I Walk Alone (1948) with Lancaster and Douglas

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“All the songs sound alike these days.”

The title of this movie inadvertently made me think of the Dinah Shore number “I’ll Walk Alone.” Granted, the title is slightly different, and it was birthed out of the WWII context where soldiers left their sweethearts behind to wait it out.

I Walk Alone could have easily made a play for this type of story. Instead, it replaces traumatic military experience with a long stint in prison and so our protagonist comes back to the outside world with a slightly different mentality. So there’s really no connection out all, and yet somehow music holds a crucial place in this movie because it comes to represent something about the characters. We hear, among other standards “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “Heart and Soul.”

Each of these classics plays as odd counter music to an otherwise rough and tumble story that might yield descriptions ripe with gangsters and noir imagery. When Dave meets Frankie at the train station, we understand the score instantly: 14 years behind bars and now he’s on the outside. Lancaster and Corey are holdovers from the previous year’s Desert Fury (along with Lizabeth Scott).

Ill-will has built up over the same period because back in the days of prohibition, Dave (Lancaster) used to be in cahoots as a rum runner with Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), who has now made a name for himself on the outside. After taking the rap, Dave feels slighted by his old partner, and true to form, his partner is trying to feel him out so he might know how to counteract him. It’s an instant conflict.

Coincidentally, it’s the first crossing of the dynamic wills belonging to Lancaster and Douglas who would continue a storied cinematic partnership over seven pictures. Even at this early date, they have fire in their bellies to drive their dramatic inclinations.

Having the two of them together is a singular delight in a way Desert Fury from the previous year could never deliver. Because in a sense they are on equal footing in terms of cinematic clout and charisma. Not that they’re the same person by any means, but it’s rather like Mitchum and Douglas sparring in Out of The Past. It makes for a far more absorbing picture.

Before he won the privilege to be an irascible hero, Douglas excels at being the cool and calculating criminal type. His voice is almost high-pitched and strung tight giving him an unnerving quality with pointed fury behind his eyes — as dark as ever. Still, he gladly maintains the pretense of friendship; it’s good for business.

When Frankie makes his way to the Regent club, he sees all the old crowd is still around, Dan the hulking doorman, then Ben behind the bar. It’s a bit like old times, but times have changed.

The veiled threats in their first meeting are an extraordinary barrage from the opening warning “Don’t move,” to the insinuations about his health on the outside, and the final flash of flame from a cigarette lighter. Intensions are made very clear.

True to form, Dink uses every resource at his advantage to defuse and exploit his old friend if possible. He’s the consummate businessman even when it comes to women. Lisabeth Scott, the club’s resident torch singer, is a whole-hearted sentimentalist who believes in love and in people — the fact they just don’t make songs like they used to. In this regard, she shares a conviction with Frankie. But she’s supposed to be Dink’s girl; at least she works for him.

However, there’s also Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) a refined beauty with a name “spelled in capital letters” and a cigarette pinched between her feminine fingers. She’s also filthy rich and she doesn’t mind her men philandering; for her romance is as much a business transaction as it is for Dink.

The script has its moments of lively snappiness especially leaving the lips of Lancaster who exerts himself as the brusque, no-nonsense tough operator. He’s not about to let other’s knock him off balance or get too far into his confidences.

However, I Walk Alone charts the changes that went into organized crime while Frankie was in the slammer. Whereas he represents the brawn of the old days, Dink is an emblem of the wily business practices necessary to get ahead currently. He’s able to cast off his old partner’s stake in the company with a convenient signature on a piece of paper.

What has developed is an age where big business steamrolled the olden days of hoods and backstreet gangsters calling the shots. Where three corporations can only be understood and operated through board meetings, diagrams, and dizzying bureaucracy. This web feels like a conspiracy to Frankie while only reiterating the helplessness found in a story like The Grapes of Wrath where modernity has overwhelmed the old ways.

He piles into his old buddy’s office with a posse of thugs including the smart-mouthed Skinner (Mickey Knox), the heavy Tiger (Freddie Steele), and the ubiquitous Dewey Robinson. What he realizes only too late is it’s not a matter of bringing knives to a gunfight. They are mostly outdated tokens just like him. As the brassy one quips he’s “swimming in it.”

What happens next is not unforeseen. There’s a manhunt and the man finds himself a woman who brims with his same spirit; someone who stands by the standards and sentiments of the past. To coin a paradox, they can walk alone together.

Beginning to end, what truly holds I Walk Alone together is the slimy impudence of Kirk Douglas struggling for dominance over Lancaster’s inherent tenacity. Without them, and then everyone else, including Scott, ably orbiting around them, it feels like the story might fall apart. Still, film noir aficionados should have more than enough to gorge themselves on.

3.5/5 Stars

The Threat (1949): Starring Charles McGraw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

I Love Trouble (1948): Enter Roy Huggins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

Framed (1947): Janis Carter and Glenn Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

 

Tension (1949): Between The Good and The Bad Girl

220px-TensionPoster.jpgBarry Sullivan has an absolute field day as a homicide cop, Lt. Collier Bonnabel, with very calculated methods of getting to the root of every crime. Whether it comes by pushing, cajoling, romancing, tricking, flattering — he’ll do whatever is necessary. What matters to him is to keep stretching them because everyone has a breaking point. You just have to know how to work them so they slip up.

It’s fitting because he remains as our narrator throughout this entire story. Between his fedora and voiceover narration, Tension easily earns the moniker of film noir. He picks up the story at Coast-to-Coast all-night drugstore in Culver City where the bookish Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) maintains an unsatisfying but well-paying gig as manager.

His only reason for holding onto the job is not only security but it’s the only way to try and keep his girl (Audrey Totter). Because she’s a real horror — dissatisfied with the middling life he can give her — and constantly batting her eyes at anyone who gives her the time of day.

Quimby is such a passive and nervous husband; he’s always deathly afraid to walk into his room above the drugstore at night for fear the bed will be empty and she won’t be there waiting for him. You see, his entire worth and aspiration at a middle-class lifestyle are maintained through her. And yet when she scoffs at his attempts to buy them a house in the suburbs, its a rude awakening.

It turns out it doesn’t matter. She finds someone else and packs her bags. What follows is a sudden departure to shack up with the substantially wealthier Barney Deager. You see the same conundrum from The Best Years of Our Lives. They were youthful and on the high of WWII patriotism, but now settling into the status quo, he’s not as cute or funny as he used to be in San Diego. Everyday tedium is no fun for a girl like Claire.

Audrey Totter is easily a standout, and she even gets some saucy music to introduce her and the coda proceeds to follow her into just about every room. She’s almost in the mold of Gloria Grahame — another iconic femme fatale — except her eyes are more bitter, even severe. They burn through just about everyone.

Warren makes his way to the beach and has a confrontation with her brawny boyfriend, but what is an unassertive guy like him (now with broken glasses) suppose to do in the face of such an affront? His options seem hopelessly few. It leads to a needed trip to the eye doctor for new spectacles, and he reluctantly leaves with the year’s newest invention — hard contact lenses.

His soda jerk buddy behind the counter plants the other seed. It drives him to murder. Quimby then gains a whole new perspective, the doctor even touts that he with be an entirely different person, in the most literal sense; he takes on a new name as Paul Sothern. His entire temperament and level of confidence changes. It’s humanly unbelievable and all because of an optometrist. I should have gotten contacts sooner.

The newfound man sets up a residence in Westwood to put his plans in motion. He now has a cool, calculated dopleganger for the perfect crime, available to him at a moment’s notice.

Here we have the most roundabout and, dare we say, ludicrous way to premeditate and perfect a murder. Back in the days when taking on a new identity was a breeze. Erasing and vanishing was a matter of covering up a few loose ends and not leaving a forwarding address.

Basehart could easily be the father of Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up Doc? While not necessarily a taxing role, he is called on to play two characters as he plays opposite two very different women. Cyd Charisse is the sweet and shapely photographer who falls for Paul Sothern, despite knowing so little about him. She is oblivious to his double life, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Still, as is the case in many film noir, the very overt foils are created and Tension extends them even further. The protagonist has a choice between two women and with them two distinct lives. One is represented by the decadent yet fractured China doll, the blonde spider woman who will not release him from her web.

Then there’s the simpler, sweeter pipe cleaner doll, the brunette good girl who is almost angelic in nature and totally available to help the hero realize their happy ending, which remains in constant jeopardy the entirety of the film.

The wrinkle that really spoils it is when Claire slinks back into his life once more, and he is implicated in a murder. All of a sudden the alternate reality he started carving out for himself is altogether finished. Sothern is quashed and Quimby is suffocating in a life he assumed would be gone forever.

The cops must come into the equation now, asking questions, poking around, and pressing on all the sore spots in hopes someone will break. All character logic aside, the picture does ascribe to a certain amount of tautness suggested in its name, but so could any number of movies — even John Berry’s next film He Ran All The Way.

But I found myself enjoying its contrivances more and more with time. Because each twist of the corkscrew made for another pleasure. Barry Sullivan takes great relish leaning on everyone. William Conrad, for once, is on the right side of the law and still gets to play a gruff character.

However, it is his partner who sets up some very convenient and slightly awkward interactions on a hunch. Quimby is forced to interact with his girl from another life as if it was just a piece of pure happenstance. Then, Claire and the purported “other woman” are somehow pulled together accidentally to churn up a little jealousy.

Bonnabel is like Columbo at his most nefarious, except slightly more conniving and less scruffily endearing. He nabs the dame because, being conveniently trapped in a lie, she confesses. Unlike most Columbo villains, she struts out as defiantly as ever. There’s no recompense or sense of somber civility. With the way she was going before, why bother? Thankfully Totter’s performance is not compromised; she remains icy to the end.

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

Somewhere in the Night (1946): John Hodiak and Amnesia Noir

Somewhere_in_the_Night_-1946-PosterOf the plethora of returning G.I. films and film noirs, this one reflects their fears most overtly and for this very reason, it might be generally the most forgotten today. That and the assembly of a lower-tier cast. Most of these names have been lost to time.

The one name remaining fairly enduring and bright in the annals of cinema is Joseph L. Mankiewicz who while still early in his career, was carving out a name for himself as both a writer and a director, following a stint producing. Somewhere in the Night is an early showcase for his skills.

He brings us an amnesia plot from the POV of a wounded veteran who has no idea about his own past. The soldier’s wartime injuries made sure of that and while he cannot speak, his mind is alive — an opportune moment for Mankiewicz to call on some illuminating voice-over. If anything it tells us how little this man knows and sometimes that is enough.

George Taylor (John Hodiak) finally returns to New York trying to start afresh and piece his life back together. All he has to go on are a few stray belonging from his former life. Everything, from his previous residence at the Martin Hotel, to a letter, and $5,000 deposited in his bank account, seem to lead to someone named Larry Cravat.

For the audience, we’re up for the mystery but in Taylor’s case, his identity hangs in the very balance of this question. He has to know and so he hits the pavements poking around. Henry Morgan can always be counted on in a bit part, gruffly pointing the direction to a local watering hole, The Cellar.

There a reticent Whit Bissell stands behind the bar. His face suggests he has something to say, but there’s hesitance when Taylor starts peppering him with inquiries. The bar has ears and two thugs lurk nearby. Our man doesn’t wait around to get acquainted, fleeing the scene. Instead, he wanders into the first room that happens to be open, a pretty girl’s dressing room (Nancy Guild).

The meet-cute has been sprung upon us out of necessity. Full disclosure, her singing is alright and she fits the good girl persona, but her piano playing leaves something to be desired. One must also question how easily Nancy falls in love with her deceased best friend’s former beau (This is how they connect with one another). Regardless, in watching her affable turn, you wonder why Guild never got a bigger break.

Since a good girl is never found without her foil, by pure ‘chance’ another pretty girl wanders into Taylor. It’s literally the complete inverse of the prior scene except this dame meant to be there. We don’t know why yet. The events keep on stacking one on top of the other until he’s forcibly taken for a rendezvous where he is told to stop poking around.

The story stalls when it gets talky, though it might seem a necessary evil to lend some clarity to the myriad of events. Up to this point, we have no true frame of reference. Mel Phillips (Richard Conte) becomes one anchor, as Christy’s boss who looks ready to help in any way he can. Also, Lloyd Nolan turns up as a steady police detective with an inside scoop. It turns out at the center of this entire web is hot Nazi money priced at $2,000,000. Of course.

We have mysterious messages left on windshields, house calls involving a belligerent Sheldon Leonard, Double Indemnity references, and a very familiar face; along with another ominous character. Another man named Anzelmo checks all the boxes for sleaze with his foreign accent and dubious reputation but he is only a piece in this puzzle. If this is all very oblique it’s meant to be in staying the film’s own tendencies. 

By this point, our plot is either overwhelming or monotonous as Taylor meets a homely woman sharing in a cryptic conversation that proves also deeply sentimental. Again, it is these long-winded moments that are to the story’s detriment. While Larry Cravat remains an important trigger word, one Michael Conroy is also a person of interest.

Somewhere in The Night earns its title outright around this juncture. When a character wanders into a building at the dead of night and goes down a long, low-lit corridor in search of some unnameable thing, we know we have arrived in the heart of film noir territory. There is no doubt. It feels like one of the turning points in The Big Sleep when Marlowe, snooping around, winds up finding a dead body on a carpet. An analogous outcome happens here. 

There’s a meeting of the minds in one final powwow to collectively assemble all the primary players for the long-awaited reveal.  But the final act’s twist is so obvious, it makes all the labyrinthine whirly gig leading up feel somewhat empty. However, it is often said it’s not about the outcomes but the road along the way. Taken in this light, Somewhere in The Night has its moments of genuine intrigue.

It is easy to write off the cast for their relatively forgotten status. Even Lloyd Nolan has high billing (the man most well-known for playing a detective) for a relatively minor part. But I would argue Richard Conte is an unsung hero of film noir, while the picture does give allowance for some intriguing roles in support.

Hodiak is not the ideal to hold a movie together, but he is not in this alone. It also turns out the movies were right. Detectives do always keep their hats on. Just in case they’ve got to shoot someone — it helps keep their hand’s free — makes sense enough.

3./5 Stars