Sunday, November 28, 2010

711 Ocean Drive (1950)

Editor's note: The latest Noir of the Week is reviewed this week by Glenn Erickson -- The DVD Savant. Glenn let us republish his thoughts on one of the better crime films of the 1950s recently released by Sony.

As postwar crime films became more realistic, they began to comment on the nation's organized crime syndicates, a reality that even the F.B.I. sometimes denied. A smart film noir about a crooked Horatio Alger let loose in the racketeering game, 1950's 711 Ocean Drive must have posed a problem for the Production Code. Despite the negative things that happen to our working-class hero, the film's primary lessons are:

  1. The law-abiding world and its rules are for chumps.
  2. Smart, ambitious guys aim for the fast-buck opportunities without hesitation.
  3. Because everybody else is only out for themselves too, the only reasonable course of action is to be selfish, ruthless and swift in one's business dealings.

To counter this cynical undercurrent about American ethics at the beginning of the great economic boom, 711 Ocean Drive is bookended by conflicting messages. Even its poster art prominently bears a silhouette graphic of a policeman, insisting that the film promotes law and order.

In search of a short cut to the easy life, telephone technician Mal Granger (Edmond O'Brien) squanders his pay betting on the races. Bookie Chippie Evans (Sammy White) introduces Mal to Vince Walters (Barry Kelley), a low-level independent racketeer. Vince would like to expand his poorly organized "wire service", an information distribution center that services bookies for a fee. With his expertise in electronics, Mal builds relay systems that enable Vince to open more wire service hubs. He also invents transmitting equipment for racetrack "agents" like Trudy Maxwell (Dorothy Patrick) to communicate race results to the illegal betting pools. When the time is right Mal holds out for a piece of the racket, and Vince has no choice but to comply. After a desperate bookie murders Vince, Mal takes over the wire service. He moves into the big time, which comes with a beach house in Malibu (the address of the title?).

The Eastern Syndicate run by Carl Stephens, Larry Mason and Steve Marshak (Otto Kruger, Don Porter & Bert Freed) muscles in on Mal's racket. As he keeps no gangland enforcers of his own, Mal partners with the syndicate, allowing Larry Mason to supervise operations. Mal takes a shine to Larry's wayward wife Gail (Joanne Dru), and after Larry beats her up, hires the unscrupulous Gizzi (Robert Osterloh) to murder Larry. This makes Mal suspicious to both the Syndicate and Lt. Wright of the Gangster Squad (Howard St. John). Mal uses another technical trick to cover his murder of the blackmailing Gizzi, but the cops see through his ruse. Rather than retreat, Mal takes Gail and Chippie to Las Vegas for one more piece of electronic subterfuge, a daring attempt to cheat the Syndicate's betting pools out of $250,000. Can he pull it off?

711 Ocean Drive would seem to spring directly from the previous year's White Heat, which took great pains to explain to the audience how Edmond O'Brien's treasury agent rigs a "bedside radio" to serve as a homing device. Electronics whiz Mal Granger applies the latest technology to the rackets. The kinds of things he does chime right in with the growing importance to American success of soft information over hard products. Accurate racetrack information = money, and when Mal can supply and distribute this info, he displaces the generic thug with a machine gun as the most important man in the mob.

In a theme that harmonizes with modern software "magic", Mal's underhanded tricks all involve the manipulation of information: expediting information, delaying it and concealing its source. The racetrack cops can spot and arrest "signallers" like Trudy, but Mal rigs a transmitter onto an old guy with a cane (the antenna!), who can then simply radio the information to a receiver in the parking lot. The old conman even gets a racetrack cop to help him read the odds numbers into his "hearing aid". Mal uses another relay device to fool the cops into thinking that he's in Palm Springs, instead of near a Malibu murder scene. 1 At the conclusion, Mal delays racetrack results just long enough to allow his ringers to place winning bets, a gag that uses a literal "tape delay" setup. One man accomplishes what Robert Redford and Paul Newman needed a huge staff to pull off in The Sting.

711 Ocean Drive seems patterned around recent mob history. The Syndicate assigns Larry Mason to the new Western Wire Service territory, much as the mob did Bugsy Siegel in real life. Larry's murder is staged similarly to Siegel's, with a rifleman firing from just a few feet away. Handled a bit differently, the story could have been much more pessimistic about the American Free Enterprise system. The Syndicate, which operates identically to a corporation, muscles into Mal's crooked empire in a 'friendly' takeover. It gets richer not only by expanding its market, but by squeezing its own employees, the bookies who do all the real work for a minimal payday. The bookies can either accept the Syndicate's greedy deal or quit. Those that try to operate independently are asking for trouble. To his displeasure, even Mal discovers that his bosses have no intention of coughing up his negotiated 50% cut of the profits. To the discontented wage earners in the audience, 711 Ocean Drive could make it seem as if every American business is a racket where fatter cats cheat the leaner cats below them, all the way down the line. 2

The movie displays most of the pleasures of the classic film noir. We get more location shooting around Los Angeles than usual, with great views of a beautiful Drive-Up diner, Malibu Beach and the Malibu Pier, and Gilmore Field. The spectacular chase finish takes place at Boulder (Hoover) Dam, where Mal and Gail try desperately to reach the safety of Arizona. Do-it-Yourself genius Mal finds himself delayed by the Dam, a technological construction built for a positive social purpose, and unable to conceal himself. In his act of usurping the place of the traditional gangster, he's also inherited the gangster's classic fate, just like Cagney and Robinson of times gone by. Meanwhile, the Syndicate leaders remain untouchable. 3

This may be director Joseph M. Newman's best movie; it's an exciting script and everybody contributes top work. Newman's crew is headed by super-ace cameraman Franz Planer, and the extensive use of locations makes the production look very expensive. Edmond O'Brien was on a noir roll at the time, just off the major hit D.O.A.. He's a mass of energy on screen -- nobody plays nervous better. We can see why women might go for the energetic, self-confident and optimistic Mal. Not blessed with matinee idol looks, O'Brien succeeds as a romantic lead by will alone. The actor delivers a great dirty dialogue line that surely sailed over the noggins of the clueless censors -- when he's certain that he's ready to demand a partnership with his boss, Mal shouts, "It'll work -- now I got him by the short hairs!" That particular anatomical reference wouldn't be heard in a movie again for twenty years.

It's really O'Brien's show but Joanne Dru is appealing as the society girl turned mob wife. It does seem odd that Gail would rebel against her abusive husband by taking up with an ex- telephone repairman ... you'd think she'd retreat back to someone in her social register. I suppose the screenwriters felt that the censors would sooner accept a glamorous mob wife, over a slumming wreck. Otto Kruger and Don Porter are sinister enough as the slick new mobsters. Howard St. John, better known later for comedy roles, is the colorless cop. The best support comes from Barry Kelley as the puffy-faced wire service entrepreneur who gets the show rolling. Kelley really comes across as a hard-case meanie, threatening the bookies that can't pay their loans.

Sammy White is likable as Mal's only faithful pal. Dorothy Patrick's Trudy foolishly thinks Mal might be seriously interested in her. Mal Granger isn't given a "good girl" as an alternative; in fact there are no uncompromised characters in the movie except for the cops. The only other woman in sight is a forlorn date that Mal dumps as soon as we meet her -- played by grim little Cleo Moore of all those Hugo Haas melodramas.

711 Ocean Drive is a near-perfect movie about a smart guy who rises in the mob like an old-fashioned gangster hero. But that apparently sent the wrong message for the moviemaking politics of 1950. The show ends with a brief sermon telling us that $2 bets bankroll organized crime, a message that shifts the blame for racketeering to the general public. Even less convincing is an opening text crawl that claims that 711 Ocean Drive so threatened "the mob" that the production needed special protection from the wrath of gangland Evil. The film's trailer has Edmond O'Brien delivering this same message directly to the camera, in the style of Lawrence Woolsey in Matinee. It all sounds bogus to me; if I were a publicity flack promoting a gangland show, I might phone my own studio's switchboard to plant such a threat, just to get something into the news. The exciting movie between these two back-pedaling disclaimers is much more compelling. 4

1. A random noise heard on the recording of the relayed telephone call trips Mal up. This clever plot device was re-used without alteration in Akira Kurosawa's High and Low.

Frankly, audiences laugh when Mal tells Gail over the phone to hook up that "relay device with the two phone cradles" that just happens to be warmed up and ready in her Palm Springs hotel room. Gail complies as if the machine were a kitchen can opener. We're more prone to think that it would turn out a technical disaster, as in Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours, where nothing works. "It's so easy, a child could do it!"

2 I'm no Commie! The idea that Free Enterprise is an intrinsically corrupt system rotting our minds and souls was false then and is false now. That is, unless you happen to be working in some business related to the film and entertainment industry. :)

3 The movie says more than once that running a wire service is not strictly illegal. Taking bets in a book definitely is, so I wonder what the distinction is.

4 As usual, when I reach for a conclusion like this, I'm dead wrong. Author Sean Howe graciously directed me to his July 15, 2010 Blog on the Organized Crime Threat against the movie 711 Ocean Drive. It's a great, true story, and Sean has some terrific original location info and photos from the film as well.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Brighton Rock (1947)

Besides being a gripping, towering example of film noir, Brighton Rock (1947) has an example of something relatively rare: perfect casting of its lead actor. Richard Attenborough is so ideally suited to the role of Pinkie Brown, that it's almost hard to believe such a pairing could be achieved. Attenborough is not only a brilliant actor, he has exactly right look for this prematurely hardened boy-man created by Graham Greene in his brilliant novel of the same name. He's young, appears not quite old enough to be wearing the "grown up" suit he sports throughout the film, with a boyish face that conveys a calculated innocence when required, or the nearly soul-less malevolence at the heart of his character. I say "nearly soul-less" because Pinkie believes in the soul. He's one of Greene's Roman Catholic characters, who is sure there is a hell and heaven. Pinkie does terrible things in this story, and he considers himself already condemned, destined for hell. Watching, and reading "Brighton Rock", we witness Pinkie's fall from a position of power that has always been precarious, and this fall has a fatalistic trajectory that is the essence of Film Noir.

The film's plot actually begins somewhat strangely. "Kolley Kibber", a fictional character, is coming to Brighton, according to newspapers and radio. This means that a number of special cards will be hidden around the city, each of them worth a monetary prize if found. The current representive of "Kolley Kibber" is a man called Fred Hale. When Pinkie's gang get a look at Fred's image in the paper, the trouble starts. As it turns out, Fred is an old enemy, on whom Pinkie has long wanted revenge. He sends a couple of his men after Fred in the crowded Brighton summer afternoon. What Pinkie doesn't know at the time is that Fred has made the acquaintance of Ida Arnold, a well-liked traveling performer in Brighton for several days. Ida takes a liking to Fred after he buys her a drink, and she doesn't forget him. Later, she runs into Fred who is in flight from Pinkie's deadly henchmen. After an exhilarating chase sequence, he disappears on her and Ida becomes obsessed with finding out exactly what happened. At this point Ida and Pinkie are firmly established in the viewer's mind as opposing forces of good and evil.

Pinkie's position as crime boss in Brighton (at the time a tawdry resort city on England's southern coast) is precarious because he commands a troop of unstable and untrustworthy types, and because he himself is unstable and suffers from hubris: he's too self-confident and not truly smart about his methods. Another reason he is not as firmly established in Brighton as he'd like to be is Colleoni, the older crime boss, who truly runs Brighton's underworld. Pinkie is little more than a pawn in Colleoni's game. In a key scene, Colleoni offers to take Pinkie into his own fold, a gesture towards co-operation. Pinkie's excessive self-confidence drives him further into opposition to the older man, and when the local police tell him get out of Brighton, he's even more certain he must establish his authority.

A bungled attempt to cover up the murder of Fred requires Pinkie to eliminate one of his own men, the elderly Spicer. This operation -a gesture on the part of Colleoni- too is bungled in one of the film's memorable scenes: Colleoni's thugs close in on Spicer in broad daylight, but Pinkie himself gets caught in the melee and receives a prominent scar on his cheek. In the meantime, Pinkie has met Rose, a waitress who is a potential material witness in the murder of Fred. She, too, must be elimated. But Pinkie does not dare to kill her outright. When poor Spicer turns up still alive, having survived the gang assault, Pinkie impulsively murders him in the presence of two of his men (a grim scene, remarkable for its evocation of the power of corruption). Rose, in the meantime, has been tracked down by Ida and she now knows of Pinkie's reputation and misdeeds. The naive, innocent girl refuses to give up on Pinkie and cherishes an as yet unplayed disc recording he has made at her request, telling her of his true feelings. Ida has gradually been piecing together Pinkie's activities and has connected him not only to Fred's murder, but to that of Spicer as well. In attempt to protect himself, Pinkie blackmails a corrupt lawyer, Prewitt, and proposes marriage to Rose so that she will not be able to testify against him in court, should the time come. But Pinkie's machinations are not working out: one of his men, Cubitt, leaves town and another, Dallow, will soon turn against him. As Ida, and now the police, close in, Pinkie convinces Rose to join him in what he calls a "suicide pax", misreading "pact" for the Latin word for peace. His intention is for Rose to shoot herself first, leaving him innocent of her suicide. In the end, Rose, a Catholic herself, does not pull the trigger, but tosses Pinkie's gun into the ocean. The desperate, panicked Pinkie backs into a pier railing and falls to his death. The film's final scene has a nun utter to Rose one of Greene's most enigmatic and haunting lines:
"You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God."
Convinced he really loved her, Rose goes to play the disc he had made and scratched in an attempt to destroy it. Now the record skips at the line
"What you want me to say is 'I love you'... 'I love you...'I love you'."
Rose is left to believe what she wishes about her dear Pinkie.

Brighton Rock is a very strong entry in the film noir canon, and one of most exemplary in the British Noir category. It's a superb adaptation of the source novel, with mostly minor changes (Rose's final moment with the record and Pinkie's demise were altered for the film). Besides the perfect casting of Richard Attenborough, the rest of the player are brilliant. A particular standout is Hermione Baddeley as Ida. It's almost hard to believe she's not really this hard-headed woman, consumed by a passion to see justice done. Wylie Watson is unforgettable as the doomed Spicer, a classic "damned" character of film noir, his life reduced to simple concerns and a wish to retire, but too enmeshed in Pinkie's world to be allowed to escape. Very impressive in addition are Harcourt Williams as the fallen Prewitt and Carol Marsh as Rose. Further capable and welcome support comes from stalwarts William Hartnell (Dallow) and Nigel Stock (Cubitt).

The film is shot in a brooding, often claustrophobic style by Harry Waxman. Through Waxman's eye, the carnival atmosphere of Brighton takes on a sinister quality as background for this story. A few scenes use German expressionist camera and lighting techniques to heighten the drama (the murder of Spicer is a prime example). A screenplay by Graham Greene himself and famed playwright Terence Rattigan, means top drawer dialog and plotting. The music score by Hans May is not particularly memorable, with a main title that is harsh on the ears, but it supports the action well enough throughout. John Boulting's direction is so strong, yet unmarked by mannerism, we could wish he made more than this single, brilliant example of film noir.

editor's note: spoilers in the video below:

Written by Jay M.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I Love a Mystery film series

I Love a Mystery was an extremely popular radio series, which was first broadcast in 1939, and was created by Carleton E. Morse. In the radio series, I Love A Mystery followed the exploits of three intrepid detectives, Doc Long, Reggie York and Jack Packard, who had (as the story went) originally met as soldiers of fortune in the Far East. The three comrades travelled the world in search of mystery, adventure, and danger, which always met them with equal enthusiasm. As the partners in the A-1 Detective Agency - "no job too tough, no adventure too baffling" - Jack, Doc and Reggie matched wits with an assortment of both earthbound and supernatural villains, in a group of serialized dramas that held enthusiastic listeners spellbound. Indeed, the radio show still inspires near-fanatical devotion today among its fans, and episodes of the surviving programs are featured in a number of sites on the web for interested listeners.

With occasional interruptions, time slot changes, a network shift (from NBC to the Mutual Broadcasting System) and even title changes (to I Love Adventure), the immensely popular series ran from 1939 to 1944 (originating from Hollywood), and then from 1949 to 1953 (broadcast from New York). The scripts for the series were usually themed towards the dark and supernatural, with perhaps the most famous, or infamous (depending on your point of view) scenario being “Temple of the Vampires,” which aroused a great deal of censorial comment when first broadcast as a twenty-episode serial from January 22 through February 16, 1940.

Other episodic serials, with such titles as “The Thing That Cried in the Night,” “The Fear That Crept Like A Cat,” “Flight to Death,” The Bride of the Werewolf,” The Monster in the Mansion” and “Murder Hollywood Style” give one an idea of the general tone of the series, which was a combination of a straightforward adventure series, along with generous helpings of noir and the supernatural, and existed in a fantasy world of nonstop danger and exoticism. As the series progressed, Reggie was written out of the radio serial in 1942, and Doc and Jack were left to helm the A-1 Detective Agency alone.

Such a series would seem a natural for Hollywood of the 1940s - numerous radio shows were adapted into film series, such as The Whistler - so it’s somewhat surprising that Columbia didn’t get around to I Love A Mystery until 1945, with the eponymous series entry I Love A Mystery, directed by Henry Levin, who would direct all three entries in the short-lived series. Subtitled “The Decapitation of Jefferson Monk,” the film toplined the always reliable George Macready as a wealthy man about town, Jefferson Monk, who lives in fear of a prophecy that he will die, by beheading, at a specifically predestined time and date. Needless to say, Monk isn’t exactly looking forward to this rendezvous with death, and implores Jack (Jim Bannon) and Doc (Barton Yarborough) to help him avoid his supposed fate.

Both Bannon and Yarbrough had considerable radio experience; Yarbrough, in fact, had originated the role of Doc in the radio series, and came by his Texas drawl as Doc quite honestly; a native of Texas, Yarbrough would go on to star as Sergeant Ben Romero in the radio version of Dragnet opposite that series’ creator, Jack Webb, until his untimely death at the age of 51 from a heart attack. Jim Bannon, an announcer and jack of all trades in the radio industry, who later rose to prominence in the Red Ryder series of westerns, had actually served as an announcer on the radio version of I Love A Mystery. Bannon’s autobiography, “The Son That Rose in The West,” self published in 1975 - and actually composed of letters that Bannon wrote home to his parents keeping them apprised of his luck in Hollywood - is unusually blunt in its assessment of the films in the I Love A Mystery series, which took a long time to get into production, much to Bannon’s displeasure.

Writing his parents in October of 1945 after the first installment of the series wrapped, Bannon said simply that:

“ - after all the conversation about [the film series] and all of the waiting for the script to be finished so we could get the series started, [the film] was not really a very outstanding production at all. It will do business, I’m sure, simply because of the title and the number of people who have listened to the show on radio for so long. As a truly good movie, however, it limps a little [. . .] One of the things [Bannon and Yarbrough both] objected to was the way they had us just sort of stumble into the situation. In most of the detective series - Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf, The Thin Man, etc. - the story is set up to revolve around the main characters. That wasn’t the case with us, and I felt that the result was a weakened product. Carleton Morse, the author of the radio series, was on the set much of the time and since he didn’t make too much of a howl about the way it was being done, Bart and I kept quiet. It’s sort of sad because they could very well kill off what has a chance of turning into a good continuing thing (77).

Indeed, both men were quite right in their assessment of the finished film, which is a swift moving but ultimately uninvolving 70 minutes, with Macready dependably delivering the goods in his role as the film’s requisite heavy. Levin’s direction is tentative, as if trying to get a handle on the material, and attempting to strike a balance between the radio version, and translating the characters to the screen. Bannon is one of the film’s chief defects, in fact - his acting is remarkably wooden and colorless, betraying his background as a radio announcer, yet he delivered his lines on cue, and was a quick study. When the first take is likely to be the only take, Bannon’s ability to memorize pages of dialogue was undoubtedly an asset. Yarbrough, on the other hand, seems much more relaxed as Doc, no doubt because of his long association with the series on radio, but he also seems at ease in front of the camera, and the interplay between the two men gradually grows on the viewer. Doc is used almost as comic relief in many of the film’s scenes, with the stolid Bannon carrying the bulk of the film’s action and romantic interest, such as it is.

Interestingly, at the time the first film in the series was being made, Bannon was also working in Victor Saville’s Tonight and Every Night (1945) with Columbia’ reigning sex siren, Rita Hayworth, in what was in every way an “A” level production. Orson Welles, then falling in love with Hayworth, was often on the set of the film, and Bannon shrewdly observed in 1945 that
“Orson Welles seems to be the love of her life at moment, and he shows up on the set every now and then [. . .] It wouldn’t surprise me if they get married, and if that happens he’ll likely come onto the [Columbia] lot as a producer/director. With all the talent [Welles] has, [Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn] could sure do worse” (81).

In December of 1946, Bannon wrote to his parents that
“as I predicted, Orson Welles is on the lot as a producer/director/actor and is preparing a script for Rita [entitled] Lady from Shanghai [completed in 1947]. He is testing a lot of people for [the film] and I have been assigned [to act] in those tests. It’s a pleasure to work with him because he knows exactly what he wants, and has an uncanny ability to communicate that to his actors [. . .] even tests with him are more exciting than a whole picture with most directors. In my mind, there is no question that he will eventually be classed as a genius in this business” (97).

Bannon never got to work with Welles on anything more than these tests for Lady from Shanghai; it’s intriguing to think how it might have turned out if Welles had used Bannon in Lady from Shanghai or another film; after all, both men started out in radio. But for his entire career, Bannon would be directed by journeymen who got the picture in on time and under budget, and never really crossed over to “A” territory, especially in his later films.

From the somewhat unpromising beginning, the film would yield two more entries, each markedly superior to the “pilot” film; The Devil’s Mask and The Unknown (both 1946), and both directed by Henry Levin. The Devil’s Mask offers an intriguing mixture of jungle headhunters and a more conventional murder mystery, and as Bannon observed in a letter to his parents from April, 1946:

“A couple of weeks ago we finished the second of the I Love A Mystery films. I’m not too sure if the script for this one was better than the first or not. One thing is for certain, it was a lot wilder story and, as far as I’m concerned, had a lot more action than the first one. Anita Louise had the female lead and I have rarely encountered a more delightful or more beautiful girl. She is completely charming and a dream to work with. The chief bad guy this time was a man named Paul Burns, a fine old character actor [. . .] The title of this epic was The Devil’s Mask. It had to do with Burn’s hobby of collecting various African and jungle artifacts, including a glass case full of shrunken heads [. . .] another thing this character had was a fetish for was wild animals. The featured member of his menagerie was a black leopard, and you can take my word for it, old Jim and jungle citizens were not cut out to be bosom buddies” (83).

The Devil's Mask is far more adventurous than the first film, making effective use of lighting, shadow, and a noirish voiceover during the opening sequence in a museum that makes the film both memorable and atmospheric. But the best of the series is undoubtedly The Unknown, which was also the least successful of the films, and killed off the series, much to Bannon and Yarbrough's dismay. Here, Levin allows his camera to prowl the set (a huge, almost deserted Southern Gothic mansion) with catlike inquisitiveness, and spins a story, told through the voiceover of an already-dead (or so it seems) narrator, which is comprised of equal parts of Cornell Woolrich and Edgar Allan Poe, although the script was actually written by Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Julian Harmon, Charles O'Neal and Dwight Babcock.

Nina Foch - “without question the most talented of the girls on the contract list” (Bannon, 94) - played the female lead, fresh off her “sleeper” success in Joseph H. Lewis’s My Name is Julia Ross (1945), supported by Karen Morley as a mad heiress, and The Unknown’s intriguing and often grisly plot moves along swiftly to its unexpected climax with moody assurance. Bannon and Yarbrough, perhaps too closely involved in the project, thought otherwise, as did Columbia’s front office. As Bannon wrote his parents in December of 1946,

Both Bart Yarborough and I have the feeling this may be the swan song for the Mystery series. The writing is so bad that is almost seems they’re content to let it die. It’s very sad because it had excellent potential if it had been done right. Instead of continuing with the Carleton Morse stories they have just turned the studio’s staff writers loose on the scripts and what they’ve turned out couldn’t even them a passing grade in a high school playwriting class. If it is cancelled that will be the end of Bart at Columbia. Since I’m on contract I’ll just get shoved onto other things (94)

Looking back on these three phantom films, one is reminded of the superb Columbia "B" noir The Night Editor (1946), also directed by Levin. This, too, was adapted from a popular radio series, but didn't even get past the pilot film before the series was abandoned. Taken on their own terms and turf, these modest, unambitious little films are nevertheless effective examples of 1940s noir, especially Columbia 40s noir - atmospheric, beautifully lit and photographed, concise in their construction and execution, and certainly worth a look today. None of them, of course, are on DVD, which makes their claim on our memory all the more pressing. It's almost as if they don't exist - yet happily, they do, as examples of a time and place when black and white ruled the cinema, and short schedules and tight budgets could often produce some remarkable films. At least two of the films in this brief series fit that description, and are highly recommended.

Works Cited
Bannon, Jim. The Son That Rose in the West. Plano, TX: Devil’s Hole, 1975.
Cairns, David. “The Forgotten: The Radio Dicks,” MUBI Website,
Misiaszek, Brian Christopher. “The Unofficial I Love A Mystery Home Page”.

Written by Wheeler Winston Dixton

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video. His newest books are A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press /Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film(co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008).

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Clouded Yellow (1950)

Collections and Traps
by Guy Savage

I’ve never understood the drive behind butterfly collecting. Why capture and kill something beautiful and unique just so you can add it to your paltry collection? The idea of butterflies flying free and then killed, stuck with a pin in someone’s collection comes to mind in the 1950 film The Clouded Yellow. The film’s title refers to a particular type of butterfly, and as the plot develops, the title hints that not only butterflies are trapped and pinned by forces beyond their control.

The film begins with British Secret Service agent David Somers (Trevor Howard) driving through London for an appointment with his boss, Chubb (André Morell). There’s a certain amount of tension from Chubb and his secretary while an understated and slightly dashing Somers appears to be generally unconcerned about the meeting. Somers has just returned from a mission that went badly, and in spite of a previously good record, he’s fired from the Secret Service. There’s a moment when Chubb and Somers subtly square off with threats. Somers, a former journalist, hints at publishing his memoirs, and Chubbs replies that if Somers chooses to do this, he will enjoy a brief career. Okay so the chips are down, and while the hostility has a patina of politeness, the meeting leaves Somers without employment and not even a gold watch for his troubles. Is he bitter? Subsequent events play with that possibility.

Somers takes a job as an assistant cataloging a butterfly collection. He has no previous experience but the position is in the country and it appeals because it’s unusual. Butterfly collecting is a far cry from the adrenalin-pumping, dangerous life of a spy. Butterfly collecting, after all, does not include secret codes, false identities and dangerous assignments, and so Somers takes the job anticipating a peaceful period of adjustment from the demands of the Secret Service. Somers is unaware that the Secret Service keeps tabs on his whereabouts through the seemingly friendly concern of Shepley (played by fellow British cinema giant, Kenneth More).

The butterfly collector who employs Somers is Nicholas Fenton (Barry Jones)--a suitably dotty and disconnected, mild-mannered older gentleman who lives with his wife Jess (Sonia Dresdel) and her niece Sophie (Jean Simmons) in a large, remote country home. Somers receives a gentle warning about Sophie, and he’s told she’s had a horrible past and sometimes gets things “muddled.”

The situation at the Fenton home is far from normal, and it’s soon apparent that Somers has left a life of international espionage to land in the muddied, turbulent waters of domestic intrigue. There’s something peculiar afoot, and this is mostly apparent through the appearance of Hick (Maxwell Reed) the surly, virile handyman whose relationship with Jess smacks of a torrid affair gone stale. Hick comes and goes at the Fenton home as he pleases; he’s brutish, rude and suggestive, and yet the minute he turns up (usually with a dead animal in hand), Nicholas Fenton makes himself scare, and Jess morphs from cold and calculating to clingy and sex-starved. As for Sophie, she hates Hick’s lascivious suggestiveness, and she doesn’t hesitate to admit it. When a murder occurs, Sophie is immediately the sole suspect, and Somers persuades Sophie to go on the run through a cross-country race from both the police and the Secret Service. Their flight revives Somers’ old relationships with various characters--his “contacts” from his life as a spy.

The film’s plot has its problems, but it’s the film’s psychological undercurrents that create a better-than-average viewing experience. Sophie begins the film in a mumbling catatonic state, muddled and child-like, but as the film continues, she regains some of her disturbing childhood memories. When Somers first sees Sophie, she’s playing the piano--shades of Angel Face (1952) for just a moment in this scene, but the connection is brief. Angel Face’s Diane Jessup (played by Jean Simmons after the Rank Organization sold her contract to Howard Hughes and she moved to Hollywood) is a cold calculating psycho. The Clouded Yellow’s Sophie is damaged, but whether or not she’s capable of murder is the big question.

While the larger-than-life roguish Hick steals the film whenever he’s on camera for all-too few scenes, the film is ultimately Trevor Howard’s. Howard--a mainstay of British cinema for decades-- had many decent roles under his belt when he made The Clouded Yellow including Brief Encounter (1945), Green for Danger (1946), I Became a Criminal aka They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), and The Third Man (1949). It’s interesting to note the character connections between They Made Me a Fugitive and The Clouded Yellow. In the former title, Howard plays Clem Morgan, a WWII RAF pilot who turns to crime due to boredom with civilian life, and that addiction to thrills is strongly present in The Clouded Yellow. Howard’s career is often defined by his ‘pillar-of-the-establishment’ roles, and these are certainly roles he excelled at, but in The Clouded Yellow, Howard is sexed up as Somers. His hair is slightly more stylish, and his wardrobe tends to the dapper. As Somers, Howard could arguably have wandered from a Graham Greene novel, and a couple of scenes argue that Somers is fired not so much for his mega-fuck-up (never clearly stated) but that he’s considered a bit of a loose cannon, a rogue spy who is not quite included in the same social sphere as Chubbs and Shepley.

Consider two scenes: the scene in which Somers is fired by Chubbs and a later scene in which Chubbs meets Shepley to discuss Somers. The first scene between Somers and Chubbs is cold and official. The hierarchy between the two men is clear. Somers is fired and he has no recourse for appeal or even discussion. Game over. But then a scene takes place between Shepley and Chubbs. Shepley is on Chubbs’s side of the desk, and in an atmosphere of congenial informality, Shepley stuffs himself with biscuits and drinks tea. The relationship between Chubbs and Shepley indicates an equality, a chumminess that is glaringly absent in the scene between Chubbs and Somers. There’s something a bit rum about the way Chubbs and Shepley companionably munch biscuits while discussing Somers--a man who, for his pains, got the shaft from the Secret Service.

While Somers argues that he wants to help Sophie and that she needs a lawyer, at no point does he seek one. On the run, they flee to London, Newcastle and the Lake District before they end in Liverpool. He’s not far into the chase when he’s talking about South America and forged passports. Did he ever intend to seek legal channels or is his flight with Sophie a way of showing the Secret Service that he’s still got what it takes? Or is he simply a man who’s doing what he does best? Then there’s the question of Sophie’s vulnerability. At times she looks like a penitent schoolgirl ready to do whatever Somers says. There’s more than a hint that Somers, in control and operating like a low-tech James Bond, is taking advantage of Sophie’s meekness and confusion. At critical points in the hunt for Somers and Sophie, it’s clear that the hunt intensifies for Somers--not for Sophie. His involvement in the flight brings down massive efforts that would not have been launched for Sophie alone--the so-called Butterfly Girl in the headlines.

Criticism of the film can be directed towards character motivation. There’s little to indicate that Somers actually goes through the process of falling in love with Sophie, and it could be argued that the behaviour of the Fentons is inexplicable. This is where the film’s meta-meaning clicks into play through the motif of dead animals and insects collected for the pleasure of humans. Images of dead animals are cleverly scattered throughout the film: there’s Fenton’s butterfly collection, and whenever Hick shows up he’s carrying something dead. Later, Somers visits the taxidermy shop of one of his contacts (Eric Pohlman) and finds himself surrounded by countless dead and stuffed animals--another collection--captured and killed and now gathering dust in the dark shadows. In one seemingly unimportant scene, Somers and Sophie are out trying to catch an elusive butterfly when the topic of collecting and killing comes up. Somers asks what seem be fairly innocent questions, but given our knowledge of Somers’ history, the exchange is important:

Somers: Don’t you ever get tired of butterflies?
Sophie: I get tired of people first.
Somers: Oh well, of course. But I’ve only had three weeks of butterflies. What do you do when you get tired of people? You can’t stick pins through their middles….
Sophie: I think sometimes I’d like to.
Somers: Yes, I know that feeling….

As the plot develops, Somers’ instinct is to get Sophie to safety and to not permit her to be captured and confined. She is, in essence, the delicate beautiful butterfly sought by every available law-enforcement agency in Britain.

The Clouded Yellow is based on a story by Janet Green who later wrote the screenplay for Victim (1961), a landmark film in the history of British cinema. Although The Clouded Yellow is not a prominent British film, the fact that it’s the first of thirty two films (including the immensely popular Doctor series) to result from the teaming of producer Betty Box and director Ralph Thomas makes it a signpost in British film history. Box who was married to husband Peter Rogers of Carry-On fame, moved to Rank’s Pinewood studios after the Rank Organization closed Gainsborough Pictures. Box’s last film for Gainsborough Pictures was So Long at the Fair (starring Dirk Bogarde & Jean Simmons), and Dirk Bogarde later credited Box for playing a major role in his film career. The Clouded Yellow was Box’s first film for Pinewood studios, and she mortgaged her home in order to help finance the film.

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