Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Sorry, Wrong Number was originally a half-hour radio script written by Lucille Fletcher. It was a huge hit. Agnes Moorehead performed the drama to radio-listening audiences seven times from 1943 to 1948. The story had such a strong following, Fletcher fleshed out the tale and turned it into a best-selling novel and later the script for the classic film noir.

Unlike the radio drama - which was a virtual monologue by Moorehead - the film uses flashbacks to flesh out the story. As mentioned in Silver and Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Stylethe stretched-out story ends up taking away a lot of the suspense the radio drama sustained for it's 30 minutes, but the film does capture a sense of entrapment often felt in film noir.

In addition to the flashbacks the second notable difference between the radio drama and the Gothic melodrama is the casting of the bedridden Leona Stevenson. Moorehead is one hell of an actress not only on radio but in film. In addition to her classic role in The Magnificent Ambersons, her strong supporting role in movies like Dark Passage made her one of best secondary actors of the 40s. Moorehead, however, wasn't a leading lady. Station West director Sidney Lanfield went so far as to call her “hatchet face”. I imagine producer Hal B. Wallis felt the hugely popular radio story needed a bigger star for the movie so he got one of the biggest - Barbara Stanwyck. If Bogart was the king of noir, then surely Stanwyck was the queen. Her powerful presence on screen made her the ultimate black widow in noir. Stanwyck's performance in Sorry, Wrong Number is so powerful the audience sympathy - unlike the radio drama - actually shifts to her not-so-bright would-be-killer husband played by the miscast Burt Lancaster.


The story begins in Leona Stevenson's gruesomely lavish bedroom. Stevenson, decked out in full makeup and lace, is a wealthy New York heiress. A recent invalid, she's confined to a wheelchair. That night she's left alone in her room in her elegant bed with only a telephone to connect her to the outside world. The servants are away and she's left trapped in the huge house. She tries repeatedly to contact her husband at his office, but keeps getting a busy signal. Finally Stevenson finds herself connected but she quickly realizes that she's listening to someone else's phone call. She hears two men talking about killing a woman somewhere in the city that night. She hangs up and calls back the operator and the police trying to report the planned murder. She's ignored. Desperate to hear from her husband, she finally receives a call. Unfortunately, it's from her millionaire father calling to see if she'll move back in with him. Stevenson tries to tell the pharmaceutical king about the strange call earlier. Even her rich father doesn't take the call seriously. Stevenson gets even more frantic in her efforts to talk to her missing husband. Working the phone to try to get anyone that will listen, Stevenson gets in contact with her husband's secretary who tells her about a mysterious beautiful woman who visited his office earlier in the day. With these phone calls, a series of flashbacks gradually reveal the events of the past leading up to the present day. It soon become obvious that it's her henpecked husband that wants her dead in an attempt to inherit her estate to pay off a blackmailer. Fear envelopes the woman when she realizes the conversation she heard earlier in the night was not about an unknown woman being killed but herself.

As mentioned earlier, the film does capture a sense of entrapment. Stevenson never talks to anyone face to face until the fatal ending. She's trapped in her room - that she obviously doesn't share with her husband- that's overly decorated with frilly stuff and a giant painting of her father. Director Anatole Litvak cleverly uses flashbacks (aside from the voice-over, the flashback is the most distinctive device in film noir) not only to flesh out the story but to make the woman feel more isolated. There's a palpable sense of claustrophobia whenever the view is left alone with Leona.

Leona Stevenson's father, doctor, and husband's old flame all get on the phone and tell tales that lead to flashbacks going as far back as Leona “the Cough Drop Queen” Stevenson's college years. As J. P. Telotte writes in Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir:"in multiplying narrators and viewpoints a film like Sorry, Wrong Number it unleashes a nightmare of potential that always haunts the noir world - the potential of ambiguity, of multiple, indeterminate meanings, and of a self that is subject to unseen, unsensed forces."

With the help of these flashbacks we learn more about Leona Stevenson's life. Her husband is a knucklehead for one. Played by Lancaster (who made his film debut two years earlier in The Killers), Henry Stevenson is a weak minded guy from the sticks. He's stolen from his sweetheart by the manipulating Leona at a school dance and eventually marries her. He's made a vice president of her father's company but is miserable. James Cotterell hates his son-in-law and makes Henry unhappy. Tired of feeling used by his wife and father-in-law Henry starts stealing goods from the company. That eventually leads to mobsters swooping in and taking what Henry stole. Henry, in a pinch and desperate for cash, arranges to have his wife killed to collect her estate. Lancaster is young and good looking in the role but I have a hard time believing he'd be so manipulated by everyone around him. Some will say that he adds some verisimilitude to the proceedings - especially since Stanwyck is so over the top - but I disagree.

Leona Stevenson's father James Cotterell is played by the wonderful noir regular Ed Begley. He, like his daughter, is a control freak. His home office is filled wall-to-wall with trophies from hunting trips. Mixed in with all the stuffed dead animals are pictures and paintings of his beloved daughter Leona. He clearly wants to control her and keep her. It's revealed later in the film (by the family doctor played by Stanwyck's future File on Thelma Jordon co-star Wendell Corey) that Leona suffers from a bad heart that made her an invalid as a child and again after her husband tried to stand up to her. Even more interesting is the fact that nothing is physically wrong with the woman's heart. It's all in her head. I have no doubt that Leona's father is manipulated by his daughter using that illness as much as her husband is.

The film is filled with coincidences. For one, what are the chances that someone would hear a crossed-lined call from somewhere in the city where the talkers would actually be talking about them? The other big coincidence is the fact that Henry's old flame (Sally Hunt Lord played by Ann Richards) who visits him earlier in the evening is actually married to the city district attorney that is investigating Henry. Luckily - but a little too late - for Leona that these two events happen. Otherwise she'd be totally in the dark about her planned killing. Of course maybe it's fate that's making these coincidences happen. Was it possibly done in an attempt to make a miserable woman fearful in her last hours?

I found the film hard to warm up to at first. There isn't a likable character in the whole movie. As I mentioned, Leona is so strong a character that I tend to root for her husband to get away with it all. I also can't help but think of the clips of an hysterical Stanwyck edited into Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid whenever I see this movie. Those scenes of her just losing it out of the context of the original film are just plain funny. I think I like the movie more now than I did a few years ago thanks to some fine supporting role players. In addition to the leads, William Conrad (one of Lancaster's Killers) and Wendell Corey (wonderfully drunk in The File on Thelma Jordon) always are welcome in any film I watch.

Finally, the appropriately bombastic score by Franz Waxman and the claustrophobic cinematography by director of photography Sol Polito make Sorry, Wrong Number a slick big budget drama that can stand alone from the hugely popular radio play.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud 1958)

Murder--A Matter of Luck and Timing: Elevator to the Gallows

“We’ll only be together in the headlines.”

Director Louis Malle was just 25 years old when his first non-documentary feature Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud) was released in June 1958. With two shorts and a documentary he co-directed with Jacques Costeau under his belt, Malle set out to make a commercial B-level movie in order to get funding for future films. The result is the suspenseful, perfectly crafted and beautifully photographed Elevator to the Gallows re-released in 2006 by Criterion.Based on the French pulp fiction novel by Noël Calef, and with the story set to a haunting Miles Davis score,this noir tale of adultery and murder is tempered by a chain of ill-fated events. No matter how slick a plan is, no matter how well it’s executed, it’s always the unexpected events, the things that you can’t plan for that ultimately trip up the murderer’s scheme.

The film begins with a phone call between Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). It’s a frantic phone call with more than an edge of desperation. The camera focuses on close ups of the mouths of these lovers as they pour their anguish and passion into the telephone. But aside from all the words of love, Florence and Julien are finalizing their plans to murder her husband, wealthy middle-aged arms dealer Simon Carala (Jean Wall).

It seems to be the perfect plan. Julien, who works for Carala, is a former paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion. He’s served in Indochina and Algeria, and his experiences have left him fit, bitter and more than capable of murder. Combined with the fact that he despises Carala for reaping fat profits from war, he also wants his boss’s wife, and so with the motive and justification, Julien now waits for the perfect opportunity. His proximity to Carala gives him that opportunity, but he needs an alibi.

Julien’s well mapped out plan depends on precision timing and easy access to Carala. Julien is supposedly working in his office with a secretary outside in the next room when he uses a grappling iron to climb up to Carala’s secured office. Here he murders Carala but stages the crime to look like a suicide. After positioning the body, he looks back at his work to check the details. As he looks at Carala’s corpse, a black cat--a portent of bad luck--passes in the background and walks along the railings of the high rise building. And this is the very last moment that events are in Julien’s control.

Julien returns to his office. Hearing his desk phone ringing, he rushes to answer it, leaving the telltale grappling iron dangling from Carala’s balcony. He joins the secretary and a security guard and leaves the building for the weekend. He goes to his flashy sports car that is parked right outside of a florist shop, lights a cigarette, and glancing up at the high rise office building, he sees the rope attached to the grappling iron dangling from the balcony. Realizing that this crucial piece of evidence must be removed, Julien returns to the scene of the crime.

Just as Julien enters the elevator to remove the incriminating piece of evidence left at the scene, the building’s security guard turns off the power and leaves for the weekend. This leaves Julien stranded between floors. It’s Saturday evening, and he knows he must escape by the time the employees return and discover Carala’s body on Monday. Julien is a resourceful individual and he puts some of his military skills to work in order to engineer an escape route from the elevator.

At this point in the film, the plot splinters into three segments--one segment follows Julien, another follows Florence as she wanders the streets of Paris, and another section of the plot follows the fate of two young Parisians who steal Julien’s car and embark on a joyride that ends in murder. These components of the plot are then woven together to accentuate suspense and the idea that Julien and his lover, Florence are plagued with bad luck and ill-fated timing.

When Julien walks away from his sports car, envious would-be punk Louis (Georges Poujouly) and his hapless, impractical accomplice Veronique (Yori Bertin) steal the car and are soon joyriding and careening around Paris. As the night continues--the film’s second set of ill-fated lovers--Louis and Veronique meet up with two wealthy tourists. Louis assumes Julien’s identity in a pathetic attempt to impress the affluent German industrialist and his beautiful wife.


With Julien stuck in the elevator, Florence waits for her lover who never shows. Seeing Julien’s stolen car fly by at high speed with a woman sitting in the passenger seat, she jumps to all the wrong conclusions. She’s convinced that Julien has dumped her for another woman. Despondent and reluctant to return home, she stumbles through the streets of Paris hoping for a glimpse of Julien.

Elevator to the Gallows is an extremely clever, well-made film. Many crime films rely on coincidences that defy credibility, but Elevator to the Gallows is not formulaic and avoids coincidence by replacing it with sheer bad luck and ill-fated timing. The murder of Carala takes place efficiently and exactly as planned at the beginning of the film, but the scheme begins to unravel from the moment of Carala’s death. A plan is just a plan until a killer commits the irreversible act of murder, but once at the point of no return, a murderer has no choice but to try and repair a botched scheme. Julien’s decision to return to the crime scene is correct, but trying to repair the plan--once it’s gone awry--complicates matters, and the odds of Julien pulling off the murder successfully become slimmer as the night wears on. It’s a bitter irony that Julien ends up accused of murders he did not commit, and while being trapped in the elevator is the only sure-fire alibi he can claim, it’s an alibi that will spring him from one murder scene but will land him firmly in another.

Florence is Julien’s partner in crime, yet interestingly, the film emphasizes Florence’s desperation and emotional fragility. These facets of her character are underscored by cinematographer Henri Decae’s naturalistic style. Accentuating her youth and vulnerability, the camera visualizes Florence as a delicate femme fatale shot in close-up, with her face without make up often filling the entire screen. As Florence wanders through the night looking for Julien, she’s wet and cold and takes shelter in a series of cafes where lone men sit and wait like predatory wolves. These camera techniques and plot devices place Florence in a sympathetic position of victim hood, and yet this is a woman who plots the murder of her husband and can’t wait to dash into her lover’s arms once the deed is done. This portrayal of Florence is in contrast to some of the greats in American noir that typically include a hard-edged dame whose plans to rid herself of the inconvenience of a husband do not include a lasting bond with the male tool who aids in the process (Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Jane Palmer in Too Late for Tears). While another infamous femme fatale, Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice appears to genuinely desire to be with hapless handyman Frank Chambers (John Garfield), there’s always the uncomfortable feeling that the lover she manipulates to set her free from the bonds of matrimony may very well just have been the first sap who walked through the door.

The camera also emphasizes space and distance--beginning with the film’s very first scene of the lovers who can connect only via telephone. Some of the most spectacular shots include the scene in which Julien drops a piece of lit paper down into the elevator shaft in an effort to judge the height of the stranded elevator car. Another brilliant scene involves Julien and two police interrogators as he is questioned in a room full of dark shadows and lit only by a single light bulb that dangles from the ceiling.

Another emphasis in this French noir is that Elevator to the Gallows takes a societal approach to the crime. Julien’s carelessness leads to two more murders and probably two more trips to the guillotine. By leaving his keys in his car, and a gun in the glove compartment, he contributed--albeit indirectly--to other murders. Julien and Florence’s crime is not committed in a vacuum. In this case, murder has a ripple effect, and fate is inescapable.

written by Guy Savage

Friday, June 13, 2008

Red Light (1949)

“Raft is his strong, grim self as the man of revenge on the lone wolf prowl.”
- Variety review for Red Light.

by Stone Wallace

As stated in my recent biography George Raft: The Man Who Would Be Bogart,1949’s Red Light could almost be taken as a follow-up to Raft’s They Drive by Night (1940). At the conclusion of the earlier Warner Brothers film, Raft’s character, Joe Fabrini, has become the boss of his deceased pal Alan Hale’s trucking operation. Jump ahead nine years and John Torno (Raft) is the owner of a a prosperous Los Angeles freight company. Life is moving along busily but smoothly for the trucking executive. But unbeknownst to John there is trouble brewing. John’s former employee Nick Cherney (Raymond Burr), in prison for embezzling from the Torno Freight Co., seeks revenge for his incarceration. He intends to get back at John by murdering his younger brother Jess (Arthur Franz), a Roman Catholic chaplain just returned from World War II. To execute his scheme, he enlists the aid of fellow convict Rocky (Harry Morgan), who is set to be released from prison a week before Nick. When John discovers the wounded and dying Jess in his hotel room and asks who shot him, Jess replies only: “In the Bible” before expiring. John looks throughout the room but the Gideon Bible is nowhere to be found. John then begins his relentless search for the elusive “clue”, aided by Carla North (Virginia Mayo). Although the police, led by Detective Stecker (Barton MacLane), priest Father Redmond (Arthur Shields) and even Carla try to persuade John to let the law take its course, John is determined to personally avenge his brother’s murder. Eventually his trail leads him to Nick, who in the interim has attempted to kill Rocky and murdered firm employee Warni Hazard (Gene Lockhart), who is discovered in the freight company garage. Nick pleads his innocence and is almost let off the hook until a mortally-wounded Rocky suddenly appears and reveals his guilt. John is prepared to kill his former employee but a posthumous message from his brother found written in the margin of the Bible - Johnny, Thou Shalt Not Kill - stays his hand. Nick attempts to escape, climbing to the roof of the building. Though John cannot bring himself to kill him, the brutal Nick still pays for his crimes - perhaps by divine intervention - when he is accidentally electrocuted while trying to make his getaway alongside a neon sign. A fate that certainly would have befallen him had he been brought to trial.


Red Light
is one of George Raft’s most unusual and intriguing films, combining as it does themes of religion and revenge. Presented starkly in true noir fashion, these conflicting elements elevate the film from just an ordinary crime drama. Another reason Red Light succeeds as a more effective entry than most of Raft’s post-Warner Brothers films is due to the efficiency of the director, Roy Del Ruth. Del Ruth had amassed a large number of noteworthy screen credits during his lengthy Hollywood career. He started his filmmaking during the Silent era. Then, throughout the early 30s he directed a number of crisp, snappy vehicles at Warner Brothers, working with the likes of Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis in such titles as Blonde Crazy (1931), The Little Giant and Bureau of Missing Persons (both 1933). He had also previously worked with George Raft, directing the film novice in his brief dancing bit against James Cagney in Taxi! (1932), and later working with a now-established Raft in It Had to Happen (1936). This association proved beneficial to Raft during the declining period of the actor’s career. A number of Raft’s late 40s films saw the actor paired with the lesser Edwin L. Marin, whose movies lacked the spark of Raft’s studio productions and basically stuck to formula. With Johnny Angel (1945) and, to a lesser extent, Nocturne (1946) the exceptions, the Raft-Marin collaborations proved undistinguished efforts, receiving neither commercial nor critical acclaim. These titles included: Mr. Ace (1946), Christmas Eve (aka Sinner’s Holiday), Intrigue (both 1947) and Race Street (1948), Each of these pictures was hampered by a low budget, routine storyline and uninspired playing by Raft in a familiar role that quickly became tiresome and redundant for theater patrons. Audiences that had already been exposed to and excited by gritty post-WWII noir thrillers that introduced to the screen such fresh and exciting personalities as Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark. The depiction of the characters portrayed by these actors (though not unfamiliar to the Raft resume: gangster, detective, two-fisted hero) seemed worlds apart from the low-key and by-now-caricatured playing associated with George Raft.

While featured (once again) as the “good guy”, Raft fared better in Red Light. Under Del Ruth’s able direction, George Raft was able to escape the one-dimensional trappings of his previous roles. His customary cool facade is allowed to crack open at several points in the story and he expresses a myriad of emotions (some displayed better than others), ranging from an anguished sorrow at the brutal murder of his brother to a cold rage as he pursues the killer with determined, single-minded purpose. In short, John Torno emerges as one of Raft’s most complex roles, requiring some real thesping, which Raft performs mostly admirably. His sudden violent eruption inside the church where Arthur Shields pleads with him to forego vengeance is a particularly striking scene. Indeed, it can be argued that Red Light afforded Raft his best film role until his own sadistic turn as the ruthless crime czar Dan Beaumonte in Rogue Cop (1954).

During the making of the film, Raft tried to incorporate a unique mannerism into his characterization, one borrowed from his late pal “Bugsy” Siegel. Siegel had a hair-combing obsession and Raft suggested to director Del Ruth that he would like to use that trait in his performance. Del Ruth declined with the explanation that he could never convince an audience that a guy would really do that. So much for creative input.

Graphic violence is a chief highlight of the movie. Raft’s previous independent crime dramas were much tamer in comparison, with nary a hint of gunplay or on-screen brutality. Of course it is Raymond Burr who is the chief perpetrator of the carnage. He betrays his “partner” Rocky by shoving him from a train and later kicks the jack out from under a trailer, crushing to death the cowering Gene Lockhart. (While in private life a kind, gentle and humorous man, Burr excelled at onscreen sadism. Witness his memorable moment in Raw Deal (1948) when he hurls a flaming dessert into the face of his annoying girlfriend.)

Raymond Burr, who hailed from New Westminister, British Columbia, was still relatively new to the film scene. Because of his imposing physique and smoothly sinister voice (which was once described as the vocal equivalent of strawberry shortcake), he would become almost fatally typecast as a movie bad guy in numerous crime dramas and Westerns until his heroic turn as the newspaperman in the American-filmed inserts for Godzilla (1954) and, most notably, later as TV’s most famous public defender Perry Mason. Raft would later say of working with Burr: “I felt he had a lot of talent.” Burr’s onscreen cohort in crime was essayed by Harry Morgan, the versatile and solidly reliable utility actor who had previously appeared with Raft in Race Street. Morgan would later recall Raft as a gentleman and a complete pro to work with. So impressed was Morgan with Raft that he remarked: “I would have done ten more pictures with George if it had been possible.” The beautiful Virginia Mayo does well in her role as the concerned girlfriend and - perhaps more importantly - adds the right decorative touch to the dark proceedings. Mayo would score even higher in the crime genre that same year as Vera, the wife of mother-obsessed gangster Cody Jarrett in Warners’ White Heat. Ten years later Mayo would again be co-starred with Raft in Jet Over the Atlantic (1959), a film that would prove to be one of Raft’s last featured roles before being relegated to playing bits and cameos.

Veteran tough guy actor Barton MacLane (long a fixture in Warner Brothers gangster movies) had previously worked with Raft in the films You and Me (1938), directed by Fritz Lang, and the Raoul Walsh-helmed Manpower (1941). In Red Light, MacLane was allowed a welcome reprieve from his standard “thug” roles to play cop-on-the-case Detective Strecker. Arthur Franz, an actor whose career vacillated between supporting roles in A-films (Sands of Iwo Jima, 1948 and The Caine Mutiny, 1954) and starring parts in B-movies (Monster on the Campus, 1958 and The Atomic Submarine, 1959), gives a brief but effective performance as Raft’s clergy brother Jess. Gene Lockhart and Arthur Shields (lookalike brother of that quintessential screen Irishman Barry Fitzgerald) offer solid support in their respective roles as trucking company employee and sympathetic priest. Other recognizable faces that pop up throughout the picture include William Frawley, Stanley Clements, Phillip Pine and Paul Frees. Raft’s close friend and confidant Mack Gray also played a bit, one of the 21 roles he did in Raft pictures.

The film garnered for Raft one of his last impressive, post-studio paydays: Reportedly $65,000. Unfortunately, despite its many merits and a role that offered more shadings than the usual George Raft character, Red Light remains one of Raft’s more obscure movies. The film rarely, if ever, shows up on television, and while VHS tapes and DVDs occasionally make the rounds among collectors, a quality video print is almost impossible to find. Red Light deserves a rediscovery, both to fans of George Raft and noir cinema.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Abandoned (1949)

While Abandoned boasts a boat load of colorful characters; Shoeshine Sammy, Morrie the Bookie, Doc, Winey, Punchy, and Scoop seemingly plucked from the beloved New York streets of Damon Runyon this film ain’t no Guys and Dolls. It’s more like Babes for Dough, a rough and dark social commentary/police procedural on the heinous crime of selling unwanted newborns in addition to the assorted murders, and double dealings that accompany this path to ill gained riches.

Abandoned, produced by Universal in 1949 rolls its opening credits to the melodic stains of a prior Uni noir, 1946’s The Killers. While there’s no Charles McGraw or William Conrad emerging from the shadows we do get Dennis O’Keefe, as Mark Sitko a world-weary newshound and Raymond Burr as Kerric a crook in gumshoes clothing, both a couple of not too shabby noir stalwarts for viewers to feast upon for the next 78 minutes. It bears noting, while Burr doesn’t get star billing, he’s literally the biggest thing in the picture! This in no small part thanks to the costumer. His wearing of a striped, double-breasted suit literally fills the screen to the point a twin bill could be shown across the broad expanse of his ample rear end with space left over for a Chilly Willy cartoon.

The female leads, lesser known perhaps for their work in film noir than in other genres or mediums are more than adequate and played by Gail Storm (Paula Considine) and Marjorie Rambeau (Mrs. Donner) she being the “brains” behind the whole scam and who also succeeds in stealing every scene she’s in.

Given star billing along with O’Keefe and Storm is Jeff Chandler who’s little more than window dressing in providing the voice over narration and playing Police Chief MacRae complete with a head of dark hair! Giving ample support are Will Kuluva as the sadistic, crime boss “Little Guy Decola” who gets his jollies playing with matches, and everyone’s favorite muscleman, Mike Mazurki as Little Guy’s big gorilla “Hoppe” who gets his jollies bustin’ heads.

Direction is by Joseph M. Newman (no relation to Alfred E.) who also directed several other entries in the noir/crime genre; 711 Ocean Drive, Dangerous Crossing, I’ll Get You for This, and Flight to Hong Kong among them during his thirty plus year career. That said, I’d be remiss if not noting along with these he also directed one of the all time greats in the annals of 50’s sci fi, 1955’s This Island Earth.

Writing credits are shared between the rarely used Irwin Gielgud for screenplay and twice Oscar nominated William Bowers for additional dialogue. While the story’s OK, it’s the bits of “additional dialogue” that put the sizzle on the steak. As during an exchange between Kerric and Mrs Donner when he notes “I’d be just as happy if we committed our murders in a state that doesn’t have capital punishment.”

Snappy repartee is used to great effect throughout Abandoned but it always seems directed at or delivered by Kerric as when he wishfully says to Mrs. Donner “I was just thinking how nice life used to be when I stuck to blackmail and petty larceny.” Later on during a meeting, Little Guy pretty much sums up the thin ice Kerric finds himself on by telling him “There’s a rumor going around town I’m getting soft. Whenever that happens I always cut a couple of throats just to prove a point.”

The film opens with the obligatory voice over warning the viewer this could be your city. But it’s plain to see from the massive concrete erection of City Hall rising before us the city in question is that bastion of west coast noir (with heartfelt apologies to San Francisco) Los Angeles. The City of Angels provides a nice supporting role with the aforementioned City Hall figuring in a number of exterior and interior shots, along with numerous street scenes and venerable MacArthur Park getting its unmistakable mug in the act too.

It seems “your city” has among its inhabitants a villainous group, led by Mrs Donner, prying upon young unwed mothers. Passing out bibles and a line of hooey about good care and good homes for their unwanted babies is nothing more than a cover for her real intent which is the sale of the babies to well-healed customers seeking to forgo the normal channels of adoption. While the old broad puts up a good front for the girls that entrust themselves to her and to her customers, behind closed doors she can sling it with the rest of the cretins as demonstrated when she tells Kerric “You might sell your mother. It’s the only thing you haven’t tried” when he’s trying his best to cobble together funds so he can skip out of town.

The heroine, young, beautiful, and bewildered Paula has come to “your city” to find her missing sister Mary. Paula’s in receipt of a letter on hospital stationary from her sister telling her she’s had a baby but very little in other details. Only knowing Mary’s in the city Paula makes her way to the Police Missing Persons Department in an attempt to locate her. As fate would have it, while dealing with the Missing Persons' clerk in strolls newspaper man Mark Sitko who immediately takes a fancy to Paula.

Listening to her story he’s not thoroughly convinced there’s much more than the obvious young girl in trouble giving little credence to the missing person’s angle. However trying his best to get in good with the distraught Paula he suggests they take the clerk's directive to the next logical stop and head towards the morgue. As they exit the building into the night air Mark’s aware they’re being shadowed by Kerric (how could he not be aware, Kerric’s shadow probably weights 10 pounds) and thinks perhaps there’s more going on than he originally thought.

Grabbing Paula and forcing her down a flight of stairs leading to an underpass, they take cover behind a corner and await the arrival of Kerric. Once confronted Sitko and Kerric engage in a heated debate that includes these zingers;” I couldn’t sleep so I just decided to take my gun out for a walk,” and “You going legitimate is like a vulture going vegetarian.”

A quick going though Kerric’s papers reveals a photo of Paula and the disclosure he’s been hired by her father to track her down in hopes she’d lead him to Mary. Later on the coincidence that the very private dick Pop hires just happens to be in cohorts with the dame running the baby brokerage firm his daughter was duped by is a real stretch. Be that as it may, at this juncture the wheels start coming off the baby buggy as the three of them make their way to the morgue. Once there, sure enough whose photo do we see? None other than Mary’s with the notation her demise was by suicide via carbon monoxide poising and found behind the wheel of a car out in the boonies at a country club construction site.

Funny thing though is Mary didn’t know how to drive and of course Paula’s convinced her sister would never do such a thing. To the point she’s so determined she convinces Mark to forego his merely chasing her skirt and instead start chasing a story. Trying to convince the police there’s something shady going on is a bit trickier. But once Chef MacRae’s on board he unleashes all the high-tech gadgets at the force's disposal with the hidden microphone in the shrubbery being priceless.

The final collaborative efforts between private citizens and police result in unearthing the whole babies-for-sale racket but not before taking the viewer on a heck of a thrill ride complete with double crosses, car crashes, beatings, falling off ledges, shootings, killings and all crammed in one of the best bang-up and darkly filmed, bring all the perpetrators to justice conclusions in film noir.

Lastly, Abandoned also has perhaps the best example ever of what evil can befall one when a “little guy” plays with matches. Poor Kerric, he should have taken the advice of Sitko when he told him “That just about closes the case. You can report to your client now and have him take you off the gravy train.” Fortunately for us the lug didn’t take the advice and literally gets burned for it but his loss is the viewer’s gain.

Written by Raven

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Vertigo (1958) part 1

Editor's note:
Bill Hare has tacked another Hitchcock for this week's Noir of the Week. If you're a Hitch fan I highly recommend his book, Hitchcock and the Methods of Suspense

Romantic Obsession with a Woman Who Never Existed: Vertigo (1958)

By Bill Hare

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece is loaded with psychological twists and turns destined to keep viewers spellbound up to the film’s conclusion. It is one of those rare films that, once it snares you in its grip, will not let you go.

In a shrewd casting double, Vertigo combines one of the screen’s most durable and likable leading men, James Stewart, opposite one of the most hauntingly beautiful up and coming female superstars of the fifties Kim Novak, the dazzling blonde from Chicago that Columbia boss Harry Cohn handpicked to become the successor to the studio’s reigning leading lady, redhead Rita Hayworth.

Fill in the Blanks

Hitchcock kept audiences entertained by making them constantly guess, frequently fooling them and leaving them begging for more of the same. One interesting technique employed in Vertigo is that of inviting audience members to fill in the blanks.

This technique is used at the beginning of the film. Cinematographer Robert Burks, one of Hitchcock’s regulars, provides an amazing chase sequence on top of a roof in scenic San Francisco. The superb color tones make the scene all the more magnificent as Stewart, a plain clothes San Francisco Police Department detective, is part of the chase.

After the fleeing criminal suspect leaps from one building to the next Stewart comes perilously close to toppling immediately to his death. Stewart holds on to some shingles for dear life after having failed to execute a successful leap. A uniformed officer comes to his aid. As he prepares to reach out and take Stewart’s hand, the uniformed officer plunges to his death, emitting a final desperate cry.

A close-up of Stewart’s face followed by a scene of the city far below suggests the chilling possibility of the detective following his colleague’s ultimate fate of plunging to the ground.

From there Hitchcock imposes a cut of Stewart sitting in the apartment of his old friend from his college days and briefly his fiancée, Barbara Bel Geddes, a performer who grew up on the New York stage but was equally comfortable before the cameras. To extend the opening scene’s height factor, Bel Geddes’s apartment is situated on a high floor, affording breathtaking views of the city below.

The crisp script of Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor shrewdly and quickly informs audience members with a biographical sketch of Stewart’s character, along with his longstanding friendship with Bel Geddes, including their brief engagement and his comment that she had broken it off. Stewart has a cane and states thankfully that he is due to visit his doctor and have his “corset” removed and will be able to scratch his back again. We realize that he survived his brush with death but we never learn how, a blank Hitchcock leaves for us to figure out.
Stewart laments that, while he is known as “Reliable Ferguson” he could not stop his police colleague from plunging to his death. Ultimately he was left with acrophobia, a fear of heights that induced vertigo. Bel Geddes protests that the partner’s death was not his fault and he should not blame himself. The ultimate result of the tragedy was that John “Scottie” Ferguson quit the police force.

In an act of determined resolution Stewart decides to climb a foot ladder in Bel Geddes’s living room step by step. He gains confidence initially but finally, taking a look outside the window at the sprawling city far below, Stewart collapses as Bel Geddes prevents him from falling on the carpet.

Reliable Ferguson and doing a Favor for a College Friend

The scene with Bel Geddes establishes that he has been contacted by another of his college acquaintances, this one a man with the distinguished name of Gavin Elster. Stewart explains that he had heard that he went east and that the old college gang had lost track of him.

A meeting in Elster’s palatial office reveals that his return west involved marrying into huge money, specifically a shipping empire. The reliable Scottish side of Ferguson causes him to rebel when Elster explains that an evil spirit has seemingly taken possession of his wife, a woman from nineteenth century San Francisco historical folklore named Carlotta Valdes.

After initially telling Elster that he and his wife should be visiting a “shrink” if not “a psychologist” or the “family doctor” the skeptical Scot feels sorry for his old friend. He finally reluctantly agrees to at least observe Elster’s wife once from the bar at Ernie’s Restaurant, where the shipping magnate is taking his wife prior to an opera performance.

When the retired officer with the bad case of vertigo gets one look at the dazzling Novak, cast as Madeleine Elster, as she walks past him his skeptical side vanishes and he agrees to follow her during these “episodes” her husband explains occur during the day, experiences that he insists Novak cannot remember.


Is Elster the Cinema’s Most Unique Villain?

Alfred Hitchcock is a director renowned for playing tricks and dropping what are called “roman candles” into film scenes. The thoroughly suave, definitively polite Gavin Elster, was played by British born Tom Helmore, who had previously appeared in small roles under Hitchcock during the director’s London period.

The question that emerges after evaluating his role as Gavin Elster in Vertigo is whether he was the most unique villain not only put on celluloid by Hitchcock, but by anyone else. His cunning machinations resulted in the deaths of his wife, by his own hand and after brilliant previous planning, along with the demise of the film’s leading lady and the total psychological destruction of the male lead.
The Copell-Taylor leads us along with assured professionalism as the pieces fit together concisely. When old school chum Stewart as retired detective Ferguson meets him in his office attention is registered on a painting showing San Francisco a century earlier.

Tom Helmore as Elster delivers a negative commentary of San Francisco in mid-twentieth century. He sees it as clearly lacking the style and overall excitement of the city a century earlier. His knowledge and interest in the earlier San Francisco invests him with the planning skills to carry out a convincing charade for the detective’s benefit as he follows and eventually falls deeply in love with a woman who was seemingly destined to kill herself at the age of 26 in the same manner of the tragic Carlotta Valdes.

Another point made in the first meeting between Elster and the retired police detective is that with the changes between the current period and yesteryear that the nostalgic ship magnate would not mind leaving San Francisco. This is a key element since ultimately he will tell Ferguson at a key moment that he is leaving the country and will probably move to Europe, and that furthermore he will probably never return.

Along with making Elster a unique villain due to his letter perfect deportment every moment that he is on screen, belying the evil plotter and killer that he actually is, Hitchcock has again succeeded in eluding censors in perhaps an even more clever manner than in Notorious (1946) when he found a way for Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to be sexually provocative without having footage cut.

Until many years later screen killers were compelled to pay for their crimes. There would be no commission of crimes and waltzing off together in the sunset as Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw would do in the violent 1972 Sam Peckinpah film, The Getaway.

After Tom Helmore as Elster succeeds with his brilliant machinations in using both Kim Novak and James Stewart as pawns in killing his rich wife and pocketing his profits, as far as we know he pays no price for misdeeds that would fill Sherlock Holmes’s arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty with envy.

Two More fill in the Blanks Episodes

Once that Stewart begins tailing Novak, innocently following Helmore’s cunning game plan, Hitchcock inserts two more instances where audience members are asked to fill in the blanks in the manner of the earlier mentioned beginning of the film.

When Novak, following Helmore’s game plan meticulously, fakes a suicide attempt by jumping into San Francisco Bay, leading Stewart to believe that he has saved the blonde beauty’s life, he drives her to his apartment near Coit Tower.

After the episode in the water the scene shifts to the apartment. Novak is sleeping in the bedroom and her wet clothes are drying. Finally she rises and converses with Stewart for the first time. How could she have been where she was dressed as she was without Stewart removing her wet clothes, dressing her in dry bedroom apparel, and putting her to bed? We learn nothing about what happened from the moment Novak jumped into San Francisco Bay and that when the audience finds her sleeping in Stewart’s bedroom.

Another question arises. Novak leaves on her own presumably in her own car. There were two cars initially as Stewart was following and watching Novak. Stewart could not have driven both cars home, yet we learn nothing of another party being involved in any regard.

The second unexplained incident occurs when Novak parks and enters the McKittrick Hotel, where the establishment’s clerk, Ellen Corby, tells Stewart she is a regular resident. Corby insists that Novak has not been in the hotel that day, adding to the psychic dimension that Helmore has invented. The unresolved question is whether Stewart only believes he saw her enter the hotel and appear at the window of an upstairs room, or whether Corby is also in on the plot and is attempting to fool Stewart.

(click to go to part 2)

Vertigo (1958) part 2

(click for Part 1)
Romantic Obsession with a Woman Who Never Existed

Vertigo was the most challenging role of Kim Novak’s career, coming when she was in her mid-twenties. The principal challenge was playing two decidedly different women, a classy, woman from the upper crust San Francisco aristocracy, blonde beauty Madeleine Elster, and the plain spoken to the point of crudity Kansan Judy Barton, a redhead who quickly reveals her street toughness and concedes that she had been “picked up before.”

Unlike the polished Madeleine Elster, Barton gives off with the manner of a woman living in the working class Empire Hotel situated next to the store where she is employed as a sales clerk, I. Magnin.

Stewart as Scotty Ferguson sees Judy Barton with a group of fellow sales clerks after they had finished their work days at I. Magnin. When he follows her to her small, plain but serviceable hotel room she initially tells Ferguson to leave, complaining “you’ve got a nerve” and at one point asking with a snarl, “Is this a pickup?”

When she later takes pity on Ferguson and his insistence that he only wants to talk to her because she reminds him of someone he knew, going from a sarcastic “I’ve heard that one before” to “You’ve got it bad” and ultimately to the conclusion of “She’s dead.”

Story Convergence and Psychological Jockeying

The ingenious two part story converges when Judy, showing compassion toward Ferguson, agrees to have dinner with him and asks for an hour to prepare. When she initially begins packing the tip-off has been made that the retired detective found the woman he had known earlier.

As the stories converge Judy finally puts away her suitcases and decides to go with the dinner plans. During the period when she planned to presumably leave the city and get far away from Ferguson and the plot and ultimate murder of the real Madeleine Elster, she was also shown writing a letter with a voice over indicating her admission that Ferguson had been duped by Elster but that the part of the plot that had been unplanned was that she would fall in love with him.

It is no surprise, given Ferguson’s past conduct, that he seeks to become involved with Judy and endeavors to make her over in the image of Madeleine Elster. Two solid reasons reveal why Judy Barton, who loves John “Scottie” Ferguson for himself, would resist the makeover:

  1. Despite her insistent claim that she did not know that the sinister plot of her then lover Gavin Elster would result in the murder of his wife that was the ultimate result. Could she not be expected to resist becoming a constant reminder of a woman who never was, a role she played that resulted in Svengali Elster meticulously carrying out a murder plot resulting in the death of his wealthy wife, presumably moving to Europe with his ill-gained profits, while she was abandoned by him after serving her purpose, making her a victim as well as Ferguson?
  2. As a woman who loved Scottie Ferguson without reservation, would Judy Barton want to play a role of someone who was being substituted for a woman who never lived except as a creation of Svengali Gavin Elster?

The resulting relationship between Ferguson and Barton is highlighted by psychological jockeying. When Ferguson takes her to the exclusive Rahnsohoff department store he has one object in mind, making Judy over as thoroughly as possible as the fantasy woman with whom he had fallen hopelessly in love, Madeleine Elster.

The story reaches its most heightened psychological dimension during the emotional tug of war between a Ferguson intent on reconstructing the past and a Barton equally determined to avoid it. Gradually Barton breaks down in the wake of Ferguson’s determination. She makes her last stand after an otherwise comprehensive remake by clasping some of her hair, explaining that it did not work out the way he suggested. Ferguson removes the clasp and his image of Madeleine Elster is fully restored.

Judy’s Ultimate Mistake

Scottie Ferguson’s psychological volatility stems from the earliest part of the film when we learn that he has developed vertigo to the point where he feels compelled to resign from the San Francisco Police Department. This weakness is used by a ruthless, while always gentlemanly on the surface, Gavin Elster. The evil Elster is convinced that Ferguson with his vertigo will not be able to catch up with Barton when she runs up the steps toward the bell tower.

In addition to being crushed over Madeleine Elster’s death, believing she was someone else, Ferguson is professionally brutalized by the local coroner at the inquest into the actual woman’s demise. Henry Jones, a top character performer frequently seen in comedy roles, makes a memorable one scene appearance as he directs sarcasm at Ferguson. Jones makes his belief plain that the former police detective should have saved Madeleine Elster. At one point he states bitingly that the law has little to say about “doing nothing.”

As for Ferguson, his account was that he blacked out after the body that he felt was that of the woman who is really Judy Barton but was actually Madeleine Elster toppled to the ground. He further stated that he recalled nothing after that until recalling being in his apartment one hour later.

The official ruling is accidental death and a thoroughly crushed Ferguson appears to be elsewhere as Gavin Elster meets him for the last time. Elster laments that the coroner “had no right to talk to you like that” and tells Scottie that he expects to be leaving San Francisco soon and for good, probably moving to Europe. Portraying the good fellow to the last, Elster tells Ferguson to contact him while he is still in town if there is anything he can do for him. In reality he has done enough for several lifetimes.

Gavin Elster looms as a chivalric gentleman for all seasons who in reality is a master plotter from hell. Yet we hear nothing from the hellish Elster and only momentarily see him place a hand over Judy Barton’s mouth as she screams while the body of the real Madeleine Elster topples to the ground.

As for Judy Barton, her ultimate mistake occurs when she unwittingly tips Scottie off as to her true identity. This occurs when she wears a necklace that had been part of the elaborate costume she used to synchronize with the dress and necklace of Carlotta Valdes during a fake trance as she sits transfixed before a painting of the woman who is supposed to then possess her body and soul.

Here was Scottie Ferguson, who was barely able to shake off catatonic cobwebs and had been confined to a sanitarium in a state of depression following the inquest subsequent to Madeleine Elster’s death. This is the Scottie Ferguson who, after meeting Judy Barton, feverishly sought to make her over in the image of the presumed dead woman he desperately loved.

Once that he sees the necklace Ferguson flies into an outrage that would equal a Mount Vesuvius eruption. He forces a badly rattled Barton into his car and drives back to the place where the death culminated. Step by step he drags her against her will up to the bell tower where Elster pushed his already dead wife. Buttressing Elster’s case was a Scottie Ferguson frustrated by heights and unable to make it up the steps to the bell tower.

This time Ferguson succeeds in reaching the bell tower as man defeats vertigo. In his first scene with old friend Midge, Ferguson explains that a sudden shock could eliminate his vertigo and restore him to a normal state. As they reach the top he obtains confirmation of the plot from Judy Barton, who begs him to try again, that they can succeed in building another romance.

The camera zeroes in for a close-up of a totally frustrated Ferguson. Barton is told that it is too late, that there is no going back. At one point he tells her how much he loves her, calling her “Madeleine” in the process. This looms as the ultimate tip-off regarding his confused status.

An image beckons from the darkening shadows. It is a nun there to ring the bell to beckon the arrival of evening. A badly jolted Judy Barton is so stunned that she falls from the bell tower to her death.

As Ferguson is pictured looking downward once more, this time at the body of Barton, one must ask if he is the final murder victim of the cunning Gavin Elster. His wife was killed by his own design, while Judy Barton dies as part of a shocking chain of events that are an outgrowth of his cunning trickery.

Then there is Scottie Ferguson, a picture of abject dejection, as devoid of life as when he sat in a catatonic state in the sanitarium, unaware of his visitor Midge.

Can Ferguson bounce back and renew his life?

Given the tragic prevailing circumstances it is difficult to envision such a result. It is far easier to see John “Scottie” Ferguson as the final victim of Gavin Elster, essentially murdered by the plotting of perhaps the most cunning of all film villains.

Standing the Test of Time

Despite its current status as one of the greatest films of all time by any measuring standard, Vertigo in its initial release was a box office disappointment. Perhaps Hitchcock was then suffering the same fate as numerous painters and writers, for whom time was an ally as it took a while for the public to catch up with and fully appreciate the true measure of their genius.

James Stewart, a consummate professional, received nothing but positive vibes from his work with the younger and less experienced Kim Novak. He credited Novak with superb mastery of a challenging and difficult double role while also tossing a bouquet Hitchcock’s way for his luminous direction.

The always alert showman, Columbia Studios boss Harry Cohn, knew a dynamic team when he saw it. Cohn re-teamed Stewart with his bright and shining new star Kim Novak in the 1959 release Bell Book and Candle, an adaptation of a hit Broadway play by John Van Druten. Unlike Vertigo, this film was a comedy in which the always bewitching Novak played a modern day witch with Stewart her romantic interest.

In conclusion, praise must be dispensed in the direction of the masterful composer Bernard Herrmann, who in Hitchcock’s 1956 hit The Man Who Knew Too Much was cast as himself as he played the conductor of the symphony orchestra that played at London’s Royal Albert Hall the evening that Doris Day saved a visiting prime minister’s wife. Stewart starred as well as Day’s wife.

The haunting Herrmann theme that became all the more dominating during the intense love scenes involving Stewart and Novak along with exquisite color photography and intelligent use of San Francisco as a scenic backdrop gave Vertigo the look and feel of a concert set in a resplendent art gallery complemented by superb acting.

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