Human Desire

Released August 5, 1954: HUMAN DESIRE, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Broderick Crawford.  Directed by Fritz Lang (Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat).  After losing his job, humandesireBroderick Crawford asks his much younger wife (Gloria Grahame) to put in a good word for him with a wealthy business owner (Grandon Rhodes), whom Grahame has known since childhood.  Grahame is reluctant to meet with Rhodes, but Crawford insists.  After the meeting, Crawford becomes livid when he suspects Grahame of having an affair with Rhodes.  Blinded by rage, he beats her and forces her to write a note to Rhodes arranging a rendezvous, where he ambushes Rhodes and kills him.  Crawford gets away with the murder, but in the aftermath, his marriage to Grahame becomes severely strained.  She wants nothing to do with him, but can’t leave because he threatens to expose the note she wrote, which would implicate her in the murder, so they continue to share a tormented existence in their small home.  Meanwhile, Grahame befriends one of Crawford’s co-workers (Glenn Ford) and they quickly fall in love.  When Crawford loses his job again and plans to move to another town with Grahame, she desperately tries to manipulate Ford into murdering Crawford so she and Ford can continue to be together.  Regardless of the outcome, this will not end well. The film opens with a long and beautifully shot sequence of Ford, who is a train engineer, bringing a train into his home station.  The camera angles from the front, back, and sides of the train as it roars down the track are spectacular, and the decoupling and parking of the engine in the train yard after it arrives is a fascinating bit of train business that we don’t normally get to see.  Trains and the train yard are a significant presence in this film.  Both Ford and Crawford work for the train company and the film is permeated with footage of trains and location shots in and around the yard.  All of the murders take place on trains and even Crawford’s home is located beside the train yard, where the noise of passing trains is ever present.  Although the train theme itself doesn’t have a direct impact on the story, it creates a unique atmospheric backdrop that can’t be ignored.  Ultimately, this film revolves around Gloria Grahame’s painful story arc.  At first glance, it’s tempting to view her as a scheming femme fatale plotting to kill her husband, similar to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, but Grahame’s situation is much more complex and heartbreaking.  She is a tragic figure trapped in a life of misery that started when she was sexually abused by Rhodes as a teenager.  Her subsequent marriage to Crawford was flawed from the beginning, and quickly deteriorated from bad to oppressive.  Crawford is physically abusive, and through blackmail, essentially keeps her prisoner.  With no one to turn to for help, it’s not surprising she desperately clings to Ford and is willing to do anything to be with him.  This story is a sobering commentary on the plight of women in a male dominated world.  And indeed, when Grahame tries to strike out on her own at the end of the film, she pays the ultimate price.  The entire cast is excellent, with Crawford and Grahame in particular, giving genuinely powerful performances.  This was the second film directed by Fritz Lang pairing Ford and Grahame.  The year before, they made The Big Heat, which was a slightly stronger effort, thanks to a taught and tension-filled story.  The story in Human Desire is much more claustrophobic and somber, and Lang was wise to infuse the film with train footage to help impart a sense of motion and momentum.  Although not Lang’s strongest effort, the superb performances make this anguished story very watchable.  We give Human Desire 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

3.5 Fedoras

Black Angel

Premiered August 2, 1946: BLACK ANGEL, starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, and Peter Lorre.  Directed by Roy William Neill (Eyes of the Underworld, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Woman in Green).  John Phillips is wrongly convicted of the murder of a nightclub singer (Constance Dowling).  blackangelIn a desperate attempt to save him from the electric chair, Phillips’ wife (June Vincent) embarks on a quest to prove his innocence before the execution date.  Her investigation leads to Dowling’s estranged husband (Dan Duryea) who becomes interested when he learns the killer took a brooch he had given to Dowling.  Together, Vincent and Duryea zero in on a shady nightclub owner (Peter Lorre), who was seen visiting Dowling the night she was killed, and come up with a plan to expose him.  For the most part, this film feels like a run-of-the-mill whodunit, albeit with darker overtones.  The first two-thirds plod along slowly with minimal story progression, as we spend a significant amount of time watching Vincent and Duryea get to know each other before they eventually attempt to uncover proof of Lorre’s guilt.  Unfortunately, the lukewarm on-screen chemistry between Duryea and Vincent and the lack of any real suspense makes for a rather ho-hum affair.  But thankfully, the story gets a revitalizing shot in the arm during the last third, when, just as we’re lulled into thinking we have it all figured out, events take an unexpected turn and previous assumptions about the murder are called into question.  The mystery ultimately resolves itself a little too neatly, but at least we were treated to a much needed foray into creative storytelling in the home stretch.  Dan Duryea was a staple of classic film noir and is always a joy to watch on screen.  In Black Angel, he steps out of his typical oily roles to play a nice guy, which is commendable, but not exactly an ideal fit.  His natural ingratiating manner, that serves him so well in sleazier parts, gives him an aura of inappropriate insincerity in this film, especially during the more intimate scenes with Vincent.  For her part, Vincent doesn’t offer up much screen magic.  Mired in the lumbering plot, her range of emotions are limited to sadness or despair, with only a brief respite during a couple of musical numbers.  Although Black Angel is largely unspectacular, it does deliver a competent murder mystery, benefitted by a gratifying plot boost in the final stages.  There are many better noirs worth watching before you sit down with this one, but eventually, it’s worth a look.  We give Black Angel 2.5 out of 5 fedoras.

2.5 Fedoras

The Night of the Hunter

Premiered July 26, 1955: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish.  Directed by Charles Laughton (The Man on the Eiffel Tower – uncredited).  During the Great Depression, a father (Peter Graves) desperate to provide for his family, steals thenightofthehunter$10,000 and kills two people in the process.  With the police closing in on him, he hides the money in his young daughter’s (Sally Jane Bruce) rag doll and makes her and her older brother (Billy Chapin) swear to never tell anyone about the money.  After Graves is arrested and sentenced to death, he shares a cell with Robert Mitchum, who is serving a short sentence for car theft.  But what the authorities don’t know is that Mitchum is a woman-hating serial killer, who drifts from town to town posing as a righteous preacher, bilking unsuspecting widows out of their money and eventually slitting their throats.  Mitchum overhears Graves talking in his sleep about the stolen money, but Graves never reveals where it’s hidden.  After Graves is executed and Mitchum released, he becomes obsessed with finding the money and insinuates himself into Graves’ family, eventually marrying his widow (Shelley Winters).  Everyone in town thinks he’s a saint and only Chapin sees him for what he truly is.  As Mitchum becomes increasingly abusive in his pursuit of the money, Chapin and Bruce escape by floating down a river in a skiff, while Mitchum relentlessly pursues them on land.  Much has been said about this film, and opinions tend to be deeply divided between those who hold it up as an artistic masterpiece and those who see it as a misguided hodgepodge of bad writing, inelegant directing, and sloppy storytelling.  Viewed from a purely analytical standpoint, this film certainly has its share of flaws, many of which are difficult to overlook.  However, The Night of the Hunter is capable of delivering a uniquely rewarding experience if the viewer is willing to accept the film for what it is and let the story lead the way.  One of the most striking attributes of this film is its highly stylized look, which fluctuates between the real and the surreal.  Indeed, the film works best when it presents itself as a poetically surrealistic fable. The dreamlike sequence of the children floating down the river, the silhouette of Mitchum riding a horse on a distant horizon, and the expressionist rendering of Mitchum and Winters’ bedroom are among the film’s many beautiful and hauntingly unforgettable images.  When in a surrealistic mode, this film takes on the feel of a children’s story, where aspects of reality are exaggerated, while others are simply ignored, and characters’ actions and motivations don’t necessarily adhere to the expectations of the real world.  Unfortunately, the film slips in and out of this surrealistic approach, and problems arise when depicting a realistic world while characters continue to behave as if they’re in an altered reality.  Perhaps if Laughton had consistently maintained a surrealistic style, many of the criticisms leveled against this film might be easier to dismiss.  It’s a missed opportunity, because this film creates a mesmerizing tapestry when fully embracing its surrealistic nature, but as it is, it’s too tempting to ask bubble-bursting questions like: why didn’t the children simply exit their boat on the other side of the river to get away from Mitchum?  Why didn’t the children spend some of the $10,000 they were carrying to hop a train or riverboat to completely elude Mitchum?  Why didn’t Shelley Winters take action to protect her children when she overheard Mitchum threatening them?  Why didn’t Lillian Gish call the authorities immediately after Mitchum threatened to return at night?  Why does Gish sing a duet with Mitchum as he waits outside her house, intent on killing her?  These and many more, are the sort of vexatious, yet perfectly legitimate questions that come to mind as you watch the film.  So to enjoy the good things this movie has to offer, mute your analytical left brain and let yourself be swept away by the atmospheric storytelling, creative visual style, poetic expressionism, and Mitchum’s thoroughly memorable and malevolent villain.  We wouldn’t dare question how and why Astaire & Rogers suddenly break into song and dance in the middle of a scene, and a similar acceptance of modified reality is required to fully appreciate this film.  That said, there’s no getting around the film’s disappointing ending, which completely fails to deliver the satisfaction we deserve after the hour-plus buildup that preceded it.  Watching Mitchum quickly whisked away in a police car to avoid a lynch mob cheats us out of the much needed resolution of seeing him brought to justice in a meaningful way.  Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself if The Night of the Hunter is worthy of the accolades it receives or if it should simply be dismissed as bad film making.  We recognize the film’s many faults, and yet, still find its imaginative style and Mitchum’s unrelentingly menacing performance to be extremely compelling and well worth watching.  We give The Night of the Hunter 4 out of 5 fedoras.

4 Fedoras

Jealousy

Released July 23, 1945: JEALOUSY, starring Jane Randolph, John Loder, Karen Morley, and Nils Asther.  Directed by Gustav Machaty (Ecstacy, Nocturne, Within the Law).  This rare noir gem is infused with a dark, somber mood that rarely lets up.  Jane Randolph lives in Los Angeles jealousywith her Eastern European husband (Nils Asther), who was once a prolific and successful writer.  After fleeing his war torn homeland, Asther is unable to re-establish his stature in the US, and gradually succumbs to drinking, depression, and even attempted suicide.  To make ends meet and support Asther, Randolph works as a cab driver (female cab drivers were a new phenomenon in 1940s America, emerging during WWII due to the shortage of men stateside), but her home life with Asther is beyond miserable.  One day, she befriends one of her fares, a handsome doctor (John Loder), and eventually they fall in love.  However, Loder’s longtime assistant (Karen Morley), a brilliant doctor in her own right, has been secretly in love with Loder for many years, and she bristles at Randolph’s romantic intrusion.  Morley puts on a friendly face in Randolph’s presence, and even goes shopping and lunches with her, but when she learns Randolph intends to divorce Asther, and Loder wants to quit his practice to be with Randolph, she becomes desperate.  Seizing an opportune moment, Morley uses Randolph’s gun to murder Asther, and plants evidence to frame Randolph for the murder.  There are very few smiles to be seen in this bleak story.  Even the joy of Randolph and Loder’s blossoming love is darkened by Morley’s burning jealousy and Asther’s possessiveness.  The weight of the story is further reinforced by slow, deliberate pacing that has us wallowing in Randolph’s hopeless life with her despondent husband.  It isn’t until well into the second half of the film that Asther is murdered, and by that time, we’re ready to embrace the brief sense of relief it brings with open arms.  While most of the film is shot in a conventional style, there are a few isolated flourishes of cinematic creativity and experimentation to be found.  The film’s opening features a montage of tilted angle shots that culminates in a shaky point-of-view sequence from inside Randolph’s cab.  Later in the film, the handheld POV technique is used once again as we inhabit Asther’s murderer running to and from the scene of the crime.  And the final scene between Loder and Morley makes use of some striking low-angle deep focus shots.  These scattered forays into adventurous cinematography make us wish the director had dared to be as bold with the rest of the film.  But ultimately, it’s the atmospheric story and competent cast, Jane Randolph and Karen Morley in particular, that help this gloomy little film transcend its low-budget limitations.  We give Jealousy 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

3.5 Fedoras

C-Man

Released May 27, 1949: C-MAN, starring Dean Jagger, John Carradine, Harry Landers, and Lottie Elwen.  Directed by Joseph Lerner (Guilty Bystander, Mister Universe, The King’s Musketeers).  Dean Jagger is a U.S. Customs agent pursuing a ring of jewel thieves who stole an extremely valuable necklace and murdered his longtime friend and coworker.  C-ManWhile following the primary suspect (Rene Paul) on a flight from Paris to New York, Jagger meets a beautiful woman from Holland (Lottie Elwen) who becomes ill during the flight and falls unconscious.  But all is not as it seems.  She was drugged by Paul’s accomplice, a discredited doctor (John Carradine), who hides the stolen necklace on her person.  When the plane lands, Elwen is whisked off in an ambulance accompanied by Paul’s violent thug (Harry Landers), who is tasked with recovering the necklace from Elwen.  However, Elwen manages to escape and is found by Jagger, who must now keep her and the necklace safe while he tries to bring Paul’s gang to justice.  C-Man is a captivatingly crude example of 1940s indie film making.  There is nothing polished or sophisticated about this offbeat film, and ultimately, that’s its greatest strength.  The stripped-down production values and raw handheld camera work give the film a refreshingly visceral and gritty documentary-like feel.  This is perhaps most evident in the startlingly violent fight scenes that have an edge of spontaneous realism, making us wonder if the participants are actually getting hurt.  Adding to the film’s edginess is the avant-garde jazz soundtrack, with its unsettling chord structures and jarring horn stabs.  Like many low-budget noirs, the outdoor scenes are shot on location in the streets of the city.  But instead of typical Hollywood frames of towering Manhattan skyscrapers, we are treated to run down neighborhoods, liquor stores, and seedy hotels, all of which add to the film’s atmospheric cocktail of crudeness.  However, for a film of this caliber, the acting is surprisingly competent, which can’t be said for all low-budget noirs.  While he doesn’t ooze with charisma, Dean Jagger makes a likeable enough protagonist.  The script has his character take a low key approach in most situations.  So much so, that he ends up enduring several severe beatings during the course of his investigation.  John Carradine gets top billing along with Jagger, but unfortunately, only appears in a couple of scenes and is never given the opportunity to make a significant impact.  The most charismatic, if not slightly over-the-top, performance comes from Harry Landers, who plays Paul’s psychotic bulldog on a leash.  Physically, he is considerably smaller than most of his co-stars, yet he uses his high-strung volatility to create a violently intimidating enforcer.  The film moves along at a fast pace, so when a scene doesn’t work, it never lingers long enough to spoil the viewing experience.  The story can be a little hard to follow in places, either because of crude editing or muffled dialog, but it never veers so far off course that you can’t quickly recover your bearings a minute later.  It would be easy to dismiss C-Man as B movie (or even C movie, if you will) trash, but the guerilla production, gritty violence, and serviceable acting combine to create a quirky art film feel.  It is by no means an elegant picture, but therein lies its charm.  We give C-Man 3 out of 5 fedoras.

3 Fedoras

Jeanne Crain

Happy birthday to actress JeanneCrainJeanne Crain, born May 25, 1925 in Barstow, CA.  Crain’s family moved to Los Angeles when she was 9 years old, where as a young teen, she took an interest in acting and eventually studied drama at UCLA.  In 1943 she landed a small uncredited part in the film, The Gang’s All Here.  Her first substantial role was in Home in Indiana (1944), which led to star billing in In the Meantime, Darling (1944).  Unfortunately, the latter was a flop and critics panned Crain’s performance.  However, later that year she managed to recover with a strong showing in Winged Victory (1944).  The following year, Crain starred in the musical State Fair (1945), which would be the first of several Hollywood musicals to feature her.  Crain primarily appeared in comedies and romances, but her dramatic turn in Pinky (1949) earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.  Other notable films include: Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) with Myrna Loy, People Will Talk (1951) with Cary Grant, and The Joker is Wild (1957) with Frank Sinatra.  Crain also ventured into film noir territory four times:  Leave Her to Heaven (1945-color) with Gene Tierney, Dangerous Crossing (1953) with Michael Rennie, Vicki (1953) with Jean Peters, and The Tattered Dress (1957) with Jeff Chandler.  In the 1960s, Crain appeared in fewer than ten films, and was seen only sporadically on television.  Her final film role was in Skyjacked (1972).  Crain died of a heart attack in 2003 at age 78.

 

I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes

Released May 23, 1948: I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES, starring Don Castle, Elyse Knox, and Regis Toomey.  Directed by William Nigh (Mutiny in the Big House, Black Dragons, Allotment Wives).  IWouldntBeInYourShoesDon Castle and Elyse Knox are a married couple whose dancing careers have recently hit a slump.  They eke out a modest existence in a small one-room apartment, supported by Knox, who teaches at a local dancing school.  Through a series of circumstances that involve a lost pair of tap shoes, a found wallet, and out-of-print bills, the police come to suspect Castle of committing a brutal murder and robbery in the neighborhood.  Castle is eventually tried and convicted of the crime, which he did not commit.  As his execution date nears, Knox desperately seeks a way to save her husband from the electric chair, and eventually approaches one of the detectives (Regis Toomey), who has a crush on her, for help.  This is one of those lesser known noir films with a story that’s worth bringing to life that had to claw its way to the big screen on a bare bones budget.  The cast doesn’t contain any big name actors, the production values are adequate at best, the dialog is occasionally awkward and inelegant, and the overall presentation lacks the flair of a major feature.  Yet in spite of these shortcomings, the film succeeds, primarily on the strength of its capable story.  In the early going, the plot details may seem a little far fetched with too many convenient coincidences stacked on top of one another, but by the end, we’re rewarded with a satisfying outcome that has all the pieces falling into place in a plausible manner.  Convincing performances by Castle and Knox keep us emotionally invested for the duration.  The love between them is palpable, and their relationship has an aura of authenticity that makes their nightmarish situation all the more tragic.  However, the casting of veteran character actor Regis Toomey as the police detective who is sweet on Knox is one of the film’s bigger liabilities.  Toomey is no stranger to playing cops, and he’s great at portraying hard-boiled police work.  But when it comes to expressing his romantic feelings during intimate conversations with Knox, he’s dreadfully stiff and awkward, and not in a charming “aww shucks” way.  You can almost see Knox struggling to play against his rigid face and monotone delivery.  But what I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes lacks in polish, it makes up for with a satisfying mystery and a sly ending that gradually creeps up on you.  Some viewers will pick up on it sooner than others, but the plot does a decent job of misdirecting us for as long as possible.  We give I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

3.5 Fedoras

Raymond Burr

Happy birthday to actor RaymondBurrRaymond Burr, born May 21, 1917 in New Westminster, BC, Canada.  With broad shoulders, heavy eyebrows, and a commanding voice, Raymond Burr became known to legions of fans for his enduring television characters of attorney Perry Mason and detective Robert Ironside.  However, many years of stage and film experience preceded those roles, and fortunately for us, much of it lay in the realm of film noir.  In 1923, Burr’s mother divorced and moved Burr and his siblings to Vallejo, CA.  Burr did some acting as a teenager and starting in 1934, joined several repertory theater groups that toured Canada, Australia, England, and India.  In 1940, Burr made his debut on Broadway and later got his first starring role with the Pasadena Playhouse.  Burr continued appearing on stage both with the Pasadena Playhouse and on Broadway for several years until his first film role for RKO, an uncredited part in Without Reservations (1946), which marked the beginning of a prolific film career.  From 1946 to 1957, Burr appeared in over 50 films, mostly as a supporting actor, and usually as a villain or heavy.  During this period, he was cast in nearly 20 classic noir films: Desperate (1947), I Love Trouble (1948), Sleep, My Love (1948), Ruthless (1948), Raw Deal (1948), Pitfall (1948), Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), Red Light (1949), Abandoned (1949), M (1951), A Place in the Sun (1951), His Kind of Woman (1951), The Whip Hand (1951), FBI Girl (1951), The Blue Gardenia (1953), Rear Window (1954-color), Please Murder Me (1956), A Cry in the Night (1956), and Affair in Havana (1957).  Burr is also remembered for his role as reporter Steven Martin in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), a character he reprised in two subsequent Godzilla films: Godzilla (1977) and Godzilla 1985 (1984).  During the 1940s and 50s, Burr could also be heard on radio, making guest appearances on shows like Pat Novak for Hire, Dragnet, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, and starring in Fort Laramie.  In 1956, Burr was cast in the title role of the television series, Perry Mason (1957-1966).  He had originally auditioned for the part of District Attorney Hamilton Burger, but Gail Patrick Jackson, author of the Perry Mason novels, felt Burr was the ideal choice to play Mason.  The show was a tremendous success, earning Burr two Emmys and making him a household name.  After Perry Mason was cancelled, he continued his television success as the wheelchair-bound detective in Ironside (1967-1975).  Burr made several attempts to launch new series in the late 1970s and early 80s without success, but in 1985, he starred in the television reunion movie Perry Mason Returns, which led to 25 more Perry Mason TV movies from 1986 to 1993.  He also appeared in The Return of Ironside (1993).  Burr was known to be very generous with his money, donating to charities, helping out friends, and sponsoring over 25 foster children.  He also made multiple tours of Korea and Vietnam with the USO during war years.  Burr died of liver cancer in 1993 at age 76.