Thunderhoof

“There’s a story they tell that whoever catches him gets what’s coming to him, his judgment right here on earth.”

I think that one of the great delights of the cinema is its ability to be surprising, to reveal gems we the viewers had previously been unaware of.  I can’t see myself ever tiring of the movies for it seems that when I’m not revisiting old favorites to bask in the comforting warmth of their presence I’m reassessing those which I’d thought less successful to see what positives I may have missed. Then there are the discoveries, those new viewing experiences that remind me of the vein of riches yet to be mined. Thunderhoof (1948) is an example of the latter, although it may sound more than a little odd to think of a production that is over 70 years old as a new discovery. Still, from my perspective, that is exactly what it is, a title I only came to after some recent discussion about the work of director Phil Karlson brought it to my attention. A number of people whose judgement I trust sang its praises and, having now had the chance to see it for myself, I can only echo those sentiments.

Thunderhoof is a film that never misses an opportunity to wrong-foot the viewer, tempting you to think one thing before deftly showing you how neatly your own expectations have allowed you to be deceived. That is how it opens, with Scotty Mason (Preston Foster), a man engaged in a tight race between his own encroaching middle-age and his desire to start a horse ranch, one which will permit him to offer his much younger wife Margarita (Mary Stuart) the type of life he wants for her. That opening has Margarita watching over a remote and deserted camp in the wilderness, rifle poised to fire in the face of any threat. Out of the desolate night comes a rider with what looks like the figure of a lifeless man slung across his saddle, and up goes the rifle to challenge him. There is no danger here though, it is only Scotty coming back and bringing with him The Kid (William Bishop), the nameless young man he rescued and raised. For a moment we’re encouraged to think The Kid is dead, but he’s merely dead drunk.

This film is at heart a study of proprietorship, both on a personal level and in a wider context. Scotty has ridden out in the night to find and restore The Kid to the triangular family unit formed by these characters. There is that old old proverb from the East claiming that to save a life means taking on responsibility for it thereafter and that is certainly the philosophy Scotty appears to adhere to; whether The Kid likes it or not, his mentor and former guardian intends to see to it that he’s taken care of. For his part, The Kid is consumed with the restlessness of youth, the need to break out and break away, although he too would not be averse to laying claim to Margarita’s affections. Powering all of this is Scotty’s ambition to own and later to breed a line sired by the fabled mustang Thunderhoof. When the chance to rope this wild beast arises, both men, who were at that very moment in the process of trying to kill each other, put their differences to one side temporarily. Thunderhoof’s capture comes at the cost of a broken leg for Scotty, a major impediment to survival in such a hostile environment. Scotty wants the horse and he also wants his wife, The Kid is set on Margarita alone, and she seems unsure of what she hungers for bar some nebulous and ill-defined notion of fulfillment. However, the only way for these disparate characters to have a shot at attaining their desires is by keeping the others alive and kicking.

Thunderhoof was written by Hal Smith, whose credits include the lesser known film noir Night Editor as well as The River’s Edge, The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind. That script is a marvelously tight affair with its focus firmly on the interactions and rivalries of the three characters. It takes a fairly simple scenario and spins as much suspense and doubt from it as possible. The small cast and spartan setting allow the themes of desire, trust and betrayal to be thoroughly examined, and the conclusions reached, as the three travelers discover their true natures, are remarkably satisfying. Karlson’s direction is smooth and refuses to shy away from the tougher aspects of the story and the less savory sides of its characters. A good part of it is shot at night, meaning cinematographer Henry Freulich gets to show off some superbly evocative shadow painting as Scotty, The Kid and Margarita play out their subtly shaded roles.

Preston Foster had a long career playing all kinds of characters. I enjoyed the ambivalence he brought to his role in Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential and he also did good work for De Toth in Ramrod. As Scotty Mason he had the chance to take on a fully rounded individual, one of those fascinating characters who spend their time chasing dreams while they are simultaneously doing their level best to outrun the relentless clutches of time. Superficially, it is a big, booming performance, earthy and rambunctious and indomitable. Yet in his quieter moments, there is doubt and a niggling fear of life or his own failings – the cold desperation we see writ large upon his shadow drenched features as he lies drifting in and out of fever, while The Kid and Margarita sing and laugh in the next room, is beautifully realized.

Mary Stuart is someone I know I’ve seen in a few movies but who hadn’t made much of an impression on me. Her greatest success came on television in a long-running role in daytime soap opera. I cannot comment on that aspect of her career but I do know that she was excellent in the part of former saloon singer Margarita. She juggled the loyalty she felt toward Scotty with the temptation to run off with The Kid and achieved the perfect balance in the process. Of course such a role is a plum one but it is to her credit that she carried it off so convincingly. Her climactic stumbling through the nighttime desert, abandoned, desperate and bereft till the figure of the man she truly loves rides into view to offer both physical and spiritual salvation is poetically shot and movingly played. William Bishop’s life was cut tragically short but he made a number of fine movies in the time he had. The role of The Kid presented him with what I think is the best, or most nuanced, part I’ve seen him play. I’m now keen to catch up with Lorna Doone, another movie he made with Phil Karlson. This piece would of course be incomplete without some mention of the title character. Dice was a horse that also appeared in Duel in the Sun and he was used well in this movie, first as the prize to be won and then later as savior. The scenes of his capture and of his breaking are excitingly filmed and I am of the opinion that the image of horses being broken tends to act as a metaphor for the taming of the West itself – something wild, beautiful and untamed that must be carefully and patiently brought under control, that is gradually transformed from a source of peril into a symbol of support and a means of ensuring survival.

Thunderhoof was a Columbia picture and was released on DVD some years ago by Sony as part of the now defunct Choice Collection MOD program. It looks solid throughout, sharp, clean and attractive. Part of me wishes I’d been aware of this movie years ago, but I’m pleased to have been guided towards “discovering” it recently. I am also grateful to be in the position now where I can recommend this rather wonderful little film to others.

 

Experiment Perilous

Life is short and the art long. Decision difficult, experiment perilous.

That’s a loose translation of the words of Hippocrates, words first written over two thousand years ago and borrowed so as to be uttered by one of the characters in Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944). There’s truth in that quotation, as there is in so much of what has been passed down over the centuries from those great men of the ancient world. It could be seen to apply to the limited time the characters in the movie have to react and respond to the events that unfold around them. Looked at now in retrospect, it might even be said to act as a neat descriptor of the career of Jacques Tourneur himself. His fairly lengthy apprenticeship segued into the comparatively brief period of peak creativity, a period that could be roughly defined as starting from 1942 when he made the first of his stylish hauntings for Val Lewton with Cat People and running through to 1957 when he so successfully recaptured some of that sensibility in Night of the Demon.

Experiment Perilous is a classic Gothic melodrama with a hint of film noir drifting around it, perhaps in the vague dissatisfaction that colors the moods and attitudes of its principals as much as anything. All through the movie there is a suspicion of something not quite right, of a group of people hurrying about their business and their lives amid an almost permanent state of flux and turbulence. Much of the story takes place in appalling weather, with only the brief flashbacks to the past appearing to offer a glimpse of brighter and calmer times. The present, on the other hand, seems to lurch from one stormy tableau to another, presenting a background that is forbidding enough to drive the characters indoors for much of the time, seeking shelter from the elements without yet finding other more insidious threats lurking within.

It all begins on a train, carving its way east through the night and assailed on all sides by a raging downpour. It is that lashing handed out by nature that provokes a fateful encounter between psychiatrist Hunt Bailey (George Brent) and a fluttery and nervy woman sharing the same car. Both are headed back to the city, back to work in the doctor’s case while the lady is on her way back to see her brother and his wife after a long absence. She is a faded type, ethereal and quirky enough to pique his interest and sympathy. Were it not for a mix up with the luggage on arrival in New York, and then the fact he later overhears a throwaway remark about the woman’s sudden death, he would most likely have thought no more of the incident. However, there was something in the woman’s words and manner, and of course her unexpected demise, that arouses his curiosity and prompts him to take advantage of an opportunity to meet the relatives she spoke of.

Nick Bederaux (Paul Lukas) fits the stereotype of the turn of the century European sophisticate, cultured, moneyed and impossibly debonair. There is something a little “off” about him though, his charm and politeness bordering on obsequiousness. Bailey senses that on their first meeting and it is further heightened when he is introduced to Bederaux’s wife Allida (Hedy Lamarr). She is a delicate beauty, like an exquisite piece of Dresden china which Nick has procured and now keeps on display in his oddly oppressive brownstone. Bederaux takes the opportunity to confide in Bailey that he worries about the psychological state of his wife, and the effect it may be having on their young son. More suspicious than convinced by these pleas, the doctor agrees to examine Allida with the unstated intention of delving deeper into the secrets of Bederaux himself and the tragic past which may be impinging on the future of his wife and son.

Experiment Perilous came out the same year as George Cukor’s Gaslight (which was a remake of Thorold Dickinson’s British movie), exploring a very similar theme and with a plot that follows a very similar arc. This does not have the gloss and polish of Cukor’s film, but the director brings his own special touch to it. One of Tourneur’s defining characteristics was his subtlety, never overcooking a situation of overstating a point. I appreciate that quality – it is a stylistic fingerprint to be found all over his work for Lewton and is evident too in his other productions – and what appeals most to me about such an approach is the fact that it shows a sincere respect for the intelligence of the viewer. The plot of Experiment Perilous is relatively straightforward and there are few surprises yet the stylish way in which Tourneur guides us through it all ensures it never drags. There is a refreshing frankness about the relationships too and the dynamics that power them. While the production code of the time would never permit such a direct admission, Tourneur’s sensitivity and assurance means the motivation at the root of Bederaux’s jealousy is alluded to in such a way that the observant viewer is led to believe that the character is essentially impotent. It speaks volumes about the director’s skill that he is capable of weaving such themes into the fabric of the narrative, of blending in layers of maturity, without needing to resort either to crudity or falseness.

Hedy Lamarr was of course a famous beauty but her acting ability should not be discounted. The role of Allida Bederaux called not only for vulnerability on her part but a degree of gullibility too. Bearing in mind what an intelligent and accomplished woman she was outside of the movie business, it’s all the more laudable how she managed to successfully essay the helplessness of her character – I guess that characteristic catch in her voice helps some. Anyway, her performance contains a lot of warmth and credibility. George Brent was a good choice for the lead, bringing his own brand of humility and empathy to a character who is not written as an especially interesting figure. Perhaps that was one of Brent’s great strengths, his knack for portraying essentially bland characters and investing them with a humanity it was easy to relate to. He was a solid and reliable presence in many a movie (I felt he was exceptionally good opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation) although he did not always appear to be the most exciting, which seems slightly odd if you stop to think that here was a man whose real life exploits saw him forced to leave his native Ireland during the War of Independence with a price on his head. Paul Lukas co-starred with Brent in two other movies – of those, I have Temptation lined up for viewing at some point in the future. There is great precision about his playing, an economy of expression if you like, that suits the buttoned up nature of Nick Bederaux so well. Of the supporting cast, Albert Dekker gets the mix of passion and dissipation just right as Brent’s artist friend, while Olive Blakeney is sweetly neurotic in her relatively brief screen time.

Experiment Perilous is not the hardest movie to access these days, having had DVD releases in the US (via the Warner Archive), the UK and France, and probably other territories too. As a long time fan of Jacques Tourneur’s work I consider it an easy recommendation.

Tension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruthless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slattery’s Hurricane

Many of the movies that wind up being featured on this site are borderline or peripheral affairs in terms of genre, drifting in and out of that shadowy, hard to define area, which is almost, but not quite, film noir. André de Toth’s Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) is a case in point, mixing in crime, melodrama and adventure in a tale of trust and betrayal that unfolds largely in flashback. In a sense though, this is a movie which more or less defies genre and classification, but perhaps that is no bad thing as it allows viewers to approach it from multiple angles.

After some newsreel footage and a brief opening narration on the subject of hurricanes and their devastating power, the movie proper begins with pilot Will Slattery (Richard Widmark) arriving at an aircraft hangar lashed by torrential rain and high winds. It’s Miami and a beast of a hurricane is bearing down on the coast as he first grapples with and then lays out cold one of his employer’s servants. Slattery is a man every bit as driven as the raging elements around him yet his path will take him not away from danger but straight into its heart, right into the eye of the storm. As he takes the plane up and charts a course that will lead him to whatever place fate has reserved for him the flashback begins. It leads us back to a point before Slattery had fully committed his life to a downward spiral. There’s a roguishness to him, a hint of the irresponsible and the reckless, but even if he’s not as attentive to the needs of his girlfriend Dolores (Veronica Lake) as he ought to be, it doesn’t feel like a major flaw. That’s before Aggie (Linda Darnell) appears on the scene though. While she may be his old flame, she is also the new wife of his friend Lt. Hobson (John Russell). If Hobson is initially unaware of any previous connection between these two and equally blind to the heat the pair are generating every time they come near, the same cannot be said for Dolores. She smells a rat right from the get go and Slattery duly lives down to expectations. As he sets about seducing his friend’s new bride, Dolores is showing signs of fragility. Everything comes to a head when a quick spot of island hopping sees Slattery’s employer succumb to a heart condition, leaving the flyer in possession of the stash of narcotics he had been carrying. With the dead man’s partner threatening him, Dolores suffering a breakdown, Hobson finally cottoning on to what’s been happening behind his back, and a major tropical storm about to tear across Florida, Slattery could be said to be facing a crisis. When it suddenly dawns on a man that all he is and all that he has done has shattered not only his own existence but that of those closest to him, it is perhaps understandable that he might seek out some form of redemption. And so we circle back to the starting point, where a desperate individual buffeted and torn by poor choices and his own weakness has opted to flee the emotional maelstrom he has fallen into and instead tackle the wrath of nature head on.

Director André de Toth has Slattery confined within the perspex and metal of the aircraft’s cockpit for the bulk of the running time, and just as he is bound on all sides by the dimensions of his plane, so is the plane itself held in the fickle and destructive grasp of the great storm. In a sense, everything and everybody in this pared down universe is at the mercy of somebody and something else. Slattery’s hurricane is both a test for the man and a kind of isolation chamber allowing and forcing him to confront himself and his past actions and by so doing try to regain some modicum of self respect.

De Toth had a knack for using weather conditions as a reflection of the emotional states of his characters and the stories built around them. Day of the Outlaw is as chilling and sparse as its frozen setting, and even the ultimately disappointing Dark Waters uses its steamy Louisiana plantation as an effective representation of its overheated and oppressive tale. Essentially trapping his lead in the cockpit of his plane for the duration and only allowing the illusion of escape via the flashbacks takes it a step further. It is here, deep within the roaring darkness which Slattery’s world has become, that he sees himself and his life with the greatest clarity. Those flashbacks to the sun drenched days by the ocean reveal the deceptions and ploys played out in the full light of day. It is in this surface brightness that the dishonesty is presented with the most audacity: Slattery’s careless flirtations with Aggie in front of everyone, the relaxed opulence of the wealthy “candy manufacturer” hiding his drugs operation in plain sight, and of course the medal ceremony where Slattery, in dazzling whites, receives the honor his subsequent actions have now tarnished and Dolores’ ultimate collapse is triggered. Conversely, the enclosing and enveloping darkness and shadows serve to squeeze the less palatable truths out into the open.

Slattery’s Hurricane appears to have been a film that drew a fair bit of attention from Joseph Breen and the Hays Code. Obviously, the entire adultery/cheating thread had to be dealt with obliquely, but filmmakers were well versed in how to get the essentials of such affairs across subtly by the late 1940s. In short, the viewer is always fully aware of what is going on between the characters even when it’s not spelt out explicitly. More guile had to be used, however, in relation to the breakdown undergone by Dolores. Not only is the character in the employ of a couple of drug traffickers, but it turns out she is an addict herself. This kind of development was well beyond the pale though and thus there’s a deliberate woolliness about the nature of her problem and admission to a psychiatric clinic. Nevertheless, the filmmakers did show a degree of inventiveness in slipping in a close up of her doctor’s notes which make it clear that she has a drug problem. What’s more, my impression is that the affluent dope smugglers masquerading as candy merchants are a gay couple, but that too somehow got past Breen’s enforcers.

Slattery’s Hurricane came along just two years after Richard Widmark’s stunning debut in Kiss of Death and I still find it extraordinary just how assured he was even in the very early stages of his career. It was a good role for him at this point, exploiting the shady persona which had been so successful for him but emphasizing the ambiguous rather than the villainous aspects. The film, from a Herman Wouk story, was originally shot and screened with a much more downbeat ending but was then altered before its general release. It would be fair to say that the changes watered down the noir credentials considerably, but I don’t think this damages the film too much. The whole thing  is at heart Slattery’s journey to redemption and, regardless of which way it ends, that goal is attained. The finished film allows for the character’s salvation in addition to his redemption, both of which are earned. If one bears in mind that Veronica Lake was playing an addict, then her drabness and shakiness make some sense. Even so, there is no getting away from the fact that she looked spent or that her film career was nearing its end. She was not yet 27 years old and was struggling with her own substance abuse issues. Linda Darnell had the bigger part and got more screen time. While she is good enough with what she is given, it’s not a terribly taxing role and there is a passivity to it that leaves it not all that interesting. John Russell does not get that much to do either, although he is afforded the opportunity to rough up Widmark some for his betrayal. Gary Merrill is in there too, but mostly spends his time smoking and sweating in the control tower.

Slattery’s Hurricane is a 20th Century Fox production and was released in the US as part of the studio’s MOD line. That may be out of print now but there have been versions available in both Italy and Spain, possibly ports of the US disc. The movie could use a clean up and a sharper transfer, but it’s not a high profile title so that is probably unlikely to happen. It really is Widmark’s show all the way although there’s a lot to enjoy in de Toth’s direction too. All told, this is a well made nearly noir that I recommend checking out.

Call Northside 777

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Side, West Side

Crime has always acted as an effective hook to snare an audience. The reason? I guess it comes down to the challenge of being presented with a puzzle, even when it’s not an especially taxing one, that helps to draw in so many people. Even when the crime is not the principal feature of the movie it still adds a little spice, maybe broadening the overall appeal. East Side, West Side (1949) is at heart a slick melodrama, the kind that MGM was adept at making. Somewhere around the halfway mark it manages to work in a murder mystery, administering a shot in the arm to a plot which had been in danger of growing slightly listless and predictable.

The voice-over narration which introduces the movie has Jessie Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck) maintaining that the New York she inhabits is nothing special really, a place where people’s lives are mapped out in much the same way as they are in less celebrated towns. Yet the New York we are subsequently drawn into is different, it’s stylish and sophisticated and sleek, with well-to-do types very obviously doing well. Jessie Bourne is the daughter is one of the great ladies of Broadway, her husband Brandon (James Mason) is a successful financier with blue blood and all the polish and accomplishment it brings. The conversation appears as bright and dazzling as the crystal and china on her mother’s supper table, and every bit as brittle. That bright glaze that surrounds the Bournes is but a thin veneer, a superficial sheen that is riven with the kind of hairline cracks that are only visible when viewed outside of the honeyed glow of pampered privilege. You see, Brandon Bourne is an incorrigible philanderer and something of a lost soul, a man floundering in a sea of temptation, ostensibly in love with his wife yet powerless to resist the lure of forbidden fruit. The most persistent interloper in the Bournes’ garden is the relentlessly sexy Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), a supreme huntress in the field of seduction. She had an affair with Brandon in the past before moving away but has now been let loose once again to prowl the streets and clubs of Manhattan. That she is stalking Brandon mercilessly is never in question, and his assertions that he’s a reformed character have a hollow ring, not least to his own ears.

Jessie Bourne’s wronged woman is on a different path though. Frustrated by her husbands serial infidelity while simultaneously paralyzed by her love for him and her inability to envisage a life without him, she appears to have reached an impasse. By a convoluted mix of coincidence and curiosity, she encounters mannequin Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse), who in turn brings her into contact with Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin). Dwyer is a former policeman now working in some ill-defined role as an intelligence operative in post-war Europe. His arrival on the scene has a twofold effect, affording Jessie a glimpse of how her life could be without the constant fear of abandonment by her wayward husband and then later assuming a more professional role as an impromptu investigator when murder gatecrashes this elite atmosphere.

“That’s what you don’t get at home. That’s what you’ve missed isn’t it! It’s so tiresome being restrained and soft-spoken and gentlemanly. What you really want is to be a little rotten, like me!”

Those words, spoken with passion and animation, by Ava Gardner’s character at a decisive moment go some way towards clarifying the hold she has over Brandon Bourne. It’s a superb piece of casting really, Gardner was near her peak at this stage and commands attention whenever she is on screen. It is quite impossible to take your eyes off her and it’s very easy to see how Mason’s playboy is drawn inexorably to this smouldering siren. She is earthy and forthright, candid with regard to what she wants and every bit as frank in her assessment of herself. Essentially, she is the polar opposite of Jessie’s contained refinement. Even though the main focus of the story is on Jessie’s three day trek to self-belief and her realization of her own worth as an individual, it’s not the most compelling feature. The part is well enough defined and Stanwyck’s work is up to her usual standard, but it’s a relatively straightforward one. It would be unfair, I think, to refer to it as bland but there’s a touch of inevitability to the path traced, not to mention a dearth of internal conflict.

James Mason, on the other hand, does get something meatier and more complex to sink his teeth into. This was one of his earliest Hollywood films and his suave ambiguity was well used. His character’s acknowledgment of his flaws and weaknesses invites the viewer to weigh this man up, to consider him rather than merely sit in judgement. It’s the cocktail of arrogance, insecurity and self-awareness that lends a wretched and abject aspect to the final image we have of him, a portrait of vanity bereft.

Van Heflin’s role is a little odd or contrived. It’s almost as though he is parachuted into the picture as some transient righter of wrongs, a bluff and hearty action man, ace investigator and sage with a neat sideline in homespun philosophy and cooking skills. His determination to brush off a deeply smitten Cyd Charisse for, let’s face it, some pretty spurious and unconvincing reasons is difficult to swallow. Then after assuring Stanwyck he is not in the business of wooing other men’s wives he proceeds to do just that before departing the scene again. I can’t fault Heflin’s playing but I have to scratch my head over some of the logic surrounding how his character is written. That said, I’m never displeased to see him in a movie and there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not every day you have the opportunity to see him involved in a punch up with Beverly Michaels. Married to the producer Voldemar Vetluguin and making her screen debut, Michaels arrives fairly late in the story but is pivotal in bring about the resolution. And finally, there’s some well crafted support offered by Gale Sondergaard, Nancy Reagan (still Nancy Davis at this stage) and William Conrad.

East Side, West Side was released on DVD years ago as part of a Barbara Stanwyck box set by Warner Brothers so it shouldn’t be that hard to locate. There are undoubtedly better melodramas around but it has that MGM sheen that is certainly attractive, boosted by Mervyn LeRoy’s tight direction and a Miklos Rozsa score. The crime element lifts it in the latter stages and there’s a lot to be said for any chance to spend an hour and three quarters in the company of a cast as classy and accomplished as this picture boasts.

Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paradine Case

A Hitchcock film. This is a term which has become one of those key items of vocabulary common to all film fans. The director’s name is, I think it’s fair to say, universally recognized, which is no mean feat in itself when one remembers that he died over forty years ago and released his last feature a few years before that. In his lifetime and beyond the label “the master of suspense” was often applied, and it remains a fairly accurate descriptor. Is it a trifle restrictive though? Does it narrow the focus of his work too much? Perhaps. And perhaps it might be fairer, albeit admittedly lacking in poetry, zing, or just plain catchiness, to think of the Hitchcock film as a study of the moral dilemma. After all, his best works all present a range of ethical conundrums which both audiences and protagonists are tasked with navigating. While The Paradine Case (1947) is unlikely to figure in anyone’s list of best Hitchcock films, it does have some points of interest.

A beautiful young woman is accused of the murder of her blind husband and the barrister engaged to lead the defense becomes increasingly infatuated by her. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of The Paradine Case. By the time the film opens Colonel Paradine is dead. It feels somehow appropriate that a man who was unable to see, and whose life and death hold so much influence over the fate of the main characters, should himself remain unseen, save for the portrait which appears in the early scenes. As much as this is a Hitchcock film it is also a Selznick film and his presence hovers over proceedings just as the spirits of certain characters in his productions seemed to  haunt others. If this is a theme affecting a number of Selznick pictures, it is perhaps understandable as the man himself appears to have been haunted by earlier successes and was so often looking over his shoulder at those ghosts of his own past in an effort to reclaim them. Although it is a very different movie, there is something of the aura of Rebecca to be found, as if the tendrils of mist drifting and curling around the drive approaching Manderley continue to cling. Some of that comes from the familiarity of aspects of Franz Waxman’s score and the set of Mrs Paradine’s bedroom in the country retreat looking a lot like that of Rebecca’s. The past is never far from these characters lives, it may be frequently referred to obliquely but is always there in the shadows.

Whatever one may or may not think about the myriad theories propounded by critics, observers and biographers over the years regarding Hitchcock himself, there is no question that the characters peopling his tales of suspense and crisis are beset by their own obsessions. In The Paradine Case Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) is instantly bewitched by the cool, enigmatic beauty of his client. From the very first meeting he is entranced, his gaze fixed and his heart effortlessly purloined, the course of the case, his career and his marriage will be indelibly marked by the experience. It is an extraordinarily unsympathetic role though; the man is pompous and a prig, so dazzled by Mrs Paradine (Alida Valli) that he is both oblivious of how appalling his behavior is and staggeringly insensitive to how hurtful it is. We the viewers can see it in the awkwardness of those around him, in the uncomfortable pauses, in the cringing displays of petulance. Yet Keane himself sees none of it, he has in essence become the second blind man in Mrs Paradine’s life, morally if not physically sightless and wholly unaware of the emotional devastation his actions are wreaking.

The entire picture is of course dominated by another “blind” figure, that of justice herself standing aloof atop the Old Bailey, remote and apart from the desperate passions being enacted in the chambers below. Is justice finally served at the end of it all? The viewer can decide that; for my part, I think perhaps only partially so as the verdict returned is clearly correct but the “rightness” of certain other consequences brought about both before and after this is moot. The murder that sets the whole train of events in motion is really a variation on Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, being of the utmost importance to the characters on screen but of lesser significance to the audience. We are naturally interested in seeing how it will resolve itself, but I’d argue the answer is never in serious doubt and the greater interest is inspired by the personal and ethical crisis which Keane experiences and the way it unfolds (or maybe unravels might be a more accurate term under the circumstances) in a packed courtroom. Peck was quite young at this point but he seems to be playing older with the greying hair and vaunted reputation indicating a man approaching, if not already in, middle age. There are references made by his wife (Ann Todd) to the way he has changed since his idealistic youth and just about every action is suggestive of someone having a mid-life crisis, someone seeing cages and bars all around, besotted by the unattainable Mrs Paradine and driven jealous to the point of mania by what he regards as a younger rival in the shape of Louis Jourdan’s intense valet.

The eye of the storm throughout is Alida Valli’s unknowable widow. Her composure and control are remarkable and Lee  Garmes uses his characteristic skill to light and photograph her striking features in such a way as to heighten this aspect. This makes it very clear how she is able to cast a spell over every man she encounters, but it also has the effect of distancing her too much – by the end she has been characterized as saint, sinner and demon all rolled into one but I don’t think much of that conveys itself to the audience in any meaningful way. The impression created of her as representing all things to all men is so strong that none of it feels authentic. In combination with Peck’s unsympathetic lead, this has the effect of creating a hollow at the heart of the picture. When a movie trades heavily on the emotional tides pulling and driving its characters this way and that, it amounts to a serious flaw.

Both Ann Todd and Louis Jourdan fare better, the latter as the wife who is at first bemused and then later steely and determined as she realizes that she has a fight on her hands. Hers is one of the more genuine performances in the movie, her role being easy to understand and drawing sympathy precisely because it is clear she wouldn’t dream of asking for it. One could say it is a very “British” performance, deriving power and feeling from its restraint. Louis Jourdan, on the other hand, simmers with self-disgust. He is a mass of conflicting emotions in and out of the witness box, anger, indignation and shame all call to him simultaneously before eventually consuming him.

Charles Laughton was an actor who could practically eat a film alive, and came awfully close to doing so in Jamaica Inn, his previous collaboration with Hitchcock. The Paradine Case gave him a smaller part, but a juicy one nonetheless and his sardonic and spiteful  judge makes for an interesting comparison with the very different jurist he would essay for Billy Wilder a decade later in Witness for the Prosecution. Ethel Barrymore, playing his wife, turns in one of those fey, affected performances she was so adept at, clinging fearfully to the fraying threads of her own sanity. When she witters despairingly to her husband about how callous the years have made him it is hard not to imagine some foreshadowing of the path life has in store for Peck and Todd.  Also among the supporting cast are Charles Coburn and Joan Tetzel as Peck’s solicitor friend and his coolly perceptive daughter. Finally, there are small parts for Hitchcock regulars Leo G Carroll and John Williams.

I am of the opinion that there is no genuinely bad Hitchcock film between The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and Torn Curtain in 1966, while there are a number of undoubted classics as well as a few masterpieces in there. Sure some of the others are weaker and less successful and I’ll admit there are one or two which I do not like all that much. The Paradine Case is one of those frustratingly weak efforts. It looks sumptuous, has a superb cast and a premise brimming with potential. Yet the finished product is less than the sum of its parts and proves disappointing overall, failing to engage as fully as one would hope. Personally, I believe the blame can be placed on the writing – and Selznick seems to have been responsible for much of this – where the courtroom scenes are lacking in sparkle and snap and the portrayal of the leads saps all sympathy. In the final analysis, while it is certainly worth watching and has its moments this is a mediocre film that, had circumstances been slightly different, might have been a great one.