Tuesday, July 22, 2014

THE BLUE DAHLIA

George Marshall, 1946
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix

“Bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.”

Three Navy pilots return home to California from the war in the South Pacific: Johnny Morrison, George Copeland, and Buzz Wanchek, whose lingering head wound causes him agonizing headaches and periods of black out. Instead of an enthusiastic homecoming, Morrison learns that his wife, Helen, has adopted a lifestyle of constant partying. She has had at least one affair and killed their young son when she drove drunk one night and crashed the car. Feeling murderous, he leaves her. Buzz, meanwhile, gets a call from Helen and goes to her hotel to look for Johnny. Not knowing who she is, he buys a drink and is coerced back to her room. She is also dropped in on by Eddie, her no good boyfriend, and “Dad,” the hotel detective. Later that night, she is killed and Johnny is the main suspect. Johnny, meanwhile, has found a new hotel and has crossed paths with the attractive Joyce. They hit it off, but she also happens to be Eddie’s estranged wife. Can he figure out who Helen’s killer is before he’s arrested?

This is the third pairing of film noir duo Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake after the excellent This Gun for Hire and the mediocre The Glass Key. The Blue Dahlia falls somewhere between the two, thanks to a hardboiled script from the master, Raymond Chandler. Chandler had an odd screenwriting career. Aside from The Blue Dahlia, he adapted James Cain’s Double Indemnity with director Billy Wilder and worked on Strangers on a Train with Hitchcock for a time, though his own novels – Lady in the Lake, The Big Sleep, and Farewell, My Lovely – were all adapted by other writers. He was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Dahlia, though he got stuck on the script and had to go on a massive drinking binge to finish it (he had a life-long struggle with alcoholism and was trying to abstain at that particular time in his career). It is his great dialogue that makes the film, with lines like “You got the wrong lipstick on,” when Ladd punches his wife’s lover in the jaw.

Chandler’s style of writing a mystery often without knowing the ending is obvious here as the film’s conclusion feels a bit slapdash and almost ludicrously tacked on. Buzz was initially supposed to have killed Helen during one of his blackouts. The military protested and objected to this portrayal of a solider as violent, unpredictable, and loose on the home front; their objects were strenuous enough that Chandler was forced to change the ending. Unfortunately his new ending is still overshadowed by the thought of Buzz as the killer, a powerful, frightening insinuation. William Bendix, also cast as the thug who nearly beats Ladd's character to death in The Glass Key, really shines here as the brutish, yet sweet and innocent Buzz, a man who relies utterly on Johnny as the stabilizing presence in his life -- after it has been destroyed by the war.

The Blue Dahlia is ultimately a more minor noir effort that perhaps suffers from miscasting. Ladd and Lake were both an attractive, but wooden pair and the film would have benefited from a more charismatic tortured lead (Bogart) and a leading lady with a mixture of innocent, sexuality, and desperation (such as Gloria Grahame). Though William Bendix practically steals the film from Ladd and Lake, Doris Dowling (The Lost Weekend) is quite good as Johnny’s immoral wife and it’s a shame she has such little screen time. While Buzz is a somewhat realistic portrait of men driven insane by the war and tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder, Doris is a seedy glimpse of the darker side of life on the home front. She hints at numerous affairs, debauchery, and alcoholism, the latter of which is responsible for her own son’s death. Another, somewhat similar victim of post-war debauchery and violence in Los Angeles, Elizabeth Short, was allegedly nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” after this film, which played down the street from a bar she frequented. She was brutally, gruesomely murdered a year after its release.

Though The Blue Dahlia is not a film noir classic, it’s still a worthy entry and fans of Raymond Chandler owe it to themselves to seek it out. Bizarrely, there is no official Blu-ray or DVD release, though it is available in the Turner Classic Movies “Dark Crimes” box set along with Ladd and Lake film The Glass Key, and Phantom Lady, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel. Though the Production Code generally frowned upon references to drinking or alcoholism, this film is full of them – thanks to Chandler, who was allegedly paid for the script with a case of Scotch – down to the famous line where Johnny orders “bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.” Post-war debauchery indeed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

THE GLASS KEY (1942)

Stuart Heisler, 1942
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd

Political boss and gangster Paul Madvig decides to support a candidate, Ralph Henry, because he’s in love with Henry’s cool, blonde daughter Janet. Though she clearly thinks Madvig is a fool, she plays along on her father’s behalf, eventually accepting a marriage proposal. Madvig’s second-in-command, Ned Beaumont, doesn’t trust Janet and can see right through her motives, though he’s also attracted to her. Unfortunately Janet’s brother, an irresponsible playboy, is killed and Madvig is the main suspect. One of Madvig’s enemies, Varna, tries to make the most of this and has Ned beaten when he won’t play along. He manages to escape, badly injured, but will Ned be able to stay alive long enough to find the real killer?

This is the second version of Dashiell Hammett's novel after a 1935 adaptation starring George Raft and the second pairing of stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Though The Glass Key is an entertaining early film noir, it doesn’t quite match up to Ladd and Lake’s wonderful first film together, This Gun for Hire. Ladd does resume his role as antihero and — though not quite as captivating as The Gun for Hire’s Raven — Ned is quite a bastard. There are some very dark scenes in the film, thanks to Ned’s questionable morality. He goes so far as to seduce a man’s wife right in front of him and goads the man into suicide, which is practically shown on screen. His relationship with Madvig is similar to later male relationships throughout noir, when two men become very close and either a woman — or a crime — comes between them. Gilda is a key example of this and in both films, there is an undeniable element of homoeroticism. Ned seems to only care for Madvig’s interests and his well-being, sacrificing Madvig’s own sister, Janet and her family, and others in their political network.

During the film’s most memorable scene, Ned is being beaten by a thug, Jeff (William Bendix in a great side role), who has his arm around Ned and calls him “baby,” “sweetheart,” and other names. This is one of Hollywood’s most graphic beating scenes of the period. Compared to contemporary action films, Ed’s swollen, disfigured face and lengthy healing time in the hospital are quite believable. Bendix apparently actually knocked out Ladd and was horrified, though the two went on to become very close friends. Ladd was beaten, whipped, and terrorized in a number of his films, even more so than Bogart, and emphasizes some of the elements of sadomasochism and homoeroticism inherent in film noir.

The weaker elements include Veronica Lake’s performance. She’s not at her best here, though she’s lovely to look at, but is far too cold and unemotional to summon much interest in her character. Lake uses her facial expressions expertly by throwing disgusted, coy, or calculating glances out in nearly every scene, I only wish there was more of this. All the political intrigue feels a bit pointless and rambling and there are plenty of plot elements don’t make a whole lot of sense — a man alters his political career to marry a woman, but then doesn’t care when she’s in love with this best friend? Speaking of, Brian Donlevy is likable as Madvig, but also overacts. Partly this works, because Madvig is a bit loud and buffoonish, but it also dates the film.
The Glass Key isn’t an absolute must-see, but is a pleasant way to pass the time and will be enjoyed by anyone who loves Ladd and Lake, early film noir, or political melodrama. It’s available in a Turner Classic Movies DVD set with The Phantom Lady and The Blue Dahlia

Friday, July 18, 2014

THIS GUN FOR HIRE

Frank Tuttle, 1942
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Laird Cregar, Robert Preston

A cold-blooded assassin named Raven is hired to kill a scientist and blackmailer, and then recover a stolen formula. His boss, Willard Gates, owner of Nitro Chemicals, double crosses him and pays him with marked bills, then turns him over to the police. Though he wants to spend time with his girlfriend, lovely nightclub singer Ellen Graham, Detective Michael Crane is hot on Raven’s trail, which leads from San Francisco to L.A. It just so happens that Williard Gates is also a club owner and hires Ellen to be his new act. A Senator secretly implores her to spy on Gates, who is under investigation. Ellen and Raven cross paths and Raven takes her hostage, but he later saves her life when Gates tries to kill her. The two reluctantly team up to reveal Gates for what he really is – a traitor trying to sell chemical warfare to the Japanese.

One of the best early riffs on film noir and one of the best thrillers of the war period, the underrated This Gun for Hire was also the first pairing of stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Though the tiny, blonde Lake was already famous by this point, thanks to Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and I Wanted Wings, as well as I Married a Witch, this was one of her most iconic roles. Ladd, who had only been given bit parts or side roles up to this point, became a star seemingly overnight. His portrayal of the ruthless, lonely, and nihilistic Raven is the first of its kind, and This Gun for Hire was an obvious influence on Jean-Pierre Melville’s iconic Le Samouraï (1967). Raven was one of the first cold-blooded, murderous antiheroes in cinema and also one of the first to suggest that an abusive childhood led to his current lot in life.

Ladd’s Raven is truly the centerpiece of the film. He is a character with extensive emotional and physical scars and is immediately identifiable (to the police) by his deformed wrist. Despite the fact that he is a killer – and admits to killing the aunt who raised him – he is a sympathetic character. He genuinely cares for cats and becomes protective of Ellen as he begins to trust her. Lake pales in comparison to Ladd, but is well-used for the moments of brightness and lightheartedness she provides. Ellen is a multi-talented performer and there is an amusing scene where Lake sings, flirts, and does magic. In a nice twist, she leaves behind playing cards so that Detective Crane can follow their increasingly dangerous trail.

Ellen’s boyfriend, Detective Crane (Robert Preston of Victor Victoria and The Music Man) is a fairly useless character. He exists seemingly for there to be an additional layer of tension between Graham and Raven, and as a barrier that keeps their relationship chaste and (mostly) unromantic. In hindsight, this is an odd choice as nearly every film noir that would follow it was concerned with destructive sexual relationships and the breakdown of gender roles. Though This Gun for Hire does have plenty of noir elements – including some mind-blowing cinematography from John Seitz (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Sullivan’s Travels, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, The Big Clock, and many more) – it is oddly asexual, which perhaps highlights its themes of personal isolation and self-destruction.

The most sexual character of the film is undoubtedly Laird Cregar (I Wake Up Screaming, The Lodger, Hangover Square) as Willard Gates. He is amazing, as always, and comes close to stealing the film from Ladd. The hulking actor was known for playing villainous, ambiguous roles, as if his real-life bisexually intruded upon the production – though always with great effect. His interest in Ellen Graham seems to be both business and pleasure; he wants to hire her for his club, but also presses for a private dinner at his home. When he believes she has double-crossed him, he suggestively has her tied up, but leaves before any real violence can take place, using his chauffeur as a surrogate.

This is undoubtedly director Frank Tuttle’s best film – he would go on to direct Ladd and Lake again in their next film noir, The Glass Key – and he used John Seitz’s claustrophobic, expressionist cinematography to excellent effect, as well as Graham Greene’s source novel. The film is based on Greene’s A Gun for Sale, but changes the theme to a political, war-time, antifascist environment and moved the setting from a European city to California. Though the script is essentially made up of multiple stories that come together at the film’s conclusion, Ladd and Cregar give such powerful performances that it’s easy to forget about the occasionally broken tension or plot holes. The film is available on DVD and comes highly recommend to all fans of film noir, crime cinema, movies about assassins, and devotees of Le Samouraï.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake

Paired together for seven films during the years of WWII, blonde, diminutive stars Alan Ladd (1913-1964) and Veronica Lake (1922-1973) are a fascinating look at both the successes and failure of Hollywood’s star system. Ladd and Lake were allegedly teamed up because of their complementary heights: he was 5’5” or 6” and she was 4’11”. They were teamed up for a total of seven films, beginning with their best, noir effort This Gun for Hire (1942). Ladd plays an icy assassin, Raven, who is double-crossed by his greedy, traitorous boss. Lake co-starred as a nightclub singer and the girlfriend of the detective after Raven. She is accidentally drawn into helping him, but they team up to bring down a ring of traitors selling chemical warfare to the Japanese.

Their best films together were all noir or crime: The Glass Key (1942), based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel about crooked politics and murder; The Blue Dahlia (1946), about a soldier returned home from the war to find his wife unfaithful and then murdered; and Saigon (1948), where a former solider and pilot learns that his friend has a limited time to live… They also appeared in three musical comedies as themselves – Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Duffy’s Tavern (1945), and Variety Girl (1947) – though these were generally all meant to raise money for the war effort.

Like his famous character Raven, Ladd had a difficult childhood. His father died when he was young, he was allegedly viciously bullied about his height, and his mother remarried and moved the family around. After his stepfather died in the ‘30s, she committed suicide soon after. Ladd’s climb to fame was long and grueling, as studios claimed he was too small, too blonde, and just didn’t have the right look. He sampled a variety of careers before finding success in Hollywood, including newspaper employee, hot dog stand owner, salesman, etc. He was discovered by agent Sue Carol, thanks to his radio work, and she quickly found him small roles in Hollywood films like Citizen Kane (1941) and Joan of Paris (1942).

He hit it big with his first film with Lake, This Gun for Hire (1942), and became a star seemingly overnight. Soon after, he divorced his wife and he and agent Sue Carol were married. Ladd briefly left to enlist in the Air Force, but was given an honorable medical discharge and returned to cinema. He was in a few films without Lake, mostly war movies or other noir efforts, including, China (1943), And Now Tomorrow(1944), Calcutta (1947) and Chicago Deadline (1949), and his last noir, Appointment With Danger (1951). Though a wildly popular personality, his efforts without Lake were simply not as successful.

Blaming the studio, Ladd left Paramount and went to Warner Bros. for the western Shane (1953), the biggest film of his career, but he failed to win any awards and his career fell steadily after this. He started his own company, Jaguar Productions, where he cast his children alongside him. Here his drinking problem seemed to overwhelm him and there was an incident when he was either shot or accidentally shot himself. His allegedly remained sober for his last film The Carpetbaggers (1964), but a few weeks later, before the film was released, he died at home of a mixture of alcohol and antidepressants.

Lake had an equally sad life with a rough start, a brief, but bright rise to fame, and an even more tragic fall. Allegedly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Lake – born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn – was encouraged to act by her parents as a form of treatment (?!) and had life-long troubles with her mother, who later sued her when she failed to keep up with her acting school repayments. Like Ladd, Lake’s father died when she was young due to a work accident. Soon after, her mother remarried and the family relocated several times. Thanks to her beauty and her trademark peek-a-boo blonde hair style, she found success relatively quickly in war films (I Wanted Wings) and romantic comedies (I Married a Witch) before being teamed up with Ladd in 1942. Some of her costars would later comment that success was quickly and easily handed to her, but she threw it all away.

Despite her fame, she developed a reputation for being difficult to work with and plenty of colleagues disliked her. Though she later had nice things to say about him, she and Ladd were not friends, and her alcoholism and mental health issues certainly isolated her from her colleagues and later her family, including her children and several husbands (one of whom was director Andre de Toth). Like Ladd, she supposedly began drinking heavily as her career declined, which worsened her reputation. Also like Ladd, she switched studios from Paramount to 20th Century Fox, which effectively marked the end of her career. When her Hollywood lost interest, her alcoholism increased, but she was more active than Ladd; she got her pilot’s license and wrote an autobiography, Veronica, where she frankly discussed her lifelong issues with mental illness and addiction. She was forced to hold down conventional jobs and when she was discovered working as a waitress in a hotel, support flooded in from her fans (and Marlon Brando). She turned it all down, choosing instead to keep her pride.

Though often considered a sex symbol or star more than an actress, she does have some good performances, namely in the fantastic Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Delightfully, her final film – which she co-financed – came more than a decade after her retirement. Flesh Feast (1970), a low budget horror film from Brad F. Grinter, the director of Thanksgiving-themed cult movie Blood Feast (1972), concerns Nazis trying to clone Adolph Hitler. She died a few years later due to alcohol related complications – both Ladd and Lake strangely died at the age of 50.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

ANGEL FACE

Otto Preminger, 1953
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall

Frank, an ambulance driver, is called to a Beverly Hills mansion when the lady of the house, Mrs. Tremayne, is nearly killed by gas poisoning. Though the general consensus is that it was an accident, she doesn’t seem so sure. On his way out, Frank meets her young, beautiful stepdaughter, Diane. She follows him to a diner, allegedly desperate to get out of the house, and he lies to his girlfriend in order to have dinner with Diane and go dancing with her. The next day, Diane arranges a meeting with his girlfriend, Mary, under the pretext that she wants to contribute to Frank’s fund to open his own garage; he was once a racecar driver. Seeing right through it, Mary gives up on Frank and he lets Diane convince him to come work at the mansion as a chauffeur. Caught up in her spell, Frank soon inadvertently becomes an accomplice to the murders of Diane’s father and stepmother…

The last of director Otto Preminger’s noir efforts is one of his finest. This highly underrated film deserves to be seen as much as Laura, and benefits from stylish, claustrophobic cinematography and a shocking ending that still packs a punch. As with Preminger’s Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Whirlpool, Angel Face is driven by two key performances: Jean Simmons as a mentally ill, somewhat tragic femme fatale, and Robert Mitchum as her hapless target. Mitchum was an important player in film noir – often as a man fatally manipulated by a beautiful woman – in such films as Out of the Past, The Locket, and many more. Here he is incredibly passive and wanders willingly into Diane’s trap. He ignores the fact that she’s a rich, beautiful, young woman suddenly enthralled by a poor ambulance driver who was once into race cars. This film is as much about class and economic status as it is about sex, and Frank’s desire to fulfill his dream of opening a shop and living a better life is the carrot she dangles in front of him for much of the film, substituting it with sex or sympathy when he strays.

This was undoubtedly Jean Simmons’ (Spartacus) finest performance in a career generally filled with light-hearted, saccharine roles. Diane is one of noir’s most complex female characters; she is at once manipulative, murderous, depressed, obsessive, and loving, desperate to be loved in return. She’s one of the period’s bleakest characters alongside Gene Tierney’s equally dangerous mentally ill lead in Leave Her to Heaven. The two films would make an interesting double feature, as both characters are obsessed with their fathers, become obsessed with a handsome, but passive male character, and are homicidally jealous of anyone who gets in the way.

In addition to Diane, the film is dominated by controlling women, particularly her stepmother, but even the Japanese housekeeper who berates her husband, and Mary. There’s something unpleasant about Mona Freeman’s (The Heiress) Mary. Though she has a wholesome, girl-next-door look, she’s coldly rational and almost disturbingly practical, eschewing romance for whichever man is the most dependable, faithful, and obedient. Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent, The Letter) and Barbara O’Neil (Gone with the Wind) are great as Diane’s somewhat ambiguous parents who play a continually larger role in the film until their unpleasant demise. Preminger is careful to present them in contrasting scenes. First, they have a loving relationship and Mr. Tremayne cares for his possibly delusional wife. Later, they are both depicted as prone to alcoholism and lives comprised of depressive idleness. Mrs. Tremayne also degradingly controls her husband by regularly tightening the purse strings.

Wealth and success is seen as a corrupting influence in Angel Face, a contradictory way to achieve and destroy one’s dreams. In particular, the car, a symbol of American ingenuity, industry, and freedom is used to a variety of ends. For Frank, a vehicle – an ambulance – is what brings him to Diane, but her sports car attracts him; it represents the glorious but faded past, hopeful dreams for the future, and the physical locus point of a better life. For Diane, it is a lure and a weapon. Part of what draws Diane and Frank together is the disappointing state of their current lives. They both long for the time before the war, when Diane lived in London – she explains that it is the last time she danced with a man (presumably her father, in a disturbingly incestual undertone) – while Frank says it was the last time he raced a sports car.

While Angel Face does have elements of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, particularly in terms of the planned murder, courtroom scene, and the lawyer that convinces the couple at odds to work together, but Angel Face has a unique degree of perversion, hysteria and homicidal impulses buried just beneath a wholesome, lovely exterior. There is a nightmarish, fever dream aspect with characters being roused from sleep, wandering at night, searching for something other than the mundane, deflated routine of postwar life.

Angel Face is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. Fans of film noir, Otto Preminger, and Robert Mitchum will want to see this out, but so will everyone else.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

WHIRLPOOL (1949)

Otto Preminger, 1949
Starring: Gene Tierney, José Ferrer, Richard Conte, Charles Bickford

A psychiatrist’s beautiful, but troubled wife, Anne, is arrested for theft after concealing her kleptomania and insomnia from her husband. A con artist and hypnotist, David Korvo, deftly rescued her from the embarrassment, but presses for a future meeting. Convinced he is going to blackmail or attempt to seduce her, an outraged Anne is relieved to find out that he only wants to use his hypnotic powers to help her. She gets a good night sleep for the first time in months, but is soon found guilty of the murder of one of Korvo’s previous rich, female clients when she appears in the woman’s house with no memory of the evening. Did Anne kill the woman or is she being framed?

Based on Guy Endore’s (The Werewolf of Paris) novel Methinks the Lady, the script is from the great Ben Hecht, who had also worked with director Otto Preminger on Angel Face and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Though this is often categorized as film noir, Whirlpool is more of a psychological melodrama than a crime film and my only real complaint is that I wish more genuine elements of crime and mystery had been introduced. It’s too obvious that Korvo is the killer and the film’s only real mysteries are whether or not Anne’s husband will forgive/believe her and whether he and the detective will be able to crack Korvo’s alibi.

Though the film is incredibly enjoyable, it is not able to compete with Preminger’s best films noir, Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Angel Face. There are numerous plot issues from a purely logistical standpoint and it’s simply going too far to accept that Korvo hypnotizes himself to get up and walk around after gall-bladder surgery – this is touching on the kind of camp territory that Universal horror plunged into in the ‘40s through series like the Inner Sanctum Mysteries and other drivel. Tierney’s Anne is also too obviously innocent. Though her innocent is doubted for a time in Laura, I had a similar issue with her in both Preminger’s Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends. She’s simply too likable to be convincingly guilty, morally ambiguous, or a true femme fatale. (This is also why she is so sympathetic as the mentally diseased, manipulative murderess in Leave Her to Heaven).

The acting is phenomenal and stars Gene Tierney and José Ferrer are practically able to overcome the numerous plot issues. Tierney is perhaps channeling her own experiences with mental illness in her role as Anne, which she struggled with for many years. She was institutionalized and underwent shock therapy for depression and her portrait of a fragile, unstable, depressed, elegant, and privileged wife is unparalleled in ‘40s cinema. This blend of contradictions captures the psychological difficulties of being a “kept” woman during a period of shifting gender roles. Tierney occupies this transitory position in many of her film roles and as a result captures a sense of isolation, of not belonging.

I absolutely fell in love with José Ferrer. The incredible actor is probably best known to contemporary audiences because he’s the father of Twin Peaks’ amazing Miguel Ferrer and – thanks to his off-again, on-again marriage to Rosemary Clooney – he’s George Clooney’s uncle. Ferrer made his career with his award-winning theatrical and filmic renditions of the titular character in Cyrano de Bergerac, though he excelled at playing villains – I would love to see his Iago in Othello. He had well-known roles in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), Joan of Arc (1948) with Ingrid Bergman, Crisis (1950) with Cary Grant, Moulin Rouge (1952), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and – believe it or not – Dune (1984). He was the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award, which was the first of many awards for Ferrer. There is a sad twist to Whirlpool’s themes of romantic dishonesty and infidelity. Ferrer was married five times. His first marriage with renowned stage actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen ended due to her controversial, long-time affair with the great Paul Robeson. He was married to actress Rosemary Clooney (White Christmas) twice; both times ended in divorce because of his affairs.

Richard Conte (The Big Combo) and Charles Bickford (The Woman on the Beach) are constantly overwhelmed by Tierney and Korvo, but Bickford in particularly gives a good performance. Conte is probably the worst thing about this film. He’s miscast as Anne’s husband, a brilliant psychiatrist. The script also expects to be a man at the head of his field, who somehow fails to release that his wife is a depressed, insomniac, kleptomaniac. He also runs through an implausibly quick range of emotions; initially after the murder he hates her and is convinced of her infidelity, but soon he realized he is to blame for acting too much like her father (!) and becomes determined to prove that Korvo is the murderer, despite the man’s airtight alibi. The implausible marital relationship between Anne and her husband is the film’s most nebulous point, though it makes a number of interesting observations about marriage between wealthy, successful individuals. Preminger, Ferrer, and Tierney were all divorced and married numerous times, with both Tierney and Ferrer remarrying the same spouse twice.

As a thriller, Whirlpool pales in comparison to Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), a superior, earlier example of the use of hypnotism and psychiatry in a twisted romance. Hitchcock’s film is also more overtly subversive. Whirlpool does benefit from some excellent work from Academy Award-winning cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, whose shots of Tierney are particularly impressive. The film comes highly recommended and anyone who was not previously acquainted with Ferrer should prepare to have their minds blown. The film is available on DVD, though I would love to see a Blu-ray box set of Preminger’s noir and thriller works.

Monday, July 14, 2014

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS

Otto Preminger, 1950
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney

Notorious for being violent towards criminals, Detective Dixon is warned by his superiors that he has to get control of himself or he’ll be sent back to the beat. During an investigation, he accidentally kills a crooked gambler, Ken Paine, and hides the body in a panic – he dumps Paine in the river. Though Dixon tries to put the blame on another gangster, suspicion quickly falls on Jiggs Taylor, the cab driver father of the beautiful Morgan, Paine’s estranged wife. Before his death, Morgan had moved in with her father because of Paine’s penchant for domestic violence. Dixon comes to realize that though he has nearly committed the perfect crime, the kindly Jiggs will be found guilty of murder, a matter further complicated by the fact that Dixon is falling in love with Morgan…

1950 was an important year for film noir, probably the most important next to 1944, and included the release of Sunset Boulevard, Night and the City, The Asphalt Jungle, and several more. After Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), this is director Otto Preminger’s third film to star Dana Andrews and Where the Sidewalk Ends provides an interesting contrast to both of these earlier works, particularly Laura. While Laura depicted the inherent sickness and corruption hiding behind the attractive veneer of upper class New York society and Fallen Angel exposed the violence and greed lurking in supposedly wholesome, small-town America, While the City Sleeps was his darkest film to date. Shot primarily in New York, the city is a cesspool, a place of ruin and despair.

Laura’s cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, returned to capture some of the urban realism directors like Jules Dassin were using at that time. LaShelle captures a morally gray universe in a city choked with shadows, despair, and trash, a place forever marred by WWII. Fate and unhappy circumstance plague even the best of men, and many of the characters have little to live for, while others are forced by necessity to turn to lives of crime or violence. Dixon is essentially the genesis of the violent cop who considers himself above – or below – the law, a man who acts as a solitary force of vigilante justice. Dana Andrews is incredible in the role – certainly one of his best – and he manages to impart a mixture of crippling guilt, sadomasochistic violence, moral transgression, and the fundamental sleaziness of the city without over acting and sometimes without raising more than an eyebrow. His detective in Laura was reserved, middle class, and plagued by sexual fantasies. Here he is indisputably blue collar, forever running from an abusive childhood and criminal father, both delivering and seeking out endless beatings at the hands of other men.

Both Andrews and Gene Tierney worked with Preminger several times, together on Laura, and then Andrews starred in Fallen Angel and Tierney in Whirlpool. They lack the magnetic, hot tension of onscreen couples like Bogart and Bacall, which oddly serves the interest of their characters – coming together, but always moving apart. Like so many other noir personalities, both Tierney and Andrews had difficult lives off screen, with Andrews suffering from alcoholism and Tierney struggling with mental illness. While Andrews excellently portrays the fundamental noir antihero – lonely, repressed, guilt-ridden, and filled with a quiet, pervasive rage – Tierney’s character is an unusual noir heroine. She is not a femme fatale, though the script seems to beg for the degree of duplicity normally seen in such characters. Instead, she is surrounded by damaged men – her father lives a life of fantasy and delusion, weaving stories to cover up his empty life; her husband is a war hero who has turned to a life of crime and violence, presumably because he couldn’t make the transition back into normal life. He tries to press his wife into schemes and beats her when she refuses. Dixon is not much better: he murdered her husband, courts her while her father is in prison on his account, and his greatest romantic gesture towards her (confessing) will likely land him in prison.

Andrews and Tierney are accompanied by some strong supporting performances from Gary Merrill (All About Eve), Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), Ruth Donnelly (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and Neville Brand (Stalag 17). Nothing about this film is black and white, including the cops, criminals, and other side characters, making it a more complex work than it is usually given credit for. Of course, there are some plot holes, like nearly all of Preminger’s other noir efforts, but the script from Ben Hecht is still excellent. Based on the novel Night Cry by William L. Stuart, I’d argue that this film is just as important as Laura, but lacks any of the earlier film’s charm, wit, or panache; it is a much darker work. It comes highly recommended and is available on DVD.