The Bigamist

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Collier Young

Story: Lawrence B. Marcus and Lou Schor

Director: Ida Lupino

Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Edmund Gwenn

Cinematography: George E. Diskant

Music: Leith Stevens

Company: Filmmakers Releasing Organization

Release: December 3, 1953

“I can’t figure out my feelings towards you. I despise you and I pity you. I don’t even want to shake your hand… and yet I almost wish you luck.”

At one point in “The Bigamist,” a character describes his point-of-view on the title bigamist, Harry (Edmond O’Brien), and I could not agree more. It’s kind of incredible to have a film from 1953 to have that much ambiguity – it refuses to turn him into an easy villain, but it never shies away from how wild his actions are.

As the movie opens, we meet Harry and his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine) as they are being interviewed by Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) about adopting a child. Jordan likes Eve, but has an odd feeling about travelling deep-freeze salesman Harry, who lives in San Francisco but spends part of his time in Los Angeles. Mr. Jordan follows Harry to Los Angeles, and discovers Harry rents a home there (!) where he lives with his other wife (!!) and child (!!!).

The screenplay by Collier Young (“The Hitch-hiker”) and director Ida Lupino (also “The Hitch-hiker”) go to lengths during this first act to build a sense of mystery around Harry, taking their time to understand just why exactly Mr. Jordan can’t quite put his finger on what is wrong. The big reveal, which comes about 20 minutes in, would actually work as an awesome twist… if the movie wasn’t called “The Bigamist.” I’m not gonna lie – because of that title, it feels a little like wasted time.

Harry invites Mr. Jordan in, and the movie shifts to a flashback structure as Harry explains how exactly he got into this predicament. Harry is business partners with Eve, and complains that their marriage had gotten stale as a result. Poor baby. One day while wandering through Los Angeles, he took a bus tour through Beverly Hills (I smiled widely when the driver pointed out Gwenn’s house on the tour) and met Phyllis (Lupino). Sparks flew and, though he resisted, they fell in love. He was about to leave Eve, but then her father died. He was about to tell Phyllis, but then she was pregnant with his child. And so on and so forth. And, before you know it, he’s a bigamist. Whoops.

In case you haven’t already realized, this storyline doesn’t sound much like a film noir. And that’s because, bluntly, it isn’t really a noir. Yeah, this is one of those movies like “While the City Sleeps” and “Daisy Kenyon” which is created by a bunch of noir superstars, so it feels like it should be noir… and so critics bend over backwards to figure out ways to classify it as such. It ends in a courtroom? That works for them!

That said, it’s a very good film. Lupino’s work as a director has mostly failed to impress me… I kinda sorta enjoyed “The Hitch-hiker,” but flat-out hate “Outrage.” This, however, is her most impressive work by far – entirely on a different level than her other films. A lot of the power the film conjures comes not from the big dramatic bits, but the small moments that Lupino and Young discover for the characters that feel genuine. After Harry spends the day on the bus with Phyllis and then follows her to the Chinese restaurant he works at, he calls Eve and is actually honest about the day… but says it in such a way where he can dismiss his feelings. Almost trying to convince himself by telling her. Or note the vulnerability in Phyllis when she tries to resist admitting she loves Harry.

With moments that relatable, it’s easy to get caught up in Harry’s story. It’s also interesting that Young made the decision to tell the entire sordid tale from his point of view instead of one of the wives – his voiceover allows us to see his perspective on the events even if the filmmakers do not offer easy sympathy for him. Which, to be clear, they should not. Because obviously.

The trio of Lupino, Collier and Fontaine had an odd personal connection to the material – Lupino was married to Collier until they divorced and he married Fontaine very soon after. This was obviously a boon for the movie’s publicity, and also fun when you think about the conversations the trio much have had to get to the point where they decided to make a film with this subject matter.

Both women give excellent performances – Fontaine with her easy assurance that she’s doing the right thing and Lupino with her vulnerability despite the walls she has up. Both share ample chemistry with O’Brien, who gives the best performance I’ve seen from him here… oddly sympathetic where most other actors would just come off as a complete asshole. Gwenn offers solid supporting work, especially when he his character has to drive the entire first act.

Lupino’s direction is solid throughout, showcasing Los Angeles’ locations with flair thanks to the work of cinematographer George E. Diskant (“Kansas City Confidential”). As I wrote earlier, this isn’t a noir film, so don’t look for all the light and shadows you would expect otherwise. That said, it is a very good looking movie.

I’m honestly kind of shocked the final sequence made it past the censors. Harry’s lawyer making the argument that Harry’s actions would be lauded by most men except for the fact that he married his mistress. Ending before Harry receives any sort of punishment beyond the guilty verdict. But, like the rest of the film, the ambiguity here lends a lot of power. The only interaction Eve and Phyllis have is when they share a look. At first, I wanted much more, but then realized that a full dialogue-driven sequence would not have conjured the same power as that single, simple moment.

Score: ****

The 13th Letter

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Howard Koch

Based on the film “Le Corbeau” written by Louis Chavance and Henri-Georges Clouzot

Director: Otto Preminger

Cast: Michael Rennie, Charles Boyer, Linda Darnell

Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle

Music: Alex North

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Release: January 19, 1951

It is not a surprise that Hollywood would remake “Le Corbeau,” the French thriller about poison pen letters bringing a town to its knees. The premise alone is enough to make any executive drool a little bit. What is surprising about this adaptation, titled “The 13th Letter,” is how such an excellent creative team could botch the translation so wholly.

The adaptation by Howard Koch (“The Letter”) hews fairly close to the original. In Canada, a local doctor named Pearson (Michael Rennie) becomes the target of several poison pen letters that allege he is sleeping with Cora (Constance Smith), the wife of Dr. Laurent (Charles Boyer), another doctor at the same hospital. There’s the same patient in the hospital driven to suicide by the letter, and you’ve got the same thirsty bedridden woman named Denise (Linda Darnell) hiding a secret from Pearson.

I never expected this version to retain the gossip about Pearson performing illegal abortions all over town, because in 1951 the production code wasn’t that lax. But what I am surprised is that the movie settled for such run-of-the-mill accusations. Director Otto Preminger (“Laura”) spent the entire latter half of his career pushing the envelope, content wise, in film after film. But here we get affairs, someone saying that a healthy man has cancer and a few other B or C rate letters that would cause more yawning than anything else if posted on Facebook or Twitter. Frankly, it really takes the teeth out of the plotline, no matter how much composer Alex North’s overbearing score insists that it’s life or death.

I’m also curious why Koch decided to move up the big reveal that (warning: I’m about to spoil things) Cora wrote the first letter to almost a half hour before the film ends. In the original, the reveal happens late in the proceedings, so the second twist – that Cora’s husband Dr. Laurent abused her into writing them and was the true mastermind – was more impactful and unexpected. It wasn’t great, but it was something. But here, anyone who can check his or her watch knows there’s enough running time left for another twist coming their way.

I also, frankly, am befuddled as to why the filmmakers decided to set the film in Quebec. I mean, I sort of get it, since the original was French… but still. The storyline screams out to be placed in suburban America – that simple shift could have given it the feel of “Shadow of a Doubt” or a comparable movie.

Perhaps the one good thing to come out of the shift to Quebec is the lovely location photography by Preminger’s regular cinematographer at 20th Century Fox, Joseph LaShelle (“Laura”). There isn’t an exterior shot where he doesn’t crack his knuckles and find a great location to exploit. The scene where Pearson reveals his shadowy background to Denise probably should have taken place in an intimate setting, but it’s hard to complain because Preminger and LaShelle set it on a ferry as it slowly approaches the small town… it’s so pretty you start focusing on the background instead of what Pearson is saying.

That isn’t really a surprise, though, because Rennie is way out of his depths in the role. Pierre Fresnay played the comparable role in the original, and neither character is supposed to be very likeable. But you can’t look away from Fresnay the entire running time, and you want to look away from Rennie, because he has zero charisma. A block of wood would have been more engaging. Darnell is likewise adrift, though one can’t blame her because her character has lost much of her edge in the translation. Boyer is very good in a mostly thankless role, though his casting is sort of a spoiler in and of itself. After all, you don’t cast Charles Boyer as the fifth banana in a cast of C-listers.

Many of the scenes and sequences hew very closely to “Le Corbeau,” so you can’t help but compare the two shot-for-shot, and here “The 13th Letter” comes up short as well. Despite their excellent outdoor photography, Preminger and LaShelle stumble more recreating moments like the letter falling down on a bunch of churchgoers during service and a letter tumbling out of a funereal wreath. This is especially surprising because I was very much looking forward to seeing Preminger give his interpretation of these iconic scenes. Instead, he seems content with giving us the Caffeine Free Diet version.

I recently covered Fritz Lang’s “M” and its American remake, and watching “The 13th Letter” gives me a new appreciation for what Joseph Losey accomplished with his version of “M.” I’m not surprised that this is the least remembered of Preminger’s iconic run of noir films at 20th Century Fox – others were worse (I’m looking at you, “Where the Sidewalk Ends”), but none of them were as disposable as this.

Score: **

Le Corbeau

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Louis Chavance and Henri-Georges Clouzot

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Pierre Larquey

Cinematography: Nicholas Hayer

Music: Tony Aubin

Studio: Continental Films

Release: September 28, 1943

Words have power.

It’s a simple sentiment, but a true one. If you say something enough (or, in this case, write it enough), the words take on a type of magnetism. Even if you are certain that something is untrue the first time you read it, will you feel the same way after the 20th?

“Le Corbeau” is the story about how words – some lies, some truths – cause a town to implode. An anonymous person or persons using the pen name “The Raven” begin sending letters to several people. A doctor named Germain (Pierre Fresnay) is accused of being an abortionist, and also of sleeping with Laura (Micheline Francey), the young wife of an older doctor named Michel (Pierre Larquey) at the same hospital. Another note to a hospital patient (Roger Blin) convinces him to commit suicide. Before you know it, hundreds of notes are being sent all over town – a sickness permeating the souls of that world. But who started the notes, and why?

Since we need more suspects, there are a bunch more characters in the ensemble. First up is Denise (Ginette Leclerc) who feigns illness to get Germain in her bedroom but is hiding a real medical secret. Denise’s sister Rolande (Liliane Maigne) is young and has glasses, which is suspicious in and of itself. Laura’s sister Marie (Helena Manson) is a nurse at the facility who no one seems to like… and also doesn’t seem to like her patients.

The story is structured like a whodunnit, and the screenplay by Louis Chavance and Henri-Georges Clouzot (who also directed) is ingenious in the way it shifts your suspicion from one citizen to the next… and also the way it escalates the letter writing into public anarchy in order to underline its themes. The letter falling out of the funereal wreath during the march. Another dropping down onto the parishioners during mass. When Marie is literally chased through the streets because the mob assumes she wrote the letters, I was horrified. It’s not just about the suicide, it’s about the fact that ordinary humans are having their lives ruined by stories that could be fact or fiction… but since one or two letters are correct, all are presumed as fact. At its best, “Le Corbeau” is as scathing an indictment of witch hunts as the seminal “The Crucible.”

That said, for a movie that touches greatness so often, it’s kind of a shame that its third act reveals are just sorta… there. Maybe my expectations were too high because of the writing prior, but when we find out the culprits’ identities, I just sort of went “meh.” I wanted more. It doesn’t help at all that they are discovered not through intense detection or a character putting together logical cues: Germain literally happens upon a sketch pad by one of the culprits. Talk about anti-climactic!

I also struggled with how unlikeable most of the ensemble was. The films Clouzot directed, which include “The Wages of Fear” and “Diabolique,” are infamous for having unsympathetic main characters – the guy obviously had a low bar set for humanity. And having several of the characters mysterious and harsh works; Germain is a great hero because you can never get a read on him, and the film makes an audacious, bold move in having him and Denise celebrate after she throws herself down the stairs to cause a miscarriage. But come on! It’s difficult to conjure much sympathy for such malcontents… seeing people’s lives destroyed would be much more difficult if you actually liked some of the people being destroyed.

That said, Clouzot’s visual direction is as excellent as his work elsewhere in his career. The aforementioned moment where the letter drops in church almost made my jaw drop. They must have done dozens of takes before the letter fell perfectly, but it was worth the effort because the results look astonishing. Seriously, it feels like flawless CGI because you can’t believe it would fall that way. Also the funereal march is quite grand, with the dropped letter staring up at those passing it, watching them as they regard it before choosing to walk onward.

Fresnay is excellent leading the film, bringing a genuine fire to his scenes… and can play righteous anger really well. There’s a scene about halfway through the film where he finally tells the ensemble who he is and his real background, and it’s quite the barnburner. The rest of the ensemble are fine, with few standouts – I’m obsessed with Maigne and her coke-bottle glasses.

The first half of “Le Corbeau” has steeled its classic status, and with a premise that glorious it’s difficult to resist. I only wish it was the masterpiece it could have been, and that way this article could have been a love letter.

Score: ****

Casablanca

The Film Noir Odyssey/The AFI Top 100 Odyssey

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 3

Writer: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre

Cinematography: Arthur Edeson

Music: Max Steiner

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: November 26, 1942

We open in the title city, a place where everyone seems eternally stuck, hoping to escape to America away from Nazi forces. The only one who doesn’t seem to want to leave is Rick (Humphrey Bogart). He owns a bar where everyone finds themselves every night, good or bad, poor or rich. One night, Rick’s lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into the bar…with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and it just happens that he’s enemy number one for Nazi officials, who are desperate to find a reason to arrest him and take him to a concentration camp before he can get to America. To get out of Casablanca, Ilsa and Laszlo need “letters of transit,” impossible to get, and Rick just happens to have what seems like the last two in the city.

It may seem as if the movie is purposely manipulative just by reading the synopsis, but it never seems forced or overwrought when you are watching it. That begins with the casting—has there ever been another movie where the cast is, as a whole, so uniformly perfect for their roles? Bogart, known for his tough guy roles, plays another one here…but we get to see him fall head over heels for Ilsa and lose her in flashback, so instead of just being a dick we understand his pain. And Bergman was never lovelier, and the way she plays the small intricacies of the love triangle she is at the center of would have been lost on a lesser actress. That lesser actress would have simply been making love to Rick with her eyes from moment one, but Bergman rightly plays it cooler. Henreid is great at playing the straight man, interesting enough to be the hinge the story moves on but not engaging enough for us to root that he sticks with Ilsa.

And then there’s the supporting cast, filled with character actors doing their very best to steal scenes. Claude Rains gives the performance of his long and celebrated career as the sort-of-bad/sort-of-good police captain who gets all the best zingers (he shuts down Rick’s bar because of gambling while being handed his roulette winnings). Conrad Veidt is menacing as the one genuinely bad guy in the movie (the Nazi insignia is the first hint), and then there’s S.Z. Sakall and Dooley Wilson as Rick’s trusted confidants and employees. The film throws a nice twist early when Peter Lorre shows up as an oily ne’er-do-well. We assume he’ll stick around to make trouble throughout the film, but then is grabbed and we learn later he’s murdered, a true shock considering we expect someone like Lorre to have more of a fundamental role. Though the love triangle is the film’s center, it’s a fuller, better movie because the supporting cast help to paint in the edges.

While the cast is a film noir lover’s dream, this is another one of those movies where a bunch of critics fudge the line as to what a noir is to lump the film in. Though it’s thrilling, this isn’t a thriller. And despite the shadows of noir being omnipresent, no one seems interested in embracing them.

Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch’s screenplay takes variations on scenes that seem long familiar, shine them and reverse our expectations until they seem genuinely new. I want to cite examples, but I could literally pick any scene in the film. Okay, fine, let’s talk about the moment Ilsa finally caves and admits she still loves Rick. When she enters the scene Rick (and we) knows she just wants the letters of transit, they play a mind game and Rick tries to give her the cold shoulder once too often, so instead of trying to seduce him she pulls a gun on him.

Rick’s character arc is inspired. This woman he once loved who left him for reasons unknown has returned. Now he’s cold and can’t open up…and because of that, won’t give her the letters. To finally do the right thing, he must admit to himself that he does still love her… but by doing that he’ll lose her forever. It’s a fantastic Catch-22 where, even though we know it’s an inevitable ending, it still affects us deeply. After an hour-and-a-half of bluntly stating that he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone, he makes her get on that plane even though, let’s face it, there’s no real reason she couldn’t stay in Casablanca with him. But he knows it would kill her, and he’d rather die himself than see her suffer.

Director Michael Curtiz (“Mildred Pierce”) filmed the movie in a straightforward, understated style…and thank God for that. Curtiz simply let the film be what it was instead of forcing it to be a cookie-cutter studio picture, and the results give “Casablanca” all the more power. I must ask a silly question about the atmosphere he creates, though. Why is there a searchlight constantly searching the streets of the city? What are they looking for, exactly?

And then there’s the music. I prefer Max Steiner’s score in this film to his more lauded work on “Gone With the Wind”…there’s just something about the way he incorporates the song “As Time Goes By” into the score subtly while still creating several other themes that are just as timeless (seriously, I didn’t mean it as a pun). Then again, I’m always a pushover for the Henry Mancini style, where the entire score for a movie is built out of a single song (for example, “Moon River” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”).

I also adore how this movie seems built on fate, both in the storytelling device of having Ilsa walk into Rick’s bar after all these years, and in how it seemed like all of these Hollywood workhorses (who had worked with just about everyone) finally came together for this specific project.

I would also like to note that you, dear reader, should be very proud of me for not inserting endless examples of the classic quotes from the movie, about ten of which have become so well-known they have become part of public consciousness. And, really, there were a ton of opportunities. Especially here, at the end of the article. But I’m not going to do it…but if I did, you know which one I’d choose.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Awards: “Casablanca” won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Bogart was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Paul Lukas for “Watch on the Rhine.” Rains was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Charles Coburn in “The More the Merrier.” Steiner was nominated for Best Scoring of a Dramatic of Comedy Picture (also nominated was “Hangmen Also Die!”) but lost to Alfred Newman in “The Song of Bernadette.” Edeson was nominated for Best Black-and-White Cinematography but lost to Arthur C. Miller for “The Song of Bernadette.” Owen Marks was nominated for Best Film Editing but lost to George Amy for “Air Force.”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman

Based on the novel “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?” by Gary K. Wolf

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy

Cinematography: Dean Cundey

Music: Alan Silvestri

Studio: Touchstone Pictures

Release: June 22, 1988

At the time of its release, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” felt like a beautifully rendered throwback to the heyday of film noir. But in the decades since, it has also revealed itself to be a beautiful finale to the hand-drawn animation styles of old… a love letter to the Mickey Mouses and Bugs Bunnies before the industry would move past them.

Make no mistake – this is not just a parody of noir, it is legitimately a noir film through and through, just one co-starring two rabbits.

The film is set in 1947 Hollywood, and private dick Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by Maroon Film Studio head R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to get dirt on the wife of one of his biggest stars… the animated actor Roger Rabbit (voice of Charles Fleischer). Yes, in this world, cartoon characters live side by side with human beings, and are often looked down on by the world at large.

Roger’s wife Jessica (voice of Kathleen Turner) may well be a femme fatale – why is someone who looks like her with that daffy, loony, goofy Rabbit anyway? Plus at one point she clunks him on the head and throws him in a trunk, so there’s that. But soon Roger finds himself framed for murder, and Eddie must figure out a way to clear the ‘wascly ‘wabbit’s name. This is entirely an emotional hell for Eddie, who hates cartoons after the death of his brother – a toon dropped a piano on him, you see.

That last bit is the reason this film is a masterpiece, because it perfectly encapsulates the tone. It’s a fantastic punchline that makes you laugh, but screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman don’t play it for laughs. The act genuinely broke Eddie, and the movie explores the emotional ramifications of it for its hero. The entire movie is like that – funny as hell, but also cognizant of the sadness of the world. Characters really die. There’s a heartbreaking moment where Eddie encounters a down-and-out Betty Boop that almost made me emotional.

Also, the villain it legit terrifying… and that includes before the infamous eyeball moment at the climax. Christopher Lloyd plays Judge Doom, so monotone and withheld, which works brilliantly because we expect him to be wild and unreserved. His murdering of an innocent toon was horrifying to me when I was a child, but he can also pull off the brilliant “shave and a haircut” moment of knocking while keeping a straight face.

Can we talk about how the movie is the Disney version of “Chinatown”? Look at the storyline and think about how oddly close the two are, minus the inbreeding, dark ending and sliced noses.

And did I mention that the movie is legitimately funny? The car driving a car. Roger’s gag with the handcuffs. Daffy and Donald having the piano war. It’s not overstuffed… it’s just enough. And they work especially well because we care about the story enough to be engaged with it, so when the gags come, they are even more impactful.

At the center of it all is director Robert Zemeckis, who would return to the noir genre decades later with another masterpiece (this time without cartoons) called “Allied.” He’s the perfect… perhaps the only… guy who could have pulled this off. He has a technical prowess still unrivalled, but he also never loses track of the characters and their inherent humanity, hand drawn or otherwise.

He also has an incredible cast to work with. When you realize the movie stars Hoskins, you can be forgive for feeling a little “What the actual fuck?,” but the choice was pitch perfect. He never winks at the audience. Never mugs. Which is the exact right idea. I’ve already mentioned Lloyd, and Joanna Cassidy makes the most of what could be a disposable role as Eddie’s girl Friday.

The filmmakers couldn’t have known it at the time, but what they ultimately made was a grand finale to the Golden Age of Animation. The hand-drawn animated cartoon that opens the film is an incredible technical achievement… and also the end of an era. Partially this stems from the fact that Mel Blanc died the next year and this would be the last major project where he voiced Bugs, Daffy, Porky and more. Also the next year, Disney would release “The Little Mermaid” and usher in their own Renaissance Era. The company’s priorities were about to change, and nothing like this could or would ever be made again. Certainly Mickey Mouse would never meet Bugs Bunny today.

And, honestly, do kids even care about those characters anymore? I know that seems harsh, but think about it. There’s too much new cartoon content streaming online for them to rediscover the old classics. My generation was really the last one who watched something like “Looney Tunes” or “Goof Troop” when I got home from school. Who went to the theater to see “Space Jam.” Sure, new episodes are being produced for HBO Max of “Looney Tunes,” but I suspect that the majority of its audience are adults wanting to lean into that nostalgia… not kids discovering it for the first time. It’s a depressing notion – these characters meant so much to so many people for so long.

And yet “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” offers up just about the most perfect tribute one could imagine to their ingenuity. The film was much loved when it was first released and has aged beautifully. Here is something that feels timeless… a perfect snapshot of two genres that should not work together and yet do, thanks to the talents of the filmmakers. It’s an essential film and an essential noir.

Score: *****

Awards: Richard Williams won a Special Achievement Oscar for the Animation Direction. It won Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Editing. It was nominated for Best Sound (lost to “Bird”) and Best Art Direction (lost to “Dangerous Liaisons”). Cundy was nominated for Best Cinematography but lost to “Mississippi Burning” (also nominated: “Tequila Sunrise”).

While the City Sleeps

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Casey Robinson

Based on the novel “The Bloody Spit” by Charles Einstein

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Ida Lupino, John Drew Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Sally Forrest

Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo

Music: Herschel Burke Gilbert

Release: May 16, 1956

Studio: RKO

In the ‘70s, the disaster genre was defined by movies overwhelmed with A-list movie stars. Garry Marshall revived that idea in the 2010s, but with all the A-listers in romantic comedies. And even in the ‘30s, melodramas like “Grand Hotel” embraced the same gimmick in the hopes of big box office. The cast of “While the City Sleeps” may well have all been B-listers in the film community when the movie was made, but they were A-listers for anyone who is a fan of the noir genre… so to me, this is the noir equivalent of “The Towering Inferno.”

Dana Andrews stars as Pulitzer prize-winning journalist/news anchor Ed, who is with the head of the Kyne media empire when he passes away. That man’s heir Walter (Vincent Price) knows nothing about the media business, so he creates a job for someone to be second in command and essentially control his empire while he picks up checks. In contention for the position are head of the wire service Mark (George Sanders), Editor-in-Chief of the city newspaper Jon (Thomas Mitchell) and television chief Harry (James Craig). They think that they key to the position is tracking down a serial murderer in the city called The Lipstick Killer, and devote all their attention to finding him, whatever it takes. Jon pulls in Ed for help, Mark attempts to use superstar writer Mildred (Ida Lupino) while Harry just starts banging Walter’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming) and expects her to manipulate Walter into getting him the job. Also in play is Ed’s fiancé Nancy (Sally Forrest), who becomes a target for the Lipstick Killer.

With a cast as starry as this and Fritz Lang as director, you really want “While the City Sleeps” to be a full-on masterpiece of film noir. And it’s not. While good, it doesn’t quite get there… and I kinda don’t think it’s really film noir either? It seems more like, since the cast is full of noir stars and Lang is the director, it should be noir, so critics say that it is despite the fact that the actual serial killing subplot is entirely beside the point.

Though our hero is ostensibly Ed, this is more of an ensemble movie where there is no main character. This harkens back to Lang’s iconic “M,” which also had no main character and focused on several disparate groups of people attempting to track down a murderer. Structurally, the screenplay by Casey Robinson (“Kings Row”) does a masterful job of juggling the different storylines, keeping all of the characters alive in the viewer’s mind and keeping us engaged with the question of who will get the big job. This is no small feat since most of the characters aren’t likeable – the movie is incredibly cynical in how it approaches the subject matter, and I mean that as a compliment.

Sadly, Robinson’s screenplay falls short in several ways. The first is in the portrayal of the killer, using a silly, now-super-dated explanation that E.C. comic books helped drive him crazy. Much of the dialogue could be better, and I wish Robinson had a clearer hand in his characterization. Poor Sanders, Lupino and Mitchell are heavyweights but are sadly underwritten – Lupino in particular pops in every one of her scenes, but her character doesn’t get the opportunity to fully engage with the audience.

It’s also a shame that Andrews gets the most screentime, because he’s the least interesting of the main ensemble. His performance is fine for the most part, but when you have Lupino, Price and Sanders waiting in the wings for their chance to saunter onscreen, you want better than fine. Ed is a big drinker, but also Andrews seems to be slurring his words in several scenes where the character is not supposed to be drunk, like the early scene where Ed calls Nancy from a few yards away. Weird. Luckily, the rest of the outstanding ensemble picks up the slack.

The other thing that struck me is how flat everything looks. Lang, of course, created some of the most engaging visuals in the entire noir genre and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo lensed iconic films noir like “Kiss Me Deadly” and “D.O.A.” But, for the most part, the film has all the depth of an episode of “The Untouchables.” The newsrooms, the bar, the apartments… none of them have any visual distinction in their presentation, even though the set designers were obviously having a lot of fun by putting a random sandbox in the middle of Walter’s penthouse.

The one exception is the astonishing subway climax, where Ed chases the killer down into the tunnels themselves. The two characters brawl and battle as trains whiz by, nearly hitting and decapitating them as they fight. It’s a grand set-piece and beautifully rendered, and yet all it does is make you wish the rest of the movie looked as awesome as that.

I suppose my frustrations with “While the City Sleeps” come from the fact that I wanted it to be the best version of itself, and the movie obviously has a masterpiece somewhere inside of it. That cast! That crew! That story! And there are so many good things in play here that it gets an easy recommendation from me. But when a movie like this has so much going for it, it only makes the problems more glaring.

Score: ***1/2

Tomorrow is Another Day

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Art Cohn and Guy Endore

Story: Guy Endore

Director: Felix E. Feist

Cast: Steve Cochran, Ruth Roman, Lurene Tuttle

Cinematography: Robert Burks

Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: August 8, 1951

Here is a film noir with more on its mind than just guns, dames and playing dirty. It’s just as concerned with the humanity of its main characters as it is the fact that they are on the run from the law. It’s quite telling that this is a rare situation where lovers on the run earn their happy ending by becoming better people, as opposed to being brought down by a cacophony of bullets.

Steve Cochran stars as Bill, newly released from prison after being incarcerated at 13 for killing his father. He wanders the streets, overwhelmed by this world, and finds himself in a paid dance hall spinning Cay (Ruth Roman) around the floor. Having never even kissed a girl, he has a lot of trouble articulating that he’s attracted to her, but before she can fully push him away, her married boyfriend (who is a cop) shows up and causes a big fight, with Cay shooting him to death while an unconscious Bill lays nearby. The two are soon on the run from the law and awkwardly falling in love with one another, finally finding peace on a lettuce farm out West, though the specter of the shooting threatens to break their happiness at any moment.

The first fifteen minutes or so could serve as its own engaging short film. Screenwriters Art Cohn (“The Tall Target”) and Guy Endore (“Johnny Allegro”) take their time setting up Bill’s character and leaning into how unmoored he is out in the real world for the first time in almost two decades. He walks around, seeming dazed, going to a diner and ordering three pieces of pie and a beer to wash it down… something a thirteen year old thinks he would do if he were an adult. He believes he makes a friend, until that “friend” writes an expose about him in the local newspaper with a big photo on the front page… ensuring he would never find peace or anonymity in that town. This section of the movie is kind of incredible in how much it pays attention to details of Bill being lost in time, and when we see the newspaper headline & photo, our hearts sink for him.

Once the mechanics of the genre click into place, the screenwriters and director Felix E. Feist (“The Devil Thumbs a Ride”) find some fresh situations to mine for suspense and fun. The most notable of these is when Bill and Cay abandon their vehicle and conspire to break into one of the cars being towed on one of those giant trucks transporting new vehicles to dealerships. There’s a great bit outside a diner where they struggle to find the right key to get into one of the cars before the driver comes out from getting his coffee which is quite tense.

From there, the movie blatantly copies another noir called “Shockproof” (released two years prior), with them finding love and redemption by doing good work in the fields. And by “blatantly copies,” I mean I actually looked up whether or not this film is a remake of the other because the storylines are so close in that section. But whereas I hated (hated!) “Shockproof,” I was fully engaged by this section of “Tomorrow is Another Day.” I did this because the filmmakers had done the work in creating two complex characters you want to root for, and who deserve this. I did it because Cay became a better person who admitted that she was the one who killed her boyfriend, even though she had been lying to Bill for months because she panicked in the moment. I did it because of Bill’s smile when he learned Cay was pregnant. Though the happy ending is a little out of the clear blue (turns out the boyfriend told the police it was self-defense before dying, and the magazine article that outs Bill was published before the police could comment on it), I went with it simply because I genuinely wanted these two crazy kids to work things out.

I also have to commend the writers for turning the family who ultimately turns Bill and Cay in into actual characters and not just greedy assholes. They are genuine friends with our main characters, and don’t want to betray them… until outside circumstances escalate things to the point of no return.

Cochran is quite wonderful as Bill, engaging with sympathy but never losing a layer of danger that makes you believe he could be pushed into violence once again. He nails the scene where he talks about killing his father, and the aforementioned opening where he is becoming acclimated to life out of prison is gangbusters. Roman is fine as well, but I wish there had been someone with more energy and chemistry with Cochran… maybe someone like Ida Lupino? I’ve now seen Roman in a fair few films noir and I’ve come to the sad conclusion that the best she can pull off is “pretty good,” which is a shame. The supporting cast are all sterling.

Feist isn’t one of those directors who is considered anywhere near the top tier of noir, but he turns in excellent work here, and does great work with cinematographer Robert Burks (“The Wrong Man”), who gives the entire affair a nice sheen of darkness where necessary.

I liked “Tomorrow Is Another Day” way more than I thought I would. The worst thing about it is really that terrible, terrible title, which makes you think this is either a sequel to “Gone With the Wind” or a rip-off.  It’s worth seeking this one out.

Score: ****

The Seventh Victim

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: DeWitt Bodeen and Charles O’Neal

Director: Mark Robson

Cast: Kim Hunter, Tom Conway, Jean Brooks

Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca

Music: Roy Webb

Studio: RKO

Release: August 21, 1943

At one point in “The Seventh Victim,” two characters must walk down a hallway. Doesn’t sound that bad, does it? And yet, through the use of shadows, more shadows and the most shadows, the filmmakers collaborate to create a living nightmare out of walking those few short yards. It’s terrifying for the characters, and for the audience as well.

Such was the magic of producer Val Lewton, who produced a bunch of classic horror films in the B-unit for RKO. The movies, which include “Cat People” and “The Leopard Man,” have gone on to define the ‘40s for horror cinema in the way that the Universal Monsters define the ‘30s and Hammer Films define the ‘50s.

The DNA between the Lewton vehicles and film noir has always been closely linked. It’s not a coincidence that every man who directed a film for Lewton went on to create at least one classic noir: Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People”) made “Out of the Past.” Robert Wise (“The Body Snatcher”) made “The Set-Up.” This film’s director, Mark Robson, would later make “Champion,” among other noir movies. Both love darkness… love the shadows… love the lonely characters who could give into the devil on their shoulder quite easily.

Though if you squint, you could make a case that several of Lewton’s movies could function as noir, the only one that really fits is “The Seventh Victim,” which is also the producer’s darkest… and boldest.

Mary (Kim Hunter) drops out of finishing school upon learning that her beloved sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) has disappeared in New York City. While desperately searching, Mary realizes that Jacqueline had a husband named Gregory (Hugh Beaumont), a therapist named Louis (Tom Conway). Louis’ character is technically a crossover with the same person Conway played in “Cat People,” though he died in that one. As the group begins to put the pieces together, they realize that Jacqueline had become entangled in a group of devil worshippers… and they have no intention of letting Jacqueline get out of their clutches alive.

There is a sense of doom that permeates most scenes in this film in a way you just don’t see in other movies. It’s quite telling that the film starts with the plucky, motivated Mary as the heroine and then all but abandons her as film progresses into the darker parts of New York City. Is that a fundamental problem with the storytelling? Kinda, yeah. It makes sense that the characters move Mary offstage once Jacqueline comes to the fore… but it’s still an odd, not entirely successful choice.

More impactful are the ways writers DeWitt Bodeen (“Cat People”) and Charles O’Neal (“Vice Squad”) ground us in the realness of New York City and then contrast it with motherfucking devil worshippers. We visit a make-up manufacturing shop. A morgue. A restaurant based on Dante. And the movie never tilts all the way into full-on supernatural – you have no idea if there is any power behind the worshippers or if they are just human monsters doing horrible things. They don’t strap Jacqueline to the rack or rip her heart out. They just sit a glass of poison in front of her and insist she drink it… then send a killer after her when that doesn’t work. “Rosemary’s Baby” owes a huge debt to this film.

Robson collaborates here with noir superstar Nicholas Musuraca, who lensed “The Spiral Staircase” and “Out of the Past,” in addition to many, many others. The shadows that Musuraca conjured in the climactic scene where Louis confronts the devil worshippers offers up some of the most indelible images of noir, only eclipsed by that amazing shot of the noose at the end. That said, there are a few moments where the filmmakers let the atmosphere supersede logic… like the sequence where Jacqueline is chased through the streets of New York by a killer, but barely can conjure up a low-pitched “Help me” when all she would have to do to save herself would be to scream at the top of her lungs.

The stars here are the camerawork and the shadows… the acting is just-okay all across the board. Hunter is decent in a thankless role, and Conway is his usual game self. Brooks lets her awesome haircut do the acting for her – a huge missed opportunity for better casting considering that, for the first half of the movie, everyone keeps talking about how her character is unforgettable. Then, when Jacqueline finally shows up, she acts like she’s on Tylenol PM for most of her scenes.

It’s a real shame because, with a more engaged actor, the final moments would have been completely shattering. Don’t get me wrong… they are great. Having escaped the worshippers that night but knowing that they’re never going to stop coming for her, Jacqueline returns to an apartment she rented, passing a woman dying of cancer who is heading out into the city for one last night of fun. As she enters the apartment, she spies a noose… recognizing it as her only escape. We don’t see the suicide, instead only hearing a chair fall to the side as the movie fades to black… which in many ways feels even more horrifying. It’s a bold, brilliant ending, and has rightly gone down as one of the darkest in film history.

Despite its flaws, “The Seventh Victim” is essential viewing. It’s not the best Lewton film from that era, nor it is my favorite film noir… but it casts a spell of dread over the viewer better than just about any other film I’ve ever seen. It sticks with you long after the movie ends. Especially when it’s night and you stand at the end of a dark hallway, wondering what is staring back at you from the other end…

Score: ****1/2

Sunset Blvd

The Film Noir Odyssey/The AFI Top 100 Odyssey

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 16

Writer: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman Jr.

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim

Cinematography: John F. Seitz

Music: Franz Waxman

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Release: August 10, 1950

I consider “Sunset Boulevard” to be the greatest film by a director who specialized in making great films. It incorporates elements of noir, horror, drama and comedy… and is also just about perfect. I just love it. How’s that for an opener?

We first meet Joe Gillis (William Holden) as he is floating upside down in a swimming pool, very much dead. He’s a screenwriter though, so death doesn’t shut him up, and he narrates the story of how he got to be in that pool. Turns out poor Joe was also poor in the literal sense — about to get his car repossessed and pride long shattered from being turned down by every studio in Hollywood. A flat tire leads him to the marble doorstep of silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who invites him to stay with her and help her rewrite the script for her comeback…er…return to film. It starts as that, but soon develops into something much, much sicker.

The first time we meet Norma, she is grieving the death of her pet monkey, as one does. She and her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) mistake Joe for the undertaker and allow him into her mansion. To call Casa Norma an overstatement would be an understatement—it seems as if Paramount dumped the entire contents of its prop rooms inside those walls. Swanson overacts throughout the film, but it is a calculated overacting that makes the film that much more fascinating. It is as if the character of Norma Desmond got so used to acting like she was in a silent film that she began acting like that in real life, and no one was around to yell “Cut!” Her melodrama underlines all of her emotions, from her manipulations to the moments of her real desperation, which paradoxically makes her all the more sympathetic.

Yes, I said sympathetic. She’s a monster, but a monster we come to care very much about. The key to this is Max, who we learn was once much more than just her butler: he was the director who discovered her and became the first of her three husbands. He still adores her as much as he ever did, handling her like a cracked porcelain doll. He caters to her every need, resends fan mail and tries not to let Joe’s relationship with Norma eat him up inside. Because he cares, we care. Because he loves, we love. There’s a moment deep in the film where Norma leaves Max and Joe to meet alone with Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself), and we are anxious and horrified that her dreams will shatter. It is in that moment that we realize how much we have come to care for this weird, unpleasant woman, and because of that the final reel is that much more bittersweet.

Because the movie has a heart, however sick it is, screenwriters Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. have a field day making everything surrounding that heart as bleak, sarcastic and dark as possible. This begins and ends with the Joe character, who can’t be too upset that he’s dead because he knows he was never a very good guy to begin with. While he (barely) admits once in the film that he likes Norma, he fills minutes of the film with narration that deconstructs her entire world and those sad creatures that fill it. Norma’s waxworks (her silent film friends, including Buster Keaton in a great cameo). Her house. Her car. Her persona. Her script. They are all mockable and he digs in with both hands, perhaps because it is the only way to stop him from weeping from the sadness of it all. His relationship with Norma at some point becomes sexual, but Wilder is right to keep the details cloudy. During the nights, Joe escapes from Norma to meet with a young woman named Betty (Nancy Olson). She’s engaged, but he still falls for her.

There are many reasons I love the film, but Betty is one of the biggest. In a lesser film, her character would be a write-off. She’s would be the ambitious upstart who is good personified and ultimately do the right thing, no matter the cost. But Wilder and his co-writers turn Betty into a free-thinking, complex character. Not only does she challenge Joe in the first scene they share by insisting that his new script isn’t any good, but later is more frustrated that Joe left because he was a rung in her ladder, not because he’s just so (*bats eyes*) dreamy. She has layers. She even admits that she got a nose job when she wanted to be an actress. In the end, Betty walks out of the movie with the kind of dignity you wouldn’t expect from a character of her type.

Wilder made a career of making masterpieces, from “Some Like It Hot” to “The Apartment” to “Double Indemnity,” which are all in the AFI Top 100 along with “Sunset Boulevard.” But there’s also “Witness For the Prosecution” (rarely seen today but easily ranks with his best), “Ace in the Hole,” “Sabrina,” “The Seven Year Itch”… my apologies, I’m beginning to list. For me, this film has the most deeply felt emotions and one of the greatest characters ever committed to film. Its irony and cynicism is a mask that slowly degrades the more you watch, and you begin to realize that just because there is much melodrama and “loudness” (for lack of a better word), there is just as much subtlety and beauty.

The behind the scenes stories are just as interesting as what happens onscreen, and in this viewing I tried to put everything I learned and read out of my mind. And yes, the movie still works beautifully on its own, whether or not you know that Swanson was a real silent film actor and that von Stroheim was really her director for many years. There have been many masterpieces made about Hollywood, but only one of them has Norma Desmond, so let’s face it…nothing else can compare. Despite the film’s famous closing line, the film blurs to black before Norma can get that final close-up. She didn’t need it. She’s made quite an impact already.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Awards: “Sunset Blvd” won the Oscar for Best Story & Screenplay – also nominated were “Caged” and “No Way Out.” Waxman’s music won for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Film. Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Samuel M. Comer and Ray Moyer shared an Oscar win for Best Art Direction – Set Decoration for a Black-and-White Film. The film was nominated for Best Picture but lost to “All About Eve.” Wilder was nominated for Best Director but lost to “All About Eve” (also nominated were John Huston for “The Asphalt Jungle” and Carol Reed for “The Third Man”). Holden was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Jose Ferrer in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and Swanson was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Judy Holiday in “Born Yesterday” (also nominated: Eleanor Parker in “Caged”). Von Stroheim was nominated for Best Supporting actor but lost to George Sanders in “All About Eve” (also nominated: Sam Jaffe in “The Asphalt Jungle”). Nancy Olson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Josephine Hull in “Harvey” (also nominated was Hope Emerson in “Caged”). Seitz’s Cinematography was nominated, but lost to “The Third Man” (also nominated was “The Asphalt Jungle”). Finally, it was nominated for Best Film Editing (along with “The Third Man”) but lost to “King Solomon’s Mines.” Phew.

Pushover

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Roy Higgins

Based on the novels “Rafferty” by William S. Ballinger and “The Night Watch” by Thomas Walsh

Director: Richard Quine

Cast: Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak, Phil Carey

Cinematography: Lester H. White

Music: Arthur Morton

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: July 30, 1954

“Pushover” is a decent little noir if you’ve never seem a film noir before. But if you have seen more than a dozen of them or are like me and have been writing about the genre for years, then you’re not gonna find much here to latch onto. Every aspect of the film has been done way better in films both prior and after its release date.

Fred MacMurray plays cop Paul Sheridan, who romances Lona (Kim Novak) the girlfriend of a known crime lord in order to get information from her about the guy’s location… and where all his money is. Paul and several other cops including Rick (Phil Carey) have also staked out Lona’s apartment (and take interest in her neighbors to pass the time). Meanwhile, Paul and Lona begin plotting to get rid of her boyfriend, steal all the money and run away together.

Paul and Lona’s plan reeks of “Double Indemnity,” but less good. Their romance is an imitation of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” but less good. The stakeout of the apartment mimics “Rear Window,” but less good. The hero investigating his own crime is in the vein of “The Woman in the Window,” but less good. The second and third act apartment switching and bystanders seeing what they shouldn’t feels like a distinct precursor to “Bound,” but less good. The vague treasure hunt for the money is just like… but stop me before I get started.

You get where I’m coming from. Noir isn’t exactly a genre that breeds originality, but that’s only a problem if the film doesn’t feel like it has a story that’s been told a thousand times. This does.

My other fundamental problem with “Pushover” is that I don’t for a second buy MacMurray and Novak as love interests. When the film was made, MacMurray was 46 and Novak was 20, though he looks older and she looks younger. How? The film places MacMurray’s character in the schlubiest raincoat I’ve ever seen (during summer in Los Angeles!) and the actor hunches often in scenes for no real reason. It feels gross every time they kiss… and the fact that the storyline has Novak’s Lona actually fall in love with Paul makes it all the more inane. If she was only using him, I could maybe buy it, but this? Nope. No. Never.

The screenplay is by Roy Huggins (“I Love Trouble”), based on an amalgamation of two novels, and it goes through the pacing of its storytelling fine. There’s nothing really “wrong” with the script, it’s just that there is so little inspiration to be found. The twists are especially predictable – you know each character’s fate from the first line or two of dialogue that they speak.

This was Novak’s first role, and… wow… you can tell the filmmakers know they have a star with her. The camera loves her, lingering on her often for a few frames more than it needs to, just drinking in her beauty. To be fair, Novak’s acting is a little raw, but her natural charm and charisma makes up for it. As previously stated, she shares zero chemistry with MacMurray, but it’s not for lack of trying on her part.

MacMurray’s work here is more confusing to me. He was never a great actor, but he has been at least serviceable or good in every film I’ve seen him in. Here he is so detached that it’s confounding – what was he going for with the performance? Part of me wonders if he’s trying to seem super old and schlubby and that this fresh-faced twenty-year-old is his last hope before he surrenders to a life of being alone forever. That would have been interesting. But nothing in the dialogue or characterization supports that… in fact certain lines of dialogue contradict it.

Hilariously, the secondary love interests are way more engaging. Played by Phil Carey and Dorothy Malone, they spark immediately and you genuinely want to see them together. I wish they shared more scenes, and the filmmakers are right to leave you with them supporting one another in those final images. As for the rest of the cast – they are all competent, but no one really outstanding.

Speaking of competent but not outstanding, that’s how I would also describe the direction of Richard Quine. All things considered, Quine is a very good director – I adore his noir “Drive a Crooked Road,” but his visual style here feels more like television than a feature. We lose sense of location – a shame considering that an apartment building and the placement of certain characters within it is such an important plot device. He also keeps the camera close, but neither he nor his cinematographer Lester H. White (“The Hidden Eye”) manage to create the sense of claustrophobia that you really want from the visuals.

“Pushover” isn’t a bad movie, but it’s also not a good one. It’s kind of just there. That said, I don’t understand why you would ever choose to watch this instead of the better versions of this movie that exist within the genre.

Score: **