Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dark City (1950)

Dark City1Dark City, made at Paramount in 1950, doesn’t really conform to the noir formula as far as content is concerned but it is a nicely twisted crime thriller and it certainly has the noir visuals.

Danny Haley (Charlton Heston in his first major role) runs an illegal betting operation. It’s not a very successful operation. Danny keeps paying off the cops and they keep raiding his joint anyway. Now the operation has been raided once again and Danny and his partners Barney (Ed Begley) and Augie (Jack Webb) are temporarily out of work and broke. Things look bleak, but then a sucker appears on the scene just in time. Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) has arrived in the city with a cashier’s cheque in his pocket for $5,000. It’s supposed to be used to buy sporting equipment for a club. Winant is one of those guys who thinks he’s streetwise but he isn’t. Danny and his pals inveigle him into a poker game and they fleece. They don’t just take all of Arthur’s money; they take the cashier’s cheque as well.

That seems to have solved Danny’s cash-flow problems for the moment, but there’s a snag. Arthur Winant does the one thing you hope a sucker won’t do. Filled with remorse, he hangs himself. Not that Danny and his friends are that worried about Arthur’s fate, but this means that the cheque is now too hot to handle. So Danny is still short of money and now he has the police, in the form of Captain Garvey (Dean Jagger), on his case as well.

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All that is bad enough but things are about to get even more unpleasant. Barney is found dead. He appears to have hanged himself but the police have no doubt it was murder. It was murder done in such a way as to make it clear that this was revenge for what was done to Arthur Winant.

You see, although Arthur talked a lot about his elder brother Sidney during the poker game there was one thing he forget to mention. Sidney is a psychopath. He’d been confined to an institution for years. Sidney is a psycho killer just waiting for something to trigger him off, and his kid brother’s death provided that trigger.

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Danny and Augie now have a crazed killer hunting them, they still don’t have the money and nobody even knows what Sidney looks like. He could be anyone. He could be the guy at the next table, or the guy sitting next to you on the bus.

Danny feels a proactive approach is needed. Rather than wait for Sidney to find them, they need to find Sidney first. Their only good lead is Arthur Winant’s wife Victoria (Viveca Lindfors). And this is where things get complex. In the course of trying to trick Victoria into giving him a lead on Sidney’s whereabouts Danny discovers that Victoria is a really nice lady with a really cute and adorable son. Danny’s emotions are now all over the place. He is feeling really bad about what he did to Arthur and he’s feeling strangely attracted to Victoria as well.

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When Danny and Augie arrive in Las Vegas the plot starts to move towards its climax. Their old pal Soldier (Harry Morgan) gets Danny a job as a croupier. Danny is trying to find a way of achieving some sort of redemption but can he stay alive long enough to do it?

Charlton Heston gives a strong performance. Danny is both detestable and slimy and at the same time rather likeable and almost innocent. As Soldier tells him, what Danny and his pals did to Arthur was wrong but he doesn’t blame Barney and Augie because they didn’t know any better. Danny does know better, so he has no excuse. Danny is uncomfortably aware that Soldier is right.

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Ed Begley and Jack Webb make excellent minor hoodlums. Lizabeth Scott plays (inevitably) a nightclub singer named Fran who is in love with Danny. Danny is determined to avoid any emotional involvement. He has a dark secret in his past which explains why he feels that way. Fran is patient. She figures if she stands by Danny then Danny will eventually fall in love with her. Danny’s involvement is another thing he has to resolve. If he lives long enough. Harry Morgan is good as Soldier, a decent man who admires Danny at the same time that he disapproves of him.

Veteran director William Dieterle does his usual fine job. There are plenty of classic noir visual touches and the tension builds nicely as Sidney pursues his homicidal plans for revenge. Dark City is an excellent dark murder mystery thriller and is recommended.

Olive Films’ DVD release features an acceptable transfer but as usual with this company there are no extras at all.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)

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Cornell Woolrich’s novels and short stories provided the basis for countless excellent movies including quite a few in the film noir category. The oddest of these is undoubtedly John Farrow’s 1948 Paramount production Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

This is unusual for a Woolrich story in that it involves elements of the occult, or at least the paranormal, combined with Woolrich’s trademark dark twisted atmosphere.

John Triton (Edward G. Robinson) had been a stage mentalist, and a very good one. His mind-reading act was of course faked, but he took pride in the cleverness of the fakery. Added to his showmanship this made the act quite successful. And then one day he unexpectedly found himself interrupting his performance to tell a woman to rush home because her little boy was in danger. Triton didn’t really know why he said this, all he knew is that he got a sudden image in his mind.

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When Triton discovered that the woman’s child really had been in danger he is understandably disturbed. He had never had any belief in genuine clairvoyant powers, he was just a stageshow performer. He becomes even more disturbed when his business partner and close friend Whitney Courtland (Jerome Cowan) jokingly threatened to put all their meagre fortune on a horse. Triton tells him not to bet on that horse because Peer Gynt will win by two lengths. And Peer Gynt does win, at 10 to 1, landing the partners a handy windfall.

Triton’s prophetic powers soon turn out to be very financially lucrative. But Triton is troubled by these powers. He has the odd feeling that he is making these events occur, a theory he puts to the test with tragic results.

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Triton had been intending to marry his stage partner Jean (Gail Russell) but then a horrifying image flashed into his mind. He called off the wedding and spent the next twenty years as a virtual recluse. All of this is told in a lengthy flashback. Now the past catches up with him when he meets Jean’s daughter Jenny. Jean had ended up marrying Whitney Courtland, and Whitney had become a very rich man, his fortune founded on Triton’s powers of prediction. Those powers are now telling him that both Whitney and Jenny are in danger.

Of course the police are sceptical of Triton’s story. Detective-Lieutenant Shawn (William Demarest) is convinced he is not only a charlatan but possibly something much worse. Jenny’s boyfriend is also suspicious and hostile but Jenny remembers her father saying that Triton’s powers were real and that Triton was a good man. Triton will face his greatest challenge in trying to prove his own prediction wring by saving Jenny’s life, if he can.

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There are quite a few noir films that deal with fake spiritualists and mind-readers. This one is unusual since it is made quite clear from the outset that Triton’s powers are real. The story itself, apart from the paranormal element, is fairly typical Woolrich and is similar to several of his other stories (such as Rear Window) that deal with people who have evidence of a crime but have trouble convincing others that they are not deluded or cranks. Woolrich’s stories always have a certain nightmare quality to them.

Edward G. Robinson is as reliable as ever. The supporting cast is fine but it’s Robinson who carries the picture. Triton is a man who has what appears to be a great gift but it turns out to be a curse. Seeing the future can be a very unpleasant experience, especially when the visions concern people he loves.

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John Farrow was an interesting director who has never received the acclaim he deserves. His work in the film noir genre was often rather offbeat and is always interesting and stylish. The cinematography by John F. Seitz is another plus.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a definite film noir oddity. It’s a movie that may not appeal to everybody (noir purists may be put off by the occult elements) but I found it to be highly entertaining and (thanks to Robinson’s sensitive performance) rather moving. Highly recommended.

This has been for many years a very difficult movie to get hold of. The only DVD I was able to find is an Italian release from a company called A&R which fortunately includes the original English soundtrack as well as an Italian dubbed version. Picture and sound quality are not great but they’re acceptable and even with these reservations the Italian DVD is worth grabbing because of the quality of the movie itself.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Blood on the Moon (1948)

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Blood on the Moon, a 1948 western directed by Robert Wise for RKO, is regarded in some quarters as a prime example of the noir western. I personally think it’s merely another instance of the surprisingly dark and adult approach that Hollywood started to take towards the western in the period from the late 40s to the early 60s, but it does have some noirish features as we will see.

The movie opens with a lone horseman making camp and nearly get run down by stampeding cattle. When the ranch hands in charge of the cattle show up they make it clear to the stranger that he will have to accompany them back to their camp. The horseman is Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) and he now gets to meet embittered rancher John Lufton. Lufton seems suspicious, and in fact everyone at the camp seems suspicious, unfriendly and on edge.

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The reason for this is soon disclosed - Jim Garry has ridden into the middle of a violent confrontation between Lufton and a group of homesteaders. Lufton has been grazing his cattle on an Indian reservation, quite legally since he has the contract with the US Army to provide beef for the Indians. Now a new Indian agent has rejected his beef and ordered him to remove his cattle from the reservation. Only trouble is, Lufton’s own land is now occupied by homesteaders. And there’s a rumour going around that the homesteaders have hired a gunfighter to put the odds more in their favour. Lufton and his men jump to the conclusion that Jim Garry is the gunslinger in question.

It seems like a classic western setup with a quarrel between ranchers and farmers but there turns out to be a lot more to this dispute. Jim Garry really is the gunfighter that Lufton suspected he was. He’s been hired by his old buddy Tate Riling (Robert Preson), who is leading the fight by the homesteaders. But Riling has his own agenda and it’s an agenda that Jim Garry finds very distasteful.

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You see Jim Garry is neither a hero nor a villain. He’s a complex mixture of both. He’s obviously been a bit of a bad boy and he’s obviously learnt enough about gunfighting to be a hired gun. But he has a conscience. He’s a reluctant hired gun and he soon finds that he’s expected to do things that he can’t square with his own beliefs about decent behaviour. He’s a decent man who went wrong but he’s not beyond redemption, and his search for redemption is one of this movie’s main themes.

Garry’s complex motivations are perhaps this movie’s strongest claim to being a film noir western. And Mitchum’s excellent performance is not dissimilar to others he gave in movies that are most certainly film noir.

Tate Riling is a much more straightforward villain, although since he’s played (extremely well) by Robert Preston he also has a certain boyish charm.

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Lufton’s daughter Carol (Phyllis Thaxter) provides another claim to noir status. Carol has fallen in love with Tate Riling but he’s just using her, and in doing so he persuades her to betray her father. Thaxter doesn’t quite have the acting chops to carry off such a role but she gives it her best shot and she’s reasonably effective.

Lufton’s other daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes) falls in love with Jim Garry, and since Garry is working for Lufton’s sworn enemies this relationship also has some noir connotations. Bel Geddes is very good in what is really a rather less complex role than the others in this movie. Amy might be in love with one of Lufton’s enemies but she could never be persuaded to betray her father.

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Lufton himself is also somewhat complicated. There’s certainly a streak of ruthlessness in his character but he’s more sinned against than sinning. He’s a tough old bird but he’s no villain.

There’s also a good supporting performance by Walter Brennan as a man who used to work for Lufton but has now thrown in his lot with Lufton’s enemies, a decision that will cost him dearly.

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This is very much an adult western, with complicated characters with confused and often conflicting motivations and complex situations where right and wrong are less clear-cut than they first appear. John Ford, Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann are often given the credit for taking the Hollywood western into darker places and giving the genre a grown-up  feel but on the evidence of Blood on the Moon Robert Wise and his screenwriter Lillie Hayward should perhaps be added to this list.

Odeon’s British all-regions PAL DVD provides a reasonable although obviously unrestored transfer. There is some minor print damage in a few places but generally speaking picture quality is very good and sound quality is fine. For the low asking price this DVD is excellent value.

This is a very good western with a few noirish touches and is highly recommended.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bodyguard (1948)

bodyguard2Bodyguard is a 1948 RKO crime B-movie that is perhaps most interesting for featuring Lawrence Tierney as a good guy. I’m not saying he’s a nice guy; but he is on the side of the good guys.

Mike Carter (Tierney) is a hardbitten LA cop who is perhaps just a bit too much of a tough guy. He’s always getting into trouble and now he’s been suspended again. Carter’s idea of investigating a case is to start throwing punches and see where it leads him. It usually leads him into trouble. He figures he might as well make the suspension permanent this time so he takes a swing at his captain. It’s a good punch, but it lands Carter on the unemployment lines.

Then along comes this guy who offers him two grand for what sounds like ridiculously easy work - being a bodyguard for an old lady. Carter, being stubborn as well as hot-headed, turns down the offer. He’s too busy watching a ball game. You can see why this guy was not exactly Mr Popularity in the police force.

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Carter gets dragged into the case anyway. When someone takes a shot at the old lady through a window he decides the case might be more interesting than he thought. He doesn’t like making easy money but if there’s a chance of being shot at he’s suddenly all enthusiasm.

It’s a strange little household. The old lady owns a meat-packing business and she’s loaded. Her son (or possibly her nephew) is the guy who tried to hire Mike Carter. Freddie is much too smooth to be an honest citizen. Then there’s a girl who seems to be the old lady’s companion (I’d had a few slugs of whiskey before watching this movie - you have to get into the noir mood after all - so I might be a bit hazy on some of the more involved plot points). The girl has a brother and he’s a bit of a suspicious character as well.

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Meanwhile Mike Carter is in more trouble - the captain he slugged is found dead and Carter is the prime suspect. He’s not too worried - the more trouble he’s in the better he likes it. And he’s now starting to take a keen interest in this meat-packing business. He smells a racket.

Carter will get some help in solving the case from his girlfriend Doris (Priscilla Lane). She starts poking her nose in where it isn’t welcome and pretty soon she’s in trouble as well. That makes Mike Carter plenty mad. When he gets made he likes to slug people, and he’ll get plenty of chances in this movie.

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Lawrence Tierney is not the most sympathetic of heroes but he gives an effective performance. Priscilla Lane is good as well, but the problem is that the two leads seem like they belong in different movies. Tierney belongs in tough-guy movies whereas Lane seems like she’d be more at home in a light-hearted feisty girl amateur detective movie. It’s hard to figure what these two see in each other, but who can tell with dames? Phillip Reed as Freddie and Steve Brodie as Fenton give good support, with Reed adding the necessary touch of sleaze.

Richard Fleischer does a solid job as director, keeping things moving along at a cracking pace. There’s not much film noir about the content but it is an RKO movie and it’s shot in the studio’s house style so it looks noir and it has plenty of noir atmosphere - rich people and sleazebags rubbing shoulders together always works well in noir.

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The Warner Archive MOD disc is up to their usual standard - no extras but a very nice transfer.

Bodyguard might not be classic top-tier film noir but it is an enjoyable hardboiled crime B-movie and if that’s the sort of movie you like then this one is worth taking a look at.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Brasher Doubloon (1947)

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The Brasher Doubloon (released in the UK as The High Window) is one of the least known of all Hollywood Raymond Chandler adaptations, and until its recent release as part of the 20th Century-Fox Cinema Archive series it was for many years one of the least seen.

This 1947 film was based on the third of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, The High Window, with George Montgomery as Marlowe. Apparently Dana Andrews, Fred MacMurray and Victor Mature were all considered for the role. Whether Fox made the right decision in casting Montgomery is a matter we will consider further. With John Brahm as director the movie certainly had potential, and whether it lived up to that potential is another matter for further consideration.

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The opening sequence is certainly promising. We see Marlowe arrive at a Los Angeles mansion while the voiceover tells us how much he dislikes the hot summer winds. The sound of those winds will be a recurring feature of the movie. The usual way of capturing a noir atmosphere is to emphasise night scenes and shadows, but this is not Brahm’s approach. He uses heat and those dry winds to create a stifling atmosphere and it works rather well.

The movie shows even more promise when we are introduced to Marlowe’s client, the formidable Mrs Elizabeth Murdock (Florence Bates). She ostentatiously refuses to offer Marlowe a drink and clearly expects a private detective to behave like one of the servants. Marlowe is not impressed and is about to turn the case down, but he is persuaded by Mrs Murdock’s secretary Merle Davis (Nancy Guild) to change his mind. The fact that Merle Davis is a very attractive young woman may have had something to do with Marlowe’s change of heart.

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Mrs Murdock has been the victim of a robbery. Only one item was taken, a very rare and very valuable coin known as the Brasher Doubloon. Mrs Murdock knows who has stolen it, and the audience can make a pretty shrewd guess as to the culprit’s identity as well. Mrs Murdock does not want to press charges. She just wants the coin back.

Of course the case turns out to involve much more than a stolen coin. There is also the blackmail angle, blackmail that centres on film footage of Mrs Murdock’s husband being pushed out of a high window (hence the title of the original novel). Marlowe will encounter a colourful cast of shady characters and heavies during the course of the investigation.

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John Brahm does a fine job as director. He uses lots of high-angle and low-angle shots but he doesn’t overuse them. They serve to give the movie an off-kilter feel that meshes perfectly with the off-kilter world of Mrs Murdock’s strange little household. There’s some excellent use of location shooting - this is very much a movie that captures the feel of the 1930/1940s Los Angeles of film noir.

Nancy Guild was being pushed very hard by Fox at the time, perhaps too hard. She was thrust into leading roles that she didn’t really have the experience to carry off successfully. She always seems ill at ease, but since Merle Davis is obviously a disturbed and very anxious young woman Guild’s nervousness actually enhances her characterisation. A more experienced actress might have been tempted to try to turn the character into a stock femme fatale. And Guild certainly had the looks required by a film noir actress.

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Florence Bates is a delight and the supporting cast is very strong with Fritz Kortner being particularly good. Conrad Janis is effective as Mrs Murdock’s very creepy and very arrogant spoilt brat of a son, Leslie Murdock.

A Philip Marlowe movie obviously stands or falls on the performance of the actor playing Marlowe. Whether you enjoy George Montgomery’s performance or not depends on what you’re expecting. He makes an excellent private eye but he isn’t the right actor to play this particular private eye. He’s too young, too smooth, too confident and too optimistic. It’s an amusing performance and Montgomery certainly knows how to deliver hardboiled dialogue, but Marlowe needs to be a much more world-weary character. He needs to be a man who is much more beaten down by the sleaze and corruption of the world of the private detective. If you treat this movie as simply a private eye movie then Montgomery is extremely good but if it’s Marlowe you wanted you’re likely to be disappointed.

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The movie itself is entertaining enough judged on its own merits and apart from the miscasting of Montgomery it’s a very good movie. Recommended, although Marlowe purists may have problems with it.

The 20th Century-Fox Cinema Archive DVD-R boasts a very handsome transfer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Scandal Sheet (1952)

Scandal Sheet3Scandal Sheet is included in the Columbia Samuel Fuller Collection but Fuller himself was not actively involved in the making of the film. He did however write the novel on which the film was based.

The novel was The Dark Page, published in 1944 while Fuller was serving in the armed forces. The novel was a bestseller and an award-winner and established him as an important pulp writer. Howard Hawks had bought the screen rights to the book but it did not get made until 1952, under the title Scandal Sheet, with Phil Karlson directing. It would have been fascinating to see what Hawks would have done with this story but Karlson does a fine job.

It’s both a classic newspaper story and a classic murder story. It’s a suspense story rather than a mystery - the audience knows the identity of the killer right from the start, but the other characters don’t. It doesn’t just rely on suspense; it’s also a psychological study of two men whose fates and interlinked in an unexpected way.

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Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) is the editor of the New York Express. It was once a quality newspaper with a modest circulation. The paper hadn’t shown a profit for years. Under Chapman’s editorial direction the Express has become a trashy scandal sheet with a huge circulation. The owners have promised him a huge bonus if he can lift the circulation above 750,000, a figure that would have seemed an impossible dream when Chapman took over the paper but that now seems eminently achievable. Thee is a delicious little irony in the way that Chapman finally breaks the 750,000 barrier.

Steve McCleary (John Derek) is a young and very ambitious hotshot crime reporter. He’s Chapman’s protégé. Such emotional feelings that Chapman has (and he has few enough of those) are centred on McCleary. There’s a lot of Sam Fuller in McCleary - Fuller became a hotshot crime reporter himself at the age of 17.

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Julie Allison (Donna Reed) had worked on the paper before Chapman took over. She doesn’t approve of Chapman’s editorial style but she has a long-term contract with the paper and he can’t fire her. She likes McCleary but she doesn’t approve of his approach to the job either. McCleary is obviously in love with her but is too busy proving himself as a reporter to realise how strong his own feelings are.

Chapman is on top of the world until the evening of the New York Express Lonely Hearts Club ball, a cynical and cruel circulation-boosting stunt. Then his past comes back to haunt him in a big way.

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It’s impossible to discuss this movie in any depth without revealing at least something of the plot. There will be some spoilers in the next couple of paragraphs but they’re not major. I won’t be evealing anything the audience doesn’t know within the first half of the movie, and I certainly won’t be revealing the powerful and effective ending.

One of the lonely hearts at the ball is Chapman’s wife Charlotte (Rosemary DeCamp). He deserted her twenty years earlier. His name was George Grant then. He meets her at her run-down apartment, they argue, and she threatens to reveal his own private scandal to a rival newspaper. They struggle, and she is killed. He does a reasonably successful job of making it look like an accident, but not good enough to fool McCleary. He has taught McCleary too well. McCleary knows it’s murder and he’s determined to find the murderer. His tragedy is that he doesn’t know that the man he is hunting is the man he most admires in all the world. Chapman’s problem is that he has to encourage McCleary; to do anything else would arouse suspicion. The Express’s biggest story ever will be the hunt for George Grant.

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It’s the sort of story Fuller liked. Chapman and McCleary are like father and son but McCleary will not rest until he finds the murderer. In another irony, a drunken bum who had once been a Pulitzer Prize-winning star reporter for the Express, a man Chapman once admired (Charlie Barnes, played by Henry O’Neill), finds himself in possession of the most vital clue in the case. 

End of mild spoilers.

Broderick Crawford is superb. He’s a single-minded ruthless man but he cannot escape his own past. John Derek is very  good as McCleary who is esentially a younger of Mark Chapma. Donna Reed and Henry O’Neill provide fine support while Harry Morgan has fun as a hardbitten press photographer.

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There are those who think this movie would have been even better had Fuller directed it himself. That may be so, but it’s being a trifle harsh on Phil Karlson. Karlson was a pro and this is the sort of material he relished. He doesn’t put a foot wrong. The movie as it stands is a very fine newspaper film noir with some great twists that do more than just create suspense; they create a powerful and moving psychological dynamic. This is a great little movie that deserves to be better known. Highly recommended.

The DVD presentation is flawless and includes a documentary on Fuller.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Penthouse (1933)

Penthouse1Penthouse is a 1933 MGM murder mystery enlivened by an excellent cast and plenty of risque pre-code content.

Jackson Durant (Warner Baxter) is a lawyer who has just helped racketeer Tony Gazotti (Nat Pendleton) beat a murder rap. Durant is a society type but he enjoys the challenge and excitement of criminal work, and as it happen Gazotti really was innocent of this particular crime. Gazotti likes Durant because Durant keeps telling him he’s a low-life and a menace to society. Nobody else will dare say such things to Tony Gazotti, and that’s why he likes Durant.

Unfortunately Durant’s fiancée Sue Leonard (Martha Sleeper) doesn’t approve of Durant’s line of work. She doesn’t want to be married to someone who’s going to become known as a lawyer who defends gangsters. So she breaks off their engagement and instead becomes engaged to Tom Siddall (Philips Holmes), a very respectable but very dull young man. Only he’s not quite so respectable. He’s been having an affair with a former gangster’s moll, Mimi Montagne (Mae Clarke), and Sue insists that he break things off with Mimi. Sue is broad-minded, but she’s not that broad-minded.

Mimi does not react well to getting the brush-off. She threatens to create a scandal for Tom. She then decides to go back to her gangster ex-boyfriend Jim Crelliman (C. Henry Gordon). Crelliman invites Tom to his nightclub so that Mimi can publicly break things off with Tom. Mimi invites Tom out onto the balcony, a shot is heard and Mimi is found dead.

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It all seems like an open-and-shut case. Tom was clearly angry with Mimi and all the evidence points to his being the murderer. Only Durant doesn’t buy it and agrees to defend Tom. Durant is still sore about losing his girl to Tom but he’s convinced Tom is innocent and he intends to prove.

As it happens, Tony Gazotti and Jim Crelliman are sworn enemies. Then Durant receives an anonymous threat, telling him to drop the Siddall case. This just increases Durant’s determination to prove Tom’s innocence.

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Durant does have one promising lead. Tony Gazotti has fixed him up with a girl, Gertie Waxted (Myrna Loy). Gertie was at Crelliman’s place on the night of the murder and she may have some useful information. Since it might take some time to get all the information out of her Gertie and Durant decide it makes sense if Gertie moves in with him for a while.

Unravelling the mystery of who really killed Mimi will put both Durant and Gertie in danger although it won’t tax the audience’s ingenuity too much.

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Warner Baxter is excellent as Durant, a hero with a moral code that is somewhat flexible. Myrna Loy gives the kind of effervescent performance you expect from her pre-code movie. Mae Clarke is good as Mimi while Nat Pendleton is great fun as Tony Gazotti who might be a gangster but is still a swell guy. Charles Butterworth provides effective comic relief as Durant’s butler Layton.

There’s plenty of pre-code sexual innuendo in this movie, with Gertie clearly disappointed that Durant really does just want information out of her, rather than wanting to seduce her. The society crowd in which Tom Siddall and Sue Leonard move is clearly very relaxed in its sexual mores. There are also plenty of morally ambiguous characters.

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The fashions in 1930s movies are always interesting and the dress Myrna Loy wears in this one is truly bizarre.

Like most pre-code movies it’s fairly lightweight but this is still an entertaining little murder thriller.

The Warner Archive MOD DVD is excellent with both picture and sound quality being perfectly satisfactory.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fear No More (1961)

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Fear No More is another of the movies included in Something Weird’s Weird Noir DVD boxed set. It belongs to the sub-genre of psychiatric noir, and it’s a pretty good example of its type.

Released by a small outfit called Scaramouche Productions in 1961, it has less of a low-budget feel that the other movies in this set. It’s still clearly a B-movie but the production values are reasonably high and it’s a well-made little movie.

Sharon Carlin (Mala Powers) works as a secretary-companion to Milo Seymour and his invalid wife in Los Angeles. Seymour sends her on an errand to San Francisco but the train trip has a nasty surprise in store for her - a man with a gun and a dead woman in her compartment. The man’s intention is to frame her for the murder. She is arrested but manages to escape. She reaches the main road where she is almost run over by Paul Colbert (Jacques Bergerac).

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Colbert is a Frenchman on his way to Los Angeles to return his son to his estranged wife. He agrees to give Sharon a lift. He’s suspicious of the story she tells him but he’s a good-natured guy and if she’s in trouble it’s none of his business. But it soon will be very much his business.

Sharon gets back to her apartment in Los Angeles to find another dead body. Luckily Paul Colbert is still hanging around outside and she flees with him, and finally tells him the whole story. Well, most of the story. She’s very cagey about a certain incident in her past, a breakdown she had a few years earlier which led to her being committed to a mental hospital.

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And that breakdown is the key to Sharon’s problem. How can she expect anyone to believe her fantastic story when she has a history of mental illness? And there’s an even bigger secret she hasn’t revealed - the reason she was institutionalised. It seems that everybody who might support her story believes she has had another breakdown. Even Paul, who is sympathetic (in fact he’s started to fall in love with her), has his doubts. Everything is against her. And can we be sure her story really is true?

This is a movie where the character who gets sucked into the noir nightmare world is a woman rather than a man. The movie’s claims to being a film noir are perhaps a little sketchy, it’s arguably more a psychological thriller in the style of Hammer’s psycho-thrillers of that era, with elements of the Hitchcock-style man on the run movie (except that this is a woman on the run). But it has a dark and twisted ambience with plenty of paranoia which probably makes are enough to qualify it as psychiatric noir.

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Mala Powers is excellent in the lead role. She seems hysterical enough to allow us to believe she really is crazy, but she also seems sane enough to make us believe her story. Either way she’s a leading lady who is able to make us care about her character and her performance is generally convincing. Jacques Bergerac makes a more than adequate hero. He wasn’t the world’s greatest actor but he was very effective as the evil hypnotist in The Hypnotic Eye and he’s effective enough here in a much more sympathetic role. The supporting cast is solid enough but it’s Powers who dominates the movie.

This appears to have been Bernard Wiesen’s only feature film as director and he does a competent job. The movie is technically quite professional and has none of the shoddiness or creakiness of so many low-budget movies. Robert Bloomfield’s script is fairly outrageous and convoluted, making this movie definitely qualify as weird noir.

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Despite the importance of the psychiatric angle to the story Fear No More is reasonably free of psychiatric techno-babble. All we need to know is that Sharon was a mental patient and that this may explain her apparently paranoid behaviour.

Something Weird have come up with a very decent print of this movie. Picture and sound quality are excellent. The movie is presented in a fullframe transfer which is the correct aspect ratio.

An interesting, slightly weird and thoroughly entertaining little film with plenty of twists and a wonderfully paranoid atmosphere. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Asphalt (1929)

Asphalt1Joe May’s German silent film Asphalt (Der Polizeiwachtmeister und die Diamantenelse), made at Ufa Studios in 1929, can be seen as both the last gasp of German Expressionism and the first step on the road to film noir.

A very serious-minded young traffic cop named Albert Holk, straight out of police college (Gustav Fröhlich), arrests a glamorous jewel thief. When she flutters her eyelashes at the jeweller he asks the police to drop the charges but Wachtmeister Holk takes his job very seriously indeed. He is determined not to fall for such cheap tricks and to bring this dangerous menace to society to justice.

The thief, Else Kramer (Betty Amann), uses all of her feminine wiles (and she knows them all) on young Holk. He resists manfully but really he never stands a chance. She persuades him to let her go back to her apartment to get her papers, and after considerable effort she seduces him.

Young Holk is devastated. He has let the side down. Worse than that, he has let his parents down. And his father is a retired policeman. He is filled with shame.

All this is bad enough, but there is worse to come. Else sends him a gift. He goes to her apartment, intending to indignantly return the gift, but he falls for those feminine wiles all over again. And now he is drawn into the noir nightmare world, a journey that will end in murder.

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Born in Vienna, Joe May was not one of the big names of German silent cinema but he was prolific and was in fact one of the pioneers, beginning his directing career as early as 1911. He ended his career in the United States after fleeing Germany in the wake of the Nazi takeover. His US movies were all B-movies - he was never able to achieve the same level of success there that he’d enjoyed in Germany.

Metropolis star Gustav Fröhlich makes Holk more interesting and more sympathetic than the synopsis would suggest. He tries his hardest to resist the noir nightmare world but he’s outgunned by the beautiful and glamorous Else.

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Betty Amann was an American actress (although born in Germany) who take the same road to German film that Louise Brooks had taken. I have heard it argued that Amann was actually the better actress. That is of course nonsense and she is unable to give her characterisation the depth that Brooks gave to her roles. Having said that, Amann was a fine actress and she really was exceptionally glamorous, she’s perfectly cast and she gives a fine performance. Else is not a one-dimensional femme fatale. She genuinely falls for the naïve but handsome young cop. She starts out seeing him as a ridiculous figure, a clown she can manipulate, but she ends by not only falling in love with him but by seeing him as her chance of redemption.

Albert Steinrück as Holk’s father and Else Heller as his mother give moving performances. Holk’s father has such a high sense of duty that it overrides his own humanity. Else Kramer is a bad girl but she is in some ways more sympathetic - her feelings override her own best interests. The conflict between duty and emotion is the driving force of the story.

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This is certainly not full-on Expressionism, but there are subtle hints of the stye in this movie. There is for instance a staircase scene that looks not merely Expressionist but also very film noir. There is plenty of proto-noir in this movie with moody shadows and the exciting but slightly sleazy backdrop of nightlife in Weimar Republic Germany which manages to be as noir as LA in the 40s.

Joe May may not have scaled the heights that German film-makers like Fritz Lang scaled but he was more than a mere journeyman director. Asphalt is stylish and visually arresting. The obvious comparison is going to be with Pabst’s masterpiece Pandora's Box (starring the aforementioned Louise Brooks). Asphalt inhabits similar territory and like Pabst May tones the Expressionism way down, leaving it as a subtle suggestion rather than an overwhelming visual signature.

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Asphalt has been released in Region 2 by Eureka in their Masters of Cinema and in Region 1 by Kino. I haven’t seen either of these DVDs so I can’t comment on them.

Asphalt is not in the same league as Pandora's Box or Fritz Lang’s M but it’s not without interest, it’s stylish and entertaining and Betty Amann’s performance is enough to make it a must-see for silent movie fans. Film noir fans will be fascinated by the early hints of that style in this movie. Recommended.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Girl on the Run (1953)

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Girl on the Run is a 1953 cheapie that is included in Something Weird’s DVD boxed set Weird Noir. Whether it’s noir or not can perhaps be debated (it’s certainly noirish) but its weirdness is not matter of doubt.

A couple on the run hide out in a carnival. The carnival is run by Blake, a pint-sized midget with plenty of front. Bill Martin (Richard Coogan) has been framed for the murder of a man named Marsh, leader of a vice investigation. He and his girlfriend Janet (Rosemary Pettit) had been newspaper reporters covering the vice case and they got too close to the truth. They were framed by Clay Reeves (Harry Bannister), the corrupt local chief of police.

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Blake and Reeves are old acquaintances, but they’re certainly not old friends. Blake was mixed up somehow in the vice racket that Marsh was investigating but his main object now is to collect enough dirt on Reeves to blackmail him.

Bill Martin and Janet had been heading for the carnival as part of their newspaper’s own investigation of the vice racket. Blake lets them hide out in the carnival. Blake is not exactly an honest citizen but he hates Reeves and he figures that anyone who is an enemy of Reeves is a friend of his. Besides, they might prove useful to him. Blake is more interested in feathering his own nest than in uncovering the truth. Bill and Janet can trust him, but only up to a point. Blake is playing his own game and the stakes are high, but that’s how Blake likes it.

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Also involved in these sordid goings-on is Lil, who looks after the girls in the carnival’s girl show. Lil knows more than she’s prepared to let on.

After showing up the carny’s boxer Martin is offered a job. They can’t always find a sucker prepared to go three rounds with their champ in the boxing show, so when no sucker steps forward Bill gets to do he honours (which is easy enough, since he was light-heavyweight champion of Princeton University). Janet gets a job in the girl show.

The local police are closing in on Bill and Janet but they find an unexpected ally, but can they evade capture long enough to make use of this unanticipated stroke of luck?

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This is not by any stretch of the imagination a good film, but it is highly entertaining. You can’t lose with a carny background and this movie makes the most of its setting. Arthur J. Beckhard and Joseph Lee share the directing credit while Beckhard and Cedric Worth were the co-writers. The script is rough and ready but it’s nicely hardboiled and dripping with carny atmosphere.

The actor who portrays Blake certainly steals the movie. Blake might not be much more than three feet tall but he thinks he’s a big shot and he has no difficulty in convincing others that he is. He’s a delightfully cynical and colourful character, as is Lil. Harry Bannister isn’t much of an actor but he plays Reeves with plenty of menace. Richard Coogan and Rosemary Pettit are adequate as the hero and heroine.

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As so often Something Weird have managed to come up with an astonishingly good print of a very obscure movie. Sound quality is good throughout, there is very little print damage and the picture is sharp and clear. This movie is never going to make it to the Criterion Collection so this release is as good as it’s ever going to get for this movie, and happily it’s more than acceptable. 

Girl on the Run fits the weird noir label perfectly. It’s more a Z-movie than a B-movie but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and if like me you love carny movies then you should have plenty of fun with this one. It might be technically a bad movie but it’s still highly recommended for its sheer effrontery, its considerable sleaze factor and its entertainment value.