Tuesday, May 27, 2014


United Artists, 106m 9s

Director Robert Rossen's pessimistic critique of the boxing world influenced almost every boxing film that came after it, and reinforced the dominant themes of the noir films that populated the late 1940s. The primarily urban locales of most film noirs are replete with cheap hotels, smoke-infested night clubs, and rainy streets, so the violence and corruption of the boxing venue furnishes an appropriate setting. The boxing ring of BODY AND SOUL is both actual and allegorical, a battleground that links a brutal profession to an intense social struggle.

Charley Davis (John Garfield) is the scarred protagonist of BODY AND SOUL

The prime examples of film noir often feature a key moment of existential recognition, during which the protagonist realizes he has gotten himself into a real fix, and there is no easy way out. That moment comes early in BODY AND SOUL, when 35-year-old Jewish prizefighter Charley Davis (John Garfield) laments, "All gone down the drain, everything down the drain..." He's been instructed to lose his next title defense, either by decision or quicker if he can live with that. In respect to the lead protagonist's existential awareness, the majority of the storyline plays out in flashback form, tracing the career trajectory of Davis from promising past to problematic present.

Having grown up in a tough ethnic community, the young Davis thinks prizefighting earnings will help his family, but boxing starts to destroy the Davis household even before his first pro fight. Davis's father (Art Smith) is killed almost immediately after providing funding for his son's boxing gear. The somber family matriarch Anna Davis (Anne Revere, FALLEN ANGEL [1945]) persistently suggests schooling as the means for her son to get ahead. She blames the NYC milieu for interfering with her son's potential, "...we live in a jungle, so he can only be a wild animal." Tellingly, Davis becomes committed to professional fighting after seeing his mother being subjected to humiliating questions while seeking financial assistance. So Davis fights for the downtrodden, guided by the assumption that increased cash flow will solve all problems of the have-nots. Davis builds a solid reputation as an up-and-coming pugilist working with neighborhood pal Shorty Polaski (Joseph Pevney, THE STREET WITH NO NAME [1948], THIEVES' HIGHWAY [1949]) and local promoter Quinn (William Conrad, DIAL 1119 [1950], THE RACKET [1951]).

Charley Davis (John Garfield) and Peg Born (Lilli Palmer)

The prospect finds himself trapped in moral quicksand when he makes an agreement with eminently corrupt, big-time promoter Roberts (Lloyd Gough [AKA Goff], TENSION [1949], SUNSET BOULEVARD [1950]). Roberts embodies the darkest corner of the boxing ring, and, by inference, a socialist's worst fears about capitalism. To Roberts, a fighter like Davis represents a revenue stream, nothing more. Roberts is accustomed to getting full cooperation from everyone he works with, particularly when the outcome of his promotion is predetermined. Throwing a fight is just good business as far as the numbers-obsessed Roberts is concerned ("Everything is addition or subtraction."). He understands all businesses have a life and death, and he feels the same way about people, who he callously discards after the end of their useful lives. "Everybody dies" is his catch phrase. On another level, Roberts appears to be one of classic Hollywood's "evil" gay characters. Surely a man of his social status would have a beautiful woman on his arm, unless he had no interest. Then there is the omnipresence of his mysterious silent associate (Peter Virgo, THE NARROW MARGIN [1952]).

A portrait reminds Charley Davis (John Garfield) of a happier past

Davis puts his career ahead of his fiancée and talented artist Peg Born (Lilli Palmer, CLOAK AND DAGGER [1946]), and eventually his spending leads to financial instability that conflicts with his instincts as a professional athlete. He alienates Peg in favor of Alice (Hazel Brooks in her first credited role), a greedy young beauty whose only interest in Davis involves money, and lots of it. Heavily indebted to Roberts, Davis can get back in the black by betting on himself to lose his title to snarky contender Jackie Marlowe (Artie Dorrell, uncredited). But for the sake of financial gain, Davis also must turn his back on the "whole neighborhood" betting on him to win the toughest defense of his championship. The final fight does not disappoint. Cinematographer James Wong Howe, a former pro boxer himself, inventively captured some of the fight footage with a handheld camera while wearing roller skates. Davis makes the ultimate existential statement when he mocks Roberts at the film's conclusion, and the position of the filmmakers regarding capitalistic greed is confirmed.

Alice (Hazel Brooks) maintains her appearance

After his contract with Warner Brothers ended, in 1946 Garfield co-founded the independent production company Enterprise Productions (AKA The Enterprise Studios) along with producers David L. Loew and Charles Einfeld. BODY AND SOUL was the company's third film. The original boxing film concept conceived by Garfield was a biopic based on the life of boxer Barney Ross (birth name Dov-Ber Rasofsky), a world champion of three weight classes who compiled a record of 74 wins, 4 defeats, and 3 draws. The intent was to cover the area of Ross's life that included drug addiction, a topic that did not fit well into Production Code parameters. Instead, screenwriter Abraham Polonsky devised a fictional boxing narrative that echoes some of the true Ross story.

A box office success, BODY AND SOUL is taut and technically solid as directed by Rossen (JOHNNY O'CLOCK [1947], THE HUSTLER [1961]). Robert Aldrich (KISS ME DEADLY [1955]), THE BIG KNIFE [1955]) served as assistant director. The viewer is likely to recall sequences long after some of the plot points become hazy, always the sign of a great noir film. One of the most sympathetic of all noir characters is Ben Chaplin (real-life prizefighter Canada Lee), a former champion reduced to waterboy status for his successor. Physically Chaplin is a ticking time bomb with a blood clot in his brain. His death sequence, in which he lapses into a bizarre reenactment of his last fight, is among the saddest of noir downfalls.

In 1948 Francis D. Lyon and Robert Parrish won an Academy Award for "Best Film Editing," Garfield and Polonsky both received nominations for their work. Unfortunately, many of the folks involved with this liberal film, including Garfield, Rossen, Polonsky, Revere, Gough, and Lee, would be blacklisted due to the overzealous investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Garfield was only 49 at the time of his death in 1952.

The single-layered, Region "A" Blu-ray disc currently available from Olive Films offers the best presentation of BODY AND SOUL to date. The seminal boxing film was the basis for remakes in 1981 and 1998.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Universal Pictures, 101m 54s

Absolutely one of the finest of all film noirs, Fritz Lang's SCARLET STREET is a remake of Jean Renoir's La Chienne (1931, literal translation, "The Bitch"). The two films share essentially the same structure as well as a deceitful bitch, but differ radically in tone.

Perhaps the most horrific of film noir icons

Based on a novel by Georges de La Fouchardière and a play co-written by André Girard and André Mouézy-Éon, the Renoir film unfolds as a tragicomedy. 42-year-old cashier Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon) is not taken seriously by his co-workers, and has it no better at home, where his wife Adèle (Magdeleine Bérubet) constantly belittles him. One evening on the street, Andre “Dédé” Govain (Georges Flamant) is slapping around Lucienne “Lulu” Pelletier (Janie Marèse), and Legrand puts a stop to the assault. Oblivious to the workings of a pimp-and-ho system, Legrand sets up Lulu with a new place, one that doubles as a retreat for the unhappily married cashier, whose hobby is painting. Legrand fails to realize he is merely Lulu's part-time lover and full-time benefactor, in effect also providing for Dédé, who continues his relationship with Lulu. Another complication is added with the emergence of Adèle's husband Alexis Godard (Roger Gaillard), a supposedly departed war hero. When Legrand’s funds start to run low, his paintings provide an unexpected source of income.

Those familiar with SCARLET STREET are sure to recognize the above storyline, but overt differences in presentation clearly distinguish one work from the other. Banned in the US until 1975(!), La Chienne is up front about sexual situations and character types, whereas SCARLET STREET was bound by the shackles of the Motion Picture Production Code that was enforced from 1930 to 1968. Despite the more restrictive environment in which it was produced, SCARLET STREET is the more bleak of the two films, and many of the details that differentiate remake from original define the Lang film as one of the preeminent examples of film noir. The limits of the Production Code notwithstanding, SCARLET STREET serves up one of the most unsettling noir stories on record of deception, betrayal, and eternal damnation. Adapted by screenwriter Dudley Nichols (MAN HUNT [1941]), it reunites the immensely talented stars of Lang's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944). Katharine “Kitty” March (Joan Bennett) and her no-good, small-timer boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) easily rank among the most reprehensible of noir underworld couples, and Lang really emphasizes the squalor of Kitty's seedy tenement apartment to build that case. The couple’s pimp/whore relationship may be obscured by the Production Code, but it’s there.

Kitty (Joan Bennett) puts up with a lot from the abusive Johnny (Dan Duryea), who brings out her worst qualities

In regard to the poisonous female consistently patrolling the noir web, SCARLET STREET first establishes the submissive weakness of the man who digs his own grave in devotion to her. The film begins with a celebration of the 25-year service of Chris Cross (a sympathetic portrayal by Edward G. Robinson), who receives a commemorative gold watch for his ongoing loyalty to J.J. Hogarth & Co as a cashier. His reward back home in Brooklyn is his wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), an insufferable nag who constantly bullies her milquetoast husband. A repressed personality, Cross has grown to accept the dynamic of his marriage, and even willingly wears an emasculating apron when banished to the kitchen. His only escape is through painting on Sundays, and Adele hates the smell of paint so much Cross must pursue his beloved hobby in the bathroom. Given his drab job and incomplete personal life, his sudden interest in the physically attractive Kitty is understandable, especially considering her provocative introduction in transparent rainwear.

A temptress in plastic

Unfortunately for Mr. Cross, as his wife calls him, his pursuit of Kitty only emphasizes his powerlessness in the presence of another dominant female. This theme gains momentum the more involved Cross becomes with Kitty, which eventually leads to him telling her things are "...just like we were married, only I take your name." Unlike La Chienne's Legrand, Cross is not allowed any meaningful physical connection with the woman he supports financially. Kitty expresses repulsion to his touch ("...there's a limit.") at her nice Greenwich Village apartment that he provides. All Cross gets from Kitty is a lot of petulant body language and snippy talk—sex is never on the table. Cross reaches a low point in his extramarital activity when Kitty allows him to paint her toe nails as a special treat. The only viable means of intimacy with Kitty's icy heart proves to be an ice pick. Art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) is more accurate than he is aware when he comments, "Sometimes it seems as if she were two people.”

“Paint me, Chris.”

The motif of the idealized, framed image that contrasts with reality is a noir staple. Given the lead character’s painting hobby, this theme takes on special significance in SCARLET STREET. Through the recurrence of framed imagery, the profound difference between perceived reality and actuality permeates the SCARLET STREET narrative. Homer Higgins (Charles Kemper) is introduced as a heroic dead man who lives on in a large portrait his wife Adele reverently refers to, but in truth, he is a lowlife, and very much alive. A pattern of misunderstood identities and inaccurate assumptions confuses perspective, especially the perspective of Cross, who admits he always has struggled in that area of painting. His escapist paintings represent a distortion of what is real, just as the film’s characters misinterpret information in front of them. Ignoring her initial (correct) impression, Kitty mistakes Cross for an accomplished, wealthy artist who could never steal, he assumes her for a talented but struggling actress. Later Kitty is mistaken for an important painter, but in truth she lays around like a lazy feline ("Kitty") and achieves nothing of merit. Nonetheless she emerges as a noteworthy new artist, and even uses the actual artist's own words about how her art was created. Adele wrongly believes Cross has been imitating the great Katharine March all along. Kitty's self-portrait—a falsity in terms of both image and artist credited—cruelly becomes Cross’s most valuable painting, but one that brings him no compensation. The self-portrait ultimately grants the fallen seductress a horrifyingly unfair immortality, forever mocking the implosion of Cross, and as far removed from reality as the flower Cross paints to commemorate his first encounter with Kitty.

The framed man observes a hopeless marriage

The respective conclusions of La Chienne and SCARLET STREET are dramatically different and reflect the remake’s migration to the film noir movement of the mid 1940s. In the Renoir film, Legrand gets away with the murder of Lulu, and Dédé takes the fall. Many years later, Legrand has been reduced to bum status, having lost his job after stealing to provide for Lulu. He runs into Godard, and the two exchange pleasantries. Legrand even recognizes the dark humor in his painting being driven away as a prized possession. Where Renoir sees the humor in the absurdity of Legrand's downfall and reconnection with Godard, no such suggestion plays out at the end of the Lang version of the story, which dives headfirst into a deeply noir city of flashing lights, creeping shadows, and taunting voices. Lang’s main protagonist is left to aimlessly wander the streets, agonizingly defeated. And unlike THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, which concludes by explaining everything as a dream, SCARLET STREET seems grounded in its eternal nightmare, with Cross condemned to anonymity, haunted by past events understood only by him. Perhaps he would be better off in Prince's shoes than his own. In either case, involvement with Kitty condemns the foolish male who could not steer clear of the dangers associated with her. The only consolation comes from Cross's boss Hogarth (Russell Hicks), a man noted for stepping out on his wife. Hogarth realizes it had to have been a woman to blame for turning Cross into a thief. Cross loses his job, but Hogarth shows some compassion when he calls off the authorities.

Kitty (Joan Bennett) shows her true self

A roster of film noir all-stars collaborated on SCARLET STREET, managed by director Fritz Lang (M [1931], HOUSE BY THE RIVER [1950], THE BLUE GARDENIA [1953], THE BIG HEAT [1953]). Lang also helmed HUMAN DESIRE (1954), another reboot of a Jean Renoir film (La bête humaine [1938]). Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner shot THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) and NO WAY OUT (1950). The major players appeared in an impressive lineup of noir movies. Edward G. Robinson starred in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), my favorite of all film noirs, as well as THE STRANGER (1946), KEY LARGO (1948), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) and the little-known but compelling ILLEGAL (1955). Joan Bennett starred in THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH (1947) and played against type in THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949). Dan Duryea proved one of the most durable of all noir icons, having appeared in CRISS CROSS (1949), TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949), THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950), and CHICAGO CALLING (1951). Duryea really plays his slimy part in SCARLET STREET for all it’s worth—his character’s earnest attempts to feign respectability whenever he encounters Cross always make me cringe. The Diana Production Company (co-owned by Lang, Bennett, and Nichols) would produce only one other feature, the disappointing SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR... (1947), again starring Bennett. The memorable paintings featured in SCARLET STREET were by John Decker.

"It's only blackmail, baby, when you're dumb enough to get caught."

Mastered in HD from a 35mm Library of Congress negative, the Kino Classics Blu-ray released in 2012 offers the best presentation of SCARLET STREET I have witnessed (and there have been plenty of inferior public domain versions). Supplements were ported from the 2005 Kino DVD, most importantly the well-prepared audio commentary track by David Kalat, author of THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. MABUSE: A STUDY OF THE TWELVE FILMS AND FIVE NOVELS. Kalat cites SCARLET STREET as Lang’s favorite of his American productions, and the author makes a good case for a “composite identity” reading of SCARLET STREET. A photo gallery includes stills from several deleted scenes.

Sadly, the fictitious love triangle of La Chienne would come to pass in the real world. Michel Simon was interested in Janie Marèse, who preferred Georges Flamant. After filming was finished, Marèse was killed as a passenger in a car crashed by Flamant. She was 23.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Film Noir 202

Shining some light on essential American film noirs. How many have you seen?

1Double Indemnity1944Billy Wilder
2Scarlet Street1945Fritz Lang
3Gun Crazy1950Joseph H. Lewis
4The Big Heat1953Fritz Lang
5Sunset Boulevard1950Billy Wilder
6The Maltese Falcon1941John Huston
7In a Lonely Place1950Nicholas Ray
8Touch of Evil1958Orson Welles
9Mildred Pierce1945Michael Curtiz
10Ace in the Hole1951Billy Wilder
11Shadow of a Doubt1943Alfred Hitchcock
12The Night of the Hunter1955Charles Laughton
13Strangers on a Train1951Alfred Hitchcock
14Night and the City1950Jules Dassin
15Notorious1946Alfred Hitchcock
16Nightmare Alley1947Edmund Goulding
17The Asphalt Jungle1950John Huston
18The Stranger1946Orson Welles
19The Big Sleep1946Howard Hawks
20Gilda1946Charles Vidor
21Kiss Me Deadly1955Robert Aldrich
22White Heat1949Raoul Walsh
23The Killing1956Stanley Kubrick
24Murder, My Sweet1944Edward Dmytryk
25Out of the Past1947Jacques Tourneur
26The Window1949Ted Tetzlaff
27Sweet Smell of Success1957Alexander Mackendrick
28The Prowler1951Joseph Losey
29Pickup on South Street1953Samuel Fuller
30On Dangerous Ground1952Nicholas Ray
31The Lineup1958Don Siegel
32The Sniper1952Edward Dmytryk
33The Big Combo1955Joseph H. Lewis
34Body and Soul1947Robert Rossen
35Key Largo1948John Huston
36Laura1944Otto Preminger
37The Lady from Shanghai1947Orson Welles
38Sudden Fear1952David Miller
39Panic in the Streets1950Elia Kazan
40The Big Clock1948John Farrow
41The Killers1946Robert Siodmak
42This Gun for Hire1942Frank Tuttle
43Whirlpool1949Otto Preminger
44Nightfall1957Jacques Tourneur
45Angel Face1952Otto Preminger
46The Strange Love of Martha Ivers1946Lewis Milestone
47Sorry, Wrong Number1948Anatole Litvak
48Criss Cross1949Robert Siodmak
49Phantom Lady1944Robert Siodmak
50Detour1945Edgar G. Ulmer
51T-Men1947Anthony Mann
52The Glass Key1942Stuart Heisler
53Border Incident1949Anthony Mann
54No Way Out1950Joseph L. Mankiewicz
55Illegal1955Lewis Allen
56New York Confidential1955Russell Rouse
57Ride the Pink Horse1947Robert Montgomery
58Odds Against Tomorrow1959Robert Wise
59Nora Prentiss1947Vincent Sherman
60Kiss of Death1947Henry Hathaway
61Crossfire1947Edward Dmytryk
62City of Fear1959Irving Lerner
63Cat People1942Jacques Tourneur
64I Walked with a Zombie1943Jacques Tourneur
65Pushover1954Richard Quine
66Walk Softly, Stranger1950Robert Stevenson
67Act of Violence1948Fred Zinnemann
68The Racket1951John Cromwell
69Hell's Half Acre1954John H. Auer
70Chicago Calling1951John Reinhardt
71Mystery Street1950John Sturges
72Caged1950John Cromwell
73Kansas City Confidential1952Phil Karlson
74D.O.A.1950Rudolph Maté
75Road House1948Jean Negulesco
76Too Late for Tears1949Byron Haskin
77The Narrow Margin1952Richard Fleischer
78The Devil Thumbs a Ride1947Felix E. Feist
79Thieves' Highway1949Jules Dassin
80The Chase1946Arthur Ripley
81Cape Fear1962J. Lee Thompson
82The Blue Dahlia1946George Marshall
83Where the Sidewalk Ends1950Otto Preminger
84Scandal Sheet1952Phil Karlson
85Suddenly1954Lewis Allen
86The Blue Gardenia1953Fritz Lang
87Fallen Angel1945Otto Preminger
88Alias Nick Beal1949John Farrow
89Conflict1945Curtis Bernhardt
90Brute Force1947Jules Dassin
91City That Never Sleeps1953John H. Auer
92Shock1946Alfred L. Werker
9399 River Street1953Phil Karlson
94They Live by Night1948Nicholas Ray
95Cry of the City1948Robert Siodmak
96High Wall1947Curtis Bernhardt
97The Phenix City Story1955Phil Karlson
98The File on Thelma Jordon1950Robert Siodmak
99Roadblock1951Harold Daniels
100The Set-Up1949Robert Wise
101The Postman Always Rings Twice1946Tay Garnett
102711 Ocean Drive1950Joseph M. Newman
103Without Warning!1952Arnold Laven
104He Walked by Night1948Alfred L. Werker
105Possessed1947Curtis Bernhardt
106The Woman in the Window1944Fritz Lang
107Raw Deal1948Anthony Mann
108Tomorrow Is Another Day1951Felix E. Feist
109Try and Get Me!1950Cy Endfield
110The Threat1949Felix E. Feist
111He Ran All the Way1951John Berry
112The Enforcer1951Bretaigne Windust
113Impact1949Arthur Lubin
114The Hitch-Hiker1953Ida Lupino
115Born to Kill1947Robert Wise
116Dark City1950William Dieterle
117The Locket1946John Brahm
118The Underworld Story1950Cy Endfield
119Hoodlum Empire1952Joseph Kane
120Union Station1950Rudolph Maté
121Cry Vengeance1954Mark Stevens
122Hollow Triumph1948Steve Sekely
123Pitfall1948André De Toth
124Blast of Silence1961Allen Baron
125Woman in Hiding1950Michael Gordon
126Desperate1947Anthony Mann
127Cry Danger1951Robert Parrish
128Beyond a Reasonable Doubt1956Fritz Lang
129Bodyguard1948Richard Fleischer
130The Reckless Moment1949Max Ophüls
131Johnny O'Clock1947Robert Rossen
132My Name Is Julia Ross1945Joseph H. Lewis
133The Man Who Cheated Himself1950Felix E. Feist
134Moonrise1948Frank Borzage
135Hangover Square1945John Brahm
136Leave Her to Heaven1945John M. Stahl
137Cause for Alarm!1951Tay Garnett
138Side Street1949Anthony Mann
139Appointment with Danger1951Lewis Allen
140Caught1949Max Ophüls
141Crime Wave1954André De Toth
142Ministry of Fear1944Fritz Lang
143Human Desire1954Fritz Lang
144The Damned Don't Cry1950Vincent Sherman
145Detective Story1951William Wyler
146High Tide1947John Reinhardt
147The Brothers Rico1957Phil Karlson
148Tension1949John Berry
149The Killer Is Loose1956Budd Boetticher
150The Dark Mirror1946Robert Siodmak
151Quicksand1950Irving Pichel
152I Walk Alone1947Byron Haskin
153The Killer That Stalked New York1950Earl McEvoy
154Female on the Beach1955Joseph Pevney
155The Woman on the Beach1947Jean Renoir
156The Las Vegas Story1952Robert Stevenson
157The Desperate Hours1955William Wyler
158Split Second1953Dick Powell
159Storm Fear1955Cornel Wilde
160Pursued1947Raoul Walsh
161Decoy1946Jack Bernhard
162Trapped1949Richard Fleischer
163Where Danger Lives1950John Farrow
164Railroaded!1947Anthony Mann
165Follow Me Quietly1949Richard Fleischer
166Destiny1944Reginald Le Borg
167Strange Impersonation1946Anthony Mann
168Woman on the Run1950Norman Foster
169Private Hell 361954Don Siegel
170Armored Car Robbery1950Richard Fleischer
171Shack Out on 1011955Edward Dein
172The Naked City1948Jules Dassin
173The Crooked Way1949Robert Florey
174I Want to Live!1958Robert Wise
175Murder by Contract1958Irving Lerner
176The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry1945Robert Siodmak
177Big House, U.S.A.1955Howard W. Koch
178Flesh and Fantasy1943Julien Duvivier
179Killer's Kiss1955Stanley Kubrick
180Shield for Murder1954Howard W. Koch, Edmond O'Brien
181Clash by Night1952Fritz Lang
182Southside 1-10001950Boris Ingster
183The Price of Fear1956Abner Biberman
184Murder Is My Beat1955Edgar G. Ulmer
185Dark Passage1947Delmer Daves
186When Strangers Marry1944William Castle
187Dial 11191950Gerald Mayer
188Deadline - U.S.A.1952Richard Brooks
1895 Against the House1955Phil Karlson
190Boomerang!1947Elia Kazan
191Black Angel1946Roy William Neill
192M1951Joseph Losey
193A Woman's Secret1949Nicholas Ray
194The Tattooed Stranger1950Edward Montagne
195The Guilty1947John Reinhardt
196Hidden Fear1957André De Toth
197Fall Guy1947Reginald Le Borg
198Born to Be Bad1950Nicholas Ray
199The Big Steal1949Don Siegel
200Blonde Ice1948Jack Bernhard
201His Kind of Woman1951John Farrow
202Lady in the Lake1947Robert Montgomery