Premiered Apr 29, 1952: WALK EAST ON BEACON, starring George Murphy, Finlay Currie, and Virginia Gilmore. Directed by Alfred L. Werker (Shock, Repeat Performance, He Walked by Night). Walk East on Beacon is a documentary-style police procedural about the FBI’s efforts to thwart a Communist plot that mobilizes American sleeper agents in an effort to steal newly developed scientific formulas related to rockets, space travel, and guided missiles. It was made at the height of “Red Scare” hysteria when America was obsessed with the fear of being infiltrated by Communism. In fact, the film is based on a piece written by J. Edgar Hoover that originally appeared in The Reader’s Digest, so it’s not surprising that much of the film is devoted to showcasing technological gadgetry employed by the FBI to spy on American citizens. Right from the start, when the no-nonsense newsreel-style narrator sets the stage for the story over strident patriotic music, it’s pretty clear we’re in for a very dry presentation. This same lecturing narrator is heard throughout the film as he explains the techniques employed by FBI agents, while other parts of the story are acted out in dramatic sequences. Unfortunately, none of it is very interesting. The story plods along at a slow, deliberate, and clinical pace, lacking any emotional dimension save for the sequences with the professor (Finlay Currie) who is being forced to hand over his scientific formulas to Communist agents because they are holding his son hostage behind the Iron Curtain. Dialog between the FBI agents is mostly stiff and stilted, except for the occasional laugh they share when discussing attractive female sleeper agents, confirming that 1950s sexism was alive and well, even in serious films about the threat of Communism. Quite frankly, the most interesting aspect of this film are the many location shots throughout the streets of 1950s Boston. Overall, Walk East on Beacon feels like an anti-Communist/pro-FBI propaganda film, which was no doubt part of its original intent. Audiences may have been fascinated at the time, but because the technology depicted is so outdated and the story is presented in such an antiseptic manner, the film’s value today is primarily as a nostalgic time capsule about America’s Communist fears in the early 1950s. We give Walk East on Beacon 2 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actress Carolyn Jones, born Apr 28, 1930 in Amarillo, TX. Many of us know her only as Morticia from The Addams Family TV series (1964-66), but long before her famous sitcom role, Carolyn Jones had a successful movie and television career that included a healthy dose of film noir. Growing up in Texas, Jones moved to California when she was 15 to enroll in the Pasadena Playhouse, where she was eventually discovered by a Paramount talent scout. Throughout the 1950s, Jones worked consistently in both film and television, starting with her first screen appearance in a small uncredited part in the classic noir film The Turning Point (1952) with William Holden. She went on to play supporting roles in several notable films: House of Wax (1953) with Vincent Price, The Seven Year Itch (1955) with Marilyn Monroe, The Tender Trap (1955) with Frank Sinatra, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) with Kevin McCarthy, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with Jimmy Stewart, The Bachelor Party (1957) with E.G. Marshall, Career (1959) with Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine, and How the West Was Won (1962) with Jimmy Stewart. For her role as The Existentialist in The Bachelor Party, Jones received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. We appreciate Jones for her film noir performances in: The Big Heat (1953) with Glenn Ford, Make Haste to Live (1954) with Dorothy McGuire, Shield for Murder (1954) with Edmond O’Brien, Baby Face Nelson (1957) with Mickey Rooney, and The Man in the Net (1959) with Alan Ladd. In the latter two films, Jones was a top-billed co-star. In 1964, she got the part of Morticia Addams on The Addams Family series, which brought her worldwide fame, but also created such a strong on-screen identity, that she found it challenging to get work after the show was cancelled. Some of her post-Addams Family roles include: Batman (1966-67) as Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, Roots (1977) as Mrs. Moore, and Wonder Woman (1976-77) as Queen Hippolyta. In 1982, Jones was cast in a new soap opera, Capitol, but shortly after the show launched, she was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. Insisting on continuing to work even while undergoing chemotherapy, Jones completed the first season, often appearing in a wheelchair. Jones succumbed to the cancer in 1983 at age 53.
Released Apr 27, 1946: THE GLASS ALIBI, starring Paul Kelly, Douglas Fowley, and Anne Gwynne. Directed by W. Lee Wilder (The Pretender, Once a Thief, Three Steps North). Douglas Fowley is an unprincipled opportunistic journalist who is romantically involved with the girlfriend (Anne Gwynne) of a prominent criminal (Cy Kendall). Kendall is on the run from the law and eludes police pursuit by strong-arming his way into an upscale home where he hides out and calls Gwynne, telling her to meet him there. But Fowley uses this information to lead police to the house so he can get the inside scoop on the arrest. After the arrest is made, Fowley discovers the owner of the house (Maris Wrixon) is a very wealthy young woman, who only has 6 months to live due to a heart condition. Being the heel that he is, Fowley sees this as an opportunity to cash in big if he can only convince Wrixon to marry him, so once she dies in a few short months, he’ll inherit all her millions and he and Gwynne can run off together. This is a micro-budget film made on a shoestring, so it’s a little rough around the edges, but taken as a whole, it succeeds in spite of its limitations. The cast does a surprisingly good job for a film of this caliber, with Gwynne giving a standout performance. Her character is put through a wide range of emotions during the story, and she is consistently believable. But more than anything, it’s the story itself that keeps this film interesting. It culminates in a wonderfully unexpected twist ending that makes it all worthwhile. The low budget production values keep The Glass Alibi from making a strong initial impression – there are only a few different locations, the lighting and camera work are pedestrian, and the dialog is sometimes awkward. But in spite of these shortcomings, the film delivers a reasonably pleasant movie experience, especially if you hold out for the big surprise ending. We give The Glass Alibi 3 out 5 fedoras.
Released Apr 23, 1958: TOUCH OF EVIL, starring Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, and Janet Leigh. Directed by Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Stranger, Confidential Report). It’s impossible to do justice to such a significant film in a short review like this, so suffice it to say that not only is Touch of Evil a superb noir film, but it is an excellent example of artistic film making at its best. There’s no denying Citizen Kane was Welles’ definitive masterpiece, but we think it can be reasonably argued that Touch of Evil represents the pinnacle of his career as a film maker. The story revolves around two primary characters, Welles, who plays a well-respected but deeply flawed and ruthlessly corrupt police detective, and Charlton Heston, who plays a young Mexican police investigator with a strong sense of moral integrity. They are brought together while investigating a car bombing that occurs near the US-Mexican border. During the investigation, Heston witnesses Welles’ complete disregard for proper police procedure. When Welles blatantly plants evidence to frame a young Mexican man for the crime, Heston is appalled and takes it upon himself to expose Welles’ unscrupulous methods. Welles in turn, tries to fend off the accusations by plotting to discredit Heston. Caught in the middle of this moral battle is Heston’s newlywed wife (Janet Leigh) who becomes the target of a Mexican drug gang currently under investigation by Heston. As you watch this film, it doesn’t take long to realize you are in for something special, different, and daring. Beginning with the now-legendary single-shot opening sequence, Welles never stops using the camera to accentuate every moment and emotion in the story. From sweeping crane and fast-moving tracking shots to extreme angles and deep focus, the use of the camera intensifies the mood of every scene. The camera work is complimented by superb compositions and shadowy lighting to create unforgettably riveting images that stay in your mind long after the film is over. Visually, Touch of Evil is a masterpiece of black and white cinematic art. The film is permeated by a constant sense of disorientation and unease, which is not only reinforced by the cinematography but also by the fast-paced dialog that often has characters’ lines overlapping one another. This is especially true when Heston tags along with Welles on the American side of the border, trying to keep up with the dizzying pace of the rushed investigation. By contrast, Leigh’s kidnapping ordeal develops slowly and is filled with gut-wrenching tension. The cast is excellent, but it is Welles who stands out with a riveting performance as the grizzled, broken-down detective. Making full use of his imposing frame, bloated face, and puffy eyes, he creates an ugly image of a man, both internally and externally, who has lost touch with the real world and is guided only by his flawed sense of ego. Although she only appears in a few scenes, Marlene Dietrich is mysteriously beautiful as the brothel owner who Welles retreats to for emotional solace. There are a couple of notable weak points in the film. Heston, who plays a Mexican detective, is unconvincing as a person of Mexican decent. He doesn’t even really try to convey the appropriate ethnicity. But this was the 1950s, after all, and it was still common practice to cast white actors to play ethnic parts. Heston delivers a strong performance and is able to carry his role, but it’s easy to forget he’s supposed to be from Mexico. Dennis Weaver has a minor part as the bumbling night manager of an isolated motel where Leigh is being held. His portrayal borders on slapstick at times and seems out of place in this film. There’s nothing wrong with a little comic relief, but Weaver’s performance is practically cartoon-like. However, these minor shortcomings are ultimately overshadowed by the gripping story, expert pacing, and visual splendor of the film. Touch of Evil is an artful, gritty, and sometimes disturbing film that delivers a rich and rewarding viewing experience. Each frame is so full of detail and bold cinematic ideas, that it is well worth multiple viewings. We give Touch of Evil 5 out of 5 fedoras.
Released Apr 22, 1949: THE CROOKED WAY, starring John Payne, Sonny Tufts, and Ellen Drew. Directed by Robert Florey (Lady Gangster, Man from Frisco, Johnny One-Eye). John Payne plays a WWII veteran suffering from permanent amnesia due to injuries suffered in the war. After being released from a veteran’s hospital in San Francisco, he ventures back to his hometown of Los Angeles in search of clues that might shed light on his forgotten past. Almost immediately, he’s picked up by police and brought in for questioning. It turns out they know him as Eddie Riccardi, although he had enlisted in the Army under the name of Eddie Rice, which is why the military couldn’t find any background information about him. Payne continues to encounter more people from his past, and a picture of his previous life begins to develop. He discovers he was a small-time gangster who avoided serving time by testifying against his partner (Sonny Tufts). To avoid retribution from Tufts, Payne left town and enlisted in the Army under an assumed name. In the meantime, Tufts served his sentence and resumed his criminal activities after being released. When he learns that Payne is back in Los Angeles, he’s eager to take his revenge. Amnesia is a popular theme that appears in many noir films. It’s an ideal storytelling device for conveying disorientation, isolation, paranoia, and mystery, all of which are hallmarks of film noir. It works well in this film, although the story does get a little muddled at times and loses some of its momentum, but these aberrations are only temporary. Payne is perfect as the former thug with amnesia. He convincingly portrays both sides of his conflicted character’s persona: the amiable veteran under a perpetual haze of confusion, and the brutal tough guy who’s ready to kill when necessary. Throughout it all, Payne’s sincere nature has us rooting for him one hundred percent. Payne began his career in musicals and melodramas, but transitioned to darker roles after the war. The Crooked Way is one of his earlier noir films, and he is well suited to the nice guy/bad guy duality of this particular role. As Payne’s betrayed partner, Sonny Tufts creates a deliciously ruthless and violent villain; the kind that audiences love to hate. Ellen Drew plays Payne’s former wife, who turns out to be the only real friend he has in a city full of people out to get him. She turns in a heartfelt if unspectacular performance. But the real star of this film is John Alton’s outstanding cinematography. Alton is primarily known to film noir fans for his creative partnership with director Anthony Mann, but his visual genius is equally apparent in this film. The Crooked Way is filled with one spectacular expressionist scene after another. Alton’s bold use of light and dark (especially dark), unexpected camera angles, unsettling close-ups, and deep focus create a wealth of iconic noir imagery. If for nothing else, this film is worth viewing just for its magnificent black and white visuals. Enhancing the visual splendor is the fact that this film was shot on the streets, giving us an unfiltered view of post-war 1940s Los Angeles. In fact, there are so many different locations depicted throughout the film, that only a few are ever reused more than once. The Crooked Way is an excellent entry in the film noir canon. It has its flaws, mostly having to do with occasionally clumsy pacing and an ending that’s wrapped up a little too neatly, but overall, it’s a solid representation of what film noir is all about. Payne’s earnest portrayal of a lost hero and Alton’s sumptuous cinematography make The Crooked Way a film well worth seeing. We give The Crooked Way 4 of out 5 fedoras.
We’ve been on a short hiatus for the past couple of months, but we’re back with something new and exciting: our first film noir video review! There’s more on the way…