Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Desperate(1947)

Desperate provides a great counterpoint to Hollow Triumph, a film I wrote about not too long ago for this project. Both films feature a plethora of illogical character decisions and ridiculous scenarios, but Desperate offers an example of how to keep that from becoming an insurmountable problem. Both Desperate and Hollow Triumph center around characters who make needlessly complicated and ill advised decisions throughout, but with several dramatic difference. First, the issue of pacing. Hollow Triumph is leisurely at times, and Desperate rushes along at a brisk 73 minutes(sometimes, I must admit, this is to the film's detriment; one segment that seems to span several days is revealed to have spanned 6 months). The second major difference is that of motivation.

John Muller in Hollow Triumph made stupid decisions under the guise of intelligence; we the audience were expected to believe he was an intelligent man taken down by karmic retribution, when really he led himself to that end one idiotic step at a time. He was an egotistical, selfish man who made his own bed. Steve Randall(Steve Brodie) in Desperate is an innocent, sucked into an awful situation without the luxury of planning or experience. He makes the wrong decision again and again, and yet he does it all out of a desire to protect his wife. A simple change in motivation ends up making all the difference, as Randall is immediately more sympathetic and identifiable.

The film begins with Steve coming home to celebrate his 4 month anniversary with his wife, who is making a cake for the occasion. A corny situation that sets this couple firmly in the idealistic, sunny world you often find in post-war romantic melodramas. Their celebration is postponed when Steve gets a call offering him a job hauling merchandise for $50. That's not the stupid decision, actually; Steve is a freelance trucker/delivery driver, and does jobs like this all the time. The first stupid decision belongs to gang leader Walt Radak, who knows Steve from their childhood, and somehow believes it would be a good idea to hire an outside agent to be his getaway driver from a big heist and not tell him about it.

Steve's first stupid decision, pretty much the one he keeps making throughout the movie, is to not go to the police when he has the chance. After escaping the gang's clutches for a second time, after a botched first attempt leaves him bruised and bloodied, Steve should have gone directly to the cops. However, Walt had threatened to kill Steve's wife Anne(Audrey Long) if he didn't take the fall for the murder of a cop killed in the heist, so his focus was entirely on Anne's safety. Seems to me that the cops would have been able to provide more protection than Steve's 'lets run to the country' plan, but he was caught off guard and scared. I'm willing to cut him some slack for not thinking entirely rationally at this point.

Much less forgivable are some of Steve's other stupid decisions while on the road. After being swindled out of $90 by a used car salesman, Steve steals the car he has, to his credit, actually paid for. When a cop picks him up and begins to take him back Steve takes advantage of a small wreck to steal the cop car and go on the run. It's easy to justify these thefts, and Steve isn't anywhere close to being a bad guy, but it should be clear to any audience member that he's behaving foolishly. My heart sank a bit each time he stole a car, as it lowered his stature in my eyes a little bit.

Steve and Ann eventually make their way to the farm of Anne's parents, where they are welcomed with open arm into a rustic life of warmth, happiness, and post-war wholesomeness that rivals even the domestic bliss they felt at the beginning of the film. Steve goes to the police and comes clean about his involvement in the heist, and is told he's completely in the clear on that score. But that turns out to not be the case when Walt Radak shows up in town, no longer looking to force Steve into taking the fall, but looking for revenge for his brother being sent to the chair. Time for another move.

You see what I mean about Steve making the same stupid decision over and over again? He even tries to run again later in the film, hoping to make it all the way to California. If that hadn't been far enough I'm sure he would have been on his way to Mexico in an instant.

I've been using the idea of noir films existing as a sort of purgatory quite a bit, but a new metaphor came to mind during this film. In Desperate the film noir elements felt more like the threat in a Japanese horror film, a curse that could be passed on to an innocent person on contact. A curse that you could never outsmart or outrun, that would find you no matter where you ran, that could only be stopped by means of a violent bloodletting. Every time Steve and Anne made it to a new place, the film would become bright and sunny, but eventually the shadows would creep in, and the gangsters would show up, and Steve and Anne would be forced to try and run yet again.

Steve and Anne begin the film in a state of domestic bliss, living in a picture perfect ideal of marriage. The film is brightly lit, comedic even, and there's one instantaneous edit that changes everything. Steve gets the note telling him to call a potential client, and heads to the hallway phone to make the call. The phone is in a clean, bright hallway, and the film cuts on Steve's hopeful face as the phone rings to a shot of the phone on the other end of the line. It hang on a dirty grey wall in a room filled with inky black shadows, and from that transmission from Noir Country Steve and Anne's lives are changed forever. When we cut back, the scene looks the same, but something has changed. There are notes of concern, and the threat of menace hangs over everything.

This is a repeating motif in the film; Steve keeps escaping to places that seem perfect, but the shadows always creep in. They go to work on Steve as well, as he turns to car theft and compromises his morals to keep his wife safe. Noir in Desperate is like a physical disease, a body horror where the body is the movie itself.

OK, maybe that's stretching things a bit, but my point is clear. Noir leaves a stain that isn't so easy to get rid of.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Summer of Darkness: M(1931)

M. is not a film noir, but it stands as one of the great precedents of the noir movement, helmed by a director who would go on to direct many influential noir films, and an actor who would become an icon of noir himself. It's a film that bridges the gap between noir and German Expressionism, grounding the formalist styles of Expressionism with a more realist, gritty approach. M., despite its sometimes whimsical inventions(an odd phrase for a movie about the hunt for a child killer, but I hope to make my use of it clear) is recognizably set in the real and the day to day. It's clear that Lang had an understanding of his subjects, but also no real sympathy, making this a view on society that looks ugly, dirty, and always on the brink of chaos.

The opening scene sets the stage for M.'s mix of the mundane, the menacing, and the theatrical in perhaps the most straightforward manner possible. The film opens on a group of children, circled around a girl standing in the center. The girls is repeating a sing-songy chant about a child killer, and pointing at each of the children in turn. As the girl gets to a certain refrain, anyone she's pointing at is 'out' of the game. This strikes many as a morbid, foreboding scene, yet as a parent, and one who remembers his own childhood, I had a different reaction to it. Consider it from the children's point of view; they are playing a game. To the children the song and its connotations hold no sense of danger, death in this sense only means being out of the game until the next round. To children death is not the same as it is for adults, and many children's games center around the idea death either metaphorically or literally. This view of death being intertwined with child's play will come up again and again in the film.

The first sign of actual trouble is when one of the children's mothers leans out over a balcony and shouts down for them to stop singing that awful song. Something about her alarm spreads to the audience; any parent would, under normal circumstances, see this as typical playground behavior. What has changed here?

There's an interesting visual interlude here, When the mother retreats back into the apartment, Lang holds the shot for 10 seconds. After a few moments the children begin singing again, and their insubordination is presented in such a manner as to make it humorous, and yet we remain on the empty balcony. Lang cuts next to an empty stairway, and it's another 6 seconds before the mother reappears, carrying a load of laundry. 16 seconds is an eternity for a film to be without any visible focal point or activity, and it stirs an anticipation, a dread for what is about to happen.

Let's skip ahead in this analysis a couple minutes, before I stop making this a scene-by-scene description of  a film more knowledgeable people than I have dissected. The first introduction we get to the child murderer, Franz Becker, we get to it through the act of a child playing. We watch a young girl leave school, and she's so distracted with her play that she wanders into the street and is almost hit by a car. A policeman shouts for her to be careful, but he stops paying attention once she's on her way, straight to her actual doom with Becker, as it turns out. Becker first appears only as a shadow, imposed over a poster describing his crimes as the little girl bounces a ball off of it. We are made aware of the girl's eventual demise by a series of heartbreaking shots. An empty spot at the dinner table, a mother shouting down a stairway, a balloon bought for the girl now tangled in electrical wires, and the girl's ball rolling out of a bush. M. combines the playful and the tragic in a dark perversion of whimsy.

Other notes of playfulness pop up throughout the film. Becker's red pencil he uses to write to the police, the tune from Peer Gynt that he whistles until it's jauntiness becomes a stand-in for the murders, in much the same way John William's score for Jaws would become a stand-in for the actual shark. The Brechtian concept of a beggar's union, where the homeless can buy props to improve their panhandling successes, sell goods and foods they've scavenged, and are assigned streetcorners to work in the same way many office workers get their daily projects. Lang gets a few good sardonic laughs out of how similarly the cops and criminals operate.

It's interesting to watch M. with an idea of historical context and try to decode what all of the various institutions represent. M. was co-written by Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, and the film's symbolic meaning seems such a loaded topic when you realize this film came out in 1931, when the nazi party was on the rise(though not yet completely in power). In a few years Hitler would be in power, Fritz Lang would have escaped from Germany to Hollywood, and Thea von Harbou would have joined the nazi party. It seems unlikely that M. could seem so metaphorically rich while not signifying anything, and yet the differing political viewpoints of its authors make that meaning difficult to parse.

Breaking it down a bit, M. has four major groups that almost every character falls into. We have The Law; the cops and detectives who hunt desperately for Becker. We have The Criminals, whose search for Becker is a means to an end, as it will get the cop to stop hassling them so much. There's The Public, who live in fear and descend into mob mentality at the merest hint of suspicious behavior. Finally there are The Beggars, who have formed their own shadow society largely unseen and unnoticed by the other three groups. They have no stake in the search, but The Criminals use their societal invisibility to make them the perfect eyes and ears in their search for Becker. Taken together, the four groups hang in almost perfect symmetry, with Becker, the only distinct character not belonging to any other group, occupying the center everyone else revolves around.

So, who does Becker represent? What is he a stand-in for? The outsider? The other? The very idea of a society led astray? Certainly he seem monstrous beyond belief, but he's also given more moments of sympathy than many other characters. He's seen early in the film prodding his face in a mirror, pulling skin to make hideous faces as if he's just gotten around to noticing he has one. Or, as Roger Ebert puts it, is he trying to see the monster inside that others see? Becker has a speech at the end of the film, as he faces a crowd of accusers, where he expounds on his impossible to ignore compulsion that he neither controls nor understands. Certainly this strikes a chord with the lifelong criminals who are slave to their own uncontrollable compulsions.

Becker is a virus in this film, or perhaps more accurately, a cancer. A threat that grows within the carefully structured organism, unnoticed until it's too late. But he had to have the opportunity to grow. It takes a blinded society to allow a man like Becker to not only develop, but flourish. If there were any real justice in the film's world, Becker would have been treated or helped long before his first murder occurred.

It can be hard to tell who the film expects us to sympathize with. At certain points everyone on screen will become sympathetic, but often that is due only to their station. We sympathize with the parents because they have lost their children, but the film points out that they would not have lost their children had they been paying attention to them. We root for the cops because we want Becker stopped, but they behave thuggishly and with an entitled snobbery that is continually offputting. Our sympathies grow for the criminals, as we see how the cops mistreat them in their search for Becker, but the film never shies away from letting us know these are not good men. The only ones to really escape any sort of blame are the beggars, who have made their abandonment from society a mutual affair, with their own separate society and their own governmental systems.

In my initial conception, I believe that the scenes concerning the plans of the cops, and the plans of the criminals, with their symmetrically framed smoke-filled rooms and speeches that echo each other, represent the shadowy forces that conspire to focus on a highly visible threat so that they may pursue their true ambitions without public scrutiny. The Public, with their tendency to fire-and-pitchfork witch hunts and mob mentality, represents a population eager to allow that subterfuge in exchange for a sense of security. That's a notion that would have seemed powerful in the early thirties, and it's surprising that the nazi censors let it pass. It's also an idea that should seem pretty powerful to modern audiences.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Nightmare Alley(1947)

Here we are, folks, Nightmare Alley. The noirest of the noir, one of the darkest films to ever come out of the classic studio system, featuring one of the ballsiest cases of career self-immolation I can think of. This film is proof that the Hayes Code was great at keeping explicit sex and violence off of theatre screens, but completely ineffectual at protecting audiences from the depths of human depravity and degradation.

Nightmare Alley opens with the question 'What makes a geek?' The Geek, the lowest rung of any travelling carnival. The almost subhuman creature who decapitates live chickens with his teeth. The geek is looked down on with derision and disgust, and would never be found in any reputable carnival. The question of what makes a geek is one the film will circle back around to at the end, but for now it's mostly deployed as background flavor. It sets the tone of desperation that permeates the film.

Tyrone Power plays Stanton "Stan" Carlisle, a carnie who helps Madame Zeena(Joan Blondell) with her mentalist act, largely taking the place of her husband Pete, who lives in a drunken stupor and is too consistently wasted to do much more than menial behind-the-scenes work. Pete and Zeena once had a big time show, based around a complicated verbal code that allowed Pete to convey information about certain audience members to Zeena. Pete's alcoholism renders him useless for that function, however, so they joined the travelling circus and perform a less complicated, less impressive act. The code is apparently enough of a secret that Zeena refuses to teach it to Stan, planning instead to sell it off at some future date to provide for her retirement.

Once Stan hears about the code, he can't get the idea of performing in a big time show out of his head, and begs Zeena to teach it to him. She refuses, at least Stan accidentally kills Pete by handing him a bottle of grain alcohol by mistake while Pete's on one of his drunken benders. Now, this death is clearly an accident, but also not out of the realm of possibility that Stan would subconsciously try to kill Pete. He's clearly shocked by what he's done, but he also quickly removes any evidence of his involvement, and he's more than happy to benefit from the man's death. Stan and Zeena revive the old act, and Stan proves remarkably adept at it, causing them to quickly become the biggest act in the circus. Of course, that isn't enough for Stan, who we're beginning to see is driven completely by ambition. Soon his drive finds him forced into a shotgun wedding with Molly(Colleen Gray), and exiled from the circus.

That's what makes Stanton such a vile character; he's not evil. He has the capacity for love, friendship, even kindness, yet he ignores those tendencies in order to further his own ambition. He's aware enough to know that what he does in this film is wrong, but zealous enough to not care. Stan never seeks to hurt anyone, but he's more than happy to do it so long as it benefits him in some way. His downfall comes when he finally comes across someone with more brains, and somehow fewer morals. Stan finds himself separated from Molly- the only person who cares about him at all- broke, and wanted by the police for murder. If the film had ended there, it would be impressively bleak, but shockingly there's further for Stan to fall.

Stan becomes a drunk himself, living in a tiny motel room subsisting entirely on alcohol and room service. And then the money runs out, and he finds himself as a hobo, drinking cheap wine around campfires and reminiscing about his glory days and fighting for the last drop of alcohol. Stan's descent into destitution and alcoholism is presented via a brisk montage of sequences, each scene a lower rung Stan is climbing down. This stops when Stan wanders into a carnival seeking a job, a prospect the carnival owner clearly views skeptically, as by this point Stan is severely marked by his fall from grace. His face is lined, his eyes are dark, and his clothes are stained and torn. But the man invites Stan into his office, sits him down, and begins to talk about an available job. Not a glamorous job, but a job. A ground floor job that would give Stan a place to sleep and a bottle a day. And anyway, it's only temporary, only until they find a real geek. Stan looks up, smiles, and repeats his oft-stated phrase: "Mister, I was made for it."

"Mister, I was made for it."

Nightmare Alley seems to have found the bleakest note possible to end on, but then it still has one more scene to go. It's easy to see this scene, where Stan and Molly are reunited and Molly promises to take care of Stan, as a cop out happy ending. A studio or censor mandated relief from the grime and soul sickness that has come before. But look a little closer, and you'll see the happiness is false, an ironic mirroring of the relationship between Pete and Zeena earlier in the film. Stan may have avoided rock bottom as a geek, but he's found a level just above that, one that will keep him comparatively comfortable, but one that also lacks the ability to rise. Stan has sunk as far as he can without the capacity for hope.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Johnny Eager(1941)

Robert Taylor and Lana Turner.

Let me just start off with my final judgement on this film; Johnny Eager is one of the most purely fun films I've seen as part of this project. It moves with a briskness of pace, it's plot is tightly wound, and its characterizations are enjoyable throughout. It may not break ground in the area of cinematic arts, but it doesn't need to. Johnny Eager sets out to entertain audiences with a gripping crime tale, and embraces the cliches of the genre instead of trying to skirt them. Though it does, in a way, subvert some of them, as I'll get to later. Johnny Eager is a pre-code crime film wrapped up in Hayes Code-era film noir trappings. A film noir variation on Public Enemy or Little Caesar, films whose 'crime doesn't pay' messages are undone by how much fun they make being a criminal appear.

Johnny Eager, the character this time, is not exactly a new invention. He's the criminal with a moral code, the smartest man in the room at all times. A man who uses his brains to destroy his enemies more than he uses his guns. He's a man who can be cruel and merciless, but is also kind and loyal to his subordinates, until they start thinking of crossing him. It's easy to run through a list of Johnny's crimes in this film and come to the conclusion that he's a heartless monster leaving nothing but tragic loss in his wake, but as played by Robert Taylor he becomes sympathetic to the point that the audience may find itself justifying his crimes in their minds. It's true that he kills those who threaten him, but it's also true that he'll find non-lethal solutions if given the chance. Johnny Eager typifies the sort of anti-hero criminal that would come to populate the crime pictures of the 60s and 70s, and at times feels like a prototype for the films of Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Abel Ferrara.

Johnny Eager, the film, revels in the life of crime in a way that a lot of Hayes Code pictures wouldn't allow themselves. Johnny's life looks fun. By day he pretends to have put his criminal past behind him, working as a cabdriver and living with his sister. But at night, away from the eyes of his parole officer, he heads up a sprawling gambling syndicate with influence in nearly every social institution. The film that repeatedly came to mind as I watched this one was King of New York. Johnny Eager and Frank White have a lot in common, in both their ruthlesness and their implied moral code. Replace the hospital Frank is concerned with with the dog track Johnny Eager hopes to open, and King of New York could be a very(very!) loose remake.

I had so much fun watching Johnny outsmart his enemies that I forgot for awhile I was watching a Hayes Code film. It was entertaining watching Johnny get the upper hand on adversaries who continually thought he was down for the count, or who had seriously misjudged his deviousness, that I secretly hoped the film would find a way to skirt the restriction of the times that required all criminals to be brought to justice, or at least punishment, in the final reel. I knew his downfall was coming, but I didn't want to see it. Johnny was so much smarter than everyone else that to see him die in a hail of bullets seemed to be anticlimactic. Luckily, the film invests a bit more into it's finale than might be immediately apparent.

Yes, Johnny is punished for his crimes, but in the end it's his good deeds that lead to his fall from grace. It isn't the murders he's responsible for, it isn't the multiple crimes he's committed throughout the film, he's punished only once he tries to make amends to someone out of love. In the world of Johnny Eager, crime does pay, and it pays very well. As long as you remain clever and ruthless, as long as you form no meaningful attachments... well, in the words of the Geto Boys....

So, I realize now that I've not spoken about the plot at all, or even mentioned Lana Turner or Van Heflin. It should be clear, though, that I enjoyed the film quite a bit. But let me just add that Van Heflin, as Johnny's always-drunk Jiminy Cricket figure, deserved his Best Supporting Actor win.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Summer of Darkness: The Set-Up(1949)

The Set-Up is not a traditional film noir, in that it doesn't feature many of the hallmarks of the genre. It's not something people would watch and immediately associate with noir. The film owes more to the naturalistic realism often associated with the French New Wave than it does to noir's most visible precedent, German Expressionism. Consider this a suburb on the borders of Noir Country, where the capital's influence is muted and often negligible.

Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a boxer in the midst of a long losing streak, at a point where everyone seems to have lost faith in his abilities. So convinced are people in his status as a has-been that his manager and trainer accept money to make sure he loses an upcoming match, and don't even tell him about it. They just assume he'll be fine at losing on his own. The opening of the film shows that his wife, Julie(played by Audrey Totter), has tired of the routine, as well, as she announces her intentions to not attend the big fight, because she's tired of seeing him beaten. Julie is the only main character in the film to show any faith in Stoker, and she's clearly losing the energy to believe in and support her husband. Stoker takes her ringside absence as a bad sign for their marriage, and indeed Julie does spend the night wandering the city, apparently considering leaving, but in the end she returns to their hotel room to prepare dinner.

Stoker eventually learns about the fix as he's about to enter the final round of what has been a remarkably brutal fight, but by then it's too late. His mind is made up. He can't sell himself out so his manager can pocket a measly fifty bucks, not when he's so close to proving his worth to the audience, to his peers, to his wife, to himself. And so he pushes himself, he goes all the way, and the epic fight ends, incredibly, in his favor.

It's likely that the fight scenes, full of quick cuts and closeups on sweaty, pummeled faces, were seen as the centerpiece to this film. The scenes are fine, action packed and well shot, but the real heart of The Set-Up lives in the shared locker room where the fighters prepare. No rivalries extend to this room, and the fighters await their bouts with honest camaraderie and good cheer. They help each other prepare, share anecdotes and dreams, and band together when one of them returns from the ring with serious injuries. These scenes have an enjoyable sense of reality that give the film a real lived-in feel. It's fun being a fly on that wall, as the evening progresses in almost real-time.

As I said, the noir elements of the film aren't very pronounced, and are mostly relegated to a handful of scenes involving the gangster, Little Boy, who paid for Stoker's dive. He's present at the fight, offering some quiet, smug menace to the proceedings, but he only becomes a real threat in the finale, when Stoker must find a way to escape the arena without falling into his clutches. In these scenes the shadows loom larger, and the movie's world seems ready to tip into the void. When the reckoning does come for Stoker, it's leavened by his new found confidence and the love of his wife.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Summer of Darkness: 99 River Street(1953)

Ernie Driscoll is having one hell of a bad night. It gets off to a bad start when a televised repeat of one of his old boxing matches ignites an argument with his wife. It gets worse when he finds out his wife is seeing another man, continues to worsen when an acquaintance comes to him for help in disposing of the body of her would-be rapist, and hasn't even reached its nadir when his wife's diamond-thief lover tries to frame him for her murder. Yes, Ernie is having a rough night, and his simmering rage threatens to explode at any moment.

Ernie Driscoll is a noir hero who doesn't know he's living in a film noir, and in fact wants desperately to avoid that fate. His wife is the one in the film noir, his acquaintance wants to be in a film noir, but Ernie wants to live in a simple slice of life melodrama. He wants to live quietly, driving a cab while reminiscing about his golden years as a boxer. Regaling friends and coworkers with his plans to open his own filling station. Enjoying the camaraderie of an all-night diner and his fellow cabbies, buying chocolates for his wife and trying for children. It's only when the complications pile on too high that Ernie embraces his inner two-fisted hero and begins spouting lines like "There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time."

Yes, it turns out Ernie was born to be the world-weary hero of a film noir, and he takes to it naturally. To the film's credit, and what makes its plot work, is that the film never lets Ernie completely off the hook through his dark night of the soul. Sure, Ernie is the victim here, but it's easy to sympathize with the wife of a man so disappointed in his own life, who is so bottled up and quick to use his fists on the people who don't deserve it. The film never implies that Ernie ever beat his wife, but living with a man that full of rage couldn't have been a cake walk. It's easy to see why she might find comfort and romance in the arms of another man, even one as dangerous as Mr. Diamond Thief.

The film takes some twists and turns and features dozens of complications I haven't mentioned here. The film's surprises are worth experiencing on their own, and my sympathy for Ernie quickly turned into surprised laughter at how much punishment the film kept throwing his way. Ernie's journey from aggrieved hero of a melodrama to two-fisted hero of a film noir is so smooth, and seems so natural a fit for the character, that it becomes a bit difficult to buy into the film's convenient happy ending. It's hard to believe Ernie will be a success with his new wife and filling station, not when we've seen how comfortable and, dare I say, content he was pummeling men to within an inch of their lives. Not when we've seen what became of his previous marriage. Ernie may have consciously switched genres, but the shadows of Noir Country have a long reach.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Summer of Darkness; Hollow Triumph(1948)

Noir films have their fare share of behind-the-scenes superstars, names that come to mind when people think of the genre. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet for their two fisted detective novels, Fritz Lang for his expressionistic, formalist visual styles, and Howard Hawks for his concise, direct style of storytelling. One name that seems a little unsung, however, is John Alton. Film buffs know his name, and he gained recognition for a book he wrote on cinematography(Painting With Light), but most casual fans will probably say they've never heard the name.

That wouldn't quite be true, for as cinematographer John Alton lensed an impressive 102 movies, one short film, and the pilot for Mission: Impossible over a 40 year career. He was director of photography on one film I've covered so far this summer(Woman on the Run), and his name will pop up several more times before I'm done. Many of the films he worked on throughout the 40s and 50s would today be classified as noir, and John Alton did as much as anyone else you can think of to help define and codify film noir in the eyes of the public. His frequent use of chiaroscuro lighting, off center framing, and juxtaposed facial profiles embodied what we imagine when we think of the term film noir.

Hollow Triumph is a film that owes a great debt to the skills of John Alton. His framing and lighting enforce the metaphorical subtext of the scenes, in many cases adding a dramatic weight that otherwise might not come through. Take the shot below, taken from a pivotal moment in the film where John Muller(Paul Henreid) first gets the idea to steal another man's identity. Voice over plays through his head as he studies his own reflection, which is metaphorically apt enough. Probably a bit cliche, even at this point in the late 40s. But then notice that he's looking at his reflection through his own shadow, which is prominently figured in the shot. The mirror outside of his reflection is streaked and obscured by the light, but in the reflection his face is clear, though maybe blurry in this screengrab. This shot takes a somewhat cliche image and adds another visual layer to it, to make it more engaging to the eye, but also to add more depth to the metaphor.

Paul Henreid here is playing John Muller, a career criminal recently released from prison and on the run from a gangster he's robbed. He also, for a couple of brief scenes, plays Dr. Bartok, a psychoanalyst whose life he covets as a possible escape route. Muller is released from prison to much fanfare from the warden concerning his intelligence, and several characters remark throughout the film on Muller's intelligence, but we never see much evidence for it. He joins Gene Hackman's character in The Conversation in the pantheon of 'experts' who aren't very good at their jobs. Muller's brilliant scheme for robbing the casino owned by a widely-feared gangster with global connections(on his first day out of prison, no less) is to basically turn off the lights so no one sees him run away in the dark. This plan is foiled almost immediately when someone simply turns the lights back on.

Muller's lack of foresight extends even further, when he begins to actively plan to steal Dr. Bartok's identity. Bartok is a psychoanalyst, which is convenient because Muller has some schooling in the subject, but beyond that he's primarily clueless. He searches Bartok's office, looks over some patient files, but doesn't bother to look into Bartok's personal life, or discover if the man has any loved ones or a girlfriend(he does), or what his habits are. Bartok has a prominent facial scar, and Muller is smart enough to give himself an identical scar before making the switch, however he's caught in the act partly because he puts the scar on the wrong side of his face.

Steve Sekely's direction, combined with Alton's cinematography, is consistently inventive, making good use of semi-abstract montage and elliptical editing. Yet something in the film failed to grab me. It could be a problem of character motivation, as no one's actions ever really feel believable. What good will it do for Muller to steal another man's life when he still looks the same and is recognizable by the gangster's henchmen? Or maybe it was the way the airless way the story unfolded, which left no room for tension or emotion. The film ends on a great note, which would have made O. Henry proud, but getting there was never much fun. At the risk of channeling Gene Shalit, Hollow Triumph felt a little hollow itself.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Crossfire(1947)

The classic period of film noir, as it's generally understood, came of age in the postwar years, counteracting the optimism most Americans seemed to be feeling with the fatalistic cynicism of a country who had just seen hell. Sure, things looked bright and cheery now, but it's hard to forget the nightmares and atrocities so recently committed. It's no coincidence that many of the early film noir directors were refugees from Hitler's Germany. Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak all fled to Hollywood prior to the war, and their styles and preoccupations came with them. Almost all film noir, however, carried those weights with them, in either literal or more ethereal stylistic ways. Few, however, are as direct in their dealings with the horrors of World War Two as Crossfire.

That is not to say that Crossfire is a searing and nightmarish depiction of a world at war. Quite the opposite, actually. The film bears very little in the way of the trademark stoicism and resignation traditional to film noir, and instead embraces the optimism of post war America while also acknowledging the presence of the shadows. Crossfire deals with the attempts of police detective Finlay(Robert Young) to piece together the brutal killing of a Jewish man, where the only three suspects are servicemen back from the war. Mitch(George Cooper) is the initial prime suspect, having been seen last with the dead man, and being blind drunk to boot. Montgomery(Robert Ryan) plays a faintly antisemitic soldier who attempts to defend Mitch, and Sgt. Keeley(Robert Mitchum, rounding out the trifecta) lends his even handed judgment to Finlay's attempts to find the killer. 

Crossfire is a message movie, and handles it's subject matter bluntly and directly. Joseph Samuels was killed simply because he was Jewish, and the film's goal is to let us know why that's a tragedy. It would be easy today to look back and poke apart the film's simplistic moral, it's heavy handedness, or the direct way it conveys it's points, but it's important to remember when this came out. Crossfire premiered less than two years after the end of WWII, when much of the audience would have been returning soldiers, or their families. The worries presented here would have been very current, and it's easy to see why the filmmakers felt so compelled to impart this wisdom.

But again, this film isn't a miserablist bit of finger wagging. The film believes in the innate goodness of people. OK, of the innate goodness of Americans, at least. The military and other authorities are all depicted as morally upstanding and kind, with only Montgomery acting as the rare bad apple. The audience stand-in is most likely the character of Leroy(William Phipps), and as Finlay lays out the films grand statement, that bigotry and blind hatred are as dangerous as bullets in a gun, he speaks directly to us, the audience, through Leroy. Leroy is us; maybe a bit dull, but generally wishing to do good and follow the path of righteousness, but also too eager to follow the wrong leader at times.

The film may begin and end in the shadows, with a brutal killing on both sides, but in the middle comes the day. As Finlay reaffirms the ideals of America just after the nightmare of a worldwide war, the Declaration of Independence is framed just over his shoulder, and behind him the large windows show the sun shining on the Capitol Building. 

Summer of Darkness: Detour(1945)

Detour is an odd movie to be considered a classic; shot on dingy, bare sets, full of cliches instead of characters, actors who are across the board unpleasant to spend time with, and with a brief running time barely making it to the feature film threshold. But it's also stylishly nightmarish, in a way that doesn't chill you but makes you feel soul sick. The basic plot is familiar to most fans of film noir; a down on his luck man happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is poised to take the fall for a murder he didn't commit. On the way to avoid the authorities, he crosses path with the wrong woman and allows himself to fall under her spell. It's the specifics, though, that lend Detour it's power, both stylistically and thematically.

Detour follows Al, a piano player in New York who decides to sell everything he owns and hitchhike to Los Angeles to be with the woman he loves. After a period of time(days? weeks?) he's picked up by a man who happens to be heading all the way to LA. A gambler by profession, the driver is talkative and friendly, buys Al lunch at a diner, and allows him to drive part of the way so they can sleep in shifts and arrive that much faster. When the driver dies of a heart attack, Al is convinced the police will blame him for the murder no matter what he says, so he buries the body and assumes the man's identity. His plan is to ditch the car once he gets to LA and can disappear into the city. Stopping for gas, he picks up a hitchhiker, Vera, who unfortunately for him happens to be the one person on this stretch of highway that knows Al isn't who he says he is. Vera assumes Al has killed the driver for the several hundred bucks he had on him, and proceeds to keep Al on a very short leash, taking most of the money and scheming to get more.

Detour makes a good piece of evidence for my previously stated theory that noir films take place in their own parallel, tightly contained universe. It also makes a good contrast with Dark Passage, which is similarly obsessed with travel. But where Dark Passage displayed travel out of the purgatory of noir, Detour is very much about falling into that doomed arena. From the opening credits this is made clear, as the credits roll over a shot of highway stretching out before us. A car is racing down the highway, but our view is from the rear, so we see the highway disappear behind us. We're moving away from something, or towards Noir Country. Detour is all about how on man can make the wrong turn and wind up trapped in the fatalistic web of noir, with it's fog filled streets, canted angles, harsh, suspicious shadows and untrustworthy dames. Detour depicts a man's fall from grace, and even Al himself refers to his previous life as 'heaven'. Now Al is stuck in a world where the lights dim as he tells his story, coming to a pinpoint focus on his eyes. A world where all the cars seem to be travelling the wrong way down the road(a result of flipped negatives). The world of Detour is a world where something is fundamentally wrong, and Al represents the man who got lost on his way past, and is now stuck due to the vagaries of fate.

But is that really true? Is Al a blameless victim of circumstance? Surely that's what he'd like us to believe, and what we see on screen backs up that claim. But then again, what we're seeing is what he's telling us, and his story seems a bit too convenient. A bit too forgiving of a man who could. in the end, be held responsible for two murders. Did the driver really die of a heart attack, or did Al simply frame it that way to make his theft more understandable? Surely even in an allegorical film noir the evidence would show Al hadn't murdered the man through coronary thrombosis. And what about Vera? There's something about her unpleasantness that seems heightened. Her dialogue seems overwritten in a manner unlike anyone else in the film. It strikes me as a drastic rewrite on the part of Al's memory. Why would Al stay with Vera through this unless he initially wanted to? Even a character as spineless as Al would be able to see her threats were hollow, and her plans impossible. And surely her end is one of the more implausible cases of accidental homicide the screen has ever seen. There are two ways to read this; either Al committed those murders intentionally, or he was simply happy to do nothing to prevent them and reap the benefits.

Detour reminds me of an extended Tales From the Crypt or Twilight Zone episode. A story where the main characters tries to present himself as sympathetic but is truly just a heartless opportunist, and pays for his crimes with a harshly ironic punishment. Sure, the cops show up by the end, but the real punishment here is that Al has been sentenced to a living hell. He's left behind the sunny vibrant world of the living and exists in a sweaty, smoky, eternal night. He's entered Noir Country.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Dark Passage(1947)

[Major spoilers to follow. Not sure if you care about them for a movie that's almost 70 years old, but, fair warning.]

The plot of Dark Passage is so full of coincidence, based so much on the same four or five people in San Francisco constantly bumping into each other, that it would be easy to criticize the film for indulging deus ex machina to tell its tale. And that reading would be, in a way, correct; the film is slightly ridiculous on its face, and its hard to completely swallow the string of coincidences. But then, every movie requires a certain amount of contrivance to push the plot into motion, and to then keep it in motion. And those coincidences do happen in real life, from time to time. For example, until about 12 years ago I had never taken a trip out of my home state without running into a good friend in some random city or airport. Running into a high school buddy I hadn't seen in years on an unexpected overnight layover in Minnesota? That happened. A guy I'd just shared an Eastern Religions class with the previous semester on a trip to visit family in Florida? Yep. And so I'm willing to buy, at least for the sake of the story, that everyone Vincent Parry(Humphrey Bogart) meets in Dark Passage is either a friend or an enemy with some previously-unremarked-on history between them.

I'm not sure the film was intended to be read as anything other than a literal thriller, but I'm about to read a bit more into it anyway. I'm fairly sure Delmer Daves and everyone involved on the film merely thought they were making a brisk crime film, but I think I can see glimmers of something else buried in there as well. One thing I've noticed a lot in watching so many films noir in such a small period of time is the use of travel. People in noir movies seem to drive a lot more than in other films. There are more scenes set in cars cruising through nighttime cities, more plots that involve trying to escape to somewhere, with pivotal scenes set in or around hubs of transportation. Trainyards, docks, airports. Travel represents two seemingly opposed ideals in film noir; the idea of freedom and the idea of predestination. Noir characters are invariably trying to escape some web that's been spun around them, to clear their name, escape the law, escape the devious women and violent hoods that surround them. But the basic irony is that no matter how much travelling they actually accomplish, they're still stuck, because all of those vehicles go to the same place. All roads lead to Rome, or in film noir, all roads lead to Reckoning.

Professor Richard Edwards, who is running the online course on film noir that I am taking part in, which has named and inspired this entire series of posts, called the first module in the course 'Entering Noir Country.' That suggests another idea that had been bubbling just under the surface; that these films exist in their own separate world. I don't mean in the general sense that all fiction resides in it's own unique world, I mean very simply that these films take place in what could be seen as a parallel, or possibly internal, world. These characters live in enclosed cities that hold the impression that if you were to leave through one street, you would immediately find yourself re-entering the city from a street on the other side. Sometimes the enclosed city can span an entire continent, but the outcome is the same; the characters are trapped and will keep treading the same ground over and over again. It's why even though Joe Sullivan in Raw Deal drives across country and boards a ship leaving the country, he still ends the film back where he started in a battle with the mob boss he had been trying to escape from. This would explain why in most noir films the plots and characters are so tightly entangled, like the difficult-to-map plot of Murder, My Sweet, where Phillip Marlowe's separate cases turn out to be not so separate at all, and all feature the same three or four people in different configurations. It's because there are no other people, at least none that matter. There are no other places, at least none the characters can get to. Noir is like a purgatory for it's characters, and we get the idea that once the credits roll and the curtain closes they'll simply reset their positions and start the whole thing over again.

Dark Passage seems to realize this about film noir. Seems to distill those feelings and heighten them. Vincent Parry(Humphrey Bogart) escapes from prison and makes it to San Francisco with the help of sympathetic Irene Jansen(Lauren Bacall), despite initially having trouble with a driver too nosy for his own good. Vincent has never met Irene, but coincidentally she was at his trial every day, and wrote letters to the editor about Vincent's mistreatment. All of this is explained away as sympathy for Vincent's plight because her father had been wrongly convicted of murder and died in jail, but there are some big coincidences to come. From this point on the movie is about Vincent Parry's race to find a way out of the country. He never seems too concerned about clearing his name and finding his wife's real killer, but he needs to get out. To this end he meets a remarkable number of people willing to help him and willing to believe with no evidence that he's actually innocent. Irene, despite her being so invested in Vincent's case, simply happened to be driving buy when she ran into him during his escape. Then there's the cabdriver who immediately recognizes Vincent, but says he knows a doctor that could give him plastic surgery to help him avoid the cops. Then there's the doctor himself, who isn't sure Vincent is innocent, but trusts the cabbie. That's an enormous amount of luck for a prison escapee on his first day out, and even luckier that they happen to be 3 of the first 4 people he meets on the outside.

On the opposite side we have Vincent's enemies. That nosy driver from earlier returns, tailing Vincent in order to either claim the bounty on him, or extort thousands of dollars from Irene. Irene's friend Madge becomes something more than a nuisance, as it's revealed she had a much bigger part to play in Vincent's imprisonment than anyone realized. Consider this another humongous coincidence; Irene, completely independent of any other factors, fixates on Vincent's case, then also coincidentally happens to be driving past the exact stretch of road where Vincent just happens to be escaping from jail, and then her best friend happens to also be the true killer of Vincent's wife. What are the chances? How is it that out of the 16,000 people in San Francisco in 1947, Vincent keeps running into this same handful. Also a danger to Vincent are the police, of course, who are always a vague threat around the edges of this movie. But the thing is, the threat of arrest never seems that present. Nosy-Driver doesn't really want to send Vincent back to jail, nor does Madge. They all seem to exist simply as roadblocks. Dark Passage is a movie about stasis, about being stuck in a web with the same few people, and as such these characters never destroy Vincent, they simply conspire to keep him stuck where he is. Every attempt he makes to leave the city is blocked, and he's constantly forced to return to Irene's apartment as the one safe place for him in the city.

Dark Passage then exists as a quintessential movie about Noir as a place, and becomes, to my current, not-at-all-comprehensive knowledge, the only one where true escape is possible. Sure, there are other films with happy endings; A Woman on the Run, Deadline at Dawn, Journey Into Fear, all these end with happily embracing couples setting off on a life together, their brief nightmare over. But they haven't truly escaped, they still exist in the same place, the same world where all their troubles began. Vincent Parry in this film achieves what no other noir character has; a true, honest to god rebirth. He makes it through the dark passage and emerges into the light, as a literal new man(or as literal as humanly possible), in a literal new place, with a literal new life. And he escaped because he wasn't focused on revenge, or uncovering secrets. He was focused on escaping from the world of cyclical abuse and tragedy, and he won.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Summer of Darkness: On Dangerous Ground(1951)

"How do you live with yourself?"
"I don't. I live with other people."
-On Dangerous Ground

There's a passage in a Peter Straub story about someone trying to write the perfect version of a story, where every paragraph, every line, every word would be a microcosm of the whole. Where every sentence would be an arrow to the secret heart of the matter*. That's a phrase that's stuck with me for some reason, and it's one that I thought of a lot while watching On Dangerous Ground. This is a film rife with symbolism both obvious and subtle, all of it in service of one simple theme, which is perhaps most explicitly stated in the dialogue I quoted above. This film is about loneliness and desperation, and the heated exchange above comes from a tightly wound detective asking his senior partner how he lives with all of the crap they see on the job.

Robert Ryan plays Jim Wilson, a big city cop who's beginning to come apart at the edges. He's wound too tightly and takes the job too seriously. He lashes out at everyone he meets in the course of his job, has little time for conversation with his partners, and keeps looking through mugshots even while having dinner. He's clearly devoted, and it's clearly eating away at him. Several times we see his brutality on the job, first as he attempts to rough up a civilian who dares complain at less-than-polite treatment when he's stopped for matching the description of a burglar, and then later as he sends a man to the hospital in the course of an interrogation. Our tendencies here, and especially with the popular distrust of police officers these days, is to view Jim as the villain of the piece. Or at least the anti-hero, like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. A cop whose dedication to the job has pushed him over the edge and made him worse than the criminals he chases after. But really, Jim isn't that bad of a guy. He's not naturally cruel or brutal, but has been corrupted by the brutality and cruelty he sees everyday, where everyone he deals with is either a victim or a perpetrator. And from the very opening scenes we get an enforcement of that exchange quoted above. While his partners get ready for work, they are shown surrounded by loving wives and children. As Jim is picked up for work, he's eating dinner alone while perusing mugshot photo in an efficiancy-with-a-capital-E apartment. He may be losing it, but he still takes the time to play a good natured game of catch with the paperboy outside his apartment.

Jim's commanding officer, played by Ed Begley, certainly senses this growing brutality in Jim, and transfers him temporarily to a rural community up north(I thought the film took place in New York, but the upstate community was filmed in Colorado, so I'm not really sure) to help with a murder case. At this point I thought the film would become a story of a brutal cop butting heads with more laconic locals, but the film swerved a bit by dropping Jim into the middle of a community thirsty for biblical eye-for-an-eye revenge. I'm going to point out a small plot hole here, that may be addressed in the film but I didn't catch it. When Jim is in the city, his captain tells him of the murder and that he'd like Jim to go and help investigate. Jim drives several hours to the rural community, and arrives seemingly just after the murder, as people are chasing the killer away from the scene of the crime. I bring this up to point it out, not to say that it ruins the enjoyment or believability of the film. I've never allowed a plot hole to ruin my enjoyment of an otherwise great film, and would suggest a similar outlook to all who would consider themselves cinephiles. I often point out boom mics in shots, mismatched continuity, or other mistakes, but those alone don't reflect on a film's quality.

Here in upstate wherever, Jim suddenly finds himself the true voice of reason as he hunts down the murderer alongside the father of the victim, who plans on shooting on sight. Jim's first instinct is probably to sympathize with the father, possibly even to assist him, but he's also a decent enough cop that he does try to rein him in. The two steal a car together-sorry, commandeer a car together- and chase after the killer, but the chase ends when they drive the car off the road, where they come across a farmhouse where Mary, a blind woman played, sorry to say, a bit too mawkishly by Ida Lupino, lives with her brother who has been on another ranch for several days. It doesn't take long for the two men to come to the opinion that Mary's brother is the murderer, and they decide to wait for him to return.

At this point the movie starts to get even blunter about it's meanings and messages, as Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan become opposite poles on the scale of humanity. Ryan has been turned callous and distrusting by his job, all the things he's seen, while Ida Lupino is more emotional, and says she must trust everyone because she can't see. This segment here, between tough cop Jim, sensitive blind woman Mary, and aggrieved vengeful father Walter, form the backbone of the film. Jim sees the two options available to him; close yourself off or open yourself up, and begins to sympathize with the latter.

Skipping past the specifics of the plot, the film ends with Walter realizing his daughter's killer is just a kid himself, maybe not deserving of death, and Jim heading back to the big city. Where earlier in the film Jim would sit in the backseat while driving around with his partners, here he is sitting in the front seat along with the aggrieved father. Between them we can see the rear window, which has been partially busted out, giving us a clear sign that a crack has appeared in Jim's shell. He may be closer to letting the outside world in. There's a neat dissolve here, from the POV of the father's truck driving down country roads to another POV shot of more urban neighborhoods, and a cut back to Jim, driving alone in his car. As he heads away from farmland and into the city, we stay on his face as he plays over the things people have been telling him throughout the movie. About how the loneliest people are those who are always around people, and about how you need to give in order to get in this world.

The ending comes suddenly, so suddenly that I was almost tempted to write an argument here in favor of it being a dream sequence. A wish fulfillment daydream for a man who's just going to return to the cycles that have been destroying him for years. But I think that's too simple, and cynical, a reading. Sure there are themes in the film to support it, but I think it's best to take it on face value. This film seems to be a retort to the nihilism and cynicism of most film noir. It looks past the hardboiled detective cliche, the man we root for when he uses his fists to get info from a thug, and exposes the wounded lonely boy at heart. This is a film about the need to connect in order to combat the evils in this world, and cares enough to give it's characters a shot at that connection.

*I went looking for the story in particular, hoping to quote it exactly, but couldn't find it. I'm pretty sure it comes from one of the stories in Houses Without Doors. Maybe The Bufallo Hunter.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Stranger on the Third Floor

Stranger on the Third floor is a highly influential film, cited by many as the first true noir film, codifying many of the elements of the genre. Expressionistic lighting, low camera angles, flashbacks, a dream sequence, a wrong man desperate to clear his name. The movie looks great, and from the visually distorted world of German Expressionism. Stranger on the Third Floor has a lot of things going for it, and deserves to be seen and appreciated as the important film that it is. It also, sorry to say, was not really for me.

The film is fairly brief, just over an hour long, but the entire first half hour had me twiddling my thumbs and wondering what all of it's fans were seeing in it. Peter Lorre shows up and provides the film a dose of his special Peter Lorre creepiness, but for the most of the first 37 minutes we're following a couple cookie-cutter characters in not-entirely-realistic dialogue and actions. John McGuire plays reporter Mike Ward, who happens one night to become the only witness to a murder, and suddenly finds professional success with this scoop. His testimony puts a man(played by Elisha Cook Jr.) in prison, and Mike is happy enough to have done his civic duty and reap the rewards of it. His girlfriend, Jane(Margaret Tallichet) is not so cavalier about his part in sending a man to the electric chair, especially since what he witnessed is not entirely damning.

That's not bad, or free from drama, as story setups go. But I couldn't really get onto the film's wavelength. I just wasn't amused by Mike and Jane's chemistry, which I found lacking. The movie also didn't seem to fully engage in it's anti-death penalty argument. All of that changed, however, at about 37 minutes in, when Mike finds himself in his apartment worrying that his next door neighbor might have just been killed, and worrying about how he might be held responsible if he calls the police. There are a couple of flashbacks as his voiceover memories drift to times when he's explicitly described how he wanted to kill the neighbor, and they are hilariously on the nose. Like Family Guy cutaway gags only relevant to the plot. But then the drugs appear to kick in, as Mike experiences a fever dream nightmare that seems to be the entire point of the film.

The long and slanted shadows of film noir grow and become nightmarish reaching tendrils in this dream, which has him imagining his own arrest and sentencing for his neighbors death in something that would look right at home in a Terry Gilliam film. Particularly the courtroom daydreams of Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This extended sequence sends Mike on the run, but his much more sensible girlfriend persuades him to take what he knows to the police, when it appears the murder of his neighbor might be related to the murder he helped send a man to prison for. But his instincts prove to be correct, and he's quickly arrested for the murder himself, leading Jane to search for the killer(who we already have reason to believe is Peter Lorre).

From the dream sequence on Stranger on the Third Floor finds an energy and tension that had been entirely missing up to that point. Maybe it's just that I couldn't dig John McGuire as the lead, or maybe I just really enjoyed Peter Lorre's performance, crazy hillbilly teeth and all. Most likely a little from column A, a little from Column B. Lorre's performance as the quietly, unassumingly insane man is the second highlight of this film. He speaks in a small voice, and shows childlike compassion until he suddenly snaps into a blind rage, and he performs both poles excellently.

Stranger on the Third Floor ends with a ridiculous gag that had me rolling my eyes while also thinking it was a pretty fun choice. It's nicely anti-death penalty, but that subject was handled much more impactfully seven years later in Time Without Pity. In the end the film is a flimsy framework holding up some amazing objects. The elements of this film would be diluted, yes, but also employed to more conventionally pleasing uses in the decades to come.

Summer of Darkness: Journey Into Fear

Journey Into Fear bears the heavy fingerprints of Orson Welles, who cowrote, produced, acted in, and designed the film, but did not direct. Some reviewers will bring up the idea that Orson Welles may have ghost-directed this film, taking the reins from credited director Norman Foster. In fact, Welles' IMDb page lists him as an uncredited director on the project. I'm willing to take Orson at his word, though, when he says that everything was directed by his friend Norman. Apparently, the aspect he takes the most credit for is the pre-credits sequence involving the film's assassin gearing up while his phonograph skips.

Leaving aside the question of the film's authorship for the moment, Journey Into Fear is an unassuming, taut, incredibly entertaining spy film with noir elements. The type of film Hitchcock is famous for, though on a slightly smaller scale. There are no heartstopping chases through national monuments, no sustained sequences of suspense. The film is, outside of a few scenes, primarily a stagebound affair, taking place in a series of cramped hallways and quarters on a boat travelling Batumi. Joseph Cotten plays the requisite everyman-thrust-into-the-sinister-spotlight as an engineer for an American munitions company that nazis would like to see killed, not because he's important, but because his death would slow down the arming of Turkish naval vessels.

The films title refers to Cotten's personal journey from disbelieving prey to, in the finale, fed up predator, as Cotten at first runs from the nazis who have captured him, and then attempts to turn the tables and goes after the monstrous nazi assassin who has been dogging him the entire film. Journey Into Fear is narrated by Cotten, in the form of a letter he's written to his wife in case he is killed. This sets us up to assume a fatal end for our hero, which turns out to be a bit of misdirection. This movie isn't meant to be a downer. It isn't meant to inspire thoughts of the dark soul of man. It's meant, quite simply, to be an entertaining yarn, simply yet professionally told.

Summer of Darkness Extra Credit: Scarlet Street

For those who aren't aware yet, I'm taking part in TCM's Summer of Darkness, which is a programming event for June and July, coinciding with an online course on the history and techniques of film noir. It just started this week, which should explain to you why I've been posting so many reviews under the Summer of Darkness heading. As far as suggested movie viewings go, I'm going to be moving at my own pace, due to both the fact that I no longer subscribe to a cable provider, and I've seen several of the movies multiple times. Right now I'm jumping around the schedule quite a bit, rewatching a film or two, and tracking down whatever films on the list I can get my hands on. Throughout the months the course instructor has chosen a few public domain films not airing on TCM that are easy to find online. I plan on watching those, and as I find time, covering a couple of other films that aren't mentioned in the course. Consider these personal tangents I'm embarking on in order to spice things up a bit, or broaden my own personal appreciation of the subject. 

The first public domain film is Fritz Lang's film Scarlet Street, which is available on Hulu or Netflix or, due it's public domain status, on youtube(linked below). If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend watching it before reading below the link. I couldn't find a satisfying way to discuss this film without going into detail about the plot, and specifically the finale. So yes, spoilers lie ahead. I believe the film will still have an impact if you read this first, but I understand many people like the go in clean. I know I do. Also, if you somehow came here by mistake and don't feel interested in my ramblings, feel free to click along the trail, but still, watch this movie. 

Scarlet Street opens with a '25th anniversary of employment' party for the whimsically named Christopher Cross(Edward G. Robinson). The beginning passages set Cross up as the ultimate sap; he's been working the same unglamorous job as a cashier for 25 years, he's middle aged and all of his friends seem to be substantially older than he is, he lives with a wife who emasculates him at every turn, and he even wears a comically floppy apron as he does the dishes. The only brightspot in his life seems to be his painting, a hobby which he only allows himself to indulge in on Sundays, as he locks himself in his bathroom to paint still lifes away from the disapproving glare of his wife. He may harbor small daydreams of seeing his work in a gallery one day, but seems content to simply show them to the odd coworker.

That changes one night when he sees his boss climbing into a car with a beautiful younger woman, and his daydreams begin to drift towards romance, and away from his loveless marriage and pathetic routine. On his way home on that same night, Cross comes across a woman being beaten by a man we will later learn is her boyfriend. Cross successfully fends him off with his umbrella, and is immediately smitten with the girl, Katharine, played by Joan Bennett. Cross sees his opportunity, and jumps at it. He begins a courtship of the woman, playacting at the type of affair a wealthier, more confident man might have. He steals money(first from his wife, later from work) in order to rent Katharine an apartment where they can be alone together. He thinks it's love, she just wants a place to lounge around and entertain her hoodlum boyfriend.

But does he really think it's love? I'm not entirely convinced. Robinson never seems all that passionate in the role, which drew some unfavorable notices from critics of the day. But to me he seems to be going through what he imagines a midlife crisis should be. He seems to not really care about sex, which is good because Katharine withholds sex with a variety of flimsy excuses. Cross doesn't seem incredibly interested in Katharine as anything other than a symbol to grasp on to. An imagined ideal of a more lively, romantic, adventurous life. He continues to steal, to lie, to hide part of his life seemingly not out of real desire, but the almost mechanical hope that this will all eventually get to a point where he feels fulfilled. The larger irony here is that what we see of his life before meeting Katharine seems to imply a sense of satisfaction. He's well respected at work, gets along with his coworkers, and even seems satisfied to simply paint on lazy Sunday afternoons.

To say Cross never reaches a point of satisfaction would be a gross understatement. He begins storing his paintings at Katharine's apartment, and Katharine's boyfriend, assuming Cross to be a famous artist, attempts to sell some of them. He quickly learns that no one in the art world has ever heard of Christopher Cross, and hatches a plan to sign Katharine's name to all of the paintings and pass them off as hers. Katharine quickly becomes a success, and word, of course, reaches back to Cross. Instead of feeling anger, however, he's overjoyed. He doesn't care that the paintings have someone else's name on them. He's simply happy to learn that people enjoy his work, and so he helps her by continuing to provide paintings for her to sign off on.

The ending, when it comes, contains so many reversals of fortunes that I wasn't quite sure where it would land. I've got a lot of plot points to get across in this paragraph, so strap in. Cross learns that his wife's former husband, presumed dead, had actually faked his death to skip out on some gambling debts. He threatens to return to his wife unless Cross pays him, but it's clearly a hollow threat. The man doesn't really want to return, and Cross realizes this, plotting to get them back together anyway. Thus, having cleared up the problem of his being married, he feels emboldened to propose to Katharine, but she spits his proposal back in his face. She laughs at him, mocks him, reveals she was only stringing him along for his money. In the heat of the moment Cross stabs her to death with an icepick and flees the apartment. At work the next day, when his boss calls him into his office where two officers are waiting, Cross assumes he's being arrested for murder. But no, it turns out the thefts from his employer were discovered. His employer, respecting and pitying Cross, decides not to press charges, instead simply firing him. And finally, in a montage of Brechtian deus ex machina, Katharine's boyfriend is arrested, tried, sentenced, and executed for her murder. Christopher Cross seems to be in the clear.

But, as the film's coda shows, he's not. He's lost his job, his wife, his home, and even his painting, as he can't reveal to anyone that he was truly the artist behind the suddenly popular works. He tries to kill himself, but is rescued at the last moment. He tries to turn himself in to the police, but they don't believe him. At the end of the film, five years have passed and Cross is homeless, sleeping on park benches. He walks slowly past a gallery where one of his paintings has just sold for thousands of dollars, and continues on down the street. Eventually the crowd leaves him, fades from existence, and he's left alone, trudging slowly through the snow and slush.

I know I bring it up often in these reviews, but the film's treatment of women was a bit suspect. Or rather, it would have been egregious had the film not treated its male characters with the same amount of pitying contempt. All of the women are either nagging shrews or moneygrubbing, self hating whores. But the major male characters don't get off any better. Katharine's boyfriend is an abusive oily creep. Christopher Cross is a sympathetic figure in the early parts of this movie, but as the film goes on we see that his misfortunes are all only attributable to himself. I spent some time after viewing the movie contemplating what it was saying about crime and punishment. Who were the heroes? Who were the victims? The film had a preponderance of victims; no one had a happy end. They all fell prey to their own desire for things they thought they wanted at the expense of those things they needed.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Deadline at Dawn(1946)

I think the effects of watching so much film noir are becoming apparent. Not that I find my energy or enthusiasm flagging; quite the opposite. I've looked over my letterboxd grades for these films and found that I'm rating them all pretty much the same, and have been uniformly enthusiastic in my reactions. I'm not used to this. I like movies, and I think that, as critical as I generally am, I'm also more forgiving when it comes to final judgments. I try to find things to recommend more often than I try to find things to nitpick, even in the worst films. And yet this was bizarre. Unheard of, really. I was enthusiastically enjoying every movie I was watching. Something was wrong. I was becoming blind to the faults that must be there. And so, with some encouragement from my pal Rik, I decided to take a brief break from the shadowy world of film noir. Not really a break, more of a breather. I'd watch a film or two, non-noir, of questionable quality just to reset my critical receptors.

But before that break, I watched Deadline at Dawn, a surprisingly light hearted noir from 1946, about a newly enlisted sailor who takes the fall for a woman's murder, and tries to prove his innocence in time to catch the bus that will be taking him to basic training. We as the audience know immediately he is innocent, because we see the woman alive after he has already left her, and we have a more likely suspect in her ex-husband, to whom she owed a large sum of money. But the sailor was blackout drunk, and sobers up on the street with the dead woman's money in his pocket, so he can't be entirely sure he didn't kill her. Taking pity on the boy is a taxi dancer played by the radiant Susan Hayward, and a helpful immigrant cab driver played by Paul Lukas. Together they follow meager clues and try to find someone, anyone, who could have killed the woman.

Part of my problem with watching so many films in a row of this nature is that, although I enjoyed Deadline At Dawn quite a bit, I find myself with not much more to say about it outside of plot description. The mystery itself never feels very important, even when the murdered woman's brother, a gangster played by Joseph Calleia, comes into the plot with a touch of menace. The heroes fat never really seems in jeopardy, because even though this is a noir it never feels like that type of movie. This is a movie where very early on you realize there will be a happy ending. Maybe not as happy as you might think, because there is a touch of sadness in it, but this is a movie where the bad guys are punished and the good guys live happily ever after with the love of their lives, whom they just met a few hours ago.

The saving grace of this film is the chemistry between the two leads. Bill Williams is perfect for this part, playing a young kid who's lack of guile does not equate to a lack of intelligence. He comes off squeaky clean and genuine without seeming like an obnoxious caricature of early WWII American exceptionalism. Susan Hayward is believably aloof, and slowly warms to the kid through the course of the movie. She's smart, capable, and warmly witty. Together it's a winning combination, and helps to elevate what might otherwise have been forgettably mediocre.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Murder, My Sweet(1944)

I've seen Murder, My Sweet three times now, and while I really enjoy it and find it an engaging and entertaining film, I've never truly understood it's labyrinthine plot. It's a movie that loves to keep the audience, and most of it's characters, in the dark, and reveals it's secrets piece by piece so that if you aren't paying attention it's easy to miss how they fit together. Or maybe I'm just dense, and get too focused on Dick Powell's wonderfully sardonic turn as Phillip Marlowe, and the amazing noir lighting, and that fantastic drugged up daydream in the middle of the movie. I am completely willing to admit that maybe I'm just not smart enough to have pieced everything together on the first, or second, viewings. So this time I took notes. I don't know if I've caught everything, and at least one relationship was unclear to me, but it mostly makes sense now.

That confusion could be a disadvantage in the film if the rest of Murder, My Sweet weren't so expertly constructed. In fact, the movie takes it's byzantine plot machinations, it's tenuous explanation of character motives and it's vague descriptions of unseen actions and turns it into a running theme. Marlowe himself is introduced in the very first scene wearing a blindfold(the result, we'll learn, of being temporarily blinded by a muzzle flash), while surrounded by surly men barking questions at him. From the very outset he's hampered in his grasp and understanding of his own environment. At every step of the way Marlowe is able to tell when he's being lied to, but isn't able to figure out why, or what the truth is, until the very end. At one point his ignorance is used in service of the discovery of a clue, when a cop inadvertently lets slip the name of a person of interest, and Marlowe takes his own ignorance of the man's identity as proof of his importance. "There are lots of people in this town, but I've never heard of Jules Amthor," is his reply. One of the very first things Mr. Amthor says upon meeting Marlowe is 'there are some things you don't understand,' which is basically the movie's mission statement.

There's a drug induced, extended hallucination midway through the movie, which is one of the best examples of it's kind. Marlowe is utterly helpless for this segment, chased through doorways to nowhere by a phantom doctor, where his vision(and ours) is obscured by spiderwebs, and all means of support dissolve before he can grasp them. At this point his two-fisted tough guy language turns into jumbled beat poetry, as he attempts to threaten people through a narcotic fog. The thing is, it still packs a punch, and only a fool would disregard the danger presented by a man who shouts the following, even without the gun he held in his face.

I had a nightmare! A lot of crazy things! I slept. I woke up and the room was full of smoke. I was a sick man. Instead of pink snakes I got smoke! Well, here I am. All cured. What were you saying? ...Speak up, Dr. Jekyll! I'm in a wild mood tonight. I wanna go dancing in the foam. I hear the banshees calling. I haven't shot a man in nearly a week.

What can be said for certain about the plot? The movie starts with a girl. Or rather, with a man looking for a girl. Mike Mazurki plays Moose Malone, recently out of prison and looking or his girlfriend who went missing during the 8 years he was away. Mazurki plays Moose as a dangerous, temperamental, but fundamentally childlike thug. He's violent, and angry, but is somehow lovably dimwitted, his naivety and mental simplicity making him come across as an underworld variation on Lennie from Of Mice and Men. I've always found great sympathy for his character in this film, because he may be murderous and he may be someone to avoid, but he's also entirely too trusting and full of a great depth of love for his lost girlfriend. Marlowe is the PI Moose finds in the yellow pages to track down his missing girl. Helen is the socialite housewife who hires Marlowe to track down a stolen piece of jewelry, or maybe she's being blackmailed by her psychiatrist, or maybe something even worse. Trying to parse through the plot details on an initial viewing is likely to lead to a headache, and it might be best to just let the film's punchy dialogue and shadow filled scenes wash over you. It should suffice to say, however, that no one in the film is exactly who they first claim to be, and the movie ends in a series of betrayals and reversals that stack up so quickly it's liable to induce whiplash.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Raw Deal(1948)

Dennis O'Keefe plays Joe Sullivan, a convict serving time in the State Penitentiary for a crime he didn't commit, though he's willing to take the fall for his gangster friend, because to him there is still honor among thieves. Marsha Hunt plays Ann, a social worker who sat through Joe's trial and has visited him in jail, urging him to begin working on his parole and straighten himself out while in prison. Claire Trevor plays Pat, Joe's girlfriend who helps him break out of prison and plans to escape with him to South America. Raymond Burr, never slimier, plays Rick, the friend that Joe thinks is helping him flee the country, but is actually setting him up to be killed by the police so he'll never be able to testify against him. Things don't go the way Rick hopes and plans, however, and Joe, with the help of Pat, is able to outsmart and avoid every obstacle that keeps popping up. The plans never work out perfectly, but they show an amazing talent for improvisation while on the run from the law. Along the way, they kidnap social worker Ann and evade roadblocks by stealing a car, and having the theft victim arrested by the police when he chases after them.

Noir films frequently place the hero between two women of polar opposites, the Good Girl and the Femme Fatale. The femme fatale who is poison for our hero, but he just can't keep himself away, and the good girl, who only wants what's best for our hero but is usually ignored for the more exciting options on the other side of the tracks Rarely are those two diametric poles more pronounced than in Raw Deal, which posits the two female leads as two sides of Joe's conscience. An angel and demon on his shoulder, each trying to steer him down a different path. Superficially those labels would fit here, as Ann wants Joe to go straight and lead a steady life, and Pat wants Joe to flee the police and live a life of adventure with her. But below that surface, the labels begin to blur. Pat honestly loves Joe, and is merely trying to make him happy in their escape attempts, and Ann herself begins to sympathize more and more with Joe's position. By the end of the movie Ann will have gunned a man down and Pat will sacrifice her one shot at happiness in order to save Ann's life. And Joe? What happens to him? About what usually happens to the anti-heroes of films like this.

Raw Deal is as fatalist as noir films get. Each character in the film plots and schemes in their own way, and tries to grasp what they perceive as happiness. Several characters act in a manner counter to their immediate desires in order to achieve their greater goal of happiness, only to have those acts amount to, as the man said, a hill of beans. Joe desperately wants revenge when he discovers Rick has been trying to kill him, but at Pat's urging pushes that desire aside in order to go off and live with her. Ann wants Joe to turn himself in, and attempts to call the cops herself, but gives up later and decides to let Joe decide his own fate. Pat wants nothing more in the film(not money, not material goods, nothing) than to live and be loved by Joe, but she lets him run to Ann's rescue because she wants him to be happy. The only character in Raw Deal with unwavering conviction is the villain of the piece, Rick, who can't see how his own plans to secure happiness end up leading him towards despair.

Summer of Darkness: Woman on the Run(1950)

The woman in question is Eleanor Johnson(Ann Sheridan), husband of Frank Johnson(Ross Elliott), and while the title may imply this woman is running from something, she's actually running towards someone; her husband. Walking the dog one night, Frank witnesses a murder, and is shot at himself before the killer hops back into his car and races away. When the cops arrive, Frank learns that the victim was a witness in a federal case involving organized crime, and now he's stepped into that position, as his identification of the murderer will somehow still allow the prosecution to go forward. Not wanting to be put in the spotlight, and possibly become a murder victim himself, Frank seizes an opportunity to run for it and go into hiding.

To be honest I had a few problems with this opening. The look and staging of it was all great, but the logic felt a little forced, the characters a tad too dull and aggressive. After witnessing a murder and calling the cops, Frank responds to the officers questions about the killer's description with a confrontational 'say, what's the deal here?' The dialogue felt a bit too punchy, too self consciously 'noir.' Luckily, we don't have to wait too long for Ann Sheridan to appear, because the film takes a big turn for the better once she arrives.

As the cops question Eleanor about her runaway husband, they discover a few oddities. She has no pictures of him, knows nothing of his friends, if he has any, doesn't seem the least bit interested in his activities outside of the house, and is completely dumbfounded to learn he has a serious heart condition that he's been taking medication for(she had assumed the pills were vitamins). Clearly things have not been happy in their home for awhile, and Eleanor is as much convinced that Frank has gone into hiding to escape their marriage as to escape a gangland execution. But still she won't help the police, and makes her own attempts to track down her husband, with the help of a friendly reporter who offers payment for an interview before Frank disappears for good.

Woman on the Run is, like most film noir, an allegory, but unusually it's an allegory for marriage, and how people so close can become surly strangers without even noticing it. Eleanor's journey to find her husband before the police or assassins do becomes a journey into her husband's secret life, or at least a life that was secret to her. She discovers his medical condition, his friends, the stories he's never shared with her, and the fact that he is still very much in love with her. It's powerful stuff, undercut, however, by the fact that Eleanor does not get a similar treatment. We never get to see her point of view, the slights that she has experienced in the marriage. We see only that she's misunderstood her secretive but loving and devoted husband, and that places the onus of this once-failing relationship almost entirely on her shoulders.

Still, the film isn't intentionally misogynistic, and by placing a strong capable woman at the center of the film it's actually pretty progressive. It's unfair to judge this film by our modern standards, and should only be judged against the measure of it's own time. In that regard, this film is quite enjoyable. Take in everything I've said so far, and then add in some great San Francisco scene work, a story with a compelling forward momentum, and an honestly exciting, literal rollercoaster ride of an ending, and the resulting film emerges as a hidden gem of the postwar noir movement.