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 He’s supposed to fit into the hard-nosed, plucky reporter character type, but this feels about 15 years out of date, particularly in light of the impending Ace in the Hole (1951) and While the City Sleeps (1956), both incredibly bleak examples of newspaper noir.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.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

ANGEL FACE

Otto Preminger, 1953
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall

Frank, an ambulance driver, is called to a Beverly Hills mansion when the lady of the house, Mrs. Tremayne, is nearly killed by gas poisoning. Though the general consensus is that it was an accident, she doesn’t seem so sure. On his way out, Frank meets her young, beautiful stepdaughter, Diane. She follows him to a diner, allegedly desperate to get out of the house, and he lies to his girlfriend in order to have dinner with Diane and go dancing with her. The next day, Diane arranges a meeting with his girlfriend, Mary, under the pretext that she wants to contribute to Frank’s fund to open his own garage; he was once a racecar driver. Seeing right through it, Mary gives up on Frank and he lets Diane convince him to come work at the mansion as a chauffeur. Caught up in her spell, Frank soon inadvertently becomes an accomplice to the murders of Diane’s father and stepmother…

The last of director Otto Preminger’s noir efforts is one of his finest. This highly underrated film deserves to be seen as much as Laura, and benefits from stylish, claustrophobic cinematography and a shocking ending that still packs a punch. As with Preminger’s Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Whirlpool, Angel Face is driven by two key performances: Jean Simmons as a mentally ill, somewhat tragic femme fatale, and Robert Mitchum as her hapless target. Mitchum was an important player in film noir – often as a man fatally manipulated by a beautiful woman – in such films as Out of the Past, The Locket, and many more. Here he is incredibly passive and wanders willingly into Diane’s trap. He ignores the fact that she’s a rich, beautiful, young woman suddenly enthralled by a poor ambulance driver who was once into race cars. This film is as much about class and economic status as it is about sex, and Frank’s desire to fulfill his dream of opening a shop and living a better life is the carrot she dangles in front of him for much of the film, substituting it with sex or sympathy when he strays.

This was undoubtedly Jean Simmons’ (Spartacus) finest performance in a career generally filled with light-hearted, saccharine roles. Diane is one of noir’s most complex female characters; she is at once manipulative, murderous, depressed, obsessive, and loving, desperate to be loved in return. She’s one of the period’s bleakest characters alongside Gene Tierney’s equally dangerous mentally ill lead in Leave Her to Heaven. The two films would make an interesting double feature, as both characters are obsessed with their fathers, become obsessed with a handsome, but passive male character, and are homicidally jealous of anyone who gets in the way.

In addition to Diane, the film is dominated by controlling women, particularly her stepmother, but even the Japanese housekeeper who berates her husband, and Mary. There’s something unpleasant about Mona Freeman’s (The Heiress) Mary. Though she has a wholesome, girl-next-door look, she’s coldly rational and almost disturbingly practical, eschewing romance for whichever man is the most dependable, faithful, and obedient. Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent, The Letter) and Barbara O’Neil (Gone with the Wind) are great as Diane’s somewhat ambiguous parents who play a continually larger role in the film until their unpleasant demise. Preminger is careful to present them in contrasting scenes. First, they have a loving relationship and Mr. Tremayne cares for his possibly delusional wife. Later, they are both depicted as prone to alcoholism and lives comprised of depressive idleness. Mrs. Tremayne also degradingly controls her husband by regularly tightening the purse strings.

Wealth and success is seen as a corrupting influence in Angel Face, a contradictory way to achieve and destroy one’s dreams. In particular, the car, a symbol of American ingenuity, industry, and freedom is used to a variety of ends. For Frank, a vehicle – an ambulance – is what brings him to Diane, but her sports car attracts him; it represents the glorious but faded past, hopeful dreams for the future, and the physical locus point of a better life. For Diane, it is a lure and a weapon. Part of what draws Diane and Frank together is the disappointing state of their current lives. They both long for the time before the war, when Diane lived in London – she explains that it is the last time she danced with a man (presumably her father, in a disturbingly incestual undertone) – while Frank says it was the last time he raced a sports car.

While Angel Face does have elements of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, particularly in terms of the planned murder, courtroom scene, and the lawyer that convinces the couple at odds to work together, but Angel Face has a unique degree of perversion, hysteria and homicidal impulses buried just beneath a wholesome, lovely exterior. There is a nightmarish, fever dream aspect with characters being roused from sleep, wandering at night, searching for something other than the mundane, deflated routine of postwar life.

Angel Face is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. Fans of film noir, Otto Preminger, and Robert Mitchum will want to seek this out, but so should everyone else.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

WHIRLPOOL (1949)

Otto Preminger, 1949
Starring: Gene Tierney, José Ferrer, Richard Conte, Charles Bickford

A psychiatrist’s beautiful, but troubled wife, Anne, is arrested for theft after concealing her kleptomania and insomnia from her husband. A con artist and hypnotist, David Korvo, deftly rescued her from the embarrassment, but presses for a future meeting. Convinced he is going to blackmail or attempt to seduce her, an outraged Anne is relieved to find out that he only wants to use his hypnotic powers to help her. She gets a good night sleep for the first time in months, but is soon found guilty of the murder of one of Korvo’s previous rich, female clients when she appears in the woman’s house with no memory of the evening. Did Anne kill the woman or is she being framed?

Based on Guy Endore’s (The Werewolf of Paris) novel Methinks the Lady, the script is from the great Ben Hecht, who had also worked with director Otto Preminger on Angel Face and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Though this is often categorized as film noir, Whirlpool is more of a psychological melodrama than a crime film and my only real complaint is that I wish more genuine elements of crime and mystery had been introduced. It’s too obvious that Korvo is the killer and the film’s only real mysteries are whether or not Anne’s husband will forgive/believe her and whether he and the detective will be able to crack Korvo’s alibi.

Though the film is incredibly enjoyable, it is not able to compete with Preminger’s best films noir, Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Angel Face. There are numerous plot issues from a purely logistical standpoint and it’s simply going too far to accept that Korvo hypnotizes himself to get up and walk around after gall-bladder surgery – this is touching on the kind of camp territory that Universal horror plunged into in the ‘40s through series like the Inner Sanctum Mysteries and other drivel. Tierney’s Anne is also too obviously innocent. Though her innocent is doubted for a time in Laura, I had a similar issue with her in both Preminger’s Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends. She’s simply too likable to be convincingly guilty, morally ambiguous, or a true femme fatale. (This is also why she is so sympathetic as the mentally diseased, manipulative murderess in Leave Her to Heaven).

The acting is phenomenal and stars Gene Tierney and José Ferrer are practically able to overcome the numerous plot issues. Tierney is perhaps channeling her own experiences with mental illness in her role as Anne, which she struggled with for many years. She was institutionalized and underwent shock therapy for depression and her portrait of a fragile, unstable, depressed, elegant, and privileged wife is unparalleled in ‘40s cinema. This blend of contradictions captures the psychological difficulties of being a “kept” woman during a period of shifting gender roles. Tierney occupies this transitory position in many of her film roles and as a result captures a sense of isolation, of not belonging.

I absolutely fell in love with José Ferrer. The incredible actor is probably best known to contemporary audiences because he’s the father of Twin Peaks’ amazing Miguel Ferrer and – thanks to his off-again, on-again marriage to Rosemary Clooney – he’s George Clooney’s uncle. Ferrer made his career with his award-winning theatrical and filmic renditions of the titular character in Cyrano de Bergerac, though he excelled at playing villains – I would love to see his Iago in Othello. He had well-known roles in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), Joan of Arc (1948) with Ingrid Bergman, Crisis (1950) with Cary Grant, Moulin Rouge (1952), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and – believe it or not – Dune (1984). He was the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award, which was the first of many awards for Ferrer. There is a sad twist to Whirlpool’s themes of romantic dishonesty and infidelity. Ferrer was married five times. His first marriage with renowned stage actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen ended due to her controversial, long-time affair with the great Paul Robeson. He was married to actress Rosemary Clooney (White Christmas) twice; both times ended in divorce because of his affairs.

Richard Conte (The Big Combo) and Charles Bickford (The Woman on the Beach) are constantly overwhelmed by Tierney and Korvo, but Bickford in particularly gives a good performance. Conte is probably the worst thing about this film. He’s miscast as Anne’s husband, a brilliant psychiatrist. The script also expects to be a man at the head of his field, who somehow fails to release that his wife is a depressed, insomniac, kleptomaniac. He also runs through an implausibly quick range of emotions; initially after the murder he hates her and is convinced of her infidelity, but soon he realized he is to blame for acting too much like her father (!) and becomes determined to prove that Korvo is the murderer, despite the man’s airtight alibi. The implausible marital relationship between Anne and her husband is the film’s most nebulous point, though it makes a number of interesting observations about marriage between wealthy, successful individuals. Preminger, Ferrer, and Tierney were all divorced and married numerous times, with both Tierney and Ferrer remarrying the same spouse twice.

As a thriller, Whirlpool pales in comparison to Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), a superior, earlier example of the use of hypnotism and psychiatry in a twisted romance. Hitchcock’s film is also more overtly subversive. Whirlpool does benefit from some excellent work from Academy Award-winning cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, whose shots of Tierney are particularly impressive. The film comes highly recommended and anyone who was not previously acquainted with Ferrer should prepare to have their minds blown. The film is available on DVD, though I would love to see a Blu-ray box set of Preminger’s noir and thriller works.

Monday, July 14, 2014

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS

Otto Preminger, 1950
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney

Notorious for being violent towards criminals, Detective Dixon is warned by his superiors that he has to get control of himself or he’ll be sent back to the beat. During an investigation, he accidentally kills a crooked gambler, Ken Paine, and hides the body in a panic – he dumps Paine in the river. Though Dixon tries to put the blame on another gangster, suspicion quickly falls on Jiggs Taylor, the cab driver father of the beautiful Morgan, Paine’s estranged wife. Before his death, Morgan had moved in with her father because of Paine’s penchant for domestic violence. Dixon comes to realize that though he has nearly committed the perfect crime, the kindly Jiggs will be found guilty of murder, a matter further complicated by the fact that Dixon is falling in love with Morgan…

1950 was an important year for film noir, probably the most important next to 1944, and included the release of Sunset Boulevard, Night and the City, The Asphalt Jungle, and several more. After Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), this is director Otto Preminger’s third film to star Dana Andrews and Where the Sidewalk Ends provides an interesting contrast to both of these earlier works, particularly Laura. While Laura depicted the inherent sickness and corruption hiding behind the attractive veneer of upper class New York society and Fallen Angel exposed the violence and greed lurking in supposedly wholesome, small-town America, While the City Sleeps was his darkest film to date. Shot primarily in New York, the city is a cesspool, a place of ruin and despair.

Laura’s cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, returned to capture some of the urban realism directors like Jules Dassin were using at that time. LaShelle captures a morally gray universe in a city choked with shadows, despair, and trash, a place forever marred by WWII. Fate and unhappy circumstance plague even the best of men, and many of the characters have little to live for, while others are forced by necessity to turn to lives of crime or violence. Dixon is essentially the genesis of the violent cop who considers himself above – or below – the law, a man who acts as a solitary force of vigilante justice. Dana Andrews is incredible in the role – certainly one of his best – and he manages to impart a mixture of crippling guilt, sadomasochistic violence, moral transgression, and the fundamental sleaziness of the city without over acting and sometimes without raising more than an eyebrow. His detective in Laura was reserved, middle class, and plagued by sexual fantasies. Here he is indisputably blue collar, forever running from an abusive childhood and criminal father, both delivering and seeking out endless beatings at the hands of other men.

Both Andrews and Gene Tierney worked with Preminger several times, together on Laura, and then Andrews starred in Fallen Angel and Tierney in Whirlpool. They lack the magnetic, hot tension of onscreen couples like Bogart and Bacall, which oddly serves the interest of their characters – coming together, but always moving apart. Like so many other noir personalities, both Tierney and Andrews had difficult lives off screen, with Andrews suffering from alcoholism and Tierney struggling with mental illness. While Andrews excellently portrays the fundamental noir antihero – lonely, repressed, guilt-ridden, and filled with a quiet, pervasive rage – Tierney’s character is an unusual noir heroine. She is not a femme fatale, though the script seems to beg for the degree of duplicity normally seen in such characters. Instead, she is surrounded by damaged men – her father lives a life of fantasy and delusion, weaving stories to cover up his empty life; her husband is a war hero who has turned to a life of crime and violence, presumably because he couldn’t make the transition back into normal life. He tries to press his wife into schemes and beats her when she refuses. Dixon is not much better: he murdered her husband, courts her while her father is in prison on his account, and his greatest romantic gesture towards her (confessing) will likely land him in prison.

Andrews and Tierney are accompanied by some strong supporting performances from Gary Merrill (All About Eve), Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), Ruth Donnelly (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and Neville Brand (Stalag 17). Nothing about this film is black and white, including the cops, criminals, and other side characters, making it a more complex work than it is usually given credit for. Of course, there are some plot holes, like nearly all of Preminger’s other noir efforts, but the script from Ben Hecht is still excellent. Based on the novel Night Cry by William L. Stuart, I’d argue that this film is just as important as Laura, but lacks any of the earlier film’s charm, wit, or panache; it is a much darker work. It comes highly recommended and is available on DVD.

Friday, July 11, 2014

FALLEN ANGEL (1945)

Otto Preminger, 1945
Starring: Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Linda Darnell

A handsome drifter on his way to San Francisco gets briefly stranded in a small, California town because he’s out of money. He launches onto to a con artist, Professor Madley, who claims to be a talented medium. Though Madley is impressed with his conning skills and is willing to hire him, he falls hard and fast for the tough, sexy Stella, a waitress looking for security. Though she dates a lot of men, she will only take this further with Eric if he comes into money and will support her. He comes up with a plan to woo and marry local goody-two-shoes Clara, who is independently wealthy. Though her controlling older sister tries to prevent the union, the two are married. Before Eric can leave Clara, Stella is killed… and Eric is the primary suspect.

Based on Marty Holland’s novel of the same name, Fallen Angel is the second of her (yes, it’s a lady) noir classics along with The File on Thelma Jordan.  Though the plot is a bit preposterous, it is no more implausible than Preminger’s other great films noir: Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face, or Whirlpool. June’s faith in Eric, the pivot on which the happy ending turns, is almost impossible to believe, but her naiveté goes a long way towards explaining this – he romances her and shows her a new life, something that is undoubtedly difficult to forget. Alice Faye was known to audiences of the day as the perennial good girl; she made her film in a number of musicals in the ‘30s and early ‘40s and Fallen Angel was actually her first – and last for quite some time – serious dramatic role. She was apparently supposed to sing “Slowly,” the song that runs throughout the film, but producer Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t want Fallen Angel to be associated with her musical career. Allegedly in protest, she retired from cinema for almost 20 years.

Though the sweet, innocent-looking Faye gives a decent performance – essentially reforming Eric through a combination of money, limitless patience, understanding, and sex – but Linda Darnell’s Stella is undeniably the film’s focal point, the deadly flame around which all the male characters hover. Stella is oddly not quite a femme fatale, though this is what she first appears to be. It’s obvious that her numerous dates, romantic disappearances, and risky behavior all revolve around a deep-seated need for security. She is certainly selfish and hard-boiled, but there is also the sense that she is constantly used and idealized by men unwilling to treat her the way they would treat a middle-class woman, such as the blonde, goodie-two-shoes June.

As opposed to most other femmes fatale throughout noir, Stella bears the burden of intense sexual appeal, which is an interesting twist on the character type. Nearly every man in the film is attracted to or obsessed with her, but she can’t get any of them to treat her properly and, unlike the type of femme fatale so often played by Barbara Stanwyck, she doesn’t effectively manipulate any of them and the only violence she unwittingly instigates is against herself. There is no feeling that Stella deserves her sudden, violent murder (unlike I Wake Up Screaming, where there is a sense that the main victim, a selfish waitress reach for fame by any means, had it coming). When her room is investigated, it is cheap and sad, the room of a person who can barely make ends meet and – through the presence of the stuffed animal – the home of a girl who hasn’t quite grown up. The sultry Darnell played a similar role in Hangover Square, as a bar-room singer looking for fame. Darnell, sadly, had a life that reflected these film roles. She was manipulated and abused by 20th Century Fox and suffered through a life of numerous failed marriages, affairs, and alcoholism.

Joseph La Shelle's (Laura) wonderfully atmospheric, black-and-white cinematography adds plenty of excellent atmosphere. Though noir is typically set in the city, Fallen Angel takes place within a small-town, indicating that the sleazy relations between men and women are not limited to an urban environment. The town is seedy with a tense, claustrophobic air – there is always the sense that the characters are being watched by their curious, voyeuristic neighbors. Preminger’s solid direction snappy, hard-boiled dialogue is the equal of Laura. Though Charles Bickford (The Virginian) is a likable, he can’t compare to Clifton Webb, the saucy, obsessive murderer in Laura, or to Laird Cregar as the obsessive and possibly murderous detective in I Wake Up Screaming.

Dana Andrews is excellent, as always, and manages to be sympathetic, despite Eric’s deplorable actions. This feels a little like two films, with the first half being devoted to Eric trying to briefly settle in the small town. The plot of a relatively young John Carradine as Professor Madley, psychic medium and con artist, is introduced, but doesn’t go anywhere. It has the sense of dream logic that benefits so many films noir, but it would be nice to see this particular plot thread unfold throughout the film. I can help but wonder if this is the only film noir with a séance scene – I certainly hope not.

Though this is generally one of the weaker rated of Otto Preminger’s film noir efforts, it still comes highly recommended and is a gripping tale of moral ambiguity, uncomfortable romantic attachments, and sexual obsession. Available on DVD as part of Fox’s Film Noir series, Fallen Angel is a must-see for fans of Preminger, Dana Andrews, and con artists reformed.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Homme Fatale: The Murderous Effete in Film Noir

The opposite of one of film noir’s most popular characters – the femme fatale – is the less frequently discussed but almost as commonly used homme fatale. These characters are as deadly as their female counterparts and they possess some similar traits – they are charming, charismatic, well-dressed and well-groomed, and they love power, control, and manipulation. Like the femme fatale and unlike many stock male noir characters, the homme fatale doesn’t rely on violence, but is not afraid to use it when necessary. While the femme fatale is sexually threatening because she represents wanton female sexuality outside the parameters of marriage and domestic life, the homme fatale is more sexually ambiguous. The Hollywood Production Code forbade explicitly gay characters, but many of the overtly effete hommes fatale come close.

Not that film noir is particularly friendly to heterosexuality – these films express the deep American anxiety about the changing roles of men and women in the wartime and postwar worlds. Film noir almost never ends in marriage and it also does not often end with a heterosexual couple successfully coming together. At best, several films end on an ambiguous note, with the central couple together, but surrounded by nearly insurmountable problems: Laura, The Big Sleep, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Gilda, Possessed, Mildred Pierce, Dark Passage, Deception, and many more. There are even more films noir where the central conclusion involves the destruction, disgrace, or imprisonment of one or both members of the couple: In a Lonely Place, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Reckoning, Double Indemnity, Leave Her to Heaven, Detour, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Witness for the Prosecution, The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, Conflict, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Nora Prentiss, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Letter, The Reckless Moment – the list is nearly endless.

The family home – such a staple of ‘50s cinema with a stay at home wife, businessman husband, and two precious children – is not often shown in film noir (The Desperate Hours, where three criminals on the run invade upper middle class suburbia is a notable exception). Generally there are three types of home environments in noir. The first belongs to single men or women; these are usually basic, unadorned apartments; an exception is Laura, where the titular character has had her home immaculately decorated by the film’s controlling homme fatale. The second type of home is generally a mansion or large, expensive house that belongs to a married couple – a younger woman and older man. If a child is present, it is generally the grown daughter of the older man from his first marriage. Double Indemnity, Caught, and Farewell, My Lovely are all key examples.

The third home environment is the domain of the homme fatale, a place of luxury and beauty, immaculate and shrine or museum-like, not an environment conducive to domestic bliss. Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb) of Laura (1944) is the perfect example of this and probably the most famous homme fatale. His apartment is full of books, art, elaborate carpets and tapestries, and ornate, expensive furniture. The film introduces him rather suggestively – as he is sitting naked, soaking in the bathtub, and working somewhat idly away on a typewriter. He’s the head of an exclusive ad agency and effectively sets the standards of class and elegance for the entire city. He’s obsessed with the titular Laura, his young protégé and has complete molded her clothes, apartment, and behavior, though she frustratingly maintains her own identity, driving him to mania and murder.

It’s easy to draw a direct line between these homme fatale characters and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, as both Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian himself are part of this type, though particularly Wotton. Wotton is the height of taste, culture, and wit. He shapes and molds the young Dorian Gray, turning him away from heterosexual love and towards decadent exploration. He’s related to the intellectual/artistic class that both fascinates and repels middle class British and American society – established bohemians, artists, and writers – really anyone interested in or knowledgeable about art, culture, fashion, gourmet food, wine, travel, and intellectual pursuits; in other words, what was seen as European decadence.

This concept of the decadent has regularly challenged conventional, working and middle class masculine ideals – the trial of Oscar Wilde during the close of the nineteenth century is a perfect example. Changing ideas of masculinity were already a major part of wartime and post war society; these fears and anxieties are reflected in all traditional noir protagonists. Philip Marlowe – a somewhat eccentric, alcoholic loner with a strong moral center and a thirst for danger, but with no familial or sexual relationships, and who loved to play chess alone – is perhaps the leading example, and many of these characters are based on Chandler’s memorable detective.

All these traits – loneliness, isolation, an aversion to sex or affection, an idea that love is an inherently romantic, not realistic notion that no longer has any place in the world – these all plague the protagonists of noir. Though these “masculine” male characters are certainly damaged and troubled, and often entagled with crime or violent, the hommes fatale was portrayed as perverse. The often glamorous hommes fatale is obsessed with appearances and luxury, which is codified throughout noir (and most of American cinema) as a feminine trait. As a result, these characters are shown as weak, amoral, or outright villainous or evil. I believe the primary issue at play here is that glamorous, beautiful women were not seen as individuals; they were purely objects meant to be possessed and owned. Female characters who seek their own sexual agency – the femme fatale – are generally punished or at least represented as depraved, decadent, or evil. The hommes fatale, in an inversion of this, is almost always a figure obsessed with possessing.

In one of the earliest films noir, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Laird Cregar plays a detective obsessed with a young singer. He follows her through the city and adorns his apartment with elaborately framed pictures of her and other memorabilia, building a sort of shrine. After she is murdered, his sanity snaps. Cregar played similar obsessed, murderous, and sexually ambiguous characters in The Lodger (1944), where he is obsessed with his dead brother and attempts to avenge him by killing beautiful women, and in Hangover Square (1945), where his unrequited obsession with a singer drives him to madness. Another early entry, The Maltese Falcon (1941), includes two such characters. The ineffectual thug Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is openly gay in Dashiell Hammett’s novel and wears perfume and elegant clothes. His boss, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greensteet) is equally coiffed, has a tough younger man that he’s very fond of (supposedly a body guard), and is obsessed with owning the Maltese Falcon statue.

In Gilda (1946), Ballin Mundson (George Macready) is only interesting in amassing wealth and possession – his number two man, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is devoted to him and the two agree no woman will ever come between them. When Mundson marries sultry singer Gilda (Rita Hayworth), who just happens to be Johnny’s ex, Johnny becomes obsessed with keeping her in line and even compares her to Mundson’s laundry and his other possessions. Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) of Murder, My Sweet is a glorified gigolo, seducing, courting, and occasionally blackmailing older, wealthy women in exchange for wealth, gifts, and stylish clothes. In Mildred Pierce (1945), Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) fulfills a similar role. Though raised with wealth, he squandered his family fortune and survives by exploiting wealthy women. William Holden’s Joe Gillis is sort of an inversion of this; he allows Norma Desmond (Gloria Holden) to seduce him and provide him with expensive gifts and a lavish lifestyle. Finally, Vincent Price plays a similar role in both Laura and While the City Sleeps (1956). In Laura, he’s the heroine’s fiancee, who is having an affair with an attractive younger woman, as well as a wealthy older one. In While the City Sleeps, he’s the wealthy, effete son of a newspaper mogul who is obsessed with holding on to his fortune after his father’s death. He marries and is possessive of his beautiful young wife, but she is little more than a status symbol.

There are numerous other examples, including Bruno (Robert Walker) from Strangers on a Train (1951), actually a gay character in Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name. Her most famous character, Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley, is a similar type – possibly gay, ambiguously sex, and obsessed with a life of wealth. More of Hitchcock’s characters, Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) of Rope (1948) were openly gay in play the film is based on, but in the film were simply ambiguous murderers obsessed with wealth, taste, and intellectual superiority.

Somewhat ambiguous male relationships are a major part of film noir and pervade the nearly all-male worlds of police work (The Enforcer), trucking (They Drive By Night), and boxing (The Harder They Fall), as well as soldering (Dead Reckoning). In Detour, a criminal takes a young hitchhiker under his wing, and in The Hitch-Hiker, two men alone on a cross country vacation have their lives invaded by a violent hitchhiker. In The Big Sleep, General Sternwood, a man with two out of control daughters involved in numerous illegal activities, is only concerned that his loyal male companion has gone missing.

The homme fatale is certainly a more nebulous character than his female counterpart, but is a fascinating way to look at the changing gender roles during the postwar period. His inherent repression and sexless-ness generally drives him to murder and – perhaps ironically – occasionally drives together heterosexual couples throughout film noir.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Otto Preminger (1905-1986)

Born in Bukovina – traditionally part of Dracula’s homeland, Wallachia, but now part of Ukraine – Otto Preminger is yet another filmmaker involved with film noir who was forced to flee Nazism and pursue a career in Hollywood. The most publicly known director of his time next to Hitchcock, Otto Preminger is largely remembered for his taboo-breaking films, which concerned, murder, obsession, perversion, sex, infidelity, drug addiction, homosexuality, and rape. He was physically distinctive due to his bald, shiny head and personally memorable for his tyrannical behavior – he was known to be absolutely horrible to actors. Despite a few efforts towards the end of his career that weren’t well received, many of his films were nominated for Academy Awards and remain classics. His most popular works are generally either film noir or literary adaptations and he wasn’t afraid to step in front of the camera, even sometimes as a Nazi as in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. (Generally, German-speaking émigrés hated being forced into these roles.) Preminger was also a staunch critic of Senator McCarthy’s Red Scare and was the first to openly flaunt the blacklist established by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Though Preminger initially planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer (he completed his degree in Austria, where the family had relocated), he discovered the theater and was instantly obsessed. In Vienna, he collaborated with theatrical legend Max Reinhardt. Before leaving the country to work in Hollywood, he completed one filmic assignment in German, a post-WWI drama, Die große Liebe (1931). He followed this several years later with his first U.S. film, the romantic comedy and musical Under Your Spell (1936), about a singing cowboy, though the screwball comedy, Danger – Love at Work (1937), begins to exhibit some of his trademark style.

He did some uncredited directing work on Alfred L. Werker’s swashbuckling adventure film, Kidnapped (1938) before following it up with some war-themed comedies, such as Margin for Error (1943), which he also co-starred in beside Joan Bennett, and In the Meantime, Darling (1944). Preminger was next hired to replace famed German director Ernst Lubitsch for A Royal Scandal (1945), a 19th-century Russian comedy about Catherine the Great with Tallulah Bankhead and Vincent Price.

Laura (1944), a film noir starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb, was Preminger’s break out film. A police detective becomes obsessed with a woman while he’s investigating her murder. He follows the two key suspects, her womanizing fiancé, and her elegant, if controlling social patron and boss. Laura was one of the early, important films noir, and established Preminger as a forerunner in the genre. It also introduced his flair for the taboo and the controversial – two of the primary characters are wildly effeminate – actor Clifton Webb was openly gay – and the central plot revolves around infidelity, obsession, perversion, and a woman having her face blown off with a shotgun.

Preminger followed this up with another excellent noir effort, Fallen Angel (1945), again starring Dana Andrews. A con artist and drifter falls in love with an alluring waitress, but she won’t have anything to do with him unless he comes up with some money. He marries a vulnerable, naïve, and wealthy young woman, but meanwhile, the waitress is murdered. The drifter is the main suspect, but with his wife’s support, he investigates the murder.

He returned to the musical with an average effort, Centennial Summer (1946), with Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell as two sides of a love triangle at the world’s fair. Forever Amber (1947), his most expensive film, was also his least favorite. Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde returned to star in this unfortunately failed tale of romance and social climbing during King Charles II’s reign. He only agreed to do Forever Amber if he could direct the Joan Crawford-vehicle, Daisy Kenyon (1947). Crawford gives a great performance as a woman involved in – you guessed it – a love triangle. Many films throughout his career center on this triangular, dramatic device. Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda co-star in this “woman’s film,” certainly one of the best of the genre next to Crawford’s Mildred Pierce and Possessed. Preminger also replaced Lubitsch for a final time after the director's death with That Lady in Ermine (1948), though Preminger remains uncredited. This is yet another period piece, a romantic comedy and musical starring Betty Grable. His next effort, The Fan (1949), an average, somewhat unsuccessful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, is in the same vein.

The Whirlpool (1949) continued a run of noir and suspense films. Gene Tierney returned for this film about a kleptomaniac who is hoodwinked by a hypnotist (Jose Ferrer) and framed for murder. Her psychiatrist husband must overcome his jealousy and help her to remember the truth in this somewhat implausible but still excellent film. Even better is Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), which reunited Tierney and Dana Andrews. Andrews stars as a violent detective who hates criminals because it was his father’s profession – characters with abusive childhoods is another of Preminger’s constant themes. One night he accidentally kills a gangster and, in a panic, hides the body. He falls in love with the man’s battered wife (Tierney), but struggles with what to do when her father becomes the main suspect. Though not quite as iconic as Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of Preminger’s best films.

Unfortunately The 13th Letter (1951), a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic of nihilism and misanthropy, Le Corbeau (1943), was less successful and it remains a rarely seen work. Preminger quickly returned to form with a final noir, Angel Face (1952). Robert Mitchum and acclaimed British actress Jean Simmons star in the story of an ambulance driver roped in by a femme fatale after her stepmother is poisoned. While Laura showcases the perfect victim, Angel Face has one of film noir’s most memorable femmes fatale and unusually showcases female sexual obsession, rather than male.

Preminger’s first really controversial film was the sex comedy The Moon is Blue (1953), starring David Niven and William Holden as two men trying to woo the same woman. Though the film is hardly shocking by today’s standards, it was one of the first to openly use the word “virgin,” as that is the heroine’s excuse for why neither of the men can seduce her – she wants to wait until marriage to have sex. Niven is particularly great here and steals the film from star William Holden. After this, Preminger briefly returned to Germany to make the comedy Die Jungfrau auf dem Dach (1953), before turning his attention to that most American of genres, the Western. Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum co-starred in River of No Return (1954), which received decent ratings despite the fact that Preminger had nothing good to say about Marilyn Monroe (and once referred to her as a “vacuum with nipples”).

Some of Preminger’s messy private life bled over into Carmen Jones (1954), when he cast his girlfriend of nearly four years, black actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge. Though Preminger was married for many years, he and his wife were estranged and he had a number of affairs. Possibly the most famous was with burlesque bad girl and author Gypsy Rose Lee; their son together, Erik, didn’t know Preminger was his father until after his mother’s death in the ‘60s. Preminger’s affair with Dandridge was equally shocking, because America was still virulently (and openly) racist in the ‘50s. (To provide some context, French actress and singer Juliette Gréco met and began an affair with Miles Davis in Paris in 1949. He broke it off because of the trouble and pain their relationship would cause them both in America.) Carmen Jones was a riff on Bizet’s opera Carmen, though it wasn’t particularly successful. He followed it up with Porgy and Bess (1959), another opera adaptation starring Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, and Pearl Bailey – what a cast.

Frank Sinatra starred in Preminger’s most controversial film to date, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), one of Hollywood’s earliest portrayals of heroin addiction.  Eleanor Parker (Caged) is the long suffering, disabled wife of Frankie (Sinatra), while Kim Novak (Vertigo) costars as his neighbor and mistress. Once released from prison, where he was treated for addiction, Frankie struggles not to lapse back into his old life. The wonderful Darren McGavin has a cameo as Frankie’s drug dealer in this frank portrait of abuse.

He followed this shocker up with a number of war-themed films, such as The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) with Gary Cooper, which is the first of several courtroom-set films directed by Preminger. This true story of a WWI air corps general court-martialed for criticizing the loyalty of his superiors seems to be a scathing, if subtle commentary on the state of McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist. In the poorly rated Saint Joan (1957), a young Jean Seberg stars as the eponymous Saint, then a young prophet selected by the King to lead France to war. The script was based on George Bernard Shaw’s admittedly talky play and was adapted for the screen by famed novelist Graham Greene.

Seberg returned to star in Bonjour Tristesse (1958), where Jean Luc Godard apparently discovered her for her history-making role in Breathless. In Tristesse, she stars alongside David Niven and Deborah Kerr as a free-spirited young girl living a wanton life of decadence. She’s afraid her lifestyle will change when her father’s old flame arrives at their estate. This vivid contrast of generations and relationships is presented in both black and white and glowing Technicolor is a must-see, particular for fans of dreamy films about the idle rich.

Undoubtedly his most famous film after Laura is Anatomy of Murder (1959), also one of his most controversial. This court room drama starring James Stewart concerns the story of a man who killed a bartender, after the bartender allegedly raped the man’s wife. This was one of the first popular, big budget Hollywood films to openly addresses issues of rape and whether or not a woman’s promiscuity is a contributing factor – it is perhaps his least aged film, due to these unfortunately continuing issues. The film is also famous for its jazz score from Duke Ellington and an excellent opening sequence from Saul Bass, well known for working with Hitchcock. Bass would provide a number of credits sequences for Preminger and the two had a thriving collaboration.

Preminger followed this up with a more personal war-themed film, Exodus (1960), about Jewish immigrants traveling to the Middle East for the founding of Israel. Though the film is unduly long, it touches on Preminger’s Jewish roots and is again controversial – it was co-written by Preminger and Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted from Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Preminger was one of the first filmmakers to openly work with a member of the Blacklist. Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint costar.

Advise & Consent (1962) was Preminger’s last well-regarded or controversial film. This political drama will please fans of “The West Wing,” and is an intricate look at a Senate investigation. The great cast includes one of my favorite actors, Charles Laughton, in his final role, Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, and others. This was one of the first Hollywood films to frankly deal with homosexuality, and it was another Preminger film openly critical of the Blacklist. After Advise & Consent (1962), Preminger’s career took a bit of a nose dive, though he persistently directed until 1979.

He made The Cardinal (1963), a slowly paced film about a Boston priest who comes up against Nazism, abortion, racism, and other issues that would have felt much more controversial with a more solid script. The war themed continued with In Harm’s Way (1965), with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, about Navy officers in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing. An interesting, often overlooked effort is the suspense/mystery film Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), about a woman whose young daughter goes missing in London. Unfortunately no one remembers the girl, and a stubborn inspector (Laurence Olivier) tries to figure out whether or not the little girl is real or just a figment of her mother’s unstable mind. There’s a great cast that includes Carol Lynley (she was cast in several of Preminger’s films during this time), Keir Dullea, The Zombies (!), and Noel Coward. In Hurry Sundown (1967), two cousins (John Phillip Law and an especially sinister Michael Caine) battle over a plot of land after the war is over. Much like In Harm’s Way, this average film disappoints and doesn’t quite reach the level of Preminger’s classic works.

Skidoo (1968), on the other hand, must be seen to be believed. In this collaboration between Otto Preminger and Groucho Marx (I can’t believe it either), a criminal turns his life around after he drops some acid and figures out that he’s no longer capable of murder. I’ve heard this compared to Godmonster of Indian Flats, a film close to my heart, but what’s especially baffling about Skidoo is that it’s a major Hollywood production from one of cinema’s most famous directors of the ‘50s and one of its most beloved comedians. Plenty of people hate Skidoo, but it’s really worth tracking down a copy just to have your brains scrambled. Preminger briefly held the role of Mr. Freeze on Batman, and much of the cast appears here, including Caesar Romero (the Joker).

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) is a slightly less insane film – a romantic comedy of sorts – where Liza Minelli stars as a woman whose face has been scarred with acid. This is a quirky little effort about weirdos in love a la Harold and Maude, and is certainly one of Preminger’s most underrated late-period films. He followed this up with Such Good Friends (1971), a comedy about infidelity, and two political thrillers, Rosebud (1975) and The Human Factor (1979). Though Rosebud was panned during its release, it’s a decent film about Palestinian terrorism starring the great Peter O’Toole. With a script from Tom Stoppard based on Graham Greene’s novel, The Human Factor was a fairly high point to go out on, and is a solid thriller about the British Secret Service.

Preminger hasn’t been remembered as fondly or as often as some of the other directors of his generation, although he certainly deserves acclaim. His classic films noir – Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face – and taboo-busting dramas – The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of Murder, Advise & Consent – all need to be seen by serious cinema fans. Some of his later efforts also deserve a second look and it’s certain that no other Hollywood director so established ever made anything like Skidoo.