Side Street (1950)

 

SideStreetposterThough director Anthony Mann later made a name for himself with a string of Westerns pairing him with James Stewart, it’s just as easy to enjoy him for some of the diverting crime pictures he helped craft. Everything from Raw Deal (1948) to T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and of course this little number.

Another simple pleasure gleaned from Side Street is the second teaming of the two young starlets Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell who made such an impression together in Nicholas Ray’s sensitive drama They Drive By Night (1948)

We begin this particular picture with a flyover of New York City and the “Voice of God” narration comes off as another installment of The Naked City (1947) because it too takes to the streets, shot on location in the city of a thousand stories with thousands more waiting to happen.

There’s something engrossing in this style of storytelling which takes interest in several seemingly unextraordinary, unconnected individuals and then over the course of less than an hour and a half slowly ties together all the threads of their lives into one cohesive narrative.

There are some calling cards of crime pictures including sleazy extortion, a body fished out of the East River, and the police who are working the beats of the case and trying to keep the frenzy of journalists at bay. Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw head up the police procedural angle.

But the man we come to know the best is unassuming postman Joe Norson (Granger), who becomes extra jumpy after unwittingly stealing thousands of dollars when he thought he only swiped a few bucks to buy his wife a mink coat. He’s just a poor, small, unimportant little man in the scheme of things. An “Average Joe” if you pardon the expression. He’s not supposed to be embroiled in such a story. It’s a bigger can of worms than he could ever imagine and there are consequences.

Other people of interest are wealthy businessmen, crooked lawyers, cabbies, bar owners, bank tellers,  journalists, cops on the verge of retirement, nightclub singers, and at least a few ex-cons, all the usual standard bearers.

Joe’s wife is in the latest stages of her pregnancy and shortly her baby is on the way but her husband has made up a fanciful story about a new out-of-town job that’s loaded him with cash. Of course, she has no idea what’s going on and nor does he. He asks a near stranger, the man who runs the local bar to hold the cash for him. He says it’s a nightgown for his wife.

But Joe’s not a criminal. His guilty conscience is too much for him so he goes back to the office to plead with them to let him return the money. Of course, they have as much right to it as he does. What follows is a cat and mouse chase across the city. First, some thugs tail Joe looking for the $30,000. Then, Joe and ex-convict George Garsell look for the bar owner who has all but disappeared and conveniently the money’s gone too.

As the police are also involved, they want both men, believing they are complicit in different murders that have been committed. Joe has just enough time with his wife to explain his predicament. Still, he got himself into this mess and he holds the belief that he is the only one who can make it right.

What follows is a culmination of all the events thus far as all the character arcs begin to bump up against each other. Namely, Joe, a local nightclub singer (Jean Hagen), and the last man that Joe wanted to see, Garsell himself.

Side Street closes out with a lively car chase near The Third Avenue El that predates many of the revered classics from Bullitt (1968) to The French Connection (1971) years later. The full weight of the title’s meaning, subsequently makes itself increasingly clear as squads of police cars look to close in on the criminal’s getaway taxi. Of course, what makes it compelling is the fact that Joe is right in the thick of it all to the very last avenue…with a loaded gun pointed at his head. Thankfully there are no speed bumps in this one.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Reign of Terror/The Black Book (1949)

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Depending on where you look Anthony Mann’s 1949 film comes under two different titles that are both equally apt. Reign of Terror denotes its roots in the French Revolution of the 1790s that saw the ousting of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while putting Maximilien Robespierre at the helm of one of the most ghastly mobs known to man.

Any lover of history can call most everything in this picture into question but that’s almost beyond the point. This is not a tale that claims historical accuracy but a story of claustrophobic intensity that takes an era and builds an intriguing and gritty little drama out of all the sordid, twisted details. Perhaps more importantly than that it begins to draw parallels to the contemporary moment and that’s where the second title comes in.

The black book is the object that causes men to kill and lie and deceive one another because within its pages dwells great power to dictate the outcome of this kingdom on the precipice of something new. Whether or not that proves to be an optimistic direction very much depends on who gains access to said book. Robespierre (Richard Basehart) has lost it, the chief of the secret police Fouche (Arnold Moss) is intent on acquiring it for his own, as is a ring of staunch patriots looking to pilot their beloved nation back toward stability. That is only the main narrative thread. It seems like little coincidence that a black book shares great similarity to a blacklist.

In the 1950s, whether a concrete document existed hardly mattered because having your name added to this industry list was enough. Though not the same as being sent to the guillotine, for an actor or director it was tantamount to the death of a career as many found themselves out of work for years afterward.

While High Noon is often noted as one of the most high-profile blacklist allegories, The Black Book might be one of the most striking since it dares to find a point of reference between volatile and bloody history many years prior and the current reality. There’s nothing subtle about it.

Thus, whatever you want to label it, Reign of Terror or The Black Book, it proves to be a fascinating amalgamation of historical drama, film noir, and political allegory. Somehow it manages to be a low budget epic combining some wonderful talents that go beyond just Anthony Mann but to producer Walter Wanger, legendary cinematographer John Alton, and set designer William Cameron Menzies.

On the whole, it’s an unsentimental portrait comprised of severe low angle close-ups and shadows that spell film noir forwards and backward. It’s deliciously atmospheric, brooding with darkness and matched by ferocious stylized violence that sizzles in every moment of conflict. The sequences in front of the guillotine against the backdrop of the masses even conjure up the frames of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and it’s true that this picture ironically recycled sets from Joan of Arc from the year prior.

Looking at film from the perspective of a historian, one of the greatest enjoyments comes when I am able to view content that has a similar theme running through it whether a specific director, actor, genre, or subject. In a flurry of activity, I’ve been able to derive a greater appreciation for the talents of Robert Cummings in particular.

Though this might sound reductive, much in the way that Joel McCrea is called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, Cummings just might be the poor man’s Jimmy Stewart and I say that because he has the same type of everyman quality that’s easy to latch onto.

Although I could never see Stewart pulling off a period role like this and though not entirely authentic, Cummings is a fine protagonist navigating the back alleyways and roads of deception and treachery that dictate the life of a citizen of the New Republic. Even when he does something that might be suspect there’s inherent trust the audience attributes to him.

Meanwhile, stunning Arlene Dahl looks ravishing in period costume but she also becomes a multifaceted companion of Charles D’Aubigny (Cummings) and one of his only points of contact who proves reliable and resourceful. Otherwise, the picture is crammed full of all sorts of characters with varying allegiances and intentions, not to mention cameos from such figures as the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon.

If it’s not quite like the blacklist then you figure out how very easily it could be. The film takes so many about faces and turns by the denouement it’s hard to know who is in the right or wrong or more important yet who ended up on the right side of history — the ones who wrote the victor’s narrative — because oftentimes they are the ones who go down as the heroes. Whether that is true or not is up for considerable debate.

4/5 Stars

4 “Good Girls” of Film Noir

I do not particularly care for the term “Good Girl,” because it feels rather condescending toward the guardian angels of film-noir. In fact, on closer research, I’m not even sure if it’s a widely accepted term. However, they are the ones in stark juxtaposition to the femme fatales, acting as the beacons of light leading their men away from the path of destruction. As such, their roles should certainly not be discounted and here are four such women from four classic film-noir.

1. Anne Shirley in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Taking her stage name from the plucky heroine out of E.L Montgomery’s perennial classic, Anne Shirley’s Ann Grayle is the one character of high moral standing in a film clogged with all sorts of undesirables. Even our protagonists Phillip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is cynical as all get out and Grayle’s seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor) cares more about her jewelry than her marriage.

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2.Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Leave Her to Heaven is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is an obvious example of noir that is atypically shot in color. Furthermore, Gene Tierney gives the most chilling performance of her career as Ellen Harland. However, Tierney’s turn would not be so deathly icy if it were not for Jeanne Crain’s angelic role as her sister Ruth. The polarity of the roles, Ellen’s conniving smile, crossed with her sister’s utter sincerity makes the film work far more evocatively.

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3.Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death (1947)

Of all the “Guardian Angels” the late great Coleen Gray (who passed away last year) was perhaps the sweetest, kindest, most precious example you could ever conjure up. Her role as the faithful Nettie, tugs at our heartstrings. Though she doesn’t have a femme fatale counterpoint, the crazed Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) more than fits the bill.

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4.Marsha Hunt in Raw Deal (1948)

Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal is a film that revolves around a man (Dennis O’Keefe) incarcerated in prison with a girl (Claire Trevor) on the outside ready to help him get out any way she can. But it’s the social worker Ann, who we first gravitate towards because she is the righteous one trying earnestly to reform Joe. It is his evolving character, after all, that is at the core of this one.

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T-Men (1947)

fb214-tmen3T-Men looks like it could be a dated 1940s procedural right out of a stuffy newsreel. It’s complete with an omniscient narrator overlaying everything. He gives us all the juicy bits without relaying all the superfluous details because, after all, this is a composite case. Also, a lot of effort is made to bring up similarities with the Al Capone case.  So, in other words, it does feel like a heavy-handed newsreel at times.

However, thanks to director Anthony Mann and the pure cinematography of John Alton, T-Men sheds its shallow top layer and gets interesting.

We are given a bit of dry exposition to kick things off. We are following a couple T-Men named Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder), complete with full personal bios, who are called on to infiltrate a counterfeiting ring. They get in with the Vantucci mob and make their way from Detroit to L.A. O’Brien aka Vannie Harrigan goes to all the steam baths across town and finally comes across a man named the Schemer. After putting his phony dough in circulation the plan is set in motion as he gets in with the thugs of L.A. too.

And that’s what the rest of the film entails, with O’Brien keeping his cover, while also staying in contact with his superiors and being joined by Tony, aka Tony Galvani from Detroit. It would be run-of-the-mill if not for a few scenes and Alton’s images as previously mentioned.

One day Toni runs into his wife in the most awkward and potentially deadly of circumstances. A well-meaning friend nearly blows his cover in front of a thug and Mary Genaro (June Lockhart) bravely protects her husband. It’s a painful moment.

All too soon Toni’s in trouble and O’Brien soon after, but he’s almost gotten to the top. The digging and prodding have nearly reached their apex. A bit of luck and some timely police support get to O’Brien soon enough so he survives. It’s a show of heroics and gutsy police work like we have undoubtedly seen many times before.

T-Men is kind of like The Departed without all the thrills and plot twists, and cursing if you want to see it that way. But the images are so moody and beautiful that it’s hard not to at least tip your hat if you had one. Do yourself a favor and see Raw Deal, a film with many of the same components and probably a slightly better payoff.

3.5/5 Stars

Raw Deal (1948)

5453f-rawdeal2Anthony Mann may be most widely known for his westerns often headlined by Jimmy Stewart, but he most definitely honed his craft earlier on. Raw Deal is everything you want and expect from film-noir. Our protagonist is a man who breaks out of the State Penitentiary, you have your potential femme fatale, the moral ambiguity, and most of the other necessary hallmarks.

As a lover of black and white cinematography, Raw Deal is highly appealing with its chiaroscuro, silhouettes, and framing of characters. But after all, that’s often part of the allure of noir.

Claire Trevor’s matter of fact voice-over backed by the theremin is highly effective in dictating the disconcerting mood for the entirety of the film. All our previous predispositions tell us the stage is set for a chilling ending but we can hardly imagine what it is at this point.

After Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) busts out of prison, we get much of what you would expect. A tense manhunt involving a dragnet crossing multiple state lines and a fugitive at large with accomplices. There is violence and melodrama galore as Joe dodges the police while also trying to reconnect with a crooked mob boss named Rick (Raymond Burr), who leveraged an escape attempt so Joe would get knocked off.

With the circumstances as they are, he’s not too keen on giving Joe the 50Gs that he is owed and so Rick wants the fugitive knocked off if the cops don’t get to him first. Put in this light, the film feels analogous to many other noir staples like White Heat, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy or The Big Heat to name a few. However, it has its own wrinkle that makes it interesting.

Joe has his femme fatale to be sure, but the kicker is that there are two dames pulling at his heart strings. Pat (Claire Trevor) is more the dame since she was born in a bad area and has been waiting around for Joe a long time. She’s faithful even to the point of helping him escape, but she’s not the most endearing of characters. Ann (Marsha Hunt) on the other hand is the tender social worker who has been trying to help Joe the legal way. When he breaks out she is taken as a sort of hostage and has difficulties reconciling her feelings for him with what she sees in front of her.

However, he’s certainly not all hardened criminal and so that is part of what makes the rest of the film so interesting. Each character walks the thin line of morality and each one crosses over to the other side even if its only for an instant.

For, Pat the clock continues to tick and her conscience ultimately catches up with her. As the drama reaches its near apex we see Joe’s true feelings, and in a sense, who he has become compared to who he was earlier. However, we cannot help feeling a tinge of remorse in the end. So you see, the film succeeded in doing the near impossible, making me sympathize for Claire Trevor’s character. She seemingly often plays undesirables, but they are never cookie cutter and the same can be said for Raw Deal.

4/5 Stars

“You’re something from under a rock” ~ Ann Martin

Winchester ’73 (1950)

2604e-winchester_73_-_1950-_posterStarring James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann, this western follows the journey a special rifle takes in the old west. Stewart wins it in a competition but it gets stolen soon after. An Indian trader wins it in a card game only to have an Indian take it. Stewart, his pal, get pinned down with some cavalry by the Indians. They survive and the rifle is given to a young man with a girlfriend after Stewart is gone. A treacherous gunslinger coolly kills for it but then gives it up to the original bandit who claims it as his. In a final mountaintop showdown, Stewart faces off with his estranged brother who killed their father. He wins back his rifle and rides back into town to his friends. This is a good western with an interesting storytelling device. It was a surprise to see Will Geer, Rock Hudson, and Tony Curtis as unknowns.

4.5/5 Stars