Criss Cross

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.  crisscrossLancaster 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 NapierCriss 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.

3.5 Fedoras

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The Accused

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 theaccusedhigh 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.

2 Fedoras

Shadow of a Doubt

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 shadowofadoubton 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.

5 Fedoras

I Love Trouble

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.  ilovetroubleInitial 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.

2.5 Fedoras

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