The Sea Wolf (1941)

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“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” – John Milton in Paradise Lost

Though some noir film layered in London fog is probably up for contention, otherwise, there’s arguably no movie murkier than this atmospheric sea-faring delight from Michael Curtiz. But what puts it above and beyond some of its contemporaries, especially swashbucklers like a Black Swan, has to do with a variability and surprising depth of characterization for what feels like such a minor vehicle.

From the framework of Jack London’s novel, screenwriter Robert Rossen has cleverly repurposed the material and made it thoroughly well-suited for the cast at hand, expanding the roles for his stars. For most of its running time, in fact, the story is aboard the ominously named vessel, “The Ghost,” while maintaining an unwavering level of intensity.

Certainly the aforementioned climate plays into it because it can exude a level of impending menace. Still, you can only get so far on that. There needs to be legitimate emotional resonance and some amount of real even complex conflict at the core if a glorified chamber piece like this is to stay afloat. Thankfully, due to its characters, it does. At any rate, we are provided several fascinating figures to try and comprehend.

John Garfield is one of them, a fiery sailor named George Leach who is on the run and he doesn’t care where he ends up. In his case, he winds up a lowly cabin boy. Again, he doesn’t care.  Meanwhile, Ida Lupino is escaped from a woman’s reformatory and seeks the corroboration of a fiction writer named (van Weyden) as it ends up, their voyage is ill-fated following a collision that sets off a deluge of water leaving them hopelessly shipwrecked.

In the aftermath, they are picked up by the schooner “The Ghost,”  its tyrannical captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) leading a crew of no-good and hard-bitten seamen. Barry Fitzgerald excites as the knife-toting cook who’s as ornery as you’ve ever seen the plucky Irishman. The writer is brought on as cabin boy given the rude awakening that the captain has no designs to drop him off onshore. His vocation and unwavering monotone are perfect for conveying this impartial point of view for the benefit of the audience. Meanwhile, John Garfield embittered with a chip on his shoulder is forced to take on harder labor and his anger smolders against everyone.

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The girl, Ms. Webster (Lupino) is deathly sick and the swacked and constantly unstable doctor (Gene Lockhart) seems to be of little help. His nerves as a physician look completely shot. By some miracle, he’s able to get sober enough to nurse the lady back to health, of course, when she makes her first public appearance looking to be the picture of propriety, the seafaring men are quick to see through her. She’s another unwanted sea rat just like all of them.

It’s plain to see she’s not about to earn any favors and the same goes for the other newly acquired deckhands. They have few rights as the sea captain runs the ship with a dictatorial hand. In all affairs he controls everything and he can be a ruthless taskmaster with his boys carrying out his every order with a rowdy mania, even turning against their own when given a chance.

However, although Wolf is a tough man, he nevertheless has an inscrutable side well-read in Milton and knowing a past of innumerable hardship. It’s these very traits that make van Weyden crucial as someone who is able to get closer than the others in order to try and tease out who Larsen really is.

A mass of contradictions, with a brain and a need for dignity in a harsh world but he also has a vengeful brother hanging over him, avowing to blow him to smithereens. If there is any regret in Larsen, he’s resolutely set his course and rarely looks back, making sure to maintain his supremacy over his men in all circumstances. His philosophy is purely self-serving.

But even he begins to crack. The film is laden with claustrophobic and seasick-inducing interiors depicting living hell on the waves with Larsen lording over it with an iron fist. Of course, with mutiny afoot instigated by Leach, finally able to exercise his lust for authority, there’s bound to be drama, even as he begins to carry a torch for Ruth.

Because later he, Ms. Webster, and van Weyden look to escape only to have their provisions sabotaged by Larsen, and “The Ghost” is ultimately ambushed by its mortal enemy. The hourglass is running out. But even as the captain goes down with his ship, a near pitiful figure now, he looks to take as many others down with him as he can. In opposition to such selfishness, a contrasting force of sacrifice is called for.

4/5 Stars

Note: The cut I watched was the shortened 1947 cut. The restored cut was reissued in 2017 at its full length of 1 hour and 40 minutes. This was the theatrical cut before it was edited to fit on a double bill with another Curtiz picture The Sea Hawk (1941).

 

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

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“Elementary My Dear Watson” owes its indelible stature in the lexicon hall of fame to this second installment in 20th Century Fox’s Sherlock Holmes series. The studio obviously did not gather the phrase to have that much resonance as they gave up on the franchise only to have it be picked up by Universal Pictures for many, many more outings. This would be the last one set in its original historical context and it’s unquestionably the gem of the lot.

Though the analogy breaks down, it was easy to see the first installment of Rathbone’s outing as Holmes like Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panther (1963). You get a sense of a formidable character who is subsequently given greater fluidity and is, therefore, able to break into their own. A Shot in the Dark (1964) was far better than its predecessor because it gave Inspector Clouseau his own vehicle.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes proves to be a superior film for two such reasons. First, Rathbone and Bruce coming off their success are put front and center in this picture. But also while the first film was an adaptation of a Doyle story, this picture is an original narrative thus taking the characters from the page and extrapolating them onto the screen in new and intriguing ways.

In one sense, I’m glad for that change because whereas The Hound of the Baskervilles was much better as detailed by Doyle’s pen, this story is a creation blessed with an imagination. Taking all that is good about the original work and synthesizing it into something that never quite loses the spirit but on the contrary, builds on it all the better for distillation to the big screen.

The remarkable revelation is that the story does provide a true conundrum for Holmes as he battles it out with his arch nemesis Moriarty in a chess match of wits. While there are several moments that seem uncharacteristically on-the-nose for a man of his intellect, otherwise we relish the game and his astute observations.

It opens in a courtroom as Professor Moriarty is exonerated for a crime that everyone seems to agree that he committed. Only moments after the pronouncement Holmes rushes into the courtroom with the needed evidence. But it’s far too late. His rival has lived to scheme another day and what a scheme it is. He plans to pull off the crime of the century by distracting Holmes with two toys that he won’t be able to put down. He likens Holmes to a fickle little boy easily distracted and he plans to exploit his idle curiosity.

What unravels and what is articulated by the script is a lovely piece of intrigue that provides many distractions not only to Holmes but his audience as well. We know full-well that though they might appear completely unrelated, they’re indubitably tied together. It’s simply a matter of understanding how and for what purpose.

The first involves a young woman named Anne Bramdon (Ida Lupino). She comes to Mr. Holmes on the behalf of her older brother who has received an ominous note. The reason she’s worried is that her dear father received much the same message before he died under strange circumstances years before.

Although it ultimately takes a back seat to this more interesting case, Holmes is also counted on by his friend at the Tower of London to help with security in the transfer of a priceless diamond to be added to the Crown Jewels.

Holmes is caught up in this perplexing case in front of him as Bramdon’s frightened brother is attacked by a mysterious assailant and soon after the lady gets a note of her own telling her to attend a certain social gathering of a longtime friend. Holmes advises her to go as he will be there to protect her but of course, the date and time are the exact same as the jewel transfer. You see the point already.

Rathbone makes another stunning showing in disguise apprehending the killer and dashing off to thwart another crime as Moriarty cleverly infiltrates the Towers security no thanks to Watson. George Zucco seamlessly embodies an intellectual yet sociopathic mind filled with disdain for human life. He asserts in one such scene to his harried valet that killing a plant should be a far greater offense than taking human life. He proves overwhelmingly that a superior villain with brazen intentions elevates any story.

Director Alfred L. Werker shoots the finale with some amount of artistry that heightens the climax to an agreeable apex. It goes down as it must on the top of the Tower of London and what is curious but rather refreshing is that there are no back and forth monologues of doom and heroism. Actions speak for both our hero and villain. While London Fog now seems like free atmosphere and little else, the film is actually at its best in visual terms with well-lit Victorian interiors.

The finest success of this film was in projecting a certain image or reputation that extends far into the present age. Watson became an incorrigible bumbler. Holmes a cinematic detective both partially sanitized and still witty. Moriarty remains one of the standards for villains to this day. And with so many different iterations on these same characters, the influence on Robert Downey Jr. to the modernized Benedict Cumberbatch is equally evident. There are few qualms acknowledging the impact of such a sublime mystery adventure as this.

4/5 Star

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

Road House (1948)

Road House 1“Doesn’t it ever enter a man’s head that a woman can do without him?” ~ Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens

Jefty’s is quite the joint. Bowling, drinks, floorshows. In a one-horse town, it’s the place to go especially when the establishment’s proprietor (Richard Widmark) brings in the alluring nightclub singer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) to liven up the bar. Although he hired her without much forethought following a trip to Chicago, Jefty’s convinced this girl is really something although his faithful right-hand man Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) has her pegged from the start.  Smoking and playing solitaire. It sums up her life. It’s true.

They don’t exactly hit it off because he thinks he already knows what type of girl she is and she’s not too happy about getting pushed out of this gig. But ultimately she stays, the general public starts coming in droves, Jefty’s happy, and Pete does his best to keep away from her. But she does exactly the opposite. She appreciates Jefty but really has eyes for Pete and she pursues him.

What the film hinges on is really a love diamond with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde at the points. She is the object of desire for Jefty who thinks he could finally tie the knot with a girl. He’s in love no question. But Pete warms to Lily as well and is the one looking to go away with her. There also must be some necessary credit given to Celeste Holm for her performance although she has the most thankless role as Susie, the cashier at the Road House who also has obvious feelings for Pete.

But everything is thrown for a loop when Jefty comes back from a week long hunting trip with big news to spring on Pete. He’s gotten a marriage license. He’s going to ask Lily to marry him. However, over that same week, Pete and Lily have gotten closer than ever. Obviously, when the truth comes out the old friends have it out and the two lovers look to leave town.

The whole film thus far, Jefty has been a bit of a loose cannon but a generally nice guy. Except on a dime, things turn. Soon Pete is being detained for some cash missing from the company’s safe that his old friend claims is missing. It’s Pete’s words (with Lily’s) against Jefty’s with the police in the middle. It seems like a small deal but in a whirlwind sequence of events, Pete is brought to court and convicted of grand larceny. However, in a diabolical turn of events, Jefty becomes Pete’s savior as well as his master following a talk with the judge who agrees to put the convicted man on probation at the Road House. It’s just like old times, the gang all back together again except this time Jefty has Pete in a bind. One false move, one thing that he doesn’t like and Pete goes back to fulfilling his prison sentence. Jefty’s got him on a string and everyone knows it.

It’s in these moments where the remnants of the maniacal cackle of Tommy Udo from Kiss of Death begin to rear their ugly mug. And the next hunting trip Jefty plans with everyone included fills liked forced fun. No one’s having it and Lily and her love look to take one final chance to run away because any life is better than a life under Jefty’s thumb. What follows is a race for the woods and the Canadian border with Susie fleeing after them pursued by the crazed man packing a gun a bit like A Dangerous Game. It’s bound to be a deadly finale. Someone has to lose.

Cornel Wilde always feels too much like cardboard or plastic, whichever you prefer especially when put up against Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark. The latter pair is more at home in the worlds of film noir, Lupino being both alluring and assertive, boasting a gravelly voice perfect for rasping out “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” that is enhanced by her smoking habits.

Meanwhile, Widmark always had a handle on the sleazy and embittered characters who were in one moment grinning and in another seething with a cunning anger. There’s a volatile polarity that he taps into that makes most every character he plays enjoyable as we slowly watch their evil tendencies overwhelm any good that is in them (or vice versa). He also likes hitting the sauce. Cigarettes and booze have always been a hallmark with noir and so it is with this film. So if you’re looking for a good time and a bit of uncompromising filmmaking, look no further than the Road House.

3.5/5 Stars

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

on-dangerous-ground-1Father hear my prayer. Forgive him as you have forgiven all your children who have sinned. Don’t turn your face from him. Bring him, at last, to rest in your peace which he could never have found here. ~ Ida Lupino as Mary Malden

On Dangerous Ground is essentially a throwaway plot about nothing but Nicholas Ray turns it into to something — something about everything that is universal and even transcendent about film. Bernard Herrmann’s score draws the audience in with a killer hook as he did for many of Hitchcock’s most iconic films later in the decade.

There are cop killers on the loose and the force is on high alert. The particular cops that we have the benefit of following get the honor of scrounging around every dive bar and crummy joint in town where the scum of the earth dwell at all hours.

It’s in these opening vignettes that we are introduced to the seedy underbelly of the urban wasteland. It’s no good but there are innumerable interesting characters and they’re not all bad. There’s Doc at the drugstore ready to fix ailments while also being handy for a sundae. Streetcorner newsmen are ready with a tip in a pinch almost on cue.

Still, Jim Wilson (R0bert Ryan) is all out of sorts — restless and prone to aggressive outbreaks. He’s not sparing the rod when it comes to apprehending criminals and questioning riff raff. And the very fact that Robert Ryan almost always has a nondescript expression on his face make his more heated outbursts unnerving. It’s enough of an issue that the police chief (Ed Begley) has to get on him. His partners warn him too, namely, the veteran Pop who has his share of ailments while still finding some time to wax philosophical about life.

Soon, enough is enough and Wilson is transferred to a case out in the country tracking down the culprit in the murder of a young girl. And in these moments On Dangerous Ground becomes all too real. He’s actually on thin ice if you want to get really technical, in both the figurative and literal sense. The vengeful patriarch (Ward Bond) is out for blood, waving around his shotgun just waiting to fill someone full of lead. And as it happens, the story becomes a snowcapped manhunt out in the country with Nicholas Ray developing a second distinct world in stark juxtaposition with the first.

If you wait for Ida Lupino’s entrance you will not be disappointed because it is a fabulous one indeed. She and Robert Ryan do make a heady combination as the film devolves into an extraordinary sensitive picture. Ray’s use of closeups near the end is remarkable in creating an immense intimacy between his protagonists. It leads to the question, can a film about police brutality also be about a policeman’s loneliness? In this case, the answer is yes. Because it seems like a great deal of the people within this story are in a similar state. There are frightened youths as well as alienated and isolated individuals who do not know how exactly to deal with other humans. But thankfully we can all learn.

On Dangerous Ground isn’t so much a cynical film as it is melancholy and so, far from seeing its ending as a cop-out, it actually feels like an extension of what Ray was doing all along. It’s this passionate almost spiritual escape from the world at large as reflected in the setting and ultimate outcome. The cop starts to untangle the mess of his life and begins to settle on a firmer foundation. His story need not end in the bowels of darkness. A holiday in the country is still attainable for him.

4/5 Stars

 

 

High Sierra (1941)

high-sierra-1They Drive by Night is a surprisingly engrossing picture and I only mention it for its obvious relation to High Sierra. It came out a year earlier, helmed by Raoul Walsh starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and, of course, Humphrey Bogart. The important fact is that if Walsh had gotten his way, he would have cast Raft again as Hollywood’s perennial tough-guy leading man.

But Bogart saw what this film, based on the work of W.R. Burnett, could do for him and he talked Raft out of the part while lobbying Walsh for the role. Reluctantly the director agreed and as it turned out it was the perfect vehicle for Bogart’s big break as he had foreseen.

High Sierra functions as a crossroads of sorts between America’s standard genres. There’s no question that Roy Earle is a gangster in the former sense of the word. And even as an actor Bogart was used to playing second fiddle to the likes of the Cagneys, Rafts, and Robinsons. But if there was ever a poster boy for the emerging film-noir movement Bogart is the shining example carrying that tough as nails persona from gangster films but also functioning as a fatalistic antihero in the same sense. We see it with Spade, Marlowe, and all the rest. Also, as an early heist drama, High Sierra ushers in a trend that would be explored further in films like The Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing (notably all gritty cogs in the film-noir canon).

To understand what Bogart saw in this picture and to comprehend what a lynchpin it was, it’s necessary to delve into the story itself penned by Burnett and Bogart’s long time future collaborator John Huston.

Veteran gangster Roy Earle (Bogart) has just earned a government pardon with a little help from a powerful friend. It’s this aged gangster from the old days Big Mac who pays his loyal henchman a favor so he can run point on a new bank job. Big Mac is on his deathbed and the changing of the guards seems all too imminent, still, Earle is beholden to him. He’s a loyal son of a gun and tough as all get out. He’s not about to trust a copper and just about scoffs at the men who are supposed to help in pulling off the job.

high-sierra-3He’s not about to lose his nerves or take his eyes off the objective but the two young bucks he’s thrown in with (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy) carry the tough guy bravado well but there hardly as experienced as him. He’s not too happy about the girl (Ida Lupino) they have hanging around either because she’s an obvious liability. In his experience, women squawk too much. The man on the inside (Cornel Wilde) is even worse, a spineless hotel clerk with even less nerve.

Earle’s philosophy is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s what we expect from a gangster picture. However, there are several elements to suggest that we are on the brink of a new movement to reflect the changing American zeitgeist. High Sierra is actually composed of a great deal of on location shooting throughout the Lone Pine area that adds a layer of credence to this entire tale but also a certain visual tranquility. And although it’s difficult to know precisely how much involvement Huston had on the script, there’s no doubt that his impact on noir was crucial with The Maltese Falcon released the same year.

But the bottom line is Bogart’s character has another side. With the gears of the heist in motion, he wryly notes, “Of all the 14 karat saps, I start out this caper with a girl and a dog.” And it’s true he has a certain soft spot for Marie Garson, and the yippy dog Pard (Bogart’s own pet Zero) but that’s not the extent of his character. In the stories most striking B plot, he befriends a trio of poor country folk led by their patriarch the always amiable Henry Travers and important to Roy because of their pretty granddaughter (Joan Leslie) who also happens to be a cripple.

high-sierra-2In an unassuming act of charity, Roy has a doctor friend take a look at Velma and ultimately pays for the surgery that heals her ailment completely. Still, if the story ended there it would be a happy ending but with the heist in the works, Roy is not so lucky. He pulls off the job and makes his getaway but with most any cinematic criminal activity in Hollywood’s Golden Age there must be repercussions. After all, that’s what keeps things interesting and it’s true that Roy and Marie are able to lay low for a time but soon the word is out and the gangster is a wanted man.

Walsh orchestrates the tense finale stirringly in a way that still has the power to excite with editing, score, and camera all flowing seamlessly for the most crackerjack of endings. It’s true that big shots are brought low and the irony was that it was hardly a woman or a dog that caused his downfall. It was himself. In those faltering moments, Bogart won his audience over as a leading man and would never lose them again. Certainly, we have the rather unfair added benefit of hindsight, but High Sierra stands as a monumental picture.

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

Private Hell 36 (1954)

privatehell1There’s not a whole lot to it. Aside from a wonderfully pulpy title, Private Hell 36 feels like a pretty straightforward endeavor from director Don Siegel. The low budget procedural nevertheless boasts a surprisingly good cast. The tale is framed by a nice bit of narration from the sitting police chief played by the always enjoyable Dean Jagger, in a particularly compassionate role.

Our story opens on a perfectly normal night where one copper seems to quell a drugstore burgle while he’s off duty, and another cop gets it in the crossfire between rival gangs. It causes the police to go on high alert.

When some street vermin rolls into the station to get booked, he’s found with some nifty paper. Detective Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farham (Howard Duff) are assigned to follow the trail of a counterfeit $50 bill that’s pinned on a killer. So it’s more than hot money now. There just might be a murder rap at the end of it. Their canvassing leads them right to the lap of self-assured night club singer Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino).

Farham is a relatively honest chap with a doting wife (Dorothy Malone) and a kid already. Bruner has a propensity for recklessness, and he also takes a liking to Ms. Marlowe, especially after they spend so much time together.

privatehell2The temperature begins to rise when the two colleagues get caught up in a car chase with their counterfeiting adversary. All the days casing the local race track with Ms. Marlowe finally leads to some action. In the aftermath, one car goes careening off the road, and the boys have a decision to make. They frantically begin snatching up dollar bills and they decide to go dirty and make a run with the money.

Such a plot takes the usual turns that we would expect as girlfriends, greed, familial responsibility, and guilty consciences cloud the path to the straight and narrow. The film, which was jointly written by Ida Lupino and her former husband Collier Young, is no great work of art. But there is enough character conflict and crisis to make Private Hell 36 a gratifying piece of lower tier noir.

3/5 Stars

“You know I’ve seen this all on Dragnet” ~ Lilli Marlowe

 “Save the jokes for the customers” ~ Detective Bruner

 

While the City Sleeps (1956)

whilethecity1While the City Sleeps has a brilliant cold open followed by a pounding title sequence, courtesy of Fritz Lang, that brings to mind a bit of Diabolique and Psycho. The rest of the film turns into a case to find the wanted lipstick murderer (based on a real killer), but that only holds part of our attention.

When newspaper magnate Mr. Kyne dies suddenly, his begrudging son Walter (Vincent Price) takes over intent on shaking up the status quo and putting his mark on the company. He soon turns three men against each other as they desperately fight for the new position of executive director. The first is veteran newspaper editor John Day Griffith (played by the always memorable character actor Thomas Mitchell). The second candidate is chief of the wire service Mark Loving (George Sanders) who is Griffith’s main competitor. Finally, in the third spot is Harry Kritzer who happens to have a secret ace in the hole. Each of them is tasked with finding out the real scoop about the serial killer, and it turns into a real tooth and claw ordeal. Within the glass cubicles, everything can be seen, but not everything is heard and that’s where the secrets get disclosed.

On the outside looking in, so to speak, is star TV reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrew), who agrees to help his friend Griffith by doing a little digging around about the murderer. He gets some tips from a cop friend Lt. Kaufmann (Howard Duff), and Mobley tries to smoke the killer out on air. However, it leads to the potential endangerment of his fiancée Nancy, who also happens to be Loving’s secretary. Loving has his love directed towards a female reporter named Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), who attempts to needle Mobley for info. At the same time, the killer is on the move once more, with Nancy being an obvious target. Mr. Kritzer’s own romantic entanglements get him in trouble because he is seeing Kyne’s beautiful but detached wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Mildred finds out about them and they have some talking to do. Mobley also has some making up to do with Nancy after she finds out Mildred came to see him. It’s a big mess.

whilethecity3Mobley juggles everything from his love life to the big scoop and they apprehend the killer, but things at Kyne’s don’t wind up exactly the way they expected. Mobley looks to move on from the paper with Nancy, but even he cannot get away that easily.

While the City Sleeps is an underrated tale from Lang that is positively stacked with big names. Its pacing can be deliberate at times, but it is just as much an indictment of journalism as it is a thriller. The office is a web of deception with so many interconnections between these work factions. Those you would normally expect to be scrupulous seem to give up their honor in the face of this new promotion. In a sense, Mobley seems to be outside of this fray and yet he cannot help but get involved in it. It doesn’t help that nothing turns out the way it’s supposed to. Everybody seems to gain something, but nobody really wins the game.

I must say it was great to see Dana Andrews in one of these leading roles again and although their roles were smaller, Ida Lupino and George Sanders still were a deliciously stuffy and corrupt pair. I was never really a fan of Vincent Price due to the roles he normally plays, but I was inclined to like Howard Duff (Lupino’s real-life husband) in his turn as the policemen. It goes without saying that Rhonda Fleming is positively beautiful, but she also cannot be trusted. I guess that applies to about every character in this film. It’s certainly a cynical world out there that Lang paints, where the killer might be caught, but corruption is never fully quelled.

4/5 Stars