Monday, 15 June 2015

POSTMARK FOR DANGER aka PORTRAIT OF ALISON (1955)


For some, there’s the country in which they were born and then there’s the country in which they wish they’d been born.

British director, Guy Green's country of choice was the United States – to the extent that it was California and not England where he lived for forty years before his death in 2005. However, long before coming to the US, Green had made clear his affinity for American actors and the more vigorous Hollywood film style, with many of his movies and television credits being heady romances and fast-paced dramas.

Green began his film career as a cameraman, then director of cinematography. He was very good at it and worked on such classic British titles as The Way Ahead (1944), The Way to the Stars (1945), Oliver Twist (1948) and The Passionate Friends (1949). He received an Academy Award for his filming of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946).

Green's first UK production as director was River Beat (1954), a modest but involving crime thriller with American actress Phyllis Kirk embroiled in the investigation of a smuggling racket. This was followed by several more noirish feartures, starring US-born or naturalized American actors, including: Tears for Simon (1956), Postmark for Danger (1956), Triple Deception (1958), The Snorkel (1959), S.O.S. Pacific (1960), The Angry Silence (1961), and The Mark (1962), which won Stuart Whitman an Academy Award nomination. 



While still in England, Green took on American productions for MGM including Light in the Piazza (1962) and Diamond Head (1965) and then moved to the US to direct what would be his greatest triumph as a director, the interracial love-story, A Patch of Blue (1967) which garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Shelley Winters and four other nominations.   

However, of most interest to celebrants of film noir would be Green’s Postmark for Danger (aka Portrait of Alison, its British release title). Based on a novel by Francis Durbridge, creator of the Paul Temple series, Postmark is a Hitchcockian tale featuring double crosses, a mistake in identity, and a beautiful woman in trouble who’s rescued by a reluctant hero. And, yes, it has a McGuffin.  

Portrait artist Tim Forrester (Robert Beatty) learns from his brother Dave (William Sylvester), a charter pilot that their younger brother Lewis has died in car accident in Italy along with an American actress, Alison Ford (Terry Moore). However both the Italian police and Scotland Yard believe that Lewis, an investigative journalist, was murdered as a result of story he was doing about an international diamond smuggling operation.  

The police are interested in a postcard that Lewis may have sent to Tim which might contain clues to the mystery. However they also become interested in Tim when his favorite model (Josephine Griffin) turns up dead in his apartment but also in his claim that Alison is alive and that she suspects her father to be part of the smuggling ring (Tim earlier had been sought out by Alison’s father who had commissioned a painting of her. It was to be done working from a photo and the dress she’d worn in the picture, a dress now found on the dead model).


With distant echoes of Laura, Postmark for Danger unfurls in a tantalizing mist of eerie and unlikely coincidences, then settles in as a tidy police procedural with some of the grit and fortitude of American noir. This is partly attributable to the film’s mostly American cast (Beatty is Canadian but close enough) but also to Ken Hughes’ tight script, Green’s high impact direction and the emphatic lensing of cinematographer Wilkie Cooper. Postmark for Danger in invested with the luminous look and dramatics of better film noirs and free of the cautious restraint that tends to hobble many British B noirs. And forgive me but it's also a good thing to see fist fights that are staged and not choreographed.

Postmark for Danger remained one of Guy Green’s best films as a director. After his moment in the California sun with A Patch of Blue, Green went on the squander an international reputation with a making of John Fowles’ The Magus, one of the most vilified films of all time. Green never recovered, going on to make mostly more ill-considered productions such as Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough and he ended up directing made-for-television movies. However, in 2004 Green was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for his lifetime contributions and services to cinema. He died the following year.


Monday, 8 June 2015

I, JANE DOE (1948)


“Whenever I ‘m unhappy with a performance, I look through the TV Guide and try to find a Vera Hruba Ralston picture to watch," because I know, no matter how bad a performance I may have given, I could NEVER be as bad as she was!” Maureen Stapleton to Johnny Carson, 1962


In the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s, Republic Studios wrote the book on smart, well- crafted B thrillers, with I, Jane Doe one of its most vivid chapters. In it, a mystery woman ‘Jane Doe’ (played by the aforementioned Miss Ralston), is arrested for the murder of Stephen Curtis (John Carroll), recently returned to the US after war service in France. Jane is brought to trial without information as to who she is, what her relationship with Curtis might have been, or any suspected motive for the killing. She refuses to say anything in her own defense and is convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair. 

Circumstances bring about a second trial in which the details of Jane’s story, told mostly in flashback during the proceedings, are revealed - thanks to a carefully orchestrated defense by her new attorney, Eve Meredith Curtis (Ruth Hussey), wife of the man whom Jane is charged with having killed. Meredith’s undertaking of Jane’s defense becomes a cause célèbre. The lawyer makes it clear she has her reasons, though it’s not apparent what they are - apart from some curious empathy for the accused. However, as the trial progresses, it becomes obvious that Stephen Curtis, were he not dead, would have to answer to both Jane Doe and his wife.


Equal parts romantic melodrama and noirish thriller, I, Jane Doe turns on a clever screenplay by Lawrence Kimble (San Quentin, 1946, Criminal Court, 1946, Mystery in Mexico, 1948). Kimble toiled in the Hollywood trenches for over three decades both in film and television, retiring with nearly 150 screenwriting credits under his belt. Nicknamed, ‘Nimble’, he was known for his imaginative plotting as well as a penchant for adult dialog, both much in evidence here. Though director John H. Auer (The Flame, 1948, City that Never Sleeps, 1953, Hell’s Half Acre, 1954) brings little by way of style to the movie, he knows well enough how to tell a story and do so briskly. 

Oscar-nominated Ruth Hussey, an elegant, persuasive actress is well-suited to the role of Eve Curtis. A former model, Hussey brings the same unmannered charm and professional crispness as to films for which she’s better known: The Philadelphia Story, 1940, The Uninvited, 1944, and The Great Gatsby, 1949. While I, Jane Doe occasionally tests our confidence, Hussey elevates the film with the certainty of her performance.


As for credibility, what about Vera Hruba Ralston? Few Hollywood stars suffered such scorn as the Czech-born actress. Her acting was wooden, her accent thick, and everyone knew she was married to head of Republic Studios, Herbert J. Yates who insisted on foisting his wife on an unwilling public, as well as fellow actors. John Wayne, her co-star in The Fighting Kentuckian 1949, threatened to leave the studio if ever forced to work with her again. Sterling Hayden reportedly asked for and received a healthy bonus to appear opposite her in Timberjack in 1955. However, Ralston was cooperative, hardworking and eager to please and, over time, her acting improved. Though she's mostly emotional and weepy in I, Jane Doe, it’s because the part asks her to be. And as Annette Dubois (Jane’s real name) is a foreigner, Ralston’s accent is hardly distracting and there's no cause to trash her performance. 


Overall, I, Jane Doe is a surprise, its script and cast beyond the ordinary by B standards. But what’s most striking is the film’s very modern outlook towards its female characters, their sense of themselves, their relationships both with men and each other, and their place in the world. Eve Meredith is a sophisticated, successful Manhattan lawyer and nothing more or less is made of that fact. Her assistant, Phyllis, is equally as smart and has a quick wit not limited to wisecracks. Jane/ Annette is a sad case but although a victim, is not given to wearing the mantle of victimhood. She's resilient, brave, and acts out of justifiable conviction. Even though the women carry the dramatic and moral weight of the film, there’s no assertion of feminist exceptionalism in I, Jane Doe. Equality of the sexes is assumed. Abilities and ambitions, entitlements and rights are all on the table - which looks to be dead-level.   

Adele Mara plays a brassy ‘showgirl’, Marga-Jane Hastings, who goes to see Eve about a breach of promise suit against a man, at first unnamed. However, she’s told right off that such suits are not legal in the state. Marga-Jane responds, “You mean a guy can take me around, tell me he’s not married, promise me the moon with a blue ribbon around it, get me to quit my job so he can ‘spend more time’ with me, and then just kiss me and not pay for it? I don’t believe it!”


The man in question turns out to be Stephen Curtis, who has a lot to pay for, and does so with his life. In the real world this kind of finality can’t be condoned; in the world of I, Jane Doe it can be celebrated. The movie ends with a bravura, operatic reckoning of the damage done and the satisfaction that comes with seeing everyone, for better or worse, getting what they deserve. C'est la vie, c'est le noir.


Gary Deane

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

ESCAPE (1948)



"There is nothing more tragic in life than the utter impossibility of changing what you have done"  

John Galsworthy


An improbable, pedestrian fugitive-on-the-run story, 'Escape' is saved by the appeal of its English-born leads 'Sexy Rexy' Harrison and Peggy Cummins, now enshrined for her part as the fetishistic femme fatale in 'Gun Crazy'.

Matt Denant (Harrison) is sent to jail for three years for the assault and inadvertent killing of a police officer. Dora Winton (Cummins) offers Denant both the benefit of the doubt and her only too-willing assistance after his escape from prison.

Harrison is his usual disarmingly louche self and Cummins is engaging as the headstrong young woman. Also good is William Hartnell as a police inspector, a part he played to great effect in countless British crime dramas.

Based on a play by John Galsworthy, 'Escape' also benefits from a literate script that offers a thoughtful meditation on justice and its sometimes difficult and uneven administration.

In the end though, the parts don't come close to adding up to a whole. Directed by Joseph. L. Mankeiwicz, 'Escape' deserved to be a bigger picture but ended up writ small, unable to overcome its theatrical origins and dictating lack of passion. 

Pity, that.



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