Sunday, February 28, 2010

Big Town (1947)

(aka Guilty Assignment)

According to those in the know, we’re told there’s somewhere in the range of 700 films contained in that genre we love called Film Noir. While the vast majority of these films are readily available for viewing, there are still a few “lost” films (Fugitive Lady and Shed No Tears being a couple) that are considered by many to constitute The Holy Grail of Noirs. Recently a couple of these lost treasures have surfaced, one being Big Town which is now seeing the light of day. So while Noirheads worldwide celebrate let me say whoever unearthed this gem should be pushed into the hole from which it came and the dirt thrown back over them.

Released by Pine-Thomas in May of 1947, Big Town (A.K.A. Guilty Assignment) continues the heartfelt story of the hard charging, classical piano playing, crusading editor of The Illustrated Press, Steve Wilson. Big Town is one more attempt, albeit miserably done this time around, of newspaper noir.

Our protagonist is played by the dynamic Phillip Reed, who packs about the same amount of emotion into his portrayal of Wilson as Moe Howard would playing Hamlet. On second thought, that’s probably a slap in the face of Mr. Howard’s thespian talents.

Granted, Reed and the rest of the cast are given some of the worst dialogue this side of anything Eddie Wood ever put out so just being able to deliver their lines with a straight face should account for something. What’s really surprising is the writer slinging this hash is Daniel Mainwaring (A.K.A Geoffrey Homes) who penned many good films both prior too and after Big Town. Among them: The Big Steal, Roadblock, The Hitch Hiker and the sci-fi/noir classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. So what the heck, even Tom Edison had more than his share of misses so we’ll give Mainwaring a pass here but below is a small sampling of the slop served up:

“So they sent for the news doctor huh? Transfusions of stead horse headlines. All the news that’s fit to print and a lot of it that isn’t.”

“That’s no bandit. That’s Buffalo Bill!”

“Is the sound I hear the pricking of a conscience?”

“What’s come over you two? I thought you were newspaper men. Suddenly you’re mulling sentimentalists.”

With the star power to barely to illuminate a 15 watt bulb, and dialogue with more corn than Iowa, and nary a femme fatal, crooked cop, or hunk of wet pavement in sight, how this mess ever ended up on the pages of not one, but two noteworthy books on film noir (Keaney’s Film Noir Guide and Duncan’s Film Noir: Films of Trust and Betrayal) is beyond me.

Stars of course aren’t a necessary ingredient of noir and the cast here is B grade at best. In addition to Reed there are at least some very recognizable faces: Hillary Brooke, Robert Lowery, Veda Ann Borg, and even Will Wright’s grizzled mug is on screen for a moment.

While the debate continues over style versus theme in the stately halls of noirdom, Big Town is missing on both counts. What we see is a mixture of stock footage; screens played out on cardboard sets and with the lack of any shooting angles other than straight ahead and save for one shot, nothing close to the dark, claustrophobic look we’ve come to expect in noir.

The story is rather pedestrian: the aforementioned editor is brought in to drive up circulation of a paper that doesn’t run advertising or even a comic section within its pages. Fortunately at the time of Reed’s hiring several events take place that bring immediate relief to the papers dilemma. First, a Senator’s secretary is found dead in the Senator’s apartment. This bit of good luck is followed up with a “pistol packing mama” who’s sticking up joints and is ultimately appended with the assistance of the Illustrated’s two star reporters (Brooke and Lowery). If this weren’t enough on the very day Wilson and Lorelei Kilbourne (Brookes) are taking in the sights at the Big Town Amusement Park, they witness a rider thrown from the roller coaster. Talk about being at the right place at the right time!

All of the above stories within the story account for perhaps half of the films 60 minute (it seems so much longer) running time. The most outrages of the stories being the Amusement park scene with the “body” flying out of the car at its highest point on the tracks and over the railing. If one takes a moment to ponder other bodies we’ve seen flying around in films, it’s strikingly similar to the scene in The Phenix City Story when the child is thrown for the passing car. What’s really of interest is Daniel Mainwaring also penned the screenplay for that film too.

The last portion of the film revolves around the “Vampire Murders” of young women in the suburbs of Big Town and Wilson’s insistence of the guilt of a young man recently released from the mental hospital. When his crack investigating duo don’t see eye to eye with him, they bolt to the opposition paper and leave it up to Wilson to piece the evidence together and send the man back to jail.

In the single noirish bit of the film, the real murderer is soon thereafter apprehended but not before the innocent man has hung himself in his cell. Sadly this single solemn moment is not enough to uplift Big Town to even the lowest of rungs noir.

Regardless of its status as film noir, Big Town apparently enjoyed some degree of success as this is but one of four films released by Pine-Thomas that made use of the continuing storyline of Steve Wilson and Lorelei Kilbourne and their ongoing fight for truth, justice and the American way.

I know, you’re saying that’s lifted right from the pages Superman, who also just happens to be a reporter for “a great metropolitan newspaper.” Coincidence, I think not for as Lorelei tells Steve at the films conclusion:

“That’s your city down there. You took a dying newspaper and built it up. You’re big and powerful.”

Hmmm, so “big and powerful,” not at all unlike the Man of Steel, so I’m thinking Big Town would have much likely scored better with me had Steve Wilson worn tights and a cape rather than played the piano.

One last note, the director of Big Town is one William C. Thomas who just happens to the “Thomas” of Pine-Thomas Productions. His other directorial work, all of it for Pine-Thomas, includes the other three Big Town films along with Midnight Manhunt, They Made Me a Killer, and Special Agent. I can only surmise “Dollar Bill” and his partner were just too darn cheap to pay someone else to direct these masterpieces.

Written by Raven

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Stray Dog (1949)

(aka Nora inu)
“Someone stole your gun?”
The police lieutenant asks rookie homicide cop Murakami (Toshirô Mifume)

With that opening line, master director and auteur Akira Kurosawa thrusts us into Stray Dog.

A semi-documentary police procedural set in Tokyo four years after WWII, the film features several elements of the film noir style, in narrative, setting, character psychology, theme, mood, and visual composition. It also displays neo-realism, in the first act. It is an early Kurosawa work of art.

After the opening scene in the police station, Kurosawa uses flashback, voice-over narration, and fast-paced scenes to show how the rookie cop lost his gun. A pickpocket stole it on a crowded bus and passed it onto a thug.

Feeling shamed and disgraced, the rookie cop becomes fixated with the loss and recovery of his pistol, a seven-shot Colt automatic. The obsessive fixation torments and propels him through Tokyo’s postwar netherworld and towards a self-inflicted near psychological breakdown, as he desperately searches for his gun.

Working with larceny police, Murakami identifies the pickpocket, a middle-aged woman, who initially does not admit to her misdeed. He tails her throughout the day and night, anxious for leads. Tired of his persistent tailing, she tells the rookie to hang around the black markets to lure out illegal gun dealers. The yakuza gangs are trading guns for food ration cards.

Disguised as a down-and-out ex-solider, the rookie cop takes us through Tokyo’s black markets. The excursion is a remarkable eight and ½-minute sequence of neo-realism, shot by assistant director Ishiro Honda (who later directed Godzilla). He concealed a handheld camera in a box wrapped in carrying cloth to shoot the documentary of Tokyo’s black markets - havens of survival for untold many in a defeated, dislocated postwar Japan - a noir setting.

As we follow the rookie cop, we see the street markets, flophouses, shop houses, amusement parlors, brothels, dancehalls, bars, and nightclubs. It’s crowded and claustrophobic, a chaotic swirling atmosphere. We encounter yakuza, street hawkers, drifters, the unemployed, the destitute, ex-service men, street kids, gangs, hustlers, mama-sans and prostitutes. We hear chugging trains, train whistles, the hustle and bustle of street life, postwar Japanese pop songs, and newly imported American big band swing drifting from the bars and nightclubs. In a surreal scene, we see Murakami’s searching eyeballs superimposed on frames of crowds in the market. The entire black market sequence introduces us to a distressed society. It is on-location social commentary, a realistic backdrop, which sets up the main theme.

As Murakami rests next to a bombed-out fountain, a street punk asks him if he wants a gun, and sets up a meeting with a gunrunner. In a restaurant, the rookie meets the gunrunner, a young woman, and arrests her, but misses the boss gun dealer sitting nearby. Murakami’s inexperience as a cop is obvious, even to the lowest of criminals. “Man, you are a real amateur,” she blurts.

The plot turns. Back at police HQ, Murakami learns his stolen Colt was used in a crime. With honor and face lost, he offers his resignation, but his police lieutenant tears up the resignation letter and says, “Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him. Are you going to let it destroy you?”

Concerned about the novice’s state of mind, the police lieutenant assigns Murakami to work with verteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) to track down and capture the criminal Yusa (Isao Kimura), who commits several crimes with the stolen gun. Together, Murakami and Sato pursue the hoodlum.

Sato is a clever, patient, streetwise detective, who sees the world in terms of good and bad guys, and he doesn’t like the bad guys. He believes people are shaped by their own moral choices, not by their circumstances. In contrast, the inexperienced, ambivalent rookie cop believes difficult circumstances force people into making flawed choices.

The differing worldviews explore the central theme of the film - moral existential choice in the face of difficult circumstance. Kurosawa also examines the theme in Drunken Angel (1948), a noir that stars Mifune as a tubercular yakuza and Shimura as an alcoholic doctor. And again, he presents existential choice in High and Low (1963), a fast-paced kidnap noir. The auteur effectively uses the question of moral choice to draw viewers deeper into his stories.

With each of Yusa’s crimes including armed robberies and murder, the rookie cop blames himself. Tormented by the guilt of his stolen pistol, the novice cop falls deeper into anguish and despair with each crime. An unwitting softy, Murakami sets himself up for a psychological fall.

As the young cop learns more about Yusa during the investigation, he identifies with the hooligan and even feels sorry for him. The rookie and Yusa are defeated, disillusioned war veterans. Both had all of their belongings stolen on their return from the war. Both are in their twenties. The rookie copper believes he himself could have become a criminal. They are almost the same. They are cast from the same mold, but chose different paths at the existential crossroads. Although we do not physically see the criminal until the end of the movie, we see snippets of the criminal’s state of mind through the rookie cop, as the investigation proceeds. During dinner in Sato’s home, Sato warns the novice cop about sentimental thinking, and says, “Thinking like that won’t get you anywhere as a cop.”

Toshirô Mifune’s performance as the rookie cop is energetic and intense, displaying several facets and levels of anxiousness, distress, and despair. His artistic emotional range is wide and deep. We wonder about his character being tough enough to make it as a homicide cop; the character struggles internally. As counterpoint, Takashi Shimura performs as a reliable mentor, sage, and teacher - cool, shrewd, and wise. He is a steady character. Mifune and Shimura’s interactions are synergistic: A + B = C. They display a master - apprentice relationship with intricate subtlety…mentor-student, elder-younger, father-son, experienced-inexperienced, superior-subordinate. These two are not standard-issue Hollywood ‘crime doesn’t pay’ G-men mannequins. In addition, Keiko Awaji turns in a convincing performance as Yusa’s moll. She was only 16, when the film was made.

Stray Dog is visually striking. Kurosawa is an artist of scene composition, using a wide range of cinematographic techniques. Throughout the film, he paints beautiful compositions of groups of people, often using deep focus frames. Foreground, middle ground, and background are flush with rich detail. In addition, he changes story pace and tension, slowing down and speeding up with imaginative editing.

And throughout, Kurosawa employs dashes of expressionism to render subjective view and mood. He delivers close-ups of sweating faces, recurring shots of walking feet, high and low angle shots, night shots, raking shadows, chiaroscuro backlit silhouettes, and dreamlike scenes. We often see his characters masked through curtains, fish tanks, glass shelves, electric fans, stair railings, metal fences, screens, windows, and crowds. Characters are regularly hemmed in, cramped within frames. On the verge of guilt-ridden breakdown, Murakami stands silhouetted seen through a rain-soaked mesh grid, confined and noir, and then, he sits in a gloomy stairwell, head in hands.

Drawing on weather as allegory, Kurosawa turns up the heat to discomfort viewers - perhaps a metaphor for the distress of a postwar society surviving on food ration cards and black markets. Throughout the film, sweating characters continually fan themselves, turn electric fans towards their faces, and wipe their necks and heads with handkerchiefs. We feel the hot humid heat via our mirror neurons. He also uses clouds and rain to foreshadow conflict, create mood, and mark turning points in the drama. Dark rain pounds on windows and bodies.

At the right moments, Kurosawa uses musical and visual counterpoint to raise dramatic tension and excite the viewer. He applies sound and music as ‘multipliers’ (his term) to punctuate visual drama towards the end of the film.

In the background of a suspense building deep focus frame, we see Sato in a hotel phone booth trying to call Murakami. In the foreground, the hotel manager flirts with a young desk clerk swaying to the lighthearted song La Palma, while immediately off frame the killer lurks. Kurosawa disorients us, playing with our emotional empathy for Sato’s impeding predicament. Suspense hits the boiling point. Then, the auteur cuts to the rookie cop on the other end of the telephone line. From the rookie cop’s view, we hear gunshots over the phone while La Palma plays in background - a masterstroke of sound to create dread, helplessness, and guilt.

At the climactic moment of Stray Dog, Kurosawa again uses musical and visual counterpoint. Strains of Mozart piano lace a stylized samurai-like showdown in the woods. Next, schoolchildren sing, while a good guy and a bad guy struggle in a field of flowers - a far departure from the gritty noir city. They are trancelike scenes that etch deep into the subconscious.

Stray Dog contains dozens of exceptional scenes. It is cinematic art.

Kurosawa’s aesthetic training was well rounded. Before he entered the film industry as an assistant director in 1936 at P.C.L., he was an artist, influenced by Japanese and Western art. In addition, when Kurosawa was a teenager, his older brother took him to the movies often. He saw the silent films of the great visual directors including Robert Wiene, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg, Cecille B. DeMille, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Renoir, and John Ford. Kurosawa credits Renoir and Ford as major influences.

Kurosawa was also a screenwriter. He wrote Stray Dog first as a novel, then afterwards as a screenplay. As an assistant director in his early formative years at P.C.L. and during the war, he wrote several screenplays, becoming an effective visual storyteller. His mentor and director, Kajiro Yamamoto said, “If you want to become a film director, first write scripts.” Kurosawa admired and studied the detective novels of Georges Simenon, and read Dashiell Hammett. In his autobiography, Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa wrote about his interest in hard-boiled detective novels. He believed they instruct in their use of “nuanced action and dialogue” to describe the psychology of characters.

Stray Dog soars above many of the police semi-documentary film noirs of its era and today, because of its energetic narrative, enduring themes, well performed multifaceted characters, and cinematic beauty.

Monday, February 15, 2010

House by the River (1950)

Straddling the line between eerie and erotic, the suspenseful sequence's success derives not only from it's masterfully angled and nearly expressionistic shots, and the cast member's deftly-acted cat-and-mouse - but the drawn out, Hitchcock-like suspense, which leaves' the viewer's heart racing, and imagination working overtime. Married novelist Stephen Byrne has offered the household's maid 'Emily' the use of his and his wife Marjorie's personal bath when her's is in disrepair, and following a backyard chat with his gossipy neighbor 'Mrs. Ambrose', and a sly glance towards the drainpipe in which Emily's used bathwater noisily surges, Stephen is drawn inside by thoughts of the fetching lass upstairs in all that steam.

Confronting her as she descends the stairwell, Stephen makes a forceful, semi-drunken pass -which is rebuffed and met with anguished screams as a struggle ensues. Fearful that Mrs. Ambrose is within earshot of Emily, Stephen shifts from unsuccessful pleading to clamping his hands around the terrified young woman's throat, to temporarily silence her cries. When sure that he is in no danger of discovery, Stephen releases his grip only to watch Emily collapse to the floor, lifeless. Within seconds, Stephen's older brother John darkens the doorway and learns of the tragic accident to which he is rapidly enlisted to help cover up. Having played the brother's keeper card, Stephen inadvertently prompts John to remind his desperate brother that he has dutifully supported him numerous times before - this information further developing our killer's character as an irresponsible self-server who's grown accustomed to his more level-headed brother's bail-outs. The tipping point for John, though, is Stephen's claim that Marjorie is pregnant - implying that any scandal would disrupt their lives irrecoverably. The solemn, slightly disabled elder brother has long carried a torch for Marjorie , and though deeply torn agrees to help stuff Emily's body in a sack and cast it into the river beyond the end of Stephen's property - but the river is not nearly as willing to swallow this nightmarish secret.

So begins Fritz Lang's buried jewel - 1950's 'House by the River', a pitch black gothic noir that though modestly budgeted and featuring low-wattage star-power, succeeds on nearly all levels - proving yet again that gifted filmmakers can produce something memorably sophisticated and artful even with lamentably limited means. The renowned director had just suffered through the poor reception shown his 'Secret Beyond the Door' (1948, Joan Bennett), and this setback paired with his reputation as a somewhat demanding personality, may have been behind his reputed banishment to low-rent Republic Pictures ('City that Never Sleeps', 'Moonrise'). Shifting into Ulmer-mode, Lang crafts a blissfully stream-lined period noir - devoid of anything narratively superfluous ('House' even eschews flashbacks, though is not above spooky optical effects - which deservedly plague our story's protagonist/antagonist). If there's a weak link at all it's in the production design, as the sets appear particularly cheap. The establishing shot of the Byrne property features a view of the titular house - which appears to be painted on a backdrop, a la a stage production.

As with 'Detour's gifted auteur, Lang distracts the viewer away from his film's shortcomings and toward the engrossing dramatic elements of the plot, and the ever-shifting dynamics between the leads. 'House's homme fatale is, in this fan's estimation, one of the sub-genre's most chilling characters. An urbane and fairly well-to-do writer whose career has cooled-off, Stephen is the sort who will casually shatter his marriage vows on a whim if the opportunity presents itself. Lang and screenwriter Mel Dinelli ('The Window') toy with the viewers expectations early in the film by contrasting Stephen's later transgressions with a shot of him gently freeing a spider that has found his paperwork - an inclusion that humanizes our lead, and one that only splinters our opinion of him when we learn to what lengths he'll attempt self-preservation.

Perfectly cast, Hayward brings an enjoyable and casual flair to his later scenes, in which his character's psyche seemingly erodes before our eyes. First lying to John about Marjorie's status to coerce John into helping him, then scheming to eliminate anyone who threatens to bring the truth to light, Stephen is one of noir's unsung sociopaths. Ostensibly a good-natured sort with a history of scrapes that only his sibling is aware of, beneath his surface lay a severely broken and corrupt soul - ready and willing to commit the unconscionable. As the dark story arcs towards it's poetic conclusion, John addresses the issue directly, stating

“You must be very, very ill Stephen...”

(Hayward's bemused, glassy-eyed response,

“Ill?” is priceless),

but will learn the hard way that even he is not exempt from Stephen's cold-blooded machinations.

One can debate the film's validity as a true noir, but while no fedoras, revolvers, or rain-slicked prowl cars are in evidence, Lang's turn-of-the-century potboiler falls squarely in noir territory, and is no less twisty or bleak than any of the director's more high-profile genre entries. Though slightly hamstrung by budget restrictions, 'House by the River' resonates for the viewer in the unique way the best noir films do - leaving one pleasurably unnerved.

Written by David

House By the River (1950)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Louis Hayward (Steven Byrne), Jane Wyatt (Marjorie Byrne), Lee Bowman (John Byrne), Dorothy Patrick (Emily).

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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