Friday, February 27, 2009

Highway 301 (1950)

Warner Bros. was considered the gangster studio par excellence. By the 1940s a new type of crime film evolved thanks in great part to The Maltese Falcon. Film noir - the darker and cynical son of crime films of the 1930s - replaced the gangster film in popularity. However, noir did take many of the elements of Warner's gangster films when the film style evolved during its peak of popularity.

Warner's incredibly successful 30s gangster films were considered morality tales. Big time gangsters started small but rose fast in the underworld's ranks. In WB thrillers, immoral and streetwise hoods would always succeed in organized crime but in the end they'd usually be shot down - literally - at the height of their mob careers. Although sold to the public as morality tales ("crime does not pay!") the truth was the high-living gangsters lives looked pretty nice. The women, cars, piles of cash and swanky apartments enjoyed by charismatic gangsters played by Cagney or Edward G. Robinson seemed much more desirable than the bland flat-footed cops' hum-drum lives. It was only at the end of the films when Robinson would be gasping his last breath after a hail storm of bullets riddled his chest did it seem like a life of crime would actually be a bad thing. Film noir was different. Regular guys committed crimes out of desperation or lust. Haunted by their decisions - and bad decisions - they would be punished by their own conscience as much as by the police or fate that would eventually catch up with them.

Warner Bros. forgotten 1950 film Highway 301 is a bit of a hybrid of old WB gangster and film noir - which was then at its peak. Star Steve Cochran - who naturally looked like a former thug from the streets - plays George Legenza the leader of a gang of not-too-bright bank robbers blandly dubbed The Tri-State Gang.

Cochran was a talented actor who alternated between playing the lead and supporting roles in dozens of films and TV shows including the unforgettable Twilight Zone episode "What You Need." Highway 301 is just one of Cochran's excellent film noir/gangster films. Check out the outstanding The Chase, White Heat, the Ronald-Reagan-KKK movie Storm Warning, Tomorrow is Another Day, Private Hell 36, and the bizarre beatnik/abortion tale The Beat Generation. The actor was a natural to play a slightly dim but deadly gang leader in Highway 301.

Highway 301's beginning and end features some hack attempts at the "crime does not pay" message Warner Bros. was known for almost 20 years before. The movie begins with not one but three governors introducing the film and touting how their states have crime under control and this story - based on actual events - as told in Highway 301 could actually stop someone from beginning a life of crime. The seemingly endless opening is followed by a semi-documentary-like voice over introducing each member of the Tri-State Gang as they enter a bank they're about to rob. The voiceover, like the introduction by stuffy politicians, is totally unnecessary. Former musical and light comedy director Andrew L. Stone starts his first gritty crime film perfectly - without the need for the obviously studio-imposed tacked-on open. You could turn down the volume and still know that steel-eyed Steve Cochran is the leader and the other men are his followers just by their performances alone. It's obvious and totally unnecessary to announce that these men are career criminals that should probably still be in jail. Instead the unwelcome voiceover (by Edmon Ryan who also plays Detective Sgt. Truscott) barks out what is already obvious on the screen and then is mercifully silent until near the end of the picture.

The film begins with a bank robbery that even in 1950 must have had viewers scratching their heads wondering how they could have gotten away with their crimes. The gang enters a bank, holds it up, and then all of them hop in a black sedan and speed off. Later, after nearly running a local off the road, they ditch the black sedan for a nearly identical dark blue sedan. Again, they speed off past the man they nearly ran down earlier who gets a partial license plate number. Richard Stark's Parker would have never worked with these guys. The cops don't link the crime with a series of other bank robberies at first. This is probably because they have been going over state lines to hold up banks.

After the robbery, the gang members head out to a nightclub with their women. Apparently, the gang has no plan but to keep doing these snatch and run crimes and party on the road until they're finally caught. The girlfriends know about their men's criminal activities and turn a blind eye because of the high life they're leading. All except for the girlfriend of Phillips (Phillips is played by Robert Webber who would later become a familiar face in films playing dozens of gray-haired corrupt politicians and shady business men. To me he'll always be the guy who shockingly elbows a Mexican hooker in the face in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). Phillips' new French Canadian girlfriend has know idea that the gang robs banks. When Cochran's squeeze drops hints about their crimes there is hell to pay. The scene featuring Cochran silencing his girlfriend is one of three outstandingly suspenseful scenes that take place in the strangely dark and empty city streets.


The crime spree continues but now the police are slowly closing in. The next robbery of an armored car is better planned but things turn deadly pretty fast when a man is shot during the holdup. The gang members themselves don't seem to have a problem with the crime and violence that goes along with their careers. It's Phillips' girl Lee (Gaby André) that becomes racked with guilt that she's involved with violent criminals. That element gives Highway 301 a "noirish" feel that would normally be absent from a typical crime-gangster movie.

Around the 3/4 mark the cops are finally shown in a more positive light when the police cleverly monitor and guard a potential witness to the bank robberies at a busy hospital. Stone handles the complicated hospital scenes very well. I can't help but be reminded of The Godfather when the gangsters go to the hospital to kill someone while the cops guard the patient. It's hard to believe Stone never directed a crime film before Highway 301. Clearly, he was very good at it. Later Stone would helm other on-location semi-documentary thrillers including the outstanding Cry Terror! and The Steel Trap.

Critic Roger Ebert wrote that a great film is a film that has three great scenes and no bad ones. If you follow that guideline then Highway 301 isn't a great film. However, a few well-handled suspense scenes and some fine performances by Cochran, Webber, Richard Egan, Wally Cassell, and especially the actresses Virginia Grey and Gaby André make Highway 301 a crime thriller worth seeking out.

Written by Steve-O

Friday, February 20, 2009

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Editor's note: Alexander writes a movie blog that's quickly becoming very popular. Coleman's Corner in Cinema is constantly updated and always entertaining.

Written by Alexander Coleman

Frank Tuttle's early film noir, This Gun for Hire, made Alan Ladd a star in the role of Philip Raven, a mentally unhinged, and psychologically disturbed contract killer. As Raven, Ladd would employ the particular assets that he would continue to bring to his best roles: a laconic mysteriousness and nuanced, cerebral lethality of presence that distinguished him as a rara avis among the quotidian ordinary. Having sojourned for a decade in colorlessly inconsequential parts in approximately forty films, Ladd was finally given an opportunity to demonstrate his captivating talent. Ladd's commanding ubiety in This Gun for Hire is established by Tuttle in the star's first scene, which likewise begins to etch the dour artistry of lighting Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz. In a scene to be mimicked by Jean-Pierre Melville for his Le Samouraï (1967), the insularly framed lone gunman stays in a slightly unsettlingly empty room. In This Gun For Hire, Ladd's Raven is loving toward only one kind of creature: cats, and when Tuttle's camera captures him smiling, in two of the three cases the predominantly uncharacteristic grin is aroused by the sight of a feline. In Le Samouraï, Delon's killer showed love for a pet canary. (Delon would later love cats playing a ruthless spy in the Michael Winner thriller Scorpio.) Le Samouraï starred Alain Delon in the role from which Ladd's Raven serves as a template, whose similar first name draws an unintended comparison as well.

Tuttle's mise-en-scene is often rather precise, and is repeatedly marked by dazzlingly expressionist chiaroscuro lighting. As Raven holds his tool of the trade, his handgun, the low-angle camera angle accentuates the man's isolation and power all at once. The shadowy lines that span the wall behind him, and framing square and triangular shapes in the wall and ceiling, connote a subtle gradation of entrapment and doom. As piano playing gently seeps into the room, the killer behaves like a man apart, and when a pushy maid attempts to shoo the kitten away from the room's windowsill, he snaps, spinning the woman around and slapping her. As the film continues, Raven's affinity for cats juxtaposed with his moderately bemused, glassy-eyed distrust of and dislike for people will serve as an important implement of narrative and character indicia. In this instance the episode serves to highlight the character's respectful admiration for the feline as solitary animal fighting for its own survival. Later, as he strokes a cat, he will remark that a cat brings luck—which is one of the only universal things he believes in as a force of aid.

This Gun for Hire (1942)
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When asked by the effeminate and rotund man who has last hired him to eliminate a chemist how he feels when working, he callously replies, “I feel fine.” Ladd's delivery is flawlessly deadpan, portraying Raven's coldblooded demeanor as a sort of deeply ingrained psychical state rather than mere remoteness of attitude and feeling. Ladd's physical conciseness and verbal succinctness endows the character's most consistent attributes with a naturalness that seamlessly matches the vision of screenwriters Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett in their fascinating adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, "A Gun for Sale."Greene's novel was set in Great Britain, but while the Los Angeles setting significantly changes some of the atmospheric qualities of the film from Greene's book, Tuttle conjures a similar percolating quality to the narrative developments. Tuttle does this by utilizing the visual language of cinema that helped to signify the oncoming flurry of aesthetically attractive and visually communicative 1940s Hollywood film noirs.

That man with whom Raven converses after rubbing out the chemist is Willard Gates, played with an effective amalgamation of smarmy unctuousness and bubbly jocoseness by Laird Cregar. Gates is a manager at the Nitro Chemical Corps. who moonlights as manager of the Neptune nightclub, where he finds himself enchanted by an auditioning gorgeous blonde magician Ellen Graham, sensuously brought to life by Veronica Lake. Graham is clandestinely working for United States Senator Burnett (Roger Imhof), who believes the Nitro Chemical Corps. is guilty of selling secrets to America's wartime enemies. Aboard a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Raven and Graham find themselves linked to one another when they sit next to one another. The noirish emphasis on luckless circumstance and seemingly random misfortune is palpably rendered. When, at the twenty-nine minute mark, Graham attempts to make contact with Raven, he fittingly asks her the future question of Travis Bickle's from Taxi Driver: “You talkin' to me?”

Tuttle's mise-en-scene is especially sharp in the early and late stretches of the film. A midway excursion into an estate with a thunder-and-lightning storm appears like a horror film. When Raven and Graham are on the run together, Tuttle's camera examines them as an impossible pairing—he is a stoic killer for hire, she is the girlfriend of a police detective named Michael Crane (a feckless Robert Preston) trying to solve a robbery from which Gates has paid Raven with marked bills. The compilation of multiple threads tying into one knot is one of the more satisfying, but possibly distracting aspects of This Gun for Hire's narrative. As Raven and Graham are physically adjoined to one another, with Raven on the run from the police as he attempts to exact revenge for Gates' double-crossing, This Gun for Hire slows down and the screenplay endeavors to explain the chief source of Raven's psychological trauma. Visually and thematically dark, the scene is lit with expressionistic intensity. As Raven and Graham look out through the gaps between wooden planks in a filthy warehouse window, the light skips down diagonally on the two. As Raven describes a recurring dream in which a tyrannical woman continually beat him as a child.

“I dreamed about a woman. She used to beat me—to get the bad blood out of me, she said. My old man was hanged. My mother died right after that and I went to live with that woman. My aunt. She beat me from the time I was three to when I was fourteen. One day she caught me reaching for a piece of chocolate... she was saving it for a cake... a crummy piece of chocolate. She hit me—with a red-hot flat-iron! Smashed my wrist with it. I grabbed a knife—I let her have it! In the throat! They stuck a label on me: killer. Shoved me into a reform school and they beat me there, too. But I'm glad I killed her. What's the use? [There is] nothing I can do.”

This legitimate effort to create melodrama out of the hitman's origins of spiritual, mental and physical (the permanent scarring on his left wrist is used by the police to identify him) disrepair and wounds is successful in creating an empathetic attachment to the character when he continues to run away from the police. As the police struggle to locate the elusive Raven, the film takes a pessimistic but almost lightheartedly comic shot at the cops as bungling and ineffective. Raven rather easily escapes the clutches of the cops who know he is aboard when he exits the train. Over the course of the film, policemen make tragicomic mistakes when attempting to capture Raven. In one such especially personal confrontation, a lone policeman tries to handcuff Raven late in the film, only to fatally underestimate the killer, who shoots him to death for his trouble. Quite late in the film, as Raven tries to satisfy his blood lust, he finds himself looking directly at Detective Crane, who he could have effortlessly eliminated—but he knows he is Graham's man (“You're a copper's girl,” he once dismissively sneers)—and consequently spares him. Graham's gentleness and kindness toward Raven endears her to him and when a villain suggests she ought to be killed, Raven furiously comments that she has been “nice to me,” a most sparse—and perhaps, the film seems to subtly suggest, nonexistent—way in which someone has ever treated him. With a plot that veers perilously close to making This Gun for Hire another propaganda picture—in which even the stone-hearted assassin is finally moved to defend his country from despicable traitors—the screenplay and Tuttle's interpretation of it keep the dilemmas and choices personal and almost disconnected from politics. As with other Greene novels, it is the personal that informs the politics of the story, and This Gun for Hire is finally, gratifyingly, no different.

This Gun for Hire's climax would also be borrowed by Jean-Pierre Melville for his Le Samouraï as the hunted killer is chased on an ominous rail bridge. As Ladd's Raven once again outmaneuvers the police, Tuttle captures the entire chase sequence in a bravura depiction of action. The memorable long shot of Raven jumping off the rail bridge onto a moving train is exciting, and the interest and care the audience has for Raven makes it genuinely meaningful. This Gun for Hire is an early film noir and its limitations and imperfections—some of the supporting players give uninspired performances and Tuttle's direction is somewhat lax in the film's midsection, as is the screenplay—while not to be overlooked, should be considered with fairness when assessing it. As such, this is a most thoughtful, interesting and important film.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Trapped (1949)

Juggernaut Institutions
"You don’t make that kind of dough selling bibles."

Inaccurately labeled as a semi-documentary style film, Trapped from director Richard Fleischer begins with a heavy voice-over describing and lauding the efficiency of various government agencies: the Treasury Department and its Secret Service agents, the Coast Guard and the Customs Department. According to the film’s preamble these departments work synergistically to not only do their jobs, but also to stop anyone from interfering with the smooth operation of the U.S. money supply. While listening to this monologue, you get the distinct feeling that you’re watching some sort of recruiting film, written by--and a homage to--the government--and its myriad institutions that collectively form a faceless monolithic beast...

Trapped’s stiff and laudatory introduction underscores the film’s central theme--that crooks are trapped in a web of efficient crime detection orchestrated by the Secret Service Treasury Agents--T-Men. And the more criminals struggle to get out of this web, the more they become entangled in the intricate pathways created by the various government departments. In fact, the way Trapped lays out the story of the futile struggles of career criminal Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges), crooks are so out maneuvered, they might as well give up before they even try savoring a life of crime.

When the film begins, a hardworking restaurant owner stands in line at the bank to deposit her measly earnings, but one of her twenties turns out to be a clever forgery. While the poor woman tearfully asks if she can get a replacement--a real $20--the bank clerk snottily and self-righteously scoffs at the notion, and in an offended tone tells the woman that it’s the responsibility of everyone who handles money to learn to distinguish the real thing from the fake.

The bank clerk’s moral high ground is all part of Trapped’s depiction of the crushing Righteousness of Institutions--from the police department, the prison system, the FBI, and the Treasury Department. But this scene establishes that a bank clerk--as part of the banking industry (albeit a small part) still has the ‘moral right’ to lecture a hard-working stiff who’s been fooled by a slick counterfeit.

This particular banknote comes to the attention of the Secret Service who recognize its similarity to counterfeit notes made by criminal Tris Stewart years ago. While the counterfeit plates have never been recovered, Stewart is rotting away in an Atlanta prison, so the conclusion is that Stewart’s ex-partner must be back in business churning out fake notes. Agents visit Stewart in prison and make him an offer: he can become a stool pigeon and tell them where his ex-partner is and then, in exchange, he can go free. Stewart refuses. But then the next scene shows Stewart on a bus being transferred to a Kansas City prison. Sitting in the window seat, Stewart is focused on the traffic--while his lackadaisical guard is snoozing on the job. Stewart grabs his guard’s gun and makes a daring escape from the bus to a waiting car.

Trapped (1949)
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This entire escape is fabricated to hide Stewart’s cooperation with the Secret Service, and Stewart’s so called ‘desperate escape’ is orchestrated by Secret Service agents with Agent Foreman (Robert Karnes) driving the getaway car. Holed up in a hotel room with Foreman, Stewart discusses his girlfriend Meg Dixon (played by the luscious Barbara Payton) before suddenly cold-cocking agent Foreman and dashing out the door.

Meanwhile switch to Meg Dixon who is working in a Los Angeles nightclub under an assumed name, Laurie Fredericks. While she dresses scantily and sells cigarettes to customers, Meg--now Laurie--makes it clear that that’s ALL she’s selling to customer Johnny Hackett (John Hoyt). He’s loaded and as a would-be Romeo, he sniffs around Laurie, hinting that he’s ready to show her a good time, but Laurie isn’t interested and brushes off this potential sugar daddy. This is just as well as Stewart, now apparently free from the long arm of the law, makes Meg (aka Laurie) his first stop before getting back the plates.

At this point in the film, Stewart has made a faux escape and a very real escape from U.S. Treasury agents. He plans to grab his girl, grab the plates and hightail it to Mexico, but since agents are already bugging Meg’s apartment, Stewart’s every move is known the minute he voices his plans. When Stewart’s alcoholic ex-partner confesses that he sold the plates, Stewart finds himself doing business with shady real-estate developer Jack Sylvester (James Todd) in a desperate attempt to fund his dream life in Mexico. Before we can say ‘entrapment’ Stewart is unwittingly being funded by the Secret Service in a sting operation that is guaranteed to throw him back in the slammer.

Lloyd Bridges is terrific as explosive, gum-chewing hood Tris Stewart. I’ve never been a huge fan of Bridges mainly because the dominant image I have of this actor is in various cheesy television programmes. I’ll admit that Trapped made me revise my opinion of Bridges. As the desperate Tris Stewart, he’s violent and unpredictable. And if you sniff real-life chemistry between Bridges and Payton, you may be right. According to Payton’s biographer, John O’Dowd in his book, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, The Barbara Payton Story,there are rumors that the two had a passionate affair, and while Payton didn’t name names, she hinted at a liaison with her costar in her autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed.O'Dowd notes that director Fleischer freely admitted selecting Payton thanks to the fact she was “visually stunning,” and that she fit his search image of Stewart’s faithful lover. But Fleischer was also impressed with Payton’s audition, so the 22-year-old blonde bombshell, who was working freelance after her contract with Universal was cancelled, got the part. Trapped is one of Payton’s few starring roles, and in this film she is at the height of her beauty. The camera seems to caress that marvelous bone structure, using lighting to accentuate Payton’s cheekbones and perfectly symmetrical features. Payton exudes health; it’s difficult and immensely sad to grasp this star’s subsequent self-destructive plummet. While Payton sank into oblivion within a few years, Lloyd Bridges went on to enjoy a long, successful career.

Trapped, and what an appropriate title that is, was filmed in approximately 35 days. Labeled a B noir, it’s a perfectly executed tale that never deviates from its theme. The film has the designation of ‘semi-documentary’ but since the heavy voice over occurs only in the film’s introduction and is noticeably absent from the film’s main narrative, the term seems somewhat inaccurate--especially when authoritative voice over could have been added to the film seamlessly. The absence of voice over infused into the plot argues against the term semi-documentary style film, but also very subtly renders the intricate web created by the Secret Service almost invisible, so that there are moments we imagine that Stewart has a fighting chance. The film’s structure toys with viewers’ perceptions--allowing us briefly to think that Stewart has eluded the Secret Service agents. But these moments are swept away by the film’s unrestricted narrative. Viewers know more than the film’s main characters--Stewart and his moll, Meg. As a doomed man, Stewart only thinks he’s free, but he’s caught in a maze--allowed to escape from one environment into another carefully controlled situation simply to encourage him to let his guard down and lead the Treasury agents to those highly-prized plates. Escape is a paramount goal for both Stewart and Meg, yet escape becomes the motivation that spurs this doomed couple back into a world fabricated and controlled by the Secret Service. In one scene escape beckons when Meg sits in an airport with a plane on the runway in the background. But she doesn’t take the flight, and once more she’s lured back into the trap from which there is no escape.

Stewart’s life will be spent in a cage--whether that’s an obvious cage: the prison, or a much more subtle cage--a cage without bars and chains, carefully constructed by the Secret Service. He escapes his first cage only to enter an entirely fabricated environment as fake as Disneyland, and in Stewart’s world, delivery men, grocery stockers, bar patrons, maintenance workers, and car mechanics are all gung-ho members of the Secret Service working undercover and waiting to pounce. With Stewart’s every move anticipated, apartments bugged, streets and nightclubs stuffed with undercover agents, the Secret Service constructs a nightmarish scripted reality for Stewart, and the more he struggles against his fate, the more entwined he becomes in the Secret Service’s intricate network.

The film’s cinematography underscores this theme of closed-in environments, traps and claustrophobic spaces. In the amazing closing sequence, agents chase Stewart’s slimy partner Sylvester in an underground trolley car barn. Shots of Sylvester crouching and running from the T-men accentuate the overhead structures, emphasizing the idea that he’s caught in a giant cage from which there is no escape. Similarly when Agent Downey mounts the stairs with Sylvester to his underground lair the camera catches the claustrophobic setting of hallways and stairs lit only by hanging bulbs.

Director Fleischer has a number of noir credits to his name, including Follow Me Quietly and The Narrow Margin (one of my all-time favorites). Fleischer had a long, productive film career and several decades later he notched up Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Red Sonja (1985). Trapped certainly pales next to The Narrow Margin, and it may be labeled a B noir, but in my book it’s an A presentation for its strong themes, fast-paced plot and perfect delivery.

Written by Guy Savage

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Editor's note: Despite being firmly rooted in the fantastic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers - like Cat People last week - has an overwhelming feeling of paranoia, dread and fear. With those familiar traits - including it's shadowy visual style- an argument could be made that it's also a film noir. Regardless how you classify it, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a great film.

Written by HJ

The 1950s were a great time to grow up for (at the time) a kid like me, and one of the best parts was the sci-fi Movie! I loved the B.E.M.'s (Bug-Eyed Monsters) just like every other kid, but occasionally a really different movie would come along.

Back then, I had no idea that the term film noir even existed, much less having any idea of the definition of the term, but a particularly creepy movie dealing with persons losing their individuality impressed the heck out of me. It was Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

It starts with a seemingly demented man trying to obtain a ride on a crowded highway, with cars braking and honking their horns to avoid him. He is apparently picked up by police and taken to a hospital where his seeming psychosis can be observed by a pair of doctors. And so begins the story, in a voice-over fashion...

The little 1950s town of Santa Mira, CA has a handsome young doctor by the name of Miles Bennell, who has just returned from a convention. While Doc has been away, very strange things have begun happening in his little town. Seems that the townspeople have begun to become strangers even among their own families. The "new" family members are technically correct in appearance, and even in knowing all sorts of "secrets" and happenings from years in the past, but there's a hollowness and lack of passion and affection in them.

Thank goodness there's still spontaneous passion and affection between childhood sweethearts Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and his old girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), both recently divorced.

Now all of a sudden large pods containing sort of "generic people" have begun appearing in town, and these pods are sort of unfinished copies of actual people living in Santa Mira. Doc and Becky observe several of these "people-in-development" and become very alarmed.

Dr. Bennell attempts to communicate his suspicions with various law enforcement organizations including the Los Angeles office of the FBI, but his calls seem not to be going through.

Doc gradually comes to understand that these pod-bodies complete their "detailing" and take over the personalities of those whom they resemble when the person to be replicated sleeps. So constant wakefulness becomes the first order of survival.

Fortunately Doc knows what "bennies" are and has a good supply of them. He and Becky become aware that almost the entire town has been "replaced" in the last few days, and that they will not be allowed to escape to another town.

I should mention here that Kevin McCarthy does a very convincing expression of disbelief mixed with horror when he sees these developing "pod people." Also a generous dash of voice-over is provided by McCarthy, giving this sci-fi flick a bit of noir legitimacy.

Perhaps one of the most alarming scenes is the (shall we say) "farmer's market" scene in the town square where exportation of undeveloped pods is in progress to other California cities near Santa Mira.

There's a desperation and paranoia which grows throughout the movie that moves it into the noir canon. Loss of individuality and becoming conformists were the hobgoblins of the 1950s, and this movie plays into that fear in a big way.

I've already told too much of this, but will withhold some of the details so any "first-timers" (if there are any out there!) can still enjoy the movie.

Although he looks kind of thirtyish in this movie, Kevin McCarthy was actually 42 when it was filmed, and still very much the leading man type. Dana Wynter, who plays Becky Driscoll, was a very lovely 25-year-old actress when this movie was filmed. Virginia Christine (Mrs. Olson in the Folgers Coffee commercials) is in this one, as is Carolyn Jones, who would become Morticia Addams in the mid-1960s. Whit Bissell and Richard Deacon appear at the beginning and at the end of the movie as medical personnel who meet up with the "crazed" Doc Bennell at the end of the story. The final scene is a superb little coda to the story, in my opinion.

Carmen Dragon provided an excellent musical score for this movie, with Daniel Mainwaring doing the screenplay based on Jack Finney's Collier's Magazine serial.

There have been several other versions of this movie, with the 1978 version being probably the best-known. (Somehow the visual of Donald Sutherland opening his mouth to emit strange sounds strikes me as rather repulsive!) In my opinion, none of them have anywhere near the impact and tight, compact editing of this original. And you can enjoy the mid-1950s flavor and scenery of this movie. Doc Bennell's 1955 Ford Fairlane sedan would look just fine in my driveway.

This movie has been reissued on DVD and can be had at a very reasonable price, so give it a try!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Cat People (1942)

Cat People from 1942 is a film noir disguised as a horror film. Filled with the same visual style and sense of fatalism that dominated film noir during the classic film noir (that would peak four or five years later especially at RKO), Cat People is the ultimate horror-noir.

When Val Lewton was made head of RKO's horror division, he immediately set out to make movies that were initially just attempts to cash in on Universal Pictures horror film resurgence during the late 1930s. Cat People was Lewton's first assignment.

With only a title "Cat People" and a limited budget to work with Lewton crafted a story based a short he had published in Weird Tales years earlier called The Bagheeta. Lewton isn't credited with writing Cat People (Dewitt Bodeen is) but Lewton's similar short story combined with rumors of the producer hard at work writing and rewriting the script after nearly every day of shooting on the RKO lot has convinced many that he was the most dominant creative force behind Cat People. Collaborator and writer Bodeen would go onto write (or more than likely help write with Lewton) other noir-tinged horror films including the sequel Curse of the Cat People.


Of course not all credit can go to Lewton. Jacques Tourneur is known today for helming the greatest film noir, Out of the Past. Almost ten years before that Tourneur struggled to work his way up the ranks in Hollywood. In 1934 Tourneur was hired to run the second unit for David O. Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities (1935), where he first met story editor and jack-of-all-trades Val Lewton. When Lewton was put in charge of RKO's horror unit years later he hired his old friend Tourneur. After the critical and commercial success of Cat People Tourneur was now viewed as the serious director that he envisioned himself after years of throw-away celluloid.

Cat People, starring Simone Simon and Kent Smith, is brilliant. Using some of the same crew members Orson Welles used before nearly bankrupting the company, Cat People was crafted with the same sort of shadowy brilliance seen in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons - but for far less money. Cat People - with it's entrapping shadows and cage-like imagery - is stunning to watch. Knowing that most of the film's expensive looking sets -including a zoo set from a Bette Davis film and a staircase from Magnificent Ambersons - makes the small film look much more expensive that it actually was. Every scene works. I think it was Roger Ebert who wrote that if a movie has three great scenes and no bad ones then it can be considered a great movie. Cat People passes that test. A stalking scene at a public pool, the first "bus effect" scene, and Irena (Simon) locking herself in the bathroom to keep her husband away -and safe- stand out as some of the best parts of the film.

Notoriously difficult and scandal-plagued star Simone Simon gives her best Hollywood performance as the European woman with a mysterious secret. She was cast by Lewton specifically because she looks so feline. Another cat-like actress Elizabeth Russell (Bela Lugosi's zombie bride in The Corpse Vanishes the same year) confronts Simone during an engagement party that is appropriately chilling - not to mention embarrassing for the young man in front of his co-workers.


Notice how Irena and Alice (played by Simon and blonde Jane Randolph) are still friendly at this point. It's clear that the two don't like each other. Their hatred for each other - apparently shared off camera between the two actresses - pays off later in the film.

Smith - highly effective in Nora Prentiss- plays Simon's husband and Randolph as his girlfriend. He's responsible for many of his troubles (just like in Nora Prentiss) in Cat People even though he is married to a “monster.” After finding out his new sexy young wife doesn't want to sleep with him he almost immediately starts an affair with the willing Randolph. To make matters worse for the young bride (Simon) her doctor seems to be more concerned with bedding his patient than finding out what's wrong with her. Tom Conway - who I last saw at Noir City 7 in Two O'Clock Courage - plays the duplicitous psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd - a role he'd return to in The 7th Victim.

The film is one of the early noirs but it feels more modern than some. Simon and Randolph are strong working woman in the big city - something rarely seen in 1942 films. The horror elements are there - eventually you do see a giant cat attack late in the movie. However, this only happened because of the insistence of RKO that it had to be in there. Interestingly, when Simon does turn into a leopard you don't see the transformation (unlike Dracula or The Wolf Man). Also notice when Irena turns into the large cat her fur coat and high heels are also morphed into the jungle cat as well. One scene shows Simon returning after turning into the animal and you see her fur coat torn and dirty. In the 1980s remake Nastassia Kinski would bare all after the transformation back to woman (which turned out to be the only highlight of the film and one I am grateful for).

Film noir fans should check out all Lewton's RKO “horror” films. The Leopard Man (based on a story by Cornell Woolrich), The Ghost Ship and The 7th Victim may have been marketed as “horror” but they're really suspenseful noirs years before the “film noir genre” had a name. I have no doubt in my mind that Cat People inspired the film noir style that would dominate RKO during the 1940s.

Written by Steve-O

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