Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

AKA The Spiritualist

"Don't cling to the past. I lived by feeding people's desire to escape the present, but you can't escape for long."

A unique supernatural thriller, The Amazing Mr. X (1948), chronicles the antics of Alexis, a questionable spiritualist who has created an elaborate hoax based around conjuring spirits, mainly targeting wealthy grief-stricken widows haunted by their memories. Capitalizing on the desperation of those who have lost loved ones, he conducts dramatic, convincing seances for his clients, to satiate their desire to relive their pasts by contacting the dead.

Much of the film is shot in moonlight, illuminating churning waters of a turbulent ocean, and bringing to mind the torrent of emotions experienced by those seeking to reunite with their beloved who have passed.

Christine Faber is just such a character, who begins to hear her late husband's voice speaking to her from the depths of the waters one night. Disturbed but also intrigued, she makes a phone call to her new love interest and potential fiance, Martin, with whom she has a date, and tells him that she will walk down the beach to meet him. Martin protests in worry about her safety, but she insists on carrying on with her seaside stroll, obsessed with the voice that calls to her. While walking down the beach, she becomes increasingly spooked at the voice, wild surf and the cackles of a bird in a tree behind her, tearing her dress and running straight into a tall dark handsome stranger, who is Alexis the mystic himself.

"I saw your husband dead and you moving into a new marriage... but I see I was wrong... sometimes I am. Goodnight."

Of course Christine is appalled that this mysterious Rhett Butler look-alike has pinpointed her innermost thoughts, and she follows him down the beach, already seduced by his apparent clairvoyance.

"WAIT! I don't understand how you know all of this..."

"I saw him dead, carrying flames..." and with that he hands her his business card.

"Alexis. Psychic consultant... Oh."
"I see you place me in the same category as fortune tellers, snake charmers and magicians."

He continues on, telling her things a stranger could not possibly know....things about Martin and his tiresome logic....things about her deceased husband Paul.

"I cannot tell you how I know these things...but it hardly matters, does it? Since we're not going to meet again..."

As if on cue we hear Martin calling to Christine in the distance.

Everyone who has lost someone close to them can understand the urge to have one last conversation, to tie up unfinished business, the intense temptation to receive "signs" from those who have crossed over to the beyond, so we immediately identify with our protagonist, Christine. As the viewer expects, she ends up in the company of Alexis, conversing over a crystal ball. And so the real story begins to unfold.

"I deal with many different kinds of minds in my work... generally speaking there are three types of people who come to see me. The first, a fairly large group come to scoff, sometimes a few of them remain to prey. The second have childlike, prejudice minds, they long to believe they're tired and sad and need comforts. All this helps them. It creates an atmosphere, you see, a mood like music and they need to find a few moments of comfort that help them continue with their grey little lives and so I do not think it is childish, after all... do you?"

"And the third group?"

"The third group consists of those of us who honestly seek to explore the secrets of the outer world... I feel that you have come today to join that group."

The magical noir essence in this film is John Alton's expressionistic treatment of light. He manipulates the lens to play with, black and white, figures become shadow and sometimes they glow, bathed in darkness. He heightens the already mirage-like effects of misty smoke, moonbeams and mirrors, to create a truly supernatural atmosphere. The most noteworthy scenes, seances and crystal ball readings, take place in Alexis's den, resembling a carnival fun house with its secret passageways, two-way mirrors and marvelous set decorations (including a large image of a "third eye" and a mechanical door that opens and closes automatically behind visitors.) Disembodied heads and hands during the seances, apparitions of menacing wedding dresses in Christine’s seaside mansion, and the relentless pounding of the ocean's waves all add to the phantasmal mood. The most eerie and disturbing fact about The Amazing Mr. X is that our main character, Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) was originally to be played by Carol Landis, who tragically committed suicide before filming began. Carol Landis had a role alongside Betty Grable and Elisha Cook Jr. in what some have claimed to be one of the first films of the noir genre, I Wake Up Screaming (1941).

Some other outstanding characters in the film that make it worth watching: Our token noir detective, Hoffman, who has a magician background himself with a knack for card tricks, and is particularly skeptical of Alexis; Christine’s younger sister Janet, who initially has the self-righteous behavior that recalls another insipid noir femme Veda (Mildred Pierce), yet she is ultimately quite insightful; our ghost, Christine's husband Paul; and Alexis's female "assistant" Emily (Virginia Gregg, who can be best remembered for her voice-over as Mrs Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho.)

So my fellow noir aficionados, "... if you have the courage to and will to explore, I will help you. Let your mind be free and receptive --- focus on the crystal ball."


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Escape from Crime (1942)

One of the most overlooked and yet astonishingly prolific auteurs in the noir universe is the largely unheralded D. (David) Ross Lederman. Working at Warner Brothers in the 1940s, he specialized in noir genre films, and created his films swiftly, compactly, and with authority. His films stand out because they all display Lederman’s uniquely Dystopian view of life, combined with a relentless, inexorable narrative drive; rapid, nearly Eisensteinian editing; and a willingness to alter or change the course of his character’s destiny at a moment’s notice. In his best films, Lederman not only bent the rules of genre cinema, he all but abolished them. The sheer intensity of Lederman’s imagistic and editorial pacing, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of genre filmmaking, allowed him to transcend the conventions of the typical program film, no matter what the genre, and make it a personal statement, while still staying firmly within the proscribed schedule and budget.

Lederman was born on December 12, 1894 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His parents, Luke Lederman and Laura Pauline Ross, were an oddly matched pair. Young David Ross Lederman was a sickly child, with such severe asthma that his parents were advised to move to then smog-free Venice, California for their son’s health in 1904. But David’s relationship with his parents was curiously distant. His father worked at Hamburger’s Department Store in Los Angeles in a variety of managerial positions, and died in 1918. His mother, Laura, was a somewhat eccentric figure who was known as “Mother Lederman” for her habit of “adopting” soldiers going off to fight World War I, giving them lavish gifts, cheery letters, and kisses at the train station as they departed for the front.

Lederman broke into the motion picture business in 1915 as an extra in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops series, specializing in strenuous stunt gags. At the same time, he was also working for D. W. Griffith as a 2nd 2nd Assistant Director, although the term was unknown at the time, on Intolerance (released in 1916). This grueling pace would continue for the rest of his life. From 1915 to 1927, Lederman racked up an impressive series of credits, rising to the post of Assistant Director, often assisting Roy Del Ruth, who became a lifelong friend.

As he moved up the director’s chair, Lederman created Speed Demon (1933), a racing boat film, also foreshadows Lederman’s later work for Warners, with a succession of fights and chase sequences that follow one another in a furious pace. State Trooper (1933) stars Regis Toomey in a surprisingly brutal crime drama, while The Whirlwind (1933) finds Lederman directing Western icon Tim McCoy. In 1934 he helmed The Crime of Helen Stanley, a murder mystery in Columbia’s “Inspector Trent” series, starring the utilitarian Ralph Bellamy as the intrepid detective. The Crime of Helen Stanley is set in a film studio, eliminating the use of costly sets and props (the film, like other programmers of the 1930s and 40s, was shot on “left-over” sets from more ambitious productions), and features Lederman’s now familiar breathless pacing with narrative compressed to an absolute minimum.

All through the late 1930s, Lederman kept cranking out genre films at a furious pace, from the gunfights of Moonlight on the Prairie (1936), to the courtroom drama The Final Hour (1936), the suspense film Panic on the Air (1936), set in the world of commercial radio broadcasting, the loan shark drama I Promise to Pay (1937), and the fast and furious racing/crime film The Frame Up (1937). Interestingly, many of Lederman’s films of this period are genre “hot wire” projects, melding equal parts of romance, action, suspense and violence to create an atmosphere of perpetual unease, in which the protagonists are constantly imperiled, and situations are introduced only to be radically revised by the twist of the narrative moments later. In Lederman’s world, no one is to be trusted, as demonstrated in the surprisingly downbeat A Dangerous Adventure (1937), in which young Linda Gale (Rosalina Keith) inherits a steel mill, and joins forces with Tim Sawyer (Don Terry) to keep it operating smoothly. But predictably, a group of thugs engage in a campaign of sabotage that almost forces the plant to close, until Linda and Tim gain the penultimate upper hand in the film’s final moments.

Lederman’s first film for Warner’s, The Body Disappears (1941), was a conventional murder mystery (although it boasted the considerable talents of Jane Wyman, Edward Everett Horton and Lederman regular Wade Boteler), but with Strange Alibi (1941), Arthur Kennedy’s first starring feature film, Lederman accelerated his already frenzied narrative style to fever pitch, creating a series of dazzling films that celebrate speed, motion, and the mechanics of random narrative causality. In Strange Alibi, Kennedy plays the role of Joe Geary, an honest cop who goes undercover to smash a police corruption ring that is crippling the city. Staging a “fight” with his superior, Chief Sprague (Jonathan Hale), Geary is ostensibly kicked off the force in disgrace, and soon hooks up with the hoodlum element in the city, as a formerly good cop who has “gotten wise” to himself. In short order, he discovers that Captain Reddick (Cliff Clark) and Lt. Pagle (Stanley Andrews) are behind the crime wave that plagues the city, and 63 minutes later, brings the miscreants to justice.

But Lederman’s most astonishing film from this period is Escape from Crime (1942), which is simultaneously surreal, violent, and hard to classify. In the film’s first scene, Red O’Hara (Richard Travis) is stuck in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but despairs of ever getting out. In the next scene, one of his prison buddies rushes to tell Red that he’s been paroled, effective immediately, for no apparent reason. Thirty seconds later, Red is driving away from the prison with his erstwhile criminal associate, Slim Dugan (Rex Williams), exulting in his newfound freedom. Not thirty seconds after that, Red is demanding that Slim “hand over his rod,” so that Red can murder his wife, Molly O’Hara (Julie Bishop), for being unfaithful. “I hope you know what you’re doing” Slim laconically intones, but of course, Red has no idea what he’s doing; he’s simply a pawn in the film’s bizarre and often contradictory narrative, pursuing one objective in one shot, only to change his mind in the next.

Abruptly convinced of Molly’s fidelity by the presence of a redheaded young boy whom Molly claims is his child, Red abandons his plans to murder her (“Gee, that’s swell!” Slim comments, upon hearing of Red’s change of heart), and decides to pursue a job as a newspaper cameraman. At this point, the film becomes a compressed remake of Lloyd Bacon’s James Cagney vehicle, Picture Snatcher (1933), as Red claws his way to the top of the tabloid news photographer’s trade.

Wherever Red goes, things happen. His first big break occurs when his former associates, including Slim, stick up a bank while Red is passing by, his Speed Graphic camera at the ready. Convincing Cornell (Frank Wilcox), the editor of a sleazy daily, to hire him despite his prison record on the strength of his exclusive photos of the hold up, Red plunges into a maelstrom of pictorial violence. Planes crash at air shows, cars are wrecked in automobile races, fires consume entire tenement blocks, and Red is always on the scene, dutifully recording it all for posterity.

At length, however, the senior editor of the newspaper, Reardon (Charles Wilson) presents Red with an assignment that is too tough for even Red to consider; photographing the execution of Slim in the electric chair, for his part in the robbery that got Red his first break with the paper. Red is understandably reluctant to accept the assignment, which is in direct violation of prison rules, and will result in the revocation of his parole. But, as always, in D. Ross Lederman’s world, money is the ultimate arbiter of all social intercourse, and Red agrees to clandestinely photograph the execution for a fee of $1,000. (The incident itself is based on the true-life story of the execution of Ruth Snyder, who was put to death in the electric chair for murder on January 12, 1928; The New York Daily News sent a photographer to cover the execution, and then ran the photo as a full-page spread on the front page of the morning editions, selling an extra 750,000 copies of the issue because of the grisly photograph.) Red arrives at the prison at the appointed hour, and cheerfully gives Slim a “thumbs up” as he trudges to the chair, then snaps a picture of Slim’s death, unobserved by the other reporters.

As in The Picture Snatcher, Red accidentally drops the camera on his way out of the prison, and is thus unmasked by his rival news hounds as a “rogue photographer.” Though the other reporters give chase, Red eludes them, and successfully collects his bonus. However, as Red had predicted, his parole officer, Lt. Biff Malone (Wade Boteler again; Boteler was a fixture in numerous Lederman films) takes a dim view of Red’s perfidy, and arranges to have him returned to prison as a parole violator.

Yet, as Ledermanian chance would have it, on the way back to prison, Red and Biff stumble upon the hideout of Dude Merrill (Paul Fix), mastermind of the gang that pulled the fateful bank job. Convincing Biff to let him capture Dude and his associates, Red in a matter of seconds infiltrates Dude’s gang, and in a remarkably violent machine gun battle in which half the city’s police participate, brings Dude to justice, assures Biff’s promotion to captaincy, captures another photographic “exclusive” for his newspaper, and by the order of the governor, is issued a full pardon for any and all past criminal offenses.

One is astonished at the audacity of the film’s mise-en-scene, which is simultaneously frenzied and improbable. Aside from the fact that Lederman’s films for Warner Bros. in the 1940s were all constructed from recycled scripts, existing sets, contract players, and preexisting music scores, the stark economy of Lederman’s production methods placed him firmly under the radar of studio interference. If Lederman was directing a film, Warners could be assured that it would come in on time and probably under budget; why bother him, since he clearly knew exactly what he was doing? Thus, Lederman functioned virtually without studio interference at Warners during the early 1940s, even though Jack Warner had declared that the studio would no longer produce “B” films after October 4, 1941.

Undeterred by this announcement, Lederman kept churning out program films until 1944, including the comedy Passage from Hong Kong (1941); the bizarre murder mystery Shadow on the Stairs (1941, co-directed with Lumsden Hare), in which the entire narrative and its protagonists are revealed to be the figments of a playwright’s imagination in the last two minutes of the film; Across the Sierras (1941), a William “Wild Bill” Elliot western Lederman made on loan-out to Columbia; the family drama Father’s Son (1941), based on a story by Penrod author Booth Tarkington, featuring the reliable character actors John Litel and Frieda Inescourt; Busses Roar (1942), a violent action thriller involving Axis spies, and a bus rigged to explode, with passengers still inside, at a vital oil field. But Lederman was just getting started.

These films were followed the equally violent and downbeat Bullet Scars (1942), a typically vicious crime thriller with Howard Da Silva as Frank Dillon, a psychopathic gangster with a Napoleon complex; I Was Framed (1942), of which the title tells all (a reporter is framed by crooked politicians); The Gorilla Man (1942), a World War II espionage thriller with distinctly sadistic overtones, in which a group of Nazis pose as psychiatrists, tricking downed commando Captain Craig Killian (John Loder) into believing that he has become a dangerous psychopath; Find The Blackmailer (1943), an “old dark house” mystery with typically atmospheric camerawork and lighting; Adventure in Iraq (1943), perhaps Lederman’s best known film, no doubt due to its title, and one of the few available on DVD, in which a group of British nationals crash-land in the Iraqi desert, and are captured by the smooth-talking sheik Ahmid Bel Nor (Paul Cavanagh), who intends to sacrifice them to appease his bloodthirsty, “devil worshipping” constituents; and finally The Last Ride (1944), which was actually Warner’s final program picture, in which wartime rubber shortages lead to the illicit manufacture of substandard automobile tires, and predictably for Lederman, violent death.

Lederman had been like a mad alchemist in his final days at Warners, grafting together sections of screenplays from one film, and then another, incorporating stock footage with near Vertovian abandon, shifting from comedy to tragedy in a matter of seconds, borrowing stock music scores from other Warner Brothers films to underscore his violent visuals, until his final, frenzied films for that studio became almost a genre unto themselves -- the violent, chaotic, unmistakably singular works of a genre artist in overdrive.

When feature work dried up, Lederman made a living directing episodes of various television shows in the mid-to-late 1950s, such as Captain Midnight, Annie Oakley, and the ultra violent Shotgun Slade, starring Scott Brady as a hired gun in the Old West. The opening credits of the show, in which Brady, as Slade, repeatedly blasts the viewer with a sawed-off shotgun while walking rapidly towards the camera, gives one an idea of the tenor of the series. On Friday, January 28, 1960, Lederman began work on the final project of his long career, “Daughter of the Sioux,” an episode of the hour-long western series Overland Trail, starring William Bendix and Doug McClure. The shooting schedule demonstrates just how fast he had to work; on the second day of the shoot (Monday, January 24th), he was expected to complete nearly 70 set-ups in one day at Iverson’s Ranch, for a total of 13 2/8ths pages of script, or about 13 minutes of actual screen time.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Lederman brought the episode in on time, and under budget, but his long stint in the director’s chair was now over. In the last years of his life, Lederman was forced to rely on the “kindness of strangers,” at first living with Bryan Foy, the prolific producer of program films in the 1930s and 40s, and ultimately moving in to the Motion Picture County Home, where he died on August 24, 1972, at 77 years of age.

Lederman’s kinetic, violent work as a director in the 1940s mirrored his own hardscrabble life, and the furious pacing of his signature films is a reflection of his hard life as a working director in mid 20th century America. Alone among his peers, Lederman’s films have a sheen and polish that enhance, and indeed highlight, the brutality of his material. This, perhaps, is the key to an understanding of why D. Ross Lederman’s best films remain compelling in the first decade of the 21st century. Lederman was never really an entertainer. He used the depths of the studio system -- complete with recycled scripts, actors, music, sets, and generic conventions -- to tell us about the true facts of life. Bullets Scars, Strange Alibi, The Last Ride, Escape From Crime and Adventure in Iraq move swiftly and remorselessly towards their violent conclusions, with not a moment’s respite. Lederman’s own life mirrored this headlong trajectory, and he knew it.


Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press and Edinburgh University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film, written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (Rutgers University Press and I.B. Tauris, 2008). As a filmmaker, his complete works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, following a career retrospective at MoMA in 2003.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

No Man of Her Own (1950)

The Call comes to Patrice Harkness (Barbara Stanwyck) on an idyllic summer night in a lush home, nestled in the cozy, safe streets of Caulfield, Illinois. The Call is a central moment of film noir. It is often an agent of doom. Noir people know The Call is coming. It can happen anytime and any place.

Patrice sits nervously, patiently, in her well-appointed living room. She is trying to live a normal life with her easy-going husband and her infant son. It’s late. She’s almost convinced herself she’s safe. The Call couldn’t come tonight.

But it does. The phone rings, and in its aftermath, Patrice and Bill wait for the cops to arrive. Patrice takes her child upstairs, to put him to bed. In the few minutes she has left, after The Call, Patrice relives the series of traumas, coincidences and cover-ups that have put her where she is, and in the fix she’s in.

No Man of Her Own is Barbara Stanwyck’s show all the way. The 1950 film is a throwback to Stanwyck’s hard-bitten Depression-era melodramas. At first glance, it seems similar to such films as Baby Face (1933), Ladies They Talk About (1933) or Night Nurse (1931).

Those films were the product of pre-Hays Code Hollywood. They laid their cards on the table matter-of-factly. Their candor can still shock 21st century viewers.

1950 Hollywood was a far different place. Things once said out loud could now only be whispered. Some studio film-makers thrived in this stylistic shell game. Among them was Mitchell Leisen, A-list director for Paramount from the 1930s to the ‘50s.

Leisen had a bad rep for many years, mostly due to negative things said about him by Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. Time has refuted their criticism. Leisen did right by both future auteurs in his direction of their screenplays Remember the Night (1940, and also with Stanwyck), Midnight (1939) and Hold Back the Dawn (’41).

Leisen was a major stylist who worked within the constraints of the Hollywood system. His films are remarkably individual—florid, atmospheric and eccentric. No Man of Her Own was Leisen’s only full-bore film noir. Part crime story, part suspense story, part woman’s picture, the film sustains a remarkable tension and ambiance that befits its source material.

What I said about Leisen also goes for Cornell Woolrich, the author of I Married a Dead Man, the 1948 novel upon which No Man was based. Both creators tended to let themselves go in their material, unconcerned (or unaware) when they got out of the safety zone. This meeting of passionate minds is one of noir’s most ideal matches.

No Man’s screenplay, written by Sally Benson and Catherine Turney, stresses the woman’s angle, with a fervor that anticipates Douglas Sirk’s non-noir melodramas of the later 1950s.

This film is a compelling blend of visual and audial atmosphere, heavy emotional themes and a wide swath of Hollywood acting styles. Its coincidences and baroque twists pile atop each other, much like the tangled train cars that set Patrice’s story into morbid motion.

I don’t like plot synopses, either, so I’ll get this out of the way quickly. Patrice’s flashback quickly reveals that she isn’t Patrice. She is Helen Ferguson—desperate, broke and pregnant. She has been abandoned by her impregnator, the utterly unlikable Steve Morley (played to oily perfection by Lyle Bettger).

Helen comes on her hands and knees to Steve, who refuses to see her. He just shoves a cross-country train ticket—and five bucks—under the door of his apartment. Helen doesn’t take his money, even though she’s down to her last 17 cents. She does take the ticket, and the train.

En route, she meets the real Patrice Harkness, and her husband Hugh. Like Helen, Patrice is… well, you know… um… egnant-pray. The likable, vivacious young couple takes sheepish Helen under their wing. For the first time in ages, it seems Helen’s bad luck streak is over.

Then, the train they’re on takes a turn for the worse. In the wreck, the young Harkness couple dies. In a Woolrich-enriched twist of fate, Helen is mistaken for Patrice, and is nursed back to health. She is also the mother of a healthy baby boy. By the time she understands her situation, it’s too late. She tries to tell the truth, but isn’t taken seriously.

Instead, she is taken in by the Harkness family (who have not yet seen or met her). They think she’s Patrice, the doctors think she’s Patrice, and Helen goes along with the ruse, for the baby’s sake. As pauper Helen Ferguson, she can’t give her child a proper life. As the pretend-Patrice, she’s entitled to all the trappings of the landed gentry.

Helen isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and she repeatedly makes mistakes that have the potential to betray her deception. One only Harkness sees through her charade—Bill (John Lund and his microscopic moustache). Bill is sympathetic. He’s also smitten with this faux-Patrice.

They fall in love, and Helen/Patrice’s future suddenly seems brighter. And then a certain oily impregnator steps into the picture, demanding money…

Then the Noir Downward Spiral © kicks in. Event compounds event, and dark paints over light. Patrice, Bill and the Harkness family matriarch (Jane Cowl) are tangled in a web of murder and double-crossing.

Sincerity and attention to detail distinguish No Man of Her Own. Perhaps to counter-balance the plot’s ludicrous twists, a solid, tactile world, rich in visual detail, strengthens the film.

Significant moments are shown purely in visual form. Helen’s open palm, with its miserable 17 cents, betrays her utter poverty in a way words could not. First-person POV scenes at a hospital convey the utter disorientation and terror Helen experiences after the train wreck. Late in the film, Helen’s desperate actions are expertly orchestrated. She opens a drawer, finds a gun and bullets, opens the phone directory to the taxi section, and dials the phone. That tells us all we need to know.

Benson and Turney’s screenplay, which also gets across narrative information in fresh ways, fully embraces the intensity of Woolrich’s novel. They achieve unusual, almost autistic moments when they reveal Helen’s inner monologue, which typically consists of staccato repeated phrases with a pounding rhythm.

Their efforts are abetted by another film femme—editor Alma Macrorie. Although many of Macrorie’s cues are telegraphed by the screenplay, her timing is immaculate. The editing’s nervous, sharp rhythm is central to No Man’s success.

Benson and Turney create a haunting character in Patrice/Helen. Their inherent goal is to ennoble her—and most of the other female figures in the film.

Strong women, who are also good women, rule No Man of Her Own. They do the right thing, are welcoming, accepting, sympathetic and don’t pry. Only in this benevolent world could a fragile figure like Helen Ferguson survive—and find happiness.

From Cowl’s Mother Harkness to Josie, the attitude-enriched maid (played to perfection by Esther Dale), the film’s women are highly motivated, stable, confident individuals. Patrice/Helen remains shakily virtuous, even when her actions and motivations might seem suspect.

The film’s one bad girl, Morley’s GF Irma (Carole Mathews), is a throwaway character. She appears in two scenes and is awkwardly used as the deus ex machina of the film’s surprise-packed final minutes.

Leisen, a gay man who made the least straight Hollywood picture of the 1940s, No Time for Love (1943), knew what it felt like to be an outsider. His personal experience informs his highly sympathetic treatment of Stanwyck’s troubled character. He makes it clear that she is no criminal. She does what she does for the selfless benefit of her infant son. And the karma wheel does spin to her advantage.

Although its ending is not 100% happy—there are tinges of doubt and trouble implied—No Man of Her Own ultimately rewards Helen for her suffering and her desire to find her place in the world. The film’s earlier back-story allows Stanwyck to wallow in the misery she so convincingly conveyed.

Later, a masterful sense of atmosphere and place suffuses the movie. Scenes of blackmail, murder and the disposal of a corpse play against a remarkably real winter-scape of ice, snow and slush. If they didn’t go on location in these scenes, this is Hollywood illusion at its most impressive.

The discovery of Morley’s corpse is a scene full of telling detail. Shadowy, silent streets give way to a cruddy office. A radio blares oppressive swing music, which resonates in the shabby hallways, as Stanwyck steels herself for a confrontation. What she finds inside are fragments of a desperate life. This is one of the great scenes in all of film noir.

No Man of Her Own also teems with caricatures, stock figures and gobs of sentimentality. Some of the film’s motifs recall Leisen’s Remember the Night of a decade earlier. (Besides Stanwyck, snow and goggled-eye black characters, both films share a scene at a rural justice of the peace.)

An admixture of noir elements, soap-opera, sentimentality and style, No Man of Her Own is a remarkable achievement from one of the peak years of film noir. It is genuinely odd, at times ludicrous, but it bears its maker’s compelling, distinct personality.

Though not available on DVD, No Man of Her Own can be seen in streaming form on Netflix, in an excellent print.


Written by Frank M. Young

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Edge of Doom (1950)

Mr. Craig, my mother’s dying.

I got my own troubles Martin.

Grim. Bleak. Miserable. These are all words that aptly describe the 1950 social noir Edge of Doom. It’s a strange film, saturated with religion, crime, and urban nightmare, with an unrelenting dreariness that makes the experience as hopeless as any to be found in the pantheon of film noir. Whether or not its religious themes shine any redemptive light into its dark corners is, frankly, secondary in importance to the more potent presence the city holds over this film.

The image of postwar Los Angeles in the collective memory is one of the enduring promise of westward expansion: wide-open spaces, sun dappled lawns, orange groves, and home ownership — the American Dream. Opportunities abound along the broad avenues, all of which lead down to a picturesque blue sea. Just as the city described in the opening moments of the film adaptation of L.A. Confidential was proven false, such a fantasy is also absent from Edge of Doom. And by not actually naming the city in which it is set (though it is clearly L.A.), Edge of Doom suggests that it isn’t any single metropolis, but all cities that are to blame for the problems besetting those obliged to inhabit them. Yet this city appears to have more in common with New York, or the Philadelphia of the source novel — than it does Los Angeles. Edge of Doom gives us not a diffuse space, but a densely populated warren of enclosed streets where little sun reaches and the sea is just a far-off dream. It confines its inhabitants and limits their movement. It’s neighborhoods function less like communities than they do cell blocks. And unlike the downtowns of so many other film noirs, this one is indifferent: it harms the innocent to a much larger degree than it does the guilty, with its rampant poverty compounded by overpopulation and lack of upward mobility. In the end, it subversively asks us to consider whether or not religion is the solution, or if it is truly the opiate of the masses.

Dana Andrews, who brooded on screen as well as anyone, is oddly cast here as Father Roth, a jovial priest who seems wise beyond his years. Andrews is here for the wattage of his star power, and gets top billing, but his part should have gone to an older man. Despite Andrews’ presence, Farley Granger is Edge of Doom’s real star. He appears as Martin Lynn, a frustrated young man tethered to the slums by a dead-end job and a dying mother. He draws a pathetic thirty bucks a week driving a truck for the local florist — a man who recognizes Martin’s hard work but is either unable or disinclined to give him a raise. The boy’s salary matters little: the film endeavors to show us that there are essentially no means by which a young man of Martin’s status and circumstances can lift himself out of the urban blight, even if he didn’t have the responsibilities of a girlfriend and a dying mother. Martin wants to relocate to the drier climate in Arizona in order to stave off his mother’s tuberculosis, but his earnings are prohibitive, and there’s no father to help out: Martin’s pop tried to escape his own poverty by sticking up the corner store, and when the police came calling he opted for suicide over prison.

You probably hate plot summaries as much as I do, but the events of the film can’t be discussed without explaining its first thirty minutes — bear with me and I won’t spoil the final hour. The self-murder of the father is the pivotal event in Edge of Doom — even though it predates the action of the film. It’s the father’s demise that plunges Martin and his mother irrevocably into the hell of Skid Row tenement life; while more importantly, it’s the source of Martin’s grudge against the church for refusing the suicide a Christian burial — the same church to which his mother nevertheless devoted her life. As the frail old woman lies dying, she asks her son repeatedly to summon the priest — Martin denies her this, instead escaping to the corridor to beg his neighbors for help. When the haggard woman next door, Mrs. Lally, tells him that nothing else can be done short of the priest, Martin wrenches the phone away from her and storms back to his apartment. She calls anyway, but Father Roth is out attending to another matter. The elderly Father Kirkman (Harold Vermilyea) offers to come, but the neighbor rightly fears Martin’s wrath — Kirkman is the same priest who refused to bury Martin’s dad. Mrs. Lally decides to wait for Father Roth, but it’s too late anyway — she goes to Martin’s room and discovers that his mother died while she and the boy argued over the phone call.

In a state of shock, Martin asks Mrs. Lally to sit with his mother while he makes funeral arrangements. But as he trudges down the stairwell he passes the room of Mr. Craig (Paul Stewart) — a lowlife gambler who invites the young man in for coffee, though it’s unclear whether he’s actually concerned for the boy’s loss or just sees him as an easy mark — it doesn’t take Craig more than a minute or two to find out that the dead woman had no life insurance. Craig’s intentions aside, the exchange has a profound affect on the shocked and impressionable Martin, and paves the way for the film’s primary drama to unfold.

No matter how low their station in life, older men are always inclined to offer younger men advice, and Mr. Craig takes this as an opportunity to do so. It’s here, in Edge of Doom’s best scene, that Stewart earns his paycheck for this performance. His squinty eyes appearing skull-like and hollow under the harsh light of a bare bulb as he stalks around the fair-skinned young man and delivers one of the most delicious speeches in all of film noir. The scene is quiet and powerful, with no music to speak of, just the embittered voice of a man made tough and desperate by too many years on the hard-knock streets:
“Nobody lends you money, a kid like you: driving a truck, delivering flowers, making thirty bucks a week. You’re a bad risk. Money, money! That’s all that counts in this rat race. If you got it they’ll bury you like a queen. If you ain’t they’ll pack her in a box and shove her in a hole in the ground. I feel for you Martin, and for what your mother went through in this world. She oughtta go out in style, like a somebody; the world owes it to her. It’s a rich world, but it hates to give — you gotta take! Somewhere out there someone owes you something. All you gotta do is have the nerve to collect.”
Finished with his monologue, Mr. Craig steps into the kitchen to get Martin his coffee. He returns to find Martin has quietly left. Craig turns from the door, the hint of a smile curling at the edge of his mouth, lights a cigarette and goes to the window, where he looks out over the darkened rooftops to the pulsing sign of the Galaxy Theater, beckoning to him from just a few blocks away.

In the meantime Martin walks to the rectory and rings the bell, where he glimpses Father Kirkman pacing his study. Like all such young men Martin is filled with rage, the sort of unfocused ire that seeks blindly for a target, deserving or not. Martin finds his in the gruff old priest, after testing the front door and finding it unlocked. He pushes in and confronts the old man, who chastises him for denying his mother the last rites. Fueled by Mr. Craig’s words, Martin flies into a rage, demanding the church furnish his mother with the lavish funeral he believes to be her due. The contrived exchange between the two goes poorly, and escalates to the point that Kirkman tells the boy leave. When the priest turns away, Martin grabs a heavy brass crucifix from the desk and bludgeons the man, shouting in a way that would bring unintentional laughs were the film not so dark, “I want a big funeral!” Aghast at his actions, Martin wipes down the crucifix and flees. He attempts to get lost in streets, but the city, in spite of all its anonymity, denies him this. The cops grab the fidgety, guilty-looking young man after he ducks into a diner — it turns out somebody just robbed the Galaxy Theater…

The final hour of the film unfolds along two lines: it deals with Martin’s continued, eventually tedious, attempts to waylay everyone meets into giving his mother a funeral; and the boy’s weakening attempts to elude justice. Wildly successful director Mark Robson, who started his career with Val Lewton horror pics and ended up doing Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls (my favorite is the great boxing picture with Kirk Douglas, Champion), keeps Edge of Doom tense and entertaining throughout. In the most oft-told story about the film, it fared so poorly upon its initial release that it was pulled from theaters so Sam Goldwyn could have additional scenes added to the beginning and end of the picture, as well as some Dana Andrews narration inserted in between. Despite the clamor over the scenes, their message of redemption is fairly banal and does little to compromise the thematic darkness of the film. And haven't we, as noir fans, trained ourselves to ignore the endings of many otherwise wonderful films? Some have complained that in the story’s final moments Father Roth shares that Martin has returned to the church, though I would argue that this outcome is realistic. Many people in Martin’s circumstances show contrition — the real question is whether or not the feelings are authentic. In this case we’ll never know.

When your mother dies, you want desperately for everyone to know how extraordinary she was — such is motherhood — and the desire stays with you, unabated, forever. Much of the criticism of Edge of Doom is hung up on Martin’s single-minded impulse to get his mother a “fancy” funeral, and how his obsession fails to ring true. It’s easy for some to dismiss the movie on those grounds, but I’m not so sure: deep down, Martin probably doesn’t care much whether or not his mother gets an extravagant sendoff. I’m sure he’d be satisfied with something appropriately modest. What Martin really wants is recognition for her life — though his failure is in not understanding human nature: the world in 1950 was changing, people were struggling to recover from the tumult of war, confused over a changing social and domestic order, frightened of annihilation, and cynical about the failed promises of life after victory. Urban life was fast becoming too indifferent for jaded people to get worked up over the loss of what Father Kirkman calls “a simple woman.” People reserve such feelings for their own mothers, not Martin’s. Life in the big city goes on, and the insensitivity of everyday people doesn’t give Martin the right to act out. He, like everyone else, must adjust to things as they are. Martin simply refuses to do so.

Film noir tropes have been applied to an incredibly diverse range of narratives, though few have approached the uncompromising visual and thematic darkness of Edge of Doom, a movie that offers no winners, no bright side, and most importantly: no answers. It confronts us with a troubling vision of postwar urban life and plies a tepid message of redemption amidst squalor that feels unmistakably phony. Consequently it’s distasteful — it lacks that buffering veneer of artifice that allows us to safely give ourselves away to a film. We are drawn to the rain-soaked streets and back alleys of film noir in part because they shimmer — awash in an intoxicating play of light and shadow. Yet, those reflections are of a bygone world that, if we are being honest, could only exist on celluloid. We like film noir because it’s at once stylish and stylized, sexy and seductively violent: an armored car stick-up; a clever fugitive on the run; Laura over the fireplace; Joan Bennett in a raincoat, under a lonely streetlight, the shadows around her like velvet. Edge of Doom, on the other hand, is awfully damn real.

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