Sunday, February 26, 2006

Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)

Posted by Gary Deane

A dark and stormy Brit-noir from the late-classic period, ‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ stars Dirk Bogarde, once referred to as the screen’s ‘quintessential gentleman’s pervert’.

Certainly it was well within Bogarde’s range to portray decadents and others morally or intellectually doubtful. He’s often best remembered for his roles as someone in thrall to the possibilities of money, power, or sex in films such as The Servant, Accident, The Damned, Death in Venice and The Night Porter.

In ‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ - based on the play ‘Murder Mistaken’ by Janet Green - it’s easy solvency and the mean assurances of social standing he after.

Bogarde plays the aptly-named Edward or “Teddy” Bare, a handsome but louche charmer married to a wealthy widow, played by Mona Washbourne (a consummate character actress who appeared in vivid supporting roles and cameos in dozens of movies including Billy Liar, The Collector and the ‘Stevie’).

Although Bare appears to dote on his Monica, we don’t believe it for a minute. Beneath the surface solicitousness and affection, there’s only impatience and contempt (working and playing below in the sub-text was what Bogarde did best and why he was so startlingly wonderful an actor).

Believing he is to inherit his wife’s fortunes, Bare’s real intentions are made clear soon enough. He murders her and stages the death to appear as an accident. The family lawyer (Robert Flemyng) suspects foul play but the coroner’s inquest rules otherwise. As it turns out, Monica has willed her loving husband only the house they shared. Other than that, he’s been left skint.

Bare quickly regroups and reverts to form. As he says, “I tripped up that time. But one thing’s for sure, somebody’s going to have pay my passage”.

Bare goes about looking for that somebody in a sea-side resort town and it doesn’t take him long to find her - a Mrs. Jeffries - a brazenly griefless widow played by Margaret Lockwood, once called “the next Joan Bennett”.

Lockwood’s Freda Jeffries is as tough and real as an old steak. She’s a blowsy, ex-barmaid who ‘married the guv’nor’ and is now well-off and ready to get on with it. There had been one or two gents she’d thought about settling down with - until she figured out that “it was just the moneybags, they were after, not the old bag herself”.

She also has Bare almost figured out but is prepared to marry him if he can show her the money and is ready to come to the marriage “pound for pound”. Bare manages to convince her that he has wealth by borrowing from a friend as smarmy and dubious as he is. While he’s is able to keep up the pretense for a while, eventually Bare is forced to come clean and confess to Freda that in fact he doesn’t have ten shillings to rub together.

Despite it all, she decides to stick with him because she knows full well that they’re both as ‘common’ as dirt and she’ll likely do no better.

English class consciousness and social distinctions, as in a number of Brit-noirs, fester near the heart of ‘Cast a Dark Shadow”. It’s apparent that much of lawyer Phillip Mortimer’s dislike of Bare is due to Bare’s obvious lack of breeding. Bare, for his part, deliberately provokes those he resents as his betters by meeting them with slouching insolence.

Washbourne, on the other hand, is resigned to the social strictures but manages to make mock of them. Coming out of the beauty parlour, she says dryly to Bogarde, “I was going to go blonde but I thought that it might make me look common”.

It’s a brilliantly realized and telling moment, both as narrative and as a marker of realism’s ascent in British noir. There’s increasingly less room left for melodrama, anticipating the gritty and unsparing social realism soon to qualify the British New Wave and the so-called ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas.

As one suspects he will, Bare soon begins to plot an untimely demise for Freda. However, complications arise and both the situation and Bare himself start to unravel.

Yet, Bogard’s Bare manages to evoke sympathy and even evince a vindicating dignity nearly up until the end. As criminally venal as he is - unlike Night and the City’s Harry Fabian who is merely pathetic scammer- Bogard is still able to make Bare something more in a quintessentially noir notation.

Cast a Dark Shadow’ is a movie layered with sharply-observed characters, filmed by a director who, if nothing else, frequently brought insight in to the lives of ordinary people as lived under extraordinary circumstances.

In a career that has spanned more than six decades and over 40 films, Gilbert (born in 1920 and still working) has transported audiences to more and different dreamlands than almost anyone else in the history of film: from the post-war cycle of stirring WW II dramas ‘The Sea Shall Not Have Them’, ‘Reach for the Sky’, ‘Carve Her Name with Pride’, and Sink the Bismarck; to Alfie, a film that helped change censorship laws; to the James Bond trilogy You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker; and to popular celebrations of female spiritedness, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine.

Working on low-budget programmers to big international co-productions, Gilbert has long been recognized for his professionalism and efficient craftsmanship. He has done nearly everything and done most of it well (leaving aside the fiasco, "The Adventurers"), accepting that his raison d’etre has been primarily to entertain and also that he is the kind of director who resolutely defies auteurist attention.

With ‘Cast a Dark Shadow,’ however, Gilbert made an estimable contribution to the film noir canon, assisted by cinematographer Jack Asher who also appears in control of the full noir register (Asher would later be lauded for his cinematographic contribution to many of the films of the late ‘50’s/ early ‘60’s British horror cycle).

That said, ‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ remains a woefully underestimated film, receiving less attention and credit than it ought - despite a compelling story, a taut construction broken loose of all theatrical origins, and a mitt-full of memorable performances.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Brainstorm (1965)

'BRAINSTORM' (1965) Jeffrey Hunter, Dana Andrews

The heavier of the 'Killers' directs 'Laura's lovesick detective in one of noir's bleakest installments - neo, or classic. While driving home from work one night, middle-aged research analyst Jim Grayam (Hunter) stops to interrupt a lovely young woman's novel suicide attempt, and discovers that the depressed and desperate blonde is his employer's wife Lorrie (Anne Francis). Jim fights the attraction, but eventually allows a dangerous affair with her to begin - driving the powerful and psychologically abusive cuckold (Andrews) to excavate a harmful skeleton from Jim's closet - his history of mental illness.

Elaborate, insidious efforts to make Grayam appear unhinged take their toll - and fuel his ever-increasing desire to eliminate the husband from the equation - which he does within a complex 'murder equals madness' scheme -the desired end result being a temporary stay in the mental ward before starting his new life with the widow. All goes according to plan, but the hospitalization proves to be hellish - the atmosphere there thick with madness - the line between his insanity act and his sanity becoming increasingly blurred. A supervised visit from Lorrie only worsens matters when she surprises Jim by declining to cooperate in getting him out. Through a barred window he watches as she exits the building - and his life - to embrace and drive off with another man.

Turning to the sensitive, attractive psychoanalyst (Viveca Lindfors) who befriended him during his pre-murder/deteriorating mental health warm-up act - Jim is again denied assistance. She appeared to be aware of his ruse - but now denies him her favors - sparking a violent outburst from Jim who while attempting to break out is restrained by guards and dragged back inside - his stay now possibly permanent.

A 'Double Indemnity' for the psyche-scarred Sixties - 'Brainstorm' works from, modifies, and darkens that film's murderous-love-triangle template - while never sacrificing it's essence. Stripped of 'Indemnity's sultriness and first-person narrative technique (our protagonist remains elusive throughout - whether from Hunter's interesting, guarded performance, or his slim-to-none character development, or both) the film nevertheless succeeds at updating one of noir's most identifiable themes; boy meets girl - boy falls for girl - boy and girl plot to kill girl's husband. Thankfully though, director William Conrad eschews pastiche, and keeps his film fresh, linear, and free of needless frills.

Though not remembered for his acting chops - Hunter shines brightly here, inhabiting his complex, off-balance character with apparent ease - his clear eyes and angular brows helping him appear quizzical or intense with little effort. Gone is the goofy, gangly cowboy from Ford's 'The Searchers' - his Jim is a staid, urbane Fortysomething - until his lover and his boss fan the flames of his long-dormant neuroses - and twist him into noir's dupe du jour.

Andrews, Francis, and Lindfors lend typically strong support - as do Strother Martin as a (what else?) chatty, short-fused freak; Richard Kiel (007's metal-mouthed nemesis 'Jaws'); and John Mitchum (Robert's brother, and a recurring character in 3 'Dirty Harry' films) - the latter three filling small roles as psych-ward psychos.

Also worth mentioning are 'Brainstorm's memorable technical triumphs - among them the sharp black and white cinematography; the hip, jazzy soundtrack; a disorienting 'whirlwind' editing device; and the heartbreaking final image of Jim being strong-armed away. Shot from an ascending helicopter - the perspective could belong to a neutral higher power - turning its back on a broken, hopeless soul.

Written by Dave

Brainstorm (DVD)

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

This will probably my last “major” noir for a while, if not ever as I prefer to look at the lesser known noirs rather than the big ones, so don’t worry my fellow writers, you will have the chance to cover the other “big ones.” I just feel this one really is in need to get its due, I think we forget while looking at the obscurities that even some of the more well known ones are in dire need of being revisited and reevaluated.
(possible spoilers)

I was surprised to see “Lady From Shanghai” came 3rd place for best picture in our 1948 NOTY awards, but then again, it’s perfectly understandable. This film, while always regarded as a classic (in addition to being one of the more well known noirs), is rarely mentioned alongside the greats such as “Out of the Past” or “Double Indemnity,” but like I said, it’s understandable. This film is what I would definitely call a mess of a masterpiece: it’s hacked up (with more holes than that of Swiss cheese), featuring a dreadful score plus obviously added/reshot scenes in result of a haphazard attempt to compensate for Rita Hayworth’s ugly character. But as it turns out, such flaws only add to the film’s mythic status. For most movies such damage to a film would make them only jumbled, horrific drek; but here, thanks to Orson Welles’s beautiful imagery, it has become a cryptic riddle, only hints, pieces of a film that is lost to history.

What we are left with is something that still captures the brilliance of that film, despite its obstacles. In 90 minutes the epic scope of that film can still, in the least, be felt. We travel from New York City down the coast of Mexico to Acapulco to San Francisco, filled with character revelations and plot twists abound. It is full of thought provoking philosophies of human nature without the feeling of being pretentious (something that I’m sure Orson Welles could have faulted in doing due to his obvious ego). It’s characters are all unique and three dimensional, despite two being of typical noir archetypes (the fall guy and the femme fatale). Most of all, nearly every frame is a true work of art, photographed beautifully (thanks to Orson and Charles Lawton on cinematography).


The Lady From Shanghai presents the noir world as something of complete chaos, in which absolutely no one is capable of controlling their environment, thus making each’s battle against their fateful demises useless. The relationship between Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) and George Grisby (Glenn Anders) is the embodiment of this. Michael has absolutely no control over Grisby’s “get-rich quick” scheme let alone can understand Grisby’s psychotic nature (Welles is brilliant at capturing O’Hara’s confusion, never does he seem to know what is going on, hell we don’t either). Outside of this, the court system is most certainly not a system at all (the judge’s stupidity, the jury’s spontaneous sneezes and laughter, the screaming contest between Arthur Bannister and the District Attorney, all reaffirm that even “justice,” and the law in general, is a sham. Many films noir look only into the corruption of several human beings, but here, the whole world is looked at most cynically.

Rita Hayworth is most definitely an actress who gets little to no credit for her strong performances. Her quintessential sex goddess role, Gilda, required a wide range of emotions in addition to mixing strength with vulnerability, and though Rita lived up to the requirement (perhaps surpassing it), her performance is only remembered as being “sexy” (which it is very, very, much). Post-Gilda she always delivered solid performances when given at least moderate material, but “The Lady From Shanghai” definitely ranks as one of the best of those. Here, she presents to us a femme fatale that is different from all the rest. Her cold, impassive, voice and behavior, rather than suggesting duplicity, shows us a woman who has been so psychologically abused by her husband she has lost her own humanity in the process. The murder plot and seduction of Michael O’Hara is not out of greed and lust for power (as most femme fatales aim for) but rather the need for both Bannister’s retribution and her own compensation, completely devoid of conscience for manipulating and destroying two men in the process. It is not until her last moments does she realize what she has become, a figure of evil just as monstrous as her sadistic calculating husband (shortly before in the hall of mirrors we see her in her true form, both photographed and acting just as grotesquely as George Grisby). Whether it be Orson’s intention or not, her character eerily reflects her real life story: Rita’s marriages (and being the property of Harry Cohn) were arranged rather than out of real love, abused (both physically and psychologically), and in the process had become, as many had described her (including Orson, perhaps the most loving of her husbands next to Prince Aly Kahn, if that says much), one of the saddest people they had ever met. Even the breaking down of her persona that always haunted her (her legendary “Men go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me) is found here, (a personal favorite scene, though a minor one) in which she on the yacht comes on to Michael, like a sexually predatory Gilda (presumably due to her lack of sexual contact as her husband is paraplegic), he hits her, and in a split second she reveals the fragile, frightened being inside of her.

Orson Welles made a fine decision to have Everett Sloane cast, clearly a radio actor. His stylized speaking pattern with lack of movement from the body heightens the character’s inhumanity and overall calculating nature. Glenn Anders is brilliant in his role, his scenes are disturbingly humorous and it works to terrific effect. The film’s star Orson Welles, despite a horrible accent, is natural and brings to the film the only true human being present (albeit a very, very weak one). He is one of the quintessential noir heroes, even more of a chump than Jeff Markham (hell he makes Markham look like Sam Spade). And Ted DeCorsia is ALWAYS welcome. I enjoyed many of the bit players too, such as the anti-stereotype black maid Bessie (Evelyn Ellis), who is more of a guardian to Hayworth rather than a subservient domestic, Erskine Sanford as the disgustingly dumbfounded judge, or the juror who gives the great line (and her only one at that), “That woman’s too nice looking to have stolen that jewelry”.

Whether you like the film or not, you must admit the final scenes are truly brilliant. Not only the technically impossible (how he did it is beyond me) Hall of Mirrors scene, but also the suspenseful Chinese theater segment, the surreal/nightmarish funhouse, and the final scene between Elsa and Michael, in which he performs one of the most coldest (and unpunished) actions during the Hays code years. And the films immortal final line “Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying.”

Had this film been left in it’s original form, I’m certain it would be Orson’s masterpiece (hopefully someday, somehow, the lost footage will pop up, or at least the score will be replaced with the intended one). Whereas Citizen Kane manages to be visually beautiful yet still leaves one cold, The Lady From Shanghai possesses a soul (however a tragic, grotesque one). If a film can feel like an epic in only 90 minutes, imagine what the experience would have been like had it been 150. We are never given many answers (Just what did Bannister have on Elsa, how was Elsa connected to the Chinese mafia, etc), but the mystery still keeps this film alive.


Written by Markham

Monday, February 06, 2006

Macao (1952)

Posted by Kristina

I remember a few years back Macao was scheduled for the Film Noir Festival at the Egyptian. Eddie Muller was the host and he told the audience he had called Jane Russell that day and told her the Egyptian was showing Macao. Her response was “Why”?

Her less than enthusiastic response is easily understood once learning about the making of the troubled RKO production. I can understand why she’d probably just want to forget the experience. The audience though sees the film differently, not having participated in the taxing production and can accept the film as a good example of the film noir genre, with the most interesting parts being the story of the production and the opening scenes of the film.

Macao’s production began after the success of the first Mitchum/Russell flick, His Kind of Woman, a better film than Macao in my opinion. Howard Hughes hired Josef von Sternberg (who helped Dietrich rocket to fame) to direct Macao, despite the fact Sternberg hadn’t done anything recently. Perhaps Hughes was hoping to recreate the atmosphere of Shanghai Gesture which Sternberg had directed, but more likely it was to propel Jane Russell’s star higher in Hollywood. Sternberg had all the right ingredients to start with: the very capable writing team of Stanley Rubin and Bernard C. Schoenfeld and a terrific array of noir actors including Mitchum, Russell, Gloria Grahame, Thomas Gomez, Brad Dexter and William Bendix. Unfortunately for the crew and the studio, Sternberg didn’t play well with others and made the set quite unpleasant. A showdown ensued between Mitchum and Sternberg and the director lost. He was replaced by Nicholas Ray after most of the movie (if not all of the movie, depending on which source you read) had already been filmed. Nicholas Ray and various members of the crew added dialogue and scenes and they shot over most of the scenes, but some of the remnants of Sternberg’s product are hinted at times through the use of unusual camera angles and lighting. Scenes of Gloria Grahame behind beaded curtains, Dexter spying behind shuttered windows, and Mitchum & Bendix shrouded by fish nets add to the veiled mystery of Macao and were probably filmed by Sternberg. The final product is a good, but not great, film featuring typical noir characters - a crime boss (Dexter), his mistress (Grahame), an ex-serviceman on the run from the law (Mitchum), a bad girl with a heart of gold (Russell), an undercover cop (Bendix), a crooked policeman (Gomez), and a odd assortment of various characters.

The opening of the story draws the audience immediately into the action and into a romance between Mitchum and Russell. The pace is pretty tight in the 81 minute movie and besides a tidy plot we are treated to some snappy dialogue including a great closing line (how’d that get by the 1952 censors?) and 3 songs by Jane. The story opens with a chase on a dock. The man being chased is a New York cop & is killed. We see that Vincent Halloran (Dexter) is involved in the murder.

Cut to Julie Benton (Russell) aboard a ferry. She’s broke and has hooked up with a seedy salesman so she can get to Macao. The salesman gets a little rough, even for Julie, and she throws her shoe at him, but it goes out the window and hits Nick Cochran (Mitchum) instead. Nick comes into the room and busts up the party. Cochran helps himself to a kiss from Julie and Julie lifts Nick’s wallet. They land in Macao, Julie and another passenger, Lawrence C. Trumble (self-proclaimed businessman of coconut oil, pearl buttons, fertilizer, and nylon stockings) gain entry but Cochran is without wallet and passport, so he has to check in with the local police, Lt Sebastian (Gomez). Sebastian allows Cochran into Macao for the time being.

Sebastian is on Halloran’s payroll and tells him that Cochran must be the cop sent in to finish the dead officer’s work of bringing Halloran to justice since Cochran has no identification papers. Halloran’s casino, The Quick Reward, attracts the characters from the boat - Julie gets a job singing there, Trumble gambles, Cochran tries to find work there. Also at the Quick Reward is Halloran’s girl, Margie (Grahame).

The major characters are now in place and the story moves steadily forward. I want to leave some mystery for those who haven’t seen the film yet, even though it is easily figured out, so that’s all of the story I’ll give.

The actors are good, but Grahame is somewhat underused. We see her but she doesn’t get enough dialogue and that is interesting too because Nicholas Ray was the clean up director and added extra scenes. Dexter is great as the crooked casino owner with the hots for Julie. He speaks in a soft voice and often with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Bendix gets to go a bit against type in this movie, playing a relatively calm character. Male audiences will enjoy Russell’s gowns, er that is cleavage, and take a look for that lame dress rumored to weigh 26 pounds. Women will enjoy Mitchum’s charms.

Macao is a worthy entry in the noir genre, but some more mention must be made of Howard Hughes involvement in the film. His obsession with Russell's wardrobe and tactics he used while running RKO directly affected the quality of films made during his regin at RKO. The days of RKO noir films like Crossfire, Out of the Past, and They Live by Night were over by 1952. Hughes had script and star approval for all features by 1951 and the creative talents of the studio were not usually permitted to make decisions. So, RKO's noir products of this era turned out to be the type and quality of films like Clash by Night, Beware, My Lovely, Angel Face, and the exception to this list of lesser film noirs - The Narrow Margin (the best of the bunch from this period, Hughes must have left his one alone). So, all said, Macao turned out pretty well considering the chaotic production, switch of directors, and meddlesome tactics of Hughes.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Posted by Marie

My personal take:

A tough-as-nails, hardboiled, war vet arrives by bus into Santa Fe, New Mexico here called "San Pablo") for what we believe is to avenge the death of his buddy at the hands of a war profiteer. From the moment Montgomery begins his methodical preparations of revenge I was riveted by this uniquely disturbing and powerful noir fill of stylish symbolism, menacing atmosphere, enigmatic characters and ultimate redemption.

On the surface Gagin (Montgomery) appears to be an unlikeable brute, speaking in monosyllables and suspicious and belligerent to everyone he encounters. But he's just come from the trenches, where there was no guarantee of living one moment to the next; only to survive with his illusions and patriotism shattered. Powerfully alienated, he sees thugs like Hugo (the war profiteer) emerge victorious while his friends and fellow soldiers have been killed. He has made a moral choice: to cast his previous principles aside and see if he can cash in on the post-war riches by blackmailing Hugo with a canceled check in his possession that will incriminate the gangster. At this point in the film Gagin is a cipher, a walking dead man, bankrupt of emotion and feelings, a lone wolf in what he sees is a corrupt, ugly world. In this fashion the Gagin character represents the common theme in noir: the existentially alienated middle-class working male out of his depth due to a series of moral missteps. Enter into the film three "angels" who represent the choices Gagin makes to pull his soul out of its' dangerous morass, who ultimately act as his salvation. One is an FBI agent who is trying to use Gagin to trip up Hugo so he can arrest him.

Throughout the film he pops up to verbalize to Gagin his motivations and acts like the voice of his conscience. The other is the Mexican proprietor of the local merry-go-round, which acts as a sanctuary throughout the film where Gagin goes to rebuild his strength for the battles he has to wage. At first Pancho, the Mexican, seems untrustworthy (one of the fascinating things about this film is that everyone seems untrustworthy and mysterious). But Pancho functions like a character in a children's fairytale: wherein by befriending the poor, ugly, misshapen characters of the world, the hero/heroine is ultimately rewarded, for the these are the ones with hearts of gold and the greatest riches to offer. Pancho takes an ugly beating by Hugo's thugs but never betrays his friend Gagin's whereabouts, thus restoring Gagin's destroyed faith in the loyalty and loving friendship of human beings. The third and most important "angel" he encounters in this microcosm of life depicted in this shadowy, menacing New Mexican town, is the guiless and pure but mysterious Mexican girl Pila, who attaches herself to him unconditionally. On the surface, we wonder why? He is cruel and clipped and cold to her. Obviously misogynistic, he makes a speech to her about his hatred for certain kinds of women. The only reason she gives in the film for her devotion to him is that she reads "death" in his face. This is, of course, a metaphysical death, as Gagin is cut off from all feeling and all that makes him human. But dare I say that at this point the film becomes a love story.

Pila is obviously meant to contrast strongly against the artificiality and deviousness of Hugo's "moll", lethally played by Andrea King. By taking her under his protection and allowing himself to care for her, bit by bit eventually his closed heart opens and he trusts again in himself and others. A showdown with the gangster Hugo arises and Pila is the signpost that allows Gagin to find his way back to his original moral footings and thus redemption. That's why the disturbing ending shocks us in that we expect these two to live happy ever after. Instead Gagin says goodbye but is evidently changed forever; Pila, seemingly innocent, regales her girlfriends with a cynical retelling of the events that transpired. But let's not forget that this is simply a tale of two proud but powerless and marginalized people; a Mexican girl (the lowest on the social ladder of the day), and a jaded but naive war vet. Together they triumphed over the powerful and corrupt of their little world, but both repressed, and a product of their time, go their separate ways, forever changed by their encounter. Ultimately a film about the choices we make in life. I love this film for it's stylish conceits yet deeper substance.

Unique and amazing.

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