Showing posts with label Richard Conte. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Conte. Show all posts

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.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Big Combo (1955)

Posted by Karen

My pick for this week's NOTW is The Big Combo, one of my favorite - and most watched - noirs. Of all my favorites, it has more fascinating and memorable characters than almost any other. The heart of the film centers on a triangle between Mr. Brown, a hood played with venomous glee by Richard Conte, his weak-willed society girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), and Leonard Diamond (Wallace’s then-husband Cornel Wilde), a police detective who is driven both by his obsession for Susan and his determination to bring Mr. Brown to justice. Ultimately, Diamond gets his man and the girl, but it is the characters, rather than the plot, that make this film so unforgettable.

We start with Conte’s Brown - a vicious, conscienceless, unflappable mobster whose power and demeanor are hinted at in the film’s first few minutes. Brown’s girl, Susan, is seen running through the bowels of a boxing arena, chased by two of Brown’s henchmen. When they catch her, they insist on returning her to Brown, who is watching the match above. “Mr. Brown is mad already,” one of the hoods tells her. “We lost you for two minutes.” Brown himself illustrates his persona in a lengthy speech that ends in his pronouncement that “first is first and second is nobody.” He not only holds a lofty opinion of himself, but a low view of most others. In one encounter with Diamond, he declines to address the cop directly, instead telling an underling, “Joe, the man has reason to hate me. His salary is $96.50 a week. The busboys in my hotels make better money than that.” And, later, he contemptuously browbeats his second-in-command: “Go to bed. Stay there. You been sick, understand - sick. And if they take you to police headquarters, shoot yourself in the head. It’ll make everything a lot simpler.” The second-in-command that Brown addresses is Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), an aging mobster with a hearing impediment who was once Brown’s boss. Now, McClure is the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the outfit - he garners respect neither from Brown nor from Brown’s other underlings, Fanty (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) - in one scene, McClure objects when Fanty charges him a fee for the privilege of working Diamond over. “Didn’t Mr. Brown pay you?” McClure asks. And Fanty replies, “You’re not Mr. Brown. For Mr. Brown, I’d snatch a judge from Superior Court for a chocolate soda.”

Diamond and Susan Lowell are only slightly less fascinating than Brown and his band of miscreants. We learn early on that Diamond is in love with Susan, that he spent money out of his own meager salary to trail her around the country for six months - yet, we find soon after that she isn’t even aware of his existence. We also discover that, despite his seemingly upstanding, beyond-reproach countenance, he has an on-again, off-again relationship with a showgirl who winds up getting murdered in Diamond’s apartment in a case of mistaken identity. “I treated her like a pair of gloves,” Diamond tearfully admits after her body is discovered. “When I was cold, I called her up.” As for Susan, her beauty belies a lack of self-esteem and direction, and she is sexually drawn to Brown despite his possessiveness and sadistic treatment. She is obviously miserable and, like his other underlings, even calls him “Mr. Brown” - yet, she has been with him for four years.

Small but equally memorable characters included Brown’s long-estranged wife, Alicia (played by Helen Walker who here, after years of alcohol abuse, looked far older than her 35 years); Bettini (Ted deCorsia), a shipman who is able to tie Brown to his wife’s disappearance and who resignedly expects to be killed for the knowledge; and Nils Dreyer (John Hoyt), a hard-boiled antiques dealer who coolly refuses to reveal to Diamond his connection with Mr. Brown (“Because I have lunch with him, that is not a crime,” Dreyer says with amusement. “I have lunch with anybody - I’m democratic. I’ll even have lunch with you. Ha ha.”)

Aside from its fascinating characters, The Big Combo features shadowy cinematography by John Alton, a great melancholy jazzy score by David Raksin, and direction from Joseph Lewis, who also helmed such noir gems as Gun Crazy and My Name is Julia Ross. It’s a must-see - and see it over and over again.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Under the Gun (1950)

Posted by Ken Z

Bert Galvin (Richard Conte) takes what he wants. The opening scene of "Under the Gun" (Universal, 1950) shows us Galvin stretched out in the back of a long, black Cadillac convertible being piloted by his two torpedoes. "Don't tell me we have to go see that dame again tonight?" one of them asks.
That dame is nightclub singer Ruth Williams (a dark-haired Audrey Totter), who treats us to a fine rendition of Billie Holiday's "I Cried For You" (not sure if Totter is really singing).

Galvin has had his eye on Ruth, and convinces her to join him on a roadtrip back to NYC, where Galvin wants to make her a star. Ruth is wary, but Galvin closes the deal by telling her: "I like your looks. I like the way you sing. You don't have to worry about any passes from me - if I make one - it'll be on the level." We begin to learn that Galvin is a smooth talker - and quite manipulative.

Driving through the Deep South, they stop at a resort that Galvin frequents. Problem is, he killed someone there and the younger brother has kept quiet about it. But now he is bent on revenge. Galvin is tipped off though, and coolly guns down the would be assassin.

He's tried for murder, and it all comes down to Ruth's testimony. She cracks on the stand under grilling from the DA: "It was murder - a cold blooded murder!"

Galving is sentenced to 20 years hard labor at a deep-south prison work camp. There's no parole, ever. The tough local sheriff understands just how dangerous Galvin is. Played by John McIntire with intelligence and grace, he tells Galvin: "It's not often we get a notorious New Yorker down here."
Galvin replies: "You won't keep me here for 20 years."

Galvin hatches an escape plan. He stuffs a wad of bills into the pocket of the "shooter," the guard with the high powered rifle who supervises the road crews. Just as Galvin's about to jump off a bridge to a waiting escape boat below, a southern-drawl-talking Sam Jaffe (playing Sam Gower) warns him: "Don't do it - you've just bought yourself a funeral - the shooter gets a pardon for shooting you dead."

And therein lies the irony and terror of "Under the Gun." A convict can volunteer to become the sole armed guard (the shooter), and can win his freedom by killing an escaping fellow convict.

The way for Galvin is now clear. He "befriends" an older convict and confides he's hidden 30 thousand in a hollowed bedpost in a New Orleans hotel. That convict is killed in a misguided escape, and that "shooter" is soon to become a free man. Glavin fills the empty "shooter" slot, and the movie kicks into high gear.

Galvin pays to dig up info on Gower, who just a few months prior, had literally saved his life.
He learns that Gower's family is in a bad way - his wife is sick, and his kids are hungry.
He offers Gower a deal: his wife will receive $25,000, and once this is confirmed to Gower, the clock starts ticking, and Gower has 30 days to try and escape. If Galvin should gun him down, Galvin will be freed. Should Gower somehow outsmart Galvin, HE will be free and Galvin will continue to serve out his term.

This is just a fantastic plot twist, and the director Ted Tazzlaff, plays it to the hilt. I won't divulge the ending, but IMO it became a little too Hollywood-by-the-numbers.

The most Noir element of "Under the Gun" for me is Richard Conte's character. Smart and sophisticated, without a lick of feeling, Conte is wickedly cool. The Galvin character actually is pretty similar to Conte's Don Barzini in "Godfather I"

Audrey Totter doesn't really have a chance to steal this film. She's very good with the limited screen time she has. But this is Conte's film. He's in nearly every scene. It's not the typical ensemble prison drama. Sam Jaffe really shines here too. I'm so used to his "Asphalt Jungle" character, -I kept waiting for him to speak with a soft German accent.

"Under the Gun" is available from Dark Marc. The quality of the DVD is marginal at best. The images are pretty degraded, and it's hard to pick up the nuances of the lighting and cinematography. Still, it is a powerful and disturbing film, and one that stuck with me long after the lights came back up. A gloriously dark ride.


Monday, January 10, 2005

Somewhere in the Night (1946)

Posted by Don Malcom

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Noir pedigree: House of Strangers (1948), No
Way Out (1950), 5 Fingers (1952)

Director of photography: Norbert Brodine
Noir pedigree: House on 92nd St. (1945),
Boomerang (1947), Kiss of Death (1947), Thieves’
Highway (1949), 5 Fingers (1952)

Lead actors

John Hodiak (Larry Cravat/George Taylor)
Noir pedigree: Desert Fury (1947), The Bribe (1949), A Lady Without Passport (1950), The People Against O’Hara (1951), The Sellout (1952)

Nancy Guild (Christy Smith)
Noir pedigree: The Brasher Doubloon (1947), Black Magic (1949)

Richard Conte (Mel Phillips)
Noir pedigree: The Spider (1945), Call Northside 777 (1948), Cry of the City (1948), House of Strangers (1949), Thieves’ Highway (1949), The Sleeping City (1950), Under The Gun (1951), The Hollywood Story (1951), The Raging Tide (1951), The Blue Gardenia (1953), Highway Dragnet (1954), The Big Combo (1955), New York Confidential (1955), The Big Tip Off (1955), The Brothers Rico (1957)

Lloyd Nolan (Lt. Donald Kendall)
Noir pedigree: House on 92nd St. (1945), Lady In the Lake (1947), Street With No Name (1948), Easy Living (1949)

Supporting cast

Fritz Kortner (Anzelmo)
Josephine Hutchinson (Elizabeth Conroy)

Noir icons

Charles Arnt (little man)
Whit Bissell (John the bartender)
Clancy Cooper (Tom, male nurse at sanitarium)
Jeff Corey (bank teller)
Sheldon Leonard (Sam)
Harry Morgan (Bath house attendant)
Houseley Stevenson (Michael Conroy)

Riding the crest of the "writer-director" wave that swept into Hollywood in the early forties (Welles, Sturges, Wilder), Joseph L. Mankiewicz was only a few years away from his career-making triumphs (a pair of hard-edged comedies, A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve) when he made his second film (and his first noir), Somewhere In The Night.

The archetypes and conventions that soon came to define noir were just being established in late 1945; today, we can see that many of the noir effects in Somewhere In The Night rely rather heavily on those established in Murder, My Sweet. The lead actor, John Hodiak, is often as sourly intense as Dick Powell’s Marlowe, but without the sense of humor/irony that Powell lets seep through now and then. There are flophouses, dives, and insane asylums where menace is waiting, with more questions than answers. The lead actress (Nancy Guild, in her first role in what proved to be a brief career) is asked to be hardbitten (like Anne Shirley’s alienated rich girl in MMS)—or, perhaps more to the point, to crack wise a la Lauren Bacall. The cop (Lloyd Nolan) is sympathetic instead of argumentative (Don Douglas in MMS), but fulfills an analogous function in the plot. The riveting opening, with its feverish voiceover and out-of-focus photography, is an understated knockoff of MMS’ “drug sequence.”

These resemblances by no means sink the film, however; it has its own pace and complexity, thanks in large part to the presence of Richard Conte, one of the true giants of noir, showing his early chops as a smooth, deceptive bad man. Conte is the guy who really murdered the man with two million dollars back in 1942, just before Hodiak (private eye Larry Cravat) ducked into the army, only to emerge three years hence with a new face and a loss of memory. Biding his time, Conte appears to help Hodiak as he careens around some seedy sections of Los Angeles trying to find Cravat—to find himself, as things turn out.

Conte’s problem is that the loot is as missing as Hodiak’s memory, and he has to wait for Hodiak to piece together enough of his former existence for the clues to kick in and lead him to the money. This leads him to a gang of thugs who are also on the trail of the suitcase full of $1000 bills, led by the erudite but ruthless con-man Anzelmo (played by German silent film star Fritz Kortner, who shamelessly tries to steal the picture). There is also a dime-store femme fatale named Phyllis, who likes to throw around French phrases and is incongruously married to Sheldon Leonard, who plays his lone scene with his usual gusto.

Hodiak finally stumbles into the key clue: there was a witness at the murder, Michael Conroy, an old man who has been in a sanitarium for the past three years (played by the great Houseley Stevenson, whose brief reign as noir’s “go-to-guy” for crusty codgers began with this film). Conroy is fatally injured by one of Conte’s henchmen, but he is able to tell Cravat where the money is stashed before he dies, setting up the final round of action in which Conte is revealed as the murderer and is apprehended in a shootout with police lieutenant Kendall (Nolan).

In his biography of Mankiewicz, Pictures Will Talkauthor Kenneth L. Geist relates how intensively the second-time director coached his first-time leading lady, Nancy Guild. Unlike Lauren Bacall, however, Guild had never acted before being signed to a movie contract, and she doesn’t quite navigate the type of lines supplied to her by Mankiewicz the screenwriter—lines that Bacall or Ann Sheridan or Susan Hayward would have given a much snappier spin. Guild tries hard, but her line readings are just flat enough to make the romantic subplot a bit too stiff in the face of all else that’s going on.

Hodiak underplays his role throughout most of the film, which makes for a fitful performance. A comparison with Bogart’s performance in the similarly themed Dark Passage is instructive. We see the fear, frustration and anxiety flashing across the face of Vincent Parry as events play out in DP; Hodiak starts strongly, but he fades into the role as SITN progresses and we lose the ability to register his feelings from his facial expressions.

However, there is one sequence in the film where his "slow register" is perfectly attuned to what is going on. As he tries to find Conroy, he winds up at the apartment of his daughter, Elizabeth (played by Josephine Hutchinson). The anguish of her loneliness and the circumstances that created it cause her to deceive him into thinking that she knew him before the war, and Hodiak’s reaction to her admission of this is as beautifully modulated as Hutchinson’s quietly escalating desperation. These type of moments disappeared from noir relatively early in the cycle, as the films got tougher and more violent—which is why we should value such moments in noir even if, in retrospect, they seem somewhat out of place to us.

What Somewhere in the Nightreally has going for it is its depth of supporting performances—Conte, Nolan, Hutchinson, Kortner and the ensemble of “noir icons” who add color and texture to the somewhat monochromatic tableau provided by the lead actors. While we come away from things with only a partial sense that the film’s themes have been thoroughly explored, the supporting cast keeps the action interesting. The quality of their performances is the primary reason why the film remains engaging and enjoyable nearly sixty years after its release.

Noir element rankings (for those so inclined...)

Character elements: Femme fatale/homme fatale (4/15); Morally ambiguous protagonists (12/15); Corrupt authority figures (0/5)’ Fall guy (5/5); Violence relative to character development/interaction (4/10)

Mise-en-scene/setting elements: Low-key B&W cinematography (18/20); Fatalism (16/25); Odd camera angles or visual effects/sequences (7/10); Urban
setting (10/10); Exotic/remote/barren location setting (0/5); Night club/gambling setting (3/5)

Plot elements: Convoluted story line (5/10); Flashbacks (0/15); Murder/heist at the center of the story (10/10); Spoken narrative (1/5); Betrayal/double-cross (5/5); Story told from criminal perspective (0/5); False accusation or fear of same
(5/5); Sexual relationships vs. plot development (2/5); Hard-boiled dialogue/repartee (6/10); Social/political undercurrents (1/5)

Total elements score: 114 (200 max)
Average (1-10): 5.7

Subcategory averages (1-10 scale): Character elements 5.0; Mise-en-scene/setting elements 7.2; Plot elements 4.7