The Threat (1949): Starring Charles McGraw

ThreatPoster.jpgThe beauty of a picture like this comes with the efficiency of the drama with a prison breakout occurring under the opening credits. Soon we learn a notorious, shadowy criminal named Kluger has broken out of Folsom prison.

The convict once vowed to kill both the detective and district attorney who worked to put him away and he doesn’t take the threat lightly. He means to carry it out.

When he finally does show his face, Charles McGraw, makes an indelible entrance almost bursting the seams of such a lowly movie. He’s so imperative to the movie’s meager claim at success destining him for thug greatness for all posterity (and a few hardboiled heroic turns once he’d paid his dues).

Felix Feist’s latest thriller is at its best putting forth its claustrophobic kidnapping scenario strung out with tension and genuine terror. Our so-called heroes are a fairly drab bunch including a career cop and family man, Ray Williams (Michael O’Shea).

In contrast, McGraw maintains the film’s gruff core more than willing to throw his weight around as he plans the rest of his getaway and subsequent revenge. To the movie’s credit, he’s liable to do anything he deems advantageous to his plans, doling out orders to his cronies, and forcibly throwing around anyone he wants. He doesn’t care about others. They’re disposable goods.

It starts with the old moll (Virginia Grey) he thinks has double-crossed him, then his two old adversaries, and finally the unwitting delivery truck driver who proves integral to his proposed plan to weasel his way past the police dragnet and network of roadblocks.

However, the tension is borne in the intervals in-between where they must wait around. First, at a house and then out at an old shack in the desert, until their buddy, Tony, drops in with his plane. Both sides are hanging on edge, either for fear of being killed or the threat of being captured.

There’s one shot, in particular, slyly setting up the dynamics of the film’s finale to come as the camera peers down into the shack they’re holding up in. With time running out, our drama must escalate. Red coaxes the gun away from one stir-crazy housemate just to turn around and use it in the next. There’s no prevailing mercy or level of sentiment, whether it’s a man or woman. It’s this continual unpredictability making for a sweaty, nasty little climax.

The plot’s breakthrough revolves around a long shot — a nice bit of circumstance — and it is by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m not sure if the logic exactly checks out, narratively speaking, though it’s easy enough to turn a blind eye for the sake of the action. You don’t necessarily seek out The Threat to feed your desire for taut scripting.

My only real qualm is how this film ends like so many others I’m seen recently where a happy ending is only obtained through a wife’s pregnancy. It is a bit of shorthand to say something about the American Dream circa the 1940s and 50s — and new life is such a precious thing — but it seems like such a tiresome trope when it’s used as a crutch so often.

Up to this point, The Threat genuinely lives up to its title mostly in part to Charles McGraw. If you’re a fan of the minor film noir icon, it’s a must-see. Otherwise, it’s best to look elsewhere for diversions of a higher caliber.

3/5 Stars

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947): Starring Lawrence Tierney

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Felix Feist is a relatively obscure figure today and the only reason I’ve come to him has to do with two B films he was attached to, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and The Threat released two years later.

As a Southern Californian, I might obtain more glee out of name recognition than other viewers. It comes, quite literally, with the territory. These types of second-bill features hit the ground running. In this case, The Bank of San Diego gets its pockets picked by a thug.

So much is evoked stylistically, and we are reminded how integral signs become as a shorthand and cost-effective device for these quickie B-movies. Feist scripted the movie as well as directing, and we might sum it ups as a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hell courtesy of garble-mouthed tough guy Lawrence Tierney. He certainly doesn’t skimp on his brand of scowling, unrepentant, hard-ball, and the picture is indebted to the cloaked menace he provides.

Because he’s the forger-turned-bank robber now on the lamb from the rousing authorities. Not unlike Detour (1945), it’s some fateful or cinematic force landing him in the car of a happy sap and devoted family man (Ted North) just off a joint birthday/anniversary with his best buds in San Diego. It looked to be a real gas, and he’s grinning from ear to ear. He might still be feeling the buzz from the merriment, but he’s sane enough to drive. The contrast is set up immediately, and they develop a fairly easy-going rapport since they cancel one another out.

They make a pit stop at a gas station as “Fergie” calls in on his adoring wife telling her to synchronize her watch for “3 hours and 26 minutes and 42 seconds.” Doing my own mental calculations, freeways (and automobiles) must have been a lot slower because today you could probably be doing San Diego to L.A. in 2 and a half hours (without traffic). When one of the passengers notes the driver is almost pushing 70 MPH, that might give us some indication.

Even as we eavesdrop on his conversation and Morgan snaps at the fresh-faced gas station attendant (Glen Vernon), the movie exudes the rudimentary pleasures of seeing mundane aspects of life circa 1947. The telephone. The music playing on the radio. The garb the gas station clerk wears. Each detail, whether only a studio embellishment or an authentic accent, adds something to the picture. Because elements of it are familiar to me and yet so far removed from the world I know.

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In the process, they pick up two dames looking for a lift — one of them a husky-voiced blonde (Betty Lawford) the other a diffident brunette (Nan Leslie), again juxtaposed for dramatic effect. Now our story on wheels is loaded up not unlike Arigato-san (1936) or Stagecoach (1939), albeit to a lesser degree.

In the ensuing moments, the slighted and eagle-eyed station attendant calls up the police because he thinks he’s spotted the man they’re looking for. Of course, he has. On the other end of the line, the dogged but good-natured police break their perpetual off-duty poker game to jump back into action. Roadblocks are set up all over the coast and the veteran detective on the beat (Harry Shannon) takes along the overzealous youngster to apprehend the criminal.

Staying true to actual geography, they make their way up the California coast from San Diego. First, Oceanside, then San Clemente, and then placing roadblocks at both “Capistrano” (San Juan Capistrano) and near “Laguna” (Laguna Beach). What’s more, the carpoolers set their course for a friend’s place in Newport — Newport Beach that is — and they wind up hitting all the local hot spots from my childhood. Santa Ana even gets a mention.

They set up shop in the bachelor pad in the harbor, although there’s no Bogey or Duke Wayne to be had riding the waters. All we get is a doddering nightwatchman (Andrew Tombes), a wild array of near-screwball antics, murder, and then ensuing hostage situations. Come to think of it, based on what we were promised, it pretty much measures up.

While the characters are cliched to the max and their reactions are a bit wonky, especially after rolling over a cop in pursuit, it’s easy to take delight in the cumulative effect. A title like The Devil Thumbs a Ride should be some kind of tip-off and between Tierney’s minacious countenance and the sheer shoddiness behind many of the lines of dialogue, there’s an odd tone developed. It can be near-screwball one minute, and then instantly plunged back into thriller territory.

The family man gets in hot water with his wife thanks to the conniving blonde jumping on the hone extension. The Devil still has his eyes on the other girl even as he’s anxious to wait it out and let the situation die down. Even as the cops start closing in, there’s a sense something explosive is going to happen. Because when agitated and cornered, outlaws have a habit of lashing out in a desperate struggle to survive. They don’t much care who gets in their way.

Much of The Devil Thumbs a Ride feels mediocre, but if you’ve never been acquainted with Lawrence Tierney or you’re game for a bit of post-war time capsule filmmaking, there are a few modest delights crammed into its 62 minutes.

3/5 Stars

Woman in Hiding (1950) and Worrying About Ida Lupino

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Woman in Hiding doesn’t waste any time. A car races down a twisting highway only to go careening through the side rails into the drink. The car and its occupant look to be obliterated. Yet we have the dead talking, Ida Lupino whispering to us from the grave. Could this be a situation akin to Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd (1950)? We’re forced to wait before making any prognostication.

The story is set in North Carolina and as such, you have this lingering undercurrent of southern glory and heritage wrapped up in the wounds of secession and racial prejudice. There’s even reference made to the deep lurking traditions of the South with its pitchforks and rocks, of people who wouldn’t give up and wouldn’t allow their way of life to die. It’s actually rather unnerving rarely seeing an African-American character in this Hollywood tableau almost as if they’ve been erased.

Still, the locals go about their business dredging the local waters for the automobile and the missing Mrs. Deborah Clark (Lupino), even calling on the assistance of an old cannon, yet another relic from the aforementioned lineage. This is the backdrop against which Woman in Hiding plays out.

Because Seldon Clark IV (Stephen McNally) came out of this pedigree — tall and handsome, but proud and driven with maintaining the family standing, even to the point of delusion. He’s worked in the mill of a Mr. Chandler making many unwanted passes at his daughter Deborah.

For the time being, nothing comes of it because her father gives the boy a stern talking to, seeing right through the arrogant creep and the rest of the buffoons who beget him. In fact, it is at this point Lupino feels sorry for him — trying to defend him.

The story takes its most drastically abrupt turn on a single cut, when, in a matter of seconds, it comes out the forthright and perceptive old man died in a freak accident. Who was by his side unable to help him? Seldon Clark of course. It’s an obvious equation of two plus two, but, again we must wait until everything unfolds.

Marriage is proposed the day of the funeral, thus tying the knot (and the mill) between Deborah and Seldon. Their subsequent honeymoon at a cabin getaway is rudely disrupted by a former girlfriend. Peggy Dow debuts as a conniving southern belle on equal footing with her darkly vindictive suitor. It instantly rips away any pretenses we might have from her more widely remembered turn in Harvey (1950) as she gets backhanded for her many scandalous insinuations.

Could she, in fact, be the victim of the scenario? Doubts creep in? The first of many as Seldon’s colors become more and more obvious even to his wife. One of the most generous compliments that can be offered to Woman in Hiding is how it wears its melodrama brazenly on its sleeves.

It evokes a helpless world akin to Road House (1948) where nature is a trap — a place in which to be hunted like an animal, in this case, confined to a nightmarish marriage. The narrative does fold over itself and we realize where we find Deborah.

She is a woman caught in a state of matrimonial helplessness, in a society where she has little agency to do or say anything to free herself. It’s the same anxiety film noir of the post-war era gorged itself on, for both men and women. Because it becomes apparent the dividing line between victim and femme fatale is razor-thin. Really all that matters is the point of view provided.

From Deborah’s flustered perspective, there is a vague sense of searching out Patricia Monahan (Dow) because maybe together their corroboration might be able to put Seldon away. Just maybe someone might listen to the truth then.

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For the time being, staying dead is the most auspicious decision. Deborah takes to the road to disappear for a while and make some money on the side waitressing. But there must always be a foil and in this case, it’s a man named Keith Ramsay (Howard Duff).

He’s the genial man behind a newspaper stand striking up a conversation with a woman on the run. He seems like just the type of character who might provide a shoulder to lean on, whether solicited or not. In a world where everyone’s overstimulated with get-rich-quick schemes and radio giveaways, he seems decidedly unconcerned with the rat race as he works at his pop’s shop.

However, he does become a shoulder to lean on — offering comfort — but he’s also a part of the problem. Because this tale gets its punch from a woman being hunted, when she should, in fact, be a victim. In this regard, it’s a precursor to the same problem at the core of Blue Gardenia (1953) as the newspapers start treating her as a fugitive.

Because even as the local hotel is overrun by a traveling convention of drunken out-of-towners and conga lines, darkness can still find its way back in down the stairwells. The most excruciating development comes with the connection between our favorite fellow and the dastardly husband. He has no idea what’s he’s doing when he makes the identification.

Even as Deborah is taken back by her husband and Monahan turns up again only to be stepped on, the story must culminate where it began. In the same small town, at the dead of night, inside the mill. There’s something to knowing what’s going to happen and still having a potboiler raise the pulse. It comes down to the old adage, it’s not the destination but the road taken.

It also comes from actually genuinely caring for a character and as one of the best — some might even say an underrated actress — Ida Lupino plays the victim with an inbred resiliency, making the audience strive for her safety even as we sit powerlessly in the theater seats. It’s not some monumental derivation of the tried and true formulas, but audience identification goes a long way.

3.5/5 Stars

Lust For Gold (1949): Biography of a Deathtrap

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The movie opens with a score raging with dramatic tones fit for a title like Lust For Gold. The resulting narrative ploy is not a new one either, suggesting the details of this “unusual situation” were substantiated by historical records and legends of Arizona. It’s meant to provide this obvious sense of real-world ethos.

We find ourselves at Superstition Mountain. A severe voice, strung out with the same dramatic intensity of the music, paints a wild portrait of this horrible place — Satan’s art gallery in the rocks.

His name is Barry Storm (William Prince) — a real figure — and yet for all intent and purposes, conveniently fictionalized to narrate the tale for us. Unfortunately, the man isn’t able to pull off the voiceover like a Bogart or Mitchum. It lacks the hardboiled lip or the inherent sense of noir malaise.

It’s possible to mention noir, even when our prerequisites are more aligned with a western because we are dealing in terms of avarice and the greed found within the human heart. These are the building blocks for any respectful film noir of old where humanity runs amok with murder and deceit. In any regard, this is what the hope is.

Still, Prince comes off lacking from the outset because as an actor he’s a bit of an innocuous blank slate. Even if this is purely how he is meant to function, there’s nothing impressionable about him. But it also falls partially to the anatomy of a faulty story with dialogue practically regurgitated to us to get our pulses going. The effect is moot.

Still, this version of Barry Storm does serve one solitary purpose if only to toss us headlong into this narrative. He’s part unwitting victim, part fresh-faced raconteur and adventurer looking to dig up the famed treasure once belonging to his distant relation “The Dutchman.”

He crosses any number of people among them cocksure explorer Floyd Buckley (Hayden Rorke) and two fellows who act as deputies under the local sheriff: a relaxed fellow named Covin (Will Geer) and the quietly observant Walter (Jay Silverheels).

To their credit, they are the first people who bring some color of any sort to the picture. However, even Geer’s own recounting of the Dutchman legend — delivered in a casual, conversational manner — isn’t able to rescue the dialogue which feels just as straightforward and didactic as before.

The real meat and potatoes of the movie come with a substantial flashback moving the action to 1880, and it couldn’t come soon enough. Because it’s at this juncture we are reminded Lust for Gold has a surprisingly stellar cast, and the best patches of drama come with the biggest stars. Regrettably, they’re never able to assemble in full force spread out across the years as they are.

Glenn Ford is reteamed with Edgar Buchannan from Framed, although this time they’re a bit more dubious and hardened, following the trail of a mythical gold mine. If you were to fashion an approximate reference point the movie, functions a bit like Treasure of The Sierra Madre Lite with everyone gold crazy and opportunistic.

Glenn Ford is not much of a Dutchman. His accent or lack thereof could have used some sharpening if he was really looking to commit, but perhaps, more importantly, he shows himself capable of some vindictive fury before the days of The Big Heat. This is what the story must rely on.

He’s the man who ends up the victor with all the gold to himself and no one else left alive to challenge him when he checks his wealth in the nearest outpost. The whole town’s envious of his cache, and the news spreads rather hilariously through the local gossips. They want a piece of the action because it’s far too much wealth for one man, but he clings to its with near-violent secrecy. There’s not one male or female who’s going to get him to open up about it.

That doesn’t keep them from trying. The best bet is one Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino), an educated woman who nevertheless runs the local mercantile and doesn’t have much hope of going anywhere. Her useless husband (Gig Young), hasn’t done anything to alleviate their situation. So, much to his chagrin, she’s prepared to slip off her wedding ring and weasel her way into the miner’s affections.

It works quite well and as with any of these old star vehicles, the movie is most enjoyable when we have Ford and Lupino together. They were both seasoned performers in all the grungy corners of the genre pictures even if this is a hybrid. But what sets them apart is how they both have desires. Sometimes opposing, sometimes convening, and their feelings for one another do become complicated.

To her credit, Lupino plays a far more nuanced part than a simple seductress. She is tired of her life. She is tired of her husband. She’s ready to take things into her own hands, and yet there is some amount of feeling dwelling within her. The Dutchman, for one, is happy to find someone to hold, someone to share his native tongue with. It’s the human face slipped in with the pervading moments of avarice.

Because in the end all parties are pitted against each other in a testy competition for the goods — both in the past and present — weathering seismic avalanches and showdowns up in the rock crevices. Some of these moments, especially crammed within the middle of the story have the pulse of compelling action. It’s only a shame this hybrid noir offering must be so hampered by its own plotting device.

3/5 Stars

I Love Trouble (1948): Enter Roy Huggins

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In the days before they were known as film noir, the melodramas of the 1940s have such evocative titles, which now verge on the edge of camp. One can imagine the plethora of quality bumper stickers noir aficionados could plaster on their jalopies and Cadillacs. Try these on for size: Kiss Me Deadly, Murder My Sweet, Touch of Evil, In a Lonely Place. You get the idea.

I’ve become so conditioned to hearing them — to referencing the actors and directors within their frames — sometimes it’s easy to forget how strange they sound. Well, you might as well add I Love Trouble to the bunch. Of course, it means absolutely nothing, but that’s the point isn’t it, stirring something volatile up within the viewer. It suggests a vivid mental picture and this is somehow equally important.

I Love Trouble is generally forgotten today, as is its director-producer, S. Sylvan Simon, and yet the movie is a swirling labyrinth capable of going toe to toe with anything Marlowe ever faced. The dividing line between tautness and plot holes or logic and absurdity almost ceases to have credence. If this will fluster you as a viewer — enrage your logical sensibilities — it’s best to look somewhere else for your two-bit entertainment.

The true pleasures come with getting swept up in the world with all its additions and misdirects courtesy of a neverending conveyor belt of characters riffing off snappy bits of repartee. It fills in fairly nicely between the confrontations and beatings, smoothing over any major issues.

The opening is simple. A man is trailing a woman and she confronts him. It turns out he’s a private eye in the service of one Ralph Johnston (Tom Powers), looking for the other man’s missing wife. So it’s a bit of a Vertigo set-up, except the woman he’s already confronted wasn’t her. Well, it was, but it might as well be somebody else. Because she altogether vanishes from the film.

What follows is as expected. Stuart Bailey (Franchot Tone) makes the rounds being his charming, slightly ingratiating self in order to dig up the facts at the behest of his employer. Tone is a dashing lead prone to cheekiness, but this is most of the fun, played in the vein of the best P.I. work of Bogart and Dick Powell if not quite as iconic.

No matter. It leads him to run around Los Angeles and take a venture to Portland, Oregon. The facts start unveiling themselves bit by bit but never in a clear, definitive manner. There must always be further convolutions and new moments of sheer incomprehensibility.

In a picture like this, every single Dick and Jane might as well have a motive and the cast just keeps on coming. To explain how all the characters fit together siphons off a bit of the gamesmanship of the drama. It’s safe to say John Ireland is a brooding heavy. Steven Gerray, though graced with pleasant features, somehow contrives them, along with his accent, into something vaguely sinister.

Then, there’s the bald-pated cafe staffer Buffin (Sid Tomack), who knew the dame in a former life when she was making the move to Los Angeles. There’s a Chauffeur who seems oddly invested in the whereabouts of Mrs. Johnston and his enigmatic employer Mrs. John Vega Cabrillo (Janis Carter).

Others might be far more astute than me, but upon a single viewing, it’s easy to admit never quite getting one’s head straight on which woman is which, and maybe that’s the point of it all. Regardless, it hardly seems necessary to avail oneself of the details.

Janet Blair has near-top billing and drifts into the story almost haphazardly on the pretense of finding her sister. Janis Carter is suitably brooding with that imperious allure of hers. Adele Jergens is just another pretty face who jousts with our protagonist because what would such a picture be without her? Finally, there’s Glenda Farrell with a bit of lovable fortitude as Hazel Bixby, Bailey’s hapless secretary.

It actually proves to be a fine asset, having so many female characters all of varying degrees of importance, but all getting a piece of the pie. Because granted some are more cursory than others, and yet I’m even disposed to remember the two waitresses (Karen X Gaylord and Roseanne Murray) at the sidewalk cafe. It says something about the characterizations, where the bit players get to leave an impression.

These whirling, often abstruse brands of noir often work best on this level. I Love Trouble can generously be christened a lesser disciple of The Big Sleep but nevertheless a decent go at the gumshoe genre. Because it has the peculiarities — small pockets of interest — placed within the befuddling signposts of the plot.

Roy Huggins would be remembered much later for his work in television for shows like 77 Sunset Strip, coincidentally starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Stuart Bailey, and then The Rockford Files, which owes more than a small debt to the hardboiled procedurals of the olden days with a James Garner twist for the 70s.

The final moments of I Love Trouble could play out as a male dreamscape. Our protagonist is surrounded by a myriad of women, and yet since the threat is abated, he’s taken in by the calls of matrimony. For being such an obscure entry in the noir canon, it’s quite a surprising piece of diversion if you go for such things.

3.5/5 Stars

The Locket (1946): Laraine Day and Splintering Psychology

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“Have you ever done this before?” – Robert Mitchum as Norman Clyde

“No. I’ve never stolen anything in my life.” – Laraine Day as Nancy

We’re met by a wedding with all the trimmings. It’s a well-to-do affair and Laraine Day looks quite dazzling. Her groom (Gene Raymond) is high on his good fortune in finding such a spectacular bride, introducing her to the aunts and uncles. Taken at face value, it’s a suitable development for a drawing-room comedy.

However, the perceptive viewer will note the presence of two very telling names in the opening credits. They are director John Brahm (The Lodger & Hangover Square) along with Nicholas Musuraca, who helped define the shadowy compositions of RKO Studios all throughout the 40s.

If anything, it suggests that what we’ve seen up to this point is mere pretense, an ebullient calm before the storm, until the past comes crashing through to wreak havoc. Sure enough, a grim, well-spoken psychiatrist (Brian Aherne) walks into the man’s study for a quick word. He’s comes bearing some doom to drop on the deliriously happy groom’s lap.

It lends the injection of noir sentiment we’ve been waiting for with bated breath supplying a flashback to go with it. Dr. Harry Blair recounts how, in his distant more jovial past, he wound up crashing bicycles with Nancy (Day). From then on, they were all but destined to be lovers.

It’s in these interludes where it becomes apparent Nancy is not altogether unlike Laura (Gene Tierney’s character) not because of her mental state so much as this perfectly bewitching aura she is allowed to cast over the frames of the film. Although this makes it sound too manicured; still, it’s true between the scoring, photography, and Day’s own vibrant, fully alluring performance, it’s difficult not to be swayed by the captivating energy.

The cute buoyancy carrying the opening replicates itself in this prelude as Nancy and the good doctor plan a deliriously happy future together. And yet screenwriter Sheridan Gibney brazenly interrupts the gaiety again. This time it is none other than Robert Mitchum interrupting the matrimonial euphoria with his own futile warning — yet another couched deja vu moment to follow the others.

As a matter of fact, in a spectacular move, The Locket utilizes no less than three couched flashbacks involving the three men, layered on top of one another, and each making the same mistakes as the man before them, caught in a deadly cycle…I wouldn’t recommend it to budding screenwriters, but here the commitment’s rather impressive.

This is one of the first great Mitchum performances establishing his world-wearied embodiment of the noir hero — smoking a cigarette, coat upturned in the falling snow — and he’s only one of the supporting figureheads.

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Norman Clyde (Mitchum) is a fairly successful artist, not a sterling success but talented and proud; he’s not about to take flak from anyone. After he gets off on the wrong foot with a woman in his studio, he starts obsessing over the girl. He can’t get her out of his head and wouldn’t you know, she’s holed up in the same Italian restaurant he always frequents. They make amends, of course, and their resulting relationship looks eerily similar to the glimpses we’ve already been granted. Nancy’s deliriously happy with her man of choice. There are no visible blemishes in sight.

However, the fragments and wisps of story keep on fading into one another. It’s so exquisitely rendered by the camera, in particular, when Mitchum and Day go into the recesses of their own personal recollections.

The striking similarities with Laura or even Woman in the Window become even more obvious due to the art angle — the enchanting portrait of a woman — because it does create this meta sense of the woman in the art both painted and photographed on celluloid. It allows her this sense of being out of body — almost otherworldly to the viewer — existing in this illusory state we must come to terms with. In one sense, it’s hard to shake the image of her. Nancy is no different.

One turning point is at a fancy dinner party. Shots ring out and Clyde sees Nancy exit a room frantically. A maid comes, and they hide down the hallway slinking away. Musuruca captures the instantaneous decisions with a fluid ease. We don’t realize it at the time, but it’s a crucial moment teasing out a bit more about Nancy — about her past secrets — and who she is as a person.

My only qualm is with Mitchum’s exit. It serves the story best, otherwise, he would continue to steal the show, but it certainly does not gel with his soon-to-be cultivated image. Alas, it is what it is.

Next, remember the doctor also had his chance with Nancy. They go off to England to stay at a stately manor to get away from the intensity of the Blitz. However, the accusations he’s heard about his wife start to burrow into his mind, so much so he can’t get rid of them.

Surely the rumors can’t be true! Because Nancy is so warm and genial, hardly begrudging or showing malice toward any of her past suitors. In fact, she downplays every interaction she’s ever had with any of them. As if they were nothing. As if the man she’s with right now is the only man she’s ever loved.

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The extraordinary nature of Day’s character is how she is not a femme fatale — at least not in the traditional sense. They’re always two-timing and deceitful. With Nancy, at face value, you get none of that, and yet it’s not to say she’s not without her flaws. In a strange way, there are two sides to her as well.

She calls others out for being guarded, cynical, and suspicious, and yet she can often be found doubting everyone else’s motives even as she’s retroactively smoothing over her own. There’s the convenient compartmentalization of all the prior relationships into their individual spaces and the projecting of her issues onto others. It hints at something. Still, there must be a tipping point.

Then, we’re whipped back to the present. The wedding march in all its pomp becomes offset and infiltrated by the tinkling of a music box, like the memories slowly overtaking Nancy’s psyche. These latter moments turn into some of the most evocative sequences of montage in recent memory with all the weight of memory, trauma, and guilt flooding Nancy in the form of all the people she knew. There is no space to keep them apart and so they crush her under the weight, her mind totally fractured as she tumbles to the floor.

In a fit of irony, I couldn’t help but continually be reminded of the contemporary Frank Sinatra tune, “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” It’s a startling juxtaposition with what we’ve just witnessed, a swelling, unnerving, engrossing exhibition in splintering psychology.

Laraine Day gives an absolutely unforgettable performance — easily the best of her career — and Brahm continues his run of moody melodramas with suffocating environs. The Locket doesn’t hold an instant appeal from the outside looking in, but once you get inside, it’s a bedeviling little gem of a film — as tantalizing as the trinkets so enrapturing to Nancy. There’s one major difference: we can enjoy this one without debilitating consequences.

4/5 Stars

The Undercover Man (1949): Starring Glenn Ford

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The Undercover Man gives off an early vibe akin to Anthony Mann’s T-Men thanks to a disclaimer reading something like this: Behind the big headlines are stories of ordinary men and women with extraordinary courage. This picture concerns one of those men.

However, the title is a bit of a misnomer. It is about government treasury agents, among them Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) and George Pappas (James Whitmore in his debut), but the real “undercover man” is the stoolie looking to spill the dope on the Big Fella — a stylized, faceless take on Al Capone.

As is, Joseph H. Lewis’s picture plays as more of an updated (or out of date) riff on the Untouchables and the Capone story. Instead of guns constantly blazing, they’re trying to get to the mob kingpin another way: His taxes. Thus, it relies on the persistence of our protagonists to see the story to completion.

While the characterizations are worthwhile — Glenn Ford was born to play these types of stalwart tough guy roles — the documentary-styled drama itself feels mostly stodgy and uninspired. Especially given the B mavericks pedigree for punchy and rather unnerving material with unconventional flourishes, it’s rather disappointing to admit this one feels quite run-of-the-mill — at least content-wise.

Lewis still develops engaging scenes from the outset including the botched rendezvous staged at the train station. After their crackerjack chomping canary gets it unceremoniously, Warren finds himself back at square one and growing testy by the minute. Because the mob has a hand in everything, and they’re leaning on everyone.

It goes beyond police corruption or paying everyone off. Even as they run around looking for leads, there are tight lips all around, because everyone’s scared. They have good reason to be. They’re suspicious of authority as much as organized crime. What assurance do they have their lives will not be impinged upon.

One of the movie’s most inspired figures is lawyer Edward O’Rourke (Barry Kelley), a paunchy, beady-eyed besuited fellow who oozes sliminess from his generally sociable demeanor.

While he’s not an out-and-out criminal type, he also has no morals. One foot is planted in the good citizens league and the other gladly helps the gangsters keep their stranglehold by wheedling out of all signs of trouble. He seems to also glean great delight by watching the government agents stand down, their hands normally tied. He always has a smart response for them.

Still, Frank’s latest mark, Salvatore Rocco (Anthony Carus) — an AWOL husband who is currently courting a showgirl (Kay Medford) — looks like his exorbitant greed might provide a bite. He’s willing to squawk for adequate compensation. Purely a two-bit opportunist. There’s only one way to deal with him…It’s one of the movie’s best set pieces as the informant races off, his daughter, Warren, and his assailants, all sprinting after him through the midday crowds.

For Warren, the job always gets in the way of his lovely marriage, and he and his wife (Nina Foch) especially suffer for it. They barely get any time together, and the rest of the time he’s crammed in a lousy hotel room bickering with his colleagues. Back amid the tranquility of his home life, he resolves to give up the whole business because the safety of his wife seems like too high a price to pay in the pursuit of justice. The visual dichotomy between the two spheres is especially evident due to Burnett Guffey’s characteristically stark photography

His decision could be the unceremonious end to the picture, but we get a bit more — a nighttime visit. It is the obvious entreaty for him to consider the crusade. He’s not one to see evil and run away with his tail between his legs.

None of this is much of a surprise as we cycle through yet another bookkeeper, this time one Sydney Gordon (Leo Penn), who is on the lam with his newlywed wife (Patricia Barry). The question is whether or not they can convince him to talk and if he does agree, can they even protect him?

The last few minutes are worth seeing through to the end specifically because the action falls on the two most compelling characters in the whole story. For the first time, our hero has O’Rourke on the back foot forcing his hand. He really is the crucial piece since, with the sides drawn up between the good guys and bad, he plays like the wild card. The ending is a foregone conclusion, although, on the road, there are several tense confrontations predating the more action-dominated days of Robert Stack’s Untouchables.

3/5 Stars

So Dark The Night (1946): Directed by Joseph H. Lewis

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So Dark The Night is certainly a bit of an oddity functioning as Columbia’s attempt at a Parisian noir before being transplanted to the idyllic countryside. Linguistically, it’s a strange hybrid dominated by English with stylistic sprinkles of Francés.

Regardless, of any discrepancies, Joseph H. Lewis follows up My Name is Julia Ross with an equally befuddling little drama imbued with his usual elan, freely breaking through the obvious economy.

Some of the compositions are mesmerizing. For one thing, they often draw a moderate amount of attention to their near artificiality. Take, for instance, a tracking shot moving from outdoors to an interior in one fell swoop. There’s no fourth wall — real or invisible — to get in the way of the camera. You also cannot help but notice the very deliberate and rather ostentatious zooms applied throughout to emphasize character entrances.

He has other visual tricks too. One is reminded of the moment he introduces his taciturn heroine (Micheline Cheirel) hanging up laundry on the line. All we see are her hands as they move down the line as her head pops shyly over the articles of clothing. Then, noticing a fancy car rolling into the courtyard, she’s busy eyeing all the shiny grills and nobs with a mesmerized fascination. She barely notices the famed policeman Henri Cassin (Steven Geray ), nearly starstruck, staring at her before he’s snapped out of his own reverie. 

Most, if not all of the cast, are all but forgotten today. They are a homely crew, stilted at times, while still obliging with their own brand of blushing charm. Given the prerequisites, Geray, a chipper Austrian-American with a vaguely foreign accent, earns center stage. The quibbling mother and father are played by a pair of veterans, Eugene Borden and Ann Codee. However, it is the relationship between Gerray and Cheirel giving rise to this slightly perturbing psychology — not to mention a budding romantic connection.

The ensuing courtship feels like Lewis’s own artificial Hollywood-style take on the scenery of a Renoir movie, and it’s not meant to be as dismissive as it might sound. Because given his greatest successes — all low budget crowd-pleasers — he somehow makes the aesthetic work in his favor.

However, a threat is injected into the storyline with the jealous, near-suicidal obsession of Leon (Paul Marion), the young man she’s been pledged to be married to since adolescence. He makes it very clear he doesn’t want to see his Nanette with Cassin anymore and his brute jagged edges effectively disrupt the picture’s cornballish jauntiness with high-strung dramatics. It’s one extreme replaced with a new normal on the complete opposite side of the spectrum.

However, it remains to be seen where our sights are set. We can do little more than observe what is before us. Surely, someone will make a move amid the prevailing uneasiness. There must be an initiation of rising action. Soon enough we get an answer.

Nanette goes missing and all roads point to Leon. A crime of passion perhaps? Except he’s nowhere to be seen either. The local commissioner calls on the expertise of Mr. Cassin and the kindly man sets aside his vacation to investigate the troubling events.

Driven by empirical evidence, he nabs his man — under quite extraordinary circumstances — and his conclusions verge on the ludicrous. Given the little amount of time it’s allotted, So Dark The Night quickly spirals from a mere mystery to a tension-infused time bomb of anticipation. It’s a matter of knowing what’s coming: Murder!

Still, far from stripping the movie of its intensity, it lends the finale a Hitchcockian flair even in its abrupt denouement around the shattered shards of a window frame. This intermittent sense of spectacle is what will draw some viewers to an otherwise unassuming noir, which might be easily forgotten. Couched between the evocative cinematography of Burnett Guffey and this odd strain of psychological extrapolation, we have a most peculiar curio on our hands.

The one implausibility I cannot forgive is how Gerray could have been such a prolific policeman for such a long time and yet he nor anyone else picked up on the imminent warning signs swirling around. Otherwise, it’s idiosyncratic enough to enjoy without too much reservation.

3/5 Stars

Framed (1947): Janis Carter and Glenn Ford

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The opening scene of Framed is glorious. It’s the epitome of why these old B pictures have some much to offer audiences often bloated on cinematic glut. A runaway truck careens down a mountain road as the driver sweats it out trying to punch the breaks uselessly. Entering a busy town, he’s forced to make a wild maneuver the other way. Finally, his big rig dies down lazily plunking a truck backing out into the street.

In the ensuing altercation, we learn so much about the tightwad trucking foreman who won’t pay for the damages and our nameless hero who took the gig for the cash and proceeds to hand over what’s coming to him to pay for the damages of the victim (Edgar Buchanan).

We’re finally allowed a breather as he steps into the nearby La Paloma cafe and conveniently our whole story is laid out before us in tantalizing fashion. We’re on board for the ride.

The internal logic of the film noir malaise means everything that can be stacked up against a man will be. Mike Lambert’s not a bad fellow; he seems as honest and frank as any. True, he drinks too much, he’s prone to gambling, but he’s been given the bum steer. In a matter of minutes, he sits down at the bar only to get whisked off to court and sentenced for his misdeeds. In this regard, the crook of the law seems to be bent in favor of the unscrupulous.

However, this is only a starting point or a pretense because Lambert is pulled out of the clink by the dubious generosity of an amorous barmaid bombshell with a pair of bewitching eyes (Janis Carter). Why she would stick her neck out for a stranger and dish out $50 remains to be seen.

Except everyone in a picture like this has an angle to work. Soon enough, we find out hers. Because she and an accomplice are looking for the perfect stooge, the perfect patsy, the perfect man to be framed.

The movie is built out of what feels like a chainlink of romantic entanglements with people strung out in a line between one another. Glenn Ford is romanced by Janis Carter to keep him in town and at the same time oblivious. Her real accomplice is a man named Steve Price who has married into money; his wife remains utterly disillusioned with their loveless marriage.

It’s also a contrived story where everything is conveniently interconnected — at least in cinematic terms — so all the relationships, even if they feel circumstantial, fit together in just the right ways to tease out the dramatic situation.

Consider for a moment how Ford, a field engineer, reconnects with the straggly man Cunningham (Buchannan) who happens to be a miner in need of a loan. Then, consider how the man in charge of loans at the bank is none other than Mr. Price. It’s his refusal that keeps Lambert waiting around town looking for a break as Paula continues to run interference and ingratiate herself to him.

However, the logic never feels like a lynchpin because it all builds up to this near fatalistic helplessness of a man unknowingly walking straight into a trap. Perceptive viewers might recognize that this ensuing sense of powerlessness setting in is not unlike North by Northwest or more aptly Double Indemnity — albeit from the inside out.

It gives us a different kind of investment as this time our “hero” is not the perpetrator but the victim. Because Lambert, without his knowledge, is being dragged into a grand conspiracy rife with larceny, murder, and any number of things. Although in the end, the trap is sprung in a different manner than expected.

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Do you think Ford’s about to get bested in his own picture? Not likely. As a steady leading man, he’s always easy to like even when he verges on the brusque in a movie like this. The film sets him up as a straight arrow, hampered by his vices though he might be. Edgar Buchanan falls into his role like most any of them with a familiar aplomb. Whether the part is stretching at all seems beside the point, because he manages to fill it so seamlessly.

Another character veteran, Art Smith, has a bit part as the none too solicitous, solitaire-playing hotel clerk. If nothing else, while I always enjoy coming upon him in a picture, his presence is a marker of the times. He too, like so many others, would become a casualty of the McCarthy-era witch hunts, self-imposed by Hollywood. Included in this unfortunate club was the film’s screenwriter Ben Maddow as well as actress Karen Morley.

Barry Sullivan is unscrupulous but fairly straitlaced and bland while end-to-end Janis Carter is yet again the unsung hero of the picture. Like all the great conniving dames of yesteryear,  beauty is an asset with which to utterly bewitch the opposite sex. She uses it handily.

We watch her continually modulating between moments of self-serving opportunism and genuine showings of sentiment and fear — as the fairer sex — with the movie somehow casting her in this duplicitous mold of both temptress and victim.

There you have the heart and soul of the femme fatale right there. So when Paula looks out the back of that car and Mike drops his cigarette butt in disgust, we are borne into the tension. It’s the tension between doing the right thing and getting to have someone like that look at you that way. In such a disquieting world, there might be right or wrong, but somehow, it doesn’t make it any more agreeable on the other side. Frankly, it stinks.

3.5/5 Stars

Night Editor (1946) and a Femme Fatale Worse Than Blood Poisoning

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This expedient B noir opens with the most peculiar of narrative devices. The only guess is it’s somehow tied to the film’s roots in serial radio drama. A pack of poker-playing, late-night newshounds is chewing the fat, and out of their nattering comes the story of Tony Cochrane (William Gargan).

The real film starts in a kid’s bedroom. A father talks cops and robbers with his son along with roller skates and going fishing like they used to. The boy watches his “Pops” leave before entreating him to “Keep his nose clean.”

Gargan, a gruff, marble-mouthed type, fits the role of the nondescript detective on a beat, though he doesn’t seem like much of a family man. It’s not the only seemingly incongruity around him. His doting, overly angelic wife (Ms. Jeff Donnell), a typical noir staple, wants to see more of him because she loves him dearly. Expectedly, her very presence sets up an uneasy queasiness in the cinemagoer’s stomach. Where there exists a “noir angel” her foil must be nearby — a woman whose feet go down to death.

Sure enough, he’s knee-deep in a clandestine affair. He’s got another dame and what a vicious creature of deception she is. We’ve jumped from the seat of matrimony and domestic tranquility to the front seat of his car stashed away in some neglected place all the more convenient for necking.

Janis Carter doesn’t get too many kudos these days, even in noir circles, but a picture like Night Editor alone is worthy of hoisting her out of the shadows into a place of ill-repute. It’s more than scummy and vindictive enough to put her on the map.

Granted, a lot of the film’s dialogue is clunky but some of it is also too delicious to pass up in terms of noir-speak. One opening exchange between the surreptitious lovers springs to mind, “You’re just no good for me. We both add up to zero. You’re worse than blood poisoning.”

This is fertile ground for something devastating to happen. It turns out we don’t have to wait around because Cochrane and Jill happen to witness a nighttime murder just across the road. It’s the kind of punchy jolt movies like this thrive on.

Instantly the dramatic situation is placed before us conveniently because our protagonist is a cop — bound by some sense of morals and justice — he’s not completely ditched his conscience yet.

Still, her pleading words ring in his ears as he sticks out his gun to apprehend the killer. It’ll be a scandal. His wife and kid will suffer. And the worst part: She’s right. So the assailant runs off into the night and for the rest of the picture, he’s got to wrestle with his decision. It’s a petrifying situation to be in, and it’s got him all twisted up inside.

Soon enough, news of the murder breaks, and the game is afoot as Tony is called on to help with the case (and simultaneously looks to cover his tracks). Ole (Paul E. Burns) is his amiable colleague at the police station. Although he’s more Swedish and less imposing, he shares some overlapping qualities with Barton Keyes, employing the same kind of uncanny intuition. But, best of all, he’s a loyal friend.

Meanwhile, the newshounds sitting around the station wait with bated breath for scraps. There’s a feeling the case could blow wide open at any moment. It just so happens his gal is a smarmy high society gal where it counts, married to an affluent old boy. She’s a trophy wife out on the prowl. However, she’s also got another budding love affair — no doubt one of many — but this one is of particular importance.

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A flattering man named Loring who works at the local bank holds the keys to the case. Except only Tony and Jill know it. When she effectively provides him a fictitious alibi, Tony is all but forced to live a lie and eat his words as she walks off with another man. Truth is often created by the people who speak first, and there’s no way for him to easily refute her.

What’s before him now is an extension of his living nightmare. No girl, no relief, and, of course, his home life has suffered due to his increasing aloofness. There’s little recourse but to take a stand against Julia — with one final stab at veracity — lest the lies eat him alive.

It’s a foregone conclusion. Their final confrontation cannot end well. There’s too much between them, of both malice and consequence, for any decision to resolve itself smoothly. And so in the kitchen, sure enough, he lets her know he’s going to talk — someone’s going to believe him.

Her reaction is almost cute. The doe eyes. The breathiness. The physical touch and the vaguely genuine show of sincerity. There’s an inkling that it might be true. But even if it is, she’s predisposed toward the violence and self-preservation all but ingrained in her very nature.

He staggers out into the living room in a near surreal state, with a new resolve and calm cast over him. Still, we’ve witnessed something bearing irrevocable consequences. Out on the doorstep stand the authorities. Surely, this is the end…Then, he crumples to the ground — the dramatic exclamation point to a sordid procedural.

Sadly this quagmire of fatalism was not to be, all but remedied by the same hokey radio program hoax as the editors tie the story up with an ending fit for an innocuous Disney movie. Until this final false step of pollyannaism, Night Editor more than earns its keep as a wanton noir gem. You just have to look between the bylines.

3.5/5 Stars