Tag Archives: Film Noir

ORSON WELLES’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)

A social media meme depicts an image of the Fab Four with the perfect response to Beatles naysayers: “Sorry we set the bar so high.” So it is also with and those who deny his mastery of the medium—it’s merely a case of being too too envious to recognize an inimitable artist. As a narrative filmmaker (albeit an experimental one) Welles gets equally little love from the avant-garde, much in the same way the modern painter Francis Bacon was seen as a sellout because he continued figurative painting in a non-representational age. Welles hardly helped his own status with stunts like whoring himself out as an actor; his fingernails-down-chalkboard interviews with ; wine commercials; and his cheesy Nostradamus documentaries (although he should be given a gold star for his frequent guest appearances on the ultra cool Dean Martin roasts). Because Welles’ antagonistic relationship with Hollywood is almost legendary, the status quo’s acknowledgment of his body of work has been primarily posthumous. It was with 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai that he almost intentionally immolated  himself, bidding adios to Tinsel Town.

The Lady from Shanghai was birthed from desperation. Welles’ Mercury Theater production of “Around the World in Eighty Days”  was threatened with a shutdown when $55,000 worth of costumes were impounded due to outstanding debts. Seeing a copy of Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake,” Welles had a eureka moment. He called Columbia head Harry Cohn, suggested he purchase the rights to the book, and offered to adapt, direct, and act in it for the money needed to pay off the costumes. Smelling a three-for-one deal, Cohn wired Welles the cash. He later came to regret it, vowing never again to hire someone in such a triple capacity again because it prevented him from firing such an upstart.

Still from The Lady from Shangai (1947)The production was as chaotic as the film itself,  as documented in numerous anecdotes by associate producer . The hot Mexico shoot caused actors to be ill, including Hayworth, which delayed shooting for a month. Welles himself was incapacitated for a period when an insect bit him in the eye. Crocodiles, barracudas, and poisonous barnacles posed additional threats. Unwisely, Welles rented his pal ‘s yacht “The Zaca.” In addition to overcharging, Flynn’s contractual agreement stipulated he be present for all scenes involving the boat, and he demanded to shoot the aerial footage of the Zaca himself—and he was, per his norm, prone to disappear for days on end, thus Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)

CAPSULE: THE CHASE (1946)

DIRECTED BY: Arthur Ripley

FEATURING: Robert Cummings, Michèle Morgan, Steve Cochran, Peter Lorre

PLOT: A mentally fragile veteran of the U.S. Navy stumbles into the employ of an eccentric gangster and inadvertently seduces the hoodlum’s wife; his dodgy escape gets dodgier when his mind snaps and he awakens in an unfamiliar apartment.

Still from The Chase (1946)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it is rare to find an example of film noir that isn’t worth seeing, it is also rare to find one that fits the description of “weird.” The Chase dabbles with some strange encounters and has a plot explosion that very nearly carries it into 366’s warm embrace, but it comes up short enough to make one wish the film-makers had gone the distance.

COMMENTS: With a scramble of memory loss, noir grit and brevity, oddball bad guys, and a side of Peter Lorre, The Chase cruises down its narrative path with an unlikely mix of the conventional and the abnormal. We dive right into the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-at-the-heels navy veteran in Florida who finds and returns the cash-filled wallet of one Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). Both impressed and amused by the man’s honesty, Roman hires Scott as his chauffeur, firing the man’s predecessor on the spot. Scott quickly gains the trust of Roman’s captive wife, Loran (Michèle Morgan), and after a number of trips to a nearby beach, they plot an escape. An hour in, we are deep indeed in standard noir territory—and then something odd happens.

But please allow me to back-track for a moment. As characteristic as it was to start with, The Chase already seemed to have a weird undercurrent attempting to break free. The scene where Scott tracks down Roman and tries to get a meeting with him to return the wallet is a bizarre set-piece that I can only describe as repetition at the corner of creepy and amusing. Through the door’s peep-hole, Scott first explains himself to a butler (named “Job,” of all things), then holds the exact same conversation with a henchman, one “Mr Geno” (Peter Lorre). Gaining entrance, Scott explains himself a third time before Mr Geno reluctantly directs him to Eddie Roman, who is being groomed by two female attendants. Roman asks one, “How do you feel being a barber … cutting a man’s hair. Feels good, doesn’t it?”

Between this scene and the twist we see a souped-up luxury car with rear-seat gas and brake, Peter Lorre laconically quipping, a knife-throwing Cuban waiter, and a biddable Asian imports/exports shop-keeper. Or do we? There is a dimly lit transition shot of a telephone ringing and all of a sudden the movie jumps from bad things happening in Cuba to unclear things happening back in Florida.

Scott, waking up in a room we know he lives in, has no idea what’s going on. He stumbles around a little, he takes the medication he left on the desk, and makes a phone call, explaining, “…it’s happened again.” At that point, The Chase seems to shift into high-weird gear, and we start trundling down an understated but “off” string of events. Build, build, build—and oh so sweetly—only, alas, to have the weird rug pulled away to make room for an altogether too prosaic ending. I generally don’t say this, but this film seems ripe for a re-make by a director who’d be willing to go as far as coherently[1] possible; that said, I recommend you check this one out.

Kino Lorber’s 2016 DVD/Blu-ray release of The Chase includes commentary by none other than .

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an especially bizarre jaunt through a nightmarish crime world… More than any classic film noir that I can think of, The Chase stands as a predecessor to David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.“–Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

  1. Or, for those who’d prefer, as incoherently as possible. []

ORSON WELLES’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

Only could produce a masterpiece out of a film starring as a Mexican. Of course, the story of Welles’ rise and fall is practically legendary. At 26, he made that greatest of American films, Citizen Kane (1941), which took on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in a thinly disguised biopic. Welles’ was already at work on his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) when the backlash from Kane sent RKO into a panicFearing another flop, studio executives took Ambersons away from the young filmmaker, gave it a happy ending, and recut it. The result was a truncated masterpiece, which should have been the equal of Welles’ first film. Welles’ was practically backlisted and spent the rest of his career primarily in Europe, acting in almost anything to scrape up enough money to produce his own films.

Welles had already been cast for the role of Captain Quinlan in Touch of Evil when co-star Charlton Heston dared to suggest that the man who made Citizen Kane could also direct. According to Heston’s “Actor’s Journals” memoirs, the producers initially thought his advice was ludicrous, but realized that they would essentially be getting a “two for the price of one” (actor and director) bargain. Welles was signed on to direct, and immediately re-wrote the screenplay for Whit Masteron’s[1] novel “Badge of Evil.” The result was another repeating chapter in Welles’ ongoing story: the film was a commercial flop until later audiences discovered it.

Of course, there is a very small body of hopelessly predictable, wannabe filmmakers and critics who erroneously fancy themselves as “going against the establishment consensus” by denying the artistic merits of Welles, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, or The Trial (1962). Such an attitude is like that of the equally small minority in contemporary pop music who feebly attempt to deny or protest the artistry of t, simply because that band set the bar too high. However, as an art professor once told me: “If you want to be a great painter, then you have to know great painting.”  Those who are too uninformed to know the difference between elitism and discernment can be dismissed. Failure to recognize the aesthetic eminence of Welles’ or his greatest works renders one superfluous.

Still from Touch of Evil (1958)Touch of Evil does not merely stand with Welles’ best work, it also stands among the greatest achievements of American cinema. On the surface, it shouldn’t. After all, it’s garish, grotesque, and pure sleaze; indeed starring Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich both in Mexican makeup, which almost amounts to black face, an obscenely obese[2], dissipated Welles in padded nose, Za Za Gabor (in a small part), and some of the most laughable dialogue writing ever committed to celluloid… until you recognize it as the baroque, pulp parody it is.

Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Gabor, and Dennis Weaver are delightful. Under Welles’ direction Heston shines in his most emotionally complex role as Mike Vargas, making one wish the actor/director team had worked together more often (Heston, worshipful of Welles, attempted to commission the director for both 1970’s Julius Caeasar and 1972’s Antony and Cleopatra). Dietrich, as the Mexican fortune telling Gypsy whore Tana, delivers jaw dropping zingers with characteristic aplomb: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” and “You should lay off the candy bars, honey. You’re a mess. Your future is all used up.” She could have been making epitaphs for Welles himself, whose last American film this was. Despite being hailed, even in its botched studio cut, by luminaries such as , François Truffaut, and , and highly praised throughout Europe, Touch of Evil was relegated to playing on double “B” movie bills in artless America. Naturally, Welles was blamed, and considered finished by the studio systems.

Volumes have been written about the twelve minute opening shot, Welles’ choreography, and the virtuoso black and white camerawork of cinematographer Russell Metty. Part of the film’s initial stateside rejection was undoubtedly due to the meddling of Universal executives who recut the film, attempting to make the roaming, overlapping, unorthodox narrative into something linear (it didn’t work). A disgusted Welles disowned the cut. Just as he stuck by Sam Peckinpah when the studio interfered with Major Dundee, Heston condemned Universal for mutilating Welles’ work. Seven years after Welles’ death, editor Walter Murch, following the original script and volumes of memos, restored Touch of Evil to the director’s intent. In its mid-90s theatrical re-release, American critics loudly echoed their European counterparts, making it a belated success, which is only fitting. It’s terrific entertainment. Watch it first for its aesthetics, then again for its narrative.

  1. A pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller. []
  2. Welles was actually not as obese as portrayed here (or as he was in later life). Low camera angles and makeup assist Welles the director in making Welles the actor look his worst. The result is his greatest role since Falstaff. []

CAPSULE: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: , Powers Boothe, , , , , ,

PLOT: Three stories involving gamblers, thugs, private detectives, strippers, corrupt senators, and femme fatales, and other disreputable denizens of the mythical Sin City.

Still from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t do anything new or better to distinguish itself from its Certified Weird predecessor; not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, entertainment wise, but the original represents the Sin City franchise on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies well enough.

COMMENTS: First, the good (or bad) news: this 2014 followup does such a good job recreating the look and feel of the surprise 2005 hit, right down to renovating the rapidly aging faces of Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis to the point where they’re indistinguishable from their decade-younger selves, that you could edit the stories from A Dame to Kill For into the original Sin City and never notice the difference. The tangled timeline—some of the stories here take place before any of the events in the first movie, while others are roughly contemporaneous with it—helps with that sense that Dame is not so much a sequel (or prequel) as it is an organic extension of the original, almost as if we were viewing deleted scenes. Returning from the first film is Rourke’s Marv, that slab of grizzled muscle with a vertical nose and a horizontal chin, who unites the stories and plays a supporting role in two out of three tales; Willis’ romantic cop Hartigan, in what is basically a cameo; and Jessica Alba’s diva stripper Nancy, now an alcoholic wreck. Josh Brolin tackles a younger (yet somehow more bitter and jaded) version of the role played by Clive Owen in the original, while Powers Boothe’s corrupt politico has a greatly expanded part as the new principal antagonist for two of the three characters. There are numerous callbacks to the previous films (e.g., a portrait of Nick Stahl’s Yellow Bastard on his fathers’ wall) and origin stories (we learn how Manute got his stylish gold eye). The real stars here are the new characters, though: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny, a gambler with a golden touch whose boyish looks are a welcome contrast to the craggy male miens that otherwise populate the city, and especially Eva Green’s seductress Ava. Green is frequently nude—in fact, her first appearance naked, on a diving board in front of a digital moon, is itself justification for the movie’s existence—but she is also the first female character in the Sin City universe who is a worthy adversary for a male. Her femme fatale performance is campy, but riveting, and with ruby red lips and turquoise eyes accentuating her classical black and white beauty, she’s a breathtaking update of the archetype. The digital cinematography is as crisp and beautiful as the original film: the whites of characters’ eyes sometimes appear to glow, as does their spurting blood, and there are wonderfully evocative effects like tendrils of steam that hang in midair without dissipating. There are scattered weird visual touches, the most impressive of which is a giant poker hand (you’ll know it when you see it). Overall, fans who loved their first visit should find plenty of reason to go slumming again in this City, while those who had their misgivings about the trip may find themselves depressed by the burg’s seedier aspects, now that it’s really showing its age.

Given that the new Sin City is pretty much of a piece with its predecessor, its lackluster performance with critics and box office patrons requires explanation. The core fanbase seems appeased, based on a decent 7.2 IMDB rating, so we assume that the movie failed to put casual fans’ butts in theater seats. The lesson is that nine years between installments is not exactly striking while the iron is hot, no matter how faithful to the original you make the followup.  On the critical side, Dame bashing may be partly a chance to reappraise the original, which caught reviewers by surprise with its technique. (Nathan Rabin candidly takes this tack in his review for The Dissolve). In 2005 nothing else quite leapt off the screen the way Sin City did, and the glowing visuals, star power and cinematic energy caught critics by surprise and allowed them to overlook the film’s many flaws: its painful faux-Chandler dialogue, pornographic brutality, and adolescent understanding of both masculinity and femininity. Since the visuals are no longer original, today’s reviewers appear to be looking past the screen’s gilded surface and letting their misgivings about the movie’s lack of any worldview beyond appreciation of the awesomeness of violence dictate their opinions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it was easy to imagine that A Dame to Kill For would try to one-up the original, to push the envelope of perversity in some fresh and jarring (if likely unsuccessful) way. Instead, Rodriguez and Miller have erred in the opposite direction, offering up a movie that feels timid, half-hearted, eager to play it safe. The former path might have been a mistake. This one feels almost like a betrayal.”–Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

 

173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

“Dream, little one, dream,

Dream, my little one, dream.

Oh, the hunter in the night

Fills your childish heart with fright.

Fear is only a dream.

So dream, little one, dream.”

Lullaby from Night of the Hunter (lyrics by Walter Schumann)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Billy Chapin, ,

PLOT: Harry Powell is a self-ordained Reverend during the Great Depression who makes a living by touring Appalachia and marrying widows, who disappear soon thereafter under mysterious circumstances. In prison for stealing a car, he shares a bunk with Ben Harper, a bank robber on death row who has refused to tell the authorities the location of the $10,000 he has stolen. After his release (and Harper’s execution), Rev. Powell finds the robber’s widow, and learns that his young son John knows where the fortune is hidden.

Still from Night of the Hunter (1955)
BACKGROUND:

  • The film is based on a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb. The book was a bestseller at the time of it’s release but has long been out-of-print; Centipede Press is releasing a limited-edition hardcover edition of the novel in July of 2104.
  • Night of the Hunter‘s Harry Powell was based on real-life murderer Harry Powers, nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” a West Virginia-based killer responsible for the deaths of two widows and three children.
  • was Laugton’s first choice for Harry Powell but he turned down the role of the serial-killing misogynist preacher, thinking it might damage his career. Robert Mitchum had no such concerns and was eager to play the part.
  • Mitchum’s autobiography contains several inaccurate accounts of the filming, including the allegation that Laughton heavily rewrote James Agee’s original script (an accusation supported by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester). Film scholars who studied Agee’s original script, which was discovered in 2003, reported that the director shot the film almost exactly as written.
  • This was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. Although the story that he was so stung by the negative critical reaction to the movie that he never directed again is often repeated, Laughton himself claimed that he simply preferred directing theater to working on films.
  • Prior to shooting, Laughton screened silent films by D.W. Griffith to get a feel for the look he wanted for the movie.
  • In 1992, Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
  • Ranked #71 in Empire Magazine’s 2008 poll of the Greatest Films of All Time. Ranked #2 on “Cahiers du Cinema”‘s list of the “100 Most Beautiful Movies.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pick a single image from Night of the Hunter? It’s a fool’s errand. As much as it hurts to pass up the vision of the “good” Reverend with his right hand of love wrestling his left hand of hate, or the dreamlike serenity of Willa Harper’s final resting place, we think the most meaningful image must come from the children’s flight downriver—specifically, we chose the shot of the skiff passing before the spiderweb, as John and Pearl (temporarily) float away from their murderous stepfather’s snares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Night of the Hunter is such a massive achievement that we’re invoking 366 Weird Movies’ sliding scale rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to make the List. Not that Hunter isn’t strange, by Hollywood standards (and particularly by 1950s Hollywood standards). Film archivist Robert Gitt called this expressionist/Southern Gothic hybrid “the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s.” Perhaps that is why director Charles Laughton decided to bring cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who once bragged “I was always chosen to shoot weird things,” onto the crew. Hunter is packed with shadowy, stagey, artificial shots (contemporary critics complained that the effects—both narrative and visual—were “misty”). Mixing fairy tale menace and Freudian killer fathers while masquerading as a titillating potboiler, Hunter was so unique and unexpected that it slid right under the upturned noses of viewers in the 1950s, that most conformist-minded of decades. Generations since have remembered it fondly—well, in their nightmares, at least—and it has since been elevated into the canon of great movies. And now, of great weird movies.


Original trailer for Night of the Hunter

 COMMENTS: An utterly original blend, Night of the Hunter is simultaneously a melodrama, a fairy tale, a film noir, a Southern Gothic, a Biblical Continue reading 173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

171. SIN CITY (2005)

“It’s pretty damn weird to eat people.”–Marv, Sin City

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , , Quentin Tarantino (“special guest director”)

FEATURING: , , , , Nick Stahl, Jaime King, , , , Brittany Murphy,

PLOT: The movie tells three stories (with some common characters) set in the mythical Basin City: in one, a police detective risks his life to stop a child-killer. In a second, a brutal, mentally ill criminal hunts down the men he believes killed the only woman who ever showed kindness to him. A final strand tells of a suave assassin who attempts to prevent someone else’s accidental killing from turning into an all-out war between the cops, the mafia, and the self-governing prostitutes of Old Town.

Still from Sin City (2005)
BACKGROUND:

  • A fan of Frank Miller’s original series of Sin City comics, Robert Rodriguez wanted to make the movie as true to the book as possible: “a translation, not an adaptation.” The actual comics were used as the storyboards. The stories selected were “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill,” and “That Yellow Bastard” as well as the short “The Customer is Always Right.”
  • Rodriguez shot the opening segment, “The Customer is Always Right,” in one day as a proof-of-concept to convince Miller that he could do justice to the art style. He then used that clip to convince actors such as Bruce Willis and Benicio Del Toro to sign on to the project.
  • Rodriguez insisted that Miller receive a co-director credit on the film, but the Directors Guild of America objected to the credit (they do not allow co-directing). He then decided to give Miller full credit, but Miller refused. Rodriguez then resigned from the Guild so the co-directing credit could remain.
  • Quentin Tarantino directed a single scene in the movie (a segment from “The Big Fat Kill” involving a conversation between the severed head of Del Toro’s “Jackie-Boy” and Clive Owen’s “Dwight”). Tarantino directed for a salary of $1 as a way to repay Rodriguez for composing music for Kill Bill: Vol. 2 for $1.
  • The movie was entirely shot on Rodriguez’s “digital backlot” (green screen studio) near his home in Austin, Texas.
  • Sin City screened in competition at Cannes and won the Technical Grand Prize.
  • Plans for a sequel (based on Miller’s “A Dame to Kill For“) were announced immediately after the film was completed; the followup feature was delayed until 2014, however.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: From the very first frame—a woman in a blood-red backless cocktail dress on a balcony staring out over a steel-grey city—Sin City‘s pulp Expressionism is consistently startling and poetic. Since we’re fascinated by the weird, we’ll select the first sight of the Yellow Bastard, the bald, satellite dish-eared pedophile killer dyed the color of French’s mustard, as our unforgettable take-home image from the movie.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A marriage between the mythologies of film noir and violent comics, Sin City‘s bloody tales are set in an abstract urban hellscape inhabited by invulnerable tough guys and rough sexy dames. They play like the lost works of Raymond Chandler’s alternate universe grandson, written to scrape up a few bucks for a bottle of booze while he was down and out in Gotham City. With a cast of cannibal serial killers, jaundiced pedophiles and ninja hookers, the adventures of the hard-boiled demigods of Sin City are as fantastical as its random splotches of color in a monochrome landscape are visually unreal.


Original trailer for Sin City

COMMENTS: Sin City earns its “recommended” label almost solely on the basis of its visuals (bolstered by some finely weird touches), and not for its Continue reading 171. SIN CITY (2005)

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)

Tyrone Power was 20th Century Fox’s answer to Warner Brothers’ . However, as dated as Flynn’s style of acting is, he does generate a kind of cartoon excitement. Watching the bulk of Power’s swashbucklers is more of a burden. Power is typically bland. He died at 44 from a heart attack during an on-screen duel with actor George Sanders in the filming of Solomon and Sheeba (1959). Flynn died less than a year later. Both are known for iconic roles: Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940). They acted together only once: in Henry King’s version of The Sun Also Rises (1957), which (as per most cinematic Hemingway adaptations) is best avoided. Rumors in Hollywood have long claimed that Flynn and Power engaged in a brief affair. If so, then, yes, there was more to Zorro and Robin Hood than tights and mask. Of course, the seedier aspects of Flynn’s “wicked, wicked ways” are well known. Yet, behind that boyish persona, Power too had a darker personality. This began to surface later in his career with chosen roles, such as Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and in the earlier Nightmare Alley (1947).

Power came from a long line of actors, and although he desired meatier roles, he settled on the stability of his studio contract, rarely venturing outside of assignments. Nightmare Alley was a notable exception. After reading William Greshen’s novel Power purchased the rights and begged Darryl Zanuck to allow him to play the part of the seedy Stanton Carlisle. Reluctantly, Zanuck agreed, although he did little to promote the film.

Edmund Goulding was given the directorial reigns after he and Power had worked together in the drama The Razor’s Edge (1946). Although that film received mixed reviews, it was a commercially successful departure for the actor and commercial success was, of course, Zanuck’s primary concern. Goulding’s reputation had been cemented with the high class soaper Grand Hotel (1932) starring John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and . A string of glossy, star-powered melodramas followed: Riptide (1934) with Norma Shearer and Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), and The Great Lie (1941), all with Bette Davis. Zanuck’s choice of Goulding was strange but purposeful (for Zanuck). Nightmare Alley lacks the visceral quality of the novel (whose author, not surprisingly, committed suicide). With such a potent literary source, the film  might have emerged as something deliriously akin to ‘s Freaks (1932), but it lacks an obsessive director at the helm. Where Nightmare Alley does succeed is in Goulding’s direction of the superb as the affable clairvoyant Zeena, Colleen Grey as the dainty circus girl Molly, and Helen Walker as the icy Dr. Lilith. (Goulding, a woman’s director, had gifted Academy Award winning performances to Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Mary Astor, Joan Fontaine, and Anne Baxter).

Still from Nightmare Alley (1947)Nightmare Alley is further helped by the bleakly prismatic cinematography of Lee Garmes, who had previously photographed such masterpieces as Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) and Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932). Screenwriter Jules Furthman crafts a mostly compelling, pessimistic screenplay (weakened by a Zanuck-mandated semi-happy ending) that falls somewhat short of being the yardstick to measure noir by. Furthman would go one to co-write (with Willam Faulkner) two more noir “classics” ( the classics label being debatable): Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944) and Hawks’ cinematic treatment of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946). Art directors J. Russell Spencer and Lyle Wheeler provide exemplary mise-en-scène in their impeccably disheveled carnival settings. Cyril Mockridge composes a taut, aptly grotesque score.

Character actors Ian Keith (as Zeena’s cuckold, Pete) and James Flavin (as the brawny barker Hoatley) leave the scene too soon, forcing star Power, as a slippery pseudo-mystic, to represent the carny world’s masculine populace. Power is only half up to the job. Although his performance was almost unanimously praised by critics of the era (including the great James Agee), Power projects a woodenness in the early scenes that does not altogether convince us of his charisma. Still, perhaps his artificiality, based solely on pulchritude, makes his downfall all the more shocking; and it is in his dissipated state that Power, surprisingly, lives up to the actor’s narcissistic potential. Power reminds the viewer of the horror that was once associated with the term “geek” in what turns out to be, perhaps, his finest performance.

Despite Zanuck’s attempt to give the film a commercial sheen, Nightmare Alley was a major flop with American audiences, who fervently resisted seeing one of their established stars try something original. The critics proved more insightful, and it was they who had the final say. Today Nightmare Alley is one of Power’s most celebrated films, while the majority of his commercial fodder has aged poorly and is primarily forgotten. Despite this, the movie rarely ran on television and its appearance in the home video market was considerably belated. Naturally, its unavailability only increased its cult status, until Fox finally responded, making it part of its film noir series on DVD (it never appeared on VHS).

IDA LUPINO’S THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is the first and only classic film noir directed by a woman. Lupino began her career as an actress in notable films such as They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) (both costarring Humphrey Bogart), and The Hard Way (1943). She earned a reputation as a “hard luck dame” and “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” Lupino refused to be defined by categories and ventured into directing. Her first film as a co-director (uncredited) was Not Wanted (1949), a stark and candid film (for its time) about an unwed mother. While on suspension (for turning down too many sub-par roles) Lupino and her husband started an independent film company, The Filmmakers, producing several films which she wrote and directed. As a director she was dubbed “the poor man’s Don Siegel,” which goes to show that sophistic labels die hard.

Lupino’s status as a pioneer for women filmmakers cannot be underestimated. She wrote and directed B-styled films which often focused on serious feminist themes. Her Outrage (1950) brutally dealt with the topic of rape (sadly, the film remains unavailable, but Mike Lorefice’s review should certainly be read).

Lupino ended her directorial career in television, and among her credits in that medium are memorable episodes of Thriller (starring ), The Untouchables, and The Fugitive.  Lupino’s innovative and daring success as a Hollywood filmmaker inspired an homage by jazz musician Carla Bley; it is a composition which has been much performed, most memorably by Paul Bley (Carla’s ex-husband) on his album “Open to Love.”

Lupino’s most acclaimed film is probably The Hitch-Hiker. Distributed by RKO, it is inspired by the true story of early 1950s serial killer Billy Cook. Lupino (who co-wrote the screenplay) creates a confidently bleak, taut atmosphere in The Hitch-Hiker. The pacing is psychologically relentless, and Lupino masterfully takes full advantage of claustrophobic compositions (in a car), an expansive, arid landscape, and the noirsh city at night.

Still from The Hitch-hiker (1953)On the run, killer Emmet Meyers (William Talman) kidnaps the two fisherman: Roy (Edmund O’ Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy). Talman (best known as the nemesis of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason) gives THE yardstick performance of unadulterated sadism.

Fortunately, Lupino does not succumb to exploitation-movie sermons: she does not take time to, filling the film’s 71 minute length full of exposed nerves. Lupino handles the material with astute sensitivity, directing three male actors without ever resorting to displays of chest beating machismo. The building tensions between the three men were unsettling enough that RKO head Howard Hughes denied original story credit to the (supposed) leftist writer Daniel Mainwaring. Hughes was convinced the story was a parable about Cold War paranoia and McCarthyism. Leave it to Hughes to be paranoid about depiction of paranoia.  The Hitch-Hiker quickly became a cult hit for a reason: it is simply one of the best examples of Hollywood film noir.

Next week: Cat People begins our coverage on the films of Val Lewton at RKO.

EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

Reviewing ‘s Detour (1945), critic Dennis Schwartz wrote: “For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog.” That about sums up Ulmer. It also sums his Detour star, Tom Neal. Ulmer was an aesthetic outsider who made poor choices in his personal life but tried, sometimes in vain, to bring an artistic sensibility to everything he worked on. Neal was an outsider of a different sort. Despite having received a law degree from Havard, Neal turned to amateur boxing, which only partly satisfied his extremely violent temper. In 1951, that temper and jealousy got the better of him with in a tussle with actor Franchot Tone over the affections of actress Barbara Payton. Tone received a brain concussion, and Neal was permanently blacklisted by Hollywood. The actor was reduced to restaurant work and eventual bankruptcy. In 1965, Neal took a gun to the back of his wife’s head and shot her to death. Incredibly, he received a mere six-year sentence, but he died within a few months of his release from prison in 1971. His son, Tom Neal, Jr. attempted to follow in his father’s thespian footsteps, appearing in a remake of Detour (1991) that no one seems to have seen.

Shot on the quick and cheaply, Detour defies the rules of Poverty Row aesthetics. In his review of Ulmer’s Detour, critic Roger Ebert acknowledges the film’s flaws: “Detour is a film so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school.” And yet it is greater than the sum of it’s parts, defying the “aesthetics only” art school rule. Ebert adds, ” Yet, Detour lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir.”

The pessimism of Detour drips into the nitrate of Ulmer’s bubblegum Shakespearean saga. Al (Neal) is a pianist who prostitutes his art in dives. Ulmer symbolizes this in idiosyncratic fashion by Al’s transformation of a Brahms piano piece into a grotesque, possessed, populist parody. Picasso once said that all art, regardless of subject, is self-portrait. Al eerily mirrors Ulmer in the portrait of a highly cultured artist who is reduced to a career gutter through his own missteps. It is little wonder that Detour was Ulmer’s favorite of his own films.

Still from Detour (1945)Fate is an ambivalent, malevolent force relentlessly and unjustly dogging Al. He responds with self-pity tightly wrapped in ten cent philosophy. Al, like Bluebeard, is waxing bitter over a woman. His curse is to be in love with the ambitious Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue’s dreams of a successful Hollywood career provoke jealousy within Al and serves as a biting reminder of his own failed career. She departs and settles, albeit uncomfortably, in the land of opportunity. Although destitute, Al vows reconciliation and embarks upon a thumbed journey to Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

The recently departed critic Andrew Sarris recommended further study of  when he amusingly wrote: “Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer, and he is no longer one of the private jokes shared by auteur critics, but one of the minor glories of the cinema. Here is a career, more subterranean than most, which be signature of a genuine artist.”[1]

Writing in the Village Voice, Sarris’ criticism had developed Truffaut’s “auteur” theory, which holds that a film is the personal vision of the director. The director, therefore, is the primary author, the “auteur.” Sarris’ adherence to this theory inspired ridicule from Pauline Kael, who argued that film, being a collaborative medium, is multi-authored. While Kael respected Sarris, she found the theory absurd.

Sarris often used Ulmer as an example of this theory: “Most of Ulmer’s films are of interest only to unthinking audiences. Yet, anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll. Ulmer’s camera never falters, even when his characters disintegrate. When his material is less impossible, his reflexes are still sharp. That a personal style could emerge form the depths of poverty row is a tribute to a director without alibis.”

Poster for The Strange Woman (1946)Strange Woman (1946) was a rarity in Ulmer’s oeuvre: he had a worthwhile budget, a script based off a best-selling novel. an accomplished cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), and a topnotch cast, headed by a star actor (Hedy Lamarr, who also produced). The result was a hit upon its release, yet it has become one of the more obscure Ulmer films; perhaps, because it is typical of the 1940s femme fatale melodramas and cannot compare to the likes of the better known Gilda, which was released the same year.

Lamarr, who had been a childhood friend of Ulmer’s, personally chose him to direct. Ulmer repaid the favor with sensual close-ups of the beautiful actress. Her performance as Jenny ranks with similar evil gal performances by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. Strange Woman is, easily, Lamarr’s best screen work, since she was normally used as mere decor. Lamarr would have been a bigger star if she had continued in similar projects, but her Continue reading EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

  1. All Sarris quotes come from Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema: Directors and Direction. 1929-1968.” []