Vicki

One thing leads to another. A few weeks ago a bit of discussion on remakes came up, or to be more precise the relative merits of both Thorold Dickinson’s and George Cukor’s versions of Gaslight. Not long before that I’d been looking at Richard Boone in a movie directed by Bruce Humberstone, and it then occurred to me that Boone had starred in a remake of one of Humberstone’s earlier movies. Anyway, that meandering thought process led me back to Vicki (1953), a reworking of the proto-noir I Wake Up Screaming. Generally, I like to approach or assess movies on their own terms, as discrete pieces of work, where possible. Remakes make that a little trickier of course, particularly when one is very familiar with the other versions. Viewed on its own, Vicki is a moderate noir thriller of ambition, obsession and murder.

Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters) is a model, something which is immediately apparent from the opening shots of billboards and sundry advertisements, all prominently featuring her name and image and urging Joe Public to buy whatever it is she happens to be selling. However, perhaps I should have started off by stating that Vicki Lynn was a model for, despite her fame and ubiquity, our first glimpse of the lady herself is of the toes of her shoes protruding from beneath the sheet covering her corpse as it’s about to head off to the morgue. So Vicki Lynn was a model who has been murdered, and the story that plays out on the screen tells of the investigation into her demise and of the people most intimately involved in her rise and fall. Much of what transpires comes via a series of flashbacks courtesy of the interrogations of the main suspects at police headquarters. Most of the information, and therefore the impressions of the events and personalities, comes through the eyes of PR man Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid) and the victim’s sister Jill (Jeanne Crain). With the narrative nipping back and forth between past and present, all kinds of petty jealousies and rivalries are exposed. All the while, moving in and out of the shadows that surround the death of Vicki is the menacing yet awkward figure of lead detective Lt Ed Cornell (Richard Boone).

Established wisdom tends to hold that remakes pale in comparison with the works they seek to reimagine. My own experience, however, tells me that is not always the case, although there’s no getting away from the fact all of that is highly subjective. Still, I doubt one would find many viewers who would claim Vicki adds to, much less improves on, the version filmed a dozen years before. Both films derive from Steve Fisher’s novel and Dwight Taylor’s script with very little divergence on show. Harry Horner was an occasional director and Vicki is something of a workmanlike effort, with the odd instance of flair set off by Milton Krasner’s photography. In the main, it rarely grabs the attention and too many scenes exhibit a flatness that is vaguely disappointing.

That same year Jean Peters did good work in Niagara for Henry Hathaway and was even more impressive for Sam Fuller in Pickup on South Street. Admittedly, her role in this movie is limited to some extent but I thought her performance was just serviceable. I mean she comes across as attractive but I don’t get the sense of raw ambition that ought to underpin the character. Jeanne Crain fares better in the bigger and more grounded part as the surviving sister, although it’s not an especially complex role. This brings me to Richard Boone and Elliott Reid, and it’s hard not to have Laird Cregar and Victor Mature in mind while watching them work. Boone brings a different quality to his portrayal of Cornell, adopting a more buttoned up and physically restricted aura than was the case with Cregar. He spends much of his time with his head tilted ever so slightly down and the arms and elbows drawn in, like a man forever on the defensive, forever reining in dangerous impulses.  It’s an interesting approach and a valid one too in a part which demands a significant amount of pathos.

Elliott Reid, on the other hand, represents a major weakness at the heart of it all. Frankly, I do not see him as a leading man. In fact, I think the only other movie where I’ve seen him take the lead is The Whip Hand, a risible effort which his presence did little to improve. Reid’s forte was in supporting roles, particularly those which required a degree of smugness – he was fine in Woman’s World for Jean Negulesco and even better as the unctuous assistant prosecutor in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind. Support in this film comes via the ever excellent John Dehner, Casey Adams and a marvelously creepy Aaron Spelling.

Vicki came out on DVD years ago from Fox as an entry in their film noir line. Those titles tended to be handsome looking presentations and the transfer still holds up well with not very much in the way of damage, to my eye at least. It is not as strong a film as I Wake Up Screaming but it does have points in its favor – for one thing, Boone’s reinterpretation of the role of Cornell is never less than fascinating, as one would expect of that actor. I have to say I’m pleased that this movie is and has been accessible, even if it may never become a favorite. It’s worth checking out if you should come across it, just so long as you don’t pitch your hopes too high.

Tension

“Everything, everybody’s got a breaking point. And when they get stretched so tight they can’t take it any longer…”

Complexity is one of the hallmarks of film noir. I’ve come across plots so dense it sometimes takes a second or third viewing to untangle just who has been doing what and why. Tension (1949) has plenty of complexity, but not the type that throws the viewer for a loop. No, it’s the lead character who gets wrapped up in the threads of a web he himself has spent some time spinning. The value here comes from watching a man laboriously construct the framework for what he confidently believes will be the perfect crime, only to have fate trip him up and land him right in the middle of his own trap. That is not to say this is some sour exercise in hollow schadenfreude for the protagonist here is not unsympathetic. The tension, from the viewer’s perspective, results from seeing someone driven by frustration into an increasingly perilous situation that it is hoped he can extricate himself from before it is too late.

Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) is a textbook milquetoast, quiet, unassuming and slow to react to provocation. And provocation might as well be the middle name of his feckless and faithless wife Claire (Audrey Totter). Warren is manager of an all-night drugstore, toiling away and saving to secure a better and more comfortable future not only for himself but for the wife he adores. While he plans and pushes himself, looking forever to a brighter tomorrow, Claire is already bored with making do and yearns for the good life right now. When she’s not raiding the stock for expensive perfumes and treats she is flirting with all comers and parading her infidelity with cavalier disregard for her husband’s feelings. Clearly, this is not a sustainable situation, even Warren’s assistant (Tom D’Andrea) can see this and drops as many broad hints as he can muster. The critical point arrives when Claire heads off with her latest conquest claiming even wild horses couldn’t drag her back to the tedium, the drudgery and the cramped apartment over the drugstore. Thinking he might appeal to her better nature, Warren visits her at the Malibu beach house she’s sharing with her lover, leading to humiliation. Badly beaten, his glasses shattered and with sand literally and figuratively kicked in his face, he gathers what is left of his dignity and heads for home.

The tipping point has been reached. Something tore inside him with that whipping he just took. Chance always features strongly in the world of noir and so it is that a throwaway remark sets in motion the train of thought that will dig Warren into even deeper trouble. He decides to kill the man who shamed him and stole his wife, and thus he sets out to do so in a way that means suspicion will be directed away from him. He will temporarily adopt a different identity, create a character and build up a background for this cypher so that when the murder takes place the police will be on the trail of Paul Sothern and not Warren Quimby. However, there are no perfect crimes, just imperfect people living imperfect lives. Warren’s alter ego proves to be something of a success, romantically at least. He embarks on a relationship with his new neighbor (Cyd Charisse) and then finds that, faced with the cold reality of what he has been planning, he cannot bring himself to take another life. It is here that the tripwires are strung though: Claire decides to return unannounced and uninvited while her lover turns up dead and full of lead, and the police start asking all kinds of awkward questions.

The world of post-war film noir is one drenched in dissatisfaction and disenchantment, frequently though not exclusively seen through the eyes of the returning veterans. It is routinely a world where the expectations built up in the cauldron of conflict are brushed aside as a new order establishes itself. In Tension the label of disenchantment could conveniently be hung on Warren, a man who sees his dreams of idyllic domesticity ruthlessly ground to dust by a wife who frankly despises him. However, the one who is most deeply dissatisfied is that wife. Claire is the epitome of the disillusioned woman, bored and borderline desperate as she contemplates with dread the gradual slipping away of her youth, and with it any slim hope she retains of living in luxury and fulfillment. Claire is indeed a classic femme fatale, driving the men in her life to distraction and to the brink of murder.

Director John Berry was one whose career was seriously derailed by the blacklist and the HUAC hearings. His list of credits is unsurprisingly limited as a result; of his films I’ve only seen John Garfield’s last feature, the wonderfully cramped and claustrophobic He Ran All the Way. Here he creates a suitably noir atmosphere in the starkly overlit drugstore where Warren works, the gloomy apartment above it, as well as the Malibu home where  a tense showdown with Claire’s lover takes place. Of course this is made possible by the cinematography of Harry Stradling, not a man I’d normally associate with film noir although he would go on to shoot Preminger’s masterful Angel Face.

Perhaps none of the main cast members could be said to be at the very top of the heap but all of them were in a good place in terms of career trajectories at this point. Richard Basehart seemed to hit the ground running and he made Tension right in the middle of a succession of very good movies. Some of his early roles had him playing edgy and maladjusted types, men who were not quite right. Warren Quimby is largely meek, but with a taut quality buried somewhere deep. Basehart tapped into that aspect well in the first half of the movie, where his character is being pummeled emotionally and physically. Audrey Totter was something of a noir veteran and peddled a good line in vulgar sensuality, pouting and flirting between mouthfuls of cheap hamburger and apple pie.

If Totter was selling brass, then Cyd Charisse cornered the market in cool and elegant class. The contrast between these two women is marked with the poise and self-possession exhibited by Charisse’s character rubbing hard against Totter’s mercenary trashiness. I have to say, however, that this is another of those movies with an apparently yet inexplicably magnetic lead; I find myself at a bit of a loss to understand exactly what there was that not only drew both of these women to Quimby/Sothern in the first place but kept them coming back. The investigation of the murder is in the hands of Barry Sullivan and William Conrad, the former going by the extravagantly unlikely name of Collier Bonnabel. Sullivan could always put across smugness and assurance most effectively and there is a hint of an aggressive edge just below the surface. He combines nicely with Conrad and it occurred to me as I viewed the movie again the other day how both actors seemed to enjoy collaborating. They were good in Joseph H Lewis’ Cry of the Hunted, appeared in a couple of episodes of Cannon, and Conrad used Sullivan in a major role in one of his directorial efforts My Blood Runs Cold. In the smaller parts, Lloyd Gough is suitably brutish as the temporary object of Totter’s affections, and while Tom D’Andrea may not be quite as memorable as he was in Dark Passage he still scores as the sympathetic drugstore clerk.

Tension got a DVD release many years ago when Warner Brothers included it in one of their film noir sets, paired up on a disc with Where Danger Lives. It is an attractive movie, with a plot that remains twisty without becoming convoluted and a cast packed with people who seemed to feel right at home in film noir.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry

Let’s start at the end and work backwards to the beginning. And no, that’s not a mere ploy to try to grab your attention. There are some movies where, due in large part to the nature of their endings, it is hard to talk in detail about them without straying deep into the kind of spoiler territory that I prefer to avoid if at all possible. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) is one such movie, a film which features a significant twist, some might even say an outrageous one. I shall do my utmost to allow those coming fresh to the film to experience it as it should be, the end titles even include a contemporary appeal to audiences to respect this aspect after all, although I see no reason why we cannot discuss any and all developments freely in the comments section below.

The prologue informs us that we are in New England, in a town called Corinth to be exact. It feels somehow appropriate that events should unfold in a town whose name alludes to a classical past, for New England (to an outsider such as myself at least) always seems to have an air being connected to the past. The town bridges different eras (just as Corinth in Greece acts as a physical bridge between the mainland and the Peloponnese), or could one say they clash? The main square has a statue of a famous general and the whole place is dominated by the hulking prison-like mill which provides the main source of employment. Within the walls of this forbidding edifice we see a man toiling away in his studio/office. This is Harry Melville Quincey (George Sanders), a descendant of that worthy positioned for posterity astride a marble horse in the square. His is a humdrum existence; the glories of his ancestors mean little in the thrusting industrial age and he must content himself with designing yet another variation on a rosebud pattern for an everyday textile. Harry is a man who is not so much drifting into staid and uneventful middle-age as one who is firmly mired in a world of stifling decorum. If the town is still shackled to a degree to what came before, then the house where Harry lives is practically a mausoleum, a burial chamber for one’s dreams. The furniture and decor recall a faded gentility, weighed down by the combined pressures of expectation and disappointment. He shares this space with his two sisters, Hester (Moyna Macgill) is a wittering and fussing old maid while Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is a manipulative malingerer.

So Harry lives daily amid bickering and pettishness, punctuated by spells of tedium at a job which is eating away at his creativity and relieved only by his occasional star gazing via the telescope he has laboriously constructed in the summer house. This neatly sums up his character, the consummate ditherer and dreamer, forever focused on the faraway and the unattainable. Then all of a sudden that distant sparkle lands right in front of him in the form of Deborah Brown (Ella Raines), a designer from New York and a bracing breath of fresh air destined to blow away the cobwebs and wreak havoc in the plodding, predictable Quincey household. While love seeks Harry Quincey, something far less savory stirs in the heart of his needy and clinging sister Lettie. Passion, possessiveness and fear are set on a collision course, their meeting point to be decided by a man sat alone in his living room contemplating a small bottle of poison.

The tone of the movie shifts from a fairly light beginning, with some well-observed and self-deprecating humor provided by Sanders, Macgill and Sara Allgood, on through some tightly controlled melodrama towards a progressively darker destination. It is a smoothly blended process with no unseemly jarring observed, not till the very end anyway and the coda that is sure to displease some. I am willing to go out on a limb here and admit that I quite like this twist which occurs. It satisfies me on a number of levels and always has done. I feel sure others will disagree with me here , but I reckon it can be read or interpreted in a number of ways, not just the superficial and obvious one. I actually see it as a natural extension or growth of the character of Harry – one would hardly expect anything else of the man, and whether it is in fact meant to be taken at face value is, I think, left to the viewer’s discretion.

Robert Siodmak did as much as anyone to codify the look and conventions of film noir in that great run of movies in the 1940s from Phantom Lady right through to The File on Thelma Jordan. I imagine The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry will not be at the very top of the list of favorite films noir from the director for too many people yet it remains enjoyable and well crafted. Siodmak coaxed fine performances from all the main cast members with Sanders tapping into a diffidence that he often masked with his characteristic polished smugness. Here he allows that mask to slip and offers a peek at a man whose faltering weakness is recognizably human and sympathetic even if he’s not always likeable. Ella Raines , in her third of four collaborations with Siodmak, exudes a sexy, sassy big city confidence, her earthy frankness bowling Harry over from the very first moment. Harry’s character resides in a remarkably Irish household, with Belfast native Moyna Macgill (Angela Lansbury’s mother) alongside Dubliners Geraldine Fitzgerald and Sara Allgood. Macgill flutters delightfully and makes for a strong contrast to Fitzgerald’s intense self-absorption; the latter’s final confrontation with Sanders is overflowing with cracked malice and comes across as genuinely chilling. Sara Allgood is good value as the lugubrious housekeeper, clashing with the two sisters and giving as good as she gets while she philosophizes about her own longstanding engagement with gloomy resignation.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry has been released in the US on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive films, sporting an attractive albeit imperfect transfer. It took me many years to catch up with the movie as it was one of those titles that never seemed to get screened on TV. I finally got to see it when it was broadcast one summer when I was on vacation and I liked it immediately. Sanders’ low key characterization resonated with me and Ella Raines in her pomp could never be disappointing. While some (many?) viewers will gripe over the nature of the twist that I have attempted to dance carefully around, I believe there is more of an issue relating to what Deborah sees in Harry in the first place, and why she perseveres in the face of his inertia and his family’s obstructiveness. Ah well, love is… whatever one wishes it to be, I suppose. To borrow a repeated phrase from the film, that’s the way things are. Speaking as a dedicated fan of the films of Robert Siodmak, I obviously recommend seeing this movie. Sure there are weaknesses on show but it was made right in the middle of his best period and that alone ought to make it required viewing.

Ruthless

Shakespeare expressed reservations about the worth of comparisons, of course he was talking of summer days while I’m thinking of movies here. Relying on comparisons to provide a taster or sampler for those unfamiliar with a movie is often a tempting expedient. However, I’m not sure it’s a fair approach, frequently doing injustices to filmmakers and perhaps misleading audiences too. Ruthless (1948) is a title which I have heard a few commentators liken to Citizen Kane. Welles’ most talked about work is accompanied by a weighty reputation, one which some viewers reckon it struggles to live up to itself, so it feels especially unjust to thrust Edgar G Ulmer’s movie into its shadow. Aside from the matter of reputations, which ebb and flow anyway, such comparisons have the effect of distracting one from the themes to be found within each discrete work. For me, Ruthless is at heart a story of loss, which need not necessarily be as pessimistic as it sounds.

The opening features one of those glorious matte shots, the type that so often grace classic movies and immediately envelop us in the cinematic miasma of imagination and fantasy. A car is toiling up a winding grade, up from the dim depths of the valley below towards the glittering sprawl of the house perched high on the hill. And on that journey up to the light are two passengers: Mallory (Diana Lynn) is pert, bold and more than a little curious about the man she will soon encounter while Vic (Louis Hayward), who is well aware of what awaits, is in a different mood, not quite cynical but somehow haunted and weary. The story that unfolds is one where the characters confront their shared past, looking at it with a clear eye to see exactly how they all arrived at the place where they currently find themselves and, with luck, discovering a way to move on. That Vic is dogged by what went before is indicated by his choice of companion, a woman who is a literal doppelganger of a long lost love. So much of his life has been shaped by his association with Horace Vendig (Zachary Scott) that it is almost as though he is trapped in some fatalistic orbit, drawn by his gravitational pull. The evening that lies ahead will involve a series of sorties and excursions into the past, virtual pit stops for the memory related via flashback and adding up to a tale of loss told in three acts.

There are a number of early shots which have the audience looking up, which is understandable enough given the elevated social and economic levels of the characters but it is suggestive of people somehow apart from the viewer in other ways too. Vendig is seen right from the off as a chilly, remote figure, even as he hands out wealth and plays the philanthropist. Then when he is is introduced in more intimate surroundings, face to face with Vic and Mallory, there is an almost zombie-like demeanor about the man, as though he had already been emptied of everything vital. It is like watching a man devoid of the naturally arising emotions and desires, although a glimmer of humanity does shine through the polish and cool as he is struck by Mallory’s similarity to a woman now relegated to his fading memory. So we segue into that past and the first flashback, drifting back to the world of a child, to a time when Vendig was about to take his first steps on the road to what he supposed was betterment. This section deals with what I’d term the loss of Martha. Martha was Vendig’s first conquest (played as a child by Ann Carter and then later, as part of her dual role, by Diana Lynn) and we get to observe the first stirrings of that titular ruthlessness. The young Vendig learns how he can use people, or rather how he can use the hold over them he seems naturally able to acquire. It is here in his youth that he begins his apprenticeship in the ugly art of manipulation.

When I spoke of the loss of Martha I was not implying that Vendig lost her; the fact is he discarded her in his clinical and calculating fashion as her purpose had been served and the next rung of the social ladder had presented itself to him. The loss is felt more by Vic, the man who loved her first and loved her truly. His obvious effort to revive that love or make peace with it by forming a relationship with her double bears testament to the depth of his feelings. Vendig, on the other hand, has displayed that characteristic which can be said to rule him – both the character and the viewer come to realize that the things Vendig wants are chiefly desirable to him not only on account of their existing just beyond his reach but, crucially,  due to the fact that they are possessed by others.

If the events of those early years caused some reservations to spike in the mind of Vic, then what followed cemented them and drove a firm wedge between the two former friends. As such, I figure the second act is best summed as the loss of Vic. This section focuses on the affairs of two men, the first being McDonald (Charles Evans), a financier who gambles on the rising Vendig and backs him to the hilt only to see himself abandoned and doomed when he is no longer of use. Then there is Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet), the rival tycoon with both  a business empire and a ripe young wife to capture the attention of of the insatiable Vendig. What we witness is the death of McDonald and the robbery and ruin of Mansfield, Vic witnesses it too and is sickened. Vendig’s covetousness is consuming him, driving and motivating him to reach ever further, but even his wanting lacks soul. The most appalling part of the man’s character is in fact the absence of character, his essential unawareness of true value. The truth is that whenever he attains that for which he has been grasping and scheming he no longer desires or values it. This is the case with people, financial assets and material possessions alike. Vendig’s wanting is simply an illusion in that it only exists as a result of what others have. His is ambition, lust and craving without a basis, the hollow yearning of a man who exists merely as a shell. Could such a bleak vision of the human soul not be said to represent the very essence of film noir?

On to the last act then, wherein we can observe the loss of illusion, and the liberation which flows from it. This is where everyone gets to see themselves and those around them as they really are, the point at which the gloves are torn off decisively. And it is the point where the sense of loss that I feel pervades the entire movie shows itself as potentially positive. From the earliest moments we’ve been guided along by Vic and have seen him as a man who needs to shake off the all the disappointment of a past overshadowed by his connections to Vendig. Here he achieves the release he so badly needs, partly pushed along by fate, partly as a result of his own determination to see matters through to the bitter end, and partly via the steadfastness and quiet self-confidence of Mallory. In the end he loses that aura of distaste and disgust which has pursued him and threatened to infect him with misplaced guilt.

The movie gave the main cast an opportunity to play to their individual strengths. Zachary Scott frequently excelled in roles requiring emotional detachment and self-obsession so he convinces as Vendig. Louis Hayward (who made a handful of movies with Edgar G Ulmer, including the stylish The Strange Woman)  is all chilly dignity, with just the necessary hint of insecurity nicely conveyed in the climactic scene on the pier, masked by a superficial cheeriness. Sydney Greenstreet starts out bluff, gruff and domineering and then flips it all rather effectively in the moment when he fully comprehends his rejection by the woman he loves. As he looks at his reflection in the mirror and sees himself as she truly perceives him, he practically withers and deflates before our eyes. Diana Lynn deals with the dual role just fine, especially so as the assured Mallory. In support Martha Vickers and Lucille Bremer do well as women used and then cast off by Vendig. In addition, there are small yet entertaining turns by Raymond Burr and Dennis Hoey.

Edgar G Ulmer is justly praised for the visually arresting, thematically depraved and wholly unforgettable masterpiece of 1930s creepiness The Black Cat with Karloff and Lugosi. He is also lauded for Detour, arguably the most highly regarded B grade film noir. I have to confess, however, that it is a movie I’ve never warmed to, possibly due to my antipathy towards Tom Neal. If that means I have to forfeit my noir club membership, then so be it. I can only say I much prefer the broader and more ambitious canvas he tackles here in Ruthless.

The film has been released in the US by Olive and it’s a fine looking transfer. It features an attractive and well chosen cast who all produced very creditable performances.  The grim tale of the rise and fall of a heartless individual is a compelling watch, and the way it ends by extending the possibility of spiritual salvation to one of its characters makes it rewarding too.

The People Against O’Hara

“You can’t stop what’s coming.”

Near the end of the 2007 neo-noir No Country for Old Men the homespun truism quoted above is shared with the lead character, a man seeking to make some sort of sense out of a world that is not only passing him by but practically speeding off over the horizon. That feeling of inevitability, of random and relentless occurrences that cannot be avoided but only faced and dealt with if or when they appear, is something which has fueled film noir right from the beginning. The People Against O’Hara (1951) is one of those fatalistic studies of the inevitable, where the unraveling of a crime goes hand in hand with the unraveling of a man’s life.

New York streets by night, rain slicked and neon drenched, a grizzled seaman contemptuous of the noisy jukebox drifts out of a bar that could have been painted by Edward Hopper. Out on the street he pauses by the kerbside and is startled by the sound of gunfire from across the way, where a killer and his victim are silhouetted in the glare spilling from a doorway overlooking the sidewalk. The identity of the dead man is soon established, and the forensics team are quick to quick to obtain evidence of who had been driving the car used for the getaway. There is no doubt about the name of the wheelman, but establishing who did the shooting may not be such a cut and dried affair. The prime suspect is the owner of that vehicle, Johnny O’Hara (James Arness). The viewer knows he can’t have done the deed as he is shown out of town trying to break up for good with a distraught and emotional girl. And there, in the words of a well-known prince of Denmark, is the rub: that clinging, desperate girl is the wife of a notorious gangland boss (Eduardo Ciannelli), a man known to visit unspeakable and horrific vengeance on anyone stupid enough to cross him. Under the circumstances, it should not come as any surprise to see O’Hara make a run for it when as yet unidentified but armed men approach him on his way home. Nor is it hard to understand his steadfast refusal to offer an alibi for the time the murder took place, not when he is charged, not when a blatantly crooked witness falsely implicates him, and not even when he finds himself on trial for his life.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is an extraordinarily delicate situation, one requiring deft legal skills if the accused is to have any chance of beating the rap and remaining in one piece. The O’Hara family’s hopes are pinned on one man, noted attorney James Curtayne (Spencer Tracy). However, this may be a distinctly shaky foundation on which to build anything, least of all the fate of a man facing a capital charge. Curtayne has retreated from criminal trial work, the pressures and strains of which had exacerbated his alcohol dependency. Still, it’s a rare Irishman who can cast off the cloak of sentimentality with ease, and the pitiful entreaty of old acquaintances fallen on hard times is a siren call that is hard to resist. The odds are poor though; the case, despite being shored up by a wall of deceit, is a tough one, the client is paralyzed by an unholy combination of fear and nobility, the D.A. (John Hodiak) is sharp and dedicated, and Curtayne knows he is slipping, that the ground is falling away beneath him while he is too weary and damaged to regain a firm footing. It’s that inevitability, a remorseless sliding sensation, one which although it cannot be halted may yet offer one last shot at a form of redemption.

The People Against O’Hara was the first of three films that John Sturges and Spencer Tracy would make together, being followed by the better known Bad Day at Black Rock and The Old Man and the Sea. It hails from that relatively early period in Sturges’ career when he was working in all kinds of genres. He would really be in his element within a few years as the widescreen process took off and he quickly became one of its top practitioners with a wonderful eye for composition and placement. The pictures he moved on to direct often afforded him the opportunity to incorporate landscapes and outdoor shooting in general into his visual toolkit, and The People Against O’Hara also features some excellent use of genuine Manhattan locations. Having John Alton as cinematographer practically guarantees a strong visual aesthetic. Equally adept in color or black and white (his work with Anthony Mann is justly celebrated but he created some terrific images for Vincente Minnelli too, for example) he effortlessly brings a classic noir look to Sturges’ movie. The opening and closing scenes in particular are bathed in impenetrable, stifling shadow, characters in the foreground having their attention drawn into and fixed upon what Alton has highlighted deep within the background, and the viewer is hooked and reeled in in exactly the same way.

When I think of Spencer Tracy in legal dramas I automatically picture him in a couple of late career movies for Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind & Judgment at Nuremberg) and I suspect I’m not alone in doing so. As such, the image of characters with strong moral convictions and a deep-seated personal nobility is conjured up. Therefore, it’s something of a shock to see him don a rather tarnished crown in The People Against O’Hara. Here Tracy is not so much the staunch and steadfast pillar of legal ethics as a compromised, if not quite crumbling, monument to former greatness. He’s playing a man running on the fumes of a reputation, someone we get to meet on the downside of his career, shaken by alcoholism and ill-health and all the insecurities and frailties that come along for the ride. It’s perfectly clear that his heart is in the right place, although his willingness to head back into the criminal courts may be motivated not only by old loyalties and a sense of altruism, but also by an undeniable hunger for the old battleground and the possibility of new, revitalizing victories. So the honor and nobility are there, but they have acquired a vaguely seedy quality, coated by a film of failure and uncertainty, and Tracy communicates all that so well in those courtroom scenes where his frustration at his own faltering efforts and foggy thinking leave him humiliated and desperate, witnessing his hopes disintegrating before his eyes yet fully aware of his own impotence in the face of catastorophe. It’s that encroaching despair that drives him back towards the bottle and poor judgment, and opens the door to the dangerous road he ultimately opts for in order to justify his client’s faith and redeem himself.

John Hodiak is quiet, competent and scrupulous to a fault as the D.A. whose professional life is, by contrast, following a very different trajectory. The easy option in a story such as this would be to have the D.A. detouring down devious or flat out dishonest legal byroads. However, the calm decency which Hodiak conveys so effectively emphasizes the crisis unfolding in the life of his rival. It is not only the clever writing though, the coolly underplayed performance makes what might have been just another clichéd role into something real and credible. Similarly, old pro Pat O’Brien portrays his veteran cop in a nuanced and sympathetic way, neither as saint nor thug but as a normal human being able to empathize with the flawed people around him. Diana Lynn’s turn as Tracy’s anxious and devoted daughter is attractively done too; her big scene confronting her father as he is on the point of crashing spectacularly off the wagon provided an opportunity to ramp up the drama and she hits the right emotional balance in those moments.

The trend in film noir in the 1950s saw a slow drift away from the dark personal dilemmas that had been commonly explored in the preceding decade towards the broader social malaise represented by organized crime. A movie such as The People Against O’Hara feels like something of a halfway house. The mob connection heavily impacts the lives of the characters but the main focus of the film remains on the trials of Curtayne, the literal one he’s fighting in the courtroom and the spiritual one being waged for his heart and soul. All told, it makes for an attractive blend. Mob related material has a tendency to lean into the showier side in general and one of the flashier performances comes courtesy of William Campbell’s cheap hood. He is all smirks and smarm, faux indignation jostling for position with sugarcoated insincerity, adding layers of slime and a sickening unctuousness. Considerably higher up the criminal food chain comes Eduardo Ciannelli. He brings real menace to his part, those saurian features hinting at medieval malice. Even little throwaway scenes like his sharp exchange with an apparent laborer careless enough to splash his expensive clothes, leading to him dismissively talking about this “paisano” and making cracks about cutting out tongues, before revealing that the pleading supplicant is in fact his own father carry a real chill. In support, Jay C Flippen’s broadly sketched Scandinavian sailor is a fun addition and there are small parts for Arthur Shields (who contributed many a telling and memorable moment in a number of films for John Ford among others), Richard Anderson and, in a practically “blink and you’ll miss him” role, a young Charles Bronson.

The People Against O’Hara was released on DVD in the US by Warner Brothers as part of the Archive Collection a decade ago, and there is a Spanish edition on the market too. It is not a film that gets talked about all that often, probably getting lost in among other more celebrated titles in the respective filmographies of Spencer Tracy and John Sturges. I like it quite a bit as it hits a lot of the themes and motifs that draw me to the movies, and the quality of the personnel involved makes it undeniably attractive.

Call Northside 777

To quote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.” But what happens if the person trapped between those relentless millstones is actually innocent? What if the pitiless wheels of justice are slowly crushing the wrong man? That’s the conundrum at the heart of Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 (1948). It offers up a premise which is undeniably noir and is frequently referred to as such. I have hung that label on it myself here, not only for the sake of convenience but due to some of its visuals and, of course, that nightmarish scenario on which it is founded. To be honest, it is a socially aware crime picture first and foremost, and I quite understand that some may object to calling it anything else.

The credits are stark, with an austere, no-nonsense quality – crisply typed letters stamped clearly on plain white paper. It’s a matter-of-fact approach mirrored by the voice-over and the documentary tone of the opening, one which takes us back to the final days of the prohibition era in Chicago. In case anyone is unaware of the background, the violence and rampant lawlessness of those days is deftly evoked before attention is focused on one particular killing. The winter of 1932 saw the murder of a beat cop in the parlor of a dingy speakeasy. The bare bones of the affair are laid out before us as well as the arrest and assembly of evidence against the prime suspect, one Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). Both he and his alleged partner in crime are duly convicted and sentenced to 99 years imprisonment. That’s that, one might say. However, this is only the beginning of our story, and the narrative really kicks in with the appearance of a classified ad in one of the city dailies offering a reward of $5000 for information leading to the exoneration of Wiecek. This catches the eye of newspaper editor Kelly (Lee J Cobb), who asks one of his reporters to look into it. The reporter is a man by the name of McNeal (James Stewart), one of those flip and casual hacks who has yet to hear a sob story he’s not dubious of. What he finds is an old Polish lady (Kasia Orzazewski) scrubbing floors; she’s spent the last eleven long years of her life doing this based on her unwavering faith in her son and her iron certainty that he is no murderer. Her idea was to raise enough money to spark someone’s interest in the case, and if it’s not enough then she plans to keep on skivvying till it is. McNeal is an old pro and has grown a thick hide of cynicism, but he’s not without a heart. True devotion and faith in people is a rare currency and being confronted with it like this plants a seed in what’s left of the reporter’s conscience. What follows is an absorbing search in the past and the present for the truth and a campaign to overturn a miscarriage of justice, starting out as a slow walk and gradually building up to a desperate sprint towards vindication.

Henry Hathaway was a pioneer of the documentary noir approach in the post-war period, with The House on 92nd Street often cited as one of the, if not the, very first examples of this style of filmmaking. While I wouldn’t say I am a fan of the technique on all occasions, it can be powerful and effective when used well. Call Northside 777 is one such occasion, the measured pace and the confidence to allow the natural drama of the story sweep the viewer along is always in evidence. Hathaway was a genuinely great director, a man with a wonderful sense of cinema’s possibilities; he coaxed fine performances from actors time and again and had a way of drawing one into the stories he put up on the screen. The virtual absence of music outside of the credits and the ambient sounds of cheap bars, the assurance of his framing and shot selection, all combine to create suspense from something as mundane as a light flashing on a switchboard, or a needle flickering on a polygraph chart. His spatial awareness is superb too, surely no-one could have better communicated the cold despairing sterility of the prison complex than he did with that shot of endless blank cages opening out onto silent and empty gangways. Then in the latter stages, as the hunt moves to the seedy underbelly of the city, Joe MacDonald’s cinematography conjures fantastic visions of shadow-draped decay.

Without wishing to traipse over old ground yet again, there is such a richness to the screen work of James Stewart after he returned from service in WWII. Capra and It’s a Wonderful Life saw him burrowing into deep reserves and some of that comes through in Call Northside 777 too. Hitchcock and Mann got the very best out of him but Hathaway had him tap into some of his inner conflict as well, just not as far. The narrative requires a shift in his character’s position as the story plays out and it’s to his credit that this is achieved with a smoothness that feels wholly credible. Lee J Cobb could sometimes slip into “big” performances, which though enjoyable can be distracting too. However, he’s nicely restrained as the man whose quiet certainty keeps the investigation moving forward. There’s a playful aspect to his relationship with Stewart, highlighted by his tendency to bend the truth about his soft heart, and Stewart’s making sure he knows he won’t be taken in by it.

Richard Conte was another who was capable of brashness and showiness, but he keeps all of that carefully under wraps. His is a remarkably quiet performance, consistent with a man conditioned to keeping his head down and aware that taking the long view is the best way to survive. His one moment of breaking through that cautious front comes when Stewart has thoughtlessly jeopardized the cocoon of respectability he has painstakingly built around his former family, and even here his anger is contained and dignified.  Helen Walker has a simple role as Stewart’s wife, nothing demanding but she brings warmth to it. There are small parts for John McIntire and E G Marshall among others. I also want to mention the work of Kasia Orzazewski as Conte’s mother. It’s the kind of part where it would have been easy to allow an excess of sentiment to spill out. Yet the actress holds that in check, her pride and grit and sorrow are all apparent but they never overwhelm and consequently she touches the viewer’s heart every bit as much as she did that of Stewart’s skeptical reporter.

Call Northside 777 has long been available on DVD. To the best of my knowledge, the only version on Blu-ray is a German disc, which doesn’t sound as though it represents a major upgrade. Seeing as this is a Fox title , it’s hard to say if there is any possibility of further editions appearing. This is a movie I first saw back in my early teens. It gripped me at the time and the intervening years haven’t altered my opinion of it any. It is a fine picture and well worth a revisit.

Cry of the Hunted

It could be argued that every story is at heart a tale of pursuit, a fictional quest where the prize sought might be material (money, treasure, etc) or spiritual (love, contentment, redemption, revenge, and so on), or the quarry might be of the classic, and slipperiest variety: a human being. For the viewer, the race to capture or recapture a fugitive always tends to raise the dramatic stakes, providing scope for shifting sympathies and asking questions about the role of, and indeed the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Such should be the case with Cry of the Hunted (1953), where both parties involved in this particular game of hide and seek come to realize that their objectives might be different to what they had initially believed. Yet this is only partially fulfilled and the result of it all is that the movie ends up pulling some of its punches.

Speaking of pulling punches, there’s not much of that in the early stages, when Lieutenant Tunner (Barry Sullivan) tries to get convicted getaway driver Jory (Vittorio Gassman) to dish the dirt on his accomplices. The outcome is a bruising and punishing encounter, but one which makes it clear that both men, despite their entrenched positions on opposing sides of the law, have a grudging mutual respect. A traffic accident in downtown Los Angeles affords Jory the chance to escape, making use of the iconic Angels Flight in Bunker Hill, and he grabs his opportunity with both hands. The galled lawmen now have red faces to go with their grey suits and the only way to cool this situation is to arrange for the recapture of the prisoner as soon as possible. Jory is a man of the Bayou, the Louisiana marshland where the alligators aren’t the only threat, and it’s not hard to figure out he will be heading back there, back to his home and his wife. And so it is that Tunner is sent across the country to bring the fugitive back. He’s on top of things soon enough, almost laying Jory by the heels when he intercepts the freight train he is riding, and then tracks him to his shack in the swamps. A shade too much overconfidence is his undoing though, turning his back at the wrong moment leads to a concussion, a bellyful of filthy water, and a stay in hospital. All of this means the trail will need to be picked up once again, this time in the company of a colleague (William Conrad) who is keen to grab his job.

The entire setup here is most promising. The plot has a good deal of potential, the setting offers danger and atmosphere, and Joseph H Lewis as director always holds out the hope of some interesting visual flourishes. Lewis does get some value from the swampy surroundings, and the short sequence involving Sullivan’s fever dream (a shot from which can be seen above) is attractive even if it doesn’t actually add much to the story. However, for all that promise and potential, the finished movie falls a bit short. Now, it is never boring and Lewis keeps the pace up and the running time down, but the development of the plot is rather flat and predictable. Even a low budget effort such as The Ride Back (coincidentally, also featuring William Conrad in a prominent role) flips expectations to an extent by having hunter and hunted virtually changing places and gaining some personal insight as a result. In Cry of the Hunted, however, there is none of that.

Sullivan starts out as a well-meaning and conscientious guy with a hard edge and he never wavers or strays from that path, winding up in essentially the same place as he began. The part is a solid one, playing up the brash needling side of himself that Sullivan often showed and shoring it up with a strong core of decency and humanity. I haven’t seen a lot of Gassman’s work, which probably says much about my limited exposure to Italian cinema, but his character does get to undergo a touch more growth. I emphasize the fact that it is only a touch more though; there’s never really much doubt that his heart is in the right place or that he has it within him to come good. I reckon the writers missed a trick in the last act and should have had Sullivan laid up with an injury and needing to be saved by Gassman rather than the other way around. I seem to be on a bit of a William Conrad kick just now and he is good value as Sullivan’s subordinate and competitor. He seems to have been set to take on a meaner role (goading Gassman in the early stages, beating up a witness) but the script only leads him a short way down that particular path before allowing his better nature to take charge. Polly Bergen (Cape Fear, Escape from Fort Bravo) drifts in and out of the picture in a small role as Sullivan’s wife.

Cry of the Hunted is an MGM production, but it was not one of the studio’s top line pictures. It’s a small affair with some attractive location shooting and a tight, self-contained cast. Even second string movies from such a big studio have a fair bit of polish and it’s interesting to see MGM branching out into this more socially aware material, although it is nowhere near as challenging as it could have been when one takes into account the strong initial premise. I think it is fair to say it never really fires on all cylinders and it feels like a minor work from Lewis. Nevertheless, any opportunity to spend an hour and a quarter or thereabouts in the company of actors like Barry Sullivan and William Conrad is not something I would ever consider a chore. As for availability, it should be easy enough to locate seeing as the Warner Brothers Archive released a good-looking copy a few years ago. So, it’s definitely worth checking out and enjoyable enough as far as it goes, as long as it is approached with realistic expectations.

Conflict

Film noir meets Freud, presented as an inverted mystery. I suppose that just about sums up what viewers can reasonably expect to take away from Conflict (1945). It might also be helpful to keep in mind that this is a movie where plausibility is going to be stretched. In short, if you are the type of person who balks at the unashamed use of contrivance, who yearns for grit and realism, then this almost certainly is not the film for you. On the other hand, those looking for a relatively undemanding confection that plays around the periphery of film noir will probably enjoy themselves.

There is something quintessentially noir about rain. Perhaps it’s down to the heavy, brooding skies, swollen and sullen with the weight within, or that sense of some indefinable force lashing at us. Or maybe it’s just the way the cinematic version seems to smear and blur the lens, leaving our perception of characters and situations, and indeed the entire ethical universe laid out before us, a little unclear. Such is the case as the credits roll, just before the camera zeroes in on the finishing touches being added to a letter of invitation to Richard and Kathryn Mason (Humphrey Bogart and Rose Hobart). It’s from their friend Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet) on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary. Even if it’s a couple of years early, Richard Mason is already starting to feel that famed extramarital itch, in this case prompted by the presence of his wife’s younger sister Evelyn (Alexis Smith). This unsavory fact has just been hauled out in the open and so it’s with a certain sourness that the couple, and the unsuspecting sibling, head off for a night of food, drink and the kind of brittle civility that only the well-heeled and dissatisfied can carry off with aplomb. Well, having dined under a cloud of charmingly concealed bitterness, the drive back home is interrupted by an accident that segues into one of those sequences that has the protagonist’s thoughts and experiences reflected through the images and words of others, spinning as a vortex before the camera, drawing both him and us ever deeper.

On awakening, as the faces of doctor and nurse swim into view, we learn that Richard was the only one who suffered any significant injury. While recuperating from the broken leg that everybody believes has left him temporarily incapacitated, he hatches a plan to rid himself of his wife and leave himself free to pursue Evelyn. It’s no spoiler to point out that this is where the inverted mystery kicks in. We see Richard Mason go about the plotting of his wife’s demise and then get to see the gradual chipping away at his confidence, the doubts that circle and creep ever nearer till, finally, he can no longer be entirely sure how firm his grip on reality or sanity is. It is somehow fitting that he is drawn down into the darkness and despair of a literal and figurative abyss to confront his guilt and culpability before heading back towards the light, back to the fate he richly deserves.

Conflict is derived from a story entitled The Pentacle, co-written by Alfred Neumann and Robert Siodmak. Siodmak’s name is enough to catch my attention, although I suppose it was mainly the casting of Bogart that drew me to the movie when I first saw it some time back in the mid-1980s. As with most inverted mysteries, much of the enjoyment lies in seeing how the best laid plans can unravel, and the clue that first sets the hounds on Mason’s trail grows out of a delicious slice of hubris. Curtis Bernhardt would have a very strong run of melodramas and films noir from My Reputation right through to Payment on Demand, although I reckon Sirocco (also with Bogart) is a misfire. His direction here is impressive at times, with a few showy tracking shots to pulls the audience into the picture, and of course the set piece of the murder on the twisty and mist shrouded mountain pass.

It has been said that Bogart was not keen on the film and was actually reluctant to make it, but he gives a fairly solid performance for all that. He is good at getting across the abrasive and impatient aspects of his character, and the transition from cocksure killer to desperate paranoiac is well realized. The only point at which I felt he hammed it up and lost some credibility was the scene where he tries to emotionally browbeat Alexis Smith, and even there one could perhaps argue that the whole point was to highlight the driven creepiness of Mason. Alexis Smith seems a bit wasted in a role that asks her to do little more than wring her hands on cue and prevaricate, none of which is the fault of the actress herself. Conversely, Rose Hobart is given a juicier part with at least some wounded pride and suspicion to sustain her, but her screen time is necessarily limited. Sydney Greenstreet is never less than a joy to watch in anything and his sympathetic part as the avuncular doctor with a piercing, probing intelligence and a penchant for cultivating roses feels like a dry run for his later role on radio as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe – just remove the avuncular aspect and swap out the roses for orchids. Charles Drake would go on to do better things in the 1950s at Universal-International but his young suitor in Conflict never rises much above the level  of “aw shucks” guilelessness.

Conflict ought to be easy enough to track down for viewing, either from the Warner Archive or from various European labels. It isn’t the best example of Bogart’s work but he’s good enough in it and he is always watchable anyway. Sure the plot is contrived and the whole thing is loaded with the cod psychology which was popular at the time. However, for those happy to embrace these features and just go with the flow there is quite a lot of pleasure and entertainment to be had.

Whirlpool

Whirlpool (1950) is another borderline film noir. It is  a stylishly shot crime movie with a cast whose credentials speak of a strong pedigree in the school of dark cinema, directed by Otto Preminger, who was certainly no stranger to noir. I suppose it might be seen as more of a whodunit (or should that actually be a “how did he do it”, given the seemingly unbreakable alibi involved) and it might not feature all the classic ingredients, but the strong emphasis on the psychological aspects of the story as well as its examination of matters relating to trust and manipulation nudge it in the direction of film noir.

It takes a thief. Well, the story opens with a thief taken, even if it looks as though psychoanalyst’s wife Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is too classy and polished to fit that particular bill. Nevertheless, that’s what she is, having been spotted, trailed and then approached by a store detective after walking out of a shop with an expensive piece of jewellery stashed away in her purse. Since she is not short of money, it becomes evident that she is a kleptomaniac, acting under the influence of some private compulsion. This fact is pointed out by a convenient witness to the embarrassing episode, one David Korvo (Jose Ferrer). While he may not be clad in shining armor he does have a smooth line in persuasive patter, more than enough to allow him to ride to the rescue of this felon in distress. One might have thought that a woman married to an eminent psychiatrist (Richard Conte) would be ideally placed to obtain the finest treatment, but no film noir would be complete without the presence of secrets someone wants to keep buried. Such is the case with Ann Sutton, whose success in suppressing traumas suffered in the past has left her with little appetite for shattering the illusion of the perfect wife she has carefully constructed around herself.  So what is Korvo’s motivation in all this? Despite his protestations that he’s no blackmailer, and his very public determination to display his innocence, his money is made via fortune telling and hypnosis. What becomes increasingly apparent is that this man is a master manipulator, and that Ann Sutton is about to become just one more cog in a devious and murderous scheme.

Otto Preminger had memorably worked with Gene Tierney on Laura and they would collaborate again on Where the Sidewalk Ends and, somewhat later, on Advise & Consent. Preminger was good at tales of damaged people and as he moved into the 1950s he was drawn to scripts that featured ever more complex individuals and circumstances. Ben Hecht’s adaptation of a Guy Endore novel is characteristically slick and the plot, while twisty, always moves smoothly. In noir terms, Preminger would do much more interesting things with the idea of the troubled and criminally inclined female in the superlative Angel Face a few years down the line. In a sense, Whirlpool feels like something of a throwback; as much a puzzle plot murder mystery as regular film noir, it combines a critique of quackery and charlatanism, which had waxed and waned in popularity from the early years of the twentieth century on, with that kind of slightly reverential take on Freudian psychoanalysis that was in fashion in the post-war period. The focus is on the well-heeled and leisured classes, people with good jobs, nice clothes and the time and money to indulge in some lightweight self-analysis. If the idea of admitting that all may not be as idyllic as the shiny new decade promised to a psychiatrist (even if that person happens to be one’s spouse) was something to be reserved for a different type of person,  consulting some flimflam artist like Korvo was acceptable. Perhaps it was a way of acknowledging the existence of post-war angst without having to take it too seriously.

Knowing how hard Gene Tierney had to struggle with mental health issues in real life gives the movie a bit of an edge. It adds poignancy to those moments where she is expressing dismay at her instability, a feeling that this is not merely a woman playing a part but someone who is in fact living it out. Richard Conte comes across rather stiff at times, which is probably the way his part was written – too much empathy too readily expressed at too early a stage would not have made sense given the reluctance of Tierney’s character to confide in him. Nevertheless, he does seem a little too controlled and reined in, particularly in the scenes where he’s confronting Ferrer’s smugness. On the other hand, it could be said that this contributes to an air of tension. The meeting between a recuperating Ferrer, taunting and needling even as he sweats in pain, and a deeply wounded Conte does have a palpable undercurrent of menace. Ferrer is well cast, unctuous and dissembling, adept at the kind of emotional larceny that easily outstrips Tierney’s petty pilfering.

The main supporting part is filled by Charles Bickford, someone whose name pops up here from time to time and whose presence in a movie I generally welcome. The weathered features and gruff manner suited a range of roles and his dogged but fair-minded police lieutenant in Whirlpool represents one of those times when he made the most of a relatively small part. The script has him cast as a recent widower, which is a nice touch that serves to round out and humanize what might otherwise have felt like a purely generic character. That moment when he wakes at night, stung by his conscience, and then glances briefly at the small framed photo of his late wife on the bedside table before making up his mind to go along with Conte’s hunch is true and simple, and it helps to ground the movie beautifully.

Whirlpool is an interesting movie, fanciful in its telling (is the kind of hypnosis depicted even possible?) yet authentic in its presentation. I guess almost everyone involved has done better work elsewhere, but none of them could be said to have been below par either. The Bfi Blu-ray from some years ago looks excellent to me and the film can be accessed easily on DVD or even online depending on one’s preference.

 

Leave Her to Heaven

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is a visually and emotionally arresting piece of cinema. Shot in lush, vibrant Technicolor, with an unashamedly melodramatic plot which unfolds in a succession of rustic settings, this is the kind of movie which is guaranteed to root out that perennial bone of contention relating to color and film noir. While I am happy to consider it noir, I certainly respect the views of those who are reluctant to do so. Ultimately though, the labels or categories applied are immaterial, fading to insignificance next to a startling central performance which manages to simultaneously compel and repel, and that is no mean feat.

Alfred Newman’s ominous score sets a sombre tone for the opening on the water in Maine. The arrival of novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wide) is the cue for stolen glances and mumbled words of sympathy. He’s fresh out of prison, having served a two year term and as he sets off across the lake to keep a date with destiny his lawyer (Ray Collins) fills in the background for a mystified companion, and leads the audience into the long flashback that occupies the bulk of the running time. On the way to New Mexico, two strangers on a train exchange some flirtatious banter, the kind that feels light and amusing due to its ephemeral nature. These people are Richard Harland and the intense, and intensely beautiful, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney). She’s been reading his latest novel and, because she hasn’t recognized him as the author, offers a frank and less than flattering critique of the writing. Coincidences wrapped up in misunderstandings are the staple ingredients of many a story and frequently offer a good jumping off point. Here they form the basis for a whirlwind romance which sees Harland bewitched by Ellen, while she casually discards both her old engagement ring and the man who gave it to her (Vincent Price). Make no mistake, this is a love story. However, it is a story of a twisted, all-consuming and all-destructive love, one where insecurity and possessiveness trample generosity and trust, where the heights of joy are abruptly flipped to become the depths of evil. Without going into spoiler territory for those who haven’t seen the movie, the first hour charts Ellen’s gradual succumbing to the persistent whispering of her inner demons, culminating in a scene that is shocking in its coldness. What follows is a rapid downward spiral, leading Ellen ever deeper into a state of moral decay and trapping those nearest to her in the web of deceit and selfishness she has spun.

I have only a passing acquaintance with the work of John M Stahl. I’m aware that he was responsible for the original versions of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life (both of which would be famously and successfully remade by Douglas Sirk) and I have seen The Walls of Jericho, again with Cornel Wilde. He brings a striking visual aesthetic to Leave Her to Heaven, ably assisted by Leon Shamroy’s sumptuous cinematography, and makes particularly effective use of nature. I have read of the film’s blending of references to Greek myths into the story and while I can see where the connections are being made, I’m not convinced they are all entirely apposite. What does strike me, however, is the significance not just of water, as others have suggested, but of the lake, and its positioning within the narrative at the beginning, in the middle, and again right at the end.

This symbol of life and death, indeed of the journey of life itself, is always present, from a vague and undefined early hope, through bitter tragedy, and finally on to a hard won reward of sorts. One thinks of the lake and its calmness, but it is a superficial calm masking something stirring softly beneath, perhaps something darker and more dangerous. Is there a reflection, as the water reflects and as the sunglasses donned for that darkest of all scenes also reflect, in the beautiful perfection and composure of Gene Tierney’s features?

Tierney could convey a powerful stillness at times that, again like the symbolism and imagery of the lake, is of a deceptive type. There is too that sense of a hidden thing lurking and submerged, revealed or betrayed by the suggestions of hurt, fear, love and on occasion downright malice which flash momentarily from the eyes. She forms the emotional heart of the tale, remaining a slightly mysterious and unknowable figure. The reasons for her murderous possessiveness are never fully explained – there is the obvious attachment to (or obsession with) her late father, yet this only partially explains her behavior, and it would seem reasonable to assume some sense of displacement was prompted by the adoption of her cousin (Jeanne Crain). What matters though is not so much why these impulses exist as the fact that they do. Especially in the first act, she comes across as something of a force of nature, that scene where she scatters her father’s ashes in the New Mexico wilderness, on horseback and with Newman’s soaring music carrying her over the ridges is notable. It serves to point up the contrast with Wilde, who watches it all from afar, meek and passive. In fact, the traditional roles are subverted on a number of occasions: Tierney’s bold and prolonged staring at Wilde at their first meeting is remarkable for its provocative unconventionality, and of course it is she who later proposes marriage, again in contravention of what would have been regarded as the norm.

Crain is fine in her supporting part, but it is a fairly one-dimensional role. Cornel Wilde makes for a personable lead, moving smoothly from love to dismay and on to horror and despair. However, I do wonder how a character who is so clearly unperceptive could make a living as a successful writer. Vincent Price, who appeared in a number of films alongside Tierney around this time including Laura, only has two scenes in the movie. His big moment occurs in the climactic trial where his vengeful and driven prosecutor takes center stage. His remorseless lashing of the witnesses on the stand veers dangerously close to histrionics but also highlights the raw wounds inflicted on his pride and dignity.

Leave Her to Heaven is film I felt was due a revisit for some time now and I was motivated to move it up to near the head of the queue when I read this post last month. That piece expresses some doubt as the whether Tierney’s character can be properly referred to as a femme fatale, and I tend to feel the same. Surely someone ruled by their own destructive impulses belongs in a different category. And so, just as the movie comes full circle, so we finish where we started, pondering the worth of labels. I’ll let others decide what they wish to call the film, I’m satisfied to think of it as simply a great example of the filmmaker’s art.