Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Crooked Way (1949)

Using amnesia as a plot device has a long and varied history in film and television, showing up in everything from noirs such as Somewhere in the Night (1946) and The Clay Pigeon (1949), both of which feature amnesiac World War II vets trying to uncover their pasts, to modern-day mainstream films such as the recent Liam Neeson thriller Unknown (2011) as well as just about every soap opera ever broadcast. In theory, using amnesia as a plot device in a film like The Crooked Way should be a slam dunk, since it allows the filmmakers to invert the conventions of the detective genre by forcing the amnesiac to play the role of detective - except instead of investigating someone else’s crime, he must investigate himself. However, in this particular instance, the results are less than satisfactory.

The Crooked Way tells the story of Eddie Rice (John Payne), who has recently come home from World War II with a silver star and a chunk of metal in his head that has completely wiped out his memories. He only has one clue to his past - that before the War, he lived in Los Angeles. After getting his release from a psychiatric hospital, he decides to go back to L.A. in search of answers.

The film wastes no time getting Eddie into trouble. He’s barely stepped off the train from San Francisco when a cop named Joe Williams (Rhys Williams) accosts him and demands to know what he’s doing back in L.A. It turns out that the war hero’s past isn’t so stellar. Eddie finds out that his name isn’t Eddie Rice, it’s Eddie Riccardi, and Eddie Riccardi was part of a criminal organization with a heavy named Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts). See, Eddie and Vince used to be partners - until Eddie turned state’s evidence and set Vince up to take the fall on a manslaughter rap in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Complicating matters is Nina Martin (Ellen Drew), who was once married to Eddie - until Eddie bailed on their marriage and skipped town, changing his name and going off to war, leaving Vince to pick up the pieces by giving Nina a job in his club’s back room, flirting with patsies and getting them to part with their money at his gambling tables. Needless to say, no one is particularly pleased to see Eddie back in town, and no one is exactly buying his I-can’t-remember-anything tale.

Unfortunately, the solid setup doesn’t pay off in the execution, particularly in the performances. Payne, who followed the Dick Powell career trajectory (star in some musicals, then make a mid-career move into more serious fare like noir), began a string of noir appearances in The Crooked Way, going on to star in Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), Slightly Scarlet (1956) and Hidden Fear (1957). His performance in this film is uneven, although it does improve as the film progresses. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well. Drew is average and unremarkable, Williams does little more than recite his lines, and Tufts - well, if you’ve ever seen a film with Sonny Tufts, you know where this is going. Calling his delivery wooden is insulting to trees.

Sonny Tufts (sitting) and Percy Helton with the cat.  Photo from Alan K. Rode's collection

The film also bites off more plot devices than it can chew, and this shows in the uneven pacing. The first half of the film tries to deal with Rice/Riccardi’s amnesia as well as his relationship with his ex-wife, and then it abruptly shifts to a more traditional revenge plot in the second half, in which Vince frames Eddie for a crime he didn’t commit. The end result is undercooked characters and implausible plot developments, testing the viewer’s suspension of disbelief on more than one occasion. In addition, the climax manages to be overlong, lacking in suspense, and laughably ridiculous on more than occasion.

However, The Crooked Way has an ace up its sleeve: John Alton, the king of noir cinematography. Alton does typically excellent work on this picture, and since most of the action is set at night, he gets many chances to show his stuff. Some of the visuals in this film are truly striking - Eddie and Nina in her house at night, silhouetted against a backlit window; a car enveloped by the night as it speeds into the dark; Eddie wandering the seedier, neon-lit sections of L.A. after the sun has gone down. Even if the story doesn’t cohere and the performances leave a lot to be desired, the film is consistently a joy to watch on a purely visual level.

The Crooked Way would have been better served had it simply pared down the amnesia plot elements, cut out some of the more unbelievable aspects of the Eddie/Nina relationship and focused more on the Eddie/Vince dynamic, since the plot starts to hum along nicely once it shifts its focus to Eddie trying to clear his name. A different cast couldn’t hurt, either. If you’re an Alton aficionado or can enjoy a noir simply because it features excellent cinematography, then you’ll find some pleasure in watching The Crooked Way. Otherwise, skip it and watch Somewhere in the Night instead.


Written by Nighthawk

Monday, June 18, 2012

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

“What we’re doing is a means to an end. Now you agree with the end, don’t you? Well then you must agree with the means. You can’t have one without the other.”

In Greek mythology, the Fates--also known as The Moirai--were three women: Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Allotter), and Atropos (the Unturnable or Unavoidable). Clotho spun the thread of each person’s life, Lachesis allotted a length, and Atropis chose the manner of death, and when that time came, she snipped the Thread of Life. Fate has a large role in the lives of noir’s doomed characters, for through noir, we see people who imagine that they are clever enough, talented enough, or even desperate enough to pull off a range of crimes and escape into lives of their choosing. While they run with this idea for a brief period, they inevitably and collectively fail. The image of The Fates spinning the threads which determine Man’s fate is integral to noir and seems particularly appropriate to the British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). This is the story of a mentally unstable woman who believes that she communicates with the dead. Her hubris demands that she control and improve her fate, and so she turns to crime in order to satisfy her goals.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon from director Bryan Forbes has the standard ingredients of noir, and yet this highly unusual film--one of the most unusual noirs to emerge in the 60s--explores those ingredients in a novel way. Myra (Kim Stanley) and Billy Savage (Richard Attenborough) are a middle-aged couple who commit a crime in order to accelerate Myra’s career as a psychic. If anyone respected the idea of Fate, it should be someone who dabbles in the paranormal--someone, let’s say like Medium Myra Savage. But is Myra a “real” medium? Asking that question, of course, raises deeper issues regarding whether or not the spirit world exists along with the authenticity of the claim that a Medium is an intermediary who communicates with the dead and possesses telepathic powers. But all those questions aside, for the purposes of the film, the important thing is that Myra believes she’s the ‘real thing’ and that she has the ability to communicate with the dead. Unfortunately, Myra is mentally unbalanced.

When the black and white film begins, a pitifully small number of people who’ve attended Myra’s weekly Wednesday afternoon séance trickle out of the Savages’ house into the rain. After they leave, the Savages smoothly segue into final preparations for the crime they are about to commit. On the surface, it would be hard to imagine a couple less likely to commit a crime than Myra and Billy as they appear to be the embodiment of respectability. Billy, who suffers from asthma, doesn’t work, and Billy and his wife live in the mausoleum of a house inherited from Myra’s mother. The house’s moody, gothic feel is depressingly accentuated by its heavy Victorian décor--including that staple of respectable Victorian living rooms, the potted aspidistra. In addition, there’s an early gramophone with its enormous unwieldy trumpet. This piece of equipment delights Myra, and she continually plays, much to her husband’s irritation, a scratchy recording of boy soprano Ernest Lough singing the solo version of Hear My Prayer/Oh For the Wings of a Dove. Incidentally, the film’s principal actor, Richard Attenborough says his father frequently played that particular recording during his childhood.

Myra’s plan, which she believes is the idea of her dead child, Arthur, is worked out matter-of-factly to the finest detail. The plan is to kidnap the daughter (Judith Donner) of a wealthy industrialist, and then hold her for ransom. At some point during the kidnapping, Myra will contact the family and reveal, in her capacity as a Medium, vital information about the child’s whereabouts. Naturally, according to Myra, this will authenticate her powers as a Medium and she will become a celebrity as “Arthur wants me to be recognized for what I am.” So you have a woman about to commit a crime on the basis on Spirit direction, and to add to this bizarre situation, she isn’t committing a crime for monetary gain--she has no intention of keeping the ransom money, but she does expect to become wealthier as a result of her new found fame.

The plan goes surprisingly smoothly, and while Billy is a nervous wreck, Myra conducts herself calmly but with a suppressed euphoria which reaches fever pitch when the child’s mother (played by the wife of Bryan Forbes, Nanette Newman) appears to attend a séance. Whereas Billy agonizes over the child’s well-being, Myra is nonchalant about the child’s increasingly compromised health. When Billy desperately challenges Myra’s authority, an interesting exchange takes place as Myra compares the child to an animal in a pet shop which adjusts happily to its new environment:

“Billy, what do you know about children? They’re really quite adaptable, children. They’re like… like, err, little animals. You know how animals look in the pet shop. In the windows when you see them? You take them home and you feed them and they adapt in a matter of hours.”

The crime that occurs is secondary to the dissection of Myra and Billy’s pathological marriage, and consequently the most fascinating aspect of this incredible film is the dynamic that festers between this bitterly unhappy couple. Myra appears to be calm and in total control, but in reality, she’s clearly deranged, and yet Billy’s role is to protect her delusions and keep her in some sort of protected cocoon of her own importance. Her role as a Medium, her communications with their dead child, and her superiority are all aspects of her delusions which Billy props up with his continual humiliations. There’s only one normal exchange between them, and that occurs early in the film when Billy starts bitching about the cleaning lady who’s off holidaying in France, but even this conversation is one-sided and fails to garner a response from Myra. Myra mostly lives in the dark twisted corners of her mind when she’s not giving orders that are tempered with a false veneer of reason and rationality. Throughout the film, she dominates and directs Billy, treating him rather like a recalcitrant, slightly stupid child, and gradually we pick up hints about their past--a period of separation and Myra’s period of unspecified ‘illness.’

Billy, who walks a fine, dangerous line between placating Myra and indulging his wife’s every insane whim, leads a miserable existence. The camera frequently focuses on Billy’s face as he turns away from his wife--his face a mask which registers such emotions as pain, suppressed rage and finally pity. Myra claims she devised the plan after receiving orders from their dead child Arthur. Since Arthur is an off-limits topic for discussion, Billy’s hands are tied unless he’s willing to confront his wife and possibly risk a total breakdown. Some reviews argue that Billy is just another spineless husband, but the Savages’ marriage is more complicated than that. Myra manipulates Billy with sweet, docile-seeming words, but under her quietly restrained brittle manner she is just a heartbeat away from hysteria. Billy, if anything, is a tower of amazing--and misdirected- strength, self-restraint, and self-sacrifice

The film raises some interesting questions about the Savages’ respective responsibility in the matter of the crime. Crime duos frequently include a leader and a follower, and the leaders tend to be the most culpable. But is this true in the case of Myra and Billy? Myra may be the dominant figure in the marriage, and she’s certainly the one who devised the plan to kidnap a child, but she’s deranged whereas Billy is not. Although she’s the planner, and he’s in effect the muscle, is he more or less culpable than his wife?

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is based on the novel of the same name by Australian author Mark McShane. The script which was written by Bryan Forbes introduces an entire thread regarding Myra and Billy’s dead child, and this serves to make the couple more sympathetic than their fictional counterparts. The novel was recently republished by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon was made for about £140,000 by Beaver Films--a production company director Bryan Forbes founded with frequent collaborator Richard Attenborough. Deborah Kerr and Simone Signoret were originally considered for the role of Myra Savage but both turned down the part. Bryan Forbes then sought out Kim Stanley in New York. So in June 1963, 38 year old Kim Stanley, on her third marriage, with a drinking problem and in some financial difficulties, sailed to England to make the second film of her career. Primarily a stage actress, Kim Stanley had only previously appeared in one other film--The Goddess (1958), and she had little interest in furthering her career thorough this path. In the biography of Kim Stanley, Female Marlon Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley from Jon Krampner, the author repeats Attenborough’s praise of Stanley “The complexity of dramatic impression vital to the credibility of Myra was hard to find.” And further: “I don’t believe that Simone could convey, as Kim did, the otherworldliness which this woman inhabited in her private fantasies.” Indeed, throughout the film Myra seems to be listening to words and sounds others cannot hear, and Kim Stanley captures Myra’s complex character complete with her deranged tenacity and her brittle fragility. The eerie recording of Ernest Lough plays throughout the film and serves to underscore Myra’s mental state as she vacillates between this unhappy world and the next.

According to director Bryan Forbes, during the filming, Kim Stanley kept a vodka bottle on a string hidden inside the toilet tank. In 1965, Kim Stanley suffered a nervous breakdown which effectively ended her career. She moved to New Mexico, the state of her birth, taught acting, later held some television roles and starred in Frances (1982) and The Right Stuff (1983). A tremendous talent plagued with personal demons, she died in 2001.

The house used for the film is integral to the story’s macabre mood and deserves mention. Byran Forbes recalled seeing a house with a turret that he thought would be perfect for the film, and he drove around until he found it. The house located at 41 Marryat Road, Wimbledon was coincidentally owned by a woman who knew Kim Stanley very well. Forbes said he chose it for its turret, and there’s a good shot of the turret (the previous owner committed suicide in this room) reflected in a puddle as the credits roll.


Written by Guy Savage

Monday, June 11, 2012

They Won't Believe Me (1947)

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. TCM for all the good it does for classic films - airs a butchered version of the RKO noir They Won't Believe Me!

Instead of the 95 minutes watching a man behave badly we're stuck with a neutered lead not really doing anything all that wrong. The cut 80-minute one turns a top-shelf film noir into a watered-down flim flam. Cutting 15 minutes from a film can do that - especially if the cuts were designed to remove all the “immoral” decisions in it. Hell, the 80-minute cut should be shown before the full version to film students as a lesson on how a bad edit can ruin a film.

And I know this may annoy some - but the uncut version isn't easy to find and watch. Former home video releases of They Won't Believe Me! and even the fairly recent Italian DVD release of the noir are all 80 minutes (despite labels) - and they look like the same print TCM airs frequently. Even TCMs site lists the movie as running 95 minutes. Clock it when it airs tomorrow and you'll see what I mean. It ain't. Or better yet - don't watch it and wait for Noir City to roll into town and see it on the big screen in it's entirety. The uncut version is sometimes screened by Eddie Muller (at Noir City). Video pirates can find the full version on the “gray market” online.

There is some hope for the rest: Noir fans at the Back Alley mention that the WB Archive wants to release the full version on DVD but apparently they have some issues with the original print (as of right now). If they did release it it'd be one that would be snagged up by true film nuts. It's a film that would have fit perfectly on the (now apparently abandoned) WB Film Noir DVD box sets that they used to put out. It's a better movie than most of the ones they included on the last few sets.

The film

The plot is a variation of Double Indemnity. And I mean that as a compliment. It fits nicely with "A" pictures like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice but retains that RKO look and feel (slightly cheap and gritty with familiar actors peppering the edges). That would include Out of the Past released 1/2 a year after They Won't Believe Me!

Robert Young plays Larry Ballentine -- a young playboy who marries rich. He finds himself bored with is wife and begins an inappropriate relationship with one of his wife's friends (Jane Greer). When we first are introduced to Larry and Janice it's in a courtroom with Larry on trial for murder. It quickly moves to a flashback showing the two on a Saturday afternoon meetup at a New York City bar. They drink crazy frozen drinks that you'd never think about ordering when you're alone. They're flirty and touchy - as they discuss their plans to build a boat together. (The unedited cut shows that this relationship is clearly more than friendship, but the damned re-edit makes it look like Larry is kinda slow and is only interested in the toy boat not one of the “queens of film noir” batting her doe eyes next to him.)

Larry - after downing a few drinks - stumbles home to be confronted by his wife's aunt and friends who think he's a heal. His wife, for a change, is actually beautiful and very understanding. You'd expect the old battle axe like Edward G. Robinson's missis in Scarlet Street. She's actually quite a catch - refined and rich, yes. But understanding and tolerant of her untrustworthy husband. He doesn't see it that way.

Things happen and the next week he tells her he's leaving her for Janice. Greta (Rita Johnson) convinces him otherwise and Janice is out of the picture.

Larry continues to work for his wife's company. He's only there because his wife owns a sizable share of it. He is lazy --as expected --and not liked by his partner Trenton (familiar face Tom Powers.) Underling Verna Carlson catches Larry's eye one day. Before he can finish a voice over talking about how he's been “too close to the flame and is now power shy when it comes to beautiful women” he's asking her what kind of perfume she likes. Verna (Susan Hayward) is another unique twist on a film noir character. She's a gold digger for sure. But she admits it. And the second she doesn't get her way with Larry she starts something up with his pug face (and probably also married) partner Trenton. Ruthless but she never becomes the femme fatale you'd expect. In fact, there's no true murder in the movie (if you can believe the possibly unreliable witness telling the story). There's shattered lives and suicide thanks to Larry's selfish, heartless nature. But no real crime. I kept waiting for Verna to talk Larry into killing his wife. Instead, she turns out to be fairly decent - like the other two woman in the film. Only Larry is the letch.

There are some nice visual touches in the movie and the final scene at the farm house with the horse is a jolt. I would guess you could credit camera man Harry J. Wild for most of the film's look - he certainly shot his share of noir including Pitfall, Nocturne, Station West, The Threat, His Kind of Woman and many, many more. Director/actor Irving Pichel didn't do anything remarkable in the film-noir world outside of this one (which is great), but turned out the enjoyable Quicksand in 1950.

The cast of They Won't Believe Me! Is strong. Robert Young is remembered by men of a certain age as Marcus Welby, M.D. Here he's quite good as the playboy with a wandering eye. Jane Greer is only months away before Out of the Past is released. She's at the height of her beauty. Finally Susan Hayward is given some of the best lines. She's quite something when she's trying to reel in Larry by cutting down his rich wife and flashing a smile that is so suggestive it should be illegal - only Gilda's hair flip is more powerful.


Hayward and Young's best bits are exorcised from the 80 minute cut including a kiss at the opera (with Larry's wife not too far away.)

Noir of the Week has been going for seven years now. There aren't many top shelf noirs we haven't talked about yet. This is one. They Won't Believe Me! Is a good stiff drink if you can find a bar that serves it straight up.

Written by Steve-O

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Shed No Tears (1948)

Most “lost” film noirs are no longer actually lost. Between Internet torrents and streaming services like Netflix, many obscure and previously unavailable films are unavailable no longer. And if you’re having a particularly hard time finding a rare title, you can probably track down a hardcore noir collector who has it and is willing to either sell it to you or trade it in exchange for a copy of some equally difficult-to-find film. However, some films still remain truly lost. Until earlier this year, if you were to ask a film noir collector for a list of titles that he just couldn’t seem to find, Shed No Tears (1948) would probably be at or near the top of his list. Until this March, the low-budget B Noir had never found its way into the home movie market on any format. Bootleg copies were non-existent, and the film had also apparently never aired on TV. It seemed that Shed No Tears might have been lost forever.

Enter an unlikely hero: Alpha Home Entertainment. The much-maligned peddler of low-quality prints of public domain films somehow managed to track down a 16mm print of this film, and in March, they released it on DVD in a surprisingly watchable transfer. So for fans of obscure noir, does this rare, forgotten film warrant a watch?

Shed No Tears opens with a bang - or more accurately, a fire. Sam Grover (played by Wallace Ford) fakes his own death by setting fire to a rented hotel room and throwing a burning body wearing his watch from the window (don’t worry - it’s just a corpse he somehow obtained from a used car dealer, who in turn got it from a morgue). Why would Sam do such a thing? Well, he’s married to Edna (June Vincent, whom film noir aficionados will recognize from the 1946 noir Black Angel), and Edna has expensive tastes. Sam has a $50,000 life insurance policy with Edna as the named beneficiary, so while he’s holed up on the other side of the country after faking his own death, she’ll identify the corpse as his body, collect the fifty grand, and then they’ll reunite and live happily ever after. Or at least Sam thinks that’s the plan.

The double crosses start nearly as soon as the film does. The train carrying Sam into hiding hasn’t even finished leaving the station when Edna starts snuggling up with Ray (Mark Roberts), her lover on the side, a man who’s much better looking and much more her age. (Sam is twice Edna’s age, which is hammered home when, as he’s looking at a picture of her during his train ride, a woman next to him sees the picture and asks if she’s his daughter. “Granddaughter,” he replies.) Edna’s unhappy with Sam, because, as she explains to Ray, “Sam double-crossed me from the start.” He spent lavishly to get Edna’s attention and acted like he was loaded, but once they tied the knot, Edna found out the terrible truth - Sam spent all his money courting her. By the time they were married, he was flat broke. So she hatched a plan to get the insurance money and pitched it to Sam, all the while knowing she would take the money and run away with Ray - all the way to Mexico.

At just over an hour, Shed No Tears manages to cram in a lot of plot developments. Like the most successful B noirs, it trims the fat in favor of a lean, mean progression of plot points. The film is also aided by some excellent performances. Vincent gives it her all as the conniving, back-stabbing, two-timing femme fatale, and Johnstone White turns in a surprisingly solid performance as Huntington Stewart, the debonair but deceptive private detective who Sam’s son Tom (Dick Hogan) hires in an effort to find out the truth about his father’s death. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Wallace Ford, who gives an uninspired, wooden performance that drags down many of his scenes. He’s the primary reason the third act seems sluggish, as it’s the part of the film that features his character most heavily.

Jean Yarbrough, who could accurately be considered both a workhorse and a hack, directed the film, bringing a workmanlike quality to the proceedings. Yarborough, who started out in the shorts division at RKO in the 1930s, eventually hung up a more-or-less permanent shingle on Poverty Row, cranking out cheapie after cheapie for low-rent studios like Monogram, PRC and Progressive Pictures, sometimes directing as many as eight films in a single year. However, by the 1950s, due to his ability to direct quickly and on a budget, he moved into a successful second career as a television director, helming well over one hundred different episodes of various television shows, including fifty-two episodes of The Abbott and Costello Show. It’s not hard to see that he directed Shed No Tears on the cheap, but he still manages to add a bit of flair to the film with some excellent night shots, including the best moment Wallace Ford has in the entire film - the moment when Sam, hidden in Edna’s house and cloaked in darkness, discovers that she is cheating on him with Ray.

Shed No Tears isn’t a classic, but it’s certainly not a failure, either. It has all the elements of a true film noir: dark subject matter, plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and convincingly nefarious performances, especially from Vincent. It’s not going to land on any “Best Noirs of All Time” lists, but it’s still a solid feature that is once again, finally and deservedly, available to enjoy.


Written by Nighthawk

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