September 9, 2014


“Every detail, every second of each shot makes La Nuit du carrefour [Night of the Crossroads] the only great French thriller, or rather, the greatest French adventure film of all.” -Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema (December 1957)

Night of the Crossroads was the first film adaptation of Georges Simenon’s phenomenally popular Inspector Maigret novels, and was lent a thick, hallucinatory atmosphere by director Jean Renoir. Yet, sandwiched as it is between Renoir’s classics with Michel Simon, La Chienne (1931) and Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), it has escaped much serious critical attention. It does not even get an entry in Andre Bazin’s collected writings on Renoir. Anthology Film Archives arranged a very rare screening of the feature this past weekend, with Simenon’s son John in attendance to discuss the production beforehand. It’s a traditional whodunit, except all of the motivations are missing. Instead of attributing the crime to a single perpetrator, the whole town becomes culpable through their xenophobia and greed. As Renoir’s character Octave says in The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons”. To that Night of the Crossroads would add, “for murder.”


This narrative opacity was originally attributed to missing reels. Godard wrote that Jean Mitry “lost three reels after shooting was completed.” Renoir was asked to confirm the rumor, and said, “It’s possible, but even at the time, you know, it wasn’t very clear. I don’t think anyone of us understood anything. Least of all me.” As Renoir implies, the legend is not necessarily true. In Richard Brody’s article on the film for The New Yorker, he reports that the “fragmentary construction” was due to “his running out of money during production.” The project was all improvising – working around the financial limitations. Andre Brunelin wrote that the production was “a business of make do and mend. Decor had to be made out of anything at hand, it was all painting and knock-up.” This was no unauthorized fly-by-night operation, however. It had full support of Georges Simenon, who was friends with Renoir and collaborated on the screenplay.


The story concerns a murder in a small town outside Paris. A local insurance agent (Jean Gehret) discovers his car has been swapped with another. When the locals search the neighborhood, they find his vehicle with a corpse behind the wheel. It is stowed inside the garage of a Danish brother and sister who are already despised in the community for their eccentricity and foreignness. Inspector Maigret is brought in and stirs up all of the local resentments, putting more lives at stake.


It was shot from January – March of 1932, three weeks at a crossroads near Bouffemont, outside of Paris, and the remaining time at the Europa Films studio in Billancourt. The location was choked with fog and rain –  perfect for the tale of secret identities and cloaked motivations. Before the screening, John Simenon confirmed that his father approved of the project, and especially of the casting of Pierre Renoir, Jean’s brother, as Maigret. He had the right height and bearing, if not the described muscularity of the book’s Inspector. With his prominent widow’s peak and hawk like face, Pierre Renoir strikes a strange figure, one of bookish, watchful intensity. His role is an observer that lets the villagers stumble into their confessions. His main move is to listen attentively, his interrogation method one of waiting out silences. The Danish man is Carl, a gangly Frankenstein’s monster type with an appropriately ghastly artificial eye, who happens to paint commercial art for a living. He keeps house for his sister Else (Winna Winifried), a hothouse flower quick with come-ons. One of the more perverse shots has a her flirting with her pet tortoise in an overhead shot. Their house is a dusty catacomb of ash, useless tchotchkes, and secret hiding places. One of them slides open when Else leans in to to kiss a nonplussed Maigret. Her shoulder pushes a painting across the wall, revealing a bottle of Veronal and a gun.


The street is hidden in fog, drugs are secreted behind paintings, and whole backstories are missing because of the budget shortage. But this expository lack fits the whole theme of the film – one which renders the last act revelations truly surprising, since we don’t know who half the characters are. Renoir uses this chaotic situation to experiment with a variety of techniques. There are deep focus shots with characters posed in background doorways in windows, winding tracking shots executed by mounting cameras onto cars, and a grand experiments in sound, in which audio acts as a kind of metronome. In his interrogations, Maigret knows the time is up when his empty glass is filled up by his dripping office faucet. To compress the time of the original investigation, Renoir cuts back and forth from Maigret running down leads to shots of commuters feet shuffling in front of a newspaper vendor. Their yelling out of “Morning edition!”, “Afternoon edition!” and “Evening news!” keeps the timing down. The abstracted shot of legs is then rhymed later with the hidden assailant, seen as a pair of feet stomping through mud puddles, and as an arm placing a poisoned beer onto a table. Some of these spy game machinations recall Feuillade, which Renoir was undoubtedly familiar with, though on a much simpler scale.



Renoir also had the advantage of more mobile cameras, and he used them to the fullest extent. There is a camera-mounted car chase sequence of unbelievable beauty. All is shrouded in darkness as two Model-Ts chase each other around the turns, the brightest illumination provided by the exploding muzzles of gunfire. It is thrilling to be plunged into darkness, and felt like I was riding Space Mountain at Disney World for the first time. Except this thrill is not a celebration of modernity, but a resigned condemnation of it. All of the town is implicated in the murder. The bourgeois insurance company family , the artistically inclined Danes and the group of working class mechanics all pursued their self-interest into criminality.Maigret offers some hope – telling Else, “in two years [of jail time] you will be truly free.” Though what she will do with that freedom is seriously in doubt. All Maigret can do is grin and bear it, and wait for the next case.


September 2, 2014

Annex - Mitchum, Robert (Out of the Past)_01

Jeff Markham knew Kathie would not arrive, but he sat there and drank anyway. He was resigned to his premonitions, seemingly able to tell the future but powerless to stop it. “I think I’m in a frame…I don’t know. All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” The picture remains obscure to Jeff throughout Out of the Past, though the film image itself is luminous in the new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. Jeff, played by Robert Mitchum as a slow-motion somnambulist, can see the outline of his fate, but not the details. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca previously collaborated on Cat People, and continue their use of low-key lighting to produce dream-like suggestions of violence. All of the deaths in Out of the Past are hidden off-screen, the specifics elided. They simply accrue in the fog of Jeff’s rueful investigation, a case that turns into a series of delaying tactics to stay alive. But he can only pause to smoke so many times before the darkness finally deigns to meet him.


Out of the Past was based on a crime novel by Daniel Mainwaring (under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes) entitled Build My Gallows High. In 1945 RKO outbid Warner Bros. for the rights to the then unpublished book for a reported $20,000. A George Gallup poll revealed the American public’s distaste for the fatalistic title Build My Gallows High, so it was changed to Out of the Past during the pre-production. The novel was Mainwaring’s last – he had already transitioned to the higher pay of motion picture writing. So he was tasked with writing a first draft of the script – which later went through the hands of crime novelist James M. Cain (Double Indemnity)and Frank Fenton, an old RKO hand who had recently worked on the George Raft noir Nocturne, as well as multiple entries in the “Falcon” mystery series. “Homes” received sole credit upon the film’s release, though in his Film Comment article “The Past Rewritten”, Jeff Schwager read through all of the script variations and credits most of the film’s famously allusive dialogue to Fenton. Tourneur undoubtedly took a pass at it himself. As quoted in Chris Fujiwara’s The Cinema of Nightfall, interviewer Jean-Claude Biette claimed that Tourneur had “refused several times to shoot this crime film, whose script he didn’t like, until all the changes he wanted had been accepted.”

Poster - Out of the Past (1947)_04

The story circles around private detective Jeff Markham (Mitchum), who is hired by gang boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down the dame who shot him and made off with forty grand. He finds the culprit Kathie (Jane Greer), falls in love with her, and the couple drops out of sight. Their relationship disintegrates from a life on the lam, they split, and Markham goes straight, rebranding himself “Jeff Bailey” and opening a gas station. As the title indicates, Bailey is soon haunted by “Markham”, and pulled back into the poisonous web of Whit and Kathie.

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The shape of the project kept shifting. RKO attempted to convince Warners to loan out Bogart, but they claimed he was booked for the next year. Then the director-actor team of Edward Dmytryk and Dick Powell was announced, as they had collaborated on Murder, My Sweet (1944) a few years before. They ultimately settled on their young leading man Robert Mitchum, whose last starring part for RKO was West of the Pecos (1945), and the reliable Tourneur, whom RKO had worked profitably with on the Val Lewton-produced horror movies like Cat People. Each casting decision would change the texture and tenor of the film. As artists both Tourneur and Mitchum were crepuscular creatures, attracted to the dreaming hours (though there are key sun-drenched sequences in Out of the Past). Mitchum, with his hooded eyes and one-beat-too-late delivery, gave off an air of laziness, though he was remarkably present as an actor. Tourneur valued this, saying that Mitchum (and Dana Andrews) “knows how to listen in a scene. There are a large number of players who don’t know how to listen. Mitchum can be silent and listen to a five minute speech. You’ll never lose sight of him and you’ll understand that he takes in what is said to him, even if he doesn’t do anything. That’s how one judges good actors.”

Annex - Mitchum, Robert (Out of the Past)_04

Watching Out of the Past for the first time in years, I started to focus on entrances and exits, and the transitional way Tourneur and Musuruca light them. The most famous example is when Kathie is first introduced, walking into a Mexican cantina. There is a blazing white light outside the door, rendering her almost invisible. Her white dress and sun hat blend into this brightness, so when she walks into the shade of the alcove her silhouette seems to emerge out of nothingness. She is a phantom, or a figment of Jeff’s heat-addled mind. She is a transformative figure throughout the film, given more shadings of character than the usual Madonna-Whore of film noir. She is as secretive and withholding as Jeff, but both find an excuse to playact a love affair in Acapulco. Once back in the states, they can no longer hide their true natures. Kathie has a finely tuned survival instinct that trumps any of her repressed emotions. While Jeff’s seemingly embraces his own doom. Right after he says “I’m in a frame”, he walks right into the setup, hoping to outsmart the trap. But a man with a set of survival skills like Kathie’s would leave the scene, and change into yet another name. Jeff almost seems to savor his entrapment, or has long since been resigned to it. Mitchum responds to each revelation with equanimity, as if he expected it for years. Bodies drop all around him and he is left unperturbed. He is waiting for his own, and he will embrace it when the opportunity arises, fulfilling his anti-hero’s journey.


July 22, 2014


The Whistler…was one of the most terrifying screenplays I’d ever read. A little after midnight, I called [Harry] Cohn at home. ‘It’s horrific, Mr. Cohn…. Exactly what I’ve been waiting for…it’ll scare the shit out of audiences.’ -William Castle

The Museum of Modern Art has been transformed into a den of sin over the past month, as it plays host to Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932 – 1957, an iniquitous series which runs through August 4th. Cheap mass market criminality was the economic backbone of Columbia Pictures in the first decades of its existence, and organizers Dave Kehr and Joshua Siegel trace the studio’s movement from Agatha Christie-style whodunits to the bleak films noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. One of Cohn’s cost-saving gambits was to invest in feature series, in which sets and actors can be reused for an entire decade. This produced profitable reels in titles like The Lone Wolf, The Crime Doctor, and Boston Blackie. “Lady in the Dark” features four films from The Whistler, an unusual anthology-style crime series adapted from a popular CBS radio series of the same name (you can listen to them here). The only recurring character is the eponymous Whistler, a shadowy, cynical narrator who walks by night, and thus knows “many strange tales”. At the center of most of the stories is fading star Richard Dix (Oscar nommed for Cimarron (1931)) who appears in all but one of the eight Whistler features, always as a different character. He’s both anxiety-ridden victim and psychopathic murderer, his body-swapping lending the films a supernatural veneer when viewed in succession. William Castle directed half of these grim mysteries near the outset of his career. There is none of his later ballyhoo here. His compositions are as spare as the sets, and as empty as Richard Dix’s characters, who are always either courting or inviting death. The three I viewed in the series, presented in pristine prints courtesy of Grover Crisp at Sony Pictures, were The Whistler (1944), The Power of the Whistler (1945), and The Secret of the Whistler (1946).


“I am The Whistler. And I know many things for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak!” -intro to each iteration of The Whistler

In 1943 Harry Cohn was seeking a successor to Ellery Queen, Columbia’s detective series that cranked out ten features from 1935 – 1942. Noticing the popularity of the violent radio show, Cohn purchased the film rights to The Whistler  in ’43, and bequeathed production duties to Rudolph C. Flothow, who had recently completed the Columbia adventure serial The Phantom. Much of that same team came along on The Whistler, including cinematographer James S. Brown, Jr. and art director George Van Marter. To retain the flavor of the radio program, the show’s creator J. Donald Wilson contributed the story (Ellery Queen veteran Eric Taylor wrote the script). Wilson’s creation was more dark and adult-themed than some of the other radio hits like The Shadow. One of his stories entitled Retribution  “was a tale of revenge and murder involving an evil man who hacked up his wife and stepson in order to lay claim to their money.” That according to Dan Van Neste, who literally wrote the book on The Whistler film series.

The first feature has Dix play a grieving husband who schedules his own date with death. Terminally depressed following the tragic passing of his wife, which may or may not be his fault, Dix puts out a hit on himself. He puts out the contract through an interlocutor at a dingy seaside dive called The Crow’s Nest.  The payment is delivered by a deaf and dumb kid whose nose is forever buried in a Superman comic, foreshadowing the blindness of all the characters in this cruelly ironic tale. For one of the things The Whistler knows is that Dix’s wife is alive – and his attempts to call off his own murder put all of his family and friends in jeopardy. Especially when the hitman is a self-styled intellectual reading a book entitled, “Studies in Necrophobia”. He wants to use Dix as a test case for a new kind of murder – literally trying to scare him to death. The film was a sizable critical and commercial hit for a B-movie, garnering positive notices across the board, as the studio crows in this two page advertisement (click to enlarge):


This guaranteed more work for everyone involved.  The Power of the Whistler (1946) is a slow-burn thriller about an amnesiac who may or may not be a homicidal maniac. This entry, written by Aubrey Wisberg, exemplifies the storytelling ethos of the series, which is: give away as little information as possible. The idea was audiences would have to guess at whether Dix would end up hero or villain, alive or dead. The search for backstory becomes an active goal of the plot, instead of information dumped early on. So in The Power of the Whistler Dix and his latest twenty-something love interest criss-cross NYC (including a “bohemian” Greenwich Village cafe called The Salt Shaker) for clues to his identity. The film sustains this mystery for most of its running time, despite Dix’s penchant for leaving dead animals in his wake. Directed by the insanely prolific Lew Landers, The Power of the Whistler is littered with uncanny images. One is a reflection of a little girl in a taxicab mirror as she cradles her dead kitten, as Dix and his latest love interest move forward in their investigation of his past. Richard Dix is something of an ideal actor for these games, as at this point in his career there was something wounded and slow-moving about his performances. He had lost his matinee-idol looks as he entered his fifties (though The Whistler’s women beg to differ), a heaviness added to his face and his walk, giving him a blankness well suited to the series’ goal of motivational ambiguity.


The Secret of the Whistler (’46) begins with another example of the death drive. A primly dressed woman purchases a headstone from a finicky salesman, and puts her own name on the grave. In this entry, directed by former Republic Studios Mesquiteer wrangler George Sherman, Dix is suspected of being a wife-killer, although early on he only has dreams of being a philanderer. A frustrated artist, Dix is a painter, seemingly a kind of surrealist Henri Rousseau, going by the one picture on his wall, but by his peers he’s considered a hack who gets by on the largesse of his rich wife. His dreams of legitimacy lie in his infatuation with a young model, who sees him as a “pigeon”, or a guy with money who will come home to roost. Each uses the other for their own ends, until the forces loosed by their dissembling can no longer be contained, and the bullets start flying. Richard Dix had to stop performing in the series due to health reasons, so the final film in the series, The Return of the Whistler (1948), stars former bit player in the series, Michael Duane. With Dix’s absence, and as the demand for B-pictures dwindled, the Whistler’s macabre nighttime rambles came to an end (though it was revived on television a few years later). Dix died at the age of 56 in 1949.


June 10, 2014


Whenever I have a spare sixty-five minutes, I try and watch a movie by Edward L. Cahn. While he started out making well-regarded Westerns and crime films for Universal Pictures in the early  1930s, he was eventually demoted to short subjects for reasons unknown, and ended his career cranking out one-week quickies for producer Robert E. Kent, distributed through United Artists. He made eleven features in 1961, many of which were shot in his split-level home to save money. He passed away in 1963, reportedly from complications due to his diabetes. But over the course of his thirty-year career he directed 71 features and innumerable shorts, leaving behind a grimly deterministic body of work, evident even before he slid out of Universal’s favor. The bellboy murder witness in  Afraid to Talk (1932, aka Merry-Go-Round)  and the escaped convict in Laughter in Hell (1933) are doomed from the first shot – the rest of their movies are a low-lit explication of their inevitable fate.  His movies are best described from a line in When the Clock Strikes (1961). They are “like a door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.”

Cahn has received a bit more attention these days thanks to Dave Kehr’s column in the November/December 2011 issue of Film Comment magazine, and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s fascinating article on When the Clock Strikes for the Film Noir of the Week blog. Those should be your starting points if you wish to study the Edward L. Cahn sciences. I am taking a more patchwork approach at Movie Morlocks, writing up his features whenever I have a spare moment to watch them (I previously wrote about Laughter in Hell, You Have to Run Fastand a grab bag of noirs and Westerns). Many of the films Cahn made with Robert E. Kent are streaming in cropped versions on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Watching his movies in dodgy samizdat prints seems somehow appropriate to his checkered, cheap and vibrant career. Last week I sampled a feature Cahn romantic comedy, Redhead (1941, on Amazon Prime), and one of his bleaker noirs, When the Clock Strikes (1961, Hulu).


While he was churning out short subjects for MGM in the 1940s, Cahn found time to make a cheap romantic comedy for Poverty Row studio Monogram. It was an adaptation of Vera Brown’s 1933 novel, Redhead, which Monogram had adapted once before with director Melville Brown in 1934. Amazon lists Cahn’s version as 1934 (and IMDb has Cahn making the 1934 AND 1941 versions), but the authoritative American Film Institute catalog clearly indicates that Cahn directed only the 1941 iteration. The story is appropriately grim. Dale Carter (June Lang) is a former showgirl acquitted of murder, who is introduced peering over a cliff, contemplating suicide. It is only the drunken interjection of the newly disinherited playboy Ted Brown (Johnny Downs) that keeps her from making the leap. Ted had embarrassed his father one two many times with his inebriated escapades, and has been cut off from receiving family funds. He and Dale try to con his father out of some cash by faking a marriage, but instead the dad pays Dale to domesticate Ted. If she can make a man out of him, he’ll pay her ten grand.

Edward L. Cahn directs Judy Bamber in DRAGSTRIP GIRL

Cahn’s films are filled with false identities and histories, and he had much experience in re-inventing himself after he was mysteriously booted from his Universal contract. His characters are always trying the escape their true selves. Both Dale and Ted would prefer to forget themselves, so they build an entirely new life together. They buy a rundown roadside diner, building a business from the ground up. Ted gets a job as a steelworker to help pay the bills and drum up lunchtime business. Dale acts the contented housewife living the American dream. If they fake it long enough, their idea goes, maybe it will become real. Cahn captures a true sense of community between Ted, Dale and the factory town they serve. Ted’s former butler Digby (Eric Blore) is made an equal partner to help out behind the counter, flattening the class system that gave Ted his wealth. It’s the only real functional society in Cahn’s features, and it’s instructive that this is only possible because the main characters repress their pasts and invent their future. The truth is a waste of time.


No one is who they seem in When the Clock Strikes (1961), but unlike in Redhead, these facades are built not for a society but for individual greed. It was made for one of Robert E. Kent’s numerous production companies, this one called Harvard Film Corporation. Written by the improbably named Dallas Gaultois, it follows the guilt-wracked murder witness Sam Morgan (James Brown), who believes may have fingered the wrong man. Driving to implore the warden to halt the execution, he picks up a storm-soaked blonde by the side of the road. She turns out to be Ellie Pierce (Merry Anders), the wife of the convict headed for the noose. A tree falls and blocks the way to the prison. All they can do is wait at a seedy hotel, called Cady’s Lodge, and wait for the inevitable. Then there is the matter of a suitcase full of money, which twists everyone’s loyalties a little bit more.


In the elemental opening, Sam and Ellie are inside his car, under a wavering light meant to represent reflected rainfall. They speak in tortured existential argot, awaiting death. “-Are you lost or something? -Aren’t we all?” After the tree falls, blocking the path to the prison, Ellie utters the line about the “door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.” Their entire existence is posited as a forced march towards oblivion. And even more explicitly, Ellie says to Sam: “You sound like a man headed to the electric chair. -Aren’t we?” These exchanges, occurring beneath the undulating artificial light, have an uncanny alienating effect, as if the rest of the film is a foregone conclusion, and all that matters is the life-awaiting-death of this nightmarish car ride.


The film continues anyway, and suffice it to say Ellie isn’t who she claims to be, Sam will hit the bottle, and the proprietor (Henry Corden) of Cady’s Lodge is some kind of sociopath. “Everyone sets their watches to Cady’s clock”, the sheriff says, because Cady’s main business is in the execution trade. People swoop in on those evenings and drink to the killing hour, whether friends, enemies or lovers. Cady calls them “specs”, for spectators, and hovers over Ellie and Sam like a vampiric vulture, ready to feed off of their guilt and regret. There are plot twists and turns a plenty, repeated in mechanistic fashion. These are human husks with all emotion drained out of them. The ostensible happy ending is an absurd shift in tone that at first viewing nearly undermines everything that came before. But as Dixon writes in his appreciation of the film, their “positive” moral action occurs only out of self-preservation. A second before they were gleeful thieves. In the final shot they are back in the car, in a climactic clinch. But their embrace is awkward and posed, as if two embalmed corpses had their faces wrenched into a grin.


March 11, 2014


After Howard Hughes purchased RKO Pictures in 1948, the release slate was severely curtailed. Of the forty-nine features planned for 1949, only twelve were made, three of which were directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had started as a title writer at RKO’s Pathe News division, but had worked his way up to B-movie director, specializing in the dark crime tales later described as “film noir.” The influence of his brief reportorial experience is visible on the big screen, his thrillers notable for their detached, observational qualities, with the emphasis less on the individual cops and robbers but on the routines and processes that feed their institutions. His three RKO features in ’48 were The Clay Pigeon (an amnesiac mystery), Follow Me Quietly (a serial killer procedural) and Make Mine Laughs (a collection of filmed vaudeville bits co-directed with Hal Yates). His work evaded Hughes’ attention, with Fleischer receiving “no interference from anyone” that year, though his luck would run out soon. He completed his most famous noir, The Narrow Margin, in 1950, though Hughes would delay its release until ’52 (he was hoping to remake it with bigger stars). Witnessing the constricting impact Hughes was having on RKO, Fleischer rented out his services to Eagle-Lion, an even lower-budgeted concern that was originally a distribution arm for British productions. Trapped is the fourth Fleischer film from 1949, the story of an imprisoned counterfeiter (Lloyd Bridges) who pretends to turn informer to secure his freedom. It’s Eagle-Lion’s attempt to recreate the financial success of their own 1947 hit T-Men, directed by Anthony Mann. It screened last weekend at Anthology Film Archives in NYC, part of a Fleischer retrospective programmed by critics Nicolas Rapold and Nick Pinkerton, part of their Overdue series on neglected films.


Eagle-Lion was founded in 1946 by British movie impresario J. Arthur Rank and railroad tycoon Robert Young to expand distribution of their respective production concerns. Rank wanted more stateside exposure for his veritable monopoly of British features, and Young was seeking worldwide distribution for his Poverty Row outfit PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation). Eagle-Lion would distribute Rank’s pictures in the U.S., while Rank would facilitate getting Young’s movies into Europe and points east. The stateside operation was managed by Arthur Krim (later of United Artists), who fostered a secondary B-movie unit as an additional income stream to the Rank-Young films. His first slate of releases flopped, which Krim attributed to their investment in big name actors. His explanation, as quoted in Tino Balio’s United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry:

We made mistakes the first year by taking on players who added nothing to the box office. As a result, we made films that were costlier than they had to be because we wanted names. Later, we learned these names meant little or nothing when the film reached theatres.

Another unstated difficulty was getting their movies into theaters in the first place. The antitrust Paramount Decision was still a year away, so the big studios still owned their theaters, making it nigh-impossible to get independent productions on a critical mass of screens. In response, Krim continued to cut costs and experiment. Balio writes that, “beginning with the 1947-48 season, Eagle-Lion shifted from a studio system form of production to a hybrid type of independent production.” Head of production Bryan Foy resigned to become an independent producer for the company. They would no longer fully finance features, but instead split the costs (and the profits) with the producers. As part of the shake-up, the PRC line was folded into that of Eagle-Lion, to shed any Poverty Row associations. Krim then recruited independent producers, and in addition to Foy, lured the highly respected Edward Small (The Man in the Iron Maskand Walter Wanger (Scarlet Street).


These producers needed to work miracles. Without stars or much of a budget (they varied between $350 – $650,000), they had to crank out features that would scan as “A” titles and net high rental fees from the big theater chains. Krim:  “The nerves and ingenuity of our production departments are being taxed to the extreme.” It was a doomed enterprise from the start, but they did manage some resourceful successes. One of the biggest was Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947), which looked like a million bucks thanks to John Alton’s dizzying chiaroscuro lighting that swirls around two undercover Treasury Department investigators. It made $1.6 million on a $424,000 budget, though Eagle-Lion was only entitled to 25% of the profits.


Seeking to mimic that film’s success, Trapped was put into production in 1949 by Bryan Foy, with a similar docu-drama setup. The scenario was written by Earl Felton, who also collaborated with Fleischer on Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952). It opens with newsreel footage of the Treasury Department and sheaves of freshly printed bills getting sliced up at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Though used as a cheap way to eat up screen time and give off the odor of official authority, these images also set up Fleischer’s unobtrusive style. The stylistic experiments of Mann and Alton render T-Men’s documentary trappings absurd, while for Fleischer it’s more representative of his approach. Both counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges) and the army of investigators on his tail are machine-like in their relentless pursuit of their goals. Tris wants to get to Mexico with his girl Laurie (Barbara Payton), and will stoop to any dirty tricks to make his play. The early scenes consist of a series of reversals before the plot proper begins, setting up the story as a performative game; who wins is the one who acts their role most convincingly. Within a few scenes Tris is an inmate, a snitch, an escapee, and an undercover agent, and then goes on the lam for good. Bridges plays Tris as a jittery hotfoot who has learned how to control his clattering energies. He would calm them even more for his slick sociopath in 1950′s Try and Get Me.


The strait-laced investigator Foreman (Robert Karnes) is easily deceived by Tris’ illusion of collusion. He orchestrates a fake escape, expecting Tris to help him infiltrate his old mob in exchange for a reduced sentence. Instead he gets coldcocked and Tris returns to slinging fake bills. Tris can only be felled by a fellow performer -and he is deceived by the superior turn of John Downey (John Hoyt), an agent going undercover as a small-time con man. Downey fronts the real money for Tris to set up a big counterfeit cash score, in order to follow the dirty bills to their source. Fleischer frequently gets his DP Guy Roe to set the camera low on the studio floor, getting the audience down to scum level. There is an elaborate bit of business during a sting operation, when it’s not only Downey performing a role, but the entire investigative team. Foreman is an unconvincing grocer painting his storefront, puttering interminably over his sign, while the rest of the team mows lawns and unloads trucks. The operation fails as the sale of counterfeit goods never goes through.

For the criminals it was a dry run, a rehearsal, while the cops thought it was opening night. It is only Downey’s convincing portrayal of criminal reality that can net Tris and his counterfeiting network. And just as Downey replaced Foreman on the side of the law, once Tris gets collared the plot shifts to follow the escape route of Jack Sylvester, the printer of the fake tender. The individuals are unimportant in Fleischer’s noir worlds, they are just more blood to flow through the networks of crime and punishment.

The most elaborate moves Fleischer allows himself take place in the climax, set in a trolley car garage, in which Sylvester traverses all of the angles at his disposal. He starts at eye-level, sneaking through the empty carapaces of the cars themselves, then finds himself crawling like a beetle underneath the rail floor, before finally emerging on top of a train. There he can cop a hero’s pose an an extreme low angle, until his grand performance ends in ashes back on the ground.


March 4, 2014

variety81-1925-12_0278George Raft started out on his toes, dubbed the “The Fastest Charleston Dancer” in a 1925 issue of Variety. That agility never quite carried over to the big screen, but the maniacal focus did. Note that he was the “fastest”, not the most graceful or technically sound. He was there to get a job done quickly. He became a star as a hired goon in Scarface (1932), obsessively flipping that coin of his. It was a bit of business director Howard Hawks requested Raft to master, so he did with machine-like efficiency, reflecting the soullessness of his killer. With this breakout role, and his real-life palling around with mobsters (he counted Bugsy Siegel as a friend), Raft was typecast as a gangster, whereupon he became one of the most popular actors of the 1930s. As the 40s progressed his star began to dim, and he took on projects that might shake up his persona, including two films noir that Warner Archive has just released on DVD: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949). Both are flawed, fascinating works in which Raft’s deliberate style is adapted to ostensibly heroic ends. One expects one of Raft’s Lieutenants or vengeful brothers to go full sociopath, but they remain stubbornly on the straight and narrow.


The advertising plays up Raft’s psychopathic persona – “Raft on a Rampage!” – though in the film he is more of a mild-mannered obsessive. Nocturne was producer Joan Harrison’s first assignment at RKO. A former secretary for Alfred Hitchcock, she eventually became one of his closest collaborators as a screenwriter (Rebecca, Suspicion) and a producer (Alfred Hitchcock Presents). One of the only female producers in Hollywood, she started her production career auspiciously with two Robert Siodmak films for Universal (Phantom Lady and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry). The director was prolific B-director Edwin L. Marin (he is credited with four other features in 1946), with a script by pulp novelist Jonathan Latimer, who would later pen the noir staples The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal.


A composer and notorious lothario is found dead in his Hollywood Hills home, and looks very much like a suicide. The only clue is an unfinished composition called “Nocturne”, dedicated to “Dolores”. The lead investigator is ready to close the case as a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but Lieutenant Joe Warne (Raft) refuses to let it go, intent on proving it as murder. He pursues the case with an obsessiveness that threatens his job security, as he oversteps any number of departmental codes. Warne proceeds anyway, convinced that one of the victim’s many girlfriends, all of whom he nicknamed “Dolores”, might hold the secret to his demise. It’s a role that puts Raft on the right side of the law, but makes use of his persona of cold calculation. Raft, never the most charismatic performer, here seems to embrace a minimalist, utilitarian kind of performance. He speaks in low monotonal bursts, anticipating the impersonal “just the facts ma’am” approach of Dragnet which would appear five years later.

Latimer’s script doesn’t have the staccato tempo of the show, depending instead on repetitive plotting in which Warne tracks down the women from the many portraits in the composer’s home. These scenes border on the tedious, even though Latimer does have a gift for dialogue (“You can never depend on girls named Dolores”). Raft still intrigues, though, by his refusal to emote. It’s something of an anti-performance.


Director Marin is equally anonymous, but pulls off one brilliant shot in the opening. It begins with a mockup of the Hollywood Hills, with a miniature cliff-side cantilevered mansion set off against a matte of the skyline. The camera cranes slowly towards the house, rear projection depicting the back of a man at his piano. The shot continues into the living room via an invisible matching cut as the camera crosses the threshold, from special effect artifice to what passes as reality. The movement continues in a semi-circle around the pianist, settling below him, and revealing a woman hidden in shadow on a couch in the far background. The shot travels miles of diegetic space in a minute, the kind of faked mobility that David Fincher achieves through CG means in his snaking air vent shots in Panic Room.


Red Light has more of a talent pedigree behind it, with Roy Del Ruth as producer/director and frequent John Ford cinematographer Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Wagon Master). Even the second unit had talent, with Robert Aldrich as its Assistant Director. I know Del Ruth only from his Warner Brothers pre-codes, so seeing “Roy Del Ruth Productions” slapped at the head of the credits had me expecting something snappy. It starts with a bang, as inmates Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan plot to kill a priest while inside a flickering prison projection booth,  but it ends as a rather lugubrious exercise in divine intervention. It was to be the last of three films for Roy Del Ruth Productions, following the cheerier It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) and The Babe Ruth Story (1948). At this point Raft was deep into the downswing of his career, and battling to reframe himself as something of a hero. Compared to Nocturne he is downright chipper here (he even smiles!), playing the vengeful brother of the murdered priest.

Again it’s in the form of a procedural, as Raft believes that his brother wrote the name of the killer in the Gideon Bible in his hotel room. It has gone missing, and Raft tracks down every other occupant of the room in search of it. One of them is Virginia Mayo, who is, “about as chummy as Leo Durocher with an umpire”, according to a hotel clerk. Raft wants an eye for an eye, but Del Ruth and screenwriter George Callahan have a curious interpretation of the bible. They interpret the “Vengeance is Mine” of  Romans 12:19 to mean that if you require your enemies to suffer a violent death, you should lower your weapon because God will kill him off for you.


It’s a bizarre interpretation of the text, and the final third of the movie comes under the sway of this activist, Old Testament God. Up until that point it is a conventional policier, enlivened by Raft’s engaged performance and Glennon’s grandiose chiaroscuro. This is a dark movie, as Glennon experiments with all manner of shadowy shapes. There are company logos splayed on walls, ceiling fans dissecting diner patrons and a chain link fence imprisoning a face about to confront death. Every shot has some dark shape indicating doom. This reaches its manic peak on the runway of a blinking neon 24-Hour Service billboard, on which the deciding shootout takes place. Constantly flickering between light and dark, Raft battles with his conscience on whether to plug Burr or let God sort him out. He opts for the latter, and ends in the light. But Raft’s career excelled in the shadows, in maniacs and coin-flipping brutes. His career continued to sputter, and by the end of the 1950s he was playing off his old bad-guy rep as a greeter at a Cuban casino operated by Meyer Lansky.


October 1, 2013


We associate film noir with cramped urban spaces, labyrinthine warrens of crime and vice. This slipperiest of genres, identified by French film critics years after its demise, also gained resonance by departing from the city and hitting the road. Often this takes the form of a last ditch attempt at salvation, as in the transition from city to country in On Dangerous Ground, when Robert Ryan’s cop finds humanity in the dead eyes of Ida Lupino. Olive Films recently released two curiously located 1950s noirs, the beachside diner of Shack Out on 101 (1955) and the highway heist film Plunder Road (1957). Both dispense their pleasures through their constrained locales, the first taken place almost entirely in a shabby eatery, the second inside a getaway truck. The first veers towards absurdist humor while the second is a straight-faced procedural, but both display how the noir ingredients could be combined in an endless variety of ways, and that there are always discoveries to be made in even this most picked over of genres.


Shack Out on 101 is a delirious red scare item directed and written by one Edward Dein. It was his first English language feature, having only directed the English dub tracks on a couple of Spanish movies. He started out as a screenwriter for Poverty Row outfit Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), and went on to write for RKO and Universal, his most notable credit for “additional dialogue” on Jacques Tourneur’s classic creeper The Leopard Man (1943). He hooked up with Allied Artists (formerly Monogram Pictures) for Shack, which he co-wrote with his wife Mildred. It’s a bizarre mix of Clifford Odets “realism” and hysterical McCarthy-era red-baiting, highlighted by a loose-limbed performance by a young Lee Marvin.

The movie focuses on a dingy seaside diner, owned by middle-aged manager George (Keenan Wynn), who carries a torch for his bite-sized blonde bombshell waitress Kotty (Terry Moore). She only has eyes for regular customer Sam (Frank Lovejoy), a nuclear scientist running experiments at a lab down the coast. All of them are harassed by line cook “Slob” (Marvin), a boorish pervert who just might also be a Soviet spy.


The overheated tone is established in the opening shot, in which Kotty is splayed out in her two-piece bathing suit on an abandoned beach, her body ogled by Dein’s camera with leering prurience. In the distance, a figure slowly walks forward into focus. It’s Slob, who bends down and lathers on a sloppy kiss to her revolted face. Dein and DP Floyd Crosby (High Noon) is always shoving Slob into backgrounds and skulking in corners, a creature more than a man. If he emerges into the foreground, disaster is sure to follow. The opening sequence rhymes with one of the climactic sequences, a deep focus composition in which Marvin’s head is in the far background behind the kitchen counter, while Kotty blabs her suspicions over the phone in close-up. His slow approach next to her will shift the film into a more violent phase. Marvin oozes bad intentions, his body an uncontrollable herky-jerk of flapping limbs, as if he can’t control the hurt he is about the unleash.

Set almost entirely inside the diner, it’s overtly theatrical, and early one it feels like a kitchen sink comedy about George’s unrequited love of Kotty. There are some touching moments here, including George trying to enumerate why he should feel happy to be alive. His ex-GI friend reminds him of their tour at D-Day, where he, ” still remembered how choppy the channel looked through your chest.” This greasy spoon looks like heaven in comparison. These offhand character moments clash with the broad comedy, including a pantomimed scuba diving bit, and an uproarious weightlifting scene between George and Slob before opening the joint. Comparing pecs and calves, this extended bit of delusional beefcake ends with the shirtless duo comparing legs with Kotty (she wins). By the time the conspiracy mechanics kick in it’s hard to take it seriously, and it seems Dein felt the same way, as the various subterfuges make little sense, as if he were poking a little fun at the rise of Commie-hunting.


Plunder Road aims for a complete lack of subtext, for a simplicity of procedural presentation. A group of failed professionals (a race car driver, a stunt man) rip off the U.S. Mint in a bold rain-soaked train heist. After this elaborate opener, the movie splits off into four, following each getaway car as it races for freedom to the Mexico border. There is no exposition, only action. Director Hubert Cornfield is concerned only with the mechanics of the crime, and how the roads eventually swallow all of them up. The opening credit sequence, designed by Bob Gill, consist of an extreme close-up of white road markings speeding by. The idea is that the mechanical advancements that allowed this robbery to take place will also inexorably take them all down.

In order to pull off the job they need a crane and a highly unstable explosive that they transport in a spring-loaded trailer, a nod to Wages of Fear (1953). But this technological ingenuity will also trap them on their escape routes. Everything from a police scanner to a weighing station will give them away. The film, while not well known outside of noir aficianado circles, has been studied by those interested in urban planning, as the ironic finale finds the remaining heisters stuck in snarled traffic in the newly built Harbor Freeway, which ran from Los Angeles to San Pedro and points south. Released a year and a half after the passage of the legislation which created the interstate highway system, UC Irvine Professor Edward Dimendberg found Plunder Road to be a an “allegory of that epochal event.” That is, the federal government’s creation of these interstate highways restricts personal freedom in this film, because they aid the police in oversight and collaboration in setting up roadblocks. But there is also the highway’s failure to circulate traffic as it was intended – it is one of these snarled traffic jams that ultimately trip up the bandits. An old gas station attendant reminisces to one of the robbers, before knowing who he is speaking to, about the old days when gangsters could get away with robberies like theirs, before “radio” and modern detection technologies made it impossible. Seen through this lens, as well as being a tautly produced heist film, it’s a statement on the efficacy of federal intervention, and the existential dread that intervention instills in anti-authoritarian American souls.



August 6, 2013


Second-tier actor Mark Stevens directed two first-rate film noirs in the 1950s, Cry Vengeance (1954) and Timetable (1956). Made when his acting career was in decline, these are self-lacerating works in which Stevens casts himself as a physically and morally disfigured criminal, as if doing penance for his Hollywood failures. In both films America is a prison his characters are desperate to escape, a repository of the fearful past. The destinations of his flight take on symbolic weight, from the vertiginous heights of Ketchikan, Alaska in Cry Vengeance (shot on location), to the neon claustrophobia of the studio Tijuana in Timetable. Stevens, a former handsome romantic lead, plays his obsessives with bitter quietude, his delivery a strangled monotone, as if he is devouring his own charisma. These are strikingly melancholy works made in near anonymity for Allied Artists (formerly known as Poverty Row studio Monogram), and thanks to Olive Films Cry Vengeance is now available in an appropriately funereal B&W Blu-ray. Timetable is in public domain hell, and is viewable in various samizdat versions on YouTube.


Born Richard William Stevens in Cleveland, his name was changed to Stephen Richards as a contract player for Warner Brothers. Most able-bodied men were enlisted to fight in WWII, but Stevens had long-time back problems that exempted him, stemming from a diving accident that incapacitated him for months as a teen. It bothered him all his life, lending his motions a stuttered, tortured quality appropriate to noir heroes. He gained his modicum of fame after he jumped to 20th Century Fox. It was there that Daryl Zanuck dubbed him “Mark Stevens”, and his short-lived career as a leading man began, from Henry Hathaway’s noir The Dark Corner (1946) to the Oscar-nominated melodrama The Snake Pit (1948). They also tried him in light musicals (Oh You Beautiful Doll (’49)), but they  released him from his contract in 1950. Hathaway blamed The Dark Corner’s box office failure on Stevens, saying he, “never quite cut it. Too arrogant, cocksure.” Once one of the top ten actors “Most Likely To Achieve Stardom” in a 1946 Motion Picture Herald poll, Stevens had to take whatever work was available. In the early ’50s he moved on to a few mid-budgeted action-adventures at Columbia and Universal-International before he finally went bust at the big studios, and had to move into the independents, while expanding his work in TV. He nabbed a starring role in the short-lived ABC series News Gal (1951), and went on to a prolific career on the small screen, from the newspaper drama Big Town (1954 – 1956, which he also produced) all the way to guest spots on Magnum P.I. and Murder She Wrote.


He acted in two films for Allied Artists before becoming a director, the cheap Korean War drama Torpedo Alley (1952), directed by the insanely prolific Lew Landers, and the vigilante Western Jack Slade (1953). It was through these productions that Stevens met producers Lindsley Parsons and John H. Burrows, who gave him the opportunity to direct. Production began on Cry Vengeance in September 1954 at the KTTV studios in Los Angeles. Location photography would be shot in San Francisco and Ketchikan, Alaska. The script by Warren Douglas and George Bricker involves former police detective Vic Barron (Stevens), released from a three-year jail stint after being framed for taking bribes. He was set up after pursuing mobster Tino Morelli (Douglas Kennedy), and lost his wife and child in a car bomb, along with half his face. He is hell-bent on revenge. Horrifically scarred, Vic is a tense ball of hatred, his first act as a free man to purchase a revolver at the local pawn shop.


He is a ghost to his old friends in San Francisco, speaking in mono-syllables with a stooped, mechanical gait. Their sympathy clangs off his rigid exterior until he starts throwing haymakers to escape their impotent pity. The thrum of San Francisco is replaced by the chill of Alaska, as Vic tracks Morelli north, hiding as a single father in the small fishing town of Ketchikan, aping the movement of city to country in Nicholas Ray’s noir On Dangerous Ground (1952). The entrance from the airport into town is a vertiginous wooden walkway emblazoned with chamber of commerce ads like “Salmon Capital of the World”. It is a neighborly small town, where even the bar owner Peggy (Martha Hyer) is a conscientious community member. Even Morelli is softened by the ocean air, going so domestic even his hired goon has turned into a modified babysitter for his little girl.

But the past is never past, and so bleach-haired killer Roxey (a serpentine Skip Homeier) stalks into town with addled floozy Lily (Joan Vohs) in tow, ready to rub out Vic and Morelli for fun and profit. Vic is courting death, whether his own or Morelli’s, he doesn’t seem to care. Walking with tin man stiffness in the natural light of Alaska, he sees Roxey as another unnatural man with a similar talent for self-destruction, so they test each other’s gift for annihilation in a perilous chase up through a paper mill, higher and higher into obliteration.


In Timetable (1956) Stevens plays an outwardly adjusted American male, but who is inwardly even more twisted than Vic. For this film Stevens set up his own production company, Mark Stevens Productions, of which Timetable is the only result (while commonly known as Time Table, the AFI Catalog notes that “All available contemporary sources” list the title as one word, which I will follow). Mark Fertig discovered the fate of this venture in his extensively researched profile of Stevens in Noir City:

Mark Stevens Productions was formed in 1955, with huge plans: there was to be a filmed version of the dark western novel Feud at Five Rivers, a new primetime series for future Mister Ed star Alan Young, and a pilot based on the radio drama The Mysterious Traveler, set for Vincent Price. Stevens also expanded into the music business, launching Mark Stevens Music (publishing), Mark Records (distribution), and Marelle Productions (retail). None of the ventures panned out — Mark Stevens Productions officially brought just one film to theaters, Time Table(though at times Stevens claimed others, including Cry Vengeance and The Bitter Ride). All four companies crashed within a year when, as described in a Twentieth Century Fox press release for the 1964 film Fate is the Hunter, “outside management of his company forced him into bankruptcy.”

Timetable‘s Charlie Norman is close to Stevens’ heart – a hard-working striver stuck in middle-management who eventually gives up and leaves for foreign lands. Norman is an insurance investigator who goes rogue to mastermind a train payroll heist before lighting out for Tijuana. Stevens is a frustrated actor and director who eventually leaves Hollywood for Majorca, spending his days running restaurants and his nights cranking out adventure novels. He even told Los Angeles Times in 1956 that, “I don’t like to act, I’m not a very good actor and I’m not kidding myself about it.”


It is this self-doubt and makes Stevens such a riveting performer in Cry Vengeance and Timetable, a sense of exhaustion perfectly apt for his profoundly alienated characters. Norman has what seems to be the ideal American life – a solid job and a doting wife in the big city, but it is all a fragile facade. The film begins with a bravura heist sequence, one we are led to believe Norman is investigating. But less than thirty minutes into the film he is revealed to be the architect of the robbery. His reason, he later tells his astonished wife, is that “The house becomes a prison, the job a trap.” For Mark Stevens acting became his prison, and Cry Vengeance and Timetable are a bracing ventilation of all of his resentments toward his chosen art.


April 30, 2013

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As May approaches, the film world turns its eyes to the Cannes Film Festival, which will host world premiere screenings from the likes of Jia Zhangke and Alexander Payne at its Grand Théâtre Lumière. I, however, will be celebrating the Edward L. Cahn Film Festival, taking place on my mustard stained IKEA couch in Brooklyn. No accreditation was necessary aside from an active Netflix account, and travel time was limited to trips to the bathroom. Cahn, born in Brooklyn, was a promising director of incendiary corruption dramas at Universal (Afraid to Talk, Laughter in Hell) before spinning his wheels for MGM short subjects in the late ’30s. He re-emerged as a pathologically prolific director of B-Westerns and gangster films in the 1950s, at AIP and the various companies of Robert E. Kent. Seventeen of these grim 1950s features are available to stream on Netflix, but all are due to expire from the service tomorrow [UPDATE: only OKLAHOMA TERRITORY and IT, THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE expired, the other 15 were renewed], along with almost 1,000 other titles. So I attempted to watch Cahn’s films with as much speed and urgency as he made them.


I began with The Music Box Kid (1960), a thinly veiled bio of Dutch Schulz, mob boss of the Bronx in the 1920s and 30s. Here he’s called Larry Shaw, and played by professional handsome man Ron Foster, who would later land a recurring role on the soap Guiding Light. He exaggerates his natural vanity into a monstrous maw of need, his hawk-like features pecking approval out of people. He tells his wife he is an insurance salesman, one of many double-lives led by Cahn characters, who are constantly throwing up false identities. Interior lives are more colorful than exterior ones in his movies, which take place exclusively in under-furnished office spaces and living rooms, this result of low budgets emphasizing the transitory nature of these thugs. Each room looks newly moved into, and just as easily could be left.

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Foster plays a similar character in Cage of Evil (1960), although he starts out on the right side of the law. Scott Harper is an aggressive detective assigned to a jewelry robbery, first seen beating an innocent witness for his spotty memory. A chain-smoking skittish type, his cigarettes seem to act as vents to keep him from blowing his top. After he’s passed over for a promotion, even the smokes can’t temper his anger and he flips, drawing up a scheme to snag the jewels for himself and the impassive blonde he’s been investigating (Patricia Blair). More unstable than Larry Shaw, Harper is incapable of maintaining his double life for long, resorting to panicked spasms of violence that inevitably boomerang against his own vulnerable body.

Mamie Van Doren is the duplicitous vulnerable body in Vice Raid (1960), a Detroit prostitute flown into NYC to entrap a Vice cop (Richard Coogan). Van Doren was a Marilyn Monroe clone who had descended the Hollywood ladder from star player with Universal all the way down to Poverty Row and Kent’s Imperial Pictures. She was joined by former ace studio DP Stanley Cortez, who had gone from lensing the deep focus marvels of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons to the flat planes of Vice Raid and, later that same year, Dinosaurus!. The first meeting between Van Doren and Coogan is the purest representation of Cahn’s films in this period. Vice cop Coogan is undercover as a photographer in a dingy hotel room, hoping to lure her into making an indecent proposal. Van Doren has an act of her own, as the faux-innocent whore waiting to get collared so she can later accuse him of abuse. It’s a roundelay of false fronts, their characters as fake as the flimsy hotel set.


As Dave Kehr wrote, where Cahn’s crime films are personal, his Westerns are perfunctory, but strange continuities still emerged in my marathon viewing. One of the haunting set-pieces of Laughter in Hell (1933) is the death-by-hanging of a group of Black prisoners, and lynching recurs as a theme, although in the post-code 1950s, racial difference has been eroded from view. There is a thwarted lynching in the rote courtroom drama Oklahoma Territory (1960), but it becomes the central image of Noose for a Gunman (1960). Case Britton (Jim Davis) is introduced as destined for hanging. The first shot is of a noose in extreme close-up to the left, with Britton riding slowly into focus at the right. As he passes by there is a sign nailed to the tree, “Reserved for Case Britton”. The town has marked him for death, the latest in Cahn’s corrupted cities. This one is controlled by rich landowner Carl Avery (Barton MacLane), who had Britton’s son killed five years before. By the end the town is overrun by outlaws and close to dissolution. Only Britton and his friend Jim (Harey Carey, Jr.) can save it from oblivion. In one offhand moment, as the friends are gathered by a hotel door, Carey grabs his left bicep with his right. It is the same gestural tic that his father performed as a silent Western star, and made famous by John Wayne at the end of The Searchers. Here it is just a silent tribute from son to father, in a programmer lost to history but found in Netflix.

Cahn’s reputation will never fully revive until his 1930s work is made available, but his Robert E. Kent productions are addictive, relentless exercises in deglamorization. America becomes a succession of drab flophouses and emptied out apartments, populated by shadows eager to erase their selves for a shot at the good life. Hope to see you next year at the Cahn Film Festival 2014. I can comfortably seat three, and it looks like Amazon Prime still has plenty of his work on offer. See you then.


November 6, 2012

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In 1946 the German emigre Robert Siodmak directed a trio of brooding hits that lifted his Hollywood pay grade from programmers to prestige pics, earning him a rare share of fame for a  director of the period. The creepy slasher The Spiral Staircase was a hit in February, his noir adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers made headlines in August, and October brought the finely wrought psychological thriller The Dark Mirror. In ’47 he would receive a lengthy profile in LIFE magazine that makes proto-auteurist arguments while stating he was “just moving into the front rank of his profession.” The first two titles are ensconced as classics of their genres, and have long been available on home video, but  The Dark Mirror has been elusive until Olive Films released a a sharp looking Blu-ray/DVD in September. Capitalizing on the spike in interest in clinical psychology following WWII, it winds together a traditional whodunit with a case study of a paranoiac, filmed with endless images of reflections and doublings by Siodmak.

LIFE reporter Donald Marshman attributes Siodmak’s sudden success to his ability to tap into “Hollywood’s profound postwar affection for morbid drama”. What Marshman calls “morbid drama” would later be termed film noir, but The Dark Mirror fits either term. In Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay of an Oscar nominated story by Vladimir Pozner, Olivia de Havilland stars in a dual role as Terry and Ruth Collins, identical twin sisters implicated in the murder of a prominent physician. While witnesses swear they spotted one of the sisters exiting the murdered doctor’s apartment building, it is impossible to determine which Collins girl they saw, and thus they are impossible to prosecute.  Lt. Stevenson (a brilliant Thomas Mitchell) refuses to bow to their apparent perfect crime, and asks psychologist and “twin expert” Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) to study them for clues to their personalities. Elliott reluctantly agrees, and is soon falling in love with one, while suspecting the other might be a ravening lunatic.

Using effective optical printing work, de Havilland is able to play the two characters in the same frame without recourse to too many clunky back-of-head shots of body doubles. The gimmickry is mostly invisible, thanks to DP Milton Krasner and effects photographers J. Devereaux Jennings and Paul Lerpae. De Havilland’s subtle performances build on their efforts by instilling both sisters with shades of instability. Ruth is an innocent, both kind and weak, close to breaking down upon the first interrogation by Stevenson. Terry is forthright and aggressive, with an acerbic sense of humor. It is a matter of de Havilland softening or hardening her gaze, and this allows enough certainty for Siodmak to wring suspense out of Elliott’s psychiatric investigation. The two women circle each other in their spare apartment as mutual resentments build, Siodmak blocking the De Havillands like two demented tigers in a cage. Dr. Elliott does not engage them in a Freudian talking cure – no delving into the unconscious here – but a kind of investigative diagnosis, using Rorschach and polygraph tests until they reveal their true selves. Psychology is presented as simply another police tool, which the Lieutenant is eager to profit from, regardless of his potshots at Elliott’s taste in music and interior design.

Lew Ayres is interesting casting, because it was his first performance in four years, after he had declared himself a conscientious objector during WWII and was confined to an internment camp. He later relented, changing his status to “non-combatant” and serving in the Army Medical Corps. His career suffered due to this radically pacifist stance, working sporadically in features before a long career on TV. But as a man, and an image, of progressive principle, Ayres brings a sense of gravitas to this relentlessly logical character, a stereotypically tweedy intellectual, but with spine.

As impressive as the performances are in this film, and I haven’t had time to detail the blustery greatness of Thomas Mitchell, it is Siodmak’s direction that causes LIFE’s Marshman to swoon, and to even write an early version of the auteur theory, which Francois Truffaut at Cahiers du Cinema wouldn’t codify until his 1954 essay “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”. Marshman writes in 1947:

Movie-making is a cooperative effort that can add up to nothing if one of the four principals [writers, actors, producers, directors] muffs his assignment. In a sense however, the director is the key man on the job, for his function is peculiar to the movies. The director personifies the only gadget which makes motion pictures a more glittering and fascinating and understandable form of entertainment and (sometimes) of art than any other. This is the camera, an instrument so fluid that it can believably transport an audience from a moldy temple at Angkor Wat to Grand Central Station in a single dissolve. …Movie directing is a specialized art, far removed even from something so closely related as directing a play.

This is a remarkable statement endorsing the director’s role as one exclusive to film, and is a more nuanced argument for the auteur theory (allowing that it is a collaborative art form) than the more polemical statement issued by Truffaut seven years later.

The Dark Mirror displays the “glittering and fascinating” possibilities of the art form through Siodmak and his production team’s ability to refresh a traditional whodunit with the language of postwar psychology, one in which the killer is revealed not through gunshots but by an inflection in De Havilland’s quavering voice.