Film Noir x 4 August 8, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s, 1950s , trackback
Four viewings of movies designated as film noir in a 24-hour period and the only side effects I seem to have are the almost uncontrollable desires to rob a bank and get mixed up with a woman who’s no good for me. It’ll pass, I’m sure. The new Warner Bros. Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4 has been my most anticipated in the series yet, mostly because we get ten films instead of the usual five. Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night is the best of the lot, but I was most anxious to first sit down with the disc containing both Andre De Toth’s Crime Wave and the rarely seen Decoy, directed by Jack Bernhard. In between the two, I shuttled off to New York City’s Film Forum to take in a double feature of The Window (directed by Ted Tetzlaff, cinematographer of the Hitchcock masterpiece Notorious, as well as the squishily feelgood Stanwyck-MacMurray Christmas movie Remember the Night) and the absurdly-named Deadline at Dawn, in their NYC Noir series.
Let’s start with Crime Wave. Has there been a more stylish noir ever? The only candidate I can think of from memory is Ray’s On Dangerous Ground, but De Toth probably outdoes even that excellent film here. Sterling Hayden (currently staring in disbelief at the top of my film journal here) plays an aggressively tough homicide detective who’s trying to find the perp responsible for a gas station shooting of a cop. The film’s real focus is on Gene Nelson’s Steve Lacey, an ex-con who’s been straight since leaving prison before he gets roped up with some former associates responsible for the cop killing. Nelson is very good here and it’s a shame he never had much of an acting career. He did go on to direct numerous television shows, everything from “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Starsky and Hutch,” as well as a couple of Elvis Presley movies.
I still miss Hayden when he’s not on the screen though, which is far too often. As far as 1950s unsung actors go, Sterling Hayden is right there at the top of the list. His more famous roles, like in The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, are as crooks, but he’s effectively authoritative here in Crime Wave. The low angle shots De Toth and cinematographer Bert Glennon use to showcase Hayden are remarkably modern. His crisp white shirt and mussed blonde hair are used to great effect and the toothpick as cigarette substitute is a nice touch. Really, the entire film sparkles and shines. It’s even better than I imagined and a clear influence, indirect or not, on film and television crime dramas from the last fifty years. Los Angeles gets its own day in the dark to rival the many, many films noir set in New York City.
One such film, arguably a noir but included in the NYC Noir series nonetheless, is The Window, a 1949 RKO picture. It’s about a boy who tends to make up outlandish stories, reminiscent of the Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried “wolf,” featured on the screen in the film’s opening titles. Tommy, played by the tragic child actor Bobby Driscoll whose unidentified 31-year old body was found by two young boys and subsequently buried in potter’s field less than 20 years after this film was made, can’t sleep one sultry summer night and goes out on the fire escape. He climbs up to sleep outside his upstairs neighbors’ window and awakens to see a man stabbed in the back with scissors fall to his death. When he tells his parents, played by Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale (the future Della Street), they don’t believe him and neither do the police when he tries to convince them.
The film is ultimately effective despite basically every adult acting liking an idiot. After Tommy pleads his case to the police and his parents, what do the parents do but leave him alone all night with the sinister neighbors the Kellersons lurking upstairs. The thin plot is stretched out as far as possible, but redeemed by an exciting and suspenseful climax. It’s interesting just how inept the police are portrayed, including a ridiculous sequence where they have Tommy jump from maybe fifty feet or more onto a large round fireman’s net. Throughout, Driscoll does a nice job of being not too annoying to the audience while playing a character who pretty much should be bothersome. It’s a very entertaining, worthwhile picture languishing in the WB vaults probably because they’re not sure exactly how to release it on DVD. I would expect it sooner rather than later though.
The second movie up in the NYC Noir double feature, also an RKO picture, was Deadline at Dawn from 1946, the only film directed by Broadway veteran (and ex-husband of acting guru Stella Adler) Harold Clurman. First and foremost, the main reason to see this movie is the involvement of Clifford Odets as screenwriter, adapting a story by William Irish, pen name of Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote the source material for Rear Window and, coincidentally, The Window. His dialogue sparkles with ludicrous, unnatural humor. “Out of the mouths of actors…” I can only describe the film as terrifically bad. It’s much funnier, as a result of the Odets screenplay, than most any of the traditional comedies of the era. The biggest laugh might be via Joseph Calleia as the gangster brother of the deceased, who comments to a blonde-haired vixen something to the effect that she would look pretty good if someone cut off her head.
The other thing the film has going for it is the presence of the beautiful and talented Susan Hayward. She plays a dancer relegated to long sessions with a creepy guy who wears white gloves to disguise his infectious hands while performing at a night club. There, she meets a sailor who blacked out after going back to another woman’s apartment earlier in the night and found a large sum of money he’d taken from her. Together, they discover the woman’s been murdered and team up with a cabbie (played by Paul Lukas) to try and solve the crime. It’s highly convoluted, but kind of fun anyway. The cops come off as morons in this one too, notably when they encounter a drunken star baseball player. Instead of taking him home or to the station when he wants another bottle of liquor at three or four in the morning, a police officer literally goes up to the dead woman’s apartment in search of more alcohol for the inebriated athlete.
As the innocent sailor, Bill Williams shows you why he never became a star, instead remaining stuck working in television and the odd film like Son of Paleface. The whole of Deadline at Dawn plays like some kind of nutty noir, ridiculously laughable throughout but entertaining nonetheless. Again, Ms. Hayward’s screen presence goes a long way. If she weren’t in the film, it would have become overwhelmingly silly long before the Agatha Christie-lite finale seen from a mile away. The presence of Odets goes to prove the theory that older movies are far more interesting than modern ones. It seems that these smaller, low-budget films could get away with almost anything as long as it wasn’t explicitly in conflict with the production code. I can’t imagine anything like Deadline at Dawn coming out of either the major studios or the independent ones today. Even if it’s not groundbreaking or all that accomplished, it’s still loads of fun.
Finally, I finished up the WB disc of Crime Wave/Decoy with the bizarre noir of the latter. Directed by Jack Bernhard and written for the screen by blacklisted writer and Crime Wave actor Ned Young, Decoy justifiably has taken a place as a hard-to-find gem of 1940s B-movie crime thrillers. The ill-fated British actress Jean Gillie, who strangely seems to have borrowed Joan Fontaine’s cheekbones, plays a gleefully psychotic femme fatale princess unafraid of seductively killing anyone in the path of $400,000 of stolen bank robbery money buried in a hidden location. The film teeters into sci-fi/horror territory with talk of reviving gas chamber victims through the mysterious methylene blue, but it’s still definitely a noir. When Gillie’s Margot Shelby cheers on the film’s Dr. Craig as he digs for the buried loot, her lines and campy delivery echo orgasmic sexual outbursts.
DVD Savant himself and commentator Glenn Erickson likens Decoy to a Quentin Tarantino movie had he been around in the 1940s (though we all know he probably would have been aping German Expressionism so much that he wouldn’t have been able to create something as original and exhilarating as Decoy), I’d argue that it’s really much closer to David Lynch. There’s such an abundance of weird and perverse happenings going on that someone with an odd sensibility like Lynch would fit more neatly in the world created here than Tarantino. There’s also an often inappropriate score, swelling at odd times and including piano playing that doesn’t match up with the hands of the person seen in the film pounding on the keys. It’s a little mixture of corny and avant-garde and fits completely with the weird atmosphere found in Decoy.
Both Crime Wave and Decoy in the Film Noir set look outstanding, especially the crisp transfer of the former. Decoy is apparently slightly incomplete, judging from Savant’s review, but plays just fine nonetheless. The other two movies, The Window and Deadline at Dawn, are not available on DVD, but both were originally released by RKO and thus owned by Warner Bros., so we’re likely to see them at some point. Neither of these two really qualify under a strict film noir definition - no femme fatale, no brooding protagonist, and no real battle with fate or internal demons - but they’re definitely at least as close as films already classified as such like Dillinger and Clash by Night. Each of the unreleased movies deserves at least one viewing, with very little lurking beneath the surface to justify much more than that if you like interesting subtexts and seeing things from different angles, but neither is as impressive as Crime Wave or Decoy, two giants of unheralded film noir.