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.

Monday, February 27, 2017

KISS OF DEATH (1947)

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 98m 59s


With the calm voice of a female narrator, the opening sequence of director Henry Hathaway's KISS OF DEATH is designed to make the viewer identify with Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) on Christmas Eve in New York City. The 29-year-old ex-con Bianco has a list of robberies to his credit and, consequently, no job opportunities in the legitimate business world. But Christmas gifts matter to criminals too, especially someone like Bianco with two young daughters (Iris Mann and Marilee Grassini) to consider. Naturally his jewel heist goes poorly, with Bianco halted by police gunfire. In a further attempt to play on the sympathies of the viewing audience, a sense of genetic destiny is hardwired when the narrator explains Bianco saw his father shot to death by cops. A bad guy with a good heart, Bianco has that steadfast moral code that so often guides the film noir protagonist, and he refuses to play ball with Assistant D.A. Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy). But the noir hand of fate is on Bianco when he is sentenced the same day as Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark's incredible debut), a giggling psychotic who would not give D'Angelo "...the skin off a grape." While serving his stretch, Bianco receives some horrible news and turns to D'Angelo for help. After three years of incarceration, he is now ready to "squeal" in the interest of family.



From the early moments, the narrative is structured over a liberal ideological foundation. D'Angelo recognizes the worth of Bianco, whose love for his children elevates his status above that of the common criminal who theoretically cares only about himself. "I'm the kind of a guy you can't hurt," Bianco declares, but this is a front. He cares more about his daughters than anything. Similarity is stressed between Bianco and Udo, our lead protagonist's suppressed dark half, only to create separation between the two later. Initially they are imprisoned together, even handcuffed together. Where Udo is a self-centered man who gives no thought to the wants and needs of others, Bianco is a father who must maintain a bond with his little children and devoted housewife figure Nettie (Coleen Gray, THE KILLING [1956]). Bianco is also a far better man than his slimy attorney Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes), who summons the likes of Udo to perform dirty work. Ultimately the film's progressive trappings are challenged by Bianco's moral compass, which remains intact from start to finish. Like so many moral but flawed protagonists we have witnessed since KISS OF DEATH, he must bend the rules for the greater good since the criminal justice system proves unable to contain demented sociopaths like Udo. In the film's concluding sequence, Bianco essentially assumes heroic qualities, able to survive multiple gunshots from close range.




Certainly one of the best-entitled film noirs, KISS OF DEATH was influential in terms of its location filming and character archetypes. Nick Bianco has his precursor in Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) from THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), a formative film noir whose central character, a contract killer, finds redemption before the credits roll. I am not a huge fan of Victor Mature, but his controlled performance as Bianco holds up well today, especially upon repeat viewings. Mature is particularly effective whenever his character faces renewed pressure. Obviously the more influential performance was that of Richard Widmark, whose lunatic hood Tommy Udo would be channeled in countless gangster films that would follow KISS OF DEATH. Despite a borderline over-the-top turn from Widmark, it is easy to see where even more could have been done with the role of Udo. A fair amount of suspense is created in regard to the safety of Bianco's daughters with Udo loose on the streets, but the girls are never confronted directly by Udo; the potential encounter merely is suggested. Some missed opportunity aside, the Udo character is no less than a film noir legend of criminal evil. He shows no respect for the values of civilized society. His inclination toward violence is well illustrated when he delivers one of the great movie slaps of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck recognized Widmark's emerging star power and encouraged the actor to recreate his role in the subsequent Fox productions THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948) and ROAD HOUSE (1948).




Despite a deliberate attempt by the production team to imbue KISS OF DEATH with a heavy dose of location-based authenticity, stylized film noir visual tropes and themes dutifully inform the well-paced action. A sense of Bianco's entrapment is communicated in the early going when he and his cohorts sweat it out in an elevator, surrounded by potential problems to their escape. The entrapment theme logically transitions into a prison setting, with both Bianco and Nettie framed in terms of either vertical bars or the intricate web of a textile plant. By the film's third act, director of photography Norbert Brodine's compositions become much darker, with Bianco and Udo sometimes oppressed by their environments. Interestingly, some of the most unambiguously noir images feature Bianco in his own home, where the traditional family setting shows incompatibility within the boundaries of the film noir (this common noir theme is explored in depth by Sylvia Harvey in her excellent article “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir” [WOMEN IN FILM NOIR, E. Ann Kaplan, Ed., 1978]). When Bianco checks on the safety of his daughters, one realizes the magnificent film noir THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) owes something to KISS OF DEATH. In a later sequence, darkness threatens Bianco, who awaits the unpredictable rage of Udo. In terms of locations, Sing Sing Penitentiary, a boxing arena, a bordello and various night clubs provide essential noir terrain. Another familiar noir motif is the staircase, which frequently is associated with peril, as seen in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951) and SUDDEN FEAR (1952), just to name a few examples. Without question, KISS OF DEATH contains the mother of all treacherous noir stairways!






The Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray (3,000 units) is worth the premium price for the packaging alone, which highlights the classic film's most infamous event. Framed at 1.33:1, the feature presentation is the result of a sturdy HD transfer that displays strong contrast levels and deep blacks. The main audio tracks include English 2.0 DTS-HD MA and an English 1.0 DTS-HD MA option. Ported from the Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD released in 2005 is the audio commentary track with film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini, who have worked together on numerous studies devoted to film noir, most notably FILM NOIR: AN ENCYCLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE, first published in 1979, and the FILM NOIR READER series (1996-2004). The authors cite director Henry Hathaway as the architect behind the "docu-noir" style. Hathaway's THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), 13 RUE MADELEINE (1946) and KISS OF DEATH all make extensive use of location footage. An opening title card claims the film was shot entirely on location, though Silver and Ursini provide the amendment that the climactic shootout was shot on a Fox soundstage after the original location footage that took place on a bus did not pan out. Ursini identifies the high-key lighting typical of location-based docudrama that gives way to low-key lighting in tune with the storyline's noir sensibilities. The author also references various layers of Christian symbolism that he credits to co-screenwriter Ben Hecht. Ursini also mentions that Hathaway violence tends to be on the graphic side, i.e. THE DARK CORNER (1946), CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948). Hathaway was a volatile personality by reputation, though according to the authors he had a talent for subtle staging as well. Another good line of analysis from Silver and Ursini is the use of jazz music that fills sections of this noir city. Such locales may be alien to middle class whites, but not to the film noir protagonists in this film and other genre examples such as PHANTOM LADY (1944), CRISS CROSS (1949) and D.O.A. (1950).

A fresh audio commentary was recorded in December of 2016 for this new Blu-ray disc. This track features Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and Twilight Time co-owner Nick Redman teamed with Twilight Time essayist Julie Kirgo, herself a contributor to the must-own FILM NOIR: AN ENCYCLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE. Kirgo places film noir within the context of a post-war, post-nuclear society mired in uncertainty. I was glad to hear her speak of film noir as a genre; I never have bought into the notion that film noir is something other than a genre (i.e. "mood," "tone," "style"). Kirgo discusses the Udo character's influence on Frank Gorshin, who modeled his Riddler's laugh after Udo for the TV series Batman (1966-1967), while Redman suggests the possibility that Widmark drew inspiration from the psychopathic villain The Joker, who DC Comics introduced in 1940. As one would expect, there is some duplication between the new commentary track and the one from Silver and Ursini, but similar observations are kept to a minimum. The Redman/Kirgo track is more descriptive than historical, not that the two voices do not pack plenty of background information into their discussion. Kirgo jokingly makes repeated references to the babysitter angle—were the film contemporary, assuredly more would have been made about when the flame began to burn between Bianco and Nettie! The other supplements include an isolated music track, the original theatrical trailer (2m 20s), a Twilight Time catalogue selectable by year (2011-2017) and a booklet essay from Kirgo.

KISS OF DEATH was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Widmark) and Best Writing, Original Story (Eleazar Lipsky). The Hathaway classic was retooled as the Western THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST (1958). The original noir title returned for director Barbet Schroeder's worthwhile 1995 remake, which starred David Caruso, Samuel L. Jackson and Nicolas Cage. The screenwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer also combined for the fine film noir RIDE THE PINK HORSE, released the same year as their original KISS OF DEATH.



Friday, February 10, 2017

SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

RKO Radio Pictures, 111m 11s


The femme fatale gets the majority of credit for the most deceitful behavior in film noir, but the homme fatale portrayed by Jack Palance in SUDDEN FEAR deserves special mention. One of this noir classic’s highlights is a masterfully-staged sequence when Palance’s phony Lester Blaine wants to prove his honor to his significant other. Through the darkest distillation of deception, he stages an imaginary departure, as if he were going to run out on the wealthy playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) without any prior discussion. In an award-worthy performance, Blaine explains he does not deserve Hudson:  "I have no place in your life, Myra, no proper place...I don't belong to your world. You have so much. I have nothing." Hudson falls for it and Blaine seals the deal. He has found his meal ticket.



Early in the narrative, Blaine's acting chops and unconventional looks have far less impact on Hudson, who does not feel Blaine is the proper man for her latest Broadway production "Half-way to Heaven." Later Hudson and Blaine meet on a train bound for Chicago. After a somewhat awkward reconnection, the two become friendly and enjoy each other's company while playing cards. Their difference in class amounts to a huge red flag:  Blaine is the son of a Pittsburg coal miner, while Hudson has never known anything but wealth and success. Though still smarting from being fired from his role in her play, Blaine follows the heiress Hudson to her hometown of San Francisco, where a love story between the two intensifies. Unfortunately for Hudson, the noir element of fate has drawn her to Blaine, who the viewer senses cares only about her financial statement.

Given the manner in which the plot is set up, it comes as no surprise when Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame), the woman of Blaine's past, slithers onto the scene. Director David Miller leaves little to conjecture about the nature of the relationship between Neves and Blaine, which is based on rough sex. In a classic film noir series of events, Neves arrives unexpectedly and threatens Blaine's relationship with Hudson. Blaine pushes Neves around, but such behavior only excites her! Blaine closes her apartment door so their physical connection may continue off-screen. Clearly Neves is not a woman who prefers cuddling, and Blaine is her ideal counterpart. "I'm so crazy about you, I could break your bones," Blaine assures Neves, who would not have it any other way.




One of the film's great ironies is the recordings captured by Hudson's dictating machine, which reveal both her selfless love for her worthless husband and the plotting of her demise. The dictating machine also infers a close association between sex, brutality and death. That is quite a sordid implication, and a dramatic turning point for Hudson, who finds herself forced to prove she can out-act Blaine, who must continue his own performance. The tension builds steadily as Hudson hopes her abilities as a dramatist translate to the unpredictable film noir world. SUDDEN FEAR concludes with a very satisfying chase sequence, well complemented by the convincing performances by the leads, an inconvenient mechanical dog and the pulse-quickening score of Elmer Bernstein.

Film noir themes and motifs within SUDDEN FEAR should be spotted by fans of the genre without much trouble. Mirrors are used to show the hidden truth, as when Hudson's lawyer Steve Kearney (Bruce Bennett) appears worried about Blaine's motivations, or when Blaine is shown scheming behind his wife's back. Often the elaborate staircase suggests danger in the noir film, or it implies one character's superiority over another. Both motifs come up in SUDDEN FEAR, though more imaginatively than one might expect. The film's most precipitous steps do not factor in the narrative as foreshadowed, and the one moment of bodily injury associated with a staircase is faked. Thanks in part to his turn as Blackie in the sublime PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), the presence of Jack Palance around Joan Crawford's character near any of the various stairways always raises concern for her safety. Even if you are not a fan of film noir, consider SUDDEN FEAR a persistently engaging suspense thriller.







The Myra Hudson character may not have needed another hit play, but Joan Crawford had just left Warner Bros. and sought a commercial success as a freelance artist. The Joseph Kaufmann Productions feature SUDDEN FEAR performed well at the box office for its distributor RKO. My first look at this film noir gem was by way of the Kino Video DVD released in 1999. Despite an absence of extras and a mediocre presentation at best, the obvious quality of the feature film elevated the disc to one of my most prized possessions in my rapidly expanding film noir collection. Naturally I was excited to boot up the new Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray edition. This 2K restoration, presented on a dual-layered disc framed at 1.37:1, looks a little hazy in motion, especially in comparison to the top film noirs available thus far from Warner Archive and The Criterion Collection. No matter; any improvement over the lackluster DVD is certainly welcome, and the difference between the new Blu-ray and the old DVD is easy to appreciate.

Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray

Kino Video DVD

The audio commentary track recorded for this Blu-ray release features film historian Jeremy Arnold, author of TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES: THE ESSENTIALS: 52 MUST-SEE MOVIES AND WHY THEY MATTER (2016). Arnold offers plenty of detail about the humble beginnings of Lucille Fay LeSueur and her emergence as Hollywood star Joan Crawford, who essentially served as the executive producer of SUDDEN FEAR. Arnold references prior treatments of the script that were improved upon for the final revision, and he also discusses the original novel by Edna Sherry, which differs from the adaptation devised by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith. Without giving too much away for the uninitiated, the source material concludes much differently than the movie. Crawford was so impressed with the novel that she agreed to a 40% profit-sharing deal, which resulted in a $1 million take for the veteran actress. The only other supplement is a re-release trailer (1m 20s).

SUDDEN FEAR earned four Academy Award nominations in 1953, including Best Actress in a Leading Role (Crawford), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Palance), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Charles Lang) and Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (Sheila O'Brien). Cinematographer Lang also shot ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and THE BIG HEAT (1953), two of the essential film noirs of the early 1950s. Other women-in-peril films helmed by director David Miller include TWIST OF FATE (AKA BEAUTIFUL STRANGER, 1954) and MIDNIGHT LACE (1960).