Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I Walk Alone (1947)

I Walk Alone was directed by Byron Haskin for Paramount. Haskin made only one other Noir, the vastly superior Too Late for Tears. Large parts of I Walk Alone take place exclusively in one venue, a nightclub, showing the film's beginnings as a stage play. 

I Walk Alone is a solid entry into the Noir canon, but no more. The movie’s appeal lies mainly in its star power. Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Lizabeth Scott are fun to watch, and the film is worth seeing mostly as the first on-screen pairing of legendary duo Lancaster and Douglas. Seeing those two fight it out with the gloves off is a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes. There’s always a ferocious intensity and flamboyance about both actors, it’s the battle of the snarling alpha males. 
Plus we get Liz Scott in snazzy costumes.

Unfortunately, there is too much pondering going on here, the film would have benefited from a much tighter script. The soundtrack too is often overly intrusive and overwhelms the action at times.

The picture follows the well-worn storyline of two friends who are friends no longer due to a little thing called money. Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster) and Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas) had a successful bootlegging business going during prohibition, running illegal booze across the Canadian border. One night the police is waiting for them. Dink hightails it, Frankie is caught and has to take the rap. He’s sent up for 14 year while Dink hits it big and opens a swanky nightclub in New York City. Dink is raking in big money. After Frankie’s release he visits Dink with the intention of collecting his half of the nightclub’s profits, as was agreed upon years earlier with a verbal fifty-fifty agreement. An overly optimistic belief maybe. Dink has no intention of honoring their understanding and uses his mistress Kay (Lizabeth Scott) to bamboozle Frankie. When Dink on top of that kills Frankies’s old friend Dave who wanted out of the racket, Frankie is out for revenge.

Frankie’s and Dink’s partnership must always have been an unequal one.
Douglas was the brains behind the operation, clever, devious, sly and always one step ahead of everybody. He’s a snake charmer with plenty of charisma that makes people think he’s a nice guy. A fatal error in judgment.
Lancaster’s Frankie is a blunt instrument, he was the muscle in the organization. He’s a volatile brute who knows how to use his fists but not his head. He was born in a tough neighborhood and can handle himself though he’s like an bull in a china shop when out of his natural habitat.

What is of real interest here is the portrayal of Frankie as a career criminal. This is not a man trying desperately to go straight after his stint in jail, instead we have a man who is simply determined to claim what he believes to be his, by any means possible. He has no compunction about returning to a life of crime as long as he gets his due. He does have his own brand of integrity though, even if it’s just honor amongst thieves.

But while Frankie was inside, the world had changed and with it had crime. Crime had gone corporate, it was strictly Big Business now, organized, semi-legit and faceless. Back in the days Frankie and Dink ruled things by force, but now Dink deals with banks, lawyers, dummy corporations, legal technicalities and loopholes in the system.
In the best scene of the movie the audience gets a little history lesson on the ins and outs of modern-day racketeering. It’s completely unexpected and unlike anything you see in 40s Noir. A clash of eras.
Frankie busts into Dink’s office with a bunch of gorillas to force him to hand over his share. Frankie only remembers the strong-arm methods of Prohibition times, for him a loaded gun is an unbeatable argument. He has to learn the harsh lesson that he can’t simply pick up life where he left off. He’s still the same guy as on the day he went to prison, but the world has moved on. Every one of Frankie’s threats is answered with double-edged business talk. Frankie’s force is no match for that.
It’s a shocking, funny and oddly educational scene all in one when Frankie finally has to realize that violence gets him nowhere with Dink, and his humiliation is almost painful to watch.
After this disaster Frankie is forced to use his brain for the first time in his life.

Lizabeth Scott is good in her role as torch singer Kay Lawrence. Not a great actress by any means, given the right role she was a very effective one. Here she plays yet another good-bad girl, a tarnished angel, and her performance is sincere and warm. She’s the pawn in the fight between two men, torn in her conflicted loyalty between both of them. Dink wants her to be the femme fatale who hooks and ensnares Frankie, but Kay isn’t having any. She’s had enough of this life.

You really can’t go wrong with a Lancaster/Douglas picture but it could have been so much better. Despite a great cast, good dialogue and nice cinematography, that last final spark that elevates a film from good to great is missing. Not a wasted opportunity by any means, but certainly no classic either.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Decoy (1946)

Decoy was directed by virtually unknown Jack Bernhard who has only 12 directing credits to his name. The picture - Bernhard’s first and best - was produced by lowly Poverty Row studio Monogram and is only 76 minutes long, but it’s a doozy and textbook Noir all the way.
This is Poverty Row at its finest. Decoy is proof what can be done with a measly buck fifty budget and an off-kilter vision. It may be Monogram’s jewel in the crown. Everything comes together to create an unexpected little gem. Unfortunately Bernhard would never reach the same exalted heights of punchy pulp again.

Bernhard was then-husband of the female star Jean Gillie and he made Decoy as a showcase for his British wife to introduce her to American audiences. He wanted to make her a star but he should have known that nobody became a star making pictures for Poverty Row. Gillie had that fate in common with her contemporary Poverty Row femmes fatales Peggie Cummins, Ann Savage and Janis Carter. Gillie's stardom never came and she made only one more movie before dying at the young age of 33 of pneumonia.

Poverty Row pictures never tried to hide what they were. There was a genuine rawness about them that glossier studio productions simply couldn’t reproduce. They benefitted from their shoestring budget. Poverty Row didn’t have, and didn’t need, any pretensions at intellectual filmmaking. And often their pictures were all the better for it. Because of this lack of pretense with Decoy we get one of Noir’s greatest Bs - crazy, wonky, absolutely original, with a bit of horror and sci-fi thrown in. 

The plot is utterly implausible and intelligence-defying. It’s a tough cough drop to swallow. At times one may be afraid of this turning into an Ed Wood picture, but fear not. It’s oodles better than that.

Old coot gangster Frankie Olins is supposed to die in the gas chamber. His lady love Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) is simply prostate with grief about it, not because of him but because of the 400 G he has stashed away somewhere and whose location he’s willing to take to the grave with him. So she comes up with a brilliant plan. Her other boyfriend, gangster Jim Vincent, has to help her steal Frankie’s dead body from the prison morgue. Furthermore she needs the help of prison doctor Lloyd Craig, so he can administer the antidote Methylene Blue for the cyanide poisoning from the gas chamber. After Frankie has died! What? We could wonder now what the writers were smoking when they came up with that plot point, but it works best if we - like the protagonists -  take it at face value. Reviving dead people is no big deal.

Frankie indeed comes back from the dead - with a little nod to Frankenstein’s monster: “I’m alive!” -  and then is stupid enough to fork over the treasure map. For his efforts, he gets a blast from a .38 to remember Margot by.
You see, Margot really doesn’t want to share the loot with anyone…and anyone who stands in her way must die.

The story is told in flashbacks with a voice-over by mortally wounded Margot. In true Noir fashion the flashback freezes out any hope of a happy ending.

No Methylene Blue required
Gillie gives a standout performance, and for my money she takes first place in that illustrious Femme Fatale Hall of Fame. She knocks your socks off. The movie is what it is because of Gillie. She raises what could have been just another crummy little flick to utter gem and in the bargain has garnered a cult following. She looks absolutely fabulous in her wardrobe. It’s hard to believe she would even need Methylene Blue to revive a corpse, her perfume alone should do it.

It seems only Poverty Row -  flying somewhat under the radar - was capable of bringing out the absolute worst in its deadly dames. Never again have they been so utterly depraved, evil and unredeemable. There’s not even a touch of sympathy in Margot. 

She is as ice-cold, ruthless and lethal as they come. You’ll hardly find a more rotten dame. She uses men like disposable Kleenex and would double-cross her pet goldfish if there’s money in it. Kathy Moffat had nothing on her.

She doesn’t bat an eyelid when her gangster lover No. 2 Vincent bumps off gangster lover No.1, poor Frankie who gets killed off twice within a matter of hours. Talk about having a rough day. A short time later Margot runs over lover No. 2 with a car. After lover No. 3, prison doctor Craig, has dug up the loot she pumps him full of lead while she laughs hysterically. Before the boys can wise up to the fact that they’re chumps, it’s too late. She plucks them off like ducks in a shooting arcade. The entire male cast loses their heads, and their lives, bar one. Suckers always die.

This is Noir distilled to its essence. Life is cheap and then you die and bleed to death in the gutter.
But Craig isn’t quite as dead as Margot thought. He follows her to town to settle the issue once and for all.

This movie is one of the few times where the motivation of the main character for her all-consuming greed is explained. Margot spits out her contempt for poverty in a passionate speech about the “dingy, dirty street” in England where she came from. It’s the same kind of street that her doctor lover lives on now and it is nothing she could ever accept. Poverty is the one thing that scares her. 
What’s more, she knows exactly that the supposedly devoted-to-his-work-amongst-the-poor doctor in his dingy little office is just waiting for his chance to break out and be corrupted, though he professes a liking for the simple life. But one look at Gillie and his world changes forever.
You like the clothes I wear, don’t you? You like to smell the perfume I use. You like that, don’t you? That perfume costs seventy-five dollars a bottle! Seventy-five dollars! That’s as much as you earn in a week sopping up runny noses. A bottle of perfume—that’s our reality."
Craig’s existence so far, that is clear to him, has been stultifying and banal. Margot knows he’s easily corruptible. At the start of the movie we see the doctor’s face in a shattered mirror with a jagged edge, hinting at another darker side of him. The good doctor isn’t quite as straight-laced as he always thought.

Craig is another one in a long line of Noir characters who, until opportunity and temptation knocked, had been righteous and stable paragons of duty and responsibility. In true Noir tradition, having an upright character just means that a person has never encountered temptation, the temptation that would reveal how unreliable their noble principles were all along. “I had to smash that shield of ideals”, says Margot. It wasn’t that hard.

Of the male cast it is only Sheldon Leonard as Sgt. Joe Portugal who stands out. He was a strong actor with a great screen presence and a good antagonist for Gillie. He has Margot pegged alright, he’s the only man who doesn't succumb to Gillie’s charm though he is tempted. He doesn’t let her cloud his judgment, and that’s why his is the last man standing at the end of the movie. Like Sam Spade he’s not willing to play the sucker for a dame.

Thankfully the ending of the film is not a cop-out. It doesn’t dissolve into sentimentality. It is uncompromising and stays true to the spirit of Noir. Margot confesses all her sins to the cop, but she isn’t repentant. She’s proud of what she’s done. She’s bragging. Some lethal dames go soft in the end - even Phyllis Dietrichson had her two seconds of soppy remorse. Not so Margot. There isn’t an ounce of remorse in her. Even dying she’s only thinking about the money that is all hers now. She dares Portugal to kiss her (“Jo Jo, just this once, come down to my level’) and when he leans in for the kiss she mocks him and his compassion for her. Here we can see the essence of her character. Margot’s only goal in life has always been to tear down as many others as possible before she herself has to go the same way. 

The ending is sardonic and emphasizes another important Noir theme: you can try to gamble against the house, but you lose every time. 
There was no money in the strong box, Frankie had been on to his lady love from the beginning. The joke’s on her. There are no winners, only losers. It’s what counts as a healthy moral in Noir. 

But, as is always the case with good Noir, the audience roots for the morally corrupt and we almost hope Gillie to get away with her schemes.

Is Decoy a great and meaningful movie? Not if you judge it by conventional standards. But never say Poverty Row only produced low-rent quickies and and schlock. We get a lot of bang for the dime.

Decoy is a fabulous wild card you just have to take a chance on. It’s a film with a heart as black as the abyss.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Tomorrow is Another Day (1951)

Tomorrow is Another Day was directed by strictly B director Felix Feist for Warner Bros and is a virtually unknown Noir. The movie basically consists of two distinctively separate parts which makes it feel slightly disjointed. We have two movies in one. The first half has all the high-octane ingredients for a crackerjack Noir, but the movie doesn't play by the (Noir) rules. What promises to be a dark and cynical Bonny and Clyde “couple on the run” picture, then becomes romantic melodrama in the second half which is light on crime. Cynicism melts into sentimentality. In the narrowly confined parameters of Noir Tomorrow is a failure, it doesn’t fulfill genre expectations; but as the Noir formula was written in stone only retrospectively, there’s no reason why this picture shouldn’t break the mold.

What we get is a Noir about redemption. It’s an interesting setup. Is change possible? Can one’s life be ultimately redeemed? Are people forever damned by their past?

After 18 years inside, Bill Clark (Steve Cochran) is released from prison. He was only 13 when he went in, after having killed his abusive and drunk father in what with some justification can be called self-defense. After a reporter ruins his chances at a decent job by splashing his picture across the morning papers, Bill takes off to NY where he meats cheap peroxide blonde dime-a-dance girl Cay Higgins (Ruth Roman). Cay is a hardboiled dame if there ever was one. After demurring quite insincerely and playing coy, Cay asks Bill to her apartment where her cop boyfriend Conover is waiting. Boyfriend gets angry and knocks out Bill, Cay shoots him in self-defense and sees her chance to let Bill take the blame. They decide to go on the lam and find work on a farm as lettuce pickers where they meet fellow migrant workers the Dawson family. But they can’t hide forever, in a pulp crime magazine the Dawson's little boy sees a wanted poster for Bill promising a nice reward…

Maybe, just maybe, there is some careful criticism of the HUAC committee here. Mr. Dawson wants to rat out Bill to the police, but Mrs. Dawson is adamant that this would amount to blood money. Not before Mrs. Dawson is desperate for the money to pay for her husband’s operation, is she willing to do it.

Cochran - playing against type - truly breathes life into his portrayal of Bill, he simply nails the character. Having spent all of his adult life in prison, he literally never grew up other than in the purely physical sense. He’s a child trapped in a man’s body. He’s still a babe in the woods. He’s completely unprepared to face the outside world and society. He hasn’t changed much since he went in, but the world has. 
From the first we’re on his side though we don’t know his whole story yet. Not until at least the halfway mark do we find out that his killing was justified, leaving him essentially blameless. During the trial he just refused to take the easy way out by showing any kind of remorse, instead truthfully stating he didn’t regret his killing. The jury took it as utter cold-bloodedness and handed down a guilty verdict.

The film shines in the depiction of Bill’s first moments of freedom. Bill has never kissed a girl. He’s never had a drink, never driven a car, he has nothing in common with the people outside because he never shared their life experiences. His first few hours in freedom are at the same time funny and heart-breaking. He sees a new snazzy convertible parked in the streets with electric buttons (!) and he’s in awe. He just has to touch them. He sees a pretty girl and simply tries to follow her. His social skills are non-existent. He then goes into a diner and like a child who can’t get enough he orders not one, but three different pieces of pie, as well as his very first beer. Our initial reaction is to laugh at him, but we can’t.
Then he goes to a dancehall and sees Roman and one look is all it takes. He uses his prison pay to buy dances and trinkets for her. He’s got it bad. It’s lust at first sight.

Cay is a taxi dancer at Dreamland. Taxi dance halls were incredibly popular from the 20s to the 50s. Patrons bought a ticket for a dime to dance with the girl of their choice. Taxi dancers earned commission on every dance ticket— it wasn’t a bad deal if the girl knew how to milk the customers. It was a gift from God for lonely men, outsiders and misfits and most certainly a place a guy like Bill would gravitate towards. The dance hall scenes are fantastic. They have a wonderfully lurid appeal.

Roman is at her baddest best and is as hard-bitten and calculating a cheap dame as any that can be found in more famous Noirs. Cay’s original career dream as ballet dancer didn’t pan out. Now she’s selling dances, dreams and then some at a dancehall. It is more than strongly implied that she and the other girls are moonlighting as prostitutes, or maybe it’s the other way around. They seductively coo invitations to “private lessons” after hours in the customers’ ears and Cay makes it clear her affections can be bought with pretty shiny gifts, even though she tries the blushing innocent act. It's not very convincing. She isn’t above fleecing her customers and stealing other girls’ “suitors” when they’re not looking either. Cay also has a cop boyfriend who -very likely - doubles as her pimp.

Enter Bill who Cay right away sums up as a perfect patsy, ripe for the plucking. She’s not just morally ambiguous, she’s absolutely rotten.

Up until the couple go on the run and stay in a little motel where Bill asks Cay to marry him, the movie is pure Noir. After that we’re in romantic melodrama territory. We go from hard-boiled to soft-boiled. Cay changes her hair color from brassy blond to brunette and from one second to another she’s a changed woman. Her tough facade begins to crumble. The symbolism is all too clear, with her hair color she’s changed her personality. The bad can simply be washed out, and this stretches credibility to the max. Cay’s change is never really explained, it happens out of the blue. Character development is sorely lacking. Roman can pull off both roles, but the script lets her down. One second hard-bitten tramp, next second wholesome and loving wife. The brassy cheap bottle blonde was just an illusion. True Love rears its ugly head (sorry, I had to say it), and really, true love has no business in Noir.

After getting married, Bill and Cay try to make a decent living for themselves as lettuce pickers, living in small shack like other migrant laborers. The picture is a bit Grapes of Wrath light at that point, minus the desperation and exploitation. The workers’ lives are depicted with real warmth. For the first time Bill and Cay find contentment in honest hard work and the camaraderie with others.

After seeing the wanted ad though, the Dawsons inform the police about Bill who come for him. Not to let her husband get into any more trouble, Cay shoots Bill in the shoulder and confesses it was she who shot Conover. Both are taken into custody. 

And here is where the script really crumbles beneath the actors, this time with a vengeance. They’re taken to the DA who tells them that Conover made a statement before he died that Cay shot him in self-defense. The hack writer of the pulp wanted ad was a bit trigger-happy and concocted a BS story without having all the facts. Bill and Cay are now free to continue their new life together. 

The ending is not only laughable, but truly ruined what could have been a great Noir. It is too upbeat and obviously studio-imposed. The PCA didn’t just neuter a good film, it shot it all to pieces. This copout completely dulls all the rough edges set up in the first half by abandoning all kind of political and social criticism. 

The bad cop wasn’t really so bad and corrupt, the DA is just really a nice benevolent uncle who only wants to help. All authority figures in the movie are simply too benign and sympathetic. The theme of corruption and not giving the downtrodden a (second) chance is blown to bits.
Only Bill’s and Cay’s paranoia made them run. Only in their imagination were they trapped by circumstances. All their fears were really unfounded. It is not fate that tripped them up, just their fatalistic belief in their own doom.

The movie is really quite good and it has a lot to recommend it, though the viewer has to abandon his preconceptions about Noir. But for me the two halves of the film never quite gel. True Love in Noir usually amounts to a useless sentimental pipe dream that only suckers believe in. Tomorrow is a Noir that has a moral center, but that’s not what I’m looking for in Noir.

Other Noirs handled the redemption angle much better. What I wanted was more Bonny and Clyde, Noir to the bitter end. It all should have ended in a hail of bullets. As is stands, the producers owed us a warning in the beginning: soap suds alert.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

 “One can’t stay out of doors all the time. One needs to come in from the cold.”


The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is based on John le CarrĂ©’s eponymous book. Having worked for MI6 himself, CarrĂ© had a solid knowledge on the subject. His portrayal of secret service agencies is realistic and unflattering as he took a consistently bleak view of the espionage business. Spy is an utterly cynical study of human treachery.

Made at the height of the Bond craze, the film is Bond through a glass darkly. It is the anti-companion piece to 007, the spy profession is stripped of all its glamour and seductive powers. Director Martin Ritt conceives a vision of intelligence operations with bleak squalor in place of thrills, fun and sexy dames.

Ritt’s direction is faultless and very faithful to the book. The cinematography is stunning. Unusual for a film from 1965 Spy was shot in stark forbidding black and white. Most studios by then had switched to color, but Ritt knew what he was doing. Nothing else would have conveyed the film’s funereal, relentlessly grim, hopeless and desolate mood better. The environs are austere and drab, the protagonists filled with anguish and alienation. Throw every Noir buzz word at the film and it would stick. This is not Neo-Noir, this is 100% proof unadulterated Noir served neat and straight up, a throw-back to the 40s. As far as spy movies go, this is the gloomiest of them all. A study in futility and bitterness with a core that is pure nihilism. Life per se is meaningless. Nothing lasts, nothing is worth striving for because everything ends in death.

Ritt creates surroundings that are always dark, cold and rainy. If daylight exists at all, it is never the sunshiny happy kind. Light doesn’t provide warmth. It’s cold and clinical and supplies just enough illumination to expose the rottenness of the dirty game that is the spy profession.
Characters appear to be constantly freezing, as if they are emotionally crippled and dead inside. The cold has numbed their senses.  



“I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer."
It is the height of the Cold War and Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), head of the Berlin Station for the British Secret Service, is tasked with the mission to take down an enemy spy, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck), head of the Abteilung (East German intelligence). British Intelligence wants to trick the Abteilung into thinking Mundt is a British double agent and so eliminate a dangerous enemy.  Leamas pretends to defect, but his charade unravels fairly quickly and he’s forced to admit he’s still a British operative. 
To Leamas’ surprise it turns out Mundt actually is a double agent and he helps him and his girl-friend Nan escape. But there is just one last surprise in store for Leamas…

A large part of the film's appeal lies in trying to figure out - along with the characters - what is really happening. Everyone is in the dark as to other people’s motives and agendas. Knowledge that has been taken for granted proves to be inaccurate. Answers don’t lead anywhere, they just raise more questions.
Leamas is willing to swear that it is impossible for his superiors to run an agent without his knowledge right under his nose. He would be mistaken.
The film is never quite clear if Burton is just playing at being a embittered down-and-out drunk or if he actually has gone off the deep end after a lifetime of spying. Too convincing is his cover. His deeply felt cynicism is no pose. Where does playacting end and reality begin?

The plot is very complex, its intricacies can be hard to follow. There’s next to no action, the pacing is deliberate, the screen play is wordy, but it doesn’t matter. The film’s quiet, melancholic pleasures have nothing to do with the plot. The pleasure comes from watching Burton who plays with incredible subtlety. He is fantastic as the disillusioned and burnt-out agent on a fake defection mission. One has to watch this picture to appreciate what a phenomenally brilliant actor Burton was. The close-ups of his ravaged face make the movie, in fact they ARE the movie. Burton’s lined and tired face is full of pain and and resignation. Burton IS Leamas and one has to wonder what inner turmoil supplied him with the insight to portray so jaded a man. 

Burton’s acting is more than ably supported by Oskar Werner as Fiedler, Peter van Eyck as Mundt and Clair Bloom as Nan who all in top form.

At the time of Spy Burton was at the height of his fame and success. Often it seemed he put his considerable talents more into overblown epics and living the jet-set life with Liz. But when he put his mind to it, he could blow everybody else off the screen. His performance here is uncharacteristically subdued and restrained, he doesn’t go in for grandiose outbursts of passion and emotion. He simply oozes inner anguish. But we can’t take our eyes off him, he’s magnetic.
When Leamas has to helplessly watch one of his agents -  who he hoped to extract from the East - being killed in the no-man’s land between East and West, his face seems like a mask, but the exhaustion and hopelessness he feels register in tiniest nuances and flickers of emotion.
The botched extraction of his agent is the end of the line for Leamas. He’s more than just tired, the game has sapped his soul and it has shaken him to the core.
All he wants now is to “come in from the cold” and leave it all behind. His masters agree on the condition that he embarks on one last mission. And he accepts because he wants to exorcise his demons.

Leamas must have been an idealist once, in a different time and place he probably barely remembers. Nobody can become that cynical without ever having believed in a cause. But years of double and triple crossing and ensuing tragedies have worn him down. He’s a loner without emotional attachments. Only for a short time his loneliness is alleviated by his love for earnest librarian Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), an idealistic and naive True Believer who has no clue as to what exactly she is supporting. Another patsy who doesn’t stand a chance.

“I mean you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's 'policy' is benevolent, can you now?” 
But if Leamas is a disillusioned idealist, his superiors are emotionless, amoral, dried-up, callous little men in tweed suits, manipulating their foot-soldiers with coaxing or blackmail into doing their bidding. On the surface caring, they’re really all-knowing puppet-masters pulling invisible strings just to make the puppets dance and amuse themselves, interested only in their little game whose depths nobody who’s not in the know can even fathom and understand. They have long since been removed from notions of moral right and wrong.
Though field operatives risk their lives for their country all the time, for their masters they are completely expendable. After all that’s what they’re paid for. Terrible things happen in this film while people talk quietly and effortlessly to one another in monotonous tones…about tea, or murder. It’s all one to them.
Did his superiors set Leamas up for a fall from the beginning? Was he supposed to die at the Wall because he had become disillusioned and thus useless? We never get an answer.

Agendas are murky. None of the spy masters pay more than lip-service to their cause and their loyalty to their country. Neither side seems to be interested in a belief. They’re not in it for mere gain, or fun, or glory, they’re not doing it for Queen and Country or the Great Socialist Experiment. It’s about power, control and self-preservation. Capitalist, Communist…it makes no difference. Sharks who devour anyone who happens to cross their path.
Who’s friend and who’s foe is in no way clear-cut. The very concept of the enemy becomes blurred: “Before, he was evil and my enemy; now, he is evil and my friend,” shrugs the desolate Leamas at Mundt’s reveal as a double agent.

Just before the end it dawns on Leamas that he’s never been as savvy as he thought he was at playing the game. Being one step ahead was an illusion. Before he dies Leamas has just enough time to figure out that his whole mission was nothing but an elaborately orchestrated set-up. Leamas’ own role in the affair was a convenient smoke screen for his superiors; he was a pawn in a complex double-cross used by both sides to accomplish Byzantine ends that he couldn't see coming.

Life’s cheap. Then you die and bleed to death in a gutter. Good doesn’t triumph over evil. Humanity has no part in the spy game.

Leamas’ last monologue is full of self-loathing and finally comprehension. 
“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not. They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me. Little men. Drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.”
The film has lost none of its power to emotionally affect the audience. One can truly feel the chill in the air, and it stays with us long after the movie is over. The Cold War has never been so cold.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Big Combo (1955)

Made in 1955 by Poverty Row studio Allied Artist (Monogram’s banner for their upgraded products) on a paltry budget, The Big Combo garnered mediocre reviews upon its release. The contemporary NYTimes review went so far as to call the picture “a shrill, clumsy and rather old-fashioned crime melodrama” and “a sputtering, misguided antique.” Harsh words for a movie that is considered a classic today, and not at all justified either. But then we have the benefit of hindsight now.
By 1955 the Noir cycle was coming to an end. The 50s saw Expressionist visual poetry be replaced by a more realistic semi-documentary approach with emphasis on natural lighting. Combo is a throwback, it’s one of the last great 40s Noirs, made in the 50s.

One of the stars of Combo is John Alton’s brilliant photography. He gives us a masterclass on Noir style, utilizing his entire Noir bag of tricks. Deep shadows, high contrast lighting, dimly lit back alleys, canted angles and sets that are near empty, oftentimes just semi-realistic and seemingly lit only by cigarette butts. Alton turned a buck fifty budget into a virtue, creating a surreal dreamy mood piece that is visually one of the last pure Noirs. The deserted corridors of the boxing arena shrouded in darkness and the empty concert house for the piano recital are almost stripped to the bones abstractions.

Cornel Wilde stars as Leonard Diamond, a cop with one mission in life: to take down untouchable kingpin Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). He’s not just single-minded about it, he’s a man obsessed. His zeal borders on fanatic. Diamond is on a crusade. Caught in the middle between the two men is Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), Brown’s moll, who Diamond has the hots for. But Susan seems to be completely under Brown’s spell…

Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, Combo is a movie that’s decidedly character-driven. It’s brimming with fascinating characters. The plot is negligible. Cop hunts robber. We’ve seen it all before. It’s probably why the NYT considered it stale. They just neglected to dig a little deeper and took it all at face value.
Lewis’ last movie Gun Crazy didn’t separate between sex and violence, in Combo it’s sex and power that seem to be interchangeable. Really, the whole movie is about sex, sex and more sex. Everybody’s demons seem to rest on it. It’s all not-so-discreet.

Combo is a movie about obsessions. Brown is obsessed with power, Diamond is obsessed with Brown and his moll, Susan is obsessed with kinky sex. There’s an incredible seediness and perversity about it all. Any shrink would have a field day with the twisted love triangle, or quadrangle, of the protagonists.

It is Richard Conte who carries the movie. Unfailingly suave, vicious, without conscience and an arrogance that knows no bounds, Mr. Brown is obsessed with power and always being No.1: “First is first and second is nobody” is his maxim. He gives the audience a little lesson on his personal philosophy. Hate. It’s life’s great motivator: 
“What makes the difference? Hate…Hate the man who tries to kill you. Hate him until you see red and you come out winning the big money. The girls will come tumbling after.”
Brown drops a boxer he’d backed when the kid loses a fight, simply because he lacks that all-important killer instinct. He despises most people including his insecure second-in-command - and former boss - Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) who he continuously humiliates mercilessly as a “little man”. Nobody is allowed to stand in Brown’s way and whoever does must die.

Hate is what keeps Brown warm at night…and his mistress Susan. Brown is quite proud of his prowess with women. Susan used to be a high society girl with ambitions to become a concert pianist. She would love to go back to that life, but instead she’s been sinking further into the gutter quite frankly because sex with Brown is so good! The movie leaves no doubt that Brown holds Susan in an erotic thrall. Brown is a sadist, he literally owns Susan. When she’s not with him he has her shadowed. She’s sexually drawn to Brown despite his  possessiveness. Or maybe just because of it. Brown has her emotionally and sexually hypnotized. THAT way-ahead-of-its-time love scene - suggesting oral sex -  with Susan’s ecstatic face leaves no doubt about it. Susan despises herself for her weakness. She can’t admit why exactly she stays with Brown. She doesn’t need to, we get the message anyway.

The PCA collectively had a conniption and wanted the scene cut, but Lewis steadfastly maintained that there was no proof of any sexual activity. It was all in the censors’ dirty minds.

Brown has the obsessive Diamond pegged alright. With uncanny psychological insight he lays a finger on what keeps Diamond up at night. Hiding behind a facade of righteousness is a man eaten up by jealousy:
“Diamond, the only trouble with you is you’d like to be me.  You’d like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You can’t. That’s impossible. You think it’s money. It’s not. It’s personality. You haven’t got it, Lieutenant – you’re a cop. Slow, steady, intelligent…With a big yen for a girl you can’t have.”
Brown has everything, Diamond only has dumpy digs and $96.50 a week. There is something incredibly impotent about Diamond’s rage against Brown. Diamond has been blowing several paychecks on trailing Susan around the country for six months, ostensibly in order to catch Brown. She isn’t even aware of his existence! File that under stalking now. He has nothing to show for his efforts. It’s less the cop’s sense of justice that makes him hunt the mobster, Diamond’s private vendetta rests purely on his personal libido problem. He may not want to admit it to himself, but this is his true motivator for putting Brown behind bars. Actually, if Diamond could, he’d rather castrate Brown than lock him up. It’s a seriously twisted set-up.

Diamond is not only humorless, he’s a self-righteous prick to boot. He lays the moralizing on really thick: ”You think this is mink, Miss Lowell…These are the skins of human beings, Miss Lowell!”. Frankly, Brown may be a sadist killer, but he’s at least not a sanctimonious hypocrite. I rooted for him.

Diamond however isn’t quite as straight-laced and upright as he would like to have the world believe. He’s in a sort of “relationship” with a sexy stripper, make that burlesque dancer, that would now be called friends with benefits. Rita is clearly in love with him, she’d like to be something more than the occasional booty call. She is wise beyond her years and has more honest insight into human relationships than anybody else in the film. She tells Diamond outright: “A woman doesn’t care how a man makes his living. Only how he makes love.”

Helen Stanton is phenomenal in a small role that could easily have been just another cliched variation on the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold. She infuses Rita with a genuine integrity that all the other characters seem to lack. In the most upsetting scene of the movie Rita gets killed in a hit in Diamond’s apartment in a case of mistaken identity. The bullets were for him. Diamond tries to show some kind of regret after her death. “I treated her like a pair of gloves” he says. But it doesn’t sound very sincere. Susan is all that’s on his mind. The guy doesn’t know how good he has it. Rita has Susan beat on every level. But ya can’t fix stupid.

Cornel Wilde was an actor of limited range, he was always rather stiff and wooden and is really no match for Conte. But if Wilde was a limited actor, Jean Wallace - as the good girl gone bad - was no actress at all. She was Wilde’s real-life wife (he also co-produced) and that’s the reason she got cast. She’s pretty but rather vapid, spineless and without much personality. It’s hard to believe she has two men fighting over her. She isn’t a femme fatale either. She doesn’t have the manipulative instincts and guts for it.

Oddly enough, there’s only one healthy relationship in the movie. The one between the two gay henchmen Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) who are an strangely likable pair for all their brutality and ruthlessness. They are inseparable, loyal to each other and live in happy self-contained domesticity.

Combo has quite a few memorable scenes, like Brown’s subtle negotiation tactics which include Diamond’s torture by hearing aid and hair tonic.

Also the chilling execution scene of Brown’s deaf lieutenant McClure. Brown informs the deaf man that he won't have to hear the gun fire that’ll kill him. He yanks out McClure's hearing aid and the soundtrack goes silent simultaneously. We see the gun fire but can only hear what McClure can hear, nothing.  

The finale is a riff on Casablanca. In a hangar shrouded in thick fog, Diamond finally has Brown cornered. It is Susan who is Brown’s downfall. She shines a big spotlight on him, thus exposing him and figuratively his sins. Like a vampire, Brown is disorientated. Diamond doesn’t even mercifully kill him, Brown is being dragged away by two policemen, finally transformed into a nobody.

Diamond and Susan venture out onto the airfield together, beautifully silhouetted against the swirling fog. Susan has finally freed herself of Brown.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Fallen Angel (1945)

“We were born to tread the earth as angels, to seek out heaven this side of the sky. But they who race above shall stumble in the dark, and fall from grace. Then love alone can make the fallen angel rise. For only two together can enter Paradise.”

Fallen Angel, directed by Otto Preminger, was his follow-up movie to Laura. After the immensely successful Laura, Darryl Zanuck demanded that Preminger do it again. So Preminger assembled the same director, lensman, leading man, composer and costume designer again, but replaced Gene Tierney with Linda Darnell, in this case a smart decision. Tierney’s personality was too high-toned and refined, Darnell’s appeal is much more down-to-earth and no-nonsense, and when it comes to playing slutty she’s just right. It is what’s needed here.

Fallen Angel is a very good though not brilliant entry into the genre, it doesn’t have Laura’s gloss and dazzle, focusing instead on grit and desperation.

The cinematography throughout is impressive, thanks to Joseph LaShelle, with wonderful shadows, clandestine meetings in dark alleys and a great opening sequence, a bus speeding through the dark night with credits zipping by as super-imposed street signs.

The movie sees Dana Andrews as aimless drifter Eric Stanton. After he can’t pay his fare all the way to San Francisco, he’s unceremoniously tossed off a Greyhound literally in the middle of nowhere, halfway between LA and SF. No man’s land, the nothing town of Walton. He’s down to his last buck and needs money fast. In Pop’s diner he meets Stella (Linda Darnell). All it takes is just one look and he’s hooked. He wants her, she wants money. 
Trading on his charm, he devises several schemes to strike it rich. He’s not only a drifter, but soon-to-be con artist. After meeting smarmy spiritualist Madley (John Carradine in a great little supporting role), he sees his chance to sucker gullible local yokels out of their money by raising phony ghosts from the dead. Stanton seems to be a natural at these scams, he isn’t hampered by an abundance of conscience. He’s so good in fact that Madley offers him a steady job. But he’s stuck on Stella.
To win his lady love, Stanton concocts quite a cruel plan. Marry one girl, local heiress June (Alice Faye) for her money, then ditch her, run and marry the other. His plan works out, but to great his surprise he finds himself falling for his bride. When Stella gets herself murdered because she’s been pushing somebody too far, the heat is on him, as he was seen arguing with her. He goes on the run with June, because he doesn’t want the murder pinned on him…

Noir is predominantly an urban based style of filmmaking where crowds of people can nevertheless barely hide the isolation and loneliness within. From the faceless anonymity of the bleak concrete jungle Noir derives many of its themes. However, Noir can survive perfectly fine outside this particular environment. The very often confined and narrow-minded atmosphere of small towns too can be a fertile ground for alienation. Walton seems to be more or less a one-horse town with what looks like just one place for entertainment. Nothing ever happens there and nothing is ever crowded which gives the movie a very intimate feel. The town seems to exist mainly in shadows, hinting at dark secrets and thwarted passions that lurk underneath.

Andrews is very convincing as the down-on-his-luck huckster who’s always looking for a quick buck. He’s been running to and from something his whole life. Fights, honest work, responsibility. He’s tormented about his past. He’s a failure, nothing he touched ever turned to gold, one financial endeavor after another tanked, he has a million jobs behind him. He confesses to June: “It all adds up to only one thing, a complete wash-out…at 30”. 
He’s not really a bad guy, but he isn’t good either, and as such he’s the perfect ambiguous Noir protagonist. He’s quite complex, he doesn’t give you answers easily because he probably doesn’t know them himself. 

It’s the counter at Pop’s Diner that serves as the altar the men of Walton come to worship at daily, drinking bad coffee just to get a glimpse of its resident voluptuous and provocative hash slinger slash goddess with her come-hither but don’t touch me looks.

Her entrance is pure Noir and grabs the audience’s attention right away. She comes back after a three-day absence from just one more lousy fling that went nowhere, world-weary and tired. The camera lovingly caresses her legs, and so do all the men - with their eyes. We know right away the dame’s no good. Stella’s been around the block a few too many times.

She has a steady supply of gullible suckers, trying to milk them for as much money as possible. The girl wants to live easy. Diner owner Pop is acting like a love-sick puppy, retired cop Judd and salesman Atkins hungrily watch her all the time, so Stanton has to get in line.
But what Stella wants is a ring on her finger. The guy who gets her must have money to pay her way out of this backwater, that’s the way to her mercenary little heart. She wants a mealticket to respectability, then maybe she’ll consent to a little canoodling.
It’s not marriage per se she wants, it’s marriage WITH money, emphasis on money. Then she can prove to the world that she’s not just a cheap hash slinger. In an odd way, Stella wants to be June.

Come hither but don't touch me
We can understand her desperation, but the problem is Stella isn’t just greedy, she’s bone idle and downright lazy. She’s belligerent, selfish, coarse and goes out of her way to insult customers and the men who desire her. Her demeanor is a stark contrast to her looks. Sure, she’s honest about what she wants - she makes it quite clear it isn’t love she’s after, it’s money - but only because she’s so self-centered, the feelings of others mean nothing to her. Frankly, she’s simply not the sharpest knife in the drawer. She doesn’t have the brains to make it work, otherwise with her looks she should have been on easy street a long time ago.

It’s interesting to note that it isn’t Stella who brings Andrews down, his doom is entirely of his own making. He has the chance to leave town numerous times, Stella certainly doesn’t try to hold him back, but he doesn’t. She isn’t really a femme fatale. In contrast to other deadly dames, she isn’t a murderous sociopath who sets some poor sap up to take the fall for her crimes, she’s just a floozy who wants money and gets herself killed in the bargain.

Pop’s Diner is the spiritual center of the town. It’s a crummy little joint out in the boonies, it’s nothing but a shoddy clapboard structure with the word BEER written in huge letters on it. But the joint is just as crummy as the people who frequent it. Losers, drifters, down-and-outers…Stanton fits right in.

Alice Faye got top billing, but has the most thankless role in the movie, the good girl, the local spinster. Guileless, bookish, virginal and repressed, she falls for Andrews in no time. 
Originally, Faye’s role was supposed to be much bigger. She had been a very successful musical actress, Fox’s No. 1 star for a while, who now wanted to make the transition to dramatic roles. Fallen Angel was supposed to launch her career on a new path. In something of a cruel twist, this didn’t happen as she was up against Darnell whose smoldering sultriness was hard to beat, and who became a huge star after the film. A lot of Faye’s scenes were left on the cutting room floor. This decision upset Faye, and is partly given as a reason she retired from film after Fallen Angel. In Faye’s view Preminger decidedly favored Darnell and made her role too prominent. 
This should act as a warning to all actresses. If anyone ever offers you the role of good girl in a Noir, just say no. Noir belongs to the bad girl and the good girl is simply the other woman.

Nevertheless, Faye is good as June, the redemptive woman though she is without a doubt too much on the saintly side. Stella and June are contrasted dramatically throughout the picture, night-time Stella and sunny-day June, sincerity vs. the gold-digger. June wants companionship, her love for Stanton is unconditional which in the end turns out to be a strength rather than a weakness. When things go bad she rises to the challenge. She’s the one who convinces her man that he’s not as bad as he thinks himself to be. All he needs is the love of a good woman. We’ve all heard that hoary chestnut before, but as it’s Dana Andrews we’re talking about it’s a safe bet to take a chance on him. We believe it because she believes it. There is always the possibility of redemption, the quote about the fallen angel who can rise again makes that clear. As it turns out, the fallen angel is Stanton, not Stella as we are made to believe in the beginning.

We've been heavily influenced by film critics to see happy endings in Noir as a fault and the redemptive aspects of the genre are often overlooked. Many Noir protagonists do find salvation, though oftentimes only in death. But Noir doesn’t have to fit a particular template.

Despite the happy ending, Fallen Angel has its Noir credentials straight. Lust, unfulfilled longing, sexual obsession, broken promises, dashed dreams, greed, desperation and the overwhelming desire to break free from stifling unhappy lives are the main themes. Everybody here wants something they can’t have. For most of the characters their aspirations end in a nightmare.

Fallen Angel certainly doesn’t overshadow Laura, but it’s good in its own right.