Thursday, January 31, 2019

NOTORIOUS (1946)

RKO Radio Pictures, 101m 37s


Professional obligations interfere with private lives in NOTORIOUS, a supremely constructed espionage thriller directed by Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock. Set in the crosscurrents of post-WWII, the story opens in Miami, Florida, where Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is in attendance when her father is sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment for treason. The German expatriate Alicia has earned a reputation as a party girl, though she probably drinks to escape the family connection she detests. At one of her social gatherings she encounters the enigmatic T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), who only later reveals he is a U.S. intelligence agent who knows quite a bit about her.

Hitchcock never blames Alicia for anything she does or does not do—he seems to be on her side from the beginning. Devlin is introduced as the heel, although any sensible man would have to give pause about Alicia after her reckless evening of drunk driving. This disturbing display of impaired decision-making appears to corroborate what Devlin already had suspected:  she is a lush who can be manipulated. In a moment that sets up much of what ensues, the sequence ends on a disturbing note when Devlin smacks Alicia into submission. Devlin plans to recruit Alicia to infiltrate a group of Nazi industrialists in Brazil, and as fate would have it she is the ideal choice since one of the key Nazi figures is Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a longtime fan of the attractive (and much younger) Alicia. Though at first quite reluctant, Alicia accepts the undercover position after Devlin appeals to her concealed (though undeniable) sense of patriotism. In the operation's development phase, Alicia falls madly in love with Devlin, who appears rather ambivalent about their romantic relationship. Not unaware her emotions may be barreling down a one-way street, Alicia goes so far as to tell Devlin he does not love her. He does not challenge her opinion.





"I guess I'm the girl nobody remembers."
—Alicia Huberman

The film noir regularly reminds us of the difficulty, or even impossibility, of extricating oneself from a questionable past. Even in the very early stages of their connection, there is little doubt Alicia genuinely cares for Devlin, but he smugly looks down on her because of her past. Based on her history, at best he treats her like a woman who merits his caution, at worst he considers her a loose playgirl composed primarily of alcohol and erstwhile conquests. She even obliges his darkest thoughts on occasion, as when she mentions, "You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates." After that statement, Devlin condescendingly refers to her as “Mrs. Sebastian.” Devlin encourages Alicia to take dangerous undercover work and perform as required to make her assignment successful, then resents her for it. Devlin's detachment from his feelings for Alicia, and perhaps about women in general, probably was absorbed from his superior Captain Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), who also labels Alicia as “Mrs. Sebastian,” as if that were a name she would be pleased to hear. "Oh, I don't think any of us have any illusions about her character, have we Devlin?" declares Walter Beardsley (Moroni Olsen) with contempt. The intelligence men of NOTORIOUS embody an established patriarchal order built on inflexible notions about female archetypes. All of them anticipate the overly-confident psychiatrist from Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960), Dr. Fred Richman (Simon Oakland), who seems far too sure of himself.

As to Alicia's patriotic duty to which Devlin makes a powerful appeal, everything right for her country goes wrong for her personally. She cannot have the man she loves, while through professional obligation she marries the man she does not love. Alicia essentially becomes a prostitute pimped out by the intelligence boys. She even learns her true love is to be transferred to a new assignment in Spain, and by his own request! Only when during a meeting his colleagues speak ill of Alicia does Devlin provide definitive evidence he in fact harbors deep feelings for her. The film's conclusion grants Alicia a second chance after plenty of undeserved suffering, but the message that arrives with the ending is problematic from a gender studies perspective:  her redemption would not be possible without the love of an initially uncertain male. It is implied the flawed woman is worth preserving only if she can convince a man she is worthy of rescue. On a more global level, and more likely what was intended as the major takeaway from the director Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht (SPELLBOUND [1945], also starring Ingrid Bergman and directed by Hitch), healthy American love is posited as the cure for the sickness associated with the Nazi Party. At the same time, Devlin makes his departure from the sexist view of Alicia shared by his hardheaded colleagues.





In a multitude of ways, NOTORIOUS is a wonderfully complex romantic drama textured with suspenseful sequences that are pure Hitchcock. He always had a fascination with the subject of voyeurism, and frequently played off that theme in his most popular films. Such is the case with NOTORIOUS, in which Alicia is monitored from beginning to end. She is watched by reporters, intelligence operatives, a husband, a powerful matriarch, and of course by Hitchcock's camera, which always maintains sympathy for its supposedly "notorious" seductress. Only the eye of the lens is consistently accurate in the appraisal of Alicia. In spite of what has become the norm for the genre, Hitchcock proves the complicated spy thriller need not be confusing. If I were to be a little critical of what may seem beyond criticism, I wish Hitchcock were less reliant upon phony-looking rear projection scenes (this gripe could be aimed at a lot of his films). Another minor point of contention is the warp speed at which Alicia falls for Devlin, which seems unlikely for a woman of her experience and appearance (women with looks like Ingrid Bergman need not rush into anything with anyone). Those few reservations are more than made up for by the film's obvious technical accomplishments. After concern is registered about the placement of some wine bottles at a dinner sequence, the setup builds to the pivotal scene in the wine cellar with Alicia and Devlin. As the two somewhat unwittingly discover the contents of the mysterious wine bottles, the gripping power of the black & white cinematography is intoxicating. Another such moment transpires in the concluding shot that shows Alex reluctantly ascending the stairway to his front door, where his stern cohorts await with impossibly tough questions. It is difficult to imagine the film being as impactful, especially in its key movements, were it shot in color. Credit Hitchcock for sure, but also cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, who would go on to impress from the director's chair with the nightmarishly good film noir THE WINDOW (1949).




Though many may understandably consider NOTORIOUS an Alfred Hitchcock thriller foremost, it is also a film layered with visuals, themes and motifs that reflect the classic film noir cycle that was engaged fully at the time of this spy thriller's initial theatrical run. In regard to noir visual schemes, there is the implied significance carried by inanimate objects (wine bottles, a deadbolt and its key, a glass, coffee cups). When emphasized, these items exercise more control over a composition than people. Consider Alicia's drinking, which almost becomes her undoing when poison eventually substitutes for the alcoholic beverages that once defined her (at least to Devlin and his peers). Through focus on various containers of liquids, a connection between all of them is suggested. Then there is the drain in the wine cellar that works to implicate Alicia, who early in the story had alluded to her potential to go down the drain. The drinking motif takes on a subjective perspective when Alicia twice falls into a disoriented state, shared by the viewer through appropriate first-person camerawork. Early in the narrative, we share her hungover look at Devlin approaching her while she lies in bed, later we unravel with her in a hallucinatory segment that reflects her body's reaction to the poison she unknowingly consumed. Both sequences frame Alicia in uncertain terms psychologically and physically. From a noir sensibility, however, her position is familiar; a protagonist shaken by some dark force that cannot be reasoned with or undone.

Alicia may exhibit some of the traits of the noir femme fatale, but the resident spider woman of NOTORIOUS is not her. Instead that individual is Alex's coldly calculating mother Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin), who introduces herself to Alicia with a hard line of questioning about why she did not testify on her father's behalf. Alex's mother is wise to the potential of a spy in the house long before her son, but he defensively accuses her of long-term jealousy. As the plot deepens, Alex emerges as a villain with a severe mother complex. Alex visits his mother in her bedroom, confides in her, cries before her. It is Madame Sebastian who condemns Alicia to a mercilessly slow death by poisoning. The fixation on the mother as a controlling or even domineering figure is a recurrent theme throughout the work of Hitchcock, i.e. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and PSYCHO. One gets the suspicion under no circumstances could Alex take a wife without some sort of objection from the dominant woman in his life.

The absence of contentment found in the traditional marriage is one of the most recurrent of film noir themes. Prior to NOTORIOUS, unproductive marriages could be identified in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and SCARLET STREET (1945), just to name a few, and many other instances of toxic couples would emerge in the following years. Alicia marries Alex based on her perceived job requirements, not love. From his point of interest, he feels betrayed by the duplicitous nature of his wife, and understands all too well the probable consequences. "I must have been insane, mad—behaved like an idiot to believe in her with her clinging kisses," laments Alex. This existential moment of recognition has its commonality with a wide range of noir films that present characters who cannot comprehend the depths to which they have fallen. As if to erase any doubts about noir credentials, is there anything more noir than Alex's climactic march to certain doom within his own home? Alex trusts Alicia and gets a knife in his back, in contrast Devlin is skeptical about her for the bulk of the film before he recognizes her worth. Good or bad, film noir women are not easy to figure—each man is inaccurate in his initial assessment of Alicia. Ultimately skepticism about her is rewarded, and the man who believed in her the most, with the least information, is condemned. That lesson reflects the sort of entrenched patriarchal values upheld by the American spies; men never should walk blindly into a love affair. It is preferable to maintain some emotional distance, as featured men do in other Hitchcock efforts such as REBECCA (1940), REAR WINDOW (1954) and PSYCHO.

New to the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray, NOTORIOUS has received a much-anticipated 4K digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The result is undoubtedly one of the finest-looking restorations available of a revered black & white classic. The visual difference between the new Blu-ray, framed at the correct theatrical scope of 1.37:1, and the comparably cloudy Criterion DVD edition released in 2001 (squeezed to 1.33:1) can be appreciated via the two screen captures below (for an enlarged view, click on either image, then click back and forth on the appropriate images on the photo strip at the bottom).

Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion DVD

This dual-layered Blu-ray upgrade includes both of the audio commentary tracks from the Criterion DVD issued in 2001. The recording with film historian Rudy Behlmer first accompanied the Criterion Collection LaserDisc edition released in 1990. The author of MEMO FROM DAVID O. SELZNICK (1972), Behlmer tackles the film from an historical perspective. David O. Selznick wished to sell NOTORIOUS so he could direct his attention to the production of DUEL IN THE SUN (1946) starring Jennifer Jones (his eventual wife). RKO agreed to a $525K package, just the cash injection Selznick desired at the time. Budgeted at $2.375M, NOTORIOUS grossed $5M in the domestic market and $1.7M in the international arena. The impressive $2M profit was divided equally between Selznick and RKO. According to Behlmer, Selznick greatly influenced the final celluloid product, in particular the final act, which seems the best choice in comparison with the alternate concepts that were discarded. In his review of the production's history, Behlmer delivers a number of thoughtful analytical insights, in particular about how deceptive appearances are throughout the narrative. Everyday items have more importance than characters realize, crucial events are misinterpreted and people's feelings are misread. Behlmer's best observation is that the most effective Hitchcock sequences essentially constitute silent filmmaking. The commentary track recorded in 2001 features Alfred Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane, who employs a descriptive/analytical approach to the motion-picture subject. Keane demonstrates complete understanding of how to read a film, and she is particularly instructive about the meanings associated with blocking and camera movement. Her perceptions are certain to heighten the viewer's admiration for Hitchcock's mastery of the cinematic language. She describes much of the narrative as a battle for control fought by Alicia and Devlin, and argues there is a certain mythical quality to the complexities of the feelings between them. To that end, the story amounts to a fairy tale, with the ending offered as the dream result for both Alicia and Devlin.

New supplemental material gets off on the right foot with the documentary feature "Once Upon a Time . . . NOTORIOUS” (2009, 52m 2s) directed by David Thompson. NOTORIOUS has its genesis in the John Taintor Foote story THE SONG OF THE DRAGON (The Saturday Evening Post, November 12th, 1921), which was inspired by the life of Marthe Richard, a French prostitute and spy. Bill Krohn, author of HITCHCOCK AU TRAVAIL (1999), notes Hitchcock served in a supervisory capacity for MEMORY OF THE CAMPS (shot in 1945 and shelved, not presented to the public until the mid-1980s). Krohn believes Hitchcock's involvement in that project heavily influenced NOTORIOUS, the filmmaker's next endeavor, not just in regard to subject matter, but its strikingly dark look. Another interesting point is NOTORIOUS actually anticipates the migration to South America of the evil Holocaust figures Otto Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele.

Next up is "Powerful Patterns:  David Bordwell on NOTORIOUS" (2018, 29m 42s). Bordwell shows how Hitchcock makes use of all the tools in his toolbox to condition his audience on how to watch his movie. Whether we are conscious of it or not as viewers, recurring cinematic patterns train our responses. Bordwell's examination of point of view is convincing enough; character point-of-view shots, coupled with ensuing reaction shots, cause us to understand what that character understands, and thus identify more closely with that person. "Glamour and Tension:  John Bailey on NOTORIOUS" (2018, 23m 25s) provides an especially enlightening review of the feature film's lauded visual style with cinematographer Bailey (CAT PEOPLE [1982], THE BIG CHILL [1983], IN THE LINE OF FIRE [1993]). Bailey sees Hitchcock as a master of existing filmmaking techniques, not necessarily a great innovator. Bailey connects with Behlmer's notion that Hitchcock's most memorable sequences are mostly silent filmmaking. Bailey expounds on that idea when he notes moments of discovery in Hitchcock cinema are delivered via camerawork, not through characters speaking to each other (which amounts to explaining to the audience). The gradual reveal of Alicia holding the wine cellar key is a fine example of cinematic communication not dependent on dialog. Hitchcock also liked to recall visual conceits from earlier in the film, which created a "visual imprint" according to Bailey. Alicia's departure from the Sebastian estate closely recalls her initial arrival, and prompts what he calls "emotional recall."

Another welcome new supplement is "Poisoned Romance:  Donald Spoto on NOTORIOUS" (2018, 21m 1s). The author of THE DARK SIDE OF GENIUS: THE LIFE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK (1983) offers a lot of detailed information about Hitchcock, like the fact Hitch did not target classic literature for adaptation. Rather than try to improve on something that was respected widely already, he preferred to adapt popular fiction with his unique touch. The source material for NOTORIOUS was unremarkable in Spoto's estimation. The author has far higher praise for screenwriter Ben Hecht, who Spoto views as one of the industry's most talented writers of his era. Hecht could adapt original material much faster than his contemporaries. Spoto characterizes Hitchcock as a filmmaker who eschewed overstatement. Hitch had faith in the intelligence of his audience of primarily adults, who he felt were capable of following story structure. He liked to create contrasts between what characters say and think, and often a character's gaze tells us everything we need to know about a situation.

"Writing with the Camera" (2018, 15m 54s) examines Hitchcock’s storyboarding and pre-visualization process, with documentary filmmaker Daniel Raim as our guide. One of the primary purposes of the storyboards was to eliminate studio interference. Visually effective storyboards afforded Hitchcock more efficiency and control since they proved excessive takes were unnecessary, and thus prevented the studio from selecting alternate takes (that usually did not exist anyway). He knew the right storyboard proved the resulting shot works. As touched on in the other supplements, Hitchcock preferred the subjective view over the objective, unless the objective look was the only logical option.

Ported from the Criterion DVD is the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of NOTORIOUS (59m 56s) that aired January 26th, 1948 on CBS. Bergman reprises her role as Alicia, and Devlin is portrayed by Joseph Cotten, who was considered for the role in the film. His Devlin comes off as even more brutish ("First time this week I've socked a lady."), but more than anything confirms that Cary Grant was the better choice for the film. It is difficult to accept anyone but Grant, who offers an astonishing performance in the Hitchcock version. Also featured in this radio adaptation is Joseph Kearns as Alex, Gerald Mohr as Prescott and Janet Scott as Madame Sebastian.

Also culled from the Criterion DVD is the newsreel footage (48s) from 1948 of Bergman and Hitchcock, as well as a collection of trailers and teasers, including the spoiler-rich "A NOTORIOUS woman of affairs!" (2m 9s), "Gems in her hair and ice in her heart!" (55s), "NOTORIOUS! NOTORIOUS! NOTORIOUS!" (52s) and "All she was, was all he wanted." (16s).

The packaging contains a booklet essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién.



Sunday, December 30, 2018

ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

aka THE BIG CARNIVAL
Paramount Pictures, 111m 14s


By way of expressive black & white cinematography and sometimes outright surreal situations, film noir is among the most stylized of genres, yet one of the most persistently realistic as it reflects the human condition. Filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak—all European émigrés—created many movies in the noir vein, typically with a palpable social consciousness. Billy Wilder was another such émigré. Though probably remembered best for timeless comedies such as SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT (1960), I prefer the cynical sense of continuity that binds ACE IN THE HOLE with his prior effort SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). In essence, the Paramount News team that gathers at the Desmond mansion at the conclusion of SUNSET BOULEVARD expands into an exploitative media net represented by Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) for ACE IN THE HOLE. Among the most egocentric of all noir lead characters, Chuck focuses on the restoration of his career as a big-time newspaper reporter, and dismisses the fragile existence of a helpless man. Directed with an assured purpose by Wilder, himself a reporter before he turned to screenwriting, ACE IN THE HOLE stands as a prophetic warning about the dangers of mass media and questions the distinctly American drive to put profits before people. Not only is the Wilder drama a top-tier film noir, it remains one of the most important Hollywood films of any genre.

I had planned to revisit Wilder's hauntingly pessimistic vision for some time, and the 102nd birthday of the film's star Kirk Douglas earlier this month provided the ideal occasion. The story begins with his out-of-work newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum being towed into Albuquerque, New Mexico. An experienced but supremely arrogant journalist who has worked in New York City and other major markets, he shows instant disdain for the locals with his first word to a Native American. Obviously not short of confidence, he busts into the local paper with borderline gangster bravado. As he makes his case for a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, he brags about being fired from 11 different publications. Chuck essentially bullies the managing editor Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) into hiring him, but the office's needlepoint portrait that states "Tell the Truth" hints at a coming conflict between Chuck's irrepressible ambition and his employer's steadfast ethics. Chuck is plotting a return to a large news organization, specifically one that was so foolish as to fire him, once a story comes along he can exploit for that purpose. "When they need you, they forgive and forget," explains Chuck.

As the plot unfurls, time passes while a frustrated Chuck awaits his big break. After a year's waiting, he shows nothing but impatient contempt for small-town life and its lack of interesting news to report. He is embarrassed to cover a story about a rattlesnake hunt, but in the process he stumbles upon what could be his ticket out of trivial small-town happenings. A local man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) in search of Native American artifacts finds himself trapped deep inside the dangerously brittle caverns of an imposing rock formation in Escudero. Chuck may not have a college education, but he has learned what brand of news sells printed media. "Bad news sells best because good news is no news," he asserts. Without hesitation, Chuck boldly makes his way into the mountain to speak with the military veteran Leo, an obviously nice fellow who recognizes the vast structure that threatens his life as "The Mountain of the Seven Vultures." Its caverns hemorrhage suffocating sand at random intervals, and bone-crushing rocks await potential victims at any moment. The area even doubles as an Indian burial ground! Has Leo been punished for excessive exploration of sacred ground? He thinks maybe so. It seems all the makings of a national story are in place, and Chuck is eager to take advantage of his sudden opportunity.





To suggest Chuck is an egocentric personality seems far too weak an accusation to direct his way. A liberal's nightmare, Chuck is perfectly willing to stand on the outstretched throats of others if it might help him breathe a little easier. Rather than help a man in desperate need (wouldn't that be a great story too?), Chuck does precisely the opposite of the right thing:  he inflicts further damage. Not only that, unlike so many noir characters who at least hesitate before taking a wrong turn, Chuck shows no such qualms. The potential reward is too great for him to concern himself with anything else. In defiance of the most logical solution to free the affable, helpless Leo, Chuck persists with a selfishly intransigent attitude about the best means of freeing the imprisoned man, which involves prolonging Leo's suffering for the sake of the news story's extension. As a preeminent example of an embattled noir character, the physically contained Leo eventually succumbs to psychological anguish as the rhythmic pounding of an overhead drill rig torments him for days in his potential tomb. The film noir is noted for its many characters who feel a sense of entrapment, either through no fault of their own or from painting themselves into a corner. The ensnared unfortunate of ACE IN THE HOLE embodies this recurrent genre theme. Leo is indeed Chuck's "ace in the hole," a cruel metaphor manufactured by the newspaper man. In a literal sense, Leo is confined physically to the pit of a mountain that threatens to swallow its powerless prey. Later the entrapped man is buried figuratively by Chuck's predatory nature. Probably worst of all, Chuck pretends to care about the man he uses as an unknowing partner in a game with a potentially grave outcome for everyone involved. Leo makes a costly mistake when he explores the mountain too deeply, and another when he takes Chuck to be a friend. This is about as bleak as film noir gets, and the heel of all heels portrayed by Douglas in a bravura performance. In one of the genre's best examples of what I term noir recognition—that inescapable moment when the major protagonist realizes how low he has sunk—the camera cuts to Chuck when Leo recites, "Bless me father for I have sinned..." in front of Father Diego (Lester Dorr). Chuck finally appears to comprehend he is hopelessly beyond redemption. So finished is the lead protagonist, he will be unable to sell his true story, which ironically is even more sensational than his previous one. Nobody wants to hear it.

The trapped man's disloyal wife is Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), who views her circumstances much the way Chuck sees his when he is delivered to Albuquerque at the film's exposition. Stuck in a desert with her husband, at least as she perceives things, Lorraine feels Leo overplayed his hand a bit when he lured her away from the East Coast. Also like Chuck, she blames others for her own decisions that shaped her current situation. So disappointed is Lorraine with her existence she is prepared to abandon Escudero despite the obvious danger her poor husband faces. Instead, Chuck convinces her to exploit the business potential of her man's plight.






In one of the film's most disturbing themes about the dark side of the American way, institutions intended to serve the public instead serve the needs of insiders. Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) is an eminently corrupt public figure. Without a great deal of resistance, he is bullied into submission by Chuck, first verbally and later physically. The sheriff's affinity with the small rattlesnake is appropriate only on a surface level; the reptile does not pretend to be one thing while being another. With the sheriff's cooperation secured, Chuck gains the allegiance of local contractor Sam Smollett (Frank Jaquet), who knows perfectly well the most direct route to Leo would be the most appropriate rescue plan. Rather than shore up existing tunnels, the Chuck-approved plan calls for drilling down from the mountain's top, which assures Leo will be trapped about 10 times as long as he would be if the contractor's original plan were successfully executed. Chuck is not shy about resorting to tough-guy tactics whenever he feels someone may muddle his self-serving career path back to the big city. He assaults the sheriff and later Leo's wife after they show resistance about playing the roles engineered for them by the thoroughly reprehensible reporter.

ACE IN THE HOLE was inspired in part by a 1925 news article about a man trapped in a cave and the public attention the event created. Co-writers Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman render an unflattering portrait of capitalistic ambition and mindless consumerism. As is usually the case in Westerns, the environment is itself a character in this noir-Western amalgam. A desolate landscape that would make a good home for rattlesnakes only, the tiny town of Escudero at first would appear the antithesis of the urban jungle film fans might associate with the noir form. Chuck's initial story attracts local interest, and soon greed engenders opportunistic depravity. Though seemingly too small to justify its bus stop, the area mutates into a startlingly chaotic urbanesque scene with strong noir undertones, complete with carnival! Suddenly a 25 cent fee is levied for those who want a closer look at the mountain that encases Leo (eventually that asking price quadruples to $1). A once dead diner now has a cash register that rings. A pop-country song is born ("We're Coming, Leo"), and its sheet music is merchandised. Of course, the song's optimistic title bears little resemblance to the truth. Al Federber (Frank Cady) attempts to use an on-camera moment to plug his insurance business. Money, money, money. The longer Leo remains incapacitated, the greater the economic impact on the area. The condemned working-class man embodies the underprivileged social stratum, destabilized by a ruthless capitalist's pursuit of fame and fortune. The ingenuity of camera placement by Wilder and cinematographer Charles Lang enhances the unshakable sense of claustrophobia that hangs on the sequences captured inside the mountain, but their most unnerving image follows those interior scenes. In one of film noir's most instructive shots, after the carnival leaves town all that remains is a sign that promises proceeds to a dead man. Though it performed well overseas, ACE IN THE HOLE was not a commercial or critical success in the US, perhaps in part due to the cracked mirror it holds before American ambition and its related casualties that play out in the background.





As of this writing, ACE IN THE HOLE remains readily available as part of the Criterion Collection. The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack presents a 2K digital restoration of the film, framed at the correct theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the dual-layered Blu-ray edition. The hefty amount of supplemental material is sufficient to convert anyone into a fan of Billy Wilder, though I suppose anyone willing to invest in Criterion products already is familiar with his work. The audio commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard was recorded in 2007. The co-author of JOURNEY DOWN SUNSET BOULEVARD: THE FILMS OF BILLY WILDER (1979), Sinyard is one of the most descriptive of any film scholars I ever have heard. He shows keen awareness of all crucial metaphors, ironies and implications, and also demonstrates strong awareness of the recurring themes and motifs that characterize the Wilder oeuvre. In one of his best insights about the film under review, Sinyard likens the cars that gather before the mountain to those that assemble in front of a drive-in movie screen; the disaster location cheapened to commercial spectacle. Another great observation is the gradual manner in which the term "friend" is devalued over the course of the narrative.

The documentary feature "Portrait of a '60% Perfect Man': Billy Wilder" (Portrait d'un homme 'à 60% parfait': Billy Wilder, 1982, 58m 30s) was directed by Annie Tresgot and Michel Ciment. The French film critic Ciment interviews Wilder in and around the filmmaker's workplace and beachfront residence. Wilder confirms it was the rise of Adolf Hitler that convinced him and many of his compatriots to flee to the US, where he faced uncertainty as a writer deprived of his first language. After he established himself as a screenwriter, he found he preferred directing, which he explains is a lot more fun than the laborious process of screenplay development. ACE IN THE HOLE was his first film for which he also served as producer. After the studio re-titled it THE BIG CARNIVAL and imposed numerous changes, Wilder fought hard to gain as much control as possible over his future projects. Though Wilder is remembered as one of the early directors to shoot on location, he admits location work invariably leads to compromises due to lack of control. He found working within the studio soundstages far more gratifying.

Next up is a condensed Q&A session (23m 39s) at the American Film Institute in 1986, with Wilder reflecting on his career and George Stevens Jr. on hand as moderator. Wilder believes his efficiency as a filmmaker enabled his long-term success in a challenging industry. Executives liked him because he worked within schedules and budgets. In fact, Wilder emphasizes reliability is more important than talent when it comes to directing in Hollywood. Wilder enjoyed a long career because he made commercial films, not esoteric ones. His camera setups always were as economical as he could imagine, since he knew a moving camera loses efficiency in terms of everything else that must move with it. He preferred logical camera positions, from viewpoints where someone might be watching, over elaborate camera work that reminds the viewer of the filmmaking process (and thus removes the viewer from the cinematic experience). Wilder also notes one must be a great collaborator to work in film.

The 1984 interview (14m 18s) with Kirk Douglas is pleasantly informative, both in terms of Wilder as an auteur and Douglas as an actor. ACE IN THE HOLE marked the only collaboration between the two, and it was with regret Douglas turned down the lead in Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953), for which William Holden won an Academy Award. Douglas says he always has been one to want to contribute in some way to the script, but he found it difficult with Wilder, who always seemed to have a superior idea. A proponent of method acting, Douglas worked at a newspaper to prepare for his role as Chuck Tatum.

Other supplements include audio excerpts (1970, 10m 9s) from an interview with Wilder’s co-screenwriter Walter Newman.  ACE IN THE HOLE would prove to be the only working partnership between the two to make it to the finish line, though they discussed other concepts ultimately dropped after many weeks of work. According to Newman, his only disagreement with Wilder in regard with the script for ACE IN THE HOLE was the starting point. Newman felt the story should have begun with Leo's entrapment, and details about Chuck's past could have been inserted into the story later as required. In another brief segment (2007, 5m 40s), New York-based filmmaker Spike Lee recalls his visit with Wilder, whose 1951 film would make a great double bill with A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) according to Lee. Both films reveal the inherent danger of the media, and the disheartening notion that if there is money to be made, it will be made, even if people have to die along the way. A stills gallery assembles production stills and behind-the-scenes photos, and a theatrical trailer (2m 22s) is accessible. The imitation vintage newspaper insert with essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin is a nice touch.

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 heat up the screen, i.e. Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) from MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) from THE BIG SLEEP (1946). Though 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 nighttime rain (cleansing?) 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], on which he served as a co-writer). 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 running 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.