Saturday, January 28, 2012

Small Town Murder Songs (2010)

Small Town Murder Songs is an expertly crafted Canadian noir written/produced/directed & edited by Ed Gass-Donnelly. In the 50's it might've been a Western, and if American could've been set in Pennsylvania or perhaps Kentucky. But it's out in a rural Canadian province that a naked woman is found strangled. Though this film is no murder mystery more a redemptive noir character study of Walt (Peter Stormare) the local police chief.

It opens with a memory of the disgust and disappointment of his girlfriend Rita (Jill Hennessy) to a brutal incident where Walt's violent nature was exposed, shown in a single pan against the fierce primitive pounding chorus of the folk/gospel soundtrack declaring "You cant hide! You cant hide! You cant hide! ... Who you are!" The shot ends with Walt divided by darkness and light shocked by his loss of control. This defining moment reappears and is alluded to throughout the film.

There seems no professional repercussions but he is personally humiliated and haunted by the incident which resulted in Rita leaving him and he is now shunned by his Mennonite family.

"We can't abide this kind of violence, wasn't how we was raised."

Walt has embraced religion and seeks a clean start through baptism. But this is an "old order" religion long on severity, short on forgiveness. "You cant change who you are, but you can act against your impulses … be what kind of man you chose to be."

In this rural town police work consists of small tasks like manning the speed trap where he snags Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), Rita's new boyfriend, an ex drug dealer who now hauls trash which Walt suspects he dumps illegally. Steve has a toothy rodent grin and a motor mouth with which he taunts Walt. "You're no different than you was!"

Next morning Walt is called to Point Beach where a dead woman is found. This is such a shock to their small town sensibilities that a deputy openly weeps. Since there hasn’t been a murder around here in decades a detective from the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) is sent to head the investigation. Washington is a cold professional who views them as bumpkins. When reports seeing Steve dumping something here on Sunday while out fishing on the lake. Washington dismisses it since Walt was too far away to get a license plate or actually identify Steve.

When they listen to the 911 call they recognize Rita's voice, so Rita and Steve are brought in for questioning. Walt declines to sit in on the interrogations as they "have history." Rita alibi's Steve, saying he was home all night. They try to ID the victim and have no luck until they visit a nearby strip club and find out that not only was she a dancer there but Steve was there for "karaoke" that last night she worked. This means Rita lied for Steve. Walt tries to get her to tell the truth but an angry Rita points out, "What? it was okay to lie for you, but not him!" Walt leaves furious but the memory of his ferocity during the incident sobers him. On the TV news its announced that due to a triple homicide and upsurge in biker activity OPP resources are being pulled from the woman's case. On local talk radio citizens are asking "Who's going to stand up for her? Who's going to do what's right?" The next morning Walt's Father who hasn’t spoken to him since the incident tells him, "Well I guess it's up to you."

At work he finds Steve's complained of harassment and the OPP detective accuses Walt of ruining the case and orders Walt to stay away from the couple.

Walt has to take the victim's mother to the morgue to ID the body. The grieving Mother tells him, "If it was a dog they'd put him down. Is that fair? Is that justice? ...or is it just a waste of time? ... Still wont have my Melly..."

Walt feels the pressure and increasing responsibility weighing on him.

Walt's present girlfriend Sam (Martha Plimpton) is a gentle good-hearted waitress. The day before over dinner the thought of the poor murdered woman brought her to tears and she asked Walt to join hands and pray with her. As they prayed Rita and the incident came to his mind. She tells how the town gossip says the victim had it coming, but Sam tells him, "I know you're treatin' her like a lady, doin' your best to find who done it!" This moves Walt to weeping which so frustrates him he pounds the table in anger, which scares Sam away.

Knowing he must do something he drives to Rita's and again tries to get her to tell the truth. She rages at him and Steve comes out hurling abuse, "You're embarrassing yourself! Pathetic!" and threatening Walt with a bat. They begin to tussle and Walt takes the bat and is about to bash Steve brainless when Rita's cry of "Walt! No!" freezes him. And maybe he didn’t listen to her before but he does now.

This allows Steve to jump up and begin to kick and beat Walt to the same folk/gospel song, "You Can't Hide! You Can't Hide!" Walt is now suffering the same type brutal beating as he gave in the opening incident. For Walt this has been a journey of grief and sorrow to expiation. Later in the empty church he's staring at the cross when his deputy finds him Walt muses, "I could've put'm down, but I'm not what I was." The Deputy tells him that Rita has turned Steve in.

The film begins in black screen with just an opening Biblical quote, and sections are divided by huge sized quotes like chapter headings. However the redemption in this noir comes to Walt not through baptism and the institution of the church but through a murdered woman and the women in his life.

Rita is the femme fatale, dark and surly. Sam is the “good woman”, blonde positive, empathetic. An interesting twist in this noir is that Rita shares the redemptive woman function, a role almost always exclusively belonging to the “good woman.” It's some kind of lingering love for Rita that fuels Walt's need for redemption and his concern that she "do the right thing." And he wants to take that angry repulsed look from her eyes.

There's a final scene where Steve sits in back of a cop car grinning sheepish at Rita who glares at him in tear stained anger. He gives this little boy shrug and widens his grin and she turns away, walking into her house. As the view tightens his smile fades and you see that even in this squirrely little noir the loser feels the loss of what it is to have fallen in Rita's eyes.

Written by Mike Handley

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Repeat Performance (1947)

Film noir and The Twilight Zone have more in common than you'd probably think. B-movie actors from the 40s peppered the casts of Twilight Zone episodes almost 20 years later. Dutch angles magnify tension; and other impressive black and white photography (at least before the Twilight Zone started to shoot on video late in the series) on the CBS show could easily be mistaken for a classic noir. Watch the credits at the end of a TZ and you'll see many names sometimes associated with film noir: Harry J. Wild, Joseph LaShelle, John Brahm, Richard Florey to name a few.

Of course the fantasy/sci-fi element of the Twilight Zone are usually not found in noirs. The exceptions being Val Lewton's RKO horror films and the New Years Eve thriller, Repeat Performance.

Repeat Performance was released in 1947 by Eagle-Lion films who at the time were trying to establish themselves as a major force in Hollywood. They put out some “nervous As” - not cheap enough to be Bs but not expensive enough to be As. Repeat Performance fits that description.

Clunky and far-too-dramatic opening credits leads to a classic noir open, then a cheapish looking movie filled with former stars (Louis Hayward) and actors just starting out (Richard Basehart in his first film roll.) Repeat Performance may be a bit too full of soapy dramatics to be a top-shelf noir, but it certainly could be served to noir fans without complaint. The fantastic looking - dark and stylish - opening and end of the film more than make up for the frothy middle - and for me makes the film a worthy entry in the film noir classic period.


Despite its obvious flaws - and it really is probably only loved by fans of old black-and-white mysteries --it's one of my favorite New Years Eve tales.


Just before midnight on New Year's Eve, 1946, Broadway actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) shoots her husband Barney (Hayward) and then rushes to see her friend, odd-ball poet William Williams. After a distressed Sheila confesses her deed to William (Basehart), he suggests they talk to Sheila's producer John Friday (Tom Conway). As Sheila and William are walking up to John's apartment, Sheila wishes that she could relive the past year, insisting that if she had it to do over, she would not make the same mistakes twice. Upon reaching John's door, Sheila notices that William has disappeared and then gradually realizes that something is wrong.

An unnecessary voice over explains what is obvious to the viewer. Her hair and clothes have changed and she's been transported to an earlier time - exactly a year before. She has one year to make up for the mistakes she made leading up to her crime. The “voice over” is a common element found in film noir. But in this case it sounds much more like the Rod Sterling TZ introductions than a typical film noir Mitchum-esque V.O.

The film is based on a book by William O'Farrell. O'Farrell doesn't seem to have many other books after this, his first. Published in 1942, the book is something. Over at the Mystery File, Dan Stumpf writes,

“O’Farrell can write. He can put across a bitchy theatrical milieu and a seedy flophouse with equal aplomb, evoke a desperate chase and a disparate seduction with commensurate suspense, and weave a tale of murder and melodrama (verging on Soap Opera at times, but teetering skillfully on the edge) with prose that keeps the pages turning very nicely.”

There are many changes from the book (which is wonderfully bleak) and the movie. Barney is the actor that goes back in time, not Sheila. Barney begins the novel as a flop-house drunk after shooting his girlfriend following the suicide of his wife Sheila. When on the run from cops, Barney and William and Mary (a gay man in the book that Basehart smartly hinted at in the movie) get shot at by the cops leading to the magical happenings. The scene is so cinematic I'm a bit surprised they didn't find a way to shoe-horn it into the film. And although it is soapy, O'Farrell's novel concludes more satisfactory than most thrillers. A good read if you can find it.

O'Farrell's book was his only one to gain any attention. His movie and TV credits are slim too - he did write an episode of Alfred Hithcock Presents. Repeat Performance was remade into a 1980s TV movie (with Joan Leslie in a small part).

The cast of the '47 film includes Louis Hayward. Hayward's career wasn't what it was just a few years before, but he did make some interesting choices. He was best friends with Edgar G. Ulmer and appeared in Ulmer's Citizen-Kane-of-B-noir drama Ruthless in 1948. 1950 he starred in one of Fritz Lang's last US productions House By the River. Ladies in Retirement, And Then There Were None and Strange Woman all were released around the same time as Repeat Performance.

Tom Conway is a favorite. In addition to Cat People and the 7th Victim he was The Falcon in that long running mystery series (replacing brother George Sanders who got bored with the part. Similarly, Sanders replaced Hayward as The Saint in the movie series that The Falcon was most likely based on.)

Joan Leslie - so good in High Sierra - isn't as strong as her Repeat Performance co-stars but she gets the job done. Not an easy task when you consider how outrageous the story gets.

Finally, Richard Basehart captures the book's “William and Mary” part without being obvious about it. I know most remember Basehart from TV's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the voice of the 1984 Olympics but his contributions to film noir is impressive. The next year Basehart would star in the unforgettable He Walked by Night. His other noir credits include the period film Reign of Terror, Tension, Outside the Wall, Fourteen Hours, The House on Telegraph Hill, and the Brit noir The Good Die Young.

Submitted for your consideration: 1947's Repeat Performance. Repeated viewing encouraged... in the Twilight Zone.

Written by Steve-O

Also check out our discussion on the noirish TZ episodes at the Back Alley

Monday, January 16, 2012

Follow Me Quietly (1949)

In 1949, RKO Pictures was in financial trouble (but then again, when wasn’t it?). Howard Hughes was in the process of ruining the studio, due in large part to his poor decision-making when it came to which pictures to greenlight and his constant meddling with films as they were being made. In 1948, the year before Follow Me Quietly was released, RKO had seen its profits drop by a staggering 90 percent, from $5.1 million in 1947 to a mere $500,000 in 1948. Moving forward, the company would focus on churning out even more low-budget, one-hour B pictures in an effort to turn a quick profit.

One of RKO’s favorite directors for these one-hour programmers was a man whose name isn’t spoken in noir circles as often, or with as much reverence, as some of the other directors who have spent significant time in Dark City. However, from the late forties to the early fifties, Richard Fleischer had a decent run at the tables, directing no less than seven noirs (all but one for RKO) in a five-year period—Bodyguard (1948), The Clay Pigeon (1948), Follow Me Quietly (1949), Trapped (1949), Armored Car Robbery (1950), His Kind of Woman (1951, uncredited) and The Narrow Margin (1952). He also returned to the genre one more time in 1955 to the direct the color crime noir Violent Saturday (1955).

In terms of quality, Follow Me Quietly marked a turning point for Fleischer. He recognized this when he said, “This is the film that, above all, increased my knowledge of the trade. I learned how to organize a film.” It’s true. Follow Me Quietly is an enjoyable, tightly-organized film that gives the impression that Fleischer would go on to even make even better films, which he did.

The plot of the film is fairly straightforward B fare. A serial killer who calls himself The Judge has been murdering people for months, strangling them only on rainy nights. He leaves notes that are made out of letters cut from magazines that claim he’s punishing sinners and meting out justice. The two cops on the case, Lt. Harry Grant (William Lundigan) and his wisecracking sidekick St. Art Collins (Jeff Corey), are sitting on a lot of individual pieces of evidence that they just can’t seem to piece together, and his own lack of progress is driving Grant crazy. In addition to his stress over not cracking the case, he’s also trying to fend off Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick), a reporter for the lower-than-low tabloid rag “Four Star Crime,” who is doggedly pursuing him for his take on the case.

Then, one day when Grant is staring at all of the evidence they’ve compiled, he gets an idea. Instead of just sending out the standard, blasé description of what they think The Judge looks like, why not make a faceless but life-size dummy of him based on what they know? The idea is a hit within the department. They bring in all of the department’s cops and let them see it so that they get a better idea of his shape and size. They stand potential perps next to it in the lineup room to see how they measure up. They take pictures of it from various angles and canvass the neighborhoods where the crimes were committed to see if anyone recognizes him.

If you’re thinking that this idea sounds…wacky, you’re not off base. Why would a dummy be any better than a sketch, especially when in many instances they’re just using pictures of it to try to identify the killer? Fleischer needs to sell this as a serious idea and not a hammy plot device, and for the most part, he succeeds. The scene when the dummy is introduced becomes creepier as it progresses—with the sole light in the lineup room focused on the back of the dummy, Grant provides a voiceover through the speaker system from the point of view of The Judge, based on the psychological profile they’ve established for him. Fleischer sells the seriousness of this scene, which successfully walks the line between disturbing and unintentionally ridiculous, through creative camerawork and stark lighting on the dummy, making its anonymity and facelessness seem menacing. Later in the film, Grant, who has stayed late into the night, talks to the dummy, who he keeps sitting in a chair in his office, projecting his anger and frustration toward The Judge onto it. Again, while this scene could have played out as silly, it instead plays out as tense and suspenseful, because the way Fleischer stages and lights the scene, we’re immediately wondering if it really is just the dummy, or if The Judge has sneaked into the office and taken its place.

In order to sell such a gimmicky plot, Fleischer needs to get at least serviceable performances from Lundigan and Patrick, and despite one clunkily delivered exposition dump from Lundigan early on, they sell their roles well enough. He aids their performances through creative cinematography—the night scenes in the rain are particularly well done and affecting—and some of the aforementioned stylistic flourishes (Dutch angles, anyone?) add a nice touch. The climax of the film—a chase through an empty factory—is well-paced and exciting, and it contains a nice bit of symbolism at the very end.

No one would mistake Follow Me Quietly for an A picture. It’s short, it’s low budget, and the performances are good but not great. (Sidenote: about two-thirds of the way through the film, its B budget gets the better of it, resulting in a great unintentional laugh. Grant is sitting at his desk at night, and it starts to rain outside, signaling to him that The Judge may strike again. However, the seriousness of the moment is undercut by the fact that when the rain starts falling against his windows, it’s clearly coming from must have been several sprinkler heads just above the windows. The water sputters out of them initially as the water pressure builds up, then starts hitting the window in a fan pattern instead of falling straight down.) However, none of this detracts from the fact that this is a briskly paced, nicely photographed and highly enjoyable little noir with enough punch to keep you thoroughly entertained throughout its one hour running time.


Written by Nighthawk

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Small Back Room (1949)

The Small Back Room (1949) was the first film made between Alexander Korda’s London Films and The Archers--the name given to the partnership between filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Archers, whose official working collaboration lasted for approximately 15 years, and whose personal relationship lasted until Pressburger’s death in 1988, had worked separately for Korda in the past and had just been dropped by the Rank Organisation. Rank precipitously dumped The Archers as they mistakenly predicted that their last film, The Red Shoes (1948) would be a financial failure. The Small Back Room was much praised by critics at the time of its release, but it was a box office failure, and Michael Powell attributes the film’s initial failure to the fact that it was seen as a war story--a subject that failed to draw the cinema-going public. The film is based on the superb novel by Nigel Balchin (Mine Own Executioner, Darkness Falls from the Air). Michael Powell was a die-hard Balchin fan and read all of his novels. Korda owned the rights to all Balchin’s novel, and so one of the great British films of the High-Noir period (a term derived from Andrew Spicer’s book Film Noir) was born.

In The Small Back Room (alternate title: The Hour of Glory), it’s London, Spring 1943 and Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is part of an obscure research team led by Professor Mair (Milton Rosmer) which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence. London and its pubs are full of raucous crowds of servicemen and women determined to live whatever life they have left. In stark contrast to the prevailing and determined Carpe Diem attitude seen in the film’s slivers of nightlife, Sammy’s existence as a man with a “tin foot” is a sustained battle against pain, bitterness and alcoholism. Certainly those elements are more than enough demons for one man to fight, but Sammy, far from the front lines of battle, also faces a number of bureaucratic skirmishes within his own department.

The film begins with the arrival of the congenial, yet deadly-focused Capt. Dick Stuart (Michael Gough) who seeks the help of Mair’s research department. A number of unexplained explosions--most of which have claimed the lives of children--have led Stuart to the conclusion that “Jerry” is dropping explosive devices along the coastal regions of Britain. Stuart tells Mair that he’s there for advice, and that he’d like to know “how to handle it when we get out hands on one.” Specifically seeking the help of a fuse expert, Stuart is directed to Sammy. Sammy, however, has already left for the day, but secretary Sue (Kathleen Byron), who is Sammy’s secret love-interest, promises to track Sammy down. Sue calls The Lord Nelson pub and speaks to publican Knucksie (Sid James) who acknowledges that Sammy is there (already being a bit of a nuisance), so Sue, with Stuart in tow, goes to collect Sammy from the pub. There’s the sense, since it took just two phone calls to pinpoint Sammy’s location, that this is a familiar event. As the film plays out, it’s clear that The Lord Nelson is a frequent refuge for Sammy, and that he doesn’t always behave well when it comes to the subject of alcohol. Certainly the name of the pub cannot be a coincidence since Lord Nelson lost one arm and sight in one eye but still continued his military career, while in The Small Back Room, our hero, Sammy continues his job with just one foot. Sammy claims that painkillers do little to alleviate the pain of wearing his “tin foot,” and he argues that alcohol is much better than anything the doctors are willing to prescribe. There is, however, a psychological component to Sammy’s pain as he’s sometimes seen rubbing or whacking at the foot in his most pensive moments.

Back at his cozy flat with Sue and Stuart, Sammy is noticeably intrigued by the idea of a new, sophisticated type of booby-trap, and he agrees to help, so Stuart arranges to contact Sammy immediately when another explosive device is found. They both reason that the devices may look reasonably harmless, and this idea is endorsed in the not-too-distant future. Their next meeting occurs over the body of a dying soldier who manages to give Sammy and Stuart some vital information about one of the explosive devices.

While scenes including bomb disposal obviously provide the film with a great deal of tension, large portions of the film reveal Sammy’s other pressing struggles. At work, Professor Mair is being slowly eased out, and since Mair’s more familiar environment is academia, he’s blithely unaware that his days working for the government are numbered. Meanwhile, the rather sharp character, a shady civil servant named Pinker (Geoffrey Keen), who has a nebulous professional role, hints that Sammy can steer the department’s helm if he just plays the right political game. But Sammy isn’t a ‘yes’ man, and neither is he much of a committee man--unlike Sue’s boss, the slippery, hideously misogynistic R.B. Waring (played by the phenomenal Jack Hawkins). Professor Mair’s Waterloo occurs over the issue of new weaponry--specifically, the Reeves Gun--which has been tested recently and according to Sammy, found lacking. Waring raves about the gun and dismisses both the army and Sammy’s reservations about its abilities. We get the measure of Waring’s political and personal sliminess when he also dismisses, with derisive scorn, those men who ‘know their jobs.’ Another of Waring’s targets for elimination within the department is also the most vulnerable, the horribly damaged, cuckolded and stuttering fuse expert, Cpl. Taylor (Cyril Cusack).

The film’s title, The Small Back Room refers quite literally to the ridiculously small space in which these scientists work. One shot shows the ceiling with a grid through which shoes of passer-bys can be clearly, and distractingly, seen and heard. The fact that this motley crew of scientists is shoved into basically a cupboard underscores that idea that their work is undervalued, and indeed that conclusion is punctuated by a brief visit from a patronizing government minister (Robert Morley). Waring, of course, has recently grabbed a large office space for himself, replete with impressive furniture fitting for what he assumes is his imminent change of status once Wair is given the heave-ho. The amoral, ambitious Waring is one of those men who will do well on the sweat of others simply because he knows the political games played by committees and bureaucrats. The film creates an interesting subtle parallel between the invisible forces that drop the mysterious new explosive device and the revelation of the banality of the committees that select weaponry with little acknowledgement of the consequences. Sammy, for all of his flaws and complications, brings some humanity to the issue of war, and for him, ultimately he can no more endorse a gun that may cost precious lives, than he can allow Waring to run a department without some degree of culpability.

Another area of Sammy’s life that’s problematic and under scrutiny is his complicated relationship with Sue. In Balchin’s book, they live together, but since censorship would never pass such a radical idea, the script inserts one line in which Sue tells Stuart, who’s just met and is clearly smitten with Sue, that she lives across the hall. However, it’s never quite established if that is true or if the line is for Stuart’s benefit as much as for the censors--a double blind line if there ever was one in the history of cinema.

As a noir protagonist, Sammy is seen both figuratively and literally as an isolated individual whose tenuous link to civilization is through Sue. Already hideously damaged when the film begins, he manages to juggle a job of immeasurable responsibility with physical problems, alcoholism and a badly battered psyche. Several scenes depict an increasingly restless and edgy Sammy as he waits for Sue. As time ticks away with Sammy in solitude, a sense of panic and a low grade anger both brew inside Sammy’s mind while his personal demons wait, never far away, in the shadows.

Kathleen Byron and David Farrar as Sue and Sammy appear to be very comfortable with each other, and the frequent looks between them are both secretive and intuitive. Anyone else on the screen is definitely outside of their intimate, sexually powerful bond. They both appeared together in another Powell and Pressburger film: Black Narcissus (1947), another story of a tortured relationship. Kathleen Byron had an affair with director Michael Powell, and this resulted in him being named as the co-respondent in her divorce. The stunning cinematography from Christopher Challis makes incredible use of Kathleen Byron’s facial structure--that secret Mona Lisa gaze she has--illuminated by brilliant use of limited lighting which highlights her face to incredible effect.

The Small Back Room owes no small debt to German Expressionism--mostly in the scenes between Sammy and his precious whisky bottle which is not supposed to be opened until V-Day. Several scenes depict an enormous Highland Clan whiskey bottle with Sammy in its threatening shadow, and of course, time, also Sammy’s enemy appears in these scenes as a gigantic alarm clock. While Sammy’s alcoholism is featured in the book, these hallucinatory nightmares sequences are exclusively for the film.

In the interview with Michael Powell on the Criterion edition of The Small Back Room (excerpted from his memoir Million Dollar Movie), the director states that instead of Balchin’s sandy beach, the location for the intense bomb disposal scene, he immediately envisioned Chesil Beach. Several shots in the film capture the unique perspective of this coastline. Powell describes the area as showing “eternal England,” and no doubt this is also why Stonehenge is used for the site of the testing of the Reeves Gun. These two sites establish the antiquity and history of Britain and a way of life under assault from the Nazi war machine. Powell and Pressburger films always uniquely exploited landscape to illuminate character and psychology, and what better way to depict Britain at war than including scenes of Chesil Beach and Stonehenge.

The Small Back Room is an anguished dark masterpiece and certainly one of the most important British films of the century. Balchin’s novel, throbbing with despair is darker still. Balchin’s Sammy isn’t quite as heroic, and the novel concludes differently with less optimism but with a certain grim determined acceptance.

Written by Guy Savage

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Chinatown at Midnight (1949)

“You’re a very paradoxical young man.”
Shops closing early! There’s a killer thief on the loose in the Chinatown section of San Francisco, and the cops are hot on his trail. That’s a bare bones plot description if ever there was one, yet it jibes well with Chinatown at Midnight — a rabbit punch of a movie that cashes in on the success of He Walked by Night, the granddaddy of film noir cop procedurals, released to theaters just a year before. It’s a fast paced little movie with just a few cheap sets and scenes glued together by plenty of voice-of-god narration. But it also boasts some solid basic filmmaking; looking good in spite of its meager budget, with some striking photography and a few flashy sequences that belie its doghouse budget. The film is ruined by its sloppy, often nonsensical script, though to its credit it manages to dodge the expected racial stereotypes.

The man on the lam is Clifford Ward, played by Hurd Hatfield, who had a modest acting career after making a big splash as the title character in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Hatfield seems a little too urbane to be credible as the unbalanced heist man-cum-killer in this film, but the movie does its best to justify his casting by spinning the murderer as a multi-lingual dandy whose bachelor pad landlady raves about his “excellent taste for a young man.” Hatfield’s Clifford is in cahoots with an upscale interior decorator Lisa Marcel (Jacqueline DeWit). She locates expensive pieces in expensive shops; then he shows up at closing time and knocks the places over. Maybe he loves the older woman, maybe he doesn’t — who knows the angles? She doesn’t make eyes at him and she doesn’t pay him off either. We never get the dope on their relationship. Maybe Clifford just likes to takes risks — he certainly has no qualms about killing. Just after we meet him, he visits a curio shop in Chinatown and guns down the young clerk; when the girl in the back room tries to call the cops he blasts her too. In a veer from the expected, Clifford actually picks up the receiver and completes her phone call: “come quick, there’s been a robbery and shooting!” The zinger is that his frantic exchange with the switchboard operator is in fluent Chinese.

So that’s why we get Hurd Hatfield instead of a tough monkey like Charles McGraw or Mark Stevens. Our boy is able to call in his crime with a Cantonese dialect, convincing the cops that their quarry must be Chinese. From that moment onward Chinatown at Midnight is a cat-and-mouse game between Clifford and San Francisco’s finest, led by the pugnacious Captain Brown, played by iconic film noir actor Tom Powers. (His name might not be that familiar, but Powers probably appeared in a million crime films — often as a cop — though he got his bust in the noir hall of fame for playing the ill-fated Mr. Dietrichson in the big one, Double Indemnity.) The procedural aspects of Chinatown at Midnight are handled with care, showing viewers a few of the clever ruses used by the police to ferret out a suspect — the best is when a clever matron poses as a census taker in order to search the flophouses and tenements. The film is divided roughly in half between Clifford’s occasionally witty escapes and the semi-doc cop stuff, but the thing never really gets off the ground until the final reel, when Clifford starts to knuckle under from a nagging case of malaria and the ever-tightening dragnet. He finally takes to the rooftops, automatic in hand, for an exciting showdown with the buys in blue — pity our boy Clifford: they've got Tommy guns.

This is a fairly competent and successful effort for all involved, except the hack screenwriters. The worst moment in the story has to be the most eyeball-rolling example of shoddy police work in the entire canon of B movies — one that altogether sums up the visual strengths and the narrative weaknesses of the film: there’s a sequence in the middle that places Clifford within arm’s reach of justice. Having just killed again to keep the law at bay, he is forced to hide in a darkened room after his shots draw the police. What follows is exciting stuff, well-edited, strikingly filmed, and very tense — culminating in a pitch black exchange of gunfire that brings to mind Henry Morgan’s big moment in Red Light. It’s an exhilarating scene, the sort of thing that draws us all to film noir. Yet after Clifford makes a break for it, shedding his jacket, tie, and .38 revolver in a back alley garbage bin, he attempts to hide by shuffling into a queue of four or five down-and-outers waiting in a bread line. When the dicks come huffing and puffing around the corner a breath or two later, they just give up — tossing their hands into the air without so much as a look around, completely giving up, but not before adding for our sake, “Funny, he didn’t look Chinese to me!” Too bad for them that their rabbit is five feet away, and all they have to do is brace the hobos in order to put Clifford in the little green room at Quentin. They can’t even manage a pathetic “which way did he go?”

Photographed by prolific journeyman Henry Freulich, clearly influenced by John Alton, Chinatown at Midnight is heavily steeped in the noir visual style. The cardboard sets and low rent cast are more emblematic of a poverty row effort than a second-feature from a little major like Columbia, but the studio’s B-roll exteriors of various San Francisco locales almost pull off the illusion of an on-location shoot, and further separate it from Poverty Row. The acting here is merely passable and the script is a bloody shame, but Freulich and director Seymour Friedman give the finished film has a strong visual identity, even if everything else is from hunger.


Chinatown at Midnight (1949)
Directed by Seymour Friedman
Produced by Sam Katzman
Written by Robert Libbott and Frank Burt
Cinematography by Henry Freulich
Art Direction by Paul Palmentola
Starring Hurd Hatfield, Jacqueline DeWit, and Tom Powers
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Running time 67 minutes.

Written by The Professor His blog is Where Danger Lives!
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