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.

Leave Her to Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere in the Night

Somewhere in the Night (1946), that title alone is imbued with all the uncertainty and ambiguity that is such an essential ingredient of film noir. Add in the theme of amnesia and it’s tempting to imagine this movie might be the classic example of the form. Well, it doesn’t quite get there; the plot is twisty, the characters even more so and their motives are buried deep in a half-remembered past. Everything looks right, and at times sounds right too, but maybe there is too much going on, too many strands to follow with the result that the viewer is left to navigate the kind of fog our protagonist must battle his way through.

No time is wasted in the opening, a field hospital where all manner of wounds and injuries are being treated by stressed and weary medics. George Taylor (John Hodiak) is lying in bunk drifting in and out of a morphine induced haze, his jaw wired up and his memory wiped after a close encounter with a grenade. The fact is George Taylor isn’t even sure that’s his real name, the doctors call him that but he doesn’t really know, and he’s both puzzled and uneasy by the letter he finds among his belongings. It’s incomplete but there’s enough there to tell him it’s from a woman, one who is consumed with bitterness and recrimination, and all of it directed towards him. Well he eventually gets shipped back to the States and so begins his fumbling efforts to establish his identity, efforts which hint at large sums of money awaiting him, but few friends if any to guide him along. Conversely, the more he learns, the less he appears to know, and the more nonplussed he becomes. A letter from a guy called Larry Cravat tells him there’s cash in the bank in his name, but this only increases his suspicion. Who is Larry Cravat, and why does every question asked about him lead to further suspicion and violence? Taylor’s world is reduced to a stumbling quest through night clubs and slums, peopled by hoods and chiselers, where swank businessmen rub shoulders with dubious fortune-tellers and a convoluted trail involving Nazi loot and murder leads to a sinister sanatorium and a final showdown on the waterfront.

The films of Joseph L Mankiewicz have a tendency to be stylish but wordy, and I think that’s true of Somewhere in the Night. Norbert Brodine’s cinematography drapes the 20th Century Fox studio sets in very attractive shadows while Mankiewicz’s script (with uncredited contributions from Lee Strasberg and Somerset Maugham) and direction are characteristically polished. For all that though, the plot is packed tight and is of a density that hinders rather than helps. For every morsel of slick, hard-boiled idiom, there’s a side order of undercooked exposition to be dealt with. This kills the pace at vital moments, the complications unnecessary and the detours involved only sporadically interesting. While a predatory Margo Woode offers a masterclass in would-be sophisticated patter and burnished brass, her presence and interactions with a slippery and proudly amoral Fritz Kortner feel like they have blown in from a different movie.  In fact, the entire Nazi loot subplot has an air of pastiche to it, channeling elements of The Maltese Falcon to such an extent that by the time the confrontation in Kortner’s dingy flat rolls around I was half expecting Hodiak to lean over to Ms Woode and mutter: “Six, two and even they’re selling you out.”

I can’t help thinking tales of amnesia and 1940s movies seem to go hand in hand, a feeling that’s perhaps been heightened by the fact I watched another variation on this the other day in William Dieterle’s Love Letters. In that case, however, the loss of memory is suffered by Jennifer Jones’ traumatized heroine as opposed to Joseph Cotten’s returning veteran. Nevertheless, that tumultuous post-war world, where everything has been upended and all the old certainties swept aside, provides fertile ground for stories of recollections lost and the consequent pros and cons presented by the unknown and the uncharted. John Hodiak is a personable hero, getting across the self-doubt of his character, that need to learn more about the man he once was while also fearing what he may discover in the process.

Nancy Guild is fine as his Girl Friday, but her role is a touch bland and she makes only a limited impression compared to Margo Woode’s flashy turn.  Where Hodiak is necessarily cautious, Richard Conte is typically sharp and assured, rapping out his lines with a confidence that dares the world to challenge him. Lloyd Nolan is hugely enjoyable as the cop in the case, unflappable and unfazed by the deceptions and betrayals all around him, representing a beacon of sorts amid all the shifting currents. A word too for Josephine Hutchinson; hers is a small part and arguably not really essential in advancing the plot yet that one scene she has remains memorable. The movie makes a number of points about the effects of the war on those who have come back as different men to a radically changed society, but the effect on those who were left behind is no less important. That brief interlude which says so much about loss, loneliness and the hurt of missed opportunities is deeply touching, and Josephine Hutchinson’s sensitive and restrained work opposite Hodiak is quite wonderful.

Somewhere in the Night is a movie which has always felt like a bit of a companion piece for The Crooked Way. They do not tell the same story but there are definite points of similarity, enough to tie them together in this viewer’s mind at least. I think the latter is the more successful film due to its pared down nature and tighter focus overall. That said, Somewhere in the Night is entertaining, classy and has enough positives to offset its weaknesses. Perhaps it isn’t the quintessential film noir that the title alludes to, but it’s still a solid genre piece.

So, that brings me to the end of 2021. All that’s left to say is Happy New Year to all those who have spent time here. May 2022 bring only good things for all of us.

Red Canyon

Redemption – have I mentioned that concept before? Well, it would be practically impossible to maintain a site which has devoted so much space to the consideration of the classic Hollywood western for so many years and not do so. After all, that was one of the main drivers of the genre, the cornerstone on which everything else rests, and we cannot even approach the western in an intelligent way, let alone attempt to pin down its essence, until we acknowledge the primacy of this core ingredient. One of the more compelling attractions of the western is its multifarious nature, those layers and variations which are woven into the fabric of the genre. George Sherman’s Red Canyon (1949) offers yet another of those spins on the theme of redemption.

Many a movie has been built around the notion of the outlaw seeking to outrun his past deeds, the gunman grown weary of the endless challenges and the fame or notoriety which has come to be a curse. Yet what about a reputation foisted upon a man not through his own actions but second hand? What about the idea of guilt by association, or in this case as a result of one’s bloodline? This is the central theme of Red Canyon, the tale of a man looking to break loose from the shadows cast by his disreputable family. Such a task requires not only grit and resolve but money too for new beginnings come with a hefty price tag. To that end, Lin Sloan (Howard Duff) has determined to catch, break and race a famed wild stallion known as Black Velvet. This is the secondary thread running through the picture, the hunting and taming of this magnificent force of nature. And it is that quest which brings Sloan into contact with Lucy Bostel (Ann Blyth), the romantic angle which then develops forming the third plot strand and acting as a bridging device of sorts. That relationship starts out out in a lighthearted manner – Sloan’s arrogance results in Lucy temporarily losing face and losing her prized thoroughbred, while she seizes an unexpected opportunity to pass on some indignity by way of repayment – but folds into the main narrative when it deepens. It is complicated by the fact that Sloan’s family is responsible for the death of Lucy’s mother in a raid and her father (George Brent) has consequently sworn vengeance against the entire clan. A situation is thus set up whereby all the main players have no alternative but to defy their past histories, and one of them might perhaps earn that coveted redemption for his family name if nothing else.

Red Canyon ranges widely in tone, the lightness of the early scenes should by rights contrast sharply with the action of the finale and the deep-rooted schism which provokes it. It is a credit to George Sherman’s assured direction that all the tonal shifts which occur feel so smooth. Working from a Maurice Geraghty script which is an adaptation of a Zane Grey novel, Sherman seamlessly blends all the ingredients in this tale about breaking a horse and breaking with the past. Ultimately, Lin Sloan does redeem his family name by decisively cutting the bonds that have tethered him all his life. The movie celebrates the restoration of harmony and balance, in nature, relationships and in life itself. By reclaiming his identity, Sloan also ensures that the Bostels, both father and daughter, are freed from the shackles imposed by long held grudges. Of course the stallion is set free too, this symbol of unfettered nature has been instrumental in restoring the emotional equilibrium but it is patently clear that such a potent and primal force could only ever be tamed temporarily.

Howard Duff made a number of films with George Sherman and had a pretty good run in general up until the mid-1950s without ever breaking through to the very top rank of stars. He had that tough persona which made him a good fit for crime movies and westerns and Sherman gets good value from him in Red Canyon. An exuberant and vigorous Ann Blyth (who turned 93 earlier this year) plays off Duff’s ruggedness and deals credibly with both the romantic and more tomboyish aspects of her role. I guess she will be best remembered as Joan Crawford’s ungrateful daughter in Mildred Pierce but she did plenty of varied and interesting work well into the following decade.

As is the case with so many studio productions of the era, the supporting cast is positively crammed with talent and familiar faces. John McIntire gives one of his memorably mean performances as Duff’s no-good father while Denver Pyle and a rather vicious Lloyd Bridges are his siblings. George Brent, who is not an actor usually associated with westerns, is suitably stern and implacable as the head of the Bostel household. Among all the drama there is welcome comic relief provided by Jane Darwell, Chill Wills and the wonderful Edgar Buchanan as a delightfully self-aggrandizing windbag.

Red Canyon has had a Blu-ray release in Germany via Koch as part of a George Sherman collection also containing The Last of the Fast Guns and a DVD of River Lady. I still have to pick up a copy of that set but I should imagine it is a strong transfer as even standard definition copies of Red Canyon are hugely impressive with Irving Glassberg’s  stunning Technicolor cinematography looking terrific. Comparatively speaking, this movie will be regarded as a minor western. Sure there are bigger, bolder and unquestionably better films to be found in the genre, but it does have a great deal of charm and that attractive sensibility typically found in Sherman’s work.

While this might not be my final post of 2021, it will definitely be the last one to be published before Christmas is upon us. With that in mind, I want to take the opportunity to wish all the visitors here, both the regulars and those who have just come across the site, a merry and peaceful Christmas.