Monday, December 26, 2011

I Walk Alone (1948)

It's the battle of the strutting, preening alpha males!

Fighting out of the blue corner, with the prison pallor, the brand new cheap suit, and the "not good, not bad" room at the Avon, it's Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster), former world heavyweight champion of bootlegging.

Fighting out of the red corner, with the jutting cleft chin, the expensive wardrobe, and the controlling interest in the swank night spot the Regent Club, it's Noll "Dink" Turner (Kirk Douglas), the current world heavyweight champion of upscale criminality.

Let's get ready to ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuumble!

When the film begins, Frankie, a former hard man in the bootlegging rackets who came up in a tough neighborhood and knew how to handle himself, has just gotten out of prison after a 14-year stretch for murder.

He's picked up at Grand Central Station by his old friend Dave (Wendell Corey), who's now the bookkeeper for Dink Turner.

The killing that sent Frankie to prison occurred when he and Dink were running rye whiskey from Canada through upstate New York and they blew through a roadblock set up by hijackers, which led to a chase and a gun battle that left one of the hijackers dead. Afterward, Dink and Frankie split up and agreed to go 50-50 for each other, no matter what happened or which one of them got nabbed.

All of Turner's men call him "Noll" now, but Frankie mostly still refers to him as "Dink." When Dave takes Frankie to the Regent Club, Frankie recognizes his old friend Dan (Mike Mazurki), a hulking mug who used to be behind the door of Dink and Frankie's speakeasy the Four Kings, staring through a little peephole. Now he's out front, in a snappy uniform.

A lot has changed in 14 years, but Frankie's still the same guy he was when he went to prison.

Dink tells him, "The world's spun right past you, Frankie. In the '20s you were great. In the '30s you might've made the switch, but today you're finished. As dead as the headlines the day you went into prison." (On New Year's Day, 1930, Burt Lancaster was 16 years old and Kirk Douglas had just turned 13, so I think both men might be a little young for the roles they're playing.)

The Regent Club was built on the force of Dink's personality. It was his personality that controlled Frankie back in their bootlegging days. He expects the force of his personality to still be able to get Frankie to do what he wants, but all of his smooth talk and finesse only carries him so far.

Frankie is bitter than Dink never came to personally visit him in prison, and instead sent Dave, even though the prison was only an hour's drive on the new parkway. All Dink did was send Frankie a carton of cigarettes a month.

Dink tells Frankie he feels terrible about never coming to see him, but that he just couldn't be associated with a convicted murderer when he was building up a high-class joint like the Regent Club. Back in the days of the Four Kings they ruled things by force, but now Dink deals with banks and lawyers, and his nightclub has a Dun & Bradstreet rating.

Dink manages to deflect Frankie for a little while by setting him up with his paramour Kay Lawrence, who's played by the angular, dead-eyed beauty Lizabeth Scott. Dink tells Kay he wants her to find out what Frankie really wants, so he can help him, but she can't help falling for Frankie a little, especially after Dink shows his true colors by planning to marry the wealthy Mrs. Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) while telling Kay that it's just to increase his wealth and prestige, and his upcoming nuptials don't have to change anything between him and Kay.

Frankie is volatile and brutish. He wants what's his. But he's like a bulldozer and Dink is like a silk curtain. No matter how hard he comes at him, Dink just seems to slide harmlessly to one side.

Burt Lancaster senses that they may be in trouble.

Dink tells Frankie that their 50-50 agreement was based on their partnership in the Four Kings, not on anything future. Dave brought Frankie a lot of things to sign in prison that he didn't read very carefully, and one of them was a dissolution of his partnership in the Four Kings. After closing costs, plus 6% interest compounded over 14 years, there's $2,912 Frankie has coming to him. Dink makes it an even $3,000 and wishes him well. Frankie wants half of everything Dink has, but Dink doesn't think Frankie's entitled to anything Dink earned on his own after the Four Kings closed down. "How can you collect on a race when you don't hold a ticket?" Dink asks Frankie rhetorically.

This confrontation occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and it's a great sequence. Burt Lancaster was a former acrobat and circus performer, and he was always wonderful at using his body. When he finally realizes how little he can do to get what he wants from Dink, he stands alone in the middle of Dink's conference room, his fists balled, bent over in anguish.

I Walk Alone was directed by Byron Haskin and produced by Hal B. Wallis. The screenplay is by Charles Schnee, and it's based on the play Beggars Are Coming to Town by Theodore Reeves.

It's not a bad film, but it's not good enough to be called a classic. Part of the problem is that it too often strays from its most compelling feature, the snarling macho men at its center who oppose each other. I was really caught up in the story when Dink denies Frankie his half and Frankie vows to kill him, but then the story veers into less interesting territory. Where does Dave's loyalty lie? What does Dink have over Dave? Will Dave be able to break free? Does Kay really love Frankie? And so on.

Lancaster and Douglas are both outsized personalities who dominate the screen. By the time things come to a head two-thirds of the way through the film, the picture might have been more compelling if it focused solely on them and their head-to-head conflict, instead of spinning off a variety of plot threads.

The film ends with a shootout in a darkened room that we've seen a hundred times before and will probably see a thousand times again. Like everything else in the film, it's not terrible, but it's too run-of-the-mill to be truly outstanding.

I Walk Alone is definitely worth seeing if you're a die-hard fan of either of the two lead actors, and worth a look for film noir fans who've never seen it. If, however, you're looking for something truly great, I Walk Alone never quite rises above the level of entertaining mediocrity.


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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dark City (1950)


Dark City (1950) is commonly listed by film experts as an important film in the noir canon. I have a feeling it may be because of the title. Dark City (directed by William Dieterle), The Dark Corner, The Dark Mirror, Dark Passage and Dark Waters all are consider noir and share a similar monikers. They all certainly have the right “look.” But only The Dark Corner and Dark Passage are shady and dim enough while the rest are just handsome melodramas.

After rewatching Dark City again (recently released on DVD - and looking great-- by Olive Films) I find myself agreeing with Jon Tuska's opinions in his book on noir (Dark Cinema - see the pattern here?) who calls the film “a fine example of film noir malgré.”

The story starts out just right (well, after Charlton Heston does his walk down the city street behind credits. Carrying a wrapped box - later revealed to be a stuffed bunny for his girl for Easter. Seriously, I could invalidate the movie as noir in the first 30 seconds.) But after that. Heston's workplace - a bookie joint --is shut down by the cops for the third time in as many months and the mugs working there are beginning to show signs of the pressure getting to them. Their payoffs aren't getting them anything. (The gang of professional gamblers could be an earlier generation of the gang in Mamet's House of Games.)

Later at the nightclub, Heston chats with an out-of-towner that's flashing a check for 5 grand. Gears move in his head and a poker game is set up. The gamblers let Arthur Winant (a perfectly cast Don DeFore [Too Late for Tears also with Liz Scott]) win the first night only to clean him out the second night forcing him to sign over the check to them. Upset that he lost his company's money, Winant goes back to his hotel and hangs himself. With the check uncashed and now “dynamite” if the cops find it, the gamblers hold on to it. Then one by one the card sharks begin to get killed off - hanged after being strangled by Winant's crazy brother. The cops, lead by Dean Jagger, are suspicious but have no proof the gamblers were involved.

Dark City then leaves that noir “city” and heads to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Danny Haley goes looking for Winant's wife - to get a photo of the man who is out to kill him. He quickly bonds with Winant's son and, surprisingly, Winat's widow. Once he finally reveals to the grieving wife that he's not from an insurance company but instead is one of the gamblers that fleeced him, Victoria (a wasted Viveca Lindfors) kicks him out and then legs it to Vegas to meet up with Augie (Jack Webb). There he finds another one of his gambling partners, Soldier (Harry Morgan - playing the limping, simple-minded war vet.) He, despite being the “punchy” one, gets Haley and later his lingering lounge-singing girlfriend Fran (Lizabeth Scott) jobs. Haley deals cards at a casino - every day looking around wondering if the man who wants to kill him is getting closer.

After this long, drawn-out middle, he's finally tracked down and the final confrontation happens. It doesn't hurt that the killer turns out to be Moose Malloy. But man, it takes a long time to get there.

The problems with Dark City are a combination of things. First veteran director Dieterle hasn't been dealt much of a hand by his scriptwriters (he did, however, have the moody camerawork of Victor Milner and the appropriately disconsolate score by Franz Waxman that fits noir like a glove). Second, the lead actors. Charlton Heston is soon to be a cinematic monumental hero thanks to Cecil B. DeMille. In Dark City, he actually starts to resemble that familiar hero quite closely after first playing the heel. Haley saves everyone and rehabilitates himself by the time credits roll - hell, even the cops believe and help him in the end. That's a big no-no in noir. When I finshed watching I could feel the 50's patriotic celebration of values and family life which dominated 50's films and certainty tainted many noir films - but not all-- that followed.

Heston isn't helped by the dame. Lizabeth Scott stops the film in her tracks when she lip syncs torch songs at the club. She seems to only exist to be the love interest and to model swanky gowns. And although they try to play up Haley's problem with relationships he seems to be always doing the right thing by his woman. Scott played identical roles in Dead Reckoning, The Racket, and I Walk Alone.

What works? As I mentioned previously, the score and camerawork. The dialog occasionally is perfect - but the noir-ish banter is in short supply. A few of the lines are wonderfully memorable.


Add to that the excellent supporting cast. Ed Begley (Sr.) is given a rare meaty role as the worry-wart gambler with a painful ulcer. I'm not a fan of Jack Webb but he's very good as the trickster that always seems to go too far. DeFore is great when he's sweating at the poker table realizing that he's been suckered. Mike Mazurki presence in any crime film is a plus.

Finally little Harry Morgan (credited as Henry Morgan.) He will always be the characters he played in M*A*S*H and Dragnet but his movie roles - especially in noir - should not be overlooked. The Well, Red Light, Moonrise, and The Big Clock all showcase his talents. In Dark City he plays the “punchy” guy - a role he was suited for with his droopy eyes and small size. In Dark City, he turns out to be the only one with any sense.

Dark City is not an essential noir, despite the title and some critics labeling it so. I do, however, think there are enough positive reasons to see it. Even more so if you love noir and are willing to forgive the saggy middle.
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Written by Steve-O



Monday, December 12, 2011

While the City Sleeps (1956)

Preliminary disclosure: I’m a huge Fritz Lang fan.

In my early twenties, when I first started to discover the world of film outside of contemporary Hollywood productions, Lang’s earlier films were some of the touchstones by which I quickly started to measure the quality of all other films. M (1931) remains a favorite; Lang's expressionistic cinematography, dark subject matter and perfect pacing foreshadowed the subject matter and stylistic touches of countless film noir projects from other directors that wouldn’t arrive on the Hollywood scene for more than a decade. Once he arrived in Hollywood, he also directed many excellent noirs within the studio system, such as The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Clash by Night (1952) and The Big Heat (1953).

So when I finally sat down to watch the remastered Warner Archive release of While the City Sleeps (1956)—finally available in a decent print and in its correct aspect ratio—I had high expectations. And slowly but surely, Lang destroyed them.

The film begins with two events—a murder and a death by natural causes. The two quickly become linked, because Amos Kyne, the man who dies of old age, ran a media empire and wanted the murder story on the front page of his newspaper, The Sentinel. The murder lends itself to sensationalism—after all, the murderer wrote a cryptic message (“Ask Mother”) on the wall of the female victim’s living room with her lipstick. Kyne’s hapless son, played by Vincent Price, takes over the company, even though he and everyone else who worked for his father know that he doesn’t have a clue when it comes to running his father’s business. To establish his power, he decides to pit the three men in charge of various divisions with the company—the paper’s managing editor, the head of the wire service, and the chief photographer—against each other by creating the position of “Executive Director” and then awarding the job to whoever can crack the case of the lipstick murderer.

While the City Sleeps was, along with Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), Lang’s Hollywood swan song. He would leave America shortly after these films were released and never direct another American film. Apparently, he’d gotten fed up with the Hollywood system, and unfortunately, his fatigue clearly manifests itself in his lackluster direction of this film. Every aspect of While the City Sleeps—the acting, the cinematography, the pacing, even the sets—come across flat and uninteresting. And for a film that boasts a fantastic noir cast—Dana Andrews (who would also work with Lang on the superior Beyond a Reasonable Doubt), Rhonda Fleming, Vincent Price, and Ida Lupino, among others—the potential seems especially wasted. The film is populated by basic, low-budget sets—there isn’t a single exterior scene in While the City Sleeps for the entire first hour—that are unimaginatively lit and perfunctorily used. The plot of the film has potential, but the actors all seem like they’re phoning it in, and Lang seems satisfied to let them. For the first hour and fifteen minutes, nothing seems to happen. Sure, there are double-crosses and backstabbings as the characters vie for the Executive Director position, but it’s all done with such a ho-hum attitude that it’s hard to care about the proceedings any more than the characters seem to care.


What makes watching this film even harder is the fact that a flash of Lang’s genius briefly shows itself toward the end of the film, when Dana Andrews, who plays a television reporter/writer who doesn’t want to get involved with the underhanded competition but nonetheless does, is chasing down the killer (who, in another failing, we never really get to know) on foot through a subway tunnel. The scene is strikingly photographed and quickly paced, and even calls to mind the manhunt for Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in the sewers at the conclusion of The Third Man. For roughly five minutes, fans of Lang’s work are treated to a glimpse of Lang’s genius as a director. But unfortunately, the scene quickly ends, and we’re left with a denouement that remains as flat as the rest of the picture.

Lang’s other final Hollywood film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, resonates much more than While the City Sleeps, because in Doubt, Lang was able to give free reign to the cynicism he so clearly possessed regarding the American film industry. But in While the City Sleeps, he was stuck with a script that required the typical Hollywood “happy” ending. It’s no wonder he didn’t try harder to make this film a success.

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Written by Nighthawk




Monday, December 05, 2011

Hatter's Castle (1942)

“He who sows the storm, reaps the whirlwind.”
In 1942, Mrs. Miniver, the winner of six academy awards was the biggest box office draw in Britain while the gothic noir Hatter’s Castle, from director Lance Comfort and the Paramount British production company was the box office runner-up. Could two films be more dissimilar? The overly sentimental Mrs. Miniver, a film used for WWII propaganda, extolled the virtues of the family and the strengths of women while Hatter’s Castle takes a dark, pessimistic and bleak look at the family and the vulnerability of women. Hatter’s Castle, currently shamefully out of print, is based on A.J. Cronin’s first novel. Cronin’s novels became a fertile ground for filmmaking, and the impressive list includes: The Citadel (1938), The Stars Look Down (1940), The Keys to the Kingdom (1944), The Green Years (1946), The Spanish Gardener (1956), and Web of Evidence (1959). Cronin, a medical doctor who gave up practicing once his writing career became successful, also created the popular Dr. Finlay character, the much-loved subject of a television programme that ran from 1962-1971.

British noir often depicts the struggles of the individual to rise in the rigid class structure of British society, and so Hatter’s Castle is a perfect example of one man’s obsessive and self-destructive aim to become a member of the gentry. Since Hatter’s Castle is a gothic British noir, it also contains elements of melodrama. Adultery, rape, suicide, attempted murder, theft, cruelty, and illegitimacy all appear in the film, but in Hatter’s Castle melodrama is subtly woven into an intense character study of paternal malevolence and hypocrisy. Gothic drama frequently emphasizes the vulnerability of women and the predatory nature of men, and Hatter’s Castle certainly fits that scenario. This is the story of Brodie (Robert Newton)--a heartless, mean-spirited, cruel man whose fate is ensured by his impossible vanity and pride. While Brodie’s actions create countless enemies, since this is noir, it’s relevant that ultimately he opens the door to his own destruction. Brodie is one of the most chilling villains in British noir and while he’s a perfectly respectable member of society--a man who never breaks a law--he’s psychotic--although his insanity is initially masked by the paternalistic Victorianism of his times. Brodie, then, is significantly not a criminal, but he repeatedly, and with obvious relish, transgresses moral law.

The novel, published in 1931, is set in 1879, in the small, fictional town of Levenford in the Firth of Clyde, not far from Glasgow. Brodie is the bombastic, proud, vain owner of the local hat shop. Grierson (Henry Oscar), the obsequious owner of the ironmonger shop next door complains about Brodie’s influence: “Does nothing ever happen in this town without Brodie having a say in it. What is he anyway? A hatter and not even a good one” Behind Brodie’s back he’s the local joke--a man who has over-extended his bank account by building a preposterous house complete with ramparts and a suit of armor. The house, known derisively as “Hatter’s Castle” is a monument to Brodie’s pride and vanity. He imagines that he’s connected to the peerage, and thinking himself too good to mingle with the proles, he gives himself airs and graces and tries to ingratiate himself with the local gentry. Most of his peers find Brodie too much of a bully to challenge him to his face, but enemies amass behind his back. There are only two men who tackle Brodie. One of those men is Lord Winton (Stuart Winsell) who vehemently and emphatically denies any family connection to Brodie, and the other is the new doctor in town, Dr. Renwick (James Mason).

The film aptly begins when Brodie is at the prime of life and at the peak of his nastiness, and in the film’s opening scenes, Brodie also sows the first seeds of his spectacular destruction. It’s the Winton Arms and the local merchants and men of means meet in an upstairs chamber to discuss whether or not they should fund the appointment of a doctor to the local school. The issue may go either way, but once Brodie makes an appearance, he squashes the idea. He’s firmly entrenched in Victorian ideals, and the education reforms in London mean little to him--especially if that change is going to cost money. This initial scene shows how Brodie dominates and bullies his peers, winning no friends in the process. He has no elaborate speeches to make on the issue and as usual his way of annihilating discussion is to dominate and control.


To add to his pride, vanity, hypocrisy, and cruelty, Brodie has another weakness, and that’s his indulgence for his brassy mistress, Winton Arms barmaid Nancy (Enid Stamp-Taylor). Brodie keeps Nancy in relative luxury, and lavishes her with trinkets while his wife and children suffer from his stinginess. Turning on the flattery, Nancy wheedles a job in Brodie’s hat shop for her slimy ex-lover, Dennis (Emlyn Williams) by pretending that he’s her step-brother in dire need of a fresh start. Brodie has no problem firing his elderly, faithful long-term employee to make way for Dennis. The opportunistic Dennis loses no time sizing up the best way to exploit Brodie, and imagining she’s an heiress, he sets his sights on Brodie’s sweet, innocent, brow-beaten daughter, Mary (Deborah Kerr). Dennis also slyly takes advantage of ironmonger Grierson’s financial problems to broker a deal that will bring a business rival right next door to Brodie. All this happens under Brodie’s nose while he’s busy bullying everyone who dares to speak a word in his presence.

Brodie is an obnoxious bully with his peers, but he’s unleashed at home, and his family quake in terror when they hear his step. His washed-out mouse of a wife (Beatrice Varley) is reduced to slave status, and although she’s ill and in pain, she’s constantly bullied into scrubbing Brodie’s castle in a futile and never-ending attempt to make him happy. When Mary asks Dr. Renwick to visit her mother and give his opinion, the request results in an ugly confrontation with Brodie. Brodie would rather take the advice of old-timer, Dr. Lawrie (Laurence Hanray) who, naturally, agrees with Brodie that there's nothing wrong with Mrs. Brodie. Renwick, on the other hand, diagnoses end-stage stomach cancer and suggests that Brodie employ a servant to give his wife relief. As a result, Mary secretly defies her father’s command that Renwick is not to come to the house again, and from this point, Dr. Renwick is forced to visit Mrs. Brodie in secret. A slow-burning love affair begins to grow between Mary and Renwick. Normally Renwick would be an excellent catch for the daughter of a shop owner, but Brodie runs Renwick off--ostensibly because he’s not ‘good’ enough for his daughter, but there’s the underlying idea that this is more about control, and Brodie would rather keep Mary as an unpaid servant.

Brodie’s son, Angus (Tony Bateman) appears to be his father’s pride and joy, and while he may appear to fare better than the females in the Brodie household, ultimately his role of Brodie Heir Apparent comes with a price. He’s an unhealthy lad, nervous and terrified of his father’s displeasure and the object of derision at school. Angus struggles to win the academic success his father demands, and cringes when his father begins his oft-repeated tirade about Angus’s imagined, bright future as a peer of the realm.

Gradually over the course of the film, Brodie sows the seeds of his own destruction, and while Brodie is seen as an out-of-control male, he’s also an extreme product of the unhealthy, unpleasant society in which he operates. Brodie’s hypocrisy seems to have no limits--he fires a loyal employee in order to please his mistress, but expects his customers to be loyal to his shop. He lectures Grierson about living beyond his means while he faces bankruptcy. He accuses his daughter of “dragging his name” through the “mire” and yet no one has shamed the family more than he. By the end of the film, however, we see Brodie’s hypocrisy as just part of the general unhealthiness of Levenford--a town which fostered Brodie’s cruelty and whose residents now condemn Mary rather than acknowledge that she, too, was a victim of her father’s cruelty.

The camera focuses on Brodie’s physical size so shots emphasize his intimidating height and chest girth. Interior shots dominate. This is a film in which structures add a great deal to atmosphere, so a large chunk of the action takes place in Hatter’s Castle and in Brodie’s shop. As Brodie’s life deteriorates, his shop subtly falls into decline, but just as Brodie is his own worst enemy and brings on his own destruction, so destruction of Brodie’s property is literally, and finally, in his own hands. Note that nature often appears to reflect Brodie’s black mood or even further his devilish schemes.

Beatrice Varley who played Mrs. Brodie is a British noir regular--just compare her roles in Hatter’s Castle and Tiger in the Smoke to appreciate the range of her ability. Robert Newton who played Brodie is best remembered as Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island. On a note of trivia, the accident in the film is a depiction of the real-life Tay Bridge disaster of 1879.

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Written by Guy Savage
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