Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nightmare (1956)

By Thomas C. Renzi

United Artists. D: Maxwell Shane. P: William C. Pine, William C. Thomas (Pine-Thomas-Shane). Cin: Joe Biroc. Sc: Maxwell Shane. Ed: George Gittens. Mus: Herschel Burke Gilbert.

Cast: Kevin McCarthy (Stan Grayson), Edward G. Robinson (René Bressard), Connie Russell (Gina), Virginia Christine (Sue Bressard), Gage Clarke (Harry Britton/Lewis Belnap), Rhys Williams (Deputy sheriff Torrence), Barry Atwater (Captain Warner), Marian Carr (Madge), Billy (Billy May). 89 min.

Nine years after adapting Cornell Woolrich’s “Nightmare” for his 1947 film Fear in the Night, Maxwell Shane directed a remake. Although this later film, renamed Nightmare, strongly resembles the earlier film, a meticulous analysis shows that they are really two different films.

Nightmare begins with a similar dream sequence that Shane adapted for Fear in the Night. Stan Grayson (Kevin McCarthy), a clarinetist in a New Orleans band, envisions himself in a mirrored room where he encounters a strange woman, then fights with a man and stabs him to death with an awl. After waking, he finds bruises on his neck and pulls from his pocket two items he saw in the dream, a button he had ripped from the man’s coat and a key he had used to lock the body in a closet. He seeks help from his detective brother-in-law, René Bressard (Edward G. Robinson), but René attributes Stan’s fear to an overactive imagination.

René, several days later, persuades Grayson to go on a picnic with him, his wife Sue (Virginia Christine), and Gina (Connie Russell). As in both Woolrich’s story and Shane’s earlier film, a flash thunderstorm sends them fleeing to their car. When René’s windshield wipers fail to work, Sue pleads for him to stop somewhere. Grayson directs them to a local mansion, unable to explain why it seems familiar to him. While the girls nap, he searches upstairs and discovers the mirrored room where he murdered the unknown man.


René decides that his brother-in-law was him to establish an insanity plea for murder. The parish deputy sheriff arrives and tells them of the recent murder here. He takes them to the police station and shows them photos of the dead people. Stan faints. When he comes to, René takes him home, but is convinced of Stan’s guilt. He leaves, and Stan prepares to jump from his window ledge (as Vince does in Fear). René stops him. He stays with Stan that night. Stan talks about his odd neighbor Harry Britton (Gage Clarke), who once persuaded him to drink a rum daiquiri he didn’t want and to take a menthol cough drop he had refused. René recognizes the pattern of one person testing another’s will power.

René investigates and learns that Britton, alias Belnap, the husband of the murdered woman, had put Stan into a hypnotic trance and ordered him to kill his wife and her lover. René rigs a trap. Stan confronts Belnap in the mirrored room and tricks him into confessing his guilt. Belnap re-hypnotizes Stan and escapes with him. At the edge of the bayou, he orders him into the water “to find peace.” René arrives in time to pull Stan from the water. The captain and his deputy chase Belnap on foot and shoot him dead.

In the end, Stan and René join Sue at a nightclub where Stan’s orchestra is performing. Because Stan killed the man in self-defense, he expects to be acquitted at the inquest. He ascends the bandstand where Gina is singing. Conductor Billy hands him his clarinet to finish out the song.

Alongside Fear in the Night, this plot summary sounds familiar. Both versions include the noir notion of the fated individual deprived of free will and controlled by an external force that determines his actions.

Despite the similarities, this second film diverges from Fear in the Night in several ways. Plot changes are evident, like New Orleans replacing New York as the setting for the action, or Grayson being a musician instead of a bank clerk. Some differences are tonal. The earlier film has a surrealistic quality, true to Woolrich’s vision of a murky, drug-infected world defying logical cause-effect relationships. The remake tries to tighten the logic, make this noir world more realistic and perhaps more credible to the audience. Most significant is the thematic difference, due to the subtle refinements in the way Shane shoots his scenes and revises the subtext. What makes the films distinct is how they integrate their subtexts with the main story, an achievement that differs in both content and quality.

While the subtext of Fear in the Night points to guilt from suppressed homosexual desires, the subtext of Nightmare deals with the internal strife of the creative artist whose sensitive temperament has difficulty coping with rejection. In Fear, the frequent allusions to homosexuality through innuendo and imagery suggest that Vince has a subconscious reason for his guilt, other than his fear that he killed a man. In Nightmare, Shane reshapes many of these same scenes to introduce a new subtext through dialogue and imagery. Revisions throughout the film, especially in the four scenes surrounding Vince’s fainting spells and hypnotic trances, show that Shane deliberately abandons Fear’s homosexual subtext to replace it with another.

The first time we see René Bressard, he is renovating a boat, using an electrical sander—a more practical, masculine endeavor than Cliff’s making dollhouse furniture in Fear in the Night.

After Stan’s first fainting spell, the camera work in the bedroom scene implies Stan’s relationship with René is different from Vince’s with Cliff. When Stan awakes, the camera shoots from his point of view, retaining an eye-level shot rather than a low angle, suggesting equality between the two men instead of the brother-in-law’s dominance over him. René’s dark robe is more masculine, not garish like Cliff’s. Stan stands up and the camera shoots a series of angle-reverse-angle shots. Their parallel positions stress equality. Separate shots make this a far less intimate scene than the quiet tableau in Fear where Cliff sits on the bed, a dominant position above Vince lying on the bed, appearing vulnerable and submissive.

Stan’s second faint at the police station is similar to Vince’s in the first film, but lacks homosexual implications. René’s administering to Stan seems more literally a concern for Stan’s well-being than the homosexual undercurrent in Fear.

This is also true for the end of the film where Stan falls under Belnap’s hypnotic trance. The scene is similar—Stan gives Belnap his gun, the phallic symbol exposed and offered to the homosexual lover, but again, because this is not reinforced with earlier implications, it cannot be interpreted the same way as in Fear.

Shane’s astounding feat in shooting Nightmare is that, despite the story’s parallels with Fear in the Night, he creates an entirely new subtext with an entirely new thematic intent.

The new subtext deals with the fragile ego of the artist, his attempt to present his art in progressive, innovative ways, and his difficulty in coping with rejection. The subtext is first implied when, after waking from his dream and discovering physical evidence that it occurred in reality, Stan looks out his window over the city of New Orleans and says in a voiceover: “Out there everything was status quo. The hassle was in here—with me.” Different from Fear, where Vince sees the “same” diner, the “same” people, and the “same” traffic, Stan’s reference to the “status quo” and the “hassle” within himself carries different implications.

Later, the significance of this expression becomes clear. In the flashback, Stan’s band has just finished for the night. Stan prepares to leave with Gina when bandleader Billy tells Stan that, tomorrow at the recording session, they’ll record the old charts. When Stan angrily questions him, Billy and several other musicians say that Stan’s charts aren’t “commercial enough” and are “too far out.”

The subtext implies that Stan is a progressive musician, breaking with traditional approaches to music and trying to offer something new. While Vince in Fear represents Everyman, Stan may be said to represent Every Innovative Artist. The progressive artist introduces change that distorts our familiar world, upsets our perspective on it. Progress is not bad, just disruptive, and it almost always meets with resistance by those who want to cling to the old and familiar.

A six-note musical phrase from the dream continues to haunt Stan. At the Belnap house, when Gina accidentally elbows the speed control on the phonograph and slows down the record, Stan recognizes it as the music from the dream, an “old” tune played at a slower speed. This, too, suggests a contrast between conventional and progressive music. To the innovative artist, conventional music is “old” and obsolete; the innovative artist is always stretching the envelope, creating, looking for new ways to express ideas through his medium.

Nightmare (1956)
View Photo Slideshow

The film’s ending carries some ambiguous notions. When Stan takes his place on the stage behind Gina, he returns happily to play Billy’s “corny” tunes, not the new ones he has written. This suggests that, like the moment on the pier after René saves him and he feels “all right,” he has found peace because he returns to the bandstand to “fit in.”

Shane’s use of the musical motif in Nightmare enables him to treat the story from the artist’s perspective and so develop his theme around progressiveness versus stasis. This musical element resonates with some of the flavor of Woolrich’s “Dark Melody of Madness” (later entitled “Papa Benjamin”). Woolrich’s story deals with a similar issue, a New Orleans musician seeking a new, original kind of sound to market to the public. The overlap is faint but obvious enough to seem more than coincidence.

Arguably, Fear in the Night, for its more fully developed and coherent subtext and its more interesting ambiguities, is the better film. Nightmare is good, and Bob Porfirio, in Silver and Ward’s Film Noir,considers it superior to Fear, but I believe Leonard Maltin’s rating is more accurate in that the predecessor just edges out the later work. Nightmare deserves praise for the cast’s commendable performances and for the imaginative way the director incorporates fresh thematic ideas into a nearly identical narrative. Quite a remarkable achievement.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fear in the Night (1947)

Editor's note: This review is written by Thomas C. Renzi. Tom has written a book on noir writer Cornell Woolrich called Cornell Woolrich from Pulp Noir to Film Noir.

He compares the Woolrich book or short story to the films that were made based on them. Being a big Woolrich fan I found the study compelling. In this article he writes about Fear in the Night. Renzi mentions that this particular film has a homosexual subtext. Honestly, I never noticed it in the half-dozen times I've seen it. His book also goes into detail about the 1956 remake Nightmare with Edward G. Robinson. It's a bigger budget film but I find Fear in the Night a darker, grittier and therefore a truer film noir.

By Thomas C. Renzi

1947, Paramount. D: Maxwell Shane. P: William H. Pine, William C. Thomas (Pine-Thomas). Cin: Jack Greenhalgh. Sc: Maxwell Shane. Ed: Howard Smith. Mus: Rudy Schrager.

Cast: Paul Kelly (Cliff Herlihy), DeForest Kelley (Vince Grayson), Ann Doran (Lil Herlihy), Kay Scott (Betty Winters), Robert Emmett Keane (Harry Burg/Lewis Belnap) 71 min.

A steady contributor to filmmaking from 1937 to 1956, Maxwell Shane penned screenplays for nearly sixty films, but sat in the director’s chair for only five, which, according to Spencer Selby Dark City: The Film Noir, can all be classified as noirs: Fear in the Night (1947), City Across the River (1949), The Glass Wall (1953), The Naked Street (1955), and Nightmare (1956, a remake of his own Fear in the Night). Evidently, Shane appreciated Woolrich's conception for the novelette “Nightmare” because he not only scripted and directed two versions of it, but in adapting it to film, he retained most of the original material and captured much of the author’s atmospheric style and thematic intent.

DeForest Kelley, commendable in his first screen role and later famous as Bones McCoy in the Star Trek series, plays the confused protagonist, Vince Grayson, who wakes from a disturbing nightmare in which he stabs a man with an awl and stuffs his body in a closet. Although the gory crime seemed an imaginative invention, Vince finds in his pocket a button and key he saw in the dream, and notices bruises on his neck, all of which suggest that the event really happened. He seeks help from his detective brother-in-law, Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly), who scoffs at Vince’s imagined fears, but as evidence grows (following Woolrich’s chain of events), he gradually comes to believe his brother-in-law did commit the murder. After Vince attempts suicide (by leaping from his hotel room window, not by slitting his wrists as in Woolrich’s version), Cliff begins to investigate the facts more minutely. He locates the cuckolded husband Lewis Belnap (Robert Emmett Keane, renamed from the original’s Joel Fleming) and guesses how he turned Vince into a hypnotized assassin to murder his wife and her lover Bob Clune (replacing Woolrich’s Dan Ayers).

To clear Vince of murder, Cliff sets a trap for Belnap, getting him to repeat his ability to place Vince under a hypnotic spell. Belnap succeeds in re-hypnotizing Vince, but eludes the police, driving Vince to a lake where he orders him to drown himself. Cliff arrives in time to pull Vince from the water while his men pursue Belnap. One cop shoots the tire of the fleeing auto. Belnap loses control and dies in a violent crash.

At his arraignment, Cliff tells Vince that, based on self-defense, he should be cleared of criminal charges. Smiling, Vince walks up the steps of the courthouse with girlfriend Betty at his side.


As a faithful adaptation, Shane’s film works extremely well. An able cast delivers convincing performances. DeForest Kelley’s portrayal of a meek yet high-strung, emotionally suppressed individual perfectly captures the honest Everyman, who, struggling to uphold his moral principles in a corrupt and deceitful world, suffers psychological convulsions because of his sensitive conscience.

Paul Kelly, chisel-faced and square-jawed, gives his reliably convincing depiction of the rough-edged, no-nonsense cop, a role he plays often in his career. Notably, Robert Emmett Keane stands out as the villain. His quietly confident demeanor makes his villainy seem all the more insidious and deadly.

Like Woolrich’s novelette, Shane’s film operates ambiguously on two planes at once with its text and subtext mirroring the two realms of reality and imagination. Shane retains the two equivocal sources of Grayson’s guilt, committing a murder and entertaining homosexual fantasies.

The film’s explicit text parallels that of Woolrich’s story. A guilt-infected individual is struck nearly impotent with fear because he may have committed a reprehensible murder. The same questions emerge as to whether human action is the product of free will or the automatic gestures dictated by some all-controlling external force. Interestingly, when Grayson refers to “the power [that] watches over us when we’re unconscious,” he changes the original “God” to “the Almighty,” de-emphasizing the Divine and suggesting that the outcome to human endeavor can be held sway by some secular entity.

Shane faithfully adheres to Woolrich’s homosexual subtext as the implied reason for Vince’s troubled conscience. His relationships with Clune, Herlihy, and Belnap are confusing to his sensitive nature, a psyche stringently molded by social proprieties and religious orthodoxy. The only way he can cope with his “improper” behavior is by suppressing it as fragmented memories from dreams or a hypnotic trance or some black-out state.

After the opening hypnotic episode, Vince suffers unconsciousness a second time when he blacks out at his brother-in-law’s house. After a fade out and in, we see him lying in bed in the dark, while his voiceover tells us he had a hazy recollection waking and then falling back to sleep until after midnight when “something” woke him. A light goes on and the camera pans Cliff’s figure, from his legs to his face, as he stands alongside Vince’s bed in a garish robe patterned in circular starbursts.

This blackout, adapted from the novelette where Vince sleeps overnight at Cliff’s house, makes it even more evident that Shane is trying to capture Woolrich’s homosexual connotations. Like the opening dream sequence with Clune, Vince finds himself in another scene where Cliff appears as the instigator of an ambiguous homosexual encounter with him. Throughout the film, Cliff calls Vince “kid,” a term of endearment perhaps, but also one male’s subtle claim to superiority over another. Woolrich’s story handles this a little differently: at one point Cliff tells Vince, “You’re twenty-six years old, you’re not a kid”, but at the end, when Vince has to go through the legal process for his role in the murder, Cliff asks him, “Are you scared, kid?” (“Kid” evokes the same ambiguities as “gunsel” in The Maltese Falcon, where Gutman has an equally equivocal relationship with his gunman Wilmer as adopted son and implied lover.) Here, the camera’s pan of Cliff presents him as an imposing figure standing at the meek Vince’s bedside, the two characters taking the male and female roles respectively. His gaudy robe contrasted with his stern, hard-boiled visage is laughable, but the scene is played seriously, and the insinuation is that Cliff, coming for a romantic tryst, is outfitted to impress the object of his affection.

As in Woolrich’s story, the scene between Cliff and Vince in the kitchen of the Belnap mansion is filled with homosexual innuendo. Cliff’s anger originates ambiguously from pride (repugnance at being used) and jealousy (possessiveness for his lover). Vince experiences his next blackout at the police station when he is shown the morbid photographs of the two dead bodies. The scene fades out and when it fades in, he lies on the floor. Cliff picks him up, cradles him in a pietà-like pose, and administers to him. Vince starts to speak: “It’s only since I started—“ but Cliff cuts him off so as not to alert the other police of his knowledge of the murders.

Again, the subtextual implication is that Vince faints from the shock of seeing his former lover dead. Cliff silences Vince to keep him from incriminating himself, but once they return to Vince’s apartment, Cliff announces he is going to arrest him the next day. If Cliff were sure of Vince’s guilt and intended to turn him in, why not let him speak at the police station? He was afraid his brother-in-law would expose their homosexual relationship, that he might have said he blacks outs “only since I started” to have these homosexual affairs.

The film follows Woolrich very closely at the climax. Cliff has set a trap for Belnap with his recording equipment while Vince confronts the hypnotist. Vince brandishes a gun and thinks he’s in control, but Belnap distracts him with his pocket watch, reflecting light in his eyes and hypnotizing him once more. Vince’s gun is a phallic symbol, and Belnap’s request that Vince give “it” to him suggests another homosexual encounter. Hypnotized, Vince is defenseless and vulnerable—that is, the urge to consummate the homosexual sex act is too great to resist. His hypnotic trances and blackouts are excuses, defense mechanisms, to assuage his guilt for submitting to these urges.

We see Vince’s face inside the circle of Belnap’s watch cover. Black lines criss-cross the image, giving it a shattered, fragmented look. Vince’s self-control dwindles into oblivion. Belnap leads his hypnotized subject from the house and drives him to a nearby lake where he suggests that he find peace by drowning himself. Vince slips into the water, the symbol of the unconscious. The police, not far behind, close in. Belnap flees. The police shoot out one tire, causing the car to jump the road and crash, killing the hypnotist. Meanwhile, Cliff, left at the lakeside, has pulled Vince from the water. In administering artificial respiration, he has Vince’s inert body prostrate, face down, on the dock while he straddles him. Then he turns him over, and remains straddling him. Vince regains consciousness. Cliff, looking down on him, asks, “Are you all right, kid?” Vince takes his time, but finally smiles and answers, “Yeah…yeah…all of a sudden, I’m all right.”

This final image of Cliff astride Vince seals the homosexual implications. “All of a sudden I’m all right” can mean several things, one of which is that submission to and acceptance of his homosexuality has enabled him to feel at peace with himself.

The image of Cliff behind Vince in a front-to-back embrace, the so-called “spoon” position, had occurred earlier when Cliff rescued his brother-in-law from his suicide leap. Before Vince slipped from the window ledge, Cliff pulled him inside. In itself, the incident does not suggest a homosexual act, but coupled with the later scene on the dock, it signifies the nature of their sexual entanglement.

The ordeal over, true blame for the murder has been determined and Vince is absolved of his guilt. His plunge into the water had a cathartic effect that erased all sins, original and otherwise. At the film’s conclusion, when Betty walks with Vince up the steps of the courthouse, she says, “I’ll be right there with you all the time.” She usurps the words of Cliff Dodge at the end of Woolrich’s story, thus replacing him and what he stands for. The implication is that Vince’s “fear in the night,” his fear of being homosexual, is over, that his love for a woman redeems him through a “normal” heterosexual relationship.

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Dangerous Ground (1952)

Editor's note: This edition of Noir of the Week is by clyderfro. He has an amazing website devoted to classic films that shouldn't be missed.

Posted by clydefro

Superlatives are easy and get us nowhere. In intellectual property law, the dilution of a brand name to the point where it's synonymous with the actual product is commonly referred to as "genericide." The result is for the trademarked name to become essentially worthless, harboring no actual value due to its overuse. The same should go for sliced-out blurbs that deem something, often a movie, to be "great" or "amazing" or, heaven forbid, "powerful." If you hear these words enough, they lose any and all meaning. It tells us nothing aside from one person's struggle with a limited vocabulary of populist signal phrases.

If Nicholas Ray still made movies today, considering the vast number of blurb-happy reviewer monkeys, he'd have no problem rounding up a few eager admirers with bylines. Lot of good that does him now. Those guys were nary to be found during his time in Hollywood. When he started out at RKO in the late 1940's, audiences hardly noticed the unique auteur stamp he applied to his very best films. His debut They Live by Night sat on the shelf for months before getting a quiet, unnoticed release. Critics too were not entirely enthusiastic in his native country. If he had a champion among the American contingent of reviewers, I'm not aware of who it'd be. Years later, Andrew Sarris picked up the ball, but he didn't originate the play. Overseas, it was the French, specifically the lads at Cahiers du Cinema, who were responsible for elevating Ray to the status of major filmmaker. Jean-Luc Godard put Ray's
Bitter Victory as his top film of 1957, ranked The Savage Innocents #2 in 1960, and had Bigger Than Life at number 7 in his list of the best American sound films that was published in the last issue of 1963. The periodical also put Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life in its year-end top 10 lists. How did Ray fare stateside? He picked up an Oscar nod for Best Writing on Rebel in 1956. That's it. By the end of the decade he was done in Hollywood, essentially unemployable and on his way to a heart attack on the set of his last studio-financed film, 1963's 55 Days at Peking. He'd go on to teach at New York University, where his most famous alum was the director Jim Jarmusch, before succumbing to cancer in the summer of 1979.

The movies, of course, remain, and gloriously so. Ray's decade was the 1950's. You can look at and appreciate the output of Hitchcock or Billy Wilder or anyone from Sam Fuller to Douglas Sirk, but the '50s were Nick Ray's. No other director working in Hollywood was able to place America on the screen like Ray did. Our postwar fears, the veneer of happiness when disenchantment lurks barely beneath the surface, the basic decency we all struggle to maintain and the mistakes we're doomed to make - these subjects fascinated Ray and they reveal themselves in the subtext of all his best efforts. After
They Live by Night, Ray got kicked around by RKO and eventually jumped to Columbia for a couple of Humphrey Bogart pictures. He made one of his best films there, arguably his masterpiece, with In a Lonely Place in 1950. He then returned to his home turf of Howard Hughes' RKO to helm On Dangerous Ground, inspired by a British novel by Gerald Butler called Mad with Much Heart, which Ray had read prior to filming Born to Be Bad in 1949.


Made (reluctantly) by RKO and produced (reluctantly) by John Houseman, who had a relationship with Ray that preceded the director's time in Hollywood, On Dangerous Ground found life with the support of star Robert Ryan and a script Ray wrote with A.I. Bezzerides, whose novels had earlier served the bases for the films They Drive by Night and Thieves' Highway. The result was a quintessential Nicholas Ray film, one that allows for playing within the margins while still doing so at his own rhythms. It's structured into two entirely different story segments and comes complete with a bold score by Bernard Herrmann that disorients as much as it thrills. The film's top-billed lead, Ida Lupino, doesn't appear until over half an hour has passed, and that initial portion has no determinate structure or plot. Lean yet unhurried at just under 82 minutes, the film noir doesn't always adhere to convention, doesn't worry itself with backstory, and can't be bothered to explain much. And we should be thankful.

The initial thirty minutes, wherein Ryan's Jim Wilson struggles with the big city filth and trash like a sane Travis Bickle, apparently came mostly from Ray and weren't in the source novel. Wilson is a cop who's lonely, lives by himself, and is fixated on the criminals who roam the perpetually wet streets. His isolation consumes him like all the best Ray protagonists. First seeming like a sadist, he's later revealed to be someone who can't separate his life from his job. The violence he accumulates inside manifests itself as the way to combat suspects. He beats and punches the perpetrators until they talk. We see Ryan deliver the immortal lines: "Why do you make me do it? You know you're gonna talk! I'm gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it?" In this scene, Wilson is not a power-mad monster, but a good man whose methods have grown increasingly violent and desperate. Ryan plays it with a sad compulsion to conquer his demons through brutalizing the uninnocent. He's never off-duty.

Wilson's loneliness is clear in these early snapshots. The domestic life he covets can be glimpsed when a young boy kicks and throws around a rolled-up newspaper with him, a moment perhaps representative of the son he's never had. After registering disgust at an underage teen who attempts to flirt, Wilson fails to conceal his hurt when a possible romantic interest loses her luster by mentioning a boyfriend and balking at the idea of dating a cop. Over and over again, especially in a quick conversation he has with another cop, we see that Wilson has no life to speak of outside of being a police officer. He's a failure at socializing, excelling solely at physical activity. You get the feeling that he'd have difficulty discussing anything other than the goings-on at work. Throughout, Ryan's performance remains tremendously gauged and affecting.

Ray only has half an hour to explain Jim Wilson to us before sending him off to help with an investigation upstate (the location is never specified, but I think the assumption is that Wilson is a cop in New York). The character gets reprimanded in the form of an assignment to trudge through the snow and help find the killer of a teenage girl. The girl's father (Ward Bond) seems bent on vigilante justice and sees no need for the involvement of a big city cop. This remainder of the film is where the Wilson character is fully formed. The change of scenery seems to calm his nerves and he becomes more level-headed, less explosive. Through this prism, the viewer can revise his or her opinion of Wilson from the dangerously unstable portrayal in the first act.

In many ways, the entire mood of Ray's noir is altered in this transition from the dark, shiny streets of the metropolis to a palpably cold and snowy countryside. The grit and the rawness disappear. A handheld camera we'd seen used in Wilson's last straw display of violence against a suspect becomes almost unthinkable in the comparatively placid landscape of emptiness. The color white is used to establish purity and cleansing of the soul from the grimy alleys of the city. Ray brilliantly conveys the secluded openness of the new environment by blanketing everything in snow. The depth of uniformity seems to spread as far as the eye can see. Ray had actually studied under Frank Lloyd Wright and was greatly concerned with the architecture of his films. This interest is on display in the utter vastness of how lonely the single house where Ida Lupino's character Mary, the blind sister of suspected killer Danny, resides. The modest home seems to be located in the middle of nowhere, covered in darkness and infected by the cold. The metaphor both for Wilson and Mary, two lonely souls that fit so well in the Nick Ray firmament, doesn't go unnoticed.

Wilson has inadvertently closed himself off through his prickly demeanor and questionable actions while Mary's distance from the outside world is geographic, but also somewhat self-inflicted. She refused to explore the possibility of regaining her sight to instead stay close to her younger brother. Through their own inactivity, Wilson and Mary have both trapped themselves inside self-built walls and only a major alteration will allow for the change they both desperately, if passively, desire. These are classic Ray characters, soul mates so disaffected with others that they struggle to recognize their path to redemption and contentment. Sometimes Ray (and the Production Code) let his lovers meet a happy ending and sometimes they were destined for a more somber fate. This film allows for the ending most viewers will feel is deserved. Danny's death serves as a tragic sacrifice for Mary to now fully occupy her own life. Wilson, too, has found a companion to divert his attention away from the crime found on the streets. The missing pieces necessary to fix their troubles are simultaneously located in the form of each other. Ray's deeply humanistic conclusion, wherein a man on the verge of imploding and a woman whose life has been undone find happiness together, is perhaps his most satisfying across the entirety of the director's filmography.

When exiting a Nicholas Ray film, the viewer may feel punch drunk with emotion and feelings not fully digested. What I find so enchanting about Ray's films, with
On Dangerous Ground qualifying as a favorite, is how much he clearly cares about his characters. Objectivity isn't feigned or wanted. Ray unapologetically set out to make films where imperfect protagonists like Jim Wilson could flourish against the typical Hollywood storybook portrayals. It's not realism that Ray strived for so much as compassion in the face of fantasy. He sometimes comes across as a social worker with a camera and a studio budget. Nonetheless, these are multi-dimensional characters suddenly breathed life into when it wasn't the popular thing to do. Wilson's problems are appropriately isolated, but still embedded within that character. The choice Ray makes is to present Wilson as a man who simply can't take what he witnesses on a daily basis. When he changes settings he also improves his mood and finds in Mary what he couldn't in the city. By giving Wilson this catharsis, Ray begins the cop's life anew, curing him of his lonely ailments. It's the ending we want and the one Ray says Wilson deserves.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Border Incident (1949)

“Duo of Darkness” Achieves Low Budget Gem with Border Incident

Director Nicholas Ray has been justifiably called the “laureate of darkness” for excellent night story blending with haunting photography in such unforgettable film noir hits as They Live by Night (1949) and Humphrey Bogart classic In a Lonely Place as well as the James Dean-Natalie Wood-Sal Mineo story of rebellious youth, Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

The title “duo of darkness” could be reserved with equivalent distinction for one of the best director-cinematographer teams ever to enter the film noir orbit, in which budgeting economy and scenic precision skillfully merged.

Director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton were teamed six times in a short span between 1947 and 1950. Four of these noir works endure over the course of time and repeated viewings as superb achievements both in the genre as well as overall.

Seldom has night ever been displayed with such brutally haunting reality than in the skilled hands of the “duo of darkness” as in their debut effort of T-Men in 1947, moving forward to 1948 with Raw Deal and He Walked by Night and culminating with the film being featured, the 1949 release Border Incident. Mann and Alton etched a tableau of brooding darkness that Edgar Allen Poe, who lived a century earlier, would have admired.

Since Border Incident can be better understood and appreciated in context with viewing all of the Mann-Alton
collaborations, mention of the earlier noir efforts should be briefly reviewed. Their first noir contribution T-Men exemplified the semi-documentary film popular with Mann and other directors of the period. Dennis O’Keefe in tandem with a fellow federal agent who is later killed while O’Keefe watches centers around an effort to thwart a counterfeiting ring operated by a ruthless Los Angeles mob.

One of the film’s most cinematic as well as impact-laden moments occurs when famous noir performer Charles McGraw decides that fellow gang member Wallace Ford has become expendable. The ruthless, sadistic McGraw prompts Ford’s death by turning on the heat to excessive levels in a steam room.

The unique death scene element was captured in another memorable scene involving McGraw as executioner in Border Incident. That imaginative effort will be covered later.

Dennis O’Keefe starred once more with the Mann-Alton tandem one year later in Raw Deal, in which he escapes from prison daringly with the objective of squaring accounts with the mob boss who framed him, played by Raymond Burr before his halcyon television days as brilliant Los Angeles defense attorney Perry Mason in the series bearing that name.

Claire Trevor, one of the most memorable ever femmes fatale in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944), plays a tough woman of experience in love with O’Keefe who finds contrasting competition in the sweeter, younger Marsha Hunt.

O’Keefe runs a gauntlet by night in his effort to reach Los Angeles and settle accounts with Burr, who understandably realizes he has a strong stake in the outcome, namely his life. Burr does his best to see that O’Keefe does not get a chance to square accounts.

The Documentary Flavor

The other 1948 collaborative effort of Mann and Alton dovetails with Border Incident, their final effort released the following year, since the strong documentary flavor manifested in T-Men abounded in He Walks by Night. Richard Basehart stars as a troubled young killer who terrorizes Los Angeles in the dark hours of late night and early morning.

Scott Brady in one of his early starring roles plays a determined young cop whose steadfastness intensifies to find the killer after a fellow officer meets his death after stopping Basehart to interrogate him. The film’s documentary flavor is revealed by focusing on the techniques used by the Los Angeles Police Department to track down a clever and elusive killer.

Jack Webb appears in one of his earliest film roles as an LAPD lab technician who provides insight into the killer, assisting Brady and his fellow officers. He Walks by Night along with the police drama Naked City (1948) directed by Jules Dassin and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor and Howard Duff, which was set in New York but bore thematic semi-documentary similarities to the L.A. based drama, were the models Webb shrewdly employed when he starred as L.A.P.D. Sergeant Joe Friday in the successful “Dragnet” television series.


Montalban, Murphy Clash With Two Memorable Noir Villains

Border Incident was a composite of true incidents that occurred in the border struggle of the late forties in which federal agents from Mexico and the United States battled tenaciously to prevent mobsters from importing illegal farm agent from the former country to the latter. This is a struggle that was waged frequently by night, since this was a propitious period to smuggle migrants north beyond the border.

Ricardo Montalban, just beginning to hit his early stride as a leading man, portrays a courageous federal agent from Mexico who forms a team with U.S. agent George Murphy. The agents had operated in tandem before on a case along the Texas-Mexico border, know each other’s methods, and hold a mutual respect for one another.

Leading the force of resistance, and who has established a lucrative racket exploiting Mexican migrant workers, is Howard Da Silva. It was Da Silva who played the bartender-confidante of Ray Milland in the 1945 Billy Wilder noir gem The Lost Weekend and clashed in the role of mob boss with returning veteran Alan Ladd in The Blue Dahlia from a script written by Raymond Chandler. He was also featured along with Jay C. Flippen as the two older bank robber influences on victim of fate Farley Granger in the earlier mentioned They Live by Night.

Da Silva employs as confidante and executioner noir legend Charles McGraw, who, while playing an uncompromisingly honest cop in Richard Fleischer’s super low budget classic The Narrow Margin (1952), used his gravel voice to excellent advantage on the wrong side of the law, as evidenced as a ruthless hired killer alongside sidekick William Conrad in Robert Siodmak’s brutally realistic The Killers (1946) starring blazing newcomers Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, based on an Ernest Hemingway story.

While Murphy plays along as someone who wants to become a part of Da Silva’s operation, it becomes increasingly apparent that McGraw is anything but loyal to his boss, and that a clash is inevitable between two opportunistic cons. It also becomes increasingly clear that Murphy can only play his role so long without his true identity and purpose being discovered.

Charles McGraw gets the drop on Ricardo Montalban
as Howard Da Silva looks on

from Alan K. Rode's personal collection
A Creatively Symbolic Death Scene

It was mentioned earlier about the imaginative death scene with McGraw as executioner and Wallace Ford as victim in T-Men. If anything, Murphy’s death at the hands of McGraw is even more imaginatively rendered, and with a strong dose of creative symbolism.

Border Incident was filmed in the Imperial Valley, an area near the Mexican border with myriad acres of tillable land. Murphy is shot in a field in the lonely darkness of late evening. As the U.S. agent lies on the ground drenched in his own blood the ever unmerciful McGraw drives a tractor over his body to provide a swift and painful end to his life.

The method of death strung a symbolic thread over the entire film. Murphy as well as Montalban knew the risk involved in such a perilous undertaking and discussed it openly. The death occurred in a field that by day was filled with migrant workers who had crossed over the border to seek a better life, an expectation that vigilant opportunists as depicted by Da Silva and McGraw in the film exploited to the ultimate.

The stunning images of night were searingly and indelibly rendered by the talented camera’s eye of John Alton. Noir directorial craftsman Anthony Mann did his typical job of sustaining concise pacing without superfluous subject matter.

As for the script, it was tight and lean. It was penned by murder mystery specialist John C. Higgins, who had also written He Walked by Night for Mann. Higgins’ script was adapted from a story by George Zuckerman.

Border Incident provides gripping drama, never letting up, never disappointing. It is a film that should not be missed, especially by those who lust for travels by night in the world of film noir.

Written by Bill Hare

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Hangover Square (1945)

As I was going down the list in my head to confirm that Hangover Square indeed met the proper criteria to be considered a film noir, on paper it seemed like sure a thing: Adequate ice water running through the veins of a prominent femme fatale character - check, male lead character unable to resist devious charms of said femme fatale - check, crazy blackout and flashback sequences - check, murders occurring during said blackout sequences - check, lead character experiencing overwhelming sense of dread from events beyond his control - check, cinematographer being far from stingy with shadows and chiaroscuro lighting - check, detectives on the hunt for a killer - check. Sounds like we got all the fixings for a classic film noir right? Not so fast, Hangover Square isn’t your run of the mill noir. I’d say it’s more like a cousin to the conventional film noir. It contains much of the same DNA, but it’s not in the immediate family. Hangover Square is however a beautifully shot and overlooked thriller that merits a view through the film noir lens; despite on its surface it may appear incongruous to that category.

George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) is a dull, sad sack type of figure, but he possesses a bright future as a music composer. He is on the verge finishing a concerto that carries great potential for international recognition according to his sponsor Lord Henry Chapman (Alan Napier) and his talented pianist daughter Barbara (Faye Marlowe). Things would be looking pretty well for George if it wasn’t for those pesky blackouts he occasionally experiences. When he comes to from them, he has the sneaking suspicion that he’s committed some bad deeds under their influence. We know this as viewers to be true because in the opening scene of the film George is stabbing a man in a London shop and then fleeing the crime scene after setting it ablaze. George commits these crimes without conscious knowledge, but he has grave concern as to the nature of his blackouts and conveys these apprehensions to Barbara. George decides to speak to an acquaintance at Scotland Yard, Dr. Allan Middleton (George Sanders) who is not a police officer but a psychiatrist figure of sorts. He allays George’s fears after checking out his blackout story (he can’t find any evidence to link George to the shopkeeper stabbing and fire) and tells him to relax as the stress of completing his concerto may be triggering these blackouts. These spells don’t cease however and neither does the George Bone blackout violence that ensues as the movie progresses.

To take his mind off all his worries, George decides to take in a show at a local beer hall. This is where he first sees dazzling songbird Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) performing a bawdy musical number in front of a bunch of drunken blokes. Afterward George goes back stage and tells Longdon he admires her singing. She’s unimpressed until her manager, who has heard of George's talents, properly introduces her to him with the intention of George writing some new material for Netta. George spot composes a tune for her, while amalgamating her lyrics into it, and the result is a very catchy number. It’s so good her manager sells the song for 50 guineas soon after. Netta realizes that with George’s talents at her disposal, he would make an ample stepping stone for her career. George falls hard for the gorgeous Netta and is hopelessly wrapped around her finger. She uses his musical talents for her career gain and then tries to discard him when he gets wise to her plan. Unfortunately this wisdom came after George had just sprung an engagement ring on her. His moment of clarity, in realizing Netta’s opaque motives, happened after learning of her pending engagement to a successful promoter that could shoot Netta’s star much higher into the stratosphere than George’s talent ever could.

George is devastated at this development. Upon returning to his apartment he throws Netta’s sheet music against the wall where a number of his instruments are leaning against it. The discordant sound of the violins, cymbals and all the noisy instruments crashing down together (we finally learn) is the catalyst for George’s murderous blackout spells. He immediately becomes thrown into one of his attacks and is off to Netta’s place in his state of murderous somnambulism. He strangles Netta and his disposal of her body leads to the most striking and uncannily creepy scene of the film.

George formulates a clever plan (he’s apparently capable of doing such even under these homicidal spells) to burn Netta’s fresh corpse out in the open, in front of hundreds of witnesses. Luckily the evening he snuffs out Netta is Guy Fawkes Night in England. The ceremonial burning of Guy Fawkes effigies in the center of the neighborhood square happens with a huge towering bonfire. Before the giant pyre is lit ablaze, people pile on the effigies and George is the last to contribute his own “Guy.” George climbs up the long ladder with Netta’s wrapped body slung over his shoulder including a Guy Fawkes mask over her face. George slowly inches his way up the huge mound and simultaneously we see the mask starting to slip off Netta’s face; it’s becoming exposed to the sizable crowd below at the base of the pile. The tension increases as the crowd is egging on George to hurry up. They even start to light the base of the pile on the opposite side as George climbs down the ladder after depositing Netta at the top. At the very least it’s an extremely powerful scene. Not only is the entire sequence beautifully shot and edited, it concludes with people dancing in a circle around the bonfire. Their huge shadows cast against buildings and streets from the fire’s light makes for chillingly effective cinema. The scene is even more unsettling however when considering Linda Darnell’s real life demise came from a domestic house fire in which she suffered extensive burns and died the next day.

Hangover Square concludes with an over the top, but very well filmed scene where George finally gets to have his concerto played with full instrumentation backing him. This finale has some truly impressive sweeping camerawork that’s well coordinated with the stellar soundtrack. The police are on to his uncontrollable homicidal ways at this point in the film. George literally goes down in flames and concludes the films trio of fiery scenes that serve as narrative cruxes for George and the viewer. Finally and tragically George gets to hear his concerto as he descends into madness. The insanity he struggled with finally engulfs him like the flames that claim his body in the timeless, haunting final shot.

Much of this description may sound like a film noir, but the visual twist you must consider is the setting: 1903, turn of the century London. The street lamps are gas powered and not electric as were used to seeing in noir, but cinematographer Joseph LaShelle does a fantastic job with lighting, framing and camera movement. He especially exceeds in
choosing some great low and high camera angles along with some textbook noir shots such as George showing up at Netta’s door with new song in hand for her. LaShelle and director John Brahm, made some clever visual choices along the way. In one sequence toward the end of the film, he films Dr. Middleton (who now believes George is a killer) in darkness and George Bone (who now knows he’s a killer) in the light as Middleton questions him about a particular type of knot used with some of the victims that were strangled. The questioning occurs in George’s flat while he’s getting ready for his concerto premiere and we get plenty of close-ups of George tying the knot on his bow-tie in tandem with all the strangulation chat.

One aspect of Hangover Square that stands out is the fantastic musical score by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. He’s able to deliver a superior suspenseful score for the film, but he also does a very impressive piece of composing with the concerto finale performed at the end. Herrmann did a similar task a decade later with Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much by writing a composition that served as the centerpiece of the films dramatic climax. While it doesn’t hinge on something as specific as the cymbal crash in Hitchcock’s film for example, the concerto is a device that drives the plot in the film. Hermann’s concerto piece is spectacular because for the story to have credibility, it has to be such. The concerto is what drives and motivates George Henry Bone to potential greatness, but ends up delivering him into actualized madness.

There is a ridiculous aspect to the film that sticks in the logic craw: the inexplicable homicidal trances that George undergoes when hearing loud discordant noises. Not only do we not know how this peccadillo began, but also why these types of sounds trigger this behavior in George Harvey Bone. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the William Bendix character in The Blue Dahlia that is driven crazy when he hears jazz “monkey music.” It does serve a purpose in that it facilitates the noir trope of the sympathetic victim as the criminal. Its unaccountability is not so unforgiveable as to completely undermine the many positives of the film. What bothered me most about the way it was not explained or handled, was that John Braham didn’t seem to know how to do so in the first place. There’s a difference between adroitly being kept in the dark and feeling like you’ve simply been lazily left behind there.

The casting is strong all around with Laird Cregar turning in a truly fine (albeit slightly over the top during his wild eyed flashbacks) performance. Linda Darnell is fantastic however in the devious femme fatale role of Netta Longdon. Darnell lends enough credibility to Netta by not going overboard and hard selling her character’s selfish motives to the audience. She lets Netta’s self-centered ways show themselves in a seemingly organic fashion and believable pace. Darnell’s less than consistent number of appearances in film over the years, before her demise, is a true loss for her fans of which I am certainly one.

While turn of the century gaslight Victorian London may not seem like an obvious setting for a film noir, at the very least it becomes a surprisingly serviceable one under the direction of Braham and the camerawork of LaShelle. The essential film noir elements are there, but more so it’s a well crafted and acted thriller that deserves some recognition and kudos. At the very least it warrants viewing for the combination of Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, the score of Herrmann and those fantastic scenes combining infernos and insanity.

Written by Tim (aka - Mappin and Webb Ltd.)

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