This Gun for Hire

Posted on November 17th, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake by Colin

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The MacGuffin: a plot device that’s of the utmost importance to the characters in a film, shaping their decisions and driving them on, yet of only marginal interest to the viewer. Hitchcock used the term to refer to various objects and motives in his movies - the uranium in Notorious, the stolen money in Psycho and so on. Of course, it appears in lots of other films apart from Hitchcock’s: the letters of transit in Casablanca for example, and the espionage/blackmail letter in This Gun for Hire (1942). Just as the aforementioned movies have nothing to do with nuclear weapons, loot or visas, except on the most superficial level, neither is This Gun for Hire a spy story. Instead, it’s the tale of a sociopathic contract killer and his gradual transformation into something resembling humanity.

The strong and stylish opening introduces Raven (Alan Ladd), as a solitary and taciturn individual existing on the fringes of society. He lives alone in a beat up boarding house, avoiding human company whenever possible and barely tolerating it when necessary. His casual contempt for a slatternly chambermaid and contrasting affection for a stray cat eloquently points out where his fellow men rank in his estimation. So, if it’s not any empathy with the people around him just what is it that makes Raven tick? If anything, it’s his cool, unemotional professionalism; his whole sense of self is bound up in the way he calmly goes about dispatching those he’s been paid to kill. As he ventures out to fulfill a hit we get a fleeting glimpse of conscience. He unexpectedly runs into a disabled young girl sat alone on a flight of stairs. and pauses briefly. We’re unsure what exactly he’s thinking about this unwelcome witness to his presence, but he passes on. Having done his grisly work on the floor above, Raven again encounters the same girl on his way out. This time she asks him to retrieve a lost toy for her, and for one heart stopping moment it looks like he might just finish the girl off rather than risk identification. Ultimately he doesn’t, leaving her to her lonely games - it’s as though the weak (the cat, the crippled child) stir a feeling of kinship somewhere inside; he has a deformed wrist, the result of a childhood punishment. This suggests that, despite the passive mask he adopts, there is some decency lurking within, and it develops further when he happens to meet a girl on a train. The girl is Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a night club performer who’s travelling with a dual purpose; she’s been recruited as a federal agent in order to dig up some evidence of her new employer’s suspected espionage activities. It’s here that the tale takes on a twisting, complex quality - the girl’s employer is Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), and he also happens to be the go-between who double crossed Raven after his last job. So, both Ellen and Raven are on the trail of the same man, but for different reasons, and with different goals in mind. One wants to expose him, while the other merely wants to kill him.

Veronica Lake & Alan Ladd on their first outing in This Gun for Hire.

The opening credits “introduce” Alan Ladd, but he’d been playing small parts in movies for some time by this point. The nominal lead was Robert Preston, as Ellen’s policeman fiance, but it’s Ladd’s show all the way. In Raven he creates a memorable anti-hero, one who acts as a template for the many hitmen who have graced the screen since, and who fits in as one of Graham Greene’s tormented souls. His set features have a chilling calm to them that impart a real threat far more effectively than a more emotive performance would have done. Everything is contained within the eyes and the voice, the quick spark and slight quaver hinting at the seething emotions which he refuses to allow his expression to betray. The only time he cuts loose is in the railroad yard with Ellen when he recounts the recurring dream of an abusive childhood that haunts him. Veronica Lake, in her first (and possibly best) pairing with Ladd, is fine if unremarkable as the resourceful and faithful Ellen. She wasn’t a great actress by any means, but her work with Ladd in this movie and their subsequent collaborations show her at her best. While Ladd is the dynamo at the heart of the picture, Laird Cregar is also memorable as his squeamish paymaster. Before his untimely death, Cregar was one of those menacing “big men” who seemed to populate so many 40s movies. Unlike the tougher and brasher Sydney Greenstreet, Cregar (and maybe Raymond Burr too) could not only easily convey a threatening presence but also hint at a more vulnerable, weaker side. Director Frank Tuttle isn’t noted for his noir pictures but he captures that elusive spirit on This Gun for Hire. The film may be an early example of noir but it contains many of the characteristic visual motifs, low angles and shadows bisecting the actors’ features in particular. Of course, he’s aided enormously by the photography of John Seitz, and the Graham Greene source novel adapted by W R Burnett. The story benefits greatly from the reduced emphasis on the espionage elements in favour of focusing instead on Raven’s personal quest for vengeance. It’s also refreshing that Raven, even when he does the “right” thing, acts out of what he sees as personal obligation as opposed to falling back on anything as crass or facile as a sudden realization of patriotic duty.

This Gun for Hire was released on DVD years ago by Universal in the US as part of their film noir line. The transfer remains a top notch effort with excellent contrast and clarity. The print has no significant damage or distractions on show. The disc itself is of the very basic variety with no extras whatsoever offered - a pity when you consider the quality of the movie. This is a fine, tightly paced film with a powerful central performance by Alan Ladd and a stylish look. If that’s not enough in itself then it deserves a viewing for being the first teaming of Lake and Ladd, and the influential nature of its characterization. Highly recommended.

The Leopard Man

Posted on October 26th, 2011 in 1940s, Jacques Tourneur by Colin

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Seeing as Halloween is only a matter of days away I thought I’d feature something with a seasonal flavour to mark the occasion. A casual glance would suggest that The Leopard Man (1943) ought to be a slice of classic horror. Bearing in mind the title, and the fact it was produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, one might expect to get another anthropomorphic chiller along the lines of Cat People. However, it’s the source material, a story by Cornell Woolrich, that dictates the kind of movie that’s ultimately delivered. Woolrich wasn’t a horror writer, though his darkly fatalistic tales do border on the macabre at times, instead he concentrated on bleak and pessimistic crime stories. So, the combination of director, producer and writer here results in a moody crime picture that bears the trappings, atmosphere and feel of a horror movie.

This compact thriller takes place in a border town in New Mexico and, like a good deal of Woolrich’s material, sees a tragic train of events set in motion by a foolish mishap. In this case the event in question is brought about when a night club performer, Kiki (Jean Brooks), goes along with the suggestion of her manager/publicist, Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe), that she should make a dramatic entrance with a black leopard on a leash. The idea is to draw the spotlight and simultaneously upstage her rival, flamenco dancer Clo-Clo (Margo). Not a bad plan, as far as it goes. The trouble arises when Clo-Clo, in a fit of pique, startles the beast with the clacking of her castanets, causing it to bolt and and slip away into the shadowy streets of the town. This leads to one of the most celebrated sequences in producer Lewton’s movies. A young girl, a bit of a dreamer and slacker if the truth be known, is sent on a shopping errand by an impatient and exasperated mother. The girl tries to beg off, citing her fear of the wild animal roaming the surrounding countryside, but the mother is having none of it. To her, her daughter has too fanciful an imagination and too little sense of responsibility. The girl’s trip to the only store open at such a late hour, and more especially the return, is an exercise in how to draw tension tight through the use of suggestion and shadowy visuals. What makes this succeed is the fact that the growing panic and dread of the girl match perfectly what the viewers feel as we accompany her on her journey. The tragic outcome, playing on the old fable of the boy who cried wolf, is all the more effective as a result of our experiencing the same emotions as the girl. Suddenly, this sleepy backwater is transformed into a community stalked by fear and suspicion as the apparent victims of the escaped cat start to mount up. As I said in the introduction, this is not a real horror movie in the true sense of the word. There is nothing of the supernatural involved, unless you count Isabel Jewell’s gypsy fortune teller, yet the sense of menace is palpable throughout.

Suspicion and threatening shadows - Jean Brooks in The Leopard Man.

In all honesty, the plot of The Leopard Man is fairly unremarkable, and the mystery story it’s built around isn’t so difficult to figure out. The strength of the movie derives from the mood evoked by the tale, and maybe more importantly, the way Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur go about presenting it. What they put on screen is every bit as morbid as the best of Poe. Lewton and Tourneur’s shadowy, expressionistic style play a significant part in creating the sense of doom and fatalism that seems to dog the characters. The flamenco dancer played by Margo is superficially in love with life, and her jaunty sashaying through the town streets, castanets always at the ready, appears to reinforce this. Yet, her thoughts are never far from darker matters, borne out by her near obsessive need to consult the fortune teller at every opportunity, despite the latter’s repeated discovery of death in the cards. Aside from the sequence with the girl on her late night errand that I already referred to, there are two other especially noteworthy passages. The first involves a lovelorn girl who visits a cemetary on her birthday to keep a date with her beau. Surely it’s only in a Lewton film where two youthful lovers would think it appropriate to pick a graveyard as the backdrop for a romantic assignation. This scene heightens the melancholic, oneiric quality that permeates the movie and comes close to the idea of horror being essentially a fairy tale for adults. The second takes place during the climax, where the real killer is pursued and finally cornered amid the hooded and solemn members of an historical/religious procession. All of these sequences serve as something of a definition of the characteristics of horror moviemaking. Cinematic horror is not so much about gore or actually scaring the audience - that has a limited, juvenile impact which rarely stands the test of time - as instilling a sense of dread and foreboding. After all, it’s the moody atmospheric stuff that lingers in the memory long after the cheaper shocks have worn off or been superseded by something more daring.

In the US Val Lewton collection form Warners The Leopard Man shares space on a disc with The Ghost Ship. The film has a reasonably good transfer, although there are certainly a number of speckles and scratches on show. The image is acceptably sharp and the contrast is good enough - particularly important in a movie such as this. Extras consist of a commentary by William Friedkin and the theatrical trailer. As I said, this is a crime story - with a noir sensibility, it should be added - dressed up as a horror film. I think it may be this hybrid quality that’s led to it’s being less celebrated than some of Lewton’s (or Tourneur’s for that matter) other pictures. Regardless, it remains a classy chiller that works well on both levels, and is a fine example of how to make a good movie on a shoestring budget.

The Ox-Bow Incident

Posted on June 28th, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, William Wellman, Dana Andrews by Colin

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The western is genre that often gets a raw deal in the image stakes. And it’s not just a matter of waning box-office popularity in recent times. It’s rarely afforded the respect that other genres seem to court so easily and instead finds itself weighed down by the notion that it’s somehow unsophisticated. The term oater is applied, I’ve used it myself, in an affectionate way, yet it carries a certain air of condescension when you stop and think about it too. I guess the stereotype of uncouth figures riding horses, firing guns and chasing Indians is such a strong one that it’s managed to sideline the genre in the minds of many people. The paradox is that the western is actually one of the richest forms of cinema around. Leaving aside the frequently breathtaking visuals, the setting offers the opportunity to tell an almost unlimited range of stories and explore as many themes as it’s possible to imagine. The vast geographical expanses and the absence (or at best the bare rudiments) of civilization create a kind of nearly blank canvas onto which a skilled filmmaker can paint, with both bold and subtle strokes, whatever he likes. William Wellman was certainly highly skilled and his westerns are never less than interesting, and usually challenging too. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a powerful and memorable piece of work that stays with you and is one of those films that proves the western is capable of being not only an entertainment but an intellectual stimulant as well.

The plot is a simple one and it’s that lack of complexity in the storytelling that’s one of its greatest strengths. The film has a moral point to impart and too much narrative trickery would only be a distraction and water down the central message. Events begin to unfold in a little backwater settlement where the neighbouring ranchers have been struggling with the perennial problem of cattle rustling. When a youngster comes racing into town to breathlessly announce that one of their own has been apparently murdered and his livestock taken a tragic chain reaction is set in motion. The jaded and bitter populace experience disbelief and outrage and are teetering on the edge, poised to ride out and hunt down like animals the alleged killers of their friend. For a brief moment, it looks like reason and decency may prevail as the aged storekeeper Davies (Harry Davenport) appeals to their better nature. But this is not to be - ex-soldier Tetley (Frank Conroy) soon turns the townsfolk back to their base instincts, and a rag-tag posse is formed. Not wanting to draw the ire of the town upon themselves, two cowboys, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), reluctantly join the eager hunting party. It’s not long before the posse cut the trail of three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford) who seem to fit the bill of the murderers. From this point on the movie becomes a kind of ethical struggle between the ineffectual Davies and the implacable Tetley for the souls of the posse members, with the fate of the three captives hanging in the balance.

Trapped in a moral no man's land - Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident.

The Ox-Bow Incident is based on the novel of the same name by Walt Van Tilburg Clark and, although it’s been quite a few years since I read the book, I recall it as being a pretty faithful adaptation. Wellman’s direction captures the heavy, moody and ultimately tragic tone of the novel very well. There aren’t many true exterior scenes, most of the film seeming to have been shot on sets, and this (along with the high contrast photography) helps to pile on the sense of claustrophobia and doom. While the outcome is fairly predictable, the director still maintains the tension and, crucially, that isn’t lost even with repeated viewings. In fairness, a lot of that comes down to the performances too; Dana Andrews, as the leader of the suspected murderers, was billed below Henry Fonda but his work plays a large part in the success of the movie. His initial disbelief and growing desperation at the nightmare situation he finds himself in is built steadily. He did a fine job of conveying an awkward mix of fear and nobility that positively demands the sympathy of the viewer. In a sense, Fonda plays something of a supporting role in this one, only taking centre stage at a few points. Perhaps his best moment is in the saloon at the end when he reads Andrews’ letter to his illiterate friend. The letter itself is a powerful and emotive one that expertly outlines the author’s twinned concepts of justice and conscience. Fonda’s delivery of the words, as Wellman shot him in extreme close-up - partly obscured at first and then full face - is perfectly timed and enunciated to maximise their impact. However, for long stretches, he’s portraying the confused man in the middle, caught between the opposing ideals of Tetley and Davies. It’s this conflict that’s at the heart of the picture: how reasonable and civilized men can be browbeaten into submission, how the cult of personality can sway the masses and turn them into an unthinking mob, bereft of ethics and robbed of conscience. It’s both an indictment of the failings of the law - the sheriff has left town, the judge is a procrastinator, and the deputy is little more than a barbarian - and a warning that that same law is all we have to prevent our descent into inhumanity.

The R1 DVD of The Ox-Bow Incident from Fox is an excellent presentation of the film; there’s hardly any damage to be seen, the detail level is fine, and the crisp image has the kind of strong contrast necessary for this type of movie. There’s also a fine selection of extras: a commentary track by William Wellman Jr and Dick Eulain, a biography of Fonda, and a gallery  of images. This title is due for a Blu-ray release by Koch Media in Germany in August. Seeing as the extras are to be replicated it’s reasonable to expect that the same film elements will be used, therefore a first class transfer should be on the cards. As I said in the intro, The Ox-Bow Incident is a good example of a thinking man’s western, yet for all that, it never loses sight of the fact that it has to entertain and grip the viewer too. A superb film.

Black Angel

Posted on June 14th, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Peter Lorre by Colin

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Time for another neglected and half-forgotten gem, one of those movies that seem to slip beneath the radar of even the most ardent movie buffs. Black Angel (1946) is a great little film noir that doesn’t get a lot of attention but really delivers the kind of perversely satisfying payoff that the genre is noted for. There are plenty of familiar noir names in the cast, but none of them are or were exactly “stars” and the director was a man who spent his time on B programmers, so that may go some way towards explaining the relative obscurity of the film.

The opening is very self-consciously stylised, showing a lone figure on the sidewalk before panning up an artificial looking building exterior and in through the window to establish an overhead shot of a woman in her bedroom. The woman, Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), is a singer and, as we soon learn, a blackmailer. While she prowls her apartment waiting for a caller to arrive, the man on the street below is revealed to be songwriter and pianist Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), the estranged husband who still carries a torch and hopes to see her since it’s their anniversary. Although the lovesick Blair gets stiff armed by the concierge, on his wife’s orders, the audience gets to witness two different men entering the building to see Miss Marlowe. One is night club owner Marko (Peter Lorre), and the other is a mark called Kirk Bennett (John Phillips). It’s the latter who discovers the strangled body of Marlowe and, despite protestations of innocence, is arrested, tried and sentenced to the gas chamber for her murder. As viewers, we know that Bennett is innocent - we can’t be positive who the murderer was but suspicion casts a very long shadow over Marko. The rest of the movie is essentially a race to try and nail the true culprit before the wrong man is executed. Blair and Bennett’s wife, Catherine (June Vincent), form an alliance to track down the clues the police have either missed or ignored in the course of the initial investigation. This curiously matched duo naturally focus their attention on the sinister Marko but, as the old saying goes, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, and the outcome is far from certain.

Falling off the wagon - Dan Duryea in Black Angel

Director Roy William Neill is hardly a household name, and he’s probably best known for helming some of the better entries in the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes series for Universal. In those movies he showed a real talent for conveying atmosphere and suspense on a budget. He brought that same sense of dark foreboding to Black Angel, which unfortunately proved to be his last picture, and delivered a pacy and stylish thriller. The script derives from a Cornell Woolrich story and has that twisted, nightmarish quality that characterised his work. In a rare opportunity to take on the lead role, Dan Duryea excels as the down and out loser who looks like he’s been given a second chance in life and grasps it, only to see his dreams slide away. Duryea was always a first rate villain but here he shows he had more range when necessary, and he creates a character in Martin Blair who’s actually quite touching and affecting. June Vincent, as the loyal wife, is the principal female lead but it’s such a stock role, and one devoid of anything in the way of complexity, that she fails to make much of an impression. The same can’t be said of Constance Dowling though - despite having her character killed off right at the beginning, the spectre of this striking looking woman haunts the rest of the film. Peter Lorre isn’t asked to do anything spectacular as Marko except play his standard variation on the slimy underworld type. Still, he had a nice line in menace that few could rival and he’s quite effective as the chief suspect. The supporting cast is rounded out by veteran Wallace Ford, as Blair’s friend, and a very restrained Broderick Crawford as the dubious detective.

Universal’s R1 DVD of Black Angel presents the film quite well. The transfer’s not exactly pristine but there’s no major problems either and it’s nice and sharp. The only extra on the disc is a trailer for the movie. More than one film noir has been let down by a weak or contrived ending, but this picture finishes up with a real kick in the guts that ensures none of the power is diminished. Don’t let the lesser known credentials put you off, this is a good one.

Spellbound

Posted on April 25th, 2011 in 1940s, Mystery/Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock, Gregory Peck by Colin

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I’ve heard Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) described as a tale of the lunatics taking over the asylum, and that’s actually not a bad summation. Despite sounding like a glib dismissal, it neatly encapsulates the basic premise of this movie. Exploiting the then fashionable trend for psychoanalysis, and enthusiastically supported by firm believer David O Selznick, it’s a romantic mystery served up as a kind of Freudian stew - and a very tasty one at that. Like all of Hitchcock’s films made for Selznick the producer’s fingerprints are visible everywhere, but there are plenty of instances of that familiar visual flair to ensure that you never forget who directed it.

Amnesiacs always make good protagonists in any movie, the blanked out memories that need to be recovered before any sense of order can be restored automatically generate mystery, and so it is with Spellbound. Our hero (Gregory Peck) is referred to variously as Dr Edwardes, JB, and finally as John Ballantyne (I’ll stick with JB for the purposes of this piece as that’s the moniker he carries for most of the running time) while he struggles to find out his real identity, and more crucially whether or not he’s a murderer. His arrival at a New England psychiatric hospital posing as the new director is initially taken at face value. There are a few comments passed regarding his relative youth for such a responsible position, but there are no other eyebrows raised. What it does spark though is an unsuspected passion in the emotionally repressed Dr Constance Petersen, thus providing JB with one priceless ally. Such a deception cannot hope to endure long though and, sure enough, it’s inevitably revealed that the real Dr Edwardes is in fact dead and the impostor taking his place is very likely his killer. So, still in search of who he is and what he did, JB goes on the run with Constance joining him after a short interval. It’s here that the picture comes into its own, as Constance, with the aid of her old tutor Dr Brulov (Michael Chekhov), employs Freudian psychoanalytic techniques in a race against time to probe the depths of JB’s subconscious and discover the truth. It all culminates in the famous dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, whose interpretation lays bare all the secrets. The whole thing is pure, escapist hokum but it’s executed with such style and conviction that you’re completely drawn in. It’s a good illustration of how, apart from his technical achievements, Hitchcock was masterful at taking stories that were essentially tosh and coaxing the viewer into accepting their credibility for the duration of the movie.

The stuff that dreams are made of - Spellbound.

I mentioned earlier Selznick’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, and I’d say that’s directly responsible for the film’s biggest weakness. Such was the producer’s zeal that he insisted on the involvement of an adviser on all things psychoanalytical. The result is an overly pious attitude towards the science depicted, from the cloyingly reverential foreword to the kind of mangled dialogue that even Ben Hecht was hard pressed to shape into something presentable. The contrast between the kind of clumsy exposition that Selznick wanted and Hitchcock’s talent for economical storytelling is clear to see in one scene near the end. In the space of a thirty second montage, consisting only of close-ups of Ingrid Bergman’s increasingly desperate features and a few imploring lines, the the trial, conviction and sentencing of JB is dealt with fully. Similarly, the whole, lengthy sequence at Brulov’s house could have proven intolerable in the hands of a lesser director. Instead, through the combination of a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance by Michael Chekhov, Hitchcock’s arresting visual style and the scoring of Miklos Rozsa (alternating between lush romanticism and the unnerving strains of the theremin), it stands as the strongest section of the entire film. Of course, in other places, some of the bravura touches could be said to serve no better purpose than to draw attention to their own inventiveness: the revolver discharged directly into the camera at the end springs to mind, but that’s such a memorable shot that it feels uncharitable and unnecessarily sniffy to complain about it.

It’s said that Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for the lead, and Peck’s performance has been criticised for being a touch too aloof. I can understand where that’s coming from, Peck had yet to find his feet fully in cinema, although I also feel he was actually right for the part. Had Grant been cast I have a hunch he would have brought too much of himself, that innate self-confidence, to the role and thus rendered it less believable. As it stands, Peck had just the right measure of insecurity about him to get across the edginess of a man who doesn’t even know his own name let alone whether or not he’s a criminal. Whatever reservations anyone may have about Peck, it’s hard to fault Ingrid Bergman’s Constance Petersen. She brings real charm and innocence to the part of the slightly uptight academic who gradually learns that there’s a vast gulf between theory and practice when it comes to matters of the heart. There’s nothing the least bit goofy about her, she’s clearly a highly intelligent and capable woman but there’s also a touching vulnerability as a result of her sheltered lifestyle. Aside from the principal performers, there are a couple of excellent cameos in the mix too - the middle-aged cop and his partner discussing the issues he’s having with his mother who are in some ways reminiscent of the travelling salesmen in The 39 Steps, and Wallace Ford as the persistent pest in the hotel lobby - these don’t add anything at all to the narrative but they do enrich the whole experience.

Spellbound has had a variety of releases on DVD in different territories; my copy is the old Pearson release from the UK, which I think has been repackaged and subsequently issued by Prism. I guess there may be better versions out there but that old UK disc is pretty good to my eyes. There aren’t any problems with the transfer, which is clean, sharp and free from damage. There are a range of extras, from text bios and trivia to a gallery and a few clips of Hitchcock interviews etc - I’m pretty sure the latter is replicated on the other Hitchcock titles from Pearson. The movie itself is one of Hitch’s better than average 40s offerings, not as good as Notorious or Shadow of a Doubt but still technically accomplished and very entertaining. There are the familiar motifs (the wrong man on the run and the blonde Girl Friday) and the psychoanalysis angle is quite enjoyable. Like most of the director’s films, it has a high rewatch value regardless of how familiar the plot may be - recommended.

Dead Reckoning

Posted on March 24th, 2011 in 1940s, Humphrey Bogart, Film Noir by Colin

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I guess when you watch enough films it’s almost inevitable that a certain degree of familiarity with plot and characters creeps in. Leaving aside the matter of remakes and such, this is often simply a false perception on the viewers part. However, every once in a while, a movie like Dead Reckoning (1947) comes along where familiarity is not just a case of perceived similarity but a clear rehash of characters, themes and even dialogue from earlier works. This picture borrows heavily from two previous Bogart vehicles - The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, the latter being the most obvious with lines of dialogue getting recycled by the very man who made them iconic in the first place. Although Dead Reckoning never manages to attain the heights of its source of inspiration, it remains an entertaining (if slightly cheesy) film noir.

It opens strongly with a battered and desperate Captain Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) dodging the cops along the dark, rain slicked pavements of Gulf City. Symbolically seeking sanctuary, he slips into a Catholic church and melts into the protective shadows. Recognising the returning priest as a former army padre, he takes the opportunity to unburden himself and tell his tale in an improvised confession. This introduces the flashback structure that dominates the bulk of the film’s running time. In brief, Murdock is now running scared in Gulf City as a result of his attempt to locate an old army pal who decided to take a powder rather than face exposure as a wanted man when he learns that he is to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The plot follows Murdock’s efforts to clear the name of his friend for a murder that he believes was out of character. The friend in question ends up burnt to a crisp in a car wreck before Murdock even has a chance to contact him, so he must feel his way in the dark in a strange town and among an assortment of shady figures. The closest link to his friend, and the person most likely to hold the key to his fate, is a husky voiced cabaret singer by the name of Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott). Murdock’s innate distrust of women means he starts off sceptical of the sincerity of this lady, and her apparent closeness to the smoothly repellent night club owner and gambler Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) merely serves to heighten his suspicions. Throughout the movie Murdock blows hot and cold in relation to Coral, his attitude varying from doubt to acceptance and back again, even as he finds himself increasingly attracted to her. It’s only after Murdock turns Martinelli’s office into a raging inferno that the truth behind his friend’s demise finally comes to light.

Lizabeth Scott & Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning.

Bogart’s character in Dead Reckoning is a detective in the Spade/Marlowe mold in all but name; he frequents the same kind of places, mixes it with the same mobsters and duplicitous types and speaks in the same hard-boiled idiom. He even brings matters to a head in a way we’ve seen before - as he tosses the deadly incendiary grenades around Martinelli’s office to loosen tongues you almost expect to hear him snarl “That’s one, Eddie…”, and the climactic scene with Lizabeth Scott borders on a pastiche of the payoff in The Maltese Falcon. Despite the lack of originality in the script (I’ve also read that the movie was initially planned as a kind of follow-up to Gilda) it still stands up as a medium grade noir. A lot of this is due, I think, to Bogart’s strong performance, his cynicism and toughness papering over the weaknesses in other aspects of the movie. The short scene in the morgue - the one cool place in town - highlights this through its combination of smart-ass dialogue and implied violence. In fact, there’s a good deal of violence in the movie, although much of it takes place off screen. The savage beating Murdock receives from Marvin Miller’s sadistic thug, all carried out to the accompaniment of dance time music, is never shown but the damage to the hero’s face makes it clear enough what’s been going on. Morris Carnovsky’s Martinelli makes for an interesting villain, reminiscent of George Macready’s Ballin Mundson in the aforementioned Gilda, as a lowlife with a veneer of sophistication and mock delicacy. The weakest link in the whole chain is ironically the one person who’s presence ties all the strands together - Lizabeth Scott. She was clearly supposed to act as a kind of surrogate Bacall, a sultry foil for Bogart’s two-fisted protagonist. She looks the part and pitches her voice low enough to promise heaven and honey, but her overall performance is a poor one. At one point she spins Bogart one of those hard luck yarns so beloved of femme fatales and then, not reading the result she wanted in his features, asks if he doesn’t believe her. And that’s the problem; there’s a lack of conviction and credibility when she delivers some of the most crucial lines in the movie. Leaving aside the performers, John Cromwell’s direction is mostly effective and there are some darkly moody scenes. The tense opening and the subsequent flashback power things along, but the return to “normal” time lets the momentum slow a little, and a little too early, before the final reveal.

The R2 DVD from Sony/Columbia is reasonably good but not without some faults. The transfer is generally clean, but there are moments of softness and a few occasions when scratches and light damage prove mildly distracting. The only extra feature offered is a gallery consisting of a few posters. Generally, this is a pretty respectable noir, though not quite top flight material. The script is too much by the numbers and unquestionably derivative of other pictures. Still, it does hold one’s interest and has rewatch value if only to enjoy again some fine, snappy lines. That, and a typically gritty Bogart performance, earns it a recommendation.

The Outlaw

Posted on February 9th, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns by Colin

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It’s hard to know where to begin with a film like The Outlaw (1943), or indeed what to make of it at all. It takes the characters of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett and dumps them into a story that bears no relation to reality and frequently defies logic too. Ultimately, it’s a showcase for the fantasies and obsessions of Howard Hughes (two very prominent ones in particular) and its failure as a motion picture can be traced back to that. There are some astonishingly bad aspects to this film but, almost perversely, there are also times when it looks like it might just turn the corner and become something worthwhile. However, it never manages to tear itself free of Hughes’ grip, and every time an opportunity to go somewhere interesting arises it misses its step and simply lapses back into parody. 

Within minutes of the opening the viewer is shown the meeting of Billy (Jack Buetel), Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) and…Doc Holliday (Walter Huston). Yes, that’s right - Doc Holliday. So right from the off all semblance of reality is swept away and it’s clear that what follows is going to strain credibility to the absolute limit. Anyway, it transpires that Billy stands accused of stealing Doc’s horse - whether or not he did is never really resolved and the saga of the disputed ownership recurs time after tiresome time throughout the movie. Just when it looks like these two noted gunslingers are going to shoot it out the party is broken up by the intervention of Doc’s long time buddy Garrett. The result is that Doc finds himself ruefully admiring the Kid’s pluck and subsequently taking his side, much to the disappointment of Garrett. This switch of allegiances is regarded not only as a breach of friendship but also as a kind of humiliation by Garrett. When a saloon killing forces him to place Billy under arrest, Garrett is once again wrong-footed by Doc and their enmity is sealed. With Billy wounded and the law in hot pursuit, Doc leaves the Kid in the care of his girl Rio (Jane Russell) while he heads for the hills and safety. Now Rio and the Kid had met before, in a dark stable where they wrestled around some. However, the Kid is now laid low by his wound and the resulting fever, so he’s in no condition to continue where he left off. This lengthy sequence in Doc’s cabin, as Rio nurses the Kid back to health and falls for him in the process, is supposed to define the central relationships of the film. The fact is though it kills the narrative stone dead and contains not only some truly awful shots but also has the misfortune of being dominated by two performers making very obvious debuts. The only good thing to be said is that it contains an imaginative method employed by Rio to break a dangerous fever - I’ll have to see if it works the next time I’m running a temperature. After this tedious interlude the story attempts to regain some momentum with Garrett finally catching up with his quarry, only to be blindsided again. There is some dramatic tension to be had from seeing Garrett’s disillusionment spiralling off into murderous frustration, but as soon as this happens Hughes manages to drain all the pathos away and negate what should have been a powerful moment. And that sort of sums up the whole production.

Playing with a stacked deck - Jane Russell in The Outlaw.

The Outlaw is of course remembered for the furore it caused with the censors and the Hays Office. Were it not for Howard Hughes’ fascination with Jane Russell’s ample form, and the battle he undertook to have his picture exhibited, this movie would likely have faded into obscurity. Hughes’ shooting style, seen at its worst and most self-indulgent in the interminable cabin sequence mentioned above, is an object lesson in bad filmmaking. The zooms, cuts and fades employed are jarring and meaningless exercises, like a schoolboy playing with a new toy. The action scenes that punctuate the story do have some merit though and are worthy of attention. I also think it’s fair to say that the shots in the movie that retain some style and character are likely the result of having the great Gregg Toland behind the camera. As for the acting, Buetel and Russell are clearly making their first picture - Russell fares better, and her subsequent career can be seen as proof that she did have ability. Buetel, on the other hand, is very weak and it’s almost cruel to see his lack of range exposed by the presence of two classy old veterans like Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell. If one wanted to be generous it could be argued that Buetel managed to convey the sense of awkwardness and innocence of a young man forced to grow up too soon. Both Huston and Mitchell really anchor the film and prevent it spinning off course completely; when one or other is on screen there’s always a feeling of reassurance, and the only real criticism is that they’re far too old to play the characters they’re supposed to be. The big dramatic scene that forms the climax, where Doc shoots pieces from the Kid’s ears to provoke him into drawing, gives Huston a chance to impose himself as Mitchell sits slyly in the wings. Mitchell, of course, gets his big moment too when he follows up by pouring out his pent up frustration and shredded pride. This should have seen things end on a high note but Hughes’ botches it again with an ending that’s ridiculous and insulting in equal measure. Thus far I’ve pointed out many of the shortcomings of this movie, but there’s one more that needs to be mentioned. The score. Music plays an integral part in film; it can enhance a mood and complement a scene, it can even lend a whole new dimension to a sequence. But, used poorly, it can also draw the life from a picture and sap the tension. What I can only describe as “comedy cues” pepper the action in The Outlaw at the most inappropriate moments and actively damage a number of key scenes.

The Outlaw has long been a staple of the PD market and there are countless editions of it floating around on DVD. For the purposes of this piece I viewed the Legend Films version that came out about two years ago. Legend, of course, are known for their penchant for colouring in old B&W movies; however, they also do a clean up of the print beforehand and offer both versions. The B&W print is probably as good as I’ve seen the film looking, although it’s certainly not perfect either. There’s a softness about the image at times, especially evident in the longer shots, and some instances of minor damage. This release was a two disc set: the first disc offering both the restored B&W and the colourised versions, and the second comprising only the colourised one with a commentary by Jane Russell and Terry Moore. Frankly, I have no intention of ever watching the crayoned in version so I’ve yet to hear the commentary - I’ll probably give it a listen some time in the background when I don’t have to endure the garish visuals. Anyway, I think it ought to be clear that I’m not a fan of this particular movie. In its defence I will admit that Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell give good performances and there are a few well staged action scenes. But the acting of the young leads, Buetel especially, leaves a lot to be desired. That and Hughes’ mediocre direction combined with some ill-conceived scoring really drag the film down. It’s the kind of picture that perhaps deserves to be seen for its poorness alone. Basically, though, it’s a half baked turkey that’s not worth going out of one’s way to catch.

Billy the Kid

Posted on February 2nd, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns, Robert Taylor by Colin

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It’s been a long time since I committed myself to doing a themed series. Having done a few of them in the past I kept putting this particular one off. Why? Well firstly, this kind of thing requires watching a number of predetermined films more or less back to back, and I normally baulk at that kind of discipline as I prefer to go with whatever strikes my fancy at a given time. Moreover, I knew that running a series on Billy the Kid means sitting through a few poor movies. Anyway, I finally got myself into the right mood and I’ve decided to delve into it. As with other series I’ve done I’m not claiming that this will be an exhaustive analysis of each and every cinematic representation of this figure - there are just too many movies that feature Mr Bonney. In the coming weeks, I’ll be covering what I think are all the major portrayals. I’ll obviously touch on the historical accuracy of the various films, but I don’t want to dwell too much on that side of things as I’m no expert and, besides, good history and good cinema don’t necessarily go hand in hand. So, let’s kick things off with Billy the Kid (1941), a film that dances around the facts, changes the names of just about every major character, but remains an entertaining piece all the same.

The opening sees Billy (Robert Taylor) breaking an old pal Pedro (Frank Puglia) out of jail, and subsequently finding himself drawn unwittingly into what would become this movie’s version of the Lincoln County War. In short, there’s a conflict brewing between two rival ranchers, Hickey (Gene Lockhart) and Keating (Ian Hunter) - read Murphy and Tunstall respectively - and Billy is hired as a troubleshooter by the former. One of his first tasks for his new master is to participate in a stampede of Keating’s herd. This excitingly shot sequence leads to a fateful reunion between Billy and an old friend from his childhood, Jim Sherwood (Brian Donlevy playing what’s really the Pat Garrett role), who’s now foreman for Keating. As the two men sit around the campfire it’s clear that a bond still exists, but circumstances have placed them at loggerheads. Gradually though, Billy comes to see that Hickey’s methods are unjustifiable and, after being impressed by the dignity of Keating, it’s not long before a switch in allegiances takes place. So, the two friends become allies under the moderating influence of Keating. Even after Pedro is callously murdered and Billy is itching for revenge, Keating counsels restraint. His way is to work within the law to topple Hickey. Such noble sentiments are cast aside though when Keating himself falls victim to the Hickey faction. The result is the outbreak of open warfare, and Billy and Sherwood, while united in their goal, stand divided over the methods to be used. Inevitably, these two will have to confront each other in combat. It’s surely no secret how the showdown ends, although this film depicts events in a much more heroic way. Leaving historical airbrushing aside, the face-off between Sherwood and Billy is effectively done, as is the earlier retribution that’s meted out to Keating’s murderers.

Robert Taylor as Billy the Kid.

Robert Taylor was 30 years old when he made this picture and looked far too mature to play the callow youth of the title. Still, he turns in a good performance as a man who cannot escape the mistakes of his past. The script explains his descent into lawlessness as a consequence of his father’s being murdered and his resulting thirst for revenge. The upshot is that Taylor gives the audience an early take on the “angry young man” persona that cinema would explore in later decades. He starts out scowling and clad in black leather, easing into more relaxed and typical cowboy garb for the mid section when Keating’s got him cooled down a little, and finishes the same as the plot turns full circle to bring him back into confrontation with the law. Brian Donlevy frequently played the villain in westerns so it’s kind of refreshing to see him on the right side of the law for a change. The scenes where he and Taylor get to act as pals have a certain charm and affability that form a nice contrast to the later ones when they must lock horns and face each other down. The other characters are all painted with broad strokes though, Lockhart’s conniving runt and Hunter’s fair-minded crusader leaving us in no doubt who the heroes and villains are. Having said that, both men handle their material well and if complaints of black and white characterisation are to be made then the fault lies with the writing and not the acting. One of the really positive points of the movie is the wonderful location shooting in Monument Valley; director David Miller may not have been in John Ford’s league but he created some memorable images of tiny human figures dwarfed by those familiar rock formations. The climactic ride to marshal forces and take on Hickey is a great sequence that’s only marred by the puzzling decision to intercut sumptuous long shots with close-ups and poor back projection.

To my knowledge, there are currently two options for acquiring this film - one is from Warner/Impulso in Spain and the other is a DVD-R through the Warner Archive in the US. The Spanish disc is a weak effort that has a kind of hazy softness throughout - I thought it improved marginally as it went on but that may have just been me getting used to it. The print has had no work whatsoever done to it and there are numerous instances of scratches, damage, cue blips and the like. On the plus side, the colours seem to have held up well enough and make the location work look very attractive. As with all the Spanish Warner discs I’ve seen the subs on the English track are fully removable regardless of what the main menu seems to suggest. I’ve seen some screen captures from the US disc and they certainly appeared to be of better quality - crisper, sharper and better defined. The film itself is a fairly typical early 40s effort that combines solid drama with lighter moments. If close adherence to the facts is a prerequisite then this is not the film for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a reasonably entertaining western with professional performances and good location work it should check most of the boxes. Robert Taylor westerns are always good value and I’d rate this as one of his medium efforts.

Ramrod

Posted on January 17th, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns, Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea, Andre de Toth by Colin

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Range wars have always been a favourite backdrop for westerns, men struggling over a piece of land upon which they have built their dreams being an ideal source of conflict. It’s not so common though to see a woman as one of the aggressors, and certainly not one as petite and vulnerable looking as Veronica Lake. However, if there’s a lesson to be learned from Ramrod (1947) it’s surely that one should never be taken in by appearances.

This is a lean, brisk movie where things happen fast and no time is wasted. Within minutes of the opening the main protagonists of the story are introduced and their motivations laid out. Everything revolves around Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake), a headstrong young woman hell bent on establishing herself in her own right and independent of her rancher father. We’re pitched immediately into the middle of a potentially explosive situation where Connie’s betrothed, a sheepman, is about to confront her father and his enforcer, Frank Ivey (Preston Foster). Ivey is the man Connie’s father would like to see her paired off with and he’s not averse to the idea himself. When the the sheepman decides that he values his hide more and thus backs down Connie turns her attention to a drifting cowboy and former drunk, Dave Nash (Joel McCrea). Nash has no interest in involving himself in the Dickason’s affairs at first, but a run-in with the bullying Ivey leads to a change of heart. He decides to sign on with her as her foreman, or ramrod, and face down her father and Ivey. Nash wants to use the law to secure Connie’s rights but she has other ideas on how to go about things. At the heart of the picture are Connie’s machinations, seductively playing the men off against each other to achieve her own ends. All of this deceit inevitably leads to tragedy and the loss of many innocent lives, although Connie blithely dismisses the bloodshed as a necessary if distasteful step on the road to fulfilling her ambitions. It’s only at the end, when her dreams are almost within her grasp, that this scheming puppeteer realises that her self-absorbed ruthlessness has driven away the very thing she desired most.

Joel McCrea in Ramrod.

Joel McCrea’s portrayal of Nash is spot on, his calm and inner strength fitting for a man who has come face to face with personal tragedy and dragged himself back from despair. His honest, straight shooting persona is also ideal for a man who finds himself duped and manipulated by Connie. In fact, every man in the film falls prey to her deceptions at one point or another. Lake was clearly trading on her film noir credentials as she plays what is essentially a femme fatale out west. Her diminutive stature obviously rules out the possibility of her involving herself directly in any of the violence but her awareness of and confidence in her own femininity, and its attendant power, ensures that she calls the shots at almost every point. Director Andre de Toth was married to Lake at this time and he handles not only her scenes but the whole film very well. While he couldn’t be classed as one of the great directors, de Toth was certainly competent and made enough good films to be worthy of more attention. Aside from a number of very enjoyable collaborations with Randolph Scott, he also made the superior Day of the Outlaw and a handful of quality noirs. He was especially good at shooting action and the stalking by night of McCrea’s friend is particularly well done. It’s also worth noting the tough edge he brought to proceedings with a cigar ground into a man’s hand to provoke a gunfight and a savagely brutal beating being some of the highlights. 

While there are plenty of good things to say about Ramrod the film, unfortunately, that not the case with the DVD. The only edition that I’m aware of is the Suevia release from Spain, and it’s pretty poor stuff. The master looks to be taken from an old VHS cassette and all the expected faults are present in the transfer. The image is scratchy, dirty and lacking in definition, and the audio is weak too. Despite that, it remains quite watchable, although there is an especially bad section beginning on the hour mark and continuing for about two minutes. In terms of quality it’s reminiscent of a mid-range PD title. However, as things stand, it’s the only version available - I’m not sure where the rights for this reside but I have a hunch it could be with MGM. On the plus side it can be had for very little money and there are no forced subs on the English track. I think this is a neglected little western with noir undertones that is well worth a look; anything starring McCrea and directed by de Toth deserves that at least. I’d imagine a decent release would go some way towards elevating its status.

Kiss of Death

Posted on January 12th, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Richard Widmark, Henry Hathaway, Victor Mature by Colin

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Stool pigeon, squealer, informer - these words all evoke images of weak, low-life types who are willing to spill it all and damn their friends for personal gain. It’s not easy to portray such people without resorting to stereotypes like the tragic, pitiful dupe, or maybe the moral/political crusader. Kiss of Death (1947) is the tale of a man who happily shops his partners in crime, but he comes across as the hero mainly because his actions are guided by his devotion to his family and not greed or some trite ethical principle.

Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is a career hood who’s spent his life on the wrong side of the law. The opening voiceover narration establishes the fact that Bianco’s record now precludes him from holding down any meaningful job, and thus limits his choices. When a pre-Christmas jewel robbery goes wrong he finds himself on a downward spiral where his already restricted options will be narrowed even more. Initially, Bianco holds firm to the doctrine of honour among thieves and spurns the approaches of Assistant DA D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy). So he takes the jail time and the criminal kudos that comes with it, choosing to leave things up to his crooked lawyer. It’s only when he hears of the suicide of his wife (who’s never seen incidentally) and the subsequent packing off of his two daughters to an orphanage that he undergoes a change of heart. Both his lawyer’s ineffectiveness and the news of the inappropriate behaviour of his former comrades cause him to reassess his position. Striking a deal with D’Angelo gets Bianco out on parole but that’s not the end of it. The law demands more from him and Bianco finds himself drawn deeper into the DA’s plans. The ultimate goal is to secure the conviction of one Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a ruthless hoodlum with a psychopathic streak. Although Bianco secures the evidence the trial is a failure and Udo walks. It’s now that the real nightmare begins; Bianco has a new wife and a new identity, and all that will surely be swept away when (not if) Udo tracks him down and exacts his revenge. It’s in this second half of the story that the film shows its true noir credentials and moves away from the early melodramatic gangster movie feel. Bianco’s world shrinks to the point where he is eventually left with only one viable course of action.

A new face emerging from the shadows - Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo.

Kiss of Death is a good movie for many reasons, but over the years it’s come to be remembered mainly for the debut of Richard Widmark. The performance is so intense and memorable that it’s hard to believe Widmark had never been on screen before. The fact that this giggling maniac who delights in shoving a crippled woman to her death down a staircase has featured in so many clips through time has maybe drained some of the shock value away. However, there’s no denying the chilling quality that Widmark brings to every scene he’s in - whether it all came down to the actor’s own nervousness or not he has a kind of electric menace that demands you give him your full attention. In contrast, Victor Mature is like a rabbit caught in the headlights when confronted with this raw aggression. That’s not meant as a criticism of Mature’s performance; his role is that of man trapped by his own past and some poor decisions, and he brings off the mounting sense of isolation, desperation and fear that any man in Bianco’s position must surely experience. In the supporting parts, Donlevy is his usual strutting and brusque self as the Assistant DA who’s not averse to bending the law his way in order to achieve his ends. Coleen Gray, who also provides the voiceover, is the new wife who finds herself thrust into a perilous situation - although she must surely have expected that her life with Bianco would be less than smooth given her knowledge of his past - and she’s sweet and sympathetic in the role. Henry Hathaway’s no nonsense direction makes sure that the action moves along, and neatly avoids the kind of sermonising that could easily derail things. He also blends the extensive location work into proceedings and this does lend a touch of realism.

The US release of Kiss of Death on DVD (although it’s out in the UK too) via Fox’s noir line is a typically strong one, the transfer being crisp and clean throughout. There are some nice extras too: a commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver, a gallery and the trailer. The movie has points to make about the inadequacy (and possibly the corrupt nature) of law enforcement, and the failings of the penal system. However, this stuff has all been done before and it’s therefore refreshing that the abiding memory one takes away from a viewing is that of Widmark’s sniggering nutjob. I think it’s fair to say that it’s this powerhouse performance that elevates the movie above other noir pictures.

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