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 time in 2012 as a guest on ABC’s morning 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, peevish hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joyce Behar looked 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.        


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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)

Thursday, 13 July 2017

DON MARTIN: SCREENWRITER IN THE SHADOWS


When queried on the whys and wherefores of film noir, the late Arthur Lyons, founder and patron saint of the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival, would say, “It’s all about the story”. In the introduction to his wonderfully necessary book, Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, Lyons laid it out:

“In the noir world, all characters are motivated by obsession – by money or lust – or suffer from alienation or loneliness. Their choices are inexorably ruled by their own flaws and compulsions and by events in the world around them, ensuring their own destruction.”

Fully alive among these characters and their ill-fated existences was Hollywood writer Don Martin. His urgent, plot-spinning novels, stories, and screenplays anchored a long list of often-better-than-they-deserved-to-be classic B noirs put out by low-rent studios such as Screen Art Pictures, Equity Studios, and Producers Releasing Corporation.

Born in Philadelphia in 1911, Martin me to Hollywood in the ‘40’s with a reputation as published poet, playwright, novelist, and newspaper journalist. He started in as a writer for the Hollywood Reporter and then as a public relations flack for various studios including United Artists and MGM. He took a first swing at screenplays after being asked to help out with the adaptation of one of his own stories. Shortly after, he joined the starting lineup.

Few of the films and television shows for which Martin received a writing credit have been released commercially on video or screened on TV in recent years – though some have had festival screenings and virtually can be found somewhere in the videosphere. His is not likely the first name to come to mind in connection with classic B noirs even if he did write films such as The Pretender (1947) or Shakedown (1950).  Though film noir may be “all about the story”, appreciation doesn’t always go as far as to recognize the person who wrote and/or adapted it for the screen.

This is particularly the case with B releases where poverty row production values, uninspired direction, or humdrum performances can take a toll on even the best-written scripts. Fortunately, the inventiveness, pulp conviction, and sheer stamina of Martin’s storytelling ensure that nearly all of the films below grab the viewer’s attention and doesn’t let go. For better or worse, Don Martin too easily can become a fatal attraction.


LIGHTHOUSE (1947) Dir: Frank Wisbar

Cannery girl, Connie (June Lang) strikes back at her feckless, two-timing lover, Sam (Don Castle) by marrying his boss, lighthouse keeper Hank (John Litel) in a storm surge of jealous anger. Two’s company and three’s a recipe for revenge served hot on the isolated lookout station off the coast of Northern California.

Martin keeps the plot whirling like a top as emotions run high and motives remain murky. Does Connie still have a thing for Sam? How far will Sam go to find out? How much does the overly-trusting Hank really know about Connie’s questionable past and her relationship with Sam?  Lighthouse is no more than mid-weight melodrama but arguably more noir than Clifford Odet’s tortuous Clash by Night (1952) to which it could be compared – if one were out looking for an argument.  

THE HAT BOX MYSTERY (1947) Dir: Lambert Hillyer

Susan Hart (Pamela Blake), assistant to private detective Russ Ashton (Tom Neal at his seediest) is given a camera concealed in a hat box and instructed by a mysterious client, John Moreland (Leonard Penn), to take a photo of a woman leaving an apartment. However, the camera turns out to be a gun and the woman in question is shot dead. Susan is charged with murder but ‘facts’ of the shooting don’t tally and Russ sets out to prove that she and the agency have been set up.

The Hat Box Mystery was intended as the first of a series of short, forty minute dark thrillers. Unfortunately, Martin’s imaginative, quirky script is rendered flatfooted by a static camera, stagebound sets, flat lighting and stagey performances – except for that of Leonard Penn whose facade of somber respectability can’t disguise the thick-earred thug beneath.


THE PRETENDER (1947) Dir: W. Lee Wilder

Kenneth Holden (Albert Dekker) is a middle-aged investment advisor who’s been helping himself to the estate of Claire Worthington (Catherine Craig), a younger and very attractive client. After plundering of one of her accounts, he decides to propose marriage to Claire. When she reveals that she’s engaged to someone else, Holden hires a hitman to kill the dearly beloved. Then Claire suddenly breaks offs the engagement to accept Holden’s proposal and through circumstances and the vagaries of fate, he can’t cancel the hit. Holden, now the official husband-to-be, is left caught in the crosshairs of his own contract for murder.

Fraught and chilling, The Pretender features a bravura performance from Albert Dekker, the shimmering cinematography of John Alton and Martin’s high-pitched re-working of the Jules Verne story, Tribulations of a Chinaman in China. W. Lee Wilder (The Glass Alibi, 1946; The Vicious Circle, 1948; Once a Thief, 1950) showed again that, if handed a decent script, he was perfectly capable of crafting a better-than-decent movie on a next-to-nothing budget.

SHED NO TEARS (1948) Dir: Jean Yarbrough

Used-car salesman, Sam Grover (Wallace Ford) and his fatally glamorous wife, Edna (June Vincent, Black Angel, 1946) fake Sam’s death in a Los Angeles hotel fire in order to collect on a fifty thousand dollar insurance policy. Afterwards, he hides out while Edna waits for the payout.  Meanwhile, Edna’s intending to burn Sam one more time by taking off with both the money and her flashy boyfriend, Ray Beldon (Mark Roberts). Sam’s son, Tom (Dick Hogan), thinking there’s something hinky about his father’s death, hires Huntington Stewart (Johnstone White), a private detective to investigate. It doesn’t take long for Stewart to figure out that the whole thing’s a con – and how to best cut himself in on the deal.

Though the screenwriting credit went to others, Martin earlier had penned the hard-boiled novel (later published in paperback as Blonde Menace) on which the film is based. A twisted tale of fraud, betrayal, and murder, Shed No Tears begs one to keep watching in order to see which of these reckless schemers is prepared to go the furthest to get what they want.


DEVIL’S CARGO (1948) Dir: John F. Link

Devil’s Cargo was the 14th title in the Falcon series and the first of three films to star John Calvert, a charismatic professional magician and part-time actor. The Falcon, now Michael Waring (though in the credits it’s Watling due to rights issues) is visited by Ramon Delgado (Paul Marion) who confesses that he’s killed a man involved with his wife. He wants Waring to come with him to the police station and also to look after a key, which all sounds straightforward enough. However, after a thief lifts the key off Waring and Delgado dies in prison under suspicious circumstances, Waring if left wondering if he’s next in line.  

This cheapie mystery/ detective picture falls short of its potential, given Martin’s hard-working screenplay. That said, this later post-war Falcon is intriguing for how it departs from the earlier films. Calvert’s oily panache is more George Hamilton than George Sanders (or sibling surrogate Tom Conway) but the film’s meaner characterizations and Martin’s unpredictable plot ultimately nudge it toward a far darker place.

APPOINTMENT WITH MURDER (1948) Dir: Jack Bernhard

Watling has been hired by an insurance company that’s paid out on the theft and disappearance of two Renaissance paintings. However, the owner and policy holder wants them back and is willing to reimburse the payout if the artworks can be recovered. But there are others who want them, those who may or may not have them, others who believe they were fakes to start with, and still others who end up dead.

In this one, Martin’s ability to tender complicated plotlines that don’t end up chasing their own tails is front-and-center. Though Martin makes some daredevil bets with his storylines, they nearly always pay off and Appointment with Murder comes through big enough.


SEARCH FOR DANGER (1949) Dir: Jack Bernhard

Watling has been hired by club owners, Kirk (Albert Dekker) and Gregory (Ben Weldon) to trace their missing business partner Larry Andrews who’s embezzled $100,000 from the club. He follows Andrews to a cheap hotel in Santa Monica and lets his clients know where their runaway associate can be found. When they brace Andrews, he tells them that Watling has the money. Watling knows nothing about it and when he returns to the motel, he finds Andrews dead. Watling now realizes he’s been set up. The question is why, and by whom?

Martin’s screenplay for Search for Danger is the best of the three Falcon titles featuring Calvert. It’s mind-bendingly complex but every twist and turn comes with its own reward and the ending is a genuine surprise. The series had begun to hit its stride, with Martin as producer and Jack Bernhard (Decoy, 1946; Violence, 1947) in the director’s chair for the second time. Unfortunately, Search for Danger was to be Falcon’s last case.  
  
DESTINATION MURDER (1950) Dir:  Edward L. Cahn

Co-ed Laura Mansfield (Joyce MacKenzie) sees her father gunned down at the front door by someone in a messenger-boy uniform. She picks ferret-faced Jackie Wales (Stanley Clements, ex-Mr. Gloria Grahame) out of a police line-up, and while she suspects he’s the killer, can’t give a positive identification. Laura, who’s unknown to Jackie, tracks him down and sweet-talks him into revealing his connections: nightclub owner, Armitage (Albert Dekker), and club manager, Stretch Norton (Hurd Hatfield). She then gets herself hired on at the club, to the annoyance of Alice Wentworth (Myrna Dell) who sees her as a rival for the boss’s affection. Nothing is as it seems and Laura begins to understand she’s not in Kansas anymore.

Produced by RKO Studios, the crime thriller was a step up the studio ladder for Martin and he made good with his offbeat and clever original script. Like notorious B noirs such as Night Editor (1946) or The Big Combo (1955), the film dared the censors to get past looking to seeing, something they sometimes failed to do in their basic disregard for the films. Thus we have the sadistic Armitage, who refers to himself only in the third person and who revels in violence while Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ plays at full volume on the pianola; and the felt homoerotic relationship between Armitage and Norton which is revealed as something more when Norton proclaims, “Haven't you heard? I don't like women!” Martin’s story fuses culture, deviance, and brutality in an exhilarating outré B noir style. And while it doesn’t rate with the best of the B’s, Destination Murder does rank among the better.


SHAKEDOWN (1950) Dir: Joseph Pevney

Shutterbug Jack Early (Howard Duff) is desperate to make it big. He’s just fine with watching a man drown or urging a woman to jump from a burning building if it means getting the photos that will land him a job with a major daily. Jack also see advantage in cozying up to local mobsters Nick Palmer (Brian Donlevy) and Harry Colton (Lawrence Tierney) to set one against the other. He blackmails Colton while secretly romancing both Palmer’s wife, Nita (Ann Vernon) along with Ellen Bennett (Peggy Dow), the newspaper’s comely photo editor. Early’s false ambitions leave him with friends turning their backs on him and enemies looking to kill him.

Shakedown (working title: The Magnificent Heel) gave Martin the opportunity for involvement with a major studio (Universal) and a better director, Joe Pevney. The film also aimed to deliver a much bigger emotional punch with the greater emphasis on its main character, one of the most unscrupulous and unsympathetic protagonists in film noir: a self-serving, self-pitying homme fatal unable to be anything but what he is. Martin Goldsmith (Detour, 1945; The Narrow Margin, 1952) wrote the final draft which ended up on the screen as one of the post-war’s period’s most unflinching noirs and the perfect bookend B-title to Billy Wilder’s coruscating Ace in the Hole (1951).  

THE DEADLIEST SIN aka CONFESSION (1955) Dir: Ken Hughes

Mike Nelson (Sidney Chaplin) returns home to the UK from America with a suitcase full of stolen cash. Then his partner, Corey (Patrick Allen), turns up, wanting his share but is killed accidently by Mike’s friend, Alan Pool (Peter Hammond). Tormented by grief, Alan goes to his priest to confess the crime. But Mike, afraid that Alan knows too much, shoots him as he sits the confessional. Scotland Yard investigates and soon enough Mike at the center of the overseas robbery and the killings, though the evidence is circumstantial. Mike doesn't know this, however. The police set a trap, figuring Mike will try ot kill the priest if he’s convincing the Church will allow the clergyman to testify.

The Deadliest Sin aka Confession was the collaboration between Martin (on whose theatrical play the film was based) and British director Ken Hughes (Wicked as They Come, 1956, The Long Haul, 1957). Produced by the UK’s Merton Park Studios, the film’s reach exceeds its no-budget grasp thanks to Hughes’ atmospheric direction, a stellar British cast, and the challenging moral provocations of Martin’s carefully calculated screenplay.


DOUBLE JEOPARDY (1955) Dir:  R. G. Springsteen

Property developer Emmett Devery (John Litel) is being blackmailed by a former business partner, Sam Baggott (Robert Armstrong) and his gold-digging wife, Marge (Gail Robbins). Meantime, Marge is planning something more with her car salesman lover, Jeff Calder (Jack Kelly). It all goes wrong and Devery ends up framed for murder. Devery’s lawyer and son-in-law-to-be, Marc Hill (Rod Cameron) and Devery’s daughter, Barbara (Allison Hayes) work to clear Devery. But with the police treating it as an open-and-shut case, where do they start?      

A late-period title from Republic Studios, Double Jeopardy is the kind of fast-pulsed thriller beloved by film noir fans. It was this kind of story – compact, unpretentious, unpredictable – that Don Martin seemed most eager and well-equipped to tell. While director Springsteen doesn’t provide much visually to get excited about, Martin’s enterprising screenplay and performances by veteran players Tom Powers, Minerva Urecal, John Gallaudet, and Dick Elliot – all of whom appear to be relishing their roles – deserve to get Double Jeopardy taken off lists of ‘overlooked’ noirs.

NO MAN’S WOMAN (1955) Dir:  Franklin Adreon

Carolyn Ellenson-Grant (Marie Windsor), a willful, self-obsessed art dealer has any number of people around her who would happily see her dead: her estranged husband, Harlow Grant (John Archer); Louise, the woman he wants to marry (Nancy Gates); Harlow’s father (Douglas Wood); her gallery assistant, Betty Jill Jarmyn; Betty’s boyfriend, Dick Sawyer (Richard Crane); and art critic, Wayne Vincent (Patrick Knowles). All fall under suspicion after she’s murdered, with her husband the prime suspect. Grant sets out to clear his name because it doesn’t look like the cops are going to make much of an effort to do it for him. But what of the others?

As she did in most of her films, like The Narrow Margin (1952) and The Killing (1956), Marie Windsor plays her part to the hilt and with Carolyn gone by mid-point, No Man’s Woman loses much of its propulsion. We know someone killed her but we don’t really much care ‘whodunit’.  It’s a shame (and a surprise) how soon the air goes out of the balloon here. Martin, who wrote the story, most often would torque the suspense right ‘til the end. Unfortunately, things can happen betwixt and between as movies go through the agonies of birth. No Man’s Woman at least has Marie Windsor and lots of luminously bitchy dialog, both of which make the film worth watching.


THE MAN IS ARMED (1956) Dir: Franklin Adreon

Johnny Morrison (Dane Clark) is released from San Quentin after having taken the fall for his boss, Hackett (William Talman). Johnny wants to go straight but Hackett wants him in on a half-million dollar armored car heist. Meanwhile, detective Dan Coster (Barton MacLane) has Johnny pegged for the death of a fellow truck driver who went off the top of a building the day after Johnny’s release. Truth be told, Johnny’s never had a break in his life and nothing is going to change. His fate is never really in doubt, even though his girl, Carol Wayne (May Wynn) desperately clings to hope. However, Carol’s wishful “love is all you need” won’t come close to saving him. 

With The Man is Armed, Martin is back on form. The story, though dire, is wound tight until the last frame, even though Johnny Morrison is doomed from the first. The part was an ideal one for Dane Clark, a brooding, ill-at-ease actor who often played characters not as tough as they wanted or needed to be. William Talman is almost as terrifying as he was in The Hitchhiker (1953), which really is all  you need to know.

HOT CARS (1956) Dir: Don McDougall

Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) is a used car salesman who’s fired for giving customers the straight goods. He then ends up working for a rival dealer that’s a front for moving stolen cars. Nick plays along because he needs the money to pay for surgery for his infant son. Helping to Nick in line is racket boss Arthur Markle’s (Ralph Clanton) curvaceous blonde girlfriend, Karen Winter (Joi Lansing). When a nosy cop (Dabs Greer) gets too close to the action, Markle kills him, then frames Nick for the murder.

Don Martin’s screenplay for Hot Cars was more than good enough to anchor a bigger budget production with a marquee cast. As it is, the movie is a hugely entertaining crime drama and noir morality tale with Bromfield and Lansing giving starring performances. Lansing was a better actress than she ever had a chance to show and this part is as good for her as she is for it. Plenty of period Los Angeles locations and a heart-pounding finale hoists Hot Cars up with some of the better of the later period noirs.


VIOLENT ROAD (1958) Dir: Howard W. Koch

Mitch Barton (Brian Keith) leads out a truck convoy racing against time to deliver a load of explosive rocket fuel to a new plant after the old facility is mothballed. Avoiding population centers, the convoy must navigate dangerous desert terrain and treacherous mountain roads. Barton’s toughest job is working to keep his crew in line - a bunch of desperate last-chancers, most of whom are their own worst enemy. Barton couldn’t care less about any of them. He only wants the big payout of which he’ll end up earning every cent.

Violent Road is no The Wages of Fear (1953) but then Don Martin never aspired to be Georges Arnaud and Howard W. Koch was no Henri-George Clouzot. Violent Road is a gripping B-actioner from Warner Brothers with a workhorse supporting cast that includes Dick Foran , Arthur Batanides, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Perry Lopez.  Also onboard is Ann Doran as Sarge’s suffering wife and Merry Anders, a not-so-dumb blonde whom Mitch picks up one night, no strings attached. Which is just as well. Mitch is a man’s man who likes to pitch lines like, “I knew a woman once.” and, “I’m not allergic to a buck.” before heading on his way.


..... 

After Violent Road, Martin, like many Hollywood writers of the period, took his talents to television, which he’d started into in the early ’50s on a part-time basis. Later he’d contribute teleplays to anthologies like Schlitz Playhouse, Lux Video Theater, and Celebrity Playhouse, the productions starring noir favorites such as Edmond O’Brien, Kent Smith, Arthur Franz, Alexis Smith, Scott Brady, Angela Lansbury, and Howard Duff. 

In 1957, Martin was hired to write for the TV series Official Detective, based on the true crime magazine of the same title (as well as a radio program which ran from 1950 to 1956). The show, riding on the coattails of popular police shows such as Dragnet and M Squad, was hosted by Everett Sloane as the “Official Detective Investigator.” Of available episodes to be seen , several contain Martin’s signature tangled plotlines, notably Hostages, an episode starring Robert Blake as one of a trio of escaped convicts who hold two teenage sisters hostage in a derelict house in downtown Los Angeles. Other Martin-scripted episodes feature an array of noir-stained supporting veterans, including Ted de Corsia, Dabbs Greer, Wayne Morris, John Doucette, and Mike Mazurki, and young gun Mike Connors.

After Official Detective, Martin shifted his attention to Western series, including U.S. Marshal (1958 – 1960) with John Bromfield, The Texan (1958 – 1960) featuring Rory Calhoun, and Bronco (1958 – 1962) starring Ty Hardin. Typically, Martin had come well prepared having earlier written several well-received Westerns: Jacques Tourneur’s Stranger on Horseback (1955) with Joel McCrea, Quincannon, Frontier Scout (1956) starring Tony Martin, The Brass Legend (1956) headlining Hugh O’Brian, and The Storm Rider (1957) with Scott Brady.

Martin was nothing if not versatile, and ranks among the most productive and reliable writers ever to toil in the take-no-prisoners world of Hollywood B-movie and television production. No matter what the genre or the medium, he would forever stay faithful to “the story.” He passed away in Woodland Hills, California, in 1985, at the age of 74.


(A version of this article appeared in Noir City magazine, No. 21, 2017)             

Gary Deane  

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