They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

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We open in a courtroom and with a flashback but what’s stunning is that the man relating the information is on the witness stand and also the defendant in a murder trial. So much hangs in the balance of the perspective he’s about to disclose and that’s how the picture nabs us. Often there’s no import to the use of voiceover. It’s only a stylistic choice or a bit of lazy storytelling utilized without a great deal of forethought. This testimony actually matters.

The man in question is one Larry Ballentine (Robert Young). His Saturday afternoons most recently have been spent in the company of his “Skipper” Janice Bell (Jane Greer) and their relationship is full of good humor. You can see it on their faces that they enjoy each other’s company tremendously. But he has a wife of 5 years. It’s the old story. He’s only realizing now when another woman comes into the picture that he never really loved Helen (Rita Johnson), marrying her instead for her healthy endowment. She’s quite rich.

We can discern already a tale of adultery is in the works as Larry plans to break the news to his wife and leave with Janice for Montreal though the other woman wants no part of being a homewrecker. Still, Helen loves him dearly and tries to do everything to salvage their marriage so Larry relents and vows to stay with her. He ditches Janice without even a word of goodbye.

But he’s a man with a pathological problem and although his wife has set him up with a cushy job, he’s already up to his philandering ways again. One day his alluring secretary (Susan Hayward) saves his neck with the boss and starts to flirt with him. It begins again. Secluded cafes. Hidden spots — a game of “hide and seek with fate” as Larry so aptly puts it. He’s hardly phased by Virna’s admission to being a gold digger and while Helen vows never to divorce him, he plans to clean out their joint checking account and run off with Virna.

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Up to this point, They Won’t Believe Me is an engaging albeit straightforward tale of infidelity but then it goes wildly out of control as Larry’s life careens off the tracks. He leaves his wife a note with no forwarding address as he goes off with his latest gal toward fateful consequences. Later, he winds up meeting an understandably aloof Janice again in Jamaica of all places. He is clearing his head. It’s unclear how she got there. But it’s yet another prime example, to evoke Detour (1945), of how so often fate can put the finger on you. There’s no chance of getting away from it.

There’s also the sense this is a picture and a version of film noir that is akin to the common everyday circumstances of James M. Cain’s crime novels. But this is spun in such a way where we still have empathy for our perpetrator. The same can hardly be said of Double Indemnity (1944) or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

However, the moral ambiguity is still very much apparent to the final moment when an explosive action twists up the narrative threads in such a way that’s meant to evoke some form of cognitive dissonance. How are we suppose to respond to it all?

Because the film’s title is almost beside the point. It’s one of those lurid melodramatic billboard toppers meant to make you look up and take notice. But as per usual, it doesn’t actually get to the core themes of the film nor does it really matter. Whether or not he is believed is an arbitrary issue. Larry might as well have been a killer. This is the quintessential role (aside from The Mortal Storm) if you are looking for something to subvert your view of Robert Young as the world’s perfect father. Here he’s the perfect cad.

They Won’t Believe Me also deserves note for its producer Joan Harrison who began as Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary and eventual co-screenwriter before she became one of the pioneering female producers in Hollywood and a great one at that.

This picture can be added to an illustrious list of noirs including The Phantom Lady (1943) and Ride The Pink Horse (1947). Perhaps her influence is most obviously felt in the fact that our female characters have a rather refreshing resonance. Though they might be unfairly used and manipulated there’s a certain traction to the roles that give them an extra dimension often lacking in other works. Each performance adds something of value to the picture.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: The reissued version of They Won’t Believe Me put out in 1957 was cut down to 80 minutes. 

Crossfire (1947)

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Like any self-respecting film noir, it opens with men whaling on each other amid stylized darkness. Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire is an issue-driven picture and it’s an important one given the cultural moment in which it came into being. There’s no doubting that.

But though the imagery is spot on and we have numerous noir regulars, it doesn’t feel like a noir film in the semi-conventional sense. Maybe it’s because the issue it was looking to root out takes precedence over any of its more formalistic qualities and that’s perfectly fine.

From a practical standpoint, Dymytrk opted to shoot the film with low key lighting as it’s a cheaper set-up and also a lot quicker which allowed the picture to be churned out in a mere 20 days. However, it’s still quite befuddling how a film this short can still somehow be incomprehensible at times.

Like any good procedural it whips out a long list of characters introduced in every sequence who either have significant amounts of screentime or show up for a few moments and still manage to play a crucial part in this obscured piece of drama.

Realistically, Crossfire can be touted as the film of the three Roberts: Young, Ryan, and Mitchum. Robert Young will always be heralded as a television father much like Hugh Beaumont and so while I can never take him quite seriously in such a role as a police investigator, he certainly doesn’t do a poor job as Captain Finlay.

Paradoxically, Robert Ryan is one of those actors who is probably grossly underrated and yet as far as personal taste goes I’ve never liked him much (Though my esteem steadily rises). Maybe that simply pertains to the kind of characters he often played such as the belligerent Montgomery in this film. They are not meant to be affable and he does a wonderful job of eliciting a scornful reaction.

Likewise, Robert Mitchum has arguably the least important role of the three, but he still has that laconic magnetism that wins us over, portraying one of the other soldiers caught up in this whole big mess. Sgt. Peter Keeley is a bit of a tough guy but also ready to watch the back of his brothers in arms. He’s our counterpoint to Robert Ryan.

The minor players list out like so. The victim of it all was a man named Samuels (Sam Levene) who crossed paths with the demobilized soldiers in a bar and seemed nice enough. He even struck up a conversation with a homesick G.I. named Mitch (George Cooper) who Keeley guesses might be a prime suspect for murder.

Jacqueline White is the wanted Corporal’s concerned spouse while Gloria Grahame plays a characteristic noir dame who might prove to be an invaluable witness on his behalf, if only she’ll cooperate.

This is yet another link in the chain of post-war crime pictures where soldiers were returning home only to meet a new kind of disillusionment (ie. The Blue Dahlia or Act of Violence). A certain bar scene played over from multiple perspectives proves to be a pivotal moment, but it’s full of fuzzy recollections and screwy bits of information. No one seems quite sure what happened and the film banks on this ambiguity.

However, it’s about time to cease skirting around the obvious and say outright what the film is an indictment of. It’s anti-Semitism. “Jew-boy” is the trigger word. Though the film requires some reading between the lines, thanks to the production codes, there’s no context needed to understand what that means. It’s instantly apparent bigotry is rearing its ugly head.

As such, Crossfire shares a similar conviction with the year’s other famed issue-driven picture The Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and it brings to mind the wartime short film headlined by Frank Sinatra, The House I Live In (1945).

But, of course, when you begin to analyze one group of people there always seem to be others still being marginalized whether Japanese-American, African-American, Mexican-American. You name it. And that’s part of what makes such a portrait fascinating. To see to what extent the lines of inclusion will be drawn up.

Though it’s evident that he’s preaching, there are still some steadfast truths coming from Robert Young as he tries to convince a soldier (William Phipps), still wet behind the ears, what he must do for the sake of his conscience. There’s a need to stand up to the bigots because hate is always the same. They hated the Irish and the Italians before just like they will continue to hate some other people group in years to come.

Even if the history gets pushed to the fringes and it doesn’t get taught in school, that doesn’t make it any less of the truth or any less of our history. It’s possible to contend that we are made stronger, not weaker when our troubled history and past indiscretions are fully acknowledged. Only then can we learn, heal the wounds, and pursue a better future together.

So Murder, My Sweet (1944) is still a superior film noir from Edward Dmytryk and probably a great deal more fun, but there’s no denying the message that’s at work behind Crossfire.

3.5/5 Stars

Secret Agent (1936)

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It’s so easy to quickly brush off early works of Hitchcock with admittedly bland titles like Blackmail (1929), Murder (1930), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), etc. But if you actually dare to dust one of these films off for a viewing, you do see Hitchcock spinning his wizardry even if the edges are a bit worn, the stories barely developed, and the production values humble.

Among the ranks of Hitch’s thriller sextet, Secret Agent written by frequent collaborator Charles Bennett is a surprisingly lucid effort with a cast that is stacked quite nicely. John Gielgud is a bit bristly as our leading man and the chief secret agent in our loosely set WWI storyline while Madeleine Carroll (featured earlier in The 39 Steps) is decidedly more fun as the adventure-seeking gal by his side, augmented by a certain amount of ravishing vitality.  They have quite the connubial relationship posing as a married couple. Still, there’s enough chemistry within the film’s running time for some breezy comedic moments that predate later romantic thrillers like To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).

In fact, part of the reason Gielgud’s Shakespearian sensibilities come off rather stuffy at times is not so much his fault but a testament to Carroll and Gielgud’s other male counterparts. The future all-knowing television father Robert Young makes his mark as a quipping American wiseguy constantly making passes at his latest acquaintance Mrs. Ashenden.

We meet him for the first time lounging in the lady’s hotel room in an amorous mood and he never ceases flirting, for the majority of the film anyway. Equally memorable is the spastic performance of Peter Lorre though he can’t quite pull off the stereotypical portrayal of General, the Hispanic sidekick supposedly spouting off Spanish in rapid fire and still speaking in a cannibalized English dialect with a German influence. There’s no denying he is colorful given Lorre’s usual aptitude for playing wonderful supporting spots.

Like many of Hitchcock’s films sandwiched together during the 1930s, this one exhibits the same precision plotting that sets out the parameters of the narrative early on including our hero, his background, and his goals, in this case to rendezvous with a double agent so they might weed out an enemy counterspy.

The objectives seem simple enough as our man Broden alias Ashenden must masquerade with his “Wife” and the eccentric “General” in the deceptively glamorous world of spies, secrets, and international intrigue. Hitchcock does make it a riveting world at that. A foreboding church with pounding organs and clanging bells is the scene of a murder. There’s a lively setup at a casino beckoning the future delights of films like Casablanca (1942) and Gilda (1946).

But there’s always bedlam waiting somewhere and in this case, it’s staged in a German chocolate factory as our English spies try to evade capture ratted out by a faceless snitch. The final act rumbles along on a hurtling train still behind enemy lines with the British air force raining down a hail of bullets. It’s the prototypical spectacle for a Hitchcockian showdown with unconventional results.

One of the most impressive aspects of Secret Agent is how many people Hitchcock is able to crowd in the frame balancing medium shots with close-ups and maneuvering his camera this way and that around his character’s many interactions. It evokes that not so famous adage that film is both what is in the frame and what is left out. Here we have a film that makes us very aware of what we are looking at and that is a hallmark of this man. He very rarely allows his camera to be a passive observer unless he chooses for it to be.

4/5 Stars

Note: It’s only a small aside but I only realized moments after the movie ended that even a young Lilli Palmer made an appearance as General’s beau.

 

 

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The_Mortal_Storm-_1940-_Poster.pngOur introduction to The Mortal Storm feels rather flat. Bright and bland in more ways than one as we become accustomed to our main storyline.  Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) is held in high regard all throughout the community as a prominent lecturer at the local university and beloved by his colleagues and family. The year is 1933 and the Bavarian Alps are still a merry and gay place to live. That’s our understanding early on as the Professor celebrates his 60th birthday with much fanfare and receives a commemorative memento from his class.

In some ways, Frank Borzage’s picture shares a striking resemblance to All Quiet on the Western Front another film that makes its German roots blatantly obvious and yet it wears its incongruities like the ubiquitous use of the English language with ease. And as all the characters accept it, we do too as we begin to sink into the story. But crucial to this story is that they are not as accepting of other things. It feels a little like paradise. Life is good and people are happy. But we expect that at some point the time bomb will go off and it does. Adolf Hitler is elected Chancellor and just like that people begin to change. It’s a collective revolution — a youth movement of sorts.

Pastor, pacifist, and thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer tore apart the Fuhrer concept straight away in a talk he gave in 1933, long before many of the later horrors during the Nazi reign of terror. But much as this film portrays, such an ideology only leads to destruction — a necessity to harm your brother. Bonhoeffer stated the following which feels surprisingly pertinent to this narrative:

“This Leader, deriving from the concentrated will of the people, now appears as longingly awaited by the people, the one who is to fulfill their capabilities and their potentialities. Thus the originally matter-of-fact idea of political authority has become the political, messianic concept of the Leader as we know it today. Into it there also streams all the religious thought of its adherents. Where the spirit of the people is a divine, metaphysical factor, the Leader who embodies this spirit has religious functions, and is the proper sense the messiah. With his appearance the fulfillment of the last hope has dawned. With the kingdom which he must bring with him the eternal kingdom has already drawn near…

 “If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol—then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself…”

And so it happens in this film. We see it around the professor’s dinner table first. Formally, a forum for high-minded debate, it’s quickly become a battleground of ideology. Roth’s step-sons and most notably his daughter’s fiancee Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) have all been caught up in the rhetoric and promises of Herr Hitler. All other forms of thought and free thinking have been discarded, these new ideals burrowing into their minds, dictating their actions, and ultimately poisoning their lives and the lives of all those around them. I never thought it was possible to despise Robert Young but when his mind is polluted by an ideology as rancorous as Nazism it’s far from difficult.

We don’t see Jimmy Stewart until quite a ways into the film and he disappears from sight for some time following an escape to Austria from the Nazi clutches, but he’s still our hero imbued with that same iconic everymanness. He is the man to continue the open-minded, compassionate forms of thinking that Professor Roth exemplifies and subsequently get torn asunder.

Margaret Sullivan and Stewart yet again make a compelling pair following Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner. She is the good little German girl Freya who actually proves to have a backbone and he is the humble farm boy who stands by his ideals like Stewart always did. They are caught up in a love story amidst a world that seemingly lacks any shred of romantic passion.

Undoubtedly the Production Codes forbade from mentioning Jews in the story — the non-Aryans like Professor Roth, but that makes this film even more haunting, the fact that the people without a voice are not even acknowledged. They are silenced and remain silent.

With its overt portrayal of the Nazis as menacing thugs and brainwashed ideology machines, The Mortal Storm is startling. For years and years most all of us have read, heard, and seen a great deal on the Nazis that we have unknowingly compiled but this film brings many of those common factors to the fore. It’s obvious that people saw them then. They knew them then. They weren’t blind. Thus, it makes us beg the question what were other Europeans and Americans actually thinking? Because although The Mortal Storm might be the exception rather than the norm, there had to be a general consciousness about the Nazis.

Because the film hardly sugarcoats anything nor does it mince words. It’s surprisingly blunt and utterly bleak in its portrayal even with a bit of a bittersweet Hollywood ending. What’s left is a lingering impact that’s terribly affecting. Only at that point do we realize the total transformation the film world has gone through. Those opening moments of The Mortal Storm are so vital as it is only in the waning interludes where we truly comprehend how far things have fallen into hell.

It’s a stunning piece of work and this is not simply the ethereal love story I was expecting. It is a thoroughly gripping indictment of the Nazi menace and far more candid than I would have ever imagined. The Mortal Storm suggests perhaps most audaciously that there were people who waded against the pervasive current of the time. They let their lives be dictated by good will, decency, and personal relationships rather than any churning force of a single political ideology.

The final quotation pulled from the moving work of Minnie Louise Haskins “God Knows” ends like so:

“I said to a man who stood at the gate, give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown. And he replied, go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

4.5/5 Stars