Sunday, February 07, 2010

Fear (1946)

Released by Monogram in 1946, Fear is a little-remembered film noir that has all the flaws of a typical Poverty Row production, including a low budget, a less-than-stellar ensemble, and a trumped-up storyline. However in spite of the limitations it’s an inventive, exciting, and thought-provoking little movie. It takes a core film noir narrative: man desperately needs money, man commits murder to get it, man’s life falls apart — and embroiders it with a series of story developments that are either surprising, inexplicable, or just plain weird. What makes the film truly fascinating is the final plot twist, which leaves viewers wondering if the whole thing was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek gag. Regardless, Fear is put together with unexpected panache, and the results are as pleasing as they are mystifying.

Peter Cookson
stars as medical student Larry Crain. (Fear is his only legitimate leading role, though he was notably married to Poltergeist actress Beatrice Straight for forty years) The film’s opening scene finds a morose Crain in his shabby one-room flat, sodden over a bizarre telegram from the medical school: “Circumstances beyond our control compel us to discontinue all scholarships.” Of all the set-ups in film noir this is one of the most absurd. As someone who has existed in the world of academia for many years, I can assure you that the chances of a school being compelled to ‘discontinue all scholarships’ is pretty ludicrous. However in Fear, such baffling developments are par for the course. Wait and see.

Compounding his troubles at school, Crain’s landlady Mrs. Williams (the ubiquitous Almira Sessions) seems to live outside his door, incessantly badgering him for the rent. Desperate to scrape together even a few dollars, Larry shambles over to see professor Stanley, who teaches at the medical college but makes extra money moonlighting as a pawnbroker. Larry’s only possession of value is an engraved watch given to him by his dead father, for which the old man offers just a sawbuck. Stanley adds insult to injury by withholding two dollars to cover the back interest on previous loans. Though it seems more than a little convenient that Stanley must open his wall safe in order to retrieve a measly eight dollars, it gives Larry the chance to scope out the wads and wads of cash camping in the professor’s strongbox, as well as a heavy set of brass fireplace tools by the mantle. Larry gets the impulse to kill the professor then and there, but manages to resist it. However he’s so enamored by the idea that he practically sleepwalks home.

Cue the girl. With his eight bucks in hand Larry grabs a stool and a hot meal at the local hangout. He spends more than expected when he has to buy coffee for a girl who appears to have everything in her purse but loose change. The money is happily spent however, when Eileen (Anne Gwynne) agrees to see him socially. The obligatory romance develops quickly, but within the structure of the film the Eileen’s role is of little importance. Female characters work to many ends within film noir, though in Fear Eileen’s purpose is banal — she gives Larry someone to talk to; and their interactions provide insight into his motivations, which in this case amounts to little more than self-justification: Larry believes that any crime is excusable providing the ends justify the means. What other films accomplish through voiceover narration, Fear provides via the girl.

Following his encounter with Eileen Larry returns home to more bad news: a huge tuition bill and an ultimatum from Mrs. Williams: pay up or hit the bricks. Larry immediately snaps back to professor Stanley and his strongbox, and decides to do the deed. The strongest segment of the film is the murder sequence, which takes place in Stanley’s tenement house. Director Alfred Zeisler establishes a tense atmosphere beginning with Larry’s nervous ascent up the apartment stairwell, wary of a black cat lurking along the stairs. At one landing he pauses outside an apartment that is being painted — the painter in the process of shimmying his ladder from one spot to another without getting down, like some grotesque insect on stilts. This turns out to be an important moment in the development of the story, as not only the freshly painted room and the painter himself become crucial players as things unfold.

When Larry finally rings Stanley’s bell the academic is reluctant to admit him, considering that the younger man was just there the previous evening. Larry offers a wrapped and tied package that he claims contains a silver cigarette case, though in actuality it’s just a glass ashtray pilfered from his own drab room. As the professor struggles to open the bundle, he chastises Larry for wrapping the damn thing so tightly. In a moment where the script really comes to life Larry apologizes, dolefully saying “I’m sorry” as he bends over, unseen by the professor, to pick up the heavy fireplace poker previously foreshadowed as the murder weapon. We never actually see Larry land the killing blow — once the camera leaves Larry’s strained face, it shifts to a vantage point directly above the table, framing the prof's trembling hands as he struggles with the bundle. It’s in this expressionistic moment and a few others like it that Fear really scores as a film noir: Just as the wrapping paper finally falls away and Larry’s ruse is revealed, the blow is struck and the ashtray drops, shattering the old man’s glass of port, which spreads against the white table cloth like so much lifeblood.

Larry escapes the murder scene, barely, and makes it back to his room where he passes out, to be roused later by a detective who takes him in for questioning — his engraved watch makes him a suspect. The man in charge of the investigation is the jovial Captain Burke (Warren William). Burke is so rakish and debonair it appears William thinks this is a Lone Wolf serial. Most of the second half of Fear is concerned with scenes of the two playing cat and mouse — with Burke attempting to trip up the younger man and Larry fending him off. Eventually Larry’s mind begins to unravel from the strain of his conscience and the pressure applied by Captain Burke. A brief but excitingly expressionistic montage finds him wandering the streets in a daze, assaulted by visions of nooses and other portents of death that loom around the city’s dark corners. Fate leads him to a train yard, where he barely avoids being struck by an onrushing locomotive. This brush with destiny convinces Larry to confess to Eileen — who decides to stand by him. When he returns home he finds Captain Burke waiting. Larry is astonished when Burke shows him the morning’s headlines: the deranged painter from the second floor apartment has confessed to bludgeoning Professor Stanley. It’s apparent that Burke stills believes in Larry’s guilt, but in light of the headlines Larry overcomes his conscience and keeps his mouth shut. Nevertheless, in film noir neither fate nor justice can be thwarted — Fear climaxes as an ebullient Larry is struck by a car and killed as he rushes to reunite with Eileen.

Hang on a second. Cue the harp music and the swirling vortex — Larry isn’t dead after all, he was just dreaming! Instead of lying dead in the street we find him lying in bed, rousing from a deep sleep by knocking at his door. It’s Professor Stanley calling, except this time the dear fellow wants to give Larry a loan to tide him over until his scholarship check, thankfully restored, arrives in the mail. As a bewildered but carefree Larry leaves his room to a brighter day he bumps into Eileen in the hallway — except her name isn’t Eileen, it turns out to be Kathy — she’s tracked him down to pay back his sixty cents, and has decided to take a room at Mrs. Williams boarding house as well! Once again, for the first time, Larry makes a date with the girl — and in a moment of Vertigo creepiness asks if he can call her Eileen. Unfazed, she remarks that he “sure must have been in love with that girl!” To which Larry replies, as the screen fades to black and the end titles, that someday he’ll “tell her all about it.”

The ending of Fear is frustrating and silly, though it still begs an interesting question: Why take a film that already closes well and tack on a coda sure to leaves audiences wagging their heads? Maybe it was simply to extend the running time — there are several moments in Fear that suggest Zeisler was trying to stretch for length rather than tension. Perhaps the reason that makes the most sense was to give viewers a surprise punch to talk about as they left the drive-in, such as in the 1944 RKO hit The Woman in the Window — after all Poverty Row films were usually as derivative as they were low-budget. It’s also clear that Zeisler was enamored of director Fritz Lang — the American-born director - producer was working in the German film industry just as Lang was making his best films there. The dreamy denouement, along with a clever smear of white paint on Larry’s jacket strongly argue that Zeisler was either inspired by or paying homage to an admired fellow filmmaker. It’s also fair to suggest that the moment of Larry Crain’s imaginary death, so steeped in the relentless fatalism that defines film noir, is only apparent to contemporary audiences as the best place to end the film, and that in 1946 the psych-neurotic dream conclusion was far more topical. Yet in spite of everything, I choose to accept the reason that conveniently allows the B-Movie fan in me to explain away all of Fear’s eyebrow-raising oddities, plot holes, and bizarre twists: Who says dreams have to make sense?

Written by The Professor


Director: Alfred Zeisler
Cinematographer: Jackson Rose
Screenplay: Dennis Cooper and Alfred Zeisler
Starring: Peter Cookson, Warren William, and Anne Gwynne
Released by: Monogram Pictures
Running time: 68 minutes


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