Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Editor's note: Film writer Chris Fujiwara makes a controversial choice for this week's film noir by picking a film that most would probably agree isn't a noir. However, as Chris notes, Preminger's film does certainly has a lot of affinities with it.

Hooked: Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm

by Chris Fujiwara

Excerpted and adapted from The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger,published in 2008 by Faber and Faber.

Nelson Algren’s searing 1949 novel
The Man with the Golden Arm took a long, circuitous road to the screen. John Garfield was interested in playing the drug-addicted hero, Frankie Machine, and his company, Roberts Productions, bought the movie rights, despite Algren’s reservations—not about Garfield, whom he liked, but about the actor’s partner, Bob Roberts, whom he suspected of being a “con guy.” Algren wrote a complete script in collaboration with Paul Trivers (who would be the associate producer of Garfield’s final film, He Ran All the Way [1951]).

Garfield’s death in 1952 halted the project, but its chances of making it to the screen had always been in doubt because of the MPAA's opposition to films about drugs. The Production Code was adamant: “The illegal drug traffic, and drug addiction, must never be presented.” A window was opened in 1946 when this provision was amended to: “The illegal drug traffic must not be portrayed in such a way as to stimulate curiosity concerning the use of, or traffic in, such drugs; nor shall scenes be approved which show the use of illegal drugs, or their effects, in detail.” In 1951, the amendment was rescinded, and the earlier prohibition reinstated.

The Man with the Golden Arm came to Otto Preminger’s attention by way of his brother, Ingo, who represented Lewis Meltzer, a writer who, independently of Algren and Trivers, had done another version of the screenplay. Ingo sent the script and the book to his brother. At first Otto was unenthusiastic, but then he saw the possibility of using the film as a vehicle for breaking the Code restriction on drugs and bought the Man with the Golden Arm rights. In late 1954, Preminger approached United Artists with the project, which the studio agreed to fund - knowing that, as it had done in 1953 with Preminger's The Moon Is Blue, it would have to defy the MPAA in order to distribute the film.

Preminger brought Nelson Algren from Gary, Indiana, to Hollywood to work on the script. Algren’s unsuccessful association with the film was a personal catastrophe that, according to his biographer, Bettina Drew, “marked a turning point in Algren’s life.” For Algren, Preminger would become an obsession, a symbol of the crass arrogance of power, an enemy with whom he would grapple again and again in his writing and his reminiscences. Oblivious to Algren's enmity, Preminger merely said, “He was an amusing, intelligent man but he couldn’t write dialogue or visualize scenes.” Algren countered: "The book dealt with life at the bottom. Otto has never, not for so much as a single day, had any experience except that of life at the top."

The writer Preminger eventually chose to adapt
The Man with the Golden Arm was Walter Newman, a former radio writer who got his start in films working with Billy Wilder on the script of Ace in the Hole (1951). When Newman first met Preminger, the director told him he saw Golden Arm “as a murder mystery about a jazz trumpeter.” This concept, had it been carried through, would have brought the film closer to Preminger's previous films with mystery elements, such as Margin for Error (1943), Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends (both 1950), and The 13th Letter (1951), at the cost of a drastic restructuring of the source material. Apart from the fact that the Frankie of the novel is an aspiring drummer, not a trumpeter (Preminger's film would retain the original choice of instrument), for the reader of Algren’s novel, there is no mystery in the story's single, unintentional killing: Frankie’s breaking the neck of the drug dealer Louie.

Preminger’s remark suggests that he already had in mind some version of a plot twist introduced by the film. In both the novel and the film, Frankie’s wife, Zosh, was injured in a car driven by Frankie and became wheelchair-bound. In the film, it’s Zosh, not Frankie, who kills Louie—to prevent him from exposing her secret: that she has been feigning paraplegia in order to exploit Frankie’s guilt to keep him from leaving her.

The crucial change Preminger and Newman made to Algren's novel, however, was to make Frankie Machine (who, in Algren’s book, ends up hanging himself while on the run from the police) a protagonist who struggles to change his life and wins. “This provided the necessary conflict and I think made it workable as a film,” said Newman, who said, “I worked very hard to use as much of the book as I could, as many of the people, as much of the dialogue, as many of the incidents as I could—except that I turned them upside down.”

In the novel, Frankie is first exposed to morphine in an army field hospital in France while recuperating from a battle wound. Eliminating the war wound and the medication as excuses for Frankie’s drug use, Preminger and Newman emphasized the psychological, rather than physical, aspects of addiction. "Statistics show," Preminger pointed out, "that people fall back into the habit in alarmingly high numbers, because of mental unhappiness. Maybe it starts with the pace of the life we live, with mature people taking sleeping pills and Benzedrine. Then they go to more harmful poison."

As these comments make clear, Preminger sought to make Frankie Machine into a character whom middle-class audiences could identify with. In doing so, the film eliminates an important dimension of the novel, the radical critique of American society that Algren announces in the first chapter of the book, which describes Frankie and his fellow jail-cell occupants as sharing “the great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one.” By slightly elevating Frankie in class (and by removing Algren’s important insistence that the police manhunt for Frankie is driven by ward politics), Preminger makes Frankie a hero responsible for his fate, instead of a hopeless victim of specific social and political forces. Preminger’s Frankie is victimized, to be sure, but by perverse and vicious individuals—Zosh and Louie—rather than by a social system. Nevertheless, one could argue, with Preminger, that these changes to the story make its social criticism stronger by implying that anyone, not just the poor and wounded, can become an addict—challenging U.S. drug czar Harry J. Anslinger’s attempts to portray drug use as largely confined to a criminal underclass.

Newman enjoyed working with Preminger: “I found him to be endlessly patient, always courteous.” After about a month of research and another month of writing, Newman gave Preminger his first 50 pages of script. After reading them, Preminger called Newman and said, “I’m delighted,” which Newman considered “extraordinary behavior for a director or a producer. Almost all of them, at this point, would have begun the conversation by saying, without even a hello, ‘On page eleven there’s a misplaced comma—on page fourteen I don’t understand the motivation’—and so on and so on. This is Standard Operating Procedure and it’s meant to put the screenplay writer in his place—in other words, to put him down.” Preminger sent Newman’s first 50 pages to Frank Sinatra’s agent, who called the director back two days later, saying that his client would sign a contract without waiting for the rest of the script.


It would be a stretch to call The Man with the Golden Arm a film noir; indeed, the film shows why Preminger cannot be considered a prototypical "noir" director. (Had John Garfield realized his ambition to make the film in 1950 or 1951, the result would likely have been a less problematic entry in the genre.) A central situation of the story is the same as that depicted in several film noirs: the hero, released from prison, vows to go straight, only to fall back into the underworld. Zosh can be seen as a variation on the manipulative "femme fatale" of numerous thrillers (Preminger had already demolished the stereotype of the fatal woman with Carmen Jones [1954]). Yet, as he had already done in Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends, Preminger chooses to concentrate not on the "noir" motifs of doom and entrapment (elements which Algren's book emphasized), but on the hero's moral regeneration. The clearest parallels are with Fallen Angel. Like the earlier film, The Man with the Golden Arm (Preminger's, not Algren's) is a fable of redemption. In both films, the hero's triumph over his demons is signalled by morning sunlight streaming through the window of a transient dwelling (transience is another theme the two films share, as their opening bus scenes indicate). Like Eric (Dana Andrews) in Fallen Angel, Frankie in The Man with the Golden Arm is the victim of both unfavorable circumstances and his own moral failings, and each man eventually finds, with the help of a woman, the inner strength he needs to solve his problems.

The Man with the Golden Arm is largely a film of faces. Interiorized, psychological, the drama plays itself out among the mental images of beings and things, in repetitive, driving, elastic movements. The second shot in the film, a closeup from inside a bar of Frankie peering in through the window, already alerts us to the emphasis that the character's subjective experience will receive. Drawn toward ever smaller spaces, the film seals itself off (as local gangster Schwiefka's marathon poker game seals itself from the sunlight), locks itself in (as Frankie has himself locked in a room in the famous sequence of his attempt to kick his habit). Instead of (as in other Preminger films) exploring the contours and surfaces of the outer world, camera movement in The Man with the Golden Arm defines subjective mental states, creating a suffocating atmosphere, as in the repeated track-ins on huge closeups of Frankie's eyes.

The fluidity of
The Man with the Golden Arm, evident as early as the impressive opening crane shot, reflects the control over the visible universe that studio shooting affords (a domination that Preminger would renounce altogether, or as much as possible, in Anatomy of a Murder [1959] and subsequent films). The sets delineate Algren's Skid Row as an isolated, self-contained world with no past and no future, ready for the bulldozers. The stylization of certain performances - notably Robert Strauss's as Schwiefka and Arnold Stang's as Frankie's loyal sidekick - suits this artificial quality well. Although the drug-addiction theme, Sinatra's naturalistic performance, and Elmer Bernstein's brilliant, aggressive score ensured that, in its time, The Man with the Golden Arm was seen as advancing the cause of "realism" in Hollywood, Preminger's setbound, stylized treatment of the story now seems an excursion into romanticism and a return to the moral universe of his 1940s films.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Act of Violence (1948)

According to Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style,Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were at one time attached to play the leads in Act of Violence. I have no doubt what roles they would have played. Peck would have been the family man with a dark secret (not unlike his part in Cape Fear) while Bogart would have played the crippled war veteran out for revenge.

Instead, in 1948, film goers saw Van Heflin as the young businessman and Robert Ryan as the man out to kill him. These two don't have nearly the same star power- but with the addition of Janet Leigh and Mary Astor the credit list ends up becoming a dream cast (at least for film noir fans).

Although I enjoy the film greatly, Act of Violence is challenging to watch. For the first half of the film you just don't know who the hero is.

The opening scene in the movie introduces us to Robert Ryan's character Joe Parkson. He's quickly loads a gun in a seedy hotel room then limps on board a bus. We have a pretty good idea that this guy is not a cop and probably has a few screws loose. However, we're not sure if he's the bad guy. The bus leaves the dark rainy city with Parkson and heads to the sunny suburbs. There the viewer meets the man Parkson is hunting: Frank Enley (Van Heflin). He's standing alongside his beautiful wife getting an award from the community.

With the two main characters introduced, movie goers would probably determine that Ryan is the black hat and Heflin is the potential victim. If you assume that you'd be wrong -mostly. Ryan plays wounded war veteran Parkson like a toy that's wounded too tight. The grizzled actor was no stranger to suspense thrillers at this time. Between the years 1947 and 1950 Ryan was seen in Crossfire, Berlin Express, Caught, The Set-Up, The Woman on Pier 13, The Secret Fury and Born to Be Bad. He played a wide range or characters in those films including an eccentric millionaire, a down-and-out boxer, and a communist spy. In Act of Violence he does what he does best: playing a guy who's more than slightly unhinged. Ten years later he would perfect the character in Odds Against Tomorrow.

Van Heflin is his normal charming self in Act of Violence. Heflin first noir parts were playing lovable drunks alongside Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Joan Crawford in Possessed. The role of “charming lush” was finely honed by Heflin in the 1942 thriller Johnny Eager. In Act of Violence he is asked to play a sober likable man who betrayed his fellow soldiers during war. He doesn't start hitting the bottle until he hits L.A. two thirds of the way in. However, at the beginning of the film he appears to be living the American Dream.

Enley is a pillar of the community and is happy with his young family and career. After the award ceremony he packs and goes off on a fishing trip with a neighbor. There he finds out that someone is following him. Immediately he knows it's Parkson. Enley ends his weekend early and rushes home. He enters his house in a controlled panic. With his puzzled wife watching, he locks the doors and pulls down the shades. His wife is confused and so are we. Why is he being followed? What does he have to be scared of? Why is he standing in the dark looking terrified?

Director Fred Zinnemann - who would direct From Here to Eternity a few years later - puts the viewer in a tough spot. Enley is a friendly and respectable guy in his community. However during the war as a POW he betrayed his men for food - a betrayal that cost some their lives. The guilt of his act was suppressed until Parkson came looking for him. He has no other choice but to run. Not only does he run from Parkson but he leaves home in the middle of the night to get away from his family. He can't bear to tell the truth to his wife. So who does the viewer root for? The crazy guy trying to get revenge on his former best friend; or the man on the run that took the easy way out during war and is still running years later? Senses of Cinema puts it perfectly in their article on the film: “The moral landscape... is complex and difficult terrain; and Zinnemann effectively swings an ethical pendulum, never allowing us to categorize or pigeonhole his protagonists.” It must have been a hard task for Zinnemann but he pulls it off.

Most viewers probably identify with Enley - a guy who has done some things he isn't proud of - though certainly most couldn't imagine themselves committing the kind of betrayal he's accused of. When Enley finally confesses his sins to his wife in a dank city alley (one of the best looking scenes in the film) he sounds like he's trying to justify his actions as much as explain to his wife what happened.

If Parkson was just your run-of-the-mill movie psycho it'd be hard to feel any compassion for him but viewers will. I mean Robert Ryan has a face that looks like someone left it out in the rain. It was very easy, I imagine, for Ryan to play the ugly bad guy (like in Crossfire). The actor visibly plays his inner ugliness. However, in Act of Violence he's not as bad as he first appears. Parkson's a guy damaged physically and mentally by war. He's convinced himself that the only way to clear his mind is to kill his former Army buddy. In a twisted way it makes sense.

Like Enley, Ryan has a young love (played by Phyllis Thaxter). She catches up to him and tries to talk him out of doing anything crazy. She appears to be the only thing keeping Parkson from not going totally bonkers.

Meanwhile Enley's wife begins searching for her man who used a middle of the night trip to a Los Angeles convention as an excuse to flee. Once she meets her husband's stalker face to face at their front door, she becomes frightened of what he might do to him.

When Frank Enley hits Los Angeles on the run the movie literally gets darker. Looking for a way out of the fix he's in Enley gets involved with a group of parasites that just seem to be lying in wait for a sucker to show up. When Enley enters a seedy L.A. bar and meets Mary Aster they pounce. These scenes in the city are the best part of the film. While it's hard to warm up to or dislike either of the two leads you can certainly enjoy Mary Astor. Her role as the brassy Pat two thirds of the way in steals the movie. While Parkson searches for his prey, this woman of the streets gives Heflin shelter during his flight. However while Parkson's girl and Enley's wife try as hard as they can to get their men out of trouble, Mary Astor's character actually introduces Enley to killers for hire. Teaming up with Pat are Taylor Holmes (Nightmare Alley) as a slimy lawyer and Berry Kroeger (Gun Crazy and Cry of the City) as Johnny the killer. Enley realizes that the men are paid criminals and runs from the group. Drunk and delirious, he now appears to be as crazy as Parkson. After nearly walking in front of a train, Enley agrees to give Johnny thousands to kill his enemy. In the morning he wakes up in Pat's tiny room and realizes what he'd agreed to the night before. He rushes to stop Johnny from killing his ex-friend. What results is satisfying stand off more reminiscent of classic westerns (like Zinnemann's High Noon) than film noir.

The pace of Act of Violence is quick. There's no opening credits just the MGM logo and the film's title after Robert Ryan is introduced. Clocking in at 88 minutes, the film has no fat just meat. And it looks great. By 1948 most film noir shared a similar look: a combination of docudrama (like The Naked City) and German expressionism (used in the proto noir Stranger on the Third Floor). Cinematographer Robert Surtees (a three time Oscar winner who's only other film remotely film noir was the Mickey Rooney trip The Strip) uses the same style and does a fine job. Like most of the LA scenes the lighting is sparse. Dim street lights and table lamps serve as single source lighting in many instances. There's also a great shot of the old Angels Flight when Heflin runs down the dark streets of Los Angeles.

Although gloomy, I find Act of Violence to be one of the best film noir of the period mainly due to the strong performances from the cast and gritty look of the film. Especially the cast - which I wouldn't change if I could.

Written by Steve-O

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Posted by Kevin

Seeing Otto Preminger's film Where the Sidewalk Ends recently has made me regard it as a very odd companion piece with his earlier, more well-known film Laura. With this film, Preminger was reunited not only with his two principal Laura actors, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, but also his director of photography, Joseph LaShelle. However, it's similarities end there. Laura with its urbane, sophisticated characters and its high society setting, succeeds as an elegant murder mystery. On the flipside, the crime in Where the Sidewalk Ends takes place in tenement apartments, police precincts, parking garages, and gambling dens. It is for this reason that, of the two films, Where the Sidewalk Ends better represents the classic noir period.

Dana Andrews plays Mark Dixon, a cop who finds himself in a compromising situation when he accidentally kills a man in self-defense. The victim is Ken Paine, a criminal who is suspected of murdering a gambler in a scuffle shown in an earlier scene. Already having been reprimanded by his superior, Inspector Foley, for his violent treatment of criminals, Dixon takes great pains to not only cover up his crime, but also to figure out a way to pin it on his nemesis, Tommy Scalise (played by Gary Merrill).

Enter Gene Tierney as Paine's estranged wife, Morgan. She adds even more complications to Dixon's struggle. Not only is she a new widow, but her father, Jiggs Taylor, is the number one suspect in the murder, because of Paine's physical abuse of Morgan, shown in an earlier scene. The combination of Dixon's growing attraction to the beautiful Morgan and his wanting to protect Jiggs from being accused create more pangs of guilt in him.

The unpredictable and unfair nature of fate is one strong indicator of film noir. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, there are many occurrences of characters who are tripped up by circumstances beyond their control. The whole movie hinges on Dixon's accidental killing of murder suspect Paine, that only the viewer witnesses. We see Paine lunging first at Dixon, then Dixon reacting by hitting him back only twice - once in the stomach, then again in the face, causing him to fall fatally on his head. How was Dixon to know that Paine has a metal plate in his head? That Dixon finds himself in hot water after showing restraint in his typical violence is the type of sad irony that can only be found in a true film noir.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
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Another instance of fate rearing its inconvenient head is in the scene following the accidental murder in Paine's apartment. Dixon tries to create a false lead by impersonating Paine leaving his apartment for Penn Station, ostensibly to blow town considering he's on the lam. When the cab driver picks him up at Paine's apartment, Dixon, by not waving to the old woman in the window of basement apartment below, unknowingly blows his cover. According to the old woman, in a later scene where she's interviewed by police, she swears that the man she saw go into the cab was not Paine because he didn't wave!

The evidence of guilt is another ingredient in Where the Sidewalk Ends that makes it such a worthy addition into the classic noir period. Andrews, who played such a stoic police detective in Laura, is allowed to be more expressive in this film. As a criminal and a cop, his Dixon has so much at stake, and this tension is constantly apparent to the viewer, and not to the other characters in the movie. This visible guilt is given more weight in Preminger's mise-en-scène and fluid long takes and camera movements. One scene that stands out is the one in which Dixon learns that Morgan is Paine's wife, thus a new widow. The camera reveals his stunned expression and arousal of guilt in the foreground, as Morgan is being interviewed by police in the background. To see these planes of internal and external action in the same shot is something that Preminger is known for.

While Where the Sidewalk Ends is not quite up to par with the extremely well-characterized and witty Laura, it's still a very worthy and exciting movie for film noir aficionados and for fans of Dana Andrews. This movie is all about him! It is a combination of his subtle acting style, Preminger's smooth and assured direction, and Joseph LaShelle's exquisite photography that makes Where the Sidewalk Ends a real treat for film noir aficionados!


Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Dark Corner (1946)

Editor's note: This week Raquelle, who writes the excellent blog Out of the Past, serves up a review of one of the best looking classic film noir: The Dark Corner

By Raquelle

I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.

The Dark Corner is a polished gem of a film noir. Released by 20th Century Fox and directed by Henry Hathaway the film stars Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix and Mark Stevens. I’m not terribly good at writing summaries, but I’ll give this one my best shot. Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) has just gotten out of jail and is looking to start afresh as a detective in New York City. He hires Kathleen (Lucille Ball) as his secretary, a warm-hearted woman with a wise-cracking tongue. Bradford discovers he’s being followed by a dirty detective in a white suit (William Bendix) and finds that his past in San Francisco has come back to haunt him. He suspects that Anthony Jardine (Kurt Krueger), his old partner and the trickster who got him into jail, is after him. But Anthony has his own problems as he tries to steal away Mari (Cathy Downs), the precious wife of Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) an art-dealer and society man. The more Bradford tries to find out what is going on, the more he gets put into a “dark corner” with only his trusting and loving secretary to help him.

The first thing that struck me about this film is how so often in films from this era the boss and the secretary are inevitably linked romantically. It’s as though a man hires a secretary just to woo her and a woman seeks out a job in order to be wooed. It’s takes the concept of work romance to a whole other level. The Maltese Falcon remake Satan Meets a Lady (1936) comes to mind, with lusty Warren William drooling over his new secretary who has expectations of him but is dismayed to find he’s got a roving eye. It’s assumed that the secretary role is a temporary one; a sort of springboard into wifedom. The paint on the door isn’t dry yet and Bradford already starts the courtship process by taking her out to a penny arcade and she begins the seduction by not so coyly having him check out her gams when she complains about her stockings. Arranged or not, the chemistry is there. When they kiss, he is rough and she gives in. The kiss is passionate, a mixture of pleasure and pain. She leaves possibly with a bruise on her arm but inevitably with butterflies in her stomach.

The juxtaposition of opposites is quite important in this film. I was particularly intrigued by the Kathleen versus Mari opposition. Kathleen is maternal. For example, when Bradford is hurt her instinct is to take care of him, get him coffee, mother him. Mari on the other hand is like a porcelain doll. She’s only useful as an object of adoration or lust. Art-dealer Hardy Cathcart marries her based on the fact that she resembles a subject in his favorite portrait painting! Having Mari in the story helps us better comprehend Kathleen as a character and vice versa. We have a better understanding of who someone is when we understand who their opposite is. Or I might just be an amateur Deconstructionist.

If there is ever a child character in a film noir, be on the alert! No matter how small a role, that child’s function in the plot is infinitely important. They are the secret holders of crucial information. In The Dark Corner, a young girl with a whistle watches intently as the dirty detective in the white suit makes various phone calls throughout the movie. In her first scene, she is playfully blowing her whistle and the detective is annoyed and threatens her. In her next scene, she knows not to blow the whistle while he’s there and waits until he walks away, all the time listening to the details of his conversation. And in a twist that’s so film noir, she becomes a whisteblower and helps propel the story forward. She is the epitome of innocence which contrasts with the evilness of the dirty detective, making us loathe him even more.

I cannot go on about this film without talking about the debonnaire Clifton Webb! Oh goodness me! They did not even need to give his character his own name. He could have just been “Clifton Webb” and we would have gotten it. The audience is introduced to him at a high-class society party where he is being suave and sociable. He’s a rich art-collector obsessed with possessing his wife. It’s the quintessential Clifton Webb role, second only to his character in Laura (1944).

On the flip side, I always like to watch actors out of their element; America’s sweetheart gone bad or the perennial villain turn angel. So seeing Lucille Ball without her Desi Arnaz or her Bob Hope or even her Henry Fonda was quite a treat. She’s not completely a fish out of water but she’s also not quite what you’d expect. Lucille Ball is NOT being funny but she projects a warmth on screen that makes her approachable. Any guy could fall for her and any gal is going to want to be more like her. Even Mari with her furs and jewels doesn’t garner our admiration as Lucille Ball does in the part of Kathleen.

I often relish those little details that may be insignificant to others but are always a pleasure to me. The fact that a gun is referred to as a “pepper pot” made me giggle. Any mention of “chop suey” makes me nostalgic. My favorite detail though comes from a quick shot in one scene. The dirty detective in the white suit is chasing down Bradford. As Bradford is walking across the street, the white suit tries to run him over in his car. Spotting the imminent danger as the car races towards him, Bradford gets out of the way. But he doesn’t just throw himself to the sidewalk. Oh no. He does an elegant dive, his body in perfect alignment as he soars through the air. I wasn’t quite expecting this but was amused by it nonetheless. It was only later when I went to IMDB to read up on Mark Stevens that I discovered why he opted for the dive instead of a haphazard, full-body throw. He had at one time been training for the Canadian Olympic Diving team but suffered an injury, derailing his athletic career. With one tidbit of information, those few seconds of onscreen time made perfect sense and all was well in the world.

The Dark Corner had made several trips onto and off of my lengthy Netflix queue. I was intrigued by the idea of a Lucille Ball-film noir but needed another angle to get me to watch it. When I was asked to write about one of a few films, I knew this was my chance to really sink my teeth into another good film noir. I was very glad I did and will recommend this film to anyone who will listen.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Rogue Cop (1954)

By Stone Wallace

The genesis of George Raft’s brief ‘50s “comeback” in Rogue Cop (1954) is interesting. Raft’s career had been going steadily downhill since severing studio ties with Warner Brothers in 1942. Deciding to chart his own film destiny Raft unwisely chose to associate with lesser-echelon studios such as United Artists and RKO and began appearing in a succession of mediocre crime dramas that featured him (at his insistence) primarily on the right side of the law, thus gradually erasing George Raft’s gangster screen persona , but also his most marketable image.

Not that some of these movies weren’t without merit - and a few, in fact, were quite good. But where most of these pictures suffered was in not providing Raft with strong supporting players (from which he always benefited) and directors who knew best how to work with Raft’s acting limitations. So - for every Johnny Angel (1945), Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949) there turkeys like Mr. Ace (1945), Whistle Stop (1946) Christmas Eve (1947) and Outpost in Morocco (1949). By the early 1950s Raft descended even farther down the career ladder by participating in the European-made Lippert pictures I’ll Get You and The Man from Cairo (both 1953). The story goes that he rejected two films that would have returned him to underworld roles: Hoodlum Empire (1952) and The Miami Story (1954), because he was afraid of insulting his mob associates, such as Frank Costello.

Throughout his career, Raft received a lot of publicity for his underworld friendships. Not just the public but many motion picture executives believed that George Raft was as much a gangster off-camera as on. This actually made him more appealing to theater patrons when he appeared in such movies as Scarface (1932), Each Dawn I Die and Invisible Stripes (both 1939), simply because audiences thought they were watching the real article. Raft always fared best with the ticket-buying public when there was at least a shade of the underworld attached to his characters. With few exceptions (Souls at Sea, 1937; They Drive by Night, 1940; and Manpower, 1941), his “straight” roles were generally less successful.

By 1954, Raft’s mob affiliations, bad personal press, career mismanagement and changes in the structure of the entertainment industry had severely crippled his career. He received a much-needed boost on the evening of March 24 when he was the Guest of Honor at a “Roast” held by the Friar’s Club. Many of the town’s “heavy hitters” - including studio executives Jack L. Warner, Dore Schary and Darryl F. Zanuck - were in attendance to pay the legendary actor homage. However when Raft got up to address the dais he suddenly became emotional and spoke about how poorly his career was going. It wasn’t a plea for sympathy; Raft was just expressing what he felt.

The next day Raft was called into the MGM office of Dore Schary, where the two men discussed Raft’s feelings at the Friar’s Roast. The conversation resulted in Schary offering Raft the major supporting role of crime czar Dan Beaumonte in the studio’s upcoming production of Rogue Cop. Raft had avoided playing out-and-out gangsters for 15 years, but he gratefully, if indeed humbly, accepted the third-billed part. The role, however, provided Raft with his most ruthless villain since Scarface, and certainly was a part that Raft would have rejected as a “dirty heavy” during his “starring” days at Paramount and Warners.

Rogue Cop was based on the novel by William P. McGivern (1918-1982), who also penned the crime books “The Big Heat”, “Shield for Murder”, “Hell on Frisco Bay” and “Odds Against Tomorrow”, all of which were turned into successful films.

Although MGM had produced some hard-hitting gangster movies in the early 1930s (The Big House, 1930; The Secret Six and, most especially The Beast of the City, both 1931), crime pictures were not the studio’s specialty (unlike Warner Brothers), but the films in that genre that MGM did produce were raw, violent and uncompromising. The later-day Rogue Cop would not prove an exception.

The film was directed by Roy Rowland, who began his career as a director of numerous MGM shorts during the 1930s and who would go on to helm such diverse projects as the sentimental Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), the boxing drama Killer McCoy (1947), the Red Skelton comedy Excuse My Dust (1951), the 3D-lensed Western The Moonlighter and the dark musical fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (both 1953). Rowland had also taken a turn at noir with the suspenseful Scene of the Crime (1949) and Witness to Murder (1954).

Long-time MGM contract star Robert Taylor was set for the lead, the corrupt cop Christopher Kelvaney. Romantic lead Taylor may have seemed an unlikely choice for such an unsympathetic role, but he had proven his dramatic mettle by delivering solid performances in such films as Bataan (1943) - and had even flirted with the underworld as the title character in Johnny Eager (1942). Later Taylor would essay another morally (and physically)-crippled character: mob lawyer Tommy Farrell in MGM’s glossy Party Girl (1958).

The two female leads were played by Janet Leigh (Karen Stephanson) and Anne Francis (Nancy Corlane). Francis was particularly effective as Raft’s girlfriend who, in her most memorable scene, takes drunken delight in belittling him - little realizing the extent of the gangster’s sadism. Director Rowland rounded out the rest of the cast with such reliable co-players as Robert Ellenstein, Robert F. Simon, Peter Brocco, Olive Carey and veteran serial star Roy Barcroft. Steve Forrest (younger brother of noir stalwart Dana Andrews) was cast as Chris Kelvaney’s “honest” cop brother, Eddie, while virtual screen newcomer Vince Edwards played the small but effective role of hitman Joey Langley.

A special treat for fans of classic television are the appearances of both Alan Hale, Jr. and Russell Johnson (the Skipper and Professor of Gilligan’s Island); along with Richard Deacon (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Ray Teal (Bonanza). Of course, Anne Francis, Steve Forrest and Vince Edwards later went on to their own small-screen series: Honey West, S.W.A.T. and Ben Casey.

Rogue Cop (1954)
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The plot:

Detective Sergeant Chris Kelvaney is on the payroll of Syndicate chief Dan Beaumonte and his associate Ackerman (Simon). When Kelvaney assists his patrolman brother Eddie in capturing murderer George "Wrinkles" Fallon (Brocco), Beaumonte tells Kelvaney that Eddie must not identify Fallon in court, and instructs the detective to offer his brother $15,000 for his cooperation. Kelaney, however, is unsuccessful in his attempt to convince Eddie to have a lapse of memory about Fallon, and even Kelvaney’s visit with Eddie’s ex-party girl sweetheart Karen proves fruitless. Despite his promise to allow Eddie a little more time to change his mind, Beaumonte orders Eddie’s murder. Kelvaney is suspended from the force after learning that he is under investigation by the grand jury. But badge or not, Kelvaney is determined to bring his brother’s killer to justice. Learning that Beaumonte is hunting for ex-moll Nancy, Kelvaney secures her in Karen’s apartment, where she reveals why Fallon’s release was so important to Beaumonte. Fallon had taken an incriminating photograph of Beaumonte and Ackerman many years ago, and both men fear that the successful prosecution of Fallon on the murder charge may release this evidence. Kelvaney returns to the police station and makes a deal with the district attorney to turn state's evidence on Beaumonte. He then goes to Karen's apartment where he discovers that Karen has been taken to police headquarters and Nancy has been drowned in the bathtub. Kelvaney’s informant Selma (Carey) tells him that Eddie's killer is Joey Langley, a hit man from brought in from the West Coast. The detective instructs her to get word to Beaumonte that he is on his way to apprehend Langley. Accompanied by fellow detective Sidney Y. Myers, Christopher goes to Langley's hideout and, following a fistfight, subdues and arrests him. On the street outside, Beaumonte and Ackerman attempt to ambush the cops and their captor. Both Kelvaney and Myers are wounded in the exchange of gunfire, but Beaumonte and Ackerman are killed. Kelvaney is prepared to make amends for his past mistakes.

Rogue Cop is one of the best film noirs of the 1950s, standing alongside such classics as The Big Heat (1953) and The Big Combo (1955). The film is dark and the atmosphere tense and gritty. The tone of the movie is set from its opening moments, as the credits are stamped against the backdrop of police activity in the city, sans musical accompaniment. The storyline effectively highlights the standard plot of a flawed “hero” changing sides and going up against a particularly ruthless antagonist - the character motivated less by the need for redemption than revenge. Sadistic villains were almost a staple in noir cinema: from Tommy Udo to Vince Stone to “Mr. Brown”. Until participating in the noirish shootout that ends the film, Raft’s Dan Beaumonte is never explicit in his evil actions; however, the scene in which he dispatches Nancy to his “friends” in punishment for her taunting him is chilling in what it suggests.

Rogue Cop was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (John F. Seitz) and received high marks from the critics. The New York Herald-Tribune rated the picture “a simple, streamlined movie about crookedness.” This was a unique compliment indeed during the message-laden reign of MGM studio boss Dore Schary.

George Raft received his own critical accolades. Steven Scheuer in his book Movies and TV on Videocassette wrote: “Raft is a standout as a syndicate czar who is more than a bit sadistic.” Even Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who for years had been one of Raft’s most merciless critics, admitted that Raft had performed admirably in the film.

Sadly, despite this praise in a successful film imbued with comeback potential, Raft’s career high all too quickly evaporated. After appearing as a detective investigating the murder of Peggy Ann Garner among a glittering array of suspects in the same year’s Black Widow (another job presented as a result of the Friar’s Club Roast - this time by Daryl Zanuck for Twentieth Century-Fox), and reprising his gangster against Edward G. Robinson’s Royal Canadian Police Inspector in A Bullet for Joey (1955), Raft was virtually unemployed in films until he played gangster Spats Columbo in the Billy Wilder comedy Some Like it Hot (1959). The movie, a huge hit, would provide Raft with last major film role in an important vehicle.

One final note: Rogue Cop is a film deserving of a DVD release. It is one of two top-drawer noirs (the other being Cry of the City, 1948) never to have been commercially released in a home video format. While not infrequently shown on television (particularly on TCM), it is a film that would be treasured in any noir devotee’s video collection.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) part 1

A Mad Killer Hides Out in Small Town America: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
by Bill Hare

Joseph Cotten was in a nervous frame of mind when he asked to see Alfred Hitchcock, the director of his next film.

Ever so casually, Hitchcock, who did not drive a car, asked an apprehensive Cotten to drive him to downtown Beverly Hills. Cotten explained the source of his anxiety; here he was being asked to play a homicidal maniac in Hitchcock’s next film and he was in a quandary wondering how a killer would look and act. What is the prototype of a killer?

Hitchcock, cool in a crisis, the same director who told a nervous Ingrid Bergman, “Ingrid, it’s only a movie”, asked Cotten to pull his car over to the curb. The famous director then asked Cotten to study the faces and behavioral mannerisms of men walking down the street.

Cotten finally wondered if there was a point to what seemed to him like a baffling, if not pointless, exercise. Hitchcock explained that the exercise explained everything he needed to know about his next part.

The answer was that killers “act like anyone else” and reflective of the way people generally act; like the men Hitchcock asked Cotten to observe.

One sometime ingredient of genius is the ability to reduce problems to a simple conclusion, and such it was on this sunny afternoon amid the palm trees, luxurious buildings and fashionable stores of downtown Beverly Hills. Cotten had his answer and was thereupon creatively freed, able to go on to play one of the two memorable film noir starring roles of his career.

Cotten Losing Himself in a Maze of Confusion

There are two striking similarities in Joseph Cotten’s two great film noir roles. After receiving excellent reviews for his work in Hitchcock’s film epic Shadow of a Doubt he would perform with stellar finesse in another challenging role as the male lead in the 1949 noir classic The Third Man.

The first similarity between the two noir masterpieces is that the directorial maestros wielding batons were London born and considered two of the greatest British directors of all time, albeit that Hitchcock moved to America and was in his U.S. phase when he directed Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt while the latter film involved Carol Reed at the zenith of his creative powers.

The second similarity is that in both classic dramas Cotten portrayed a man wandering in a maze of confusion. The beauty in the double challenge for Cotten was that the lead characters resided in dilemma-filled moods for different reasons.

In the case of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt Cotten portrayed a character who had sustained a life-threatening concussion in his youth and ultimately became a dual personality, one side of which represented a seemingly effortless charm, the other a woman hating psychopath who detested the world and everything it stood for, particularly as represented by wealthy widows, individuals he longed to kill for a combination of pure pleasure and financial gain.

Cotten’s role as Holly Martens in The Third Man finds him the friend of sociopath Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, and this time, rather than falling into the maze of confusion of a psychopathic killer of rich widows, he portrays a bumpkin wandering within the black market drug trade of post-World War Two Vienna.

Trevor Howard, playing a frustrated British military officer who simultaneously seeks to capture Welles and his cohorts while attempting to save Cotten’s life, implores Cotten repeatedly to go home and leave the sleuthing that the bungling American does not wish to abandon to the professionals.

While Shadow of a Doubt would remain one of Cotten’s treasured creative experiences, the same could be definitely said about the film’s director. As a matter of fact, it was a second to none experience for Hitchcock for a personally uplifting reason.

Hitchcock’s Favorite Film Experience

Alfred Hitchcock cited Shadow of a Doubt as his favorite film experience, indicating on numerous occasions that from day one of shooting up until the final scene concluded, he was invigorated by a spirit of joint cooperation. He was so impressed by the spirit of the people of Santa Rosa, California that he ultimately bought a home in nearby Santa Cruz that he used as his Northern California retreat away from bustling Los Angeles.

There were two reasons why the kindness and spirit of cooperation on the part of Santa Rosa’s citizenry impressed Hitchcock. The project occurred during the period of World War Two when his beloved London, his birthplace and the city where he grew up and gained initial fame as a director, was under steady aerial bombardment by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Due to the fact that war was raging in and around London, a tortured Hitchcock was unable to travel there to see his mother, who died during that same period.

Given the aforementioned circumstances, it becomes all the more understandable why Hitchcock was so impressed by the people of Santa Rosa. It is during a period of acute duress that kindness takes on the greatest significance, and so it was with the bonds forged between Hitchcock and Santa Rosa during the filming of Shadow of a Doubt.

Joining Forces with Thornton Wilder

When Hitchcock pondered on the prospect of seeking out a writer with the essential credentials to pen a study of small town America he chose Thornton Wilder, who had authored the major theatrical hit “Our Town”, which was and remains the epochal work dealing with that subject. The play was then adapted to the screen in a 1940 release starring William Holden in one of his earliest roles and Martha Scott. Hitchcock was so indebted to Wilder, who needed to rush his contribution through prior to joining the Army, that he gave him a special screen credit of thanks.

Contributing to the writing alongside Hitchcock’s steady scenarist partner from his early London days, wife Alma (Reville), was Sally Benson. It was Benson’s first screen credit. Her stories in The New Yorker became popular in forties’ America and the next great film with which she would be associated was Vincente Minnelli’s MGM musical classic Meet Me in St. Louis one year later, which was an adaptation of her book.

The story was magnificently woven around a dual personality in Cotten. He was idolized by a niece who, after an opportunity to analyze him at close range, realizes that he is a killer. Young Charlie, played by Teresa Wright, recognizes the necessity of dealing with Uncle Charlie carefully for two reasons; the fact that he might well murder her, along with the belief that it would kill her mother should his real identity be divulged.

Playing Wright’s mother, Emma Newton, was Dublin born Patricia Collinge, a Broadway regular eagerly snapped up by Hitchcock. The director would later use Collinge, who by then was an old friend, in numerous segments of Hitchcock’s highly successful television series.

An irony arising from the professional relationship between Collinge and Wright was that they were both nominated for the 1941 release The Little Foxes starring Bette Davis for Academy Awards in the Best Supporting Actress category. Wright won the award and obtained another Oscar in the same category one year later in the stirring World War Two drama Mrs. Miniver starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon.

Two Charlies and a Loving Mother-Doting Sister

Much of the dramatic inner play between the two Charlies in Shadow of a Doubt revolves around Patricia Collinge’s Emma Newton character. It is Emma who reveals the nasty spill that her brother Charlie took, and how it seemed to somehow change him, but she never realized in the manner of the killer he became. Emma freely admitted to having helped “spoil” her brother, the youngest of her siblings.

Teresa Wright’s Charlie is a young woman possessing great sensitivity, reaching ESP at strategic moments. She is so respectful of a mother who deeply loves her that she tells FBI agent MacDonald Carey that she will work with him, but only to the extent of getting her uncle out of Santa Rosa so her mother will never have to deal with a situation she believes would “kill her.”

Part 2

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) part 2

(click for part 1)

by Bill Hare

An Artful Use of Synchronicity

Teresa Wright was signed out of Broadway after studio boss and producer Samuel Goldwyn saw her appearing in Life with Father. Goldwyn was known to prefer “sweet girl next door” types and Wright, playing the role of a bright, idealistic Santa Rosa high school student in Shadow of a Doubt could not have been a more superb casting choice.

As the story begins Wright is feeling a case of the blues, believing that life in a small town has become hum drum as she longs for adventure. Her idol, Uncle Charlie, appears in her thoughts. His debonair, well dressed, highly traveled existence makes her so eager to see her at that moment and hopefully dispel her gloom.

After talking with her mother, Wright alights for the telegraph office, deciding to invite Uncle Charlie to Santa Rosa for a visit. As soon as she arrives she is told that a telegram has arrived from her uncle, prompting her to ask the lady assisting her if she believes in “telepathy” while she bursts into unbridled joy as the opportunity to once more meet the uncle she loves with equivalent fidelity to that which her mother feels toward her doted upon younger brother.

A Colloquy on the “Art of Murder”

Occupying a major element of the origin of film noir was the success of Black Mask Magazine, which spawned detective authors Dashiell Hammett and the master of the field, Raymond Chandler. In the pre-television era of the thirties and forties Black Mask and other magazines following in the same vein attracted wide audiences or readers with their hard-boiled, no punches pulled style of fiction.

Irony is used in a biting way as the story incorporates the unique devotion of rabid detective fiction readers into Shadow of a Doubt in the relationship between friendly neighbors. Banker Joseph Newton, played by veteran Broadway and film character performer Henry Travers, is the proud father of Young Charlie. He touts her as the “smartest girl in her class” who won the debate against Richmond High “all by herself.” Travers made his acting debut on the stage in his native England before moving to the United States.

After returning from a day at the bank, Travers enjoys smoking his pipe and unwinding with relaxing conversation with next door neighbor Herbie Hawkins, played by Hume Cronyn in his film debut. Jack Skirball, the film’s producer, had earlier told Cronyn, when he lobbied for the part of Herbie, that he was too young for the role. Cronyn was then in his early thirties while the script called for an actor in his fifties.

Instead Hitchcock, upon meeting Cronyn, rather than rejecting him, declared that they would have to “gray his hair.” After all, Hitchcock knew that Henry Travers, cast as Wright’s father along with a daughter and son younger than the beautiful and intelligent high school senior, would turn 69 by the time the film was released.

One of Teresa Wright’s main scenes occurs when Cronyn comes next door for some parlor chat with Travers about their favorite topic of “how to commit the perfect murder.” The timing could not be more shattering for Wright, who by then knows that her uncle is a serial killer of rich widows.

The irony of the situation is compounded as Cotten sits silently at the dinner table, taking in every word as his brother-in-law and the Newton family’s next door neighbor chat about how to achieve the perfect crime. Everyone is jolted when Wright jumps to her feet in an obviously rattled state, berating Travers and Cronyn about their ghoulish hobby of discussing murder.

An astonished Patricia Collinge, playing an innocent throughout the film in sharp contrast to intuitive daughter Wright, jumps to the defense of husband and neighbor. She mildly tells her rattled daughter that the men are relaxing, and that discussing how to commit the perfect murder helps them achieve that state.

While everyone else might be astonished by Wright’s sudden offense at a custom that has apparently existed for some time, one person at the dinner table understands only too well the young woman’s sensitivity over the topic. That person is Uncle Charlie, who feels a mounting pressure to dispose of the niece who can expose him.

Cronyn becomes a hero by saving Wright’s life during the second attempt that Cotton makes on her life, rescuing her from an attempted fatal asphyxiation in the Newton garage.

As for Cotten, arguably his finest scene and perhaps the greatest of his long career as a cinema leading man occurs when he reveals with bilious hatred to Wright his contempt for not only wealthy widows, who have always rated at the top of his list, but humanity in general. He uses the term “pig sty” in delivering his universal mandate as they sit in a downtown bar he has chosen for his private declaration to his niece.

One of the many ironies of a film containing so many is the ultimate effect that Uncle Charlie has on his niece. In the beginning she is delighted by the prospect of her worldly uncle entering an orbit that she finds restrictive in growing up in a small town near worldlier San Francisco. In analyzing the seething hatred within Uncle Charlie, Young Charlie begins to appreciate the friendly, cooperative social structure of which she is a part. She starts to appreciate Santa Rosa in the way Hitchcock did as director of the film.

An impressive element of the behavior of Cotten when he moves from the suave, debonair man of the world to that of enraged killer is that there is none of the shrieking and sometime swinging from a chandelier style of behavior exhibited in films directed by lesser figures than the astute Hitchcock.

A Youthful Greek Chorus

Hitchcock achieved a rare find in the casting of local Santa Rosa youngster Edna May Wonacott as Young Charlie’s younger sister Ann. She speaks in the manner of a one person Greek chorus, reducing human activity to immature foibles as she shrugs off the condition as lamentable but permanent. Considering that she spends her time reading such fare as Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe”, Wonacott comes across in the manner in which Hitchcock described himself during his early years growing up in London.

Charles Bates, portraying Roger Newton, is the youngest member of the family and frowns when reminded about it. Roger’s presence conjures up the image of Uncle Charlie growing up.

Santa Rosa Pays Respects to Uncle Charlie

The planning and spirit of cooperation continued to the elaborate funeral of Uncle Charlie after he meets his demise by falling from a train as he attempts to kill Young Charlie. The staging of the event was so convincing that many of the assembled citizens who respectfully watched the passing parade of limousines believed that an actual funeral was in progress.

The more frequently one absorbs this nifty noir gem directed by a screen master, the easier it becomes to appreciate the brilliantly allegorical, never preachy element of Shadow of a Doubt.

Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie represents the forces of worldly pessimism and ultimate darkness. Teresa Wright’s Young Charlie, in vivid contrast, conveys a spirit of hope and purpose, the determination of humanity to endure.


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