Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bonus Noir: The Man Between (1953, Carol Reed)

Directed by: Carol Reed

Written by: Walter Ebert (story), Harry Kurnitz (screenplay), Eric Linklater (screenplay) (uncredited)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Following the release of his masterpiece The Third Man (1949), a refreshingly-offbeat amalgam of British noir and Ealing-style whimsy, director Carol Reed was heralded as one of the era's most promising filmmakers. Critical admirers anxiously awaited his follow-up effort, which was four years coming. Today, the consensus appears to regard The Man Between (1953) as little but a pale imitation of The Third Man. Certainly, the two films share similar scenarios, both involving a foreigner's espionage-tinged visit to a war-torn city (Vienna and Berlin, respectively) that has been divided by opposing powers. However, despite lacking Graham Greene's wry sense of humour, and particularly the boyish charisma of Orson Welles, Reed's follow-up picture is nonetheless an excellent drama, blending romance and tragedy with the director's usual flair for generating atmosphere and international intrigue. The fine chemistry between stars James Mason and Claire Bloom finds a life of its own amid the rubble-strewn ruins of a city still at war with itself.

Young British woman Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom, whom Chaplin had discovered the previous year for Limelight (1952)) arrives in Berlin to visit her brother (Geoffrey Toone), who has married German-born Bettina (Hildegard Knef). Through her sister-in-law, Susanne is introduced to the enigmatic Ivo Kern (James Mason), a professional kidnapper with ambiguous allegiances towards both the Eastern and Western powers. Screenwriter Harry Kurnitz had a talent for illustrating characters with hidden motives and concealed secrets (see Witness for the Prosecution (1957), The Web (1947) or either of his Thin Man features), and his screenplay spends its first half ominously exploring the intentions of Bettina, whose association with Ivo implicitly suggests a family betrayal. Interestingly, the character is effectively abandoned in the film's second half, but to the film's advantage, as Susanne and Ivo are relentlessly hunted in the Eastern Bloc following a botched kidnapping. Here, Reed narrows his dramatic focus, but the doomed romance between Bloom's young idealist and Mason's war-weary criminal remains appropriately understated, inspiring empathy without stooping to melodrama.

Despite the absence of Robert Krasker, The Man Between is a beautifully shot film, with director-of-photography Desmond Dickinson capturing, not only the atmosphere, but the foreboding personality of the crumbling German capital. John Addison's musical score is haunting and graceful, certainly a far cry from Anton Karas' zither, but nonetheless effective in its own right. One thing I've noticed about every Carol Reed film I've seen (and the tally currently sits at seven) is that all the performances are perfect – not only the main and supporting stars, but everybody down to the briefest of speaking roles. James Mason sports a convincing German accent, and Claire Bloom is simply adorable in her naive innocence, with a smile that will melt your heart. A particularly important character is young Horst (Dieter Krause), whose love Ivo instinctively rejects, for such a criminal can never allow himself to form attachments to those he must inevitably abandon. Ultimately, and tragically, it is Horst's devotion that results in Ivo's death, the final proof that love and death are never far apart.

Currently my #7 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)
3) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock) *
4) The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton)
5) Le salaire de la peur {The Wages of Fear} (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
6) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
7) The Man Between (Carol Reed) *
8) The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli)
9) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller) *
10) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)


Target #65: Thieves' Highway (1949, Jules Dassin)

Directed by: Jules Dassin

Written by: A.I. Bezzerides (novel & screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returns from a round-the-world engagement to a home that, at first glance, typifies the ideal American household. His father's working-class singing voice booms across the backyard; his mother fussily busies herself with the daily chores; his girlfriend Polly (Barbara Lawrence) bursts jubilantly into the room, embracing him in a passionate, sensuous kiss. But looks can be deceiving: a well-intended gift of Chinese slippers betrays a recent family tragedy; Polly's disappointed response to another gift hints at a fractured romance, a relationship borne not from love but the love of money. The family's facade of happiness is exposed as a sham, and it's the peeling back of this superficial skin with which Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949) is concerned. A seemingly-innocuous industry, that of fresh fruit cartage and wholesale, is shown to wallow in depravity, thuggery and callous opportunism. In this way, the film might be considered a companion piece to the director's previous effort, The Naked City (1948), which similarly exposed gruelling drama within the confines of the audiences' daily lives.

Richard Conte was one of the most interesting leading men of his era. His big-shot crime boss in The Big Combo (1955) might be the decade's most charismatic villain, but he could also play the resolute hero, as in Preminger's Whirlpool (1949). To Thieves' Highway he brings a cocky self-assurance, the sort of fearless conviction that's bound to blow up in one's face eventually. Lee J. Cobb's conniving fruit wholesaler, Mike Figlia, is a small-time crook, but one who invokes the viewer's contempt through his ruthlessly-capitalist exploitation of the humble working-class American. Only the females aren't as memorably drawn: Barbara Lawrence's Polly is rather abruptly discarded as a self-seeking gold-digger, as though only to allow for a romance with possible prostitute Rica (Valentina Cortesa), who grows a heart of gold. Thieves' Highway no doubt inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot's nail-biting The Wages of Fear (1953), another classic tale of trucking peril, but unfortunately it itself lacks the French director's gritty cynicism, or at least a degree of pessimism as absolute as Clouzot's.

This slackening of tone is seen most tellingly in the film's dramatic climax, a confrontation between Garcos and Figlia. The sequence doesn't work because it's conflicted between two opposing moral viewpoints. In one sense, Dassin appears to advocate Garcos' vigilante action in subjecting Figlia to a physical beating, since he successfully reclaims his stolen payments and achieves some degree of mental closure regarding his father's crippling. However, at this moment, as Garcos collapses onto the bench in exhaustion, policemen enter the diner and arrest Figlia for his crimes – but not before one officer sternly wags his finger at Garcos for taking the law into his own hands. To have an excellent film intruded upon by such an awkward, juvenile moral lesson is bad enough, but the film could have gotten across the same message in a more powerful manner. As the police stormed into the diner, my blood had suddenly run cold with the chilling thought: what if Figlia is dead? Out of pure bloody-minded pride, a good man would have been condemned for life, the ultimate testament that vigilantism is not the answer.

Currently my #6 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) Thieves’ Highway (Jules Dassin)
7) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
8) The Big Steal (Don Siegel)
9) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
10) Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock)


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Target #64: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948, Norman Foster)

Directed by: Norman Foster

Written by: Gerald Butler (novel), Walter Bernstein (adaptation), Ben Maddow (adaptation), Leonardo Bercovici (writer), Hugh Gray (additional dialogue)

With such a lurid, evocative title, I entered into Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) with inflated expectations of a film steeped in decadence and depravity. I've often considered the classic film noir mood to be the primal juxtaposition of sex and violence, and this is exactly the stuff promised by Norman Foster's film: one envisions a man's bloodied hands, tinged from murder, and a femme fatale's gentle touch, not only embracing but encouraging her man's brutality. Alas, the true meaning of the title is less literal, and certainly less salacious, and concerns the notion of redemption through love. Burt Lancaster's traumatised war veteran, a man with stunted emotions and a short fuse, leaves behind a shady past of misdeeds he'd rather forget. His salvation comes in the form of Joan Fontaine's lonely, war-grieving nurse, who offers understanding and the hope of a better life. An admittedly conventional storyline is elevated by Foster's keen visual style, with the image of an advancing, goggle-eyed Robert Newton recalling the flamboyant eccentricity of an Orson Welles picture.
Foster's film opens in a pub, as the drunken patrons are shuffled into the street at closing time. There sits Bill Saunders (Lancaster) at the bar, lonely and brooding, so utterly distanced from society that he refuses to follow his fellow drinkers out the door. When the publican becomes forceful, Bill suddenly jerks into action, striking out with a heavy fist that leaves his aggressor dead on the floor. "Chum, you've been and gone and done it," remarks one stunned onlooker (Newton) gravely; "he's dead. You've killed him." This is what film noir is all about: that fundamental moment when there's no turning back. After a thrilling chase through the London streets (though I notice that the characters still drive left-handed vehicles), Bill finds refuge in the apartment of Jane Wharton (Fontaine), whose unexpected compassion leads him to seek a relationship with her. At this point, the film quickly and inexplicably forgets that Bill is a fugitive wanted for murder. Or, perhaps more accurately, it waits for us to forget.

Only after Bill Saunders has reestablished his place in society does his past rear its ugly head, in the form of Robert Newton's grotesquely cavalier black-market fraudster. This isn't the first time in Lancaster's career that his character's past had inescapably returned to haunt him: in Siodmak's The Killers (1946), Swede Andersen accepts his fate with a kind of subdued defeatism. However, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is less fatalistic towards its protagonist, opting instead for an open-ended conclusion that wavers between hope and resignation. That Bill is ultimately offered a second-chance at redemption is quite appropriate, given that he is a victim, not necessarily of his own sense of greed or immorality, but of the War. His unbalanced personality, unwittingly corrupted by the twisted ethics of combat, is a testament to the psychological scars of warfare, previously explored in Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and more peripherally in George Marshall's film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946).

Currently my #10 film of 1948:
1) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
2) Ladri di biciclette {The Bicycle Thief} (Vittorio De Sica)
3) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Oliver Twist (David Lean)
5) The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
6) The Naked City (Jules Dassin) *
7) Macbeth (Orson Welles)
8) Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls)
9) Key Largo (John Huston) *
10) Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster) *