Sunday, August 29, 2010

Loophole (1954)

Editor's note: This week Alan K. Rode -- film historian and all-around noir expert -- is our special guest writer. Alan has written a biography on one of Loophole's stars Charles McGraw. It's a thoughtful look at a film noir tough guy.

Hollywood was taking a standing eight count in 1954. The Paramount anti-trust consent agreement of 1948 had forced the major studios to divest themselves of their theatre chains. Second feature “B” movies specifically created for double bills evaporated as television increasingly kept Americans in their living rooms and out of theatres. While the majors radically cut production and resorted to gimmicks including Cinemascope and 3-D to sell tickets, Poverty Row entity Monogram Pictures persevered by producing lower budget movies under the recently unfurled banner of Allied Artists.

Although the Mirsch Brothers would add prestige and money to several Allied Artists releases, the studio stayed true to its roots by continuing to grind out staple fare including the interminable Bowery Boys series along with crime dramas and horror movies leavening the repetitive stream of westerns. This determination to continue producing low budget feature films at a profit was largely due to Lindsley Parsons’ production company that operated under the auspices of Allied Artists. Lindsley Parsons was a Monogram veteran who got his start writing oaters during the Depression and knew cut-rate film making inside and out.

Loophole was a prototypical Parsons project as noted by Lindsley (Lin) Parsons Jr. who served as production manager, assistant director and whatever else was needed on his Father’s pictures.

The screenplay for Loophole by actor/scribe Warren Douglas hinged on the tried-and-true plot device of an innocent man being wrongfully accused. The picture gained additional heft via the experienced directorial touch of former cutter Harold Schuster and a professional cast of leading and supporting players. Not that anyone cast in Loophole could be considered as an expensive star. As Lin Parsons remarked during a June 2006 interview: “My Father’s pictures during this period were budgeted at no more than $200,000 with a two week shooting schedule. He typically used actors who were on the way up or on the way down; the price always had to be right.”

Conscientious bank teller Mike Donovan (Barry Sullivan) is left holding the bag when a clever thief (Don Beddoe) blends in with visiting bank examiners and cleans out Donovan’s bank drawer to the tune of $50 large. Sullivan doesn’t notice the loss until close of business Friday and after nervously prevaricating over the weekend, he reports the loss on Monday morning and immediately becomes the sole suspect.

When the police and bank insurance bond investigator Gus Slavin (Charles McGraw) enter the picture, matters become extremely bleak for Donovan and his wife, played by Dorothy Malone. It is at this point where Loophole picks up steam. McGraw’s Slavin is a medieval inquisitor outfitted for mid 20th century L.A. with a creased fedora and a pack of Luckies complementing a pitiless bureaucratic resolve. The script throws in a specific reference to the Slavin character being a former policeman who was apparently cashiered for some type of malfeasance. One immediately visualizes McGraw in the darkened anteroom of a precinct squad room, wielding a blackjack during questioning.

Rather than resorting to physical abuse, Slavin mercilessly hounds Donovan even after the bank fires him and the police essentially wash their hands of the case. The insurance investigator is utterly convinced of Sullivan’s guilt and his own divinity to force a confession through the infliction of pain. Working under a deadline to prevent his firm compensating the bank’s loss, Slavin strives to keep Donovan trapped and broke in a cheap apartment-the house was lost with his position at the bank-through a scurrilous campaign of gossip and innuendo with prospective employers. At his lowest ebb, the former bank teller realizes the organizations that he gave unquestioning trust, the police, the bank, insurance companies, are malicious failures.

Donovan gathers himself, knowing that if he doesn’t find the actual thieves and clear his name, no one else will. Leapfrogging through a set of coincidences that are only believable in a movie like Loophole, he discovers and traps the thieves, gets back his name, his job and ultimately triumphs … or does he? The finale creates a sense of anxious perplexity using the chiseled visage of a lurking McGraw.

In addition to one of Charles McGraw’s most visceral performances, Loophole benefits from a surplus of L.A. location photography and an enjoyable pair of thieves, the reliable Don Beddoe and a wonderfully trampy Mary Beth Hughes. The underrated Barry Sullivan remains a credible protagonist and Dorothy Malone imbues realism into what could have been a thankless role. The movie’s thematic parallel with the Blacklist and Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose historical reckoning during the televised Army investigative hearings was underway when Loophole was released on March 28, 1954, is unmistakable. Six decades afterwards, the film holds up as an able example of late term noir that topically reflects the mores and mood of mid 20th century America.

Lin Parsons candidly recalled that Loophole could have been cast, “…at AA” what with the reputation of hard drinkers such as Sullivan, McGraw and Parsons Sr. He remarked that McGraw’s gruff exterior on screen was not the disposition that the affable thespian brought to the set everyday. Parsons, who would work with McGraw again on The Cruel Tower (1956), remarked that the veteran actor was “…as professional as it gets.”

I’d recommend where you can obtain a quality copy of Loophole except I can’t. The only ones that I’ve located are grainy VHS and DVD transfers from a battered 16mm print. Warner Bros is the rights holder on this Allied Artists title, but does not at present have a screenable 35mm print. What with the recent emergence of obscure titles via the Warner Archive Collection, we can only hope that Loophole will eventually be included as a future release. Unfortunately, I have misplaced Gus Slavin’s telephone number and cannot contact him for assistance.

Written by Alan K. Rode

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Blonde Ice (1948)

“I once said I couldn’t figure you out. I can now. You’re not a normal woman. You’re not warm. You’re cold like ice. Yeah, like ice. Blonde ice.”

The iconic noir femme fatales, boldly created without a shred of sentimentality, are guaranteed to be some of the nastiest women in cinema. Noir isn’t required to include a femme fatale, but it certainly spices up the action when there’s one on the prowl. These femme fatales are women who lack the so-called female qualities of tenderness and gentleness, and they ooze sex appeal thinly stretched over the evil ambition underneath. To the Wicked Women Gallery of Noir which showcases Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott), and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), add Claire Cummings from Blonde Ice. In Claire’s case, she’s arguably trashier, but then Blonde Ice is unabashedly B noir, so perhaps the two go together. What went wrong with the genetic make up of these women? Did they miss their Betty Crocker lessons? Blonde Ice argues that nice girls are left in dead-end jobs while bad girls like Claire clamber over the corpses of the men they use and discard on their way to the top of society. Based on the novel Once Too Often by Whitman Chambers (and the title says it all), the film is a portrayal of a woman whose thirst for money and power unleashes havoc in the lives of the men who are foolish enough to love her.

When Blonde Ice begins, the story of Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks) is already underway. We don’t know how an “$18 a week stenographer from a hick town” managed to morph into a San Francisco newspaper woman, but even her bemused boss, Hack (Walter Sande), admits that it wasn’t due to talent. The mystery of Claire’s meteorical career is solved for the viewer early in the film when Claire, who’s a pro when it comes to manipulating men, brazenly juggles three suitors on her wedding day--marrying stinking rich Carl (John Holland) and leaving the other two pining at the altar.

The two abandoned suitors are former co workers, and they are very different types of men--the weasely Al Herrick (James Griffith) and the bitterly besotted Les Burns (Robert Paige). One of the big differences between these two is that Al doesn’t mind losing as long as Les loses too. Both men even possess identical cigarette cases which were gifts from Claire, and this nice touch really gets to the heart of Claire’s shotgun--rather than focused--modus operandi. She has the audacity to be caught smooching on the balcony with Les right after the marriage ceremony, and before Claire flies off with Carl, she leaves Les dangling with the atta boy comment that will drive him crazy if he dwells on it too much: “I’ll think of you on my honeymoon.”

The honeymoon doesn’t bode well for the rest of the marriage with Carl lecturing Claire about her spending habits, and it’s clear that Claire, although she doesn’t argue with Carl, doesn’t plan on taking his crap either. But the trouble really begins when Carl catches Claire writing a love letter to Les. Carl angrily cuts the honeymoon short. He returns to San Francisco, threatening divorce and leaving her just enough money to pay the hotel bill. Stinging from the humiliation of being outmaneuvered by Carl, Claire hires a plane and its shady pilot, rubber-check-writer Blackie Talon (Russ Vincent), to fly her overnight to San Francisco, no questions asked….

The next day, Claire telephones Les to say that she’s coming home early since Carl is wrapped up in some business affairs. Calling Les to heel, Claire tells him to arrange her flight and to pick her up at the airport. Imagine Les’s shock when he escorts Claire home and discovers her husband slumped dead in a chair--an apparent suicide. Claire moves seamlessly from new bride to new widow, and then without missing a beat, she’s a society dame picking up bachelor-about-town attorney Stanley Mason (Michael Whalen), a promising politician for hubbie #2.

One of Claire’s extraordinary characteristics is that she doesn’t bother with the social niceties of the world she intends to conquer. In some ways she doesn’t seem to understand that she is expected to behave in certain ways, and that any deviation from the norm is suspicious. She doesn’t, for example, even pretend to mourn her new, dead husband, and the fact that Carl is the subject of a murder investigation doesn’t stop Claire’s indecent, incautious power grab. Naturally she expects Les, the patient poodle that he is, to wait through the next wedding and presumably dream of a reunion sometime shortly after widowhood number two. If Claire had the patience to wait before harpooning her next victim, there would be a good chance that this cold as ice dame would get away with murder, but patience isn’t Claire’s strong suit. Leslie Brooks plays this role excellently, smirking at the right times while cajoling at others. Even though she seems to get her way at almost every turn, there’s an edge of desperation just beneath the surface, and perhaps that explains why she kills when the men in her life thwart her plans.

The film moves along with almost dizzying speed, and this emphasizes Claire’s loosening grip on reality. Mason’s friend, shrink Kippinger (David Leonard) spots Claire as the loony she is after spending just a few moments in her company, and she even gets some free psycho-analysis in the process. Kippinger is the one man Claire can’t use her wiles on, and so the two tolerate a testy relationship; she doesn’t respect him and his “slimy scientific snooping” and he suspects her “distorted” mind.

Once again noir takes a subversive look at society, and this time it’s the way in which women get ahead. Les complains that Claire isn’t a “normal woman.” Compare Claire to mousy steno June Taylor (Mildred Coles), Les’s plain Jane reliable secretary who pines in the wings for the man she’ll never have. At one point, Hack reads a column she’s written and asks with an air of innocent patronage “did you write this all by yourself?” From his tone, it would have seemed natural for Hack to pull out a gold star and stick it on the article. June, the presumably normal woman in the film, doesn’t tell Hack to stuff his comments, she simply endures his condescending attitude. How insufferable to be ‘normal’ June and watch talentless Claire bag an aging millionaire, a regular newspaper column, and office hunk Les into the bargain. Clearly being nice and normal doesn’t get June a thing except lonely nights and daydreams that Les will one day see her good qualities and come to his senses.

Then again, what of the men who fall in love with Claire? Carl should have called it quits right after the wedding when he caught Les and Claire on the balcony. Les rushes to take Claire back when she’s still fresh from her honeymoon with another man. Mason is ready to risk tainting his promising political career with his association with Claire. Apart from the sexless Kippinger, the only man who seems to really understand and admire the ‘real’ Claire is Al. He’s very possibly as nasty as she is, and he seems to find her revolving door romantic adventures amusing more than anything else.

Blonde Ice, from director Jack Bernhard, was originally made as the support feature for a double bill. The film was considered lost, but this version is lovingly restored by Les Fenton. VCI entertainment released Blonde Ice in 2003, and the DVD includes some tasty yet cheap extras that fit this fascinating B title, including: an article about the possibility that Edgar Ulmer was involved with the script (and it certainly has his touch), a short musical number “Satan Wore a Silk Dress,” bios, trailers, an episode of “Into the Night,” a photo gallery, and an interview with Les Fenton in which he discusses the role of the film collector in film preservation. The picture quality tends to grainy and smudgy, but this tawdry tacky noir is well worth owning.

Written by Guy Savage

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cutter’s Way (1981)

(AKA Cutter and Bone)

American crime films in the seventies and early eighties were littered with the damaged veterans of the Vietnam War.

They appear in most of the key crime sub-genres: the revenge film (Rolling Thunder), the road movie (Electra Glide in Blue), the drug sub-culture (Who’ll Stop the Rain, the adaption of Robert Stone’s novel, Dog Soldiers), and Blaxsploitation (the 1973 film, Gordon’s War, to name just one of many).

Film noir’s contribution is the 1981 movie, Cutter’s Way.

As Woody Haut argued in Neon Noir, his book on contemporary American crime fiction, Vietnam not only damaged the body politic it blurred the line between the perpetrators of crimes and the people who investigate them. In Cutter’s Way the quest to avenge a young woman’s murder is left to the rejects and outsiders who populate the underbelly of post-Vietnam American society.

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges), a part-time gigolo and boat salesman, is returning from a late night assignation when his beat-up car stalls in an alleyway. Another vehicle pulls up behind him and in the heavy rain and headlight glare we see a man get out and throw something into a nearby rubbish bin. The car speeds off, nearly hitting Bone in the process. As he walks off in disgust, the camera pauses on a stilettoed female foot protruding from the bin.

Bone returns to the Santa Barbara house he shares with Cutter (John Heard) and his wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Mo is a sharp-tongued alcoholic. Cutter has a face full of scar tissue, only one arm and a permanent limp from his tour in Vietnam. He’s a ball of barely contained bitterness and fury.

Next morning garbage men find the young woman’s body. Of course the fact that Bone’s car is parked nearby makes him a suspect and the cops bring him in for questioning.

They attempt to sweat a confession out of him, going into how the victim died (badly), even wheeling in her sister, Valerie, to try and guilt trip him in admitting to the crime. However, in the face Bone’s protestations all he could see through the rain was a dark shape in sunglasses, the cops are forced to kick him loose.

Later, pausing with Mo and Cutter to watch a passing parade in celebration of Santa Barbara’s Spanish heritage, Bone thinks he sees the man who might have been the one dumping the body. He’s shocked when Cutter informs him the person he’s fingered is J.J. Cord, a local business big shot.

Cutter slowly starts to put together pieces of evidence linking Cord to the crime. Cord’s burnt out car was discovered in another location on the same night as the woman was murdered. The last place she was seen was a disco across the road from a hotel function attended by the businessman, “a little reception for some oil people”.

While these are at best circumstantial, to Cutter they are evidence of a much greater conspiracy, or at least an opportunity to make money - we’re not sure which yet - and it’s not long until he’s pressuring Bone to come in on a plan he’s hatched with Valerie to blackmail Cord, then turn him in to the cops regardless of what he does.

Bone tells Cutter the scheme is crazy and he should be careful. Cutter replies it is Bone who should be careful, as he is the only witness to the crime, a fact that’s been conveniently splashed across the front page of the local newspaper.

Cord is one of the those guys who are a staple of hard boiled noir; the tough as nails businessman who has dragged himself up by his bootstraps, an ex-wildcatter who made a fortune in the oil business. His power and liking of casual violence - in this case directed at young female hitchhikers - are matched only by the impunity with which he gets away with things. The kind of man you don’t want to mess with.

Bone eventually agrees to deliver the blackmail letter. We see him walking into Cord’s anonymous Los Angeles corporate office while Cutter and Valerie wait in the car. Only later does he admit he was only bluffing and never intended to deliver anything.

While Bone returns to Santa Barbara, Cutter remains to follow through his plot, ringing Bone to gloat he’s dropped off the blackmail letter. Meanwhile, Bone sleeps with Mo then slinks off into the night, only finding out next morning that their house has been burnt to the ground with Mo inside it.

Standing amid the smoking ruins, an image that strongly evokes Vietnam, Cutter is in no doubt who the culprit is. Putting aside their grief and anger at each other, he and Bone team up to confront Cord at a party at his mansion.

They’re a sight, Bone dressed as a chauffer ferrying a formerly attired Cutter armed with a pistol in the backseat of a limo. The act gets them past the front gate muscle and eventually into Cord’s house for the film’s bleak ending.

With its ambiguous plot, minimal action and lack of (then) name stars, it’s a wonder Cutter’s Way ever got a release. The director, Ivan Passer was a virtual unknown, as was Jeffrey Alan Fiskin, who shaped the screenplay from the 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by cult author Newton Thornburg. The film bombed at release. The studio only persevered with it following a persistent campaign by a number of film critics.

Bridges plays Bone as a dissolute lounge lizard. His character and Lisa Eichhorn’s sultry booze drenched Mo dance around each other for most of the film, repelling and attracting each other in equal parts. “I don’t like you when you’re stoned,” says Bone. “Hey Rich,” she replies without hesitation, “I don’t like you when I’m straight.”

But it’s the underrated John Heard (remember him as the washed cop in the Sopranos?) that steals every scene he is in. Cutter is a tragic figure one moment, a self-pitying bigot who is more than happy to use Vietnam as an excuse for his behaviour, the next. After deliberately trashing the neighbour’s car on a drunken spree, he goes inside his house to put only his military duffle coat so he can play the wounded veteran routine when the cops arrive.

But although he’s prepared to play the Vietnam card when convenient, the injustice of his experience is not lost on him. In response to Bone’s questioning about why he’s so keen to pin the murder on Cord, Cutter replies, “Because he’s responsible”, if not for the death of the girl, then for the war. “Because it’s never his arse on the line. Never. It’s always somebody else’s.”

A key theme in Thornburg’s books is retribution for the young who fall prey to the dangerous and amoral lure of post-Summer of Love California. Another of his books, To Die In California, centres on a cattle farmer from Illinois who sets out to discover how his son died in California, the only witnesses to the boy’s apparent suicide and a fixer for an ambitious political fixer and a rich but idle woman.

Cutter’s Way portrays a corrupt and paranoid world, where government, big corporations and the political elite are responsible for much of society’s wrongs, whether it is dropping napalm on peasant villages or killing a 17-year old girl, and justice is at best pyrrhic.

As he aims a pistol at Cord in the very final scene of the film, Bone says, “It was you.”

Cord just smiles, puts on his sunglasses and says, “What if it were?”

Written by Andrew Nette

Sunday, August 08, 2010

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

After 25 years I revisited To Live and Die In L.A. (1985), William Friedkin's cynical, fatalistic, hardboiled and high-energy crime noir about corruption and survival in the city of no angels. The script is literate, the characters are believable, the performances are brutally honest, the unpredictable twists keep coming, the action never stops, and the car chase is shot for real without any fake process. The pace is fast. In fact this film really hustles. Friedkin, who directed The French Connection doesn't need to shake the camera or hyper cut to thrill us because what he puts in the frame is relentless and thrilling.

The real star of the film is Robby Muller's burnished photography of Los Angeles and environs.

William L. Peterson in his debut plays a Secret Service agent whose partner Max is murdered by counterfeiter Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is an affluent artist who dabbles in money-printing on the side and takes care of his friends, a kind of prince of the city who can handle any situation he's in. Peterson is determined to "bag" Dafoe no matter the cost. If it weren't for the fact that Dafoe is usually one step ahead, they'd be hard to tell apart. Peterson's Fed is an amoral jerk addicted to his own adrenaline rush. He can't wait to take risks and push his luck. If other people get in the way, tough. Whenever his new partner John Pankow backs off, Peterson shames him into breaking the law to get results. When their boss denies them the funds to set-up a sting on Dafoe, Peterson and Pankow decide to act on a tip from an informant and hijack an illegal money-drop to raise the cash to buy Dafoe's counterfeit twenties. The hijack goes wrong, and escalates into one of the screen's classic car chases. Not until roll call the next day do the two Feds find out they intruded into an FBI sting, caused the death of an undercover agent, and narrowly escaped both the FBI and the crooks who chased them. What they don't realize is that their informant was set-up by Dafoe, who will laugh his head off when the two unwitting Feds toss the money-drop into his lap.

Peterson's energy drives the film as much as Dafoe's calculated calm anchors it. The film contrasts Peterson's utter disregard for ethics against Dafoe's concerns for his cronies. Dafoe's concern, however, only goes so far. If he can't save a crony or protect him, he'll hire them dead, or do the killing very efficiently himself. Like Peterson, he sees no boundaries, and both actors communicate the erosion their lifestyles have on their souls. But the character arc belongs to Pankow, who is so slight of build and cast so hard against type that he's either impossible to believe in the role or exactly right for it. By the end, he is transformed into an amoral jerk like the one who trained him. If this were all To Live and Die In L.A. had to offer, it would be sufficient to rate the film as a neo-noir masterpiece to rival The French Connection. But Friedkin has more on his mind.

Comparing the two films reminds me of the old adage that people in New York have lives whereas people in Los Angeles have lifestyles. The Secret Service agents in Los Angeles live and die in a very different culture than the cops in New York City, and Friedkin uses the locale to layer his film with incisive observations of personality and behavior that are calculated to attract and repel us.

Without commentary or making a point of it, Friedkin finds a kink in all the characters who countenance crime. Or perhaps he is saying that crime is the natural outgrowth of their kink. Or perhaps crime is not what interests Friedkin. He stages male camaraderie with a touchy-feely quality intended to hint at more than camaraderie. Sometimes this pre-occupation of Friedkin's strains credulity; for example, when Dafoe and the Feds-disguised-as-buyers are ready to kill each other at the slightest provocation, Friedkin stages their meeting in the unlikeliest circumstance, undressing in a locker room and then sweating through their towels in a steam bath. Talk about overkill. Dafoe burns his paintings and videotapes his lovemaking. His girlfriend, played by tall lanky Debra Feuer, is an androgynous dancer whose masculine dance theater turns him on. During his embrace, she glances across the room to lock eyes with the sweaty girl who shared the stage. Dean Stockwell is a criminal lawyer who plays all sides to his own advantage, with a bias for Dafoe. John Turturro in one of his earliest roles does a memorable turn as a fall guy who sees the worst coming and rushes to meet it. There is a rare glimpse of the late film director Robert Downey -- father of junior / Iron Man -- as the police chief who knows when to look away and when to come down hard. There is also a glimpse of Jane Leeves -- before she became Daphne in the sitcom Frasier -- as the kink dancer whom Dafoe gives as a present to his girlfriend. All these bits and pieces of characterization add up to a fractured and soulless nihilism that endows To Live and Die In L.A. with its emotional impact.

What boils To Live and Die In L.A. harder than the The French Connection is not only in how things go wrong and but in how the women pay. There is a powerful close-up of Debra Feuer at the end when she comes to collect some homemade porn videos from lawyer Dean Stockwell. Dafoe is dead, and the close-up is powerful because Feuer's face shows no emotion. Instead she talks some business, tosses her porn into a big bag, and then gets in the car and drives off with her present. The most interesting scenes are between Peterson and Darlanne Fleugel as his informant. He uses her for sex and for information. She seems to genuinely like him even though at the slightest plea for understanding he threatens to revoke her parole and send her back to the joint. "The same thing that happened to Max could happen to me," she tells him. She wants to stay out of trouble, but he won't let her. When Peterson stares off into the night sky planning his next move, she tells him "The stars are God's eyes. Don't you believe that?" "No I don't," he answers emphatically. There is no poetry in this Secret Service agent, but there is poignancy in Darlanne Fleugel's performance. She walks away with the film. Friedkin decides to close the film on one last act of emotional violence. With Peterson dead, Darlanne Fluegel is packing to leave the city. Pankow tells her he intends to keep her in the same arrangement as Peterson did. Her reaction is stunning. The film ends -- or rather it should have ended -- on her close-up. Friedkin holds for a moment on her stunned expression, and we think the film is going to fade to black, as it should.

Instead, Friedkin does something that makes no sense. He cuts to a previously used shot of Peterson driving up to her house. His character is dead, so why is this shot the last shot in the film? Fade to black, end titles roll, and suddenly we're looking at an "Easter egg" of Peterson in shadowed close-up, wearing his best bruised-dog-in-the-manger expression.* Friedkin holds on Peterson's face until the film stops. What's going on here? As one replays in the mind everything that has gone before one realizes Friedkin turned a narcissistic eye on Peterson over the last two hours. Throughout the film he's been holding on Peterson longer than he should, sometimes until performance turns into posturing. Friedkin can't take his camera / eye off the young star. Not surprisingly, audiences found To Live and Die In L.A. hard to like in 1985. Perhaps it was too sleazy or too much of a downer. More likely audiences did not share Friedkin's obsession with Peterson.

That having been said, To Live and Die In L.A. is a crime film of daring originality that packs an emotional wallop. It is also one of the best action films ever made and one of the top 10 crime films of the neo-noir period.

Personally, I wish the film had ended on the stunning close-up of Darlanne Fluegel. Even the squares get that and are moved by it.

Written by Richard

*this close-up of Peterson reminds me of a similar close-up of Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine CLEMENTINE (1946). As the tubercular Doc Holliday, Mature has just performed a surgery to save a girls life. His head is lit from behind but his face is kept in the dark. What John Ford tells us by keeping the face in the dark is that Doc is dead inside and will be killed soon, like the girl he just operated on.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Appointment with Danger (1951)

“Let me tell you about you, Al. That badge and a few law books have turned you into a nut. You don’t like anybody. You don’t believe anybody. You don’t trust anybody. You think everybody has a pitch.”

“Everybody has.”

Double Indemnity is a damn good movie. When people start talking film noir, it usually comes up first. Billy Wilder, James Cain, Barbara Stanwyck, and Freddie Mac, all cavorting in Edith Head costumes for Pete’s sake. Straight down the line to seven Academy Award nominations. Can you beat it? Nah, you probably can’t — but big budget studio noirs like Double Indemnity or Laura don’t get me going like a first-rate second-rate picture. Dark, violent, gritty, neurotic, fatal, sleazy, cheap — these weren’t typically part of the vernacular over at the Metro lot. It’s a shame that film noir isn’t somehow spelled with a B, the two go together so well. Now that Appointment with Danger has been given a wide DVD release(yet expensive at $24.95), I decided to finally look at my copy, lest I get left in the cold on the off chance it comes up in conversation. I’ve owned a dusty bootleg for ages, but never watched — after reading a plot description I assumed it was a cookie cutter knock-off of Anthony Mann’s T-Men. Brother, was I all wet.

“The story begins in the rain of a murky summer night in Gary, Indiana.” Following a brief PSA homage to the postal service Appointment with Danger gets going, and how: two thugs (Jack Webb and Harry Morgan — yes, you read that right) are seen lurking in the shadows of a cheap hotel room, neon lights ironically pulsating the words “Hotel Compton — The Friendly Hotel” through the gauze of the window, as the rain further obscures the night outside. One is huddled over the body of a murdered postal inspector, coldly recoiling the strangulation rope — a real pro, this one. Cut to a sedan splashing though the deserted streets, the murderers now prowling for a quiet place to deep-six their victim. A nun (Phyllis Calvert), at war with a useless umbrella, happens by just as they begin to dump the body in a dark alley. She sees the faces of both men clearly, but is so grateful for Morgan’s righting of her umbrella that she buys his story of a sodden buddy “getting some air.” But her suspicions rise in the moments that follow, and she relates her story to a passing motorcycle cop before moving on. He looks toward the alley just a speeding motorist steals his attention, and he rushes off in the opposite direction. As the camera once again takes up position in the alley to watch the cop vanish into the night, it pans down to reveal the corpse, left unceremoniously in the gutter.

The action described in the preceding paragraph takes only three minutes of screen time, but it’s one of the sharpest, and most exemplary, openings of any crime picture out there. Let’s put the rest of the plot summary in a nutshell: Al Goddard (Alan Ladd), another postal inspector, is brought in to investigate, and discovers the killing is part of a much larger scheme to “knock over the mails.” Goddard feigns crooked in order to infiltrate the gang, led by Big Earl (Paul Stewart), all while getting to the bottom of the murder and protecting the nun. If the story of Appointment with Danger is routine or unspectacular, the atmosphere, characters and dialog aren’t — and they are what make this such a damn good time. Here’s a picture that has it all: dark corners; wet streets; gunsels and gun molls; crackerjack dialogue that comes faster than machine gun fire and sharper than a straight razor; and a noir hero at the absolute top of his game — a guy so hard boiled he describes a love affair as “what goes on between a man and a .45 pistol that won’t jam.” Later on he even tries to convince the nun to protect herself by borrowing his throw-down piece. This man is, of course, Alan Ladd, who made the scene in This Gun for Hire and then established himself in a series of successful crime pictures: The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia, Calcutta, and Chicago Deadline. His role in Shane made him an icon, but as far as film noir is concerned Ladd is never better than in Appointment with Danger.

Ladd’s Al Goddard is no fresh-faced G-Man. As a matter of fact, he seems less like a cop than a bounty hunter, operating in the hazy area just outside the law. He plays by his own rules and doesn’t answer to anyone as long as he delivers — which apparently he always does. Goddard is so relentless that the movie takes its own denouement for granted — letting us know early on that he’s sure to make good: his boss is lecturing him about his ruthlessness when Al smirks, “Now, do you mind if I go find out who killed Harry Gruber?” The response is frank, “I’m sure you will Al — because you’re a good cop. But that’s about all you are.” It’s an interesting moment in the film, and a prescient one in the maturation of noir: we continue to see a shift in the cinematic depiction of the law enforcement officer, from the community-centered and morally infallible family man, supported in his work by the efficient bureaucracy he serves, to the lone wolf: single, obsessed, unable to adjust, embittered by his work. It’s a compliment to Ladd to suggest that his work in this film is worthy of comparison to that of Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground, though maybe it’s the other way around — the Ryan film went into production well after Appointment’s theatrical run.

We’ve gotten used to the idea of a determined, individualistic cop through the decades, but if there was ever an era of conformity and team spirit in this country it was in the years during and just after the war. However Goddard doesn’t seem to need the uniformed officers, APBs, or array of gadgets available to him — in fact he holds it all in contempt, instead making do with his wits, his fists, and that can’t-jam police special. When he decides to pass himself off as a bent cop and go undercover he does it on the fly, smoothly convincing the thugs he’s capable of theft, bribery, even murder. Only once does he rely on colleagues to help him out of a jam, despite a dozen close calls. And who can blame him? His job is a thankless one. The same men who place in harm’s way chastise him for not fitting in with polite society, telling him, “You’ve been chasing hoodlums for so long, you don’t know how to treat ordinary people.” Yet Goddard is no cardboard caricature either, he’s generally polite and occasionally even kind. The clever writing of a nun as his character foil, situating the two leads at opposite ends of the “nice” spectrum, is ample proof. The fact that Ladd and Calvert have such easygoing chemistry makes their relationship that much more enjoyable.

Let’s get back to the rest of the cast, beginning with the fellows from Dragnet. Jack Webb and Harry Morgan were paired in two films before beginning their long television association - and both find them in similar roles: Webb as a crook and Morgan as a dimwit. What’s more, in neither picture do they get along. In Dark City they appear as habitués of a New York bookie joint, ex-pug Morgan sweeps up while Webb takes part in crooked card games. Morgan’s role in Appointment is fairly small, but splashy — and dig that creepy mug shot! Three pops for armed robbery and five years in Lewisburg for dodging the draft. Morgan’s part is unfortunately small, but his exit is legendary — so spectacularly brutal I deserve a free drink for not spoiling it.

Another standout performance belongs to Jan Sterling, who makes the most of a small part as Dodie, Big Earl’s girlfriend. There’s something … trashy … about Sterling, and I mean that as high praise. She’s the kind of actress born to portray gun molls: attractive to be sure, but her charisma comes from a combination of slightly frayed sex appeal and the sense one gets that she’d never stick with a guy unless her heart was in it. Yet there’s also a brain lurking behind the pretty face. If there’s anyone other than Goddard in the picture that knows the score, it’s Dodie. Like other women in film noir she finds herself a victim of unlucky love, but Dodie is too smart to allow her fate to be bound to that of her man. Knowing her horse isn’t a winner — she hedges her bets with Goddard and gets out. This is no stand-by-your-man fifties house frau; this is a woman who thinks on her feet and looks out for number one. But unlike the femme fatale, she takes responsibility for her actions. When Goddard’s caught in his most vulnerable position it’s Dodie who bails him out, and while it’s apparent she’s acting in her own self-interest, and likes Goddard in spite of herself, she doesn’t hesitate with one of Appointment’s most delicious lines after he offers his thanks, “Don’t bother, Earl was good to me. I hope he kills you.”

Appointment with Danger is a fast moving, entertaining, punch in the gut of a movie. In spite of its obscurity Appointment is a crime film of the first order. It’s a textbook example of the visual aspects of the noir style, transforming the industrial wasteland of northern Indiana into a nightscape as rich as any found on the hallowed streets of New York or L.A. It sounds even better, with classic dialog delivered by a game cast and a score to match. One memorable scene follows the next, making it worthy of multiple viewings. And finally Alan Ladd’s Inspector Goddard is one hell of a cop, the mean uncle of Harry Callahan and Popeye Doyle — a brazen tough guy who does things by his way and manages to get results. Go watch the movie — I won’t even mention the handball match.


Written by The Professor

Director: Lewis Allen
Cinematographer: John F. Seitz
Art Direction: Hans Dreier and Albert Nozaki
Written By: Richard Breen and Warren Duff
Starring: Alan Ladd, Paul Stewart, Phyllis Calvert, Jack Webb, Jan Sterling, and Harry Morgan.
Produced by Robert Fellows
Released by: Paramount
Running time: 89 minutes

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