Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Phenix City Story (1955)

Phil Karlson was never more than a B-movie director and he was proud of it. While working for Monogram Pictures the young director was paid $250 a week working on their film assembly line. In 1946, he churned out eight movies! Back then, movie companies like Monogram owned the movie theaters their films played in. This monopoly setup (later broken up) pretty much guaranteed that any B-movie -whether it was a western or crime film- Monogram churned out would turn a profit.

Monogram was known for releasing cheap predictable movies (like the later Charlie Chan and Shadow movie series) that cost the company next to nothing to produce. Karlson, who began his film career working part time while going to law school fell in love with movie making. He worked his way up the ranks doing every movie job going from prop man to, after serving in World War II, film director. Eventually Karlson was put under contract by Monogram Pictures.

In the late 1940s, the chiefs at Monogram, wanting to make their brand appear more artistic to film goers and newspaper critics, began putting out bigger budget films under their new name Allied Artists. Karlson (who made AA's first “important” picture, Black Gold) was asked to begin making better (more expensive) movies. The Karlson-directed AA crime films released in the 1950s where far from being big-budget A films, but they were a long way from the 4 or 5 day movie shoots with no budget cheapies Karlson cut his teeth with. One of Karlson's best was one released in 1955, The Phenix City Story. True, Karlson churned out five movies that year for Allied Artists and Columbia Pictures, but this one stood out for its gritty realism due to the film being shot in the Alabama town during the same time the actual trial for the real-life killing was taking place.

The highly fictionalized story was based on fact. In 1954, in a series of events that no doubt reminded Karlson of his youth in Al Capone-era Chicago, became famous when reporters dubbed the Alabama town “Sin City.” Drugs were sold openly, prostitutes solicited johns on the street corners, and sleazy clubs offered gambling. Not seen by the citizens and army men from Fort Benning that visited the town for pleasure were other even more sleazy rackets including a safe-cracking school and a black-market baby ring. It wasn't until the state's attorney general elect - who campaigned with the promise that he would clean up the city --was murdered in 1954 did the citizens demand action against the criminal element. After the killing, the national guard was sent in and the major crime bosses fled. This was exactly the type of story that B-thriller semidocumentaries were made from. And it was -- the very next year.


Karlson and his film crew arrived in Alabama set out to make The Phenix City Story during a media circus. The small city was swarmed by newspaper men and television reporters following the murder trial and writing feature stories about the men and women who grew up in “Sin City.” Apparently quite the story teller, Karlson at the time credited himself with digging up information that helped convict the killers during filming.

The film was released in 1955. Under the direction of a lesser director the film would have probably been totally forgotten today. Karlson's insistence on shooting the film on the city's notorious fourteenth street gave the film a dark city feel other Karlson films were known for. The director even had actor John McIntire wear the suit Albert Patterson (the real-life local attorney that was helping lead the effort to clean up the city) was killed in. Writers Crane Wilbur and Dan Mainwaring add a lot of fiction to the true story. Karlson, Wilber and Mainwaring set out to capture the sleaziness of the city by adding a number of violent characters doing unspeakable acts including the dumping of a dead child from a car that has to been seen to be believed.

There's no real star of the film. Top-billed Richard Kiley (Pickup on South Street) plays the son of the famous local lawyer who returns to his home town after a stint in the service and quickly makes enemies with the crime syndicate. His performance is fine but McIntire as his father, the evil mobster played by Edward Andrews (who slinks around town asking of everyone is OK when the citizenry knows that he's the mob boss) and John Larch as the cretinous Clem Wilson stand out with strong performances.

Some of the supporting players are good in it too. Kathryn Grant plays one of the locals who hates all the gambling and crime in the city but ends up working for them anyway because the pay is good. Later she plays a key role in the story. James Edwards plays Zeke. He plays the only prominent African American in the film - which is a bit ridiculous. Zeke and his family go through hell in the story and Edwards (a familiar face for noir fans: He was the parking attendant Timothy Carey deals with in The Killing -- a scene that's pretty hard to forget) does a great job playing a nice guy in the wrong place and time.

The newsreel-like ending and scroll that tells how the city is now squeaky clean (which is wasn't in 1955 even after all the drama) doesn't take away from the film maker's message. The film successfully shows that part of 1950s American society is sometimes totally corrupt and that corruption ultimately consumes powerless individuals. The message is unlike Warner Bros. gangster films of the 30s with their "good citizen reformist" message.

A few more tidbits about the film:

The film sometimes is seen with a very long newsreel-like introduction entitled “Report from Phenix City, Alabama” in which a reporter interviews locals about the city's clean up. Thankfully, the copy of the film I have has it edited out. I did find it on YouTube:

The prologue doesn't fit in with the rest of the film and I wonder if it was added to the film by someone other than director Karlson as an after thought or even to pad the length of the film.

There's lot of Karlson films worth seeking out (however only Kansas City Confidential is easily available). Film noir fans today get a thrill out of the newspaper noir Scandal Sheet (1952), Tight Spot (1955), 5 Against the House (1955), and the three John Payne thrillers: 99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential and the color Maltese Falcon ripoff Hell's Island. Phenix City Story is also similar in theme to Karlson's greatest box-office success Walking Tall - a guilty pleasure of mine.

After the release of Phenix City Story Karlson was hired by Desilu studios to direct The Scarface Mob - the movie that would be the start of The Untouchables TV series. Desilu chief Desi Arnaz saw The Phenix City Story and wanted Karlson to make his new show The Untouchables look like that. Although Karlson felt that directing for television was a step down, he finally agreed and ended up creating the dark gritty look The Untouchables was known for.

Written by Steve-O

Monday, May 26, 2008

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

Aging, Loyalty and the Existentialist Hero in Touchez pas au grisbi

“I’ll never be in your shoes, knucklehead.”

Aging and betrayal will throw a wrench into any criminal career. While aging is inevitable, loyalty amongst thieves and establishing a network of reliable friends are crucial elements for survival. Touchez pas au grisbi (AKA Hands Off the Loot) a 1954 flawless French film noir from director Jacques Becker confronts the issues of aging and loyalty head-on through the life of world-weary, middle-aged gangster Max (Jean Gabin)—a seasoned criminal and Existentialist protagonist who faces a crisis. He’s pulled off his last job, netted 50 million in gold bars from a robbery, and now all that’s left is a peaceful retirement. But Max’s enemies have other plans….

When the film begins, Max and his long-time associate Riton (Rene Dary) are out for a night on the town with their girlfriends Lola (Dora Doll) and Josy (Jeanne Moreau). Max moves in a unique world—frequenting restaurants, clubs and hotels that cater almost exclusively to the criminal crowd. In Max’s sphere, he has a certain reputation and is well respected. The evening begins at a restaurant that is closed to outsiders but full of gangsters. A group of wandering “squares” discovers that they are unable to get a table and are quickly encouraged to go elsewhere. While Josy and Lola want the night to continue, Max, who seems worn with his own affluence, makes it clear that he’d rather be in bed sleeping: “after midnight, I always feel like I’m doing overtime.”

Lola and Josy are dancers at a small cheesy nightclub owned and operated by Max’s friend, Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) also known as ‘Fats.’ After leaving the restaurant, Max and Riton take Lola and Josy over to the club. Max is clearly the power figure in the group, and uninterested in camouflaging his boredom, he’s capable of silencing the others with just one look. Josy, Lola and Riton watch Max’s expressions to gauge his mood, hoping to pick up cues for behavior. With a jaded eye, Max watches the club’s clientèle. He’s not enjoying himself; he’s just going through the motions.

Immaculately groomed, laconic and self-contained, Max could pass as a well-heeled businessman. Treated by his acquaintances with obsequious respect and admiration, Max holds court wherever he goes, but on those rare occasions when he speaks, any illusion that Max is a businessman is shattered. He’s a cold, calculating gangster—one of the best in his profession. But Max is aging, and some of his young rivals hope that Max is slipping.

Complications begin to arise in Max’s life at the nightclub when he’s asked to “referee a spat” between Fats and Angelo (Lino Ventura), a gangster who provides narcotics to nightclub patrons. Angelo wants to place his man Ramon in the club to sell to users, but Fats objects. Fats doesn’t like Ramon, but perhaps he also feels that Angelo is out of line. Max’s role as “referee” creates a subtle, symbolic power statement. Fats takes his orders from Max—not Angelo. And Max decides to offer the job to his man, Marco (Michel Jourdan) instead. As far as Max and Fats are concerned, the matter is closed.

Film noir sometimes creates male characters who lead impeccable lives but who are led off the straight and narrow by the femme fatales they meet. Two-timing Josy comes closest to the definition of the ‘bad’ woman in the film, and while her devious ways may fool Riton, Max doesn’t have any time for her games. When it comes to women, there’s not an ounce of sentimentality in Max. In fact, he warns Riton “start spoiling a broad, and she’ll take off.” Some film reviewers argue that Max is a gentleman, a romantic, but I’d argue that Max’s true friendships and loyalties are kept for men while the women he uses are interchangeable.

At first glance, Max may seem to be a ladies’ man. He seems to have women stashed all over Paris, and his fellow gangsters admire his sexual appetite, wondering to themselves ‘how does he do it?’ He’s careful, however, to make sure he has a woman placed strategically where he needs one—Fats’s nightclub, the office of the fence, Oscar (Paul Ottely) and a fancy society dame he can use to decorate his arm for a night out on the town when he’s in the mood. In one great scene, Max visits the flat of Betty (Marilyn Buferd), a woman who’s obviously socially a step above the other women in Max’s life--Josy, Nana (Lucilla Solivani) and Hughette (Delia Scala). Betty calls him into her bedroom and asks him if he loves her. He hesitates, lights a cigarette and tells her “just a second” before he joins her in bed. This small but telling, carefully crafted moment reveals that Max is not a man to be carried away with the passion of the moment. He’s cautious, calculated and methodical—from his criminal career to the women he selects. There are no mistakes and no accidents. Max always keeps women in their place, and unlike Riton, he never makes the fatal mistake of trusting them.

If Max has an Achilles’ heel, it is his long-term relationship with Riton. Angelo knows that when you’re a friend of Max’s, you’re a friend “for life.” Everyone in Max’s circle understands they can count on Max, but can he count on them? And it’s through Riton that Angelo calculates a powerful blow against Max.

Touchez pas au grisbi, based on a novel by Albert Simonin,is a marvelous example of classic French noir, and the role of Max fits veteran actor, WWII tank commander Jean Gabin like a glove. Filmed in gorgeous black and white, and released by Criterion in 2005, most of the scenes take place at night. Shadows on faces and shadows on the wall underscore this atmospheric film and the shady activities everyone’s engaged in—bank robbery, fencing stolen goods, narcotics distribution, murder, betrayal and revenge.

As the film’s tension builds to its startling, violent crescendo, Touchez pas au grisbi becomes not just a story of how Max defends his turf, but also a fascinating study of its Existentialist main character. The film begins with impeccably dressed Max bored to death in a nightclub where he plays escort to his bimbo girlfriend. This is a role that Max does not enjoy, and he watches older men making idiots of themselves with young girls. He rues the position that he finds himself in, remarking to Riton that in the good old days, they would be at home waiting for their women to bring home the loot for them. This hint of past days of pimping and prostitution has been replaced with the veneer of respectability and affluence, and now in Max’s late middle age, he finds his power under assault while Riton is cuckolded.

After a narrow escape from death, Max sheds his bored bourgeois persona as he morphs into the perfect Existentialist hero, embodying Sartre’s edict that “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” Sartre argues “the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.” And we see this clearly in Max as he awakens from his inactivity created by affluence and society and he launches back into action. Max’s well-heeled patina is rapidly stripped away to reveal a methodical crime baron who’s in his element when he’s at war with his enemies and defending his turf.

One of the greatest and most revealing scenes in the film shows Max taking Riton to a secret, safe hideaway that’s equipped with food, blankets and even pajamas. After recouping a stash of machine guns, it becomes clear that retirement brings a lifestyle Max despises. For Max, crime is not just about wealth accumulation; he’s a consummate professional, and it’s only in a criminal life that Max is in his element taking care of loyalties and obligations—taking care of business.


Written by Guy Savage

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Steel Trap (1952) and A Blueprint for Murder (1953)

Andrew L. Stone Double Feature

With few readily recognizable titles in his oeuvre, and no flashy signature style to speak of, filmmaker Andrew L. Stone's impact on Hollywood during his lengthy career might be deemed negligible. The serious noirhead will look back a bit more fondly though, recalling the flurry of well-crafted and often location-shot thrillers Stone wrote, directed, and collaborated on with his wife - editor and producer Virginia Stone.

Having spent decades helming musical comedies and biopics, Stone spent most of the 50s immersed in Noir, creating several tasteful pop thrillers that reward viewers with their crisply efficient screenplays, and his blissfully unselfconscious direction.

'The Steel Trap' (1952) Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright.

A crackerjack nail-biter, and Stone's third noir after the harsh 'Highway 301' and little-seen 'Confidence Girl', 'Trap's lean plot concerns happily married bank manager Jim Osbourne's fall-from-grace - the result of his exiting work one Friday with quite a bit more than pilfered paper clips. Long-suppressed temptation finally gets the best/worst of Jim (Cotten), so he sets into motion a contrivance which if successfully executed will land he and mislead wife Laurie (Wright) in balmy Brazil - where the extradition laws will make them untouchable. With obstacles and speed bumps littering his path, the novice absconder narrowly dodges detection while attempting to keep his wholesome Laurie in the dark long enough to get away - but the authorities are not what Jim must fear most..

Perhaps less intrinsically dramatic than noirs featuring protagonists who succumb to self-destructive criminal impulses out of lust or desperation (see 'Try And Get Me'), 'Trap' remains an engrossing slice of audience-friendly noir, and boasts the presence of two immensely likeable leads.

'A Blueprint For Murder' (1953) Joseph Cotten, Jean Peters.

Stone's second collaboration with Cotten resulted in a winner as well. In 'Blueprint' he's Whitney 'Cam' Cameron, a brother-in-law who grows suspicious of his late brother's attractive widow Lynne (Peters) when he learns that her step-daughter has died under shady circumstances - and that the 'untimely' loss of her other stepchild would bring her a big pay-day. Long-smitten with the raven-haired beauty, Cam now struggles with the notion that she may in fact be a sociopathic murderess - with his beloved young nephew in her sights. So fearful of her intentions, Cam goes to extreme and dangerous lengths to cast light on what he believes to be the awful truth, and save the innocent boy.

Another dry, linear thriller from the filmmaker who would go on to make the tense hostage flick 'The Night Holds Terror', and the exiting woman-in-peril yarn 'Julie', 'Murder' hits the ground running and flows in almost real time. We quickly grow to like and support Cotten's urbane Uncle Cam, and feel his bittersweet pain when his longing for Lynne surfaces.

The under appreciated Peters ('Niagara', 'Pickup on South Street') shines here, and her performance never for a moment slips into ham-and-cheese 'bad girl' histrionics. Her measured portrayal complements the low-key Cotten's, and elevates this 'b' production to a B+.

'Blueprint' is now available on commercial DVD,but 'Trap' is a film that can presently only be obtained in bootleg form (not that I would know anything about that.)

Written by Dave

Monday, May 12, 2008

Red Lights (aka Feux rouges 2004)

Red Lights: The Portrait of a Marriage

“I’ll drive nicely, carefully, without going off the tracks. You know which tracks I mean?”

Some married couples shouldn’t go on holiday together, and that rapidly becomes apparent in the 2004 French neo-noir thriller Red Lights (Feux rouges). The film is from director Cédric Kahn whose credits include L’Ennui—a story of sexual obsession and Roberto Succo—a tale based on the life and crimes of a psychopathic killer. Red Lights is a subtle exploration of the power struggle in a troubled marriage set against the couple’s explosive clash with a violent criminal.

When Red Lights begins, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) e-mails his wife, lawyer Helene (played by former model Carole Bouquet) from his office. It’s a giddy, romantic e-mail in which Antoine confesses that he feels like he’s on his “first date.” Antoine and Helene have arranged to meet at 5 pm, with the plan to drive into the country to pick up their two children from camp. Then they intend to stay with Helene’s parents for their annual holiday, but things begin to go wrong immediately. Although the idea was to get a head start on the more than 2 million cars on the road for the holiday weekend, one delay after another occurs. Antoine broods in a café while he waits for Helene to arrive. The romanticism of Antoine’s e-mail fades into the background as he seethes at Helene’s tardiness.

Further delays in the shape of a late dinner and long-delayed packing push back the departure time even further. There’s the sense that both Antoine and Helene are deliberately delaying getting into the car. After one flash of emotional disconnect, Antoine begins hitting the booze, and by the time they finally get on the road, there’s already a degree of tension. The film foreshadows disaster through continual radio broadcasts of horrific car accidents, a scene of a stalled car smoking on the side of the road, and the unsettling news that a violent criminal has escaped from prison and is on the loose somewhere in the area.

As evening sets in, the atmosphere in the car becomes tense. A subtle game is afoot with Antoine in the power seat as the driver, and Helene as the long-suffering recipient of his erratic behavior. Stuck together in that small space, even the selection of the radio station has overtones that lead back to their troubled marriage. Antoine’s feelings of inferiority, fed by jealousy morph into almost devilish delight at his ability to annoy Helene. Helene, on the other hand, assumes icy disapproval and disdain, and this naturally shrivels her husband’s ego, goading him even further. As the psychological game between this unhappily married couple continues, Antoine’s desire for constant whisky refills needles Helene beyond endurance. Since piercing Helene’s armor of icy remoteness translates into a score for Antoine, he’s blithely unconcerned with his descent into drunkenness. Stopping at every bar’s beckoning neon sign, he continues to down double whiskies with alarming rapidity knowing full well that he’s pushing his wife to the brink.

Antoine imagines, however, that because he has the car keys, he has the power position. After stopping at yet another bar, Helene threatens to leave if Antoine goes inside. Thinking he’s checkmated Helene’s protests, Antoine cockily grabs the keys and swaggers into the bar. When he returns, Helene has vanished….

Red Lights is a faithful adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel; it is one of the few Simenon novels set in America, but the film version is set in France. Simenon, an extremely prolific writer is perhaps best remembered for his series of Maigret novels, but he also penned the dark, psychologically complex romans durs (a literal translation—‘hard novels’), perfect material for noir film. A common theme in the romans durs is the story of a middle-aged man, middle-class and respectable who steps out of the bounds of his normal life into the shadowy netherworld habituated by drifters, criminals, and prostitutes. This main character often discovers that his previous life of conformity is not a matter of choice but a matter of conditioning. Antoine is one such character. Away from the confines of his insurance company cubicle, behind the wheel of a car, and disinhibited by alcohol, he goes “off the tracks.” Reversing the marital power roles, in the close confinement of the car, he keeps feeding his wife’s disapproval and becomes giddy with his perceived triumphs.

But when Antoine’s wife disappears, he flips back into his husbandly role, charging after a departing train and irrationally screaming as it leaves the station. As Antoine searches in the night for his missing wife, he picks up a husky young drifter—a violent escaped prisoner (Vincent Deniard). At first it’s not clear if Antoine is aware of his passenger’s identity, but as Antoine negotiates various roadblocks, his triumph at evading the police reveals that he is fully aware that his passenger is a fugitive. He clearly worships the prisoner equating heroic masculinity with violence, the rejection of domesticity, and the defiance of authority. Calling the criminal a “prince among men,” and a “real man,” Antoine fawns and grovels. There’s an irony here. Antoine rejected his inferior position with his wife arguing that he was sick of “playing the good little doggie,” yet the criminal eventually sickened by Antoine’s groveling drunken homage also compares Antoine to his dog.

One section of the film includes Hitchcockian style camera shots with close ups of Antoine driving drunkenly through the night, sporting a beatific, idiotic grin delighted with the neon lights blinking off in the distance. This is a gorgeous scene that creates a dream-like gliding sensation as Antoine drives through the darkness, oblivious to his danger and his missing wife’s fate. Other scenes show neon signs beckoning to travelers in the night, shadows on the lonely road, moths dancing in the headlights, and the car’s red taillights illuminating trees in a remote, dark wood. The film uses flashbacks in several key scenes in the film, revealing the pathological history of a troubled marriage, and a show down between Antoine and his passenger is revealed in the form of a nightmare.

A great deal of the film takes place at night, on the road—with the sense of impending doom gathering as night falls. Similarly, when daylight returns the violence is over, and all that remains is to pick up the pieces and continue….

Written by Guy Savage

Monday, May 05, 2008

I See a Dark Stranger (1946)

Posted by Tim (Mappin and Webb Ltd.)

Dir. Frank Launder

The Irish antipathy toward the British is perhaps renowned as much as their elephant like memories of English oppression in Ireland over the course of many centuries. During World War II Ireland (the southern Republic of Erie, not the Protestant British controlled north) was a neutral country. While there was no love for the Nazis from then President of the Irish republic Éamon de Valera, the republic’s declared neutrality during the war was founded in the historically acrimonious relationship between the two neighboring countries. Aside from these historical matters, the Irish have been known to enjoy a pint of stout at the pub where they also ritualistically spin tall tales and sing songs. At a public house (pub) in the small Irish town of Ballygarry, such pastimes are indulged and set the scene for one young woman’s adventure in the unconventional but highly entertaining thriller, I See a Dark Stranger.

Bridie Quilty (Deborah Kerr) is a 21 year old Irish lass who over the years working in the family pub, has been nourished with a steady diet of stories about brave militant Irish Nationalists fighting the English. According to one local blarney filled storyteller at the pub, her now deceased father and his former comrade Michael O'Callaghan practically held off the English army by themselves during the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion. Bridie knows these tales by heart, which also serves as a catalyst to stoke the fires of her white hot hatred for the British. Upon her 21st birthday Bridie makes good on her long ago hatched plan to leave Ballygarry for Dublin. Her intention is to meet Michael O’Callaghan and convince him that she is as full of conviction for the cause of an Ireland without an English presence, as her father once championed. Bridie’s ultimate goal is O’Callaghan serving as a conduit for her dream of joining the Irish Republican Army. O’Callaghan (Brenfi O’Rorke) is now a museum curator who has embraced diplomacy over violence in his twilight years. Bridie is crushed by her perception of O’Callaghan’s turncoat attitude toward the cause. She’s equally flummoxed as to where she can direct her untapped energy toward revenge on the British. But Bridie’s loathing of limeys has not gone unnoticed by a nefarious element with his eyes on the young woman’s potential.

Bridie has a difficult time keeping her sentiments about the British to herself and has a less than pleasant exchange on the train to Dublin with an English gentleman in her compartment named Miller (Raymond Huntley). Miller is in fact a Nazi spy and recognizes Bridie’s hatred for the British and comely looks as valuable assets to be exploited for his latest mission: Miller must attempt to free a captive Nazi agent Oscar Pryce (David Ward) who’s being held in England. Pryce has obtained and stashed the invaluable information of when and where D-Day is going to take place. Miller clandestinely recruits Bridie under the guise of his supposed allegiance to the I.R.A. for his actual Nazi agenda.

Bridie travels to the English village of Wynbridge with Miller where Pryce is being held. She gets a job at the local pub and under Miller’s guidance, uses her feminine wiles to extract information from the local British intelligence officers in charge of guarding the captive Nazi agent. It is also in this setting of Wynbridge where Miller orders Bridie to stymie a newly arrived British officer Lt. David Baynes (Trevor Howard). Miller believes Baynes is an undercover intelligence officer sent to Wynbridge for overseeing the transfer of the Nazi spy for interrogation. It is during this transfer where Miller plans to free the spy and gather his invaluable intelligence; with Baynes occupied by Bridie, snatching Pryce back and obtaining his information should prove easier. The plan goes awry and Pryce is killed by English M.P.s, but not before telling Miller where a small notebook containing the D-Day intelligence is hidden on the British Isle of Man. Miller is also shot in the fracas and bleeding profusely, but he eludes the British military and returns under cover of night to Bridie. His final dying action is bestowing his mission upon Bridie; the paramount task of getting the information of the notebook’s whereabouts to German intelligence. If she succeeds, Bridie will unknowingly render the Allied invasion impotent by eliminating the element of surprise, which will subsequently translate into heavy Allied fatalities.

Bridie accepts Miller’s mission for her but does so unaware she is still a Nazi pawn. Bridie believes all the espionage she’s embroiled in is for sabotaging the British foothold in Ireland, not potentially cutting off the allied invasion at the knees. Lt. Baynes meanwhile has fallen hard for Bridie and follows her to the Isle of Man. Baynes unwittingly helps Bridie along the way with her mission making him an accomplice by proxy. When Bridie finally recovers the notebook on the Isle of Man she realizes its true contents and the ramifications for the Allies if it comes into possession by the Nazis. Both she and Baynes are caught in the dilemma of having British intelligence pursuing them for helping the Nazis and having Nazi agents after them for the D-Day notebook. It’s an extremely sticky situation that exponentially increases the tension for the two protagonists and pleasure for the viewer.

I See a Dark Stranger is not what many would consider a traditional film noir. The script, by writers Sidney Gilliat and Wolfgang Wilhelm, seemingly contains many film genres: spy thriller, comedy, action, and suspense. The elements of film noir are well represented here however. Firstly the film looks fantastic as director Frank Launder keeps much of the film shrouded in wonderfully shot chiaroscuro lighting. It’s a noticeably welcome departure from what noir fans are used to seeing with the same noir lighting techniques applied in unconventional settings of British pubs, cramped rustic quarters and village streets. The camera work and editing are also noteworthy, especially in a wonderfully harrowing (and humorous) scene in a train compartment where Bridie must make contact with a fellow spy while not knowing which person in the compartment is the one she’s looking for. Another kudos worthy scene is Bridie disposing of Miller’s body under the ruse of giving “Grandpa”, the owner of the pub where she’s working undercover in Wynbridge England, his evening constitutional. It’s during these constitutionals which she pushes him around town in his wheelchair once a night for some fresh air. Trying to transport Miller’s corpse disguised as Grandpa to the town’s cliff side (where she can dump his body unnoticed) has its own set of problems for Bridie to contend with. These include being hit on by the local blokes, chatted up by a Bobby, and all the while maneuvering Miller’s body in the wheelchair through the town’s congested foot traffic. The scene’s conclusion is revisited in a stylishly terse flashback later in the film that fits surprisingly well in its non-linear fashion. In keeping with integral noir elements is the pervasive sense of dread Bridie and Baynes experience through much of the film. Not only is the viewer’s awareness of Bridie being manipulated and hoping that she will see her error compound the sense of dread, but she and Baynes are being chased by British intelligence and the Nazis as well. Danger seems to be coming at them from every angle leaving the viewer exasperated as to what fate they will encounter and from whom.

What sets this film apart from others of the time is Launder’s clever playfulness with cultural stereotypes, perceived histories and political ideologies. Launder skillfully gives his characters their latent set of opposing aforementioned beliefs, and lets the impact between them (especially between Bridie and Baynes) not only add depth to the script, but also propel the narrative in a unique and refreshing manner. Through these character collisions, the depth in the persona of Bridie Quilty really shines. Right before Miller’s recruitment of her, Bridie sits across from him on the train to Dublin at the beginning of the film. Her thoughts in a voice-over reveal she thinks Miller looks like a nice, well kempt, kind gentleman. She then notices the ID tag on his suitcase says “Miller.” Her goodhearted thoughts change quickly as she thinks to herself, “Miller, that can’t be an Irish name. He’s English!...I might have known. Will you look at the cruel set of his jaw, you could mistake him for Cromwell” (referring to 17th century British military and political leader Oliver Cromwell for whom the Irish hold the utmost contempt.) Through this type of scripted humor and pure acting talent, Deborah Kerr does a marvelous job of pulling off the character that in less adroit hands could have easily disintegrated into a one-dimensional trite stereotype. I found Trevor Howard’s Lt. David Baynes initially annoying as the typical stiff upper lip, King and county first type character. However, Launder uses this stereotype (and Howard’s acting chops to nail it) as a dramatic contrast and comedic foil to Kerr’s fiery Bridie Quilty. The rest of the cast are great, especially the performances by Raymond Huntley as Miller and Gary Marsh as the Isle of Man’s incompetent and womanizing Captain Goodhusband.

Where the film shows weakness derives from the occasional shifts between the dramatic and comedic modes. During the majority of the film Launder pulls off the mix nicely, but in a few places the comedy seems unsuitable. The film’s ending of fisticuffs between Nazi agents and Baynes is directed with a heavy slapstick hand that seems too incongruous with the rest of the film’s skillful balance between the movie’s suspenseful majorities, occasionally punctuated with comedy.

The story has nice complexities that work for it, but conversely it’s slightly confusing in a few minor aspects as I felt a second viewing was requisite to fully grasp it all. With that said, the intricacy and unconventionality of the script are its greatest assets. Director Launder and writer Sidney Gilliat co-wrote the script for arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest British film The Lady Vanishes (1938). Their filmmaking pedigrees are only buttressed by the collaboration on I See a Dark Stranger, as it stands up over time as a unique thriller. The film will keep the viewer invested in its masterful story to which even the most cantankerous fable telling, blarney filled Irishman would no doubt raise a pint in approval.

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