Saturday, October 12, 2013

DESPERATE (1947)

RKO Radio Pictures, 73m 11s


WWII veteran Stephen Randall (Steve Brodie) is happily married to Anne (Audrey Long); so much so that a 4-month anniversary demands celebrating. The couple's plans for the evening take a detour when Reynolds (William Challee) pledges $50 for Randall's immediate attention as a truck driver. It turns out Randall has been recruited for a warehouse robbery masterminded by Walt Radak (Raymond Burr). When Randall is able to alert police while the crime is in progress, an ensuing shootout claims the life of a cop, and Radak's little brother Al (Larry Nunn) is left behind—deservedly— to take the murder rap. Soon Randall and his pregnant wife find themselves on the run. Sleazy PI Pete Lavitch (Douglas Fowley) is enlisted by Radak to track down the Randalls, and Detective Lieutenant Louie Ferrari (Jason Robards Sr.) also becomes connected.

Stephen Randall (Steve Brodie) and wife Anne (Audrey Long) in DESPERATE

In the tradition of Fritz Lang's M, the film noir DESPERATE follows the movements of a man wanted by both police and criminals. As often is the case of the "wrong man" noir, unfortunate occurrences have a cascading effect. For instance, a used car dealer (Cy Kendall) reneges on his deal with Randall, who in an act of desperation steals the vehicle he had restored to working order. After the clunker dies, the couple-on-the-run accepts a ride from a pleasant man who just happens to be the local sheriff (Dick Elliott). When the sheriff's car crashes, suddenly the hapless couple is off in another stolen ride.

In a further convention of the noir form, the traditional family struggles to find its place. When a man on a train comments that the Randalls behave like honeymooners, the man's shrewish wife replies "They'll soon get over that." That statement applies well to the Randalls, who find themselves in one unenviable situation after another. A turning point takes place at a Minnesota farm, the antithesis of the tumultuous urban scene, where Aunt Klara (Ilka GrĂ¼ning) insists the Randalls be married more officially than they had been. The upbeat conclusion emphasizes a new beginning for the featured couple, made possible through the elimination of the evil family represented by the Radak brothers.

Walt Radak (Raymond Burr) belongs behind bars in DESPERATE

DESPERATE is strikingly stylish noir, rich in sinister atmosphere, perhaps highlighted by a climactic stairway shootout. Cinematographer George E. Diskant stresses an appropriately hazy environment when focused on Walt Radak and his cohorts, particularly when the unsavory thugs mercilessly beat down Randall. Diskant's skill set was put to good use in other noteworthy noir stories, including THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, THE RACKET, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, and THE NARROW MARGIN, to name just several.

1947 was an exceptional film noir year for the principals. Director Anthony Mann also helmed two other terrific examples of the genre:  RAILROADED! and T-MEN. Brodie appeared in CROSSFIRE and OUT OF THE PAST, and Audrey Long starred in BORN TO KILL.

DESPERATE is part of Warner Home Video's 4-disc Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume Five.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

BLAST OF SILENCE (1961)

An overlooked film noir entry, BLAST OF SILENCE deserves more recognition. My review of the Criterion Collection DVD release from 2008:  BLAST OF SILENCE


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

LOOPHOLE (1954)

Allied Artists Pictures, 79m 56s


Film noir criminals are not always the notorious gangster types. Frequently they are unremarkable personalities; working-class stiffs who view themselves as unfairly condemned to society's oppressed underbelly. Often they come to the erroneous conclusion that a heist of some kind will provide a way out.

Herman Tate (Don Beddoe, HOODLUM EMPIRE, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) is the type of noir character referenced above. In the hope of securing the long-term attention of blonde bombshell Vera (Mary Beth Hughes, INNER SANCTUM), the milquetoast Tate devises a plan to pose as a bank examiner and rob a teller's drawer of nearly $50,000. The man caught short is Mike Donovan (Barry Sullivan), who not only must cope with being completely discredited, but also endure the old-school approach of bulldog investigator Gus Slavin (Charles McGraw), a cynical ex-cop determined to recover the missing funds so his bonding company does not have to cover the national bank's loss. LOOPHOLE illustrates how quickly our lives can be turned upside down, and how difficult it can be to make things right again.

Gus Slavin (Charles McGraw) is difficult to discourage in LOOPHOLE

Forty-something at the time of filming, top-billed Sullivan (THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, CAUSE FOR ALARM!) cannot pass for a 35-year-old, but delivers an otherwise convincing performance in this "wrong man" noir film. Donovan's heart-of-gold wife is portrayed by Dorothy Malone, the book store babe from THE BIG SLEEP. The gravel-voiced McGraw (THE THREAT, SIDE STREET) is well-cast as the omnipresent force determined to make life hellish for Donovan. Slavin is a relic, a dirty badge iconic of a maturing noir movement. By the mid ‘50s, the investigator who had quit the police force in disgust was less moral and less reliable than he was depicted in the ‘40s. Slavin's instincts are dead wrong, and he is too stubborn to consider alternative viewpoints. This character anticipates similarly flawed protagonists who would emerge (and ultimately sink) in KISS ME DEADLY and TOUCH OF EVIL.

Directed by Harold D. Schuster, LOOPHOLE is set in LA and utilizes a fair amount of location footage. The flat compositions of cinematographer William A. Sickner (KIDNAPPED, CRY VENGEANCE) were the order of the day at this point in noir history. Screenwriter Warren Douglas (CRY VENGEANCE, FINGER MAN) relies a bit much on coincidence, but the end result is entertaining enough, even if the film's title is never put to use.

The DVD available via the Warner Archive is framed at 1.78:1 and looks good.