Friday, August 29, 2014

CROSSFIRE

Edward Dmytryk, 1947
Starring: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame

Joseph Samuels is found beaten to death in his home and the police are called to the scene. After a report that some young soldiers were seen with Samuels earlier, Detective Finlay spends the rest of the night figuring out who killed Samuels. A soldier named Mitch is the main suspect, but his superior, Sergeant Keeley, is convinced he couldn't be responsible. Keeley and Finlay team up to find the anxiety-ridden Mitch and his fellow soldier, Montogomery, an insatiable bully who was there to witness the evening's events.

The first B movie to receive an Academy Award nomination for best picture, Crossfire also helped launch the careers of noir regulars Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame, both nominated for awards for best supporting actor/actress. Though it is essentially a tale of morality and the evils of racism, Crossfire is overwhelmed with nor personalities. Director Edward Dmytryk directed a number of noir efforts, includingMurder, My Sweet (1944) and Cornered (1945), both with Dick Powell. Most of Crossfire’s excellent cast appeared regularly throughout noir: Robert Mitchum (The Locket, Pursued, Out of the Past, Blood on the Moon, The Big Steal, and many more), Robert Ryan (The Woman on the Beach, Act of Violence, Caught, The Set-Up, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, Clash by Night, etc.), Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place, Human Desire, Naked Alibi, Odds Against Tomorrow, and more), Steve Brodie (Out of the Past, Armored Car Robbery, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye), Sam Levene (The Killers, Boomerang, Brute Force, Sweet Smell of Success), and Marlo Dwyer (Caged, The Sniper, The Woman on Pier 13). Screenwriter John Paxton worked regularly with Dmytryk and also wrote Murder, My Sweet and Cornered.

The film is based on Richard Brooks' 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole. He was a Marine sergeant and worked at Quantico, giving himself realistic insight into the lives of career soldiers. Allegedly his book was helped towards a cinematic adaptation thanks to the efforts of Robert Ryan, who was a fellow soldier at the time. In Brooks' novel, the murder is committed because of homophobia, not anti-Semitism, due to the Production Code's boycott on gay characters in films. Though the change was incredibly poignant, an air of homophobia remains. This is a man's world that women rarely intrude upon. When Mitchell goes to Samuels' apartment alone, to discuss his despair, this breaks some unspoken code that triggers Montgomery's rage. Cleverly, Judaism is not a defining feature, outside of discussions of rage and names; within the dialogue "anti-Semitism" could easily be replaced with "homophobia."

Though this is similar to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), where a journalist goes undercover as a Jew to write about his experiences, I think Crossfire is the superior film. It has certainly aged better, though both suffer from preachy, pedantic speeches. I can’t say that they weren’t need then or now, seeing as the world has traditionally been an intolerant place for religious and non-religious Jews.

Partly, Crossfire is superior thanks to the noir flavor and excellent work from cinematographer J. Roy Hunt (I Walked with a Zombie). Despite the subject matter and moralistic speeches, this is certainly every inch a film noir with its cheap hotel rooms, seedy bars, dark movie theaters, rain-slicked streets, and violence induced by a haze of misery and alcohol. Robert Ryan's violent, hateful, and hated Montgomery is one of Ryan's finest and most menacing performances. It would sadly typecast him and played a loosely similar role (a bully and sociopath) in Caught. It is difficult to watch his scenes in Crossfire, which is certainly an achievement. He's excellently contrasted with the quiet, calm, and assured performance of Robert Mitchum.

Available on DVD, Crossfire comes recommended. Its moral message is heavy handed, but pertinent and the performances are wonderful. The film has a disturbing air of repression and despair that extends to every character except maybe Mitchum's Sergeant Keeley or Robert Young's Detective Finlay, though it is obvious they are aware of its presence. Whether it is racism, homophobia, self-hatred, or some lingering anxiety or post-traumatic effect from the war, it's a feeling that remains long after the film is finished and is certainly one of the reasons it is still a minor noir classic more than 60 years after it the fact.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

OUT OF THE PAST

Jacques Tourneur, 1947
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming

"You're like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another."

Jeff Baily has started a new life for himself in a small California town, where he owns his own gas station and has begun to court a kind, local girl named Ann. Jeff has somewhat of a mysterious reputation, enhanced when a dark-suited stranger comes to town looking for him. Jeff takes Ann for a drive to see his old employer – gangster Whit Sterling – and relates his story to Ann. Whit hired him to find his girlfriend, Kathie, who fled to Mexico with $40,000 of Whit’s money. In his quest to find Kathie, Jeff falls in love with her himself, only to discover that she is a cold-hearted killer and – even though he thought he found happiness with Ann – Kathie and Whit refuse to let him go free.

Known as Build My Gallows High (a line of dialogue from the film) in the U.K., Out of the Past has long been considered one of the finest films in the noir canon. Based on Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High, Mainwaring wrote the film’s script under a pseudonym (Geoffrey Homes, which he commonly used while writing detective fiction) and was also responsible for the scripts for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Phenix City Story, and others.

What makes Out of the Past great? For one thing, the smoking. There is an insane amount of cigarette smoking done by nearly every character, further emphasized by Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s lighting that makes it seem like smoke is pouring from walls and inanimate objects, giving the basic sets an eerie air of claustrophobia and disorientation. In one of my favorite scenes, Kirk Douglas offers Robert Mitchum a cigarette by holding one up and saying, “Cigarette?” Mitchum lifts his already lit cigarette and replies, “Smoking.” Though smoking happens in a lot of films noir and gangster flicks, here it is not something to do with your hands, not something to make you appear tough. It is an entity of its own, symbolizing – in various scenes – animosity, dread, longing, and even comedy, often expressing the silently held thoughts and feelings of Jeff, Kathie, and Whit.

Another thing that makes the film great is the almost constant appearance of Robert Mitchum. I’ve never really been able to figure out the exact nature of Robert Mitchum’s sexual appeal, but it is here – in spades – in his second major starring role that would almost instantly propel him to fame. Like other on-screen detectives, Mitchum’s Jeff is a tough guy, but he never has to prove his masculinity. He is simply content to lazily, confidently bask in it. He would go on to have a similar appeal in war films and a slew of other noir movies – The Locket, Pursued, Crossfire, Blood on the Moon, The Big Steal (again with Jane Greer), Where Danger Lives, His Kind of Woman, The Racket, Angel Face (another film where he dies in a car alongside a beautiful, sociopathic, and duplicitous woman), Night of the Hunter, and more.

Though this film belongs to Mitchum, it is also supported by Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat. Greer has a sweet, almost innocent, girl-next-door look, which belies the ease with which she deceives, steals, seduces, and kills. She doesn’t have the overripe sexuality of some other famous femmes fatale (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Claire Trevor in Murder, My Sweet and Born to Kill, Gloria Grahame in Human Desire, etc.) and her motivations are impossible to discern – they are never really revealed by the film’s conclusion – making her all the more mysterious, appealing, and destructive. Kirk Douglas, as her lover and Jeff’s boss Whit, is somewhat overshadowed by Mitchum and Greer, but he’s fantastic, as always, and is the perfect third wheel. His more obvious motivations – pride, sex, greed, power, and control – keep the trio spiraling ever downwards into obliteration and death. His almost equally excellent, if similar role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers felt like a rehearsal for this.

As Raymond Chandler often tried to do with his novels (with mixed success), plot is of relatively minor importance to Out of the Past’s success. It’s hopelessly complicated, made up of a series of flashbacks, double-crosses, and various scenes of characters running from each other. The sunny, Mexican setting doesn’t feel like traditional noir, though it is overwhelming dark and gloomy in a moral, emotional sense, and the arc of Jeff’s impending doom – both past and future, chronologically speaking – is imminent, yet endlessly fascinating.

Out of the Past is available on Blu-ray and comes with the highest possible recommendation. If you’re only going to watch five films in the noir series, make this one of them. Granted, I could watch Robert Mitchum sit on screen, watching paint dry, but this is certainly a fine performance from one of America’s most compelling actors. One of his rare talents was the ability to portray ease and stillness, which he does here despite the mood of anxiety and his inevitable fate.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

NIGHTMARE ALLEY

Edmund Goulding, 1947
Starring: Tyrone Power, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker

Stan Carlisle, a newcomer to the carnival, attempts to seduce the local psychic, Zeena, when he learns that she and her alcoholic husband, Pete, have a genius secret code for their act. Though they were once very successful, undisclosed events led to Pete’s extreme alcoholism, their fall from fame, and return to the traveling carnival. One night Stan accidentally gives Pete wood alcohol, believing it is moonshine, and the old man dies. Soon Pete successfully seduces Zeena and tricks her into training him to be part of her act, though he has also begun a relationship with the pretty, young Molly. Thinking that Stan has also tricked Molly, the other carnies force them into a marriage. Afterwards, he begins a high-class traveling act, The Great Stanton, with Molly as his assistant. He accidentally teams up with an equally cynical, greedy psychologist, and works towards his biggest scam yet – which will likely lead to a hard, fast fall.

Nightmare Alley is an unusual approach to film noir and though not regarded as a classic at its time, it’s developed quite a cult following and a renewed critical appreciation. This was largely a labor of love for star Tyrone Power. He was eager to shed the heroic, swashbuckling image created in films like The Black Swan and The Mask of Zorro and persevered until the film was made. Power does give the performance of his career here -- equal only to his duplicitous turn as a wrongly accused murderer in Billy Wilder’s equally gloomy Witness for the Prosecution, the last film of Power’s career. As Stan, Power delivers the full weight of his creative potential as hunter and prey, villain and victim. The plot’s imaginative, frenetic arc charts his rise and fall, mirroring it with the equally fantastic Ian Keith (Queen Christina, Cleopatra) as Pete, the doomed drunk that Stan will eventually become.

Based on a book of the same name by William Lindsay Graham, the novel is apparently even more extreme than the film and is divided up into chapters named after the different Tarot cards. This reminded me somewhat of The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder and based on a novel by Charles R. Jackson. Both novelists – Graham and Jackson – struggled with alcohol addiction and lead often bleak private lives. They both became increasingly ill later in life and committed suicide with an overdose of pills. Graham was allegedly found with a business card that read, “No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.” His fascinating life crops up quite often in the oddly autobiographical Nightmare Alley: his obsession with carnivals and carnies (he also wrote a non-fiction book about the topic, Monster Midway), his infidelity and failed marriages, interest in spiritualism, and ultimately fatal battle with alcoholism.

The film’s surreal atmosphere never lets up, slips into an actual nightmare, and ends with a terrifying episode of delirium tremens, the equal of which is only seen in The Lost Weekend. 20th Century Fox built a full carnival in the studio and hired real-life carnies and circus performers to work as extras, adding to the film’s wonderful atmosphere. This community of outsiders is an interesting spin on the familiar noir theme that man is isolated, lonely, and doomed. Power is surrounded by some incredible supporting actors, particularly Joan Blondell and Helen Walker, two unusual female characters that resist the type-casting or character tropes usually seen in noir. Nearly every character in the film shows that life is a sham, a game, a trick perpetrated on the innocent, good natured, and unsuspecting. Pete proves to Stan that even childhood memories, happy thoughts, and family connections can be used to dupe even the cynical, the world-weary, and those who don’t believe themselves to be vulnerable. Even Lilith, a successful psychologist, is manipulating and taking advantage of her patients. As she tells Stan, “It takes one to know one.” She is a true villain and though she is a female character, she cannot be described as a femme fatale. She is something crueler, more rational, with no sexual or overt “female” elements to her deception of Stanton that leads to his insanity and absolute destruction.

There is also an odd element of the sublime present. During his ballroom performances, Stan knows a number of things about his audience members that he could never possibly know, adding an element of the genuinely supernatural into the film. The sweet, good-natured Molly becomes fearful when he starts doing medium work, convinced that they will be punished by God for their flirtations with ghosts and spirits. And intriguingly, Zeena’s Tarot card readings always come true. Fortunately, the script does not attempt to resolve or explain away these elements, adding to the air of surreal mystery that pervades the film.

Nightmare Alley wasn’t popular upon its release, probably thanks to its morose tone and deeply cynical nature. Though this is yet another noir that targets one of the dark sides of the American dream – unchecked ambition – as man’s downfall, it goes about it in a totally unique way and comes highly recommended. Power’s performance alone is a must-see, though prepare yourself for a compelling and mesmerizing, if less-than-cheery viewing experience. It is available on DVD as part of Fox’s film noir series and, again, you absolutely have to see it if you’re a fan of noir or, surprisingly, horror, as it prefigures a lot of the dark carnival films to come later. It would certainly be fascinating to compare this with Clive Barker's Nightbreed.

Monday, August 25, 2014

KISS OF DEATH (1947)

Henry Hathaway, 1947
Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark

Nick Bianco spends some time in prison after a failed jewelry store robbery he took part in on Christmas Eve in New York. He gradually builds a relationship with the Assistant District Attorney, D’Angelo, who tries to convince him to inform on his friends. He refuses and later learns that his unfaithful wife has committed suicide and his two young daughters have been placed in an orphanage. His children’s former babysitter, Nettie, comes to visit him in prison and the two fall in love. For his family’s sake, Nick changes his mind and decides to inform on Rizzo, a fellow robber, though the ADA makes it look like Rizzo is the informant. The insane Tommy Udo, who Nick met in prison, gets wind of it and tortures and kills Rizzo’s mother.

Nick, meanwhile, is released from prison, marries Nettie, and settles into an honest, hard-working life. When Nick’s evidence on Udo doesn’t land Udo in prison, Nick knows it’s only a matter of time before Udo will come after his family.

Though Kiss of Death (what a title) is not quite essential noir, it benefits from some solid performances and some brilliant scenes that feature the debut of Richard Widmark as the psychotic Tommy Udo. He is essentially a comic book character – his demeanor, suit, and hat are a bit ridiculous – and makes a convincing precursor for someone like The Joker. With his maniacal laugh, penchant for violence, and sociopathic tendencies, Widmark is the star of the film and deservedly received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The scene where he tortures Rizzo’s wheelchair-bound mother, and then ties her up and throws her down a winding set of stairs to her death, is perhaps the best in the film.

Both Widmark’s wide-eyed, malicious Udo and Victor Mature’s homely, if somehow charming Nick are reminiscent of later gangster characters. Mature (I Wake Up Screaming) has never been one of my favorite actors, but here he gives a great performance and is perfectly cast. There is very little that’s romantic or charismatic about a failed criminal trying to lead a quiet family life, but his character is honest and compelling, if somewhat unbelievable. Udo, Nick, and plenty of other things about Kiss of Death reminded me of later gangster films, such as The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990). It was obviously influential, though it never quite reaches the heights of those films that came after it, as far as gangster movies are concerned.

It’s a shame that Charles Lederer and the great Ben Hecht didn’t produce a better script, as their combined talent is responsible for such greats as Notorious, His Girl Friday, The Thing from Another World, and so much more. There is nothing specifically wrong with the film, though outside of Udo’s scenes, it’s bland and unimaginative. There are some nice moments of realism and the film was apparently partially shot in Sing Sing, but it lacks the impressive sense of stylist found in visually realist films like The Lost Weekend or Naked City. The opening heist is well-shot, but feels rush.

One note of interest is the similarity between cops and criminals depicted within the film. The necessity of them working together is the film’s main theme and the levels of corruption and violence shared between the two is an obvious point of controversy. In one scene, the ADA comments that the only difference between them is the fact that cops beat up on the “bad guys.” This apparently incensed the Hays’ office, though director Henry Hathaway changed little, only removing the scenes with Nick’s troubled first wife and overt references to Udo’s drug use.

In addition to Victor Mature and Richard Widmark, there are some decent performances throughout the film. Brian Donlevy (Hangmen Also Die) puts in a solid performance as the ADA and is finally not miscast (as he was in The Glass Key with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake). Coleen Gray (Red River) is adorable as Nettie, Nick’s second wife. While not much explanation is given for her sudden marriage to Nick, it’s wholly believable and she is a convincing portrait of domestic bliss.

Kiss of Death is available on DVD as part of Fox’s film noir series. As I said, it’s not essential viewing, but noir fans will enjoy it, as well anyone who loves gangster movies. Widmark’s terrifying, spellbinding performance is an obvious precursor to so many contemporary psychopathic gangsters that it would be a shame not to see him at work at least once.

Friday, August 22, 2014

BORN TO KILL (1947)

Robert Wise, 1947
Starring: Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak, Audrey Long

Helen Brant prepares to leave Reno after finally obtaining a divorce, but the night of her departure she finds the dead bodies of her pretty young neighbor, Laury Palmer, and Laury’s boyfriend. Instead of calling the police, she flees back to San Francisco. On the train, she meets Sam Wilde, the man who murdered Laury due to his insane jealousy, bad temper, and impulsive violence. Though Helen’s engaged to the mild-mannered, wealthy Fred, she is attracted to Sam. He imposes on her, soon meeting Fred and Helen’s wealthy, though generous half-sister and roommate, Georgia. Equally attracted to Sam, the innocent Georgia soon marries him and is unaware that Helen and Sam have begun an affair. Unfortunately for them, Laury’s close friend and landlady, Mrs. Kraft, hires a private detective to track down Laury’s killer. He is hot on Sam’s trail and soon arrives in San Francisco…

This was director Robert Wise’s first film noir, though he would rise to much greater heights after this with Blood on the Moon (1948), The Set-Up (1949), and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). Wise got his start doing editing work on Citizen Kane and then began directing films for Val Lewton at RKO – Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). His varied career includes landmark haunted house film The Haunting (1963), and a fair amount of science fiction – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) – and so much more.

While I can’t find much fault with Wise, the script is a different story. Though often known as a minor noir classic thanks to the explosive, psychopathic relationship between Sam and Helen, I was thoroughly let down by this film. There's something completely implausible about it – it almost becomes an amour fou type of film, but never rises to these heights. Claire Trevor (Murder, My Sweet) delivers a coldly impassioned performance, but she’s not able to save a bad script or make Lawrence Tierney a more complex actor. There’s certainly something compelling about him, but it’s too difficult to believe that every woman in the film is overcome with sexual hysteria in his presence. I could see a number of other actors pulling this off, so it could just be a question of miscasting.

Sam and Helen’s relationship has great potential, but overall it is frustrating. Born to Kill has far too much imbalance between moments of psychopathic terror and melodrama, which mirrors the script flaws in their relationship. The film starts out powerfully: Laury’s murder is brutal and unexpected and Helen’s discovery of the crime and subsequent attraction to Sam hints at a sexual preoccupation with violence (more eloquently articulated in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door). But these two elements – sex and violence – soon wither away to a number of humorous scenes (with Mrs. Kraft and the private detective) and melodrama (Sam’s marriage to Georgia and Helen’s breakup with her fiancé). Though it is clear that Sam and Helen are having an affair, almost none of this is displayed on screen. Without the explicit reminder of this relationship and scenes of its development, the characters’ collective motivations make absolutely no sense.

For example, if Sam is willing to murder his friend due to a misunderstanding that the friend was sexually interested in Helen, why does Sam not bat an eyelash over her fiancé? Sam’s tendencies toward sudden, inexplicable violence verge toward the childish and make Tierney’s character impossible to relate to or sympathize with. Perhaps this would have worked if Sam was a teenager instead of a middle aged man – it certainly would be more subversive.

There are some enjoyable moments, namely the film’s sheer campiness. Aside from the jarring opening scene with the double homicide, the quieter scenes of domestic drama are at least well shot and competently acted. There are also some fantastic side characters, including Sam’s absurdly mild-mannered friend (another welcome appearance from noir’s whipping boy, Elisha Cook Jr.), the drunken yet endearing Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard from Detour, Sullivan’s Travels, and Murder, My Sweet), and an eloquent, literary, and thoroughly shifty private detective (Walter Slezak of Lifeboat).

Born to Kill only comes recommend for fans of film noir and the work of director Robert Wise. It is available on DVD, though, as always, I’d love to see a Blu-ray box set of all Wise’s films noir, loaded with special features.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

BOOMERANG (1947)

Elia Kazan, 1947
Starring: Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Lee J. Cobb

After a beloved minister is shot right out on the street in a small Connecticut town, a man hunt begins for his murderer. The local government is under political pressure to find the culprit as soon as possible, and an unemployed former soldier becomes the main suspect. Though he protests his innocence, he is deprived of sleep and subjected to hours of rigorous interrogation until he admits his guilt out of exhaustion. Henry Harvey, a local prosecutor, sees through this scheme and runs his own investigation, much to everyone’s dismay. It seems that during the trial, Harvey will shockingly attempt to prove the soldier’s innocence – even though the threat of blackmail and possibly violence looms in the background.

Based on an actual Connecticut murder and subsequent trial in 1924 Connecticut, director Elia Kazan brings an influential element of realism to the proceedings, shooting on location in Connecticut as much as possible. This combination of film noir, documentary, and court-room drama was based on a short story by Fulton Oursler, but concerns a chapter from the real life of Horner Cummings, then an assistant District Attorney, but later Attorney General of the U.S. Dana Andrews’ character, Henry Harvey, is based directly on Cummings and is actually my biggest complaint with the film. Andrews’ Henry Harvey is simply too heroic to be believable, particularly considering that I watched this film fresh off a marathon of Fritz Lang film noir works, where no protagonist is truly heroic or guilt-free (and Andrews stars in While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt).

Harvey is an assured, confident character. There is never any doubt that he will clear the soldier and will not succumb to bribes or violence. He is simply too squeaky clean to be believable, particularly during the noir period, and the lack of doubt or realism that surrounds his character is frustrating. Much like Glenn Ford’s wife in Lang’s The Big Heat, Jane Wyatt is also simply too supportive and wholesome as Harvey’s charming, lovely, and thoroughly middle-class wife.

It’s difficult to say whether Boomerang actually counts as film noir. There’s a surprisingly violent beginning where a religious figure (I believe he’s a minister, not a Catholic priest) is shot, point blank, in the back of the head. Characters throughout the film are almost casually corrupt, as if a state of corruption is not a criminal act, but a part of everyday life. The mob justice present here is not of the sort Fritz Lang regularly explored in his films. Rather this is a balance between citizens unhappy with their local government and everyone’s efforts to bring to justice the murderer of a beloved social figure. The film essentially explains away the corruption and hysteria by excusing and equalizing everything.

Though this is an early example of docu-drama and introduces realism that Kazan would continue throughout his career, I don’t think it’s actually fair to call it film noir. It lacks a number of critical elements, namely a sense of doomed fatalism. Harvey himself is a sort of deus-ex-machina, someone who is mystically able to see through the lies everyone else believes or insists are true. In every way, he is the antithesis of a noir protagonist, though a different director would have used this to their advantage (as Lang does in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). Harvey uses his oratory power as the assistant district attorney to lead the community towards the truth. He points out their own flaws and complicity without leading them to tragedy, though he makes a number of ridiculous, implausible cases.

It’s necessary, for a moment, to compare Boomerang to Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, as the two films are almost suspiciously similar. Boomerang was released almost a decade before Lang’s film and I can’t help but feel that Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was influenced by it. Both concern a murder (a priest in Boomerang, a nightclub dancer in Beyond) and an innocent man wrongly convicted. In both films, Andrews plays a character out to right the wrongs in the justice system. In Boomerang, he plays the up-and-coming attorney who has a chance at a governorship if he plays his cards right. In Beyond, he plays an up-and-coming writer about to marry into a newspaper publisher’s family, but first he and publisher conceive a plan to cook up his wrongful conviction and then lambast the death penalty. As the attorney, Andrews is untarnished and incorruptible, but implausibly so. In Beyond, it is revealed that he has actually been the murderer all along.

Perhaps it speaks more to my personality than to the quality of either film that I prefer the bleaker fare of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. It can’t be denied that Kazan was a powerful, talented filmmaker, regardless of his deplorable politics. Boomerang, however, was a precursor to the success of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), or East of Eden (1955). Curiously, many of his films (including Pinky and Gentleman’s Agreement) are about characters determined to tell the truth, to uncover injustice, and right wrongs accepted by the rest of society regardless of the cost. This is perhaps a response to the backlash against his testimony damning fellow filmmakers during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and at minimum provides a glimpse into how Kazan likely saw himself.

Though Boomerang goes off the rails in the second act and becomes patently absurd, it’s worth seeing. Aside from being influential and an interesting stepping stone in Kazan’s career, the large cast is dependable. In addition to Andrews, who I can never find fault with, there are notable performances from Arthur Kennedy as John Waldron, the suspect, Sam Levene as a canny reporter, and the always delightful Lee J. Cobb is the gruff, grim chief of police. Boomerang is available on Blu-ray.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956)

Fritz Lang, 1956
Starring: Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine, Sidney Blackmer, Arthur Franz

Tom Garrett, a writer, enters into a bargain with a newspaper publisher, Austin Spencer, who is also his future father-in-law. They decide that the subject of Tom’s next book will be the injustices of the death penalty and they frame Tom for the recent murder of a nightclub dancer, meticulously keeping track of their forged evidence. Tom is soon arrested, indicted, and the case goes to trial. Spencer was to reveal the ruse after Tom was found guilty and sentenced to death, but unfortunately Spencer dies suddenly in a car crash and takes the evidence with him. Though Tom reveals the scheme and protests his innocence, no one believes him except his estranged fiancée, Susan, who was not made a party to their scheme. While Tom is on death row, days away from his execution, Susan and a lawyer friend try desperately to find evidence that will exonerate Tom, which includes digging into the victim’s torrid past.

Fritz Lang’s last film in America was this bleak film about a journalist’s efforts to expose corruption in the justice system. Very little about this film is stylish and gone are the expressionist noir sensibilities of Scarlet Street or Secret Beyond the Door. Instead, Lang’s final two films for Hollywood, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and While the City Sleeps, are tawdry, lurid, bland, and utterly cynical. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is almost pulpy – before our eyes, Tom (Dana Andrews reuniting with Lang after While the City Sleeps) transforms from an upstanding, middle-class writer on the eve of his engagement to a rather stuffy, blonde debutant heiress into a bottom-feeding letch and murderer.

SPOILER ALERT. While Lang’s twist ending does feel preposterous, it makes more sense upon multiple viewings of the film. After Susan finds the evidence to exonerate Tom and grant his pardon, he accidentally reveals to her that he knew and thus murdered the dancer. A distraught Susan is unsure whether to go ahead with his pardon or not, but follows the advice of her lawyer ex-boyfriend: he is executed. The first time you watch Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, this ending comes as an absurd surprise. It’s impossible for me to find genuine fault with a Fritz Lang film, so I think this ending was created with three possibilities in mind. For starters, it could be a cruel joke perpetrated against stubborn, overly moral audiences by an angry Lang, who was shunted to the side by the studio system and McCarthyism. (In this case, Susan is a stand-in for the audience.)

A second, similar explanation is that Lang finally got revenge for all the years that Hollywood studios refused his intended ending during the script approval process, or made him cut and re-film them during production. Lang successfully does target the justice system (they enthusiastically convict an “innocent” man), but he also points a finger at the media and mob justice. Tom, as with most of Lang’s protagonists, first appears likable, but his corruptible, guilty core is revealed. Tom seems to be fundamentally changed by his brush with murder and the nightclub underworld. The revelation of his guilt begins to make sense, at least in a symbolic way. If you go back and watch the film again with this perspective, certain plot holes are more glaring, while others slide into place.

The film’s biggest flaw is probably the script, which is full of implausibility. Though Tom and Austin are criticizing and attempting to fix the justice system, they seemingly give no thought to bringing the actual murderer to justice. The evidence planting they do is preposterous and should have been uncovered almost immediately, particularly Tom’s lighter left at the crime scene, which was found after the body was recovered. Unless, of course, you take the angle that the police and politicians are simply desperate to find a culprit (and I am writing in a post-OJ Simpson world).

While Dana Andrews gives a solid performance (apparently his alcoholism was at its height during this time and was a serious source of consternation for Lang on set). Joan Fontaine (Rebecca) has never been one of my favorite actresses, but here she is simply tiresome. You can’t really blame her for walking out on Tom after a picture of him romancing nightclub dancers shows up in the paper, but she’s stiff, uptight, whiny, and insufferably moral.

My only other complaint is that the sense of style has been stripped away, leaving behind a gray, lifeless exterior, though perhaps this was intentional. The scenes of Tom’s trial being screened on television are a fascinating touch, which Lang also used to different degrees in While the City Sleeps. He also expertly fades certain scenes into newspaper headlines, making this as much about media as justice. Despite its flaws, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt comes recommended and is available remastered on DVD. Any film of Lang’s is certainly worth watching.