Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)

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Tyrone Power was a handsome fellow and it led to a meteoric rise among Hollywood’s elite. But as often is the case, a pretty face can be your undoing as people only see a movie idol and not an actor. Daryl Zanuck for one saw one of his biggest box office draws in Tyrone Power and he was protective of that image even after coming back from the war.

However, to his credit, in Nightmare Alley Power persistently went after a role that put his talents on full display by wickedly subverting his longheld screen persona. Zanuck was undoubtedly horrified by the results and pulled the picture out of circulation as quickly as he possibly could while giving it little publicity. And yet thank goodness this picture remains today — a testament to the peculiar oddities that managed to come out of Hollywood — for one an A-list picture where one of the biggest names in the business plays an opportunistic sleazebag.

Stan Carlisle (Power) is an up-and-comer in a trashy traveling carnival that brings in the hordes of local yokums through sleight of hand, mysticism, and outright exploitation. One of their biggest acts is the dubiously named “Geek” show while Stan does his bit with “Madame Zeena” (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic has-been husband.

Meanwhile, the young man’s charismatic qualities aid him in talking up hick sheriffs trying to close down the establishment and run them out of town. He seamlessly spouts off the gospel he learned in an orphanage to captivate his audience noting foxily, “Boy how I went for salvation. It’s kind of handy when you’re in a jam.” He can spin just about anything to get what he wants.

Though Pete is all dried up, Zeena still has it and the ever-industrious Stan convinces her to teach him the secret code that they used to utilize in the old days to completely captivate the crowds with feats of extrasensory perception. Ever the carnival showman he soon rebrands himself as a mentalist extraordinaire “The Great Stanton” taking his adoring carnival cohort Molly (Coleen Gray) along with him following a shotgun wedding demanded by the resident strongman (Mike Mazurksy). Zeena and the other carnival nobodies get left behind without a note of gratitude.

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There are innumerable intricacies found throughout Nightmare Alley but the overarching themes revolve around the three women in Stan’s life who ultimately shape his existence. Zeena is the veteran who gets him his foot up while her deck of tarot cards including a hangman remain a harbinger of future misgivings.

Only now do I realize that Colleen Gray’s demure qualities are rather reminiscent of Joan Fontaine and she remains a textbook guardian angel figure. In later years she would devote herself to numerous charities including Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship. What so easily gets forgotten, in the midst of Power’s disingenuous portrayal, is Helen Walker as the equally unscrupulous psychoanalyst who in many ways bests him in a very unconventional femme fatale role.

However, with Molly’s assistance, they’re initially able to begin to realize his dreams of the big time where they take their shows into swankier places with more respectable audiences who they are nevertheless still able to dazzle. And yet the recurring attribute of a man such as Carlisle is that he can never be satisfied. There must always be another greater success to follow up every previous exploit.

He unwittingly finds his next access point when crossing paths with the dubious analyst named Ms. Ritter (Walker) with extensive records on numerous influential people. She and her new accomplice go in cahoots and Carlise soon realizes his next aspiration that of a spook act. But far from just being a gimmick to get money, it becomes a form of spiritual comfort to people. In many ways, it seems like he is playing with fire. He hardly knows who he is dealing with in Lillith Ritter and he keeps the entire arrangement conveniently hidden from his wife.

Instead, he tries to use her in one last payoff with Molly masquerading as the specter of an old man’s long-lost beau. But she is so unlike Stan. She cannot manipulate a man in such a way and she’s equally afraid. She confronts her husband, “You make it sound so sacred and holy when all the time it’s just a gag with you…You’re just laughing your head off at these chumps. You think God’s going to stand for that?”

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Not only is Nightmare Alley a carnival noir with the dark palette courtesy of veteran Lee Garmes but thematically, we also take a cynical nosedive into ominous even sacrilegious territory. It’s an heir apparent to such 1930s films like Blue Angel (1930), Freaks (1932), and Miracle Woman (1933). Fundamentally it charts the rise and fall of a single man who used religious clout and chicanery only to end up as an ostracized carnival commodity. He went from using others to being used because he winds up a good-for-nothing. So the story predictably comes full circle.

The film is good enough not to give us a happy ending. Yes, it cuts the dramatic arc short but that only saves us from the foregone conclusion. Molly clings to a now paranoid and wasted Stan — a shell of the whip-smart punk he used to be — promising to take care of him. Zeena made that promise before to her husband too and look what happened to him.

There was no reemergence or getting back to the way things used to be. What’s to make us think that this version will be any different? In fact, it’s probably even more haunting than actually knowing definitively what will happen because we are forced to leave the movie in the shadowy ambiguities. What isn’t ambiguous is Tyrone Power in the most duplicitous and simultaneously most devasting showing of his career.

4/5 Stars

Hangover Square (1945)

Hangover_Square.jpgWithout question, Hangover Square is in many respects analogous to The Lodger with the reteaming of director John Brahm with Laird Cregar and George Sanders. However, the biggest difference is that we have Cregar putting on on a new persona and losing over 100 pounds!

Among other things, it forced director John Brahm to shoot the production in sequence as to not completely decimate the continuity, based on the movies main protagonist. In fact, the actor initially turned down the part because of his aspirations to remake his image. Though he reconsidered when he saw the part could be played to his advantage and he turned Hangover Square into a superior vehicle.

If we want to break the movie down to its most incremental themes, it’s essentially about a man in Edwardian London torn apart by conflicting musical projects representing the two women in his life, who are effectively pulling him in opposite directions. He’s a mad genius whose personality disorder is completely torn asunder by the chafing in his life. It will only prove to be his undoing.

Like any good noir, there’s the femme fatale: Linda Darnell, hair puffed up in a bouffant, legs kicking gayly as she puts on her best English accent. She handily makes a coy nuisance of herself, cajoling him with her flittering eyelashes and then evolving into an icy heartbreaker on the turn of a dime when he no longer does her bidding.

Cregar gets walked all over as Veda sucks his talent dry for her own aspirations and the pursuit of a more dashing suitor who she vows to marry — even after making fragile promises to be his. She knows how to play him, if nothing else.

Barbara (Faye Marlowe) is the “Guardian Angel” who has everything including his best interest in mind. Her father (Alan Napier) has long been advising on Georges latest masterpiece — a Concierto that he has been laboring over for some time. She has been his astute pupil on the piano while also seeing right through not only Veda’s mediocrity as a performer but also her manipulative guise. There’s nothing sincere about her.

What we continuously see are reverberations of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale. Here is a man of such musical receptivity able to craft pieces with such depth of feeling and yet there is another side of him — a side that strangles cats in his spare time and other things… Quite frankly his unaccounted behavior scares him and he goes to a Dr. Middleton (George Sanders) at Scotland Yard seeking some kind of aid.

It’s true that Hangover Square is a movie plagued by claustrophobic hysteria supplied not only by Cregar’s performance but the mise en scene as well. What we have is the artifice of gothic exterior-interiors with layers of ready-made atmospherics and foreboding scoring interjected with an instantaneous cacophony of chaos composed by the virtuoso artist Bernard Hermann.

One enduring moment is that of the burning effigy lit to high heaven on Guy Fawkes Day. It’s the quintessential image to capture the essence of our main character and the conflicted conflagration burning inside of him. Nero purportedly played his violin while Rome burned. George pounds away at the piano slavishly. But his story is a tragic tale of destructive genius that overtakes him. The final lingering images can’t help but leave an impression.

If Bogart sculpted psychopathic gangsters into hardbitten anti-heroes, later on, there’s a similar sense that Laird Cregar might have fashioned his menacing villains into conflicted but still heroic alternatives too. It’s mere conjecture and alas we will never know what could have been.

Two months before the picture was even released the actor would die from a heart attack, the ultimate tragedy brought on by his rapid weight loss. A fairly heavy man in most of his earlier roles, Cregar was committed to changing his physique in an effort to be leading man material. But, again, it was not in the stars.

While not a bona fide classic per se, Hangover Square remains as a chilly noir that’s not only a testament to Linda Darnell’s aptitude as a spellbinding black widow but to Cregar’s ability to make madness all but palpable. It’s a shame we lost him so suddenly because there’s no telling what heights his career might have reached. How true it is we very rarely appreciate someone’s talents until they are no longer available.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Tall Target (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Impact (1949)

Impact_1949_poster.jpg“In this world, you turn the other cheek and get hit by a lug wrench.”

Impact is literally bookended by a dictionary that is opened and then closed with a concise description of the titular phrase to frame our narrative. It couldn’t be more uninspired but the word “impact” gives us some reason to hope the movie within those covers will offer some thrills.  We must brace ourselves.

The story follows Walter Williams (Brian Donlevy) the world’s most perfect industrialist and husband. He can overturn deadlocked board meetings with his stunning entrances and continually rains down affection on his wife looking forward to a weekend away in Tahoe together.

Of course, his wife (Helen Walker) has other ideas. She plays the docile and lovey-dovey wife but really she’s up to something. We see it all too quickly. Mrs. Williams is looking to get rid of her husband with the help of her boyfriend and her hubby isn’t any the wiser. He’s a sitting duck.

The script penned by Jay Dratler relies on the fact that though he gets left for dead at the side of the road, it’s a botched attempt and while disoriented, Mr. Williams is still alive.

The film is mostly encumbered by its length as it starts to sag in the middle so that even Ella Raines’ entry about halfway through the picture isn’t enough to salvage the wreckage. She shows up in all places as a mechanic in a small Idaho town and business hasn’t been good lately.

Once again Mr. fix-it Walter Williams is there to save the day. Conveniently, he keeps his past a secret. He’s happy with this simple life away from the drama that’s happening back home. Here he can go to church on Sundays and have lazy strolls out in nature. One frenzied sequence involves the volunteer fire department stirring into action which Walter readily joins.

Back home a Lt. Quincy (Charles Coburn) is making a routine going over of the case and Mrs. Williams is making arrangements of her own unaware of the unfortunate turns her plans took.

The film would have done well to have a leaner line of action because it comes out of the mayhem feeling like 2 or 3 separate movies. There are the delightful noir bits of an unfaithful wife trying to work with her lover to end her husband a la The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Then, there’s an ensuing court case where Williams finds the murder rap turned on him. Again, not unlike the high stakes scenario in the former film.

But in the middle, bisecting the picture in half is a warm slice of Middle America by way of Idaho with its palpable geniality acting as an oasis. It could have used with some shaving down. Otherwise, we have some great location footage of San Francisco and the Sausalito area circa 1949. The performances are fine though neither Donlevy or Raines particularly pop.

Anna May Wong essentially plays the movie from the sidelines as a maid until she’s absolutely necessary to save the story; it’s a major pity she was not utilized better. Helen Walker, however, gives a deliciously malicious performance as the wife who never denies loving another man and yet looks to get out of her fix to save her pretty little neck. It’s individuals such as herself that make film-noir a veritable breeding ground for truly degenerate reflections of humankind. However, Impact could have been so much more potent.

3/5 Stars

The Web (1947)

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An effort like The Web is precisely why many people would “die” for film-noir. Unless I am simply speaking for myself. But I don’t think so. Personally, I perked up upon reading the name William Bowers in the opening credits as one of the architects of the script because it’s quite easy to imagine some of the film’s choicest flirtatious patter being penned by him. He and his accomplices give our stars something to talk about in what otherwise might seem like idle moments. In fact, if it weren’t for its ultimately sinister outcomes, The Web carries a certain lightness of being through much of its run.

That brings us to our stars who are a fine teaming of talent for a B-grade picture. In fact, they are probably about as good as you could get considering. We have Edmond O’Brien, a personal favorite as a noir hero (The Killers, White Heat, D.O.A, etc.) and then Ella Raines, another often unsung but no less important noir heroine (Phantom Lady) of the 1940s.

Vincent Price is impeccable playing his at times beguiling businessman with that usual mixture of charm and slithering cunning. Between his lankiness and those distinct imperious eyes of his, he’s rarely been better. Our last prominent figure is the coolly perceptive William Bendix who despite his persona, knows far more than he lets on, as a generally competent member of the police force.

One morning a cocksure young lawyer named Bob Regan (O’Brien) goes barging into the offices of Mr. Andrew Colby on the pretense that his client, a man named Emilio Canepa who had his fruit cart upturned by negligent driving and he’s calling for $68.72 in damages. The businessman amusedly agrees to it, after all, it’s only a small trifle. But along the way, Regan tries to pick up the man’s loyal secretary Noel (Raines) as well as unwitingly piquing Colby’s interest. He could use someone with guts.

It’s such a dandy and a rather outrageous sequence that we almost forget the actual opening shot showing an elderly fellow being released from prison after a five-year stint. The only person there to greet him is his daughter. We gather he has a bone to pick and that is important for all that is inevitable in the near future.

For now, it’s all Edmond O’Brien. He notes that they have a snug little setup going on within Colby’s closest inner circle. They seem real buddy-buddy in all facets of their affairs. However, straight away Regan joins the operation when $5,000 is waved in front of him to act as a bit of an unofficial bodyguard and it comes with a gun permit he’s able to finagle out of his old friend at the Police precinct.

Of course, he doesn’t realize that just the following day he will be unloading the pistol on someone and killing a man no less — the same man who was just released for prison with the charge of embezzlement. But it was all done with clear intention as bitter Mr. Kroner was going to kill Mr. Colby so in that regard Regan has little to worry about.  And yet he can’t help but start to get ideas because between the police and nighttime visitors he’s given a lot to chew on.

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The film’s script has its share of veiled double talk both sensual and then increasingly threatening as it pertains to the curious events at hand. Because what reveals itself is a deliciously twisted reality that calls for the reevaluation of what we know to be true and who we trust as an audience.  The rational and yes, even the believable might very well fly out of the window but what a noir like this gives us is something arguably more satisfying in terms of impending doom.

Where something like a net — a web of destruction — begins to descend upon and close in around our heroes. It’s been cleverly orchestrated with the clearest of intent clearing up all the loose ends and framing them handily.

The police nab them easily in this case, involving multiple murders, a whole lot of money, and two tickets to Mexico. The question is who will gain from such a resolution and since that question is quite simple to answer, the better one yet is how might they possibly catch the culprit?

I’m not too proud to admit thoroughly enjoying The Web because it embodies everything that the dark genre is promoted as being and you leave the picture satiated after being caught up in something supremely sinister. It was never high art nor did it claim to be but that’s all part of the immense allure. O’Brien, Raines, Price, and Bendix might as well all be character archetypes. The parts they play do the picture a distinct service.

3.5/5 Stars

The Suspect (1944)

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It is very much a male-oriented film in subject matter and frame of reference with Charles Laughton commanding center stage. He is the very figure that we are meant to empathize with as an audience. But it’s precisely those qualities, along with the presence of director Robert Siodmak, that make it remarkably straightforward to read The Suspect as film noir even given its Edwardian setting.

Veiled in the murky London fog are the mundane strains of noir popping up within the home and the shrouds do well to imprint the British streets with a certain darkness in tone and shading.

In fact, it would be similarly done in other pictures such as The Lodger (1944) and Gaslight (1944) but this one, in particular, can be tied back to the genre’s unhinged male paranoia. Because the dark predilections of noir have often been tied to an overwhelming form of matrimonial suffocation. Not only wives nagging but also the embodiment of the femme fatale to reflect men’s fears returning from WWII to find a new movement of independent women.

The Suspect fits seamlessly into the former category. Is it right to read all of this into the movie in hindsight? I will allow others to enact final judgment but for my own purposes, I will choose to see it in this light. Though it lacks a true femme fatale, it is loaded with blackmail and the threat of scandal that leads to an underlying sense of utter despair.

But it’s necessary to backtrack and explain how events come into being. Charles Laughton is an honest gentleman who works as a bookkeeper only to go home to the ball and chain.

We get a taste of his insufferable wife (Rosalind Ivan) amid turbulent interactions with their grown son (Dean Harens) who vows to leave their home for good because he can’t stand his mother. It feels as if she’s been cast as the devils incarnate and she might as well be next to Laughton’s portly angelic character. There’s a glassy-eyed sincerity to him that plays softly to our ears thanks to an at times rasping delivery. A quiet charm exudes from him all the time. Everyone but his wife seems capable of seeing it.

One such person is Mary Gray (Ella Raines), a woman with the most stunning of wardrobes, both prim and proper and certainly capable of employment. Except she’s had an awful go of it trying to find a job and kindly Mr. Marshall can’t be of much help in that regard. However, what he can offer is a bit of innocent companionship because he imagines that they are both a bit lonely — which of course is very much the case.

At this point, he’s finally found a little enjoyment and there’s nothing more than a desire to have someone to relate with. Still, Mr. Marshall deems it most prudent to break off his friendship with Ms. Gray because after asking his wife for a separation, he is alerted that there is nothing doing. Worst yet, the cackling witch makes his life even more horrible; because that’s precisely what she has been created to do.

The next major event is all too expected, so expected in fact that the film doesn’t even bother showing it. The death or murder or accident is left off of the celluloid though certain outcomes are heavily implied. It’s partially jarring as we hardly have time to track with this jump in the sequence of events.

Again, there are happier times ahead as now Philip has married the lovely girl and they are blissfully content together as companions. But another villain is invented (or rather has been waiting in the wings). A lecherous next door neighbor who’s an incorrigible wife beater adhering to a “hurt or be hurt philosophy.” He is willing to falsely testify that he heard Mr. Marshall arguing with his wife the night before her “murder.”

Something must be done about it. This time the desperate Philip takes the firmest course of action he can muster to stop this affront. And suddenly events turn slightly intriguing becoming Rope (1948) for a man that we hold some empathy for and that’s where any amount of tension is born.

In fact, the duality in the marriages is one of the most fascinating motifs. Because you could easily see in an alternative turn of events some sort of killing off of respective spouses for an agreeable partnership to be forged. And that’s very well what this picture might have been if not for the presence of Ella Raines. She’s very much vital to the outcome without ever trying to be. Since it’s true that she has no motive, what she offers is seemingly so amiable and a very legitimate reason to murder in one man’s eyes.

To Laughton’s credit, whatever he was supposed to have done, he never ceases to have a conscience nor a capacity to love. Thus, it makes the police investigation surrounding him one that is imbued with meaning. We care what happens to him and to Mary as well. While we aren’t given much of anything, the final notes hint at something not completely inhumane. That’s all I can give you.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

House of Bamboo (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

The Narrow Margin (1952)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

Whirlpool (1949)

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Despite being ludicrously absurd, it’s impossible not to get whisked away by the swirling cauldron of psychological drama found in Whirlpool. Otto Preminger adds yet another perplexing noir to his filmography and it seems reasonable that Whirlpool along with The Fallen Angel (1945) and Angel Face (1953) deserve more recognition though, it’s true his debut, Laura (1944) will forever be the benchmark.

But these three films share such fascinating themes beyond beautiful photography and quality staging. They find roots in some odd bits of quack chicanery like fortune tellers and astrologers while interesting themselves in psychologically unstable women and male confidence men who like nothing more than taking advantage of others.

Whereas Laura (1944) works exquisitely because the title character casts a spell on everyone else, Whirlpool functions in part because our protagonist falls under another man’s spell. But it takes something else, something in her past that he can prey on and exploit.

You see, in the opening moments of the film we find out something about Gene Tierney’s character. She’s a kleptomaniac which in itself is a fairly startling albeit intriguing revelation. And we don’t see it occur just the aftermath that follows. But here is a dilemma already. Her husband (Richard Conte) is a renowned psychoanalyst. How would it look if his wife was found shoplifting from a reputable establishment? The house detective catches her. The manager is looking to bring in the police. The wheels of justice are turning and scandal looks all but inevitable.

Then, in walks David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) a man with a certain magnetism that still makes him a tad unsettling. In fact, it’s pretty easy to assume he has ulterior motives. Because he so easily smooths things out for Mrs. Sutton so she is, to a certain extent, indebted to him. Something like that can quickly turn into a splendid opportunity for blackmail. Except the check comes and he rips it up so from thenceforward it’s a little more difficult to discern his intentions and it proves to be a wonderfully enigmatic performance from Ferrer start to finish.

It’s true. He is a charlatan. He’s preoccupied with astrology and then hypnotism which he uses on his new “patient” supposedly for her own good. But he’s had other women who have called on his services before. In fact, one of them has now sought help from Mrs. Sutton’s husband. Because Korvo had made her life miserable coaxing her to withdraw her daughter’s inheritance and leeching her happiness. Soon Theresa Randolph is found dead with Ann at the scene of the crime — the prime suspect.

By this time, you almost forget that Charles Bickford is in the film because the bewitched Tierney and stolid-faced Ferrer steal the show. But it is Lt. Colton (Bickford) who must get to the bottom of this whole twisted affair. He and Dr. Sutton are quick to write off the poor woman with a closeted kleptomania hidden under the cloak of a respectable suburban housewife. However, after hitting the beat, they know it stinks to high heaven but there’s no proof.

What can be said of Ben Hecht’s script is the very fact that it relies on unbelievable occurrences in both its beginning and ending. But in this very reality, there’s a certain continuity where the psychologically dubious extrapolations become the new normal. That in itself is unsettling.

It’s notable that when he has multiple figures Preminger never seems content to be stagnant, instead constantly utilizing close-ups and see-sawing camera movements that readily change the dynamics of scenes. The climactic moments proving a prime example.

The power struggle dictates itself in other ways too, namely in the physical staging of characters. Ferrer hanging over Tierney as he begins to hypnotize her. Bickford questioning Ferrer who himself looks so vulnerable lying in his hospital bed. But even that composition in itself is at times a put on as we soon find out. However, it’s phenomenal that the very projections up on the screen are indicative of what is going on with the film’s main point of conflict. This quality we can safely assume can be attributed to Preminger himself. He has an intuitive understanding of cinematic space and how to utilize it to his greatest advantage.

3.5/5 Stars