Saturday, April 26, 2008

They Drive by Night (1940)

Editor's note: Stone Wallace has a new book on George Raft out now: George Raft: The Man Who Would be Bogart
This week he takes a look at the early noir They Drive By Night. Stone also shares a few stills from his personal collection that we use in the slide show.

By Stone Wallace

One of Warner Brothers most popular films of the early 40s, They Drive by Night is a taut, exciting - if dual-plotted trucker drama showcasing the star quartet of George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart. Based on the novel “Long Haul” by A.I. Bezzerides and scripted for the screen by Jerry Wald and Richard Macauley, the Raoul Walsh-directed film features Raft and Bogart as wildcat truck drivers Joe and Paul Fabrini. Battling crooked bosses and the hazards of the road as they race to deliver produce to wholesalers and outrun their creditors, the men live by Joe’s credo “We’re tougher than any truck ever come off any assembly line.” Refusing to surrender to fatigue on their long hauls, the brothers drive their rig bleary-eyed through the night. Joe is unmarried and determined to keep up this grueling pace so that he can eventually make enough cash to “be his own man”. Paul, on the other hand, has a lonely wife, Pearl (Gale Page), waiting at home, and it is she who continually urges Paul to give up the danger and uncertainty of the trucking game and settle into more stable employment so that they can start a family. While Paul shares Pearl’s wishes, his loyalty to Joe and his ongoing belief that they can beat the wildcat racket, will not allow him to walk out on his brother. Joe soon falls for sassy waitress Cassie Hartley, whom they meet at a roadside diner and who they later give a lift to after she quits her job because of her boss’s unwanted advances. Joe, a somewhat more honorable guy, puts Cassie up in a boarding house and gives her a few bucks until she can get on her feet. Meanwhile, Joe’s friend Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), a former hauler who has built up a prosperous trucking business, urges Joe and Paul to work for him so they can enjoy regular hours and guaranteed pay. Joe, however, remains determined to make it on his own. The jovial Ed is married to a much-younger woman, the shrewish Lana (Ida Lupino), who has designs on Joe. When Joe rebuffs her advances when they are alone in Ed’s office, Lana turns on him with venom, insulting his manners and calling him crude. Through a lead from Ed, Joe and Paul negotiate a profitable produce sale with food wholesaler George Rondolos (George Tobias) that earns them enough cash to pay off their doggedly persistent creditor and own their truck outright. Unfortunately, their liberation is short-lived when Paul falls asleep at the wheel and crashes their rig. Joe is unharmed, but Paul ultimately loses an arm and quickly becomes resentful at his inability to find work as a “cripple”. These circumstances force Joe to accept Ed's job offer, though Lana slyly convinces Ed that Joe would be more valuable in the office, a ploy so that she can continue in her attempts to seduce him. Finally, her mind unhinged by Joe’s adamant refusal to mess with his friend’s wife, Lana kills the drunken Ed by leaving him passed out in his still-running automobile and triggering the outdoor electric beam that automatically closes the garage door. The death is ruled “accidental” and Lana inherits Ed’s business, convincing Joe to come in with her as her partner. When Joe continues to avoid her persistent romantic overtures and finally announces his upcoming marriage to Cassie, Lana admits to killing Ed. Stunned, a disgusted Joe tells Lana that he is leaving both her and the trucking company. In revenge, Lana confesses to the district attorney and implicates Joe in Ed’s murder. Joe is arrested and during the trial it looks as if his fate is sealed. Not even a prison visit from Cassie can get Lana to change her story. Finally, while testifying on the stand, Lana’s mind snaps, her insanity and sole guilt are revealed, and Joe is acquitted. Although Joe is firm about not returning to the trucking firm and instead expresses his intention of going back on the road, Cassie corrals the company’s employees, including Paul, who convince Joe to stay on.

They Drive by Night, released in 1940, was George Raft’s first film upon signing a long-term contract with Warners, after appearing in the studio’s Each Dawn I Die (with Cagney) and Invisible Stripes (1939). The success of both films convinced Jack L. Warner that Raft was a major asset to the studio, which was the only lot in Hollywood to boast a “Murderer’s Row” (Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Bogart). After all, Raft had come to Warners as a bonafide star after Scarface (1932) and seven years under contract to Paramount, where he had appeared in such hits as The Glass Key (1935), Souls at Sea (1937) and Spawn of the North (1938). They Drive by Night is generally regarded as Raft’s best Warner Brothers film, and Raft was delighted to be cast against type as a “hardworking man of the people”, to which he aspired both on- and off-camera. But the truth is that Raft probably comes off the least effective among his co-stars. The beautiful Ann Sheridan was allowed the most memorable, snappy dialogue, which she delivered as only Sheridan could; Ida Lupino was finally given the chance to display her acting range as the murderess; and Bogart got the opportunity to shed his patented B-picture tough guy in a brief yet compelling scene where he expresses his bitterness both at his injury and having to be accept what he perceives as his brother’s charity. Raft, on the other hand, maintains his tough yet cool composure throughout and is not afforded a single scene to match the dramatic intensity of Lupino or Bogart. Perhaps his shining moment comes when he trades punches with a pugnacious fellow trucker.

As with most of Warners films during the 30s and 40s, They Drive by Night benefited from a strong supporting cast culled from the studio’s stock company. Alan Hale plays the amiable - if somewhat crude and naïve - trucking firm owner in his usual jovial style (which makes his murder by Lupino all the more shocking), and, even though he appears in only one brief scene, George Tobias delivers his usual humorous ethnic characterization: this time playing a Greek. Roscoe Karns as the pinball addicted Irish McGurn and an uncredited Joyce Compton as the addle-brained “Miss” Sue Carter provided further comedy relief while Warners veteran John Litel played fellow trucker Harry McNamara, whose exhaustion causes him to fall asleep at the wheel and burn to death with his partner when their rig crashes.


Raoul Walsh decided to film the movie in sequence, an unusual technique that nevertheless benefited all of the performances. While the shooting went smoothly (which was not always the case on a Raft picture), there was one near-tragic moment when the brakes of the truck containing Raft, Bogart and Sheridan gave out and began to pick up speed while highballing down a long hill. Raft utilized the superior driving skills he had learned from his days as a Prohibition driver and managed to avoid an accident by pulling up on an embankment.

Some critics and fans have noted that the film succeeds best as a straight trucker drama and loses momentum once its focus shifts to Lupino’s determined and unbalanced infatuation with Raft, a plot device borrowed from the 1935 Bordertown, starring Paul Muni and Bette Davis. At that point the wisecracking Sheridan becomes less visible while Bogart disappears almost completely from the film (except for his embittered scene at the dinner table), only to pop up briefly in the courtroom and in the final scene, almost as an afterthought, to announce that he and Pearl are going to have a baby. An almost painfully trite addendum to the obligatory happy ending.

Ida Lupino’s bravura performance aside, the Joe-Lana-Ed triangle does burden the movie with a slower-paced second half, which Lupino clearly dominates. It divides the film into two distinct parts with the blend never satisfactorily jelling into a whole. The situation was used much less intrusively with Raft, Marlene Dietrich and Edward G. Robinson in the following year’s Manpower (1941). Raft’s character also loses some of its strength as the secondary plot develops. With Joe no longer battling the perils of the road, the character merely becomes the foil for Lupino’s dramatics. He continues to rebuff if not outright ignore Lana’s less-than-subtle romantic intentions while maintaining his friendship and loyalty to Ed and his romantic attraction to Cassie. When confronted with Lana’s guilt, Joe barely reverts from being an observer, leaving Lupino to dominate the scene. George Raft frequently neglected to use his star power to best advantage. This is further made evident in the final scene when Joe and Cassie embrace and it is Cassie’s face that is camera-center in closeup, while Joe’s back is to the audience.

They Drive by Night is an atypical film noir. About the only thing that would even remotely place it into that category would be the presence of Ida Lupino as the femme fatale. While murder figures significantly into the plot, one remembers the picture primarily for the tough road drama it starts out to be. The struggles of two determined men to beat the odds and make it on their own. While of course this proves to be their eventual destiny, it happens in a way neither could expect.

Despite its flaws, They Drive by Night endures as an entertaining Warner Brothers time capsule.

POSTSCRIPT: It can be argued that George Raft’s career reached its peak with They Drive by Night. Following the movie’s success he would appear in two more “good guy” roles for Warners before severing ties with the studio and charting his own career destiny - unfortunately too soon aligning himself with formulaic “B” and even “C” pictures featuring him as the consistent hero that quickly and inevitably lessened his box office appeal. In contrast, the careers of both Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart were off and running. Miss Lupino would appear in many more popular films for the studio before turning her talents toward directing. Bogart, of course, would follow They Drive by Night with his third great screen role (following The Petrified Forest, 1935 and Dead End, 1937) with the famous Raft reject High Sierra (1941). Another Raft refusal led to Bogart’s starring in The Maltese Falcon (1941), which in turn led to his being cast as casino owner Rick in the classic Casablanca (1942). Now recognizing Bogart as the studio’s most valuable asset, Jack Warner put up little resistance when Raft demanded termination of his contract.

Stone Wallace is the author of George Raft: The Man Who Would be Bogart,published by BearManor Media. The book can be ordered through Amazon.comor by emailing

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Strangers on a Train (1951) Part 1

Strangers on a Train: Hitchcock’s Rich Imagery Reigning Supreme
By Bill Hare

One of the first lessons I learned when embarking on a series about great film directors was the unique value they attached to the camera and all it could accomplish in generating screen magic when applied by appropriately attuned creative minds.

As a youngster growing up in London, Hitchcock’s world existed inside dark movie theaters, where he could sit with eyes glued to a screen where an infinity of possibilities existed to entertain audiences. The vehicle was there and proper application of ingenuity, when pressed to the ultimate, resulted in permanent recognition of defining genius through repeated viewings and extended praise from critics and historians.

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most celebrated works emanated from his mature phase. Strangers on a Train with its 1951 release came along almost exactly one decade after an earlier highly acclaimed venture into the brooding realm of film noir. Hitchcock’s 1942 masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt was set in the small Northern California town of Santa Rosa. The film dealt with how the homicidal madness of a worldly man also in possession of sophisticated genius, played by Joseph Cotten in his most challenging role, impacted on the typically American family from which he came, highlighted by a niece bearing his own name of “Charlie”, who initially idolized him but ultimately learned about the world of darkness that constituted his enduring essence.

Two Moody Psychopaths

As a film craftsman and master of psychopathic mood, Hitchcock struck gold with Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train. A fascinating feature of both films was how quickly Joseph Cotten as the murdering psychopath who killed wealthy women and Robert Walker as a rich young man doted on by a neurotic mother switched moods. One divisible style factor was that Cotten was older and more debonair in manner while Walker represented the essence of “youth must be served” impatience.

The performers with whom Cotten and Walker clash were vastly different types; Teresa Wright, signed by Samuel Goldwyn due to his preference for “sweet young lady” personas, as young Charlie the niece was a high school honor student with lofty ideals. Wright idolized an uncle she believed possessed comparable high level traits, only to be crushingly disappointed.

In the case of Walker, his dramatic counterforce was Farley Granger, someone who from their first meeting strove to get rid of him. Granger displays an awkwardness of youth and is perpetually thwarted as well as dumbfounded by the nonchalant audacity of Walker.

Introduction through Adroit Camera Technique

A good example to use for any Cinema 101 class displaying the difference between film and other methods of storytelling such as stage drama or novels is the manner in which the camera can be invoked. The first brilliant and story exploring camera gem the wily Hitchcock tosses our way is in the opening sequence.

Hitchcock zeroes in using a novel approach to introducing the contrasting characters of his drama. We do not see their faces; instead the visual activity resides in observing them stride onto the same train. One is dressed in the manner of the neighborhood sport. His cocky, confident strides match his choice of wearing apparel. The other man’s choice of wardrobe is more decidedly conservative, as are his strides, moving forward without the cocky authority of his counterpart, a young man cautiously but surely seeking to make his way into society.

When we meet the lead characters inside the train once that it is moving those differences made clear through revealing camera shots as they embarked are quickly solidified. Walker confronts Granger confidently, telling him that he is a fan, and that he has seen many of his tennis matches.

Granger finds the meeting awkward, and is being victimized by the wily Walker’s initial deception, that his interest focuses on being a tennis fan of Granger’s. In that Granger has correctly depicted Walker as a wild neurotic, when Walker jumps to the subject of Granger’s marital difficulties, known as a result of Granger’s tennis celebrity status, he makes the mistake of disregarding as a neurotic irrelevancy Walker’s proposal of a murder exchange - Granger’s difficult wife for Walker’s father - he bids him goodbye and assumes he will never see or hear from him again.

Flirtation as a Prelude to Murder

That puckish smile so frequently seen on Alfred Hitchcock’s face was reflective of a man who said that the appropriate inscription for his tombstone should be, “Here lies a very naughty boy.” The springboard of his success and source of audience fixation was the manner in which the director known as The Master drew viewers in with one grand tease after another.

The camera’s eye reveals a diligent Walker sizing up his prey, namely Granger’s difficult wife Laura Elliott, who refuses giving him the divorce he seeks so he can marry Ruth Roman, the daughter of a prominent United States Senator, played with appropriate dignity by Leo G. Carroll. Walker catches Elliott’s eye and the two engage in an interesting flirtation that occurs without the two men escorting Elliott knowing anything about it.

The flirtation occurs when both are on rowboats and culminates in another eye-popping visual, Walker’s strangulation of Elliott as seen through the image of the glasses she had formerly worn, and through the force of Walker’s sturdy hands have fallen to the grass.

Granger then receives the jolting shock of reality that Walker is anything but a bluff artist as he calls the tennis star, informs him that he has carried out his part of the bargain, and fully expects reciprocity on Granger’s part.

Dark Brooding Images

By the time of the film’s release America was immersed in the Cold War opposite the Soviet Union. Albeit Hitchcock was not a political person, as a filmmaker he was not only acutely aware of American and global trends; he knew that by incorporating familiar themes and images in his films he increased the likelihood of audiences identifying with them.

Walker could be seen as a dark totalitarian image as he was observed hovering around Washington’s familiar historical sites such as the Jefferson Memorial shrouded in darkness. While Walker represents the anarchistic challenge to established authority, the always distinguished, frequent Hitchcock character performer Leo G. Carroll appears as the cool establishment figure that stands for order and reason, seeking to comfort fears of his lovely daughter Ruth Roman and son-in-law to be Granger.

One of the film’s leading standouts from the character ranks is none other than Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, who plays the younger sister of Roman. Her native intelligence and keen detective instincts, which are displayed in two pivotal instances in the film, are reminiscent of her father’s demeanor as evidenced in his films and personal comments, many of which were presented in hosting his own successful television series.

The unyielding efforts of Walker to become a permanent influence in Granger’s life provide an additional problem beyond the obvious ones of the destruction he has wrought through strangling the tennis star’s wife and might achieve in the future. Granger is revealed as a deeply troubled young man who wants to enter the top rungs of Washington, D.C. society, which a marriage to Roman would insure, but wonders if he is cut out for such a role. As a decent but apprehensive young man, Farley Granger proves to be the perfect dramatic opposite for Robert Walker, who can display an engaging nonchalance that charms upper crust society until he reveals his darker, emotionally and mentally troubled side.

From a classical film noir standpoint, one of the film’s towering moments is when Walker is seen from the distance, once more a brooding creature of darkness, on a critical evening when Granger is discussing his plight with the distinguished senator and family. They are all aware of his haunting presence, as someone who seemingly will never go away, as Hitchcock presents an unforgettable image of the contrast between good and evil, between authority and anarchy, between death and life, between a bright and positive future and a potential plunge into oblivion.

The Hitchcock penchant for putting his audiences on the edge of continuing suspense occurs after Granger decides to visit the family mansion in Arlington, Virginia, where Walker has lived in splendor, regaling under an enabler mother amid the continuing frustration of a realistic father, The Master’s camera and lighting techniques provide one of the signature moments in film noir.

How could suspense masters endure without staircases? Hitchcock uses the staircase approach to good advantage when Granger enters the mansion and proceeds with slow, determined purpose up the staircase. As befitting the tense moment, a shadow effect is employed.

Hitchcock had plenty of drama going in this scene as is, but being the innovator he was another nail-biting dimension was inserted. A large dog was silently perched in front of the door leading to the room where Granger’s anticipated meeting would occur.

Would the dog pose a danger? When Granger’s slim, shadowy image approaches, the dog takes an instant liking to him. He pets the dog, which in turn licks his hand. Does this mean that the fates are now on Granger’s side and a successful meeting with Walker’s father is at hand?

Fascination and intrigue abound. Granger, in his sincere, straightforward manner, speaks directly to the figure sitting on the bed. It is so dark that he cannot make it out but assumes it to be Walker’s father, telling him, “Mr. Antony, your son Bruno is sick and needs help.”

After we have been conditioned to slow movements, silence and darkness, Hitchcock then unleashes angry verbal pyrotechnics. Granger has been tricked by the wily Walker. He is the figure on the bed. Walker becomes enraged over Granger’s “deceit” and in the ensuing verbal hostilities Granger strikes the man who was willing to move heaven and earth to become his lasting “friend.”

The meeting is a pivotal story point because it is then that Walker declares his determination to make Granger pay a price for spurning his offer of friendship and refusing to reciprocate in kind by killing his father after the psychopath had done him a big “favor” by killing his difficult wife.

Part 2

Strangers on a Train (1951) Part 2

Click to read Part 1

A Novel Chase Scene

Once Walker has made his declaration of vengeance against Granger he decides to plant the cigarette lighter he had taken from him in the same spot where Granger’s wife was strangled, thereby implicating Granger in her murder. His effort is bolstered by the fact that Granger and his wife had engaged in a loud argument at the record store where she is employed shortly before her death.

In the case of extending the period leading up to the dramatic argument between the film’s two chief figures, Hitchcock had done his utmost to “milk” scenes by extending suspense. Once more he leaves his audience in a nail-biting state. About the time that it is concluded one can easily wonder if Hitchcock has unleashed his full bag of tricks and has nothing more left to generate additional surprise. Such concerns were groundless.

A period of surprising suspenseful intensity occurs when Granger, faced with playing in the finals of a tennis match, realizes that a furious Walker, feeling that Granger has betrayed him, is heading to Granger’s hometown of Metcalf, Pennsylvania to plant the cigarette lighter that he hopes will be the linchpin to frame him for the murder of Granger’s wife.

In the tennis match that is filmed, utilizing as Granger’s opponent Jack Cushingham, a top professional of the period, crowd sequences were shot from actual footage at the U.S. Nationals competition at Forest Hills, New York, enhancing scenic authenticity.

As a means of extending drama, the tennis match involves Granger adopting a strategy that is inconsistent with his general deliberative style, which matches his lifestyle as well. The match’s radio commentator expresses surprise over Granger’s slashing, aggressive style of attacking the net, pressing the action against Cushingham. The viewer knows that the strategy is based on the necessity of reaching the Metcalf amusement park before Walker can accomplish his evil deed.

At one point in the match it appears that Granger’s strategy has succeeded to the point where an early victory is at hand. Once more Hitchcock prolongs suspense as the radio announcer reveals that Cushingham has made a brilliant comeback as the match is extended.

Hitchcock Assists Granger

As the match tightens close-ups are shown of a tense, perspiring Granger, who knows that time is his enemy as his determined adversary seeks to frame him for murder. The importance of time is emphasized as Granger, between volleys, sneaks peeks at the stadium clock while his face registers worried concern over the crucial nature of the moment at hand.

Once that the match ends Granger is given a timely assist from Hitchcock. No, not from Alfred Hitchcock but his daughter Patricia, the wily young sister of Ruth Roman, who knows the importance of Granger eluding the two Washington, D.C. police officers assigned to trail the then murder suspect.

Since one of the officers has a crush on Hitchcock she engages him in a brief flirtation while the less friendly partner is away, giving Granger the break he needs to make his exit and ultimately make it to Grand Central Station. At that point the race moves into high gear as Granger catches a train bound for Metcalf.

Hitchcock is part of another key scene of the film. She learns firsthand the killing urge of Walker at a wealthy aristocratic Washington party. While Walker is demonstrating murder mystery technique for an aristocratic older lady he stares piercingly at Hitchcock, who bears a striking resemblance to Granger’s wife, right down to the spectacles each wore. Hitchcock realizes that Walker is symbolically strangling Granger’s wife again as he ultimately has to be pulled off of the society matron.

Identifying with the Villain

An important scene from Strangers on a Train occurs when the audience has an opportunity to identify with the film’s villain. During the race to plant the potentially incriminating cigarette lighter, Walker drops it into the grill and to the bottom of a manhole.

A desperate Walker, proclaiming that he has lost an important family heirloom, receives the help of downtown locals who believe they are being good Samaritans, never realizing they are assisting a psychopathic killer seeking to frame an innocent man for a murder he has committed.

This interesting highly visual scene supplies yet another example of Hitchcock’s unique ability to make his characters jump through hoops in an effort to drain every conceivable drop of suspense from a scene.

The Ultimate Roman Candle?

Hitchcock was noted for setting off Roman candles in his films, visual pyrotechnics that virtually exploded while transfixing filmgoers. Perhaps the ultimate Roman candle the great director unleashed came in the culminating scene of Strangers on a Train when Granger seeks to take the cigarette lighter away from Walker while they are on a rapidly moving carousel.

Robert Burks, who had been a special effects photographer at Warner Brothers, began a lengthy collaboration with Hitchcock on Strangers on a Train. He would serve as Hitchcock’s cameraman for every film from 1950 to 1964, with the exception of Psycho.

Burks’ background in special effects was particularly helpful in the merry-go-round scene. As I wrote in my book Hitchcock and the Methods of Suspense:

“When the carousel finally breaks down there is a massive explosion. Screams are heard while bodies and machine parts fly. To achieve this dramatic effect Hitchcock took a toy carousel and photographed it being blown up by a small charge of explosives. The film was then enlarged and projected on a vast screen. Actors were strategically placed around and in front of it, creating the effect of a mob of bystanders intermingled with plastic horses and hysterical passengers in a state of great confusion. The effort to achieve order amid the reigning chaos can be said, once more, to symbolize Hitchcock’s fascination with duality, juxtaposing the cruel and anarchistic side of nature with that of orderliness and human decency.

“Given the potential of such a spine-tingling dramatic climax, Hitchcock could not resist the opportunity to once more delay the moment of resolution. An amusement park worker is compelled to crawl slowly beneath the runaway carousel, creeping slowly underneath it to finally shut off the power and bring it to a screeching halt. In true Hitchcock fashion, every slow, difficult movement was photographed. Another clever touch had the veteran amusement park employee pausing briefly to blow his nose.”

This was Robert Walker’s finally completed film and his dazzling performance culminated with his death after he was thrown violently from the carousel as he continued to cling to the precious cigarette lighter until his final moment of life, when it falls free from his previously tightly clenched hand.

A Good Price and Collaborating with Chandler

By having his agent negotiate for the rights to the Patricia Highsmith suspense novel Strangers on a Trainwhile keeping his identity hidden, Hitchcock was able to secure them for $7,500. While the low price displeased Highsmith, the American born author who wrote many more novels and lived most of her life in Paris, received name value by her attachment to one of Hitchcock’s most heralded films that endured for the remainder of her long and productive career.

Hitchcock began by collaborating on a screenplay with Raymond Chandler. Eventually the great detective author became disgusted and broke off their collaboration. The finished screenplay, nonetheless, despite Chandler’s belief that his contributing efforts had been ultimately abandoned, bears his name along with that of the person Hitchcock chose after their relationship ended, Czenzi Ormonde, who was a frequent collaborator with Ben Hecht. The veteran Hecht, who did not get involved in this project due to other commitments, had written screenplays for two of Hitchcock’s most successful films, Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946).

Chandler, despite personality conflicts, had co-written the brilliant 1944 adaptation of James Cain’s novella Double Indemnity along with the film’s director Billy Wilder, but Hitchcock’s methods appeared so alien to the master detective author that he quit in the belief that the director’s imprint would remain alone at the end of the project.

At one point during their collaboration, Chandler was quoted as stated in exasperation to the effect of, “If you can do it all by yourself then why do you need me at all?”

Chandler’s frustration stemmed from an absence of understanding Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking. Hitchcock, along with Walt Disney, used storyboards for their films, working with an artist to painstakingly present each scene in graphic detail prior to photographing scenes.

Whereas Billy Wilder followed a fundamental approach to story writing that Chandler understood, developing a screenplay scene by scene, Hitchcock began with a personal vision. That vision began with a series of graphic images that were honed into scenes, after which the appropriate dialogue and other story action unfolded.

To Alfred Hitchcock filmmaking represented visual imagery at its zenith. Those images remain immersed in the memories of anyone who viewed his films, and Strangers on a Train marked a crowning blend of skillful suspense merging with dazzling imagery.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Human Desire (1954)

Posted by JeffMarkam

Though Jean Renoir’s The Human Beast has become the more well known and well respected film, Fritz Lang’s American remake Human Desire is an equally provocative film of fate, passion, and suspense. It lacks the ‘human beast’ of the protagonist of Jean Gabin, now in the form of your average joe of Glenn Ford. Lang instead shifts focus on the twisted relationships between Broderick Crawford and Gloria Grahame.

The story has changed to lower working class New Jersey railroad workers. Glenn Ford plays engineer Jeff Warren, a returning Korean war vet who looks forward to a peaceful life at home. Meanwhile, fellow worker Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) has been fired due to his violent behavior. He begs his wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame) to talk with a higher up, Owens, whom she once knew as a child to get his job back, but when he finds about her affair with this man, it ends up in murder on a train. It is on this night that both Jeff’s and the Buckley’s lives become bound together as Vicki must distract Jeff in order for her husband to escape the scene of the crime. From that point on, Jeff gets involved in a rough passionate affair with Vicki, whose mind is set on the murder of Carl, who holds incriminating evidence against her on the murder. Lying her way through the seduction, Jeff finally wises up, and unknowingly leaves Vicki to her death at the train.

Though Jeff may be the weakest character of the trio, he takes us back to the disillusioned vets of WWII who cannot adjust to the homefront once again. Though he at first feels optimistic to return to a domestic life and possibly a romance with his best friend’s daughter Ellen (Kathleen Case), the excitement he left behind Vicki brings back into his life through their torrid affair. Ellen, introduced as a buxom brunette, gets plainer and plainer throughout the movie as he gets deeper into the affair with Vicki. The 50’s domestic life just can’t keep up with the excitement.

Gloria Grahame’s performance here is a hit and miss, but remains one of her most memorable roles. Her theatrics are a little too much in certain scenes, especially as she tries to tell Jeff of the murder and the abuse Carl has put her through, but during the scenes with Crawford we can see a deeply sexually frustrated woman who has found herself trapped into a marriage with a man who keeps her as a prized trophy rather than a wife.

Completing the deadly trio is Broderick Crawford, playing a fuse that could snap at any given moment. He brings over the uncontrollable rage of Jean Gabin from the original and gives a menacing performance. He prostitutes his wife to get what he wants, and yet is too stupid to realize she has a big sexual appetite.

Lang fully explores the entire space of the train. The cramped corridors look have become a labyrinth with no way out and compartments have become places of entrapment that lead the characters to their own doomed fate. The loud noise of the train makes two murders go unnoticed, and at one point leaves Jeff alone with his thoughts of the affair, unable to speak to anyone during his daily route.

Burnett Guffey brings out Lang’s deep shadows and expressionistic images on to screen, he would also lense other classic noirs such as The Reckless Moment, My Name is Julia Ross, and In a Lonely Place, and would later win an Oscar for Bonnie and Clyde. Daniele Amfitheatrof provides a menacing score, one of noir’s best, a harder edged version of something of Miklós Rózsa.

It’s hard to garner up respect when Human Desire has to live up to Émile Zola’s source material, Jean Renoir’s original, AND the first Lang-Ford-Grahame pairing of The Big Heat. But this is still a Fritz Lang film, plenty of doom, grittiness, and pure noir abound. Human Desire brings together the gritty realism of The Big Heat and Fury and the German Expressionism of M and Scarlet Street. It is certainly the master’s most underrated and undervalued picture because of what it has to live up to.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Sudden Fear (1952)

The Homme Fatale in Sudden Fear

“See, I’m not the kind of man who can live on his wife’s money.”

We’re twenty-four minutes into the film Sudden Fear when we realize that the main male character, actor Lester Blaine played by Jack Palance is rotten, and it’s this knowledge that acts as a suspense builder in this taut noir film—a tale of greed, adultery and murder. Up to this point, we’ve just suspected Lester’s intentions, but now our doubts are proved correct. Sudden Fear, a woman-in-jeopardy noir with Joan Crawford playing heiress, Myra Hudson—is the tale of a woman who may meet a foul end at the hands of her deceptive, less-than-loving husband, Lester. For a large chunk of the action, Myra is oblivious to her husband’s evil intentions, but since the plot lets the audience in on the threat, we are committed to the suspense from the start. As spectators, we know that Myra is in danger, and so we are riveted to Lester’s devious plan to rid himself of a wife he so obviously loathes.

Sudden Fear based on a novel by Edna Sherry, brought Crawford her third and final Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Directed by David Miller this 1952 film was the first picture Crawford made for RKO after asking to be released from her Warner Bros. contract. Crawford hated her last Warner Brothers film--This Woman is Dangerous. The film cast her in a rather spongy, implausible role as a female gangster who loses her eyesight and then turns soft and weepy when faced with a possible future as a happy little housewife. For noir fans, Sudden Fear showcases Crawford in one of her most powerful roles.

When Sudden Fear begins, wealthy playwright Myra Hudson is in New York casting for her new play. Lester Blaine lands the part of the leading man, but during rehearsals, Myra finds him lacking as a romantic hero. She abruptly, publicly, and rather callously fires him on the spot. Myra’s advisors think she’s making a mistake, but since Myra always gets her way, a disgruntled and bitter Lester exits the stage.

Myra’s play is a raging success, and she’s due to return home to San Francisco by train. Is it coincidence that Lester Blaine just happens to turn up as a passenger on the same train? Myra seems to think so, but in light of Lester’s humiliation, somehow, his statement that he has no hard feelings towards Myra just doesn’t feel right. On the train journey to San Francisco, Lester entertains and woos Myra, and by the time they reach their destination, Myra is in love. Lester seems to be the perfect lover, and he certainly has perfected the symptoms of an enamored man. He’s attentive, sensitive and gentle, and Myra, who’s smitten by the romance, seems oblivious to the differences in their ages and social status.

Myra may be swept along with Lester Blaine’s smooth style, but for audience members, that niggling doubt remains. At this point, however, Lester’s game may be mean-spirited revenge, or perhaps he’s a pathetic loser after her money. But one brilliantly constructed scene clarifies Lester’s manipulation and Myra’s vulnerability. Lester fails to show up for an evening at Myra’s splendid home, and Myra ditches her guests to seek out her missing beau. While she dashes to his hotel, we see Lester pacing back and forth, waiting only for Myra’s arrival to begin a performance that involves his pride, a suitcase and a one-way trip back to New York. It’s with this scene and its clever camera shots that Lester is revealed as the center of power in the relationship, less-than-sincere and dangerously manipulative in his professions of love.

After we become aware of Lester’s true intentions, the suspense moves away from the question of what Lester is capable of to when and how Myra will have an “accident.” The plot plays with scenes at Myra’s gorgeous coastal cliff top home. The steep stairway to the ocean, carved into rock offers the perfect location for a nasty accident. Since the audience knows that Lester has evil intentions towards his wealthy wife, we are riveted to Myra’s nimble walk (in high heels) down the rocky staircase. We can wince all we want at the spectacle of Myra’s potential danger, but we are powerless to warn her.

Another clever device used as a suspense builder by the film is the use of Myra’s recording machine. The plot reveals this nifty little piece of technology early in the film—along with a demonstration of its abilities. The machine is a crucial part of the plot, but as it turns out, machinery may be relied on for its usefulness, but it’s still subject to the vagaries of human emotion.

The plot thickens when tarty, brash Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame, one of my all-time favorite noir stars) arrives on the scene as Lester’s vicious love interest. Irene hasn’t been invited to San Francisco, but she wheedles her way into Myra’s exclusive set nonetheless. Greedy and amoral, she accelerates Lester’s desire for wealth, and together they make a lethal combination of lust, violence and murderous design. Clever camera shots of reflected images in mirrors reveal the main characters’ true emotions—Myra’s lawyer’s distrust of Lester, Irene planning murder, Lester’s mask of loving, doting husband suspended, and Myra horrified by just how far she’ll go.

The film’s plot is as well rounded as a Greek tragedy, with just desserts for those who concoct evil ends for others. But it’s the delivery of those just desserts that makes for riveting viewing. The city of San Francisco assumes a spectacular role in Sudden Fear. The film includes great shots of the city, and it’s played here as both an ambivalent setting for nefarious actions, and also as a rat’s maze in the frenzied, final action-packed scenes. The city’s inanimate beauty serves to highlight urban indifference to its inhabitants’ actions.

Sudden Fear gives Crawford a terrific role and gives her the chance to act her heart out. Here she’s the tough, cold businesswoman who melts with Lester’s continued interest. Weakened by emotion and threatened by violence, she spends one hysterical terror-filled night in the shifting shadows of her bedroom before going on the offensive in the no-one-fucks-with-Joan role fans love so much. The fact that Myra is a successful playwright is artfully weaved into the story when she imagines she can write her way out of a real-life problem just as she would write a script for one of her plays. Myra’s attempt to script her own life is seen in a series of imagined flashforward sequences. Unfortunately, since she is dealing with real people and not fictional characters, there’s an element of unpredictability that even Myra can’t anticipate. Just as the timing in a play must be precision perfect, Myra’s scheme also relies on split second sequencing. The film uses the ticking of a clock to emphasize the crucial timing involved in Myra’s plan. The clock ticks away like a metronome with the action and nerve-wracking suspense building to a frenzied, orgasmic, and deadly conclusion.

Written by Guy Savage

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Brute Force (1947)

“Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you've served your time, or when you're dead!” - Gallager (Charles Bickford) in Brute Force.

Prison films were most popular in the 1930s when dozens of movies about men serving hard time were churned out. The films were an allegory for the bigger problems in society. Depression era movie goers liked seeing prisoners in Invisible Stripes or Hell's Highway have victories -even small ones- against authority. The men, usually serving time because of mitigating circumstances, were surrounded by violent men and tried to survive despite oppressive living conditions.

In the 1940s director Jules Dassin and writer Richard Brooks succeed in making a different kind of prison film. Brute Force, unlike Dassin's next film The Naked City, is filled with an unrelenting sense of despair. Instead of the prisoners being surrounded by violent criminals a prison guard is the villain. In fact, all the prisoners in cell R17 have back stories (told in overtly romantic flashbacks) that show these guys at least in their own minds are all just victims of circumstance. Dassin later regretted not having any truly violent men populate the prison and I agree. There should be at least one person in the prison that deserves to be there. However, I liked seeing the camaraderie between convicts even when they team up to kill a stoolie or plan a prison break.

The one evil in the film is Hume Cronyn (of all people!) playing the sadistic Captain Munsey. Wearing a tight Nazi-like uniform, prison guard Munsey is power hungry and abuses the men under him either with a rubber hose or just by mental torture. The warden of the prison is weak and Munsey's control is never called into question until he finally takes over the prison.

Although Burt Lancaster is the star of the movie, the film is really about all the prisoners in cell R17 and the men that help them try to escape. The film is filled with familiar faces: Jeff Corey (Fourteen Hours, Sirocco), John Hoyt (The Come On), Charles Bickford (Fallen Angel, Whirlpool), Sam Levene (The Killers), Whit Bissell (Raw Deal, He Walked By Night), and even Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin) are prisoners. Working with but not necessarily for Captain Munsey are Art Smith (In a Lonely Place) as the drunk prison doctor and Jay C. Flippen (They Live By Night) as a kind guard.

During long hours in their cell, the R17 prisoners gaze at a pinup girl that reminds them each of a past love. They all take turns telling their tales of woman they've known outside of jail. The stories aren't all that convincing but they are entertaining - especially John Hoyt's wild night with femme fatale Flossy (Anne Colby). The flashbacks seem more like a way for Universal to have some of their leading women in the film. Playing the girlfriends and wives are a number of noir dames: Ann Blyth (Mildred Pierce), Ella Raines (Phantom Lady), and Yvonne De Carlo (Criss Cross) all make appearances.

What really drives the men to try to break from their captors is Captain Munsey. Munsey becomes so powerful he even manages to strong arm the warden. All the men's activities are taken away, parole hearings are suspended and no visitors are allowed. Finally the men have enough and Lancaster comes up with a plan based on a war-time attack explained by fellow prisoner Soldier (Howard Duff) with chess pieces. The plan is to take out the guard tower and open the gate by attacking it from two sides. They know that many will die during the break in the yard because the one machine gun in the tower will be aimed at only one of the two revolting groups. They take the chance knowing that either one of the attacks will get through while the guards are focusing on the other.

Lancaster convinces a small group of inmates that the break (only dreamed of by others) would happen 1215 the next day during their work in a sewer drain. The men object. They have no money and no plans for what to do once they do get outside the walls. Everyone knows the plans will ultimately fail but eventually they all agree to do it.

Just as Lancaster predicts, one of the men leaks information to Munsey who anticipates the break. Even so, the attack of the tower goes ahead. The break turns out to be an incredibly violent and fiery attempt (lensed by famed cinematographer William Daniels). Most of the small group are shot dead including Lancaster. He does, however, manage to kill Munsey. Unfortunately, when Lancaster gets to the switch to open the gates of the prison, he sees that Charles Bickford - in a desperate attempt to crash the gate with a truck - has actually pinned the giant gates shut. Lancaster dies at the switch frustrated that he ultimately failed.

This was Dassin's first film noir (if you don't count the light comic noir Two Smart People). In just a few years, he would go on to make The Naked City, Thieves' Highway, and his best films Night and the City and later, in 1955, Du rififi chez les hommes.

Prison films have always been popular and they still are. Brute Force managed to stand out as an original work which is a hard thing to do considering the limited amount of things you can do in a prison movie. Brute Force shows men behind bars suffering an overwhelming sense of despair which eventually builds to a violent crescendo that's still shocking today.

Written by Steve-O

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