Leave Her to Heaven

Leave Her to Heaven 1The Criterion Odyssey/Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Jo Swerling

Based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams

Director: John M. Stahl

Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy

Music: Alfred Newman

Cast: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Darryl Hickman

Release: December 19, 1945

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Awards: Shamroy won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Tierney was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce.” It was also nominated for Best Art Direction, Color (lost to “Frenchman’s Creek”) and Best Sound (lost to “The Bells of St. Mary”).

Country: USA

Percent Noir: 50%

Spine #1020

This is a much more important film to the noir movement than most give it credit for. In addition to proving that the world of noir can be framed in color just as well as in black and white, “Leave Her to Heaven’s” spectacular box office grosses (it was one of the biggest movies of the decade) helped ensure that noir would continue its relationship with the American public for at least the next few years. The fact that it’s awesome is just icing on the cake.

Gene Tierney is the movie, plain and simple. She might be more remembered for her turn in “Laura,” but this is one of the best performances ever in a film noir, male or female, hero or villain. When she is onscreen, you cannot take your eyes off her, and when she is offscreen you long for her to return. I believe that’s the definition of a movie star.

Leave Her to Heaven 4Tierney plays Ellen, who becomes infatuated with novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) because he reminds her of her recently deceased father. She seduces Richard, tosses aside her current fiancé, attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), and the two are soon married. Though at first she seems like the ideal wife, catering to Richard’s every need and helping Richard’s disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman)… it soon becomes apparent that she loves Richard too much. She becomes obsessed with having Richard all to herself and does anything necessary to make that happen. First, she allows Danny to drown, then she aborts her unborn baby by throwing herself down a staircase. Finally, when she suspects that her adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) and Richard are in love, she commits suicide and, in the process, frames Ruth for murder. As one does.

Leave Her to Heaven 2While the entire movie is filled with great moments, Ellen’s murder of Danny and her self-induced miscarriage are both transcendent. Screenwriter Jo Swerling and director John M. Stahl did not place the drowning in the middle of the night on a fog-filled lake – it takes place on an idyllic day in crisp, beautiful technicolor. Ellen is wearing white, her shockingly red lipstick a beautiful visual contradiction (Tierney’s red lips alone are reason enough for the movie to be in color) and has donned dark sunglasses so that we cannot see her eyes as Danny calls for help, goes under, surfaces and then goes under again, disappearing for good. It’s unnerving and hard to watch, weirdly harder because of the beauty surrounding the characters.

And then there’s the miscarriage scene. The brilliance here is what happens immediately before, with Ellen ensuring her hair and face is in a peak beauty phase. She puts on some perfume, ensures she looks as beautiful as possible and then tosses herself down the stairs savagely. Wow.

Even as I write that, it’s important for me to underline that – at least for the first half of the film – the filmmakers and cast choose to underplay Ellen’s insanity. In most of her scenes, even when she gets a little short or a little angry, she seems normal enough… like that person you see snipping at someone at the bank. You don’t assume they are crazy, you just assume they are having a bad day. Contrast this with the “crazy person everyone assumes is sane” characterization – Robert Ryan in “Crossfire” or “Beware, My Lovely,” for example – where they have wild eyes and are all but frothing at the mouth, and this is a portrait of Stahl and Tierney trusting the audience.

It’s also notable that one of the reasons that Ellen is so memorable is that she isn’t like most other femme fatales. They’re after money, power or… well, that’s it. Usually money or power. And they’ll move heaven or earth to get it. Ellen? She’s after love. All of Richard’s love. Until he, like Ellen’s father, has nothing left to give.

Stahl smartly has Tierney just let loose in certain scenes and allows stillness to take over in others. Tierney makes some very interesting acting choices that linger in your mind long after the film ends. Take the moment where Richard is accusing Ellen of killing his brother and Tierney’s face is contorted into shock and misunderstanding and then, in a fraction of a second, her face goes entirely calm as she admits “Yes.” 99% of other actresses would have turned the switch into a “moment,” but here the briefness of the emotional change is what gives us impact.

Leave Her to Heaven 5Wilde is passable but not memorable as Richard, hitting all the marks he needs to but not really bringing much else aside from a great set of arms. Just imagine what someone like Joel McCrea could have done with the role. It’s quite funny that Crain plays Ellen’s adopted sister, because she looks one heck of a lot like Tierney and could have passed for her blood sibling. She is likewise fine, though she rises to the occasion for her big scene confronting Tierney about her wickedness.

Aside from Tierney, the main standout is Vincent Price, who takes what could have been a thankless role and invests it with more life and vigor than you could have ever expected. He takes over as the main presence of the movie after Ellen dies, and thank God for that, or the last half hour of the film would have been quite a slog. There’s something amazing about his court scenes, specifically the way he cross-examines Wilde and Crain. Their characters answer his question and, a mico-second after they finish speaking, Price is already asking the next. It’s a shockingly invasive way to question someone, and really works to build tension for the audience.

Leave Her to Heaven 3Swerling’s screenplay is about as good as screenplays come, taking the time needed to delve into the characters while also fascinating the viewer from moment one. Look at the unconventional way Ellen and Richard get engaged. Or Ellen explaining her dream of Richard drowning. Or how he both exploits and undercuts the awkwardness of falling in love with a woman who says you remind her of her dead father. It’s a shame Swerling isn’t as well remembered as several of his contemporaries – his work writing Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” and uncredited polish on “It’s a Wonderful Life” are testament to his greatness.

Director Stahl’s approach to the material is to be standard in the macro so he can get away with the savageness of the small scenes. He uses chapter cuts between scenes and films everything in bright technicolor glory to trick the audience into thinking this is a high-brow weepie melodrama, when… well… it’s not. Because of these things, he can get away with the drowning scene or the miscarriage scene because the audience isn’t expecting that kind of material. I somehow have never seen any of Stahl’s other films (he directed the original versions of “Magnificent Obsession” and “Imitation of Life”), but I wish he had done more noir, because the performances he gets from Tierney and Price (both of whom are noir favorites) are career bests for both. And before you start arguing about Price’s work in Roger Corman’s Poe films or his amazing stuff in “His Kind of Woman,” I’ll ask you to watch him here again.

I’m surprised “Leave Her to Heaven” has never been remade – this is a plum role for a star that has a great pedigree behind it. Whatever the case, “Leave Her to Heaven” is one of my favorite films noir, and that drowning scene is one of the best murders in the history of film.

Cover

Flore Maquin offers up one of the best, most impactful covers of 2020 so far – illustrating the most iconic scene of the film in all the bright and beautiful colors anyone who knows the film already loves. Bonus points for those sunglasses with just a hint of still water reflected.

I award it four-and-a-half garden hoes out of five.

Essay

Megan Abbott provides an okay essay – don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film yet under any circumstances. While I give her credit for trying to get into the psychology of Ellen (and calling out how sympathetic the filmmakers make her in certain scenes), Abbott also does one of my biggest essay pet peeves – just describing the plot beat by beat and then embellishing each note a bit. She also gives a shout-out to Anthony Lane in the first paragraph, which is just… ugh.

I award it two switched glass toiletry bottles out of five.

Extras

Yikes. Barely any.

  • The wonderful Imogen Sara Smith must have been told before her interview started that hers would be the only extra of substance on the release, because she goes for it. Context on where the film fits in the film noir cycle, backstory on Stahl, backstory on Tierney, focus on the outstanding sequences, thematic storytelling… Smith covers it all and makes it look easy. Really an outstanding interview.
  • A trailer. Sigh.

There really should have been more. Nothing was even brought over from the Fox DVD.

I award them one-and-a-half sunglasses out of five.

House By the River

House By the River 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Mel Dinelli

Based on the book by A.P. Herbert

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Louis Hayward, Lee Bowman, Jane Wyatt

Cinematographer: Edward J. Cronjager

Music: George Antheil

Studio: Republic Pictures

Release: March 25, 1950

Percent Noir: 50%

I hate my surviving family. When my Grandfather had Alzheimer’s and my Grandmother was going blind, they manipulated myself and my mother into shouldering all the responsibility, even though it nearly broke us… refusing to do anything themselves. I’m proud of taking care of my grandparents as well as I did before their deaths, but don’t know if I can ever forgive my uncles for what they did to my mom and me. Because of this, “House By the River,” whose themes are similar to what I went through, resonated with me emotionally a little stronger than the usual film noir.

I knew I was going to like the movie almost from the start, when one of director Fritz Lang’s first shots is a dead cow floating down a river. It was at that moment I knew I was in good hands.

And the first twenty minutes or so of the film as pretty damn close to perfect. The film focuses on Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), a sociopathic writer who lives on the banks of a river in the early 1900s. One night while his wife and the cook are away, Stephen corners the maid Emily (Dorothy Patrick) and attempts to rape her. When she resists, he accidentally strangles her to death, then enlists the help of his brother John (Lee Bowman) to help hide the murder. John is hesitant, but ultimately gives in, placing the body in a sack, weighing it down with an anchor and tossing it into the river.

House By the River 3Lang and cinematographer Edward Cronjager (“Desert Fury”) pull out all the stops in this act. Aside from the aforementioned floating cow, there is a wonderful moment where Stephen realizes Emily has just gotten done with the bath when he hears the water flushing down the drainpipe. And the murder itself is one of the coolest set-pieces Lang has created, with a terrifying eye staring in at Stephen as he holds his hands around Emily’s throat to silence her. Noir doesn’t get better than this, folks.

Once the body is underwater, Stephen cashes in on the publicity surrounding the maid’s disappearance to sell more of his books and use it as an excuse to get drunk every night and pick up women all over town. His poor wife Marjorie sees him going out of control and goes to John for comfort, and the two find themselves falling in love… though neither admits it until Stephen pushes the subject. But when the body is discovered, Stephen takes advantage of John’s inherent goodness again, all but putting the noose over his head as he implicates him in Emily’s murder.

House By the River 2A secondary villain pops up in the figure of John’s maid Flora (Jody Gilbert), who gossips and bad mouths Emily’s character until John snaps at her. Flora stomps out of the house, all but firing herself, and then testifies at the hearing every bad thing she can think of about John… from mocking his limp to stating that he must have been sleeping with Emily because no woman of means would ever look his way. Gilbert plays the role with much relish and creates one of the most hate-worthy characters in the genre, even though the only thing she assassinates is John’s character. Seeing her finally get her comeuppance in court had me cheering. Not metaphorically, I actually cheered in my living room.

Hayward is excellent here, playing a variation on the role he played in the underrated noir gem “Ladies in Retirement.” But his role is big and flashy – Bowman and Wyatt have trickier parts playing inherently good people stuck in a bad situation. Both rise to the occasion, with Wyatt in particular impressive in selling that her character could marry Stephen but also be in love with John.

Behind the scenes is an all-star lineup of creators. Lang needs no introduction, having directed such noir classics as “Scarlet Street” and “Human Desire.” Cronjager helped invent the look of the genre with “I Wake Up Screaming,” and his cinematography in it was possibly the only good thing about the film. And I haven’t even mentioned screenwriter Mel Dinelli, whose scripts for classics like “The Spiral Staircase” and “The Window” rank among the best in the genre. Also in the mix is avant-garde composer George Antheil, who crafts a superb score here and also worked on noir touchstones like “In a Lonely Place.”

The film is obviously low budget, and all the creators have a field day turning their small amount of money into something most impressive. The main house is a sight to behold, brooding and filled with darkness & shadows in the best way possible – the mood lingers with you long after it fades to black. There is another amazing sequence where Stephen takes a boat onto the river, desperately searching for the floating sack, which comes across as a surrealist nightmare – it feels like it would fit nicely in “The Night of the Hunter.”

It’s a shame then, that they botch the final five minutes. After an excellent 80-something minutes, the villain’s comeuppance is running into a curtain and accidentally falling to his death after maybe seeing the ghost of Emily. This is after his brother magically comes back to life. Was there a reshoot or studio-mandated change? Because that’s what it feels like.

Still, the vast majority of “House By the River” is excellent, and that final stumble does not take away from its achievement. It’s one of Lang’s lesser-known noir entries, but is worth the time it takes to track it down.

Score: ****

Affair in Trinidad

Affair in Trinidad 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Oscar Saul and James Gunn

Story: Virginia Van Upp and Giler

Director: Vincent Sherman

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, Alexander Scourby

Cinematography: Joseph Walker

Music: n/a

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: July 30, 1952

Awards: Jean Louis was nominated for Best Costume Design, Black & White, but lost to “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Also nominated were “Sudden Fear” and “My Cousin Rachel”

Percent Noir: 60%

“Affair in Trinidad” was a gigantic hit for Columbia Pictures when first released… and has since been all but forgotten to everyone who isn’t a huge noir aficionado or Rita Hayworth superfan. This isn’t surprising to me – it was Hayworth’s big comeback for the studio after breaking her contract three years prior when she married Prince Aly Khan. The studio was adamant that the filmmakers recapture the magic of Hayworth’s breakthrough “Gilda,” which meant having “Affair in Trinidad” follow very, very closely in those footsteps.

Hayworth was once again paired with Glenn Ford as her romantic interest, and Steven Geray was back in a meaty supporting role. Hayworth is once again a nightclub singer, has two big numbers, both of which mimic “Gilda’s” sexy striptease number to a certain extent, while Hayworth wears clothes similar enough to her iconic ones as Gilda. There’s more. Lots more. I normally am quite hesitant to do such close comparisons or to write off a project simply because it has some similarities to another, better known work. It feels very unfair. But “Affair in Trinidad” has been manufactured by a studio to reproduce the same product, just in different packaging, and to pretend otherwise would be wrong. It’s a product more than a piece of art.

Affair in Trinidad 2And while all the bells and whistles are ripping off “Gilda,” the plotline is also very reminiscent of another iconic noir: “Notorious.” After the mysterious death of her husband, nightclub singer Chris (Hayworth) is informed by Trinidad police that a family friend (and rich man-knockoff of “Gilda’s” George Macready) named Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby) may be hiding US government secrets, so they ask her to go undercover and figure out the truth. Complicating matters is Steve (Ford), brother of Chris’ dead husband who is falling for Chris while also suspecting she may have had something to do with his death.

The movie works well enough on a scene-by-scene basis, not because of the screenplay nor because of the direction, but because Hayworth is the best. She single-handedly takes every scene she is in on her shoulders and brings it to life through her talents, which are myriad here. She’s emotional, flirtatious, vibrant, strong, romantic and vulnerable… completely engaged in whatever the film calls for her to do. Plus, the chemistry she had with Ford in “Gilda” is still on display here – they are an easy couple to root for. I can see why audiences in 1952, being unable to see “Gilda” once more, would happily flock to this “nuGilda.”

Affair in Trinidad 3This is a little surprising to me because the plotline of the film functions on what film critic Roger Ebert coined as “The Idiot Plot.” Yes, this is one of those circumstances where, if any character says a single sentence at any point, the movie would be over… and their choice not to say anything is incredibly stupid. There is absolutely no good reason for Chris to hide her undercover work from Steve, and at one point the police discuss why they can’t just tell Steve the truth, since it would be an asset to the case to do so. Their reasons why are idiotic. Ergo “The Idiot Plot.” The fact that the film can be as enjoyable as it is despite me wanting to scream helpful information to the characters in any given moment is a testament to Hayworth’s magnetism.

The other star of the film is the set-design – Walter Holscher creates a wonderful home for Fabian’s oily character, oozing with potential shadows and with a grand staircase that you can’t look away from. It’s not quite as good as the staircase in “Notorious,” but not many things are.

I just wish the movie looked better. Bluntly, director Vincent Sherman (“The Unfaithful,” “Nora Prentiss”) is not as good a filmmaker as “Gilda’s” Charles Vidor. His collaboration with usually-better-than-this cinematographer Joseph Walker (“Harriet Craig”) is focused mostly on making Hayworth look great, which isn’t difficult considering she’s one of the most beautiful humans I’ve ever seen. They don’t fuck up photographing the great sets, but there is only one sequence, a midpoint car accident, which has any trace of visual invention.

There’s also an odd feeling of cheapness that hampers the film. Exterior scenes are kept unnecessarily close to the main actors, as if just they could only afford so many Trinidad-style props. The problems become very apparent in the third act, with a climactic shoot-out that lasts only seconds. Then, when Fabian is shot and topples over the bannister at the top of the stairs, there isn’t even a shot of him falling – just some super awkward editing to try to cover up the lack of a proper stunt. It’s odd, especially because one would think that Columbia would have given the film a proper budget for its needs.

I’m not unhappy I saw “Affair in Trinidad” – its many sins of filmmaking do not overshadow the great lead performance. But will I remember anything about it next week? Probably not. All of its best moments, which mostly involve Hayworth singing, have better variations in the film this movie aspires to copy. Now that I’ve seen this, I can’t fathom ever wanting to watch it again when I can just pop in my disc of “Gilda” instead.

Score: **1/2

The Lady From Shanghai

The Lady From Shanghai 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Orson Welles

Based on the novel “If I Die Before I Wake” by Raymond Sherwood King

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane

Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.

Music: Heinz Roemheld

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: June 9, 1948

Percent Noir: 80%

Watching “The Lady From Shanghai” is like falling into a dream, with each set-piece further and further removed from reality. This was “Mulholland Drive” long before “Mulholland Drive.” And, if you accept it on those terms, it’s one hell of a lot of fun. But if you go in expecting logic, reason and finely sketched characters… run away.

Orson Welles adapts, directs and stars as an Irish sailor named Michael who one night rescues a woman named Elsa (Rita Hayworth) from a mugging. There’s a horse-drawn carriage involved because… I mean, it looks cool. Elsa just happens to have a rich lawyer husband Bannister (Everett Sloane) who owns a yacht and needs an extra man for their long vacation. Elsa and Michael fall in lust with one another while the audience is treated to idyllic location photography, and Michael thinks she’ll run away with him if he finds enough money. Luckily, one of Bannister’s many minions named Grisby (Glenn Anders) offers Michael $5,000 if Michael will murder him, though Grisby promises Michael he’ll be alive when everything is over. Or something. Things go ass up, of course, and soon Michael is on trial for murder with Bannister defending him… even though Bannister now knows about the affair.

The Lady Fom ShanghaiYou can put quotation marks around one or most of the above sentences, because this is the type of movie where you can’t actually pay close attention, otherwise you’ll start getting frustrated. I doubt anyone, even someone who has seen the movie a dozen times, can coherently and concisely explain everything that happens over the course of the film’s 89 minutes… and please don’t “Actually, it’s quite easy…” at me. No one likes you at parties and you aren’t welcome in my comments section.

Most critics and film buffs point to the fact that Columbia President Harry Cohn slashed an hour out of the running time as the reason behind the vagueness in storytelling. And to that I say “maybe.” Welles had many, many gifts as a filmmaker, but coherence wasn’t always one of them… so who’s to tell if the cuts would have made things better. To be fair, Welles was smart enough to use it as a strength sometimes, as in “Citizen Kane.” Also, I struggle with the idea that scholars so easily lean into concerning film history – that every time a producer or executive wanted cuts or reshoots for a film, it’s a bad thing. Sometimes movies need help. Sometimes creators’ visions are imperfect. And that’s fine.

And I never understood this “everything good in the film is thanks to Welles, and everything bad was done against his will” stance that many make. Usually in these situations, everyone concerned just wants to make the best movie possible. Allegedly there are 20 minutes of extra footage (now lost) that took place in the funhouse climax… and in nearly every article I’ve read, the writer will say that one of the great sequences of all time has been lost, buried somewhere on the cutting room floor. And again, I say “maybe.” Those three or four minutes in the finished film are an astonishing set-piece. But 20 minutes of it? I could see it easily becoming excruciating very quickly.

Plus, like I wrote, the movie works specifically because it feels like a dream. Too much clarity and it could fall apart like a house of cards. And I’ve written enough about what isn’t in the film – let’s talk about what is there onscreen, because it is quite impressive.

The center of the film is held thanks to the trio of excellent performances by Welles, Hayworth and Sloane. They all have very different styles of acting and, because of that, it’s fascinating to see them bounce off one another. Sloane is blunt, always ending sentences with exclamation points even if they had periods in the script. Welles leads with his emotion first, which results in great chemistry with Hayworth, who is more subtle and measured with her choices. And make no mistake, Hayworth continues to be one of the most effervescent actors of this period, and making her more mysterious and dark than usual somehow only makes her more magnetic. And one can’t forget Anders, whose repeated cacklings of “target practice!” echo in the viewer’s mind long after the film fades to black.

The film’s early sequences, along with Welles’ voiceover in a different Irish accent than the one he speaks with in the rest of the film, are good… but things really take off after Hayworth’s needless song. That’s when the world turns surreal, and Welles (with his cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr.) really leans into those surreal angles and massive shadows.

The Lady From Shanghai 3Things hit a fever pitch with the hysterical (in both meanings of the term) courtroom scenes, which are unlike any I’ve seen in a film before or since. Any other filmmaker would keep these scenes deadly serious, but Welles goes the opposite direction, to great effect. Each scene therein is filled with little detail stacked upon little detail – it’s very distinctly Welles, but also feels like a collision with the style of David Lynch (yes, him again). It’s one of the best things in all of Welles’ filmography, but still a step below that previously discussed short amusement park sequence, which I can only describe as the filmic equivalent of an orgasm.

Welles doesn’t seem to be interested in creating a single mood or atmosphere – he’s happy to roll everything together and just see what leaves the most impact in any given moment. And in doing so, he ensures that “The Lady From Shanghai” will stick with you. I don’t think it’s the masterpiece many do – it’s several steps below his “Citizen Kane,” but still much better than “Touch of Evil.” As readers may know, I am often quick to become annoyed with noir films that invite giant lapses in logic, and yet the rest of this film is so extraordinary that it’s the rare case where it’s easy to forgive.

Score: ****

Nightfall

Nightfall 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Stirling Silliphant

Based on the novel by David Goodis

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Cast: Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith

Cinematography: Burnet Guffey

Music: George Duning

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: February 10, 1957

Percent Noir: 60%

“Nightfall” feels like a spiritual brother to director Jacques Tourneur’s noir touchstone “Out of the Past.” Both films rely on a flashback structure, involve landscapes with lots of mountains and thematically zero in on a man waylaid when his past comes to find him. Oh, and there’s another connection in that they are both quite excellent.

Aldo Ray stars as Jim, a good man trapped in a nightmare when two gun-toting motherfuckers (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) show up demanding the $350,000 they say Jim stole from them. Sure, the money was already stolen when they encountered Jim, but semantics. We learn this through a series of flashbacks that show what really happened to the money. Also involved are Marie (Anne Bancroft), a dame teased to be a femme fatale before she becomes Jim’s right hand woman, and police officer Ben (James Gregory), who is trailing Jim but has mixed feelings about it.

Nightfall 2For an obviously low-budget thriller that clocks in at less than 80 minutes, the people behind the camera were a veritable murderer’s row of geniuses. I’ve already mentioned Tourneur, who directed a bunch of good films noir and nearly all of producer Val Lewton’s best horror movies. His cinematographer is Burnett Guffey, one of the all-time best at his craft, from classics like “Bonnie & Clyde” to classic noir films like “In a Lonely Place.” His screenwriter is the great Stirling Silliphant, who penned iconic movies like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Village of the Damned.” Silliphant was adapting a book by David Goodis, whose novels have inspired films like “Shoot the Piano Player,” “The Burgler” and “Dark Passage.” Phew.

Working together, these talented creators craft a mood of oppression and tension throughout. It helps that our trio of heroes feel less like characters and more like human beings. There’s a six-minute scene about halfway through the film where Jim and Marie just sit in her apartment talking about what has happened and what needs to happen next. In any other movie, this would feel excruciatingly long and be exposition central, with badly composed lines hinting at outcomes we already know will happen. But here? The scene is impossible to look away from. Silliphant’s dialogue manages to be both hardboiled (I especially loved the line “Nice place. I’ll try not to bleed on anything.”) and surprisingly human. We find ourselves caring deeply for these two characters because we are happy they found one another. This must have been nearly impossible to achieve, but comes across as effortless onscreen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the few clunky bits as well. There’s a suspense piece at a fashion show which doesn’t land with the impact it needs to, nor does the climactic moment of action, where one of the villains is chopped to bits in a giant snowplow. It was 1957 – are you really telling me they couldn’t have had a little blood spray hit the snow? I mean, come on!

Nightfall 3Ray is one of the most natural actors in the history of the medium. He never seems like he’s acting – the words feel entirely natural coming from him. And he doesn’t have to play up being a tough guy because he is a tough guy… and understands that showing vulnerability is the way to make an audience engage. He elevates the film merely by his presence. Bancroft shares ample chemistry with Ray and is obviously a star-in-the-making here. She’s still a little shaky in a few moments, but the talent is there.

Keith and Bond are both fine, I guess, but I feel like their tough guy routine is from an older movie… one from the ‘40s instead of the late ‘50s. Bond plays a little too much to the rafters, and Keith looks bored. Neither is enough to sink the movie or any individual scene, but I do wish that different actors had inhabited the roles and discovered new ways to play the cliché.

Tourneur’s direction is unfussy – this is probably the most restrained I’ve seen him behind the camera. But then again, he doesn’t need all the mood and shadows we’re used to seeing in his noir or horror projects. He knows Ray and Bancroft are the reason the movie is going to work and exploits their chemistry for all it’s worth.

Even though I said it’s stylistically restrained, I didn’t mean that it wasn’t pretty. The snow-filled mountains look fabulous thanks to Guffey, and he does quite well with his Los Angeles location work too. Still, if you’re going to walk away remembering some imagery, it’ll be Ray running through the snow with those mountains in the background.

If you’ve seen “Out of the Past” (and if you are reading my blog, chances are you have. Several times.), you’ll also find a lot to love about “Nightfall.” It reminds you of the best parts of that classic while also secure enough in its own identity to really stand on its own. It’s a minor classic for all involved.

Score: ****

The Crimson Kimono

The Crimson Kimono 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer/Director: Samuel Fuller

Cast: James Shigeta, Glenn Corbett, Victoria Shaw

Cinematography: Sam Leavitt

Music: Harry Sukman

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: October 15, 1959

Percent Noir: 70%

Now this is the type of movie I want to see when film noir deals with issues in our society. I’ve been let down time and again every when a movie from this genre tries to be topical… by the time I got to the middling “No Way Out,” I just threw up my hands and wrote that noir and issue films don’t mesh and moved on.

Well, dear reader, I am pleased to report that I have now seen “The Crimson Kimono,” and I was wrong about my above statement.

This isn’t just a good film noir… it’s fucking great. And the secret to its success is that – despite that very, uh, dated poster above – it doesn’t wear its topicality on its sleeve. For a while, we are just watching a well-told mystery exploring an interesting culture we don’t normally see in this genre. And then, when the idea of racism rears its ugly head past the halfway point, it colors everything we’ve seen previously and informs all the emotional arcs of our main characters until the fantastic finale.

The Crimson Kimono 2Los Angeles detectives Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) and Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) are investigating the shooting of a popular burlesque dancer in Little Toyko. In her dressing room they find a painting of her in a… wait for it… crimson kimono, a mock-up of an act she was rehearsing. The cops track down the artist, an up-and-comer named Chris (Victoria Shaw). She’s seen the killer and he knows she’s helping the police – her life is in danger every minute the case continues. She’s also charming as hell, and Charlie finds himself quickly falling for her. So does Joe, though he tries hard to resist.

The central love triangle fully engaged me emotionally – I became far more invested in who Chris would ultimately choose rather than the case itself (which isn’t a knock against the procedural elements, which are excellent).

Writer/director Samuel Fuller allows both men to get meaty, emotional scenes of connection with Chris. In the first, Charlie watches Chris as she draws, taken in by her wit and beauty. Later, there’s a stunner of a scene where Joe plays piano as Chris watches, connecting with his soul even as he tries his best to resist her. I’m not going to lie, it also helps a bit that all three are very, very easy on the eyes.

The Crimson Kimono 3Charlie has already told Joe that he can see himself marrying Chris, so Joe acting on his feelings for her is quite the dirtbag move. And, to the character’s credit, we can see him genuinely try to resist that attraction. Sure, part of it is that he knows the romance would be culturally taboo at the time (Joe is Japanese American and Chris is Caucasian), but the bigger issue is that he doesn’t want to hurt his best friend… the man who fought by his side in the Korean War. And when the truth finally comes out and we see Charlie react to Joe’s news, Joe hisses to Charlie that he’s racist.

Joe’s accusation works on several emotional levels, and Fuller is a genius for being able to exploit all of the dramatic potential without making it feel exploitative. Charlie’s reaction is incredibly subtle, and Joe points out that he’s seen that judgmental look many times before. But there’s also enough grey area here that Joe could feel so shitty about wanting to steal Charlie’s girl that he’s lashing out – looking for a reason to be as angry at Charlie as he is at himself. Maybe both are true.

Fuller brilliantly dovetails the two main threads together for the grand finale, folding the emotional reasoning behind the crime in with what our main characters are struggling with. In lesser hands, it could read as too much, but Fuller gives us just enough without going overboard. It helps that he adds in some tragedy instead of giving us a straight happy ending – Joe gets the girl, but his professional relationship with Charlie is now broken beyond repair… though there is a glimmer that perhaps someday their friendship can mend.

The trio of lead performances are aces through and through. Downes comes across as strong and self-sufficient despite being stuck in a guarded room for most of the movie. She also shares off-the-charts chemistry with both Shigeta and Corbett, making it difficult for you to root for one over the other. Speaking of the guys, they are fantastic both alone and together – I’m surprised neither became bigger stars after seeing the quality of their work here.

Fuller, of course, excels at balancing the bluntness of his visual aesthetic with the subtlety of his characters’ emotions. Despite what I imagine was a small budget, the movie is big and loud, with several well-executed chase scenes and a climactic parade that seems to take up entire city blocks with bands and extras lining the street. It certainly helps that the cinematographer is Sam Leavitt, who helped to make George Cukor’s “A Star is Born” into, for my money, the prettiest film ever made.

Though well-respected, it’s almost criminal that “The Crimson Kimono” isn’t considered one of the masterpieces of the film noir genre. I suppose I understand why – it’s easier to persevere through history if your film stars Bogie or Stanwyck – but our ensemble here are just about perfect in their own ways. It’s a beautiful portrait of Los Angeles’ lesser-explored sections and remains just as searing today as it was when first released. I give it my highest recommendation – this one is worth tracking down, folks.

Score: *****

The Dark Past

The Dark Past 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Malvin Wald and Oscar Saul

Based on the screenplay by Philip MacDonald, Michael Blankfort and Albert Duffey… which was based on the play “Blind Alley” by James Warwick

Director: Rudolph Mate

Cast: KATHRYN CARD, Lee J. Cobb, William Holden, Nina Foch

Cinematography: Joseph Walker

Music: George Duning

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: December 22, 1948

Percent Noir: 70%

Nora is one badass motherfucker.

As played by Kathryn Card, she’s the cook in the Collins home and is just trying to live her best life when a bunch of asshole gun-toting gangsters break into the house and take everyone hostage. Those bastards probably didn’t even have the courtesy to ask Nora if she had something in the oven when they arrive and shove her into the living room with the rest of the hostages.

The Dark Past 2Sure, things are dire, but Nora is a survivor. She’s going to get out of this situation no matter what it takes. So even though there are several guns trained on her and everyone else, she still summons up the courage to get the phone off the receiver in an attempt to alert the operator about the situation. She’s caught and hauled off to the basement with the maid where she is tied to a pole for hours, with no promise a bathroom break.

But is Nora going to let this break her? Fuck no, she isn’t. While the maid is busy having a nervous breakdown (to be fair, the maid seems like she’d have a nervous breakdown if she cut her finger), Nora is struggling to get herself free from the ropes. Maybe she was a Brownie growing up? “The Dark Past” doesn’t give her a proper backstory, but we don’t need one. Nora is Nora, and she’s all the information we need.

And Nora does free herself from the ropes. With little-to-no-help from the maid (it’s miraculous her wails of terror don’t alert the bad guys), she breaks out of the basement window, runs through the darkness and manages to get ahold of the police, who then rush the house and get the rest of the hostages free.

Yes, Nora is a hero.

As portrayed by Card, Nora is a woman of few words. Well, it’s not her fault – the screenwriters only give her four or five lines over the course of the film – but she makes every one of them count. Card was in her mid-fifties while shooting, and was the opposite of what one would expect an awesome action hero to be like, which makes her casting and performance all the more awesome. Card was in a lot of great films, including George Cukor’s “A Star is Born,” but you’ll probably recognize her as Lucy’s mom in “I Love Lucy.” Card can handle drama, action and comedy… is there anything this woman couldn’t do?

The Dark Past 3“The Dark Past” doesn’t deserve Nora, and she’s the best part of the movie. Oh, I should probably mention that she’s probably the eighteenth main character and is barely in the film… which is a testament to just how bad it is.

And while Nora certainly is a hero, she isn’t the hero of “The Dark Past.” A remake of an early noir I haven’t seen yet (and am now in no hurry to track down), our focus is on a professor/psychoanalyst named Andrew Collins (Lee J. Cobb). We open with an unnecessary frame story that ensures there is no suspense when we cut back to the hostage crisis – Collins is watching a police lineup. What we are supposed to think is happening is him seeing a young man in the lineup and seeing the opportunity to reform him before he falls too far down the criminal path. What we actually see is a sexual predator finding a jailbait twink and using his power to convince the police to release the boy into his custody. Yes, the scene comes across as that creepy. I’d say you need to see it for yourself, but you really shouldn’t because the movie is terrible.

When we flash back to the hostage crisis, it seems like the entire neighborhood is visiting Collins’ house when the small army of gangsters rushes in. Yes, in case you can’t tell from that last sentence, there are way too many characters. By like ten. The bad guys’ leader is lazily named Al Walker and played by William Holden before he became a good actor. Here he thinks yelling every line means he comes across as menacing. He doesn’t. His character has apparently never seen a chessboard before, which is such a loony plot contrivance I had to mention it here.

Over the course of several hours, not only is Collins able to get Walker to open up about all the nightmares that have haunted him since his childhood (to the film’s credit, this dream sequence is the one good part of it aside from Queen Nora), but Collins manages to cure him! Yes, it may take years in real therapy to uncover small emotional secrets, but Collins does it in three hours.

Because of course he does. “The Dark Past” is one of those loony psychobabble thrillers made in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s hit film “Spellbound” (which is also terrible, by the way). The therapy is as hard to believe as the hostage crisis. There’s zero suspense and we know that no one important is going to die because Walker needs to be redeemed at the end. Even though, as previously stated, there are like 94 people in the house!

Many talented filmmakers worked on this film and would go on to make much better work elsewhere, and I don’t want to put their names here to save their ghosts further embarrassment. This is a terrible, terrible film whose one redeeming factor is an ancillary character who deserves her own franchise… or at least her own NBC procedural. Keep Nora, but burn the rest of “The Dark Past.”

Score: ½*

Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook and Czenzi Ormonde

Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman

Cinematography: Robert Burks

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: June 30, 1951

Awards: Burks was nominated for Best Cinematography but lost to fellow noir “A Place in the Sun.”

Percent Noir: 50%

A man approaches you on a train. He’s friendly and seems to know you. Shakes your hand a little bit too intimately. He joins you and strikes up a conversation, and soon you realize that he’s a little crazy. Well, maybe crazy is the wrong word… he seems grounded enough that you’ll downgrade him to an eccentric. You make small talk, surprised over and over that he knows so much about you. But the drinks are on him and he’s not so annoying that you want to get away from him, so you go with it. At least until he brings up a topic so cruel and unusual that you know you’ve gone too far in over your head.

So begins director Alfred Hitchcock’s great film “Strangers on a Train.” The strangers of the title are a tennis star named Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and an unemployed rich slacker named Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Guy’s wife is pregnant with another man’s baby but won’t give him a divorce, and Bruno hates his father for thinking he’s a worthless lay about. Bruno suggests, then insists, that they trade murders – he’ll kill Guy’s wife if Guy kills his father. Guy makes an excuse, pushes his way out and then two days later Bruno strangles his wife to death… and insists that Guy now hold up his end of the bargain. Yikes.

Strangers on a Train 2Bruno ranks among the best of Hitchock’s menagerie of villains, right up there with Norman Bates, Mrs. Danvers and that murder of crows. Cummings is always moving, always thinking – he’s a childish brat who cries for a toy then breaks it and begins to cry again. His acting style is so different and more pronounced than Granger’s that they make a perfect match – the bigger Cummings goes, the more inward Granger moves. Often in lesser Hitchcock films, the conversations are boring wastelands you have to get through in order to get to his big set-pieces, but here watching the two men dance around one another is a meal unto itself.

One mustn’t forget that this isn’t just an Alfred Hitchcock movie, it’s also notable for being an adaptation of one of the novels of the outstanding Patricia Highsmith. Here is a situation where almost every film based on her work is at least good, often great, but I have to say that “Strangers on a Train” ranks up there right next to “Purple Noon” as the best adaptation of her novels. The film keeps fairly close to her work in its first half before spinning wildly off into its own thing as act two progresses, but her spirit still seems present throughout.

It helps that the dialogue and characterization is so on point. Screenwriters Whitfield Cook and Czenzi Ormonde (Raymond Chandler is credited but none of his work survived in the finished product) seem to be having the time of their lives making Guy’s character squirm or pushing Bruno just a little further over the line to see how others around him react. They also take care to color the many supporting characters, most notably the let’s-cut-through-the-bullshit Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock), sister of Guy’s current love interest, and the appropriately batty Mrs. Antony (Marion Lorne), Bruno’s mother.

The one place the writing suffers is with Guy’s love interest Anne, played by Ruth Roman. She’s endlessly supportive and basically serves as an exposition sounding board for Guy, with little personality or character aside from saying variations on “I’m here for you.” Roman’s casting doesn’t help matters – she’s bland, forgettable and has no chemistry with Granger. I keep seeing her in noir films and keep trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, but at this point I’m beginning to think the problem is partially her. I understand the producers and studio wanted a recognizable name for the love interest, but the film would have been much better had they just shifted the Barbara character to the love interest – she’s much better written and Patricia Hitchcock steals every scene she’s in.

Damn, you know the movie must be good if it’s taken this long for me to even get to the set-pieces. Hitchcock, working with his usual cinematographer Robert Burks (“Rear Window”), has a field day with imprinting his classic style on the story. There are little moments throughout that are perfect visual storytelling, like opening the film contrasting the hero and villain by showing their walk, or when everyone’s heads move back and forth watching a tennis game except for Bruno’s. But there are two moments so iconic that I’d rank them both in Hitchcock’s ten best set-pieces.

Strangers on a Train 3The first is Bruno’s murder of Guy’s wife Miriam (Laura Elliott). He stalks her as she goes to an amusement park with two dates (because of course she has two dates), slowly getting closer and closer as they move from attraction to attraction. She notices him and thinks he’s flirting with her. Miriam and her dates take a boat through the Tunnel of Love to a small island, and Bruno is in a boat right behind them – there is some great shadow play in the tunnel that feels inspired by German expressionism. Bruno finds her, flickers Guy’s lighter to life in front of her glasses… and then begins to strangle her to death. Her glasses fall, and we watch the murder take place distorted through her glasses. Astonishing. Just astonishing.

The second is the climactic fight sequence aboard an out-of-control carousel. Yes, you read that last sentence right. After the man controlling the carousel is accidentally shot to death by a police officer (this comes across as shockingly brutal but is quickly forgotten – the officers are cracking jokes seconds later), the gears are pulled down and the carousel seems to be going 70 in a 25 zone. The kids aboard love the ride, but Guy is fighting for his life, trying to get his lighter away from Bruno. The ending is explosive and, though trick photography is used for the final crash, it’s rendered so perfectly you don’t notice even if you’ve seen it a million times.

The most interest aspect of “Strangers on a Train” is that there’s truth behind its central idea – switching murders is the perfect way to ensure you get away with it. It’s only because one of the potential killers has a soul that things went ass up. I wonder what would happen if the story were remade, but this time both just executed it perfectly and got away with it, like Tom Ripley in several of Highsmith’s other famous novels. Food for thought.

Score: ****1/2

The Stranger

The Stranger 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Anthony Veiller and Decla Dunning

Story: Victor Trivas

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles

Cinematography: Russell Metty

Music: Bronislaw Kaper

Studio: RKO

Release: July 2, 1946

Awards: Trivas was nominated for Best Story at the Oscars but lost to “Vacation From Marriage.” Also nominated were “The Dark Mirror” and “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”

Percent Noir: 60%

Although well known because it is out of copyright and on all those cheap-o noir DVD sets, “The Stranger” remains a relatively minor entry in Orson Welles’ filmography for most. The twist here is that it’s because Welles was dismissive of the movie and, according to biographer Frank Brady, sniffed “that nothing in the film was his.” It’s difficult to get up on the soapbox for a movie whose creator doesn’t care much about it.

That said, up onto this soapbox I shall climb. Because the truth is that I think “The Stranger” is a great film. As readers may know, I am ambivalent to several of the auteur’s more praised work – I don’t like “Touch of Evil,” find “Mr. Arkadin” excruciating and rolled my eyes several times while watching “The Other Side of the Wind.” These movies and others from his oeuvre might be flashier because they have great behind-the-scenes stories of struggle, defeat and perseverance… but still. Meh. Meanwhile, Welles had almost no problems with the production of “The Stranger.” In fact, he finished the film before deadline and under budget. And, for my money, it’s way better than the above movies.

The Stranger 2The film is set in small town America just as the country is becoming re-acclimated to normal life after World War II. Into its borders step two men. The first is Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). Apparently tired of Dennis the Menace’s antics, Mr. Wilson has become a Nazi hunter, and is following a known Nazi named Meinike (Konstantin Shayne, appropriately nervous). Wilson hopes that Meinike will lead him to his great white shark… the fabled Nazi Franz Kindler (Welles). Months ago, Kindler stowed into the town, changed his name and took a job at a local school… and is now married to Mary (Loretta Young), daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. As soon as Kindler sees Meinike, he takes the man into the woods and strangles him to death, hoping that will be the end of things, but Wilson isn’t done snooping around.

I want to push against is Welles’ assertion that there is nothing of him in the film. Looking at his work as a whole, the most obvious thematic link between most of his films is the search for reality behind a man’s outward persona. “Citizen Kane.” “Mr. Arkadin.” “The Other Side of the Wind.” “Chimes at Midnight.” “The Trial.” And that is certainly the case here with Kindler.

The Stranger 3Setting that aside, Welles is outstanding, both as the psychopathic villain and as the director. Let’s talk about the direction first. There is a long take late near the end of act one where Kindler and Meinike are reunited. They embrace, and Kindler takes his friend into the woods. Concurrently, the young men from the nearby school are playing some kind of weird game where one runs through the woods dropping strips of newspaper while the others chase and try to catch him. Welles shoots the moment in a long take, probably almost five minutes, and because there are no cuts, the building sense of dread becomes almost unbearable. We know Meinike is doomed, and watching Kindler manipulate information out of the guy before killing him is excruciating. It’s the perfect way to introduce his villainy, and one of the best set-pieces Welles has ever created.

There’s another great set-piece involving a long, long ladder that wobbles awkwardly any time someone climbs it, and a rung that has been sawed through. One person is meant to die because of this, and the film keeps teasingly shifting the victim from one character to the next to the next… each time ratcheting up the tension further.

Much of the fat that is usually present in other Welles films has been trimmed here. Look at the way Mary is introduced, not with a self-reflective monologue or a long scene with her husband. She simply opens her front door for Meinike, recognizes that he is a… troubling… presence, and still allows him entry – all this before agreeing to let him stay in her home (!) until her fiancé arrives. In just a few lines, we know Mary. We know she’s a weak woman who doesn’t ask enough questions, and it’s therefore easier to buy that she would be married to a mass murderer.

The duo of screenwriters do an excellent job of raising tension throughout, and I have to applaud them for the climax. So often we’ve seen the women in noir from this period tossed to the side, a bystander in the finale to their own story. But here Mary is a major part of the ending. Not just that, she becomes a fucking badass, grabbing a gun and trying to shoot Kindler to death. Also, the audacity of having Kindler be impaled on his clock? How awesome is that?!

As written above, Welles is excellent in this villainous role. He’s especially creepy in those moments when he has to manipulate Mary. Rounding out the main cast, Young and Robinson are both outstanding. Robinson could sleepwalk through a part like this, but instead offers up a great hero we want to cheer for. And Young has the most thankless task – the audience is screaming that she’s an idiot for most of the running time – but she still conjures up sympathy thanks to her fine, subtle work.

“The Stranger” is a moody, manipulative noir thriller that deserves much more praise than it currently gets. Beat for beat, suspense filmmaking doesn’t get much better than this. Welles may not consider it his masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece nonetheless.

Score: *****

Woman on the Run

Woman on the Run 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Alan Campbell and Norman Foster

Based on the story “Man on the Run” by Sylvia Tate

Director: Norman Foster

Cast: Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Ross Elliott

Cinematography: Hal Mohr

Music: Arthur Lange and Emil Newman

Studio: Universal Pictures

Release: November 29, 1950

Percent Noir: 50%

Eh, it’s fine.

I have been struggling to summon up enough motivation to write this article for days. In fact, for a time I was considering just having the above three words be the entirety of my post. Because the truth is that there just isn’t that much to say about “Woman on the Run” – it’s perfectly average. I never really wanted to turn it off, but then again, I found several mediocre excuses to look at my phone while it was playing because my mind was wandering. It’s just… there.

So there’s this infamous gangster in San Francisco and one night while walking his dog, shitty painter and shitty husband Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) witnesses the gangster gun down a man. The police arrive but Frank slips away, knowing the gangster will surely come after him next. A Detective named Ferris (Robert Keith) interviews Frank’s wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan), who is as jaded about the situation as she is about her marriage. But when she realizes Frank has a heart problem and needs medication, she begins searching all of San Francisco, trying to follow a bunch of needlessly cryptic clues and find him. At her side most of the time is ace reporter Daniel (Dennis O’Keefe), who says he’s in it for the story but really is the gangster using Eleanor to track and murder Frank.

Woman on the Run 2And yeah, the above twist is the one thing that I really have to applaud the film for. Is it logically cuh-razy? Yes. Can I even for a second believe that there would be a grand jury hearing about a gangster when no one knows what he looks like, especially the detective handling the case? Fuck yes. That said, if the movie were better I could wave away the plot credibility problems, so it would be unfair for me to gang up on it here. The truth is that the reveal worked well in the film.

What works less well is most everything else.

You know what is a really easy way to make us not care about the main goal of our story’s hero? Have her be ambivalent about achieving that goal. Frank makes no impression on us in the few minutes we see him before he runs away, and when Eleanor learns about her husband’s predicament, she barely bats an eye. After this we get about ten minutes of straight exposition when Ferris is interviewing her where all she does is complain about what a terrible husband, lazy human and uninspired artist he is… to the point where I’m thinking “Gurl, you’re better off without him. #teamgangster.”

And yeah, I get that her arc is supposed to be that she falls back in love with Frank over the course of searching for him. And it could have worked… if this were a novel where we could really get into her head, go into flashbacks of their happy times together and understand him as a three-dimensional character and not a disappeared idiot. Or it could have worked in the movie form if the actor playing Frank had any sort of magnetism (or shared one scene of major chemistry with Sheridan before he disappeared). I know the movie was made on a low budget, but why not hire a major star for one day’s work, that way you’d know the audience would be invested in the hunt to find him?

I’ve run hot and cold on Sheridan in the past, and think she does fine work here… it’s just her character that annoys me. Sure, it’s not entirely the character’s fault – I’d be annoying if my husband left me all these super vague clues that act more like dares or shaming that you don’t remember events from your marriage well enough.

Woman on the Run 3It doesn’t help that this is a classic example of one of the most annoying tropes of film noir – making the heroine a bystander in her own story for the climax. In what is otherwise a well-executed set piece, all the major characters converge in an amusement park for the finale. Will the Detective find Eleanor before Eleanor finds Frank and before Daniel finds him too and kills him? I appreciated the way all the chess pieces were moved to this point… and then Dennis stuffs Eleanor on a rollercoaster and heads off to murder Frank while Eleanor is literally strapped in, unable to help. Hell, the actual moment where Ferris shoots Dennis to save Frank takes place off camera! What. The. Hell.

The director is Norman Foster, who made the excellent “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands” (still the best title in all of noir) and the less excellent “Journey Into Fear.” He makes good use of the San Francisco locations throughout, though all the long takes from Sheridan and O’Keefe’s backs aren’t fooling anyone – we know you wanted to loop in whatever dialogue you wanted later in the process. Not showing Eleanor’s face when she’s speaking about emotional things in her marriage is a missed opportunity.

Okay, I think that’s enough. In summation… “Woman on the Run” exists.

Score: **