Friday, June 26, 2009

Target #59: Among the Living (1941, Stuart Heisler)

Directed by: Stuart Heisler
Written by: Lester Cole (story, screenplay), Brian Marlow (story), Garrett Fort (writer)

Among the Living (1941) sits in the middle-ground between film noir and horror. The horror elements are obvious: the use of twins, representing the duality of man, recalls a more literal take on the themes of Stevenson's "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde." But even the "evil" twin himself is not a monster, as he is often described. Like Frankenstein's Creature, he is merely a social outcast, corrupted by the abuse of the true monsters, and who ultimately finds it impossible to assimilate into society. Like a frightened animal, Paul Raden struggles to understand the violent, cynical world in which he's been thrust, and the injustices knowingly done to him, combined with the years of abuse he endured at the hands of a dominating father, lead him to murder out of sheer terror. In many ways, Paul resembles the character of Lennie in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," a simpleton with a brutish strength that he can't reconcile with his own child-like desires.

Though one would stop short of calling this a film noir, there are certainly traces of the necessary elements. Most prominent is the theme of hidden family secrets, of a shameful past coming back to haunt wrongdoers, as in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). The corruptive influence of power is also referenced – as in the latter film, the primary sinner of Among the Living (Raden, Sr., who is dead by the film's beginning) resides in a town that bears his name. The viewer can draw two conclusions: either that only through committing sin can a man attain power, or that from power itself is borne the desire to perpetrate crime, for he now has the means to conceal his misconduct. The latter is certainly true for the otherwise-respectable Dr. Saunders (Harry Carey), who – just once – compromised his professional integrity, and, twenty-five years later, finds that this one transgression has blackened his soul and destroyed his future.

John Raden (Albert Dekker) is the film's hapless protagonist, an honest guy who unwillingly stumbles upon his family's dirty secret. Via a succession of ill-fated coincidences, implying the forces of Fate that would later pervade the film noir movement, John finds himself on trial for murder, thrust protestingly into an ad hoc mob trial that recalls Peter Lorre's judgement in M (1931). Dekker is excellent in the dual-roles of John and Paul Raden, with the "bad" half always distinguishable, not just by his grizzled beard and raggedy clothing, but by the way he carries himself: slouched shoulders, arms held awkwardly, innocent and perplexed eyes upturned at the eccentricities of this unfamiliar society. Susan Hayward plays Millie, a minor femme fatale. She's an angel when you first see her, but the way she knowingly toys with Paul's naivete is quite repulsive, and her nastiness during the courtroom trial is similarly brutal. Notably, director Stuart Heisler would progress on to full-blown noir the following year with his Hammett adaptation The Glass Key (1942).
6/10

Currently my #10 film of 1941:
1) Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
2) The Maltese Falcon (John Huston) *
3) 49th Parallel (Michael Powell)
4) The Wolf Man (George Waggner)
5) Shadow of the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
6) Swamp Water (Jean Renoir)
7) High Sierra (Raoul Walsh) *
8) The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg) *
9) Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock) *
10) Among the Living (Stuart Heisler) *

1 comment:

Books,Coffee,etc.... said...

Hi! Andrew,
What a nice review of a film that I have not had the "pleasure" of watching yet, but I most definitely, plan to seek this film out...because I read a review about this film over there on Micheal Keaney's now defunct website. However, I forgot all about this film until now were you, have once again piqued my interest in this film.

Thanks a lot!
By the way, I plan to send you an email later today.
Dee Dee ;-D