Saturday, September 27, 2008

Target #32: Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl)

Directed by: John M. Stahl
Written by: Ben Ames Williams (novel), Jo Swerling (screenplay)
Starring: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Vincent Price, Jeanne Crain, Mary Philips, Gene Lockhart, Darryl Hickman

I don't think I agree with those who have designated Leave Her to Heaven (1945) a film noir. This Technicolor picture – and it's surprising how much the presence of colour can distort the tone of a film – feels much closer to the claustrophobic domestic melodramas of the same period, such as Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), and Cukor's Gaslight (1944). But there's one important difference. By reversing the gender roles, and placing the power in the hands of the wife, director John M. Stahl here creates a formidable femme fatale, personified by the lovely and luminous Gene Tierney. The vibrant Technicolor photography is certainly pleasing to the eye, and the saturated colours add a perhaps-unintended touch of the surreal, but the dazzling colour palette distracts from and obstructs the film's darker themes. As much as I wouldn't like to deprive myself of Tierney's sparkling green eyes, I think that, in terms of atmosphere, Leave Her to Heaven would have worked better in black-and-white.

The film starts off in the classic noir style: told in flashback, the story opens with popular author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who meets an alluring woman, Ellen Berent (Tierney), on a train. Ellen quickly charms Richard with her dazzling looks and strong personality; soon, despite her own engagement to a prominent lawyer (Vincent Price), she has proposed their marriage, an offer he finds impossible to refuse. Here, Leave Her to Heaven takes a distinct turn in storytelling approach, abruptly shifting its attention to Ellen's perspective, at which point we begin to recognise that perhaps she isn't as lovely as her new husband has been led to believe. The new couple move to Richard's secluded lakeside lodge, where they must also care for his crippled younger brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman, giving one of those "excited boy scout" child performances that were popular in the 1940s). As the weeks go by, Ellen's near-obsessive love for Richard begins to brood anger, hatred and jealousy, culminating in the cruelest of acts.

Tierney's character initially elicits an amount of sympathy, especially given Richard's apparent inability to recognise his wife's desperate need for privacy and intimacy in their relationship. However, it doesn't take long before her behaviour, fuelled by suspicion and paranoia, becomes entirely contemptible, and there's no longer any trace of the charming enchantress we saw in Laura (1944). Ellen's psychosis is an intriguing one: she was obviously obsessed with love for her own father – what Freud called "feminine Oedipus attitude," or Electra complex – and, following his death, subsequently fell in love with Richard, who bears a remarkable resemblance to him. Such is her passion for her father, through Richard, that she cannot bear to share him with anybody; thus, her mania stems from the simple notion that "she loves too much." Ellen's murders are shocking in their own low-key simplicity, and Tierney, who received her only Oscar nomination for the role, carries out her evils with an icily-impassive face. But, geez, even this chilling portrayal can't make me stop loving her.

Currently my #5 film of 1945:
1) The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder) *
2) Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock) *
3) Brief Encounter (David Lean)
4) 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
5) Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl) *
6) Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang) *
7) Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi {The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail} (Akira Kurosawa)


Friday, September 19, 2008

Target #31: They Won't Believe Me (1947, Irving Pichel)

Directed by: Irving Pichel
Written by: Gordon McDonell (story), Jonathan Latimer (screenplay)
Starring: Robert Young, Susan Hayward, Jane Greer, Rita Johnson, Tom Powers, George Tyne, Frank Ferguson

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details follow!!!

Love, sex or money? This is the fatal question faced by Larry Ballentine, a compulsively adulterous husband with dollar signs where he ought to have a heart. Irving Pichel's They Won't Believe Me (1947) is a wonderful little-known film noir, a sardonic dissection of the mechanics of Fate, and a stark profile of a wretchedly corrupt, amoral and ultimately doomed personality. The film, which characterises the noir style down to the letter, is similar in tone to Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), as a sympathetic but morally-suspect man is drawn, not-altogether-reluctantly, into a destructive web of deceit and murder, though not entirely through the lure of a beautiful woman; Ballentine frequently digs his own grave here. Played with lazy cocksureness by Robert Young – a vague combination of Robert Mitchum and Ray Milland – our main protagonist may not have committed homicide, but he was still guilty of so much more. The story is told in flashback, as Ballentine, the accused in a murder trial, recounts his side of the incident, a last-ditch attempt to save his own neck.

There are three women in this story. Greta (Rita Johnson) is Ballentine's husband, an upright and charismatic businesswoman from a wealthy family, who knows both how her husband operates, and how she can control him with the promise of money. Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward), Ballentine's mistress, is a slick and crafty money-grabber. The couple, at least initially, have no delusions about their relationship: Verna is in it for his money, and he's in it for the sex (this theme, owing to the Production Code, is dealt with tastefully). Hayward plays the role to feisty perfection, and such was her cloaked malevolence that I half-expected her to crop up at the film's end, having somehow faked her own death, stolen Ballentine's money and skipped off to South America. Janice Bell (Jane Greer) is the polar converse of Hayward's femme fatale, perhaps the closest thing to love in Ballentine's life – their relationship, characterised by a mutual love of boating, apparently, seems genuinely platonic, a mutual understanding that our male hero promptly severs with his unquenchable thirst for wealth.I was surprised, given its relative obscurity nowadays, at just how strong a film They Won't Believe Me turned out to be. The main and supporting characters are played flawlessly, their traits and motivations explored with more than sufficient depth to justify their later actions, though one still wonders if Verna's apparent sincerity prior to the road accident is, indeed, genuine. As he recounts his tale to the murder jury, Ballentine frequently makes fatalistic allusions towards the inescapably of Fate – here personified in a crippled palomino horse. By the time he's finished telling his incredible story, which may or may not be true {Hitchcock pulled this false-flashback trick several years later, though I won't reveal the details}, we're left with a very raw taste in our mouths. We can sympathise to an extent with Ballentine's extraordinary run of bad luck, but much of his behaviour, even if one excludes the accusation of murder, is so utterly contemptible that he doesn't deserve to live. Yet, from the moment Ballentine catches a bullet in the back, we already know what the jury's verdict had been.

Currently my #6 film from 1947:
1) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
3) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) *
4) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves) *
5) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles) *
6) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel) *
7) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
8) Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart)
9) Song of the Thin Man (Edward Buzzell)
10) The Senator Was Indiscreet (George S. Kaufman)


Friday, September 5, 2008

Target #30: The Glass Key (1942, Stuart Heisler)

Directed by: Stuart Heisler
Written by: Dashiell Hammett (novel), Jonathan Latimer (screenplay)
Starring: Alan Ladd, Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Bonita Granville, Richard Denning, Joseph Calleia, William Bendix, Frances Gifford, Donald MacBride, Moroni Olsen

In the early 1940s, the unofficial film noir style was only just beginning to find its feet, and much of its inspiration, at least plot-wise, was to be found in the hard-boiled detective novels of authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett {whose best-known creations are probably Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles}. "The Glass Key" was originally published by Hammett in 1931, and was first adapted to film by Frank Tuttle in 1935, with George Raft in the main role. Seven years later, director Stuart Heisler brought the story into the 1940s with his slick, professional tale of nasty political scheming. Very few punches are pulled, and many characters get well and truly "beat up," but the film itself seems somewhat dispensable at the end of the day. The oddball characters are intriguing without being memorable, their surfaces only scratched as far as the complicated plot requires; likewise, the performances themselves are worthwhile, if not altogether convincing. All things considered, The Glass Key (1942) is a solid film noir, but not a timeless one.

When political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) decides to back reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), he stirs up the anger of crime boss Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), who will be crippled by the partnership. When Henry's meddlesome son (Richard Denning) is found murdered, everybody suspects Madvig of the crime, including the victim's beautiful sister Janet Henry (Veronica Lake). It falls to Madvig's hard-edged assistant Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) to sort out the truth of the matter, and to ensure that Varna's gang doesn't succeed in snuffing out Madvig's candidate from the political ballot. Ladd is curiously uneven in the main role. Though he courageously takes multiple beatings with a blood-tinged grin, and talks his way through swathes of lethal encounters, it is the unnecessary romantic moments that bring him down. Whenever he meets Janet Henry, Ladd suddenly acquires this curious lopsided smirk that makes him look weak and uncomfortable – it's hardly the expression of a man who's almost always in control of the situation.

Veronica Lake plays her role with a resolute passiveness that gives her character an air of innocence. However, as any good femme fatale should, her apparent inaction radiates a very subtle suggestion of menace, implying that Beaumont would do well to keep a peripheral eye on her movements. Donlevy is assuredly smug and confident as the political man who never loses face ("I just met the swellest dame... she smacked me in the kisser!"), and Calleia is suitably ominous as his sworn opponent. Unusually violent for a 1940s film, The Glass Key features men being thrown through windows, men throwing themselves out of windows and Alan Ladd being beaten within an inch of his life (courtesy of William Bendix, whose sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain is almost frightening). Heisler's film was reportedly an inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), though I more readily noticed parallels with the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990), in which Gabriel Byrne becomes estranged from his crime partner but nonetheless takes innumerable beatings for him.

Currently my #4 film of 1942:
1) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2) To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)
3) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)
4) The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler) *
5) The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)


Target #29: Dark Passage (1947, Delmer Daves)

Directed by: Delmer Daves
Written by: David Goodis (novel), Delmer Daves (screenplay)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, Agnes Moorehead, Tom D'Andrea, Clifton Young, Rory Mallinson, Houseley Stevenson, Douglas Kennedy

Dark Passage (1947) opens like a first-person shooter video game, the camera taking the main protagonist's point-of-view, and generally restricting the audience to what Humphrey Bogart can see. However, in choosing to utilise this unusual technique, director Delmer Daves does something very dangerous, almost suicidal: he doesn't show us Humphrey Bogart! This was not the first major use of the first-person perspective; Rouben Mamoulian tried it for the first five minutes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and, even more impressively, Robert Montgomery constructed an entire detective story from Philip Marlowe's perspective in Lady in the Lake (1947). But Dark Passage feels more audacious than both of these, most of all because Daves chose, for the entire opening half of his picture, to obscure the face of Hollywood's most celebrated and recognised star. When studio head Jack Warner asked for just another Bogart-Bacall picture, he sure as hell didn't expect this. It was a gamble that ultimately failed (financially, that is), but I can respect any filmmaker who's willing to mix things up a bit.

The film noir style is well-known for its regular decline into the creepy, surreal and absurd side of human existence. Writer David Goodis originally adapted the film's screenplay from his own 1946 novel, though Daves was subsequently commissioned to satisfactorily rewrite it. Dark Passage follows escaped criminal Vincent Parry (Bogart), who claims to be innocent of his wife's murder, and who uses his tentative freedom to try to clear his name. After a sympathetic taxi driver (Tom D'Andrea) points Vincent in the direction of a demented plastic surgeon (Houseley Stevenson), he eventually accepts the accommodation of a mysterious young woman, Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), who staunchly believes in his innocence. The supporting cast really shines here, particularly Clifton Young as a weaselly small-time crook who hatches an ambitious scheme to blackmail Irene for $60,000. Uniquely, much of the filming took place on-location in San Francisco, California, with the outdoor settings adding a vitality to the photography that is rather refreshing.

The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall doesn't quite sizzle here as it usually does, and that our hero spends much of his time behind the camera certainly doesn't help. The film is strongest when it spends time with its supporting characters, which makes me think that Dark Passage might have been a better film had it been cast with relative unknowns. Daves obviously produced the film with one eye on his prized romantic couple, and the accompanying marketing opportunities, and, consequently, the story often tries too hard to create a memorable romance. Though the plot begins to meander towards the predictable in its final reel, the opening acts prove especially engrossing, not only because of the intriguing camera gimmick, but because we absolutely have no idea where this unusual story, with its cast of incredibly offbeat characters, is trying to lead us. It's also rewarding to try and guess how long Jack Warner could tolerate not seeing Humphrey Bogart's face until he threatened to shoot somebody; I think we can safely estimate this figure to sit just beyond one hour.

Currently my #4 film from 1947:
1) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
3) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) *
4) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves) *
5) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles) *


A warm welcome to "Shooting in the Dark"

Of course, I say a "warm" welcome, but frankly I wish you the opposite. This is a blog about film noir - that means darkened midnight streets, nefarious shadows skulking in the alleyways, main protagonists clutching for wealth and immortality, only to come flailing back to earth, betrayed by the alluring women in whom they placed all their trust. It's about deceit, back-stabbing and blackmail; hard rain on slickened asphalt roads.

I was recently asked by a friend how I might describe the film noir style in one line. My response was so brilliant that I feel compelled to post it now: "It's about women. How they promise you sex, and then screw you over." My delicate turn-of-phrase (of which I'm admittedly proud) highlights one of the core themes of film noir. It's all about mistrust - of men, of women, of our own gut instinct and base passions. Eddie Muller described it thus:

"Film Noir is the flip side of the all-American success story. It's about people who realize that following the program will never get them what they crave. So they cross the line, commit a crime and reap the consequences. Or, they're tales about seemingly innocent people tortured by paranoia and ass-kicked by Fate. Either way, they depict a world that's merciless and unforgiving."
Film noir was born in the early years of 1940s, perhaps with High Sierra (1941), perhaps with The Maltese Falcon (1941) - it doesn't really matter. What matters is that Europe was already in the grip of WWII, and even citizens of the United States could glimpse a darkened shadow gradually descending over their colourful world. The optimism borne from the end of WWI had long ago faded, replaced only by memories of the Great Depression, which had crippled countries worldwide through much of the 1930s.

Film noir is all about the realisation that the human race has outlived its usefulness, is about to explode from within. With this realisation comes the recognition that one will never achieve their hopes and dreams via conventional means, and so law-breaking becomes the only alternative. What these hapless fools don't realise is that, wherever there's a man waiting to do something stupid, there's always a women who'll exploit him for it. Our man's idiocy never goes unrewarded, and either death or imprisonment - usually death - greets his spectacular downfall. In a sense, it was the influence of the Production Code (which forbade happy endings for criminals) that ensured most film noirs utilised a dark, morbid finale, a cruel end for a desperate, pitiable soul.

The good folks at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? have compiled an unranked list of the top 250 American film noir pictures from 1940-1959 (with a couple of exceptions to the rule). To complement my Shooting Lessons quest to see the TSPDT Top 1000 films, I've decided to set up "Shooting in the Dark," in which I plan to post reviews for every noir film I see from the list. I don't expect this blog to be updated quite so regularly as my other one, but, over time, I hope to accumulate quite a good selection of reviews. To date, I've seen a measly 29 films from the list - for the sake of convenience, I'll name it at 28 for now, and my recent review of Dark Passage (1947) will afterwards serve as the blog opener. The 28 films are:

* Asphalt Jungle, The
* Big Sleep, The
* Cape Fear [1961]
* Double Indemnity
* High Sierra
* In a Lonely Place
* Key Largo
* Killer's Kiss
* Killing, The
* Kiss Me Deadly
* Lady from Shanghai, The
* Laura
* Lost Weekend, The
* Maltese Falcon, The
* Murder, My Sweet/Farewell My Lovely
* Night of the Hunter, The
* Notorious
* On Dangerous Ground
* Out of the Past
* Scarlet Street
* Secret Beyond the Door
* Shadow of a Doubt
* Spellbound [1945]
* Strangers on a Train
* Sunset Blvd.
* Third Man, The
* Touch of Evil
* White Heat

As you can see, I've got a long way to go, but isn't that what film noir is all about - the utter futility of effort? In my opening comments, I've tried to give a very brief summary of what noir means to me, and it's a style of which I've become rather fond. However, I've only scratched the surface. Perhaps, as I begin to develop my viewing experience, I'll start writing up a more detailed essay on the nature of film noir.
But, for now, I'll leave you with a quote from my favourite spoof, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982):

"All dames are alike: they reach down your throat and they can grab your heart, pull it out and they throw it on the floor, step on it with their high heels, spit on it, shove it in the oven and cook the shit out of it. Then they slice it into little pieces, slam it on a hunk of toast, and serve it to you and then expect you to say, 'Thanks, honey, it was delicious.'"