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Monthly Archives: January 2010

Cornered (Dec. 25, 1945)

Cornered was director Edward Dmytryk’s second film to star Dick Powell. Powell was a boyish crooner and star of musical comedies who made a 180 degree turn into hard-boiled noir territory at the age of 39 when he played detective Philip Marlowe in Dmytryk’s film Murder, My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. Powell jumped into his new, hard-boiled persona with both feet. Between the two films, Powell started appearing every week on the Mutual Broadcasting System as private investigator Richard Rogue in the radio series Rogue’s Gallery. The series was mostly standard P.I. fare, but it featured one unique element; every time Rogue was knocked out (which was nearly every episode) he’d drift off to “Cloud Eight,” where his alter ego, a little white-bearded gnome named “Eugor,” would taunt him, occasionally dropping a clue for Rogue to pick up on later, when he’d regained consciousness.

Cornered has no fanciful elements like that one, and the devil-may-care charm Powell exhibited in Murder, My Sweet has been completely done away with. In Cornered he plays a broken man who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

When we first meet Flight Lieutenant Laurence Gerard (Powell), an RCAF pilot, he is in London, receiving £551 back pay for the time he spent as a P.O.W. His next stop is a passport office, where he seeks passage to France. He wants to settle his wife Celeste’s estate. She was a French citizen, and they were married during the German occupation. When Gerard is told that all passports to the continent require investigation, and that it will take at least a month to clear, he walks out of the office without saying another word. In the next scene, he is alone in a rowboat, crossing the English Channel. When he sees land, he chops a hole in the hull, sinks the boat, and swims to shore.

In a muddy French town that is mostly rubble, Gerard meets with Etienne (Louis Mercier), a former resistance leader, and Celeste’s father. Gerard demands to know who is responsible for her death, and who betrayed her. “If there was any betrayal, I betrayed her, by fathering her in a century of violence,” Etienne tells him. Gerard doesn’t accept this circumspect response, and vows to hunt down the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac, who ordered the killing of Celeste and several other members of the resistance. Jarnac supposedly died in a fire, but Gerard refuses to believe he is dead. He sets out with a single goal; to kill Jarnac.

Gerard follows Jarnac’s trail to Buenos Aires, and it is there that most of the film takes place. As soon as Gerard steps off the plane, he is approached by a fat man in a white suit. This man, Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), is an operator with no clear allegiances. Gerard is quickly drawn into a world where no one is what they seem. Former Nazis and their collaborators have fled to Buenos Aires, biding their time until the next great war, while a loose-knit, clandestine organization seeks to root them out. Incza introduces Gerard to Jarnac’s wife (or possibly widow), Mme. Madeleine Jarnac (Micheline Cheirel), and even her loyalties are unclear.

While it may sound like a globe-trotting adventure film, Cornered is really a claustrophobic film noir with healthy doses of paranoia and tension. The script, by John Paxton (with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht), from a story by John Wexley, takes a run-of-the-mill manhunt plot and ratchets up the tension with crisp dialogue, excellent pacing, and a brutal finale. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is classic film noir, with inky nighttime exteriors, close-quartered interiors, and actors’ shadows frequently preceding them into the frame.

Powell plays Gerard as a shell-shocked man who suffers from frequent headaches. He’s on a mission to avenge a woman to whom he was only married for 20 days. He’s an amateur doing the work of a detective, and while he’s clever enough to connect the dots, he’s still just one man at the mercy of forces beyond his comprehension. “You are sick with fear,” Mme. Jarnac tells him. “You’ve been hurt so deeply you cannot trust anyone but yourself.”

Is there a better description of the classic film noir protagonist?

They Were Expendable (Dec. 20, 1945)

It has become clear to me that John Ford does something for others that he doesn’t do for me. Active from the silent era through the ’60s, Ford is regularly listed as one of the greatest American directors of all time, as well as one of the most influential.

It’s not that I don’t like his films. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve seen. But aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), I haven’t loved any of them. Ford’s influence on the western is hard to overstate, and I respect what films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) did to elevate the genre, but I wouldn’t count either as one of my favorite westerns.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s first war movie. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the early, disastrous days of America’s war in the Pacific. Based on the book by William L. White, the film stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. John Brickley, who believes that small, light PT (patrol torpedo) boats are the perfect crafts to use against the much-larger ships in the Japanese fleet. Despite the speed and maneuverability of PT boats, the top Naval brass reject Lt. Brickley’s plan, but he persists in equipping the boats and training his men, and they eventually launch attacks against the Japanese, and even use PT boats to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family when the situation in the Philippines goes from bad to worse.

They Were Expendable is a product of its time. When the actor playing MacArthur is shown (he is never named and has no lines, but it’s clear who he is supposed to be), the musical score is so overblown that it elevates MacArthur to the level of Abraham Lincoln, or possibly Jesus Christ. The bona fides of the film’s star are asserted in the credits; he is listed as “Robert Montgomery, Comdr. U.S.N.R.” (Montgomery really was a PT skipper in World War II, and did some second unit direction on the film.) And in keeping with the film’s patriotic tone, the combat efficacy of PT boats against Japanese destroyers is probably overstated. (This is also the case in White’s book, which was based solely on interviews with the young officers profiled.)

None of this was a problem for me. What was a problem was the inconsistent tone of the picture, exemplified by the two main characters. Montgomery underplays his role, but you can see the anguish behind his stoic mask. He demonstrates the value of bravery in the face of almost certain defeat. On the other hand, John Wayne, as Lt. (J.G.) “Rusty” Ryan, has swagger to spare, and is hell-bent for leather the whole time. He even finds time to romance a pretty nurse, 2nd Lt. Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). Wayne doesn’t deliver a bad performance, but it’s a performance that seems better suited to a western than a film about the darkest days of America’s war against the Japanese.

Maybe we can blame Ford and Wayne’s previous work together, and their comfort with a particular genre. Reports that Ford (who served in the navy in World War II and made combat documentaries) constantly berated Wayne during the filming of They Were Expendable for not serving in the war don’t change the fact that the two men made many westerns together before this, and would make many after it. Several scenes in They Were Expendable feel straight out of a western. Determined to have an Irish wake for one of his fallen brothers, Wayne forces a Filipino bar owner to stay open, even though the bar owner is trying to escape with his family in the face of reports that the Japanese are overrunning the islands. Even more out of place is the scene in which the old shipwright who repairs the PT boats, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson), refuses to leave the shack where he’s lived and worked in the Philippines since the turn of the century. Wayne eventually gives up trying to persuade him to evacuate, and leaves him on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap and a jug of moonshine next to him, as “Red River Valley” plays in the background.

The scenes of combat in They Were Expendable are well-handled, and the picture looks great. Montgomery is particularly good in his role. As war movies from the ’40s go, it’s not bad, but far from the best I’ve seen.

Leave Her to Heaven (Dec. 19, 1945)

Can there be such a thing as a film noir in color? I don’t think there can, but the term noir has been so widely used, popularized, and bastardized that director John M. Stahl’s Technicolor adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’s novel Leave Her to Heaven, made during the heyday of noir in Hollywood, is often referred to as a rare instance of a film noir in color.

A year after she starred as the eponymous Laura (Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic that is also frequently referred to as a noir even though it really has very few characteristics of one, aside from being filmed in black and white), Gene Tierney created a memorably unhinged character named Ellen Berent.

When we first meet Ellen, the first thing we see is her beauty. Sitting across from novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) in the lounge car of a train, surrounded by green walls, her dark hair and pale face offset by her bright red lips, she looks like a porcelain doll come to life. Quickly, however, we notice something else. The way she is staring at him is predatory. The way she doesn’t speak for a long time after he answers a question is strange. She is beautiful, but there is something wrong with her. We can guess, however, that his relationship with Ellen won’t have a happy ending.

If only Richard saw what the audience can see. Of course, the audience also has the advantage of a framing device. In the first scene of Leave Her to Heaven, we see Richard return to Deer Lake, Maine. His friends and neighbors look at him strangely. As they whisper among themselves, we learn that he has just gotten out of prison after a two-year stint, but we don’t know what the charge was.

Most of the story is told in flashback. Beginning with the scene on the train, we see how Richard fell into Ellen’s clutches. After they disembark, they find that they are both guests at Rancho Jacinto, in New Mexico, where Ellen has gone to scatter her father’s ashes. After telling Richard several times how much he looks like her father (even though a framed photograph of the man looks nothing like Cornel Wilde), the scene in which the stone-faced Tierney rides a horse and scatters her father’s ashes in the mountains is one of the most striking in the picture. When Richard agrees to marry her soon after, it is at her urging. Marrying her is something he thinks he wants, but the words “Will you marry me” never escape his lips. He is caught in her web.

After their marriage, Ellen and Richard go away to his cabin in Maine. She resents the intrusion of anyone else into their lives, such as her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) or Richard’s younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), who is recovering from polio, and her resentment has deadly consequences.

Ellen is devious, but it’s not always clear how conscious she is of her own cunning. Although the other characters speak of how unnaturally close she was to her father, and how she loves with a childish ferocity that can be dangerous, the viewer is not privy to any deeper psychological insights. There are no scenes of her childhood or flashbacks to any trauma that might have precipitated her madness. It’s refreshing to have a character with sociopathic tendencies that have no pat explanation, but some insight into the jealousy that drives her might have helped flesh out the character.

So what is it that makes Leave Her to Heaven a film noir? The classification is a slippery one, and has become popular enough that nearly every black and white film from the ’40s that is not a musical or a comedy has been called a film noir at some point. In one of the first treatises on the subject, the 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953, French film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified the five main facets of film noir. They said that it is “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.” Over the years, the term film noir has grown to encompass certain stylistic elements as well. Stark black and white cinematography and unbalanced constructions that grew out of German Expressionism are both hallmarks of noir, as is a pervading sense of doom.

So does Leave Her to Heaven contain any of these elements? It certainly could be called “strange,” but it’s not particularly dreamlike. It’s not very erotic, either, since Ellen seems to capture Richard in a web that is more psychological than it is sexual. Her actions are sometimes cruel, but the picture as a whole is not terribly ambivalent. Ellen may arouse feelings of both pity and hatred in the viewer, but she is still presented in a straightforward way. She has no crises of conscience or confusion about what she wants. And the lush Technicolor cinematography really pushes Leave Her to Heaven out of the noir category.

Leave Her to Heaven is a melodrama with a couple of shocking scenes, a sociopathic main character, and a courtroom denouement that drags down the pacing of the picture, but which does feature an enjoyable performance by Vincent Price as one of Ellen’s old flames who is now a prosecutor. It is not a film noir, unless we can divorce style from content. The absence of black and white cinematography and a real sense of doom (or a truly unhappy ending) means that Leave Her to Heaven just doesn’t qualify as a film noir. Of course, this shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing it. Whatever its genre, it’s an effective film with an interesting performance by a beautiful actress who didn’t exhibit a great deal of range in any of her roles, but who is chilling in this one.

Leave Her to Heaven was Twentieth Century-Fox’s highest grossing picture of the 1940s. Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and Leon Shamroy won an Oscar for best cinematography in the color category.

Pillow of Death (Dec. 14, 1945)

Wallace Fox’s Pillow of Death, the sixth and final film in the Inner Sanctum Mysteries series, is a haunted house mystery, the kind that Charlie Chan and the Crime Doctor excelled at solving. It lacks the ghoulish fun of the Inner Sanctum radio show, and it’s the least memorable of the film series.

The film begins when attorney Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney, Jr.) drops his secretary Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce) off at her family home after another late night of preparing briefs at the office. The crotchety patriarch of the family, Sam Kincaid (George Cleveland) grumbles, “The Kincaid women never worked,” which is funny, considering the fact that his sister Belle (Clara Blandick) waits on him hand and foot, and he employs Amelia Kincaid (Rosalind Ivan), a poor relative from England, as his housekeeper.

When Fletcher returns home, the police are waiting for him in his living room. Capt. McCracken (Wilton Graff) and his men acted on a tip from a spiritualist named “Julian” (J. Edward Bromberg), who is sitting in Fletcher’s rocking chair like he owns the place. The police inform Fletcher that Julian had a psychic presentiment that one of his adherents, Mrs. Fletcher, had come to harm. When the police arrived at the Fletcher home, they found her murdered corpse. Fletcher is now the prime suspect.

After he’s questioned and released, Fletcher goes to the Kincaid home, as does Julian, and most of the rest of the film takes place there. Donna’s amorous teenaged neighbor Bruce (Bernard Thomas) keeps popping up, skulking around the grounds and saying little, as the bodies start piling up. The haunted house clichés come fast and furious, including a séance presided over by Julian, which gives the roly-poly character actor Bromberg free rein to tilt his head back, roll his eyes up in his head, and speak very, very slowly. It’s not quite entertaining enough to be called “campy,” but it comes close.

Unlike the previous films in the series, the supernatural element is poorly handled and its role in the story is never fully explained. In other Inner Sanctum films, and on the radio show, any supernatural hokum was usually debunked and explained away. Like pulling the mask off the monster at the end of Scooby-Doo, the explanations were sometimes preposterous, but they were usually clever, or at least fun. And since Pillow of Death a straightforward mystery, the lack of explanation seems more like a product of lazy writing than anything else.

Also, with a title like Pillow of Death I was expecting something more overtly supernatural, like a pillow cursed by Satan, or a talking pillow, or possibly even a pillow with a hole in it full of sharp teeth. Instead, an ordinary pillow is used at one point as a murder weapon, in an attempt to smother someone, but that’s it. Given the pillow’s limited role in the film, the title seems almost like a joke.

House of Dracula (Dec. 7, 1945)

House of Dracula followed in the footsteps of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944), Universal Studios’ earlier “monster mash” movies. It would be a few years before the genre descended into outright self parody, but House of Dracula is still campy and fun compared with the more serious scares of Universal classics like Dracula (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941).

The macabre goofiness begins with the opening credits, which drip down like blood dumped on the roof of an A-frame house, coalescing over a shot of a creepy old manse, high atop the cliffs on the shores of what looks suspiciously like the Pacific Ocean. Like most Universal horror movies, House of Dracula seems to takes place in “Europe,” but the details are vague, and everyone speaks English, even though the characters have names like Holtz (Lionel Atwill), Siegfried (Ludwig Stössel), and Dr. Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens).

The last time we saw John Carradine as a tall, white-haired, and mustachioed Count Dracula, he was burned up in the sun halfway through the running time of House of Frankenstein. How he came back to life is never explained. How he manages to walk into Dr. Edlemann’s castle without being invited in is also a mystery. But walk in he does, through an unlatched back door, and presents himself to Dr. Edlemann as “Baron Latos.” Dr. Edlemann is a scientific genius with a hunchbacked assistant named Nina (Jane Adams) and a basement full of crazy doodads and contraptions. He is also an expert on the affliction of vampirism. Dracula wants to be cured, and Dr. Edlemann agrees to help him.

The plot thickens when, one evening shortly after sundown but before the rise of the full moon, Dracula is receiving a blood transfusion from Dr. Edlemann in his basement laboratory. A nervous man named Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) appears in Dr. Edlemann’s waiting room. Like Dracula, he is looking for a cure. Dr. Edlemann’s pretty nurse, Miliza Morrelle (Martha O’Driscoll), tells Talbot he’ll have to be patient, but he refuses to wait. “There isn’t time!” he shouts, and runs out of the castle, directly to the nearest police station, where he convinces them to lock him up. He transforms into the dreaded Wolf Man while behind bars, which convinces Dr. Edlemann to take him on as a patient.

Luckily for Talbot, the doctor is also an expert on lycanthropy, and he has a pseudoscientific explanation for Talbot’s condition. Pressure upon certain parts of the brain, coupled with Talbot’s firmly held belief that the full moon can cause a change in his body, brings on self-hypnosis, and the glands that govern his metabolism get out of control. Surgery to enlarge the cranial cavity would be a long and dangerous process. Dr. Edlemann has a more sensible solution. He, Nina, and Miliza are growing a hybrid tropical plant that produces a mold that can soften substances composed of calcium salts, like bone, which will allow Dr. Edlemann to enlarge Talbot’s cranium without surgery. (It will also allow him to dissolve Nina’s hump, which he promises her he will do once Talbot is cured.)

Miliza refers to Talbot as a “young man,” and Dr. Edlemann calls him “my boy,” which are both strange appellations for a tired-looking 39-year-old alcoholic with slicked-back hair and a mustache. His behavior is also strange, but that’s standard operating practice for the Wolf Man’s human alter ego in a Universal horror movie.

After a setback, the impatient Talbot unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide by jumping from the cliffs. The doctor follows him down to one of the seaside caves, where he tells him the conditions are perfect for growing his mold spores, and not to despair. While in the caves, the plot thickens once again when Talbot and Dr. Edlemann find Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), buried in mud along with the skeleton of Dr. Niemann, who revitalized him back in House of Frankenstein. The villagers chased them into a pit of quicksand, and the mud flow brought them to the caves below Dr. Edlemann’s castle.

The altruistic Dr. Edlemann belts the monster down on an operating table, and wires him for revival, but his reasons for doing this are less clear than his reasons for helping Dracula and the Wolf Man. He says that to not do so would be murder, since the monster is man’s responsibility. (Presumably, if he could speak, the monster would say, “Please bring me back to life so I can destroy you, your laboratory, your home, and everything you’ve worked for.”) Nina and Talbot eventually manage to dissuade Dr. Edlemann from bringing the monster back to life. However, the monster is still hooked up and ready to be reactivated, like a loaded gun carelessly left lying on the floor of a mental institution.

Things start to go south at the halfway mark of House of Dracula, as they tend to when monsters mash. Dr. Edlemann doubles up on the transfusions he’s giving to Dracula, which leads to a fateful accident. Meanwhile, the irrepressible Count casts his hypnotic spell over Miliza, with whom he has a past.

I thought that House of Dracula was a more satisfying picture than House of Frankenstein. The way each monster is introduced is clumsy, but other than that the plot flows smoothly from beginning to end. It’s a spooky good time that doesn’t strain to fit all of its ghoulish pieces into its 67-minute running time.

The Bells of St. Mary’s (Dec. 6, 1945)

The Bells of St. Mary’s, Leo McCarey’s follow-up to his smash hit Going My Way (which won the Academy Award for best picture of 1944), premiered in New York City on December 6, 1945. It was one of the first really “respectable” sequels, and, like Going My Way, was nominated for Oscars in all the big categories; best picture, director, actor, and actress. (Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend ended up taking home the awards for best picture, director, and actor, and Joan Crawford won the best actress award for Mildred Pierce.)

In The Bells of St. Mary’s, Bing Crosby reprises the role of Father O’Malley, for which he won an Academy Award for best actor of 1944, and he is joined by Ingrid Bergman, the best actress winner of 1944 (for Gaslight). The talent pool might be heavy, but the film itself is pretty light. There’s a disease, but it’s not fatal; there’s a bunch of needy kids running around, but the word “orphan” is never heard; and the sisters are in danger of losing St. Mary’s, but keep your fingers crossed for a Christmas miracle.

Like a lot of sequels, The Bells of St. Mary’s sticks with the formula of its predecessor. Father O’Malley is still the new guy in town, he’s still freewheeling and freethinking, and he butts heads with the other members of the clergy. His foil in Going My Way was Barry Fitzgerald as a crotchety old Irish priest, and in The Bells of St. Mary’s it’s the luminous Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict, a nun who was born in Sweden and raised in Minnesota. Bergman projects equal parts wisdom and naivete, and her performance is beatific enough, at least on the surface, to make up for what the role lacks in substance. The scene in which she masters the techniques of boxing by reading a book and then teaches the sweet science to a young boy who is being bullied is both funny and touching.

Crosby builds on his characterization of Father O’Malley. He’s a little older and wiser than he was in Going My Way, but not much else has changed. He’s still a “modern” thinker. He’s still a magnet for young girls in trouble, and if someone has a problem that can be solved with a song, he’s still happy to sit down at a piano and lend his golden pipes to the situation. Crosby will never be mistaken for Laurence Olivier, but he’s believable and charismatic in this picture. Enough so that he can deliver lines like, “If you’re ever in trouble, just dial ‘O’ … for O’Malley,” and not automatically trigger the viewer’s gag reflex.

The world of The Bells of St. Mary’s is much like our own, but the problems in it are solved with broad strokes and last-minute changes of heart instead of time and hard work. All it takes to mend a broken family is simply locating the wayward father, and getting a new parish is no harder than praying for it (and cajoling an old millionaire to donate his latest high-rise condominium).

Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s are both holiday classics, even though neither focuses too much on Christmas. There’s a cute scene in The Bells of St. Mary’s in which some very small children stumble and improvise their way through a rehearsal of a Christmas pageant, but that’s about it. Oh, and a year later, astute viewers will be able to spot The Bells of St. Mary’s on the marquee of the local movie house in Bedford Falls when Jimmy Stewart runs through downtown wishing everyone and everything a Merry Christmas at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

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