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 other 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.