Friday, October 24, 2014

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT

Nicholas Ray, 1948
Starring: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva

Bowie, a young prisoner, escapes with two older men, Chicamaw and T-Dub. Though Bowie was in prison thanks to a wrongful conviction for murder, the other two are hardened criminals. They plan to rob a bank together, which Bowie agrees to because he wants to hire a lawyer and prove his innocence. After the first robbery, they hole up in a gas station, where Bowie meets Keechie, the owner's daughter and Chicamaw's niece. After an accident, he finds his way back there and he and Keechie fall for each other. They run off together and get married, but Chicamaw hunts them down and insists that Bowie participate in another robbery. He and Keechie go on the run, but Keechie is pregnant and falls ill, which spells their doom.

The first film by director Nicholas Ray is less an outright film noir and more a noir-fueled crime film with a heaping dose of romantic melodrama. The tragic story of Bowie and Keechie – doomed young lovers caught up in a crime spree – is the obvious precursor to more famous and violent later entries like Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, and Badlands. Famed producer and Orson Welles-collaborator John Houseman helped get Ray the film and his first job as a director. Though Houseman had secured the rights the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson, it sat on the shelf for a few years. The same fate befell Ray's film, which was temporarily shelved by RKO's then new owner Howard Hughes. But it built up quite a reputation among other directors and actors and its release, two years after the film was complete, was a success.

Co-written by Ray and screenwriter Charles Schnee, this focuses on two dreamy, sensitive characters filled with loneliness and cut off from family, friends, or love. Many of Ray's future films would go on to show sympathy for outsiders, isolated characters who often make poor choices, get swept up in willfully bad decisions, and simply have hard luck. The inherent sense of doom and tragedy is probably why They Live By Night is generally grouped with film noir. There is the feeling that no matter what Bowie's intentions are, or what good he tries to do for Keechie, it will all end in pain and violence.

They Live By Night is somewhat similar to Moonrise (1948), oddly from the same year, as both films have a rural setting – rare within film noir – and a focus on the Depression-era South. Both have a documentary quality that makes it feel like the stories of these young, impoverished adults is playing out in small towns and farming communities across America. Like the characters from Moonrise, Bowie and Keechie were raised in poverty by neglectful or abusive parents, with at least one parent missing. There is also the sense that they cannot escape the life they've inherited for their parents and no matter how much they want to be happy, loved, and successful, it's just not in the cards.

This wouldn't have been conveyed so convincingly or heartbreakingly without Cathy O’Donnell (The Best Years of Our Lives) as Keechie or Farley Granger (Rope) as Bowie. The two young actors bring a fairytale-like quality of innocence and discovery to the roles. Both Bowie and Keechie have been downtrodden by life, but not hardened by it. They lack the fundamental cynicism or hopelessness possessed by all the film's other characters, which gives They Live By Night a magical quality that Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands utterly lack. O'Donnell would go on to further success with a relatively short career in classics like Detective Story and Ben-Hur, while Farley Granger brought his somewhat odd appeal to Hitchcock's Rope and Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock allegedly discovered him by watching a then-unreleased print of They Live By Night. There's also a memorable performance from Howard Da Silva as the one-eyed Chicamaw. Houseman discovered Da Silva when he was cast in the play The Cradle Will Rock (which has a fascinating story all its own), which Houseman produced with Orson Welles. Most of the film's other actors were friends of Houseman and Ray.

They Live By Night may not be my favorite Ray film – that honor goes to In a Lonely Place – but it comes recommended and is an absolutely beautiful film. Thanks to some dazzling performances by O'Connell and Granger, and excellent cinematography from George Diskant, this remains one of the best films of the late '40s. It's available on DVD as part of a double feature with Side Street or in Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4. Film buffs will also want to keep an eye out for some of the early shots, as Ray was the first person to use a helicopter to shoot a scene; previously they had only been used to scout locations.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

IN A LONELY PLACE


Nicholas Ray, 1950
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carol Benton Reid


"I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."

During my film noir series over the past few months, I've watched a lot of excellent films. I've loved everything from I Wake Up Screaming (1940) to Ace in the Hole (1951), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Gilda (1946), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Laura (1944), Ministry of Fear (1944), and many more. But I think that In a Lonely Place (1950), which I first had the pleasure to watch four or five years ago, will always be my favorite film noir. The combination of director Nicholas Ray, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, and one of the bleakest scripts in '40s or '50s cinema is irresistible and utterly nihilistic.

Bogart is fabulous as Dixon Steele (what a name), a foul tempered screenwriter with a violent past. When he is suspected of a recent murder, his new neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), provides him with an alibi she may or may not have fabricated. Laurel is on the run from a past love, but she and Steele immediately fall for one another. For the first time in years, they are both happy. She plays housewife and he can concentrate well enough to get some work done. But soon she gets some evidence that Steele might not be all that he seems. As her doubt and paranoia grows, Steele becomes increasingly angry and attempts to rush her down the aisle as soon as possible, with tragic results.

Though In a Lonely Place is adapted from the 1947 novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, the plot is so divergent that it really only borrows elements from the book. In the novel, Steele is unequivocally a serial murder preying on local women. In the film, he's a figure of doomed romance who suffers from alcoholism and bouts of violent rage. It’s also clear that he’s never quite recovered from his experience serving in the war. The ambiguity of whether or not he is the murderer is the axis around which the film rotates. Thanks to Ray and Bogart, Steele is charismatic and just a little bit pathetic, a figure of sympathy who is also the architect of his own frustration and failure.

Whether or not Steele is able to love is the central question of In a Lonely Place. The romance between Steele and Gray is a constant reminder of the difficult and often unfulfilling nature of real love. In particular, the film brings to mind the haunting concept that we never really know other people, even if it is someone we love enough to seriously commit to. I’m currently reading The Anarchy of the Imagination, a collection of interviews with and essays by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In it, he writes regularly about the films of Douglas Sirk and Sirk’s ability to convey the inherent tragedy in romance: that people most want what they cannot have, need love but cannot sustain it, and are the most destructive towards those who love them. Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows was directed five years after In a Lonely Place and is melodrama, not film noir, the parallels are obvious and painful.

In a Lonely Place suggests that the fluid, often difficult nature of identity is at the root of this failure. Both Steele and Gray are ambiguous characters with shady pasts. Steele suffers from depression, a violent temper, and alcoholism. His celebrity as a screenwriter frustrates him because he craves solitude, but also because he has failed to produce anything of note since the war. Gray is on the run from a wealthy man who loves and wants to marry her. She presumably began a manipulative relationship with him, one to advance her career as an actress, and fled when the situation became emotionally serious. Both Gray and Steele are plagued by a strain of selfishness that becomes obvious when Ray shows the difference between their public and private faces.

Ray uses more humor than the average film noir, despite the dark tone of the film, and black comedy is often a tool of manipulation. For example, there’s a particularly histrionic scene where Steele speculates with a police officer friend and his wife about the murder. Instead of sympathizing with him, this encourages his friend – and the audience – to believe his guilt. There is a constant threat of paranoia, violence, and underlying sexuality that makes the humor hard to chuckle at. The suggestion of a perverse sexuality is ever-present, through the sexual implications of the serial murder at the beginning of the film, to Steele’s manic rage, Gray’s suggested promiscuity, and her controlling, powerhouse of a masseuse, who is implied to be a lesbian.

The lingering sexual menace lasts until the closing credits. The ending is also rich with ambiguity and nihilism. Originally, Steele was supposed to kill Gray in a heated argument. Afterwards, a police inspector would burst on the scene, declaring his innocence from the initial crime. Instead, Ray, Bogart, and Grahame improvised on an ending where Gray discovers Steele's innocence before he explodes into violence. She tells the detective that what would have been important a few hours before no longer matters. Nothing matters anymore.

Grahame, a noir regular, is lovely and gives one of the best performances of her career (which is saying something considering her work in The Big Heat and Odds Against Tomorrow). She goes toe-to-toe with Bogart, which must have been difficult work considering that her marriage to director Ray was crumbling during production. Allegedly for part of filming he moved out and began sleeping on the set. This was apparently due to the fact that Grahame was having an affair with Ray’s teenage son, a relationship that later resulted in marriage.

Ray was an incredibly gifted, influential director, best known for Rebel Without a Cause and a handful of other films noir, including They Live by Night, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, and others. His work deserves to seen by modern audiences, though I will always recommend In a Lonely Place before Rebel Without a Cause. The black and white visuals are breathtaking and there is a fascinating score by composer George Antheil, usually known for his avant-garde work. This is also, hands down, Bogart’s finest performance. According to actress Louise Brooks, Bogie’s close friend, a lot of Steele's personality traits allegedly reflect Bogart himself: plagued by fame, hot tempered, a love of drinking, a fading career, and a desperate need for isolation.

In a Lonely Place originally received mixed reviews, but has fortunately developed a cult following and been given status as a classic film by the Library of Congress. The single-disc Sony release is pretty sad and I can only hope Criterion will secure the rights one day and release a Blu-ray with an overwhelming amount of special features. This comes with the highest possible recommendation and is a must-see.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950)

Jules Dassin, 1950
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom

An egomaniacal, ambitious American hustler living in London, Harry Fabian, is convinced that he will strike it rich with his latest scheme – Greco-Roman wrestling matches. He has the support of Gregorius, a veteran wrestler, but Gregorius’ son Kristo is determined to go into business with it himself. Fabian presses on and gets financial help from Phil, a nightclub owner, and his discontented wife Helen. She promises that she’ll help Fabian if he secretly goes to business with her – opening her own nightclub. But Fabian betrays her and Phil soon withdrawals and promises to ruin Fabian, because Kristo is an old friend. But Fabian pushes Gregorius and another notorious wrestler known as the Strangler into a fight, after which Gregorius dies. Fabian flees, but an enraged Kristo declares a bounty of £1000 for whoever brings back Fabian’s corpse. He’s forced to go on the run, but it seems that London’s entire underworld is against him.

Though this is technically a British film – shot there after director Jules Dassin was forced to flee the U.S. due to his refusal to testify to H.U.A.C. and his subsequent blacklisting – it is one of the finest films noir ever made. Filmed around Soho, this is one of few noir efforts that depict war-torn England or Europe in place of the typical noir setting – New York or San Francisco – and it’s in such excellent company as The Third Man and Burt Lancaster-vehicle Kiss the Blood off My Hands. With its bombed out building and weighty sense of despair, post-war London is anything but a typical noir set, which enhances the nightmarish quality of the plot. The claustrophobic, chiaroscuro cinematography from Max Greene is one of the film’s finest elements, and Night and City is certainly far more stylized than Dassin’s previous The Naked City or Thieves’ Highway.

Night and the City is understandably nasty, due to Dassin’s recent experiences, and the cast of characters are all crooked, predatory, cold-hearted, or so desperate that it’s impossible to pity them. There is not a likable character in the bunch, with the possible exception of Gene Tierney’s Mary, who is a broken woman, deeply in love with Fabian and unable to cast him aside even though he’s no good for her. Tierney was allegedly cast in the film because producer Darryl Zanuck was afraid for her mental health, something she struggled with for years. Including Mary, Night and the City represents a post-war inferno – or at best a purgatory – populated with the damned, the criminal, and the corrupt.

Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death) is perfectly as Fabian, a completely self-centered scoundrel, but one you can’t help rooting for in comparison to the surrounding characters. With a third act that takes Hitchcock’s “wrong man” trope to the next level, Fabian is chased through the bowels of London by some of the most ruthless members of the underworld. He’s betrayed and abandoned by everyone he knows, except Mary, who he bravely tries to save in the end. The conclusion of Night and the City is foreshadowed by both Dassin’s Brute Force and The Naked City. This is where Dassin perfects the terrifying image of a protagonist – not a villain as in the aforementioned films – thrown from a bridge to his death.

There are some good side performances – keep an eye out for a very young Herbert Lom as Kristo, and Francis L. Sullivan as the Hitchcockian Phil and Googie Withers as Helen, his unfaithful wife. His suicide is one of the film’s most chilling, desolate moments. Dassin also evokes a little of sweaty-soaked, grimy filth of Brute Force with a lengthy, brutal fight scene between Gregorius (real-life wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko) and the aptly named The Strangler (noir-regular and former boxer Mike Mazurki).

Available on DVD from Criterion, it is difficult to say whether Night and the City is Dassin’s masterpiece, or if that honor should go to Brute Force. Either way, it comes with the highest possible recommendation and is certainly one of the best noir works ever made. It’s a true picture of post-war loathing when Europe was war-torn, America was in the grip of communist paranoia, and the Cold War loomed on the horizon. This allegory for Dassin’s blacklisting and subsequent flight from America is certainly his most hopeless film, which leaves behind a veneer of human filth and corruption. If you’re less interested in noir plotting, Max Greene’s cinematography is spellbinding and Franz Waxman’s doom-laden score is perhaps the best of his staggeringly impressive career, which includes Sunset Boulevard, Rebecca, Bride of Frankenstein, Mr. Roberts, Rear Window, The Philadelphia Story, and more.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

THIEVES' HIGHWAY

Jules Dassin, 1949
Starring: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb

Nick, a well-traveled a ship mechanic in the war, returns home to find that his father, a truck driver, has been crippled. Though it seems to be an accident, he comes to believe that a crooked produce dealer from San Francisco, Mike Figlia, is responsible. Nick decides to put things right and gets involved in delivering a truckload of apples on a grueling 36-hour drive north, where Figlia tries to con Mike out of his stock and his money. With the help of a brazen streetwalker, Rica, Nick goes head-to-head with Mike and his gang of ruffians.

Written by A.I. Bezzerides and based on his own novel, Thieves' Market, this was director Jules Dassin’s final film in America after being blacklisted by H.U.A.C. and moving to England and then Europe. Just as his previous film noir, The Naked City, shows life in working-class ‘40s New York City, Thieves' Highway presents a surprisingly accurate view of life on the docks in San Francisco inside the busy produce market. Though Dassin used actual workers from the market as extras, this film involves far less of a look at the city as a whole, focusing more on Richard Conte (The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven) as Nick – and this is where the film stumbles.

Though Conte is a competent actor, Nick is a frustratingly simple character. He’s proud and tough, but also physically vulnerable and unafraid to access his emotions, though he lacks any shred of individuality. He is also from the typically isolated, doomed noir protagonist, yet everything that could go wrong for Nick does. His father is crippled, he is cheated out of money for a truck that his father was forced to sell, he is nearly crushed to death by the truck, undergoes several days’ worth of sleep deprivation, and he is constantly undermined and sabotaged by Figlia and his gang. When he finally gets his money back, he is robbed and beaten. When his fiancĂ©e comes to visit, she is disgusted to learn that his money is gone and she leaves him. And so on. An element that sets this apart from the standard noir – where a luckless protagonist meets misfortune through a combination of chance and his own poor decision making – is that everything that goes wrong does so because Figlia orders it, but neither Nick nor any of his compatriots are allowed to get vengeance upon Figlia himself.

It’s difficult to sympathize with Nick because of this, and because he never really gets vengeance upon anyone who wrongs him. Though Ed (Millard Mitchell), his trucking partner for a time, winds up being something of a tragic figure, for much of the film he seems like he’s waiting for an opportunity to screw over Nick. Nick forces him to give a farmer the money Ed owes, but outside of that, Ed is free to walk all over him. The film’s ending is certainly the most disappointing aspect. Dassin had no hand in it, as he was out of the country by the time the final cut was produced, so the studio intervened. In a final scene where Nick is beating Figlia, he is interrupted by the cops in a ham-fisted deus ex machina that is teeth-grindingly frustrating. It seems that Nick might be able to pull some fitting revenge out of his hat at the last minute, but instead two police officers – the same cops who have been there all along, doing nothing to fight the violence and corruption – reprimand him and say that they will handle Figlia and his gang.

Nick and Rica’s happy ending feels horribly saccharine after the constant, crushing defeat experienced throughout the film, but it is slightly less grating thanks to the presence of Valentina Cortese (Juliet of the Spirits, The Barefoot Contessa; Dassin’s girlfriend at the time). Rica is the film’s most complex character with real warmth, eroticism, and a touch of the exotic lacking in the film’s numerous other immigrants. It is implied that Rica is a prostitute, but she is revealed as being less money-hungry than Nick’s blonde, American girlfriend. Joseph Peyney and Jack Oackie put in some solid performance as the comedic relief, two rival truckers following Ed and Nick on their journey north. This is really Lee J. Cobb’s (12 Angry Men) film as Figlia, the charming and greedy produce dealer who has a hand in everything from theft to murder.

Thieves' Highway is available on DVD from Criterion. It comes recommended, though I don’t think it’s one of Dassin’s best films. It feels overly similar to the earlier Humphrey Bogart-vehicle, They Drive By Night, another film about truckers trying to escape a corrupt industry and back-breaking, often fatal work. It turns out that that film was also based on a novel by A.I. Bezzerides, Long Haul. Thieves' Highway has many elements in common, far too many to really hold my interest. In both, the road is symbolic of blue collar life and brotherly camaraderie, but also reflects those dangers and the potential for violence, corruption, and death. If you’re going to watch a bleak, noir-themed film about truck drivers, Thieves' Highway would be my third choice after Wages of Fear and then They Drive By Night, though it is still a solid work of late ‘40s filmmaking.

Monday, October 20, 2014

THE NAKED CITY

Jules Dassin, 1948
Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, Howard Duff

One night in New York City a young model, Jean, is found dead. Though suicide is initially suspected, it’s soon clear that she was murdered. The experienced Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon and his young partner, Jimmy Halloran, investigate the crime together. While Halloran is doing the legwork on the case, he discovers the suspicious second death of a drunken burglar and some clues about a harmonica-playing boxer. Muldoon allows him to chase down these leads on his own, though eventually the two come to the same conclusion – that Jean’s murder is connected to a man named Frank Niles, possibly Jean’s boyfriend and a consummate liar, and a jewelry theft racket.

The Naked City is yet another of Jules Dassin’s excellent film noir efforts. Though his career was split between the U.S. and Europe, thanks to being blacklisted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, this film was one of his last on American soil. Influenced by a New York photography book released by artists Weegee, who actually consulted on the film, The Naked City is famous for its docu-noir style. Numerous critics have cited the likely influence of Italian neorealism and Roberto Rossellini, and the film certainly looks like an American take on Rossellini’s depictions of post-war, urban slums in Italy. Though there are several characters in the film, New York City itself is indisputably the main character.

The city is fascinating, but also menacing as shot by award-winning cinematographer William H. Daniels (Greed). It is a playground of hopes, dreams, crime, corruption, and squalor. This is a fascinating look at life in late ‘40s New York. The film takes time to wander through neighborhoods, give a glimpse of the lives of ordinary citizens not connected to the murder mystery at hand, and ignores the ritzier neighborhoods and famous monuments. Somewhat uniquely, narration is provided by the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, as himself. He points out that Jean’s story is only one of many, implying that murder and crime is just a slice of regular New York life.

Though the film is full of solid performances and a number of colorful figures, the characters are bare sketches. Even the two leads, Barry Fitzgerald’s Lt. Muldoon and Don Taylor’s Halloran, are hardly fleshed out, leaving them less substantial than your average character on Law & Order. But Dassin is able to do a lot with very little. Fitzgerald (The Quiet Man, Bringing Up Baby) is charismatic and almost fatherly as the lead detective, practiced and cynical, yet also sympathetic. Don Taylor (Stalag 17) as the rookie detective is perhaps the most developed, interesting character, and the film essentially follows his travels through the city, while he questions everyone connected with Jean.

Also keep your eyes peeled for some noir and gangster flick regulars in the guise of two of the film’s bad guys, Ted de Corsia (The Lady from Shanghai, The Killing) and the pathetic, yet memorable Howard Duff (Brute Force, While the City Sleeps, also husband of the great Ida Lupino). The Naked City is less concerned with the specific psychology of the killer and more of the puzzle pieces that fit together to provide a picture of murder, crime, and corruption. This last detail – a wide-angle view of crime in the city – is really what elevates this from a solid murder mystery/police procedural into a noteworthy film noir.

Available on DVD from Criterion, The Naked City comes recommended, if only for its dazzling, comprehensive look at ‘40s New York City. Between the witty dialogue, quick pace, and Hitchcockian ending with some truly inspired camera work, there’s not much about this to dislike. The murder mystery plot is definitely formulaic, but Dassin’s skill as a director is transcendent enough that by the second half, you won’t even really care whodunit. Fans of the film noir and crime drama will definitely want to track down The Naked City, and it was successful enough that it spawned a TV series of the same name and joined the ranks of early noir-tinged police procedural shows like Dragnet, Mike Hammer, and The Fugitive

Friday, October 17, 2014

BRUTE FORCE (1947)

Jules Dassin, 1947
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford

“Nobody ever escapes.”

The prisoners of cell R17 plan to escape Westgate Prison after the kind, tolerant warden is forced to impose stricter measures and the prison’s security chief, Captain Munsey, is allowed to exercise his sadism unchecked. After returning from some time in solitary confinement, prisoner Joe Collins organizes the men and builds a plan around the drainage pipe they are forced to dig just outside the heavily guarded prison walls. Meanwhile, Joe’s sick wife refuses to have a vital operation unless he is by her side, and another prisoner is convinced – by Munsey – that his wife wants a divorce, resulting in the man’s suicide. Once the warden resigns against his will and the clock counts down to zero hour for the prisoners’ escape plan, chaos breaks out in the prison.

Though there were a slew of prison films in the ‘30s – loosely a companion genre to the first round of gangster films – Brute Force is arguably the first truly important prison film, one that would go on to influence all future movies about escaping from the clink. Director Jules Dassin and screenwriter Richard Brooks (Crossfire) manage to cover a wide range of issues that made Hollywood – and McCarthy-era America – wildly uncomfortable. This is not a prison film about guilt and justice, or punishment and repentance; rather it is about class warfare, social control, and the evils of political power.

Inspired by a violent escape attempt at Alcatraz in 1946, there are unavoidable parallels to Nazi concentration camps. There is a tremendous sense of community within the prison, which feels more like a POW camp and reminded me somewhat of Jean Renoir’s Le grande illusion (1937). These men are not hardened criminals and their crimes are largely portrayed as minor offenses, the products of bad decisions brought about by love, war, and poverty. Though films as early as Night Train to Munich (1940) depicted references to or brief snippets of camp life, these are dull and hygienic examples that shy away from the true horrors (which the public was ignorant of until 1945).

Brute Force is a filthy, disgusting film that focuses on sweat, blood, and human filth. It wouldn’t be difficult to draw a cinematic line between this film and Pasolini’s Salo (1975), which is a more academic evolution of Dassin’s themes of forced labor, exploitation, extreme human suffering (including suicide), sewage, and filth. In both films, men are part of a Kafkaesque, almost absurdist post-war machinery where bureaucracy reigns and grinds humanity into the dirt. Munsey is a fascist and sadist set free by this bureaucracy and shots of him are unmistakably filled with a sense of Nazi style – a portrait of himself in his office, pressed black uniforms, jackboots, and a row of gleaming rifles.

Following with common film noir themes, the prisoners of Brute Force are primarily soldiers who have survived the grisly death and dismemberment of war to find that there is no place for them on the home front. They have been conditioned to a reality of violence, of which Dassin suggests there is no escape. And Brute Force certainly is violent, shockingly so for the time period. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, an informant is crushed to death in the prison’s auto-shop machinery, as Dassin weaves a dizzying choreography of workers hammering, drilling, and wielding blowtorches to distract the guards from his murder. In another scene, Sam Levene’s character refuses to talk to Munsey about the escape plans and is made an example of: he is handcuffed to a chair and beaten with an iron bar while classical music mutes some of his agonized cries.

The typical noir element of doomed romance is present in the form of a calendar pinup stuck to the wall of cell R17 that reminds each prisoner of the woman they love – who is also the source of their troubles in one form or another. The roster of lovely ladies includes Yvonne De Carlo (she would reunite with Lancaster in Criss Cross), Ella Raines (Phantom Lady and The Suspect), and Ann Blyth (Mildred Pierce). There is even a nod to the femme fatale in the form of Anita Colby’s Flossie, a gambling, gun-toting dame who pretends to help a man (the flaneur character played by John Hoyt) out of a tight spot, only to steal his gun, his money, and his car.

Noir regular Burt Lancaster (Criss Cross, The Killers, I Walk Alone) shines in his finest role as the Everyman convict, Joe, who organizes the escape and punishes those who double cross him. Hume Cronyn (Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat) is unforgettable and slimy, particularly when he spouts vaguely Nietzschean psycho-babble about how might makes right and nature condones violence. Other regular noir actors appear, including Charles Bickford (Fallen Angel), Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin), Sam Levene (The Killers), Art Smith (In a Lonely Place), and more. Worth a final mention is the performance from singer Sir Lancelot (I Walked with a Zombie, To Have and Have Not), who has a memorable turn as Calypso, a prisoner who sings nearly all of his dialogue and narrates some of the events in song, adding a bitter sweet touch to the proceedings.

William H. Daniels’ cinematography is absolutely breathtaking and if nothing else I’ve said about the film seems compelling, at least watch it for shots of almost silvery black and white cinematography that is at once oppressive and dazzling. Not a single shot is wasted. Dassin must have had a fair amount of control, as this is the type of work that would appear in his future film noir efforts, such as The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City.

Available on DVD from Criterion, Brute Force comes with the highest possible recommendation. The Hays Code apparently determined the fatalistic ending, which packs an incredible punch and must be seen to be believed. Though it may not seem shocking compared to violence in contemporary films (a lot of worse things happen in HBO’s Oz, for instance), but the events are both harrowing and mesmerizing. Dassin was rewarded for this achievement by being blacklisted from Hollywood, thanks to McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1950 he fled the U.S. and permanently moved to Europe, where he continued filming noir. The themes of punishment versus rehabilitation and a pervasive culture of violence strengthened by class war and bureaucracy are more pertinent today than ever and Brute Force remains a vitally important film, one that you must see.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN

Robert Siodmak, 1950
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Paul Kelly

Assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall refuses to go home one night, because he’s tired of putting up with his controlling father-in-law, and stays at the office to get drunk. It’s there that he encounters Thelma Jordan, a woman trying to report a potential robbery of her wealthy aunt’s jewelry. She and Cleve soon begin an affair, though he realizes that her past is far murkier than it seems. One night she calls him in a panic – her aunt has been shot to death – and he comes to help her remove any evidence that may accidentally incriminate her. Cleve also winds up prosecuting in court, where he can further protect her, but he soon realizes that Thelma is not as innocent as she claims to be…

This final film noir from director Robert Siodmak is definitely underrated and shines mostly because of a stellar performance from Barbara Stanwyck – though let’s face it; she’s excellent in everything. There’s also a well-crafted script that builds slowly but steadily and makes up for a series of melodramatic moments by focusing on the moral gray areas in Cleve and Thelma, and their obvious attraction to one another. Unlike many other noir efforts, their attraction grows into love, not betrayal, which is The File on Thelma Jordan’s true source of anxiety and tension. In some ways, this is a quieter, less stylish, and more mature take on Double Indemnity. Similar themes are played out – a woman and a man decide to participate in murder for financial gain – but the elements are mixed around. While Double Indemnity is certainly the superior film, in many ways Cleve and Thelma are more complex, developed characters than the fatally sexy Phyllis Dietrichson and the good-hearted dupe, Walter Neff.

The underused Wendell Corey (Rear Window, Sorry, Wrong Number) is more aged and serious than Walter Neff. He’s not the typical noir protagonist – a cynical loner who drifts through life with no real attachments – he’s on the rise politically, thanks to his career as assistant district attorney, and has a complicated home life. He loves his wife, who clearly still desires him sexually, but strains under the yoke of her oppressive and controlling father. His affair with Thelma is intentional on her part – she does actually plan to commit a crime with her boyfriend – but their relationship blossoms into real love, which the film takes time to develop, making the events that follow far more believable. Thelma’s divided nature is expressed by Stanwyck, but is also underlined by Tony (Richard Rober), a hunky, good-for-nothing gambler who has an obvious (sexual) influence on Thelma and likely plans to double cross her when she has outlived her usefulness to him.

Their relationship is also flavored by a sense of the crushing weight of adult responsibility. Both Thelma and Cleve are stifled by their life choices. Cleve acts like he’s having a midlife crisis – he stays out late and gets drunk to avoid his wife and her father – and he treats his wife as an authority figure that he must rebel against. Any of his successes are soured by his father-in-law’s involvement or influence. Thelma is similarly controlled by Tony and the demands of her aunt. She rebels by sneaking out at night to meet Cleve and struggles to develop her own identity, which rests somewhere between Tony and her troubled past, the confining and mannerly lifestyle of her aunt, and the somewhat healthier, but doomed love she has with Cleve.

The File on Thelma Jordan isn’t a perfect film. There’s a slow first act that is dialogue heavy and overly sentimental, but if you can stick with it, it pays off. There are some memorable supporting performances from Stanley Ridges (To Be or Not to Be) as the defense attorney and Gertrude Hoffman (Caged) as Thelma’s demanding aunt. There’s also some lovely cinematography from George Barnes, though nothing is particularly above or beyond as film noir goes. The File on Thelma Jordan is enjoyable not because it hits the standard noir beats, but because it uses these in the background and crafts a well-written, well-acted story about complicated adult love birthed in the wake of desperation and crime.

Available on Blu-ray in an average, skimpy release from Olive Films, The File of Thelma Jordan is also available on Archive.org. I would recommend the latter, unless you are a rabid Stanwyck fan. I complain a lot about wishing more obscure horror and noir would be released on Blu-ray, but a barebones disc is not quite what I was referring to. They could have at least included a trailer and one or two special features about Siodmak or Stanwyck. Despite the shoddy release situation, it’s worth watching thanks to a marvelous performance from Stanwyck, who proves that she’s still got it relatively late in her career.