Thursday, April 23, 2009

Target #53: Roadblock (1951, Harold Daniels)

Directed by: Harold Daniels

Written by: Richard H. Landau (story), Daniel Mainwaring (story), Steve Fisher (writer), George Bricker (writer)

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

Roadblock (1951) has plenty of the classic film noir ingredients, but it also recalls all those landmarks from which it borrowed them. An honest insurance detective is corrupted into defrauding his own employer – that's straight from Double Indemnity (1944). A swift, suffocating city-wide dragnet embraces the fleeing anti-hero, stifling his final chance of escape – that recalls High Sierra (1941). Even leading man Charles McGraw, typically confined to supporting roles, might credibly be described as a "poor man's Kirk Douglas." In fact, with his chiselled facial features and a gravelly voice, I occasionally found myself picturing Douglas in the role. I also saw Gene Tierney in Joan Dixon's place, but that's just me and my wishful imagination. All things considered, the two main performers do quite well in a B-movie that offers no surprises. Content to follow the already-established film noir mould – to drive the riverbed without breaching its banks, so to speak – director Harold Daniels has produced an entertaining, workman-like thriller. But why rewatch it, especially when you can instead enjoy its superior predecessors?

The film, intended as the lower half of a double-bill, jumps straight into action. A fugitive bank robber (Peter Brocco) becomes witness to a homicide, the killer taking him hostage and threatening to dispose of him. After offering his stolen loot in exchange for his life, the film pulls its first – and probably only – unexpected twist. The "killer" is, in fact, L.A. insurance detective Joe Peters (Charles McGraw), who engineered the mock murder of his partner (Louis Jean Heydt) to discover the whereabouts of the missing bank money. Peters is fiercely honest, having resigned himself to an unglamorous life on a modest detective's income, but this episode foreshadows his character's transformation into a liar, murderer and fugitive. Why do good men turn bad? In Roadblock – as in all noir – the blame is irrevocably placed on a woman. Unashamed gold-digger Diane (Joan Dixon) taunts Peters with her icy beauty, disdainfully implying that he could never afford somebody like her on such a meagre salary. If you're going to turn to crime, I guess sex is as good a reason as any.

Roadblock was directed by Harold Daniels, who doesn't appear to have much else of note to his name, but the cinematography was by Nicholas Musuraca, whose exquisite noirish work is also on display in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (1947). What I love most about film noir is how the photography so often suggests more than would otherwise be understood. For example, despite beginning the film as a questionable, if seductive, chiseller, Joan Dixon's character later takes a turn towards the uninteresting, rejecting her former prestigious life-style in favour of love and marriage (making Peters' fatal transformation ironically unnecessary). Having now settled into her new role as a slighted romantic lover, and apparently deserving of our sympathy, Diane witnesses her husband gunned down by police, and resignedly departs the scene. It's not spoken, but Musuraca's camera doesn't forget who's to blame for this tragedy: he frames her strutting purposely - almost dismissively - away from the devastation her hand has caused, like a gunman turning his back on a massacre.

Currently my #9 film of 1951:
1) Strangers On A Train (Alfred Hitchcock) *
2) The African Queen (John Huston)
3) The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick)
4) The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
5) The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton) *
6) The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks)
7) An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli)
8) Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen)
9) Roadblock (Harold Daniels) *
10) Behave Yourself! (George Beck)


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Target #52: The Set-Up (1949, Robert Wise)

Directed by: Robert Wise

Written by: Joseph Moncure March (poem), Art Cohn (screenplay)

Bill Stoker is 35-years-old, an old man in the boxing ring. Having strived for two decades to claim a title for which he simply isn't good enough, Stoker is now just going through the motions – one embarrassing knock-out loss after another. "I'm just one punch away," he tells wife Julie (Audrey Totter), who must endure every agonising blow beside him. Stoker is a loser, but he's not willing to accept it. The mood in the dressing-room before each fight is similarly pathetic: a young kid nauseously awaits his debut bout; a boxer going nowhere maintains his delusions of grandeur; Stoker restlessly mourns his absent wife, every mention of defeat striking sharply and painfully at his self-confidence. Though comparisons with Avildsen's Rocky (1976) are inevitable, Robert Wise's The Set-Up (1949) is an entirely different entity, concerned not with the glory of the boxing arena, but with the sport's seedy underbelly, of broken bones and shattered dreams. However hard these boxers try, however many fights they win, they'll never emerge from their dirty rut.

Robert Wise was certainly one of Hollywood's most versatile directors, having released excellent films from almost every major genre – science-fiction, horror, drama, musical, war. The Set-Up was produced on a low budget by RKO, with a story that unfolds in real-time (predating Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), which famously used this approach). Despite a taut 72-minute running-time, the film packs a considerable emotional punch, as the sympathetic Stoker places his dignity on the line, sticks to his guns, and winds up being punished for his nobility. Robert Ryan gives a characteristically intense leading performance, eliciting empathy, but also exhibiting a quiet, understated dignity. When his fellow boxers emerge from their bouts, either ecstatic in victory or discouraged in defeat, there's a heartbreaking sadness in Stoker's eyes, as though every time he must front the challenge of his own aging body. Among the compelling supporting performers is David Clarke as a self-deluding washed-up boxer, and Alan Baxter (looking a bit like Frank Sinatra, I thought) as a cold-eyed gangster who wears sharp suits but, unlike Stoker, hasn't any class or principles.

The Set-Up, in exposing the unglamorous side of the boxing profession, certainly served as inspiration for Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), and probably also influenced Kubrick in his early noir thriller Killer's Kiss (1955). The boxing match between Stoker and Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling) is an gritty four-round exchange of bludgeoning blows, and every connecting swipe sent a shudder of discomfort through my body. Even more fascinating, however, is how Wise focuses much attention on the match spectators, perhaps the most depraved selection of sadistic souls you're likely to find at any sporting event: an excited house-wife calls for a prolonging of the boxers' suffering; a blind man cries "go for his eyes," his cruel mind filling in the bloody details; the ever-composed Little Boy (Baxter) watches through shrewd, calculating eyes. The atmosphere of the boxing stadium is oppressive and stifling, the meeting-place of society's most decadent citizens. Ironically, it is only when he is defeated by this environment that Stoker can ever escape its clutches. He strikes the bottom of the barrel, his honour intact only in his eyes.

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


Monday, April 6, 2009

"Shooting in the Dark" Revision

I've just realised that, when I originally welcomed readers to Shooting in the Dark, I completely overlooked Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) as a noir on the list that I had already seen. It took me seven months to notice this, but better late than never.

Thus, my tally to date immediately increases from 50 to 51, and the next film will be considered Target #52.

Phew, crisis averted!


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Target #50: The Shanghai Gesture (1941, Josef von Sternberg)

TSPDT placing: #790

Directed by: Josef von Sternberg

Having just watched The Shanghai Gesture (1941), I'm not even sure what to make of it. Was it a good film? Was it a complete mess? The 100 minutes unfolded like a drug-induced haze, the alluring scent of an opiate hanging thickly in the air. Somehow, the film's plot – whatever it may have been about – seemed totally and utterly inconsequential, with director Josef von Sternberg placing additional, almost superfluous, importance on the development of mood. Indeed, aside from atmosphere, there's little else to keep you watching the film: the characters are sleazy and grotesque, the sort you'd expect to find at a seedy casino, its employees imbued with the mock dignity of one who deals exclusively in exploiting the weaknesses of lesser men. A good cast – Walter Huston, Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, Eric Blore – is not exactly wasted on such poorly-developed characters, but one gets the sense that even they are not exactly sure what they're doing in this place. But, if the film is a failure, then it's a genuinely fascinating one.

"Mother" Gin Sling (Ona Munson, in unflattering Oriental make-up) is the mysterious and ruthless owner of a Shanghai casino, where desperate men come night or day to gamble their lives and fortunes. Employee Doctor Omar (Victor Mature) does his best to charm the beautiful girls who come his way, in one night snagging both smart-talking American Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) and conceited rich-girl "Poppy" (Gene Tierney). When threatened with closure by wealthy entrepreneur Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), Gin Sling springs into action, using her enormous influence to rebuff the challenge. The Shanghai Gesture is sometimes categorised as film noir. Certainly, other noir pictures like Macao (1952), which Josef von Sternberg directed until he was replaced by Nicholas Ray, utilised a similarly exotic Asian setting, so the non-American locale doesn't immediately preclude it from consideration. In some ways, it fits the bill: every character in the film has a weakness – something to hide – through which they can be manipulated; a shady past that has come back to haunt them.

Despite being restricted by the provisions of the Production Code, The Shanghai Gesture is one of the sleaziest films of its era, leaving a bitter, uneasy taste in the mouth, despite impeccable production values. Hollywood's interpretation of Eastern cultural values was evidently unflattering, and every Asian character is utterly devoid of morals, with particularly prominence given to the proudly misogynistic attitudes of one Chinese employee who likes to brag of his polygyny. A shocking history of sex slavery is exposed, with New Year's Eve guests treated to a recreation of these ghastly practices (or, at least, we're told that it is merely a recreation). But it isn't only the Chinese whose immorality is exposed, and even the seemingly upright Sir Guy betrays a suspect past, doomed finally to suffer for his perceived sins. Walter Huston is excellent as always, bringing conviction to a film in which everybody else seems uncertain of their roles. Gene Tierney, perhaps her most ravishing performance outside Laura (1944), isn't particularly convincing, but her falseness does strangely work, given the desperate phoniness of her character.

Currently my #8 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) *