Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

Horror or Noir?

At first this was a difficult question for me to consider, in regards to film noir this is an early film, released in 1941. Yet the plot devices are unmistakably noir, a good man gone wrong under circumstances he cannot control. The Face Behind the Mask is a story of a shattered American dream with a morbid twist ending.

"The Face Behind the Mask is the most deeply felt of Robert Florey's movies, reflecting his compassionate treatment of the unfortunate, as well as the visual artistry he brought to filmmaking." -Brian Taves

The protagonist Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) has qualities of a modern-day Frankenstein, with all of the tragic overtones of rejection for his horrific appearance. The film begins upon his arrival in the United States, and he is filled with hope, innocence and excitement for his new life. The hand of fate intervenes on his first night, and he suffers severe 3rd degree burns to his face in a hotel fire.

The aftermath of the injury is immensely tragic for Janos as well as the viewer. Director Robert Florey handles the first revelation of Janos's face perfectly in a scene filled with atmospheric horror. This is a segment of the film that feels like a horror movie. We are transported to the hospital for the removal of his bandages. His face is covered in layers of gauze, with only eyes and mouth visible. There is no gore, but Janos resembles a monster in this scene even before his face is revealed. He nervously speaks to the doctor as he unwraps and cuts the bandages, of his former profession as a watch-maker, stating his penchant for mechanical genius. When his face is unveiled, the nurse in the room grimaces, and another one screams.

Janos begins to panic and runs to a mirror, which the nurse had strategically covered, anticipating a traumatic situation. We as the viewers, are still blind to his appearance. Florey took great care to build suspense by shooting from angles so that Janos's disfigurement is not visible. We see Janos face at the same time he does; even the quick glimpse of his destroyed visage, we as the viewers experience the same sense of shock, anguish and horror as the character himself.

Janos loses it. He attacks the doctor in frantic fury, begging for some kind of explanation and resolution for his mangled appearance. Physician and nurses finally manage to restrain him, and the doctor shakes his head in sorrow, expressing his sympathy for Janos's altered destiny. This is the point where the story shifts to true noir.

The film has a socially conscious angle in the sense that it addresses the discrimination that Janos experiences as he embarks on his job search with his hideous face. He is rejected multiple times as he searches for work as a watch-maker and becomes suicidal at one point, ready to drown himself, rescued by a small time criminal named Dinky. "Landing in the grave is not my idea of life." The filming in this nighttime scene is incredible, using the waterfront to create undulating light and shadows.

He turns to a life of crime, where his mechanical abilities are utilized in disabling alarms to commit robberies. The way that Janos physical deformity is handled medically is quite interesting as well, and a reference to the title of the film. Janos visits a plastic surgeon who makes him a realistic latex mask that disguises his face so that he does not horrify society.

Lorre does not actually wear a latex mask in the film but he gives the impression effectively: "I put on dead white makeup, used two strips of adhesive tape to immobilize the sides of my face, and for the rest of it I used my own facial expression to give the illusion of the mask."

Janos is treated maliciously by most, with the exception of his fellow criminals who admire his abilities and a beautiful blind woman whom he encounters after departing the plastic surgeon's office. The doctor has just informed him that his face will require multiple surgeries over a period of 15 years and he is emotionally devastated. Meeting Helen offers Janos a chance at redeeming himself. We can see what a pure heart his character has through his interactions with this woman, and she teaches him through her own lack of vision, that appearances are not all that matters.

"My blindness gives me the freedom of a kingdom you can never imagine. I see as I wish to see."

This is Janos one chance at redemption, his love for Helen, and she is brutally taken away from him in an act of violence when he tries to leave his life of crime to build a happier life with her. His subsequent actions are those of a desperate and hopeless man. The final 10 minutes of the movie are sinister, twisted and chilling, in a desolate environment, fitting to the noir genre.

Written by Phantom Lady Vintage

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Clay Pigeon (1949)

The year 1949 was pivotal for RKO Radio Pictures. Just two years earlier, their balance sheet had showed a healthy, $5.1 million profit. But in 1948, that number had tumbled to $500,000, and the studio executives were desperately trying to find a way to reverse their financial misfortune. They weren't placing much confidence in Robert Mitchum, their number one star, because he was still dealing with some serious image problems. In the Fall of 1948, Mitchum was arrested and convicted for marijuana possession and spent nearly two months incarcerated, serving most of his term on a prison farm. Life magazine was nice enough to show up and snap some pictures of him mopping the floors in his prison uniform.

The studio was also dealing with some serious changes at the executive level. In March of 1948, Howard Hughes took over RKO and promptly fired most of the employees. He also shelved several “serious” pictures that were either set to shoot or already in production. He thought it was time to take the studio in a new direction. Starting in 1949, RKO would place a much higher priority on cranking out low-budget B films.

The Clay Pigeon was one of the first noirs that RKO released while Hughes was steering the ship, and it can be viewed as a template for many of the noirs that RKO released over the next several years. If you're watching a noir from the late forties or early fifties that runs approximately one hour, features little-known actors in the lead roles, moves the action along at a nice clip and ties things up neatly by the end, then you're more than likely watching an RKO film. And the chances are also good that it was directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer, who had worked for five years at RKO exclusively as a shorts director, got his big break in 1948 when, shortly after he completed a directing job on So This is New York (1948), the studio gave him the chance to direct Laurence Tierney in Bodyguard (1948). He impressed the brass enough that they gave him two B noir directing gigs in 1949 - The Clay Pigeon and the highly enjoyable Follow Me Quietly.

The Clay Pigeon fits neatly into a very distinct category: amnesia noir. At its most basic level, amnesia noir takes the typical elements of a noir and throws an amnesiac protagonist (usually a WWII vet) into the mix. The Clay Pigeon wasn't the first noir to attempt this type of story: Somewhere in the Night (1946) and High Wall (1947) both preceded it, and The Crooked Way (1949) was released in the same year as The Clay Pigeon. Because the amnesia element can be difficult to implement in a convincing way, these films vary in their levels of success. Fortunately, The Clay Pigeon is one of the better entries in the amnesia noir canon.

The films opens in a veteran's hospital with a shot of two outstretched hands reaching for the face of a sleeping Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams). Once they feel his face, they go straight for his neck. When a nurse comes into Fletcher's room and interrupts Danny, the blind man who is choking Fletcher, he tells the nurse that he was feeling Fletcher's face because he wanted to know what a traitor looks like. While the nurse is willing to stop Danny, she can't stop giving Fletcher dirty looks. It isn't long before Fletcher, who is quite confused by the chilly treatment he's receiving, overhears a conversation between the nurse and the doctor, in which the doctor tells the nurse all about Fletcher's imminent court martial for treason.

Fletcher isn't sure what's going on, but he knows he has to escape from the hospital in order to find out. Fortunately for him, Fletcher's amnesia isn't complete - he can still remember who he is, who his friends were during the War, and where he should go to get help. But there's a still a mysterious bump on the back of his head, and he has no clue why he's being branded a traitor. All of his short-term memories are gone.

Fletcher decides that his best chance for help is his old pal Mark Gregory, so he heads to his place. His wife Martha (Barbara Hale, best known for acting alongside noir stalwart Raymond Burr in Perry Mason as Mason's secretary Della Street) answers the door and tells him that Mark should be home soon. While Fletcher waits in the living room, Martha makes a beeline for the kitchen and calls the police. Her husband's dead and Mark is the main suspect in his death. As the film eventually reveals, Jim, Mark and another man named Ted Niles (Richard Quine) were known during the War as the Three Musketeers because of their close friendship. Even a stint in a Japanese prison camp couldn't break them up. But word's going around that Jim narced on his buddies for stealing food - and got Mark killed in the process - in exchange for preferential treatment.

It isn't long before Jim forces Martha to help him track down Ted in Los Angeles so that he can clear his name. Martha doesn't believe him at first, but once a couple of heavies track them down on their drive to L.A. and try to kill them, Martha has a change of heart. They team up and work together to get Jim into the clear while simultaneously dodging the thugs that keep trying to bump Jim off.

One of the film's strong points is the undeniable chemistry between its two leads, Bill Williams and Barbara Hale. That Williams and Hale possess such a great on-screen rapport shouldn't come as a surprise, considering they had been married for three years by the time they made The Clay Pigeon together. They work as a kind of second-tier Bogie and Bacall, bantering back and forth and showing obvious care for each other's characters - a care rooted in their real-life love for each other. They remained married until Williams' death in 1992 - no small accomplishment in Hollywood, a town where, as comedian Rita Rudner put it, “a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk.” Hale gives the strongest performance in the film, and Williams runs a close second; the rest of the performances are serviceable B-level fare.

While it's certainly not his greatest work, Richard Fleischer shows flashes of potential that pay off in his later RKO noirs, such as the well-regarded Armored Car Robbery (1950) and the genuine classic The Narrow Margin (1952). The Clay Pigeon features some excellent nighttime cinematography, and the car chase scene shows Fleischer's flair for creative camerawork. In addition, the climax, which takes place on a train, prefigures the type of action Fleischer would employ with great success in The Narrow Margin.

The film also contains a powerful scene that demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the Japanese people's relationship with America - a surprising feat, given the film was released a mere four years after the conclusion of World War II. Once he arrives in L.A., Jim runs into the Japanese prison guard - a man they called the Weasel - who tortured him, Mark and Ted during the war. The Weasel and some of his thugs chase Jim through the streets and into a building, where Jim holes up in the first apartment with an unlocked door. It turns out that the apartment belongs to a Japanese-American woman who trusts that Jim is telling the truth when he tells her his life is in danger. The woman hides Jim and gets rid of the Weasel when he comes looking for him, and not long after, Jim spots a picture of her husband next to a certificate from the U.S. Government. It states that John Mimoto of the 442nd Infantry Division received The Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism.” Considering that it wasn't until 2010 that the White House officially recognized the achievements of the 442nd by awarding its members with the Congressional Gold Medal, it's remarkable that a film just a few years removed from the end of combat operations in the Pacific Theater would remind viewers that it shouldn't view the Weasel as representative of all Japanese people, and that many Japanese Americans fought and died for America during World War II. (For the sake of space, I won't go into the details of the 442nd Division's accomplishments, but I encourage you to research the subject on your own. You'll be amazed by what you read.)

The Clay Pigeon moves at a brisk pace, and while the film could have spent more time fleshing out some plot elements - we're subjected to an only marginally successful rush of exposition at the tail end of the film that attempts to sew up all the loose plot threads - the film still features an enjoyable story, solid performances, a neat third act twist and a satisfying conclusion. It's no masterpiece, but it's still a very enjoyable noir, especially for those of us who like to spend time with the B-level players of the RKO crowd.

Written by Nighthawk

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Secret Beyond the Door (1947)

Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door takes the perennially popular Gothic theme, "Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband," throws in a liberal dose of psychological melodrama à la Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), and caps it off with a fiery finale that tips its hat to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

The first hour or so of the film is firmly in the mold of earlier Gothic "my husband might be a murderer" thrillers like Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), George Cukor's Gaslight (1944), Vincente Minnelli's Undercurrent (1946), and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Dragonwyck (1946). The last couple of reels veer off into such loony, faux-Freudian territory that I honestly didn't know quite what to make of them.

But Lang is a consummate professional, no matter how weird or silly his material, and Secret Beyond the Door is always intriguing and occasionally a little spine-tingling.

The film stars Joan Bennett as Celia, a fashionable, bored young woman with a trust fund who meets a mysterious British architect while she's on vacation in Mexico. His name is Mark Lamphere (played by Michael Redgrave), and he tells Celia that she is a "Twentieth-century sleeping beauty. Wealthy, American girl who's lived her life wrapped in cotton wool, but she wants to wake. Maybe she can."

They're married after a whirlwind romance, despite Celia's terrified feelings of apprehension as she walks toward the altar.

Unsurprisingly, her trepidation is well-founded. After they move into Mark's sprawling home in Levender Falls, NY, she finds out that not only was Mark previously married, but he also has a teenage son and a creepy housekeeper named Miss Robey (Barbara O'Neil) who covers the burn scars on the side of her face with a flowing headscarf.

Most frightening of all, Mark's first wife died under mysterious circumstances, and Celia learns at one of Mark's fancy parties that he doesn't have a sou to his name. His beautiful home is mortgaged to the hilt, and the architectural magazine he's peddling around New York seems to be going nowhere fast. Celia is worth a lot ... would she be worth more to Mark dead than alive?

Wait, did I say "most frightening of all"? Actually, the most frightening thing about Mark might be his bizarre hobby of recreating, piece by piece, rooms in which murders occurred, sort of like Frances Glessner Lee's dollhouses, only at a 1:1 scale.

Six of his seven rooms are showcases that he's happy to show off to his tony friends, but the seventh must always remain hidden. Even from his dear wife Celia.

As I said, Secret Beyond the Door gets into some pretty loony territory during its last two reels. While much of it is silly amateur psychology, it's at least visually arresting. Joan Bennett runs for her life through the same dark forest sets on the Universal sound stages that Lon Chaney Jr. stalked in 1941 as The Wolf Man, and her journeys down dimly lit corridors are the stuff of beautiful nightmares.

Written by Adam Lounsbery

Monday, August 06, 2012

The Unguarded Moment (1956)

Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment is a lost gem from the 1950s, which reveals the real dark side of the American dream, and the nightmare behind the seemingly pleasant facade of Eisenhower America. Esther Williams, usually more at home in aquatic roles, had just been dismissed by MGM, and was looking around for an interesting project to help her establish a new screen identity.

Universal suddenly, and unexpectedly, stepped in and offered her $200,000 to appear in The Unguarded Moment — more than $1.5 million in 2012, adjusted for inflation — which was more than MGM had ever paid her for any of her many films for that studio. The film was described to Esther Williams as a suspense thriller, which it manifestly is, and it was a complete change of pace from the roles she had spent her lifetime playing; essentially the same role over and over again, in a series of Technicolor swimming extravaganzas. Williams was sick of them, and sick of the genre as a whole; she wanted something different. Seeing the role as a challenge, Williams accepted the assignment.

Williams plays Lois Conway, a small town high school music teacher living in well-manicured suburbia — actually the Leave it to Beaver / Desperate Housewives street on Universal’s back lot — whose life is turned into a nightmare when one of her pupils, an unbalanced high school football star, Leonard Bennett (John Saxon, in a very early role) starts sending her love notes, physically attacks her after a football practice underneath the bleachers, breaks into her house and steals her possessions, all without leaving a shred of evidence against him.

What's worse, Leonard’s getting away with it in part because he’s “a minor God” at the school because of his athletic prowess on the gridiron, and nobody wants to wreck a winning football team. In addition, there’s a sociopathic killer on the loose, who has already murdered one woman; is Leonard the guilty party? This last part is never really developed, but it hangs over the film like a cloud; there’s a killer in the midst of suburban paradise. So this is hardly the 1950s that nostalgia merchants would like us to remember as the authentic vision of an era.

Lois, however, has never really dealt with anything like this before, and keeps making one mistake after another. Despite the obvious pitfalls, Lois is utterly trusting in her dealings with Leonard, continually trying to reach out to him when he’s clearly a dangerous, damaged teen, and no wonder; his father, played with mesmeric intensity by the gifted Edward Andrews, is a full-on sociopath, with an all-consuming hatred of women, whose relationship with his son is deeply problematic.

Indeed, it’s downright creepy. Edwards, who made his first big impression in Phil Karlson’s noir classic The Phenix City Story (1955) as the ultra-corrupt town boss Rhett Tanner, takes to his role here with absolute relish; one of the things that really distinguishes the film is Edwards’ absolute ferocity in the role, and he never backs away from the most corrosive aspects of his character.

In a truly memorable sequence, Mr. Bennett enters his son’s room just as Leonard is about to go to sleep, and asks him if they can have a father/son chat. Starting off with bland pleasantries at first, Mr. Bennett soon segues into a viciously misogynistic attack on his wife, who apparently “abandoned” the family several years earlier - and with good reason, it would seem - and then moves on to the difficulty he has had raising Leonard without a mother.

All of this is delivered in a smooth, jarringly unemotional monotone, and then, just as he’s about to say goodnight to his son, Bennett turns back to Leonard and with a parting glance, tells him that if he does anything to upset their seemingly placid middle-class existence, he’ll “break every bone in [Leonard's] body.” And with that gentle thought, he quietly exits his son’s room, wishing him a pleasant “good night.” It's one of the great performances by a “heavy” in cinema history.

It also doesn’t help that the principal, Mr. Pendleton (Les Tremayne) is a spineless, worthless “authority figure” who is more inclined to believe Leonard’s lies than Lois’s truth; in addition, even her colleagues at the school, as well as the students, almost immediately turn again Ms. Conway, ready and eager to believe the worst of anyone. It's a picture of 1950s small town America that is so brutal, so unforgiving, that one wonders why Universal, not usually a noir studio, signed off on the project in the first place.

It’s only after the intervention of the police, portrayed here in a surprisingly sympathetic light in the person of Detective Harry Graham (George Nader) that Leonard’s true nature comes to light; in a typically artificial “happy ending,” Leonard is given a pass on his crimes, and winds up in the Army, where it’s clear he’s beginning a new life. His father, meantime, after attacking Ms. Conway himself, dies of a heart attack while trying to fabricate incriminating evidence against her, but is caught in the act by the police.

The whole film is shot in a falsely cheerful, color rich patina of reds, golds and blues, and seems divided against itself in many ways, not least because it depicts the quiet horror of small town American gossip and sexism, but also because it shows that for Ms. Conway, there is really no authority worth applying to; the cards are stacked against her by the value system of the era. And it’s still true, even today; popularity can carry you a long way in a small town, especially fame as a sports hero, and an awful lot of damage can be inflicted before the true facts come to light, if they ever do.

Thus, this is a deeply disturbing, brutal film, and one that has obviously been suppressed since its initial release, and only just released on DVD by Universal as a part of a box set, Women in Danger, which is highly recommended. Also in the set are the equally delicious noirs Michael Gordon’s Woman in Hiding (1950), Joseph Pevney’s Female on the Beach (1955), and Abner Biberman’s The Price of Fear (1956), making this a truly essential purchase for any noir enthusiast; Female on the Beach, for example, worthy of an essay all its own in NOTW, has never appeared legally on DVD before, and the transfers throughout are superb.

Incidentally, this is as good a moment as any to address the numerous criticisms of the transfer of The Unguarded Moment on the Women in Danger box set; as the only color film of the four, The Unguarded Moment, it must be admitted, doesn’t get the best possible transfer - it’s somewhat garish and flat, but perfectly serviceable. It isn’t a Criterion version, in short, which the film richly deserves, but it’s certainly a B+ -- and clean and solid throughout. So please discount the negative comments on transfer quality you might see elsewhere; that’s for perfectionists. This is a film you simply have to own.

Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955), made just one year earlier at Warners, paints a much more sympathetic picture of high school life, with James Dean emerging as a sort of martyr for a generation; The Unguarded Moment, in stark contrast, shows that the most peaceful and seemingly supportive environments are in fact fraught with danger, and that no one can trust anyone, and that power will only seek to save itself in the face of public opinion. While the film didn’t alter Esther Williams’ image with the public - they wanted her to remain forever a poolside Doris Day - Williams is very good in the film, and the entire project is an absolute success in every regard.

It’s a film noir, but it’s also all too true; interestingly, as a final note, actress Rosalind Russell came up with original story and screenplay, working with a professional writer, as a role she hoped to play in the future, but the project got sidetracked, and was sold to Universal. It’s curious how these things turn out. But mostly, The Unguarded Moment is memorable as a dark hued vision of small town American life, no more so than when Mr. Bennett (Andrews) says to his son
“Leonard, when will you learn? Everybody does bad things. Everybody has something hidden. Everybody.”

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 the author of numerous books on film, including his newest work, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012).

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