Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Target #60: The Naked Kiss (1964, Samuel Fuller)

Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey, Patsy Kelly, Marie Devereux, Karen Conrad

In the early 1960s, few directors more enthusiastically embraced the loosening restrictions of the Production Code than Samuel Fuller. He shunned big-budget studio pictures to allow himself greater creative freedom, and the themes he tackled were often untouched, or at least poorly-explored, territory. For its first few minutes, The Naked Kiss (1964) skirts delicately around its heroine's profession, implying enough without explicitly spelling out the word "prostitute" (everyone else seems to have got it, but, stupid me, I actually did think she was a champagne saleswoman – perhaps I wasn't expecting such progressiveness). This reasonably subtle approach (by Fuller standards) suggests the sort of evasive techniques that 40s and 50s writers used to bamboozle the censors on matters of sex – take the horse-racing exchange in The Big Sleep (1946), or the curious relationship of the two murderers in Rope (1948). By the time Fuller hits full stride, however, any such delicacy is thrown out the window, and suddenly what you see is exactly what you get.

I don't want to describe this film as exploitation. It certainly is exploitative to a huge degree – Fuller, for example, wrings every ounce of empathy from the poor crippled kids – but somehow there's a sense of sincerity in how he tells the story, as though he really does believe in the possibility of redemption. Tough, independent-minded prostitute Kelly (Towers) arrives in a new town, sleeps with the police captain (Anthony Eisley), and then decides to leave her shameful past behind forever, somehow securing a job at the local children's hospital. Captain Griff is immediately suspicious of Kelly's motivations, hypocritically believing that she'll only pollute his home town, but wealthy local benefactor J.L. Grant (Michael Dante) falls in love with her. When it came to women, Fuller appears to have admired the lowly kind: Constance Towers in Shock Corridor (1963) was a stripper, Towers in The Naked Kiss was a prostitute, and Jean Peters in Pickup on South Street (1953) might as well have been one, too.

Especially in its final act, The Naked Kiss has strong elements of film noir – substituting the usual male protagonist for a woman, of course – but there's also high degrees of melodrama, exploitation, and pulpy, B-movie schlock. Fuller's ultimate message appears to be double- edged. A prominent noir motif concerns the sheer hopelessness of redemption: however hard one tries to evade their past, a man's former misdeeds will always return to haunt them. This fate does, indeed, confront Fuller's heroine, but he leaves a light at the end of the tunnel, arguably dampening the full brunt of the film's ending. Perhaps the more potently-noirish message to be gleaned from The Naked Kiss is that society is rotten: not just the mistreated prostitutes and tyrannical pimps, but the hypocritical police captain, the prejudiced townsfolk, the philanthropist with an ulterior motive in funding a children's hospital. Towers' prostitute crosses to the "respectable" side of society's fence, but finds that corruption has already pervaded to its highest levels.

Currently my #9 film of 1964:
1) Fail-Safe (Sidney Lumet)
2) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick)
3) The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet)
4) Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson)
5) My Fair Lady (George Cukor)
6) Per un pugno di dollari {A Fistful of Dollars} (Sergio Leone)
7) A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester)
8) Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton)
9) The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller) *
10) Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder)


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).

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) *


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Target #58: The Web (1947, Michael Gordon)

Directed by: Michael Gordon
Written by: Harry Kurnitz (story), William Bowers (screenplay), Bertram Millhauser (screenplay)
Starring: Ella Raines, Edmond O'Brien, William Bendix, Vincent Price, Maria Palmer, John Abbott, Fritz Leiber

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 Only]

Michael Gordon's The Web (1947) is an obscure crime thriller, but you wouldn't have guessed it from the cast list. Edmond O'Brien can always play an unconventional noir hero – not the sort who is continually in control, but one with a accidental tendency to get into more trouble than he can handle. Vincent Price originally made his name with a string of devious supporting roles in 1940s dramas, including Laura (1944) and Dragonwyck (1946). William Bendix is, of course, a staple of the film noir movement, and here he proves that his range extends beyond playing sadistic brutes and weak-willed buffoons. Femme fatale Ella Raines is less well-known than her co-stars, but, based on this film and her comedic turn in The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947), she had quite a bit of talent. It's not just the cast that is excellent, though. The screenplay by William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser (the latter of whom penned a number of Basil Rathbone's "Sherlock Holmes" mysteries) has plenty of unexpected surprises around the corner.

Bob Regan (O'Brien) is a two-bit lawyer with the bluster of a high-price attorney. In his first scene, Regan sidles through a busy reception office, offends a secretary (Raines) with some surprisingly-forward sexual banter, before busting in on millionaire businessman Andrew Colby (Price) and demanding the sum of exactly $68.72. Impressed with Regan's passion for the job, Colby hires him for a high-paying, two-week stint as a personal bodyguard. However, when Regan guns down Leopold Kroner (Fritz Leiber), a former associate of Colby's who was recently released from prison, he finds himself in hot water with detective Damico (Bendix), who scents murder. Desperate to clear his name, Regan begins to investigate Colby's shady dealings, reluctantly exploiting the affections of secretary Noel Faraday for information. Meanwhile, Vincent Price's articulate, calculating Colby plots the coup de grâce of his high-stakes crime spree, culminating in a murder frame-up that initially seems so airtight that I couldn't imagine any way for our hero to get out of it.

Though it doesn't necessarily offer any new material for the film noir lexicon, nor does The Web feel contrived. The romance between O'Brien and Raines could easily have been squandered with melodrama, but the film always keeps their relationship edgy. Noel's affections, for one, are clearly split between Regan and Colby, whose association with her visibly extends beyond the professional realm ("I recognise him when I see him"). Regan himself, while essentially good-hearted, has a clumsy crudeness about him where women are concerned, in contrast with Colby, who always knows what to say and how to say it. There's something subtly fascinating about Price's 1940s performances; it has to do with how he speaks. When his character is telling an untruth, he does so in a manner that, to us, reeks of deception, and yet we can perfectly understand why the film's characters – say, a policeman – swallow the lie whole. He toes a fine line, and still manages to suspend the audience's disbelief. Maybe that's why Price got away with starring in so many bad movies.

Currently my #8 film of 1947:
1) Odd Man Out (Carol Reed) *
2) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
4) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) *
5) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves) *
6) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles) *
7) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel) *
8) The Web (Michael Gordon) *
9) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
10) The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir) *


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Target #57: The Killer That Stalked New York (1950, Earl McEvoy)

Directed by: Earl McEvoy

Written by: Milton Lehman (Colliers Magazine article), Harry Essex (adaptation)

In April 1947, New York City faced an epidemic crisis. Eugene LaBar, a rug importer arriving from Mexico, had arrived in the city, bringing with him the deadly smallpox virus. He stumbled off a bus, complaining of fever and a headache, and soon died in a Midtown Hospital, but not before he had infected a dozen passers-by. The damage was already done; for the first time in decades, smallpox stalked the streets of New York. The city's health authorities acted quickly to isolate sufferers and contain the virus, enacting a free vaccination campaign that saw over six million New Yorkers immunised against smallpox. Thanks to their swift response, the virus was contained with minimal casualties. The outbreak, nevertheless, must have left an indelible mark, for several years later it was followed by two similarly-themed film noir thrillers in which doctors must track down a single contagious carrier in a city of millions: Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) and Earl McEvoy's lower-budget The Killer That Stalked New York (1950).

McEvoy's film unfolds in an unglamorous docu-drama style. Reed Hadley's narration sounds as though it was plucked straight from a newsreel, reciting facts as if reading off the official police transcript. This technique does feel a little cheap at times, but fortunately the narration is largely restricted to the film's bookends, as well as providing some explanatory filler during breaks in the plot. The "killer" stalking New York, in this story, is not a rug importer from Mexico, but beautiful diamond smuggler Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes), who has just arrived from Cuba. Within days, Sheila has two parties independently pursuing her: a treasury agent (Barry Kelley) looking to arrest her for smuggling crimes, and a team of doctors (led by William Bishop) who have identified her as the source of the smallpox outbreak. As in 'Panic in the Streets,' an otherwise routine manhunt is given a heightened sense of urgency, particularly when those in pursuit initially have no idea as to the identity or appearance of their suspect.

The Killer That Stalked New York, for the most part, manages to sidestep its low production budget. Aside from a select few lines of dialogue ("we have to stop it!" exclaims Dr. Wood at one point, as though coming to a difficult decision), the filmmakers and cast members allow the story to unfold in a realistic, engrossing fashion. Indeed, in this regard, the low budget quite possibly aids the film's intentions, necessitating a documentary style that adds to the immediacy of the outbreak scenario. Evelyn Keyes is excellent in the leading role, showing obstinate resilience in the face of unimaginable torment; by the film's end, she appears so brutally incapacitated by her illness that it's almost painful to look at her face. Aside from the virus, Charles Korvin is the main villain of the piece, as Sheila's greedy and adulterous husband who, rest assured, gets everything that's coming to him. And if all nurses looked like Dorothy Malone, perhaps catching smallpox wouldn't seem like such a bad break, after all.

Currently my #13 film of 1950:
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) Gone to Earth (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
10) Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan) *
11) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
12) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)
13) The Killer That Stalked New York (Earl McEvoy) *
14) Armoured Car Robbery (Richard Fleischer) *