Monday, July 30, 2012

Union Station (1950)

Los Angeles Union Station has been called the “last of the great railway stations built in the United States.” With its signature clock tower, tiled arches, and cavernous lobby, the station is one of downtown’s most recognizable structures. It opened during the summer of 1939, crowding out a large portion of the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. It has also been a popular and versatile movie location, appearing in classic noirs such as Criss Cross, Cry Danger, and The Narrow Margin, as well as newer films ranging from Bugsy to Blade Runner. However it’s biggest moment came in 1950, as the featured location the Paramount film noir Union Station.

Despite the rail connections, Union Station is essentially a kidnapping picture, peppered with police procedural elements and suspenseful cat-and-mouse chases. Unfortunately most of the chatter about the film is mired in the banal issue of where it actually takes place. With references to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the setting is a geographic impossibility meant, as was en vogue at the time, to be emblematic of all American cities. It has all of the bells and whistles that draw us to noir, including a hardboiled story from noir scribe Sydney Boehm (Side Street and The Big Heat), and a superb visual identity — courtesy of Rudolph Maté, who transitioned to directing after earning five Oscar nominations as a cinematographer. Noir fans are most likely to remember Maté as the director of an earlier 1950 project, D.O.A., though as unconventional as the concept of that movie assuredly is, Union Station is in every other way a superior film.

It has a fine cast, with Sunset Blvd. star William Holden as railroad cop Willie Calhoun, and Oscar winner Barry Fitzgerald as city police detective Donnelly. The two actors have great chemistry, and while it has become a cliché for screen cops to bicker over jurisdiction, their characters work together comfortably. Regardless of who is actually in charge, the older Donnelly appears content to mentor his inexperienced protégé rather than taking the lead. Their quarry is Joe Beacom (Lyle Bettger), a cold-blooded, misogynistic killer who dreamt up a big time score while doing a stretch for a stick-up. Beacom and a pair of cronies, Gus and Vince, kidnap Lorna (Allene Roberts), a blind girl who dotes on her tycoon father, Mr. Murchison (Herbert Heyes). They stash her with Beacom’s girlfriend (the exceptionally good Jan Sterling, whose part is entirely too brief) and chase down the commuter train headed for Union Station, where they stow the girl’s bag and scarf in a locker, then mail the key to her unsuspecting father. Unknown to them, their suspicious behavior on board the train is noticed by another passenger, Mr. Murchison’s personal secretary Joyce (Nancy Olson), who reports her concerns to the police.

The rail terminal is an ideal setting for the drama of Union Station to play out. Preceding widespread commercial airline or interstate highway travel, it hosted the “immense human traffic” of life in the boom years following the Second World War. Not itself a destination, the terminal is a locus where everyone hurries, paying as little attention as possible to other travelers. The station is also a place of many observation points, where police, civilians, and criminals conduct surveillance. On the whole, Union Station is very concerned with the nuances of how and what we pay attention to, and with the art of being seen but not noticed. For those wishing to hide their schemes beneath large-scale comings and goings, the station is an irresistible venue. And unlike the preening movie gangsters from a generation before, with their payoffs and ‘legitimate’ businesses, the heavies of film noir go unnoticed, forcing the police to adopt new tactics in their fight against crime. Yet like the maze of tunnels that dominate Union Station’s climax, something treacherous lurks under the surface of the film: it subtly undermines the methodology of by-the-book law enforcement, instead arguing for the kind of gung-ho maverick police officers who would eventually dominate the American crime film.

The police in movies made prior to Union Station are typically portrayed as caring family men who live only “To Protect and Serve,” but the cops here begin to depart from this wholesome image. Calhoun and his mentor Donnelly want justice for Lorna, but they cynically believe she’s already dead — and smoothly lie to her father so that he’ll follow through with the money drop, which they believe will lead them to the kidnappers. This callous game of charades is all the more chilling as played by the lovable Fitzgerald, whose Donnelly repeatedly promises Mr. Murchison that the police will not “do anything” until the money has changed hands and Lorna is safe.

In Union Station’s one truly brilliant scene, the police nab one of Beacom’s accomplices, Vince. He refuses to talk, so a gaggle of cops strong arm him onto the platform and convince him that he’ll be murdered if he doesn’t snitch. Once again the casting of Barry Fitzgerald pays off, as he and Holden employ a smooth good cop-bad cop routine that ends when frustrated good-cop Donnelly mutters to Calhoun, “Make it look accidental.” Soon Vince’s head is shoved in the path of an oncoming express and he’s begging to spill his guts. By paying close attention to Holden’s “performance” during the questioning it becomes clear that the whole thing is a sham; however it’s fair (and fascinating) to speculate about whether the filmmakers wanted viewers to take the scene at face value, or as a wink-wink acquiescence to the Breen Office, which likely would have intervened at any credible evidence that the cops would stoop to murder. Regardless, the scene showed audiences something unusual for the time: cops brutally violating a suspect’s civil rights. The scene evokes a strikingly similar moment in a post-code contemporary film, L.A. Confidential, where it’s abundantly clear that while Ed Exley’s interrogation of the Night Owl suspects involves much improvisation, Bud White’s actions are something else entirely.

The irony of Vince’s interrogation is that his capture came not as a result of police work, but because Joyce, conducting her own surveillance, simply points him out him to Calhoun. In fact, it is always Joyce, rather than Calhoun or his men, who identifies bad guys or notices the life-saving detail. Furthermore, both she and Mr. Muchison make it clear that police involvement in the affair is not entirely welcome. Joyce expresses regret about reporting her initial suspicion of Beacom, while Mr. Murchison tells Donnelly that he thinks that Lorna is most likely to survive if the law stays far away and simply lets him pay the ransom. Their lack of faith in the cops is understandable but unusual for a film of this vintage. Although an early scene establishes that Calhoun can spot a small-time hustler from a mile away, when it comes to heavies like Beacom the cops are surprisingly ineffective. The kidnappers stroll through the station without being noticed, even when one them, Gus, is obviously casing Mr. Murchison. Joyce identifies him, but in the sequence that follows Calhoun can’t even accomplish a routine surveillance operation. After Gus boards the elevated train, the police attempt a simple revolving tail, but after they overplay their nonchalance he gets wise and runs. A footrace quickly gives way to a gunfight, and Gus meets a grisly fate at the city stockyards. The scene is exhilarating, but it underlines the recurring notion that the police are out of their depth. Scratch one kidnapper, but Lorna’s chances of survival are bleaker than ever. In their defense, the cops understand Beacom better than Mr. Murchison: Lorna may still be alive, but Beacom has no intention of returning her to her father. He plans to dump her body in the river as soon as he secures the ransom.

In light of the law’s many failures, audiences were obliged to decide whether or not these were just dumb cops — which they do not seem to be — or if the increased savvy of the hoods and numbers of bodies passing through Union Station was simply too much to handle. So in this increasingly complicated world, with its new-type hoods, how can the law expect to stay ahead? The answer may lie (and pave the way for the movie cops of the next fifty years) in a fascinating exchange between Calhoun and Donnelly that occurs just after they receive news that Beacom has gunned down a lone officer pounding a beat:
“That patrolman have a family?" 
“Too bad he tackled a setup like that alone. A guy doesn’t jump into the fire feet first.” 
“Well, some days a man has to jump. Feet first or head first.” 
“A foolish man.” 
“You were in the war, Calhoun. Were you ever pinned down by mortar fire? In my time it was cannon balls, the kind they have on monuments now. But even then there was some man, some foolish man who stood up and walked into it. That’s how wars are won.” 
“That’s how fellas wind up on slabs before their time.”
In Union Station’s exciting underground finale, Beacom surfaces to grab the ransom, but his plans unravel when Joyce (of course) notices his decisive blunder. In the moments that follow, Calhoun shrugs off his cop pretensions for the simple truth of the gun, and becomes that “foolish man” who jumps into the fire. He pursues Beacom through the machine-filled basements of the train station, and down into the tunnels that spread underneath like worm holes. High on the rough tunnel walls are wooden signs that read “Caution: Stop-Look-Listen,” and beneath them cop and crook punctuate the damp blackness with gunfire, until only the lucky one is left breathing. Further up the tunnel, a terrified blind girl sobs over the uncertainty of the next few moments...

Trailer courtesy of TCM

Written by The Professor
His blog is Where Danger Lives!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Letter (1940)

“It’s strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.”
The 1940 film The Letter from director William Wyler begins and ends on deceptively still nights illuminated by a full moon. Just a few short weeks connect these two nights, and it’s a time in which a murder occurs, a trial takes place, a husband faces the painful truth about his wife and fate delivers its judgment with a sure, implacable hand.

The film opens at rubber plantation No1, on the outskirts of Singapore. In an idealized scene, natives swing indolently in hammocks while strumming various instruments, but the quiet night is ripped apart by a gunshot. Horrified natives watch as Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) dressed in an elegant lounging gown follows a man down the front steps of her plantation home as she calmly and methodically empties the bullets of a gun into the man’s body as he falls. Just as calmly, Leslie orders the horrified Head Boy (Tetsu Komai) to go and collect her husband, plantation manager, Robert (Herbert Marshall) and tell him to come home.

A few hours later, Robert and lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) gather at the Crosbie plantation house along with a local official, the newly appointed district officer. Leslie is persuaded to come out of the bedroom and considering that she’s just emptied a gun into a long time friend and acquaintance, she’s remarkably calm and collected. She’s also changed outfits. Apparently she’s too overwrought to say what happened, but once she’s reclined on the couch, with lace hanky in hand, in a school-marmish fashion she explains what led up to the shooting. According to Leslie, Robert was away for the night and she was working on a lace bedspread (a perfect touch since it hints at marital intimacy) when she heard a tap at the door and was surprised to see Hammond there. Noting that she didn’t hear a car drive up, Leslie invites the old friend in and offers him a drink. Not long after that, he declares his romantic and sexual interest in Leslie and proceeds to carry her off to the bedroom in order to rape her. Leslie says he stumbled, she took a gun and shot him.

Even though this is, according to Leslie, her extremely supportive husband and the District Officer, an open and shut case of self-defense, Leslie is arrested as a matter of form and taken to Singapore to await trial. Without exception, the local community and even the jailers supports Leslie’s actions, and she’s seen as a plucky woman who is to be admired, and only the lawyer, Howard Joyce, is quietly troubled by two facets of Leslie’s story: her unwavering attention to detail and the fact that she emptied the gun into Hammond as he lay wounded on the ground. To the viewer, Leslie’s behaviour seems wildly inappropriate given the death of Hammond and the subsequent trial. She vacillates between making light of the charges through flippancy and going to extremes to appear as a graceful hostess.

The other half of the justification equation for the killing of Hammond is that he was considered persona non grata in the British ex-pat community as he married a Chinese woman (Gale Sondergaard). In a rare moment in which Leslie loses emotional control, Mrs. Hammond is described as “horrible” with a face like a “mask.” Hammond, an acknowledged “favourite with the ladies,” also owned a gambling joint--although this isn’t mentioned until Joyce airs this bit of dirt in a conversation with Robert Crosbie.

While Leslie is in jail for less than two weeks awaiting the trial, an extremely important piece of evidence surfaces: a letter that is in the possession of Mrs. Hammond. Joyce, who has only questioned Leslie’s story in the most perfunctory way, is approached via his unctuous Chinese clerk--Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) about the existence of the letter. This letter not only has the power to convict Leslie of murder, but its importance as a piece of evidence reveals Leslie’s true manipulative character. Leslie is in control of almost every scene in the film--from the very beginning when she empties a gun into Hammond’s chest, when she’s surrounded by men who listen to the story of how she bravely fought off Hammond, a dastardly “swine” with rape on his mind, and when she’s confronted by Joyce about the letter’s contents. Bette Davis delivers a stellar performance throughout the film, but she is especially marvelous when confronted by Joyce; it’s always fascinating to see a good actress play a bad liar. During the interview with Joyce, Leslie plays the part of a plucky woman who faces weeks in jail rather as one would accept a sojourn in a health spa. Then when she’s too overwrought by Joyce’s questions, she faints, but she still doesn’t miss a beat, and when she returns to consciousness and pleads for Joyce’s help, she insists her fate rests in Joyce’s hands. When that doesn’t work, she brings in the big guns: Joyce’s relationship with Robert Crosbie.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Leslie and Joyce go to a shop to meet Mrs. Hammond, and an intense and dramatic stare-down takes place between the two women against the backdrop of the shop which is full of trinkets and antiques. This is one of the two scenes in the film in which Leslie is not in control of the people around her. Confronted with Mrs. Hammond against the tinkling of wind chimes, we see a crack in Leslie's haughty manner, and it’s also in this scene that we get the hint that the dead Hammond had relationships with two incredibly steely women capable of the ultimate revenge.

The Letter is based on a short story from the prolific hand of W. Somerset Maugham and was made into a play of the same name. Maugham frequently created characters who, as outsiders, watch and note the intricate social behaviour of others. In The Letter, the observer is lawyer Howard Joyce, a decent man who finds himself torn by conflicting moral obligations. One of Maugham’s favourite themes is to explore the divisions between married couples, and the issue of class differences frequently arises in Maugham’s work. In The Letter, class differences are also racial differences, and so we see that Hammond, by stepping into the Chinese community for a wife, tars himself permanently with the possibilities of all sorts of despicable behaviour and is shut out of so-called ‘decent’ society by his associations.

Leslie is, of course, the main character here. She is tightly wound and in complete control for most of the film, but her inner turmoil is evidenced by the motion of her hands. Once caught by her own lies, she resorts to playing the ‘little woman’ card in order to justify her story, so we see her claiming to be “dreadfully stupid” on the subject of guns (even though we saw her empty one into Hammond), and she also claims to have a poor memory when questioned by Joyce--even though her story hasn’t budged by one detail since the shooting. Leslie’s husband is naïve--another male type to appear in Maugham’s fiction, but in the very beginning of the film when Robert learns that Hammond is shot, he immediately sends a servant for his lawyer. It’s almost as though he knew that Leslie shot Hammond--although at that point no one has told him that. Is he one of those men who find it easier to turn a blind eye to his wife’s affair?

While Leslie maligns Mrs. Hammond as a woman whose face is a mask--a mask of makeup, it’s clear that Leslie’s face is the real mask, and underneath the mask of polite behaviour lurks a woman of incredible passions who’s not at all what she appears. Leslie, in common with the other Europeans in the film, completely underestimates Mrs. Hammond. It’s assumed that Mrs. Hammond is motivated by money, but it’s not until the end of the film that we understand the game she played.

William Wyler also directed Bette Davis in the 1938 film, Jezebel. During the making of the film, they had an affair, but Wyler ended the relationship, and Bette, who was pregnant by Wyler, had an abortion. Wyler planned to use Davis for the role of Leslie from the project’s inception, and Wyler stipulated that he had the “right to withdraw” if Bette Davis declined the role, and given the baggage between them, there was a distinct possibility that she would refuse. Luckily, she accepted, and she’s perfect here as the tightly-wound Mrs. Crosbie whose domestic persona is just the outward repressed manifestation of her true nature. Bette Davis had a long history with this role as she saw The Letter performed on Broadway repeatedly in 1927 when she was a drama student in New York.

Maugham sometimes used real life as fodder for his stories (The Painted Veil for example). The Letter may have been based on the real-life murder case and sensational trial involving Mrs. Mabel Proudlock, the wife of a headmaster in Kuala Lumpur who shot and killed William Crozier Stewart on April 23, 1911. She claimed that he tried to rape her after an unexpected visit made during one of her husband’s absences. She shot Stewart 6 times, and after her story fell apart she was convicted and sentenced to hang. She was eventually pardoned and died in an insane asylum.

While the film version of The Letter is startlingly true to the source material, there are a few notable differences which can be blamed on—or attributed to--Joseph I Breen, the head censor at the Production Code Administration. Breen declared that there was no way he would approve the story as submitted, so revisions had to be made--a spectacular ending was added and Hammond’s Chinese mistress became Hammond’s Chinese wife. Maugham’s ending is marvelously ambiguous.

Written by Guy Savage

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Violent Saturday (1955)

In the early 1950s, Daryl Zanuck, the founder of 20th Century Fox, decided that his studio was going to become the leader in filming and presenting their movies in Cinemascope, an anamorphic, ultra-widescreen lens technology that produced films in a 2.55.1 aspect ratio. Violent Saturday was one of the first films Fox planned to release under the Cinemascope banner, which they started using and licensing to other studios in 1953. One of the first films to successfully use the Cinemascope technology was the Disney classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and director Richard Fleischer’s assured implementation of the Cinemascope technology (in his widescreen directorial debut, no less) got him a job at 20th Century Fox. His first assignment: Violent Saturday.

The film is a mix of two genres: film noir and small-town melodrama. While noir is known for its claustrophobic feel and black and white cinematography, and Violent Saturday shows off its lush, colorful widescreen production values, don’t be fooled - the film is noir at its core. Before Fleischer moved to 20th Century Fox, he worked as a hired gun for RKO Radio Pictures, cranking out minor but enjoyable B noirs such as The Clay Pigeon (1949), Follow Me Quietly (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950) as well as a genuine noir classic: The Narrow Margin (1952). By 1955, Fleischer was firing on all cylinders, and Violent Saturday proves it.

The film begins with the arrival of three would-be bank robbers in the small Southwestern town of Bradenville. But their arrival isn’t an instance of evil intruding upon innocence; plenty of corruption is already lurking just beneath the surface of this seemingly idyllic town. There’s Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan), the voyeuristic bank manager who can’t stop stalking Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith), the pretty little nurse who happens to be nursing an attempted fling with Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the alcoholic owner of the town’s copper mine. He doesn’t want to drink so much, but he can’t help it. His wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) has, as he puts it, “two or three hobbies a year,” her most recent hobby being the local country club stud, Gil Clayton (Brad Dexter). But that’s not all. There’s Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney), the purse-snatching librarian who steals to pay off her debt to Harry’s bank, and even the most functional family in town, the Martins, are dealing with the fact that their son is ashamed of his father Shelley (Victor Mature) because he isn’t a war hero like his best friend’s dad. The only seemingly decent people are the Amish family that lives miles outside of town, headed by Stadt (Ernest Borgnine, who won the Best Actor Oscar for Marty in the same year as the release of Violent Saturday).

The complexity of the film’s intertwined characters and plotlines originates in the script, which was penned by veteran noir scribe Sydney Boehm. A quick look at his screenwriting resume - High Wall (1947), Side Street (1950), Mystery Street (1950), Union Station (1950), The Atomic City (1952), The Big Heat (1953), Black Tuesday (1954) and Rogue Cop (1954) - reveals that by the time he adapted Violent Saturday for the screen, he had mastered the art of the noir screenplay. The film could have collapsed under the weight of so many different plotlines, but Fleischer does a masterful job of weaving together Boehm’s multiple narrative threads. Fleischer favors long takes that can go on for minutes without a single cut, staging scenes in places like the town’s hotel bar so that he can move effortlessly from a conversation between a drunk Boyd and a sober Harry to the quiet observations of two of the bank robbers, Chapman (J. Carrol Naish) and Dill (Lee Marvin), then to some flirting between Boyd and Linda. The film takes its time setting up all of the different storylines, but Boehm and Fleischer tangle all of these characters together once the bank robbery gets underway, bringing the town’s corruption to the surface and proving that while heroism can exist, even Stadt, the most principled man in the film, will betray his beliefs when pushed past his limits (and in the process, provide the film with its most memorable image).

The performances in the film range from above average to excellent, with Lee Marvin as perhaps the best of the bunch - a bank robber with more to him than just a snarl and harsh word. In one moment, a kid bumps into him and knocks his nasal inhaler to the ground, then quickly bends down to pick it up, apologizing as he does. Dill crushes his hand with his foot, grinding it into the sidewalk, then finally lets him up only to shove him away, growling at him to “beat it.” But in another moment, late at night, Dill wakes up another one of the bank robbers because he can’t sleep and wants to quietly reminisce about his failed marriage. Marvin brings a multi-faceted complexity to the role and gives a great example of the early promise that launched his long and successful career.


Not only are the performances solid, but the film also looks beautiful. Fleischer and cinematographer Charles G. Clarke take full advantage of the Cinemascope technology, presenting a film lush with color that consistently uses the widescreen frame to showcase the natural beauty of the American Southwest. The film was shot mostly on location in Bisbee, Arizona, and it shows. Throughout the film, Fleischer employs some interesting and effective camerawork, and noir aficionados will recognize a tribute to a particularly famous bank robbery scene from Gun Crazy (1950) as soon as it begins.

While the melodrama aspects of the story sometimes threaten to overwhelm the film, Violent Saturday remains true to its noir roots, presenting a tale of a town in which the far-reaching presence and corrosive effects of corruption are significant and permanent. While the ending keeps the film from being a pure noir, the fingerprints of noir are all over it. It’s a true top-shelf film from a screenwriter and a director at the top of their games. If you haven’t already, see it.

Written by Nighthawk

Monday, July 09, 2012

Canon City (1948)

Canon City is a realistic drama- based on a true story- about an unwilling participant in a prison break during a cold winter storm.

The film sports an excellent cast and crew which - on paper - would probably lead you to believe that this is a great film noir. If you like prison dramas you'll probably find this one well worth your time. It's not Shawshank RedemptionThe Escapist, Le Trou or even Escape From Alcatraz. It's a b-grade Eagle-Lion film that looks more expensive and polished than most of their fare during that time. Canon City despite it's flaws somehow manages to be an OK flick from the classic film noir era.

The Director of Photography is John Alton. Unfortunately the film doesn't show enough of the the noir look associated with his other noir films. Maybe director Anthony Mann had more of a say in the way his collaborations with Alton looked. Maybe it's just the constant snow in Canon City obscuring the photography. Crane Wilber was a fine noir writer (He Walked by Night, The Story of Molly X) but his his stints in the director's chair usually resulted in lesser quality movies- this one could be included.

When the movie begins you'll probably start to have a sneaking suspicion that maybe you-- the viewer - is doing hard time. The warden is played by the actual man that over saw the Colorado State Penitentiary when the crash out happened a year before. Honestly, the warden comes across as a self promoter that didn't think twice appearing in a movie showing his inmates easily break out of his lockup-- thus making him look even more foolish. The docudrama opening voice over (featuring the god-like pipes of Reed Hadley) - talking about criminal justice... based on actual events... and blah, blah, blah - veers into insanity when the warden and the voice-over man begin talking to each other.

“have a seat!” the warden 
“THANK YOU. I WILL” voice-over

But don't worry - after 20-minutes or so of unbearable cinema that the prisoners take over and the film takes off.

The rest of the prison workers and inmates - the opening would have you believe they're actual inmates- are a who's-who of 40s/50s b-crime drama and western supporting players.

The star - Scott Brady-- never looked more like his brother Laurence Tierney. Brady always came across as clean and honest - which works for him in Port of New York and other cop films. Despite or possibly because of what Larry was allegedly like in real life, brother Laurence Tierney could play bad more convincingly than anyone. Scott Brady could only do “good cop/good cowboy/good soldier” and he did it well for a long time. Smartly, the filmmakers turn the reluctant escapee played by Brady (in his first film) into someone you can root for in the end.  A far cry from his brother's Dillinger just three years before.

The supporting cast is fun. Big schnozed Jeff Corey (“Blinky” in The Killers and yet another inmate role in Brute Force) is given a rare meaty part as one of the convicts. Whit Bissell is bi-speckled and spineless—but this time a killer!, and Stanley Clements (Destination Murder) is the short, scrawny, weasely, fast-talking con that always seems to have a leggy tramp stashed somewhere. Keep your eyes peeled for “Bones” DeForest Kelley. He was the star of the most low-budget (yet amazing) film noir of the time, Fear in the Night the year before this one.

Women play a strong part in the Canon City as well. When the escapees scatter around the snowy prison town looking for shelter, food and transportation away from the man hunt -- they're almost all outwitted by savvy, quick-thinking women. Corey's melon being targeted by an old dame with a hammer is one of the best sequences in the film.


The action is outstanding and I found myself drawn into each police/prisoner standoff as the coppers track down the escapees one by one. There's a chase on a kind of mountain-side elevator near a suspension bridge that shows off Alton's eye for interesting shots.

But, as I mention before, good but not great. Rent Brute Force or Caged, track down Crashout, Under the Gun, Black Tuesday, or Big House USA to experience a quality, outstanding prison film noir. Canon City - available on Netflix streaming - is worthwhile if you can get over the strange drawn-out beginning and moralizing end.

Written by Steve-O

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Mirage (1965)

David Stillwell (Gregory Peck): [to Walter Matthau’s private investigator Ted Caselle]
“Wouldn't it be hilarious if it turned out you actually knew what you were doing?”

Mirage is an odd film; a “sort of” noir shot in the mid 1960s, by one of the men who helped invented the noir genre back in the 40s, Edward Dmytryk. From the start, Dmytryk was an interesting stylist, taking rather mundane projects like the routine horror film The Devil Commands (1941), or the even less promising Captive Wild Woman (1943), and imbuing them with a sense of personal commitment and genuine menace. Then, with the exploitation thriller Hitler’s Children (1943), which made a fortune for RKO, and supposedly depicted the activities of the Hitler Youth movement, Dmytryk finally had a chance to move up, and with Murder, My Sweet (1944), one of the best of Philip Marlowe films, which gave Dick Powell a whole new career as a hard boiled detective after spending the 1930s as a juvenile crooner in Busby Berkeley films, Dmytryk did just that.

Crossfire (1947) consolidated his reputation as a noir realist, specializing in stories torn from the headlines, but Dmytryk’s political beliefs soon came under scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee, and along with many others, he soon found himself on trial for contempt of Congress as one of the Hollywood Ten - the story is well known. Found guilty, Dmytryk was sent to prison, but soon cracked, was released, gave “friendly” testimony to the HUAC, named names, and was rewarded with one of the most brutal films of his career, The Sniper (1952), about a psychopathic killer, with Eduard Franz in the leading role, and Adolphe Menjou, one of the architects of the Blacklist, as the co-star, perhaps to keep an eye on the erring director.

But Dmytryk had learned his lesson, so to speak, and went on to such big budget successes as The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Raintree County (1957), but by 1965, his career was coming to a close. That’s when Universal tapped Dmytryk to make one of the last of their medium budgeted black and white theatrical films - the last year the studio released any major films in black and white, in fact - the amnesia murder mystery Mirage, starring Gregory Peck, up-and-comer Walter Matthau as private investigator Ted Caselle, Diane Baker as Shela, the film’s love interest, and a gallery of great character actors, including George Kennedy as a vengeful “enforcer,” Willard; Kevin McCarthy as the smarmy Josephson, the ultimate corporation man; Leif Erickson as a militaristic heavy, Major Crawford; Walter Abel as Calvin, a world - renowned philanthropist; pudgy Jack Weston as Lester, a sardonic hitman; Robert H. Harris as an unsympathetic psychiatrist, and a host of other excellent players.

The script for Mirage, by Peter Stone, is based on a novel by Howard Fast, and production went smoothly throughout the shoot. The film looks it, too, with a high gloss, and a certain cold, detached style that perfectly fits the corporate canyons on the New York City landscape. Mirage was photographed in workmanlike fashion by Joseph MacDonald, and features a compelling and very early music score by Quincy Jones. (In his autobiography, Did They Mention the Music?, composer Henry Mancini recalls getting a call from a production executive on the film asking whether or not Jones could handle the assignment; as the conversation went on, Mancini realized to his shock that the fact that Jones was African-American was the unspoken sticking point. Disgusted by this corporate racism, Mancini gave Jones an unqualified reference for the film, and Jones, of course, did a superb job on the film).

The real star of the film, though, other than the plot, which is remarkably complex and heavily laden with flashbacks, flash forwards, and time shifts, is the Alain Resnais-influenced editing of Ted J. Kent, which is so sharp and flashy that one wonders how Universal let him get away with it. Obviously, Dmytryk designed the film in this fashion, but even so, it’s a much more adventurous film that the typical Universal feature of the era that it stands out, even today, as a boldly innovative film.

I can’t go into the plot in too much detail without spoiling the film, which I have no intention of doing; suffice it to say that Peck plays David Stillwell, a corporate cog who thinks he is a “cost accountant,” who is stuck in a skyscraper during a blackout as the film opens.

At the same time, Calvin, the philanthropist, falls to his death from the building, and then Stillwell’s life seems to collapse. No one knows him, his office seems to have vanished, he has no memory of the past several years, it seems, and he keeps experiencing events that simply couldn’t have happened, so much so that he fears he’s losing his mind. Also, people show up trying to kill him or kidnap him, like Jack Weston’s Lester or George Kennedy’s Willard, thinking that Stillwell has some crucial information in his briefcase, but Stillwell, naturally, has no idea what this might be.

When he is cold-shouldered by Dr. Broden (Robert H. Harris), a psychiatrist he picks out of the phone book, Stillwell is at a loss, but determined to find out what has happened to the life he thought he had. Convinced that there has to be a rational explanation, Stillwell then hires fledgling private eye Ted Caselle to find out what’s really happening to him - is he losing his mind, is it all a dream, or is it just blotted out memories that he doesn’t want to recall? However, before he can get too far on the case, Caselle is murdered. This sets up the stage for the final showdown that shows corporate corruption at its most venal, as Stillwell discovers a truth that he barely suspected was possible as the root of the entire affair.

Mirage is visually crisp and solid, because part of it was shot in location in Manhattan in the 1960s, and it certainly captures the flavor of the era, but in its lighting and visual setups, it looks more like a black and white TV movie than anything else, something like William Castle’s interesting thriller The Night Walker, which came out from Universal the same year. What makes Mirage so compelling is Dmytryk’s adroit blending of fact, or what Stillwell accepts as fact, and memory or dreams, which are used as shock intercuts throughout the film in a manner more reminiscent of the French New Wave filmmakers than anything else.

The bulk of the film is shot on the Universal lot, of course, and it shows, and the middle section of the film is bogged down by a rather precious romantic interlude with Diane Baker while Stillwell is on the run from Weston and Kennedy, which really serves no other purpose other than to give the film a middle act. Robert Mitchum once rather unkindly called Gregory Peck “the dullest actor in motion pictures,” but this really isn’t accurate; Peck has a limited range, but he acquits himself superbly in Mirage, effectively conveying a sense of persecution and bewilderment as his world collapses.

You might call Mirage a 1960s noir, sort of a bridge between the noirs of the 40s and the neo-noirs of the 90s; it’s also a psychological thriller that demonstrates with admirable bleakness just how alone we are in the world, when all that we think we know vanishes, and we have nothing left to hang on to. It’s also about, as most noirs are, the fact that you can’t trust anyone, that even the most altruistic individuals can be compromised for a price, that nothing is real and tangible in the corporate world, where loyalty, of a sort, always goes to the highest bidder. Mirage is thus highly recommended - except for the middle section, where it almost stops dead - but the finale makes the entire film more than worthwhile, and there’s something both curious and distinctive about it, which lingers in the mind long after the last frame has faded from the screen.

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video. He is the author of numerous books, including Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia.

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