Thursday, 25 November 2021

JOHN IRELAND: FILM NOIR'S MAN APART

 By Gary Deane

"Likeable guy. And a very good actor. I'll miss him."   John Sturges on John Ireland's passing.




John Ireland and Robert Mitchum were destined to be best buds. Both were done with school at sixteen, both made their way to Hollywood through the back door, and together they lived it up like tomorrow was already gone. Never that drawn to Tinseltown’s la-di-da, the two hell-raising hipsters were mostly happy just hanging out with the hired help. Yet Ireland too-often found himself in the gaze of the public eye. Among his many fans were freshly-hatched starlets drawn to his rangy good looks and casual attentiveness. Natalie Wood, Sue Lyon, Barbara Payton, and wild child Tuesday Weld, who was sixteen when the 45-year-old actor began dating her, were some of his steadies. When pressed about the relationship with Weld, Ireland said, “If there wasn’t such a difference in our ages, I’d ask her to marry me. That and her mother are the only things that stop me.” Given Ireland’s watchful eyes and vulpine smile, it would be easy to think him dangerous—though he was known to be considerate of his friends, as well as those fans and admirers requesting autographs and photos.

However, Ireland’s indulgences would take their toll, personally and professionally. His first marriages were train wrecks—especially that to actress Joanne Dru, whom he met on the set of the western, Red River (’48). It didn’t take long for the lanky cowboy Romeo to rope Dru in. Meanwhile, director Howard Hawks was busy taking a hatchet to Ireland’s parts in the movie. Hawks said later, “I got tired of Ireland getting drunk every night, losing his gun, losing his hat, smoking marijuana…I just cut the hell out of his scenes and gave them to someone else.” Dru knew the score with Ireland, but married him anyway, only for the pair to later end up in separate hospital wards after what started as an argument ended as a brawl. Following their divorce, Dru—her bruises now faded—told reporters that she’d never marry another actor. Perhaps she just shouldn’t have married John Ireland.

Born in Vancouver, Canada, Ireland grew up in New York City and began his show business career as a professional swimmer. He discovered acting by chance, fell in love with it, and learned and developed his craft on stage from William Shakespeare. Which is likely why he sounds educated even when playing cheap crooks and guys up from the streets. In fact, just his voice is heard in three classic-period film noirs: Somewhere in the Night (1946), Repeat Performance (1947), and The Undercover Man (1949), movies in which he delivered uncredited voice-overs.

Ireland actually made his debut as a screen actor in Lewis Milestone’s dispassionate but moving A Walk in the Sun (1945) as a thoughtful, letter-writing G.I. With his Everyman’s looks and hard-boiled detachment, he’d play a wide range of soldiers, adventurers, and cowboys in over 200 movie and television appearances. Often brooding and inward-looking in performance, Ireland would be cast as characters good or bad—though he was just as well-equipped to play ones both good and bad. Whether a tormented villain or a hard-pressed hero, he was an actor purpose-built for film noir, in which he’d mostly end up being used as a threat, despite the flawed hero being well within his reach.

Roles in classic noir came early on, beginning with Behind Green Lights (1946), a fast-paced procedural starring William Gargan and Carole Landis. Next came Railroaded! (1947), the much-favored hard-boiled B title directed by Anthony Mann, with cinematography by John Alton. In what would become a signature role for him, Ireland stars as Duke Martin, a sadistic thug who spends time buffing his ammo with eau de cologne---that is when he’s not slapping around his girlfriend played by Jane Randolph in the grand tradition of boozy broads such as Claire Trevor’s Gaye Dawn (Key Largo,1948) or Gloria Grahame’s Debbie Marsh (The Big Heat, 1953). 

Soon after Railroaded! came The Gangster (1947), a feverish noir psychodrama starring Barry Sullivan as ‘Shubunka’, a washed-up mobster whose crime empire is crumbling around him due to his arrogance and apathy. However, his henchmen, including his gambling-addicted bookkeeper (Ireland), manage to hasten their boss’s fate—along with their own.  

By this time, Ireland’s career as a featured lead character player looked to be on track: a solid supporting role in the Roy Huggins-written I Love Trouble (1948), a hard-hitting Raymond Chandler knock-off starring Franchot Tone and Janet Blair; a lead in Open Secret (1948), a gripping, poor-man’s version of Crossfire; and a key supporting part in Raw Deal (1948), another emphatic Anthony Mann/ John Alton collaboration, starring Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, and Marsha Hunt. One of the era’s most violent noirs, Ireland features as ‘Fantail’, one of its most ruthless villains.

Later that year, Red River was released. Despite his part having been downsized, Ireland is memorable in several of the A feature’s most important sequences, including the confrontation between his character, Cherry Valance, and rival Matt Garth, played by Montgomery Clift. In a scene ripe with homoerotic innuendo, Cherry says, “That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? And you'd like to see mine. Nice, awful nice. You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever have a good Swiss watch?”




Other ‘adult’ Westerns would follow, including the noir-stained I Shot Jesse James (1949), a testament to its director Sam Fuller’s unbending conviction that the best movies are battlegrounds of love, hate, action, violence, and death. Ireland’s conflicted outlaw hero, Robert Ford is forced to choose between his feelings for Jesse James or those for a woman. Choosing wrongly, he ends up condemned to both the anguish of misplaced love and the infamy as James’ assassin. Ireland’s performance confirmed him as an actor to be reckoned with. 

Unfortunately, his next film that year, an aggravating mix of film noir and family comedy called Mr. Soft Touch (1949) starring Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes, relegated Ireland to a thankless part as a crusading reporter. However, a role in the great All the King’s Men (1949) soon would make up for it. Ireland shared top billing, this time as a more cynical scribe who goes from cautious admirer to fervent denouncer of a corrupt politico (Broderick Crawford) as he attempts to mount the steps of the Governor’s Mansion. But, while Ireland received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, the acknowledgment failed to lead to better things.

The 1950’s began with the adventure drama Cargo to Capetown (1950), a strained attempt to cash in on the popularity of All the King’s Men, with Ireland and Crawford trading blows over the affections of a tramp steamer’s only female passenger (Ellen Drew). This was followed by a line-up of smaller B noirs, each better for Ireland’s being in them: The Scarf (1951), The Basketball Fix (1951), Hurricane Smith (1952), Security Risk (1954), The Steel Cage (1954), his self-directed The Fast and the Furious (1955), No Place to Land (1958), No Time to Kill (1959), and Faces in the Dark (1960). Then at least came a couple of solid supporting parts in Queen Bee (1955) with Joan Crawford, and Party Girl (1958) starring Cyd Charisse. His on-set liaison with Crawford at the time became front-page news, mainly because Crawford appeared so ready to talk about it.   

An ardent Anglophile, Ireland also went back and forth to England during these years, headlining as the ordained American in a quartet of worthier British noirs: The Good Die Young (1954), The Glass Tomb (1955), Black Tide (’58), and Return of a Stranger (1961); also, The Cheaters (1960-62), a realistic TV series about insurance fraud.

During the 1970’s and early ‘80’s, Ireland, like many Hollywood actors of the era (e.g. Charles Bronson, Jack Palance, Telly Savalas, Farley Granger, Joseph Cotton), was kept busy in Italy and Mexico, starring mostly in westerns and thrillers. Back in the States, there was some television work and the occasional meatier movie role still available to him. One standout was as an intractable cop, Nulty, in the remake of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely (1975), which starred his buddy, Robert Mitchum. But by the late 1980’s, Ireland was desperate for what he called ‘real’ jobs. He took out a two-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter, saying only, “I’m an actor. Please…let me act. John Ireland.” The call-out paid off and he was able to find work for a few more years until health issues forced him to retire. He joined Mitchum and other movie colony friends in Montecito, an enclave near Santa Barbara, where for a time he owned a restaurant called ‘Ireland's'. In 1992, he died at the age of 78.

In the end, John Ireland, simply put, was who he was. Though he was serious about his craft and acting appeared to nourish his soul, he could sometimes be his own worst enemy and his career ended in frustration. But then as award-winning novelist and essayist Joan Didion once said of her own fallibilities, “Writing never made me a better person.” All that really matters though is that Ireland, by the fact of his charged inscrutability and unpredictability on screen, can easily be seen today as one of the most modern of film actors of his generation.




 

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Wednesday, 20 October 2021

JOHNNY COOL (1963)


Written by Gary Deane


“He calls himself, Johnny Cool… Everybody remembers him, but nobody knows him.”

In Dark City, there’s a Johnny on every corner—Johnny Allegro (1949), Johnny Angel (1945), Johnny Apollo (1940), Johnny Eager (1942), Johnny Guitar (1954), Johnny Gunman (1957), Johnny Nobody (1961), Johnny O'Clock (1947), Johnny One-Eye (1950), Johnny Rocco (1958), Johnny Staccato (1959-1960), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), Johnny on the Run (1953), Johnny on the Spot (1954), Johnny, You’re Wanted (1956). Some you want to know, some maybe you don’t. Johnny Gunman is a morose, dull-eyed loser and Johnny One-Eye turns out to be somebody’s pet pooch.

Johnny Cool (1963), on the other hand, is one you’d do well to look out for—a stylish and chilling post-noir that comes at the screen like a fist. In the film’s tragic opening sequence, a young Salvatore Giordano watches his mother murdered by a gang of Italian fascists. In a rage, the boy manages to pull the pin on a grenade hanging from one of the soldier’s belts, then flee. He picks a rifle up and cries, “The gun is now the only family I have!” as a partisan sniper kills the others.

Fast forward a few years. Mob boss Johnny Colini aka ‘Johnny Cool’ summons Salvatore (played by Henry Silva), now a hardened fighter. Colini (Marc Lawrence, in a bravura performance) is an aging Italian-American mobster now living in exile in Italy. He tells Salvatore that he wants him to extract vengeance on those responsible for his deportation: “You’ll do a job for me no other man could do. I want you to go to the men who betrayed me, take back what they stole, and make them dead.” Once Colini’s accounts have been settled, Salvatore becomes the new Johnny Cool and takes over the mafia kingpin’s criminal empire in the United States.

Salvatore had only ever battled for freedom and justice up to that point. He must, however, follow tradition and he boards a plane for New York. After taking a few days to get adjusted, Salvatore—now ‘Johnny’—heads to a local bar for a quiet drink but ends using his combat skills to take down a quarrelsome drunk. This attracts the attention of a beautiful-but-bored socialite, Darien Guinness (‘Dare’ to her pals), who seems to find males beating the snot out of each other arousing. Dare (a lascivious Elizabeth Montgomery) is recently-divorced and thinks Johnny looks like he might be just what she’s looking for. She says to him, “All men look like men but so few really are.” She asks, “What do you do?” Johnny replies, “I do my best.” and they leave together.

By this point, the syndicate has figured out who Johnny is and decides to send him a message. A couple of its soldiers are sent to ‘rough up’ Dare (a euphemism for sexual assault). When Johnny finds out, he swears, “The men who did this to you are now dead.” and takes his vengeance up-close-and-personal. He now has to move quickly to eliminate the mob bosses scattered across the U.S. and takes Dare with him. The gangsters–̶ played vigorously by Telly Savalas, Jim Bachus, John McGiver, Brad Dexter, and Mort Saul—are soon out of the picture. Johnny returns to New York while Dare, having had enough of the mayhem, goes to ground in Los Angeles, abandoning Johnny to whatever fate has in store for him.

Based on a novel, The Kingdom of Johnny Cool by John McPartland, and adapted by screenwriter Joe Landon (The Explosive Generation (1961), The Hoodlum Priest, (1960), Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Johnny Cool gave Henry Silva his first leading role. The intense, onyx-eyed actor, raised in Brooklyn by his Spanish mother, first came to Hollywood’s attention in 1955, after he’d starred alongside classmates Ben Gazarra, Shelley Winters, Harry Guardino, and Anthony Franciosa in an Actor’s Studio production of A Hatful of Rain. In 1957, he’d reprise his role as a cold-blooded dope dealer in the feature film version, directed by Fred Zinnemann.

Silva later was contacted by Frank Sinatra, who, liking everything he’d seen of him, asked the actor to be in Ocean’s 11 (1960), a jokey, vanity-fueled heist flick. (Silva would reunite with Sinatra in Sergeants 3 (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and again in Contract on Cherry Street (1977). As a result of his friendship with the ‘Chairman of the Board’, Silva had become a de facto member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack, which led to the offer to star in the role in Johnny Cool. Produced by Peter Lawford, the film also featured fellow Rat Packers Joey Bishop as a rambunctious used-car salesman and Sammy Davis Jr. as a hanger-on dubbed ‘Educated’ due to his skills at craps (Davis also performs a couple of songs, including the title number).


Unfortunately, neither The Manchurian Candidate nor Johnny Cool led to bigger things in Hollywood for Silva. In the mid ‘60’s the under-utilized actor moved to Europe where he soon established himself as a box-office favorite, headlining in a string of popular crime thrillers and poliziotteschi, movies which he elevated beyond their generic limitations. At the same time, he continued to take whatever roles he could get in the States, keeping the doors open for a full-time return to Hollywood a decade later. Once back, he continued to work in films and television until his final appearance in Steve Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001), a passable remake of the ‘60’s classic.

Silva would come to the screen fully formed as the epitome of cool. Equal parts dead certainty and dead calm, he was always the kind of bad guy we want to survive even if we’re pretty sure he won’t. But Johnny’s no ordinary villain. Driven by moral both conviction and ancient codes of courage, he’s less an anti-hero than a tragic figure. To Johnny, Colini’s long-term economic interests and power grabs are unimportant; all that matters is the dutiful resolution of grievances no matter what the costs. Fearing for her safety, amid the violence that swirls around him, Johnny pushes Dare away. She says to him, “You can’t leave me. I’m nothing without you”. He responds, “We’re both nothing.” 

Whether asked to be, or by choice, Elizabeth Montgomery (daughter of actor Robert Montgomery) is as libidinous in Johnny Cool as she would ever be on screen. While the rest of Dare’s character and motivations remain underdeveloped, Montgomery’s both there and accounted as an unsuspected femme fatale and a sensual woman aroused. When she eventually dumps Adrian, her pompous ex-husband, she calls Johnny and tells him, “I need you! I need you now!

 

For those who know Montgomery only as Samantha from the comedy-fantasy television series, Bewitched (1964 -1972), a lot of this may come as a shock. However, Montgomery had been attracting admirers like moths to a flame since puberty and by the time Johnny Cool was released, she was at the height of her beauty and desirability. She’d also been through two divorces, the last from actor Gig Young just before the filming of Johnny Cool. It was during that time she met the movie’s director, William Asher, and not long after its completion, she and Asher were married. Montgomery had told him she was done with acting; however, he soon came up with the idea for Bewitched and the rest is sit-com history. Following, she would become the doyenne of TV movies-of-the-week, among them A Case of Rape (1974) which chronicles the ordeal of a middle-class housewife determined to bring her assailant to trial.

Asher was best known for his lighter-hearted television work, having directed hundreds of episodes of I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, The Danny Thomas Show, The Donna Reed Show, and other showsThe opportunity to direct Johnny Cool also came about as a result of his close relationship with Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, the film’s producer, with whom he’d fly to Las Vegas for nights on the town, returning at the shoot at 5 a.m. the next morning. Asher was friend to many in Hollywood, and several feature in Johnny Cool, including Richard Anderson, Wanda Hendrix, Joseph Calleia, Elisha Cook Jr., and other built-to-last supporting players whose faces, if not names, are familiar. (Also in the mix is an uncredited Rodney Dangerfield as a testy, flap-jawed Las Vegas bus dr river.)

With Johnny Cool in the can, Asher then got to work on the first of his famous moment-in-time ‘beach party’ pictures, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Big money-makers at the box office, these well suntan-oiled productions—Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and four others—gave Asher the greatest pleasure of his career. “The scripts were sheer nonsense, but they were fun and positive.” The films were happy illusions, the very opposite of his dismal upbringing. Asher, in fact, had probed some that territory in several downbeat domestic crime dramas, notably The Shadow on the Window (1957), a suspenseful child-in-distress noir starring Phil Carey, Corey Allen, and John Drew Barrymore.

                    


The director also had worked on TV’s Racket Squad (1951-52), Big Town (!952), and The Line-Up (1954). In 1956, the producers of Racket Squad went back and stitched together several of the grittier episodes and released them in theaters as Mobs, Inc.—anticipating a swell of unreconstructed mob and gangster movies later to follow, such as Baby Face Nelson (1957); The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960); Murder Inc. (1960); The King of the Roaring ‘20’s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein (1961); Mad Dog Coll (1961); and Hail, Mafia (1965).

One of the most convincing of them is Johnny Cool, which dances on the edge of ugliness, its violence barely contained by the Production Code. The movie’s sharp-edged style, fueled by composer Billy May’s high-register jazz soundtrack and cinematographer Sam Leavitt’s expansive, hard-surfaced camerawork is strikingly modern. Leavitt came to Johnny Cool with an imposing resume, having worked on classic noirs The Thief (1952), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Crime in the Streets (1956), The Crimson Kimono (1959), and Cape Fear (1960). He’d also received an Oscar for Best Cinematography for The Defiant Ones (1958) and then nominations for Exodus (1960) and Advise and Consent (1962).

By his own admission, Leavitt was not the easiest person to work with and the trajectory of his career reflected the fact. He told Stuart Kaminsky in an interview for the writer’s 1974 book, Don Seigel, Director, “I don’t care who it is, the biggest director or producer, if I have something to say, I talk back to them. That’s why I don’t get many great pictures (anymore)”. If by “great pictures”, Leavitt was referring to Stanley Kramer’s plodding, sanctimonious Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), then that was his last grab at fame and fortune.

Meanwhile, to both his and William Asher's lasting credit is Johnny Cool[1], a cynical, final-gasp film noir overflowing with the pulp exigencies of life and death. As Colini warns the younger and wary Salvatore, “Now is sure, later is only maybe.” No Johnny-come-lately, Johnny Cool, in all its ferocity, is very much ‘now’.




[1] Also, William Conrad’s under-rated Brainstorm (1965) which had Leavitt behind the camera.

 


 

 

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

MADELEINE STOWE: FILM NOIR’S LAST LEADING LADY

By Gary Deane


“She’s a ‘40’s actress dropped into the ‘90’s. I adore her. There’s something about her that just breaks my heart.” Jonathan Kaplan, director, Unlawful Entry (‘92)


Madeleine Stowe knows how to show upand never more than one morning in 2012 as a guest on ABC’s testy chat-fest, The View. It had been two decades since Stowe been named as one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful Persons in the World” and nothing much had changed. As could have been predicted, hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joyce Behar would look unimpressed. However, Stowe was in blithe spirits that day. She'd recently received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Drama Series in the noir-drenched Revenge, a program which would run from 2011 to 2015 and Stowe hit the stage with old-school sway, an unblushing throwback to a time when dressed-to-kill glamor and allure was the order of the day. Charming, unfiltered, and fiercely smart (she was a favorite guest of TCM host, the late Robert Osborne), it soon became clear that while she was all set to be engaging, she wasif push came to shovejust as ready to fully engage. 

For a period, the world had heard little from or about her. In the late ’80’s and early ‘90's, Stowe had been a fast-rising star, working with such A-list directors as Michael Mann, Robert Altman, and Terry Gilliam, and on the cusp of a gilt-edged career. Then suddenly things cooled off and she would find herself adrift aboard a succession of office flops and anodyne made-for-TV movies. With Revenge, all that would change. The show, a high-drama evening soap, starred Emily VanCamp as a young woman whose father had been jailed for crimes he’d never committed. Sent away as a child, she’d now returned, bent on taking revenge on those responsible—namely the Grayson family and its matriarch, Victoria Grayson, played fearsomely by Stowe. Victoria is a classic femme fatale who takes no prisoners. When she hears her best friend has slept with her husband, she brings her close and whispers, “Every time I hug you, the warmth you feel is my hatred burning through”. You get the idea.

Stowe’s own beginnings were less dramatic. Born in 1958 in Eagle Rock, California, a working-class community sandwiched between Glendale and Pasadena, she actually was painfully shy growing up. She took up piano at age ten and for the next eight years did little else but practice and perform under the tutelage of Sergei Tarnowsky, once the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz. When Tarnowsky died at age 92 in 1976, Stowe quit playing, having decided that “It was time to not be all by myself anymore”. She enrolled at the University of Southern California to study film and journalism and went on her first date—with Dennis Quaid who declined to take her virginity, not wanting the responsibility.

Then came some stage acting. But after seeing her at the Solaris Theater in Beverly Hills, an agent landed her a part in the TV series Baretta, starring Robert Blake as an undercover cop. After that came appearances on Barnaby Jones, Little House on the Prairie, Trapper John, and in the mini-series The Gangster Chronicles, starring Brian Benben as Michael Lasker, a character based on mobster Meyer Lansky (Stowe played Lasker’s wife, Ruth, and in 1981 Stowe and Benben themselves would marry). TV movies followed, including The Nativity (‘78), a kind of biblical ‘When Joseph Met Mary’ with John Shea; then Blood and Orchids (‘86), a landmark broadcast television mini-series featuring Jane Alexander as Doris Ashley, a Hawaiian plantation owner whose daughter, Hester (Stowe, in a shattering performance) is sexually assaulted by a friend of her daughter’s husband. To protect the family, Doris has Hester accuse four young Hawaiian men of battery and rape—unleashing events viewed through the cynical eyes of the investigating detective, played by Kris Kristofferson.


Tropical Snow (1988), her next feature, starred Stowe and Cuban-American Jsu Garci (as Nick Corri) as Marina and Tavo, pickpockets working Bogota’s international airport to support their families. The two agree to act as drug mules for small-time dealer, Oskar (David Carradine) and swallow cocaine-filled balloons just before flying to New York. Things do not go well for the pair. Written and directed by Columbian film-maker Ciro Duran, Tropical Snow is a noir with a beating heart, a lament for a country and the plight of its people. Despite the film’s low-rent production values and the soundtrack’s Miami Vice-like grip, its story and characters are compelling—especially Marina who, though terrified, does what she must to survive. Her only real currency is her looks and having worked in a seedy dance bar, she’s only too aware what comes next for pretty women.




Tropical Snow was released direct-to-video, piggybacking on Stowe’s breakout success a year later as a headstrong Latina in Stakeout (‘87), a comedy crime thriller and surprise box office hit. Starring as the ex-wife of an escaped convict (Aiden Quinn), she’s put under surveillance by a couple of wisecracking cops, played by Emilio Estevez and Richard Dreyfuss, and ends up involved with one of them. More than just a side-dish, Stowe’s free-spirited performance suggested that bigger things were just around the corner—which they were. In the ‘90’s Stowe would find her place in the Hollywood firmament with films such as The Last of the Mohicans (’92) but also establish herself as one of the star attractions in signature films of the golden age of American neo-noir.




The first of these was Revenge (‘90), directed by Tony Scott and based on Jim Harrison’s 1979 pulp noir novella in which women are held to be grand prizes in a male game. Kevin Costner stars as Cochran, a jet jockey who goes to visit Tibey, a wealthy friend in Mexico. Tibey is an up-from-the-gutter character (performed with peasant grandeur by Anthony Quinn) whose sable-haired trophy wife, Miryea (Stowe) enjoys every comfort, though he refuses to give her what she most wants ̶ a child. It’s not long before she and Cochran are stealing glances across the table at dinner and walking beaches together. The ferociously jealous Tibey learns of their dalliances and in a fury orders his men to deal with them. Miryea is drugged and disfigured and dumped at a brothel, and told, “If you want to be a whore, you can be one for the rest of your life”. Tibey’s taken his revenge but the badly-beaten Cochrane responds in kind. As noir often has it, no one wins—though Cochran and Mileya endure long enough to salvage some of their humanity. Stowe gives a gut-wrenching performance as a woman whose only consolation is that she gets to choose a final means of escape from hell. 


Now on a roll, Stowe would next feature in the Jack Nicholson-directed retro noir The Two Jakes (‘90), the long-delayed sequel to Chinatown (‘74). Nicholson again stars as private eye Jake Gittes, this time hired by Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel), to catch his wife, Kitty (Meg Tilley) in the act with his business partner, Mark Bodine. At question also are the fortunes of Bodine’s spouse, Lillian (Stowe) and the related whereabouts of Katherine Mulwray, last seen being abducted by her incestuous monster of a grandfather, Noah Cross. Though The Two Jakes is messy and frayed, Stowe—tough, foul-mouthed, and appealingly loopy in pink angora and a ‘40’s Victory Roll—is the movie’s sole undiluted pleasure.

Two years later came Jonathan Kaplan’s chilling domestic noir, Unlawful Entry (‘92), with Stowe sharing the bill with Kurt Russell as a couple, Karen and Michael Carr, who’ve moved recently into a leafy Los Angeles neighborhood. One night a robber breaks in and holds a knife to Karen’s throat. Though he eventually runs off, the two are badly shaken. Michael, knowing he’d been unable to protect his wife, is humiliated. The police are called and one of the officers, Pete Davis (Ray Liotta), goes out of his way to help out with installation of a security system. To show their appreciation, they invite him to dinner. In the days following, Pete begins to show up unannounced and intrude upon their lives, telling Karen, among other things, that she needs a better man around the house than her husband. Unlike other domestic thrillers of the day such as Fatal Attraction (‘87) Pacific Heights (‘90), The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (‘92), and Single White Female (‘92), Unlawful Entry’s storyline is as credible as it is gripping, as Kaplan (Heart Like a Wheel (’83), The Accused (’88) sets the story in an entirely plausible world. Cheap dramatics are avoided, the tension builds organically, and it takes most of the movie for Pete’s obsession to fully reveal itself. Stowe is strikingly and uncomfortably real as a woman-in-peril who fails to realize how drawn she is to Pete’s fantasy. While she doesn’t lead him on, she makes the near-fatal mistake of not nipping his dangerous imaginings in the bud and awareness comes not a moment too soon.

Then came Robert Altman’s three-hour pastiche, Short Cuts (‘93), based on the stories of Raymond Carver, America’s blue-collar Chekov. Stowe features as Sherri, the wife of Gene Sheppard (Tim Robbins), a motorcycle cop who routinely cheats on her. Not that she cares, being a scrapper who laughs at the lies and sorry excuses that her husband tries to feed her. Sherri is the film’s most appealingly sympathetic character and Stowe’s performance won her a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress (Stowe first had been assigned the role played by Juliane Moore but Stowe balked at the nudity the script asked for and Moore agreed to swap parts).


Short Cuts had prepared Stowe well for her next movie, Blink (’93) in which she plays Emma Brody, a fiddle player in a band working bars in North Side Chicago. Tough and independent, Emma has been blind since childhood. Early in the movie she undergoes a corneal transplant, though she’s unable until days later to register what she may have seen in the meantime—including a man in the hallway outside her apartment who may have killed her neighbor upstairs. Aiden Quinn enters the scene as detective John Hallstrom and the two soon find themselves in a combustible love-hate relationship. Emma is willful and unpredictable and no blind waif waiting until dark—which makes her a match for both the killer and for Hallstrom, a hard-edged cop who cares mostly about the job and finding somewhere to have a drink once his shift is done.

Stowe was now going to from strength to strength and China Moon (‘94), her next movie, a second coming for film noir tropes borne of the classic period, was a chance to play what she was meant to be—an unreconstructed femme fatale. Rachel Munro, a pampered, unhappy Florida beauty is stuck in an abusive marriage to a philandering husband, Robert (Charles Dance). One evening she heads to a local beach bar to drown her sorrows and meets Kyle Bodine (Ed Harris), another cop who’s always on red alert. Only this time Bodine lets his guard down and ends up a chump to end all chumps.

China Moon (effectively a re-make of The Man Who Cheated Himself, ‘50’) was directed by John Bailey, the cinematographer who’d worked with both Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, ‘81) and Paul Schrader (Hardcore, ‘79; American Gigolo, ‘80). China Moon also bears a strong family resemblance to Body Heat, with its moody Florida settings, and a gullible protagonist led down an equally dark path by a predatory female. However, Stowe’s Rachel is both less obvious and more complicated than Kathleen Tuner’s pulp fiction spider woman, Mattie Walker; neither is Kyle Bodine as frivolous and given to casual affairs and one-night stands as William Hurt’s louche Ned Racine. Unlike that of Ned, Kyle’s fall is far more tragic. Free of self-reflexive irony or reversals of classic elements, China Moon is a modern noir as though conjured and directed by classic greats Robert Siodmak or Edward Dmytryk.

After which came the decline. Though Stowe headlined in three other movies in the ‘90’s which did well enough with audiences: Bad Girls (‘94), Twelve Monkey’s (‘95), and the noirish The General’s Daughter (‘99), only Twelve Monkeys garnered much favor with reviewers. One which did neither was The Proposition (‘98), a big, windy period drama which even the likes of Stowe, William Hurt, Kenneth Branagh, Blithe Danner, and Patrick Neil Harris couldn’t rescue. The  ‘00’s later brought only films no one wanted to see: The Imposter (’01), We Were Soldiers (’02), Avenging Angelo (’02), Octane (’03). Somewhat better-received were some made-for-television titles, including The Magnificent Ambersons (‘02), Saving Milly (’05), and The Christmas Hope (’09). Despite notable and sometimes exceptional performances, Stowe’s stardom had collapsed amid forgettable roles, movie misfires, and outright production catastrophes.

It finally took the broadcast television series Revenge not only to restore critical confidence in Stowe but also indemnify her as une belle ideal of classic (and classy) film noir style and substance. Stowe had rightly looked to actresses such as Jane Greer, Joan Bennett, Rita Hayworth, and Lauren Bacall, women celebrated for both their beauty and brains and whose strength and authority often could be brazenly sexual. 

Doing so gave Stowe command as the last of the spirited leading ladies and in whom one could see genuine connective tissue to the greats of the classic period and not someone just playing the part. Which is to take nothing away from Kathleen Turner or Linda Fiorentino or Sharon Stone in their burned-in-the-brain outings as femme fatales. The difference is that, as Jonathan Kaplan suggests, that Madeleine Stowe genuinely seemed to be borne of that earlier era. Just as Greer and Bennett and the others are now feted for their contributions to cherished film noirs, so should Stowe be for her catalog of strikingly resonant performances in modern-day noir. It’s a shame there weren’t more of them.




Monday, 21 December 2020

STOLEN IDENTITY (1953)


By Gary Deane

Everyone has a chance. Mine came today and I won’t let go of it.

It’s a shadowy and harrowing tale, one passionately told by its author, Austrian Alexander Lernet-Holenia in a best-selling novel, Ich war Jack Mortimer (1933).  

Ferdinand ‘Fred’ Sponer, a Budapest taxi-driver, picks up a wealthy American passenger, Jack Mortimer, at the train station on New Year’s Eve. While Sponer is inside retrieving his fare’s bags, Mortimer is shot. Because he’s about to start a new job as a chauffeur, Sponer doesn’t want to get involved with the police. He drives off and dumps the body in the woods. But, still worrying he could be connected with Mortimer’s disappearance, he decides to fake his arrival by checking into the man's hotel wearing his clothes and assuming his identity.  

Waiting for Mortimer is Winifred Montemayor, who’s about to leave her husband, a renowned orchestra conductor, Pedro Montemayor, and run away with the American. When she goes to Mortimer’s room and finds Fred there with her lover’s bags, she threatens to expose him. He flees but only to learn that his is not the only deception and that he has far more to fear than just the police.

In 1935, the book became a film, Ich war Jack Mortimer directed by Carl Froelich from an elegant script by Thea von Harbou (a fascinating profile of whom featured in the Fall 2015 edition of NOIR CITY e-magazine).  Anton Walbrook stars as the ill-tempered Fred, a prole who’s increasingly bitter about the hand he’s been dealt as he toils away with little hope of bettering himself.  He takes out his frustration on Marie, his fiancée, whose affection he doesn’t deserve.

Though Fred is not a particularly likeable character, he's not without charm. Walbrook was an engaging actor, an Austrian who in 1936 settled in England after changing his name from Adolph to Anton (Walbrook was gay and also classified under the Nuremberg Laws as half-Jewish).  In Britain, he continued to work, specializing in imperious continentals such the tyrannical impresario, Lermontov, in The Red Shoes, 1948 (a highlight of the 2016 NOIR CITY festival screenings in San Francisco).

Ich war Jack Morimer shares some of the saturnine expressiveness of the great silent melodramas. Formal, Teutonic, and gloomy, it’s a compelling proto-noir. However, a second movie version of the tale, Abentueur in Wein aka Adventures in Vienna was released in 1952, starring Gustav Fröhlich (Metropolis, 1927) as ‘Toni’ Sponer and Francis Lederer as the husband, now Claude Manelli.  Then, a year later, Lederer reprised his part in an Austrian/ US co-production, Stolen Identity, 1953, a near shot-for-shot remake of Abentueur in Wein, this time featuring an all-English-speaking cast in the main roles. 

Produced by Turhan Bey (The Mysterious Mr. X, 1948; Parole Inc., 1948) and directed by Gunther Von Fritsch (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), Stolen Identity remains set in Vienna amid the destruction of WWII.  Like The Third Man, 1950, the movie is a deeply atmospheric suspense thriller that plays like a post-war spy/ espionage drama without actually being one.

American actor Donald Buka plays Toni Sponer, now an undocumented refugee from Eastern Europe who has fled to Austria. But no papers means no work permit and no permit means no passport. Toni is desperate to leave Vienna and to get to the US where he once lived as a child. Meantime, he survives by driving a taxi illegally. When Jack Mortimer is murdered in his cab, Toni takes his passport and cash, seeing them as a way out.

Again, problems arise when Toni goes to the hotel impersonating Mortimer and is met by Karen Manelli (Joan Camden), Claude Manelli's beleaguered wife. But this time Karen reports Toni to the police and they pick him up on suspicion of identity theft.  However, Manelli, for his own reasons, identifies Toni as Jack Mortimer, telling the police that his wife has a history of mental illness and is always making up stories. Karen is released to her husband but escapes, realizing Toni has been set up.

Though based on the same story, Ich War Jack Mortimer and Stolen Identity are very different movies – as could be expected having been made nearly twenty years apart, one prior to WWII, the other following. Diverging dramatically in tone and style, Ich War Jack Mortimer is a contained crime drama while Stolen Identity is an expansive thriller that provides its characters with backstories as well as giving attention to their development.  Toni, as played by Buka, a handsome and forceful actor (The Street with No Name, 1948; Between Midnight and Dawn, 1950) is a more sympathetic protagonist than his morose, self-absorbed predecessor, Fred.  While there are actors who would have turned Stolen Identity into a florid melodrama, Buka gives a restrained and believable performance.

Likewise, Joan Camden (The Captive City, 1952), a more responsive actress than Jack Mortimer's enigmatic Sybille Schmitz who committed suicide by barbiturate overdose while under the ‘care’ of her doctor. Camden was a fragile beauty, never a show-off, who made an impact in a gentle way, often portraying wholesome, devoted wives and girlfriends. She shared a quality with the likes of Margaret Sullivan, June Allyson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Teresa Wright, though without ever managing to share their star power.


 
But it’s really Francis Lederer (Confessions of Nazi Spy, 1939; The Madonna’s Secret, 1946) who claims center stage (as he actually does several times in concert performance). Lederer was a Czech-born actor whose dark good looks and silken air won him movie roles as a suave continental type in films from the silent era into the 1950’s, after which he switched mostly to television.

Lederer began on stage and with a half-dozen films made in Europe – including the silent classic Pandora’s Box (1929) starring Louis Brooks - before being brought to America by RKO as a romantic European lead. However, Lederer, in his many appearances as assorted rogues, charmers, horror villains and Nazi spies never really fulfilled his potential in Hollywood. Though Ginger Rogers wrote of him, “The studios didn’t know how to handle Francis or buy stories for him”, Lederer believed that it was his inherent shyness and reluctance to do publicity that worked against his becoming a big romantic star like Charles Boyer.  Nevertheless, he was a fine actor and even in unsympathetic roles like that of Claude Manelli, was able to imbue his characters with humanity. He was impressive in the classic noir The Madonna’s Secret as a troubled artist who might be trusted one second but never the next.



Lederer is equally good in Stolen Identity, a B production that, as suggested, can be compared favorably on its own more modest terms to director Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Among its merits are Gunter von Fritisch’s polished direction and stunningly restless noir cinematography by Helmut Ashley who worked later on German director Frank Wisbar’s gripping drama, Wet Asphalt (1958), starring Horst Buchholz and Gerte Frobe. Stolen Identity’s intelligent script also captures the despair, pain, and bone-weariness of post-war Europe. 

And though there’s no real mystery to Stolen Identity, there is still tremendous suspense, built upon small incidents and many surprises including a memorable finale. The stolen/ mistaken identity trope is common in film noir but Stolen Identity’s uncommon reckoning is not. 




Monday, 19 October 2020

CLUB PARADISE aka THE SENSATION HUNTERS (1946)

By Gary Deane

 


“When you get stuck on a guy, you just leave yourself wide-open for a whole lot of punishment.”

Club Paradise begins as it ends: A man enters the courtyard of a fashionable Spanish Revival apartment block in darkness. A woman in a negligee appears on a second-floor terrace and motions toward a stairway. The man goes up and enters.  Moments later gunshots ring out. The apartment goes dark.

What unspools between the movie’s opening frames and closing credits is a chilling film noir from Monogram Pictures, one of Hollywood’s fabled ‘Poverty Row’ production studios. Active from 1931 to 1953 (after which it became Allied Artists Pictures Corporation), Monogram’s output consisted mostly of shoot ‘em up westerns (John Wayne, Tex Ritter, Hoot Gibson, etc.) and ‘exotic’ adventure titles. The line-up also included a good number of bracing crime thrillers, many now familiar to fans of classic noir, including When Strangers Marry (1944), starring Robert Mitchum; Dillinger (1945), nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and featuring Lawrence Tierney; Suspense (1946), headlining figure-skating star, Belita; Fear (1946), with Warren William; Fall Guy (1947), with Robert Armstrong and Leo Penn; High Tide (1947), starring Lee Tracy and Don Castle; I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948), also with Castle; and Incident (1948), featuring Warren Douglas.

Missing from that list is Club Paradise, a little-known title almost as comfortless as that sine qua non of comfortless Hollywood B noirs, Detour, released a year earlier by Producers Releasing Corporation. (PRC). While Detour recounts the tale of a man’s failed attempt to outrun his past, Club Paradise—also told in flashback—counters with that of a woman’s failed attempt to outrun the present. Like Detour, the film leaves behind a doomed protagonist swept away by fate’s  undertow—bleak testament that in noir, as in life, bad things happen to good people.

And Club Paradise’s Julie Rogers (Doris Merrick) is a good person—despite the abuse heaped upon her by her father, a pious weakling and her brother, a feckless drunk. Her mother is no help to her at all and her pregnant sister-in-law struggles to keep her marriage together. Which leaves Julie with little to raise her spirits except the occasional night at the fights with her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Ray Lawson (Eddie Quillan). Ray, in fact, is “a swell guy” who works at same factory as Julie and dreams of being a trumpet player in a big band. Though he’s got a steady gig at a neighborhood club, The Black Cat, he thinks he can do better.

For that to happen, he’ll need money and one night heads to local casino, with Julie along for good luck. However, Ray’s a better trumpeter than he is a gambler and he soon blows through his stake. Worse, as they go to leave the joint is busted and the two are arrested and charged. Later sentenced to “thirty dollars or thirty days” by a mean-spirited magistrate, Ray goes to jail while Julie’s father pays her fine and tells her not to bother coming home again.

By this time, however, she’s had all she can take of being a dutiful daughter and a factory girl with few prospects worth talking about. With nowhere to go she turns to Irene (Constance Worth), the manager of the Club Paradise who listens to her story and offers her a tryout with the club’s dance troupe, ‘The Rubinettes’. While she’d been thinking more about a job serving on the floor (“I feel like I have two left feet.”), she changes her mind when the club’s resident chanteuse, Mae (Isabel Jewell) laughs and says, “Doll, who do you think is gonna be looking at your feet?”. 

What Julie doesn’t know is that Irene is the former girlfriend of Danny Burke (Robert Lowery), a smooth-talking sharpie who’d taken Julie to the club after chatting her up in a cafe some days earlier. Danny’s still hanging around ‘the Paradise’ and she soon falls for his flagrant charm—even though he warns her: “Don’t fall in love. It doesn’t payoff. I’ve been in trouble. I still am.” As it turns out, Danny’s been with every woman in the club. One night after one of the dancers requires urgent medical attention, another seems to suggest that it’s because of a botched abortion (see footnote). It also appears as though Danny could be involved.

Less in doubt is that Danny is on the hook to some small-time racketeers. Gang boss Lew Davis (Nestor Paiva) brings him in one day and delivers an ultimatum, “We’re funny guys. We like our loans paid on time…Pay up, or else”. Danny begs Irene, who still has feelings for him, to help but she refuses, telling him, “You’re no good. I don’t know why we both still love you.” Later, after Davis and his thugs have come by the club, Julie emerges from an upstairs room disheveled and shaken—a victim of Danny’s recklessness. Meanwhile, Ray’s now out of jail and is working at an upscale cabaret, the Continental Club. Despite being dumped, he offers Julie a job as vocalist with the new band. She says she’s not interested: “I belong here. You’re on your way up, not down.” Her hopes and dreams have come and gone. What she doesn’t know is that her worst nightmare is about to begin.

A haunting tale of hard-boiled despair, Club Paradise is tawdry even by Poverty Row standards—though a few titles nearly as lurid, like Columbia Picture’s Night Editor (1946) come to mind. That said, the storyline of Club Paradise is as plausible as it is pulpy, making it tempting to re-imagine as if produced by a studio with money to spend. Danny would have been a good fit for Tyrone Power—who played a similarly charming-but-faithless heel in Rose of Washington Square (1939) before later taking it all a step further with a descent into hell in Nightmare Alley (1947).

Which takes nothing away from Robert Lowery’s knowing portrayal of the blasé and self-aware homme fatal in Club Paradise. With his everyman appeal and versatility (fans often confused him with Clarke Gable when he first arrived in Hollywood) Lowery featured in everything from popular B westerns to noirish crime thrillers such as Dangerous Passage (1944), They Made Me a Killer (1946) and Danger Street (1947).

Helping out are a couple of classic noir’s favored male character actors, who could give a lift to any movie just by showing up. Byron Foulger, for his part, made a career out of roles as unhelpful, mealy-mouthed room clerks, baggage handlers, bank tellers, gas station attendants, store keepers, motel managers, or morticians in hundreds of screen performances, including in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1945), Scarlet Street (1945),  Deadline at Dawn (194), Blonde Alibi (1946),They Won’ t Believe Me (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), Union Station (1950), Dark City (1950), and The Sniper (1952). As Julie’s embittered father, the owlish actor gives her all the reasons in the world to never look back.

Nestor Paiva, the bald and bulky actor of Portuguese descent, made his mark with portrayals of sinister ethnic villains—Spanish, Greek, Italian, Slav, East Indian, or Arab—in pictures such as Cornered (1945), Fear (1946), Suspense (1946) Humoresque (1946), Alias Nick Beal (1949), Follow me Quietly (1949), On Dangerous Ground (1951), 5 Fingers (1952), Split Second (1953), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), and Pier 5, Havana (1951). In Club Paradise, Paiva is even more of his malevolent self.

In the end, however, the film really belongs to its actresses and their better angels—including the ones who’ve fallen. Merrick, Janet Shaw (Julie’s sister-in-law), and Wanda MacKay (Helen, her best friend) were all off-the-shelf Hollywood beauties who’d feature mostly in low-budget programmers, though all were capable, spirited performers. In Club Paradise each pulls her weight, especially Merrick who bestows Julie with a resilience and resolve that make her so easy to like and later on to feel for. MacKay, a former model and a presence on screen, would wed singer/ songwriter/ actor Hoagy Carmichael. The two would be together until his death in 1981.  

Constance Worth, an elegantly composed Australian import, arrived in America under contract to RKO before going over to Columbia. Bearing a notable resemblance to Claire Trevor in looks and demeanor, she too often found herself cast as a woman without illusions but not without hope. Worth made appearances in Dillinger (1945), Deadline at Dawn (1946) and The Set-Up (1949)—her next-to-last film before leaving the business at age 36.

On the other hand, Isabel Jewell, a contract player with MGM,  featured mostly in A productions in the ‘30’s and early ‘40’s, before the parts on offer began to go from smaller (Born to Kill, 1947) to uncredited (The Snake Pit, 1948) Unfaithfully Yours, 1948, and The Story of Molly X, 1949). Jewell referred to herself as “the most unsuccessful successful actress in Hollywood” —always working but just as often type-cast as a tough-talking broad, gangster's moll, or fallen woman. In Club Paradise, she’s in great form as the cynical doxie with a heart of stone who later tells Julie, “Listen kid, this is a tough racket. You prance around night after night with your back and feet killing you. And for what? So a bunch of rummies can slobber in your drink, that’s what.

Club Paradise works hard to make the most of its running time— thanks to the tightly-plotted screenplay by Dennis Cooper (When Strangers Marry, 1944; City Across the River, 1949) and agile, fast-paced direction by Christy Cabanne—himself a sure-handed story teller. The veteran director’s career reached back to the early days of the silents. However, Cabanne appears to have kept up with the times and in tune with anguished characters who know what they’ve lost or are about to lose and are unable to do anything about it. Visibly more than just the efforts of an everyday cast and crew working for scale, Club Paradise is another of those prized B noirs that somehow manages to transcend its impoverished origins. Which is as much as one could ask for, or maybe even want.


 Footnote:  Although Monogram was a member of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA)— and thereby bound by the Production Code— it seemed that those in charge of administering the Code often paid scant attention to the output of the Poverty Row studios.        


___________________________________________






Friday, 24 November 2017

SUSAN SHAW: BRIT NOIR’S TRAGIC SWEETHEART




Her mother told friends and neighbors her daughter was daft. The girl was “movie mad”, living only for the pleasures of the pictures and latest movie magazines. But young Patsy Sloots,who was blonde, petite, and uncommonly pretty, had thoughts of her own. At age seventeen, she was signed by the J. Arthur Rank Organization, stage-named ‘Susan Shaw’, and hustled off to the studio’s charm school to make a proper lady of her (“The rain in Spain…”).

Soon after, Patsy-now-Susan, was given her first screen assignments - uncredited and minor supporting parts in a series of sombre melodramas, most of them now part of the British film noir canon. These included The Upturned Glass (1947), the macabre tale of a doctor driven to avenge the death of his lover; Jassy (1947), an elegant period thriller in which murder and the sins of the flesh richly thicken the plot; It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), a grim yet poetic depiction of backstreet life in post-war London; and To the Public Danger (1948), a cautionary psychodrama based on a stage play by Patrick Hamilton (Gaslight, Rope, Hangover Square).

Though the roles were small, Shaw brightened the screen corner-to-corner. It was clear there was more to her than just girlish good looks and a buoyant personality. Unselfconscious and matter-of-fact, Shaw was suited to play strong-willed and often wilful young women. Growing up in West Norwood, a working-class district of South London, she’d come by her candor and forthrightness honestly, deciding early on to be something more than an office clerk, the vocation waiting for most girls after school-leaving at age 16. Like the characters she’d play - be it daughter, sister, girlfriend, fiancée, wife, confidante, or companion - she would always resist expectations.



Shaw’s breezy impudence would next find her cast in a trio of light-hearted comedies charting the exploits of a working-class London family, the Huggetts. Starring Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison as the clan’s good-hearted parents, and Jane Hylton, Petula Clark, and Shaw as their spirited young daughters, the movies charmed audiences and were a hit at the box office. They also showcased Shaw’s maturing talents; months later she’d be seen in Charles Crichton’s poignant portmanteau production, Train of Events (1949). The film recounted a railroad disaster as told through four short stories, one of them, ‘The Engine Driver’ again teaming up audience-favorite Jack Warner with Shaw as father and daughter. Though the movie met with only mixed success, it cemented her relationship with the general public and its sense that the actress was ‘one of us’ - ¬a well-brought up young woman (as opposed to the snobby ‘well-bred’) doing her best to get by.



Shaw looked to be on her way. She was given higher billing in Five Angles on Murder AKA A Woman in Question (1949), directed by Anthony Asquith and headlining Jean Kent and Dirk Bogarde. Shaw featured as Catherine, the self-centered younger sister of Kent’s character, Astra, who is mysteriously murdered. The police interview five of those closest to Astra, each of whom offers up a dramatically different view of the woman. Catherine recalls Astra as a cheap tramp, though she’s no angel herself. Catherine’s flinty insolence projected Shaw in yet another light on screen. As an actress, she’d become more unpredictable, more vivid, and much more interesting. 

A Woman in Question was Susan Shaw’s full entrée into the dark world of film noir. It was a world which she’d soon make her home, as nearly all of the films in which she’d next feature would be unconditional film noir dramas and thrillers. One of the first and best was Basil Dearden’s ground-breaking Pool of London (1950). The film tells of a merchant seaman, Dan (Bonar Colleano) who gets in over-his-head in a smuggling racket. He recruits a black shipmate, Johnny (Earl Cameron) to help pull him out but fails to tell Johnny what’s really going on. Shaw gives an emotionally uncluttered and touching performance as an empathetic cinema cashier who becomes drawn to Johnny as she witnesses his wounding encounters with racial prejudice. She also begins to share his vagrant hopes.



It was on the set on Pool of London that Susan Shaw first met Bonar Colleano, a charismatic American actor who’d featured in the Hollywood productions Stairway to Heaven (1946) and Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948). Now working in the UK, Colleano had become a go-to actor for roles asking for a brash, voluble New Yorker. He’d star in films such as Good-Time Girl (1948), Christ in Concrete (1949), Escape by Night (1954), and Joe MacBeth (1955). Shaw was married at the time to German actor Albert Lieven but their marriage ended in 1953. She and Colleano wed in January, 1954.



Their union grabbed the attention of the daily press and it wasn’t long before Shaw and Colleano had been anointed as British filmdom’s Golden Couple. Their celebrity was transcendent and strikingly modern. She was coveted by both British movie and women’s magazines as interest in her began to eclipse that of more established and critically-appointed actresses like Deborah Kerr, Valerie Hobson, Kathleen Byron, and Ann Todd. Shaw’s attraction appeared to be unbound by class or generational divides. Among her fans were older movie goers who had watched her come of age on screen, as well as younger women and teenage girls infatuated by her persona on and off-screen. Her trademark blondeness was embraced as fashionable and glamorous – unlike that of brassier sexpots Diana Dors, Greta Gynt, or Christine Norden who were generally viewed as ‘common’.


  
The couple’s storybook life came to a devastating end in 1958 when Colleano, returning to London from Liverpool after a stage performance of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?,  smashed up his sports car and was killed. Shaw was left distraught ̶ and destitute. Colleano was a reckless spender who owed thousands in back taxes. Friends, including James Mason and Stanley Baker, volunteered to sponsor a charity football match to cover funeral expenses and raise funds towards the support of the couple’s three-year-old son, Mark, who would be taken in and raised by Colleano’s mother, a former circus performer (Mark would go on to become an actor). Shaw struggled to keep working. She began drinking heavily and her acting career was done with by 1962. She survived on menial office jobs and serving in bars but fell deeper into alcoholism and depression. Eventually, she was banned even from London’s seediest clubs and in 1978 at 49 years old, passed away from cirrhosis of the liver. She died penniless and burial costs were covered by the Rank Organization. No former co-stars or colleagues came to her funeral, though Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison, then respectively 83- and 86-years old and in ill-health, sent flowers. 

Celebrity deaths are often attended by infamy. Examples are sadly familiar, such as that of Barbara Payton who lived out her days addicted and selling herself on Sunset Strip; or Gail Russell, who medicated herself to death with alcohol, initially in an attempt to overcome crippling stage fright. Susan Shaw’s premature passing, like Russell’s was rendered even more tragic because of the once-shining promise of her life and career. Fortunately, Shaw left behind an array of memorable, full-of-life performances, a testament to a lovely and vibrant actress who featured and starred in more classic-period British film noirs than any other. Following are ten of ‘best of the rest’ of Susan Shaw, the uncontested Sweetheart of British Noir.




THE FILMS 

1. Waterfront AKA Waterfront Women (1950) Dir: Michael Anderson, w/ Robert Newton, Kathleen Harrison, Richard Burton, Kenneth Griffith, Avis Scott 

A bleak post-war noir about a family long-abandoned by the father (Newton) who went to sea years ago. Newton suddenly returns home and ends up in jail for murder while the youngest daughter (Shaw) is being pursued by a wealthy scoundrel (Griffith) who wants only to get her into bed. She resists, holding out for more and determined to get it. The film was Shaw’s first casting in an adult part. Just 19 years old, she seems years beyond her age as the hardened little social climber.  



2. There is Another Sun AKA Wall of Death (1951) Dir: Lewis Gilbert, w/ Laurence Harvey, Maxwell Reed 

Reed, a motorcycle stunt rider and low-life, convinces his boxing buddy (Harvey) to help him rob the carnival office. Reed is lusting for a new bike so he can rejoin the racing circuit after recklessly killing a fellow racer. Shaw, once Reed’s girlfriend and now Harvey’s, begs him not to get involved with the thick-eared Reed but is left only to pick up the pieces when everything goes ‘pear-shaped’. Shaw’s performance in Wall of Death is one of her most sympathetic and affecting.





3. Wide Boy (1952) Dir:  Ken Hughes, w/ Syd Tafler, Ronald Howard

Tafler is a street hustler with big ambitions and no prospects. His girlfriend (Shaw) despairs of him but enjoys his patter and his favors. One evening, he dips into a woman’s purse and comes up with a letter that shows she’s having an affair with well-to-do married gent (Howard). Tafler tries blackmail but ends up on the run for murder. Wide Boy was Shaw’s coming-out in her transformation from a pretty young slip-of-a-thing to a self-assured beauty.


4. A Killer Walks (1952) Dir: Ronald Drake, w/ Laurence Harvey, Trader Faulkner

Lawrence Harvey plays a farm worker, existing on subsistence wages paid to him by his grandmother who owns the farm. Shaw is his glammed-up girlfriend who’s looking for money in a marriage. Both know where they can get it but granny has to die first. Shaw’s made it plain that she’s just a city girl who wants to open a beauty parlour. Bible-thumping granny makes it plain she thinks Shaw’s just a floozy. She is, and a thumping good one at that.





5. The Intruder (1953) Dir: Guy Hamilton, w/ Jack Hawkins, Michael Medwin, Dennis Price
Jack Hawkins returns home to find a burglar (Medwin), a former member of his wartime regiment. Medwin makes a dash for it and Hawkins, hoping to help him, goes on a country wide-search. Shaw is Medwin’s girlfriend from before the war who’d promised to marry him but now has other plans. Shaw’s natural believability was a large part of her appeal. In The Intruder, that truthfulness of character is heart-rending. 


6. Small Town Story (1953) Dir: Montgomery Tully, w/ Ken Walton, Donald Houston, Alan Wheatley

A Canadian ex-serviceman (Walton) returns to the English town where he’d been posted during the war, hoping to find the girl (Shaw) with whom he’d fallen in love. Walton, a promising footballer, hears that the local club stands to inherit £25,000 from recently a deceased supporter if it places high in the league. The supporter’s nephew (Wheatley) wants the money and enlists Shaw’s help to make sure that Bob never plays. This was one of Shaw’s few parts as an all-out bad-girl. Would that there had been more…


7. The Good Die Young (1954) Dir: Lewis Gilbert, w/ Laurence Harvey, Stanley Baker, Richard Basehart, John Ireland, Joan Collins, Gloria Grahame 

Three good men are desperate to redeem themselves: a broken boxer (Baker); a US veteran (Basehart) attempting to win back his wife (Collins); and an air force sergeant (Ireland) married to a faithless actress (Grahame). The trio are persuaded by an amoral layabout (Harvey) to hi-jack a postal van. Shaw has a small part but owns the moment. As Ireland tries to chat her up in a pub, she asks, “Are you married?”. When he asks her why she cares, she says, “Oh, I just like to know what the weather’s like before I put out to sea”. The last word often went to Shaw who was always ready to deliver it.


8. Blonde Blackmailer (1955) Dir: Charles Deane, w/ Richard Arlen, Constance Leigh

After serving seven years for a murder he didn’t commit, Arlen is determined to clear his name. Evidence at the trial showed the murdered girl to be a known blackmailer. Arlen and his fiancée Leigh track down Shaw, a model who had been a close friend of the murdered girl. However, she turns out to be something worse. Shaw relished the part and  made a full-course meal of it, the film’s tag line being, “Man Bait! By Day, the Fashion Model! By Night, the Racket Girl!” 




9. The Diplomatic Corpse (1958) Dir: Montgomery Tully, w/Robin Bailey, Liam Redmond

Reporter Bailey is investigating the murder of an employee of a Middle-Eastern embassy. Clues leads to the ambassador himself and Bailey’s fiancée and gossip columnist, Shaw, finds her way into the embassy as a fill-in receptionist. It’s a risky play. Her predecessor had been killed in an untimely ‘accident’. Despite the serious subject matter (drug smuggling under diplomatic cover, for a start), things are agreeably lighthearted at times, thanks to the playful script which allows Shaw free reign.


10. Chain of Events (1958) Dir: Gerald Thomas, w/ Kenneth Griffith, Dermot Walsh

A taut noir melodrama, Chain of Events features Griffith as a bank clerk who boards a bus and deliberately neglects to pay his fare. Caught by an inspector, Griffith foolishly gives the name and address of one of the bank's clients, setting in motion un ugly chain of events involving blackmail, robbery, and murder. Walsh plays a reporter following the story. Shaw glows as the newspaper owner’s secretary, who also happens to be Walsh’s girlfriend and partner in crime-busting. The show is there for the stealing and Shaw walks away without anyone laying a hand on her -- as she so often did.




Written by Gary Deane

(A version of this article appeared in NOIR CITY magazine #22, 2017)

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