The Restless and the Damned

Since I’m on vacation just now, I’ve decided to feature another contribution from site regular Gordon Gates . He frequently comes up with titles that are unfamiliar and rare, and this is no exception, a late 1950s drama with an eye-catching and evocative title, starring Richard Basehart and Edmond O’Brien.


The Restless and the Damned (1959) is also known as The Climbers , The Dispossessed and L’Ambiteuse. This Yves Allegret film is set in French Polynesia and stars Edmond O’Brien, Richard Basehart, Andrea Parisy, Nicole Berger and Reg Lye.

Basehart is the black sheep of a wealthy family of mining financiers based in France. He dumps the family life style and heads to Tahiti to make it on his own. His wife, Andrea Parisy, is less than amused with Basehart’s choice. She sticks with him though, hoping he will see the light and return to France and the family wealth.

Basehart, however, just loves being his own man and Parisy soon thinks she has backed the wrong horse. Along comes Edmond O’Brien, a mid-range mine operator who has leases on several of the outer islands. O’Brien hires Basehart as a mechanic for one of his mines. O’Brien of course starts with the clutch and grab with Parisy. She never quite lets O’Brien get to home base which of course just keeps O’Brien charged up.

Parisy is doing this so she can learn what she can about O’Brien’s business affairs. She discovers that O’Brien’s leases on his mines come up for renewal soon. There is a catch in the lease that allows anyone to pick it up within 24 hours of expiry. She talks hubby Basehart into a plan where the two of them can snap up the leases. She bats the lashes at O’Brien and coyly suggests he send Basehart back to France on a holiday.

A loan of 50,000 francs would help send Basehart on his way. Then she hints that with hubby away they can finally get together. O’Brien swallows the bait, the line and the pole! O’Brien forks over the cash and makes plans for a bit of horizontal cha-cha. While O’Brien is busy, Basehart is actually at the government mine offices buying up the leases with O’Brien’s own cash. Parisy of course changes her tune when O’Brien comes to collect.

Too late! Parisy and Basehart now control the mines. Once Parisy is in charge, she runs the business with an iron fist and the profits jump. She then talks Basehart into making peace with his family so she can sell an interest in the mine to them. That will get her what she has always wanted, cash! The two take a trip back to France where the increasingly unhappy Basehart falls for another woman.

Basehart’s family buys into the mine and agrees to fund a large expansion. Parisy grabs a plane back to Tahiti while Basehart stays on in Paris on “mine” business. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, Tahiti, O’Brien has been plotting a little bit of payback. He hires a detective firm to follow Basehart around Paris and see if they can find any dirt. The detective firm gets a fine collection of photos of Basehart and his new love in some embarrassing poses.

O’Brien pays Parisy a visit and hands her the photos. “You know you will get nothing if he divorces you” laughs O’Brien. Parisy cables Basehart he is needed at the mine for an emergency. She has worked too long and hard to let it all slip away. One can be sure there will be double-dealing, backstabbing and perhaps murders involved.

No need to mention the noir pedigree’s of Basehart or O’Brien as we all know them. The director, Yves Allegret, was the younger brother of director Marc Allegret. Yves turned out several top-flight films such as Dédée d’Anvers (1948), Une si jolie petite plage (1949), Manèges (1950), La jeune folle (1952) and Les Orgueilleux (1953).

Well worth catching IMO.

 

Gordon Gates

The Black Book

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Recently, I’ve been watching a fair bit of film noir, and indeed mulling over and discussing exactly what does or does not constitute noir. And that brings me to a borderline case, a movie that flirts with the notion of film noir, has some of its recognizable characteristics, yet stops short of fully satisfying the criteria. The Black Book (1949) was among the handful of movies Anthony Mann made just before he embarked on his influential and complex cycle of westerns. The film is a historical piece, a mystery/espionage thriller whose visual style is pure noir but whose theme lacks the ambiguity to allow me to comfortably place it in that category.

1794 – France is gripped by revolutionary fervor and the Reign of Terror, presided over by Robespierre (Richard Basehart), is at its zenith. The series of bloody purges have led to an atmosphere of distrust, insecurity and instability. With Robespierre on the verge of absolute power, plans are afoot to overthrow him while there’s still time. But that time is short; within days Robespierre will have maneuvered himself into an unassailable position and the opportunity will have passed. Enter Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings), an agent acting on behalf of the exiled and imprisoned Lafayette. D’Aubigny’s mission is to infiltrate Robespierre’s inner circle, by means of impersonation, and see that the voices of dissent are provided with the means to remove the would-be tyrant before he has them silenced forever. This task is both aided and complicated by two unexpected factors. Firstly, there’s the presence of Madelon (Arlene Dahl), D’Aubigny’s former lover and his principal contact with the anti-Robespierre faction. And then there’s the black book of the title: Robespierre’s death list, a sinister little volume containing the names of those marked down for execution as and when the whim strikes him. It’s this book which forms the basis of Robespierre’s power, it’s impossible to be sure whether one’s name is included and that uncertainty weakens any potential opposition. However, the book has gone missing and the hunt is on to retrieve it before a critical meeting of the ruling Convention. Whoever gains possession of the black book holds the balance of power – able to install Robespierre as absolute dictator or to destroy him completely.

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Personally, I feel The Black Book functions well as an allegory for the time it was made. WWII had ended a few short years before and the memory of the terror and slaughter was still fresh in the minds of everyone. It’s no great stretch to see the film as a warning against the dangers of dictatorship; even as the world had witnessed the end of one hateful regime another has risen up to take its place. The purges and sham trials depicted in the film bring to mind the repression and fear of the Stalinist eastern bloc. However, I think too that the critique of the cult of personality and the atmosphere of betrayal and backstabbing can also be viewed as a subtle reminder that even stable democracies can be manipulated by political opportunists under certain circumstances – the paranoia accompanying the red scare of the post-war years was already rearing its head in the US.

Anthony Mann built his reputation on his crime and noir pictures and that influence was carried through to a greater or lesser extent in most of his subsequent films. Thematically, his westerns continued to be psychologically complex even though the visuals (once he began to work in color) moved in a different direction. The Black Book, photographed by John Alton, is much more straightforward when it comes to theme and characterization. The hero is simply heroic; there’s no internal conflict struggling for dominance of the character and no sense that fate has the odds stacked against him. From the viewer’s perspective it’s always very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, even if some of the motives aren’t quite so apparent. Still, the movie looks like a textbook example of film noir. Mann’s composition and Alton’s lighting create a dark and dangerous world for the characters to inhabit: high overhead shots suggestive of detachment, low angle ones bringing ceilings into focus and emphasizing a cramped, restrictive world, deep and impenetrable shadows slicing menacingly across faces or threatening to consume them totally.

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Robert Cummings is generally thought of as a lightweight lead and sometimes dismissed on those grounds. I’ve always liked his crime/mystery roles though  – The Chase, Sleep, My Love, Saboteur, Dial M for Murder – and have rarely found him disappointing. If anything, I feel his natural charm lends a touch of vulnerability to his characters. I have no complaints about Cummings’ performance in The Black Book, he handles the tense, suspenseful scenes well and is convincing enough when the need for action arises. Arlene Dahl is good too as the former lover who now has to work closely with the man she once abandoned. A rekindled romance does develop but it never has that tacked on feel that can make such plot devices tiresome. That this aspect works is largely down to Dahl, her coquettish insolence is both refreshing and attractive. Richard Basehart too is very effective as Robespierre; there’s a stillness and calm about him that becomes quite unnerving, only the glittering eyes hinting at the murderous zealot lurking within. As good as the leads are, Arnold Moss steals practically every scene he appears in as Fouché, the oily, Machiavellian politician who’s naked self-interest is a wonder to behold. In support, there are nice turns delivered by Charles McGraw, Beulah Bondi and Norman Lloyd.

For a long time the only way to see The Black Book was via ropey transfers of battered prints. However, Sony put out a MOD disc in the US that seemed to far surpass all previous releases. I never picked up that disc but when Koch in Germany announced their own pressed release of the title I decided to bite. I don’t know if the Koch disc is derived from the same source as the US edition but I can certainly say that I’ve never seen the movie looking better. There are isolated speckles but the print used is in pretty good shape and shows off Alton’s photography to very good effect. Additionally, this disc has the full, uncut version of the movie (as does the US MOD edition) restoring the censored scene that was absent from many of the earlier releases. There are no subtitles offered, just the original English soundtrack and a German dub. Having suffered through some appalling transfers of this film in the past, it’s a real pleasure to be able to see it looking crisp and clean. It may not be proper film noir, but any fan of that style of cinema should get a lot out of this movie – Mann and Alton present some stunning and memorable images. Bearing in mind there’s a satisfying and exciting story here too, I have no hesitation in recommending the film.

Cry Wolf

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The popularity of certain genres, or perhaps sub-genre is more accurate in this case, is always subject to change. Old dark house movies seem to have lost a lot of their appeal; I think they would have to be accompanied by significant quantities of gore to generate a lot of interest these days. Such films rely heavily on atmosphere and a sustained level of tension that is hard to achieve in the age of lightning editing and a succession of jump-cut shocks. Cry Wolf (1947) is one of these vaguely old-fashioned yarns where mood and setting play a major role in maintaining the suspense. I would term it a moderately or intermittently successful vehicle; the plot is serviceable without being particularly remarkable, but the look of it all and the unexpected casting makes for interesting viewing.

The opening has a breathless, intense quality: a black automobile hurtles along winding rural roads while a rider on horseback tracks along and ahead. As the horse clears a boundary wall, the car pulls up in front of an imposing mansion. Two figures, a man and a woman, alight and are admitted by the help. These two people are Senator Caldwell (Jerome Cowan) and Sandra Marshall (Barbara Stanwyck), and they’ve been racing through the countryside to attend a wake. An interview with Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn), the senator’s brother and head of the house, establishes the fact that Sandra has arrived at this place of mourning to pay her respects to her late husband. Sandra claims that she was married to the deceased, the nephew of Mark and the senator, and has come to see the instructions he left in his will are carried out. It transpires that the dead man was extremely wealthy, his fortune held in trust and administered by Mark until he should turn 30 or marry. His sudden departure means that Sandra now stands to inherit a substantial fortune, providing her claims bear scrutiny of course. Mark is naturally suspicious of this unexpected widow, but that feeling is reciprocated. The death of Sandra’s husband is accounted for in fairly vague terms, the casket has been sealed, and the entire household appear to be held in the grip of some nameless dread. If Mark wants to find out a little more about Sandra’s assertions then that’s as nothing compared to her determination to dig deeper into the Caldwells’ past. She instinctively knows that something doesn’t ring true; there are little details that niggle, but the main issue is the sinister atmosphere that hangs over everybody and everything. The presence of a fragile, neurotic niece, the mysterious laboratory where Mark works late at night, and the awful, unacknowledged screams that echo along the corridors in the darkness all combine to drive Sandra to investigate further. It’s tempting to try to predict the outcome of this story and the trail is littered with clues and allusions, but there are various red herrings present too. By the time the tale twists its way to the climax I reckon it would take a very savvy viewer to step around the pitfalls and reach the correct conclusion.

I haven’t seen too much from director Peter Godfrey apart from the Bogart/Stanwyck feature The Two Mrs Carrolls. This movie shares the same feeling of overheated melodrama, and both films tend to disguise a mediocre script through the use of heavy atmosphere. I don’t usually comment on matters such as set design, but Cry Wolf, with its predominantly indoor setting, relies quite a lot on this. The sprawling Caldwell mansion and estate becomes almost a character in itself, a kind of brooding edifice that’s full of secrets and menace. Godfrey and cameraman Carl Guthrie use the architecture well to build mood – shooting from below and through the balustrades to achieve the classic noir imagery of characters pinned in place by shadows and bars, and mix this up with high angle shots from the gallery that coldly objectify the small figures milling about below. Even the outdoors scenes, with their matte paintings as backgrounds, blend in well. Theoretically, this ought to give the movie a cheap, B picture vibe but it actually adds to the air of unreality, heightening the sense of the characters inhabiting a world apart in much the same way that Hitchcock employed such techniques.

Errol Flynn rarely gets a lot of credit for his acting abilities. He even admitted in his (fantastically entertaining) autobiography that, especially in the post-1942 years, he was often just going through the motions, basically churning out pictures simply to cover his expenses. He was always at his most memorable in swashbuckling action roles, yet he was capable of more subtle performances whenever the opportunity arose. Cry Wolf offered him something quite different, a calmer, more thoughtful and genuinely ambiguous part. Perhaps some thoughts of his own father came into play when he assumed the role of the slightly aloof, pipe-smoking scientist. While he could be criticized here for a certain stiffness, I think he hit the right note under the circumstances; the character of Mark Caldwell is, after all, a man living under intense pressure with a lot of skeletons rattling around the family closet. I guess it could be said though that he doesn’t bring a strong enough sense of menace or threat to his performance to make it as convincing as possible. In something of a reversal of roles it’s Barbara Stanwyck who gets to do all the proactive stuff in the movie: riding horses, clambering across rooftops, dangling through skylights and generally toughing it out. As such, this was a perfect piece of casting since Stanwyck was one of the few actresses of the period who could credibly pull off this kind of thing. She was enormously versatile, at home in most any genre, yet particularly suited to playing gritty heroines who remained unfazed by physical danger. I’ll also give a mention to Geraldine Brooks who was highly effective and quite moving, in her debut role here, as the emotionally brittle and highly strung niece.

As far as I know, the only way to get Cry Wolf on DVD at the moment is via the Warner Archives disc. I remember buying this title on VHS way back in 1989 and I have to say that it looks very much like the same master has been used for the DVD. That’s not to say the image is poor, but there are plenty of speckles and damage marks, not to mention a general lack of crispness, that betray an unrestored source. The disc, as is usual with these MOD products, is very basic: no extra features whatsoever, a generic menu and standard ten minute chapter stops. I’ve tagged this picture as a film noir, but the truth is that it’s a borderline entry at best. The plotting has more in common with a Mary Roberts Rinehart style of mystery – a gutsy heroine blundering into a perilous situation. However, the dark mood and the atmospheric photography do earn it a place on the periphery of the noir world. Personally, I’m a fan of both the stars and I like the fact that it has Flynn playing against type for a change. It’s by no means a perfect film though it is a lot of fun – therefore, it earns my qualified recommendation.

 

 

Fixed Bayonets!

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As I (not so) patiently wait for the new Sam Fuller box to roll up to my door I thought I might as well have a look at one of his other films to pass the time. It turned out to be a toss up between Forty Guns and Fixed Bayonets! (1951). Since I’ve been watching a lot of westerns lately and haven’t posted anything about war movies for a while it was the latter that won out in the end. This was Fuller’s first film for Fox, and it makes a nice companion piece to his earlier study of men in war The Steel Helmet – they’re both lean, unglamorous portrayals of the trials of enlisted men in Korea.

The plot is a very simple one – to cover the retreat of the division, a small detachment is left behind in the frozen wastes of Korea to carry out a rearguard action. This luckless group find themselves holed up in a narrow mountain pass, hoping to trick the Chinese into believing that they’re actually an advance party for the division. The focus is on Denno (Richard Basehart), a reluctant corporal who dropped out of officer training school because he didn’t want the responsibility. Not only that but he also has to deal with the fact that he finds himself unable to pull the trigger whenever he gets an enemy target in his sights. None of this would necessarily present a huge problem if it weren’t for the fact that Denno now has only three men between him and his greatest horror, the burden of command. In contrast to the sensitive, introspective corporal is Sergeant Rock (Gene Evans), the tough old pro who has stayed in the army but can’t quite put his finger on the reasons why. While the rest of the platoon have their doubts about Denno, Rock keeps faith with him as he feels he knows his man. As the Chinese press ever closer, and the casualties steadily mount, it’s obvious that sooner or later Denno will find himself the top man – the Ichiban Boy – and the only real question is how he’s going to handle it.

Gene Evans basically reprises his role from The Steel Helmet, but it’s almost the kind of part he was born to play. He really brings the battle-hardened Rock to life, full of fatalistic humour as he bullies and cajoles the grunts into doing what has to be done. If Rock is the beating heart of the platoon then Denno is the conscience, and Richard Basehart was well cast in that part. His quiet, dignified tone stands out among the casual slang of the other dog-faces around him. He was capable of that intense, repressed look that is ideal for a man being eaten up by inner turmoil. Some of the best scenes in the movie take place in the quiet moments in the cave when Rock and Denno chew the cud over the nature of soldiering and responsibility. Fuller directs these claustrophobic scenes with apparent ease, using a full 360 pan at one point to show the whole platoon (or what remains of it) looking on as the reluctant medic performs surgery on himself. He punctuates such scenes with bursts of jarring, unexpected violence and moments of incredible tension, such as Denno’s walk through a minefield at night to rescue a mortally wounded NCO. His sense of pacing and economy are spot on, with not a shot wasted as we rattle along to the climax.

The R1 DVD from Fox is a frugal affair with little in the way of extras but it does boast a generally strong transfer. Fixed Bayonets! is a fine early example of Fuller’s honest, no nonsense approach to film-making and has his unsentimental machismo stamped proudly all over it. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot – now if only that Sony boxset would turn up!