Sunday, August 30, 2015

THE GUILTY (1947) and THE CHASE (1946)

NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 7
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 28th – Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Film Noir Foundation founder and president Eddie Muller introduced this year's Saturday screenings. The day’s film noirs were rooted in the writing of Cornell Woolrich. I was able to attend the first two presentations. Besides the Woolrich connection, both of these noirs feature disoriented war veterans and fragmented narrative structures.


First up was the Film Noir Foundation 35mm restoration of THE GUILTY (1947, Monogram Pictures, 71 m), a little-known B-noir completed on what must have been a microscopic budget. Battle of the Bulge war veterans Mike Carr (Don Castle) and Johnny Dixon (Wally Cassell) are roommates in a tenement dwelling. Each is romantically entangled with the twin sister set represented by Estelle and Linda Mitchell (both portrayed by Bonita Granville). The respective relationships might best be described as "it's complicated" since Johnny dropped Estelle for Linda, and now Estelle sees Mike. Of course the Mitchell sisters embody distinct female archetypes (virgin/whore). The interconnected relationships are plagued by jealousy and set up to combust in everyone's face, especially with Johnny showing serious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. So when Linda does not make it home one night, Detective Heller (Regis Toomey) takes an understandably hard look at Johnny.

THE GUILTY (1947)

Presumably the production of THE GUILTY had its inspiration in director Robert Siodmak's THE DARK MIRROR (1946), which famously starred Olivia de Havilland in a dual role. Although the limited resources are all-too apparent, THE GUILTY at times works on a certain raw level. The uncomfortable morgue sequence with Heller and Mike demonstrates that emotionally-charged sequences can be created out of very little. Credit director John Reinhardt (HIGH TIDE [1947]) and cinematographer Henry Sharp (MINISTRY OF FEAR [1944]) for the construction of a downbeat urban scene with minimal building materials. Robert Presnell Sr.'s screenplay was based on the Woolrich story HE LOOKED LIKE MURDER. Though undeniable gritty and accomplished in its own way, the film did not connect with me quite the way I hoped it would, through no fault of the restored presentation, which looked and sounded just fine.

The second feature of the day blew the doors off the first. A 35mm restoration courtesy of Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation and the Franco-American Cultural Fund, THE CHASE (1946, Nero Films, 86 m) boasts a terrifically perplexing narrative structure. A wild ride even by oft-convoluted noir standards, Muller describes the film as something David Lynch might have directed had he come along in the 1940s. That's a reasonable assessment; there were a couple of times during THE CHASE I thought I may have witnessed the seeds of Lynch's crazed LOST HIGHWAY (1997).


The hand of fate is at work during the opening sequence, when an improbably lost wallet leads downtrodden Navy veteran Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) to the elaborate lair of ruthless gangster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) and his associate Gino (Peter Lorre). Chuck earns a gig as Eddie's chauffeur, which leads to Chuck's problematic interest in Lorna Roman (Michèle Morgan), the discontented wife of the tyrannical Eddie. Lorna enlists Chuck to help smuggle her to Havana. To say much more would betray the film's incredible dreamlike narrative, which overflows with tense situations within recognizably dangerous noir environments. Perhaps the best of many highlights culminates in a deadly wine cellar.

THE CHASE (1946)

What can be expressed without giving too much away is THE CHASE is a standout film of the robust era of mid-40s noir, notable for the surreal daring of director Arthur Ripley (THUNDER ROAD [1958]), expressive cinematography by Franz Planer (CRISS CROSS [1949], 711 OCEAN DRIVE [1950], 99 RIVER STREET [1953]) and exceptional performances. The efficient screenplay was adapted by Philip Yordan from the Woolrich novel THE BLACK PATH OF FEAR.

"The Czar of Noir" Muller was very generous with his time between films as he shared his vast knowledge of films and stars with eager noir fans of all ages—definitely a class act. Based on Muller's enthusiasm for the Argentine noir anthology No Abras Nunca esa Puerta / Si Muero Antes di Despertar (1952, 151 m) that was scheduled to follow THE CHASE, I probably should have remained in the area for the rest of the day. I already regret the fact that I did not.

The remaining schedule:  NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 7

Sunday, August 23, 2015

NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950)

Twentieth Century-Fox Productions, 95m 50s (British version: 100m 46s)


Not many actors could match the film noir pedigree of Richard Widmark. After he created the template for the unbalanced noir psychopath in his feature debut KISS OF DEATH (1947), he quickly followed up with THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948) and ROAD HOUSE (1948), all worthwhile film noirs. He proved he could play the straight guy in PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), but he was at his best playing petty crooks and cheap con men, i.e. NO WAY OUT (1950) and PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953). Probably his most fondly remembered film noir, all of which were produced by Twentieth Century Fox, is the essential NIGHT AND THE CITY, recently made available in an eminently collectible Blu-ray edition via The Criterion Collection. Widmark offers a bravura performance bursting with nervous energy and boundless enthusiasm for life-changing money, complete with his occasional trademark chuckle that suggests some cognitive issues. Always on the run, his American protagonist is like a laboratory mouse in the noir maze of London's back alleys, sleazy night clubs and crowded arenas.

The narrative begins as it ends, with chiseler Harry Fabian (Widmark) desperately trying to maintain some distance from those in close pursuit of him. His money-making schemes continuously land him in trouble; apparently any lessons learned are forgotten quickly. After he enters the apartment of his significant other Mary Bristol (the always radiant Gene Tierney), he is about to steal from her purse before she busts him. It is obvious Mary has gotten accustomed to this predictable routine of covert behavior. In what has become another overly familiar exercise, Harry talks with confidence of an exciting income opportunity, but naturally lacks the start-up funds. Mary just wants to live a simple life with Harry, but that is not his aim. He wants to "be somebody" and cannot concentrate on anything other than “a life of ease and plenty.”

With forever an open eye for the next mark, Harry blends into London's underbelly like a human chameleon, though his schemes are wearing thin. He dreams he is on his way to the big time when he meets Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko), an aging but proud Greco-Roman wrestler, and Nikolas (Ken Richmond), his young and sturdy protégé. Gregorius despises the entertainment-oriented wrestling his shady son Kristo (Herbert Lom) promotes. Harry attentively notices the dynamics of the father-son relationship, and sees a golden opportunity to compete with Kristo's circus-style wresting shows. Gregorius believes Harry truly admires the skill and dignity of competitive wrestling, but of course all Harry really cares about is financial freedom. Harry's materialistic drive is shown to be destructive to himself and everyone who crosses paths with him. In his own way, Harry is ambitious and hard-working, but lacks the resources and alliances necessary to succeed on the very competitive playing field he has chosen. He is reprehensible alright, but not a totally unlikable guy.




NIGHT AND THE CITY supports Marxist concerns about the dark side of capitalism, especially in the context of the urban jungle's thriving night life and sprawling city streets connected by cab rides, stairways, docks and the Hammersmith Bridge. It is an unforgiving milieu where you do not dare attempt to escape your existing position in society. The mere thought of such an endeavor is laughable. In one of the film's greatest sequences, potential backer Philip Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan steals every scene in which he appears) laughs uncontrollably when Harry describes his plan to become a successful professional wrestling promoter. Thanks to an especially strong performance from Widmark, Harry earns our sympathy during this awkward exchange. Despite his best efforts, however, Harry proves himself completely outmatched in the insiders business world dominated by ruthless creeps like Philip and Kristo. Another serious problem is Harry is the wrong match for the honorable man Gregorius, an anachronism in a dishonest world of moral decay and forgotten values. It is with disgust Gregorius sees that his own son thrives in this environment of fakery and corruption; a place where the drunken goon wrestler The Strangler (Mike Mazurki) takes center stage amid appreciative cheers.




One of the film's central locations of corrupt capitalism is the wrestling arena, where diametrically-opposed wrestling styles represent a war that pits art (morality) vs. business (immorality). In an impromptu bout, Gregorius defeats The Strangler, but so outdated are the values embodied by the elder wrestler that he expires shortly after the contest. His only consolation is the brief moral victory in a rigged system that will continue long after his final gasp. His passing serves as a death sentence for Harry, who hardly would have succeeded as a promoter of wrestling in the first place. As so often happens within the boundaries of the film noir, fate brings people together to devastating effect. Like Gregorius, Harry overlooks the simple truth that times have changed, and in fact there is no mainstream audience for the tradition of Greco-Roman wrestling. Harry proves even more a fossil than Gregorius when the only way he can provide for Mary as he always wanted is to sacrifice himself. How fitting his only successful scheme would be his last.



A gentleman's club of some sort, The Silver Fox is the other major focal point of organized corruption and dirty money. It is a place where you never know who your allies are, and relationships are based on selfishness and deceit, especially within the incredibly dysfunctional union of marriage as evidenced by Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers) and her husband Philip. The two appear condemned to each other, with neither deriving any satisfaction. The oft-used noir motif of the framed portrait finds repeated use in NIGHT AND THE CITY, where idealized imagery contrasts with the reality of deceptive relationships void of potential.

NIGHT AND THE CITY is based on the novel of the same title by British author Gerald Kersh. Obviously the original work's title makes a terrific film noir title, since it describes the setting so typical of film noir drama. The screenplay was adapted by Jo Eisinger (GILDA [1946]). Like Widmark, director Jules Dassin is associated with some of the very finest film noir has to offer. The road to NIGHT AND THE CITY was paved with BRUTE FORCE (1947), THE NAKED CITY (1948) and THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949). Arguably Dassin's masterpiece was RIFIFI (1955), one of the all-time great heist films.



The superb compositions of cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum

This new dual-layered Blu-ray version of NIGHT AND THE CITY comes to us by way of an outstanding 4K digital restoration of the US theatrical presentation director Dassin preferred. I had always held this film in high regard, but thanks to the folks at Criterion, I now recognize NIGHT AND THE CITY as an undisputable masterpiece of film noir. Also selectable and of significant interest is the British version of the film, though it was not the object of the same careful restoration work that distinguishes the US cut. The British rendition runs approximately 5 minutes longer than the US version, but the differences between the two are not limited to additional footage; both versions feature footage absent from the other. Key scenes unique to the British cut include:

•An alternate introductory sequence with Harry and Mary.
•An attempt by Helen to steal from Philip.
•Harry and Helen embrace in view of Philip.
•Mr. Hoskins (Edward Chapman) confronts Harry about unpaid hotel accommodations.
•Kristo's legal representation Fergus Chilk (Aubrey Dexter) and goon Yosh (Russell Westwood) grill Adam (Hugh Marlowe) and Mary about Harry's whereabouts.
•A romanticized conclusion between Adam and Mary.

Some of the above additions lighten the British film's tone in comparison with the grittier US version. The entirely different scores also contribute to the slightly different viewing experience each version provides.

All remaining supplements were culled from The Criterion Collection DVD released in 2005. In "Two Versions, Two Scores" (23m 55s) film music scholar Christopher Husted compares and contrasts the approach employed by the respective composers involved in the two versions of the film. Franz Waxman handled the LA-based score composition for the US version, while Benjamin Frankel's score for the British version was conceived in London (director Dassin was blacklisted by the time the film entered post-production). The scores differ dramatically. Husted also calls attention to the various differences of the two versions of the film in terms of scenes included and not included.

Recorded in 2004, the audio commentary track features author Glenn Erickson, who obviously prepared very well for his discussion of the film, which he notes was "heavily transformed" from its source material. Erickson confirms this Hollywood production shot in London was the result of the politics and blacklisting associated with the emergence of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Dassin never forgave his contemporaries Elia Kazan and Edward Dmytryk for naming names. Where Erickson and I differ is his take on the "immature" Harry Fabian, who Erickson views as a character without any redeeming value. That is a fair assessment, but I see Harry as more of a tragic figure, hopelessly out of his league. If nothing else, he is no worse than those who surround him.

Other extras include an interview with director Jules Dassin (17m 52s). Filmed in 2004, Dassin recalls how Darryl Zanuck—fully aware of the politics of the time—pushed him to get the most expensive sequences filmed in London early to discourage anyone from pulling the plug on the project. Dassin talks about the era of McCarthyism and its impact in excerpts from a 1970 interview that appeared on the French television show L'INVITÉ DU DIMANCHE (25m 26s). There is also a vintage trailer (2m 22s) and a booklet with an excellent essay by critic Paul Arthur.



NIGHT AND THE CITY was remade in 1992 with Robert De Niro in the role of Harry Fabian.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

HOLLOW TRIUMPH (1948)

(aka THE SCAR, THE MAN WHO MURDERED HIMSELF)
Eagle-Lion Films, 82m 19s


In this case of the boldly ambitious noir criminal, Johnny Muller (Paul Henreid) possesses both street smarts and formal education. Having served some prison time, he is about to crash-land back into mainstream society, where a tedious desk job awaits him in LA. That is not a good fit for Muller, and the warden (Charles Trowbridge) knows it. He tells Muller, "You'll be back here. You're a smart man..." In other words, intelligent guys don't line up for braindead paper-shuffling jobs. As expected, Muller proves anxious to resume his depredations instead. He devises a plan to rob $200K from a casino operated by Rocky Stansyck (Thomas Browne Henry, uncredited). Muller’s old gang is a little ambivalent, especially Marcy (Herbert Rudley), who seems keenly aware of the likely outcome of such an operation.

Johnny Muller (Paul Henreid) in planning mode

After a narrow escape from the robbery, Muller finds himself looking over his shoulder. He needs to disappear for awhile, and reluctantly accepts that office job most anyone would detest. But with Stansyck's ruffians closing in, Muller needs to disappear permanently. A convenient option presents itself when Muller learns he has a doppelgänger in psychoanalyst Dr. Victor E. Bartok (also played by Henreid). The only discernible visual difference between the two men is a scar that distinguishes Bartok's countenance. So with the aid of a photograph and a mirror, Muller performs surgery on himself. Disfigured facial features inform a number of film noirs, such as DARK PASSAGE (1947), NORA PRENTISS (1947), THE BIG HEAT (1953) and CRY VENGEANCE (1954). Often scars symbolize some aspect of a personality that no longer exists, but there is more than that going on in HOLLOW TRIUMPH.

The most pure film noirs contain an existential moment of recognition when the lead protagonist realizes everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. HOLLOW TRIUMPH is noted for one of the best instances of this defining noir trope when Muller is stunned to discover he scarred the wrong side of his face! That is about as dark as noir gets; he makes the one mistake possible to make from an appearance emulation standpoint. But the real irony—and there are many in this noir—comes when Muller learns he has become unequivocally accepted as Bartok. The mirror utilized to create Muller's scar provides the clue to what really transpires. Muller transforms into a literal mirror image of Bartok, which implies a difference between the two. As it turns out, that difference merely involves the manner in which each owes something to a casino. Muller's brother Frederick (Eduard Franz) correctly generalizes, "...sooner or later it always catches up with you."




On a level of plausibility, some might consider HOLLOW TRIUMPH unwatchable. Though it is true some of the plot maneuvers may seem preposterous on the surface, the film holds up if observed within the deeper context of the indifferent noir city. The entire narrative is constructed around the notion that city people never look beyond their own personal circles. They are too caught up in their own affairs to be concerned with what is going on with others. The casino heist is engineered around this assumption, as is the substitution of Muller for Bartok. The film's conclusion only emphasizes the individual's sense of alienation within the noir city, as passers-by either do not notice or do not care that a defeated man lies near death. The alienating structure of urban society constitutes the film's “hollow triumph” over the individual.

Director of photography John Alton's contribution to the high-contrast "chiaroscuro" noir look cannot be underestimated. His well-choreographed interplay between darkness and light is persistent throughout this photoplay. In his introduction of HOLLOW TRIUMPH that aired on Turner Classic Movies recently, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation Eddie Muller noted that Alton often was the highest-paid crew member of each film he worked on, and that includes the respective actors. Alton also handled the cinematography on T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), THE CROOKED WAY (1949), BORDER INCIDENT (1949), MYSTERY STREET (1950) and one of the greatest film noirs ever, THE BIG COMBO (1955).





HOLLOW TRIUMPH was based on the novel by Murray Forbes, adapted for the screen by Daniel Fuchs (CRISS CROSS [1949], PANIC IN THE STREETS [1950]). Director Steve Sekely also helmed the cult sci-fi film THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1963). Joan Bennett always strengthens any film she appears in, and her Evelyn Hahn delivers an oft-quoted line of noir dialog in this one:  "It's a bitter little world full of sad surprises and you don’t go around letting people hurt you." If Herbert Rudley looks familiar to noir fans, he is absolutely unforgettable as a walking dead man in the early moments of DECOY (1946). Also look for Jack Webb in one of his earliest roles.

HOLLOW TRIUMPH is a public domain title. The DVD release from Film Chest was the source of the above screen captures.