Monday, December 26, 2016

MURDER, MY SWEET (1944)

RKO Radio Pictures, 95m 25s


At the time of this writing, I have evaluated over 50 film noirs in this blog. That I only now am getting to the very influential MURDER, MY SWEET seems like an oversight of some kind, since director Edward Dmytryk's intriguing film is so evocative of the noir cycle that flourished in the mid-to-late 1940s. It is based on the Raymond Chandler novel FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1940), the second of his works to feature Philip Marlowe. The widespread urban corruption that informed Chandler's novel would become a given as the film noir movement of the 1940s developed, with MURDER, MY SWEET having served as a major catalyst.

The sometimes downright perplexing storyline requires close attention to follow, but the driving force behind the narrative is simple enough. Fresh from an 8-year prison term, Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) seeks his old flame Velma Valento, a cute, leggy showgirl. More brawn than brains, the intense personality Malloy appears in the LA-based office of Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), a cynical PI and former cop who was fired by the DA for incessant backtalk. Somewhat reluctant but in need of the work, Marlowe agrees to accompany Malloy to an establishment that once employed Velma. However, the place is under new ownership and nobody present knows anything about Velma. Without the violently impatient presence of the abrasive lug Malloy, Marlowe visits the nightclub’s previous owner Jessie Florian (Esther Howard), who at first denies knowing Velma, only to later claim Velma is dead. The following day, Marlowe accepts money, again with some hesitance, from the effeminate Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton), who wants the private detective to accompany him to a nighttime location where payment is to be made to recover some stolen jewelry. Marlowe gets knocked out for his trouble, and delivers one of film noir's most emblematic lines of dialog:

"I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom."

Marlowe awakens to learn Marriott has been iced. The remaining plot is as challenging for the viewer to navigate as it is for our main protagonist ("I don't know which side anybody's on. I don't even know who's playing today."). At the exposition, Marlowe's ordeal is expressed tellingly in a police interrogation setting. Our guide through the noir universe has bandages that cover his eyes when we first meet him. In other words, our voice of guidance will be that of a blind man. The narrative structure is dominated by flashbacks, with only the beginning and end of the film set in the present. MURDER, MY SWEET is layered with surreal visuals that imply ambiguity, along with low camera angles that convey character entrapment. The mid-1940s noir movement would become noted for this approach, as well as the persistent narration that complements the mostly nocturnal environments. Marlowe is knocked cold repeatedly as he makes his way through this nightmare in black and white. After a meeting with mysterious intellectual Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), the resourceful Marlowe must prove his toughness during an uncomfortable spell when he is under the disorienting influence of narcotics. His hallucinatory spider webs take over the frame and effectively immerse the viewer into the featured protagonist's regrettable situation, which recalls the torture of Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) in THE GLASS KEY (1942). The expressionistic dream sequence was captured by cinematographer Harry J. Wild, a man who would lens a staggering amount of subsequent noir films, i.e. NOCTURNE (1946), PITFALL (1948), THE THREAT (1949) and the very impressive but seldom referenced WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER (1950).

Story of a blind man

A manifestation of an urban wasteland appears

Real-life chess match?

Very much in the spirit of THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), MURDER, MY SWEET employs a MacGuffin that proves far less important than the truth about an enigmatic woman. Despite the alleged monetary value of a rare jade necklace, the clue to what is of primary interest comes by way of the surname Grayle, an obvious homophone for grail, which speaks volumes about the nature of the search for Velma Valento. The most striking theme at work in MURDER, MY SWEET is that of female duplicity and the male's struggle to perceive it. Women like Velma always change, while men like Moose Malloy are incapable of change. A surrogate for the returning war veteran who appears in numerous film noirs, the ex-con Malloy pensively acknowledges the world has changed over the past eight years, but is slow to warm up to the idea that his beloved Velma may be something far different from the image conveyed in her idealized glamour photo. She is the grail of Malloy's doomed quest.

"Dames lie about anything—just for practice."
—Detective-lieutenant Nulty, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY

As often holds true with Chandler material, a woman is at fault for everything that goes wrong in MURDER, MY SWEET. The search for a woman who proves more complex than she first appears sets the stage for the film's recurrent motif:  women frequently change; sometimes in the short-term, sometimes for the long-term, and quite often for the worse. The notion of a woman who is one thing who mutates into another is introduced when Jessie Florian flip-flops over questions about Velma. Florian also goes from being drunk to collectedly sober in an instant. Later Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) introduces herself as a reporter to Marlowe, who quickly sees through that lie, but does not realize when he first met her because of the altered state of mind he was in at the time. Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) is first glimpsed by body part (leg, of course). The former redhead has metamorphosed into a "big league blonde," married to the prosperous but much older Leuwen Grayle (Miles Mander), a 65-year-old man of limited energy level who tolerates the constant infidelities of his second wife. "...I've gone out with other men. I find men very attractive," she admits freely. A spider woman beyond redemption, Mrs. Grayle enjoys a high standard of living thanks entirely to her impressive physical attributes and womanly wiles. The film may conclude with a less denigrating take on female sexuality, but the upbeat ending hardly neutralizes the darkly noir buildup of feminine duplicity.




Raymond Chandler's source novel FAREWELL, MY LOVELY was an amalgamation of the author's prior short stories "Try the Girl," "Mandarin's Jade" and "The Man Who Liked Dogs." This filmed adaptation devised by screenwriter John Paxton stays true to the general structure of Chandler's material, though there are some major divergences and omissions. For instance, the Anne Riordan character of the novel is of no relation to the Grayles. The section that transpires around a gambling boat is omitted from the film, and Marlowe seems to have a much more serious affection for alcohol in the book (Chandler himself was a famously heavy drinker).

Reputedly Chandler's favorite adaptation of his fiction, MURDER, MY SWEET originally screened in December of 1944 appropriately entitled FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, but studio executives decided to re-title it so the tough-guy detective film would not be confused with the comedies and musicals lead actor Richard Ewing "Dick" Powell was known for at the time. The title change did not seem to harm the film from a commercial perspective; MURDER, MY SWEET would register a healthy $597,000 profit for RKO. The source novel had been brought to the screen previously as THE FALCON TAKES OVER (1942), though Philip Marlowe was not a character. Powell and Trevor assumed their original roles when MURDER, MY SWEET was condensed to an hour-long radio play on the June 11th, 1945 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater. Hollywood Startime presented another radio version in 1948, which this time teamed Powell with Mary Astor. Dmytryk, Paxton, Wild, and Powell would work together again for the following year's CORNERED (1945), another fine noir film from RKO. Dmytryk and producer Robert Adrian Scott were among the "Hollywood Ten" who refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October of 1947. MURDER, MY SWEET would be the final film to feature Anne Shirley, who retired from acting at the age of 26.


The Chandler novel was adapted again as FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975), with Robert Mitchum cast in the role as an aging Philip Marlowe obsessed with Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. That historical footnote sets the narrative in July of 1941, which makes this Marlowe outing something of a nostalgia trip, though a contemporary society stung by the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War is very much evident.

Directed by Dick Richards and adapted for the screen by David Zelag Goodman, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY restores some elements of the novel that were absent from the 1944 film:  the club once owned by the Florians is now a black-only place in the heart of the black community, the strangulation tactics of Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran) are more true to the original story, and Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe) and his gambling boat are along for the ride in this version. Some of the differences from the source material are dramatic, none more so than the transformation of the Amthor character, and what that says about the background of Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling). Other situations directly recall the 1944 film, especially the drug-fuelled dream sequence. Like MURDER, MY SWEET, the conclusion of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY differs radically from that of the novel, which at least suggested the possibility of a shred of goodness hiding somewhere within Mrs. Grayle. But when it comes to femme fatales, film noirs seldom make room for such gray areas. By 1975, the Marlowe character had less interest in money than he did in 1944, and there is no Ann character for Marlowe, or any other romantic interest. Marlowe's gesture in the remake’s final moments, however, confirms his strong moral code, and challenges the element of racism threaded throughout the Chandler novel. Mitchum would portray Marlowe once again in director Michael Winner's THE BIG SLEEP (1978).

To view FAREWELL, MY LOVELY today is to be reminded of its heavy influence on THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! (1988). Like it or not, one cannot listen to Robert Mitchum's narration as Marlowe without immediately thinking of Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). As if to erase any doubt about the connection between the two films, the introduction of Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) in THE NAKED GUN is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the reveal of Helen Grayle in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY.

Warner Blu-ray

Warner DVD

Film noir selections available thus far from the Warner Archive have set an undeniably high standard. The 1080P dual-layered Blu-ray edition of MURDER, MY SWEET boasts an impressive interpretation of the B&W film, framed at the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1. Compared to the approximately 1.35:1 Warner DVD released in 2004, the Blu-ray version offers enhanced detail and more information within the frame. There is one glitchy moment around 17m 21s when Marlowe surveys a secluded area, but the rest of the presentation looks tremendous (the DVD version has trouble at the same juncture). In a more pleasant instance of duplication, noted film noir historian Alain Silver's audio commentary track was ported from the DVD. The co-author of RAYMOND CHANDLER'S LOS ANGELES (1987) reminds us that only about a dozen film noirs actually featured a private investigator in a central role, and about half of those were based on Chandler's Marlowe character. He describes Chandler as a "curmudgeon" who hated what Hollywood did to his work.

The only other extra is a theatrical trailer (2m 9s) of abhorrent quality.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950)

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 96m 13s


Most film noirs that hail from the 1940s focus on a lone wolf or a small assortment of down-and-outers. Released in 1950, the urban thriller PANIC IN THE STREETS aims through a broader scope, with no less than the future of humanity at stake. As directed entirely on location by Elia Kazan, the film anticipates the various social concerns that characterized the 1950s noir movement, when many stories no longer were isolated to a few individuals of questionable integrity. In films like ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), HOODLUM EMPIRE (1952), THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955), NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL (1955), KISS ME DEADLY (1955), THE LINEUP (1958) and CITY OF FEAR (1959), noir sensibilities reached more pervasively into society, with grave implications about the social order.

The film noir credentials of PANIC IN THE STREETS are beyond doubt after the opening sequence links gambling, urban squalor and disease. At a nighttime card game in the wharf sector of New Orleans, Kochak (Lewis Charles) shows signs of illness and makes a hasty exit after accumulating some winnings (never a great plan to take the money and run, see WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS [1950]). The abrupt departure does not sit well with Blackie (Jack Palance), who murders Kochak while Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel) and Kochak's cousin Poldi (Guy Thomajan) serve as accomplices. After the discarded body is examined, the deceased's blood reveals unusual bacteria. Lieutenant Commander M.D. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark) is notified, and Reed determines the dead man was carrying pneumonic plague. Now all who were in contact with Kochak must be found before the plague can spread. Few films of any genre can boast such a critical time element!



The thugs responsible for the death of the plague-infested Kochak cannot understand why his murder would be of such importance to the police. In a theme that has informed innumerable Hollywood thrillers, nobody wants to buy into Reed's concern about the potential danger. City officials like Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) are slow to get it. Only Reed immediately recognizes the potentially global issue that "...could be in Africa tomorrow." Even if by force, newspaper men like Neff (Dan Riss) must be kept at bay for the good of mankind. Expressed somewhat differently, the free press (especially reporters with a name borrowed from DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944]) must be controlled by those who know better. In a telling instance of what is at risk, Rita Mefaris (Aline Stevens), the wife of restaurant owner John Mefaris (Alexis Minotis), loses her life as a penalty for lack of cooperation with authority figures. PANIC IN THE STREETS calls for complete trust in a U.S. Public Health Service man. The notion that government experts know best has lost traction in modern times with a large section of skeptical Americans, but the premise still works based upon the film's monomythic underpinnings, which is to say one moral individual can make a huge difference in a murky sea of incomprehension and disbelief.



The narrative is underscored by a xenophobic theme that correlates illegal immigration with highly contagious sickness. American distrust of the Middle East pops up around the halfway marker; the stowaway to blame for the potential outbreak boarded a ship in Iran. The concluding sequence with Blackie in rat mode confirms that potentially infected humans and disease-transmitting rats are one and the same (the segment that shows him crawling along the waterfront edge is quintessential noir). In probably the movie’s most cynical moment, the condemned man Blackie is thwarted by a baffle meant to prevent rats from boarding ships. A more grim portrait of illegal immigration is difficult to imagine.



Himself an immigrant, Greek-American filmmaker Elia Kazan (born Elias Kazantzoglou) is infamous for his cooperation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but he should be remembered best for the groundbreaking social dramas to his credit such as GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947), PINKY (1949), A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) and ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). My personal favorite would have to be A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957), which has become especially significant in light of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump and his relationship with mass media. Kazan is not noted for repeated work in the noir category, though he did direct the minor title BOOMERANG! (1947) for Fox. PANIC IN THE STREETS is as much a film noir as it is a film of social relevance, thanks in no small part to the contribution of cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, who makes exceptional use of location footage in New Orleans. MacDonald shot some of the many great film noirs released by Fox, including SHOCK (1946), THE DARK CORNER (1946), CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948) and THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948). The husband and wife writing team of Edna and Edward Anhalt won an Oscar for their original story. Richard Murphy (BOOMERANG!) wrote the screenplay, and Daniel Fuchs (CRISS CROSS [1949]) is credited with the adaptation. Per usual, Richard Widmark offers a commanding performance and reminds the viewer he always has an edge, even when his character is not a wildman like Tommy Udo (KISS OF DEATH [1947]) or Jefty Robbins (ROAD HOUSE [1948]). In his feature film debut, Jack Palance dominates every scene in which he appears, especially when the action involves human disposal. Palance starred in a number of other noir films, the best of which was SUDDEN FEAR (1952). Other worthy efforts included THE BIG KNIFE (1955) and I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES (1955), a remake of HIGH SIERRA (1941).



The single-layered Blu-ray version of PANIC IN THE STREETS available from 20th Century Fox Studio Classics provides an excellent viewing experience, framed at the aspect ratio of 1.41:1, slightly different from the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and the Blu-ray packaging's inaccurate indication of 1.33:1. The audio commentary track by film noir historians James Ursini and Alain Silver was ported from the DVD version released first in 2005. They draw attention to the marvelous use of location footage, especially at night, which was almost unheard of at the time. Also unusual was the infrequency of cuts and Kazan's extensive use of non-professional actors. The co-founder of the Actors Studio in 1947 (along with Cheryl Crawford, Robert Lewis and Anna Sokolow), Kazan was well prepared to direct people with no acting experience. As for the character Nancy Reed portrayed by Barbara Bel Geddes, Silver and Ursini point out that the women of film noir found themselves moved into domestic roles in the 1950s; a direct reflection of veterans returning to the work force. Gone were the days of the femme fatales that dominated some of the best wartime film noir productions.

Unique to this Blu-ray edition are a pair of supplements that first appeared on the television series BIOGRAPHY:  RICHARD WIDMARK: STRENGTH OF CHARACTERS (44m 13s, 2000) and JACK PALANCE: FROM GRIT TO GRACE (44m 10s, 2001). Both programs are informative and well worth watching.

A theatrical trailer (2m 12s) is also included.


Friday, September 30, 2016

THE CROOKED WAY (1949)

United Artists, 89m 35s


The World War II veteran has a distinctive status in the film noir, where the alienated stand in the spotlight. After having endured often physical and always psychological wounds of war, the returning soldier finds himself surrounded by uncertainty back home. Invariably he somehow remains at war in a society that has moved forward in his absence, though not necessarily for the better.

THE CROOKED WAY begins in San Francisco within a health care center for veterans. The patient of the narrative's focus is 34-year-old Eddie Rice (John Payne), who served in the US Army during WWII. He earned a Silver Star for bravery overseas, but also was left with a large piece of shrapnel embedded in his brain. He is told he has organic amnesia, which means his memory loss is permanent. Undeterred, Rice returns to his old LA stomping grounds in a bold attempt to discover the man he was. He does not have to look all that hard to find evidence of his pre-war existence.




Within minutes of his arrival in LA, Rice is confronted by his criminal past in the form of Lieutenant Joe Williams (Rhys Williams), who sternly warns Rice to get the hell out of town. Rice has other ideas, especially after running into the attractive Nina Martin (Ellen Drew). Besides the obvious dangers of a tough-talking cop and a mysterious brunette, Rice has a crime sheet that connects with underworld lord Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts), a well-dressed chap with a nervous condition and a penchant for keeping his fingernails neatly trimmed. Alexander owns the two most violent sequences:  the first, extremely well-staged, involves an ignored phone call as a snitch (John Harmon) gets grilled, the second sends our embattled lead protagonist tumbling down a fire escape.

As Rice explores the maze of his former life, it becomes clear that past betrayals and shady acquaintances are not easy to leave behind, or discover. As one character describes Rice, "A Silver Star and a dumb look doesn't change a no-good heel." In one of my favorite crime film traditions that has its roots in the Fritz Lang German Expressionism classic M (1931), Rice is sought by both policemen and criminal forces. The past seems to deny him a present as the amnesia case struggles for a second chance in a post-war society seemingly defined by the science of determined police procedure.





The setup of THE CROOKED WAY is predated by the less visually stylish but highly effective SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946), directed and co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (HOUSE OF STRANGERS [1949], NO WAY OUT [1950]). The rather labyrinthine SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT provided the major narrative structure for the film under review, with amnesiac war veteran George W. Taylor (John Hodiak) combing the Los Angeles streets, "...where everyone's a stranger." Like the Taylor character, in his identity search Eddie Rice essentially assumes the role of the hard-boiled private investigator featured in such film noir classics as THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and THE BIG SLEEP (1946).

A far easier film to follow than its source of inspiration, THE CROOKED WAY was directed by Robert Florey, who also helmed THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946), but is perhaps best known for his uncredited contribution to Universal's FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Richard H. Landau (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT [1955], HELL BOUND [1957]) wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of the radio play "No Blade Too Sharp" by Robert Monroe. Payne is fine in the lead as the disoriented veteran, but I prefer his tougher characterizations that energize 99 RIVER STREET (1953) and HIDDEN FEAR (1957). Perpetually coughing milquetoast Petey (Percy Helton) is a terrific noir oddity, inclined to cower in front of all authority figures. The superb cinematography that elevates THE CROOKED WAY above routine genre fare was handled by John Alton, a name all film noir fans should be familiar with for his masterful contrast between light and shadows. His compositions commonly are fraught with tension, as they were in the same year's BORDER INCIDENT and the prior year's HE WALKED BY NIGHT.




Newly re-mastered in HD, this single-layered Blu-ray edition available from Kino Lorber provides an acceptable presentation, though the lack of restorative work is evident by way of stubborn scratches. Rest assured the wear and tear hardly detracts from this very competent production. The disc is essentially featureless, save for a few trailers.


Saturday, September 3, 2016

QUICKSAND (1950)

United Artists, 79m 11s


A good little B-picture, QUICKSAND packs a lot of action into its modest duration. Set in Santa Monica, California, local mechanic Dan Brady (Mickey Rooney) takes an immediate interest in Vera (Jeanne Cagney) when he eyes her at a greasy spoon. But in a telling sign of the financial dislocation to come, Dan is short of cash before their first date. No matter, he already has fallen for Vera, a streetwise blonde dressed in black, and has grown bored with the perfectly nice but too-available Helen (Barbara Bates). Essentially a parable about womanizing and materialism, QUICKSAND suggests how disastrously trouble can escalate for those who attempt to live beyond their means.

In determined pursuit of Vera, the Navy veteran Dan clandestinely authorizes his own cash advance from the register of his tightwad employer Mr. Mackey (Art Smith). That shortsighted decision has a domino effect when Dan realizes he has less time than he thought to return the funds. Without any better options, he buys a watch on credit and quickly hocks it for a fraction of its value. That takes care of the cash register balance, but then Moriarity (John Gallaudet) informs Dan he is obligated to pay his debt on the wristwatch within 24 hours since he sold it before he technically owned it.




Is Vera worth all this trouble? "I can handle you easy," she mentions to Dan, who clearly is not up to the task of handling her. The better he gets to know Vera, the higher Dan's criminal credentials rise. Dan goes from petty theft to armed robbery, grand larceny, breaking and entering, kidnapping, and—possibly—second-degree murder. In the process, it becomes apparent Vera has a past with numerous pairs of pants in the area. Despised by her landlady (Minerva Urecal), the blonde prize is really the neighborhood tramp, devoted only to the man who might be able to buy her a ridiculously expensive mink coat. Vera is hardly the only character of low morality, though; some who learn of Danny's crimes would rather blackmail him than involve the police. After narrowly escaping the path of a bullet, Danny delivers the token noir line of existential recognition:  "I feel like I'm being shoved into a corner and if I don't get out soon it'll be too late. Maybe it's too late already." Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) uttered a very similar line in THE DARK CORNER (1946).

QUICKSAND's location work is plentiful, the best of which was captured around Santa Monica Pier. With its games of chance and pierside location, the penny arcade makes for an appropriate film noir setting, especially at night, and particularly since the proprietor is portrayed by Peter Lorre. The cast in general is terrific, with Rooney in great form against type in the lead role. He also co-financed the film with Lorre. I never know what to make of Jeanne Cagney. At times she looks so much like her famous brother James it is difficult to think about her as an individual. In an uncredited role, the instantly recognizable Jack Elam appears briefly, and just where one would expect to find him.

It is especially great to see Art Smith (IN A LONELY PLACE [1950]), who was among those blacklisted after being named by filmmaker Elia Kazan before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. As for QUICKSAND director Irving Pichel, he was among the "Hollywood Nineteen" who were subpoenaed but chose not to testify. Pichel also was blacklisted and had to continue his career outside the country before he died in 1954 due to a heart ailment.




The above screen captures were taken from the DVD version released by Image Entertainment way back in 2000. Since the source material was in decent condition, the featureless disc holds up just fine today.

Monday, August 22, 2016

FLESH AND FANTASY (1943) and DESTINY (1944)

NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 8
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 19th – Thursday, August 25th, 2016

Sunday evening, Film Noir Foundation Director Alan K. Rode was pleased to present a pair of original 35mm prints struck by a very cooperative Universal Pictures. The two obscure features share a kinship beyond the parent studio since the films actually were conceived as one anthology directed by Julien Duvivier (PÉPÉ LE MOKO [1937]).


Reduced to a three-segment anthology by Universal after audience test screenings, FLESH AND FANTASY (1943, Universal Pictures, 94m) unfurls with a surreal structure common to each story, with dreams and reality intertwined. The first episode involves a reflection on inner beauty during Mardi Gras night in New Orleans. Henrietta (Betty Field) must get past her self-loathing if Michael (Robert Cummings) ever is to notice her. Thanks to a mask provided by a man of mystery (Edgar Barrier), Henrietta finds the courage to face what was holding her back. The segment instantly brings to mind various TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, as do the subsequent stories.

The following segment features the dependable Edward G. Robinson as Marshall Tyler, who in a moment of fate is traumatized by a palm reading conducted by Septimus Podgers (Thomas Mitchell), who predicts Tyler will kill! The camerawork by Stanley Cortez and Paul Ivano brings a noir architecture to this second story, with a sense of entrapment following the Robinson character, whose tormentor proves to be his own dark side, externalized thanks to the gloomy suggestion of Podgers. Haunting imagery pushes Tyler to the limit in sequences that anticipate the closing moments of SCARLET STREET (1945), in which Robinson's defeated Christopher Cross is condemned to an eternity of lonely streets and incessant voices.

The second segment segues nicely into the final episode, with tightrope walker Paul Gaspar (Charles Boyer) afraid to perform the most dangerous component of his circus act after he dreams of falling. The safety net's dramatic removal before Gaspar performs is emphasized as to suggest the need for the net is largely psychological. In further noir terms, the third segment implies that past transgressions have a stubborn way of following people. En route from London to New York by ship, Gaspar meets Joan Stanley (Barbara Stanwyck), the apparent embodiment of his dream woman, but perhaps an unattainable one for reasons that are at first imprecise.

FLESH AND FANTASY (1943)

The best-received segment of the original anthology would be excised by Universal and converted into DESTINY (1944, Universal Pictures, 65m). Director Reginald Le Borg was commissioned to expand the Julien Duvivier episode that originally opened FLESH AND FANTASY. In what begins in overly familiar territory for noir fans, cynical ex-con Cliff Banks (Alan Curtis, PHANTOM LADY [1944]) finds himself on the run in LA, albeit through no fault of his own. He blames his troubles on his uncanny ability to take up with the wrong dames, like the sexy frame possessed by night club singer Phyllis Prager (Vivian Austin). Events take a significant turn when Banks encounters Jane Broderick (Gloria Jean), a kind woman who can "see" despite her blindness and seems to be the miraculous antidote to what ails Banks. She even has a calming effect on animals known to be frightened of humans.


Banks finds redemption when he embraces the theme persistent in both films:  without faith in the basic goodness of other people, there is no basis for existence. Also significant is the healing power represented by the blind woman in a pastoral rural environment, which stands diametrically opposed to the oppressive chaos of the urban world rich with duplicitous types such as Marie (Minna Gombell) and Sam (Frank Fenton). DESTINY certainly stands as a progenitor of ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951) by way of distinct settings that clash.

DESTINY (1944)

Though generally I am opposed to studio meddling, I can understand Universal's enthusiasm with the potential of what was originally a 30-minute sequence. I wish I could evaluate the original FLESH AND FANTASY screened to test audiences, but today all that can be determined is DESTINY is unusually touching for a crime film laced with noir elements, and the edited version of the original film plays well enough at just over 90 minutes.

The remaining schedule:  NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 8

Friday, July 29, 2016

99 RIVER STREET (1953)

United Artists, 83m 30s


Though not a true boxing film, the gripping 99 RIVER STREET is a brisk film noir with a retired boxer as its scrappy featured protagonist. The opening sequence sets the tone well with the bruising action of a championship heavyweight prizefight. Challenger Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) accounts for himself admirably versus the reigning champ until an eye injury inhibits his fighting ability. As it turns out, Driscoll is watching his failed bid for the heavyweight crown on television, as part of a series called "Great Fights of Yesterday." Like so many other noir examples, 99 RIVER STREET revolves around a significant past event that defines the present for the main character, who in this case psychologically remains confined to the savagery of the squared circle despite having been barred from it for medical reasons.

A career on the ropes

"I could've been the champ."

An easily riled man to begin with, Driscoll encounters plenty of reasons to embrace his violent pugilistic past. The post-boxing world has not been terribly accommodating to Driscoll, who finds himself stuck with a compromised optic nerve, a dull cabbie job, and perhaps worst of all, vitriolic criticism from his ex-showgirl wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Not content with the couple's current financial position and unimpressed with her husband’s dream of one day owning a gas station, Pauline has taken up with Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), a "reckless" jewel thief with a plan to take Pauline to France after settling his 400-carat score. The plot gains momentum when fence Christopher (Jay Adler) attempts to distance himself from the caper that, naturally, did not quite go as outlined. The situation is not helped by the unwelcome presence of Pauline, who ignites tensions within the jewel thief network. Pauline personifies the alluring but no-good noir femme fatale, and director Phil Karlson emphasizes her physicality on multiple occasions, with her tempting body and attractive face framed as her only redeeming qualities.



Transpiring mostly over the course of one night, 99 RIVER STREET exploits the dark side of human nature at every turn, as people cast others aside in pursuit of their own wants. That sort of reflection on human nature is not limited to arch criminals like Rawlins and Christopher. Even ostensibly benign personalities are capable of deception and impulsive self-interest. Aspiring stage actress Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), a basically nice city gal, plays an exceptionally cruel trick on her friend Driscoll for the chance to play the lead in a Broadway production. Quite understandably, he becomes upset and roughs up some of the condescending theater producers who collectively wronged him. If that were not enough, the production team then seeks free publicity by sending the police after Driscoll, thus wronging him twice in one evening! "Any time you get hooked up with a dame you're bound to end up in trouble," Driscoll later grumbles.

Recurring low camera angles create unease within interior shots, where people are as likely to turn on each other as not. On these Manhattan streets, disputes are resolved mostly through some type of violence. The pace is relentless as characters are grabbed, pushed, slapped, punched, strangled, and shot. One unfortunate receives the full force of a heavy chain over his cranium. The final confrontation between Driscoll and Rawlins serves as a reenactment of the boxing match that opens the film, and in fact the entire narrative makes the same point:  life never stopped hitting Driscoll after his boxing career ended. The former contender bears resemblance to the returning soldier who finds himself without a clear place in civilian life in many a film noir. For those who take part in combat of any form, perhaps there is no easy exit strategy.

Like other film noirs that conclude on an optimistic note, there is a seemingly false ring here, yet something authentically noir at the same time. A man who almost became heavyweight champion of the world and a once-promising stage actress find service-station bliss in each other's loving arms, as the repression of great aspirations leads to a happy if humble partnership. It is an easy enough lesson to relate to since most of us, like it or not, learn to appreciate successes that may fall a bit short of our original hopes.




Acclaimed director Karlson helmed several other film noirs, the most vital of which was probably KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952, also featuring Payne). 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955) was a lesser noir entry, notable mostly for the presence of hot-tempered war vet Brick (Brian Keith). THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955) is one of the more convincing docudrama noirs of its time, and THE BROTHERS RICO (1957) plays quite well, thanks in part to the presence of dependable noir man Richard Conte. I think 99 RIVER STREET is Karlson's best-realized effort of the bunch, with Payne superbly cast as the down-but-not-out ex-prizefighter. The film is distinguished by its excellent supporting team as well, especially Frank Faylen as cab dispatcher Stan Hogan, who was also Driscoll's former trainer. Jack Lambert offers a fine performance as the impatient thug Mickey, and Jay Adler is probably the best supporting player of all since it does not seem a stretch that his fence character would also run a pet shop. The screenplay is by Robert Smith, who also wrote the screenplay for QUICKSAND (1950) and co-wrote the script for SUDDEN FEAR (1952), two of my favorite underappreciated film noirs. Cinematographer Franz Planer captured additional classics of the genre, including THE CHASE (1946), CRISS CROSS (1949) and 711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950).

Newly re-mastered in HD and framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, this single-layered Blu-ray edition available through Kino Lorber provides a very clean B&W presentation. Though not without a few mild imperfections, this 1080P version is an obvious improvement over the made-on-demand MGM DVD, which was cropped to 1.33:1.

Kino Lorber Blu-ray

MGM DVD

When it comes to audio commentary tracks, you know you are in for an education with film noir expert Eddie Muller on the mic. Like any great teacher, Muller makes it fun to learn. His analysis of Karlson's directorial preferences is spot-on, especially in terms of recurring compositions that suggest one character’s dominance over another, or when actors walk into close-ups. Karlson was an appropriate match for producer Edward Small, who preferred directors skilled enough to work creatively within modest budgets. Small was fully aware of the direction commercial filmmaking was headed, with studios functioning more as distribution facilitators than creators of original content. As one might expect, Muller offers in-depth biographical information on the actors, Evelyn Keyes in particular, who was a good friend of his. His commentary even touches accurately on actual boxing, with Muller demonstrating acumen for the sweet science (his father was a longtime boxing writer for the San Francisco EXAMINER).

The only other supplemental material consists of a trailer gallery. Besides the trailer for the film under review, trailers for other titles available from Kino Lorber include HIDDEN FEAR (1957), SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954) and HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951).

Publicity Photo

Karlson cribs from his own playbook in 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE