Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fallen Angel (1945)

Alice Faye Noir and Brooding Darnell as Femme Fatale

The 1945 film noir drama Fallen Angel was seen by Twentieth-Century Fox’s boss Darryl F. Zanuck as an opportunity to show a new Alice Faye as a transformation to dramatic star from her hugely successful previous career as the studio’s premiere leading lady of musicals.

Alice Faye’s meteoric rise to stardom beginning as a Great Depression is the stuff of which inspiration is generated. Young Alice Leppert, daughter of a New York City policeman, used her smooth, mellow voice to become a network singing sensation before Twentieth Century-Fox came calling and cinema stardom along with it.

A big assist for Faye becoming a great international superstar goes to the first American crooner, Rudy Vallee, for giving the blonde actress her major show business break. Author and former actor Robert Kendall, a friend of Faye’s for years, described the important Vallee link and what it meant to her.

“Alice’s career began as a chorus girl in the Broadway production of ‘George White’s Scandals,’” Kendall explained. “At a cast party when the show closed Alice chanced to make a recording of the song ’Mimi’ just for fun. Rudy Vallee heard her sing that number.”

Vallee was slated for an engagement at a Cleveland Hotel. He invited her to accompany him. Vallee wanted to see how she would be received by a nightclub audience.

“When Alice sang the audience responded with thunderous applause,” Kendall related. “It was then that Vallee knew that Alice Faye was star material.”

Vallee was then star of The Fleischmann Hour, a popular network radio show. It was his practice to introduce talent discoveries. One was Kate Smith. Another, ironically enough, was the man who would eventually become Alice Faye’s husband, Phil Harris. He introduced Alice with huge audience reaction the result.

When Vallee was called by Fox to come to Hollywood to film George White’s Scandals (1934) as Faye starred alongside the crooner and comedian Jimmy Durante. She became a rarity in two respects, starring in her first film effort and doing it while still in her teens.

The thirties and forties achieved major results for Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox with Alice Faye becoming the number one female star on the lot. Musicals were her forte as she appeared alongside Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, and John Payne in such major hits as In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Rose of Washington Square (1939), Tin Pan Alley (1940), That Night in Rio (1941), Week-end in Havana (1941), and Hello Frisco, Hello (1943).

With Faye films raking in solid profits Zanuck pushed his star full throttle into a whirlwind pace. When asked about the surge of activity Faye delivered her friendly laugh and exclaimed, “They didn’t call it Twentieth Penitentiary Fox for nothing.”

Conversion to Drama and Film Noir

At the age of 29, at a time when Faye had introduced more hit songs into films than anyone before or after her, Zanuck decided to move her into a more concentrated dramatic role. She diligently rehearsed one song, which was to be her lone musical contribution to the film, and therein a controversy surfaced that has not diminished speculation better than six decades later.

Arthur Nicholson, who until his recent death was president of the British based Alice Faye Appreciation Society, revealed that she was supposed to sing the hit tune “Slowly” in a beach scene with leading man Dana Andrews.

“The idea was to have Alice sing the song with Andrews and for the popular male vocalist of the forties Dick Haymes to be heard singing it from a jukebox,” Nicholson explained. “The reason is that the film’s other female star, Linda Darnell, wanted to listen to ’Slowly’ on the jukebox and it was her favorite song. This furnished a contrast since Linda and Alice were the two women in Dana Andrews’ life.”

After Faye had worked diligently on the song it was decided by Zanuck and director Otto Preminger to eliminate her rendering of “Slowly.” The reason generally given for the decision was that, given Faye’s full-fledged introduction into straight drama, it would be better not to remind audiences of her musical star status. The decision upset Faye to the point that it is given as at least part of the reason why she retired from films after Fallen Angel and did not return until almost two decades later when she starred with Tom Ewell, Pat Boone, and Pamela Tiffin in the 1962 Fox release State Fair.

Strong Supporting Woman, Femme Fatale of Sorts

Dana Andrews begins Fallen Angel as a drifting con man seeking to chisel a dollar whenever and wherever he can. The first scene finds him being caught by a bus driver pretending to be asleep so he can ride beyond the price of his ticket to San Francisco.

In the novel by Marty Holland the character Andrew plays, Eric Stanton, is forcibly evicted by the driver. In the film the driver gives him a gesture reminiscent of an umpire tossing an arguing manager from a game, and so fate connects fast buck artist Stanton with the small town of Walton, located a hundred miles south of San Francisco.

Andrews’ Eric Stanton needs fast money. His agile brain connects him to fellow con artist John Carradine, who is a circuit traveler claiming to connect love ones to the dead. Andrews performs with such public relations gusto that, after he fills the local auditorium for Carradine, he is offered a regular job traveling the circuit with him.

Under other circumstances Andrews might have accepted as Carradine clearly admires his talents and the prospect of some impressive money looms in the future, but by then he has set his sights on a local woman with a contingent of local admirers. The object of Andrews’ fascination is dark-haired, voluptuous, and tough as nails Linda Darnell.

Darnell works as a waitress at the local restaurant run by Pop, played by Percy Kilbride, who would in the fifties click big opposite Marjorie Main in the successful Ma and Pa Kettle series from Universal. Pop has a crush on the younger woman as does another regular patron, a former New York City police detective played by Charles Bickford, who has come to California allegedly to improve his health. Meanwhile Darnell is also seen dating traveling salesman Bruce Cabot.

Andrews experiences Darnell’s toughness in his first visit to Pop’s restaurant. The gentle and accommodating Kilbride tells new man in town that he does not have to pay for his coffee. Darnell tartly demurs, telling her boss that he had provided a coffee for the town’s new visitor and that he should have to pay for it.

Far from being repulsed by Darnell’s toughness, Andrews is instead instantly smitten. He feels a camaraderie. She is, like him, someone from the wrong side of the tracks and he can relate to her, which means that Darnell has picked up one more male admirer in Walton, and this one is determined to proceed to great length to win her over.

Alice Faye emerges as a designated financial pigeon for Andrews. Her deceased father has left his two daughters financially secure, Alice and older sister Anne Revere. A far more skeptical Revere is dubious about Andrews’ motivation when he begins dating her sister.

The wily Revere has every reason to be skeptical. Tough girl Darnell, after telling Andrews about her impoverished youth in San Diego, delivers an ultimatum. She wants marriage to a man of means, not a drifter who will move her from town to town. Andrews will either obtain sufficient funds to keep her in style or she will have nothing to do with him. She had earlier coldly abandoned Bruce Cabot for not measuring up to her expectations.

A dramatic contrast is established between two women, a gentle trusting soul in Alice Faye not about to give her heart without purposeful sincerity and a tough opportunist in Linda Darnell. When Faye begins seeing a good side in Andrews that he at one point tells her does not exist, she assumes the role of the strong supporting woman, determined to convince him to see a side of him that she knows ultimately exists.

Faye’s character is reminiscent of Jane Wyman in another 1945 release, The Lost Weekend. Wyman is certain that a man of purpose and meaning exists beyond the alcoholic fate into which Ray Milland has fallen. Faye sees similar good in the drifting con artist, look after oneself Andrews. They both see different men beyond those that people of lesser vision and patience observe, including, ironically enough, the men themselves.

Faye fits into the classic definition of the strong supporting woman of film noir, but what about Darnell? Can she be classified as a femme fatale? She is definitely tough, uncompromising, and selfish. Darnell feels no compassion for Faye after learning that Andrews’ game plan revolves around a brief sham marriage to grab her money.

If Darnell is a femme fatale then it is one without the noticeable deadly sociopath’s demeanor of classic noir leading ladies Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Murder is an intrinsic part of doing business to Stanwyck and Greer. Tough Darnell could therefore be called a femme fatale with qualification. She is a femme fatale of sorts.

Darnell Killed, Andrews a Prime Suspect

Andrews was seen and heard arguing with Darnell the very night that she was killed. He is fingered as a murder suspect by former New York City detective Charles Bickford, who was called upon by local Walton police authorities to take charge of the investigation.

While in San Francisco with Faye, Andrews is convinced that he needs to continue his traveling ways, telling his wife about his long pattern of scruples deficiency.

At that point Faye’s inner strength and persuasiveness rises to the fore as she convinces Andrews that just because he has experienced tough times in the past is no reason that he cannot improve his character. She convinces him that continuing to run will only bury him in a deeper mire, asserting that he needs to go back to Walton and clear himself.

Andrews is very shrewd. It is just that previously his intelligence had been put to negative rather than positive results.

When he begins his own investigation he discovers that Bickford is anything but the former upstanding police officer he represented himself to be. He ties Bickford’s past record to his permanent fixture status at Pop’s Restaurant and his shared zeal with Stella to play her favorite song “Slowly” on the jukebox.

Fallen Angel is a noir gem with characters sharply delineated by Marty Holland in the novel and Harry Kleiner with his screen adaptation. As was the case in her famous musical roles opposite Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, and John Payne, her quiet strength propels Dana Andrews in the right direction.

Written by Bill Hare

Editor's note: Bill has a new book about Film Noir coming out very soon!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Suspense (1946)

1946 was a big year for film noir. Two years earlier Double Indemnity was a smash. The-yet-to-be named film-noir style was the rage in Hollywood. All American movie studios scrambled to put out the next big Cain-like crime thriller. After the '46 release of the classic noirs The Postman Always Rings Twice and Gilda came Monogram's biggest budgeted film, Suspense.

Suspense - with a storyline that's almost exactly like Gilda released a month before - was put together by the King Brothers after their huge success Dillinger with Laurence Tierney a year before. Monogram was one of the Poverty Row movie companies. Monogram films always looked cheap. Even good films like Decoy and The Guilty are a challenge to appreciate when many of the actors are unprofessional and the sets appear to be ready to fall down. Only Suspense would be different. The notoriously thrifty King Bros. threw a million into the project. They hired This Gun For Hire director Frank Tuttle to helm the project. The solid and unique sets were constructed - instead of reusing old ones. The legendary Karl Struss was brought on as the cinematographer and the writer of Dillinger - just nominated for an Oscar for the work - Philip Yordan worked on the script. Yordan (one of the great noir writers - penning many thrillers including The Harder They Fall and The Chase) was nominated again for an Oscar later in his career for the yawner Detective Story - but The Big Combo in 1955 would be his best noir work.

Barry Sullivan
was hired in his first leading role and young figure skater Belita was brought in as the female lead. Did I mention Suspense is a figure-skating film-noir hybrid?

The story is pure film noir

Joe Morgan (Sullivan) - looking like a street bum- stumbles into town and cons his way into a job. After a shave he become a peanut vendor for Frank Leonard's ice skating night club. Joe moves up quickly and is soon managing the place while Frank is out of town. He also comes up with a very dangerous skating routine for Frank's much-younger wife Roberta (Belita). Joe starts making the moves on Roberta and soon they're having an affair. When Frank takes Roberta away for a romantic getaway Joe finds an excuse to drive up to the snowed-in cabin and invite himself over for the weekend - much to the annoyance of Frank. While Joe watches the beauty queen practice her routine on a frozen pond the next day, jealous Frank tries to shoot his rival with a big-game gun. Unfortunately an avalanche kills him before he can kill Joe. Or did it? With Frank gone Joe is now clear to pursue Roberta. However, complications make things tough for him. His ex-girlfriend shows up (Bonita Granville) and she's crazy-obsessed with him. Meanwhile Roberta is convinced that her husband is still alive and stalking her. The unexpected twists that follow puts Suspense firmly in the film noir category.

Not a total success

Suspense isn't a classic film noir for several reasons. Even with all the talent hired for the film Tuttle did not have a great story to work with - unlike This Gun For Hire based on the Graham Greene book. However, the dialog is snappy and the film looks great. Karl Struss isn't known as a film noir lensman (although he did do the handsome Journey Into Fear with Orson Welles) which is a shame because his work here is fantastic to look at. I would have liked to see more noir from him. His best work is one that probably influenced all noirs during the classic period - 1927's Sunrise. Struss uses shadows to great effect in Suspense.

A few of the standout moments in Suspense include a trip to the zoo that looks like it was cut straight from Cat People; Belita jumping through jagged swords; and a scene in the woods (the set designers create a cozy atmosphere in the cabin then the camera peals back to reveal a crazy ornate spiral staircase going up to the bedroom. Every set and backdrop in the film look surreal.)

The actors

Barry Sullivan is good in the lead role but he was just not a leading man. Sullivan found much more success as a second banana in films like The Bad and the Beautiful.

Sullivan is just about forgotten today. Even his later roles on TV he is unrecognizable. He never became a star he probably hoped he would after Suspense but he was a reliable film supporting actor until his retirement in the early 80s. Some of his noir roles that followed were interesting. Jeopardy with Barbara Stanwyck, No Questions Asked and Loophole are all worth watching.

Belita - who's unique bio is featured this month at the Film Noir Foundation - wasn't the greatest actress but the camera loved her and she looked like a movie star. She seemed to only show any range of emotions when she was skating.

The skating numbers are a bit of a problem as well. They look great - in a strange Salvador Dalí-like way. How many figure skating acts feature the female lead smoking? As corny as the first skating number is I found it sleazy - and somewhat entertaining. However, whenever subsequent numbers popped up in the film the story comes to a screeching halt. Belita would star again with Sullivan in The Gangster a year later - without her skates. When she died in 2005 obituaries mentioned mainly her skating career (Belita did represent England at the 1936 Olympic games at the age of 12) but mostly ignored her acting. She only made a handful of films but today - looking back- she's seen as one of the queens of noir thanks to potboilers Suspense, The Gangster, and The Hunted. I have to say she successfully mimicked an American accent perfectly in her films.

Albert Dekker plays Roberta's husband. He's most famous for playing Burt Lancaster's rival in The Killers released only a few months later in '46. Dekker is basically George Macready in Gilda. (Deckker's death in the film Suspense can't top how the actor died in real life as Bill Hare notes in his review of The Killers.) Dekker is also in the classic Mike Hammer film Kiss Me Deadly.

Bonita Granville is excellent (maybe the best performance in the film) as Joe's ex. Granville became famous for playing teenage Nancy Drew in the 1930s. As she grew up she tried to shake that good-girl routine in Monogram thrillers like Suspense and The Guilty. Later she would have her greatest success as a Television producer with her producing partner and husband.

Joe's beefy mentor Harry is played by Eugene Pallette. Pallette is familiar character - and voice- in classic films. Suspense would be Pallette's last film.

Frank Tuttle

After Suspense, film directing veteran Tuttle would continue to work regularly in and out of Hollywood - many times getting projects based on the reputation of the classic This Gun for Hire. Some of Tuttle's later films are excellent action thrillers - even if they are as rare as Suspense. A Cry in the Night, Gunman in the Streets and (re-teaming with Alan Ladd - in color!) Hell on Frisco Bay are three standout films.

Not Top Shelf but enjoyable

There's a lot to like in Suspense. In the past the film - despite being a box office success in its day - was only seen by noir collectors trading copies of the film or at film noir festivals. Now that it's available on DVD (through the Warner Bros. Archive) it will no doubt find a larger - and possibly cult- audience. Just don't expect it to be a top-shelf noir and you'll enjoy yourself. Suspense isn't suspenseful but the tale told on cold hard water is a fun watch.


Written by Steve-O

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tomorrow Is Another Day (1951)

“You worked a whole day just to dance a minute at Dreamland?”

“It was worth it.”

Woody Allen’s most sentimental gesture comes at the end of The Purple Rose of Cairo, when Mia Farrow, kicked around by men and by life, finds joy in the fleeting images of Fred and Ginger dancing across the screen. In that moment, so wonderfully free of dialogue, Allen speaks directly to the audience more poignantly than in all the times he ever tossed witticisms through the fourth wall. For me Tomorrow Is Another Day, a film noir light on crime and laden with emotion, recalls that moment at the end of Allen’s film. There has been little written about this astonishing movie, and what there is criticizes the ending as too upbeat and “studio” to be taken seriously. I disagree. Like Mia’s Cecilia I find in movies entertainment and escapism; and like her I live vicariously through the characters, imagining myself in similar situations. That’s my personal attraction to film noir — watching flawed people in trouble try to get out from under, and hoping they’ll make it. There’s something so desperately American in that notion that it stands to reason the best film noirs (and Westerns) were made in that brief period after the war when America quite possibly stood its tallest. If movies can teach us about redemption there’s no better model than the morality plays of film noir.

Tomorrow Is Another Day is an intelligent, very well acted film that explores paths to redemption — whether or not change is possible, if people are damned by their pasts, if grace even exists. It’s a movie about two troubled souls who somehow save one another. The first is Bill Lewis (Steve Cochran), who at thirteen shot his father and went to prison. Bill is a unique noir hero — he shot an abusive drunk in order to protect his mother, leaving his soul free of stain but suffering from a severe case of arrested development. Cochran is a surprise — what he lacks in physical expressiveness he makes up for through a deep understanding of character. There’s a moment in the opening scene, when Bill meets with the warden prior to his release, where this comes through loud and clear. Bill is nervous, fidgety — swimming in a prison-issue suit. Though the warden is supportive, Bill’s got eighteen year’s worth of chips on his shoulder. When scolded to make good choices lest he end up back behind bars, Bill responds, “Nobody’ll ever put me in a stinkin’ cage again.” This is where Cochran shines — although trying to sound tough Bill can’t make eye contact with the older man — and pauses before summoning the guts to add the word “stinkin’.” Cochran understands that even though Bill is now a “free,” he remains a kid in a man’s body, mad at the world for punishing a guiltless crime, equally terrified of returning to prison and of being set free. Bill’s standoffishness springs from his inability to grasp that the older man, an authority / father figure, may actually care for him. Cochran nails the part — Bill reenters society with a bitter heart and hardly more maturity than when he left it.

The film convincingly depicts the first moments of freedom for such a man-child. Bill’s age is incalculably significant — in spending his formative years behind bars he missed out on the life experiences that turn boys into men, including the one in particular that defined his generation. No only has Bill not kissed a girl; he’s never even spoken to one. He missed the vital school-age interactions that we take for granted, instead spending those years with hardened criminals. He’s never driven a car, voted, or taken a drink. He has no friends, and with a prison record instead of a war record, he has little in common with men his age. We see Bill’s first walk on the streets of his hometown through the eyes of a newshound who shadows him. He’s drawn first to automobiles — he can’t help but lean into a convertible and test the buttons and knobs. Then he notices a woman and does a quick one-eighty, falling into lockstep behind her. Again Cochran’s portrayal rings true. When she pauses to meet a friend Bill thrusts into her personal space, studying her as if she were a sculpture. She nervously flees and Bill skulks into a hamburger joint, where he does what any kid would do: he orders not one, but three pieces of pie, as well as his very first beer. It’s here that the reporter introduces himself. Although he doesn’t reveal his intentions, he admits making Bill as a jailbird and draws him into conversation. The following day Bill is furious to see his mug splashed across the front page, and he departs for the anonymity of New York City.

In Manhattan we encounter the film’s other main character, peroxide blonde dime-a-dance girl Cay Higgins (Ruth Roman). Although Cay’s job as a taxi dancer at Dreamland is meant to suggest that she’s really a prostitute, I’ve long been fascinated by this precursor to the burlesque club and choose to interpret the scenario at face value. The taxi dance craze swept America between the wars and dance halls sprang up from coast to coast. Patrons bought a ticket for a dime, which entitled them to one dance with the hostess of their choice. The system was mutually beneficial: in keeping a nickel on each ticket, a girl could do well — provided she was pretty and light on her feet. For the customers the dance halls afforded the chance for social outcasts to buy time with a girl of their choice. As with all things that bring the sexes together it fell prey to vice, and by the early fifties the dance halls were fading. Nevertheless, a few remained in New York, and Tomorrow is Another Day portrays them accurately. Someone like Bill would naturally gravitate to a dance hall, which serviced his need to interact with women he wouldn’t have access to if left to his own social skills.

Cay came to New York to pursue a ballet career. “I started out on my toes and ended up on my heels” (or back, if you prefer). Now she’s a taxi dancer (pro) with a cop boyfriend (pimp) when Bill Lewis enters her world. Cay sees him as a yokel and an easy mark, though she finds herself unexpectedly charmed by his boyish naiveté. She accepts his gifts and even agrees to a sightseeing date, afterwards inviting him to her room. There they find detective George Conover, Cay’s beefy beau. In the ensuing fight Conover knocks Bill out before turning on Cay, who shoots him in self-defense. Injured, Conover shambles out in search of a clandestine physician. When Bill awakens, unaware that Conover was shot, he finds Cay leaving for her brother’s place in Jersey, where she intends to hole up. He learns of the shooting later via the evening newspaper, and heads south for a confrontation with Cay. It’s in New Jersey that the story takes a crucial turn. Bill confronts Cay with his knowledge of the shooting and asks, “How did it happen?” Cay realizes that Bill has no memory of the shooting she decides to convince him that he pulled the trigger. She also drops the bombshell that Conover has died. This is the moment in the film where Cay becomes something like a femme fatale. Her character can best be summed up as morally ambiguous. Always the schemer, she figures that an innocent like Bill will fare better with the cops than her, and that he’ll beat the rap by claiming self-defense. Bill refuses this idea and shows Cay the recent clipping from his hometown paper, finally exposing his prison record. Realizing that the cops are unlikely to believe either of them, Bill and Cay decide to run. They borrow a car (Cay driving, Bill doesn’t know how.) and head for the state line.

The turning point in the film comes at a rural motor lodge. Bill and Cay check in pretending to be married, though the jaded Cay recognizes that the proprietors couldn’t care less. This is the moment, far from Manhattan, when they have the chance to separate — yet choose not to. Bill departs for a time but returns with a cheap wedding ring. This romantic gesture causes Cay’s tough façade to crumble, and in a heartbeat their antagonistic relationship becomes tender. Bill then discovers that during his time away the blonde has become a brunette. Cay’s physical transformation is the climax of the middle of the film, and is symbolic of the deeper change in her character. The tramp from Dreamland is gone, replaced by a wholesome and demure portrait of fifties womanhood. Though this transition seems fatally abrupt on paper, Roman pulls it off — she makes us believe the old Cay was an illusion, easily discarded when Bill discovers the woman within.

Through marriage Bill experiences sex and intimacy, and he begins to open up. However Cay, fearing that she’ll lose him, remains unable to come clean about Conover’s shooting. The newlyweds’ Joad-ian odyssey ends at a California farm camp, where he finds work in the lettuce fields and she keeps house amidst a community of shanties. They ingratiate themselves with the other workers and begin to live a relatively normal life. It all comes crashing down when Bill’s mug shot and a substantial reward offer appear in a Confidential-style crime rag, and a neighbor in desperate need of cash reluctantly informs on the couple. Sensing their impending doom, Cay summons the courage to tell Bill that it was she who really shot Conover, but he doesn’t believe her. Whereas earlier Cay set Bill up as a fall guy because she thought he’d get off easy, he now thinks she’s trying to take the blame for the same reason — that her recently discovered pregnancy will rate a soft sentence. When the police come knocking Bill, remembering his vow to the warden, prepares an ambush. In one of the most ironic moments in all of film noir Cay grabs Conover’s revolver and shoots Bill with it. The symbolism here is critical — in shooting Conover Cay was selfishly trying to protect herself, but now she shoots Bill in order to save him. As the police take him away, Cay pleads, “I couldn’t let you get into more trouble on account of me.”

Tomorrow Is Another Day is a film of mirrored halves, of repeated acts imbued with new meaning — it ends as it began, with an authority figure summoning Bill to his office through the intercom. In that first scene Bill moves from one prison to another — without walls, yes, but a prison just the same. The final time, with Cay, he is truly set free. The scene is the Manhattan DA’s, with Bill and Cay clumsily trying to take the blame for each other. In attempting to sacrifice herself for the man who loves her, Cay is able to overcome the sins of her past, while Bill is able to consummate adulthood by assuming responsibility for the life of another. Here is revealed possibly the most ironic twist in the entire story, but I’ll leave it up in the air. As I wrote earlier, the film ends well. Redemption indeed.

Written by The Professor

Editor's note: The Professor's film-noir blog is a great read.


Director: Felix Feist

Cinematographer: Robert Burks

Story: Art Cohn

Screenplay: Guy Endore

Starring: Steve Cochran and Ruth Roman

Released by: Warner Bros.

Running time: 89 minutes

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Fallen Idol (1948)

Secrets and Power in The Fallen Idol (1948)
“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”
I can’t remember the exact year I saw The Fallen Idol for the first time, but I wasn’t much older than Phile (Bobby Henrey), the child star of the film. While I identified with the child’s point of view, the film had an even greater significance for me as my grandparents were life-long professional servants, and they worked, coincidentally, in a mansion complete with a marble staircase very like the staircase in The Fallen Idol. The life of a domestic servant--was, according to my grandparents, a difficult profession--one that required certain behaviour based on discretion, correct deportment and the ability to be invisible at the right moment. While servants certainly had private lives, personal problems weren’t supposed to interfere with daily life. Servants were hostage to those-crucial-to-the-profession references, and if a household servant lost his job, he lost his home too.

And that brings me to The Fallen Idol--a quiet masterpiece that delves into the strange insular world of servants, and their difficult, murky relationships with their employers.

The Fallen Idol is the first of three films from a fusion of the minds of author Graham Greene and director Carol Reed. The Third Man followed in 1949, and Our Man in Havana was released in 1959. Of the many film adaptations of Greene’s work, he was apparently most pleased with The Fallen Idol. The film is based on the short story The Basement Room, and Greene acknowledged that converting a novel into a film called for “compromise.” He surmised that perhaps The Fallen Idol was so successful an adaptation because it was based on a short story. Indeed the plot is simple and takes place over the course of a weekend.

Some interpretations of the film label it as a tale of the ‘loss of childhood innocence.’ Since the film’s focus is the relationship between the child, Phile and the butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson) the title, The Fallen Idol infers that Phile learns that his idol, Baines, has feet of clay, and while that is true, just how innocent Phile is remains debatable. Reactions to the film may depend on how viewers see Phile and childhood in general, so it’s a good idea to keep in mind that Graham Greene’s novels explore the amazingly complex grey areas of morally ambiguous territory.

The film’s setting--with the exception of a few scenes--is the embassy of an unspecified Francophone country. When the ambassador departs for the weekend, he leaves his son, Phile in the care of the faithful butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson) and his formidable wife, the housekeeper, Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel). Baines has a soft spot for Phile, and in return, Phile adores Baines. The opening scene is seen from the bird’s-eye position through Phile’s eyes. Staring through the banisters of the embassy’s top floor, he sees things he’s not supposed to see, and in the film’s very first scene he witnesses a strange incident between Baines and the embassy secretary, Julie (Michèle Morgan). When the ambassador and the rest of the household servants leave, a holiday atmosphere reigns with a feeling that perhaps all the formality--along with the rules--will relax a little. The ambassador will return on Monday along with his long-absent wife. Details about her absence are vague, but there is reference to an ‘illness.’ There’s something fishy--something that indicates a problem, and it’s ugly enough to be covered up. Has the ambassador’s wife had an affair, or has she been locked up in rehab somewhere? But these questions are never answered and remain open to speculation. Nonetheless, the remoteness and distance between Phile and his father are established in this very first scene. Only Baines seems to intuit Phile’s despondency and loneliness, and it’s immediately clear that Phile’s primary relationship is with the butler.

Phile, an effete, fey child, slight and blond, who speaks English with a slight lisp, has a strange, confused position in the household. On one hand, he is just beginning to grasp the notion that he has a position of some importance, but then again he’s subject to the authority of the servants. He’s relegated to the top floor of the huge embassy and is restricted to just a few rooms in a strange, lonely exile and confinement. Embassy business is conducted on the first floor, and Mr. and Mrs. Baines, butler and housekeeper, live in the basement flat.

In the kitchen, Baines entertains the lonely, bored child with heroic tales of his days in Africa when he fought off the ‘natives’ in various uprisings. These make-believe stories keep Phile enthralled while Baines assumes the role of substitute father, deftly avoiding the complex moral questions continually lobbed at him by his small charge. Baines even keeps the existence of Phile’s pet snake, MacGregor from the neurotic Mrs. Baines. Mrs. Baines has ordered Phile to ‘dispose’ of it, but both Baines and Phile know that the snake is still alive. With a bond of solidarity in the presence of the tyrannical Mrs. Baines, the message between Phile and Baines seems to be that the less Mrs. Baines knows the better.

With Phile’s continual spying from the vantage point of the top floor, he watches Baines leave the house, and so he follows, only to discover Baines in a near-by teashop with the embassy secretary, Julie. Baines introduces Julie as his ‘niece,’ and it’s clear to the viewer that Julie and Baines are in love. During this scene, Phile’s invasion of Julie and Baines’s tryst underscores the difficult relationship between the butler and the boy. The boy has the ‘right’ to invade Baines’s private life but Baines, fearful of exposure feels compelled to lie in order to keep Mrs. Baines at bay. This scene effectively conveys the restraints endured by the adults under Phile’s fidgety presence.

Sworn to secrecy about Baines’s ‘niece,’ it doesn’t take long for Phile to spill the beans to Mrs. Baines. In order to discover the identity of the other woman, and to lure Baines into a feeling of security, Mrs. Baines pretends to leave. This unexpected reprieve grants Baines an opportunity to take Julie and Phile to the zoo. While Baines and Julie try to talk, cleverly paced scenes show Phile’s continual demands for attention, and also his disappointment that he doesn’t have Baines’s exclusive attention. Subtle clues indicate that Phile regards Julie as an intruder--someone he’d rather not have included in the outing. Repeated imagery at the zoo echoes Phile’s virtual imprisonment in the embassy where the banister rails appear to form cage bars, but here at the zoo, Phile is no longer the caged animal. He’s unleashed and his demands escalate as the day continues.

The trip to the zoo is followed with a game of hide-and-seek in the embassy rooms, and in these marvelously photographed scenes, full of Dutch angles, Phile is seen scampering through rooms and under tables. But even in this familiar innocent childhood game, the minefield of the adult world--a world of deception and adultery--intrudes and is seen through the child’s excited, terrified eyes.

During the evening, just how innocent Phile becomes a subject for some debate. As Phile, Baines and Julie return to the embassy, Phile begins to drop broad hints, and if Baines and Julie were listening, they’d have serious cause for alarm. Phile asks just how important it is to keep secrets and then rather pointedly asks: “Even Mrs. Baines’s secrets?” Phile desperately wants attention, and while Baines and Julie ignore the child as much as they can, Phile continually tries to reassert himself into their lives with his hints and questions. The three adults--Baines, Mrs. Baines and Julie--have empowered him by sharing their secrets, and they’ve also taught him that the keeping and giving of secrets makes him the center of attention, so whenever Phile feels neglected, he fires up those comments.

Later that evening, Mrs. Baines ends up dead, and Phile, whose imagination works overtime, wanders the streets of London in his pajamas. In the film’s most amusing scene, a terrified and silent Phile is handed over by the police to prostitute, Rose (the great British comedienne Dora Bryan) on the assumption that a woman will reassure the boy. While Rose is limited to her usual pick-up lines, Phile responds to her femininity, and this scene accentuates Phile’s basic innocence. He hasn’t a clue that he’s in the arms of a prostitute, but of course, it’s quite obvious to the viewer. This scene of innocence acts as a bridge between Phile’s demanding behaviour at the zoo and the behaviour he’s about to show at home to the police.

Back at the embassy, Phile’s behaviour becomes even more erratic. While up to this point, Phile has been sidelined by the adults in his life, suddenly he becomes the centre of attention, and when that focus moves away, he continually attempts to get back in the limelight. It’s much too simplistic to ascribe Phile’s behaviour as an attempt to save Baines because Phile continues to pester the police, becomingly increasingly desperate to get their attention even when Baines is off the hook. By the film’s conclusion, the police, who at first couldn’t pry enough out of Phile, just want him to shut up, and when one of the police detectives declares: “Somebody take this child away,” we’re ready to see him shipped off to boarding school.

Phile has learned the hard way that Baines is no brave, romantic hero, but a shriveled, pathetic, henpecked husband, but then on the other hand, Phile is no innocent little boy. Phile’s desperate need for attention is heightened by a degree of transference he feels for Baines, and when Phile defies Mrs. Baines and tells her that he hates her, Phile is acting as a proxy for Baines. Similarly the idea that Baines wants his “freedom” haunts Phile, as Phile too wants his freedom. He’d like to be a normal little boy who plays with friends and who goes for walks in the park, but instead he’s also a captive--an idea that’s underscored by the trip to the zoo and also the game of hide-and-seek with the table and chairs forming a cage-of-sorts.

The Fallen Idol is a deceptively simple story, fleshed out by excellent cinematography, and reinforced with Greene’s superb screenplay. The film captures its audience by its heightened attention to the universal features of childhood and by its intense use of suspense. In the final scenes, the camera keeps the clue--a large tilting window--in the centre of the screen, and rarely moves from it. The Fallen Idol is a small masterpiece sadly overshadowed by the release of The Third Man in the following year and it’s often delegated to the late-night viewing slot for insomniacs. Criterion produced a gorgeous editionof The Fallen Idol in 2006, and it’s an edition that this film so greatly deserves.


Written by Guy Savage

Note: IMDB states that the child's name is Phillipe. The review refers to the boy as Phile. This is the way his name is spelled, by Baines, in the film.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Storm Warning (1951)

[Editor's note: This article by the "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller originally appeared in April 2009 as the first “Noir … or Not?” feature in the Film Noir Foundation’s bimonthly periodical, the Noir City Sentinel.]

When Jerry Wald began production at Warner Bros. on Storm Warning in 1950, his intention was to serve up a message picture disguised as a crime thriller, something along the lines of RKO’s 1947 sleeper hit Crossfire, which used an all-night murder-manhunt to sell its underlying attack on anti-Semitism. Wald even hired Richard Brooks, author of the novel upon which Crossfire was based (The Brick Foxhole), to cowrite Storm Warning with the always-reliable Daniel Fuchs, who’d penned its original story.

Somewhere during preproduction the top dogs at Warner Bros. lost their nerve, and Storm Warning’s script was declawed and defanged. Even its bark is oddly meek. The studio congratulated itself in its advertising for making a film “as startling as the screen has dared to be,” but for a purported exposé of the Ku Klux Klan the film is as hard-hitting as 40 lashes with a wet noodle. To “take on” the Klan and then omit any mention of its racism or religious bigotry—presenting instead cracker Fascists as garden-variety goons keeping their town clean of “Northern” influence—smacks of cowardice. Especially compared to another film made across town at virtually the same time, Fox’s No Way Out (1950), an unflinching take on racism that reaches far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.

Not to suggest that Storm Warning is bad. The script may be spineless, but overall it is brilliantly made and utterly engrossing; it may be Stuart Heisler’s best work as a director. He and director of photography Carl Guthrie transform a rural Southern town (actually Corona, California) into a pestilent noir nightscape. Think Road House, only peopled with ignorant, armed peckerwoods. The visual punch is so strong that over the years Storm Warning has nudged its way onto numerous lists of vintage film noir.

But is it noir?

It certainly feels like Noirville, right from the jump. In an opening that plays like a distaff version of Fallen Angel (1945), dress model Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) steps off a bus in Rock Point to pay a visit to her newlywed sister. Depot and diner patrons give the brush-off to this out-of-town dish, instantly arousing audience suspicion. Clicking her big-city heels through gorgeously chiaroscuro’d streets, Marsha walks smack into a murder scene. Hooded Klansmen shoot and kill a trussed-up man, and from the shadows our hidden heroine catches an eyeful of the ringleaders, who have conveniently doffed their dunce hoods to pose for close-ups. After reuniting with sister Lucy (Doris Day), Marsha is stunned to discover that her new brother-in-law, Hank Rice (Steve Cochran), is one of the hooded killers.

So far, so noir: stranger in town, murder cover-up, familial conflict, guilty consciences, evil lurking beneath the town’s placid surface. But right at the tipping point, when the story could become either a full-blown descent into darkness or a conventionally “well-balanced” story of right versus wrong, the script introduces laconic county prosecutor Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), an Upright Joe determined to rid Rock Point of its “hoodlum” element. He’s a Southern cousin of Crossfire’s Detective Finlay (Robert Young), a man who has never in his life suffered a twinge of moral or ethical doubt.

Two things quickly cause Storm Warning to lose credibility as hard noir. Reagan gets so much screen time (to his credit, he gives an easygoing performance that, if anything, is a shade too amiable) that Marsha’s predicament—will she inform against the man her sister loves?—loses its urgency. From a storytelling standpoint, the distinguishing characteristic of a hard noir is that the tale almost always hews—subjectively, empathetically—to its central character. As a protagonist, however, Marsha has too little at stake. She testifies or she doesn’t . . . either way she’s on a bus and back into an orderly life at the end of the day. It’s her sister who is the trapped character, living the noir life. If the film had instead focused on her (as in the similarly plotted, if ultimately stupid, 1988 Joe Eszterhas-scripted Betrayed), it might have had a stronger dramatic thrust.

Secondly, the murder victim should have been black. Instead he’s a “nosy reporter” looking to expose the Klan, a “good man” who “didn’t deserve to die.” For all the film’s righteous huffing and puffing, it never works up a sweat-bead of genuine moral outrage. That’s because the victim is just one more dead white plot device in a Warner Bros. melodrama. If they’d been brave enough to show a bunch of buffoons in bedsheets graphically killing a black man—and then have the characters treat the incident as nothing more than fodder for their southern-fried sex drama—that would have been genuinely disturbing, morally outrageous . . . and more authentic. Instead, the Klan’s most vile act is to gang-whip Ginger Rogers while she writhes around in her underwear. Exposé? Or exploitation? Jack Warner probably jacked off in his private screening room.

But back to what’s right about the film. For starters, the quality of the acting. If you’ve put off watching it because the cast—save Cochran—seems resolutely lightweight, think again. As noted, Reagan’s performance is actually good; it’s just a shallowly conceived character. I have never liked Ginger Rogers. Her brassy-dame routine single-handedly prevents Tight Spot (1955) from making my list of Phil Karlson’s best films. Here, however, she’s terrific. She underplays throughout, conveying inner turmoil quietly and convincingly. There’s a wariness in her eyes and a weariness on her aging face, which Rogers rarely allowed on-screen. We are left wishing her character was more complex, since she seems up for a challenge, and inspired by Heisler’s ability to conjure tossed-off, character-building bits of business. Her first scene with Lloyd Gough (as her salesman sidekick) is a marvel of efficient character setup, perfectly executed.

Rogers and Doris Day are utterly believable as sisters, and Day delivers a great character, full of beguiling spunkiness that suddenly curdles into hurt and anger. As written, her “shocking” demise is a routine plot device. With Day in the role, the twist feels truly tragic.

The film is at its best when it sticks with its nasty Streetcar Named Desire-inspired dynamics: two wily women dominated by a lustful lout, a character Steve Cochran renders with his usual canine mix of hangdog charm and attack-dog ferocity. The Streetcar similarities veer dangerously close to plagiarism when Cochran tries to rape his sister-in-law. But the way Cochran plays Hank Rice, you won’t think of Stanley Kowalski. You might, however, mistake him for Elvis Presley, if the Big E had never gotten hooked on “race” music and found his calling.

The biggest pleasure of Storm Warning is watching Heisler at the top of his craft, directing the hell out of what he thought was sure to be a hot, controversial film. His shot selection is spot-on, the camera moves always accentuating the play without intruding on it, and the match-cutting on action (a Heisler trademark) is not just flawless, but thrilling. Heisler obviously schemed many of the cuts in advance, not too common for a studio director of that time. Watching this film is a primer on when to cut into action, and how far into or out of the action the camera can move before becoming obvious.

Heisler’s other noir hybrids—Among the Living (1941), The Glass Key (1942), Smash-Up (1947)—give little indication of a noir-infused visual sensibility—not like what you see in Welles or Mann or Siodmak, for example. Much of the film’s visual allure must be attributed to director of photography Carl Guthrie, a man who spent the bulk of his career shooting TV shows before an untimely death in 1967 at age 62. Guthrie isn’t often associated with noir, but here his work is exemplary.

His framing always maximizes the contributions of the art director and set decorator, without displaying them. And the lighting is simply spectacular: The enticing gleam of the town’s bustling bowling alley, the hot dead air of the jailhouse, the musky funk of Lucy and Hank’s clapboard love nest, and, most memorably, the nocturnal postcard shots of Rock Point’s hash houses and bus stations are, I believe, the primary reasons Storm Warning feels so much like noir. Closer analysis reveals it to be a deftly made “issue” drama, but one whose sagging spine and diluted social conscience are greatly invigorated by its deep, dark, noir patina.

Written by Eddie Muller


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