Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Big Steal (1949)

Posted by Gary Deane

The Big Steal’, starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer and scripted by Geoffrey Holmes (Daniel Mainwaring) often appears to be best known and least admired for what it isn’t, namely ‘Out of the Past’.

The latter, released in 1947 - starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer and scripted by Geoffrey Holmes - is regarded as an elegant and sublime evocation of noir. The Big Steal is hardly referenced and not much regarded at all.

Standing in the shadow of ‘Out of the Past’, it’s understandable that the ‘The Big Steal’ seems overlooked and/ or underestimated. At just 71 minutes long, it’s a much shorter, slighter movie and nothing like as darkly noir nor as ‘memorable’.

However, slighter doesn’t mean lesser as far as the pleasure that can be had from it. Even if it is the sorry stepchild of the “Out of the Past’, ‘The Big Steal’ is a very easy film to like.

For a start, it’s unabashed fun. Even Bosley Crowther, the high-toned windbag who held the film desk forever at the New York Times found the movie amiable. Here’s an excerpt from his especially garrulous review, July 11, 1949:

‘A breath-taking scenic excursion across the landscape of Mexico…through villages, on lovely open roads and over towering mountains on switchback highways at a fast and sizzling pace’.

‘Seems that a certain tricky fellow, whom Patric Knowles suavely enacts, is trying to escape into the interior of Mexico from Vera Cruz with a load of swag. Seems that his stubborn pursuer is a curious laconic gent played by Robert Mitchum who is accompanied by a lady, prettily played by Jane Greer. Seems that another desperate party, William Bendix is after both and a Mexican police inspector, Ramon Novarro is tailing the lot’.

‘Just where and why they are fleeing is rather loosely and unsatisfactorily explained but obviously they are not friendly people for whenever any of them get together they usually fight. But that is not important and we casually advise that you try not to follow too closely the involution of the plot’.

Well, there you have it. He’s done up the story, set the scene, captured the mood, and casually advised. Why, I could stop right here.

Except there’s further a job to be done and that’s to plead a decent case for ‘The Big Steal’ as a film noir - at least enough of one for it to be able to sit facing the Blackboard without shame.

Let’s start with the issue of ‘The Big Steal’s easy disposition.

Though it’s true that the movie has a much sunnier way about it than you would expect to find in noir, there’s also some really bad stuff going on here.

Lt. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) has been framed for a robbery and is in pursuit of the real thief, Jim Fiske (Knowles). The problem is that Halliday too is now on the run, from his senior officer, Cpt. Vincent Blake (Bendix) whose reasons for chasing Halliday turn out to be not as straightforward as they seem.

Ultimately, it’s going to be Blake’s duplicity and betrayal that qualify the movie as solid noir. But meanwhile, the disillusioned Halliday proves himself to be no saint as he goes around dishing out the mayhem.

The ‘Big Steal’ also covers some of the same disarranged narrative and thematic territory as a number of later films by its director, Don Siegel. In both ‘Madigan’ and ‘Dirty Harry’, for example, cops are driven to defy institutional authority and constraints in an effort to see that justice is done. Siegel in these films actually disavows much difference between hero and villain, with justice often ceding to vengeance.

While Halliday is military and not police, he still takes the law upon himself because of the box in which he’s found himself. Like other of Siegel’s protagonists, he doesn’t let a whole lot in his way.

The thing about Siegel is that while he frames some interesting moral and ethical dilemmas, he seldom allows his characters to hang around for very long to dwell on them. He’d rather cut straight to the chase - literally - and as a former film editor and second-unit director, knows how to handle the action.

The Big Steal’ is noir-on-a-tear, a raggedy little B-feature built for speed with everyone going along for the ride. No wonder. Screenwriter Holmes/ Mainwaring gifts Mitchum and Greer with as much keen, noir-induced dialogue and as many slippery story twists as you could hope for.

Mitchum and Greer make a great screen twosome but this time it’s Greer who really gets to show her stuff. As note-prefect as she was as Cathie Moffat in “Out of the Past’, director Jacques Tourneur really didn’t give her much more than just that one note to play as an impassive, amoral femme fatale.

There’s nothing impassive or fatale about her in the ‘The Big Steal’. Her Joan ‘Chiquita’ Graham is also chasing down Fiske, who’s supposed to be her fiancé but who has taken her for more than her virtue. But Greer’s got nothing but spunk, is at least as much on the ball as Mitchum and is no easier about hooking up with him as he is with her in order to reel Fiske in.

The wonderful stroppiness of the relationship Holmes has scripted out for them brings out the best in both actors. Mitchum is lively and Greer delivers the most appealing performance of her career (interestingly, she came late to the production, replacing Lizabeth Scott, who was taken off the production because of Mitchum’s arraignment on a marijuana rap).

The Big Steal’ is a thoroughly high-spirited effort but shouldn’t be dismissed as just a breezy comedy-suspenser and a no-account noir because of it. While contrived humor can be poisonous to film noir, that‘s not ‘The Big Steal’s problem because Seigel avoids it. He’s no smirky Hitchcock.

While ‘Private Hell 36’ is probably Siegel’s truest classic noir, ‘The Big Steal’ shows more than enough of noirland’s darkened surface features - icons Mitchum and Bendix, a story washed dark with bad luck, betrayal, greed and corruption and a resonant exchange of tough words and hard fists,

The Big Steal’ gives big enjoyment and good noir both. Lie back and enjoy.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Prowler (1951)

As harsh and gut-wrenching as it is bold and satisfying - Joseph Losey's Bourgeois noir 'The Prowler' lingers long in the memory - and remains one of the genre's most emotionally powerful installments.

When officer Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) investigates a wee-hours peeping-Tom call with his veteran partner Bud (John Maxwell), he finds himself drawn to the victim - attractive and vulnerable housewife Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes). Dutiful and quietly desperate, Mrs. Gilvray spends evenings listening to her DJ husband John's late-night radio show - which he ends every night by cooing "I'll be seeing you Susan...”

Though no clues are found, she seems relieved and sees the men off - but Webb returns after his shift under the premise that he's "following up". Signals are sent, misread, rejected, and returned - and soon the uncouth cop has insinuated himself into her sad little life - the groundwork laid when they determine that they hail from the same state. An affair begins - and with Webb's virile presence and attentiveness Susan temporarily forgets her passionless, childless marriage. But unbeknownst to her, Webb's motives aren't pure - as he deftly manipulates her emotions by pretending to break things off - drawing his fragile lover and her husband's insurance policy ever-closer. The way Webb sees it - life owes him. This was its chance to make good.

Wanting to amp-up the relationship - and his socioeconomic status - Webb takes things to the next level by staging a fake late-night burglary at Casa de Gilvray. Drawing an armed John out - Webb shoots him dead - then wings himself to make it look like a tragic exchange between two men deceived by darkness. Susan, kept oblivious of the scheme, reacts with understandable suspicion when she finds Webb on the lawn - John splayed at his feet.

When asked at the subsequent inquest if she's familiar with the officer in question, Susan lies and answers no - but the event has rocked her and she severs ties with him. Attempting a reconciliation - he offers her his paltry life savings through her easy-going brother William (Emerson Treacy). The gesture, and some world-class lying do the trick - the two get together, tie the knot, and as newlyweds begin their new life as motor lodge managers in Vegas - the life Webb has longed dreamed of.

Before long, Susan announces that she's four months pregnant - which would mean having known Webb in the biblical sense before their marriage - the fact that John was sterile not helping their case. Fearing he'll be charged with murder, Webb talks Susan into having the baby at a dilapidated shelter out in a desert ghost-town. There, while happily awaiting the arrival and listening to records outside, they accidentally hear a recording of John's DJ show - the ghostly voice echoing across the landscape - seemingly from beyond - shattering their morale.

The Prowler
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Pregnancy complications arise - and when Susan watches Webb race into town to find a doctor, she suspects Webb will silence him following the treatment - having discovered that her ex-cop brought his revolver on the trip. A baby girl is born - and with Susan's warning rushed by the doctor back to town and away from Webb who before chasing him hastily explains to Susan that he did whatever he did for her. Backtracking from the police, and Bud and his wife who are all converging on the windswept hideaway - Webb exits his car and scrambles up a dune where he's shot in the back - and killed.

Webb Garwood's Norman Rockwell knock-off is painted with blood - but being a sociopath it's not likely to keep him up at night. As portrayed by Oscar-winner Van Heflin in a nuanced, restrained performance that never evolves into a moustache-twirling stereotype - the character is a blue-collar furnace - seething with resentment, and primed to balance the scales by any means necessary. Unfortunately for him his lunge at middle-class respectability lands him face-first in a pile of rocky earth.

Losey, fond of highlighting class differences and sexual power-plays throughout his career ('The Lawless', 'The Servant') blended, with uncredited screenwriter Dalton Trumbo - those themes, with traditional noir motifs to create a particularly mournful effort - which succeeds on all levels.

Thanks a million to ChiBob who rocketed a DVD-r of 'The Prowler' to me upon learning that my copy was on its last legs. Thanks Bob!

Written by Dave

Monday, November 14, 2005

Caged (1950)

Posted by BmacV

First Encounter: Sometime in the early 1970s, living in Toronto and working, that week, the graveyard shift in the old M&D (music and drama) section of the Globe & Mail. Put the bulldog to bed about 12:35 a.m. With good connections, home by about one, just in time for the local station’s nightly late movie (and its library was enviable). Poured a Teacher’s and soda and flicked on the 13" black-and-white. Feet up on the sofa. Then, one unforgettable night, Caged!; think my drink may have even gone flat. Riveted from the very first line: “Pile out, you tramps - It’s the end of the line.”

During the inexorable course of this seven-cigarette (the highest accolade) cinematic banquet, gorgon after gorgon unleashed line after insolently insinuating line. Only one other movie, and from the same year, caught in almost identical circumstances at pretty much the same time of my life, resonated so astoundingly: Sunset Blvd. They’re still my two favorite movies, but, backed into a Sophie’s Choice, I’ll stick with Caged. Both have gotten better over the years - but then there’s nothing quite like the first time, is there?

The Background: John Cromwell made some swell movies (Ann Vickers, Of Human Bondage, The Enchanted Cottage, The Goddess, maybe even Night Song), but his work in the noir cycle always struck me as tepid: Dead Reckoning, The Racket, The Company She Keeps. Caged blazes at a higher order of magnitude, owing in large part to the high order of talent committed to it.

Producer Jerry Wald - no stranger to gorgons, as these credits will show - already had Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Possessed, Dark Passage, Key Largo and The Damned Don’t Cry behind him (and can thus be forgiven Flamingo Road). Virginia Kellogg (who wrote the story), fresh from T-Men and White Heat, together with Bernard Schoenfeld (Phantom Lady, The Dark Corner), penned the unsentimental, epigrammatic script. Carl Guthrie (Her Kind of Man, Cry Wolf, Flaxy Martin, Backfire) lighted and shot the film; the bars on the cell block and over the high windows suspend the dingy, dank prison in a reticulation of shadows, chillier and more ominous than William Daniels’ in the more brutal Brute Force. Max Steiner (no introduction necessary) composed the score. Last but far from least, the cast....But they’re better off woven into their story.

The Story: That “Pile out, you tramps” gets snarled by the driver of a jitney bringing a load of “new fish” to a women’s correctional facility somewhere in a nameless city in an anonymous state where there’s plenty of snow (for no good reason I want to think Indiana). In this load there’s a scared 19-year-old, Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), whose husband was killed during a $40 robbery; she was in the car, and so was charged as accomplice. A shrewd intake nurse cottons on to the fact that Allen’s “expecting company;” she’s slapped into quarantine, where Jane Darwell sits watch. Soon enough she’s assigned the number 93850 and to her ward, which Brobdingnagian matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson) runs like a private racket (“Sit in this chair. It’s kinda...roomy,” and “Maybe you’ve got a habit that’s hard to break. Cigarettes...or something?”). When it turns out that neither Allen nor her family is likely to prove a cash cow, Harper abandons her pregnant charge to scrubbing the floors - with lye.

To unfurl much more of the plot would be, well, unchivalrous. Let it suffice to list the rest of the principal players. There’s the butch “booster,” or head of a shoplifting ring, Kitty Stark - the marvelous Betty Garde (who sang Aunt Eller in the Broadway premiere of Oklahoma!): “If you stay in here too long, you don’t think about guys at all. You just get out of the habit.”

Long Queen Bee of Cell Block C, Stark is soon to be dethroned by an old rival, haughty “vice queen” Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick, scoring a personal best), who’s taking a light slap on the wrist rather than sing before grand jury. Allen (“She’s a cute trick”) becomes the objective correlative of the Stark/Powell power struggle, the distant apex of an isosceles triangle.

Others doing time include dim-bulb Emma (Ellen Corby, who receives unaccountably high billing), “common pross” Smoochie (Jan “I’ve got news for you” Sterling) and, almost stealing the movie as ancient lifer Millie, Gertrude Hoffman (“One more like you would be just so much velvet”). Upstairs, as reformist warden Ruth Benton, Agnes Moorehead does as well as expected as the film’s social conscience, but the role’s just not so freighted and coded as the others’ (she would have, however, fared quite well among the harpies). Alas, there must have been scenes with Esther Howard that were cut from the final print; she’s glimpsed but twice, one of a crowd in the prison yard.

Along the way, Cromwell modulates this grim stretch in stir with vignettes ranging from the Gothic (a cadaverous, tubercular inmate in quarantine, bidding Allen “Welcome to Lysol Lane;” Stark’s emerging “stirbugs” from solitary, a mass of tics and shorted synapses - “Quit shakin’ the tambourine,” she snaps to an apologetic Powell), to the poignant (the soughing whistle of a passing train leads the inmates to fall silent, turning to the window that reveals nothing but a cold shard of sky). In another set-piece at Christmastime, the women sing “Bird in a Cage” like combat-bound conscripts on a troop train, wondering if they’ll ever again know the meager comforts of home; one of them breaks into a lovely, impromptu dance solo to harmonica obbligato. The script stays alert to the unnatural isolation of life “behind the iron,” its diurnal regimentation and nocturnal terrors. There’s the inchoate yearning of the women to return to the world they were wrested from - and to the realities of babies abandoned to an impersonal bureaucracy, of families drifting apart, of loneliness (emotional and physical), despair and even suicide.

Of course, looming over all this is an inexpungible sense of dread, chiefly in the person of Emerson’s matron Harper, with her wheedling schoolgirl’s voice in a linebacker’s body. She’s the malevolent engine of the plot (and received an Academy Award nomination for the role, as did Parker). But Parker’s Allen is the protagonist, journeying from a terrified young widow to a savvy hard case. When she’s finally released, it’s to a hotsy-totsy jazz riff as she steps into a waiting sedan and accepts a light (plus a hand on her knee) from one of her new male friends from freeside. When asked what to do with her file, Benton, watching from her office window, replies “Keep it active.”

There was a time when Caged rolled around with some regularity on local and even cable stations, a time which seems to be no more. Never released commercially on either VHS or DVD, it may be the best movie ever that keeps sinking deeper into obscurity. (And it’s little short of scandalous that Caged used to turn up on lists - obviously compiled by the callow - of the worst movies ever made. True, the dames-behind-bars movie quickly ran to a sexploitation sub-genre - you could sense this coming even in 1955's Women’s Prison - but Caged, for all its frankness, never so sullies itself; if anything, it can be seen as proto-feminist). More than just about any post-Code movie up to 1950, Caged pushed the envelope. It’s an altogether astonishing piece of work.

Kindly omit flowers.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Station West (1948)

Posted by Markham

I think its too easy to forget that Jane Greer had many other fine roles besides her signature character Kathie Moffat in “Out of the Past”. TCM, thank god for it, in recent months has been playing a slew of Jane Greer movies, and, in almost every one she gives an impeccable performance (the two exceptions- You For Me and Sinbad the Sailor, stay clear of ‘em). Jane, an actress only associated for a single noir role, also visited pulp territory a considerable amount of time, appearing in four classic noirs and three neo-noirs. Next to the untouchable “Out of the Past”, one of the highlights of her career has to be the tragic femme fatale Charlie in “Station West”, a film that’s underrated as both a noir and a western.

Sidney Lanfield wanted Marlene Dietrich in the role of Charlie. Greer got the part, but to him she wasn’t good enough for the role. He would spend most of the time on the set being enormously abusive to Greer (to the point in which she would take a long hiatus, beginning a string of events that ended her chances at superstardom). This guy must have been a first rate idiot to thinking she was inferior to Dietrich. Marlene would have given a very good performance, but the tone of the film would have completely changed. Greer brought to Charlie a sense of sadness and vulnerability, while Dietrich would have probably played up the sexuality and the inner-strength of the character (Jane, though, had no trouble bringing those two qualities to her performance, if only by her mere presence). (I think Dietrich was a terrific actress, especially under the direction of Josef von Sternberg, Billy Wilder, and Orson Welles (her supporting role in Touch of Evil is my personal favorite), but when it came to Westerns she always fell into “the self-sacrificing vamp” formula.)

Charlie is also a feminist role, an extreme rarity in the male dominated genre. She’s tough and powerful, but is able to separate her work life (her shady business and control over the town) and her sex life (her relationship with Haven, Dick Powell). Unlike most femme fatales, however, she’s not a b!tch who backstabs the hero, in fact she puts a lot of trust in him towards the end of the film, putting aside her doubts that he is the enemy, even granting him a fair chance to retrieve the money he “stole” from her (of course, he is working against her and can’t play by her rules).

The rest of the cast fares well. Dick Powell does another tough guy role, although I must say I never really bought into any of his “tough guy” roles, including this one, definitely his most “hard-boiled”. The supporting cast, however, is first rate, some great noir character actors in this one. Agnes Moorehead is up to her usual excellence. Sidney Lanfield also gave her an incredibly hard time on the set (notably calling her “hatchet face”), to the point in which she begged Dore Schary to have her own director to work exclusively for her scenes, and got one. Raymond Burr is a real treat here, cast against type playing a real wimp of a lawyer. Tom Powers and Regis Toomey both have a significant parts too (Toomey for once playing something other than a cop, here, a detective), and look out for bit roles for both Steve Brodie and John “Lou Baylord (from Out of the Past)” Kellogg. Best of all is an early role for folk singer/actor Burl ‘Big Daddy’ Ives, who strums out the beautiful theme song and plays a colorful world- wide Hotel Clerk.

Sidney Lanfield was, for the most part, a competent director, usually making generic lighthearted fare that were star vehicles (mostly Bob Hope movies), but he got lucky in this one with having two of THE best noir crew members to work with. Frank Fenton, known as the man who contributed all of that snappy dialogue uncredited in “Out of the Past”, in addition to writing noir comedy “His Kind of Woman” and noir “Nocturne”, came up with the incredibly razor-sharp dialogue of this film (he co-wrote it with Winston Miller, who penned John Ford’sMy Darling Clementine”). Then you have the great noir cinematographer Harry J. Wild (“Murder, My Sweet”, among other classics) on board. For an oater, its shot like a noir, the nights scenes in the movie look incredibly expressionistic and adds to the seediness lurking beneath the boom town’s exterior (even the scenes in the daytime have a “dark” look).

While it’s never clear whether or not a genuine ‘noir western’ exists, I think this comes the closest to being one then the rest of them. “Pursued” for the most part is simply a melodrama covering years of problems within a very dysfunctional family, and, while it’s a great film, the weak ending really scars it from being a pure noir. “Blood on the Moon” is a run-of-the-mill oater lit beautifully. “Ramrod” has plenty of noir elements, but in the end I felt like I went through a top-notch B-Western, not a noir.

This movie has it all: the boomtown is covered with seedy characters (and all of the extras look like they’re either playing thieves or whores) and for the most part is ruled by corruption (most authority figures other than Powell rarely show up in the film). There is a femme fatale, and the hero’s story plays out like a standard semi-documentary noir (Government official goes undercover) . And most importantly, the ending is extremely downbeat, as Powell finishes his task but is left with nothing (and Jane Greer handles her final scene beautifully, making clichéd dialogue sound fresh, as if she’s appearing in a Greek Tragedy).

There is one thing that would make a good argument for this not being a noir: about midway through the film, about 20 minutes are spent in which Powell rides across the frontier and then deals with the average western henchmen. It breaks up the dark tone of the film, as does the score provided by the hit-and-miss composer Heinz Roemheld (which sounds like generic oater music, I wasn’t surprised that I found out that he was the man who provided the disastrous score to the otherwise masterpiece “The Lady From Shanghai”).

Despite this, it’s a solid piece of 80 minutes that is never boring and has fully fleshed out characters. It also is the only film (at least worthwhile to track down) in which we get to here Jane Greer sing, and what a lovely voice she has. Her work aside from “Out of the Past” is in desperate need of rediscovery, and this is just one of her fine smaller films. Check out The Clown, the noir They Won't Believe Me, neo-noir The Outfit, and Man of a Thousand Faces to see that, believe it or not, she played ‘good’ just as excellent as she played ‘bad’ (and if you can’t get enough of her bad-girl roles, also check out “The Company She Keeps”, in which she’s cast with Lizabeth Scott and Dennis O’Keefe). And I’m sure most of you have seen The Big Steal, a movie that showcases Robert Mitchum’s and Jane Greer’s vastly underused comedic abilities. This being my first noir of the week, I had plenty to pick from, but I felt a film that is just at least is almost as good as those that overshadow it (‘noir western’ is associated with Pursued, Out of the Past with Jane Greer), should deserve its spot in the limelight.


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