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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS

Fritz Lang, 1956
Starring: Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Rhonda Fleming, John Drew Barrymore, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price

Based on The Bloody Spur, journalist Charles Einstein’s novel about real-life Lipstick Killer William Heirens, Lang revisits some of the themes he first introduced in M (1931), another film about a serial killer that was inspired by real events. Media mogul Amos Kyne dies of natural causes while he is in the middle of trying to find a successor. The company passes to his spoiled son Walter, who immediately stirs up competition among the division heads to see who will help run the company as executive director. It is between the newspaper’s editor, the wire service chief, and head photographer, all of whom are plotting, backstabbing, and forming allegiances. 

The editor’s main ally is famous reporter Edward Mobley, who is more interested in a current string of crimes committed by the “Lipstick Killer.” This murderer breaks into women’s homes, strangles them to death, and leaves messages in their lipstick. Realizing the importance of the story, Walter Kynes decrees that whichever man is the first to identify the Lipstick Killer will become head of the company. Mobley, who has recently become engaged to a secretary at the paper, Nancy, decides to use her for bait after mocking the killer live on air.

This is unlike many of Lang’s other films in the sense that it lacks the usual sense of dramatic visual style and cinematic innovation. The elaborate sets and chiaroscuro lighting are replaced by some very basic, workmanlike, almost television show-style sets. In some ways the film feels tired -- as Mobley’s character often expresses -- and this is probably due to the fact that While the City Sleeps was one of Lang’s final films for Hollywood and he left America soon after. He was a difficult director to work with and notoriously hated the American studio system. I can’t help but feel that the political events occurring in the newsroom are both a commentary on Lang’s hatred for the Hollywood system and the related issues surrounding McCarthyism. 

The film also extends some of the themes he introduced in the Dr. Mabuse series. While those addressed issues of fascism and surveillance, While the City Sleeps takes a cold, hard look at the American media industry -- newspapers, television, radio, and photography -- and presents it as a cynical business driven by men purely interested in profit and sensationalism. This is in a loose, film noir, media-focused trilogy alongside The Blue Dahlia and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, though While the City Sleeps is certainly the most accomplished.

As with M, it has very few characters that could be described as decent or likable people. Most of the main characters are self-motivated back stabbers, less interested in the welfare of the killer’s victims and more concerned with getting a promotion, breaking a story, and making money. They show the same regard for their romantic relationships and infidelity is a constant theme. The murderer is often paralleled with the men in the newsroom and their callous use of women, namely, and most uncomfortably, Mobley’s manipulative and almost predatory relationship with his young and innocent fiancée.

Lang made the seminal M, perhaps the first film about a serial killer, and some of it is echoed here during the subway chase scene towards the film’s conclusion. As far as other important serial killer movies go, While the City Sleeps predates Hitchcock’s Psycho by several years and also features a killer with mommy issues. Lang deals with the subject completely differently than Hitchcock and ambiguously introduces the killer’s mother. While this destroys some of the mystery, this also removes some of the blame from his mother and makes the Lipstick Killer seem more bent by society in general than by upbringing alone, unlike the isolated Norman Bates.

Dana Andrews (Laura) gives one of his most likable and animated performances as Mobley, delivering quick dialogue and stirring the pot even though he professes not to care about the newspaper’s succession issues. While Andrews carries the film, there are a number of excellent supporting performances. The always wonderful George Sanders (The Lodger, The Picture of Dorian Gray) is excellent as the callous, manipulative Mark Loving, but isn’t given enough screen time. Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach, It’s a Wonderful Life) is Mobley’s partner in crime and James Craig (The Devil and Daniel Webster), is the lazy, no good photographer sleeping with the boss’s wife. 

Vincent Price is very good in here in a more complex role than usual. While Walter Kyne begins as a spoiled, lazy playboy, a similar character to Price’s role in Laura, he quickly transforms into something more ruthless and driven. Though around this period America began to associate him with horror films and villainous roles, here he is simply a bored socialite attempting to rise above his privileged, though dull life. John Drew Barrymore (Thunderbirds) also puts in a brief, but compelling performance as the Lipstick Killer. 

The few women in the film nearly steal it away from Andrews, particularly the underrated Ida Lupino (They Drive By Night, High Sierra) as the pleasantly conniving Mildred Donner. She is the only female character to go toe-to-toe with the men and has frank conversations about sex that seem more modern than the a ‘50s film would normally allow. The very sexy Rhonda Fleming (Spellbound, Out of the Past, The Spiral Staircase) brings elements of fun and humor to the film as Kyne’s unfaithful wife Dorothy. Sally Forrest (The Strange Door) as the virginal Nancy sadly pales in comparison to Lupino and Fleming, but benefits from a well-written character.

While the City Sleeps may not be one of Lang’s classic films, but comes highly recommended and deserves to be seen for its pessimistic look at post-war America and the emerging modern media industry. Though there is no definitive edition (Criterion, what gives?), While the City Sleeps was released on DVD as part of RKO’s Archive Collection along with his other final American film, the similarly themed Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). 

Monday, August 18, 2014

HUMAN DESIRE


Fritz Lang, 1954
Starring: Gloria Grahame, Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford

Carl Buckley is fired from his job with a railway station and his lovely, younger wife intervenes with an influential businessman, someone she has known since childhood. When Buckley figures out that she also had an affair with the man, he becomes homicidally jealous and beats and threatens to kill Vicki, his wife, unless she participates in the man's murder. They follow him on board a train, where Vicki acts as a guard and Carl murders him. During the night, a train engineer, Jeff, meets Vicki and she partially seduces him to distract him. Later, at the trial, he pretends he saw no one. They begin an affair, where Vicki admits that her husband is jealous and violent. Soon, she tries to convince Jeff that the only solution is for him to kill Carl one lonely, dark night at the train yard...

Human Desire's main issue is perhaps the fact that it's trapped between the legacy of two superior films. This is Fritz Lang's follow up to The Big Heat (1953), an earlier film noir that also starred Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford. It remains one of the best in the noir canon. Human Desire is also a loose remake of Jean Renoir's excellent French poetic-realist film, La bête humaine (1938), itself an adaptation of Emile Zola's novel of the same name. Human Desire has perhaps had too much to live up to being compared to these cinematic giants. Though it is not the equal of either of these films, it is still an excellent film and the fact that it's so little known is a shame.

As in The Big Heat and the later In a Lonely Place, Grahame's character, Vicki, is fantastically complex. She's not just a by-the-books femme fatale, but rather is a tragic, desperate figure, trapped between a man of murderous jealousy who beats and manipulates her, and another man who pretends kindness and love, but has a clandestine sexual affair with her and then abandons her to her fate. She also tells Jeff a story that when she was a teenager, Owens (the man murdered by her husband), raped her and they carried on an affair against her will for many years. She married her husband to escape this. She is a lonely woman without financial or emotional refuge and is begging to be loved and cared for. She is also a selfish liar and a manipulator, content to use her powerful sexuality to her own ends, but she's also broken and vulnerable. Vicki's feelings for Jeff also seem genuine. Grahame gives an excellent, nuanced performance, one that makes the film worth watching multiple times. Ford's reaction to her – flat and static that it may be – is what makes the film truly sordid. He abandons her for the suburban goody-two-shoes, for marriage and the dull trappings of domesticity.

Suburban life is offset by the presence of trains, which are a powerful presence within the film, a place of industry, sex, and death. Both Jeff and Carl are train conductors, the murdered man is an important client of the railroad, his murder takes place on the train, as does Vicki's seduction of Carl. Though Ford's Jeff – a Korean War vet – is the train's conductor, he is powerless over the events. As with The Big Heat, there's a neutered quality to his masculinity and he is simply moved through the film by the actions of the other characters – like a car across the tracks. Part of his personality is desperate and disillusioned, a common post-war theme in noir, but his lack of action is revolting and pathetic. Broderick Crawford's Carl Buckley is an interesting parallel to this. In many instances, he is also weak and aimless. He is fired from his job and needs his wife to seduce an old friend in order to get it back. But unlike Jeff, he is fueled only by his insane sexual jealousy and this – rather than personal ambition or greed – moves him to commit murder.

Though this isn't one of Lang's richest and most compelling films, it's fast-paced and suspenseful. There's some wonderful expressionistic cinematography from Burnett Guffey (The Reckless Moment) and Grahame is always worth watching. If you like Lang, Grahame, or the more suburban-themed film noir, this is a must-see. Lang's treatment of female characters is fascinating throughout his American noir run and his female leads are some of the best in film noir. Human Desire comes highly recommended, though it is not available on region 1 DVD. With a little searching, however, you can find it online.

Friday, August 15, 2014

THE BIG HEAT

Fritz Lang, 1953
Starring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin

Police officer Tom Duncan kills himself, leaving his wife a mysterious letter. Sergeant Dave Bannion is called in and though he first sees it as an open-and-shut case of suicide, soon comes to realize other forces are at work. Duncan’s girlfriend, Lucy, comes forward, claiming that Duncan was not ill (as his wife stated) and owned a second home he couldn’t have afforded on an officer’s salary. Though Bannion basically dismisses Lucy, she is tortured and murdered that night. He is given the brush off by her employer, a bar owner, and is put off the case by his superior. After he and his wife receive a threatening phone call, Bannion goes straight to the source and confronts corrupt businessman Mike Lagana, beating his body guard in the process. In retaliation, Bannion’s lovely wife is murdered when the car explodes with a bomb meant for Bannion.

A distraught Bannion vows revenge and resigns from the force. He crosses paths with Lagana’s second-in-command, Vince Stone, and Stone’s girlfriend Debby. After Stone mutilates Debby’s face with a pot of boiling coffee – in front of the police commission and other prominent businessmen and politicians – she goes to Bannion for help. He takes in, knowing she has the information and contacts he needs, plus a vendetta of her own…

Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat is one of the greatest films in the noir canon and also manages to subvert the genre itself. Glenn Ford is superficially the film’s hero and protagonist, but this is really a film about violence against women and their revenge. While much of the film’s abundance of violence occurs off screen, there is a suicide by gunshot, death by explosion, torture, strangulation, shootings, and more. One of the few on screen deaths is more brutal by comparison – when Debby shoots the corrupt Mrs. Duncan, who must die in order for her husband’s incriminating letter to reach the public. She does this so that Bannion doesn’t have to get his hands dirty. In perhaps a clever twist on Lang’s part, much of the film’s violence involves heat – the cigarette burns, boiling coffee thrown in Debby’s face, and the fiery explosion that kills Mrs. Bannion.

Bannion himself is a vortex for death and every woman he comes into contact without throughout the course of the film (except his daughter and sister-in-law) are killed. This is a reversal of the typical interplay between the tortured, isolated hero and the sexually aggressive femme fatale. While Gloria Grahame is certainly aggressive as Debby, she’s also a unique character. Grahame’s roles in The Big Heat and In a Lonely Place are both brilliant twists on the femme fatale trope. Here, she is not the insidious source of death and destruction for the innocent, but she acts as the avenging angel. Grahame is brilliant in the film and, above all else, is the reason to see it as soon as possible.

There’s a brilliant moment when the police guard for Bannion’s daughter is dismissed from higher-ups (due to an order from the gangsters) and Bannion rushes to the apartment in a panic. It turns out that his brother-in-law has recruited a team of bloodthirsty ex-army buddies who believe that if protecting the little girl means snuffing out a few gangsters, so much the better. It’s the film’s only true scene of masculine bravado (an unexpectedly pokes fun at the violence), though they don’t actually see much action.

The Big Heat is incredibly pessimistic, unsentimental, and strips away the mystique of a number of standard noir roles. In addition to the subversion of the femme fatale, the gangsters, who occasionally feel glamorous in other noir films, are almost obscenely abusive to the women in the film and some of them are openly portrayed as glad-handing cowards. The violent, above/beneath –the-law hero cop never does more than threaten to choke a few people and deliver a few solid punches. He is not tempted by sex or romance – Debby tells him that he’s “about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs” – and does not restore the domestic status quo at the end of the film. Nearly every moment in the first half of The Big Heat show the imminent threat to domestic life, and that violence and criminality will always win out over the family unit. Not only does Bannion not personally get revenge for his wife’s death, but he does not restore the family unit. In the uncomfortable final scene, Bannion is back at his desk and is presumably a hero in the department. His daughter is nowhere to be seen (and is not mentioned) and he tells a subordinate to “keep the coffee hot,” before heading out on another homicide case.

Ford, who is incredibly well cast and does justice to a strange role, and Grahame are bolstered by a strong supporting cast, which includes Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Jeanette Nolan (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and the endearing Jocelyn Brando (sister of Marlon, Mommie Dearest) as Mrs. Bannion. Also keep an eye out for Carolyn Jones (Morticia Adams, House of Wax) as an unfortunate woman Vince Stone burns with a cigarette.

Written by crime reporter Sidney Boehm and based on a novel by William P. McGivern, The Big Heat is, simply put, required viewing. Whether or not you are a big fan of Fritz Lang or film noir, it’s a must-see and comes with the highest possible recommendation. There’s an out of print and thus expensive Blu-ray, though hopefully one day the Fritz Lang film noir box set of my dreams will be released. You can also find it streaming online if you look hard enough.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

THE BLUE GARDENIA


Fritz Lang, 1953
Starring: Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Raymond Burr, Ann Sothern

On her birthday, Norah Larkin receives a letter from her fiancé, is a soldier in the Korean War. He coldly explains that he has met and become engaged to a Japanese nurse. In despair, Norah agrees to go out on a blind date when a man calls the apartment, though he believes he is speaking to Norah’s roommate, Crystal. The man is an unwholesome advertising artist and, even though Nora is the wrong woman, he buys her dinner, gets her very drunk, and takes her back to his apartment. He attempts to sexually assault her while she’s sleeping, but she knocks him out with a fire poker and flees. The next morning, he’s found dead and Norah has no memory of what has happened. Her two roommates notice a change in her personality – she becomes angry, emotional, and paranoid – due to her belief that she must have committed the murder. A newspaper journalist writes an open letter to the murderer, begging her to come forward, and eventually Crystal begins to suspect the truth.

The Blue Gardenia is the beginning of director Fritz Lang’s loose trilogy with While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). All three films are noir efforts concerned with the evils of the media, the newspaper industry in particular. Though there are some pretty flimsy mystery devices here (Norah disguises her voice over the telephone with a lace handkerchief… really?), this is Lang’s first direct criticism of the American media, communication devices, and mass media in general. This pervades the film: Norah and her two roommates are telephone operators, Raymond Burr plays an ad/calendar artist, a newspaper columnist tries to solve the crime, one of the roommates loves mass printed mystery paperbacks, and there are a number of important telephone calls, while letter writing sets both of the film’s major events in motion. The cruel letter from Norah’s fiancé encourages her to go out on a blind date and get drunk, while the reporter’s “Letter to an Unknown Killer” brings him and Norah together. There’s also a wonderful scene where women call in to the newspaper to falsely admit they are the killer and Lang cuts to each of the desperate, lonely women in turn. The critical clue to the identity of the real murderer is related to the purchase of a record at a local music store.

This is a particularly nasty look at life in ‘50s California, though there are a few delightfully comedic moments – one where Raymond Burr’s (the murdered artist) housekeeper admits that she cleaned up the crime scene and another where one of the roommates gets an exciting call from a man that first seems romantic but turns out to be the guy at the drugstore telling her that the latest crime novel is in. Raymond Burr is wonderful and charismatic as the slime ball Harry and it’s a shame he wasn’t given more screen time. There lengthy scene between he and Norah (Anne Baxter) in “The Blue Gardenia” nightclub is one of the best moments of the film. Keep your eyes and ears out for Nat King Cole, who sings a love song, also named “The Blue Gardenia.”

There’s some nice chemistry and camaraderie between the three female leads, Anne Baxter, comedian Ann Sothern, and Jeff Donnell (yes, this is a woman; she also appeared in In a Lonely Place). Unfortunately, the three similarly aged blondes look nearly identical to each other and it was a bit difficult to tell them apart for the first 30 or so minutes of the film. Ann Sothern clearly gives the strongest performance here and she often steals the film from Baxter. Speaking of the latter, I have to wonder why she was cast. Baxter has been in some excellent films (I Confess, The Magnificent Ambersons), but the role really should have gone to one of Hitchcock’s more nervous, sex-starved blondes. Unlike Hitchcock’s beloved “wrong man” (an innocent person blamed for a crime and targeted by the real criminals), Norah’s character fits in with Lang’s stock protagonist. This figure is usually male, is never innocent, and is the subject of crippling guilt and intense paranoia. Lang’s protagonists in M, Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, Ministry of Fear, Hangmen Also Die, You Only Live Once, House by the River, Rancho Notorious, Human Desire, Cloak and Dagger, and others are all guilty of a crime, usually murder, while the protagonists of Man Hunt and Secret Beyond the Door contemplate and almost carry out this crime. Baxter is far too weak to give this role the weight it deserves, which is a real shame.

Though this is inferior to Lang’s Human Desire, The Big Heat, or While the City Sleeps, it’s still a worthwhile noir. It’s a likely play on Alan Ladd noir vehicle The Blue Dahlia, about soldiers returned home from the war. Ladd’s character finds that his wife is guilty of infidelity and overnight she winds up murdered. In addition to Ladd, the chief suspect is a soldier who suffers from blackouts and – after the wife invites him up to her bedroom – he has a few drinks and can’t recall his guilt or innocence the next day. Keep your eye out for George Reeves (Superman) as he is sort of lost as the police captain, but puts in a nice appearance regardless. Richard Conte (The Big Combo) is a believable mix of suave, earnest, and sleazy as the unscrupulous reporter turned love interest.

Nicholas Musuraca handles the cinematography here, so of course the film is worth watching. The mediocre script (from a story by Vera Caspary) and presumably enforced casting of Anne Baxter take The Blue Gardenia down a few notches, but it’s still a worthy noir and is essential viewing for any fans of that genre or of Lang himself. The film is available on DVD, but where is my Fritz Lang-noir Blu-ray box set?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

HOUSE BY THE RIVER

Fritz Lang, 1950
Starring: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick

Stephen, a struggling novelist, finds himself alone in his dark house by the river with Emily, his attractive blonde maid, a new member of the household. He attempts to assault her, but is forced to stifle her screaming when a neighbor passes by. He accidentally kills her and intrudes on his sensitive, gloomy brother, John, to help him dispose of the corpse. Stephen convinces John that it was an accident and if Emily’s fate came out, it would only hurt Marjorie, Stephen’s wife, who he claims is pregnant. John, who has feelings for Marjorie, agrees. But soon Emily’s body is found. John learns that Marjorie is not pregnant and gradually discovers Stephen’s deceit. Guilt begins to gnaw away at him as a trial is underway, though Stephen uses the publicity for his new novel, a torrid tale of murder. It soon becomes clear that it’s only a matter of time before one of the brothers points blame at the other…

Based on A. P. Herbert’s novel of the same name, this more obscure Fritz Lang film borrows from a number of genres, including the emerging serial killer film, the courtroom drama, Gothic thriller, and film noir. This would make an excellent double feature with Secret Beyond the Door, another Gothic-noir-melodrama about domestic murder, and the later While the City Sleeps, another of Lang’s serial killer films. Though this is nowhere near as stylish as the lovely Secret Beyond the Door, there are some effectively tense moments full of Gothic flavor. Cinematographer Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait) skillfully captures the darkness, isolation, and claustrophobia of the titular house by the river. Lang’s masterful (and quite experienced) use of German expressionism blends perfectly with the Hitchcockian-style suspense, which kicks off several minutes into the film and builds from there. There is nary a wasted scene, and the film is lean and relatively fast-paced.

House by the River’s biggest flaw is that it lacks narrative balance. It’s unclear who the central protagonist is and scenes are divided between Stephen, Marjorie, and John. There are no real stars in this film, though all three leads give solid performances. Jane Wyatt’s (Father Knows Best) wholesome Marjorie provides a contrast with her manipulative, secretive, and psychopathic husband, though she’s sadly little more than a set piece for much of the film. When it is later relieved that she’s in love with John, despite his limp, unhappy life, and possible guilt (she provides a contrast to his character, as well), this comes too late and only feels like a plot device. Plus, who could blame her? Stephen is a truly disturbing and disturbed character.

Louis Hayward (And Then There Were None) is a bit too off the rails as Stephen. Though he delivers some excellent scenery chewing and thrashes about madly on occasion, Lang seems determined to make him the protagonist without making him the least bit sympathetic or charismatic. There is the sense that writing about his crime helps him re-live it, giving the act of writing an erotic element. As with Scarlet Street and Secret Beyond the Door, there is a certain lurid sexuality that pervades the film. Emily’s assault is set in motion by the fact that her bathroom in the servant’s quarters is broken and she must use Marjorie’s tub. She also brazenly borrows a robe and perfume from her mistress, which is how Stephen encounters her on the stairs. Marjorie’s later surprise and denial that any pregnancy could be possible implies that not a whole lot is happening in the marital bed, though it’s soon easy to understand why.

There are plenty of issues with the film’s script, namely the fact that there are no likable or charismatic characters. As with Scarlet Street, no one is what they seem and deceit is central to all interpersonal relationships. The script suffers because it revolves around flimsy evidence – a manuscript and a sack – though the film is less concerned with the identity of the murderer or the fact that he is going to be brought to justice to some point. Like many of Lang’s films, particularly from this period, House by the River is obsessed with questions of guilt and responsibility and – again, as with Secret Beyond the Door – with perversion and psychosis.

This flawed, though interesting film was made with Republic Pictures. Directors occasionally went here for more freedom and less meddling from producers, though Lang was frustrated by the censors yet again. He wanted the actress playing Emily to be a young black woman, highlighting some of the numerous American racial issues during the war years, but was met with abrupt, firm refusal. The obviously low budget shows, particularly where the set is concerned, though Lang made the best of this and emphasized the Gothic elements in the plot. For example, Stephen believes that two of his victims are ghosts, returned to haunt and torment him. To compliment this, avant-garde composer George Antheil, also responsible for the music of Dementia, crafted an eerie, excellent score.

House by the River comes recommended and is available on DVD and Youtube. Fans of Gothic horror and serial killer films will definitely want to seek this out, as will anyone else smitten with Lang’s American thrillers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR

Fritz Lang, 1947
Starring: Joan Bennett, Michael Redgrave, Anne Revere, Barbara O’Neill

Celia, a beautiful young heiress, has decided that it’s time to settle down and has resolved to marry her family’s dependable, if boring attorney. But on a last fling to Mexico, she meets Mark Lamphere, a dashing, romantic architect. They have a brief, whirlwind romance before marrying. Unfortunately, the trouble begins on their honeymoon, when Mark seems to be frustrated by Celia’s locked bedroom door and takes off in the middle of the night, allegedly on a business meeting to sell his architectural magazine. Celia soon moves to his mansion in New England, where she is horrified to learn that he was married before and his wife died mysteriously, he has a very strange teenage son, a controlling sister, and an odd secretary who covers her face with a scarf after it was disfigured in a fire; he also has serious financial problems. During a welcoming party, Mark shows their friends his hobby – designed rooms in the house that restage the setting of famous murders. Repulsed, Celia also learns that there is one locked room that Mark keeps a secret and won’t allow anyone in. As his behavior becomes increasingly cold and disturbed she comes to fear that he killed the first Mrs. Lamphere and is planning to kill her, too.

A blend of “Bluebeard,” Rebecca, Spellbound, and Jane Eyre, Secret Beyond the Door is quite an odd film. It would be easy to write it off as silly and absurd, with weak script elements, and frustrating Freudian plot devices. But despite these flaws, there is something truly magical and eerie about the film and it deserves to be rescued from obscurity. Though this falls in with the women’s psychological thrillers that were popular during the time – Rebecca, Suspicion, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, The Spiral Staircase, Possessed, and others – this is somewhat of a different spin on the same theme. Celia is not one of the token fragile, needy, and vulnerable women of these other films. The film acknowledges that she has flaws of her own, but also the strength, the perseverance, and possibly insanity to pursue Mark, despite his potential psychosis.

This was Joan Bennett’s fourth film with Fritz Lang – after Man Hunt, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street – and this is her last. She is also at her most beautiful and mysterious here and it’s easy to see a link between Celia and her character in Dark Shadows many years later. Celia is a more complex character than some of her Gothic predecessors. She is essentially an independent, spoiled heiress and socialite bored with her life of pleasure and looking to settle down. One of her introductory scenes involves a deadly knife fight in a Mexican market. Instead of running in terror, Celia is clearly invigorated, if not outright aroused by the scene, despite the fact that a stray knife lands inches from her.

This was Michael Redgrave’s first American film and it comes hot on the heels of his British horror effort, Dead of Night, where he chews the scenery with equal amounts of gusto as he does in Secret Beyond the Door. Redgrave's Mark is also central to the film’s messiness. Though he has a few thoroughly charming moments (I’m not sure why I find him so charismatic, but it’s the same case in The Lady Vanishes), it’s difficult to understand why Celia would want to stay with him (OK, maybe not that difficult). He is controlling, moody, possessive, and secretive, and exhibits plenty of awful behavior before his loving side is revealed. He seems to be in the same mold as Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester or Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, but is not quite fully realized and comes across as a weak character.  The film claims that much of Mark’s troubles emerged from women controlling his life – his mother, his sister, his first wife, and his secretary – but, perhaps paradoxically, he is shown as not being able to care for himself. He let his wife die, he is financially in trouble, and is unable to control or care for his own son. There is certainly a sense of suspended adolescence with both he and Celia and seems to be one of the driving forces that attracts them to each other.

The other element is, of course, sex. Like some of Lang’s other films with Bennett, much of this film is spent in or near beds and the bedroom. The hidden bedroom also provides a richer symbolic subtext, one tied in to Mark’s murder-themed rooms, the titular secret room (the room his first wife died in), and the burning of the house at the film’s conclusion. Due to the involvement of the Production Code, sex is implied, but modern audiences may miss this. It is at least relatively clear that Mark and Celia’s powerful attraction is a blend of sex and violence, affection and neurosis. This relationship between sex and death could have been more developed in the film’s conclusion, though it likely never would have gotten past the censors.

SPOILERS. The film ends with two revelations. The first is that the secretary was not deformed in a fire, but has manipulated her way into staying in the house because she’s in love with Mark. She attempts to burn the house down when she thinks Celia is alone, planning to get rid of her competition. There was a fire when Mark’s son was a child, where she saved the boy’s life, and it is implied she was the cause for this as well. The second revelation is that Mark is a killer in his mind, though not in life. His first wife essentially died of a broken heart, because he did not return her love, but he has always been plagued by thoughts of murder. The film’s conclusion implies that Celia breaking into the secret room, the burning of the house, and other events have somehow cured him of this.

This really is a marvelous film, perhaps only ruined by some clumsy attempts at psychology and the characters’ unfortunate habit of attempting to explain away the film’s rich use of symbolism. And it is rich, thanks Lang’s return to German expressionism as blended with the Gothic. There is some absolutely lovely cinematography from Stanley Cortez that prefigured his similar work on Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. The woodland set – where Celia runs when she thinks Mark is going to murder here – is breathtaking, eerie, and nightmarish, and a perfect emphasis on the fairy-tale source of the material. But the house is where the film really shines with lighting sources often reduced to candlelight, reflections in ornate mirrors, or the beam of a single flashlight. The camera absolutely worships Bennett, who is framed by long, dark hallways, foreboding corridors, and that staple of noir – the winding staircase.

Speaking of noir, there is the wonderful use of almost whispered voice-over throughout the film. At first, Celia narrates, but then descends into stream of conscious dialogue and psychological speculation on the events at hand. There’s a great noir-like scene (similar to The Stranger on the Third Floor) where Mark has a dream sequence imagining his own trial for killing Celia. Finally, there’s a Dali-like opening credits reminiscent of Spellbound (1945) and a wonderful score from Miklós Rózsa, who won an Academy Award for his work on Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

There’s a barebones Blu-ray from Olive Films, though thankfully they’ve rescued and restored this obscurity. Once again, I would love to see a special edition Fritz Lang Blu-ray box set full of his American noir works, packed to the gills with special features. Secret Beyond the Door is a very strange film, but comes highly recommended. Giallo fans might enjoy it, though it lacks graphic bloodshed and actually contains no murders at all, just the ever present threat of death.