Foreign Correspondent

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, with additional dialogue by James Hilton and Robert Benchley

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Albert Bassermann

Cinematography: Rudolph Mate

Music: Alfred Newman

Studio: United Artists

Release: August 16, 1940

“Foreign Correspondent” is a hodgepodge of different genres which don’t go together, baffling tonal shifts, gigantic plot holes and it has the wrong character as its protagonist. That said, it’s a pretty good movie.

Though he has no real knowledge of the politics of Europe, reporter John Jones (Joel McCrea) is assigned to cover the oncoming war overseas. He heads there and immediately finds himself in the midst of conspiracies within conspiracies – a friendly diplomat named Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) is seemingly shot to death on the steps of the embassy but that was a body double – the real Van Meer is being held hostage until he reveals certain government secrets. Also wrapped up in the madness is the woman John falls in love with named Carol (Laraine Day), her father Stephen (Herbert Marshall) who is the head of the Universal Peace Party, and the incredible reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), whose last name is not misspelled, I promise.

Unlike other thrillers by director Alfred Hitchcock, this film was crafted partially as entertainment but partially as a propaganda piece by producer Walter Wanger in order to rally support within America against the rise of fascism overseas. To the film’s credit, it rarely feels that way while you are watching it until the final epilogue. That said, when you step back and think about a bunch of the creative decisions in play, you can see it more clearly.

The biggest example of this is the choice to make John the lead instead of Scott. The film goes to lengths to underline that John knows nothing about what’s going on overseas before sending him into the action, almost as if the filmmakers are shaking viewers while screaming “He’s just like you! Identify with him!” Once in Europe, John makes one or two smart decisions (most notably noticing the windmill spinning in the wrong direction), but in general is an idiot who argues against every smart decision made by other characters. He’s not the stupidest Hitchcock hero (that would be Ingrid Bergman’s character in “Spellbound”), but he’s pretty damn close. Also… frankly… he’s kinda boring. McCrea is a good actor, but the role gives him nothing to do, to the point where the character subtly breaks the fourth wall at a certain point to comment that his romance has happened super fast with no chance to build the relationship.

The filmmakers seem to realize this, and once the second act begins, John disappears from the movie for giant stretches of time – sometimes 20 minutes – even though he’s the hero of the movie. Even they seem bored with John. In his place, the film leans into Scott’s character, who is smarter, wittier, wilder, cooler and just better than John in every way. Sanders seems to be having a ball playing the character, and his enthusiasm is infectious – the moment he jumps out of a sixth story window, lands on an awning and tears his way through, straightening his suit upon landing on the ground, is some kind of perfect.

Scott is the better character, but apparently John was the better way for the audience to get into the story. This imbalance between the characters underlines the issues with the script, which shifts wildly from screwball comedy to brutal horror… sometimes within the same scene. Those tonal shifts are partially a leftover from Hitchcock’s British thrillers, where the tone would often vary, though never this much. But I suspect it is also partially a symptom of the multitude of writers who penned the film – there are two credited screenwriters and another two credited for the dialogue, but apparently another three are uncredited but did major work. Knowing that and knowing Wanger rushed the movie into production, it’s easy to see why it flip flops like it does.

I know that I’ve been knocking on the film for a bunch of paragraphs now, but I also need to underline that (though these are major problems), the movie is actually a lot of fun. Once it gets moving during the rainsoaked assassination setpiece, which is one of the best sequences Hitchcock ever filmed, things remain fast-paced and enjoyable. It’s hard to complain about the problems when things are moving so quickly that your issues are already in the rear-view by the time you process them. The climactic plane crash is also incredible and features incredible special effects for 1940 – the sequence is shockingly harrowing and emotionally resonates more than you’d expect.

Also Santa Claus himself, Edmund Gwenn, plays a ruthless assassin… so that’s awesome.

Hitchcock was working with ace cinematographer Rudolph Mate, who would lens classic noir “Gilda” before becoming a director himself and making movies like “D.O.A.” and “The Dark Past.” I give him a lot of credit for helping the narrative hiccups by making the film visually smooth throughout. There are a couple scenes between Scott and Stephen in shadowed rooms where the Dracula filter is used on their eyes that are sublime to watch.

I like “Foreign Correspondent,” and suspect as time passes the problems will drift from my memory while the great set pieces and Sanders’ aces performance will remain. It’s a delightful marriage between the British Hitchcock and what would become his American aesthetic… just try not to pay too much attention to the film’s hero.

Score: ****

Awards: The film was nominated for six Oscars and lost all of them. For Best Picture (also nominated was “The Letter”) it lost to fellow noir “Rebecca.” Bassermann lost Best Supporting Actor (also nominated was James Stephenson for “The Letter”) to Walter Brennan for “The Westerner.” It lost Best Original Screenplay to “The Great McGinty.” It lost Best Black-and-White Art Direction (also nominated was “Rebecca”) to “Pride and Prejudice” and Best Black-and-White Cinematography (also nominated was “The Letter”) to “Rebecca.” Finally, it lost Best Special Effects (along with “Rebecca”) to “Thief of Bagdad.”

Rebecca

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison

Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson

Cinematography: George Barnes

Music: Franz Waxman

Studio: Selznick International Pictures/United Artists

Release: March 21, 1940

As things have progressed here, I’ve started to do small mini-Odysseys, like my recent ones focusing on the actors Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield. I can’t wait to get into Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford coming up, but there are directors where I want to make sure I cover all of their major noir work as well. With certain people like Fritz Lang, the list is fairly clear what I need to cover… but as I dive into a mini-Odyssey covering the noir films of Alfred Hitchcock, the question quickly becomes which of his movies are noir, really?

Sure, a few of his works, most of which I’ve already covered like “Strangers on a Train” and “Rope,” are very obviously noir, but there are a large number where they feels like noir, but only if you squint. Hitchcock is a master of mixing genres and tones – “Psycho” (which I will be covering) is as much a noir as it is a slasher film and a dark comedy… three genres that don’t easily co-exist. “Rebecca” is certainly another example of a sorta-kinda-maybe noir. It certainly deals with several thematic ideas often explored in noir, but it also feels more gothic in its shadows and more romantic in its shading. It’s an important film for Hitchcock – his first big American production, his first collaboration with producer David O. Selznick (and, spoiler alert, his only successful one) and his only film to win Best Picture. So it’s important to cover, even though I honestly don’t think I would be focusing on it in this Odyssey had it not been for the Hitchcock connection.

Our hero is a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who is never named in the film, but I’m going to refer to her as Mrs. DeWinter because, before the end of act one, she marries the uber-rich Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier). He’s far above her station in life, but she tells herself that doesn’t matter until she arrives at his palatial home Manderley… and the imposter syndrome begins almost immediately. Not helping matters is the head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who is obsessed with Maxim’s previous wife, the titular Rebecca, and refuses to allow the new Mrs. DeWinter to step out of Rebecca’s shadow. Worse, Maxim also seems still stuck on his dead wife, who everyone goes to lengths to underline was the most beautiful and charming human being ever to exist in the history of time.

The film is a very good adaptation of an excellent novel by Daphne Du Maurier, which I read in high school. That gothic romance genre is marketed and geared specifically towards older women, which is a shame because the book perfectly speaks to a lot of what anyone is going through in high school. That imposter syndrome theme I mentioned earlier will especially resonate with anyone who is not a raging narcissist. And it’s a joy to see screenwriters Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison (“Foreign Correspondent”) keep that at the forefront of the adaptation – they do such an excellent job of making Mrs. DeWinter a sympathetic heroine, despite being passive throughout the majority of the film. When she finally stands up to Mrs. Danvers, you want to stand up and cheer.

This also underlines that Fontaine’s performance is the soul of “Rebecca” and the reason it works. She may have won the Oscar for the much-less successful “Suspicion,” but her work here ranks among the best in any Hitchcock film. Her eyes and mouth are so expressive that you can always tell what she is thinking, and even in moments where she goes over-the-top into cringing dramatics like she’s a silent movie star… it shockingly works. This is because she makes the viewer believe that her character is unable to hide her emotions, which can be a great strength but is seen as weakness by those who want to exploit it. Fontaine doesn’t have much chemistry with Olivier, but she miraculously manages to make that work to her performance’s advantage, using it to underline her awkwardness and how unsure she is of the tilting world around her.

None of this is to say that the rest of “Rebecca” is not well done, because it is. The filmmakers wisely understand that the heart of the story is not the romance between Mrs. DeWinter and Maxim, but Mrs. DeWinter’s relationship with the deceased Rebecca, brought to life explicitly by Rebecca’s most loyal Mrs. Danvers. The best scene in the film is a simple one, where Mrs. Danvers shows Mrs. DeWinter around Rebecca’s suite, simply showcasing things as she describes the intricacies of Rebecca’s life. The room feels haunted (thanks in no small part thanks to ace cinematographer George Barnes’ (“Spellbound”) work), and it seems as if Rebecca herself will somehow enter the room any second.

Much has been made about the adjustment to the makeshift mystery of what happened to Rebecca – Maxim killed her in the novel and it was accidental in the film… but the mystery doesn’t really matter in any way other than that it extends Rebecca’s shadow over the ensemble for the running time, so it did not bother me at all. But aside from the ending, I do find myself wishing the filmmakers had felt a little freer with their adaptation, because it is slavish in places. Did we really need the full monologue of the opening of the book as we drift through Manderley’s weaving paths?

I think “Rebecca” is wonderful in many ways and I find myself revisiting it quite often, especially in moments where I am feeling like an imposter in my own life. That said, I rewatched “The Letter” last week, which was also released in 1940 and was nominated for Best Picture against “Rebecca.” I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if that film’s director, William Wyler, would have instead directed this, with Hitchcock handling “The Letter.” Part of me thinks that switch would have made both films transcendent. Still, what we have here is a minor classic in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and it’s more than worth your time.

Score: ****1/2

Awards: “Rebecca” won Best Picture – among the other nominees were films noir “Foreign Correspondent” (also directed by Hitchcock) and “The Letter.” Barnes took home the Oscar for Best Black-and-White Cinematography (also nominated were “Foreign Correspondent” and “The Letter”). Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director (also nominated was “The Letter”) but lost to John Ford for Grapes of Wrath. Olivier was nominated for Best Actor but lost to “The Philadelphia Story” and Fontaine was nominated for Best Actress (along with “The Letter”) but lost to “Kitty Foyle.” Anderson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to “The Grapes of Wrath.” The film was nominated for Best Screenplay but lost to “The Philadelphia Story” and Best Score but lost to “Pinocchio” (also nominated was “The Letter”). It lost Best Black-and-White Art Direction to “Pride and Prejudice” and Best Editing (also nominated was…wait for it… “The Letter”) to “North West Mounted Police,” which is apparently a movie that exists. Finally, it was nominated for Best Special Effects to “The Thief of Bagdad” (also nominated was “Foreign Correspondent”).

The Brothers Rico

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Lewis Meltzer and Ben Perry

Story: Georges Simenon

Director: Phil Karlson

Cast: Richard Conte, Dianne Foster, Kathryn Grant

Cinematography: Burnett Guffey

Music: George Duning

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: September 7, 1957

Director Phil Karlson loves to explore the theme of faith in his noir films. Faith in the oppressed to stand up and have their voices heard permeates movies like “The Phenix City Story” and “Tight Spot.” Faith in the newsmen and women to do whatever is needed to tell the truth in “Scandal Sheet.” It’s odd thematically that Karlson would choose crime films to plant his optimistic flag, but there you go. “The Brothers Rico” is about faith too… but misplaced faith. Blind faith and how it can destroy a man and a family. This is not Karlson’s best film, but it may well be his most interesting.

Richard Conte plays Eddie, one of the titular brothers, who was once heavily involved in the mafia but has since left it behind, gotten married to Alice (Dianne Foster) and is now about to adopt a baby. He holds no animosity towards the mafiosos who helped him to get where he is, so when his brother Gino (Paul Picerni) shows up all sweaty and says he thinks the mafia is out to get him after a robbery went belly up, Eddie tells him that his suspicions are misplaced. Eddie’s brother Johnny (James Darren) has disappeared after the incident. Crime Boss Sid (Larry Gates) calls Eddie in and asks him to track down Johnny – Sid says he’s concerned about his welfare and wants to help him. Blindly believing it to be true, Eddie misses his adoption meeting and sets off in search for his brother… though it becomes increasingly obvious that Sid is planning this to end badly for all the brothers.

Screenwriters Lewis Meltzer and Ben Perry don’t hide the fact that Sid is a monster – it’s clear seconds after Eddie finishes the meeting that Sid is evil, since we cut to his brother Gino getting the shit beaten out of him by Sid’s men. Also, Alice is adamant about what a terrible idea all of this is, and gets louder and louder every time she rightly voices this opinion. But Eddie refuses to believe this until he no longer can refuse, but by that point things have escalated too much, and he’ll end the film with blood on his hands… no matter how innocent he believed his actions to be at the time.

And yet we still like Eddie. Despite being an idiot, you can tell he’s a good guy who wants what is best for all those around him, whether it’s his wife or his family or the man who helped make him. And even though I expected to feel a bit of “you deserved that!” when his family members begin to be offed, the writing (and Conte’s performance) has done wonders in making your heart break for Eddie as his own heart breaks. You are frustrated with him, but you still like him.

Perhaps it’s because this idea of blind faith that the filmmakers are exploring is so resonant with the audience. Though it’s explored often, it’s usually through supporting characters who have gotten in too deep with something, while the main character can clearly see the truth of what is happening. It’s much rarer, and more interesting, to have our protagonist be the one struggling. It makes him feel much more human to us – I mean, who hasn’t made shitty decisions then marched forward into hell because you didn’t want to admit it was getting fucking hot. That’s essentially my mantra for every relationship I’ve ever been in.

Conte is excellent throughout the film – he gets little screen time with either of the actors who are playing his brothers, and yet convinces you instantaneously that his character has known them all his life. That’s no small feat, and the stronger scenes near the climax also echo beautifully after you’ve finished the film – you watch the pain in his eyes as the world crumbles around him, and they haunt you. He shares ample chemistry with Foster, who does her best with a thinly written role that could have and should have been a meaty part. The rest of the ensemble are all decent-to-good, but you aren’t going to remember them after the credits roll – you’ll think about Conte’s eyes.

Karlson isn’t one of the great visual stylists of the noir genre – his moody “Kansas City Confidential” is the exception, not the rule – and appears to prefer bluntness over atmosphere. Here he is working with all-time great cinematographer Burnett Guffey, whose credits in noir range from “In a Lonely Place” to “The Reckless Moment” to “All the King’s Men.” And yet Guffey seems markedly unmotivated to make this interesting visually – the film has all the depth of a television episode, which is a shame since there are several sections which could have been quite impactful given the proper shadows and specters.

Still, “The Brothers Rico” is a damn good film – it takes chances and feels much fresher today than most of its noir siblings. It’s a blunt movie, and keeps its thematic ideas right there on the surface… which heightens their impact throughout. Despite its visual blandness, it still comes highly recommended.

Score: ****

The Killers

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Gene L. Coon

Based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway

Director: Don Siegel

Cast: Lee Marvin, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson, Ronald Reagan

Cinematography: Richard L. Rawlings

Music: John Williams

Studio: Universal

Release: July 7, 1964

I’ve already written at length about Don Siegel’s “The Gun Runners,” a little-remembered film today which is an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not.” That story had already been made twice into the minor classics “To Have and Have Not” and “The Breaking Point,” and by the time Siegel got to it, there was little left for him to say about the material. It was a workmanlike film, but nothing more.

And now we have “The Killers,” in which Siegel once again adapts Hemingway, and it’s once again following in the footsteps of a prior adaptation, this one a masterpiece 1946 version by Robert Siodmak, which put both Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardener on the map. Siegel was famously supposed to direct the 1946 version, but was let go for vague reasons. Finally, he would have the chance to tell the story his way – the film was shot to be a television movie but released in theaters after it was clear that the content was too violent for primetime.

I really wish that it was better.

It’s never a good sign when the background story to your movie is more interesting than the movie itself. And yet that’s what we have here. The problems with “The Killers” are different than the ones Siegel encountered with “The Gun Runners” – the original Hemingway short story in this case only accounts for the first 10-ish minutes of both films, after which they go off in incredibly different directions.

Here, two killers-for-hire (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) track down a man named Johnny (John Cassavetes) in a school for the blind and brutally murder him. But Johnny does not seem surprised when they show up… and he doesn’t seem upset either. This seems odd considering he was supposed to have stolen millions of dollars – why was he at a blind school? The Killers begins to retrace Johnny’s steps, happening upon a femme fatale named Shelia (Angie Dickinson) and a man with mafia connections named Jack (Ronald Reagan). But who has the money?

It feels almost unfair to compare the two adaptations, especially since the 1946 version was a beautiful meditation on the slow loss of humanity that could be spoken of in the same breath as “Citizen Kane” thanks to its broken time narrative. This version has no aspirations for high art… it wants to spray blood all over the place and impact you with its violence, not its narrative. Which is a perfectly legitimate choice, until you see that this film also has a broken flashback structure without any of the elegance of the original, and you just begin to wait until the climactic bullets begin to fly.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the movie is “functional.” Take that as you will.

There are certainly some nifty parts throughout – I especially enjoyed the opening sequence in the blind school and two car chase scenes that are so over-the-top and unreal with their rear projection that they come off almost like German Expressionism. I have to believe that, despite the television movie auspices, Siegel meant for them to appear as cheap and wild as they seem onscreen.

That said, the finale is probably the best sequence in the film, where what surviving characters are left come together to soak every square inch of lawn and carpet in a house with blood. It’s a hugely explosive ending, one which underlines the theme that nothing really matters and we’re all gonna die. That sounds one hell of a lot like noir to me, no?

Writer Gene L. Coon is incredibly (incredibly!) prolific in television, penning episodes of “Star Trek” to “Wagon Train” to “Suspicion” to everything in between. He is very good with creating a shorthand between his ensemble and introducing them in blunt, memorable ways. I actually think his screenplay is probably better than the film that was ultimately shot.

The ensemble cast has a few standouts, particularly Marvin and Dickinson. Notably, Dickinson plays up her femme fatale role like she’s been waiting for it her entire life, and hers is the performance you’ll walk away from the film remembering. Marvin is quite good as the last killer standing, and Gulager is also fine even though he has much less to do. Cassavettes is sadly miscast as the doomed Johnny, sharing no chemistry with Dickinson despite her best efforts and giving a performance that is only halfway alive. That said, the camera loves looking at his weirdly handsome face, so there is that.

The movie is not only shot in color, but has the palate of a Hammer Horror film from the 1950s. This works both against the film and to its advantage. The former in the dialogue scenes on cheap sets where some black-and-white shadows would have done wonders to up the atmosphere. The latter in the aforementioned chase scenes and whenever the camera focuses on all that red, Red, RED blood.

“The Killers” is not a necessary noir. It’s the kind of film that’s excellent to bring up in conversation and talk about it in relation to its predecessor and within Siegel’s filmography… but sitting down and watching it takes away a lot of that interest. It’s a perfectly fine film, but why not watch the original… or any of Siegel’s better movies… first?

Score: **1/2

Shock Corridor

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer/Director: Samuel Fuller

Cast: Peter Breck, Constance Tower, Gene Evans

Cinematography: Stanley Cortez

Music: Paul Dunlap

Studio: Allied Artists

Release: September 11, 1963

“Shock Corridor” is a baffling film to experience, because nothing about the movie fundamentally works… and yet it somehow miraculously succeeds in the most important thing it needs to do: make its viewer feel like he or she is going mad. This is not a good movie, but it may well be a great one.

Johnny (Peter Breck) is a newspaperman with his eyes on nabbing a Pulitzer, and he decides to go undercover at a psychiatric hospital in order to figure out the truth behind the murder of a man named Sloane. To do this, his girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) must lie and say she is his sister… and that he is sexually obsessed with her. Once inside the facility, Johnny begins putting together the clues while struggling with several of the inmates, including a black man (Hari Rhodes) who is convinced he’s in the Ku Klux Klan, a former war officer with PTSD who’s now convinced he’s a Confederate General (James Best), and a veritable army of female nymphomaniacs. As things get more and more mad, the question quickly becomes: will Johnny be able to solve the murder before he himself loses his mind?

The answer, of course, is no. You understand from the first five minutes of the film what the arc is going to be, and writer/producer/director Samuel Fuller (“The Crimson Kimono”) never diverts from that course. It doesn’t help that Johnny clearly has a few screws loose from his first moment onscreen, so his journey into madness isn’t as far as one would think. It’s the same problem with the first two acts of “The Shining” – Jack Torrance is obviously already unhinged the moment he sets foot in the haunted hotel, so there’s nowhere for his character to go. Breck is completely one-note as Johnny, all blunt movements and blunter caricature… which on the one hand is terrible acting, but on the other hand fits within a movie that is nothing but blunt movements.

In case I haven’t underlined it enough, this movie is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face. The film is inspired by a minor noir called “Behind Locked Doors,” which I have tried to watch twice but fallen asleep during both times. That would never be a problem here. Fuller picks the most obvious thematic points to explore, and then creates giant neon signs spelling out exactly what he wants you to think of any given situation. Cathy is an erotic dancer, and in a totally eye-rolling special effect, we see a tiny version of her taunting Johnny’s dreams, a literal devil on his shoulder flaunting her sexuality to him. The inmates above that I have described – the black man who hates his own race, the brainwashed soldier who thinks he’s in the confederate army – are about as obvious a metaphor as you can get. It’s all supremely stupid and pretty silly, all things considered.

And yet, somehow, it works.

Why?

Let’s look at the most famous… perhaps infamous… sequence in the film. Johnny accidentally finds himself locked in a room filled with a bunch of nymphomaniacs. They surround him like lions ready to make a kill, singing songs and hissing (yes, hissing) at him… before they finally pounce. Johnny is held down and assaulted, physically and sexually, for several minutes of screen time as the women attack… the sequence degrading into more and more anarchy as it progresses. It works because Fuller simply lets his camera run at the action from all angles for much, much longer than the viewer expects. By the mid-point, you are craving escape… and by the finale you are screaming for it. But he also does something very interesting with music here and throughout the entire movie. One of Johnny’s attackers sings one song while another sings a different song, and the mash-up of those two familiar melodies does something to your mind… overlapping them in such a jagged awkward way puts the viewer off balance quickly. Nothing feels right because of the assault on your ears. And this is only one of probably ten times Fuller does this trick during the running time… and each one is successful.

Of course, now that I have described a pack of nymphomaniacs sexually assaulting the main character within thirty seconds of seeing him, I should probably mention that the movie does not hold up at all today in the way it portrays mental health. Bluntly, it demonizes every form of mental illness that it portrays as something to be ashamed of and terrified of… which is heartbreaking. I’ve seen several critics wave this very valid criticism away because Fuller is using mental illness as a means to an end in underlining his own narrative… writing that you can’t take the film’s portrayal of madness at face value. Frankly, I feel like that excuse is a bunch of bullshit, and wish that there was anything in the movie, even a simple scene or supporting character, which showcased hope or a grounded, realistic version of mental illness. Getting over this fact is an impossible hurdle for some viewers, and I understand that. I managed to overcome it, but then again I am lucky enough to have no history of mental illness, nor does my family, so I’m not the right person to evaluate that aspect of the production.

The movie is interesting visually more than it is successful. Everyone remembers the rainstorm at the end, and that scene is certainly impactful. But for me the more memorable scenes are the long takes Fuller and his cinematographer Stanley Cortez explore throughout, giving the viewer no opportunity to look away from whatever heinous acts are being shown. The eloquence of that idea is completely at odds with other filmic tricks the duo try and fail at, like the aforementioned weird tiny version of Cathy.

And yet… “Shock Corridor” still works despite all its problems. In fact, one could argue that it works because of all its problems. Pile all these things on top of one another and you’ve done so much that the viewer can’t help but feel like he is losing his own mind as the movie progresses. And since it succeeds at that one important thing, the entire film can be considered a success.

Score: ***1/2

Boomerang!

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Richard Murphy

Based on the article “The Perfect Case” by Anthony Abbot

Director: Elia Kazan

Cast: Dana Andrews, Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt

Cinematography: Norbert Brodine

Music: David Buttolph

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Release: March 5, 1947

Awards: Murphy was nominated for Best Screenplay (also nominated was “Crossfire”), but lost to “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Okay, what the actual fuck is up with this title, amiright? It’s terrible, and it’s also got that unnecessary exclamation point which you can tell was placed there by a fevered, panicked marketing executive at 20th Century Fox who knew it was a bad name and was trying to salvage the situation. The title of the article upon which this film was based, “The Perfect Case,” reads a little boring, but is still thirty times better than what they finally came up with.

What? Oh, the movie. It’s pretty good.

Based on a true story, the film tells of Henry (Dana Andrews), a State’s Attorney in the small town of Bridgeport, Connecticut who is caught in a social and political crossfire after a beloved local priest is shot in the head. The local police (Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden) are desperate for an arrest, and figuring out the culprit also will create a domino effect in the local elections. When a man named John (Arthur Kennedy) is arrested, the evidence seems to pile up against him, but Henry is adamant to find the truth behind his guilt or innocence… even if it destroys his professional career.

This is director Elia Kazan’s third film, and was released in the same year he won Best Director for “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which also won Best Picture but now is generally considered pretty awful (which is good, since it is). You can see many hallmarks of Kazan throughout, including several members of his longtime ensemble like Cobb & Malden. Hell, even the storyline… which involves a witch-hunt that almost costs an innocent man his life… seems shockingly predictive considering the Communist witch hunts Kazan would find himself part of several years later.

All this, and yet it never quite comes together like you want it to.

Earlier I wrote that it was Kazan’s third film, and it feels that way. I really like his flawed “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and loathe his abortive “Sea of Grass,” but this feels like his first real film more than either of those. The pieces are all there, but none of the assurance. Instead, we get awkward, stilted voiceover like something out of a police procedural that takes us out of the emotion just when we need to engage. Kazan and writer Richard Murphy (“Cry of the City”) could have trusted viewers instead of hand-holding them as they are.

Their vision would apparently coalesce much better when they reteamed for the wonderful “Panic in the Streets” a few years later. These two films share a lot in their DNA beyond the genre, including the grounded exploration of a real issue, the location shooting and some of the cast. I doubt the filmmakers could have reached the excellence there without stumbling somewhat here.

Then again, this isn’t a bad movie. It’s perfectly fine… it’s only in knowing that all involved could do so much better that it feels like a letdown. This is a solid three-star noir, one with an outstanding courtroom climax and a few sequences that showcase the ensemble at the peaks of their powers.

Andrews is very good in that climactic scene, so much so that it’s easy to forget that he’s slightly miscast at the State’s Attorney. His superpower is being able to pull off being a little oily and swarmy at all times, so he was an odd choice for the beacon of justice for all involved. Poor Jane Wyatt is utterly wasted as his wife, but does what she can. The supporting cast all do well with what they are given, but it’s a shame to see excellent character actors like Malden and Kennedy with so little to do.

This is the only time Cinematographer Norbert Brodine would collaborate with Kazan, and as a result the movie doesn’t really “feel” like a Kazan movie visually. Despite some lovely location work, it actually watches much more like one of the noir films Otto Preminger made for 20th Century Fox than something Kazan made. Still, Brodine would use what he learned here to create some indelible semi-documentary work in later noir films like “Kiss of Death” and “Road House.”

I think “Boomerang!” (ugh, that name never gets better!) is a worthwhile enough noir, but I also am going to be honest and say that I don’t think I’ll remember much of anything from it next week. It’s most interesting as a footnote in Kazan’s career, and how it deals with several themes that would become incredibly personal to the man as his world and professional career seemed to cave in around him. But that context has little to do with the actual film itself – if you caught it on TCM at 2 a.m. one night and missed the opening credits, chances are you wouldn’t be able to guess he directed it. That said, you probably would still enjoy it.

Score: ***

Odds Against Tomorrow

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding

Based on the novel by William P. McGivern

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley, Shelley Winters, Gloria Grahame

Cinematography: Joseph C. Brun

Music: John Lewis

Studio: United Artists

Release: October 15, 1959

Often, when a film noir deals with social issues, it flounders. It’s too blunt, too obvious in its choices… too eager to get on its soap box. This is a problem with social issue movies across the board, both made back then and today, no matter the genre… but it is especially apparent in noir, which thrives within the grey shadows of humanity. Racism or homophobia or anti-Semitism is wrong, simple as that… so there often isn’t anywhere to go with the narrative. There are exceptions, like “The Crimson Kimono” or “Victim,” but the vast majority flounder in their own self-importance.

As a result, I was not expecting much from “Odds Against Tomorrow,” and was pleasantly surprised throughout at how elegantly it threads racism into its narrative. Like the above movies, the film works because it uses hatred of the “other” as an opportunity to tell a classic noir narrative, becoming transcendent by the finale because of the sly way it sets up its themes before it explosively pays them off.

Ed Begley plays an ex-police officer named Burke who forms a plan to rob a bank that he thinks cannot miss. He recruits Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a popular singer who has nevertheless found himself deep in debt, and Slater (Robert Ryan), a ne’er-do-well who is currently being financially supported by his codependent girlfriend Lorie (Shelley Winters). The only problem is that Slater is deeply racist, which threatens to destroy the robbery at every possible junction.

The narrative is quite simple, all things considered, and the robbery itself doesn’t have much complexity to it either. But despite being a simple story, it’s incredibly well told, thanks to the outstanding screenplay by Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding. This is not a surprise considering the pedigree of the writers. Gidding would become a regular collaborator with director Robert Wise (“Born to Kill,” “The Set-Up”) on classics like “The Haunting.” Polonsky wrote two of the all-time best noir films of all time, “Body & Soul” and “Force of Evil” before being blacklisted for a decade thanks to HUAC, and this represented his return to the genre.

The writers aren’t necessarily out to humanize Ingram and Slater (Burke may put the plot in motion, but is a background character for most of the running time), but they do go to great lengths to illustrate their lives and the different ways they have been broken. There’s an excruciating (in a good way) sequence where Ingram has a mini-meltdown at the nightclub he currently works at. Then there’s a subplot with one of Slater’s neighbors (Gloria Grahame) that underlines how little Lorie’s support and love means to Slater.

The screenwriters weave Slater’s racism into the storyline beautifully, introducing it simply by having him choose to ignore a friendly elevator operator who is black. It then grows and festers like the disease it is, reaching disgusting new heights with each subsequent meeting between Slater and Ingram. The climax of the film involves a chase and confrontation between the men that involves more fuel tank explosions than a Marvel movie. It seems a little over-the-top, but is more than worth it thanks to the epilogue, which finds the police carrying the two charred bodies away, now fully indistinguishable from one another.

Belafonte is, of course, one of the best singers of the past century, but I’ve never seen him act before. And he’s pretty damn good, rising to the challenge of the complex role in every scene, so much so that I wish he had been in more film noir, because his persona here is a great fit for the genre. That said, what is up with the artwork of him on the film poster (seen above), which makes his handsome face look straight-up like Frankenstein’s monster? It’s heinous!

Speaking of monsters, at this point in his career, Ryan had played human monsters of all sorts in the genre, sometimes subtly and sometimes way over the top. Here he comes across like a human raw nerve, often dancing with chewing the scenery but never quite getting there. I’m sure part of this was his collaboration with Wise, who shepherded Ryan’s career-best performance in “The Set-Up.”

Winters is essentially a non-entity in a thinly written role, and Grahame is woefully miscast in a minor role that goes against every one of her strengths as a performer. Watching them struggle and fail with the film is a damn shame, and one of the few problems with the otherwise excellent screenplay.

Wise smartly shot the film in black-and-white, meshing the semi-documentary feel of ‘50s noir with the classic shadows from his earlier work within the genre. He collaborates very well with Cinematographer Joseph C. Brun (“Wind Across the Everglades”), immersing the viewer in showy moments and sequences throughout the running time. John Lewis’ score has aged poorly, but after the opening credits is kept low enough in the mix to not be much of a distraction.

“Odds Against Tomorrow” doesn’t quite earn its place as an essential noir film, but it comes damn close. Odds are you’ll have a great time watching it, and Belafonte’s performance along makes it worthwhile viewing.

Score: ****

The Lady Gambles

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Roy Huggins

Story: Lewis Meltzer and Oscar Saul

Director: Michael Gordon

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Stephen McNally, Robert Preston

Cinematography: Russell Metty

Music: Frank Skinner

Studio: Universal

Release: May 20, 1949

One suspects that Queen of Noir Barbara Stanwyck thought that “The Lady Gambles” was a sure thing when she joined the production. The film came out just a few years after Ray Milland won an Oscar and Susan Hayward was nominated for an Oscar for playing alcoholics in noir classics “The Lost Weekend” and “Smash Up: The Story of a Woman,” respectively. This film is very much in that same vein, and Stanwyck was coming off of an Oscar nomination for “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Dare I say, she was hoping… maybe even expecting… to net another nomination out of this?

But here’s the problem.

“The Lady Gambles” stinks.

It’s a movie about an addiction to gambling that fundamentally does not understand addiction or gambling… which seems like it should be a pre-requisite.

Queen Stanwyck plays Joan, a happily married reporter who accompanies her husband David (Robert Preston) on his business trip to Las Vegas. She’s caught taking some photographs on the casino floor by owner/oily motherfucker Horace Corrigan (Stephen McNally), who has the kind of name where you just have to write down both the first and last. He serves as the devil on Joan’s shoulders as she becomes addicted to gambling – things escalate about as you would expect, culminating in her being beaten bloody in a disgusting alley after she uses weighted dice.

That scene, which is used as the opening to the film before we flash back, is by far the best the movie has to offer. Seeing Joan brutalized in the dark alley is incredibly impactful, and hints that the film is a lot ballsier than it actually is. But immediately after, we cut to David, who is now estranged from Joan, launching into her story – and the flashbacks – with a rando doctor at the hospital while they wait for Joan to regain consciousness.

The movie is shot on location in Las Vegas and the filmmakers had ample access to several casinos, but you’d never guess that because of how they portray gambling itself. Writer Roy Huggins (“Pushover”) and director Michael Gordon (“The Web”) seemingly have no interest in showing why Joan became addicted in the first place. There’s no allure. Hell, most of the time we’re barely even told how the games are played. The tables don’t get any sort of visual distinction or tricks when shown… it has all the visual interest of a “Dragnet” episode, honestly. Joan is fine one minute, and the next she is taking out loans and begging people for fifty dollars. That’s not an exaggeration.

Which leads me to the other fundamental problem of the film – it also doesn’t care about Joan. She’s introduced as a feisty, fun, independent woman with her own career and onus. But the screenplay has no interest in Joan’s identity as a reporter or how that matters to her person. After about seven minutes of screen time, she is only defined one of two ways – by her gambling and by her marriage. That’s it. Sure, Huggins gives her speeches and has her character do “stuff,” but none of it gives us insight into her as a human being. And if we don’t understand what she’s losing by taking up gambling, the tragedy doesn’t land.

Worse still is the ham-fisted ten-cent psycho-analyst bullshit reasoning they give us for Joan’s inner reasons to be attracted to gambling, most of which involve her co-dependent relationship with her terrible sister Ruth (Edith Barrett). It’s so heavy-handed it’s almost humorous.

This is the type of performance where the critics would label Stanwyck as “brave.” But that doesn’t mean she’s good. Any actress can portray someone beaten bloody in an alley – but good on Stanwyck for not having any vanity about the dark stuff. That said, nothing in her work here engages the viewer or makes them think they’re seeing anything other than Stanwyck prepping for her Oscar speech in her mind. It’s probably the weakest performance I’ve ever seen from her.

Then again, no one here really seems to give much of a fuck about the movie. Preston and McNally are both wooden, and neither shares an ounce of chemistry with Stanwyck. Barrett is so over-the-top that she seems to be in an entirely different film than the rest of the ensemble.

Huggins’ screenplay offers nary a single memorable line of dialogue, nor any real insight into addiction aside from surface level platitudes that make you roll your eyes. Gordon is, all things considered, a very decent director when he seems inspired by the material… but he’s not inspired at all here. His cinematographer is Russell Metty, who created some of the most memorable noir imagery of all time in films like “The Stranger” and “Whistle Stop.” Here he has some fun making the exteriors in Vegas look like a gaudy delight, but is otherwise content with medium shots and workmanlike set-ups.

The film ends with Joan attempting to kill herself by climbing out her hospital window and throwing herself off the ledge. She is saved by David, who thinks (along with the film itself) that, now that she’s gotten that silliness out of her system, she’s going to be okay. It’s a bullshit ending, made even more cringe inducing when, three minutes after she attempted to kill herself at that window, David drags her back over there to force her to watch the sunrise with him. While he enjoys the view, she remembers her trauma from only a few moments prior… all while composer Frank Skinner’s score goes to all lengths to make us feel like this is a redemptive moment. Pardon me while I go vomit.

Score: *

Victim

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Janet Green and John McCormick

Director: Basil Dearden

Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price

Cinematography: Otto Heller

Music: Philip Green

Studio: Rank Film Distributors

Release: August 31, 1961

Oftentimes movies that are remembered as “important” or “groundbreaking” at the time of their releases don’t hold up at all today. Message films – “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crash” come to mind immediately, but also noir films like “Crossfire” and “No Way Out” – have aged terribly. “Victim” was made in 1961 and was considered groundbreaking (there’s that word again!) at the time for its portrayal of gay men, including the lead of the film itself.

I was worried about what I was going to see when the film faded in, but I’m ecstatic to report that it holds up brilliantly today, telling an interesting story incredibly well. In fact, I’d go so far as to write that “Victim” understands loneliness better than just about any other movie I have ever seen. It’s not a perfect movie, but its problems have nothing to do with its gay content, something I genuinely cannot believe I’m writing.

Dirk Bogarde plays a married barrister named Melville, who is also a closeted gay man. A young man named Boy (Peter McEnery) once had a friendship with him and fell in love with him… and soon commits suicide in a prison cell after a desperate day and night of him searching for someone to help him. Melville was one of many who turned him down, and now shares the guilt of his death. The police begin to investigate, and find that the murder is tied to someone(s) who is blackmailing members of the LGBTQ community all over London, since being gay was still illegal at the time.

Despite Melville being the central character, the shape of the story is very much like that of a police procedural noir film… something along the lines of “He Walked By Night” or “The Lineup.” Those type of films can easily bore me, but here screenwriters Janet Green (“Midnight Lace”) and John McCormick have such a sure hand in crafting an engaging ensemble of characters that it’s easy to go along with it. You remember the human beings we encounter much more than the story itself.

I’ll never forget the lonely Bookseller (Hilton Edwards) who loved Boy and wanted to make a life with him. When Boy asks, the Bookseller rebuffs him in anger since Boy had ended things romantically. Later, the Bookseller confronts Melville – tells him he is the reason Boy left him, and the life the two were robbed of. The words, the actions… they cut straight into my soul. Knowing that, because of the laws of the time, none of these three men could have anything close to happiness. It broke them all in very specific ways.

And then there is Melville himself, who obviously loves his wife Laura (Sylvia Syms)… but not in a sexual way. Laura thought the gay thing was a phase or something, and is rightly gutted when the truth about Melville keeps playing out. The dynamic between the two is especially fascinating to unpack in any given scene – you understand her fury and betrayal, but also fundamentally understand that Melville simply cannot be who he isn’t, no matter how hard he tries. Bogarde and Syms are incredible in their scenes together, especially the quiet final one in their living room, where they re-commit themselves to one another, and in doing so also commit to some level of unhappiness for the rest of their lives.

You feel sadness within every member of the ensemble. Even the police officers investigating – one is homophobic, while the other, more sensible detective (John Barrie) is let down by his friend’s biases. When he explains certain things about discrimination to his partner, there’s a weariness in his voice. “I know you are better than this,” he says in every way but verbally.

You’ve probably noticed that I’m writing a lot more about the characters than I am about the storyline or plot itself, and there’s a reason for that. I will say this about the first act – the one that follows Boy and his stolen money around London and introducing us to the ensemble by having them all turn down helping him – is quite brilliant in the way it sets up the story and cast. It makes us sympathetic to Boy before he kills himself while also putting every necessary piece on the chessboard. That said, after his death, the movie leans into a more routine investigation. Which, I suppose, was the smart thing for the filmmakers to do considering the taboo subject matter they were handling.

But I still can’t help but wish that the twists and turns matched the exquisite character work – when the blackmailer appears and begins threatening, the scenes have no sense of tension because we’ve seen variations on them hundreds of times before. The final half hour in particular is a bit much to take, story-wise.

And yet any time the filmmakers just allow their characters to be… to exist… to voice their feelings, terrified as they are to articulate them… then the film soars. Bogarde in particular provides the best work of his entire career here, all bottled up with rage one moment and broken at seeing how his wife is hurting the next. It’s one of the defining performances in all of noir, simple as that.

And what a perfect title, no? Because all of our heroes here are victims in one way or another. The most explicit is that they are victims of blackmail, but they are also victims of a society intent on punishing them for simply being themselves. Even Laura is a victim of misunderstanding the man she loves. What a broken, fucked up world we lived for so long within… and many LGBTQ people still live within. I didn’t come out until my mid-twenties, and it was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever done. Here’s hoping in another 50 years, people like me will be able to see “Victim” and not wince at the familiarity of the pain… only drop their jaw that it happened at all.

Score: ****

He Ran All the Way

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Hugo Butler & Dalton Trumbo

Based on the novel by Sam Ross

Director: John Berry

Cast: John Garfield, Shelley Winters, Wallace Ford, Selena Royle

Cinematography: James Wong Howe

Music: Franz Waxman

Studio: United Artists

Release: June 19, 1951

John Garfield was ideally built for noir. Make no mistake, he made good movies in several genres, but he belonged in the shadows, gun in hand. He’s handsome but doesn’t look like a typical movie star, just like Bogart and Mitchum. He knew how to sweat and attempt to hide his nerves. He starred in several all-time classics of the genre, including one of the first that I ever covered: “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” “He Ran All the Way” would be Garfield’s last film – he was in the process of being blacklisted during production and would die soon after.

Talk about going out with a bang.

Garfield plays small-time thief Nick, who is currently living with his mother in a low, low, low rent apartment. When a robbery he pulls with his friend Al (Norman Lloyd) goes ass up, Nick takes the money and runs all the way (hey, that’s the title) across town to a local swimming hole, where he rents some trunks and dives into the water… rightly thinking the police would never assume he’s not the guy it if he’s busy practicing his backstroke. Still paranoid, he meets Peg (Shelley Winters) in the water and offers to give her swimming lessons so they appear to be together in case anyone is looking his way. He’s alternately nice and super nasty to her, and they walk home together. Peg lives with her family and is vaguely pressured to let Nick into the apartment, where he misreads the innocence of the situation and ends up taking the entire group hostage until he can figure out a way to get out of town. Oh, and he also thinks he loves Peg (quick, I know) and plans on getting her to run away with him.

Though the cast is roundly excellent, this is Garfield’s movie through and through, and he gives a humdinger of a performance – one of the best in a career of great work. It helps immensely that the writing rises to the occasion concerning the Nick character. It is always clear that Nick is a villain who will probably not be breathing when the movie ends, and yet screenwriters Hugo Butler (“Autumn Leaves”) and Dalton Trumbo (“Gun Crazy”), who were both uncredited when the movie was released because they were blacklisted as well, manage to find a myriad of ways to paint him as a human being and not just a heavy.

A lot of this happens right off the bat when we see him improvise the whole pool escape after the robbery. It’s a smart move, and so we respect his ingenuity even though we don’t necessarily like him. Also look at the many ways Nick interacts with the family, almost trying to pretend like they are his even though he is literally forcing them at gunpoint to spend time with him. At one point, Peg’s mother (Selena Royle) is sewing and the needle goes through her finger, and Nick tries desperately to help her through the pain and care for the wound, even as she cries for him to leave him alone.

Then there’s the best scene of the movie, where Nick has had the young son of the family purchase an expensive turkey dinner for the family. Peg’s mother and father (Wallace Ford) refuse to eat it, instead insisting on having the cheap leftover stew they have instead. The entire situation escalates to the point where Nick begins threatening the dad’s life over-eating the turkey, with the two men playing a game of mental chess to figure out who will get their way. It’s incredible storytelling… and I never thought a Butterball could possibly cause this much intense drama.

If the film stumbles at all from a narrative standpoint, it’s in the relationship between Nick and Peg. First off, even considering the extreme circumstances of their meeting… I don’t buy that Nick would fall so head over heels for her. It feels like a reach, to say the least. But then the filmmakers take things a step further by trying to make the audience curious about Peg’s feelings for Nick – it was at this point that I actively began to roll my eyes. Winters plays the character as well as she can, considering the circumstances, but the movie would have been fine without this wrinkle.

Though uncredited at the time of release (again, because of blacklisting), the director is John Berry. I’m not all that familiar with his work beyond the mediocre noir “Tension,” but his work here is in a different league than that. It certainly helps that his cinematographer is all-timer James Wong Howe (“Body and Soul”), who makes the apartment the characters spend most of the movie inside into a nightmare factory. It’s sublime work, but then again, I expect nothing less from Howe.

Ultimately, though, everything comes back to Garfield. This is his movie. A few months back, I covered Humphrey Bogart’s last film, “The Harder They Fall,” which left the actor morally triumphant and reunited emotionally with the character’s wife. It was a sweet ending to his career. That is not the case here. The last we’ll ever see of Garfield on film is him dying in the gutter. Somehow, it’s fitting that it is the ending of a career defined by the shadows of noir. The man has earned his reputation as an icon of noir, and the genre is better for his presence.

Score: ****