Weekend Film Recommendation: Cry Danger

YWsOLKpWhat the difference between a first time directorial outing by a former film editor versus that of a movie star? In general, about 10-20 minutes of unnecessary footage. As directors/producers, movie stars tend to have too much sympathy with the actors (especially if they have cast themselves in the film) and not enough with the audience. A number of good films with actor-directors, for example Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, Ed Harris’ Pollock and Jack Nicholson’s The Two Jakes, did not achieve greatness simply because they were far too long.

Former film editors tend to understand that most movie scenes can be shorter and some movie scenes can be eliminated entirely. That doesn’t stop them from making long movies (David Lean was a former film editor) but it does prevent them from making flabby ones. A background as an editor was thus ideal for making an economical film noir in just 22 days, which is what Robert Parrish did in this week’s film recommendation: Cry Danger. I highlighted Parrish’s Oscar-winning editing in my recommendation of Body and Soul and am happy to report that he also clearly knew what to do behind the camera.

The plot of the film is near-boilerplate for these sorts of cinematic outings. Two noir staple characters, an ex-con named Rocky Mulloy who was wrongly convicted of a crime (Dick Powell) and a disillusioned ex-GI (Richard Erdman), team up to find the still-hidden loot from the robbery for which Rocky was framed. They tussle with the crime boss whom they suspect of being behind the original job (William Conrad, as usual a welcome film noir presence). Meanwhile, Rocky comforts his ex-girlfriend (Rhonda Fleming), who is now married to his best friend, who was sent upriver with Rocky and still remains in the Big House. Rocky is tempted by his ex- in more ways than one, but never lets himself be dissuaded from his mission of taking vengeance on those who framed him.

I have written before about how former song-and-dance men Dick Powell and John Payne repackaged themselves as noir tough guys after the war, and how Payne did so more credibly. Powell always seemed to me too Father’s Knows Best-ish to carry off morally murky or cynical noir roles, and his mien of near-continual faint amusement undermined his efforts to be an intimidating tough guy. But those problems are irrelevant here due to Erdman’s well-scripted part as Powell’s alcoholic friend, which is in Erdman’s hands is extremely funny (Fans of the TV show Community will not be surprised). Powell’s efforts to get his friend to sober up, and to be wary of the floozy (Jean Porter) who keeps stealing his wallet, turn Powell’s paternal demeanor into a strength rather than an annoyance, and the humor of these exchanges is only better for Powell’s frequent smirks.

Despite those light elements, there is still plenty of noirish content and mood on display here, as well as some pleasing mystery and action elements. The “surprise resolution” of the story is not hard to guess, but that will not diminish enjoyment of this tightly-constructed, well-directed crime melodrama.

p.s. As of this writing, Cry Danger is available for free for Amazon Prime customers.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Obsession

1862396_600In my recommendation of Dear Murderer, I described my fondness for British films in which brutal people say awful things with perfect manners and diction. This week’s film recommendation is another fine example of the “Terribly sorry old chap, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you” school of Brit Noir: 1949’s Obsession.

Like Dear Murderer, the film revolves around a beautiful, faithless wife (Sally Gray) whose urbane, intelligent cuckold (Robert Newton) seeks indirect vengeance by trying to kill one of her lovers in a fashion that the police will never uncover. Gray, who was with us in prior film recommendation Green for Danger, is at her most alluring…and her most cold. If there were any doubt as the film progresses, the final scene makes clear her character’s utter selfishness, and she puts it over in a manner worthy of noir’s most memorable femme fatales.

Robert Newton, as a calculating, vindictive psychiatrist plotting the perfect murder, is even better. It’s hard to believe that his suave, perfectly tailored character is the creation of the same actor who made “Arrrrhhh!” the byword of would be pirates everywhere (see my prior recommendation Treasure Island for details). Because he is ostensibly the victim of his wayward wife and conducts himself so politely, it’s possible to feel sorry for him until about half way through the film, when a critical scene with a little dog makes you realize that he is, like his spouse, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

As the lover who is to be killed, Phil Brown is solid, though a stronger actor might have been able to do more in the many face-offs he has with Newton. Naunton Wayne — for once not co-cast with Basil Radford — comes off better as a dogged Columbo-type detective, and also skillfully injects some comic relief into the otherwise grim story.

The other key presence here is director Edward Dmytryk, who was essentially exiled to Britain during the McCarthy witch hunts. He had a smaller budget to work with than what he was no doubt used to in Hollywood, but he gets everything possible out of the small cast and few sets as the film unfolds.

If you have trouble finding a copy of Obsession, look for it under an alternate title that was adopted at some point after its release: The Hidden Room. Any required extra hunting effort on your part will be well-rewarded by this finely-crafted piece of cruel and suspenseful entertainment.

p.s. Look fast for Stanley Baker (whose films were recommended here, here and here) as a cop on the beat.

p.p.s. If Stanford grad Phil Brown looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because he played Luke’s Uncle Owen in the opening scenes of Star Wars!

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Hitch-Hiker

hitchhiker2
Ida Lupino was a central figure in the breaking of the all-male lock on the Hollywood director’s chair. While she was looking for a new project to make with her then-husband Collier Young, she met one of the men who had been kidnapped and forced to drive through Mexico by spree killer Billy Cook. That inspired her (and co-screenwriter/producer Young) to make this week’s film recommendation, the first film noir directed by a woman: 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker.

The plot is straightforward and crisply told. Wonderfully, there is none of the extended, needless expository “set-up” of the characters and story of which too many film makers are enamored. Rather, the movie opens with a solitary figure walking slowly along a highway, looking for a ride. His face is off-camera. A car stops to pick him up, and moments later we see the same car on a dark side road, with dead bodies next to it. The solitary figure, face still obscured, harvests wallets and jewelry from the corpses. And then we see two pals on a fishing trip pick up a hitchhiker, who draws a gun and tells them to drive to Mexico. Somewhere along the way, he announces blandly that he is going to kill them too. From there, the movie is a three-handed nail biter, with William Talman as the hitchhiker and Frank Lovejoy and Edmund O’Brien as the luckless captives. Lupino keeps the brutal tale moving quickly and tells it an unromantic, unadorned style reminiscent of one of her mentors, Raoul Walsh.

Like most people, I only knew William Talman as the Prosecuting Attorney who got his head handed to him every week by Perry Mason. But there was more to the man than the role of Hamilton Berger let him show. As the gun-toting, sadistic Emmett Myers, he’s truly chilling. Yet like most bullies, he conveys an undercurrent of weakness and fear. It’s a pity Talman’s addiction to tobacco took him away from us at such an early age, leaving The Hitch-Hiker as the only big screen work for which he is even occasionally remembered.

HH2O’Brien is credible as the more macho of the kidnappers, who chafes at Talman’s psychological terrorism and keeps looking for a way to confront him. But the more complex performance is by Frank Lovejoy, whom Lupino seems to have coached to play his part more like O’Brien’s wife than friend. He cooks, he tends injuries, he loves children, he counsels patience and he better endures Talman’s taunts that the captives are soft and unmanly. Yet when the need arises, Lovejoy is heroic. I wonder if Lupino saw herself this way. In any case, I doubt that a male director/scriptwriter would have crafted Lovejoy’s part in this complex and compelling fashion.

The film is also a master class in noir cinematographer, with Nicholas Musuraca behind the camera. The eerie shots of Talman’s menacing face floating in the dark in the back seat with the two terrified captives harshly lighted and staring at the camera are unforgettable. But Musuraca also puts paid to the idea that film noir camerawork has to be all about shadow. Noir is a mood and not just a lighting style. The lonely, glaring shots of the car rolling through the bleak desert utterly isolated under the burning Mexican sun are just as much iconic noir as are all the dark scenes. Musuraca is revered in film noir uber-buff circles, but not widely respected beyond that, perhaps because his oeuvre was so enormous that he inevitably worked on some zero-budget tripe. But with this film, the trend-setting noir Stranger on the Third Floor and his movies with Jacques Tourneur (also once unappreciated), he has the basis to accrue a stronger reputation over time.

The Hitch-Hiker is a minor classic of the noir genre and a feather in the cap for Lupino, Young and everyone else involved. After this gripping movie, you may find yourself hesitant to ever again slow down and pick up that guy with his thumb out on the side of the road.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Black Angel

The 1946 film noir Black Angel is Dan Duryea’s finest hour

duryeaDan Duryea, sometimes called “the heel with sex appeal” was usually cast as a second lead or a one-dimensional villain (For example in the outstanding noir Too Late for Tears, recommended at RBC here). But in 1946, he landed a leading part that let him show that he could portray complex characters with competing motives: Black Angel.

Duryea plays Martin Blair, an alcoholic once-successful tunesmith/piano player who has been on the decline since he was dumped by his beautiful but thoroughly self-absorbed and evil wife Mavis (Constance Dowling). Still carrying a torch for his ex, Martin tries to visit her at her apartment on their wedding anniversary but is ejected by the doorman. Before walking away, he notices a suspicious looking character (Peter Lorre) being admitted to Mavis’ apartment. Later in the evening, yet another man, Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) enters Mavis’ apartment, also apparently looking for love. He finds her strangled body, leading the police, in the form of no nonsense Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford), to slap the cuffs on him. Bennett is sentenced to die, but his heroic and devoted wife Catherine (June Vincent) believes he is innocent (of murder, anyway). She rouses Blair from his latest drunken bender and the two set off to find the real killer. Suspense, romance and some fantastic plot twists ensue.

As you might have guessed, this film is a bit overplotted, but every scene engages due to the quality of the acting and the fine work of Director/Producer Roy William Neill, who is best known for his masterful adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (for example, see a prior film recommendation here). I consider Black Angel Duryea’s finest hour, because he has so much to do and does it all well. After his early scenes of drunken desperation he sobers up and does a tremendous job conveying his growing but frustrated love for Catherine even while he knows they are both working to save her husband. As for Peter Lorre, there’s something about him as an actor that whenever he walks into a movie with a long cigarette just barely hanging out of his mouth, the audience knows they are going to be entertained. If there exists a film that doesn’t benefit from his presence, I don’t know what it is. Last but not least, June Vincent is moving as the wife who will do anything to save her wayward husband, most memorably in her wordless, teary recognition that she is going to have to get between the sheets with Lorre’s character if she is ever to learn the truth.

Paul Ivano’s photography is generally workmanlike, with two notable exceptions. Both the opening tracking shot/dissolve from Duryea on the street to Mavis’ apartment building and the closing alcoholic memory sequence are creative and arresting. On a different note (pun intended), the well-executed musical sequences are smoothly integrated into the story and enhance the movie’s mood. It all adds up a highly satisfying night at the movies for noir films as well as for cinema goers more generally.

p.s. If you like this excellent film noir you might also enjoy The Chase (Recommended here), which like Black Angel is a loose 1946 adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich novel that features fine supporting work by Lorre, again with one of those cigarettes hanging on to his upper lip for dear life.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Timetable

Mark Stevens’ 1956 film noir Timetable gives the heist film a special twist

20072011131916editedMany movies start out creative and intriguing but then at some point lapse into formulaic filmmaking, thereby disappointing the viewer. This week’s film recommendation is a fine example of the reverse phenomenon, a movie that starts out in familiar territory but ends up somewhere far more engaging: Mark Stevens’ 1956 film noir Timetable.

The film opens with an ingeniously plotted robbery on a train, pulled off by an icily calm physician (Wesley Addy, a durable TV actor who is very good here in a rare big screen appearance). The case is investigated by a seasoned by-the book police detective (played Joe Friday-style by King Calder) and an eminently respectable insurance investigator named Charlie Norman (Mark Hopkins). For the first 20 minutes, Timetable is a solid but unremarkable police procedural as the two heroes track down the robbers. But then comes a superb twist that drives the story into deep film noir territory, allowing Aben Kandel’s script to dig into themes of lust, middle-class alienation and deceit. The next hour of the film is thus unexpectedly suspenseful and powerful, raising the movie into RBC recommendation-worthy territory.

I admire the control Mark Stevens took over his career in the 1950s. He was stuck in a “road company leading man” spot with the big studios, so much so that even when he anchored a good film he got fourth billing! (The Dark Corner, mentioned at RBC before in a discussion of Lucille Ball and Lured). So he struck out on his own by directing, producing and starring in his own movies, including Timetable, where he does good work in all three capacities.

A few other notes about the film. Jack Klugman, as a luckless criminal named Frankie Page, made his big screen debut here. This is also Felicia Farr’s first film, but she was underutilized I think. Finally, on a silly note, this movie inspired an RBC post on how little money weighs in the movies.

My belief is that Timetable is in the public domain, so I am going to post it right here for you to enjoy. It’s 80 minutes well-spent.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? See the full list of RBC recommendations here.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Web

One of Vincent Price’s best non-horror roles is in the 1947 film noir “The Web”

1947-ella-raines-and-vincent-price-in-the-web-via-a-certain-cinemaWhen I was in graduate school, I shared an apartment with a fellow student who was also a film buff. One night we were watching television and saw a commercial announcing that our cable provider would soon start carrying a channel called “American Movie Classics”. We sat there mesmerized as the advertisement trumpeted that the new service would start with a series of films with Barbara Stanwyck, followed by a run of Cary Grant movies, and then a Gary Cooper retrospective.

We sat in stunned, dry-mouthed silence for a moment, until I said “Well, we’ve got to make a decision: do we cancel cable or drop out of graduate school so that we have more time for old movies?”.

My roommate responded immediately: “Totally drop out of graduate school”.

We resisted somehow, despite becoming AMC addicts and later TCM addicts. One joy of these channels was re-watching old favorites, but a distinct pleasure was viewing a quality film that had somehow been lost — not generally remembered, not listed in most film guides, but still able to entertain an audience if ever it were rediscovered. One such movie with which I had the latter experience is this week’s film recommendation: The Web.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Kansas City Confidential

The 1952 heist movie Kansas City Confidential is a highly entertaining film noir/gangster melodrama

220px-KCConfidentialThis week and next I will highlight two collaborations of actor John Payne, director Phil Karlson and producer Edward Small, who had an impressive run of modestly-budgeted, high quality films in the years after World War II, a period when many movies merged elements of film noir with the traditions of the gangster melodrama (See for example my previous recommendation, I Walk Alone). This week’s recommendation is the first of their collaborations: 1952’s Kansas City Confidential.

At one level, this is a superb heist film (which allegedly influenced Quentin Tarantino’s conception of Reservoir Dogs). A masked criminal mastermind half-recruits, half-bullies three lowlifes into pulling off an armed robbery. All of them wear masks and thus are unknown both to the police and to each other. The mastermind instructs them to hide out until the money is laundered, and gives them a secret method of identifying each other when the time is ripe for the payout. Meanwhile, an ex-con, ex-GI (Payne, playing two noir archetypes in one!) who was at the wrong place at the wrong time gets pinched by the police. He escapes their clutches and decides to pursue the gang, though whether he wants them brought to justice or just desires a piece of the pie is not immediately clear.

This film is proof-positive that you don’t need much money to make a solid, entertaining film, and the complete lack of pretension to anything else is one of Kansas City Confidential’s charms. The script has some satisfying twists and moments of delicious tension. All the performances are very good, particularly Jack Elam as a twitchy, chain-smoking criminal, Preston Foster as an embittered ex-cop with both a brutal and a soft side, and Payne as a cynical tough guy out for some sort of redemption. The camerawork, particularly in the first half, is striking, with effective use of close-ups and lighting to let the actors act and the dark mood to suffuse the audience. The film’s viewpoint is bleak: The cops are not much better than the criminals, to extent that they are even different people at all.

kansas-city-confidential-photoJohn Payne’s career is almost a noir story in itself. He was originally an upbeat singer and dancer in light-hearted films and was also of course a star of the heartwarming Miracle on 34th Street. But a few years after the war he changed into a tough actor with great physical presence and a clipped style of delivering dialogue. He was very smart about the film business as a business (and shrewdly cleaned up a packet in Hollywood due to wise investments) and may therefore have grasped that the war shifted filmgoers’ taste toward darker movies that would begin to supplant sunnier fare. Whatever the reasons for his transformation, he was very effective both as a smiling song-and-dance man in love with the All-American girl as well as in the hard bitten roles he later took on. Truly, an actor of significant range.

Happily, Kansas City Confidential is in the public domain and you can therefore legally watch it for free here at Internet Archive.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Chase

the chaseThis week’s film recommendation is an obscure, strange, yet compelling 1946 film noir: The Chase. Made through low budget studio Monogram but released by United Artists, this off-beat movie is not for all tastes, but has developed a cult following among fans of the genre.

Based on a Cornell Woolrich’s pulp crime novel, the film tells the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-on-his-luck ex-GI who finds a wallet full of lolly on the street. After enjoying a hearty, much-needed breakfast, he nobly returns the wallet to its owner, a psychopathic gangster named Eddie Roman (played with presence and menace by Steve Cochran). He is such a boy scout that he even confesses his use of some of the money to eat. Roman is impressed and amused, and hires “Scotty” to be his driver, over the reservations of his sinister right-hand man Gino (Peter Lorre). But nothing in noir is that simple, especially once Scotty meets Eddie’s glamorous, lonely and desperate wife Lorna (Michèle Morgan, in an alluring and elusive performance). In their extended drives together, she tells Scotty that she longs from escape from her brutish husband…if only some man would take her away from all this…

The key development of the story is a twist that has delighted some viewers over the years, and confused and disappointed others. I am in the former camp, as everything that happens is consistent with the central character’s personality and motivation, and because expressionism, darkness, forbidden fantasies and dream-like atmosphere are as noir as noir can be.

the chase2 There is much to enjoy in this film, including some thrilling high-speed driving sequences in an unusual car that instantiates the sadomasochistic, dominating nature of Eddie Roman. Peter Lorre, in a role few people remember, steals every scene he is in as Roman’s aide-de-camp. Franz Planer’s tenebrous photography, particularly in Roman’s house (including a wine cellar you’d be well advised not to enter…) establishes the mood of doom in which the film revels. Also fun for film buffs: The Chase is a perfect film to analyze and argue about over unfiltered cigarettes and bourbon afterwards.

The Chase is in the public domain, so you can legally watch it for free right here.

p.s. Many people know that the train station gun battle in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is an homage to the spectacular Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. It could well be that De Palma’s opening sequence with gangster Al Capone and the barber was inspired by a similar scene early in The Chase.

p.p.s. SPOILER ALERT: While the extended dream sequence is occurring, there is a tip-off, namely Cummings’ suit. Running through the streets of steamy Havana, battling bad guys and being chased by the cops, his white suit, shirt and tie are immaculate in every scene. No wrinkles, no perspiration, no dirt. You could think of this as the character’s fantasy of himself as a rescuing hero/angel, particularly when contrasted to the demeaning outfit the former solider wears as the chauffeur to a hoodlum.