Monday, September 25, 2006

Where Danger Lives (1950)

Posted by Steve-O

This weeks NOTW is the RKO/Robert Mitchum noir Where Danger Lives. The film’s 100% noir story line will remind fans of Detour, DOA, and a lot of other Mitchum RKO flicks. WDL was written by veteran scripwriter Charles Bennett who knew how to write a noir. The whiplash lines in the film are delivered fast and crackle.

For those that haven’t seen it, here’s what happens. (There are some spoilers here)

Young and sexy Margo (Faith Domergue) is the wife of Frederick Lannington (Claude Rains), an apparently sadistic much older millionaire. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) is a surgeon who falls in love with Margo (who would become exposed as the femme fatale) when she was brought into a hospital after attempting suicide. He becomes romantically involved with her without knowing that she's married.

During a drunken confrontation with the jealous husband Frederick, the young doctor knocks the older man out with a cast-iron poker and stumbles out of the room. When Jeff returns, woozy from a hit in the head he himself got, he discovers that old man Lannington is dead. Margo had smothered her husband during Cameron's absence, but she instead tells Jeff that he is the killer. The lovers flee barreling down the highway to Mexico, where Jeff finally figures out that his crazy female companion is the real murder. Along the way to Mexico the couple meet a number of odd-ball characters that makes the trip even stranger.

WDL was directed by John Farrow and photographed by Nick Musuraca. The duo do a great job with the nightmarish look of the film when Mitchum goes on the run but isn’t really sure what’s happening.

This time the femme fatale is played by Faith Domergue (pronounced "Dah-mure") is known more for her relationship with Howard Hughes as much as for being in his RKO films. This was Domergue’s film lead debut. Editor's note: it wasn't her first film. See comments below. She went on to appear in a number of movies and television series. Remember her in This Island Earth and the horror/noir Cult of the Cobra? Prior to WDL, she had small parts in a few films including the proto-noir Blues in the Night.

As far as the supporting cast go could you ask for better than Claude Rains or Maureen O'Sullivan? Rains oozes his usual charm and sophistication in his one scene while O’Sullivan (who I admit I have a huge crush on since watching the Tarzan films last summer) is always beautiful but is stuck with a small part. Does anyone have a better laugh in films than O’Sullivan? She’s underused in this film but I’m just happy to see her on screen. (I can’t remember if she giggles in WDL like she did in The Thin Man but I’ll have to check).

Of course, Mitchum is the real reason to see this film again. He’s great as usual. At first he seems miscast (since he usually didn’t get “doctor” parts). What I think separates this noir from others is the fact that the audience has a pretty good idea that Bob is being taken for a ride (literally) but he’s totally clueless until the end. He is suffering from a concussion throughout almost the whole film and because he’s a doctor he’s totally aware of what’s wrong with him (shades of D.O.A.) but struggles to put all the pieces together.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Impact (1949)

Posted by Dave G

Brian Donlevy is happily married San Francisco automobile mogul Walter Williams, and Helen Walker his apparently devoted wife Irene. They live happily ever after. Oh, if only things were that simple …

There’s one slight problem: dear Irene is sick of her hubby. She schemes with her secret lover to have him bumped off during a long car journey, but the plan goes awry. Walter takes a tyre-iron to the head and tumbles into a ditch, but secret lover fella is panicked by a passing truck and gets himself killed in a car wreck while fleeing the scene. Walter, evidently possessed of a steel-plated skull, wakes up later with a headache and a little case of amnesia.

Stumbling upon a small Idaho town, Walter’s luck soon changes. He bumps into garage owner Marsha Peters (Ella Raines) who, impressed by Mr Amnesiac’s skills as an auto mechanic, offers him a job. Back in San Francisco, meanwhile, Charles Coburn’s crusty old detective Quincy is investigating that flaming wreck on the highway - and assumes that the body is that of Walter Williams.

With Walter and Marsha beginning to fall for each other, newspaper reports of his “death” jog Walter’s memory, as Det. Quincy’s continuing investigations lead him to suspect Irene of her husband’s murder. Will Walter extract revenge by letting her be convicted? Or will Marsha persuade him to do the right thing and return to San Francisco? For any first time viewers reading, I’ll leave you to find out - Impact has a few more twists left before the end …


OK, Impact is nobody’s idea of a classic, but it’s a highly enjoyable sort of diet-noir, with more than enough points of interest to warrant a look. The plot is an irresistibly outrageous series of coincidences, a melting pot of almost every noir staple you could want: a femme fatale, attempted murder, amnesia victim, police investigations, false accusations, reluctant witnesses. Then there’s the cast: Brian Donlevy is no Bogart, but he does a solid job in the lead; Helen Walker is in her element as the callous, duplicitous wife; a mischievous Charles Coburn is reliable support as the police detective; and of course there’s Ella Raines as the world’s cutest grease monkey - they sure don’t look like her at my local Kwik-Fit.

The film isn’t 100% noir: it doesn’t possess enough of the look, with too much of the action set away from the big city, in broad daylight. The ending is also atypically upbeat (not that I mind a happy ending once in a while). That said, the film has some nice location work in the City by the Bay, and boasts a few great noir sequences, notably the atmospheric murder attempt on Walter Williams while changing a flat tyre on a dark, deserted highway.

Impact is out there on a decent quality DVD from Image. I wouldn’t try and claim it as a knockout noir, but for an engaging diversion you could do far worse.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Lady Gambles (1949)

Disclaimer: the views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not intended to offend, degrade, over analyze, surmise or insure the level of viewer pleasure or otherwise for the following film.

Pow! Biff! Socko! No kiddies it’s not Batman. It’s The Grand Dame of Noir, the Black Widow herself, Bucktooth Babs getting her protruding pearly whites rammed down her throat by a couple of disgruntled playmates in the opening scene of The Lady Gambles. No drawing room drama here in this pineapple upside-down cake of a film thank you very kindly.

Film rolls and we’re in the alley of any town USA. We see Joan Booth (Barbara Stanwyck) and a group of shiftless types viewed though the bars of a grating shooting dice. The image of those gathered behind bars in the first 10 seconds of the film sets the mood for what will follow during the next 99 minutes. The aforementioned back alley Orthodontia work is administered once a couple of unlucky losers wise up to Joan’s winning ways. They soon catch on our protagonist is using a pair of loaded dice. Her bungled attempt to hoodwink these dropouts from the Nathan Detroit School of Craps prompts them to dish out some swift back street justice. They proceed to take out their frustrations physically on Joan and take it on the lamb only when the shrill wail of a cop siren sounds. The two bolt for the hardscrabble streets and leave Joan beaten to a pulp and left in a heap with the rest of the garbage.

Quick cutaway to the general hospital and we’re introduced to Joan’s hound dog faced hubby (think Wendell Corey but it’s not), David Booth played by Robert Preston in his beefier, pencil thin mustache days. Here we also encounter the cynical Dr. Rojac who possesses the bed side manner of a rusty hacksaw. This charming envoy of the medical profession is portrayed by the always bankable John Hoyt. Now with storyteller (David) and listener (Dr. Rojac) in place, the bulk of the drama is told via that staple of noir; voice over narration and flashback.

What’s shared with doctor and viewer is the tale of a woman nuttier than your Aunt Martha’s holiday fruitcake. One with more flaws in her character than the blue opal ring Vincent Parry tried to pawn off on his wife. During the telling of the tale references are made to Joan being; a prostitute, a transsexual, masochistic, oh yeah and she likes to gamble too.

David tries his best to show us at first blush the ideal couple enjoying a working vacation in that most glamorous of desert oasis, the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, Las Vegas. Oh how we are deceived, for soon we see the first nail fall from the shoe. Seems the Booth’s share their dwelling back in Chicago with Joan’s older, dominating sister Ruth. Played by Edith Barrett, Ruth sports a constant look of someone who’s just bitten into a rancid lemon. One would like to think her outward appearance hides the proverbial heart of gold, but no such luck as she’s a knockoff of Crappy Appleton and is “rotten to the core.” We’ll soon enough come to see Ruth’s lifelong attempt at dominating Joan as the basis for the self inflected agony the younger sibling is subjected to.

Joan’s transsexual tendencies manifest themselves when we see Joan or “Johnny” as David calls her/him constantly in the company of just men. Playing cards, shooting dice, and playing the ponies to the point she seems more at ease in these settings than those traditionally reserved at the time for the fairer sex. Even when dancing with David he has to remind her to stop leading and in one poker playing scene she’s wearing what at first glance appears to be male garb, a sport coat and tie.

Her masochistic behavior is demonstrated several times in both verbal and physical exchanges. For example when she says to David “…it’s like being whipped and kicked.” It’s as if she had first hand experience for during another scene with the home fatale he utters “…unless you want to get hurt.” To which she replies “I wish you’d quit saying that.” Her retort clearly shows this is not the first time such a phase has been put to her. Furthermore, this ain’t no broad that merely takes a tongue lashing neither. In addition to the opening scene beating, she’s also slapped by her sister and gets in the middle of a backroom brawl. Maybe we’re digging here, but let’s face it, this dame’s least worry would seem to be her addiction to compulsive gambling which figured so prominently in the films title, beginning and narrative retelling.

Stylistically, the film is 100% noir all the way with dramatic use of shading especially when the action moves to intimate settings, such as the private offices of the casino boss Corrigan. Think of this role going to Raymond Burr, but here it’s handled deftly and with the smugness of one who steals the poor box while exiting the confessional by Stephen McNally. In addition to being the most enjoyable character in the film, Corrigan delivers the best line when he announces to Joan and Ruth “I never allow anyone to use my first name…The name is Horace.” The inside joke of course being McNally’s true first name is Horace. Not only does Corrigan get the best line, he also parades around in more sports coats than you’d find during a sale in Filene’s Basemen. In the role of the home fatale he’s definitely got the three B’s working for him in overtime; bright, brassy, and ballsy. As you might guess he also gets the dame, at least temporarily but that’s another story.

Other support is provided at key points by a bevy of noir stalwarts: Esther Howard, Houseley Stevenson, Elliott Sullivan, John Harmon, even Tony Curtis and Jerry Paris get in the act. Also worth noting is the fact we’re spared the ubiquitous staged night club musical number which I for one fast-forward through each time they appear. There’s not a lot of filler here with only the quick side trip to Hoover Dam and Lake Mead inserted partly as a plug for the Department of the Interior in the film credits. However, is it interesting to note even the trip to the lake offers up more insight to Joan? While boating, she and David go for a swim, upon exiting the water she comments how cold the lake is. David cracks back about it being as cold as his wife, thus giving us one more glimpse at the fragile, soon to be shattered Joan.

While the overall presentation is dynamite the ending lacks what should be the resulting explosive finish. As is all too often the case, the studio suits throw a bucket of water on the fuse in order to send the viewing public home with a warm glow of Joan’s redemption in the arms of a loving husband. We’re left to limp out of the viewing with is the “love conquers all” corn-ball of an ending which is about as satisfying as a snap shot of Mamie Yokum in a bikini. While disappointing its not enough to knock this beauty off the top shelf of must watch noirs from 1949.

A couple of side notes on the director of The Lady Gambles, Michael Gordon. The Lady Gambles would be one of several noirs to his credit (Crime Doctor, The Web, Secret of Convict Lake) but perhaps more impressive is the noir who’s who’s he directed in addition to Babs; Ida Lupino, Glenn Ford, Edmond O’Brien, Dan Duryea, Ann Savage, and Whit Bissell. During the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings his refusal to be a cooperative witness ended his promising directorial career. That is until the late 50’s when he was brought back to Hollywood and found new life at Universal directing lighter works staring the likes of Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Dean Martin and the talent that is Joey Bishop.

Written by Raven

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Unsuspected (1947)

(Michael Curtiz Productions, Warner Bros., 1947)
DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
NOIR PEDIGREE: Mildred Pierce (1945), The Breaking Point (1950)

NOIR PEDIGREE: Phantom Lady (1944), The Killers (1946)

SCREENPLAY: Ranald MacDougall
NOIR PEDIGREE: Mildred Pierce (1945), Possessed (1947), The Breaking Point (1950), The Naked Jungle (1954), Queen Bee (1955)

Claude Rains (Victor Grandison)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Notorious (1946), Rope of Sand (1949), Where Danger Lives (1950)

Joan Caulfield (Matilda Frazier)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Larceny (1948)

Audrey Totter (Althea Keane)
NOIR PEDIGREE: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), High Wall (1947), Alias Nick Beal (1949), The Set-Up (1949), Tension (1950), Under The Gun (1951), The Sellout (1952), Man in the Dark (1953), Women’s Prison (1955), A Bullet For Joey (1955)

Constance Bennett (Jane Moynihan)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Paris Underground (1945)

Hurd Hatfield (Oliver Keane)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Destination Murder (1950)

Michael (Ted) North (Steven Howard)
NOIR PEDIGREE: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Devil Thumbs A Ride (1947)

Fred Clark (Richard Donovan)
NOIR PEDIGREE: Ride The Pink Horse (1947), Cry Of The City (1948), Alias Nick Beal (1948), Flamingo Road (1949), White Heat (1949), Sunset Blvd. (1950), The Hollywood Story (1951), A Place in the Sun (1951)

Jack Lambert (Press)
NOIR PEDIGREE: O.S.S/u (1946), Specter of the Rose/u (1946), The Killers (1946), Force of Evil/u (1948), Border Incident (1949), The Enforcer (1951), 99 River Street (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Chicago Confidential (1957), Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), Party Girl/u (1958)

For the best in stylish, upper-crust 40s murder mystery, there are really only two choices: Laura and The Unsuspected. The former has a reputation as a timeless classic; the latter is much, much darker and far more satisfying as a film noir, but remains underappreciated.

What has Laura got that The Unsuspected hasn’t? All the romantic, mid-range melodramatic elements that make for an essentially safe, polished, none-too-threatening entertainment experience—a dynamic, exceptionally attractive couple in Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews; a marvelously b*tchy homme fatale in Clifton Webb; a celebrated score and theme song from David Raksin.

You won’t find any of these things in The Unsuspected. What you have instead is the noir mastery of director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Woody Bredell, who take aspects of the Laura plotline into new levels of intricacy and darkness, fueled by an almost lapidary sense of frame and scene construction. The camerawork and lighting in The Unsuspected, particularly in the studio scenes (inside the Croton mansion where most of the action takes place) is possibly the most sublimely sinister cinematography in the entire noir canon.

What The Unsuspected also has going for it is Claude Rains, giving one of his most nuanced performances as the mesmerizing master of indirection, “genial host” Victor Grandison, a man too fascinated by murder to resist the temptation to dabble in it himself. Of course, if it weren’t for the fact that Grandison has been carefully orchestrating the takeover of his niece’s fortune, murder might not have been necessary. Though it’s never stated as such in the film, the “boat accident” that apparently claimed the life of Matilda Frazier (aka “the little heiress, played by Joan Caulfield) was yet another “Grandison production.”

His aid in this effort has been his other niece, Althea, a grasping poor relation who has harbored a lifelong resentment of Matilda. Audrey Totter plays Althea as a woman of relentless appetite who will stop at nothing to get a larger slice of whatever pie is at hand. Her biggest sacrifice in the scheme to conquer and divide Matilda’s fortune is that she was forced to seduce and marry Matilda’s fiancé, Oliver Keane (played to boozy perfection by Hurd Hatfield). Oliver, who genuinely loved Matilda, has been on a permanent bender ever since being hoodwinked into marriage to Althea. The scheming Grandison will know how to utilize him in an even more brazen attempt to take total control of the Frazier fortune.

But there are counter-forces at work. Grandison’s secretary, Roslyn Wright, senses that something is amiss, and has been snooping around. She is the first victim, winding up swinging from a chandelier at the Croton mansion, an apparent suicide. Grandison’s wise-cracking assistant, Jane Moynihan (played vibrantly by Constance Bennett) is beginning to have grave doubts about her boss.

The plot gets thicker when Steven Howard (Michael “Ted” North) appears at Grandison’s surprise birthday party with a much bigger shocker—he claims to have been married to Matilda before the boat accident. In reality, Howard is looking to avenge the death of Roslyn, who’s he convinced was murdered. Behind his socializing with Grandison and Althea (who takes an unhealthy interest in the handsome Howard), Steven looks for clues to convince police chief Donovan (Fred Clark) that Roslyn did not commit suicide.

The final twist is lifted straight from Laura. It turns out that Matilda didn’t die in the boat accident after all. She returns home just in time to enter into an ever-accelerating maelstrom of innuendo and treachery. With the forces swirling around him threatening to go out of control, Grandison concocts an elegantly complex scheme to rid himself of Althea, Oliver, Matilda and Howard. Once all the elements of the scheme have been set into motion, he returns to his Manhattan studio to deliver another of his macabre tales of murder, confident that he has escaped detection. Events that unfold in the studio, however, soon prove that this is not the case.

What lifts The Unsuspected out of its derivativeness? Curtiz and Bredell, first and foremost, who twist opulence into a half-world of endless shadows and shifting shapes, with an amazing series of trick reflections and intricately diffused lighting. Next, Rains—who is a brilliant chameleon, taking the template of the Lydecker character to a new level of calculating malevolence. Plus Totter and Bennett—who add sparkle and style to roles that could easily have been stereotypes.

The one problem for the film is that its romantic couple (Caulfield and North) is low-wattage compared to the rest of the proceedings, and pretty much flunk any possible comparison between Tierney and Andrews. North, in what proved to be his final film appearance, tries valiantly but doesn’t really have the presence/mystique for his character. The doe-eyed Caulfield, stuck with a thankless role, has nowhere to go except to be a rag doll tossed between the thrust-and-parry between Rains and North—though she has one solid scene in which she actually gets the better of Totter.

Curtiz and Bredell seem to sense this, however, and keep the Caulfield-North scenes as brief and tight as possible, all the while surrounding them with increasingly shadowy menace.

The Unsuspected is notable also for Grandison’s use of technology—one of the earliest incidences in noir. Grandison is especially adept at sound recording, and he uses it to great advantage in his schemes—including his blackmailing of stalwart villain Jack Lambert, who gives another memorable turn as a not-quite-competent-enough henchman. The Unsuspected may have started a vogue for techno-gimmickry in crime films, something that quickly spun out of control in post-WWII Hollywood and continues unabated to this day.

In the 1947 NOTY voting, The Unsuspected ranked 15th. I’d have to say that even in that deep class of notable noirs, this ranking is too low. In particular, Woody Bredell’s lenswork is on a par with that of the great John Alton—but because of the relative obscurity of this film, Bredell wasn’t even nominated for Best Cinematographer in ’47. That is a most regrettable oversight, and one that this review, from your “genial host,” wishes to set right.

What we have here is the apex of noir style wedded to the glossy studio system approach. From a formalist perspective, The Unsuspected is unquestionably in the top ten of “best photographed noirs.” That doesn’t make it a great picture—it’s merely very, very good—but it makes it one that will give lasting pleasure to those who respond to noir’s unique visual allure.

Written by Don Malcom

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