The Lodger (1944)

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“Love is very close to hate. Did you know that?” – Laird Cregar as Mr. Slade

Some perceptive viewers might well know that The Lodger is based off a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and it garnered a fairly high profile silent adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock followed by a sound version in 1932. Both pictures starred heartthrob Ivor Novello.

What the Hitchcock version boasts is his trademark eye for the visually cinematic even at this early juncture of his career. Still, the young director was a bit unsatisfied with a resolution that lacked the true punch of the original narrative. Honestly, he probably delivered the best thriller he could given the circumstances.

But with John Brahm’s rendition, this is as close to an uncompromised narrative as it can be while still meeting the requirements of the Hays Codes. What we have on our hands is a Jack The Ripper murderer who slits the throats of ladies all across England. And it’s not merely a bout of mistaken identity with Laird Cregar’s foreboding presence hanging over the picture moment by moment.

Merle Oberon, renowned for her immense beauty, did suffer some lacerations and scarring from a car accident in 1937. Her career continued unimpeded and in Lucien Ballard, she found a cinematographer she literally fell in love with. The reason being, he developed a lighting style — still called “The Obie” to this day — that completely hid her minor blemishes. As was the case with Minnelli and Garland, perhaps she fell in love more with the way he made her look than with the actual person. They would get divorced a few years later in 1949.

As far as her performance there’s little to criticize. She’s bright and beautiful as the dancehall singer, Kitty Langley, who lives with her aunt and uncle in the Whitechapel district. Admittedly she does seem a little well-to-do for her specific career path but no matter she’s quite the success.

Meanwhile, the ominous and rather taciturn gentleman Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes up residence in the Bontings’ home forewarning them about his nocturnal habits due to his research as well as his desire to be left alone as much as possible. Meanwhile, the rash of murders across the city continues and Scotland Yard has yet to apprehend the criminal.

An Inspector Warwick (Georges Sanders) comes to call on Ms. Langley as she was the last person to see Jack The Ripper’s latest victim alive — one washed up actress named Annie Rawley. In this way, our stars have been brought together but far more intriguing is the fact that such a foreboding character is staying right in their stead.

And it’s more than just a hunch that Mr. Slade might be the culprit. On top of his often erratic and suspect behavior, he’s obsessed with his genius-of-a-brother now deceased. He claims that beauty led to his sibling’s destruction and there’s little denying that he has some deep-rooted abhorrence for stage actresses.

So the inevitable must come. Everyone turns out for Kitty’s latest performance even the normally reclusive Slade and as he watches the show with its lavish costumes, provocative Cancan lines, and song and dance, we watch something begin to erupt.

What follows is the rest of a thrilling pandemonium-filled stage show that becomes a frenzy when it’s let out that the wanted lady killer is purportedly right in the very building. Cregar crazed and paranoid scrambles past sets and up into the rafters for a chance at escape. Ultimately he brandishes his knife for a desperate face off with the police force. In the end, he takes the path of least residence that nevertheless leaves an indelible impression.

Sanders and Oberon are fine talents, genial and all, but next to their supporting star they feel unremarkable. Of course, that comparison is already so unfairly weighted. Because Cregar is just that chilling. There’s little doubt that he captivates the screen and subsequently steals the picture in the final minutes. He’s the only reason you need to watch this one. If it means anything, the movie was a stirring success and it garnered a follow up in Hangover Square (1945) which might be even better. Cregars a showstopper in that one as well if you needed any indication.

3.5/5 Stars

The Tall Target (1951)

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To set the scene our storytellers enlist an opening crawl that runs over the unmistakable strains of train noise. The year is 1861. The event being dramatized is the alleged Baltimore Plot and our hero is New York policeman John Kennedy (Dick Powell).

Despite being common and coincidental I can’t but help to acknowledge the bitter irony of our protagonist’s name. But he is not here to thwart a plot against his own life but a man with a much longer shadow.

His in-depth report warning against an impending threat to Abraham Lincoln on the road to his inauguration in Baltimore is dismissed by his superior as alarmist drivel. Nevertheless, the man finagles a way onto the Baltimore-bound steam engine finding an agreeable ally in Colonel Caleb Jeffers (Adolph Menjou). Kennedy once guarded Lincoln for 48 hours and yet in this perilous hour, he will go great lengths for the same man. However, we will soon find out that not everyone feels that way. He’s a very polarizing figure.

I’ve come to the not so startling conclusion that anything Mann touches turns into noir which I readily agree too. Much like Reign of Terror (1948) before it, the director transforms this antebellum train thriller into a reconstruction of history painted in tight angles, smoke & shadows, and coiled with taut action. We grow embroiled in his composed world of greasy close-quartered combat with grimacing faces and flying fists. Far from being constricting these elements are where the story thrives, trapped in corridors and hidden away in side-compartments with the characters that dwell therein.

Because moving through such a space forces Kennedy to brush up against so many individuals. A conductor (soon-to-be blacklisted Will Geer) who is trying to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible only to be inundated by troublemakers and drama. A young mother (Barbara Billingsley) who tries to control her antsy son. An incessant windbag constantly worrying about her prized “jottings” and all she’s going to inquire to Mr. Lincoln about. A southern gentleman sounding off in his dismay with the countries future. You get the idea.

Despite the vague difference in context, it’s quite understandable to place The Tall Target up against another film from the following year The Narrow Margin (1952). Rather than try and decide which one is superior, it’s safe to say that both excel far beyond what their budgets might have you suppose and they utilize the continual motion of a train to an immense degree because in that way the narrative is almost always chugging along to a certain end.

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Ruby Dee has a meager but crucial part in The Tall Target that I deeply wish could have been more substantial. In fact, in an early version, the established star Lena Horne was supposed to play the part of the slave girl Rachel.

Though the movie doesn’t have too much time to tackle the issues at hand, with its limited runtime it does attempt some discussion in terms of African-American freedoms and the southern relationship to such an ideal as asserted in the 13th amendment. The dichotomy I’ve always heard repeated is that “the North loved the race but hated the individual. Southerners hated the race, but love the individual.” It’s a vexing sentiment that we somehow can see playing out here.

Ginny Beaufort (Paula Raymond) a proper southern belle notes that she grew up so close to Rachel treating her like a sister. So close in fact that she never even thought about giving the young woman her freedom. Meanwhile, her younger brother Lance is involved in more than he is letting on. The mystery is not in his objective — he’s made his sentiments fairly clear — he despises Lincoln. Rather what matters is who his compatriots are and how they plan to go after the future president.

For me, the illusion was broken in the final moments because up until that time the picture has kept its eponymous hero masked. He is the Tall Target and nothing else. When we see him somehow the mythos around him is broken and he becomes another actor more than the idea of the man we know as our 16th president.

Regardless, Anthony Mann’s effort, while not well received in its day, is another picture packed with exuberance. It gives us grit and intrigue aboard a train and like the best thrillers, it uses every restriction to keep the tension palpable while throwing around enough diversions to keep us in our seats.

3.5/5 Stars

Badlands (1973)

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I’ve always maintained a great admiration for Terence Malick, even after only seeing two of his most renowned pictures, Days of Heaven (1978) and Tree of Life (2011). This a testament to his intuitive understanding of the image and how gloriously sublime it can be. It’s true his pictures seem to exist in their own strata, part reality and then this heightened stratosphere verging on the ethereal.

Now I’ve seen a third, his arresting directorial debut Badlands, and it remains obvious that though his career has progressed, his films at their very essence have remained the same. Malick is a Texas native who attended the AFI Conservatory and became a pupil of Arthur Penn.

It’s true you can see a cursory similarity in content between the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and this picture because we have the archetypal love-on-the-run narrative. But there’s hardly any confusing them in terms of execution.

Penn’s picture is upbeat, sensual, and almost flippant with these youths in revolt. It does feel like a kind of a statement for the 1960s. But Malick’s film is entirely matter-of-fact, a bit detached, and mystical. Even the music plays into this almost timeless quality that sets it outside of a specific timeline even as it functions as a kind of period piece.

We have a vacant serenity playing a backdrop to all the action with canvasses bathed with soft hues of light. As best as I can describe it there’s a dreamy, gossamer-like tint to the imagery. It feels warm and welcoming at first with a calm cadence until it no longer can exist as such.

Aided by Sissy Spacek’s innocent gaze of mundane wonderment in the world, it’s a southern story of the grimiest sort, which somehow winds up being a fairy tale romance in her eyes. Her voiceover is what holds the film together and never allows it to lose this illusory quality.

Loosely based on The Starkweather case, Kit Caruthers (Martin Sheen) is a high school drop out who collected garbage for a time and fashioned himself after James Dean’s rebellious reputation. He introduces himself to the hesitant, naive Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) who nevertheless finds him intriguing. Though many years her senior, they start accompanying one another, much to her father’s chagrin (Warren Oates). He knows the boy is no good.

Kit was never someone to let others dictate his life for him and with cool calculation, he moves forward with a plan, taking Holly with them as he goes out on the road. They commence a life together out in the open and it feels a bit like Robinson Crusoe. It’s no small coincidence they read Kon Tiki while lounging in a tree house they have constructed by themselves. It’s a far cry from its predecessors at this point.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands is a film depicting killings dotted across the land and yet they are, again, matter-of-fact, even forgettable, which seems terribly callous to admit. But there simply is not the same blatantly violent, in your face, bloodshed of the earlier picture. Continually any amount of drama is replaced with a trance-like dreamscape, aided by the fact writer, producer, director Terrence Malick was never one for intricate, pulse-pounding plotting.

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He is a filmmaker and he gifts us indelible panoramas of America. A billboard set up against rolling prairies and the most glorious of cumulonimbus clouds. Naturescapes cultivated with luscious greens that might be found in Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970) and frolicking easily at home in the works of Renoir. Conversely, we have a house burning that feels like an otherworldly funeral pyre. The old must burn to give way to the newfound promised land Kit and Holly are embarking for.

While the image is always paramount in a Malick film, one could argue the music also has a hallowed place with Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer” adding this oddly tinny, adventurous note to the score. Then, Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell” provides an immaculate encapsulation of romantic ideals whether our fugitive lovers are driving, dancing, or just taking in the scenery. It’s perturbing to have something so melodious play in the wake of such brutality.

To say the film reaches a conclusion is slightly deceptive. More so, it simply fades away. Finally, some local police catch up with them. First, they send a helicopter and then a police car is dispatched. Holly is left behind and caught. She recounts how she moved on with her life after Kit, getting off on her charges and marrying the man who defended her. And Kit was caught too but it came on his own terms. He accepts it with his usual unemotional equanimity.

Watching Martin Sheen in these moments is riveting because he seems content with how things have run their course. As friendly and personable as you might expect and yet capable of such dehumanizing evil. It’s the dissonance of these scarring acts of aggression followed by him pragmatically fielding questions with the media and then being shipped off to his execution with his guard wishing him well. How can such a man exist?

There is no reason to Kit. He simply commits to actions, which are completely detached from any feeling. And yet he is simultaneously capable of some amount of human connection and camaraderie. It leads me to surmise he is a character who could never exist outside the context of celluloid. There you have part of what makes him such a compelling study. Because other films have already filled out the contours of disillusioned antiheroes and killers to our heart’s content.

Like any admirable filmmaker, Malick provides us with a novel distillation of age-old themes. He makes the accepted paradigms feel fresh and perplexing again. Thankfully for us, he’s never ceased going down a road paved with his own vision and personal preoccupations. Because at its best, his individuality is capable of speaking to willing audiences in fundamentally unique ways.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

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The unofficial timeline for classic film noir is approximately given as 1941-1958 but of course, there are notable outliers including Stranger on The 3rd Floor (1940) at the front end and this film, Odds Against Tomorrow, bringing up the rear. Pictures with what can easily be categorized as noir sensibilities whether visually, psychologically, or otherwise certainly were released outside of these arbitrary parameters. However, that’s part of the fun because this “genre” is so fluid and malleable; there’s no technical cutoff or subjective standards.

Director Robert Wise is generally remembered for his later works like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) but every man has a Hollywood origin story. He cut his teeth editing Citizen Kane (1941) no less and began making gritty crime dramas in the late 40s. Two of the most commendable would be Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), the latter featuring Robert Ryan, now a crucial player again a decade later in the last of Wise’s outings in the same noir world.

We get our first glimpse of Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) walking on West Side Street in New York City and those shots assist in establishing the locale that we will be making our home in. Slater is on his way to a business arrangement with David Burke (Ed Begley).

They both have their reasons for joining forces. Burke was formerly a policeman who spent years faithfully serving on the force but when he wouldn’t get involved in a criminal investigation it all but sunk his career. Earl’s a less desirable character with a messy past as an ex-con and none too hidden racist tendencies.

He was the bigot with antisemitism in Crossfire (1947) so it’s a cinch that Ryan could play the narrow-minded white man in this picture too. We get an inclination when he playfully picks up the little African-American girl on his way to a meeting but it comes into full relief once he and the third member of their party, Ingram, are actually in a room together.

What makes the characterization so fascinating is though it’s so easy to envision Ryan in such roles because he plays each with such convincing enmity, he was a real-life crusader for Civil Rights and numerous other progressive causes. This is by no means his actual stance; far from it. Yet he makes us believe.

Though predominantly remembered as a singing star and for his presence in musicals, this was a self-selected part for Harry Belafonte (through his HarBel production company) that substantiates itself as arguably the most rewarding part of his career. He is Johnny Ingram a nightclub crooner who also plays a mean xylophone. But his greatest vice is that he’s a compulsive and extremely unsuccessful gambler — a bankroll of over $7,000 he’s supposed to dish out to a local mobster is residual proof.

Ed Begley, in a particularly charming role, acts as the calming force assuaging egos and keeping his team from completely tearing each other apart. Because he appreciates their talents and keeps them focused most of all on the payday that awaits them, $50,000 they could all use desperately.

Obviously, Ingram has his debts but also a daughter and an estranged wife to look after. Slater is rather unhappily married to a woman (Shelley Winters) who is supporting him for now. But he’s also fairly amicable with his neighbor down the hall (Gloria Grahame).

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Although the bigotry angle is no doubt important it’s not necessarily the focal point of the picture. Foremost of all, Odds Against Tomorrow is a showcase of style and atmospherics. There’s a seedy urban realism that aids in fashioning a tale of claustrophobic impending doom merely supplemented by the racial undertones. Wise achieves a certain look widely due to his on-location shoot but also infrared film stock which gives a very specific monochromatic quality to the exterior shots. Backed by jazzy scoring courtesy of John Lewis and we have a complete package standing toe to toe with Wise’s grittiest efforts.

Whereas most heist pictures take the route of letting the job occur and slowly unravel with mishaps that lead to extended agitation, this picture takes a slightly different approach. We get a line on the characters — their significant others and their problems — so their decisions make more sense. We know why they feel compelled to go through with what looks like “easy money.” However, the actual undertaking torques the picture’s ending into a fever pitch.

Because the title, of course, refers to gambling and the outcomes prove to be pretty bleak. Though the racial element began in the periphery it can’t help but reveal its ugliness in the film’s fatalistic finale. I won’t say the story comes off perfectly but if one is willing to feel it out and become immersed in the atmosphere, it generally succeeds by reveling in its environment.

3.5/5 Stars

House of Bamboo (1955)

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Leave it to Sam Fuller to make a film such as this — the first Hollywood film to be shot fully on location in Japan. His admiration for Japanese culture is not unheralded, specifically making something of a point to portray Japanese-Americans in pictures such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Crimson Kimono (1959).

And yet his style and sense of gritty bravado do at times feel out of place here as do the Hakujin military men milling about on Japanese soil. But even if his cultural awareness is not impeccable, I can’t help but feel that out of anyone who might have directed this movie, I’m somehow glad it was Fuller.  It is far more than its title might suggest.

Shot in CinemaScope with DeLuxe Color, its sumptuous widescreen photography is put on display even in the opening shot as we are given a gloriously panoramic exterior of Mt. Fuji with a train loaded with military arms. It’s subsequently hijacked by marauders who escape unimpeded. With typical Fuller ferocity, we have our inroad to the film’s main conflict with a couple of men murdered. Soon after, a dying soldier implicated in the raid on his deathbed worries for his Japanese wife.

The dialogue is a bit terse and stodgy with the typical melodramatic setups which nevertheless condense action and exposition into bite-sized chunks as the police begin a joint investigation conducted by Inspector Kitz (Sessue Hayakawa) and Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter).

Weeks later the dead man’s old war chum, Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) comes to Japan on the proposition of some employment. With his friend dead he starts throwing his weight around to get answers. Kenner goes to a rooftop interrupting a traditional performance, having an exchange that’s the epitome of ignorant American pig-headedness.

There’s no attempt whatsoever to learn the Japanese language or culture. He expects them to rise to his terms and play by his rules because he lives life thinking that “America is A Number 1.” He blunders around stubbornly repeating “Mariko Nagoya” and then goes into subsequent establishes looking for the boss of each joint to rough them up. Of course, he’s more nuanced than he lets on but in these scenes, it’s as if Fuller has developed an amalgam of the stereotypical lug-head G.I.

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All such roads lead to a big man named Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) who uses a pachinko racket to front much more lucrative and clandestine activities that soon prove of some interest to Eddie. With his buddy gone this is his chance at something good and he’s a perfect candidate with a military record spattered with various misdemeanors.

The picture feels like much less of a police procedural and more of Kenner’s story as his relationship with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) evolves and he must navigate the cutthroat tension that runs through such a high stakes operation like Dawson’s. Of course, it’s nerve-wracking for Kenner for another reason as well.

Our finale finds us at a rooftop kiddie amusement park that has Fuller’s usual flare for taking the utterly pedestrian and imbuing it with certain peril as Ryan frantically fights for survival on a revolving carnival ride. I’d expect nothing less from the writer-director.

A brightly textured post-war Japan is captured in full here. Though no overt commentary is made, it’s right there in front of us to draw our own conclusions. At times, the frames are vibrant with a world that looks to be thriving thanks to Yankee know-how and western influence. Truthfully, Fuller’s picture doesn’t show much of what the war’s aftermath may have done. We must infer that for ourselves. Because House of Bamboo is where the lush DeLuxe tones and the specters of film noir must meet.

As I gather, there is a certain mentality, a term that can be used that explains why this depiction is not so much a lie or a double standard but a definite reflection of the Japanese people.”Shō ga nai” (しょうがない) roughly means that something cannot be helped or whatever will be will be as the French would say. And so far from holding grudges, they were a people who looked at the war years under extenuating circumstances. Thus, afterward, though some might have harbored ill-feelings, there’s this sense that the U.S. could quickly become allies with Japan. That’s partially how it happened.

So when we see The Tokyo Police Department and The U.S. Military police working in perfect tandem and even the fact that this film production pays its respects to the local powers that be, it speaks to this same mutual symbiosis.

However, that certain amount of camaraderie doesn’t mean that there aren’t still major incongruities and differences. The choice to not use subtitles on the interludes spoken in Japanese is refreshing. Because like Crimson Kimono (1959) a few years later, it’s easy to presume that the picture might be promoting stereotypes and a certain point of view.

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It’s true that Shirley Yamaguchi takes on a fairly stereotypical and unquestionably subservient role. Girls are flippantly referred to as commodities; the synecdoche of choice is “Kimonos.” I cannot deny that. And men such as Sandy and Eddie think they can stiff arm their way around the culture, straightening rough edges by handing out cigars as recompense. This doesn’t belay the fact that they are still fish-out-of-water. Not everything can immediately be made American nor should it.

Certainly it’s an imperfect picture and problematic for potentially perpetuating some common representations. However, whether or not he meant to, I think Fuller has provided us with a valuable portrait. It’s far from being as progressive as The Crimson Kimono but scouring it you see the inherent flaws with America trying to have their hands in rehabilitating Japan. At its core is something honorable but that doesn’t mean it comes off perfectly.

Sure, Japan has had its share of homegrown crime and problems born from within. But if you look at this picture everyone who is corrupt is a foreigner. It’s a dirty strain of capitalism where Sandy and his boys have muscled their way in, to the detriment of many of the Japanese.

Formally a casualty of pan and scan television techniques, this is no longer the case with House of Bamboo which has been restored to its full glory thank goodness. You can now catch Deforest Kelley for a few moments and relish a hard-nosed performance from Robert Stack opposite an unprecedented charismatic showcase for Robert Ryan.

If anything, as Eddie begins to genuinely fall for Mariko, there are affectionate touches that show that whether or not his initial behavior was a put on, he’s gradually revealing another side of himself. It means showing an interest in someone else’s culture. Doing the small things like using chopsticks to eat your meal or asking your girl how to say “Good night” in Japanese. For the record, it’s Oyasumi nasai (おやすみなさい).

More than anything else’s it’s a reminder that ignorance and entitlement can be rewritten and reformed when we genuinely care about other people. It stretches across cultural boundaries that we might come to understand others more personally. We need that kind of mutual understanding now more than ever.

4/5 Stars

The Narrow Margin (1952)

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The Narrow Margin is comprised of tight and lean drama where every bit of film is used judiciously. This should rightfully earn it respect as one of the preeminent shoestring budget films of all time within any genre.

Because it’s easy to admire films that do a fine job with a plethora of resources and financial capital but what about those pictures working with very little? It seems like concocting something special with limited resources should be considered even more impressive. If you follow this logic, The Narrow Margin is an unrivaled success — a micro-budget masterpiece — that does a great deal to separate itself from the pack of lesser B-grade crime pictures.

Richard Fleischer gets lost among the big-named directors tagged to the big-named productions but when it came to small pictures he made some pretty decent ones and The Narrow Margin just might be one of the finest B pictures, period. But I think I already said that. Still, it’s worth saying twice.

If we had anything close to a star it would be Charles McGraw as a cop named Brown who has been assigned a case along with his veteran partner (Don Beddoe), an assignement neither one of them particularly relishes. They’ve been burdened with the task of protecting the widow (Marie Windsor) of a notorious gangster who has agreed to be the key witness before a grand jury.

It’s an extremely dangerous proposition as there’s a whole network of syndicate members who don’t want their names to get out. They’re ready to stop this mystery dame at any cost and by any means necessary.

The opening lines of dialogue come off as idle patter but they set up the entire scenario as the two policemen get ready to pick up the woman who will cause immense complication in their professional lives.

It’s a simple question really: What kind of woman would marry a gangster? Meanwhile, there’s a tension in the air and conflict pervading the film. Every waking minute is blessed with an air of constant confusion. Identities of everyone are all but in question. We don’t quite know what’s going on. We’re in the same place as the cops and that’s the key.

What follows is an astonishingly intense and immersive storyline that has no right to be either of those things. Still, it’s an undeniable fact. Faceless criminals in fur-lined coats lurk in the shadows ready to fill men full of lead. Tails loiter ominously at train stations for their mark. Men snoop around train cars trying to find out secrets. Lives are constantly in jeopardy. There’s not a moments peace for the chronically paranoid cops or the audience.

The majority of the picture takes place aboard a train bound for Los Angeles with the danger being crammed into a limited space with good guys and bad guys constantly trying to evade and outwit each other. They all vie for the upper hand in this continuously see-sawing game of cat and mouse. Because in simple terms that’s what it is. A cinematic game of cat and mouse.

But The Narrow Margin proves to be a fine train noir for the contours it develops to help strengthen this basic premise. It’s a rumbling ride complete with a fat man to stop up all the passageways, acerbic dames, and suspicious young boys wary of train robbers. It has character beyond a rudimentary crime film and that’s immeasurably difficult to convey in 73 minutes of celluloid. But Earl Felton’s script manages this near impossible feat.

For other films, the limited space would cause the action to become stagnant even tepid whereas, in this picture, those precise elements are turned on their heads as a true advantage. Though the film is starkly different, the original Alien (1979) similarly used consolidated space to hike the tension to uncomfortable heights. You get the same sense here.

But the great films also aren’t completely straightforward. Their rhythms might look familiar but they play against our preconceived expectations, thus allowing us to enjoy their bits of intrigue and the added payoffs they’re able to deliver. However, whether are not you’re able to predict everything that gets thrown at you is beside the point because the true satisfaction comes in the overall rush of the experience. This one is a gem, a diamond pulverized under filth and grime only to come out scintillating. Enjoy it for what it is.

4.5/5 Stars

Pretty Poison (1968)

Prettypoison1.jpgBoy. What a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?” – Anthony Perkins as Dennis Pitt

Director Noel Black himself described the story as “a Walter Mitty type who comes up against a teenybopper Lady Macbeth.” It seems like the perfect shorthand to get a line on the characters and the actors more than rise to the challenge.

By all accounts,  Black, a recent UCLA film grad, wasn’t much of a director, at least when it came to working with actors. But he could sure edit a film together. The cutting helps to accentuate this trippy world with the spliced together images of Anthony Perkins’ unstable psyche.

After securing his release from a mental institution, Dennis (Perkins) is continually fixated on all sorts of fantasies — playing games full of cops and robbers and CIA agents. He keeps surveillance on a pretty blonde majorette (Tuesday Weld) drilling nearby and unwittingly meets her at a local hot dog stand. They make contact and his nonchalant cool captures her imagination.

We are always wondering if they actually take each other seriously. But the beauty of the script is how they never seem to question one another. They just go with it. What seems utterly ludicrous to us as an audience is so very believable to them.

It relies on Anthony Perkins being able to pull it off and he gets it spot-on with every line coming out of his mouth with total conviction. He makes us believe he’s serious with every bit of fanciful conspiracy he matter-of-factly dreams up.  At his core is this benign human being. We get a sense he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Of course, watching Psycho (1960) might give us a different inclination. And that’s part of the issue.

Perkins’ performance can never be seen outside of the shadow of his greatest triumph and simultaneously his most constricting role. Because everything he does is informed by the part of Norman Bates. If we were able to remove this distraction, his part in Pretty Poison would feel much the same as Tuesday Weld’s does. Because in films like Friendly Persuasion he was the shy, All-American boy. But conventions are getting subverted left and right.

They both make us start believing in their reality. They rendezvous in “makeout valley” only to get ousted by some cops and Dennis tries to hold down his job at the plant, despite constantly being distracted. He professes that aliens are trying to infiltrate the water supply and then very reluctantly stakes out Sue Ann’s home to spy on the mother’s boyfriend.

They are swimming in the invigorating paranoia of their own little world and the drugged-out love romp they create for themselves. Each reverie-like frame bathed in sunbeams and an ever refracting prism of colors. For these very reasons, Pretty Poison could play as a companion film to The Shooting (1967) – another acid singed genre picture.

But at some point, it begins to turn on its head. Because Dennis is the one we suspect will become dangerous due to his erratic behavior. It seems all too inevitable as his parole officer (John Randolph) continues to warn him. Yet the killer joke of the whole movie is how it plays out for real.

This pretty blonde in the high school honor roll turns out to be a femme fatale sipping Pepsi. What are the chances? A little friendly neighborhood murder is what’s on the docket one evening. She gets an emotional high from her adventures with Dennis only to take them to an even deadlier end. The film is not meant to make conventional sense. It never does.

Instead, it operates in alternate realities, delusions of grandeur mixed with sociopathic behavior. It is an instance of a story having two edges, both the terrifying and darkly funny. If there was ever an obvious precursor to Gone Girl (2014), Pretty Poison seems like an obvious jumping off point.

Unfortunately, it was the casualty of absolutely horrific timing. Not only did it not get the distribution it needed but the year of 1968 was punctuated by the assassinations of both MLK and RFK. A film with such content was probably not on the top of the public’s watch list.

For the actors as well there were unfortunate circumstances. Since it was Perkins’ first highly visible American film since Pyscho (1960), his typecasting was again solidified because the shades of an unhinged Norman Bates type is all people seemed to focus on. Tuesday Weld hated the entire process and considered it one of if not the worst of her performances. Though her rapport with Black might have been nonexistent, somehow an evocative performance of contradictions still comes through to compliment her costar.

It’s easy to see where the roots of a cult following might grab hold of such an idiosyncratic picture as this. It fits into the love-on-the-run canon with the likes of Bonnie Clyde (Weld was offered the lead initially) and then Badlands (1973) but Pretty Poison is an even smaller scale story never breaking out of a small town scope.

Its neuroticism and quirks are incubated in such a way to deliver a tone indicative of late 60s disillusionment within the youth culture. Weld might be the finest example as she along with a select few represented the prim and proper girl-next-door sensibilities of the 1950s. Pretty Poison blows the lid off the past and in its own unassuming way it offers a warped portrait of where the world might be heading. If the right person dusts off this offbeat genre flick, it casts a certain off-the-wall spell to capture the imagination.

3.5/5 Stars

Boomerang (1947)

Boomerang!Boomerang shares some similarities to Call Northside 777 (1948) and Panic in the Streets (1950). Like the latter Elia Kazan film, this one boasts a surprising amount of real-world authenticity and a loaded cast of talent. Those are its greatest attributes as Kazan makes the bridge between the stage and the silver screen. He brings with him a sensibility for a certain amount of social realism matched with quality acting connections he had accrued in his career thus far.

The only problem is it’s not very compelling just a good, solid, well-made human drama without much fanfare. At the very least, it hits all the procedural beats it’s supposed to. Sometimes that’s alright and it is interesting the narrative goes fairly in-depth into actual events which occurred back in 1926.

In that year a beloved local preacher in Connecticut was gunned down by a fugitive who ran off in the night before he could be apprehended but not before seven witnesses caught a glimpse of his face. The rest of the film is a buildup of the frenzy churned up in the aftermath. The police frantically try and catch the man-at-large with the papers on their back and several political reappointments hanging in the balance.

It’s true Boomerang does become a more interesting exercise once we’ve entered a courtroom and a man (Arthur Kennedy) is put on trial for the murder of the aforementioned minister — a defendant who has pleaded his innocence since the beginning although the evidence is stacked up against him including a vengeful witness (Cara Williams). Except the district attorney (Dana Andrews) takes a stand to promote his innocence. In this case, it’s not quite so straightforward.

True to form and all parties involved, the acting is a great joy to watch with a mixture of untrained actors filling in as the locals of a sleepy Connecticut town and then bolstered by a formidable supporting cast.

We have Dana Andrews at the center but he is buttressed by some quality performers who would make a name for themselves in subsequent years on the stage and screen. These include Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Karl Malden, and, of course, Arthur Kennedy.

Not one of them is a classically handsome or groomed Hollywood star but in the post-war years, they would be crucial to the trajectory of noteworthy films of the decade. Look no further than Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), or 12 Angry Men (1957) as living proof.

The underlining moral conundrum of this film is evident as Henry Harvey is faced with political opposition and heady threats with his doting wife (Jane Wyatt) acting as his pillar of strength. The sides begin to get drawn up as the District Attorney takes a stand to uphold real justice and not just win another conviction and approval from the local populace. It’s a risk but also a move of immense integrity.

The real-life inspiration for this man, Homer Cummings, far from becoming governor took on another position instead, as Attorney General of the United States under FDR. Not too shabby.  The same can be said of this picture. Not too shabby as far as docudrama noir go.

3.5/5 Stars

Scandal Sheet (1952)

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There’s no need to mince words here. With a film christened Scandal Sheet you already have a good idea of what you’re probably going to get before it arrives. That’s fine. Straight to the point can be good.

But the media angle is only a half of it. It’s as much a film of lurid cover-ups and back-alley beatings as it is about dirty journalism. You need those lightning rods for a juicy scoop and it’s precisely these types of events that bring the newspaper hounds out of the woodwork.

If Samuel Fuller couldn’t wind up being the director of his original story, The Dark Page, then there’s arguably no better man to take up the project than Phil Karlson who has comparable sensibilities and an appreciation for gritty crime pictures and pulp fiction though he’s not quite as dynamic.

It’s true at one point Howard Hawks even had the project flagged to star two of his past favorites in Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. What a film that would have been. But when Karlson came aboard John Payne was offered the role (he would work with Karlson later on) that ultimately went to John Derek.

He and his faithful cameraman (Henry Morgan) are integral pieces of one of the most parasitic relationships on the Bowery that develop between newspapermen and the police. They’re rather like scavengers picking over the carrion or any other delectable scraps that might perchance be tossed their direction.

However, oftentimes the methods of an organization are employed from the top down. In fact, Steve McCleary (Derek) has become the star reporter under the tutelage of Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) the man who has taken over the helm of the New York Express. He took the once reputed but faltering behemoth and turned it into a sensationalized tabloid that subsequently has the highest readership it’s been able to attain in years. There’s no denying the stuff sells like hotcakes fresh off the griddle. What can you say? Sensation is tasty stuff and scandal is the favorite food of the masses.

The paper’s latest gimmick in pursuit of ever-rising levels of circulation is the implementation of a Lonely Hearts Ball trying to play up the angle of a few nobodies falling in love. It’s a real sob fest with all the trimmings for a great story. No one knew how right that assertion was.

What follows is a conflict of interest that’s ripe with dramatic irony. There’s a murder investigation and the paper is embroiled in the middle of it trying to drudge up the answers with the help of their readership. With such hysteria at its core Scandal Sheet shares, some of the same journalism beats of While the City Sleeps (1956).

However, in this picture, Donna Reed is the moral center because how could we ever suspect her of being anything other than that clean, respectful, Midwestern gal with heaps of integrity? She’s much the same here not wanting to besmirch her editorials with sleaze and believing in old washed up writers when no one else will give them the time of day. Even when her boyfriend is guilty of precisely that. In fact, that’s where a bit of their romantic tension is founded.

Steve’s good at his job and a real bloodhound on the beat and a handsome devil at that but a fairly ignorant stiff, the most aggravating reality about the picture being just that. The case is right under his nose and he doesn’t see it for the entirety of the film.

The easiest way to try and explain it away is much the way Walter Neff did in Double Indemnity (1944) though the roles are reversed, “The guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.” Except Broderick Crawford is no Edward G. Robinson and there’s not the same genial relationship that can be attributed to the earlier picture. It’s all business.

That’s why his romantic ties are so important. Because that’s the one area where he is steered in the right direction. Once again, Donna Reed is that crucial moral compass in a choppy sea lacking any amount of rectitude otherwise.

But then again, you get the feeling Donna Reed would never turn up in a Sam Fuller picture if this was his. Still, that should not completely neutralize what Karlson was able to do here — developing a film that’s pretty much as advertised. A gritty bowels drama that cases the insides of New York drudging up all sorts of drama in the name of yellow journalism. If that’s what you’re looking for you’re in for a treat.

3.5/5 Stars

The Sniper (1952)

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From the outset with Stanley Kramer’s name emblazoned over the opening credits it gives an indication of what this film is as does the name of Director Edward Dymtryk. Kramer is, of course, remembered as one of the most fervent socially-conscious producers behind a string of classics like Defiant Ones (1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and…It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)?

But then there’s Dymtryk who was one of the most visible casualties of the blacklist as one of the scapegoated Hollywood 10 and also the helmer of such earlier pictures as Crossfire (1947) which had a very obvious message behind it.

Thus, the Sniper looks to be the perfect collaboration with a harrowing story that hopes to simultaneously enact some amount of social change. We are introduced to a man who is one of the “sex criminals” alluded to in the opening crawl who provide a major problem for the local police force.

In this case, we get stuck inside the head of the troubled figure named Eddie Miller, a deliveryman for a local dry cleaning service, who is plagued by not only paranoia and cold sweats but a burning hatred of women.

There’s a peeping tom, voyeuristic manner to the camerawork as we follow Eddie and his morbid curiosity. He sits in his second-floor apartment picking out women through the scope of his sniper rifle and pretending to pull the trigger.  He’s an unstable personality, an isolated individual with a mother complex that sends him seeking out brunettes. But rather than getting some perverse pleasure out of the thought or actual implementation of their suffering, it comes off as a nearly uncontrollable urge.

So rather than hating Eddie for his indiscretions, it’s quite easy to pity his impulses because they feel like precisely that. Something he cannot seem to rein in. In one particular moment, he sticks his hand on the hot burner of a stovetop scalding his hand because it’s the only release he can get from the maddening thoughts hammering inside his skull.

There’s also the suggestion that people like Eddie are the ones who need mental help and yet they get kicked back out to the curb in deference to more priority cases — the suggestion being that physical injury is more pressing than psychological problems. It’s true that it can be a difficult issue to reconcile with.

The front half of The Sniper proves to be a surprisingly frank depiction and we can attribute this to the fact that as an audience we get so closely tied to Eddie Miller as a character. It’s an unflinching portrayal delivered remarkably well by Arthur Franz.

But the picture falters in its efforts to get didactic and it becomes overtly a message picture instead of purely a character study of a troubled man. We sense it trying to make its point rather than allowing the actions to dictate what happens and thus allowing the audience members to arrive at their own conclusions.

The most obvious extension of this is the all-knowing psychiatrist who lays down his wisdom though no one seems ready to listen to his insights. He’s a proponent of nipping the problem of sex offenders in the bud at a latent stage putting them into a mental institution with newly proposed legislation. It’s not that the idea is bad but it’s the execution in cinematic term that proves heavy-handed.

The latter half is more about the investigation to find the killer headed by Detective Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou). Meanwhile, Frank Faylen was apparently promoted and transferred from New York following his days in Detective Story (1951). Marie Windsor appears in an uncharacteristic sympathetic role as a victimized nightclub pianist. Her outcome and a number of others subsequently turn The Sniper into a commentary on gender whether it meant to be or not.

I rather like how the film utilizes the streets of San Francisco and there’s no need to overtly make a point that the film is set there, existing within police precincts, humble apartment buildings, and hilly streets. It’s simply the world that the film makes its home. It includes a rather authentic Chinese restaurant which besides providing a little flavor, shows that Menjou could use some work on his chopstick form. Though on a positive note, Victor Sen Yung snags another uncredited appearance after showing up in the S.F. set Woman on the Run (1950) as well.

Still, despite the reality that the picture gets a bit too preachy, there’s often a modicum of truth in this type of film we could do well to consider. The same psychiatrist notes the following, “You’ll catch him and they’ll kill him and everyone will forget about it. That is until the next one comes along and it’ll start all over again.”

It’s the endless cycle that we as humans allow without actually ever fixing problems. Such issues cause me to say, again and again, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same old problems just reassert themselves in different ways. It doesn’t help when our attention spans get shorter and shorter while our knowledge of history continues to dwindle.

3.5/5 Stars