Sunday, March 07, 2010

Heat Wave (1954)

(AKA The House Across the Lake)

Divorce: Noir Style

“I knew you were no good, but I didn’t realise until today, how bad you really are.”

First impressions are often the truest, and that is bitterly true in Heat Wave AKA The House Across the Lake, a 1954 B noir from director Ken Hughes (Sextette, Of Human Bondage) based on his novel, High Wray. Heat Wave is one of many joint ventures engineered between American producer Robert L. Lippert and British Hammer Studios. These films combined American talent with a British cast to produce a series of B noirs that played in cinemas as second features. VCI Entertainment is releasing these mainly forgotten films as the Hammer Film Noir Collector’s series. The film’s original UK title, The House Across the Lake is much more appropriate--and not just because there’s very little heat to be found in the film, but because the house, its contents and all it represents assist in the seduction of the film’s morally weak male protagonist.

The basics of the plot are those commonly found in film noir and illustrate Divorce: Noir Style--a wife who enlists the muscle of another man to murder her nuisance of a husband. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Double Indemnity (1944), Human Desire (1954), Too Late for Tears (1949), and The Hot Spot (1990) are all excellent examples of this phenomenon. The plots vary slightly from film to film, but it comes down to the same bottom line: the husband, like a piece of unwanted furniture, must go. Perhaps he’s aging, perhaps he’s difficult to deal with or perhaps he’s just in the way, but whatever the reason, divorce or running away aren’t options. Money is often the root of the problem. The money factor is glaringly obvious in Heat Wave as the plot involves a unhappily married couple who are extremely wealthy, a step-daughter who loathes her stepmother and a will that’s about to be changed….

The film begins roughly with a sozzled Mark Kendrick (Alex Nicol) knocking back double scotches in the bar of the upscale Lakeside Yacht Club when he’s joined by a second person. In a slight flash of overacting, Kendrick sprawls across the bar, laughing at bitter circumstance and noting that he could just walk away. But of course, Kendrick remains and spills his sob story, going back in time….

With Kendrick narrating through a voice-over, he states that just a few months ago he was a “hack novelist trying to breathe some life into a dying novel.” He explains that he rented a cottage on the shores of Lake Windermere (the hang out of that famous Victorian peaceful poet, Wordsworth), with the implied idea that isolation will generate enough creativity that he’ll be able to finally produce the next book. He’s under a great deal of pressure; he’s taken an advance and he’s already behind schedule for the first three chapters promised to his London agent.

One night the phone rings, and it’s a welcome interruption from Kendrick’s nasty case of writer’s block. The call is from a neighbour, Carol Forrest, who announces that she’s throwing a party at her home across the lake. With a manner that makes refusal difficult, she tells Kendrick to bring over her guests in his launch. Her tone indicates that she’s a woman who’s used to giving orders and to being obeyed, and so Kendrick bends to her will for the first time. As Kendrick approaches his destination, he notes his neighbour’s dock lit like “a world premiere at Grohman’s Chinese,” and there in the foreground is Carol Forrest. From Kendrick’s viewpoint, she’s first seen as a shimmering, luminous image, and that’s when Kendrick describes her: “She might have been Lorelei luring the sailors to their doom.” He should have clung to that first impression….

The next shot of Carol (Hillary Brooke) gives more detail, no close up, but the camera rests on her beautiful back and shoulders. Carol autocratically demands Kendrick’s presence at her party. After the excuse that he isn’t dressed for the swanky event is swept aside by his indomitable hostess, he complies for the second time. But once inside the Forrest mansion, Carol orders Kendrick a drink and then dumps him in the crowd. He wanders around at loose ends, listening to the guests who display a range of accents--from the working class North to the smooth tones of the moneyed upper class. There are hints that the men at the party have dumped their wives and brought escorts or mistresses instead, and so the idea slips in: what sort of person is Carol?

Kendrick mingles with the crowd and joins a group of guests glued to the sight of Carol leaning across a grand piano while she is romantically serenaded by the obviously infatuated piano player. Kendrick concludes, correctly as it turns out, that the pianist, Vincent Gordon (Paul Carpenter) is not Carol’s husband as “people like Carol don’t look at their husbands that way.” Guessing that Carol has a love interest (with the implication that he doesn’t have a chance), Kendrick prepares to leave and this is where he runs into Carol’s older, down-to-earth millionaire husband, Beverly (Sid James). The two men strike up a friendship.

Kendrick’s new friendship with Beverly places him in an awkward position in the household. He learns from Beverly that Carol has a long string of lovers--all artists: According to Beverly, “She collects them like some people collect butterflies.” So of course, at first Beverly wonders if Kendrick is Carol’s latest human lapdog. The Forrests have a sick marriage, and with Beverly turning a blind eye to Carol’s blatant affairs, there’s a hint that he pimps for her by inviting arty types to their home so that she can select a new toy. Once Beverly discovers that Kendrick is not one of Carol’s conquests, he invites Kendrick to the launch of his new motorboat. Feeling some loyalty and pity for Beverly and yet repelled by his host’s home life, Kendrick cautiously agrees to attend.

At the party for the christening of the new boat, Carol is glaring absent, and Kendrick finds himself thrown into the company of Beverly’s unhappy daughter, Andrea (Susan Stephen). Kendrick and a very drunk Beverly discover, the hard way, that Carol is busy christening the boat in quite another way….

While Kendrick despises Carol, he’s also attracted to her, but his obvious distaste for Carol evaporates and lust takes over when she questions his masculinity. Kendrick decides to prove that he’s a red-blooded male, and in the process, he foolishly takes the bait. Kendrick never stops to question his divided loyalties or even his sudden attraction to a woman who’s so obviously trouble. Instead when he learns that Carol’s affair with Vincent Gordon is history, he’s ready to move right in and take his place. One thing leads to another, and the next thing you know Kendrick is in deep trouble….

One of the reasons that it’s so worthwhile watching these lesser-known noirs is to explore similar trends in the genre (in this case it’s the divorce: noir style) and also to ask why the same ingredients--with unique twists and plot devices--work better or worse in the films that explore exactly the same formula. In the case of Heat Wave, its weaknesses can be found mainly in its unappealing portrayal of Carol. While some of us can definitely understand Walter Neff’s attraction to Phyllis Dietrichson (Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity) or Danny Fuller’s attraction to Jane Palmer (Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears), it’s difficult to define Carol’s appeal. She’s cold, intractable, and cruel. Phyllis and Jane also possess these qualities but these women are honeytraps whose unwholesome, unattractive characteristics are masked by selective moments of winsome helplessness and pulsing sexuality. The desire to harness and direct that sexuality ultimately drives Phyllis and Jane’s lovers to be blinded to the moral decisions they are making. Walter Neff and Danny Fuller are all too happy to murder the husbands who stand in the way.

Another weakness in the film is Kendrick’s presentation of events. There’s little or no moral quibbling--even though Beverly is supposed to be Kendrick’s friend. And since we have just Kendrick’s possibly warped version of events, the absent moral quibbling on the slippery slope to hell could arguably be an essential missing component of this noir film. Some of the best parts of Double Indemnity are found in Walter Neff’s taped confession to Barton Keyes--a man he respects, and possibly the only person whose opinion Neff cares about. Kendrick’s presentation of the facts (as he sees them) are possibly coloured by his desire to see Carol swing for murder while the delicious possibilities of the grey areas of this crime are avoided. At one point in Heat Wave, Beverly narrowly escapes death in his motorboat. Carol’s disappointment is evident and what follows is a scene in which Beverly’s murder is negotiated by Kendrick and Carol. Kendrick’s version of events has him ‘innocently’ spilling the beans about the will to Carol while he emphasizes the fact that time is running out, and then he brings up the subject of murder, all the while intimating that this is Carol’s plan. In response, she grabs her hairpiece and shrieks in horror at Kendrick’s suggestion. Kendrick’s version is specious, but the film never delves into this aspect of the film, or the possibility that Kendrick, by threatening his departure is in effect pressuring Carol. The audience is supposed to accept Kendrick’s arguably weak story. This simplifies the plot, its presentation, and its ultimate conclusion, but it makes for a much less interesting film.

The film’s greatest strength is seen in the camera’s clever treatment of Carol. For the first part of the film, we see her as Kendrick sees her, an attractive yet somehow unappealing blonde. Her behaviour towards men is appalling, but she’s still a very attractive woman if you’re into sharp edges or ice cubes. Is there the shadow of a resemblance to Grace Kelly? …no… Carol lacks the soft lines of Grace Kelly’s perfect bone structure. Perhaps there’s a slight resemblance to Joan Fontaine? But Joan’s face reveals kindness and empathy whereas Carol’s face…well it seems to change….

The film’s pivotal scene--the scene where we all know that Kendrick is a goner--takes place when Beverly is delivered home almost comatose after drinking himself into a stupor at the hideous sight of his wife’s flagrant, thoughtless infidelities. Kendrick tries hard to play the outraged, disgusted friend, but a cheap shot at his masculinity draws him back into the game. He follows Carol from the hall into another room, and at this point, we get the first close up of Carol’s face. In this shot, with Kendrick in the background standing in the shadows, Carol’s character is nakedly revealed. She’s more than just a bored society wife; she’s evil, cruel, hard and unscrupulous. From this point in the film, the camera is merciless with the close ups of Carol’s face--even showing close-up views of her perfect hair which resembles a nest of congealed vipers.

Heat Wave is certainly not a first tier noir, and it doesn’t even make the second tier, but as a third-rate noir, there are still observations to be made on what works and what doesn’t in this British noir: a tale of yet another morally weak male who becomes the tool of a wicked femme fatale.


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