Sunday, September 29, 2013


The tense stakeout noir PUSHOVER deposits Fred MacMurray in the middle of the same minefield of temptations he navigated without success a decade earlier in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Each film features a duplicitous blonde who embodies both sexual and monetary desires, as well as a no-nonsense authority figure with excellent instincts. MacMurray is pitch-perfect in his practiced performance, looking increasingly distraught as things get overly complicated.

In an early scene that sets up the remaining narrative, LA police detective Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) recalls his parents fought constantly over irresolvable money problems. He vowed never to be caught short of cash, thus equivocating financial freedom with a lifetime of happiness. It’s a telling expositional sequence, especially given the presence of MacMurray, already noted for playing characters whose sleazy inner workings are concealed behind a façade of straight-laced righteousness in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE CAINE MUTINY. In this outing, MacMurray’s cop gets romantically involved with a moll named Lona McLane (Kim Novak in her official screen debut). Sheridan hopes to nail down the whereabouts of McLane’s bank-robbing beau Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards). Predictably enough, McLane suggests she and Sheridan make off with Wheeler’s satchel full of stolen loot. At first uninterested, it isn’t long before Sheridan’s base instincts kick in. We instantly know how things will turn out, just as we know alcohol will somehow get the best of Paddy Dolan (Allen Nourse), who is one slip-up away from losing his pension, yet cannot resist the magnetic pull of a nearby pub while on duty. Director Richard Quine never allows predictability to detract from the suspense, though, as the mise-en-scène gradually caves in on Sheridan with fatalistic precision. Most of the key sequences are engulfed in darkness and shadows captured skillfully by director of photography Lester White (WOMEN'S PRISON, 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE).

Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) and Lona McLane (Kim Novak) keep it on the down low

Problematically for Sheridan, he is assigned to a surveillance team dedicated to keeping tabs on McLane. While he remains focused on his secret lover, his stakeout partner Rick McAllister (Phil Carey) takes a voyeuristic interest in McLane’s neighbor Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone). This arrangement firmly establishes basic noir oppositions: the working-girl brunette vs. the kept blonde, the honest cop vs. the corrupt cop. PUSHOVER concludes by cancelling out the negative components of those equations:  the “bad couple” is deleted, and the “good couple” walks away from the scene, with the “good” man reinstated as altruistic protector of woman. Police Lt. Carl Eckstrom (E.G. Marshall), the film’s highest ranking authority figure, makes it official by overseeing the resolution, reminiscent of the way Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) presides over the closure of DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) in a real fix

PUSHOVER is available as part of Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II 5-disc DVD set.

Friday, September 27, 2013


RKO Radio Pictures, 65m 59s

When Arnold “Red” Kluger (Charles McGraw, ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, THE NARROW MARGIN) breaks out of Folsom State Prison, LA police immediately go into high-alert mode. Particularly concerned are Detective Ray Williams (Michael O'Shea, VIOLENCE, THE UNDERWORLD STORY) and D.A. Barker MacDonald (Frank Conroy, THE NAKED CITY, LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE), the two Kluger blames for his abbreviated time in the joint. With the less than genteel assistance of Nick (Anthony Caruso) and Lefty (Frank Richards), Kluger captures Williams and MacDonald, as well as Carol (Virginia Grey, HIGHWAY 301, CRIME OF PASSION), the ex he suspects ratted him out.

Nobody is safe when Kluger (Charles McGraw) escapes in THE THREAT

This is psycho-noir at its toughest, featuring a vicious protagonist whose mean streak only gets worse as time passes. Kluger resorts to violence intuitively and without any notion of self-restraint, routinely dishing out impatient slaps whenever he gets the wrong answer. He orders MacDonald to be tortured with pliers, repeatedly manhandles Carol's slight frame, and, most chillingly, attempts to crack open the skull of the defenseless Williams. Kluger even fires repeatedly on an empty chamber at a target who clearly is down for the count. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino had Kluger in mind when Freddy (Tim Roth) cannot stop pulling the trigger at Vic (Michael Madsen) in RESERVOIR DOGS.

THE THREAT was received well by critics and led to a 7-year deal with RKO for McGraw. Director Felix E. Feist helmed the equally gritty THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE starring Lawrence Tierney in the badass role. Feist stages suspense quite effectively, especially when a moving truck causes a motorcycle cop to become suspicious. The Iverson Movie Ranch serves nicely as the desert setting for the final act, where the sweat on the characters is emphasized by notable noir cinematographer Harry J. Wild (MURDER, MY SWEET, CORNERED, THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH, PITFALL, WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER, THE LAS VEGAS STORY).

That distinctly noir moment of recognition has arrived for Kluger (Charles McGraw)

THE THREAT is available via the Warner Archive and demands placement in any serious film noir collection.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

SHOCK (1946)

Twentieth Century-Fox, 70m 6s

One of the best one-word film noir titles, SHOCK opens in San Francisco, where Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw, HIGH TIDE, GUN CRAZY) plans to reunite with her husband Paul (Frank Latimore, THE RAZOR'S EDGE, 13 RUE MADELEINE), who was a POW for two years. Before Paul returns, Janet's attention is called to the neighboring apartment in which a man and his wife are having a heated discussion. The man grabs a candlestick and silences his wife. Horrified to have witnessed murder, Janet is unresponsive when her husband arrives on the scene. A well-meaning physician (Selmer Jackson) recommends local psychiatrist Dr. Richard Cross (Vincent Price, LAURA, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN), who unsurprisingly happens to be the wife killer. Cross quickly deduces the probable cause of Janet's condition, and recommends that she be carted out to his isolated sanitarium.

Janet (Anabel Shaw) under the very questionable care of Dr. Cross (Vincent Price)

As John Stanley asserts in the Fox Film Noir DVD's audio commentary track, that Janet and Dr. Cross should become acquainted is best explained as fate, not coincidence. Cross is the classic noir protagonist, haunted by an inescapable past. He has done something terribly wrong that cannot be undone, and sooner or later, he's got to pay. Where did he go wrong? Devotion to the wrong woman leads to deceit, murder, more deceit, and more murder. Nurse Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari, THE AMAZING MR. X) is the spider woman who compels Cross to consistently do the exact opposite of the right thing.

Janet (Anabel Shaw) is kept in a vegetative state

Director Alfred L. Werker (HE WALKED BY NIGHT) gets a lot out of the 20th Century Fox backlot where SHOCK was filmed. The noir atmosphere is evident in the early going, with a surreal dream sequence that confirms Janet was unstable before witnessing murder. The Cross lodge appears as much a prison as his sanitarium, with low ceilings nicely accentuated by camera placement. Co-cinematographer Joe MacDonald's formidable noir credentials would expand with THE DARK CORNER, CALL NORTHSIDE 777, THE STREET WITH NO NAME, PANIC IN THE STREETS and PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET. Screenwriter Eugene Ling went on to co-write other noir films of interest, including BEHIND LOCKED DOORS, PORT OF NEW YORK and SCANDAL SHEET.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Universal Pictures, 79m 26s

Especially when there is an opportunity for wrongdoing to go unnoticed, people tend to make immoral decisions. This is probably generally true in the real world, and particularly true in the film noir. At least in the noir universe, poor judgment calls of the past almost always have a way of catching up with people.
A dog displays more loyalty than a hit-and-run driver in THE PRICE OF FEAR

In a plot structure that has served Hollywood well, fate brings characters who don't know each other together. Dave Barrett (TARZAN veteran Lex Barker) learns he suddenly has a new business partner in known gangster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens, THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA, FORBIDDEN PLANET). After threatening the former partner (Tim Sullivan) who sold out, Barrett finds himself being followed. Meanwhile, after living it up at the Domino Club, successful investment counselor Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, BERLIN EXPRESS) mows down a man (Ken Terrell) with her convertible. In a rather unlikely coincidence, Barrett becomes the hit-and-run suspect after he opportunistically borrows Warren's car. If that series of events were not problematic enough, the ex-partner Barrett threatened earlier that night is shot to death. Barrett’s friend Pete Carroll (Charles Drake, HARVEY, WINCHESTER '73) is on the case, but Barrett does some investigating of his own that draws him closer to Warren.

Directed by Abner Biberman, who would go on to direct episodes of numerous television shows including THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE VIRGINIAN, and IRONSIDE, this is a "wrong man" style film noir, with the protagonist forced to untangle himself from a network of confusing elements. Money or alcohol is the driving force behind all issues that arise; in one of the truest noir moments, a woman (Mary Field) admits that the right amount of money more than makes up for the loss of her recently departed husband (Stafford Repp). Irving Glassberg's cinematography favors low and sometimes oblique camera angles that are commonplace in noir visuals, and sometimes objects in the frame are positioned to appear larger or more significant than the protagonists. The good woman Nina Ferranti (Gia Scala) is distinguished visually from the evil Warren woman by their difference in necklines.
A telephone takes on added significance in THE PRICE OF FEAR

Wooden performances by the two leads detract from an otherwise enjoyable, well-paced film. The source material is in outstanding condition; I did not notice a single flaw. It is part of the Women in Danger:  1950s Thrillers 4-disc DVD set available at

Saturday, September 7, 2013


Paramount Pictures, 115m 54s

One of the dominant themes of the film noir is the lack of fulfillment from the traditional marriage. As this film's title implies, there is nothing good about the featured marriage in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS. It's a sexless marriage based on murder, deceit, and greed.

Alcohol complicates the relationship between Martha and Walter in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS

The noir narrative often develops from a key past event that a character or characters cannot extricate themselves from, and such is the case here. As a small-town problem child in 1928, Martha Ivers bumps off her domineering aunt (Judith Anderson, REBECCA, LAURA). The cruel Ivers matriarch earns her fate with ease after callously beating her niece's beloved cat. The death is witnessed by young Walter O'Neil, whose father (Roman Bohnen) eyes the Ivers family fortune that Martha stands to inherit. That set-up leads to the adulthood union of Martha (Barbara Stanwyck, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SORRY, WRONG NUMBER) and Walter (Kirk Douglas in his feature film debut). As fate would have it, Martha's childhood friend Sam Masterson (Van Heflin, THE PROWLER, PATTERNS) inadvertently returns 18 years later to an Iverstown that has blossomed under the leadership of Martha and Walter. The other person present at the Ivers estate the day Mrs. Ivers died, Sam presents a confusing element to the town's most prominent couple.

In the course of viewing THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, a downbeat conclusion feels inevitable. The air is thick with the possibility of blackmail along the way, as the town's top employer Martha and her alcoholic husband have to figure out what exactly Sam has up his sleeve. While the drifter Sam is in town, a further complication emerges in the form of Toni Marachek (Lizabeth Scott, DEAD RECKONING, TOO LATE FOR TEARS), another person with a troubled past.

Toni has some explaining to do to Sam in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS

The narrative really clicks as directed by Lewis Milestone (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, OCEAN'S ELEVEN), particularly when scenes involve some combination of Douglas, Heflin, and Stanwyck, who makes a terrific cold-hearted dame. Scenes limited to Scott and Heflin drag and feel like a failed attempt to create some Bacall/Bogart style sexual tension. The screenplay was written by Robert Rossen, who would direct BODY AND SOUL the following year. Victor Milner (THE LADY EVE, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, DARK CITY) handled the cinematography. Assistant director Robert Aldrich later would direct the noir classic KISS ME DEADLY. Blake Edwards appears in an uncredited role.

Note: This film fell into the public domain and has been the subject of a great many inferior home video versions. The Paramount DVD is acceptable, but the source material is marred by significant scratches and surely would benefit from some attentive restorative work.