Showing posts with label RKO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label RKO. Show all posts

Monday, April 07, 2008

Sudden Fear (1952)

The Homme Fatale in Sudden Fear by Guy Savage

“See, I’m not the kind of man who can live on his wife’s money.”

We’re twenty-four minutes into the film Sudden Fear when we realize that the main male character, actor Lester Blaine played by Jack Palance is rotten, and it’s this knowledge that acts as a suspense builder in this taut noir film—a tale of greed, adultery and murder. Up to this point, we’ve just suspected Lester’s intentions, but now our doubts are proved correct. Sudden Fear, a woman-in-jeopardy noir with Joan Crawford playing heiress, Myra Hudson—is the tale of a woman who may meet a foul end at the hands of her deceptive, less-than-loving husband, Lester. For a large chunk of the action, Myra is oblivious to her husband’s evil intentions, but since the plot lets the audience in on the threat, we are committed to the suspense from the start. As spectators, we know that Myra is in danger, and so we are riveted to Lester’s devious plan to rid himself of a wife he so obviously loathes.

Sudden Fear based on a novel by Edna Sherry, brought Crawford her third and final Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Directed by David Miller this 1952 film was the first picture Crawford made for RKO after asking to be released from her Warner Bros. contract. Crawford hated her last Warner Brothers film--This Woman is Dangerous. The film cast her in a rather spongy, implausible role as a female gangster who loses her eyesight and then turns soft and weepy when faced with a possible future as a happy little housewife. For noir fans, Sudden Fear showcases Crawford in one of her most powerful roles.

When Sudden Fear begins, wealthy playwright Myra Hudson is in New York casting for her new play. Lester Blaine lands the part of the leading man, but during rehearsals, Myra finds him lacking as a romantic hero. She abruptly, publicly, and rather callously fires him on the spot. Myra’s advisors think she’s making a mistake, but since Myra always gets her way, a disgruntled and bitter Lester exits the stage.

Myra’s play is a raging success, and she’s due to return home to San Francisco by train. Is it coincidence that Lester Blaine just happens to turn up as a passenger on the same train? Myra seems to think so, but in light of Lester’s humiliation, somehow, his statement that he has no hard feelings towards Myra just doesn’t feel right. On the train journey to San Francisco, Lester entertains and woos Myra, and by the time they reach their destination, Myra is in love. Lester seems to be the perfect lover, and he certainly has perfected the symptoms of an enamored man. He’s attentive, sensitive and gentle, and Myra, who’s smitten by the romance, seems oblivious to the differences in their ages and social status.

Myra may be swept along with Lester Blaine’s smooth style, but for audience members, that niggling doubt remains. At this point, however, Lester’s game may be mean-spirited revenge, or perhaps he’s a pathetic loser after her money. But one brilliantly constructed scene clarifies Lester’s manipulation and Myra’s vulnerability. Lester fails to show up for an evening at Myra’s splendid home, and Myra ditches her guests to seek out her missing beau. While she dashes to his hotel, we see Lester pacing back and forth, waiting only for Myra’s arrival to begin a performance that involves his pride, a suitcase and a one-way trip back to New York. It’s with this scene and its clever camera shots that Lester is revealed as the center of power in the relationship, less-than-sincere and dangerously manipulative in his professions of love.

After we become aware of Lester’s true intentions, the suspense moves away from the question of what Lester is capable of to when and how Myra will have an “accident.” The plot plays with scenes at Myra’s gorgeous coastal cliff top home. The steep stairway to the ocean, carved into rock offers the perfect location for a nasty accident. Since the audience knows that Lester has evil intentions towards his wealthy wife, we are riveted to Myra’s nimble walk (in high heels) down the rocky staircase. We can wince all we want at the spectacle of Myra’s potential danger, but we are powerless to warn her.

Another clever device used as a suspense builder by the film is the use of Myra’s recording machine. The plot reveals this nifty little piece of technology early in the film—along with a demonstration of its abilities. The machine is a crucial part of the plot, but as it turns out, machinery may be relied on for its usefulness, but it’s still subject to the vagaries of human emotion.

The plot thickens when tarty, brash Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame, one of my all-time favorite noir stars) arrives on the scene as Lester’s vicious love interest. Irene hasn’t been invited to San Francisco, but she wheedles her way into Myra’s exclusive set nonetheless. Greedy and amoral, she accelerates Lester’s desire for wealth, and together they make a lethal combination of lust, violence and murderous design. Clever camera shots of reflected images in mirrors reveal the main characters’ true emotions—Myra’s lawyer’s distrust of Lester, Irene planning murder, Lester’s mask of loving, doting husband suspended, and Myra horrified by just how far she’ll go.

The film’s plot is as well rounded as a Greek tragedy, with just desserts for those who concoct evil ends for others. But it’s the delivery of those just desserts that makes for riveting viewing. The city of San Francisco assumes a spectacular role in Sudden Fear. The film includes great shots of the city, and it’s played here as both an ambivalent setting for nefarious actions, and also as a rat’s maze in the frenzied, final action-packed scenes. The city’s inanimate beauty serves to highlight urban indifference to its inhabitants’ actions.

Sudden Fear gives Crawford a terrific role and gives her the chance to act her heart out. Here she’s the tough, cold businesswoman who melts with Lester’s continued interest. Weakened by emotion and threatened by violence, she spends one hysterical terror-filled night in the shifting shadows of her bedroom before going on the offensive in the no-one-fucks-with-Joan role fans love so much. The fact that Myra is a successful playwright is artfully weaved into the story when she imagines she can write her way out of a real-life problem just as she would write a script for one of her plays. Myra’s attempt to script her own life is seen in a series of imagined flashforward sequences. Unfortunately, since she is dealing with real people and not fictional characters, there’s an element of unpredictability that even Myra can’t anticipate. Just as the timing in a play must be precision perfect, Myra’s scheme also relies on split second sequencing. The film uses the ticking of a clock to emphasize the crucial timing involved in Myra’s plan. The clock ticks away like a metronome with the action and nerve-wracking suspense building to a frenzied, orgasmic, and deadly conclusion.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Roadblock (1951)

Posted by Steve-O

I consider Roadblock to be Charles McGraw’s best film noir. RKO’s B-movie alternative to Robert Mitchum was certainly in better crime thrillers. The Narrow Margin for one is today considered a classic - and it is. Before becoming a leading man, McGraw appeared as a supporting actor in a slew of films like the great T-Men and The Killers. I never doubted McGraw’s acting ability - I always enjoyed in everything he was in. Seeing Roadblock for the first time surprised me however. Who knew he could play a love-sick sucker? McGraw's surprising performance is the reason this one stands out.

The film starts by showing McGraw as he usually was in the dozens of thrillers he appeared in. He plays a hard-nosed gravely-voiced investigator who’ll do anything to solve his cases. The clever opening teaser shows McGraw and his partner faking a shooting to scare a suspect into showing them where some stolen money is hidden. So far, not much different than the cops McGraw played in Armored Car Robbery or Loophole. Everything changes when Joe Peters (McGraw) falls in love with a con woman (Joan Dixon) just moments later at an airport on his way back to Los Angeles. Seeing McGraw wave at Dixon like a kid with a crush, or even later when he breaks into her apartment to decorate a Christmas tree is a wonderful change of pace for the tough-guy actor.

Joan Dixon no doubt broke into film acting because she looked a lot like Gene Tierney. If you want to talk about an actor without much range check her out in the otherwise entertaining Bunco Squad or Experiment Alcatraz. In Roadblock she too is better than expected. Dixon flirts with the love starved insurance investigator and quickly has him eating out of her hands. Once she has him hooked, Diane (Dixon) tells McGraw that they would never work out because he just doesn’t have enough money. She quickly stops McGraw’s attempts at seduction. A few weeks later, Peters finds out she’s a play thing for a local Los Angeles mobster (Lowell Gilmore) who rents her an apartment and buys her lots and lots of furs. Dixon is sexy and funny and you can’t blame McGraw for continuing his courtship of her despite her ties with organized crime. Unfortunately, one of the few flaws of Roadblock is that Dixon doesn’t get to be a true femme fatale. Right when Peters decides to risk it all to get rich quick and win the love of Diane, she turns and decides to love Peters no matter how much cash he has. It’s nice that she does this but she’s a heck of a lot sexier when she was a money hungry con artist earlier in the film.

The plot is simple. When Peters falls for Diane he concocts a scheme to rob a train loaded with cash. Instead of doing the robbery himself he sells the idea to Diane’s mob boyfriend. The agreement is Peters would get a great percentage of the take. The mobster agrees. Diane and Peters go off on their honeymoon -which doubles nicely as an alibi. Diane wants Peters to call off the risky crime but it’s too late. The mob won’t cancel the job. After a few stressful days in the woods the couple hears via radio report that the train robbery goes off nicely. Peters is mailed his share of the loot and Diane is disappointed in him for planning the crime. Diane at this point keeps telling Peters that she’s changed but I suspect that Peters knows the truth. Eventually Diane will probably want the “finer things in life” and eventually leave the working-class Peters.

Now the sticky part comes up. After the honeymoon in the wild Peters goes back to Los Angeles and is assigned to investigate the robbery. Peters tries as hard as he can to lead the investigation away from his mob partners but eventually his best friend - equally square jawed Louis Jean Heydt - easily figures out Peters is the inside man. Heydt tries to convince Peters to turn himself in but instead gets a beer bottle in the head.

The film climaxes when Peters and Diane try to escape L.A. with their bundle of cash. Peters is shot dead on the concrete bed of a nearly-dry Los Angeles River.

Roadblock is a well-paced true film noir. The fatalistic story has a few nice touches in addition to the two lead performances including a slick opening credit sequence and a decent (but generic) film score.

Don’t miss it the next time it airs on TCM.


Monday, December 31, 2007

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Posted by Steve-O

1944 was a big year for film noir. Early film noirs Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet were all released near the end of '44 and all were box office hits. Murder, My Sweet helped Dick Powell - known as a song and dance man in film up to this point - change his screen persona to a tough-talking film noir hero in many movies and television shows afterward. The film also features Claire Trevor as a convincing “black widow” and Mike Mazurki in his most memorable role as Moose Malloy.

The star of the film however is the tough-talk dialog taken directly from Raymond Chandler's novel. The book Farewell, My Lovely,written in a first-person perspective, was actually filmed for the first time a few years before. The Falcon Takes Over from 1941 looks nothing like the Chandler novel - certainly the hero Gay Lawrence (George Sanders) was nothing like the L.A. Private detective Chandler wrote about. A few years after The Falcon's release studio heads at RKO realized that they could make the story again but this time in the style of the 1941 hit The Maltese Falcon.

The plot of the book is almost impossible to explain and it must have been nearly impossible to create into a screenplay. Actually the novel was a combination of three early Chandler short stories weaved together by the writer into full-length book. This is one of those films where the trip is much more satisfying than the destination because the story is very muddled - at least in my head- even after multiple viewings. Credit goes to screenwriter John Paxton (Cornered, Crossfire) and director Edward Dmytryk for cleverly translating the cynical book and for retooling the ending at the beach house to make it more satisfying than the novel. Chandler never liked when his stories were rewritten for film - despite the fact that he did just that to James M. Cain's book Double Indemnity a few years earlier. In this case the shootout at the beach house concludes much of the mystery while in the book the villain slips from Marlowe. The classic Hollywood ending that follows the beach house scene is a disappointment but not unexpected for the time.


The makers of Murder, My Sweet - without Chandler's help - were determined to make a movie that captured the feel the book. Surprisingly the movie star hired to play Philip Marlowe for the first time was Dick Powell. The almost forty-year-old Powell (who previously tried to land the lead in Double Indemnity in his attempt at becoming a dramatic actor) had star power and his hiring actually helped the film makers get a bigger budget for the movie. Although Powell does a convincing job in the role he, in my opinion, never really nails the role like Bogart would a few years later in The Big Sleep. When Marlowe is kidnapped and drugged halfway through the film Powell begins acting over the top. Movie-maker tricks- like a clever (and now classic film noir) montage and “spider webs” superimposed over the screen - makes me think that the film makers were trying to distract audiences from Powell's acting. Practice does make perfect, however. In 1948 Powell - after a number of film noir roles - gives one of the best performances in a noir when he plays Lizabeth Scott's sucker in the fantastic Pitfall. In Murder, My Sweet Powell does fit the character of “eagle scout” Philip Marlowe well but age has not been kind to his performance and today I suspect that viewers unfamiliar with his other films will probably not buy him as the private dick.

Powell does, however, use Chandler's voice-over observations and wise-guy cracks to distance himself from all that are out to get him in the film. It must be pretty hard to be a smart ass when you're getting lied to, conked over the head, strangled, smacked in the face with a roscoe, blinded, burned and even drugged.

Supporting Powell is a slew of seasoned veterans. Esther Howard's one scene as Jessie Florian is just perfect. Many would tell you that Sylvia Miles - who received an Oscar nomination for her version of the character in the 1970's Farewell, My Lovely - was better. I disagree. I find Howard's performance of the lonely drunk funny and spot on. Character actor Mazurki is amusing as the giant lug Moose (the only other role that compares to Moose is Mazurki's role as a not-too-bright wrestler in Night and the City). Boxer John Indrisano teams with Mazurki making it a sure thing that Powell will take his share of beatings in the film. Otto Kruger could always be counted on to play the charming but slippery villain.

Claire Trevor stands out playing a difficult part. She has to play a woman constantly lying and acting a role. Femme fatale Trevor - decked out in glamorous gowns - is convincing as a tramp that marries into high society but in her heart will always be a cheap and manipulating. Her cold and calculating ways at first seems to turn Marlowe into a killer but, unlike Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, she never is successful at turning him. (If she only had Laurence Tierney- her partner in Born to Kill - to help her she would have gotten away with it.)

Right before the release of the film the title would have to be changed from Farewell, My Lovely to Murder, My Sweet so that film goers would never mistake a movie with “Murder” in the title as a Powell musical comedy.

The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk for RKO. RKO was a perfect fit for B-budget film noir. Producer Val Lewton concocted a winning formula for making financial and critical hits when he made his early 1940's series of horror films there. He used shadows, darkness, strange camera angles and even unexpected noises to help tell his dark tales. It was out of necessity - RKO couldn't afford big sets, special effects or even big stars that the old Universal horror films used. Dmytryk, a former film editor, used many of the behind-the-scenes talent from these films (many also worked on the big-budget but similarly shadowy Citizen Kane) to make what turned out to be one of the most successful filming of a Raymond Chandler novel. RKO went on to be one of the biggest producers of film noir. Surprisingly, in 1944 Chandler didn't get a dime for the second filming of his book since RKO already owned the rights.

Murder, My Sweet is a wonderfully dark cynical look at Los Angeles and paved the way for other great film noir. Philip Marlowe is the most filmed detective in movie history and Murder, My Sweet is one of the best of them.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Posted by A True Noiraholic

RKO Pictures, Inc Present, Original running time 64min.

The Film that Gave "Birth" to the Style called Film Noir

A young reporter name Michael Ward (John McGuire) is haunted by the the knowledge that he may have sent an innocent man to the electric chair for murder and that means the real maniac is still on the loose! Was the wrong man condemned? Then Michael's next door neighbor is also murdered, and in an ironic twist of fate, is Micheal the real maniac? And who is that bugged-eyed stranger on the third floor?

These are some of the questions that were waiting to be answered when the film that is considered the "first" film noir Stranger on the Third Floor was released in theatre(s) on August 16, 1940. Even though at the time of release this little "sleeper" wasn't considered the "first" film noir but just a "minor" low-budget "B" feature(s) film. Today it is often credited by most film critics, film historians, and film "buffs" as being the "first" film noir.

Directed by Boris Ingster (I'll Give a Million, Miracle on Main Street, Stranger on the Third Floor, The Judge Steps Out, and the noir Southside 1-1000)
Produced by Lee Marcus
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Musical Score by Roy Webb

Stranger on the Third Floor
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The screenplay and story was written by Frank Partos (Guilty as Hell, Thirty Day Princess, She's No Lady, Rio (The last of which has been argued to be an even earlier noir than Stranger.) He was Oscar nominated for the film The Snake Pit and scripted two further noirs -- The House on Telegraph Hill and Night Without Sleep. (with uncredited script work by Nathanael West)

Stunning art direction by Van Nest Polgase (Whose next film project would be Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.)

The Cast: Peter Lorre (The Stranger), John McGuire (Micheal Ward), Margaret Tallichet (Jane), Elisha Cook Jr. ( Joe Briggs) (It seems as if a consensus has been reached among film noir buffs that if Elisha Cook Jr. is present in a film it has to be considered film noir...) Charles Waldon (District Attorney), Charles Halton (Albert Meng), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Kane), Cliff Clark (Martin),Oscar O'Shea (The Judge), Alec Craig (Defense Attorney), Otto Hoffman (Police Surgeon).

In Stranger on the Third Floor a newspaper reporter Micheal Ward (John McGuire) get his "big" break when he happens upon a murder. Ward becomes the key witness at the murder trial of a petty criminal Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) who is accused of slashing the throat of a popular cafe owner name Nick Giuseppe. Briggs maintains his innocence and claims that he found the victim with his throat cut and "bleeding" inside his cash register. But Ward testimony convicts Briggs and he sentenced to the chair. With the "spotlight" now on Ward who acquired a $12.00 a month raise, a byline for his newspaper, and just enough money to consider marrying his girlfriend Jane (Margaret Tallichet) but she can't help feeling that Briggs is telling the truth and feels that their future will be "tainted" by Ward's testimony against Briggs. Unfortunately, Ward isn't too interested in her doubts about Briggs. As far as he is concerned Briggs is a petty criminal who made threats to Nick. Ward soon find out the hard way that threats and circumstantial evidence can convict an innocent man when an ironic "twist of fate" happens to him.

Stranger on the Third Floor also take a cynical look at the justice system and how people are indifferent to injustice. It also has one of the best dream sequences ever filmed. Taking place in Ward's boarding room, the protagonist dreams that he is arrested, tried, and executed for a murder he didn't commit~ is presented in a expressionist montage~thanks to strong character acting and to German expressionism cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca (1892-1975) who would go on to become arguably the definitive film noir cameraman through his work on The Fallen Sparrow, The Locket, Out of the Past (one of my favorite film noir flicks with Robert Mitchum), Clash By Night and The Hitch-Hiker. Musuraca's uses Germanic expressionism techniques to create the effects of high light and shadow effects, uses unique camera angles, and photographs the dark urban surrounding in a baroque style. His lighting was deliberately artificial emphasizing deep shadows and sharp contrast and were chosen to emphasize the fantastic and the grotesque. The actors seem to externalize his emotion to the extremes in the dream sequences in Stranger on the Third Floor.

Stranger was released in theaters on August 14, 1940 and was panned by film critics. "They have not done right by by Peter Lorre in this picture," wrote Variety on September 04, 1940. "He's so subordinated in the story that his character amount to a "bit." More accurately RKO hadn't done right by the audience who would be entitled to expect to see more of the ostensible star."

(Reviewer Note: RKO had Peter Lorre on a short contract when Stranger on the Third Floor entered production realizing that he was not booked to work on his last two final days, the studio assigned him to a minor role in the film. But as befitting his "star" standing, he received "top" billing.)


Today Stranger on the Third Floor is well received by film critics but, as a low budget "B" features it does not appear to have been reviewed anywhere in the press, and went largely unnoticed until film critics "rediscovered" it in 1970s and proclaimed it the first "true" noir even though there are some critics who disputed this. According to some film critics the films Blind Alley, Rio, and Let Us Live! predates Stranger on the Third Floor by a year. John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (in which both actors Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in after their appearance in Stranger on the Third Floor) is also often cited as the first film noir until the appraisal of Stranger on the Third Floor because, unlike Stranger, Huston's Maltese Falcon partly conforms when it come to having all the elements of noir. But it doesn't seems to tick off as many boxes as Boris Ingster's Stranger on the Third Floor. For instance, Huston preferred balanced low contrast lighting, eye level shots, subjective and low level (when he was framing Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) viewpoint to emphasize his bulk.) Ingster's "Stranger on the Third Floor" on the other hand, exhibited all the elements to qualify in the category of a film noir with it high contrast lighting, deep shadows, aural expression, voice-over narration, oblique camera angles, dreams and flashback. These are just a few reasons that Stranger on the Third Floor is considered the first film noir because it exhibits all the elements of the Germanic expressionist style. Even though some films critics didn't like the ending I think that the ending is very appropriate because it is like emerging from a perpetual "darkness" into the "light "or waking up from a "nightmare" that wouldn't end, but still the thought of the nightmare lingers.

Was the wrong man convicted? Then Micheal's next door neighbor is murdered? In an ironic twist of fate, is Michael the real maniac? And who is that little bugged-eyed stranger on the third floor? In order to find out the answer to these questions, I highly recommend that film noir fans whether you are a "novice" or a long time "collector" of film noir to watch Boris Ingster's hidden "gem" Stranger on the Third Floor because it is considered by many film critics to be the film that gave "birth" to films with that "noir style" which consist of making use of high lighting-and shadow effects, unique oblique camera angles, dreams and flashbacks which is also characterized by dark somber tones, protagonist, femme fatale, and a cynical pessimistic mood. What we film noir "purist' like to simply refer to as Film Noir.

Availability: According to author of the book Film Noir by Eddie Robson(published in 2005) "At the time of writing Stranger on the Third Floor is not commercially available anywhere in the world and has not been for quite some time, a 1980s VHS release having been deleted long ago."

Availability Update: The film "Stranger on the Third Floor" is out-of-print on VHS but, you can probably find RKO original copies of this film on and eBay websites. (Reviewer Note:I was "lucky" to find a nice copy on eBay website.) The price can range anywhere from $29.00 (used) to $129.00 (new). By the way, noir fans another interesting website to visit in order to purchase this hard-to-find title at a more affordable price is:

Editor's note: Spoilers in the video below!


Monday, October 01, 2007

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Posted by Mappin & Webb Ltd.

Landscapes and environment were undeniably integral aspects of many classic film noirs. They seemed nearly as important in conveying the crucial noir elements of suspense and dread as the actors starring in them. From the cobblestone streets of Vienna in The Third Man, the seedy underworld of London in Night and the City, the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, and of course the concrete jungle of Manhattan in Scarlet Street, The Naked City and Pickup on South Street are just few of some of the numerous possible match-ups. These environments breathed aesthetic life into these films and literally set the stage for the players to interact, investigate, pursue, be chased, live and die on their streets.

But what if our film noir protagonist didn’t have the streets of New York City to hide from his pursuers? What if he was a cop, who had no expansive boulevards of Los Angeles to elude the mob trying to rub out his star witness he was assigned to protect? What if our cop and his witness were confined to small, narrow compartments in a passenger train speeding along at 60 mph? What if that same mob had goons, bent on killing the witness, inside that same train and outside keeping pace with them in a car traveling alongside on the highway? If you’re that cop the preceding picture sounds about as appealing as being a diver in a shark cage during a feeding frenzy. Only these sharks are inside the cage with the diver. In The Narrow Margin the preceding picture comes to life in this expertly executed thriller, with even more twists piled onto the wonderfully contorted premise (warning, spoilers are a comin’).

Our film opens with a pair of L.A. detectives arriving in Chicago with an assignment to protect a widowed mob wife. She’s holding a list of names and the knowledge to put away L.A. Mafia heavies in a graft investigation. The detectives, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) arrive at the Chicago safe house (which is a not so safe, nor private, boarding house) where the mob widow Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) is being protected by the local cops. Brown and Forbes must get Mrs. Neall back to L.A. safely so she can deliver the incendiary list of names and testify to the grand jury awaiting her arrival. The transfer goes awry as one of the mob button men kills Forbes and flees before Brown can apprehend him. Brown grabs Mrs. Neall and makes a b-line to the train station with two, one-way tickets to L.A.

The Narrow Margin (1952)
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Mrs. Neall turns out to be a real firecracker of shrew. Previously, on the cab ride from the train station to the safe-house, Forbes and Brown wonder what kind of a woman would become a mobster’s wife also adding the crucial (yet implausible) plot element that “nobody’s seen her.” Brown interjects a profile of the unseen moll, speculating that she “is a dish… a 60 cent special. Cheap, flashy and strictly poison under the gravy.” Forbes counters with foreshadowing insight that “all kinds” of women could potentially marry a Mafia racketeer, not just the stereotypical portrait Brown has painted. However, Marie Windsor’s Mrs. Neall seems to be closer to Brown’s estimate with her sharp tongue and curvaceous body. After their harrowing escape and during the cab ride to the train station with Brown, Windsor expresses zero sympathy for Forbes and the bullet he just took for her. She even begins to flirt with Brown mere minutes after his partner of six years takes the big one for the team. Brown puts the kibosh on her advances saying that she is just a job in his eyes and she quickly backs off by snarling “I wouldn’t want any of that nobility to rub off on me.”

Brown gets Windsor on the train unseen but moments later on the platform, he is spotted by mob goon Joseph Kemp (David Clarke). Kemp follows Brown on the train and the wheels are set in motion for this claustrophobic cat and mouse chase about to take place on a passenger locomotive. Brown has bought two compartments on the train for him and Mrs. Neall and they initially elude Kemp’s snooping around both rooms. But Kemp knows Brown has her stashed somewhere on the train. In addition to Kemp, a mafia liaison by the name of Vincent Yost is also on the train. He confronts and attempts to bribe Brown for the list and the whereabouts on the train of Mrs. Neall (remember the mafia apparently doesn’t know what she looks like). Brown is momentarily tempted, but he can’t be bought and also can’t arrest Yost as he has a squeaky clean record as a sales executive for one of the mob’s legitimate company fronts. Windsor’s Mrs. Neal eavesdrops at the door from the adjoining compartment the attempted bribery by Yost. She later tells Brown that he is a sucker for not taking the bribe and tells him that they could split the money and take off. Brown tells Windsor she makes him sick to his stomach to which she replies, “Well use your own sink, and let me know when the target practice starts.”

While the cat and mouse goes on between him and Kemp, Brown keeps bumping into the attractive, Mrs. Sinclair (Jacqueline White) and her son Tommy around the train. She looks the part of a wholesome woman with a precocious boy who if Ritalin was around in the early 50s, I’m sure he would be receiving the maximum daily dose. It’s no coincidence (kind of) however that Mrs. Sinclair and Brown keep meeting up. As it turns out she is the real Mrs. Neall, traveling clandestinely (as much as one can with a hyperactive eight-year old child and nanny in tow) after the D.A. instructed her to get to the coast undetected. This twist is revealed shockingly after Marie Windsor’s character is finally discovered and bumped off by Kemp and another hit man who boarded the train in Albuquerque named Densel. Equally surprising is Windsor was an internal affairs policewoman, posing as Mrs. Neall and trying to ensnare the seemingly un-bribable Brown in a payoff from the mob.

Now that the tables have been turned the tension is ratcheted up as McGraw’s Detective Brown must protect the real Mrs. Neall (who didn’t know her husband was tied to the mob and turned state’s evidence once she found out), her son Tommy and thwart Kemp and Densel (who we learn is also his partner Forbes’s killer). All of that on a speeding train with the only possible stops left on the line is death or Los Angeles.

While there are some suspect plot holes one could drive a-you-know-what through, director Richard Fleischer keeps the pace moving so quickly that time to dwell on them is not allotted. Clocking in at a lean 71minutes, there isn’t a trace of gristle in this thriller that’s as juicy and satisfying as a thick sirloin steak. Fleischer made a beautiful looking film with near perfect lighting and camera work. The latter aspect comes into play in many scenes but especially the fantastic fist fight between Kemp and Brown in a train washroom. Using a handheld camera (unusual for the time and especially fist fights), the principle actors, low angles and tight shots, make for an amazingly gritty scene of fisticuffs in such a confined, ‘narrow’ space. Fleischer expertly plays with the claustrophobic and restricted space of the train throughout the film and as the tension increases, the shots seem to get tighter and tighter. Another extraordinary aspect and bold choice on Fleischer’s part is the omission of a music soundtrack. In place of a score, Fleischer prominently features the sounds of the train and its workings to audibly add to the mood. From the loud banging together of boxcars forewarning gunplay, to a nice sound match scene transition between Windsor nervously filing her nails and the wheels of the train rhythmically churning, the film is full of these interesting plays of sound and story.

The cast is a well assembled one, each giving superb performances. Charles McGraw’s Detective Brown is the quintessential hard nosed cop, played so tough by McGraw he could sleep on kegs and spit nails as my grandfather used to say. He convincingly conveys the fallibility of temptation (when offered the bribe) adding a nice dimension to the role he’s perfectly suited to play. The scene stealer however is undoubtedly Marie Windsor. Not only is she easy on the eyes, as hers are strictly bedroom, but Windsor executes the role with moxie and flair, without overdoing it. It also helps that she gets the best lines in a dynamite script by Earl Felton from a story by Martin (Detour) Goldsmith. The Narrow Margin isn’t a perfect film but once conductor Fleischer takes your ticket, it’s a trip you won’t regret riding right to the end of the line.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Threat (1949)

Charles McGraw and The Threat

As summarized from Charles Mcgraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy by Alan K. Rode, all rights reserved.

Charles McGraw’s return to RKO in 1949 nearly a year and half after appearing in Blood on the Moon (1948) placed him a completely different situation as an actor. Even though The Threat would entail less than a fifth of the budget than the all-star western helmed by Robert Wise, this time out McGraw would be the unquestioned star rather than just a supporting player.

The Threat (1949), with a working title of Terror, was envisioned as a typical second feature ground out by the RKO “B” unit headed by Sid Rogell. Felix E. Feist, son of a M.G.M. executive, was an independent writer and director who cut his teeth working in the shorts department at Metro during the 1930’s. Feist knew how to imbue quality into a shoestring Rogell assignment having previously directed the perversely entertaining The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) starring Lawrence Tierney. Feist shot The Threat on RKO soundstages with exteriors around the San Fernando Valley and out in the Santa Susana desert at the Iverson Ranch. He would bring the film in slightly under budget at $221,235.

Charlie was hired at $1000 per week for a two and a half week shoot that began production on June 7, 1949. He played a vengeful killer, “Red Kluger” who breaks out of Folsom Prison, pausing in L.A. long enough to wreck vengeance on the police detective (Michael O’Shea) and district attorney (Frank Conroy) who sent him up. Aided by a duo of cinematic blunt instruments (Anthony Caruso and Frank Richards), McGraw kidnaps the two lawmen along with his erstwhile main squeeze (the anorexic-appearing Virginia Grey) for 66 minutes of non-stop action. The film quickly becomes a highlight reel of McGraw-inspired mayhem including torture of an unfortunate Conroy with a pair of pliers and the cold-blooded murder of a policeman while smuggling the hostages in a moving van on Inland Empire back roads to a California high desert hideout. An exciting escape denouement is accentuated by Charlie terrorizing everyone in a desert shack that comes to resemble a sauna bath cum insane asylum until the tables are inevitably turned.

Although third-billed under O’Shea and Grey, there was no doubt who the star of The Threat was. McGraw’s acting was akin to observing a virtuoso performance by a spitting cobra. Charlie spewed forth a guttural hail of venom, coercion and bullets in a portrayal of unabashed ruthlessness that startled audiences with its intense ferocity. McGraw’s indelible performance also reinforced his type-casting as a vicious heavy, but at this point, he didn’t worry about it if the picture was authentic and he was getting paid. “Oh, I don’t mind playing the bum and tough guy in pictures if it’s real”, Charlie explained. “But some of those long-haired writers kick it in the head because they seldom go outside a studio or college library. I really blow my top when they try to foist on me some foreign-born writer’s idea of the New York or Chicago gangster world.”

The Threat garnered wildly enthusiastic reviews in the trade papers and was received as a minor league White Heat (1949) that had been premiered by Warner Brothers with great fanfare several months earlier. More specifically, Charlie’s performance became a minor sensation that invited comparisons to both Cagney and Richard Widmark’s ruthless turn in Kiss of Death (1947). Virginia Grey went out her way in the Los Angeles Times to compare her rugged co-star to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. The Threat earned McGraw the greatest public acclaim of his entire career and the actor was suddenly a hot item In Hollywood.

Charlie’s agent, Paul Wilkins, moving quickly to capitalize on the bow wave of rave reviews, arranged for a full page image of McGraw as “Red Kluger” on the rear of Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter on November 4, 1949, lauding the star for his performance in The Threat. McGraw’s positive notices and the plethora of fan mail received by RKO following release of the picture convinced Howard Hughes that he needed to move quickly to lock up the suddenly marketable actor to a long term deal.

In an interesting back story to McGraw’s emergent acclaim, Jill McGraw distinctly recalls her father writing some of his own fan mail to RKO during this period in what was obviously a clandestine effort to help convince the studio to offer him a long term contract, better roles or both. How many of these “fan letters” which were actually penned by McGraw remains a mystery.

What was undeniable was the positive publicity associated with McGraw’s performance in The Threat made him a hot prospect. RKO offered Charlie a seven-year contract starting at $750 per week. McGraw inked the deal on January 14, 1950, a week after beginning work on his initial contracted feature at RKO, Code 30, a picture that would eventually be released as Armored Car Robbery (1950).

Monday, September 25, 2006

Where Danger Lives (1950)

Posted by Steve-O

This weeks NOTW is the RKO/Robert Mitchum noir Where Danger Lives. The film’s 100% noir story line will remind fans of Detour, DOA, and a lot of other Mitchum RKO flicks. WDL was written by veteran scripwriter Charles Bennett who knew how to write a noir. The whiplash lines in the film are delivered fast and crackle.

For those that haven’t seen it, here’s what happens. (There are some spoilers here)

Young and sexy Margo (Faith Domergue) is the wife of Frederick Lannington (Claude Rains), an apparently sadistic much older millionaire. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) is a surgeon who falls in love with Margo (who would become exposed as the femme fatale) when she was brought into a hospital after attempting suicide. He becomes romantically involved with her without knowing that she's married.

During a drunken confrontation with the jealous husband Frederick, the young doctor knocks the older man out with a cast-iron poker and stumbles out of the room. When Jeff returns, woozy from a hit in the head he himself got, he discovers that old man Lannington is dead. Margo had smothered her husband during Cameron's absence, but she instead tells Jeff that he is the killer. The lovers flee barreling down the highway to Mexico, where Jeff finally figures out that his crazy female companion is the real murder. Along the way to Mexico the couple meet a number of odd-ball characters that makes the trip even stranger.

WDL was directed by John Farrow and photographed by Nick Musuraca. The duo do a great job with the nightmarish look of the film when Mitchum goes on the run but isn’t really sure what’s happening.

This time the femme fatale is played by Faith Domergue (pronounced "Dah-mure") is known more for her relationship with Howard Hughes as much as for being in his RKO films. This was Domergue’s film lead debut. Editor's note: it wasn't her first film. See comments below. She went on to appear in a number of movies and television series. Remember her in This Island Earth and the horror/noir Cult of the Cobra? Prior to WDL, she had small parts in a few films including the proto-noir Blues in the Night.

As far as the supporting cast go could you ask for better than Claude Rains or Maureen O'Sullivan? Rains oozes his usual charm and sophistication in his one scene while O’Sullivan (who I admit I have a huge crush on since watching the Tarzan films last summer) is always beautiful but is stuck with a small part. Does anyone have a better laugh in films than O’Sullivan? She’s underused in this film but I’m just happy to see her on screen. (I can’t remember if she giggles in WDL like she did in The Thin Man but I’ll have to check).

Of course, Mitchum is the real reason to see this film again. He’s great as usual. At first he seems miscast (since he usually didn’t get “doctor” parts). What I think separates this noir from others is the fact that the audience has a pretty good idea that Bob is being taken for a ride (literally) but he’s totally clueless until the end. He is suffering from a concussion throughout almost the whole film and because he’s a doctor he’s totally aware of what’s wrong with him (shades of D.O.A.) but struggles to put all the pieces together.

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