The Seventh Victim

Halloween and horror movies have come to complement each other in modern times and I suppose it would be possible to spin out a theory asserting that my Irishness taps into some unconscious yet inescapable atavistic connection to Samhain at this time of year. Still, the truth is that I am not a huge fan of horror as a genre, or perhaps I ought to temper that a little and say that the direction the genre has gone in holds little appeal for me. I can find plenty to enjoy and appreciate in earlier works, starting with the Universal cycle in the 1930s and running right through to the best of Hammer, with detours taking in William Castle’s glib gimmickry and Roger Corman’s raids on Edgar Allan Poe. Right in the middle of those four decades of screen terror can be found the nine marvels of the macabre that producer Val Lewton oversaw at RKO in just four golden years between 1942 and 1946. The Seventh Victim (1943) is as much film noir as anything and if it is to be categorized as horror, then it is of the subtle variety where slow-burning dread and crawling unease reign.

The cinematic world of Val Lewton is one where nothing is quite right, where feeling, moods, and even relationships appear ever so slightly off-kilter. And so it is right from the opening of The Seventh Victim, as the camera pulls back from its close-up on a doom-laden quotation etched into the massive stained glass window flanking the staircase at Highcliffe Academy. As the bell rings and groups of chattering schoolgirls descend those stairs a solitary figure climbs in the opposite direction. This is Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter), already figuratively setting out on a different path. The starchy headmistress inform this young orphan that her fees have been unpaid for some time and, more worrying, her older sister Jacqueline has apparently disappeared in New York. Eschewing the opportunity to work off her fees by tutoring younger pupils, Mary opts instead to head for New York in the hope of finding her missing sibling. She knows that Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) was the owner of a cosmetics outfit but inquiries there leave her with the disconcerting news that she had sold up just before dropping out of sight.  The last sighting of her was at an Italian restaurant going by the name of Dante. Can it be a coincidence that an establishment borrowing its name from the author of The Divine Comedy should be located below the street, requiring its patrons to quite literally descend to a lower level? These are the first steps which will lead Mary on a labyrinthine route through the Bohemian world of Greenwich Village and on to the lair of a cult dedicated to evil. This quest for Jacqueline – under the supervision of three pillars of rationalism: Tom Conway’s psychiatrist symbolizing science, the law in the shape of Hugh Beaumont, and the arts as represented by Erford Gage’s poet – may be taken as a quest for the soul itself. Now one could read that as a search for fulfillment amid the cold anonymity of the modern metropolis. Then again it perhaps reflects Jacqueline’s own spiritual journey, one which metaphorically traces Dante’s classic path through sin and penance on the way towards hopefully attaining salvation.

The Seventh Victim saw Mark Robson taking his seat in the director’s chair for the first time. He’d started out as film editor working with Orson Welles and then with Val Lewton before the latter offered him the chance to call the shots. It is an impressive debut feature, unsettling and absorbing in equal measure, raising as many questions as it ultimately answers and benefiting from a well-paced script by Charles O’Neal and DeWitt Bodeen (Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People). Nicholas Musuraca’s peerless cinematography comes to the fore too. Time and again we see his key light picking out the subject, carving some small pool of respite from the deep, inky shadows that forever threaten to encroach and envelop. On a side note, there is a “shower scene” in this movie, a typically  creepy and unnerving interlude which I have seen some people suggest might have been an influence on Hitchcock’s Psycho. Frankly, I don’t really buy that theory – the scene not only plays out in a wholly different fashion but it’s aiming for a moody and disconcerting effect as opposed to the raw shock of Hitchcock’s iconic sequence.

Debutante Kim Hunter acts as the point of view character for the audience, an innocent (albeit a steadfast and determined one) cast adrift in the city and forced to confront all the empty indifference which characterizes it. It’s a sympathetic piece of work from the young actress, refraining from a descent into hysterics during tense passages such as the late night incursion into the cosmetics company’s premises and the subsequent ride on the subway; the latter scene, imbued with a helplessly nightmarish quality, is worth the price of admission in itself. Guiding her through this are the puppy-like Hugh Beaumont, Erford Gage’s vaguely fey poet and a quietly authoritative Tom Conway was Dr Louis Judd. Conway played the same character, or at least a character of that name, in the previous year’s Cat People, and certain comments he makes sound like they are referencing that role although Judd appeared to have died in the earlier movie. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the timeline involved is, or indeed if there is even supposed to be any actual connection between the films. Anyway, that is not something I attach much importance to. At the center of it all, however, is Jean Brooks as the elusive and enigmatic Jacqueline. She drifts in and out of the picture alternating between nervy panic and listless resignation, a visually striking symbol of existential detachment.

Warner Brothers released The Seventh Victim on DVD as part of a Val Lewton box set many years ago, paired on the same disc with a feature length documentary on the producer’s career. As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been any upgrade offered since then. While the image is pretty strong as it stands, a Blu-ray would only enhance Musuraca’s evocative cinematography. Bearing in mind the studio has been gradually putting Lewton’s films out in high definition, it can only be a matter of time before The Seventh Victim is afforded the same treatment. For those not entirely sold on the concept of the horror film Val Lewton’s tales of subtle solicitude are highly recommended, at Halloween or any other time of year for that matter.

The Locket

Ask any movie fan to compile a list of film noir characteristics and the chances are that it will include a femme fatale, a trenchcoat-clad private eye, a rain slick sidewalk, a cheap room sporadically lit by a flickering neon sign, a world-weary and almost insolent voiceover, and maybe a flashback sequence. Actually, the latter is such a classic device, not one which is by any means exclusive to films noir but, even so, one which was frequently exploited successfully by those filmmakers exploring cinema’s kingdom of shadows. There is something inherently noir about the flashback, its underlining of the ease with which the past impinges on the present, that fatalistic allusion to mistakes forever stalking the protagonists, only ever a heartbeat away from the here and now. The Locket (1946) employs a succession of these nested dissolves to lead the viewer back and forwards through the tortured and occasionally bewildering experiences of its characters.

A bright and sunny day, what could be more conventional and thoroughly positive than the sight of a highly polished car drawing up before a well-appointed residence in order to deposit its highly polished and well-heeled occupants (Reginald Denny & Nella Walker) on the sidewalk with no more on their minds than a bit of idle chatter as the navigate their way through the waiting reporters and pass on inside to attend their nephew’s wedding? Everything smacks of sophistication, order and happiness as the groom (Gene Raymond) welcomes his guests. Yet within minutes a summons to have a word with a mysterious guest will create an unmistakable and possibly irreparable crack in this facade, figuratively elbowing the bride, Nancy (Laraine Day), aside and instead ushering in the dark clouds of chaos and disorder, an unexpected and unwelcome storm bringing with it theft, deception and murder. The interloper is Harry Blair (Brian Aherne), a psychiatrist who has a tale to tell about the bride to be. As we delve into the past via the first of multiple flashbacks it becomes clear that Nancy is not a soul at peace. Bit by bit, we are drawn back to her childhood, growing up as the daughter of a servant and suffering a telling psychologial trauma, being presented with a valuable locket only to have it snatched back and then later being falsely accused of stealing it. This proves to be the catalyst for the deeply disturbed life she will go on to lead. It alters her relationship with the world at large, twisting her sense of morality and even her perception of reality. The consequences of all this are her destructive marriages, both to the thoughtful and urbane Dr Blair and the more elemental artist Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum), and her ambivalence to if not downright disregard of the law and the sanctity of human life itself.

The 1940s saw the production of a number of movies with plotlines based loosely and often fancifully on then fashionable Freudian approaches to psychoanalysis. Hitchcock explored this area with Spellbound while Robert Siodmak incorporated it into The Dark Mirror. John Brahm was another arrival from Europe and with The Locket he too turned his attention to the  dramatic possibilities stemming from stories of abnormal psychology, something he was not unfamiliar with having already made the rarely mentioned Guest in the House as well as the Gothic chillers Hangover Square and The Lodger. Sheridan Gibney’s screenplay, featuring layers of flashbacks to rival Michael Curtiz’s wartime thriller Passage to Marseille, with its suggestion that even innocent misunderstandings in the past have the malign power to reach forward, haunting characters in the present and leaving them doomed or damned, is powerfully bleak. Factor in Nicholas Musuraca’s gift for conjuring up gloriously evocative shadows around pools of shimmering light and the ingredients for a classic film noir are all in place.

Looked at today, the name that jumps out of the credits is that of Robert Mitchum. Nevertheless, he didn’t receive top billing in 1946 and while his stock was on the rise in Hollywood, it would be the following year when he made the seemingly unloved Desire Me alongside Pursued, Crossfire and the seminal noir Out of the Past before he’d rate a higher position. While his role is a significant one and pivotal in the development and progression of the story he remains the second lead. That said, it’s always a pleasure to see the man working on screen, to watch how effortless he made it all look, and of course his departure from the action is not only memorable but genuinely arresting.

There is something smooth and reassuring about Brian Aherne, his is a quiet screen presence that commands the attention yet never seems to demand it. Whenever he’s around there’s a sense that even though bad things may happen, and they most certainly do, it will all come right in the end. It is this quality which adds punch to the arc his character describes over the course of the movie. We see him move from the calm complacency of one who feels confident of his place in the world towards the dawning of some dreadful suspicion, and on to a kind of frenzied rejection of reality before finally reaching a form of reconciliation with the disbelief he is surrounded by. As Mitchum’s words come back to haunt him his philosophical acknowledgment that he is merely another cog in a dysfunctional cosmic process which appears fated to repeat itself cyclically is a wonderful touch. At the center of this careening emotional vortex is Laraine Day’s Nancy, a psychotic magpie who presents an angelic facade to the world, leaving a trail of devastation in her wake as she flits from one identity to another collecting pretty, shiny things on the way. Day (Foreign Correspondent) is shockingly good at conveying the ethical immaturity of her character by turning on that blank innocence whenever she is confronted with her crimes. In support, Gene Raymond, Helen Thimig, Katherine Emery and Ricardo Cortez drop in and out of the tale, all of them offering telling contributions.

The Locket should be easy enough to obtain as it was released on DVD as part of the Warner Archive in the US and also in the UK by Odeon/Screenbound. I have the latter, but it appears that may be out of print now. This is a visually stylish effort, just as one would expect from any project with the names of Brahm and Musuraca attached. The noir aesthetic is reflected in the themes too, that notion of an inescapable past being ripe with potential. This is the type of movie I very much enjoy and one I recommend checking out.

Rope of Sand

“Consider the diamond itself for instance. Carbon, soot, chemically speaking. And yet the hardest of all matters. So hard, in fact, that whatever it touches must suffer: glass, steel, the human soul.”

Peter Lorre uses that line, or a variation thereof, something like three times throughout Rope of Sand (1949). It’s not a bad line and has an air of wistfulness about it, and it’s tempting to wonder whether the filmmakers were hoping that this echoing might encapsulate the spirit of the movie. In a way it does, but probably not as originally envisaged. In essence, Rope of Sand is a simple story, one incorporating revenge, justice and a treasure hunt. Yet for all its simplicity, it feels somewhat repetitious, stretching its material more than is necessary and losing some of the inherent tautness in the process.

In brief, the plot revolves around Mike Davis (Burt Lancaster), a disgraced hunter who has fallen foul of the mining authorities after stumbling through (I presume, although it’s never explicitly referred to as such) the Namib desert in pursuit of a client who recklessly felt he could sneak out some diamonds. The result is the death of the client as well as a beating and torture for Davis, supplemented by the loss of his license. That ought to be enough to ensure any man would give the place a wide berth in future, but Davis is driven in true noir style by both a thirst for revenge and some sort of justice or recompense – he doesn’t appear certain himself as to which one holds the strongest allure. Up against him is the local commandant, the sadistic Vogel (Paul Henreid), and his debonair boss Martingale (Claude Rains). The latter wants to lay his hands on the diamonds Davis left behind just as much as the aggrieved hunter does. To that end he flies in a Frenchwoman of questionable reputation (Corinne Calvet) with the aim of coaxing the location from Davis, and then delights in the added bonus of seeing the new arrival add another layer to the antagonism between Vogel and Davis.

Walter Doniger’s script contains a fair bit of toing and froing, plans made and dropped, schemes attempted and foiled, and retribution handed out. There are dark mutterings amid exotic surroundings, interspersed with a smattering of witticisms as dry and abrasive as the South African sand. Past events are alluded to over hard liquor and a haze of cigarette smoke, then rather unnecessarily clarified via a flashback sequence that serves to simply slow everything down. And all the while the tone is shifting in tandem with the dunes of the surrounding wasteland, louche charm rubbing shoulders uncomfortably with instances of truly grim brutality.

On the other hand, these Hal Wallis productions tend to have a very grand look, a real cinematic sheen that is hard to resist. William Dieterle’s mise-en-scène and Charles Lang’s wonderful lighting combine to present some genuinely sumptuous shots and on occasion it approaches expressionism – the silhouetted figure atop a dune, the torture of Lancaster. Visually, the whole production is quite splendid. As for Franz Waxman’s score, I again found portions of it jarred and almost swallowed up the action on screen instead of complementing and supporting it.

Burt Lancaster is said to have disliked the movie intensely but his work on screen reflects none of that. It’s yet another variation on his, by that stage, patented studies in tough vulnerability and the type of thing he could practically sleepwalk through. Maybe it wasn’t much of a stretch for him dramatically but he turned in a credible piece of work all the same. Paul Henreid ‘s interpretation of an irredeemable sadist is powerful and intimidating, saved from becoming totally one-dimensional by the actor’s ability to hint at an awareness of his own failings. Claude Rains is all silken malice, a puppeteer whose viciousness only appears more palatable than that of Henreid due to the sheen of elegance and sophistication he wraps it up in. The only woman in the story is Corinne Calvet, hired by Rains to act as a siren and finding herself gradully falling victim to the  subterfuge and betrayals. Sam Jaffe’s alcoholic medic is underused and Peter Lorre as a lowlife fixer going by the glorious name of Toady drifts in and out of proceedings like some sweat-stained Falstaff.

Olive Films released Rope of Sand on both DVD and Blu-ray in the US but I’m not sure about availability elsewhere. It sports a terrific cast and Dieterle’s visual nous is never in question. I’d say it is sporadically entertaining, but the script allows the plot to drift too much in places and the tone lurches a little too freely – the smart dialogue and the harsh physical violence form an uneasy mix with this viewer.

That brings me to the end of this brief exploration of the cinema of William Dieterle which I have undertaken over the course of this month. I did toy with the idea of keeping it going a little longer but I have a hunch a triple bill such as this is sufficient for the present as too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. Nevertheless, I will certainly return to the director’s work as it represents a rich vein for movie fans.

The Accused

Film noir never seems to go out of fashion. Sure it has seen its box office power ebb and flow somewhat since its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s but movie fans keep coming back to it and if the number of articles, books and releases are anything to go by, its popularity remains strong. Is there then some paradox at work that sees something retaining popularity when at heart it relies on dark and/or pessimistic themes? Is it the cautionary tale aspect of it all that draws viewers, that vicarious thrill which comes from seeing others experience the dangers? Or is it the fact that noir is not so much dependent on the depiction (and the exploitation) of bad luck as on poor decisions? I feel it’s difficult to actively enjoy or take pleasure in witnessing bad luck, even the fictitious variety. However, looking at characters making poor or unwise choices is a different matter, not requiring one to indulge in something as distasteful as schadenfreude. The Accused (1949) is a classic film noir where the lead finds herself drawn into a typically dark vortex by her poor judgement and questionable decision making.

In characteristically noir style The Accused opens with a sense of urgent desperation. A woman is trying to put some distance between herself and what looks like something ugly. She is Wilma Tuttle (Loretta Young), a psychology professor, and after she stumbles guiltily along the highway, cadges a ride from a helpful truck driver and finally makes it back to her apartment, we learn via a brief flashback sequence about those bad decisions. Disoriented, disheveled and distraught, she mumbles to herself how her life has crumbled in less than twenty-four hours, and the image dissolves, pulling us back into the past. A provocative student Bill Perry (Douglas Dick) has developed something more than a crush on the professor yet instead of sticking to her guns professionally and passing the matter on to the dean she not only accepts a ride home from this guy (she’d missed her bus), but ends up sharing a meal with him and then a detour to the cliffs above the ocean. Here Perry assaults her and, in an effort to defend herself, Wilma Tuttle bludgeons her assailant to death. Those rotten choices keep on coming: rather than do the sensible thing and report the incident, she tries to cover it up, to fake a fall and subsequent drowning, and of course make it look as though she’d never been near the spot in question. At first, it seems she may get away with it, the inquest returns a verdict of accidental death after all. However, Perry’s dissatisfied guardian San Fracisco lawyer Warren Ford (Robert Cummings) has his doubts, as does the doggedly persistent Lieutenant Dorgan (Wendell Corey). While the net of suspicion draws inexorably tighter, Wilma allows her attraction to Ford to develop into a full-on romance, a situation requiring more delicate decisions to be taken by all concerned.

Having generally enjoyed Red Mountain, I find I’m on a bit of a William Dieterle kick just now. I liked his handling of the western setting but I think it’s fair to say that The Accused, with its dark melodama and a script by Ketti Frings (Foxfire) represented more comfortable territory. The pacing is well judged, hooking the viewer right away and adding developments and complications in sufficient numbers and at appropriate intervals to keep the tension simmering without allowing it to boil over or become unnecessarily confusing. In terms of visuals, Milton Krasner’s cinematography switches smoothly between the brighly lit outdoor scenes where all feels well and the characters are correspondingly open and moodily rendered interiors where ambiguity makes its home. There is also a strong emphasis on mirrors and reflections throughout; this particular motif shows up time and again and alludes to the differing images presented by the characters – the faces they present to the world and those they present to themselves. As a result, there is a constant sense of duality and even duplicity as none of the principals fully reveal themselves to others.

Apparently, The Accused was originally planned as a vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck. Now, anyone who has spent any time browsing this site will know that I hold Stanwyck in the highest regard, I’ve always liked her work and admire her versatility. However, the role of Wilma Tuttle called for someone who could convincingly portray a woman whose judgement is almost perpetually in question, whose vulnerability will constantly overide her intelligence. I can’t see Stanwyck pulling that off successfully, there was forever a sense of resourcefulness just beneath the surface that would have made it a tough sell. In contrast, Loretta Young had that doe-eyed trustfulness about her, so somehow it doesn’t feel like such a leap to see her repeatedly taking the wrong turn.

Robert Cummings gets the slick likeability of his part across well. He’s smooth and polished, sure of himself and solid enough to provide an emotional crutch for Young. He comes into his own particularly in the third act when, in the wake of a well staged and shot boxing bout which reveals much, he confronts and accepts the truth and really grows in stature. Wendell Corey’s cop is fine too. There’s a trace of cynicism which feels right for a man in his position and he also does  good line in self-awareness, a smidgen of doomed romanticism sharing space with a barely concealed dissatisfaction with the kind of things his job forces him to do. In support Douglas Dick is creepily effective as the victim, while Sam Jaffe is just about what you expect a forensic scientist ought to look and behave like. Finally, both Sara Allgood and Mickey Knox make brief but very welcome appearances.

The Accused was released in the US as part of the Universal Vault MOD prorgram, and it can be found in various European countries too, looking OK but showing room for improvement.  I understand it’s due a Blu-ray upgrade via Kino in the near future so that might be worth bearing in mind. This is the kind of noir melodrama I generally respond to, it’s well cast, stylishly directed and smartly written. What’s not to like?

The Velvet Touch


Guilt, fear and suspicion – these are all key characteristics of film noir. Marry those elements to the duplicity inherent in the world of the theater, where the necessity to don and discard the masks of performance, and the result should be a richly cultured blend of deceit. These circumstances provide a wonderful source of drama and melodrama, one tapped regularly by filmmakers. Sometimes the world of moviemaking itself becomes the main focus, while on other occasions it is the older and grander backdrop of the traditional theater. The latter forms the setting of The Velvet Touch (1948), where ambition, desire and tangled relationships on and off the stage see barbed witticisms replaced by a blunt instrument, resulting in tragedy.

In a sense, the whole movie could be summed up as a shift from comedy to tragedy. The leading lady of the story, and the leading lady of the Broadway production which has just reached the end of its run, is Valerie Stanton (Rosalind Russell). She has earned success and renown as a star in light comedic roles yet that pebble in the shoe of human nature that picks at many a person, and most especially the protagonists of film noir, is present. Yes, dissatisfaction is whispering insistently in Valerie Stanton’s ear, urging her to spread those artistic wings and set off and explore new areas. That alongside a new romantic relationship with an architect Michael Morrell (Leo Genn) is pushing her ever closer to a break with the past. And the break is a clean one when it does come, just as clean and sharp as the blow she strikes her producer and former lover Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames). This is essentially where the viewer comes in, literally in through the window of Dunning’s office, gliding in from the neon lit New York sky to witness the end of a highly strung and threat filled argument, the end of one man’s life and the beginning of a fresh ordeal for others. Shortly afterwards the movie dissolves into a lengthy flashback as Valerie reflects on the circumstances which led, step by relentless step towards this moment of violence. What follows is an investigation into the death conducted by the shrewd and reassuringly portly Captain Danbury (Sydney Greenstreet), an investigation that sees suspicion fall on the devoted but spurned Marion Webster (Claire Trevor). With dread and self-interest setting the pace and driving events into still darker corners of morality, the climactic denouement hints at life imitating art and those lines separating the the performer and the performance becoming blurred once more.

Those blurred lines  recall A Double Life to an extent, but even so I don’t think the similarities run too deep. Sure there’s the theatrical setting and the star, although only towards the very end of the story here, seeing aspects of her personal life and circumstances mirrored in the role she has taken on, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in this case. While The Velvet Touch is a good picture, attractively shot by Joseph Walker from a Leo Rosten (Sleep, My Love) script, it doesn’t have the same depth. That Rosten screenplay has some wonderful dialogue, as sharp and incisive as a scalpel and devilishly funny too; the exchange between Genn and Russell when they first meet at a party and he feigns ignorance of her celebrity is a delight. Some of that may be down to director Jack Gage too. He started out in the business as a dialogue director on  René Clair’s ever charming I Married a Witch as well as Double Indemnity for Billy Wilder. He then fulfilled the same role on  several pretty good melodramas, with Barbara Stanwyck (My Reputation), Bette Davis (A Stolen Life), and Rosalind Russell in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra before landing his one and only credit as a feature film director.

I will have to admit  that I’ve never been a great fan of Rosalind Russell. That said, I do admire her work and in particular I admire what I think of as her courage in embracing certain roles – for example, Joshua Logan’s Picnic sees her throw herself into her character in an extraordinarily challenging way. The part of Valerie Stanton is not an especially attractive one. Admittedly, she is wronged in some respects but her egoism and fealty to her own ambitions, whatever the cost to the innocents around her, is desperately unpleasant. It requires guts and great self-confidence from a performer to undertake such roles, and it is to Russell’s credit that she didn’t shy away from the more unsavory aspects. Claire Trevor rarely disappoints and turned in another excellent piece of work in the same year that she would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her humiliated moll in John Huston’s Key Largo. She got across the bitterness and hurt of the perennially wronged woman perfectly, bringing a considerable amount of dignity to it all.

I often wish Sydney Greenstreet had made more movies. That imposing physical presence in tandem with his rich and unmistakable voice could be employed with equal success to comedic, dramatic and outright villainous roles. I have seen almost all of the films he appeared in and it is safe to say he enriched every one of those. His entrance in The Velvet Touch is terrific. Moving onto the stage to interview the assembled cast, he at first projects an air of vague menace as he casts a fishy eye over the nervous group in front of him. His gaze shifts then to the pitifully small chair at his disposal as he lowers his bulk with trepidation onto it, and breaks into an avuncular chuckle in full recognition of the absurdity of it all. It is a beautifully played aside, milking the tension expertly before leavening it with some much needed humor. Of the others, Leo Genn is debonair and smooth, Leon Ames is brimming with malice and energy and primed for a deserved fall, Dan Tobin radiates a knowing whimsy as a conceited critic, and Frank McHugh gets another chance to practice his patented puppy dog enthusiasm.

The Velvet Touch has been released on DVD in the UK by Odeon and in the US by Warner Brothers so it should be easy enough to track down. It’s a solid noir melodrama set amid that theatrical milieu that this viewer never tires of and has a handful of strong performances to recommend it. I recommend it.

A Double Life

Hollywood’s penchant for picking away at the veneer of its own glamorous facade to steal a furtive glance at the preening, grasping and backstabbing that lies beneath has been noted before. It tends to be fascinating, to this viewer at least, to watch people indulge in this type of cathartic soul-baring. A Double Life (1947) offers a variation on this theme, inviting us not only backstage on Broadway to peer behind the greasepaint of the performers, but drawing us deep into the soul and psyche of that master of duality, the actor. And in this case, it’s a journey into darkness indeed.

How does one go about describing a man, catching the essence of the person concisely? There are people who seem to be the epitome of simplicity itself, engendering responses from those around them to the effect that he’s a great guy, or perhaps not such a great guy. Sometimes there is a general consensus on this point. Then again, many a man is a much more complex proposition, a walking cocktail of positive and negative characteristics where the question of whether or not he’s a right guy is wholly dependent  on the opinions and experiences of the person one happens to ask. Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is an actor and is also an example of the complexity I referred to. The sense of the dual nature of man is apparent right from the beginning in both visual and narrative terms. He is first presented in the lobby of the theater where his latest successful play is running and he is caught in a brief pose in front of a portrait of himself, looking over his own shoulder in a sense, and this is then reinforced as he strolls through the city on his way to see his agent, provoking varying reactions from the individuals he encounters, some of whom sing his praises while others are somewhat less flattering.

He is about to be offered the role of Othello, one he has shied away from in the past but the allure is to prove too powerful to resist on this occasion. His ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) is to play the part of Desdemona, and all of this prompts hesitation and trepidation. This legally estranged couple remain close, Anthony is still in love and Brita, though more cautious and reluctant to expose herself to hurt, clearly retains feelings too. Obviously, there is the potential for two people working together under such circumstances to get swept along, or even carried away, by their passions. Initially, Anthony busies himself with rehearsals and a casual fling with a smitten waitress (Shelley Winters) but as the success of the production grows and the run is extended he  finds himself drawn more and more to Brita. All well and good, but the fact is this man is known to be an actor who throws himself body and soul into his characters and that’s not good news when he starts to suspect Brita of being in love with press agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien). Slowly, he finds himself identifying more and more with the murderous jealousy of the man he has been portraying night after night on stage.

Frankly, I don’t readily associate George Cukor with films noir, although he did make a few movies which to a greater or lesser extent drifted in that direction, such as A Woman’s Face, Keeper of the Flame and Gaslight. However, A Double Life heads determinedly down those half-lit byways of the human psyche, aided enormously by the rich, shadow-laden cinematography of Milton Krasner. While there is no shortage of talent among the principal players the quality of those behind the camera is every bit as impressive and the presence of such depth and experience adds immeasurably to the finished picture. Besides Cukor and Krasner, the writing of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, the lush scoring of Miklós Rózsa, and the editing of future director Robert Parrish all contribute to what is an undoubtedly classy production.

Ronald Colman won the Best Actor Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe, for his work in A Double Life, which I feel was well deserved. It’s a complex and challenging role, and it’s to Colman’s great credit that he embraces its inherent melodrama and plays it with resolute conviction and the type of sensitivity that is vital in retaining the sympathy of the viewer. After all, he is breathing life into a character who in less capable hands could so easily alienate the audience. I’m reminded of something I once read by the critic Ian Cameron in relation to the viewer’s identification or sympathy with noir protagonists. As I recall, he spoke about both the comfort and discomfort this can provoke in the audience. We get drawn in by those characters for whom we can feel some affinity, those whose positive qualities are clear to see and are more than simply cardboard heroes or villains. Still, when they are at best ambiguous or at worst outright criminals then there is an undeniable sense of discomfort on our part too; we don’t really want to find ourselves sympathizing or identifying with such types, and when we have been manipulated into that position the duality that characterizes the better, or more nuanced, films noir becomes apparent. As viewers, our comfort and discomfort (and perhaps the ethical no man’s land in between) is a reflection of the movies’ blending of light and dark, of its frequent sallies into the murky grey areas of moral ambivalence.

A Double Life has a tight core cast with Colman obviously remaining the focal point of it all. Signe Hasso gets across the conflicted feelings of her character effectively and brings the audience along with her. Her continued love for he ex is apparent as are the reservations she has about allowing those now dormant emotions to be awakened. The delicate balance of such contrasting desires can be tricky to convey successfully but Hasso remains convincing throughout, this emotional tightrope walk as well as her portrayal of Desdemona in the drama within the onscreen drama acting as another example of the ever present theme of duality.

Shelley Winters turns in another solid performance as the earthy and ultimately tragic waitress. It’s not a big part in terms of screen time but it is pivotal and Winters handles it well. I know that in the past I wasn’t so taken with her work but with some recent viewings I find I’m increasingly impressed. Edmond O’Brien makes yet another appearance in yet another noir. He is good enough here, but it has to be said the part doesn’t offer him as much as some others he was doing around this time. Still, what he does is fine and his presence is always welcome.

A Double Life has been given a Blu-ray release in the US by Olive, but I’ve been making do with my old DVD so far. This is a beautifully shot movie that oozes the noir visual aesthetic while the tragic conflict at the heart of the story anchors it firmly in the choppy waters of dark melodrama. This is a very polished production and one which I find repays repeated viewings.

The Flame

Flashbacks and double crosses, love triangles and scheming women, blackmail, obsession and murder. Add in some moody and expressive visuals as well as the type of rich-looking set design a studio like 20th Century Fox would have been proud of and it sounds like The Flame (1947) has all the ingredients necessary for a top film noir, yet it doesn’t entirely hit the mark. That said, it’s not a bad movie and I think there’s actually quite a lot to enjoy over its 90 minute running time. Basically, it’s one of those odd cinematic creatures, a movie I get on with well enough but just wish I were able to like a little more; it has what can be summed up in that vaguely dreadful word, potential.

We come in high, skimming the urban skyline, and then swooping down to street level to focus on one man on that thoroughfare. He looks thoughtful as he pauses at the entrance to a swank looking apartment building. Passing in and up again, up through the splendor of its striking interior design, he moves along a corridor whose unique skylights are suggestive of a watchful eye from above, along to the grand door at the far end. Beyond those doors lies violence, for no sooner has the figure entered than shots are heard ringing out with a shocking abruptness, not least the last one. In a very real sense, this is an opening to die for. Sure, in terms of structure, it’s not quite as bleakly audacious as the tale told by a dead man in Sunset Boulevard, but it’s a close relative of sorts. When George MacAllister (John Carroll) arrives back at his apartment with a bullet hole in his back there’s a fatalism on display as he sits down to peruse the letter which will lead the viewer into the long flashback making up the body of the movie.

The letter in question is a long epistle from Carlotta Duval (Vera Ralston) detailing the tangled circumstances that led to a killing, how George MacAllister’s egoistic wastrel let his greed and his jealousy of his brother take hold of him, how that brother (Robert Paige) found a reason to live and how the writer herself became entrapped in a kind of ethical maze where every turn appears barred by thorns of her own manufacture. A plot to exploit an apparently ailing man evolves from double to triple cross, and threatens to become even more complicated with arrival on the scene of a disgruntled and lovestruck heavy (Broderick Crawford) and the subject of his passion (Constance Dowling). By the time we reach the end of the road the plot has twisted and turned around to such an extent that one of the characters performs a complete volte-face. The entire movie has a heightened sense of spirituality about it, alluded to via some of the early visual motifs and then made wholly explicit by a moment of enlightenment sequence at the mid-point. If that “road to Damascus moment” does lack a certain subtlety, the thinking behind it and the redemptive path it lays out for some of the characters is not in itself unwelcome.

The Flame was directed by John H Auer, a filmmaker whose work I’ve not seen all that much of. One movie by Auer that I am familiar with is Hell’s Half Acre, and it’s another which I think doesn’t quite deliver as much as it initially promises. It looks fine throughout, with Auer framing some very attractive compositions and cinematographer Reggie Lanning (Wake of the Red Witch) lighting them effectively. However, it all drifts somewhat in the middle, with the pace and energy fading and flagging. Now that’s not uncommon and lots of movies can be said to suffer from a similar soft center without it becoming all that noticeable. Perhaps part of the problem is the absence of a genuinely commanding presence among the leads.

In the three principal roles, Vera Ralston, John Carroll and Robert Paige are all adequate but that’s about it, and the movie could have used more dynamism in at least one of those parts. It’s long been fashionable to take shots at Ralston due to Herbert Yates’ insistence on her being the leading lady in picture after picture. She is certainly limited but her work isn’t poor, just not especially memorable. Robert Paige was tasked with playing a man of great kindness and understanding, and again while he’s not bad in the role I did find myself wondering whether there was enough in the characterization to melt a hardened heart in the way he’s supposed to do. And something similar can be said for John Carroll, where it’s debatable that he gets across the meanness, the duplicity and the manipulative nature his role demands.

On the other hand, the supporting parts are much more interesting: Broderick Crawford does have an aura of menace about him despite the hangdog bulkiness and the movie gets a lift every time he appears. Then Constance Dowling really raises the temperature when she is on screen, which isn’t anywhere near as often as one might wish. Her opening nightclub number is remarkable and full of raw sensuality, and her subsequent scenes allowed her to put across her coy, kittenish and waspish sides in succession. Beside those two, there are welcome turns from Henry Travers, Blanche Yurka, Hattie McDaniel and, giving a rather touching performance, Victor Sen Yung.

To the best of my knowledge, The Flame has never had a commercial release but it is easy enough to view online, and with very good picture quality too. It’s a solid film noir, with all the trappings and tropes of the genre or, if you  prefer, the style intact. Personally, I enjoyed the redemptive aspect of the yarn, even if the handling of the spiritual conversion is a touch clumsy and bordering on jejune. That along with the essentially anonymous work of the three leads drag it down some, although the stylish visuals and the supporting cast do add balance. So, a pretty good and enjoyable movie that could have been very good with just a few tweaks here and there.


This an entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Hidden Classics blogathon. Click here for the full list of participants and their contributions.

Impulse

Billy Wilder made The Seven Year Itch in 1955. Twelve months before that, Cy Endfield’s Impulse had a moody Arthur Kennedy longing to scratch the 8 year variety in the UK – perhaps things developed at a more measured pace in Britain in those days, even dissatisfaction. That said, there’s nothing especially slow-moving about the film itself and it has that generally attractive vibe that I find in a lot of Tempean productions.

It all begins with a suitcase, that simple object that signals the beginning or end of a journey, hinting at romance and the tantalizing  promise of escape too. Here though any escape alluded to is of a slightly darker hue. Pretty much everybody in the movie is looking for an out, even those who only gradually come to realize it. Alan Curtis (Arthur Kennedy) is one of those types, an American who hasn’t made it back to the States after the war and has instead married an English girl (Joy Shelton) and settled down to a quiet life in the Shires. The trouble for our unlikely estate agent is that it’s become just a little too quiet, too ordered and altogether too predictable. His wife is off on a trip to town and even the car ride with her to the station reveals the restlessness that’s gnawing away at him; this is a man yearning for a taste of excitement once again, and such men are only a step or two away from trouble. Well that trouble will find him soon enough, a stormy night, a breakdown on a lonely stretch of road, and a glamorous woman in need of assistance is all it takes. That woman is Lila (Constance Smith), a night club chanteuse and the person who will not only lift Curtis out of the rut he’s been grouching about but send him spiraling into a nightmarish world of stolen gems, racketeers and sudden death.

They say you ought to be careful what you wish for, well we all know the punchline to that one I guess. In a way that’s slightly reminiscent of Edward G Robinson’s bored professor in The Woman in the Window, Arthur Kennedy sees an apparently innocent flirtation lead to all kinds of unexpected and potentially ruinous consequences. The idea of an essentially average type stumbling into an increasingly dangerous and bewildering set of circumstances, with  salvation forever near yet forever dancing back into the shadows with a provocatively ironic laugh every time the poor sap is on the point of grasping hold of it, is such an archetypally noir setup. The screenplay is by director Cy Endfield (although the on screen credit reads Charles de Lautour) and Lawrence Huntington (The Upturned Glass), and the protagonist’s lurch into a twilight world is plausible enough, although noir purists may feel they drop the ball at the end. Personally, I’m not troubled by that aspect and prefer to look at the whole thing as an ethical fable, a warning for the curious if you like, where where it isn’t necessary to take matters to full on Scarlet Street extremes.

Constance Smith’s career was heading towards an abrupt halt at this stage, and indeed her life would take on a distinctly noir shading in the years to come, but none of that is in evidence on the screen. She turns in a good performance as the singer with secrets, and it’s easy to believe in anyone succumbing to her appeal; it’s a confident piece of work, combining humor, sexiness and just a hint of desperation at a couple of key moments. Kennedy is fine too and taps into a nice line in disenchantment, and he’s capable of grit and toughness when the script requires. The focus remains firmly on the two leads, which is fine as it lends a touch of intimacy to the story. Jack Allen provides solid support as Kennedy’s business partner and friend. Joy Shelton doesn’t get a lot to do, which is a pity as I think a little more development of her character might have added a layer of complexity to the drama. Cyril Chamberlain will be an immediately recognizable face to anyone familiar with British films of this era and he pops up here as a persistent henchman. I don’t think I’m straying too far into spoiler territory here if I say that the main villain is played, with suitable oiliness, by James Carney. Impulse was his last role and it appears he died the following year from gunshot wounds (if IMDb is to be believed) but I’ve not been able to learn anything else beyond that.

Impulse probably isn’t the most readily available title, in all honesty. It can be found in Renown’s Crime Collection Vol.2, and it’s in fairly good shape overall – I imagine it pops up from time to time in the UK on TPTV so that’s maybe another option. I have a bit of a soft spot for the output of Robert S Baker and Monty Berman’s Tempean Films, an outfit which may not have produced any especially great movies,  but made a lot of entertaining ones nonetheless. The sheer number of crime/noir movies made in Britain in the post-war years is staggering and while some of them are eminently forgettable, there are plenty offering a good deal of viewing pleasure, either in spite or because of their modesty. Impulse is relatively obscure but well worth a look for fans of the director or the stars.

A Left and a Right

The fight game, with its allusions to glory and honor taking a ringside seat with corruption and manipulation, has often been featured in films noir, either peripherally or as a central plot element. Today, guest poster Gordon Gates focuses on a couple of boxing movies that don’t get talked about so much.

A double bill of boxing programmers with early Robert Ryan, Scott Brady and Richard Denning performances:
Golden Gloves (1940) & In This Corner (1948)
These two boxing films are early examples of what would become top flight noir films such as Champion, The Set-Up and The Harder They Fall.

First up is Golden Gloves from 1940

Richard Denning is an up and coming amateur boxer who makes a couple of bucks on the side, boxing for small time racketeer, J. Carrol Naish. Naish runs a string of boxing clubs that holds mismatched fights to packed crowds. “The people want knock-outs. So that is what i give them.” Robert Paige plays a newspaperman out to expose the racket which of course annoys Naish no end.

Paige arranges an amateur boxing tournament with straight up matches and proper refs, doctors etc. When George Ernest, the kid brother of Denning’s fiancée, Jeanne Cagney, is killed in one of Naish’s mismatches, Denning decides to join Paige and clean up the sport. Naish has other plans, and decides to wreck Paige’s next event by planting a ringer, Robert Ryan. (Ryan’s second credited role) Ryan’s job is to win the amateur event and then tell the papers he is really a pro.

This of course would destroy Paige’s attempt at cleaning up the sport. Naish now murders a boxer who threatens to spill the beans to the press. There is plenty of double dealing and knives to the back going on in this one. Edward Brophy, who plays a crooked manager, is a complete hoot to watch. Needless to say the last fight becomes a bout between Denning and the ringer, Ryan.

Denning manages to pull off a win to save the day while Naish and his gang are grabbed by John Law for the murder.

While I’m not saying this is an actual noir, there are plenty of flashes throughout the film. The cast and crew here would go on to be featured in many film noir.

The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk with help from an uncredited, Felix Feist. Dmytryk of course went on to helm the noirs Murder, My Sweet, Cornered, Crossfire, Obsession and The Sniper. Feist also dabbled in film noir with The Devil Thumbs a Ride, The Threat, The Man Who Cheated Himself, Tomorrow Is Another Day, The Basketball Fix and This Woman Is Dangerous included in his resume.

The D of P was Henry Sharp who lensed Ministry of Fear, The Glass Alibi, High Tide and Guilty.

The film was written by noir regulars Maxwell Shane, Fear in the Night, The Naked Street, The Glass Wall and Lewis R. Foster, who did Crashout and Manhandled.


Next up on the bill is In This Corner from 1948.
This one has Scott Brady in his third film and first lead, as a just out of the Navy scrapper who wants to become a pro boxer. He tells his girl, Anabel Shaw, that he is off to join an old Navy vet who manages a boxing club. Brady tells her that once he makes his fame and fortune, they can get married etc.

Brady finds the old vet has not managed a fighter in years and the club is just an old rooming house with himself as the only boxer. Brady sticks it out and is soon hired as a sparring partner at a club owned by a mobbed up manager, James Millican. Brady is soon signed to a contract by Millican after he decks a ranked fighter during a sparring bout.

Brady KO’s his first opponent and is soon moving up with 9 straight wins. His girl Shaw joins him and life looks good. That is till Millican informs him he is to take a dive in the next weekend’s fight. Millican’s mob is placing a large wager at long odds on Brady’s opponent, and his assistance is required. Brady is more than a little annoyed at this idea and tells Millican to get stuffed. Brady intends to win and to hell with the mob! Of course the mob has a back-up plan. They stick a punch-drunk boxer one step away from the morgue in with Brady to spar with. The boxer, Johnny Indrisano, goes down in a heap at the first punch and is hauled off to the hospital. It is the night of the fight, and Brady is getting ready to enter the ring when a telegram is delivered. It states that Indrisano has died from Brady’s punch to the head.

Needless to say this news throws Brady’s game off and he is savagely thrashed, just like the mob wanted. He asks for a re-match in 3 weeks and gets it. He trains hard but the death of Indrisano eats at him. The day of the fight, Brady sends Shaw off to see about helping out the dead boxer’s family. Imagine the surprise when Shaw finds no record of Indrisano’s death.

She digs deeper and discovers the whole thing was a mob ploy to upset Brady. She hunts down the quite alive Indrisano who is being stashed at Millican’s country house. Of course while all this is going on, Brady is again being pummeled in the ring. Shaw, the police and the just rescued Indrisano get to the arena just in time for Brady to rebound for a KO. Millican is grabbed up by the cops and the film is wrapped in just under an hour.

The director was Charles F. Riesner, whose claim to fame was Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr and the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store. The D of P was Guy Roe who worked on noir such as, Railroaded, Behind Locked Doors, Trapped and Armored Car Robbery. The story is by Fred Niblo Jr who worked on Convicted, The Incident, The Bodyguard and The Wagons Roll at Night.

Ex-pug Johnny Indrisano sported a 64-9-4 record as a pro and beat several world champs during his career. He then became a character actor and a trainer for boxing films. He has bit parts in 99 River Street, Johnny Angel, The Bodyguard, Knock on Any Door, Tension, Borderline, Force of Evil, The Set-Up and about a dozen more noirs and numerous TV shows.

Nifty little low renter that is better than I make it sound.

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Gordon Gates

No Man of Her Own

In the world of Cornell Woolrich every dream is in reality a nightmare concealed behind a mask, every instance of happiness is merely bait to lure the unsuspecting into the ultimate trap of despair. It should be no surprise therefore that his tales of dread with their outrageous turns of fate have formed the basis for a fair number of films noir. No Man of Her Own (1950) is a slick piece of dark cinema, opening with desperation, then tantalizingly suggesting that fortune may be more than just an illusion, before relentlessly gathering up those crumbs of comfort one by one.

Many a film noir has opened with a voiceover, frequently stentorian and strident, eulogizing the agencies of the law, or sometimes harsh, cynical and redolent of whisky, cigarettes and hard knocks. Here it’s a different matter, dreamy and wistful with regret and resignation. As the camera pans across an idyll of suburban charm and respectability, and then on into a picture postcard house the weary tones draw the viewer’s attention to the already obvious attractions, before trailing off to the merest whisper to acknowledge disconsolately: but not for us. On we travel, deeper into the home we now realize nurses something painful, perhaps even incurable. A man sits before his hearth, book in hand but tension writ large on his face, and across from him sits his wife, cradling an infant, rigid and apprehensive. Hers is the voice that has guided us inside, and the hers will be the memory that carries us back via flashback to the months before when a different brand of despair held her in its grip.

Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is in a bad way. She’s pregnant and alone in a big city, with barely a dime to her name, nowhere to go and a former lover (Lyle Bettger) who wants nothing to do with her. In lieu of salvation she’s presented with a door resolutely locked and an envelope shoved hastily across the threshold. This is the ultimate brush off, a cross country rail ticket, with a five dollar bill scornfully keeping it company. And thus she sets off, worn down by the life she’s left behind and fearful for that within her and before her. The overcrowded train seems to foreshadow her future, perched precariously on the periphery, surrounded by apathy. Well, perhaps not quite. A sunny young couple (Phyllis Thaxter & Richard Denning), recently married and on their way back from Europe take her under their wing, the wife confiding how nervous she feels about meeting the in-laws who know nothing of her beyond her name. It’s a bittersweet moment for Helen, a rare instance of compassion that both warms her for its simplicity and decency, and chills her too as it’s a glimpse of the life she will never know. The latter is emphasized almost cruelly when her new acquaintance asks her to slip her ring onto her finger for safe keeping while she freshens up. It’s here that fate, in the shape of a calamitous train crash, strides on the stage and alters the course of everybody’s lives…

Mitchell Leisen is a director whose work I’m not overly familiar with, having seen only a handful of his movies and that being a long time ago. I recall reading somewhere that Billy Wilder was none too fond of Leisen, based I believe on his experience of scripting a number of films for him. What I do know for sure is that No Man of Her Own is a very stylish piece of work, fluid and smooth, seamlessly moving from that languorous opening narration – somewhat reminiscent of Rebecca in a way –  into the long flashback that charts the peaks and troughs of  horror and hope navigated by the heroine. Much of the action takes place in the family home, with occasional forays to a country club and also to the seedier part of town where blackmailers and chiselers can rent short term as they angle for the big score. Wherever the camera might roam, from secure domesticity to boozy squalor, Leisen frames his shots with great clarity and director of photography Daniel L Fapp lights and shoots it all in an atmospheric noir style. Dread and doom might be loitering with intent in the shadows, but they’re awfully attractive shadows all the same.

Barbara Stanwyck was nothing if not versatile. There was always a toughness about her, but she could suppress that to some extent when a role required it. In No Man of Her Own she certainly displays grit, and there’s more than enough adversity thrown her way to necessitate that, but she also manages to convey the essential vulnerability of her character, especially in the earlier scenes but later on too as the threats she faces see her options shrink. Throughout her long career she was able to slip from one character to another with ease, and this role offered her the opportunity to indulge in a wide and nuanced acting workout.

John Lund is impressive as the leading man. He starts out as an ebullient and carefree man of means, never any more serious than he needs to be. Then comes the suspicion, the persistent little niggles, the doubts which can never be entirely dispelled, finally seguing into the implacable fatalism of his love. The extent to which this love has consumed him becomes apparent in his dead-eyed determination to cover up a crime, and in his frank admission that whether or not it happened as he was told means nothing to him.

“That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” Watching Lyle Bettger make his debut, it’s hard not to have Shakespeare’s lines from Hamlet spring to mind. Smug, impossibly self-satisfied and without the merest scrap of decency, Bettger was introduced to cinema audiences as a thoroughly bad lot. There’s not one redeeming feature on show and he has the rottenness of the character down pat, not only the smirking and preening but also the steel edge beneath the surface which lends substance to his threats. Richard Denning and Phyllis Thaxter are not around long enough to make much of an impression in support. However, veteran stage actress Jane Cowl, in one of her rare and sadly one of her final screen roles too, is very good as the patrician matriarch. It’s also worth mentioning that Dooley Wilson (the man every film fan will know as Sam from Casablanca) pops up in a virtual cameo early on. And of course Carole Mathews has a brief but decisive part to play.

No Man of Her Own was released on DVD by Olive Films some years ago, and I don’t think it’s ever been upgraded to Blu-ray – no doubt someone will put me right on that if I’m mistaken. It’s a strong transfer, to my eyes anyway, and the quality of the image is pleasing throughout. This is a fine and hugely stylish film noir, highly polished in every department and just as highly recommended.

Other adaptations of Cornell Woolrich material which have been featured on this site:

Black Angel

The Leopard Man

Night Has a Thousand Eyes

Phantom Lady