Saturday, July 31, 2021

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)

Twentieth Century Fox, 80m 37s

Seldom focused on binary heroes and villains, the film noir sometimes appraises diverse people from marginalized communities, battle-hardened folks barely subsisting. An 80-minute tale told with razor sharp clarity by writer/director Samuel Fuller, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is one of the most affecting instances of this variety of noir filmmaking. It is also one of the most intriguing film noirs to focus on characters driven by their own internal moral devices, society's laws and norms of behavior notwithstanding.

The opening sequence is heavy in the brand of fatalism found primarily in film noir. As an incorrigible pickpocket practices his trade in a subway train, a remarkable moment of fate comes to pass. Skip McCoy (the inimitable Richard Widmark) unknowingly takes possession of classified government information ("a new patent for a chemical formula") from the purse carried by Candy (Jean Peters). On the surface it seems a stretch that a pickpocket in search of a random victim in densely-populated NYC would manage to single out a courier for communists, but this meeting is destiny, not coincidence. To witness the theft is to feel a little guilty for watching; the crime is uncomfortably erotic. As Skip skillfully relieves Candy of her personal item, her reactions reflect an unconscious awareness of the violation going on, a wanton readiness to his touch. The tone is set for a relationship in which crime and passion coexist, one never far removed from the other.




The spine of the story is provided by Skip, a tightly-wound individual and three-time loser sought by police after a mere week out of the joint (a fourth conviction means a life sentence). Skip is no hero by any means, neither is he a villain. The only sensible description for him is the protagonist. Inside the noir sphere, such lead characters are commonplace, which makes the genre quite unique in that regard. In some ways a composite figure of cops, criminals and tough guys who came before him, Skip is tough in every way a person can be. You want tough? How about blowing cigarette smoke in a police captain's face? Now that is tough. Skip shows no tendency toward chivalry either when he punches Candy out cold after he finds her searching his premises. He awakens her by pouring a bottle of beer on her face after his kick doesn't rouse her. Hardly any way to treat a lady, and this occurs after he already victimized her in the opening segment. Then an embrace ensues! In a later encounter, again Skip treats Candy as both the object of abuse and affection. Given his instinctive pattern of behavior, the viewer is left to assume Candy is in fact turned on by Skip's darker impulses. He wrongly thinks she is a "red" (communist), but that does nothing to dissuade him from doing business with her cohorts. It would seem Skip is driven by money exclusively. A frustrated Candy clubs him over the head with a bottle in an earnest attempt to save him from his own pigheaded greed (for once she gives as good as she gets).

The film noir aggressively invites critical investigation of its stock female characters. Many times they fall into archetypal categories, i.e. femme fatale, domineering matriarch, the girl next door. The two significant females of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET are unusually nuanced, probably a lot more than the seasoned film noir fan has a right to expect. A million-dollar looker with a 10-cent education, Candy once was a goodtime gal of some notoriety. Her checkered past is suggested more than once ("You gonna throw that in my face again?"). Though whatever she used to be is left a little murky, one must assume erotic dancer or prostitute. Late in the film, when Candy's paranoid ex Joey (Richard Kiley) wants to know how she procured the coveted microfilm from Skip, she suggests she employed her physical attributes. Joey intuitively falls in line with that explanation. A tough cookie thrust into impossible situations as noir characters often are, she unknowingly serves as the go-between for communist interests (all male of course). Like Skip, she is what I would call a noir survivor, someone who never had it easy, a person who forever will have to fight for everything. She is the object of persistent physical abuse; in fact bruises are evident on her right arm in the opening sequence. Even Lightning Louie (Vic Perry) carelessly pokes her in the face with chopsticks during their brief encounter. Ironically, it is flag-waving cops who set Candy up for the most damage when Joey knocks her around with alarming force—before he shoots her! In an emotionally-charged moment, Candy proves her love for Skip when she reveals she took a beating and a bullet rather than hand Skip's address to the irredeemable Joey.





Another noir survivor, Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter, a six-time nominee for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) is a self-described "old clock runnin' down." She is more focused on securing a dignified burial plot than anything that might play out in her remaining lifetime. She does not view herself as anything beyond what she is:  an information peddler and street merchant whose tired body has betrayed her over the passage of time. If nothing else, she believes she is better than a "red" and would sooner die than do business with one. True enough, Moe dies with a dour look on her face in one of film noir's most uncompromising scenes, the noir universe functioning as pitiless enemy. There is a sound argument to be made Moe's death is the most noir of all film noir deaths. Not only does she stoically accept her fate, she says her killer is doing her "a big favor." That same attitude has cropped up in numerous noirs, that complete ambivalence, even acceptance, during the worst imaginable moment (see DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944], DETOUR [1945], THE KILLERS [1946], THE KILLING [1956]). When the condemned man (or, less often, woman) makes no attempt to slip free from the hand of fate, chances are that character is in close proximity to film noir territory.


Time and again violence is treated as a given in the noir film, either brewing or transpiring in genre classics such as BRUTE FORCE (1947), BORDER INCIDENT (1949), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) and KISS ME DEADLY (1955). The hard-hitting violence of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET often erupts without a warning shot, always with painful results for those on the receiving end. Skip gets tough with Candy (again!) after she inquires as to how he became a pickpocket. Thoroughly annoyed, he places all the blame on a grim, fatalistic noir world in his response:


"How did I get to be a pickpocket? How'd you get to be what you are? Things happen. That's how."

At this point in the film, Skip understands the noir landscape far better than Candy, who makes the mistake of implying she is better than he is. In the existential language bound to the genre, nobody is better than anyone else. Rough behavior is not limited to citizens either; Police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) was suspended in the past for assaulting Skip (the two share a mutual contempt that is borderline comical).


The streetwise types who understand each other best in Samuel Fuller's urban milieu are characterized by impoverished but functional living arrangements distinctive to down-and-outers. Consider Skip's modest waterfront residence, a bait shack without modern conveniences (he submerges his beer to keep it cold since he has no fridge). Similarly, Moe lives above a tattoo parlor in the Bowery. Cut from the same cloth, Moe and Skip identify with each other, each keenly aware of what might motivate the other, both connected to the identical moral coordinates. Skip barely reacts when he learns Moe offered his whereabouts for sale ("...she's gotta eat."). He demonstrates his capacity to do good, for the first time really, when he ensures Moe will not rest in a potter's field. He knew her well enough to know she did not wish to suffer that final indignity. The difference between people like Skip and mainstream society is evident when the G-man Mr. Zara (Willis Bouchey) gives Skip too much credit. Zara does not realize Skip would have been more than happy to do business with the commies had Candy not intervened. For Skip, getting paid always has been his top priority, and probably always will be.

As the plot unspools, Candy repeatedly sticks her neck out in the hope of converting Skip into a presentable partner, with him contesting the idea most of the way. She recognizes his best qualities long before he does, but the correlation of sex and violence that links Skip and Candy looks to be an intractable issue. One has to question their prospects for the future at least a little! Can the traditional heterosexual union that concludes the film really resolve all potential problems? That is the message we are left to consider, unrealistic as it might be. Admittedly they both look happy enough and excited about their prospects for the future, though somewhere underneath her steadfast devotion she probably wishes he had not stolen from her repeatedly.

The self-entrapped noir criminal

Hiding out

A new beginning?

Director Samuel Fuller shows a fondness for long takes, God-like POV shots and sudden zooms, especially when a character has come to terms with something of significance. His gradual zoom in on the condemned woman Moe confirms his affection for that character (she gets special treatment). In a more subtle shot, Fuller voices his approval of the pickpocket when Skip is amused to discover Candy had to purchase a tie from Moe in the interest of locating him. Fuller also handles action like nobody's business, as when Joey brutalizes Candy in demand of Skip's address. It is a genuinely disturbing sequence; Jean Peters clearly earned her paycheck. The climactic fisticuffs between Skip and Joey also are excitingly staged, with Joey dragged down a stairway face first at a particularly satisfying juncture. But the film's highlight would have to be the scene in which Skip finally sees the worth of Candy, as the complexion of their relationship undergoes an immediate change. In a movie loaded with callous, self-serving behavior, it is a welcome heartwarming moment.

The familiar noir mirror motif



Despite convincing verisimilitude, the bulk of the film was shot on the Twentieth Century Fox lot. Fuller was responsible for the design of Skip's waterfront shack along the East River. I would rank it second only to the hotel in KEY LARGO (1948) as the fictitious film noir location I would most like to visit. Fuller's other noir efforts include HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955), a color film noir he directed, and his novel THE DARK PAGE (1944), which was converted into SCANDAL SHEET (1952). As a screenwriter Fuller made an uncredited contribution to THE RACKET (1951). Based on track record alone, it is tempting to commend cinematographer Joseph MacDonald exclusively for the stylish visual schemes that compliment PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET. MacDonald handled the camera on some of the genre's most atmospheric titles, including SHOCK (1946), THE DARK CORNER (1946) and the splendid PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), as well as Fuller's HOUSE OF BAMBOO. Of course it is always tricky to ascribe credit correctly for technical achievements in cinema of this era, but it is safe to conclude MacDonald understood the dynamics of film noir very well. It is a shame Jean Peters did not leave us more films to revisit or discover. After her seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox ended, she led a reclusive private life with her husband Howard Hughes. She would not work again as an actress until her appearance in the 1973 made-for-TV movie WINESBURG, OHIO. Film noir enthusiasts should remember her best for her impressive 1953 run. Along with PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET she was cast in NIAGARA, A BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER and VICKI.

The new dual-layered Blu-ray version of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET available from The Criterion Collection replaces their DVD edition released in 2004. The film elements look better than ever in motion, with skin tones and textures that speak to the worth of the new 4K digital restoration. Framing looks appropriate at 1.34:1, though the original theatrical aspect ratio is listed at 1.37:1 according to IMDb.com. The new Blu-ray offers more information on all sides of the frame:

Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion DVD

As for supplemental goods, a new interview (35m 48s) with Criterion favorite Imogen Sara Smith allows the author of IN LONELY PLACES:  FILM NOIR BEYOND THE CITY (2011) to discuss everything a person possibly could want to know about the feature film under review. Smith explains why Fuller was such a good match for the genre when she notes he always gravitated toward characters who existed on the fringe of society, people more inclined to follow a personal code than society standards. Often such character types are relegated to supporting roles in the film noir, but Fuller elevates them to the stars of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET. Zanuck granted Fuller a considerable amount of resources and autonomy during the filmmaker's contracted years with Fox. Though remembered as a maverick, Fuller also was noted for sticking to film budgets, a quality that endeared him to producers. Smith is correct that PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is an apolitical Cold War film, which is to say Fuller does not reinforce the agenda that was so typical of Hollywood at that time. In testimony to Fuller's talent, Smith points to THE CAPE TOWN AFFAIR (1967), a rudderless remake of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET that is not highly regarded (despite allegiance to the source material). Smith reminds us we are not asked to pity the characters of Fuller's film, instead we are encouraged to accept them as human beings, no better or worse than anyone else. Too often the cinema asks us to feel sorry for someone (a frequent complaint of film critic Armond White). The trouble with that approach to filmmaking is by default the viewer is made to feel somehow superior.

Also selectable is a radio adaptation (52m 20s) that aired June 21st, 1954 via the United States Armed Forces Radio Service. The condensed adaptation of the movie has its issues as radio drama, with the key dramatic moments from the Fuller film mostly lost in translation. Nevertheless, Ritter gives it her all before an appreciative audience in her return to the role of Moe. She is joined by Stephen McNally as Skip and Terry Moore as Candy. Audio dropout badly distorts the opening act, but the audio quality improves as the radio show progresses.

Ported from the Criterion DVD from 2004 is an engaging interview (19m 6s) with director Samuel Fuller from 1989, produced by film critic Richard Schickel in Paris. Fuller maintains he got along well with Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl Francis Zanuck. The director recalls a meeting with Zanuck and J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time. Not a supporter of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, Hoover frowned on the scene in which Skip does not appreciate having the flag waved at him. Zanuck stood by his filmmaker. Fuller contends there is nothing patriotic about Skip, even as the pickpocket beats down Joey in the final act. Skip goes on the offensive not for his country, but for his girl.

Also returning from the DVD is an excerpt (11m 5s) from the French television program CINÉMA CINÉMAS that aired December 1st, 1982. Fuller discusses the opening sequence of PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET in terms of technical challenges. He has a suggestion for all filmmakers:  always put yourself in position to control what you want to accomplish since you probably will get only one chance. The lonely life of the cannon (pickpocket) was always of interest to Fuller, who mentions he never met Dwight Taylor, whose story was the basis for Fuller's screenplay.

The trailer collection includes a whopping 16 trailers for Fuller-directed films. The booklet within the Blu-ray case duplicates the writing assembled for the 2004 Criterion release. There is an essay from author and critic Luc Sante, a remembrance from filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who is known for sudden, sometimes shocking violence in his own films (it is little wonder he has been a huge fan of Samuel Fuller since the age of seven) and a chapter from Fuller’s autobiography:  A THIRD FACE:  MY TALE OF WRITING, FIGHTING, AND FILMMAKING (2002).

In 2018 the Library of Congress selected PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET for preservation in the National Film Registry.



Sunday, June 27, 2021

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)

Twentieth Century Fox, 111m 39s


"Film noir is the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic."
—Roger Ebert (January 30, 1995)

The social spectrum of the film noir discloses uncomfortable truths about American society, the sort of reporting many of us would rather not encounter. In social terms, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is one of the most unequivocally American of all film noirs, its nightmare forcefully embedded in long-held American sensibilities and ideals. Hollywood likes to memorialize human perseverance stories, but this noir tour de force serves as a tale of caution about a man who "reached too high," the square-jawed hero gone rogue. An aggressive man armed with good looks and an inspired idea rises to the top of his trade, then falls to a place far lower than his humble beginnings. His unenviable career trajectory acknowledges a grim reality of American upward mobility. Though a capitalist system makes uncapped riches possible, this film noir suggests to reach beyond one's place is an exercise in futility.

Set in the heartland of the US, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is constructed around the history that binds Zeena Krumbein (Joan Blondell) and Pete Krumbein (Ian Keith), a married couple and once top-billed vaudeville act thanks to an arcane code known only to them. Thanks to the complexity of that code, Zeena appeared to possess inexplicable powers as a seeress. These days Zeena and Pete perform a diluted version of their act in a carnival sideshow, with Pete barely functional due to chronic alcoholism. Despite his shaky condition, Zeena remains intensely loyal to her husband, at least in a caretaker sense. Our lead protagonist is a noir survivor named Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a sycophantically charming but always covetous charlatan. While Zeena and Pete have accepted their best days are behind them, Stan hopes his time has yet to come. His talents all involve the manipulation of anyone standing in front of him, whether they are coworkers, audiences or even his wife.



A selfish personality may not make for good company at the family dinner table or a company event, but that type of individual sometimes thrives in our free-market economic system. The ideological challenges and thematic oppositions of capitalism permeate film noir time and again, with the genre serving as clearinghouse for the inherent flaws of private enterprise. While the market economy allows great celebration for some, film noir tends to focus on those whose invitations to the party got lost in the mail. Noir characters often feel economic constraints have been imposed on them. Income inequality seems to have a preferential place in the noir narrative, particularly when one of the major characters plans to do something about it. Laws will be broken and people will get hurt, some irrecoverably. The human cost associated with Stan's aspirations is manifested quickly; he essentially sentences Pete to death with the gift of a full bottle of moonshine, which turns out to be wood alcohol. Stan was unaware of the accidental bottle switch, but it makes little difference. Clearly his thoughts were in place:  get Pete out of the way, get working with Zeena on her secret code ("Over my dead body..." Pete had mentioned in an earlier scene when Stan was getting inquisitive about the code). In other words, one man's agonizing decline marks the ascent of another man, which is to say Stan prospers after the death of Pete. That basic dynamic reinforces one of the more unappealing assumptions of capitalism, that for every material world success someone (or, more likely, a large group) is left out in the cold. Pete stands for the displaced man in an economic system unsympathetic to his affliction.

"Son, that's the gospel truth."

With Pete out of the picture, Stan absorbs the proprietary code and works effectively with Zeena before entranced onlookers. Next something even more remarkable transpires:  Stan flaunts his seemingly limitless potential as a mentalist when he manipulates a man of the law (James Burke). With Stan cleverly at work under the guise of civility, borderline as a man of God, the scene is played for laughs on one level, but on another level rests the unfunny suggestion the lawman need not be a barrier to the ambitious. If Stan can subvert an experienced local law official, especially a crusty old doubter, perhaps he can bend anyone's will to his liking.



Armed with the same code once employed by Zeena and Pete, Stan aggressively pursues big-city fame and fortune. With a fair amount of initial success, he enters an upper class world where entry is reserved for a chosen few. Perhaps the most noir thing about NIGHTMARE ALLEY is the manner in which its charismatic lead extends his magnetic pull to the viewer. Who wouldn't want to evolve from smalltime carny into The Great Stanton?  In spite of Stan's many dubious qualities, regardless of his connection to the death of Pete, we find ourselves pulling for a man of moral ambivalence. It is not difficult to empathize with him in a general way; his ambitions are not dramatically different than anyone else's, the only difference is the lengths to which he will go to execute his plans. His underprivileged background is another critical factor that makes him more likable, if not morally defensible. Stan's upbringing does not evoke pleasant childhood memories:  he was beaten routinely in an orphanage before graduating to reform school. With a background like that, his drive to ascend into a higher social stratum comes off as a bit more palatable. Or maybe interminable greed is ingrained in his DNA? Stan briefly discusses his egocentric tendencies during a private conversation with Zeena:  "I wonder why I'm like that...never thinking about anybody except myself." He seems aware he has reached his genetic destiny when he accepts employment at the very bottom of the carnival trade during the film's concluding sequence. He ironically states, "I was made for it." If indeed Stan was somehow pre-engineered for his final role, that means he was not born to walk among Chicago sophisticates.

However one might want to account for Stan's rise and fall, NIGHTMARE ALLEY's cynical take on the American dream is along for the ride. In his journey from unremarkable carny to prominent mentalist to stigmatized outcast, our most optimistic notions about endless riches for dogged determination are defeated with Stan. His illusion of propriety ultimately exposed, Stan goes from seemingly limitless upward mobility to a wretched place of immobility, with absolutely no potential for realignment with the upper class he once navigated with supreme confidence. From a Marxist school of film criticism, the story provides a stark reminder of the rigidity of American socioeconomic boundaries.

The decadence represented by the carnival creates a befitting noir backdrop in this film noir and numerous others, including touchstones such as GUN CRAZY (1950), ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). The commotion of carnival life intentionally blurs the line between illusion and reality, what we see and what we do not see, what we believe and what we do not believe. Such uncertainty blends well with the genre's overarching mood of pessimism. That the carnival travels from one place to another works to convey a relentless, ubiquitous noir atmosphere, unsparingly omnipotent. Such a climate is encapsulated fittingly by Zeena's tarot cards, which persistently provide prescient warnings while Stan looks askance.

Closely intertwined with the carnival's noirish conditions emphasized by the tarot cards is Stan's progressively unsteady psychological state. His distressed frame of mind is suggested by the "inhuman" geek's cries of anguish that plague him at several crucial turning points. He cannot seem to escape the threat of being reduced to the lowest level of entertainment, a tragic Id case to be fed live chickens for public amusement. Likely what invigorates the geek in Stan is his humbling recognition he has become the semi-functional drunkard Pete, the man he wanted to replace all along! Consumption of alcohol largely contributes to Stan's torturous downward slide into existential purgatory, where he looks like a bum and smells like a whiskey bottle. The noir film frequently positions alcohol as a harmless vice, but not always, as we witness here and in other instances that include BLACK ANGEL (1946), CROSSFIRE (1947), TRY AND GET ME! (1950) and IN A LONELY PLACE (1950).



A woman's gaze looms large in the opening segment, when Zeena confirms her sexual interest in the younger Stan. To analyze the film in terms of gender representation, disparate female characters help empower Stan, but in due course those same women unplug him, his reduction certified in writing when an emphatic newspaper headline announces he is sought by police. He makes his first major mistake when he turns his back on Zeena, the woman who installed his enhanced capabilities as a mentalist. Stan never considers the possibility that same person could foretell the removal of the skill set she set in motion. After Stan's relationship with Zeena no longer matters to him, the homme fatale moves on to the ingénue Molly (the genial-looking Coleen Gray), who becomes his wife and work wife (partner in their act). As his reputation as a mentalist grows, thanks in large part to encouragement from Zeena and Molly, Stan's belief in himself balloons to epic proportions. His carnival days seemingly long behind him, he preys upon the fragile state of the society woman Addie Peabody (Julia Dean), who desperately misses her departed daughter. In awe of Stan's visions, she financially backs him in the hope he brings others the identical "spiritual comfort" he brought her. In search of even larger stacks of money (no amount is sufficient of course), Stan targets the skeptic Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), a ruthless tycoon who gets over his suspicions and arranges a $150K capital injection for Stan. Assured Ezra is susceptible to further acts of treachery, Stan swoops in for the kill by staging an ethereal appearance of Ezra's deceased sweetheart. Having advanced to the stage of full-blown noir sociopath, Stan makes the catastrophic error of coercing his principled wife Molly into playing along. As so many noir films have echoed, the portrait of marriage as an institution of longevity is questioned in NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Molly has too much character to become Stan's accomplice, Stan has too much self interest to go along with his wife's better judgment. His inability to function as a good husband and decent man makes him susceptible to Molly's antithesis, the deviously capable femme fatale Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychologist. Lilith’s disruptive nature is apparent when Stan first visits her office, where imprisoning shadows imply a lethal trap has been set. Lilith and the schemer Stan form a sleazy noir partnership for the ages, with the headshrinker tapping into personal patient information for astronomical profit. When their alliance expires, Lilith proves herself by far the superior con artist. She plays his game, washes her hands of him and walks away the winner. Thus Stan is brought down by a combination of feminine control, both benign and malignant.



The psychology theme is another vital noir angle, with a psychologist character sometimes shown in unflattering light, i.e. CAT PEOPLE (1942), SHOCK (1946), WHIRLPOOL (1950). Lilith is a psychologist both psychologically complex and conniving, as much competent professional as willing trickster. The most decisive moment for Stan occurs when he seeks Lilith's therapeutic services after again being tormented by the screams of the geek. He reveals his vulnerability during the therapy session, which paves the way for his downfall. The only consolation for Stan at the film's resolution is a reconciliation of sorts with his wife, but that reunion comes at a costly price. That is the ideological function of film noir more often than not:  even the redemptive ending has an incurably somber tone. By all accounts the conclusion was intended to soften the landing of the even more downbeat source novel of the same title, but I am not sure Stan's position improves a great deal. Whether he is the new geek (novel) or the new Pete (film) his destiny will be to drink himself to death.

Director Edmund Goulding had helmed Tyrone Power's prior star vehicle, THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946). Here Goulding delivers one of the most enduring of all film noirs, a production that looks more impressive the more I look at it. It is absolutely loaded with cinematic language that speaks to those who want to listen, with the iconography of film noir particularly vocal in the form of shadows that create visual instability. One of my favorite moments of the film is Goulding's introduction of the villainess. As the camera pans to follow the sweetness portrayed by Coleen Gray, the tracking halts abruptly to focus on the dangerous intellectual played by Helen Walker. Cinematographer Lee Garmes also worked on PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948), which shares an indisputable kinship with NIGHTMARE ALLEY in relation to how a female specter is presented. The imposing presence of Mike Mazurki never seems to do any harm to a film noir, and other notable supporting performances are contributed by Ian Keith, James Burke and Taylor Holmes.



NIGHTMARE ALLEY has arrived on dual-layered Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection. The new 4K digital restoration is framed at 1.37:1 and was derived from a 35mm nitrate composite print. Compared to the DVD released in 2005 for the Fox Film Noir DVD series from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, more information is conveyed on all four sides of the frame. Alongside other film noirs of that era that have been resurrected on Blu-ray, i.e. OUT OF THE PAST (1947), KEY LARGO (1948) and NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), the transfer looks a little soft, but the overall visual impact is more than acceptable and a fine upgrade for owners of the Fox DVD.

Criterion Blu-ray

Fox DVD

The new Criterion Blu-ray offers a slew of supplemental material, starting with the audio commentary track recorded in 2005 for the Fox DVD. Commendable film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini stress NIGHTMARE ALLEY was matinee idol Tyrone Power's project; 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck did not aid in the film's promotion. Power wanted it, he made it happen. His hope was to step away from romantic leading roles to something that would allow him to demonstrate his talent range as an actor. Though an obvious success from an artistry standpoint, NIGHTMARE ALLEY was not a financial winner; audiences did not accept Power as the lead in this type of project. The source material was written by William Lindsay Gresham, whose debut novel NIGHTMARE ALLEY was published in 1946. An alcoholic, Gresham was abusive to his wife Joy Davidman, who later married C. S. Lewis. Gresham would kill himself at the Hotel Carter, Manhattan, the identical hotel in which he wrote NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Gresham was once a member of the communist party, which was by no means unusual for a writer during this era, but that piece of information is interesting given the nature of the material under consideration. Silver makes an excellent point that the moral code of behavior is more strict in the carnival than the outside world, especially in comparison with the upper class. My favorite observation from the commentators is that Stan struggles to come up with enough ink to write the word "wife." It is a terrific moment in the film, so subtle yet so telling.

New bonus material includes an interview (31m 52s) with film scholar Imogen Sara Smith, who has her gameface on, as always. Smith explains the Gresham novel was condemned widely on grounds of blasphemy, so much so the pending film adaptation prompted letters of protest from an outraged public. The alcoholic Gresham was himself the subject of psychoanalysis, so it is fair to surmise he wrote NIGHTMARE ALLEY at least in part from self experience. New evidence suggests the author may have received a terminal cancer diagnosis before he chose to end his life in 1962. Producer George Jessel and screenwriter Jules Furthman were brought in to downplay the deeply cynical tone of the book, as well as make the film a little more Production Code ready. Plot elements scrubbed from the source material include the botched back alley abortion that kills Ezra's love and the sexual relationship between Stan and Lilith (in the movie he shrugs off her advances, preferring they focus on their business affairs). I did not think about it while watching NIGHTMARE ALLEY three times in one week, but Smith observes this is one of the few film noirs to not feature guns. "All of the torments are internal," according to Smith. I agree this is a purely psychological film noir, as opposed to the more visceral style of noir favored by filmmakers such as Phil Karlson, Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray, who did not shy away from featuring violent situations. Another compelling point raised by Smith is that interest in spiritualism is always strongest after times of war, when people want to connect with friends and family lost in military conflict.


Also fresh for 2021 is "Step Right Up! Todd Robbins on the History of the American Sideshow" (19m 17s). The author of THE MODERN CON MAN: HOW TO GET SOMETHING FOR NOTHING (2008) tracks the evolution of the carnival and sideshow from a world's fair held in Chicago in 1893. Fans of NIGHTMARE ALLEY will be interested to hear Robbins confirm how a geek was manufactured. The hopeless alcoholic or mentally deficient man (or both I suppose) merely pretended to devour a chicken's head in return for a daily bottle and a place to sleep. Eventually the sideshow boss would demand the chicken's head be bitten off for real or no more bed and bottle. Completely dependent on the regular alcohol dose and without any better options to get it, the geek complied. The sideshow declined as rides became more prevalent in the traveling carnival and improved prenatal care minimized the birth of “freaks.”

"Coleen Gray on NIGHTMARE ALLEY" (12m 41s) was recorded in 2007 and appears here courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation. Gray recalls working with Darryl F. Zanuck, Tyrone Power and director Edmund Goulding. The actress credits Goulding for encouraging her to control her emotions when her instincts were to give too much as an actress. In the 1971 audio excerpt (9m 36s) with Henry King, the filmmaker describes how he convinced Zanuck to feature the young unknown Power in LLOYDS OF LONDON (1936). While reviewing the dailies, Zanuck informed King the director’s instincts were correct about Power. A trailer (2m 30s) is also selectable, and the packaging includes an essay by film critic and screenwriter Kim Morgan, who along with Guillermo del Toro co-wrote the screenplay for the remake, currently scheduled for release December 2021. Another nice add within the packaging are six tarot cards. I took care not to allow any of them to fall to the floor.


Sunday, May 30, 2021

THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME (1947)

RKO Radio Pictures, 94m 57s


“Man plans and God laughs.”
—Yiddish proverb

Marital dissatisfaction and infidelity inform a vast array of film noirs, but that is not to imply all cases are stamped from the identical template. The major protagonists who stray from their partners in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE SUSPECT (1944), SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and NOTORIOUS (1946) may not always be entirely sympathetic, but their respective spouses are depicted in a far more negative light. Such a dynamic allows the viewer to support or at the very least understand the motivations of the character defaulting on his or her wedding vows. It is less easy to back Larry Ballentine (Robert Young), the inveterate philanderer of THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME, directed by Irving Pichel. For all the healthy benefits married life provides Larry, his preferred regimen demands women on the side.

As the narrative commences, the 34-year-old stockbroker Larry is on trial for murder. His rustic attorney Cahill (Frank Ferguson) suggests Larry was led astray by a woman, but of course there is much more to it than that. As Larry takes the stand, the film assumes customary noir flashback form. We land in a New York restaurant, where Larry awaits the arrival of his mistress Janice Bell (Jane Greer), a journalist. Her damaged cigarette case prompts his purchase of a gold replacement case, but the gesture is not meant to be. When Larry arrives home, he learns he has forgotten his five-year anniversary with his wife Greta (Rita Johnson). Trapped with no better alternative, he gives the recently-purchased gold cigarette case to Greta, thus confirming his heel personality. Tired of her role as the other woman, Janice announces her transfer to Montreal, but Larry hopes to hang on to her. His plans are thwarted when Greta reveals she has discovered his affair. Despite proof positive her husband is a no-good cheat, Greta is a woman of almost limitless tolerance. Rather than lose her mate to the charms of Janice, Greta arranges to move her marriage to Los Angeles, where she has secured new employment for her husband in a minority partnership in a brokerage business headed by Trenton (Tom Powers). A new home in Beverly Hills is part of the sweet package.



In spite of Greta's many virtues, for whatever reason Larry finds his wife dull as cereal for breakfast. Most any man would find much to admire about her:  she is rich, nice looking, smart, articulate, attentive, cultured, classy. Larry values her financial resources for certain, but those other attributes do not seem to hold much ground with him. Her only apparent deficiency cannot be helped:  she only can be the woman she is, and her competition in the form of Janice is sleek, elegant and some 10 years younger. After about six months in LA, Larry's base compulsions continue when he meets the flirtatious Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward), an attractive employee at his new workplace (an environment meant to cure him of such urges—ironically, she comes on to him). Verna is a self-described gold digger but oozes too much sex appeal for Larry to deflect. The two begin a relationship, despite Larry's marital status and Verna's romantic connection with 75% majority owner Trenton. Marital discord between the Ballentines returns when Greta finds out about the "tramp" Verna. Greta's plaintive struggle to keep her husband out of the arms of younger brunettes resumes when she again relocates her shaky alliance, this time to an isolated Mexican ranch house in a mountainous area far from the many temptations the big city provides, the sort of place where horseback rides replace taxis. Greta even goes so far as to have the house's telephone connection removed in the interest of preventing further indignities.

With this ring...


THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME anticipates film noirs such as ROAD HOUSE (1948), THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), CRY VENGEANCE (1954) and NIGHTFALL (1957) that illustrate film noir concerns are not exclusively urban. Noir stories of the 1940s often culminate in a harsh urban landscape, but THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME forges a path beyond the city, where the spreading specter of noir forces collides with Larry, Verna and Greta. Larry gets tangled up in the same web of deceit regardless of his home's location. The non-monogamous choices he makes may be his own, but his fate is determined by that familiar existential noir force, one that has followed him from one place to another. Interestingly, the story's calamitous turning point occurs after Larry and Verna mutually reject a plan they had developed to siphon money out of a joint checking account. Regardless of more honorable plans for the future, past decisions made by Larry, Verna and Greta have piled up beyond redemption. Especially for those with a long history of questionable moves, to hit the reset button does not necessarily grant the desired result in the unforgiving land of noir.

In terms of other genre themes and motifs, identity swaps of any kind seldom work out well in the context of the film noir narrative. See DETOUR (1945), NORA PRENTISS (1947) and THE NAKED CITY (1948) for convincing evidence. Larry makes that unadvised error when he flips Verna's identity with Greta's, which hastens his downward spiral. The random indifference of the noir atmosphere sometimes puts the finger on the basically good, but Larry does not meet that standard. He is an unworthy kept man who attempts too late to extricate himself from the woman he married only for her considerable wealth. The film's stunner of a conclusion is steeped in irony while wholly appropriate. Larry judges himself correctly, whether the jury did or not is largely irrelevant.



A precipitous cliff

Director Irving Pichel scored a notable debut feature with THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), the first and arguably best of the many adaptations that would follow of Richard Connell's original story, first published in 1925. Pichel also has another noir movie to his credit, the entertaining QUICKSAND (1950). Producer Joan Harrison built her reputation on screenwriting contributions for Alfred Hitchcock:  JAMAICA INN (1939), REBECCA (1940), FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940), SUSPICION (1941) and SABOTEUR (1942). As a producer she left an impression with some of the finest of film noirs, such as PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945), NOCTURNE (1946) and RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947). THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME might be the most hard-hitting of that distinguished group, though PHANTOM LADY packs quite a punch as well. Eminent director of photography Harry J. Wild certainly knew how to handle the noir production, with an ample amount of genre entries to his credit. Just some of the film noirs he worked on include MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), JOHNNY ANGEL (1945), CORNERED (1945) PITFALL (1948), THE THREAT (1949) and WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER (1950), an unfairly underrated noir. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer made a similar mark on the genre with his contributions to THE GLASS KEY (1942), NOCTURNE, THE BIG CLOCK (1948), NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948) and the sublime noir fantasy film ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949).



"Care to identify her?"

Sourced from a 4K scan of nitrate preservation elements, the dual-layered Blu-ray edition of THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME recently made available by Warner Archive is framed at 1.38:1 and looks outstanding. Though the disc is void of supplemental material, this new HD transfer reinstates the film's original theatrical length, as Eddie Muller alerted noir fans via Facebook on 4/6/2021. According to Muller, "It has been decades since the original 1947 cut of this film has been seen. The film was cut in the 1950s for reissue on double bills and that's the only version that has circulated in recent years. I only saw it complete years ago in Zagreb, a print loaned by the Belgrade Film Archive. Almost 15 minutes has been restored."

Destined to be one of the year's most important Blu-ray restorations, this disc should be an automatic add for film noir collectors.