Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nightfall (1957)

This edition of Noir of the Week is written by my favorite movie blogger Kim Morgan. In addition to Sunset Gun, Kim also blogs at MSN Movies. I'm delighted she had time to be a guest writer here.

By Kim Morgan

“This is what they call the point of no return my friend.”

Nightfall is a work of striking juxtapositions and tones that by picture end, come off like a wonderfully disarming person—you’re charmed, even a bit disturbed, but you’re not sure what to make of it all. It opens at night, in the neon lit, Los Angeles jungle shimmering with welcoming Hollywood haunts like Miceli’s, Firefly and Musso and Frank and ends within the blinding white snow of the more foreboding Wyoming Wilderness. It pits an older doctor and his much younger, artist friend against two thugs, one an over-eager, violence-lusting psychopath and the other a casual, smarter killer whose relaxed approach borders on the likable. It features a chic fashion show with a modern looking Anne Bancroft as a “mannequin” followed by a cuddly rural bus ride during which the lovers express their romantic feelings after waking up to (decidedly non chic) whiskers. There’s cruel violence committed against good Samaritans mixed with quippy one liners and a surprising amount of dark humor. And did I mention Anne Bancroft falls in love with Aldo Ray? They seem mismatched, but then, perfect together—and their moments are exceptionally romantic. In short, Nightfall is a trip. But a great trip, and a noteworthy addition to noir innovator Jacques Tourneur’s oeuvre (which includes, among other splendid pictures, the horror/noir classics Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie and his key noir, Out of the Past).

Adapted by Stirling Silliphant from hard boiled writer David Goodis's 1947 novel and brilliantly shot by Burnett Guffey (who also shot Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece In a Lonely Place and Arthur Penn’s ingenious Bonnie and Clyde),the picture is considered by some, a minor film noir, something that’s always baffled me. Made in the later cycle of the genre (released in 1957), the picture skillfully weaves a convoluted story, harsh violence, existential angst, naturalistic acting and sweet romanticism without ever feeling forced. And as stated earlier—it’s very funny—something Tourneur always intended. And though the theme song seems a bit overheated (Al Hibbler crooning “Nightfall…and you!”—a tune that really ought to grace a Ross Hunter production) even that works when looking at the film in its entirety. Akin to the startling laughs spiking the movie, it echoes Tourneur’s own sly sense of humor.

The story is structured much like Out of the Past, with our hero (who's not guilty, unlike Mitchum), Rayburn Vanning (Ray) relating his complicated story to a woman. Only in this instance, the lovely lady, Marie Gardner (Bancroft), is a bit confused. Pulling a damsel in distress act for the benefit of two thugs waiting to jump Ray (she thought they were police officers after a wanted man), she sets up the poor lug. Vanning is then accosted by Red (Rudy Bond) and John (Brian Keith) and taken to a deserted oil derrick (an unsettling yet weirdly amusing scene) where he’s set to be tortured. They want to know where that money’s hidden, something Vanning continually states he doesn’t know. Vanning escapes, finds his way to Marie’s apartment and gives her the skinny. Or rather, the thick skinny. He explains the convoluted predicament that’s left him understandably paranoid. While on a pleasant camping trip in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with best friend Dr. Edward Gurston (Frank Albertson) in which the two men will hunt, and in a more uncomfortable moment, near the sticky subject of Doc’s much younger wife (whom we learn later has a thing for Vanning and sent him letters saying so). The conversation is cut short when a car crashes off an embankment and two shady characters (Red and John), emerge. Doc fixes John’s arm but they soon realize they're unlucky witnesses (the men just robbed a bank). Almost shockingly, Doc is shot dead and Vanning is left injured. The crooks blaze off, only, they make an enormous mistake—they grab the doctor’s bag instead of their own bag of money. Vanning is able to rise from his injury, hide the dough and take off. Moving from town to town under suspicion that he killed Doc, Vanning ends up in Los Angeles, where he’s being tailed by insurance investigator Ben Fraser (James Gregory) who confesses to his wife that Vanning just doesn’t seem the type.

And as played by Aldo Ray—he doesn’t seem the type. One of the more striking aspects to Nightfall is its casting, and the barrel-chested, thick necked Ray, who was a natural born actor (watch his first and largely unschooled leading role in George Cukor’s The Marrying Kind and you’ll see how immediately gifted the man was. Also in Anthony Mann’s brilliant Men in War). Ray is the perfect good guy in-over-his- head. With his raspy voice, yet boyish appeal (he looked like he literally walked off a football field, which is why Cukor made him take ballet before The Marrying Kind) Ray always exuded a different kind of mystery than say, Mitchum or Ryan or Widmark—men who rarely appeared “normal.” Ray, an ex Frogman who fought in Iwo Jima, was a brawny man’s man certainly, but he always looked to be hiding a secret. That inside he had the soul of a poet or artist—a man of depth beyond his tough exterior. And so, appropriately, in Nightfall, he’s an artist.

Brian Keith is another standout and like Ray, an actor I always wished was my father (and not merely for the TV show Family Affair). He’s so agreeable here—and his delivery manages to be both distracted and pithy rather than rat-a-tat. When he humorously claims that Red’s homicidal kicks stem from his lack of childhood play (“When Red was a kid they didn’t have enough playgrounds. He’s sort of an adult delinquent.”) he’s both revelatory and teasing. And his banter towards Red is cleverly berating: “The top of your head never closed up when you were a kid. Neither did your mouth.” Cracking wise with Red, the two spar like men who are ready to kill each other, but also who are simply getting on each other’s nerves (preceding some of Tarantino’s talky criminals). But talking aside, deadlier fates await them including a fatal gunshot and death by snowplow.

And wild, almost ridiculous fate was something Tourneur excelled at, not surprisingly. Based on the bizarre treatment at the hands of his filmmaker father, Tourneur developed a dark sense of the absurd. As written in John Wakemen’s World Film Directors Vol. 1 1890-1946,”Tourneur believed that the childhood he endured—one of “grotesque punishment” lied at the root of his cinematic obsessions. Relating that he was sent to a poor school and teased unmercifully for his square suspenders, Tourneur claimed: “I think this is what prompted me to introduce comic touches into the dramatic moments of my films…Mixing fear and the ridiculous can be very exciting.”

Indeed. As Red can’t wait to torture a terrified Vanning, he sinisterly and bizarrely sings: “The tougher they are the more fun they are tra-la.”

Friday, August 24, 2007

Night and the City (1950)

Editor's note: Things continue to be busy here at the blog. There are two Noir of the Week articles coming up in the next few days. This one's unique because I haven't read any of Dr. Mayer's writing and I've yet to get a copy of the book, Encyclopedia of Film Noir.It was co-written by Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell and was just published last month.
I asked Dr. Mayer to tell us a little about the book:

"Part 1 contains five chapters which examine readings on film noir, including what is film noir, the Hard-Boiled Influence, Film Noir and the City, McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Film Noir Style. Part 2 incudes entries on more than 150 films, including ‘
Night and the City’, and 60 actors and directors. While most of the films selected are American, there is a sizable coverage of British Film Noir. Hence ‘Night and the City’ is an apt choice because it was produced by a Hollywood studio, Twentieth Century Fox, with American stars (Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe) and an American director (Jules Dassin), who was about to be blacklisted in Hollywood - but it was filmed in London in 1949. This confluence of influences resulted in one of the most powerful noir films ever produced - both stylistically and thematically."

The following is a excerpt from the book:

By Geoff Mayer

NIGHT AND THE CITY (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950)-Director: Jules Dassin; Script: Jo Eisinger, based on the novel by Gerald Kersh; Cinematography: Max Greene; Music: Franz Waxman; Cast: Richard Widmark (Harry Fabian), Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol), Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross), Hugh Marlowe (Adam Dunne), Francis L. Sullivan (Phillip Nosseross), Herbert Lom (Kristo), Stanislaus Zbyszko (Gregorious), Mike Mazurki (the Strangler), Edward Chapman (Hoskins), Maureen Delaney (Anna O’Leary), James Hayter (Figler).

This is a key noir film. Filmed in London in 1949, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox, sent director Jules Dassin to Britain as he was about to be expelled from the studio following orders from New York because of his left-wing political sympathies. Zanuck told Dassin to start filming Jo Eisinger’s script for Night and the City as soon as he could and he also told Dassin to film the most expensive scenes first so that it would be costly for the studio to remove him from the film. Zanuck also asked Dassin if he could develop a role for one of the studio’s most important female stars, Gene Tierney, as he wanted to get her away from Hollywood following a failed romance.

Dassin did not have time to read Gerald Kersh’s book, published in 1938, and his interest in the project was both formal and ideological. He wanted to present London as an urban nightmare with night for night shooting at a time when it was still difficult to generate sufficient light for extended night scenes, especially those filmed in long shot. Dassin, however, received the cooperation of many London businesses who agreed to leave their lights on at night so as to assist the filming. As a result, Night and the City is one of the strongest examples of film noir expressionism and it presents London as an urban hell - a world of dark shadows, desperate individuals and derelict buildings. Tourist landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, along with other parts of the city, were transformed into a consistent vision of urban hell, a perfect encapsulation of a dark, threatening world permeated by betrayal, fall guys and moral corruption.

Dassin was also attracted to the film’s overarching theme based on the destructive effect of money and ambition and Night and the City is one of the toughest, bleakest films ever produced by a major Hollywood studio. The film’s opening sequence was developed by Zanuck who jettisoned the more conventional, and softer, opening scenes in Eisinger’s script. Zanuck wanted to emphasise Fabian’s vulnerability from the start. The film begins with Harry Fabian, a cheap American-born scam artist, running through the desolate streets of London, and the film ends in the same way with Fabian running for his life through the same wasteland until he is executed by nemesis, The Strangler, with his body dumped into Thames at Hammersmith. In between these events the film traces the downward spiral of Fabian as he tries to live down failed investments and ‘be somebody’. In the past Fabian’s activities have caused suffering to his girlfriend Mary Bristol, Now he is doomed. He overreaches himself when he tries to compete with men such as Kristo when, striving to lift himself out of the world of small time crime, manipulates himself into the position of wrestling promoter when Kristo’s father, Gregorius, and his wrestling protégé Nikolas, become disenchanted by Kristo’s demeaning exploitation of the wrestling business. Fabian exploits this rift by promising Gregorius that he will promote classical Greco-Roman wrestling but, short of funds, Fabian gets caught between Helen Nosseross’s desire to leave her husband and start up her own night-club and Phil’s jealousy and sexual frustration. Fabian accepts money from both parties and this, eventually, leads to his downfall when, in financial desperation, he tries to provoke Gregorius into fighting The Strangler. Fabian loses control of the situation and when Gregorius dies after subduing The Strangler, Kristo sets the London underworld onto Fabian with the promise of a bounty for his head.

This sets up the film’s magnificent final act as Harry seeks refuge amongst the denizens of London’s underworld only to discover that, except for his surrogate mother, Anna, and Mary, nobody will help him. His unsentimental death lacks any sense of glamour. Fabian, as Dassin constantly reminds us with his mise-en-scene, is doomed from the start. He is a tragic figure who, as one character tells him, is ‘an artist without art’ who overreaches himself. Fabian grasp of an unstable world is shown to be untenable right from the start and, at the film’s conclusion, he runs through the nightmarish streets lamenting that he ‘was so close to being on top’. The film concludes with his death as his body is dumped into the Thames.

At times, the doomed protagonists of film noir assume some of the dramatic characteristics of tragedy, particularly when they over-stretch themselves. Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian, at times, assumes this tragic persona. At other times he approximates his giggling psychopath persona from his trademark performance as Tommy Udo in his debut film Kiss of Death (1947). Overall, he is a spiv, a con man sent out to ‘The American Bar’ to persuade gullible American tourists to follow him back to Nosseross’s Silver Fox club where ‘hostesses’, trained and drilled by Helen Nosseross, can fleece their victims. He dies when he tries to move out of this limited sphere. In his attempt to ‘be somebody’ and raise money to promote a legitimate wrestling match, Fabian takes the audience on a tour of London’s underbelly as he visits, firstly, The Fiddler who runs a scam involving beggars with fake disabilities (The Fiddler, who eventually betrays Harry near the end of the film, offers to set Harry up with his own operation involving ‘a few good beggars’), then Googin who forges birth certificates, passports and medical licences and finally Anna O’Leary, who deals in stolen nylons and cigarettes. This is a world devoid of ‘normal people.

Night and the City was a startling production from a major Hollywood studio due largely to its almost total lack of sentimentality. American director Jules Dassin and actors Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, and Hugh Malowe joined talented British actors, such as Francis L. Sullivan as the love-stricken Phillip Nosseross and Googie Withers as his venal wife Helen, and German cinematographer Max Greene who gave Dassin the depth of field and unusual compositions he wanted. Greene and Dassin filmed many scenes just prior to sunrise so as to accentuate the film’s sense of fatalism.

When Dassin returned to the United States for post-production work on Night and the City he was, due to the fact that his left-wing past had become public, was prevented from entering the studio and had to convey his ideas with regard to the film’s post-production to editors Nick De Maggio and Sidney Stone and composer Franz Waxman by phone as they were too frightened to meet him in person due to possibility of any direct association with Dassin may have damaged their careers. The film received, mostly. Negative reviews in the United States and Britain, possibly affected by the political climate, and performed poorly at the box office. Dassin did not direct another film, the wonderful Rififi, for five years. Night and the City was remade in 1992 with Robert DeNiro as the doomed protagonist, but the change of setting to New York, and a more sentimental perspective, weakened the film and it is an inferior version.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Dark Pages

I wanted to take a quick detour from Dave's excellent Noir of the Week to mention a book that's coming out soon.

The Dark Pages
is a thick full-color book showing covers of first edition hard-boiled books many of which were later made into classic film noir. The book is set for release in November.

The Dark Pages can be pre ordered here:

Also, right now they're offering a very nice limited edition. This limited, slip-cased edition of the book, one of 100 copies, is signed by author Kevin Johnson and Paul Schrader (who contributes the foreword to the book). About 25 copies remain available for pre-order. It will be sold out in a week or less.

If you're a book and film fan like myself this looks like one you'll probably want to jump on.

Check out how this cover for Phantom Lady perfectly matches the film:

Back to our film. Don't miss the write-up on Detour this week!


Friday, August 17, 2007

Detour (1945)

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Tom Neal (Al), Ann Savage (Vera)

In a phenomenon akin to the one wherein refrigerated leftovers seem to taste better when devoured well after midnight, many a 'B' noir programmer will seem infinitely more enjoyable when viewed in the wee-small-hours - when the time is just right for dashed dreams, and nightmarish scenarios. Edgar Ulmer's dime store-doom classic casts it's spell irrespective of showtime, but a good 3am screening will convert almost any detractor, and fortify it's reputation as one of the sub-genre's purest distillations - and most perversely entertaining triumphs.

Written by Martin Goldsmith, who adapted the screenplay from his own 1939 novella in which the male and female protagonists share narrating duties within alternating his and hers chapters, Ulmer's streamlined 67 minute cinematic version focuses almost solely on the travails of Al Roberts (Roth, in the book) - a N.Y. nightclub pianist who finds himself at a figurative and literal crossroads when his singer-fiancée leaves for the coast to make it big. The moody and self-defeating lug follows suit shortly thereafter, thumbing his way west (in laughably reversed shots) to resume their romance - but "fate, or some mysterious force" sticks out a foot to trip him - or so he would have us believe.

On a lonely stretch of southwestern highway, not terribly far from his destination, Al is picked up by one Charles Haskell - a gregarious big shot who pops unnamed pills between spinning yarns of estranged relatives and hot-tempered hitch-hikers. At one point during their ride when Al takes the wheel to let Haskell sleep, the sky opens - and Al pulls over to put the top up - but waking Haskell proves difficult, especially when Al opens the passenger door and the man spills out, smacking his head on a roadside rock. Convinced that Haskell's blood is on his hands and that the police will surely put him away, Al ignores the possibility that the pill-popper was gravely ill before hitting the ground - and swaps clothes, wallets, and identities with the corpse - leaving the body, and his former life, in the middle of nowhere.

With a big chunk of change, some snazzy new duds, and a secured ride to L.A., Al then makes another ill-advised move. Picking up a prickly tumbleweed named Vera - who recognizes the car and the clothes and the name, but not the face - he is coerced down to an even lower circle of hell when his new companion informs him that she has ridden with the real Haskell(!), and will drop dime if he doesn't agree to pose with her as husband and wife so that they may cash in on an imminent Haskell family inheritance. While spending interminable hours together in a motel room, an astonishingly unlikely twist of fate simultaneously liberates Al - and makes his situation unfathomably bleak....

Bookended by sequences in the present - and the likely future, Ulmer's pulpy tale of woe is nothing less than a staggeringly impressive feat of ingenuity over limitations. A cracked, blemished jewel - 'Detour' immerses the viewer in a celluloid comic-nightmare for just over an hour, but leaves one questioning the power of fate, of one's own choices, and the murky depths of unexamined motivations. Cheap sets and cheesy tricks aside, it is an artful piece - and one that lingers long in the memory.

The Al Roberts character should not be lumped in with other noir protagonists, as his reliability as storyteller is in question throughout. He laments his financial status, yet scoffs at a customer's generous tip. He speaks of his 'wonderful' romance with Sue, yet clearly they are of different temperaments. When debating whether to inform the authorities of Haskell's passing - doubting they'll believe the truth - he neglects to even investigate the man's medication and/or health. Al Roberts doesn't narrate the story we see - but the one he'd prefer we believe.

It's somewhat easier to swallow Al's choice to trade places with Haskell and cover up the ostensibly shady circumstances when one knows that he has already done a short stretch for theft. This plot point from the book, along with the passage detailing his reluctance to pick up any hitch-hikers while posing as Haskell (he feels sorry for Vera, and figures it will be a short, local lift) may make his actions in those filmed sequences appear more reasonable. One can only wonder if their omission was an artistic choice, or one of budgetary constraints.

Never a strong presence or memorable performer, Neal's turn as our integrity-challenged anti-hero is little more than passable. It hardly matters though - with a co-star one can't take their eyes off of anyway. With her windswept coif, (unwashed for ten days prior to filming) lacerating glare, and sped-up line delivery (a direction of Ulmer's), Savage commandeers the viewer's attention in much the same way she does Al's life. When they lock horns - it's clear who'll really man the wheel for the rest of their journey. A mere 24 at the time, Savage's uniquely sexy/repulsive powder-keg doesn't qualify as a textbook femme fatale, but remains one of the most memorable pick-ups along noir's highway - shifting from scolding shrew to seductive vixen and back again with breathtaking conviction and force. Before Al daydreams of his likely apprehension, he must first survive her - his waking nightmare.

Written by Dave

Friday, August 10, 2007

After Dark, My Sweet (1990)

By Alain Silver

Bob Porfirio, James Ursini, Elizabeth Ward and I are in the midst of a complete revision of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. In place of the extended appendices of the 2nd and 3rd editions, we have restructured the book into two parts, classic period and neo-noir. Ably assisted by more than two dozen new contributors, many of whom have penned their own books on noir, 300 new titles will receive individual treatment (more information here).

This entry on After Dark My Sweet exemplifies the movies chosen for Part Two in that it echoes of the classic period in the source novel by Jim Thompson and reveals a firm grasp of the noir style by director James Foley, evident from his second feature the remarkable At Close Range.

Editor's note: This is part of the yet-to-be-published 4th edition of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.

Director: James Foley. Screenplay: Robert Redlin, James Foley, based on the novel by Jim Thompson. Producers: Robert Redlin, Ric Kidney. Director of Photography: Mark Plummer. Production Designer: David Brisbin. Music: Maurice Jarre. Editor: Howard Smith. Cast: Jason Patric (Collie), Rachel Ward (Fay), Rocky Giordani (Bert), Bruce Dern (Uncle Bud), Thomas Wagner (Counterman), George Dickerson (Doc Goldman). Locations: Indio, Ca. Released: Avenue Pictures, August 24. 114 minutes.

Collie, a punch-drunk prize fighter, is homeless after some time spent in an institution. His violent self-defense in a desert bar impresses another patron, Fay, who offers room and board if he will help her repair a house inherited from her ex-husband. She begins a sexual liaison with Collie, Fay’s Uncle Bud who is a local grafter recruits both of them into a scheme to kidnap the son of some wealthy local residents. When the plan goes awry, Collie realizes he has been used by his criminal partners and precipitates a deadly final confrontation.

Jim Thompson’s personages are often trapped in what he saw as their personal hells. Often they are also people whose business is deception, but others are the victims of physical or emotional turmoil such as “Collie” in After Dark, My Sweet. For Thompson and many of the filmmakers who have adapted his work, point of view is crucial. The credit sequence is an expressionistic rendering of the prize fight in which Collie kills his opponent. Midway through the titles, a sound-buffered jump cut takes the viewer to a tight close-up of him as he now is. After Dark, My Sweet is a first person film on several levels from the voiceover narration to the opticals and sound effects which intermittently externalize his troubled mental state. Employing these stylistic elements typical of the classic period permits all the narrative tensions to be effectively laid out within the first few minutes. A cut back from the close-up reveals the protagonist in a desert landscape coming out of an escarpment of large stones. As he shuffles across the highway, the narration rambles over shot: “I wonder where I'll be tomorrow...” The key phrase is, “I couldn't walk away.” As he enters the town, the sound of a train is heard and a sudden, sidewise camera move swings past him but holds the figure in a 180 degree arc, fixes his body in the sun-bleached highway. It prevents him from walking out of the shot, figuratively holding him as firmly as his troubled memories grip his mind.

Like all Thompson's characters, Collie is slowly dying in this personal hell. When Fay, a femme fatale in sandals and a stray hat, picks him up, she treats him like a stray puppy, patting the car seat and saying, “Come on, now, there's a good boy” to entice him in. Her directness—she wants to call him Collie because he reminds her of a shaggy dog—is what makes her ambiguous, what sets her apart in a Thompson-esque milieu of con men and petty crooks. The desert itself with its clean, brightly-lit vistas is in constant contrast to the emotional darkness within. But it is through Patric's performance, full of tics, stumbling, and false starts, that
After Dark, My Sweet evokes the hopelessness of both Thompson and film noir more forcefully than The Grifters.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Noir of the Week double feature

This week we have 2 NOTWs. I highly recommend you check out In a Lonely Place written by Barry Gifford. Then I read Haggai's great review of the newly released Decoy and I had to add that one to the blog as well. So here you have it: a great A-list Bogart film and a B-movie cult classic. Enjoy.

Over at the message board we're giving away a couple of copies of the new Rough Guide to Film Noir.

Play Name that Noir and win a copy!

Decoy (1946)

When I first started posting on the Blackboard about a year and a half ago, out of all the B-movies I heard about that were previously unfamiliar to me, one of them quickly became the most intriguing one of all. A femme fatale so cold-blooded that she ran over her victims with a car, played by an elusive actress whose life was tragically cut short just three years later? A movie so hard to see that the only copy in existence had Croatian subtitles? What kind of craziness would await when I could finally see this legendary...thing? Some tantalizing clips from it appeared in the documentary in the Warner's Noir Vol. 3 box set, and when it was announced that it would definitely be included in Vol 4, I knew exactly what would be going into my DVD player the second I could get my hands on that collection. This past Wednesday night, that's exactly what happened, so here are the thoughts of a Decoy newbie, who's still trying to recover from the... experience.

Some spoilers will follow farther down, but to start, here's the plot overview from Glenn Erickson's review:

Police Sergeant 'Jo Jo' Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) follows a trail of dead bodies back to the posh apartment of Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) and finds her dying on the sofa, shot by Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley), himself now dead on the floor. As she dies, Shelby confesses how she goaded crook Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) into helping her with a plot to separate her boyfriend, convicted killer Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong) from the proceeds from a successful bank robbery. Olins is due to be executed and claims he'll take the secret of the location of the loot to the grave unless someone breaks him out of jail. Margot seduces Dr. Craig, who claims Olins' corpse without an autopsy and revives it with a dose of a chemical called Methelyne Blue. Now Margot's problem is how to separate three boyfriends from the money, a task to which she's perfectly suited. She has no compunctions about double-crossing all of them.
This movie certainly comes exactly as advertised: if a more cold-blooded femme fatale ever existed, I'm not sure I could even handle seeing anything she might be a part of.

The denouement of this movie might very well be the most black-hearted 10 minutes in the history of noir. And it's not just the legendary murder via car flattening, which apparently also exists in an even more sadistic version that features multiple passes over the hapless victim. No, folks, that's not even the half of it. I knew about that scene going in, though it still packs a mighty wallop even when you know it's coming. But I still wasn't prepared for the further tsunami of evil that follows, which I'm able to review here only because I somehow managed to retrieve my jaw from the floor after my first viewing a few nights ago:

-- After retrieving the map, the car jack, and the pistol from the dead body on the side of the road, she returns to the car to find the mortified doctor exclaiming, "I'd like to kill you." Whereupon she calmly hands him the pistol, waits for him to lose his nerve, and takes the pistol back with a sly grin on her face. If there was any doubt that she completely owned him before that point, there certainly isn't any left once it happens.

-- When she locates the spot where the money is buried, she calls on him to come over and start digging. He looks like he's about to brain her with the shovel, but again he loses his nerve and starts digging instead. Leaving nothing to ambiguity in the familiar noir intermingling of sex and death, she exhorts him while he digs: "Quickly, Lloyd, quickly! Dig for it! Deeper! Faster! Quickly, Lloyd! They killed for it. They all killed for it. Frankie, Vincent, I killed for it. And you. You too! You killed for it!"

-- Then she pulls out the pistol and pumps him full of lead, just as he holds up the buried strongbox, and she laughs maniacally while yelling, "Get off, get off it! It's mine! It's all mine now!"

Wow. And if that wasn't enough, when the flashback structure comes back to her on the brink of death in her apartment, she sweetly beckons "Jo-Jo" to "come down to my level" (a reference to an earlier exchange between them), and when he leans in for what he presumably anticipates to be one last moment of tenderness, she laughs in his face just before kicking the bucket.

As for everything that comes before the mind-blowing finale, there's no doubt that this was not a big studio A-level effort, but the sets are pretty well constructed, as Erickson points out in the DVD commentary track with original story writer Stanley Rubin. It comes across as a competently made B-movie, with some snappy dialogue and a few amusing supporting characters. The oddball reincarnation plot point plays out like a noir version of Frankenstein, especially in the suspenseful scene where the doctor's machinery completes the revival. Frankie's return to life includes a couple of nicely effective details, as he realizes that he's come back to life via the simple acts of pulling a window shade and lighting a match. Robert Armstrong's performance also adds a surprisingly moving touch to the scene. One thing I probably would have liked better is if the charismatic Armstrong could have lasted longer in the movie than he does, preferably at the expense of the colorless Edward Norris, who shows about as much acting range as the pre-revived corpse of Frankie Olins. And imagine if that most infamous murder scene could have been even more shocking, if it had been the raised-from-the-dead Frankie going back to the graveyard underneath those car wheels...

Decoy (1946)
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A few corny scenes inject an occasional unintentional comedy factor, like when the doctor reacts to Margot's cold-blooded explanation of how he's irreversibly involved in their murderous plot by pounding his desk right in the middle of the fatally violated Hippocratic Oath. One earlier scene between Craig and Margot plays out with some pretty ripe dialogue on top of the lushly orchestrated main theme, as she laments how his small clinic's poor surroundings remind her too much of her unhappy childhood: "I can't forget your street. That street runs all over the world. I know, 'cause that's the street I came from." But I agree with Erickson's assessment of Decoy as "a dead-serious thriller that now plays like Camp, and we like it both ways." Scenes like the ones I just mentioned play out to me like the comically awkward attempt at social commentary in one of my favorite action movies, the legendary kung fu classic Enter the Dragon, where African-American martial arts hero Jim Kelly takes one look at the squalor surrounding the Hong Kong harbor and sagely declares: "Ghettoes are the same all over the world. They stink." All you can do is laugh at a line like that, but it has its own way of adding to the overall entertainment factor.

I like how the recurring idea of reincarnation, roughly speaking, plays out in a few different spots of Decoy. Aside from the central event of reviving Frankie, there's also the opening scene. Even though we don't quite realize it during a first viewing, Craig is essentially returning from the dead himself when we first see him, fully realizing what he needs to do only when he seems himself in an ominously broken mirror:

Also, at the very end of the movie, having lost her life at the hands of the left-for-dead Craig, Margot ends up losing the one thing she thought she had achieved, although she dies before realizing it. The vengeful hand of Frankie, reaching from beyond the grave once more in what almost amounts to a final act of reincarnation, reveals her "last laugh" to be a completely hollow triumph. The crooks who cheated each other in life continue swindling each other even in death.

On the commentary track, Rubin and Erickson salute Gillie and director Jack Bernhard for having her play the character as 100% bad (which Rubin appreciates, since he wrote it that way!), as opposed to the more common occurrence where leading ladies of the time would try to bring at least a touch of sympathy to even the most wicked femme fatale. As Erickson says, even Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity still wants the audience to love her, if only just a little bit. Not that there's anything wrong with that: I think the fact that Kathie Moffat, for instance, is a well-rounded character who wants to go straight but just can't seem to help herself adds a poignantly tragic element to Out of the Past. But when Ann and Jeff in that movie have the exchange of, "She can't be all bad. No one is," "Well, she comes the closest," it's obvious that neither of them had ever come across Margot Shelby!

And that's about it. It's tough for anything with the reputation of a "cult classic" to live up to its advance billing, but this lean 76 minutes packed with double-crossing and homicide sure does, thanks to a top-notch femme fatale and an utterly gobsmacking finale.

Written by Haggai

Friday, August 03, 2007

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Editor's note: The following is from Barry Gifford's book, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir.I asked Mr. Gifford if he'd like to add anything to introduce his piece on In a Lonely Place. He simply replied, "Nobody comes out of this one unscathed, nobody looks good in the end, thereby making it a perfect noir."

By Barry Gifford

This is an important movie in many ways. As a Hollywood story it rivals Horace McCoy's novel, I Should Have Stayed at Homefor pure L.A. angst. That book, by the way, is probably the best Hollywood dream-factory novel ever written, better than West's Day of the Locust, or certainly Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon; and different and more honest than Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? A shame it's out of print. (editor's note: It's back in print) Anyhow, Nick Ray's ability to present case histories of men and women unable to integrate themselves or remain sane in so-called civilized society is non pareil, and In a Lonely Place is a masterful study of man's inhumanity to himself, among others.

Bogart plays a screenwriter who hasn't had a hit movie for a few years, largely because he refuses to work on projects he has no feel for. He doesn't respect the producers who beg him for scripts, but he has a faithful agent, played with great sincerity by Art Smith, who keeps after him to work on a movie. Bogey's problem is that he can be a mean drunk even when he's not drinking; he has a violent temper, a raging superiority complex, and is basically a misanthrope. He often doesn't answer the phone when it rings, sleeps late, gets into fights frequently: an adult problem child with talent not unlike James Dean's Jim Stark character as shaped by Ray in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause. Bogey is lonely on purpose, but he craves female companionship, and does have real sympathy and affection for the old alcoholic actor played by Robert Warwick, for whom Bogey is always a soft touch. But other than his agent and the washed-up “thespian,” as he calls Warwick, Bogey has no friends. One other exception is his old army pal, Frank Lovejoy, who's now a cop on the Beverly Hills force. When a hatcheck girl Bogey's taken home but dismissed early turns up dead, Bogey is murder suspect number one, but Lovejoy defends him to his captain, insisting that Bogey couldn't have killed her.

Enter Gloria Grahame, a neighbor of Bogey's who's had her eye on him. “I like his face,” she tells the police captain as she relates how she saw the girl leave Bogey's apartment alone. Bogey seems in the clear on the murder, but the captain is disturbed by Bogey's record of violent outbursts, frequent arrests for assault, and disturbing the peace; he thinks Bogey did it despite what Lovejoy says. Grahame and Bogey fall in love and he begins working on a new script, staying at it day and night and seeming to come out of his prolonged malaise. He's not drinking or fighting for a while and asks Grahame to marry him. But following an irrational show of temper and assault of a college kid over a minor traffic accident (that was Bogey's fault, though he won't admit it) Grahame gets scared; she thinks that maybe Bogey did murder the hatcheck girl after all. Of course she can't confront him with this fear because she thinks he might turn on her; and, of course, that happens anyway. It turns out that he's innocent, that the girl's milquetoast boyfriend murdered her in a jealous rage, but it's too late now for Bogey and Grahame. When he finds her about to skip town on him on the day of their engagement, he flies into a blind fit and starts strangling her. Bogey's brought out of it by the telephone call from cops clearing him, but he's blown the scene with Gloria. His script is a success, he's back on top professionally, but his life is shot. Grahame gave him something to really live for and now that the opportunity is shattered Bogey is absolutely, irrevocably alone, without much chance that he'll even try for any kind of happiness again.

And that's how the movie ends, on as down a note as possible, except that at least Bogey is innocent of the killing. Visually the movie is often shakily angled (Burnett Guffey was the director of photography), and the road shots are calculated to give the viewer the sensation that he is in the madly careening automobile. Everything is directed toward a feeling of hopelessness; even the friendliness exhibited toward Bogey by Bogey's agent, by Lovejoy and his wife Jeff Donnell, by the restaurant owner Paul, is made pathetic by his intransigence. If ever there were a case of someone being his own worst enemy, this is it, and Nick Ray captured it perfectly. The dialogue is waspish and witty, and Gloria Grahame has perhaps her best role - at least she's not the cheap slut she was usually cast as - and Bogey's disturbed screenwriter presages his Captain Queeg performance. He had a way of frowning that was almost comic, an expression more of confusion than distaste.

This is an unsensationally depicted indictment of Hollywood, in sharp contrast to, say, Robert Aldrich's more hysterical treatment (The Big Knife, 1955). It's very ugly, really. Bogey's “likable” face gets plenty unlikeable in a hurry.


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