Saturday, May 14, 2005

Woman on the Run (1950)

Posted by Floyd

Director: Norman Foster (Kiss The Blood Off My Hands; Journey Into Fear)

Photographer: Hal Mohr (The Lineup; Underworld USA)

Writers: Alan Campbell, Norman Foster

Principal Actors:

Dennis O’Keefe (The Leopard Man; Raw Deal; T-Men; Abandoned)

Ann Sheridan (They Made Me A Criminal; Nora Prentiss)

Robert Keith (The Lineup)

Ross Elliott (Gun Crazy; Affair In Trinidad)

Frank Jenks (High Wall; Highway Dragnet; Sudden Danger; Slightly Scarlet)

Plot Summary (Warning: Spoilers ahead! This film contains a very nice plot twist. If you have not viewed it, stop now and view a copy before reading the summary or review).

Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott), department store window trimmer and failed artist, is walking his dog, Rembrandt, on a dark, cold San Francisco night. He witnesses a brutal “hit” of a potential grand jury witness. Learning that his life will be in danger, Johnson eludes the police and takes it on the lam. The police, represented by Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) and Detective Shaw (Frank Jenks), grill his apparently uncaring wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan), as to his whereabouts. She is uncooperative and so they put a tail on her. The Johnsons are in a loveless marriage but Eleanor wants to help Frank escape. She is approached by a charmingly abrasive tabloid reporter, Danny Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe), who offers to help her find her husband and offers her $3,000.00 for an exclusive interview. Unknown to Eleanor, Leggett is (you guessed it) the killer and is using Eleanor to bird dog her husband so that he can kill him and eliminate the only eyewitness to the murder. It turns out that Leggett had taken money to cover up evidence that would have convicted a local mob figure and was being blackmailed by the man he killed.

The body of the film follows these two as they elude the police (who manage to catch up with them several times, only to lose them again!) and search the City for Frank, who Eleanor learns has a heart condition for which he desperately needs medication. Meanwhile, Frank has sent a letter to Eleanor with a cryptic clue as to his whereabouts. As they roam the City, Leggett begins to fall for Eleanor, who does not return the feeling. At a Chinese restaurant/bar, which Frank had visited the previous evening, a dancer privately tells Leggett that he looks familiar, like a drawing of a man that Frank had drawn and given to her. Leggett leaves with Eleanor but returns to kill the dancer and destroy the drawing, which would have identified him as the killer.

Eleanor finally solves the riddle and takes Leggett to a wharf amusement park where Frank is hiding. Leggett convinces her to lead Frank to a secluded spot under the rollercoaster so that he can interview him ‘in private’ (i.e.- kill him). The police have trailed them to the park and are hunting for Frank, Eleanor and Leggett. Leggett and Eleanor take refuge on the roller coaster and this is where Leggett slips, betraying facts about the murder that only the police, Frank, Eleanor and the killer would know. Eleanor, stuck on the coaster, frantically tries to signal Frank who meets with Leggett. To cover himself, Leggett tries to frighten Frank into having a heart attack, not knowing that the police and Eleanor already know of his guilt. Ferris intercedes and kills Leggett. The estranged couple are reunited as the camera pans to a raucously-laughing harlequin.


1950 was a good year for noirs. Records indicate that more noirs were released during that year than in any other single year. Woman on the Run is one of the 1950 noirs and is my NOTW. The merits of this film are its strong cast (led by one of my favorite noir actors, Dennis O’Keefe) and a good script containing several good plot twists and surprises. Coming at the end of the second noir phase (Schrader), it could be placed in the noir subcategory of police thriller. It also seems to fit Spicer’s definition of an "homme fatale" noir. Compared to "The Sniper", David’s NOTW last week, WOTR seems, at times, almost lighthearted. Nevertheless, the dark and violent opening scene and the finale in the nighttime amusement park provide the viewer with some shocking and exciting moments. The film’s pacing is fast and furious as wife, police and killer scour the City for the husband/witness/prey.

The San Francisco locale is used to great effect by director Norman Foster and cinematographer Hal Mohr. In fact, the middle part of the film is almost a travelogue of the City-By-The-Bay and makes one wonder if the S.F. Chamber of Commerce had a hand in financing the project! But Mohr’s skill gives a menacing look even to the daytime shots once the viewer realizes that Eleanor is unwittingly touring the city with the killer.

The best part of the film for me is the dialogue. Ann Sheridan has some wonderfully acerbic, wisecracking lines that she uses to skewer Inspector Ferris and anyone else who comes in range! O’Keefe has his share of good lines as well including one particularly perceptive comment near the end of the film. Danny and Eleanor are standing in the dark under the park rollercoaster, the place where Danny is to meet Frank. Danny tells her that he used to bring girls there for romantic trysts when he was younger. Eleanor remarks that the dark, remote spot is more frightening than romantic to which Danny rejoins: “That’s how love is when you’re young … and life is when you’re older.”

This is definitely a minor noir and one that would probably not score high on the noir elements rankings. But I find it to be an enjoyable, exciting and engaging movie. The noir elements are there in the characters (the immoral, violent Leggett inexorably hunting his victim; the hard, pessimistic Eleanor, trapped in a loveless marriage to a man she doesn’t understand; the hapless Frank, a frustrated failure at love, art and life; and the hardcase Inspector Ferris, concerned only with solving the case and not with the welfare of the people he supposedly serves).

Monday, May 09, 2005

Gilda (1946)

NOTW: Gilda (1946) [restoration edit]

I chose Gilda as noir of the week because even though it's highly acclaimed it seems to me it's not regarded as the classic I think it is. Hopefully you've all seen it so I'll skip the plot summary.

Before watching this movie I regarded Rita Hayworth mainly as a comic actress. And sure enough, the first few times we see her in this movie she gives us quite a few lighthearted laughs. We soon learn however that Gilda is a troubled young woman, with a dark both past and present. And Rita pulls this off in a marvelous way. In a way I never thought she could actually.

One of the very best scenes in my opinion is when Gilda has performed on stage and starts stripping, asking men in the audience for help with her zipper. I like a good striptease as much as the next guy, but watching this scene makes me want to scream at her to stop. It's a relief when Glenn Ford comes and removes her from the stage, even though he is rough and slaps the poor woman. You do not want to see her disgrace herself like that.

The striptease most defininitely is a cry for help, but she is still strong enough to resist any help offered her. Not even marrying Johnny Farrell (Ford), who seems to be her true love, helps. Sure Ford, under the influence of George Macready's character Ballin, had become very business oriented and not very loving. But Gilda gets all the chances to turn her life around a woman could possibly get, and still she resists these opportunities.

Gilda is not your regular femme fatale who manipulates everyone to get what she wants. To me she is a woman who doesn't know what she wants, so instead she ends up rebelling against everyone and everything. Not as a search for her place in life, but as the only thing she can think of. This isn't an evil woman who makes you cold to the bone. Gilda is a tragic character that makes me truly sad.

The dialogue in this movie should be mentioned. It's truly outstanding. Sparks fly just about every time Gilda opens her mouth. The other characters do their best at countering her sparks, but Gilda is the center of attention in every scene she appears in. There is an aura of appealing yet frightening energy around her. I would go so far as to say that every other character in this movie is just there to give us some idea of what exactly is going on inside Gilda's head. And what a fascinating sight it is. This is a terrific movie everyone should watch.

Harald the Swede

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Posted by Carl

It is one of the great subtle opening shots in the movies. With no sound other than the din of a bustling crowd, Joan Blondell’s world-wise carny tramp Zeena stands on the back of a trailer and scans the action below her. In the center of the crowded mix, Blondell finally affixes a long and lascivious look on Stan Carlisle, a handsome drifter who has joined the carnival and has become entranced by its kooky characters and cons.

Carlisle doesn’t realize it yet, but he is about to become the first predatory victim in an unsettling story rife with them. In 2005, Nightmare Alley’s opening shot remains a powerful image of sheer carnal lust, but it’s so much more than that. Without words, it sets the proper mood for the true essence of this fascinating film, which in my mind, is to examine the human predatory condition through both the hunter and the hunted in a variety of levels. In several instances the key characters - including Tyrone Power’s central character Stan -- serve as both the lion and the lamb in the ongoing hunt, which makes this unique drama all the more hypnotic and haunting.

Zeena, peeking over the hill age-wise, is clearly looking at Stan as a conquest and knows just how to land him - let him in on the con she has perfected over the years with her spent, alcoholic husband Pete. Sure enough, Stan is sucked in to become her new huckster and gigolo. Little does Zeena know that she’s eventually going to get chewed up herself by Stan when he gets what he wants out of her as far as the mentalist con is concerned and then dumps her for the younger, more attractive and more naïve Molly.

Deep? Dangerous? You bet. Ever since I viewed this film for the first time a few years back I have been captivated and maybe even a little frightened by it. I’ve probably watched it seven or eight times now and I’m still extracting new elements from its grim but gripping tale. I feel intimidated and inadequate just writing about it, but at the same time, with the film’s first official release to home video on June 6, I wanted this is as my latest Noir of the Week as surely as Stan wanted "the code."

What must audiences have thought in 1947 when they first witnessed this dark, twisted tale of deception and moral decadence? Since it didn’t fare well at the box office at all and then quickly disappeared from sight, chances are viewers were either repulsed or simply not ready for it. Or maybe both. But Nightmare Alley is quintessential film noir not only because it so powerfully presents the dark and decadent world of the carnival and its con artists, but some of the blackest, bleakest characteristics of the human spirit. There are uncanny degrees of cunning in all of us, but there’s also a geek factor, a level of vulnerability we all fear will be exposed someday. In this movie, we see those extremes played out before us is in one ambitious man who nonetheless confesses his weaknesses when he says in the end that he was "born to play" the geek.

If you haven’t seen the film, I apologize for the rather convoluted scene-setting. Here’s the framework of the complete story: After Stan becomes part of Zeena’s mind-reading act, he yearns to learn the code from Pete and Zeena and develop a more high-class and lucrative touring show like they had once had. Rummy that he has become, Pete still won’t relent, so Stan buys him a bottle of cheap hooch wherein he can use the time with Pete indisposed to pump Zeena in more ways than one. But Stan accidentally gives Pete a bottle of Zeena’s wood alcohol (Pete is so bad off he doesn’t even notice the difference) and it kills him.

With Pete out of the way, Stan quickly learns the code in the carny, then decides he’s outgrown the fading Zeena and her goofy tarot cards. He seduces Colleen Gray’s Molly, steals her away from strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki) and forms a high-class mentalist act with Molly as his sexy shill to bilk wealthy socialites. A female psychiatrist, played with deceitful brilliance by the underutilized Helen Walker, figures out Stan’s scam and goes into cahoots with him, providing him details on her rich clients’ psychological weaknesses in return for cash and who knows what else. But when Stan tries to perform an elaborate con for an old geezer yearning to see and hear his long-lost young love from "the other side" Molly gets an attack of guilt disguised as the old man’s deceased lover and exposes the scam. Suddenly and shockingly, Stan becomes the hunted. His career ruined, he goes into hiding as a railroad bum and finally winds up back in the carnival taking on any job that can be had. Guess what - there just happens to be one job open, the guy who bites the heads off chickens and serves as the resident human freak - the geek. I won’t offer the ending, which is a gratuitous Hollywood semi-happy wrap-up that allegedly Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck demanded before he would even release the film. No matter, the mere sight of pretty boy Power turned into a haggard derelict leaves a chilling enough ending in spite of the corny clip-on finish.

In addition to taking on such an unusual story, director Edmund Goulding created a masterpiece of filmmaking. There are very few wasted moments over Nightmare Alley’s 110 minutes, with many extraordinary scenes that enrich the plot. My favorite may be when Pete, cognizant that Stan is trying to take his place even though he is almost constantly inebriated, sucks him in with a sappy story and then when he has him right where he wants him, delivers the slap in the face about how everyone falls for a story about "a boy and his dog." Worldwise as we think we may be, it shows how easily we can be sucked into something we want to believe and how thoroughly duped we can become.

Shakepearean actor Ian Keith is brilliant as Pete, but the acting throughout is magnificent. Power, who lobbied Fox to obtain the rights to the book and allow him to play the lead role, called Stan the favorite role of his career and it surely is. He is terrific. Blondell, a veteran of the gangster films who deserved more noir roles, is the embodiment of a woman who claims to be "as reliable as a two-dollar cornet." Mazurki is his usual gruff self as the big galoot whose strength is no match for Stan’s guile. Walker, as the scurrilous shrink, may be the coldest, most calculating person in the film. Again, it must have been revelatory in 1947 to see a woman whose predatory instincts and cunning were just as lethal as the men, perhaps even stronger. In the end, Walker’s Dr. Lilith Ritter disposes of Stan like an old shoe when he desperately pleads with her for help. She shows absolutely no remorse, either, a bitch of the first order.

It’s just one element of the film that compels repeat viewing. While I’ve had my own boot copy of this movie for awhile now, I’ll buy the new officially released version immediately. I’m hoping for the sharper images of an improved print, better sound that enhances Cyril Mockridge’s spare, ominous score and a strong commentary track by Silver and Ursini. I’m also hoping the new DVD stirs more discussion and debate about this disturbing but great film. To be sure, there are more levels and ``nightmare alleys’’ in this film than I’ve presented here. Hopefully the folks on the Blackboard have beared with me and agree. Noir doesn’t come much better than this, even though there isn’t a gun or a murder to be had. Great, great film.

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