Showing posts with label Gene Tierney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gene Tierney. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Posted by Kevin

Seeing Otto Preminger's film Where the Sidewalk Ends recently has made me regard it as a very odd companion piece with his earlier, more well-known film Laura. With this film, Preminger was reunited not only with his two principal Laura actors, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, but also his director of photography, Joseph LaShelle. However, it's similarities end there. Laura with its urbane, sophisticated characters and its high society setting, succeeds as an elegant murder mystery. On the flipside, the crime in Where the Sidewalk Ends takes place in tenement apartments, police precincts, parking garages, and gambling dens. It is for this reason that, of the two films, Where the Sidewalk Ends better represents the classic noir period.

Dana Andrews plays Mark Dixon, a cop who finds himself in a compromising situation when he accidentally kills a man in self-defense. The victim is Ken Paine, a criminal who is suspected of murdering a gambler in a scuffle shown in an earlier scene. Already having been reprimanded by his superior, Inspector Foley, for his violent treatment of criminals, Dixon takes great pains to not only cover up his crime, but also to figure out a way to pin it on his nemesis, Tommy Scalise (played by Gary Merrill).

Enter Gene Tierney as Paine's estranged wife, Morgan. She adds even more complications to Dixon's struggle. Not only is she a new widow, but her father, Jiggs Taylor, is the number one suspect in the murder, because of Paine's physical abuse of Morgan, shown in an earlier scene. The combination of Dixon's growing attraction to the beautiful Morgan and his wanting to protect Jiggs from being accused create more pangs of guilt in him.

The unpredictable and unfair nature of fate is one strong indicator of film noir. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, there are many occurrences of characters who are tripped up by circumstances beyond their control. The whole movie hinges on Dixon's accidental killing of murder suspect Paine, that only the viewer witnesses. We see Paine lunging first at Dixon, then Dixon reacting by hitting him back only twice - once in the stomach, then again in the face, causing him to fall fatally on his head. How was Dixon to know that Paine has a metal plate in his head? That Dixon finds himself in hot water after showing restraint in his typical violence is the type of sad irony that can only be found in a true film noir.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
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Another instance of fate rearing its inconvenient head is in the scene following the accidental murder in Paine's apartment. Dixon tries to create a false lead by impersonating Paine leaving his apartment for Penn Station, ostensibly to blow town considering he's on the lam. When the cab driver picks him up at Paine's apartment, Dixon, by not waving to the old woman in the window of basement apartment below, unknowingly blows his cover. According to the old woman, in a later scene where she's interviewed by police, she swears that the man she saw go into the cab was not Paine because he didn't wave!

The evidence of guilt is another ingredient in Where the Sidewalk Ends that makes it such a worthy addition into the classic noir period. Andrews, who played such a stoic police detective in Laura, is allowed to be more expressive in this film. As a criminal and a cop, his Dixon has so much at stake, and this tension is constantly apparent to the viewer, and not to the other characters in the movie. This visible guilt is given more weight in Preminger's mise-en-scène and fluid long takes and camera movements. One scene that stands out is the one in which Dixon learns that Morgan is Paine's wife, thus a new widow. The camera reveals his stunned expression and arousal of guilt in the foreground, as Morgan is being interviewed by police in the background. To see these planes of internal and external action in the same shot is something that Preminger is known for.

While Where the Sidewalk Ends is not quite up to par with the extremely well-characterized and witty Laura, it's still a very worthy and exciting movie for film noir aficionados and for fans of Dana Andrews. This movie is all about him! It is a combination of his subtle acting style, Preminger's smooth and assured direction, and Joseph LaShelle's exquisite photography that makes Where the Sidewalk Ends a real treat for film noir aficionados!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Whirlpool (1949)

Editor's note: This week's Film Noir selection is from one of the most highly-regarded film noir historians, Foster Hirsch. His new book Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be Kingwas just published by Knopf. The book is an epic biography of the legendary Viennese-born filmmaker. Preminger made many different styles of film but for me he'll always be known as a noir director. His film noir Whirlpool was successful but far from his best. The strange little drama is entertaining, improbable and even a bit silly. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy it. Mr Hirsch sent me this introduction and allowed us to use an excerpt from the book on the blog.

by Foster Hirsch

Otto Preminger’s standing at Fox during the last years of his contract, from the late 1940s to 1953, was a disappointment to him as well as to his boss, Darryl Zanuck. Following the success of Laura in 1944, Preminger worked in a number of genres - he did not want to be typecast as a director of thrillers or murder mysteries -- often with quite respectable results. But no single film had landed with the impact of his celebrated salon noir. And given his temperament - Otto was born to give rather than follow orders - by the late 1940s he was eager to branch off on his own as a complete independent producer-director. Succumbing somewhat reluctantly to the “genius” of the system, which argued the wisdom of always returning to the scene of your first success, Preminger, in 1949 and 1950, decided to make three psychological thrillers in a row. He knew the genre (which nobody at the time referred to as film noir) was a good fit for him and each of the scripts, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Whirlpool, and The Thirteenth Letter, contained the psychological perversities and ambivalence that he was always drawn to. Of the three thrillers, Whirlpool, which takes place in the homes of well-to-do characters in Beverly Hills, was the most congenial - Where the Sidewalk Ends has a gritty, hard-boiled, mean streets milieu and The Thirteenth Letter takes place in a bleak small town in Canada. But Preminger directs all three films with the kind of glacial control that had distinguished his direction of Laura. At the time of their release the films were not regarded as in any way important, in fact were markers of the director’s fallen estate at the studio. Since then, the films have had substantial critical rehabilitation and are now generally regarded as essential contributions to the era of classic noir.

As José Ferrer, Whirlpool's costar, recalled, “Otto and Zanuck hoped that the film, which is like a sequel to Laura- it had the same star, the same mood and atmosphere - would have the same success.” Like Laura, Whirlpool is a sleek thriller about the well-to-do. Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), the fashionable, neurotic wife of a prominent psychoanalyst, is kleptomaniac. When she is arrested at an upscale department store for stealing a broach, she is save by Korvo (José Ferrer), an astrologer and hypnotist who specializes in separating gullible rich women from their money. Korvo convinces Ann that he can cure her; his real goal, however, is to implicate her in the murder of his ex-mistress, a patient of Ann's husband. At the end, Korvo is gunned down in front of the large portrait of the woman he has killed.

Working with experienced screenwriters like Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, Preminger could not get the convoluted plot to gel. But his shrewd casting of the two leads helped to offset the damage. As the unstable heroine Gene Tierney, who had already suffered periods of mental illness and in later years was to have a harrowing history of breakdowns followed by fragile recoveries, is startling effective. Korvo's comment to Ann, that she has become imprisoned in her role as a pampered, dressed-to-perfection housewife, is also a comment on Tierney's own “perfection” as a well-behaved Hollywood mannequin. As Korvo (kuervo in Yiddish is a male prostitute, an apt description of the character's gigolo manner), José Ferrer offers the enticing spectacle of a phony actor playing a phony actor. The hamminess that was to curdle almost all Ferrer's work is exactly the point here: Korvo is an out-and-out charlatan. For the other major role, that of the society therapist with a trophy wife, Preminger made a rare casting flub: in a tuxedo Richard Conte looks and sounds like a thug. “Conte was a big mistake,” Ferrer said. “We all felt while we were shooting the film. He suggested a New York street type rather than a well-educated psychiatrist.”

The director and his cinematographer Arthur Miller gild Whirlpool with many visual pleasures. Mirror shots of the troubled heroine in her well-appointed home - as in Laura the objects of the rich are made to glisten - underline the character's duality. In a brilliant sequence of noir iconography, under hypnosis and performing the script Korvo has provided, Ann leaves her house and drives to the house of the murdered woman. The camera is placed at odd, transfiguring angles; diagonal shadows cover the walls of Ann's house and of the hilltop house of the dead woman whose portrait looms over her living room like a malevolent deity. The shot in which Gene Tierney stands before the portrait is an obvious homage to Laura and a rare moment of self-quotation in Preminger's oeuvre. David Raksin's theme song (“nice, but not great,” as the composer recalled) evokes the heroine's descent into a vortex.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Laura (1944)

Posted by NoirFanatic

This being my first review for the site (go easy on me folks) I decided on the film, Laura, but as I started to write this review a major question popped into my head, “How does one write a review or commentary for a major film entry in the world of noir without giving away a major, and I stress MAJOR plot spoiler? I’m not too sure, but, for the benefit of those who may not have seen Laura, I’m going to do my best to talk about and review this classic noir without giving away the MAJOR plot spoiler.

Directed masterfully by Otto Preminger, who was not set as the original director for Laura, but was the only director available when the original director, Rouben Mamoulian was pulled from the project, this production presents career-making performances from stars Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Vincent Price.

From the opening frame when we first meet Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and the first words we hear are his voice-over, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” we know this will be a murder mystery like none other seen in the 1940s. Lydecker is a newspaper columnist who is full of himself, a pompous ass, who believes he had fallen in love with Laura (Gene Tierney) and would do anything to help her succeed in the advertising industry and be accepted with the rich and fabulous of the city.

Enter Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), your typical 1940s hard-boiled detective, who is investigating the murder of Laura through interviews of the two possible suspects, Lydecker and Laura’s fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Through the interviews, Laura’s story is told by means of flashbacks, a technique used in most but not all noirs, and through these flashbacks we begin to uncover how Lydecker fell for Laura, how Laura began to fall for Shelby, and how their obsessions for her love result in her death.

Through these interviews of Laura’s suitors McPherson has no real success which he uses as an excuse to go to Laura’s apartment at night where he searches for clues by going through her personal letters in the hopes of getting one step closer to finding the person who murdered her. What he doesn’t realize or tries not to show is that he to has become obsessive for Laura and is slowly falling in love with a dead woman. He is eventually called on it by Lydecker when he says, “You better watch out, McPherson, or you'll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don't think they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”

I did say McPherson was your typical 1940s hard-boiled detective, right? Well, what would a hard-boiled detective be without his alcohol? After doing a search through Laura’s apartment, our detective helps himself to a few drinks and falls asleep on one of the sofas only to be awakened to the shock of his life…

And that is where, my friends, to avoid spoiling anything for you, I must quote an old saying, “This is where the plot thickens.”

The script itself is what drives Laura along. The scriptwriters have presented us an intriguing storyline with outstanding plot twists all throughout Laura. You must give credit to scriptwriters of this film, Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt; the trio do an outstanding job adapting the best selling 1943 detective novel by Vera Caspary.

David Raksin’s score for Laura is a beautiful and at times haunting theme that sets the tone and pacing for the entire movie. The story behind this score is to be believed -- that Preminger told Raksin to take a weekend and come up with the theme or he was going to used Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” The ultimate theme that Raksin developed was a perfect fit for the film and Preminger used it for the entire movie.

All the acting performances for Laura were considered career-making for the four leads. However, without Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker, this film would be nothing. Webb is believable as the full-of-himself newspaper columnist who believes that he is the right man for her and does everything in his power to prevent Laura from having other relationships with men--including attacking the men with words through his newspaper column.

Webb also gets some of the best dialogue in the film. Early in the film, Laura approaches him to endorse a pen; his reply, “I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom." His delivery of this line just shows you what kind of man Lydecker really is.

Webb’s Lydecker is considered to be one of the most memorable characters in all of film noir and cinema.

The ultimate credit should also be given to the director Otto Preminger, for when he took over this film it was a mess! From the acting to the cinematography and all the way down to the film score, Laura would not have become the classic noir it is without Preminger at the helm.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Night and the City (1950)

Editor's note: Things continue to be busy here at the blog. There are two Noir of the Week articles coming up in the next few days. This one's unique because I haven't read any of Dr. Mayer's writing and I've yet to get a copy of the book, Encyclopedia of Film Noir.It was co-written by Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell and was just published last month.
I asked Dr. Mayer to tell us a little about the book:

"Part 1 contains five chapters which examine readings on film noir, including what is film noir, the Hard-Boiled Influence, Film Noir and the City, McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Film Noir Style. Part 2 incudes entries on more than 150 films, including ‘
Night and the City’, and 60 actors and directors. While most of the films selected are American, there is a sizable coverage of British Film Noir. Hence ‘Night and the City’ is an apt choice because it was produced by a Hollywood studio, Twentieth Century Fox, with American stars (Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe) and an American director (Jules Dassin), who was about to be blacklisted in Hollywood - but it was filmed in London in 1949. This confluence of influences resulted in one of the most powerful noir films ever produced - both stylistically and thematically."

The following is a excerpt from the book:

By Geoff Mayer

NIGHT AND THE CITY (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950)-Director: Jules Dassin; Script: Jo Eisinger, based on the novel by Gerald Kersh; Cinematography: Max Greene; Music: Franz Waxman; Cast: Richard Widmark (Harry Fabian), Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol), Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross), Hugh Marlowe (Adam Dunne), Francis L. Sullivan (Phillip Nosseross), Herbert Lom (Kristo), Stanislaus Zbyszko (Gregorious), Mike Mazurki (the Strangler), Edward Chapman (Hoskins), Maureen Delaney (Anna O’Leary), James Hayter (Figler).

This is a key noir film. Filmed in London in 1949, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox, sent director Jules Dassin to Britain as he was about to be expelled from the studio following orders from New York because of his left-wing political sympathies. Zanuck told Dassin to start filming Jo Eisinger’s script for Night and the City as soon as he could and he also told Dassin to film the most expensive scenes first so that it would be costly for the studio to remove him from the film. Zanuck also asked Dassin if he could develop a role for one of the studio’s most important female stars, Gene Tierney, as he wanted to get her away from Hollywood following a failed romance.

Dassin did not have time to read Gerald Kersh’s book, published in 1938, and his interest in the project was both formal and ideological. He wanted to present London as an urban nightmare with night for night shooting at a time when it was still difficult to generate sufficient light for extended night scenes, especially those filmed in long shot. Dassin, however, received the cooperation of many London businesses who agreed to leave their lights on at night so as to assist the filming. As a result, Night and the City is one of the strongest examples of film noir expressionism and it presents London as an urban hell - a world of dark shadows, desperate individuals and derelict buildings. Tourist landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, along with other parts of the city, were transformed into a consistent vision of urban hell, a perfect encapsulation of a dark, threatening world permeated by betrayal, fall guys and moral corruption.

Dassin was also attracted to the film’s overarching theme based on the destructive effect of money and ambition and Night and the City is one of the toughest, bleakest films ever produced by a major Hollywood studio. The film’s opening sequence was developed by Zanuck who jettisoned the more conventional, and softer, opening scenes in Eisinger’s script. Zanuck wanted to emphasise Fabian’s vulnerability from the start. The film begins with Harry Fabian, a cheap American-born scam artist, running through the desolate streets of London, and the film ends in the same way with Fabian running for his life through the same wasteland until he is executed by nemesis, The Strangler, with his body dumped into Thames at Hammersmith. In between these events the film traces the downward spiral of Fabian as he tries to live down failed investments and ‘be somebody’. In the past Fabian’s activities have caused suffering to his girlfriend Mary Bristol, Now he is doomed. He overreaches himself when he tries to compete with men such as Kristo when, striving to lift himself out of the world of small time crime, manipulates himself into the position of wrestling promoter when Kristo’s father, Gregorius, and his wrestling protégé Nikolas, become disenchanted by Kristo’s demeaning exploitation of the wrestling business. Fabian exploits this rift by promising Gregorius that he will promote classical Greco-Roman wrestling but, short of funds, Fabian gets caught between Helen Nosseross’s desire to leave her husband and start up her own night-club and Phil’s jealousy and sexual frustration. Fabian accepts money from both parties and this, eventually, leads to his downfall when, in financial desperation, he tries to provoke Gregorius into fighting The Strangler. Fabian loses control of the situation and when Gregorius dies after subduing The Strangler, Kristo sets the London underworld onto Fabian with the promise of a bounty for his head.

This sets up the film’s magnificent final act as Harry seeks refuge amongst the denizens of London’s underworld only to discover that, except for his surrogate mother, Anna, and Mary, nobody will help him. His unsentimental death lacks any sense of glamour. Fabian, as Dassin constantly reminds us with his mise-en-scene, is doomed from the start. He is a tragic figure who, as one character tells him, is ‘an artist without art’ who overreaches himself. Fabian grasp of an unstable world is shown to be untenable right from the start and, at the film’s conclusion, he runs through the nightmarish streets lamenting that he ‘was so close to being on top’. The film concludes with his death as his body is dumped into the Thames.

At times, the doomed protagonists of film noir assume some of the dramatic characteristics of tragedy, particularly when they over-stretch themselves. Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian, at times, assumes this tragic persona. At other times he approximates his giggling psychopath persona from his trademark performance as Tommy Udo in his debut film Kiss of Death (1947). Overall, he is a spiv, a con man sent out to ‘The American Bar’ to persuade gullible American tourists to follow him back to Nosseross’s Silver Fox club where ‘hostesses’, trained and drilled by Helen Nosseross, can fleece their victims. He dies when he tries to move out of this limited sphere. In his attempt to ‘be somebody’ and raise money to promote a legitimate wrestling match, Fabian takes the audience on a tour of London’s underbelly as he visits, firstly, The Fiddler who runs a scam involving beggars with fake disabilities (The Fiddler, who eventually betrays Harry near the end of the film, offers to set Harry up with his own operation involving ‘a few good beggars’), then Googin who forges birth certificates, passports and medical licences and finally Anna O’Leary, who deals in stolen nylons and cigarettes. This is a world devoid of ‘normal people.

Night and the City was a startling production from a major Hollywood studio due largely to its almost total lack of sentimentality. American director Jules Dassin and actors Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, and Hugh Malowe joined talented British actors, such as Francis L. Sullivan as the love-stricken Phillip Nosseross and Googie Withers as his venal wife Helen, and German cinematographer Max Greene who gave Dassin the depth of field and unusual compositions he wanted. Greene and Dassin filmed many scenes just prior to sunrise so as to accentuate the film’s sense of fatalism.

When Dassin returned to the United States for post-production work on Night and the City he was, due to the fact that his left-wing past had become public, was prevented from entering the studio and had to convey his ideas with regard to the film’s post-production to editors Nick De Maggio and Sidney Stone and composer Franz Waxman by phone as they were too frightened to meet him in person due to possibility of any direct association with Dassin may have damaged their careers. The film received, mostly. Negative reviews in the United States and Britain, possibly affected by the political climate, and performed poorly at the box office. Dassin did not direct another film, the wonderful Rififi, for five years. Night and the City was remade in 1992 with Robert DeNiro as the doomed protagonist, but the change of setting to New York, and a more sentimental perspective, weakened the film and it is an inferior version.