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

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

Border Incident (1949): Mann and Alton Enhanced Docu-Drama Noir

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A voice of God with a certain newsreel ethos sets the scene. California’s Imperial Valley. An area renowned for its robust agricultural industry. The Bracero Program, that brilliant reflection of U.S.-Mexican relations during the war years and beyond. However, if this scenario sounds too simplistic and squeaky clean, it soon gets slightly more intriguing in consideration of the border.

You have illegals jumping the fence to get into the U.S. and numerous egregious perpetrators of human suffering and injustice looking to take advantage of the situation by any means possible. Indigenous Bandidos are looking to murder and pillage a la The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and their savagery terrorizes the countryside. Then, there is the clandestine trafficking of labor, another real-world problem portrayed in cinematic terms.

Because Border Incident is pronounced a composite case of real life and hard facts. Like T-Men before it, the introduction leaves me rather skeptical. It does feel like reality is still being sculpted, not only for the movies but in a manner that the heroes and villains can become more easily definable.

Instead of a trail of counterfeit bills, it’s all about finding out the route of illegal transportation into the country. But regardless of my qualms, it’s extraordinary for Ricardo Montalban to get such a hefty and prominent part in a picture. There’s no question he’s the standout, at least as far as the heroes are concerned, playing a brave and charismatic Mexican agent, Pablo Rodriguez, who is tasked with uncovering the smuggling at its source. His American counterpart is American Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) who is brave but hardly as compelling.

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There are, however, plenty of villains to fawn over as with any respectable noir. Charles McGraw is an ornery enforcer who takes no flack and pushes the impoverished Mexicans around like chattel. Being wary of the border patrol in Indio, he’s not above dumping their cargo in the Salton Sea if they have to. It’s a chilling illustration of his disreputable nature.

Jack Lambert is always game as a sneering heavy and Howard Da Silva also has a mug made for villainy. However, in this case, he’s actually a big deal — the untouchable mastermind of this entire operation — it’s the men below him who get their hands dirty.

While Rodriguez is embroiled right in the pit of the harrowing operation, befriending a sympathetic countryman named Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), it is the American agent who works from the top down; he gets an alias as a criminal on the lamb and makes contact with the big man. They look to set up a mutually beneficial business transaction, a load of visas for heaps of cash.

If the narrative structure leaves something to be desired, there’s nevertheless an impeccable framework for Mann to implement his unsentimental brand of filmmaking. In a textbook example, there’s a moment where Lamber’s fingers get crammed in a truck window — as the braceros try to flee — only to get pushed off the speeding vehicle and potentially hurtled to his death. The uncompromising imagery is only to be surpassed when a wounded border agent is squashed to smithereens by a tractor, literally dwarfing the frame. It’s this sense of suffocation even in wide open spaces.

The glorious tight angled close-ups are only one facet to the film, accentuating this sense of constraint just as the extraordinary tones of John Alton, in essence, cloak the space in a noose of supreme darkness. For a film about men trying to flee authorities crossing cultural borders, there’s hardly a better visual method of conveyance possible.

Raw Deal is still the gold standard of Anthony Mann film noir with T-Men and then Border Incident falling a rung below. Mostly because the mechanism created for the plot feel flat, and yet everything Mann and Alton touch really is dynamite, with the most gorgeous tones, equally stylistically dynamic. It’s a killer one-two punch and all business as usual for director and cinematographer.

On this front, as a merely technical and formalistic endeavor, Border Incident is superb and a darn good docu-noir. In the closing moments, Montalban gets swallowed up by quicksand, fighting for his life against adversaries, and fistfights and gunshots abound on all sides. These lightning rods of drama are appreciated.

Unfortunately, it keeps the same framework that now in present days looks more propagandistic and heavy-handed then authentic storytelling. We find ourselves with a certain rhetoric about living under the protection of two great republics and the bounty of God Almighty.

Of course, there’s no mention of the Zoot Suit Riots and the perpetration of racial violence, because that was too close to home and does not fit into a handy framework for a public service announcement storyline such as this. Instead of chalking all problems up to cold, capitalistic men in suits with greedy underlings, we must look at a social system that breeds bigotry as much as it does inequality. Admittedly, I am not one with the right answers but nonetheless, I am curious to know how we move forward from a film like this.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Thieves’ Highway (1949): Apple Crates and Femme Fatales

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Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) makes a joyous homecoming to his parents after literally traveling the seven seas, armed with boxes of gifts to lavish upon them. In a matter of minutes, we already have a warm feeling and an affection, however cursory, for these characters we have just met.

With money to spare and a pretty girl (Barbara Lawrence) just waiting to marry him, it really does seem he doesn’t have a care in the world. However, he’s rudely awakened when he entreats his father to put on a pair of moccasins. The old man becomes dour for the first time and confesses he no longer has use of his legs.

It seems like a major reveal for the boy not to know, but it nevertheless gives traction to the forthcoming story. Mr. Garcos used to be a truck driver and yet one fateful evening, he took a load of tomatoes to San Francisco. Far from getting paid, he found himself receiving a vocal I.O.U. and getting into an accident late at night under dubious circumstances. One has to admit he’s a kindly man but a bit of a pushover.

While it doesn’t begin as a revenge story, Thieves Highway’ certainly becomes one as Nick looks to not only get his father’s money and clean up the mess left behind but also get even because its pretty obvious foul play was involved.

First things first, he looks to buy his father’s truck back, from a shifty old pro named Ed Kenny (Millard Mitchell). Instead, they wind up going into business together ready to carry the season’s first load of Golden Delicious apples to try and make a killing. With the other man’s know-how and Garcos youth and tenacity, they just might make out. Soon they’re caravanning up to San Francisco to cash out on their load. It seems simple enough, but such a journey never is.

Richard Conte fits seamlessly into this role that capitalizes on his versatility in playing both heroes and villains. Because while we can label Nick our protagonists, he exhibits violent tendencies only visible in noir films where the dividing line between good and bad is often inconsequential.

Valentina Cortese plays Rica, the hooker with a heart of gold who is initially paid $100 to lure Garcos away from his truck. If it’s totally a stereotype — she is an apple crate femme fatale if you will — then Cortese still manages to play the mixture of sensuality and genial warmth in a manner that makes us care for her as an individual. Because she gives us a couple hints, suggesting a character with more good than bad — someone who is in a tough bind, yet still out looking for goodness and love to welcome into her life.

If Rica is the embodiment of an opportunist getting their chance at redemption, Mike Figglia is pure deceitfulness. Lee J. Cobb played sour apples before but Figglia is just about as ruthless as any of his boisterous antagonists. He is a trenchant embodiment of crooked free-market industry. There is no integrity to him and even less humanity as he strives to swindle his way to one dishonest buck after another. It’s not simply survival of the fittest but the roost is literally ruled by those who have no sense of rectitude whatsoever. They absolutely relish sinking other people for their own gain.

Thieves’ Highway had its predecessors in the likes of They Drive by Night (1940), coincidentally taken from a story written by this film’s screenwriter. However, though it has its own gritty Warner Bros. elements, it’s nevertheless a studio lot entry. John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) as well, while more of a migrant story, shows us the merciless side of cutthroat capitalism.

Just to get to the marketplace takes a lot of winding roads. There are bribes stuck up tailpipes, Garcos jacks up his truck with the back of his neck, and the worst for Kinney involves his ride continuously conking out. All for the sake of a truckful of apples.

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Simultaneously, two vultures (Jack Oakie and Joseph Peveney) in a truck of their own, are ravenously following Kinney as his own vehicle moans and wheezes its way toward its final destination. If time is money, he’s losing cash value fast and everyone knows it.

Still, the young newcomer has done pretty well for himself. He’s not taking any flack from Figlia, and he comes out of the shrewd operator’s office with $500 and a $34000 check. It sounds good, but it’s already a red flag. Because we know something’s going to happen to that valuable piece of paper. We just know it.

Sure enough, the story takes a devastatingly fatalistic nose dive on both Nick and Kinney’s end of the story. It’s a film literally chewing up and spitting out its protagonist.

A truck decimated. A hillside covered with busted apple crates. Then, back in the market a big fat nothing. There’s a sense of helplessness even as despondency sets in. Surely, this cannot be worth it? And yet Garcos somehow pulls himself together instead of rolling into a ball. Because he has an injustice to rail against and the perfect target is Mike Figlia.

One can quibble over whether or not it is neutralized by a slightly gushy ending — noir is certainly at its most mordant in the pits of despair — but there is still much to recommend in Thieves’ Highway.

Director Jules Dassin is one of the prominent names in post-war noir, because he made the genre not simply stylistic but imbued it with real-world grit, palpable for different reasons. Because we feel it and could see roadways and back alleys that get closer to reality than the studios ever could on their backlots.

For those familiar with the real San Francisco, Thieves’ Highway authentically embodied the robust produce industry set up within the city, detailing the area formerly adjacent to the Embarcadero, not mention more images of Oakland Produce Market.

It’s the kind of immersive imagery you can’t begin to fake in a convincing manner, and it adds another fascinating accent to this picture. Because not only is it a story with heady themes of revenge, but it’s planted in cold hard historical reality. Films at their best provide such documentation.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Lady from Shanghai (1947): Funhouse Film Noir

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Before I knew the word “auteur” I think subconsciously I began to realize Orson Welles was gifted with this kind of innate artistic force that cemented all his pictures together. It’s part of what made him such a terror to work with and simultaneously a genius of such mammoth accomplishments as Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

However, even his lesser-known pictures addled by studio meddling or lack of funds, bear his mark of visual ingenuity and singularity. Run down the line from The Magnificent Ambersons to The Trial and Chimes at Midnight and you get the idea perfectly. Of course, The Lady from Shanghai keeps this same company capably.

At its core is not just one luminary performer but two: Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth. From a purely cinematic perspective, no one had seen either of them quite like this before. Welles acting as actor, director, and producer introduces the story in first-person voiceover cloaked in an Irish brogue. Meanwhile, Hayworth loses her trademark luscious locks to transform into a bleached blonde.

To look at its opening frames alone is to acknowledge that The Lady from Shanghai is noir in nearly every conceivable way. Further still, it never abates along these lines traversing a befuddling narrative arc. It ultimately fails to ever gain clarity while casting Michael O’Hara as a fated hero destined for some inevitable destruction as the narrative zips along with lightning-quick pacing.

He is instantly pulled into the entangling web of Rosalie Bannister though it’s as much a testament to the seedy characters in her stead than her own inclinations. Hayworth gives us an immaculate conception of a femme fatale who is in one sense deadly and still somehow trapped within her very existence.

Even as O’Hara’s concerns for her well-being rise, he only gets dragged deeper into the dark depths of the squalid world around him. Because this particular tantalizing siren is surrounded by a sea of ravenous sharks just priming themselves to rip each other to shreds. Even if he tells himself otherwise, he’s chasing after a married woman, biting off something much too big for him.

Invalid attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) clings onto his “lover” like a trophy because the truth is, he has dirt on everyone in his life — keeping them right where they serve him best. It’s his shifty valet (Ted de Corsia), constantly lurking around, who surmises that tough guys always have an edge. The movie is filled with such shifty characters.

George Grisby (Glenn Anders) is the most unnerving as Bannister’s equally conniving partner. His cackling chills the bones while his continuous obsession about murder and O’Hara’s own scrape with it becomes a queer fascination of his. The reason is still left unknown.

Welles’ camera lovingly adores Hayworth. As she learns to smoke, picking up the habit after seaside excursions or basking in the sunbeams on deck. She the epitome of classic Hollywood allure. It was never her hair anyways. I think it’s something in her eyes gleaming with inalienable life.

However, I want to hate most of the close-ups — as a visceral reaction — because I rarely feel an actor breathing down my neck and yet Welles readily goes back to them again and again in a way that’s unnerving. The worst of them all is, of course, Grigsby.

In fact, Welles continually chooses the most perplexing camera setups. It’s such that you cannot help but allow his perspective to infiltrate your own and dictate how you see things. He’s allowed for no other way whether it be the harsh low angles, overhead shots or cutting between various close-ups to create the patchwork of a single scene.

O’Hara joins the jocund company on the yacht while the picture benefits from early examples of post-war on-location shooting sweeping through Mexico, New York, and ultimately San Francisco. Though it has its share of perceived opulence, not least among it the borrowing of Errol Flynn’s prized boat for the production, equally visible is a certain degradation and subsequent atmosphere that can be traced to Touch of Evil a decade later. It’s an unsettling juxtaposition to go right along with the menagerie of players.

And if O’Hara’s own shark metaphors are not augurs enough, Welles has the gall to envelop himself and his lover in an aquarium where the sharks are literally circling in the background, magnified to almost inordinate proportions. The figures are black contours facing each other cloaked completely by the darkness, framed by the panes of the tanks. On the whole, it’s a definitive image of pure chiaroscuro photography, completely indicative of their fatalistic state.

Though the director’s picture originally clocked in at a whopping 155 minutes, it was slashed down to an expedient 87 minutes, which nevertheless means there’s not a continuous line of lucidity running through the drama. Because through outcomes that mostly elude us, O’Hara finds himself on trial for a murder that came to pass by means that are never quite expanded upon.

All of a sudden, he’s fighting for his very life by some cruel reversal. The most incongruous part is the very fact there’s almost a sing-song quality to everyone else from Bannister to Grisby to the District Attorney and the Judge presiding over the case to decide O’Hara’s life.

The flippancy to it all is disconcerting. It’s like Welles and Hayworth are caught in the ghastly webs of noir melodrama and no one else has the least bit of concern. It’s only a game to them. The doleful drone of the shipyards moan as the jury deliberates and Bannister all but admits he’s set O’Hara up for the gas chamber.

But the final act is quintessential Welles given the luxury of two fine setpieces. The creme de la creme is, of course, the funhouse hall of mirrors which is pure directorial showmanship, stylized with gunfire, broken shards of shattering glass, and images of our stars refracted in disarray. Words cannot do it the justice it deserves. It stands as a final testament to a picture that’s plot is about as wonky, unresolved, and inconclusive as any noir piece ever was.

But if you’re like me you get the sense Welles placed the utmost care in the aspects of the film that mattered most to him, namely the visual elan. Because certainly, Lady from Shanghai is a narrative mess. There’s probably little hope of actually justifying all of its leaps and bounds.  And yet in the same breath, it’s equally difficult not to concede how visibly delightful a feast it is.

Will it satisfy everyone? Certainly not. But that’s a part of what made Orson Welles an unprecedented mastermind. He very rarely catered to others and as a result, his films are usually creatures of artistic invention all their own. There will never be another Orson Welles. The same can be said of any so-called auteur. That’s what makes them special — their easily attributed individuality. No one else is capable of making the same exact film. As it should be.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Nightfall (1957): Jacques Tourneur’s 50s Noir

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To begin to compare Nightfall with Jacques Tourneur’s Out of The Past (1947), his film noir masterpiece from a decade earlier is a deeply unfair proposition from the outset. One could argue the films feel nothing alike — like apples and oranges — and they came into being in two very different environments. The former is in the world of gumshoes and femme fatales, what we consider now the archetype of noir and it’s true the picture, known as Hang My Gallows High, is a landmark with its photography from Nicholas Murucacas, iconic even on its own merit.

Nightfall is certainly a B-picture but that in itself is a delight. Put it together with a fledgling group of underrated classics like The Burglar (1951), Crime Wave (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Lineup (1958), and Murder by Contract (1958) as showcases of how exquisite this genre can be in its very gritty economy. Because we have moved on from the expressionistic facades of the ’40s into a period of more authentically hewn pictures, which were ultimately blessed not simply by the low lighting of studio sets but on-location exteriors.

The script itself by Stirling Silliphant, who consequently would also pen The Lineup, is not altogether extraordinary but it hones in on one man who was caught up in a very unfortunate moment of fate and now has it following him wherever he goes. So we can concede that it shares that same cloud of darkness following Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.

But for Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray), from when we first meet him on an L.A. street corner, it becomes apparent that other stories are being grafted in with his and it starts long before we meet him. He steps into a bar and on pretense is introduced to the working model Marie (Anne Bancroft) sitting next to him.

We wonder where their conversation will end. A good bet is some sort of romantic tryst or at least a future date, except, instead it’s into the grasp of two thugs who seem like they’ve been waiting for him. Eventually, we learn through a flashback what happened.

He was having a quiet weekend away with his good friend, a doctor (Frank Albertson). The scenery around them is gorgeous, the snow peaks of Teton country poking up behind them in their white-capped winter majesty extending as far as the eye can see. But against that, a truly harrowing development arises.

They see a passing car careen off the road and they go over like any decent citizen to provide aid only they are met by a pair of bank robbers who have a cutthroat mentality seeing as they ran off with $350,000  worth of cash. Almost instantaneously Jim’s reverie is shattered by the worst reality check he’s ever been stabbed with.

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By some miracle, a fortuitous piece of counter fate, he escaped with his life. However, despite a change of location, name, and even occupation — he’s an advertising artist now — like clockwork John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond) caught up with him.

He thought Marie was in on it as well and confronts her about it but the romance blooming between them and the fact she’s an oblivious bystander throws them back together. Jim’s resolved to take a bus ride back out to Wyoming to recover the money because his hand is forced. He knows the two robbers will be after it. He doesn’t realize at first they’re not the only ones. A personable insurance investigator (James Gregory) has some vested interests of his own.

Nightfall is generally more fascinating for its locations and elements of style and atmosphere than its actual plotline but sometimes with B noir that’s admissible. The stark contrast is stunning taking us through ’50s era Los Angeles and providing an excellent time capsule juxtaposed intermittently with the snowy scapes of Wyoming.

In a particularly terrific moment, we watch as the noir world seeps into the refined elegance of a ladies’ fashion show where Marion is working the runway. It’s this lovely collision of peoples and settings we are not used to seeing together in the same frame. Meanwhile, the continually dueling voices of Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft prove a simple pleasure in their own right with such rich tonalities of character that distinguish them fully. Perhaps it’s a mere consequence of cigarette smoke.

Not terribly unlike Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), the picture goes back to the powder of the Wyoming winter and climaxes in a snow plow finale, which is invigorating as much for its backdrop as it is for the action. Some will note the character arcs have been much revised from Out of the Past and we get our hero’s happy ending. Nevertheless, it traverses a brutal road in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars