Monday, August 29, 2011

You Only Live Once (1937)

You Only Live Once, released in 1937, was Fritz Lang’s second Hollywood film, and it’s also one of his most interesting. And it’s very much a precursor of the American film noir cycle of the 40s and 50s to which Lang would contribute so memorably.

Along with Fury, his first American production, it’s often considered to be one of his more political movies, which may be something of a misunderstanding of the movie. Fury dealt with lynching, while You Only Live Once deals with an ex-convict trying to go straight and (supposedly) being prevented from doing so by a hostile and oppressive society.

What’s often overlooked with Lang is that he was raised a Catholic and always considered himself to be one, and apparently he considered this to be his most overtly Catholic film.

Henry Fonda is Eddie Taylor, newly released from prison. This was his second stretch in prison and now he knows that if he goes back again under the state law at that time he’ll get life. He says that this time he’s definitely going to go straight but adds ominously, “If they’ll let me.”

Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney) is a very respectable young woman who works for the Public Defender, and she’s in love with Eddie. They’re going to get married as soon as he gets out, much to the horror of both her sister and her boss, both of whom consider Eddie to be a born loser. On their honeymoon they’re kicked out of their hotel room at 4 am when the landlord realises Eddie is an ex-con. To Eddie this merely confirms his belief that society is out to get him. Shortly before this happens Eddie and Joan are watching frogs in the pond near the hotel and Eddie remarks that if one frog dies its mate will die as well. “Just like Romeo and Juliet,” as Joan comments, another fateful statement.

Despite this things go well for the young couple initially. The kindly and idealistic prison chaplain, Father Dolan, organised a job for Eddie as a truck driver. They’re about to take out a home loan, but Eddie is so busy with house-hunting he turns up an hour and a half late for work, and gets fired. To Eddie this is more evidence that everything is against him. And they’re already committed to the new house. Eddie tries to talk his boss into keeping him on but when he refuses Eddie loses his temper and slugs him. Eddie bitterly remarks that the only people who’ll give him a job now are his old pals, and the only work they have on offer involves robbing banks.

We now cut to a bank robbery in progress, a robbery that leaves six people dead. And Eddie’s hat is found at the scene. It seems that he wasn’t able to keep out of trouble after all. Eddie arrives home late that night with a wild story that he’s been framed for the robbery. Joan persuades him that if he’s innocent he should give himself up because he has nothing to fear. Eddie takes her advice, and ends on on Death Row. But the story is not over yet.

This seems to be a movie about the ways different people perceive the world differently, and often misperceive it. The hotel owner, the Public Defender and Joan’s sister see Eddie as an habitual criminal who will never make good. Joan sees him as a good man. Eddie sees the world as a kind of conspiracy against him, Joan sees the world as fundamentally just and fair. Father Dolan sees hope, Eddie sees a system stacked against him and a world of every man for himself.

It’s also very much about faith. That’s the element modern audiences may have trouble with. They may find it difficult to take a character like Father Dolan seriously, or see him as Eddie sees him - as an agent of an oppressive system or even as a figure of fun. But to ignore the theme of faith in this movie is to miss much of its complexity, and much of the ambiguity that makes it so interesting. There’s certainly a political dimension but if that was all the movie was about it would have been as dull as most politically motivated movies of its era. Lang’s movie has a lot more going on.

One of the ironies of the film is that the character who seems most deluded and most naïve, Joan, turns out to be right every time. She is right about Eddie, and in a tragically ironic way she is right about the system. She has absolute faith in the goodness of both people and society, and if only Eddie could have picked up some of that faith he could have avoided disaster. In one fatal moment his only hope is to put aside his accustomed suspicions and anger and make a leap of trust. But he cannot.

Fate is always mentioned in relation to Lang’s films, but in this particular movie the protagonists have the freedom to make choices to avoid their fates. But perhaps being the people they are they were always going to make the choices they made.

I’ve always disliked Henry Fonda but he’s oddly effective here. Given the plot outline you expect Eddie to be sympathetic character but he isn’t. Fonda makes him a rather unpleasant young man with a chip on his shoulder and way too much self-pity but that’s another way in which this movie is more interesting than the story outline would suggest.

Despite being still very much a newcomer to Hollywood production methods Lang is very much in control. He knows what he’s trying to do with this movie and he succeeds brilliantly. Visually it has some nice touches. Darkness and fog would become staples of film noir but rather than use them merely for atmosphere Lang employs them symbolically in several key scenes.

A great movie. The Image Entertainment DVD is adequate although lacking in extras, a pity given that this is such a complex movie.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Macbeth (1971)

When Roman Polanski made his Macbeth in 1971 Shakespeare’s tragedy had already been adapted to film countless times, going back at least as far as 1908. And among those myriad adaptations were two acknowledged masterpieces by very major film-makers indeed. So was another movie version really necessary or justifiable? The answer, surprisingly, was yes.

Those two acknowledged masterpieces were Orson Welles’ version in 1948 and Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 version (Throne of Blood). The Welles version, which I regard very very highly, is perhaps more wells than Shakespeare. And Kurosawa’s version was in Japanese, with a Japanese setting. A definitive English language version was needed and Polanski set out to provide it.

Polanski’s film is in many ways a more traditional and more conventional version than the Welles film. Polanski has tried to stick fairly closely to what Shakespeare wrote and virtually all of the dialogue is straight from the play. Where Polanski’s movie becomes radical is in its tone. Polanski approaches Macbeth with the sensibility of a horror director and the result can be regarded as both a Shakespearian film and a horror film.

This is Shakespeare with copious quantities of graphic violence and gore, and with nudity. This was the 70s, and Polanski doesn’t hold back. He gets all Grand Guignol with the Bard. On the other hand it has to be admitted that all of the violence is right there in the play even if it had never been depicted on screen with such relish prior to this. Macbeth does after all have some claims to being the first masterpiece of gothic literature.

Polanski’s other innovation is to stress the medieval setting. The real Macbeth was High King of Scotland in the 11th century and Polanski treats the story as a medieval story rather than an Elizabethan one. He gives us medieval grime and squalor, but by emphasising the medieval aspects he also emphasises the remorseless medieval view of vengeance, and a medieval enthusiasm for extreme violence. It works pretty well.

The big surprise is Jon Finch, in the title role. This was his first major film role and he’s superb. Finch had in fact done a good deal of theatre work but his performance is very cinematic rather than stagey. He resists the temptation to go for the kind of theatrical overkill that so many actors succumb to when doing Shakespeare on screen.

Even more crucial to the success of any production of Macbeth is the actress playing Lady Macbeth. Francesca Annis handles it pretty well. She also resists the temptation to go over-the-top. Her Lady Macbeth is not overtly monstrous. Like her husband she is simply seduced by the possibilities opened up by the predictions of the three witches.

Polanski’s direction is stylish without being too obtrusive, although the second meeting of Macbeth with the witches does come across as a bit like a bad acid trip.

There’s a theory that the extreme nature of the violence was Polanski’s way of working through his grief over the murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family. It’s also been suggested that the nudity was included at the behest of executive producer Hugh Hefner, this movie being the Playboy mogul’s attempt to movie into serious movie producing. Personally I suspect that a Polanski version of Macbeth was always going to have a bit more in the way of sex and violence than your average Shakespearian adaptation.

The Columbia Classics 2006 DVD release is reasonable compared to the pan-and-scanned VHS versions that used to be around but this is a movie that deserves a more luxurious DVD (or even Blu-Ray) presentation.

On the whole it’s one of the more satisfying attempts to put Shakespeare on the big screen and if you’re a fan of the Bard it’s really a must-see. And if you’re a horror fan you’ll find it works very successfully as an exercise in gothic horror. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Track of the Cat (1954)

William A. Wellman’s 1954 western Track of the Cat suffered a similar fate to Charles Laughton’s 1955 Night of the Hunter. Both were exercises in style for which the movie-going public of the 1950s was not ready, both failed commercially at the time, and both went on to be highly regarded examples of art cinema at its best.

Track of the Cat hasn’t undergone the same degree of rehabilitation as Night of the Hunter but in its own way it’s just as impressive.

The plot is very much a secondary consideration. A painter (puma) has been attacking stock on a remote ranch owned by the Bridges family. The two oldest Bridges brothers, Curt (Robert Mitchum) and Arthur (William Hopper) set off to track down the predator.

The old Indian who lives at the ranch, Joe Sam, believes the attacks are the work of a mysterious black painter, a kind of supernatural beast. To Joe Sam the painter symbolises the violence in the world, the violence that destroyed his own family. It will come to be seen as having much the same significance for the Bridges family.

In fact the movie has nothing whatever to do with hunting marauding pumas. It’s a family melodrama, with the painter being a personification of the passions, jealousies, resentments and hatreds that collectively make up the Bridges family.

Pa Bridges is a hopeless drunk with only the haziest idea of what’s happening. The family has been dominated by two overwhelming personalities, Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi) and Curt. Ma Bridges is a pious fraud, a controlling monster of a matriarch. Curt easily dominates brother Arthur, and younger brother Harold (Tab Hunter) is practically a nonentity, existing merely to serve as the butt of Curt’s jokes. Harold has fallen in love with Gwen Williams (Diana Lynn) but nobody believes he’ll ever have the courage to ask her to marry him. Harold has never had the courage to do anything. Sister Grace (Teresa Wright) retreats to her room and to her music.

But now the painter has come and Curt is off in the mountains hunting him and the family tensions are coming to the boil.

Director Wellman conceived this movie as a experiment in colour. He’d long had the idea of making a black-and-white movie in colour. His idea was that if a movie were to be shot in mostly monochromatic shades, with stark blacks and whites and otherwise mostly very subdued colours that were almost shades of grey, he could use bright colours very very sparingly for intense dramatic effect. In fact the only bright colours are Curt’s red jacket and Gwen’s yellow blouse. Curt has always been the central figure in the family, the de facto boss and patriarch, while Gwen is the disturbing new element . They’re the two characters with the power to make things happen. Everyone else reacts to what they do.

In practice this visual idea results in a movie with a distinctive and rather disturbing look. And Wellman doesn’t stop with the colour. He uses spectacular location shooting for the scenes in which Curt hunts the cat, but as soon as we move back to the ranch we’re obviously on a sound stage. The exteriors of the ranch are filmed in such a way as to emphasise their artificiality, to make sure we’re in no doubt this is a sound stage. Wellman wants us to see the ranch as something artificial and unnatural, something that doesn’t belong, something that should be alive but isn’t. It’s a kind of surreal doll’s house, and again the resemblances to Laughton’s vision in Night of the Hunter are striking.

Wellman (with the able assistance of his cinematographer William A. Clothier) took huge risks with this film and while they didn’t pay off commercially at the time they certainly paid off artistically. And the movie’s reputation has slowly grown.

Wellman had the advantage of having a fine cast to work with and the performances are uniformly good. The role of Curt required the kind of vaguely sinister charisma that Mitchum could always produce when needed and his presence dominates the film even when he’s not onscreen, just as the personality of Curt dominates this bizarre family even when he’s not there.

It’s a movie that is something of an oddity but it’s well worth seeking out as an example of just how edgy 1950s Hollywood film-making could be. It was produced by John Wayne’s production company which was responsibly for so many interesting and offbeat 1950s movies.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Critics tend to adore the films of Preston Sturges. Perhaps because he started out as a writer and made the transition to directing at a time when that was quite a difficult feat to manage. I had approached my first Preston Sturges movie, Sullivan’s Travels with a good deal of excitement, only to find the movie a muddled bore. As a result I had very low expectations of The Palm Beach Story, but in fact it’s a delight.

While Sullivan’s Travels gave the impression of having been made by a director who changed his mind every few minutes as to what kind of film he was trying to make. The Palm Beach Story in contrast is extremely focused. It’s a screwball comedy. It isn’t trying to say anything profound about the American Dream and it doesn’t have a political agenda. It’s there to provide entertainment and it succeeds admirably.

Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea) is a spectacularly unsuccessful architect-inventor. His most recent hare-brained scheme is an airport suspended above the city skyline. Not surprisingly he is unable to earn enough money to pay the rent. This is rather embarrassing for his wife Gerry (Claudette Colbert) who has to suffer the double indignity of both eviction and of being present while the landlord shoes prospective new tenants through their apartment. But she gets a lucky break. The old guy who is looking through her apartment is extremely rich, kind-hearted and quite mad. He takes pity on her and gives her the rent money.

Gerry realises this is only a temporary solution. She still has faith that eventually Tom’s genius will be recognised but she feels that having a wife to support is holding him back. So she decides to leave him. She makes a dash for the railroad station but of course she has no money for a ticket. Luckily the members of the Ale and Quail Club (a club formed to celebrate the twin pleasures of shooting and drinking, usually at the same time) are always willing to pay a train fare for a charming lady in distress. The movie now kicks into screwball high gear as the increasingly intoxicated members of this club start shooting up the train while Gerry has a chance encounter in a sleeping car with a rather shy rather bookish young man.

This man turns out to be J. D. Hackensacker III, one of the richest men in the world. He takes quite a shine to Gerry, and Gerry soon finds herself on his luxury yacht. She meets his much-married and joyfully immoral sister the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor). But husband Tom is in hot pursuit.

Romantic complications and cases of mistaken identity and general confusion and mayhem follow.

This time Sturges keeps everything tightly controlled. The pacing is frenetic and the laughs are there in abundance. His script is witty and there are enough good lines for all of the very talented cast.

Joel McCrea is slightly vague as the well-meaning but somewhat ineffectual Tom. Rudy Vallee is terrific as J. D. Hackensacker. There are some fine supporting performances from minor players (many of whom worked regularly with Sturges). The real star though is Claudette Colbert who is in dazzling form.

The Region 4 DVD includes a lengthy documentary on Sturges but personally I found that if anything it detracted from my enjoyment of the movie. It’s a bit too gushing and Sturges comes across to me as a less than attractive personality. Picture quality is very good though.

An excellent example of the screwball comedy genre and a thoroughly enjoyable movie.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Club Paradise (1945)

Club Paradise is a 1945 Monogram B-movie, and while their movies are often regarded with disdain I have a bit of soft spot for 1940s B-movies made by Poverty Row studios. This one is definitely worth a look.

The Rogers family is one of those poor-but-honest families that seemed to many to be a natural embodiment of virtue but underneath the façade they present to the world all is not well. The father of the family is bitter, and the husband of daughter Katie hasn’t worked for a long long time. He’s turned to drink and self-pity. The other daughter, Julie (Doris Merrick), is looking for a way out.

She at first thinks she’s found that escape in likeable trumpet player Ray (Eddie Quillan). Ray wants to put together a real band and play in up-market nightclubs but he needs money to get him started. His scheme to make the money by gambling goes badly awry when the illegal gambling joint he’s chosen gets raided by the police. Both Ray and Julie get sentenced to a fine of $30 or 30 days in jail. Her father pays Julie’s fine but then kicks her out.

Julie now turns to a man she met in the notorious Club Paradise for help. Danny is a smooth-talking no-good loser who is always trying to make a big score in some crooked deal or other and is always having to be bailed out by one of the women he’s picked up along the way. Only Danny has skipped town, and Julie would have ended up sleeping on the streets if she hadn’t been taken in by Danny’s ex-girlfriend. Danny’s ex runs the Paradise Club, and pretty soon Julie is working there as a dancer.

Julie is hopelessly in love with Danny, and she’s about to find out what that entails in practice. Danny owes a lot of money to some very nasty people. They want their money now, and Danny doesn’t have it. He’s getting seriously menaced by a very heavy customer, but he finds a solution. He can’t offer this guy the money he owes him, but he can offer him Julie. Not as an outright sale but just on a loan basis.

This changes Julie’s outlook rather drastically. She still loves Danny, but now she realises that the Paradise Club is her ultimate destiny. She’s damaged goods and can never aspire to any kind of respectable life. When Ray finally gets his big break at the swank Continental Club he offers Julie a job as vocalist with his band, but Julie turns it down. The Continental Club is a classy joint, and she belongs in low dives like the Paradise Club.

Of course Danny hasn’t yet finished making a mess of Julie’s life and he’s started wrecking her friend Helen’s life as well. This story is clearly not going to end well, and it doesn’t.

The Poverty Row studios like Monogram labored under many disadvantages, but they had their advantages as well. Although they were members of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and thereby bound by the Production Code the truth is that the Production Code Authority regarded the movies of Poverty Row studios as being of little importance and they could sometimes get away with a level of sleaze that would not have been tolerated from a major studio. They also had the advantage of not having to care very much about their public image!

Their other advantage was that the miserly budgets they had to work with could actually work in their favour, adding a extra level of seediness to sordid tales such as this one. When a major studio wanted a nightclub scene they’d build an elaborate set and the result would look like a classy joint. When a studio like Monogram wanted a nightclub scene there’d be no fancy set and the result would look like a cheap dive. Which could often work wonderfully well.

The script is rough around the edges, the direction is basic and the acting is terrible. But this movie has a cheap tacky sleazy glamour that is very film noir. You can smell the stale beer and the despair and desperation. The obvious comparison is to Edgar G. Ulmer’s bleak noir masterpiece Detour, made in the same year, and like Detour this is a story of people that you just know are not going to make anything of their lives.

It’s a public domain movie and while the picture quality of most available versions is pretty dubious it can be picked up for almost nothing, or downloaded legally for absolutely nothing. It’s a movie that is not terribly well known to film noir fans but is certainly worth watching as long as you’re prepared to make allowances for its Poverty Row cheapness.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924)

Fritz Lang’s 1924 two-part film of Die Nibelungen was conceived as an attempt to escape from the prevailing Wagnerian interpretation of the German epic. With a screenplay by his wife Thea von Harbou it is often regarded as reflecting the very different perspectives of Lang and von Harbou.

It was originally released in two parts, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, but it’s best considered as a single film. This was, like all of Lang’s silent films, a very big-budget and quite spectacular production.

The inexorable working of destiny dominates the movie. The characters appear to have very little in the way of free will.

The hero Siegfried slays the dragon Fafnir and goes on to gain possession of the treasure of the Nibelungs from the dwarf Alberich. He then sets off for the fabulous court of Burgundy to woo Kriemhild, sister of King Gunther. Gunther agrees to the match on condition that Siegfried render him a service. He seeks to marry the Queen of Iceland, Brunhild (in Wagner’s operatic version she was one of the Valkyries), but to gain Brunhild’s hand he must defeat her in three tests of strength and courage. Gunther knows he is not equal to the challenge, but if Siegfried will agree to stand in for him secretly then Siegfried can marry Kriemhild. Siegfried has a magic cap that he won from the Nibelungs that allows the wearer to be invisible or to take on any shape he chooses.

The marriages of Gunther to Brunhild, and Siegfried to Kriemhild, set up fateful tensions. Both women believe that only a hero would be a suitable husband for them, and it is soon obvious that Siegfried is a true hero while Gunther is a counterfeit. Most fatefully of all, on their wedding night Gunther had to ask Siegfried to again stand in for him using his magic cap. As you might imagine, when Brunhild discovers this deception she is enraged beyond endurance. With both women believing that only Siegfried would have made them a worthy husband there is bound to be trouble and the sinister Hagen Tronje will be the instrument for Brunhild’s revenge.

Siegfried’s death at the hands of Hagen will in the fullness of time trigger off a bloodbath. Kriemhild marries King Attila, on the condition that he agrees to avenge Siegfried. Kriemhild’s brothers and various retainers of the Burgundian court are summoned to Attila’s court as guests, and the tragedy moves to its inevitable conclusion.

Every step on the road to this tragedy has been inevitable. Even early on, when the hero Siegfried slays the dragon Fafnir, we see that his destiny is already settled. By bathing in the blood of the dragon Siegfried makes himself invulnerable to wounding. Except for one small patch of skin on his back where a dying flicker of the dragon’s tail caused a leaf from a linden tree to fall onto his back, so that his invulnerability is not quite complete. Lang films the scene in such a way that we have not the slightest doubt that Siegfried’s fate is settled, that he is destined to die from a spear thrust in that one patch of skin.

While Lang’s film is sometimes seen as a modernist interpretation of a medieval epic it’s surprising just how medieval the story remains. The Nibelungs will meet their inevitable fate because their belief in absolute unswerving loyalty to one another means that no power on heaven or earth will induce them to do the one thing that would save them - to surrender Hagen. Even though they are fully aware of his guilt, and fully aware of the justice of Kriemhild’s quest for revenge.

Kriemhild is equally powerless to alter her fate. She has no desire to see innocent men die, but she cannot renounce her quest for vengeance. Siegfried has no male heirs to avenge him, and as a result the duty falls to his widow. The idea of failing to avenge him, the idea that perhaps she has a choice, never even crosses her mind. Siegfried’s death sealed her own destiny absolutely.

Lang saw the film as representing four different worlds. The first is the forest world in which the young Siegfried serves his apprenticeship to the blacksmith Mime, a word of magic The second is the world of ice and fire of Brunhild’s caste. The third is the over-civilised rather decadent world of the Burgundian court. And lastly there is the savage world of Attila’s court. All are depicted in equally artificial styles. Lang at this stage of his career generally preferred the control that shooting in a studio gave him. While the obviously artificial trees in the forest realm seem off-putting at first it becomes clear that Lang was perfectly correct in his approach.

The acting is artificial but this also suits the subject matter. Margarete Schön is extraordinary as Kriemhild and at times the way she is filmed reminds me of a Klimt painting. Hans Adalbert Schlettow as Hagen, like Kriemhild, often seems more like a loving statue than a flesh-and-blood human.

An extraordinary achievement by a master film-maker.

Kino’s DVD presentation is acceptable given the fact that the surviving source materials for most silent films are in less than ideal condition.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Call Northside 777 (1948)

The late 1940s saw the rise of what later became known as the noir docu-drama. It’s a sub-genre I have mixed feelings about but Call Northside 777 shows that it could be done fairly effectively.

The idea was to do movies based on true stories, filmed as much as possible in the actual locations where they occurred and with an attempt to achieve a documentary feel. They may have been influenced to some degree by Italian neo-realism. Jules Dassin’s The Naked City is usually thought of as the first major example of this new trend.

The Naked City is a disappointing and rather dull idea. So why does Call Northside 777 work so much more successfully?

The main reason is that Dassin used a large number of non-actors. Henry Hathaway, the director of Call Northside 777, did not make the same mistake. If you want good acting, you hire a professional actor. Bad acting from non-professionals does not make a movie more realistic although countless film-makers over the years have allowed themselves to be persuaded that it does. Hathaway uses a handful of non-actors but mostly he relies on seasoned professional actors and as a result his film is a good deal more entertaining.

The use of location shooting in Call Northside 777 doesn’t feel like a gimmick. Hathaway and his screenwriters also never lose sight of the fact that their objective is to make an entertaining commercial film, rather than an exercise in film theory. They’re also happy to play fast and loose with the fact of the real case in order to make the movie work better as a movie.

The plot is based, loosely, on a real-life case.

Two Polish-American are convicted in 1932 of the murder of a cop in a speakeasy in Chicago’s Polish district. They are each sentenced to 99 years in prison. Eleven years later an ad appears in the Chicago Times offering a $5000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the real killers. The ad was placed by the mother of Frank Wiecek, one of the convicted men, a woman who has spent years scrubbing floors to earn enough money to offer the reward. The city editor (Lee J. Cobb) knows a good story when he sees one and sends reporter P. J. McNeal to look into the case.

McNeal is a cynical ambitious newspaperman and he is convinced the men are guilty. As the story starts to achieve a momentum of its own in the paper, and as he gets to know Frank Wiecek, he slowly starts to change his mind. So does his editor. Gradually it becomes more than a story for them. They might be hardbitten and cynical but they’re real newspapermen and they can’t let go of this story.

Finding any actual evidence that would serve to clear the two men proves to be quite a challenge. Those who might have helped are either dead or they’ve disappeared. Most notably the key witness, Wanda Skutnik, has vanished into the seedy world of the dregs of the criminal underworld.

James Stewart was starting the process of reinventing himself as an actor, taking on much darker and more complex roles, and this movie marks an important step in that process. McNeal, for most of the movie, is a rather unsympathetic character. He’s cynical about his job and about human nature. He thinks the two imprisoned men are guilty and he’s only interested in their story insofar as it’s a good story. When the story seems to be running out of steam he’s quite happy to walk away from it.

What changes McNeal is Frank Wiecek. Wiecek has a quiet dignity, a willingness to sacrifice himself for his family, an inner strength and an uncompromising integrity. These things are somewhat out of McNeal’s experience, and they don’t fit with his view of Wiecek as a vicious cop killer. In spite of himself he not only comes to believe that there’s been a miscarriage of justice, he also comes to realise that sometimes you can’t walk away.

McNeal achieves a kind of redemption. Not that he was a particularly bad person, but he was kind of empty. He didn’t really believe in anything. And he finds that he needs to believe in something. Stewart was perfect for the role and he’s terrific.

Richard Conte is even more impressive, in a more difficult role. His character could come across as phony or self-righteous or annoying but Conte has a sure touch and he’s perfectly convincing and sympathetic.

It’s perhaps not one of the great noirs but it’s a very solid and entertaining film and well worth a watch.

The DVD includes a commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini. I’ve never been overly impressed by the commentary tracks they’ve done but they do have some interesting things to say about the real-life case on which the movie was based.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ring of Fear (1954)

Ring of Fear is a circus murder mystery thriller, and that’s a combination I certainly can’t resist.

It was made by John Wayne’s production company which was responsible for some of the more interesting thrillers of the 50s. Wayne had somehow managed to convince himself that his days as a star were numbered and that he should reinvent himself as a producer. In fact of course he remained a huge box-office draw right up until his final film in 1976 but the move into production proved to be quite fruitful as well.

Ring of Fear has been criticised for having a corny melodramatic contrived plot. Those who see these things as a weakness have missed the point. This is a circus movie. It’s supposed to be outrageous and over-the-top and melodramatic. That’s what circus movies are all about.

The circus in question is the Clyde Beatty Circus. Beatty was one of the most famous of real-life animal trainers and as quite a celebrity, and the Clyde Beatty Circus was a real circus. Beatty plays himself in this movie.

The circus is being dogged by bad luck. Animals mysteriously escape. Trapeze artists are injured when equipment breaks even though these artists are thorough professionals who don’t make mistakes like that. Beatty himself is almost killed when a training rope restraining a tiger breaks. It’s starting to become obvious that all this is more than bad luck.

What do you do in a situation like this? So you call in the cops? Of corse not. You call in a a famous crime novelist. In this case Beatty calls in Mickey Spillane, played in the movie by famous crime novelist Mickey Spillane. Spillane soon picks a likely suspect. Dublin O’Malley (Sean McClory) is a colourful larger-than-life character. He used to be the circus’s ring director. He’d disappeared for several years but now he’s back, and he’s the ringmaster again.

What the movie audience knows, and what the other characters in the movie don’t know, is that when Dublin O’Malley disappeared from circulation for a few years he was in fact in a hospital for the criminally insane. That’s not a spoiler - that information is revealed right at the very start of the movie. The movies uses the classic thriller technique of creating suspense by revealing information rather than concealing it.

Dublin was in love with beautiful trapeze artist Valerie who married another man. The husband-and-wife team now works for the Clyde Beatty Circus. But has Dublin come to terms with the fact that Valerie chose someone else?

Dublin has an ally, a clown called Twitchy. Dublin has a major hold over Twitchy. We’re never told the precise details but it’s implied that Twitchy committed a sex murder years earlier. Whatever it was, it’s apparently enough to guarantee Twitchy the death sentence if Dublin were ever to make a phone call to the cops.

Mickey Spillane will have to work fast if he’s to prevent further tragedies.

It’s all very melodramatic but it’s great fun. Clyde Beatty can’t act but he has a certain presence. Mickey Spillane has lots of presence and he’s surprisingly very effective, and very entertaining. The movie has thrills and spills and lots of excitement. This might be, when judged in conventional terms, a bad movie but it’s an immensely enjoyable romp and I thoroughly recommend it. Especially if, like me, you’re a sucker for circus movies.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fallen Angel (1945)

The success of Laura in 1944 established producer-director Otto Preminger’s Hollywood reputation. 20th Century-Fox had high hopes that Fallen Angel, made the following year, would repeat this success. Fallen Angel has never enjoyed the critical adulation of Laura but in its own way it’s just as interesting. Preminger used more or less the same crew as on the earlier film and also the same male lead, Dana Andrews (Andrews eventually made five films for Preminger).

This time Andrews is a drifter named Eric Stanton who is kicked off a bus when he doesn’t have the money to pay his fare. He was heading for San Francisco but now he’s stuck in a sleepy seaside town a hundred miles short of his destination, and penniless. Stanton had been a successful publicist before gambling and love gone wrong caused him to hit the skids. But he still has a talent for selling people and when he discovers that the celebrated psychic Professor Madley (John Carradine) is about to hit town he sees a chance to make enough money to get him to San Francisco. He’ll drum up plenty of publicity and they can split the profits.

But fate has decreed that Eric will not be leaving town after all. Fate, in the form of a woman. And what a woman. Eric is having a quiet cup of coffee in Pop’s Diner when Linda Darnell as Stella makes her spectacular entrance. She’s the kind of woman men notice. And men are instantly reduced to the status of helpless worshippers at the feet of this goddess of sex.

Every man in town wants Stella. But while Stella likes men well enough she’s not the kind of gal who jumps into bed with any good-looking guy who comes along. She makes it very clear that if a man wants to sleep with her he’d better be prepared to put a wedding ring on her finger. And until she has the ring he’s not even going to get to first base. And he’ll need more than just the dough for a ring - Stella wants a house and she wants nice things and she knows that with her looks she can get them.

Given that Eric’s entire fortune amounts to the princely sum of one dollar Stella is not inclined to take him too seriously as a suitor. But Eric convinces her that he knows how to lay his hands on money, big money, and if she will just wait a week or so he’ll be able go give her everything she dreams of.

How is Eric going to get his hands on this bankroll? That’s where June Mills (Alice Faye) comes in. June and her sister Clara have a great deal of money. June is a very respectable woman. She plays the organ in the local church, she doesn’t smoke or drink, and her experience of men is non-existent. She’s just what Eric is looking for - a repressed wealthy spinster. He will turn on his very considerable charm and the rest will be easy.

But of course it isn’t so easy. Sweeping June off her feet is no problem, and getting her to the altar also presents no difficulties, but before Eric has a chance to put the rest of his plan into operation he finds himself a murder suspect. A dead woman, a very shaky alibi, a suspicious cop who dislikes him, it all adds up to a sticky situation for Eric. The fact that he arrived in town as a penniless drifter isn’t likely to help his case either.

This is, like all of Preminger’s noirs, a complex movie that gets more complex the more you think about it. All of Preminger’s noirs repay repeated viewings. In this case we have three lead characters none of whom are simple villains, victims or heroes.

Even where we seem to have a straightforward contrast between darkness and light it turns out that what we really have are shades of grey. At first glance the dark-haired sexy bad girl (Stella) and the blonde virginal good girl (June) seem like a very old Hollywood cliché. But Preminger presents this cliché in an ironic manner. Is Stella really a bad girl? She won’t have sex with a man until he marries her, she won’t go out with married men. And she never lies to men. She tells them the score right from the start. She might be somewhat mercenary, but that could just as easily be seen as being sensible. Stella knows that money is no guarantee of a happy marriage, but she has no doubt that it sure does help. It’s difficult to disagree with her. Stella has a face and a body that make men do crazy things, but if a moth gets burned by a candle is that the candle’s fault?

Even more interesting is the way June is presented. As Eddie Muller points out in his commentary track, Preminger and his cinematographer Joseph LaShelle always show us June bathed in light, rather like a saint. Again Preminger’s intentions are undoubtedly at least partly ironic. If Stella’s problem is too much sexuality, June’s problem is that her sexuality is unhealthily underdeveloped. If Stella could use some of June’s virtue there’s no question that June could use some of Stella’s wickedness. And June comes to realise this.

Eric is a multi-layered character as well. He’s cynical and ruthless on the surface but underneath he’s really basically a decent man who has lost his way. Dana Andrews always gave fine performances for Preminger and this is no exception.

Alice Faye was bitterly disappointed in this film and there are many who see her as the weak link in the acting department. She probably should have read the script more carefully - playing the good girl is always a thankless task and when you’re playing opposite a bad girl who is a decade younger than you and as smoking hot as Linda Darnell you’re bound to get overshadowed. In fact her performance works well within the context of the film but of course it wasn’t going to do much for her career. She didn’t make another film for sixteen years. Linda Darnell is pure sex but she also proves herself to be a capable actress. It’s just that she’s so sexy it’s difficult to concentrate on her acting.

Preminger is in top form, giving full rein to his fondness for long takes and for elaborate tracking shots. These techniques are never intrusive. Preminger’s genius was to be stylish without calling attention to the fact. The Region 1 DVD includes an entertaining commentary track by Eddie Muller and Dana Andrews’ daughter. As is the case with other Fox Film Noir DVD release the picture quality is superb. An underrated movie and definitely one to buy. This is a movie you’ll want to watch more than once.