Desperate

With a title like Desperate (1947) and a lead character who is a veteran striving to make a success of both his new marriage and his job, it might be reasonable to expect the focus to be on the desperation related to difficulties in settling back into civilian life. What we get, however, is a classic film noir scenario based on some dubious choices and flawed judgement. It is often said that the kind of maladjustment that appeared to dominate the post-war landscape was a major driver of film noir in the mid to late 1940s. I guess the initial poor call by the protagonist that sets everything in motion could be regarded as being tangentially influenced by that, but it’s really just a matter of a guy looking to make a bit of extra cash and how that draws him into one of those spiraling nightmares where it seems virtually impossible to catch a break.

Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) is trying to make a go of it as a trucker and makes what turns out to be a fateful decision to accept a job offer from an anonymous caller. He could have been enjoying a celebratory dinner with his new wife Anne (Audrey Long), and she could have broken the happy news that there was a baby on the way. However, a man just starting out needs money and so the prospect of some easy cash for an evening’s work is too alluring to pass up. That this is the first of Randall’s poor choices becomes abundantly clear when he turns up for the job only to be greeted by a shady old acquaintance, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr). He then discovers that he is expected to haul away the spoils of a warehouse heist. That would be bad enough in itself, but a bungled escape bid by Randall stirs up the thieves and leads to the shooting of a cop and Radak’s brother getting arrested.

Radak is, not unnaturally, sore, sore enough to have his hoods hand out a brutal beating along with a warning that Randall’s wife will suffer too unless he is prepared to take the rap and by doing so exonerate the brother, who is now looking at a date in the death house on a murder rap. Now a smart guy would take the chance to go to the police at this point, say his piece, and let them provide the protection. However, Randall doesn’t do that; he proceeds to make the next of his poor choices and goes on the run, not to save himself but to find a sanctuary where he can stow his wife till the increasingly tangled skein can be unraveled.

So the story follows Randall as he tries to keep at least half a step ahead of the vengeful Radak, and to avoid further run-ins with the law. In a sense, everybody, all of the main characters anyway, grow progressively more desperate as the plot unfolds. Randall fears for his and for his family’s safety, Anne’s anxiety for her husband and child is a constant, and Radak’s hunger for retribution against the man he holds responsible for his brother’s plight becomes almost monstrous.

 

The tendency is to think of Anthony Mann’s films noir in terms of his work at Eagle-Lion in collaboration with cinematographer John Alton. However, Desperate was made for RKO and was shot by George E Diskant. Alton or not, Eagle-Lion or not, this is without question an Anthony Mann movie. Visually, it is inventive and disorientating – the beating of Randall, as the overhead lamp swings ominously like a blade slicing through the shadows as the hoodlums’ fists slice up the hero, has Radak dipping in and out of darkness like some malign bogeyman. Characters are frequently either squeezed by the frame or shot from unexpected angles, everything highly suggestive of people under pressure and facing circumstances that are fraught with peril and insecurity. Mann has a credit for the story, from which Harry Essex wrote the screenplay, and it is an incident packed affair. If anything though, the movie is probably overloaded with incident, something that becomes even more noticeable when one takes into account the brief hour and a quarter running time. That said, it does contribute to the sense of urgency of the production and perhaps could be seen as going some way toward explaining Randall’s questionable judgement on many occasions. Thematically too, there is much that we associate with Mann on display, notably the violence and brutality the characters must endure, and that typical sense of movement and direction, not so much forward as upward, that ever present striving to reach some high place, which in this case culminates in the shootout on the tenement stairway.

Steve Brodie was a perennial supporting player, a name and a face that will be familiar from countless movies and TV shows. That he never got the lead outside of Desperate is no slight on his acting abilities, he simply wasn’t the type physically to be cast in headline roles. What he had, however, was a recognizably everyman quality with the features and demeanor of a regular guy. As such, he was well chosen to play Steve Randall – it is easy to accept him as a man who can be worked over, one whose decisions will be flawed from time to time. Raymond Burr plays Radak as a relentless and driven figure, and Mann makes good use of his bulk, having him crowd and dominate the frame on multiple occasions. Audrey Long spends much of her time fending off a gnawing anguish and the script offers her little or no opportunity to do anything beyond that. In support, Douglas Fowley, another familiar face from countless movies as well as a recurring role as Doc Holliday on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, is superbly seedy as an ill-fated private eye, while Jason Robards Sr playing the detached detective with the singsong delivery is unusual enough to make his relatively small role memorable.

Desperate came out on DVD from Warner Brothers on one of their later film noir sets and it looks very well. The films Anthony Mann made for Eagle-Lion from around this time draw more critical attention and their profile is correspondingly higher. I reckon the script is a little crowded and busy, but the movie is a good one overall with a strong sense of momentum and it stands as a solid example of the director’s noir work.

They Drive by Night

Warner Brothers made some of the most socially aware movies of the classic era, not in a preachy or even a condescending sense but in a way that was both matter of fact and humanitarian at the same time. This aspect of the studio’s output was particularly apparent throughout the 1930s and it provided a sound base on which to establish their characteristic gangster films. That classic gangster cycle was effectively brought to a close by Raoul Walsh’s magisterial The Roaring Twenties.¬† The following year Walsh cast two pivotal figures from those seminal crime movies in major roles in They Drive by Night (1940), a film whose very structure represents something of a bridge between the strong social conscience material of the previous decade and a smoother kind of melodrama that hinted at a noir sensibility.

Movies based around the exploits and experiences of truck drivers are pretty common, from Racket Busters to Thieves’ Highway, The Wages of Fear and Hell Drivers to The Long Haul. That last movie, a British picture with Victor Mature and Diana Dors, shared the same title, but nothing more, as the A I Bezzerides novel from which They Drive by Night was adapted. There is a certain in-built romance to any kind of road movie, the notion of man and machine blazing trails and running into crime, corruption, or maybe just lousy luck has plenty of storytelling potential. There’s also the opportunity to examine the hardships involved, all the mundane little trials that come with such a typically working class job. That’s how this movie starts out, following the exhausting, insecure and poorly rewarded toil of two brothers trying to eke out a living hauling whatever loads are handed to them. They are Joe and Paul Fabrini (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart respectively), bleary-eyed, grimy, short of cash and never more than a tip-off or a fast dodge ahead of their creditors. Even so, there’s a tough integrity to their poverty, the wisecracks serving as a cloak of modesty for the determination and ambition honed and tempered by long years on the road.

The first half of the movie traces a true but bumpy and incident strewn path towards Joe Fabrini’s ultimate goal, with just the same steely focus as the character himself shows as he hugs that white line night after night. It feels like one long ride, broken occasionally by stop-offs at cheap boarding houses, gas stations and roadside diners peopled with braggarts, lechers and brawlers, quick with a quip yet as close knit and proud as only the downtrodden can be. This section is dominated both by the to and fro over what might be termed the work-life balance between the Fabrini brothers, and also a burgeoning romance between Joe and Cassie (Ann Sheridan), a short order waitress. Two other major characters, restless vamp Lana Carlson (Ida Lupino) and her rambunctious and incorrigible husband Ed (Alan Hale), are introduced. Ed is an old friend of Joe’s who has made good and is living in the kind of luxury he hasn’t yet managed to get a handle on. Lana also knows Joe from way back, and she’s very keen on not only renewing the acquaintance but on seeing it develop into something much more intimate. However, this strand is only fully explored in the latter half of the film.

Everything changes dramatically, the direction of the story and the whole tone of the movie, after a serious accident quite literally takes the Fabrinis off the road. It opens up an opportunity for Joe to strike out on an alternative route to success, and it also presents an opportunity for Lana as she gets to thinking she might be able to rid herself of the husband she’s grown to despise and simultaneously sate her desire for Joe. In an ironic twist, the trappings of wealth and prosperity that Ed has surrounded himself with to facilitate the high life are shown to be capable of bringing that life to a swift and premature end. After another evening of boozing and ribaldry, Lana feels humiliated and frustrated enough to act – it only requires her to take a short walk on a quiet night and thus commit murder by remote control. Could this be the perfect crime?

Walsh handles the story with typical vigor, bridging the stylistic divide over the course of the movie with aplomb so that the changing circumstances feel authentic. The early scenes have a real flavor of the 30s about them, full of Depression-era energy and snappy, wisecracking dialogue, while Raft, Bogart and Sheridan get the lived-in feel of their characters down pat. Raft is very assured, arguably his Joe Fabrini is too sure of himself, to the point where it is going to come back and bite him. Sheridan is at her best in the diner sequence, tough and sassy, trading one-liners with the customers and more than holding her own. Bogart could always play it soulful when necessary and he’s good value till the script sees him effectively sidelined. The second part of the story looks ahead to the type of movie that would become increasingly common in the 1940s, and it is this section where Ida Lupino comes into her own. She switches smoothly from acid to sugar depending on the person she happens to be dealing with and her desperation to conceal a trashy background and move in more genteel circles is almost a living thing. That barely disguised dissatisfaction grows steadily, driving her to crime and ultimately consuming her body and soul. The physical transformation she achieves by the time of the famous courtroom meltdown is quite remarkable.

The movie, or its latter stages at any rate, see it flagged as an early film noir by some. Admittedly, there is a touch of that about it, but there’s no more than a suspicion really. It’s a solid melodrama with a crime and jealousy angle and there is no need to hang any other labels on it. The triangular romance and the betrayal this provokes, those illicit, murderous passions stirred into life amid a tough working environment are said to be an echo of the earlier Bordertown, a film I have not seen, and there are points of similarity to be discerned in the later Blowing Wild. Leaving aside genre descriptors and links to other movies, They Drive by Night is a fine picture, an involving, well-crafted piece of work that showcases the ease with which Raoul Walsh seemed to make great films. It is unmistakably a Warner Brothers production, a first rate Raoul Walsh movie and a genuine classic.

 

High Wall

Many a film noir has traded heavily on mistrust, betrayal, isolation. These are themes that breed doubt and underpin anxiety, and what better way to highlight doubts and anxieties than to tell a tale through the eyes of an amnesiac. Even partial loss of memory becomes a type of betrayal of self, a descent into the classic inky nightmare of the noir universe where a person can no longer feel confident in their own being, where awareness is forever tempered by a gnawing fear that there may be something contemptible lurking within one’s own heart. This notion of the unreliable narrator has enjoyed sporadic popularity and saw something of a revival in crime fiction and its adaptations a few years ago. High Wall (1947) toys with this concept, but it doesn’t really pursue it. Depending on the viewer’s own tastes, that may or may not be regarded as a strength.

We open on a club scene, one of jazzy music, well-heeled revelers clustered round tables or taking a turn on one of those characteristically small dance floors. The camera glides along, drinking it all in and then pauses on a figure at the end of the bar, perched there with his own drink in front of him. His entire demeanor screams disquiet, the cultured, patrician features rumpled and strained by some inner turmoil. He is Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), a publisher of virtuous literature. After establishing his identity, we cut to the interior of a speeding car, the driver’s countenance set and grim, hurtling down the highway while the lifeless body on the seat beside him lolls obscenely. And then he ploughs off the road, seeking to join the departed passenger who’s been keeping him company. This is Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor), one of those damaged veterans, a man not really recovered from a head injury suffered during the war. That corpse he had been taking on a ride across his own version of the Styx belonged to his wife, and his addled brain has convinced him he must have strangled her before blacking out.

Well, that’s not how things work out, and Kenet finds himself rescued and sent to a psychiatric hospital for assessment. This is the point where the plot kicks in properly, where the patient’s despair gradually transforms into doubt, partly due to the almost complete disintegration of his family and partly as a result of the efforts of Dr Lorrison (Audrey Totter). As we follow Kenet’s painfully slow quest for enlightenment regarding those lost hours, there is another strand unspooling in parallel. While our protagonist might be assailed by fear and uncertainty, there hasn’t been a great deal of doubt in the minds of the viewers as to who the guilty party really is. I don’t think it would amount to a significant spoiler to reveal the identity here¬† – allusions aside, the truth is explicitly spelt out on screen before long anyway – but I’ll refrain from doing so. Of course people can feel free to do so in the comments below if they wish.

Seeing as the script by Sydney Boehm and Lester Cole does reveal the culprit quite early, it is probably fair to assume that the intention was to make this less of a mystery or whodunit and more of a suspense picture. The viewer is not invited to follow a detective figure as he ferrets out leads to corner the killer. We already know who this is, and we also know that the hero is just that and not some cleverly disguised bogeyman waiting to spring a surprise. Somewhat similar to the inverted mystery, the suspense derives from our being a hop, skip and a jump ahead of everyone on the screen, knowing more than they do yet unsure of how or when they will acquire that knowledge. As a premise, this certainly has its merits, but my feeling is that it tends to draw some of the sting out of the amnesia plot, perhaps diluting the potency of the noir scenario in the process.

Curtis Bernhardt had a flair for both film noir and melodrama, and that strong run he embarked on from the mid-1940s, starting with Conflict and extending through to Payment on Demand, saw some of the sensibilities and trappings of both styles bleed into each other. While I have a few reservations about some of the scripting decisions, that is not to say the film is weak overall. Bernhardt’s atmospheric direction is a big part of what makes it work, elevating even the most mundane situations through sheer visual bravado. He manages to elicit tension and the hint of needle from something as simple and prosaic as two people squeezed into a phone booth in a diner, and then juxtaposes hope and despair by having the hero escape a full on deluge by taking a shortcut through a virtually deserted church on his way towards ultimate salvation. Brief, throwaway moments that employ the visual language of the cinema with wonderful eloquence.

There are a good many high points in the post-war career of Robert Taylor, and the quality of his work was remarkably consistent up till at least the start of the 1960s. Pretty much all of his films noir are enjoyable and High Wall is one of the better ones – personally, I’d place Rogue Cop and Party Girl ahead of it but that still leaves it occupying a very respectable third place. He gets the hunted intensity of the amnesiac, the primal guilt that the condition provokes, across very successfully. When this movie was made it seemed as though Audrey Totter was destined to be cast in nothing but film noir, which can be taken as a testament to how comfortably she slotted into that murky style. As a rule, I think I prefer her in unsympathetic roles where her pouty petulance can be so effective. However, she is very much the Girl Friday figure in High Wall, somewhat severe and sober, but loyal and resourceful too. Regardless of the part he was playing, be it hero, villain or anything in between, Herbert Marshall brought what I can only describe as an air of reassurance to the screen. His presence alone could typically be taken as proof that the movie would be a good one.

High Wall has been available on DVD for years as part of the Warner Archive, looking quite strong but sadly devoid of any supplementary material. It is a good, solid noir that falls just short of the very top flight, probably due to the nature of the script. However, it fits neatly into that tantalizing sub-genre of Freudian-influenced dramas and thrillers that flourished in the mid to late 1940s. While it has a few flaws, the direction of Curtis Bernhardt and the strong central performances of Robert Taylor, Audrey Totter and Herbert Marshall easily compensate. Highly recommended.