Saturday, August 11, 2018

I WALK ALONE (1947)

Paramount Pictures, 97m 12s


Undoubtedly one of the great film noir title treatments, I WALK ALONE denounces unchecked capitalism in a decadent post-WWII society. Cruel selfishness as the essence of successful American business is the overriding theme of this historically significant if somewhat routine genre entry, released within the classic stage of the noir movement (1944-1950). It features Burt Lancaster, who already had earned his noir street cred with THE KILLERS (1946), BRUTE FORCE (1947) and DESERT FURY (1947).

A free man in New York City after 14 years of exclusion from law-abiding folks, the embittered, short-tempered Frankie Madison (Lancaster) looks to reinsert himself into his only familiar equation. He boldly heads to the Regent Club, where his old bootlegging buddy Noll "Dink" Turner (Kirk Douglas) has prospered since Frankie's prison stretch. Noll never bothered to visit his whiskey-running partner while Frankie took the rap for a killing in which they both factored, but Frankie nonetheless fully expects Noll to honor a handshake agreement the two made. As the film’s title foretells, Noll's recollection of the spirit of the agreement differs from that of Frankie, whose temerity will be squashed.




Like BODY AND SOUL (1947), FORCE OF EVIL (1948), NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950) and many other examples of noir, I WALK ALONE adopts a Marxist view of capitalism that reflects ideological anxieties of the day, as well as the looming presence of The House Committee on Un-American Activities. If the Noll character provides any indication, the dirtier the American businessman operates, the greater his potential reward. He turns on everyone sooner or later and acts only in the interest of maintaining his lofty position in the Regent Club's organizational structure, which gradually is revealed to be quite intricate. The relative simplicity of an illegal depression-era bootlegging business has been replaced by a night club operation's various levels of management and ownership, none of which can be deciphered easily. As explained by the browbeaten accountant Dave (Wendell Corey), the Regent Club was chopped up between multiple corporations, with a board of directors that would have to approve the new deal Frankie seeks. In other words, even if he so desired, Noll could not give half of the club's business to Frankie. It seems the legitimate business world has become more corrupt and prone to backstabbing than the age of prohibition ever was. It is a place where a reprehensible man like Noll can thrive despite (or, it is inferred, because of) a sordid past riddled with betrayals. His air of haughtiness is well illustrated by the button under his desk used to covertly summon assistance whenever necessary. Who but a megalomaniac would keep such a device at his disposal?

The difference between the gangster film of the 1930s and the noir film of the 1940s is evident when Frankie foolishly attempts to use prohibition-era bravado to capture “his” portion of the club. The deliberately convoluted nature of business finds perfect positioning in the urban jungle of film noir, where the average person often feels unfairly excluded. "The old days are gone, and you're gone with them," a humiliated Frankie is told. Fists clenched in existential frustration, he throws what amounts to a temper tantrum when confronted with the confusing reality of the night club's ownership. Frankie's hopes are deflated like a week-old birthday balloon, as he learns the hard way the business world is a playground that shuns certain children. The theme of the alienated protagonist, who finds no dignified path to follow in a land of social inequality, provides the backbone for a large assortment of film noirs. That recurring message is reinforced in I WALK ALONE when Frankie is beaten severely for his attempt to move in on what he understandably believes to be his rightful piece of the action.


"You're hurting me."
"And you love it."


The source material for I WALK ALONE is the play BEGGARS ARE COMING TO TOWN written by Theodore Reeves. Producer Hal B. Wallis (LITTLE CAESAR [1931], CASABLANCA [1942]) acquired the film rights before the play opened on Broadway in the autumn of 1945. The adaptation was written for the screen by Charles Schnee, the screenwriter behind the quintessential noir THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948). Schnee worked from a treatment derived by Robert Smith and John Bright. The directorial debut of Byron Haskin, I WALK ALONE does not serve up as crisp a narrative as similarly structured noirs like KISS OF DEATH (1947) or RAW DEAL (1948). Nonetheless, the simple plot mechanics are built to last, and the credits boast a murderers' row of dependable names instantly familiar to film noir followers. Any seasoned cinema fan knows better than to trust a character portrayed by Kirk Douglas, who so often plays the bad apple, as he did here in his fourth screen role. I WALK ALONE was the first of seven films that teamed Douglas and Lancaster. The two make for an interesting combination in their first pairing, and contributions from Wendell Corey, Marc Lawrence and the big dog Mike Mazurki are easy to appreciate. Lizabeth Scott for whatever reason appears a bit lost at times as Kay Lawrence. Too often, Liz resorts to her deer-in-the-headlights look, and her unconvincing lip sync of "Don't Call It Love" (performed by Trudy Stevens) hardly helps matters. In the following years, she would rebound with some of her finest work in PITFALL (1948) and TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949), the latter also helmed by Haskin. I WALK ALONE was a commercial success and inspired a 60-minute radio adaptation by Lux Radio Theater on May 24th, 1948, with Lancaster and Scott on board.




Brand new to the domestic home video scene, I WALK ALONE recently has been made available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The single-layered disc features a new HD Master from a 4K scan of the 35mm safety dupe negative held by Paramount Pictures Archive. The film is framed at the correct theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, though the packaging claims an incorrect 1.33:1. Grain level is palpable, perhaps a little too much of a good thing, but that does not diminish the cinematography effort of Leo Tover, the director of photography behind two other film noirs released in 1947:  DEAD RECKONING and THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH.

The newly recorded audio commentary track features film historian Troy Howarth, a specialist in the Eurohorror field, with numerous books to his credit on the subject. Some of his other recent commentary tracks include THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971), WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? (1974), THE PAJAMA GIRL CASE (1977) and ZOMBIE (1979), but in no way is that meant to suggest he is out of his element here. A voice of contagious enthusiasm, Howarth frames his discussion of I WALK ALONE well within the generally accepted body of film noir knowledge. He effortlessly glides back and forth between insightful play-by-play, historical footnotes, and cast and crew filmographies. Obviously a tremendous amount of research goes into a 97-minute commentary, but it does not seem like work to Howarth, who makes it sound like a pleasant conversation. Classic film fans are sure to side with his fondness for the studio system era and its many hallmarks that have vanished (most actors smoke, wear sophisticated attire and navigate attentively detailed sets). Lots of care went into making every person and every thing look as good as possible. Some of his best points revolve around the Frankie character's challenge to the Production Code. Frankie is not an innocent man who was imprisoned, yet is presented in sympathetic, borderline heroic capacity. Thus I WALK ALONE is a film noir laced with more optimism than the genre tends to grant, especially at this stage of its development. After the lead protagonist deals with significant adversity, the denouement salutes his rugged individualism.

In his tangential review of the "wrong man" film noir subgenre, Howarth draws a connection with the Alfred Hitchcock oeuvre, and cites I CONFESS (1953) and THE WRONG MAN (1956) as straggler instances of Hitchcockian noir. After a minor buildup, it comes as a bit of a surprise Howarth does not recognize Hitchcock as a major contributor to the noir category, despite overtly noir Hitchcock products he does not mention, namely SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), NOTORIOUS (1946) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). Those three films represent some of the most satisfying storylines Hitchcock ever committed to celluloid, as well as some of the most complete cinematic achievements film noir has to offer. The remaining supplemental material is limited to an assortment of trailers.

Despite its absence until recently on physical media, I WALK ALONE had its influence on a couple of crime film parodies released in the 1980s. Via editing, the Kirk Douglas character "meets" Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) in DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID (1982). Along with FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975), I WALK ALONE is another film that obviously was perused before the writing of THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! (1988).


Saturday, July 14, 2018

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944)

RKO Radio Pictures, 99m 34s


After he sees his family out of town, Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) plans to enjoy a few drinks and cigars amongst friends. On his way to The Burgher's Club, the somewhat meek assistant psychology professor becomes enchanted with an idealistic portrait in a gallery window of a lovely young woman. He seems a bit uncertain as to why he is so drawn to the image, but so he is, and his amused friends cannot blame him. Sometimes the woman's portrait in the film noir acts as a gateway drug to the dark side, where an inexorable downward spiral ensues. That is the underlying theme of this finely crafted noir work from 1944, one of the most important years of the genre, frontloaded with such gems as DOUBLE INDEMNITY, MURDER MY SWEET, LAURA and PHANTOM LADY.

Over alcoholic beverages that surely influence the story to come, Richard converses with pals District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon). The three men lament the aging process and its associated limitations, especially in terms of the pleasures of younger women. Frank opines, "We're like athletes who are out of condition. We can't handle that sort of thing anymore." After his comrades retire for the evening, Richard opens the book THE SONG OF SONGS WHICH IS SOLOMON'S, a celebration of unbridled love between man and woman. Later that evening, Richard cannot resist the magnetic pull next door of the portrait he found so evocative of female charms. Such framed perfection in the film noir almost always hints at a woman not easily contained or understood, as is the lesson of the same year's LAURA. With his second viewing of the framed beauty, this time Richard is stunned to notice the manifestation of the actual countenance of the model who posed for the oil painting. That woman is Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), and without a doubt she is better looking than the painting. Despite all the admiration in the world for her classic looks, Richard has so little idea how to proceed that Alice picks him up, not the other way. That is the major tip-off we are watching a male fantasy unfold, where a reluctant man is targeted by an attractive younger female.



Fantasy meets reality in THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

A creature of the night, Alice does not consider 11 PM late, as Richard does. A drink at a bar soon leads to her apartment, where she promises more artwork that depicts her. What neither of them foresee is an impromptu visit from Alice's brutish sugar daddy Frank (Arthur Loft), whose arrival is accompanied by heavy rainfall, a recurring backdrop of uncertainty in the noir film. Frank promptly attacks the man he sees as his rival, and Richard defends himself with a pair of scissors provided by Alice. The net-net is a sizable dead body and an awfully tough situation for Richard and Alice to consider. The sudden problem of a corpse in an apartment building catapults the unlikely couple deep into the unforgiving film noir orbit. Richard ever so briefly considers notifying the police, but it is not long before he makes his debut in the body disposal business while a thunderstorm rages in the background. As Richard drives off into the night with a lifeless body to dump, there is a cut to a fascinating composition of Alice, who observes from her apartment window. Completely washed away is the romanticized version of Alice depicted in the painting. Now an accessory to murder, her replacement image is obscured by rainfall and contradicts what her idealized likeness had suggested early in the film.



Alice through the looking glass


Without much delay, the discarded body of Alice's benefactor is discovered by a Boy Scout (George "Spanky" McFarland). The case captures the interest of Richard's friend the D.A., who soon connects with Inspector Jackson (Thomas E. Jackson) of the homicide division. What plays out from that point only can be described as the worst imaginable predicament for Richard, who has little choice but to observe as the case is investigated right in front of him! Essentially the same thing happens to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, with hard-boiled claims investigator Barton Keyes (Robinson) unaware for much of his search how close he already is to the offender. The shoe is on the other foot here, as THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW casts Robinson in the role of the man under scrutiny who looks more guilty with every passing minute.

Despite an ending that smacks of Production Code compliance, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW encapsulates standard film noir themes throughout its mostly nightmarish narrative. The film takes a hard line on men who contemplate a life outside of traditional family values. From the early going, the many temptations that test Richard revolve around his absent family. Without his wife and children home to keep him honest, Richard drinks more than usual and stays out later than what would be typical, which leads to a one-on-one situation with an enticing woman. Fate often brings a heavy hand down on such errant men in the film noir, where self-assured, sexy women like Alice are best kept at a distance. Another enormous red flag and noir trope is Alice's mysterious man with multiple identities (Frank Howard / Claude Mazard). One thing swiftly leads to another in Richard's parabolic decline, as advanced police investigation techniques all but assure his eventual arrest and conviction. Beyond THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and its progenitor DOUBLE INDEMNITY, other film noirs in which a man must watch his own crime case gradually solved include WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950) and SCANDAL SHEET (1952). The template is well suited to the noir genre, where the protagonist's sense of paranoia is seldom without validity.

Family pics become more prominent each time Alice calls Richard



Set in New York, though filmed mostly on soundstages, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW was written for the screen by producer Nunnally Johnson, who adapted the best-selling novel ONCE OFF GUARD (1942) by J.H. Wallis. Johnson had founded his own independent production company International Pictures, and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW became its top priority. The already incredibly accomplished director Fritz Lang was the filmmaker behind M (1931), perhaps the very first film noir, and absolutely one of the most influential. This time out Lang gets plenty out of his leads Robinson and Bennett, and superb supporting work from Dan Duryea as Heidt, the dirty ex-cop wise to Alice. The screen chemistry between Bennett and Duryea is sensational, and would continue in Lang's subsequent noir masterpiece SCARLET STREET (1945), which reteamed Robinson, Bennett and Duryea, as well as talented cinematographer Milton R. Krasner. Besides their common contributors and some shared plot points, both THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and SCARLET STREET revolve around portraits that come to life (in SCARLET STREET it happens twice, first literally then figuratively). LUX RADIO THEATER produced a 60 minute radio adaptation of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW on June 25, 1945. Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea assumed their film roles.



Remastered in HD and framed at 1.34:1, the new Kino Lorber single-layered Blu-ray edition of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW vastly improves upon the screen output generated by the MGM Home Video DVD released back in 2007. Though an obvious upgrade, this new presentation does fall a little short of perfection. Gatefloat can be a little nagging, various vertical scratches are apparent, and damaged film elements are intrusive at times (especially at 19m 43s).

Kino Lorber Blu-ray

MGM DVD

The newly recorded audio commentary track features film historian Imogen Sara Smith, author of IN LONELY PLACES: FILM NOIR BEYOND THE CITY (2011). Smith labels THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW among the first of the new type of crime thriller French critics would deem film noir. Though many have derided the ending that recalls THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), she builds a solid case for the conclusion in a Freudian sense. If a man even fantasizes about an affair with a beautiful woman, he subconsciously believes he must be punished, thus desire and fear are inseparable. Especially upon repeat viewings, the ending fits perfectly well given the events that lead to it. The sequence in which Alice suddenly springs to life from her portrait is the stuff of dreams, not reality. The same goes for her attraction to Richard, which even for the movies stretches plausibility. Smith also notes the repeated use of reflected images that suggest an alternate reality. Another good point from Smith is that Alice is not a pure femme fatale, since she does not deliberately set out to destroy men. The classic femme fatale appears weak only to prove strong later, i.e. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) from DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

In a discussion that dovetails with the Me Too movement, Smith confirms Fritz Lang was one of numerous abusive directors of the studio system era. He would be particularly tough on those who could not defend themselves, but would be less domineering over stars who maintained clout with studio brass. Smith also recounts the scandal that crushed Bennett's career like a steamroller. On the afternoon of December 13, 1951, Bennett's agent Jennings Lang was shot twice (below the waist!) by Bennett's husband Walter Wanger, who suspected his wife was having an affair with her business associate. Wanger served a mere four-month sentence for his crime, and then returned to a successful career as a movie producer. Though she denied any romantic involvement with her agent, Bennett found roles hard to come by after the incident, which sadly suggests implied adultery is worse than attempted murder.


The disc includes a trailer for the featured title as well as trailers for DAISY KENYON (1947), CRY OF THE CITY (1948), 99 RIVER STREET (1953) and A BULLET FOR JOEY (1955).

Saturday, June 16, 2018

GUN CRAZY (1950)

(aka DEADLY IS THE FEMALE)
United Artists, 87m 6s



Guns and sex combine explosively in GUN CRAZY, a film noir concerned with violence, lust and greed, in that order. It is the tragic story of a flawed man who falls for a beautiful woman whose wants are excessive. As the title strongly implies, GUN CRAZY also signals a stern warning about the potentially corrosive nature of obsessive gun ownership, and the horrible impact guns wielded by the wrong people can have on innocents.

The narrative structure exploits the generally accepted Freudian assertion that childhood experiences shape adult behavior. Bart Tare's obsession with firearms has its roots in his early years in the small town of Cashville. As a youth (portrayed by Mickey Little and Russ Tamblyn), being the best shot in town makes him feel like "somebody." Bart has not had a male role model in the house. He was raised by his older sister Ruby (Anabel Shaw) before his repeated issues with gun possession get him four years of reform school. After a stint in the military, as an adult (now played by John Dall) his only civilian ambition is to get a job with a gun manufacturer. His marksmanship is all that defines his identity. Bart's plans for a simple existence go up in flames one evening when his mates Sheriff Clyde Boston (Trevor Bardette) and Dave Allister (Nedrick Young) suggest they check out the carnival, that cesspool of base human instincts that provides a suitable setting within so many films noir. When the three men become enchanted by a couple of gyrating gypsy dancers, it becomes apparent something is going to change in Bart's life, or perhaps already has changed.



With Bart and his friends in attendance, "The famous, the dangerous, the beautiful...so appealing, so dangerous, so lovely to look at..." Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) is brought out to circus tent onlookers. How interesting that the word “dangerous” is declared twice! She is an expert shot with a revolver and, in essence, a bold challenge to the established patriarchal order. In what only can be described as a mating ritual, Bart proves his shooting skills are even sharper than those of Laurie. Rather than pursue a career with a gun manufacturing outfit, Bart joins the travelling carnival to be close to his exciting new romantic interest. That profession proves to be short-lived when Laurie's former beau and carnival owner Packett (Berry Kroeger) fires both of them out of jealousy. It is clear at that juncture Packett has a serious drinking problem, and one wonders if Laurie provided some type of contributory factor. No matter, Packett is old news to Laurie, and things have heated up quickly for her and Bart, despite the rather pointed advice of the circus clown Bluey-Bluey (Stanley Prager):

Bluey-Bluey: "It's just that some guys are born smart about women and some guys are born dumb."
Bart: "Some guys are born clowns."
Bluey-Bluey: "You were born dumb."

That exchange conveys volumes about not only Bart Tare, but the major dynamic of an entire film genre. The film noir is a window into a world mostly controlled by fate, a place where individuals seem unable to walk a straight line. It may be tempting to argue that troubled noir characters often bring about their own misfortunes, and on a surface level at least, that seems a pretty reasonable position. Interestingly, a clown best understands the choices we make may not be of our own free will. Bluey-Bluey believes it was Bart's genetic destiny ("born") to encounter Laurie. Indeed Bart and Laurie go together like guns and ammunition, as Bart simplistically summarizes it.

At Bart's suggestion, the couple seeks out the nearest justice of the peace before what looks to be a fairly routine sightseeing honeymoon. The connection between them goes beyond circus showmanship, as the two seemingly share similar social backgrounds. Bart's history is examined in greater depth, but Laurie provides a clue to hers when she mentions, "...I've been kicked around all my life. Well from now on I'm going to start kicking back." Predictably, their money evaporates rapidly, and that is when a critical difference between the two is grounded. Laurie convinces Bart his expertise with firearms could be utilized for greater financial gain than a mere $40 per week at Remington. That salary would be enough money for the two to make ends meet as far as he is concerned, but money is important to Laurie, big money, and a substantial sum could be made through a series of robberies, at least from her point of view. The other major difference between the two is Laurie does not care if someone gets hurt or even killed along the way. Bart killed a small creature with a BB gun as a little boy and was reduced to tears. As a teen, he could not shoot a mountain lion, despite the sound notion there could be a bounty involved. In direct contrast to her husband, money would have been all the motivation Laurie would have needed to kill. She clearly gets off on the thrill of violence, as the below screen capture reveals in her slightly crazed countenance.

The noir femme fatale Annie Laurie Starr

The warning signs about Laurie are many, especially in terms of a film noir vocabulary. For starters, she is a foreigner from London, a big-city outsider who invades Bart's small hometown. Before her tenure with Packett comes to an end, he pleads with her to give him another opportunity to provide the endless money fountain she so clearly requires. "Bart I want things, a lot of things, big things..." she pours out to her husband. She even reprimands him lightly for getting them fired before payday. Prior to the marriage about which Laurie seems somewhat ambivalent, Bart is embarrassed to confess he spent time in reform school. She couldn't care less, and assures Bart she is no great prize herself. In defiance of patriarchal hegemony, she is scolded by her female superior for wearing slacks to work. Soon after that scene, Laurie kills two at a payroll heist of a meat packing plant, and later admits she killed a guy in St. Louis during another armed robbery. In the middle of a chase sequence she tries to retrieve the fur she dropped, despite the fact the law is right behind her. In an insanely selfish move with law enforcement closing in, she is prepared to hold a small child hostage! In a departure from Bart's background, which by way of flashbacks show him as an outcast even as a boy, it is suggested Laurie's childhood was less tough when she fondly recalls her father's shooting gallery near Brighton Pier. She endeavors to recreate that setting when the couple checks in at a hotel by the Santa Monica Pier. Of course, there is no going back to an idyllic past, not in real life and especially not in film noir.




Despite a number of successful stickups, Bart and Laurie wind up living in isolation with no one to turn to, nowhere to go and certainly not an overabundance of wealth. The lack of belonging they feel is accented by the carnival costumes they wear during one heist, increasingly shoddy accommodations and Bart's sense of disbelief that he could become so disconnected from what he once was. "It's just that everything's going so fast, it's all in such high gear, sometimes it doesn't feel like me...as if nothing were real anymore," he laments. In her insightful essay "Woman's Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir" (WOMEN IN FILM NOIR, British Film Institute, 1978), Sylvia Harvey explains how alienation is a theme central to GUN CRAZY (and other film noirs):  "...the isolation of the couple as well as their nonconformity to certain social norms is emphasized by the way in which they are presented as outsiders to the family and family life. Taking refuge with Bart's family at the end of the film, they so clearly do not belong; they constitute a violent eruption into the ordered patterns of family life" (p. 31). That sequence stresses the difference between Laurie and Bart's sister Ruby, but is not exactly flattering to the honest working class. Ruby embodies the dignified, law-abiding citizen, yet appears trapped in an impoverished household. She spends most of her time wearing a smock in the kitchen in selfless care of her children and their friends. That is not to assume the filmmakers side with her antithesis Laurie, but the sequence does provide food for thought as to why Laurie chose a different path. Especially to a modern audience, it is difficult to imagine female viewers feeling envious of Ruby's position in her incredibly modest home with never-ending chores. The "best shots" with guns in genre films tend to be on the right side of the law, but that is not the case in the universe suggested by GUN CRAZY, where honest work appears to offer little reward. The film takes on its tragic element when Bart refuses to turn himself in to his childhood pals, who both have become more traditional contributors to small town Americana (a cop and a journalist). The tragedy is culminated when Bart, who swore he never would kill a living thing again, feels obligated to kill the thing he loves most. Just beforehand, Bart himself acknowledges the story's tragic component when he declares he "...wouldn't have it any other way."




A number of sequences are sure to play quite differently to modern viewers than they must have to folks who caught GUN CRAZY in theaters back in 1950. In light of the many mass shootings at public schools that have gained national attention in recent years, the scene that shows a middle-school-aged Bart proudly showing his six-gun to fascinated classmates has an unsettling tone, especially when he refuses to give up the revolver to his teacher! Another moment that defies modern logic is the unthinkably dangerous carnival shooting competition between Bart and Laurie.

Come on baby light my fire

The overarching message regarding guns supports today's liberal convictions. Bart would have been much better off had he been kept clear of firearms as a child. Compulsive shooting converted him into an adult man with no other appreciable skill set, an ironically useless figure as a gun expert who cannot kill. The only thing he can do better than the next guy leads him to his fatalistic carnival matchup with Laurie, the instrument of his destruction. Both Bart and Laurie feel compelled to shoot people when scared; the only difference is Bart is better able to hold that feeling in check than the clearly more unstable Laurie. Remove the gun from the situation, and any socially problematic temptation goes along with it. In the final act, Clyde and Dave go without guns to the home of Bart's sister in an attempt to convince their old friend to surrender to local authorities.

The screenplay written by MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo (front Millard Kaufman) is based on the short story of the same title by Kantor (THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, February 3rd, 1940). Before its release with the title we know today, director Joseph H. Lewis's landmark film noir was released in January of 1950 as DEADLY IS THE FEMALE. The original theatrical release did not inspire an enthusiastic following and was re-titled GUN CRAZY in August of the same year. The botched nature of the two-tiered release meant the film would not be respected as the classic it is until film noir was rediscovered by American audiences in the 1970s. The other noir credits of director Joseph H. Lewis include the surprise hit MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946), CRY OF THE HUNTED (1953) and the exceptional title of noir's late stages, THE BIG COMBO (1955). There is little doubt GUN CRAZY should be regarded as his most important film in regard to effective storytelling, technical achievement and memorable performances. For several sequences, Lewis's camera was placed in the back seat of the outlaw couple’s vehicle, which brings a certain voyeuristic complicity into play as the viewer is manipulated to identify with the protagonists. When it later becomes apparent the crimes of Bart and Laurie will not go unpunished, that camera placement is traded for more traditional objectivity. In perhaps the best realized vehicular sequence, Bart finds himself unable to shoot at the cops in hot pursuit of his getaway car. The motif of water is significant to a great many film noirs, as it definitely is in this case. The opening credits are accompanied by heavy rainfall, and the accumulated storm water contributes to a would-be gun thief's capture by a local flatfoot. The story concludes in murky swamp water, where the conclusion takes place as prior events dictate. Beyond the many serious themes to be found in GUN CRAZY is an occasional dose of humor, as when an employee in a diner acknowledges his establishment's coffee tastes awful. One particularly dark moment of humor occurs when an impatient driver behind Bart and Laurie inadvertently helps propel the robbers across the California state line. The implication is that the fugitives from justice are relatively minor inconveniences to the average person, who cares only about himself. 

Cinematographer Russell Harlan's other noir efforts were limited, i.e. SOUTHSIDE 1-1000 (1950), THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (1950) and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (1954), but he captured the visuals for some of the most famous films in other genres, including RED RIVER (1948), RIO BRAVO (1959), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955), WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). The iconic screen captures below are representative of his high quality work.




I think it is fair to conclude GUN CRAZY would not have been quite the same movie without the presence of Peggy Cummins. She was just a little gal (listed as 5' 1" at  IMDb), but she carries herself much taller in the role of Annie Laurie Starr, easily among the most physically striking of film noir's many bad blonde babes. Her character looks simultaneously sexy and scary when she brandishes a gun at her workplace, and ultimately cuts down the battle-ax boss who objected to female employees who show up for work in slacks. Justifiable murder? Absolutely not, but it is undeniably satisfying to watch Cummins dominate the scene in her unforgettable role.

Ready for 2018, GUN CRAZY arrives on Blu-ray from Warner Archive with what seems like a long overdue 1080p HD Master transfer, handsomely framed at the aspect ratio of 1.345:1. This dual-layered disc looks tremendous in motion. Close-ups boast a particular wow factor. This is one of the year's obvious must-haves for film noir followers. The improvement in resolution versus the old Warner DVD is easy to see—just flip back and forth between the following screen captures.

Warner Blu-ray

Warner DVD

The audio commentary track was ported from the DVD released in 2006 as part of Warner's first FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION box set. On the mic is noted film reviewer Glenn Erickson, whose review page and columns can be found at cinesavant.com. Erickson describes the detours the film took from its source material, and offers a well-prepared script that highlights the accomplishments of all the major contributors. Beyond the usual historical analysis, his close study of the piece of art at hand is admirable. He draws our attention to the clever camerawork that covers the planned separation of Bart and Laurie after their last big score. After the two lovers circle back to each other, the camera that tracks them becomes an attachment to Bart's vehicle, which prompts the viewer to join the couple. It is a great moment, and it parallels nicely with the Hampton robbery, when the camera was positioned in the backseat for the entire robbery sequence. Erickson believes the hotel sequence in Santa Monica bears all the hallmarks of a reshoot, given the noticeable downgrade in writing quality and the exaggerated emphasis on the couple's guilt. He notes this scene consistently prompts laughter during screenings. Erickson may be correct that the scene was an add-on, but I've always liked the childlike questions Bart asks Laurie:  "Why do you have to murder people? Why can't you let them live?" It is the dialog of a man who never properly developed into adulthood. Another good observation from Erickson involves the fugitive couple's return to a carnival environment, which emphasizes the realistic notion that small-time hoodlums, despite all of their big plans, are likely to remain small-time.

A welcome supplement to this Blu-ray edition is the documentary "Film-Noir:  Bringing Darkness to Light" (2006, 67m 37s), produced and directed by Gary Leva. Originally released on a supplemental disc included with Warner's FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION:  VOL. 3 DVD set, the clips are limited to Warner releases, though the noir discussion touches all bases and the large assembly of contributors is outstanding. Among the dozens of people interviewed are some of the most important voices in the study of noir, including Drew Casper, Glenn Erickson, Eddie Muller, Paul Schrader, Alain Silver and James Ursini. Crucial noir catalysts are given their due, including key literary influences such as Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler, the imported visual approach of German Expressionism and the many lessons learned from World War II. Muller notes the noir examples of the 1940s often encouraged viewers to identify with those on the wrong side of the law, unlike the gangster films of the 1930s that maintained some distance from their arch criminals. A strong sense of moral ambiguity envelops a highly fatalistic atmosphere as the noir story explores the aftermath of crime more than crime itself. Plenty of time is afforded to the interesting nuances of noir, such as the use of narration, efficient camera setups, stylized light patterns that compliment dark moods, appropriately nocturnal settings (often in urban locales, thought not always), wonderfully subversive innuendo, wild femme fatales and the frustrated feeling of entrapment experienced by the characters. Famously foul-mouthed author James Ellroy probably makes the most dead-on observation when he mentions the "psychological frailty" of noir characters.

Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr each fall into Ellroy's category of the psychologically frail. Laurie doubtless is the more unbalanced of the two, but ultimately each is done in by an inability to think like logical people. GUN CRAZY marked the beginning of the 1950s, the second decade of film noir. Future characters of the genre would seem even less capable of making sound decisions than those who came before them. The neurotics of the new decade would give way to the most famous psycho of all in 1960:  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Alfred Hitchcock's noir-stained PSYCHO, which marked the end of the classic film noir era and the birth of a new era of horror, when monsters were replaced by monstrous personalities.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

MOONRISE (1948)

Republic Pictures, 90m 39s


Over the past several years, The Criterion Collection has amassed quite a stable of film noirs, including such renowned genre entries as THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), GILDA (1946), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). Now comes a much more obscure offering, unknown to me until I read about it in one of Criterion's monthly new release announcements. MOONRISE might be described as country noir, and another convincing reminder that noir concerns need not be based in the big city. It is also one of the finest examples of a consistent noir boilerplate:  the dramatic impact of the past on the present.

MOONRISE opens typically enough for a film noir:  in the pouring rain. The action gets more downbeat quickly when a man is hanged, which is associated closely with a crying baby, the son of the man sent to the gallows. That attention-getting sequence is followed with a montage of the fatherless boy's formative years, which are presented as one lamentable situation after the other. "Danny Hawkins's dad was hanged," sing cruel grade-schoolers who mercilessly taunt Danny. In later life, middle-school punks rough up the hapless mountain boy. As a young adult, it appears nothing has changed for Danny (now played by Dane Clark), since the major architect of his childhood trauma remains directly in front of him.




At a dance, Danny gets into an unproductive conversation with Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), the longtime stone in his shoe. After a prolonged confrontation over pretty schoolteacher Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), the score is settled between the young adult men when Danny kills Jerry with blunt force. Soon thereafter, Danny shows his sensitive side when he comes to the aid of Billy Scripture (Harry Morgan), a deaf and dumb man who is being badgered by a pack of jerks. Danny then focuses on Gilly, the romantic interest of his now deceased foe Jerry. They leave the dance with another couple, and Danny drives at a high rate of speed that upsets his passengers. Now tortured by the memory of Jerry, the bullied man Danny experiences hallucinations that lead to a serious crash. All survive, but it seems Danny will battle his personal demons for a significant time to come. That Danny is prone to aggressive behavior is not lost on Gilly, who lets her psychologically troubled suitor know of his obvious issues. "Like you had nothing but hate in you," she observes after the night of the dance. A case study in noir alienation, Danny is trapped in a "dark tunnel" as Gilly sees it.

After he finally shuts up his primary tormentor for good, ironically Danny may be in worse condition than he was as a bullied youth. Now he is a paranoid killer, although an argument could be made he acted in self defense. And even if he were not acting out of self-preservation, it is difficult to imagine many tears being shed over the death of Jerry, who was a thoughtless bully as a little kid, and the identical bully as an adult. Jerry even stole from his banker father, J.B. Sykes (Harry Cheshire). Thus MOONRISE is also a study in class differences at work in a small Virginia town, where the "hillbilly" Danny is in combat his whole life with Jerry, the son of a wealthy man. In fact, class differences are the root cause of Danny's childhood trauma. The town doctor did not want to make a trip to the country home of the boy's ailing mother, which led to her demise, as well as her husband's hanging after he exacted revenge against the doctor.




Most important, MOONRISE is a sociological drama about the long-term effects of bullying. Haunted by his family's blighted past and persistently tortured over the years, Danny has found basic human endeavors such as peer acceptance, finding jobs and meeting girls frustratingly difficult. His courtship of Gilly is overly forceful, to the point one would not blame her for giving up on him quickly. Essentially the two behave like a couple on the run, without Gilly fully understanding why. It is not until his scuffle with the simpleton Billy over some incriminating evidence that Danny begins to face his potential to become a bully himself. At that noir point of recognition, Danny finally finds a path to redemption.

Working from a screenplay by Charles F. Haas, who adapted the novel of the same title by Theodore Strauss, director Frank Borzage imbued the perfectly paced photoplay with an unusual emotional resonance for a B-studio picture, his last for Republic. The film's showpiece takes place at a carnival, a common noir backdrop for anxiousness and confusion. Danny succumbs to paranoia and makes a suicidal leap from a Ferris wheel, only to experience a dazed awakening. There are many other inventively cinematic moments, and MOONRISE is absolutely loaded with carefully balanced compositions in the noir style, as the screen captures within this review confirm. Cinematographer John L. Russell shows particular proficiency for the swamp-based action. Russell is credited with the documentary realism approach of CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953), an exceptional film noir. He also captured the monochromatic photography of perhaps the greatest horror film ever:  Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960). A number of meaningful juxtapositions are the work of editor Harry Keller (TOO LATE FOR TEARS [1949], BORDERLINE [1950]). Strong supporting work is offered by Rex Ingram as Mose, Ethel Barrymore as Danny's grandmother and especially Allyn Joslyn as Sheriff Clem Otis, the man who recognizes both Danny and Jerry for what each really is. Joslyn probably has the best line of the film when he comments that death can convert anybody into a saint. The bombastic score was composed by William Lava.





The Criterion Collection presents a newly restored 4K digital transfer of MOONRISE with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. This overlooked minor classic looks and sounds astonishingly good, framed at the correct theatrical scope of 1.37:1. The disc's only supplement is a conversation between film historian Peter Cowie and author Hervé Dumont (FRANK BORZAGE: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF A HOLLYWOOD ROMANTIC, 2006), recorded in January of 2018 in Lausanne, Switzerland (17m 20s). Dumont makes the interesting assertion that Danny's sense of isolation is largely self-imposed. Unlike other alienated film noir protagonists, a great number of characters attempt to connect with Danny in a positive way. The Mose character, who understands Danny best, clearly makes Dumont's point when he says the worst crime a person can commit is to withdraw from the human race.

The informative analytical essay "MOONRISE: Dark of the Moon" by critic Philip Kemp is included as a foldout insert, and also can be found here:  Dark of the Moon