Friday, December 29, 2017

Pickup on South Street (1953)

"I wanted to take a poke at the idiocy of the cold war climate of the fifties. Sure, there were communists who believed fervently in Marx and Lenin. But there were also crumbs like Joey who'd go to work for any 'ism' if there was a payoff. People living on the edge of society don't give a damn about politics. I wanted my film to be told through the eyes of the powerless. Cold war paranoia? Hell, these crooks were more interested in just getting by." Sam Fuller on Pickup on South Street, from his memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking
Pickup on South Street is an 80-minute wonder of economical, fast-paced storytelling directed by cult filmmaker Sam Fuller. Fuller had an instinctive feel for sensationalism and pulpiness. The film “exploits the gritty reality you read about in the headlines without sacrificing the romance of the silver screen.” (Scott Nye, Criterion Blu-Ray review).

Fuller's hard-boiled style practically predestined him to be dismissed as a B director so often. Much of the movie's dialogue is right out of a dime novel.
Fuller liked to combine social commentary with brutal directness. He didn't go in for sappy backstories either. When Candy asks Skip how he became what he is, another director may have concocted a tale to make the angels weep. Not so Fuller. “Don’t ask stupid questions” is all the answer we get. 

Fuller was an admirer of the Italian Neo-Realists who favored on-location shooting, but Pickup - despite its seeming authenticity and realism - was filmed almost entirely on a sound stage. Skip’s shack, the overcrowded subway that makes the audience feel the sweltering heat inside, the steam rising from the sidewalks, the seedy rooms…all Hollywood mixed with a few location shots for that true NY feeling. A NY picture shot in LA that nevertheless perfectly captures the nature of the city. Art director Lyle Wheeler was the sound stage magician. Together with cinematographer Joe MacDonald he re-created a “realism” all of its own on the Fox backlot, even if it isn’t real. We get a palpable feel for the underbelly of NYC without setting a foot into it.

Released at the height of the Red Scare, J Edgar Hoover objected to the unsympathetic treatment of the FBI and Widmark’s contempt for flag-waving, but Zanuck refused to give in. The PCA of course wanted numerous script revisions. Some violence had to be removed, but the picture is still one of the most brutal of its era, especially Candy’s ugly beating by her ex-boyfriend which looks shockingly real and was filmed without stunt doubles. 

With just a few brushstrokes Fuller paints concise characterizations of kooky characters. Wonderful little touches like the trademark techniques of New York pickpockets and the way a crook named Lightning Louie snaps up his bribe money.

The opening scene is brilliantly staged, without dialogue. It starts in the subway where a pickpocket moves in beside a girl. The scene is intensely erotically charged. At first it feels like two people on a very intimate rendezvous. Skip is going through Candy’s purse as if caressing her. It’s strangely sexual until the viewer notices that the pickpocket is only after the girl's money.

Richard Widmark plays “three-time loser” and grifter Skip McCoy, the pickpocket who finds himself embroiled in Cold War espionage when he inadvertently lifts some microfilm carrying classified government information from the purse of Candy (Jean Peters), unwitting Communist courier and former girlfriend of Red spy Joey (Richard Kiley). Joey wants it back. With the help of stoolie Moe (Thelma Ritter) Candy sets to work. Skip has the film - the Feds want it, the Reds want it and Skip sees his chance for a big pay day.

Many viewers bemoaned the Commie angle, but apparently many of them didn’t look below the surface. Fuller tells his story without the requisite hysteria of other reds-under-the-bed propaganda pictures. Those took themselves seriously. They had a message. In Pickup Communism is no more than the nominal subject. The stolen microfilm is nothing but a MacGuffin, a pretext to move the plot along. 
Moe says: “What do I know about commies? Nothing… but I know I don’t like ’em“, this clearly plays like a satire. Not that J Edgar would have noticed. He took things at face value. But as Fuller refused to explain himself, some critics called the film anti-Communist, some anti-American, depending on their own politics.
It’s clear where Fuller’s sympathies lie. They’re firmly on the side of life’s losers. Fuller paints petty criminals, hustlers, grifters and hookers with real sympathy. 
None of Fuller’s heroes are squeaky-clean. Having friends in low places was no indication of a person’s moral worth, or lack thereof. His characters are not only survivors, they are survivalists, who’ve been knocked about a lot but somehow made it out alive. They do what they must to get by. They’re the grunts trying to survive while political loonies play their little power games.

Candy is as classy as her name implies. She’s a tart who’s “kissed a lot of guys”, but she has a heart of gold, naturally. Her dresses are so tight we wonder how she peels them off at night. Fuller had turned down several actresses as too glamorous for the role including Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe, before settling on Peters. It was a wise choice. She brings a raw and earthy sexiness to her role, mixed with toughness and vulnerability in equal measures. In her own words, playing the siren didn’t come naturally to her and she always credited Monroe with showing her the ropes.

When Candy and Skip first meet, he knocks her out cold and then pours beer over her to wake her up. It’s meet cute, Noir style. Skip almost dislocates her jaw and we still like the guy! He caresses it too right afterwards, and there I was waiting for the celluloid to burst into flames. They generate some major wattage. Some reviewers apparently mistook this for love at first sight. 
Both Candy and Skip are mercenaries, both are playing each other and both want something from each other. And in the beginning it’s not sex, that’s just a means to an end. Candy wants her microfilm back, Skip wants to know what’s so important about it. Acting true to type, she tries to use sex to get her way. She knows the routine, she didn’t get all those lovely dresses by flashing her suitors nothing but a coy little smile. 
But in a complete departure from the way this set-up usually plays out, Skip does the same. He isn’t a sucker. He wants money. Later she tries it on a second time and fails again.

Widmark is great as Skip. Audacious and arrogant, combining roguish charm with a capacity for easy violence, he exudes menace and shiftiness. He lives in a dilapidated bait-and-tackle shop at the Brooklyn waterfront where he keeps his beer cold in the River. It’s a classy set-up.
He’s a lowlife who’s always on the lookout for a quick buck. He’s a crook because the world is full of suckers, so why not take advantage of them? 25G for the microfilm sounds just right to him. With appeals to his patriotism the cops want him to give it up, but those appeals fall on deaf ears. “Are you waving the flag at ME?” is his incredulous answer to it. The appeals are noble platitudes spouted by flatfoots without humor. Politics and patriotism are abstractions that mean nothing to him. Skip wouldn’t let anything as small as politics come between him and his big score. To him nobody’s money stinks, not even a reds. J Edgar didn’t like it and called Fuller in for a little talk. Fuller didn’t play.

Many viewers wondered how Candy could fall for Skip so fast. Moe has the best answer to it, he gets under people’s skin. He’s an homme fatale. And Candy isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.
After Moe gets killed and Candy beaten up, Skip's grubby sense of honor is finally awakened. It’s not politics that makes him change his ways, it’s loyalty and love.
In the end it’s happiness for Skip and Candy - or the Noir equivalent of it - but damn it’s twisted. One second they slug each other, the next they lock lips. It’s some kinky stuff there. In Noirville the road to a happy ending resembles ten rounds in the ring with Jack Dempsey. Despite that their relationship is one of the most affecting I’ve seen in Noir. To me it worked just fine.

Special mention has to go to Thelma Ritter as stoolie Moe, a spot-on performance that conveys a world of quiet despair with just a few gestures. She sells her services to the highest bidder so she can buy herself a top of the line funeral with all the trimmings and not end up as another nameless corpse in Potter’s Field. “I have to go on making a livin’ so I can die,” is one of the saddest, most hopeless and nihilistic declarations ever. She’s given up on living, she just works to die.
Though Moe occasionally rats her friends out to the cops, after all everybody has to make a living somehow, she’s fond of them. She warns them about the sell-outs. Skip doesn’t hold it against her. “She’s gotta eat,” he explains. She’s cunning, noble, feisty, pathetic and endearing all at once. We can’t help but love Moe. She has dignity and emotional depth.
She has her own unwritten code of ethics too, she doesn’t sell out to commies. She dies to protect her friends.
Though Moe trades constant wise-cracks with everybody, there’s always something melancholy about her. When she says to Joey - who’s come to kill her - she’s tired, we know it’s not just physical. Her weariness goes deeper. She’s tired of life, it has beaten her down. All she has to show for at the end of her life is a shabby tenement. She accepts her death in a fatalistic fashion. Her death is the most emotionally gut-wrenching in the movie. She dies with a dignity that transcends her life as a crook. When Moe’s corpse is on its way to Potter’s Field, it’s Skip who makes sure she gets her fancy funeral, paying for it with his own hard-stolen money.

The very last scene - where Skip and Candy go off together into the sunset  - didn't sit well with many viewers. In a way it rings false, it's too cheery. But knowing Fuller it's clear that saccharine-sweet happily ever after is not his style. Skip and Candy may have their little triumph for a while, but it's more than doubtful that the happy ending is really the end. Sooner or later they'll be right back in the gutter.

The film is an absolute classic that’s still as fresh as ever.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Just as the seminal The Maltese Falcon, made the same year, I Wake up Screaming is not full-blown but early transitional Noir, made in 1941 for Fox. Director Bruce Humberstone (of Charlie Chan fame) and cinematographer Edward Cronjager infuse the film with a haunting atmosphere. Strangely, neither of them ever directed another Noir after this picture. Somehow, instinctively, they got the look and style of Noir right. Only Stranger On The Third Floor, made the year before, exhibits the same striking Noir visuals. 

I Wake up Screaming was based on the eponymous novel by pulp author Steve Fisher, a writer for Black Mask Magazine. Hardboiled crime pulps were the feedstock of Noir and Hollywood finally began to recognize their existence and popularity and started to put them on film. 
As a little nod to its source material there is a shot of a newsstand proudly displaying Black Mask Magazines. Until I Wake up Screaming Fisher hadn’t met with much success, after its release though he became a sought-after screen writer, responsible for screen plays such as The Lady in the LakeJohnny Angel and Dead Reckoning

The film’s cinematography is beautiful, stylistically this is straight-up Noir. Shadow-drenched imagery, low angles, shadows of Venetian blinds, low lit closeups and canted angles fill the movie. 

The title alone should land us firmly in Noir territory, it evokes all the terror and dread of a frightening nightmare (though nobody actually wakes up screaming in the movie). Visually this is certainly the case, thematically it is not quite. 

Sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is accused of the murder of Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), a young waitress he “discovered” and is trying to turn into a star. He introduces her to New York’s high society and only succeeds too well. She’s on the verge of making it big and wants to take off to Tinseltown… when she gets mysteriously murdered. For no discernible reason, Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) has it in for Frankie from the beginning and wants his head on a silver platter. But Cornell is a man with a hidden agenda. 
To complicate matters, Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) has fallen in love with Frankie and doesn’t believe in his guilt. 
Also along for the ride are Alan Mowbray as a washed-up ham actor and Allyn Joslyn, in a George Sanders role, as a witty and acerbic gossip columnist. 
The movie works well as a genuine whodunit. Suspicion shifts from one character to another and the audience is never quite sure if Jill’s faith in Frankie’s innocence is justified or if she too is being played. 

Victor Mature was a likable actor but his acting could best be described as solid and adequate. To his credit he was aware of his limitations, but this picture is a good example of why he had such a long and successful career. His performance is energetic and heartfelt and makes the viewer root for him despite the fact that he is a rather shifty and cagey character. 

Grable, Mature and Landis had all recently starred in musicals and were to a certain extend identified with the genre, so their casting in a crime movie was a bit off-beat at the time. 
It seems the producers weren’t quite willing to let go of the occasional Broadway touches here and there. The opening credits play out like a musical with bright marquee lights flashing across the screen, superimposed on the New York City skyline. In the public pool scene there is a fountain feature that is just waiting for Esther Williams to show up. For a second I thought two different movie scripts got mixed up. Granted, they had to show Grable's famous gams and Mature’s chest. It's nice, but it simply doesn’t fit the film’s mood. 

There even is the faint echo of countless Broadway productions in the story line: a promoter wants to pull a pygmalion and turn a cheap little hash-slinger into a star. It's just that Galatea tried to play her Pygmalion for a sucker. Not a smart idea. She gets herself murdered and we’re back in crime territory. 

There are a few light comedic moments, mostly involving Mowbray and Joslyn, which are at odds with crime picture conventions and would be more at home in a sophisticated 30s drawing room comedy. Nick and Nora and some zany screwball banter wouldn’t feel out of place. 

A strong romantic strain runs through the picture, the focus is a bit too much on the blossoming romance between Grable and Mature. This is heightened considerably by the ad nauseam repetition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a lovely song but not a song that should be anywhere near Noirville. It is too sentimental, it belongs in a fantasy film, and saying it’s overused would be kind. 
Alfred Newman’s Street Scene, featured in so many Fox Noirs to come, fits the movie much better although it too would have benefited from fewer repetitions. 

Betty Grable’s casting is an interesting one too, she’s out of her natural habitat, her wholesomeness barely touched by the darkness surrounding her. But she displays real warmth in a rare dramatic role. 

Noir should be like a cheap shot of bourbon that burns your throat on the way down, but somebody threw a good slosh of bubbly champagne into the mixture. It’s OK though, Noir hadn’t the foggiest idea of its own existence yet. 

Carole Landis however is a perfect fit for Noir. She is cold and calculating, a girl with a “heart like a rock candy”. The second she doesn’t need somebody anymore she drops them like a hot potato. Her part is fairly small, but even when she’s gone she haunts the film like a ghost. She is what drives the movie. She lives on through flashbacks, even dead she is still everywhere, in picture frames displayed on walls and desks. 
Vicky would have done anything to get her screen test and she finally got it too. Unfortunately for her the only time anybody sees it is when it's shown to a roomful of rejected admirers suspected of her murder.

Darkness Descends
The second we lay eyes on Laird Cregar though we know we are in Dark City. As an actor he steals the spotlight. Cregar was an unlikely Hollywood star. Overweight, lumbering and with a sinister manner, he seemed naturally destined to play villains. He was not happy about it and wanted to prove to the world that he could play leading men roles. In an effort to reinvent himself he went on a crash diet. He was on the verge of real stardom when his heart gave out at the age of only 31.
When the audience gets their first glimpse of Cregar in the interrogation room, he's giving Mature the third degree while lurking in the shadows and hiding behind a bright lamp which shines directly in Mature’s face. Cregar’s face is not revealed, he is an enigma. Shortly after Jill recognizes Cornell as the man who was stalking her sister. 

From the second we see Cregar, we get a sense of uneasy foreboding, his whole attitude is simply disturbing. He’s often photographed from below and at canted angles, which makes his already big and hulking frame even bigger. His menacing size contrasts sharply with his quiet voice and smooth line readings, there is an unsettling quality of stillness about him. He seems to be in a constant trance-like state. 
Almost every scene with Cregar feels claustrophobic. Apartments and prison cells feel even more cramped because of his looming presence. 

Cornell is a man whose life is stripped of any humanity. He lives in the shadows and barely ever steps out of them. He is incapable of sustaining human relationships, he just lurks and watches. He is the quintessential Noir protagonist. His life is a bottomless pit of loneliness, despair, agony and futility. The theme of obsession runs through the movie. Vicky desperately wants to make it big, men are obsessed with Vicky, but it is Cregar’s Cornell whose obsession with Vicky knows no bounds. He’s a man on a crusade. 
As we find out later, he had caught on to the real killer fairly early but keeps hounding Frankie anyway, because in his sick mind he holds him responsible for Vicky’s death. After all it was Frankie who took her away from him when he tried to make her a star. His police methods are not only unorthodox and underhand, but would most certainly have been illegal even in 1941. Search warrants are for amateurs. Stalking, threatening, breaking and entering and planting evidence are more to his liking. 
One of the creepiest scenes is when Mature wakes up at night to find Cregar sitting in his bedroom because just maybe Mature might talk in his sleep. 

But Cornell is not only obsessed, he’s doomed too. And he’s well aware or it. 
Jill asks him: “What's the good of living without hope?” to which Cornell answers: “It can be done.” 

This is Nihilism in a nutshell. Cornell is a man who is already dead, he’s just forgotten to die. 
"What's the good of living without hope?"
"It can be done."

But somehow, for all his menace, in the end Cregar makes us feel sorry for Cornell, and that is a tribute to his acting. When we see his shrine for Vicky it is a beautiful piece of understated horror, and we can understand his deep pain. 

Elisha Cook, switchboard operator at Vicky’s apartment and another obsessed admirer, plays his signature weasel with the hangdog loser attitude. He too is a creep, he takes it upon himself to enter dead Vicki's apartment and "gather her things together.” It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what he was doing at that time. 

Despite all its idiosyncrasies, this movie belongs in the Noir canon.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

"The stuff that dreams are made of" 

It was 1941, another war to end all wars was plunging the world into chaos and something in the national psyche was starting to shift. 30s Hollywood had relied heavily on escapist fare - with the exception of gangster movies and social consciousness dramas - to fill the theaters. Now a more somber mood was becoming increasingly noticeable and audiences were ready for a darker and more cynical kind of picture. Noir was just waiting to be born. It didn’t originate with The Maltese Falcon, the picture didn’t “invent” Noir (nobody did) as it was a label retrospectively applied. But entering the 40s, movies and their protagonists were off on their road to doom though it would not be before the end of the War that the Noir cycle came into full swing.

The plot is too well-known to be rehashed extensively. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is asked by Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to help her in her search for the priceless black statue of a falcon. He accepts and things start to go south very quickly. Spade’s partner is killed and there’s a trio of memorable crooks (Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook) who also have their eyes on the bird and would do anything to get it. The plot is incredibly convoluted, but really, it doesn’t matter at all. 
The bird is a MacGuffin, the plot is irrelevant. The bird and the search for it simply propel the action along. The picture is about style, style and more style. And the decidedly less than noble state of the human condition. 

The Maltese Falcon was John Huston's directorial debut and as a director he hit his stride at once, there was no trial and error for him.
The cinematography by Arthur Edeson is stunning and already displays many stylistic elements of Noir, like anti-traditional mise-en-scène and a beautiful play of light and shadow.
Edeson put nice touches in here and there. The bars on the elevator door as Brigid descends in police custody foreshadow her fate in prison. It's a Noir image that would be used in years to come.

The role of Sam Spade went to Bogart and the rest, as they say, is history. After being in Hollywood for over a decade, mostly playing second fiddle to other stars, High Sierra (1941) made him a star. Falcon made him a legend and the tough PI became an immortal icon that launched a thousand copies.

The 20s and 30s - the Golden Age of detective fiction - had favored the well-mannered gentleman detective. Urbane, sophisticated and occasionally slightly effete, he dazzled the audience with a display of his superior intellectual powers. Hollywood also gave us the sophisticated Nick and Nora types - forever surgically attached to their painfully dry martinis - who were solving problems for their high society friends in screwball mysteries.
But these kind of drawing room puzzles became quickly obsolete in a changing world. 

Noir had always been lurking in the shadows of pulp magazines. Hollywood finally acknowledged the existence of hard-boiled literature - which had been in print for about 20 years - , finally understood that here was a vast supply of previously untapped literary talent just waiting to be exploited. Now was the right time for the disreputable private eye who solved mysteries as a profession, not for sheer cerebral fun. He chased criminals through dark and dirty back alleys, not ritzy country houses. And he didn’t mind doing the dirty work himself. 
All he had were dumpy digs, a dingy office and a loyal devoted secretary, never really acknowledged, who he could share a fifth of bourbon with over lunch and who took him for what he was. 

Many critics have noted that Falcon is not really true Noir, and they would be right. This is an early transitional Noir. This picture is a blueprint that would be reworked and adapted in years to come. It’s a pretty straightforward PI picture with occasional noirish touches. Classic Noir themes like despair and fatalism are noticeably absent. There is no sense of malaise and inescapable doom hanging over the picture. 

Over the years, many Noir conventions have become cliches, but Falcon can lay claim to putting down - at least partly - the foundations for the genre. There is the laconic rapid-fire hard-boiled dialogue. “When you're slapped you'll take it and like it” must be one of the best lines ever.

There is the flawed (anti)hero, the lone wolf, in Falcon a world-weary PI with a deeply ingrained cynicism. The Noir universe is a corrupt one where a traditional hero would seem like a fish out of water and Spade is certainly a different kind of hero. Ice-cold, mean and pretty sadistic, he's no knight in shining armor. He's not even a knight in dirty armor, like Philip Marlowe, who could never quite let go of his notions of often misplaced chivalry.

The Noir hero is alienated from society, he may be morally on the fence but he is NOT amoral. Conventional morality is not his thing, he lives by a different code, his own. This code was less borne out of true concern for his fellow men, but simply out of unsentimental pragmatism. There’s no love lost between Spade and his partner Miles Archer, Spade even has an affair with his wife, but “when a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it”. This line describes Spade's philosophy in a nutshell. It’s simply bad business to let a murderer get away. Ethical considerations don’t come into it.
With the cynical PI a hero emerged who was exactly the right man for the right times, times that were becoming increasingly bleak and would soon become bleaker still.

"When you're slapped..."
Spade seems to have several casual affairs going on with his secretary Effie, Archer’s wife and his client Brigid. But his affairs are just minor distractions to him, his world does not revolve around the next conquest. His affairs are emotionally detached as if his heart is never in it. 

Spade has nothing in common with a later Noir archetype, the gullible chump. Throughout the film he manages to maintain his independence. Spade may be in love with the dame - or something thereabouts - but he won’t play the sucker for her. He maintains a cold self-possession, even when he appears to have lost control over a situation. He might stumble but he does not fall. He is no Jeff Bailey who allowed himself to be destroyed by his obsession with a woman. Spade is not a man caught in a web outside his control, he sorts out his problem and leaves, and that’s why he’s the last man standing at the end. 
The belief that maybe Brigid loves him and maybe he loves her doesn't stand a chance against the fact that he can't trust her. Love doesn't conquer all. That's Noir.

Brigid represents that other famous archetype of Noir, the femme fatale. She is the quintessential calculating and duplicitous dame. Her middle name could be Pinocchio. She uses sex as a means to an end. But again, in Falcon there is a difference to later Noirs. Brigid is ultimately incapable of controlling Spade and the manner of her defeat separates her from other deadly dames of Noir. She does not only not win in the end, she has to live out the rest of her days behind bars. 

The supporting cast has gone down into movie history: Greenstreet, Lorre and Cook have all become famous in their own right and Greenstreet (in his first role) almost walks away with the movie. Cunning, sophisticated, erudite and dangerous he is a man who has devoted his whole life to the quest for a bird. Gardenia-scented Lorre is at his sniveling and shifty best, and Elisha Cook plays his signature role, the weasel loser. The audience has to feel sorry for him though when he realizes just how expendable he is to Greenstreet. 

The gang's all here
The film to me has only one weakness, Mary Astor. She was only 35 at the time but looked older and very matronly. Brigid is supposed to be an irresistible femme fatale who no man can resist. I found her seductive powers hard to believe as the book called for a woman every man would "sacrifice his life for”. Bebe Daniels in the 1931 version blows her out of the water.

Astor’s performance is spot on. Astor was a fine actress and here she is a good actress playing a bad one, that is Brigid who is fake all through. It’s a performance within a performance. Brigid reeks of insincerity and Astor captures that well. 
She portrays the character as written by Hammett with the right mixture of phony innocence and naiveté paired with cunning and duplicity. There is something of the Victorian heroine in her performance. She uses the oldest tricks in the book. Her little girl act - helpless, flustered, pathetic to evoke pity -  is well played and she can shed tears on demand. I love the scene in which she gives Cairo a kicking, she shows the true nature underneath her put-upon airs.

But while she had the right personality for the role, unfortunately she didn't have the looks. A different actress would have elevated this movie to a 10/10. For me, Joan Bennett would have been the perfect choice.

There is a philosophical core to the movie that on the surface seems to be nothing more than a detective story. For all characters the search for the bird gives their lives a meaning. That is why Gutman and Cairo are not too distraught in the end when the bird turns out to be a fake. The black bird is a promise which they can continue to pursue because the search is what matters. It is a quest for the Holy Grail - itself the most famous MacGuffin in history. And that by design can only end in failure.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Phantom Lady (1944)

Phantom Lady is a moody noir adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich and directed by Robert Siodmak, one of Hollywood’s many European émigré directors. It was Siodmak’s first Noir and his first big Hollywood success, with stunning cinematography supplied by Woody Bredell. His contemporaries often dismissed Siodmak as just another B director capable of nothing more than churning out solid studio assignments and whose best work was confined only to the parameters of Noir. Maybe so, but for any Noir aficionado he is one of the primary architects of the genre and his output in it is unparalleled. 
Now, we could uncharitably tick off Siodmak’s cinematic arrangements as mere genre standards, but with every camera movement, every angle, every mise-en-scène purposefully and meticulously designed, he infuses the film with a nightmarishly mesmerizing atmosphere that clearly benefitted from a sparse budget.

The movie’s plot has more holes than a Swiss cheese, it really doesn’t hold water but when has that ever mattered?

Cornell Woolrich’s appeal as a writer lies mainly in his bleak worldview. Protagonists are always just one step from catastrophe, stories begin in an ordered world and then plunge headlong into darkness.
For his picture, Siodmak changed the author’s story though. Phantom Lady is not a movie that is drenched in Noir nihilism, hope shines throughout the film.

Alan Curtis plays unhappily married Scott Henderson who goes out for a night on the town after just another fight with his wife. He comes home to find his wife murdered and his supposedly airtight alibi - a mysterious woman with a flamboyant hat whose name he doesn’t know - is nowhere to be found and nobody wants to admit having seen her with Henderson. With a motive and no alibi, the cops consider it a flimsy story. Henderson is arrested for his wife’s murder and without corroboration he might face the chair. But Henderson’s devoted secretary Carol “Kansas” Richmond (Ella Raines) pursues the investigation on her own with the help of drummer Cliff (Elisha Cook) whose intentions are strictly dishonorable. There's also the slightly strange Henderson family friend Jack Marlow (Franchote Tone) who's pushing his way into the picture. Kansas soon finds out that the witnesses were paid off to keep their mouths shut...

Typical for the 40s, Phantom Lady was almost entirely shot on the soundstage. Siodmak created a city of the imagination, a fantasy NYC made from expressionistic lighting, clever framing and elaborate backdrops. The “fabricated city”, as Foster Hirsch called it, "deliberately lacked the fullness and density of the real world". Shown usually at night, it had dark eerily deserted streets full of shadows and menace. On-location filming may lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings, but artifice can conjure up the perfect background for stories of entrapment and claustrophobia, with protagonists whose life is one of loneliness and isolation. In Phantom Lady we have a story about New York that shows nothing of the real New York and yet it captures the essence of that faceless anonymity that characterizes the urban jungle.

The film has no score to speak of. The protagonists stumble through the nightmare underscored by the sounds and more often the silence of urban menace: the screeching breaks of elevated trains, footsteps in the dark, deserted subway platforms, empty bars, barren intersections of streets, a prison that seems almost unoccupied and a strange after-hours jazz club. The night is a dangerous place and the city is an inky-black void that sucks all life and light in. Silence is loneliness and terror.
In fact Siodmak concentrates on absence: we see the dead wife's portrait but no wife; we hear messages on the office dictaphone from the boss, but see no boss; we see a hat that recalls a dead fiancé and we follow the quest for a woman who exists only in the memories of a condemned man and the audience.
But most of all, in a brilliant break with tradition, we see court transcripts, but no murder trial. Not a single shot of the judge, the jury, the attorneys or even the accused. We only hear the trial and see the reaction shots of the spectators in the gallery.

It is Ella Raines who carries the movie. She’s dynamite, an active and resourceful heroine. She’s the living proof that the good girls of Noir don’t have to be bland.
Phantom Lady is one of the few Noirs where love is a positive force, though frankly the object of Kansas’ affections is a bit on the bland side.

Raines was another of Hollywood’s almost-success stories who deserved a better career. She was one of Howard Hawks’ discoveries (note her resemblance to Lauren Bacall) and comes across as a typical confident Hawks heroine, a Girl Friday. Her character could easily have turned into a bundle of cliches, but at the hands of Siodmak she mercifully escapes this fate. She doesn’t just simply go around and asks some inefficient questions, she literally hounds a guilt-ridden bartender until he starts to crack under the pressure. The lengthy sequence where Kansas stalks him is masterfully shot. We can feel the tension rise and the man’s fear become palpable. She’s a pitiless avenger. 

And if called upon, she can out-fatale any femme fatale in a hideously trampy get-up that is just the ticket to drive Cook crazy. There’s an interesting little scene in the jazz club where she adjusts her lipstick in a mirror after Cook has kissed her and the face staring back at her hardly seems to be her own. She's determined to find one witness who'll talk, even if that means compromising herself.

Noir City’s favorite fall guy, Elisha Cook, plays yet another chump who never gets a break. He’s the type of guy who must have been shit outta luck from the day he was born. Beaten, slapped, humiliated and/or killed in almost every one of his movies, here he is the luckless drummer who wants to make a splash with the ladies - especially Kansas - but never succeeds. It takes just one look from her and price sucker that he is he falls right for her.

The most famous scene of the movie is Cook’s drum solo which has become legend. It’s a deliriously strange sequence which must have raised an eyebrow or two at the Hays Office. We can almost smell the booze and the reefers in this place with its feverish atmosphere. 
The sexual overtones of his drum solo are as subtle as a sledgehammer. Close-ups of Cook’s sweaty face, wild eyes and open mouth leave no doubt as to what’s going on, as he drums himself ever more frantically into orgiastic ecstasy while Kansas urges him on with smiles and come-hither looks. Vince Keenan, Eddie Muller’s guest on Noir Alley, was right when he said: It’s not subtext, it’s text.

The biggest problem of the film might be Franchote Tone’s acting. I can’t quite decide if he’s really good or really bad in his role. Maybe both. His study of an insane mind is overplayed. He continually casts strange looks around him, obsesses about his hands with which he strangles people, he has odd twitches and dizzy spells. As so often in the 40s, Hollywood couldn’t resist the lure of dime-store Freudianism. But there’s a certain indisputable charm to his hamminess  that I find effectively creepy.
Maybe the movie is all style over substance, but who cares if there is so much style to enjoy.

The Narrow Margin (1952)

"She's a dish… a 60 cent special. Cheap, flashy and strictly poison under the gravy.”
The Narrow Margin is a film I can watch till the cows come home, go out and come home again. It was directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer who made some fabulous B movies before moving up to As. Some movies may not be born with high expectations, but manage to rise above their humble origins by some kind of magic.

Two detectives, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe), are sent to Chicago with orders to transport a mobster’s widow, Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), to LA where she is supposed to testify before a grand jury against her husband’s mob connections. The mob wants to shut up her up permanently. The safe house where she’s kept is compromised and Forbes gets killed. With a couple of hitmen hot on their trail, Brown must escort Mrs. Neall across country by train himself. She turns out to be a real piece of goods, with a few secrets of her own.
On the train Brown keeps bumping into the wholesome Mrs. Sinclair (Jacqueline White) who's revealed to be the real Mrs. Neall, traveling incognito so as not to attract any attention. Windsor was just a decoy.

In 1948 independent producer Howard Hughes purchased RKO and established himself as head of production. As studio boss his overpowering ego could never resist meddling in production matters and often demanding extensive changes to scripts. He routinely held up promising films for months and even years with re-writes, re-takes and re-shoots spending thousands of dollars in the process. 
Made by RKO in 1950, The Narrow Margin sat on the shelf for 18 months. Hughes loved the movie so much he wanted it redone as an A picture with his stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, eliminating all scenes with McGraw and Windsor. Erratic as Hughes was, thankfully he later forgot about his intentions and released the picture, but not before butchering it. Some crucial scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

The Narrow Margin is a well-executed clever little thriller with many red herrings though there are a few plot holes you could drive the proverbial truck through, plus implausible plot elements that don’t hold up under logical scrutiny. How come nobody knows what Mrs. Neall  looks like? Why would the DA let a material witness travel cross-country without police protection on the same train as the decoy? Who betrayed the detectives at the safe house?
Never mind. At 70 minutes there is no time to dwell on such trivialities. Fleischer’s direction is assured and economical. The film was brought in on a 15-day schedule for a paltry budget and turned in a huge profit for the studio. It’s a lesson in barebones filmmaking that exploits its one location. Not a frame is wasted and the camera work by George Diskant is near perfect. The dialogue is snappy and pulpy, and there’s a great fist fight between Brown and one of the goons which was ripped off by Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia, With Love

Trains have always served filmmakers as background for suspense thrillers. In The Narrow Margin, the train is not just background, it is a character in itself, a microcosmos that condenses action and emotions. The narrow corridors are a labyrinth that offers no escape from danger. Fleischer exploits the train’s passageways and cramped compartments to maximum effect, heightening the sense of claustrophobia and the paranoia of being trapped. There’s no soundtrack, the only sounds we hear continuously in the background are the sounds of the moving train. The churning wheels generate tension and urgency. Well-done rear projection was used to sustain the illusion of motion when looking out of the window. Fleischer was also one of the first directors to make use of a hand-held camera to simulate the moving of the train. Little details like the transition between Windsor nervously filing her nails and the wheels of the train rhythmically turning add a nice touch.

Those bedroom eyes
But the best thing about the movie are the main players. Marie Windsor, with a killer bod, eyes of the bedroom variety and a tongue as sharp as a razor, delivers her dialogue flawlessly. She’s a hard-nosed dame, brassy, cheerily amoral and cynical. She’s the gold standard that all other tough dames have to be measured against. She gets the best lines and all the fun while blowing cigarette smoke into Brown’s face. Windsor expresses zero sympathy for Forbes, the bullet he took for her and Brown’s seething anger about it. “Some protection they send me: an old man who walks right into it, and a weeper” is her contemptuous assessment of the situation. She even begins to flirt with Brown mere minutes after his partner gets killed. She isn't just hard-boiled, she's a ten minute egg.

Walter Brown is the essence of all Charles McGraw roles. With a voice like gravel and a face like granite, he’s a cop so tough he could have us believe he’s capable of chewing and swallowing a bucketful of nails without batting an eyelid and spitting them out again one by one. He doesn't so much speak his lines as bark them. If Windsor is a ten-minute egg, he's at least a fifteen-minute one. 

Brown has a very clear picture in his mind of the unseen moll he’s supposed to protect. She can only be a cheap dame, no decent woman would marry a gangster. His partner counters with the slightly banal insight that “all kinds of women” could potentially marry a gangster, not just the vision Brown has conjured up. But Brown’s musings about the character of gangster molls seem to be confirmed once they clap eyes on Mrs. Neall.

Watching McGraw and Windsor duke it out with the gloves off and slinging snark at each other is worth the price of admission alone. Heartwarming goodwill and kindness just drip off the screen - in acid form. This is a brass-knuckle fight. Brown’s every word to Neall just oozes venom and contempt, nobody tells a dame to shut up just like McGraw. He holds her at least partially responsible for the death of his partner.

They may despise each other, but nevertheless generate a lot of heat. Their relationship has all the dangers of high explosives. For no discernible reason at all Windsor wears a sexy black lace negligee on the train. She doesn’t seem to be averse to some canoodling with Brown. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. To my eternal disappointment, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, they didn’t get it on.
Unfortunately the idea of the “right” woman for Brown - wholesome good girl Mrs. Sinclair - is pushed too much. Jacquline White is cute but obviously no match for smocking hot Windsor. On top of that she’s saddled with a brat that would benefit from a massive dose of downers on a daily basis.

The twist at the end is unique and quintessentially Noir. Nothing is what it seemed. It was all a tangled web of lies, deceit and mistaken identities. After Marie Windsor catches a bullet from the goons it is revealed that she was an Internal Affairs cop on assignment to entrap Brown in a payoff from the mob.

Windsor’s death is a cruel surprise, but we do get the feeling that she died the way she lived. It’s nevertheless an interesting one, because the viewer has to completely reconsider his perception of Windsor. Brown’s judgment about the kind of woman who marries a mobster was completely off. Looks and attitude don’t have to dictate a person’s personality. The old bromide holds true. Never judge a book by its cover. It’s June Cleaver who was married to the mob, inverting stereotypes and thus giving the picture some unexpected depth.

In the end Brown is left with the knowledge that his bosses not only didn’t trust him enough to tell him the true nature of his mission, but also considered him and Forbes crooked enough to be on the payoff list Mrs. Neall was carrying.

What’s really shameful is the way Windsor’s death is dealt with. Her sacrifice is never acknowledged by the others. The picture concludes too upbeat with McGraw and White walking happily out into the sunlight, without paying respect to a fallen comrade who was killed in the line of duty. The culprit for this blunder shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. The picture’s producer Stanley Rubin stated much later in an interview that Hughes - as so often unbeknownst to the crew and for reasons only known to himself -  cut the scene out. 

The ending is the only real flaw in an otherwise near perfect picture. Blame it on Hughes.