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 Vincent Price originally made his name with a string of devious supporting roles in 1940s dramas, including Laura (1944) and Dragonwyck (1946).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) *

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