Clash by Night

“People have funny things swimming around inside of them. Don’t you ever wonder what they are?”

It’s odd the way casual, essentially throwaway pieces of dialogue have a habit of penetrating right to the core of the issue. Good dramatic writing will always seek to discover how and why  people react to certain circumstances, certain stimuli.  In melodrama, those reactions are by necessity heightened and may appear nonsensical or even contradictory when viewed with a cool, detached eye. Yet these contradictions and intensities are actually what validates the melodrama, the heightened feelings serving to draw all the illogicality of life itself into sharper relief. Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) is an example of a successful blend of film noir and melodrama in this adaptation of Clifford Odets’ play.

Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) is back home, back in Monterey after a decade in New York and points east, dressed up in disenchantment and drinking whisky for breakfast. She had been a dreamer once, setting out eagerly in search of her personal pot of gold labeled fulfillment. Time and disappointment have taken their toll though, leaving Mae long on regret and short on options. In fact, the only door remaining open to her, and it’s no more than ajar at best, is the one of the home she grew up in and then ran away from. Her younger brother (Keith Andes) offers a grudging welcome but there’s interest stirring in other quarters. Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas) is a fisherman, and her brother’s employer, all muscle and heart, and quickly smitten by Mae. However, there is bound to be a fly in the ointment and this one turns up in the shape of Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan). Where Jerry is clumsy in his simplicity, Earl is brash and overbearing. Crucially though, his is a restless spirit, one which is drawn irresistibly to Mae, but she professes to be unimpressed by his shallow braggadocio and instead accepts Jerry’s heartfelt proposal. Nevertheless, just as those massive seas mercilessly pounding the coastline in the opening credits have foreshadowed, great emotional tumult lies ahead.

Film noir trades heavily on disillusionment, detachment and the ever-present threat of despair. Clash by Night taps into all of these, most especially a kind of gut wrenching disappointment and the awful sliding sense that all the positive things life might have to offer will forever remain just beyond reach. It’s like a head-on collision of post-war ennui and middle-aged malaise. Even as the protagonists sweat and struggle in the balmy atmosphere, on a personal level the first chills of autumn are already making themselves felt. I’ve no doubt the disenchantment and uncertainty over what direction to take in life would have struck a chord with a contemporary audience less than a decade after the end of a major global conflict, but the movie has a relevance beyond those immediate concerns. The idea that one can be tempted and seduced by superficiality isn’t confined to any particular era after all. At first, the material might seem atypical for Fritz Lang, but the idea of individuals trapped or restricted by (poor) choices and circumstances is entirely in keeping with his other work. Nobody is really free in this movie – even those who would have us believe they are free spirits are just as hemmed as everyone else – and practically everybody is straining against their respective bonds. Visually, Lang and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca impress on the audience the claustrophobia felt by the characters first in Mae’s family home and then later in Jerry’s house, both of which are slightly elevated and therefore have a sense of remoteness about them. Consistent with the overall tone of the piece, however, there is at least a suggestion of an out, of an escape from the stifling ties that bind in the occasional shots of a moonlit sky or indeed of the vast ocean.

The casting works well, a trio of forty-something actors in the principal roles have that combination of a vaguely shopworn air, a burgeoning realization that time is not on their side, and enough of a spark and appetite for living to make their desperate snatching at the half chances flitting by appear credible. Robert Ryan always seemed to be the epitome of edgy, his characters existing on the periphery of society and civilization, like an interloper in his own home. Earl Pfeiffer is boastful, abusive and bullying; it is impossible to like a man who builds himself up by bawling out put upon waiters or forcing himself on women, but Ryan’s skill lay in his ability to add layers and dimensions to such boors, and his frustration at and awareness of his own flaws fleshes out the character and dismisses the caricature. Stanwyck is every bit as versatile in her own way, moving from pride to defiance, bitterness to fear, and all the time grounded by a frank admission of her character’s own weakness. Her role is both defined by her interactions with Ryan and Douglas and simultaneously creates a meaning and motivation for those two co-stars.

“Don’t say anything. Don’t make no promises. I’d have to trust you, that’s what the terrible thing is. You’ve got to trust somebody, there ain’t no other way.”

When Paul Douglas utters those lines right at the end of the movie there’s no doubting the essential truth of the words, for Jerry D’Amato and for the audience at large. This, coupled with the notion that a form of redemption could be attained by confronting and acknowledging the less savory aspects a person carries within, hints that the fatalism commonly regarded as being irrevocably wed to film noir may not be entirely insurmountable. Paul Douglas’ portrayal of non-judgmental decency, unbowed before loneliness and betrayal, is key to making this work. His scenes with Stanwyck range from the supercharged and fiery to the downright mundane, and the climactic one strikes a satisfyingly hopeful if not quite happy note. For all that, the one which lingers longest in my memory is an earlier interlude aboard his boat. He’s proposing, all awkward and shambling earnestness, and she’s resisting. There is some terrific screen acting on display from those two in that moonlit sequence, a pair of fine performers affording a glimpse of people teetering on the brink of temptation and trepidation. A magical moment of cinema.

While the three heavyweights in the leading roles naturally dominate proceedings, there is depth further down the cast list too. Marilyn Monroe was a rising star, just a year away from breaking through to the very top tier, and was billed fourth, just above the title. Even though she’s not the focus of attention she does get a few moderately memorable scenes, mostly sparring with a surly Keith Andes. This young couple are prey to some of that restiveness that plagues their elders; the shifting dynamics of post-war relationships, that realignment of social mores and roles, suggest that there is likely to be a good deal of friction, or even worse, ahead. J Carrol Naish was one of the most accomplished character actors of the classic Hollywood era, an instantly recognizable presence. As the wastrel Uncle Vince he occupies a small yet pivotal role, a Iago-like hobgoblin sowing unrest out of spite and whispering poison in his nephew’s ear at every opportunity.

Clash by Night was released on DVD long ago by Warner Brothers but I think it may have drifted out of print. It’s a pretty good transfer of the movie, and has a Peter Bogdanovich commentary track as a supplement, but any future upgrade to Blu-ray would be welcome. Fans of Lang’s work, and that of the leading players too, should find this an absorbing movie. It certainly earns a recommendation from this viewer.


Recognizing the familiar in the atypical; that sounds like the kind of triumphant banality commonly attached to a piece of cod sociological theorizing. In fact, it’s just my own clumsy way of pointing out how even the apparently uncharacteristic works of great filmmakers are frequently nothing of the sort. When one has in mind Fritz Lang’s time in Hollywood it’s tempting to think of film noir and leave it at that. However, that would be not only a mistake but a disservice to a man whose mastery of cinema meant that genre labels represented no limit, but instead offered extended opportunities to tackle the themes which interested him. Moonfleet (1955), despite its smugglers and 18th century trappings, is recognizably a Lang film and features elements that crop up all through his  work.

Young John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) is an orphan, on his way to the village of Moonfleet on the Dorset coast to look up the man his mother told him to find after she had passed. With a lowering sky and a deserted road, the atmosphere is already vaguely threatening and a tumbledown churchyard watched over by a stone angel heighten that feeling. When a claw-like hand is suddenly thrust from below the ground, well we’re veering into the realms of a Gothic nightmare. That sense is hardly dispelled when the youngster awakens in a local tavern to see a gallery of grotesques gazing down on him. Nevertheless,  he’s a phlegmatic type and unfazed by the experience, which is just as well as he’s about to witness a flogging and a shooting, carried out by the man he’s been traveling to see. Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger) is an ambiguous character, a man of some means but clearly a rogue too. It’s apparent that Fox and the boy’s mother had been close but it’s also plain that he’s reluctant to have responsibility for the child’s welfare thrust upon him. The lad is a determined sort though, neither intimidated by the violence all around nor the dissipated and bawdy company his new guardian regularly keeps. As the trappings of a horror movie ebb and flow like the tide itself, the adventurous elements of the story gradually dominate, with the prospect of lost treasure being recovered, and all the romance that promises. While the characters hunt for a fabulous diamond, the fact is both Fox and young Mohune are mining for a different kind of treasure, the former slowly coming to the realization that he might just have a chance of regaining some semblance of the honor he’d thought forfeit and the latter, well his treasure is the boundless optimism of youth and a simple faith in the the notion of friendship.

A colorful CinemaScope adventure with swashbuckling elements is unlikely to be the first mental image conjured up with the mention of a Fritz Lang film. Nevertheless, as I said above, Lang wasn’t a servant of any particular genre. He even made a number of westerns – Western Union, The Return of Frank James, Rancho Notorious – with varying degrees of success and all of those were at the very least interesting and bore signs of the director’s stamp. His films frequently deal with concepts of justice, of an uneasy relationship between morality and hypocrisy, where ambiguity resides on the periphery of society and the facade of respectability is ever at risk of slipping and revealing something altogether less savory underneath. Moonfleet weaves all of this into the fabric of its narrative and the heavy reliance on sets and the studio backlot suit the director better; with Robert Planck’s cinematography casting brooding shadows, Lang creates some wonderfully atmospheric tableaux in the church, the cemetery and the crypt below, where the monuments to the past watch impassively over the  intrigues of the present, all punctuated by the rich score of Miklos Rozsa.

Moonfleet is a movie with what I would term a deep cast, meaning there is an abundance of well known and instantly recognizable performers right down the list. Despite that, the focus remains firmly on Stewart Granger and Jon Whiteley at all times. Granger had a real flair for playing characters who had a dismal opinion of themselves, if not outright villains then heroes (or perhaps even anti-heroes) burdened with doubt and locked into a lifetime of regret. His Jeremy Fox quite literally carries the scars of a thwarted love, and there is the sense of some distant guilt hanging heavy on his conscience. His courtship of villainy and vice feels more like a self-imposed punishment than an indulgence. His potential redeemer comes in the form of Whiteley, who it is strongly hinted but never explicitly confirmed may be his own son. It’s not so much the innocent adoration but perhaps more the steadfast belief of the boy that imbues the man with the moral courage he thought he had squandered. There is something both moving and uplifting about the coda that brings the movie to a close, where Whiteley throws open the gate to his ancestral home, opening up the path to a better future and asserting in response to the doubts cast by the parson whether his guardian will ever return, not with boldness but with a simplicity borne of conviction: “He’s my friend.”

As for the rest of the cast, the majority play types of varying degrees of worthlessness. George Sanders could take on the part of a cad  with his eyes closed, his debauched and decaying aristocrat, purring with honeyed ennui plots and schemes in vain. His faithless wife is portrayed in her trademark slinky style by Joan Greenwood, a woman who will be forever associated with the role of Sibella in Kind Hearts and Coronets in this viewer’s mind. The striking Viveca Lindfors is a venomous blend of the pitiful and the malignant as Fox’s spurned mistress, beautifully framed with a serpent as companion in the image above, although I feel she’s underused. To some extent, the same could said of Melville Cooper, John Hoyt, Dan Seymour, Jack Elam and, in his final screen role, the unforgettable Skelton Knaggs.  Sean McClory fares better as the dissatisfied innkeeper/smuggler and gets to shine in one of the movie’s big set pieces – the face-off with Granger, where he swings a cruel looking halberd, must have been something to behold projected on the big screen.

Moonfleet has been released on Blu-ray by Warner Brothers but, for now at least, I’m still reliant on my old French DVD. It’s been a while since I last watched anything by Lang, which is odd as he has always been one of my favorite directors, and I’ve had it in mind to feature this title for some time. I believe it hasn’t the greatest reputation among Lang’s works but I like it a lot. It has mood and atmosphere, chills and adventure sharing screen space with tried and tested themes of the director, and what’s even more  important, there’s a positivity and buoyancy at its core that I cannot fail but respond to.

The Big Heat


Over the years I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about film noir, musing over what it is or isn’t and, perhaps inevitably, looking at quite a few borderline cases. I’m still not sure I could articulate exactly what constitutes film noir – although not being able to do so is hardly a big deal – but I do recognize a clear-cut example when I see it. Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) comfortably fits the bill with its harsh portrayal of a cruel and corrupt world and the merciless way it treats those who would resist it.

The first thing we see is a man reaching for a revolver and then calmly blowing his brains out as he sits at the desk in his front room. His wife (Jeanette Nolan) is alerted by the gunshot and appears shocked, but not too much and certainly not overcome by grief. If anything, she’s drawn more to the document her late husband left behind. The recently deceased was a cop, a dirty one who had been bought and paid for by the mob, and also smart enough to have retained some insurance. As the investigating officer, Bannion (Glenn Ford), remarks, when a cop takes his own life the department is always interested to find out the reason. Initially, there’s no reason to doubt the widow’s claims that her husband was suffering from ill-health and the case looks to be an open and shut one. Even when a girl in a clip joint makes allegations about a less than satisfactory private life, there’s nothing to prove it’s anything other than talk. It’s only after Bannion starts to get gently warned off that he grows more suspicious. As the underworld flexes its muscles and reveals the violence that has been lurking behind the thinnest of veils the full extent of official corruption becomes apparent. Had Bannion been prepared to play the game, matters would have ended there. However, his persistence, and perhaps recklessness or naivety, brings tragedy right into his own parlor. With the whole fabric of his being torn down around him, Bannion moves himself out to the fringes of society where he allows himself to become consumed with hatred, frustration and an unquenchable desire for vengeance.


I’ve never made any secret of the fact I’m a big fan of Fritz Lang, and I’m especially fond of his Hollywood movies. Towards the end of his time in the US the budgets he operated under seemed to shrink but he always had a talent for economy in his storytelling anyway. The Big Heat exemplifies this neatly in the no-nonsense way it plunges headlong into the tale from the very first shot. The whole movie is a lean affair, pared down to its essentials visually, thematically and in terms of dialogue too. There’s no waste – not a word nor a gesture appears which doesn’t serve to drive the narrative on. Even the central idea (that of institutional corruption, an increasing staple of 50s film noir) is addressed in direct, matter-of-fact terms.

One of the most interesting aspects, for me at least, was the contrasting portrayal of family life on view. We’re introduced to Bannion’s domestic setup early on and it’s an attractive one, defined by the affection and banter between the detective and his wife (Jocelyn Brando) and the simple yet wholesome way they’re living. Later, when we’re introduced to the chief mobster, Lagana (Alexander Scourby), it’s a very different world which is presented. Where Bannion’s home is a relaxed place filled with informal conversation, Lagana’s mansion feels like a mausoleum of respectability, a soulless place where no hint of “dirty” talk is tolerated.

The other notable point to be made about The Big Heat is the frank way that violence is depicted. There’s real brutality in the actions of the mob and its principal enforcer (Lee Marvin), a sadistic pleasure derived from the infliction of pain and suffering. The film came along quite early in Marvin’s career and gave him the kind of role that was something of a gift for a young actor. In another of those instances of mirroring Ford’s honest cop is driven right to the brink of sanity and morality – he comes to embrace violence with almost the same gusto as Marvin’s sociopath. The crucial difference here though is that Ford draws himself back before he fully succumbs to his basest instincts. Actually, it’s a very solid part for him, requiring him to exercise a fair bit of range as his character travels along the painful arc from contented family man, through heartbreak and loss, to cold avenger. He’s partially saved or redeemed by his own innate decency, but an even more significant influence is provided by Gloria Grahame’s unfortunate moll. It’s her actions and what happens to her that breaks everything wide open, giving Ford his first real leads and also reawakening his ability to identify and empathize with people again. Ultimately, while The Big Heat is a film which sees very bad things happen to people, its message is a positive one about human nature. Sure society has its share of rottenness and violence may be lurking just round the corner, but decent people remain so at heart and there are always those willing to lay it on the line to help others.


There was a time when it was difficult to see all of Fritz Lang’s films, although that’s no longer the case. Even back in the days when one had to search around for his stuff The Big Heat was one of the more accessible titles – I think it may actually have been one of the first films by the director I ever saw, at a time when his name wouldn’t have registered with me. Now there are a variety of DVDs and Blu-rays available from different territories so there should be no problem finding a suitable copy of the movie to view. I would imagine that most people with even a passing acquaintance with Lang will be aware of this film – it’s generally well regarded and the casting probably helps. Needless to say, it’s highly recommended for anyone who has yet to view it.





I’ll give them a chance that they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defense. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.

The 1930s arguably represent the true golden age of Hollywood. Cinema had emerged from its infancy and stood virtually unchallenged as the premier entertainment medium. The decade conjures up a host of cinematic images: the musicals of Busby Berkeley and Astaire & Rogers, the Gothic nightmares of James Whale, the screwball comedies and the sophistication of Lubitsch, the swashbucklers of Curtiz & Flynn, and so on. But there was something else there too, something that began to drift in from Europe, gaining momentum as the decade wore on and the ranks of the refugees swelled. They brought with them a darker sensibility, partly rooted in German expressionism, and partly a result of their experiences on a continent slowly sliding into political and social turmoil. The seeds of what would grow into film noir were being planted during these years and, despite only the vaguest shoots being visible at that stage, would finally come to full fruition in the 40s. There can be little doubt that the films of Fritz Lang were a major influence on the growth of this movement, and his first feature in the US, Fury (1936), points the way towards what was to come. However this is no film noir; instead it’s a powerful piece of social commentary, a pitiless probing of the darker and less savory aspects of human nature and, ultimately, a classic morality tale.

The story concerns an ordinary guy, a guy named Joe. In this case it’s Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a man struggling to get along during The Depression. Times may be tough but Joe isn’t without hopes and dreams, mainly centered on his fiancée Katherine (Sylvia Sidney). Joe and Katherine are in love and naturally want to marry, but that takes money. The film opens with their last moments together, strolling along the city sidewalks and musing about their future as they gaze at the unattainable luxuries in the store windows. Joe is sending Katherine west with a view to joining her and settling down once he has made enough money. Time passes, Katherine pines, and Joe and his brothers make enough from their gas station for him to realize his dream. There’s optimism in the air as Joe sets out on the long drive west and Katherine makes plans for his arrival. Yet all this comes to an abrupt end as Joe is flagged down by a slow-witted, shotgun-wielding deputy (Walter Brennan) from a hick town. It’s at this point that the Kafkaesque nightmare that will ultimately draw in all the characters begins to develop. It turns out there’s been a kidnapping and Joe, as a stranger unable to give a satisfactory account of his movements, is pulled in for questioning as a suspect. There’s only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence but he’s held until the DA an arrive. However, the gossipy mentality of the small town soon takes over, and the Chinese whispers that ensue have a snowball effect that sees the local citizenry gradually transformed into an unreasoning and rampaging mob. First they lay siege to the jail, then storm it, set it ablaze and finally dynamite what remains. All the while Joe, an innocent man, is trapped inside and growing increasingly panicked. With the building reduced to rubble, it looks as though Joe has perished. The effects are immediate on all concerned – Kathrine, who arrived just in time to witness the final moments, suffers an emotional breakdown, Joe’s brothers are angry and devastated, while the townsfolk begin to feel the first pangs of collective guilt. However, there’s a sting in the tail. Joe survived the conflagration but has physical and, more importantly, psychological scars that are deep rooted. Stripped of his former sense of fair play, he and his brothers set in motion a plan to achieve what he sees as poetic justice.


The fury of the title can be interpreted on two levels, that of the baying mob outside the jail and also that of the man they think they have burnt alive. In both cases, Fritz Lang captured the build-up to and subsequent manifestation of this fury perfectly. The gradual spread of tittle-tattle among the townsfolk is treated in an almost comical fashion at first – the shots of chattering ladies intercut with images of cackling hens – before taking on an ever more menacing character. It all culminates in the wonderfully realized assault on the jail by the frenzied mob. Lang uses montage and lighting to great effect here, cutting rapidly between the faces of the citizens, joyously looking on with an almost religious fervor, and the alternately despairing and stricken features of Joe and Katherine. In this way Lang provokes a combination of horror, pity and moral outrage in the viewer. What we have witnessed is a great injustice, a perversion of the ideals of civilized society. It’s natural therefore to empathize with Joe and the gut reaction is to take pleasure in seeing this victim turn persecutor. However, the film is a critique of the veneer of respectability and civilization that we adopt both as individuals and as a society. As such, Lang does not take us down a morally bankrupt route, choosing instead to focus on the opportunity for personal and collective redemption. In the end the film’s message is that conscience is the real victor, punishing the guilty more effectively than any court of law and hauling a fundamentally decent man back from the brink at the eleventh hour. Again, Lang uses visuals as much as words to make his point, showing how Joe has cut himself off from humanity and the mental anguish that such actions must inevitably arouse. He cuts a poignant figure as Lang shows him alone and bitter, haunted by the voices in his mind and the images of the condemned which float in and out of his consciousness.

Beyond this the film also has some salient points to make about of the role of the law and ultimately affirms the notion of its being one of our fundamental social pillars. However, Lang first takes its weaknesses to task. The fragility of the law is demonstrated by the way the corrupt tendencies of politicians is instrumental in allowing the situation to spiral out of control in the first place. It is also implied, in the disgruntled and disparaging way the citizens of the town speak about the machinations and trickery of lawyers, that the faith of the ordinary man in the legal system has been shaken to such an extent that respect for the law itself is threatened. As is so often the case, it takes the dispassionate eye of the outsider, the immigrant Lang, to draw attention to both the flaws and strengths inherent in the system. Indeed, the point is reinforced early on when one of the minor characters, an immigrant barber, corrects a local on his misunderstanding of the terms of the constitution – his knowledge and respect for the document arising from his being obliged to learn its contents.


If one were to make a list of the greatest screen actors of all time, then Spencer Tracy would surely have to figure high up. Personally, I reckon there’s a case to be made for placing him right at the top. He was probably the greatest exponent of naturalism on screen, rarely, if ever, allowing the audience to catch him acting. As a result, Tracy brought an earnest believability to the varied roles he took on over the years. As he aged he attained something of a statesmanlike quality, becoming the very epitome of the best elements of the American character. Still, even as a younger man, he had that air of honesty and plainness about him, tempered somewhat by an underlying sense of implacability. In brief, the lead in Fury was an ideal role for Tracy, drawing on both sides of his character. He dominates the movie from beginning to end and takes the transition from down to earth guy to hate-fueled avenger smoothly in his stride. And it’s that transition that lends the film so much of its power; the progression from humble amiability through bewildered terror, and then cruel vindictiveness. His reappearance in the aftermath of the jail burning, like some kind of malignant resurrection, is a shocking moment. Not only has he become hard and driven, but there’s a different cast to his whole physical appearance – not some prosthetic alteration but a subtle shift in posture and body language.

Despite Tracy’s powerhouse performance, top billing in Fury went to Sylvia Sidney. Of course Sidney was a big star at the time, making movies for Lang, Hitchcock and Wyler before seeing her career take a downturn. While she doesn’t make the same impression as Tracy, her role is vital to the development of the story and it’s her influence that keeps her man from going over the edge. Sidney’s greatest asset was her wonderfully expressive features, especially those huge eyes. Lang made good use of this by employing frequent close-ups of her, notably as she looks on in horror at the actions of the mob and then later when a shattering realization dawns upon her. The supporting cast is full of memorable turns from a range of familiar faces. I think Bruce Cabot, Walter Brennan, Edward Ellis and Walter Abel all deserve particular attention though – they all make significant contributions as the loud-mouthed rabble-rouser, the gormless deputy, the sour but conflicted sheriff and the determined DA respectively.

Fury came out on DVD some years ago via Warner Brothers, and it’s very well presented on disc. There is a bit of age related damage on view, but the film looks remarkably fine for its vintage. Lang’s movies were always visual treats and the lighting and use of shadows and contrast were particularly important features. The Warner Brothers DVD represents this aspect very well indeed and viewing the movie is a pleasure. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer and a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich that includes excerpts from an interview with Fritz Lang. Although Fury is now over 75 years old, the points it makes about society, the law and human nature remain relevant today. That type of timeless quality is a large part of what makes it a classic, but it’s not the whole story. Lang’s striking imagery and Tracy’s unaffected performance are major factors here too. This is one of Lang’s major works, a compelling tale that is emotionally absorbing and also engages the intellect. Definitely recommended.

Rancho Notorious

Hate, murder and revenge…

Those three powerful words succinctly describe what Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952) is all about. It’s a curiosity – a western that seems to take pride in overturning genre conventions and defying viewer expectations. It’s also a highly stylized melodrama, bordering on parody in fact, a kind of baroque noir picture dressed up in western garb. Over the years I’ve seen the movie come in for some criticism, largely based on the atmosphere of artificiality or cheapness. Still, that’s a big part of what attracts me to it; the anti-realism of the film gives it a theatrical feel, and heightens the sense of watching a morality piece played out on an elaborate stage.

The plot is a fairly straightforward revenge yarn although, perhaps unsurprisingly with Lang occupying the director’s chair, it’s given a twist to keep it fresh. Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is an ordinary cowboy who sees his world turned upside down when a couple of outlaws ride into town, raid the assayer’s office where his fiancée works, and rape and murder the girl in the process. Inevitably, Vern wants justice and sets out with the hastily assembled posse to track down the criminals. However, the traumatic event has caused cracks to appear in the apparently mild exterior of this man, and an obsessive streak begins to emerge when the posse refuses to continue what looks like a fruitless pursuit. Having scornfully dismissed his former friends, Vern sets out alone in search of a reckoning. The first third of the film is thus played out in typically noir fashion, as we follow Vern’s painstaking combing of the country for a clue that will lead him to those responsible for the death of his girl. His progress is charted through interviews and flashbacks, as he slowly pieces together the clues and draws ever closer to his quarry. The final piece of the puzzle, or at least the piece that will bring him within striking distance of the murderer, comes when he contrives to have himself thrown in prison with notorious outlaw Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). Along the way, Vern has learned that the key to the mystery lies with a woman by the name of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) and a place called Chuck-A-Luck. His acquaintance with Frenchy, and his part in making good their jail break, ensures Vern’s smooth entry to the semi-mythical Chuck-A-Luck. This is a ranch, run by Altar, serving as a front for an outlaw refuge where no questions are asked so long as the proprietress is paid 10% of any and all takings. Vern is now in a position to work through a shortlist of possible candidates who may be the murderer. Yet, there is a price to be paid; his initial quest for justice has evolved into a thirst for vengeance and has transformed his character in the process. By the end, the hero has become as violent, manipulative and ruthless as the man he set out to find.


Rancho Notorious was the last of three westerns that Fritz Lang made, and it’s arguably his most interesting. The idea of the ordinary guy overtaken by events and thrown into a world of violence and deceit that’s alien to him is one that can be found throughout Lang’s work. The central theme of how a desire for revenge can twist a formerly decent man and leave him on a par with the criminals he’s pursuing would be further, and more competently, explored when the director returned to it in The Big Heat a year later. Although all of Lang’s westerns contain elements of his trademark noir sensibilities, Rancho Notorious displays them most prominently. I’ve mentioned the use of the flashback in the first half hour of the picture, but the mood and photography all the way through help to cement the fatalistic and pessimistic sense that pervades the movie. One could, I suppose, complain about the overuse of painted backdrops and the ever-present ballad that serves as a stylized voiceover narration for the unfolding plot, but I prefer to see these as tools that Lang used to create his own vision of a dark frontier. The film is less concerned with showing any accurate portrayal of the west than it is with detailing the downward spiral of an essentially good man into a world of corruption and violence.

Marlene Dietrich had already played the archetypical bad saloon girl over a decade before in Destry Rides Again, and her role as Altar Keane comes off as an older but only slightly wiser version of that same character; between these two films she created the template against which all such portrayals would subsequently be judged. Dietrich apparently disliked the film and the reasons for that are detailed in a fine post by Toby at 50 Westerns here. Despite all the discord on the set, she turns in a fine performance as a woman who’s gained a lot of experience but little personal fulfillment. She may well rule the roost at Chuck-A-Luck, but there’s a weary, resigned air about her that indicates happiness has passed her by. Mel Ferrer was an actor I’m generally not that fond of, but I thought the mournful passivity that he possessed was used to good effect here, a nice counterbalance to Arthur Kennedy’s twitchiness. Kennedy wasn’t really a leading man at any point in his career – his best and most memorable work was usually done when he was playing the villainous supporting role – yet that actually makes his casting here more successful. His nondescript, everyman quality is suited to the role of Vern Haskell and he really taps into the obsessive, driven nature of his character as the movie progresses. As an aside, I’ve often seen it stated that Vern falls for Altar after his arrival at Chuck-A-Luck, but I’ve never thought that was the case at all. To me, he’s become so consumed by hate at this stage that he’s incapable of loving anyone and is merely feigning attraction to get nearer to his ultimate goal.

For a long time I had the UK DVD release of Rancho Notorious from Optimum, and it was never particularly satisfying – soft and with washed out colours. The movie then came out in the US as part of the Warner Archive series, sporting an altogether stronger transfer. Since then, I picked up the French release by Films Sans Frontieres which I’m very happy with. It’s a significant improvement on my old Optimum disc and, judging from screencaps, looks very close to the quality of the Archive disc. It’s sharper and more colourful but there’s still some print damage on view. Forced subtitles on the English track are always a concern with French releases but this disc allows them to be disabled via the setup menu. Rancho Notorious isn’t one of Fritz Lang’s better regarded films and tends to be criticised quite a lot. I think this is a little unfair; while it may not be his best work it’s still very entertaining. Much of the problem may come down to a question of expectations, with the film suffering from viewers approaching it with the thought that they will be getting a standard oater. If you accept that you’re in for a piece of high melodrama in a stylized western setting then the movie is unlikely to disappoint.

House by the River

I know everyone won’t agree but I’ve always felt that film noir works well in a gothic setting, where the atmosphere is necessarily thick and crimes (particularly crimes of passion) are a basic ingredient. In addition, the social constraints that govern the characters’ lives and actions help to increase the feeling of pressure, while the ornately forbidding homes where many such stories are played out can be just as menacing in their own way as any rain-slicked urban sidewalk. I think the fact that noir isn’t a real genre is one of its great strengths; this lends it a flexibility allowing theme, mood and look to assume as much importance as time and place. Fritz Lang’s House by the River (1950), dripping in heavy gothic atmosphere, confined for the most part to the titular house, and exploiting the suffocating moral code of its period setting, is most definitely film noir. It’s an interesting and at times visually striking work, but not an entirely successful one. However, I’ll go into the reasons for that later.

Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) is a writer, but not an especially successful one. He is first seen seated outside his riverside home and working on a manuscript. When a neighbour comments on a foul animal carcass that the current has been carrying up and down the waterway for days, he remarks that it’s a similar story with his writing – his publisher keeps returning it. Despite the light tone of these comments, the river, and its tendency to return anything tossed into it, plays a significant (and even vaguely supernatural) part in the plot. While his professional shortcomings only serve to hint at a weakness in Stephen’s character, the sly, lustful glances he steals at his attractive housemaid make that flaw obvious. Taking advantage of his wife’s absence, he decides to try his hand at seducing the help. However, his inadequacies manifest themselves again and he botches the attempt. What’s worse is that in an effort to prevent the girl’s cries from alerting the neighbours to his philandering, he accidentally strangles her. These early scenes inside the opulent yet oppressive home, all carved furniture and flock wallpaper, are particularly well staged and shot; the extreme angles and the high contrast photography conveying a sense of claustrophobic menace and terror. Having his brother John (Lee Bowman) stumble on the killing might appear to be just one more calamity to befall this man. Nevertheless, it turns out to be something of a godsend. John, with his stiff leg and retiring manner, is the polar opposite of Stephen, a kind and considerate man whose sense of civic duty is only exceeded by his loyalty to his brother. So, when Stephen begs for his help in covering up what he claims was merely a tragic miscalculation, John agrees to bail him out. With the body of the unfortunate servant bundled into an old wood sack, the two brothers row out on the river at night and dump the evidence. But it’s from this point on that the story begins to twist and turn like the meandering river and continues to do so until the literal and metaphorical tide brings everything back home. As events unfold, the contrasting characters of the two brothers are thrown into sharp relief, John’s stoicism and honour growing as the crisis deepens while Stephen’s venal and deceitful nature gradually consumes him.

Fritz Lang’s films, by his own admission, all deal with human weakness and the criminal actions that follow. House by the River can be viewed as a meditation on moral weakness and its corrosive effects; murder, the destruction of family relationships, and the final descent into madness. The small central cast and Lang’s moody visuals ensure that the tension is never relaxed yet the film doesn’t quite satisfy. When this happens the finger of blame can often be pointed at the writing or direction. However, that’s not the case here; I can’t fault Lang’s work and the story is logical enough in context, although it has to be said the ending is both abrupt and a little too contrived for my liking. No, the problem as I see it is more of focus and characterization. It’s important for any film to have a lead who’s capable of stirring at least some sympathy or sense of identification with the audience. In House by the River the lead is Louis Hayward’s Stephen, and he is such a vile excuse for a man that it’s quite impossible to empathize in any way. In the comments on an earlier post I mentioned that Louis Hayward has never been a favourite of mine, but that’s not the issue. In all honesty, his playing of Stephen is a good piece of work – he really fleshes out the smarmy, snivelling aspect of the man. As I said, it’s a matter of focus; the story is seen primarily from Stephen’s perspective, and it’s more and more difficult as the film progresses to feel anything other than revulsion at the self-serving way he latches onto every opportunity to gain advantage at the expense of those around him. The only “hero” of the piece, although I’m not sure the word’s entirely appropriate, is Lee Bowman’s John. Even if there’s arguably too much of the martyr about him, he does present a human face, a kind of moral compass amid the depravity. However, John’s suffering at the hands of his brother is pushed for the most part to the background, and although we’re rooting for him it’s Stephen’s scheming that remains front and centre. I ought to mention Jane Wyatt’s role as Stephen’s wife as it’s the only other significant part. She does tap into a sort of soulful and vaguely bewildered vibe, but this is essentially a two-man show and she is mainly left to play the puzzled dupe before transforming into the typical damsel in distress.

Over the years I’ve bought House by the River three times on DVD before finding a copy that I consider acceptable. The US edition from Kino is a weak interlaced transfer while the French disc boasts a far stronger image but has forced subtitles that can’t be switched off easily. However, last year’s release by Sinister Films in Italy is an excellent alternative, looking as though it’s been taken from the same source as the French version. The film has been transferred progressively and the image is sharp and detailed with only very minor print damage. The Italian subtitles are optional and can be turned off via the setup menu. By way of extras, the disc also features a conversation between Lang and William Friedkin focusing on the director’s time in Germany and lasts around 45 minutes – a most welcome addition. There’s also an inlay card that folds out into a miniature reproduction of the original poster art. All in all, this is a movie that I’m quite fond of – I’ve highlighted the reasons why I don’t see it as one of Lang’s best efforts, but there’s still a lot to enjoy and admire. For those who don’t yet have the film, or others dissatisfied with the editions they already own, I recommend checking out the Italian disc.

Secret Beyond the Door


In the past I’ve written about a few Freudian thrillers from the 40s, Spellbound and The Dark Mirror for sure. The decade has many examples though as it was such a fashionable subject and seemed to blend effortlessly into the world of film noir. Looked at now, from a modern perspective, the cod psychological mumbo jumbo of these films is fairly risible. However, films are first and foremost an entertainment medium; we don’t watch them to gain, for example, a deeper insight into psychoanalysis. So, when a movie like Secret Beyond the Door (1947) presents us with a dubious scientific explanation for the odd behaviour of its characters it’s not really fair to criticize it too heavily on that score. Fritz Lang’s film really is an exercise in style over substance – the look, feel and mood of the picture is what carries it, not the plausibility (or lack of it) of the story or the questionable motives of the main characters.

The basic premise is a familiar one, various forms having been used over the years in a variety of films. There’s a young woman on vacation who meets a mysterious yet attractive stranger, falls in love, marries and, after a time, discovers that all is not what it initially seemed. The woman in this particular movie is Celia (Joan Bennett), an heiress who’s recently found herself alone in the world and has taken off on a trip to Mexico before returning to the States and settling down to a life of bland respectability. However, Celia is not the usual, run-of-the-mill innocent abroad. Contrary to appearances, there’s a darker, almost perverse, side to her nature that soon becomes apparent. Quite by chance, she witnesses the flare-up of a knife fight between two local men. This isn’t some matter of slighted honour, more a duel of passion; the men are vying for the affections of a woman. Instead of doing the sensible thing and walking away, Celia is rooted to the spot, fascinated by the events before her. The viewer isn’t the only one struck by the hungry, predatory look in Celia’s eyes as she absorbs this primitive ritual – another bystander’s attention is drawn to her. He is Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), an architect of patrician background.

To cut to the chase, Celia and Mark fall in love, marry and move back to his out-of-town home in the States. Even before they leave Mexico though, it’s apparent that all isn’t well with Mark; he has a tendency to withdraw from intimacy without explanation. As the couple embark on their new life the skeletons begin to rattle in the family cupboard and, bit by bit, secrets and hints of a dark past start to emerge. Celia’s husband is a deeply troubled man who appears to have a morbid obsession both with historical murders and the rooms in which those crimes took place, while questions linger over the death of his first wife. The true roots of the problem are not immediately obvious but, even so, the new bride slowly comes to suspect that her own life may be in danger.

The script calls for a good deal of irrational behaviour on the part of the main characters, enough to sink many a movie. Despite that, the film still works and is pretty successful as a piece of highly strung noir melodrama. This is largely due to the work of director Lang and cameraman Stanley Cortez, between them creating a stylish and stylized visual experience. The opening segment in Mexico has a dreamy, unreal quality that perfectly fits the mood of the lovestruck Celia. As soon as the action switches to the Lamphere estate the look and feel alters too, the uneasy romanticism of the south of the border scenes switches to something more akin to the gothic nightmare that begins to unfold in Celia’s shadowy and threatening new home. It’s this aspect of the film that leads to comparisons being drawn between it and Hitchcock’s Rebecca. On the surface, there are parallels: newlyweds haunted by the spectre of the husband’s murky past, a family home where unwelcome memories seem to lurk in every shadow, and a distinctly odd household.


For all that, the two movies are really quite different in essence, chiefly as a result of Joan Bennett’s characterization of Celia. Unlike Joan Fontaine’s second Mrs DeWinter, Joan Bennett is a tougher and more worldly woman. I’ve already mentioned the dark side of Celia that’s apparent from early on, but the perverse side of her character is further developed as the story progresses. A weaker, and maybe a saner, woman would likely hightail it back to the safety of the city when her husband first begins to exhibit signs of serious psychological imbalance. But not Celia; she chooses to stand her ground, whether through raw courage or her own fascination with danger, and stick it out to the bitter end. One of Bennett’s great strengths as an actress, and very likely the reason Lang chose to work with her so often, was her ability to combine feminine allure with the grit necessary to hack it in a grim world. I found Michael Redgrave’s performance much less satisfactory though. My biggest issue was that I never felt entirely convinced by his transition from the cool aristocrat to bug-eyed loon. However, in all fairness, this kind of thing is rarely especially easy to pull off. His best moment occurs in the short fantasy scene where he imagines himself on trial for murder. With a jury of literally faceless men looking on, Redgrave plays both prosecutor and defendant in the ultimate trial of conscience.

For a long time Secret Beyond the Door was one of Lang’s most elusive titles on DVD, at least in an acceptable form. As the rights in the US now appear to reside with LionsGate it’s probably not a good idea to hold your breath waiting for anything to appear from that source. There’s been a French disc available for a while but it suffers from the old problem of forced subtitles. However, last year saw two releases that fit the bill: a budget disc from Italy and a nicely packaged edition from Exposure in the UK. Both seem to use the same transfer for the movie, but the UK release sees more effort put into overall presentation. The movie gets a nice remastered transfer with very good contrast (vital for a film like this) and only the odd speckle here and there. For extras we get an extensive gallery and filmographies. There’s also a 12 page booklet that reproduces the original poster art on the cover and contains three separate articles by David Hughes, James Oliver and Claudette Pyne. In this era of cost-cutting MOD programmes, it’s a credit to a small outfit like Exposure that they have both the will and ability to produce a thoughtful edition like this. Anyone interested in collecting classic movies really ought to consider putting a bit of business their way and support such efforts. This film tends to be glossed over somewhat when Lang’s work is discussed, probably due to the absurdity of certain aspects of the plot, but it’s actually very enjoyable. Joan Bennett gives a good performance in the lead and Lang directs with great skill and style. Anyone who is interested in film noir, Fritz Lang, or just classy 40s movies should have a copy of this in their collection.

While the City Sleeps


Crime, betrayal, duplicity and grasping, ruthless ambition. All these are ideal ingredients for any film noir, and when you throw in the hard-bitten and cynical milieu of the newspaperman it serves merely to add a little extra kick to an already potent cocktail. While the City Sleeps (1956) contains all of the above and boasts a cast that’s packed to the rafters with heavy hitters. As if that weren’t enough, it’s directed by a genre specialist whose pre-Hollywood influence on the look and mood of film noir is immense.

The plot involves two parallel stories that slowly converge – the first being an investigation of a serial killer on the loose in New York, and the second a cold appraisal of the backstabbing world of the media. What draws both strands together is the contest engineered by Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) to find a new administrator for his recently inherited media empire. Kyne is a spoiled and idle incompetent who hasn’t a clue how to run the business his father left him. But he’s no fool, and he hits on the idea of playing his top men off against each other with the prize of a newly created executive post up for grabs. Whoever can run down and nail the so-called “Lipstick Killer” will take the honours and the top job. Three men are desperate for this promotion: Mark Loving (George Sanders) – head of the wire service, John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) – editor of the newspaper, and Harry Kritzer (James Craig)  – picture editor. The company’s star TV newscaster, Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), also finds himself roped into this race to find a murderer and thus capture the spoils. The actual investigation of the crime takes a back seat – the audience knows who it is from the pre-credits sequence – and the main thrust is how these media types are prepared to tear each other, the ones they love, and their already slightly tarnished morals apart for the sake of professional advancement. To further complicate matters, the personal relationships of Mobley, Kyne, Loving and Kritzer all become hopelessly entangled as the pressure mounts and the killer remains at large and active. The hunt for the murderer draws to an exciting close in the subway tunnels below the city, but the question of who will walk away with the promotion remains unclear until the very last scene. Along the way, the audience is treated to a marvellous dissection of not only the flexible ethics of journalism, but also the mercenary nature of humanity.


After spending twenty years making movies in Hollywood, Fritz Lang was nearing the end of his American career. In terms of look and style While the City Sleeps may seem like a watered down version of his previous noir pictures. However, what it lacks in visuals and budget is made up for in cynicism and sourness. None of the main characters behave in an honourable way either in their private lives or their professional ones. Many newspaper dramas down through the years have used the device of the story being everything, but this time not even that old chestnut holds sway. Everybody marches to the tune of ambition and they’re all ready to go to whatever lengths are necessary to achieve it. Dana Andrews, in between drinks, even sinks so low as to use his own fiancee as bait to smoke the killer out. He is the character the audience is supposed to identify most closely with, being persuaded to take part in the grotesque contest (at least initially) as a favour to a friend. However, he’s a shabby kind of hero who really only redeems himself at the end by finally speaking the truth regardless of the consequences. George Sanders very much conforms to type as the smooth and vaguely caddish wire service boss who knows all the right people but struggles to get to grips with the seedier characters likely to hold the key to this case.

Ida Lupino does great work as the gossip columnist and occasional girlfriend of Sanders, who agrees to do his spade work for him. She has some nice scenes with Andrews where they both let their wandering eyes off the leash while simultaneously trying to pump each other for information. In truth, there was far better chemistry between Andrews and Lupino than was the case with Sally Forrest, who played his fairly insipid girl. Vincent Price’s role is all effete indolence without any of the menace that he was capable of conveying. Right up to the end he’s blissfully unaware that his faithless trophy wife, Rhonda Fleming, is carrying on an affair with James Craig’s slippery picture editor. Out of this large ensemble cast, the most sympathetic performance came from Thomas Mitchell – the old school editor/reporter who chomps away on cigars and lacks only the press pass jammed into his hat band. Sure he’s every bit as consumed as the others, but back of those slightly wild eyes there remains a flicker of decency – and it’s him you find yourself really rooting for. The only seriously weak link is provided by John Barrymore Jr as the mother’s boy killer with some major issues. One of the best scenes in the movie – him watching the telecast where Andrews profiles the then unknown murderer in disparaging and insulting terms – is very nearly scuppered by Barrymore’s appalling mugging and overacting.

While the City Sleeps has finally made an appearance on DVD courtesy of Exposure Cinema in the UK. The film is presented in 1.33:1 ratio, and according to the distributors this decision was taken due to the condition of the elements – i.e. the image would have been too soft to matte and blow up for widescreen. It’s an open-matte presentation, the film should have been presented flat 1.85:1 in the US (and probably 2:1 Superscope in Europe), and was clearly protected for possible academy ratio showings. There is plenty of extraneous space top and bottom, which should be apparent from the screencap above, but it’s not seriously distracting. Apart from that, the image is quite clean and pleasing to look at and doesn’t display any major faults. The original trailer is included along with a selection of galleries. All told, the package is a worthy one, and it should be mentioned that while the title is rumoured to be in the pipeline from Warners in the US the chances are it will find it’s home in the Archive. This movie has long been one of my favourite Lang pictures and I’m pleased to have it at last in a worthwhile edition. I’ve heard it said that the film suffers from too much focus on the so-called soapy elements of the story, but I disagree. The real strengths of the film are to be found in those newsroom and bar scenes – the character interaction is what drives everything forward and it would be a poorer piece of cinema without them. I have no problem recommending this one.


Man Hunt


Popular wisdom holds that when a film is adapted from a novel the original source material is inevitably superior. I’m not sure how true that really is though. I suspect that this maxim has come to be as a result of the disappointment felt by a loyal readership when filmmakers have had to alter the material to make it work on the screen. We all naturally form a mental picture of characters and places when we read about them, but when others place their interpretation in front of us it can be an underwhelming and perplexing experience. Man Hunt (1941) is Fritz Lang’s interpretation of Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male. Since I saw the movie first, many moons ago, and only later read the novel, my own preference is for the film version. In truth, I found the book to be a bit of a letdown – not that it’s actually bad or anything, but just because it lacks Lang’s little stylistic touches and the character interaction that helps the film pack a greater emotional punch.

The movie is basically a chase story which utilises that old chestnut of the hunter becoming the hunted. Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is a big game hunter of some renown who has grown weary of the traditional prey. In Germany, on the eve of WWII, he finds himself closing in on the “most dangerous game” – man. And not just any man at that. Perched high on a hilltop, he focuses the cross-hairs of his hunting rifle on one Adolf Hitler. With a live round in the chamber, he has only to touch the trigger to forever alter the course of world history. However, for Thorndike this is merely a sporting stalk – an attempt to get close enough to the prey to make the kill itself a purely technical issue, for he has lost his taste for the taking of lives. But fate has other plans for Thorndike; such a simple and unexpected thing as a leaf falling across his telescopic sight causes him to twitch at the wrong moment and thus be discovered by a passing sentry. He is hauled away to be interrogated, tortured and presented with an ultimatum – his life in exchange for a signed confession that he was acting under orders from the British government to effect the assassination of Hitler. Realising the consequences of any such confession, Thorndike refuses and finds himself sentenced to death. Chance, and the natural world, once again comes into play when the faked accident that is supposed to claim his life doesn’t quite come off. From here on Thorndike must run for his life, first to a freighter and then to an England that is positively hiving with Nazi agents and fifth columnists all directed by the suave and sinister Quive-Smith (George Sanders).


Fritz Lang brought a very noirish atmosphere to what is a fairly standard adventure thriller. The sets that represent London are bathed in deep, dark shadows that promise danger and death for the unwary. He has his hero ruthlessly driven further and further underground, his world shrinking by the minute, until he finally finds himself walled up within the very bowels of the earth. Walter Pidgeon performs well as Thorndike and effortlessly handles the character shift from a man who has achieved a degree of mastery over nature itself to one who becomes desperate, friendless and riddled with guilt. George Sanders made a career out of playing sophisticated and detached villains so the part of Quive-Smith was one he could manage with his eyes closed, but that’s not to take anything away from his performance. Joan Bennett would eventually make three films with Lang, of which Man Hunt was the first. Her role as the prostitute (never explicitly stated but clear enough all the same) who helps Thorndike and falls for him is a large part of what makes the film work, adding much needed humanity and a genuinely touching quality to a very dark tale. John Carradine also deserves a mention for his turn as the cadaverous assassin hounding Thorndike and leading to an excellently filmed confrontation within the London Underground system.

Man Hunt was long absent on DVD until Fox finally released it in R1 last month. The disc is up to the usual high standard from that company, sporting a sharp, clear image with wonderful contrast. There’s a commentary included by Patrick McGilligan along with a short featurette and advertising galleries. The only bad thing to say is that this title looks like it may well be the last classic release we’re going to see from Fox for some time, and that’s all the more galling given the high quality of their product. All told, Man Hunt is a fine film, first rate Lang, and a title that I’m just glad was able to make it out before Fox decided to shut up shop.

The Blue Gardenia


There are lots of sub-categories within film noir, and one of my favourites is what is sometimes termed nightmare noir. Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953) fits this description by presenting a protagonist whose world gets turned upside down after making one ill-judged decision. This kind of story offers all sorts of opportunities for some of the staple ingredients of noir – paranoia, suspicion, the idea that bad luck is waiting just around the corner, and the fact that the course of one’s life can hinge on something as simple and inocuous as a mix up over a phone call.

Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) is a switchboard operator who leads a fairly humdrum life, sharing an apartment with two other single women and biding her time till her lover comes back from Korea. However, it doesn’t take long for things to start to unravel and for life to hand her the first in a series of unexpected kicks in the teeth. She’s just bought herself a new dress, cooked a special meal, and plans to sit down and share it with her absent G.I. boyfriend. So, with his photo propped in front of her, she opens his latest telegram and starts to read. It’s a brush off, he’s met a nurse, fallen in love and plans to marry her. Norah is naturally distraught and more than a little bitter, so when she takes a call meant for one of her flatmates she makes that one bad decision. On the rebound, she agrees to a date with the slightly sleazy ladies man Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). During the course of dinner Prebble ensures that Norah gets well and truly tanked on cocktails before taking her back to his apartment. When he starts to get a little too friendly, Norah struggles with him but quickly blacks out. On awakening, she finds Prebble dead on the floor, his head smashed in with a poker. Panicking, and with only the haziest of memories of what went before, she flees the scene of the crime but leaves a few clues behind. The rest of the movie involves Norah’s attempts to evade the law, while playing a cat and mouse game with smooth newspaperman Casey Mayo (Richard Conte). The only real problem I had with the film was the fact that the element of doubt doesn’t really work for the viewer. While Norah and the characters around her cannot be sure of her guilt or innocence, it’s fairly clear to us. For this kind of story to work properly it’s preferable if the viewer experiences the same level of uncertainty the lead feels.


Anne Baxter takes centre stage as the haunted and hunted Norah, and does a pretty good job of conveying her mounting sense of paranoia and isolation without resorting to histrionics. Richard Conte is reliable as usual in the role of the reporter who has his doubts. Raymond Burr was still at that stage of his career where he seemed to play nothing but heavies, but he did it well and his Harry Prebble has a nice touch of the sinister about him. However, while those three turned in fine performances, the picture really belongs to Ann Sothern. Her sassy turn as Norah’s seen-it-all-before flatmate is the highlight, and she walks away with just about every scene she appears in. Lang’s direction is as classy as one would expect, and the themes involved are right up his street. He seemed to have a thing for artists and reporters, and both play a prominent part here – although his most biting critique of the media, the ascerbic While the City Sleeps was still a few years down the road. There are strong noir credentials throughout the movie with Vera Caspary (Laura) providing the source material and Nicholas Musuraca working his magic behind the camera – the shadowy shots of the deserted newsroom at night being especially atmospheric.

The R1 DVD from Image is generally quite good, although there are a few damage marks here and there. It’s a totally barebones disc but should be available fairly cheap. The Blue Gardenia was originally distributed by Warner Brothers but is thankfully no longer controlled by them – I couldn’t imagine writing that just a few months ago, but this is the kind of film that might well be consigned to the appalling Archive programme now. All in all, it’s a fine noir that I’m happy to recommend.