Friday, February 21, 2020

Raw Deal (1948)

None Shall Escape
“I want to breathe. That’s why I want out of this place. So I can take a deep breath again.” Joe Sullivan
Anthony Mann’s reputation today is primarily based on his Westerns of the 1950s. Yet before Mann reinvented the Western as a psychological landscape as much as a physical one, he honed his skill and dark vision on Poverty Row, stamping his mark on the Noir universe and directing little cheapo gems that rose way above their B-movie limitations thanks to the brilliance of their director and a wizard of a DP.

When Mann left Dark City to light out for the territories he took his Noir sensibilities with him and brought a hard-edged realism to the genre, steering it into bitter and neurotic territory. All his Westerns are essentially Noir on the Range and he created in Jimmy Stewart a Western protagonist who was not only morally ambiguous but near-psychotic, just one step away from being an out and out villain. The psychologically troubled Mann “hero” is always in danger of becoming what he already closely resembles, the Mann villain. This very interesting polarity has its roots in Mann's Noir of the 40s.

John Alton, master of bargain basement brilliance on a buck fifty budget, was the Director of Photography and he could have made any hack director look good. Fortunately he didn’t have to as he worked with Mann. Mann and Alton pooled their resources six times between 1947 and 1950 and to this day are one of the best director-cinematographer dream teams in cinema with style to burn. They naturally went together, like guns and ammo. Raw Deal oozes moody Noir atmosphere conjured up with a 40-Watt lightbulb. Thanks to the cinematography, the strange theremin music and Claire Trevor’s voice-over the entire movie has a hallucinatory and hypnotic quality about it. The characters move through a hazy dreamscape as if they’re in a cold-sweat nightmare. To say Alton illuminated the dark crevices of the human psyche would be misleading, but he revealed them. He once remarked that he wasn’t afraid of the dark, but he could certainly make his audience afraid of it.

Both Mann and Alton had learned how to work a tight budget toiling at perpetually underfunded PR outfits. Economy was second nature for them. We do get the occasional matte backdrop and miniature sets but so what? Alton had the special gift to dress up a little cheapo to resemble a major production with cinematic sleight of hand.
His beautiful Chiaroscuro photography is used as a smokescreen to hide the paltry budget. The result is poetry caught on celluloid. Alton creates a dreamlike twilight world of pure imagination, drawn from stacks of dog-eared pulp fiction magazines, “a nocturnal fantasia of pure pulp…which drew on two decades of fermented hard-boiled tropes”. (Eddie Muller, Noir Alley)

Raw Deal is a love letter to Noir and every time I watch it I’m in awe. It’s an absolute masterpiece, on every level. Eagle-Lion’s finest hour.

All Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe), in the big house for robbery, wants is to smell fresh air again and collect the 50G owed to him by gangster Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), the guy Joe took the rap for. After that it’s destination Panama. Rick has greased some palms to bust him out but of course there’s a double cross. Never give a sucker an even break. Rick wants Joe dead so Joe won’t squeal into the DA’s ear and Rick doesn’t have to cough up all that lovely money. Rick is a bit touchy when it comes to having his plans ruined and figured Joe would have a thousand to one shot at success escaping, given the odds. So many things can go wrong during a prison break. Stray bullets have a nasty habit of hitting people. It’s mathematically solid thinking but the fall guy, lamentably alive, gets further than he’s supposed to, dragnet or not, with the help of his girl Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) and his case worker and semi-hostage Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). Rick knows loose ends must be snipped and sends his twitchy in-house torpedo Fantail (John Ireland) to take care of matters. Now Joe has a score to settle…

Raw Deal has an unusual voice-over narration by Claire Trevor, to my knowledge the only Noir (besides Mildred Pierce) with a female voice-over. It sets itself apart from the regular male voice-over by forgoing any kind of stentorian declarations. Trevor has a wonderfully husky, low-pitched and well-modulated voice. Her melancholy interior monologue resembles a resigned-to-her-fate confessional. Hauntingly disillusioned, almost catatonic, with a world of hurt and desperation in it, her narration puts a spell on the audience.

From the very first second doom, hopelessness and despair resonate strongly in that heart-broken voice. “Today’s the day. Today’s the day. The last day I have to drive up to these gates”. Pat’s voice should be joyous, after all it’s the day she tells Joe that his escape is set. But instinct tells her they’re in existential free-fall already. We see Pat visiting Joe in prison wearing all black with a veil over her face. It looks like she’s going to a funeral. She is, she just doesn’t know it yet.

Pat is, if not the moral center, certainly the heart and anchor of the story even though she’s a gangster moll. She’s gone through the hard-knocks school of life. Tough-talking and street-wise, with a bruised heart and dearly paid-for wisdom, she had the bad luck to fall in love with the wrong guy. But underneath that brassy exterior is a lonely, beaten down and scared woman who’s only ever wanted one thing in her life, Joe’s love. “Waiting, waiting, all my life it seems as if I’ve have been waiting for Joe.” She’d wait till hell freezes over. 
Pat loves Joe unconditionally to the point of desperation. “I want whatever he wants, up or down, make or break.” That’s the trolley car she’d ride till the end of the line, even if it goes off the yellow brick road into the abyss. Tammy Wynette would be proud of her.

Her blind love for Joe literally entraps her though she’s clear-sighted enough to realize it’s built on quicksand. “He’s never really told me he loves me”. Ann is getting under Joe's skin. No desperate devotion on Pat’s side can dampen the sparks that fly between Ann and Joe. It is quite telling that Joe calls Pat his "partner” to Ann’s face, not his girl or his ladylove, and frankly treats her more like a buddy than a lover.

Into the bargain Pat is saddled with another handicap. She’s a tad shopworn and knows her time is running out. Mann and Alton come precariously close to belaboring the point of a race against time. One of Noir’s favorite fetish items, ticking clocks, are everywhere in the movie. Time is precious, it doesn't stop for anyone and most of all time will run out in the end. There is a wonderful scene where Trevor's face is reflected on that of a clock.

While we can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a femme fatale in Noir, sexy and brooding Dennis O’Keefe is one of Noir’s rarer breeds, the homme fatal.
Joe is a bit light in the ethics department. Hard-nosed and brutal, he has no compunction about taking advantage of both women’s desire for him. He’s like Typhoid Mary. What he has is catching. But all’s fair in love and Noir. This time he miscalculated his own emotions though. He falls for Ann as she falls for him. But lust and larceny are a volatile highly combustible combination.

It’s not too often that Noir renders us with a backstory on one of the protagonists, but we get one here. Growing up poor and in orphanages, Joe is the kind of kid who was born with an eight-ball in his cradle. When he was young he saved other children from a burning house for which he earned a medal. Ann wants to know where that heroic kid went off the rails. 
“If you want to know what happened to that kid with the medal, he had to hock it at sixteen. He got hungry.” 
Joe turned in his boy-scout badge. He saw that no-one can live on good deeds alone. They don’t pay the bills.
“I am from under a rock, a whole pile of ‘em; Corkscrew Alley, Dean’s Orphanage, the famous rock that hits you in the back of the head after you’ve tried to help someone, not to mention that heap I busted out of called the State Pen.” 
It is worth noting that the movie starts and ends on Corkscrew Alley, a metaphor so obvious it risks accusations of banality. It’s the hardscrabble place where life puts you through the meat grinder and you buy your one-way ticket to hell. But as we’ll see there’s just enough humanity in Joe to keep us rooting for him. If Noir doesn’t make us root for the morally corrupt outright, it at least makes us care about the person who’s morally compromised.

Ostensibly the films seems to set up the classic dichotomy between the good girl and the bad girl, the Madonna and the whore, who battle it out for the soul of the homme fatal. Before she meets Joe, Ann is “Miss Law and Order”, leading a life of clear-cut simplicity. Good is good and bad is bad. It’s a viewpoint that simplifies life. 

But this is as far as the standard good girl-bad girl dynamic goes. Lines get blurred pretty quickly. Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes has to figure out quite fast that her steadfast principles are on shaky moral ground because her attraction to her rehabilitation project makes her willing to walk on the wild side and explore the darker aspects of her character. She may like to delude herself, and Joe, that her interest in him is purely professional, but the innocent act isn’t too convincing. It’s just another way of saying she has the hots for the bad boy who poses a serious threat which excites her. The strong undercurrent of sexual desire between the two is there from the first second.
To help Joe she eventually shoots a man in the back. The shot was not fatal but she’s horrified by what she’s done. Now she has to live with the knowledge that she too has a capacity for violence.

Pat may have a checkered past but her only reason for living a life of crime is utter devotion and she’s always there when the spam hits the fan. All she ever wanted was normality. In a way she’s a lot like perpetually pickled ex-moll Gaye Dawn. Pat is no lush but she has the exact same tendency to masochistic self-destruction. She too grew up on Corkscrew Alley and it’s beaten all the fight out of her. Yet despite their animosity Pat is capable of feeling sympathy for Ann: “She, too, is just a dame in love with Joe. And she’s lost.”

For once the doomed love triangle between Joe, Pat and Ann does not hamper the movie. Their three-way dynamic is the dramatic and emotional core of the movie. Nominally Raw Deal may be a gangsters on the lam/revenge tale but what the movie is really about is the fundamentals: the very nature of love, loyalty and betrayal, and making profound moral (or immoral) decisions. It lends the film an unusual emotional depth.

Both Pat and Ann personify two different facets of Joe’s world and more importantly two diametrically opposed forces in his character. Hard-boiled Joe, the tough gangster who answers to nobody, vs. over-easy Joe, the man who could still find redemption and turn his life around.

Pat personifies Joe’s past. Ann is the promise of a fresh start. It is Ann who brings out Joe’s softer side, not Pat. Ann sparks a yearning for his own lost innocence. Ann figures all he needs is the love of a good woman to bring out that heart of gold. Oh dear, that hoary old chestnut again. Women should know better by now. Well, to be honest, we probably do but when did that ever deter us? Girls are silly things.

Ann is able to break through Joe’s defenses when she tells him that life dealt her a lousy hand too, though she may not look it. 
“Just because I own a car and a tailored suit and my nails are clean, you think I’ve never had to fight?”
It is a turning point in their relationship just as an incident that’s seemingly unconnected to the movie's plot yet central to its vision. While hiding out in a farmhouse Joe helps a fellow man, another escaped criminal, to evade the police. It is an act of mercy. But it is an axiom of Noir that the second the Noir hero gets sentimental, or maybe just human, he gets slapped down hard with cold reality. Humanity is a luxury he can’t afford. Going soft is for suckers. Another act of mercy will be Joe’s undoing in the end.

Joe’s main reason for breaking out of jail is his desire to breathe fresh air again, something that was a rare commodity in prison. His longing for a better life has become a relentlessly tormenting nightmare. (There’s also the matter of 50G owed to him by Rick, but it is a secondary reason.)  After the escape Joe believes he’s finally free, but Ann sees what he can’t see himself. The cops would never stop breathing down his neck. Joe is still shackled because the most confining prison cell will always be his shady past, his mine-field of a future and the legacy of Corkscrew Alley. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. To quote another Noir: “If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town”. You can’t escape Dark City.

Once out of prison, the trio take Noir from the city out on the open road, to crooked byways, lost highways and blind corners. The open road promises unobstructed flight but turns travelers into homeless, transient strangers and desperate fugitives. Unbeknownst to themselves our threesome are on the road to nowhere already because Noir is a world of roadblocks and dead-end alleys. 
It is what all sinners on the lam have to understand in the end. Being an outlaw means being an outcast. It means everlasting exile from your fellow men. Always running, always hiding, never being able to go home again. There is no refuge in Wilderness. It may be beautiful and unspoiled but it is as unforgiving and corrosive as the confined prison cell they have fled.

In his Westerns Mann wasn’t interested in showing how the West was won so much as in how the landscapes of the West with their vastness and their harshness psychologically affected his protagonists.
We already get that here. Noir doesn’t need the psychological and aesthetic framework of the city to function. In non-urban noirs, emptiness replaces the claustrophobic and encroaching spaces associated with urban noir. People are stranded in vacant hostile places where life is distilled to the primitive and one law counts: Live and let die.

For a while in the late 40s/early 50s Burr had the field to himself when it came to playing psychos. His intimidating, hulking figure was a staple in Noirs. Rick is almost always photographed from below which makes his burly figure even more frightening. Burr made a career out of playing psychos before he became Perry Mason and kept his nose clean. After changing sides Burr never drifted back to the dark side again, but pre-Mason Burr will always be fondly remembered by any Noir lover as a creep, a sadist, a deviant, a nutjob. You know, all the finer qualities a man can possess.
He wasn’t merely bad, he was despicability personified. Whenever one of his psychos walks into a scene, the other characters and the audience shrink back in instinctive loathing.

There’s something distinctly gardenia-scented about Rick, he likes to live soft and surround himself with luxury (the floral dressing gown, the long cigarette holder, the posh jewelry he wears). A physical coward, he’s the guy who never fights his own fights if he can send out some underling to do his dirty work for him. “You always get somebody else to pull the trigger for you,” remarks Fantail to him.

Rick has strong pyromanic tendencies. Not only does he know his way around a Camel or a Lucky, he puts lighters to more creative uses, like singeing the earlobe of his henchman just because the guy annoyed him. 
But most of all Raw Deal is notable for a flame-throwing incident before Lee Marvin became famous for it in The Big Heat. One dipso dame has to learn the hard way that hurling burning cherry jubilees in her face is Rick’s idea of a fun evening. Of course, in accord with Chekhov's dictum that a rifle produced in Act One must be fired by Act Three, Rick comes to a very satisfying end himself.

Raw Deal has many devastating moments in it, but the second to last scene in the cabin of the ship waiting to leave for South America must be one of the saddest. Joe and Pat have secured a passage and Joe is saying all the right things to Pat in a cheerless voice about making a better life for themselves in South America, but Pat knows that “every time he kisses me, he’d be kissing Ann”. She knows what Joe doesn’t, that Rick has kidnapped Ann. In the end Pat must face realities. She can’t go off to South America with Joe. Her life with him would be a sham as she’s lost his love, if she ever had it in the first place. And she’s not bad enough to let her rival suffer in the clammy clutches of Rick. So she lets Joe go off to save Ann. The classic lose-lose situation of Noir. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 

The finale is beautifully staged and shot. In a haze of fog and gun fire, doomed figures dance to their ultimate fate.There is no happy ending for anybody in this film. Joe kills Rick and saves Ann but luck and Joe never had much of a track record. He gets shot for his troubles and dies on the sidewalk, in Ann’s arms. It’s OK with him though. “I got my breath of fresh air. You….”  The Noir hero is always just one lucky break away from hitting it big time, and only one unlucky break away from losing it all.

For Pat it’s utter defeat in the end: 
“There’s my Joe in her arms. A kind of happiness on his face. In my heart I know that this is right for Joe. This is what he wanted.” 
Joe got his redemption, if only in death. Ann has the satisfaction of knowing that Joe dusted up his rusty boy-scout badge to do the right thing. Only Pat is left with absolutely nothing. The world keeps on spinning at the fadeout, she doesn’t end up under a sheet in the morgue but it’s a constant in Noir that even if you survive, you never really win. That's the way life crumbles, cookie-wise. Sometimes surviving means you have to go on living, without hope and in misery. It's the eternal torment of the survivor.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Follow Me Quietly (1949)

Anatomy of a B movie

What is a B movie? Books have been written about it, duels have been fought over it. No, not really but you know what I mean. Discussions about the subject can get incredibly heated, one thing leads to another and before you know it people start throwing squeaky little toys at each other. And then it all end in blood and tears. As it is still Christmas and we don’t want that, I’ll try to spare you the pain and come up with something akin to a classification. You’re welcome. I know you’ve been waiting for this with bated breath for eons.

The simplest definition is that B movies were cannon fodder to fill the bottom half of a double bill. They used second (or third and fourth) tier talent, had starvation budgets, barebones sets, crackpot plots, five-day shooting schedules and frequently barely cracked an hour in running time. There’s something to be said for brevity. No detours, no side streets, just a step into the gutter where the sidewalk ends. 

Most major studios employed B units and if a hopeful couldn’t make it there, there was always the Gower Gulch where you went to avoid an eviction notice or if the hamburger joint at the corner didn’t need a dishwasher. Perpetually cash-strapped Poverty Row studios provided a refuge for filmmakers who had fallen from grace (Edgar Ulmer) or filmmakers who never got anywhere because they were a dead duck from the get-go (W. Lee Wilder). PR was also the last stop before the glue factory for actors whose star had crashed and burned. The story of Bela Lugosi who had to slum it out of necessity in Ed Wood productions late in his career is one of the most tragic.

But really, it isn’t quite so straightforward and artless as all that. What the “B hive” provided, more often than not unintentionally, was a canvas for pioneering and highly creative directors and cinematographers. It was a training ground for talent on the rise, like the incredibly gifted Anthony Mann who would go on to bigger and better things after his stint at various lower-echelon studios. 

B Units were a sandbox for innovation. Very often low budget, low oversight and little respect gave the filmmakers a certain artistic freedom, because the studios - and the PCA - wouldn't keep very tight control on a production of such relative unimportance. When low-rent quickie assignments were put into the hands of talented filmmakers, the results were quite often stunning, to probably everybody’s surprise. If no one in the head office cared about the finished product, it stood to reason, then you could do what you wanted so long as you came in on time and on budget. In this anything goes environment where less money equaled less oversight, Noir grew unimpeded by the usual restrictions on style, content and moral turpitude. 
It just goes to show that the aesthetics and artistry of a movie do not in the least have to be constrained by a low budget and more importantly low-budget does not have to be an excuse for subpar filmmaking.

B movies may not have any pretensions at high art but that doesn’t mean they deserve the Golden Turkey Award. B is not a quality judgment but a well-defined production level. In his seminal article Notes on Film Noir Paul Schrader puts the disdain that can often be found for B movies down to “economic snobbery…high-budget trash is considered more worthy of attention than low-budget trash.” Spot on. Those little films were never critical darlings which is another notch in their favor in my book.

Maybe many Bs were assembly-line products but their directors could be counted on for efficiency, economy and a bit of polish on a tight allowance. They were able to bring the movie in on schedule and on budget. That alone required extraordinary technical skill. And, if the stars were aligned right, these professionals brought style and energy to a product that was expected to have absolutely none.

The sparseness of the budget forced the producers to use low-key lighting and darkness to hide the lack of sets and a lavish decor, camouflaging the paucity of the production values. Quite often the distinct Noir aesthetics derived directly from simple financial constraints, but a $5 electricity bill was a nice side-effect. 
Grand historical epics depended on big budgets for optimal effect, crime dramas and Noirs depended on the tight disciplining constraints of small ones.

Arthur Lyons states in his book Death on the Cheap that 
“Film noir was made to order for the Bs…because it required less lighting and smaller casts and usually entailed story lines that required limited-scale sets”. 
Noir is by definition a style that epitomizes this phenomenon. B is the spiritual home of Noir. A shadow-filled world for shady characters living in seedy environs just one step away from the gutter. 

At its best the B Hive meant narrative economy and efficient picture-making. Sure, plots were often abstruse, relying heavily on contrivances and coincidences piled on top of one another. Logic often fell by the wayside and the producers expected the audience to swallow six impossible things before breakfast. B has its own rules and rationality doesn’t necessarily come into it.

Still, occasionally these coincidences are so spectacular that the mind boggles. They can jeopardize a B movie’s credibility and in the hands of an incompetent hack they could drive a movie off the cliff. In the hands of an assured director they were shortcuts that allowed a whole lot of story to be crammed into a few reels. Bs had to have an uncomplicated shorthand. Denied big budgets or luxurious running times they had to kickstart their stories straight into high gear. There’s just so much time for character development and navel-gazing when you only have 60 minutes. Messages are happily left to Western Union.

If the viewer thinks these structural weaknesses threaten plausibility, he’d be right…but shouldn’t watch a B movie. Just as in melodrama, these “weaknesses” are features, not flaws. If it’s done smoothly and with panache and style, you’ll hardly notice and there’s no reason why you should care. For me the no-frills approach works perfectly fine.

In the forties and fifties studios cranked out a seemingly unending series of cheapos to fill out the bottom of double bills. B movies, quite frankly, were the backbone of Hollywood. The town survived on a steady output of these lesser vehicles. While many of these one-hour throwaway products were instantly forgettable, occasionally you make a wonderful flea market find.

Follow Me Quietly was made by RKO, the studio that - much more than any other of the Big Five studios - relied on B pictures to fill its coffers, especially from the 40s on. The studio churned out Western, adventure and crime serials by the bucketload. 

1946 had been an extremely profitable year for RKO but it would soon suffer setbacks. Richard B. Jewell writes in RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born that “executive turnover was in fact the distinguishing feature of [RKO’s] twenty-nine year existence.... RKO’s management was never stable.” 

In 1948 aviation millionaire/tycoon Howard Hughes - who could charitably be described as eccentric - took over RKO, made himself head honcho and troubles began almost immediately. As studio boss his overpowering ego could never resist meddling in production matters, often demanding extensive changes to scripts. He unfortunately kept the directors he employed on a very short leash instead of trusting them to do their jobs right. He routinely held up promising films for months and even years with re-writes, re-shoots and re-edits causing interminable delays and skyrocketing production costs which drastically affected the studio’s bottom line. During his 7-year tenure, he put the studio through the meat grinder and it suffered massive financial losses due to his controlling and volatile management style. The man was a one-man wrecking crew. But despite this predilection for tampering RKO was able to churn out one good Noir after another, at least for a while, many of them becoming (minor) classics, such as On Dangerous Grounds, Out of the Past, Cry Danger and The Narrow Margin. It was RKO’s B unit that held things together and turned a profit. In the long run nothing though could stop the studio’s steady decline. Hughes was responsible for several expensive flops and as a consequence by the mid-50s RKO was in dire financial strains closing shop in 1957.

It was RKO that gave director Richard Fleischer his start. If we were to ask a group of passionate Film Noir fans to come up with a list of their favorite Noir directors, Fleischer likely wouldn’t be on that list. For no discernible reason Fleischer isn’t as revered as other denizens of Dark City, such as Mann, Ray, Dmytryk, Tourneur, Siodmak, Feist, Ulmer, many of them now considered heavyweights who continue to be celebrated and studied. Fleischer though is responsible for such entertaining time wasters as Bodyguard, The Clay Pigeon and Trapped, and genuine B Noir classics as Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin
Jason Ney called him “Noir’s forgotten man” in his Noir City Magazine article Richard Fleischer’s RKO years. Fleischer’s directorial career spanned almost 50 years, and maybe it is that he never seemed to have a distinctive signature or that his later A pictures overshadow his early Noir efforts that are worth a second look and more recognition. Fleischer was a solid Noir director who showed occasional flashes of utter brilliance.

He himself took the same attitude towards his B pictures as many of his critics. After the success of The Narrow Margin, Fleischer moved on to As and never looked back. In his memoir he shrugs his early efforts off dismissively with a sentence or two. He really shouldn’t have, and his work demonstrates that he could really deliver the goods.

Follow Me Quietly is a taut economical one-hour police procedural that’s well-paced and nicely photographed. Good old Bosley played the Grinch again, calling the movie 
“... an utterly senseless little thriller is patently nothing more than a convenient one-hour time-killer between performances of the eight-act vaudeville bill.” 
I’m beginning to think Crowther hating a movie should be taken as a ringing endorsement.

Obsessed cop Lt. Harry Grant (William Lundigan) has been hot on the trail of an elusive serial killer known only as The Judge for months without being able to nail him down while the bodies keep piling up. The Judge strangles his victims randomly on rainy nights. He’s motivated by some mixed-up religious sense of purity and sin, punishing “sinners” and meting out justice. Grant’s own lack of success is driving him crazy. The Judge seems to stay just one step ahead of his investigation. Grant is receiving “help” in the shape of Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick), intrepid girl reporter for a muck-racking tabloid rag that brings you all the news that’s not fit to print. She’s a pest - though a charming one - and sticks to him like glue which isn’t alleviating his headache.
This movie holds a claim to originality because Grant has the imaginative and slightly creepy idea to construct a life-size faceless dummy of the killer based on the evidence they got, instead of sending out routine bulletin information. It’s an early version of psychological profiling. Through that the cops get a better idea of his size and shape. They use the dummy in the lineup room for witness recognition and take photos of it to show to witnesses. On a side-note, the French movie title is Assassin sans visage, a much more apt title than the original.

If we think now the logic of this plot device is bewildering and hokey we’d be right. 
“Why would a dummy be any better than a sketch, especially when in many instances they’re just using pictures of it to try to identify the killer?” 
asks Nighthawk quite rightfully in his Noir of the Week review of the film. The entire setup doesn’t bear close inspection. But who’s to complain? Not us B movie lovers.

Fleischer is able to sell this setup as a serious idea and not a hammy plot device and I think he succeeds. If the actors ride roughshod over script absurdities with absolute seriousness and play a goofy script with heartfelt conviction, it usually works.

Or maybe it’s just that my tolerance level for this kind of stuff is very high. I take my doses of B Noir intravenously.

The scenes with the dummy are so effective because they are incredibly creepy even if they should be silly. The dummy is turned into an icon of evil. In the lineup room a sole spotlight illuminates the back of the dummy and we hear a voice asking The Judge questions about his motives. Late at night in his office where he’s working overtime Grant talks to the dummy, who sits with his back to him, pouring out all his frustration with his inability to successfully catch him. Again the scene is not silly, instead it is very eerie and tense. It gets even more unsettling when the dummy - after Grant has left - gets up and leaves! The Judge has sneaked into the police station. It’s never quite clear if this is actually happening in reality or if the audience is supposed to take it metaphorically because Grant is on the verge of cracking as his partner tells him.

To quote Nighthawk again: 
“Fleischer sells the seriousness of this scene, which successfully walks the line between disturbing and unintentionally ridiculous, through creative camerawork and stark lighting on the dummy.”
The reason why the entire movie works is because of the performances of the lead actors who have great chemistry and bring a lot of energy to their performances. Lundigan is a capable and handsome lead in these second-string features and Patrick in a rare lead role shows spunk. Plus we get good supporting performances, especially by Jeff Corey - who could steal the thunder from anybody - as Grant’s sidekick Sgt. Collins.

From the beginning the relationship between Grant and Ann is more flirty than professional. The lady is quite tenacious and single-minded in her quest to get what she wants: the inside scoop on a story that would be the making of her as a journalist. She demonstrates her determination by breaking into Harry's apartment at night to wait for him on his sofa, wearing a snazzy evening dress. Well hello…

In the end it is her knowledge of pulp magazines that gives Grant the clue to latch on to the mysterious killer who turns out to be a rather mousy Joe Schmo and not a brilliant criminal madman. I’ve seen a few reviews stating that this somehow ruins the movie. I really don’t know why. If I know my serial killers - and granted my knowledge on the subject may be a bit spotty - my guess is that this is much closer to the truth. Fleischer would later direct the utterly chilling 10 Rillington Place, based on the real life case of John Reginald Christie, a nondescript and unassuming man who nevertheless did away with at least eight people. The face of evil is commonplace and ordinary, easily able to blend into a crowd and hide in plain sight.

As opposed to the current strain of serial killer movies of the last three or four decades which portray the killers as brilliant, charming but tortured prodigies who almost invite the audience to identify with them, Follow Me Quietly does not delve into the workings of the criminal mind. Just as in He Walked By Night (which according to Eddie Muller on Noir Alley inspired Quietly), we never find out what makes The Judge tick. His motives, as his face, are always in the dark and he remains a cypher. We are in a B quickie and the only explanation we get is from Sgt. Collins: 
“I used to know a guy who cut the tails off of cats. He didn’t like cats. The Judge cuts the air out of people. I guess he don’t like people.” 
There’s no rational to his killings and the movie doesn’t even try to explain his psyche. Why does The Judge hate “sinners”? Why does he hate rain? Why does he kill? Damned if I know, and I’m sure damned if the producers knew.

Is the movie Noir? The jury is still out on this one. I’d say not really. It’s a police procedural with Noirish elements. It certainly has style to spare and visually fits the bill. We get atmospheric deep, dark shadows, canted angle shots and that almost (pseudo)Freudian attachment to water found in a lot in Noirs. It creates an aura of menace and mystery.

The Judge only strikes on rainy nights, Grant works through the night with a torrential downpour outside, in the final scene The Judge freaks out at the sight of water dripping like rain from holes shot in a pipe by a police machine gun.
The opening scene shows us Ann’s gams as she paces nervously back and forth on a rain-soaked street in front of a grubby dive while waiting for her mark Grant. In a see-through rain coat (slinky!) reminiscent of Joan Bennett’s in Scarlet Street nevertheless. She flicks her cigarette away in a less than classy gesture and enters the dive. The audience could be forgiven for mistaking her for a dubious dame, but we’d be proven wrong.

The Judge personifies one aspect of Noir, the randomness of fate and death. The people he kills are clearly not evil - despite his declarations to the contrary - and he chooses his victims arbitrarily. He doesn’t discriminate by sex, social station, race or political affiliation. Pure dumb luck decides who lives or dies.

The most damning evidence against Quietly as a full-blown Noir though is that alienation, loneliness, darkness and desperate choices Noir characters have to make are completely absent. The movie is very lighthearted despite the subject matter and both main characters are wholesome. Grant’s and Ann’s relationship is sexy and I love their banter but it is without any dark undercurrents.

I’ve seen a few reviews remarking on the cop/serial killer mirror image subtext. No doubt this notion is in the script which several times identifies Grant and The Judge as two of a kind in their obsessiveness. Grant even once states: “I'm too restless, the rain makes me nervous.” To which his partner replies: “You're getting more like The Judge every day." 

But it is not something that clean-cut Lundigan is capable of selling completely, as Eddie Muller points out in his Noir Alley intro. Grant may be desperate to catch the killer but he’s no defective detective. He’s neither neurotic nor is he close to losing his marbles over an obsession with a stiff like Lt. McPherson. The Noir (anti)hero usually has more traumas than an ER, but Grant is too well-adjusted for that. The inner turmoil and soul-destroying agony eating up the cop is not there. Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews or even Lawrence Tierney would have supplied Grant with an extra layer of twitchy hauntedness. 

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we call these movies as long as they entertain. One thing is certain, so often these cheap little films are better than they have any right to be. There’s poetry to be found on the trash heap.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Sunshine Blogger Award

Paul Batters from Silver Screen Classics has nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger Award. A big thanks to Paul whose writing I very much respect. 

Here are the rules for the Sunshine Blogger Award.
      1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
      2. Answer the eleven questions from the blogger who nominated you.
      3. Nominate eleven bloggers.
      4. Create eleven new questions for your nominees to answer.

Here are my answers to Paul's question.
  1. Which actor or actress who hasn’t received an Oscar do you think deserves one? And for what film?
Edward G. Robinson. With his looks an unlikely box office draw, he carved out a niche for himself in Hollywood and always made his presence felt. He could elevate any movie even if the material was beneath him.
He was never even nominated but should have been, at least for The Sea Wolf, Double Indemnity, Key Largo and Scarlet Street.

  1. Who is your favorite child actor and name a film they were in which you love.
First, a confession. I hate children in movies. Despicable little twerps. They’re supposed to add the human element, cute and cuddly, but are usually simply precautious, all-knowing, smug, cloying and as such annoying. 
I make an exception for Gigi Perreau in Has Anybody Seen My Gal? She was charming and is one of the few children in films I did not actively want to send to have a lobotomy.

  1. If a biopic was made of you during the classic film era (1920s to 1960s), who would you like to play you and why?
Lauren Bacall ca. 1946. The Look. Nuff said.

  1. Which famous starry couple (of any time and place) would you want as neighbors? 
Reel couple: Nick and Nora. Perpetually sloshed and living the high life, they solve mysteries while making marriage look like fun. They not only love each other, but like each other. 
Real couple: Frank and Ava, though their constant loud fights probably would get on the neighbors’s nerves very quickly. But the parties at Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate in Palm Springs must have been fun. Plus I'd get the Rat Pack.

  1. Of all the classic monsters, which one do you feel associated with and why?
Unfortunately I have to skip this question. I’m not really into horror/monster movies and can’t think of one.

  1. Is there a classic era actor/actress that you have a crush on?
One?? Darling, what kind of a question is that? What can I say, my heart is big and I have a one-track mind. 
Here it goes: Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Richard Widmark (not as Tommy Udo though), Robert Stack, William Holden, Stanley Baker, Clint Eastwood, Rory Calhoun, Steve Cochran, Jason Statham (have to include a modern one) and so many more.
Plus a one-off: Groucho Marx, just for his snarky zingers.

  1. If there was ONE actor or actress (living or deceased) whom you could interview for your blog, who would it be and why would you choose that person?
I’m not sure it’s just one but I would love to talk to actors and directors who worked primarily for Poverty Row studios. Nobody set out to work for PR, but many started out there and got stuck. PR meant crackpot plots, haphazardly constructed cardboard sets, no-name actors. Yet these cinematic slums produced many fine pictures. Film critic Dave Kehr wrote in 1990: “A director on Poverty Row labored on films in the absolute certainty that no film critic would see them, no sophisticated public would encounter them, and no financial reward whatever would accrue to their auteurs.” No glory at all, yet they soldiered on.

Peggy Cummins of Gun Crazy fame is the one I’d like to talk to most. Her career in Hollywood unfortunately never took off, but she was in what is now considered one of PR’s greatest classics. When it came out, literally nobody saw the movie. She died in 2017 and was a guest at several Noir festivals where - very belatedly - she finally got at least some recognition. I’d love to know how it was working on the set with Joseph H. Lewis and how it felt to only get recognition decades later.

  1. Which film character’s closet would you love to raid? 
The question is more, which closet would I not raid. Clothes were fantastic from the 30s to the mid-60s. Grace Kelly’s entire wardrobe in To Catch a Thief and Rear Window, Eleanor Parker’s dresses in The Naked Jungle, Jane Russell’s wardrobe in His Kind of Woman. Kay Francis wore a lot of fab outfits in the 30s. Plus Gilda’s and Kitty Collins’s black dresses.

  1. Marry, Kiss, or Kill: Which film character would you marry, which would you share a hot, pre-code kiss with, and which would you kill like a noir anti-hero or villain(ess) with a score to settle? (And why did you pick these 3?) 
Marry, that’s not so easy because a lot of my crushes are not the marrying kind, especially the Noir (anti)heroes. I’ll probably go with one of those upright and stalwart Western heroes. John Wayne's character(s) in Ford's Cavalry Trilogy.
Hot pre-Code kiss: the obvious choice, Clark Gable. But then there’s always Warren William (must be pre-Code William though), the man we hate to love.
Kill: Many villains are bad but also very entertaining, so we need them alive. It would have to be someone truly despicable. I go with Noah Cross from Chinatown or Dr. Henry Gordon from Kings Row.

  1. Of all the classic film studios, which is your favorite and why?
Hard to say. I think I’ll differentiate by genres. For Noir, RKO was great though Howard Hughes did his damnedest to drive the studio into the ground and in the end succeeded. For my second favorite genre - Westerns - Universal International is hard to beat. And Warner Brothers for their fantastic gangster movies.

  1. Choose a film where you would love to change the ending. Explain what that change would be and why you would do it. 
There are a number of Noirs/crime films out there that frustrate with their code-imposed endings to the point of inducing anger simply because the ending doesn’t at all fit the tone of the movie. Sometimes these tacked-on happy endings are so soapy that they almost drive the movie off the cliff. 
Two I can think of are Tomorrow Is Another Day (1951) and The Hunted (1948). Both clearly cried out for a downbeat ending but the studio tacked on a happy one. Both would be minor classics with the bleak vision intact.

The 11 Nominees for the Sunshine Blogger Award are:

Many people already have been nominated, so I won’t nominate them again. A few on the list unfortunately don’t seem to update their blogs anymore (or not very often) but they belong on my list nevertheless.

Here are my 11 questions for the bloggers (not all original).
  1. Is there a movie that didn’t have a sequel but cried out for one?
  2. Who is your favorite movie villain of all times?
  3. Which movie do you think is better than the book it’s based on?
  4. If you could live in a movie, which one would it be?
  5. Dream date with a classic movie star?
  6. Worst miscasting in Hollywood history?
  7. Favorite quote from any movie.
  8. Which film character’s closet would you raid?
  9. Your favorite guilty pleasure movie?
  10. You can hop on a time machine, which era/decade would you go to? And would you go even if there’s only a 50/50 chance of coming back?
  11. What classic song/soundtrack/theme would be the soundtrack of your life?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Hell Bound (1957)

The Times They Are a-Changing.

Noir's thorny Road to Perdition was a long and complicated one. Noir has always been a slippery concept and defining it can be very problematic, after all it was a label retrospectively applied. The nonexistence of Noir as a production category during its heyday obviously problematizes the history of the genre.  When did it begin and what was its swan song? To me the general consensus of it lasting from 1941-1958 is capricious. 

We could argue now that, like Elvis, Noir never really died. Foster Hirsch does exactly that in his book Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (p.15 et al.). In the same vein C. Jerry Kutner maintains in his article Beyond the Golden Age: Film Noir Since the ’50s for Bright Lights Journal that “there is no ‘neo-noir’, there is no ‘proto-noir’, there is only Noir”. If we see Noir as a worldview, a mood, a tone and a general feeling of malaise while disregarding the historical context I’d agree with this assessment. As long as there is life on this planet, there will be existential dread, doom, paranoia, obsessive love and despair. 

It is a different matter when we talk about the Classic Noir cycle. By the late 50s Noir's halcyon days were over and the genre was without a doubt coming to a fork in the road. It’s very hard to nail down exactly when Classic Noir was laid to rest, if it was at all. Some maintain it breathed its last in 1958 in a little Mexican border town helped along by a fat corrupt sheriff, others say it was blown to smithereens in a refinery explosion outside New York in 1959. My brilliant academic research unearthed conclusive evidence for a different scenario (in other words, I had this epiphany after an all-night bender. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it). The last vestiges of Classic Noir hemorrhaged to death one night in the shower of a run-down motel room, its sins washed down the drain forever. We all know the culprit and he can deny the accusations till the cows come home, we know better.

There have been quite a few reported sightings during the 60s and every time people thought they’d buried Noir, every time the coffin stayed empty. But by now Noir’s trajectory had changed. Noir tropes mean nothing when they stray too far from their original message. Noir has always been more than just men in fedoras and dames in fabulous outfits. It was a reflection of its time and as such it is hard to replicate because the historical and societal circumstances that made it possible are not present anymore (WWII and its lingering aftereffects, returning veterans, postwar disillusionment, HUAC, the A bomb and McCarthyism). Nothing happens in a vacuum. Classic Noir loses its soul when it is removed from its time and place in history, and certain historical events are always at the very least subtext in Classic Noir. Paul Schrader wrote in his seminal article Notes on Film Noir
“You can't pull a style out from its roots and the roots of Film Noir are World War II, German Expressionism, Existentialism and Freud as they were filtered into pop culture."
Noir needed to be slyly subversive to get its point across. It needed the Code and got its distinctive look and sound when it was skirting censorship rules. By the late 50s the Production Code was eroding, the once-powerful studio system was coming apart at the seams. Independent Producers gained hold and they could - just like Poverty Row Studios - much more easily challenge taboo subjects, because they were less under the microscope of scrutiny by the guardians of morality. Their under-the-radar B-ness and an anything-goes approach often eluded the censors. At the end of the cycle, Noir’s DNA was mutating.

On her fabulous website The Last Drive In Jo Gabriel writes in her article Film Noir: Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter
“Film Noir had an inevitable trajectory…the eccentric and often gutsy style of Film Noir had nowhere else to go…but to reach for even more off-beat, deviant, endlessly risky and taboo oriented set of narratives found in the subversive and exploitative cult films of the mid to late 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s.”
Spot on. My friend Joe over at Noirsville phrased it like this: 
“With nothing really giving some of these directors and producers some parameters, or putting the brakes on, there was no speed limit, they just shot past the limits of contemporary common sense, cultural acceptability and good taste.” 
Films that went too far showing violence would then be classified as horror or thriller, those that went too far depicting sex, drugs and torture were being lumped together as Exploitation.
What had happened? The 60s happened, but that is a discussion I will bore you with another time, kids.

As of now it is 1957 and Hell Bound is full of pulpy seedy goodness. Made on a quarter, if not a dime, it has everything a proper B Noir should have. Sexy dames, suggestive situations, good dialogue, harsh violence and a soundtrack by Les Baxter. 

Clocking in at under 70 minutes, this low-renter doesn’t overstay its welcome. Director William J. Hole, whose career was largely an undistinguished one, worked almost exclusively in television and Hell Bound was his only Noir. It’s a lurid wallow in the lower depths of American life. So often these little cheapos are better than they have any right to be. Low budget is not a crime until it meets low scriptwriting, bad acting and awful dialogue. And thankfully we don’t get that here.

John Russell plays ruthless Jordan, the mastermind of a surplus narcotics heist worth $2 million from a cargo ship. His plan is as follows: the cargo ship picks up a bogus seaman found adrift as the sole “survivor” of a bogus fishing boat accident. The ship has to be put under quarantine, the seaman steals the drugs and puts them in the coat pocket of an on-the-take diabetic health inspector called in to check up on the “seaman”. A phony nurse, Russell’s girlfriend Jan (Margo Woode), takes the inspector’s coat off the ship and everyone’s happy.

Russell just needs a money man to bankroll the operation and finds him in crime boss Harry Quantro (Frank Fenton). He pitches the idea to him, via “infomercial”. It is a strange way to open a movie, but stay with it. Quantro isn’t averse, he is willing to stake the heist under the condition that his girlfriend Paula (June Blair) - who he doesn’t keep around for her brilliant conversation - plays the nurse who will get the drugs off the ship. Quantro needs to keep the tabs on Jordan. The plan goes sideways when Paula genuinely falls in love with unwitting ambulance driver Eddie Mason (a very young Stuart Whitman).

The 40s had been a world of perpetual night where evil lurked in every shadow and around every corner. Maybe it was that by the mid-50s Noir had become aware of itself as an art form, and self-consciously so, that the decade gave way to naturalistic lighting and gritty realism. The cinematography by Carl Guthrie is very good, but it is lacking the characteristic Expressionist play of light and shadows. Often shot in a rather flat style, on the whole late 50s Noir is stripped of much of the visual poetry and elegant stylization that qualified earlier Noirs of the classic period. Now Noir hid in broad daylight. 

As camera equipment became lighter, filming was going away from backlots and closed sound stages too. On-location shooting became more and more the norm. Hell Bound showcases many evocative exterior scenes of bleak industrial sites. The film is worth watching alone for the last scene of a chase through the desolate Los Angeles trolley graveyard, one of the most creative shooting locations I have seen. 

Hell Bound indisputably has an exploitative angle in the gleeful depiction of brutal and unrestrained violence which isn’t in the least bit cartoonish. The administered beatings look like they really hurt, much more so than in any other films of that era. 

We also get a wonderful Grindhouse moment. One of the best scenes in the movie must be the one in the seedy strip joint where a burlesque artiste gives her best for the appreciative audience. This being 1957 we don’t see too much, she teases a lot more than she strips, but nevertheless it is unexpected to see in a mainstream film. It gets better. Her most ardent admirer is a blind (!) dope dealer named Daddy with a penchant for milk who’s doing his business right there at his front-row table! It’s marvelously weird.

Into the bargain, a decided shift in tone could be noticed compared to the 40s. The narrative was less about powerlessness in the face of pre-ordained fate, more about moral corruption of the individual and institutions, with emphasis on personal culpability.

40s Noir was asking existential questions that its protagonists had no answer to. Hell Bound doesn’t bother with that. There’s no loneliness, despair, existential torment, moral ambiguity and obsession. Hell Bound completely dispenses with the romanticism and sentimentality that was part of 40s Noir and goes straight for violence and cynicism. Though the picture is still recognizable as Noir in the classic style it has a barren, devoid of humanity feeling about it. Like chunks of ice drifting on a river.

Compared to other heist movies like Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Kubrick’s The Killing, Hell Bound’s entire philosophy is different. The narrative is not manipulated so that the moviegoer sympathizes and identifies with the criminals. No desperate down-and-out characters who are only looking for a way out populate this picture. No existential dreamers whose longing for a better life spurs them on and who have the audiences’ sympathies all the way. Hell Bound is way too mean-spirited for that.

Playboy Playmate January 1957
It’s a heist-gone-wrong movie with a difference. Jordan’s robbery is ingeniously planned but when things go sideways it’s not one of Doc Riedenschneider blind accidents that louses up the perfect crime. Frankly it’s sheer stupidity. Thing is, if you want a heist to go off smoothly, don’t surround yourself with a bunch of flunkies from the shallow end of the gene pool who are a liability from the start and sell out for easy money on the drop of a hat.
Jordan's recruits include an deadbeat junkie in constant need of the next fix, an unbalanced health inspector on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a dame who goes soft. What could possibly go wrong with that setup? 

Very hunky John Russell is a favorite actor who unfortunately so often was relegated to playing second or third fiddle to other actors, before he became the upright lawman of the West. Amoral, vicious and sadistic, he could be straight out of a Tarantino movie and mixes an overdose of lethal charm with an equal dose of ice-cold menace. He has no redeeming qualities. He isn't driven by any kind of mad desire, especially not for a dame, a dream or a paradise lost. The robbery is a matter of simple economics. That uncut dope is worth about $2 million.

Paula tries her very very best to get cozy with him. She doesn’t get anywhere though it’s not for lack of trying. Disappointed she pouts: “You better see a doctor, Jordan. You’ve got a low blood count.” His chilling answer: “You're wrong, Paula. I’ve got no blood”. 
He controls everybody around him through sheer terror. He snuffs the snitch who gave him the plan of the ship’s cargo hold. He beats one of his cronies to a bloody pulp and he has a way with dames too. Paula gets a nasty beating before he knives her. Russell is riveting and simply makes this movie.

June Blair makes for a great Paula who looks every luscious inch just exactly what she was: Playboy Playmate of January 1957. She’s as pure as the driven and refreshingly never makes a floozy’s feint at virtue. Literally anybody who wears pants is fair game. The girl can’t help it.

She gets a great introduction. Laying in a chair she asks Jordan to help her put her shoes on, incidentally giving him a view up her skirt. As a phony nurse, she doesn’t really know the ins and outs of her supposed profession, but that shouldn't pose any difficulties for her. She knows she has her own qualifications for the job. “There isn’t any part of the anatomy I don’t know, even with my eyes closed”, the lady coos. We believe her. 

We get a little bit of shoe fetishism here. Kicking off her shoes means it’s action time for some lucky guy. And Paula seems to be willing to kick her shoes off with alarming frequency. There’s another dame in the movie who does the same with her glasses. 
Paula is Noir’s good-bad girl. Once she falls in love, things change. The only jarring note in an otherwise nifty little caper is that Paula survives the knife attack and gets her happy ending. A remnant of those dreaded Code-enforced endings maybe, but it's a minor flaw in an otherwise very entertaining film.

Apart from that, Hell Bound stays true to the spirit of Noir. In the end it all adds up to nothing. Jordan dies the way he lived, violently. As decommissioned trolleys are waiting for their disposal in the junk yard, so is Jordan. He’s climbed into one of the empty rail cars trying to evade capture, unfortunately a bunch of scrap metal is coming towards his way.

Noir’s appeal is eternal, it lives on in other genres and pictures and many filmmakers owe it a debt that cannot be repaid. Jean-Luc Godard acknowledged this debt and famously dedicated his 1960 movie À bout de souffle/Breathless to Monogram Pictures. As long as there are rotten dames, suckers, desperate men on the run, shyster lawyers, losers without a friend, but with a plan and dames that can’t help loving the wrong man, Noir doesn’t need an epitaph. It doesn’t even have a tombstone yet.