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

White Heat (1949)

james_cagney_in_white_heat_trailer_cropWhite Heat burns like hot coals even today as the epitome of incendiary cinema. It’s a gangster picture from master Warner Bros. craftsman Raoul Walsh that’s volatile and intriguing, highlighted by the always fiery James Cagney as a crazed man-child with a mom complex.

Cagney had stayed away from gangster pictures that made him a star for nearly a decade and it’s true that now it’s easy to label this a film-noir given the sweeping tide of the times including other pictures like The Killers, Brute Force, and so on.

Still, everything that is truly inspired from this film stems from Cagney’s performance because we have seen gangsters before, bank jobs, inside men, gun molls, and the like but Cody Jarrett is one for the ages. He throws a twisted wrench into what is already a quality thriller by going absolutely ballistic and simultaneously jolting it in the most peculiar ways.

Before Norman Bates was even whispered on the lips of audiences Cagney burst onto the scene with his demonic characterization, very plainly evil personified as the psychotic Cody Jarrett. He smacks policemen, guns down the worthless, and schemes incessantly. However, he also has a strange sense of family and friendship. He’s prone to crippling migraines like his insane father and still parks himself on his mother’s lap. He even befriends a copper, except he doesn’t know it. He gets duped like a two-bit stooge.

Edmond O’Brien was on the rise at this point following such films as The Killers and The Web. He still owns a supporting role in the sometimes thankless job as the decent heartbeat of law and order. But he has so much more character than all the other stiffs with their fine looks and chiseled jawlines who simultaneously faded into the annals of history.

Although he’s playing support to Cagney, there are a lot worse gigs and the pair works well with each other. At one time strangers, confidantes, and finally bitter enemies in the constantly seesawing dynamic that comes when an undercover agent looks to get buddy-buddy with a certifiable psychopath. Not surprisingly it makes for a thoroughly engaging crime film because the characters actually have something to them.

The iconic Mess Hall sequence brimming with Cagney’s explosive bravado is representative of his flair throughout the entire picture. It just won’t let up. It never lets up. A line of “telephone” takes a message down the row of inmates (including sports icon Jim Thorpe) before reaching the waiting ears of the hardened criminal. Like a stick of dynamite, he goes off and becomes possessed by some unnamed force. It represents the manic, off the wall style of Cagney that still compels audiences today. It’s no longer a simple performance. This is not acting (or it doesn’t seem like it). This is feeling, hate, anger, rebellion, and violence all channeled into a transcendent moment where the man has completely lost himself in a role. No one can touch him. It’s fantastic.

Virginia Mayo finds herself portraying her particular sultry siren accustomed to mink and bubblegum. While Steve Cochran stands tall as the main crony with big ideas, the aptly name Big Ed who is looking to worm himself in on Jarret’s territory (and female company), while he’s incarcerated. Meanwhile, Margaret Wycherly who was previously known as the angelic mother of Alvin York takes on a maternal role on the complete opposite spectrum and she does a fine job as a woman modeled after the notorious Ma Barker.

Any great crime story needs a final set piece where everything can culminate in one ultimate crescendo. White Heat does not disappoint in this regard as Agent Hank Fallon looks to tip off his colleagues following the inception of a big heist of a chemical plant in Long Beach. What follows is a tense dragnet and shootout and it’s a fitting place for Jarrett to meet his maker or in his case his mother. He literally goes into the inferno, blowing up and entering the conflagrations of hell in the most startling of fashions — still clinging doggedly to his mom–his twisted guardian angel of death. It’s a curtain call worthy of such a performance and knowing it can do no better, the film ends there, no fanfare just a grimy picture where criminals aren’t as cut and dry as Hollywood once supposed.

5/5 Stars

D.O.A. (1950)

doa1950As one of the greatest B-films of its day, D.O.A. is framed by a crackerjack gimmick that actually pays heavy dividends. We watch a man making his way down a long corridor as the typically stringent score of Dimitri Tiomkin pounds away behind the credits. In this initial moment, our protagonist Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) rushes into police headquarters to report a murder: His own.

So begins a film that’s a gripping piece of noir from start to finish.  Through the following flashback encapsulating almost the entire storyline, Bigelow recounts his former life. He was an insurance man working the daily grind in beautiful Banning California. When he’s not working he’s trying to dodge the come-ons of his secretary Paula (Pamela Britton).

In fact, he gets away for a little vacation in San Francisco, away from the girl and from his suffocating job and he’s looking to live a little. A lively sales convention that’s taken over his hotel gets his spirits up as does the large population of charming women. In fact, every time a pretty gal walks by his eyes bulge out of their sockets (denoted by comic sound effects). He even makes a few chums.

But this is just the topsoil, the initial slice of life that Bigelow finds himself partaking of. He doesn’t realize what will soon happen and it happens so haphazardly it’s almost hilarious. It’s ludicrous really. Still going on the town, he hits up a jazz club that’s gone absolutely jive crazy as the beatniks of the day might say. It’s a real swinging place. But there’s also something deadly waiting for our hapless protagonist.

In one fateful moment, everything changes. He begins to feel sick. He’s disoriented as his existence takes a nose dive into a world of paranoia — it’s the true markings of noir. The news from the doctors isn’t good either. He’s been infected with a luminous toxin. How or by whom, he doesn’t quite know. It’s all deliciously cruel suggesting that all that is evil, all that is depraved, all that is poisonous, shines ever so brightly in the dark. In fact, that’s where evil thrives.

Still, Bigelow has no idea what he’s gotten himself into and he’s tasked with something that perhaps no one in the history of cinema has ever had to do. Find and apprehend their own murderer. There’s a trail of sultry girls and distracting exposition that all in all makes for a thoroughly bewildering plot. We should expect nothing less. Still, the end goal is finding one George Reynolds or Raymond Rakubian. Bigelow doesn’t quite know which one yet and neither do we.

Needless to say, watching O’Brien scramble across the streets of SF past onlookers and incoming traffic feels quite real and that’s because it was filmed with a certain amount of authenticity. There are scenes that were filmed on backlots to be sure but this isn’t one of them. In such moments, it’s quite easy to get a sense that in some ways this sequence directed by Rudolph Mare could be real. In fact, his background in cinematography can be seen plainly with what he finds interest in shooting. It all works together rather well. D.O.A. has one foot in reality and the faithfully doting Paula gives a little more weight to Bigelow’s state of being. There’s more at stake now, thanks in part to this girl who really does love him. She’s worried about him for most of the story.

Perhaps most extraordinarily, to the elation of film-noir lovers everywhere, D.O.A. does not cop out and it delivers a satisfying conclusion. Aside from a compelling lead performance by the promoted supporting player O’Brien, the hulking Neville Brand comes onto the scene with a psychotic turn as Chester the nervously taunting heavy (always mumbling ‘soft in the belly’). It’s true that many a good film noir needs a quality thug and Brand fits the bill. He personifies the tone of the film — brooding and deadly.

4/5 Stars

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

hitch-hiker_posterPart of the harrowing allure of the Hitch-Hiker is that it’s actually based on a true incident that occurred only a year before the events shown. It’s not as if someone took artistic license with some murderers and made it into a horror spectacle. Hitchcock’s Psycho especially comes to mind.

Instead, director Ida Lupino takes a much more universal approach with an opening title card suggesting that the events that follow about a man and a gun and a car could really happen to any of us. Perhaps it’s a cheap plotting device but it does throw the audience into the passenger seat quickly as they are introduced to a rash of murders and the hardened killer behind the spree Emmett Myers (William Talman) who soon has the entire mobilized police force looking for him.

The meat and potatoes of the film involve the brutal murderer taking two vacationing fishermen hostage and grinding away at them as he utilizes them to flee the authorities and bends them to his will. After all, he’s the one with the gun, and he’s proved numerous times he’s not squeamish about using it.

It also plays into the narrative’s hands that both Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are not necessarily classically handsome. But they work as everymen. If Joel McCrea was the poor man’s Gary Cooper sometimes I think of Edmond O’Brien as the poor man’s Humphrey Bogart but that’s neither here nor there. Because in little films like this O’Brien left an indelible mark on film-noir. D.O.A. and The Bigamist are two other such examples. Lovejoy on his part is extremely understated, not even being able to quite place his face but we cannot help but admire his quiet stalwartness. O’Brien’s character seems the flightiest of the three and within their ranks, we’ve found a triangle that creates the contentious dynamic that’s the foundation of the film’s entire conflict.

A film of this length and from this era doesn’t have any right to be as intense as it is, yet the Hitch-Hiker proves to be just that. It’s chock full of not only frank depictions of wickedness but enough psychological torture to send tremors up the spines of an audience. It’s a real sweaty thriller. William Talman is absolutely diabolical in a performance that is as vindictive as any other role that comes to mind. It’s that evil.

Meanwhile, the deeply underrated cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past) flaunts his skills in low budget filmmaking while former husband-wife duo Collier Young and Ida Lupino team up in another surprisingly compelling project, despite its meager production values. I laugh derisively at any contemporary who might have suggested Lupino could only do so-called issue-driven “Woman’s Pictures” because The Hitch-Hiker is really all about three men where the tension mounts to great proportions. Forget any other category. This is a stone cold crime film that goes beyond a simple gimmick.

3.5/5 Stars

The Bigamist (1953)

the-bigamist-1I despise you and I pity you. ~ Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Jordan

The Bigamist is at first a delightful noir — in one aspect unassuming and yet groundbreaking when put in a broader context. Ida Lupino is not simply a good female director. She is a good director, period.   She left a body of work both behind and in front of the camera that speaks for itself. Even the small ones like The Hitchhiker and The Bigamist have a certain strength about them.

In this case, the film’s title flashes with the superficial tinges of a sordid drama but when you actually get into the thick of it all, there’s a great deal of tenderness and certain heartbreak there.

In some ways, Edmund Gwenn becomes our main character’s father confessor as the protagonist explains how it all began through flashback: The plotting is simple. Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien) found himself living a double life. But it’s not just that. He loves his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine). They genuinely care for each other deeply and now they share together in business but he spends a great deal of his time on the road. They’re even planning to adopt a child together since Eve cannot have a child of her own. Obviously, during his frequent bouts on the road, Harry gets lonely and we’ve undoubtedly heard that excuse countless times and it’s been the calling card for a great deal of infidelity.

the-bigamist-2Except at first what Harry does, does not seem like infidelity. In one integral scene Harry takes one of those bus tours to see the stars because, after all, Beverly Hills is that land of movie stars and their extravagant lifestyles. Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny, Oscar Levant, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jane Wyman are all given a nod. There are even a few playful in-jokes to the always genial Edmund Gwenn who turns up as the adoption agent. All of this is essentially fluff but it’s on that same ride where he meets someone — a woman named Phyllis Martin (Ida Lupino).

It’s true that they’re both looking for a friend and they gravitate towards each other. It’s nothing more than that and Phyllis invites her newfound friend to a restaurant made in the popular mode of Early American Chinese. It’s where she works. But he hardly cares. He sees her more and the most astounding thing is that he tells his wife about it almost in jest saying he met a brunette in California. The reason he cites: she wasn’t beautiful but she was nice.

And right in that moment, you can see what’s particularly striking about The Bigamist. It’s a frank, open, and honest film in an often prim and proper era of certain sensibilities. The Bigamist looks to be a film to trod all over those social mores and yet extraordinarily enough it doesn’t. Yes, in certain ways it dissects them but it does it with great care and a tenderness for all parties involved.

It’s not so much a dark brooding noir but a film of interpersonal tragedy rather like earlier such examples as Pitfall or They Live by Night where bits of darkness pervades the home and relationships which are admittedly fragile because of the humans involved. Topics of divorce, infidelity, and pregnancy further complicate matters.  But not in some lurid exploitive way to sell tickets.

It’s oddly ironic on multiple levels. Of course, we know as an audience that he is seeing another woman but that’s only the beginning. In a major fit of situational irony, it works exactly contrary to what we might expect. Edmund O’Brien’s lead is a good and decent man. His wife is not a holy terror but played by one of the sympathetic heroines of the 40s and 50s, Joan Fontaine. Furthermore, Ida Lupino is not some sleazy femme fatale. In fact, she’s the one who initially rejects his advances and shows reluctance to marry him.

the-bigamist-3It strikes me how it’s often the small, tiny, unassuming pictures that impact me the most and this film did wrench my heart over the course of only a very few minutes. The final court sequence sums up the reasons quite well because it ends the film on a moral note setting up a rather convicting paradigm.

We see both women there. We see the accused sitting in front of the judge and jury willingly admitting his guilt. His is a society that winks an eye at a married fellow with a mistress and yet he, a man who genuinely loved two women, is found at fault under the law. The defense attorney on his behalf calls for punishment tempered by mercy.

When those two women walk out of the courtroom as the proceedings end, it does not mean that any of it can ever go back to normal. Will either of them even take him back? We can make an educated assumption but that’s not really for us to know. However, on a universal level, the words of the attorney reverberate in my ears. Each one of us has aspects of our character that are undoubtedly despicable but also elicit pity. It only makes sense that each of us deserves a certain amount of punishment but also a measure of mercy. It’s up to us to extend that to others. Because the reality is that we might not be that much better than the eponymous bigamist. Judging by his character we might actually be far worse.

3.5/5 Stars

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Starring both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, with Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and direction by John Ford, this is certainly a moody western. Stewart, now a successful politician returns to a small town with his wife to pay his respects to an old friend. In the ensuing flashback he retells his story beginning as a young lawyer who had a run in with Liberty Valance (Marvin). After he got well he strove to bring justice and education to the land. Despite their differences, Stewart finds a friend in Wayne who has his eye on Miles. However, everything eventually goes awry when Stewart agrees to face Valance out in the street. He appears to be a goner because he is wounded, but miraculously a shot hits Valance and he falls dead. Stewart now a hero gets the girl and agrees to represent the town. Wayne fades into the background also a hero. The supporting cast includes Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, and John Carradine. With two great icons and a great director, this western is certainly a classic. Although it did not end up making it into the film, Gene Pitney’s western ballad deserves to be acknowledged nonetheless.

4.5/5 Stars