Christmas Holiday

Posted on December 14th, 2009 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak by Colin

Poster

Following on from my previous post I’ve decided to have a look at another seasonal noir. Christmas Holiday (1944) is a movie that seems to slip under many people’s radar, and that may be partly down to both the title and the casting which are apt to give a false impression. At first glance, this is a film that might appear to be horribly miscast but the fact is it works very well. Having said that, the production remains a little odd, but I can’t quite put my finger on the reason. Like Lady in the Lake, the  story unfolds over Christmas but, once again, that’s really nothing more than an incidental detail - the timing could easily be changed without affecting the plot in the least.

On Christmas Eve, a newly commissioned army officer, Lt. Mason (Dean Harens), is preparing to fly to San Francisco to marry his sweetheart. However, just before he leaves, he receives a cable informing him that the deal’s off and she’s married someone else. Regardless, he decides to board his flight anyway but neither he nor the audience can be quite sure what he hopes to achieve. As it happens he never makes it to his destination, bad weather forcing his plane to make an unscheduled stop in New Orleans. He allows himself to be talked into visiting an out of town club (basically a bordello, but you couldn’t come right out and call it that under the production code) by the establishment’s PR man/pimp. It’s here that Mason meets Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin) and later hears her story. The character of Mason doesn’t really serve any purpose other than that of a narrative device - he’s simply there to provide an everyman perspective, the eyes and ears of the audience as a tale of deception, murder and obsession unfolds. Jackie explains that she’s been using an assumed name, her real one being Abigail Manette, since her husband’s conviction for murder. Via two separate flashbacks she relates how she met, fell in love with and married Robert Manette (Gene Kelly). Manette turned out to be a wastrel blueblood, fallen on hard times, with unsavoury characteristics that are mentioned only in the vaguest terms. This is all pretty standard fare for a noir thriller, but it’s the creepy relationship between Manette and his mother (the Spiderwoman herself, Gale Sondergaard) and the stifling home atmosphere that sets this movie apart. I’ve come across a few theories which try to explain exactly what’s “wrong” with Manette and the nature of his relationship with his mother, but I’m not entirely convinced by any of them. The script makes it clear enough that this is a man with a deeply flawed character but that’s about it. However, I haven’t read the Somerset Maugham story on which the film is based so I don’t know if that casts any further light on the subject.

Deanna Durbin & Gene Kelly

Deanna Durbin is credited with being the saviour of Universal as a result of the popularity of her lightweight musicals in the 40s but Christmas Holiday was a major departure from the usual formula for her. She does get to sing two songs, in her role as night club “hostess”, but this is a straight dramatic role. I thought she performed very well, and managed to handle the necessary transition from wide eyed innocent to world weary fallen woman quite convincingly. Gene Kelly is another performer not normally associated with dark, dubious characters but his Robert Manette is not at all bad. Seeing this jaunty, amiable figure jarringly transformed into a mother-fixated murderer has an unnerving quality that’s highly effective. Gale Sondergaard always brought an eerie, otherworldly feel to the parts she played and it fits right in here. The middle section of the film, told in flashback, takes place mainly in the confines of the Manette house, where Sondergaard seems completely at home amid the relics of a faded past. It’s this part of the movie that lends the slightly odd sense that I alluded to at the beginning. Maybe it’s the curious family dynamic, or the feeling of stepping into a world removed from the present - I honestly can’t say, but everything just feels a little off-centre in these sequences. This was Robert Siodmak’s second Hollywood noir, following on from Phantom Lady. It’s not quite up to the standard of his previous picture and lacks a little of the visual flair that he usually brought to the table. However, he does some good work in the club scenes, and the unusual architecture of the Manette house offers opportunities for some interesting shots.

As far as I know the only DVD of Christmas Holiday is the UK R2 from DDHE (EDIT - it appears there’s a Spanish release also available - see comment #1 below). It offers a pretty good transfer of the movie with no major damage or distraction on view. The only extra feature provided is a gallery of production stills. All in all, this a satisfying little noir that moves along nicely and has good performances from all the main players. For me, the casting of Kelly and Durbin worked, although I can see how it might lead to the film being ignored by some - fans of the two leads may be alienated by the atypical roles and storyline, and noir lovers may be put off by their presence. Nevertheless, I think the movie has a unique quality and is definitely worth a look.

With the Christmas juggernaut bearing down ominously, I doubt if I’ll find the time to post another piece before the holidays. So, I’d just like to take the opportunity to wish all those who have followed, commented on, or simply dropped by this blog from time to time the best of everything over the holiday period. Here’s hoping you all enjoy a happy and peaceful Christmas.

Lady in the Lake

Posted on December 6th, 2009 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Montgomery by Colin

Poster

With Christmas fast approaching I thought I’d turn my attention to something which, if not exactly festive in content, is at least set around the holiday season. The hardboiled fiction of Raymond Chandler has been well represented on film down through the years, and after the commercial success of Murder My Sweet and The Big Sleep it was the turn of Lady in the Lake (1947). Unfortunately, this ended up being something of a gimmick picture as a result of the decision to shoot it entirely from a first person point of view, where the camera becomes the eyes of the protagonist. While it was an interesting experiment it does tend to become quite taxing after a time and it’s actually one of the biggest weaknesses of this film.

The first shot of the movie has Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) sitting in his office addressing the audience directly and explaining that, what with the private eye business being so tough and unrewarding, he’s decided to throw it all in and write crime stories instead. After establishing this slightly odd premise he proceeds to tell us, in flashback and from the aforementioned first person perspective, the details of the story. An appointment to see a publishing executive, Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), turns out to be something entirely different. Miss Fromsett only set up the meeting as a blind, an excuse to see Marlowe with the aim of hiring him to track down her employer’s runaway wife. Despite his initial reluctance to become involved in what he suspects is a fool’s errand, Marlowe finds himself drawn into the mystery surrounding the missing lady and the numerous shady characters that flit in and out of the tale. In the process, he falls foul of a local detective, DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan), who’s every bit as tough and insolent as our hero. DeGarmot takes an almost instant dislike to Marlowe and even goes out of his way to have him framed on a drunk driving charge. In fact, that forms one of the best and most effective sequences in the movie - the point of view filming and haunting choral score working perfectly as Marlowe’s car is first pursued and then ruthlessly forced off the road. Then, as Marlowe slowly and painfully drags his battered body across the deserted road in an attempt to reach a phone box, the benefits of this unusual technique are most apparent. Going into the plot in more detail at this stage would be futile (and anyone familiar with Chandler’s work will know just how twisty, complex and downright confusing it can become) - suffice to say that by the end all the loose ends are pretty much tied up, and we get a happy ending that feels contrived and generally unsatisfactory.

Mirror, mirror - Robert Montgomery surveys the damage in Lady in the Lake

As I said at the beginning, the filming method employed by star/director Robert Montgomery is one that loses its charm fast. It’s the kind of thing that works great in small doses, but not when it’s drawn out for the full duration of a movie. The same technique was used by Delmer Daves at the start of Dark Passage, but he wisely knew when to let it go and revert to more traditional cinematography. The simple truth is it doesn’t feel natural, and it ultimately has the effect of drawing you out of the picture - and that surely wasn’t the director’s aim. That’s one of the problems. The other is the performance of Montgomery in the lead role. Chandler envisioned Marlowe as a knight errant, a bruised and imperfect figure to guide us through a corrupt, violent noirish landscape. Most of the other interpretations of the character have given us a Marlowe who’s tough, honourable and smart enough to get away with the casual insolence he displays. Montgomery’s version, however, comes across as mean, callous and a little too dumb. Audrey Totter was always at home in noir parts and she doesn’t disappoint here - although her Adrienne Fromsett does veer from the grasping, mercenary vamp to the loyal girl friday type in a disconcertingly short space of time. For me though, the best performance comes from Lloyd Nolan, a criminally underrated actor. He never got to play the lead in A pictures but always lent solid and often memorable support. I think it would be fair to say that his presence in a movie always raised the quality and added a touch of realism.

Lady in the Lake is only available on DVD as part of Warner’s Film Noir Classics Volume 3. The transfer is reasonable but it’s dirty and there are damage marks, cue blips and the like that speak of no restoration being done. As for extras, we get the trailer and a commentary from authors Alain Silver and James Ursini. All in all, Lady in the Lake has to rate as one of the weaker outings for Phillip Marlowe. While it does have its moments it is a definite step down from both The Big Sleep and Murder My Sweet, so expectations need to be adjusted accordingly. The first time I saw this I found the filming style to be a major distraction, and frankly a pain. However, on subsequent viewings I would say it’s probably just mildly irritating now - but still annoying enough to hurt the film.