Tag Archives: noir

A precursor to cinema noir

“Cinéma noir” is a French term, often applied to mostly nocturnal movies showing the underbelly of American cities. Arguably (an argument I will make soon), the genre began with some French films directed by Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir in the late 1930s, rather than Hollywood movies of the 1940s.

The end and, especially, the beginning of “Quai des Orfèvres” (Jenny Lamour) do not seem in noir territory. For one thing, both are daylit. From the title, French audiences know and knew that crime was going to be involved. The “quay of the goldsmiths” is where Paris’s homicide investigators operate, so the title registers in the same way titling something “Scotland Yard” would. The movie does eventually get to very cold rooms on the Quai des Orfèvres, but begins in overheated rehearsal facilities, where some new songs for a music-hall revue are being rehearsed. The rising star is chanteuse Marguerite whose stage name is Jenny Lamour (played by Suzy Delair, writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s significant other). Her conservatory-trained accompanist/husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) is exceedingly jealous. His jealousy seems pathologically intense but also not without justification. Jenny is a very friendly gal (it was the 1940s, OK) and very determined to rise further from her harshly impoverished childhood.

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A hunchbacked, lecherous movie producer Georges Brignon (Charles Dullon) regularly brings attractive young women to Marguerite and Maurice’s downstairs neighbor Dora (Simone Renant) to be photographed in the nude (wearing only high-heeled pumps). Dora is a good friend to Marguerite, but pretty obviously wants to be more than a friend, though Marguerite is completely oblivious to this. Brignon finds Marguerite attractive and invites her to lunch with him. Maurice learns of this and storms into the private dining room to tell Brignon to leave his wife alone. Brignon remarks that jealous husbands usually appear after rather than before his dalliances, and Maurice tells him—in front of multiple witnesses in the employ of the restaurant—that if Brignon attempts any more trysts with his wife that Maurice will kill him. Marguerite laughs at Maurice’s jealousies and tells him that he is too stupid to get away with murder, that he could not construct an alibi.

There can’t be many filmgoers who at this point lack certainty that Brignon is going to be killed. Sure enough, Maurice finds Brignon’s home address written in lipstick. His setting up an alibi at another music hall with a girlie show (the standing-room audience is all men in their overcoats, but the seats have almost as many female as male occupants). When Maurice gets to Brignon’s house, Brignon is lying in a pool of blood, already dead. Thus, the audience knows that Maurice meant to shoot Brignon, but that someone had already killed him. And complicating matters further, Maurice’s car is stolen while he is inside, making getting back to the theater before the end of the show very difficult (which provides a raison d’être for a nocturnal slog through Paris streets).

The police, in the person of a stiff and fairly forlorn detective named Antoine (played by the great French stage star Louis Jouvet) grinds away at his three prime suspects: Dora, Marguerite, and (especially) Maurice. The movie has shifted from backstage shenanigans, to murder, to police procedural, with Dora, Marguerite, and Maurice attempting to cover up various incriminating evidence. Maurice is less tough than the two women. The police procedures are heavy-handed and the interrogation room has no heat. (The policemen wear overcoats but Maurice is in shirt sleeves.)

The detective has a son by some African mistress from his days in colonial Africa and this adds some interesting touches. Antoine has considerable world-weariness, but, like Joseph Calleia’s unvain Inspector Slimane in “Algiers,” is patient enough to get his man in the end.

There is a lot more plot, and rich characterization. There may be too much love and altruism for noir hopelessness, but Maurice feels doomed and suffers more than pangs of jealousy.

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I think that the movie takes much too long to get going, that half the first half hour could easily have been cut, but after that, the unglamorous Paris and the very attractive Dora and Marguerite (with the unrequited lesbian passion recognized by Antoine) and the closing in on Maurice are very well presented. The cinematography of Armand Thirard is not as flamboyant as in some German and American noirs, but is atmospheric.

Clouzot is often referred to as “the French Hitchcock,” and “Quai des Orfèvres” includes not only an icy blonde (Dora) but the recurrent Hitchcock motif of the wrong man (Maurice is not innocent or very nice, but he didn’t kill Brignon…). Allegedly one of Hitchock’s aims in “Psycho” was to top Clouzot’s 1954 “Diabolique” (which also had strong lesbian undercurrents).

Clouzot was plagued by ill health, and had been banned from making films immediately after World War II, because of (false) allegations that the previous movie he directed “Le Corbeau” (The Crow) was shown in Germany as anti-French propaganda—even though it was banned by the Vichy government for portraying the climate of anonymous denunciations of Nazi-occupied France.

Until the botched Hollywood remake made “Diabolique” more difficult to see, it was Clouzot’s most famed triumph. Martin Scorcese propelled a re-release of “Le Salaire de la peur” (Wages of Fear) that was a great success. (Both were also lensed by Armand Thirard.)

The Criterion DVD of “Quai des Orfèvres” looks and sounds great. It includes a very well-done 17-minute segment from a1971 broadcast of “Au Cinéma Ce Soir” with recollections by Clouzot, Blier, Delair, and Renant. While acknowledging that Clouzot was demanding and at times intimidating, all three justify his harsh treatment and treasure the experience of making the film. (Clouzot was like Hitchcock in story-boarding every shot in advance, as well as in cowing actors.) Renant is very winning, and Clouzot is amusing and bemused talking about the source material (a pulp novel, Legitimate Defense, by Stanislas-André Steeman, whose L’ Assassin habite… au 21, (The Murderer Lives at #21) had also been the basis for a considerably changed 1942 adaptation

There is also a 3 1/2-minute French trailer, and a gallery of images of posters for the movie (in several languages). The white subtitles are enclosed, so that even those against white backgrounds are readily legible. Regrettably, I have not seen the essay by Luc Sante that was issued in the Criterion package.

 

©2005, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Jules Dassin in the San Francisco Produce Market of yore

 

The 1949 noir directed by Jules Dassin, “Thieves’ Highway” (also known as “Collision” and as “The Thieves’ Market”) was adapted by A. I. Bezzerides—who also wrote the noirish trucker movie “They Drive by Nigh”t (1940) and adapted Mickey Spillane’s “Kiss Me Deadly “(1953) for Robert Aldrich —from his own novel Thieves’ Market. If it had not already been used for the screen version of his novel The Long Haul, “They Drive by Night” would have been a descriptive title for this movie.

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The story begins with Nico ‘Nick’ Garcos   (Richard Conte) returning home to Fresno, in California’s Central Valley, from World War II service (in the Coast Guard, it is later established). He has brought presents for everyone, including Chinese slippers for his father, long-time long-distance truck-driver Yanko Garcos (Morris Carnovsky) and Nick’s fiancé Polly Faber (Barbara Lawrence) who materializes from the next room. The present for Nick’s father is spectacularly inappropriate, because Yanko was in an accident in San Francisco and lost his legs after being cheated by fruit-market mobster Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb).

Yanko’s truck was purchased by Ed Prentiss (Millard Mitchell), but Ed has not paid for it yet. Nick goes over to reclaim it and is convinced to go in on a deal with Ed to buy Golden Delicious apples and transport them to the San Francisco bay-front fruit market. Ed was supposed to work with Pete and “Slob” (Joseph Pevney and Jack Oakie) but lies to them about the deal having fallen through.

The next day, Ed and Nick go to the orchard to pick up the apples. Ed attempts to underpay the grower, but the noble Nick insists on paying them the full price price. After Ed and Nick have (over)loaded their trucks, Pete and “Slob” show up and buy part of a truckload. Nick and Ed have various mechanical problems driving by night (driving very fast on a two-way road—a speedometer shows a speed of 80+ m.p.h.— on the stand-in for California Route 99, which makes it very odd to me that the 192-mile drive is supposed to take 14 hours… ) Pete and “Slob” follow, offering to take Ed’s load for an increasing share of the proceeds.

I won’t reveal any more about their journeys. Nick arrives on the San Francisco waterfront as the produce market is at its peak. Mike Figlia wants his load and there is much jockeying that I will also not reveal. One gambit in it, however, involves having a loose woman (the Hollywood Production Code did not allow the existence of prostitutes to be shown), Rica (Valentina Cortese, decades before Truffaut’s “d Day for Night”) pick him up (that is, leave his truck unattended).

Most of the movie takes place at night, either on highways or on the San Francisco waterfront. No noir would be complete without a chase into an alley, or at least one late-night bar scene, a femme fatale (or more than one) for the hero to misplace trust in, etc. And some successful corrupt entrepreneurs. None of the ingredients is missing, and there are some very effective action scenes. (And at least one immortal line: “I’d rather go hungry one morning than for the rest of my life.”)

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“Thieves’ Highway” was filmed on location in San Francisco’s produce market (bulldozed in 1959 to build the Embarcadero Freeway and the Embarcadero office-towers, which in turn was demolished in the 1990s) and Santa Rosa (standing in for Fresno) by Norbert Brodine (The House on 92nd Street, Kiss of Death, Boomerang.. and I Was a Male War Bride). Figlia’s warehouse has a street sign indicating that it is on the corner of Washington and Davis Streets; the Ferry Building is also the scene of a meeting.

Dassin soon after making “Thieves’ Highway” fled the country (after being named as a former member of the US Communist Party by fellow director Edward Dmytryk). Dassin had recently made the prison melodrama “Brute Force ” and the much-heralded “The Naked City” (with its pioneering New York City location-shooting and very dated voiceover narration), and would make one of the greatest of all noirs in London (“Night and the City,” 1950) and then the legendary heist movie Rififi,” before moving on to Greece and the long-running collaboration with and marriage to Melina Mercouri (appearing onscreen with her as a priggish, narrow-minded American intellectual in “Never on Sunday”).

I especially like the record of long-gone parts of San Francisco, the noir photography and ambiance, and the performances of Valentina Cortese and Jack Oakie. Millard Mitchell and Lee J. Cobb are also very good, though rather typecast. The part of Nick is a bit too idealized for anyone to have played, and it is hard to accept Richard Conte, who played so many mobsters over the years, as the hero.

Although I ‘m not usually bothered by continuity issues, I am bothered by the doubling of the distance between Fresno and San Francisco, and, even more so, by the slashed tired on Nick’s truck (to keep it parked in front of Figlia’s warehouse) fixing themselves, so that he can spin off in a morning pursuit.

The 2004 Criterion DVD produces the rich, clear picture for which Criterion has become celebrated. It includes an excellent commentary track by noir historian Alain Silver (editor of editor of The Film Noir Reader) that calls attention to framing and shooting as well as background on the milieu and collaborators in making the movie. There are further insights entertainingly delivered by Dassin (born 1911) and some recent footage of Bezzerides (born 1908), the latter’s from a documentary about him that is in process. Both are interesting characters, but Dassin also has interesting things to say about the making of the movie (and Darryl Zanuck’s interference, including the ending which Zanuck tacked on and Dassin did not see until the movie was released in the UK). The theatrical trailer gives away too much of the plot (a lot more than my review does!) and should not be watched before the movie.

 

© 2005, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Robert Wise’s 1951 noir “The House on Telegraph Hill”

The  Fox Noir release of the 1951 movie “The House of Telegraph Hill” had multiple appeals to me. First off, the Fox Noir series has been characterized by excellent restorations and interesting commentary tracks. Second, much of the movie was filmed on location in San Francisco and I like to see how the city looked decades before I ever saw it. Third, I think that Robert Wise is an undervalued master director (despite—or because of?—having won best directing Oscars for the two big-budget musicals he directed). Fourth, the cinematographer was another (and widely recognized master), Lucien Ballard. And it starred (indeed was designed for) Valentina Cortese, whose Hollywood debut (in a Fox noir directed by Jules Dassin”, Thieves’ Highway”) impressed me, and Richard Basehart, who was electrifying in “He Walked By Night “and great in Fellini’s “La Strada” before settling into the role of Admiral Harriman Nelson on tv’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” which I watched regularly at least through its first season (1964-65).

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Although my expectations were too high and otherwise somewhat mistaken, there was much to savor on the DVD (including the movie). As (San Francisco-native) Eddie Muller notes at the start of his interesting and informative commentary track, “The House of Telegraph Hill” is less a film noir than what he calls the genre of “a woman in jeopardy” (Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and “Suspicion” and Cukor’s “Gaslight” were difficult not to think of while watching the movie; other earlier examples of the genre include, The Spiral Staircase, Night Must Fall, Sorry Wrong Number, Kind Lady, Under Capricorn, and many more). It also owes much the tradition of Gothic fiction (Jane Eyre, and, again, Rebecca).

The initial menace to the character portrayed by Cortesa is the Nazi concentration camp in which she is interred (Belsen, I think), having lost her home and husband and freedom. There is a whole lot of plot, and the plotting by the main two characters is intensely self-serving — which is fittingly noirish, though the other two leading characters are not self-serving, which is confusing in the noir universe, but occurs in Gothic romances.

For reasons far too complicated to get into here, Cortesa’s character becomes Mrs. Alan Spender. Mr. Alan Spender is portrayed (brilliantly!) by Richard Basehart, who could turn from sympathetic to menacing and back again on less than a dime (a penny?). Through most of the movie, the viewer is not certain whether he is solicitous toward his wife because he is concerned about her “nerves” or monitoring to make sure he doesn’t discover whatever Dark Truth there may be. Although she seems to have surprisingly little post-traumatic stress disorder (and no evidence of survivor guilt), she is tormented by guilt and by uncertainty about her husband.

He serves her orange juice instead of milk, as Cary Grant served Joan Fontaine in “Suspicion.” Californians (especially transplants) feel that fresh-squeezed orange juice every day is one of our prerogatives, but a big glass right before going to sleep? Milk is more common for that, I think.

That is a minor implausibility. There are other plot points that require a strong will to suspend disbelief, particularly that the US Army major who processed her papers in Poland, is a prosperous San Francisco lawyer, who becomes the third point of one triangle (one of two triangles, or is it a double triangle with the boy and three adults in that Gothic mansion high on Telegraph Hill?).

The house is a major character with very opulent interiors. From the commentary track, I learned that its Victorian facade was installed after the restaurant (Julius’s Castle, at the corner of Montgomery and Greenwich streets) closed on Sunday night, and all the exteriors were filmed before it reopened Tuesday. (Surprisingly, the major Telegraph Hill landmark, which is very nearby, Coit Tower, is never shown in the movie.)

The backdrops—and the car plunging out of control—were filmed on location. There is a scene of Market at Montgomery ca. 1950 and scenes with one or another bridge in the background. Like the chase scene in “Bullit,” the brakeless car scene was shot on location, but makes no geographic sense. (Much of the chase scene of “Bullit” was shot on the hill where I live, but lurched onto other hills in the city.) Scenes of the car going in both directions on Union Street are included (it ends on a cul-de-sac on Montgomery and Montague Place).

I wasn’t disappointed by the glimpses of San Francisco of another era, and I wasn’t disappointed by Lucien Ballard’s cinematography. I’ve already categorized Richard Basehart’s mercurial mood shifts as “brilliant.” Cortesa (whom Muller says had too much style for Hollywood to handle) had a very interesting face. It also has to register many moods, sometimes conflicting ones simultaneously. Although she was having major problems with English, she sounds like a rapidly acculturating refugee. And, as head of Fox Studios Darryl Zanuck was seeking to build her into being a star, she had a very extensive and glamorous wardrobe (especially in contrast with “Thieves’ Highway” in which she had no change of clothes). The studio went all out in set direction and art direction, too (netting an Oscar nomination; that of the winner, “Streetcar Named Desire” is much less impressive, and it’s a puzzlement that the costume design didn’t even get nominated).

The all-American boy was played with open-faced perfection by Gordon Gebert (most memorable in a real noir from the next year, “The Narrow Margin”). Fay Baker was excellent as the governess (less flamboyant than Judith Anderson in “Rebecca,” keeping the audience guessing about what she knows and feels). As a friend who is obviously in love with her, I agree with Fuller that Richard Lundigan was too bland (like Joseph Cotten in “Gaslight,” more a plot device than a character).

I do not agree with him that Lundigan and Basehart look too much alike. They don’t look very alike to me even if one ignores that Lundigan was noticeably taller or that Lundigan was underplaying (not that Basehart was a raving maniac, something he was certainly capable of portraying).

The story of Basehart and Cortesa hiding their romance, even after the movie, secretly marrying, and Basehart abandoning Hollywood to be with her Italy makes for an interesting story—and Fuller’s commentary track is racier than a 1951 Hollywood movie could be. (He explains several demands by the censors, including one about the anticlimax—which I thought stimulated some creativity on the part of the movie-makers.) Cortesa had three near-death experiences in the early-1950s (an acute appendicitis, a car crash, and peritonitis), and lived to the age of 96, dying in June 2019).

I’d have preferred a more obsessive, more noirish film. The opening concentration camp scenes seem tame (but may not have to 1951 audiences protected from too much reality making it to the screens), and the elaborate plot takes some hard swallowing, but there is much solid craftsmanship and stars who are interesting to look at.

In addition to Muller’s sometimes vulgar, very opinionated, but never dull commentary track, the DVD has a gallery of posters and stills, and the theatrical trailer. The trailer includes major plot-spoilers, and should not be viewed first.

 

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

1953 Fritz Lang noir: “The Blue Gardenia”

I watched “The Blue Gardenia” (1953) as part of my own ongoing retrospective of Hollywood films made by refugees from Hitler. It was directed by Fritz Lang, whom I credit for inventing “cinema noir” in turning the threatening shadows of German Expressionist cinema to crime melodramas, starting with “M” before he left Germany and “Fury” (1936) and “You Only Live Once” (1937), his first American movies, on through “The Big Heat” to his last American movies (both released in 1956) “While the City Sleeps” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.”

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“The Blue Gardenia” is marketed as a noir, and the middle third of it has the look of one (shot by Nicholas Musuraca also photographed “Cat People” and “Out of the Past ” for Jacques Tourneur, “The Spiral Staircase” for Robert Siodmak, and “Clash by Night” for Lang). The first half hour seems like a 1950s tv series about “working gals” (not that I remember anything about the Ann Sothern tv series that were syndicated and rerun during the 1960s except her voice and her terminal pertness).

There are three young and very blonde women who work in Los Angeles’ central long-distance switchboard who also share a one-bedroom apartment. The savviest “gal” is Crystal, played by Ann Sothern, who was 44. The other two are geriatric adolescents (both 31): Sally (“Miss Jeff Donnell,” who went on to play Tony Curtis’s secretary in “Sweet Smell of Success”) is addicted to slasher paperbacks and marks her place when interrupted with her chewing gum and Norah (the title character from “All About Eve”) whose childhood sweetheart (they grew up in Bakersfield) is in Korea.

The movie begins at work, where a large and slimy lothario, Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr before becoming Perry Mason), is sketching Crystal. I have no idea why either he or L.A. Chronicle newspaper columnist Casey Mayo have access to the “gals” at work. At first I thought that Prebble worked there. I also don’t understand who thought that Richard Conte (House of Stranger, Whirlpool, and, much later, the snakey Don Barzini in “The Godfather”) was a romantic leading man. I guess that it is part of Norah’s naivété that she trusts him…

But first, the “gals” go home and get ready for the night. Crystal has an automotive date (drive-in food, drive-in movie, driving around) with her ex-husband, Homer). Sally learns that there is a new slasher novel by her favorite author in and rushes out to get it. Norah has a special occasion birthday dinner planned for herself, the picture of her absent soldier boyfriend, and an unopened letter from him to read by candlelight, sipping champagne.

Plot Spoilers follow

Pathetic as Norah’s solo dinner is to begin with, the letter tells her that the man she is waiting for has found true love and is marrying another. All dressed up and no longer to enjoy even the fantasy company of the distant boyfriend, when Prebble calls to invite Crystal (I think) to dinner, Norah accepts. She’s already dressed for a chic night spot (I don’t know what taffeta is or which consonant is doubled in it, but the audience is told multiple times during the movie that her dress is black taffeta). Prebble decides a bird in hand is something, gets her drunk, and then back to his apartment (she believes that there is a party with other people there…) After taking off her hat and shoes, Norah wards off Prebble’s shocking (ha ha) advances and raising a poker shatters a mirror.

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That’s all she remembers. She passes out and finds Prebble dead by bludgeoning when she wakes up. She flees in the rain barefoot. (How she gets home in sprawling LA, we don’t learn). She doesn’t remember killing him, but assumes she must have.

Casey Mayo is the first newsman on the scene and uses his column to invite the “Blue Gardenia murderess” to give him an exclusive on her story in exchange for top legal representation. His column addressing the murderess is the second letter she reads during the movie. Tentatively she responds and he believes her when she claims to be a friend of the woman whose 5B pumps were on the murder scene.

Not least from having seen other Lang movies with someone hunted for a crime he did not commit, that Norah didn’t do it was as obvious to me as was the identity of the woman who did kill Prebble. Surprisingly to me, some have complained of a trick ending. That the police detective is convinced by Mayo to continue investigating after arresting Norah is not very plausible, and the ending is perfunctory. The “key” is a recording of the Liebestod from “Tristan and Isolde.” Wagner had to be heavy weight for a refugee from Hitler, especially for the director of an alternate version (alternate to Wagner’s) of the Niebelunglied, but what it means to any of the characters is not made clear.

End of plot spoilings

 

I guess that the movie, like those of Douglas Sirk, yet another refugee from Germany, is in part a critique of vapid consumerist culture (Mayo’s column, Sally’s trashy paperbacks, the fashionability of black taffeta that season, the drive-ins (and freeways), watching too much tv, etc.)

Richard Conte is totally inadequate as the romantic hero and the frightened heroine is too native to have reached her 30s on her own in the Big, Bad City. The wise-cracking but protective Ann Sothern is amusing, but plausible in her job and lodgings? The playboy Raymond Burr is entertaining, perhaps more from his iconic later status as Perry Mason.

Women so pert as the three roommates are a novelty in cinema noir. Maybe the iconic status of Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington makes it harder to accept that she is so naive here. A noir with a victimized heroine instead of a femme fatale is a novelty. I guess that Raymond Burr takes the position as the fatal momentary attraction (an un-femme femme fatale). Richard Conte is cynical enough as the solver of the murder mystery.

The Blue Gardenia (a Chinese restaurant with more chambers than a chambered nautilus that also features a cocktail pianist played by Nat King Cole singing the title song) is strikingly photographed, and Prebble’s “bachelor pad” is amusing, too. As in all Lang movies, there are interesting visual compositions. Those in the first and last thirds are far too bright to be part of a noir. The middle third in which Prebble is a valued customer and then a preying mantis (OK, wolf! I do know how to spell the insect’s name, but the life cycle fits…), and the late-night cafe are noir territory, though even the middle third is rather brightly lit for cinema noir.

 

Lang was working on a low budget (the movie was shot in 20 days) with a cast he didn’t choose but he still managed to inject some of the Lang look and feel (but, certainly not the ending!). He had more control and a better cast the next year to make the masterpiece “The Big Heat,” and anyone looking for the best noirs (rather than filling out their life list of Lang movies, as I am) would do better watching that or “You Only Live Once, ” or—for newspapermen solving murders—”While the City Sleeps.” (I like the somewhat noirish but filmed-in-color western “Rancho Notorious” (1952) more, though it also strikes me as perfunctory in its ending.)

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Early Fred Zinnemann I: The Search (1947) and The Kid Glove Killer (1942)

A quasi-documentary about World War II and concentration camp orphans, “The Search” (1947), is the movie that inspires the young Filipino whose parents have been ripped from him to envision Montgomery Clift as a patron in the Lavender Quill award-winning novel Letters to Montgomery Clift. Until I read Noël Alumit’s poignant novel, I had conflated “The Search” with “The Big Lift” in which Montgomery Clift also played an American soldier in occupied Germany. Having finally seen “The Search,” it is very clear why Clift would seem the kind of patron Bong Bong sought.

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The young boy who survived Auschwitz, Karel (Ivan Jandl) believes that when he and his friend/protector/fellow orphan are put on trucks to move children from a processing facility to an orphanage that they are being dispatched to be killed. They escape. The friend drowns, and Karel’s cap found in the river leads the authorities to believe he must also have drowned.

The now mute and feral child is lured out of the rubble of what is supposed to be Munich (but is actually Nuremberg) by a sandwich G.I. Ralph Stevenson (Montgomery Clift) sets out for him. Gradually he wins the boy over, takes him to the house where he is billeted with a wry but supportive buddy Jeff Fisher (Wendell Corey), and is making arrangements to adopt the boy and take him to America—having taught the child fluent English in about a week.

Karl’s mother, Hannah Malik (Czech opera star Jarmila Novotna) meanwhile has found the facility in which her son was last seen and recognized the cap dredged out of the river. Aline MacMahon (Man from Laramie, Ah Wilderness!) as Mrs. Murray), the woman in charge of sorting orphans (and the voice-over narrator is more benign than bureaucratic, convinced Mrs. Malik to help with other children traumatized like her (thought-to-be) dead son.

 

Although Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997) got his start in documentaries (and had won an Oscar for a documentary short), after the quasi-documentary of the first three-quarters hour, the movie turns Hollywood heartwarming, and there is little doubt that there will be a joyful reunion of mother and son. Rather than the neorealism of Rosselini’s portrayal of children who survived the war (the Naples episode of Paisá, and Germany, Year Zero) or of the young boys in de Sica’s Shoeshine, Zinnemann provided neo-Shirley Temple, adding a slew of wise, caring, and nearly saintly adults. If pressed, I’d claim that the leitmotif in Zinnemann’s films (From Here to Eternity, High Noon, A Man for All Seasons, Julia, A Member of the Wedding, etc.) is individualism, lonely standing out/standing alone. Though many of his films were honored and continue to be held in high esteem, no one has made a case for him as an auteur. His films do not share a particular look, even if there is a recurrent shared theme in them.

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Though ultimately cloying and conventional, there are some good reasons to watch this film:

(1) It is the first movie performance of Montgomery Clift that was released (though “Red River” was made first). (Zinnemmann also directed a quasidocumentary, “The Men,” which was Marlon Brando’s first screen appearance.)

(2) It is one of the few movies in which one may see Jarmila Novotna.

(3) It contains one of those striking child performances: Ivan Jandl received a special Oscar for Outstanding Juvenile Performance, and never made another film.

(4) Along with “Germany, Year Zero” and “A Foreign Affair,” “The Search” shows the devastation of German cities (records Sebald ignored in The Natural History of Destruction.

(5) Perhaps it is time to consider Zinnemann’s oeuvre as an oeuvre.

+++

 

Although Fred Zinneman’s first feature-film (“Kid Glove Killer,” 1942) is only 74 minutes long, it drags some in the middle with didactic crime lab stuff. It’s also perplexing that the suave mob-paid special prosecutor (Lee Bowman) would undertake planting a bomb to blow up the cleanup mayor himself, but if that is swallowed the rest of the film with Van Heflin’s skinny forensic expert handicapped by the love interest (Marsha Hunt) being an unwitting informant about the investigation for the killer is taut. The fistfight at the end is a little hokey too, but Van Heflin’s poor dart-throwing ability has an amusing and crucial payoff. Whodunit or why are never in question. The audience knows who the fall guy will be at once, and who the killer is almost at once, but there is still the suspense of evidence collection and destruction and wondering how the lab assistant will react. (Plus looking for Ava Gardner: she has a brief scene as a car-hop.)

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

A mongoose scratching at a well-fed cobra

Although Joan Crawford made many movies that have not seen, it seems that most cast her as a determined-to-rise and quick-study woman from the wrong side of the tracks. Her characters have to overcome considerable disdain from those born to the upper class and flashes of self-doubt. Although she often seems to be using men whose status is higher than their IQs or will, generally the screenplays try to make the audience believe that she really loves the men and give her chances to prove devotion beyond her interest in securing and maintaining a status in the elite of whatever locality she is operating in.

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The 1949 “Flamingo Road,” based on a long-forgotten best-selling novel, sticks to the formula; indeed it reunites director (Michael Curtiz), male and female leads (Zachary Scott and Crawford), and, unfortunately, supplier of frenzied overkill music (Max Steiner) from “Mildred Pierce,” the overwrought melodrama that revived Crawford’s career after she was dumped by MGM and won her an Oscar.

I have been watching a number of late-1940s movies in which the leads were far too old for their parts (Greer Garson in “Valley of Decision”, Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin in “B. F.’s Daughter”), but at least those other movies covered long spans. Even with repeated reference to being tired of knocking around, Crawford was fifteen years too old for the part of the traveling-carnival exotic dancer who does not flee with the carnival. She was also ten years older than Zachary Scott, who was also 5-10 years too old for the part of Fielding Carlisle, the son of the deceased, highly respected Judge Carlisle and protégé of the local boss eager to use that family name.

The boss, Sheriff Titus Semple (played with cold, calm menace by Sidney Greenstreet), has made Field a deputy sheriff with few responsibilities, but sends him to serve papers attaching the carnival for nonpayment of debts. The only remnant of the carnival is a tent in which Lane Bellamy (Crawford) is listening to the radio. Field takes her to a diner and gets her a job waitressing there. Such a romance does not fit with Titus’s plans. He more or less orders Field to marry a member of the local elite (those who live on Flamingo Road) Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston).

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Titus also makes Lane disappear, having her picked up and thrown in jail for 30 days for soliciting prostitution. Lane is not so easily driven off. She makes some interesting alliances with a man and a woman of some independence from Titus. Much of the fun of the movie is watching Crawford and Greenstreet glower at each other while making polite talk in front of others., Eventually, they have it out alone in private.

In that Crawford really did rise from the wrong side of town through dancing and marrying up (ultimately to the president of Pepsi Cola), as well as making a career out of playing upwardly mobile women, her clawing her way up the social (/economic) ladder is believable. The problem is that her character could not possibly have kicked around as a second-string feature in a third-run carnival so long before starting her ascent. The incongruity of the 45-year-old in the part of Lane is only made more glaring by the repeated references to her as a “girl.”

What redeems the movie is the relentlessness of the story and of the antagonists. In the immense Sidney Greenstreet, Crawford had a rare male worthy opponent. (The only time I can think of that Crawford was overmatched was by Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, though Mercedes McCambridge in “Johnny Guitar” and Ann Blyth in “Mildred Pierce” were formidable in their hatreds of her.) In earlier roles (Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) Greenstreet played grasping, amoral characters with a certain amount of sardonic charm. Titus is content for people to maintain their stereotypes of joviality being a concomitant of fat, but is a completely cold-blooded grafter. His smiles are mostly grim. If he has any emotions, they are so well padded that they do not emerge. As Crawford goes from being potential trouble for his plans to being a clear-and-present lethal danger, he never shows anger. He drinks pitchers of milk, rocks on the porch of the Palmer House Hotel, collects his graft in cash, minimizes movements, and pulls strings to bring down anyone who gets in his way.

Zachary Scott was good at being pushed around (as in “Mildred Pierce”). Gladys George played savvy survivors in many movies and provides a leavening of wit to the fast-rising melodrama. Fred Clark plays against type, an idealist newspaperman who dares to criticize the corrupt state and local government (which state is not specified; from the title, one might think Florida, a state that democracy still has not reached; but the milieu seems as western as southern). David Brian plays a peculiarly written role of a builder who became a political boss because contracting in the state was so corrupt that he could not be an honest builder. He falls fast and hard for Crawford, which ensures that Greenstreet will arrange legal troubles for him.

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If one can accept Joan Crawford starting her move upward looking obviously more than 40, and enjoys watching evenly matched characters battling to the death like a mongoose (Crawford) and a cobra (Greenstreet), “Flamingo Road” is a lot of fun. It certainly has a consciousness of class that is missing in third millennium American movies (to take an instance with another machine-picked politician named Fielding, “Waking the Dead”). For all its cynicism about electoral democracy, like so many late-40s Hollywood movies, “Flamingo Road” affirms the American dream of rising in the social and economic hierarchy through individual effort, making it is an interesting document of postwar American ideology. It also shows that 1949’s Oscared “best picture,” “All the King’s Men,” was not unique in portraying graft-ridden government and political bosses (which Preston Sturges had already done in “The Great McInty,” anyway.) A bonus is the nourish look provided by cinematographer Ted D. McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden).

 

©2002, Stephen O. Murray

A conventional revenge quest: Sam Fuller’s “Underworld USA”

 If I hadn’t known otherwise in advance, I’d have thought that Sam Fuller‘s 1961 “Underworld U.S.A.” dated from a decade or so earlier, when the existence of organized crime above the local level was first being explained to Hollywood movie audiences — movies like “The Street with No Name” (1948). “Thieves Highway” (1949 and “Phenix City Story” (1955)..

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“Underworld USA”  does not seem to me to be more violent a revenge noir than “The Big Heat” (1953). It is also less outlandish than most Fuller movies, lacking the quirkiness of “Pickup on South Street” (1953) and others I think that it is the most conventional Sam Fuller movie I’ve seen.

At the start a fourteen-year-old boy sees his father gunned down outside the “Elite,” the dive run by his father’s girlfriend Sandy (Beatrice Kay), Tolly Devlin refuses to tell the police investigator, Driscoll (Larry Gates), but swears to make the killer pay.

Tolly is a safe cracker and serves a 5-year prison term, during which he finds one of the four, Vic Farrar, learns the names of the other three and slits Farrar’s throat.

Out of prison, staying with Sandy, Tolly (Cliff Robertson plays the adult Tolly) begins infiltrating the rackets, starting with Gela (Paul Dubov) and the other killers who have become bosses of particular rackets, Gunther (Gerald Milton), and Smith (Allan Gruener). (They are underlins of Conners (Robert Emhardt), who spends his time in a bathrobe by a swimming pool where “underprivileged children” have meets once a month.)

Tolly acquires a peroxided moll, Cuddles (Dolores Dorn) who seems to have had a heroin habit and was about to be bumbed off by Gela’s muscle, Gus (Richard Rust, the most memorable gunsel since/after Elisha Cook, Jr. in “The Maltese Falcon,” but much better at his job).

With the aid of Driscoll or aiding Driscoll, Tolly sets up his father’s killers to stop trusting each other and to kill each other off. Cuddles wants to settle down and live happily ever after with him — after testifying that is. Witnesses don’t generally live to take the stand, but…

I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Sandy lights into Tolly, calling Cuddles a giant and Tolly a midget. I guess Sandy’s collection of baby dolls is a trace of the usual Fuller perversity, and the femmes fatales with hearts of cold under tough exteriors in Fuller movies tended to platinum/peroxide blond (Constance Tower being the most memorable one in “The Naked Kiss”).

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Other than the ferocity of Cliff Robertson’s performance, there is nothing out of the ordinary in this relatively late noir that feels like an earlier organized crime illustration. Robertson had quite a vicious gleam and played some ruthless characters during the early 1960s (The Best Man, for one). It is said that “you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time,” but it seems that the mob bosses here are easily fooled.

There’s not much (if any!) chemistry between Robertson and Dolores Dorn, but he does relate convincingly with Beatrice Kay as his surrogate mother.

Cinematographer Hal Mohr shot movies in many genres, but was not a notable noir cinematographer (except for Don Siegel’s 1958 “The Lineup”; I haven’t seen “Woman on the Run” or Siegel’s “Babyface Nelson”).

The pacing is erratic, there is (as in all Fuller movies) some clumsy dialogue along with the quirky women and obsessive men. There are worse ways to while away 99 minutes, but there are also many better noirs and gangster movies.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray