Hangover Square

hangover square 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Barre Lyndon

Based on the novel “Hangover Square” by Patrick Hamilton

Director: John Brahm

Cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Cast: Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, Faye Marlowe

Release: February 7, 1945

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 60%

Most consider “Hangover Square” to be a spiritual sequel to “The Lodger,” which was a surprise smash made by much of the same creative team a year prior. True, both are period and feature Laird Cregar as a murderer, but in all honesty, this feels more like a brother of something like “Scarlet Street.” Despite the fact that it’s not spoken about much today – probably because it lacks the Hitchcock connection “The Lodger” has – “Hangover Square” is actually much better than its predecessor, and worthy of reexamination.

The film belongs in that very specific sub-section of noir that involves artists losing their souls. Think “Humoresque,” “Sunset Blvd.” or the aforementioned “Scarlet Street.” Cregar stars as a popular composer named George in 1903. He’s working on his masterwork concerto when gets waylaid by a singer femme fatale named Netta (Linda Darnell), who only wants him for the cute little songs he writes for her that can help her launch into stardom. The more George gets caught in Netta’s web, the more he ignores his friend/good girl Barbara (Faye Marlowe).

Oh, and I should probably mention that George is a murderer.

hangover square 2When his stress level is high and he hears a loud noise, George tends to go into a rage blackout where he kills people then covers up the evidence very well. Aside from this, George is actually a good guy, so he goes to a therapist friend Allan (George Sanders) to see if he could be the person behind the recent string of killings. Allan checks the evidence (badly) and clears George’s name (wrongly).

All the while, Netta continues to manipulate George for her own ends, keeping him from finishing his concerto until he proposes… only to discover she is actually engaged to another one of her stepping stones. Looks like she fucked with the wrong composer.

In my article on “The Lodger,” (which I wanted to like – I really did) I complained that the film would have been more successful had it been told entirely from the point-of-view of the murderer. And – huzzah! – that’s what “Hangover Square” does! Screenwriter Barre Lyndon, loosely adapting Patrick Hamilton’s novel, works hard to turn George into a three-dimensional, tragic figure, and Cregar gives an astonishing performance inhabiting the character. By the film’s finale, where Cregar sets a building on fire in order to finish playing his concerto, you are genuinely moved by what the filmmakers have done.

But at only 77 minutes, all that extra character development for George equals all the other characters getting the short shift. Darnell is… fine… as the femme fatale, playing up her disgust with George a tad too much and content with being callous instead of seductive. It also doesn’t help that Cregar is way hotter than the guy they cast as her fiancé. If Sanders was wasted in “The Lodger,” he’s nothing more than an afterthought here in a role literally any actor in Hollywood at the time could have played. Marlowe does what she can with a nothing role, but at least nails the climactic moment where she takes over the concerto piano work from George.

hangover square 3If director Brahm’s work with the actors besides Cregar leaves something to be desired, he more than makes up for it with his visuals. Working with Joseph LaShelle (“Laura,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends”), he really embraces the atmosphere and darkness of 1903 London. The title piece of real estate, which has been mostly dug up as the city lays gas lines, is very memorable, and all the major set-pieces fully engage the viewer. The first, where George carries Netta’s body to the stack of refuse about to be burned for Guy Fawkes Day, manages to be both suspenseful (is the mask he has put over her face going to fall off?!) and visually stunning. The other set-piece (also involving fire… hmm, could it be a metaphor?) is the climax, where George continues playing his concerto as the building burns around him, and it may be one of my favorites in all of film noir. The way Brahm slowly establishes the concerto and event, then weaves in the chaos of the fire, is masterful. And that final shot? Wow.

The concerto, of course, was written by maestro Bernard Herrmann, who composed the music to most of your favorite Hitchcock movies as a myriad of other classics like “Taxi Driver,” “Citizen Kane” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” It’s a stunner, one of the best in his career of bests, and it’s probably not a coincidence that this “Concerto Macabre” has become more well-known than the film itself. But it’s not just that last piece – throughout the film Herrmann throws in many wonderful little moments – look at his interesting note choice when George holds a knife up to his face early in the first act.

This would, of course, be Cregar’s final film role… he died two months before the film premiered. Going from “The Lodger” to this movie, it’s obvious he lost a ton of weight, and that ultimately caused complications that would claim his life. And what a shame – a career snuffed out just as he was breaking through into stardom, but at least we have this wonderful final performance, and that iconic final image of him engulfed in the smoke and flames of the inferno he created.

So yeah, this is way better than “The Lodger” in just about every respect. It’s a flawed movie, but also a very good one with a few moments of transcendence. If you’ve never seen a film with Cregar, or didn’t really care for “The Lodger,” I beg of you to give this a shot anyway. I’m so happy I did.

Score: ****

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Key Largo

key largo 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Richard Brooks & John Huston

Based on the play by Maxwell Anderson

Director: John Huston

Cinematographer: Karl Freund

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor, Lionel Barrymore, Lauren Bacall

Release: July 16, 1948

Studio: Warner Bros.

Awards: Claire Trevor won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Also nominated in that category was Agnes Moorehead in “Johnny Belinda.” Director/Co-Writer John Huston won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay… but for “The Treasure of The Sierra Madre.”

Percent Noir: 60%

I remember loving “Key Largo” when I was a kid, and that amazing penultimate shot of Lauren Bacall throwing the shutter open to allow in the sun is engrained in my mind in the same way other iconic film moments are to the public consciousness. Even though I remembered almost nothing else about the film, I have been so eager to get to it since the inception of the Odyssey, even though a tiny part of me kept whispering that there was no way it could ever live up to expectations.

And it didn’t – but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a damn good movie.

Humphrey Bogart is Frank, a former officer in the war who has come to a hotel in Key Largo to speak to the father and widow of a friend of his who died in the war. The father is James (Lionel Barrymore) and the widow is Nora (Bacall), and both run a hotel which is getting shut up for an incoming hurricane. Also there are a group of criminals led by notorious gangster Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), who hold the others hostage and wait out the storm so they can pull off an illegal money exchange.

key largo 3Though “Key Largo” has many good things in it, Robinson is by far the best. In fact, this may well be my favorite performance in his career of great performances. Screenwriters Richard Brooks and John Huston (who also directed) smartly keep Rocco offscreen for the first act, building up suspense until his first appearance, and boy is it a doozy! Robinson seems to be relishing every syllable of dialogue… every soulless move… every cocky gesture. It’s one hell of a lot of fun to watch. Here is a man who at first appears like a blunt object but, as the movie progresses, you realize his real insidiousness.

He’s central to the best scene in the film – his “girlfriend” Gaye (Claire Trevor) is an alcoholic going through major withdrawal… she can barely function without a drink. Rocco offers her one, but only if she’ll sing for it. So Gaye sings “Moanin’ Low” a capella, summoning up all her strength to push through the lyrics… she needs that drink. She finishes and Rocco refuses to give it to her, then berates her – her looks, her voice… her everything. Rocco is terrifying here, and Gaye is so pathetic that our sympathy is through the roof.

Trevor (“Murder, My Sweet,” “Born to Kill”) is the other standout performance of the film, and I suspect her role was much smaller as production began and then expanded once Huston saw her excellent work. At the beginning she stumbles when actually playing drunk, but watching her go through alcohol withdrawal and become the heroine of the film is quite amazing – watching her beg and plead to go with Rocco on the boat near the climax is heartbreaking… until you realize she was stealing his gun. It’s the “stand up and cheer” moment of the movie, and the look in Trevor’s eyes as she secretly hands the gun to Bogart’s character is astonishing – you can’t teach that.

key largo 2Bogart’s role isn’t as showy because it’s so interior – the entire emotional arc hinges on him making the choice to battle Rocco, and he acquits himself well. I doubt many other actors could have pulled it off, actually – they would be drowned by Robinson and Trevor. The news is less good for Barrymore and especially Bacall, who appears to be in the movie because… uh… er… I know that Nora is supposed to represent goodness and steer Dick into action, but with a little cutting and pasting, her character could be deleted and the emotional arc could be absorbed by James and Gaye. What’s worse, Bacall seems to realize that she’s the odd man out here, and doesn’t give a good performance as a result. A pity.

Also a pity is the Native American subplot, which has a members of a local Seminole tribe friendly with James. They are subservient and seek guidance from him in all their decisions, which is problematic enough, but things get super-awful when they spend the entire hurricane on the porch of the hotel! Denied entry by Rocco, the Native Americans become nothing more than a plot mechanism to show Rocco’s awfulness, which would have come across perfectly clear without it. Worse, I fundamentally do not buy the conceit that a group of people (one of whom is 104 years old!) could survive a hurricane sitting on a porch next to the beach. It is so unrealistic it grinds the movie to a halt every time Huston cuts back to it.

Speaking of Huston, he collaborated with iconic cinematographer Karl Freund (“Metropolis,” “Mad Love”) here, and I was surprised how flat the hotel seemed. Freund does solid work in the larger spaces with shadows, but the smaller rooms and hallways do not feel properly claustrophobic. There are a couple great shots outside on the dock after the storm subsides that linger long after the film ends, though. And as for the hurricane itself, it is suitably terrifying, with some impressive miniature special effects work driving the horror of the storm home (and underlining that there is no way those Native Americans could have survived). Apparently some of the effects were either recycled in or recycled from (it’s unclear who stole from who) another noir called “Night Unto Night,” which is unseen my me.

“Key Largo” is a very good movie but, considering its pedigree, it should have been a masterpiece. Robinson’s performance is so amazing that it should be mentioned in the same breath as The Preacher in “Night of the Hunter” or the Joker, but unfortunately I think the role has gotten lost in the shuffle of history because the movie isn’t on that same level. Sure, it won’t blow you away (no pun intended… actually, maybe a little), but it’s still essential noir. Just watch all of John Huston’s other great films first.

Score: ****

Moontide

moontide 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: John O’Hara

Based on the novel by Willard Robertson

Director: Archie Mayo

Cinematographer: Charles G. Clarke

Music: David Buttolph, Cyril J. Mockridge

Cast: Jean Gabin, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell, Claude Rains

Release: May 29, 1942

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Awards: Charles G. Clarke was nominated for Best Black & White Cinematography at the 1942 Oscars (also nominated were “Kings Row” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”), but lost to “Mrs. Miniver”

Percent Noir: 30%

What a clusterfuck.

Just because a film has a tortured production process does not at all imply that the movie is going to be bad. Quite the contrary, as evidenced by classics like “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” “Apocalypse Now” and just about everything Werner Herzog or Terry Gilliam has done. On the other hand, every frame of “Moontide” is a convoluted mess. Badly written, grossly miscast and unevenly directed, this is a bad car accident you want to look away from, but cannot.

Jean Gabin stars as the unfortunately named Bobo, a drunken drifter who one day rescues Anna (Ida Lupino) from killing herself, and the two fall in love while living a simple life in a bait shack connected to a water break. Bobo’s “best friend,” the also-unfortunately named Tiny (Thomas Mitchell), who is also lightly blackmailing him, tries to break up the couple. Claude Rains plays Nutsy, who has the least appealing name of the bunch, but is a kind watchman who encourages Bobo and Anna to marry. And then there’s this vague noir plot in the background about some character no one cares about being killed and the police hunting for the murderer.

moontide 3Yikes, where to begin. I suppose I’ll start with the one thing that genuinely works, which is the barge on the water-break. Here is an interesting, original, visually engaging location which sticks in the memory long after the film ends – one which can be lit for romance, dread or suspense easily. It’s a wonderful place.

And that’s where my compliments will end.

Let’s begin with the plotline, which is technically based on a like-named novel Willard Robertson that was so dark and fucked up that it could have never been adapted to the screen properly, but the producers apparently didn’t care. Every interesting concept from the novel has been watered down until it’s a non-entity. What is left is a mishmash of genres that don’t work at all together. It’s a sweet romance that reminds in broad strokes of “Modern Times.” But it’s also a murder mystery about who killed whatshisname. But then it’s also a rape drama…? And then there’s the storyline where Bobo is giving love advice to a friendly doctor whose boat keeps breaking down. Ugh, I give up. And the romance stuff is done with such a heavy hand that it almost comes across as parody… characters state their feelings, restate them and then tell them again to supporting characters just in case we didn’t understand the first two times.

moontide 2Then again, maybe the characters are stating and re-stating things because the actors aren’t giving us what we need. Both Gabin and Lupino are very talented actors… but they are all wrong for these roles. Gabin’s first ten minutes onscreen are excruciating to watch as he plays a completely different tone than the movie around him, trying to seem like a dashing scoundrel while attempting (and failing) to balance that with acting completely plastered. Even after Bobo sobers up, Gabin shares no chemistry with Lupino’s Anna. Lupino is shockingly miscast here – she gives off a powerful, gutsy persona even when she tries to act meek, and you don’t for a moment believe that she is the innocent waif her character is written to be.  Mitchell was cast against type as the villain, who is probably gay and obsessed with Bobo (that name just doesn’t get better, no matter how many times I type it), and later brutalizes Anna. It could have worked in theory, but Mitchell was always cast as a sweet guy for a reason. He struggles mightily here to seem menacing… and fails. In the scene where he brutalizes Anna, you don’t buy it at all – if this was happening for real, Lupino would drop kick this fucker in no time flat.

Fritz Lang (“M,” “Scarlet Street,” “The Woman in the Window”) began directing the movie but famously left a few weeks into filming, with Archie Mayo (“The Petrified Forest”) taking over. Without any other choice, Mayo tries to ape Lang’s style, but the results are all half-realized. Never is this more clear in the climax, which sees Bobo stalking Tiny across the water break until Tiny slips into the sea. Though it’s shot well by Charles G. Clarke (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work here), Mayo whiffs on any sort of emotion. Instead of having Gabin devastated and furious, Gabin wanders after Mitchell like the Frankenstein’s monster, his face completely blank. We get no sense that he’s righting a wrong, and when Bobo reaches out to help Mitchell, who has fallen into the water, the scene implodes.

Salvador Dali was famously brought in to design a sequence where Bobo blacks out while drunk, but it retains only two bits – a spinning clock where everything spins and a woman who disappears, leaving her dress standing straight up. The rest of the sequence is low-rent drunk effects we’ve seen hundreds of times before, and since the expressionism of the scene is only partially-maintained (and never utilized again), I don’t know why they used any of Dali’s work.

In case you can’t tell, I do not like “Moontide.” It was made by a bunch of creators whose work I respect and love elsewhere, but this was a low point for all of them. The film is getting critical re-evaluation recently, but I cannot imagine why. Avoid this one – you’ve been warned.

Score: *

Red Light

red light 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: George Callahan, Charles Grayson

Based on “This Guy Gideon” by Don Barry

Director: Roy Del Ruth

Cinematographer: Bert Glennon

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: George Raft, Raymond Burr, Virginia Mayo

Release: September 30, 1949

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 50%

“Red Light” is a trainwreck, but one you can’t look away from. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t work at all, but it has… something. A quality. It lingers long after many other bad films fade, and is so visually impressive at times that its beauty is jaw-dropping. There are other, better films you should definitely watch first, but how many of those movies climax with the bad guy electrocuting himself on a neon sign?

red light 2George Raft unfortunately stars as Johnny (because of course his character is named Johnny), a businessman with a dark past who has been put on the straight and narrow by his beloved priest brother Jess (Arthur Franz). Jess is shot and killed in a hotel room and Johnny believes he wrote the killer’s name on a page in the room’s bible, but when he gets back to the hotel, the bible is gone. Johnny tries desperately to hunt it down, unaware that the guy who ordered the hit, Nick Cherney, is working for him. His first clue should have been that Nick looks a lot like Raymond Burr. Oh, and Virginia Mayo is also in the movie, playing a token female character.

I was so onboard for a film noir that contrasted the darker aspects of human existence with the hope for redemption represented by faith in God. It is such a fresh perspective for the genre, and climaxing the film by having Johnny choose not to take revenge for Jess’ murder could have packed a huge emotional wallop in a better movie. But we’re not in a better movie… we’re in “Red Light.”

red light 3And though the screenplay by George Callahan and Charles Grayson whiffs the religious aspects by lacking proper depth, most of the blame squarely needs to be placed on the wooden shoulders of Raft. I have encountered this “actor” several times on this Odyssey so far, and though he is always awful he has never been so bad that he has sunk a movie before. That changed here. Raft, oddly caked in so much white makeup that he looks like a corpse, gives a performance so bad it is not even funny. It’s just awful. There isn’t a scene where he is believable. You read that right… not a single scene in the entire film. When his character must show affection for his brother, Raft seems to be pretending Franz is his love interest instead of a sibling, giving a really icky undertone to their relationship. When he is in ass kicking mode, Raft seems to be stifling a yawn. And in the emotional low point of the film, Johnny shouts to God and the heavens of his disbelief, picks up a candelabra and throws it through a stained glass window. He looks like a mannequin in the scene and reads the lines as if a robot was attempting feeling.

Raft is paired with poor, poor Mayo, whose character has no purpose. She basically just reiterates important plot points, gives us necessary new exposition and in general stands there. It’s as if a studio executive said “Hey! All the characters here are men! Bring in a woman!” and the writers quickly added her character while not changing the plot one iota. Mayo makes no impression onscreen, which I suppose is better than the impression Raft makes.

Much better is Burr, playing another variation on his tough guy character. He could sleepwalk here but instead chooses to invest his considerable talents into the role, and as a result is central to the three best scenes in the movie. In the first, Burr stalks a man through the streets and, when he realizes his prey has hidden under an elevated trailer, kicks out the jack to crush him to death. In the second he is arguing with one of his lackeys on a moving train and, when he begins to lose the argument, simply picks the guy up and throws him off the train. The third is the aforementioned climax. I was thinking of making a bad pun and calling it electrifying, but chose otherwise – aren’t you proud of me? It certainly helps that those three scenes are the most visually engaging of the film, but still, Burr’s intense presence makes them transcendent… and the shadows of noir fit perfectly with his face.

The director is Roy Del Ruth (the original “Maltese Falcon,” “DuBarry Was a Lady”), who guides the enterprise with a sure hand, almost as if he thought he was making a better movie. He’s paired with cinematographer Bert Glennon, who started in silents and is most known for his iconic pairing with Josef Von Sternberg on everything from “Underworld” to “Blonde Venus.” There are couple odd shots, like one scene where they cut from a two shot to another two shot that is four inches closer, but for the most part the movie looks astonishingly beautiful. That finale should be studied in cinematography classes, and I love the visual touch of adding “The End” under the “24 Hour Service” neon sign.

Fucking George Raft. To imagine Edward G. Robinson in the lead here is to imagine a much better movie… the guy could have brought suitable depth to his character’s arc and landed even the most leaden dialogue of the screenplay. We could have had a minor classic on our hands. But instead we have a subpar film with great things in it, but that excellence is far outweighed by the crap around it.

Also, as far as I can see, the title “Red Light” has nothing at all to do with anything in the movie, unless the neon sign at the end is supposed to be red.

Score: **

Scandal Sheet

scandal sheet 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Eugene Ling, James Poe, Ted Sherdeman

Based on “The Dark Page” by Samuel Fuller

Director: Phil Karlson

Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey

Music: George Duning

Cast: Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed, John Derek

Release: January 16, 1952

Studio: Columbia

Percent Noir: 50%

One of the main reasons I wanted to go on this Noir Odyssey is to track down those little known films noir that have somehow fallen through the cracks of history. The ones that may be covered in cobwebs but merit rediscovery. Discussion. Love. Movies like “Jeopardy,” “The Unsuspected,” “The Locket” and, yes, “Scandal Sheet.” Here is a film with no stars that have lasted in the zeitgeist (if Donna Reed has, it’s for her sitcom) and a director most known for his Charlie Chan films. It seems like the only name of note on the project is Samuel Fuller, and he didn’t actually work on the film… just wrote the source material. It was never released on any of the quartet of Columbia Noir box sets. And yet here it is, eager to please you. Ready to wow.

scandal sheet 2The plot concerns three employees of the New York Express newspaper. First is the editor-in-chief Chapman (Broderick Crawford), who has turned the paper profitable for the first time ever by embracing scandal and salaciousness. Second is Julie (Reed), a reporter and columnist who detests what Chapman has turned the paper into and refuses to lower herself to his standards. Finally there is McCleary (John Derek), an oily cub reporter who will do anything to get a story and please Chapman, who he considers his mentor. The trio of screenwriters and director Phil Karlson paint the newspaper in broad, familiar strokes – there’s the jaded photographer (Harry Morgan) who is chomping on a cigar every frame we see him, the washed up alcoholic reporter looking for redemption named, what else, Charlie (Henry O’Neill), and people running through the bullpen looking really stressed.

Chapman sponsors a Lonely Hearts Dance where hundreds show up and he plans to use it as publicity to further drive up the circulation of the newspaper (he gets a big bonus if he hits 750,000). But that night he runs into his wife Charlotte (Rosemary DeCamp, very good) and the dominoes begin to fall. Turns out Chapman isn’t even his real name – he Don Draper’ed his way into the newspaper business, disappearing on Charlotte. He drags her back to her falling apart tenement and abuses her verbally and physically, with her screaming back that he ruined her life and showing off the scars on her wrist where she tried to commit suicide. The scene is shockingly frank for 1952 in showing what Charlotte went through and rallies a lot of sympathy for her quickly, which is why it hurts when Chapman accidentally murders her by throwing her into a gas pipe.

scandal sheet 3Chapman panics and tries to make it look like a suicide, but the next day McCleary happens upon the scene and sniffs out a murder. He brings the story to Chapman, insisting it can be the next major story in the New York zeitgeist, and the editor finds himself forced into allowing his reporters to investigate the murder he committed. I’m an absolute sucker for this type of storyline, most famously done in “The Big Clock” or more recently in the undervalued “Out of Time,” and “Scandal Sheet” does it very, very well.

Crawford is aces as Chapman, attempting the balancing act of pretending that he wants the murder solved and having to push his reporters down dead-end alleys. His character is eminently watchable – even after he murders Charlie in cold blood so he can keep his secret. You just can’t take your eyes off him… it’s a perfect meshing of a great character and an excellent actor.

Less successful is the lizard-like Derek as McCleary, who ostensibly has the biggest character arc in the movie. The writers make a huge impression with him right away by having McCleary pretend to be a police officer in order to get an interview with a grieving widow… we hate him. And rightfully so. His arc is supposed to be one of redemption – one where he learns that Chapman is wrong and he needs to be a human being, but Derek keeps him so gross and awful the entire running time that, even after he becomes a “good” guy, you just want a piano dropped on him. I can’t help but think that the point of no return was when the writers had him laugh off a phone call from Charlie where he was desperately trying to get important information to Julie – because of his dickishness, Charlie is ultimately killed.

Reed’s Julie, who may be second-billed but is the hero of the film, is proof positive that the “good girl” persona in film noir does not always equal boring. Reed gives an excellent, multi-faceted performance as a woman jaded by the sexism around her but never tired of fighting it. She gets perhaps the best exchange of the movie, where an annoyed Chapman tells her he hates her writing. She reminds him she has six months left on her contract. He tells her she should take six months paid vacation. Watch Reed’s face as she takes in Chapman’s words, suppresses what she really wants to say and then chooses her retort very carefully.

Director Karlson (the awful “5 Against the House” and two Monogram Charlie Chan films) and cinematographer Burnett Guffey (“In a Lonely Place,” “The Reckless Moment”) bend over backwards to cast the film in moody, atmospheric hues and succeed splendidly. The sequence where Chapman corners and kills Charlie, shot on a nearly-deserted New York street, is just aces, as is the final stand-off in the empty newspaper office. The movie looks like a million bucks.

And while I can see how “Scandal Sheet” may have fallen out of favor among noir aficionados, you still need to see it. Ignore the fact that you aren’t very familiar with the actors, and that the director underwhelmed you with “5 Against the House.” It’s ripe for rediscovery, but that will only happen if you take the effort. If you’ve read this far, you know you should. So go for it.

Score: ****1/2

Stranger on the Third Floor

stranger on the third floor 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Frank Partos

Director: Boris Ingster

Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Peter Lorre

Release: August 16, 1940

Studio: RKO Pictures

Percent Noir: 70%

“Stranger on the Third Floor” is famous for one thing and one thing only – that some historians call it the first film noir. Since the true aspects of film noir are malleable from person to person, I don’t believe this is the case. Critics would certainly much rather it be another movie – something like “M,” “The Maltese Falcon” or “Citizen Kane.” But, like “Elevator to the Gallows,” which helped usher in the era of the French New Wave, “Stranger on the Third Floor” continues to remain notable only in that it is bit of trivia… a fun footnote for those “in the know.” I can’t imagine another reason this film is remembered…

…because it is terrible.

Okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit. “Stranger on the Third Floor” is really two movies, one of which is just plain terrible and the other also terrible, but at least interesting. The first involves a reporter named Mike (John McGuire), whose testimony in a murder trial is about to send a man to the gallows. One night, he sees… wait for it… a stranger on the third floor of his apartment building, and later notices his awful neighbor Albert (Charles Halton) is not snoring like usual. Might it have been murder? Mike investigates and finds Albert killed, and since he has had a beef with Mike in the past, Mike becomes the prime suspect. Meanwhile, Mike’s fiancé Jane (Margaret Tallichet) searches the streets for the Stranger (Peter Lorre).

stranger on the third floor 3We’ll get to why that is so bad in a paragraph or two, but let me zero in on the second, more interesting, terrible movie. At one point Mike drifts off to sleep and has a nightmare/premonition that he is accused of murdering Albert, and the film goes full on German Expressionism. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (“Out of the Past,” “Cat People” “The Spiral Staircase”) and director Boris Ingster (nothing interesting) go nuts with the crazy angles, shadows and the like – my favorite being a moment hundreds of newspaper sheets cover the frame like an iris. It’s gorgeous stuff that fails to engage on an intellectual level because the content is so immature, but at least it’s SOMEthing.

The rest of the movie, though? Ugh.

For a film that runs a little over an hour, it feels like an eternity. This begins with our lead characters, bland and blander. I mean, look at their names – Mike and Jane. I’m already asleep. Mike has cashed in on the fact that he was a witness to the immediate aftermath of a murder by getting a raise at work (… sure) and is completely honest when questioned on the stand. But since the accused (Elisha Cook Jr.) says “But I didn’t doooooo it!!!” all dramatic-like, Jane believes him and literally begins guilt-tripping Mike into disbelieving what he actually saw… because she’s the worst fiancé ever.

Mike is also given a hilarious voice-over to cover the long scenes of him wandering through his apartment building, where we get immortal lines like “What a gloomy dump. Why can’t they put in a bigger light?” He doesn’t seem to be a very nice guy in general, so I don’t really give a shit when his also-terrible neighbor is murdered and all signs point to him.

stranger on the third floor 2And then there is first-billed Peter Lorre as the creepy Stranger, who I’m guessing is onscreen all of five minutes. Aside from the fact that it’s Peter Lorre, how do we know this guy may be up to know good? Thanks for asking. First, he opens the door by creepily sliding his open hand out first, ensuring maximum strangeness. If anyone ever opened up a door like that in reality, I would laugh in their face. Second, he’s wearing this scarf that magically keeps needing to be thrown back dramatically over his shoulder. Third, he orders two raw hamburgers at a diner. I mean… what else could you want in a villain. A lot more? Yes, I agree.

Also, the dialogue is awful.

Musuraca and Ingster frame the entire movie with that same German Expressionism that is in the dream sequence, which works there because it is a dream, but less so elsewhere. How overdone is it? Well, it seems like a parody of film noir more than an actual statement of it. There is a single shot which really lands with the impact it should – when the Stranger is about to be run down by a truck, the director throws in a one-second shot of the truck coming directly at camera, with the Stranger falling down before it. It’s a wonderfully evocative moment – I’m surprised they didn’t do it more often in film – and though I didn’t remember watching this film as a child, I must have, because I have a vague memory of that shot.

Maybe the only way “Stranger on the Third Floor” would have worked was to turn the entire thing into a nightmare – “Mulholland Drive”-style. I can picture another version of this, an expressionistic one made out of the Hollywood studio system, which may have engaged me fully. But instead we have bad characters, bad dialogue and a bad scenario trying to sell itself as a legitimate film. This is one for completists only – you may think that you want to give the “first” noir a try to see where it all started, but don’t. Avoid it until you’ve seen almost everything else. It might only be an hour out of your life, but it’s one you’ll never get back.

Score: *

The Locket

the locket 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Norma Barzman under the name Sheridan Gibney

Director: John Brahm

Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Laraine Day, Brian Aherne, Robert Mitchum, Gene Raymond

Release: December 20, 1946

Studio: RKO

Percent Noir: 100%

“The Locket” is one of the most interesting films noir I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. Written in the form of a Russian nesting doll, the narrative turns in on itself, revealing flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, all strategically placed to deepen and sustain the mystery around a single female – Nancy. Here is a flawed film that is nonetheless great, one you must see if you haven’t yet.

the locket 2We open on Nancy’s (played by Laraine Day) wedding day to John (Gene Raymond). Just before the ceremony is due to begin, a stranger named Harry (Brian Aherne) arrives, takes John into a quiet room and reveals that he too was married to Nancy! Yeah, his timing sucks. We move into the first flashback as Harry, a psychiatrist, relates the story of how he first fell in love with Nancy, marrying her before a tortured artist named Norman (Robert Mitchum) arrives at his office to say that, he too was in love with Nancy… before he began suspecting her of murder. Thus we launch into a flashback within the flashback, following Norman’s courting of Nancy and his realization that she is a kleptomaniac. At one point, Nancy relates to Norman the story of how she was accused of stealing a beloved locket when she was a girl which she didn’t steal, and a new flashback within the flashback within the flashback begins.

Phew. Okay, it sounds convoluted and crazy, but there isn’t a moment within “The Locket” where you feel lost or confused. The screenwriter, Norma Barzman (the screenplay is credited to Sheridan Gibney because Barzman was blacklisted) has structured the film incredibly well. In one way it feels like “Citizen Kane” in that it’s several people relating who Nancy was to them and what her impact was, but this film has more structure – with every subsequent flashback the mystery surrounding Nancy deepens. When we finally enter into “her” flashback, as she explains to Norman the origins of her kleptomania, the remaining flashbacks feel like dominos falling as we crash further and further toward the present reality. Back to that wedding. The results are terrifically impactful.

the locket 3Setting aside the flashiness of the structure, it was also the correct decision to tell this story. We’ve all seen hundreds of stories told out of chronological order to little or no overall positive impact to the overall story (I’m looking at you, “Westworld” season two), but that is not the case with “The Locket.” Had the film been written chronologically, beginning with Nancy as the young girl, the power and mystery of the story would be gone. It would feel repetitive. Exhausting. And Nancy would be a simple femme fatale instead of a fascinating enigma that we continue to attempt to define as the flashbacks progress.

I will say that it bugged me a bit when the flashbacks broke POV with the character telling the story, but those quibbles are minor in the scheme of things.

The storytelling is so audacious that it helps cover the fact that the performances aren’t all that special. Day (who looks shockingly like Amy Acker in the above poster) is fine as Nancy, never quite convincing you that she is as sweet and seductive as her character is, and she merely goes through the action motions in the emotional climax where Nancy walks down the aisle until she is no longer able to move. Contrast Day’s work with someone like Gene Tierney (who, in “Laura,” played a character defined by the men around her) and you can imagine a masterpiece. What a pity.

Raymond doesn’t have enough screentime to make an impact, Aherne is actively bad in certain scenes and shares zero chemistry with Day, and Mitchum seems adrift, though he does nail Norman’s resignation in the scene right before his suicide.

That said, aside from Aherne they all do their job well enough to keep you interested in the narrative and mystery. And when the twist comes – that Nancy is marrying the son of the woman who originally accused her of stealing the locket – it’s genuinely shocking. I’ll admit it, I full-on gasped when I realized what was happening, and then having the woman gift Nancy the locket after all these years was just the icing on the cake.

In the same breath, I must admit that I don’t know how I feel about the ending. In the current version, the gift of the locket triggers a series of flashes that overcome Nancy on her walk down the aisle, climaxing in her mental collapse. And yes, that feels emotionally fulfilling, but still… it may have been better to just let Nancy marry John. It would have been a gutsier ending, that’s for sure.

Director John Brahm (“Hangover Square”) and noir MVP Nicholas Musuraca (everything good ever) do a great job at creating moody shadows and dark spaces that permeate the flashbacks, especially during a brief scene in an Italian restaurant. But they aren’t overly flashy – they understand that the story here is the king and allow it to shine properly.

It’s a shame that “The Locket” hasn’t become one of the essentials of noir. Warner Brothers, which currently owns the rights to the RKO film, decided not to put in on any of its five film noir compilations (which hold over 30 films!), instead releasing it as a made-to-order DVD only – and the quality of the print isn’t all that great. Here is a film is a strong female lead that also stars noir icon Robert Mitchum and is genuinely one-of-a-kind in its structure while also being very obviously classic noir. It deserves more critical attention, and most certainly merits your time and attention as well – track it down as soon as you can.

Score: ****1/2

The Reckless Moment

the reckless moment 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Mel Dinelli, Robert E. Kent, Henry Garson & Robert Soderberg

Based on “The Blank Wall” by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Director: Max Ophuls

Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey

Music: Hans J. Salter

Cast: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks

Release: December 29, 1949

Studio: Columbia

Percent Noir: 80%

“The Reckless Moment” was dumped right after Christmas in 1949 by Columbia with no fanfare. The reviews ranged from indifferent to scathing – with professional asshole Vincent Canby from The New York Times gleefully revealing the finale in his panning of the film. Even James Mason, who was good friends with the director Max Ophuls, said the movie was bad. And as for Ophuls, the film was the last straw that sent him back to France, where he would subsequently make several masterpieces, including “The Earrings of Madame de…,” which is often considered one of the best films of all time.

The movie languished, even after film critics reassessed it after realizing that Ophuls was a genius. Columbia chose not to release it on any of the Film Noir box sets, nor as mainstream physical release. I’m a huge fan of Ophuls, and I could only find it by buying a $40 DVD from Korea. So was it worth it?

Yes. Yes, it was.

“The Reckless Moment” is, in many ways, unlike any other film noir I have ever seen. Ophuls takes chances with his visuals and soundtrack which are completely unexpected. The storyline isn’t the norm for noir… and yet the film still retains that specific mood one desires from this genre.

the reckless moment 2The great Joan Bennett stars here as Lucia, matriarch of the Harper family who is trying to keep it together while her husband is in a different country for weeks or months at a time for work. Her father-in-law (Henry O’Neill) and her son David (David Blair) are already a handful, but her big problem of late has been her daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks). 17-year-old Bea is dating an older gross guy named Darby (Shepperd Shrudwick, appropriately oily), and seems determined to destroy her own life. “Mother, can’t you trust me?” Bea asks while sitting in a robe, her legs wide open. Lucia obviously saw “Mildred Pierce” and knows she’s got to cut this shit off pronto, but later that night Bea handles it herself when she gets some sense and breaks it off with Darby.

End of movie? Nope. The next morning Lucia discovers Darby’s body impaled on an anchor on the beach (he fell on it), assumes her daughter did it and goes into full-on beast mode, disposing of the body like a boss. But then a man named Martin (James Mason) shows up with Bea’s love letters to Darby… wouldn’t it be awful if the police got these? Martin insists on $5000, which is way too much for Lucia even if she has a maid, several cars and a boat. But then an odd thing happens – Martin almost immediately falls head over heels for Lucia. He wants to call the whole thing off, but his blackmailing partner Nagel (Roy Roberts) isn’t going to give in… no matter what it takes.

Bennett was beloved by foreign directors who came to America, working with Ophuls, Jean Renoir and multiple times with Fritz Lang. They understood the balance between her hardness and softness much better than any of her American directors, who often reduced her either to the “bitch” role or made her lean too hard on her softness, forgetting what makes her interesting as a performer. This is the best performance from her I’ve seen – watching as she bravely attempts to keep her shit together in front of her family as her entire life implodes around her is watching a master in full control of her craft. I doubt many other actresses could pull off the long, dialogue-free sequence where Lucia discovers the body and, without missing a beat, begins to plot how to dispose it and save her family, but Bennett excels here.

the reckless moment 3And about that sequence – Ophuls makes the brilliant decision here to drop all the music, leaving the film silent except for sound effects. With no guiding notes telling us how to react to the situation, the results are excruciatingly suspenseful to watch… the maestro is telling us that anything could happen at any moment by refusing us a fundamental building block of filmmaking that usually guides our feelings.

And that’s just one of his many genius touches here. Anyone who has heard of him knows that Ophuls keeps the camera in motion constantly, and this film is no exception. Here the movement is purposeful, keeping in step with Lucia as it follows her through her day, watching her react first to normal problems and later with extraordinary ones. His collaboration with cinematographer Burnett Guffey (“My Name is Julia Ross,” “Scandal Sheet”) also deserves mention. There is an amazing single-take shot that follows Lucia from the kitchen/dining room area of her home, which is warm with bright lights and the love of her family, into the sudden shadows of the dark living room where Martin waits to explode her life that is simply astonishing. It’s one of my favorite shots in all noir, creating the perfect metaphor for her frame of mind.

“The Reckless Moment” is also interesting in how forthright it is about its characters’ feelings. One of the hallmarks of noir is the grey area that holds most of its characters’ motivations. Does she really love him? Is he plotting to kill him? How much can we trust her? But here, everyone just spells out everything. Bea doesn’t hide her love of the asshole. Lucia is honest about not being able to get the money. Martin bluntly states early and often that he has fallen for Lucia. This miraculously works in the story’s favor because it often causes more complications for our hero.

Mason has a difficult needle to thread in his performance… appearing at first menacing and villainous to us before turning on a dime and becoming a tragic romantic hero. Thank God Mason is Mason, because I don’t think any other actor except possibly Ray Milland could have pulled this off. But Mason made a career of these inherently flawed, good at heart men. He’s not quite as good here as he is in “A Star is Born,” but he comes close.

The film isn’t perfect… it feels much longer than its 80 minute running time, thanks primarily to a section in the middle where Lucia attempts to raise the $5000 herself. While wearing a mink coat (because of course), Lucia wanders from bank to loan company to pawnbroker. The scenes are all quiet, devoid of tension and these visits would have been much better suited as a montage.

Regardless, this is essential noir. Ophuls brings a bunch of new toys to the game and goes out of his way to reframe and create new permeations of the crime genre in every scene. He was perfectly matched with Bennett and Mason, and I only wish he had more films noir once he returned to France.

Score: *****

Where Danger Lives

where danger lives 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Charles Bennett

Story: Leo Rosen

Director: John Farrow

Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains

Release: July 8, 1950

Studio: RKO

Percent Noir: 60%

Charles Bennett is one of the best screenwriters in the history of the medium. The classic films he penned are myriad – “The 39 Steps,” “Night of the Demon,” “Foreign Correspondent,” “King Solomon’s Mines” – which makes me almost believe that he penned “Where Danger Lives” as a meta-commentary/parody of film noir.

How else could you explain our main character, while suffering from a concussion, telling his femme fatale that he’s about to make a bunch of awful, non-sensical decisions before he does them? Or the fact that, instead of the main character sitting there passively while the femme fatale destroys his life, our guy literally keeps losing consciousness to allow her to continue her misdeeds? And while we all know that femmes fatale are crazy, Bennett has made this one certifiably insane… doctors say it and everything.

where danger lives 2If Bennett did indeed mean this film to be a sly send-up of the crime genre, he probably didn’t tell anyone else in the cast or crew, because everyone else seems to be playing it straight. Patron saint of noir Robert Mitchum plays a kind doctor named Jeff Cameron. Despite the fact that he’s already with a nurse (Maureen O’Sullivan), when a suicidal woman is brought into the hospital, he immediately falls head over heels. She is Margo, played by Faith Domergue, who really should thank either her parents or her agent for the most awesome name ever. Jeff and Margo begin to date, but she keeps talking about how her dad is keeping them from getting married. Jeff goes to her house to confront her father (Claude Rains), but four minutes into the conversation he realizes that the man he thought was her father was really her husband. Things escalate, with Margo’s husband beating Jeff over the head with a poker and Jeff knocking him out. While Jeff leaves the room to splash some water on his face, Margo smothers her husband and then says he just up and died. Despite Jeff’s concussion, the duo immediately go on the run, heading for Mexico with the cops on their tail.

Taken as a straight example of noir, the film is just okay. The real stand-out is Bennett’s dialogue, which is biting and engaging throughout. When Margo’s husband explains the situation to Jeff, he says, “Margo married me for my money. I married her because she was young. We both got what we wanted.” No movie with wit like that can be awful. And Mitchum, who could have easily sleepwalked through the role, gives a fine performance, never playing up his concussion to the point where you want to roll your eyes. Raines really sinks his teeth into his vicious cameo, and cinematographer and noir MVP Nicholas Musuraca (“Out of the Past,” “The Spiral Staircase”) keeps everything moody and lovely to look at.

That said, if we are to take the film straight, I can’t comprehend why the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to handicap the main character throughout the second half of the film, losing all his mental abilities and, later, physical movement. When the climax of your film is a barely coherent Jeff waddling on his mostly paralyzed body toward Margo, you probably lost the thread somewhere earlier. Sure, it’s an easy way to get the nice guy to go along with Margo’s more awful shenanigans – he literally lost his mind! – but it makes for a boring main character.

where danger lives 3Also, despite her awesome name, Domergue is not a good femme fatale. This film came out just a few months before “Vendetta,” Howard Hughes’ other film that was supposed to put the starlet on the map. Neither did. “Vendetta” was also the film where Hughes hired and fired iconic director Max Ophuls, who would later parody Hughes in the noir classic “Caught.” That random trivia is more interesting than Domergue’s performance here, which is fine, I guess. She hits her marks, says her lines, but shares little chemistry with Mitchum, hasn’t mastered her angles yet and her line readings often come across as quite wooden. Director John Farrow, apparently realizing this, has Domergue break the fourth wall twice and stare straight at the camera seductively, and the visual invention is the only time the viewer’s pulse quickens in her performance. And this is a pity, since Margo’s character could have been delightful if it had been interpreted by a better actress.

The film is peppered with wild moments of humor that is way off tone with the rest of the production. Margo and Jeff are stopped in a small town because they’ve broken the law. What law, you ask? Why, they don’t have facial hair! It’s some sort of weird festival, one that wildly ends with them being pressured into getting married to one another to avoid paying a $25 donation fee. Yeah, weird. And the movie has great fun with the fact that our main characters think the world is on their tail for days when no one is. There are multiple cutaways to suspicious looking cops and detectives, only for us to find out after Jeff and Margo panic and run away that they only wanted to deliver well wishes, or get donuts, or whatever.

It also indulges multiple times in one of my most hated clams, which happens when a character turns on the radio to see if there is news about them. The radio is ALWAYS just starting the story about the manhunt for Jeff and Margo, giving us all the exposition we need immediately. Talk about a coincidence! Ugh.

And while part of me still believes Bennett was going for parody, the smarter part of my brain tells me that, even if it were, the movie still wouldn’t be all that great. It lacks the bite or fun of real noir parodies like “His Kind of Woman.”  Either way you take “Where Danger Lives,” it remains firmly mid-tier, with enough good qualities to recommend it but not enough to make it very memorable.

Score: ***

Whirlpool

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Ben Hecht & Andrew Solt

Based on the “Methinks the Lady” novel by Guy Endore

Director: Otto Preminger

Cinematographer: Arthur C. Miller

Music: David Raksin

Cast: Gene Tierney, Jose Ferrer, Richard Conte, Charles Bickford

Release: January 13, 1950

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 80%

When you have a great actress like Gene Tierney in your film, why don’t you use her?

“Leave Her To Heaven” was one of the first movies I covered in this Odyssey, and in it Tierney gave the definitive femme fatale performance – she’s the one I compare every other actress to when I think of that type. And yet in each subsequent noir she is featured in, I find myself continually frustrated to see her trapped in average rolls that don’t give her anything to sink her teeth into. Even her most iconic performance in “Laura” doesn’t give her much to do – it’s thanks to the fact that she invests so much of herself in the role that it is remembered so fondly today.

And thus we get to “Whirlpool,” which is a good thriller with a tantalizing hook. Tierney is first-billed and grounds the first half, quickly capturing our sympathies and holding them tight as her circumstances get more dire. Then she all but disappears from the film, just when things get most interesting, replaced with two much less engaging characters who solve the puzzle on behalf of her. Blerg.

Tierney plays Ann Sutton, a housewife with a history of kleptomania that her husband, a psychoanalyst named William (Richard Conte), knows nothing about. After she subconsciously steals an expensive pin and is caught, she is rescued by the oily hypnotist David Korvo (Jose Ferrer). Ann begins seeing Richard on a regular basis to cure her problems, and one night snaps out of a fugue state in a house standing before a woman who has been strangled to death with Ann’s scarf. I hate it when that happens.

Things are getting interesting, but Ann is yanked offscreen and thrown into jail for looooooong stretches of the movie, only have one substantive scene where she vents all her frustrations about what is happening to her and who she has become. It’s an incredible scene, with bristling dialogue by co-screenwriters Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, and Tierney knocks it out of the park. Then, suddenly, she’s gone again.

In her place are William and a police detective named Colton (Charles Bickford), who keep searching for answers despite Ann’s obvious guilt. They both suspect it’s Korvo, but he was just out of gallbladder surgery when the murder took place, and that’s as airtight an alibi as you can get. Bickford brings some gravitas to his performance, and almost sells that he’s open to hearing William’s cuh-razy pants theories, but Ferrer and his unfortunate bowtie are completely wooden as William. I didn’t buy for a moment his connection with his wife, his fury about the situation, his arc leading to believing in her, or how he put together the pieces mentally. With a slew of leading men who would have lined up to work with director Otto Preminger, this miscasting especially hurts.

It also doesn’t help that Conte wipes the floor with him, giving a fantastic performance as the trash person who caused all this. Conte’s scenes with Tierney in the first half of the movie are especially crackling, with Conte digging into the script’s strong dialogue with relish. Every time Ann begins to complain or pick up on his villainy, Korvo seems three steps ahead of her, waving away all of her reservations. It’s fascinating to watch because Conte doesn’t even try to make Korvo a likeable presence – but he sure as hell makes him engaging to watch. In the second half of the film, when he’s barely able to speak from his hospital bed, Conte still manages to upstage every actor he interacts with.

The screenplay by Hecht (“Notorious,” “Spellbound” and uncredited work on all your favorite films) and Solt (“In a Lonely Place”) is outstanding in its first act, exploiting Ann’s fragility and having fun with Korvo’s glee at what he can accomplish through his “work.” They handle all the (admittedly preposterous) mythology of hypnotism with ease, so you always feel grounded. And despite my frustration at throwing Ann’s character in the backseat when exploring her psyche more would be advantageous, the second half isn’t bad – it’s just not as good as the first.

Preminger directs with his usual firm hand, smartly not going visually over the top with the hypnotism sequences. We never go into Ann’s POV in these scenes like Hitchcock did with “Spellbound” or Alfred L. Werker did in “Shock”… instead he understands that the audience will be more engaged watching and screaming at the screen while Ann wanders around doing horrible things under Korvo’s control. Preminger does allow himself some atmospheric fun in the final act when all the main players converge in the murder house, some unaware that others are there.

“Whirlpool” is the third of five (six if you count “Daisy Kenyon”) films noir that Preminger directed for 20th Century Fox in quick succession, the others being “Laura,” “Fallen Angel,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “The 13th Letter.” All are fascinating, quality films that most consider pinnacle noir, and “Whirlpool” fits nicely into the group.

Still, one can’t help but wish it had focused on Tierney throughout the entire film, instead of only in its first half. How many great performances did we miss from her when she was stuck playing routine roles in movies like “Night and the City,” “Black Widow” and more? But her absence from acts two and three of “Whirlpool” aren’t enough to sink the film, just tarnish it a little bit.

Score: ***1/2