Monday, April 27, 2009

The Locket (1946)

Editor's note: This week's film noir article is taken from film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon's just-released book Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia.Wheeler generously gave us permission to post his thoughts on the mesmerizing noir, The Locket.

John Brahm’s The Locket (1946), or “What Nancy Wanted”

Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

There are certainly any number of labyrinthianly complicated noirs, but nothing can quite prepare the viewer for the experience of watching John Brahm’s The Locket (1946), famous for its “flashback within a flashback within a flashback” structure, perhaps the most convoluted narrative in the history of noir. The plot itself is relatively simple: Nancy (Laraine Day) is a kleptomaniac, driven to steal anything that strikes her fancy (the original title of the film was “What Nancy Wanted”). Nancy’s compulsion springs from a childhood incident, in which she was given a locket as birthday gift, which was then taken away from her by the cruel Mrs. Willis (Katherine Emery), her mother’s employer. When the locket goes missing, Nancy is suspected of having stolen it to recover the trinket for herself. Although it is later discovered that the locket simply fell in the hem of a garment, Nancy is never truly exonerated. Now, twenty years later, Nancy is poised to marry John Willis (Gene Raymond), and thus regain admission to the household she was banished from as a child; Mrs. Willis does not recognize Nancy, having only known her as a child (played by Sharyn Moffet).

But within this seemingly straightforward narrative, there are numerous obstacles. The film itself begins on the day of Nancy’s wedding to John Willis. Just as the ceremony is about to begin, psychiatrist Dr. Harry Blair (Brian Aherne) breaks in demanding to see John. Dr. Blair, it turns out, was one of Nancy’s former husbands; Blair knows that Nancy is insane, and pleads with Willis not to marry her. As Blair recounts the tale of his marriage with Nancy in a flashback voiceover, he unfolds the tale of another of Nancy’s husbands, the late Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum), a moody artist who ultimately committed suicide because of Nancy’s compulsive thefts, and her participation in a murder. All this unfolds in reverse, back to Nancy’s childhood and the incident with the locket, and then reverses to end in the present, where the still doubting John Willis, having heard Mr. Blair’s tale, confronts Nancy, who predictably denies everything.

Only Nancy’s collapse at the altar, brought on by Mrs. Willis’s “re-gift” of the locket Nancy briefly had as a child, saves John Willis from a similar marital fate. As The Locket ends, Nancy is taken off to an asylum ostensibly for a cure, but the camera remains within the gloomy precincts of the Willis family’s gloomy Fifth Avenue mansion. What has transpired has left a mark not only on Nancy, but all who knew her, and even Dr. Blair’s supposed skill as a psychiatrist is useful only after the fact. For most of the film, Nancy’s mania eludes detection, and everyone who discovers her secret is summarily destroyed. Thus, all surfaces are suspect, all appearances deceiving, and nothing is to be taken at face value, especially protestations of innocence.

Director John Brahm keeps a firm hand on the proceedings, and effectively stages The Locket so that most of it happens at night, on claustrophobic studio sets. Mitchum, a rising star at the time, is oddly convincing as Norman Clyde, a Bohemian artist with attitude to spare, and Nicholas Musuraca’s moody lighting leaves the characters, and the viewer, in a state of continual confusion and suspense. Most intriguing, of course, is the triple-flashback structure of the film, which brings into question the reliability of the film’s narrative. When Dr. Blair bursts in on John Willis and begins his recital of Nancy’s crimes, Blair’s flashback contains Norman Clyde’s reminiscences, which in turn contain Nancy’s own memories of her childhood, as told to Norman, containing the incident of the locket.

Thus, we have only Nancy’s word, through Norman, and then through Dr. Blair, that any of this is really true, and yet we unquestionably believe in the veracity of all three statements. Why? The entire story is so fantastic that one can understand John Willis’s lack of trust in Blair’s accusations; Nancy seems like a “nice girl.” The failed wedding that climaxes the film is proof enough of Nancy’s affliction, but are all the details of her illness quite correct? For this, we have only the word of three narratives that enfold each other like miniature Chinese boxes, refusing to give up their secrets, opening only when the proper pressure is applied to the correct location.

The world of The Locket is one of absolute doom and betrayal. The relationship you thought would last forever is doomed. Your friends don’t believe you. The police don’t believe you. You can’t even trust yourself; indeed, you are your own worst enemy. Powerless before the forces of fate, which have once again capriciously decided to deal you a new, much more unpleasant future from the bottom of the deck, you simply have to take it on the chin and hope for the best. The world of The Locket is the domestic sphere in peril, in collapse, existing outside the normative values of postwar society, values that are themselves constantly in a state of flux. The family unit is constantly celebrated in the dominant media as the ideal state of social existence, but is it, when so much is at risk, and so much is unexplained? For Nancy in The Locket, the answer is a resounding no.

Video courtesy of TCM

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Velvet Touch (1948)

In Praise of a Fat Man

Sydney Greenstreet was one great presence in film - literally. In The Maltese Falcon he filled every inch of the screen. John Huston shot “The Fat Man” from such a low angle that he actually looked even larger than he was - which was pretty big. At 62, this was the first film the proud stage actor agreed to be in. His film career would only last eight years but through Warner Bros he would work with some of the greats in movies. WB paired him with Peter Lorre nine times including two of the most beloved films of all time, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

Because of his large size, age and lack of leading man looks Greenstreet wasn't expected to ever be the main attraction. He was a standout supporting player around bigger stars - but never bigger in actual size. Peter Lorre was lucky he didn't go into orbit around his frequent WB co-star. Warners eventually used used the unique Greenstreet as a top-billed star in more than a few releases. They include the film noirs The Verdict, The Mask of Dimitrios and Three Strangers. All three are worth the effort to find and watch.

Then there's The Velvet Touch - the 1948 film directed by Jack Gage. Greenstreet is billed fourth behind Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn, and Claire Trevor. Greenstreet doesn't appear in the film until after the 45 minute mark. Getting to that point in this routine drama is a chore for any movie fan.

Russell plays a middle-aged Broadway leading lady trying to break away from her light comic plays and act in something “serious”. She has an argument with her former love - lecherous producer Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) - after a performance. Russell kills him with a blunt blow on the head with a Tony Award. Once she realized what she's done she quickly exits the back stage of the packed theater. She, all shifty-eyed and nervous after the killing, rushes through coworkers and fans and gets into her limo - successfully exiting the theater before the body is found. It's amazing that no one suspected her of the crime. Russell pulls off a unique performance - appearing guilty and looking down her nose at people at the same time. I suspect she was trying to play the part as a hammy actor trying to keep her cool. However, all these acting ticks actually makes her character annoying and unlikeable.

Looking back at reviews from 1948, The New York Times infamous reviewer Bosley Crowther nails Russell's performance:

“This foregone conclusion of the story is only one of the film's weaknesses. The muddiness of the character played by Miss Russell is another one. The role was so randomly written by Leo Rosten that one finds it hard to see any solid personality or consistency in the dame. At this point she's sweet, at that she's vicious, here she's pitiable and there she's vile, with no purpose or reason to the bridges—save, perhaps, to give Miss Russell things to do.

True, she does them with forthright application. She acts charming, lovable and sad with the same glittering polish in performance as when she's acting deceitful and cruel. She also has sobbing hysterics with the same evident emotional thrust as she shows in tossing her sweet self ecstatically into her lover's arms.”

After the killing Valerie Stanton (Russell) returns to her swanky apartment. The film goes into flashback mode and tells her back story - including the romance Crowther hints at.

All the Broadway sophisticates talk and behave like they were somehow live versions of New Yorker Magazine cartoons. The two standout performances are from noir regulars Claire Trevor and comical Esther Howard. It's not surprising that they're the only actors in the film to play anyone even close to down-to-earth. Trevor is refreshing as a love-sick but hard-boiled actress who's accused of the crime and Howard is funny as an obsessed Broadway fan. All the men, unfortunately, are lanky, mustached fifty-somethings that every young woman in these types of film seem to find dreamy.

Before the film becomes totally unbearable the flashback finishes and the film returns to current time. The police call the whole theater group to meet with Captain Danbury to discuss the killing. With the entire theater group seated in front of him Greenstreet takes the stage and carefully examines a rickety wooden folding chair. The whole theater groups erupts in laughter after Greenstreet carefully plants himself in the creaking chair and breathes a sigh of relief. The scene is funnier than any of the supposed comedy shown on stage throughout the film. Capt. Danbury explains why he's there and begins questioning all the people in the theater in front of everyone. “Routine, ladies and gentlemen.” he says. “Simply routine.” No one believes it especially not Russell who pegs him as a clever man she needs to be wary of. (Notice how Russell can look down her nose at everyone even while sitting.)


It's at this point when the movie becomes familiar but at the same time quite enjoyable. The audience knows who-done-it but the fun is following the food-loving and dapper Danbury find out the truth. (Crowther found Greenstreet “quite ludicrous as the sleuth” but I disagree. He's excellent.)

The melodrama is considered “film noir” probably due to the crime, the lengthy flashback at the beginning of the film, and the shadowy shots at Russell's apartment after the killing. Cinematographer Joseph Walker worked on other noir-like films including The Dark Past, The Lady from Shanghai, Harriet Craig, The Mob and Affair in Trinidad. He makes New York City's Broadway seem a nighttime world filled with glamorous people and bright lights. Unfortunately it's not as dank as you would expect from a film noir.

A better “Broadway noir” would be the outstanding A Double Life released in theaters just six months earlier. Ronald Coleman - playing a cracked Shakespearean actor a little too into the characters he plays - kills a loud-mouth waitress from the wrong side of the tracks (Shelly Winters). Edmond O'Brien plays an enterprising press agent. Winters, Coleman and O'Brien bring just enough grit to make the stagy film a superior noir film.

However The Velvet Touch - even with it's shortcomings - is not without charm. The film's worth seeing for one of the “Queens of Film Noir” Trevor - always a welcome sight - and the giant known as Sydney Greenstreet.

Home viewers of the movie are advised to fast-forward past the male-chorus-sung theme song written by the usually reliable Leigh Harline.

Written by Steve-O

R.I.P. Maxine Cooper

"Do me a favor, will you? Keep away from the windows. Somebody might... blow you a kiss." - Maxine Cooper as Mike Hammer's Velda in Kiss Me Deadly

Friday, April 10, 2009

Clash by Night (1952)

Editor's note: This week's article is from storyteller and film-noir scholar Megan Abbott. Abbott won a 2008 Edgar Award for her fantastic crime thriller Queenpin.Her new novel Bury Me Deep- featuring a cover that all film-noir fans will appreciate - will be released in July.

Written by Megan Abbott

On his DVD commentary track, Peter Bogdanovich notes, in passing, that some call Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) a film noir, which he refers to as a genre. He dismisses such claims on the ground that it is not “a thriller or a suspense piece.” He concedes, however, that it’s “shot a bit like a film noir.” There’s a lot in his comments to irritate noir aficionados, most especially their reductiveness. But what Bogdanovich misses most is the fever that pulses through the movie is the same one that burns through most classic film noir: that constant, brooding fear of sexual betrayal and loss of power. In fact, few movies better capture the post-war mood of gender anxiety and rage.

With its showy Clifford Odets screenplay (adapted from his 1941 play), Clash by Night features a quintessential noir plot: Mae (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman who’s been knocked around by life, returns to her hometown and settles down with Jerry (Paul Douglas), a nice, stable working man even as she finds herself sinking into a violent affair with Jerry’s best friend, Earl (Robert Ryan), a self-hating, hard-drinking misanthrope who harbors fantasies of sticking his burlesque performer wife “full of pins just to see if blood runs out.”

The first time the pair meets, Lang focuses in on Mae’s appraising gaze as she watches Earl, a movie house projectionist, load the film reels, clearly admiring his form. It’s a traditionally male gaze, a male position. Likewise, it is Earl who preens, poses, who talks too much, who performs. Mae is so quiet that first night (listening to Earl spew venom about his wife, whom he says, in vintage Odets-speak, “eats money”) that Earl even comments on it. Her quiet is a kind of power and it unsettles him. She has his number. “You don’t like women, do you?” she finally says. He replies, “Take any six of them—my wife included—throw them up in the air, the one who sticks to the ceiling, I like.”

From the start, then, the movie is a pitched battle between two lions. “What are you,” Jerry demands of them both when he learns of their affair. “In a zoo, the keep them in a cage. They keep them apart. They keep them from hurting people.”

But the battle between Mae and Earl is endlessly complicated. “You’re just like me,” he tells her at one point. “You’re born and you’d like to get unborn.” They both see in each other what they hate in themselves and it both horrifies and arouses them. Desire and violence aren’t so much joined by the plot as revealed as always simultaneous. And always conflicted too. The yearning to practically consume each other, to tear each other to pieces, transmutes four or five times in the same scene to a longing for connection, a neediness—especially on Earl’s part. And that need is both repulsive to Mae and infinitely appealing.

In various commentaries on the film, critics have claimed that Mae likes Earl’s brutality, that she is turned on by it. But Clash by Night is so much twistier than that about gender relations. For Mae, relationships are about a complicated negotiation of power and control. When asked by Peggy (an awkward and delicious young Marilyn Monroe) what she wants in a man, Mae replies, “Confidence. I want a man to give me confidence. Somebody to fight off the blizzards and the floods. Somebody to try to beat off the world when it tries to swallow you up.” She doesn’t just want to be cared for; she wants someone who will make her feel strong and yet not feel emasculated by it. The arch subcommentary in this scene is that Mae offers her insight while wearing an apron and hanging laundry. In a later scene, Earl will say to her, “I can’t see you doing it. Hanging up the family wash.” Indeed, there is something pained about the pristine white blouses and immaculately flared skirts she dons, as if a costume. Earl implicitly understands it as a kind of defeat. It is a feeling he shares. “You know they used to call me the Kingfish of Buckman County,” he tells Mae. “I had zip, flash, pep a future. But that was faraway and long ago.”

But Mae marries Jerry not because she has surrendered to repressive domesticity. She feels he is a “comfortable” man—a man who “isn’t mean and doesn’t hate women.” Later, when Jerry first shows his jealousy, she bemoans to Earl, “Aren’t there any more comfortable men in this world? Now they’re all little and nervous like sparrows or big and worried like sick bears. Men.” All the fears and tension of post-war masculinity are contained in that short speech. But Earl, whom one might think would be enraged by her words, is too busy being aroused by the hate in it. Listening to her excitedly, he spits out his matching epithet, “Women.”

Mae is not crying out for an uncomplicated brute here, however. She’s asking for a man who doesn’t feel threatened, by other men or by herself. Weakness is not about a lack of virility but a lack of a sense of self (she tells Peggy to marry her lunkish boyfriend because he “knows himself”). As for Earl, she dismisses him as a “sparrow in a tree top.”

In the end, though, it’s Earl’s desperation that Mae is drawn to, especially when twinned, perpetually, with a clawing desire. “Somebody has to need me, love me,” he begs her.

“Help me. Mae. Help me.” It’s always reciprocal, if not commensurate. Both lovers want to be needed but not sucked dry. But everyone of Odets’s sentences coils back on itself, showing the way desire is always cruel, sadistic. Wanting is always about taking, needing is always a vulnerability exposed. And if the language doesn’t offer that turn of the screw, the performers do. “Tell me what you want me to be and I’ll be it,” Earl says. “Mae, I’m dying of loneliness.” Only Ryan could make such vulnerable, open-hearted words also seem like a threat. You watch him as he utters these anguished lines and you can’t help but feel them as sheer menace. We understand them as both a plea for love and a power grab.

When Mae finally succumbs to Earl’s violent advances, we see it as a fair fight and one in which the terms are absolutely understood. In the very center of ’50s domesticity, the kitchen—in fact, right against the kitchen sink—Earl seizes her and, as Lang positions the camera behind Earl’s back, Mae’s hand jams itself under his undershirt, clawing beneath it. It is both achingly sexy and horrifying. We, like Earl and Mae, don’t know if we want to lean forward or shield our eyes.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Strip (1951)

The Strip is Mickey Rooney’s second of his three early 50’s noirs and is sandwiched nicely between and Quicksand and Drive a Crooked Road. In the former Mickey plays an auto mechanic lead astray by a dame. Ditto the latter so it’s no small coincidence automobiles play a major role in Mickey’s deadly dilemma in The Strip but more on that later.

Released by MGM in 1951 with the tagline “M.G.M.’s Musical Melodrama of the Dancer and the Drummer," The Strip is rather an unconventional noir to say the least, but more on that later.

The Strip, besides the aforementioned Rooney as Stan Maxton, stars Sally Forrest as Jane Tafford, James Craig as Sonny Johnson and William (Uncle Charley) Demarest as Fluff. More than ample support is provided by noir regulars Tom Powers, Don Haggerty, and Robert Foulk. Support on the musical side is given by Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and 23 year old Vic Damone, one gent in Tinseltown who’d never be caught wearing a monogrammed sweater! Also of note is the rotten kid played by pre-Lassie, Tommy Rettig.

We open with the conventional wide angle shot of the city and voice-over narration introducing the viewer to Los Angeles at 5:00 A.M. and more specifically “...The Strip. It’s just a piece of land running a mile and a half through Hollywood.” Seems a prowl car is racing down the road for reasons unknown to which the narrator tells us “Might be a traffic accident, or a prowler, or maybe something for Homicide?” Give you three guesses which the first two don’t count.

The deputies rush into an apartment and find the limp body of Jane Tafford lying on the floor. Soon thereafter in another part of the city, police detectives find local gangster and playboy Sonny Johnson dead of a gunshot wound. Both he and the weapon are laying on the floor of his Hollywood Hills bachelor pad. The connection between Tafford and Johnson? If you guessed Stan Maxton go to the head of the class. Seems one was Stan’s squeeze and the other his boss and I’m not telling which was which.

The cops of course easily find Stan at his apartment, worse the wear from a recent beating and packing his bags for a quick trip out of town to Sun Valley. Once downtown he’s shown a photo of Tafford, and he admits he knew her. Shown a photo of Johnson, he also admits he knows him. When this is done, the investigating officer, Lieutenant Detective Bonnabel (Powers) tells Stan that Jane is “very ill.” To which Stan replies “If Sonny Johnson’s hurt her at all I’ll kill him dead as a doornail!”

Bonnabel points out that’d be tough given the fact Johnson’s already dead and begins grilling Stan for info about Johnson and his connection with him. “If I tell you my life’s story I’ll be here forever,” states Stan and of course that’s precisely what he proceeds to do and the noir staple, the flashback kicks in.

Several years earlier we see Stan before a board of doctors at a Veterans Hospital. While it’s never made clear, it appears to be more of a mental hospital as once the doctors give him his release Stan tells them “Thank you doctors for helping to straighten me out.” While inquiring about future plans and if he’s been on the drums, Stan indicates he’ll be heading for Los Angeles and getting his old band back together. As a going away gift the other G.I.s have pitched in to give Stan a drum set on which he’s given the first opportunity to display his ample talents on the skins.

Soon on the road with his drums piled high in the back of his jalopy, Stan makes his first of several fateful encounters with automobiles. While attempting to pass the slow motoring Stan another car forces him off the road wrecking both his car and drums. The errant driver stops to give assistance, offers to pay for all the damages and even drives Stan all the way to LA. This is none other than Sonny Johnson.

Once in LA Sonny convinces Stan to forgo the drums and instead cast his lot with him to the tune of two hundred bucks a week working in one of his bookmaking joints. Things are going great till the joints are knocked off by the cops. Here’s where being short of stature pays off, for as the cops are rounding up the bookies, Stan’s able to slip under a table and scoot out a window. In his flight to escape he hops into the moving car of one Jane Tafford whom he tells the story he’s running from his wife and eight kids!

In real life, Rooney at the time only had two children and it’d be several more years until he finally had and surpassed eight with nine! Talk about life imitating art!

Anyway, Jane doesn’t buy his story but figures he’s harmless and lets him know she dances at a place on The Strip know as Fluff’s and he should stop on by sometime. Of course “some time” turns out to be that very night. Ends up Fluff’s is a Dixieland joint and no less than Louis Armstrong and His Band are the headliners! Jane doubles as the cigarette girl and dances at the club and of course Stan falls all over himself trying to get her to give him a tumble.

In that Jane won’t date a fellow unless Fluff gives him his blessing, Stan hangs around till closing and once the place clears out begins messing around on the drums. So impressed is he Fluff not only gives the Stan the green light with Jane but also offers him a job to play drums.

What follows is Stan walking out on Sonny for Jane and Fluff, Jane walking out on Stan for Sonny, Stan involved in two more automobile accidents, Sonny offering Stan the chance to head up his Phoenix bookie operation, Stan refusing and getting his brains beat out and Jane rushing to his defense and a double murder. Talk about a tin of mixed nuts!

While clocking in at 85 minutes the action, combined with top notch musical numbers, discounting the duet Stan and Fluff sing, the whole production moves very quickly. While mentioning musical numbers, I’m not a fan of the obligatory numbers that are woven within the fabric of many noirs. There are some exceptions, Road House and Gilda come to mind, but The Strip offers first class talent doing what they do best and there’s never a distraction from the story. The whole production comes together very nicely and as the tagline says it’s the “Musical Melodrama of the Dancer and the Drummer.”

Written by Raven

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