Slightly Scarlet (1956): Starring Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming

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It’s a grievous offense, but I must admit to clumping Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl in a category together. They are both redheads of immense beauty, around the same age, and while they both featured in some quality films, they never quite reached the apex of a Maureen O’Hara or a predecessor like Greer Garson. It’s highly unfair I know. Still, in an effort at transparency, it’s inevitably the truth.

However, it’s this very element that makes Slightly Scarlet so enthralling, because it’s as if the very premise is playing with my preconceptions. Maybe I am not the only one who holds these feelings.

Here we have (Arlene Dahl) coming out of prison after serving a stint thanks to some petty jewel thievery. Her big sister (Rhonda Fleming) is there waiting for her as the fawning, motherly figure resolved to keep her wayward sis out of any more trouble.

Together in the frame, bursting with natural color, they fit so exquisitely opposite one another. This alone has intriguing elements to it, but thankfully there is more. Because Slightly Scarlet is also a film belonging to John Payne, director Allan Dwan, and cinematographer John Alton. At 70 years old, Dwan at this point in his career had logged nearly 400 features — an utterly astounding benchmark.

Payne, meanwhile, had forsaken his clean-cut image, working with the likes of Phil Karlson and Dwan to churn out some truly gritty performances. Look up John Alton and you have one of the finest starting points for film noir imagery, period. Even in color, he manages to make it clouded with shadow.

Because Technicolor noir most certainly exists — albeit with lesser frequency — though Slightly Scarlet also has origins in a James M. Cain short story, lending a certain pedigree for sleazy criminals, even if liberties were taken. The picture simultaneously proves worthy company to the ripe feasts of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray from Written in The Wind (1956) to Party Girl (1958). The obvious discordant nature is a draw.

What looks to already be a lurid woman’s picture is met with an undercurrent of political graft and corruption. John Payne is a bit of a hatchet man for a local mobster (Ted de Corsia), integral in influencing all his local operations. He’s derisively nicknamed ‘Genius’ for his shrewd tactics, and yet his boss thinks he will never get on the top of the heap. He’s always out for himself, selfishly.

However, the words prove prophetic as Ben Grace (Payne) all of a sudden does switch sides. Here our narratives get tied together because Ms. Lyons (Fleming) is secretary to up-and-coming mayoral candidate, Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor). Grace is able to supply the dirt to run the gangster Caspar out of town. He’s conveniently found a tape incriminating his former boss in a murder. It’s a surefire way to win an election, and he’s not above such tactics.

The staging is exaggerated from the outset, and the photography is lush — part Technicolor galore the other old tried and true Alton chiaroscuro, which he somehow manages in a entirely color production. At its best, the movie revels in the sordid details and over-the-top theatrics, milking every bit of drama out of the scenario. There’s nothing half-baked or tactful about it. Still, it’s armed with pizzazz aided by a hammy, ever swirling score.

Dahl, playing the sex-crazed klepto of a younger sister, literally gets dragged out of her house for her latest offense. In another scene, when she’s slapped across the face, she simply purrs at the man with beguiling eyes, “You play rough too!” As her latest companion tries to lay his mitts on the goodies inside a safe, Dorothy lounges around the abandoned beach house before setting her sights on a harpoon gun, which she has a frisky bit of fun with. It’s all a gag to her and played against the relentlessly somber, hard-bitten Payne, it only accentuates the inordinate oddities.

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While Rhonda Fleming holds down the necessary role as the conflicted central figure and Payne is one of the suppliers of the hard-boiled elements, it is Dahl who titillates and has the most gratifying task as she is given range to be saucy, unhinged, and altogether uninhibited. It fits the scenario.

The subsequent developments are manifold. Mainly that Dorothy starts vying for her sister’s new man, even as she skips out on her therapy sessions. The compulsion to steal exerts itself again with dire consequences, especially in the wake of the political election.

However, as it turns out, Payne is not quite as reformed as he might have led everyone to believe. He’s as pragmatic as he is cynical, getting a ‘Yes Man’ installed as the new city sheriff as he moves in on the mob’s old territory, turning the racket into his own.

Our heroine finds herself utterly conflicted. Between the man she’s fallen for who’s no good — and seems to be in company with her sister — and then the white knight who loves her dearly. The final confrontation, returning to the beach house, does not pull its punches, between spear guns, handguns, and sadistic, even masochistic inflictions of pain.

It’s a fitting shot of volatile adrenaline to cap a movie daring to fluctuate wildly all over the spectrum. It’s not a dignified or a particularly measured effort by any stretch of the imagination, but in pushing its melodramatic tendencies to the max, Slightly Scarlet proves itself more than capable of diverting stretches of crimson entertainment.

3.5/5 Stars

Party Girl (1958): Sumptuous Visuals for a So-So Gangster Flick

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Party Girl is yet another sumptuous Metrocolor feast from Nicholas Ray though the circumstances were admittedly less conducive for another masterpiece. In need of money, Ray took the job but instead getting his accustomed input on the script, he found himself being partnered with a producer he had no history with (Joe Pasternak) and two musical numbers he had little control over.

For someone like Ray, used to taking such middlebrow fare and making it inherently more interesting, the only plane he could really play on was the visual. So Party Girl is a minor success continuing his forays in expressionistic color schemes.

The film sets the scene in 1930s Chicago falling a few tiers under the Warner Bros. gangster flicks of the 30s or a hilarious homage like Some Like it Hot (1959). In this particular scenario, worldly-wise dancing girl Vicky Gaye (Cyd Charisse) is always ready to impart wisdom, and she’s too tough to get hurt by love.

While it can’t necessarily keep company with Ray’s most captivating works in terms of personified emotion or intensity, there are still elements to be thoroughly enjoyed. Cyd Charisse for one is as sultry as ever and if it weren’t for their almost abrupt nature, crammed into the story as they are, her two dance numbers do immense justice to her iconically svelte form. She’s still extraordinary.

Robert Taylor for another is compelling as a defender of criminals, capable of getting mobsters off the hook and willingly working for a big-time kingpin named Rico (Lee J. Cobb). Tommy Farrell’s major calling card is a debilitating limp that forces him to use a cane. But it never feels like a mere gimmick.

Ray consequently praised Taylor’s commitment to the role, gladly studying up on his part so he could convincingly play a cripple. The director even said the older man was on par with any of the Method adherents he had ever had the pleasure of working with. There you have commendation enough.

In trying to categorize Party Girl, you quickly realize it’s a bit of a disconcerting hybrid of a film. Some might say discombobulating more than anything, as it plays at the crossroads of different genres, not to mention different eras.

Taylor and Charisse were purportedly the final two contract players signed to MGM in 1958 and so more than anything, the picture was a justified excuse to put them to use before their contracts expired. But all things considered, their chemistry isn’t bad per se, and they both look lovely under the gaze of the camera.

Meanwhile, Lee J. Cobb is capable as a thinly-veiled Al Capone facsimile. He’s not uninteresting, but the part seems to have nothing surprising to boast. By the finale, the story has run its course and most of the air has left its sails. Aesthetically, the harsh colors somehow don’t play against onslaughts of gunfire the way black and white did in the days of yore.

Maybe unfairly it’s easy to criticize the film because it doesn’t quite stand up to the gangster flicks of old and yet, there’s no way to call it a full-fledged musical. But for any aficionados of the director or his starring players, they might be reason enough to revisit this minor cult favorite. Be assured, it’s by no means a cardboard, cookie cutter piece of work.

3/5 Stars

I Want to Live! (1958): The Anomaly of Barbara Graham

220px-I_Want_to_Live!I Want to Live! calls upon the words of two men of repute to make an ethos appeal to the audience. The first quotation is plucked from Albert Camus. I’m not sure what the context actually was but the excerpt reads, “What good are films if they do not make us face the realities of our time.” This is followed up by some very official-looking script signed by Edward S. Montgomery, Pulitzer Prize winner, who confirms this is a factual story based on his own journalism and the personal letters of one Barbara Graham.

So the film asserts its authenticity right off the bat before even showing an image. It’s obviously hewn out of the tradition of the real crime docudramas popular at the time. And yet with any type of project, perhaps especially those that make such a claim, we must still call details into question and take them with a grain of salt.

Director Robert Wise is at it again handily developing an environment that feels lived in, opening with dutch angles to give us a slightly disconcerting introduction to a jazzy hole-in-the-wall joint. The crime maestro is at his best when he is working with locales he can play around with and in this case, the world gives way to character.

Meeting Susan Hayward in this picture is reminiscent of meeting Burt Lancaster’s Swede in The Killers. They’re in an upper room, a bedroom, cloaked in shadow and we know they have a tragic end in sight. Where we find them is almost as important as the characters themselves because it acts as an extension of who they are.

Graham is a different type of flawed figure who we find not in a lover’s room but some random bimbo. Though the word is never said outright, she’s undoubtedly a prostitute with police looking to nab her. This is our initial image of her, and it is telling.

However, the rest of her story is sutured together with whirling whip pans and mementos from photos to newspaper clippings to TV coverage, providing snapshots of a life through intermittent scenes. What we are given is admittedly jarring and not altogether cohesive, though one could easily concede no life is ever straightforward to piece together. So it is with this one.

Before seeing either film, I always mentally confused Caged and I Want to Live! because of the superficial similarity of women criminals behind bars. However, there is a substantial difference in Eleanor Parker who is able to lead her character through a visible transformation. With Hayward its more about reconciling and portraying the varying entities of this befuddling human being: Barbara Graham.

Soon she is styled as “Bloody Babs” by the media, initially lambasting her as a brazen killer with a past full of criminal activity and impropriety. But at least one man, Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), begins to change his tune and crusades tirelessly for her innocence. His help, along with the support of a benevolent psychologist (Theodore Bikel), just might turn the tide. Maybe…

Again, the most enjoyable aspect seems to be the mimetic world that has been evoked because to recall the Camus quote, “Here is the reality of our time, and we have no right to be ignorant of it. The day will come when such documents will seem to us to refer to prehistoric times.”

The people (including a young Gavin MacLeod), their clothing, the interiors of rooms, the press, and the mechanisms of the criminal justice system, are all touchstones of some kind. There’s always something we can learn from each even as we must be suspect of how authentic they really are.

Thus, the real star is the direction, featuring some of the most visual flourishes I recall in a Wise picture, further complemented by the jazzy scoring of Johnny Mandel. But its all elemental in creating a backdrop for the story.  Black & White serves Wise particularly well.

The final act initially stalls because the story is played from a waiting game angle, trying to ratchet the tension, although the ending is an already foregone conclusion. Everyone is waiting around. I would have thought the ending would go to Susan Hayward. Because until those foreboding final moments, her character hardly feels established even after all we have witnessed. But sometimes one scene can be galvanizing and emblematic of an entire picture.

However, this is not a boisterous exclamation point but an oddly entrancing death scene and this seemingly purposeful decision proves consistent with most of the picture. It foregoes dramatic and visual hyperbole for leaner more understated beats that bear markers of truthfulness. In the end, life doesn’t go out with an explosion but a drop off into somber nothingness.

With such a conclusion we certainly feel sorry for Barbara Graham. However, I’m not sure if we can completely empathize with her. Nevertheless, like any such high stakes story, I Want to Live! calls into question the American justice system, the death penalty, and our understanding of guilt in this country. So was Graham guilty or innocent? I would have to do more outside research to corroborate the facts though the film implies its own position quite overtly.

Regardless, maybe the picture is about larger themes altogether. Issues that go deeper still into the very fabric of how we enact justice, how we perceive it in the media, and even socially, how certain people seem to get raked over the coals.

Why Barbara Graham? Why not someone else? Why like this? It’s an issue that goes beyond superficial terms like good or bad. As a people, I think we are fascinated by individuals who are layered anomalies not to be understood with a cursory glance. Barbara Graham seems like such a person. We cannot write her off with a convenient stereotype.

3.5/5 Stars

The Reckless Moment (1949): Max Ophul’s Balboa Island Noir

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The scene is set. It’s a week before Christmas. We find ourselves in the charming community called Balboa, 50 miles from Los Angeles, and Joan Bennett drives off into the city for very urgent business. She meets an undesirable in a bar, but this is by no means a tryst. She is facing a sleazy opportunist named Ted Darby to forbid him from seeing her impressionable daughter.

In her opening actions, we already know so much about her. She is assertive and willing to go to great lengths to ensure the safety and protection of her family. Like Shadow of a Doubt before it, we start out in the symbolic sordidness of the city only to return back to the oasis by the sea. The Reckless Moment becomes another home noir where worlds clash.

Ironically Bennett has shed her femme fatale exterior and has come to watch over a household fending off the wiles of the world to keep them from entangling her children. She lives with her elderly father and a young son constantly badgering her while the family’s servant Sybil (Frances E. Williams) proves her most faithful ally. An affluent, hardworking husband is said to exist, nevertheless, he is never seen as he’s away on business in Germany.

For all intent and purposes, it’s Lucia Harper’s ship to run while her husband’s away, and she weathers quite the ordeal. Max Ophuls reacclimates his leading lady with her home, laying out his typical red carpet complete with a spiraling shot up the stairs.

Her daughter Bee (Geraldine Brooks) starts out as a little terror though not quite capable of Ann Blyth’s treachery, because she sees the error in her ways. It comes to pass after her older suitor Darby pays a house call in the dead of night to rendezvous with the young girl. However, it is in the cloak of darkness the youth recognizes his true lecherous character, fighting to get away from him and fleeing the scene as he tumbles, ultimately, to his death.

He effectively disrupts their tranquility by diffusing from the urban center and breaching the sphere of domesticity ruled over by Lucia. The mother hen goes to great lengths to protect her daughter, even further implicating herself.

Because the next morning she finds the body, puts two and two together, and realizes she must do something. With nerves wrought of steel, she somehow manages to dispose of the body in order to protect her daughter. Of course, as we already know there was no need to, but it does make for an intriguing moral drama, and we have yet to even get a glimpse of James Mason.

He does finally arrive and once more, like Darby before him, he is yet another threat to Lucia, invading her drawing room unannounced. His price is $5,000 for some incriminating letters they have of the girls, which might easily implicate her with the police. For the woman of the house, you wonder if this nightmare will ever end because this is what noir always manages.

It takes this perfect post-war reverie and middle-class suburbia then injects it with something terrifying, even calamitous. But thankfully, with performers of the caliber of Bennett and Mason, we get a far more nuanced development.

These central roles are key because everything else revolves around them. They are two poles of the noir world who drag each other toward a murky center where she dips her toes into to the ugly underbelly and he, in turn, gains a coat of chivalry to redeem his moral character.

Because not only does this handsome crook begin to harbor sympathy for this woman — he even extends clemency to her — and as a result of their numerous interactions, he starts to fall in love.

It becomes an increasingly curious relationship because at first, it’s purely that of a helpless mark and the greedy profiteer. But as time passes, it gets ceaselessly complicated. With the husband out of the picture, and James Mason such a prominent star in his own right — it does feel like a secret tryst — a bit of a hidden love affair.

Except it never amounts to anything, because he covers for her, falling back into the dark depths of his old world, and she is able to sink back into hers. Our final image is of her, back turned to the camera, tears in her eyes, reassuring her husband everything is fine on the home front. The credits roll but I’m almost just as intrigued to know the aftermath of such a cataclysmic shift in her life.

Will her clandestine relationship with this man come to light and be seen through the sacrificial lens it probably deserves? Will she ever be able to share her dark secrets with her family and husband? Will the tranquil island getaway of Balboa ever be the same?

Yes, there are time restrictions to this story but the beauty is how much we still are invested in everything falling outside the frame. Here is a testament to an immersive film full of volatility and perplexing emotion that carries a certain weightiness.

It helps to have an intimate connect with this location. I even spent one summer during my youth working on Balboa Island and it is a sandy, relaxed, tourist trap. There’s no doubt about it. I can only imagine how much it would change if your memories of it were imprinted with something so ghastly.

Locals know the annual boat parade at Christmas. Of course, it takes on a different meaning with brawls in boathouses and dead bodies dredged up in the bay. At least it’s only a movie. Knock on wood…

4/5 Stars

Christmas Holiday (1944): A Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly Noir

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Christmas Holiday begins as a movie we’ve probably seen before countless times. A returning G.I. (Dean Harens) is getting ready for some Christmas leave except our star is as stiff as cardboard and that comes before he gets the sobering news. The girl he was intent on marrying has duped him to go get hitched to another man. Despite the pleading of his happy-go-lucky war buddy, he makes the decision to head out to San Francisco all the same.

Inclement winter weather sets up a dark and stormy detour in New Orleans and fortuitously takes the story into slightly different terrain. Unfortunately, Herman Mankiewicz’s script takes so very long to frame its story, it feels like there is a lot of catching up to do.

Although the picture is directed by quintessential film noir craftsman Robert Siodmak, Christmas Holiday is a weird clashing of discordant elements, namely musical numbers with the chiaroscuro malaise of noir. Irving Berlin’s compositions even make an appearance in the form of “Always” repeated throughout the picture as a bit of a romantic musical cue.

On first glance, such a dreary picture doesn’t become Deanna Durbin. She is a songstress first and apt at romantic comedy. And yet in keeping a broader mind, she isn’t too bad in this one. It seems like the material itself is to her detriment, that and an equally jarring characterization by her leading man. Because if we’re honest, a dark, brooding Gene Kelly almost feels like an oxymoron — especially as he plays a craven murderer named Robert Manette.

Again, if we run the same test and give him the benefit of the doubt, it simply does not take, regardless of the material. He feels out of his element, and it’s nominally okay because we have so many future forays to appreciate him for. Still, it does leave one scratching one’s head. While early in his career, he had already made For Me and My Gal as well as Cover Girl so it’s not like no one knew he could sing and dance.

If we summed up the glut of Christmas Holiday‘s plot, it is a less effective riff off Shadow of a Doubt in the sense that we have an everyday man who also moonlights as a murderer. I suppose most killers are like that, but the dichotomy is made so blatant with Joseph Cotten in the former film and Gene Kelly in this one. Similar to future projects like White Heat or Psycho, there is also a mother complex, albeit far less intriguing.

As much as I love Siodmak to death, it’s hard to champion a rather tepid release like this. Measured criticism once again falls on the script, which spends time setting up a character who is only of peripheral importance. It invests in a romance we already know through flashback ended tragically. Any attempts for tension between mother and daughter-in-law feel essentially dull and uninspired.

There’s no pace or ticking time bomb revealed to keep us fully engaged in these dealings until the last possible moment. This is when Manette is out of prison and returning to his missus, whom he believes has been unfaithful. Then, the expected rush from the fateful confrontation is all but nonexistent. Durbin’s wounded reaction is probably the best part.

Based on a Somerset Maugham story or not, the title Christmas Holiday also feels like a total misnomer. In fact, the entire movie feels like a sidebar conversation to what should have been a different film altogether. Man was not meant to subsist on atmospherics alone. There needs to be some form of compelling narrative or at least interesting ideas to mull over. Christmas Holiday is lacking in this department.

3/5 Stars

The Naked City (1948): One Out of Eight Million Stories

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The Naked City begins inauspiciously enough with a flyover of New York and an introduction by producer Mark Hellinger. It seems like we’ve seen this countless times before. It’s almost like a stock image. And yet in the case of this picture, it was really one of the forerunners of a movement.

Here we have one of the first pictures to give us a sense that this is only one story in a whole patchwork of stories. There’s a loose, stream of consciousness to the proceedings as we meet people and overhear their conversations only momentarily as they go along with their daily lives.

But initially, we are introduced to an entire cross-section of people in the dead of night when most are slumbering peacefully at home. Although the street corners, places of business, and entertainment hubs are still bustling. And of course, in other spaces, we have the murder. The topic of interest in this story.

We are afforded the same opportunity to get a view into the lives of our detectives, the bright-eyed veteran Lt. Daniel Muldoon portrayed by everyone’s favorite brogue-voiced leprechaun Barry Fitzgerald. Don Taylor comes on as the fresh-faced cop and family man taken under his wing. This is the picture that made me take note of his earnest talents as a dashing everyman.

Soon they are looking into the tragic death of a beautiful young model, Jean Dexter. Until it comes out there might be more too it than meets the eye. Also, another man’s body is fished out of the drink. For the time being, they are isolated events.

The Naked City is at its best giving this beat-by-beat rundown of the case as it happened. True, it’s a compromised documentation from director Jules Dasson;  it’s not like we’re watching a docudrama. All the same, it proves a fascinating cultural artifact giving us so many authentic pieces of context. It becomes a matter of parsing through the real footage taken on the streets and then actors going through the paces of a Hollywood storyline.

Not only does Mark Hellinger supply a certain ethos to the picture, he actually remains an important piece of the story, adding his own glib commentary in a one-way conversation with the actors who play a part of the case. A more tragic note is the fact the producer and one-time journalist would die before the picture was even released. But his crucial fingerprints on the narrative cannot be disregarded as the case pushes on.

There is Howard Duff as Frank Niles, a man whose reputation begins to falter with every word that comes out of his mouth and every subsequent question he dodges. Corroborating his facts, it becomes apparent he’s lying again and again to the authorities.

Even his fiance (Dorothy Hart), a model who worked with the deceased woman, is oblivious to many of his dubious activities. But certainly, he cannot be the murderer. He has an alibi. There must be another culprit. Muldoon settles on his old friend, “J.P. McGillicuddy,” a convenient placeholder for the unnamed perpetrator they’re trying to smoke out.

The work of a detective is never done as the dead girl’s parents come to identify the body and bemoan the fact their girl went bad after having such a tough childhood. There’s a pursuit of a fugitive down a fire escape that leads through the streets and reaches a dead end when he’s able to shake them aboard the subway. But they’re getting close to something.

Detective Halloran gets the go head to follow a hunch of his own — a long shot that becomes surprisingly relevant to their case — and the legwork leads to an elusive wrestler named Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia). However, as has a habit of happening, find one lead and a whole slew of others start falling in your lap. Things start happening.

They involve Niles, who of course, has been up to more than he was comfortable divulging. Also implicated are a doctor and Garzah as well. The others know they have been caught red-handed, but what is a police procedural without one final showdown? The chase for Willie Garzah takes off and finally finds him on a bridge climbing for his life as the police flood the area.

The final outcomes are not altogether unexpected but the fact New York plays such a concrete role in this drama greatens its appeal, and it helped develop a tradition, an affection even, for on-location shooting in The Big Apple.

Fittingly, everything is wrapped with those indelible words that would become immortalized on television forever, “There are eight million stories in New York City. This has been one of them.” It really is a producer’s dream for a serialized television show, but in its day it made a darn good crime movie too.

4/5 Stars

The Man I Love (1947): Ida Lupino Steals The Show

The_man_I_lovesmallIt feels like we might have the courtesy of a bit of Gershwin masquerading under the cloak of noir. We find ourselves at a hole-in-the-wall jazz joint after hours. Club 39 feels free and easy with an intimate jam sesh. Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) is having fun with a rendition of “The Man I Love.”

What strikes us is her breezy confidence. Everyone seems to like her, and she knows how to get by on her own laurels. So though we might begin on a New York street corner, this is all merely the set-up supplying not simply a preexisting world but the core tenets of our main character. We come to like her right from the outset.

However, quickly our action is transplanted to Long Beach, California because catching a bit of the homesickness bug, Petey goes to call on her two younger sisters and brother for the holidays. Could it be she brings darkness into sunshiny suburbia? Again, that would be a negative.

Instead, she comes back into her family’s lives to play the role of big sister and Ms. Fix-it, leaving their lives better than when she arrived. The eldest sister, Sally slings spaghetti for a living, and she’s angelic. But one Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda) has his eyes on her because his uncle runs the restaurant. He’s a real cad (On a side note: I will always have gratitude for Alda for bringing his son Alan into the world to star in M*A*S*H).

Admittedly, his sleazy charisma is pretty smooth, but it turns ugly on a dime. This isn’t just a dismissible instance of being “fresh;” it’s blatant, out-in-the-open harassment, and it grieves me to see. Because from everything we have been coming to terms with in the world, it is all but the norm. I am reminded of Janis Paige’s article bravely recounting her own real-life experience.

A movie like this can easily turn everything into an instance for melodrama, and we cannot blame it too much because it is meant to be riveting. Regardless, this is a film full to the gills with angry men. Sally’s own husband, a war hero, is under observation at the hospital for certain volatile instabilities. The girls’ younger brother Joey pushes back against the chiding of his siblings as he gets more involved running errands for Torresca.

Across the hall, a generally affable Johnny O’Connor is jealous over his glamorous wife (Dolores Moran), who finds her twin sons and a middling marriage to be a bore. Ida Lupino is the one who can capably joust with them all, because, of course, she’s from New York. She’s been around and partially to shield her sister, she takes up a job as a lounge singer at Toresca’s club. He’s got his paws and lecherous eyes all over her.

Even she falls for a man, a tragic and equally tormented pianist San Thomas (Bruce Bennet) with demons of his own to exorcise. So amid this constant collision of temperaments and personalities, there’s bound to be a firestorm of emotion, ultimately blowing up in a need for release.

Raoul Walsh is an old pro at manning stories even if this one feels slightly out of his typical wheelhouse. However, The Man I Love is blessed with a wide-ranging, truly eclectic cast. In fact, for the amount of time it has to work with, it’s genuinely surprising how many characters it chooses to erect.

Admittedly, despite the diverse spread, they could have used more shading on a whole. Martha Vickers, in particular, feels like a bit of a letdown, because her part is so tepid as the youngest sister who would rather stay home than go out with boys. Especially in juxtaposition with her scene-stealing turn in The Big Sleep, it seems like a monumental waste. Alan Hale also gets a lackluster part to fill.

So while not everyone is exactly electric (all but Lupino are fairly drab), the sheer variety of talent makes for some intriguing dynamics to go with all the genre pieces. I’m tempted to consider it a woman’s picture — more melodrama than noir — but why split threads? Infused with jazz and romance and even a bit of holiday cheer, there are some agreeable facets to the ambiance being created.

When the time comes, Petey drifts out of her family’s life and heads back out into the great big world ready to come back when she’s needed again. Wouldn’t we all like a person like that in our lives? But then real life doesn’t work quite like that. Messes are not remedied so easily. Oftentimes the pain and suffering have lifelong consequences that cannot be conveniently tied together by a Hollywood ending.

3/5 Stars

Human Desire (1954): Fritz Lang vs. Jean Renoir

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Edgar Buchanan always annoyed me endlessly on Green Acres reruns, and it’s affected me for a long time. Because only recently have I begun to realize just how broad and robust his body of film work is. He can be categorized with a breed of movie actor that is generally lost in today’s industry.

These were studio workhorses with filmographies so abundant it almost becomes second nature for them to don certain roles. It happens so easily and with such regularity, there’s rarely a need for explanation. It’s all right there in the character and the countless other pictures he’s popped up in before. His part is small but it doesn’t matter.

Because he is the kind of actor only Hollywood of a certain era would have utilized to his full potential. Why does any of this relate to the discussion of this film? My best explanation is the fact Human Desire is not a standalone entry. It comes from a lineage boasting Emile Zola and Jean Renoir’s Le Bete Humaine. And yet Human Desire can be viewed as nothing less than noir cranked out of the salt mines of Hollywood.

The traditions of Michel Carne and Jean Renoir, themselves in the late 30s, coalesced with the early works of Fritz Lang, like M (1931), to form a sturdy foundation to this American iteration of crime cinema. There’s no doubt Lang and Renoir were aware of each other. An obvious point of reference is the fact Lang would adapt La Chienne into a film of his own — Scarlet Street.

Human Desire is his second go at the eminent Frenchman’s filmography, albeit less to his liking. Lang’s railroad imagery isn’t quite on par with the evocative ever smoky grittiness of Renoir’s earlier effort and part of it must be chalked up to interiors which strip away much of the rail tie reality.

In even brief interludes there could be overlap with the work of the Frenchman’s father or other famed realist artists of generations before and there are quite a few lighter, brighter tones, although Le Bete Humaine is still a notable precursor to noir cinematography.

But then it gets dicey because Lang himself came out of the other tradition which all but berthed the dark genre, German Expression, with films like M or American pictures like Fury and You Only Live Once, unmistakable for their equally brooding imagery.

Renoir has an appreciation for the everyman’s daily life as it pertains to this world of grunge and brutality. There manages to be something real, this animal magnetism — a literal madness that somehow feels more authentic.

Lang picks up solely on the total bleakness of a canvas bathed in black. It’s suffocating in that sense. He also functions better within the facades and inherent artificiality of the Hollywood system. Renoir tried it too, and it proved more stifling than productive. Lang, perhaps out of necessity, used the resources more to his advantage.

After the stirring success of The Big Heat, he comes back with his two stars in Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame to do it again. It’s unfairly overshadowed even as Grahame turns in a blistering, merciless performance as a conniving wife. But as with all black widows, the exterior begins demure and innocent enough. It only evolves and becomes more malevolently deadly as time marches on.

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The newfound lens of a returning soldier fits into the context of the era. Because Human Desire is a story revamped for 1950s America, and it translates itself easily enough. Jeff Warren (Ford) is coming home from the army with ideals of a steady job, fishing on weekends, and nights at the movies with a pretty girl. It presents this fresh exterior just waiting to be dragged through the mire.

Because the conventions of American-grade noir, in particular, make for a compelling tale of lust and sleaze. Not that they were entirely absent in Renoir’s picture but they have a different effect.

Human Desire throws together a femme fatale and a formerly clean-cut veteran whose eyes bulge out of his sockets the first time he snatches a glance at the girl. They are not perpetrators of murder by they are implicated in the following courtroom proceedings with Warren complicit in a cover-up. There is a streamlined love triangle between Ford, Grahame, and Broderick Crawford that rarely feels interesting on its own merits.

At its best, it lives out its existence on the screen as a low-grade railway riff on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. There are obvious antecedents in its French predecessor but somehow in this context, it seems applicable to canonize it as noir. Emile Zola never felt closer to James M. Cain.

I could only consider the very concrete plot points, not the literary styles themselves. Because Human Desire, of course, is not literary at all — or if it, it is only in the pulpy seediness such entertainment engendered.

Renoir could actually claim some basis in Zola’s literature, not simply by his pedigree but also by evoking the words themselves. Regardless, the two creatures have their distinct appeals for two diverse camps. There’s no question the two helmsmen were a pair of phenomenal craftsman deserving individual repute. The differences in them are as beguiling as the similarities. The same might be said of Human Desire and its forefather. Choose your poison and my guess is you won’t be disappointed either way.

3.5/5 Stars

The Blue Gardenia (1953): Anne Baxter a Victim of Noir

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The Blue Gardenia chooses to establish its characters and allow ample time for the audience to get acquainted with all the players. It’s genuinely a pleasure as we have a number of affable people to grow accustomed to over the course of the story.

There’s local journalist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) and then pin-up artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), giving a momentary glimpse of a Burr character who is not looking to murder someone or force himself on a woman. The fact that he’s a mere womanizer feels almost tame, showing the desensitization he is capable of instilling.

He, as well as Mayo, can be found wandering around the Los Angeles’ switchboard ward, constantly bustling with activity, call transfers and busy signals galore. The real reason for them to be hanging around are all the pretty working girls. I’m not sure it’s a great reason, but they hang around nonetheless.  The male cast is also rounded out by one of my genre favorites — Richard Erdman, as the ubiquitous cameraman, always lounging on the couch.

It’s with the female talent where Blue Gardenia samples the close-knit camaraderie of such movies as Gold Diggers of 1933 where you have a gaggle of girls living together balancing a career, a love life, and a few laughs. Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern) is the wise one who has lived life, maintained her looks, and currently spends evenings with her former husband the homely Homer. Sally (Ms. Jeff Donnell) is her exact antithesis as the young and unattached gal whose idea of a quality evening are dime-store crime romances.

Somewhere in the middle falls Norah (Anne Baxter), the amiable, even-tempered lady who is waiting devotedly for her man to come back from Korea (the war that is). By all accounts, they are madly in love, she has remained eternally faithful to him, and waits upon his return with exuberant expectations. Instead of spending her time out on the town, she imagines romantic meals together by candlelight with roast and champagne.

The Blue Gardenia punches up the melodrama with the disclosure of a fateful letter. It turns out her man has found true love in Tokyo, and Norah has been left adrift with her whole romantic outlook compromised. What is she to do now?

On a whim, she takes up an invitation from Mr. Prebble that was meant to be extended to one of her other roommates. She gets to the Blue Gardenia on Vine, right off of Hollywood, and soaks in the laid-back Polynesian vibe. She’s a bit unsteady, unsure of how to proceed, but she’s there. The main attraction on the floor is none other than the velvety vocals of Nat “King” Cole. His song subsequently haunts the rest of the picture as the story begins to unravel.

Because as hinted at before, Raymond Burr had a certain pedigree, before his days as whip-smart attorney Perry Mason. For lack of a better term, he was always a lascivious cad. We know what his mind is thinking because it’s always blatantly obvious from the expression on his face. Sure enough, a trip to his apartment follows, Norah gets herself more and more intoxicated — a confused and helpless victim in his lair.

He forces himself on her, and she fights him off with a fire poker. Like Philip Marlowe, she enters into a swirling pool of disorientation. It’s this bit of ambiguity laced with terror that the whole plot relies on. Equally crucial is how a victim turns herself into a culprit.

It becomes an uneasy metaphor for the way society is built around men and women are the ones blamed and villainized in certain contexts. This goes back deep into human tradition to the days when a woman’s testimony was not even considered valid in court. Implicitly, it’s as if the burden of proof is on them to prove they are innocent from the very beginning. Norah has every reason to be frightened.

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Because news of Prebble’s death comes out and the paper and the police are looking for the lady who left her shoes behind — this murderess who fled the scene of the crime. Here Mayo comes back into view as he promises to tell the woman’s story if only she would come forward to his paper. However, his intentions seem more driven by circulation goals than an actual charitable heart. Everyone is a wolf out for himself.

This makes it even more tragic that this woman feels so isolated and debilitated she is incapable of going to her best friends and the women around her, as they would be the ones most ready to help her. The other wrinkle is how the newshound unwittingly starts to fall for the girl he’s been looking for. It’s the height of irony even as Norah finally gets implicated in the murder.

Throughout Fritz Lang suffuses the drama with style captured not only in the most traumatic moments but also in the extensive use of tracking shots within the narrative. Still, the dramatic situation is lacking because it is hard to share the same convictions as our lead. It’s not that we don’t sympathize with her.

It’s the fact she should have nothing to be ashamed of or to be fearful about. If there was more time to isolate its themes and hone in, Blue Gardenia would be very much about the recovery process of an individual going through so much trauma. The heart and soul of the picture could be found there, but as is, there simply is not enough time to tease out these ideas.

The penultimate twist is a fine addition although it’s not as if the story can really be salvaged in one instant — happy ending notwithstanding. Despite the talent all around, the mechanisms of the storytelling alone make it apparent this was a genre quickie made with only mild regard for the material. Lang and Nicholas Musuraca are still integral to what we know as film noir — and this film is no exception — but it certainly is a less engaging effort. Probably because we know the illustrious heights they are both capable of.

3/5 Stars

Brighton Rock (1947) Graham Greene’s Seedy Side of England

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Brighton Rock, based on a Graham Green novel from 1938, opens with a disclaimer about the proceeding content. Great pains are made to differentiate the place depicted within the frames of the film — set before WWII — and Brighton circa 1947. The only reason such a note would be necessary is the fact this picture was preparing to show an unflattering side of the sea town (and also the picture used hidden cameras to film on-location). Before we have even begun, we already have a weird mixture of faux-reality with an authentic period piece. It’s certainly not a false assessment to make.

A handsome, fresh-faced lad with piercing eyes, Richard Attenborough, plays Pinkie Brown, a hoodlum to the nth degree. In fact, the actor’s performance is augmented by his obvious youth. It gives the sense of a young upstart who grew up to be tough due to his environment. He knows no other life, no other person except himself. One can only marvel at Attenborough originating the role three years prior on the stage.

The most obvious point of action begins with some blokes chasing a man named Fred (Alan Wheatley) around, running him ragged in relentless pursuit. Lady of Shanghai (1947) has the hall of mirrors. Woman on The Run (1950) has a roller coaster. Strangers on a Train (1951) has its Tunnel of Love and a haywire carousel. Brighton Rock can ably join the pantheon of morbid cinematic funhouse attractions with its own addition. The Palace Pier might be a fine place for jocularity, but it also serves as a fitting locale for murder.

The solitary person who gives a tuppence at Fred’s disappearance is the gregarious local entertainer (Hermione Baddeley), who takes a shining to him for any number of reasons. Namely, he lends her money and gives her tips on the ponies. But bless her soul, she does try her darndest to get to the bottom of his case, even as the police have already wrapped it up neatly.

The film itself conjures up a gritty world worth exploring, with the blend of British backstreet authenticity and gangster drama. We get accustomed to beer halls, grungy flats, and seaside boardwalks. Part of the joy is seeing the world of 1940s England partially untouched, as it was at the time.

Maybe it’s subliminal, because of the relationship between Graham Greene and Carol Reed by way of The Third Man, but I cannot help seeing shades of Brighton Rock in Odd Man Out and vice versa. Certainly, their characters and situations are starkly different to go with the respective terrain of Brighton and Ireland. Still, you get the same brooding sense of fatalism and the destructive nature of such lifestyles upheld by these lowbrow criminal types.

Like all the finest, most complex gangster films, what we have is the dichotomy of a criminal’s life. In “business” they can be so ruthless, and yet there is still space for family and in the case of Pinkie, love. He is prepared to murder someone for double-crossing him in one moment, and then ready to go courting with his girl the next.

The impressionable girl in question is Rose (Carol Marsh). She is a waitress who unwittingly has information to incriminate Pinkie. So he promptly goes to work on her. Being a soft touch and seeing as he has a certain amount of charm, it’s easy enough to pull off. In her naivete, she’s easily taken with him and falls head over heels in love. Ready to do anything and everything to shield him. It’s just what he wants, another person to use.

Because to the very end, we must suspect he is only keeping her close because she knows too much. As much as we want to believe he might actually love her — and be redeemed to some extent — it’s pretty clear it never happens. He remains an incorrigible reprobate, who nevertheless believes in hell and damnation.

Reckoning, for him, comes first in the form of local kingpin Colleoni who is prepared to lean on the younger hood — he’s getting too big for his britches — the police know it too. But he’s a feisty devil, continually exerting his authority over his band of cronies, even as Ida continues poking around. A racetrack becomes a perfect locale for violent tumult. Although my favorite particular image is a picketer hoisting a big sign “The Wages of Sin is Death” whilst he chows away on a sandwich, there are more imminently menacing theatrics on hand.

The rope is running out for Pinkie and his psychotic little mind sees his one last chance as a double suicide killing so he might get away. We have a sense of what he’s about to do. The rain is pouring down. He and his girl take a brisk walk out to the pier. The events are heightened by this moral imperative where death by suicide is seen as the ultimate sin on some man-made gradient.

Her we have a callow young woman who will so willingly ruin her life and blindly follow a man she thinks truly loves her. Then, there’s a criminal beholden only to himself to the very end, but Attenborough goes out and makes sure we don’t forget him even when he’s left the picture. You can’t forget someone like that nor a performance of this sleazy magnitude.

He leaves behind the gramophone recording of his voice with a malicious note, but whether Pinkie’s own tamperings or a bit of fateful happenstance the record gets caught on the phrase I love you — with everything else conveniently left out. As the camera closes in on a crucifix — the ultimate symbol of sacrificial love —  it seems a very disconcerting thing to hear Pinkie’s words echoing against it.

The music trills to suggest this is meant to be a happy ending, and yet when I see that imagery and hear those words, they don’t mesh. They remind me that the very nature of human beings is often deceptive and cruel.

If God is supposed to be good and perfect, there can hardly be any relation between our imperfect attempts at love and his, if he is indeed perfect. So if we want to retain something, it seems imperative to latch onto the word hope — what the sister entreats Rose to latch onto even as she notes “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

Graham Greene was himself an ardently religious man and even in the cynical worlds he often draws up, this hint at something else is striking. You must look upward at something greater or else take a dive into the nihilistic depths of despair. The outcomes of this picture allow for no other logical progression.

4/5 Stars