Dial 1119

Dial 1119 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: John Monks Jr.

Story: Hugh King and Don McGuire

Director: Gerald Mayer

Cast: Marshall Thompson, Virginia Field, Andrea King

Cinematography: Paul Vogel

Music: Andre Previn

Studio: MGM

Release: November 3, 1950

“Dial 1119” is a wild spark of a movie, one that doesn’t waste a second of its 75-minute running time. Oftentimes when I’m watching these films, I start to think about the budgets and notice the cheapness of the production. And, make no mistake, this entire film was probably made on pre-existing sets on the MGM backlot, and every actor must have been a contract player… but not the kind of contract player who made it to a poster. In five years, the story would have been tweaked and could easily turn into an early episode of “Thriller,” “Climax” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” But you don’t think about any of that until long after the final fade to black… while you are watching the movie, all you are thinking about is the tension.

The story is relatively simple: a homicidal patient named Gunther (Marshall Thompson) escapes from a mental institution, gets his hands on a gun and starts hunting down his old therapist, Dr. Faron (Sam Levene). He gets waylaid into a local bar and soon has murdered the bartender and is keeping the other five patrons hostage. He demands to the police that they deliver to him Dr. Faron in 25 minutes or else he’ll kill his hostages.

Dial 1119 2Those hostages are a nice hodgepodge of the various types we often see in this type of film. My favorite is the drunk, underpaid, overworked reporter Harrison (James Bell). But there’s also the lush named Freddy (Virginia Field) who enjoys flirting with whatever human with a pulse is closest to her. There’s the valet named Skip (Keefe Brasselle) who is at work even though his wife is in labor. Finally, you’ve got the young 20-something Helen (Andrea King) trying to get out from under the thumb of her domineering mother by going on a date with a much older, obviously married creepster named Earl (Leon Ames). Each one is drawn with more care and, for the most part, more sympathy than one would expect in the screenplay by John Monks Jr. (“The House on 92nd Street”).

Monks’ work becomes more impressive the more desperate the characters become. There’s a real danger in the second half – so much is made of getting Dr. Faron to the bar that we expect a big meal out of their reunion… but then Gunther kills him after only two or three minutes. Still, Faron gets out one humdinger of a twist… Gunther has been talking about how his time as a soldier in the war caused PTSD that spiraled into his actions now. But turns out Gunther made that entire story up. He was never a soldier. He’s just a disturbed young man looking for an opportunity to get his rage out on others. Later, Gunther lines up all the remaining hostages at the bar and they all take a good, long look in the mirror… questioning themselves and the life choices they’ve made that brought them to this moment. And when Gunther is finally shot in the finale, his reaction line is absolutely perfect… so perfect I would never dream of spoiling it here.

As good as the screenplay may be, movies like this hinge on having a capable, dangerous, compelling villain. That’s the trifecta. And Thompson ticks all those boxes. He wisely underplays his wickedness, instead going blank. What is he thinking? Is he actually listening to you or has already decided to murder you? It’s a great performance, especially in the later sections where Gunther is cornered and ready to strike out like a snake.

Dial 1119 3Thompson, like all the cast, is filled with very good actors you don’t immediately recognize and then, five minutes later, go “Oh, that guy!” Field is excellent in a vanity-free performance and sparks with just about every actor in the ensemble. King seems a little old for her character (she’s 28 going on 40) but does solid work nonetheless.

This is director Gerald Mayer’s first feature… he was the son of Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM at the time, but luckily the kid has a lot of raw talent. The amount that he does with his few resources is great, and he works well with his actors. Even better, he has a great handle on atmosphere and tension as the film progresses. Mayer only did a few other features, none of which I’ve heard of – though one has the awesome name “Holiday for Sinners” – before moving into television. It’s not hard to see why, given his ability to do a lot with a little, but I still wish he had done several more noir films.

“Dial 1119” is easily overlooked since none of the cast sparked later in their career, the director never did much else and the writer isn’t well-remembered either. And yet there it waits, ready to surprise you with its excellence. It deserves your time and the energy it takes to track it down – this is one of my favorite discoveries so far on the Odyssey.

Score: ****1/2

The Secret Fury

The Secret Fury 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Lionel Houser

Story: Jack Leonard and James O’Hanlon

Director: Mel Ferrer

Cast: Claudette Colbert, Robert Ryan, Jane Cowl

Cinematography: Leo Tover

Music: Roy Webb

Studio: RKO

Release: May 27, 1950

“The Secret Fury” is pretty damn fun until it goes off the rails in the third act. Its premise and beginning are so tantalizing and off-the-wall weird that you can’t help but have high expectations moving forward… one the filmmakers are incapable of meeting. It’s a shame because it hinders what is otherwise a decent little noir.

Though he’s billed second, Robert Ryan portrays our hero David, a well-to-do architect we meet on his wedding day to popular pianist Ellen Ewing (Claudette Colbert). David should know that nothing good ever happens to a person with the last name “Ewing,” but since “Dallas” was still twenty years away, I suppose I forgive him. At the altar, a man breaks into the ceremony and says that Ellen can’t be married because she’s already married to a man named Lucien Randal (Dave Barbour). It all seems like a silly prank, until David and Ellen realize that there is a marriage license in her name… and the justice of the peace remembers her… and so does a maid from the hotel next door. And then, when the pair finally do manage to track down Lucien, Ellen is in a room alone with him for all of two seconds before a gun is fired and Lucien is found dead. Well, that escalated fast. Before you know it, Ellen is in an insane asylum and David, who has never given up on her, is following vague leads to try to prove his bride-to-be isn’t insane.

The Secret Fury 2If that seems like a lot, it is. But I’ll give a lot of credit to screenwriter Lionel Houser (“Sabotage,” but not the Hitchcock one) for managing to keep the tension building at a rapid pace for the first 50 minutes are so, with breathless reveal stacked on top of breathless reveal. Houser also has a great handle on tone – the first reel or so could be mistaken for the end of a romantic comedy before things get progressively bleaker with each subsequence sequence.

The film loses itself somewhat by the time we get to Ellen’s trial, where neither of the lawyers seem interested in bringing up the super obvious question: if Ellen wanted to kill her “husband,” why would she have brought David along? And once Ellen is committed, her doctor (Elisabeth Risdon) is heartless, insisting David just pretend Ellen is dead and moving on… even though it later takes all of 40 seconds of screentime for Ellen to recover from her nervous breakdown. That said, even in this section there is some fun to be had, with David’s detective work coming off as very engaging… except for the part where he accidentally leaves his car door unlocked so a murderer can open it, jump from a speeding vehicle and fall off a cliff to his death. Whoops.

And then the final reveal happens. It’s not that the ending doesn’t make logical sense, because I was actually surprised how many i’s it dotted and t’s are crossed. But the killer is a secondary character I haven’t even mentioned yet because he’s so unimportant, and his motivations are something we as the audience could have never deduced on our own. It feels like a bad imitation of one of Agatha Christie’s late-era Poirot novels. After all, the set-up of the film is so batshit that I just wish the filmmakers had taken as big of a swing with the third act. The finale also indulges in one of my biggest pet peeves: Ellen has a gun on the murderer and he insists she shoot him or he’ll kill her. Ellen could easily shoot him in the legs. Or the arms. Or, if this were post 1960, the crotch. But instead she stands there, unable to pull the trigger. Ugh. That said, at least Houser uses Ellen in the climax, which is more than can be said of many noir films from the era.

The Secret Fury 3Ryan and Colbert make a sweet, believable couple – so much so that, when they are separated for much of the second half, the audience misses their chemistry. That said, Colbert stumbles a bit by overplaying early flashbacks and going full ham during her breakdown scenes. Most of David’s moves are old hat for Ryan, who performs all the paces well and makes the most of a late scene where he desperately tries to break through his wife’s mental haze. Most of the other performances are adequate without being outstanding, but look for a great supporting turn from Ethel Mertz herself, Vivian Vance, as a doomed maid who knows more than she admits.

The director is Mel Ferrer, who seems to have done every possible job in Hollywood at one point or another, all the way from dialogue coach to directing to acting and I-don’t-know-what-all. I would describe his work here as, fittingly enough, workmanlike. There are a few outstanding visual moments, like a shot that lingers on Colbert’s eyes as it fades into the past, but for the most part, the look and feel here are forgettable. Ferrer doesn’t take full advantage of the excellent cinematographer Leo Tover (“The Woman on the Beach”), which is a shame because the late sequences in a shadowy mansion could have really crackled.

Despite its terrible name (which only makes sense once you know the villain’s motivation), you can do much worse than spending an hour-and-a-half watching “The Secret Fury.” The problem, of course, is that you can do much better too.

Score: **1/2

Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Patricia Collinge

Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Studio: Universal Pictures

Release: January 12, 1943

The premise of evil festering in idyllic small-town America has become an inescapable part of the zeitgeist. There are several great noir films that begin with that idea – “Suddenly!” and “The Red House” immediately come to mind. But the most famous, beloved example is “Shadow of a Doubt.” I’m certain that there were examples of this story before this film’s release, and obviously it has continued to influence media in the years since – everything from “Blue Velvet” to “Desperate Housewives” would not exist without it.

Having so thoroughly permeated the zeitgeist, I was worried that the film would have lost some of its power by being so fully lifted, repeated and ripped off for decades… a similar experience to how I felt watching “He Walked By Night” recently. Luckily, thanks to the film’s specificity in world and character, it still retains almost all its original power. This is grand entertainment through and through.

Charlie (Teresa Wright) is a young woman in Santa Rosa, California and bored with her life. She loves her family and town… but she’s restless. (Un)luckily for her, the family’s beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) decides to come for a visit – he gives them all expensive presents, throws around a ton of cash and in general brings the life and vivacity to the house that Charlie was missing. But as the days pass, Charlie begins suspecting her Uncle is more insidious than he seems… and soon realizes that he is a serial killer of old, rich women. If her family finds out, they’ll be devastated… and if Uncle Charlie realizes what she knows, her life will be in jeopardy.

Shadow of a Doubt 2Like many Hitchcock features, it’s the smaller parts in the ensemble that shine bright. Here the filmmakers focus on several specific types within the Santa Rosa community that we’ve all encountered in our lives. Charlie’s father Joseph (Henry Travers) is always talking with his best friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn) about murder… specifically joking about how Herbie would murder Joseph. It’s a great runner, but points are deducted for Herbie mis-labelling Hercule Poirot as French, not a Belgian. Then there’s the cop who works as a glorified crossing guard, knows everyone’s name and just has time for two sentences of conversation before the light turns red again. My favorite is a waitress played to perfection by Janet Shaw who sounds both bored and exhausted every time she opens her mouth. She goes on to Charlie and her Uncle about how she keeps getting fired from every serving job she has (I wonder why)… and I was laughing at almost every one of her lines.

Hitchcock wisely chose writer Thornton Wilder, who wrote the iconic “Our Town” play, to conjure the story. One of the other credited screenwriters is Sally Benson, who wrote the book “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Both works are Americana at its finest, but also exploit the darker side of their characters in interesting ways. The third leg of the writing stool is Hitchcock’s longtime collaborator – and wife – Alma Reville (“Suspicion”). The trio do their best work when the story is at its messiest. Once Uncle Charlie is aware that Charlie knows the truth about him, he knows exactly how to manipulate her into keeping quiet. He tells Charlie how weak her mother (Patricia Collinge) is, and how the shock of his arrest could literally kill her. He reminds her that he’s a human being as well by talking about memories, going out of his way to treat the family well and charm everyone around him. The contrast between that and the scene where Uncle Charlie finally just unleashes his darkness and worldview on Charlie makes the impact all the more stunning for the viewer.

Shadow of a Doubt 3There’s a subplot about two police officers who pose as a magazine writer and photographer while tracking Uncle Charlie to try and find proof of his wrongdoings. One of the officers, Jack (Macdonald Carey), falls in love with Charlie in a development that feels forced and, honestly, like a placeholder for something more interesting that never developed. Is there a better version of the movie where Charlie slowly discovers her Uncle’s wrongdoings completely on her own? I think so. The police stuff isn’t badly executed, but it feels phoned in from a lesser film.

Wright is quite good at balancing the slow-build terror of her character knowing there is a killer in the house with the fury of wanting to protect her family at all costs. She works very well with Cotten, who smartly underplays his villainy in all but a few showcase moments. In a supporting cast of outstanding character actors, Collinge makes the most impact. You can sense her weakness, even as she smiles and insists on putting on the guise of happiness for those around her.

Hitchcock and cinematographer Joseph A. Valentine (“Rope”) don’t indulge in any of Hitchcock’s trademark visual set-pieces, instead putting all their focus into creating the idyllic brightness of Santa Rosa in Act One and then slowly filling it with shadows as the film progresses. The only big showy moment is the climax, where Uncle Charlie stumbles from a moving train while trying to murder Charlie, and even then, it’s very brief… but certainly impactful.

After Uncle Charlie dies, the final shots of the film show the funeral. The streets are lined… almost like a parade. The priest talks about how he became one of the town’s finest citizens in the brief time he was there. All while Charlie watches the lies… complicit in them because it’s easier for all concerned. And perhaps that’s true for every family in Santa Rosa, and every town in the world – broken people furthering lies because it’s easier to put on the guise of simplicity. Lies to save those around them. And, perhaps, save themselves.

Score: ****1/2

Riffraff

Riff Raff 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Martin Rackin

Director: Ted Tetzlaff

Cast: Pat O’Brien, Anne Jeffreys, Walter Slezak

Cinematography: George E. Diskant

Music: Roy Webb

Release: June 28, 1947

Studio: RKO

The opening sequence of “Riffraff” is amongst the best in film noir. Without a single line of dialogue, it conjures a mood and tension that is nearly unparalleled, first on an air-strip in the middle of a thunderstorm and later in a plane where a murder takes place in the most excruciating way possible one could imagine happening midair. It’s a masterclass in great filmmaking. What about the rest of the movie? It’s pretty damn good, too.

Hasso (Marc Krah) lands in Panama with the briefcase of the man who died on the plane, and quickly hires jaded private eye Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien) to be his bodyguard until he leaves town. Concurrently, Hammer is also hired by an oil executive named Walter (Jerome Cowan) to find Hasso and retrieve a map from him (which was in the briefcase) that shows the locations of several oil fields. Oh, and there’s a dame named Maxine (Anne Jeffreys) with mysterious motives, because of course there is. Pretty soon Hasso is dead and Hammer is desperate to find the map… especially since a bunch of bad guys think he already has it and will do whatever it takes to get it.

Riff Raff 2I suspect your enjoyment of the majority of “Riffraff” (Yes, I know it’s spelled differently on the poster, but this is how it is spelled in the title card) will fully depend on how you react to the following story development. The MacGuffin is the treasure map, and within ten minutes we see Hasso stick the map up on Hammer’s office partition (Hammer does not see this), and it stays there for almost the entirety of the film, simply waiting to be seen. If this seems ingenious to you, then you’ll love the movie. If you think that’s stupid, you’ll hate everything else too. Me? I kinda loved it… MacGuffins never matter anyway, and it’s the filmmaker’s way of putting a spotlight on that.

The rest of the screenplay by Martin Rackin (“Close-Up”) goes through most of the usual beats we see in private eye stories, but is always smarter than you expect it to be. I love Maxine’s introduction – she narrowly misses a bar fight that Hammer starts, but decides to spill some alcohol on herself anyway and blames Hammer… just to start a conversation with him. Rackin also takes some great opportunities to turn expectations on their head, never moreso than in the climactic villain escape. He has the map and commandeers a taxi driven by Hammer’s friend Pop (Percy Killbride) to make his grand escape… and then Pop simply drives him to the police station.

Riff Raff 3The one big stumble in the screenplay is a runner with Hammer’s dog, who is one of those dogs who is always there when necessary and supplies important information to the plot in a way that makes it seem almost human. The most frustrating moment is that the final shots of the movie are given over to the dog, where it peeks through a keyhole at Hammer. Ugh. The dog sidekick never works in noir, and if I expanded the genre to all mystery films, then it has only worked once, in the Thin Man series (which was still going strong at the time). Unfortunately, it was the wrong move to leave the viewer with a gag with the dog… it makes you remember the movie as less good than it actually is.

The film belongs to O’Brien. He brings a lived-in quality to every scene and line, sharing genuine chemistry with almost every other actor in the film. You can tell he’s having a lot of fun with the role and the witty dialogue, but is still taking things seriously enough that when the big dramatic moments come, they resonate too. I love his character’s runner about his choice not to wear a necktie.

Jeffreys likewise seems to be enjoying herself – sure, there is a murderer on the loose and she may be a bad guy, but that doesn’t mean a girl can’t have any fun. She and O’Brien don’t seem like they would naturally go together as a couple, but spark quickly and it’s easy to root for them. The entire ensemble is aces, actually, even Kilbride, and I write that as someone who is usually allergic to characters like Pop.

Director Ted Tetzlaff also made the film noir all-timer “The Window,” and this film underlines to me once more than I need to seek out more of his work… even his non-noir movies. The guy is obscenely talented. So is his cinematographer, George E. Diskant (“The Narrow Margin”), and their collaboration on making Hammer’s office into a maze of shadows as the film progresses is brilliant. Plus, that aforementioned opening sequence, which is gold.

Most films noir don’t lend themselves to sequels, but I have to admit that I wouldn’t have minded seeing the further adventures of Hammer and Maxine in Panama together. O’Brien and Jeffreys are simply that good. As for the rest of the film, I highly recommend it as a hidden treasure within noir. Those first five minutes alone make the purchase worth it.

Score: ****

Loophole

Loophole 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Warren Douglas

Story: Dwight V. Babcock and George Bricker

Director: Harold D. Schuster

Cast: Barry Sullivan, Dorothy Malone, Charles McGraw

Cinematographer: William A. Sickner

Music: Paul Dunlap

Release: March 28, 1954

Studio: Allied Artists Pictures

One of the most tried and true formulas in film noir, and thrillers in general, is that of an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime. Now, usually the plot device is used as a way to create suspense – will he be caught before he’s arrested for murder?! And, ultimately, by the end of the film there are no real consequences for what happened, despite the guy having his photo in every newspaper and on every news broadcast for days being called a killer/thief/saboteur. That’s what makes “Loophole” so fascinating to watch… its main thematic thrust is exploring, in horrifying detail, how being accused of something you didn’t do can fuck up every part of your life for years.

Mike (Barry Sullivan) is a bank worker who is framed for the theft of almost $50,000. Though a thorough investigation is made and Mike is found innocent, a detective from the agency that insures the bank named Motherfucker… er… Gus (Charles McGraw) doesn’t believe Mike. Mike is fired from the bank, and he and his wife Ruthie (Dorothy Malone) struggle to get a fresh start. It’s really difficult for them because Gus follows Mike to every new job he gets and tells the owner that he is a thief. All the while, Mike continues to search for the man who actually stole the money (Don Beddoe) and his accomplice (and femme fatale in training) Vera (Mary Beth Hughes).

Loophole 2I have rarely felt angrier for the entire running time of a film. And that is exactly how the filmmakers want me to feel. After Mike got a good job as a gas station, I cheered. When Gus walked in and lied that he was a thief, I literally screamed at my screen “Fuck off.” For a character who is only doing his job, I have rarely hated a someone more than I hate Gus. For a movie with an actual bank thief and a woman who really wants to murder Mike, the real villain is Gus, and the moment his character is knocked unconscious… well, I may have rewound the movie two or three times to experience that moment of bliss over and over.

The film’s soul is the good-hearted Mike and his relationship with the similarly-kind Ruthie. Their dialogue isn’t hard-boiled or showy, and neither one of them are classically good looking… and yet Sullivan and Malone make it easy to root for them in every single scene they inhabit. In other words, they are normal, good people. The way they depend on one another, lean on each other and lift one another up when necessary is a beautiful thing to behold.

Loophole 3Vera (of course her name is Vera) all but takes over “Loophole” in the final act, demanding her money, demanding Mike be murdered and coming up with a not-bad-at-all plan to trap Mike. This is the section of the film that feels most classically noir, but it also feels like an odd tonal shift considering how serious and genuine the rest of the film has been. Hughes is perfectly cast in the role, definitely giving off Gloria Grahame vibes, and she goes a long way to make up for the lack of the Gus character in the third act (he’s relegated to glowering next to a phone repeating that Mike is guilty).

The screenwriter is Warren Douglas (“Cry Vengeance”) and he keeps things as simple as possible throughout, which is a smart move. A person’s life is made out of these small, simple moments, and in exploiting that journey for Mike, he creates a fully realized character who could have come across as a boring two-dimensional good guy.

Sullivan is well-cast in the role, underplaying his character’s agony instead of screaming it to the rooftops. McGraw is fucking amazing as Gus… he doesn’t seem to have an ounce of vanity about being seen as anything else than a monster. Malone and Hughes are both excellent (I wish they had a scene together), and the rest of the ensemble does their job without really popping or making much of an impression.

Director Harold D. Shuster directed a few other films noir, including the oddly titled “Finger Man.” But most of his career was spent bouncing from genre to genre, always turning in good work. He could handle comedy (the hilariously-titled “The Postman Didn’t Ring”), melodrama (“The Tender Years”), Westerns (“Jack Slade”) and even the sweet Disney feature “So Dear to My Heart.” He appears to be one of those very good directors stuck mostly in B-pictures who hasn’t popped with cinephiles since he didn’t work primarily in a single genre, but whose work is worth seeking out for its consistent quality.

“Loophole” is a very good film and comes highly recommended… but I should also mention that it hits close to home for me. When I was in college, my mother was accused of something she didn’t do and had to close her business as a result. It was on the news. I was on the news and made to look like an idiot for trying to defend her. We almost lost all our money thanks to the Google search, which never forgets, which made it near-impossible for her to find another job. All this even though nothing could be proved, police never became involved… but one asshole at Channel 3 was certain she was guilty. I still feel the repercussions sometimes, even all these years later. So I understand intimately the plight of this film’s hero, and I genuinely hope you never have to go through something similar.

Score: ****s

Sudden Fear

Sudden Fear 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith

Based on the novel by Edna Sherry

Director: David Miller

Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame

Cinematography: Charles Lang

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

Release: August 7, 1952

When I recently wrote my article on the masterpiece “Mildred Pierce,” I wrote that no one suffers onscreen like Joan Crawford. And that is on clear display in “Sudden Fear,” a movie that gobsmacked me with the quality of every aspect of its production. Here is a minor classic that is obsessed with watching Crawford suffer beautifully.

She plays an heiress and a popular playwright (because of course she’s both) named Myra. After firing Lester (Jack Palance), the lead actor in one of her plays, he happens upon her on the train back to her home in San Francisco, and he seduces her. They’re wed soon after. Myra thinks the marriage is going great until a woman named Irene steps into her life, as played by Gloria Grahame. If Myra had seen any films noir, she would know Grahame entering in act two is not a good thing for her safety, but I guess she doesn’t get to the movies that often. The now-banging Irene and Lester hatch a plan to murder Myra so he can inherit all her money… but after Myra finds out about it, she begins plotting revenge.

The best sequence in the film happens around the midpoint, and also represents the best acting I have ever seen from Crawford. The set-up: Myra has a dictation machine in her office and accidentally left it on when she went to a party, and it captured Irene and Lester plotting to kill her. Alone later, Myra listens to the recording, which lasts for four or five minutes, and we watch Crawford silently go through every possible emotion an actor can go through, none overacted and all sublime. The power of the sequence is, quite simply, astonishing… and was certainly part of the reason Crawford was nominated for Best Actress for this role.

Sudden Fear 2Myra accidentally shatters the record (because of course she does), and we fully expect her to go to the cops, who don’t believe her and then blah blah. That’s the storyline we’ve seen dozens of times before. But screenwriters Lenore J. Coffee (“Footsteps in the Fog”) and Robert Smith (“Quicksand”) brilliantly bypass that entirely, instead fast-forwarding to our hero plotting to get even with those fuckers.

There are a few stumbling blocks in the storytelling… I’m thinking of the weird cutaways of Myra fantasizing about how Lester may kill her, the aforementioned record breaking and the fact that Myra isn’t screaming her head off in the climactic chase through San Francisco. But, in general, this is an excellent screenplay. Coffee and Smith knock it out of the park concerning their characterization of Myra. They allow obvious exposition and underlining of themes to fall by the wayside, instead trusting the viewer to fill in all the blanks. The large age difference between Myra and Lester is never explicitly stated, but it doesn’t need to be. The need is all in Crawford’s face… as well as her amazement at finally finding love with someone she so easily dismissed.

I still think “Mildred Pierce” is a better film, but Crawford gives a better performance here. I know. I am as shocked as you are that I am writing that. The entire movie is about her, and I doubt any other actress could have pulled off such great work in every single scene. Late in the film, Myra is trapped in a closet and terrified (welcome to my teenage years), and the things she does with a moment we have seen thousands of times before somehow feels fresh.

Sudden Fear 3Palance is great at not overplaying the villainy, which would have been the obvious thing to do. He has a difficult job, developing genuine chemistry with Crawford so that the audience is as hurt as Myra is when his character betrays her, but he pulls it off. Unlike Palance, Grahame does overplay the villainy, which is exactly what we want… and does a fabulous job with it. Because she’s Gloria Motherfucking Grahame.

The director is David Miller (“Twist of Fate”), someone I am not familiar with, but he does stellar work here and I’m excited to explore more of his filmography. Miller treats it almost like a silent film for long sequences, with no dialogue and the camera aimed only on a small detail in a shot or the actor’s face. There are fascinating, expressionistic sequences like where we see Myra’s plan to kill Lester that feel like something from an F.W. Murnau movie. But, mostly, he’s obsessed with Crawford’s performance. As he should be.

Miller’s collaboration with cinematographer Charles Lang (“The Big Heat”) is one for the ages. The location work on San Francisco’s rain-slick streets in the climax are a beauty to behold, and the slow-build claustrophobia in Myra’s home is also great. I especially loved a small moment where Myra is re-reading her plan for the night and Lang plants his light behind the swinging pendulum of a clock in front of Myra, which causes all sorts of crazy-but-amazing lightning.

Without Crawford’s work, “Sudden Fear” would still be a legitimately good film… but she elevates it to essential viewing. There are moments she creates, small things she does with her face and body, which simply aren’t replicated by modern actors today, which is a damn shame.

It’s one of the best performances in all of film noir.

Score: ****1/2

Awards: Crawford was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Shirley Booth in “Come Back, Little Sheba.” Palance was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Anthony Quinn in “Viva Zapata!” (also nominated was Richard Burton in “My Cousin Rachel”). Grahame won Best Supporting Actress… but not for “Sudden Fear” – she won for “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Lang was nominated for Best Black-and-White Cinematography but lost to the film “The Bad and the Beautiful” (also nominated: “My Cousin Rachel”). Finally, Shelia O’Brien was nominated for Best Black-and-White Costume Design, but lost to the film “The Bad and the Beautiful” (also nominated were “Affair in Trinidad” and “My Cousin Rachel”).

Danger Signal

Danger Signal 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Screenplay: C. Graham Baker & Adele Comandini

Based on the novel by Phyllis Bottome

Director: Robert Florey

Cast: Faye Emerson, Zachary Scott, Rosemary DeCamp

Cinematography: James Wong Howe

Music: Adolph Deutsch

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: November 14, 1945

Probably due to my very large recent purchase of films from Warner Archives, I’ve found myself running into Zachary Scott’s performances quite a bit of late. He was charming enough with the little girl who played his daughter in “Shadow on the Wall,” but was only in the film for about ten minutes. He was stiff but perfectly acceptable in supporting roles in the great “Mildred Pierce” and the not-great “The Unfaithful.” But then here he is in “Danger Signal,” and is role is an actor’s dream part. Charming, romantic and also villainous, the right actor could make the part into something indelible. But Scott is so miscast… so terrible here that he not only manages to sink the entire picture himself, but he retroactively is making me wonder if he was ever a good actor and I just didn’t notice how bad he was before. Yeah, it’s that kinda awful performance.

Scott plays Ronnie, a serial killer who seduces a lonely woman, takes her money and then kills her… framing the death as suicide before he moves onto his next mark. That next mark is Hilda (Faye Emerson), who agrees to rent Ronnie a room in her and her mother’s home. Ronnie proposes to her and all seems ideal (except for the whole serial killer part), but then Ronnie hears that Hilda’s younger sister Anne (Mona Freeman) has $25,000. Quicker than you can say “Monsieur Verdoux,” Ronnie drops Hilda and seduces Anne… even after Hilda tells her sister how awful Ronnie was to her. Now righteously furious, Hilda seems ready to go to any lengths to stop Ronnie – even if that means murder.

Danger Signal 2Bruce Bennett has a supporting role as another suitor for Hilda, and is reunited here with Scott after they both romanced Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce.” I tried to find some background information on the production but, unsurprisingly, there is little-to-none… still, I would bet a very small amount of money that this was planned to be another vehicle for Crawford and her two co-stars after the blockbuster success of “Mildred Pierce,” but Crawford dropped out. Despite some wild changes in tone, it has that same melodramatic vibe. That said, the story seems to be a hodgepodge of storytelling ideas Hitchcock had famously created. The murder in Suburbia idea of “Shadow of a Doubt.” The falling in love with a maybe murderer of “Rebecca” and “Suspicion.” There’s even an accented therapist played by Rosemary DeCamp who reminds of the concurrently released “Spellbound.”

The screenwriters, C. Graham Baker (“You Only Live Once”) and Adele Comandini (“Strange Illusion”) both manage to find some interesting character-building moments within specific scenes and sequences. I’m surprised at the time and effort they take to render Hilda into a fully three-dimensional human. But the screenplay is riddled with other problems – the aforementioned tone shifts (there’s an epilogue that feels like it should have been in a “Blondie” movie and not a crime thriller), the failure to create an engaging relationship between the sisters so there is a sense of loss when Anne betrays Hilda, and that ending. Hoo boy, that ending. I’ve seen some crazy deus ex machinas in these films, but nothing approaching the end of “Danger Signal.” After Hilda claims to poison Ronnie (who takes the information much less homicidal-y than I expected), we learn she couldn’t actually go through with it because she’s too good of a person. Now that I genuinely liked… it felt true to the character set up by the rest of the film. Moments later, Ronnie walks outside, randomly trips over a tree root and falls off a cliff to his death in the ocean. Yes, you read that last sentence right. I don’t think I need to say anything more, so let’s move on.

Danger Signal 3Scott is actively horrible, as previously mentioned. He manages to drag down every scene he is in, even when given good dialogue or a fun wrinkle to explore. There’s a scene where he convinces Hilda to write a suicide note which should crackle and shine, but instead it just lies there thanks to Scott’s inability to even say sentences with proper emotion behind them. Emerson, who I am not that familiar with, is quite lovely as Hilda and nails every one of her big scenes… despite having less than zero chemistry with Scott. The supporting cast are all fine with the exception of Dick Erdman, who seems to have walked out straight out of an Andy Hardy flick and is completely unaware he’s in a noir called “Danger Signal.”

Robert Florey (“Lady Gangster”) obviously doesn’t have a good handle on his cast, and also doesn’t make the film distinctive to watch. This is especially surprising considering he’s working with cinematographer James Wong Howe (“Body and Soul”), who is arguably the best cinematographer in film history. Only the opening sequence, where Ronnie abandons his latest conquest, really crackles with tension or mood.

Would “Danger Signal” work with anyone other than Scott as the leading actor? Maybe. But he sinks the movie in a way that few performers I have encountered so far on this Odyssey have before. It never had a chance.

Score: *1/2

He Walked By Night

He Walked by Night 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur

Story: Crane Wilbur

Director: Alfred L. Werker

Cast: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts

Cinematography: John Alton

Score: Leonid Raab

Studio: Eagle-Lion Films

Release: November 24, 1948

About three or four years ago, I went to one of those great film noir festivals in Los Angeles at the Egyptian Theater. After days of discovering and re-discovering classic films, the closing night movie was “He Walked By Night.” In the introduction, much was made of its semi-documentary style, Richard Basehart’s performance, its impact on noir and overall importance in the pantheon of the genre. I walked away underwhelmed, as did my friends. So I’ve kind of been putting off covering this movie for years… until today.

Do I like it more now? Maybe.

I’ve written in various articles about my boredom with the police procedural sub-genre within noir, but ignoring it would be stupid. And “He Walked By Night” is one of the essential pillars of this area, along with “Kansas City Confidential,” “T-Men” (both unseen by me) and “The Lineup” (which is great). It really helped create and define the structure and style of these films, one which has had a domino effect on entertainment that lasts even today. Among the many crazy stories about the creation of this film – seriously, take some time and look them up – it inspired Jack Webb (who has a small role here) to co-create the radio/television series “Dragnet.” That series inspired thousands of other procedurals, like “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Law & Order: Trial By Jury,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” “Chicago PD,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: New York,” “CSI: Cyber,” “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “NCIS: New Orleans.”

I write the above not just to show how impactful this film has been, but to underline that I think that a big part of why this film does not work for me is not actually the fault of the film, if that makes since. The DNA of “He Walked By Night” has been spliced and re-spliced millions of times… so at a certain point the original is going to lose some of its power. Which is a shame, but at this point a fact. Scenes, sequences and styles that were groundbreaking back then seem clunky and overlong today. Which is why I struggled to get through the movie.

He Walked by NIght 2The plot begins when a criminal named Roy (Basehart) shoots a police officer to death on a Los Angeles sidewalk, and then the manhunt to find him begins. That might be the simplest plot description I’ve ever done on this Odyssey, but that about sums it up. There’s a sequence where the police try to catch Roy at an electronic shop where he has been renting out equipment, one involving officers disguised as milkmen, and a big climactic chase in the storm drain tunnels underneath the city.

None of the actors portraying the officers (Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, James Cardwell) make much of an impact and all are interchangeable. Now, there is something to be said about watching smart people do their jobs well – that’s certainly enjoyable and moments where you see the groups close in on the killer sometimes crackle with an excitement missing elsewhere. But then there are awkward, long investigation sequences and awkward-er voiceover telling us what we can plainly see that just grate all the way through.

All the reviews I read of the film at the time of its release were over the moon for Basehart’s performance, which had me saying “huh” to myself. Because, at least to me, he is lacking any sort of charisma or interest in his performance. He doesn’t come across as very dangerous, nor very thoughtful. Mostly he seem like the guy who has been in line at the bank way too long and just wants to make his fucking deposit, thank you very much.

He Walked by Night 3The real star here, and the thing that hasn’t aged, is cinematographer John Alton’s work throughout. Alton is, of course, a legend amongst film noir aficionados, and it’s easy to see why in almost any given scene during the running time. The shadows seem… more than just shadows under his lens. Small, otherwise boring scenes of Roy and his pet standing in his bungalow take on a deep menace thanks to the deep shadows he draws on the wall. This film also has one of the best uses of venetian blind shadows that I think I’ve ever seen.

The director is Alfred L. Werker (“Shock”), who seems to throw all of his focus on creating a mood and atmosphere with Alton. Which, all things considered, is a smart move. Everywhere I look lists Anthony Mann (“Desperate”) as an uncredited co-director… but I can’t find a single original source for the statement. Just article after article listing him but not giving more information. So is it truth or a legend that everyone wants to be true, especially because of Mann’s famous collaborations with Alton? If you have specific information, let me know because I’d love to read it.

The most famous sequence in the film is the aforementioned climactic chase through the maze that is the Los Angeles storm drain tunnels, which is beautifully realized and quite engaging throughout. Honestly, it would be more amazing if I hadn’t watched “The Third Man” earlier this week. To be fair, that film was made several years later… but also to be fair its mood, atmosphere and pacing are all superior to what we see here.

If this is the kind of movie that floats your boat, then you’ll probably really like “He Walked By Night.” But it’s not my thing, has aged badly because its been ripped off so many times, and I can point to superior versions of just about every scene within it. I’ve now watched it twice during my lifetime, and can’t imagine ever finding the need to view it a third.

Score: **1/2

Count the Hours

Count the Hours 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Doane R. Hoag and Karen DeWolf

Story: Doane R. Hoag

Director: Don Siegel

Cast: Macdonald Carey, Teresa Wright, John Craven

Cinematography: John Alton

Music: Louis Forbes

Studio: RKO

Release: April 1, 1953

There are a few things to like in “Count the Hours” and many things I really wanted to like… but the execution is lacking. If you told me the premise of this film and that is was directed by Don Seigel and shot by John Alton, I would buy my front row ticket for opening night. And yet, time and again, it frustrates when it should soar.

The film begins with a brutal break-in and shooting of a husband and wife on a rural farm. The next day, the live-in workers George (John Craven) and Ellen (Theresa Wright) do everything possible wrong when the police arrive and, before you know it, George is arrested for murder. His defense attorney is Doug (Macdonald Carey), who is immediately spurned by the community for daring to defend a man who everyone assumes is the murderer. After a guilty verdict, George is sentenced to death and Doug scrambles to clear his name before he is hung.

This is a good premise. There’s a little bit of “In Cold Blood” mixed with “Witness for the Prosecution” here, both of which are great touchstone films and stories. And yet with every step of the execution, something goes wrong. Add in the myriad (myriad!) of plot holes caused simply because every single person in town is incapable of asking follow-up questions and you’ve got an annoying narrative.

Count the Hours 2In the first place, Ellen is such a dummy that it’s difficult to summon up any sympathy for her. After the bodies are found, she lies repeatedly to the police. She hides her husband’s gun in the sock she is knitting. And then runs to the nearest lake and pitches the gun into it right in front of a police officer. She doesn’t tell the officers interrogating her that she is pregnant. Later when the gun is discovered in the lake, the barrel has rusted so the police can’t tell if it was the murder weapon. I mean, it’s one fucking stupid decision after the other. When a character says that she blames herself for what her husband is going through, my mental response was “Yes. She should. It is entirely her fault he is in this position and if he dies, it is on her.”

Doug fares a little better in the smarts department, though even he stumbles thanks to the sometimes inane screenplay by Doane R. Hoag (something called, I’m not kidding, “Hideous Sun Demons”) and Karen DeWolf (“Johnny Allegro”). At one point Doug walks in on Ellen about to be raped, beats off the guy and then they immediately have a conversation like nothing happened instead of calling the police to report a sexual assault.

The movie also stumbles in its portrayal of Doug’s nemesis, district attorney Jim Gillespie (Edgar Barrier). The screenwriters try to have it both ways – he’s an oily, corrupt D.A. who will do anything necessary to win his case… but he’s also a good man who fully investigated what is going on. At one point after Doug finds the obviously guilty man and Jim tears apart the confession in court, Jim talk to Doug about how much follow-up they did on the guy. He sounds well-spoken and like a good guy. Later when we learn the piece of information that can save George, we realize that if Jim had asked a single (1) follow-up question to the witness then the movie would have been over four reels ago.

There’s also the annoying tidy ending. The killer is caught, and the film wraps everything up before the cars even pull out of the driveway! George is gonna be let free (we don’t see this), Ellen can feel relief (we don’t see this) and the D.A. says everyone in town will love Doug again (we don’t see this). What do we see instead? Doug’s awful ex-fiance Paula (Dolores Moran), who left him when things got rough, roll up in her car and offers to become his ex-ex-fiance. And Doug takes her back… apparently because he has no respect for himself. Fade out. Gag.

Count the Hours 3None of the many character actors filling the screen leave anything close to an impact with their performances… with the exception of Adele Mara, who has an extended cameo as the low-class girlfriend of the killer. Every scene she’s in is hilarious, and I love the way she diffuses a near fight by saying “Come on, let’s go home and I’ll cook you a can o’ beans.”

Siegal (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) creates a great mood for the film, especially concerning his collaboration with film noir all-timer MVP cinematographer John Alton (“He Walked By Night”). That opening break-in and double murder is the high point of the film, with the blacks of the night stunning to behold. Later sequences in the local jail and a bar are brilliant as well.

That said, as pretty as the movie is, this is one film noir you can easily skip without missing anything. There’s a good movie lost somewhere in the muck, but it’s not worth your time or effort to try to find it.

Score: **

The Third Man

The Third Man 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Graham Greene

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles

Cinematography: Robert Krasker

Music: Anton Karas

Studio: British Lion Film Corp/Selznick Releasing Organization

Release: February 2, 1950

When one thinks of the look of film noir, one usually thinks of fog-enshrouded city streets, late-night diners and musty mobster-run boarding houses. It’s a beautiful aesthetic, to be sure, one I’ve enjoyed exploring for the past however-many-years now. But it’s also a bit anonymous. In all of film noir… and realistically in all of film itself… “The Third Man” represents the best presentation of a very specific time and place within the world. The movie could only happen immediately after World War II and only be located in a bombed-out Vienna… otherwise it could not exist.

But because it does, it conjures so many now-iconic moments within its running time. The sewers. The mostly-abandoned amusement park. Buildings that are half gaudy and half-destroyed. The empty streets at night where a single balloon salesman can create a shadow two stories high. Those quick escapes down the debris. I know I’m just listing, but it’s important to underline how much these images and moments have become part of the zeitgeist in the decades since the film’s first release.

The Third Man 4A pulp novelist named Holly (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna to meet up with his good friend Harry Lime… only to discover that Lime is dead. He died in a “very unfortunate accident” on a street, suspiciously surrounded by only people who knew him. A police officer named Calloway (Trevor Howard), who wears a coat that appears to be made out of the same plastic they use for shower curtains, tells Holly that Harry was a bad man… watering down penicillin treatments on the black market, among other things. Holly sets out to clear Harry’s name, slowly coming to realize that Harry might not only have been a bad man… but also may still be alive.

The Third Man 3It’s that that bit that gets me every time. Talking about things in the zeitgeist… it’s kind of impossible to know anything about film without knowing the twist that Harry is very much alive and played by Orson Welles. It’s right up there with “Luke, I am your father” and “Mrs. Bates? Ahhh!” What I would not give to go back and watch the film with fresh eyes, having no idea that Harry is working in the shadows until the actual reveal. I suppose even new viewers could figure it out, given that Welles’ name is in that opening title card… but I’d also say that most people would forget about that title card and get swept away in the storytelling so it would still work as a complete surprise. Regardless, it’s a brilliant twist. Holly was wavering in his feelings toward his friend and it comes at the perfect moment – it’s much harder to dismiss a man you loved as a brother when he’s standing right in front of you.

Screenwriter Graham Greene brilliantly balances Harry’s point of view concerning his misdeeds with the all-too-real consequences of his actions. While on a Ferris wheel, Harry explains himself by pointing out the little “dots” on the ground below and jokingly offering Holly $20,000 for each dot that stops moving. But later Holly is taken to a clinic to see the children who got the bad penicillin – we don’t see the children, but judging from Holly’s face, we know it’s not good. One of the cribs even has a teddy bear propped up on the side instead of in with the kid… how bad must it be if the child can’t even hold his own toy?

The implication of how bad things are here is much, much more impactful than if we were to see the kids. And that’s another reason why “The Third Man” is great. It implies, then let’s us decide many things about Harry. Look at his sort-of girlfriend Anna (Valli). She knows where everything is in Harry’s apartment. She sleeps in his pajamas. He obviously helped her out in some way to make her fully imprint on him, and there is nothing anyone can say or do to make her see him as anything other than a great man. We don’t know where she was before she met Harry… how desperate she was… nor do we know what exactly Harry did for her. And it’s better storytelling that way instead of just blatantly spelling it out for the viewer.

The Third Man 2Cotten is exquisite as a man destined to have his heart broken over and over again. I love that his character’s name, Holly, is close enough to Harry that Anna keeps mixing them up, and watching the growing frustration on Cotten’s face as he hears it time and again is all kinds of awesome. His performance convinces you that he is a broken man who needs time to realize that he needs to step up and do what is right, even though it will ultimately break him further. Unfortunately, he has little chemistry with Valli. On the one hand, that’s fine since Anna is not interested in Holly romantically, but on the other, the ending would be that much more impactful if we genuinely knew a great love was missed out on because of Harry’s sins. Other than that, Valli is good at playing an enigma of a woman, stone faced except for specific moments of passion. Welles plays every moment with a joy that his character is really getting away with something naughty, and his few scenes with Cotten really pop – you can tell that the actors were friends in real life.

And then, of course, there’s the look. Perfectly slanted camera angles throughout, and a willingness to embrace the weirdness of the narrative as much as the paranoia, this is by far director Carol Reed’s (“Odd Man Out”) greatest showcase as a filmmaker. He’s well-matched with cinematographer Robert Krasker (also “Odd Man Out”), who creates an amazing contrast between the realism of the city’s destruction and an almost silent-movie-esque expressionism… often in the same shot. Note his insane placement of lights in the sewer set-piece – no actual sewer would be that well-lit, and yet because it’s so perfectly executed, you don’t even notice.

“The Third Man” is a great film and essential viewing for any burgeoning film buff. You can watch it time and again… and it somehow does not get old. You come for the big, iconic moments but end up swept away in all the details the filmmakers create within the world. Bombed-out Vienna is never a place I want to actually go to, but I’m forever grateful I got the chance to visit it this way.

Score: *****

Awards: Krasker won Best Black-and-White Cinematography (also nominated were “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Sunset Blvd.”). Reed’s work was nominated for Best Director but the film lost to “All About Eve” (also nominated were “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Sunset Blvd.”). The film was nominated for Best Editing but lost to “King Solomon’s Mines” (also nominated was “Sunset Blvd.”).

The film was also ranked on AFI’s First Top 100 Films, but in the most recent list was no longer part of the ranking.