Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Fallen Sparrow (1943)

John Garfield was good in all his films. Unlike Cagney, Robinson and Muni who tried to distance themselves from gangsters and crime, Garfield played the“fast-talking, tough former street kid” part for most of his career. A decade younger than the three actors mentioned he also had the luck of being one of the biggest film actors in crime thrillers during height of the classic film noir period. Cagney and Robinson were in some good film noir but their appearances in them were done reluctantly (Cagney in White Heat) or, in Robinson's case, taking on the role of a weakling (Scarlet Street) or supporting player (Double Indemnity) after his career peaked.

Garfield strength was playing intense tough-guy roles. And he must have known it because he didn't do much of anything else. No one could match Garfield's dark, tormented noir hero. Garfield's part in The Fallen Sparrow is no exception. A taut performance by Garfield in the central role is one of the only reason to see this strange and somewhat provocative movie.

Three years after The Fallen Sparrow, Garfield costarred with Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Following is a list of all his other essential noirs: Body and Soul, Force of Evil, The Breaking Point and He Ran All the Way. Nobody Lives Forever is a con man gem; and Humoresque and The Gentleman's Agreement are dramas that both have some noir qualities.

The Fallen Sparrow however, is a bit of a mess. The movie comes across as kind of a Casablanca want-to-be. The improbable story is based on the pulp by Dorothy B. Hughes. Unlike her later book In A Lonely Place-- this story isn't improved by the film.

The plot involves a son of a New York cop who returns from Spain after being held and tortured in prison for two years. The Spanish Civil war vet mysteriously escapes the prison and returns to the states to find that the man that may have helped in his escape has died. Falling from a New York City skyscraper window during a party. It also involves flags, goblets and papers that - like Casablanca - hold more power than they ever could in real life.

When Garfield bounces into a NYPD station demanding answers for his buddies death (after unconvincingly showing him staring at his reflection wondering if he has enough courage for the task) seems like a part for a cock-sure James Cagney. Later, he goes to numerous nightclubs in his best tuxedo. Chatting with Nazis and flirting with the young socialites makes it looks like Bogart's Casablanca to me. Even the movie poster makes Garfield's Kit look like Casablanca's Rick.

The movie was released in 1943 - but the story takes place in 1940--before the war. I wonder how Americans viewed a movie showing Nazis in almost plain view goose-stepping around Manhattan nightclubs? And it's unfortunate that the wheelchair-bound villain reminds me of a very uncomfortable scene in The Big Lebowski. Other things to be on the lookout for: Kit and date spending a night on the town in the dead of winter in New York City only to return to her apartment bizarrely carrying balloons and a stuffed penguin. And actress Patricia Morison's see-through dress.

What works best is seeing Garfield alone hearing dragging footsteps and water dripping. Him trying to drown out the sound of the torture that continues to haunt him long after supposedly getting cured. (See the similarities in the 1949 Brit noir Small Back Room.) Director Richard Wallace uses the soundtrack (music by RKO's brilliant Roy Webb) and camera effectively visualizing the stresses upon the former POW's fear-drenched mind.  Victims struggling in the shadows alone was something RKO film makers were known for since Val Lewton; and it works perfectly in The Fallen Sparrow too.

RKO borrowed Garfield from Warner Bros for the part. The rest of the cast is only OK. Maureen O'Hara is wooden (give me Maureen O'Sullivan any day) and miscast; and the Nazis - Walter Slezak and Hugh Beaumont look like, well, Nazis. (If Warner Bros. made this they probably would have had Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.)

The film is available on the Warner Archive but it's not looking that great - the film appears damaged and beat up.

The Fallen Sparrow is not an essential noir -- and it'd be a classic if it had a stronger story.  But it is worth seeing for Garfield some interesting work by director Wallace.

Written by Steve-O

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Following (1998)

When I started to follow people, specific people, when I selected a person to follow - that’s when the trouble started.
Before he became the director famous for remaking the Batman franchise into the most commercially and critically successful superhero trilogy of all time, before Inception (2010), The Prestige (2006), and Insomnia (2003), and before directing Memento (2000), the critically acclaimed neo-noir that shot him to prominence and gave him his reputation as a uniquely gifted storyteller, Christopher Nolan was an unknown British filmmaker with one feature film credit to his name: Following (1998).

While studying Literature at University College London in the 90s, Nolan started to develop a serious interest in film, making some friends in the college’s film society as well as a few 16mm shorts. After he wrote the screenplay for Following, he scraped together 3,000 pounds (about $6,000) for the film’s budget and cast one of his film society friends, Jeremy Theobald, in the lead role. Sticking closely to the film’s B noir influences, Nolan shot the film on 16mm black and white film stock and in a 1.37.1 aspect ratio (the standard aspect ratio of all noirs from the 40s and many from the 50s). It took him a year to make it, as he only had the free time to film it on the weekends.

While the film accurately retains the look of film noir, its noir roots work their way to the surface most forcefully through the actual story. The film follows in the weary, broken footsteps of many great noir protagonists from films such as Double Indemnity (1944), Detour (1945) and D.O.A. (1950), opening with a confession from the main character of the story’s events after the fact, allowing the film itself to play out in a series of flashbacks. It doesn't take long into his confession to realize that the nameless Young Man (Jeremy Theobald) in Following is a loner, a loser, an aimless drifter, a failure. He has no job, no prospects, and while he calls himself a writer, his empty bank account and decrepit flat say otherwise. His life is an empty shell, so he decides that he’s going to start following people to fill the void. Not for any malicious reason - not to rob them, steal from them, assault them. Nothing like that. He’s too boring for that. Just to watch what they do.

But as he confesses to the man taking his statement, he got addicted to it, and so he needed to put down some rules to keep himself under control. Don’t follow the same person twice. Don’t follow women down dark alleys at night. Keep it all as random as possible. But as he admits, he couldn’t help himself, and that’s when it all started to go so very, very wrong. As he tells it, the Young Man makes the mistake of following the same man more than once, and the man eventually confronts him in a restaurant, demanding to know what he’s doing. Having come face-to-face with one of the people he follows, the Young Man wilts under the pressure. Cobb (Alex Haw), the man he’s been following, is so self-assured, so in control. Cobb openly admits to the Young Man what he does - he’s a thief, and to the Young Man’s surprise, he offers him an opportunity to join him. What else does the Young Man have to do? Of course he accepts. This action sets off a series of events that Nolan relays in his trademark non-linear style. If you’ve seen any of Nolan’s films, you know that he favors cross-cutting his narrative events in such a way as to constantly keep the viewers off balance, questioning how all of the actions they’ve seen fit together. While he became famous for this technique in Memento, he first used it to great effect in Following. Nolan said of Following’s narrative structure, “I decided to structure my story in such a way as to emphasize the audience's incomplete understanding of each new scene as it is first presented.” The film is a series of puzzle pieces, and the audience must put them together as the tale unfolds.

If you’re wondering why this review hasn’t covered much of the plot, here’s why - you don’t want it to. To say any more than what’s already been revealed would be to say too much. The relationships between the Young Man, Cobb, and the nameless blonde femme fatale (Lucy Russell) are constantly shifting, the power dynamics changing with every twist of the plot. And just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Nolan throws you another curveball and forces you to re-evaluate your assumptions about what’s really taking place. You’ll get near the end of the film and think the story has finally resolved itself, but the twists that come in the final five minutes will sucker punch you right in the gut. You’ll feel sick to your stomach, but don’t worry - it’s a satisfying kind of sick.

It’s rare that a contemporary film manages to so completely capture the essence of film noir in look, tone and plot, but Following does it all, and does it remarkably well. With its uniformly solid performances from its no-name actors, its ultra-low budget, and its running time of just over one hour, this nasty little noir is the type of film that would have played on the bottom half of a double bill sixty years ago. Some of the folks would have left after the A picture, thinking that the B picture wouldn’t be worth their time. It would have been their loss, because the audience members who would have stuck around for both films would have completely forgotten everything about the A picture by the time the credits for Following would have rolled.

 Written by Nighthawk

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dancing With Crime (1947)

Richard Attenborough is the lead in this excellent UK film.

Attenborough plays a cab driver who gets involved in the murder of a friend. Attenborough, gives a mate from his army days, Bill Owen, a ride and drops him at a dance club. He then goes into a nearby café for a drink and a sandwich.

Owen, is a member of a robbery and black-market smuggling gang. He is at the club to collect his end of a 50,000 pound jewel heist. His boss, Barry Jones, runs the club as a cover for his crime activities. Jones, along with his number two, Barry K. Barnes, meet Owen in Jones' office. They hand Owen a small packet with 50 pounds. Owen is not at all happy with this sum. Owen growls, “That is all I get for a 50,000 pound job?”

Owen starts towards Jones who quickly produces a pistol. Owen sees the gun, stops, picks up the cash as if to pocket it. Jones lowers his piece and Owen decks him with a solid punch. Barnes decides Owen is no longer an asset to the gang and shoots Owen in the chest. Owen gets a punch in on Barnes and then staggers out. Owen makes it into the street and manages to collapse in the back seat of Attenborough’s still parked taxi.

Barnes, who has followed him out into the crowded street, sees Owen climb into the taxi. He decides there are too many witnesses to risk a second shot. He watches as Attenborough comes out of the café and drives away.

Attenborough, has a date with his dancer girlfriend, Shelia Sim. He has no idea that Owen is dying on the back seat.

He meets Sim for their night out on the town. He opens the back door of the cab for Sim, and a rather dead Owen falls out. A handy copper puts the call into Scotland Yard.

Yard Inspectors, John Warwick and Gary Marsh, give Attenborough and Sim a grilling. The detectives want to make sure they had nothing to do with the murder. Owen was just a buddy from the Army. He had dropped him off and had no idea Owen had returned to the taxi. The Police show the two a signed photo they had found. It shows Owen and a woman. Attenborough and and Sim shake their heads. They have never seen her before. The Police tell them they are free to go.

The next night, Attenborough and Sim decide on a bit of detective work of their own. They hit the dance club to ask if anyone knows Owen. Not 10 feet in the door and they see the woman from the photograph. The woman, Judy Kelly, is the singer in the club band.

Barnes, who is also the M.C. for the club, recognizes Attenbrough from the night before. Why is he here wonders Barnes. He grabs the boss, Jones, and tells him that maybe Owen had talked before he died. Jones says that if Owen had talked, John Law would have put the pinch on them by now.

Sim, gets herself hired as a floor dancer so she can keep an eye on Kelly.

Several days go by and Barnes still insists Attenborough needs to be dealt with. Jones calls in one of the gang, Cyril Chamberlain, and tells him to hire a couple of “heavy boys” and dispose of Attenborough.

Chamberlain hires Attenborough’s taxi and has him drive to a warehouse. Once there, Chamberlain asks him to help carry out a box for a return trip back to town. Once he gets our boy inside, the heavy lads pop out with the blackjacks etc.

Attenborough, manages to get a few licks of his own in and escapes. The Yard is called and they come to collect him. By the time Marsh and Warwick arrive, the nasty types have hit the road. Chamberlain reports to Jones he has botched the hit. A less than amused Jones has another gang member take Chamberlain for a ride. Needless to say this ride has a less than happy ending for Chamberlain.

Attenborough is at the Yard explaining what had happened when Sim calls. She has overheard a talk between Jones and Barnes about a robbery set for that night.

The Police decide to stake out the robbery site and grab the gang in the act. The gang shows and the Police swarm them and apply the cuffs. Barnes though, evades capture and phones Jones to warn him. Jones empties the wall safe and gets ready to flee the country. He has also discovered that Sim was the one who ratted out the gang. She will do nicely as a hostage.

The Police and Attenborough pile back in their cars and speed to the club. Jones comes out with a gun planted in the middle of Sim’s back. The Police pull up and Jones starts blasting. Attenborough manages to work his way behind Jones and tackles him, saving Sim. A most unhappy Jones is cuffed and hauled away while Attenborough and Sim embrace.

This well-paced, rather violent film, features some very nice camera work. It was on the whole, a very pleasant surprise.

The director was John Paddy Carstairs. The Saint in London is the only other film of his I’ve seen. The D of P was Reg Wyer. He lensed The Upturned Glass, My Brother's Keeper, So Long at the Fair, Highly Dangerous, Street Corner, Wheel of Fate, Eyewitness, The Weapon and The Informers.

Attenborough had roles in Brighton Rock, Boys in Brown, The Man Upstairs, Eight O'Clock Walk and 10 Rillington Place. Look close and you will see an unbilled Dirk Bogarde and Diana Dors in the crowd.


Written by Gordonl56

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Destination Murder (1950)

Destination Murder is another in a long line of B thrillers in the RKO style, with a plot more complicated than The Big Sleep”
wrote Bob Profirio in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. That sums it up nicely. However, I will say despite no good reasons to rewatch this film I do - and on a regular basis.

Destination Murder was directed by Edward L. Cahn. Wheeler Winston Dixon had a nice piece on Cahn's career a few months back. That and Mr. Nighthawk talking about the classic RKO noir machine says all you need to know about the making of this film.

The plot: A young woman infiltrates the mob to find her father's killer.

Let me just say what I like about this “B”. First, Destination Murder has no real star. The four top-billed actors are quite fun to watch during their moments but there's no real standout. The second thing I enjoy is the focus of the movie (probably due to incompetence and no budget) keeps moving from character to character resulting in a wrap up by the police that doesn't make a lick of sense.

Joyce Mackenzie is top billed. She had a short career in Hollywood. Mackenzie appeared with James Stewart in the great Western Broken Arrow; and was a supporting actress in the Jane Russell 3D movie The French Line (See Jane Russell in 3-D - She'll Knock BOTH Your Eyes Out! was the tag line. Mackenzie had no problem filling a sweater either.) After Mackenzie's Hollywood acting career fizzled she retired and eventually became a High School English teacher. I wonder if her students knew she paraded around in a cigarette girl outfit in Destination Murder? (I confess that I thought the part of Laura Mansfield was actually Barbara Hale)
Not Barbara Hale. Joyce Mackenzie in Destination Murder

Stanley Clements - of all people - is billed number two. The short, fast-talking ferret-faced actor spent a career playing bellhops and two-bit con men. Here he's a messenger boy that doubles as a killer. The opening scenes showing him taking care of an execution during the movie intermission. It's the cleverest part of Destination Murder. He hand-feeds his girl - one of a number of knockouts somehow attracted to the little guy - popcorn after offing a rich man for the mob. It'd be a spoiler to say that part of the bellhop would have probably be played by one of RKOs leading men if it weren't for the fact that he dies half way through the film. But as it is, his role as the lover-boy messenger boy is good while it lasts. (Checking his IMDB page apparently he was married to film noir queen Gloria Grahame for a short time in the 40s. Looks like his player ways in Destination Murder wasn't too far off the mark!)

From then on it's mostly about Hurd Hatfield as Stretch Norton and Albert Dekker as Armitage. Armitage speaks about himself in the third person. And the name Armitage is said so often the film should never be used as a drinking game:

Dekker is probably best known for the freaky way he was found dead in real life. Film noir fans will recognize him in a familiar role as the the criminal with a taste for the fine things. See also Kiss Me Deadly and The Killers. He's not what he appears to be and a doppelgänger device is deployed making Destination Murder's mystery impossible for the viewer to solve.

Armitage's “partner” in crime is played by Hurd (The Picture of Dorian Gray) Hatfield. Always the elegant menace, Hatfield drums up a relationship with Joyce Mackenzie that's harder to believe than her dating Stanley Clements' messenger boy/killer. At one point, apparently joking, foppish Hatfield screams at the manipulating bombshell Myrna Dell (The Locket, Nocturne), “Haven't you heard? I don't like women!” Even filmgoers in the early fifties probably snkickered at the line. Armitage and Stretch's relationship is only hinted at, and they --of course-- play everything straight.

Throw in a player piano that plays whenever anyone is tortured and you have all the ingredients for one of my favorite b-noirs. The guys a RiffTrax would probably appreciate the strange sets (Clement's apartment is gigantic), a stunt double for the lead cop that looks nothing like the actor he's doubling (James Flavin). That and the Armitage drinking game makes this film ripe for spoofing. As it is it's more than watchable. No flashy Impressionistic camera work, no sense of dread. A light noir with a light touch.

Cahn's Experiment Alcatraz is literary more fantastic and would make a fun double feature with Destination Murder if you're looking at the DVDs at the Warner Bros. Archive.

Written by Steve-O

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