Monday, March 27, 2006

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

Director Robert Siodmak completed his amazing run of American noir classics with this underrated and currently grossly ignored gem. The File on Thelma Jordon isn’t a classic on the level of The Killers or Criss Cross but it’s way too close to be gathering dust in Paramount’s vaults largely unviewed, having never been released on either VHS or DVD to the general public. Worse yet, the film used to get regular airings back in the days when AMC was a legitimate, respectable classic film vehicle but it has completely disappeared from sight in recent years. This is the lamentable shame for many excellent Paramount noirs, but Thelma Jordon just might top the list of the ones that merit mass-market rediscovery, at least among classic film connoisseurs.

If nothing else, it stars the legendary Barbara Stanwyck in one of her greatest roles, noir or otherwise. Stanwyck plays a nuanced version of Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson, a femme fatale who becomes emotionally conflicted when she seduces assistant D.A. Cleve Marshall for the purposes of committing a crime and then proceeds to fall in love with him. Marshall, played by the underappreciated and underutilized Wendell Corey, is to his character what Stanwyck is to hers, a more sympathetic and complicated Walter Neff. The film’s obvious parallels with D.I. make it a most compelling watch, and it makes you wonder why these two movies aren’t coupled together at more noir festivals, particularly with Stanwyck as such a fascinating link between the two.

Quick plot summary: Marshall is celebrating the anniversary of his struggling marriage by getting drunk after working hours in the deserted office of his investigator pal Miles Scott, who has just left the building. Stanwyck subsequently arrives unannounced to report a series of burglary attempts at her rich aunt’s mansion. It’s unclear whether the investigator (played by Paul Kelly) was supposed to be the original fall guy, but after a long conversation with the increasingly inebriated Cleve that carries on in a bar til closing time, Thelma (apparently) decides he’ll do as the dupe in the jewel robbery Stanwyck is organizing (again, apparently) with her old boyfriend and card-carrying hood Tony Laredo.

Siodmak’s strategy in developing the first half of the film may be its greatest strength but possibly its greatest failure as well. The film is very measured for its first 30-40 minutes as the director goes to great lengths to develop the film’s characters and their conflicts. Cleve obviously still loves his wife as he’s falling for Thelma but can’t stand his overbearing, meddling father-in-law and her subservience to him. Thelma, on the other hand, has even more subtle emotions tugging at her. She feels sorry for Cleve but is also strangely attracted to his intelligence and noble character, seeing the real man even in his most drunken state. They carry on an affair that is genuine and heartfelt, even as a sinister plot is about unfold.

The slow early, talky pace surely must have been off-putting to audiences expecting action in 1950 … the same might hold for people who view it today if they aren’t prepared for it. But patience is rewarded for the experienced film viewer who isn’t as concerned about flying bullets and instant gratification.

Midway through the movie comes its literal Big Bang - the rich aunt is shot in the dark of night and robbed of her precious jewels. At least to the viewer, it’s unclear who did it at first, Thelma or Tony. But when it becomes obvious to Cleve that she will be implicated as the prime suspect, he helps her cover up the evidence out of his love for her and concocts a mad scenario involving a mysterious Mr X. When she is arrested and charged for the murder, Cleve then arranges to have the D.A. thrown off the case on a technicality and prosecutes the case himself, going to great lengths to purposely bungle it in order to get Thelma acquitted.

Thelma ultimately does get off but she can’t bring herself to reconcile with Cleve after what she has done to him, and when Tony turns up to cash in on the aunt’s inheritance, she decides to leave town with the creep. The film’s climax is a complete shocker and shouldn’t be disclosed first-time viewers, so I won’t even drop any hints here.

In the denouement, Stanwyck’s final scene has been described as melodramatic and somewhat corny, and there’s definitely something to that, but who can play those scenes better than Barb? The real key is Cleve, who must somehow put together the shambles of his life and career. The movie ends as it began, with Cleve as a conflicted soul not sure where he’s headed as he strolls off into the dark night. But you get the distinct impression he’d do it all over again just to reclaim the passion he discovered with Thelma. Good finish to a good movie.

The magnificent acting of Stanwyck and Corey carry "The File On Thelma Jordon’" a long, long way. In less capable hands, this one might have been a dog because no one could have made it through those first 30-40 minutes of subtle buildup while Siodmak slowly stripped away layers of the initially ambiguous plot and the characters’ idiosyncracies. Stanwyck and Corey are allowed to really build their affair and give it dimension and credence, albeit in a completely different way than Phyllis and Walter in Double Indemnity.

The two leads are well supported, primarily by Richard Rober as Tony (who eerily died in a car crash just a couple of years after this movie was made). The always wonderful Kelly is solid even though he is delivered an unspectacular part, and Stanley Ridges is excellent as the famous defense attorney Kingsley Willis. Ridges, too, died within two years of this movie’s release. An interesting bit part is the aunt, played by Gertrude Hoffman, that most memorable matronly inmate in Caged.

The film is shot in dark hues throughout by George Barnes, one of the cinematography pioneers of the silent age. He didn’t venture much into noir, but was director of photography for Force of Evil and Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Spellbound. He died in 1953.

Why Siodmak abandoned noir (and America) shortly after this film is something of a mystery. What has been documented is that with the classic noir cycle already starting to wither a bit, Siodmak was viewed as someone who had lost something on his filmmaking fastball, and that "Thelma Jordon" was far too stylized and deliberate to be a box-office hit. Without question, it’s not a noir film for those who like large doses of action. But its structure, style, story and dialogue deliver most successfully for many noir viewers who understand and appreciate its depth of development. It certainly does the job for me. For the Double Indemnity comparisons alone, it deserves a much, much, much larger audience. If you’ve never seen it, definitely check it out before the Noir of the Year voting for 1950.

Written by Carl

Monday, March 20, 2006

Dark Passage (1947)


Don Malcolm

Dark Passage, the orphan child of the Bogart-Bacall film quartet, is one I’ve seen umpteen times over the years. It remains a personal favorite despite the fact that I should know better. What follows below is one part justification, two parts appreciation.

When I say “orphan child,”, it’s because Dark Passage is routinely slammed as being far-fetched, gimmicky, and downright clunky. Even the producers of the companion documentary that accompanied the film’s recent release on DVD could only muster up lukewarm praise—a “good” film, not a great one.

So why does it have so much resonance for this viewer? Is it just a personality quirk, or is there something else?

The film begins with a prison escape by falsely convicted wife-murderer Vincent Parry (played by Humphrey Bogart). Hiding in a garbage barrel leaving San Quentin on a prison truck, he executes a tricky, dangerous rolloff while still inside. From the point that he emerges from the barrel, we see everything from Parry’s eyes—director Delmer Daves has to hide Bogart’s face from our view for awhile, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute.

Right off, viewers are brought into an area of controversy. The “first-person camera” did not wear well with audiences in 1947; the most prominent attempt to employ the technique, in Robert Montgomery’s adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel Lady in the Lake, was too static in its execution and suffered from the inconsistent performances of actors trained to avoid looking into the camera. Daves surmounts most of these problems by creating movement in as many of the first-person scenes as possible, and by interpolating third-person scenes whenever he can hide Parry from view.

Parry’s first attempt to get into San Francisco from the Marin countryside goes awry when the driver he's hitching a ride from hears a bulletin about the escape. Parry slugs him, knocks him out, drags him into the bushes and changes clothes with him; he’s just about ready to leave when a car stops and a young woman confronts him. She is Irene Jansen (played by Lauren Bacall), and she has a backstory with Parry’s case: as the narrative unfolds, we find out that she a) had a father who died in prison after being falsely convicted for the murder of his wife, and b) had attended Parry’s trial and had become friendly with the star witness against Parry.

Irene convinces Parry to hide in her car and they successfully get past the roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge. They wind up at Irene’s place in North Beach, where she buys him a new wardrobe, and the star witness (the meddlesome Madge Rapf, played by Agnes Moorehead) rattles Parry by knocking at Irene’s door while Parry is there alone. He decides to try to escape from the city that evening, but not before it becomes clear that he and Irene have some kind of romantic spark. (He is interested in an apparent boyfriend, named Bob, who calls shortly after they arrive at Irene’s place.)

Irene, who is well-fixed, supplies Parry with some badly-needed cash ($1000). But the cab driver (played by Tom D’Andrea) recognizes him. Parry contemplates jumping out of the taxi, or popping the cabbie in the back of the head; but this isn’t necessary, because the cabbie is a) sympathetic and b) knows a plastic surgeon who will take only $200 to give Parry a new face. (Yes, a face that looks just like Bogart!)

And this is just the beginning of the surreal plot twists that propel Dark Passage forward. While the cabbie lines up an appointment with the surgeon, Parry visits his only close friend George Fellsinger (played by Rory Mallinson), who agrees to let him stay with him once the surgery is performed. He also supplies more of the backstory leading up to the murder of Parry’s wife (“Remember when you spent your last dollar to give her that fire opal ring?” he reminds Parry, who grimly remembers she threw it in his face because the opal “had flaws in it”), and baldly states that Madge framed Parry for her death by lying on the witness stand.

The scene in the surgeon’s office brings the first-person camera technique to an close, but director Daves saved his best actor for last: veteran stage actor/director Houseley Stevenson, who at age 70 would embark on a short-lived career as a noir character icon, is nothing short of brilliant as the renegade doctor, seamlessly careening from existential philosophy (“There’s no such thing as courage; there’s only fear”) to black humor (“If a man like me didn’t like someone, he could surely fix him for life; he could make him look like a bulldog—or a monkey!”). As he gives Parry an anesthetic, we move into a ninety-second dream sequence, where Parry oscillates between sinister and reassuring images: though it’s derivative of a similar sequence from Murder, My Sweet, it’s still effective, and fun.

When Parry awakes, he’s all bandaged up, and after getting instructions for how to deal with his recovery period, he goes back to Fellsinger’s apartment—only to find that his friend has been murdered. With no other place left to go, he returns to Irene’s apartment, collapsing in front of her building. Just before passing out, however, he has noticed that the same car that first picked him up in Marin is parked near Irene’s place. As will become clear a bit later on, this is no coincidence.

Irene starts to take care of Parry, but there’s still another hurdle. When the papers get wind of Fellsinger’s murder, it prompts Madge to make a second call at Irene’s door. Apparently panicked by these events, Madge tries to invite herself to stay with Irene. At this point, Bob arrives (Irene had invited him in order to keep his dependent possessiveness under wraps), and it turns out that Bob (played by Bruce Bennett) and Madge are acrimonious ex-fiancés. They battle it out while Parry waits upstairs, and we learn that Madge is trying to figure out what man was in Irene’s apartment the previous day. Irene, thinking quickly, tells them that it was Parry—which stops both of them in their tracks. (As she tells Parry a bit later on, in one of the film’s best lines: “You tell the truth, and nobody believes you.”) Bob, thinking that Irene has really found another man (but not Parry!!) with whom to be romantically involved, gallantly steps aside; Madge is forced to retreat and await further developments.

All seems to be working out for Parry now; he has time to recover from the surgery, and he has the attentive, soulful Irene to take care of him. But, as a cutaway shot reveals, there is still the punk that he slugged initially (played by Clifton Young), who has his jalopy parked outside, keeping an eye on things.

Five days pass in a single dissolve; the bandages are removed and, wonder of wonders, Parry looks just like Bogart. And the attraction between Parry and Irene has continued to grow; she wants to know where he is going, and when he tries to sidestep the question she tells him that the reason he won’t tell her isn’t because he’s afraid she’ll tell the cops, but that he’s afraid she’ll follow him. This is certainly the most heartfelt and most artfully paced of all Bogart-Bacall love scenes; when Bacall asks if she was crazy to have picked him up on the road, Bogart hesitates an instant, then kisses her for the first time, pulls back, pauses, and says: “Yes.”

Parry doesn’t want to drag her into life on the lam, however, so he leaves her behind, planning an early-morning escape under a new name that Irene has conjured up for him. However, he’s not out of danger even with a new face; he is accosted at a diner by a cop who overhears him asking the short-order cook for race results at Bay Meadows, when the racing season has been over for a month.

He’s able to give the cop the slip, but his next move—taking a hotel room to bide time—only results in bringing back his first post-escape obstacle to his door: the punk, Baker, who tailed him from Irene’s and has extortion on his mind. Parry is escorted by gunpoint to Baker’s jalopy; they’re going back to Irene’s to force her to pay off.

Parry, forced to drive, stalls for time, all the while drawing information out of Baker, a small-time crook trying to step up in class. He finds an opening, grabs the gun away, and gets Baker to admit that he saw another car following Parry’s cab on the night he went to the surgeon—a car he knows belongs to the person who killed his wife and killed his friend Fellsinger. Baker makes a last-ditch play for the gun and, after a struggle, winds up dead at the base of a cliff. Parry now knows that he has to pay a call on the murderer, his once-and-always nemesis.


It has been Madge all along, but Parry has no way of proving it. He pretends to court her, but he can’t keep from revealing his true identity, and he promises to hound her until he confesses. But Madge has one last surreal, deadly twist ready for him: in order to make sure he can never prove his innocence, she hurls herself through her eighth-story window, falling to her death below.

Stunned, Parry manages to escape without detection (the shots of him climbing down the apartment fire escape are somehow claustrophobic and vertiginous all at once), and heads for the bus station to begin his escape to South America. He realizes, however, that life would be lonely without Irene; he calls her to let her know where he's going. The final scene reunites Parry and Irene in a little seaside cantina in Peru, where they can spend the rest of their days laying low and living well with Irene’s dough. The dark, forboding orchestrations in Franz Waxman’s score transmute into a fanfare of major-key hope and reconciliation, and the distant tropical lights twinkle as we leave the lovers to a well-deserved respite from this overly complicated plot.

Still with me? Yes, it’s a laborious plot—the original novel, by the great noir eccentric David Goodis, is even more dense and involuted—and the coincidences are even more outrageous. But, as Barry Gifford points out in his entry on this film in his wonderful book Devil Thumbs a Ride (now titled Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir)“...movies aren’t meant to be real; the reality is in the feelings produced by the viewing.”

What’s also clear from a comparison of Goodis’ novel (perhaps his most optimistic) and the screenplay (which condenses and removes character relationships, backstory, and several more plot complications) is that director/screenwriter Daves created a lot of cinematic problems for himself that might have been avoided had the film not been a Bogart-Bacall vehicle.

For example, with Bogart as the star, there was no way to show another actor as Parry and then bring him into the film halfway through. A “B”-movie version could have done that; but audiences then and now would not countenance such a device with Bogart in the lead role. Thus the first-person camera was needed.

Repeated viewings of the film show how artful the actors are at handling their play-to-the-camera roles. Bacall rises to the challenge of this role, and is noticeably more effective in this portion of the film than later on, when she is pushed into a more traditionally romantic role. (In the novel, Goodis never permits Irene to get so sentimental; he finds several other ways to convey the fact that Parry and Irene are soulmates.)

The character actors here—Stevenson, D’Andrea, and Mallinson—are the ones who really shine. It’s easy to overlook how much is going on in Mallinson’s one scene—how much narrative information he is supplying, for example. While Stevenson and D’Andrea are more flamboyant, adding comic relief to the grim proceedings, Mallinson has to play it straight: the subtle shadings, inflections, and shifts in emphasis that he negotiates during his five minutes become more impressive with each viewing.

And then there’s Young, a former Little Rascal (he was “Bonedust”), who deftly handles his quick turnabouts from cocky weasel to sniveling coward. Watching Warner Brothers’ films from the 40s on TCM provides other welcome glimpses of Young, but this is the place where he gets the most chance to show his stuff. Sadly, he died only four years after the filming of Dark Passage, suffocating in a house fire.

The main problem with Daves’ adaptation is that it cannot provide enough screen time for Agnes Moorehead’s Madge. In the novel, Parry’s plastic surgery “dream” features Madge, portraying her as a flamboyant, fearless trapeze artist; there are flashbacks to Parry’s dying wife, and additional details about the trial. All of these avenues for providing more on-screen backstory for Madge were left unexplored, and it is only due to Moorehead’s prodigious talent for histrionics that this very significant narrative problem is held at bay.

Daves does a fine job with Madge’s key scene, however, condensing Goodis’ prose into a solid set-piece for Moorehead. Her vocal inflections and her mounting mania are well-paced and become more startling with repeated viewings—even when you know she is going to wind up going out that window.

Goodis provides us with a haunting buildup to that moment in the novel, even managing to bring back the trapeze image:

She took a long breath and he could hear the dragging in her throat. She said. “They’ll always be looking for you. She wants you very badly. And that’s why she’d be willing to run away with you and keep on running away and always scared, always running away. And it would ruin everything for her because she’d be with you and that’s all she wants. And you know that and that’s why you won’t take her. That’s why she doesn’t have you now and she’ll never have you and nobody will ever have you. And that’s the way I wanted it. And that’s the way it is. And it will always be that way.”

She laughed at him and he saw the gold inlays. He saw the bright orange going back and away from him, going too fast. She was running backward, throwing herself backward as he went after her, but she was too fast and then he saw the gold inlays glittering and the bright orange flaring as the arms went wide, as the gold inlays flashed as she hit the window and the window gave way and the cracked glass went spraying and she went through.

He was at the window. He leaned through the broken window and he saw her going down, the bright orange acrobat falling off the trapeze. And it was as if she was taking him with her as she went down, the bright orange rolling and tossing and going down and hitting the pavement five stories below.

Gifford argues that this scene is Moorehead’s best film performance; while it’s hard to view it as better than her performance as Aunt Fanny in The Magnificent Ambersons, there is no one who makes more out of her limited screen time. When she goes out that window, it is electrifying—even after you’ve seen it for the umpteenth time.

So that’s why, in the end, I find the arguments about this film’s clunkiness, its gimmickry, and its outrageous, almost shameless coincidences to be nitpicky grumblings. Not, it’s not “perfect,” but its flaws are fiery and forceful, and ultimately the film is more engaging because of them, not in spite of them. And, finally, there’s San Francisco—the noir city, contrary to claims made by those who would champion New York or L.A.—which was successfully put over in that role for the first time with this film. And done so with indelible, hypnotic effect. There’s nothing more comforting than a nightmare with a happy ending, and Dark Passage is just that.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Long Wait (1954)

Posted by Jon From Seattle

Directed by Victor Saville
Written by Lesser Samuels from the novel by Mickey Spillane
Photographed by Franz Planer
Starring Anthony Quinn, Gene Evans, Charles Coburn, Peggie Castle

On a dark road a hitch-hiker gets picked up by a trucker. The truck crashes, the hitch-hiker burns his hands trying to rescue the driver. The trauma of the crash gives him amnesia. He doesn't know who he is. He gets a job on an oil rig. After he's fired for assaulting a co-worker one thing leads to another and he finds out he's from the town of Lyncastle. As soon as he hits town the cops pick him up on a 2 year old murder rap. He now has a name, Johnny McBride. He allegedly stole $250,000 from the bank he was working at and killed the DA. The cops can't hold him because his fingerprints were burned off! So he sets off to ask some questions and get some answers. He rubs some people the wrong way especially casino owner and all around sleaze bag Servo. It turns out that McBride's co-worker/girlfriend Vera split after the heist, got plastic surgery, changed her name and returned to Lyncastle. There's four women who could be Vera. So of course Johnny has to seduce all of them to find out who the real Vera is! One of the few people who believe in him is his former boss Gardiner, the president of the bank. He offers him money to leave town after all the trouble he's caused. He of course refuses. By this point Servo has had enough, gets all the "Vera's" together to find out who the real one is to trap Johnny. This leads to a violent conclusion and a not too surprising ending.

This comes fairly late in the noir cycle with the typical misogynistic Spillane touches. It's strikingly photographed by Franz Planer and has a seedy atmosphere and a brutality typical of films of this type. Quinn does well in the role of Johnny as does Gene Evans playing Servo. It's a minor noir to be sure, but worth a look if you can find it.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle (MGM, 1950) directed by John Huston, based on the novel by W.R. Burnett.
Main cast: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Marc Lawrence, Marilyn Monroe, Barry Kelley, Anthony Caruso, Dorothy Tree, Brad Dexter. Noteworthy bits by Strother Martin, Frank Cady, Ray Teal, Gene Evans, Don Haggerty.

"If you want fresh air, don't look for it in this town."

The Asphalt Jungle epitomizes not only film noir, in a number of ways, but also the sub-genre of the caper film. This is not to say that there were not precedents in terms of Caper Film. Only one year earlier, Universal released a great example with Criss Cross, directed by Robert Siodmak. It's a matter of opinion whether Criss Cross is superior to Jungle. I say the Huston film is greater because of the range and depths of its characters (discussed below). And before the Siodmak example, there were many number of other movies centered around plots to pull off a robbery or a heist: Larceny, Inc. (1942, Lloyd Bacon) comes immediately to mind. But that film, enjoyable as it is, has a light touch and an optimistic outlook. The Asphalt Jungle is not afraid to show us seedy, down-and-out characters who are nevertheless complex and deeply human. In contrast to Larceny, Inc, these are not charming criminals.
To place The Asphalt Jungle more solidly into context, let's consider that Huston had directed two other famous films that form a kind of trilogy with it: The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). Surely no other director can claim three disparate, yet similarly-themed films, all of which have been considered "great" by critics and audiences over the decades since they have appeared.

The "trilogy", as I term it, is made up of films concerned with groups of desperate people attempting to gain access to, and possess, something that will lead to their ultimate redemption. "Redemption" here should be taken in its most generalized sense, and perhaps least of all in a spiritual sense. In The Maltese Falcon (of the three, perhaps the one with the darkest and most ambiguous view of humanity) redemption (financial or otherwise) seems so far from any one's mind that it may not seem worth mentioning. Yet the trio of Greenstreet, Lorre and Astor does have a desperation about it that seems less concerned with some strange, elusive reward that the "black bird" appears to promise and more consumed by the pursuit itself. One reason Falcon is so re-watchable is that the characters' true motivations are cloudy at best. We can place any number of interpretations onto the desperation we see in these people. All three of them seem strung-out, weary from a years-long search for this apparently unattainable goal. Maybe the film is a metaphor for the "quiet desperation" we are told every human life has at its center. Or maybe the falcon is a kind of inverse Holy Grail, a dark unattainable god, eternally shrouded in mystery.

With The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Huston takes the desperate search theme out of doors and into the wild. Some have termed Treasure a film noir, and a case can be made for this, but the film plays out more as a fatalistic adventure yarn. Where Falcon was dark and claustrophobic in its look and feel, Treasure is set largely in sun-drenched deserts and craggy mountainous terrain. The harsh natural conditions and hostile roaming bandits symbolize the relentless struggle merely to exist: nothing new to these hard-luck men. This quest for gold dust is only the latest--and maybe also the most vehemently pursued--of their attempts to escape the lousy hand life has dealt them. Their motivations are unambiguous: money from the gold will make them rich. As in Falcon, the desperate, plotted- quest--troubled by double-crosses and plenty of bad luck--comes to naught. We are left with the near-maniacal laugh of Walter Huston at the end: most human endeavor ends in a pile of dust carried away on a gust of wind.

Two years later, The Asphalt Jungle presents us with a larger set of characters, all of them as desperate as the trios in Falcon or Treasure. But where the two earlier films had people who were mostly on the same page in general terms of their back stories and motivations, JUNGLE has men and women who inhabit the underworld, that 'city under the city', however peripherally. Most of their needs are spelled out, and the backgrounds are painted in memorable detail. We see little men like Cobby (the late Marc Lawrence in an extremely realistic performance) and Gus (James Whitmore, who may be the only surviving prominent cast member); a woman with nothing but a romantic illusion to cling to (the great Jean Hagen as Doll); men whose lives have been crippled by crime and who persevere only through their own folly-laden dreams: Doc (who sets it all in motion, expertly played by Sam Jaffe) and Dix (Sterling Hayden). There is also family-man safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), whose motivations are understandable to us all and whose desperation is painful to watch at times. While Dix is often seen as the central protagonist in Jungle, he really shares that position with Alonzo Emmerich. Emmerich is a corrupt lawyer: a formerly wealthy, urbane man reduced to the same doomed schemes as his cohorts, men to whom he feels superior and whom he ultimately intends to double-cross. Emmerich is almost tragic in the Greek tradition: he has farther to fall than Dix and the rest, but he has already met the ground halfway as the film begins. He's broke, and more debts can be called in to support the new scheme. Unlike the younger men, who could possibly take other paths, there is really nowhere for him to go but down. Emmerich's scenes--rendered immortal by Louis Calhern's performance, the greatest in the film--are the most interestingly complex. He pretends he is smarter than everyone else, but he knows that hubris has brought his life past the crisis point. He is painfully aware that neither the money from the stolen jewels, nor the foolish romantic escape with his mistress (Marilyn Monroe) will ever redeem him.

When it arrives, the caper sequence, around which the film ostensibly revolves, is very brief and anti-climactic. This is surely Huston's intention: it's all over in a few minutes and nobody actually gets what they want. The stolen jewels are brought to Emmerich and a violent scene leads to a foil of the rich man's double-crossing scheme. In the end, everyone can see that this particular gleaming treasure--like the dust in Treasure or the 'black bird'--is ultimately worthless: the jewels are too hot and no one dares fence them. So Doc ends up with most of them in his black bag. He begins pursuit of his dream of a tropical isle, surrounded with dancing girls and ends up in a roadside bar where he feeds nickels into a jukebox as a pretty teenager bops around for him. The waiting cops close in quickly, and all is over for Doc.

Emmerich, too, is soon caught. The alibi plan with the mistress doesn't hold water. And the police make a direct connection to him and his dead henchman Brannom (Brad Dexter). Making short work of it, he goes into his private office and shoots himself in the head.

Other characters meet their ends behind bars (Cobby and Gus) or with ironic justice (corrupt detective Barry Kelley, who tries to play both sides), or in death (Ciavelli). At the close of the film, we are left with a mortally wounded Dix, driving toward his dreamed-of horse farm. At his side is the faithful Doll, who knows the jig is up. Dix has never given up his illusions, where the other characters probably never believed their own. He dies, with poetic rightness, in a field surrounded by curious horses, as poor Doll is left to her own devices. The film, which opened on a dim stretch of urban asphalt, closes on a sunny rural vision.

What makes The Asphalt Jungle a great film noir? The wide array of doomed characters--all put into dramatic perspective by Emmerich's tragic fall-- and a persistent feeling of encroaching doom go a long way to give this film its stature. In this way, the film exemplifies the strong fatalism that is essential to Noir.

Besides the great screenplay, major contributing factors to the the film's success are:
--Dialog: some of the most intelligent, yet convincing dialog in all of Noir (by Huston and Ben Maddow) characters who sound real, who say what someone might actually say or be thinking.

Some examples--
Dix: "I was up on that colt's back. My father and grandfather were there, watching the fun. That colt was buck-jumpin' and pitchin' and once he tried to scrape me off against the fence, but I stayed with him, you bet. And then I heard my granddaddy say, 'He's a real Handley, that boy, a real Handley.' And I felt proud as you please.

Doll: Did that really happen, Dix, well, when you were a kid?

Dix: Not exactly. The black colt pitched me into a fence on the first buck and my old man come over and prodded me with his boot and said, 'Maybe that'll teach ya not to brag about how good you are on a horse'..."

Mrs Emmerich: "Oh Lon, when I think of all those awful people you come in contact with, I get scared.

Emmerich: There's nothing so different about them. After all, crime in only a left-handed form of human endeavor."

--Cinematography: realism is enhanced by the look of the film, starkly, yet vividly shot in black-and-white by Harold Rosson. It's worth noting that Rosson uses some sophisticated camera techniques, such as deep focus and and the extreme foregrounding of a single character. If, while watching, the viewer imagines a B-movie version of this story, with conventional camera work and a lackluster cast and script, the greatness of The Asphalt Jungle becomes even more evident. The consummate technical work and artistry involved elevate the film far above any genre or pulp limitations.

--Music: underlining the bleakness of Huston's vision right from the opening credits is the music score by Miklós Rózsa (who also scored Criss Cross). In a departure from his approach with scores for Double Indemnity and Spellbound, Rozsa places his cues sparingly. The score only calls attention to itself under the main titles and during Dix's wild death ride. For the robbery scene, Rozsa provides no music , and dialog is minimal. While it's far briefer, we can see in this scene the true precursor of the long burglary in Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955), famed for its nearly complete silence.

--Direction: it is John Huston himself who may deserve the lion's share of credit for this film. Taking the advice of an older director he had known (possibly Josef Von Sternberg), he directs each scene as if it were the most important one in the film. This gives every scene its own sense of urgency and keeps a consistent tone, making the film one long, tragic descent into doom.


--in 1961 the ABC TV network began a series entitled "The Asphalt Jungle", starring Jack Warden and Arch Johnson. It apparently had no connection to the Huston film apart from the title. Duke Ellington provided music. The series ran on Sunday nights for only 13 episodes.

--Oscar Nominations (no wins) in 1951:
Best Director: John Huston
Best Screenplay: Ben Maddow/John Huston
Best Supporting Actor: Sam Jaffe
Best Cinematography (b&w): Harold Rosson

Written by Jay M

Friday, March 03, 2006

Crashout (1955)

posted by Jay M.

Crashoutmight come as a surprise to crime film fans or noir enthusiasts who pick it up, expecting a routine mid-50s B movie. For one thing, it's feature-length (89 minutes), and doesn't skimp much on plot and character development. Director Lewis R. Foster was probably pretty adept at action/adventure pictures, judging by titles in his IMDb filmography. Crashout was probably just another assignment to him, but the film shows he was no hack. It's a foregone conclusion that a Hollywood movie won't let criminals get away unpunished, but a superior example like this makes the fate of its players more meaningful with good actors and intelligent writing. Foster keeps things moving nicely, once past the fairly talky first scene in the cave. The film never lags once after that, because there is plenty of action, and characters are given enough depth to differentiate them and keep them interesting.

Arthur Kennedy appears to be the main protagonist here. His Joe Quinn represents the typical redeemed-too-late criminal (who had been jailed for robbery). The actor invests Quinn with plenty of believability, especially in his interactions with Beverly Michaels (an odd, rather glamorous choice for a farm resident, but she is effective). William Bendix plays another of his dumb thugs to perfection, this time never letting up and with no redemption in sight. In Luther Adler's Mendoza we see more evidence of this great actor's talent, making a good deal out of what could have been a stereotyped cypher. Gene Evans, another prolific actor, is allowed to show two sides to his Monk Collins, intimidating one moment, and teaching card tricks to a hostage child the next. Also interesting is Marshall Thompson--a performer who may have never really gotten his due--as the 'nice young man gone wrong'. Thompson really stands out in the very good sequence involving the young woman he meets on the train. Gloria (I Married a Monster From Outer Space) Talbot is nicely cast in this sequence. Last, and far from least, is William Talman (The Hitch-Hiker, Armored Car Robbery), as Remsen, a lapsed reverend, who obsessively plays the same record over and over, as though it were a final vestige of goodness in his life.

In smaller roles we get a nice, but brief, dose of inimitable Percy Helton, playing a country doctor called out in the middle of the night, and who pays a hefty price for his professionalism. Also of note, Adam Williams (memorable as Larry Gordon in The Big Heat two years earlier) in the role of Michaels's heroic date. And there's Morris Ankrum, as the head guard in the crashout scene.

Another interesting aspect of this film is the question of its place in the so-called 'Noir Canon'. Is this a film noir? In the strictest terms, probably not (although the designation is more subjective than many want to admit.) It has enough of the typical elements for some to see it as noir. But its 'existential' qualities may be disputable. This usually refers to a sense of isolation experienced by, typically, a single protagonist: he or she feels trapped in an uncaring universe, forced to proceed alone, resorting perhaps to uncharacteristic methods for survival. The escaped convicts in Crashout don't really fit this profile. They are already immersed in crime. However, there is a strong sense in this film of over-arching fatalism: we all know, the escapees and the viewer, that they are trapped by their actions, that there will be no true escape. So at this level, the film can be seen as belonging to the 'noir universe'. Whatever category it fits into, Crashout is a riveting corker of a movie not to be missed.


Edge of Fury (1958)

by Jay M.

A strange, low-budget film produced in the early 1950s, Edge of Fury was apparently released later in the decade. This must be one of the earliest films to attempt an objective, but sympathetic, look at a psychopathic personality. There is a framing device of the protagonist's former psychiatrist narrating his observations, along with the unfortunate disclaimer from a society that places monetary means above all else: because this man could not afford continued psychiatric treatment, his illness was allowed to wreak havoc.

Despite its modest means, the film has a definite impact. With stronger actors, it probably would have been even better, but Michael Higgens, in the lead (the only one who really makes an impression), provides enough conflicted angst in combination with a childlike sincerity to carry the plot. Higgens has worked pretty steadily for at least four decades and has proved himself a fine actor. (Some viewers may recall his appearance in "The Mice" episode of The Outer Limits.) In some ways, Higgens prefigures Norman Bates in Psycho, with his well-meaning innocence that masks a terrifying undercurrent.

Much of Edge of Fury is shot on beach locations (presumably on Long Island). While the film has a gradually darkening atmosphere, the sunny seaside views work to ironically underscore the danger inherent in the story. Conrad Hall's creative camera work adds much to the film, giving it a consistent look and lending interest to the overall objective style.

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