Monday, September 9, 2019

KISS ME DEADLY (1955)


NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2019
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, September 6th, 2019 to Thursday, September 12th, 2019

KISS ME DEADLY (1955)
United Artists, 106m
*Presented as it was released in 1955; in 35mm courtesy of Park Circus


"Remember me when I am gone away,
  Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
  Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
  You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
  It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
  And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
  A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
  Than that you should remember and be sad."

—"Remember," Christina Georgina Rossetti (December 5, 1830 — December 29, 1894)

KISS ME DEADLY may be the finest of film noirs released in the 1950s, but author Mickey Spillane was not impressed with what screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides did to his novel. According to event host Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, Spillane said all that remained of his sixth novel to feature private investigator Mike Hammer was the title. The leftist writer Bezzerides obviously did not think much of Spillane's signature character, and went the extra mile to make sure he could not be construed as the hero of the filmed adaptation. Whether one likes the onscreen Hammer figure or not, there is much to admire about the film world he inhabits. Despite adherence to the usual dictates of film noir, KISS ME DEADLY does not look or sound quite like any other noir film. Especially in comparison with other examples of '50s noir, it seems oddly contemporary; its main difference from the modern crime story is the absence of ubiquitous f-bombs. The nihilistic production also benefits from unrelenting toughness, Ralph Meeker's exceptional performance as a marginally likable heel and quirky female characters that seem plucked from the David Lynch universe.

Director Robert Aldrich (WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? [1962]) makes the most of an intense introductory sequence that begins with Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) running barefoot down a dark highway. When Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) narrowly avoids plowing into her, he shows concern only for the preservation of his smooth ride. "You almost wrecked my car," he grumbles in disgust. The tone is set. Next the opening credits scroll backwards over the orgasmic panting of Christina, now attached to Mike in his convertible. She is a fugitive from a psychiatric ward, and soon enough those seeking her make their presence known. In an unforgettably suggestive segment, Christina is tortured with pliers(!) by men who remain anonymous to the camera, while a groggy Mike is helpless to intercede. The apparent leader of the villains (Albert Dekker) calmly speaks with disturbing eloquence after Christina becomes non-responsive. The unlikely noir couple is left for dead, but Mike survives and finds himself absorbed in a mystery he may be ill-equipped to comprehend. Ironically for a good chunk of the film he is perplexed by a clue that reads "REMEMBER ME." That request is a tall order for a self-absorbed man like Mike, who parasitically feeds from divorce cases for his source of income.


The death of Christina draws the attention of the Interstate Crime Commission, and Mike is curious as to why. The cops show complete disdain for Mike, whose detective practice involves capturing evidence of married people breaking their vows. Worse than that, he and his assistant Velda Wickman (Maxine Cooper) get personally involved with the couples they target in the interest of gathering damning information. Mike already had proven in the opening sequence his instinct is to not cooperate with law enforcement officials, so it comes as no surprise when he refuses to play ball and leaves the interrogation room. One man contemptuously comments, "Open a window." These men seem no better than Mike. Lieutenant Pat Murphy (Wesley Addy) in particular is one smug little bastard, absolutely impossible to like. Pat personally informs Mike that his PI license and handgun permit have been revoked. Film noir sometimes highlights the determination of effective public servants in examples such as T-MEN (1947), TRAPPED (1949), APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1950) and PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), but KISS ME DEADLY finds little faith in public officials. Who are the true villains here?

As Mike stubbornly persists in sticking his nose in where he knows it is most unwelcome, it becomes evident he is an outsider in every way imaginable. He associates best with other outsiders and worst with those who feign respectability. His probable best friend is Nick (Nick Dennis), a fast-talking, affable Greek auto mechanic. Mike is also helpful to an Italian American burdened with what appears to be a very heavy storage chest. When Mike gets loaded in a nightclub, he is the only white face among the black clientele; he has more in common with people of color than other white people. A man easily angered, Mike gets impatient with those who do not cooperate. He delights in pushing people around, and he can take a punch as well as anybody. Sometimes when he gets tough it is easy enough to side with him, as when he is first confronted by Charlie Max (Jack Elam) and Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert). Other times Mike makes it difficult to gain the viewer's allegiance. The deeper he gets into his investigation, the more crude slaps he dishes out, as when he roughs up a meek front desk clerk. The PI is especially mean-spirited when he breaks an opera fanatic's classic record, even more so when he crushes the fingers of Doc Kennedy (Percy Helton) in a desk drawer. In those two instances of highly questionable procedure, the camera captures Mike's admiration for the type of work he enjoys much too much. The film noir often uses narration to smooth over a lead protagonist's rough edges, to encourage the viewer to identify with that individual. The absence of narration in KISS ME DEADLY marks a genre in transition, as well as a main character we are not meant to admire. Even if the viewer should not condone Mike's tactics, it is difficult not to empathize a little after the brutal killing of his friend causes the gumshoe to go berserk.


Though critics and fans often brand Mike a stupid individual, I think he is better described as a boorish, egocentric character who is out of his element, a type of man whose time has passed. He is intelligent enough and experienced enough to know a big case when he stumbles onto one, and he proves his street smarts on numerous occasions, especially when he correctly deduces what became of a small artifact associated with Christina. He also predicts the location of two incendiary devices placed within the automobile he was gifted by those who would celebrate his violent demise. In a wonderfully intense conversation, Carl Evello (Paul Stewart) admits his organization has underestimated Mike repeatedly. Mike's instincts prove less reliable when he encounters a package equipped with far superior firepower compared with what was found in his newest car. The air of fatalism that chokes film noir characters comes neatly packaged, but dangerous to the touch. Mike's first exposure to "the great whatsit" as Velda describes it creates a painful brand on his wrist (we know it is serious when the proven tough guy Mike winces!). That event marks Mike for death.

 "If you had not stopped to pick up Christina, not any of these things would have happened..."

KISS ME DEADLY features about the oddest assortment of revisionist femme fatales ever to grace a noir film. Christina latches onto Mike in the opening sequence, despite his immediate disdain for her highway obstacle act. Would he have invited her into his car had he not imagined her naked under that trench coat? Probably not. Interestingly, only after Christina pokes Mike about his self-centered masculinity does he begin to loosen up a little in front of her. But as is the case in most every prime example of noteworthy noir themes, Mike would have been the wiser to allow Christina to fend for herself (she may have been better off as well). His chance involvement with Christina leads to a deadly connection with the mysteriously mousy Lily/Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers) that has consequences far greater than whatever Mike may have considered. And though her screen time is brief, Friday (Marian Carr) strikes a chord as perhaps the most weirdly amorous dame to appear in a noir film. In another example of his better judgment, Mike shows some restraint when confronted with her aggressive advances.

Point that thing somewhere else

The "good" girl has her share of baggage, too. Velda is always hot for Mike, and she certainly is an attractive brunette, but the sadomasochistic Mike would prefer to pimp her out in service of his trashy detective enterprise. She puts it well in the hospital sequence in the first act when she tells him, "You never need me when I'm around." The hotter she gets, the cooler he treats her, and his head usually turns when another skirt walks by. That is not to suggest he harbors no attraction to Velda, but her ability to seduce any other man means more to him than whatever feelings he holds for her. During the opening scenes, Christina correctly identifies Mike as a man who cares only about himself, a man who cannot give, only take. Ultimately that quality condemns him. Especially in light of the film's devastating concluding sequence, Mike (and many others) would have been grateful had he granted Velda the alone time she always desired and steered clear of crazed blondes. But especially upon repeat viewings of the film, Velda's neediness is a little pathetic. She wants Mike more than any man would wish to be wanted.

The fine screenplay is complemented by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (IMPACT [1949], D.O.A. [1949]), who relies heavily on the use of oblique camera angles, particularly in the early going. A nice touch I noticed for the first time at this event's screening is the emphasis given to the hydraulic floor jack used to quickly service Mike's vehicle after he picks up Christina—one of those devices has a role in a gruesome murder later in the story. Laszlo's coverage of complex stairways, both interior and exterior, stands for the complicated and hazardous noir labyrinth through which Mike travels. Many of the interior staircases are ornamentally fabricated, most exterior staircases are unusually high and would make for an exceptionally painful way to take a tumble (as a thug tailing Mike learns). That stairway fall always makes me gasp—somebody did that stunt! According to Eddie Muller, that scene utilized an actual staircase with no special padding.


The conclusion of the film intended by director Robert Aldrich was not reinstated until 1997. The truncated ending in which nobody escapes the beach house may have been less open to interpretation, but neither version suggests a different end result for the lead protagonist, who forfeits his future when he opens the modern equivalent of Pandora's box. In any case, I do not think Mike should shoulder the blame for the catastrophic event that ends the film. All the blame should go to Dr. G. E. Soberin, who fails to take his own advice. Soberin has a lot to say about the huge mistake Mike made when he got tangled up with Christina, but in the film's final sequence Soberin makes a far greater error when he treats Gabrielle like a child; the intellectual is somehow completely oblivious to her potential danger. As the doctor's name implies, KISS ME DEADLY's ultimate takeaway is sobering indeed.


Saturday, September 7, 2019

TRAPPED (1949)


NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2019
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, September 6th, 2019 to Thursday, September 12th, 2019
NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2019 SCHEDULE

TRAPPED (1949)
Eagle-Lion Films, 78m
*Newly restored 35mm print


This year's NOIR CITY: CHICAGO lineup celebrates "Film Noir in the 1950s" but includes a straggler from 1949, presented this afternoon by Eddie Muller, the host of TCM's Noir Alley. Thanks to a 35mm print that emerged from a private collection, TRAPPED has been restored by the Film Noir Foundation and now has its place in the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The projected image looked super and the film itself is a fine example of '40s tough guy noir, so let's hope a Blu-ray release is imminent for those of us who remain loyal supporters of physical media. In the meantime, Muller mentioned the film will be aired on TCM in November.

TRAPPED was directed by Richard Fleischer, who always delivered admirably when devoted to film noir material, i.e. BODYGUARD (1948) and FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949). This effort was a one-off he did for Eagle-Lion Films, and it has its more than passing resemblance to that studio's T-MEN (1947). Producer Bryan Foy developed his craft at Warner Brothers, where the B-unit thrived under his supervision from the late 1920s through the 1930s. Foy's expertise when it came to churning out tight screenplays no doubt influenced the screenplay authored by Earl Felton and George Zuckerman.


The potboiler opens with a glorified review of the U.S. Treasury, and then quickly gets to justification for the department's existence. After a suspicious twenty-dollar bill is brought to a bank teller's notice by Mrs. Flaherty (Ruth Robinson), the harmless looking woman is scolded for not being aware she was given counterfeit currency. It's a heavy-handed scene, intended as a wake-up call to all audience members, who dare not be as careless in their financial transactions as Flaherty. Treasury agents recognize the phony twenty as the work of imprisoned counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges), who reluctantly agrees to cooperate in the search for the plates behind the funny money. As it turns out, Tris has alternate plans. Chief Agent Gunby (Russ Conway) is no match for the quick thinking and even quicker fists possessed by Tris, who after his escape from Gunby returns to his blonde girlfriend. That young woman is Meg Dixon (Barbara Payton), probably the most erotic cigarette girl of 1940s cinema. Is it any wonder undercover man John Downey (John Hoyt) won't leave her alone? Her physical presence is enough to make anyone want to smoke.

Tris begins his own search for the counterfeiting plates he helped engineer, and he proves himself a very tough customer along the way. As convincingly played by Lloyd Bridges, the noir protagonist Tris belongs very much in the same league with rogue males portrayed by the likes of Lawrence Tierney and Charles McGraw. Tris provides evidence of his durability when he escapes custody, and continuously shows that elements of surprise and intimidation are major components of his game plan. When he returns to Meg, the first thing he does is cover her mouth, as if some type of robbery or assault were about to take place. He seldom treats her much better than that. He gets decidedly more physical with Sam Hooker (Douglas Spencer), the ex partner who sold the plates Tris returned to claim. Sam is left in a cowering heap on the floor. When Tris encounters Jack Sylvester (James Todd), the new owner of the plates, the insouciant Jack shaves while sitting at his desk. Tris unplugs the razor. In his quest to escape with Meg to Mexico, it seems nothing will stop Tris, but naturally the treasury guys have other ideas.

The serviceable cinematography by Guy Roe (RAILROADED! [1947], BEHIND LOCKED DOORS [1948] and again working with director Richard Fleischer for ARMORED CAR ROBBERY [1950]) promotes the persistent grittiness of the taut narrative with well-covered slug fests and an atmospheric concluding sequence at a trolley station. What takes place when a criminal attempts to raise his hands in surrender could only transpire in a film noir.

TRAPPED is precisely the type of noir artifact that this annual event's devoted attendees deserve. Kudos to Muller and the many people who made the film's restoration a reality.



Sunday, August 25, 2019

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950)

Columbia Pictures, 75m 47s


Nobody is safe in this briskly-paced, undervalued noir programmer set in November of 1947 in New York City. Back from a trip to Cuba, Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes) makes her way into the city by train, with a US Customs Service official named Johnson (Barry Kelley) not far behind her. Sheila suffers from debilitating headaches while she carries out her role in a diamond smuggling operation, but remains fiercely determined to reunite with her husband Matt Krane (Charles Korvin). In Sheila's absence her younger sister Francie Bennet (Lola Albright) has been in close company with Matt. That is an unenviable setup for a homecoming, but Sheila's much greater problem is her headaches are symptomatic of an illness thought long out of fashion.

A somewhat misleading opening image

Sheila Bennet (the very talented Evelyn Keyes)

A nasty take on surrogate motherhood

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK is a social conflict drama in the vein of PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), released by Twentieth Century Fox earlier the same year. Anyone familiar with the Fox film will recognize the similar structure of the effort from Columbia, especially once Dr. Ben Wood (William Bishop) and Dr. Cooper (Ludwig Donath) make an agonizing discovery at the District Health Center:  "a killer out of the past loose amongst 8 million people." A young patient named Walda (Beverly Washburn) is diagnosed with smallpox, later described as, "1,000 ugly sores breaking through and a fever that burns its victims to death," by the somewhat sanctimonious Health Commissioner Ellis (Carl Benton Reid). Faced with the possibility of a massive city with empty streets, Ellis shifts into a high gear and visits the Mayor of New York (Roy Roberts) on a Sunday afternoon (nobody gets a day off under these circumstances). Once made aware that smallpox could wipe out his city, the Mayor orchestrates the necessary cooperation from all levels of the public sector and private industry to combat the dreaded disease and fight for the health of the citizens on every stratum of society. Not one to take no for an answer, he instinctively demonstrates he is willing to break medical regulations in the time-sensitive fight against smallpox. Such an adulatory view of tireless public servants is a tough sell these days, when it seems all levels of government are riddled with corruption, excessive bureaucracy and financial distress. Nonetheless, the filmmaking formula offered in THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK still makes for compelling viewing, and reminds us what people are capable of when we strive for the greater good. A fatalistic noir force provides a different sort of reminder, even when there is a clear collective initiative to help each other. The following message is delivered via narration:

"...here were two agencies seeking the same thing, yet fate continued its grim joke and somehow kept the federal men and the health detectives from pooling their efforts."

The unmistakable cinematic phrasing of the noir film accents the story as it unfolds. The source of the horrific smallpox crisis that drives the narrative is a family in a state of decay, ripped apart by selfishness and greed. Sheila is betrayed not only by her husband, but by her own sister. The traditional family in self-destruct mode, or absent entirely, is one of the recurring themes associated with the noir form. Then there is Sheila herself, who presents something of a categorical problem in terms of film noir’s female archetypes. The proper noir femme fatale knows precisely what she is doing when she leads men to their doom. In this particular noir variation, the most dangerous female specimen has no idea of the danger she poses to every single person she comes near (a hotel porter, a young girl in a hospital, a boy playing in a park, a former employer, and most frighteningly, any number of people among a large urban crowd). Despite the threat to society she embodies, she raises no eyebrows from common people. Interestingly, the G-Man who knows who she is seeks her for reasons far less important than what motivates public figures to locate her. It is not unusual for other people to be unaware of the noir woman's deadly nature, but it is very unusual for that character to be completely unaware of her own destructive nature. What is not in doubt is that Sheila is an attractive woman of mystery who leaves a trail of destruction in her wake. Though she cannot be considered a femme fatale without serious question, the attractive blonde ("a pretty face with a frame to match") as a menace to others remains a looming subtext. She also has a pockmarked past with Matt. As dangerous noir dames go, Sheila's wrecking power is eclipsed only by the KISS ME DEADLY (1955) character Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers), whose curiosity unknowingly leads to a doomsday box.




In terms of masculine archetypes, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK takes a stand against male lechery when Willie Dennis (Jim Backus) attempts to force himself on Sheila, which results in the expected decline in his health. Similarly, Matt pays for his shabby treatment of his wife quite dramatically. When it comes to the men in her life, the filmmakers side with Sheila. The vile immigrant Matt Krane as an agent of evil and double-crossing scoundrel of a husband is in harmony with noir schematics, as well as the presumable origins of the smallpox outbreak in a foreign land, where Sheila traveled to acquire hot diamonds. The same xenophobic undertones inform PANIC IN THE STREETS.

Often credited as second unit director or assistant director, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK is one of only three films directed by Earl McEvoy, who admirably helms the action of this film. Where he is particularly strong is in the staging of Sheila's escalating threat to mankind. As she makes her way around New York City, the horrifying potential of the smallpox epidemic becomes increasingly evident. It appears the dreaded disease indeed could spread like wildfire. Each day she is on the streets, she may be infecting countless people. Screenwriter Harry Essex worked from a COSMOPOLITAN magazine article by Milton Lehman ("Smallpox, the Killer That Stalks New York," April, 1948). Other noir titles written or co-written for the screen by Essex include DESPERATE (1947), BODYGUARD (1948) and the always re-watchable KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952). Film noir fans will appreciate the presence of Dorothy Malone, Art Smith and Whit Bissell in supporting roles. Filming locations include a host of Manhattan highlights such as the Third Avenue El, City Hall, Pennsylvania Station, Gracie Mansion and Willard Parker Hospital. The transitions from location work to studio footage are not abrupt but apparent. Reed Hadley's narration badly dates the film; the subject matter would be much stronger without the intrusive voiceover treatment.





Part of a nine-film collection entitled NOIR ARCHIVE VOLUME 1: 1944-1954, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK has been made available on dual-layered Blu-ray from Kit Parker Films in association with Millcreek Entertainment. The packaging falls well short of what classic movie collectors might expect. The 3-disc set ships housed in a 2-hub Blu-ray case, and the discs themselves are mislabeled in terms of film content. Oops! Fortunately the viewing experience, which of course is what really counts, puts a better foot forward. The transfer boasts very good source material, and the level of contrast and film grain is more than satisfactory. At this time I have not had an opportunity to sample the other selections, but I am pleased to have THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK among the film noir options within by personal Blu-ray library.


Sunday, July 28, 2019

CRISS CROSS (1949)

Universal Pictures, 87m 43s



Why are some people compelled to do the wrong thing when they know they are doing the wrong thing? The driving force behind director Robert Siodmak's uncompromisingly downbeat film noir CRISS CROSS is life's painful predictability in the face of supposedly random events. Good or bad, randomness gives shape to our lives, both in terms of insignificant things as well as how our days might come to an end. The way human lives interlock may be based largely on chance, but the resulting decisions people make probably are not. A pure distillation of the noir form, CRISS CROSS explores how fate might dovetail with genetic destiny.

In the film's opening segment, Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and Anna Dundee (Yvonne De Carlo) meet clandestinely in the parking lot of the Round Up Café owned by her husband Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Later inside the club, an argument between Steve and Slim almost turns violent, but when policeman Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally) arrives on the scene, all witnesses go silent. Steve and Slim have an armored car robbery in the works, and do not want personal differences to spoil the potentially massive take.

Successfully pulling off this type of heist is thought to be an impossibility by the film's characters that are schooled in such matters. It is said an armored car holdup has not been attempted in 28 years, and those involved all got the chair for their efforts. What makes this battle plan different is the band of criminals is led by Steve, who recently has returned to his old job as a driver for Horten's Armored Car Service. Once the caper is in motion, the inside man Steve reflects upon the curious past events that led to his involvement with known criminals he dislikes. While he is driving the vehicle scheduled for robbery, the film dissolves into flashback form. "It was only eight months ago that I came back," he recalls.






Two faces of Anna

Steve drifted around the country before his instinctive return home, where he knew he would find his ex-wife Anna. After a sustained attempt to forget her, he succumbs to his hardwired attachment to her. Clearly in a state of denial, he tries to convince himself and others he has come home to assume a head-of-household role in the family home. It's a lie. Like a soldier coming home from war in a foreign land, he has returned to reclaim the woman he lost, even though on some level he understands they are not meant for each other (both recall constant bickering). But in respect to film noir's most dominant axiom, the power of fate cannot be bargained with, and Steve is aware of that, too. "It was in the cards, or it was fate, or a jinx, or whatever you want to call it—but right from the start." Soon after his return to LA, Steve surveys the rumba club for his former wife, with whom his obsession persists. He finds her. They start dating again, but before long she turns her back on him in what looks to be a permanent move. Anna's self-serving ways frustrate Steve, but his emotional investment in her never fades for long. He seems all too eager to serve as a scratching post for Anna. Via narration, he reveals awareness for his hopeless addiction, and even pleads for the viewer's empathy:  "Every place you go, you see her face. Half the girls you pass are her. Did it ever happen to you?"

Anna is introduced as an unfaithful wife, and her character does not improve much as the story unspools. Steve's marriage to her yielded seven months of wreckage. His mother openly dislikes Anna, as does his old friend Pete. When she displays evidence of being physically abused, whether one should take her side or not seems open to debate. She is concerned only with taking care of herself. What's good about her? Well, as portrayed by Yvonne De Carlo (yes, Lily Munster), Anna is one of the most luscious-looking film noir femme fatales, especially on the packed dance floor at the rumba club, where her irresistible combination of awkwardness and sex appeal is apparent (notice an uncredited Tony Curtis as her dancing partner in this sequence). The bond between her and Steve is sex, nothing beyond that. Despite all their squabbles, they both enjoyed "the making-up part" as Anna describes it. But in the end, "You always have to do what's best for yourself," she summarizes.






CRISS CROSS opens with Anna's vision of a bright future for her and Steve. Because this is film noir, even the first-time viewer is sure to be suspicious of that prediction. Steve believes her, and thinks he knows Anna better than his family and friends do. Of course he will be dead wrong. Throughout the film, characters read other people with confidence, only to be proven wrong more than right. Steve mistakenly assumes the robbery take will win him Anna for good. A front-page newspaper story christens Steve a hero, which he most certainly is not. Steve thinks Mr. Nelson (Robert Osterloh) has a concealed weapon under his jacket, which he doesn't. That discovery prompts Steve to believe Nelson is on the level, though he isn't. Pete is correct when he assumes Steve has returned home looking for Anna, but later badly misunderstands Steve's level of involvement in the heist attempt. Pete errs again when he envisions Anna and Slim united after the heist. Pop (Griff Barnett) suppresses his better instincts and tragically follows Steve, who leads them into a doomed operation. Steve feels he has assurance Pop will not be hurt, another error in judgment. Bartender Frank (Percy Helton) figures Steve for a "checker" (an investigator for the state liquor board). Barstool babe (Joan Miller, credited as "The Lush") makes the same flawed deduction, and later mistakes Steve for a racetrack loser; she claims she can size up anyone. Like most people in the film, her perceptions prove either misleading or completely inaccurate in an upside-down post-WWII society.

The photoplay is rich with exterior footage around Los Angeles, including Angels Flight Railway, Bunker Hill, Commodore Schuyler F. Heim Bridge and Union Station. Director of photography Franz Planer (credited here as Frank Planer) makes the most of set designs as well, with the scenes at the club among the most atmospheric. I particularly like the use of low camera angles in the club's entrance area, which work well to emphasize a sense of entrapment when Steve returns to his old stomping grounds. Some of the other noir motifs are more subtle. For example, there are multiple instances of men walking with canes, an important component of film noir grammar (compromised masculinity). In terms of dialog, good lines aplenty were baked into the screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, who adapted the 1934 novel of the same title written by Don Tracy. Casting is superb from top to bottom, with Burt Lancaster locked in as Steve, another of his great film noir protagonists along with the characters he portrayed in THE KILLERS (1946), BRUTE FORCE (1947), I WALK ALONE (1947) and the fascinating SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957), in which he portrayed one of the genre's great villains. The always reliable noir icon Dan Duryea (THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW [1944], SCARLET STREET [1945], TOO LATE FOR TEARS [1949]) offers one of his most controlled performances as the story's least admirable male character.





Newly released on dual-layered Blu-ray from Shout! Factory as part of their Shout Select product line, CRISS CROSS is reissued by way of a new 4K scan of the original nitrate negative, framed at 1.35:1 (though the packaging states 1.37:1). The transfer is acceptable, but falls a little short compared to alternate Blu-ray releases of this title, as documented by physical media analyst Gary Tooze [Criss Cross (1949)]. The Shout! Factory incarnation reveals its limitations most obviously during the heist sequence, when protracted instances of tiling and ghosting noticeably corrupt the presentation. The screen captures below compare the surprisingly soft look of this new Blu-ray edition to the Universal Pictures Home Entertainment DVD released in 2004. This Blu-ray disc hardly offers a quantum visual leap. I actually prefer the more textured look of the DVD presentation.

Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Universal DVD

A worthwhile supplement from Shout! Factory is the commentary track by film historian Jim Hemphill, though it too has technical problems. On three separate occasions, Hemphill calls for cuts that for whatever reason did not take place. Those imperfections aside, Hemphill shows a lot of passion for a film noir title he rightly ranks highly. He sees the character Steve as more of a self-destructive personality than a victim of fate; perhaps all of Steve's fatalistic notions are nothing more than convenient excuses. That is a fair reading, though I see Steve's behavior as more of a genetic issue; he is predisposed to follow Anna and there is nothing he can do about it. Another good line of analysis from Hemphill is that Anna does not always look the glamorous noir vixen. When she wears slacks, the wardrobe transition adds a dose of realism to the story. A student of the Robert Siodmak oeuvre, Hemphill correctly notes the filmmaker's work often featured strong women and weak men, i.e. PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945) and THE KILLERS (1946, Lancaster's debut). Other bonus material includes a theatrical re-release trailer (2m 19s), an immense collection of production stills (14m 8s) and a poster & lobby card still gallery (6m 9s).

The same source novel by Don Tracy was called upon for THE UNDERNEATH (1995), directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Peter Gallagher, Alison Elliott and William Fichtner. As Hemphill mentions, a different director adds new dimensions to the same basic story material, while many similarities to CRISS CROSS remain. I encourage fans of the film noir classic to seek out the Soderbergh interpretation, another classic in its own right.



Sunday, June 30, 2019

LAURA (1944)

Twentieth Century Fox, 87m 6s, 88m 9s


"...she had something about her, that girl."
—Waldo Lydecker

Produced and directed by the prolific Otto Preminger, LAURA delivers a substantive mystery above its film noir substratum. The adaptation of Vera Caspary's novel was the first major commercial success for the famously ill-tempered filmmaker Preminger. In a year that included DOUBLE INDEMNITY, MURDER, MY SWEET, PHANTOM LADY and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, LAURA remains one of the standout film noirs of 1944, and over the years has become the subject of effusive critical analysis. Rich with evocative dialog and impressive visual schemes, the Preminger feature offers a spirited clash between the cultured upper class and the no-nonsense working class.

LAURA is set in New York City, though it was filmed on a soundstage, which was the norm for Hollywood movies at that time. Homicide Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is on the trail of the person who shot Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), an undeniably beautiful young woman who was admired—and desired—by many. Prime suspects begin with well-known columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb making his screen debut in sound film), an urbane but contemptuous personality who spent many platonic evenings with Laura. Of perhaps equal interest is a bit of a player named Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), an enigmatic fellow who planned to marry Laura. The two major suspects harbor intense dislike for each other, and understandably so, since each suitor hoped to win Laura's affection. It is made clear there were other men who had designs on Laura. When it comes to attractive, elegant women, such men always exist.

Though Laura Hunt is not by any stretch of the imagination a good example of a film noir femme fatale, her ability to command the attention of all the major male characters is noteworthy. So commendable were Laura's many positive attributes in life, she continues to maintain an uncanny power over people after her death. The film uses a flashback structure to reveal her social ascent, as recalled by the egocentric Waldo, who must admit he only tweaked what already was present in her character. He explains some of her appeal and potential for upward mobility to be genetic ("innate breeding," "authentic magnetism"). Laura goes from anonymous working girl at a large advertising agency to a woman of considerable creative control, especially for that time in American history. In a montage sequence, Waldo's protégé rapidly climbs the career ladder, seemingly at ease in all business and social situations. Her large portrait in her home celebrates this idea. The framed portrait of the idealized woman, whose real-life inspiration proves more complex than her likeness, would become a recurring theme in the film noir, and in fact was also a key element to the same year's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW.

The most influential portrait of film noir



In contrast with the lifestyle of high social standing embodied by Laura and her many friends is the working class idealism represented by the detective who is determined to bring in her killer. In the film's opening sequence at Waldo Lydecker's apartment, Mark McPherson could not be any more the opposite of Waldo and the columnist's acerbic tongue. Mark smirks in amusement at Waldo's wall of decorative masks, which perhaps are meant to conceal the sullen countenance of their owner. Mark has no use for such artifacts. Repeatedly he relies on a pocket baseball game to keep himself even-keeled, much the way many of us habitually call upon a smartphone to achieve the same purpose today. In the course of his investigation, Mark becomes yet another man with a keen interest in Laura. The worth of Laura is endorsed by her grief-stricken maid Bessie Clary (Dorothy Adams, skilled at playing domestic types). Like Mark, the loyal servant Bessie honors the dignity of working class people as she instinctually guards the reputation of her beloved employer. Bessie even continues to work for Laura after having learned of her death. "I'm paid up for the week and I'm working, regardless," she comments.

The crucial sequence to establish footing on a noir path occurs after Mark has become frustrated with the case. In the midst of a torrential downpour, often used to signify some type of transition in the noir setting, Mark returns to Laura's apartment one evening. He studies her portrait. He invades her bedroom, smells her perfume and inspects her dresser drawer and closet. In recognition that he is not behaving in any sort of professional capacity, he pours himself a drink and studies Laura's portrait again. It is a creepy sequence, as pointed out directly by Waldo, always about when a man may have designs on Laura. Waldo has learned Mark placed a bid on the portrait that has captivated the detective. Indeed when Waldo accuses Mark of falling for a corpse, the writer definitely has a point! But on another level, Mark gradually falling for the murder victim emphasizes her pedigree. He may have been struck by the painting of her likeness (who wouldn't be?), but it is the detail he learns about her character that affirms his true feelings for her.





Throughout the narrative, the effeminate man Waldo Lydecker stands in obvious contrast with the meat-and-potatoes guy Mark. Importantly, Waldo's slight frame is introduced in the bathtub, where nobody could be considered in a position of strength. The embodiment of tactlessly outspoken, snobby upper class decay, Waldo is better associated with things than people. He resides in a "lavish" apartment, adorned with monogrammed towels and lovingly decorated with "priceless" items he has accumulated. A constant annoyance to those around him, he dines alone. Even when clearly in the wrong, Waldo appears incapable of apologizing for his surly demeanor without a prompt from Laura. After he aids her transformation into a business and a social magnate, he shadows her whenever her plans do not include him, and routinely assassinates the character of any man who descends upon Laura's private life. Though Waldo cultivates Laura, she eventually turns from the conniving elder man of high culture. In one of the narrative's major turning points, Waldo is both literally and figuratively out in the cold the night he observes Laura in her home window with an artist named Jacoby (John Dexter), about whom Waldo authors a disparaging article. Later Waldo is marginalized when Laura begins to spend time with Shelby Carpenter, and ultimately Waldo aims his jealousy at Mark. Waldo accuses Laura of falling only for men who appear physically strong, in conflict with the intellectual's own frailty (which proves to be more mental than physical).

The suspicious behavior of socialite Shelby Carpenter keeps him high on Mark's list of potential murderers. Shelby is a rather disreputable man, especially as portrayed by the always guilty-looking Vincent Price. Though clearly a man of some social rank (in the past, he derived income from an estate), Shelby is unemployed when he first encounters Laura, who agrees to hire him. In a moment reserved for one of the story's heels, it is revealed Shelby pawned an expensive cigarette case he received as a gift from Laura. Insultingly, he pawned the item in the name of another woman he had been seeing during the same time he was romantically involved with Laura. Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson, who portrayed the shrewish Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA [1940]) outwardly maintains great love for Shelby, even though she admits he would be capable of murder. She even tells Laura that she entertained thoughts of offing her. At various intervals, Ann and Shelby touch each other with affection. The implication is they were made for each other, though only Ann seems to have accepted the notion completely. Shelby is always on the lookout for someone else.

This standard-looking shot contains the solution to a murder mystery: 
note the position of Waldo's umbrella handle in relation to the clock

Laura's image defiantly stands between her startling return and the man investigating her

A noir image if ever there were one

Waldo framed within the context of the framed Laura, whose beauty he failed to capture.
Man's inability to contain female beauty would become closely identified with noir

In regard to film noir themes and motifs that would galvanize a burgeoning genre, the opening narration from Waldo is significant. Ultimately it is the voice of a dead man. Variations on this convention would be used again, perhaps more famously in Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Although LAURA's featured murder occurs offscreen, it is especially gruesome:  a lovely woman dies from a shotgun blast to the face! The film noir movement surely pushed the envelope in terms of what would be considered acceptable violence in American cinema. The flashback device was pivotal to the genre's development, and the fact that so many noir stories begin at the end certainly adds a heightened sense of helplessness to the proceedings. Film noir suspense seldom involves the gradual reveal of some important event. Instead that event is revealed in the early going, and suspense is created in the eventual explanation of why that event occurred. The noir hallmarks of LAURA include numerous nocturnal sequences, atmospherically captured by director of photography Joseph LaShelle, who earned an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. It would be the lone victory for the 8-time Oscar nominee.

The source novel by Vera Caspary originally ran in COLLIERS from October-November 1942 as the seven-part serial "Ring Twice for Laura." The material was republished in book form the following year, and Caspary sold the film rights to Twentieth Century Fox. LAURA was adapted for the screen by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt. As the past and present intermix, the fairly complicated plot structure never confuses without reason. One wonders if everything is a dream after Mark falls asleep in Laura's apartment, only to be awakened by the reappearance of the woman whose murder he has been investigating. That convention was used in the same year's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW. Caspary's source novel would be adapted later as the German made-for-TV movie LAURA (1962) directed by Franz Josef Wild, and then as an American TV movie in 1968 helmed by John Llewellyn Moxey. A Lux Radio Theatre version aired February 5, 1945, and another interpretation was presented February 1, 1954. A stage version first emerged in 1947.

The 1080P dual-layered Blu-ray edition of LAURA released in 2013 by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is absolutely loaded. As I write this review, the disc still can be had for around $10. Along with the original theatrical cut (87m 6s), there is an extended version that runs a little longer (88m 9s). The extended cut includes an expanded montage of Waldo cultivating Laura. The presentation is framed at 1.33:1, which is interesting since both IMDb and TCM list 1.37:1 as the original theatrical aspect ratio.

Supplemental material is mostly common to the Fox DVD issued in 2005. The first audio commentary track features David Raksin, the composer who scored LAURA, and Jeanine Basinger, who for years served as the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and Founder and Curator of The Cinema Archives at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. Basinger reminds us that, like so many classic films, the LAURA we know today almost did not happen. Its life began as a B picture before it was upgraded to an A. The original concept would have been directed by Rouben Mamoulian, with John Hodiak in the role of Detective McPherson and either Hedy Lamarr or Jennifer Jones as Laura. Laird Cregar was being considered for the part of Waldo. Original director Mamoulian's wife painted a portrait of Gene Tierney that was to be used in the film, but that painting was switched to a blown-up photograph after Otto Preminger stepped in as director. Tierney was complimentary of Preminger, a filmmaker well-known for being incredibly demanding of everyone involved in one of his productions. She noted he pushed himself as hard as he pushed the cast and crew. Initially Tierney was unenthused about the role, which in her view lacked screen time. Preminger always directed with tremendous faith in the intelligence of his audience. He had filmed alternate endings, but what exactly he shot remains imprecise. According to the composer Raksin, the scene probably best remembered by noir fans almost was eliminated by David O. Selznick. Raksin convinced Selznick to allow the composer to score the sequence in which Mark appears to have fallen in love with the portrait of a woman he believes to be dead. To think this scene almost hit the cutting room floor! Raksin's other noir credits are an impressive assortment that includes FALLEN ANGEL (1945), FORCE OF EVIL (1948), WHIRLPOOL (1949), SUDDENLY (1954) and THE BIG COMBO (1955).

The commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer traces LAURA through its many steps from play concept to screen classic. Per Behlmer, his recording has its basis in a chapter of his book BEHIND THE SCENES: THE MAKING OF... (1990), which was the culmination of extensive research and interviews he conducted in the 1970s. Though both commentary tracks are worthwhile, the Behlmer track is the more compelling of the two, especially in terms of the historical background of all things LAURA. Vera Caspary decided to sell the screen rights rather than endure the stress of a theatrical adaptation. Her novel was sold for $30K, and allowed Caspary to retain rights to a stage production. The story of the 1944 film adaptation is riddled with the sort of complexity that seems appropriate for the background of a seminal film noir. A screening room presentation of KIDNAPPED (1938) resulted in a dramatic falling out between director Otto Preminger and Darryl F. Zanuck, who had become VP in charge of production at Fox in 1935. So upset was Zanuck he assured Preminger that he could forget about ever directing again. Screenwriter Jay Dratler finished the first draft of LAURA in 1943, and Zanuck made a lot of notes on it. Zanuck sounded the alarm for more distinct characterizations, and was especially underwhelmed with the way Laura was drawn. He could not imagine any major actress being hungry to portray her (and Tierney was not excited about being a second choice after Jennifer Jones turned down the role). Most important, Zanuck's elaborate feedback confirmed the LAURA property would be elevated to A status. According to various accounts of the production's history, Laura was offered to director Lewis Milestone, who declined. Then John Brahm declined, as did Walter Lang before Rouben Mamoulian accepted. The production got off to a shaky start when Zanuck was disappointed with the initial work completed by Mamoulian. Going back on his threat, Zanuck removed Mamoulian and installed Preminger as director. That decision did not necessarily sit well with the actors. In fact, Dana Andrews described Preminger as too "Germanic" in his direction of people and unsuccessfully tried to get out of his contract to play Detective McPherson. Behlmer draws attention to the contribution of director of photography Joseph LaShelle, whose camera follows the action to great effect. He moves in and out of close-ups in such an effortless way traditional editing technique is limited. It does appear Mamoulian was completely excised from the project; LaShelle recalls Preminger telling him none of the Mamoulian footage would survive after reshoots. Behlmer also reviews what is known of the film's alternate conclusion.

If you are not familiar with the troubled private life of Gene Eliza Tierney already, the A&E Biography presentation "Gene Tierney:  A Shattered Portrait" (1999, 44m 9s) will break your heart. She was born November 19, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Westport, Connecticut. Her upbringing was strict as administered by Howard Sherwood Tierney, an insurance broker. At the age of 17, the young Tierney was approached by Warner Bros., but her parents did not approve. In 1939, at the age of 18, she found success on Broadway. Then in 1940, Tierney caught the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck, who got her to sign with 20th Century Fox. In an attempt to lower her speaking voice, she took up smoking, which surely factored in her death from emphysema on November 6, 1991 at the age of 70. Tierney married Oleg Cassini, a costume designer, June 1, 1941, and in 1943 she was top-billed in HEAVEN CAN WAIT. Later she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945).

Though everything on the surface seemed to be going perfectly well for Tierney, her Hollywood stardom coincided with her long battle with mental illness and manic depression. There were many events in her life that must have factored in the state of her mental health. In a failed attempt to resuscitate his business, her father stole from the Belle-Tier corporation he had set up for her. Tierney was left with nothing. She gave birth to a daughter, Antoinette Daria Cassini, who was born prematurely, deaf, partially blind and mentally challenged. Tierney was devastated to realize her stardom caused a fan with German measles to seek her out, which likely caused Tierney to contract the disease while pregnant. She blamed her fame as an actress for her daughter's fragile condition. As fate would have it, Tierney's next starring role would be in LAURA, the part for which she is best remembered.

Though Tierney would remain friends with Oleg for the rest of her life, he was unfaithful to her, and the couple would separate. In 1946 she would become romantically involved with John F. Kennedy, who would not marry her because of his political aspirations. Her romance with Prince Aly Khan in 1952 met with resistance from his father, Aga Khan III. By 1954, Tierney was having a hard time remembering her lines. At the age of 34, she collapsed due to a viral infection and began to experience hallucinations. She reluctantly agreed to electric shock therapy. At the age of 39, she married Texas oilman W. Howard Lee in 1960, but soon suffered a miscarriage. According to Tierney's daughter Christina Cassini, her mother was never the same again after repeated stays at various institutions. Tierney's former husband Oleg ends the documentary appropriately when he describes his ex-wife as, "...the unluckiest lucky girl in the world."

Gene Tierney:  perhaps the most stunning countenance in Hollywood history




Also on hand is the A&E Biography episode "Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain" (1997, 44m 3s). Described as "a modern Renaissance man," Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. (May 27, 1911 – October 25, 1993) was a lifelong collector of art. An English major at Yale, he graduated in 1933. Later he studied in Europe, where he became obsessed with the theater. After he returned to the US, at the age of 24 he starred in VICTORIA REGINA, a Broadway hit that made the cover of TIME magazine in 1936. Broadway fame led to a contract with Universal Pictures, where he played bit parts in a number of films. His movie career got a boost after he signed with Twentieth Century Fox in 1940. His talent for portraying malevolent characters was confirmed on the stage when he played Mr. Manningham in ANGEL STREET, which opened in December of 1941 and ran for a year. Audiences hissed at his character, and Price recognized he had found his calling. On the screen, Price established himself as the bad guy in DRAGONWYCK (1946), and was top-billed in SHOCK (1946), the production that proved he could play the lead. Though from a budget standpoint SHOCK was a B movie, it was screened as an A title.

By the 1950s, Price was known as much for his knowledge of art as he was for his acting. When HOUSE OF WAX (1953) reignited the horror genre, Price found himself bound to the horror category for the remainder of his career. He is well-remembered for his role in THE FLY (1958), as well as his appearances in the William Castle films HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) and THE TINGLER (1959). In the 1960s, Price starred in a series of films for American International Pictures that began with HOUSE OF USHER (1960), produced and directed by Roger Corman. Other productions based on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe followed, including PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), THE RAVEN (1963) and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964), each produced and directed by Corman. The late 1960s and early 1970s brought him three of his greatest roles in WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) and THEATER OF BLOOD (1973). Beyond the world of cinema, Price made a great many television appearances, memorably as Egghead on BATMAN (1966-1967). He worked as an art spokesman for Sears-Roebuck from 1962 to 1971, when Sears offered original art for sale by artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso, and Dalí. Price was also a gourmet cook and the author of multiple cookbooks. In the late 1970s, he performed in 300 cities as Oscar Wilde in the one-man stage production DIVERSIONS AND DELIGHTS.

Price was married three times. He married Edith Barrett in 1938, and divorced her in 1948. His second wife was Mary Grant, whom Price wed in 1949. They were divorced in 1973. His third wife Coral Browne was married to Price in 1974, and remained his wife until her death from cancer in 1991. Price fathered two children:  Vincent Barrett Price, born August 30, 1940 and Mary Victoria Price, born April 27, 1962.

An archival featurette (2005, 12m 36s) covers LAURA from a film noir perspective, with film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini providing insights. I particularly enjoyed the contribution from filmmaker Carl Franklin (ONE FALSE MOVE [1992]), who does not buy into Shelby Carpenter's story about why he was in Laura's apartment with Diane Redfern. The scene that was shortened for the theatrical cut may be watched separately (2m 36s), with optional commentary by Rudy Behlmer. The theatrical trailer (2m 31s) features camera coverage not used in the final cut.