Cry Wolf

Cry Wolf ThingThe Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Catherine Turney

Based on the novel by Marjorie Carleton

Director: Peter Godfrey

Cast: Errol Flynn, Barbara Stanwyck, Geraldine Brooks

Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie

Music: Franz Waxman

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: July 18, 1947

Percent Noir: 50%

“Cry Wolf” is 95% a very good film and 5% abhorrent trash. The unlucky thing is that the 5% is the final moments, so it leaves a terrible taste in the viewer’s mouth when he looks back at the entire thing. What a damn shame, because for awhile there, I was pretty sure I was watching a lost treasure.

Queen of film noir Barbara Stanwyck stars as Sandra, a gutsy woman who stomps her way into the family home of Mark (Errol Flynn) and says that she is the wife of his just-deceased brother Jim. She hides nothing – Jim told her that he needed to be married to inherit and she needed her college paid for, so they entered the marriage almost as strangers and planned to divorce quietly six months later after the money came through. But then Jim died. Sandra offers up a copy of a will and just wants her part. Mark is immediately venomous toward her, forcing her to threaten to take the entire estate unless they find the original will.

Soon enough Sandra is staying at the house while the search is mounted. She meets Jim’s spirited sister Julie (Geraldine Brooks), who begs for her help. Mark is controlling her entire life and did the same for Jim before he died, Julie says. And he keeps holing himself up in a locked-off wing all night. Sandra doesn’t know what to make of it… but then begins to hear screams echoing from the closed-off wing…

Cry Wolf 2I’m a sucker for this kind of noir… where it’s meshed together with old dark houses and vaguely romantic melodrama. Daphne du Marier didn’t write the novel upon which “Cry Wolf” was based, but she might as well have. What truly elevates this from most other entries in this sub-genre is Sandra (and Stanwyck’s performance). Girl is take-no-prisoners in the best way possible. “I am not a placid girl,” she says early in a great line of dialogue, and damn if she isn’t right. She uses a dumbwaiter to get into the hidden wing and, later, crawls across the roof to gain entry through a skylight. She slaps a motherfucker when he crosses a line. And she is blunt instead of hiding how she’s feeling. I genuinely loved her and was rooting for her hard to uncover the secret.

Further, screenwriter Catherine Turney (“No Man of Her Own”) does a brilliant job of setting all the chess pieces in the right places. Up until those terrible last five minutes, when the truth becomes clear as to what is going on, I was mystified as to what was going on. Turney is excellent at leaning into Mark’s ambiguity without pushing him too far into villainy, and note how she places emphasis on visuals to underline or contrast what we are hearing in the dialogue.

And then that ending fucks it all up.

Turns out Jim is alive and crazy and murdered someone so Mark faked his death and has been keeping him essentially hostage on the grounds in order to… something. Keep things kosher? Julie was also crazy before she maybe committed suicide. And Mark is a hero and Sandra apologizes and says she never should have meddled or not trusted him even though literally everything he did was suspicious and all those screams in the night and… UGH. I hate it. So much.

Cry Wolf 3The twist certainly hasn’t aged well in terms of shaming those who have mental illness and calling them too fargone to ever find love, marry or have children. In other words, it’s gross as hell. But it’s also, well, the cheapest possible way out of the tantalizing maze the rest of the film has gotten the viewer lost in. It’s basically telling you that there isn’t even a maze. And those few lines of dialogue undo all the fine character work we’ve seen from Sandra… turns out she was just a silly woman after all who should have never questioned the man in charge.

Pardon me while I vomit.

Stanwyck is superb. Because of course she is. The dialogue she’s given was already good, but she elevates it in every scene she is in. Flynn, who was of course one of the great assholes of his generation of actors, is also very good. He plays his possible villainy beautifully… is he a monster, or just on the spectrum? It helps that he and Stanwyck play very well off one another – it’s not sexual chemistry, but they make one another better every time their characters spar. The only other major character is Julie, and Brooks beautifully renders the character, especially when you look at her in retrospect after learning the aforementioned shitty twist. It’s a shame she never became a bigger star.

Director Peter Godfrey made the noir adaptation of “The Woman in White,” but this is in a different league than that half-baked thing. Here he has a good handle on his actors, and his collaboration with cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie (who also lensed “Woman in White”) is sublime. The house the characters inhabit is truly an astonishing visual achievement – in its best moments it can give Manderly or Norma Desmond’s home a run for its money. That includes the set design – note how in the closed-off wing literally everything possible is painted white, and how impactful that is in the wide shots.

I have no idea how to recommend this film aside from to say that it’s great until it’s really, Really, REALLY not great at all. There are a myriad of things to recommend in it, but that ending comes close to undoing them all. I’m not unhappy I’ve seen it, but I’m never going to watch it again. So how about I toss two-and-a-half stars its way then throw up my hands and walk away?

Score: **1/2

The Threat

The Threat 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Dick Irving Hyland and Hugh King

Story: Hugh King

Director: Felix E. Feist

Cast: Charles McGraw, Michael O’Shea, Virginia Grey

Cinematography: Harry J. Wild

Music: Paul Sawtell

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

Release: December 1, 1949

Percent Noir: 80%

Charles McGraw is this movie.

“The Threat” is a film where every aspect is at the very least functional, but nothing good enough that you’ll remember it three days later. Trust me, I know because I watched the film three days ago and forgot just about everything… so I had to re-watch it today just before I wrote this article. The lone exception is the brilliant, fiery performance by McGraw. Make no mistake, he may be billed third, but he is the star. He manages to elevate everything around him, essentially dragging the film over the finish line single-handedly.

He plays jailed murderer Red Kluger, who escapes and plans to get revenge on district attorney Barker (Frank Conroy) and lead detective Ray (Michael O’Shea), the men who imprisoned him in the first place. He captures them both easily… but then makes the stupid decision to keep them alive while he and his pals plot a getaway that involves semi-trucks with police cars in the back, cabins in the desert and a missing plane. Kluger is also searching for the mole who got him arrested in the first place, and suspects it’s his ex-lover Carol (Virginia Grey), even though she tells him like 48 times in the film’s 66-minute running time that she didn’t do it.

The Threat 3Ray may break the record for the most cop clichés in a single character from one of these movies. He’s addicted to his job to the point where he’s turning down promotions to stay a detective. He’s got a pregnant wife (Julie Bishop) at home who yells at him in their very first scene together that his job is “too dangerous” and that he’s “taking too many chances.” It’s like she didn’t know she was marrying a cop when she walked down the aisle or something. After Ray is captured, he manages to communicate that he’s in danger with his wife by speaking in a coded phrase set up clumsily early in the first act. Phew. That’s a lot. Even though all these things are stereotyped, if O’Shea had even an ounce of charisma it may be somewhat forgiven. But he doesn’t, so I won’t.

There are a couple moments of fun early, courtesy of director Felix Feist (“The Devil Thumbs a Ride”) and screenwriters Dick Irving Highland (“The Price of Fear”) and Hugh King (“Dial 1119”). There’s a pre-credits prison breakout that gets things moving and engages the viewer right off the bat. And the way Kluger kidnaps Barker is a fun bit of business involving two heavies dressed as painters wrapping his unconscious body in a paint tarp. It makes you think Kluger is a complete badass… even when he starts making super questionable decisions like keeping Carol around even though he suspects she’s a mole and the aforementioned decision to keep the two men alive. He also rents a truck and then holds the dreamy driver Joe (Don McGuire) hostage for days instead of killing him.

The Threat 2But McGraw is so fucking good at playing bad that it’s easy to wave all of these huge logic holes away… at least for a little while. It’s much easier to focus on him spitting out hardboiled dialogue like he was born to say it. Or his snake-like eyes staring with dead aim at someone he loathes. Or the scene where he waits until his buddies are sleeping and then removes the bullets from their guns… just in case. Whenever he’s onscreen, which is thankfully often, you can’t look away from him.

The rest of the cast struggle with characters as cliché as Ray, or just plain stupid like Joe. Joe has a motherfucking gun and waits until everyone is asleep… only to wake them up and hold the gun on them. Then he allows Kluger to talk him into giving him the gun (!?) only to be shot to death seconds later, even though literally every member of the audience has been screaming “Shoot first, you fucking idiot!!!” for the past three minutes. Yes, with all those exclamation points. Grey is also just plain bad as Carol, repeating variations on the same line of dialogue ad nauseum with a manic intensity that is old the first time she does it and only gets worse as the film progresses. At least the screenwriters give her something to do for the finale.

Technically, Feist and cinematographer Harry J. Wild (“Murder, My Sweet”) do fine. Sure, there’s a moment early on when Carol is dragged away in a car and her high heel falls off where we can see the string pulling the shoe, but later scenes involving a plane are proficient enough to make up for it. The cabin that serves as the main location for the second half is well shot and doesn’t feel too much like a cheap sitcom set despite the fact that we never see one of the walls.

Should you watch this film? Well, in every respect aside from one, this is a hard pass. But that one thing… McGraw’s performance… is so good that I actually find myself recommending it despite the muck around him. It’s 66 minutes so it’s over fast and you’ll have a lot of fun watching a master actor unleash himself. It’s a pity about the rest, though.

Score: ***

D.O.A.

DOA 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Russell Rouse & Clarence Greene

Director: Rudolph Mate

Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler

Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Studio: United Artists

Release: December 22, 1950

Percent Noir: 90%

“D.O.A” is the first movie that many burgeoning film noir fans encounter when they begin exploring the genre. It has one of the best premises and story spines in all of film history, and it’s also one of those movies that is included in every single one of those cheap-ass noir sets you can find for six bucks at Wal Mart or on Amazon. You know, the ones filled with the movies that have fallen out of copyright so anyone can release them. You picture a guy buying that set and reading the back of the box for the plot synopsis of the films when he gets home… which will he choose first? “Scarlet Street”? “Detour”? “He Walked By Night”? And then, the moment you read what “D.O.A.” is about, the choice is made.

We open on Frank (Edmond O’Brien) walking into a police station to report a murder… his own! As he relates his story to the cops, we flash back to him a week earlier, bored with his life as a notary republic and his girlfriend/secretary Paula (Pamela Britton). He’s there, but not really alive. He tells her he has a “work thing” in San Francisco and, sensing what’s going on, Paula gives him a hall pass for the week. He gets there and has barely settled in when his drink is poisoned by someone.

DOA 2The next day he feels ill and gets the bad news from several doctors – the poison was a “luminous toxin” (which feels like the name of an upcoming Ariana Grande single) and he only has a week to live. Now with a specific purpose – to track down his murderer before he dies – Frank seems to come alive for the first time in his life. His search leads him to mysterious widows, something called iridium and a climactic action sequence in the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, a location so awesome it raises the quality of any film it appears in by at least 10%.

Truly, the premise itself is nothing short of miraculous.

In an art form where you have seen every version of a story 500 times, what screenwriters Russell Rouse & Clarence Greene (“New York Confidential”) came up with here feels fresh and immediately grabs you. It’s the film noir version of “Last Holiday.”

That said, I do wish that the execution was better.

You notice right away that the tone, atmosphere and performances here are a bit too elevated… “D.O.A.” feels like the telenovela version of a film noir. Lines that I’m certain had periods on them in the script are performed with one, sometimes three, exclamation points at the end of them onscreen. I’m not going to lie – it took me almost 20 minutes of its 80-something minute runtime to adjust myself to the film’s wavelength. Once you do, it’s a lot easier to forgive the ham-fisted dialogue, the constant mugging for camera and all the exaggerated detailing in sequences for maximum effect.

But just because you get used to it, does that mean that it works? I honestly don’t know, dear reader.

DOA 3The director is Rudolph Mate, who made several films noir but I’ve only seen one so far – the atrocious “The Dark Past.” Looking at his history, I’m not surprised to see that he was a cinematographer on a bunch of silent films before transitioning into directing… here he is much more concerned about the visuals than anything the characters are saying and doing. And there’s an expressionistic tilt to many scenes as well. When the doctor first tells Frank that he’s dying, there’s an x-ray of Frank behind them… but the x-ray is of Frank’s chest, not his stomach or throat, which would logically be the images taken if you have an upset stomach. In other words, it makes no sense, but Mate knows the scene will have more visual impact with it there, so he put it in anyway. And the only good part of “The Dark Past” is a crazy, almost Dali-esque dream sequence, and Mate mounts an even better one here.

The cast isn’t good, per se, but they perform on the heightened level the rest of the film is placed at. Take that statement as either a compliment or as an indictment, whichever you prefer. O’Brien reminds me enough of Raymond Burr that he makes me wish Burr was the lead of the film instead. He shares a sweet chemistry with Britton, which helps sell the madness going on around the actors tenfold.

The cinematography is by noir all-timer Ernest Laszlo, who also lensed films like “Kiss Me Deadly” and “While the City Sleeps.” He really goes wild in the final act, especially in the aforementioned Bradbury Building climax, and earns his place as one of the true MVPs of the genre. Even on the shitty quality DVD copies where most people will unfortunately experience this film, his work shines through.

The film has been remade a couple of times, most notably in 1988 (unseen by me) with the same premise but a completely different storyline. Frankly, I’m shocked it hasn’t been remade more often, because the premise is so good that it gets you every time. Though this is one of the most famous films in all of noir, it’s unfortunately not one of the best. There’s obviously the potential for a masterpiece within the premise… I just hope one day someone can achieve that.

Score: ***1/2

The Woman in White

Woman in White 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Stephen Morehouse Avery

Based on the novel by Wilkie Collins

Director: Peter Godfrey

Cast: Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, Sydney Greenstreet

Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie

Music: Max Steiner

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: May 7, 1948

Percent Noir: 60%

“The Woman in White” is based on a novel by Wilkie Collins that helped to define the mystery genre when it was first published, and I know this not just because I read Collins’ novel, but because there’s a random title card at the front of the movie that informs me of this. Whenever I see cards like that, I wince a little bit – it seems like the movie is trying to validate its existence before it even begins.

It’s also an odd way to begin a film that, uh, liberally adapts Collins’ iconic novel. To be clear upfront, I really like the book – it has aged in several ways, but the plot is exquisite and I love the way it explores the themes of women being fucked over by society in every possible way. That said, I won’t hold the fact that this is a loose adaptation against this film… great films are often made that way. But what gets stuck in my craw here is that, despite the differences, the film never feels like its own entity. It always, always feels chained down to its source material – the plot feels like ticking necessary boxes instead of naturally progressing.

The plot is quite complex, but here’s the most boiled-down version I can conjure: an art teacher named Walter (Gig Young) is walking to his new gig at a mansion when he spies a ghostly woman dressed in white (Eleanor Parker) who teases that she has secret ties to the house. When he gets to the house, Walter is shocked that his new student Laura (Parker again) looks exactly like the woman. A myriad of mysterious people surround him – Laura’s companion Marian (Alexis Smith) who develops a crush on Walter, Laura’s cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs uncle Frederick (John Abbot) who can’t stand any loud noise or stress, the obviously-evil Count Fosco (Sydney Greenstreet) and Laura’s fiancé, the also obviously-evil (but awesomely named) Percival Glyde (John Emery). What is the secret of the title character and how does she connect to Laura, a woman who has no idea of the other woman’s existence?

Woman in White 2Period film noir can be very engaging when done properly – “Gaslight,” “House By the River” – and “The Woman in White” offers up all the themes, shadowy halls and dark twists one would hope for. But while the content is there, it struggles mightily with structure and point of view. The book juggles multiple characters as the narrator… almost the entirety of the cast, really, and does that brilliantly to raise tension and the stakes throughout. But the film is another matter entirely – we start with Walter as our way into the story and therefore expect him to stick around as our hero, but before you know it, he is literally removed from the movie for a long period of time. Instead Marian becomes our de facto main character for a long stretch, before switching again to Laura, then all the way back to Walter for the finale.

Marian is the most obvious choice for the hero since she is present for the largest portion of the story, so lean into that, place her in the bits where she is missing and boom! You’re good. Or do the same thing for Walter. Hell, even Laura. But in what is ostensibly a mystery where all the characters are suspects with secrets, jumping around with POV like a pinball is frustrating and makes the viewer feel unmoored.

Then there’s the character problem… namely that all the most interesting characters are the supporting ones. Walter is bland (Young is blander), Laura is mostly a drip (Parker doesn’t help things) and Marian at least has a little gusto (despite Smith’s lack of screen presence) but is overall meh. When these are your three main characters, that is a problem.

Much more interesting is Count Fosco, a giant of a man who is very much a terrible person, but still has a weird moral code. Greenstreet is outstanding in the role, reminding you of his great work as the villain of “Flamingo Road.” He also is great with Agnes Moorehead, who essentially has an extended cameo as Fosco’s wife… who of course has a secret herself. By the way, I would have paid good money to see Greenstreet and Moorehead headline a sitcom together, but alas that was not to be.

Also great is Abbott as Frederick, ostensibly an invalid, but you soon realize that it’s a mix of playing for attention and also allowing him to be the alpha in any given situation. Abbott hams it up mightily, which is the exact right shade for the performance. Screenwriter Stephen Morehouse Avery (“Deep Valley”) seems to be having all his fun with Frederick’s hysterical master-sub relationship with his manservant Louis (Curt Bois)… which you just know becomes sexual as soon as we cut out of whatever scene they inhabit together.

Woman in White 3The director is Peter Godfrey (“Cry Wolf”), who doesn’t seem to have a good handle on tone or storytelling. Max Steiner provides a good score, but Godfrey puts it way too high in the film’s mix, almost as if he doesn’t trust the audience to come to the emotional conclusions they need to. He does at least collaborate well with cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie (“Caged”), who has a field day turning the mansion from a beautiful, warm space in the light to a terrifying one of shadows at night. The city’s cobblestone streets and the fog permeating it look fabulous, too.

Perhaps “The Woman in White” is one of those novels that simply shouldn’t be translated to screen. I’ve seen this film and a few of the television adaptations, and they never hit because the impact of the book is specifically because of what Collins does with that medium. It’s quite telling that the best version is the little-seen Andrew Lloyd Webber musical bomb that is way better than you’d expect… but even then the creators mashed up “The Woman in White” novel with Charles Dickens’ “The Signal Man.” Despite some outstanding performances, the film is skippable, and even if you are still somehow interested, I only recommend it to those who haven’t read the original book.

Score: **

Christmas Holiday

Christmas Holiday 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Herman J. Mankiewicz

Based on the book by W. Somerset Maugham

Director: Robert Siodmak

Cast: Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly, Dean Harens

Cinematography: Woody Bredell

Music: Hans J. Salter

Studio: Universal Pictures

Release: July 31, 1944

Awards: Salter was nominated for Best Score – Drama or Comedy, but lost to “Since You Went Away.” Also nominated were “Address Unknown,” “Double Indemnity,” “Summer Storm” and “Voice in the Wind.” Phew.

Percent Noir: 70%

When you hear about a movie called “Christmas Holiday” that stars Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, you expect that you’re about to watch a heartwarming holiday musical that goes great with eggnog.

Nope! Instead you get one of the darkest of all classic noir, a tremendous tour-de-force created by a veritable all-star noir crew. I mean, just look at this lineup. The director is Robert Siodmak, who made many noir classics including “The Spiral Staircase” and “Criss Cross.” It’s written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who co-wrote all-timer “Citizen Kane,” based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote the play upon which “The Letter” originated. Cinematography is by Woody Bredell, whose “The Killers” and “The Unsuspected” are among the best-looking noir films ever. With a deck that stacked, is it any wonder this is a great film?

Christmas Holiday 2Durbin stars as Abigail, a “singer” in a “dive bar” (even if I hadn’t read the original novel, the wording is clearly coded for a whorehouse). On Christmas Eve, she meets a Lieutenant named Charlie, recently broken up with by his fiancé then waylaid in New Orleans during his holiday by a nasty storm. Charlie takes Abigail to midnight mass and she falls into hysterics, confessing to him after that she changed her name recently because she’s the wife of a convicted murderer named Robert (Kelly). We then flash back to find out how she got here.

Instead of toying with the audience about whether Robert is a killer or not, the film makes clear from his first appearance that he is a cold-blooded murderer. More shockingly, the movie fully believes that Abigail is still very much in love with Robert despite his sins. And this is one of the reasons “Christmas Holiday” transcends many other noir films around it, which would have gone for an easier arc for her character. Mankiewicz isn’t interested in easy answers – he loves that grey area where human feelings most often lie. When Abigail is first describing her relationship with Robert, she says something really amazing: “As if you could stop loving because it’s shameful to love.” A harsh truth, but nonetheless her truth.

Christmas Holiday 3Durbin and Kelly seem like baffling choices for the two leads, but are nonetheless perfect in their roles. Durbin truly seems to have been through a major trauma and has all these walls up – her monologue at the climax where we realize that she has been punishing herself since her husband’s arrest because she feels like she had responsibility in it is a stunner. And Kelly makes the shocking decision to just play most of his scenes as if he is in one of his romantic comedies, and I cannot underline how brilliant this choice is. Most other actors would be chewing scenery overplaying their villainy, but here we see and understand why Abigail loves Robert… and that makes his savage turn at the end all the more impactful.

Mankiewicz also structures the film in a very interesting way – it’s a flashback structure, but the flashbacks aren’t in chronological order. First we see the immediate aftermath of Robert’s murder, then we go back further to their first meeting – at a Kovaleski concert – before tracking their courtship and marriage. Watching these scenes of happiness, with Abigail worrying about impressing Robert’s overbearing mother (Gale Sondergard), the viewer has mixed feelings. We are screaming to ourselves for Abigail to STOP! To somehow escape, even though we know she cannot. But in the same moment, we understand her actions, understand how charming Robert can be, and we hate ourselves for that.

Even though Durbin and Kelly are aces, the entire ensemble is grand. Sondergard makes the most of her little-seen character – note her eyes in the scene where she meets Abigail and then later when she accuses Abigail of causing everything. Harens is quite good in a thankless role – you can’t help but notice that he looks a lot like Kelly and so the audience expects him to sweet Abigail into his arms at the climax. But, again, the movie chooses a more interesting path.

Siodmak and Bredell unsurprisingly pull out all the stops to make the movie look amazing. I love how the two scenes with music, first at mass and then at the concert, linger – each performance probably takes three or more minutes of screen time. As a result, we are moved by the music in the same way our characters are. The noir shadows in the murder’s aftermath are fantastic, and the finale in the club is a stunner of a set-piece. It’s an odd needle that the filmmakers need to thread – the flashback sequences must look both warm and romantic but also have hints of dread, and Bredell in particular excels at pulling it off.

This is a great film noir. While I understand why it has fallen through the cracks of history – the people who buy Durbin and Kelly movies aren’t going to want to see this dark film, and casual noir fans prefer Bogie or Stanwyck – it deserves rediscovery. It’s a murderer’s row of great talent all working at the peaks of their powers, and you owe it to yourself to track it down. Consider it a Christmas present.

Score: *****

Blues in the Night

Blues in the Night 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Robert Rossen

Based on the play “Hot Nocturne” by Edwin Gilbert

Director: Anatole Litvak

Cast: Richard Whorf, Betty Field, Priscilla Lane

Cinematography: Ernest Haller

Music: Heinz Roemheld

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: November 15, 1941

Awards: The title song was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscaars but lost to “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from “Lady Be Good”

Percent Noir: 60%

When I heard tell of a film noir musical, you better believe it was in my Amazon cart within thirty seconds. The filmmakers are all dependable, the cast is solid and the title song is, of course, legendary. Still, I didn’t have high hopes because the film is so unknown today – it seems like something as odd as a noir musical would be more well known, if only as a punchline.

I shouldn’t have been worried.

Turns out, this movie is bananas in all the best ways.

First things first, this is not a musical in the sense that the characters sing as part of everyday life a’la “Funny Face” or “The Wizard of Oz.” This is a musical where all the numbers are performances the central band or supporting characters are playing. So it’s like the performances in “Gilda,” except “Blues in the Night” has way more of them.

Blues in the Night 2Speaking of that central band, its leader/our main character is Jigger (just wait, the names get way worse), played by Richard Whorf. He’s a talented pianist who is trying to save jazz just like Ryan Gosling, and over the first act we see his band come together. These include singer Character (told you they got worse), played by Priscilla Lane, and her husband, trumpeter Leo (Jack Carson). Elia Kazan (yes, that Elia Kazan!) plays clarinet-player Nicky, Billy Halop plays drummer Peppi, who is obviously gay and in love with Jigger but the movie delightfully doesn’t make a big deal about it, and Peter Whitney as Pete… a character I’ve already forgotten about.

The group becomes a makeshift family in all the ways you’d expect – they finish each other’s sentences, they play on boxcars as they ride the rails from town to town, and when Character becomes pregnant they all panic in the doctor’s office like they’re the father. Aside from a one-minute barroom brawl started by Jigger as the movie opens, these characters genuinely seem like the most innocent of innocent human beings. Almost like characters from an MGM musical of the era. Their interactions, speech patterns… everything specifically seems to mimic that “type.”

That’s what makes what comes next all the more interesting.

The band encounters another man riding the rails named Del (Lloyd Nolan), who holds them up for five dollars but, when the group doesn’t turn him into to security, invites them to come perform at his bar The Jungle, which he immediately turns into an illegal casino. Also at The Jungle is femme fatale Kay (Betty Field), who is desperately in love with Del – since he doesn’t return her affection, she sets her sights on Jigger to make Del jealous. And suddenly, the cast of an MGM musical has walked into a film noir, complete with real stakes and actual murder & mayhem.

Jigger becomes obsessed with Kay and she seduces him into leaving the group and going to the big city with her, but soon enough it becomes clear that Kay is only using Jigger (mostly because she tells him this repeatedly). Jigger has a nervous breakdown and must be rescued, mentally and physically, by the band… but Kay isn’t done with Jigger yet. Or Del. And as the third act plays out, she really lives up to the “Fatale” part of her name.

Blues in the Night 3I have to admit, I’m kind of stunned at how well the two genres work when mashed up together. I was completely onboard during the early, light sequences and emotionally engaged with the darker turns. I liked and cared about our heroes (except for Pete, who I still don’t remember), and Kay is a fantastic femme fatale, crackling and dangerous like a sparking live wire.

A lot of this has to do with the screenplay by Robert Rossen (“Desert Fury”), which manages to pull off the tightrope act with aplomb. It’s also because the crackling, fast-paced dialogue we expect from a good noir is a close cousin to the crackling, fast-paced dialogue we expect from a good musical. There’s also a lot of genuine humanity to be found – there’s a moment where several of the soon-to-be bandmates find themselves in jail and listen to the neighboring inmates sing an incredible rendition of the title song, and it so moves them that they decide to become a band. The singers are black, and the song is accompanied by a montage of their difficult lives in the South, which works better than you’d expect. The song feels almost like an island unto itself – perhaps purposely so that censors could easily snip it out before showing the film in the deep south – and yet it serves to place a beating heart into the proceedings.

The director is Anatole Litvak, who brings a sure and steady hand to the film. He’s more well known for his films noir “Sorry, Wrong Number” and “The Long Night,” neither of which I like, and if there were any justice in the world “Blues in the Night” would be rediscovered and take its place rightly as his best noir.

The ensemble is roundly excellent. Aside from Lane, they are mostly unfamiliar to me (well, I know Kazan, but not as an actor) but everyone except stupid Pete made a good impression and I’m hoping to see them in more things as the Odyssey continues. Field in particular provides us with a femme fatale for the ages.

“Blues in the Night” was a genuine surprise to me in all the best ways. If you’d never heard of it before (like I hadn’t), you owe it to yourself to track it down. The performance of the title song along makes it worth the price of admission.

Score: ****1/2

I Confess

I Confess 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: George Tabori

Based on the play “Nos Deux Consciences” by Paul Anthelme

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Montgomery Clift, Karl Malden, Anne Baxter

Cinematography: Robert Burks

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: February 12, 1953

Percent Noir: 60%

“I Confess” is one of the major outliers in director Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography. Though it deals with one of his favorite themes, it doesn’t really feel like a Hitchcock film. Visually yes – this is certainly one of the Master’s most beautiful features. But thematically and emotionally, it feels more like something Ingmar Bergman would have created. And its cast feels more akin to one Elia Kazan would have recruited at the time. Watching it is a very odd experience because there’s a sense of uncertainty everywhere, and not always the kind the filmmakers meant to have there.

Montgomery Clift stars as Father Logan, who one night hears a confession from the parish handyman Otto (O.E. Hasse) – he murdered a man named Vilette. Turns out Father Logan had a connection to Vilette as well thanks to Vilette’s blackmail of Father Logan’s one true love Ruth (Anne Baxter). Ruth is in a loveless marriage with another man now but still harbors deep feelings for Father Logan. Into the situation walks Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), who immediately suspects Father Logan, but the priest cannot point the finger at Otto since the admission of guilt happened during the sacred right of confession.

I Confess 2Right off the bat, this is a much more internal film than we usually get from Hitchcock. Lots and lots of Clift looking super pained and tortured. The other major difference is the Inspector Larrue character, who bucks the trend of idiot or silly detectives in Hitchcock films – he knows what he needs and will savagely poke and prod until he gets it. Sure, he’s poking and prodding at the wrong guy, but you can still follow his line of thinking and know he’s a smart man. Larrue adds a wonderful danger to every scene he’s in – watch his face and how Hitchcock lingers on it while he thinks and makes decisions.

There’s no real central mystery for the viewer to untangle – we know the killer and we know it’s going to get bad for Father Logan for several reels before it gets better. The only major revelation is what Vilette’s connection is with Father Logan and Ruth – which we learn through a substantive series of flashbacks around the midpoint. This is where the bottom falls out of the story. Vilette was blackmailing Ruth, you see. You can smell the censor’s office all over this section – the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing that the two people did was sit in a gazebo together for hours in the rain. Is it implied they had sex? In the vaguest of vague ways. But even so, Father Logan wasn’t a priest at the time. And, more importantly, Vilette only saw them – he has zero proof of his claims. So even if he said anything, all they would have to do is say he was cray and move on.

Since I assume the filmmakers could not actually show or imply anything salacious, the flashbacks have a super cheesy (and I’m talking Velveeta here) quality to them, with slow motion and idyllic landscapes and I don’t know what all. It feels tonally out of place considering the rest of the film.

The movie fails to recover after the flashbacks – the plot wheels spinning instead of building suspense. It almost feels as if they were padding for time. While screenwriter George Tabori exploits the ethical dilemma of Father Logan incredibly well in the first half, at a certain point the character’s passivity as his world burns around him becomes infuriating. There’s a long montage of Father Logan wandering around town looking constipated…er… pained, waiting to be picked up by the police, and that pales in comparison to the lengthy sequences during the trial where the same ground could have been covered perfectly well in a few quick pops.

Even while the movie implodes around him, Clift is always very good as Father Logan. He has a humanity about him one wouldn’t always expect given the character’s dialogue. Still, the performance of the film belongs to Malden, who goes for broke crafting one of the great characters in Hitchcock’s filmography. At a certain point in the second half, your sympathies switch to Larrue because Malden is so charismatic and the character so interesting… and I’m pretty sure the movie doesn’t mean for you to feel that way. Baxter is also quite good, though she doesn’t share much chemistry with Clift. Hasse drives you to loathe his character very quickly, which seems to be the point, so he has done his job well.

I Confess 3As written earlier, this movie is fucking gorgeous. Aside from the opening montage of direction signs leading to the dead body, there isn’t really one specific sequence you can add to the classic Hitchcock set-piece lists, but that’s fine. Though he certainly explored noir shadows during sequences in films like “Strangers on a Train” or “Shadow of a Doubt,” this is the most noir “looking” film he has made – with the deep shadows swallowing up rooms, characters and more. The cinematography is by Robert Burks, one of Hitchcock’s usual collaborators on such films as “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief” and, for the life of me, I cannot think of a better looking black-and-white film from Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Every shot is magnificent… and that’s nearly impossible to pull off.

“I Confess” is not entirely successful and parts of it infuriate me, but for all its sins, it’s still a good film. I just realized what I did in that last sentence, and I apologize. I doubt I’ll revisit it as often as other films from Hitchcock simply because it’s not as fun as those, but it’s still worthwhile viewing for any fan of Hitchcock… or film noir.

Score: ***

Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman

Based on the short story “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Dean Jagger

Cinematography: William C. Mellor

Music: Andre Previn

Studio: MGM

Release: January 7, 1955

Awards: Sturges was nominated for Best Director but lost to “Marty.” Tracy was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Ernest Borgnine (who co-stars in this film) in “Marty.” It was nominated for Best Screenplay but also lost to “Marty.”

Percent Noir: 40%

“Bad Day at Black Rock” is a simple story, beautifully told.

The simplicity is the thing that makes this movie transcendent. You watch it the first time and think that it’s well done but disposable. But on second viewing, you realize just how fucking difficult it is to pull off the hat trick of telling a story so simply but with such elegance. There isn’t a wasted shot, an unnecessary character or an idea set up which isn’t paid off.

In one of his best performances ever, Spencer Tracy stars as John MacReedy, a one-armed man who arrives via train in Black Rock one day (it’s the first time in four years that the train has stopped, one character muses) searching for a man named Komoko. To say that the townsfolk, several of whom are played by Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, John Ericson and Lee Marvin, are very hostile about his arrival would be an understatement. Komoko is nowhere to be seen, but what happened to him? Even those who are friendlier with MacReedy, the town sheriff (Dean Jagger) and the Undertaker (Walter Brennan) are impotent when they should stand up for themselves, MacReedy and the truth of what happened to Komoko.

Bad Day 2The screenplay by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman makes a fascinating character choice right off the bat – one that is much more impactful and surprising than it may at first seem. Instead of spelling out any character motives right away, the entirety of the situation is a mystery to the viewer for at least the first twenty minutes. We have no idea why MacReedy stopped in that town and why he is behaving the way he is. Further, we have no idea why any of the townsfolk are being the douchebags they are. It’s a big gamble for the filmmakers to just expect us to sympathize with MacReedy right off the bat and follow along until we find out why he is there and what he wants, but they pull it off. It helps that he is mentally (and, later, physically) abused right off the bat – how can one not empathize with someone putting up with that behavior?

The assholes could also come across as interchangeable, especially since they keep coming at MacReedy one after the other like a makeshift army (the poor guy can’t even finish showering and changing by himself!). But McGuire and Kaufman are very specific to shade each of the characters’ actions in different ways so that, while they have the same goal, they come at it from different points of view. Ryan at first attempts to kill MacReedy with kindness (and, later, a gun), while Borgnine simply tries to run him off the road and then blames MacReedy for the damage to his car during the assault. As one does.

Bad Day 3This makes the moments where MacReedy finally fights back all the more amazing. When he karate chops Borgnine’s neck in the local diner and then knocks him the fuck out, I all but stood up from my chair and cheered. Director John Sturges (“Mystery Street”) does a great job of meshing moments like these with the quieter beats, like when MacReedy finally admits why he’s here and why Komoko means so much to him.

Sturges, here working with cinematographer William C. Mellor (“Too Late For Tears”), can also direct the hell out of an action sequence when he needs to. The climax of the movie is quite small and intimate when compared to most films (even low-budget films noir): you’ve got a spotlight, a gun, a jeep and a bottle full of gasoline. And yet the way the sequence is shot, edited and performed… well, you would think it was as epic as a “Lord of the Rings” action sequence.

The film’s ensemble roundly gives good, non-showy performances. Tracy unsurprisingly was nominated for an Oscar for the role, and history has shown that he should have won for it. I hesitate to start mentioning the supporting players because this will just turn into a list, but know that they are all creepy and pathetic in their own ways… and I mean that as a high compliment.

In many ways, “Bad Day at Black Rock” is the most difficult kind of movie to make, because there is nowhere to hide. Its simplicity can easily become its fault. But not here. It remains one of my favorite films noir and, honestly, a perfect example of economic filmmaking at its finest. If you haven’t seen it, drop what you are doing and book your travel plans now.

Score: *****

Saboteur

Saboteur 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger

Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine

Studio: Universal

Release: April 22, 1942

Percent Noir: 40%

One of the most oft-revisited themes of director Alfred Hitchcock was that of an innocent man who has been wrongly accused. You can trace it back to his classic silent film “The Lodger” and take that thread all the way to his penultimate film, “Frenzy.” But within all those examples, there are three sibling films that feature not only similar premises but the same running-from-set-piece-to-set-piece structure: “Young and Innocent,” “Saboteur” and “North by Northwest.” “Saboteur” is notable for being the darkest of the three and the only one that at least partially embraces the trappings of film noir.

It also happens to be the worst of the unofficial trilogy by a fair margin.

Robert Cummings stars as Barry, who works in an aircraft factory that is engulfed in flames one night after a saboteur strikes. He loses his best friend in the blaze and becomes the number one suspect. He only has an address on a letter from the real saboteur Fry (Norman Lloyd), and begins a cross-country search to clear his name and stop Fry and his network of aids from striking again. At a certain point, he picks up Pat (Priscilla Lane), the niece of a blind man who was kind to him.

Saboteur 2Barry bounces from scene to scene, location to location, like a pinball avoiding Tilt. None of the sequences have much impact on the others, and most of what is planted never pays off. Several scenes set up a major attack on a dam… and then later we learn in a single line that all that was cancelled for no real reason. A ship is supposed to be exploded but we are told if the bomb goes off a few seconds late then everything will be okay. The bomb goes off a few seconds late, but later the ship is still shown capsized … and even though it seemed like that was being positioned as the big climax, we are still two major set-pieces away from fading out.

All the while, the other thing that kept sticking out to me is that everyone seems really welcoming towards a possible murderer. The old blind guy doesn’t care that Barry is wanted by the police. A bunch of circus employees ask zero follow-up questions, let Barry and Pat spend the night in their car and actively mock the one voice of reason in the bus for bringing up the very real possibility that he is a straight up killer. Speaking of Pat, she is introduced as very suspicious, but approximately eleven minutes after Barry makes googly eyes at her (to be fair, Cummings is very dreamy) she is putting her life on the line for him.

Pat’s character is superfluous anyway. I fully understand that we need a dame in a movie like this, but the trio of screenwriters don’t seem to find any reason to keep her around… and yet every time she is waylaid or sent on a detour (my favorite is when she is kidnapped, but those holding her are still nice enough to buy her a milkshake) she somehow crosses paths with Barry again (who, let me underline this once more, is already laying low because he is on the run from authorities!) only to do nothing very interesting. This is a real shame because Lane (“Bodyguard”) is a delightful actress who shares a lot of chemistry with Cummings – the role could have been a stunner with better writing.

Saboteur 3I’m honestly kind of shocked that the screenplay is as limp as it is – I haven’t even started about the lame on-the-nose dialogue throughout (a scene where Barry thumbs a ride with a truck driver is especially cringe worthy). I have not encountered one of the writers, Peter Viertel (“Five Miles to Midnight”) so I want to blame all the problems on him. Why? Well one of the other writers is Joan Harrison, who wrote several great films including “Foreign Correspondent” and “Dark Waters,” and… Dorothy Parker! Yes, that Dorothy Parker!

Cummings adapts himself as well as he can to the material, ably switching tones from grief to humor to sweet talk without missing a beat. It’s really a shame he never took off and became an A-lister in the way he deserved. The supporting cast is filled with okay performances. Lloyd lets his canines (teeth, not dogs) do the acting for him. Otto Kruger is a little hammy as a rich bad guy who likes talking… but it’s still a shame he’s written out of the film with no closure.

Hitchcock himself seems to be on autopilot. The final battle on the Statue of Liberty is rightly praised and visually stunning, but elsewhere the scenes and visuals sag somewhat. A sequence in Radio City Music Hall is especially underwhelming considering the visual possibilities. A sequence at a party for the rich is likewise much too long and stumbles when we should feel the noose tightening. Still, the film looks good thanks to Hitchcock’s collaboration with cinematographer Joseph Valentine (“Shadow of a Doubt”)… and I guess only one iconic suspense sequence is still more than most other movies.

Still, it’s a shame how little there is to recommend in “Saboteur.” It’s one of Hitchcock’s golden age filmography that I revisit rarely, and only did this time when I saw that Dorothy Parker was credited as a screenwriter. When I opened the article, I mentioned that this film is closely tied with “Young and Innocent” and “North By Northwest.” Go watch those movies instead.

Score: **

Trapped

Trapped 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Earl Felton & George Zuckerman

Director: Richard Fleischer

Cast: John Hoyt, Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton

Cinematography: Guy Roe

Music: Sol Kaplan

Studio: Eagle-Lion Films

Release: October 1. 1949

Percent Noir: 90%

Procedurals are a really weird sub-section of film noir.

Honestly, I don’t quite know how they got lumped in with noir in the first place – tracking men who are good at their jobs in stories you know are going to have a happy ending, often outside during the day and away from the shadows doesn’t scream film noir to me. Is John Alton’s iconic cinematography really so moody that scholars couldn’t help but start including his movies, and then a domino effect happened?

Anyway, I don’t much like procedural noir. I hate the voice over. I’m annoyed because the cops are generally uninteresting and are played by even more uninteresting actors. There’s no sense of adventure or discovery in the films. To be fair, I do love “The Lineup” and “High and Low,” but these are the exceptions that make the rule. I think it’s very telling that we are getting into year three of this Noir Odyssey and I still haven’t covered famous procedurals like “He Walked By Night” or “The Phenix City Story.”

I am now 200 words into my article about “Trapped” and have only just now said the title, so I think that’s some indication of how ambivalent I feel about this movie.

Trapped 2After a long prologue about the intricacies of counterfeiting with one of those harsh, lecturing voice-overs, we find a woman at a bank trying to cash a twenty dollar bill. The bill turns out to be counterfeit, and the cashier is a complete asshole to her, telling her in a condescending way that he can’t replace it and she should know better and double check every bill she ever gets from now until she dies or else (not an actual quote, but it might as well be). From there, we launch into members of the Treasury Department, including undercover agent John Downey (John Hoyt) trying to track down the most perfect counterfeiting plates in existence. The key is counterfeiter and all-around terrible guy Tris (Lloyd Bridges), who is in prison but escapes twice, once as a ploy with the help of the government and a second time just because he’s a villain. Tris hooks up with his former flame Meg (Barbara Payton), a cigarette girl at a club where Downey has planted himself, and Downey inserts himself into the equation.

The movie has some major structural problems, most notably that there isn’t a moment where you think that Tris and his fellow bad guys will ever, Ever, EVER get away with it because the film keeps cutting back to the Treasury Department Guys being two steps ahead of everything. Even moments where Meg and Tris find a wire in their apartment lack the requisite “gotcha!” impact.

Bridges as Tris is the best thing in the movie, but for being the ostensible lead, he completely disappears from the final act. What. The. Hell. And the new “big bad” they replace him with is a pale imitation. Then there’s the cruelty of murdering Meg’s character in cold blood – her character is awful but doesn’t deserve it, and the act itself is played with zero fanfare… to the point where you wonder minutes later if she survived and is going to come back. She doesn’t. It’s just badly choreographed and badly played. So for the finale, the two most interesting characters in the film are gone. Whoops.

Aside from Bridges, the rest of the cast is either fine or forgettable. Payton does okay in an underwritten role, and Hoyt is as charismatic as a block of wood. None of the other players make any sort of impact.

Trapped 3The film looks good, at least. Director Richard Fleischer (“The Narrow Margin”) has a good handle on making things like a hotel room seem claustrophobic and horrifying, and the outdoor sequences feature some great location photography in Los Angeles. The finale, despite having neither Meg or Tris in it, is impeccably photographed in a garage of trollies with an electrifying, explosive ending.

Still, isn’t the most interesting thing about counterfeiting the actual act itself? Much moreso than what a bunch of hoodlums will do to get their hands on some fake money. I’d honestly have a lot more interest in staring at a counterfeiter creating a bill or perfecting his or her craft than watching this hour and twenty minutes again.

Score: **