Monday, July 31, 2006

The Hidden Room (aka Obsession 1949)

Posted by Curt

This is a terrific little film noir about an insanely jealous husband, played by Robert Newton, who discovers that his lovely wife is playing around with another man. Newton snatches the man and takes him to an abandoned bomb shelter where he ends up locking the man away in a room. He then chains this other man to the wall, and makes the chain long enough so he can move to and from his bed and be able to get to the bathroom and that's it. Every day Robert Newton, who plays a doctor in this movie, bring a can of acid to this room and slowly fills up the bathtub where he intends to eventually murder the philander in.

This movie is a wonderfully rendered story that displays a logical mind at work, relishing the idea of what he is going to do, and watching his enemy suffer slowly, knowing full well that one day soon he will have to die for his mis-deeds against his sultry wife. Now the overall main reason to view this picture is to be able to feast one's eyes on the gloriously lovely Sally Gray, a British actress who to the best of knowledge did not appear in very many films. Her astute and keen intelligence is part and parcel of her beauty; this beautiful woman is head and shoulders above any other cinema blonde actress imho.

I highly recommend this rarely watched gem to anyone
Of course, the Scotland Yard inspector who is on the case looking for the missing man, played by Phil Brown, is relentless in his pursuit of finding his whereabouts. In the end, the inspector finally uncovers the truth from the good doctor, who, after hiding this man out for some five months begins making some telltale mistakes, and Phil Brown is discovered by the police in the abandoned building. There is a neat twist ending to this movie even though it is somewhat predictable. Robert Newton did a splendid job as always with his character, especially when he gets to play a person who is rational on the outside, and nuttier than a bag of peanuts on the inside. Phil Brown turned in a decent performance as a man who had no idea what was coming next in his long imprisonment, and the taut, tight direction of the great Edward Dmytryk made this suspenser well worth watching.

I highly recommend this rarely watched gem to anyone who has yet to see it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

M (1951)

Posted by Carl

In the first college film class I signed up for more than 30 years ago now, a lot was thrown at my fellow wide-eyed undergrads and me. I don’t even remember the name of the instructor, but the films are so easily recalled: Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Renoir’s Grand Illusion. But the film that left the most indelible impression on me, opening my eyes to the brilliance and grandeur of classic film was Fritz Lang’s M. As I look back, it’s probably the film that ultimately led me to my noir obsession.

The original M is a film I have long revered, so much so that I resisted viewing Joseph Losey’s remake for years, believing not only that it couldn’t possibly measure up to the original but that it somehow might cheapen my appreciation of Lang’s masterpiece. But thanks to some comments here at the Blackboard about the merits of the remake, most notably by Don Malcolm, as well as viewing a couple of impressive Losey films (The Prowler, The Big Night), I took the plunge. I finally landed a crude copy and watched it. I watched it three times. Then I watched the original M again and the remake once more.

It turned out to be my best noir viewing experience in quite awhile. It only required one viewing to realize that the ’51 M is a criminally undervalued film - for a variety of unfair reasons - and one of the very best noirs from that year, if not the best. Even if it was a turkey, it still would be essential viewing for the performances of its exceptional cast, the spectacularly shabby Los Angeles/Bunker Hill location settings of the period and the mesmerizing cinematography of Ernest Laszlo. It’s a near classic if not a full-fledged one, and one that complements the original’s vision and power as opposed to diminishing it, demonstrating pretty effectively that the social conditions which produced such a film in early 1930s Germany could be successfully transported to 1950s noir-era America.


The remake’s plot closely follows the original. A child murderer is at large in the city, and the police manhunt is so intense that it interferes with the operations of the underworld. The crime syndicate determines that to ease the scrutiny on itself, it must undertake a search of its own for the killer. The criminals get to the the psycho first, conduct a kangaroo court in a city underbelly location, and just as the killer makes his plea for some measure of understanding and mercy, police break in and the film is concluded.

But as in the original M, the remake is less about the shocking acts of the murderer himself but how a troubled society reacts and responds to such an urban crisis, with public officials and criminals acting with like mind and capitalizing on public hysteria for self-serving gain. The remake also successfully conveys the allegorical undercurrent of a ruthless witch hunt, highly topical for the time and for many principals involved with the film. The House Unamerican Activities Committee was actively investigating Losey and others during filming and around Hollywood in general. Some were blacklisted before the film was even released, which occurred almost concurrently with the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

The M remake is certain to make an immediate impression on the noir aficianado. David Wayne, taking on the unenviable task of reprising Peter Lorre’s unforgettable performance as the baby killer who can’t control his murderous actions, sets a believable tone in the opening scene, when he hops aboard the Angels Flight trolley for a nighttime ride up Bunker Hill, stepping over newspaper bundles with headlines screaming his latest offense. Wayne gets much more screen time than Lorre did, and in a remarkable performance that belies anything else in his acting career, he leans more toward Anthony PerkinsNorman Bates than Lorre’s Hans Beckert. His shoe fetish makes a declarative statement that he is a helpless psychotic, barely able to maintain enough mental balance to commit his horrific crimes. He lives in a dark, shabby apartment with the shoelaces of his victims tied to a hanging lamp, and he yanks one down to strangle a clay figure, with a framed photo of his mother next to him. It’s an incredibly chilling scene, the high point of a performance by Wayne that sets up his shrieking, Lorre-like oratory at the finish. He also plays an eerie tune on a flute to entice his youthful victims, a touch that doesn’t really ring true but nonetheless adds another dimension to his level of insanity.

But that’s just the tip of M’s high entertainment quotient. A delicious noir cast gives the remake a different but still powerful slant to the original. Howard Da Silva plays the beleaguered, hardened homicide inspector in charge of tracking down Wayne’s Martin Harrow. His hot-headed, violence-inclined assistant is wonderfully played by Steve Brodie. Martin Gabel is the menacing crime boss, much more a true Mafioso type than the original’s frightening, calculating Nazi-esque thug Schranker. His henchmen are a real all-star team: Raymond Burr as a raspy-voiced muscle man named Pottsy, Norman Lloyd (the saboteur in Hitchcock’s Saboteur) as a racketman-of-all-trades and last but not least Luther Adler as the drunken and down-on-his-life attorney Langley (supposedly, a surname cocktail of Lang and Losey) who attempts to craft a defense for the murderer when he is captured. Another excellent bit part is turned in by Jim Backus as a cartoonish nitwit L.A. mayor, who browbeats the detectives to use their brains to solve the crime so his image isn’t sullied while he attends supermarket openings.

Another key star: the city itself. This is one of the very best look at noir-era L.A. The Bunker Hill scenes are revelatory, showing the area in all its decaying griminess, much more in the Kiss Me Deadly "spirit" of hopelessless (Robert Aldrich, notably, was Losey’s assistant director) than other films such as Criss Cross. The street scenes are full of unsavory characters _ winos, beggars, street vendors. It’s a seedy tapestry. And the climax of the search scene is played out in the astounding and cavernous (and at the time, run down) Bradbury Building, built in 1893 and still standing (it was also utilized in the sci-fi flick Blade Runner), its French rail décor and z-shaped stairwells adding much to the atmosphere of the quest. Laszlo gets the most out of all of it through his camera lense. Some of the stairwell scenes, in particular, give the film a distinct Hitchcock touch.

M has some important distinctions from the original. Adler’s Langley becomes a compelling central character, a figure who capably demonstrates how America beat down and ultimately smothered noble idealists in that era. Second, the newer M updates effectively to incorporate the instantaneous power of television over the masses and the general paranoia of the early nuclear age. That paranoia, to be sure, helps to heighten the hysteria about a sicko child-killer. But the message is also clear that the obsession to root out "reds" during that time period was turning urban America into an ugly, distrustful, gang-mentality society.

An aside: Both M films were produced by Seymour Nebenzal (you’ll recognize some music from another of his noir classics, The Chase, in the M remake) and in several sources I read, Nebenzal actually asked Fritz Lang to direct the remake. Lang was incensed, decrying that the original couldn’t be improved upon and also maintaining that he should have owned the rights to the story anyway. But Losey may have been the more effective choice, considering the HUAC pressure he was receiving at the time. One wonders if Lang ever saw the remake because I’ve never read any comments from him about it. If he did, it wouldn’t surprise me that he would have been at least somewhat impressed by the result.

Reams have been written about the original M, and rightfully so. It is a timeless classic that demonstrates the possibilities of cinema and the many levels a single film can attain. Sadly, the remake doesn’t deserve its fate as a lost artifact with scant critical evaluation. Why has it happened? Partly because of the subject matter, partly because of the original’s omnipresence, partly because it IS a remake, partly because the film was shelved almost from the moment it was released by Columbia and many of its key personnel banished from the industry.

What a shame that Criterion, in its magnificent restoration of the original M a few years back, didn’t choose to include the remake as part of its still-essential two-disc package. It most certainly would have been a more worthwhile companion than the fairly lifeless remake of The Killers, which was included in the Criterion package of that stunning original. Now, one wonders if Losey’s remake will ever receive the DVD circulation and due it deserves, or whether its sad destiny will be to be a bootlegged underground nugget, enlightening those lucky enough to see it as an American noir embellishment to the unforgettable original.

Maybe that injustice will be rectified when M is remade again. Some might surmise that it’s time.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Mickey Spillane

See, heroes never die. John Wayne isn't dead, Elvis isn't dead. Otherwise you don't have a hero. You can't kill a hero.

Mickey Spillane

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Strange Woman (1946)

Posted by Markham

Though perhaps far from a masterpiece, and with that it being a 19th century costume drama it’s debatable whether it is noir or not, The Strange Woman is a film unfairly neglected in the filmography of Edgar G. Ulmer. It also is the least talked about of the ‘trilogy’ of femme fatale 'heroine' pictures made in 1946, the other two being the famous Gilda and the infamous Decoy, all telling tales from the eyes of the spider woman herself. Though the film does drag in more than a few spots, it is one of the most fascinating femme fatale vehicles if only for the history behind it (there’s too much to tell of the behind the scenes, the commentary in the recent Edgar G. Ulmer boxset is a highly recommended to listen to) and the topics discussed within the film.

The cinematography is filled with stark black and white contrast, but it does suggest more of a Victorian Gothic style than that of a “film noir” one, all the more to evoke the atmosphere of a 19th century seaport town. That being said, while 'noir' does pass ones mind, it is far from being 'pure' noir to its setting. However, this is important to see that, like Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase, Ulmer does bring the noir mentality to this different type of thriller. In perhaps the films finest technical achievements he films perhaps the best seduction scene of the era (well, at least my favorite), as Lamarr slowly dims the lights in the living room until Louis Hayward can only see her, and in an upfront matter seduces him into murdering his father.


And for what could be a glossy costume drama, instead we see the town inhabitants are just as screwed up (well, not quite) as Jenny, there’s a libidinous sailor, prostitutes, an alcoholic father, a large group of reckless lumberjacks, and an ‘uncle’ with a hint of pedophilic lust for Jenny. If there’s anything of noir in this, it’s only for the fact that it explores the sexuality of one of the most complex femme fatales of the era.

It is surprising to see that a 1946 vehicle for such a glamorous star such as Hedy Lamarr to find such dark sexual overtones, including sadomasochism, so openly discussed. Not five minutes after Lamarr’s entrance do we see her smile when her father whips her (and even suggested is an incestual streak the two share, as he says to her "I’m going to give you a beating you WON’T enjoy"), followed by enticing Isaiah with her scars (though unlike Yvonne DeCarlo in Criss Cross and Gloria Grahame in Human Desire, she uses her beatings not to portray herself victim, but to only add promise of a kinky relationship). Add another 5 minutes to this scene and she’s writing an incredibly predatory, sexually teasing letter to her 'son' Ephraim. If noir looks at the darkness of the human soul, this is one of the darkest journeys into human sexuality (and supposedly the novel is far racier than this picture, taking the elements suggested to a more extreme measure). You’ll never see anything like this in an (almost) "A" picture from that era... nor will you see Kay Pierce fill in Veda’s shoes as Young Jenny, B-femme fatale Hillary Brooke take on a 'good girl' role, or George Sanders play a burly lumberjack. (And in addition, the rest of the supporting cast shines, especially Louis Hayward as Jenny’s pushover playtoy and Gene Lockhart as his father who will stop at nothing to keep Jenny to himself).

As for Lamarr, she, for once acts in a film, and does a credible job, and definitely shines when exploring the darker aspects of her character. You have to give her credit for being so daring, in such a raw manner you’d never find a former MGM goddess to act like. Ulmer fortunately refuses to give this character a typical Freudian explanation found so often in pictures of this time, and instead allows the duality between her saintly philanthropic good deeds and her sadomasochistic nature to not be answered, only to add mystery to this femme fatale, who truly is a 'strange woman.' Imagine what this man could have done with higher production values, this film gives us a good insight to the possibility of what his career would have been like had he been under contract to RKO.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Great Flamarion (1945)

Posted by Haggai

The evening show of a theatrical variety troupe is interrupted by two gun shots and a scream. A performer in the troupe is arrested for the murder of his wife, although he pleads his innocence. After the audience, the other performers, and the police have cleared out, a man falls from the rafters above the stage and is noticed by the head of the troupe. As he lies bleeding on the stage, he confesses to killing the woman, but he insists that he will be dead before the police arrive. He begins to tell the tale of how he got there to the lone performer who is on stage with him, as the movie fades into the past...

So begins The Great Flamarion, directed by Anthony Mann for Republic Pictures, based on a story by Vicki Baum (most famous for writing an earlier play that had been adapted for the screen as Grand Hotel), and released in January of 1945. The basic storyline--a wily femme appeals to a love-lorn older man, perhaps with dollar signs in her eyes, to bump off her no-good husband--involves several standard noir plot elements. While it isn't likely to make anyone forget about any of the formidable classics from right around that time with very similar plots elements--Double Indemnity, Scarlet Street, The Postman Always Rings Twice, to name a few--this is nevertheless a well-executed movie, with great performances by the leads, and some effective stylistic touches in Mann's direction.

The following summary paragraph is from an article posted on TCM's website for their Mann tribute last month, written by Jeremy Arnold:
Film historian Jeanine Basinger has written that The Great Flamarion "contains the prototype of what would become the Mann hero - a character whose present is shaped by a scar (or secret) from his past." Von Stroheim plays that character, a vaudeville performer whose specialty is a trick gunshot act, and whose "scar" is a failed romance many years earlier which has left him hating women ever since. His gunshot-act assistants, played by Mary Beth Hughes and Dan Duryea, are married, but Hughes seduces von Stroheim into getting rid of her husband only to then betray him, in true femme fatale style. Von Stroheim winds up learning the hard way what it's like to fall for the wrong woman in one of these movies: miserable.
Flamarion's act involves him bursting in on a couple in mid-embrace, played by his assistants Al and Connie Wallace (Duryea and Hughes). Presumably the jilted lover in this triangle, he fires a shot that lights a match in her hand, shoots just past her lover while looking in a mirror, shoots several light bulbs out around the lover, and displays many other impressive feats of marksmanship. Al's incessant drinking leads both Flamarion and Connie to berate him for endangering himself on stage. After assuring Al of her love for him, Connie goes to Flamarion and tells him that she's actually in love with him, not with her husband. Her attempt to explain what she feels every time they go through the act is where the script first delves into that familiar conceit of many a film noir, the equation between guns and sex:

You look at me. Your eyes are so steady, so piercing. You aim and fire, and the bullet cuts through the air. I close my eyes and then I feel the bullet hit the target, and my shoulder strap falls. I tell myself that it was your hand. Every bullet is a caress. Do you see now?
As they continue travelling around the country, Connie angers Flamarion by discovering his old letters to a woman he was once in love with, a past that he's broken from for the past 15 years, concentrating on nothing but his work ever since. Hinting that she might be the woman who can break through his shell, Connie also appeals to Flamarion that her situation is only getting worse: Al is drinking more than ever, and even striking her, because of his jealousy. Unable to resist her charms, Flamarion begins romancing her at their next tour stop. At this point, the flashback skips ahead to introduce a young bicycle act performer, Eddie (played by Steve Barclay), who clearly has something going on with Connie as well. We can tell that he's the Nino Zachetti of this set-up: Connie is laying the groundwork for Flamarion to bump off Al, so that she can turn around and run off with Eddie. Also, Esther Howard shows up, carrying two dogs:

A key scene follows, where Connie and Flamarion discuss their devotion to each other, and she tells him about a dream she's been having, where Al was drunk on stage, and Flamarion just happened to miss while shooting at him. Just in case we might miss the connotation, she describes the scenario while holding one of his guns in a way that, you get the picture:

Startled by her proposition, Flamarion instead goes to Al and offers to pay him off to quit the act, but leaving Connie to stay on. Al refuses, insisting that "the Wallaces stick together." In a great scene that follows, Al tells Connie about Flamarion's offer, and while she plays along and acts indignant for Al's benefit, her facial expressions show her surprise and pleasure at Flamarion's dedication to her. Finding himself backed into an ever tightening corner, yearning to be with Connie but unable to bribe Al out of the picture, Flamarion tells her that he'll agree to go through with the scenario that she said she dreamed about. Of course, as all noir devotees know, once you go down that road, there's no turning back...

Overall, The Great Flamarion is a serviceably plotted noir, perhaps hampered by some weak dialogue in a few scenes, but strengthened greatly by the performances of von Stroheim and Hughes, as well as Mann's tension-heightening direction of several key moments before violence breaks out. Hughes in particular stands out for me, layering multiple meanings and motivations into her dialogue in many different scenes. Von Stroheim's rangy performance takes him from the imperious martinet of his stage act to the lovesick loser who spends an agonizing series of days in an expensive hotel suite, desperately waiting for a romantic rendezvous that's never going to happen.

One interesting aspect is the striking similarity of the reckoning between the lovestruck older man and the manipulative younger woman in this movie and in Scarlet Street, which was released almost a year later, near the end of 1945. Apparently Lang had been hoping to adapt Renoir's La Chienne for quite some time, according to David Kalat's Kino DVD commentary for Scarlet Street, so any similarities are probably coincidental. Still, consider some of the last lines spoken by each of the two female characters in their final, fateful moments:

Connie Wallace to Flamarion:
Why, you poor sucker. How could anyone love you? That fat, bald neck; those squinty eyes. You're old, you're ugly. Even the touch of you makes me sick. I hated you, and I've always hated you.
Kitty March to Chris Cross in Scarlet Street:
I'm not crying, you fool, I'm laughing! Oh, you idiot, how can a man be so dumb? I've been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You're old and ugly and I'm sick of you--sick, sick, sick!
A few finals words from the TCM article:

Erich von Stroheim, the famous director of silent pictures, didn't care for non-linear movies and criticized the flashback structure of this film, which he thought was a cheap attempt to make the movie seem "more important." As biographer Arthur Lennig wrote in Stroheim, von Stroheim said, "All my advices were for nothing. The end was the beginning and that was the beginning of the end. Again and again I say that people at large are not interested in a story when they know from the beginning that one of the principal actors is dead."

Von Stroheim and Mann clashed during production of this movie, and Mann later said, "He drove me mad. He was a genius. I'm not a genius, I'm a worker." The Great Flamarion does reveal Anthony Mann beginning to sense how to elevate an ordinary story through expressionistic directing choices.

Good thing von Stroheim didn't take any more roles in films where one of the protagonists is dead from the beginning. For instance, who would want to go see a movie that starts out being narrated by a screenwriter floating face down in a swimming pool that belongs to an aging silent movie star living with her former director? Surely nobody would have remembered von Stroheim's role in something like that!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Angel Face (1952)

Posted by Paul M

Angel Face is one of those noirs that started life as an under-appreciated melodrama but which has garnered new respect in today's viewers' eyes. And for good reason. Directed by Otto Preminger for RKO a year after he made the noir melodrama The Thirteenth Letter, Angel Face features a stunning performance by Jean Simmons and an understated but very enjoyable turn by Robert Mitchum.

As suggested by the title, Angel Face centers around Simmons' portrayal of Diane Treymayne, a spoiled, sheltered rich girl with a murderous and pointed need to get whatever she wants. A classic femme fatale. Preminger's 1952 film is finally a much darker work than earlier 40s noirs, however, as Simmons turns out to be a complete psychopath, an "angel of death". Unlike, say, Phyllis Diedrichson in Double Indemnity, or Vicki Buckley in Human Desire, Diane has no remorse at all for her actions, no wavering moment of uncertainly or humanity. She sees no possible future that is not of her own making and acts accordingly and vengefully. Jean Simmons typically had sweet girl roles in the Audrey Hepburn vein, so seeing her go batty here is a real treat.

Mitchum plays Frank Jessup, a somewhat doe-eyed average joe who seems like an essentially nice guy, but with a fear of commitment to his blonde sometime-girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) that leads him slowly into the arms of our femme fatale. I actually like these type of roles for Mitchum better than when he plays the brawny adventurer, because his low-key style of acting often translates on screen as obliviousness, or innocence, and you feel he knows just a little bit less than the audience. At times you want to shake him: "Frank! Get outta there!". But Frank, a former race car driver, finds Diane's promises of financial help to make his post-war dreams come true too tempting.

In the film, Frank is an ambulance driver called to the Treymayne house after Diane's step-mother, Catherine (Barbara O'Neal) suffers what appears to be an accidental posoning from a gas leak. Diane decides she has to have him, pursues him back to the hosiptal, and in short order he becomes the Tremayne house chauffeur. It eventually becomes evident to Frank that Diane was behind the supposed gas leak accident, but not before Frank has left Mary for Diane and Diane's parents are dead from a rigged auto accident. Too late, Frank tries to get out, but Diane has other plans. And the film ends in a shocker finale which I won't belabor here in case anyone still has not seen this film.

One of the joys of seeing this film again for me was to better appreciate the performances of Herbert Marshall and Barbara O'Neal as Diane's father Charles and step-mother Catherine. Critics tend to focus on the Jean Simmons role, but Marshall and especially O'Neal are excellent too. Preminger shows us a lot of them, and it is interesting (though ultimately futile) to look in them for Diane's psychological motivation. As the film proceeds, more and more of the action takes place in the hill-top Tremayne house and the rest of the real world seems to fade away for Frank. Preminger's presentation of the parents, their treatment of each other, and of Diane, in turns indulgent and tight-fisted with money, adds to the increasingly fatalistic feel of the picture. Our sense that Frank will be trapped, just as Diane and Charles are in their relationship with Catherine, increases accordingly.

One other comment: Angel Face is interesting to watch, not only as a melodrama played out between two lovers, but as a class indictment wherein it is clear that the noir malaise extends to all classes of American society.

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