Sunday, April 14, 2019

DETOUR (1945)

Producers Releasing Corporation, 69m 5s


"Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all."

The above line of narrated dialog closes DETOUR and succinctly summarizes everything that comes before it in director Edgar G. Ulmer's bare-bones film noir, made on the cheap for pipsqueak B-studio PRC. After a man's repeated run-ins with incredibly bad fortune, complicated further by some questionable decisions made in haste, he walks a road in a trance-like state of hopelessness. He is keenly aware that someday the police will collect him; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually. Without any decent prospects for the future, he is an outsider left to imagine how his life may have played out had certain moments of chance not transpired.

As the opening credits run, the background presents not the future, but the past. It is the view from the rear window of a moving automobile. Such backward imagery makes sense in the tortuous context of DETOUR, a bleak study of a man's failed attempt to outrun his past. As he makes his way east via a combination of hitchhiking and hoofing, Al Roberts (Tom Neal) stops at the Nevada Diner, where his surly demeanor quickly establishes the loner as the diner's least likable guest. He becomes particularly upset when he hears a jukebox rendition of "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me." It is at this juncture where the filmmakers rely on the plot mechanics of CASABLANCA (1942) to delve into the lead protagonist's history, but the intense chiaroscuro imagery that follows is unfiltered noir. A subjective darkness envelops Al as a series of flashbacks arise. During his piano-pounding days at the Break O' Dawn Club in New York City, he falls for singer Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). Though a tremendously talented, classically-trained pianist, for whatever reason Al finds himself on the nightclub's schedule, playing for tips from the evening hours until 4 AM. Nonetheless, he considers himself to be fairly lucky. He plans to make an honest woman of Sue, but she is bound for Hollywood and the potential stardom it offers a chosen few. Before long, Al feels a magnetic pull to join his beloved in the land of hopes and dreams. Al sells everything he owns and makes the trip west with only a small suitcase in hand.




An archetypal noir protagonist, Al laments the lack of money available to him, but wouldn't know what to do with it if he had it. Headed for California with precious little cash to his name, Al covers the most ground as a hitchhiker. He is scooped up by Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) in Arizona. Charles is a pill-popping bookie with a fat pocket and a nice car, but his right hand is marked by deep scratches. He explains to Al those wounds were the work of, "...the most dangerous animal in the world:  a woman." Charles also bears a large scar on his arm that stands for the family life with which he no longer identifies. The well-established film noir atmosphere thickens when heavy rainfall coincides with the untimely death of Charles! Not optimistic the police would be sympathetic to his cause, Al assumes Charles's identity rather than risk involving the law. Al not only takes the identity of a dead man, he leaves his own personal belongings with the lifeless body of Charles. Such actions never seem to pan out favorably in the unforgiving noir landscape, and Al experiences nightmares that foretell his decline. Charles may have been a cheap chiseler out to dupe his own father, but he probably deserves a better memorial than he is granted.

"Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you."

Al is assailed by fate again, far more dramatically this time, when he picks up an endlessly acerbic woman named Vera (Ann Savage in an unremittingly theatrical performance). She is the "dangerous animal" that left Charles battle-scarred. A quick study, Vera appraises Al and plans to exploit his tough situation for her own gain. At this point, the ugly downward spiral into which Al has tumbled seems to offer no possibility of an escape route.



"You know how to work it?"

The role of women in film noir has received much critical attention, mostly in terms of the rigid archetypes so many of the genre's female characters embody. Both of the major female characters of DETOUR contribute to the lead protagonist's downfall, even if the disposition of one woman is far more displeasing than that of the other. Things start to deteriorate for Al when the love of his life Sue decides to leave him in search of stardom. The title of the song he associates with her suggests his decision to trail her will be a big mistake, as does the thick fog of the city streets the couple navigates as she explains her desire to pursue her dreams. Most interesting, the downpour that accompanies the death of Charles occurs immediately after Al visualizes Sue performing somewhere in the Los Angeles area. His dream of a reunion with Sue must be very foolish, but Al is unable to decode the indigenous red flags of film noir, even as he goes into self-preservation mode.

Al travels in the direction of one woman, but it is his destiny to be besieged by another along the way. To say fate deals Al a bad card would be about as understated as that idea could be expressed. An unapologetically caustic woman, Vera shoves Al into a corner and does everything within her power to keep him there. Though when they meet Al shows Vera kindness and even senses her inner-beauty, once she recognizes she is in firm possession of the upper hand, her verbal ferocity knows no boundaries. She cares mostly about how much money she can squeeze out of him, and only Al cares that Vera's greed might be the undoing of both of them. She is intuitively defensive and angers easily, but nothing upsets her more than when Al shows no interest in her playful advances (the scene in which Vera throws her shoes out of sexual frustration is a nice touch). At the same time, she knows she is no great prize—she feels "10 pounds lighter" after a bath, and would rather avoid the police based upon her own murky past.

Like a large number of noir characters, Vera exhibits a physical weakness:  in her case, a chronic cough. Al notices this trait and likens her to Camille (LA DAME AUX CAMÉLIAS, 1848), who died of consumption. Despite Al's attempt to establish intellectual superiority, Vera is familiar with his reference. Her existential philosophical position makes sense in light of her apparently terminal condition, particularly when she confesses, "I'm on my way anyhow." Her failing health coupled with her tendency to drink heavily leads to respiratory failure in one of the most famous of noir fatalities. An unlikely cause of death perhaps, yet it seems entirely plausible on grounds of the film noir's fatalistic sensibility. Like Al, Vera appears destined for destruction, unequipped with the capacity to steer in the opposite direction.





It is not only Vera who struggles with communication skills. It appears all forms of communication are strained, ineffective, dishonest or unwelcome. Near the film's exposition in the diner sequence, Al articulates his emotions ineffectively with others. The first time Al reaches out by phone to his love Sue, he speaks plenty to her, and a conversation is implied, but never do we hear her voice. Rather strangely, when Sue is shown with a phone to her ear, she does not say one word. Later when Al is in Hollywood, he again telephones Sue, but this time it is Al who does not speak (due to Vera's omnipresence). Unable to connect with Sue, it is fitting Al makes an emphatic telephone connection with Vera, who fails to drop the dime she had threatened. Charles tried to make a connection of some sort with Vera before she clawed him; most likely it was unwanted touching (the event is discussed but never shown). Then there is the office scene at the used car lot, where Al cannot name the insurance company that covers the car he supposedly owns. What normally would be basic conversations in everyday situations go nowhere in DETOUR.

Analysis of the film noir often involves heavy use of the term "protagonist" since the genre's lead characters seldom could be described as anything else. Only rarely is there someone of untarnished goodness to consider, less often does the story include someone who could be described as a hero. The embittered character Al Roberts, who also serves as the story's narrator, takes that notion a step further when he accuses the viewer of betting against him. "You're going to tell me you don't believe my story about Haskell dying and give me that 'don't make me laugh' expression on your smug faces," he grumbles. Similarly, later he says none of us would accept his account of Vera's accidental death. Of course, the aim of narration in any film is to get the viewer on the side of the narrator. Al's narration indeed requests our sympathy, which he mostly deserves, especially from the standpoint of lost identity. At the film's conclusion, Al should feel relieved. Since he and Vera registered as Mr. and Mrs. Charles Haskell, Jr. at the rental apartment where Vera's body was found, the police are on the hunt for Charles. That reality means nothing to Al, who is neither himself nor Charles Haskell. He is a man of no true identity, from neither east nor west, trapped in noir no man's land, a place where danger cannot be averted. His complete lack of place, except perhaps in a jail cell, makes Al one of film noir's most directionless unfortunates. Based upon his lack of detestable qualities, he is among the more sympathetic of condemned noir figures. Far less sympathetic was the actor who portrayed Al. In one of Hollywood's great ironies, Tom Neal was convicted on November 18, 1965 of involuntary manslaughter after he shot his wife to death earlier that year. He served only six years for the crime, but died shortly after his release from prison at the age of 58.

New to the Criterion Collection, DETOUR has received a game-changer of a 4K digital restoration, framed correctly at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the dual-layered Blu-ray edition. If this release does not stand triumphantly as the most important film restoration of 2019 it will come as quite a surprise. For those of us familiar with the film's prior home video incarnations, to witness it unfold in such a pristine state is a bit baffling, with the persistent perspiration that covers Al's forehead palpable throughout the presentation. The only hints of the various source materials that comprise this new transfer are a few instances of missing frames.



Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Image Entertainment DVD (2000)

Special features include the documentary feature EDGAR G. ULMER: THE MAN OFF-SCREEN (2004, 75m 36s), which covers a tremendous amount of interesting information about "The King of the B's." Ulmer was noted best for making watchable movies in a small amount of time on limited funding. Peter Bogdanovich says Ulmer's career made quite an impact on future generations of indie filmmakers, who were inspired to believe they too could make something out of next to nothing. Wim Wenders makes the assertion that sometimes the most inexpensive of film productions, despite various shortcomings, actually come closer to the truth of existence than their larger-budgeted counterparts. Other important filmmakers who reflect on the career of Ulmer include Roger Corman, Joe Dante and John Landis, all of whom hold Ulmer in high regard and appear pleased to be participating.

A historical review of Edgar G. Ulmer's professional and private lives is complicated by his tendency to stretch the truth or even lie outright. For instance, he used a letterhead that announced Doctor of Philosophy, a title he never earned. Similarly, Ulmer said he was born in Vienna, a city of prestige, though in truth he was born in Czechoslovakia. He immigrated to Ellis Island in 1923, but like Al in DETOUR, was torn between two different places. Ulmer did not fully embrace America, nor did he completely leave European culture behind. However, World War II prompted Ulmer, a Jew, to remain in the US. Ulmer claimed to have worked on some very famous and influential productions, such as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920), METROPOLIS (1927) and M (M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, 1931). He also took credit for the innovative moving camera sequence in THE LAST LAUGH (Der letzte Mann, 1924). Biographer Noah Isenberg could not substantiate Ulmer's claimed contributions to any of these films.

The Hollywood credits of Ulmer are easier to verify, even if some of the details behind his projects remain open to debate in terms of creative contributions, budgets and shooting schedules. One of his greatest achievements was THE BLACK CAT (1934), shot in 15 days on a $91K  budget. It remains a supremely disturbing watch today, and one of the finest fright films to emerge from Universal Pictures, the studio noted mostly for its quality horror films at that time. A major turning point in Ulmer's filmmaking career transpired when he had an affair with 20-year-old Shirley Castle, his eventual wife, who at the time was married to producer Max Alexander, nephew of Universal Pictures president Carl Laemmle. Ulmer found himself alienated from mainstream Hollywood productions and was forced to move on to "Poverty Row" studios, where he would churn out the type of product for which he is remembered. He boasted a 6-day shooting schedule for DETOUR, though his daughter Arianne Ulmer notes the shooting schedule indicated 14 camera days. Again, the filmmaker's account of things appears somewhat sketchy. Ulmer worked mostly overseas in the 1950s and 1960s, and seemed happy to be there. His final film would be THE CAVERN (Sette contro la morte, 1964), for which Ulmer was in poor health according to John Saxon. Following a debilitating stroke, Edgar G. Ulmer passed away in 1972 in Woodland Hills, California.

"Noah Isenberg on DETOUR" (21m 11s) was recorded in November of 2018 for the Criterion Collection. The author of EDGAR G. ULMER: A FILMMAKER AT THE MARGINS (2014) and DETOUR (2008, BFI Film Classics) chronicles Ulmer's career from front to back. In Europe, Ulmer worked as a set designer for Max Reinhardt, then transitioned to the art department at Universal Pictures after he relocated to Hollywood. His early career was tethered to William Wyler, who churned out 2-reel Westerns at the time. The first feature Ulmer directed for Universal was THE BLACK CAT, shot while studio boss Carl Laemmle was on holiday in Europe. Laemmle returned to discover a product that was far too radical in style for his tastes, and to make matters worse, it was during this production when Ulmer fell for Shirley Castle. The author believes Ulmer was most effective at the margins of the film industry, and would not necessarily have made superior product with higher budgets. DETOUR backs up that argument with heavy use of stock footage, rear projection, a fog machine and reversed negatives (painfully apparent during a hitchhiking sequence). Ulmer's minimalist approach to the material is precisely what makes it impactful.

The story of DETOUR's restoration (11m 2s) begins in 2002, when Arianne Ulmer brought her film and video master collection to the Academy Film Archive. Director Mike Pogorzelski explains ten years were spent in search of the necessary film elements that would make restorative work possible. A 35mm nitrate composite print was discovered in Belgium, but French and Flemish subtitles would have to be removed. A variety of modern digital restoration techniques made the project possible per film preservationist Heather Linville. Pogorzelski believes the Belgian source material was only one generation away from the camera negative.

Also included is a Janus Films rerelease trailer (1m 32s) and a carefully-researched production review by Robert Polito, who concludes DETOUR's framework came into being very late in the filmmaking process, as Ulmer reduced the film's perspective to the fragile psyche of its lead protagonist. Polito does such a fine job in his review of the original screen treatment by Martin Goldsmith that one cannot help wonder about the more elaborate motion picture that another studio might have produced, and whether that product might have been even better than the justly revered DETOUR we know today.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

PHANTOM LADY (1944)

Universal Pictures, 86m 55s


A deftly engrossing noir mystery with a splash of horror, PHANTOM LADY is grounded in psychoanalytic theory, a complex urban environment and rigid female archetypes. Like other noir films of the 1940s, it warns of the harsh treatment that may await men who even consider straying from traditional domesticity, no matter how unsympathetic their wives may be. Its working title "Condemned to Hang" reveals a lot about the lead male protagonist in not only this narrative, but so many others of the emerging film noir genre.

Noticeably depressed, 32-year-old civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) walks into a bar with two tickets to a Broadway production for which his original date is not available. He meets a woman who agrees to accompany him to the show under the strict condition the two remain anonymous to each other. That woman is Ann Terry (Fay Helm), whose identity is disclosed long after their ephemeral evening of togetherness. At the show, a flirtatious drummer named Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.) likes what he sees of Ann, but the event's star attraction Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda) is disgusted that Ann wears the same supposedly unique hat the Latino singer features. After a largely improvised evening, Scott returns home to find his 29-year-old wife Marcela dead and himself a murder suspect. Led by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez), the police inform Scott his wife was strangled with one of his own neckties. The cops are plenty confident Scott offed his wife, despite the fact they witness him enter his apartment in conversation with the wife he believes is awake in the bedroom.




Like the same year's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), the story of PHANTOM LADY has its origin in a marriage without hope, though there is a difference in how those respective marriages are portrayed. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is shown to have a jerk for a husband, which helps explain (though does not excuse) her illicit behavior with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). The setup in PHANTOM LADY explains less, and Marcela Henderson never is shown alive, other than in a huge portrait that suggests a woman of considerable sexual power. Beyond that image, we know her primarily for the way she is remembered by the men in her life. Scott recalls a time when the couple was happy, but regrets, "...she was too spoiled and too beautiful." Both Scott and Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) recount being laughed at by her. Though she was an unfaithful wife who refused to go out with her husband to celebrate their anniversary, she would not grant Scott the divorce he requested. One could argue Marcela is the "phantom lady" of the film's title, a woman who was not there for her husband, a person whose behavior cannot be understood completely.

That reading aside, the story revolves around another female of mystery. When a woman with a fancy hat meets Scott, she chooses not to tell him her name, which later is revealed to be Ann Terry. The process of her eventual identification is a frustrating one for Scott, whose alibi depends on the existence of Ann. A bartender (Andrew Tombes) remembers Scott, but has no recollection of a woman with him. Similarly, cab driver Al Alp (Matt McHugh) takes Scott and Ann to the show, but remembers only Scott. Though painfully aware of Ann and her doppelgänger hat in the audience the prior evening, the performer Estela is too arrogant to admit Ann was present. Based on those witnesses, the police are not convinced Ann exists, and even Scott begins to share that skepticism! Could it be he just imagined her existence? That is exactly the type of mental anguish that time and again tortures the noir protagonist.

Another viable "phantom lady" is Carol Richman (the beautiful Ella Raines in a nicely calibrated performance). Carol is a working girl driven to detective work out of devotion to Scott, her boss. Interestingly, this woman of obvious character does not hail from New York City. She is from Wichita, Kansas (Scott affectionately calls her "Kansas"). Though the city man Jack makes the sexist remark that her gender makes her ill-suited to do investigative work, Carol is indeed up to the task, fiercely determined to spare Scott a fast-approaching date with the chair. She even assumes a new, distinctly urban identity (Jeannie) in pursuit of evidence that will free Scott. Commonly in the noir film multiple identities are associated with duplicity and/or criminality, but in this case the Jeannie alter ego is a faux femme fatale utilized to entrap those who have, knowingly or unknowingly, conspired against Scott. The film concludes with the angelic female gaze of Carol, who is ecstatic to learn her feelings for Scott will be returned. Her glow of satisfaction makes sense from an emotional perspective, but betrays the sense of empowerment the film had granted Carol up to that point. Her investigative work now finished, she appears overjoyed to be defined by her relationship with Scott, which is to suggest the working woman would prefer married life to workforce participation.





Psychoanalytic theory was a logical ingredient to the noir film of the 1940s, with plenty of potentially fractured minds under review, i.e. CAT PEOPLE (1942), SHOCK (1946), THE DARK MIRROR (1946) and THE DARK PAST (1948). Certainly not the most mentally stable fellow, Scott's best friend Jack Marlow exhibits many symptoms of the psychologically tormented, inherently dangerous individual. He uses his hands artistically as a sculptor and criminally as a killer, and even registers complete awareness of the obvious conflict, that Frankensteinian notion that hands may be used for both good and evil. Abstract sculptures suggest a deep-seated personality disorder, a mirror hints at a personality split, dizzy spells confirm an enormously troubled man. His anguish is aggravated by his urban environment, where he feels completely alienated, a nobody. The noir city may be home to millions, but many feel little sense of belonging or purpose. It is a place where the object of Jack's affection laughs in his face after he suggests they run off together. In his conversation with Jack, Burgess plays the role of psychiatrist as he emphasizes the importance of understanding the killer's mind. Burgess is convinced the killer is a paranoiac. Similarly, Carol condemns the killer's insanity before Jack, who cannot tolerate such conversation without helplessly falling into his paranoid side.

Parallel to the case of Jack is the mental health of Ann Terry, whose condition has declined sharply since the sudden death of her fiancé. Trapped in self-imposed anonymity, she refuses to tell her name to Scott, who extends the hand of friendship without much response from her. In truth she was a "phantom lady" before she met Scott one fateful evening. She had the hat of the performer Estela Monteiro copied, as if she wished to create an alternate personality for someone who no longer existed. That plan proves shortsighted after Monteiro denies the very existence of Ann. Female archetypes take a beating in the search for Ann, as when hatmaker Madame Kettisha (Doris Lloyd) is shown to be a domineering boss whose meek employee Miss Payton (Victoria Horne) cowers before her. After a lengthy search for answers about a night tarnished by fate, Miss Terry (mystery, get it?) is discovered in a decayed state of despondency, seemingly without much hope for recovery. Her last contribution to humanity may be the copied hat she hands over to Carol.




The female gaze

Set in New York City, there are a lot of indications the PHANTOM LADY narrative could not play out anywhere but a major metropolitan area. At the dingy apartment of a big city guy like the drummer Cliff, a visitor can sense the rats in the walls. En route to his preferred social scene, Cliff leads Carol (in character as Jeannie) down a stairway into the uncertain depths of the city, where a jazz improvisation band provides the soundtrack to a Freudian nightmare. Their musical orgasmatron is purely urban, and presumably not the safest locale for a nice Midwesterner like Carol to spend her time. Staircases that lead up harbor danger as well, where a suspenseful moment at a train stop occurs. This sprawling urban landscape is a place where an everyman like the bartender might consider committing murder. In fact, he probably would have pushed Carol to her death were it not for the sudden emergence of another person at the train stop. That moment he ponders murder is important for viewer consideration when the city streets prey on him a little later. The city's hot August temperature is another critical factor. Scott talks about the city heat the night of his wife's murder, at his trial courtroom spectators look lonesome for air conditioning, and electric fans do their best to keep thirsty patrons cool at the bar.

The recently released Arrow Academy Blu-ray edition of PHANTOM LADY boasts a new High Definition (1080p) transfer from original film elements with uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack. Framed at 1.34:1, this presentation appears to have been derived from different source material than the DVD version issued in 2012 by Universal as part of the Turner Classic Movies Vault Collection. A little disappointingly, this version remains loaded with scratches and plays a bit wobbly on occasion. Though the film elements could have used some restorative work, this Blu-ray release benefits from the leap in resolution, with greatly improved contrast and more realistic-looking skin tones.

Arrow Academy Blu-ray

TCM DVD

According to film historian Alan K. Rode, whose fine essay "The Making of PHANTOM LADY:  Film Noir in the Starting Blocks" (2018) is included as a booklet insert, producer Joan Harrison (credited as associate producer) also wrote the screenplay. She hired Bernard C. Schoenfeld merely for assistance, but for whatever reason, only Schoenfeld was credited for the adaptation of the 1942 crime novel of the same title by Cornell Woolrich (under the pseudonym William Irish). Despite recurring instances of studio interference that irritated Harrison, she would produce other notable noir cinema of the decade such as THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945, reteaming director Robert Siodmak with Raines), NOCTURNE (1946) and the excellent RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947, with Thomas Gomez). Siodmak and cinematographer Elwood Bredell collaborated on another two projects, both film noirs:  CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944) and THE KILLERS (1946).

The Arrow edition's supplements start with "Dark and Deadly:  Fifty Years of Film Noir" (1995, 52m 18s), a valuable documentary produced and directed by Paul Joyce. While the classic noir era of the 1940s and 1950s is examined, the documentary is more concerned with the neo-noir movement of the early 1990s than its inspiration. If film noir of the 1940s can be viewed as a post-WWII reaction, the neo-noir of the early 1990s reflects the end of the Cold War. Filmmakers who discuss their neo-noir projects include John Dahl (KILL ME AGAIN [1989], THE LAST SEDUCTION [1994]), James Foley (AFTER DARK, MY SWEET [1990]), Carl Franklin (ONE FALSE MOVE [1992]), Dennis Hopper (THE HOT SPOT [1990]) and Bryan Singer (THE USUAL SUSPECTS [1995]). Dahl points out that noir allows the filmmaker to uncover the gray areas of humanity, the multiple layers of personalities. Creative forces behind the classic film noir era who reflect on their work include director Edward Dmytryk, who says that his CROSSFIRE (1947), a film that trashes anti-Semitism, actually was considered subversive at the time of its original theatrical run! And it is an absolute treat to hear from quintessential noir cinematographer John Alton, in his mid-90s at the time. In discussion of his book PAINTING WITH LIGHT (1949), Alton reveals he studied great painters like Rembrandt to learn his trade. Alton also comments on the difficulty he faced in his attempt to inject quality into cinema, and how his minimalist approach was disliked by other Hollywood tradesmen, many of whom were unnecessary when Alton served as director of photography. Where some sets might have required 16 electricians, Alton might have needed one.

Another significant bonus feature is the Lux Radio Theater version of PHANTOM LADY (59m 33s) that aired March 27, 1944 with an introduction by Cecil B. DeMille, who hosted the one-hour show from 1936 through 1945. Ella Raines returns as Carol, and Alan Curtis reprises his role as Scott. The two are joined by Brian Aherne, who takes on the part of Jack. A 30-chapter image gallery that pools together lobby cards, production stills, publicity photos, theatrical posters and conceptual art completes this highly collectible offering from Arrow Academy.




Sunday, February 17, 2019

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956)

RKO Radio Pictures, 80m 25s


Should anyone be sentenced to death based upon circumstantial evidence? That is the major question posed in BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, a noir-stricken social problem drama that was released in the twilight of the film noir's heyday. Director Fritz Lang's prior films include some of the most revered instances of genre filmmaking (M [1931], SCARLET STREET [1945], THE BIG HEAT [1953]), so his final American production caught me off guard with somewhat stagy direction, an overly deliberate pace and seemingly textbook plot mechanics. Little did I realize I was being set up in the best possible way by Lang and screenwriter Douglas Morrow.

The narrative commences on a somber note with the condemnation of a man to the electric chair. Among the spectators at the event are Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), an idealistic newspaper man, and his future son-in-law Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), a former journalist with a hit novel under his belt. After the execution, Austin explains to Tom the conviction that resulted in a death sentence was based exclusively on circumstantial evidence. While Austin declares his firm stance against capital punishment, enter District Attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf), who holds the opposite view on the subject. Roy's career is on the rise thanks to his reputation for squeezing guilty verdicts out of juries. He is the type of chief prosecutor who is supremely skilled at making small details seem crucial, and that talent might make him a governor someday.

After Tom realizes slow progress on his second novel has gotten him into disfavor with his publisher, Tom is talked into a potential solution that would serve a dual purpose. Tom is to play the part of innocent man convicted on circumstantial evidence, with Austin prepared to swoop down at the final hour to exonerate Tom with unquestionable evidence the author is an innocent man. Thereby Austin proves the validity of his long-held argument against capital punishment, and Tom avoids the sophomore slump with all the ingredients for a potent follow-up to his original novel. When police discover the murdered body of a burlesque dancer ("pretty Patty Gray" according to the exploitative news article), it seems everything is in place for Tom and Austin to draw from their secret playbook. The beauty of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT is the manner in which Fritz Lang engineers dramatic simplicity while he builds a fairly complex narrative engine. Like a practiced attorney, Lang encourages the viewer to form conclusions, but then he forces us to challenge them. When Tom indicates he would rather be in the bedroom working on Susan than book research, Austin looks in disgust at the couple. Why? Later Austin casually smokes a pipe and leaves a paper trail. Is it just part of the setup of Tom, or does it imply something else?




In addition to the social commentary announced in its title, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT fires a warning shot against self-centered behavior. The three major male characters act almost entirely out of self interest. Roy wants to further his career on the electrocuted bodies of convicted criminals, Austin wishes to prove the limitations of circumstantial evidence and the concept of reasonable doubt, Tom wants to get his next writing project completed so he can get married. Furthermore, both Austin and Tom pay dearly for deceptive behavior when critical evidence is torched by the noir motif of fate. By setting himself up to be convicted for murder, Tom is a fascinating noir protagonist in that he willfully volunteers for the punishment we suspect awaits him. He essentially sentences himself to death by electrocution in the hope he will be spared before the switch of death is pulled. The ideally-named Club Zombie is more than just a crummy noir venue populated by tough-talking dames; its branding claims Tom as among noir's walking dead men. People sometimes are not what they portray, and the noir doppelgänger theme gets a real workout here, with Tom assuming multiple identities and the murdered burlesque dancer known by two different names.




Without the film noir foundation outlined above, there may have been too many implausibilities to take BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT seriously. Could a man risk going to the chair over a novel, which may or may not be a success? Would that man not have too many worries that something could go wrong? And how could he be so insensitive as to not let his fiancée Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine) in on the master plan? In light of the film noir's cynical view of human nature, it is easy to look beyond those questions and ask better ones. How do some people manage to convince themselves they can control not only their own lives, but the lives of others? How arrogant does a person have to be to behave that way? The world is far too complex for anybody to exhibit much control over anything. Nonetheless, sometimes we attempt to reduce that complexity to simple cause and effect, yet there always will be variables we either cannot control or, more likely, never consider. The resolution of the narrative does little to resolve the moral conundrum introduced in the opening act. Instead one is left with the idea that human instincts are far too egocentric to solve a puzzle as complex as capital punishment.

Classic female archetypes are ingrained so deeply in the noir film often there is little to consider beyond wives and whores. Susan is the type of girl a man wishes to marry, the gals at the Club Zombie serve as her polar opposites. Distinctions are drawn clearly in terms of environments, attire, intelligence and each woman's command of the English language. The lower-tier woman is characterized by base instincts, as when "dazzling" but irritatingly loudmouthed blonde Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols) is impressed by a large roll of cash Tom flashes. Her dancing colleague Terry Larue (Robin Raymond) does separate herself somewhat on an intelligence level when she rightly becomes suspicious of Tom. Terry gets the best line of the film when she asks Dolly, "...what's he shopping around in the basement for?" Terry does not have any illusions that they are anything other than what they really are:  dime-store showgirls. That sense of streetwise awareness makes her more likely to survive tough noir terrain than her pleasant but bubble-brained coworker Joan Williams (Joyce Taylor).





The single-layered Blu-ray version of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT available via Warner Archive is framed at 2.0:1 (RKO-Scope). It must have been derived from fairly well-preserved source material, though frames appear to drop out at times. This transfer may not be perfect, but it is likely the best interpretation we are going to get of the rather straightforward but effective cinematography of William E. Snyder. I wish the score by Herschel Burke Gilbert did not coach the viewer on how to react. The only extra on this disc is a spoiler-laced trailer (2m 43s). As of this writing, I have not had an opportunity to view THE MAN WHO DARED (1946), a film that by all accounts tells a strikingly similar tale.

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT was repurposed for 2009, with director Peter Hyams at the helm. This remake for the most part was skewered by critics, most of whom seemed more determined to establish they were smarter than the material than offer any insightful criticism. Though I agree the remake’s conclusion feels overly telegraphed, the storyline is decidedly more pessimistic than the 1956 original. Film noir fans should appreciate how the 2009 version depicts modern-day legal corruption and dishonest journalism. In some respects, the remake is even more noir than the source of its inspiration.

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.