Universal Pictures, 79m 14s
THE LADY GAMBLES (1949)
Universal Pictures, 99m 1s
THE SLEEPING CITY (1950)
Universal Pictures, 85m 50s
Kino Lorber has issued a trio of obscure but credible docudrama film noirs under the KL Studio Classics label. The boxed set has been branded FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA III and is comprised of Universal International Pictures productions exclusively, all new to domestic Blu-ray. Each story navigates sensational social problems of its time while the individual presentations boast solid source material, with scratches that are barely evident when the films are in motion. What's more, each disc offers a fresh commentary track for those eager to level-up their noir knowledge.
The unpleasant social subject of ABANDONED involves black market adoptions in the Los Angeles area, with a warning from the narrator that such activity well might infiltrate any American city. Paula Considine (Gale Storm) arrives on the scene as an outsider from Beaver Brook, Pennsylvania to investigate the strange disappearance of her older sister Mary Considine. After failing to find a sympathetic ear at the police desk, she is assisted by reporter Mark Sitko (Dennis O'Keefe), who adds value quickly when he confronts Kerric (Raymond Burr), a bottom-feeding private investigator on Paula's trail. With Mark at her side, she learns her sister died of carbon monoxide poisoning after delivering a child. Paula rejects the theory her sister was a suicide case. With some assistance from expectant mother Dottie Jensen (Meg Randall), an acquaintance of Mary's, Paula and Mark work together in the interest of bringing down the predatory underworld system that so cruelly victimized Mary and her baby girl.
The noir spider woman was de rigueur in the mid-to-late 1940s, though in this narrative she is not the usual temptress of men, but rather a mature woman who ensnares tough-luck young females. A false prophet if ever there were one, Mrs. Donner (Marjorie Rambeau) uses the Bible to gain acceptance from the distressed women upon whom she preys. Her appearance and diction suggest aristocratic heritage (conveyed perfectly by the extensive theatrical training of the longtime stage actress Rambeau). Despite her obvious danger to pregnant women and command over men like Kerric, her weakness is implied by the cane she requires for walking assistance. Behind the facade of upper class respectability is a weakened woman, vulnerable to the right aggressor. Film noir is overflowing with examples of limping men (ACT OF VIOLENCE , THE HITCH-HIKER , STORM FEAR ), men in wheelchairs (CONFLICT , THE BIG SLEEP , KEY LARGO ) and men dependent upon canes or crutches (DOUBLE INDEMNITY , GILDA , THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI ). Mrs. Donner personifies the rare instance of the physically compromised female, a woman who stands on wobbly knees in comparison with the healthy women she manipulates. Further film noir enforcement is provided by disreputable character types like the ethnic villain "Little Guy" Decola (Will Kuluva) in cahoots with Mrs. Donner, along with his knuckle-cracking henchman Hoppe (the always intimidating Mike Mazurki).
Irwin Gielgud's first feature film screenplay reflects an era in which the newspaper reporter was considered an important contributor to society. Rare today is the film that features a reporter of any kind as a major character, but such storytelling was not unusual during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Compared with local law enforcement officials, Mark Sitko is the far more helpful character encountered by the resilient female protagonist Paula. Local authorities show little interest in her search for her sister until the reporter does some heavy lifting. At the outset, the police desk clerk is dismissive of Paula's search for her sibling, even though he admits she has come to the right location regarding such matters. Later Chief MacRae (Jeff Chandler) takes a wait-and-see approach after being confronted by Paula and Mark with what sounds like a case worthy of investigation. Director Joseph M. Newman moves the material at a pleasingly steady pace; this is one of the better film noirs manufactured at programmer length. He would return to the genre with the excellent 711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950), DANGEROUS CROSSING (1953) and DEATH IN SMALL DOSES (1957), an examination of pill-popping truckers.
Framed at 1.355:1, just a bit off from the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1, the visual splendor of William H. Daniels's cinematography is quite something. Through both Los Angeles locations and studio work, he proves himself a purveyor of outstanding high contrast imagery. The construction site finale at Paradise Hills Country Club, a most plausible environment for a film noir conclusion, really highlights the artistic potential of black and white cinema. It is impossible to imagine this sequence in color. Daniels' incredible breadth crosses many genres and includes the formidable noir films BRUTE FORCE (1947), LURED (1947), THE NAKED CITY (1948) and WOMAN IN HIDING (1950). As far as I can remember, ABANDONED might include the only instance where I have seen multiple cars involved in tailing a suspect. Most movies and television programs do not bother with a tailing scheme this elaborate. On a lesser note, how could the black market baby organization operate with anonymity for so long and be so shortsighted as to plan Paula's death to occur at the exact same place they murdered her sister? The torture of Raymond Burr's character seems like payback for his role as the flame-obsessed maniac Rick Coyle in RAW DEAL (1948, also starring Dennis O'Keefe). ABANDONED was the first film in a long-term contract between Universal and Jeff Chandler, who soon would be cast in starring roles.
The audio commentary track was submitted by Samm Deighan, associate editor of DIABOLIQUE MAGAZINE and co-host of the podcast "Daughters of Darkness." This is the first track I have heard from Deighan, whose measured cadences quickly take on a mechanical quality. Delivery is not her only issue; recurring word choices are more than a little off-putting. Deighan would be well advised to eliminate certain go-to words from her vocabulary, i.e. "sort of," "kind of," "I think," "basically." Such language makes her sound younger than she probably is. Nothing wrong with being young of course, but to sound young is not a very desirable trait in a film historian. Perhaps more refined commentary work lies ahead for Deighan, who obviously clocked the research time. Particularly for those new to the genre, she touches most of the accepted cornerstones, the most valuable one being film noir as a reflection of social issues worthy of our notice. Her standout observation is that the film's pregnant women are not judged by the filmmakers, and that too often such narratives assign blame to marginalized characters for self-entrapment. Another good insight from Deighan is the inner strength of Paula. Despite the romantic intentions that motivate Mark, Paula suppresses her feelings for him and remains focused on justice for those who factored in the death of her sister. Mark's prurient agenda must wait for the film's concluding moments. Selectable Kino Lorber trailers include THUNDER ON THE HILL (1951), THE PRICE OF FEAR (1956) and NAKED ALIBI (1954).
Next up in this film noir collection is THE LADY GAMBLES, another social problem photoplay as the title matter-of-factly implies. As it unfolds in mostly flashback form, it provides a textbook example of "downward spiral" film noir framework, the type of cautionary tale standardized by DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), DETOUR (1945) and OUT OF THE PAST (1947). How did the lead protagonist get into this situation? In the noir film, how things happen is vastly more important than what happens. The filmmakers establish a brutal tone when Joan Boothe (Barbara Stanwyck) is beaten mercilessly for her part in a loaded dice game in an alley. Her husband David Boothe (Robert Preston) finds her at the local hospital and explains he has not seen her in a year. The unemotional reductionist Dr. Rojac (John Hoyt) calls Joan a tramp, but David knows his wife as a decent woman with a terrible addiction. As David lobbies to get her the help she needs, he relates her unfortunate past.
While David is on assignment for a Hoover Dam story, the Chicago-based couple stays in Las Vegas, where Joan discovers the world of tables and slot machines. Her initial buy-in is innocuous enough when she asks for $1 in chips at a roulette table. Joan knows so little about gambling she bets on both red and black at the same time. After she takes a few covert pictures of the gaming floor, she demands the attention of casino owner Horace Corrigan (Stephen McNally), who at first views Joan as a harmless freelance journalist. No doubt because she is an attractive woman, Corrigan gifts her some house chips so she can play for fun and not win or lose. As luck would have it, those free chips encourage Joan to take chances she would not take with her own money, and before long she is primed for the real deal. She repeatedly dips into her husband's trip expense budget and eventually blows through the entire $600. After some begging and pawning, she wins the money back at the craps table and returns her husband's expense allotment to its original status. Lesson learned, right? Not so fast.
THE LADY GAMBLES stresses gambling as a form of addiction as dangerous as any drug. When in front of the craps table, Joan is no different than the alcoholic who spends an entire paycheck on himself and his friends at the local tavern across the street from the factory. As she wins back the $600 she lost, her heightened awareness and energy level is palpable. Clearly it is not just the money that comes and goes, it is the unique excitement that comes from risk-taking. To a gambling addict, risking money is like getting high. When she tries to avoid the magnetic pull of the craps table, she looks at her shaking hand that desperately wants those dice. Her enabler was the casino man Corrigan, who provided free chips (the gateway drug) to get her gambling persona in motion. Later he backs her in a private all-night poker game, which leaves her susceptible to his sexual interest. Corrigan is the homme fatale of this film noir, the man Joan never should have met. Had she not encountered him, her gambling habit might not have taken root.
The need for a respectable, stable man in Joan's life is neatly integrated with the arrival of her shrewish older sister Ruth Phillips (Edith Barrett), who hits Las Vegas just as David is leaving. That noteworthy timing encourages Joan to feed her hunger for gambling without her husband's knowledge. After a disastrous losing streak, Joan is found despondent. In the hope of leaving Las Vegas losses behind them, Joan and David escape to Mexico, where she soon runs into Mr. Sutherland (Don Beddoe) a man associated with her recent Las Vegas casino crawl. This chance encounter (or was it fate?) is thematically significant in that it emphasizes what is at risk when women stray from their husbands. This friendly male acquaintance invites her to a casino he has discovered in the area, and Joan's addiction takes hold of her again. She loses everything the couple had saved for living expenses, which prompts the immediate departure of David, who no longer has the means to finish his book as planned. The family cash box to a gambler is the equivalent of a liquor cabinet to an alcoholic. At this juncture, it is clear Joan cannot be left alone for any amount of time. THE LADY GAMBLES is a woman's picture in the sense that the female protagonist takes center stage, but this is far from a celebration of the power of woman. Without the guidance of a dutiful husband, Joan likely will lose every war waged by her addiction. Whether the filmmakers are in sympathy with Joan or pity her is open to interpretation.
The cataclysmic meltdown in Mexico predictably leads Joan back to Corrigan, who sets her up as a front for his new horse racing operation, with predictably disastrous results. After Joan spoils a shady income opportunity for Corrigan and his cohorts, he discards her at a local bus stop. "This is the end of the line," he informs her, in a nod to the Stanwyck classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Now her downfall really accelerates, leading Joan to lower and lower lows and ultimately to the rather indifferent care of Dr. Rojac, who sees her more as a statistic than a patient. It seems only David can help extricate his wife from the self-imprisonment of chronic gambling. After Joan turns from the selfishness of her older sister Ruth, THE LADY GAMBLES winds down with David's dedication to his wife's recovery and incontrovertible proof of the husband's worth to the troubled wife. Without his love and understanding she surely would have died via suicide. The nature of this husband/wife dynamic has a familiar ring, particularly at this point in the history of American cinema. The long-term stability of the female without a loyal man's undying support seemed beyond the average screenwriter's capacity to imagine.
Director Michael Gordon's early career saw him crafting modestly-budgeted crime movies. Later he would helm the noir films THE WEB (1947), AN ACT OF MURDER (1948) and the undervalued WOMAN IN HIDING (1950). Unfortunately he was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and thus was unable to work throughout much of the 1950s. Screenwriter and novelist Roy Huggins was very active during the classic film noir movement, with a resume that includes contributions to I LOVE TROUBLE (1948), TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949), WOMAN IN HIDING and PUSHOVER (1954). The incredibly prolific cinematographer Russell Metty, known for his work with director Douglas Sirk on 10 productions in the 1950s, also left his impression on film noir, having lensed some of the genre's most revered works, including THE STRANGER (1946), RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947), KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948), NAKED ALIBI (1954) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), the noir masterpiece directed by Orson Welles. My favorite shot in THE LADY GAMBLES occurs at the pawn shop where Joan forfeits her camera for fresh gambling money. As the pawnbroker (Houseley Stevenson) places Joan's pawned camera on the shop's shelf, the camera joins an army of other cameras, all presumably pawned by people like Joan. On a side note, classic film fans are sure to recognize Tony Curtis in a brief scene as a bellboy (billed as Anthony Curtis).
The audio commentary track was contributed by Kat Ellinger, a well informed but unpretentious voice in film criticism. A veteran of just under 100 commentary recordings at the time of this writing, the editor-in-chief for DIABOLIQUE MAGAZINE strikes an ideal balance between scholarly observation and film fan enthusiasm. Her accent is strong for an American ear (she hails from Cheltenham, a town in Gloucestershire, England), though easy enough to follow. Ellinger explains how THE LADY GAMBLES vacillates between the web of film noir and the woman's film with Babs in the lead. It is never one brand of film consistently as it explores how the average person suddenly can become incredibly vulnerable to a stubborn addiction, in this case by way of the contaminated atmosphere of the Las Vegas strip. THE LADY GAMBLES combines post-WWII malaise with the emergence of women in the workforce required by the wartime economy. After the end of the war, not all women were excited about returning to domestic roles. Joan embodies one of these women; ultimately she is unfaithful to her husband. Ellinger makes an excellent point that this is a woman's story told by a man. Baked into the recipe are moral overtones directed at women who do not observe the advice of their husbands. Ellinger takes issue with the ending, which seems overly influenced by the Stanwyck noir vehicle SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948). She is probably right about that, though the concluding moments certainly mesh with the film's patriarchal agenda established from the very beginning. Overall this is an eminently listenable track from a seasoned film genre expert. Only demerit is for overuse of the word "interesting." Trailers are included for WITNESS TO MURDER (1954), THE GREAT MAN'S LADY (1942) and KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948). THE LADY GAMBLES is framed at 1.36:1, a close approximation of the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1.
The final film in this bundle opens with leading man Richard Conte speaking directly to the camera regarding Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where much of the footage for THE SLEEPING CITY was collected. In an effort to distance what we are about to see from the massive building's day-to-day reality, Conte testifies to the legitimacy of the institution's medical research and dedication to the betterment of mankind. The proper narrative commences with pulverizing effect when Dr. Foster (Hugh Reilly) is shot at point blank range with a .38 caliber revolver. The no-nonsense Police Inspector Gordon (John Alexander) is unable to break the case, so Fred Rowan (Conte in his first role under contract with Universal) is brought in to pose as Fred Gilbert, a new intern on staff. Rowan's most promising lead may involve the nurse Ann Sebastian (Coleen Gray, against type), who reputedly was fond of the executed Foster.
Rowan's roommate is another person of interest. Dr. Steve Anderson (Alex Nicol, his debut) is the portrait of the disenchanted man, the character type who almost always has a place in the film noir. He feels grossly underpaid and seriously resents those who have accumulated more money than him. Like so many of the genre's flawed protagonists, Anderson firmly believes all his problems would find resolution if only the dollars were stacked sufficiently high. An anxious man, Anderson shows signs he may be mentally unstable as well. He appears the obvious suspect, but in truth is merely a symptom of a more disconcerting disease rooted in currency required to pay off debts. Without giving too much away for the uninitiated, the manner in which intern gambling debts are settled is about the last thing a hospital's administrative staff would want to discover. Even for a film noir, the implications are incredibly bleak.
When Rowan is introduced to Ann Sebastian, the scene is loaded with sexual suggestion. She is a divorcée, saddled with debts of her own. Could she be some iteration of the film noir femme fatale? Absolutely, though not in the way noir devotees probably conjure up that objectified female archetype. What is true to form is that Sebastian is a more complicated creature than her appearance suggests. Her complexity is revealed in earnest when she offers the following passage to Rowan, which begins with a quote from the Roman poet Ovid:
"'Blemishes are hid by night and every fault forgiven.' The world should live by night. The dark draws people together. They can feel the need for each other. But the world gives the night to the sick. It keeps for itself daylight and lets men look into faces filled with fear and hatred."
Though not a woman who has made the best of choices, Sebastian is somewhat sympathetic in that she appears to have been caught up in a system easier to enter than exit. Perhaps any nurse plagued by hard times could have fallen into the identical trap. Time and again this sort of possibility is one of the central messages communicated by film noir, that often the system is more powerful than we are.
Sebastian obviously does not live up to her uniform, thus Rowan is an appropriate match for her. Like Sebastian, he is not what he portrays himself to be. Unlike any other genre, film noir is flooded with multiple identities, characters who say they are one thing but in fact are another. Aliases often come into play. Rowan adopts an undercover identity and does not have the education or experience his new identity requires. He is instructed to avoid anything beyond his capabilities, but in a crisis situation, would that directive realistically be possible to follow? Rowan may be out to perform the greater good, but like the nurse with whom he is linked, his very presence poses a risk to the hospital's many patients. In a multitude of ways, THE SLEEPING CITY insists that for one person to prosper another must suffer.
Director George Sherman was noted mostly for churning out "B" Westerns, though he did direct some other noir films such as LARCENY (1948), THE SECRET OF THE WHISTLER (1946) and THE RAGING TIDE (1951), none of which I had heard of before reviewing Sherman's credits. Sherman also directed six episodes of the television series NAKED CITY from 1959—1963. THE SLEEPING CITY is paced to demand one's attention, even upon repeat viewings, although at times Sherman's direction looks unimaginative, with the camera functioning as a theatrical spotlight at certain intervals. This is particularly true in the early sequences that focus on the police work of Inspector Gordon. The dedication to using Bellevue as opposed to sets to shoot interiors probably contributed to this outcome. The director's preferred set-up has his actors facing the camera, a popular film noir convention. This arrangement has little in common with the way people typically talk to one another in real life, but allows an efficient and economical brand of storytelling to merge with subtle but effective cinematic artistry.
The final chase sequence, itself a film noir staple, begins in the bowels of Bellevue and leads to a logical rooftop finale. The trip to the hospital's highest point is made possible by an exterior staircase, complete with prison-like bars that imply the villain's useful life is about to reach its end. Stairways and ramps of various kinds are common film noir components, often used to illustrate a power struggle or emphasize the complexity of an interconnected setting. Steps are of special concern in THE SLEEPING CITY since they factor in both the murder at the film's exposition and the climactic shooting of the killer responsible. Especially considering the many scenes that feature staircases in between, the labyrinthine setting amounts to a human maze not everyone is destined to escape. Essentially the same environment is suggested in NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), released the same year as THE SLEEPING CITY and also written for the screen by Jo Eisinger.
The commentary laid down in April of 2020 in New York City by erudite film historian Imogen Sara Smith is the most polished and informative of the three tracks compiled for this noir collection. The author of IN LONELY PLACES: FILM NOIR BEYOND THE CITY (2011) succeeds in the most critical area of any commentator's assignment: to heighten the viewer's awareness of the subject film's place in movie history. According to Smith, the year of THE SLEEPING CITY's release saw the greatest number of film noirs distributed theatrically. Beyond raw numbers of film productions, 1950 served as a turning point for the genre. There was a transition from stylized visuals to the more flat, realistic look associated with documentary filmmaking. Many notable Hollywood filmmakers made wartime documentary features and brought some of those techniques into post-WWII fiction film, including more location-based footage. Another shift involved the departure from small-time, individual crime stories to organized crime enterprises that ensnared far more persons than the typical noir stories of the 1940s. By the 1950s, the city had evolved from a sometimes dangerous nocturnal environment to a place with such widespread greed and corruption that everyone is impacted at all hours of the day. Even hospital patients may be unsafe in such an atmosphere. THE SLEEPING CITY hovers on the borderline between the moral ambiguity of 1940s film noir and the more black and white approach (good versus evil) of police procedural noir that characterized the semidocumentary movement of the 1950s. A crucial theme broached by Smith is the significance of the undercover man's moral responsibility as it may interfere with his professional duty. In the interest of protecting his identity, a patient could be the subject of gross neglect.
Smith also does a commendable job handling the storied history of Bellevue Hospital, which is covered as a prison-like structure by cinematographer William Miller. Bellevue always has been known as a hospital that cares for the underprivileged members of the city. It remains one of the largest hospitals in the US. At the time of her recording, Smith notes, "Bellevue is the site of a makeshift morgue for victims of the COVID-19 pandemic." The city's tragedies always have been connected closely with Bellevue Hospital. If Smith has a flaw as a commentator, sometimes she reaches too far in search of profundity, as when she comments on the character played by Richard Taber: "...he's very effective in the way he's able to shift from this harmless, colorful Damon Runyon-esque figure to a sinister villain; the way his obsequious benevolent manner masks his resentment and hostility towards the interns." A bit much for my taste, but not an inaccurate appraisal. Trailers are selectable for THE SLEEPING CITY and CRY OF THE CITY (1948). The feature presentation is framed at 1.355:1.
FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA III makes for a fine addition to any classic movie fan's personal collection. There is a lot to like, and at the moment the boxed set is being offered at a discounted rate via kinolorber.com. Act accordingly, and be advised their follow-up set FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF CINEMA IV ships this week.