Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Racket (1951)

The Racket is another fair to middling Howard Hughes offering that is less outright Noir than straightforward crime thriller. It was a remake of Hughes own 1928 movie of the same name which in turn was based on a 1927 stage play. The play daringly suggested that crime was not only practiced by gangsters, hoodlums and career criminals, but also by guardians of law and order and scions of society. Gasp! By 1951, especially after the Kefauver Hearings on Organized Crime, this was a bit of an old chestnut and nobody was particularly shocked anymore.

On top of being a bit out of date, the picture can’t hide its stage origins, especially in the precinct scenes. Characters enter and exit stage right and stage left, as if they’re on Broadway.

Mobster Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan) has been running Anytown, USA for years by having several local government and law-enforcement officials in his pocket. However, he can't touch incorruptible police captain Tom McQuigg (Mitchum), who refuses all attempts at bribery. He’s continually transferred from one precinct to another because he’s stepped on too many toes. When Johnson (William Talman), one of his best and most honest officers, gets killed by Scanlon, McQuigg wants to bring down Scanlon once and for all with the help of nightclub singer Irene Hayes (Lizabeth Scott).

Hughes overzealous supervision created another movie that - if not an outright mess -  certainly could have been tighter and more streamlined had Hughes kept his harebrained ideas to himself. No such luck. As he was want to do, he not only couldn’t leave a picture alone during filming, he had to tinker with it even after wrapping. Again he spent thousands of dollars on editorial revisions, retakes and reshoots, especially after Kefauver and his Hearings had become trendy. With predictable results.

Sam Fuller wrote the script’s first draft, but of course Hughes scrapped it. I assume it wasn’t quite safe enough. He had the more  conventional William Haines rewrite it, then tossed his script too and drafted hard-boiled crime writer W. R. Burnett to do the deed and add more action. 

Though John Cromwell was the credited director, directing duties were shared by many, including Mel Ferrer and Tay Garnett. Hughes even pressed producer Edmund Grainger and film editor Sherman Todd into (directing) service. In the end it was Nicolas Ray who was left with the thankless task to pick up the pieces and make a decent film out of the chaos. Needless to say, even he couldn’t make a purse out of a pig’s ear.
What Hughes never understood was that you can’t make a good film out of bits and pieces of material, sewn together like a patchwork quilt. It has to be built from the ground up with a solid foundation. His tinkering was supposed to achieve perfection, but it actually yielded a product that was uneven, choppy and occasionally schizophrenic.

What stays though is an amazingly dark vision about Anytown, USA, a city like a hundred others that is completely in the hands of a corrupt mob. It almost seems as if the entire city is mob-affiliated with no way out.

In the wake of the Kefauver Hearings on Organized Crime (1951) - alluded to on the movie poster - a wave of crime films followed which purported to tell exposé stories of stalwart lawmen and their fight against organized crime. In the beginning of the movie we get the obligatory preachy “crime doesn’t pay” message, this time not delivered by a governor, but the a Crime Commission clearly modeled after Kefauver’s Investigating Committee.
Crime had moved out of the hood into the boardroom, from smuggling illegal booze across state lines to buying judges and rigging elections. Crime had not only gone corporate, it had gone national. It now functioned as a partnership of corrupt politicians, judges and business men with methods a lot less crude than Prohibition-era strong-arm tactics.

If this movie belongs to anyone, it is scenery-chewing Robert Ryan. He’s at his psychotic, deranged and snarling best. Ryan is incredibly intense and literally seething with venomous rage, but at the same time manages to come off as a tragic figure. He is oddly sympathetic when he has to realize in the end that his days are numbered. He’s a man who has outlived his time. As a Prohibition-style enforcer, a streetwise tough guy, muscle and violence is all he knows when it comes to protecting his two-bit territory. But times are changing as even his goons notice, Scanlon just didn’t get the memo. It is a battle for dominance between Nick Scanlon and the (never-seen) Old Man, between old-school gangster and the new faceless Syndicate.
It is to Ryan’s credit that his Nick Scanlon doesn’t end up as a one-note caricature.

Mitchum though is a different matter. He’s on the other side of the fence, in true 30s gangster fashion a former boyhood pal of Ryan’s. Honest, stolid, upright, righteous…stop! hold it right there. A squeaky-clean Mitchum? Say it ain’t so. To say he’s playing his role with indifference would be an understatement. He sleepwalks through the movie. He even gives the cops in his new precinct the requisite “stay on the straight and narrow, boys!” speech. But it comes off as anything but motivational, as if Mitchum knows he’s really not the guy to pontificate, especially after his own marihuana bust a few months earlier. I saw a review that called him “Eliot Ness with a hangover”. Spot on.
McQuigg is never even tempted once. The script gives him nothing to learn about himself, nothing to work with. He’s the same man at the conclusion of the movie as in the beginning. He has almost the entire town against him, his house is blown up and his wife almost killed yet he faces no internal conflicts at all. His character doesn’t evolve.

McQuigg must be one of Mitchum’s least interesting roles, and he knows it too. It’s a toothless performance. That wholesome act just doesn’t sit right. This is Mitch we’re talking about, not Jimmy Stewart. He’s not so much understated as bland. However, as RKO’s No.1 star he dutifully did his job as Hughes asked, even if the material was beneath him.
Mitchum only comes to life in his last standoff with Ryan. It’s a collision of two giants.

As always Liz Scott is good in her role as yet another nightclub singer. No-one could ever mistake her for a great actress, there’s always something slightly wooden about her acting, but with her husky breathy whiskey-soaked bedroom voice she could hold any man’s attention. She doesn’t so much give a performance as take up space on the screen and that's okay with me. Given the right material, she is very effective.

William Tallman is cast against type as goody two shoes rookie officer who gets killed by Scanlon. But the real scene stealer here is gum-chewing William Conrad as another crooked cop who brings to life his character more than anybody else on the screen.

In the end the picture doesn’t amount to much. The stuff of greatness is there, it’s just that it is all too moralistic, too simplistic, too clear-cut. The good guys are good, the bad guys bad. Nobody’s motives and intentions are in the least bit murky, there’s no ambiguity here.

There is something incredibly old-fashioned about this film which is simply out of whack with Noir. The punch is missing.
The star power of Ryan and Mitchum counts for a lot, but the very good cast is hampered by an outdated story and trite cliches.
Hughes may have tried to update his Prohibition era play, but ultimately he got a 1920s crime melodrama that should have stayed in the past. I give it an A for effort.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Damned Don't Cry (1950)

“Don't talk to me about self-respect. That's something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.”
Joan Crawford is an actress I find an endlessly fascinating object for study, though I can’t profess to be an unabashed fan at all. But there was always something incredibly gutsy and intriguing about her performances. 
What jumps to the eye right away when viewing especially her later movies is a recurring theme that runs through them. To get a deeper understanding of films like Mildred Pierce, Flamingo Road, Possessed and The Damned Don’t Cry to name a few, one has to look at the phenomenon that was Crawford herself and in the process dig a little deeper into her mental make-up.

Crawford’s life was the classic Hollywood rags-to-riches story. Born into poverty, she knew from an early age that she wanted to BE someone. Her sole desire was to be a star and her ambition was all-consuming. She wanted money, success, respect, beautiful clothes, luxury… and she was incredibly ruthless in her methods to achieve her goals. Nothing and nobody was allowed to stand between her and the top. If this sounds suspiciously like a plot of one of her movies, that’s because it is.

Young Joan literally set out to invent herself. In gossip columnist Louella Parson’s words she was “the only star I know who manufactured herself…she drew up a blueprint for herself …and then set out to put life into the outline.” Bette Davis said in a similar fashion: “To me, she is the personification of the movie star. I have always felt her greatest performance is Crawford being Crawford.”
Crawford used every hour of the day to promote herself and her image. BEING Joan Crawford took precedence over everything else. Crawford has often been called The Ultimate Movie Star simply because she was such an exquisitely manufactured product.

Crawford pictures were star vehicles. Especially from the mid-40s on the narrative featured women from the wrong side of the tracks who claw their way to the top and succeed against all odds.

Not a trained actress, she lived her roles more than she played them. Her films fit her like a glove, because they used elements of its star’s life story. Crawford took a character and moulded it around her own personality. Most of the pictures she made could simply be renamed: The Joan Crawford Story. They were all simply about Joan's fabulousness.

Granted, the formula became repetitious quickly, but it proved to be successful with the audiences. It could seamlessly be combined with any other formula, be it gangster movie, Noir or woman’s melodrama. Joan’s loyal fans loved her for it, notwithstanding script absurdities.

Crawford craved total control on the set over every aspect of filming. As the center of attention, nobody could be favored above her. Her jealousy of other actresses was legendary, and her control issues most certainly led her to often choose male co-stars who were not only younger but often much less famous and well-established than she was, if they weren’t outright nonentities.

In The Damned Don’t Cry, we have contract player David Brian, B actor Steve Cochran and nice but dull-as-dishwater Kent Smith. They’re all just supposed to act as a foils for Crawford’s star performance. 
Brian though is amazingly charismatic as snake-like gangster, and testosterone-laden Cochran, as always, steals the show though that surely couldn’t have been Crawford’s intention. A little misstep maybe on her part.

Loosely based on the story of Bugsy Siegel and Virginia Hill, The Damned Don’t Cry was directed by “woman’s director” Vincent Sherman for Warner Bros. The production values are top-notch, definitively helped by on-location shooting in Palm Springs.

The film has some ludicrous plot contrivances, but what Noir hasn’t? Yes, it’s hokum, a lurid and trashy potboiler, but the film effectively conveys a sense of moral ambiguity and entrapment that builds around Crawford and her descent into a life of crime from which there is no escape. To me this pictures has everything a torrid melodrama should have, even if it is completely overwrought. Or maybe just because of it. Crawford and camp go hand in hand, and I don’t mean that as a slight. But to her credit, Crawford never loses her dignity, not even when the material was beneath her. She managed to make tawdriness classy.

The film starts out with a “where did I go wrong” flashback confession from Crawford in which she recalls the events that drove her back to her estranged parents’ house, the last place she ever wanted to see again.
Crawford plays Ethel Whitehead (what a name), a miserable drudge from the wrong part of town married to a poor oil worker. They live in shabby respectability that is just this side of abject poverty. The death of her little son shows her that living by the rules doesn’t get her anywhere. “I want something more out of life and I’m gonna get it” becomes her mantra. She takes off to New York where she catches on pretty fast to life in the big city. She finds work as a “model” for a low-rent fashion house, and soon discovers that “private fittings” with customers, I mean buyers, are a lot more lucrative. On top of being an escort, she becomes a cast-iron gold digger and climbs the social ladder to the top one gullible suitor at a time.
On the way up she encounters mild-mannered and timid account Martin Blackford (Kent Smith) who’s easy pickings. He wants to marry her, but she’s set her sights a bit higher. He lacks her compelling drive and ambition and so becomes negligible. She then becomes the mistress of big-time gangland boss George Castleman (David Brian), an ice-cold, urbane and polished snake, who knows the difference between a flowerpot and a “vahse”. He helps Ethel reinvent herself as mysterious socialite Lorna Hanson Forbes (sounds familiar?). All this luxury has its price though and Castleman’s price is her help in bringing down his underling Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran) who’s gotten a bit too big for his own good. Lorna falls for Prenta though, Castleman doesn’t like it  and the inevitable showdown of all involved ends in tragedy…

The Damned is a movie about ruthless ambition, greed, corruption, betrayal and ultimately murder. A deep-rooted cynicism runs through it. Success by any means is everyone’s philosophy, so corruption becomes by necessity the only way ahead. Accountant Martin is willing to go along for the ride leaving his scruples behind because he thinks he can win Lorna. For her he’s just a step up the ladder. Lorna tries to take the boys on in their own world and uses sex to compete because it’s the only currency she’s got. She does understand that what she’s doing is morally wrong, it’s just that the difference between right and wrong has become inconsequential and her moral compass has slipped.
Castleman clawed his way out of his humble beginnings and stopped at nothing to achieve his goals. He’s nobody’s fool, not even Lorna’s. His power is a strong aphrodisiac for Crawford and their relationship is a twisted struggle for control.

That is Noir: the world is a dark place and sucks all the goodness out of decent people once they’ve gotten a taste of the good life, until nothing is left. But you can depend on karma to come back to bite you in the behind…

Crawford makes hers transformation from downtrodden housewife to glamorous socialite believable even though a good bit of suspension of disbelief is required. But that is a testament to her acting ability. You can’t take your eyes off her though she is most certainly too old for her part. Even over-the-hill Joanie doesn’t disappoint.
Eddie Muller described Noir as suffering with style and this is certainly the case here. Joan suffers beautifully, however the mink and pearls she swathes herself in take the edge off considerably.

In later years Crawford was often the butt of jokes and not unjustifiably so. She hardened into a parody of herself. By the early 1950s Joan Crawford was coming towards the end of her spectacular run as one of the leading female stars of Hollywood and even with her best years behind her, she was still a force to be reckoned with though it became increasingly hard to believe Crawford as the irresistible siren the script requires her to be. But by sheer force of spirit she manages to rise above script absurdities and make tosh enjoyable.

When lesser pictures fail, it's often because the actors can't put across the ridiculous plot contrivances. Crawford always could.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Murder, My Sweet was directed by Edward Dmytryk for RKO and is based on Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely.
1944 was a watershed year for Film Noir. It saw the release of such classics as Double Indemnity, Laura, The Woman in the Window and To Have and Have Not. Noir became a box office draw.

Dick Powell’s career had come to a stall by 1944. Powell had been a huge success as crooner and hoofer in 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals, rosy-cheeked and lysol-scrubbed to squeaky-cleanness. By the 1940s many considered him little more than an aging lightweight who had overstayed his welcome. Powell himself was sick of this perception. “I’m not a kid anymore but I’m still playing boy scouts.” He was over 40 now and knew something had to change if he didn’t want his career to tank permanently.
He had previously auditioned for the lead role in Double Indemnity in his attempt to make the transition to dramatic roles. Wilder - in one of his very rare miscalculations - declined as he thought audiences would never buy into Powell as hard-boiled PI.
Dmytryk took the chance and his gamble paid off handsomely. Murder was a success though Powell’s casting took many by surprise. It gave Powell’s waining career an enormous boost and prolonged his shelf life considerably. He proved to be a natural at Noir. 
A pre-screening of Murder wasn't particularly successful. It had been shown under its original title Farewell, My Lovely and the audience turned up expecting to see another Powell musical. So the title of the film was changed from the original to Murder, My Sweet, to make it absolutely clear that Powell the crooner had been permanently retired. It worked.

Raymond Chandler’s plots were always cheerfully incoherent and famously labyrinthine. Forget about a lucid storyline. If readers wanted to judge Chandler purely on plausibility of plot, he never would have got the well-deserved reputation he has. As the man himself once said, a good mystery is the kind where you don’t have to read the end to be satisfied. Chandler wasn’t interested in creating intricate cerebral puzzles. In fact his essay The Simple Art of Murder was a blistering attack on the Golden Age British crime novel of the “the butler did it” school with its home-in-time-for-tea resolution.
Chandler wanted to create a realistic portrait of a city - in this case LA - where corruption and lawlessness reigned, greasing palms solved virtually any problem, ideals were a rare commodity and trust was for gullible suckers. The picture captures the essence and atmosphere of the book, even it it took liberties with the plot, including the ending. No one is an angel in the City of Angels.

The snappy dialogue makes the movie and much of it is lifted directly from the novel. Marlowe constantly throws us some loopy little nuggets of wisdom right out of left field: “My mind felt like a plumber's handkerchief” and “Only reason I took the job was because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck”. What?

I won’t even try to unravel the convoluted storyline. The direction is deliberately fast-paced so we don’t dwell too much on the plot and its corresponding holes.

The movie is told in flashbacks by a blind-folded Marlowe. A gun fired too close to his eyes has blinded him. Now he’s a PI who’s in the dark - literally and figuratively -  and the cops are grilling him about his involvement in several murders.
Philip Marlowe is hired by Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki), ex-boxer and crook just out of prison after a seven year stretch, to find his former girlfriend, Velma, who he hasn’t seen for the last six years. Back in the day Velma worked as a showgirl (make of that what you will) at a low-class joint. At the same time - in a seemingly unrelated case -  Marlowe is hired by swishy Lindsay Marriott (playing the Joel Cairo role) to accompany him to a clandestine midnight meeting out in the boonies to buy back stolen jewelry. Marlowe is knocked out, Marriott is killed. Later Marlowe discovers that the necklace belonged to Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), bombshell wife of old geezer Judge Grayle. Grayle also has a daughter, Ann (Anne Shirley), who would love nothing better than to stick little pins into her step-mother. 
It looks like Moose opened a can of worms, and his Velma simply doesn’t want to be found…

Dick Powell makes for a very good Marlowe. Chandler maintained that Powell was closest to his vision of Marlowe. Chandler’s Marlowe was on the surface a world-weary tough-talking cynic who’s seen it all. But underneath the wisecracking, hard-drinking tough act was a man who was quietly contemplative and philosophical. Marlowe likes chess and poetry. He has a sense of moral chivalry and somehow it's easy to believe he would still have a few rusty boy-scout medals stashed away in a dusty attic. Corruption around him amuses him but doesn’t touch him. He can’t be bought with sex, though he might take a dame up on an offer. Marlowe was a latter-day knight-errant, a crumpled knight in dirty armor. Of all the hard-boiled PIs, he’s the most soft-boiled.

For many people Powell didn’t cut it in the role. They prefer Bogart. In a way I can see why. Bogart is iconic. But people who favor Bogart don’t realize that he was a much better fit for Sam Spade, the meaner, colder and more sadistic evil twin of Marlowe. There wasn’t any sentimentality or vulnerability in him. Bogart played his Marlowe the way he played Spade.

There is a bit more of the lovable loser about Powell. Poor Marlowe is having a rough time in the movie. He gets worked over a lot, mostly by Moose Malloy. Either the goons are all over him like a rash or the cops give him the third degree. The man’s far from being a superman. He is Noir’s everyman, not too good-looking, not too tall, not too tough, not too sexy. He gets lied to, slugged into unconsciousness, strangled, beaten, blinded and drugged. But for him it’s all in a day’s work. Even in a tight spot his observations drip with deadpan self-deprecation.
Okay Marlowe,' I said to myself. 'You're a tough guy. You've been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you're crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let's see you do something really tough - like putting your pants on.”
He’s often bushwhacked and frankly half the time he does a lousy job at detecting. But he has one thing going for him. He doesn’t know how to quit. He’s like a little rubber ball that always bounces back. 
I have a hard time seeing Bogart being pushed around by Moose the way he did to Powell. It was usually Bogart who did the pushing.

Claire Trevor is good as high-voltage double-crossing doxy. She’s bad, she knows it and she loves it. Always decked out in glamorous gowns, she’s a lot like Brigid O’Shaughnessy, constantly lying and acting a role. She’s burdened with a husband of great antiquity who nevertheless has one indisputable advantage: he’s rich. Helen is an expensive plaything. Judge Grayle knows exactly his wife is playing around, but accepts it as part of the deal. He’s ga-ga about her.
She tries to get Marlowe to do a little spot of killing for her, but like Brigid, she is never successful at corrupting him. Marlowe is no sucker.

It’s a strong point of the movie that it has a lovely little rogue’s gallery of (minor) characters.

There’s lovesick and psychotic Moose Malloy, a bulldozer of a man who doesn’t play with a full deck. He knows what he wants though...his Velma. And he can be incredibly persuasive…with his fists. To his credit Mazurki gives Moose unexpected depth. He doesn’t just play him for comic relief, Moose is a tragic and touching figure underneath all his blustering. A dim bulb who’s being taken for a ride by almost everyone in the film. He doesn’t have the brains to see through it. Despite his imposing frame, he’s a patsy who doesn’t stand a chance.

Another standout is Esther Howard's performance as lonely boozehound Jessie Florian, a blowsy old broad who pickles herself in whiskey every night. She just has one scene but it is perfect. Funny, sad and poignant at the same time.

Anne Shirley - looking at lot like Olivia de Havilland -  is lovely in a good girl role that could easily have ended up boring.

Much of the movie’s success is owed to cinematographer Harry Wild who creates a beautiful dreamy nighttime LA. One of the first scenes is quintessential Noir. Philip Marlowe is sitting in his office at night, smoking and looking out the window with neon signs flashing outside, when new client Moose Malloy appears right behind him like an apparition, reflected in the glass.

Then there is spaced-out Marlowe’s drug-induced surrealistic nightmare sequence, filled with hypodermic needles, swirling vortexes and smoke. It’ seriously trippy.

Murder, My Sweet is Noir alright, but not yet self-consciously so as later movies would be. It is more light-hearted than others. There is the tough-talking PI, the femme fatale, blackmail, murder and a tangled web of lies and deceit, but no existential dread, inescapable fate and uncompromising pessimism yet. The movie is breezy. Marlowe’s bone-dry wise-cracking observations keep it from becoming too bleak. The final scene is almost comedy and may feel tacked on, but it’s OK. It’s in keeping with the narrative tone of the rest of the movie.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Female on the Beach (1955)

I love this movie. It’s pure unadulterated campy fun and I mean that as a compliment. Glossy, naughty and tawdry. A heavy-breather for the discerning connoisseur of camp.

Female on the Beach should be retitled Hot' n' Bothered in the Sand. The screenplay teems with outrageous dialogue that’s dripping with innuendo, and we get steamy clinches galore. So much lovely velveeta.
This is not hard-boiled crime drama, more noirish melodrama. The film is beautifully photographed, fully lit, with a gorgeous set design that would have looked great in color.

Joan Crawford plays Lynn Markham who moves into her late husband’s beach house right after the previous tenant Eloise Crandall has fallen, or been pushed, to her death. 
Muscle-bound beach boy gigolo Drummond “Drummy” Hall (Jeff Chandler), who is “kept” by Joan’s neighbors, Queenie and Osbert Sorenson, had an affair with Crandall. He puts the moves on Joan right away, after all he’s been the boy toy of many middle-aged lonely women, and Joan is loaded. But Drummy may have a darker secret. 

Slightly over-the-hill but still attractive Joan Crawford vamps it up for all it's worth. At this stage in her career Crawford was just about done with leading lady parts. With her star status fading, she became the woman so many unfortunately remember her as: her severe hairstyles accentuate her hard features and mask-like make-up and she wears a wardrobe befitting a woman half her age… But being past her expiry date never stopped Joan from putting up a good fight. 
Somehow, by sheer force of personality, Crawford pulls it off, and is able to deliver campy dialogue with a straight face. Her acting abilities are good enough to make her character believable and rise above absurdities. 

Hunky beefcake Chandler, who has “the instincts of a stallion and the pride of an alley cat”, is at the same time perfect and over-the-top as the homme fatale women swoon over. He oozes so much sex it’s positively indecent. Somehow under all those muscles we are made to believe beats a heart of gold. 

He’s a gigolo with a well-rehearsed line of seduction talk. Joan pretends not to like him and plays hard to get, slinging her trademark bitchy one-liners at him, but it’s all just a front. He rips her clothes off, they have sex, next few days he doesn’t call, Joan gets lovesick and hits the bottle - it must have been good. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. It’s all as subtle as a sledgehammer. 

Joan’s neighbors, perpetually broke card sharks Queenie and Osbert Sorenson, are priceless. As working is not really their line, they’ve come up with a better racket: grooming and pimping young beach studs who then fleece elderly broads out of their money. 
An imdb reviewer called them “piss-elegant pimps” and I have yet to read a better description of them. 

If this all sounds very sordid and sleazy, that’s because it is, but it’s great fun to watch. The dialogue is more than entertaining and seeing Joan and Chandler sling snark at each other is worth the money for the DVD alone. 

Both actors manage in the end to transcend the pitfalls of camp and make you care for their characters because of the human drama that underlies all this outrageousness. Here we have two less than perfect people trying to find happiness. 

The set-up of Crawford’s and Chandler’s romance is all grown-up too. Lynn understands and accepts that Chandler is a gigolo, she doesn’t have any illusions about him, and she also knows that without her money he wouldn’t be after her. She can accept that fact because she herself knows a thing or two about roping in aging sugar daddies. That’s how she got her husband and her fortune. Lynn also knows that at her age the gigolo is her last chance. 

Jan Sterling has a pretty thankless role as one of Drummy’s cast-off girlfriends. Her hairstyle and clothes are very unflattering and severe. Crawford didn’t like female competition on the set so I assume that’s the reason.

The movie is an unrelenting cheese fest and a soap opera, but with dialogue like "I wouldn't have you if you were hung with diamonds upside down!” it is simply a must-watch. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I Walk Alone (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 12, 2018

Decoy (1946)

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

Bernhard was then-husband of the female star Jean Gillie and he made Decoy as a showcase for his British wife to introduce her to American audiences. He wanted to make her a star but he should have known that barely anybody became a star making pictures for Poverty Row. Gillie had that fate in common with her contemporary Poverty Row femmes fatales Peggie Cummins, Ann Savage and Janis Carter. This should have been a star-making performance but Gillie's stardom never came. She made only one more movie before dying at the young age of 33 of pneumonia.

Poverty Row pictures never tried to hide what they were. There was a genuine rawness about them that glossier studio productions simply couldn’t reproduce. They benefitted from their shoestring budget, and sometimes a short shooting schedule, cardboard sets and a fast-and-loose script full of bizarre chunks of plot worked to their advantage. 

Poverty Row didn’t have, and didn’t need, any pretensions at intellectual filmmaking. Often their pictures were all the better for it. Because of this lack of pretense with Decoy we get one of Noir’s greatest Bs - crazy, wonky, absolutely original, with a bit of horror and sci-fi thrown in. 

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

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

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

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

Gillie gives a standout performance, and for my money she takes first place in that illustrious Femme Fatale Hall of Fame. She knocks your socks off. The movie is what it is because of Gillie. She raises what could have been just another crummy little flick to utter gem and in the bargain has garnered a cult following. She looks absolutely fabulous in her wardrobe. It’s hard to believe she would even need Methylene Blue to revive a corpse, her perfume alone should do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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