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

House of Strangers

Back in 2015 I looked at Broken Lance, a superior western and a remake of an earlier movie. I remarked at the time that I preferred the later version of the story and that’s still the case. Nevertheless, House of Strangers (1949), the original adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s novel, is an excellent piece of work when viewed in its own right. All versions and adaptations of stories bring something different to the table: the sensibilities of the filmmakers involved, themes added or removed, highlighted or suppressed. Where Broken Lance broadened and extended the scope of the material, House of Strangers retains a tighter focus overall.

A crowded sidewalk, bustling and bursting with life, and amid it all the eye is drawn to one solitary figure making his way through the vibrant mass, a detached and determined figure. He pauses before the imposing facade of a bank, the guard inside eyeing him fishily through the polished plate glass. This is Max Monetti (Richard Conte), once a sharp and arrogant lawyer but now just another ex-con. Actually, he’s a bit more than that; the bank was once the domain of his late father Gino Monetti (Edward G Robinson) before it was taken over by three of his sons, and before Max spent seven years as a guest of the state for jury tampering. Some of the brashness is still there though, and it’s enough to worry his siblings. It’s here that the lengthy flashback which occupies most the running time kicks in, showing how a family turned upon itself and slowly disintegrated, how rivalry and dissatisfaction became the seeds of hatred, how an old woman’s heart was broken and how a once grand home was transformed into a mausoleum to pernicious pride.

As in the image above, the past is forever peering over the shoulders of the characters. And it’s not just the malign spirit of Gino Monetti haunting his sons and poisoning their hearts, for even the old man in life was haunted by the specter of penury and subservience. The whole movie concerns itself with characters racing to keep a step ahead of their past, be it the stifling “old world” traditions that Gino professes to be desperate to throw off while apparently reveling in their trappings or another generation’s desire to be free of the too firm hold of an overcritical patriarch. Underpinning all of this is the concept of revenge or retribution, and the corrosive effect it has for all who drink from that particular cup.

I opened by speaking of a narrower focus, and I feel House of Strangers actively seeks to present a sense of restrictiveness. Instead of showing family as a symbol of fertility, it offers up a view of a stagnant and suffocating household, and I think it’s no coincidence that much of the action is rooted in the Monetti house and the old bank. Both structures have an old-fashioned ambience, a workplace where the sons are kept firmly in place – literally caged in the case of the elder brother Joe (Luther Adler) – and with limited options, and a home that is almost overpowering in the sheer weight and oppressiveness of its decor. The contrast with the light, spacious and airy apartment of Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), the one person in the movie with an outward-looking perspective, and the one who represents the chance for a clean break with the past and new start on the west coast, is marked and unmistakable.

Susan Hayward’s presence adds much to this movie. Her drive, allure, and most of all her infectious self-confidence represent the best hope of salvation for Richard Conte’s Max. The frank and witty dialogue those two trade is a highlight, giving an edge to their passion and, in Conte’s case, allowing his character to become much more rounded. Joseph L Mankiewicz, who apparently had an uncredited hand in the writing alongside Philip Yordan, was noted for the use of sophisticated dialogue and it’s a real boon in this picture. The visuals and themes are well handled and well realized, but the smartness of the script gives everything extra vigor.

Richard Conte could always be relied on when you needed someone tough and streetwise, and he starts out incredibly sure of himself, unpleasantly so in fact. It’s largely through his interaction with Hayward though that he unbends gradually, looking out instead of in, realizing what to embrace and what to reject. Edward G Robinson plays a man it’s hard to like – even in his more expansive and beneficent moods there’s a shade of self-importance about him. As the story progresses, this latter quality develops, eventually running to bitterness and, ultimately, spite and vindictiveness. With a trio such as Robinson, Hayward and Conte headlining, there’s not a lot of space left for others to make their mark. That said, Luther Adler is subtly impressive, enduring the pettiness and humiliations as he broods and nurtures a deep resentment. In support Paul Valentine and Efrem Zimbalist Jr are the other two browbeaten offspring, while the imposing Hope Emerson seems an unlikely mother to the diminutive Debra Paget.

House of Strangers was released on DVD years ago as part of the Fox Film Noir line and the image is pleasing if not perfect, with a few trailers and a commentary track by Foster Hirsch as supplements. All told, this is the kind of highly polished picture one would expect from 20th Century Fox and Joseph L Mankiewicz. The shift to a western setting allowed Broken Lance to successfully explore other ideas and make it a more satisfying experience. However, I like to examine every movie on its own merits and I feel House of Strangers deserves to be praised for what it is rather than disparaged for what it isn’t.

Scene of the Crime

It’s arguable that, at its peak, RKO was the studio that appeared most comfortable producing films noir. If, on the other hand, you were to ask which of the majors was the one whose aesthetic felt least suited to that characteristically bleak style of moviemaking, the chances are MGM would come out on top. Everything changes though, and by the tail  end of the 1940s MGM was moving towards a different style, and as Dore Schary the former head of production at the aforementioned RKO took up the reins he brought a flavor of his previous home with him. Scene of the Crime (1949) is an entertaining piece of work from this transitional period for the studio, a superficially soft-boiled noir that boasts some surprising toughness just below the surface.

The 1950s would see film noir focus on organized crime with increasing regularity but nothing happens with a flash and puff of smoke. It was a gradual process and the drift away from the compromised individual as protagonist to wider society and its institutions wasn’t so much dramatic as stealthy. An urban street at night (or a backlot representation of one anyway) is a typical noir motif, as is the crash of gunfire, the lurch and fall of a fatally wounded body, the words of a gunman rapped out as abruptly and tersely as the bark of his revolver, and the snarling motor of the getaway car. And all that’s left is the torn remains of a man clinging to the sidewalk. The man in question was a cop, a detective in the wrong place at the wrong time, but with an unexplained and bulky roll of bills in his pocket. Questions naturally arise, not only with respect the identity of the killer but the source of the cash too. The answers to those questions will be ferreted out by Mike Conovan (Van Johnson), a somewhat stereotypical detective with a somewhat unusual  private life; he’s married to a glamorous ex-model (Arlene Dahl) and gets to hobnob with the smart set when he’s not combing the gutter for suspects. He’s one of those cops who’s wedded to the job as much as he is to his wife and she’s not that happy about the whole deal. So there’s this background tension simmering away, the domestic pressures adding a layer of conflict, but it’s a tension of the MacGuffin variety, of much more concern to the characters than it is to the viewer. Still, there is tension to engage us, the painstaking progress of the investigation, the careful fitting together of the disparate pieces as a picture slowly forms before our eyes, one that’s neatly embroidered by the presence of a quirky snitch (Norman Lloyd) and a seductive stripper (Gloria De Haven).

Earlier this year, I wrote about another Roy Rowland directed film noir Rogue Cop (which ended up being not only the most commented piece of the year but of all time on this site) and noted how the visuals had grown brighter and starker than had been the case earlier in the classic cycle. There’s a touch of that in Scene of the Crime but Rowland and cinematographer Paul Vogel still mix in the more traditional look from time to time, a stakeout with a flickering neon sign outside the window springs to mind, and then there’s that toughness I alluded to at the beginning. While the ultimate fate of Norman Lloyd’s memorable stool pigeon isn’t shown explicitly, it is described and it is grim. There’s a hard edged fist fight with one of the prime suspects, the climactic shoot out that ends up brutally and painfully, and of course there’s also a delightfully sour and cynical double cross which adds some spice to one of the more significant plot strands.I don’t know how much of this is derived from the original source material but I do know that screenwriter Charles Schnee was no slouch and was responsible for turning out some extraordinarily good scripts (They Live by Night, The Furies, Born to Be Bad, Westward the Women, The Bad and the Beautiful, Two Weeks in Another Town) in his relatively short life. In the final analysis though, there will be those who will say Scene of the Crime is essentially film noir lite, pointing to the lack of grit in the lead’s home life and the upbeat ending. I’ll not dispute any of that, but I will say that none of it troubles me much as I’m not especially keen on any extra helping of nihilism at the end of this particular year.

I don’t suppose Van Johnson would be anyone’s first pick for a noir lead, but he was nothing if not versatile and I have to say I’ve always found him very watchable in a range of movies from Brigadoon through to The Caine Mutiny. Given the nature of his role in Scene of the Crime, he’s actually a pretty good piece of casting. He’s very comfortable in the society scenes and equally convincing doing his dogged detective routine or slugging it out with hoodlums. I reckon Arlene Dahl got a bit of raw deal with this one though. Her part is barely developed and she’s not given much opportunity to do anything other than look glamorous or vexed, or both. I was watching her in No Questions Asked the other week and I feel she had something more to get her teeth into in that one. In a year that has seen us lose some big names from the golden age of cinema it’s kind of comforting to watch Ms Dahl share screen time with Norman Lloyd and think they’re both still around at 95 and 106 respectively. There’s very good support from an enigmatic Gloria De Haven, as well as solid and dependable work from John McIntire, Leon Ames, Anthony Caruso and Jerome Cowan among others.

Scene of the Crime can be found as part of the Warner Archive and looks quite good. The movie may not have the diamond heart of the more revered films noir but it is an engaging little picture that won’t disappoint either. Check it out if you can.

This will be the last post of  2020 for me, an odd year for sure. It’s been undeniably tragic for some, challenging for all, and yet it should be remembered that adversity ultimately breeds strength and positivity. From a purely selfish perspective, I have to say that one of the bright spots has come from seeing the site grow in popularity as never before. None of that would be possible without the marvelous contributions of all the knowledgeable and enthusiastic visitors it has been my pleasure to play host to. So let me say thank you to all of you, and may you all enjoy a happy, healthy and fulfilling New Year in 2021.

Rogues’ Regiment

With a variety of matters vying for my time and attention these days, I’m grateful to have this opportunity to put up a piece on another of those relative rarities that Gordon Gates thrives on. So, read on…

Rogues’ Regiment (1948) is one of a number of post WW2 noir dealing with escaped Nazi war criminals. Notorious, Cornered and The Stranger would be several of the more well known.
In this one, Dick Powell is an army intelligence agent on his way to French Indo-China. He is on the trail of a high-ranking SS officer who had escaped the roundup at the end of the war. The trail leads Powell to the French Foreign Legion camp in Saigon. (The French used large numbers of ex-German soldiers in their war with the Viet-Cong).
Powell’s main problem is that there are no known photos of the man he wants. He joins the Legion himself in order to try and identify the swine. Said swine, Stephen McNally, is very careful about his identity and bumps off everyone he thinks is a danger.
Helping Powell out on his case is French Secret Service agent, Marta Toren. Toren poses as a singer in a cabaret frequented by off duty Legion members of the German type. Of course Powell and Toren are soon drawn to each other.
Also in the mix here is Vincent Price as an antique dealer who supplements his income with a little gun running for the Viet-Cong. Philip Ahn and Richard Loo play Viet Cong types who are buying said weaponry from Mister Price.
McNally, who picked Saigon and the Legion thinking it would be the least likely spot to be recognized, finds the opposite true. One of his ex-staff officers, Henry Rowland from Dachau concentration camp happens to be in the same unit. While out on patrol the men become involved in a fire-fight with the Viet-Cong and McNally applies a few rounds to the man’s back. Problem solved.
Not quite it seems. Old Vincent has tumbled to McNally’s identity and figures a bit of blackmail is in order. He knows McNally has a large cache of jewels and gold taken from his camp victims. Price wants most of it. McNally agrees as long as Price can supply him with a passport and some American dollars so he can leave the country.
Both of course plan to double cross the other when the deal is completed. Powell and Toren who have been one step behind finally clue in and quickly pick up their pursuit. The meeting between  Price and McNally needless to say has turned ever so bloody. Who wins?
The director here is Robert Florey. His work included Meet Boston Blackie, Dangerously They Live, The Beast With Five Fingers, Danger Signal, The Crooked Way, and the very under-rated The Face Behind the Mask. He was also the helmsman on hundreds of television episodes.
Screenplay was by one time Oscar nominee, Robert Buckner. He did the story or screenplays for Deported, A Prize of Gold, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Santa Fe Trail, Virginia City, Dodge City and Love Me Tender.
Powell and Toren are okay with their roles, But it is McNally here as the Nazi louse, and Price as the blackmailing snake in the grass who steal the show.
Toren, who died at age 31, managed to work the film noir  Deported, Mystery Submarine, Spy Hunt, Illegal Entry, One Way Street, Paris Assignment and Sirocco into her 4 year Hollywood career. The d of p was Maury Gertsman whose noir included Blonde Alibi, Inside Job, Singapore, One Way Street, The Glass Web and Johnny Stool Pigeon.
Well worth a watch if you can find it. Needless to say it is another UNIVERSAL-INTERNATIONAL Release.
Gordon Gates

Ruby Gentry

Incompatibility, or the absence of harmony, is what Ruby Gentry (1952) is all about. It’s a tale of love and ambition, and the friction generated by attempting to marry those two emotional opponents. Underpinning all that is the downbeat assertion that it is futile for one to try to escape the bonds of the past, that the future has already been mapped by circumstance or one’s  forebears, or perhaps some unseen guiding hand. This fatalistic view, one approaching the idea of predestination, tilts the movie in the direction of film noir; I think it is deserving of the noir label although I do acknowledge that there are those who will claim it is debatable whether it really belongs in that nebulous category.

Dr Saul Manfred (Barney Phillips) is the man from whose  point of view the story is seen. He’s our narrator, a kind of everyman guide taking us through the varied and tangled relationships at the heart of the affair rather than one of those pompously stentorian “voices of authority” that sometimes lecture the audience at the beginning of a film noir. His is a much more thoughtful and sensitive description of events and people, a reflection of the character himself and also of the personal stake he had in its development, at least at the start. He tells of Ruby (Jennifer Jones), and it’s one of those classic parables detailing the rise and fall not only of the title  character but of all those who were part of her life, and indeed one might even say of the rise and fall of the stuffy and socially suffocating community they all inhabit. Ruby is introduced as a swampland tomboy, an impoverished temptress in tight sweaters and torn jeans, as skillful with a rifle as she is careless with the hearts she captures. Simultaneously skittish and coquettish, she has spent time fostered in the well-to-do household of local big shot Jim Gentry (Karl Malden) and it’s whispered among the more mean-spirited in town that she has acquired ideas above her station. This is clear from her romance with Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), a returning jock from a patrician background and a head full of big plans. The rigid social order is disapproving and Tackman hasn’t the moral courage to rise above this, so Ruby is drawn back into the world of the recently widowed Jim Gentry. Thus a complex web of ambition and desire is spun around a set of people who all think they know what they want but have no clear idea of how to get it, or to hold onto what they do manage to grab.

King Vidor’s  direction (working from a script by Silvia Richards) is beautifully controlled, pacy and rarely extravagant yet lush in its depiction of the steamy swamp where the climactic scene is played out and also in the richly detailed interiors, especially the house occupied by Ruby and her family. He uses space well to convey mood, the joyous and liberating race along the beach and through the surf in Tackman’s car perfectly captures the early exuberance of Ruby and her love, and then the cramped room which she shares with Jim and the doctor for the failed party after her marriage encapsulates the narrow and restrictive world she finds herself in. In the creation and presentation of these varied moods Russell Harlan’s cinematography is all one could ask for and no less than one would expect from such an artist in the manipulation of light. Ultimately, the movie works as a condemnation of unfettered ambition, where each of the main characters systematically destroys everything they care for in the pursuit of the unattainable. It is this, alongside the sour judgemental snobbery of a blinkered society, which stymies the only pure feelings on show – love is either thwarted or left unfulfilled and atrophied.

Jennifer Jones as the title character does succeed in drawing in the viewer, her allure is clear from her first appearance and the reunion with Heston on the porch in the dark and by torchlight gives a foretaste of the tumultuous nature of their relationship. Her efforts to fuse her love and her hunger to climb the social ladder is apparent from early on and the slow realization that she can only achieve the latter at the expense of the former is painful to see but convincingly portrayed by Jones. In the final analysis, hers is not an attractive character, the vindictiveness (though understandable) adds coldness and her attempts time and again to net Heston detract from her somewhat.

That latter aspect is amplified when it comes to the marriage to Malden’s besotted millionaire. His motives are the most straightforward and honest of the lead trio and he consequently earns a good deal of sympathy. There is a terrifically affecting moment when he catches his wife out in a foolish betrayal and you can see not only his world crumbling before his eyes but his assessment of himself as a man undergoing a reevaluation as he gazes in frank despondence into the mirror behind the bar of the country club. Heston simply oozes machismo, that powerful screen presence clear from even this relatively early stage in his career. For all the swaggering bravado though his Boake Tackman is a moral coward, a “back-door man” hiding behind his family’s position and reputation. Also deserving of mention is some fine work from Tom Tully, Barney Phillips and, in a disturbingly fanatical turn as the scripture-quoting brother, James Anderson.

Ruby Gentry has had a Blu-ray release in the US from Kino and there are a range of DVDs out there as well. I still have my old UK disc put out by Fremantle many years ago and it presents the movie most satisfactorily, although there are no supplements whatsoever offered. The movie has a strong emotional hook and Vidor’s assured direction, as well as Harlan’s cinematography and Heinz Roemheld’s score, combines effectively with some excellent performances. This may not be a picture you come away from with a particularly positive glow but it does have some depth and the final image, and message, may not be quite as downbeat as it first appears.

Plunder Road

“Remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him. Said you were rushin’ toward death. Yes, just rushin’ toward death.” – High Sierra (1941)

The above quote seems as good a summation as any of the thinking behind Plunder Road (1957), a late entry in the classic film noir cycle and a lean, streamlined one at that. Any fan of pared down, low budget filmmaking ought to find much to appreciate here in the simplicity of the narrative and the clean, uncluttered technique. The movie provides an object lesson in how to be economical without becoming cheap and how to take a sparse, minimalist approach to storytelling without sacrificing the engagement and involvement of the viewer.

If you’ll excuse the pun, this is a driving movie in every way. It opens in that breathless style that leaves one in no doubt regarding its urgency. The credits are punched up on screen as the white lines of an anonymous highway hurtle by below. The filmmakers are clearly in a hurry to get to the point, and as the camera moves into the interior of the vehicles it’s abundantly clear that the characters presented to us are just as conscious of the need for haste. There are five men in two trucks and they are racing through the rain and the darkness, racing to catch a train. Eddie (Gene Raymond) is the brains of the outfit, the mastermind behind a plan to lift millions in bullion from a late night train. They’re running late and he’s worried, though the guys in the back of the truck, a hooligan (Wayne Morris) and a explosives man (Elisha Cook Jr), are probably even more tense, sitting either side of a precarious looking contraption supporting a vial of nitroglycerine or some other highly volatile substance. Despite the inclement weather and the rush, the heist is a success, and then a new race is on. Perhaps it’s actually two races, that of the gang to make good their escape with the loot and that of the largely faceless authorities to lay them by the heels before they have the chance of slipping out of the country.

Director Hubert Cornfield has an extremely brief list of credits to his name but Plunder Road is the only one of his movies I’ve seen so far. As such, I’m not in a position to comment on whether or not it’s representative of his work. What I can say, however, is that this is one stylish dynamo of a picture. That  pacy beginning segues into a heist sequence that is fabulously smooth in its execution and  memorable in its visuals; the rain, the masks and the clockwork precision of it all shot in a spare yet evocative manner by Ernest Haller. From this point on the tension never lets up, the gang now attempting to put into practice the crucial getaway their laconic leader has mapped out. Any connoisseur of the heist movie will know that a big part of their success derives from observing how even the most tightly woven and seemingly foolproof of schemes can slowly unravel, with the pressure generally coming from within rather than without. Plunder Road follows such a formula, but avoids descending into cliché as it does so. This is partly due to the “shape” of the narrative moving in what might appear to be a reversal of the usual noir route; it goes from darkness, confusion and turbulence towards the light, the ending deceptively bright and sunny, everyday and bland. Bleak and bland. That’s part of it, the other part is the characterization.

What we get in Plunder Road are thumbnails, brief sketches that highlight a few prominent or significant features. A more lavish budget might have led to flashbacks, a wider cast and maybe parallel storylines to add apparent depth, but I doubt the end result would be any more effective. Narrative padding tends to be irritating, inflating the running time unnecessarily and damaging the rhythm. Here we learn only the essentials about the characters and this is typically communicated via snatches of throwaway conversation. The point here is that this minimalist writing style works, and it works by telling us enough about the characters to catch a glimpse of who they are,  and who they were, almost without us being aware of it. And it’s just enough to humanize them, to make the viewer interested in them, to care.

Gene Raymond had top billing as the planner, and what is learned about him? Surprisingly little beyond the fact he’s supposed to be a first timer, a man without a criminal past and therefore an object of curiosity. All that’s really revealed is his skill in logistics and, crucially, his relationship with Jeanne Cooper. Those two people are essentially defined inside the movie by this relationship, both of them acting as they do as a result of their devotion to the other. Steven Ritch wrote the movie and also played the part of the expert driver, a twitchy, hot-tempered type who blew a promising career and is now desperate for a big score. Stafford Repp was a few years off becoming Chief O’Hara in Batman but makes an impression as the dead-eyed but careless gum chewer who proves to be the first weak link in the chain. Elisha Cook Jr displays, perhaps unsurprisingly, more pathos than anyone else. His widower who hopes to secure a privileged, comfortable future for his son and himself in Rio is the very epitome of naivety. Finally, there is Wayne Morris as a former stuntman; tough and detached, here’s a man who depends on his muscles more than his brain. The pivotal scene at the gas station, where he first elicits sympathy from the viewer through his casual chat with the elderly attendant before flipping the whole thing in the blink of an eye after he makes the  kind of error that cannot be ignored, shows him at his best. That scene, on a number of levels, is the most tragic and affecting in the entire movie.

Plunder Road was released on both Blu-ray and DVD in the US some years ago by Olive Films. The black and white Scope image looks excellent and there are no noticeable flaws. This is a fine movie which benefits from tight scripting and sharp cinematography and direction. The precision of the heist is classic thriller material and  having each character’s downfall stem from their own unique traits  is pure film noir – the notion that everyone is in effect his own nemesis is a dark thought indeed. This is a movie which retains freshness even after multiple viewings and is therefore an easy recommendation, something especially true for those who have yet to see it.