30/07/2010

Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)


"That's a fancy way of trying to frame somebody - getting yourself knocked off. A guy's gotta be outta his head for that. I didn't know a guy could hate that much. Not even you."

So says gangster Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill) of Detective-Sergeant Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) in Otto Preminger's Where The Sidewalk Ends, a violent, Freudian noir adapted from the William L. Stuart novel Night Cry (1948) by Ben Hecht, Victor Trivas, Robert E. Kent and Frank P. Rosenberg. Dixon is a sadist with a death wish who takes out his oedipal anger on those hoods who make the mistake of crossing his path in an urban jungle of neon lights, dead ends and moral turpitude. Dixon's late father, Sonny, was a New York mob man and an associate of Scalise, so the cop's pursuit of the latter is very much a personal vendetta against an unwanted surrogate brother, his childhood rival for pop's affections. Every punch he lands along the way is a swing at a daddy who never loved him, a hated figure he has grown up trying to define himself in opposition to. This brutal, haunted knight roaming the beat is what noir is all about.


When Dixon accidentally kills low-rent hustler Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), a patched-up war veteran with a plate in his head, he panics and covers up the manslaughter to conceal it from the 16th Precinct's newly-promoted and very keen Detective-Lieutenant Thomas (Karl Malden). However, fate conspires against Dixon when Paine's death is pinned on Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully), a taxi driver and father of the dead man's estranged wife Morgan (Gene Tierney), whom Dixon has understandably fallen in love with over the course of the investigation. The cop would prefer to bring Scalise in instead and tries to contrive circumstances accordingly rather than admit the inconvenient truth.

This is one psycho noir that Alfred Hitchcock would surely have lapped up. From the suspense created by having an elderly neighbour sitting at the window to watch the comings-and-goings from Paine's apartment to the wrong man plot twist and the black humour of Andrews' fumbling with a corpse à la The Trouble With Harry (1955), this is Hitch all over. The murky morals of Dixon's behaviour are deliciously complex and Hecht's script tries hard to make us side with an unhinged vigilante who hides behind his badge and abuses his authority. Only his banter with ageing waitress Martha (Ruth Donnelly), affection for his shlub of a partner (Bert Freed) and attraction to Morgan humanise this most obsessive and twisted of beasts. Bad cops are still doing a roaring trade at the box office in the wake of Training Day (2001), with the twin recent successes of Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant remake and Casey Affleck's masterful turn as Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me (both 2010). Mark Dixon deserves to be remembered in their company, along with Dirty Harry and Hank Quinlan from Touch Of Evil (1958). Dixon is also a sort of murderous mirror-image of Mark McPherson in Preminger's earlier Laura (1944). What a fine and underrated actor Dana Andrews was - so sparing, so understated.

Arguably Where The Sidewalk Ends is marred slightly by its unnecessarily wholesome happy ending, which contradicts its otherwise hard-fought ambiguity. Rather than have Dixon insist that the paternal Inspector Foley (Robert F. Simon) read his confession in a fit of guilt and then be forgiven by Tierney, I'd have had Foley toss it unread into the nearest waste-paper basket for a close-up, after which the music would swell, "The End" would rear up on screen and the characters would leave the room patting an uneasy Andrews on the back. But what do I know?

28/07/2010

Mad Love (1935)


Aaahhh! Here's Peter Lorre making his American debut for MGM after triumphing in Fritz Lang's M (1931) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) for Alfred Hitchcock. He stars as Dr Gogol, a pioneering surgeon in Paris who is in love with another man's wife: Yvonne (Frances Drake), an actress in a Grand Guignol theatre. When her husband, virtuoso pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive, James Whale's Victor Frankenstein), loses both hands in a train wreck, Gogol agrees to conduct an experimental transplant. The bad news? The hands he grafts onto his stricken rival are those of Rollo (Edward Brophy), a circus knife-thrower turned murderer who has recently been executed by guillotine. When the recovering Orlac suddenly starts flinging blades around someone's bound to get hurt and his oediapl nightmare of a father (Ian Wolfe) looks like a prime target. Meanwhile, Gogol continues to pursue his infatuation with Yvonne through a wax statue he has acquired of her, dreaming of bringing it to life as Pygmalion did Galatea. You know this one won't end well. The scene above, incidentally, finds Lorre claiming to be Rollo, the dead man, who convinces Orlac that Dr Gogol has brought him back to life by clamping his head back on with a makeshift neck brace and giving him sinister metal gauntlets for hands. He's trying to drive Orlac mad and it's not a bad effort.

Here's a wonderfully naive trailer for Mad Love in which Lorre graciously answers a phone call from a handsome fangirl:


Aside from its certifiably krazy plot courtesy of Frankenstein (1931) screenwriter John L. Balderston, this lurid horror is full of deliciously over-the-top details and nutty characters, from the wisecracking American reporter (Ted Healy) to the soused British landlady (May Beatty) who sees double and dotes on a pet cockatoo. Clive and Drake are excellent while Lorre is amazingly unsettling as the necrophiliac mad scientist, a bald brother to Max Schreck's Count Orlok in Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu, whose name might conceivably have been taken from Maurice Renard's source novel here, The Hands Of Orlac (1920). Renard's book had already been filmed in Austria by Robert Wiene as the silent Orlacs Hände (1924), starring Conrad Viedt, the same director-actor team behind the seminal expressionist classic The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920). It would be remade once more under its original title in 1962, with Christopher Lee and Mel Ferrer. The botched transplant/evil limb theme remains a horror staple, from the convict's brain in Whale's Frankenstein to the homicidal disembodied hand in The Beast With Five Fingers (1946, also featuring Lorre), Jan's decapitated head in The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962) and Bruce Campbell's haunted fist in Evil Dead 2 (1987). In the era of bio-engineering and full face transplants, the idea could run and run.


Famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael apparently accused Orson Welles of stealing aspects of Mad Love for Citizen Kane (1941), including some of Gregg Toland's camera angles. Nuts. It is true that Charlie Chaplin pronounced Lorre the world's "greatest living actor" after seeing the film and British novelist Graham Greene was impressed enough by Mad Love to write an essay entitled 'The Genius of Peter Lorre' for World Film News in July 1936. His thoughts on this fading star, whose legacy Greene feared for even then, are worth repeating: "To Lorre alone we owed the goodness, the tenderness of the vicious man. Those marble pupils in the pasty spherical head are like the eye-pieces of a microscope through which you can watch the tangled mind laid flat on the slide: love and lust, nobility and perversity, hatred of itself and despair jumping out at you from the jelly. His very features are metaphysical."

22/07/2010

Attack Of The Giant Leeches (1959)

Roger Corman and his brother Gene produced this smart little monster movie, which is set in the stifling swamplands of the Florida Everglades and concerns a pair of grotesquely mutated annelids who have started sucking the blood of local moonshiners and jug-swiggers. There's a thoughtful script by Leo Gordon that makes inventive use of the geography of the area - the underwater catacombs providing air pockets that the leeches use to keep their weakened victims alive - and dares suggest that radiation from Cape Canaveral might have caused the mishap, perhaps an implied critique of America's expensive, adventurist space programme of the period. The direction from Bernard L. Kowalski is economical and captures a nice Southern Gothic mood in the white trash love triangle going on between the proprietor of Dave's General Store (Bruno VeSota), his no-good tramp of a wife Liz (Yvette Vickers) and her parasitical lover Cal (Michael Emmet). Vickers was a veteran of Playboy magazine and Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman (1958) and is the highlight among a uniformly excellent cast, though Gene Roth also deserves a nod for bringing authenticity to the stock role of sceptical county sheriff. The game warden hero (Ken Clark) may be a little too straight-laced for his own good and the titular attack does ultimately boil down to two guys paddling around in the shallows wearing bin-liners with suction cups taped on, but it's a brooding piece of work and one that deserves every credit for having the courage to take its premise seriously. The dynamite ending is suitably unshowy and an endearingly practical solution to the problem.

20/07/2010

Les Vacances De Monsieur Hulot (1953)


The legendary Jacques Tati directing on location at Saint Marc-sur-Mer, Brittany, in 1952 for Mr Hulot's Holiday. The comedian had been a keen sportsman before he entered the Paris music-halls and this summery outing provided him with plenty of opportunity to exploit his athleticism - his famous thrusting tennis serve being the most obvious example, though he is also frequently required to run away from the scene of a crime, as when he accidentally locks someone in the boot of their car or in the episode below where he kicks a pompous tourist up the arse after mistaking him for a Peeping Tom. Hulot's canoe snapping in two to form a Jaws-like sea monster and his elegant trip into the harbour are other examples of Tati's idiosyncratic brand of physical comedy in full flight.


Four years after his feature debut in Jour De Fête, in which he played a manic village postman obsessed with speed, Tati created his most enduring character, a bumbling but genial pipe-smoker who unknowingly causes havoc wherever he goes. Like Tati's idol, Charlie Chaplin, Monsieur Hulot is immediately recognisable from his silhouette and peculiar stance - always leaning perilously forward on his plimsolled tip-toes as though scenting some unseen rose, wearing too-short cuffed trousers and a crumpled hat to accentuate his oddball appearance. This is a man who approaches life from the wrong angle and could easily be knocked off balance at any moment, his very gait and springy step promising calamity. 

André Bazin called Hulot "a scatterbrained angel" and he is certainly a benevolent sort of misfit, befriending all around him even when he's breaking social convention and causing annoyance at the Hotel de la Plage by murdering his fellow guests at ping pong or upsetting other diners by playing jazz records at excessive volume. Tati could have chosen to make a joke out of the elderly English woman (Valentine Camax) who is so taken with Monsieur Hulot but instead his hero is kind to her and it's this cheery, accepting worldview that makes the character so winning. Like W.C. Fields, inanimate objects cause Hulot no end of bother, but the truth about the Frenchman is that the disorder that erupts all around him is only directly caused by the man himself some of the time - often it's the fault of others who are so busy trying to avoid and anticipate him that they fail to see what's going on directly in front of them.

Tati, an outsider growing up in Yvelines with Russian and Dutch parents, uses Hulot's clumsiness and ineptitude as a means of disturbing and exposing stuffy French social mores, manners and expectations. He saw his creation as an Everyman figure and once said: "You all have at least five minutes of Hulotism a month, when you take the wrong seat on a train for example." Hulot would appear thrice more on screen - in Mon Oncle (1958), Play Time (1967) and Trafic (1971). Long periods elapsed between each film because Tati was a committed perfectionist, sharing an obsessive dedication to his craft with Chaplin, a trait that led to his being declared bankrupt during the shooting of Play Time.

Mr Hulot's Holiday plays out at an appropriately leisurely pace like a satirical landscape painting brought to life, mocking the French middle classes at play, those frustrated drudges determined to have a good time at any cost during their two weeks away from the office in mid-August. Rogert Ebert said that rewatching the film every summer is like returning to your favourite resort year after year and I think he's right. Families arrive by train, racing from one platform to another, while Monsieur H rolls up in his ridiculously rickety 1924 Amilcar, an auto that looks more like a bumper car with a bicycle attached on either side. We see the dotty old couple who wander along the beach (Marguerite Gérard and René Lacourt): she excitedly picking up shells to show her husband, he tossing them nonchalantly over his shoulder into the nearest rock pool as soon as her back is turned. There's the quixotic old major (André Dubois), the jaded hotel manager (Lucien Frégis), haunted by the muddy footprints all over his nice clean lobby, and Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), the pretty girl all the boys are after - not least the bookish young Marxist who persists in boring her by reading aloud from his weighty political tracts. All are presented together in Keatonesque wide shots, as Tati believed this would keep the focus on group dynamics and emphasise the town as a microcosm for humanity as a whole. Meanwhile the dialogue-free soundtrack has a lovely score by Alain Romans and is otherwise peppered with the amusingly banal and overlapping background chatter of holidaymakers, a naturalistic device used here several decades before Robert Altman was credited with inventing it. All life is here. And death too. There's even a funeral that Monsieur Hulot manages to sabotage by accident, his spare tire sodden with wet leaves mistaken for a wreath by the family of the bereaved. The costume party and mishap in the fireworks shed though remind us that Tati is celebrating humanity, not burying it.

A bronze statue now peers out over the bay at Saint Marc-sur-Mer to commemorate the filming of Mr Hulot's Holiday. The good news for Tati fans is that Sylvain Chomet, the animation genius behind Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003), is due to release a new film based on an unused Tati script very shortly. Written in 1956, it's called The Illusionist (2010) and is about an unsuccessful French stage magician who tries his luck in Edinburgh. I can't wait.

17/07/2010

White Zombie (1932)

Bela Lugosi - a year after spooking audiences with his signature role - gets to do a variation on the Drac act all over again in White Zombie, this time as a black magic sorcerer. This murky little horror from brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, who directed and produced respectively, is generally thought to be the first zombie movie proper and leaves viewers with an invaluable life lesson: never trust a man whose first name is "Murder".

White Zombie concerns innocents abroad Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeliene Short (Madge Bellamy), an American couple who visit Haiti in order to get married. There they meet plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) who falls in love with Madeliene and enlists local weirdo Murder Legendre (Lugosi) to perform a spell on her. Naturally, this Satanic fiend with spit-curled eyebrows has other ideas. He persuades Beaumont that Madeliene needs to die and be resurrected before she can become his - only then will he be able to control her revenant form using a voodoo doll carved out of a wax candle. Can Neil and kindly missionary Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) save the girl from "sins that even the devil would be ashamed of" before it's too late... ?!

White Zombie's story lazily appropriates more than a few ideas from Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Swapping Transylvania for the West Indies, the young hero is very much a naive, Jonathan Harker type while Dr Bruner recalls Professor Van Helsing, explaining the supernatural to the lad in a non-specific Euro accent. This figures, as the production was shot on the Universal lot (though financed independently), recycling old sets from Tod Browning's Dracula plus The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923), The Cat & The Canary (1927) and Frankenstein (1931), in a bid to cash-in quickly on Lugosi's rising star. The latter is naturally the best thing in White Zombie, his fixed stare and mysterious, double-jointed hand clasp somehow very eerie and threatening. Staging this zombie schlocker in its traditional homeland, the superstitious backwaters of the Caribbean, makes for a very original and evocative setting, a world away from the clichéd gothic castles and pine forests of Eastern Europe. OK, so Legendre's clifftop lair is a little too lavish but the island is otherwise no tropical paradise - pitched in darkness, its palm trees drooping ominously, its hillsides dotted with headstones, its skies haunted by the hysterical screeching of vultures.

The scene at Legendre's sugar mill - staffed by the undead because they provide a cheap source of non-unionised labour who "work faithfully" and "are not worried about long hours" - must be every middle-manager's wet dream. A cinematic satire of the deadening effects of industrial capitalism on the workforce before Modern Times (1936) and George A. Romero? Perhaps not. Some of the acting is a tad hammy, it has to be said, the cast mainly comprised of faded actors from the silent era, unused to the subtleties of spoken dialogue, who tend to make heavy use of the significant dramatic pause: "Dr Bruner is a trifle sceptical as to your... motives, sir." One contemporary British reviewer of White Zombie, writing in The Kinematograph Weekly, warned that it was, "not for the squeamish or the highly intelligent." Too cruel. Time Out's Paul Taylor was kinder more recently, arguing that this "poetic" film is deliberately shot to evoke the dreamlike state of a trance, "insinuating ideas and images of possession, defloration and necrophilia into a perfectly stylised design, with the atmospherics conjuring echoes of countless resonant fairytales." Either way, the Halperins were not to be deterred from making a sequel four years later, Revolt Of The Zombies, this time set in Cambodia just after WWI without Lugosi, only using the recurring image of his hypnotic eyes to suggest evil doings about to go down.

15/07/2010

The Belles Of St. Trinian's (1954)


Zowie! The immortal Alastair Sim as long-suffering headmistress Millicent Fritton in Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's popular naughty schoolgirl franchise adapted from Ronald Searle's famous cartoon series. The Scot (1900-76), a failed tailor and one time elocution instructor, softens his voice and dons pearls and a blouse here but otherwise goes about his business in a very matter-of-fact manner, avoiding the camp innuendo of a pantomime dame to make Miss Fritton a living, breathing character. You quite forget you're watching a large man in a fright wig after a while and that's as it should be with theatrical cross-dressing. Only in the scenes in which he appears twice, once as Millicent and once as Clarence, her con-man brother, is the illusion broken but, technically, the seams never show.

Though fondly remembered, this opening sally in the St. Trinian's saga is, in truth, rather too slow and short on jokes to be really funny. The plot concerns the kidnapping of a race horse, Arab Boy, due to run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and on whom Miss Fritton has bet the school's entire £400 budget. George Cole, Sims' protégé, does well as Cockney spiv Flash Harry, who appears to live in the bushes opposite the school and assists the pupils in their various extra-curricular activities - namely, bookmaking and selling bootleg gin distilled in the science lab. This dodgy geezer role would give Cole the template for an entire career, culminating in his much-loved turn as Arthur Daley in the hit TV series Minder (1979-94). The girls meanwhile are rather a homogeneous mass of hellions and anarchists: the fourth formers bearing African tribal shields and spears, pelting each other with flour bombs and stretching their enemies out on the rack; the twenty-something sixth formers all sultry coquettes in risqué miniskirts. Only capo di tutti capi Bella Fritton (Viviene Martin), insurgent leader Jackie (Diana Day) and swotty informer Florrie (Jill Braidwood) stand out, while the rest of the jaded teaching staff, including Beryl Reid, Joan Sims and Irene Handl, are criminally underused. Joyce Grenfell, as unlikely undercover cop Ruby Gates, reunites with Sim after their short scenes together in Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) and Mario Zampi's Laughter In Paradise (1951) and brings a rare note of innocence to proceedings, as well as a funny walk that serves as a quite literal rendering of the term "flat foot." Her attempts to referee a violent hockey match while Sim smirks behind a prize table draped with the Union Jack is a definite highlight. Also worthy of note is the jaunty theme by Malcolm Arnold.


Searle had begun drawing his St. Trinian's girls in 1942 as a searing antidote to the jolly children's fiction of the period, typified by the prolific output of Enid Blyton, the Jennings novels of Anthony Buckeridge and Richmal Crompton's Just William stories. Searle was then called up to serve in WWII, where he was stationed in Singapore, captured by the Japanese and then almost worked to death building the Siam-Burma railway through the Kwai jungle. As a POW detained at the notorious Changi labour camp, Searle sketched by night to keep his sanity, his body wasting away from hardship, malaria and the brutal punishments of the guards. By the time he returned to England, his view of human nature had blackened sufficiently so that it began to show through and shape the inky mire of his drawings. His St. Trinian's illustrations appeared in the magazines Lilliput, Life, Punch and Holiday and were compiled in a series of anthologies that began with Hurrah For St. Trinian's in 1948 and ended with Souls In Torment in 1953, by which time Searle had grown so sick of his marauding femmes that he decided to wipe them all out with an atomic bomb, moving on to savage life behind the walls of a boys' private school in the popular Molesworth books (1953-59) with Geoffrey Willans. The artist has a small cameo in The Belles Of St. Trinian's, playing one of the aggrieved parents who arrive amidst the warfare, only to be trampled by the Old Girls' reunion. Searle had met producers Launder and Gilliat when he was asked to draw the title cards for their previous school comedy The Happiest Days Of Your Life (1950), which had also featured Sim, Grenfell and Richard Wattis (the Minister for Education here). His artistic style is referenced throughout the film via the messy ink blots that stain the school's wood-paneled corridors.


After Belles, this big screen franchise would march on to three sequels - Blue Murder At St. Trinian's (1957), The Pure Hell Of St. Trinian's (1960) and The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery (1966), with Grenfell and Cole outlasting Sim, before an ill-advised revival in 1980 written by Launder and Searle, The Wildcats Of St. Trinian's. And the recent remakes with Rupert Everett, Russell Brand, Gemma Arterton et al? Just say no. Why anyone but a pea-brained raincoat-rustler would favour these pointless, soft-core retreads over the charming fifties-sixties originals is beyond me. As for the 2006 Hollywood remake of School For Scoundrels, replacing Alastair Sim with Billy Bob Thornton, I don't even want to know.

13/07/2010

Laura (1944)


"The death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world."
- Edgar Allan Poe, 'The Philosophy Of Composition' (1846)

Although Otto Preminger's near-perfect noir, taken from a brilliant novella by Vera Caspray, is ostensibly about the title character played by the flawlessly beautiful Gene Tierney, assumed murdered after a dead doppelgänger turns up in her apartment with no face, it's really more concerned with the three would-be suitors who project their fantasies onto her. And, indeed, with the way in which cinema itself objectifies and mythologises women, making voyeurs of us all. Waspish columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Southern gigolo Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) act as stand-ins for the audience. That means you, out there in the dark. You, who pay to watch actresses perform and sit there imaging they were yours. Preminger also has some fun at the expense of the mystery genre, deconstructing and parodying its clichés and conventions. The scene in which Andrews gathers together his suspects at a cocktail party to name the person he's going to arrest feels like a spoof of the melodramatic and old fashioned Agatha Christie school of whodunnit crime fiction.


Of the leading men, Andrews' cop usually draws the most critical interest. McPherson is a man with a "silver shinbone" who plays with a handheld child's baseball game to concentrate his mind and keep himself calm. He develops an unhealthy obsession with Laura, whom he believes to be dead, rifling through her possessions and diaries, passing hours transfixed by her portrait and visiting the crime scene so often that Waldo asks him, only half-jokingly, whether he's sub-let the place. Later Lydecker warns McPherson that he'll end end up in a psychiatric ward, "I doubt they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse," he sneers. Then Mark dozes off in front of the fireplace, sleeping off the contents of a bottle of "MacGuffin" brand whiskey, only for Laura herself to walk in, as though from his dreams. Whether or not McPherson has subconscious necrophiliac tendencies, as Waldo and some of the film's more hysterical critics seem to think, the character was certainly one Los Angeles cops empathised with when they began investigating the Black Dahlia case in 1947, as the victim, Elizabeth Short, was a raven-haired vamp in the Tierney mould. A particularly gory case of life imitating art.


Vincent Price's Shelby Carpenter, meanwhile, is a high society parasite who uses his matinee idol looks and Kentuckian charm to schmooze and flatter his way into Laura's New York advertising firm and then into her affections. "I approve of that hat," he purrs, later complimenting her old maid of an aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson, immortal as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca, 1940), in similar fashion. Carpenter says he "can afford a blemish on my character but not on my clothes" and he's not kidding. Being charming is his business so he needs to look sharp. Ann acknowledges this when she later pleads with Laura to let her have Shelby because he is "expensive" and only she can really "afford" to keep him. The way the character is exposed without his methods ever being explicitly spelled out is elegantly done. Shelby is a manipulator, certainly, but a killer?


Which brings us to Lydecker. His calling Carpenter "a male beauty in distress" is as acute as it is savage, typical of a broadcaster and commentator who makes a "lavish" living as a character assassin. Viciously jealous of his rivals for Laura's hand, he writes such a devastating satire of Jacoby (John Dexter), the artist who painted the luminous portrait of her, that she can no longer take him seriously and duly ends their relationship. Webb based his prissy performance on a combination of Alexander Woollcott and Walter Winchell, the latter also inspiring Burt Lancaster's brilliant turn as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell Of Success (1957). Lydecker could have been a comic turn, a sniping effeminate who slays enemies in prose to compensate for his lack of manliness elsewhere, but the urbane Webb makes much more of him than that, using these very qualities to his advantage. His guilt is there in the first scene, when he rises from his bathtub to tell Detective McPherson, quite openly, that, "murder is my favourite crime." The cop fails to distinguish this confession from a barrage of similar witticisms and Lydecker perhaps permits himself a discrete smile off-camera. The man is a control freak who most pro-actively attempts to remake Laura according to his own tastes, choosing her hairstyle and clothes and filling her home with his own ornaments. He's noir's own Henry Higgins, with a shotgun concealed inside a grandfather clock ready for the next suitor that comes calling. Well, the Second Amendment does give him the right to bear arms and he certainly considers Laura his property and is willing to defend her at any cost. "Goodbye, Laura. Goodbye, my love."

And what of the girl herself? We never get to find out who the real Laura is. Gene Tierney is only seen in flashback for the first half of the film, playing the sunny but ambitious career girl who dares approach Lydecker in a restaurant, in a story we may not be able to trust anyway as it told by Waldo, an extremely unreliable narrator. She accepts his overtures, exploits his influence, lies to him and finally cheats with Jacoby before carrying on with Carpenter, or so Lydecker says. Hardly trustworthy behaviour but then how can we even be sure that's the way it went down? When she does make her entrance in the present, Laura is evasive and deceptive, ignoring Mark's instructions to stay indoors and see nobody and vague about the details of her absence. McPherson, in love with her, still can't be sure of this mystery girl while her own maid, Bessie (Dorothy Adams), thinks she's a ghost. She may not be altogether wrong. A happy ending? Who knows?

Laura came about after Otto Premiger had made a botched attempt to stage Caspary's 1941 script, Ring Twice For Laura, on Broadway. He then proceeded to pester Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck into purchasing the rights to the novel Caspary had subsequently turned it into two years later. Zanuck though preferred Rouben Mamoulian to direct but fired him early on. Producer Preminger then took over directing duties as well, retaining the portrait Mamoulian's fiancée had painted of Tierney - oils over an existing photograph - and had cinematographer Joseph LaShelle light it with an eerie, expressionistic glow. Appropriately for a film with Laura's Gothic preoccupations, it has had quite an afterlife through David Raksin's dreamy theme, which was given lyrics by Johnny Mercer in 1945 and became a huge hit. There were also two versions of the film broadcast by the Lux Radio Theater, one in 1945 with Andrews, Tierney and Price and one in 1954 with Tierney and Victor Mature as McPherson. A further adaptation for the Screen Guild Theater (episode 236) saw Andrews, Tierney and Webb reprising their roles. Price would be reunited with Tierney two years later in Dragonwyck and with Andrews in 1956's While The City Sleeps. Andrews would make two further appearances for Preminger in Fallen Angel (1945) and 1950's Where The Sidewalk Ends, where he was reunited him with Tierney, whom Preminger had also used in Whirlpool (1949).

11/07/2010

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)


Pulp novelist James M. Cain was so pleased with Lana Turner's performance as Cora Smith in the Tay Garnett, MGM version of his 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice that he gave her a leather-bound first edition inscribed with a loving tribute: "For my dear Lana, thank you for giving a performance that was even finer than I expected." Turner later said that it was her favourite role and she certainly seized the opportunity to prove herself a fine actress as well as a star. Her entrance here - a lipstick rolls across the floor of a roadside lunchroom, drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) stoops to pick it up and finds his eyes travelling up the shapeliest pair of legs you ever saw - may even have the beating of Barbara Stanwyck and her anklet in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), another Cain adaptation. Chambers doesn't have a prayer against this death trap in white, whose short shorts are so short the very sight of them causes hamburgers to catch fire. Chambers sympathises - he's dead meat too. Cora means the end for him and vice versa. He'll fry for loving another man's wife and knows it but is powerless to save himself from the inevitable.


Luchino Visconti got there first with an unofficial adaptation of Cain's work in 1943, Ossessione, which he had first discovered through a French translation given to him by Jean Renoir. The Italian's debut was banned by Mussolini's government and MGM later tried to block its distribution outside of Italy because of copyright infringement. The gritty social realism of the novel would have appealed to Visconti at the time though the story is as universal as they come: man falls for married woman, conspires to bump off her husband, pair turn on each other when the vultures begin to circle and everyone ends up dead.

Tay Garnett's film could hardly be considered a remake of Ossessione but it's certainly a faithful rendering of Cain's yarn, the few minor changes it does make actually improving on the source. Perhaps the most significant alterations in Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch's screenplay concern race. In Cain's story of two souls at odds with the universe - whose murder of the man that stands between them is a desperate bid for freedom from the suffocating constraints of sublunary existence - Nick, the husband, here played by Cecil Kellaway, is a Greek immigrant with the surname Papadakis. His obvious pride in living out his conception of the American Dream beside a California highway is poignant and sad and, in spite of his constant singing and taste for sweet wine, he is a less buffoonish innocent than Kellaway's Nick Smith in Garnett's film.

Similarly, in Cain's hands Cora is an Iowa farm girl gone West, who has dark hair and is touchy about her "Mex" looks. Cora Papadakis also seems to have a deep-rooted racist horror of the man she married, whom she considers "greasy" and only wed to escape a dreary life working in cheap Hollywood hash houses. The idea that he might want to have children with her is so sickening to Cora that she considers suicide and it's this repulsion that ultimately provides the impetus for the lovers' putting their fake drink-driving smash into action. The film has a better idea here, with the innovation that Nick is preparing to sell the Twin Oaks diner and gas station and move up to Canada so that Cora can nurse his disabled sister - this thoroughly unattractive proposition providing a more urgent and compelling deadline for her to commit murder. Hume Cronyn's lawyer, Arthur Keats, is also rechristened after being called "Katz" in the book, a typically Jewish name but also a pun on "cats" - felines recurring symbolically throughout Cain's narrative, from the one that aborts the first attempt on Nick's life by getting itself grilled on the fusebox to Cora's insistence that she needs to act like a "hell cat" just once in her life to cut loose from her husband. The woman Frank later has a fling with, Madge Kramer, also trains the big game variety for a living and gives him a puma kitten as a gift.

Frank is significantly younger than Garfield in the novel, 24, a hobo with muscles honed by "socking railroad detectives" who is in thrawl to the road and the myths it fosters. District Attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames), who along with Keats seems more interested in the intellectual sport of his profession than dealing in justice, gets a more prominent role in this version. It is he who picks up Frank as a hitchhiker and drops him at the Twin Oaks in the first place. He seems to haunt Frank and Cora from that moment on. Cora's entrepreneurial ambition for Nick's business is also made apparent much earlier in Garnett's film, which helps flesh out the character, her determination to achieve commercial success speaks volumes about the lasting scars left by the Depression on the national psyche. Finally, this Postman was obviously not at liberty to dramatise some of the novel's more explicit sexual content (the couple are already pawing each other and biting bloodied lips by page nine and later have passionate sex at the crash site halfway down the ravine: "I had to have her, if I hung for it") but does retain its sudden spasms of violence. Kennedy (Alan Reed), the crooked gumshoe blackmailer, may not have his face beaten to "raw beef", as Cain has it, but Garfield certainly spreads the blood around and to the evident erotic thrill of Turner. Bob Rafelson's 1981 remake, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, famously restored Cain's raunch.


Interestingly, there's no explanation or even allusion to the title anywhere in the original text of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The 1946 film's interpretation of its meaning, given by Frank at the end, is that fate is ultimately inescapable: you might manage to evade it once by luck but, rest assured, you'll get what's coming to you in the end. The phrase is said to have cropped up in a conversation between Cain and screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. Garnett and company took their spin on it from Roy Hoopes' biography of the author.


Turner and Garfield make a winning team and the intimacy of the nightswimming scenes at the beach apparently prompted a short-lived real-life romance between the two. Both reprised their roles for a Screen Guild Theater radio dramatisation, broadcast on 16 June 1947 (episode number 311), which managed to condense the plot into a sweet half hour. You can listen to it here. Meanwhile, here's a sharp parody of the movie starring Groucho Marx, Dinah Shore and announcer Harry Von Zell from a 1946 episode of the Bird's Eye Open House that manages to crack through it in even better time, both men ending up dead in a little under 10 minutes.

10/07/2010

Key Largo (1948)


Bogie's war veteran Frank McCloud pitches up at a shabby hotel in Florida's Key Largo to pay his respects to the father (Lionel Barrymore) and widow (Lauren Bacall) of an old army buddy, George Temple, who died in action. There he finds the lobby filled with shady characters determind to foul up the already balmy atmosphere and a bartender who won't serve him a beer. Something's wrong. McCloud soon learns that deported gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his "fishing buddies" have occupied the hotel in order to carry out an exchange of counterfeit bills before casting off back to Cuba. What's more, there's a tropical hurricane on the way and things look like they're about to get tense.

Paul Muni had starred in the stage version of Maxwell Anderson's 1939 play but John Huston and producer Jerry Wald thought it would make an ideal vehicle for Bogart and Bacall so Huston set to work on a screenplay with Richard Brooks, updating the action from the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War to WWII and adding touches to suit Bogie, such as McCloud's love of sailing. The end result is very much about McCloud's Hamlet-style battle with his own conscience. Disabused of his ideals following his experiences in Italy during the war, McCloud had been inspired to fight because he "once believed some words" spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt at the UN: "We are not making all the sacrifice of human effort and human lives to return to the kind of world we had after the last war." But after the horrors of conflict, seeing death all around him from every hilltop, Frank's now come to believe that all that matters is looking out for number one: "One Rocco more or less isn't worth dying for." This kind of attitude doesn't do much for his approval ratings with Bacall: she loves him when he proves to be a capable seaman, hates his "cowardice" in refusing Rocco's invitation to a shoot out and loves him all over again when he gives the shaken Claire Trevor a drink and takes a slap in the puss for his insolence. To get the girl, McCloud must rediscover his faith in Roosevelt's words and understand that the deaths of George Temple and a million boys like him count for nothing if a man like Rocco is allowed to live and thrive and drag America back to the bad old days. He must rise up and take a stand one more time. "When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses," in Bogart speak.


In Film Noir (1992), Joan Cohen called Key Largo "gangster-gothic", an accurate description of the shadow Robinson's performance casts over the picture. A vain, deluded toad of a man, Rocco is introduced puffing a cigar in the bath and dreaming of his glory days during Prohibition. Later this fallen Capone struts around the delapidated Hotel Largo in a fat tie and two-tone shoes, taunting an old man in a wheelchair and bullying Trevor's washed-up, alcoholic lounge singer, another relic of the good times who stands as a living reminder of how far things have changed. He hates her drinking and controls her through it, forcing her to sing 'Moanin' Low' for her scotch in a weak, threadbare voice that he then dismisses as "rotten" and uses as an excuse to keep her thirsty. Trevor is excellent and well-deserving of her Oscar. Was there ever a more bitterly ironic misnomer than "Gaye Dawn"? Rocco is a man from another time and badly out of place. He's frightened of the storm and should be embarrassed to find himself languishing in an off-season palm tree resort on the southernmost tip of the United States. Hardly the Chicago of the Roaring Twenties. Like Cagney in White Heat (1949), this was Robinson's closing statement on the Warner gangster pictures that had defined and typecast him in the early part of his career.


Huston's film has lovely deep-focus photography from Karl Freund (who also shot Fritz Lang's Metropolis, 1927) and an immensely strong sense of place, the hotel a perfectly self-contained, microcosmic environment that never once feels confined or stagy thanks to the dramatic device of the hurricane, which makes it a necessity that everyone stays indoors. The storm itself is also very effective (partially done by using recycled stock footage from an old Ronald Reagan movie, Night Unto Night, directed by Don Siegel in 1949), the plight of the Seminole Indians huddled outside seeking sanctuary adding to the tension. One of the two Osceola Brothers on the run from the cops is played by Jay Silverheels, who went on to star as Tonto in The Lone Ranger TV series between 1949 and 1957. As for the rest of the star-studded cast, special mention should go to two of the actors playing Rocco's genuinely unpleasant henchmen - Thomas Gomez as the corpulent, gum-chewing Curly and Harry Lewis as the spivy, psychotic hyaena Toots. Robinson, Bogart and Trevor had all appeared together before in The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse (1938), the latter two also united in Dead End (1937), while Bogie and Bacall of course appeared together in To Have & Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) and Dark Passage (1947), as well as in the similarly tropical Bold Venture radio series.

07/07/2010

The Stranger (1946)



"There is no den in the world wide enough to hide a rogue. Commit a crime and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken word, you cannot wipe out the foot-track, you cannot draw up the ladder."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'Compensation' from Essays (1841)

Orson Welles showed that he could play by a producer's rules and turn a profit when it suited him with this gripping if conventional post-war noir thriller, his third director's credit and least favourite among his own work. Welles stars as Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler, one of the architects of the Holocaust who is now lying low in small-town Harper, Connecticut, teaching "the sons of America's first families" under the name Charles Rankin and relishing the irony of his position and forthcoming marriage to Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), daughter to a Supreme Court justice (Philip Merivale). Little does Kindler realise that Agent Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) of the Allied War Crimes Commission is in town and on the trail of his old colleague Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a religious convert whom Wilson has released in the hope that he will lead him straight to Kindler.


By the forties, Edward G. had begun to do very well for himself playing methodical little men on the right side of the law - here a pipe-tapping Simon Wiesenthal type - having made his name as Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello at Warners (James Cagney too would undergo a similar post-Code moral makeover, going from glamorous hood in The Public Enemy of 1931 to a heroic Fed four years later in G-Men). Robinson's Mr Wilson coolly makes known his presence in Harper by insinuating himself into the dinner party set, befriending the Longstreets and taking in the occasional game of checkers at the general store with 25 cent hustler and local busybody Mr Potter (Billy House, physically resembling Lionel Barrymore's miserly Bedford Falls villain of the same name in the same year's It's A Wonderful Life). Wilson is just as much a stranger in these parts as his prey and the town - its incongruous Gothic clock tower aside - comes to represent the sort of Rockwellian, all-American suburban heartland of white picket fences, well-to-do homes and gently tumbling autumn leaves that Welles's friend Joseph Cotten so gleefully picked apart in Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) or that the gas-guzzling Dennis Hopper haunted so menacingly in Blue Velvet (1986). Beneath its green lawns lies a thick, lingering morass of paranoia and mistrust. In spite of Mary's denial and insistence to the contrary that, "In Harper, there's nothing to be afraid of", a very real fear of intruders infiltrating the community abides. At her own cocktail party, this sickly mood bubbles to the surface when the guests become excited by ghoulish talk of serial killers and the fate of Meinike, the missing stranger. McCarthy's Red Scare was just around the corner.


Welles's direction is certainly more self-consciously routine than usual but he still finds interesting things for cinematographer Russell Metty to do by way of looming silhouettes and claustrophobic close-ups. A pounding, melodramatic score by Bronislaw Kaper serves to compliment the action and ratchets up the tension at key moments, as when Kindler strangles Meinike in a dappled woodland while local school boys follow a paperchase close by. As an actor, Welles mostly steers clear of Nazi stereotype and is all the more unnerving for it - his Kindler is the sort of fellow who quietly poisons dogs, whistles while doodling swastikas in public phone booths and ducks out of his own wedding reception to bury a corpse, returning in a change of clothes looking suaver than ever. He longs for World War III and The Stranger is deadly serious about the threat still posed by surviving fascists, even going so far as to feature a scene in which Wilson forces Mary to watch real news reel footage of a concentration camp to convince her to accept the facts and turn on her husband.

This was a theme Welles dealt with regularly in his contemporary newspaper column for The New York Post, never forgiving the German people for embracing National Socialism and attributing the rise of Hitler to their "infatuation with Faust", a stance at odds with his usual libertarian political outlook. His attitude had not changed by 1950, when he was interviewed about the commercial failure of Macbeth (1948) by Sight & Sound's Francis Koval: "I don't take it as a compliment that the picture is having terrific success in Germany, where people are probably attracted to the medieval savagery of the subject," he speculated. The following speech over dinner in The Stranger, when Charles Rankin inadvertently reveals himself to Wilson, summarises Welles' view of the Nazi mentality and provides an especially chilling moment:

"The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world hatred and conspired against and put upon by inferior people, inferior nations. He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing, not the German. We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain, but we learned from our own casualty list the price of looking the other way. Men of truth everwhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No. He still follows his warrior gods marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the fiery sword of Siegfried, and he knows subterranean meeting places that you don't believe in. The German's unbroken dream world comes alive and he takes his place in shining armour beneath the banners of the Teutonic knights. Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace. He's... another Barbarossa... another Hitler." 

The Stranger's story came from an original screenplay written by Victor Trivas, which was worked on by Anthony Veiller and Decla Dunning as well as an uncredited Welles with help from John Huston. Despite his input, Welles still considered the final shooting script to be a "bastardised" version of the original draft and, according to author Clinton Heylin, the director "felt he had been obliged to grit his teeth one time too many, as he again saw plotlines left trailing, themes half-expressed, subtleties sacrificed for a peculiarly subjective, only nominally consistent paciness, indicative of the kind of ur-thriller The Stranger was not meant to be."

Welles had wanted to cast his old Mercury Theater pal Agnes Moorhead in the Robinson role and to feature a more specific explanation of Kindler's obsession with clocks and their mechanisms as a metaphor the "ideal social system", but he was thwarted on both counts. These disappointments were ultimately what led him to declare in 1958 that the finished Stranger is, "the one of my films of which I am least the author." Perhaps but, for me, The Stranger is a distinctive, sorely underrated thriller, packed with ideas and deserving of better, not least for its unforgettable clock tower dénouement, which serves as an odd, noirish link between Harold Lloyd and Back To The Future (1985). As The Stranger has fallen into the public domain, you can see it in its entirety above.

02/07/2010

The Battle Of The Sexes (1959)


Constance Cummings and Peter Sellers find themselves at odds in Charles Crichton's excellent small business comedy The Battle Of The Sexes. Implausibly and very loosely based on 'The Catbird Seat', a 1942 New Yorker short story by the wit and cartoonist James Thurber, the piece recounts the upheaval endured at a fusty Edinburgh tweed manufacturer, the House of MacPherson, when its aged owner (Ernest Thesiger) dies and passes on the reins to his idiot heir (Robert Morley). The latter brings in ambitious, assertive American business consultant Angela Barrows (Cummings) to help modernise the firm's modest but antiquated set-up, which is still reliant on cottage industry (quite literally, that of the aged highland crofters who weave the fabric). The meek and equally elderly all-male staff, led by abstemious chief accountant Mr Martin (Sellers), soon rebel against her introduction of a proper filing system, electronic adding machines and a malfunctioning intercom system before matters really come to a head with the suggestion of investing in a new factory and abandoning traditional materials in favour of cheaper synthetic fibres (also the cause of much chagrin in Alexander Mackendrick's Ealing caper The Man In The White Suit, 1951). Martin finds himself forced to test his Machiavellian mettle, plotting a murder no one could possibly believe him capable of.



Audiences today are advised not to take this film's apparent sexual politics to heart - it's better to think of it as an ahead-of-its-time satire on the dubious influence wielded by freelance consultants, those self-proclaimed "experts" whom bosses bring in to legitamise the mass sacking of half the workforce in the name of efficiency, rather than as a sexist allegory warning against meddling women in the workplace. The showdown in Cummings' apartment, when a nervous Sellers tries to bump her off through hapless improvisation, is brilliantly choreographed and perhaps owes something to another classic Mackendrick comedy, The Ladykillers (1955). Having a supporting character with the surname Darling (Jameson Clark), which causes embarrassment every time anyone addresses him ("Not you, Darling!"), was a joke almost certainly borrowed by Richard Curtis for the BBC's Blackadder Goes Forth (1989). And perhaps more recently by Gordon Brown at the Treasury. Sellers is at his best in this sort of thing, far more understated and subtle than he can be, while The Battle Of The Sexes is also notable for an early cameo from Donald Pleasence and a hilarious opening scene that dares to make fun of the penchant among Scottish men for wearing tartan mini skirts (sorry, "kilts") by playing the can-can over footage of a troop of marching bagpipers. For a more thoughtful exploration of the culture clash that takes place when progress-minded Americans hit the highlands, go for Bill Forsyth's wry Local Hero (1983), but Crichton's comedy still packs plenty of native charm.