Sunday, April 30, 2006

Quicksand (1950)

Posted by Curt

I first watched this movie over sixteen years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I mainly liked this film because it was a fast moving, hard-nosed crime drama that showed how a plain, ordinary man could get into a world of trouble by getting hitched up with the wrong kind of woman.

Barbara Bates, a young attractive woman who had the hots for Dan Brady (Mickey Rooney) was given the brush off by him because he found Vera (Jeanne Cagney) to be more exciting and sexually interesting than this former girlfriend of his. Since Vera was used to a high style of living, Dan had to take her out to a swanky nightclub but he needed the cash right now to do this. Living from paycheck to paycheck being the garage mechanic he was, he didn't have enough money on him so he came up with the bright idea to "borrow" twenty bucks from the till where he worked at. And that's where his rapid slide down the abyss began.


The auditor came early to the garage to count up the week's receipts, and found twenty dollars missing which sent Dan Brady scrambling to find the money to put back into the register so that the books would balance. His next step was to go out and purchase a watch on credit and then sell it to a pawnbroker. From there he put the cash back in the till and everything was fine. Not really. The jewelery place checked up on him and found he couldn't pay back the $100 for the watch, and pressure was put on Dan Brady to pay up or go to jail. His next step was to go after Shorty, the owner of the local bingo parlour and rob him of his cash. He then used the loot from the robbery to pay off Jay's Jeweler"s and get himself out of hot water for the time being.

Meanwhile, he was making time with Vera and they started hanging around this pinball-carnival joint which was operated by the very shady Peter Lorre. Vera had had a relationship at one time with Peter, but after that cooled she went on to greener pastures, none other than the easy going Dan Brady. Well, while at the pinball joint, Mickey and Peter got into a tussel over 50 bucks Vera owed Peter. Being the simple minded person he was, Mickey threw 50 dollars in his face and the hankerchief he used during the robbery. Peter spotted the fifty dollar bill and knew that the only person around who carried fifties on him was Shorty. So, Peter put two and two together and put the old squeeze on Mickey to heist an automobile from the garage where he worked, and if he turned over the auto to Peter, then Peter would keep mum about the robbery. What with one crime leading to another and then ending up with Mickey breaking into Peter's safe to pay off the garage owner for the stolen car or be turned over to the cops, well, it looked like there was no way out of this hole that he had dug for himself. Then, when Vera took part of the robbery money from Peter's safe, and spent it on a mink coat for herself, if left Mickey on the short end of the stick. When he couldn't give the full amount to the owner, his boss decided to turn him into the cops and then Mickey went after him and choked him. After that happened, he broke off with Vera and hooked up with his old girlfriend for a quick exit out of town. The cops did catch up with him and after a shoot-out in which he was wounded, he found out the garage owner didn't die and that maybe he would only spend a year or so in jail. His girl said she would wait for him which made for a happy ending. This is what I call a stream-of-consciousness summary.

This was not an outstanding noir film but I think it was up to the mark in delivering the goods. As I understand it, beginning with Quicksand, this was supposed to be the start of a multi-picture collaboration between Mickey Rooney and Peter Lorre, which would indeed made for one of the most unusual business partnerships in the history of Hollywood. But, as it turned out, this was the only film they made together.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Tension (1950)

The war to preserve a way of life was behind us. Distinct places with strange sounding names like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Falaise and Remagen had ebbed from the collective consciousness. The warriors had returned home and were ready to turn into reality those dreams that had sustained them during the long years away from home and hearth.

Tension, a 1950 piece under the direction of the soon to be blacklisted John Berry, traces the return to society of one such vet with a simple dream. Warren Quimby’s was of a steady job, a little house in that new American institution called the suburbs, and raising a family with a devoted and lovely wife by his side. Unfortunately for Warren, the woman whose bumper he’d hitched his trailer full of dreams just happen had a few of her own. Claire Quimby’s idea of a little bit of wonderful didn’t quite mesh with that of the poor, bespectacled and diminutive Warren. Hers ran more towards fur coats, big convertibles, and big burly men smoking big cigars. It would seem from all appearances, that to Mrs. Quimby, size does matter and her devoted pharmacists husband just doesn’t measure up. So what’s a girl to do? If you’re the sultry, good time had by all Claire you simply cast your line, hook the biggest fish and give your husband the brush, which is just what she does. Her actions start in motion the inevitable clash that will pit the over matched Warren against the burly object of her lust, Barney Deager.

The three principles consist of the always dependable Richard Basehart again delivering a solid performance as Warren, Audrey Totter as the deliciously nasty Claire and Lloyd Gough delegated to grunting and menacing his way across the screen as Barney. The stars are backed by a stellar cast of noir vets; Tom D'Andrea, Barry Sullivan, William Conrad, and Cyd Charisse whose spread eagle girl next door intro to Warren leaves little to the imagination as to what their relationship will blossom into.

While Navel vet Warren toils as the druggist and night manager of all night drug store, with living quarters upstairs, Barney lives a life of leisure doing little more than sun bath and barbeque on the beach of Malibu. Somehow Warren is under the delusion that hard work, and saving for a little house in the valley in which to raise a couple kids will satisfy the hot house tomato he’s married to. Our boy Barney on the other hand, gets his kicks stealing other men’s wife’s and knocking around men half his size, vises for which he’ll intimately pay the final price.

The background on Claire, the object of all the fuss, is murky. However, there’s the slightest mention that she’s strayed on the wrong side of the law before and only through the actions of our protagonist was she saved. This happened in San Diego during his days in the Navy and this act coupled with how “cute” he looked in his uniform were enough to get him the girl of his dreams, at least temporarily. Once Claire flees into the arms of Barney the Beachcomber, Warren is blinded to the reality that her leaving is the single good thing she’s ever done for him. Determined to get Clare back, Warren treks down to Barney’s swinging beach pad and confronts the couple in hopes of convincing his wife to return. This ends badly for not only does she refuse but he suffers the embarrassment of her hulking lover tossing him about like a 98 pound weakling in front of her. Now the fuse is lit and ignites all the fury and revenge Warren can muster. Driving away for the beach beaten and bloodied he reasons with himself if he can’t win back his wife he’ll simply eliminate the competition.

At this juncture the film makes it’s plunge into darkness and takes on the fleeting feeling of a true noir as opposed to a “lover did him wrong” melodrama. To carry out his plan to murder Barney, Warren under goes a transformation physically, philosophically and also apparently economically. Our mild mannered druggist through the wonders of contact lenses becomes the debonair man about town Paul Sothern in order to carry out his plan. He’s also able to afford moving into a new apartment, sports around in a convertible and dresses quite snappy. He, to all casual observers he is Paul Sothern. Strictly by happenstance when moving into his new digs does he also meet his new neighbor, Mary Chanler, a throw away role by Cyd Charisse. With all the main characters now in place, the action escalates and only momentarily slows down with the heavy dose of sappy music used to accompany those moments Paul and Mary share in deep shared thoughts.

Once this stall is behind, Warren/Paul moves swiftly through the dark with his plan to take his full measure from Barney. Arriving at the beach house bathed in shadows, he enters but ultimately when the moment of truth arrives and Warren/Paul has his chance at revenge, he relents. Rather than being trapped in a fatalistic nightmare like other true noir protagonists, he has the ability to escape his self made hell. Just as the leopard can’t change his spots, Warren’s true nature overcomes his temporary journey to the dark side.

Lest we fear all is lost, we have a gal still on the scene who’s more than up the task Warren/Paul found himself lacking in. Without revealing any spoilers, suffice to say the femme fatal saves the day and gives us what we’ve long been waiting for, Barney’s comeuppance. The balance of the film finds the police (Sullivan and Conrad, especially the former) using what could generously be called “questionable” law enforcement tactics. Can you spell “entrapment,” to capture the guilty party who comes to view Sullivan as her next savior/victim.

Upon the films conclusion, I had cause to ponder. Had this film been produced by say RKO rather than MGM, how the entire package would have been top drawer noir. Which is not to say the product as is, isn’t still enjoyable but it causes one to think, what if?

Written by Raven

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Possessed (1947)

After last week's Conflict, here's another solid Bernhardt noir entry. The man may not have been one of the great noir directors (as witnessed by this film's repetitive "psycho-babble" by the doctors, the undeveloped plot ‘device’, err character played by Alexis Smith in Conflict, and the absolute mess of a plot in Sirocco), he have a talent for beautiful, Von Sternberg expressionist mise en scene. Bernhardt manages to take us to a completely different world in each of his noirs than say that of a "realistic/semi-documentary" film. Crime/thriller events do take place in his films, however they lie within a living nightmare: a Val Lewton-esque landscape in which conventions found in horror are "allowed" to exist in these noir stories (truth serums, "ghosts" from beyond the grave, over-the-top, abstract hallucinations, to name a few).

Louise Howell: A “Fully-Fleshed” Femme Fatale?
When it comes to femme fatales, few film noirs completely focus on the psychology behind these deadly women. Sure, there are many great noir actresses who give the stock character great depth, but most of the time we must accept that they were just “born bad”. As of what I’ve seen, there are only two films that actually trace the transition of a weak, oppressed woman into a dominating femme fatale: Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People and Bernhardt’s Possessed (and I hear Crime of Passion takes Barbara Stanwyck down the same path as well). Whereas Irena’s (of Cat People) deadliness grows from her fear of her inherited curse (a metaphor for her sexuality, the femme fatale’s key weapon), Joan Crawford’s Louise Howell is driven to become a murderess and manipulator (and just a plain psycho) by her own fatal obsession (and over that of a homme fatale), among other factors. On the flip side, this viewing I see Louise as a product of the neurotic, ruthless environment in which she lives in.

In the noir world, even those mousy, spinster nurses can grow to be deadly. David Sutton (Van Heflin) introduces Louise to a life of love and sex, two things she has never experienced before (this must be why she keeps returning to such a cad). Of course, while Louise considers this one night stand a new beginning, David sees her as just another woman he can seduce and abandon, so it’s anything but pretty when he calls it quits, and upon further meetings rejects every advance Louise makes to “rekindle” their sham of a romance. The next 90 minutes of the film have Joan Crawford going through even more hell, facing a crazy mother/patient and daughter who spit out wild accusations, the mother’s mysterious suicide, and David returning once more to seduce the naïve daughter Carol, while Joan watches. No wonder why she’s gone mad, I think Mildred Pierce had it good compared to her.

Then comes the fun part, in which Joan Crawford (as usual) rises from the ashes, pulling out all the stops to get even with David (and in the meantime convincing herself, again, that she’s never lost him). She sadistically teases him with passive aggressive remarks at dinner, manipulates Carol and Dean to believe her sick fantasy of David (and takes pleasure in telling him when he confronts her). Then you have it, the classic “gal with a gun” scene of all noir in which Louise shoots David with a smile on her face. So she goes into a state of catatonia straight afterwards, but boy she ended it with a “bang,” didn’t she?

The Cast

Unlike the typical “Joan Crawford” film, we have a strong supporting cast that makes the film feel more like a collaborative effort (regardless of Joan being the obvious star and driving force of the picture). Van Heflin delivers his otherwise harmless lines with an acid tongue, making Dean a heartless, arrogant cad who thinks only of number one rather than what could have been simply a man simply trying to move on from a codependent woman. Playing the other straight man is Raymond Massey, giving his one-note character a sense of great kindness and understanding with a dash of being emotionally disturbed himself (Do we really ever feel confident about his murder alibi, whether or not it was true (which it likely is?). Playing the first of the Crawford Film’s “Veda” clones, Geraldine Brooks may have been Crawford’s own “safe” choice, but she gives a rotten, malicious performance in her opening scenes that may put Ann Blyth to shame. Her transition into a likeable daughter willing to start a friendship with Louise is completely believable, making David’s return all the more hard hitting to the viewer. Last but not least is Crawford, giving a first rate performance by being unafraid (in Crawford standards) to completely de-glamorize herself in order to make Louise’s psychosis believable and most menacing. This has been called camp, and in the right frame of mind it most definitely could be, but do not look at Crawford’s performance as camp in itself- that’s just the bulging eyes, rubber lips, and caterpillar eyebrows you see.

Written by Markham

Monday, April 10, 2006

Conflict (1945)

Conflict” is an often overlooked entry in Humphrey Bogart’s filmography, a picture he didn’t want to make, and one which pales in comparison to many of the classics dotted throughout his career. Yet I’ve always had a fondness for this minor noir, and having revisited it recently, I couldn’t resist picking it as my NOTW.

Bogart is Richard Mason, successful engineer, just celebrating five years of marriage to Kathryn (Rose Hobart). Underneath the veneer of this idyllic marriage, however, the Masons’ relationship has degenerated into deep bitterness. Richard is in love with his wife’s younger sister, Evelyn (Alexis Smith), but knows that Kathryn will never grant him his freedom.
When he suffers a broken leg in a car accident, Richard sees a chance to escape his situation: Arranging a vacation at a mountain resort, he persuades his wife to make the long drive alone. That night, Richard intercepts Kathryn on the deserted mountain road and kills her, returning home before he’s missed, and maintaining the pretence that he’s still immobile from his broken leg, by way of an alibi.

As the police search for his apparently missing wife, Richard is free to develop his relationship with Evelyn, but odd things soon start to happen: Richard smells his wife’s perfume at home; he receives mail apparently written by her, and then thinks he sees her walk by on the street. He begins to ask himself, is Kathryn still alive - or is something else sinister afoot? With the help of psychiatrist pal Dr Mark Greenwood (Sydney Greenstreet), Richard tries to solve the puzzle, without revealing his own guilt in the process …


Of course, Kathryn IS dead. It transpires that Dr Hamilton suspected Richard from the outset and, together with the police; he concocted an elaborate scheme to convince Richard that his wife was alive. The hope was that Richard would slip up and reveal his guilt, which he finally does - returning to the scene of the crime for proof that Kathryn is dead, only to be caught red-handed by Hamilton and the cops.

As evinced by its relative obscurity, “Conflict” is not a first-rate Bogart noir. It doesn’t help that the film is saddled with a vague, flat title that hardly engenders excitement, but my main problem is with the character of Evelyn. She’s key to the plot, and yet I found her role to be rather unfocused. She’s not a straight ‘love interest’ - she snubs Richard’s advances, the writers apparently unwilling to have her display feelings for a murderer. On the other hand, Evelyn isn’t given much else to do: she doesn’t harbour any suspicions of Richard’s guilt, nor play much of a part in the main mystery plot. Late in the film, an interesting idea is introduced, when the increasingly paranoid Richard starts to suspect Evelyn of orchestrating Kathryn’s ‘resurrection’, but the idea isn’t followed through and instead Evelyn simply disappears before the film’s climax, her character arc left without proper closure. It’s ‘resolved’ in a couple of throwaway lines between Richard and Dr. Hamilton, establishing that she wasn’t part of the police trap, but we don’t even get to see her reaction to the news that Richard killed her sister. Given that her character is the driving force behind the entire plot - Richard is driven to murder by his desire for her - I’m never happy with the level of development given to her thread of the story.

The elaborate scheme to trap Richard is the film’s main plot, of course. It’s signposted by Dr Hamilton’s line early in the film: “a thought can be like a malignant disease that starts to eat away the will power” - exactly the strategy this expert on the mind uses to set his trap: first planting the seeds of doubt in Richard’s mind, and then manipulating events in order to confuse Richard further, until he begins to crack, unsure whether Kathryn is alive, that someone is toying with him, or even if he may be losing his mind. Privy only to Richard’s side of the story, the viewer is kept equally in the dark. It’s a well-sustained mystery, and on first viewing it kept me guessing until the climax, although more astute viewers could probably guess what’s going on.

My only criticism is the plot’s utter implausibility - would the police really allow an outsider like Hamilton (who should be a suspect himself) to orchestrate such an outlandish scheme? I can imagine it now: the detective in charge approaches his boss: “Hey, Lieutenant, mind if I borrow Carol from traffic for a couple hours? I need her to dress up as a suspect’s dead wife. Yeah, it’s all to drive the guy to a nervous breakdown; a new technique we’re trying out.”

A little implausibility never really hurt anybody, though. Like another of my favourite Bogart films, the recent NOTW “Dark Passage”, if you can suspend your disbelief you should find much to enjoy here. “Conflict” is a product of the slick Warner Bros. machine of the period, and comes with all the benefits: good supporting cast, solid direction from Curtis Bernhardt (who would later re-team with Bogart for “Sirocco”), and top production values. In fact, if nothing else, the movie looks great. The scenes on the deserted highway (where Richard murders his wife) are my favourite; richly lit and swimming with fog, these scenes are tremendously ominous and atmospheric.

The film also boasts an interesting protagonist in Richard Mason; he reminds me of the very best “Columbo” villains, those who are more complex, sympathetic characters than just your standard killer-of-the-week. Bogart does a good job of conveying the inner turmoil of a man driven to murder by desire and desperation, and unable to escape the repercussions of his act. Finding inspiration for his performance couldn’t have been difficult: in an interesting parallel to his character, Bogart also celebrated his fifth wedding anniversary while shooting the film in 1943. His volatile marriage to Mayo Methot was steadily disintegrating and Bogart was not happy off-set. Fortunately he fared better than Richard Mason, and by the time the picture opened two years later, Bogart was divorced from Methot, and had found new happiness with Lauren Bacall.

Finally, I can’t fail to mention the inimitable Sydney Greenstreet. Lending the film his usual larger-than-life presence in support, he carves a typically memorable performance out of a rather bland character.

Although originally released on VHSby Warner Bros., “Conflict” has yet to materialize on DVD. With so many of Bogart’s films now available on shiny disc, it’s about time that this enjoyable little film noir joined them and found a wider audience. It’s certainly no classic, but it remains, in my opinion, a thoroughly entertaining slice of noir.

Dave G

Sunday, April 02, 2006

I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948)

James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich. All were great noir writers but Woolrich is mostly forgotten by readers today. All have had many of their stories adapted in Hollywood. In fact, Woolrich may have had more films made from his stories and novels than any one of the others.

Of course, the Blackboard regulars and mystery readers know him well. The writer of “Rear Window” lived a hard life. He suffered from depression and apparently lived a sad, lonely life. If Woolrich lived today, he probably could have been treated for the depression and alcoholism that beat him later in life. But could a happy Woolrich write the dark Fear in the Night or Phantom Lady? Probably not.

Want to know how dark this guy was? In an afterword to “The Fantastic Stories of Cornell Woolrich” the writer is quoted: “Life is death. Death is life. To hold your one true love in your arms and to see the skeleton she will become; to know that your love leads to death, that death is all there is, that is what I know and what I do not want to know and what I cannot bear.”

I recently got my hands on “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes,” another one of Woolrich’s unremitting nightmares turned into a very entertaining B-film. It’s interesting to see how dark this film is, even with an ending that is unsurprisingly upbeat.

There will be spoilers ahead.

The film starts with the title card of the film over the shadow of a nose swinging. Dangling from the rope is a pair of shoes. The shoes play a big part in the film.

A young married couple is living together in a tiny one-room apartment in New York City. They both have dreams of making it big as dancers but lately they haven’t been able to get a break. The wife works at a dancing school at night, where she dances with lonely men for tips. The husband pounds the pavement every day looking for dancing work but not finding any. Making matters worse, the man is worried about his wife staying out all hours of the night with the guys at the dance school. I guess the “Ortiz Dance School” is the 40’s equivalent of a “Gentleman’s Club” today. The woman flirt with the men and the men walk out of the place with a smile on their face, perfume on their clothes, and a pound lighter in the wallet.

Tom gets hotter and hotter as he waits for his wife Ann to return one night. When she finally does, she tells him she stayed to talk to “Santa Claus”’; a man who tips her well at the place. The dancing couple eventually makes up and goes to bed. Just as the lights go out, cats in the alley below begin to howl. Tom, a little drunk, throws his shoes down at them to shut them up. His wife tells him it’s his last pair of shoes - his tap shoes- and that he must go down now and get them. He goes out to get them but doesn’t find the shoes. In the morning, the shoes are at their doorstep. Happy that he can go out with a pair of shoes, the incident is forgotten.

This then leads to Tom getting arrested for murder when the cops find a shoe print of his by a recently found dead body.

Tom is tried and convicted. He’s sentenced to death “the Tuesday after Christmas.” So while the rest of the world is celebrating the holiday season, Ann counts down the days to Christmas… and to the day her husband will be killed. Finally, out of desperation Christmas Eve, Ann offers herself to “Santa Claus” - who also turns out to be one of the policemen that arrested her husband- in an attempt to get him to find the real killer. Ann promises to marry Judd if he can get Tom released. They seal the pact with a kiss.

Actors Don Castle and Elyse Knox play Tom and Ann in the film, but the real star is third-billed Regis Toomey as the obsessive Judd. Usually when you see Toomey in a film he plays a straight-as-an-arrow cop, so when he turns out to be Ann’s creepy “Santa Claus” -and later even more- boy was I surprised.

This is a treat of a film. The mystery story, at first confusing and unbelievable, turns out to be logical and clever. The film was directed by William Nigh, who knocked out a large amount of films in the 1930s including a handful of Mr. Wong mysteries. Nigh’s direction is stagy but some of the outdoor scenes, especially when Ann meets Judd at night by flashlight, have a shadowy film-noir look.

There are some nice supporting players in the film too. Look out for Charles D. Brown, Esther Michelson (her only credited screen role as the nice Jewish lady who gives Ann a tiny Christmas tree), and everyone’s favorite Tito Vuolo.


Written by Steve-O

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