Sunday, June 26, 2005

They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

Posted by Gary Deane

Directed by: Alberto Cavalcanti
Starring: Trevor Howard, Griffith Jones, Sally Gray, Jack McNaughton
Photographed by: Otto Heller

Seems like Tony Blair’s had it with Britain’s troublesome yobs. The Prime Minister said recently that his government was ‘declaring war’ on the country’s thuggish ‘yob culture’ and the ‘anti-social behavior’ that’s become part of everyday life in England.

Maybe it’s different these days but in the past Britons have shown a soft spot for their home-grown knaves, spivs, scroats, hooligans, wide-boys, punks, bovver boys, and other n’er-do-wells. After all, lads ‘ll be lads, won’t they?

This near-affection for bad-boy and criminal types also has been writ large on the screens of English movie theatres the last few decades. Neo-noir-ish features like Get Carter (1970), The Long Good Friday (1980), Dance with a Stranger (1985), Mona Lisa (1986), The Krays (1990), Gangster No.1 (2000), Sexy Beast (2001), the raucous Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), and most recently, Mathew Vaughn’s nasty little confection ‘Layer Cake’ (2005) have become a staple of British cinema.

While almost any audience at some level can exhilarate in the dark sensations these crime thrillers provide (if people can fathom the accents), these films have a special resonance for British audiences. This frisson comes in part as a result of the films’ inferred critique of Britain’s pervasive class-culture and the acid resentments that eat from within.

Those same resentments and jealousies stir early on in ‘They Made Me a Fugitive’, Alberto Cavalcanti’s stylishly made, sometimes unnervingly violent film noir released in 1947 near the peak of the British noir cycle.

The film fits into the category of so-called ‘spiv’ movies that glorified black marketeers who prospered from shortages during and following WWII (the most ambitious and remembered of these being Orson Welles’ character Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949).

'They Made Me a Fugitive' has its spivs both better and worse. Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard) is nominally the ‘good’ guy who joins up with a gang led by Narcy (Griffith Jones) who is a very bad guy. Clem, an RAF pilot and officer during the war has been mostly drunk since being demobbed. He’s depressed and disillusioned and is looking for a way out, even if it stands to take him to a much worse place than he is in already.

When one of the gang asks Narcy about Clem's 'speciality', Narcy snaps, 'He’s got class. We need a bit of that in our business'. With that, Narcy says everything about both his motives and his aspirations. As with most British gangster protagonists, Narcy’s origins are working-class London. Obsessed with overcoming these and the limitations they hang on him, Narcy is looking to better himself through association with Clem and by bribing his way up the social ladder. However, Narcy is just a plain nasty piece of work and doesn’t rate a moment's charitable thought.

It doesn’t take long for things to turn ugly between him and Clem when Clem realizes that the gang’s latest haul includes a cache of dope. Clem says to Narcy that he’s not playing along if drugs are part of the proposition. Narcy turns on him and asks Clem if he thinks that they’re 'not respectable enough' for him, while one of Narcy’s henchmen accuses Clem of being 'stuck up' and 'just an amateur muckin’ about for the fun of it'.

In other words, Clem is seen as an upper-class toff who’s not willing to put it on the line for his mates. Meantime, Clem says to his rather posh girl friend, Ellen (Eve Ashley), 'Look, we’re slumming here' and 'I may be a crook but I’m not that kind of crook'.

The class cards now have been played. While Narcy clearly covets Clem's station in life (as well as his girl friend), he also despises Clem for everything he represents. Clem, on the other hand, looks at Narcy and sees an uneducated little hoodlum with delusions of becoming something he’ll never be.

Their relationship is rendered even more complex as a result of an inspired counter-casting of the two main characters. Clem, as played by Howard is by far the more rough and rugged and purely physical of the two. On the other hand, Narcy (short for Narcissus) played by Griffith Jones is slender, affected and a bit of a dandy. Even so, while he may not look like your average tough (a Bob Hoskins or Vinnie Jones, for instance), Narcy can be cruel and very dangerous.

An uneasy truce is arrived at when Narcy tells Clem that they don’t plan to make dope a regular part of the trade. Unfortunately for Clem, when the next job comes off, Narcy sets him up for a fall - a big one. Clem ends up convicted of manslaughter and is sentenced to 15 years hard in Dartmoor Gaol.

Months later, Clem get a visit out of the blue from Sally (Sally Gray), the now-former girl friend of Narcy who dumped her for - you guessed it - Clem’s bird, Ellen. Clem had suspected as much but it’s still not welcome news. She also tells him that Soapy (Jack McNaughton), who was in on the frame is now in hiding from Narcy and might be persuaded to turn's King's evidence against him, thus clearing Clem - at least of the manslaughter charge. Clem listens but has his doubts about Sally's own motives and why she’s there. He explodes with anger and tells her to get lost.

This prison scene is one of many in 'They Made Me a Fugitive' in which Trevor Howard shows his force as an actor and screen presence. Howard, still early in his career in this film, works a formidable range, one that he would use with success over four decades, in roles from the romantic to the heroic. Here he’s brilliant as a not-untypical noir hero, struggling to get out of a situation not entirely of his making but one for which he must shoulder part of the blame and all of the consequences. At its best, the film owes much to his portrayal of a man who is deeply cynical and resistant but yet not without hope. With his lived-in face and bemused fatalism, Howard appeals as Bogart appeals.

Sally Gray, on the other hand, drops into the picture looking like she's suddenly found herself in wrong movie. Gray, who could be the other sister of Jane Greer and Yvonne de Carlo, was a favourite of British film audiences in the 30's and 40's. However, she’s very to-the-manor-born and sounds not only like she has a plum in her mouth but is in danger of choking on it. That Gray is supposed to be a 'chorus girl' and a sadistic gangster's bit of fluff is a bit of a stretch. However, Gray is also very likable in a goofy, distracted sort of way and she eventually grows into her character quite nicely.

Shortly after Sally’s visit, Clem escapes and ends up at a home where the woman of the house readily helps him but then asks him to kill her husband with a gun she presents him. After all, what's one more murder to a killer on the run? If this all sounds a bit improbable, it's fair to say that 'They Made Me a Fugitive' occasionally feels as though it's veering slightly out of control. But then that's not necessarily unexpected in a noir like this one, which wants to thrash around in the malaise. Nor is it unwanted in a great little B-thriller, which 'Fugitive' is.
The film sometimes also plays like a horror movie. Clearly Narcy is evil, a textbook psychopath who is charming, glib, selfish, promiscuous, without remorse. He also is a misogynist who beats and tortures and there are a number of scenes that blindside with viewer with their brutality.

In the first, Narcy goes to see Sally in her apartment after he learns that she's been to see Clem in prison. In a rage, he slaps her hard across the face. Our expectation is that it would stop with that. Not by a long shot (or 'long chalk' as the Brits say). Narcy hits her again and again and when she goes down, he then goes about kicking her into unconsciousness.

Just as nerve-wracking is a scene where he confronts Cora, wife of the would-be snitch, Soapy. Narcy wants to know where he is and doesn't care what pain he has to inflict to find out. He orders big Jim, one of his louts to make use of his 'coaxer', a heavy leather belt studded with angled-edged medallions as big as horse brasses. Threatened with disfigurement and worse, Cora breaks down and spills (which comes as a big relief to the viewer).

Narcy later uses Sally to get at Clem. Now in hiding, he tells his mates, 'If she tries to get funny, bash her face in'. It’s could be sequences like these that resulted in the film’s being released in the US as 'I Became a Criminal' with a running time of only 78 minutes instead of its original 96 minutes.

* Spoiler Next Paragraph *

A scene that could have been re-thought and re-shot regardless is the film's less-than-convincing climax, where Clem finally confronts Narcy and the two fight it out in a life-and-death struggle. It's not one of the movie’s better moments and somewhat of a wonder, given the sure-handed direction that Cavalcanti delivers to the rest of the film.

Cavalcanti (as he chose to be called) is best known for another British production 'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby' (1947). He began his career in his native Brazil, then worked in several countries including France where he became part of both avant-garde and documentary movements that anticipated the French 'poetic realism' of the 1930’s.

'They Made Me a Fugitive' does have a kind a maverick aesthetic. There’s a tension, though not necessarily friction, between realist and expressionist elements that creates a striking visual unease within the frame. The director often foregrounds and shoots around objects and sometimes through them for expressive effect. For example, during Sally’s savage beating - a scene shocking in its realism - Narcy's face is reflected in a mirror that casts an image as grotesque as any seen in some carnival house of horror. It leaves little doubt that's he’s completely deranged.

Behind the camera on 'Fugitive' was Czech-born Otto Heller, who was brought up professionally in the traditions of German Expressionism. Heller is arguably as responsible for the film's intense visual sway as Cavalcanti. (Heller would later shoot Michael Powell’s infamous 'Peeping Tom' (1960).

'Fugitive' has also been very tightly edited by Margery Saunders. It's possible to believe that Saunders pushed the movie’s terrific pace much faster and harder than either Cavalanti or Heller might have chosen, given their visual deliberateness. But again, the film is easily admired for the way that it manages the tension among governing elements.

One of the most compelling of these is the screenplay, based on a mystery thriller 'A Convict Has Escaped' by Jackson Budd. The book was adapted for the screen by playwright and screenwriter Noel Langley (Langley also wrote the script for the 'Wizard of Oz'). The film’s dialog is clever and snappy and its exchanges as mordant as you’d expect (or at least hope for) in a superior noir e.g. Clem to Sally: "Next time you want to play with fire, use a matchbox instead" or Sally to Clem, "What are you going to do about that lead in your back", and Clem back: "Sell it for whatever it will fetch". There's a lot of sharp back-and-forth that's a delight to the fine-tuned noir ear.

Classic British noir has much in common with American film noir of the classic period sharing influences, themes, conventions, characterizations, etc. Where it differs is among those things culturally specific to it, notably in its portrayal of the often ill-fated relationship between its protagonists and the class-bound society in which they live.

In 'They Made Me a Fugitive', Clem for whatever reason has turned his back on the class 'that made him' (or it's turned its back on him). Still, he’s loathe to become a cheap thug. Narcy, on the other hand, is a gangster who’s pathological in his desire to become a gent. However, he knows that he’ll never be respectable enough and focuses his anger on Clem.

This is traditional Graham Greene land. Greene who was himself of the upper class and whose books were in the literary tradition (as opposed to the hard-boiled), despised England's debilitating class structure and what he thought of as the living hell trapped inside its boundaries. 'They Made Me a Fugitive' is a both a look inside that hell and one fine little film noir along the way.

Sixty years later, not all that much has changed and Tony Blair and the English have got their jobs cut for them if they really want to see an end to rampant yobbism and under-class warfare. It's probably safe to say that fans of modern British film noir probably don’t have to be too much to be worried about for some time to come.


Monday, June 20, 2005

They Live by Night (1948)

Directed by Nicholas Ray (Noir Pedigree: On Dangerous Ground, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar)
Starring Farley Granger, Cathy O'Donnell, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen
Adapted from the novel Thieves Like Usby Edward Anderson
Director of Photography: George E. Diskant

Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell have the roles of their careers in this uncommonly moving and tender yet gritty, maudit film about a fugitive couple on the run from the law.


The amazing opening shot begins with a closeup of the two attractive lovers kissing, then abruptly shatters with the opening statement: "This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in". Thereafter the film immediately segues into a tense scene of criminals escaping the scene of a crime.

Bowie is a naive 23 year old who escapes prison with two hardened convicts, Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva), and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen). After robbing a bank, they hide out with Chicamaw's niece, Keechie. Inititially wary of each other, Bowie and Keechie begin to fall in love. However, the two cons won't let Bowie live a normal life, and they involve him in another bank heist, where a man gets killed. Bowie's name is plastered in all the papers as the leader of the gang, and the couple, married now, take to the road on the lam from the law.

Deeply in love, they can only snatch moments of happiness while being chased by the police. Bowie is about to leave a pregnant Keechie behind while he pursues a new life for them but is gunned down by the police in a betrayal by Chicamaw's sister-in-law. A devastated Keechie reads Bowie's final words to her in a note at the film's end, mouthing his final words "I love you" at the fade out.

There is never a cliched moment to this film, Nicholas Ray's directorial debut. The purity of the romance between Keechie and Bowie is handled with the lightest and sweetest of touches. All the more terrible when you feel that these two are ultimately doomed. This film is all about the power of love in a violent and hostile world...and perhaps it is more about the fleeting nature of love, and the fleeting nature of happiness. As we are carried along into the intimacies of their doomed relationship, the viewer is left as desolate as Keechie at the tragic denoument.

Cathy O'Donnell is luminous with warmth and gentleness in this film, whereas before I thought her simply a plain jane. Farley Granger plays the vulnerable youth with engaging credibility. I know there was a remake with Keith Carradine and Shelly Duvall (which I haven't seen) but I can't imagine they could be as appealing as this original pair. The film is brilliantly photographed by George Diskant, always framing his subjects in an interesting way, with closeups and even arial photography. A notable example is when the sister-in-law Mattie makes a deal with the police and turns in Bowie. Her stark face is blanketed by shadows, and we know she has his blood on her conscience forever. Nicholas Ray throws in so many detailed and assured touches one would never guess this was his first film.

I saw this for the first time a few days ago along with "On Dangerous Ground", also for the first time, and was awed by Nicholas Ray's artistry. The most satisfying afternoon, intellectually and emotionally, that I've spent at the movies for ages. I highly recommend "They Live By Night"to those that haven't seen it.

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Written by Marie

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Crime Wave (1954)

Crime Wave - Director André de Toth


A late night gas station knock-over goes South for a trio of escaped thugs when one is killed and an intervening cop is killed. The L.A.P.D. suspect the culprits will converge on - and hole up at - the home of Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson), an ex-con anxious to leave the life and that ilk far behind.
Gruff Detective Sims (Sterling Hayden) wants nothing more than to collar the crew - and Lacey - whom he suspects is a willing harborer. With his innocence doubted, Lacey and his loving wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) inform his Parole Officer and Sims that the wounded hood showed up and promptly died - but that's as far as his involvement goes.

Soon after, the other two (Ted de Corsia, Charles Bronson) show up and demand Steve's assistance in a bank heist they've long been planning. When one of the fugitives murders an underworld physician who knows too much - and leaves Lacey's car at the scene - Sims sets out to nab them all. Following a meeting at the lair of an offbeat associate (Timothy Carey), the crew - including the reluctant but threatened Lacey - make their way to the bank, which they discover has been filled with tipped-off cops - and a bloody shoot-out ensues. Lacey high-tails it back to where Ellen is being held - and after freeing her - is freed himself by a newly convinced Sims.

A crackerjack nocturnal thriller elevated by strong acting and assured direction - 'Crime Wave' could've easily been just another routine potboiler in lesser hands. De Toth, who has proven himself capable in several genres (Kirk and Bronson were also in his 'House of Wax' the previous year) eschews rapid-fire editing and cheap thrills here - opting for a more cool, stately pace which oddly makes the flow of the narrative even more gripping. Much of the film is set in the wee small hours - and the night-for-night shooting benefits the film immeasurably.

The uniformly solid acting is yet another highlight of the film. Hayden is perhaps even stronger here than in his portrayal of 'The Asphalt Jungle's doomed crook - his surly, toothpick-chewing Detective an alternately intimidating and darkly funny presence. Nelson, who I confess I've never seen before or since, gives an exceptionally restrained and sensitive performance - creating an anti-hero who elicits deep empathy despite limited screen time and dialogue. His Lacey, not unlike Jeff in 'Out of the Past', is forced to re-visit his former life which - in an unsettling early scene of intimacy invaded, comes in the form of a jarring late-night phone call - in his and Ellen's bedroom.

Kirk, De Corsia, and a thirty-something Charles Bronson all bring their fine work to the table - as does the great Timothy Carey who shines (kinda like a rusty switchblade) in a smallish role. He increases, late in the proceedings, the already considerable tension exponentially - with a twinkle from his crazy eyes. The uniquely chilling Carey makes Christopher Walken look like Mr. Rogers.

Crime Wave (1954)
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Written by Dave

Monday, June 06, 2005

Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)

Posted by G.George

(Apologies to all in advance, I don't have my reference books at hand, I'm at work and heavily bogged down, so this is strictly off the cuff).


Starring Edward G. Robinson, Gail Russell, John Lund, Virginia Bruce, and William Demerest

Directed by John Farrow (whose other noir films include His Kind of Woman AND The Big Clock).

Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer and are Barre Lyndon. Novel by Cornell Woolrich

DP: John F.Setz (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd, This Gun for Hire, and many more).

Thanks to fellow Backboarder CHIBOB for this one...I've been waiting to see it for years, primarily because there is a great write-up and sill photo from the film in the Silver and Ward book. I'm pretty sure the film hasn't played anywhere on a TV station in over a decade.

I can see how there may be two schools of thought on this faction could deem this a pretty fair "locked room" mystery, while the other "noir" faction could list it as premium cut, first rate film noir. There's not question in my cut noir!

Night Has a Thousand Eyes
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If you haven't seen the film, I won't spoil it...the general synopsis revolves around Eddie G. Robinson working a carnival seer/mind reading act...and then he really begins to see things! (only from the mind of Woolrich!). It's not as hokey as it sounds, primarily because Robinson carries things off with his usual aplomb and style. The majority of noirish elements in the film center around how trapped Eddie's character is with this curse of future sight...everything he sees is tragic.

The great John F. Seitz is behind the camera on this one, and while perhaps not his best work (his resume includes work on some seminal and outstanding film noirs), NIGHT has a great look to it, imo, dark and creepy (helped out enormously by Victor Young's score)...and, the opening scenes to the film are as good as any noir I can think of (except for maybe Kiss Me Deadly). The print I watched for the most part looked as though it was shot and processed yesterday...the scenes with Robinson on stage doing his act were tack-sharp (not bad for a 60 year old film!).

Imo, the cast here (except Robinson) really really worthy of a lot of ink...all are competent, but it's really Eddie's show. I didn't find the normally lovely Gail Russell to be at her best here, but that could be a personal thing. Her very large, expressive eyes are certainly used to good advantage in several shots. I've come to think of William Demerest in something of a comedic/campy way, and imo, when he shows up in NIGHT (he doesn't show up until the last reel) the entire atmosphere of the film changes for the worst.

David posted last week about writers of screenplays, and I mentioned W.R. Burnett, but failed to mention another favorite of mine...Jonathan Latimer. His script for NIGHT is first rate, imo, and moves along at a good pace; building tension before bogging down a bit toward the denouement...I'm now looking for the Woolrich novel for comparison. Latimer has penned a number of first rate noir screenplays, and I would hold him in noirish high regard if for no other work than this film and his novel SOLOMON'S VINEYARD.

Recommended? You bet flaws and all!

Again, apologies if this is a bit disjointed...and it is perfectly fine (perhaps preferable) with me if we make this EDWARD G. ROBINSON'S NOIR WEEK, discussing all/any of his noir films...this would certainly give us a week's worth of material.




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