. He is a character with extensive emotional and physical scars and is immediately identifiable (to the police) by his deformed wrist. Despite the fact that he is a killer – and admits to killing the aunt who raised him – he is a sympathetic character. He genuinely cares for cats and becomes protective of Ellen as he begins to trust her. Lake pales in comparison to Ladd, but is well-used for the moments of brightness and lightheartedness she provides. Ellen is a multi-talented performer and there is an amusing scene where Lake sings, flirts, and does magic. In a nice twist, she leaves behind playing cards so that Detective Crane can follow their increasingly dangerous trail.

Ellen’s boyfriend, Detective Crane (Robert Preston of Victor Victoria and The Music Man) is a fairly useless character. He exists seemingly for there to be an additional layer of tension between Graham and Raven, and as a barrier that keeps their relationship chaste and (mostly) unromantic. In hindsight, this is an odd choice as nearly every film noir that would follow it was concerned with destructive sexual relationships and the breakdown of gender roles. Though This Gun for Hire does have plenty of noir elements – including some mind-blowing cinematography from John Seitz (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Sullivan’s Travels, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, The Big Clock, and many more) – it is oddly asexual, which perhaps highlights its themes of personal isolation and self-destruction.

The most sexual character of the film is undoubtedly Laird Cregar (I Wake Up Screaming, The Lodger, Hangover Square) as Willard Gates. He is amazing, as always, and comes close to stealing the film from Ladd. The hulking actor was known for playing villainous, ambiguous roles, as if his real-life bisexually intruded upon the production – though always with great effect. His interest in Ellen Graham seems to be both business and pleasure; he wants to hire her for his club, but also presses for a private dinner at his home. When he believes she has double-crossed him, he suggestively has her tied up, but leaves before any real violence can take place, using his chauffeur as a surrogate.

This is undoubtedly director Frank Tuttle’s best film – he would go on to direct Ladd and Lake again in their next film noir, The Glass Key – and he used John Seitz’s claustrophobic, expressionist cinematography to excellent effect, as well as Graham Greene’s source novel. The film is based on Greene’s A Gun for Sale, but changes the theme to a political, war-time, antifascist environment and moved the setting from a European city to California. Though the script is essentially made up of multiple stories that come together at the film’s conclusion, Ladd and Cregar give such powerful performances that it’s easy to forget about the occasionally broken tension or plot holes. The film is available on DVD and comes highly recommend to all fans of film noir, crime cinema, movies about assassins, and devotees of Le Samouraï.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake

Paired together for seven films during the years of WWII, blonde, diminutive stars Alan Ladd (1913-1964) and Veronica Lake (1922-1973) are a fascinating look at both the successes and failure of Hollywood’s star system. Ladd and Lake were allegedly teamed up because of their complementary heights: he was 5’5” or 6” and she was 4’11”. They were first teamed up for their best, noir effort This Gun for Hire (1942). Ladd plays an icy assassin, Raven, who is double-crossed by his greedy, traitorous boss. Lake co-stars as a nightclub singer and the girlfriend of the detective after Raven. She is accidentally drawn into helping him and they team up to bring down a ring of traitors selling chemical warfare to the Japanese.

Their best films together were all noir or crime: The Glass Key (1942), based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel about crooked politics and murder; The Blue Dahlia (1946), about a soldier returned home from the war to find his wife unfaithful and then murdered; and Saigon (1948), where a former solider and pilot learns that his friend has a limited time to live… They also appeared in three musical comedies as themselves – Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Duffy’s Tavern (1945), and Variety Girl (1947) – though these were generally all meant to raise money for the war effort.

Like his famous character Raven, Ladd had a difficult childhood. His father died when he was young, he was allegedly viciously bullied about his height, and his mother remarried and moved the family around. Soon after his stepfather died in the ‘30s, she committed suicide. Ladd’s climb to fame was long and grueling, as studios claimed he was too small, too blonde, and just didn’t have the right look. He sampled a variety of careers before finding success, including newspaper employee, hot dog stand owner, and salesman. He was discovered by agent Sue Carol, thanks to his radio work, and she quickly found him small roles in Hollywood films like Citizen Kane (1941) and Joan of Paris (1942).

He hit it big with his first film with Lake, This Gun for Hire (1942), and became a star seemingly overnight. Soon after, he divorced his wife and he and agent Sue Carol were married. Ladd briefly left to enlist in the Air Force, but was given an honorable medical discharge and soon returned to cinema. He was in a few films without Lake, mostly war movies or other noir efforts, including China (1943), And Now Tomorrow(1944), Calcutta (1947) and Chicago Deadline (1949), and his last noir, Appointment With Danger (1951). Though he was a wildly popular personality at the time, his efforts without Lake were simply not as successful.

Blaming the studio, Ladd left Paramount and went to Warner Bros. for the western Shane (1953), the biggest film of his career, but he failed to win any awards and his career fell steadily after this. He started his own company, Jaguar Productions, where he cast his children alongside him. Here his drinking problem seemed to overwhelm him and there was an incident when he was either shot or accidentally shot himself. He allegedly remained sober for his last film, The Carpetbaggers (1964), but died a before its release from an overdose of a mixture of alcohol and antidepressants.

Lake had an equally sad life with a rough start, a brief, but bright rise to fame, and an even more tragic fall. Allegedly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Lake – born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn – was encouraged to act by her parents as a form of treatment (?!) and had life-long troubles with her mother, who later sued Lake when she failed to keep up with her acting school repayments. Like Ladd, Lake’s father died when she was young due to a work accident. Soon after, her mother remarried and the family relocated several times. Thanks to her beauty and her trademark peek-a-boo blonde hair style, she found success relatively quickly in war films (I Wanted Wings) and romantic comedies (I Married a Witch) before being teamed up with Ladd in 1942. Some of her costars would later comment that success was quickly and easily handed to her, but she threw it all away.

Despite her fame, she developed a reputation for being difficult to work with and plenty of colleagues disliked her. Though she later had nice things to say about him, she and Ladd were allegedly not friends, and her alcoholism and mental health issues certainly isolated her from her colleagues and later her family, including her children and several husbands (one of whom was director Andre de Toth). Like Ladd, she supposedly began drinking heavily as her career declined, which worsened her reputation. Also like Ladd, she switched studios from Paramount to 20th Century Fox, which effectively marked the end of her career. When her Hollywood lost interest, her alcoholism increased, but she remained active. She got her pilot’s license and wrote an autobiography, Veronica, where she frankly discussed her lifelong issues with mental illness and addiction. She was forced to hold down conventional jobs and when she was discovered working as a waitress in a hotel, support flooded in from her fans (and Marlon Brando). She turned it all down, choosing instead to keep her pride.

Though often considered a sex symbol or star more than an actress, she does have some good performances, namely in the fantastic Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Delightfully, her final film – which she co-financed – came more than a decade after her retirement. Flesh Feast (1970), a low budget horror film from Brad F. Grinter, the director of Thanksgiving-themed cult movie Blood Feast (1972), concerns Nazis trying to clone Adolph Hitler. She died a few years later due to alcohol related complications – both Ladd and Lake strangely died at the age of 50.

Monday, July 7, 2014

DEMENTIA (1955)

John Parker, 1955
Starring: Adrienne Barrett, Bruno VeSota, Ben Roseman

Only known as the Gamin (meaning a street urchin), a young girl in a seedy hotel has disturbing visions, possibly nightmares. She heads out into the night and is startled by a dwarf handing out newspapers. The headline blares that a mysterious stabbing has occurred. She’s almost attacked by a drunken man, but is rescued by police offers who beat the man. Another man propositions her and convinces her to join a wealthy man riding in a limo, though she has flashbacks about an abusive childhood where her father killed her adulterous mother and then she stabbed her father to death. The wealthy man – presumably her client – gorges himself on food and ignores her advances, so she stabs him and pushes him out the window of her apartment. She has to cut off his hand to reclaim a necklace he ripped off of her, and afterwards goes on the run from police in a jazz club.

There is nothing quite like this blend of horror, noir, surrealism, and German Expressionism. It could loosely be described as an insane cross between Polanski’s Repulsion, Ed Wood’s films, and the early work of David Lynch. The latter director must have seen at some point in his early career. For years, not much was known about Dementia outside from its appearance in The Blob (1958), as the film moviegoers are watching when they are attacked by the titular creature. Dementia was released to very limited audiences two years after its creation, in a slightly recut version retitled Daughter of Horror. This version amazingly includes some added voice over narration from a young Ed McMahon (!!). While the narration could be seen as a bit cheesy, I actually love the voice over, which feels a bit like a Gothic-inspired tone poem – and think it adds to the film’s horror-camp atmosphere.

The narration/poem works particularly well because otherwise this is a film without dialogue or much audio in general. Screams and hysterical laughter, frantic jazz music, doors slamming, and gun shots make up some of the only non-score audio. The lengthy jazz scene adds to the film’s beatnik flavor, but undoubtedly one of the best things about Dementia is the phenomenal score from avant-garde composer George Antheil, which is accompanied by lyric-less vocals from Marni Nixon. Nixon later became famous as the often uncredited voice behind many female stars, in everything from Mary Poppins and An Affair to Remember to The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady. Antheil primarily worked on film and television scores (including the excellent film noir, In a Lonely Place), though he’s known for this great piece of avant-garde music, as well as for his collaborations with actress Hedy Lamarr. The two developed a telecommunications technique known as “spread spectrum,” initially intended to be a frequency-hopping style of communication for the military during WWII. It is essentially the foundation of modern Bluetooth. To learn more about this fascinating man, check out his autobiography.

Shot at least in part by Ed Wood’s regular cinematographer William C. Thompson, this film does bear something in common with Wood’s low budget, sometimes misguided works of love. Somewhat like wood’s films and later works of exploitation, Dementia certainly exhibits an exceptionally seedy side of life, one not typically associated with ‘50s cinema – murder, prostitution, hallucinations, infidelity, child abuse, etc. Instead of being horrified at her predicament, the Gamin seems to take some delight in murder and prostitution, inextricably entwining sex and violence, the repression of traumatic memories and the erotic urge. It reminded me of Lydia Lunch’s autobiography, Paradoxia, which coincidentally (I believe) shares common themes with Dementia’s loose plot.

The film’s portrait of the city as a terrifying place of madness, vice, and violence is another of its most compelling elements and sort of falls in with film noir. The thematic overlaps, as well as Dementia’s heavy reliance on German expressionist visuals, make this a loose candidate for film noir. Speaking of, keep your eyes peeled for a few of the famous L.A. exteriors, some of which can also be seen in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.
Though the film is available free online, as it is part of the public domain, Kino released a great DVD that certainly looks better than the streaming version. Do yourself a favor and see this film. It may be disorienting, violent, seedy, and uncomfortable, but there is absolutely nothing like it.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Ida Lupino (1918-1995)


Born in 1918 in Camberwell, London to a musical, theatrical family, the English-American Ida Lupino was a staple throughout noir cinema as an actress, and also became one of Hollywood’s ground-breaking female directors. Though she often referred to herself (as an actress) as the “poor man’s Bette Davis” or (as a director) as the “poor man’s Don Siegel,” the actress, director, screenwriter, and producer left an indelible mark on Hollywood and forced her way into independent filmmaking at a time when there were simply no female directors.

She began her career as an actress, during her teenage years, where she was bleached blonde in order to mimic the look of Hollywood starlets like Jean Harlow. But the young Lupino quickly made a solid impression in Hollywood — both positive and negative. She took her career seriously and refused to take roles than she considered silly or beneath her dignity, including an endless stream of Bette Davis cast-offs. As a result, Hollywood considered her stubborn and difficult, and she was put on “probation” many times.

Throughout the ‘30s, she was mostly in sentimental dramas or romantic comedies, though there was the occasional musical or war flick, such as The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939) with Rita Hayworth. 1939 was a major year for Lupino’s career – she finally impressed Hollywood with her role in drama film The Light That Failed (1939). She also had a starring role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes alongside Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone; she would return to B films throughout her career.

Lupino is the undisputed queen of film noir – she was not only the single woman to direct a film noir during its classic period (1941 to 1959), but she starred in many of them, including They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), Out of the Fog (1941), Ladies in Retirement (1941), Moontide (1942), The Man I Love (1947), Road House (1948), Lust for Gold (1949), Woman in Hiding (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Beware, My Lovely (1952), Private Hell 36 (1954),  which she also wrote, The Big Knife (1955), While the City Sleeps (1956), and The Strangers in 7A (1972). She was always memorable, regardless of the role, though she was generally cast as a femme fatale or a particularly independent woman (as in While the City Sleeps, where she co-stars as a journalist turned newspaper executive).

She was also in a number of well-regarded war films, including The Sea Wolf (1941), Forever and a Day (1943), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), In Our Time (1944), and Pillow to Post (1945). Some of her more interesting efforts outside of war movies or film noir include Devotion (1946), about the Bronte sisters, with Ida as Emily and Olivia de Havilland co-starring as Charlotte. In this curious film, both sisters fall in love with a reverend, played by Paul Henreid, Lupino’s close friend in real life. His Casablanca co-star Sydney Greenstreet also appears. Later in her career, she starred as Steve McQueen’s mother in Sam Peckinpah’s western Junior Bonner (1972), though McQueen protested that it was unbelievable to cast her in a motherly role. Her penchant for being cast in violent films also led to a lead role in Women’s Prison (1955), where she played a sadistic, repressed warden in one of the first women-in-prison films.

While the ‘50s marks the heyday of her film career, in the ‘60s she primarily starred in episodes of television shows, including The Twilight Zone, Batman (as Dr. Cassandra), and The Mod Squad. Lupino also directed more than 100 episodes of TV from various shows, including Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, The Untouchables, and many more. She was the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone (“The Mask”) and the only one of the show’s directors to star in en episode. She closed out her career with a few cult movies – satanic horror film The Devil’s Rain (1975) and animals attack movie The Food of the Gods (1976) – while her final film, My Boys are Good Boys (1978), was of course a crime caper flick about teenagers robbing an armored car – with Lupino fittingly cast as their mother.

Though she is most often recognized for her acting, her most important work was certainly in directing. Lupino and her then-husband, Collier Young, founded an independent production company, The Filmmakers, which made eight films total — six directed by Lupino herself. She also wrote and produced many of them. Though women worked as directors and screenwriters in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the only active female director in the ‘40s was Dorothy Arzner. After Arzner, who made her final film in 1943, Lupino became the second female admitted to the Director’s Guild — a major accomplishment.

Not Wanted (1949) is credited to Elmer Clifton, but he had a heart attack just after the start of production and Lupino stepped in to direct her first film, which she also wrote. Not Wanted concerns a single woman who gives birth without being married and gives the baby up for adoption. She comes to regret the decision and is driven to kidnap someone else’s baby. Though Lupino refused to take credit out of respect for Clifton, the taboo subject matter is in keeping with much of the rest of her career. This film also helped established her reputation that she could finish a production under budget and before schedule.

Never Fear (1950) continues her women’s theme, as it concerns a dancer who contracts polio just as she’s about to make it big with her career, and just after she’s gotten engaged. Perhaps Lupino’s most famous of her women’s films is Outrage (1950), the first Hollywood film to tackle the subject of rape from a sympathetic perspective, though Lupino, who again wrote the script, had to refer to it as “criminal assault” because of the Production Code. The film remains topical today, as its primary theme is the randomness of the act, the fact that this woman — all woman — are always under the threat of violence from men. It was also perhaps the first film to show how rape deeply impacts a person’s psychology and is a life-changing event.

Noir actress Claire Trevor and Lupino regular Sally Forrest starred in Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) as a contentious mother and daughter pair. The mother pressures her daughter into becoming a professional tennis player, which turns out to be a world full of corruption and questionable characters. 

Lupino’s most well-known effort is the film noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953), a violent, all-male production with a small cast. The plot concerns two men on a cross-desert trip who pick up a hitch-hiker. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a murderer on the run and takes the men hostage in their own car. The excellent visuals are Lupino’s most stylish as a director and the film is certainly her most violent. And speaking of film noir, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), which Lupino and Robert Ryan starred in, had a few scenes directed by Lupino. When Ray fell ill, she confidently stepped into the director’s chair when needed.

The Bigamist (1953), her final film for many years, was unfortunately not as successful as The Hitch-Hiker. This movie about a man with two separate families was also Lupino’s only film as a director that she also starred in. Though it continued to tackle taboo themes, it lacked the passion of her earlier films. Her last movie came 13 years later — comedy film The Trouble with Angels (1966). This underrated film concerns two girls causing trouble at a private school run by nuns.

Lupino’s approach to directing was to remain feminine, passive on a surface level. She called the members of her cast and crew “darling” and asked — rather than demanded or ordered — for what she wanted on set. She preferred being called “mother” and had her director’s chair emblazoned with “Mother of Us All.” To learn more about the underrated Lupino, check out this biography or her memoirs, published after her death and, most of all, watch her films.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

Ida Lupino, 1953
Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman

Often remembered as the first and only classic period noir film directed by a woman, Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker is much more, a noir stripped bare, confined to the road, and set in the desolation of the American West. Though available in the public domain for many years, Kino have finally brought it to Blu-ray with a fantastic new restoration. 

Two men on vacation drive through the desert on their way to a fishing trip when they pick up a hitchhiker. They quickly learn that he is Emmett Myers, a notorious psychopath and highway murderer fleeing to Mexico. Instead of quickly killing them, as he did with his other victims, he forces them at gun point to drive him for several days, psychologically torturing them all the while. They try to plan an escape and hope they can hold out long enough for the police to catch their trail.

In a certain sense, director Ida Lupino’s impressive life and career outshines The Hitch-Hiker. In addition to an acting career that spanned 50 years with films like The Light That Failed, While the City Sleeps, High Sierra, and many more, she was the first (and I believe only) woman to direct a classic period noir and also directed a number of lesser seen early films that dealt with relatively unexplored women’s issues in cinema, such as Outrage, a story about the effects of rape, and Not Wanted, which concerns the plight of unwed mothers. 

The Hitch-Hiker triumphs from its stark sets and a bare bones plot, but occasionally suffers from some slumps in action. Overall, Lupino manages to keep the tension going for the film’s short running time - it is barely over an hour - and benefits from not having the men try any ridiculous heroics. While Myers’ first victims - a couple and a lone woman - are quickly killed and barely shown in frame, there is the sense that he must challenge the normative masculinity of the two men and delights in psychologically torturing them to show his supremacy. He calls them soft for being bogged down by things like family, mortgages, domestic life. 

There are good performances from the three key actors, Edmond O’Brien (The Killers), Frank Lovejoy (I Was a Communist for the FBI), and William Talman (The Racket, Perry Mason), though Talman steals the film as killer Emmett Myers. He manages to make Talman menacing without going too over the top. His character often seems like a vestige from another era of cowboys, train robbers, and outlaws, men who roamed free in the desert and lived beyond the reach of the law. We first see Myers as a phantom - shoes in one scene, a black leather coat in another - and his lazy eye often gives him a monstrous appearance while he waits, half in shadow, in the back of the car. 

Though credited to Ida Lupino and her husband, producer Collier Young, the script was based on a story by Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), who was believed to be blacklisted from Hollywood at the time. It is based on the story of real spree killer Billy Cook who killed more people than his onscreen counterpart and supposedly had “Hard Luck” tattooed on his hand. Cook and Myers share a lot in common, including a difficult upbringing immersed in poverty, a life of crime, and a deformed eye. 

One of the best things about the film is Nicholas Musurica’s beautiful cinematography. Known for his work with Val Lewton on Cat People and other noir films like Out of the Past, he turns the open wasteland of the desert into a place of isolation, loneliness, and terror. Equally impressive is the imaginative, almost restless camera work and editing, where corpses are only partially framed and dissolves take us quickly between the briefly seen cops and the car ride from hell.

The 1080p MPEG-4 transfer looks wonderful and there is only very minimal damage to the print with occasional scratches and debris. If you take a look at the available public domain print, Kino’s Blu-ray is a huge improvement and definitely presents Lupino’s starkly beautiful film the way it was meant to be seen. The LPCM English audio track doesn’t fare quite as well, but this is likely due to production and not the transfer. It is certainly much clearer than previous editions and the dialogue is always easy to understand. The sound design here is of key importance and helps build suspense at every point. There are the dreaded radio reports that may encourage Myers kill the men if he feels the police are closing in, a faulty horn that shatters the silent car ride, a persistent dog barking while they are trying to steal gas in the night, etc. There are no available subtitles. 

Sadly, there are no extras outside of an image gallery and trailers from other recent Kino Blu-ray releases such as White Zombie, Night Tide, and The Stranger. It’s a shame Kino couldn’t have included a commentary track or a feature on Lupino’s career.

The Hitch-Hiker comes highly recommended for all fans of thrillers and noir cinema. It may not have a lot going for it in terms of outright horror, but Lupino weaves a claustrophobic tale of suspense, murder, and desperation. Anyone who is already a fan of the film will be delighted with Kino’s beautiful presentation, which captures the lonely American West in crisp black and white. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

CAGED

John Cromwell, 1950
Starring: Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead, Ellen Corby, Hope Emerson

Marie Allen, a naive young woman, is sent to prison as an accomplice to her deceased husband’s failed attempt at a gas station robbery. In prison she learns she is pregnant and is hopelessly depressed at her fate. Marie is essentially ricocheted between the beastly warden, Miss Harper, and butch head criminal, Kitty, who wants Marie to join her gang. The kind prison superintendent, Miss Benton, tries to help Marie maintain her innocence, but she meets with a series of difficulties – Marie’s baby is taken away from her after delivery when her mother refuses to care for it, she witnesses the suicide of a prisoner refused parole, and attempts to keep a pet kitten in the ward, which results in its death and a riot. She is put in solitary confinement and has her head shaved, essentially the final torture that pushes her over the limit towards a criminal career.

Though there were other films before it, Caged is essentially the first women in prison film to take a stab at the realistic portrayal of life in a women’s prison. In earlier movies about incarcerated women movies, like Cecil B De Mille’s Manslaughter (1922) and The Godless Girl (1929), as well as Ladies of the Big House (1931) and Ladies They Talk About (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck, prison was portrayed as a cleaner, much more glamorous place.

Writer Virginia Kellog (she wrote both the script and the story it is based on, “Women Without Men”) actually went undercover in several prisons to write an article, “Inside Women’s Prison,” which is the origin for much of the realism of Caged. According to Kellogg, it was a horrifying experience full of solitary confinement, water torture, and the head shaving ritual that plays such a key role in Caged. She also witnessed the relatively free exchange of narcotics, which she initially included in Caged, though a drug-addicted character was cut by the Production Code. It’s frankly astounding that they allowed references to lesbianism, prostitution, spousal murder, alcoholism, and suicide, though many of these riskier scenes were cut – or at least slimmed down – for release in a number of cities.

Having somewhat of a documentary, realistic feel was common in noir of the time. The set of Caged allegedly went so far as to prevent the actresses from wearing makeup. This is a welcome change from the earlier, utterly unrealistic women’s prisons films. Though it’s not quite on the level of the exploitation WIP films of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s easy to see the tropes emerging here and in Women’s Prison (1955) with a gleefully psychotic Ida Lupino. Hope Emerson’s (Adam’s Rib, Thieves’ Highway) Miss Harper is a character type that would be repeatedly relentlessly over the years from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS to Chicago. She’s massive (Emerson was 6’2”), sadistic, and an opportunist who is secretly cowardly, but is power-mad in her role as warden. The character of Kitty Starke (Betty Garde from Cry of the City) became a staple of WIP films – the bossy, butch lesbian out to get a young, pretty, and helpless woman while also possibly seducing the other woman and certainly introducing her to a life of crime.

Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched) is perfectly cast as the film’s moral center, Ruth Benton, who tries to run an upstanding prison but is met with obstacles on all sides. There are certainly not many characters like her in later WIP films. The Waltons’ Ellen Corby (Vertigo, Sabrina) is great as a woman who thinks it’s hilarious that she shot her husband after years of domestic abuse and “warning shots” – yet another element that made it into Chicago (to be fair, the musical’s origin play, which I’ve never read, is from 1926 and contains a cast of female characters who have nearly all murdered their husbands or lovers).

Despite the cast of strong supporting actresses, the film absolutely belongs to Eleanor Parker, who is perfect as Marie Allen. Her transition from innocent teen to hardened criminal is subtle and believable. I’m a huge Parker fan – possibly because she is a fellow redhead – and find her to be one of the period’s most underrated actresses. She was nominated for three Academy Awards – for Caged, Detective Story, and Interrupted Melody – though I first encountered her as the elegant, yet petulant baroness from The Sound of Music. She lived a long full life – which included marrying four times and converting to Judaism – and just passed away last year. This was initially intended to be a Bette Davis and/or Joan Crawford film. While I love the end result and can’t picture anyone but Parker starring as Marie, it’s a shame the world never got to see the youthful Davis and Crawford, imprisoned, unglamorous, and fighting like mad (though Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a hard act to beat).

Considered one of the best films of the year alongside stiff competition like All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle, Caged’s realism allows for a welcome comparison to Jules Dassin’s male prison film Brute Force (1947), and the two would make an interesting double feature.  John Cromwell (Dead Reckoning, Of Human Bondage, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Racket) delivers some solid direction, though he is largely bolstered by fine performances and some wonderful cinematography. Cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie ensured plenty of noir visuals, including a phenomenal opening shot – a POV ride in a prisoner transport truck shot on through tiny, caged window. There are plenty of excellent scenes, one of my favorites being the shot where Marie tries to escape and is seen through barbed wire, jumping up towards it.

Caged is available on DVD (which somewhat falsely claims that it is a cult film), but you can also check it out on Archive.org, because it is still in the public domain. As is my common refrain lately, I’d love to see a proper Blu-ray restoration of this film with some nice special features and a great commentary track. Despite the film’s unabashed social criticism and moral message – prison creates criminals – the film barely feels dated and comes highly recommended. I think the message is part of what keeps it fresh, considering that the problematic prison system is far worse in the U.S. than it was in the 1950s. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

THE RECKLESS MOMENT

Max Ophüls, 1949
Starring: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks

Lucia Harper intervenes when her teenage daughter – away part of the time at art school – becomes involved with a slimy, older man, Ted. Ted says he will gladly leave her daughter, Bea, for a price, confirming Lucia’s suspicions. Bea refuses to believe her and meets with Ted late at night in their suburban, sea-side town. Ted admits that he needs money more than Bea, and in a fit of hysteria, she strikes him with a flashlight, believing she killed him. With her husband away on business, Lucia attempts to deal with it herself and finds him dead the next morning and, also believing Bea killed him, drags the body out into the bay. Soon after, an Irishman, Martin Donnelly, knocks on her door and wants $5,000 for the many suggestive letters than Bea apparently wrote to Ted. Donnelly soon begins to fall for Lucia and tries to save her from his ruthless boss.

Based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s novel The Blank Wall, Max Ophüls follow up to the similarly themed Caught is an excellent, underrated film that is unfairly ignored by audiences, particularly fans of ‘40s melodrama and film noir. The Reckless Moment is a comment on post-war life and an almost ironic foreshadowing of ‘50s TV shows  like Leave it to Beaver, Lassie, and Father Knows Best that glorified conservative, heteronormative lifestyles where a dominant father figure goes off to work and a submissive wife stays home to cook, clean, and care for her two precocious children. Moments that would have been moments of comedy in the above shows – the son refusing to wear proper clothing, the artsy daughter displaying her stubborn individuality – instead stir up anxiety, death, and criminality.

The film takes an artful look at the repression of dreams, loss freedom, and a failure escape from the mundane normalcy of life. As with Caught, the film is incredibly claustrophobic and Bennett cannot escape her family – she simply has no privacy whatsoever. She claims to be OK with this, but the film certainly presents it in a negative light. She is also unable to come through as the family’s head and seems to be punished for her urge to protect her daughter, hide a corpse, and try to come up with bribery money. The film’s plot holes – namely that everything could be avoided if a rational mind took hold of the situation – can be excused by the fact that a lovely housewife is the protagonist. Frustratingly, she is unable to do anything without her husband’s consent. He is simply removed from the situation, a literal by-product of the war, as he is sent to Germany on an unnamed work assignment and does not know of the family’s troubles.

As much as this is about Lucia’s place in domestic life and her punishment when she goes beyond the lines of propriety, it is also about the broken dreams of a foreigner. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that in both Caught and The Reckless Moment, the outside force – a man who distracts a woman from her marriage – is the handsome James Mason, first playing a British doctor catering to the lower classes and then an Irish thug with a heart of gold. Bennett and Mason are both excellent and I could have watched their scenes together go on for at least another hour. They develop a strange intimacy almost within the first seen and he doesn’t feel physically threatening to her, not even during his introduction where he is left to wait in the house, surrounded by her aged father and children, cloistered in her domestic sphere.

There doesn’t seem to be any danger that Lucia is going to have a fully-fledged affair with Donnelly, but she obviously begins to enjoy the attention, as well as his solid, reassuring presence. Mason is perfect in the role and provides a mix of brashness and tenderness that makes it obvious why he is appealing to both Lucia and her family. Joan Bennett, on the other hand, breaks out of her femme fatale role from earlier films and is excellent as the fragile, stern, complex house wife. She previously starred in Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and was also in a number of films noir, though The Reckless Moment is one of her best roles.  I know her from two famous, later roles as another family matriarch – in Dark Shadows and Suspiria. It is difficult not to think of these three characters overlapping on another, as both films and the TV show examine women’s changing roles contrasted by horror, death, and murder.

Fontaine is surrounded by a number of solid actors, including Geraldine Brooks (Possessed) as the earnest, naïve, hysterical daughter who thinks she knows best. She’s a memorable presence, even though we don’t see a lot of her, and slightly invokes Vera in Mildred Pierce. Henry O’Neill (Shadow of the Thin Man, Tortilla Flat) is solid and dependable as Lucia’s dear old dad and TV actor Roy Roberts (The Enforcer) is both menacing and familiar as the gangster, Nagel. A final memorable performance comes from Sheppard Strudwick (Beyond a Reasonable Double, Chicago Deadline), who is fittingly smarmy as Bea’s older beau who would rather have money than love.

This was Ophüls final American film, though he went on to create European classics like Earrings of Madame de…, La Ronde, and Lola Montès.  Though none of these later masterpieces are noir-influenced, they continue Ophüls theme of complex romances and women in trouble. Visually, the Reckless moment is memorable for its noir-styled cinematography from Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde, From Here to Eternity), who turns the suburbs into a place of menace and the idyllic beachside town into a realm of paranoia and imprisoning shadows. An interesting post-war European examination of the confines of American domestic life, the film proves that not even the suburbs are safe and they only provide a veneer of comfort that can be penetrated at any time.

The Reckless Moment is available on a barebones DVD, though hopefully it will make it to Blu-ray soon after Caught, which debuts this summer. This incredibly subtle film comes highly recommended and deserves multiple viewings, particularly for fans of Bennett, Mason, and Ophüls.