Released February 24, 1954: BAIT, starring Cleo Moore, Hugo Haas, and John Agar. Directed by Hugo Haas (Pickup, One Girl’s Confession, Hit and Run). Co-written, acted, and directed by Hugo Haas, a self-made auteur who was never able to transcend B-film mediocrity, Bait is an odd little film that barely qualifies as film noir. Haas plays an old prospector searching for a gold mine that he lost several years prior, when he and his partner were caught in a severe snowstorm and his partner died. Every summer, Haas ventures back into the mountains in search of his mine, often taking a partner for assistance. This time, he’s convinced young John Agar to accompany him with the promise of splitting whatever gold they find 50/50. Once in the mountains, Agar and Haas make a home for themselves in a small abandoned cabin, and it doesn’t take long for them to stumble onto the lost mine and begin digging for gold. Intoxicated by the abundance of gold they collect, both men are stricken with gold fever. Haas wants to renege on his 50/50 deal, while Agar becomes feverishly obsessed with the lustrous gold dust. At this point, the story is poised for some profound drama and intense conflict. But what we get instead, is a far-fetched plot that is not only ridiculously implausible but also poorly executed. Haas knows that Agar is sweet on Cleo Moore, an ostracized single mother who works at the general store where Haas and Agar stock up on supplies, so he hatches an elaborate scheme to maneuver Agar into a situation where Haas can justifiably kill him. First Haas, who’s old enough to be Moore’s father, spontaneously proposes to her and Moore accepts! Next, he moves Moore into the cabin with the two men and refuses to show her any affection in the hopes that she will become starved for attention. Then he orchestrates situations in which Moore and Agar can spend time together to foster their mutual attraction. And finally, he pretends to leave them alone for an extended period of time, hoping to trap them in bed together, so he has a viable excuse to shoot and kill Agar. Not only is this preposterous storyline absurd and improbable, starting with Moore’s rapid acceptance of Haas’ marriage proposal, but the pacing is so ploddingly slow, that any meaningful tension is sucked right out of the plot. There are far too many scenes of veiled dialog between the three characters that ultimately amount to nothing, and the sexual tension between Agar and Moore is never allowed to reach a level of unbearable awkwardness befitting their claustrophobic situation. The overall premise of two men in an isolated cabin, forced to rely on one another to work the mine, but mistrusting each another when reaping the rewards, is fascinating and filled dramatic potential. And the notion of having a woman come between them adds an intriguing twist. But Bait wastes this potential on a misguided storyline that is hopelessly contrived and lacking in tension. We give Bait 1.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actress Ann Savage, born February 19, 1921 in Columbia, SC. After her father died when she was four years old, Savage and her mother settled in Los Angeles. While in high school, Savage screen tested at MGM but was rejected, prompting her to take acting lessons at the Max Reinhardt workshop, which eventually led to a contract at Columbia. She made her screen debut in One Dangerous Night (1943) and would appear in 16 more, mostly low-budget, features throughout 1943-44, including What a Woman! (1943) with Rosalind Russell, Passport to Suez (1943) with Eric Blore, and three films with Tom Neal: Klondike Kate (1943), Two Man Submarine (1944), and The Unwritten Code (1944). The following year, Savage entered film noir territory with roles in The Spider (1945) with Richard Conte, Apology for Murder (1945) with Hugh Beaumont, and Detour (1945) with Tom Neal. She made a handful of largely forgettable films for the remainder of the 1940s and early 50s, including guest appearances in various television dramas, before retiring in the mid-1950s. However Savage’s popularity among film noir fans was about to explode in the following decades. Because it fell into the public domain early, Detour became widely syndicated on television and eventually available on cheap VHS releases, all of which helped the film acquire a substantial cult following and immortalized Savage as one of the iconic femme fatales of classic film noir. This newfound appreciation resulted in frequent invitations for Savage to appear at film noir conventions and festivals, as she enjoyed a resurgence of popularity and admiration from younger generations of film fans. She made her final film appearance, after decades of retirement, in My Winnipeg (2007). Savage died of complications from multiple strokes in 2008 at age 87.
Released February 12, 1943: JOURNEY INTO FEAR, starring Joseph Cotten, Dolores del Rio, and Orson Welles. Directed by Norman Foster (Scotland Yard, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Woman on the Run). Joseph Cotten is an American munitions dealer traveling through Turkey, who stops in Istanbul before flying home the next morning. Cotten has valuable information to take back to his company that will help Turkey’s war effort against the Nazis. However, while in Istanbul, an attempt is made on his life, so the head of the Turkish secret police (Orson Welles) arranges to have Cotten smuggled out on a cargo ship to escape his assassins. At first it seems like the plan is a success, but not long after the ship leaves port, Cotten soon finds himself in peril once again. This is a highly atmospheric film, populated with distinctive characters and exquisite black and white visuals. The opening sequence in which assassin Jack Moss prepares to go out for the evening while listening to a scratchy phonograph in his tiny hotel room is wonderfully gritty and oozes with dark textures. Moss himself, is perhaps the most memorable character in the film, even though he doesn’t utter one single word of dialog. His Coke-bottle glasses, heavy-eyed gaze, obsession with music, and matter-of-fact pursuit of his target, create an unforgettably quirky villain. Cotten, who co-wrote the screenplay with Welles, delivers a somewhat low-key performance as a confused and indecisive man trying to stay alive in unfamiliar surroundings. Fortunately, Cotten’s substantial screen presence helps to overcome any lack of charisma in his performance. On the other hand, Dolores del Rio offers up plenty of smoldering charm and charisma as a cabaret dancer who befriends Cotten on the cargo ship. However, her role in the story is ambiguous at best and largely irrelevant. She ends up being nothing more than a tantalizing distraction, which is an unfortunate waste of a top-billed actor. The rest of the cast is made up of a wonderful collection of colorful characters, most with exotic accents and conspicuous idiosyncrasies. Among them are Everett Sloane and a young Agnes Moorehead. Cotten interacts with nearly all of them during his journey, which can be interesting to watch, but also creates confusion in the story, possibly mirroring Cotten’s own disoriented state of mind. Journey Into Fear is an interesting but somewhat frustrating film. For all its expressive atmosphere, foreign intrigue, and richness of character, it never really manages to bring you to the edge of your seat. The level of suspense rises occasionally, but it feels like the film never achieves its true potential and may leave some viewers disappointed. We give Journey Into Fear 3 out 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actress Lana Turner, born February 8, 1921 in Wallace, ID. When Turner was 10 years old, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles after spending several years in San Francisco, where a year earlier, her father was murdered. Turner and her mother lived a meager life of poverty until their lives were suddenly turned around on a fateful afternoon in 1937. On that day, a 16-year-old Turner snuck out of high school to smoke a cigarette and ended up at a nearby soda fountain where William R. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, happened to be sitting at the counter. Struck by Turner’s dazzling beauty, he asked her, “How would you like to be in the movies?” Turner said she needed to check with her mother and took Wilkerson’s card. After confirming Wilkerson was indeed a major Hollywood heavyweight, they contacted him and Turner’s ascent to film stardom was instantly set in motion. Wilkerson introduced Turner to agent Zeppo Marx, who signed her and took her to Warner Bros. where director Mervyn LeRoy immediately cast her in They Won’t Forget (1937). After a series of youth-oriented films in the late 1930s, Turner started getting serious roles and quickly developed into a star. Some of her notable films include: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, Slightly Dangerous (1943) with Robert Young, Green Dolphin Street (1947) with Van Heflin and Donna Reed, The Three Musketeers (1948) with Gene Kelly and June Allyson, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) with Kirk Douglas, Peyton Place (1957) with Lee Philips, for which Turner received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and Imitation of Life (1959) with Sandra Dee. Turner appeared in two classic noir films: Johnny Eager (1942) with Robert Taylor and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield, which became one of her best remembered roles. Throughout her career, Turner’s dating escapades and eight marriages provided fodder for a never-ending stream of sensational Hollywood headlines. Among her husbands were bandleader Artie Shaw and actor Lex Barker. In 1957, Turner dated Johnny Stompanato, who had strong organized crime ties. Their tempestuous and often abusive relationship came to a horrifying end when Turner’s 14-year-old daughter, fearing for her mother’s life, stabbed and killed Stompanato in their Beverly Hills home in 1958. After a highly publicized trial, the death was ruled a justifiable homicide. By the early 1960s, Turner’s career had slowed considerably, and her last starring film role was in Madame X (1966). In 1969, she starred in the TV series The Survivors, which was cancelled before the first season ended. Turner continued to make occasional television appearances throughout the 1970s and 80s, highlighted by a guest starring role on Falcon Crest in the early 1980s, but by 1986, had retired from the screen. Turner died of throat cancer in 1992 at age 74.
Released February 6, 1947: BLIND SPOT, starring Chester Morris, Constance Dowling, and Steven Geray. Directed by Robert Gordon (Black Eagle, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Rawhide Trail). Chester Morris is a penniless writer who refuses to compromise his integrity and write books with mass appeal. He drowns himself in alcohol to numb the humiliation of begging his publisher (William Forrest) for some much needed cash. There is no love lost between Morris and Forrest, and when Morris drunkenly barges into Forrest’s office, he interrupts a meeting between Forrest and Steven Geray, a popular mystery writer who is considerably more successful than Morris. Forrest refuses to give Morris any money and chides him for not writing popular material like Geray. Morris responds by demonstrating how trivial it is to write for the masses, and instantly comes up with an idea for a mystery in which a man is found stabbed to death in a room that is locked from the inside. After this contentious meeting with Forrest, Morris continues to inundate himself in alcohol at a nearby bar. He is subsequently joined by Forrest’s attractive secretary (Constance Dowling), and eventually shares his murder mystery idea with her. Later that evening, Forrest is found stabbed to death in his office with the doors locked from the inside, just as Morris described in his story idea. Although he didn’t commit the murder, Morris is the obvious suspect, and is hauled in by the police and interrogated. The rest of the movie plays out like a classic whodunit, with Morris eluding the police while trying to determine who committed the crime. Stylistically, the movie feels very much like a classic radio mystery show. Morris’ frequent voiceovers propel the story in a similar manner to radio narrative, where much of the action needed to be spelled out for listeners in the absence of visuals, and indeed, the story itself has much in common with mysteries broadcast on shows like Suspense or I Love a Mystery. The cast turns in an admirable, if largely generic, performance. The chemistry between Morris and Dowling never manages to rise above a moderate simmer, while Geray’s heavy Eastern European accent often makes it difficult to understand some of his more intricate dialog. The film’s biggest payoff is the ultimate revelation of how the locked-door murder was committed. Blind Spot is a serviceable low-budget whodunit, in which the story, and not the cast, is its greatest strength. We give Blind Spot 2.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actor Dan Duryea, born Jan. 23, 1907 in White Plains, NY. Duryea graduated from Cornell University in 1928, where he studied English and drama, and was president of the drama society. Although he loved acting, he decided to pursue a more practical line of work and took a job as an advertising executive. But after six years, the stressful pace of the business world caused Duryea to have a mild heart attack, so he quit his job and devoted himself to acting. He made his Broadway debut in 1935 as a bit player and quickly progressed to playing lead roles, culminating with a national tour in The Little Foxes. When MGM produced the film version in 1940, Duryea reprised his stage role on film and never looked back. In Hollywood, he became a popular character actor and also had some lead roles. Duryea developed a unique screen persona that was ideally suited for playing snide, slick-haired, mean-spirited, wise-cracking villains – characters that audiences loved to hate. He was a consistent fixture in classic film noir, appearing in more than 15 noir films: Ministry of Fear (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), The Great Flamarion (1945), Scarlet Street (1945), Black Angel (1946), Larceny (1948), Criss Cross (1949), Manhandled (1949), Too Late for Tears (1949), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), The Underworld Story (1950), One Way Street (1950), World for Ransom (1954), Storm Fear (1955), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), and The Burglar (1957). Duryea also appeared in many westerns, among them: Winchester 73 (1950), Silver Lode (1954), Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), and The Marauders (1955). In 1952, Duryea starred in the television series China Smith (1952-56) and The New Adventures of China Smith (1953-54). Duryea appeared in many television shows in the early 1960s, including Rawhide, Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Twilight Zone. He continued working in film and television up until his death in 1968 of cancer. He was 61.
Released January 19, 1949: CRISS CROSS, starring Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, and Dan Duryea. Directed by Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Killers, The File on Thelma Jordan). The story pivots around a Los Angeles armored car heist orchestrated by Burt Lancaster and Dan Duryea. Lancaster works for the armored car company and is the vital “inside man” necessary to pull off the job, while Duryea is the boss of a small criminal outfit who can provide the manpower and resources needed to implement the caper. But to understand how the robbery plan originated, we are taken back in time to discover that the real story is about Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo. Several years back, Lancaster was briefly married to De Carlo, but after they divorced, Lancaster left Los Angeles and roamed about the country. Upon his return, he eventually met up with De Carlo again and their passion reignited. But Lancaster’s friends and family believed De Carlo was bad for him, so they intervened and discouraged her from seeing him. As a result, she married Duryea, leaving Lancaster heartbroken. However, circumstances bring the three of them together, and Lancaster pitches the idea of the armored car robbery to Duryea as a way to grab enough money to secretly run off with De Carlo, who is unhappy and eager to escape her marriage to Duryea. This is a well-made movie with an excellent cast, but after it hooks you in with an exciting opening, the pace slows down considerably and doesn’t pick up again until the story reaches its fateful climax. This pacing technique can be found in several other classic noir films, such as Kiss the Blood Off My Hands and Born to Kill, both of which follow a similar template. The problem in Criss Cross is that the story gets a little muddled along the way and loses momentum, but thankfully, it’s the powerful performances by Lancaster and De Carlo that really drive this film. De Carlo in particular, is simply outstanding. She’s vibrant, beautiful, and lights up the screen with an intelligent sparkle that all but outshines her legendary costars. In a sequence that’s over a minute long, no words are spoken as the camera follows De Carlo’s face while she dances in a crowded night club. Lancaster watches from a distance, mesmerized, and so are we. (Incidentally, her dance partner is an uncredited Tony Curtis.) In her scenes with Lancaster, she conveys both inner toughness and warm sensitivity, and it’s easy to see why Lancaster is hopelessly in love with her. Although his role is disappointingly small, Dan Duryea turns in another deliciously sleazy performance as only he can. Complementing the film’s stars are the minor supporting players, who contribute a wealth of personality to this film. Duryea’s henchmen (John Doucette, Marc Krah, James O’Rear, and John Skins Miller) breathe life into what easily could have been another routine crew of hoodlums. Joan Miller, who has a tiny part as the bar’s resident alcoholic (the character is billed as “The Lush” in the credits) is simply outstanding. It’s a small, non-essential part, but the movie wouldn’t have been the same without her. Other familiar faces among the cast include the ever-present Percy Helton and Alan Napier. Criss Cross features excellent performances by some of our favorite film noir actors, but the story is mired by slow pacing, and is ultimately quite predictable and not that special. The primary reasons to watch this film are De Carlo’s superb performance, the talented supporting cast, and the many glimpses of old Los Angeles. We give Criss Cross 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Released January 14, 1949: THE ACCUSED, starring Loretta Young, Robert Cummings, and Wendell Corey. Directed by William Dieterle (Rope of Sand, Dark City, The Turning Point). Loretta Young is a bookish university professor who meets with one of her less studious pupils (Douglas Dick) after school to discuss his academic future. Dick offers to drive her home, but instead, takes her to a secluded cliff high above the ocean and tries to force himself on her. In the struggle, Young clubs Dick over the head with a heavy object and kills him. Distraught, she arranges the scene to make it look like Dick slipped off the cliff, hit his head on the rocks below, and drowned, and then makes her way home on foot. The next day, Dick’s family guardian (Robert Cummings) shows up on Young’s doorstep, and not realizing Dick has been killed, wants to discuss Dick’s academic status. Cummings is immediately attracted to Young and pretty soon all he’s interested in is spending as much time as possible with her. Meanwhile, much to Young’s relief, Dick’s death is ruled accidental, however, police detective Wendell Corey is convinced foul play was involved, and continues to doggedly pursue the case. This film has some intriguing moments, but unfortunately, lacks any real suspense. Even though Corey’s net draws tighter and tighter around Young, the audience knows all along she has a justifiable explanation for her actions. Not only that, she has Cummings in her corner, who happens to be an adept attorney, and even though he himself comes to suspect Young of murder, falls completely head over heels for her and will do anything to protect her. The film’s most engaging scenes are those in which Corey analyzes physical evidence or questions Young, but the remainder of the film is primarily devoted to the growing feelings of love between Cummings and Young, which is a rather ho-hum affair. Young’s performance alternates between self-assured professor and helpless damsel in distress on the verge of a fainting spell – an antiquated female stereotype that makes this film feel rather outdated, even by classic film standards. On the other hand, Wendell Corey puts in a charmingly understated performance as an astute detective with a heart. The complete opposite of the stereotypical hard-boiled brute, he is instantly likable and a joy to watch. The Accused is not a bad film, it’s just not a particularly interesting one. The lack of meaningful suspense, slow pacing, and archaic portrayal of women don’t leave much for viewers to savor. We give The Accused 2 out of 5 fedoras.
Premiered January 12, 1943: SHADOW OF A DOUBT, starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, and Macdonald Carey. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca, Spellbound, Rear Window). Shadow of a Doubt is reportedly Hitchcock’s personal favorite of all his films. While it doesn’t have the glittering cachet of his other films from the period, such as Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Lifeboat (1944), and Spellbound (1945), it is nonetheless a significant entry in the noir canon and a great film in its own right. The film opens with Joseph Cotten on the run from authorities somewhere on the East Coast. We don’t know exactly why the authorities want him, but the enormous wad of big bills he carries suggests he committed a robbery… or perhaps worse. After eluding the police, Cotten decides to leave the East Coast and come to California to stay with his older sister (Patricia Collinge). Collinge’s teenage daughter (Theresa Wright) is especially fond of her uncle and is overjoyed. Collinge and her husband (Henry Travers) live an idyllic life with three delightful children, a charming home, friends, and plenty of community activities. When Cotten arrives, he quickly insinuates himself into the quaint small-town lifestyle enjoyed by the family. However, it doesn’t take long for his past to catch up with him in the form of two agents (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford) who tracked him across the country. The agents still need to gather more evidence before they can be absolutely certain Cotten is the right suspect, so they don’t want to approach him directly and risk scaring him off again. Instead, they approach Wright and ask her to act on their behalf, but when she learns they suspect Cotten of several brutal murders, she refuses to believe it and won’t cooperate. But the well has been poisoned and Wright becomes increasingly suspicious and fearful of Cotten as small bits of incriminating information come to her attention. Hitchcock’s expert pacing ensures the tension builds very slowly until the suspense reaches a boiling point and Wright finds herself in a perpetual state of danger. Thematically, Shadow of a Doubt is similar to several other Hitchcock films, in particular, Suspicion, where the story starts out harmlessly enough, with a fair amount of humor thrown in, but gradually transforms into a dark tale of terror. In Shadow of a Doubt, Travers and his best friend (Hume Cronyn) frequently discuss methods of killing one another without leaving any evidence. Initially, their lighthearted banter is quite amusing, but as Wright begins to realize the truth about Cotten, their conversations become increasingly disturbing to her and to the audience. What really makes Shadow of a Doubt so unsettling is that it strikes directly at the heart of idealized American life in the 1930s and early 40s. Shaken by the horrors of war and the trauma of soldiers returning home, a growing sense of unease and uncertainty about the future pervaded American society. Film noir reflected this anxiety and brought it to the surface by eschewing conventional Hollywood entertainment in favor of gritty films about the dark side of human nature. In Shadow of a Doubt we are treated to a clear vision of this emerging noir landscape when Cotten delivers a pointed speech to Wright:
“There’s so much you don’t know. So much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell.”
Noir films would offer penetrating glimpses into that hell for the next two decades and beyond, and Shadow of a Doubt is one great example. Cotten and Wright are superb in their roles, and they are supported by a first-rate cast of actors, an intelligent script, and a legendary director at the top of his game. We give Shadow of a Doubt 5 out of 5 fedoras.
Premiered January 10, 1948: I LOVE TROUBLE, starring Franchot Tone, Janet Blair, and Janis Carter. Directed by S. Sylvan Simon (Whistling in the Dark, Son of Lassie, The Fuller Brush Man). Franchot Tone is a private detective hired by Tom Powers to uncover the truth about Powers’ wife’s (Lynn Merrick) questionable past. Initial clues take Tone from Los Angeles to Merrick’s home town of Portland, where he discovers she worked for a shady club owner (Steven Geray) before abruptly moving to Los Angeles four years prior to marrying Powers. Her life during those four years is shrouded in mystery, and Tone spends most of the story trying to shed light on her activities during that time. He encounters an assortment of characters in his investigation, most of whom are easily manipulated into revealing information with a simple cash bribe. Of course, there’s a contingent of shady toughs who make it very clear they don’t appreciate Tone nosing around, and a woman (Janet Blair) who claims to be Merrick’s sister and tries to befriend Tone, but her motivations are highly suspect. I Love Trouble is an enjoyable, if largely unspectacular, detective mystery. The plot has enough twists and turns to keep the story interesting, but after Tone starts bouncing repeatedly between all the supporting characters, it does begin to feel a little contrived, as if the story were stretched out to fill time, which can make it a little difficult to follow in places. Fortunately, the dialog is peppered with entertaining one-liners and comebacks to keep the viewer engaged for the duration. However, one aspect of the film that is so bad it must be mentioned, is the music. With the exception of a handful of scenes where it successfully punctuates the action, the music is completely incongruous to the mood of nearly every scene, to the point of distraction, and does nothing to enhance the story. The film would’ve been better off without any music at all. I Love Trouble maintains a generally lighthearted feel and is not as dark as many other noirs, which is due in part to Tone’s jaunty performance. Franchot Tone was a popular actor in the 1930s and 40s who appeared in many films, but he doesn’t quite hit the mark in the role of private eye. His performance is acceptable, but he comes across a little too sophisticated and lacking in cynicism to pull off a convincing classic noir gumshoe. I Love Trouble has its share of problems and doesn’t venture that deep into noir territory, but it does offer a competent and compelling detective story that should appeal to most viewers. We give I Love Trouble 2.5 out of 5 fedoras.