The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

the file on thelma jordon

There is arguably no director who is, in retrospect, more important to the film movement that became classified as film noir than German emigre Robert Siodmak. His name isn’t quite as well known as the Billy Wilders or Fritz Langs necessarily but one can contend his influence on this style is without equal.

While not his greatest achievement, The File on Thelma Jordon is yet another example of the man’s proclivities for deliciously shadowy melodrama which, while not always plausible, is more often than not incessantly intriguing.

In this particular case, we are involved with a local district attorney (Wendell Corey). He is a man who loves his wife while not being too fond of her overbearing father. In fact, Cleve conveniently stays away from home whenever the in-laws are around. It’s certainly complicated his marital relationship as of late.

One such night he stays at the office to knock a few back only to cross paths with a Ms. Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) who mistakes him for someone else as she recently inquired about protection for her paranoid aunt — a woman fearful of burglars. On the verge of a real bender, he invites her for a drink and they spend some time together. She’s just what he’s been looking for to fill the void in his life.

Meanwhile, his wife is going away with the kids for a summer at the beach house and he hates to see them leave; he really does. Maybe he knows deep down they are slowly drifting apart and his urges to see the other woman are all but insurmountable. He can’t fight it much longer. There used to be someone — an estranged one-time husband named Tony — but he’s purportedly no longer around. Cleve brushes him off and they keep seeing each other whenever possible.

But their relationship hits a dramatic turn one evening. She calls him up in the thick of night and he comes at her beck and call. They slink in the shadows as she breaks the news to him. Her aunt has been killed by an intruder; the old woman’s worst fears coming to fruition with priceless jewels being stolen from the safe.

The situation is complicated by a frantic Thelma who panicked by altering the crime scene and failing to call the police. Now the man across the road has his interest piqued and comes over to investigate. In the heat of the moment, they must hastily cover everything up as Cleve rushes out of the window and Thelma feigns sleep. It’s all part of an intense interlude coursing through the middle of the picture making the collective heart of the audience pulse with anxiety.

What follows is a murder inquest and then a trial with Ms. Jordon standing as the defendant. She’s got herself a stone-cold and exacting lawyer who could care less about her guilt or innocence. In his mind’s eye, she is innocent and that’s how he plans to win her case regardless.

Meanwhile, Cleve gets put in a very sticky and uncomfortable situation as he finds himself made the prosecuting attorney on the case. As the two sides try to legally sway the jury, the identity of a mysterious Mr. X still swirls around the case, and Cleve tries everything to throw the case in the most indirect ways possible. It’s a perilous balancing act where he will lose something regardless. Siodmak milks it for all its tension as the frenzied proceedings press on with the media jumping on it like ravenous wolves. Someone’s got to be a fall guy. Stay the course and you might be surprised in how the case resolves itself.

Wendell Corey could always be called on for steady and at times wry support but that being so, it’s refreshing to see him in a substantial leading role playing opposite a true professional. They work capably together as the story relies mostly on their two performances.

Barbara Stanwyck is great when she’s bad. Phyllis Dietrichson is the epitome of this fact, remaining one of the crowning achievements of her career. Though a lesser-known incarnation, Thelma Jordon is worthy of some notoriety in her own right.

However, the sublimeness of Stanwyck here is how she never really feels slimy or full of guile, even in the stages when the books are all but closed on her case and we get a fuller picture of who she is. The whole time we are kept constantly guessing and fluttering this way and that in indecision. More than once she surprises us.

The trick to a femme fatale like herself is never consciously deciding to be destructive. She’s doing what she personally believes to be right even if it’s due to a lapse in judgment or an impending sense of fear. I’m sure there was some greed in there too but we all harbor a little bit deep in our hearts somewhere.

So though it ends with a malaise that can only be film noir, there is some sense of rightness in the way everything goes down. It’s not to say there’s not a bite to the picture. When the file closes on Thelma Jordon two lives have been deeply affected forever with far-reaching repercussions. There’s no changing that.

3.5/5 Stars

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

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“In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives…It is the servant of our common needs — the confidante of our inmost secrets…life and happiness wait upon its ring…and horror…and loneliness…and…death!!!” ~ Opening Prologue

Sorry, Wrong Number is a fairly unique adaptation in that it came into being from a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher, successfully realized for audiences as essentially a one-woman production by Agnes Morehead — a fine actress in her own right. Director Anatole Litvak does an extraordinary job of making this film version tense and certainly cinematic, as it cannot function in the same ways as a radio show if it is to be similarly effective.

Like Rear Window (1954) or Wait Until Dark (1967), the suspense in the film comes with being constrained in a space with no way of escape from an impending intruder. It’s little surprise Barbara Stanwyck is divine offering her typically captivating performance even if, given her usual predispositions, she hardly fits the helpless wife archetype. Being the professional that she is, there’s no doubting the ferocity of emotion within her. To use a hopelessly corny pun, she hardly phones in her role as Mrs. Stevenson, the bedridden wife of a husband who just cannot seem to be located.

Though still young, Burt Lancaster brings the screen presence that made him a mainstay of early film noir. Still, he and Stanwyck somehow seem ill-paired as husband and wife. One could contend that works nicely into the plot as their marriage is essentially one-way, becoming increasingly loveless as more of the picture is revealed. She wants him and her daddy has the money to make the world spin. It’s not romance. It’s a business transaction.

So although Harry Stevenson (Lancaster) is initially going with another gal (Ann Richards), soon enough Leona’s got him. They get married and he gets a job working under the father-in-law but he feels his hands are tied with no real prospects of making anything of himself. He’s not content with this kind of lifestyle. He has ambitions of his own.

One might suspect he’s finally had enough and left his wife for good. Of course, part of the fun is that the story is pieced together through different characters recounting events, done through voiceover fragments. It becomes a kind of compulsory game we must play along with.

First, it’s Mr. Stevenson’s secretary who recounts the woman who came to his office with something urgent to talk about and it piques Mrs. Stevenson’s suspicions. Then, she gets in contact with the old flame named Sally Hunt Lord who is now happily married to a District Attorney. Nevertheless, she was worried that Henry might have been mixed in something awful, even tailing her husband and trying to get at her old beau to uncover what might be the matter. It’s all very mysterious.

Next Leona breaks up her Doctor’s (Wendell Corey) dinner engagement only to hear more of the story and how her husband kept the doctor’s prognosis from her. By this point, we’ve gotten in so deep that we have layered flashbacks. Only in noir, and we still have yet to stitch the entire convoluted mess together.

The last crucial figure is a specter of a caller named Waldo Evans who actually turns out to be a kindly old man caught up in the racket that Stevenson’s been promoting. The script doesn’t give us much to go on based on the restrictions of the production code but it has to do drug trafficking. That much is almost certain.

By this juncture, we’ve almost forgotten William Conrad was in the picture but he shows up right where you would expect him in the thick of something big. As she’s put through the ringer of psychological duress, trapped in her ominously vacant home, Stanwyck’s absolutely maxed out on the intensity.

Admittedly it does feel like two pictures told in tandem and spliced together. Stanwyck headlines what we might term the “woman’s drama” while her husband is embroiled in a shifty noir replete with the murky shadings of a criminal underworld. Of course, Lancaster is remembered for his early pictures like The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), and Criss Cross (1949) which share some nominal similarities.

Sorry, Wrong Number showcases an icy ending that was nearly unexpected for not only how abrupt it is but also how very unsentimental. To say more would give it away outright. Flaws readily acknowledged, Sorry, Wrong Number is a noir worth making time for as it builds tension to a fever pitch and obscures its hand behind minute after minute of methodical voiceover. When we’ve finally caught up with the events rumbling forward in real time, it’s too late to do anything and before we know it, everything’s already come to fruition. One might call that an adequate success in the storytelling department.

Due to its histrionics, the picture was ripe for parody. In fact, Barbara Stanwyck was featured on a segment of The Jack Benny Program in 1948 using extensive recordings from the film only to have Benny wind up in much the same mess. And of course, there’s Carl Reiner’s noir sendup/clip show starring Steve Martin, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). It’s all in good fun.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rear Window (1954)

Hitchcock_stills_0006_rear-windowWho in their right mind would make a film that takes place in a courtyard? Rear Window has always been fascinating from a technical standpoint, and Alfred Hitchcock is certainly not “The Master of Suspense” for nothing. He uses the confined space of a single Greenwich Village courtyard with an incapacitated individual to truly build the tension to immeasurable heights. The events within the film are often highly bemusing as Hitchcock has a wicked sense of humor, whether Jefferies is trying desperately to scratch that itch or the conversation turns morbid as he tries to eat breakfast.

The script has so many great little moments of back in forth repartee; some supplied by the always dynamic Thelma Ritter who plays the nurse with a lot of advice and opinions about rear window ethics: “We’ve become a race of peeping toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How’s that for a bit of home-spun philosophy.

James Stewart is always a pleasure, but this time around he is perhaps at his most constrained as famed photographer L.B. Jefferies, who is laid up in his apartment for weeks on end with a leg in a cast. He got the injury thanks in part to his last big photo shoot where he ran in front of an oncoming race car. With nothing better to do, he spends his idle moments people watching and getting to know his neighbors. That’s one way to put it at least. As an actor, Stewart is stuck and relegated to conveying his whole performance through his gaze and the dialogue he speaks to those few who come in and out to see him. Most of what he’s doing is simply looking across the way and yet it works.

His neighbors are as follows:

There’s Ms. Torso who is an aspiring dancer and always the target of many men. There’s Ms. Lonelyheart who never can find the love she so desires. A washed-up composer spends the entire film trying to figure out his newest project (even getting a visit from Hitchcock himself). There are the newlyweds who hardly ever leave their bedroom because they’re doing something… Then, comes the older couple on the second floor with a cute little dog and the sculptor who lives below.

Most interesting of all is the couple directly across the way from Jefferies’ because that’s where a long-suffering husband and his wife live. All seems normal, to begin with, however, Jefferies begins to have his suspicions thanks to circumstantial evidence and no sign of Mrs. Thorwald. His first thoughts immediately shoot to murder, but it seems highly unlikely. Day and night he continues to watch seeming to get more evidence, only to have his theories crushed, and then gain new hope through more evidence.

James_Stewart_in_Rear_Window_trailerThe interesting part is that as an audience we are fully involved in this story. We see much of the picture from Jefferies’ apartment, because there is no place to go, and so we stay inside the confines of the complex. In this way, Hitchcock creates a lot of Rear Window‘s  plot out of actions occurring and then the reactions that follow. We are constantly being fed a scene and then immediately being shown the gaze of Jefferies. It effectively pulls us into this position of a peeping tom too. Danger keeps on creeping closer and closer as he discovers more and more. The narrative continues to progress methodically from day to night to the next day and the next evening.

In the climactic moments, he finally faces the man who he always looked in at from the outside and yet by the end the roles are reversed with Jefferies space being fully invaded, and yet he can do little to flee, because of his cast. Hitchcock cuts it in such a choppy and chaotic way which breaks with the smooth continuity of the rest of the film, but it works so wonderfully in stark juxtaposition.

This is one of the main appeals of Rear Window because it has this Hitchcockian story of murder, mystery, and suspense. However, I am constantly eager to revisit this story, since there are so many other intricacies that are of interest.

Although the film uses a score by Franz Waxman, the majority of the sounds heard are diegetic and they either are street noises or music wafting around the courtyard from one of the apartments.  Also, there is only one small outlet to the outside world. At times, it becomes fun to survey what is going on whether it is kids playing on the street corner or cars passing back and forth. It builds this sense of realism suggesting that this world that has been created is larger than this one set full of apartment buildings.

Another important element is themes of romance and love. Jefferies comes into the film with issues in his own love life. His girl is the elegant and refined Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who seems perfect, too perfect in his estimation. In his mind, they just don’t seem compatible enough, and he cannot see marrying her. It’s something they have to work through because she truly loves him.

Really every character essentially has a different outlook on love and different struggles, because romance is never an easy thing. Like the lyricist’s song, it is so often fragmented, but in their case, Jefferies and Lisa seem to figure things out just as the song finally gets finished. The moment where you can see it in Jefferies’ face that he is both impressed and worried for Lisa’s safety seems to be the time when things change. He realizes his love for her since she is very dear. He quits his thinking and his analyzing of their relationship, as gut-wrenching emotions take over when she is caught. In a sense, he listens to Stella’s earlier advice: “Look, Mr. Jefferies, I’m not an educated woman, but I can tell you one thing. When a man and a woman see each other and like each other they ought to come together – wham! Like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.”

Wendell Corey, in his supporting role as Jefferies’ friend and the police detective, is a man who can be a skeptic and still prove his loyalty as a friend. They can be at odds and still poke fun at each other with mutual affection. It feels real. Raymond Burr as the villainous Lars Thorwald works well too because he is certainly an angry, unfriendly grouch, but he does not seem altogether evil. It shows how easy it is for the lines to be blurred.

rear-window-first-shot-of-gkAbove all, Grace Kelly shines opposite Jimmy Stewart. There’s no one quite like her, so elegant, eloquent, with a touch of playfulness and adventure. She is willing to fight for her man and even go out on a limb for him (ie. breaking into Thorwalds’ apartment). One of the film’s most extraordinary images, out of many, has to be when a shadow covers the face of Stewart as he rests. Then there is a close-up of Kelly, her face slowly descending towards him. It’s hard to forget and for the rest of the film, she attempts to not let him forget her.

It’s not often easy for me to make statements like this, but Rear Window has to be close to my favorite film of all time. Yes, I said it. It never gets old for me, and I pick out new things every time. It’s more than just a mystery thriller. Hitchcock made it a technical marvel that is also steeped in themes of love and ethical questions. The players are the best of the best from James Stewart, to Grace Kelly, to Thelma Ritter, all down the line. It’s at times deliberate, but never boring, completely immersing the viewer into this drama as a firsthand witness. It’s the type of cinema we just don’t get every day because it has everything and it cuts to the core — to the most visceral level. That is the sign of cinematic greatness.

5/5 Stars