The Black Swan (1942)

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If you make your way to this swashbuckler you’ll find a movie set in The Spanish Main as England has just brokered a peace treaty with their imperialistic competitors. As you probably already surmised, you might as well leave your textbooks on maritime history at home because there’s no need to reference them here. Actually, I stand corrected. Captain Henry Morgan was a real person. Everything else is an excuse for pillaging gold and adventure on the high seas.

As someone educated on Tintin serials (ie. The Secret of the Unicorn) and “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything,” enjoying such a picture from perennial Hollywood journeyman Henry King is hardly a chore taken for what it is.

In the opening moments, we have coastal marauders who overrun a city to loot it and run off with pretty girls. They’ve even stretched a conceited official on the wrack for good measure. Except a counterattack by the local militia ensues and soon we learn from the reformed pirate, Henry Morgan himself (Laird Cregar), things have changed.

He has been made Magistrate of Jamaica in return for his loyalty and he calls his faithful scallywags to join him in a bit of respectability on the right side of the law. His longtime right-hand man, Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), agrees to it, though some of the others led by treacherous Billy Leech (George Sanders) look to try their luck on the seas like always.

The pictures finest asset is a cast as thick as thieves. A particularly cheeky Tyrone Power is at the top his of game, looking like he’s having a swell time of it, being a bit of a dashing scoundrel right up there with Errol Flynn. Cregar is memorable yet again as the formidable blaggard with many a plume. He and “Jamie Boy” share a particularly humorous reunion when Power dumps a purportedly unconscious Maureen O’Hara like a sack of potatoes to give his old buddy, Captain Morgan, a warm welcome.

Meanwhile, George Sanders is almost unrecognizable as a mangy red beard. It’s one of those makeover jobs where you have to do a double take to try and differentiate that familiar voice hiding behind a very unfamiliar visage.

Following up his villainous turn opposite Power in Son of Fury (1942), Sanders is back and even better. Though not seemingly the athletic type or a swordsman for that matter, he lends the right amount of licentiousness and folly to his turn as Captain Leech.

Thomas Mitchell, a man who could play a character part in his sleep, colors in his role as the quintessential boisterous, bandanna-wearing sea hand who’s right by Jamie’s side whenever he’s needed. There’s even Anthony Quinn with an eye patch, though woefully underused and Maureen O’Hara, the most desirable “wench” there ever was on the Caribbean, as our only leading lady.

It must be acknowledged however the script all but wastes her talents as she hardly fits the archetype of your normative “damsel in distress” role, though her beauty in Technicolor is admittedly unsurpassed. While hampered by an unimaginative part, she still manages a few fiery exchanges with Power after his character kidnaps her as his bride-to-be and they subsequently build some kind of rapport out of the sparks in a mere scene or two.

The picture follows Jamie Boy as he scours the ocean for his old shipmate, Billy Leech, who is up to his old plundering ways, terrorizing the seas and ruining the tranquility of the two world powers. Though reformed, Morgan is under fire from a council that finds his position suspect as he was once in cahoots with the wanton criminal. The authorities at hand call for impeachment even as one among their ranks sows discord.

What else is expected except a final shootout on the seas complete with a barrage of cannons? Jamie is held prisoner by the man he was sworn to apprehend while other forces look to hang him for perceived insubordination. But Tyrone Power is more than up to the task of swinging through the yardarms to victory and getting the girl for good measure.

To this end, The Black Swan is wartime swashbuckling escapism, both fanciful and fairly lean in running time and resources. These, of course, were in part an effort toward wartime conservation but the reduced length does not keep it from being fulfilling. Perhaps it’s for the best they don’t make pictures like this anymore but, for its day, it’s an ebullient rollick worthy of the pirates within its frames. Maybe not its lady…

3.5/5 Stars

Blood and Sand (1941)

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There’s little doubt Blood and Sand was a follow up to The Mark of Zorro (1940) meant to capitalize on the lucrative romantic pairing of devilishly handsome heartthrob Tyrone Power and winsome ingenue Linda Darnell. But what it sets out to do, it achieves through an ability to capture us in a joyously Hollywood confection. It pulls out all the stops to establish Spain for the moviegoing audience. Flamenca, guitar, castanets, swirling skirts, and sashaying ladies are all present bursting forth from the screen with multicolored gaiety and merriment.

The picture in straightforward fashion charters the rise of a young boy into a renowned matador with aims at commanding the grandest stage in all of Seville. Juan Gallardo (Power), buoyed by a tight-knit band of friends and propelled by lifelong ambition, is ultimately able to realize his dreams and to garner all the laurels lavished on the man of the hour.

Most important of all, he’s finally able to marry the girl whom he’s loved since childhood, the virginal beauty Carmen Espinosa (Darnell). She has dutifully waited for his triumphant return when he serenades her with a full band and presents her a wedding dress to pronounce his everlasting love. They’re young and deliriously happy.

While initially maligned as a fifth-rate talent, now the famed purveyor of public opinion, Natalio Curro, christens Gallardo the finest matador in all the land. Laird Cregar is more than capable as the pompous bullfighting critic who relishes the spotlight as well as his reputation as a tastemaker.

Likewise, everyone wants Juan to be the godfather of their child. He is in high demand and he catches everyone’s eye. Namely, the recently returned socialite Doña Sol des Muire (Rita Hayworth) coming from irrefutably high-class stock. She has her pick of the litter and she immediately becomes diverted by this dashing matador tossing him down a red rose in return for a couple tokens of his goodwill.

Meanwhile, Carmen remains faithful by his side praying every day he enters into the ring to do his work. She dotes on him with breakfast, reading the headlines about his finest hour, and remains his constant companion.  However, the allure of the “other woman” ensnares him and his fate is all but sealed. Just as he baits the bull, she soon has him reeling much the same. But the only real person to blame is himself.

His wife is betrayed in one heart-breaking confrontation, his finances are in disarray, his temper has alienated many of his closest allies, and his success in the ring has begun to falter. None of these plot developments are unforeseen. On the contrary, we expect them. As his mother reminds him, taking cues from the Biblical parables, “One can’t build on sand.” Because everything you worked so hard to erect will just as easily come tumbling down when the downpour hits.

It’s as much his own fault is it is the fickle masses who are so unforgiving. Pretty girls like Doña just as easily move on to a new toy, this time Juan’s lifelong rival Manolo (Anthony Quinn). And of course, Curro has been quick to pronounce the new man as the latest shining comet of the new season. He fails to add that comets burn brightly only to fizzle out in a nose dive. The tragic metaphor is a little too obvious.

But again, the picture is all spectacle and it’s ultimately bolstered by lavish costumes and the early shades of Technicolor offering a seminal example of 3-strip Hollywood opulence. Rouben Mamoulian’s artistry in mise en scene from his days with the stage are on display, played out to the nth degree. The screen and the stars are easy on the eyes. The director purportedly kept cans of spray paint on hand to touch up any necessary blasé patches with enhanced color. However he achieved it, Blood and Sand generally works.

True, bullfighting always seems like a barbarous pastime even as Hollywood can’t show that much. It does feel like a modernized incarnation of gladiatorial battles.  Just as the public is petty, it’s even a little difficult to feel sorry for our protagonist, though Linda Darnell, continually surrounded by Roman Catholic imagery, remains as the last vestige of saintly virtue.  She’s never been so pure.

The same cannot be said for Rita Hayworth in her secondary role, which in itself is a rather strange circumstance since she had yet to reach the heights of her later career and pictures like Gilda (1946). Tyrone Power could coast on his looks and charisma alone and he pretty much does.

3.5/5 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 Lodger (1944)

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“Love is very close to hate. Did you know that?” – Laird Cregar as Mr. Slade

Some perceptive viewers might well know that The Lodger is based off a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and it garnered a fairly high profile silent adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock followed by a sound version in 1932. Both pictures starred heartthrob Ivor Novello.

What the Hitchcock version boasts is his trademark eye for the visually cinematic even at this early juncture of his career. Still, the young director was a bit unsatisfied with a resolution that lacked the true punch of the original narrative. Honestly, he probably delivered the best thriller he could given the circumstances.

But with John Brahm’s rendition, this is as close to an uncompromised narrative as it can be while still meeting the requirements of the Hays Codes. What we have on our hands is a Jack The Ripper murderer who slits the throats of ladies all across England. And it’s not merely a bout of mistaken identity with Laird Cregar’s foreboding presence hanging over the picture moment by moment.

Merle Oberon, renowned for her immense beauty, did suffer some lacerations and scarring from a car accident in 1937. Her career continued unimpeded and in Lucien Ballard, she found a cinematographer she literally fell in love with. The reason being, he developed a lighting style — still called “The Obie” to this day — that completely hid her minor blemishes. As was the case with Minnelli and Garland, perhaps she fell in love more with the way he made her look than with the actual person. They would get divorced a few years later in 1949.

As far as her performance there’s little to criticize. She’s bright and beautiful as the dancehall singer, Kitty Langley, who lives with her aunt and uncle in the Whitechapel district. Admittedly she does seem a little well-to-do for her specific career path but no matter she’s quite the success.

Meanwhile, the ominous and rather taciturn gentleman Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes up residence in the Bontings’ home forewarning them about his nocturnal habits due to his research as well as his desire to be left alone as much as possible. Meanwhile, the rash of murders across the city continues and Scotland Yard has yet to apprehend the criminal.

An Inspector Warwick (Georges Sanders) comes to call on Ms. Langley as she was the last person to see Jack The Ripper’s latest victim alive — one washed up actress named Annie Rawley. In this way, our stars have been brought together but far more intriguing is the fact that such a foreboding character is staying right in their stead.

And it’s more than just a hunch that Mr. Slade might be the culprit. On top of his often erratic and suspect behavior, he’s obsessed with his genius-of-a-brother now deceased. He claims that beauty led to his sibling’s destruction and there’s little denying that he has some deep-rooted abhorrence for stage actresses.

So the inevitable must come. Everyone turns out for Kitty’s latest performance even the normally reclusive Slade and as he watches the show with its lavish costumes, provocative Cancan lines, and song and dance, we watch something begin to erupt.

What follows is the rest of a thrilling pandemonium-filled stage show that becomes a frenzy when it’s let out that the wanted lady killer is purportedly right in the very building. Cregar crazed and paranoid scrambles past sets and up into the rafters for a chance at escape. Ultimately he brandishes his knife for a desperate face off with the police force. In the end, he takes the path of least residence that nevertheless leaves an indelible impression.

Sanders and Oberon are fine talents, genial and all, but next to their supporting star they feel unremarkable. Of course, that comparison is already so unfairly weighted. Because Cregar is just that chilling. There’s little doubt that he captivates the screen and subsequently steals the picture in the final minutes. He’s the only reason you need to watch this one. If it means anything, the movie was a stirring success and it garnered a follow up in Hangover Square (1945) which might be even better. Cregars a showstopper in that one as well if you needed any indication.

3.5/5 Stars

This Gun for Hire (1942)

220px-this_gun_for_hire_movie_posterAlan Ladd and Veronica Lake found themselves partnered together on numerous occasions partially out of convenience (at 5’6 and 4’11 they were a perfect height match) but also there’s a genuine chemistry between them. And it all came into being with This Gun for Hire an economical film-noir where Ladd wasn’t even one of the top-billed stars.

Those coveted positions above the title went to Lake and the relatively young buck Robert Preston with Ladd tacked on with an “Introducing” title card. It was his latest attempt to break into the film industry that had long relegated him to bit parts and uncredited cameos (ie. Citizen Kane). It worked.

His menacing thug Raven is the first character we meet and he soon proves his brooding menace is more than just show. He is a gun for hire after all and he finishes up some business for a client getting his payoff through a nervous and portly fellow named Gates (Laird Cregar). But the money is hot and Raven soon finds a price on his head. He’s been had and he’s not about the let that slide.

The main push from the law enforcement is led by none other than Michael Crane (Robert Preston) who has recently been vacationing with his girlfriend Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake). As he burns the midnight oil she has her own gig as a magician/nightclub singer while also taking on some clandestine activities — activities that’s she sworn not to tell anyone about — even her beau.

As we might expect with the tenets of noir, the film is a lot bigger than we are initially led to believe, not simply involving murder, but also treason and government secrets as Pearl Harbor is still fresh on everyone’s minds. In such a way, our three leads get tied up both literally and figuratively as Raven continues as a fugitive in search of the man who set him up.

He too crosses paths with Ellen and in her, he finds a kind of confidante who doesn’t immediately write him off, despite his deadly tendencies. Before her he only liked cats, the reason, they don’t need anyone, rather like him. But he’s also not about to reform, not until his work is done.

Although its transitions are at times choppy and awkward, there’s indisputably an intrigue that courses through This Gun For Hire that makes it a diverting bit of noir and its latter half is the pinnacle of the action as the dragnet closes in around Raven. For the 1940s, it was a crackerjack finale but unfortunately, it’s sullied now by an abrupt happy ending. No matter.

While Robert Preston is a fairly flat lead, Veronica Lake is her usual playfully sympathetic self and Laird Cregar plays the spineless oaf to perfection. His slimy sort is one of the reasons noir becomes so wickedly delectable. In fact, he’s perhaps second only to Alan Ladd’s characterization because over the course of the film Ladd systematically steals the picture, taking every little bit of limelight and making it count. Solidifying his stardom by playing a highly compelling heavy and essentially stealing the girl away from his male costar.

Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and perhaps most notably James Cagney, all played corrupt, crazed, and vindictive gangsters at one time or another. What sets Ladd apart is his utterly emotionless eyes. They’re still the eyes of a stone cold killer but there’s a vast emptiness there. Anyways it’s the perfect laconic performance for film-noir and while he never reached the heights of Bogart (also a former supporting player), Alan Ladd rightfully so gained recognition for his own career — most notably in Shane. But everything has to start somewhere and This Gun For Hire is precisely that film. His mark is all over it.

3.5/5 Stars

I Wake up Screaming (1941)

iwakeup1So the title doesn’t have a bearing on much of anything, but who cares? It sets the tone brilliantly for this wickedly twisted noir. The film opens like other films, after the death of a beautiful young woman. Two people are getting grilled in adjoining rooms. Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is a promoter and the former love interest of the girl, so he also happens to be high on the suspect list. He lays out how he first met the pretty young waitress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). With the help of two conniving friends, he made her into the next big thing. The has-been actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) helps her reach the higher echelon of society. Mustachioed gossip columnist Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn) plasters her name and picture all over his paper until the world is bound to notice. They make quite the trifecta, all too happy to give this unassuming girl a break.

In the next room, Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) tells her side of the story: She saw how Vicky was beginning to change. She stopped working as a waitress, became entitled, and began to look down at all those around her. Now a real prima donna, she ditches her benefactors ready to head off to Hollywood for a screen test, and Christophers is understandably ticked. It doesn’t help that both Ray and Evans fell in love with Vicky. There’s also something going on between Jill and Frankie, because in the wake of the murder they turn to each other.

iwakeup2For a time the murder gets pinned on the switchboard operator — the always wide-eyed and nervous Elisha Cook Jr. But the menacing police officer Cornell (Laird Cregar), has an almost obsessive drive to find Frankie guilty of the murder. There’s something else going on here. Like so many films of this period, this story is full of men desiring women. Some of it is understandable, some of it is casual, and some of it is downright twisted.

Although she is out of the film early on, Carole Landis has the key role as the rising starlet and she is the closest thing to a femme fatale in this film. But there are a lot of characters of interest aside from our main couple of Betty Grable and Victor Mature. His two opportunistic friends are no-goods but thoroughly entertaining, and Laird Cregar is downright spooky. The film takes on another level of significance due to the tragic suicide of Carole Landis which occurred in 1948. There is most definitely an allure to her just like the women in prominent film-noir like The Woman in the Window or Laura (1944). Throughout some haunting refrains of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” can be heard, helping to make I Wake up Screaming disconcerting from beginning to end.

3.5/5 Stars