Saturday, 9 July 2016

DANCING WITH CRIME (1947)



“It appears we are in for a basinful of pictures about spivs, smash-and-grab raids and West End ‘wide boys’, with a bunch of murder dramas thrown in as light relief.”  Reginald Whitley, the Daily Mirror


In the years before WWII, the British Board of Film Censors came down hard on what it saw as the corruptive influence of 1930’s American gangster films on British crime dramas. After the war, it was a different matter. Changes in societal outlook and a more liberal Board make-up made it difficult for its policies to be applied as rigorously, despite its Chair, Andrew Harris, insisting that gangster movies were “Hollywood at its worst”.

A chorus of British film critics echoed Harris' sentiments, taken aback by the number of violent crime thrillers they were being asked to review, especially ones portraying ‘spivs’, the all-present black-marketeers and small-time hustlers occupying territory on the underworld’s tattier fringes. Though the origin of the term spiv is as obscure as the provenance of the goods they were selling, by the end of the war both the use of the word and the men it described were everywhere, including on the big screen.

To some, the spivs represented a greater threat to British society than more established villains because their illicit enterprises intersected with the everyday lives of a population deprived of basic necessities and sought-after luxuries. The spiv also held a certain rogue appeal to many Britons. In an article, ‘Meet the Spiv’, playwright Bill Naughton (Alfie), wrote, “Londoners and other city-dwellers will recognize him and so will many city magistrates – the slick, flashy and nimble-witted tough, talking sharp slang from the corner of his mouth…the counterpart to the zoot-suited hooligans of America.”



The popular allure of the spivs gave post-war British cinema an excuse to produce its own version of Hollywood gangster movies – enjoyed as much in the UK as anywhere else. The cinematic clothing – the garish ties, and striped shirts, worn with sharply-cut suits with wide lapels – did hark back to that worn by Cagney and Robinson, though Dan Duryea’s modish garb in Scarlet Street (1945) comes closer to the mark.


In the end, the post-war ‘spiv cycle’ generated many of British film noir’s most memorable titles. Among them: Waterloo Road (1944) with Johns Mills and Stewart Granger; Night Beat (1947) featuring Maxwell Reed and Anne Crawford; It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) starring Jack Warner and Googie Withers; Brighton Rock (1947) headlining Richard Attenborough, Willam Hartnell, and Carol Marsh; They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) with Trevor Howard, Griffith Jones,  Sally Gray; Noose aka The Silk Noose (1948) starring Derek Farr, Joseph Calleia, and Carole Landis; Good Time Girl (1948), featuring Dennis Price, Herbert Lom, and Jean Kent; Night in the City (1950) with Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Googie Withers; and Wide Boy (1952) starring Syd Tafler and Susan Shaw.

Of these, the cycle’s best-known entry would be John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, which made it clear that post-war British cinema could be as effective in expressing the conventions and concerns of what we now call film noir as the signature American releases of the period. Based on the book by Grahame Greene and with a screenplay written by Greene and playwright Terence Rattigan, the densely-plotted film primarily concerns itself with the last days and final maneuverings of an amoral young spiv, Pinkie Brown. Attenborough’s performance in Brighton Rock is decisive, bested only by his portrayal of serial killer John Christie in Richard Fleisher’s chilling 10 Rillington Place (1971). Though Brighton Rock’s fired-up director John Boulting sometimes strained too visibly with his overly-pushy compositions, the film stands as an otherwise unqualified classic of British cinema.


Preceding the release of Brighton Rock by only two months was Dancing with Crime, also starring Attenborough. Although a lesser-known spiv film, Dancing with Crime was an all-important transitional title. It was more graphic and violent than anything seen on British screens and also the first of the post-war films to deal explicitly with the kind of low-level criminality that was beginning to impact upon parts of English life as the war came to an end. Conjuring up a nocturnal half-world that reflected the anxiety and dissolution of the period, Dancing with Crime embodies the urge to escape from the chafing restraints of post-war existence by whatever means. As one Scotland Yard inspector observes dryly, “Civvy Street seems pretty strange to some of the boys”. 

   
Attenborough, 23 years old and looking much younger, plays a recently ‘demobbed’ soldier, Ted Peters, now working as a taxi driver trying to get ahead and save enough to be able to marry his childhood sweetheart, Joy, played by Sheila Sim (in real-life, Mrs. Richard Attenborough). Meantime, Peter’s boyhood friend and army buddy, Dave Robinson (Bill Owen) is only out for easy money and dealing in “this and that – everything a rich man wants and can’t get”. After pulling a jewel heist, Robinson runs afoul of gang leader, South London dance palais owner, ‘Mr. Gregory’ (Barry Jones) and his henchman and club manager, Paul Baker (Barry K. Barnes). Leaving the club one night, Robinson is shot in the back but manages to crawl into the backseat of Ted’s unattended cab. Ted and Joy later find Robinson dead and Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. However, Ted sets out on his own to find out what happened to Robinson, endangering both himself and his fiancée who takes a job at the dancehall hoping to find evidence against Gregory. 

Dancing with Crime was based on a screenplay by Brock Williams, whose list of writing credits would grow to include crime thrillers The Night Won’t Talk (1952); Three Steps in the Dark (1953); Meet Mr. Callaghan (1954), featuring Slim Callaghan, a fictional PI in the American hard-boiled style, based on books by Peter Cheney; The Gilded Cage (1950); The Pleasure Lovers (1959); Strictly Confidential (1959); and Young, Willing and Eager (1961). 

Williams’ stories and efforts at character development tend towards the schematic and the familiar. In Dancing with Crime, it comes down to two life-long friends who go down different roads, one straight and one crooked; a returning soldier unable to negotiate the demands of civilian life who turns to crime; criminals who attempt to frame the protagonist for murder; a self-styled sleuth who feels he has no choice but to act in order to clear himself and bring the real criminal to justice; a female who goes undercover in order to help ferret out the criminal. 

However, even if the film makes little effort to upset some of the standard noir tropes and conventions, Dancing with Crime has no end of things to really like about it, beginning with its cast. Though the characters may be typed, the actors bring a vivid fleshiness to each, all of whom are searchingly real in their Englishness. Baby-faced Richard Attenborough with his youthful appeal and vulnerability can be swallowed 'smooth as margarine’. Bill Owen as the stylish and voluble Robinson shines every moment of the too few that he’s on screen, as do Barry Jones as the fastidious, ruthless criminal mastermind and Barry K. Barnes as the suave floor boss easily attracted to both women and violence.


Among those women is Toni (Judy Kelly), one of the club’s ‘professional partners’, who suffers at the hands of Barnes and whose despair is practically a living presence; also, the uncredited Diana Dors as Annette, another of the floor dancers at the night club. The dark-haired Dors was only 15 years old at the time but the cool self-awareness and intelligence that would win her praise for her performance in the much-nominated Yield to the Night (1956) was already apparent. Look too for Dirk Bogarde in an unbilled, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him bit as an earnest young police constable.  


Dancing with Crime's director,John Paddy Carstairs, was a producer's friend who turned out well-crafted pictures, mostly thrillers and comedies, on time and on budget for over 30 years. Notable among his crime films, apart from Dancing with Crime, were The Saint in London (1939), Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948) and his final film, The Devil’s Agent (1962), a superior hard-edged Cold War thriller starring Peter van Eyck and Macdonald Carey. Carstairs also became well-known as a painter and he brought an imaginative eye to his trade. Dancing with Crime though made on a modest budget by a minor studio is far more ambitiously directed than many second-tier British noirs of the period – witness the unreserved brio of the elaborate boom shots in the dance palais. 

   
Capturing this blithe elegance as well as ominous night-time exteriors was the ardent camera of cinematographer Reg Wyer. Wyer was a contemporary of Otto Heller, the man responsible for lensing the now noir-enshrined They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), Robert Siodmak’s Portrait of a Sinner (1959), Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), and the groundbreaking Victim (1961). However, the cumulation of Wyer’s efforts over the same period was at least as consequential in terms of craft. Besides Dancing with Crime, his on-screen credits included the critically-awarded The Seventh Veil (1945), The Upturned Glass (1946), Daybreak (1948), So Long at the Fair (1950), Never Look Back (1952), Eye Witness (1956), The Weapon (1956), Across the Bridge (1957), Violent Playground (1958), and The Man in the Back Seat (1961).  

Dancing with Crime, which far outperformed Brighton Rock at the box office, is enlivened further by an array of ‘forties British big band classics like the hit ‘Bow Bells’ and an atmospheric score by composer/musical arranger Ben Frankel. Frankel’s music graced over a hundred films including film noirs The Seventh Veil; Dear Murderer (1947), Mine Own Executioner (1947), Night Beat, Bond Street (1948), Sleeping Car to Trieste, Night and the City (British release), Double Confession (1950), The Clouded Yellow (1950), Footsteps in the Fog (1955), Libel (1954) and a dozen others.

But by 1950 and with the weakening of austerity measures and rationing, the sympathetic relationship between the public and the small-fry spivs was coming to an end. While Richard Widmark’s finely-attired Harry Fabian is desperately trying to find a way to “live the life of ease and plenty without working for it”, British audiences, looking ahead with greater hope, were no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to such fecklessness.


Three years later and just months after the last ration book was withdrawn, The Bells of St. Trinians, an antic comedy starring Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell, was released which featured an over-the-top caricature called ‘Flash’ played by George Cole. The movie was a sensation and almost overnight the spiv and his lot had become but a joke.  




Gary Deane     

Thursday, 30 June 2016

NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO (1964)



“I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I
Can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire
Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away!” (Psycho Killer,
Talking Heads, 1977)



He was a shirt maker in a town full of pants makers. For four decades maverick director Robert Altman barely tolerated the Hollywood film industry, as it barely tolerated him. That said, he could play the game as needed and was as artful in getting his individual and idiosyncratic movies produced and to market as he was conceiving and creating them.

Altman got his start after WWII working on business and industrial films in his hometown Kansas City. He soon left for Hollywood, where his production skills were underappreciated and his stories were rejected – with the exception of Body Guard, filmed and released in 1948 starring Lawrence Tierney. Discouraged, Altman went back to Kansas City but returned to California later in the ‘50’s with an independently-financed picture, The Delinquents (The Hoods of Tomorrow! The Gun-Molls of the Future!) under his arm. Starring Tom Laughlin, the movie didn’t add anything new to the youth-gone-wild cycle but had the ring of truth to it and showed clearly enough that Altman could direct. 


Though none of the major film studios were ready to hire him on, Altman managed to find steady work in television, directing on M Squad, Hawaiian Eye, Peter Gunn, Route 66, and Combat!, a one-hour WWII drama on ABC. The latter’s trenchant writing and gritty realism won it multiple Emmy nominations and a committed audience. Unfortunately, after shooting ten episodes, Altman got turfed for ‘uncooperativeness’.  However, the work he did on the series revealed some of the elements of what would become a trademark style: an appreciation of ensemble performance, a restive mise-en-scène, a film noir-like use of light and shadow, and dissonant multi-track soundscapes and scoring.

Altman then went to NBC’s Kraft Suspense Theater, directing three episodes before getting himself fired, this time for telling a TV Guide interviewer that the Kraft-sponsored series was as “bland as cheese”.  However, one of his episodes, Once Upon a Savage Night based on a novella, Killer on the Turnpike, by William P. McGivern (The Big Heat, Shield for Murder, Rogue Cop, Odds Against Tomorrow) was anything but. The high-voltage black-and-white crime drama was like nothing else seen on television – shot in cinéma vérité style in and around Chicago and featuring a jagged, expressionistic score by jazzman Benny Carter and a young ‘Johnny’ Williams, who’d go on to win more than forty Academy Award nominations.



Because of the higher costs involved in location shooting, the producing studio, Universal Pictures, had Altman take enough extra footage to be able to extend the episode to feature length for syndication and theatrical distribution. The eighty minute version, titled Nightmare in Chicago, later showed as a made-for-TV movie, then screened theatrically in Europe.

A taut, modernist post-noir fugue à la Blast of Silence (1961), Nightmare in Chicago tracks a killer known as ‘George-Porgie’ (“Kissed the girls and made them die!”). Georgie’s already murdered four women in other places by the time the film picks him up in Chicago’s desolate rural outskirts. Georgie (Philip Abbott), an ordinary-looking guy in a topcoat, has just strangled his fifth victim in bed in an old farm house and is heading back to the city. It takes a while for the Chicago police to realize that the killing is troublingly similar to the other four – all the women being “tall, blonde, and a little on the cheap side” according to, Harry, the lead detective on the case played by an irritable Charles McGraw.


Though physically non-descript and having to wear dark glasses because of a congenital eye condition, Georgie is a smooth-talker and has no trouble finding willing prey. Back in the city, he chats up his next victim and before long they’re having drinks in a packed burlesque joint in the Loop. Amid all the noise and on-stage distractions, he chokes her with her own scarf while they make out in a corner. 

However, one of the strippers sees what’s just happened and Georgie has to get out fast. Some customers and beat cops give chase but lose him when he hijacks a car. Later, the police realize he’s made it all the way onto the Illinois Tollway, which complicates the pursuit due to its restricted accesses. Worse is that the Tollway is about to be cleared by state police for an Army convoy that’s thundering through with a giant nuclear missile in tow.

If this specter of mass destruction sounds like more of a load than a small and restless character-driven narrative should have to bear, keep in mind the tale began with author McGivern, master of the drum-tight storyline. The plot does not suddenly go Tom Clancy on us. Events only render Georgie’s frantic attempt to escape that much more intense.


Shot on a tight schedule just days before Christmas and mostly at night, Nightmare in Chicago was Robert Altman’s first studio feature (the science fiction drama Countdown made in 1967 counts as his first big theatrical release – even if Jack Warner took him off the shoot and banned him from the lot out of exasperation with the way “everyone in the damn movie is talking at the same time!”). Nightmare also stands as one of Altman’s most reliably straightforward narratives, something he was deemed weak at constructing by critics who were as unreceptive to his triumphs such as The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) as the missteps like Prêt-à-Porter (1994). As for his radical 1973 deconstruction of Raymond’s Chandler’s revered The Long Goodbye, it’s always going to depend on who you talk to. 



Altman’s main gift as a director was his ability to create a visceral sense of time and place and to reveal characters by immersing audiences in the often-fraught immediacy of their worlds. However, it sometimes felt as though he was content just to leave us there. Altman liked to say that he wanted his films “to seem as though they were just happening”.  In Nightmare, he makes certain that things really do. His scene-building and story-telling in the film are as deliberate as they would ever be. At the same time, Nightmare in Chicago feels loosely-scripted. Altman is patient where he feels he needs to be and allows the camera to linger. Often there’s a sense of time and space being stretched to be able to contain the actions of the characters, particularly in busy scenes shot within the moderne immensity of the Tollway’s ‘Oasis’ rest stops.

The film also is trusting of its actors. Their characters feel real, their lives small and routine, their stories largely undisclosed. Harry and his easier-going sergeant, Dan (Robert Ridgely) grind it out in hopes of capturing Georgie before he kills again, while having to deal with the self-serving interference of Police Commissioner (Ted Knight) who’s more concerned about delays to the convoy and his scheduled handball games downtown. 

Georgie and his victims are isolated and vulnerable souls, a familiar Altman type. A near-casualty is Bernie, a lonely-hearted waitress who serves Georgie in the rest stop’s massive Fred Harvey eatery. She’s endangered when she ends up being the only one who’s able to identify him. Bernie is played by Barbara Turner, married for a time to actor Vic Morrow with whom she had a child, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (Turner is now best known for her screenwriting, including the film Pollock (2000) which garnered Academy Awards nominations for Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden). 



Turner’s scenes in Nightmare are among the movie’s most openly improvised and affecting. They foreshadow some of what would become the director’s signature ‘urgency-to-no-clear-end’, an Altman-ism shaped by a conviction that straightforward resolutions or consolations should come no more easily in movies than they do in real life.

Meanwhile, Nightmare in Chicago drew critical fire with its bleak naturalism and family resemblance to the meaner exploitation films of the period, from sex-and-violence cheapies to no-grade horror movies. Georgie-Porgie is a banal but chilling noir embodiment of horror’s unpacified evil – a psychotic who’s driven to kill his mother again and again, tormented by the agony of her promiscuous childhood betrayals and the brute noises in the room next door that still throb in his brain. 



But even better-known and disruptive end-of-the line film noirs like Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) drew on some of the same dark impulses and dread sense of conviction as Nightmare in Chicago. The difference was that Nightmare in Chicago started out life as a television program with everyone in the living room watching.

However, as comfortless as the film may be, it does, like most of Robert Altman’s films, evince a moral understanding of how and why human beings behave as they do. Altman’s movies at their core always come from a place of empathy – something that all true film noirs, no matter how bleak, know something about. Count Nightmare in Chicago among them.


Note: Several sources, including IMDb, show Andrew Duggan, Carrol O’Connor, Michael Murphy and Mary Frann as starring in Nightmare in Chicago. Whether or not they were ever cast to appear, none did, in either television or film versions.


Gary Deane

Friday, 24 June 2016

LA STRADA BUIE AKA FUGITIVE LADY (1950)



“She’s the kind of woman for whom a man might even kill.” 

“We’re both selfish, dishonest, and rotten.”

Janis Paige, the veteran Hollywood trouper with over 150 screen credits to her name is alive and well in Beverly Hills. Though the 93 year old actress lost her Academy Awards voting rights this year, she still cherishes the Oscar statuette awarded to her late husband, Ray Gilbert, for the lyrics to ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ from Song of the South, a Disney title no longer in release because of its depiction of African-Americans. However, the song can still be heard and every time it is, Paige collects $350, a nice little annuity – should she ever need it.
        
Paige broke in films after being spotted by a Warner Studio’s talent scout who saw her perform in the Hollywood Canteen during the war. She was soon to feature in a series of musical comedies starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, Warner’s response to Paramount Studios’ hugely popular duo of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But after too many smaller assignments in lesser productions, Paige headed for Broadway where her out-sized personality and joyous scene-stealing in plays such as The Pajama Game won her raves.

During this time Paige also went on the road with a ritzy cabaret act which confirmed her gift for musical comedy and which brought her back to Hollywood to feature in films such as Silk Stockings (1957) and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960). In the mid-fifties, Paige then tapped into television where she worked steadily on recurrent series such as General Hospital and Santa Barbara up until her retirement in 2001.  


But buried among her other credits was a rare leading performance in La Strada Buie aka Fugitive Lady (1950), a handsome classic film noir shot on location in Italy and in the Italian language (Paige later would be dubbed). Paige headlines as a pathologically self-seeking femme fatale and the role today stands among her most dramatically memorable, along with her part as an institutionalized prostitute in The Caretakers (1963).

Though attractive, Paige was big-boned and large-featured and not a typical Hollywood beauty of the period. However, she had a large presence and an impressive look that today would be viewed as more contemporary i.e. more Greta Gerwig than Gloria Grahame. That said, Paige was at her most interesting when portraying a woman who was sexually charged and aggressive – even in musicals like Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946) and The Time, the Place, and the Girl (1946) in which she up-stages the kittenishly provocative Martha Vickers.

In La Strada Buie Paige brings both glamour and sex to bear on wealthy industrialist, Raoul Clementi (Eduardo Ciannelli), who after seeing her perform on several evenings at a night club, woos and marries her, much to the displeasure of his step-sister, Esther (British actress Binnie Barnes). We learn this in flashback after Raoul, in the film’s opening sequence, drunkenly sends his car off a cliff into Lake Nemi, 30 kms south of Rome, and is killed. As it turns out, Clementi had taken out a life insurance policy for £100,000 and Barbara (Paige), his young widow, now wants to cash out as soon as possible.

However, the circumstances of his death arouse the suspicions of the insurance company and its investigating agent, Jack Di Marco (Antonio Centa). Di Marco is hesitant to jump to any obvious conclusions, determining that both Barbara and Esther might have had their reasons for wanting to see Raoul dead. Di Marco discovers that the Clementi’s marriage had broken down and that Barbara has a lover, Gene West (Massimo Serato), with whom she’d been involved for years. For her part, Esther has long been in love with Raoul and feels as much anger and resentment toward her step-brother for betraying her by marrying as she does for Barbara, whom she despises. All of this unspools in successive and lengthy flashbacks until the film’s end, a finish with a dramatic and profoundly ironic twist à la Postman Always Rings Twice

   
A fast-moving and savory film noir, La Strada Buie was based on a book, Dark Road, by popular U.S. mystery writer, Doris Miles Disney. The novel, published in 1946 and featuring investigator Jefferson DiMarco, was one of series of eight including Family Skeleton, later filmed as Stella (1950), a noir-hued and diverting black comedy. The film features Victor Mature as DiMarco and a smartly acerbic Ann Sheridan as a woman caught in the middle of a calamitous family plot, the doing of Sheridan’s two hapless brothers-in-law played by David Wayne and Frank Fontaine. Several other of Disney’s quintessentially American stories were adapted successfully for movies and television including: Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971), starring Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy and Vince Edwards; Betrayal (1974), featuring Amanda Blake, Tish Stering, and Dick Haymes; and Yestherday’s Child (1977), with Shirley Jones, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Claude Akins.

La Strada Buie was a co-production of Mike Frankovich, future Columbia Studios chief, and Italy’s Scalera Films. Frankovich was also the husband of Binnie Barnes, the couple living in Italy at the time. Scalera Films had come into existence in 1938 under the aegis of Benito Mussolini who had encouraged the Scalera brothers to invest in film production to support the regime and counteract the increasing importation of foreign films into Italy. The company undertook to try and replicate the Hollywood studio system with film-makers and actors signed to exclusive contract. However, after the war the studio suffered crippling operating losses and the brothers tried to leverage their productions by featuring American film stars such as Paige, similar to what had been done by British B-studios. However, in 1952, following the financing of Orson Wells’ Othello, Scalera Films defaulted and fell into bankruptcy.


Though done on a tight budget, La Strada Buie does not at all appear to be made on the cheap. Directed by American director Sidney Salkow, the film is very much in the Hollywood style, with the Italian settings and locations adding to the richness of atmosphere. Much of it is shot at night amid rain-soaked and heavily-shadowed exteriors and the camerawork throughout is expressive, giving no ground to post-war neo-realism. Behind the camera was Tonino Delli Colli , a cinematographer whose flamboyant lensing featured prominently in the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, and Jean-Jacques Arnaud. Delli Colli sat on the Cannes Film Festival jury in 1986, one of the first cinematographers to do so.  

However, La Strada Buie’s centerpiece is Janis Paige whose normally vivacious and breezy persona was transformed into that of a flesh-creeping femme fatale. But as Paige herself has said, she could be anything she was asked or told to be because that’s what you did if you wanted to survive in the business. In a 2015 interview she stated that she never saw her studio tenure as “indentured servitude”. She was forever grateful for the watchful eye and “pampering” that was afforded contract players during the studio system’s heyday. You paid attention, you worked hard, and you learned. “Today, most stars can’t overcome a bad script. The old stars could. There was so much we couldn’t do because of the code, we had to use our imaginations. Everyone had a work ethic. We didn’t bitch or complain. You just worked and appreciated being part of this fabulous industry.”

Today, thanks to the hard work of volunteer subtitling crews on various torrent sites, English-speakers now have access to films such as this largely unknown and unseen classic film noir, a singular US/ international hybrid that takes a backseat to none when it comes to ladling out requisite helpings of greed, lust, and betrayal. It may be ‘a bitter little world’ as Joan Bennett pronounces in Hollow Triumph (1948), but it’s a world of film noir increasingly much bigger than one might have ever imagined. 

Thanks to Garnet Barlow for his translation of the Italian resource material.


Gary Deane

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

MR. DISTRICT ATTORNEY (1947)


Him: “I’m shooting for the top. I want a wife who’s willing to do anything to get there.”

Her: “I think I know what you mean.”


For a time, fans of law-and-order champion Mr. District Attorney had their pick: an NBC radio program that aired 1939 to 1952; a DC crime comic that went 67 issues, 1948 to 1959; and a tail-end television series on ABC that ran from 1952 to 1953.During the war years, the anti-crime crusader also was lionized in a trio of Mr. District Attorney motion pictures released by Republic, and then in a post-war follow-up from Columbia Studios. The differences between the earlier and later productions showcase much of what film noir is about – and what it’s not.


Mr. District Attorney (1941), the initial Republic studios release, starred Stanley Ridges as intrepid D.A. Tom Winton and a young Dennis O’Keefe as his newly-minted Assistant, Prince Cadwallader Jones. The well-meaning but hapless Jones is keen to solve a stalled embezzlement case but finds himself running up against Terry Parker (Florence Rice), a nosey newspaper journalist who knows a good story when she sniffs one. But it’s Peter Lorre, in an appearance that’s perversely at odds with any of the rest of the film, who’s the best reason to watch it.

Shortly after, came Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (1941), with Paul Harvey as the D.A. and James Ellison and Virginia Gilmore in the roles of Jones and Parker. This one is highlighted only by its surprise ending and luminous lighting set-ups by cinematographer John Alton.


Then came Secrets of the Underground (1942), featuring Pierre Watkin as the District Attorney and John Hubbard and Virginia Grey as the accidental partners-in-crime-fighting. It has its minor rewards, including a timely script by Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, 1947; The Big Steal, 1949; The Tall Target, 1951). Additional titles had been planned but in the end Secrets of the Underground was as far as the Republic series was to travel.

Though the original Mr. District Attorney radio play opted for pure suspense, the Republic titles leaned more in the direction of the ‘mystery-comedy’ – a claptrap contrivance designed to offer ‘comic relief’ and let-up from the otherwise serious matters at hand. But by the end of WWII, audiences were tiring of its stagey bag of tricks: the bumbling heroes and fast-talking sidekicks (or the opposite), the double-takes and quizzical looks, and slapstick confusion. By the late ‘40’s, a flood of psychological thrillers and blood melodramas had largely swept all this away, save for a few creaky detective series like The Thin Man, Boston Blackie, The Falcon, Bulldog Drummond or The Saint in their final appearances (crime-for-laughs would survive as a movie-going staple but one increasingly better-fashioned and fitted around the comedy).

Meantime, Columbia Studios decided to have other crack at Mr. District Attorney. The new version would star the venerable Adolphe Menjou as Craig Warren, D. A. and a more mature Dennis O’Keefe as Steve Bennett, Warren’s case-hardened Assistant. But the feisty female journalist character– always ready to pitch in to help out – was tossed in favor of a venomous spider woman (played with deadly conviction by Marguerite Chapman) out for absolutely no one but herself. This more ominous turn was no huge leap for Columbia, having had recent successes with films such as Gilda (1946), Framed (1947) and Dead Reckoning (1947) and B titles like Night Editor (1946).


That said, Columbia hedged its bets with a nod to the spirit of the earlier titles. There’s Menjou, ever the Hollywood dandy and stylized little man with his waxed mustache and aggravated manner, whose presence recalls a by-gone era;  also character actor Michael O’Shea as Harrington as Warren’s quick-as-a-quip investigator and smiley-face Jeff Donnell as the office girl and blessed soul of patience. However, any residual hokeyness doesn’t distract much from Mr. District Attorney as a gripping, sometimes chilling film noir.


With a screenplay written by Ian McLellan Hunter (who would later front for Dalton Trumbo until Hunter himself was blacklisted), Mr. District Attorney features a convoluted but well-secured storyline. District Attorney Warren is under the gun to bring down the courtly but cold-blooded gangster, James Randolph (George Coulouris), who has the local rackets wrapped up, along with a cadre of crooked business leaders and government officials. To help build the case, Warren hires a former defense lawyer, Steve Bennett who’d been serving as counsel to one of Randolph’s cronies but then quit both his client and his law firm after discovering he’d been taken for a chump.

Keeping a nicely-mascaraed eye out for Randolph’s interests is Marcia Manning (Marguerite Chapman), his glamourous personal assistant. We learn soon enough though that Randolph wants her to be more than simply the hired help. However, Manning wants to hear more from him than just sweet nothings, reminding him, “To me, love is a luxury… You want me to be romantic like the songs about living on love and pale moonlight...I know how it works. My mother tried it and by the time she was 35 she was an old woman left with nothing except pale moonlight, and that’s not going to happen to me.”


In fact, a lot has already happened to Our Miss Manning, including managing to beat a murder rap back in Kansas City. Warren knows this and figures that Manning might be the best and fastest way to get to Randolph. Manning, conversely, wastes no time in finding her way to Bennett and before long, she’s duped him into revealing information that sinks Warren’s case. Warren suspects his wide-eyed boy has been played for a sucker and sends Bennett out of the country on another investigation. He then brings in Manning and tells her to lay off Bennett or his office might revisit her legal problems. When Bennett returns and hears of this, he quits, only to later discover that Manning dumped him while he was gone. Bennett is furious but without a job, lets Manning coax him back into taking on some legal work for Randolph. However, as the plot thickens and bodies pile up, Bennett realizes that it’s Manning who’s really at the root of all evil and makes up his mind to do something about it. Manning, of course, has other ideas.  


The little-known Chapman grew up as a small-town tomboy in Chatham, NY.  Affectionately called “Slugger” by her friends, the beautiful brunette was encouraged by them later to try modeling. She went to New York and became a featured John Powers Girl and after she’d been on the cover of enough magazines, Hollywood came calling. Through 1940 to 1943, Chapman appeared in eighteen films, albeit minor ones. She later moved up several rungs on the studio ladder and became the female interest in several better Columbia features, including:  Destroyer (1943) with Edgar G. Robinson; Appointment in Berlin (1943) opposite George Sanders; and Counter-Attack (1945) with Paul Muni. After the war, there were a few more A features, notably Relentless (1948), a well-received western with Robert Young. But from there on, appearances became limited to supporting roles in movies and on television. By the mid-1960’s, she’d effectively retired from the screen to focus on stage work.

None of which is to say that Chapman couldn’t or shouldn’t have had a much bigger career in movies. The actress at one time or another had been singled out by scribes for everything from her “comeliness” to her versatility “spilling over”. However, her striking beauty and versatility appeared to work just as much against her as for her in that she was never able to establish a dominant screen personality. Like Ruth Hussey or Barbara Hale to whom she shared a resemblance, Chapman didn’t easily evince a strike-up-the-band sparkle, domesticated warmth, or relaxed sexuality.


Mr. District Attorney on the other hand takes advantage of what Chapman did have: a sophisticated charm and self-possession free of overemphasis or bossiness. She’s a woman capable of living in a man’s world without looking for concessions, including marriage which would happen only if and when convenient. 

Chapman also ups the ante as a femme fatale who never overplays her advantage. Like the most memorable femmes of classic film noir, Manning is knowable but, forever and fatally, unreadable. Though Messrs. Mejou, O’Keefe, and Coulouris all give it their best, the film belongs to Chapman.

Unfortunately, Mr. District Attorney wasn’t a movie of a size or sort that could deliver a breakthrough for any actor, no matter how impressive the showing. It’s even more unfortunate that there weren’t more opportunities for Chapman to be on screen what she obviously was meant to be. But sometimes things work out and sometimes they just never do. After decades out of the business, she suddenly was first-call for the coveted role of ‘Old Rose’ Dason-Calvert in the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster, Titanic, but was prevented by ill-health from accepting. The part went to Gloria Stuart, who will be remembered forever for it. Chapman died two years later. 

Mr. District Attorney also was enhanced by cinematographer Bert Glennon, a confirmed but underappreciated visual stylist who was on camera for Juke Girl (1942), Shadow of a Woman (1946), The Red House (1947), Ruthless (1948), Red Light (1949) and the terrific Crime Wave (1954). Glennon’s mastery of the noir registry is on full display in Mr. District Attorney, starting with the film’s shocking opening scene, which as it turned out, would foreshadow the cold-blooded murder of its director, Robert Sinclair twenty-three years later. With its rich noir visualizations, smartly-plotted story, and industrious performances, Mr. District Attorney is a film noir worth watching, “straight down the line”.


Gary Deane


(A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Noir City, the online magazine of the San Francisco-based Film Noir Foundation)  

Monday, 4 April 2016

LA NOCHE AVANZA (1952)


We managed to get ourselves over to Vancouver from Victoria, Sunday, April 3, for the Vancouver International Film Centre's screening of LA NOCHE AVANZA (NIGHT FALLS) 1952, Mexcian director Roberto Gavaldon's unseen film noir classic. The movie entirely lived up to its VIFF billing:

"This Gavaldón classic suggests that what the boxing world is to the Hollywood film noir, the high-speed game of pelota (jai alai) is to its Mexican cousin. Pedro Armendáriz, Mexico’s great romantic lead, plays against type as an arrogant pelotari who seduces and discards women at will, until he becomes the target of a cunning revenge plot. He meets his fate in a final image that is as quintessentially noir as it is inconceivable in a Hollywood film."

While LA NOCHE AVANZA is not available in video, Gavaldon's LA OTRA (THE OTHER ONE) 1946 and LA DIOSA ARRODILLADA (THE KNEELING GODDESS) (1947) both are. Seasoned noir fans will be thrilled.



Friday, 19 February 2016

A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)

Written by Valerie Deane



Film noir…or not film noir? The question seems to nag this movie like a toothache.  

Which I have to say is baffling to me. It’s hard to imagine a film in which fate lays its hand upon a protagonist more heavily than it does in A Place in the Sun. Having just watched it again, I’m convinced more than ever that the movie's depiction of young lives tragically disrupted is truly, deeply noir-stained.

But let’s start at the beginning.

George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is a young man from a working-class background who’s been given a chance to get ahead thanks to a wealthy family connection. But from the moment we see him hitching a ride to his new job, we know he’s not going to have an easy time of it.


Clearly ambitious, George covets the American Dream. But though he’s attractive and personable and shares a respected name, he’s not readily accepted by the Eastmans and their circle. Nor is he able to make friends with his co-workers since his uncle has forbidden social contact between family and employees. George becomes infatuated with one of the smart set, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), who chooses to ignore him or just doesn’t see him. Disillusioned, he falls into a relationship with Alice Tripp, a factory girl who’s as lonely as he is. Played by Shelley Winters, she’s a plain but friendly young woman who clearly relishes the attention.


George for a time seems content with it all. Though he’s uneasy flouting his uncle’s rules, he feels he’s not doing  badly – he has a steady job, some money to spend, a room, a car, a girl, perhaps a future. It’s a far cry from living at his mother’s mission, finishing his schooling  at home, and working as a bellhop.

But then fate begins to show its ultimately deadly hand. At the moment that George and Alice’s relationship becomes intimate, his uncle promotes him and invites him – now as one of them - to the Eastman home. He’s formally introduced to Angela who now sees him as an Eastman. She flirts shamelessly with him and the attraction between these two impossibly beautiful people is immediate and intense.


However, it doesn’t take long for things to start to unravel. Alice announces to George that she’s pregnant and although at first he insists that he’ll marry her, he begins to retreat from her as he’s drawn further into the Eastman circle and to Angela. His place in the sun, now tantalizingly close, is all he can think about. Alice, angry at being neglected, threatens to tell all and undo the idyllic romance. George is distraught. His relationship with Alice is now the only barrier to the fulfilment of his dream. He feels that the fates are conspiring to send his life spiraling out of control. However, what he thinks of as ‘the fates’ could be his own moral frailty – the actions he’s taken, the choices he’s made, and his inability to deal with the consequences.


But then Angela suddenly provides George with what he thinks could be a solution to his problem. In passing, she mentions a drowning at the lake. He listens carefully. Angela has become an accidental femme fatale who causes him to stumble into a classic dead-end street where murder looks like the only way out. George moves ahead with a plan to kill Alice, but it’s hastily conceived and it’s clear that he’s ill-equipped to commit such a crime.


He takes Alice rowing on the lake but what happens is not what he’d planned. At the critical moment, he’s unable to kill her. Then Alice accidentally stumbles and falls into the water. Panic-stricken, unable to swim, she will drown. George has a chance to save her (as well as himself) but is unable or unwilling to do so and Alice dies – exactly as he’d wanted.

What is George to do? He could report the accident and face up to the consequences. But if he did report it, would anyone believe him? He had set out with the intention of killing Alice and given his premeditation, his innocence might be hard, if not impossible, for him to argue. The line between guilt and innocence is blurred at best. We know Alice had told George that she was afraid of water and couldn't swim. We see his reaction to Angela’s telling of the drowning at her lake. We watch him listen to the news report on weekend accidents with aroused interest. We listen to him lie to Alice with greater frequency and ease. We feel his anticipation as a plan takes form. And in the end, Alice dies because he makes no attempt to save her.


With his religious upbringing, George knows that guilty thoughts count as much as guilty deeds. There is no way out – he is doomed and he knows it. With scarcely a word in his own defense, he succumbs to the inevitable - capture, trial, condemnation. Unwilling to act to save his intended victim’s life, he’s unable to move to save his own. His loss of moral certainty, his vision of himself as the victim (rather than Alice or even Angela), and his inability to see the inevitable and tragic consequences of his actions place him at the very center of the noir universe.

Visually, A Place in the Sun registers as high noir. High-contrast lighting and multiple off-angle camera shots emphasize the drama’s overwhelming sense of despair. In one striking scene, George is on the first day of his new job only the morning after Alice has told him she’s pregnant. The film’s director George Stevens frames his interiors to suggest George trapped in a cage – an indication of his state of mind and a foreshadowing of the prison cell waiting. Stevens even subverts our appreciation of exteriors of great natural beauty, rendering them ominous and ill-disposed.


Costuming in A Place in the Sun also is central to its sense of noirness. Angela is dressed either in white or in black depending on whether she’s seen as part of George’s place in the sun or conversely as the catalyst for Alice’s death. George is dressed in light tweeds on his first visit to the Eastman family and is both dwarfed by the chair in which he is sitting and made invisible by the pillars and grandeur of the home. However, as he is accepted into that social circle, George’s clothing becomes darker and he increasingly dominates the scene.


A Place in the Sun is based on Theodore Dreiser’s epic novel, An American Tragedy, which runs over a 1,000 pages. Stevens replaces the sweep and detail of the novel with an intensity and focus that charts George’s incremental progression from an innocently ambitious young man to a confused, guilt-ridden wretch condemned for murder. As he’s led to his execution, his fellow inmates express the hope that he’s headed for a better world than the one he has known. Ironically, he was just beginning to know how good his world could have been. A place in the sun could have been his if he hadn’t been so blinded by the desire for it that he was prepared to do anything, even murder, to attain it. How could anything be more noir than that?




Valerie Deane