Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood – Five Classics From the Studio Vaults

by | Dec 22, 2006 | Special Features | 0 comments

Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood
Five Classics From the Studio Vaults

ALL: Studio: Kino Video

Video: 1.33:1 full frame B&W

Audio: DD mono

[See tech note at conclusion]

Behind Locked Doors (1948)
Director: Budd Boetticher
Starring: Richard Carlson. Lucille Bremer; Dickie Moore; Thomas Browne Henry; Tor Johnson
Running Time: 62 minutes
Rating: **

Budgetary restrictions kept Oscar “Budd” Boetticher on a short leash for this Eagle Lion release, a claustrophobic affair with private detective Ross Stewart (Richard Carlson) on the inside of the La Siesta sanitarium, trying to win his half of a $10,000 reward for apprehending a shady judge (Herbert Heyes) who is hiding on the premises. Lucille Bremer plays a femme fatale at first, the client who hires Stewart for this infiltration assignment; it doesn’t take Stewart long to put the moves on her.

Pretending to suffer from manic depression, Carlson’s character has himself committed by his phony wife so that he can eventually penetrate the locked ward where the judge enjoys the benefits of having paid off the sanitarium’s director (Thomas Browne Henry). Douglas Fowley generally steals the film as the sadistic assistant Larson, who relishes beating and intimidating the patients–we might recall Frank Faylen’s equally menacing performance as Bim in The Lost Weekend–and wrestler-turned-actor Tor Johnson as mute psychotic The Champ, who, on hearing Larson literally rattle his cage, beats to a pulp anyone unlucky enough to be tossed into his solitary cell.

What the story line (Malvin Wald) lacks in intelligence and crisp dialogue, Boetticher tries to compensate for with stylistic photography, courtesy of Guy Roe. Dark alleys, shadowy stairwells, night shots, all keep us semi-focused on the menace and psychic uncertainty of who belongs in or out of the nut house: “The people on the outside aren’t much interested n those on the inside.” Stewart hands a firebug a pack of matches to get himself into the locked ward. Larson pops up at strategic moments to remind us how tenuous life can be: “You come here to be cured; you are more likely to be killed.” Next to classic studies like The Snake Pit or even the modest horror film Bedlam, Behind Locked Doors only has a passing interest for noir specialists. Richard Carlson made a deeper impression on us in Cy Endfield’s 1950 Try and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury), where his own innate intelligence runs amok and manages to have two criminals – Frank Lovejoy and Lloyd Bridges, lynched. Tor Johnson appeals to film buffs mainly due to his association with Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. He appeared once on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, but Groucho never let him identify himself. Perhaps as a preliminary study for Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and a few good shots involving shadow and deep focus, this Boetticher film has mild historical merit.
— Gary Lemco                         

Railroaded (1947)
Starring: John Ireland, Sheila Ryan, Hugh Beaumont, Jane Randolph, Ed Kelly, Keefe Braselle
Director: Anthony Mann
Cinematography: Guy Roe
Music: Alvin Levin
Running Time: 74 minutes
Rating: **

A kind of virtuoso etude in low-budget lighting, Railroaded is Anthony Mann’s hard-nosed noir, starring John Ireland (of Red River and All the King’s Men fame) as Duke Martin, a ruthless killer with no compunctions about sending bullets into friends and lovers. The film opens at Your House of Beauty, where only ugliness prevails: Clara Calhoun (Jane Randolph), who runs a bookie joint in the back of her store, is the “inside man” to an armed robbery of her boutique, permitting Duke Martin and his accomplice Kowalski (Keefe Braselle) to enter the back door, wearing scarves for masks. Their getaway vehicle is a laundry truck that belongs to Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly), whom Duke will frame for the incidental murder of police officer O’Hara in the course of the robbery. Detective Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont) is on the case, unsure whether the police are railroading Steve Ryan to the gas chamber on circumstantial evidence: “I’m not paid to persecute people; and I’ll work just as hard to free your brother, if I find anything.”

Sheila Ryan provides the love interest; she plays Rosa Ryan, Steve’s sister, and Detective Ferguson is making Irish eyes at her. Meanwhile, Duke leaves his wounded partner Kowalski to die at a doctor’s office and returns to his main employment, manager of Club Bombay. As Clara becomes more alcoholically addicted, Duke loses any tidbits of compassion he might have harbored: “Just when you ought to keep your head, you start pickling it.” The other witness to the crime, Marie, had reported a dark-haired perp; Clara had said the perp had sandy hair, in order to frame Steve Ryan. Marie gets her .38 reward from Duke. Another curious set of clues are perfumed bullets that somehow retain their aroma after punctured bodies and crime labs have had their way with them. When Duke, too, decides to romance Rosa Ryan, he provides a convenient wino to confess to the cop killing. The final blowout, after Duke wastes poor Clara, takes place at Club Bombay, shot in so much darkness we can’t tell who’s doing the blasting, a scene perhaps influenced by John Garfield’s Force of Evil.

Strictly a B melodrama, Railroaded has a seamy, low-class attractiveness that likely meant something to Quentin Tarantino. Duke kills his employer with the same sang-froid everyone merits: “He didn’t treat me right,” quips Duke. One of his employer’s molls remarks, “Snakes, lizards, and Duke Martin give me the creeps.” Perhaps the coroner best expresses the dominant philosophy of this shadowy noir addition: “Only two kinds of animals make war on their own kind, rats and man.” I think he forgot ants. An interesting descent into silhouette images.

— Gary Lemco

The Long Night (1947)

Director: Anatole Litvak
Starring: Henry Fonda, Vincent Price, Barbara Bel Geddes, Ann Dvorak, Charles McGraw, Moroni Olson, Elisha Cook, Jr.
Dir. of Photography: Sol Polito
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Extras: Two scenes from Carne’s Le Jour se leve
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rating: ****

A remaking of Marcel Carne’s working-class melodrama Le Jour se leve (Sunrise, 1939) starring Jean Gabin, RKO’s The Long Night proves an ambitious film noir whose visual style can be quite panoramic, utilizing factory miniatures (from set designer Eugene Lourie) and extensive crowd scenes. Opening with a shooting on the third floor of an apartment building in an industrial city on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, the plot proceeds in selected flashbacks, a bit like Wyler’s The Letter. How did Henry Fonda’s Joe Adams wind up sitting alone in a bullet-gutted room, beleaguered by police sharpshooters, after his having fatally shot debonair Vincent Price?

The title takes its cue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The night is long that never finds the key.” Tiomkin’s score is mostly a variation on the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a kind of fate-motif. Joe Adams is a veteran of WW II, and later in the plot he will make some allusions to Nazi hypocrisies. The opening shot is of blind man Elisha Cook, Jr. making his way through the streets; it is he who hears the fatal shot from Joe’s apartment. Litvak’s active camera alternates between the body on the stairwell, Joe in his room, the milling crowd and police presence outside. “I wanna be left alone!” booms Joe, sending some bullets through his door. When Fonda emerges, he has a gun in his hand. A little girl on the staircase queries, “What happened to you, Joe?” Once back inside, the image of the mirror and its one-eared teddy bear dominate the montage. Joe’s interior monologue hints at Macbeth: “It’s done–that’s all there is to it.” Cop Charles McGraw in a highway patrol hat starts organizing the siege. Joe thinks “the Indian sign” was on him, that everything happened “by the numbers.”

We hear a parody of “Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and worker Fonda is sandblasting at the factory when Joanne (Bel Geddes) comes up to him, carrying flowers. Joe remarks about “flowers and smoke” in his life. He and Joanne are both orphans, refugees from The Good Shepherd. When Joanne refuses Fonda a date, the bus takes her to Al King’s Jungle night club, where Maximilian (Vincent Price) is a performing magician, doing card tricks, magic flowers, but most especially dog tricks with five trained (we find out later, tortured) petite canines. Ann Dvorak, so effective with Paul Muni in Scarface, plays Charlene, Maximilian’s leggy assistant, long on flirtation but short on romance. “I don’t like men who talks too much about love–they usually forget what it’s all about.” Charlene’s is a live-and-let-live attitude: “You get a bad deal–then you have to wait for a new shuffle.” Charlene knows Maximilian’s angle only too well: his hands, his words, his double-talk.

Price’s Maximilian is a smooth operator, a con man who enjoys lying, a premature white streak in his hair, the high-arrogant vocabulary Price commanded in Laura, the snobbishness he brought to Champagne for Caesar. “I’m honest, even about my lies,” Maximilian quips. He courts Bel Geddes for her undefiled innocence, but when he touches her, she freezes up. At one point, he tells Joe Adams that he’s Joanne’s long-lost biological father. Shades of incest? He takes Joanne to the Cleveland Symphony, where the conductor (Rodzinski?) leads Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. When Maximilian invokes Citizen Kane, calling Joanne “fascinating,” a “white rosebud in the morning dew,” all the while insinuating his invasion of that purity, it proves too much for the idealistic Joe, who blasts Max with his own gun.

Barbara Bel Geddes (whom I met incidentally at a post-concert get-together for Leonard Bernstein in 1977) plays an ambiguous sort of ingenue. She clearly cares for Joe Adams, but her desire to escape the mill town stimulates her attraction for the dashing Maximilian. She dreams of golden casinos and gardenias in Florida, and Maximilian thrives on gardenias. At one point, realizing her love for the besieged Joe, she runs smack into a bicycle wheel, an image that might have appealed to Ralph Ellison. She clings onto a cheap trinket Max gave her, with a fairy tale about Montezuma’s daughter, who had to be sacrificed. John Wexley’s screenplay, true to noir, points to depravities we keep from ourselves. “Maximilian repelled me, but I was glad he kissed me, too. Because I wanted it.” Cameo appearances by Ray Teal (Across the Great Divide) and Will Wright (The Blue Dahlia), along with the reliable Elisha Cook, Jr. (The Maltese Falcon and Phantom Lady) make this psychologically engrossing noir thriller that much more precious. Joe Adams, driven by tear gas, embraces his Joanne and an uncertain future, an admission by director Litvak that America, too, was ambivalent about its moral direction.

— Gary Lemco

Hangmen Also Die (1943)

Director: Fritz Lang
Story by Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Lang
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Dennis O’Keefe, Anna Lee, Walter Brennan, Gene Lockhart, Tonio Selwart, Alexander Granach, Jonathan Hale
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Music: Hanns Eisler
Running Time: 134 minutes
Rating: ****

I must admit that I would not classify Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die as a contributor to the film noir legacy, although its mordant visual style contributes to the theme, which is not the dark side of Hollywood but rather the dark side of humanity. On May 27, 1942, the Nazi “Protector” of the Czech Republic, Reinhard “The Hangman” Heydrich, was assassinated by an unknown gunman. Bertolt Brecht scripted his only successful Hollywood vehicle based on an apocryphal retelling of the incident, tracing the shooter, Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy), as he tries to elude capture while the Czech people valiantly rise up to resist the terrible reprisals the Nazis inflicted. Given a fine ensemble of Polish, American, and British actors, Fritz Lang creates a political thriller of grand design and stunning psychological power, with Anna Lee as the naïve daughter of a Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan) who learns that patriotism is thicker than family blood.

The film opens with a kind of imperial décor as Reinhard Heydrich (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (he accompanied Rick’s ex-girlfriend in Casablanca) arrogantly swaggers his way into the court, complaining of the Czechs as an inferior race whose work slowdowns in Skoda contaminate the German master-plan. A quick shot of uncredited Phil van Zandt (Citizen Kane) in SS regalia. We cut to Skoda immediately after the shooting of Reinhard: a Nazi staff contrasts to the horse-drawn wagon, as Anna Lee sees Donlevy hide from pursuing Nazi soldiers. When she deliberately misleads the soldiers as to the strange man’s direction, she enmeshes herself in a nightmare that will not end. Lang better merged noir with anti-Nazi propaganda in The Ministry of Fear; but once we enter Gestapo headquarters, the lighting and décor – courtesy of James Wong Howe – might as well be set in any medieval torture chamber.

Taxi driver Lionel Stander has been picked up while waiting for Donlevy; rather than confess under Nazi torture, he hurls himself through a window, the first of many Czech displays of self-sacrifice. Donlevy has ducked into a small theater, where a cinematic vision of Smetana’s The Moldau is in full force. Later, Walter Brennan will listen to this watershed piece on the radio. The theater fills with whispers that Heydrich has been shot: the air is rife with Czech nationalism. Anna Lee tells her father that she saw the assassin, but Brennan admonishes her that nobody must ever know; nobody must ever reveal the killer. Her fiancé Jan Horak (Dennis O’Keefe, recently of The Story of Dr. Wassell) asks what is the good of political assassination. He and Anna Lee are to be married, but their mutual sentiment of “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” smacks of Macbeth. The aunt Margaret Wycherly, later Ma in White Heat) utters practical wisdom that one man is not worth the hundreds who will die for his crime. Once her professor father is arrested as a hostage and possible reprisal victim, Anna Lee succumbs to temptation and departs for the Gestapo. The intercession of the underground leader (Jonathan Hale) changes her mind, as do the angry villagers of Skoda, but too late: German soldiers usher her “safely” to the Gestapo, who are eager for informants.

Lee’s character had protested that “even the Gestapo couldn’t be as inhuman as you are” to Hale and his invisible army of resistance fighters, but she is in for a rude awakening. Alexander Granath steals the show as the Gestapo inspector Gruber, who himself works for Kurt Haas (Tonio Selwart) and Ritter (Ludwig Donath). Gruber is a little bulldog, a sadist and extortionist who genuinely loves to manipulate people, especially the Czechs, whom Ritter calls “a marvelous people, stubborn to the end, the bitter end.” Even when Gruber’s investigations degenerate into revealing merely a love affair between Anna Lee and Donlevy, he deliberately puts O’Keefe into the mix so the lovers will quarrel among themselves. Gruber’s main ear is the beer merchant Emil Czaba (Gene Lockhart), a man who emerges from the shadows in an underground meeting, and who had already infiltrated the resistance in Pilsen; but his Achilles heel is his knowledge of the German language. In a spectacular frame-up, Czaba will take the fall as the executioner of Heydrich.

A major source of dramatic power are the scenes at the internment camp, where Czech patriots await execution. When Anna Lee visits her father for ten minutes prior to his scheduled shooting he dictates a last letter to his son for her to memorize: “live in a free land, where people live by themselves and for themselves. . .freedom: the real thing is fighting for freedom.” Connoisseurs of antiwar propaganda movies will recall these sentiments in Charles Laughton’s This Land is Mine or Henry Travers’ monologue from Socrates in The Moon is Down. Dwight Frye (Fritz, in Frankenstein) makes a cameo, urging that the Nazi’s permission to speak on the radio to urge the assassin to turn himself in is merely “a cat’s paw” manipulation of their fear. Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless from Buck Rogers) plays another resistance fighter, one who helps trap Emil Czaba. Czaba will be reeled in at The Golden Quail, his favorite eatery; but all of Skoda conspires to convict him in the Nazis’ eyes. “They play with human beings like a cat with a mouse,” says Jan of the Nazi machine. Well, two can play the same game. Lang and Brecht make it perfectly clear that political expediency can make victims of anyone. An elaborate, inspiring wartime story telling from a couple of master craftsmen.

— Gary Lemco

Sudden Fear (1952)

Director: David Miller
Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Gloria Grahame, Mike Connors, Bruce Bennett, Taylor Holmes, Virginia Huston
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography: Charles Lang, Jr.
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rating: ****

Joan Crawford has an excellent vehicle for her talents in RKO’s 1952 Sudden Far, playing playwright Myra Hudson, a woman courted and won by ambitious actor Lester Blaine – acted with gaunt, cold cunning by Jack Palance (Shane, Ten Seconds to Hell, Attack!). Both Crawford and Palance won nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. Written by Lenore Coffee and Robert Smith, Sudden Fear combines classic noir elements with the love-triangle thriller, an intricate cat-and-mouse game with any number of reversals. Mounted on a large scale, employing sets of New York, San Francisco, and a long train ride in between, the décor becomes increasingly nightmarish, once Myra discovers her fond husband desires only her money.

The visual style of Sudden Fear is eminently theatrical, a realization of Palance’s line, “Once you’ve lost your heart to the theater, it’s hard to get it back.” Mirrors have rarely played so crucial a part in the development of a story line, although Citizen Kane, Lady in the Lake, Dark Passage, and The Lady from Shanghai provide plenty of influence. Almost every actor here has a film noir legacy: Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat, Odds Against Tomorrow), Taylor Holmes (Kiss of Death), and Bruce Bennett (Dark Passage, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and Virginia Huston (The Racket, Out of the Past) – each became an icon of the genre. A young Mike Connors (Mannix, The Day the World Ended) plays Junior Kearney, Bennett’s law partner who romances Irene. After the film opens on 45th Street and Broadway, with Myra rejecting Lester for the lead in her new play as “not enough of a glamour boy,” she soon succumbs to his personal charms aboard the Amtrak to Chicago and San Francisco. When Lester and Myra play some stud poker on board, Lester insists on handling the cards: “I’m entitled to a cut.”

Several times in the course of the plot, the element of self-conscious theatrical parody emerges. In a mirror, Lester courts Myra using lines from the play from which he was exiled. Lester carefully prepares his phony exit from her life, setting up a meeting at the top of the dark staircase. The camera peers over his right shoulder: “I don’t belong to your world–you have so much; I have nothing.” Elmer Bernstein adds music for a contrived love scene. Later, Bennett’s character, her lawyer Steve Kearney, admonishes her that her protestations of love sound like bad lines she would never permit in one of her plays. Myra owns a four-microphone Dictaphone that proves critical–it catches a torrid, lustful scene between Gloria Graham (Irene Neves) and the unhappy Lester, eager for his wife’s estate. When Myra shows Lester her summer cottage, he notes the precipice just along the walls without guardrails. “Live dangerously,” Myra quotes Neitzche. While dictating her new will, rife with goodies for her new love, Myra detects Steve’s unhappy countenance in the mirror. As Myra listens to the horrifying revelations on the Dictaphone recording, Lester says to Crawford’s reaction, “I’ve never loved you, not for a moment. I’d like to see her face.. . .It’ll have to look like an accident. I’d be suspected before she was cold” Crawford can mug and mime revulsion with the best of them–she always claimed she learned the mimetic art from her work with Lon Chaney, Sr.

Once Myra concocts her own counter-plan, we get a mixture of spiral staircases, with their descent into Dante, as well mirrors, of which the one at Irene’s reveals to Myra her inability to carry out a murderous revenge. “I wonder what I’d done to deserve you,” Myra smirks at the guilty Lester. We see the ubiquitous pendulum in this film cross and re-cross Myra’s sweating face as she plays out the big frame-up of Irene in her mind. A side-view mirror on his murderous car alerts Lester to Myra’s sanctuary on a noir-lit street. Ironically, Myra and Irene turn out to be mirrors of each other, with lethal consequences for Irene. At the film’s conclusion, Myra divests herself of the veil, parading upward towards the breaking daylight. Classic Joan Crawford, right up there with Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, and countless other embodiments of the betrayed woman turned deadlier than the male.

— Gary Lemco

[Kino has unfortunately done little or nothing to restore either the picture or sound quality of these films; some of them are murky and more noir than they were intended to be originally…Ed.]

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