Monday, April 30, 2007

Panic in the Streets (1950)

Director: Elia Kazan

In the dark shadows above a dingy restaurant in the French quarter of New Orleans a card game is being played. One of the players is an illegal immigrant, fresh off the boat and riding a winning streak that’s netted him a nice little stack of bills at the table. Now he says he wants out of the game. His unlucky opponent Blackie (Jack Palance) craves a chance to win his money back and is not going to let him go so easily. Oddly enough the player anxious to call it quits doesn’t want to leave the game because he’s up in winnings and wants to walk away with a wad of cash. He is sweating profusely, looks like hell and is complaining of being very ill. He says he’s so sick, that he has to go home to lie down and then breaks away from the game under protest from the other players. Palance and his crony Raymond (Zero Mostel) and another cohort follow this man out into the streets, across a train yard and outside a warehouse, demanding his money (in an amazingly shot, single long-take). The card game winner starts to defend himself from Raymond and the other Blackie henchman but his hand is folded for good with a couple of slugs from the piece of Palance. As his money is pocketed by Blackie, the audience may think that the movie they’re about to watch involves a murder by some street hoods in the Big Easy. However, what is about to unfold is a crackling, unconventional noir set in the New Orleans underworld that touches on social and moral issues stemming from the possibility of a global disaster which has origins beginning at the microscopic level.

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Cut to the next day and our card game winner is fished out of the harbor and brought to the morgue. The man performing the autopsy notices the incredible amount of white blood cells coming from this man’s bullet wounds. Something doesn’t look right and he notifies the Feds. Next we see a nice domestic scene with our lead man Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and his son played by Tommy Rettig (“Laaaaasie!”) doing some painting in the front yard. Barbara Bel Geddes is Widmark’s wife and she calls him in to the house to tell him that his boss called and he is needed downtown. Widmark begins to change and puts on his uniform as his professional identity is Lt. Commander/Dr. Clinton “Clint” Reed, U.S. Public Health Service and all the while Bel Geddes is gently prodding him that their tab at the local grocery store has become an astronomical 42 dollars. Reed says he’ll figure out a way to pay it and we are made aware that this man is not making a great living as a doctor for the government yet we will also find out he has responsibility for which no salary may be adequate.

Widmark shows up to the morgue and determines that while the bullets may have killed our unlucky card player, he was infected with pneumonic plague and whomever he had come into contact with will be dead within 48 hours without serum inoculation. While Dr. Reed does a fine job of inoculating everyone who has come into contact with the body including police, morgue workers and so forth, the one man likely carrying the plague they have not discovered is the murderer (Jack Palance) of the dead card player. The tricky part is they have to find the killer without letting anyone know that they are looking for him. The reason being that mentioning the plague could set off a panic in the population as generally the word “plague” seems to put people on edge and take sudden long unexpected vacations far from home. If that wasn’t difficult enough they have yet to identify the body itself. It’s much harder to find a killer when you don’t know who has been bumped-off. The mayor assigns New Orleans police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) to help Widmark find their man to incarcerate a killer and more importantly, contain a pandemic.

From this point Widmark and Douglas set off in an unconventional type of investigation for the noir genre as it turns out many people have come into contact with the murdered, card playing, plague carrier. Instead of roughing up plague exposed uncooperative suspects, Widmark threatens to hold out inoculating them until they cough up pertinent information about their investigation (is it a Hippocratic suggestion or oath that doctors take?). Eventually they narrow down the investigation and what ensues is a fantastic cat and mouse game between Widmark and Palance to the very end of the film. Within this dynamic exist intriguing moral and social issues brought to the attention of the viewer by the director.



Panic in the Streets
View Photo Slideshow




Elia Kazan was no stranger to making pictures with social messages and moral dilemmas (“Gentleman’s Agreement” “Pinky” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” just to name a few) and “Panic” was no exception. Widmark gives a great speech about this potential epidemic not just being about New Orleans, but the world and how we as humans are all interconnected. May not sound like much today but this type of progressive speech was uncommon for 1950 I’d wager. The issue of freedom of press vs. public safety is a theme also touched upon as a reporter character named Neff (“Double Indemnity” nod?) is thwarted by Widmark and Douglas from scooping the story. Their reasoning is they don’t want to cause a panic and also have the killer flee town, but does the public have a right to know about this potential plague to protect their families and themselves? This plague is also a metaphor for crime as a disease and how it poisons principles and may infect many who come into its contact regardless of their moral constitution.

The shining aspects of the film manifest in several areas and the casting and acting are certainly included. Paul Douglas is solid as the police captain who reins it in from his usual comedic relief parts and Barbara Bel Geddes is fine as Widmark’s wholesome wife. She works well in some key, unconventional love scenes with Widmark where they are both longing to be close to one another but she must keep at a physical distance because he may be contaminated. Zero Mostel is perfectly cast as Blackie’s sleazy and degenerate underling and Jack Palance (in his motion picture debut) is fantastic as the heavy. He has just the right balance of menace, and believability as an underworld player who may explode with violence at any moment. This young Palance has a very swarthy, gaunt and creepy look going for him, which adds to his presence as a nefarious element one wouldn’t want to cross. Richard Widmark earns serious kudos in my book for this film, as I believe it may be his finest role. He maintains a balance of controlled distress at the potential cataclysmic events that may unfold and passionate determination in his quest to stop both a human and microscopic killer alike. Dr. Clint Reed comes off in a believable and compelling fashion because Widmark brings so much to the table as an empathetic and tough leading man protagonist that when watching him in “Panic” one forgets all about Tommy Udo (“Kiss of Death”), Harry Fabian (“Night and the City”), Skip McCoy (“Pickup on South Street”) and his other villain or anti-hero roles for which he is associated.

The aspect of this film that shines the most is Kazan’s use of the camera. In many of the shots the characters are constantly moving about in the frame creating a edginess to the scenes but Kazan makes the dance between the actors and the camera seem effortless. He incorporates these amazing long takes that may begin on a group of characters and several minutes later we have moved about them and end on a close up. Many of these extended single takes are sans dialogue and remind me of some of the silent Fritz Lang films in their mastery of telling a story with only the camera. Kazan moves the films story along visually in a way that is so impressive it must be seen to be appreciated. This was all photographed under the masterful hand of Joseph McDonald who does a fantastic job of capturing the visual flavor of New Orleans with help from the gritty, authentic locations. He and Kazan also use real New Orleans people as extras and in small parts that give the film a neo-realist quality and genuine look that Hollywood couldn’t replicate.

Panic in the Streets” is a true gem that deserves more credit that perhaps it has received over the years. Apparently at the end of his career, Kazan felt it was one of his most well crafted and important films amongst his very impressive body of work. The script (Edward and Edna Anhalt of “The Sniper” and “The Young Lions”), filming, acting and direction that comprise “Panic in the Streets” are of the highest calibers across the board. The ending chase scene through the coffee warehouse is worth the price of admission alone; however, I practically guarantee one viewing will only make you concur with Kazan’s self-appraisal of his stellar film.


Written by Tim (aka Mappin and Webb Ltd.)


Monday, April 23, 2007

The Burglar (1957)


Director: Paul Wendkos

On its surface, The Burglar has two outstanding points going for it which would make it a film to be rabidly sought out by connoisseurs of film noir. First, it stars that reliable mainstay of the film noir world, Dan Duryea. Second, and most important to me, it is based on what many consider to be the finest novel from David Goodis. As an added bonus, David Goodis is the screenwriter on the film.

However, the film remains somewhat unknown and mostly unavailable. The reason for this isn’t a mystery the size of which Sam Spade himself would need to investigate. Quite simply, the film fails to produce to expectations on a few levels. The fact that it took two years between when the film was finished and it’s theatrical release, suggest that I might not be the only one who feels this way.










The Burglar
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PLOT RECAP (SPOILERS APPLY)

Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) is the leader of a small-time burglary ring out to make the big score. Included in this gang are jewelry and fence expert Baylock (Peter Capell), muscle Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy), and casing expert Gladden (Jayne Mansfield). We learn later, through flashback that as a young orphan Nat was taken under the wing of Gladden’s father and taught the trade of burglary. In return Nat had vowed to always care for Gladden.

Reminiscent of Citizen Kane, The Burglar opens with a series of newsreels in which we learn of a Philadelphia evangelist who has inherited a fortune, including a necklace valued at $150,000. Priming for their first truly big score, Nat has Gladden case the mansion of the evangelist and develops a plan that allots them 15 minutes to complete the robbery of the necklace.

In the most effective set piece of the film, Nat leads his gang to the mansion to complete the burglary. Filmed near real-time for the full 15 minutes, the key suspense is supplied when a police patrol car shows up to investigate the gang’s car parked near the mansion. Nat climbs down from his second story job to convince the police that it’s a simple case of his car breaking down before scurrying back to complete the job. Although it fails to provide the same heightened level of tension as Rififi or The Asphalt Jungle, it’s still reasonably well done.

While the gang waits for the heat to cool down, their own tension heats up, first as Dohmer makes advances towards Gladden, then as an impatient Baylock blames her for the delay in fencing the loot. For her own safety, Nat sends Gladden out on her own to Atlantic City until the fence can be made. At this point, it’s obvious that Gladden has unreciprocated amorous feelings towards Nat.

Feeling the burden and conflict of his oath to his mentor to always protect and look after Gladden, Nat falls into the web of a mysterious woman - Della (the always beautiful Martha Vickers) and considers giving up his criminal life.

Things are looking up for Nat when he stumbles upon Della in secret conversation with a young man that he recognizes as one of the police who had questioned him about his car on the night of the robbery. Nat eventually comes to realize that the cop, Charlie (Stewart Bradley) is a bad egg who intends to gain the necklace for himself and is in collusion with Della. Della’s job is to work on Nat while Charlie has tracked down Gladden in Atlantic City and is pitching woo to her.

Nat gathers Dohmer and Baylock together and set out for Atlantic City to warn Gladden. Matters become complicated along the way when a shootout leaves Dohmer and one of the police officers dead, setting off a manhunt that starts closing in on Nat and Baylock.

Upon getting to Atlantic City, Nat eventually convinces Gladden that Charlie is a crooked cop out for his own gain and attempt to make a break for it as Charlie, who has now killed Baylock, closes in. In a series of scenes reminiscent of The Lady From Shanghai, Nat and Gladden flee through the boardwalk area of A.C. replete with funhouse before Charlie catches up to them at the diving tank stadium.

Once the rest of the crowd has left, Nat offers to trade the necklace for an insurance of Gladden’s safety. After Gladden has safely left the arena, Nat hands over the necklace before making a break for it, only to be shot and killed by Charlie. Charlie in turn runs straight into the hands of the waiting police, doomed by the combination of the necklace in his pocket and the accusations from Gladden on his guilt.

THE END.


END SPOILERS
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For myself, the key to any good film lies in a good story, good direction and good acting. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

The one that drew me to this film primarily was the promise of a GREAT story on the basis of having read the novel of the same name by David Goodis. Of all of the noir/pulp writers of the 30’s and 40’s, Goodis was perhaps most adept at creating the darkest and most innerly troubled characters. The things that drive these characters, their hurts and their pains, which are very easily relayed through the medium of the printed word, become much more difficult to convey on film. One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is that although Goodis is the screenplay writer of credit, tasked with adapting his own story, there are several somewhat key plot and storyline changes from his novel which, in my opinion, severely undercut the power of the novel. Least favourable amongst these changes is the altering of the incredibly powerful ending to be found in the book.

On the directorial side, Paul Wendkos was making his debut with The Burglar and seems to bring all the enthusiasm that can be mustered. Wendkos is also credited as editor of the film and stylistically speaking, The Burglar is fairly adept at meeting the noir conventions. The trouble is that, coming as it does near the end of the classic age of noir, almost everything that we see here comes across somewhat as overused and overtired. By example, you’ll notice that I’ve mentioned the opening shots are very reminiscent of Citizen Kane while some of the closing flirt closely with The Lady from Shanghai. While impressive, many of the intervening shots are likewise stylistically good, but still shadows of things we’ve all seen many times before. Ironically, the director that Wendkos most emulates here (Welles) would go on to show a few short years later in Touch of Evil, that the genre hadn’t quite been stylistically beaten to death yet.

Wendkos himself had a rather limited career as a motion picture director outside of this film, the horrible Gidget series and the even worse sequel to a classic, Guns of the Magnificent Seven. He was, however, rather prolific as a TV director and I recognize several of his episode credits as ones that I particularly enjoyed.

What I thought would be the weakest aspect of the film, acting, turned out to be one of it’s high points. While Dan Duryea is a noir treasure, I couldn’t help thinking as I fired up the DVD player that he seemed wholly unsuited to the character as written by Goodis as, despite being a low-life crook, Nat’s character is written in a manner to elicit maximum sympathy. Duryea on the other hand, is most often associated as the weasel type, certainly not someone who brings about pangs of motherly feelings. However, for the most part, here Duryea does an admirable job of evoking the inner turmoil being faced by Nat (particularly surprising since Goodis seems to have removed some of the storyline that brings such turmoil to Nat in the screenplay).

Likewise, most of the supporting cast, many of them early in their film career, do a fine job. However, the surprising standout of the cast is Jayne Mansfield. At first glance, Mansfield is totally unsuited for the role of Gladden who is described in the novel as a waifish woman-child. One word most people would not use to describe Mansfield as is waifish. However, Jayne overcomes this by underplaying the role wonderfully and adequately conveying the sense of helplessness (without Nat) and confusion that Gladden has in the novel, rather than the Monroe-esque sex kitten she was becoming by the time the film was released.

I opened with the declaration that this film fails to deliver to expectations on several levels. While certainly not a terrible film, I believe it is guaranteed to disappoint anyone who has prepped themselves with Goodis’ source novel. Still, for the noir aficionado, and even casual fan, it’s may be worth the watching. Just don’t expect a noir masterpiece.


The Burglar Trivia:
  • The Burglar was filmed during the summer of 1955, but not released until the summer of 1957, primarily to cash in on the growing popularity of Jayne Mansfield. Indeed, most of the film posters feature the very buxom Mansfield front and center, presented in a style quite un-noirish.
  • To assist in getting Columbia head Harry Cohn to release the picture, producer Louis Kellman had to make director Paul Wendkos part of the deal.
  • The Burglar was remade in 1971 in a French/Italian co-production under the title Le Casse. By all accounts that I can find, it’s an even worse interpretation of Goodis’ novel.

Availability:
No current DVD or VHS release, although collector copies are available. Editor's note: This movie has been released on DVD as part of the TCM/Columbia Film Noir Classics III DVD set


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Written by Samspadefan



Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Film Noir Art

Lately, we've been getting a number of positive comments about the movie posters included with our weekly noir. Over at our message board, we have collected hundreds. I think we actually have the biggest collection of film noir images there.

Registration is required to view and post. (We're having a big problem with AOL email, so please use another when you register.)

I'm always looking for more to add to the collection!


Our reviews:

I also wanted to mention that these reviews are written by film noir fans that hang out at Back Alley Noir's message board. You'll see them there first before I pretty them up for the blog. This week's review is a first: reviewer ScreaminJay didn't like Pickup very much. It's definitely a late-night two-beer-minimum watch. It's also one I happen to like very much.

Steve-O

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Pickup (1951)

Posted by Screamin Jay

Pickup is a 1951 independent “Forum production”. Released through Columbia Pictures Corporation. What you have here is of the typical B-Movie style. From an Austrian-born director who would never really get out of this little position he was in for this production, making really slight, minor pictures, one after the other. He had to flee Czechoslovakia after the Nazi invasion and like many others, he started a career in Hollywood, but unlike some of his compatriots (Billy Wilder), he never really did amount to much. As a director that is, because as an actor, he accomplished much fame in the 30’s in Czechoslovakia. And one could say he was a fair actor as well in this poor sensationalist pictures he directed here.

You can only credit him for his courage, for he went ahead, made a little wad of money and made it. He financed his own movies from the salary he’d be earning as an actor in the 40’s, within the studio system. He really is an auteur of his movies, he take total control of them, from the script to the direction to interpreting the main character. Only, it is for you to judge them for what they are… and my judgement on this one in specific is that it isn’t really a fantastic movie.




The style is a bit tame and without true character and originality. It’s exploitative nature spark out before it’s time, not quite having a clear direction in terms of thematic and symbols, not quite certain which way it is going, without the strong dialogues or narrative to truly hold one attention complete.


I always interpret a film noir as I would a Greek tragedy. In these conditions, this movie is nothing more then a farce. All it adds up to is a loony bunch of generic characters, badly drawn out, the technique to give them depth is very static, the acting is somewhat unbelievable, with poor performances in general, lacking any kind of subtlety. The camera moves a little, not too much, the long shadows are there. I can admit to enjoying some scenes taken separately. The whole just don’t hold up to the sum of its parts. There is of course a decent shock value, a gorgeous girl and some provocative, risque outfits to hold your attention for the short duration of the movie. It often seem like they shot this very quickly and didn’t care if the scene was just half as good as it could have been, would it have been reworked on a little. Of course you have sexy Beverly Michaels to look at, and some snappy dialogues in the way of:


-Ah, it was just fun watching you, you were as happy as a child.

-What’s your name?

-Jan Horak, they call me Hunky.

-Hunky, are you Hungarian?

-No, I’m Czech. But to them, it’s all the same, so I got use to it. I’ve been here thirty years here in America.

-Thirty years… and where’s your family?

-No family, not a soul in the whole world.

-Isn’t that sad, a poor orphan?

-A little old for an orphan don’t you think?

-You’re not old… and you have a very nice face.

-Even with all the grey hair?

-It’s what I like about you, makes you so distinguish looking!

-Distinguish my…

-You know you give me confidence.

-I’m sorry to give you the wrong impression.

-You old men are all alike. Sometimes it’s just too much; believe me, last week I lost a good job, the boss made passes at me and his old woman blew her top so I quit… and that’s what happens all the time.

-Isn’t that a shame?

-Yes, it sure is tough for a girl to make a decent living, especially when she have no place to go.



That’s what you’re getting here. The platinum blonde, the seductress, the somewhat psychotic femme fatale with wonderful tits, ass and face. The plaything, the doll, which will love you ‘til she wants to stab you. Drawn together, torn in decay and death. The money-grabbing witch and the naïve old man… and so it goes:


-Money was invented to be spent, what else would you do with it?

The rude word would be to call her a whore, but what we have here, in the tradition of the thirties movies, is a true gold-digger. It’s the woman that will drain your wallet, before draining your soul and finally your life. She’s careless, egotistical, vapid and tepid. Else said, she doesn’t give a damn about anything but her own, superfluous, comfort.

As I was previously saying, it’s of interest only for its exploitative nature and the gorgeous talentless Beverly Michaels, it’s pretty futile otherwise. It’s quite motionless. Empty in the sense of motives. Just a broken gold-digger that don’t care for anything but money… and a naïve old man that just seek to find a little affection. She’s a sexy urban gal, so obviously she's poison; he’s an honest rural hard-working man, so of course, he's virtuous. She’ll be the thing that loses him in lust.... and what he'll lose to her is what made him good in the first place, he'll become dishonest for her sake. He’ll even go crazy for her, because that’s where she wants him to be, selfless and irresponsible.


She’ll even turn him deaf; make him her puppet she can guide in this ruthless world. Make him impotent, a slave to her tits. So now he can only communicate in monolog and never hear what others would be saying about her.


But soon thereafter, when he recovers his hearing, he’ll keep on pretending that he is deaf. So he can quit his job, just as she wishes him to. For this “Betty darling” that is always sleeping, always resting to take benefit from those who are awake. That’s another thing about her, she always seem to either be sleeping or tired. He must pretend he’s deaf to justify that he have quit this job. This job he have quit for her, for her that is still, always, sleeping. She’s never hearing anything but the roam of her own voice. Vain she is, but he is naïve and he is without character, so he’ll just let it go, let the power of her wonderful tits guide him in misery. She’s deaf too; more then he pretend to be, for she’s a lazy sleeping log. He’ll hear the call; she’ll be sleeping, so they’ll both have to pretend that life is meaningless.

But now, now that he pretend to be deaf, that his wife think he is as well, he can finally hear what she’s really thinking.

It’s all very stereotypical, quite misogynistic. But it doesn’t say much, it doesn’t lead to anything. It’s short-sighted, too much of its era. There are a few key scenes that save it from being unworthy to be seen… and I’d mention among them the gin-rummy scene toward the end. All nicely done, with chosen photography angle and some fine lines of dialogue.

This movie is entertaining, but it’s not quite a great artistic achievement, to say the least. It’s just the story of a woman who can drive a man to murder… or to die… by the power of her blondeness. It’s been done many times before, and way better. It’s all summed up in this line from Betty:

-I’m desperate, I want to get out. Without money, what can I do? I tried everything. He’s got seventy-three hundreds dollars in the bank. We could go any place from here and be happy together.

-By just pushing him over a cliff? We’d never get away with it.


Those creatures that drive a man mad. That’s what is portrayed here. She’s smoking a cigarette at the tip of her fingers, awaiting, hoping for her husband to be murdered. That’s the whole ordeal here and she just plays it in a most exaggerated fashion. A bit of a novelty act. It’s a small idea extended to a whole screenplay.

Lust and murder. The lines are muddled, but the whole can be fun. It’s just brainless amusement. Entertaining, but empty. One of the last line summarize it all… and that is coming from Betty Baby to the two men in lust(love) with her: “Kill each others”… Then comes the conclusion with the little doggy the main character got, the moral there is simple. He says: “That’s what I should have brought home in the first place”. So, if one has to choose between the woman and the dog, choose the dog.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Please Murder Me (1956)

Posted by Steve-O

Raymond Burr, with his non-blinking eyes and bear-like size, was a stand out in any film he appeared in. Who could forget his role in Rear Window as the grey-haired killer staring back at snooper Jimmy Stewart? Burr played a number of film noir roles around the same time that, although not as memorable, were equally as impressive. Burr went from victim to villain - playing a slimy PI in both Abandoned and Pitfall, a violent mob boss in Raw Deal, a wolf in The Blue Gardenia and a handicapped murder victim in Affair in Havana - but he rarely did he get to be the good guy. In 1956 (the same year he was dropped into the American-release of Godzilla) Burr starred in Please Murder Me as a very smart defense lawyer ultimately manipulated by a femme fatale (Angela Lansbury). Burr would go on to play the squeaky-clean lawyer Perry Mason on TV the following year forever ending his heavy roles and typecasting him as a crusader for justice.


In Please Murder Me! Burr gets to show both his good and dark side. The film starts with great promise. Burr, wearing a brimmed hat and trench coat, enters a store on a dark street and buys a gun he sees in the window. With a close up of bullets being loaded into the revolver the title card jumps out “Please Murder Me!” Just like in Double Indemnity, he returns to his office that same dark night and begins to dictate into a tape recorder his twisted story. Clearly in noir territory now, a flashback begins to tell the story leading up to this night.

Months earlier, in the same law office with his best friend - an old war buddy played by Western actor Dick Foran - Attorney Craig Carlson is making small talk. The friendly meeting turns sour fast when Burr finally tells his friend the reason for the meeting. You see, Craig is having an affair with Joe’s wife and now he’s representing her in the divorce. His friend reacts with shock more than anger and he leaves his office in a daze. Burr now feels guiltier than ever for betraying his friend.

Joe goes home to confront his wife (Lansbury). He’s shot dead by Myra in the scuffle and Burr is called. He quickly switches from divorce to defense lawyer when he agrees to represent her. What follows is a courtroom drama where Burr goes up against the D.A. (John Dehner) trying to prove the killing was in self defense. As the highly publicized trial drags on the Myra and Craig plan their future hoping that she’ll be set free. Eventually Myra’s found not guilty after a very questionable courtroom stunt pulled by Craig.

Spoilers

What follows at the half-way point should be no surprise to noir fans. Turns out Myra not only killed her husband in cold blood rather than in self defense, but she also has another lover she’s been secretly seeing. Burr meets her old flame - an artist and old school love of Myra’s Carl Holt - and finds out that she plans on marrying Carl instead of him.

Burr has had enough. He plots and schemes to get the ultimate revenge. He tries to get Myra to kill him in an attempt to not only convict her of murder but to also clear his conscience.

End of spoilers

The unique twist makes Please Murder Me! a satisfying 78 minutes. The performances all around are excellent. Lansbury was very good at playing bad girls earlier in her career and she doesn’t disappoint here. Denver Pyle, playing a city detective, is another familiar Western face making an appearance in the film.

But what keeps the film together is the excellent performance of Raymond Burr - who is both intense and slightly demented. Copies of the film are floating around the trade circuit and I see it’s now available online commercially. I recommend tracking this one down.






Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)

One more trip down the bumpy “cop gone bad” road is traveled in The Man Who Cheated Himself. In this installment the cop in question is played by the wonderful Lee J. Cobb. Cobb who’s best remembered as the guff, bass voiced, second fiddle in a number of dramas, gave stunning performances in Thieves' Highway, 12 Angry Men and On the Waterfront. In TMWCH he’s cast as Police Lt. Ed Cullen a rock hard defender of the public and the romantic lead. Being able to keep his head above the waves in such unfamiliar waters and able to carry it off is testament to his skills as an actor.

Unfortunately the same can not be said of the female lead. Completely miscast as the object of Ed’s desire is Jane Wyatt. No perfect housewife Margaret Anderson is Ms Wyatt in her role as the femme fatale, Lois Frazer. Her performance can politely be called “over the top.” Some have referred to her performance as the worst ever by a femme fatale. If not, it ranks right up there with Jayne Meadows in Lady in the Lake. Maybe “Janes” just weren’t cut out to play femme fatales although one Jane Greer did alright as I recall. Perhaps in this case the same casting director who cast Mickey Rooney as the upstairs Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was also responsible for Ms Wyatt’s role in TMWCH?

Ms Wyatt aside, the second male is handled nicely by John Dall who plays Ed’s kid brother Andy Cullen. It just so happens Andy is also a cop and has only recently been promoted from walking a beat to Detective under the supervision of big brother Ed. But being brothers and sharing an apartment is where the similarities end as it bears noting Andy is soon to be married while Ed is known as a long time bachelor and skirt chaser.

Early into the film its shared that Ed and Lois are secretly involved via a phone call observed but not over heard by Andy. When he questions his big brother if “she’s the one?” Ed’s reply pretty much sums up the remainder of the picture, “This one’s good for me. She’s no good, but that the way it is.”

The story itself concerns the rich, horribly dressed, twice married and soon to be twice divorced Lois Frazer. Just how she came into her money, who is the girl’s dress maker and the circumstances for her falling for frumpy Ed, is never revealed. In the world of B noir such details are rarely afforded the opportunity to be fully explored due to budgetary and production time considerations. At the outset Lois’s husband is in the process of packing up and leaving for greener pastures. Why, again is a mystery left unshared? His life is filled we’re told of nothing other than playing polo, partying and little else. We’re lead to believe his parting from Lois will leave him destitute. To combat this fate we’re again lead to believe he’s plotting to bump Lois off before she can make the needed changes to her will. None of these plots are ever fully developed and is up to the viewer to surmise (see above regarding B noir).

As fate would have it on the night of the supposed bumping off, Ed and Lois are at her place about to do what comes naturally when hubby comes in though a previously “jimmied” balcony door. Lois having just recently discovered hubby’s newly purchased revolver and convinced he bought it to murder her ends up “accidentally” pumping two slugs at close range into his chest. His lifeless body drops to the floor in front of Ed and the bulk of the film is put into motion. So what’s Ed to do? Call the cops, or somehow clean up this mess for Lois in the hopes everything will work out for the best? We of course know what path he’ll go down ever before he mutters the line “the truth can get you twenty years.”

The remainder of the film is the cat and mouse game played between Ed and Andy against a backdrop of 1950’s San Francisco. Little brother suspects something’s out of kilter and being new to the job, won’t even take off time for his honeymoon. While more could be done with locale shooting, some nice shots of landmarks such as The Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and Fishermen’s Wharf are incorporated. The best locale is saved for last in extensive use of Fort Point located directly below the Golden Gate Bridge on the San Francisco side of the bay. The Fort was built during the Civil War to protect the entrance to the harbor. It served this same purpose through WWII. It’s a fitting location for the end of the chase as both it and Ed have become only caricatures of what they once were, guardians to the people of San Francisco. The decay within now only allows them to project crumbling image of what once was upstanding in their commitments as public servants and protectors.

The films conclusion takes place in the hallways of justice where Ed is being lead to his day in court by Andy and another cop. Upon stopping momentarily for a drink of water and to light a cigarette, Lois appears with her attorney in tow and not an officer of the law in sight. She stops and asks Ed one more to light her cigarette, something she did affectionately several times during their more romantic times together. That’s about as close to “thanks for taking the fall” as she’ll allow herself as Ed can only watch her glide away.

While not one of his best, director Felix Feist keeps this one moving along bristly. His other credits in the noir canon being; The Devil Thumbs a Ride, The Threat, Tomorrow is Another Day, and The Basketball Fix. Passing at only fifty-five the last ten years of his life were spent working on the small screen doing everything from Sea Hunt to The Outer Limits.

Cinematography was handled by six time Oscar nominated Russell Harlan who spent the first thirteen years behind the camera shooting westerns. When he made the move to noir he did it in big way, for on his resume in addition to TMWCH is; Gun Crazy, Guilty Bystander, Southside 1-1000, and the noirish Thing from Another World and Blackboard Jungle.

This outstanding crew also had the editing talents of Oscar nominated David Weisbart who did You Can't Escape Forever, Conflict, Mildred Pierce, and Dark Passage, all prior to TMWCH.

Lastly, what would any San Francisco based noir with an Italian fisherman be without every one’s favorite Tito Vuolo, who does make his obligatory showing. His presence alone make this a well worth it’s 81 minute run time.

Posted by Raven



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