Phantom Lady

phantom Lady 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Bernard C. Schoenfeld

Based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich

Director: Robert Siodmak

Cinematographer: Woody Bredell

Cast: Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Franchot Tone

Release: January 28, 1944

Studio: Universal Pictures

Percent Noir: 70%

I hated this movie.

I’m going to be awarding this film one star, and upfront know that the only reason it’s getting that many is because of how beautiful it looks. But on every other level, from storytelling to dialogue to acting to editing, this is a trainwreck. Rarely have I felt like I was getting stupider over the course of a movie, and yet here we are. I can’t fathom the good reputation it has garnered over the decades – perhaps those scholars, critics and film buffs are watching a different movie titled “Phantom Lady”?

The film opens with brooding Scott (Alan Curtis) picking up a mysterious unnamed woman with a crazy hat in a bar. He’s got two tickets to a show and offers her the second. They go together, but when he gets home, he discovers that his wife has been brutally murdered. Uh oh. Were they having marital troubles and had a huge fight the night before? Ding ding ding! Despite three witnesses saying that they saw Scott at the time the murder took place, none of them allegedly remember the woman… so of course Alan is put on trial for murder, convicted and sentenced to death. Wait, what?

Phantom Lady 2Also, I should probably mention that Alan is not the main character of the movie, even though the first 20 minutes focus on him. The hero is his secretary, Carol (Ella Raines), who decides to investigate what’s going on and track down the mysterious hatted woman. Is it a problem that the film doesn’t have a moment of substance between Carol and Alan in its first act… actually, not until after he’s sentenced to death? And even after that, their scenes together are nothing but exposition pits? Yes. Yes, it is.

Carol teams up with the detective (Thomas Gomez) who first arrested Alan (because of course), who has had a change of heart and no longer thinks Alan is guilty… but doesn’t deem that information important enough to take to the judge. She also teams up with Alan’s best friend Jack, played by human block of wood Franchot Tone, who is revealed to be the killer immediately upon his introduction. The second and third acts then becomes a waiting game until idiot Carol realizes she’s standing next to a crazy killer who keeps having traumatic head-grabbing moments and stares at his reflection way too long. Apparently she hasn’t seen every other noir ever made, otherwise she would have picked up on the red flags.

Look, I get it. You’ve got to play along with film noir… accept that our heroes often make dumb decisions. You’ve got to forgive a plot hole or three… that just comes with the territory. And I’m happy to do that – hell, “The Narrow Margin” is my favorite film noir and a train could fit through those plot holes – if the movie doesn’t insult my intelligence. I shouldn’t want to pause the movie every three minutes and shout helpful advice to the screen, or mentally fix plot holes in my mind that screenwriters should have done on their second draft.

But instead we have three witnesses who say they saw Scott at the time of the murder, and that is completely disregarded. Could screenwriter Bernard C. Schoenfeld (who inexplicably co-wrote one of my favorite noir films with “The Dark Corner”) have tilted it slightly so that Jack paid off the witnesses to say they didn’t see Scott either, making the entire thing sensible? Of course he could, but he didn’t. And as a result, I got angry for the first of many, many, many times. I hesitate to call out other logic issues, because it’s going to quickly become a list if I do. A long list.

Phantom Lady 3Okay, logic problems. Whatever. But even if I were to accept that, how am I supposed to swallow the major structure problems the movie has? Why would Schoenfeld start with twenty minutes of screen-time that barely introduce the movie’s real hero? Why, as mentioned earlier, wouldn’t he at least attempt to establish their relationship in more than a line or two so that we’d understand why Carol is doing what she’s doing? And why the hell does this hat even matter when Scott can’t remember what it looks like, nor what the woman looks like?

Okay, that last one was a logic thing again. Sorry, I couldn’t help it.

Maybe if the cast didn’t wholly suck, I would be a little forgiving. But yikes. Raines lack any screen charisma as the lead, and has a prolonged sequence where she goes undercover as a “loose woman” who chews gum constantly with her mouth open. I’d rather not talk about it. Tone is his usual wooden self, and must have served as inspiration for Curtis’ performance. A bomb could have gone off at any point in the movie, murdered them all, and I would not have been phased.

Let me reiterate that “Phantom Lady” is, at least, a very pretty movie. Director Robert Siodmak has made many iconic films noir, including “The Killers,” “Criss Cross” and “The Spiral Staircase,” and his visual sensibility is very much on display here as well. The climactic showdown in Jack’s apartment is bathed in shadows and weird, intriguing angles… which makes you wish more exciting things happened in it. Cinematographer Woody Bredell worked with Siodmak often, and you can already see the seeds of genius that would completely blossom in later, better movies.

Writing about “Phantom Lady” has just made me mad all over again. If you like this movie, good for you. But why? I just… I wanted it to be better. I wanted it to be something… anything other than the dumpster fire it actually is. What a shame.

Score: *

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Wanda

wANDA.jpgThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #965

Writer/Director: Barbara Loden

Star: Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins

Cinematographer: Nicholas Proferes

Distributor: Bardene International Films

Release: September 1, 1970

Country: USA

As with my previous Oscar Odyssey installment of “Death in Venice,” the wonderful David Blakeslee kindly invited me to return to his “Criterion Reflections” podcast in order to talk about Barbara Loden’s masterpiece “Wanda.” Does Mr. Dennis like onions on his burger? No. Did we go hard on Elia Kazan? Yes. Did I spot a possible Elton John cameo? Yes. 

You can find the episode on Apple Podcasts, or feel free to click on the link below to listen on your browser or download it. Enjoy!

Criterion Reflections: Wanda

 

The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Mel Dinelli

Based on the novel “Some Must Watch” by Ethel Lina White

Director: Robert Siodmak

Cinematographer: Nicholas Musuraca

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Dorothy McGuire, Ethel Barrymore, George Brent

Release: December 20, 1945

Studio: RKO

Awards: Barrymore was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but lost to Anne Baxter in “The Razor’s Edge.”

Percent Noir: 60%

“The Spiral Staircase” is one of those special “All Star” noir films, stacking up so many creative heavyweights (Dinelli! Siodmak! Musuraca!) that it seems obvious that the end result is going to be great. And it is.

Dorothy McGuire stars as Helen, who has been rendered mute by PTSD after watching her parents burn to death in a fire during her childhood. She is a servant to the difficult Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) in a gigantic, shadowy mansion, which is also inhabited by a bunch of servants and two young men – Mrs. Warren’s stepson Albert (George Brent) and her biological son Steven (Gordon Oliver). At the same time, the area is being terrorized by an Abelist serial killer, who murders women he deems imperfect (mentally handicapped, blind etc.) Could Helen be the killer’s next target? Obviously.

Though “The Spiral Staircase” is noir, it’s also a bunch of other genres all wrapped up together. It’s part psychological thriller, part horror film, part whodunit… I’m sure there’s more. Long stretches of the film’s 83-minute runtime are spent with characters – mostly Helen – wandering through shadowy, seemingly empty hallways where the killer could jump out at any given moment. We also watch Helen from the killer’s point-of-view – first in glaring close-ups of his eyes (apparently it’s director Robert Siodmak’s eyes, but those eyebrows look one hell of a lot like the actor playing the killer) and then in tracking shots that stalk Helen as she moves, unaware.

The Spiral 3The above sequences in particular have been copied for decades… hell, the entire slasher genre should be paying this film’s creators residuals. Other films who have had a groundbreaking aspect to them that have been copied for decades have lessened in power, but that is untrue here. The shot choice by noir superstar director Siodmak (“The Killers,” “Criss Cross”) and noir superstar cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (“Out of the Past,” “The Locket”) have never been topped, and the sequences (partially thanks to noir superstar Roy Webb’s (“Murder, My Sweet,” “Notorious”) outstanding score) are still as tense as they were when the film was first released.

All of the style would be for naught if we didn’t care about the character in danger, and here is where “The Spiral Staircase” excels. Helen is a fascinating woman, as written by noir superstar writer Mel Dinelli (“The Window,” “The Reckless Moment”). He goes out of his way early on to show that Helen is a strong heroine despite her inability to speak… when she hears a noise in the woods, she grabs a nearby stick and is about to use it as a weapon on the killer (don’t worry, it’s only a cute bunny!). And McGuire’s performance is aces as well, balancing a vulnerability with gumption in a way where you know, when the time comes, she’s going to rise to the occasion.

And, for a heroine in essentially a slasher flick, she makes a lot of smart decisions. She searches the shadows before she walks into the basement for the killer’s feet, and doesn’t spend long trying to wake up drunk or passed out supporting characters when she knows her time is better spend getting a weapon. This girl is in it to win it, though the climax of the film robs her of her big moment – when Mrs. Warren shoots the killer, Helen screams at the top of her lungs, her voice returned. Had Dinelli slightly shifted the scene to have Helen scream, alerting Mrs. Warren to her location, it would have been a victory for both of them. Still, the final moment of the movie, where she calls the local doctor for help, is still one of those perfect filmic moments… I love that there isn’t a silly happy ending epilogue.

The Spiral 2And though I love how the film diligently removes one character after another from the mansion, isolating Helen more and more on the dark and stormy night… that leaves less suspects for the whodunit mystery. As a result, it’s obvious from act one that it’s one of the brothers (Dinelli writes a scene where the romantic interest doctor screams at Helen to try to get her to speak that serves as a red herring, but it doesn’t do much), and anyone who has seen even one episode of “Law & Order” knows it’s going to be the more normal-seeming of the two.

This problem is compounded by the fact that Brent is pretty awful here. Well, maybe “awful” is the wrong phrase… let’s just say he turns in a performance that is immediately forgotten. And when you’re playing the killer, that’s never a good sign. Barrymore is quite good as the angry old dame in charge of the house, though I’m surprised she was nominated for an Oscar for the performance. And, as always, Elsa Lancaster steals every scene she’s in as an alcoholic servant.

Visually, as said above, it doesn’t get much better than this. I hadn’t seen the movie in probably a decade before I revisited it here, but I could still remember specific shots and angles. It’s as if Siodmak and Musuraca only made great choices – no bad ones. The film contains some of the most indelible images in all of noir, and is a must-see solely for that.

Luckily, there’s so much else to love in “The Spiral Staircase.” The writing, aside from a few stumbles, is excellent, as are most of the performances. This is one of the iconic films noir for a reason, and it lingers long after it fades to black. You think about it at night when you need to step into the dark outside to bring the trash in, or hear a noise outside at night… and suddenly you’re in the film again, on the edge of your seat.

Score: ****1/2

To Sleep With Anger

To Sleep With Anger Cover.jpgThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #963

Writer/Director: Charles Burnett

Star: Danny Glover, Paul Butler, Mary Alice, Carl Lumbly, Vonetta McGee

Cinematographer: Walt Lloyd

Music: Stephen James Taylor

Distributor: The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Release: October 12, 1990

Country: USA

“To Sleep With Anger” is a very good film and a delightful discovery for me. It reminds me that going on this yearlong Odyssey of collecting every new Criterion release was a smart choice and, more importantly, the right choice. But after digesting the entire release, I walked away with an odd feeling. The essay to the various featurettes in the special features all highlighted the excellence and importance… of a different movie called “Killer of Sheep.” That film is unseen by me, but everyone involved with this release seems to be head over heels for it, so much so that the thesis for the release of the (again, very good) “To Sleep With Anger” seems to be “We’d rather be releasing ‘Killer of Sheep,’ but here you go!”

And now I’ve spent my entire opening paragraph talking about “Killer of Sheep” too, so whoops.

To Sleep With Anger 2Back to the release in question – written and directed by Charles Burnett, it ambitiously mixes ancient superstition and belief with the modern world… and does so with a shocking amount of success. A great many films have attempted this uneasy mix with little or no success. We’ve seen so many films sink because of issues with exposition, tone, embracing it with half measures and I-don’t-know-what-all. But here you are engaged from beginning to end.

There are a lot of reasons for this. First is that no one actually states the superstitions that everyone is thinking. Second is that the film would work well with the superstitious elements stripped away (in fact, that’s what many potential producers were insisting on), so it is icing on the cake. Finally is the beautifully realized, esoteric title sequence which shows a family member who twiddles his thumbs while being cooked alive slowly by fire.

To Sleep With Anger 1This is Gideon (Paul Butler), and the fire is a great metaphor, but it could have easily been a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. We’re in South Central Los Angeles, and Gideon lives happily with his wife Suzie (Mary Alice), and they are active in the lives of their two married sons Junior (Carl Lumbly) and James (Richard Brooks). James is better known as Baby Brother to his family – a name he actively hates because he feels it strips away his masculinity. They have the usual family issues and problems, but in general seem quite happy.

Into this dynamic walks Harry (Danny Glover), who Gideon and Suzie knew years ago when they lived in the South. He says he was travelling through when he fell ill. They insist he stays until he feels better. He takes them up on their offer, and then never leaves. He begins psychologically screwing with the family, especially the easily-to-manipulate Samuel. Gideon falls into a sort-of coma. Samuel’s marriage begins to crumble, and a bunch of strange dudes show up at all hours for no apparent reason.

To Sleep With Anger 4The film is only 100-ish minutes but feels much longer than that thanks to Burnett’s odd choices with pacing and tension building. It’s a really, really, really slow build that grated on me quite a bit during the first viewing. A second viewing, now that I was keyed into Burnett’s style and more open to his editing choices, was much more enjoyable. The problem was that I was more interested in the explosion Harry would eventually cause within in the family and didn’t understand that plotline is secondary to Burnett’s interest in observing the evolving family dynamic.

And that is the reason the movie is ultimately a success. The family feels real. Though they are in the progressive Southern California, they still embrace many aspects of their past in the South, from their good luck charms to the chickens they raise in the backyard to their life in the local church. They have a blunt way of speaking to one another – at first I thought it was bad exposition, but that is just the way these characters talk, often without subtext and usually without taking into consideration the repercussions.

Also interesting is that this is one of those very rare films that does not have a main character. Yes, the movie is an ensemble, but not in the same way Robert Altman’s movies were – even in big casts like this, there is still usually a way in through a main protagonist. For awhile I thought it was Gideon, and Burnett says as much in one of the Bonus Features, but he becomes persona non grata around the midpoint, leaving the viewer searching for someone to latch onto. Focus sort-of switches to Suzie, and Alice gets some good material here to sink her teeth into, but she ultimately also falls into the backdrop as the battle between the brothers moves to the fore. Plus, no single character “defeats” Harry – it’s the family’s unity which brings him down. Plus those marbles. Most surprising about this is that Burnett is so successful in his gambit – the lack of focus on one character adds to the viewer’s feeling of imbalance, underlining his themes in a way that is quite ballsy.

To Sleep With Anger 3Glover gives a fascinating performance as Harry. The (awful) original poster implies that he’s going to really ham it up in the role, and I suppose he does to a certain extent, with his too-long laughs and the way he elonnngates cerrrtain worrrds. But there’s a lot more substance there, and Glover gives the character an air of exhaustion, even in his most seductive of scenes. He’s told these stories so many times before. He’s watched families crumble before. This is all old hat to him. Contrast that with his subtle devastation when the family moves against him after the hospital scene – the way his face falls when no one will take his coffee cup is exquisite. Ashley Clark, who wrote the essay in the release, calls it Glover’s best performance, as do several other reviewers. This is a stretch – I still think it’s probably Mister in “The Color Purple,” but it also discounts what an amazing straight man he is in the first two “Lethal Weapon” films. But then again, acting in popcorn flicks rarely gets the credit it deserves, so that isn’t surprising.

To Sleep With Anger 7The rest of the ensemble range from fine to very good, with most of the actresses as standouts. The biggest revelation was Ethel Ayler as Hattie, who in her few short scenes almost walks away with the entire movie. Her strength and chemistry with Glover (not to mention her singing voice) are astonishing, and I was disheartened to see her featured in such a small filmography (Jewelry Saleswoman in “8 ½ Weeks”!) – how many great performances did we miss from her? She sadly died in November of last year, and it made me so oddly sad that I missed out on being a fan of her while she was alive.

Hattie’s singing highlights one of the biggest positives and negatives here, which is the music. There are some awesome songs on the soundtrack, my favorite by far being “Precious Memories,” which plays over that fiery title sequence. But the score by Stephen James Taylor leaves a lot to be desired, with no engaging themes for the family or playful villain work for Harry. Instead the odd choices Taylor makes stick out like a sore thumb in scenes the music should be supporting.

MSDTOSL EC004I haven’t had a chance to spotlight this yet, but “To Sleep With Anger” is also very funny. There’s an extended joke (which also works as a metaphor) where Harry still won’t leave after he dies – the Coroner just won’t come and pick up his body! They wait and wait. They order take-out. They wait some more. Finally, the church organizes a picnic so they can get out of the damn house. And still Harry lies there.

Ultimately, “To Sleep With Anger’s” eccentricities help set it apart from other comparable dramas from that period. I like the family, I like Glover’s interpretation of Harry, and I like Burnett’s simple visual style that puts an emphasis on acting over visual technique. It comes highly recommended, even as a blind buy.

Cover: Finally, some color! Charly Palmer offers up a great painting that explodes with characters and imagery. Hattie is prominently placed, which makes me love Palmer even more. I’m deducting half a point for the awful font, but this one may eclipse “In the Heat of the Night” as my favorite cover of 2019 so far.

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

Essay: Clark’s writing is crisp and he provides a good introduction to Burnett as a filmmaker, but the entire thing feels very disjointed (you learn at the end that this is a bit of a zombie essay, with several parts having been published previously elsewhere). Also, the focus on “Killer of Sheep” grated after a few paragraphs.

A side note – the essay is terribly placed in the booklet, which is a folded poster, and is nearly impossible to read. I gave up and read it online.

I award it two-and-a-half sacrificial chickens out of five.

Extras: Not much here.

  • A Making Of Featurette featuring most of the main players. Burnett’s insights are great contextually, and it points out several things groundbreaking about the film that I had taken for granted. For example, it takes place in South Central and has no gangs or drugs, and the female characters were just as fleshed out as the male ensemble. Still, the featurette suffered from (broken record alert) an obsession with “Killer of Sheep.”
  • A video tribute to Burnett from the Governors Awards. Disposable.
  • “A Walk with Charles Burnett,” in which Burnett talks about his entire career, which is by far the highlight of the disc, despite the focus on you-know-what. How has this man not made more movies? Give him a prestige HBO miniseries, stat!

I award them two marbles out of five.

Death in Venice

Death in Venice CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #962

Writer: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco

Based on the novella by Thomas Mann

Director: Luchino Visconti

Star: Dirk Bogarde, Bjorn Andresen, Silvana Mangano

Cinematographer: Pasqualino De Santis

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Release: March 1, 1971

Country: Italy

This installment of my Criterion Odyssey is a little bit different, because the esteemed David Blakeslee honored me by inviting me on his long-running podcast “Criterion Reflections” to discuss “Death in Venice.” Also along for the ride were William Remmers and Josh Hornbeck, and the discussion between the four of us was quite insightful.

You can find the episode on Apple Podcasts, or feel free to click on the link below to listen on your browser or download it. Enjoy!

Criterion Reflections: Death in Venice

The Brasher Doubloon

The Brasher 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Dorothy Bennett

Adaptation: Leonard Praskins

Based on the novel “The High Window” by Raymond Chandler

Director: John Brahm

Cinematographer: Lloyd Ahern

Music: David Buttolph

Cast: George Montgomery, Nancy Guild, Florence Bates

Release: February 6, 1947

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 90%

Despite its main character being Philip Marlowe, it becomes clear within the first three minutes of “The Brasher Doubloon” that this is not a Philip Marlowe movie. George Montgomery is grossly miscast as the iconic private dick, apparently thinking he’s in a lighthearted romantic mystery and not trapped within the shadows of Raymond Chandler’s noir world. Speaking of Chandler, aside from some voiceover in the first minutes lifted directly from “The High Window,” the novel being adapted, there is almost no trace of his trademark hardboiled dialogue. The more you watch, the more it becomes clear: the film may go through the motions of the book, but it has none of the soul.

Marlowe is called to Pasadena by Merle (Nancy Guild), live-in secretary to the wealthy, eccentric Elizabeth Murdock (Florence Bates). Elizabeth hires Marlowe to track down her stolen Brasher Doubloon, the rarest, most expensive coin in existence. And before you can say “Maltese Falcon,” heavies are beating up Marlowe, Peter Lorre knockoffs are holding guns on him, and Merle is trying to seduce him… all for mysterious reasons.

At only 72 minutes, this is by far the shortest feature adaptation of Chandler’s work. Dorothy Bennett’s screenplay greatly streamlines the novel (which was short to begin with), most notably losing several supporting characters who serves as red herrings. As a result, the suspect pool is diminished to the point where the main twists are obvious from the end of the first act. To be fair, it’s Chandler’s most off-tone novel, feeling more like a classic whodunit than his usual fare and almost romantic in its approach to Marlowe and Merle’s relationship.

The Brasher 2Bennett leans into that romance in the grossest possible way, however. From almost the first, Merle literally winces whenever Marlowe touches her – she can’t stand being held because of something that happened in her past. In the novel, Marlowe accepts this but, in the film, he laughs her off (repeatedly) when she begs him to get away and keeps creeping on her like a disgusting molester until she gives in. Look, Chandler was a monster and Marlowe is defined by what an asshole he is, but this? It felt like a bridge too far. Made Marlowe feel like a villain. And the fact that they got together at the end left me with a terrible taste in my mouth that lingered far longer than the rest of the movie.

Director John Brahm has been slowly building a great reputation over the past few years, with his work on films like “The Locket,” “Hangover Square” and “The Lodger” now being considered minor classics. Those movies look sublime and overflow with atmosphere in most every scene. But here? Aside from some establishing shots and two (far too brief) scenes set in large interiors, the movie is flat and claustrophobic. The first act in particular feels equivalent to a Monogram movie. Had the characters sparked and the dialogue sparkled like classic Chandler, that would not have been a problem. But here? With no visual distinction or hardboiled feel to fall back on, you watch one scene after another flounder and die.

The Brasher 3Montgomery’s casting is just another symptom of how little the creative team understood the material they were working with. Too young for Marlowe, too bright-eyed, too handsome… and what’s with that mustache? The guy isn’t a bad actor, but he’s the wrong actor, and the few scenes where he is called upon to be tough left my eyes rolling. It’s incredibly unfortunate that his first major scene, where he is hired by Elizabeth while they sit across from one another in a conservatory, closely mirrors the opening of “The Big Sleep.” As we know, I have my problems with that movie, but comparing the two is night and day.

The women come off a little better. Guild, who I’ve never seen before, appears awkward and unsettled… which suits the character well. Bates has a ball with her gleefully villainous turn – the moment where Elizabeth pressures Merle into prostituting herself for Marlowe is creepy in all the right ways. The rest of the men are forgettable with the lone exception of Fritz Kortner. His minor villain role was obviously meant for Peter Lorre, and Brahm seems to have directed him, line for line, to mimic Lorre as closely as possible. It’s uncanny how near the two are, and makes me wonder why they couldn’t have just let Kortner do his own thing.

Despite its awful title (why not just call it “The High Window”?) and lack of quality, I’m still shocked that 20th Century Fox has abandoned it like they have. Its famous Fox Film Noir DVD series started off with stunners like “Laura” and “Panic in the Streets,” but by the end had degenerated into releasing crap like “Black Widow” and “Dangerous Crossing.” With the Chandler pedigree and Brahm behind the camera, did this really not merit a release? Instead, it can only be found in the corner of Fox’s Web site as one of those mediocre-quality DVD-R. Someone working there must hate it.

I still have several Marlowe adaptations to cover in this Odyssey, but I feel safe enough to write that the quality of the adaptations varies so wildly from film to film. “The Brasher Doubloon” isn’t the worst of the lot – that distinction goes to “The Big Sleep” remake (that’s the one where Marlowe karate chops a heavy in the neck) – but it may well be the most disappointing. I look at something like the abortive “Lady in the Lake,” which was fundamentally flawed in its visual approach, and still remember that scene where Audrey Totter’s character starts talking about loneliness at Christmas and manages to break through all of Marlowe’s walls. It’s a brilliant, beautifully realized scene in a bad movie, but I’d take that any day of the week over this trainwreck.

Score: *1/2

La Verite

La Verite CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #960

Writer: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Vera Clouzot, Simone Drieu, Jerome Geronimi, Michele Perrein, Christiane Rochefort

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Star: Brigitte Bardot, Sami Frey, Charles Vanel, Paul Meurisse

Cinematography: Armand Thirard

Distributor: Kingsley-International Pictures

Release: November 2, 1960

Country: France

Okay, here’s the truth.

After I finished “La Verite” the first time, I was mightily impressed by what I had just seen, but still felt an overall coldness to the material. What was I missing? From theme to content to visuals, it was everything I could have wanted in this type of film. After a second viewing, things became clearer – this is a work that I greatly admire on an intellectual level, and yet there is nothing in its 130 minutes that emotionally engages me.

La Verite 2Brigitte Bardot stars as Dominique, a woman who shot her sometimes-boyfriend Gilbert (Sami Frey) to death. She claims she went to his apartment to kill herself, and is now on trial. But it isn’t just the specifics of the murder which appear to be on trial – every aspect of Dominique’s lifestyle are brought into the spotlight for judgment by both the jury and, based on the size of the crowd watching, all of Parisian society.

The film was co-written by Henri-Georges Clouzot (who also directed), Vera Clouzot, Simone Drieu, Jerome Geronimi, Michele Perrein, Christiane Rochefort, and their point of view is clear from the start: while Dominique is on trial in the film, they are putting the restrictive, moral-but-not-humane French society through the same process. The film’s title is translated as “The Truth” and, in a bit of on-the-nose obviousness, the filmmakers are intent on showing that there is no single, simple truth to be had.

La Verite 4

With the above as the filmmakers’ thesis, the easy move, of course, would have been to deify Dominique, turning her into an all-around “good” person who just happens to be young and Bohemian. But director Clouzot has never been interested in good people. Though often, annoyingly, reduced to the title of the French Hitchcock, he is much more insidious in his approach to character. He uses the trappings of other genres, primarily thrillers, but whereas most American genre films have a distinct line between heroes and villains… someone you can easily root for, he takes pleasure in blurring them. In all his best work – “Le Corbeau,” “The Wages of Fear,” “Diabolique” – everyone is guilty.

And here is no exception. Dominique is a horrible human being. And yet many of the things that I hate about her as a person are not the things that the hoard of writers have those in the courtroom judge her for… and that is a very important distinction. In doing this, the movie can have it both ways – we can still implicate Dominique in our own minds while also being frustrated by the legal system and rush to judgment by society.

La Verite 8Again, on an intellectual level, I am so onboard with this. Reading the above paragraphs, “La Verite” sounds like a frickin’ masterpiece, no? Well, here is where the twist comes in: the implementation of those ideas greatly hobbles the film. I was sitting there the whole time thinking “Wow, what a smart idea” instead of just engaging.

There are a lot of reasons for this. The first is the structure conjured by the above. We have a flashback showing how something really happened, and then cut to the courtroom to hear the prosecutors’ interpretations of said event. At first it engages, but after the hour mark, this becomes repetitive and hurts the tension mightily. The movie is already long at 130 minutes, but feels much longer, and the above is why. Again, intellectually, I get why the filmmakers did this – poor Dominique must listen to a bunch of interchangeable, judgmental old men narrate her own life, demeaning her consistently, and every time she attempts to argue for herself, her words are waved away. But that didn’t stop me from checking the time on my cell phone with every cut back to court.

La Verite 3And then there is Dominique herself. I have no problem with a morally reprehensible character anchoring a film, nor do I take issue with someone of simple motivation being the lead. That said, Dominique is blah. The filmmakers were obviously leaning into Bardot’s personality in the press when creating her character, but aside from her sex appeal, there is nothing of note there. The flashbacks, which were an opportunity to define Dominique or bring her more dimension, fail to bring any type of specificity to her. She likes her sister’s boyfriend, she likes dancing, she likes sex, she likes music, she likes sleeping in… and that’s about it.

All other attempts at characterization offer only frustration. The most egregious of these is the little book Dominique keeps with her where she has written on every page some variation of “Mrs. Dominique Tellier” (Gilbert’s last name). What are we, in seventh grade here? I get that the filmmakers want us to understand that she is not mature emotionally, but this is ridiculous.

La Verite 1Meanwhile, Gilbert is arguably an even more vile, despicable person but the writers easily succeed in giving him three dimensions. He has wants and needs beyond his desire for Dominique, and every time he makes a horrible choice, the filmmakers give him a monologue so he can explain his motivations for doing what he’s doing. He even gets a better arc… when he’s with Dominique he stagnates in every other aspect of his life, but when they are broken up, he flourishes.

Frey is very good in the role, and shares ample sexual chemistry with Bardot (they had an affair that ultimately ended her marriage during production). And Bardot is fine throughout. Sure, in several early sequences you can see the performance wobble, but she turns in some very good work during the third act. A documentary on the disc features a man who says that Bardot’s work in the second half of the film is some of the best acting ever on film, which is laughable – she’s good and the movie was smart to cast her so they could lean into her persona, but come on now. Reviewers at the time also were kind to Bardot’s performance, but frustratingly gave every bit of credit to Clouzot… almost as if he physically stuck his hand into her and puppeteered the entire thing. Oh, sexism.

La Verite 5Bardot and Frey are best in a perfect little scene that is my second favorite of the film. Frey’s Gilbert makes extra money by playing the organ at a local church, and is currently providing the musical backdrop for a wedding when Dominique heads up into the balcony to talk to him. They begin an argument, climaxing with Gilbert losing his cool and stamping his hands against the keys, horror movie style, while everyone at the wedding stares up at them in shock.

That said, my favorite moment, which perfectly encapsulates the themes Clouzot and his screenwriters were going for, happens in the court. The prosecutor tries to dismiss Dominique’s suicide attempt from years before by reading only part of the physician’s write-up on the incident. The defense attorney corrects him, reading the next several lines of the form, which then casts the incident in a different light. This would be good enough, but then the prosecution grabs the form back and reads further, flipping the script once more.

La Verite 7And in case I didn’t make it clear earlier, the movie looks astonishingly beautiful. Clouzot and his regular cinematographer Armand Thirard do wonders with depth in the courtroom, and their interpretation of Paris at night is a wonder to behold. And the restoration and transfer are stunning, thanks to Criterion, Sony, The Film Foundation and RT Features. I actually think that it may look better now than it did when first released.

So is “La Verite” a success when it comes down to it? Well, yes and no. It has all the hallmarks of classic Clouzot, but failed to engage me like his other films in the collection. Still, it’s definitely worth a watch for the things that do work… but maybe rent it instead of buying.

Cover: F. Ron Miller has reimagined the painting from the original poster with a blunt, black background. Jeez, Criterion is sure skewing dark with their covers of late, no? Still, Bardot’s face is fascinating to look at and I like the shock of the red type of the title. It will definitely stand out on store shelves.

I award it four salsa records out of five.

Essay: Ginette Vincendeau provides some great insights into how Clouzot and his co-writers attempted to balance their themes with Dominique’s character. Vincendeau obviously liked the movie more than me (she calls it a masterpiece, which is generous), but we share many of the same opinions on the content, and her writing style is aces.

I award it five understandably bitter sisters out of five.

Extras: Pretty slim pickings.

  • We get an hourlong documentary about Clouzot. It purports to look into the darker side of his persona, but the first half in particular feels like nothing but propaganda – with actress Michele Ressi as the only person willing to criticize him (and her words cut straight to the bone). The second half is more balanced as it investigates his late-career creative implosion and his fraying legacy. But in general, this is a beginner’s guide to Clouzot, and if you are a beginner, then you definitely shouldn’t be choosing “La Verite” as your first film from his oeuvre.
  • A short interview with Clouzot from 1960 about “La Verite” where the interviewer attempts to demean Bardot’s acting ability and Clouzot stands up for her talents. ‘Tis fine.
  • A section of a longer 1982 documentary on Bardot where she talks about the film. She doesn’t give much insight into her process or Clouzot. I get why Criterion didn’t try to interview Bardot today (what with the racism and everything), but I feel like they could have found a newer interview, or at least one with more insight.

I award them one-and-a-half broken mirror shards out of five.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

Kiss 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Leonardo Bercovici

Adaptation: Ben Maddow & Walter Bernstein

Additional Dialogue: Hugh Gray

Based on the novel by Gerald Butler

Director: Norman Foster

Cinematographer: Russell Metty

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Cast: Joan Fontaine, Burt Lancaster

Release: October 30, 1948

Studio: Universal

Percent Noir: 70%

At long last we have come to the best title in the history of film noir. Think about it… does it get any better than “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands”? I don’t think so. But is the movie itself more than just that name? After all, it didn’t garner much attention when first released, despite newly minted A-lister Burt Lancaster’s presence, and it seems to have fallen through the cracks of history. Unavailable on any of the film noir compilations from Universal, you can only get it on one of those cheaply made DVD-Rs. Turns out, it’s actually great… with a fantastic beginning that grabs you and never let’s go.

I’m surprised the first ten minutes aren’t more well-remembered, because the sequence is a doozy. Drunk ex-GI Bill (Lancaster) accidentally kills someone he sucker punches in a bar in the UK. Immediately pursued by the cops, he races across the fog-ridden city with the law at his heels, finally climbing up the skeleton of a building and into the window of a sleeping Jane (Joan Fontaine). She wakes up and he sorta kinda holds her hostage, but Jane senses that he’s not a danger to her. Despite several opportunities to get the police, she allows him to stay and leave when he wants to. Immediately smitten, Bill finds her at her job the next day and Jane notices the sparks too. But, partially because he’s a former POW of the Nazis and partially because he’s the hero in a film noir, Bill has a short fuse and gets violent in front of Jane, assaulting three men and getting arrested. She breaks things off and he’s sentenced to six months in prison.

When released, they reconnect and Bill tries to stick on the straight and narrow to prove himself worthy of Jane. That gets especially difficult when a man who witnessed Bill kill the man in the bar finds Bill and blackmails him into taking part in a medical supply robbery.

Kiss 2Unfortunately, despite the movie having a kinky side – Bill is stripped, shackled and whipped by the police as punishment for the assault – no bloody hands are kissed during the runtime. Still, a shirtless Burt Lancaster is always a pleasure, so thank you filmmakers.

Though the story follows the broad strokes of “Kiss of Death,” which was released a year prior, “Kiss the Blood From My Hands” has its own identity. I love the twist of having Jane stab Bill’s blackmailer to death, “Dial M For Murder”-style, and the bittersweet choices the characters make in the finale are quite powerfully staged and acted.

Perhaps the reason the film isn’t remembered much today is because it puts much more emphasis on romance than a normal noir. The beating heart of the movie is Bill’s relationship with Jane, and if we don’t buy into their attraction and, later, love for one another, then the movie does not fundamentally work.

Luckily, Fontaine and Lancaster spark a fine coupling onscreen. It’s quite an odd match at first, with their acting styles quite different. Fontaine’s natural fragility doesn’t seem like it would mesh with Lancaster’s roughness, but somehow… it just works. Lancaster’s soulful eyes and Fontaine’s warm smile help. Their first few scenes together are touch and go, especially an ill-conceived one at a zoo where Bill has a breakdown (the animals are in cages… and so was he! Metaphor!). But when the duo go on a date to the racetrack together, the chemistry takes off. You engage with them as a couple, and because of that you buy the difficult conversations they have with one another in the third act.

Kiss 3The director, Norman Foster, is little-remembered today aside from the Orson Welles produced “Journey Into Fear,” which many scholars insist Welles ghost-directed even though they have no evidence. Foster was a journeyman director, working on several Mr. Moto films (unseen by me) and some of the best installments of the Charlie Chan franchise (“Charlie Chan at Treasure Island”). The promise he showed elsewhere is on display in most every scene here. I’ve already written about that opening – and must give cinematographer Russell Metty (“The Stranger,” “Ride the Pink Horse”) credit too – but I would be remiss if I didn’t spotlight the romantic scenes either. Foster takes great advantage of location shooting in these scenes to bring a natural atmosphere forward, contrasting it beautifully with the stylized night scenes.

The screenplay is also well done, despite involving the work of four screenwriters, and that’s only the credited ones. I like how strong they make Jane when she needs to be, whether fending off the blackmailer with those scissors or standing up to Bill when he’s flying off the handle. This is one of those great examples of a “good girl” heroine who is just as interesting and engaging as any femme-fatale character.

A quick shout out to Miklos Rozsa for his sublime score, which balances the tone of noir and romance perfectly. It helps to keep the tone balanced throughout, and his love theme here is one for the ages.

Look, I know getting your hands on “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands” is rough. It’s not streaming anywhere, and the DVD costs as much as several other DVD and Blu-ray noir sets. And yet… it’s worth it. Here is a hidden film noir treasure that engages you emotionally thanks to the wonderful romantic pairing at the center, but also stuns as a visual tour de force. That opening sequence should be studied in film schools as a great example of how to build suspense and action over a prolonged period of screentime. It’s one of my favorite discoveries so far on the Odyssey.

Score: ****1/2

Desperate

Desperate 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Harry Essex

Story: Dorothy Atlas and Anthony Mann

Director: Anthony Mann

Cinematographer: George E. Diskant

Music: Paul Sawtell

Cast: Steve Brodie, Audrey Long, Raymond Burr

Release: May 17, 1947

Studio: RKO

Percent Noir: 40%

The third act of “Desperate” is astonishingly good. All the best hallmarks of Anthony Mann’s superb direction are on display, and he presents us with two back-to-back scenes which are tension-filled and rightly cemented their place in the noir canon. I cannot say enough good things about this section of the film… which is nice, because the rest of it sucks. For a movie that’s only 73 minutes long, it feels double that length… taking an eternity to get to the good stuff.

Film noir is known for having dumb male characters as its leads… I mean, that’s kind of the foundation of the genre. That said, Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) is in a league of his own. I’m not saying he’s the stupidest character I’ve encountered in all the hundred-plus films I’ve watched on this Odyssey… I’m just saying I cannot think of a better example right now.

Desperate 2Steve is a truck driver who is hired by an old high school buddy named Walt (Raymond Burr) to move a shipment. A few red flags here… first is that the shipment takes place in a mostly-deserted warehouse in the middle of the night, and the second is that his high school friend looks a lot like Raymond Burr – and anyone who’s seen a crime movie from the ‘40s knows Burr’s presence means torture and bullets flying. Turns out Walt is moving stolen goods, and instead of agreeing to move the materials then driving off when no one is looking, Steve makes a big stink about it, ultimately creating a shootout that leaves a cop dead and Walt’s brother-from-another-mother in police custody.

All that stuff is par for the course in a noir. Speaking as a man, we are stupid creatures. But it’s what happens next that takes the cake. Instead of going directly to the police, Steve tells his pregnant wife Anne (Audrey Long) to rendezvous with him on a train. She doesn’t seem much phased by his bloody and bruised face, and has an odd lack of follow-up questions when Steve says he doesn’t want to talk about what happens… but then again she also doesn’t seem like the sharpest knife in the drawer. In her introductory scene, she assumed that whipped cream needed six times more salt than sugar. Oy.

Anyway, Steve says he’ll totally go to the cops to explain everything… after he gets Anne to safety. Okay, so they can just book her into a hotel, right? Nope… they have to cross state lines (!), steal two cars (!!) and leave an injured police officer unconscious in a field (!!!) in order to get to Montana to get to Anne’s family. You know, the first place people chasing you would search. Also… even someone who has never watched an episode of “Law & Order” would know not to run from the police when your face is on the front page of every newspaper.

This stupidity is exceeded twice later in the movie, when Steve and Anne decide that, even though they are in hiding, that they should have a huge vow renewal ceremony and invite everyone in town. Oh, and then after that, they abandon Anne’s aunt and uncle… who have been caring for them for months… to die when Walt and his heavies break into the house.

Desperate 3At a certain point, Steve sends his wife away on a bus, insisting to her everything is okay, and this serves as a creative reset for the film. Everything after is aces. First we get an incredible sequence where Walt and a few of his heavies take Steve hostage, tie him to a chair and tell him that he has 15 minutes to live, setting a loudly ticking clock at the center of the table between them. Mann and his editor Marston Fay have a field day creating suspense here, alternating between close-ups of the men and the clock, laying under an ever-louder ticking… until it becomes almost too much to take.

The second amazing scene is Steve’s climactic pursuit of Walt up a dark staircase… floor after floor. When did the lights go out? Who cares! With each set of stairs they climb, the world around them gets darker as the light from below ebbs further and further away. Cinematographer George E. Diskant (“The Narrow Margin”) creates seemingly impossible menacing shadows across the men and the area. The periodic blasts of the guns as the men shoot at one another reminded me of Jacques Tourneur’s use of loud noises and silence in the famous pool sequence in “Cat People,” which is about the highest compliment I can think of. This ending is a high watermark for everything noir can accomplish, and is a must-see for anyone who enjoys the genre.

Despite the inanity of the earlier acts, Mann manages to create solid atmosphere elsewhere. When Steve is brutalized by several men, a swinging lamp above casts the entire room in weird zig-zags of light, and the first act shootout is impressively staged. And that’s a good thing, because aside from Burr’s usual professionalism, the cast is wholly unmemorable. I saw the movie only a few hours ago, but I probably couldn’t pick either of the leads out of a line-up, and neither has a single moment of acting in the movie where you think “Huh, pretty talented.” The supporting cast likewise adds to the wallpaper.

Honestly, up until that final act, I had completely written off “Desperate” and most of my notes were of inadvertently funny moments I could mock in this article. I had that single star all ready to award. But that last act really stuck the landing in a way that so redeemed the movie that I’m actually going to recommend it. Barely.

Score: ***

Beware, My Lovely

Beware 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Mel Dinelli, from his short story and play

Director: Harry Horner

Cinematographer: George E. Diskant

Music: Leith Stevens

Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan

Release: August 29, 1952

Studio: RKO

Percent Noir: 40%

You’ve seen “Beware, My Lovely” numerous times before in varying levels of quality, and this production unfortunately does not do enough to create an argument for its existence. Sure, it’s got a decent lead performance by Ida Lupino and some beautifully conjured shots by director Harry Horner and cinematographer George E. Diskant, but what else? Well, I guess it has a name that boldly announces that it is ripping off the iconic title of Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell, My Lovely” even though that has nothing to do with the plot and the movie’s tone could not be further removed from Chandler’s world.

Set in the late 1910s for no discernable reason, Lupino stars as Helen, owner of a gorgeous old house that needs lots of cleaning. Despite going out of its way to underline that she has a good head on her shoulders in early scenes, Helen hires super-creepy handyman Howard (Robert Ryan) to be alone in her house with her all day. Sure, he’s constantly sweating and holding his head as if he’s having a psychotic episode in a telenovela, stares into reflective surfaces for minutes at a time, tells her that no one ever hires him for more than a day or two and then acts super paranoid about her motivations every time she says a sentence to him… but whatevs. Not enough red flags, I guess. Shocker of shockers, Howard is insane! He locks Helen inside and varies between shining her floors and threatening to murder her. It’s hard to find good help these days, so glass half full?

Beware 2The screenwriter is Mel Dinelli, who penned four of my favorite films noir – “The Spiral Staircase,” “The Window,” “The Reckless Moment” and “Jeopardy.” He also wrote one of the worst I’ve ever seen in the abortive “Cause for Alarm!” At his best, he has a gift for complex female leads, likes isolating his characters from society and keeps his casts small. “Beware, My Lovely” features all of the above (at least until Helen starts acting like a chicken with its head cut off) but is mediocre through and through. It’s telling that this was first a short story, then a radio play twice, then a Broadway show. I can see it working much, much better in all other iterations… in fact I listened to one of the radio shows (which starred Gene Kelly as the psycho) and it was quite excellent.

But the translation to screen leaves much to be desired. Director Horner was an art director first and created a stunning home for Lupino and Ryan to exist within… but it’s too big. Too many places for Helen to hide. Windows that would be so easy to crash through and escape. And though cinematographer Diskant (“Desperate,” “The Narrow Margin”) creates all the necessary shadows and darkness needed in the genre, the film never convinces you of the claustrophobia it needs to. We get that claustrophobia naturally onstage, and imagine it beautifully via radio… but on film? It doesn’t work unless that house was a tiny apartment, as in the similar woman-in-peril “Wait Until Dark.” You have to feel like there’s no escape.

The movie is essentially a two-hander between Helen and Howard, so for the movie to be successful, both actors inhabiting those roles must turn in good work. “Beware, My Lovely” is halfway there.

Lupino does what she can, presenting a strong widow who has managed to get her life and assets back together after suffering such a gigantic loss. I liked her interactions with the smaller characters early in the film, and her anger when Harold puts on his husband’s coat. That said, since her character gets stupider as the film progresses, her performance becomes harder to connect with. At the moment of crisis, when her character is about to be stabbed and needs to rise to the occasion… Helen faints for three hours. Whoops. Her character makes other idiotic decisions, like putting a huge gleaming knife back in a drawer instead of Harold’s back or not screaming out to the exiting kids when she’s in a locked basement.

Ryan runs very hot and cold with me, capable of great performances (“The Set-Up,” “Clash by Night”) and other heinous ones (“Crossfire,” where he was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar, “The Woman on the Beach”). This is in the latter category. If you removed all the melodramatic, sweaty pauses he takes where it looks like he’s constipated, the movie would be six minutes shorter. Ryan fails to find a decent balance between kind and crazy, seeming insane from the minute his character walks into Helen’s home instead of building up to the nuttiness. Scripts where characters are stuck in a single location are often major vehicles for their villains, like Frank Sinatra in “Suddenly!” or Edward G. Robinson in “Key Largo.” Ryan is nowhere near that quality.

Beware 3As mentioned previously, Horner does find a few good, atmospheric shots throughout the film. He makes reflection a major visual motif throughout… for some reason… so we see Howard looking in a lot of mirrors/water buckets/Christmas tree bulbs. That last one offers the best shot in the film, with the entire tree of bulbs reflecting Howard walking down the stairs for his final confrontation with Helen…

Where he says goodbye and walks out the door to the arriving police.

Yes, you read that right.

No big final standoff, no final fight for Helen’s life. Nothing. Thinking she’s safe, Helen sees Howard wander downstairs and crumples on the couch (come on girl… get your shit together), barely able to move… and then he walks out the door. Fade to black.

Come on. I mean… come on!

Considering all the talent in front of and behind the camera, “Beware, My Lovely” should have been better. But between the house at its center, Ryan’s terrible performance and the script which stretches the premise past its breaking point (even though the film is under 80 minutes!), the fundamental flaws are many and not worth the investment. Beware.

Score: **