Sunday, November 25, 2018

THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946)

Paramount Pictures, 100m 1s


This enjoyable murder mystery conceived by Raymond Chandler is primetime film noir, even while it falls somewhat short of its contemporaries in terms of visual style. Unpretentious director George Marshall may not demonstrate much flair for iconic noir compositions, but he displays a great talent for conveying how suddenly people can become irritated with one another, and how quickly a setting of calmness can mutate into a scene of violence. Set in a nation reconfigured during WWII, the characters who occupy this distinctly LA-based landscape know each other's weaknesses, and are all too eager to exploit them.

Back from serving in the South Pacific, a trio of veterans disembarks a Hollywood-branded bus and enters the nearest place in sight that dispenses bourbon. The three United States Navy fliers are Lieutenant Commander Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont) and Buzz Wanchek (William Bendix). Almost instantly, the hot-tempered Buzz takes issue with the upbeat song blasting out of the watering hole's jukebox, and even pushes around the guy (Anthony Caruso) who selected the tune. Without question Buzz is shell-shocked; he has shrapnel lodged in his skull, suffers from memory loss and endures a debilitating headache whenever he hears what he pejoratively deems "monkey music." The scuffle is broken up and the fellow military men share an "it's all good" moment, but the sequence casts an ominous shadow over what should be a day of cheerfulness. "Well, here's to what was," Johnny coldly summarizes.



The ensuing scene is even more intense than the establishing sequence. Johnny drops by unannounced on his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) at her bungalow residence within Cavendish Court in Santa Monica. The porcelain-skinned beauty is busy hosting a lively party, and seems disappointed to receive her returning veteran husband, who has been placed on the inactive list. In attendance is her current romantic interest Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), who owns a local nightclub called The Blue Dahlia. Johnny would like to resume a relationship with his wife, but the more Helen reveals about herself, the more hopeless the situation appears to be. She condescendingly calls Johnny "hero" and tells him their son did not die from diphtheria as she originally had stated. In truth the boy was killed in a car accident caused by his mother's drunken carelessness. Since that event, she has become a witch of a woman who does as she pleases, everyone else be damned. The defeated condition of the married couple is emphasized by the heavy rainfall that commences after Johnny learns the bleak truth about his son's death. Congruent with CONFLICT (1945), SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and many other noir films of this timeframe, the marriage under consideration in THE BLUE DAHLIA is a flower without bloom.

Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake) is injected as the positive counterpart to the thoroughly contemptible Helen character. Like a little blonde angel from heaven, she scoops up Johnny on a rainy night, and is shown repeatedly in idealized portraits (even the best of noir women seldom can live up to those framed images to which men cling). It is suggested Joyce is on the outs with her husband Eddie because of his tendency toward shady business dealings. When her antithesis Helen is found dead on her davenport, a head-scratcher of a case is born. Helen was such a miserable person, any number of people may have had reason to kill her. A man of few words and a strong moral code, the prime suspect Johnny becomes the film's hard-boiled investigator. Joyce does not view Johnny as the type of man who would knock off his wife, while the police seem less charitable. Thus THE BLUE DAHLIA serves as an early example of the "wrong man" film noir subgenre that would gain traction with titles such as DARK PASSAGE (1947), DESPERATE (1947), HIGH WALL (1947) and THE BIG CLOCK (1948).




As designed by screenwriter Raymond Chandler, THE BLUE DAHLIA is dripping with sordid noir characters, some of whom seem to have slithered out of the gutter amid the drenched city streets. The Scotch-swilling, unfaithful wife Helen probably is less known to noir fans than Chandler's more iconic femme fatale characters who heated up the big screen, i.e. Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) from MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) from THE BIG SLEEP (1946). But when Helen laughs after revealing her young son's tragic cause of death, to conjure up a more reprehensible noir dame would be a challenging matter. In a nice thematic touch, the (cleansing?) nighttime rain has given way to sunshine once her corpse is discovered. Another useless broad is the overly-friendly, drunken blonde (Vera Marshe) in attendance at Helen's party, who does nothing to advance how men might think of her gender.

Not to be outdone by the aforementioned females, there are plenty of deplorable males on hand. The scumbag "Dad" Newell (Will Wright) is an opportunistic bottom feeder and one of the most manipulative of noir lowlifes. The pleasant front desk attendant has the right idea when she brushes him off early in the film. Eddie Harwood may be having an affair, but that is not necessarily why his wife ran away from him. Clearly Eddie has more than his share of baggage. His business partner Leo (Don Costello) serves as Eddie's bookkeeper, but perhaps not his best friend; Leo implies Eddie factored in the murder of a man named Quinlan. One gets the feeling Leo would not be above using that information to his advantage. Similarly, Helen reminds Eddie she could make him pay for his past when he lived on the East Coast under an alternate identity. Supporting characters that seem to have emerged from under a rock include the thugs (Frank Faylen and Walter Sande) who recommend a nearby flophouse after Johnny is turned away from a more respectable establishment. The off-the-beaten-path hotel is managed by Corelli (Howard Freeman), who operates on the same level as the creeps who bring in Johnny. Then there is the more complex case of Buzz Wanchek, who seems to have a problem with everyone, as when he repeatedly disrespects a "copper" for no apparent reason. The post-traumatic stress case's disdain for "monkey music," a term with obviously insensitive connotations, is at odds with his deep affection for the well-being of his friend Johnny. The war has converted Buzz into a divided personality, protective and sweet at times, needlessly aggressive on other occasions. The theme of multiple identities, a frequent noir bullet point, extends to Johnny (Jimmy Moore) and Eddie Harwood (Bauer), who both out of self-preservation assume new identities.




THE BLUE DAHLIA was the first and only produced original screenplay from the noted crime novelist Chandler, a WWI veteran whose experiences in combat no doubt informed his written work. While writing THE BLUE DAHLIA, the well-known hard drinker's creative process surely was sacrificial to his health according to the memoirs of producer John Houseman. Chandler struggled mightily in his attempt to finish his screenplay as the director George Marshall began filming the work in progress. Because Marshall was catching up to Chandler, the writer felt he would have to abandon the studio environment and immerse himself in the bottle at home to finish the script. Though working from home was atypical of the Hollywood process, the plan resulted in the screenplay's completion and Chandler's second Academy Award nomination (the first was for DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944]). The film's conclusion differs from Chandler's original treatment; according to the author, censors did not like the idea of a veteran being responsible for the murder of Helen. Chandler was not a fan of Marshall, who introduced other changes into the original script.

A faithful adaptation of the written material or not, THE BLUE DAHLIA received positive notices and performed well at the box office, perhaps in part due to its final scene that opposes much of the pessimism that precedes it. Johnny and Joyce, both victims of mates who strayed from them, will be afforded a second chance as the story concludes. Both strong people, the two appear to have a good chance to make a go of it together. After THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942) and THE GLASS KEY (1942), THE BLUE DAHLIA was the third film to feature Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. They would team up once more for SAIGON (1948).

Now available on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc from Shout! Factory as part of their SHOUT SELECT product line, this edition of THE BLUE DAHLIA looks far superior to the Universal DVD rendition issued in 2012 under the Turner Classic Movies Vault Collection stamp. Though the packaging announces framing at 1.33:1, the new scan is framed at 1.36:1, which is a much closer approximation of the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The crispness of this excellent HD transfer compared to the DVD from 2012 is easy enough to appreciate in the following screen captures.

Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Universal DVD

The supplemental material adds considerable value to this Shout! Factory release. The audio commentary track with film historians Alan K. Rode and Steve Mitchell is one of the best recordings I've heard from a preparedness standpoint, even though it never sounds overly rehearsed. Rode is especially good as he challenges some of the myths surrounding the film's colorful history, especially in regard to producer Houseman's perhaps self-serving account of Chandler's screenwriting endeavors that supposedly threatened the production schedule. Rode says Houseman's recollections do not withstand scrutiny very well. For instance, Rode has found no evidence to confirm Marshall ever approached a point in the production when he was out of screenplay to film. Chandler's claim that he was forced to alter his planned conclusion for his script due to pressure from the U.S. Navy could not be substantiated by Rode either, and the notion that the studio had to rush THE BLUE DAHLIA to completion before its star Alan Ladd had to return to the service makes no sense; there already were multiple Ladd vehicles in the can at the time.

On a rather depressing scale, Rode reveals unflattering details about Veronica Lake, particularly in regard to her questionable professionalism on the set. According to his review of THE BLUE DAHLIA's shooting schedule, her featured scenes required many takes, which suggests the actress was ill at ease with her dialog. Chandler derisively labeled her "Moronica" because he felt she only maintained credibility as an actress through silence. Lake developed a reputation of being difficult to work with, and her later years were accelerated by heavy drug and alcohol abuse. She died of hepatitis at the age of 50 in 1973. Her ashes went unclaimed for three years at a funeral home.

Another welcome bonus feature of this Shout! Factory edition is The Screen Guild Theater's radio broadcast of THE BLUE DAHLIA (28m 27s), which originally aired April 21, 1949, with Ladd and Lake in their original film characters. This greatly condensed version of the film is marred by audio hum, but is understandable for the most part; just be ready to crank the volume. The radio episode’s sponsor Camel motivates the listener to enjoy their smooth brand of healthier cigarettes—quite a hoot to hear today. The remaining supplements include a theatrical trailer (2m 31s) and a very extensive photo gallery (5m).


This healthy Blu-ray disc must be considered one of the year's most important classic film reissues.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (1950)

Twentieth Century Fox, 81m 40s


After the conclusion of World War II, the divorce rate increased dramatically in the US. That trend was reflected in the noir films of the time, when characters who found happiness within the bond of the traditional marriage were few. The married couples that inhabit DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), CONFLICT (1945), SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and POSSESSED (1947) do not combine for a strong case that there is a lifelong partner for everyone. The featured protagonists who kick married life to the curb typically meet some type of correction, yet it is understandable why they stray. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) from DOUBLE INDEMNITY might be noir's most destructive femme fatale, but her husband (Tom Powers) is a domineering jerk who does not deserve much better than the scheming blonde he married. And who could blame poor little Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) for wanting out of his hopelessly suffocating situation in SCARLET STREET?

Released toward the end of 1950, when divorces in the US had decreased significantly, THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF reflects an emerging era of American marital stability. In recognition of old battle scars, though, the story opens with the horribly disrupted marriage of the Frazers. Howard (Harlan Warde) plans to kill his rich bitch of a wife Lois (Jane Wyatt), but she puts a pair of bullets in him before he can follow through on the idea. The killing puts an end to "three years of misery" as Lois depicts it. Immediately after the fatal shooting of her husband, Lois leans on her boyfriend Lieutenant Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb) to fix everything, which means getting rid of Howard's punctured corpse and making it look like a robbery gone wrong. Unlike numerous noir protagonists who hesitate before taking a moral detour, Ed shows no such conscience as he springs into action to protect his girlfriend from a probable prison stretch.

Unfortunately for Ed, his younger brother Andy (John Dall) recently has been promoted to the homicide division, where the two will work side by side. The rookie is eager to prove his worth, and what better way than to solve the strange case of a lifeless body discovered at the airport? As Andy gradually closes in on his shady sibling without realizing it, similar dynamics from classic film noirs are recalled, including the archetypal DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944) and especially WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), which was released earlier in the same year as THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF. Other similar setups would follow in SCANDAL SHEET (1952) and SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954). Most Hollywood films endeavor to draw the viewer closer to the lead protagonist as the narrative progresses. But in the case of the film noir, especially the ones of the aforementioned ecosystem, the viewer must detach himself or herself from the lead character. The only satisfaction comes from knowing we are not in that person's lamentable position.




Andy differs from his brother Ed in more ways than his experience as a homicide investigator. Most importantly, the film's first act reveals Andy is about to be married, while Ed is characterized as a confirmed bachelor. The closer Andy becomes with Janet (Lisa Howard), the more he distances himself from his brother. Similarly, the prototypical housewife Janet is the antithesis of the femme fatale Lois, who is working on husband number three at the film's outset (the narrative wraps with Lois headed in still another direction). The wife/whore dichotomy reflects the heavy line drawn between the married man and the uncommitted single man.

Ed may be doomed from the very beginning based upon his choice for a girlfriend; a variety of film noirs make that general point. But on another, perhaps more meaningful level, the production team behind THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF emphasizes Ed's lack of commitment, which is what really seals his fate. Those who know him best regard him as a bit of a player. When Ed meets clandestinely with Lois on a park bench, he admits he has no plans to marry her, and (correctly) has no doubt she someday will leave him. The theme of the uncommitted man as condemned is integrated into the film's title, which nicely summarizes Ed's inflexible position on matrimony. Right after Andy catches his brother in a game-changing lie, the following segment shows Andy with his wife at home, where the contrast between the bachelor and the married guy finds emphasis. Moreover, it is the married woman Janet who inadvertently makes Ed aware he must fulfill some sort of obligation to Lois, which properly ignites the film's final act. Lois is a femme fatale alright, but like so many women of her ilk, she requires a deeply flawed male for her darkest qualities to rise. As long as there are men willing to play along—and for attractive women, there always are—it seems axiomatic to assume Lois never will change. Ed likely will not change either; almost exactly like Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Ed desires the wrong woman even after she betrays him!





THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF was the first independent production from Phoenix Films, the company run by Jack M. Warner, son of famous Warner Bros. boss Jack L. Warner. It was written for the screen by Seton I. Miller and Philip MacDonald, based on an original story by Miller. The son of MGM sales executive Felix F. Feist (1884-1936), director Felix E. Feist helmed two of the more riveting noirs of the late 1940s, THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947) and THE THREAT (1949), both released by RKO Radio Pictures. The year after THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF he directed TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY (1951), one of the great couple-on-the-run noirs. Six-time Academy Award nominee Russell Harlan also handled the cinematography for the same year's GUN CRAZY, a top-3 film noir in my estimation. Amidst the San Francisco-based location footage, there is a rooftop chase sequence that anticipates the work of that city's most famous movie detective, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) of the venerable DIRTY HARRY (1971) series. In another location shot, camera work from the back seat of a vehicle announces kinship with GUN CRAZY. The suspenseful concluding sequence filmed at Fort Point is one of the most memorable settings in which any noir film winds down, thanks largely to Harlan's camerawork.

Jane Wyatt won three Emmys for her popular role as Margaret Anderson, the matriarch of the 1950s TV series FATHER KNOWS BEST. Her performance in this film has come to the consternation of some of film noir's dedicated fans. I agree her Lois is not among the most iconic of noir bad girls, but her performance does not bother me at all. It is always a treat to watch the work of Lee J. Cobb, who was just sensational as the despicable yet ultimately sympathetic Juror #3 in 12 ANGRY MEN (1957). John Dall always manages to add something to every production in which he appears, though he remains best remembered for his reluctant criminal in GUN CRAZY.




Flicker Alley's dual-layered Blu-ray/DVD combo release of THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF marks the third collaboration between Flicker Alley and the Film Noir Foundation (the other two being TOO LATE FOR TEARS [1949] and WOMAN ON THE RUN [1950]). Framed at the correct theatrical scope of 1.37:1, the restoration is the result of the combined efforts of the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive. Though undoubtedly the best-looking version of the film on home video to date, the source material looks a bit washed out on occasion, as when Andy drives his new bride around San Fran.

Supplements include the featurette “The Man Who Cheated Himself:  Revisited” (21m 44s), which brings together the thoughts of the director's son Raymond Feist, along with film historians Alan K. Rode, Eddie Muller and Julie Kirgo. Feist explains his father often was handed material that was in some state of distress, and would have to make something out of next to nothing. In the case of THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF, the filmmaker Feist was able to churn out a profitable film on a $300K budget. Kirgo adds that Feist had to complete all location footage in five days, an absurdly brief time period for such a task. Muller mentions the three leads all were playing against type to some degree. He also tells the sad story of supporting actress Lisa Howard, who was married to the film's director at the time of filming (it was their second marriage). Post-Hollywood, Howard would become an influential political and news journalist only to see her career flounder. She was just 39 when she chose to take her own life.

The brief segment “The Man Who Cheated Himself:  The Movie Locations Then and Now” (6m 56s) presents a number of the filming locations as they appear today. For additional San Francisco locations from notable classic films, the viewer is encouraged to visit reelsf.com. The only other bonus feature is a restored theatrical trailer (2m 13s, vimeo.com/276516403).

Within the disc's packaging is an unusually sturdy booklet packed with behind-the-scenes photographs, poster art, original lobby cards, and the writing of Eddie Muller.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

DEADLINE - U.S.A. (1952)

Twentieth Century Fox, 87m 16s


An intriguing newspaper drama with a message about media convergence that remains relevant today, DEADLINE - U.S.A. was written and directed by Richard Brooks, who once freelanced for various newspapers. His original screen story "The Night the World Folded" has its roots in the history of the WORLD, a newspaper once controlled by Joseph Pulitzer. In 1931, Pulitzer's heirs elected to sell the WORLD to Roy W. Howard of the Scripps-Howard chain. The end result was the closure of the WORLD, with its large staff thrown out of work.

The trusted newspaper at the center of DEADLINE - U.S.A. is called THE DAY. It employs 1,500 people and has a readership of almost 300,000. Despite those impressive numbers, THE DAY is living on borrowed time. The revered man who owned and operated it was John Garrison, who passed away 11 years ago. Now his heirs want to sell THE DAY to its major competitor THE STANDARD, a less-distinguished publication that favors yellow journalism and boasts double the circulation. The pending sale infuriates THE DAY's respected managing editor Ed Hutcheson, who obstinately clings to his ethical foundation at a time of fading idealism. According to Hutcheson, the journalism trade, "...may not be the oldest profession, but it's the best."

The competition

THE DAY

In a statement that seems unthinkable today, Hutcheson claims his newspaper has no allegiance to any political party. A true public servant, Hutcheson is a man steadfastly dedicated to his profession. He represents journalism for what it always was intended, not what it has mutated into at inferior news organizations more concerned about profits than public service. After his reporter George Burrows (Warren Stevens) is treated very harshly by thugs, Hutcheson vows to nail Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel), reputed kingpin of the underworld and the man behind the attack that lands Burrows in a hospital bed. Rienzi alertly goes into defense mode, and it becomes clear he will not go down easily. In a thematically crucial sequence, Hutcheson proves he is completely unwilling to play ball with Rienzi, who has grown accustomed to buying off everyone who could become a problem to him. Everyone has an "angle" according to Rienzi, but Hutcheson's undying principles defy that logic.

DEADLINE - U.S.A. is not a film noir in the usual sense of the flawed lead protagonist whose errant choices magnetically attract the hand of fate. The only potential flaw of Hutcheson involves the imbalance of his professional and personal demands. His deadline-oriented professional life persistently trumps his private world; most all of his conversations are interrupted as his chosen trade shadows him 24/7. No wonder he was incompatible in marriage to Nora (Kim Hunter), with whom he would like to make amends. Hardly a man characterized by the dark impulses associated with the classic noir protagonist, he nonetheless is enveloped by a complex noir city that threatens to marginalize his existence. Perhaps there is no proper place for traditional journalism if the majority of urban readers prefer sensational headlines over objective reporting. More to the point, maybe a person need not do anything wrong to be squeezed out of his or her rightful role in society. Hutcheson always seems to make the right choices as a managing editor, but the noirish big city of DEADLINE - U.S.A. makes no allowances for the virtuous. After an impassioned courtroom plea from Hutcheson for the preservation of THE DAY and the healthy competition it provides its rivals, a judge rules in favor of the sale. Despite the imminent demise of THE DAY, the film concludes with a call for the continuity of the press as a public necessity, no matter the cost. To a modern American audience, that message is doomed to fall on mostly skeptical ears in a nation of consolidated news organizations that cater to advertisers, special interests and inflexibly partisan positions.





Some of the characters who populate the urban scene reflect standard film noir sensibilities, especially since rampant alcoholism appears to impact a broad sample of people. The pathetic character Herman Schmidt (Joe De Santis) describes how he sold out his sister (Ann McCrea), who was beaten to death and dumped in a river. Her lifeless body was found in a mink coat, the insignia of the gangster moll. On a related level, Rienzi's thugs are able to impersonate policemen and eliminate a potential witness who, in one of the most gruesome of all noir murders, is flattened when he falls into a printing press! Not the most subtle of imagery when it comes to the film's position on the dark, distinctly urban forces that threaten "an honest, fearless press." When questioned about why he could not differentiate cops from criminals, Frank Allen (Ed Begley) tellingly replies, "In this town?" The greatest danger to the city is embodied by the gangster Rienzi. He says he is in the cement and contracting trades, but in truth he is connected to far more than that. Rienzi is a powerful underworld figure who attempts to influence elections, and he maintains ties to the boxing commission (a sure sign of corruption). Though his poor grammar choices allude to a low level of education, he maintains top-notch advisers within an organization that mimics the structure of a legitimate business machine. More of a cancer to society than ever before, the 1950s-era gangster has progressed markedly since the days of depression-era bootlegging. According to this film, his most resourceful opponent is the free press.

DEADLINE - U.S.A. is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, and is a "classic film noir" according to the packaging. The transfer looks more than serviceable to my perception, with limited artifacts as framed at 1.33:1. It is an obvious must-own for fans of Bogart, but also should be coveted for its distinguished roster of supporting players that includes Kim Hunter, Ed Begley, Paul Stewart and Jim Backus. Ethel Barrymore casts a strong impression in every scene in which she appears, especially during a dramatic courtroom segment. Prior to the production of DEADLINE - U.S.A., cinematographer Milton R. Krasner advanced the film noir movement with an incredibly extensive credit list that includes some of the finest films of the genre, i.e. THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), SCARLET STREET (1945), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), THE SET-UP (1949), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) and NO WAY OUT (1950). Director Brooks makes laudable use of the frame's foreground, middle ground and background to create a consistently convincing illusion of depth that compliments the cinematography nicely.




The audio commentary track belongs to noted film noir historian Eddie Muller, who out of the gate claims in no way shape or form is DEADLINE - U.S.A. representative of the film noir genre. However, he later mentions the film was screened at one of his noir festivals. That contradiction speaks to the difficulty of discussing the film from a genre standpoint. DEADLINE - U.S.A. was released in 1952, when the noir film already was showing evidence of decline. Stylized sets had been replaced by the documentary realism movement that called for location work. I completely understand Muller's viewpoint, though I do think the pervasiveness of distinctly urban problems places the film at least on the borderline of noir territory. The other factor is the presence of Humphrey Bogart, whose watery-looking eyes always look hung-over, on the verge of defeat. His health may have contributed to his appearance and reportedly crude behavior on the set.

The Kino Lorber disc includes trailers for DEADLINE - U.S.A. (2m 45s), THE CAPTIVE CITY (1952, 2m 49s) and SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954, 1m 45s).

Sunday, August 19, 2018

CONFLICT (1945) and ESCAPE IN THE FOG (1945)



CONFLICT (1945)
Warner Bros., 86m
Format: 35mm

ESCAPE IN THE FOG (1945)
Columbia Pictures Corporation, 65m
Format: 35mm

NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2018
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 17th, 2018 to Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

Host Eddie Muller introduced CONFLICT and ESCAPE IN THE FOG yesterday afternoon to kick off the weekend of film noir titles at NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2018. This year's theme is the reinstatement of the double feature, which means a proper A title is followed by a B selection.


Filmed in 1943, though released theatrically in June of 1945 due to an original story rights dispute, the formative film noir CONFLICT falls somewhere between the genre's emergence and its classic cycle. In what would soon become a noir cliché (if it had not already), the opening credits are accompanied by rainfall. Five years of marriage have taken a toll on Richard Mason (Humphrey Bogart) and Kathryn Mason (Rose Hobart), who bicker in the opening segment. Kathryn accuses her husband of having a thing for her attractive younger sister Evelyn Turner (Alexis Smith), and Richard quickly agrees! After an evening hosted by family friend Dr. Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet), a talkative headshrinker, Richard gets into a car accident with both sisters aboard. The women fare better than Richard, who is left with a leg fracture after a surreal dream sequence fertilizes his darkest impulses.

Marital discord strikes a sour note in some of the most famous of film noirs, such as DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and SCARLET STREET (1945), to name just several. The presence of the crippled man—Richard in this case—is an important interrelated motif. Wheelchairs, canes and crutches assist such men who cannot or will not find a healthy release for sexual energy. The car crash coincides with a trip inside Richard's warped mind and marks a major turning point with no way back. His internal conflicts become externalized, and the wife he no longer loves will not be in the way much longer, or so he thinks.

The application of psychoanalysis would become a fixture of 1940s Hollywood cinema, and was particularly prevalent in the noir production, with its focus so often on the mental anguish of its lead protagonist. CONFLICT was among the first noir narratives to exploit the theme, followed by many others such as THE DARK MIRROR (1946), SHOCK (1946), NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) and THE DARK PAST (1948). Richard plans the murder of his wife cleverly enough to avoid prosecution through traditional police investigation work, but psychology is used to disorient him, to make an already unstable personality increasingly more brittle. In yet another theme that would work its way into various film noirs, Richard is forced to question whether his wife is really dead or if he is going insane. Such confusion between the living and the dead is associated more commonly with the horror film, in many ways the noir film's closest cousin. In its resolution, CONFLICT sounds the alarm for the union of police procedure with psychoanalysis.

Director Curtis Bernhardt would add to his film noir credentials with POSSESSED (1947) and HIGH WALL (1947). Cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad had shot THE UNKNOWN (1927), a fantastic silent horror film. The screenplay was written by Arthur T. Horman and Dwight Taylor. Source material is credited to the original story THE PENTACLE by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann. Humphrey Bogart would return to similar grounds in THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947), where he again would portray a man who prefers the Alexis Smith character over his wife.


CONFLICT is available on DVD via Warner Archive and should be added to all film noir collections.


The B portion of the double feature was ESCAPE IN THE FOG, released the same year as CONFLICT, but without the heavy dose of film noir themes and motifs to be found in its A partner. The bottom half of the double feature is a forgettable espionage thriller, with too many improbabilities for its own good. It is mainly notable for being an early directorial effort from Budd Boetticher (credited here as Oscar Boetticher Jr.). Boetticher would helm a couple of proper noirs in the future:  BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948) and THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956). By his own admission, ESCAPE IN THE FOG is evidence of a filmmaker learning his trade on the job.

As our host Muller pointed out, screenwriter Aubrey Wisberg had a knack for grinding out wartime B scripts, with credits that include THEY CAME TO BLOW UP AMERICA (1943), U-BOAT PRISONER (1944) and BETRAYAL FROM THE EAST (1945). Lead actress Nina Foch would grace us with her presence in some of the better film noirs of the decade:  MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), JOHNNY O'CLOCK (1947) and THE DARK PAST (1948). Top-billed Otto Kruger (SABOTEUR [1942]) has precious little screen time. Shelley Winters jumps out at the viewer in an early uncredited role as a cab driver.


ESCAPE IN THE FOG is available on DVD from Sony Pictures.

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).