Sunday, March 28, 2021

THE SUSPECT (1944)

"Well, here's to love grown cold."
—Gilbert Simmons

Set in London's suspiciously innocuous-looking Laburnum Terrace in the early years of the 20th century, THE SUSPECT revels in the sort of hard truths about humanity often explored in the film noir. Numerous trials test our lead protagonist's sense of right and wrong, none more prominent than the dour countenance of a divisive wife contrasted with the unbounded delight of a youthful brunette. By the time the final act is in motion, every imaginable noir force seems arrayed against Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton).

A conscientious shopkeeper with an air of gravitas, Philip is the trusted employee who shuts off the lights and locks the door at the close of each business day at Frazer & Nicholson, retail purveyors of tobacco. At home his position is noticeably less stable. His agonizingly high-maintenance wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan) drives an attention-getting opening act when she chases their son John (Dean Harens) off to Canada. John notes the final straw was when his mother incinerated hours of his work during one of her tantrums. This incendiary family event prompts Philip to relocate his sleeping quarters from the master bedroom to his son's vacated room, a move that infuriates Cora. While at work Philip encounters Mary Gray (the always radiant Ella Raines), a trained stenographer in search of employment. Philip expresses no need for her services, but reveals empathy for Mary when he later finds her sobbing on a park bench. The two become friends and begin to spend time together, an obvious problem on multiple levels, especially given the extreme personality type Cora has registered.



One of film noir's most significant recurring themes is that the institution of marriage is at risk. The major plot mechanics of DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) provided a compelling reference point for noir films that followed, including SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946). All of these titles and many others question the viability of marriage and whether long-term gratification for either party is realistic. THE SUSPECT adheres to the identical formula with destabilized marriages next door to each other. In the opening sequence, it is clear Cora has stretched Philip to his breaking point. In testament to the violent potential bottled up within him, he lets her know it is probably best she has no way of knowing exactly what sort of thoughts are bouncing around in his brain. When Cora stalks her husband on a foggy nocturnal street, the atmosphere recalls the unsettling bus sequence of director Jacques Tourneur's horror-noir CAT PEOPLE (1942), another film of the era that seriously questions the notion of the mutually fulfilling marriage. Interestingly, another suspenseful segment that comes toward the end of THE SUSPECT involves a cat. After the stalking segment, Philip discloses his marital status to Mary during what he proclaims will be their final date (ironically, Mary anticipated his proposal). In an attempt to create a fresh start for both parties, Philip speaks honestly as he asks Cora for a divorce:


"...we've never been happy together...not once all the years we've been married."

Cora refuses to suffer the indignity of divorce; the very idea of being viewed as a woman who could not hang on to her husband enrages her. Despite his admirable effort to end a relationship that was platonic anyway, at home Philip again is confronted with an irate Cora, who believes her husband was fraternizing with a "hussy." Cora promises to expose the affair on Christmas Day(!) and unleash life-wrecking scandal for both Philip and his "loose woman" on the side. The combat between husband and wife ends with the unseen death of Cora, who meets her demise at the bottom of her home's staircase, a structure that always seems to function as noir's danger zone.

At the next-door neighbor's residence, another marriage is in dire straits. A man of many shortcomings, Gilbert Simmons (Henry Daniell) is a hard-drinking, good-for-nothing husband to his perfectly pleasant wife Edith (Molly Lamont), who shows classic signs of being physically abused by the man she supports with her allowance. Aware Philip is in an awkward position in regard to the death of Cora, Gilbert attempts an open-ended blackmail scheme. "Hurt or be hurt in this world," theorizes the detestable Gilbert. And yet another bad marriage appears to be in the making:  John is matched with Sybil (Eve Amber), whose insufferable laugh surely has the capacity to make any relationship implode.



Another noir theme central to THE SUSPECT is the emphasis given to the way male characters are perceived by others. In a table-setting sequence planted early, Philip chastises the young boy Merridew (Raymond Severn) for demonstrating the classic behavior of the future embezzler. Philip's ability to wear the mask of moral rectitude is boosted by the local townsfolk who see Philip as a dignified man. Most of the film's details are intended to align us with Philip, especially within his home. He does not appear to deserve the non-stop verbal abuse Cora dishes out on a daily basis (admittedly few men would merit such mistreatment). The viewer is meant to side with Philip throughout most of the narrative, though a turning point is inserted with the introduction of a detective, a borderline requisite character in film noir of this vintage. Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) of the Scotland Yard is quick to deduce Cora easily could have been murdered, despite a coroner's verdict of accidental death. Huxley stages a convincing re-enactment of what the viewer must assume really happened that Christmas Eve. The determination of Huxley ultimately shifts Philip into full-on downward spiral mode. Fittingly as Philip attempts to escape to Canada, Merridew reappears to wish his elder farewell. The boy says his mother sincerely wishes he one day will mature into a fine man like Philip! This scene nicely encapsulates the film's pessimistic take on masculinity, that every man has the potential to emulate Philip. The redemptive concluding sequence implies that, in spite of a powerful confluence of noir forces acting against him, Philip's plight was self-inflicted.

The relationship between Philip and Mary does not come without a strain on credibility:  Charles Laughton was roughly twice the age of his on-screen romantic partner portrayed by Ella Raines and probably not half as good looking. Why a woman who presumably could get any man she wants would be so lonely and immediately interested in Philip is a tough sell. I realize I describe an age-old problem of the movies hardly unique to film noir, and seldom if ever was Raines matched with her physical equal. That is to say Raines could not help but exude some of the traits of the noir femme fatale, even when her character was not overtly evil or seductive. But deliberately of not, Mary is the character who lures Philip into a treacherous noir landscape where danger lurks around every corner. Though the filmmakers do not point the finger at Mary for Philip's eventual destruction, there is no argument that her introduction serves as a catalyst for all the unfortunate events that follow.

1944 was a banner year for the emerging genre of film noir, giving us the aforementioned DOUBLE INDEMNITY as well as DANGEROUS PASSAGE, DARK WATERS, DESTINY, LAURA, MINISTRY OF FEAR, MURDER MY SWEET, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT and WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, among others. Director Robert Siodmak did not limit his noir output to THE SUSPECT:  his CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY and PHANTOM LADY also hit theaters that year. Siodmak continued to contribute heavily to the genre over the following years, which saw the release of his undisputed classics THE KILLERS (1946) and CRISS CROSS (1949). As for the film under review, THE SUSPECT performed well at the box office and inspired positive critical assessment. Working from the 1939 novel THIS WAY OUT by James Ronald, the adaptation was credited to Arthur T. Horman while Bertram Millhauser wrote the screenplay. Cinematographer Paul Ivano teamed with Siodmak again for THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945) and CRISS CROSS. Ella Raines worked with Robert Siodmak three other times:  PHANTOM LADY, THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY and TIME OUT OF MIND (1947). Rosalind Ivan would portray another memorably shrewish wife in Fritz Lang's SCARLET STREET (1945). To promote THE SUSPECT, Universal condensed the material into a 30-minute radio dramatization that featured Orson Welles in the role of Philip Marshall. The Lux Radio Theatre presented a 60-minute adaptation on April 9, 1945, with Laughton, Raines and Ivan on board.



Inanimate objects granted more emphasis than the protagonist

The Blu-ray version of THE SUSPECT now available from Kino Lorber is on par with their consistently high standards. The dual-layered BD50 disc boasts a new 2K master scan framed at 1.375:1, which looks appropriate and solid in motion. Film historian Troy Howarth contributed the new audio commentary track. His energetic review of this noir condemnation of an essentially decent man is particular strong when focused on the career of Charles Laughton, an actor not remembered as an important film noir contributor, but who appeared in John Farrow's stellar THE BIG CLOCK (1948) and directed the outstanding noir film THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), sadly underappreciated in its day. Howarth identifies THE SUSPECT 's various ironies, as when Philip offs his wife not to protect himself, but to preserve the reputation of Mary. Howarth also observes it is Huxley, the film's major law enforcement official, who is responsible for the underlying dynamics that spur Philip to commit his second murder. In a related irony, the resolution to both murders comes only after Huxley compels Philip to look inward.

Especially for a film set in 1902, Howarth points out an unusual theme for this era of filmmaking: domestic abuse may lurk behind what seems to be a peaceful exterior setting. Furthermore, the viewer is left to consider whether homicide is sometimes justified. David Lynch would stake out similar territory more famously with BLUE VELVET (1986), especially in terms of sunny appearances versus dark realities, but Robert Siodmak (among others) broke that ground. Howarth builds a credible case for Siodmak as auteur, despite the fact the filmmaker was a contract director assigned to helm projects with the assistance of varying cinematographers. Be that as it was, an auteur element to Siodmak's creative process always is in evidence. There is a persistently shadowy, moody look to his films that extends from his Hollywood output to his later European productions. Even some of his work best defined within the context of other genres maintains noir elements, i.e. SON OF DRACULA (1943) and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946).

A collection of trailers serves as an advertisement for related titles available from Kino Lorber.


Friday, February 26, 2021

SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948)

Paramount Pictures, 108m 48s


"Wickedness abounds...it's as universal as love."
—Mark Bellis

Film noir might be the most contested genre in cinema history in regard to what accounts for its composition, or what might constitute the best examples and why. Every now and then a casual movie fan asks me, "What is film noir, anyway?" I never know where to begin, and I doubt if I ever have answered the question the same way twice. Yet the hallmarks of the noir structure are easy enough to discern, as they are in SO EVIL MY LOVE, a so-called "gaslight noir" set in Victorian London. A dialectical opposition between classes contributes to a darkly ironic, fatalistic atmosphere where conditions for mutual human benefit do not seem to exist. People of virtue appear to be rare commodities, and true to form for any noir permutation, the past maintains a tight hammerlock on the present. As directed with fastidious care by Lewis Allen, perhaps the most prominent noir theme that distinguishes SO EVIL MY LOVE is the psychological anguish that comes to torture its major characters.

On a ship bound for Liverpool, a missionary's widow named Olivia Harwood (Ann Todd) fatefully encounters Mark Bellis (shifty-eyed Ray Milland), a delirious malarial patient who lives off women. Sought by police on three continents, his essence is revealed early when he learns of Olivia's inherited property, a revelation that causes him to perk up before he instinctively shields his face from area law enforcement. An eminently predatory male, Mark's behavioral mechanisms are energized by greed and self-preservation, nothing more. He becomes a lodger at Olivia's bed and breakfast in Kensington, where he relies heavily on his practiced skills as a player to develop a parasitic attachment to the vulnerable blonde widow. Olivia soon finds herself trapped in a situation in which Mark constantly asks more of her, despite the fact she is not a wealthy woman. She is betrayed by her own persistent feelings for the despicable trickster.




In an inversion of the idealized likeness theme so common in film noir that followed LAURA (1944), Mark's painting of Olivia works to awaken her missed opportunities. She looks at her portrait and sees only unrealized potential. That nagging feeling of disappointment works in favor of Mark's agenda as he reminds her a lifetime of giving to others has done nothing to enrich her own life. He skillfully inculcates her with a sense of entitlement. That coupled with Mark's immutable appetite for money consistently coerces Olivia into making bad decisions, even though she only desired togetherness. The piano instructor Miss Shoebridge (Muriel Aked), a troglodyte tenant who leaves the Harwood house in a huff, suspects Olivia is possessed by the devil. Could be—Mark's acts of deception know no boundaries. After Olivia steals financial assets due to intense encouragement from Mark, he boldly hides 40% of the income realized from the sale!

A man of multiple identities (Mark, Robert, Gilbert, Kenneth), always the badge of the noir cad, the homme fatale Mark recalls similarly odious film noir schemers such as Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) in SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) and Ronnie Mason (Zachary Scott) in DANGER SIGNAL (1945). Though a painter of some talent, Mark has no qualms about stealing paintings and eventually overcomes his reluctance to sell imitations of famous artists. In a speech that lays the groundwork for art forgery, Mark expresses concern that appreciation for art is locked in achievements of long ago. He thinks it highly unlikely a new artist could be discussed alongside the accepted greats, and even if it happened, the best one could hope for is posthumous acclaim. That accounts for his somewhat uneasy criminal allegiance with Edgar Bellamy (Raymond Lovell). It is never revealed exactly what past events bind Mark with Edgar, though it is inferred if one goes to the gallows, so does the other.

Much of film noir is grounded in a cynical assumption about human nature:  people like Mark derive a satisfying sense of superiority through manipulation and control of others. Henry Courtney, Esq. (Raymond Huntley), a tyrannical purveyor of entrenched patriarchal values, is another such individual, especially with the added presence of his icy mother (Martita Hunt). An annoyingly condescending and chauvinistic husband, he threatens to commit his troubled wife Susan Courtney (Geraldine Fitzgerald) to a sanatorium. Susan is a jittery neurotic in desperate need of a helpful support network, but probably not the sort her husband has in mind. She shows her humanity when she scrapes up twenty pounds for Olivia, but of course the funding is turned over to Mark in short order. Unable to provide her husband an heir (probably through no biological fault of her own, though Henry's potency is called into question), Susan progresses from a fragile psychological state to borderline madness, thanks mostly to the combined efforts of a domineering husband and a false friend. Everyone who should care for her turns on her. The indifferent noir universe really has it in for Susan, shown to be on unsteady ground when we first meet her, and unable to stand by the film's final act. She even comes to believe those who see guilt in her must be correct.




SO EVIL MY LOVE is steeped in moral ambiguity, with no character dramatically better than another. The dynamic between Henry and Olivia illustrates that notion perfectly. Henry hires Olivia to keep a watchful eye on the dipsomaniacal Susan, but ironically his incessant cruelty intensifies Olivia's allegiance with Mark as she removes valuables from the Courtney estate. When she seemingly seizes the upper hand against Henry, Olivia relates her unprecedented feeling of empowerment to Mark:  "It was a wonderful sensation. I've never had it before." Such are the words of a woman long accustomed to patriarchy as society's dominant ideology. Interestingly, Henry expresses only mild annoyance when confronted with her £5000 blackmail attempt. In the film noir, to exert or absorb such pressures is to be expected of everyone concerned.

The concluding sequence implies female sacrifice is necessary to topple entrenched patriarchal power, even in a house of worsening male health. That takes "a brave woman" according to the private investigator Jarvis (Leo G. Carroll), who serves as the morality mouthpiece ("...the things you'd find in the most respectable neighborhood you'd be surprised..."). The impotent barrister Henry embodies aristocratic decay, the mean man with (naturally) a weak heart, chronic sickness clinging to power. It is worth noting Henry actually outwits Olivia's blackmail maneuver; it is her physical vitality that leads to his defeat, not her prep work. As for Mark, his shallow woman on the side Kitty Feathers (Moira Lister) unknowingly activates his comeuppance. Through the return of an item originally owned by Susan, Olivia learns the hard truth:  the widow has been both victim and victimizer. The narrative's power struggle triggers mental trauma episodes that recall the type of psychological hell promised for wrongdoers in the nightmarish conclusion of Fritz Lang's SCARLET STREET (1945). Mark questions everything about himself and Olivia is plagued by deeds that cannot be undone. Far worse off is Susan, left in the wreckage of one of film noir's many fruitless marriages. Though the most reprehensible men of the film are unable to avoid the sting of retribution, the all-male jury that judges Susan reflects an aging last bastion of male privilege unlikely to go quietly.



Die by the sword

To topple patriarchy, a woman must fall

An Anglo-American co-production between Paramount's Hal Wallis Productions and Denham Studios in England, SO EVIL MY LOVE is an adaptation of the 1947 novel FOR HER TO SEE by Gabrielle Margaret Vere Campbell Long (published under the pseudonym Joseph Shearing). Certain plot elements may have been derived from the unsolved death of barrister Charles Bravo in 1876, as well as the death of Cesar Young in 1905. The pleasingly literate screenplay was written by Ronald Millar and Leonard Spigelgass. Cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum's virtuosity with camera placement is apparent at all times; there is a logical elegance to the simplicity of coverage that breezes effortlessly through a world of endless deceit.

The Kino Lorber dual-layered Blu-ray edition released recently serves up a new 2K master and looks very good in motion, various scratches be damned. Framing is approximately 1.38:1. The disc includes a new audio commentary track from incisive film historian Imogen Sara Smith, who appraises classic film as well as anyone. For an old-school film fan like me, one must come prepared with a quality pen and a lot of paper when Smith is talking; there is much to note. One of her best findings is that none of the many transgressions seem justified or are likely to evoke a sympathetic response from the viewer, yet somehow one is able to empathize with the principal characters, however unappealing they may be. Indeed the film noir specializes in the presentation of such patterns of criminal behavior. Part of the package is a level playing field; the lower class is depicted no better than the upper class in terms of a moral compass. Also according to Smith, the film noir under review provides a rare glimpse into a relationship between women with its "...believable if ugly portrait of female friendship..."

A trailer gallery includes the featured film and several other related titles available from the ever-reliable Kino Lorber.


Sunday, January 31, 2021

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948)

Selznick Releasing Organization, 86m 27s

"There's something different about that child."
—Eben Adams

At times my random movie selections yield unexpected parallels and pronounced contrasts. The day prior to viewing PORTRAIT OF JENNIE my choice was SOUL (2020), the latest creation from Pixar Animation Studios. The Pixar film presents a jazz pianist in search of his big break, that special performance that catapults a musician into the public consciousness for good. By way of an incredible adventure, he learns a person's life should not be defined by a narrow pursuit. Life is about living each moment for all it is worth, savoring all of the little day-to-day things our wonderful world has to offer. In its story about a struggling artist in search of the recognition that has eluded him, the hybrid romantic fantasy / film noir PORTRAIT OF JENNIE makes precisely the opposite point.

At The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hangs a painting entitled "Portrait of Jennie," completed in 1934 by local artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten). After the introductory segment attests to the importance of what we are about to see, we meet the as of yet unsuccessful artist Eben in the winter months of 1932. With an affectless voice, he presents some of his landscape paintings to Matthews (Cecil Kellaway) and Miss Spinney (the always credible Ethel Barrymore). Matthews registers no interest in Eben or his work, but Spinney sees something in him and makes a purchase against the better judgment of Matthews. Eben then encounters an oddly enchanting teenage girl in Central Park named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). After some mysterious dialogue, she vanishes. Taken with the girl, Eben pulls an all-nighter to sketch her to the best of his memory. He later discovers a newspaper that was in Jennie's possession was printed in 1910.

NY through a canvas



A young woman from the great beyond?

Thanks to the encouragement of his buddy Gus O'Toole (David Wayne), Eben lands a job painting a bar mural of Michael Collins for pub proprietor Moore (Albert Sharpe), but all of Eben's thoughts are with the enigmatic girl Jennie. Spinney buys his sketch of her, which seems to confirm Eben's promise as a serious artist. He honors his contract with Moore, but shows no pride in unveiling his finished project as the artist makes a quiet exit from the noisy pub. A far more important assignment awaits with his ethereal vision Jennie, who fires-up Eben to believe his portrait of her will bring him an international audience. If Eben's early paintings lacked passion, there is nothing emotionally hollow about his devotion to Jennie and his rendition of her likeness.

As is too often the case in Hollywood cinema of all eras, the age difference between the two leads is rather off-putting (about 14 years, complicated by the fact Cotten looked a bit older than he was and Jones looked younger). More troublesome is Eben's fascination with Jennie as a child; at least Jennie does not enter Eben's apartment until she is able to announce her status as college freshman. By the time she graduates, Eben wishes to marry his muse. Eben's feelings for Jennie are buoyed by his friendly relationship with the older Miss Spinney, which suggests a certain timelessness about human affection.



The inspiration of a lifetime emerges from darkness

Based upon the 1940 novella of the same title by Robert Nathan, PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is a product of The Selznick Studio, with plenty of flourishes that announce the fact. William Dieterle was an inspired choice to direct for Selznick. The director of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941), Dieterle shows great awareness of depth in his compositions; often the viewer's eye is compelled to review information in the foreground, middleground and background. Dimitri Tiomkin's musical score, based upon themes of Claude Debussy, sometimes becomes overly intrusive, especially when it needlessly alerts the viewer we are in the presence of the fantastic. Ultimately the production's budget would tailspin out of control due to a revolving door of writers (Leonardo Bercovici, Paul Osborn, Peter Berneis, Ben Hecht), an extended shooting schedule, the addition of a Magnascope process with green tint for the lighthouse sequence and the high costs associated with extensive location work. The result was a box office failure that had a chilling effect on Selznick's career as a producer. Nonetheless PORTRAIT OF JENNIE would win the Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects. Cinematographer Joseph H. August, who died shortly after the production's completion, received a posthumous nomination for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. His occasional shots through a painter's canvas memorably add to the film's dramatic momentum.


The perfect balance:  foreground/background composition

Though doubtless intended a romantic fantasy first, the filmmakers tap into a noir palette for their overarching theme of irreversible tragedy. The noir film often insists current events are dominated by something significant that happened in the past. That notion is embedded in the very titles of some of the genre's well-known classics, i.e. OUT OF THE PAST (1947), THE DARK PAST (1948) and TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949). With the spectral character of its title, PORTRAIT OF JENNIE shares a connection to those films, and even reaches beyond them in the way it conflates the past with the present. When Eben first meets Jennie, she talks about the past as if it were the present. We discover she has no choice, she is a tragic noir character forever trapped in a time passed.

The film noir sensibility of PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is immersed in water, which factors in the death of Jennie, who interestingly reappears surrounded by snow and ice. In his "notes on film noir" (FILM COMMENT, Vol. 8, No. 1 [SPRING 1972], pp. 8-13), Paul Schrader observed:


"There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water. The empty noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain (even in Los Angeles), and the rainfall tends to increase in direct proportion to the drama. Docks and piers are second only to alleyways as the most popular rendezvous points."

The water motif that trickles through the film is absorbed in two other crucial noir themes:  obsession and fate. Eben's pursuit of Jennie is a story of hopeless obsession, a search in vain for an unattainable woman. Mother Mary of Mercy (Lillian Gish) reveals the impossibility of Eben's desire to be with Jennie, last seen near Land's End in Cape Cod some 10 years ago. The fate element is underscored when Matthews' dog makes a beeline for Eben. Matthews explains his dog gravitates to strangers who are in some sort of danger zone. An animal's instinct proves sound when fate leads Eben to a climactic sequence in New England that seems to mark him for death, in many ways the most logical conclusion for the narrative. Indeed it would be more appropriate for Eben to lose his battle with the raging storm that seems brought about by Jennie herself. Eben's existential determination is curious; not only what looks to be certain oceanic death deters him from a woman who no longer exists. From a casting standpoint, noir credibility is well established with the sturdy presence of Joseph Cotten, who appeared in CITIZEN KANE (1941) and SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), films that would influence the noir form considerably. He also appeared in WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER (1950), an underrated noir gem that deserves critical reassessment (did film critic Bosley Crowther ever get it right?).

Rainfall follows Jennie's departure


The dual-layered Blu-ray edition available from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is framed at 1.33:1, in disagreement with the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (according to IMDb.com). Though generally acceptable, the source material reveals a fair amount of scratches and various artifacts. The audio commentary track is courtesy of film historian Troy Howarth, perhaps the most affable voice working today. As always, he shows both deep knowledge and passion for the film under review. His standout observation is the inherently humanistic quality of PORTRAIT OF JENNIE; all of the film's characters are basically good people. With the occasional exception, such food has been eliminated from Hollywood's modern menu. Indeed there are some "creepy undercurrents" to the romance as Howarth puts it, but I agree the filmmakers make no attempt to nudge the viewer's thoughts in that direction. The driving force behind the film was producer David O. Selznick, whose production goal was a lasting tribute to the love of his life. Those who subscribe to the auteur theory tend to point to directors exclusively, though Howarth considers Selznick one of those rare producers who might be considered in such terms.

Howarth dives deeply into the background information of all of the major contributors, and even offers good details about some of the bit players. Howarth cites Berkeley Square, a play by John L. Balderston that premiered in 1926, as a work that likely influenced PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. The portrait around which the plot revolves was painted by artist Robert Brackman, who required multiple attempts to produce a product in harmony with Selznick's conception.

The disc also includes a trailer gallery.

The noir staircase


Finished portrait of Jennie, unveiled in three-strip Technicolor

Monday, December 28, 2020

STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944)

Republic Pictures, 56m 7s

The lively gothic noir programmer STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT marked the film noir debut of pioneering auteur Anthony Mann, a figurehead of some of the genre's enduring classics, including T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948) and BORDER INCIDENT (1949). Those who appreciate Mann's more recognized efforts should find a lot to like in this Republic Pictures product, which registers keen awareness of director Alfred Hitchcock's galvanizing contribution to the infrastructure of the thriller (especially his REBECCA [1940] and SUSPICION [1941]). In fact the screenplay engineered by Bryant Ford and Paul Gangelin was based on an original story by Philip MacDonald, one of the writers credited for the Hitchcock adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's 1938 novel REBECCA.

During his tour of duty in the South Pacific, Sergeant Johnny Meadows (William Terry) sustains a severe injury to his back. His recuperative power is aided by a secondhand copy of A. E. Housman's A SHROPSHIRE LAD with a hand-written inscription from Rosemary Blake, with whom he establishes a correspondence. She becomes his primary inspiration to return to the states. While Johnny makes his way to a small California coastal town to meet the pen pal love he never has seen, her mother Hilda Blake (Helene Thimig) admires the large painting of Rosemary that rules the family mansion. After Hilda and her browbeaten companion Ivy Miller (Edith Barrett) drink a birthday toast to Rosemary, Dr. Leslie Ross (Virginia Grey) pays a visit to announce her arrival as the new town physician. Hilda is dismissive of Dr. Ross, an attractive, self-reliant woman of integrity. Without basis, Hilda instinctively fears Dr. Ross is jealous of Rosemary's flawless beauty.


Despite a modest runtime that does not quite stretch to an hour, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT manages to cover many genre facets. Crucial noir tropes emerge during a train ride, when the marine vet Johnny spots a copy of A SHROPSHIRE LAD held by a woman in the dining car, who just so happens to be Dr. Ross. In a decision guided by the enigmatic noir force of fate, Dr. Ross takes a seat at the table occupied by Johnny. He senses he has met his true love based upon the book she possesses. His romantic sensibilities are sound, though he is completely mistaken about the woman's identity. Quite overtly, Dr. Ross functions as Rosemary's noir doppelgänger. When both Johnny and Dr. Ross realize they are bound for the same destination, a narrative-jolting derailment hints of the intense dramatics that await at the Blake manor, where an atmosphere of disturbing solemnity is perched on the edge of a precipitous seaside cliff obviously destined to factor in the film's denouement.

Through its monstrous feminine Hilda, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT delves into the depths of a lonely woman's frail psyche. When walking she requires an assistive cane, a device often used to conceptualize an incomplete character in the film noir. A pathetic personality (as opposed to sympathetic), Hilda compensates for her compromised physicality with domineering treatment of others. On the receiving end more than anyone is Ivy, who often finds herself castigated for not living up to Hilda's unreasonable expectations. The grim determinism embodied by the narrative's villainess anticipates the disturbed female minds that cause chaos in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), POSSESSED (1947) and WHIRLPOOL (1949). In her dark obsession with Rosemary's portrait, Hilda might remind the noir enthusiast of Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), the man fascinated by framed perfection in LAURA (1944). There is little doubt LAURA popularized the noir theme of the idealized portrait, though in truth STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT hit theaters a month earlier. Viennese actress Helene Thimig contributes a bravura performance as Hilda, a woman ultimately destroyed by her own creation. Especially in terms of Thimig's role, I have to believe STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT had at least some influence on the Hammer Films production DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (1965), a classic of the hag horror subgenre.


The antithesis of Hilda is of course the genial Dr. Ross, a new breed of woman meant to replace relics like Hilda who have fallen out of touch with changing times. There is a running gag in the film that America is not yet ready to accept the idea of female doctors, the aging matriarch Hilda among those least prepared for such a development. Interestingly Dr. Ross reminds us it was wartime male absence that encouraged women to enter into fields traditionally occupied only by men. That observation reflects a general theme of the noir movement of the 1940s:  there is no going back to the America that existed before the war. Radical change was baked into the wartime recipe.

As of this writing, the main plot summary at IMDb.com effectively ruins STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT for the uninitiated. That is not to suggest any great surprise; I learned long ago the more I avoid plot summaries and reviews prior to seeing a film for the first time, the more likely I am to experience the film as the filmmakers intended. It is never my intention to contribute to that nagging problem on my own blog, but for the sake of analysis I offer the following observations strictly for those who already have watched the film. How interesting that, whether he knows it or not, the credulous Johnny falls for a much older woman through his correspondence with the non-existent Rosemary. Not only that, he admits he may not have recovered were it not for her letters! The considerable age difference between Johnny and Hilda certainly is another factor that contributes to her otherness, though the nature of the correspondence outside of age separation remains problematic. To present oneself to another as something other than one's actual self, to create a persona that exists in writing only, is in itself unconscionable conduct. Another indication of the damaged woman is the revelation Hilda was unable to bare children. In light of the truth about Rosemary, the tour Hilda gives Johnny of her daughter's bedroom is especially creepy. That Rosemary essentially comes to life in the concluding sequence to take down Hilda seems completely appropriate, especially as a variation of the FRANKENSTEIN myth. Ivy's tacit agreement with the creation of Rosemary is another troublesome matter. The reticent servant's waning convictions come too late in the game for her redemption.



STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT is available in a single-layered Blu-ray edition from Olive Films. Framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the presentation is marred by some speckles and scratches but overall reflects very good source material. There is no supplemental material to consider.