Monday, August 28, 2017

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)

United Artists, 99m
Format: 35mm

NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2017
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 25th – Thursday, August 31st, 2017


This past Saturday afternoon, NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2017 host Eddie Muller explained this year's festival selections share a heist theme. Prior to film noir treatments, typical heist films focused on the exploits of Robin Hood-like aristocrats according to Muller. But when the Production Code began to loosen up in the 1950s, the heist storyline began to infiltrate bleak noir narratives like the durable MGM title THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950). The commercial success of that film set the stage for ensuing noir caper films such as KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, one of the more influential films of its kind. The memorable storyline authored by George Bruce and Harry Essex was based on a concept by Harold Greene and Rowland Brown. It was Brown who came up with the novel idea that the criminals assembled for the caper would not know each other.


The film opens with an armored car robbery in the planning stages. To make off with $1.2 million, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) requires three accomplices whose identities are to be concealed from each other via masks. Pete Harris (Jack Elam) is a small time gambler with little choice but to join forces with Foster. The same holds true with cop killer Boyd Kane (Neville Brand) and three-time loser Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef). The heist is executed as planned, but do not tell that to Western Florists truck driver Joe Rolfe (John Payne), who is set up by Foster to get grilled by police for the bank job.


Rolfe is an ex-con, but also a veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. In a theme associated with a wide range of noir titles, Rolfe is a WWII vet faced with extreme difficulty in a civilian world. Caught in the wrong place at the worst possible time—another common problem for the noir protagonist—Rolfe even loses his job over the heist investigation. Then sensational news headlines link the innocent Rolfe with the crime. Stuck with no job prospects and no help from the police, Rolfe sets out as the rugged individualist in search of the men who trashed his life.

Though KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL does not rely on darkness and shadows like many of its atmospheric noir cousins of the 1940s, when Rolfe assumes the identity of one of the bank robbers, the all around sense of paranoia and dread intensifies throughout the remainder of the film. The men recruited by Foster are invited to the (fictitious) Mexican resort town of Barados, where the robbery take allegedly will be distributed. But Foster has a complicated past of his own, and motivations unknown to the men he hired. Especially as portrayed by Preston Foster, the embittered mentor of the heist is among the more sympathetic of noir criminals, complete with a pleasant daughter (Coleen Gray) who is enrolled in law school.


A rough and tough little film noir, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL is brimming with slapping, punching and shooting along its eventful course. Director Phil Karlson is remembered fondly for this and other hard-hitting noir exercises that would follow, two of which featured Payne:  99 RIVER STREET (1953) and HELL'S ISLAND (1955). Karlson also directed 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955), THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955) and THE BROTHERS RICO (1957), all essential viewing for the film noir enthusiast. Producer Edward Small has a similar stable of noir material to his credit, including 99 RIVER STREET. He also produced RAW DEAL (1948), WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948), DOWN THREE DARK STREETS (1954) and the outstanding NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL (1955), one of my favorite noir films to hail from the 1950s. 

Traces of KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952) can be found in three of the undeniable neonoir treasures of the 1990s:  RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997).

Saturday, August 12, 2017

ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949)

Paramount Pictures, 93m


Last week ALIAS NICK BEAL premiered on Turner Classic Movies. I was unable to catch the live presentation, but thankfully TCM made it available on demand for the next seven days. To be honest, I never even had heard of this title, but after a helpful Facebook alert from film noir historian Eddie Muller I knew it was likely an important work, and so it is. A noir picture with an unusual dose of the fantastic, ALIAS NICK BEAL would make for a good double feature with THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941). The Paramount production also recalls producer Val Lewton's noir horror cult classics, especially CAT PEOPLE (1942), I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). After the film’s opening credit sequence brings to mind classic Universal horror, the look, tone and structure of ALIAS NICK BEAL are cemented firmly within accepted noir boundaries.

The storyline condenses an eight-month period of time. 48-year-old District Attorney Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) would make a fine governor according to underworld figure Frankie Faulkner (Fred Clark), but Foster wants nothing to do with the sort of help offered by the unabashedly crooked Faulkner. Well known for his work with the local Boys' Club, Foster is an honorable man. Suddenly he is plunged into noir waters when he gets an anonymous tip from a man who claims he can help the DA bring down a notorious racketeer named Hanson, who is "...an octopus sucking the blood of every little business in the city," according to Foster.

The oddly helpful agent is Nick Beal (Ray Milland), who emerges near the China Coast Cafe, a dockside dive with oblique angles that appear to have escaped from the set of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920). An uncanny presence, Beal likes the thought that Foster would give his soul to rid the streets of Hanson and his protection schemes. Thanks to Beal's assistance, Foster finally gets Hanson convicted, but the evidence that convicts Hanson is obtained illegally. Thus we have our "break," as Eddie Muller would say (faced with a morality choice, a film noir character makes the wrong decision, and an ever-worsening chain of events ensues).


At the heart of the narrative lies a timeless tale that is as disconcerting today as ever. Based on the successful prosecution of Hanson, Foster is able to build a case for governor, but he becomes increasingly entangled with Beal, an individual of far less character than Foster. Be that as it may, Beal offers an apparent means to an end. With the governorship, Foster could push through his many admirable ideas, even if he must "...throw a few scraps to Faulkner..." thanks to Beal’s involvement. Unfortunately, men like Faulkner and Beal are not satisfied with scraps forever.

Due primarily to their own ambitions, basically good men like Foster are vulnerable to people like Beal, and it is easy to understand why. Considering the present-day condition of federal and many state balance sheets in the real world, the alarming separation of wealth, and the net worth of the average politician, these days it appears the influence of men like Beal is considerably more prevalent than that of men like Foster. Though the conscientious may find the strength to resist making dark alliances, so many others will succumb to their own self-interests rather than the greater good. Too often, influential politicians answer to powerful figures who exhibit significant control from behind the curtain.

Beal does not limit his targets to ambitious persons like Foster. With remarkable self-assurance, he picks up the trollop Donna Allen (Audrey Totter) after she is booted from the waterfront bar Beal frequents. Allen proves women who have hit rock bottom are highly susceptible to the machinations of contemptible characters like Beal, who elevates her living standard in exchange for careful manipulation of Foster. With her heavy eyelids and thick lips, Audrey Totter (THE UNSUSPECTED [1947], THE SET-UP [1949], TENSION [1949]) could not help but convey the sultry impression of a promiscuous femme fatale. She is spot-on in this controlled performance, which sometimes calls for her to act while acting. Behind Allen's alluring look is a woman who has endured a lot more than she probably deserved. For victims of predators like Beal, the lesson learned is identical:  when one takes an exit down a dark road, there may not be a clear way back.


Though remembered more for his work on comedies, director of photography Lionel Lindon understood the film noir visual approach well given the persistent chiaroscuro lighting and low camera angles that haunt ALIAS NICK BEAL. The film noir look is always evident around the bayside dock where the neon sign for the local drinking establishment is about the only thing that cuts through the thick fog. Lindon also served as cinematographer on THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946) and QUICKSAND (1950), both favorite noirs of mine. Other noir themes and motifs include the not unusual presence of a crippled man, represented here by Reverend Thomas Garfield (George Macready), whose walk with a cane contrasts mightily with the stealth embodied by Beal. That opposition really emphasizes the threat of Beal, who appears and disappears as it suits him. The China Coast Cafe reminds the viewer of an American distrust of the Orient that was heightened during and after World War II, as perhaps best exemplified in THE BIG SLEEP (1946) and THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), both quintessential film noirs.

ALIAS NICK BEAL director John Farrow already had worked with Ray Milland in the Western CALIFORNIA (1947), as well as THE BIG CLOCK (1948), a suspenseful noir thriller. The two would be matched again in COPPER CANYON (1950), another Western. Farrow also helmed the film noir NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), which starred noir veteran Edward G. Robinson, and WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950), a rather textbook noir in terms of narrative, style and starpower. Ray Milland is superb here as the creepy Beal, a memorable tough talker with plenty of good lines provided by Jonathan Latimer's screenplay (based on an original story by Mindret Lord). Beal delivers a terrific little speech about a world composed of gray areas; certainly appropriate subject matter for the film noir.

Be sure to have your DVR locked and loaded the next time ALIAS NICK BEAL airs on TCM. This unique film noir currently is unavailable on home video in the US.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951)

United Artists, 78m 1s


The obvious film noir qualifications of HE RAN ALL THE WAY are carved forcefully into the opening sequence within a neglected tenement apartment littered with empty beer cans, dirty dishes and overflowing garbage. On what appears to be a particularly hot summer morning, Nick Robey (John Garfield) would sleep the day away were it not for his mouthy mother (Gladys George), who reminds her son of his persistent lack of achievement. The hard woman slaps her loser son, who merely notes his ol' ma does not possess the strength she once did. Despite his thick skin, seasoned film noir fans will recognize Robey as the hopelessly doomed noir protagonist, trapped in a boiling urban hell that threatens to consume him.

The unemployed Robey meets up with the more ambitious Al Molin (Norman Lloyd), who has devised a $10,000 payroll holdup to take place while employees patiently await their salaries. Robey's intuition tells him today will not be his day, but he reluctantly goes along with Molin's plan. In a familiar film noir train of thought about the honest working class, Molin scoffs before the crime, "Squares waitin' for their pay..." As the viewer should expect, the heist goes quite poorly, with Molin taking a bullet and an unlucky police officer (Dale Van Sickel) shot by triggerman Robey.

Suddenly in attendance at a public pool in an endeavor to lose police, Robey encounters Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters), a perfectly nice but painfully naive young woman who deserves to meet a much more together fellow than Robey. Although their exchange is awkward at best, Robey manages entry into the Dobbs apartment, where Peg lives with her parents (Wallace Ford and Selena Royle) and little brother Tommy (Robert Hyatt). Unnecessarily as it turns out, the hotheaded Robey holds the family under lockdown.




Set in Southern California over a 72-hour time frame, HE RAN ALL THE WAY is a tense and spirited film noir in which John Garfield proves he could be just as tough as the likes of Charles McGraw (THE THREAT [1949]) and Lawrence Tierney (BORN TO KILL [1947]). Most assuredly Garfield's turn as the existential Nick Robey anticipates ruffians portrayed by Ralph Meeker (KISS ME DEADLY [1955]) and especially Humphrey Bogart (THE DESPERATE HOURS [1955], the more well-known home invasion narrative). Not long after he meets Peg, Robey is appallingly rough with her. As his sense of paranoia intensifies, he becomes more physically insensitive to members of the Dobbs family. As portrayed by Garfield, Robey resembles a cornered, crazed animal whenever he senses that policemen are just moments away. Robey is not a completely rotten apple, though; notice the compassion he instinctively shows when Peg's mom injures herself.

Robey's eventual downfall is brought about by his mostly deplorable treatment of others, lack of religious belief, and above all else, his stubborn inability to trust others. "Nobody loves anyone," he says. Though far from a femme fatale, Peg accelerates Robey's downward trajectory when she gets all dolled up in front of him after her street-smart female coworker Marge (Vici Raaf) suggests Peg could use her appearance to manipulate a man. Ultimately Robey collapses into an appropriate landing spot within the unforgiving, distinctly urban noir terrain from which there is no escape. In that respect, the Robey character recalls Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) marked D.O.A. (1950), "Dix" Handley (Sterling Hayden) enveloped by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) trapped between NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), and so many other similarly defeated noir protagonists.




HE RAN ALL THE WAY establishes its film noir atmosphere with a minimum of nocturnal sequences; quite unusual for the genre. The cinematography was handled by the legendary James Wong Howe, who also covered Garfield in the exceptional noir boxing narrative BODY AND SOUL (1947). Howe's other film noir accomplishments include HANGMEN ALSO DIE! (1943), NORA PRENTISS (1947), PURSUED (1947) and the classic SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957). His excellent work in HE RAN ALL THE WAY shows his inclination toward tight close-ups, especially those that reveal the brutal summer heat that seems to be as much a character as any of the players.

A film noir with an equal measure of clever visual set-ups and punchy dialog, the script was an adaptation of the novel of the same title by Sam Ross. The screenplay is credited to Guy Endore and Hugo Butler, while uncredited contributor Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted at the time. Endore was a registered Communist, and also found himself blacklisted by certain film studios. He sometimes sold his screenplays under the pseudonym Harry Relis. Director John Berry's credit was removed from the film's initial theatrical run due to blacklisting. Prior to HE RAN ALL THE WAY, Berry helmed the appropriately taut film noir TENSION (1949), which features standout performances from Richard Basehart and Audrey Totter. Berry also directed the documentary short “The Hollywood Ten” (1950) about the group of screenwriters and directors who stood their ground against the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo was among the 10.

Though John Garfield denied any communist party affiliation, he found himself blacklisted by major studio bosses. Perhaps the stress associated with pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee contributed to the death of the long-term liberal, who died from heart complications May 21st, 1952 at the sadly premature age of 39. HE RAN ALL THE WAY proved to be his last film.




The Blu-ray disc available from Kino Lorber presents this underappreciated film remastered in high definition. The original theatrical scope of 1.37:1 is observed and the technical flaws are few. Other than trailers for HE RAN ALL THE WAY, A BULLET FOR JOEY (1955) and WITNESS TO MURDER (1954), the disc is without supplemental material.

HE RAN ALL THE WAY aired on TCM recently as part of their Noir Alley program hosted by Eddie Muller.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

Warner Bros., 111m


In the grand tradition of film noirs that begin with the end, the phenomenal MILDRED PIERCE is among the very best, and that company includes such dependable noir favorites as DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), MURDER MY SWEET (1944), BODY AND SOUL (1947), D.O.A. (1950) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Director Michael Curtiz deftly blends the noir form with the woman's picture and the social problem film for a touchstone drama that granted Joan Crawford her lone Academy Award (Best Actress in a Leading Role). The film was a success both commercially and critically, and launched Crawford into phase two of her fascinating career in front of the camera.

Our introduction to a dispirited Mildred Pierce (Crawford) occurs at a beach house, where a man's dying word is "Mildred." Soon Mildred finds herself in an echo chamber of a local police station, where she is confronted by Chief Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen), who is apologetic for troubling her. He feels confident they have the man in custody who murdered Mildred's husband! When she learns the identity of the suspect, Mildred goes back four years to explain what really happened. It all began in Glendale, California, where the Pierce family struggled with conflicting ideas about how money should be earned and spent.

From the earliest flashback sequence, the major friction between husband and wife concerns financial issues and extramarital activity. Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) is out of work, but that does not stop his wife Mildred from wanting to shower her daughters with a life of privileges normally reserved for upper class families. Distraught by what he interprets as unnecessary spending, Bert lectures his wife about the ill effects of giving too much to Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). Veda quickly proves herself the bigger potential problem of the two girls, and by a wide margin. Unhappy with his household, Bert prefers the company of Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick), his gin rummy partner and the woman Mildred views as a clear threat to the Pierce marriage. After Bert and his wife agree to disagree on all counts, he departs for the Biederhof residence without a word of goodbye to his daughters, and Mildred is left to raise them without him.




Though rightly classified a film noir in terms of structure, style, and especially tone, MILDRED PIERCE derives significant energy from the woman's picture. Much of the storyline revolves around Mildred's ability to cope with an endless succession of difficulties. After the tragic death of her youngest daughter, Mildred promises complete devotion to the never-ending wants of Veda. No sacrifice will be too great to ensure Veda has nothing but the best. Motivated primarily by Veda, Mildred opens her own restaurant, which makes the cash register ring sufficiently to inspire a chain of successful dining establishments named after our lead protagonist. Certainly emblematic of the woman's integration into the workforce that transpired during WWII, MILDRED PIERCE vindicates working class ideals are not gender specific, along with the popular notion that hard work gets one ahead in American society. The dark side of the capitalist system is its susceptibility to the greed of rapacious people like Veda who never are content with what they have.

The Warner Bros. marketing campaign positioned the title character as the spider woman who wrecks all fools who follow her. That suggestion hardly represents the material at hand; instead it is Mildred’s daughter who has ice in her veins. Veda Pierce is quite probably the most ungrateful little bitch in the history of cinema, and perhaps the most loathsome of all film noir femme fatales, even as a mere schoolgirl! When she learns her mother's marriage is in severe shutdown mode, the snooty teen cares only about the dress that has arrived for her. Though Mildred slaved in the kitchen to earn the funds required to purchase the gift, Veda is put off by the cheapness of the dress. Veda encourages her mother to marry only for money, and marches down a similar path herself when she blackmails the Forrester family with a fake pregnancy. After this incident, Mildred gives Veda the boot, only to later learn her daughter has become employed as a tawdry showgirl, howled at by local sailors. Veda even has the nerve to blame her most problematic misstep on her mother, whose only error was to love her daughter so much that she spoiled her far beyond repair. Rotten to the core, Veda serves as a warning to parents who do anything and everything for children who only mature into major disappointments. The more Mildred tries to do for her eldest daughter, the more Veda despises her mother. Veda hates the “grease," which is to say she is ashamed of her mother's willingness to earn an honest living through the grueling physical work the restaurant business requires. Bert probably was more right about Veda than he was aware, yet in the early stages of the narrative he seems a bit confused about the complexity of his eldest daughter. He comments that Veda plays piano at the 5-year-old level, yet she can play the Frédéric Chopin composition Waltz in E Flat Major (Grand valse brillante), an elegant piece and certainly far from a beginner's assignment. This misrepresentation of Veda fits the femme fatale image perfectly; the woman who is more complex than she at first would seem.

In the aristocrat Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), who is allergic to all things associated with work, Veda finds her ideal role model. When asked what he does for a living, he freely discloses "I loaf." He not only refuses to work, he looks down on those who do, though not so much as to not accept money from Mildred. What he knows how to do best is accumulate massive debts, to the point his family has relinquished multiple properties due to tax liabilities. His other notable trait is lechery, a concept well-illustrated by his beach house overflowing with female swimwear, presumably left behind by his discarded lovers. Monte represents an aristocracy in steady decline, and Mildred makes her worst move when she marries him. Eventually his borrow/spend way of life brings financial hardship upon Mildred, who only wanted to help those closest to her. That only four of six gunshots penetrate Monte seems unjust. As he clumsily paws at Mildred, Wally Fay (Jack Carson) is another lecherous sort, but he is comparably harmless. He may want to get Mildred into bed (who wouldn't?), but he shows more genuine concern for Mildred's best interests than the worthless heir Monte ever could.

As the film's most wretched characters, Monte and Veda represent a socialist's worst nightmare about capitalism:  that the least deserving humans might live the most comfortable lives. Perhaps worse than that is the related problem that common people admire trash like Monte, even if merely out of envy. The screenplay engineered by Ranald MacDougall (based on the novel by James M. Cain) clearly is positioned on the side of the working class. The narrative persistently supports working class ideals, right up to the film's concluding scene, when a pair of laborers cares for a city building's flooring as Mildred returns to her old existence, a life before the wealth that systematically destroyed or threatened to destroy everyone close to her. With that, the heterosexual couple is reinstated, presumably stronger having learned incredibly tough lessons.





The establishing sequence at Monte's beach house abounds in the visual codification of film noir. Coverage borders on the surreal as moody lighting, oblique camera angles, a spiral staircase and shuttered doors entrap the seemingly condemned and utterly confused individual Wally Fay. After Curtiz settles into flashback mode, the visual flair is less elaborate, but cinematographer Ernest Haller always frames his famous female lead in a carefully flattering manner. Haller is not remembered as one of the great noir stylists, but he did oversee the camerawork in several subsequent noir films, including DECEPTION (1946), THE VERDICT (1946) and THE UNFAITHFUL (1947). He also handled the cinematography for WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), a superior psychological thriller with some serious film noir undertones.

With hindsight, it is difficult to believe the role of Mildred was turned down by both Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. Nonetheless Crawford had to earn the role, and she did not disappoint. To watch MILDRED PIERCE today is to witness one of Hollywood's most accomplished actresses at the top of her game. Crawford's best lines of dialog confirm her character's tireless work ethic, i.e. "I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I'd been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married." Another great line that confirms Mildred's unwavering fortitude is, "Having you in my family is a pretty dismal prospect." Not all of the film's best lines emanate from Crawford. As Mildred's right hand woman Ida Corwin, Eve Arden has a lot of fun with her dialog ("Leave something on me, I might catch cold."). The only thing that works against this stellar Warner production is Mildred's mousy-voiced maid Lottie (Butterfly McQueen), a mammie stereotype that induces cringes. Crawford would continue to portray characters who fell for questionable men in an array of films, i.e. POSSESSED (1947), SUDDEN FEAR (1952), FEMALE ON THE BEACH (1955), STRAIT-JACKET (1964), but these same women usually have considerable reserves from which to draw. Crawford would receive Best Actress nominations for POSSESSED and SUDDEN FEAR.

MILDRED PIERCE has been brought to the Criterion Collection by way of a new 4K digital restoration and uncompressed monaural soundtrack for this dual-layered Blu-ray release. The 1080P transfer leaves a good impression framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, but is not as sharp as some of the best-looking noir films available to date on Blu-ray, i.e. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), KEY LARGO (1948), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). At times only Crawford looks to be in focus, even when other characters carry the same weight in the composition, but that very well could have something to do with the influence on the set of the famous actress, who always was determined to look her best.

Criterion Collection Blu-ray [1.37:1]

Warner Home Video DVD [1.34:1]

The first of the supplements contained within this Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc is a conversation with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito (22m 59s). Recorded in 2016, the two compare and contrast the film with the source novel, and also reference the five-part MILDRED PIERCE miniseries (HBO, 2011) directed by Todd Haynes (an adaptation I recommend without reservation). Polito draws a correlation between the opening of MILDRED PIERCE and that of CITIZEN KANE (1941), which makes obvious sense ("Mildred" substituted for "Rosebud."). He also points out Mildred's obsession with her daughter Veda runs much deeper in the novel, to the point of strong sexual suggestion between the two. The 1945 adaptation avoids such racy matters, and merely presents Mildred as a rejected sacrificial mother. Haskell contends the film plays upon WWII-era male paranoia about being replaced in the labor force, with all of the film's male characters presented as inadequate in some way.

Next up is the documentary feature JOAN CRAWFORD: THE ULTIMATE MOVIE STAR (2002, 87m 6s), directed by Peter Fitzgerald and narrated by Anjelica Huston. This reflection on Crawford's life originally aired on Turner Classic Movies, and was included as a supplement on the Warner Home Video DVD version of MILDRED PIERCE first released in 2003. The documentary does a good job of bringing balance to an unbalanced existence. Abused as a child, Crawford infamously would become noted as an abusive mother herself, as recalled by her adopted daughter Christina Crawford in the controversial memoir MOMMIE DEAREST (1978). By all accounts her dark side was not limited to motherhood; from the time Joan Crawford was contracted in 1925 as a dancer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, her partygirl ways were off the charts. As a young woman of dynamic vibrancy, her wild nightlife was characterized by her excessive drinking and strong tendency to have affairs with her male co-stars (most notably Clark Gable). Such behavior frequently had a negative impact on her career, and she would struggle with alcohol most of her adult life. Also under review are Crawford's multiple marriages (to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone, Phillip Terry, Alfred Steele), and her obsession with gardenias, exercise, cleanliness, and of course her own movie stardom. But to look beyond qualities that might be construed as negative is to see a woman who achieved more in a man's world than many ever imagined possible. She truly emerged from nothing to become one of the most popular, talented and highest-paid women in the world, and she did not have it easy. A self-promoter, she worked hard to transition from silent films to talkies, a bridge many stars of the silent era were unable to cross. She always maintained a close connection to everyone on the set; Crawford truly understood the value of each and every crew member. She studied dailies, always looking for ways to improve her craft. Crawford embraced publicity, and used it to her advantage whenever possible. The origins of the antagonism between Crawford and Bette Davis also gets some attention, and no doubt will be of interest to fans of the excellent eight-part FX television series FEUD:  BETTE AND JOAN, which aired earlier this year and starred Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis.

Signed as Lucille Fay LeSueur, the eventual Joan Crawford worked as an extra in silent films of the mid-1920s. She was a sensational dancer, and won many awards for her ability to perform the Charleston. Crawford provided a fresh new face for movie fans with THE TAXI DANCER (1927), then made great acting strides with THE UNKNOWN (1927), still a powerful film today as directed by Tod Browning. In OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928), Crawford acted the most like her off-screen flapper persona and scored a hit with audiences. Another big success was GRAND HOTEL (1932), but while on loan to United Artists, Crawford experienced a box office flop when she starred in RAIN (1932). With the release of LOVE ON THE RUN (1936), it became apparent Crawford's popularity was waning. In 1938, the actress was branded "box office poison" by Harry Brandt in the INDEPENDENT FILM JOURNAL. Down but not out, Crawford would prove herself a thespian who possessed a tremendous skill set in THE WOMEN (1939).

After 18 years, Crawford's contract with MGM ended. Over at Warner Bros., Jack L. Warner recognized the potential for Crawford to become a helpful nemesis for Bette Davis, a feisty broad who was a constant headache for him. Crawford signed a three-movie contract with Warner in 1943. After an appearance in HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944), Crawford would make her mark at Warner Bros. with MILDRED PIERCE, and follow up with a number of films that have held up well over the years, including HUMORESQUE (1946), FLAMINGO ROAD (1949) and THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (1950). Also covered is Crawford's foray into independent films such as the aforementioned SUDDEN FEAR, as well as different genres, i.e. JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, her last unquestionably great film. Her final film would be TROG (1970), directed by Freddie Francis. After an unbecoming paparazzi photo of the mature actress surfaced in 1974, Crawford adopted a reclusive lifestyle until she died from a heart attack at her New York apartment in 1977.

Other than a theatrical trailer (2m 19s), the remaining supplemental material is unique to this Criterion Collection presentation. An excerpt (15m 2s) from an episode of THE DAVID FROST SHOW that originally aired January 8th, 1970 features Crawford as his guest. Looking back, she says Mildred was her favorite role, and that she really had to fight for the part since director Michael Curtiz hoped to cast Barbara Stanwyck in the lead. Curtiz hated Crawford's broad shoulders and was surprised to find out they were authentic when he ripped off her top! When asked about her favorite leading men, Crawford places Clark Gable at the top of the list. The actress admits she has one hangup:  her lack of a formal education.

In July 2006, film noir historian Eddie Muller interviewed Ann Blyth in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. The session (23m 56s) took place after a big screen presentation of MILDRED PIERCE, which according to Muller was responsible for about half of Warner's profits the year of its original theatrical run. After sharing her memories of working on the classic Curtiz production as the despicable Veda, Blyth is joined onstage by her daughter Eileen McNulty. Another brief but worthwhile extra is a segment (10m 7s) from the TODAY show that aired November 26th, 1969 in which Hugh Downs interviews MILDRED PIERCE author James M. Cain. The novelist places a great deal of importance on getting the details of his stories correct in the interest of credibility. In other words, a story that involves the restaurant business must be true to the realities of that enterprise.

The Blu-ray packaging includes an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

THE DARK MIRROR (1946)

Universal Pictures, 85m 38s


Based on the safe assumption there is no rivalry quite like sibling rivalry, director Robert Siodmak's doppelgänger film noir THE DARK MIRROR is only about twins on the surface. The deeper story concerns the insane jealousy one sister has of another. By inference, all sisters experience such feelings from time to time, or perhaps all the time. Frustrations must be inevitable, especially when it comes to dating. Invariably some man comes along who prefers the sister of the woman he met originally. For the unwanted sister, that cannot be any kind of fun. But what would it be like for a woman to have a twin sister who men consistently prefer? That unenviable situation would challenge any woman's sanity.


The storyline gets off and running very quickly. A man has been stabbed to death through the heart, but Police Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) must release identical twins Terry and Ruth Collins (Olivia de Havilland in both roles) because neither will confess to the murder he knows one of them committed. The twins cannot be forced to testify against themselves, and the law does not allow the prosecution of two suspects to ensure the punishment of one. Having reached a dead end from an identification standpoint, Stevenson turns to Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), an expert on the psychology of twins. On the basis of ink blot testing, Elliott determines one of the twins is harmless and the other is an aberrant personality. Though there is some attempt to keep the viewer uncertain, the identity of the disturbed twin is clear by the halfway point. The root cause of the problem between the twin sisters is one of classic female archetypes:  one sister is the woman men want to pick up, but the other is the one they want to marry.



Film noir themes and motifs begin with the Freudian psychology angle that trended throughout the classic noir era. The genre's position on psychology tends to be skeptical at best, with the slant on the psychiatrist sometimes quite negative, i.e. CAT PEOPLE (1942), SHOCK (1946), NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), WHIRLPOOL (1950). Dr. Elliott is positioned as a benign figure, though he is not without fault—he seems unaware Ruth is starting to lose it. The mirror, that oft recurring noir staple, is used to emphasize the dual nature of humans, and obviously that theme is even more pronounced in this particular noir title. Early on a cracked mirror hints at a fractured personality, and it is linked repeatedly to death as the narrative progresses.

Dependent on each other and only connected to other humans in a superficial manner, the twins embody a noir sense of detachment from society. The Ruth character best embodies that feeling of helplessness that so often stands out within the noir narrative. "Something's happening to me and I don't know what it is. I don't understand it," she says. In the dual lead, Olivia de Havilland is sensational. I never doubt her tragic Collins sisters are two distinct individuals. The technical achievements are convincing as well, especially for the time! The twin effects would not be surpassed until David Cronenberg unveiled DEAD RINGERS in 1988.



At the time of this writing, the Olive Films single-layered Blu-ray edition released in 2012 is still readily available. The disc is devoid of supplemental material, but the transfer is solid and it is not an expensive disc. The presentation is framed at 1.34:1, though the packaging promises the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The contrast is respectable and the amount of film grain leaves a good impression of the cinematography by the masterful Milton R. Krasner, whose noir efforts include the likes of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), SCARLET STREET (1945), THE SET-UP (1949) and the underappreciated HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949). Before directing THE DARK MIRROR, film noir specialist Robert Siodmak already had graced us with PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945), THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946) and THE KILLERS (1946). He would follow THE DARK MIRROR with further evidence of his mastery of the genre, including CRY OF THE CITY (1948), the great CRISS CROSS (1949) and THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1950).

THE DARK MIRROR received one Academy Award nomination for "Best Writing, Original Story" (Vladimir Pozner). Dimitri Tiomkin's score is too invasive at times and dates the production.