Sunday, September 25, 2022

THE KILLING (1956)

United Artists, 83m 54s

Estimable writer/director Stanley Kubrick went on to accomplish so much after THE KILLING that his quintessential noir heist film tends to get short shrift when critics discuss his oeuvre, especially from an auteur perspective. With THE KILLING, Kubrick proved at the age of 27 he understood Hollywood genre conventions as well as anyone, which is to say he could pull off a standard genre film just as well or better than any of his contemporaries. His later films demonstrated he could make films like nobody else. So many have tried to emulate his trademark themes (filmmaking at an emotional distance, human characters as borderline mechanical entities, and above all else, a pessimistic view of human progress, which happens exclusively in violent terms) that the Kubrick style has become an obvious cliché of the indie film, especially when filmmakers emphasize the space between spoken words. Perhaps Kubrick's most accessible film, THE KILLING also stands as one of the most intense film noir thrillers on record, with ambitious detail compressed into a runtime just shy of 84 minutes.

Like any effective heist film, and this one certainly qualifies, Kubrick gives emphasis to distinct character types through a cast more than up to the task. His crime story is constructed around Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), who just served five years in prison and is anxious to test his ability to orchestrate a crime with a different end result. Of course that notion is the fatal flaw of the career criminal; the thought that next time will be different than the last time. Interestingly the crew assembled by Johnny is not exactly composed of hardened criminals, but rather an assortment of average people, some with bigger problems than others, but all with some sort of motivation for taking the risk of the robbery. The hard-luck lead protagonist Johnny and the people he surrounds himself with all are in one sense or another infected by a stubborn post-WWII social paralysis in which no one is quite happy where they are or with what they have.

Johnny's girl Fay (Coleen Gray), a demure young lady of limited self-esteem, has known her man since childhood. The metric of morality but also a byproduct of entrenched patriarchal authority, Fay embodies the wholesome female counterbalance to the threat posed to society by the scheming femme fatale (more on that person later). Fay is submissive, lacks confidence and appears 100% dependent on Johnny. Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), a bookkeeper who owns the apartment where Johnny and Fay stay, fronts the money necessary to execute the elaborate racetrack heist. He seems to have personal reasons for his involvement in the job; the hints are numerous and not all that subtle that he is in love with Johnny. Notice the way Marvin interrupts the embrace between Johnny and Fay when he walks into their apartment early in the film. Far more suggestive is a later sequence, which features Marvin lying in bed while talking with Johnny, who sits in bed with him. Marvin suggests he and Johnny get away together after the caper in the most romantic of terms:  "Wouldn't it be great if we could just go away, the two of us, and let the old world take a couple of turns..." That fantasy of Marvin's has no possibility of happening and he realizes it. That is the only reasonable explanation for why he gets drunk at the track the day of the heist after Johnny had cautioned him to stay away.

The narrative's other relationship given significant screen time involves track cashier George Peatty (has anyone been slapped around in the movies more than Elisha Cook Jr.?) and his statuesque wife Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor), one of the greediest bitches in cinematic history. A most unlikely couple in terms of appearances, George and Sherry have been married five years. Not coincidentally, that happens to be the identical amount of time Johnny spent behind bars; the noir film seldom paints a flattering portrait of the institution of marriage. As Sherry repeatedly registers objections to the life she has reduced herself to through her wedding vow to George ("This crummy apartment and a hamburger for dinner."), one gets the feeling she has voiced similar complaints since the first day of their relationship. In terms of more recent developments, she recurringly makes her bullied husband feel small for allowing himself to be roughed up by his associates (which naturally was mostly her fault). When not looking in the mirror, Sherry's favorite hobby apparently, she is two-timing George with Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), who treats her like the tramp she is and is very up front about his need for an open relationship. The dangerous female Sherry causes the gears of the heist to seize not long after she learns her husband has a big score in the making. Her unwelcome presence outside Johnny's apartment instantly creates doubt about the viability of the crime while in its planning stages.


Less time is devoted to the other characters, yet all of them make an impact and nobody seems extraneous. Probably the most sympathetic among them is Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer), a racetrack bartender devoted to his invalid wife Ruthie O'Reilly (Dorothy Adams), a woman even more reliant on a man to take care of her than Fay. Patrolman Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) is a dirty cop and Leo (Jay Adler) is Randy's no-nonsense creditor. Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey never moves his teeth when he talks) is the heist crew's weapons man who shares a WWII injury connection with a track parking attendant (James Edwards). Kubrick regular Joe Turkel (THE SHINING [1980]) makes an appearance as Tiny. Most memorable of the heist team's specialty guys is Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani), both an intellectual (a chess player) and a brute (a hairy pro wrestler). In fact the same could be said about Kwariani.

As Kubrick shifts his film back and forth in time in the interest of illustrating each heist member's contribution to the crime, the narrative can be followed easily and every plot thread is simple to understand. The time element is a recurring motif that begins with the narration supplied by Art Gilmore (a real-life radio announcer), who makes the viewer aware of dates and times. Reminders of the film's time-sensitive nature include time ticking away at the Peattys' breakfast the day of the heist. After the heist takes place, a delay due to heavy traffic causes Johnny to be 15 minutes late for the post-heist rendezvous, enough time for a devastating gun battle to finish off everyone present. And talk about a tense moment with an inflexible deadline:  Johnny and Fay at the American Airlines service desk discussing the rules that govern carry-on luggage!

As the film progresses, noir ironies accumulate while the not-quite-perfect plan reveals its limitations. Consider the film's early moments, when Randy informs his impatient creditor Leo that he soon will make good on his obligations. "I'll be able to pay off like a slot machine," boasts Randy. He ends up being right about that, but definitely not the way he thought. As any slot player will tell you, the most probable result is the machine gets the better of you, especially when you could benefit most from some winnings. Randy also stresses, "I'll take care of myself...that's my specialty." In the long run that philosophy does not pan out for him, though he proves his commitment to that logic when he ignores a citizen's plea for help. Rather than follow up on a distraught woman's story as any dutiful law enforcement official should, Randy remains committed to a doomed script designed to enrich himself. Another sequence steeped in irony involves a car tire punctured by a gifted horseshoe, a rejected symbol of racial harmony that symbolizes Nikki's demise. And of course the concluding sequence is imbued with ironic meaning, with Johnny enveloped by the absurd forces for which the noir universe is characterized. Despite the "methodically executed" heist, Johnny fails to recognize the second-hand suitcase he purchases that is bulky enough to handle $2 million in cash makes for inappropriate carry-on luggage. That error in judgment gives rise to the film's major theme:  the futility of an elaborate plan in a random world. The numerous ironies that populate THE KILLING find close association with an irrepressible element of fatalism, a concept that provides the foundational ideological premise of film noir. A seemingly innocuous lady (Cecil Elliott) who fusses over her little dog at the airport hardly seems likely to become a significant factor on heist day, yet her presence leads to the exposure of the heist's architect (is there a woman in the film who is helpful to masculine endeavors?). Johnny stands helplessly at the airport, positioned perfectly to watch his score escape his grasp. "What's the difference?" he summarizes as he sees no point in even attempting to escape the hand of fate. The concluding shot recalls the final moments of NOTORIOUS (1946), with the condemned villain completely out of options. The most pure instances of the noir formula tend to wrap up accordingly, with at least one major character fully aware of his (or sometimes her) irreversible situation.


THE KILLING was based on the novel CLEAN BREAK by Lionel White. The adaptation's various working titles included “Bed of Fear,” “Clean Break” and “Day of Violence.” Kubrick's screenplay was seasoned with dialogue by Jim Thompson (witness the terrific hard-boiled language when Johnny breaks down Sherry, also when Johnny explains to Nikki why killing a horse is no big deal). The $330K budget was attached to a 28-day shooting schedule. Director of photography Lucien Ballard's studio-shot material meshes well with the stock footage assembled from the Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo, California. Location footage was filmed in Bunker Hill, Culver City and Los Angeles International Airport. Leading man Sterling Hayden delivered a fascinating performance in director John Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), the original noir heist classic. Hayden would return to work in a major role for Kubrick in DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964). With those bedroom eyes and her tall, erotic body, actress Marie Windsor was born to portray femme fatales, and Sherry is about as caustic an example of one as the noir aficionado is likely to encounter. It is impossible not to sympathize with her bullied husband. Similarly, Elisha Cook Jr. was predestined to play the milquetoast (my favorite instance that leaps to mind is SHANE [1953]). Fittingly, the two would be reunited for the television mini-series SALEM'S LOT (1979). After THE KILLING was sold to United Artists, Kubrick and producer James B. Harris formed their own production company. Harris co-produced Kubrick's antiwar vehicle PATHS OF GLORY (1957) along with that film's star Kirk Douglas. Later Harris-Kubrick Productions released LOLITA (1962), based on Vladimir Nabokov's controversial 1955 novel. It also should be mentioned THE KILLING surely influenced Quentin Tarantino's terrific throwback crime film RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). And the element of a mature woman with a love for dogs would be inserted into A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988), my favorite of all heist films, for terrific comedic effect.

THE KILLING joins the 4K UHD club by way of the Kino Lorber Studio Classics product line. The new Dolby Vision HDR Master derived from a 4K scan of the original camera negative looks razor sharp and stands with confidence alongside the very best transfers of noir films currently available on physical media. Framing is at the intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Grain level is superb and should please anyone who purchases this release as a collection upgrade, no question. Below is a screen snapshot of the new Kino Lorber 4K edition:

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/21/the_killing_4K_UHD_/large/large_07_the_killing_4K_UHD__4K_UHD__blu-ray.jpg

The freshly recorded audio commentary track was contributed by incisive film historian and author Alan K. Rode, who is among the most accomplished voices when it comes to commentaries. He is always at the ready with everything one possibly could hope to learn about each sequence in terms of filming locations then and now, as well as contributions of everyone in front of and behind the camera. His best attribute is his ability to tell entertaining stories about contributors he either knew directly or understood from conversations with people who knew them well. Rode's coverage includes the peaks and valleys of Vince Edwards, who struggled with addictions to gambling and alcohol. Timothy Carey was fired off the set of ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) for the sort of scene-stealing antics he had on full display in CRIME WAVE (1953). Carey was fired from PATHS OF GLORY as well and had to be doubled. James Edwards was noted for being the first black actor to break away from long-entrenched stereotypes, most notably with his portrayal of Private Peter Moss in HOME OF THE BRAVE (1949). He set the stage for Sidney Poitier's emergence in the social problem film noir NO WAY OUT (1950). Real-life pro wrestler Kola Kwariani was a chess partner of Kubrick's. Together with Sterling Hayden they appeared on the cover of CHESS REVIEW (March 1956). A tough guy all his life, Kwariani died at the age of 77 after a brawl with five youths. Sterling Hayden, a member of the Communist Party for a short period of time, named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee to ensure he could continue working, though his testimony bothered him the remainder of his life. Rode also discusses the amputation of Jay C. Flippen's leg due to an infection and the career of Tito Vuolo, an ethnic character specialist and film noir fixture. Rode also identifies Rodney Dangerfield in an uncredited role as an extra at the racetrack (in those days Dangerfield was known as Jack Roy).

Kubrick's main obsessions as a young man were watching movies, photography (he was a LOOK photographer for 4 years) and playing chess (he would become a tournament-level player). He maintained creative involvement in every detail of his films, which in this case created tension with cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Rode notes Kubrick's camera moves only when necessary, a trait he probably picked up from watching the work of German-French filmmaker Max Ophüls (LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN [1948], LA RONDE [1950]). Despite the fact Kubrick did not take a salary, THE KILLING was not a profitable title for United Artists, though the gritty noir absolutely cemented Kubrick's reputation as a young filmmaker to watch.

A theatrical trailer (1m 46s) is the only other supplement.

Note:  Unless otherwise indicated, the screen captures above were snapped from the Criterion DVD released in 2011. For 4K screen captures of the Kino Lorber Studio Classics version of THE KILLING, visit Gary Tooze's DVDBeaver website:  THE KILLING




Thursday, September 1, 2022

711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950)

Columbia Pictures, 102m
Format: 35mm
9:15 PM, Wednesday, August 31st, 2022
 
NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2022
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 26th, 2022 to Thursday, September 1st, 2022
NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2022 SCHEDULE 

Film historian Alan K. Rode returned to Chicago for another NOIR CITY lineup of likable film noir classics, B titles and rarities. Last night he presented 711 OCEAN DRIVE, released in July of 1950, back when the Kefauver Committee had been formed to deliver a kick in the pants to organized crime. Around that time noir stories adopted a torn-from-the-headlines approach, and this one probably is as good as any of the "social problem" noirs of its time. It stars everyman specialist Edmond O'Brien as an individual with "too much ambition" for his own good, the proverbial gangster done in by his own excesses.

Mal Granger (O'Brien) is introduced as a working-class stiff who bets on horses in the hope of improving his modest social status. The vet turned telecom technician clearly feels like he isn't making it like he ought to be. He even mentions when it comes to gambling, he wants to win big or not at all, a train of thought common to numerous noir protagonists that surfaced after Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). Granger's appetite for wealth leads him to Vince Walters (Barry Kelley), whose bookmaking operation quickly benefits from the tech-savvy Granger. Revenue increases so significantly for Walters that Granger is able to leverage the situation. After habitually short (as in a light envelope) bookie Mendel Weiss (Sidney Dubin) guns down Walters, Granger steps in and takes over the wire operation with confidence, a department in which he never seems to be lacking. Soon after Granger ascends to the rank of top wire service man out West, the ruthless wire service syndicate from the East takes an interest in Granger’s activities. Larry Mason (Don Porter) is sent to recruit Granger while syndicate boss Carl Stephans (Otto Kruger in a stellar turn) maintains a watchful eye on all aspects of the business.

"Money is the answer to everything," notes Granger while the narrative adopts a consistently Marxist view of capitalism. The wire service racket embodies the seedy underbelly of a free-market economy where whoever is willing to cheat others the most enjoys the most success, at least until those who feel marginalized begin to factor in the demise of their old boss. Ultimately greed is shown to be the force that destroys everything: relationships, careers, lives. Even when Granger earns more than he ever had, it still is not enough and probably never could be. He is furious to learn his East coast employers have decided to pay him less than originally promised, though Granger is blind to the irony he treated his workhorse bookies exactly the same. Women are positioned in largely ornamental roles, with Trudy Maxwell (Dorothy Patrick) drifting in as an obvious distraction to ambitious men and Gail Mason (Joanne Dru) as the beautiful barfly without much of a marriage to preserve. Certainly for a modern audience, this noir film anticipates the emergence of the technical criminal as a greater threat to society than the hoodlum with a sawed-off shotgun.

711 OCEAN DRIVE was written by Richard English and Francis Swann and is immensely entertaining. It is briskly paced as directed by Joseph M. Newman, the solid filmmaker behind ABANDONED (1949) and DANGEROUS CROSSING (1953) and a colorful Hollywood raconteur per festival host Rode. The story of Granger recalls the career pattern of Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), as well as the basic dynamic of the proto-noir M (1931), with the lead protagonist wanted by both lawmen and underworld entities. The past-post con is particularly satisfying as staged by Newman, and there is plenty to like about the location footage collected in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Hoover Dam, though I thought an opportunity was missed at that last locale. Instead of being shot to death, Granger should have fallen down that incredibly steep staircase inside Hoover Dam (talk about one of noir's dangerous staircases!). Director of photography Franz Planer also worked on THE CHASE (1946), CRISS CROSS (1949) and 99 RIVER STREET (1953), all exceptional film noirs. The only problem that stands out in 711 OCEAN DRIVE is that it concludes on a needlessly sanctimonious note about the corruptive power of gambling, even for just a $2 bet.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

SMOOTH AS SILK (1946) and SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946)


SMOOTH AS SILK (1946)
Universal Pictures, 64m
Format: 35mm
6:45 PM, Saturday, August 27th, 2022

SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946)
Columbia Pictures, 71m
Format: 35mm
8:30 PM, Saturday, August 27th, 2022
 
NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2022
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 26th, 2022 to Thursday, September 1st, 2022
NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2022 SCHEDULE

Yesterday's NOIR CITY lineup was presented by Turner Classic Movies' Noir Alley host Eddie Muller, who was onsite with a selection of B titles for the day. I attended two of them, each connected to the other by willful women whose actions lead to dire consequences for the significant men in their lives. SMOOTH AS SILK stars Virginia Grey, one of the film industry's great "almost" stories according to Muller. Born in Hollywood, she grew up in the business and never broke through, though she did enjoy a long career as an actress (into the 1970s). She makes quite an impression in this starring role as an energetically egocentric femme fatale.

The taut B noir opens with the conclusion of a court case. Thanks to attorney Mark Fenton (Kent Taylor), well-known drinker and player Don Elliott (Danny Morton) has eluded a manslaughter charge. Don's uncle and trustee Stephen Elliott (John Litel) happens to be a stage producer, and Mark hopes to leverage the situation since his actress fiancée Paula Marlowe (Grey) would like to play the lead in Stephen's next production. Stephen expresses no interest in casting Paula, who winds up with a bracelet from Mark instead of what she really wants. The type of woman Paula is gets definition via a closeup when she learns the drunkard Don stands to inherit $3 million. Paula gets to know Don only to shift her charms to Stephen and his new play "Miracle at Midnight." As Paula goes from man to man in her efforts to further her career as an actress, Mark is left to brood. At that time SMOOTH AS SILK firmly puts a large footprint down in noir terrain, with Mark and his private investigator enveloped by the shadows of venetian blinds, that telltale noir signature for criminal minds at work.

An obvious instance of one of the genre's scheming spider women, all of Paula's thoughts revolve around herself. After one of the men in her life is found shot dead, her immediate concern is she could be accused of the crime. And thanks in good part to the mind work of this beautiful but conniving dame, a once respectable lawman is converted into a murderer, one who arranges evidence as to point the finger at another suspect. Not only that, the same guy labors to convince Don he is the real killer (a fair plan since Don could not recall what happened when a vehicle he was driving terminated the life of a pedestrian). Don is a figure persistently impacted by the noir atmosphere of randomness and instability. Though not the most upstanding member of the community, Don is not the man he is encouraged to believe he is. He is also horribly confused about the nature of Paula, who is exactly like the lead character in his uncle's play, not the polar opposite he imagines her to be. Therefor it might be assumed she is not necessarily much of an actress either; once awarded the role she is merely playing herself. Ironically the Elliott's butler Wolcott (Harry Cheshire) understands Paula best.

A remake of A NOTORIOUS GENTLEMAN (1935), SMOOTH AS SILK was directed by Charles Barton, a filmmaker who eventually edged into television, as so many directors did. Cinematography was handled by Elwood Bredell. The screenplay was completed by the combination of Dane Lussier and Kerry Shaw, who adapted the original story credited to Florence Ryerson and Colin Clements. Though an enjoyable little diversion from beginning to end, at a runtime of just over an hour there is a sense that SMOOTH AS SILK comes together a little too quickly in its concluding segments. The other area of weakness is though it seems the character Susan Marlowe (Jane Adams), Paula's good-and-decent little sister, is introduced to fall for John Kimble (Milburn Stone), that plot thread goes unresolved.

Next on the docket was SO DARK THE NIGHT, helmed by director Joseph H. Lewis, a completely self-taught filmmaker who nudged his way into Hollywood based on the career of his older brother Ben Lewis, an established film editor. Joseph proved himself an instinctive storyteller and artist with his B films of the 1940s. His ability to do distinctive work on a limited budget distinguished him from his contemporaries. SO DARK THE NIGHT is an example of filmmaking on a shoestring budget, with locations within five miles of the Columbia lot standing in for the French countryside. Festival host Eddie Muller cited this film as one of the genre's unreliable narratives.

Parisian detective Henri Cassin (frequent bit player Steven Geray in a rare leading role) attempts to take some time off only to find himself engulfed in a murder case. Cassin rents a room at a remote inn, where he attracts the attention of Nanette Michaud (Micheline Cheirel), the daughter of Pierre Michaud (Eugene Borden) and Mama Michaud (Ann Codee). Though Cassin is quite a bit older than Nanette (in that grand Hollywood tradition), she is drawn to his worldliness and sees him as a way out of the country and into the exciting big city lights of Paris. But to the approval of Pierre and the disappointment of Mama, Nanette already has been promised to Leon Achard (Paul Marion), a simple local man of limited financial resources.

The noir universe extends to rural French environs when a triple murder case emerges, with Cassin conveniently on hand to assist hopelessly perplexed local authorities. Both Mama and Nanette embody noir female archetypes fascinated with material things they "deserve," as well as women intent on breaking away from the patriarchal system that dictates who women should marry. Interestingly, Pierre loses both of them after he reinforces the notion that Nanette would be better off with Leon than the much older detective from Paris. A notably noir sense of fatalism takes root when the lifelong bachelor Cassin concludes, "That much happiness just wasn't meant for me." As the multiple murder investigation progresses, the film veers off into a psychological direction in its examination of an accomplished crime investigator on holiday. Suffice is to say his suspicions about his destiny prove prescient.

Director Lewis later would score with the undisputed film noir classics GUN CRAZY (1950) and THE BIG COMBO (1955), though I also think a lot of MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), an intense B noir released the year prior to SO DARK THE NIGHT. The film under review here constitutes a lesser achievement than those titles, though is interesting in its implication that to be married to one's profession is inherently unhealthy and is sure to catch up with you. But at the end of the day, there are too many implausibilities and Steven Geray just is not an appealing lead. Martin Berkeley and Dwight V. Babcock wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg. Director of photography Burnett Guffey probably contributed to the film noir movement as much as anyone, including B movies such as MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, NIGHT EDITOR (1946) and NIGHTFALL (1956) as well as crucial genre classics like ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) and THE SNIPER (1952).

Sunday, July 31, 2022

DEPORTED (1950)

Universal Pictures, 88m 52s

Another of film noir's evocative one-word title treatments, DEPORTED unveils the inverse of the American dream, one immigrant's remarkable full-circle journey. The standard narrative that features the determined immigrant is given a noir flash forward in this international production with distinctly American concerns. Though many of its implications are cynical, DEPORTED is not without a glimmer of hope.

The material was inspired by the deportation of real-life crime boss Charles "Lucky" Luciano (born Salvatore Lucania). Our story opens in Naples, Italy where Vic Smith (Jeff Chandler) is being returned from American soil after an extended stay in New York City. Vic first immigrated to the US in the early 1920s but has been booted from the country after serving a five-year stretch in Sing Sing for racketeering. At the pier to welcome Vic is Vito Bucelli (Claude Dauphin) of the Italian Ministry of the Interior, who strongly believes Vic will be intent on recovering the $100K in ill-gotten gains he has hidden somewhere. Bucelli is an intuitive man (think Barton Keyes [Edward G. Robinson] from DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944]). Determined to catch a criminal before he commits a crime, Bucelli has a nose for such matters, a nose that has been reliable for many, many years. Per a mandate from Bucelli, Vic must stay with his remaining family for 30 days minimum in Marbella.


A self-assertive, confident man, Vic shows how quickly he can get the upper hand in a tough situation during an unexpected meeting with his former partner in crime Bernardo "Bernie" Gervaso (Richard Rober, burdened with some of the film's exposition dialog). Bernie has followed Vic to Italy in the hope of getting his share of the money Vic has stashed, though Vic feels entitled to the entire $100K since he did five years and kept his mouth shut about their partnership. Prepared for a requisite low-key existence in Marbella, Vic's outlook improves when he eyes Countess Christine di Lorenzi (Märta Torén), an elegant, philanthropic brunette and widow of five years (interestingly, the same amount of time Vic spent in a correctional facility). During that time frame Christine has lived in sexual retirement, perhaps another parallel to Vic. It is not difficult to understand why Vic falls for Christine; that a woman of her social experience would desire him tends to strain credulity.

DEPORTED is set in a post-WWII land of food shortages, with bread lines a frustrating part of daily life. That circumstance underscores a major difference in character types when Christine is upset to notice Vic encourage children to fight over an item of value (an old habit of his introduced in the film's early moments). Here we have "roughneck" American capitalist notions defiantly at odds with the European socialist, along with the existing contrast between the uneducated, boorish male criminal and the sensitive, cultured woman with a charitable heart. Christine, who would like nothing more than to know everyone has enough to eat, wrongly equates Vic with selfless American goodness and generosity when in truth he embodies corrosive American greed.



Gina Carapia (Marina Berti) serves as femme fatale and counterpoint to Christine. Though Gina leads Vic into a tough setting when they first meet, when he later encounters her, he cannot resist following her again. That is the dangerous film noir woman for certain; even when a man knows of her essence, he cannot deny his attraction to her. In her own way Gina is more worldly than the aristocrat Christine. From the very beginning Gina understands Vic far better than her polar opposite does. "Oh, I could fool you a hundred times," Gina assures Vic. In fact, it is only due to Gina's command of her magnetic sexuality that Bernie is able to link Vic to Guido Caruso (Carlo Rizzo), a local small-timer noted for moving food for badly inflated prices through the black market.

Probably the most noir element of DEPORTED is the association it draws between Vic's dark past and America's relationship with other countries. The US likes to think of itself as the world hero who props up other countries unable to do as much on their own. Perhaps the truth is there is no such thing as a completely benevolent benefactor, that behind every ostensibly humane act is a person like Vic, driven primarily by his own interests. "Mr. America" he derisively calls himself at one point. Vic's antithesis is his salt-of-the-earth uncle Armando Sparducci (Silvio Minciotti), an altruistic bread baker content to live a simple life devoid of material possessions. Uncle Armando mistakenly believes his nephew worked for the US government based upon a federal notice he received! It is inferred large amounts of such gullibility is necessary for deception to function on a grand scale.



To connect additional noir themes and motifs with Vic is simple, such as the familiar noir trope of multiple identities within one body (Vic Smith / Vittorio Mario Sparducci), a pattern set in place to convey complexity of personality. Then there is the unmistakable noir theme of alienation experienced by the lead protagonist. Vic no longer can be part of the criminal underground, nor should he expect to find acceptance in the legitimate business world. Though obviously a flawed individual with a shady history, like so many film noir protagonists he does reveal a moral compass. Ultimately, he comes clean with both Christine and his uncle about who he really is and what he has done. The ironic atmosphere often crucial to the film noir manifests itself in terms of Vic's $100K that eludes his grasp. When the money is as close to him in Marbella as it is going to get, he finds himself in a painfully awkward position:  to acknowledge any sense of his humanity would destroy him. Even more ironic, it turns out only the poor benefit from the $100K that Vic hoped would enrich his life exclusively.

Director Robert Siodmak was one of film noir's most frequent and consistent contributors. His optimal work in the genre includes PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE KILLERS (1946) and CRISS CROSS (1949). I would not put DEPORTED in Siodmak's upper tier, but I found it to be a sturdy motion picture that withstands repeat viewings without issue. The screenplay was by writer/producer Robert Buckner, who adapted the story PARADISE LOST '49 by Canadian novelist Lionel Shapiro. Incredibly prolific cinematographer William H. Daniels also handled the camera for a respectable film noir lineup that includes BRUTE FORCE (1947), THE NAKED CITY (1948), ABANDONED (1949) and WOMAN IN HIDING (1950). DEPORTED was shot on location in Italy, and the influence of Italian neorealism is apparent. From a cinematography standpoint, the first noirish sequence occurs roughly a half hour into the film, when Vic and Christine have coffee on her terrace. The concluding sequence plays out in undeniable noir fashion:  a tense confrontation in a claustrophobic warehouse, well handled by Daniels. Jeff Chandler is credible enough in the lead role, though I could not watch without thinking about how ideal this role would have been for Humphrey Bogart. Actually, the other actors considered for the lead were Dana Andrews, Victor Mature and John Garfield. Sadly, both Jeff Chandler and Märta Torén would die young:  Chandler at 42 and Torén at 30.





This single-layered Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber, released late last year, as far as I know marks the domestic debut of this title on home video. Framed at the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1, the transfer impresses for the most part while the occasional speckles, scratches and other artifacts that plague the opening credits calm down considerably as the film unspools. Film historian Eddy Von Mueller recorded a fresh audio commentary for this "runaway production" (a film shot primarily outside of the Hollywood area). Shooting required three weeks in Italy, two weeks on the studio lot and a $170K budget. Von Mueller makes a lot of good observations about Vic, a two-time alien:  first as an Italian immigrant in the US, then as a deportee. DEPORTED is not a film noir in Von Mueller's estimation, which is easy enough to debate. At minimum I consider it what film scholar Alan K. Rode might label "noir stained." Where Von Mueller and I find a lot of common ground is within the safe assumption that Vic represents all the best and worst impulses of American leadership. Through our lead protagonist Vic, the production endorses the Marshall Plan, the American effort to prop up Western Europe after WWII, while it delivers something of an apology for American deficiencies. Christine mirrors the international reaction to idealistic American compulsions. She even declares her love for Vic after she comes to terms with his worst qualities. The filmmakers ask the audience to do the same when it comes to American foreign policy.

The disc includes a collection of trailers for comparable titles available from Kino Lorber.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

REPEAT PERFORMANCE (1947)

Eagle-Lion Films, 93m 18s

 "They say that fate is in the stars, that each of our years is planned ahead, and nothing can change destiny. Is that true?"
—voiceover by John Ireland

 

Most every proper film noir is enmeshed deeply in fate, or as it is stated repeatedly in this Eagle-Lion Films release, "destiny." One of many effective noir exercises from Bryan Foy Productions, REPEAT PERFORMANCE conflates the crime movie and the fantasy film for a woman's melodrama in the vein of MILDRED PIERCE (1945), with a career-oriented woman confronted by a stringent noir universe.

Set in New York City on New Year's Eve, 1946, Broadway actress Sheila Page (21-year-old Joan Leslie) guns down her husband playwright Barney Page (Louis Hayward, top-billed) in their high-rise apartment. In a daze over what just transpired, Sheila seeks the comfort of her trusted friends writer William Williams (Richard Basehart, his debut) and stage producer John Friday (Tom Conway). She laments the past year's events and wishes for a do-over. While the narration anticipates the type of conditions made famous in the television series THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959–1964), Sheila realizes to her bewilderment her wish has been granted! A dead-end 1946 is about to play out once again, for the better she hopes. Though not everything works out exactly the same as before, Sheila recognizes fairly early occurrences she wanted to avoid crop up anyway. The mysterious force of fate is at work when somewhat supercilious playwright Paula Costello (Virginia Field) rings the wrong doorbell and attends a New Year's Eve party hosted by Sheila and Barney. Although under entirely different circumstances, Barney meets Paula, as he had the first time 1946 unspooled. What has not changed is the same dagger is aimed at Sheila. Can she keep them apart this time?



Though a cross-genre film, REPEAT PERFORMANCE honors standard film noir assumptions of the mid-to-late 1940s. Unhappiness within the boundaries of marriage is a frequent film noir concern, the structural material that supports noir narratives such as DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE SUSPECT (1944), SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and POSSESSED (1947). Barney's hit play "Out of the Blue" made a Broadway star of his wife Sheila five years ago, but that one triumph did not make him an ascendant creative force. An undisciplined writer who has waddled into alcoholism, Barney has failed to follow-up with anything as impactful as the play that catapulted his wife to stardom. Hardly a sympathetic figure, the resentful, frequently embarrassing drunkard Barney is the story's homme fatale and ultimately the sort of noir psychopath memorialized by Richard Widmark in KISS OF DEATH (1947). Particularly when drinking Barney is an impossible personality to confront. And just get a load of the level of misogyny directed from Barney to his wife:  "...you're only a woman. You're not expected to have either judgement or intelligence." He also lies to Sheila about his feelings for Paula and her attraction to him.

A filmmaking cliche I always seem to respond to is that for one person to rise another inevitably must fall (that setup is an especially intriguing dynamic in a modern society based upon crony capitalism). The narrative's sense of urgency really accelerates when Barney's professional fall becomes literal. After Barney totters off a theater balcony, the accident converts Barney into an invalid, thrust into the great tradition of hobbled noir males that depend upon crutches (DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944]), canes (GILDA [1946]) or even dual walking canes (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI [1947]) for mobility. The case of Barney especially recalls Richard Mason (Humphrey Bogart) from CONFLICT (1945), a man who actually could walk but sat in a wheelchair in front of his wife for selfish reasons.



Female archetypes are consistently of interest in the film noir, and REPEAT PERFORMANCE offers an assortment of females worthy of our attention. The story revolves around Sheila, who at one juncture looks into the camera as she defends her worthless husband, as if pleading with viewers directly for understanding of her failing relationship. The filmmakers are on her side from beginning to end as she clings to whatever good is left in Barney. Other female characters are decidedly less endearing. Actress Bess Michaels (Benay Venuta) is a boozing busybody, and Eloise Shaw (Natalie Schafer), who backs the careers of young male artists who excite her, literally turns the spotlight on Barney and Paula locked together for a stunned Sheila to witness in front of her peers. Eloise also commits William to an insane asylum, presumably because she found out he was gay and thus uninterested in fulfilling her sexual desires. But the featured femme fatale is the playwright Paula, who barely reacts to being slapped by Sheila (who subsequently takes an open hand to her face from her frustrated husband, now turned physically abusive). Interestingly we are granted a hint of Barney's inability to contain Paula when he is unable to light her cigarette. Sure enough, later we learn Paula's attraction to Barney has faded after she has learned he might never fully recover from his fall. His pathetic attempt to follow the spider woman to London results in his descent into madness; at this point he is the certifiable psycho, not William. As Barney leaves the ship for a confrontation with his wife, the scene both rhymes and contrasts with Sheila's gaze into the camera in that earlier sequence. Now it is Barney who seems to be looking right at us, though obviously without any of the hopefulness conveyed by Sheila. The bandages that remain on his forehead speak to his disturbed mental state and dangerous frame of mind, a casualty of an unforgiving noir world he believes pushed him aside.

The film noir's attachment to rainfall is a trope probably even the occasional noir watcher recognizes. For those who like to take note of symbolism, it rains the evening Barney and Paula first share an embrace. Rainfall is emphasized again when Sheila visits Barney at the hospital three weeks post-fall. And later at the sanitarium rain links William, the poet being evaluated by psychiatrists, to Barney, the man with the bandaged head determined to kill his wife. The elements seem to provide the connective tissue in both versions of 1946, beginning with the clouds and stormy weather that accompany the opening credits and introductory sequence.

In the final analysis, the hand of fate discussed in the film's opening narration offers no second chance for a doomed marriage. Though certain events of Sheila's repeat of 1946 unfold differently, neither year spares her husband Barney, a man undeserving of additional opportunities. Some people cannot be helped, no matter how hard their loved ones try. Sometimes love and devotion results only in recurring disappointments. Rather surprisingly, neither Paula nor Sheila is punished for transgressions almost always dealt with definitively during the Production Code era.


Director Alfred L. Werker also helmed SHOCK (1946), a fine film noir of its time with Vincent Price in the lead. He also co-directed the Richard Basehart vehicle HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) with Anthony Mann. Cinematographer L. William O'Connell shot the gangster film classic SCARFACE (1932) and also DECOY (1946), one of the wildest of B-noirs. Though the intermingling of the noir film and the fantasy film was not common, there are some other instances of merit, including FLESH AND FANTASY (1943), PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948), NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948) and ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949). The holiday favorite IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) also must be mentioned as an influence; recall the noirish Pottersville that bared so little resemblance to Bedford Falls.

The new Flicker Alley dual-format edition Blu-ray / DVD set (ALL REGION) presents the feature film framed at 1.37:1 and save for a random scratch looks about as good in motion as one could imagine. In fact, this is an incredible restoration of a film noir I likely never would have seen had it not been for the efforts of The Film Noir Foundation to preserve it, and other important works like it, for future generations of movie fans. Supplemental material includes an audio commentary track anchored by film historian Nora Fiore, AKA “The Nitrate Diva,” who credits REPEAT PERFORMANCE as the first big production from Eagle-Lion Films. Though estimates vary depending on the source, producer Aubrey Schenck recalled a roughly $600K budget. Fiore mentions the original source material was focused on Barney, not Sheila, who was a villainess. That arrangement would not have been an ideal match for Joan Leslie, thus the adaptation reversed things. Critical consensus at the time was uncharitable. Fiore's most astute observation is that Sheila is at her most confident when focused on her career; in her private life she wields far less leverage. She also points out William is sacrificed in the interest of his straight friend Sheila's preservation, although the film does conclude with a personal proverb from the defeated man William.

A brief introduction (5m 27s) to REPEAT PERFORMANCE comes by way of film noir historian and frequent NOIR CITY film festival host Eddie Muller, who credits Flicker Alley, UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Packard Humanities Institute for their work with The Film Noir Foundation to make this restoration a reality. This much-appreciated Blu-ray release arrives roughly 15 years after Muller first presented the film for public viewing. That print, from a private collection, was in desperate need of restoration. The finished product looks fantastic and should be snapped up by noir devotees while it is readily available.

Next up is a profile (9m 22s) of actress Joan Leslie by author and film historian Farran Smith Nehme. While under contract at Warner Bros., Leslie was noted for her portrayal of ingénues in well-known Warner titles such as HIGH SIERRA (1941), SERGEANT YORK (1941) and YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942). Eventually she reached the conclusion her luck had run out at Warner, where she found herself appearing in titles she deemed beneath her, i.e. TOO YOUNG TO KNOW (1945), CINDERELLA JONES (1946) and JANIE GETS MARRIED (1946). After she sued Warner to get out of her contact that was signed by her parents when she was still a minor, she was blackballed by the other major studios. Leslie made her debut at Eagle-Lion Films with REPEAT PERFORMANCE, in which she replaced Constance Dowling in the lead role.

"Eagle-Lion: A Noir-Stained Legacy" (34m 25s) is a documentary by Steven C. Smith, narrated by author and film historian Alan K. Rode, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of noir. The British-American film production company was owned by J. Arthur Rank, with attorney Arthur B. Krim and skilled businessman Robert Benjamin in charge of the American division. With the acquisition of Robert R. Young's PRC Pictures in 1947, the idea was to create some "cross-Atlantic synergy" as Rode puts it. Their ambitions were daring since it was very difficult for anyone but the "Big Five" (Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, MGM and RKO) to secure significant theatrical screens. Their timing was unfortunate; box office revenues had cratered in 1946. Another challenge was so much of the major talent was contractually bound to the major studios. REPEAT PERFORMANCE would become Eagle-Lion's first prestige picture. Krim converted Eagle-Lion into a filmmaking playground for independent producers like Edward Small and Walter Wanger, with the small studio attached for a piece of the action. Without beloved movie stars, major distribution channels or the capital necessary to create a large number of prints, that approach was to be the template for profitability, along with a focus on gritty crime films now recognized as noir powerhouses, i.e. T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), HOLLOW TRIUMPH (1948), HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), TRAPPED (1949) and PORT OF NEW YORK (1949). Despite many quality titles and the emergence of ace cinematographer John Alton and contributions from director Anthony Mann, profits were limited and Eagle-Lion was unable to grow. Though Eagle-Lion Films only existed for five years, Benjamin and Krim found greater success after they assumed control of United Artists in 1951 and took the company public in 1957.

Another welcome feature of this two-disc set is a digital edition of the film’s original 1947 promotional pressbook. Also bundled in the packaging is a glossy souvenir booklet that includes Brian Light’s book-to-film comparison of the 1942 William O’Farrell novel with screenwriter Walter Bullock’s adaptation, as well as original photos, lobby cards and posters. The cover art is reversible.

REPEAT PERFORMANCE was remade in 1989 as the TV movie TURN BACK THE CLOCK with Joan Leslie on board in a cameo role.