Friday, January 23, 2009

Target #48: Journey into Fear (1943, Norman Foster)

Directed by: Norman Foster, Orson Welles (uncredited)
Written by: Eric Ambler (novel), Joseph Cotten (screenplay), Richard Collins, Ben Hecht, Orson Welles (uncredited)
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Dolores del Rio, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Jack Durant, Everett Sloane, Orson Welles

Orson Welles graciously denied having any directing role in Norman Foster's Journey into Fear (1943), though his influence appears to be all over it. Citizen Kane (1941) first showcased Welles' fondness for filming people via low and high-angled cameras, a stylistic technique that distorts statures, placing the audience in a position either of power or helplessness. Here, the talented Karl Struss – who also worked on such films as Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) – employs similar techniques, capturing human faces with a threatening immediacy that distorts their features and suggests imminent danger. You won't, of course, fail to notice that the film's cast also boasts more than a few Welles regulars, mostly members of his Mercury Theatre team – Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Ruth Warrick and Welles himself. The film's screenplay was written by Cotten, his sole attempt at writing {outside some uncredited work on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)}, a pity since the dialogue is frequently crisp, intelligent and memorable.Journey into Fear is one of those rare WWII-themed films of the early 1940s that you wouldn't automatically class as propaganda. Indeed, the Nazis are only mentioned in passing, and the sinister agents who attempt to assassinate Cotten could just as easily be motivated by reasons other than war. Much of the story takes place on a small passenger ship, on which American engineer Howard Graham (Cotten) seeks refuge from German assassins, who are hell-bent on delaying his return home with important Allied intelligence. Silent enemy Peter Banat (played by Welles' agent, Jack Moss) watches ominously from across the ship's cabin, never saying a word, but suggesting sadistic menace through every dryly-amused smirk. Cotten is strong in the lead role, playing Graham as a frightened and confused amateur, a role reminiscent of Holly Martins from The Third Man (1949), rather than the experienced and resourceful American spy we would otherwise expect in such a film. Welles lends his mighty presence to the role of the Turkish Colonel Haki, though he is noticeably more subdued than usual. In one final manner, Journey into Evil is very much like an Orson Welles film: it was re-edited at the studio's request. According to some sources, Welles did some of the trimming himself, recutting the final reel and adding Joseph Cotten's rather awkward narration. At just 68 minutes in length, the film certainly feels as though it has been tampered with. The relationship between Graham and Rosette (Dolores del Rio) is brief and poorly explored, and certainly not worthy of the repeated reassurances that the former frequently bestows upon his anxious wife (Ruth Warrick); there's little indication that their affiliation extended beyond exchanging a few harmless pleasantries. Though the film doesn't exactly feel incomplete – as did a noir like Renoir's The Woman on the Beach (1947) – the bare-bones narrative gives the sense of a minor and inconsequential work. Even so, Journey into Evil is well worth seeking out for its terrific photography – including a superb climax on the slippery ledges of a hotel exterior – and the talents of a very talented cast.

Currently my #5 film of 1943:
1) Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder)
2) Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock) *
3) Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (Roy William Neill)
4) This Land is Mine (Jean Renoir)
5) Journey into Fear (Norman Foster) *
6) The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson)
7) Hitler’s Children (Edward Dmytryk, Irving Reis)


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Target #47: The Locket (1946, John Brahm)

Directed by: John Brahm

Written by: Sheridan Gibney (written by), Norma Barzman (uncredited)

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

The flashback has always been an essential part of the film noir formula. By showing events from the perspective of one who already knows the ultimate outcome of his mistakes, the audience is placed in a position of near-complete omniscience. Since we already know the outcome, but are powerless to change it, the story structure encourages an overriding element of fate. The hero is doomed – he knows it now, but didn't know it then. Is this the lingering disillusion left over from WWII? Where once a nation had marched proudly and patriotically into combat, it now recognised the pure folly of its enthusiasm. John Brahm's The Locket (1946) certainly boasts one of cinema's most audacious uses of the flashback narrative device, effectively utilising a "flashback within a flashback within a flashback" to tell a complex story in which three different protagonists find their lives ruined by the derangement of a single woman. This femme fatale doesn't mess around when it comes to potential husbands, and her victims – besotted lovers who are left helpless by a pretty face – are only too happy to be exploited.

John Willis (Gene Raymond) is about to marry Nancy (Laraine Day), the most charming and beautiful woman he's ever met. Just hours before the wedding ceremony, he is confronted by Nancy's former husband Dr Harry Blair (Brian Aherne), who pleads with him not to marry her, having experienced first-hand the pain of Nancy's betrayal. Just years earlier, Blair himself was a smitten newly-wed, and he, too, was confronted by one of his wife's former lovers (Robert Mitchum), who expressed the belief that Nancy was guilty of murder, a crime for she allowed an innocent man to be executed. The nature of her behaviour lies in a troublesome childhood that encouraged kleptomanic tendencies. The true beauty of this flashback technique is that the audience is treated to nothing but hearsay, and that each of these characters could just as easily be lying. Though The Locket appears to treat its flashbacks with sincerity, Alfred Hitchcock exploited this practice just a few years later in Stage Fright (1950), as did Bryan Singer long afterwards with The Usual Suspects (1995).

Laraine Day, certainly not an actress I'd associated with any sort of villainy, brilliantly utilises her innocent screen persona to paradoxically portray one of film noir's shiftiest femme fatales. Until the overly melodramatic ending, Nancy doesn't betray even a hint of malevolence. When Dr Blair first mentions Norman Clyde's name, she doesn't flinch, not even a momentary double-take that would have revealed the malice within. Is Nancy a guiltless victim being slandered by jilted former lovers, or is she everything they describe and more? The most frightening revelation is that, for most of the film, we can't even tell the difference. Despite its excellent strengths, The Locket unfortunately suffers from an obligatory ending in which the villainess receives her due, and I would have preferred a more understated approach. Perhaps, as she walks down the wedding aisle, Nancy could be perpetually tormented by the ringing melody of the broken music box, a symbol of her lifelong guilt. Or maybe – Hays forbid – she could have gotten away with everything, her next sucker already waiting at the altar.

Currently my #4 film of 1946:
1) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) *
3) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock) *
4) The Locket (John Brahm) *
5) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak) *
6) The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall) *
7) Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
8) A Night in Casablanca (Archie Mayo)


Monday, January 19, 2009

Target #46: Whirlpool (1949, Otto Preminger)

Directed by: Otto Preminger

Written by: Guy Endore (novel), Ben Hecht (screenplay), Andrew Solt (screenplay)

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

The second of three films that Otto Preminger directed with Gene Tierney, Whirlpool (1949) is also the least of them. Clouded by the dubious Freudian psychology that was sweeping Hollywood in the late 1940s, the film is simply too implausible to prove sufficiently effective, despite the best efforts of the director and stars. I was reasonably willing to accept that David Korvo (José Ferrer) could control Ann Sutton's (Tierney) movements through hypnosis – and, indeed, a similar idea forms the backbone of Frankenheimer's classic thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). However, that the shifty psychologist could hypnotise himself into carrying out murder only hours after voluntarily offering himself for gall-bladder surgery really pushes one's credulity, inspiring laughter rather than intrigue. Perhaps somebody should have told the actors not to take the story quite so seriously, and the resultant lighter mood would have provided some surefire entertainment. As it happens, the principle members all give solid dramatic performances that they probably needn't have bothered with.Gene Tierney was, of course, one of the most stunning actresses to grace the silver screen, but she was also among the most misused. When utilised as a traditional, innocent damsel-in-distress, Tierney's acting is usually dependable without being particularly memorable. However, at least two directors realised that she was at her best when her character's intentions are either ambiguous {see Laura (1944)} or downright evil {see Leave Her to Heaven (1945)}. Given that Preminger directed the first of these, one wonders why he here decided to use Tierney in a purely conventional capacity; he repeated this offence in his follow-up picture, Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). José Ferrer is smarmily sinister as the psychiatrist abusing his "powers," though the screenplay does him a disservice in the final act. Richard Conte is more subdued than he is in The Big Combo (1955), but nonetheless brings a likable intensity to an otherwise-passive role. Charles Bickford, whom I last saw in Renoir's The Woman on the Beach (1947) here also gives a strong performance.

Whirlpool is strongest in its middle-act, with Tierney as a wrong-accused innocent for whom every piece of evidence points to her guilt. However, since the story's conclusion is ultimately never in any doubt, much of the film's second half feels as though it is merely going through the motions. I think it would have been more effective had the audience been uncertain of Ann's innocence, just as she herself is unsure. Alfred Hitchcock did something similar just a few years earlier in Spellbound (1945), casting doubt on the virtuousness of Gregory Peck as he is hunted for a crime of which he has no memory. Hinting at the tantalising possibility that Tierney is a murderer would undoubtedly have brought out the actresses' talents, the audience meanwhile tentative about whose story they can trust. For fans of 1940s psychological thrillers, in the same vein as The Dark Mirror (1946) and Secret Beyond the Door… (1947), this is worthwhile viewing, but also a regrettable disappointment.

Currently my #10 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed) *
2) White Heat (Raoul Walsh) *
3) Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)
4) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
5) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
6) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
7) Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock)
8) Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick)
9) Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius)
10) Whirlpool (Otto Preminger) *


Monday, January 12, 2009

Target #45: Cornered (1945, Edward Dmytryk)

Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: John Wexley (story & adaptation), John Paxton (screenplay), Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Starring: Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Nina Vale, Morris Carnovsky, Edgar Barrier, Steven Geray

If it was post-war disillusionment that fuelled the booming film noir movement of the 1940s, then Cornered (1945) might just be the most bitter, disillusioned noir of them all. Though I can't claim to be Edward Dmytryk's greatest fan, I enjoyed Murder, my Sweet (1944) because of its evocative atmosphere and Dick Powell's cocky, swaggering Philip Marlowe. This film gets the atmosphere angle right, but is so utterly devoid of humour that there's little entertainment to be found through watching it. Powell, in his second and final film for the director, seems to be taking the role so seriously that he's almost bored with the material. His exceedingly grim performance has shades of the sleepy-eyed austerity that Robert Mitchum did so well – unfortunately, only Mitchum could ever pull it off correctly. Nevertheless, the shadowy photography of Harry J. Wild {who has many noirs to his credit, including The Woman on the Beach (1947), They Won't Believe Me (1947) and Macao (1952)} is predictably gorgeous and enigmatic, re-enforcing the murky themes at the film's heart.

When Canadian pilot Laurence Gerard (Powell) is released from captivity at the end of WWII, he is understandably grief-stricken to learn that his wife has been executed by Nazi conspirators. Though the man responsible, Marcel Jarnac, is presumed dead by authorities, Gerard suspects deception, and travels down to Beunos Aires to uncover the truth. What Gerard encounters is a party of dubious Frenchmen, whose continued loyalty to greed and corruption are keeping the Nazi spirit well-and-truly alive. Our hero's approach is not the most subtle of tactics – he never bothers to hide his true intentions, and so deliberately places his own life in constant jeopardy, rushing determinedly into danger without ever considering the possibility that he's walking straight into a trap. Is Jarnac's beautiful wife (Micheline Cheirel) really as innocent as she claims to be? Is the city's leading "tour guide" (Walter Slezak, in another terrific role) an impartial operator who can be trusted with secret information? Is the German collaborator Jarnac right before Gerard's very nose?

I've always found Dmytryk to be a very workman-like filmmaker, though there's little doubt that his 1940s noirs constitute the creative peak of his career. Clever stylistic touches, like the climactic bashing that slides out of focus in an adrenalin-charged delirium, complement the narrative nicely, and Wild's cinematography can do nothing but enhance the film's merits. However, the story itself dwells too long in gloomy territory, such that there's little of the usual entertainment or invigoration to be derived even from the richly-crafted atmosphere. Only in the blood-soaked climax is Dmytryk able to build up some degree of momentum, and Luther Adler's enigmatic cameo role is certainly memorable; he has a strong, deep voice that occasionally suggests that it is Satan himself speaking diabolically from the shadows. Cornered is a worthwhile film noir, with solid craftsmanship throughout, but the unrepentantly dark tone makes for somewhat empty, unsatisfying viewing. Just like the story it depicts, I suppose. Once the adrenaline of war has worn off, there's nothing left but sadness, regret… and shadows where our loved ones once stood.

Currently my #8 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) And Then There Were None (René Clair)
8) Cornered (Edward Dmytryk) *
9) Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi {The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail} (Akira Kurosawa)


Friday, January 9, 2009

Target #44: The Dark Mirror (1946, Robert Siodmak)

Directed by: Robert Siodmak

Written by: Vladimir Pozner (story), Nunnally Johnson (written by)

Psychology is a dubious science as it is, but, when a Hollywood screenwriter gets his hands on it, anything even closely resembling fact is thrown out the window. In the mid-1940s, Freudian psychology reached the peak of its popularity, and films such as Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and Lang's Secret Beyond the Door… (1947) utilised their own versions of psychoanalysis to provide easy answers for their characters' delusions. Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror (1946) is no different, in that we are offered a half-baked pseudo-scientific dissertation on why even identical twins can be anything but identical when it comes to personality traits. In fact, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (who also wrote and directed The Three Faces of Eve (1957)) actively pumps the familiar but questionable notion that twins respectively represent the good and evil sides of man. This duality is similar to that explored in the earlier versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920/1931/1941), though the two sides of the human coin are here separated from their mutual shell and allowed to behave as independent entities.
Olivia de Havilland excels in dual roles as Terry and Ruth Collins, twin sisters who might just have pulled off the perfect crime, even if only one knows it. When the sisters' shared boyfriend is murdered in cold blood, two witnesses place one of the twins at the scene of the crime, while three more provide a solid alibi for the other. The only problem is that nobody can tell the pair apart. A police detective (Thomas Mitchell) is torn apart by the case: how can he charge either woman with murder if he can't decide which of the sisters is, in fact, a murderess? Only through Hollywood's good friend Dr. Freud can the true nature of the crime be exposed. The distinction between the "good" and "insane" twin is clearly drawn early in the film, with de Havilland playing one sister as a cocky dominator, and the other as more softly-spoken, with eyes always downcast and hands delicately clasped together. Clarifying the dual relationship is some convenient symbolism used in the film's climax: Terry is dressed in black, and Ruth in white.

Convincing optical effects and the use of body doubles are employed successfully to create the illusion of two Olivia de Havillands. The actress does well as both characters, perhaps channelling her dislike of sister Joan Fontaine to portray the snarling, psychotic and homicidally jealous "evil sister." Though they start out perfectly alike, it doesn't take long for the two Collins sisters to develop distinct personalities in the eyes of the audience, and Siodmak should quickly have dispensed with the obvious name-tags (either a necklace or a single letter pin) added to ensure that the audience could follow who was who. Perhaps misguidedly, the presence of twins is at first played largely for laughs, with composer Dimitri Tiomkin keeping the atmosphere surprisingly light and fluffy. Fortunately, however, the mood darkens substantially in the film's second half, as the hatred simmering slowly within the darker twin threatens to spill over into reality. Though the unlikely psychology behind The Dark Mirror tests one's credulity at regular intervals, the strong acting and unique storyline make this one worth seeking out.

Currently my #4 film of 1946:
1) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) *
3) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock) *
4) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak) *
5) The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall) *