Sunday, December 30, 2018


Paramount Pictures, 111m 14s

By way of expressive black & white cinematography and sometimes outright surreal situations, film noir is among the most stylized of genres, yet one of the most persistently realistic as it reflects the human condition. Filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak—all European émigrés—created many movies in the noir vein, typically with a palpable social consciousness. Billy Wilder was another such émigré. Though probably remembered best for timeless comedies such as SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE APARTMENT (1960), I prefer the cynical sense of continuity that binds ACE IN THE HOLE with his prior effort SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). In essence, the Paramount News team that gathers at the Desmond mansion at the conclusion of SUNSET BOULEVARD expands into an exploitative media net represented by Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) for ACE IN THE HOLE. Among the most egocentric of all noir lead characters, Chuck focuses on the restoration of his career as a big-time newspaper reporter, and dismisses the fragile existence of a helpless man. Directed with an assured purpose by Wilder, himself a reporter before he turned to screenwriting, ACE IN THE HOLE stands as a prophetic warning about the dangers of mass media and questions the distinctly American drive to put profits before people. Not only is the Wilder drama a top-tier film noir, it remains one of the most important Hollywood films of any genre.

I had planned to revisit Wilder's hauntingly pessimistic vision for some time, and the 102nd birthday of the film's star Kirk Douglas earlier this month provided the ideal occasion. The story begins with his out-of-work newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum being towed into Albuquerque, New Mexico. An experienced but supremely arrogant journalist who has worked in New York City and other major markets, he shows instant disdain for the locals with his first word to a Native American. Obviously not short of confidence, he busts into the local paper with borderline gangster bravado. As he makes his case for a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, he brags about being fired from 11 different publications. Chuck essentially bullies the managing editor Jacob Q. Boot (Porter Hall) into hiring him, but the office's needlepoint portrait that states "Tell the Truth" hints at a coming conflict between Chuck's irrepressible ambition and his employer's steadfast ethics. Chuck is plotting a return to a large news organization, specifically one that was so foolish as to fire him, once a story comes along he can exploit for that purpose. "When they need you, they forgive and forget," explains Chuck.

As the plot unfurls, time passes while a frustrated Chuck awaits his big break. After a year's waiting, he shows nothing but impatient contempt for small-town life and its lack of interesting news to report. He is embarrassed to cover a story about a rattlesnake hunt, but in the process he stumbles upon what could be his ticket out of trivial small-town happenings. A local man named Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) in search of Native American artifacts finds himself trapped deep inside the dangerously brittle caverns of an imposing rock formation in Escudero. Chuck may not have a college education, but he has learned what brand of news sells printed media. "Bad news sells best because good news is no news," he asserts. Without hesitation, Chuck boldly makes his way into the mountain to speak with the military veteran Leo, an obviously nice fellow who recognizes the vast structure that threatens his life as "The Mountain of the Seven Vultures." Its caverns hemorrhage suffocating sand at random intervals, and bone-crushing rocks await potential victims at any moment. The area even doubles as an Indian burial ground! Has Leo been punished for excessive exploration of sacred ground? He thinks maybe so. It seems all the makings of a national story are in place, and Chuck is eager to take advantage of his sudden opportunity.

To suggest Chuck is an egocentric personality seems far too weak an accusation to direct his way. A liberal's nightmare, Chuck is perfectly willing to stand on the outstretched throats of others if it might help him breathe a little easier. Rather than help a man in desperate need (wouldn't that be a great story too?), Chuck does precisely the opposite of the right thing:  he inflicts further damage. Not only that, unlike so many noir characters who at least hesitate before taking a wrong turn, Chuck shows no such qualms. The potential reward is too great for him to concern himself with anything else. In defiance of the most logical solution to free the affable, helpless Leo, Chuck persists with a selfishly intransigent attitude about the best means of freeing the imprisoned man, which involves prolonging Leo's suffering for the sake of the news story's extension. As a preeminent example of an embattled noir character, the physically contained Leo eventually succumbs to psychological anguish as the rhythmic pounding of an overhead drill rig torments him for days in his potential tomb. The film noir is noted for its many characters who feel a sense of entrapment, either through no fault of their own or from painting themselves into a corner. The ensnared unfortunate of ACE IN THE HOLE embodies this recurrent genre theme. Leo is indeed Chuck's "ace in the hole," a cruel metaphor manufactured by the newspaper man. In a literal sense, Leo is confined physically to the pit of a mountain that threatens to swallow its powerless prey. Later the entrapped man is buried figuratively by Chuck's predatory nature. Probably worst of all, Chuck pretends to care about the man he uses as an unknowing partner in a game with a potentially grave outcome for everyone involved. Leo makes a costly mistake when he explores the mountain too deeply, and another when he takes Chuck to be a friend. This is about as bleak as film noir gets, and the heel of all heels portrayed by Douglas in a bravura performance. In one of the genre's best examples of what I term noir recognition—that inescapable moment when the major protagonist realizes how low he has sunk—the camera cuts to Chuck when Leo recites, "Bless me father for I have sinned..." in front of Father Diego (Lester Dorr). Chuck finally appears to comprehend he is hopelessly beyond redemption. So finished is the lead protagonist, he will be unable to sell his true story, which ironically is even more sensational than his previous one. Nobody wants to hear it.

The trapped man's disloyal wife is Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), who views her circumstances much the way Chuck sees his when he is delivered to Albuquerque at the film's exposition. Stuck in a desert with her husband, at least as she perceives things, Lorraine feels Leo overplayed his hand a bit when he lured her away from the East Coast. Also like Chuck, she blames others for her own decisions that shaped her current situation. So disappointed is Lorraine with her existence she is prepared to abandon Escudero despite the obvious danger her poor husband faces. Instead, Chuck convinces her to exploit the business potential of her man's plight.

In one of the film's most disturbing themes about the dark side of the American way, institutions intended to serve the public instead serve the needs of insiders. Sheriff Gus Kretzer (Ray Teal) is an eminently corrupt public figure. Without a great deal of resistance, he is bullied into submission by Chuck, first verbally and later physically. The sheriff's affinity with the small rattlesnake is appropriate only on a surface level; the reptile does not pretend to be one thing while being another. With the sheriff's cooperation secured, Chuck gains the allegiance of local contractor Sam Smollett (Frank Jaquet), who knows perfectly well the most direct route to Leo would be the most appropriate rescue plan. Rather than shore up existing tunnels, the Chuck-approved plan calls for drilling down from the mountain's top, which assures Leo will be trapped about 10 times as long as he would be if the contractor's original plan were successfully executed. Chuck is not shy about resorting to tough-guy tactics whenever he feels someone may muddle his self-serving career path back to the big city. He assaults the sheriff and later Leo's wife after they show resistance about playing the roles engineered for them by the thoroughly reprehensible reporter.

ACE IN THE HOLE was inspired in part by a 1925 news article about a man trapped in a cave and the public attention the event created. Co-writers Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman render an unflattering portrait of capitalistic ambition and mindless consumerism. As is usually the case in Westerns, the environment is itself a character in this noir-Western amalgam. A desolate landscape that would make a good home for rattlesnakes only, the tiny town of Escudero at first would appear the antithesis of the urban jungle film fans might associate with the noir form. Chuck's initial story attracts local interest, and soon greed engenders opportunistic depravity. Though seemingly too small to justify its bus stop, the area mutates into a startlingly chaotic urbanesque scene with strong noir undertones, complete with carnival! Suddenly a 25 cent fee is levied for those who want a closer look at the mountain that encases Leo (eventually that asking price quadruples to $1). A once dead diner now has a cash register that rings. A pop-country song is born ("We're Coming, Leo"), and its sheet music is merchandised. Of course, the song's optimistic title bears little resemblance to the truth. Al Federber (Frank Cady) attempts to use an on-camera moment to plug his insurance business. Money, money, money. The longer Leo remains incapacitated, the greater the economic impact on the area. The condemned working-class man embodies the underprivileged social stratum, destabilized by a ruthless capitalist's pursuit of fame and fortune. The ingenuity of camera placement by Wilder and cinematographer Charles Lang enhances the unshakable sense of claustrophobia that hangs on the sequences captured inside the mountain, but their most unnerving image follows those interior scenes. In one of film noir's most instructive shots, after the carnival leaves town all that remains is a sign that promises proceeds to a dead man. Though it performed well overseas, ACE IN THE HOLE was not a commercial or critical success in the US, perhaps in part due to the cracked mirror it holds before American ambition and its related casualties that play out in the background.

As of this writing, ACE IN THE HOLE remains readily available as part of the Criterion Collection. The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack presents a 2K digital restoration of the film, framed at the correct theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the dual-layered Blu-ray edition. The hefty amount of supplemental material is sufficient to convert anyone into a fan of Billy Wilder, though I suppose anyone willing to invest in Criterion products already is familiar with his work. The audio commentary track by film scholar Neil Sinyard was recorded in 2007. The co-author of JOURNEY DOWN SUNSET BOULEVARD: THE FILMS OF BILLY WILDER (1979), Sinyard is one of the most descriptive of any film scholars I ever have heard. He shows keen awareness of all crucial metaphors, ironies and implications, and also demonstrates strong awareness of the recurring themes and motifs that characterize the Wilder oeuvre. In one of his best insights about the film under review, Sinyard likens the cars that gather before the mountain to those that assemble in front of a drive-in movie screen; the disaster location cheapened to commercial spectacle. Another great observation is the gradual manner in which the term "friend" is devalued over the course of the narrative.

The documentary feature "Portrait of a '60% Perfect Man': Billy Wilder" (Portrait d'un homme 'à 60% parfait': Billy Wilder, 1982, 58m 30s) was directed by Annie Tresgot and Michel Ciment. The French film critic Ciment interviews Wilder in and around the filmmaker's workplace and beachfront residence. Wilder confirms it was the rise of Adolf Hitler that convinced him and many of his compatriots to flee to the US, where he faced uncertainty as a writer deprived of his first language. After he established himself as a screenwriter, he found he preferred directing, which he explains is a lot more fun than the laborious process of screenplay development. ACE IN THE HOLE was his first film for which he also served as producer. After the studio re-titled it THE BIG CARNIVAL and imposed numerous changes, Wilder fought hard to gain as much control as possible over his future projects. Though Wilder is remembered as one of the early directors to shoot on location, he admits location work invariably leads to compromises due to lack of control. He found working within the studio soundstages far more gratifying.

Next up is a condensed Q&A session (23m 39s) at the American Film Institute in 1986, with Wilder reflecting on his career and George Stevens Jr. on hand as moderator. Wilder believes his efficiency as a filmmaker enabled his long-term success in a challenging industry. Executives liked him because he worked within schedules and budgets. In fact, Wilder emphasizes reliability is more important than talent when it comes to directing in Hollywood. Wilder enjoyed a long career because he made commercial films, not esoteric ones. His camera setups always were as economical as he could imagine, since he knew a moving camera loses efficiency in terms of everything else that must move with it. He preferred logical camera positions, from viewpoints where someone might be watching, over elaborate camera work that reminds the viewer of the filmmaking process (and thus removes the viewer from the cinematic experience). Wilder also notes one must be a great collaborator to work in film.

The 1984 interview (14m 18s) with Kirk Douglas is pleasantly informative, both in terms of Wilder as an auteur and Douglas as an actor. ACE IN THE HOLE marked the only collaboration between the two, and it was with regret Douglas turned down the lead in Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953), for which William Holden won an Academy Award. Douglas says he always has been one to want to contribute in some way to the script, but he found it difficult with Wilder, who always seemed to have a superior idea. A proponent of method acting, Douglas worked at a newspaper to prepare for his role as Chuck Tatum.

Other supplements include audio excerpts (1970, 10m 9s) from an interview with Wilder’s co-screenwriter Walter Newman.  ACE IN THE HOLE would prove to be the only working partnership between the two to make it to the finish line, though they discussed other concepts ultimately dropped after many weeks of work. According to Newman, his only disagreement with Wilder in regard with the script for ACE IN THE HOLE was the starting point. Newman felt the story should have begun with Leo's entrapment, and details about Chuck's past could have been inserted into the story later as required. In another brief segment (2007, 5m 40s), New York-based filmmaker Spike Lee recalls his visit with Wilder, whose 1951 film would make a great double bill with A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) according to Lee. Both films reveal the inherent danger of the media, and the disheartening notion that if there is money to be made, it will be made, even if people have to die along the way. A stills gallery assembles production stills and behind-the-scenes photos, and a theatrical trailer (2m 22s) is accessible. The imitation vintage newspaper insert with essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin is a nice touch.

Sunday, November 25, 2018


Paramount Pictures, 100m 1s

This enjoyable murder mystery conceived by Raymond Chandler is primetime film noir, even while it falls somewhat short of its contemporaries in terms of visual style. Unpretentious director George Marshall may not demonstrate much flair for iconic noir compositions, but he displays a great talent for conveying how suddenly people can become irritated with one another, and how quickly a setting of calmness can mutate into a scene of violence. Set in a nation reconfigured during WWII, the characters who occupy this distinctly LA-based landscape know each other's weaknesses and are all too eager to exploit them.

Back from serving in the South Pacific, a trio of veterans disembarks a Hollywood-branded bus and enters the nearest place in sight that dispenses bourbon. The three United States Navy fliers are Lieutenant Commander Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd), George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont) and Buzz Wanchek (William Bendix). Almost instantly, the hot-tempered Buzz takes issue with the upbeat song blasting out of the watering hole's jukebox, and even pushes around the guy (Anthony Caruso) who selected the tune. Without question Buzz is shell-shocked; he has shrapnel lodged in his skull, suffers from memory loss and endures a debilitating headache whenever he hears what he pejoratively deems "monkey music." The scuffle is broken up and the fellow military men share an "it's all good" moment, but the sequence casts an ominous shadow over what should be a day of cheerfulness. "Well, here's to what was," Johnny coldly summarizes.

The ensuing scene is even more intense than the establishing sequence. Johnny drops by unannounced on his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) at her bungalow residence within Cavendish Court in Santa Monica. The porcelain-skinned beauty is busy hosting a lively party, and seems disappointed to receive her returning veteran husband, who has been placed on the inactive list. In attendance is her current romantic interest Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), who owns a local nightclub called The Blue Dahlia. Johnny would like to resume a relationship with his wife, but the more Helen reveals about herself, the more hopeless the situation appears to be. She condescendingly calls Johnny "hero" and tells him their son did not die from diphtheria as she originally had stated. In truth the boy was killed in a car accident caused by his mother's drunken carelessness. Since that event, she has become a witch of a woman who does as she pleases, everyone else be damned. The defeated condition of the married couple is emphasized by the heavy rainfall that commences after Johnny learns the bleak truth about his son's death. Congruent with CONFLICT (1945), SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and many other noir films of this timeframe, the marriage under consideration in THE BLUE DAHLIA is a flower without bloom.

Joyce Harwood (Veronica Lake) is injected as the positive counterpart to the thoroughly contemptible Helen character. Like a little blonde angel from heaven, she scoops up Johnny on a rainy night, and is shown repeatedly in idealized portraits (even the best of noir women seldom can live up to those framed images to which men cling). It is suggested Joyce is on the outs with her husband Eddie because of his tendency toward shady business dealings. When her antithesis Helen is found dead on her davenport, a head-scratcher of a case is born. Helen was such a miserable person, any number of people may have had reason to kill her. A man of few words and a strong moral code, the prime suspect Johnny becomes the film's hard-boiled investigator. Joyce does not view Johnny as the type of man who would knock off his wife, while the police seem less charitable. Thus THE BLUE DAHLIA serves as an early example of the "wrong man" film noir subgenre that would gain traction with titles such as DARK PASSAGE (1947), DESPERATE (1947), HIGH WALL (1947) and THE BIG CLOCK (1948).

As designed by screenwriter Raymond Chandler, THE BLUE DAHLIA is dripping with sordid noir characters, some of whom seem to have slithered out of the gutter amid the drenched city streets. The Scotch-swilling, unfaithful wife Helen probably is less known to noir fans than Chandler's more iconic femme fatale characters who heat up the screen, i.e. Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) from MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) from THE BIG SLEEP (1946). Though when Helen laughs after revealing her young son's tragic cause of death, to conjure up a more reprehensible noir dame would be a challenging matter. In a nice thematic touch, the nighttime rain (cleansing?) has given way to sunshine once her corpse is discovered. Another useless broad is the overly-friendly, drunken blonde (Vera Marshe) in attendance at Helen's party, who does nothing to advance how men might think of her gender.

Not to be outdone by the aforementioned females, there are plenty of deplorable males on hand. The scumbag "Dad" Newell (Will Wright) is an opportunistic bottom feeder and one of the most manipulative of noir lowlifes. The pleasant front desk attendant has the right idea when she brushes him off early in the film. Eddie Harwood may be having an affair, but that is not necessarily why his wife ran away from him. Clearly Eddie has more than his share of baggage. His business partner Leo (Don Costello) serves as Eddie's bookkeeper, but perhaps not his best friend. Leo implies Eddie factored in the murder of a man named Quinlan. One gets the feeling Leo would not be above using that information to his advantage. Similarly, Helen reminds Eddie she could make him pay for his past when he lived on the East Coast under an alternate identity. Supporting characters that seem to have emerged from under a rock include the thugs (Frank Faylen and Walter Sande) who recommend a nearby flophouse after Johnny is turned away from a more respectable establishment. The off-the-beaten-path hotel is managed by Corelli (Howard Freeman), who operates on the same level as the creeps who bring in Johnny. Then there is the more complex case of Buzz Wanchek, who seems to have a problem with everyone, as when he repeatedly disrespects a "copper" for no apparent reason. The post-traumatic stress case's disdain for "monkey music," a term with obviously insensitive connotations, is at odds with his deep affection for the well-being of his friend Johnny. The war has converted Buzz into a divided personality, protective and sweet at times, needlessly aggressive on other occasions. The theme of multiple identities, a frequent noir bullet point, extends to Johnny (Jimmy Moore) and Eddie Harwood (Bauer), who both out of self-preservation assume new identities.

THE BLUE DAHLIA was the first and only produced original screenplay from the noted crime novelist Chandler, a WWI veteran whose experiences in combat no doubt informed his written work. While writing THE BLUE DAHLIA, the well-known hard drinker's creative process surely was sacrificial to his health according to the memoirs of producer John Houseman. Chandler struggled mightily in his attempt to finish his screenplay as the director George Marshall began filming the work in progress. Because Marshall was catching up to Chandler, the writer felt he would have to abandon the studio environment and immerse himself in the bottle at home to finish the script. Though working from home was atypical of the Hollywood process, the plan resulted in the screenplay's completion and Chandler's second Academy Award nomination (the first was for DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944], on which he served as a co-writer). The film's conclusion differs from Chandler's original treatment; according to the author, censors did not like the idea of a veteran being responsible for the murder of Helen. Chandler was not a fan of Marshall, who introduced other changes into the original script.

A faithful adaptation of the written material or not, THE BLUE DAHLIA received positive notices and performed well at the box office, perhaps in part due to its final scene that opposes much of the pessimism that precedes it. Johnny and Joyce, both victims of mates who strayed from them, will be afforded a second chance as the story concludes. Both strong people, the two appear to have a good chance to make a go of it together. After THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942) and THE GLASS KEY (1942), THE BLUE DAHLIA was the third film to feature Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. They would team up once more for SAIGON (1948).

Now available on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc from Shout! Factory as part of their SHOUT SELECT product line, this edition of THE BLUE DAHLIA looks far superior to the Universal DVD rendition issued in 2012 under the Turner Classic Movies Vault Collection stamp. Though the packaging announces framing at 1.33:1, the new scan is framed at 1.36:1, which is a much closer approximation of the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The crispness of this excellent HD transfer compared to the DVD from 2012 is easy enough to appreciate in the following screen captures.

Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Universal DVD

The supplemental material adds considerable value to this Shout! Factory release. The audio commentary track with film historians Alan K. Rode and Steve Mitchell is one of the best recordings I've heard from a preparedness standpoint, even though it never sounds overly rehearsed. Rode is especially good as he challenges some of the myths surrounding the film's colorful history, especially in regard to producer Houseman's perhaps self-serving account of Chandler's screenwriting endeavors that supposedly threatened the production schedule. Rode says Houseman's recollections do not withstand scrutiny very well. For instance, Rode has found no evidence to confirm Marshall ever approached a point in the production when he was running out of screenplay to film. Chandler's claim that he was forced to alter his planned conclusion for his script due to pressure from the U.S. Navy could not be substantiated by Rode either, and the notion that the studio had to rush THE BLUE DAHLIA to completion before its star Alan Ladd had to return to the service makes no sense. There already were multiple Ladd vehicles in the can at the time.

On a rather depressing scale, Rode reveals unflattering details about Veronica Lake, particularly in regard to her questionable professionalism on the set. According to his review of THE BLUE DAHLIA's shooting schedule, her featured scenes required many takes, which suggests the actress was ill at ease with her dialog. Chandler derisively labeled her "Moronica" because he felt she only maintained credibility as an actress through silence. Lake developed a reputation of being difficult to work with, and her later years were accelerated by heavy drug and alcohol abuse. She died of hepatitis at the age of 50 in 1973. Her ashes went unclaimed for three years at a funeral home.

Another welcome bonus feature of this Shout! Factory edition is The Screen Guild Theater's radio broadcast of THE BLUE DAHLIA (28m 27s), which originally aired April 21, 1949, with Ladd and Lake in their original film characters. This greatly condensed version of the film is marred by audio hum, but is understandable for the most part; just be ready to crank the volume. The radio episode’s sponsor Camel motivates the listener to enjoy their smooth brand of healthier cigarettes—quite a hoot to hear today. The remaining supplements include a theatrical trailer (2m 31s) and a very extensive photo gallery (5m).

This healthy Blu-ray disc must be considered one of the year's most important classic film reissues.

Saturday, October 13, 2018


Twentieth Century Fox, 81m 40s

After the conclusion of World War II, the divorce rate increased dramatically in the US. That trend was reflected in the noir films of the time, when characters who found happiness within the bond of the traditional marriage were few. The married couples that inhabit DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), CONFLICT (1945), SCARLET STREET (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) and POSSESSED (1947) do not combine for a strong case that there is a lifelong partner for everyone. The featured protagonists who kick married life to the curb typically meet some type of correction, yet it is understandable why they stray. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) from DOUBLE INDEMNITY might be noir's most destructive femme fatale, but her husband (Tom Powers) is a domineering jerk who does not deserve much better than the scheming blonde he married. And who could blame poor little Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) for wanting out of his hopelessly suffocating situation in SCARLET STREET?

Released toward the end of 1950, when divorces in the US had decreased significantly, THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF reflects an emerging era of American marital stability. In recognition of old battle scars, though, the story opens with the horribly disrupted marriage of the Frazers. Howard (Harlan Warde) plans to kill his rich bitch of a wife Lois (Jane Wyatt), but she puts a pair of bullets in him before he can follow through on the idea. The killing puts an end to "three years of misery" as Lois depicts it. Immediately after the fatal shooting of her husband, Lois leans on her boyfriend Lieutenant Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb) to fix everything, which means getting rid of Howard's punctured corpse and making it look like a robbery gone wrong. Unlike numerous noir protagonists who hesitate before taking a moral detour, Ed shows no such conscience as he springs into action to protect his girlfriend from a probable prison stretch.

Unfortunately for Ed, his younger brother Andy (John Dall) recently has been promoted to the homicide division, where the two will work side by side. The rookie is eager to prove his worth, and what better way than to solve the strange case of a lifeless body discovered at the airport? As Andy gradually closes in on his shady sibling without realizing it, similar dynamics from classic film noirs are recalled, including the archetypal DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944) and especially WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), which was released earlier in the same year as THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF. Other similar setups would follow in SCANDAL SHEET (1952) and SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954). Most Hollywood films endeavor to draw the viewer closer to the lead protagonist as the narrative progresses. But in the case of the film noir, especially the ones of the aforementioned ecosystem, the viewer must detach himself or herself from the lead character. The only satisfaction comes from knowing we are not in that person's lamentable position.

Andy differs from his brother Ed in more ways than his experience as a homicide investigator. Most importantly, the film's first act reveals Andy is about to be married, while Ed is characterized as a confirmed bachelor. The closer Andy becomes with Janet (Lisa Howard), the more he distances himself from his brother. Similarly, the prototypical housewife Janet is the antithesis of the femme fatale Lois, who is working on husband number three at the film's outset (the narrative wraps with Lois headed in still another direction). The wife/whore dichotomy reflects the heavy line drawn between the married man and the uncommitted single man.

Ed may be doomed from the very beginning based upon his choice for a girlfriend; a variety of film noirs make that general point. But on another, perhaps more meaningful level, the production team behind THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF emphasizes Ed's lack of commitment, which is what really seals his fate. Those who know him best regard him as a bit of a player. When Ed meets clandestinely with Lois on a park bench, he admits he has no plans to marry her, and (correctly) has no doubt she someday will leave him. The theme of the uncommitted man as condemned is integrated into the film's title, which nicely summarizes Ed's inflexible position on matrimony. Right after Andy catches his brother in a game-changing lie, the following segment shows Andy with his wife at home, where the contrast between the bachelor and the married guy finds emphasis. Moreover, it is the married woman Janet who inadvertently makes Ed aware he must fulfill some sort of obligation to Lois, which properly ignites the film's final act. Lois is a femme fatale alright, but like so many women of her ilk, she requires a deeply flawed male for her darkest qualities to rise. As long as there are men willing to play along—and for attractive women, there always are—it seems axiomatic to assume Lois never will change. Ed likely will not change either; almost exactly like Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Ed desires the wrong woman even after she betrays him!

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF was the first independent production from Phoenix Films, the company run by Jack M. Warner, son of famous Warner Bros. boss Jack L. Warner. It was written for the screen by Seton I. Miller and Philip MacDonald, based on an original story by Miller. The son of MGM sales executive Felix F. Feist (1884-1936), director Felix E. Feist helmed two of the more riveting noirs of the late 1940s, THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947) and THE THREAT (1949), both released by RKO Radio Pictures. The year after THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF he directed TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY (1951), one of the great couple-on-the-run noirs. Six-time Academy Award nominee Russell Harlan also handled the cinematography for the same year's GUN CRAZY, a top-3 film noir in my estimation. Amidst the San Francisco-based location footage, there is a rooftop chase sequence that anticipates the work of that city's most famous movie detective, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) of the venerable DIRTY HARRY (1971) series. In another location shot, camera work from the back seat of a vehicle announces kinship with GUN CRAZY. The suspenseful concluding sequence filmed at Fort Point is one of the most memorable settings in which any noir film winds down, thanks largely to Harlan's camerawork.

Jane Wyatt won three Emmys for her popular role as Margaret Anderson, the matriarch of the 1950s TV series FATHER KNOWS BEST. Her performance in this film has come to the consternation of some of film noir's dedicated fans. I agree her Lois is not among the most iconic of noir bad girls, but her performance does not bother me at all. It is always a treat to watch the work of Lee J. Cobb, who was just sensational as the despicable yet ultimately sympathetic Juror #3 in 12 ANGRY MEN (1957). John Dall always manages to add something to every production in which he appears, though he remains best remembered for his reluctant criminal in GUN CRAZY.

Flicker Alley's dual-layered Blu-ray/DVD combo release of THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF marks the third collaboration between Flicker Alley and the Film Noir Foundation (the other two being TOO LATE FOR TEARS [1949] and WOMAN ON THE RUN [1950]). Framed at the correct theatrical scope of 1.37:1, the restoration is the result of the combined efforts of the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive. Though undoubtedly the best-looking version of the film on home video to date, the source material looks a bit washed out on occasion, as when Andy drives his new bride around San Fran.

Supplements include the featurette “The Man Who Cheated Himself:  Revisited” (21m 44s), which brings together the thoughts of the director's son Raymond Feist, along with film historians Alan K. Rode, Eddie Muller and Julie Kirgo. Feist explains his father often was handed material that was in some state of distress, and would have to make something out of next to nothing. In the case of THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF, the filmmaker Feist was able to churn out a profitable film on a $300K budget. Kirgo adds that Feist had to complete all location footage in five days, an absurdly brief time period for such a task. Muller mentions the three leads all were playing against type to some degree. He also tells the sad story of supporting actress Lisa Howard, who was married to the film's director at the time of filming (it was their second marriage). Post-Hollywood, Howard would become an influential political and news journalist only to see her career flounder. She was just 39 when she chose to take her own life.

The brief segment “The Man Who Cheated Himself:  The Movie Locations Then and Now” (6m 56s) presents a number of the filming locations as they appear today. For additional San Francisco locations from notable classic films, the viewer is encouraged to visit The only other bonus feature is a restored theatrical trailer (2m 13s,

Within the disc's packaging is an unusually sturdy booklet packed with behind-the-scenes photographs, poster art, original lobby cards, and the writing of Eddie Muller.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

DEADLINE - U.S.A. (1952)

Twentieth Century Fox, 87m 16s

An intriguing newspaper drama with a message about media convergence that remains relevant today, DEADLINE - U.S.A. was written and directed by Richard Brooks, who once freelanced for various newspapers. His original screen story "The Night the World Folded" has its roots in the history of the WORLD, a newspaper once controlled by Joseph Pulitzer. In 1931, Pulitzer's heirs elected to sell the WORLD to Roy W. Howard of the Scripps-Howard chain. The end result was the closure of the WORLD, with its large staff thrown out of work.

The trusted newspaper at the center of DEADLINE - U.S.A. is called THE DAY. It employs 1,500 people and has a readership of almost 300,000. Despite those impressive numbers, THE DAY is living on borrowed time. The revered man who owned and operated it was John Garrison, who passed away 11 years ago. Now his heirs want to sell THE DAY to its major competitor THE STANDARD, a less-distinguished publication that favors yellow journalism and boasts double the circulation. The pending sale infuriates THE DAY's respected managing editor Ed Hutcheson, who obstinately clings to his ethical foundation at a time of fading idealism. According to Hutcheson, the journalism trade, "...may not be the oldest profession, but it's the best."

The competition


In a statement that seems unthinkable today, Hutcheson claims his newspaper has no allegiance to any political party. A true public servant, Hutcheson is a man steadfastly dedicated to his profession. He represents journalism for what it always was intended, not what it has mutated into at inferior news organizations more concerned about profits than public service. After his reporter George Burrows (Warren Stevens) is treated very harshly by thugs, Hutcheson vows to nail Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel), reputed kingpin of the underworld and the man behind the attack that lands Burrows in a hospital bed. Rienzi alertly goes into defense mode, and it becomes clear he will not go down easily. In a thematically crucial sequence, Hutcheson proves he is completely unwilling to play ball with Rienzi, who has grown accustomed to buying off everyone who could become a problem to him. Everyone has an "angle" according to Rienzi, but Hutcheson's undying principles defy that logic.

DEADLINE - U.S.A. is not a film noir in the usual sense of the flawed lead protagonist whose errant choices magnetically attract the hand of fate. The only potential flaw of Hutcheson involves the imbalance of his professional and personal demands. His deadline-oriented professional life persistently trumps his private world; most all of his conversations are interrupted as his chosen trade shadows him 24/7. No wonder he was incompatible in marriage to Nora (Kim Hunter), with whom he would like to make amends. Hardly a man characterized by the dark impulses associated with the classic noir protagonist, he nonetheless is enveloped by a complex noir city that threatens to marginalize his existence. Perhaps there is no proper place for traditional journalism if the majority of urban readers prefer sensational headlines over objective reporting. More to the point, maybe a person need not do anything wrong to be squeezed out of his or her rightful role in society. Hutcheson always seems to make the right choices as a managing editor, but the noirish big city of DEADLINE - U.S.A. makes no allowances for the virtuous. After an impassioned courtroom plea from Hutcheson for the preservation of THE DAY and the healthy competition it provides its rivals, a judge rules in favor of the sale. Despite the imminent demise of THE DAY, the film concludes with a call for the continuity of the press as a public necessity, no matter the cost. To a modern American audience, that message is doomed to fall on mostly skeptical ears in a nation of consolidated news organizations that cater to advertisers, special interests and inflexibly partisan positions.

Some of the characters who populate the urban scene reflect standard film noir sensibilities, especially since rampant alcoholism appears to impact a broad sample of people. The pathetic character Herman Schmidt (Joe De Santis) describes how he sold out his sister (Ann McCrea), who was beaten to death and dumped in a river. Her lifeless body was found in a mink coat, the insignia of the gangster moll. On a related level, Rienzi's thugs are able to impersonate policemen and eliminate a potential witness who, in one of the most gruesome of all noir murders, is flattened when he falls into a printing press! Not the most subtle of imagery when it comes to the film's position on the dark, distinctly urban forces that threaten "an honest, fearless press." When questioned about why he could not differentiate cops from criminals, Frank Allen (Ed Begley) tellingly replies, "In this town?" The greatest danger to the city is embodied by the gangster Rienzi. He says he is in the cement and contracting trades, but in truth he is connected to far more than that. Rienzi is a powerful underworld figure who attempts to influence elections, and he maintains ties to the boxing commission (a sure sign of corruption). Though his poor grammar choices allude to a low level of education, he maintains top-notch advisers within an organization that mimics the structure of a legitimate business machine. More of a cancer to society than ever before, the 1950s-era gangster has progressed markedly since the days of depression-era bootlegging. According to this film, his most resourceful opponent is the free press.

DEADLINE - U.S.A. is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, and is a "classic film noir" according to the packaging. The transfer looks more than serviceable to my perception, with limited artifacts as framed at 1.33:1. It is an obvious must-own for fans of Bogart, but also should be coveted for its distinguished roster of supporting players that includes Kim Hunter, Ed Begley, Paul Stewart and Jim Backus. Ethel Barrymore casts a strong impression in every scene in which she appears, especially during a dramatic courtroom segment. Prior to the production of DEADLINE - U.S.A., cinematographer Milton R. Krasner advanced the film noir movement with an incredibly extensive credit list that includes some of the finest films of the genre, i.e. THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), SCARLET STREET (1945), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), THE SET-UP (1949), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) and NO WAY OUT (1950). Director Brooks makes laudable use of the frame's foreground, middle ground and background to create a consistently convincing illusion of depth that compliments the cinematography nicely.

The audio commentary track belongs to noted film noir historian Eddie Muller, who out of the gate claims in no way shape or form is DEADLINE - U.S.A. representative of the film noir genre. However, he later mentions the film was screened at one of his noir festivals. That contradiction speaks to the difficulty of discussing the film from a genre standpoint. DEADLINE - U.S.A. was released in 1952, when the noir film already was showing evidence of decline. Stylized sets had been replaced by the documentary realism movement that called for location work. I completely understand Muller's viewpoint, though I do think the pervasiveness of distinctly urban problems places the film at least on the borderline of noir territory. The other factor is the presence of Humphrey Bogart, whose watery-looking eyes always look hung-over, on the verge of defeat. His health may have contributed to his appearance and reportedly crude behavior on the set.

The Kino Lorber disc includes trailers for DEADLINE - U.S.A. (2m 45s), THE CAPTIVE CITY (1952, 2m 49s) and SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954, 1m 45s).