Monday, June 27, 2011

Born to Kill (1947)

Robert Wise's Born to Kill has never been one of my favorite noirs. It regularly tops "best of" lists, and many film noir enthusiasts whom I respect love it, so I was hoping a fresh viewing would reveal something new to me.

Alas, for me it was still the same old flick. It's an enjoyable picture, but it's wildly melodramatic, there are subplots that never really go anywhere, and its over-the-top characters are mostly two-dimensional. The key to a great noir, like Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), is the sense that it could happen to you, or to someone you know. No matter how outlandish the schemes in a film are, if they're carried out by believable characters then I'm usually able to go along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Born to Kill tells the tale of a pair of sociopathic social climbers, the recently divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the recently paroled Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). Their paths cross in Reno, the biggest little city in the world. Helen is there for a quickie divorce and Sam is there with his reedy little sidekick, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.). Helen is staying at a boarding house run by the slovenly Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), who, when we first see her, is getting lit up on beer in the middle of the afternoon with the adenoidal tart Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

After Laury goes on a date with dapper Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) just to make the big lug she's dating jealous, she invites Danny inside for a nightcap. When Danny goes to the kitchen, he finds Laury's big lug waiting for him. It's Sam Wild, of course, and his brutal killing of both Danny and Laury is the film's high point. (Or the lurid low point, if you're a prissy scold.) The sound of crickets in the background, the neatly manicured suburban lawns surrounding Mrs. Kraft's boarding house, the dog barking in the background, and the uptempo swing music playing on the radio in the kitchen all lend a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the murder.

The rest of the film, however, just doesn't hang together for me. Sam's little buddy Mart tells him, "You can't just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain't feasible." I feel the same way about the plot of Born to Kill. It just ain't feasible.

After the murder, Sam blows town. He and Helen meet again on the train to San Francisco. When they disembark, Sam suggests splitting a cab, but Helen tells him she's going in a different direction. He responds, "That's where you're wrong. We're going in the same direction, you and I."

Sam insinuates himself into Helen's life. They are clearly drawn to each other, but she tells him that nothing in the world will stop her from marrying her fiancé, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). So Sam moves in on her sister, wealthy heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), or, to be more precise, her foster sister, as Helen bitterly reveals to Sam. Not only is Georgia a beautiful blonde, but — as Sam tells Mart — "Marrying into this crowd will make it so's I can spit in anyone's eye."

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs. Kraft retains the services of a sleazy, corpulent private investigator named Matthew Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). Mrs. Kraft is played by Esther Howard, and her bizarre, bug-eyed performance in this film is nearly identical to the "Filthy Flora" character she played in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

Helen and Sam pursue their doomed, twisted love affair.
"Fred is peace and security," Helen moans.
"You, you're strength, excitement, and depravity. You've a kind of corruption inside of you, Sam."
Arnett sniffs around. Sam and Georgia quarrel after she refuses to let him run her family's business. Mart Waterman shows up in San Francisco and starts living with the unhappy foursome. (Is he Sam's partner or his secret lover? The film is never completely clear.) Slowly but surely, the plot threads of the film intertwine, culminating in an orgy of murder and betrayal.

This is the second or third time I've seen Born to Kill. While I've griped about the ridiculously melodramatic plot, maybe I just want it to be something it's not. I could certainly see myself watching it again in the future and loving its over-the-top characters, unrealistic scenarios, grotesque supporting players, and generally high level of camp.

I think my biggest problem with Born to Kill is the relationship between Sam and Helen. Claire Trevor is a wonderful performer, but I was never able to accept that she'd love Sam enough to give up everything for him. Helen's histrionics in her scenes in tastefully appointed drawing rooms with Fred, Georgia, and Sam seem more scripted than natural, and Claire Trevor's performance as Helen seems too intelligent and composed for the debased character she's playing.

But maybe that's the point. Lawrence Tierney is a powerful presence, but he isn't a particularly gifted actor, especially when either subtlety or range is called for. Not only does Sam Wild commit murder whenever the notion strikes him, he can bend others to his will, getting his friend Mart to kill for him and getting Helen to provide him with an alibi for murder at the drop of a hat. He's a brutal alpha male, and loving him may go against all reason and sense, but that never stopped anybody before.

Born to Kill is directed by Robert Wise with vigor. The cinematography, by Robert de Grasse, is great, especially in the nighttime exteriors. Paul Sawtell's music is exciting. I found the plot ridiculous, but that shouldn't stop any noir fans who haven't seen Born to Kill from seeking it out.

Editor's note: possible spoilers in video

Written by Adam Lounsbery

Monday, June 20, 2011

When Strangers Marry (1944)

When Strangers Marry, later re-released as Betrayed is a little concoction under the direction of William Castle and produced by King Brother Productions in 1944. William Castle is well known to kids of my generation as the greatest director to grace the studios of Hollywood. To some others he may be known as the King, or at the very least, the Crown Prince of Schlock for directing and self-promoting a string of films that were as much pure hokum as anything put on the screen up to that time.

Before finding his true calling and delighting millions of Baby Boomers in the postwar prosperity years of the 50’s and into the early 60’s, Castle directed a number of noir and noir-like films. During a run in the mid to late 40’s he was behind the camera on several of the Whistler and Crime Doctor series films. Later in the decade and into the mid-fifties he directed such noirs as Johnny Stool Pigeon, Undertow, The Fatman, Hollywood Story, New Orleans Uncensored and The Houston Story. For whatever reason, he seems to have developed a fondness for noirs with city names in their titles. As the fifties were rolling down he, like hundreds of others from the studios found themselves grinding out weekly TV programs.

Fortunately for the generation raised on the red scare and atomic radiation, Castle came along in the late 50’s and reminded us there were other things to terrify us besides saucers from space, bugs, lizards, spiders, and men and women of gigantic proportions. He gave us ghosts, demented killers and this really creepy but suave guy named Vincent Price. Castle was a kid’s answer to Hitchcock with his face always popping up in the previews of his coming films and he always seemed to be enjoying himself as much as we were.

If the thought of seeing ghosts and killers running amok wasn’t enough to get you into the theater, Castle had a slew of ingenious gimmicks. These included the issuance of a $1000.00 life insurance policy to any customer that died while viewing Macabre, and the “Cowards Corner” for those would walked out of the film Homicidal. My personal favorites were his string of “O” movie experience enhancements. These included “Emergo,” “Percepto” and “Illusion-o.” Lastly, what discussion of Castle would be complete without mention of the electronic buzzers placed under selected theater seats during the screening of The Tingler to generate a real buzz to the viewer?

The production company of When Strangers Marry run by the three King Brothers was not unlike Castle. Meaning that while, the King Brothers put out some good to very good noir; Dillinger, The Gangster, Gun Crazy and Southside 1-1000, we also have them to thank for such masterpieces as Klondike Fury, The Dude Goes West, and the “Godzilla” rip-off Gorgo. That said the Kings were not shy about bringing in talent to make the films they produced even going so far as to employ those among the Hollywood Ten; director Edward Dmytryk and writer Dalton Trumbo. It was in fact a King Production, The Brave One for which Trumbo, writing using the front Robert Rich, won the Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story in 1956.

So while there’s no buzzer to tingle one’s posterior or a hint of anything resembling Emergo or a Cowards Corner, When Strangers Marry does have a certain amount of entertainment in the shear bringing together of a bevy youthful talent on the cusp of stardom mixed with a goodly amount of old hand character actors.

The story itself is as transparent as good gin, but that’s beside the point. Suffice to say there’s a murder, a robbery, and the cops. So while Hamlet may have said “The play’s the thing,” in this case it’s the watching of new talent gracing the screen that’s worth the price of admission.

The heavyweight in the cast is Dean Jagger with 10 years of screen work under his belt but still five years away from taking home the Oscar for best supporting actor in the WWII drama, Twelve O’clock High.

The real fun stars with female lead, Kim Hunter in only her third film role and several years away from her most famous role (Planet of the Apes aside) as Stella in her Oscar winning role in Streetcar Named Desire.

Lastly, “Old Rumple Eyes” himself, Robert Mitchum makes his initial entrance into the dark world of noir. Prior to his third billing in When Strangers Marry, Mitchum had spent the year of 1943 in a string of war dramas and westerns playing soldiers, sailors and cowpokes. To coin a phrase, with his role in When Strangers Marry he’d found his niche. Oh sure, following this film he found himself in more westerns (Nevada and West of the Pecos) and war dramas (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Story of G.I. Joe) but within two years he ran off a string of noirs; Undercurrent, The Locket, Crossfire, and Out of the Past. To coin another phrase, from that point on “The die was cast,” and we as viewers were the lucky recipients.

As noted, these young up and comers were given a great deal of support by the likes of Neil Hamilton, Lou Lubin, Dewey Robinson (with the best pair of eyebrows this side of Wally Moon), George Lloyd, Minerva Urecal, and a 21 year old beauty by the name of Rhonda Fleming. Making only her third screen appearance it would only be three years before she and Mitchum would square off in Out of the Past. She would also go on to appear in a number of noirs, the last being 1956’s While the City Sleeps. Ironically, she’d play opposite Vincent Price in the film just three years before he became Castle’s star in House On a Haunted Hill.

It also needs to be noted the subject about which all the hub bud in When Strangers Marry revolves around is the murder and robbery of one of the period’s favorite real heavy weights, Dick Elliott. He like the rest of the supporting players has a long list of noir credits. One such actor is Byron Foulger who shares the dubious distinction with another actor of neither speaking nor acting but appearing in the film. To pull off this trick the actors photographs are merely shown. Oh, by the way, the other actor is some bit player by the name of William Castle. It’s just one more example of the showmanship of Castle.

Written by Raven

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Manhandled (1949)

“Play it smart like I said.”

“You’re not talking to a cluck Charlie. You’re talking to a guy who knows all the angles.”

The titles roll against a rain-smeared window, the night pushing hard against the glass. Inside, a man sits in a well-appointed chair — we see him only from the knees down, in posh pajamas and slippers. One hand hangs limp, trapping a cigarette burnt down to his knuckles. This is no stiff — they don’t smoke — the man is waiting up. The apartment door opens and couple enters. Again, we see only their legs. They exchange a hushed goodnight, a lover’s goodnight, and then she slinks upstairs while the man in the chair stirs, then shreds the cigarette in his shaking hands. She settles at her vanity, admires herself in the mirror — finally we see a face. She's a doll: all done up and covered in jewels — but no wedding ring. The sleeper appears in the mirror behind her — his robe is decorated with a flowery print: silly, weak, feminine. He’s a cuckold, a patsy — though surely an unwilling one. He calls her a roundheels and threatens to kill her. She scoffs. He grabs a heavy perfume bottle and goes to work, his free arm wrenching her up from the chair. Her lifeless body slumps to the floor, and the camera pans up to his sweaty overwrought face. The scene melts away, only to reappear in a luxurious, wood appointed office. We see our killer, one hand clasped to his forehead, a drink in the other, explaining to his shrink that it was all just a bad dream…

That’s how you open a noir picture. Dark, tense, stylish — and with a murder. The title, Manhandled, shouts hard-boiled, and the poster is a gem: Dan Duryea dangles a flailing Dorothy Lamour from a rooftop, threatening to plunge her into the shadowy alley below, as the flatfoots look up from fire escape. Audiences should have been greedy with expectation when they took their seats in May of 1949, especially after such a tantalizing opening. The problem with Manhandled is that after those great first moments it goes steadily downhill, its grip slackening away to almost nothing. Its lasting impression is of a rote exercise in factory B moviemaking, offering audiences little more than an overly complicated and formulaic story of red herrings and diamond-encrusted MacGuffins — a parlor mystery two-decades old dusted off and resuscitated for the world of film noir. It’s too bad; this is a picture that had a ton of promise and a pair of bang-up actors.

The cast here is conspicuous, but let’s not put the cart before the horse. The story here is far too convoluted to waste much time on, but some rudimentary description is apropos. The bluebeard wannabe is Alton Bennet (Alan Napier), an over the hill writer used to the high life, though he no longer rates even a modest advance from his publisher. His wife Ruth (Irene Hervey) is of the trophy variety, younger than her husband by two decades, and clearly won when his books were stacked in the front window rather than the bargain bin. She owns her jewelry free and clear, and the insurance policy on the stuff now shines a great deal more brightly than Bennet’s literary star. He’s been imagining her murder in his dreams and decides to tell his shrink Dr. Redman (Harold Vermilyea). In the dark about the Dictaphone and doctor-patient privilege, Redman employs transcriptionist Merl Kramer (Dorothy Lamour) to take down every word his patients say. Merl is newly arrived from the west coast. We never learn why, but she’s alone in New York after leaving her baby girl back home with granny. She’s friendly with Karl Benson (Dan Duryea), a low-life private detective who keeps a shabby office on the floor below her. He gets paid sticking a camera through bedroom windows — and over dinner Merl spills the beans to him about Bennet’s dream.

Across town, Dr. Redman invites Ruth Bennet to his office and warns her about her husband's dreams. Her oily boyfriend Guy (Philip Reed) is on his leash right behind her, and he too gets wise, bringing the number of legitimate suspects in her eventual killing to five! Ruth is finally murdered that evening, and while Benson somehow gets his hands on the jewelry, he appears genuinely surprised when his fence tells him there’s a murder rap hanging over the loot. Did Bennet confide in Dr. Redman simply to create an alibi for himself? Or did one of the many possible suspects who heard about the dream decide to take advantage in order to make a big score?

The following morning dawns at the murder scene, cops swarming around like bees in a hive. Police lieutenant Dawson (Art Smith) and insurance man Joe Cooper (Sterling Hayden) jockey for control of the situation. The rest of Manhandled is concerned with plot — the focus shifting from suspect to suspect, as Dawson and Cooper bicker over the best way to get to the bottom of things. There are twists, turns, double-crosses, and a little romance (all more tedious than it sounds) as we gradually discover the truth. It all leads up to the climactic moment depicted on the poster — the one with Merl on the brink of doom and clawing at Benson for dear life.

Let’s get back to the cast. Dorothy Lamour’s name is not usually associated with noir — other than a part in 1940’s Johnny Apollo this was it for her. At 35 she was at the tail end of her film career. Following Manhandled audiences wouldn’t see her again for three years, when she was featured in a pair of 1952 films: the notorious Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth and The Road to Bali, one last tired fling with Bob and Bing. Her only other good part came a decade later in 1963’s Donovan’s Reef. Everyone except Duryea is mediocre in Manhandled — though Lamour is the only performer miscast. Outside of her comfort zone and unable to rely on her lovely figure, her singing voice, or her talent for comedy she gets lost, leaving audiences wondering if her casting was solely for marquee value. In that last dramatic scene on the roof she gets the chance to really act — and falls short. Her mouth moves and she spits out the words, but the rest of her face remains dead, especially her eyes. She just wasn’t cut out for material like this.

If only there were more to say about Sterling Hayden, but in just his fifth film he’s ill-used and frankly, extraneous. He doesn’t surface until more than thirty minutes in, and then he barely registers. One of the lasting lessons of film noir is that a lone, relentless police officer is much more captivating than a gaggle of bickering cops, but the latter is what Manhandled offers. This would be a markedly better film if either Art Smith or Hayden had been written out of the script — preferably Smith, apparently brought in to inject some comedy into the film, each instance of which is just miserable. Manhandled’s few comedic moments, mostly involving a prowl car with no brakes, represent the most oft-cited reason for its failure to score as a significant noir. At any rate, Hayden was on the cusp: his next job would be The Asphalt Jungle, which would cement his big-time screen persona. He’s unsure of himself in Manhandled, giving us a character that is unkempt and upbeat, similar to the newspapermen played by guys like Ronald Reagan earlier in the decade. If a rewrite had strengthened his part while eliminating Smith’s, this thing may have really taken off. Anyone who doubts the ability of the director to draw out a performer should watch Hayden in a double-bill of Manhandled and The Asphalt Jungle. The growth from one picture to the next is stunning.


Dan Duryea’s jovial, immoral scumbag is Manhandled’s saving grace. His presence goes a long way to keeping viewers invested when the going gets tough. One moment in particular is absolutely phenomenal, and is as powerfully noirish — albeit subtly — as you’ll find anywhere: Karl Benson has just learned of Bennet’s dream, and he stretches out in his office, lost in thought. The sounds of the city creep in through an open window: a woman’s laughter, a car horn. Reclined with one arm behind his pillow, Benson’s head lolls toward the window as he mutters an annoyed “Shaddup,” and “Quiet” to no one in particular. Restlessly chewing a mouthful of gum, his eyes never leave the cheap table at the foot of his Murphy bed, where a pet hamster churns determinedly in the exercise wheel of its cage — around and around, running either away from fate or towards destiny — but really going nowhere at all. It’s a superlative moment in an otherwise ordinary picture, the kind of bit that catches you off guard and reminds you why even low-rent B movies can sometimes take your breath away — thanks to Duryea.

Manhandled could have really been something — maybe even important — had it been executed properly, but for whatever reason things just didn’t work out that way. So many different planets have to align for a picture to come out well it’s impressive that it ever happens at all, regardless of the talent involved. None of Lewis Foster’s 60+ films as a director are significant, though this is the same man who nabbed a screenplay Oscar for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He wrote Manhandled as well, so it begs the question of where in the monumental process of movie-making this came to fall so short of its potential. At best, Manhandled is an uneven yet mildly entertaining film, boasting a decent cast and a few wonderfully evocative moments (including a fantastic man-versus-car chase scene that haven’t the time to get into — the poster hints at it) in a production otherwise lacking a well-constructed noir milieu. In spite of being a “night” movie, it is neither dark nor oppressive, with no pervasive sense of the determinism that characterizes good film noir. Its story is unnecessarily complicated, causing it to feel long at only 97 minutes. It has a good score that often feels clumsy, and photography that vacillates between careful and careless. By the time the thing ends and the killer is unmasked, we struggle not to point a guilty finger at the filmmakers.

Directed by Lewis R. Foster
Produced by William H. Pine and William C. Thomas
Written by Lewis R. Foster and Whitman Chambers, based on the novel The Man Who Stole A Dream by L.S. Goldsmith.
Starring Dan Duryea, Dorothy Lamour, and Sterling Hayden.
Cinematography by Ernest Laszlo
Art Direction by Lewis H. Creber
Released by Paramount Pictures
Running Time 97 Minutes


Written by The Professor

Monday, June 06, 2011

Brighton Rock (1947)

Of course it’s true, these atheists don’t know nothing.

Brighton Rock is directed by John Boulting and written by Graham Greene (also 1938 novel) and Terence Rattigan. Produced by Roy Boulting, it stars Richard Attenborough, Carol Marsh, William Hartnell, Hermione Baddeley, Harcourt Williams and Wylie Watson. Music is scored by Hans May and cinematography is by Harry Waxman. Plot finds Attenborough as small time Brighton hoodlum Pinkie Brown, whose attempts to cover up a murder sees events spiral out of control for himself and those closest to him.

1947 was a good year for tough, gritty British drama, in fact it was a key year in the progression of British cinema. It was the year that would see the release of They Made Me A Fugitive, It Always Rains On Sunday, Odd Man Out and Brighton Rock. The latter film, arguably the one that looks the most dated, is the one that shocked the most upon its release. Refreshing, then, to find that in spite of the aged edges of the narrative frame, it still today has a power, a bleakness, that justifies the classic status afforded it. Part seedy seaside noir, part character driven observation on Catholic guilt and torment, Brighton Rock overcomes some slight old time technical flaws to thrive on thematic potency and a tense narrative.

Many authors find their respective work losing impetus during the translation to the big screen, Graham Greene is one who hasn’t had to suffer in that department. Key issue for those adapting his work is to understand the characterizations at work, thankfully the Boulting brothers grasp that Pinkie Brown, surely one of Greene’s greatest creations, has a complexity that needs him front and centre of the brewing maelstrom. The plot then tumbles out around him, as the seedy underbelly of Brighton’s everyday life is exposed. The casting of Attenborough as Pinkie was a masterstroke, fresh faced and wide eyed, Attenborough plays it as coiled spring like, his psychosis troubling and ready to explode at any given moment. His cold hearted relationship with the homely, desperate for love, Rose (Marsh), is utterly disturbing, and it’s that relationship that underpins the story.

Story is set amongst two sides of Brighton, one side is sunny, full of lights, fun-fairs and candy floss, the other features grimy boarding houses, penny café’s and loud back street beer houses. The neat trick the Boulting’s pull is that we know the sunny side is merely a facade to darker forces, much of the badness is played out to the backdrop of seaside frivolity and relaxation. With the iconic pier serving as a dual witness to both the good and bad side of Brighton’s current denizens. Aided by Waxman’s oppressive photography, J Boulting paints in claustrophobic strokes, perfectly enveloping the lead protagonists in a number of restrictive set-ups, where the surroundings deftly match the mood of the individual. It’s going to end bad, it has too, the atmosphere tells us that, but the makers are reveling in tightening the noose one turn at a time, and that’s a sure fire bonus for film noir lovers.

Film is well cast across the board, with Hartnell most notable as Pinkie gang member, Dallow, while Baddeley as Pinkie’s bold and brassy adversary, Ida Arnold, is suitably annoying. Memorable characters, one and all, each one serving to add fuel to Attenborough's malevolent fire. How great it is to also take away a number of memorable scenes from the movie. From the pulse raising chase at the beginning; to the weird and haunting brutality of a ghost train sequence, and to the cruel finale that drips with cynicism, it’s a film that refuses to leave the conscious after the credits have rolled. The ending may have been toned down from that of the novel, but what remains still bites hard, as does, in truth, the whole film.


Written by JohnChard
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