Monday, December 28, 2020

STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944)

Republic Pictures, 56m 7s

The lively gothic noir programmer STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT marked the film noir debut of pioneering auteur Anthony Mann, a figurehead of some of the genre's enduring classics, including T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948) and BORDER INCIDENT (1949). Those who appreciate Mann's more recognized efforts should find a lot to like in this Republic Pictures product, which registers keen awareness of director Alfred Hitchcock's galvanizing contribution to the infrastructure of the thriller (especially his REBECCA [1940] and SUSPICION [1941]). In fact the screenplay engineered by Bryant Ford and Paul Gangelin was based on an original story by Philip MacDonald, one of the writers credited for the Hitchcock adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's 1938 novel REBECCA.

During his tour of duty in the South Pacific, Sergeant Johnny Meadows (William Terry) sustains a severe injury to his back. His recuperative power is aided by a secondhand copy of A. E. Housman's A SHROPSHIRE LAD with a hand-written inscription from Rosemary Blake, with whom he establishes a correspondence. She becomes his primary inspiration to return to the states. While Johnny makes his way to a small California coastal town to meet the pen pal love he never has seen, her mother Hilda Blake (Helene Thimig) admires the large painting of Rosemary that rules the family mansion. After Hilda and her browbeaten companion Ivy Miller (Edith Barrett) drink a birthday toast to Rosemary, Dr. Leslie Ross (Virginia Grey) pays a visit to announce her arrival as the new town physician. Hilda is dismissive of Dr. Ross, an attractive, self-reliant woman of integrity. Without basis, Hilda instinctively fears Dr. Ross is jealous of Rosemary's flawless beauty.


Despite a modest runtime that does not quite stretch to an hour, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT manages to cover many genre facets. Crucial noir tropes emerge during a train ride, when the marine vet Johnny spots a copy of A SHROPSHIRE LAD held by a woman in the dining car, who just so happens to be Dr. Ross. In a decision guided by the enigmatic noir force of fate, Dr. Ross takes a seat at the table occupied by Johnny. He senses he has met his true love based upon the book she possesses. His romantic sensibilities are sound, though he is completely mistaken about the woman's identity. Quite overtly, Dr. Ross functions as Rosemary's noir doppelgänger. When both Johnny and Dr. Ross realize they are bound for the same destination, a narrative-jolting derailment hints of the intense dramatics that await at the Blake manor, where an atmosphere of disturbing solemnity is perched on the edge of a precipitous seaside cliff obviously destined to factor in the film's denouement.

Through its monstrous feminine Hilda, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT delves into the depths of a lonely woman's frail psyche. When walking she requires an assistive cane, a device often used to conceptualize an incomplete character in the film noir. A pathetic personality (as opposed to sympathetic), Hilda compensates for her compromised physicality with domineering treatment of others. On the receiving end more than anyone is Ivy, who often finds herself castigated for not living up to Hilda's unreasonable expectations. The grim determinism embodied by the narrative's villainess anticipates the disturbed female minds that cause chaos in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), POSSESSED (1947) and WHIRLPOOL (1949). In her dark obsession with Rosemary's portrait, Hilda might remind the noir enthusiast of Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), the man fascinated by framed perfection in LAURA (1944). There is little doubt LAURA popularized the noir theme of the idealized portrait, though in truth STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT hit theaters a month earlier. Viennese actress Helene Thimig contributes a bravura performance as Hilda, a woman ultimately destroyed by her own creation. Especially in terms of Thimig's role, I have to believe STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT had at least some influence on the Hammer Films production DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (1965), a classic of the hag horror subgenre.


The antithesis of Hilda is of course the genial Dr. Ross, a new breed of woman meant to replace relics like Hilda who have fallen out of touch with changing times. There is a running gag in the film that America is not yet ready to accept the idea of female doctors, the aging matriarch Hilda among those least prepared for such a development. Interestingly Dr. Ross reminds us it was wartime male absence that encouraged women to enter into fields traditionally occupied only by men. That observation reflects a general theme of the noir movement of the 1940s:  there is no going back to the America that existed before the war. Radical change was baked into the wartime recipe.

As of this writing, the main plot summary at IMDb.com effectively ruins STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT for the uninitiated. That is not to suggest any great surprise; I learned long ago the more I avoid plot summaries and reviews prior to seeing a film for the first time, the more likely I am to experience the film as the filmmakers intended. It is never my intention to contribute to that nagging problem on my own blog, but for the sake of analysis I offer the following observations strictly for those who already have watched the film. How interesting that, whether he knows it or not, the credulous Johnny falls for a much older woman through his correspondence with the non-existent Rosemary. Not only that, he admits he may not have recovered were it not for her letters! The considerable age difference between Johnny and Hilda certainly is another factor that contributes to her otherness, though the nature of the correspondence outside of age separation remains problematic. To present oneself to another as something other than one's actual self, to create a persona that exists in writing only, is in itself unconscionable conduct. Another indication of the damaged woman is the revelation Hilda was unable to bare children. In light of the truth about Rosemary, the tour Hilda gives Johnny of her daughter's bedroom is especially creepy. That Rosemary essentially comes to life in the concluding sequence to take down Hilda seems completely appropriate, especially as a variation of the FRANKENSTEIN myth. Ivy's tacit agreement with the creation of Rosemary is another troublesome matter. The reticent servant's waning convictions come too late in the game for her redemption.



STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT is available in a single-layered Blu-ray edition from Olive Films. Framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the presentation is marred by some speckles and scratches but overall reflects very good source material. There is no supplemental material to consider.


Sunday, November 29, 2020

THE NAKED CITY (1948)

Universal Pictures, 98m 44s

The genre-shifting influence of director Jules Dassin's benchmark docudrama THE NAKED CITY cannot be underestimated. Literally every police procedural movie and TV show that followed owes something to this Hellinger Productions creation. From a narrative standpoint, director Anthony Mann marched down a similar path with the prior year's T-MEN (1947), but that film featured the chiaroscuro cinematography of John Alton, known for the sort of high-contrast lighting setups that characterized the noir look of the 1940s. The era's stylistic grit is conspicuously absent from Dassin's film, which favors actual city streets over soundstage setups. The Italian neorealism film movement served as a reference point for THE NAKED CITY more than any American film noir. With the noir film's transition into police procedure comes a discernible faith in authority and large institutions that had been mostly absent from the genre.

The opening narration by producer Mark Hellinger eschews the hopelessness of standard film noir narration typically provided by the doomed protagonist. Instead Hellinger's approach stands as testimony to the authenticity of the production, shot on location in New York City, home to some 8 million. Appropriately for the genre, our story begins at 1:10 AM. On the surface not a lot is going on at that hour, but in NYC something is always happening, and that something is not always good. As less noteworthy events play out, a bitter reality of fast-paced urban life manifests itself. A blonde is killed in her apartment by two men, one of whom kills his accomplice shortly thereafter. After housekeeper Martha Swenson (Virginia Mullen) discovers the lifeless body of Jean Dexter, the investigation of the Manhattan murder mystery is spearheaded by Detective Lieutenant Daniel Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald). His team discovers Dexter was subdued by chloroform before being placed in her bathtub alive, where she drowned. Based on physical evidence, Muldoon correctly deduces two men were involved in the killing of Dexter.




Though THE NAKED CITY is light on the atmospheric film noir visuals of the day, connective tissue to the genre is strengthened by way of familiar themes and motifs. The differentiation of social classes is at the top of the list. Lieutenant Muldoon offers a telling comment about his weekly salary of "fifty bucks.” He struggles to imagine how any person in good conscience could spend that same amount of money during just one night on the town, as he learns a person of interest in the Dexter case did. Obviously the filmmakers are in sympathy with cash-strapped working class people like Muldoon, as well as those who mop floors, sweep up street trash and clean apartments. Dexter's estranged parents Mr. and Mrs. Batory (Grover Burgess and Adelaide Klein) are proud blue collar people who embody a familiar Hollywood formula:  the dignity of being poor. Mrs. Batory laments the fact her daughter was attractive enough to nudge her way into a better life, which ultimately amounted to a fatal mistake:


"Wanting too much. That's why she went wrong. Bright lights and theaters and furs and night clubs. That's why she's dead now."

Indeed Dexter was living the fast life, popping stimulants during the day and sleeping pills at night. The fact that Jean Dexter was not her real name draws from the common noir theme of multiple identities. Her alternate identity speaks to her vain hope of shedding her skin, to leave her simple past behind her. In a reliable film noir trope, Dexter's greed and materialism mark her for death. As her mother laments, such an outcome would not have befallen an average-looking person. Dexter is the femme fatale of this narrative; her looks informed her actions and contributed to her demise. There is testimony Dexter was fired from her job as a model because she routinely turned-on the husbands of the store's customers. The dress shop merchant suspects Dexter only would have dated a wealthy man. She believed money was the key to happiness, which is seldom true in the movies.

The married, professional man of respectability who wrecks his life over Dexter is another multiple-identity case. Dr. Stoneman (House Jameson), also known as Mr. Henderson, lost his ability to think straight after he fell for Dexter. He and Dexter hosted house parties that would coincide with robberies at the residences of their society guests in attendance. In other words, she used him. The other significant man associated with Dexter is perpetual liar Frank Niles (Howard Duff), another proponent of the fast life. A loathsome character, he freely admits he sometimes pimped her out, all while being engaged to Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart), a model acquainted with Dexter.




One of the city's recurring visual motifs is the bridge and the water beneath it. Though the various bridges were constructed to connect traffic from one place to another, one bridge functions in the opposite manner as it traps one of the area's more disposable inhabitants. With policemen in pursuit of him from both sides, Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia) is left with no choice but to climb towering stairs that lead to nowhere. A strong sense of irony informs this climactic segment after Garzah planned to hide in the anonymity of the sprawling urban landscape. Instead he gets into a situation where the police cannot possibly lose him. Garzah's self-entrapment is suggested earlier when Pete Backalis (Walter Burke), a known associate of Garzah, is discovered in the East River by children. His time about to expire, Garzah's final moments take place above the same flowing waters.

Director Jules Dassin prefers tightly-wound drama over action. There is very little action to discuss until almost an hour has passed, but when the drama becomes more eventful, the filmmakers find a tight rhythm. The final police chase in particular influenced many a film noir with its smooth editing and cinematography. Probably in large part due to the film's climactic sequence, Academy Awards were handed out to William H. Daniels for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, and Paul Weatherwax for Best Film Editing. The mostly concrete environs of the noir urban jungle were captured in New York filming locations that featured Essex Street Market, Roosevelt Hospital, Roxy Theater, Times Square, the Whitehall Building and the Williamsburg Bridge. The commercial success of THE NAKED CITY inspired the ABC television series NAKED CITY, a police drama which ran from 1958–1959 and 1960–1963.

Elaborate staircases factor into most every film noir



This welcome new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition contains a new 4K digital restoration by TLEFilms Film Restoration & Preservation Services (Germany), with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. With the original nitrate film negative presumed unrecoverable, the film was restored over a two-year period. The new Blu-ray version is framed at 1.375:1 and displays minimal artifacts. As these screen captures confirm, the restoration displays more information on all sides of the frame compared to the 1.3:1 DVD edition Criterion issued in 2007:

Criterion Blu-ray (2020)

Criterion DVD (2007)

Supplemental material recycled from the Criterion DVD includes an audio commentary track with screenwriter Malvin Daniel Wald recorded in 1996. Originally from Brooklyn, Wald served as the project's principal writer, the creative force who labored on the script for six months before the film was shot during the summer of 1947. An amalgamation of many actual crime cases, THE NAKED CITY became a "worldwide sensation" despite a decidedly unenthusiastic theatrical release from Universal. The studio acted only out of contractual obligation after the death of producer Mark Hellinger, who died from a coronary thrombosis December 21st, 1947 at the age of 44. Apparently studio brass had no idea what Hellinger's team had accomplished.

French critics noted a new genre had been forged: the police documentary. Wald mentions two major elements that made the film unique, the first being the documentary technique from director Henry Hathaway's THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945) applied to New York City, the most heavily populated city in the US. Along with the day-to-day-life approach to filmmaking around the Big Apple, a more modern take on crime investigation was employed. Heretofore cinematic crimes were resolved by private investigators. But as revealed in THE NAKED CITY, the individual has been replaced by a large group of specialists, each bringing his own unique skill set to the methodical investigation. Detectives are assisted by coroners, various lab technicians, photographers, sketch artists and police radio operators in their combined efforts to solve crimes.

The public's acceptance of the film was followed by many narratives based upon factual cases. Wald notes the buddy cop subgenre that emerged on movie theater screens and television programming can be traced back to the commercial triumph of THE NAKED CITY, in which a veteran police lieutenant works alongside his younger equivalent Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor). Interestingly, it is the younger man who first senses a connection between two murders. Wald also lists various examples of the buddy cop television shows that followed his film, including DRAGNET (1951–1959), CAGNEY & LACEY (1981–1988) and MIAMI VICE (1984–1989). Other police story elements popularized by THE NAKED CITY involve tireless legwork on clues, the protracted police chase and the time law enforcement officials must waste with various crackpots who for whatever reason attempt to insert themselves into murder investigations.

According to Wald, at first Academy Award-winning Irish actor Barry Fitzgerald was uninterested in the part of Lieutenant Muldoon. Wald had to persuade him he would be effective in the role. The film's title was borrowed from photographer Arthur "Weegee" Fellig's first book NAKED CITY (1945). Wald insisted on the title in a conversation with producer Hellinger. Another interesting observation from Wald is that Hellinger's narration is directed at the fleeing criminal Garzah in the final act. As Hellinger advises the man responsible for multiple murders, one is reminded of the producer's good terms with known gangsters such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel and Dutch Schultz. For his efforts on THE NAKED CITY, Wald received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story.

Bonus content continues with a very insightful interview (28m 11s) with film scholar Dana Polan from 2006. A professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Polan is the author of numerous books in the field of film studies, including POWER AND PARANOIA: HISTORY, NARRATIVE, AND THE AMERICAN CINEMA, 1940-1950 (Columbia University Press, 1986) and THE BEGINNINGS OF THE U.S. STUDY OF FILM (UC Press, 2007). Polan breaks down THE NAKED CITY in terms of the American man's post-WWII place in a more regimented society. It is no accident the most noir component of the film, the murder of Dexter, transpires in the early going. What remains is the police procedural, which exudes ordered reassurance rather than classic noir chaos and cynicism. The policemen of THE NAKED CITY have a never-ending purpose given the nature of crime. There always will be new crime cases, just as additional paperwork piles up on an office worker's desk or new patients arrive at a hospital. While a man's workday may seem ordinary, he nonetheless should maintain a strong sense of purpose and worth. Along with that notion, it is implied the American worker can possess individuality, even eccentricities, as long as he works within the larger general system.

Also conducted in 2006 was an interview (26m 6s) with architect James Sanders, author of CELLULOID SKYLINE: NEW YORK AND THE MOVIES (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001). At the time of THE NAKED CITY's production, New York's Lower East Side was a mythic place, the birthplace of American culture. The incredible population density visible on the streets was captured around its peak. As televisions were added to American homes, the type of animated street life witnessed in THE NAKED CITY was coming to its conclusion. A strong observation from Sanders is the film's depiction of the huge city as a basically healthy environment. Bad things may happen, but those rarities are resolved swiftly. By the 1970s, police procedural films would make no suggestion that major cities were in good health.

Following a presentation of his splendid crime film RIFIFI (Du rififi chez les hommes, 1955) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2004, Jules Dassin reflected upon his career with Bruce Goldstein moderating (40m 45s). Dassin champions Mark Hellinger as a producer who stuck by his director at a time when studio loyalty was suspect ("blacklist was in the air"). After the premature death of Hellinger, Dassin was disappointed to see Hellinger's final production become the subject of studio interference. Also of interest is a stills gallery (5m 42s) full of posters, production stills and behind-the-scenes photos.

The Criterion packaging includes an essay by Luc Sante and production notes sent from Hellinger to Dassin in 1947 in regard to the final chase sequence.





Sunday, October 25, 2020

NIGHT EDITOR (1946) and DANGER SIGNAL (1945)

NIGHT EDITOR (1946)
Columbia Pictures, 68m

DANGER SIGNAL (1945)
Warner Bros., 78m

I caught up with a pair of noir B films that aired recently on TCM's Noir Alley, hosted by the "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller. Held together by an expansive array of noir staples, the content of each production reflects heightened social anxieties of the post-WWII era. NIGHT EDITOR gives special attention to the destructive power of the femme fatale, whereas DANGER SIGNAL unleashes a dangerously seductive homme fatale figure. Such characters are presented as highly disruptive to the traditional American marriage and suggest a general decline of our most basic values. But like so many otherwise cynical film noirs, each feature concludes on a note of optimism difficult to accept given preceding events.

Based upon a radio program that was active from 1934 through 1948, NIGHT EDITOR is a noir festival crowd pleaser according to Muller, which makes sense given the amount of genre boxes checked. One of many film noirs heavily patterned after DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), this low-rent production from Columbia Pictures was intended to be the first in a series of films that would fail to materialize. Despite the franchise that was not meant to be, director Henry Levin accomplishes more in 68 minutes than most modern filmmakers achieve in 120.

Past and present meld together as NIGHT EDITOR unspools in mostly flashback mode. At the (fictitious) New York Star, Johnny (Coulter Irwin) rolls in after another tiring night of debauchery. During what looks to be a perpetual card game, elder statesman of the newsroom Crane Stewart (Charles D. Brown) seizes the opportunity to recall the story of Police Lieutenant Tony Cochrane (William Gargan), who sowed the seeds of his own ruin when he kicked his family aside in favor of big-league blonde Jill Merrill (Janis Carter in a feisty turn).

To easily differentiate Jill from Tony's plain Jane wife Martha (Jeff Donnell), Jill is introduced via a legs-only shot. As his affair with Jill threatens the health of his home life (Tony constantly snaps at his wife without reason and neglects the needs of his son), Police Captain Lawrence (Harry Shannon) informs Tony he looks like he could use more sleep. Tony realizes enough is enough and attempts to break it off with Jill while parked at a beachfront lovers' lane. The situation between Tony and Jill takes a backseat when another man arrives on the scene with his girlfriend, this man far more prepared to end his relationship than Tony. TCM host Muller believes only a B film could have gotten away with a murder scene of this nature, which not only involves a young woman being bludgeoned to death with a tire iron, but Jill borderline orgasmic with excitement ("I wanna see her Tony, I wanna look at her!"). As the murderer makes his getaway, Tony instinctively attempts to do the right thing (Muller would call this common noir turning point "the break"), but the police lieutenant allows Jill to assume control of the crime scene. She reminds him their presence would be scandalous (they both are married).

Here's to us:  Jill Merrill (Janis Carter) and Tony Cochrane (William Gargan)

Other tenets of noir are stitched together to create a persistent mood of cynicism. Inequalities that keep America divided often support the noir plot structure, and Tony hails from the wrong side of the tracks. He unwisely overreaches for the white-hot socialite Jill and pays the price for not recognizing class distinctions intended to keep their lives separate. In its final act NIGHT EDITOR provides a superb example of the “walking dead man” pioneered in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, later observed in DECOY (1946), RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947), ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948) and perhaps most famously in D.O.A. (1950). Tony survives, but only as a fraction of his former self and a lesson to others, like the young newspaper man Johnny. Tony ceased to exist as the man he was around the time he was forced to investigate a crime scene without revealing he was present while the crime transpired (that sequence likely owes something to THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW [1944]).

The most overtly noir component running wild in NIGHT EDITOR is the treachery of the femme fatale, whose lack of humanity intensifies as the story unfolds. Tony proves he knows Jill all too well when he describes her as someone who must hurt or be hurt. When an opportunistic tramp is fingered for the murder of Elaine Blanchard (Betty Hill), Jill could care less a man will fry in the chair for a crime he did not commit (his only crime was to steal some of the dead woman's personal belongings). Before she attempts to off her ex with an ice pick (probably inspired by SCARLET STREET [1945]), she is shown in an embrace with Elaine's killer (Frank Wilcox). That the killer is a banker might be the noir touch that resonates best today.

Credit for cinematography is shared by Burnett Guffey and Philip Tannura. Guffey should be a name familiar to followers of film noir since he shot some of the most admired genre permutations, including JOHNNY O'CLOCK (1947), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) and THE SNIPER (1952). He also lensed important B-noirs like the one under review, along with MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), TWO OF A KIND (1951) and NIGHTFALL (1956). Tannura probably was responsible for the newsroom footage per Muller. The screenplay written by Harold Jacob Smith sets a scorching pace for this terrific little film noir.

An emotionally riveting drama directed by Robert Florey, DANGER SIGNAL stars Zachary Scott as a devious homme fatale, the counterpart to the femme fatale portrayed by Janis Carter in NIGHT EDITOR. Fresh from his impressive turn as the utterly despicable playboy Monte Beragon in MILDRED PIERCE (1945), Scott would be typecast for the remainder of his career. In his first major role he is matched with the vibrant screen presence of Faye Emerson in the role of a woman pushed to her breaking point by the existential needs of a confirmed scoundrel. Muller explains Warner bought the rights to the 1939 novel of the same title by Phyllis Bottome that same year, but the concerns of the Hays Office kept the adaptation at bay for years. After the success of Alfred Hitchcock's similarly structured SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), Warner decided to get the production off the ground. After the efforts of a great many writers, ultimately the adaptation was scripted by Adele Comandini and C. Graham Baker. Cinematography was handled by James Wong Howe, who fueled American film noir with his subsequent work on NORA PRENTISS (1947), BODY AND SOUL (1947), HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951) and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957).

The opening sequence reveals a lot of information about our lead protagonist in short order. Mrs. Alice Turner lies in eternal slumber while Ronnie Mason (Zachary Scott) removes her wedding ring and a fistful of her cash. In the interest of not being seen, he drops out of the room's window, which leaves him with a leg injury to lie about later. The limping man would become a familiar noir fixture, a suggestion of masculinity somehow compromised in ACT OF VIOLENCE (1949), THE HITCH-HIKER (1953) and STORM FEAR (1955). Ronnie seeks shelter in Los Angeles, where he is able to leverage his injury at the family home shared by Hilda Fenchurch (Faye Emerson) and her mother (Mary Servoss). He explains the bum leg as a direct result of time spent in the South Pacific while he assumes a new identity (another frequent component of the film noir). Additional untruths pile up quickly as Ronnie explains he cannot pay rent as an unpublished writer in search of his first payday (the accurate part of his story does not remain true for long). He engineers a swift courtship of Hilda, who receives the ring acquired from the departed Alice Turner. He has the nerve to tell Hilda the ring belonged to his grandmother! Ronnie's relationship with Hilda fades into discord after he meets her younger sister Anne (Mona Freeman), whose father left her a healthy $25K dowry. Gradually the reality of what is going on under the Fenchurch roof becomes apparent to Hilda, who must confront the darkest depths of her capabilities as she weighs her options.

Date night:  Hilda Fenchurch (Faye Emerson) and Ronnie Mason (Zachary Scott)

The "woman in peril" noir subgenre revolves around the plight of female protagonists with offerings such as NOTORIOUS (1946), SORRY WRONG NUMBER (1948), WHIRLPOOL (1949), WOMAN IN HIDING (1950), CAUSE FOR ALARM! (1951) and SUDDEN FEAR (1952). The featured women in these titles are not necessarily equally sympathetic, but all earn the viewer's support as we root for them to extricate themselves from some of the most unenviable predicaments imaginable. DANGER SIGNAL's Hilda is an affable working girl as played by Emerson. Her nicely chiseled countenance is especially appealing when bespectacled; no wonder Dr. Andrew Lang (Bruce Bennett) struggles to get his words out when standing in front of her. But after falling for the wrong man, the public stenographer Hilda proves even the unassuming girl-next-door type might possess the temerity to plot murder (she swipes a botulinum toxin sample from a lab and plans to feed it to Ronnie, a meal he richly deserves). Women may be susceptible to the fast-talking charms of men like Ronnie, but ultimately end up with more stable, if less exciting, men like Andrew.

Ronnie's shabby treatment of the opposite sex is rooted in his immediate family's history. He blames his mother for ruining his father, who chose to end his life after he lost everything. Now Ronnie is out to exact revenge on the gender he abhors. He is the sort of subject studied by Dr. Jane Silla (Rosemary DeCamp), who specializes in "morbid psychology." Ronnie sets the table for his own demise with a rigid pattern of behavior highly unlikely to work in his favor forever. To put that notion in simplified noir terminology, Ronnie's sordid past defines his present and deletes his future. The film's opening segment finds its echo when Ronnie, playing the part of frustrated writer of fiction, asks Hilda to write a suicide note. The homme fatale's lack of imagination, his overreliance on past deceptions, paves the way for his elimination.

In the early going it is implied the police force will not be a factor in Ronnie's comeuppance. After Thomas Turner (John Ridgely) loses his unfaithful wife in the introductory segment, he is informed by the police that he will need to find additional evidence to reopen the case. Law enforcement officials are satisfied with the suicide explanation, despite the widower's insistence the official cause of death was highly unlikely. Therein lies the noir notion that policemen are ineffective when it comes to catching seriously dangerous criminals like the cheap 28-year-old conman Ronnie.

DANGER SIGNAL was a financial success for Warner Bros. with a global take north of $1 million. In his afterword, Muller notes Hilda successfully poisons Ronnie in Bottome's source material. Of course such a conclusion was prohibited by the Production Code, the other consideration was actress Faye Emerson's engagement to Brigadier General Elliott Roosevelt and eventual status as daughter-in-law of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For the part of Anne Fenchurch, Mona Freeman replaced Ann Blyth (Veda from MILDRED PIERCE), who had injured her back while tobogganing.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

BRUTE FORCE (1947)

Universal Pictures, 100m 49s


"Don't be discouraged, warden. It's a rule in all the best stories:  everybody always lives happily ever after."
—Doctor Walters

By the definition rendered above, BRUTE FORCE does not qualify as one of the best stories, though there is little doubt it is one of the cinema's more important stories. In today's world of heightened civil unrest, this incendiary film noir may be more relevant today than it was at the time of its original theatrical run. Filmed primarily on Universal Studios sound stages, BRUTE FORCE is a stunningly well-executed cross-genre film, the noir film tightly shackled to the prison film.

A vast assortment of time-honored prison movie tropes populate Westgate Penitentiary:  inmates who seem like basically good men, the mild-mannered prisoner who has made peace with himself regarding his life stretch, the intellectual who thinks he is about to be paroled, the highest level of leadership that only wants results, the tough screw who enjoys his work far too much. Then there is the daily routine of the prisoner's existence, composed of regimented roll calls, a single-file line in the cafeteria, where a serving ladle distributes questionable-looking sustenance, the hospital, where prisoners recover from unjust treatment, the obligatory visitor segment, movie night (in this case the Universal product THE EGG AND I [1947]), the machine workshop, where tedious labor is performed and orchestrated violence sometimes plays out, mind-numbing solitary confinement and the inevitable escape plan. The noir narrative often is pinned to some form of entrapment, so a marriage of ideas with the prison film commands obvious prospects. As the narrative progresses, the isle of detention is engulfed by swirling noir currents.

The opening credits are battered by heavy rainfall that accurately forecasts the story's gloomy trajectory. Along the way, convict Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) harbors personal reasons for planning an early departure from the confines of cell R17, but it will not be easy given the entrenched system that stands in his way. This prison's power structure echoes imperishable truths about long-term social concerns that remain unresolved today. When not focused on the claustrophobic environments dominated by prisoners, BRUTE FORCE accesses the warden's office, where the prison's role in social reform is debated. Within this setting the carefully marked out social context of the film is at its most perceptive. Under the assumption that prisons are an ugly necessity, how exactly might these institutions best function? The administration of Westgate Penitentiary is riddled with financial pressures, pesky calls from the press, an overcrowded inmate population (double what the prison was designed to hold), and above all else, competing thought processes in regard to prisoner management. Warden A.J. Barnes (Roman Bohnen), a man with a foam-rubber spine, allows himself to be pushed around by McCallum (Richard Gaines) and Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), who both see the prison as a house of dehumanizing punishment. Dr. Walters (Art Smith) is the humanitarian, but a man not built to fight a sustained battle against entrenched power. In a key sequence that isolates the arrogant Munsey with Walters, the doctor suggests Munsey is addicted to power, a vice no better or worse than any other. The exchange between the two men communicates the film's major theme, one that cements the film forever on noir ground:  kindness and decency are concepts primed for retirement, like the aging alcoholic doctor, while the cruel philosophies embodied by the younger man Munsey have gained traction. Any argument for rehabilitation over discipline loses momentum when Munsey proves himself the stronger of the two, which results in Walters driven to the office floor, his liberal ambitions with him. One wonders whether Walters possesses the intestinal fortitude to follow through on his convictions. The awkward introductory sequence with Walters provides a clue:  as Joe returns from a 10-day stay in solitary, Walters tells Joe he "meant" to visit him.



Munsey's arm separates the men under his influence from Collins

The known Munsey operative Wilson (James O'Rear) faces extinction

Burt Lancaster may have been top-billed, but this timeless film noir was constructed around Hume Cronyn's unforgettable portrayal of Captain Munsey. Listed at 5' 6" at IMDb.com, the diminutive figure Cronyn (especially when standing next to Lancaster) would seem an unlikely candidate to play the part of Westgate Penitentiary's most dangerous man (no prisoner comes close), but he proves himself ideal for the role. There is a Napoleonic lesson in there:  the seemingly unthreatening man sometimes possesses incredible strength of purpose. Though slight from a physicality standpoint, Munsey's fascist agenda is the stuff of nightmares. He is a monster who does not look monstrous, a forerunner of Norman Bates and the many unstable minds that would dominate the revisionist horror film output of the 1960s. An unapologetic advocate of Social Darwinism, Munsey not only is the brute of the movie's title, he preys upon the weaknesses of the prisoners from a psychological angle. The two tactics are intertwined closely; Munsey's aggressive mind games with the inmates allow him to unleash his sadistic side when he feels so inclined. Neither approach allows the prisoners to gain any ground. Mental torture leads to the suicide of Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), one of the most innocuous fellows doing time, later Munsey's physical abuse badly injures Louie Miller (Sam Levene, beaten to death in the same year's CROSSFIRE). The interrogation of Louie reveals Munsey at his most appalling; one of the guards leaves the adjacent room in disgust when Louie is beaten with a piece of rubber hose while Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser" plays in the background. Wagner was one of Adolf Hitler's favorite composers, and references to der Führer do not end there. The drain pipe project, where at least one prisoner (a 62-year-old!) is worked to death, provides an overt reference to forced labor in Nazi concentration camps. Not surprisingly, Munsey seems particularly fond of sentencing prisoners to drain pipe drudgery, a punishment he reserves for members of the prison community who refuse to play ball. Whether the drain pipe ever will be completed or have any practical functionality is left an open issue.




When Munsey condemns all of cell R17 to the drain pipe, his demeanor seems oddly emotional, like a jilted lover lashing out at someone he realizes he has lost. Earlier there is a striking homoerotic connotation to the evil embodied by Munsey when he visits Tom, alone in his cell at the time, later in Munsey's office, where he lowers the shades before his violent interrogation of Louie. The latter sequence anticipates the questionable behavior of Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), the hotheaded cop from director Nicholas Ray's ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951). When Wilson interrogates suspect Bernie Tucker (Richard Irving), Wilson's words emphasize a sexual subtext ("Alright Bernie, we're alone now."). The film noir commonly equates homosexuality with perverse evil, as can be witnessed in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), BLACK ANGEL (1946), GILDA (1946), THE BIG CLOCK (1948) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). In terms of narrative function, typically such characters either are discarded or undergo some type of miraculous change that certifies their ability to re-enter society.

Munsey's power-hungry tactics are proven untenable when he fails to extract information from Louie and thus badly misunderstands his mounting prisoner problem. So confident is Munsey in his methods, he does not have the capacity to consider the notion another will might be stronger than his. Interestingly, the chaotic nightmare of the Collins-driven breakout attempt coincides with Munsey's ascension to the rank of warden. At this juncture social turmoil threatens to consume the entire prison population by way of bullets and fire (for those who like to look for recurring film noir motifs, the prison riot features one of the genre's many dangerous staircases). BRUTE FORCE concludes on a pessimistic note of unvarnished truth with Walters framed behind bars, still as much a prisoner as anyone at Westgate, perhaps more so. Munsey may have been defeated, his methods ultimately as self-destructive as self-serving, but we are left to anticipate his inevitable replacement.





"Nobody ever really escapes."

The characterization of women is worth examination in most any film noir, even one that presents its females in brief flashbacks that convey how they relate to the men with whom they are connected. Flashbacks often are employed to add a sense of style to the noir film, though here that trope manifests itself out of practicality. The imprisoned men not only are physically confined to their cells, they are locked in sexual prisons as well. All that the guys in cell R17 have for female companionship is a Christmas calendar pinup girl, which provides the sort of contained feminine image that fuels the fantasies of the male characters in an assortment of film noirs. As the cellmates describe for the uninitiated, the portrait under consideration here represents any imaginable example of the gender, frustratingly unavailable to the incarcerated man. That the pinup girl resembles a woman carefully laid to rest probably was no accident. The male protagonists of the film noir make a habit of becoming obsessed with a woman somehow completely out of reach, her likeness often memorialized in art form. That dynamic is crucial to formative film noirs such as LAURA (1944), MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944) and SCARLET STREET (1945).

Female archetypes are grounded in the most misogynistic of film noir assumptions. In other words, all of the female characters come with heavy baggage of some kind. Two of the women are nothing beyond greedy femme fatales. Flossie (Anita Colby) is the tigress who latches onto Spencer (John Hoyt). She uses his own gun to rob him before speeding off in his vehicle. Now in prison, Spencer actually remembers her fondly! Even a memory like that can be sentimentalized when a man is left without options. The material desires of Cora Lister (Ella Raines) convert her ostensibly decent, caring husband Tom into a convicted embezzler. Gina Ferrara (Yvonne De Carlo) factors in the decline of Robert Becker (Howard Duff), who cannot get out of his own way after protecting her from a probable murder charge (of her own father!). Joe's girl Ruth (Ann Blyth) is a cancer patient confined to a wheelchair, easily the least scandalous of the film's "women on the 'outside'" as they are tagged, but she is weak physically and requires financial support. The invalid also refuses to undergo a surgical procedure without Joe near her, which essentially guarantees his ill-fated escape attempt. On one level or another, all the men who reflect on civilian-life relationships perish in prison thanks at least in part to their undying dedication to the fair sex.

The pre-production development of BRUTE FORCE found inspiration in the Battle of Alcatraz (May 2—4, 1946), when armed inmates failed in their attempt to escape from The Rock. The project was directed with vigor by Jules Dassin, who vividly depicts action sequences, especially those steeped in brutality. Even today, his film can be shockingly tough viewing (the steam hammer killing in particular is one hell of a set piece). A more subtly effective sequence involves the juxtaposition of the warden's speech and an inmate's suicide. Dassin would become one of the central filmmakers during the classic film noir movement, with subsequent contributions to the genre that included THE NAKED CITY (1948), THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949) and quite possibly his finest effort NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), a towering achievement in film noir anchored by the performance of the great Richard Widmark. The director relocated to France in 1953, where he made RIFIFI (Du rififi chez les hommes, 1955), a legitimate candidate for greatest heist film of all time.

Independent producer Mark Hellinger had established himself as a New York theater critic, the sort of journalist who would belly up to the bar each day. A syndicated columnist featured in William Randolph Hearst newspapers, Hellinger was on friendly terms with guys like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. Hellinger's considerable writing skills led to projects in Hollywood, where he would emerge as an associate producer of trailblazing noir films for Warner Brothers such as THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940) and HIGH SIERRA (1941). Later he would produce THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947) for Warner. Hellinger would jump ship to Universal Pictures, where his Mark Hellinger Productions served up THE KILLERS (1946) before BRUTE FORCE. Hellinger Productions brought us THE NAKED CITY (1948), released after Hellinger's death December 21, 1947. He was only 44. BRUTE FORCE screenwriter Richard Brooks also wrote THE PRODUCER, a novel based on the life of Hellinger. Worthy of special mention are some of the cast members. Charles Bickford is perfect as Gallagher, the aging convict rightly disappointed with the porous terms of his parole application. Sir Lancelot, so memorable in director Jacques Tourneur's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), truly adds something as "Calypso" James. Jeff Corey is well-cast as Stack, who plans to hide out in the anonymous noir city after his escape from Westgate. He does not get that opportunity; when Stack is used as a human shield during the breakout attempt, one wonders if MAD MAX 2 director George Miller is a BRUTE FORCE admirer. Also look for noir icon Charles McGraw, who shows up in an uncredited role as a mechanic. Jack Overman, who portrays Kid Coy, died at the age of 32 from a coronary occlusion. The Christmas calendar girl was painted by John Decker, noted for the paintings so integral to Fritz Lang's SCARLET STREET (1945).

BRUTE FORCE has been reissued as part of the Criterion Collection's dual-layered Blu-ray offerings, with a new 4K digital restoration by TLEFilms Film Restoration & Preservation Services and uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The new presentation includes an introductory segment that describes the demanding restoration process, which involved two years of restorative work from 13 separate film elements. Unlike the Criterion DVD released in 2007, this restored version maintains the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Looking at the two versions side by side, it appears the DVD compromised the integrity of the original element to get to 1.33:1.



Criterion Blu-ray (2020)

Criterion DVD (2007)

The only new supplement is an episode from The Criterion Channel. In "BRUTE FORCE: The Actor’s Tool Kit" (OBSERVATIONS ON FILM ART NO. 12, 2017, 13m 7s), film scholar David Bordwell explores the acting styles at work in the feature film. Though an actor's ability to emote with the eyes, eyebrows and hands might sound like elementary information, what is less obvious is how all of the other production tools available to filmmakers combine with the actor to create meaning. Bordwell cites the importance of blocking and camera position in an intense sequence between Captain Munsey and Dr. Walters. The result is not realistic in that people are unlikely to communicate in that manner, but when Walters leans in on Munsey, the takeaway is what matters most:  Walters is dead-on about what motivates Munsey.

Culled from Criterion's 2007 DVD version is the assiduous audio commentary recording from noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini. Their commentary is predicated on the sound logic that film noir evolved from a leftist ideology. As a metaphor for the "creeping fascism" that was a concern in post-WWII America, BRUTE FORCE is precisely the type of film that got filmmakers in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee. By the 1950s, many associated with noir productions of the 1940s were unavailable due to blacklisting (i.e. actors Roman Bohnen, Art Smith). Noir endured, but mutated into something new in its transition to the docudrama approach that favored naturalism to the more expressionistic look of the classic era (roughly 1944—1950). Silver explains Dassin frames actors to illustrate how they relate to one another. Sometimes characters are on equal ground, sometimes one has an advantage over another. The author sees Lancaster in the "defeated posture" that recalls his turns in THE KILLERS and CRISS CROSS (1949). Ursini describes Mark Hellinger as a very hands-on producer and a great negotiator; he had to be to get the machine shop murder through the film censors. Cinematographer William H. Daniels, Greta Garbo's preferred DOP, was lured out of semi-retirement for this production. At the time Daniels was not known for noir, but MGM epics. According to Ursini, much of Lancaster's acting style is rooted in the techniques of the silent era; indeed his dialog throughout the film is minimal. Sometimes his character is trapped in situations in which speaking is not an option.

Other material harvested from Criterion's 2007 release include a 2006 interview (15m 55s) with Paul Mason, editor of CAPTURED BY THE MEDIA: PRISON DISCOURSE IN POPULAR CULTURE. Despite the obvious restrictions of the genre, Mason does not consider BRUTE FORCE a typical prison film. The identification of inmates by names versus numbers in the early going sets the tone. There does not appear to be a clear need for a prison based on its population; not one inmate is presented who clearly needs to be there. Mason opines that those who do not take prisons as a given are viewed as extremists. The theatrical trailer (2m 14s) seems to market a more exploitative film, while a stills gallery (3m 56s) neatly assembles production stills, posters and behind-the-scenes photos. The hefty booklet includes the insightful essay "Screws and Proles" from film critic and novelist Michael Atkinson, who delves into the sociological exposition of film noir, "The lower-middle-class civilian has no genuine antagonist outside of the system, the prerigged establishment designed to either exploit, enslave, or exile him. The American dream as such is a tissue of propaganda, a lie invented for crowd control...Noir is Yankee socialism, textualized for the masses." Also within the booklet's pages are a profile of producer Mark Hellinger that originally appeared in the SATURDAY EVENING POST ("The Softest Touch in Hollywood" by Pete Martin, June 28, 1947) and correspondence between Hellinger and Production Code administrator Joseph Breen. If Hellinger had his way, BRUTE FORCE would have been even more brutal.