Thursday, May 21, 2009

Target #56: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Lewis Milestone)

Directed by: Lewis Milestone
Written by: John Patrick (story), Robert Rossen (screenplay), Robert Riskin (uncredited)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Judith Anderson, Darryl Hickman, Janis Wilson

Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) is filled with Gothic atmosphere, the sort of hushed melodramatic whispers that follow around a household with something to hide – think Rebecca (1940) or Dragonwyck (1946). But the film never reaches its potential. Despite a running-time of nearly two hours, by the story's end, I felt as though nothing much had really happened, and that a perfectly good build-up had been smothered before reaching its climax and logical conclusion. There's no doubt that Barbara Stanwyck was cast in light of her icy Oscar-nominated performance in Double Indemnity (1944), but here it's uncertain whether her character is a tormented victim or a compassionless fiend. Such ambiguity might have been used to great effect, but here it merely suggests a confused script that can't decide whether to idolise or chastise its top-billed performer. Not to mention that Stanwyck herself doesn't appear until past the film's half- hour mark, the delay promising a colossal personality that eventually materialises only half-heartedly.

Stanwyck may be slightly disappointing, but fortunately the men are willing to hold the fort. Kirk Douglas, in his debut, does an excellent job of merging faux-authority and jittery cowardice for his role as Walter O'Neil, Martha's sycophantic District-Attorney husband. But the real surprise of the picture is Van Heflin, the last actor I would have chosen to play a noir "tough guy." As roving gambler Sam Masterson, Heflin channels the cocky vigour of Philip Marlowe, constantly stepping into trouble just for the hell of it, if only to flout the authority of those who try to rough him up. Lizabeth Scott is unfortunately weak in an undemanding romantic role. She has a bit of Lauren Bacall about her, which is regrettable because I can imagine Bacall being far better in the role {and I mustn't be the only one who saw a resemblance, because Scott was soon paired with Bogart in Dead Reckoning (1947)}. In a lengthy opening prologue, the three main characters (as teenagers) are well played by Janis Wilson, Mickey Kuhn and Darryl Hickman (from Leave Her to Heaven (1945)).

Film noirs typically unfold in the impersonal urban decadence of a large city, but here Martha Ivers' grip on a small town (appropriately named Iverstown) is used to excellent effect. Unlike Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which the presence of a serial killer "pollutes" an idealistic country town from the inside, the audience realises that Iverstown may already be beyond saving. Corruption is built in the town's foundations. A self-serving District Attorney, spurred on by his dominating wife, knowingly sends an innocent man to his death, and uses hired thugs to hide his own crimes. Walter's paranoia regarding the arrival of Sam Masterson is used to good ironic effect, as he later realises that, had it not been for his impatience to get rid of him, Sam would never have uncovered their dirty secret. Martha, displaying that maddening ambiguity again, seems to be halfway between loving and hating Sam, if only because his toughness and charm reminds her of the future she might have enjoyed if she hadn't snatched that cane from the hands of her aunt.

Currently my #10 film of 1946:
1) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) *
3) Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
4) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock) *
5) The Locket (John Brahm) *
6) Crack-Up (Irving Reis) *
7) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak) *
8) The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall) *
9) Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) *
10) The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone) *


Friday, May 15, 2009

Target #55: Mr. Arkadin / Confidential Report (1955, Orson Welles)

Directed by: Orson Welles

Written by: Orson Welles (story & screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 Only]

Firstly, some administration issues: like most Orson Welles projects, Mr. Arkadin (1955) suffered from studio interference in post- production, and so there are numerous versions of the film available for public viewing. Among the possible options is the chronologically-cut print released in America, the European cut retitled "Confidential Report," and several versions released by the Criterion Collection that purport to represent, to varying degrees, Welles' original vision. For my first viewing of the film, I watched the version titled "Confidential Report," which can be found on a VHS released by distributor Connoisseur Video. The flashback structure maintained in most prints of the film, including this version, deliberately recalls the American film noir style. Of course, this comes as no surprise – Welles had already released The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and would soon return to Hollywood (albeit briefly) to direct his archetypal noir, Touch of Evil (1958). But Orson Welles was not one to do things by the book, and Mr. Arkadin is like no American noir you've ever seen.

If one must choose a film with which to compare Mr. Arkadin, it would probably be Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). Both pictures transplant a familiar film noir plot into a European setting, and an eccentric camera captures the personality of the exotic locales and their inhabitants. Both, of course, also starred Orson Welles in a prominent role, and playing analogous characters. In Reed's film, Harry Lime is a smug, boyish racketeer whose thirst for ill-gotten profits takes priority over the faceless victims of his black-market crimes. Gregory Arkadin might be considered an extension of Lime's character, had he emerged unscathed from the Vienna sewers and lived years more. Arkadin is undoubtedly a criminal, but one whose incredible success has pushed him beyond such a characterisation. Despite having apparently eluded his youthful years in petty crime (after erasing his former identity, much as Lime attempted), Arkadin remains plagued by the shame of his past, unwilling to acknowledge that he is just as contemptible now as he ever was.

Despite the thematic influence of American cinema, Welles' direction, stylistically, more closely resembles the work of European artists like Federico Fellini. His dynamic camera-work and editing has an air of improvisation, and a certain flamboyance that might seem overindulgent if it weren't so brilliantly effortless. The film's most interesting sequence is an early costume ball in which guests are hidden behind grotesque masks, whose massive features crowd the frame like the creatures from Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are." Though it is Welles' presence that dominates the screen, Robert Arden is an intriguing noir protagonist: Guy Van Stratten is a small-time smuggler (once again drawing a parallel with Harry Lime) who epitomises the petty crook that Arkadin once was. Infatuated with nothing but money and self- preservation, Stratten continually exploits the affections of girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) and Arkadin's daughter Raina (Paola Mori). He destroys the lives of both women, and, unremorsefully, manages to save his own neck. Gregory Arkadin isn't the only villain on this cluttered continent.

Currently my #5 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin) *
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges)
4) Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich) *
5) Mr. Arkadin {Confidential Report} (Orson Welles) *
6) The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis) *
7) Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot) *
8) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
9) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
10) The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton) *


Friday, May 8, 2009

Target #54: Armoured Car Robbery (1950, Richard Fleischer)

Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Written by: Robert Leeds(story), Robert Angus (story), Earl Felton (screenplay), Gerald Drayson Adams (screenplay)
Starring: Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens, William Talman, Douglas Fowley, Steve Brodie, Don McGuire, James Flavin

Most noir enthusiasts would, I'm sure, agree that the modern heist thriller was basically born with John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). But it wasn't alone for long. Just one month after its release, Richard Fleischer released his own heist flick, a low-budget B-movie with no star power (unless you count supporting player Charles McGraw, who was no stranger to film noir – see Roadblock (1951)). With its very brief running-time, Armoured Car Robbery (1950) strips away all unnecessary fat, leaving hardly a moment to draw breath as the gang of thieves execute a brilliant heist, before losing out to the authorities, all in 67 minutes. The one classic crime element we're denied is the preparation for the heist itself. When the four co-conspirators first approached the intended site of attack, I thought that they were going through a trial-run as part of their planning, but, no, they went straight for the hit. As such, most of the film is concerned with how their "perfect" heist unravels, like a ball of yarn with a trailing thread.

The film's low-budget is readily seen in its production values. Rather than the shadowy, stylised noir photography with which we're most familiar, cinematographer Guy Roe instead opts for a documentary-style realism. The performances also reflect this approach, though there are some some strong actors in the mix. William Talman, as Dave Purvis, is a classic criminal mastermind, a calculating genius who engineers every movement to the nearest second. Square-jawed McGraw, whom I maintain is a dead ringer for Kirk Douglas, is also excellent as tough cop Cordell, who's eager to dish out retribution for the death of his long-time partner (James Flavin). Icy dame Adele Jergens plays an alluring exotic dancer, though her role in the film is mostly passive. A swift and blunt piece of storytelling, Armoured Car Robbery lives up to its matter-of- fact title, not putting anything new on the table, but utilising its resources well. The ending, with thousands of dollars in notes flittering across an airport runway, seems to have inspired Kubrick in The Killing (1956).

Currently my #12 film of 1950:
3) Harvey (Henry Koster)
4) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray) *
5) Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger) *
6) Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)
7) All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
8) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston) *
9) Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan) *
10) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
11) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)
12) Armoured Car Robbery (Richard Fleischer) *