So Evil My Love

So Evil My Love 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Ronald Millar & Leonard Spigelgass

Based on the novel “For Her to See” by Marjorie Bowen

Director: Lewis Allen

Cast: Ann Todd, Ray Milland, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Cinematography: Mutz Greenbaum

Music: William Alwyn, Additional Music by Victor Young

Company: Paramount Pictures

Release: March 3, 1948

Percent Noir: 60%

In this genre, there are almost infinite variations of the gullible guy being preyed upon by a femme fatale, and “So Evil My Love” (it kills me that there isn’t a comma in there) reverses the genders, in the process making everything feel a little fresher than you would expect.

Ann Todd plays Olivia Harwood, a grieving widow in the 1890s who has played it safe her entire life… doing as she is supposed to because she’s told it’s what is right. We first meet her travelling home to England from the West Indies, rightfully angry and bitter over her loss but still willing to help a malaria patient on the ship. That patient is Mark (Ray Milland), an art thief and sometimes murderer who is very wanted by authorities in several countries. He inserts himself into Olivia’s life, makes her fall for him and then systematically begins to tear her soul apart with his schemes.

So Evil My Love 3Olivia becomes a companion for the batty Susan (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Susan’s awful husband Henry (Raymond Huntley) doesn’t like Olivia… and also has a heart condition. As soon as you hear the words “heart” and “condition” together in any film, you might as well start a timer because that character is going to be dead in a reel or three, guaranteed. That is the case here as well, with Henry suffering a heart attack after Olivia tries to blackmail him and Henry decides to blackmail her right back. Ever resilient, Olivia poisons his medicine and then manipulates Susan into feeding him that medicine, keeping her hands clean even as she loses the last of her innocence.

Milland is exceptional as the likeable monster, convincing the viewer in one conversation that he really might be falling for Olivia and then whispering those same nothings into the ear of his side piece… while offering her one of Olivia’s necklaces for good measure. He was built for this type of role, and really seems to be relishing the opportunity to unleash his bad side. Let’s face it – a story like this is predictable from minute one – so it’s nice to know the actor is having a lot of fun along the way.

So Evil My Love 2His work is so good that it more than makes up for Todd’s slight miscasting. She pulls off the brittle nature of Olivia quite well and shares ample chemistry with Milland… but stumbles in the moments she’s supposed to bond with Susan or wage war with Henry. It’s so rare to have a female character lead a noir (Milland is first billed, but this is Olivia’s story through and through) that I wish Todd had knocked it out of the park… and it’s a shame she doesn’t quite pull it off. Still, she does excellent work in the climactic carriage scene between Olivia and Mark, so there is that.

That final scene, where Olivia stabs Mark to death, owes a bit of a depth to a similar sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Sabotage” where a wife who has just lost her little brother chooses to stab her husband to death after finding out he was behind the killing. The director here is the excellent Lewis Allen (“Desert Fury,” “Suddenly!”), who leans quite a bit into Hitchcock’s style throughout. Note the moment Mark asks to rest his head against Olivia’s shoulder in order to avoid being noticed by police. Or the way he uses shadows to show Olivia poisoning the medication. It’s quite a departure from his usual style, but quite welcome here because the story calls for it.

The screenplay, credited to Ronald Miller and Leonard Spigelgass (“The Accused”), is leisurely paced… which is sometimes an asset and sometimes a detriment. The extra space really helps the duo flesh out Olivia’s character – it makes us understand who she was before the movie fades in and goes to great lengths to have us understand why she is making each decision she makes. But at the same time, they exploit Mark’s badness way too early. It’s clear he’s a bad guy from minute five and then doesn’t do much to convince us he’s anything but. It’s almost entirely Milland’s inherent likeability at the center of why Mark is watchable, because the screenplay does him no favors.

Then there’s the actual murder, which doesn’t take place until an hour and twenty minutes in… far too long. And after it happens, the pace significantly increases as the writers race for the finish line, when the movie could have lived in the tension and paranoia of them being caught much longer.

Still, the above problems don’t come close to sinking “So Evil My Love.” It works better than one expects, and its period setting and gender flipping give the film a freshness that is hard to come by in this well-worn genre. Little known but ripe for rediscovery: it’s worth seeking out and spending the extra few bucks on the rewritable DVD.

Score: ****

Vertigo

Vertigo 1The Film Noir Odyssey/The AFI Top 100 Odyssey

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 9

Writer: Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor

Based on the novel “The Living and the Dead” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

Cinematography: Robert Burks

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Company: Paramount Pictures

Release: May 9, 1958

Awards: The film was nominated for Best Sound but lost to “South Pacific” and Best Art Direction, but lost to “Gigi.”

Percent Noir: 60%

If “Rear Window” (my favorite Hitchcock film) tells us the most about Alfred Hitchcock as a director and “Notorious” (the best Hitchcock film) tells us the most about Hitchcock as a craftsman, then “Vertigo” tells us the most about Hitchcock as a man. If you have any familiarity with his body of work or his personal life, you’ll feel much insight into his personal obsessions and emotions after finishing the movie. Whereas so many of his other films are so polished, with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed, “Vertigo” is unafraid to be messy…to leave questions unanswered and emotional journeys unfinished. In an odd way, it’s the ultimate Hitchcock film but also his most atypical.

The story opens with a riveting chase sequence over the roofs of San Francisco. Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) almost tumbles over the edge of a building and, because he is so crippled with vertigo, accidentally allows his partner to fall to his death. This is the first time we see the much-imitated vertigo effect that has been used countless of times since whenever someone’s world goes wonky in a film or on television. It still works.

Vertigo 2We fade to the future, and Scottie is shown about as emasculated as possible. His next scene is with his best friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), and he’s wearing a corset (yes, you read that right) and faints after stepping up on a chair. There’s also some implication that he’s impotent, but that’s the only subtle thing in the scene. The rest of the long-winded scene is bad-exposition central. “Here, let me tell you what happened with me retiring from the police force, who I am, what vertigo is and why we aren’t married” isn’t explicitly stated by Scottie, but it might as well be dialogue.

The next scene isn’t much better, with Scottie’s old college friend Elster (Tom Helmore) explaining how he wants Scottie to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), because she disappears for hours at a time, both physically and mentally. Lots and lots of talking, but then Scottie begins his investigation and things pick up immediately. There are undertones that Madeline is being possessed by the ghost of an ancestor who committed suicide when she was young, and this “how realistically should we take this situation?” permeates the first hour of the film. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeline, making fewer and fewer phone calls to Elster and they seem to fall for each other…until she “kills herself.”

Up until this point, “Vertigo” could be like any other Hitchcock movie, but then the really interesting stuff starts to happen. Scottie has a nervous break and, after recovering enough to be let out of an asylum, spies a woman named Judy (Novak again), and the obsession begins again. Judy seems almost identical to Madeline, and we quickly find out that’s because she is the same person. Instead of saving the twist for the final reel, screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor reveal that Judy was impersonating Madeline for Scottie so that Elster could get away with murdering his wife. It’s such a surprising place to make the reveal, but in doing so it gives the final act of the film added power. Judy really did fall in love with Scottie, you see, so things get complicated fast.

Vertigo 3Because of this, we sympathize with Judy more than Scottie in the final act. Scottie becomes an animal, only interested in Judy because he wants to make her into Madeline, and Judy allows this to happen because she loves him so much. We sympathize somewhat with Scottie, knowing that the truth must be revealed and that it will break him once more, but watching him almost use every mental manipulation and abuse to get Judy to become Madeline just feels…wrong. There’s a scene in a dress shop that is particularly cringe inducing…in a good way.

You can’t watch these scenes without thinking of Hitchcock’s blondes. Grace Kelly was his ultimate blonde, and in a way every other actress who came after (Novak, Barbara Harris, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Vera Miles, Doris Day…phew, I’m sure I forgot someone) was groomed specifically to be some version of Kelly. Scottie’s devastated lines to Judy in the final scene seem especially apt:

“Did he train you!? Did he rehearse you!? Did he tell you what to do and what to say!?”

If that line works on a macro level concerning the Master director’s obsessions, it is also perhaps the most emotionally raw and unhinged we see any hero in one of his films (I write “perhaps” because of Ingrid Bergman’s drunken tirade at the opening of “Notorious”). Scottie screams these lines, but he might as well be screaming them at himself—he has, in essence, become the same monster he demeans. As dark as the ending is (Judy commits suicide after mistaking a nun for a ghost) and as close as the writers allow Scottie to get to the edge, they still give us the smallest glimmer of hope in the final seconds. After Judy falls, Scottie follows her out on the ledge of the belltower—not to kill himself but to look out over the edge at his fallen love. His vertigo is cured.

“Vertigo” is one of those movies that has great ideas and emotional depth, but is imperfect. As excellent as Stewart is here diving into his obsession, he’s really just not that good of a match with Novak in the love scenes. The lazy writing at the beginning grates, but the atypical, powerful third act more than makes up for it.

Speaking of obsession, when I was in grade school I became obsessed with Hitchcock and his films. I would go to the library on weekends and rent ten movies, then watch them in bulk over the course of the week. At some point after I had gotten through all the library’s movies multiple times, I came across an old VHS copy of Hitchcock’s AFI Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony. When I watched the ceremony, I was swept away by the idea of the American Film Institute…and at one point Hitchcock turned to a selected group of Fellows from the Conservatory to impart knowledge on them. One of the clearest memories I have from childhood is running into the kitchen and telling her that one day soon I would be studying film at AFI. Fifteen years later, I was.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Desert Fury

Desert Fury 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Robert Rossen

Based on the novel “Desert Heat” by Ramona Stewart

Director: Lewis Allen

Cast: Lizabeth Scott, John Hodiak, Burt Lancaster, Mary Astor, Wendell Corey

Cinematography: Edward Cronjager & Charles Lang

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Company: Paramount Pictures

Release: August 15, 1947

Percent Noir: 50%

It’s not often that I would describe a movie as hysterical, but that’s the exact way to describe “Desert Fury.” I’ve never seen a film noir like this before. Actually, strike that, I’ve never seen a film from this era like this before… it’s one of a kind.

Before we get into the storylines and characters, I want to broach the subject of LGBTQ representation in the film. So often in movies of this era, and noir in particular, there are characters that are supposed to be LGBTQ, but often this is done subtly enough that it does not impact the storytelling. If you are watching the film and get it, you get it. If not, you don’t notice and move on. Even the most obvious examples, like “Gilda” or “Laura,” work if you ignore the gay material. Not so with “Desert Fury.” This film only works if you understand that certain characters are in a LGBTQ relationship, and though the filmmakers try to blur certain things (probably thanks to the Hays Code), this is the first film I’ve seen that comes thisclose to explicitly stating the obvious. Which, all things considered, is pretty fucking cool.

Desert Fury 2The film is centered on a love pentagon. First up we’ve got Eddie (John Hodiak), a bisexual small-time crook currently in a relationship with more crooked crook Johnny (Wendell Corey) but finding himself more attracted to Paula (Lizabeth Scott). Paula resembles Eddie’s dead wife (ick!), Eddie very clearly had something to do with that woman’s death (double ick!!)… and Eddie was also banging Paula’s mother Fritzi (Mary Astor) for years prior to the film (triple ick!!!). Paula and Fritzi have their own weird incest-y thing going on between them, with casino-owner Fritzi determined to have her daughter not follow in her footsteps. Also in play is police officer and nice guy Tom (Burt Lancaster), who used to date Paula but she lost interest.

This is because Tom is impotent. The movie never says this outright, but one of his character’s first scenes is him riding a horse only to be thrown. Paula watches, turned on, until someone tells her that, due to an accident, Tom can never ride horses well again. It’s no flashing neon sign with the word “impotent,” but it might as well be.

Part of the fun of watching “Desert Fury” comes by just how far the filmmakers go to underline what is really happening in any given scene. At one point, Paula asks Eddie how he met Johnny. Eddie’s response? “It was in the automat off Times Square. About two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. I was broke. He had a couple of dollars, and we got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs. I went home with him that night, and we were together from then on.” In the finale, Paula asks her mother for a kiss, and Fritzi gives her one. On the lips. That lingers a second too long for it to be innocent.

It’s a testament to how enjoyable all this is that I still like the film despite its two leads being terribly miscast. Scott’s character is 19 going on 45 thanks to some bad hair and make-up choices (to be fair, she was 25 at the time), and she never gets across that innocence the character needs in order for her corruption to resonate. Hodiak is also incredibly out of his depth. I’ve only seen him before in “Lifeboat,” which he almost sunk (I couldn’t help myself), and here he has zero chemistry with Scott or Corey. Which is, you know, kind of an essential. Frankly, he’s just not good here.

Desert Fury 3The dead weight is thankfully lifted by the rest of the ensemble. Astor in particular seems to understand that there aren’t many roles like Fritzi and knocks every one of her scenes out of the park, creating an overbearing mother for the ages. Corey gets across his character’s danger and possessiveness in spades, and nails his big speech in the third act. I’m surprised Lancaster got the good guy role instead of Hodiak’s part, but he acquits himself quite well here and shares ample chemistry with Scott, turning what could have been a nothing role into something quite memorable.

Another interesting thing about “Desert Fury” is that it is a color noir – a rarity for the time period – and that this choice is entirely justified. Cinematographers Edward Cronjager (“The Capture”) and Charles Lang (“The Big Heat,” “Sudden Fear”) work hard to create a feeling of isolation even in the sumptuous desert photography. The world feels like a technicolor triumph of location and mood, underlined by the excellent costumes by Edith Head. Lang is a noir superstar, as is director Lewis Allen, who made “Suddenly!” and “Illegal,” among many others. This feels different from Allen’s other genre films – more heightened, more visceral – he’s a long way from his subtle, refined work in the haunted house masterpiece “The Uninvited,” for example.

But that change works wonders for the film. The climax, which sees a three car chase through the desert towards an infamous bridge we’ve been waiting the entire movie to revisit, sees voiceover flashbacks of important dialogue we’ve already heard as the characters sweat and stare intensely just off camera. It feels more like Douglas Sirk than noir, though the fact that Allen could manage the tight-rope act between these two styles merits high praise.

“Desert Fury” deserves a rich cult following with midnight showings. I’m not surprised it hasn’t garnered it yet – the movie was finally (finally!) released on DVD and Blu-Ray here in the US last year after being out of distribution for decades. I suspect this had something to do with the print needing restoration and it being more difficult because the film is in color, but who knows why. The point is this – the film is here, it’s queer and deserves a wider audience. Watch it with a dry martini in your hand and several friends who enjoy camp and Burt Lancaster’s dreamy eyes.

Score: ****

The Unfaithful

The Unfaithful 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: David Goodis & James Gunn

Based on the play “The Letter” by W. Somerset Maugham

Director: Vincent Sherman

Cast: Ann Sheridan, Lew Ayres, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden

Cinematography: Ernest Haller

Music: Max Steiner

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: July 5, 1947

Percent Noir: 40%

“The Letter” is an outstanding early noir starring Bette Davis as a femme fatale character I called in my article “one of the best characters in film noir, male or female, and every moment Davis is onscreen you cannot look away from her.” This is an opinion I still hold after watching probably 200 more films noir – her character’s mannered sociopathy as the world burns around her is a wonder to behold.

So why have I spent the first paragraph of my article on “The Unfaithful” talking about a movie called “The Letter”? Because the former is a remake of the latter, and a fascinating one indeed. It is incredibly rare that a redo can so fundamentally misunderstand the magic of the film it is mimicking, but that is what we have here. It’s a trainwreck, but one you must keep staring at, wondering how the filmmakers could possibly get things so wrong.

The Unfaithful 2This version takes the central premise of “The Letter” but moves the setting to modern (well, ‘40s modern) Los Angeles. After visiting a divorce party (because that is apparently a thing) for her frienemy Paula (Eve Arden) where she chats with divorce lawyer Larry (Lew Ayres), the married Chris Hunter (Ann Sheridan) is surprised when she gets home by a mysterious, shadowy man. Chris murders him, saying he was a stranger and it was self-defense… and the next morning her husband Bob (Zachary Scott) runs to her aid, stepping up and being the best husband ever. Everything seems to check out… until Larry is called to a cheap junk shop where the owner shows him a bust of Chris’ head – sculpted by the man who she killed.

Now I would not say that “The Letter” has a bad premise, because it’s quite a good one. But I would say that it’s the least interesting part of that film, and yet it’s the thing that this remake sticks closest to.  But even here, a viewer going in blind will be easily able to guess the twist… since it’s right there in the title “The Unfaithful”!

Now, I will admit that altering the love letters from the original to a much more visual bust in the remake is the one idea the film has that eclipses the first. But all the other changes? Blerg.

The Unfaithful 3The most egregious is the watering down of the main character. Part of the fun of the original was always questioning just how much of an evil human being she was, but here it becomes clear quickly that Chris is essentially a good person who made a stupid mistake, another fatal stupid mistake and them multiple other stupid mistakes by lying to the cops about her first two stupid mistakes. And then she cries a lot about all the mistakes until a happy ending (!?!) is shoehorned on with Larry the Lawyer all but guilt-tripping her husband into taking her back. In other words, Chris is basically a wet blanket from scene to scene, just sort of sitting there and trying to be both mysterious and yet sympathetic. The filmmakers try unsuccessfully to have it both ways for the first hour or so before finally teetering into sympathy.

Sheridan is fine in the role, I suppose. She does well in her big “why I cheated” speech, but other than that it is honestly difficult to get a read on her performance because of the shortcomings of the character. Ayres and Scott are likewise adrift throughout, sometimes engaged but often stiff as a board.

But then we have Arden, who all but walks away with the movie. She’s brittle, icy and oh-so-witty in every one of her scenes, to the point where I desperately wished that the filmmakers had somehow re-engineered the movie around her character. I would not be surprised at all if some writer was brought in last minute to punch up the dialogue in only her scenes, because it’s on a different level than everything around it. “I know you don’t approve of me,” she tells Chris at one point, “but I don’t blame you since I don’t approve of myself either.” I wanted to stand up and cheer. My biggest compliment is that she somehow… miraculously, really… manages to sell the scene where she convinces Chris’ husband to forgive her for all her sins. The ideas she is spouting are complete horseshit, and yet I somehow found myself nodding along.

Most of the rest of the screenplay is bland, annoying or both. The cop in charge of the investigation, even though he has no reason to suspect Chris yet, decides to put her in a room with the widow of the man she murdered… just to see what happens. There are a dozen other odd moments like that – anyone who has seen an episode of “Law & Order” would know that this is crazy behavior for police officers. And sure, “Law & Order” wouldn’t premier for several decades, but still.

The director here is Vincent Sherman (“Nora Prentiss,” “The Damned Don’t Cry”) who brings an undistinguished eye to the proceedings. There is one interesting visual idea in the entire film, which is the initial attack on Chris, where she is shoved into her home and we see her and her attacker’s shadows in the window. But even there, Sherman cuts away too quickly before we can get an idea of what we are seeing – the moment could have been transcendent, but instead it’s a missed opportunity.

There are odd editing moments throughout with travelling shots, continuity errors and beats that linger several seconds longer than they should… I wondered for awhile if these were used to pad out the running time, but then I saw that the film is 109 minutes (it feels longer), so there goes that theory. Maybe it was just sloppiness? I wouldn’t be surprised.

“The Unfaithful” is not a good movie. There is no reason you should see this film instead of “The Letter,” so don’t. Simple as that.

Score: *

The Red House

The Red House 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer/Director: Delmer Daves

Based on the novel by George Agnew Chamberlain

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Lon McCallister, Judith Anderson, Allene Roberts

Cinematography: Bert Glennon

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Release: March 16, 1947

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 80%

“The Red House” is a weird ass film. I’m not quite sure it’s film noir (despite obviously ticking all the boxes, as evidenced by its Noir percentage), but I’m also not sure how you could otherwise define it. It’s sort of a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys rolled into “Love in the Afternoon” but also a psychological horror movie with a gothic-style mystery at its center? Who knows? All that said, what matters is that it’s good… and it is. Very good.

We open in small town USA, the kind of small town where an unseen narrator feels the need to tell you how small and town-like it is. Our main character is Nath (Lon McCallister), a normal teenager with a hot girlfriend named Tibby (Julie London) who is trying to make ends meet for his widowed mother. He takes a job on a local farm owned by one-legged Pete (Edward G. Robinson) and his sister Ellen (Mrs. Danvers). Also on the farm is Nath’s friend Meg (Allene Roberts), a sweet girl biding her time until the end of act two when she can become the love interest proper. Meg was adopted by Pete when she was young – and the mystery of her mother and how it connects with a mysterious red house in the surrounding (supposedly haunted) woods becomes a puzzle Nath is obsessed with solving.

The Red House 2Writer/Director Delmer Daves (“Dark Passage”) does his best work when simply painting around the edges of the world. He takes care to make Nath three-dimensional, and gives time to sweet conversations between him and his mother that most other films would have quickly cut during the first edit. You always have the feeling that this is a real town filled with real humans who have distinctive wants and desires.

Further, Daves is willing to take his time building the atmosphere of the mystery. So much is made of the woods and how they may be haunted, and for long stretches of the film his camera just follows Nath or the other characters as they wander through the trees, streams and I don’t know what all. Miklos Rozsa wrote the score and is the MVP of the entire production – those passages have no dialogue and so the music takes the front seat – turned up all the way in the mix. Rozsa uses the opportunity to provide one of the best in his career of excellent and diverse music, everything from “Ben Hur” to films noir like *deep breath* “Double Indemnity,” “A Double Life,” “Desert Fury,” “The Lost Weekend,” “The Killers” and many, many others.

There is one subplot that feels off, and that’s the stuff with Tibby. When she’s introduced, she’s quite horny… sweetly telling Nath that she wants him to bring his trunks to their swimming date so she can watch him change… and I was pleasantly surprised that the filmmakers were just allowing a character to be interested in sex without demonizing her. This feeling stopped approximately two minutes later when it became clear she was going to cheat with town heartthrob/villain-in-training Teller (Rory Calhoun). Then again, it’s not like Nath is a good boyfriend – he actively ignores Tibby, talks about how he doesn’t want to go on the dates he’s set with her and then brings a third wheel to those dates. It doesn’t excuse the cheating or, later, the running off with a murderer, but it does certainly give it some context.

The Red House 3And now we get to Robinson, who gives a legitimately great performance as the haunted old man who is trying to be happy but never quite out of reach of his demons. He makes Pete genuinely sympathetic throughout, a hard thing to do since in one of his first scenes he belligerently screams at Nath for about three minutes to stay out of the woods. The more he spirals as the film progresses, the worse I felt for the poor guy, even after the revelation that he is a murderer. It’s a testament to the power of his performance that, after his death by suicide, the idyllic happy ending with the swelling music and the romantic kiss between our heroes has a bit of a dark shadow covering it… his death feels much more tragic than it would have with a lesser actor.

The cast is pretty solid all around. McCallister holds his own and has ample chemistry with Roberts, who has the stunning face of a silent movie star. Anderson is so good that, even though you know she’ll be dead before the final reel, her final scene still feels like a punch to the gut.

“The Red House” is one of those films noir that has fallen into the public domain and has been plopped on nearly every one of those cheap-o old movie DVD boxed sets that offers up fifty movies for like ten bucks. In some ways, this is a good thing – though the quality obviously wavers from print to print, I feel like it probably would have fallen through the cracks of time had it remained in copyright. Happily, it’s now receiving a surprising second life as people just dipping their toes into noir will have easy access to it.

Score: ****

The Night Holds Terror

The Night Holds Terror 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer/Director: Andrew L. Stone

Cast: Jack Kelly, Hildy Parks, Vince Edwards, John Cassavetes, David Cross

Cinematography: Fred Jackman Jr.

Music: Lucien Cailliet

Release: July 13, 1955

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 50%

“The Night Holds Terror” is one of those just-okay movies that comes so close to being good that it’s doubly frustrating. There are three sequences in it that are damn excellent, so I’m happy I watched it, but still. Worse, the problems are almost so easy to fix that a wily editor could have made this a decent watch.

First problem: that title. “The Night Holds Terror” isn’t a terrible name, sure, but the movie takes place 80% during the day and the stuff at night isn’t terrifying or suspenseful at all… leading me to believe that the writer/producer/director Andrew L. Stone is nothing but a liar and a fraud. I mean… does his middle name even start with an L?!?!

The bland Jack Kelly plays Gene, a married father of two who makes the mistake of picking up a hitchhiker on the freeway (Vince Edwards) who immediately takes him hostage. The hitchhiker is named Victor and has two pals played by John Cassavetes and David Cross who make the situation worse, and before you know it the trio has taken Gene’s entire family hostage in his home.

The Night Holds Terror 2Okay, let’s talk about those three sequences I loved. In the first, the goons leave the house with Gene and tell his wife Doris (Hildy Parks) that she isn’t to call the police. For insurance, one of them leaves a tiny strip of paper under the phone receiver, and then five minutes later they return to see if she has done it or not. We watch as she paces, nervous, getting closer and closer to that phone, knowing the stakes are life and death.

The second is a beautifully rendered, intricate sequence showing the process of the police attempting to track the phone call so they can rescue Gene, which was one hell of a lot more complex in 1955 than I ever expected.

The third and final happens after Doris tells the police that her husband has been kidnapped. We watch the process of the complaint going out across the wire… but what the viewer knows but Doris does not is that the goons have a police radio in their car. If it’s put on the radio, Gene will be killed. The suspense here is palpable.

Any of those sequences would feel at home in a Hitchcock film. Okay, that’s overstating things a bit – they would feel at home in one of the good episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” directed by the master. They make “The Night Holds Terror” worthwhile simply for their presence… but then there’s the rest of it.

The Night Holds Terror 3The most annoying thing to me is such an easy fix, and that is the total overuse of multiple voiceovers. We need none of them. There’s this “He Walked By Night”-style guy telling us every little thing we need to know about what we are seeing on camera. He introduces the movie with a super corny build-up to his dramatic reading of the title, and then he cuts through so much of the suspense in sequences (including the ones above) by helpfully explaining everything we are seeing when we can understand what is going on… because we are seeing it.

But then there’s a second voiceover from Gene that also over-explains what we are seeing – as if Stone (“Julie”) really doesn’t trust the audience to understand what he’s going for. Gene’s voiceover completely destroys an otherwise quite good scene at a car dealership where Gene is attempting to find an escape route but is waylaid when a family blocks it.

All this is fixable with a simple re-edit of the film, plus rejiggering the finale – which also has the police attempting to track a phone call – so it’s not mimicking things we’ve already seen. Do that and “The Night Holds Terror” would be a solid 3… maybe 3.5 out of five.

There are other problems that you can’t fix through editing, though. When you have Edwards (so excellent in “Murder by Contract”), Cassavetes (!!!) and Cross as your trio of villains… all doing genuinely great work both individually and as a group, you desperately need heroes who can hold their own against them. Bluntly, Kelly and Parks are not those people. Boring in almost every scene and with no chemistry between them, they make you want to root for the bad guys. Even important scenes, like where Gene is being taken away from his family and will probably be murdered, are botched by Kelly when he barely hugs his children when he is ostensibly seeing them for the last time.

I mentioned “He Walked By Night” earlier, and Stone is obviously trying to mimic that John Alton-esque feel everywhere here. His cinematographer, Fred Jackman Jr., does conjure up some decent shots throughout but fails to turn the house where the family is being held into a real character unto itself. Throw in some shadows, some different framing and play with the focus and it could have been something truly memorable.

And that’s essentially the mantra for the entirety of “The Night Holds Terror”… if just a few things had been done differently, it could have been something truly memorable. But instead it’s mostly forgotten, and I can’t blame noir afficionados for leaving it in the dust – I’ll probably all but forget it existed next week.

Score: **1/2

The Chase

The Chase 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Philip Yordan

Based on the novel “The Black Path of Fear” by Cornell Woolrich

Director: Arthur Ripley

Cast: Robert Cummings, Steve Cochran, Michele Morgan

Cinematography: Frank F. Planer

Music: Michel Michelet

Studio: United Artists

Release: November 17, 1946

Percent Noir: 70%

This movie is batshit.

I do not mean that as a criticism. “The Chase” is unlike any film noir I have ever seen, and that’s a good thing. After watching so many films in the genre, it’s exciting when you come upon something which is genuinely surprising… you don’t know where it is going, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis.

Robert Cummings stars as the Chuck, a former member of the military who is now penniless, and when we meet him he is drooling over some amazing-looking pancakes and bacon. He finds a wallet filled with cash, but the goodness within him drives him to return it to the owner – millionaire Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). In case you couldn’t tell by the name Eddie Roman, he’s our villain – married to the beautiful Lorna (Michele Morgan), a bird in a gilded cage who Chuck immediately falls in love with. They plan an escape to Cuba, but murder, prolonged dream sequences, amnesia, backseat drivers and much more get in the way.

The Chase 2The title “The Chase” is the most routine aspect of the film, with just about every scene and sequence filled with a surprise, whether visual or in the storytelling. When Chuck knocks on Eddie’s door, note the way director Arthur Ripley frames the rotating head in the door – it’s a delight! The sequence where Eddie takes over the driving responsibilities from Chuck with his Bond villain-esque hidden gas pedal (?!) is as bananas as it sounds. When Lorna gets knifed in Cuba I was genuinely surprised, and the follow-up in-depth discourse about whether the murder weapon’s monkey is covering its eyes or ears had me laughing. Because the actors play these moments completely seriously, the madness lands better than it should. A movie like “His Kind of Woman” winks at the audience while doing crazy things – this does not.

Because of that, you feel genuinely unmoored for most of the running time. It helps a lot that noir superstar Peter Lorre is there to make you feel like you are in a serious film. That’s right, we are in paragraph four and I’m just now mentioning that Lorre is in it… that’s how cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs this movie is.

It’s quite difficult, moreso than most other movies on this Odyssey, to accurately reflect the tone and atmosphere of the film. It breaks filmic rules that would drive me crazy in almost any other film – literally a third of the film is a dream sequence that breaks POV several times. The main character gets amnesia at one of the most important parts of the story simply to push back the climax. Other movies have done things like this and I have rightfully tore into them for these lazy storytelling techniques. And yet here… it works. And the weird thing is that I’m not quite sure why it works, but it does. How’s that for some in-depth movie commentary?

The Chase 3Cummings is a delight as the lead, nailing the tone perfectly and never breaking character, no matter how crazy things get at any given moment. It’s a shame he’s not better remembered today… and has that last name. Lorre is appropriately Lorre-like, turning a thankless sidekick role into something memorable simply by making his presence known. Cochran is oily and quite menacing, and not just because of his token villain mustache… though that certainly helps.

The weak link is unfortunately Morgan, who shares no chemistry whatsoever with Cummings (or Cochran, for that matter). I can think of a dozen or so actresses who could have nailed this type of role, but she proves to be the least interesting aspect of the production. Perhaps it’s not all her fault – the character is more of a macguffin than a character for most of the running time. But even here, screenwriter Philip Yordan (“Dillinger,” “Detective Story”) does try to bring depth to her with a few speeches and several of Lorna’s interactions with Chuck, so that’s not quite it.

Yordan writes a great screenplay, by the way. Well balanced, and he even uses the content of the prolonged dream sequence to pay off in reality, which is much appreciated. Ripley (“Voice in the Wind”) does a gangbusters job with the direction, and collaborates well with cinematographer Frank F. Planer (“Criss Cross”). It’s a shame these three guys are not better remembered today for their work.

“The Chase” is one of those outstanding films noir that most haven’t heard about, but is definitely worth seeking out. It’s one of the biggest surprises I’ve had so far on the Odyssey, right up there with “The Locket” and “Jeopardy.”

Score: ****1/2

The Big Combo

The Big Combo 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Philip Yordan

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Cast: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Jean Wallace

Cinematography: John Alton

Music: David Raksin

Release: February 13, 1955

Company: Allied Artists Pictures

Percent Noir: 80%

“The Big Combo” is one of those very good films noir that doesn’t quite live up to its reputation as a true classic of the genre. It has a veritable rogue’s gallery of talent behind the scenes, all turning in stellar work, so you kind of want it to be the masterpiece everyone says it is… but though there are a few moments of real transcendence, it never quite gets there.

Cornel Wilde plays a police detective named Diamond (because of course he is) who is obsessed with bringing down a powerful gangster named Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), who would later be recast as Quentin Tarantino in “Reservoir Dogs.” The key to bringing down Brown lies in his “girlfriend” Susan (Jean Wallace), who is essentially help captive by the villain as her mind deteriorates and she gets more and more desperate. Also in play is Diamond’s sorta kinda girlfriend Rita (Helene Stanton), who exists ostensibly to sit around and wait to be brutally murdered so that the stakes can be higher for Act Three.

The Big Combo 2Look, we’ve all seen dozens of variations on this story before, most notably Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat,” which was released two years prior and obviously heavily influenced “The Big Combo’s” storyline and title. Wilde is an acceptable but ultimately forgettable lead, and all of these “you’re too personally involved” speeches from his bosses aren’t different or engaging enough to stand out from the wallpaper of nearly identical scenes we’ve seen so many times before, including last week on “New York Detective Law Show” on CBS, a show I just made up but am pretty sure must actually exist and probably stars Tim Daly.

But where “The Big Combo” really does set itself apart from the rest is its treatment of the Susan character – it very honestly shows the character as a genuine abuse victim who is in the throes of her own personal version of hell. Wallace’s work is pretty astonishing considering how most other actresses would have handled the role – it lingers with you so long after Wilde’s work fades from memory. Even better, screenwriter Philip Yordan (“The Chase”) gives her an active role in the climax, with her snatching up a spotlight to both allow the police to find Brown and blind him so that he can’t shoot the good guys. After watching heroines lose their voice in noir third acts over and over and over and over again, this was such a pleasant surprise that I almost stood up and cheered.

Yordan also excels when it comes to characterizing the villains. Brown is simply a terrible man – he doesn’t twirl his mustache, nor is he eeeeeeevil and taking glee in his acts of horror. He’s just an unexceptional man who happens to be a horrible person put in a position of power. His sidekick/the man who wants to kill him and take over, McClure (Brian Donlevy) is nearly deaf and needs a uses a hearing aid, and Yordan exploits this twice in ways quite brilliant. The first is when Brown uses the hearing aid as a method of torturing Diamond – placing the aid in his ear and playing deafening music into it. And then, when McClure is gunned down later, Brown removes the hearing aid just before the murder… all sound of the act of violence disappear from the soundtrack, even though we can still see it happening.

The Big Combo 3If you know film noir at all, you will not be surprised at all to learn that the movie looks like a million bucks. Director Joseph H. Lewis is dependably excellent at creating beautiful noir imagery, as evidenced by his work on gems like “Gun Crazy” and “My Name is Julia Ross.” And Cinematographer John Alton (“T-Men,” “He Walked By Night”) is so well-respected and idolized that he actually has entire DVD sets devoted to his work – which never happens for cinematographers. They don’t go crazy right off the bat here, instead slowly building to those indelible moments and scenes, like the aforementioned murder of McClure and spotlight climax. The final shot, which seems to reimagine the finale of “Casablanca,” of all things, has rightly become one of the most famous of all noir, though the stills of it frankly rob the moment of some of its power – that fog looks so much better in motion.

With all these masters behind the camera, and the excellent ensemble in front of the camera, one can’t help but wish that things were just a little different with the main spine of the film. I wanted a few surprises that actually felt like surprises, or a moment or two where the viewer feels like anything could happen. Perhaps Diamond could have been murdered in that hit instead of his girlfriend? Or maybe McClure’s coup could have paid off and he took over? But “The Big Combo” is content with keeping its train on the rails for the entire 90-ish minute runtime, instead looking for smaller great moments to set it apart from the other films in the genre.

Which, I suppose, isn’t the worst thing. There is something to be said for a movie that strives to simply be the best version of a simple story possible. I didn’t feel challenged in any way during “The Big Combo,” but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t entertained the entire time. It’s a damn good film and an excellent noir – not essential but certainly a fun touchstone for any noir afficionado.

Score: ****

Lightning Strikes Twice

Lightning Strikes Twice 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Lenore J. Coffee

Based on the novel “A Man Without Friends” by Margaret Echard

Director: King Vidor

Cast: Ruth Roman, Richard Todd, Mercedes McCambridge

Cinematographer: Sidney Hickox

Music: Max Steiner

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: March 10, 1951

Percent Noir: 50%

I’ve probably written articles on 150-200 films noir at this point, so I need you to understand that I have a lot of context when I write the following statement: Shelley Carnes is the stupidest heroine I have ever seen in this genre of film. There isn’t a choice she makes during the 91 minute runtime of “Lightning Strikes Twice” which feels smart or, hell, even neutral. All you can do it shake your head watching her, then put your head in your hands, then finally shout helpful advice at her… knowing she wouldn’t take it even if she could hear you.

Ruth Roman plays Shelley, an actress who had a health scare while with a touring Shakespeare company. She’s been told to get some rest and relaxation and is trying to get to a desert ranch to do so when she is waylaid by a storm. Her borrowed car stuck in mud, she trudges to the nearest home to meet Richard (Richard Todd), who was on trial recently for murdering his wife and who basically screams at her and breaks logs menacingly in front of her for the entire night… but since he is handsome and gives her fried chicken she falls deeply and madly in love with him. Despite the fact that everyone, including Richard, tells her not to investigate the death of his wife, Shelley does so anyway. Is it Liza (Mercedes McCambridge), who owns the ranch Shelley is supposed to stay at and was the sole jury vote to clear Richard of the murder? (Also, isn’t it illegal to be on the jury if you know the person accused? Never mind.) Or Liza’s brother String (Darryl Hickman), who screams a lot about the murder and is named String, which is super suspicious in and of itself? Or maybe the mustachioed Harvey (Zachary Scott), who drives Shelley around at insane speeds while she begs him to stop for fun and has the aforementioned evil-man mustache?

Lightning Strikes Twice 2Behind the scenes were a bunch of really good filmmakers who should have known better than to make this movie. The screenwriter is the awesomely named Lenore J. Coffee, who penned several films noir including the excellent “Sudden Fear,” which netted star Joan Crawford an Oscar nomination. The director is King Vidor, who directed the all-time great “The Crowd” as well as “Duel in the Sun,” among many other well-remembered films. The cinematographer was Sidney Hickox, who lensed “Dark Passage” and “The Big Sleep.” How did no one stop and say “Uh, our main character is pretty terrible. Maybe we should rethink this.”

To be fair, Shelley’s macro arc appears to be lifted from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” where the main character falling in love with a man who may or may not have killed his wife. Falling in love with a probable murderer isn’t the smartest thing to do, but it is something you can forgive… especially in a genre like film noir. But Shelley’s stupidity goes far beyond this – there isn’t a scene that goes by without her making a dumb choice. There are small moments, like where she decides to pursue Richard by climbing across a perilous cliff’s edge despite having vertigo. Then there are the huge things. In the final act, she marries Richard and then, after a supporting character says something that throws some suspicion on him (but nothing more damning than anything she’s heard the entire movie about him), Shelley immediately forgets that she thinks he’s innocent, locks him in their bedroom and drives off to the home of the real murderer for safe haven. It’s taking all my inner strength not to throw multiple exclamation points at the ends of these sentences to underline her stupidity and my fury that the filmmakers allowed this to be their main character.

Lightning Strikes Twice 3Adding to my frustration is the fact that this is a damn good-looking movie. Vidor and Hickox collaborate beautifully, creating the barren world of the desert into everything foreboding. The first act storm that Shelley gets stuck in is beautifully realized, to the point where I would have been happy if the entire movie had taken place in that empty house as the rains raged outside.

The cast is filled with solid supporting players – McCambridge and Hickman are both outstanding in roles that could have easily been write-offs. After watching Roman suffer through the heinous “Five Steps to Danger,” it’s frustrating to see her again struggling with a terrible character. There are flashes where you see the good actress buried underneath the horrible Shelley, but they are honestly few and far between. If this had been my first movie seeing Roman, I wouldn’t walk away with the best impression. Todd and Scott excel at being blocks of wood, with Todd in particular not getting across any of the sexuality that should come with the danger… he just seems like a boringly handsome sociopath.

“Lightning Strikes Twice” is the worst kind of bad movie. It insults your intelligence, is boring but there are flickers of goodness that serve as just enough to remind you that this could have been a decent film. I walked away frustrated and annoyed, and I have a feeling you will too. Avoid if you can.

Score: *

Five Steps to Danger

Five Steps to Danger 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Henry S. Kesler & Turnley Walker

Based on the novel “The Steel Mirror” by Donald Hamilton

Director: Henry S. Kesler

Cast: Ruth Roman, Sterling Hayden, Werner Klemperer

Cinematography: Kenneth Peach

Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter

Studio: United Artists

Release: January 30, 1957

Percent Noir: 30%

The first ten minutes of “Five Steps to Danger” are quite intriguing – a woman named Ann (Ruth Roman) is speeding through the desert as fast as her car will take her. She meets John (Sterling Hayden), who is on his way to a fishing vacation but whose car has just broken beyond repair. She offers him an idea – she drives all day and he drives all night… the sooner they get to Santa Fe the better. But on one condition… he asks no questions about why she wants to go.

This is a solid set-up that could have resulted in a great noir. Roman and Hayden are solid players, and the desert setting and murky motives offer up enough mystery to keep the viewer engaged. But the movie almost immediately goes off the rails, offering up one insane (and inane) scenario after the next, none of which are interesting and none of which pay off in a meaningful way.

Five Steps to Danger 2Turns out Ann has a compact mirror with a secret military code on it that she is trying to get to a certain professor in Santa Fe, but is being chased (but also encouraged?) by a shady psychologist who is treating her after a nervous breakdown because her brother died in the war. She’s heading to Santa Fe because of a newspaper clipping saying the professor is at a specific university, but the clipping may be fake because twist!, and the duo are soon on the run from the cops but also being protected by the CIA? And there are assassins who decide not to run the duo off a mountainous road but pretend they need a tire changed and hope Ann and John stop to help them? And even though there are hundreds of miles of desert roads, the four or five main players keep managing to find one another within minutes? I’m putting question marks at the end of a lot of sentences because I have seen the film twice and still don’t understand it very well myself… possibly because it just doesn’t make any fucking sense.

Look, if a movie is fun you don’t have to give a shit about logic. Look at films like “The Chase” or “Ministry of Fear,” the latter of which is similar in structure to “Five Steps to Danger.” But “Ministry of Fear” had a bunch of excellent set-pieces, fun visuals and always felt like it was building to something great. That isn’t the case here. This is the type of movie where Ann and John become handcuffed to one another for almost an entire day (in a direct lift from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur”), manage to get their hands on a hacksaw at a local motel… and then don’t use it because they find the key to the handcuffs randomly in Ann’s purse. What an amazing payoff, I write with complete sarcasm!

FIVE STEPS TO DANGER, Sterling Hayden, Ruth Roman, 1957What’s worse, no one seems like they are having fun. When you have a storyline this cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs, the only way to make it work is to just lean into the weirdness and go as ape-shit as the content. But for a movie where the stakes are so high, everyone seems incredibly calm and soft spoken about it. People calmly walk into rooms, calmly talk about the situation, calmly uncover sleeper agents, calmly have nervous breakdowns… at some point you just wish someone would put an exclamation point at the end of a line of dialogue, but that never happens.

As a result, the movie feels one hell of a lot longer than its 81-minute runtime – had I not looked, I would have guessed that it was over two hours. I place all the blame here on the director/co-writer Henry S. Kesler. His sense of pacing is non-existent, as are his sense of fun and danger. As a writer, he has no ear for genuine-sounding dialogue, and his collaboration with cinematographer Kenneth Peach offers up not a single lingering image or visual idea.

Roman is, by all accounts, a decent actress who does what she can with the big pile of nothing handed to her by the production. Hayden, on the other hand, seems to know the quality of the production around him and doesn’t engage much as a result. The duo have no chemistry with one another either.

While on this Film Noir Odyssey, there is always something a little exciting about putting in movies like “Five Steps to Danger” – films that have fallen through the cracks of time and are remembered by no one except the people producing those DVDs-on-demand for the big studios. Sometimes you are rewarded with a genuine surprise… a great film that merits rediscovery and serious appraisal by the modern film community. But then sometimes you get a movie like this, where you wonder why you even started doing this in the first place.

Score: ½*