Saturday, March 9, 2024


Paramount Pictures, 92m 24s

One of the more obscure Hollywood productions to cover the topic of immortality, THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET made its official worldwide home video debut late in 2023. As marketed by boutique label Imprint, this cross-genre specimen incorporates both science fiction and film noir genre tropes. Frankenstein noir might sound like a winning combination, though to be honest I do not admire this title as much as I wish I did. Suspense comes in oddly small doses based upon the sensational subject matter; the plot summary on hand at Turner Classic Movies [SYNOPSIS] suggests more emotional heft than the film ultimately can provide. My disappointment notwithstanding, THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET offers solid production value, takes established genre tropes seriously and features actress Helen Walker, a name that should make film noir fans sit up straight. Still available as of this writing, the Imprint Blu-ray promises long-term collector value with its production limit of 1500 units.

Our preservation of youth story is set in London during the mid-1920s within a regimented society of class privilege. The featured protagonist is Dr. Julian Karell (Nils Asther), an amoral man with an eternal life mindset. A scientist with a penchant for painting portraits, his canvas depiction of Eve Brandon (Helen Walker) looks suspiciously like the work of an artist who was active a half-century ago according to a guest at the home of Sir Humphrey Brandon (Edmund Breon), Eve's father. Stranger still, Lady Minerva Aldergate (Aminta Dyne, uncredited) converses with Julian and recalls an affair she had with a man who could have been—must have been—Julian's grandfather. Julian would like to marry Eve, but first must endeavor to retain his appearance. He is 90 years old but claims he is 35 (actor Nils Asther was in his late forties at the time of the film's production and looks to be in exactly that age bracket). Julian's modified presentation of himself requires the surgical transfer of suprarenal glands from another human being every 10 years, which is to say a decennial murder is necessary to prolong his bid for immortality. He seems to have found his next guinea pig in the form of Alan Guthrie (Morton Lowry), a troubled young medical student with a gambling addiction, the sort of fellow that might go unmissed if he disappeared. Julian prevents Alan's suicide attempt and convinces him to participate in private scientific experiments, but the slightly belated arrival of endocrinologist and surgeon Dr. Kurt van Bruecken (Reinhold Schünzel) amounts to a huge setback. Julian recognizes Kurt no longer has the capacity to perform the 10-year surgeries on Julian as has become tradition since 1865. Kurt is actually younger than Julian, yet appears dramatically older as he hobbles about in an obvious state of decline. Despite the unforgiving encroachments of the aging process, Kurt's mind remains sharp as he admonishes Julian for arrogantly marching down the wrong path. Kurt is energized by a moral compass that Julian lacks.

After many years of practice...

A little too familiar?

"Men like us must always walk alone."

—Dr. Kurt van Bruecken

Though undoubtedly a science fiction film first and a film noir second, THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET possesses an indisputable noir soul. This Paramount title can be contextualized as dead-man-walking noir. As Julian witnesses his options to maintain his youthfulness disintegrating, the walking dead theme stands out as the most prominent of any of the film's themes and motifs. The walking dead man is one of the most unambiguous of film noir tropes, as emphasized repeatedly in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), the most influential of all noir films in terms of prevailing themes. The walking dead man would wander through a wide assortment of important noir films that would follow DOUBLE INDEMNITY, as seen in SCARLET STREET (1945), THE DARK CORNER (1946), DECOY (1946), THE KILLERS (1946), OUT OF THE PAST (1947), RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947), ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948), ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), D.O.A. (1950), NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958).

A noirish night

The juice of life

A vivid illustration of the alienated noir protagonist, Julian has survived for decades as an outcast and criminal. His sense of displacement is grounded in the reality that he cannot live in the real world as an ageless man forever. Thus his sense of alienation is self-imposed, forever connected to the selfish choices he has made. The woman he would like to marry comes with a reminder of the impossibility of keeping his immortality quest a secret. A ladyfriend of any significance does not correspond well with such a plan; Kurt reminds Julian a woman could never be in the cards for such men of science. How can a man maintain a relationship with a woman if she ages normally and he remains the same age? Indeed Julian's interest in a woman sets his downfall in motion. That places Eve among the most unwilling and unaware of film noir femme fatales to bring about a man's downward spiral. She is both the cure for his lack of belonging and the catalyst for his destruction. If Julian's relationship with Eve amounts to an insurmountable long-term impracticality, then a traditional family life is an absolute non-starter. That theme comes deeply embedded in many films noir, characterized by suspect family values and downright hopeless marriages to be found in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE SUSPECT (1944), SCARLET STREET, MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), ALL MY SONS (1948), SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948), WHIRLPOOL (1949) and GUN CRAZY (1950).

"All we are fated to learn we know already."

—Dr. Kurt van Bruecken

The film noir often is distinguished by a fixation on past events that cannot be undone, choices made in the past that prevent the major protagonist from moving forward in a positive way. It is not unusual to find evidence of that theme within noir title treatments, i.e. CORNERED (1945), OUT OF THE PAST (1947), THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME (1947), THE DARK PAST (1948), ABANDONED (1949), THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949), TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949), TRAPPED (1949), NO WAY OUT (1950), ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959). A closely related noir theme involves idealized images that embody an irretrievable past. How fitting that Julian enjoys painting portraits as a hobbyist, since the portrait is meant to preserve a moment in time. From the moment a portrait is completed, it represents a past that cannot be restored. As such, his artistic endeavors are at odds with the prospect of immortality. On another level, could the subject of the painting ever live up to Julian's expectations? Recall Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) falling for the framed woman in LAURA (1944). One wonders if Julian fell in love with Eve or her idealized, ageless likeness. Indeed his marriage proposal comes only after the unveiling of her portrait. Or maybe Julian's fondness for Eve and her inquisitive nature is best explained as fate. An atmosphere rich in fatalism is perhaps the purest of all film noir tropes, the support structure that gives rise to narratives engulfed in bitterness and cynicism like DETOUR (1945), SHOCK (1946), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), REPEAT PERFORMANCE (1947), CRISS CROSS (1949), ANGEL FACE (1952) and THE KILLING (1956). Another related and crucial component of the noir equation is irony. One of the deep ironies at work in THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET is that a discredited surgeon like Dr. B.A. Vishanoff (Konstantin Shayne, uncredited) is necessary to continue Julian's life, a respected man like Dr. Henry Latimer (Paul Cavanagh) can be of no assistance. Deep in the noir underworld, sometimes the unprincipled social pariah is of more value than the man of integrity.

Kurt and Julian as pioneering men of science —
an idealized past that no longer exists

Youthful vanity versus aging frailty

The dead next door

The Thames gives up its dead

A tale of two paintings

Admittedly THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET does not adhere to all film noir traditions, especially in terms of what noir expert Eddie Muller calls "the break;" that moment when the lead character considers the moral choice and then decides against it. That milestone marks a major turning point in the life of the protagonist, who possesses at least some moral fiber to find himself at a moment of internal debate. If Julian ever had a moment like that, it must have occurred long ago. As he desperately schemes toward another life-extending surgery, his motivations are completely egocentric. Julian is concerned only about the preservation of his deceitful image, not the overall benefit to mankind his colleague Kurt had sought. Julian has more in common with the crazed noir psychos of the 1950s than the average people of 1940s noir who make bad decisions or trip over some rotten luck. Julian's obsession with self-preservation anticipates the misguided villainy that would invade film noirs like GUN CRAZY, SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), ANGEL FACE, THE SNIPER (1952), THE HITCH-HIKER (1953), THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) and A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956).

Going downhill fast!

THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET is rooted in Barré Lyndon's 1939 West End play. Screenwriter Charles Kenyon had extensive writing credits in the 1920s and 1930s, and Garrett Fort, credited with the adaptation, contributed to DRACULA (1931, play), FRANKENSTEIN (1931, co-screenwriter), DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936, screenwriter), THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936, co-screenwriter) and AMONG THE LIVING (1941, co-screenwriter). As directed by Ralph Murphy, this adaptation views a little stagy in terms of coverage, with the level of intrigue kept to a frustrating minimum. The London setting fits this cross-genre exercise well, the fog of noir well captured on Hollywood soundstages by Henry Sharp, who also was responsible for the cinematography of some of film noir's more unrenowned entries such as JEALOUSY (1945), THE GUILTY (1947), HIGH TIDE (1947) and VIOLENCE (1947). My favorite visual conceit is the glowing elixir in the lab, which obviously recalls the mysterious glass of milk homme fatal Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) carried up the stairway in Alfred Hitchcock's SUSPICION (1941). I also like the imprisoning shadows that accompany the arrival of Julian's houseguest Alan, who would have been better off had he been left to drown. The impressive score was the work of Miklós Rózsa, who also composed the music for DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) and SPELLBOUND (1945).

Helen Walker's life story would provide immense subject matter for a lengthy biopic. The talented and uniquely attractive actress's career went off track irrevocably on New Year's Eve of 1946 after she picked up a trio of World War II veterans. A horrific accident killed one of her passengers and left everyone else with injuries. The men who survived said she was driving under the influence, recklessly at that. Though acquitted, she garnered a lot of negative press, which hurt her reputation. Her tarnished public image left her well suited to play femme fatales in noir films such as NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) and IMPACT (1949). She also appeared in CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948) and THE BIG COMBO (1955). In 1968 she died of cancer. She was only 47.

This region-free, single-layered Blu-ray edition of THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET released by Imprint is the product of a fresh 2K scan. Framed at 1.37:1, the film looks respectable enough in motion, with scratches and artifacts infrequent and not at all distracting. A welcome supplement, and an appropriate reason to invest in this disc, is the audio commentary track by seasoned film historian Tim Lucas, who recognizes THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET as the last of Paramount's horror/sci-fi releases of the 1940s. He correctly notes the quality of Paramount genre product was a notch above what was churned out over at Universal in terms of production value, actor performances and layers of subtext. This genre film owes an obvious debt to Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 Gothic novella STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE and the screen versions it had inspired up to that point:  Paramount's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920) and (1931), as well as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's interpretation (1941). Lucas also covers relevant films that broach the subject of immortality that preceded or followed THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET, including SHE (1935), THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945) and THE WASP WOMAN (1959). He also mentions episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that revolved around immortality and everlasting youth such as “Walking Distance” (October 30, 1959), “Long Live Walter Jameson” (March 18, 1960), “Kick the Can” (February 9, 1962) and “Queen of the Nile” (March 6, 1964). The character Dr. Julian Karell was inspired by French surgeon and biologist Alexis Carrel, a pioneer in vascular suturing techniques, organ transplantation and thoracic surgery. Lucas points out that Dr. Julian Karell was much more of a sadist in the stage version of the story; in the play Julian preys upon youths and disposes of them in acid after he is through with them. Lucas also calls attention to the homoerotic subtext between Julian and his suitable glands donor Alan (Morton Lowry appeared in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY later the same year). Homoerotic themes are prevalent in some of the most significant of noir productions, including THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), THE GLASS KEY (1942), GILDA (1946), THE BIG CLOCK (1948), THE LINEUP (1958) and THE BIG COMBO.

The 1959 Hammer Films remake, distributed theatrically by Paramount Pictures, was entitled THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. The Hammer effort comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, but both films share the same thematic concerns. In each film, close attention is paid to a Frankensteinian hands motif. Human hands have the potential to both commit horrific murders and perform remarkable surgeries that halt the normal aging process. Interestingly, the hands also provide the first hint of aging when another surgery is overdue. The motif is given further emphasis with the trembling hands of an elderly surgeon who no longer can be depended upon to perform glandular transplants every 10 years. It seems the positive things human hands are capable of are cancelled out by the negative qualities. Director Terence Fisher keeps essentially the same material moving a little more briskly with his version clocking in at just under 83 minutes. But Anton Diffring gives an erratic performance in the lead role of Dr. Georges Bonnet, and I actually find the transformation sequences more convincing in the original filmed version of the story.

I have not seen the HOUR OF MYSTERY hour-long TV episode “The Man in Half Moon Street” that aired June 22, 1957 on British television. This interpretation also featured Anton Diffring in the lead role and Arnold Marlé as Dr. Ludwig Weisz. The anthology television series was produced by ABC Weekend TV and broadcast on the ITV network.

Monday, December 25, 2023


Paramount Pictures, 88m 44s

An extension of the 1943 radio play written by Lucille Fletcher, producer/director Anatole Litvak’s socially uncompromising SORRY, WRONG NUMBER encompasses many of the themes and motifs central to the American film noir cycle:  women who are something other than what they seem, men who are tempted by the allure of money to commit crimes, a decadent urban setting, flashbacks meant to explicate the present, and above everything else, an irrevocable sense of doom as fate closes in on the major characters. An exercise in sustained tension, from the opening moments time is running out on the bedridden female protagonist. Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck earned her fourth Oscar® nomination) is wholly dependent on her telephone to send and receive information. Due to a crossed wire connection, she becomes aware of a murder plot set to take place that very evening. Leona eventually comes to suspect she is the intended victim. Trapped in her Manhattan residence alone, can the invalid avoid her fate?

Leona is one of film noir’s most unique femme fatales. The pampered daughter of drug mogul James Cotterell (Ed Begley), owner of the J. Cotterell Drug Co., she is known derisively as "the cough drop queen." That she would garner such a label is not surprising given her lamentable character traits:  she is spoiled, self-centered, manipulative and standoffish. An undesirable combination of petulance and fragility, Leona is all but impossible to engage in conversation. But given her obvious social pedigree as the Cotterell heiress, she maintains at least some appeal despite regular intervals of truculent defiance. Interestingly, Leona is the driving force behind her romance with Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster, cast against type), a big strapping young fellow who looks good on the dancefloor at the Matthews College for Women. Their social backgrounds are comically antithetical; he works in a drug store, her father owns a large chain of drug stores. Henry does not understand why Leona would have any interest in someone like him. Her clingy father cannot help but agree. James pleads with his daughter not to marry a financially undernourished man of limited education. Of course she acts against her father's admonitions, and so the Cotterell family merges with Henry Stevenson.

Murder by numbers

For better or worse

Safe house?

That noir moment of recognition

A crucial theme baked into the film noir genre, especially during the classic period that stretches from roughly 1944 - 1950, is that the traditional American family is under strain. It is easy enough to note the absence of family values and the many unsuccessful marriages that distinguish DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE SUSPECT (1944), SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), ALL MY SONS (1948), WHIRLPOOL (1949) and GUN CRAZY (1950). The preeminent theme that makes SORRY, WRONG NUMBER so perfectly noir is its bleak rendering of its star-crossed couple. In the course of a marriage unfulfilling for both parties, there is no happiness to be found in Leona’s family, only discontent, deception, disappointment, and death. From the outset, there seems to be no way to align the interests of everyone concerned. This theme can be traced back to the mother who died giving birth to Leona. Given the obvious class distinctions and contrasting personalities that polarize Henry and Leona, the husband and wife seem destined for divergent paths. It is not long after her wedding to Henry that Leona discovers a photo of his old flame Sally Hunt Lord (Ann Richards) in his wallet. That discovery instantly creates doubt in Leona’s mind about her choice for a husband. That finding is both revealing and deceptive; Leona is slow to recognize where the actual trouble lies.

Guns pointed directly at her, the mise en scène
suggests a grim future for Leona Stevenson

Henry demonstrates he has the ideal disposition to push the already nervous Leona into endless hysteria. Most important, he possesses a character trait typical of the film noir protagonist:  he thinks he deserves more than what he has and is willing to break the law to get it. What does separate Henry from most other noir protagonists is that he is not an average person trying to make good. Thanks to his unlikely wedding to a woman of significant means, he is fortunate enough to assume a do-nothing VP position at the largest pharmaceutical manufacturer in the country, but finds no satisfaction in his fixed opportunity at his father-in-law's firm. Henry mockingly tags himself "the invoice king," seemingly unaware he signed up for that position alongside "the cough drop queen." Thinking himself a stooge, Henry takes a tragically wrong turn when he goes after what he believes to be his rightful take. In an aggressive act of rebellion, Henry exploits the limited financial success of company chemist Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) to form an underworld partnership. Henry and the milquetoast Waldo become drug traffickers in a raw materials skimming scheme; a plot thread that had to be diluted for Production Code considerations. It was recommended the filmmakers should take special care to avoid any references to an illicit drug trade, yet the drug trafficking angle is hardly an obscure plot thread. Naturally Henry's business model proves unsustainable. When resources are running low, the gangster Morano (William Conrad) recommends Henry goes after his wife's life insurance money!

Henry's immersion into a corrupt atmosphere of nefarious activity stems from frustration with his family, both personally and professionally. Just as Henry is dissatisfied with his work at the family business, he finds no sense of purpose flanked by his domineering wife. He does not harbor any desire to live under the same roof as his wife's father, either (cannot blame Henry for that conviction). Henry's determination to find his path somewhere beyond the clutches of the Cotterells leads to his wife's progressive panic attacks. As her unhappiness heightens, so her body weakens. Leona is confined to her bed much of the time, gradually working herself into a neurotic frenzy. In another familiar film noir theme that adds further complexity to this problematic noir marriage, Dr. Alexander (Wendell Corey) is unable to uncover anything physically wrong with Leona's heart, which implies her issue is purely psychological. Expressed somewhat differently, Leona and Henry are about as wrong for each other as one could imagine. Each makes the other feel worthless. Tellingly, all narrative paths converge in the bedroom, the supposed sanctuary of the married couple. Leona is a prisoner in the bedroom of her own home, trapped on the third floor awaiting her own murder, which was contracted by the husband she handpicked. Ironically, there is nothing about her physicality that should prevent her escape. Her state of paralysis is a product of her fractured psyche, nothing more. Psychological issues inflict anguish on major characters in a vast number of noir films, i.e. CAT PEOPLE (1942), SCARLET STREET (1945), NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), POSSESSED (1947), SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948), WHIRLPOOL (1949), WHITE HEAT (1949), THE SNIPER (1952) and WITHOUT WARNING! (1952). Moreover, Leona's limited mobility reflects the noir genre's obsession with broken individuals. Witness the less-than-able-bodied characters that populate DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), GILDA (1946), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), ABANDONED (1949), ACT OF VIOLENCE (1949), KEY LARGO (1948), THE HITCH-HIKER (1953), STORM FEAR (1955) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958). Leona is something of a special case in that her psychological frailty gives rise to her bedridden state of meaninglessness.

Leona not at her best

Chiaroscuro lighting typical of the classic noir era

The individual minimized by his environment

A prescient composition

Beyond its major themes that emanate from a distinctly noir worldview, SORRY, WRONG NUMBER maintains a wide aperture for the genre's many other recurring signposts. What fills most of the 88-minute runtime is a series of flashbacks, even a flashback within a flashback, that combine to form a nightmarish evocation of a relationship that never stood a chance. The standard randomness of the noir environment is in full effect as well. Due to a remarkably random technical glitch (better understood as a condemned individual's fate), Leona overhears a telephone conversation that describes a murder arranged for that night. The operator cannot help her, nor can the police provide any assistance. Leona is ordained to die, but not before the irony of that certainty is brought into focus. After the archcriminal Morano is arrested, there is no reason to pay any debt owed to him, but Henry is unaware of that development while the contract to eliminate his wife remains in effect. She dies at the narrative's conclusion for no reason other than fatalism. Beforehand Leona even expounds her comprehension of the situation to her husband. The film's concern with family matters in fact reaches beyond the relationship between Leona and Henry. For instance, the marriage between Sally and Fred Lord (Leif Erickson) appears to have its challenges. After Fred keeps quiet about the sting designed to imprison her ex Henry, she resorts to spying on her husband to satisfy her natural curiosity. Then there is Henry's childhood recollection of his mother, who he remembers only as a hopelessly overworked domestic figure. In terms of setting, the sin-ridden noir city is an impersonal place in which a normally useful object like the telephone contributes to an alienated individual's sense of helplessness and fear. The noir city even serves as a necessary accomplice to the murder of Leona via one of the natural sounds of the urban milieu (a bypassing train). Visual signals of noir include shadows cast by venetian blinds, a serpentine staircase, and idealized photos that do not even begin to reflect reality. An audio hallmark is the narration that helps cover historical milestones of the connection between Leona and Henry. Despite a structure heavily reliant upon flashbacks, the narrative unspools in inevitable real time. Such structure works to consume the condemned lead protagonists in a painfully slow manner.

The noir protagonist faced with no better alternative

No way out

The killer's timely arrival

The noir marriage knocked over

Lucille Fletcher's 22-minute radio play SORRY, WRONG NUMBER originally aired on SUSPENSE (CBS) May 25th, 1943 with Agnes Moorehead as Leona. It was wildly popular, re-broadcast every year for a ten-year period. In 1947, Hal Wallis hired Fletcher to adapt her radio play for the big screen. Fletcher published a novelization of her radio play in 1948 along with the screenplay adaptation, co-authored by Allan Ullman. The Paramount production was in wide release in the US on September 24th, 1948 and became a financial success that no doubt helped ingrain Fletcher’s original material into the public consciousness. Stanwyck and Lancaster returned to their roles for a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on January 9th, 1950. Shelley Winters starred as Leona in a CBS television production of the play for the TV show CLIMAX! on November 4th, 1954. Agnes Moorehead reprised her lead role when she recorded her interpretation in 1952 and converted the play into a one-woman act during the 1950s. Loni Anderson starred in the lead role in a TV movie version that aired in 1989.

The Shout! Factory dual-layered Blu-ray edition of SORRY, WRONG NUMBER released earlier this year offers heavy grain level and good contrast, all the better to appreciate the authenticity of atmosphere achieved by cinematographer Sol Polito. Some rather prominent scratches disturb the viewing experience from time to time, but overall the transfer looks strong framed at 1.37:1. Unique to this Shout! Factory project is a fresh audio commentary track by podcasters Sam Hurley and Emily Higgins. Unfortunately, their critique of the film is notable for long patches of silence and sometimes veers into riff territory. Not my cup of tea, at least not for a film I admire.

The other supplements are common to the Blu-ray edition released by Imprint in 2020. The audio commentary by film historian Alan K. Rode is loaded with his usual well-rounded research. Ukrainian-born filmmaker Anatole Litvak purchased the screen rights to SORRY, WRONG NUMBER from Lucille Fletcher in 1946. Litvak sold the film rights to producer Hal B. Wallis, which is how the co-production between the two was conceived. The box office take was $2.85M on a budget just under $1.5M. Barbara Stanwyck earned a healthy $125K for her role, which accounted for the largest production expense. She was the highest paid actress in the business at the time. Wallis should be remembered as one of the top producers during the Golden Age of Hollywood, as well as a skilled contract negotiator. Rode contends Burt Lancaster went after roles that would test his talents, and the emerging star always insisted on having the final say with producer Wallis. Rode points out that the killer getting away with murder scot-free in the radio play was unheard of at the time.

In his introduction (2m 30s) of SORRY, WRONG NUMBER, film noir expert Eddie Muller mentions the source material was the most famous original radio drama ever other than the 1938 radio broadcast of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, narrated and directed by Orson Welles. The featurette "Hold the Phone:  The Making of SORRY, WRONG NUMBER" (2009, 31m 25s) covers the story's transition from radio broadcast to feature film. Dorothy Herrmann, daughter of Lucille Fletcher and composer Bernard Herrmann, notes that her mother's parents were unenthused about Lucille's relationship with Bernard. Next up is the Lux Radio Theatre radio play (1950, 59m 41s) that returned Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster to their roles from the 1948 film. Also among the supplements is a filmed performance of the radio play (28m 37s) with Sandy York giving it her all in the featured role of Mrs. Leona Stevenson. The difference in duration between the radio play and its movie adaptation accounts for some distinctions in the portrayal of Leona, who is even more unlikable and unreasonable in the radio play. In the course of an almost 90-minute movie, Barbara Stanwyck's interpretation is at least somewhat sympathetic, if for no other reason than the Leona character is not required to be grating every second. Another difference is the telephone in the radio play becomes a major character in its own right. A theatrical trailer (2m 38s) champions the source material's transition from radio play to vinyl record to novelization to feature film, and a photo gallery (2m 53s) completes the robust collection of bonus material.

Sunday, November 5, 2023


Warner Bros., 94m 43s

The Warner Bros. success MILDRED PIERCE (1945) marked a triumphant comeback for actress Joan Crawford and deservedly is remembered as one of the finest film noirs of its time. Four years later, studio boss Jack Warner looked to recreate that production's magic. The reteaming of Crawford, Zachary Scott and Michael Curtiz along with a familiar array of Warner talent resulted in the rags to riches story FLAMINGO ROAD. Once again Crawford's indefatigable character is determined to defy all odds and elevate her social status while retaining her moral foundation. Compared alongside MILDRED PIERCE, this title might be considered minor league film noir, though FLAMINGO ROAD remains of interest as a gritty woman's picture with the great Crawford at its center. And under the stewardship of executive producer/director Curtiz, his southern gothic noir is notable for its dramatic rigor, well-staged compositions and aggressive critique of unfettered capitalism.

Set in the south within the (fictitious) community of Boldon City, Deputy Sheriff Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott) is tapped on the shoulder to foreclose on an insolvent carnival, only to learn the troupe of traveling performers already is bound for the state line. The one exception is Lane Bellamy (Joan Crawford), an undereducated but headstrong woman with three dollars to her name. She has decided against continuing her exotic woman act in the hope of establishing some roots. Fielding takes an immediate interest in Lane and helps secure her a job at the Eagle Cafe, where she cannot escape the scrutiny of the slyly observant Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet), who has long-term political plans for the meekly obedient Fielding. Titus frowns on his protégé's sudden connection with the "stray cat" Lane and quickly becomes a disruptive force between them. The highly influential, controlling sheriff has a more respectable mate in mind for Fielding in the form of socialite Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston).

Evidence piles up throughout the narrative that political corruption is the crux of American society, with the kingmaker Titus as poster child for the undesirable realities of free market capitalism and its insoluble conflicts. His support of Fielding reeks of self-interest and opportunism. Fielding seems custom made for the part. He served in the US Army during WWII and is the son of a prominent judge. Though Fielding failed to finish law school, based on his family name the state's charismatic political boss Dan Reynolds (David Brian) agrees with Titus that Fielding has a future in the public sector. Titus plans for Fielding to serve on the state legislature before ultimately graduating to governor. Toward that venture, Titus wields his considerable authority in the direction of Lane in the hope of exterminating her from Fielding's life.

Given his full-scale assault on Lane's plan to remain in Boldon City, Titus proves he will do whatever it takes to compel her to leave town at high speed. Without warning he gets her fired from her waitressing job. Were that not sufficiently evil, he then has her picked up for prostitution and railroaded into the Women's Prison Farm. Interestingly, and this is where the film really says a lot about what it takes to get ahead in America, it is while incarcerated that Lane is directed to Lute Mae Sanders (Gladys George), proprietor of a popular roadhouse frequented by crooked state politicians. This establishment is where Lane attracts the attention of Dan Reynolds, who enables her rapid ascent to 32 Flamingo Road.

In his audio commentary track for ANGEL FACE (1952), film noir expert Eddie Muller notes the classic noir movement champions the working woman. Time and again the genre's positive female characters participate in the workforce and its worthless dames live off either inherited wealth or the earnings of men. FLAMINGO ROAD provides solid evidence for Muller's observation. A strong role model for Lane and females in general, Lute Mae is an empowered, willful personality who represents what is possible for the ambitious working woman. She admits she is a cynic, especially when it comes to other women. Lute Mae is steadfast in her refusal to be manipulated by Titus, who seems to reluctantly respect her backbone. Certainly she is the antithesis of the cowardly Eagle Cafe owner Pete Ladas (Tito Vuolo), who fires Lane rather than stand up for the waitress he knows is doing a fine job. Along with Lute Mae and Lane Bellamy, FLAMINGO ROAD features a likable supporting group of working women such as the Eagle Cafe's Millie (Gertrude Michael), Lute Mae's Tavern's Gracie (Alice White) and the Reynolds' maid Sarah (Jan Kayne).

FLAMINGO ROAD fully endorses the working woman while it associates masculine endeavors with corruption, compromise, callousness and weakness. Dan Reynolds personifies a political landscape hopelessly awash in dishonest dealings. "I've got a soul that needs lots of purging," he remarks. At the helm of his own construction company, Dan is an industrialist who believes his efforts as a land developer require predictable political alliances. Based upon trial and error, he understands that without the necessary political connections, everything to do with construction moves at a glacial pace. In his view, politics and land development each require the other to function. His involvement in getting people elected remains a troublesome listen to the modern ear:


"The people haven't elected anyone in this state for so long they've lost the habit. It's a lot of trouble to go to the polls. Usually it interferes with a baseball game or a fishing trip. When people don't care, they get about what they deserve."

The above notion regarding voter apathy is where FLAMINGO ROAD is especially pessimistic, with elected public officials subservient to corrupt shadow government figures. In such a scenario, do elections really matter? How can a representative democracy serve the greater social good when its politicians are beholden to backers with specific self-centered interests? Over the years Dan has built his syndicate and no doubt made his share of enemies. The impersonal nature of a free market that enriches some and ruins others is emphasized when Dan registers zero emotion in front of a man who says he suffered a devastating loss. Dan has heard it all before. The film's Marxist agenda is underscored when Dan justifies his position to Lane:


"...the honest men get eaten up. There are too many other men waiting, watching, probing for the soft spots, the graft. No, it's better to be one of them."

Dan at least displays a point he won't go beyond when he remains committed to George Parkhurst for governor and staunchly refuses to back Titus's stooge Fielding. If nothing else Dan is a man of his word, which helps separate him from the more detestable Titus, a man willing to sink to far lower levels of depravity. Titus rests on the Palmer House porch like a slug when not engaged elsewhere in what appears to be exclusively dishonorable activity. He probably was perched on the front porch when he first dreamed of controlling the entire state with the manipulable Fielding under his thumb. Power-hungry men like Titus prop up men who are strong enough to get elected (sometimes merely based on a family name), but weak enough to be controlled by their backers who stand in obscurity behind the curtain. There is a discernible homoerotic subtext to the sheriff's endorsement of Fielding, who weds Annabelle but in a sense already is married to Titus. After Fielding proves he does not have the stomach for the tactics of Titus, the portly county sheriff shows a propensity for bold violence when he tosses a drunken Fielding out of his own office (the segment is staged like a lover's quarrel). Ultimately Titus double-crosses his own boy's club and confidently positions himself as the next governor. In an especially hypocritical, dirty move, Titus forces Dan's project manager Burr Lassen (William Haade) to put convicts to work without wages to set up Dan for peonage charges. In a moment of honest reflection about the political prominence Titus commands, Dan admits to local newspaper man Doc Waterson (Fred Clark), "'s men like me that make them possible." Perhaps to discourage a communist interpretation of the film, Doc conveys a more optimistic mindset when he mentions, "...I don't think our form of government's so bad that honest men can't run it." But to emphasize FLAMINGO ROAD's overarching level of cynicism, Titus recognizes his need to at some point get the bothersome journalist under control. The brand of cronyism Titus favors clicks along best with the newsman either passive or a partner.

The noir stairway here implies a position of both danger and power

In film noir mythology, the American family often is depicted in a less than flattering light. That hallmark noir theme in FLAMINGO ROAD starts with the marriage between Fielding Carlisle and the aristocrat Annabelle Weldon at the behest of Titus. Annabelle, depicted as simple-minded and high maintenance, is delighted to marry Fielding, who in truth would prefer the long-term company of Lane to the endless henpecking of Annabelle. As Titus demands, his flunky Fielding becomes a state senator, thanks at least in part to Fielding's union to a socially prominent woman. But it is this same woman who ensures Fielding's downfall when she complains to Titus about her husband. In the course of his marriage, Fielding leans into the sort of full-on downward spiral not uncommon in film noir territory. He develops an addiction to alcohol, loses the support of both his wife and his political backer and allows his own moral decay to lead to his suicide.

As assumptions about capitalism here apply, Fielding falls while Lane rises. But the marriage between Lane and Dan brings about its own heavy baggage, especially in terms of class relations. The society gal Annabelle dismissively refers to Lane as "a woman of that sort." Eventually Dan turns his back on Lane when she reveals exactly why Titus is so uncharitable in his judgment of her. Based upon the film's resolution, we are left in a somewhat uncertain state in terms of where Lane and Dan are headed. Presumably Dan will continue to play the capitalist game, his wife along for the ride, or could there be a significant change in his business mentality after he was manipulated by Titus? Whatever Dan's ethical boundaries might be going forward are left to conjecture. He looks set to stick by his wife, but will he allow his state to be governed by honest men, as Doc suggests is possible?

Marital discord


The marriage of political expedience meets its conclusion

Now you listen and you listen good

FLAMINGO ROAD was released theatrically on May 5th, 1949 and performed well commercially. Robert Wilder's screenplay was an adaptation of the 1946 play co-written by Wilder and his wife Sally. The play was derived from his 1942 novel. To the modern viewer accustomed to the structure of an 8-to-10 episode TV series, the events in FLAMINGO ROAD play out at an absurdly quick pace, as when Dan declares his strong feelings for Lane after knowing her about a day. The events that play out in this film likely would provide more than adequate material for a 10-hour series these days. The casting of Joan Crawford is another problem point. She was 43 at the time of filming and too mature to play the part of a carnival dancer. Even more problematic is she was almost 20 years older than Virginia Huston, the actress who portrays her rival. And to my ear anyway, Sydney Greenstreet is not the easiest thespian to understand; I flipped on the subtitles during a couple of sequences. Minor reservations aside, FLAMINGO ROAD is a taut, well-written film that rewards repeat viewings with snappy dialog and assured direction from Michael Curtiz.

Earlier this year Warner Bros. added FLAMINGO ROAD to the Blu-ray restorations among their Archive Collection. According to Warner, this new transfer made use of the best film elements available. The new HD master is accompanied by a new 2.0 DTS-HD Master audio track. Black & white contrast shows a nice improvement versus the Warner DVD first issued in 2008. At times whites lack definition, though mostly at times of soft focus. The level of film grain is pleasing to the eye and the film looks really nice in motion. The cinematography is top notch as handled by Ted D. McCord, a frequent collaborator with Curtiz, i.e. THE BREAKING POINT (1950), YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950) and THE PROUD REBEL (1958). Framing is at the theatrical scope of 1.37:1 and honors the integrity of the film elements better than the Warner DVD’s scan, which was compressed to 1.33:1. The DVD scan captures slightly more information at the bottom of the frame, the new HD scan adds slightly more to the top. Fans of FLAMINGO ROAD should consider this Blu-ray disc a worthwhile upgrade. The DVD screen capture below looks hazy by comparison.

Warner Blu-ray

Warner DVD

Most of the new Blu-ray's supplemental material was ported from the Warner DVD. "Curtain Razor" (1949, 7m 17s) is a Warner Bros. Looney Tunes short directed by Friz Freleng. It stars Porky Pig and was originally released on May 21, 1949. This short features gags common to other Looney Tunes shorts; most notably "Show Biz Bugs" (1957) borrows from multiple segments. "Crawford at Warners" (2008, 12m 9s) recalls Joan Crawford's transition from MGM to Warner Bros., where she had about five good years. Crawford pushed away most everything at first, then was drawn to MILDRED PIERCE after her Warner stablemate Bette Davis turned it down. After that film, for which she won the Academy Award, next up was HUMORESQUE (1946), sometimes referenced as her finest role. It was another big hit. Her follow-up was POSSESSED (1947), which was meant for Davis, who was pregnant at the time. Crawford's performance in the role of Louise Howell earned her a second Academy Award nomination. After a string of films that performed respectably at the box office, GOODBYE, MY FANCY (1951) was a box office failure. THIS WOMAN IS DANGEROUS (1952) was considered a derivative production that marked the end of her run at Warner Bros., but she would bounce back quickly with SUDDEN FEAR (1952), an independent feature released by RKO Radio Pictures and one of my favorite film noirs. For her contribution as playwright Myra Hudson she received a third Academy Award nomination. Another selectable bonus feature is the Screen Directors Playhouse radio drama adaptation of FLAMINGO ROAD (23m 38s) that aired May 26th, 1950. Joan Crawford and David Brian resumed their original roles. A theatrical trailer (2m) is included, and this Blu-ray release also includes “Breakdowns Of 1949” (10m 25s), a collection of outtakes from familiar Warner titles.

FLAMINGO ROAD was converted into an NBC TV Series that ran from 1980 to 1982. This adaptation was created by Lorimar Productions, known for producing CBS's popular shows DALLAS and KNOTS LANDING. Ultimately it failed in its timeslot opposite ABC's silly but popular mystery series HART TO HART.