Sunday, August 19, 2018

CONFLICT (1945) and ESCAPE IN THE FOG (1945)

Warner Bros., 86m
Format: 35mm

Columbia Pictures Corporation, 65m
Format: 35mm

Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 17th, 2018 to Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

Host Eddie Muller introduced CONFLICT and ESCAPE IN THE FOG yesterday afternoon to kick off the weekend of film noir titles at NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2018. This year's theme is the reinstatement of the double feature, which means a proper A title is followed by a B selection.

Filmed in 1943, though released theatrically in June of 1945 due to an original story rights dispute, the formative film noir CONFLICT falls somewhere between the genre's emergence and its classic cycle. In what would soon become a noir cliché (if it had not already), the opening credits are accompanied by rainfall. Five years of marriage have taken a toll on Richard Mason (Humphrey Bogart) and Kathryn Mason (Rose Hobart), who bicker in the opening segment. Kathryn accuses her husband of having a thing for her attractive younger sister Evelyn Turner (Alexis Smith), and Richard quickly agrees! After an evening hosted by family friend Dr. Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet), a talkative headshrinker, Richard gets into a car accident with both sisters aboard. The women fare better than Richard, who is left with a leg fracture after a surreal dream sequence fertilizes his darkest impulses.

Marital discord strikes a sour note in some of the most famous of film noirs, such as DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and SCARLET STREET (1945), to name just several. The presence of the crippled man—Richard in this case—is an important interrelated motif. Wheelchairs, canes and crutches assist such men who cannot or will not find a healthy release for sexual energy. The car crash coincides with a trip inside Richard's warped mind and marks a major turning point with no way back. His internal conflicts become externalized, and the wife he no longer loves will not be in the way much longer, or so he thinks.

The application of psychoanalysis would become a fixture of 1940s Hollywood cinema, and was particularly prevalent in the noir production, with its focus so often on the mental anguish of its lead protagonist. CONFLICT was among the first noir narratives to exploit the theme, followed by many others such as THE DARK MIRROR (1946), SHOCK (1946), NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) and THE DARK PAST (1948). Richard plans the murder of his wife cleverly enough to avoid prosecution through traditional police investigation work, but psychology is used to disorient him, to make an already unstable personality increasingly more brittle. In yet another theme that would work its way into various film noirs, Richard is forced to question whether his wife is really dead or if he is going insane. Such confusion between the living and the dead is associated more commonly with the horror film, in many ways the noir film's closest cousin. In its resolution, CONFLICT sounds the alarm for the union of police procedure with psychoanalysis.

Director Curtis Bernhardt would add to his film noir credentials with POSSESSED (1947) and HIGH WALL (1947). Cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad had shot THE UNKNOWN (1927), a fantastic silent horror film. The screenplay was written by Arthur T. Horman and Dwight Taylor. Source material is credited to the original story THE PENTACLE by Robert Siodmak and Alfred Neumann. Humphrey Bogart would return to similar grounds in THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947), where he again would portray a man who prefers the Alexis Smith character over his wife.

CONFLICT is available on DVD via Warner Archive and should be added to all film noir collections.

The B portion of the double feature was ESCAPE IN THE FOG, released the same year as CONFLICT, but without the heavy dose of film noir themes and motifs to be found in its A partner. The bottom half of the double feature is a forgettable espionage thriller, with too many improbabilities for its own good. It is mainly notable for being an early directorial effort from Budd Boetticher (credited here as Oscar Boetticher Jr.). Boetticher would helm a couple of proper noirs in the future:  BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948) and THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956). By his own admission, ESCAPE IN THE FOG is evidence of a filmmaker learning his trade on the job.

As our host Muller pointed out, screenwriter Aubrey Wisberg had a knack for grinding out wartime B scripts, with credits that include THEY CAME TO BLOW UP AMERICA (1943), U-BOAT PRISONER (1944) and BETRAYAL FROM THE EAST (1945). Lead actress Nina Foch would grace us with her presence in some of the better film noirs of the decade:  MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), JOHNNY O'CLOCK (1947) and THE DARK PAST (1948). Top-billed Otto Kruger (SABOTEUR [1942]) has precious little screen time. Shelley Winters jumps out at the viewer in an early uncredited role as a cab driver.

ESCAPE IN THE FOG is available on DVD from Sony Pictures.

Saturday, August 11, 2018


Paramount Pictures, 97m 12s

Undoubtedly one of the great film noir title treatments, I WALK ALONE denounces unchecked capitalism in a decadent post-WWII society. Cruel selfishness as the essence of successful American business is the overriding theme of this historically significant if somewhat routine genre entry, released within the classic stage of the noir movement (1944-1950). It features Burt Lancaster, who already had earned his noir street cred with THE KILLERS (1946), BRUTE FORCE (1947) and DESERT FURY (1947).

A free man in New York City after 14 years of exclusion from law-abiding folks, the embittered, short-tempered Frankie Madison (Lancaster) looks to reinsert himself into his only familiar equation. He boldly heads to the Regent Club, where his old bootlegging buddy Noll "Dink" Turner (Kirk Douglas) has prospered since Frankie's prison stretch. Noll never bothered to visit his whiskey-running partner while Frankie took the rap for a killing in which they both factored, but Frankie nonetheless fully expects Noll to honor a handshake agreement the two made. As the film’s title foretells, Noll's recollection of the spirit of the agreement differs from that of Frankie, whose temerity will be squashed.

Like BODY AND SOUL (1947), FORCE OF EVIL (1948), NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950) and many other examples of noir, I WALK ALONE adopts a Marxist view of capitalism that reflects ideological anxieties of the day, as well as the looming presence of The House Committee on Un-American Activities. If the Noll character provides any indication, the dirtier the American businessman operates, the greater his potential reward. He turns on everyone sooner or later and acts only in the interest of maintaining his lofty position in the Regent Club's organizational structure, which gradually is revealed to be quite intricate. The relative simplicity of an illegal depression-era bootlegging business has been replaced by a night club operation's various levels of management and ownership, none of which can be deciphered easily. As explained by the browbeaten accountant Dave (Wendell Corey), the Regent Club was chopped up between multiple corporations, with a board of directors that would have to approve the new deal Frankie seeks. In other words, even if he so desired, Noll could not give half of the club's business to Frankie. It seems the legitimate business world has become more corrupt and prone to backstabbing than the age of prohibition ever was. It is a place where a reprehensible man like Noll can thrive despite (or, it is inferred, because of) a sordid past riddled with betrayals. His air of haughtiness is well illustrated by the button under his desk used to covertly summon assistance whenever necessary. Who but a megalomaniac would keep such a device at his disposal?

The difference between the gangster film of the 1930s and the noir film of the 1940s is evident when Frankie foolishly attempts to use prohibition-era bravado to capture “his” portion of the club. The deliberately convoluted nature of business finds perfect positioning in the urban jungle of film noir, where the average person often feels unfairly excluded. "The old days are gone, and you're gone with them," a humiliated Frankie is told. Fists clenched in existential frustration, he throws what amounts to a temper tantrum when confronted with the confusing reality of the night club's ownership. Frankie's hopes are deflated like a week-old birthday balloon, as he learns the hard way the business world is a playground that shuns certain children. The theme of the alienated protagonist, who finds no dignified path to follow in a land of social inequality, provides the backbone for a large assortment of film noirs. That recurring message is reinforced in I WALK ALONE when Frankie is beaten severely for his attempt to move in on what he understandably believes to be his rightful piece of the action.

"You're hurting me."
"And you love it."

The source material for I WALK ALONE is the play BEGGARS ARE COMING TO TOWN written by Theodore Reeves. Producer Hal B. Wallis (LITTLE CAESAR [1931], CASABLANCA [1942]) acquired the film rights before the play opened on Broadway in the autumn of 1945. The adaptation was written for the screen by Charles Schnee, the screenwriter behind the quintessential noir THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948). Schnee worked from a treatment derived by Robert Smith and John Bright. The directorial debut of Byron Haskin, I WALK ALONE does not serve up as crisp a narrative as similarly structured noirs like KISS OF DEATH (1947) or RAW DEAL (1948). Nonetheless, the simple plot mechanics are built to last, and the credits boast a murderers' row of dependable names instantly familiar to film noir followers. Any seasoned cinema fan knows better than to trust a character portrayed by Kirk Douglas, who so often plays the bad apple, as he did here in his fourth screen role. I WALK ALONE was the first of seven films that teamed Douglas and Lancaster. The two make for an interesting combination in their first pairing, and contributions from Wendell Corey, Marc Lawrence and the big dog Mike Mazurki are easy to appreciate. Lizabeth Scott for whatever reason appears a bit lost at times as Kay Lawrence. Too often, Liz resorts to her deer-in-the-headlights look, and her unconvincing lip sync of "Don't Call It Love" (performed by Trudy Stevens) hardly helps matters. In the following years, she would rebound with some of her finest work in PITFALL (1948) and TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949), the latter also helmed by Haskin. I WALK ALONE was a commercial success and inspired a 60-minute radio adaptation by Lux Radio Theater on May 24th, 1948, with Lancaster and Scott on board.

Brand new to the domestic home video scene, I WALK ALONE recently has been made available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The single-layered disc features a new HD Master from a 4K scan of the 35mm safety dupe negative held by Paramount Pictures Archive. The film is framed at the correct theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, though the packaging claims an incorrect 1.33:1. Grain level is palpable, perhaps a little too much of a good thing, but that does not diminish the cinematography effort of Leo Tover, the director of photography behind two other film noirs released in 1947:  DEAD RECKONING and THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH.

The newly recorded audio commentary track features film historian Troy Howarth, a specialist in the Eurohorror field, with numerous books to his credit on the subject. Some of his other recent commentary tracks include THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971), WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? (1974), THE PAJAMA GIRL CASE (1977) and ZOMBIE (1979), but in no way is that meant to suggest he is out of his element here. A voice of contagious enthusiasm, Howarth frames his discussion of I WALK ALONE well within the generally accepted body of film noir knowledge. He effortlessly glides back and forth between insightful play-by-play, historical footnotes, and cast and crew filmographies. Obviously a tremendous amount of research goes into a 97-minute commentary, but it does not seem like work to Howarth, who makes it sound like a pleasant conversation. Classic film fans are sure to side with his fondness for the studio system era and its many hallmarks that have vanished (most actors smoke, wear sophisticated attire and navigate attentively detailed sets). Lots of care went into making every person and every thing look as good as possible. Some of his best points revolve around the Frankie character's challenge to the Production Code. Frankie is not an innocent man who was imprisoned, yet is presented in sympathetic, borderline heroic capacity. Thus I WALK ALONE is a film noir laced with more optimism than the genre tends to grant, especially at this stage of its development. After the lead protagonist deals with significant adversity, the denouement salutes his rugged individualism.

In his tangential review of the "wrong man" film noir subgenre, Howarth draws a connection with the Alfred Hitchcock oeuvre, and cites I CONFESS (1953) and THE WRONG MAN (1956) as straggler instances of Hitchcockian noir. After a minor buildup, it comes as a bit of a surprise Howarth does not recognize Hitchcock as a major contributor to the noir category, despite overtly noir Hitchcock products he does not mention, namely SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), NOTORIOUS (1946) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). Those three films represent some of the most satisfying storylines Hitchcock ever committed to celluloid, as well as some of the most complete cinematic achievements film noir has to offer. The remaining supplemental material is limited to an assortment of trailers.

Despite its absence until recently on physical media, I WALK ALONE had its influence on a couple of crime film parodies released in the 1980s. Via editing, the Kirk Douglas character "meets" Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) in DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID (1982). Along with FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975), I WALK ALONE is another film that obviously was perused before the writing of THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! (1988).