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 can have on innocents. The trouble with gun ownership is that the owners invariably feel inclined to use their guns, and not necessarily in ways that are productive to society.

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 gipsy dancers, it becomes apparent something is going to change in Bart's life, or perhaps already has.



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. How fitting that 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. Interestingly, 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).




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 screen captures below.

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 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

Saturday, May 12, 2018

ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951)

RKO Radio Pictures, 81m 55s


A profoundly moving noir story of redemption, ON DANGEROUS GROUND is a title textured with multiple meanings. On a surface level, it alludes to the various settings that form the backdrop for the drama. But on a more crucial level, it references the precarious position of Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), a temperamental cop who is in an uncertain place mentally. Wilson's police work is characterized by the same type of tough-guy tactics that would be utilized famously by Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in the DIRTY HARRY film series, and any number of similar rough-around-the-edges movie cops who bend the rules. All such policemen justify their methods with results, to the chagrin of their more progressive superiors, who must be concerned about the general public's perception of the police force. Even Wilson's colleagues Pete Santos (Anthony Ross) and Pop Daly (Charles Kemper) agree Wilson needs to tone down his behavior. The pivotal scene of on-the-job violence has a sexual charge to it; Wilson appears to get a perverse thrill from beating information out of suspect Bernie Tucker (Richard Irving). "Alright Bernie, we're alone now," Wilson says with a peculiar sense of satisfaction.



Another key sequence reveals the kinder side of Wilson, when he allows time for a brief street football game with the local paperboy (Leslie Bennett). A former star high school football player, Wilson lives by himself in a small studio apartment, the kind where cooking utensils are not far from the bed. His living arrangement puts him in complete contrast with both Santos and Daly, whose families clearly enrich their private lives. The deeply embittered loner Wilson has been on the force eleven years and has grown to resent the day-to-day grind, surrounded by people who do not like cops. He is not a bad man as much as he is the product of a poor environment. After a sustained working-over from Wilson leaves the thug Tucker with a ruptured bladder (according to the suspect's attorney, anyway), Wilson finds himself in hot water with Captain Brawley (Ed Begley). With Wilson's easily-lit fuse perhaps leading to "another civil suit," Brawley sends his problematic charge on a rural case upstate. Though the opening credits roll over rain-drenched city streets where cop killers remain on the loose, ON DANGEROUS GROUND closes somewhere completely different, in terms of both setting and the lead protagonist's frame of mind.

At first anyway, the change of scenery does not permit Wilson any time for reassessment. Walter Brent (Ward Bond) is on the trail of the disturbed young man (Sumner Williams) who killed his daughter. Now it is Wilson who must act as the controlled voice of reason, since Brent is prepared to avenge his daughter's death with however many shotgun blasts he deems necessary. The irate father Brent is similar to Wilson in that he trusts no one. While the impetuous men are in pursuit of the suspect, a disorienting car crash leads to a light that signifies the narrative's critical turning point. The light is inside the home of Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), an angelic figure positioned as Wilson's potential savior. The Malden/Wilson encounter in a remote country home recalls a strikingly similar sequence in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), where the monster (Boris Karloff) stumbles upon a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie). Like the monstrous creation, Wilson is inclined to distrust others, and like the blind man, Malden must "trust everybody." Malden speaks in a calm tone that immediately seems the antithesis of Wilson, or perhaps his antidote.



The second act of ON DANGEROUS GROUND allows both Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino to deliver emotionally gripping performances. In respect to film noir conventions, it comes as little wonder that Malden resides in a rural location, far removed from the tawdriness of big city living on full display in the first act. The degradation of urban life is reinforced by the city’s peripheral female characters, all of whom contribute to Wilson's sense of alienation in some fashion. An underage barfly (Nita Talbot) challenges Wilson's authority, the bruised Myrna Bowers (Cleo Moore) brings out his dark side and the nice girl Hazel (Joan Taylor) has no interest in dating a cop. In contrast to her quite durable urban counterparts, Mary Malden embodies the (admittedly clichéd) fragility of woman, always vulnerable without strong male protection. This trait is best exemplified when the outraged father Brent comes disconcertingly close to striking the completely defenseless Malden.

Like the prior year's WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), another notable noir to feature an overly tough cop, ON DANGEROUS GROUND advocates conservative values with redemption through the union of man and woman, each half empty without the other. On a traditional family level, the father Brent, the matriarchal figure Malden and her "just a kid" brother Danny combine to redeem Wilson. As for Wilson's checkered past as a disillusioned lawman, it might be argued that no great injustice had been done to those he punished, given the playground around which Wilson had to romp. To a great extent, ON DANGEROUS GROUND blames the city’s criminals and common lowlifes for the manifestation of Wilson's dark side. Ultimately devoted to Malden, his self-removal from the urban milieu effectively exonerates him from any past transgressions. The conclusion also dovetails nicely with the opening segments that establish the importance of the traditional family.



British novelist Gerald Butler wrote the source novel MAD WITH MUCH HEART, first published in 1945. A.I. Bezzerides adapted the novel for the screen, with help from the film's acclaimed director Nicholas Ray. Bezzerides also wrote the source material that inspired THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), both the novel and screen adaptation for THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949) and the screenplay for the great KISS ME DEADLY (1955), based on a novel by Mickey Spillane. The character Jim Wilson stands alongside other male protagonists in Ray films who seem cut off from society, i.e. Bowie (Farley Granger) in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) from IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), Jim Stark (James Dean) in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). Cinematographer George E. Diskant also lensed the Ray-directed film noirs THEY LIVE BY NIGHT and A WOMAN'S SECRET (1949). Whether the background is a studio set or location footage in Colorado, Diskant handles the situation effectively, particularly when disorienting hand-held camerawork is involved.

Among the most venerated film noirs for good reason, ON DANGEROUS GROUND is well presented by the dual-layered Blu-ray edition available via Warner Archive. Based on a 2016 remaster, the transfer observes the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and the thunderous score by Bernard Herrmann sounds terrific. The audio commentary by Glenn Erickson, first made available on the Warner DVD released in 2006, provides a rundown of the numerous alterations that were applied to ON DANGEROUS GROUND during its almost two-year stretch on the shelf at RKO, which was not unusual under the leadership of Howard Hughes. Good or bad, Hughes’s tinkering proved to be of little help to the film’s delayed release; ON DANGEROUS GROUND lost $450K at the box office and was received coldly by critics. Erickson builds a solid case that the most similar film to ON DANGEROUS GROUND is director Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976), probably the finest of revisionist noir films that emerged in the 1970s. A theatrical trailer (2m 10s) is the only other supplement.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY (1951)

Warner Bros., 90m 51s


A rightful favorite of film noir aficionados, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY sympathizes with its featured protagonist from pillar to post. Alienated lead male characters are common noir sightings, but Bill Clark (Steve Cochran) stands out in the crowd. At the outset, the 32-year-old is about to be released from prison, where he has resided since the shockingly young age of 13. In other words, Clark has been behind bars throughout the years most of us treasure most. "18 years, three months and six days," Clark laments in explicit detail. The warden (Harry Antrim) tries to prepare Clark for the reality that life will be no cakewalk on the outside, where a generation has grown up without him. True enough, the newly free Clark notices plenty of change since his freedom as a youth. Cars have a new look, fashion has changed, beer tastes odd, and prices have gone up. A local proprietor has long passed. Worst of all, a predatory reporter (John Kellogg) wastes no time making an exploitative story out of Clark, who consequently has little choice but to move on.



Clark relocates to New York City, where a dance hall catches his eye. Inside he meets Catherine "Cay" Higgins (Ruth Roman, top-billed), who gets the proper legs-first femme fatale introduction (though she is glimpsed a little earlier, sizing up the new man in town Clark). The pay-for-a-dance girl Higgins looks and sounds like trouble, but Clark is lonely and convinces Higgins to be his big city tour guide. While the two enjoy the view of the city from above, Higgins expresses the common sentiment about film noir urban locales when she comments, "...you live in one trap and work in another." The modest trap she lives in is financed by Detective Lt. George Conover (Hugh Sanders), who surprises Higgins with his presence after she brings Clark inside her apartment for the first time. A tense discussion leads to a tussle that ends in a shooting, which impacts everything that happens subsequently for Higgins and Clark, who form an uneasy alliance.



From the instant Clark encounters Higgins, the confirmed film noir addict must assume this guy would be wise to look elsewhere for female companionship. Ensuing events after the apartment shooting seem to confirm this notion. In the film's dramatic turning point, Higgins realizes she knows more about the shooting than Clark, and can use that information to her advantage. As the camera closes in on the Higgins character in a terrifically cinematic moment, the viewer is encouraged to share the conflicting thoughts running wild in her mind. This is the moment film noir expert Eddie Muller refers to as "the break." The character under scrutiny has an opportunity to make a moral decision, but instead elects an immoral choice (and by implication, so do we). The fateful matchup of Higgins and Clark leads them to grueling work at a California lettuce farm, where they attempt to blend in under new identities (another noir staple). Of course, past transgressions very seldom go without consequences in the film noir, and a strong sense of paranoia builds within Clark as he questions his ability to merge into his surroundings.



Though perhaps not in quite the same league as THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) or GUN CRAZY (1950), TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY deserves to be in the same discussion of socially conscious couple-on-the-run treatments. Director Felix E. Feist understands how to create suspense, as he had proven beyond a doubt in THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947) and THE THREAT (1949). Cinematography was handled by Robert Burks, who frequently collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock, i.e. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), REAR WINDOW (1954) and VERTIGO (1958). The highlight of TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY is probably the dancehall segment that comes early in the narrative, which is staged effectively to play up the appeal of the blonde temptress Higgins and the alienated loner Clark. A perhaps equally impressive sequence occurs when the couple hitches a ride on a trailer of new automobiles without the truck driver's knowledge. Not sure whether to credit Feist or the screenwriting co-authored by Art Cohn and Guy Endore (from a story by Endore) for the moment when Clark is listening to a radio announcer celebrate the achievement of Mozart before the composer reached the age of 14. For a man who was imprisoned at the age of 13, what a demoralizing thing to have to hear! In another interesting segment of social commentary, Higgins contrasts the dignity of working class people with prison life, where Clark never had to worry about his next meal. Clark questions how she could understand what it was like to be incarcerated, and whether firsthand knowledge might be forthcoming if she is not careful. Also of interest is the fact that redemption is found in an agrarian society, far from the impersonal city streets of New York.


Even if the conclusion seems wrapped up a little too neatly, it nonetheless reflects the film's optimistic title that suggests people deserve second chances. Neither Clark nor Higgins is a great catch, yet the two make one of the most compelling couples in the world of noir, a pair of down-and-outers who are impossible not to like. I really admire the fact that Clark is not driven by greed, like so many flawed noir protagonists. He just wants to get by on a day-to-day basis. Notable noir tough guy Steve Cochran turns in an impressive performance as a man in his early thirties who has spent the bulk of his life incarcerated. Here Cochran is far more sympathetic than he is in some of the other film noirs in which he appeared, such as THE CHASE (1946), WHITE HEAT (1949) and HIGHWAY 301 (1950). Especially for a man who was such a noted womanizer, Cochran's clumsy dance moves and bungled attempt to make a play for Roman's character are surprisingly convincing. I always have adored the talented Ruth Roman, whose subtle beauty in this case transfers from sexy blonde to unassuming brunette.


The MOD DVD available via Warner Archive presents a scan of film elements in acceptable but unspectacular condition, with artifacts persistent throughout the presentation. The aspect ratio of 1.35:1 differs slightly from the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1. This would be a splendid addition to one of several boutique labels who specialize in this sort of thing.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956)

United Artists, 73m 8s


By the mid-1950s, film noir was 10 years removed from the stylized compositions that marked the ominous tone of the classic years. Exaggerated shadows and oblique camera angles had given way to a more naturalistic approach to the crime film. The 1950s would become noted for police procedurals in the vein of the popular television series DRAGNET. THE KILLER IS LOOSE fits that category to be sure, though it is far more fascinating as a character study of its hopelessly unbalanced criminal Leon Poole (Wendell Corey). Though not an exercise in noir style, THE KILLER IS LOOSE treads noir water through the anatomization of its escaped killer Leon, with an emphasis on the mental anguish that motivates his behavior. Leon is one of film noir's walking dead, a man with nothing to lose driven mad by a traumatic past.

Though Leon plays the role of meek bank teller, it is quickly ascertained he is a heist team member also. As local law enforcement officials converge on Leon's modest dwelling, his wife Doris (Martha Crawford, uncredited) is shot dead mistakenly by Detective Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten). For his crucial part in an inside job, Leon receives multiple ten-year sentences to brood in prison, where he will think only of vengeance. If he lost his wife, why should the man behind her death get to keep his? By any means necessary, Leon is determined to do away with Sam's pregnant wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming, some 18 years the junior of Joseph Cotten, and it is painfully evident).




After three years of good behavior brings Leon to low-security farm labor, his revenge mission reveals a callous attitude toward his fellow man. First prisoner number 791181 violently commandeers a cargo truck by way of a detached hoe blade, next he opportunistically employs a sickle to eliminate (off-screen, thankfully) the world’s most unfortunate farmer. As Leon prepares to deal with the unseen farmer, an approaching thunderstorm accompanies his dark thoughts. It is a tense scene that strongly suggests meal-oriented police officers like Denny (Alan Hale Jr.) will struggle to contain the wrath of Leon.

Like THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946), HIGH WALL (1947), THE CROOKED WAY (1949) and ACT OF VIOLENCE (1949), THE KILLER IS LOOSE is another noir narrative that features a veteran with some type of deficiency. Vision is Leon's major physical limitation. Dependent on bifocals, his nearsightedness is put on display at regular intervals. When we first meet Leon, he is stuck waiting on Otto Flanders (John Larch), who served as Leon's sergeant in the military. "Otto used to make my life miserable," Leon bitterly admits. Otto condescendingly tagged the clumsy, vision-impaired Leon with the nickname "Foggy" and still refers to him by that name (not knowing when to stop ensures Otto’s demise). Leon discloses he was treated similarly by insensitive schoolmates, so in truth the origin of his malaise lies not in war, but childhood trauma. Leon's wife was the lone person in his life who never laughed at him, who never made him feel unimportant. None of this should let Leon off the hook entirely though, since he is indeed a murderer of innocents. He even kills a man whose wife stands nearby! Nonetheless, THE KILLER IS LOOSE forces one to consider the psychology of its killer in a Freudian sense. The obvious message is a timeless one:  the most thoughtless among us ostracize people who are harmlessly different and thus help manufacture mentally challenged cases like Leon.




Director Budd Boetticher builds suspense admirably in this fast-moving revenge story, adapted for the screen by Harold Medford from a story by John Hawkins and Ward Hawkins (THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, June 13th, 1953). Best remembered for his Westerns that starred Randolph Scott, Boetticher is not known for his contributions to the film noir genre, though he did direct BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948), a notable entry. THE KILLER IS LOOSE is precisely the type of B production noir fans crave. Though it lacks the classic look of '40s noir, it is not without prevailing noir themes and motifs, as when heavy rainfall accents the final act. But more than anything else, this movie's noir credentials are established by its quirky villain.

Wendell Corey, so effective as the lead protagonist in HELL'S HALF ACRE (1954), offers a well-controlled performance as Leon, a dangerously disturbed man who is not entirely unsympathetic. Corey is chilling when he stares at Fleming after his character’s sentence is declared. The Leon character has a definite antecedent in Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), the unhinged veteran and killer of Edward Dmytryk's outstanding film noir THE SNIPER (1952). The strong suggested violence of THE KILLER IS LOOSE may have its origin in WITHOUT WARNING! (1952), in which Carl Martin (Adam Williams) disposes of his victims with garden shears. In terms of influence on films that would come later, the basic template of THE KILLER IS LOOSE anticipates CAPE FEAR (1962), the more famous film about a man after the family of the man he believes wronged him. And when a stalking Leon impersonates a woman near the end of THE KILLER IS LOOSE, he may have been the inspiration for one of the more strikingly violent sequences built around Max Cady (Robert De Niro) in the neonoir CAPE FEAR (1991), the Martin Scorsese-helmed remake of the 1962 version. The docile looking, borderline feminine Leon also predates two of the most famous movie killers who would change the face of horror forever:  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) from PSYCHO (1960) and Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) from PEEPING TOM (1960).

The single-layered Blu-ray disc available from ClassicFlix may be the only credible version of THE KILLER IS LOOSE available for purchase. The feature presentation looks to have been scanned from stellar source material, framed at the intended theatrical scope of 1.85:1. Though void of supplementary material, the inexpensive disc is a worthy add.

The theatrical poster tagline that reads, “The story of a cop who used his wife as bait for a killer!” does not reflect the plot mechanics accurately.