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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Possessed (July 26, 1947)

If you like to see Joan Crawford get her crazy on as much as I do, then you’ll love Possessed.

Curtis Bernhardt’s fevered noir melodrama begins with a surprisingly unglamorous-looking Crawford wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze, asking everyone she passes if they’ve seen “David.”

Crawford isn’t wearing any makeup, and her journey through the early dawn streets reminded me of a similar scene that appeared a decade later in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1958), in which Jeanne Moreau wanders the streets of Paris without makeup. (Was Malle influenced by Possessed? It’s certainly possible.)

The character Crawford plays, Louise Howell, is taken by ambulance to the psychopathic ward of the Los Angeles Municipal Hospital, where she is cared for by Dr. Willard (Stanley Ridges). He gives her narcosynthesis to lift her out of her catatonic stupor, and the tale of what brought Louise to this place is told through a haze of flashbacks and psychobabble.

Louise was a nurse in the employ of wealthy Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). Her job was to care for Graham’s infirm wife.

After a brief love affair with an average-looking but very charming architect named David Sutton (Van Heflin), Louise became hopelessly attached to him. When David told her that he wasn’t the marrying kind, and that he had to break things off with her, it began her spiral into madness. She was convinced that there was another woman, but he assured her there wasn’t.

“Louise, don’t hang onto me. You’ll get hurt,” he said in exasperation, and his words were prescient. The straitlaced, self-possessed Louise began to unravel.

Dr. Willard diagnoses her with a persecution complex. She thought that David breaking up with her was all part of a plan. Everyone was against her. Dr. Willard calls it “typical schizoid detachment … split personality.”

Despite its sometimes overheated story and dialogue, Possessed is a stylistic feast. Franz Waxman’s musical score perfectly underscores every one of Joan Crawford’s scenes, and Joseph A. Valentine’s cinematography visually expresses her madness.

There are recurring visual motifs, most notably water. For instance, when David gets into his boat and leaves Louise sobbing on the dock, the churning water symbolizes her inner turmoil. The doctors hovering over Louise’s bed discuss her case, then the scene cuts to a shot of the carafe of water by her hospital bed that dissolves into a shot of the water around Dean Graham’s home.

When Louise stops the little pendulum of her bedside clock from ticking because it’s “driving her crazy” the sound is replaced by the sound of dripping water outside her open window. She slams the window shut, trying to control her madness.

Possessed could never be called a realistic film. But that’s not its goal. It subjectively depicts an unraveling psyche, and isn’t afraid to veer into territory that sometimes seems as if it would be more at home in a horror movie than in a melodrama.

Crossfire (July 22, 1947)

Crossfire
Crossfire (1947)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
RKO Radio Pictures

In 1947, social-issue pictures were starting to come out of Hollywood that tackled a formerly taboo subject — antisemitism.

This might not seem like such a big deal today, but it was a big deal at the time.

No matter how artful or moving some of its products are, the film industry is still a business, and any subject that challenges the status quo or that might hurt ticket sales is extremely difficult to make a film about. And despite the fact that in the ’40s the majority of studio heads were Jewish, they preferred to release films that depicted a homogenous, idealized vision of America.

Richard Brook’s 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole is about a homosexual who is beaten to death by his fellow Marines. Producer Adrian Scott convinced the studio bosses at RKO Radio Pictures that an adaptation of the book would pass muster with the production code if the gay character in the novel were changed to a Jewish character.

Crossfire is a social-issue picture wrapped in a murder mystery. It’s likely that many ticket buyers didn’t realize the film would contain a message about antisemitism, and were attracted by the “three Bobs” in the credits (Robert Ryan, Robert Young, and Robert Mitchum) or the lurid promise of violent death in the poster.

Whatever drew people into the theater when the film opened, however, nothing kept them away in the weeks that followed. Crossfire was a big hit, and was eventually nominated for five Academy Awards, although it lost out to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, Twentieth Century-Fox’s more “prestigious” take on antisemitism. (In the case of best picture, best director, and best supporting actress, the awards went to Gentleman’s Agreement. In the case of best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay, the awards went to Miracle on 34th Street.)

Edward Dmytryk, the director of Crossfire, once said in an interview that he used “film noir” techniques primarily to save money, and because he wanted to spend more time working with the actors than doing setups. Dmytryk and his cinematographer, J. Roy Hunt, worked six and a half hours a day, and did about seven setups a day.

Ryan, Mitchum, and Young

Dmytryk was an excellent director, and Crossfire is an exceedingly well-made film.

He shot Crossfire in 20 days, less than the 22 days he was allowed with his $500,000 B-movie budget. Because of this, RKO was able to beat Twentieth Century-Fox’s Gentleman’s Agreement to the box office. (But not, ultimately, in the Oscar race.)

The darkness and shadows that creep into each shot disguise the simplicity of the sets, and the performances from all the actors are exceptional, especially Robert Ryan as the vicious, Jew-hating soldier named Montgomery, and Gloria Grahame as a lonely B-girl named Ginny.

The beating death of the Jewish man, Samuels (Sam Levene), that opens the film takes place in darkness, so the culprit is not seen. But the mystery doesn’t really persist. Montgomery is the likely suspect right from the beginning. His sneering dismissal of the “kind of guy” Samuels was makes his guilt seem pretty obvious during the scene in which he’s interrogated by the police detective, Finlay (Robert Montgomery).

The film quickly switches gears, however, and focuses on the search for a missing soldier named Mitchell (George Cooper), whom the police suspect of the murder. The jaded and world-weary Sgt. Keeley (Robert Mitchum) helps Detective Finlay, but ultimately shields Mitchell, helping him hide in a movie theater while Keeley and his buddies try to sort out what really happened.

Mitchell was pretty drunk, and can barely remember what happened at the party that evening. But the last words we hear Montgomery say in Mitchell’s flashback to the party — “What’s the matter, Jew boy? You afraid we’ll drink up all your stinking wonderful liquor?” — cement Montgomery’s guilt.

Grahame and Cooper

Mitchell’s sad and lonely journey through the night is classic noir stuff. His strange encounters — like the ones he has with B-girl Ginny and later with her “husband” (played by Paul Kelly), whose name we never learn — are haunting.

While Crossfire is occasionally preachy, this can be forgiven, especially considering the time when the film was released.

Unlike Brute Force (1947), which showed what American fascism could look like at the upper echelons of authority, Crossfire is a portrait of the rank and file of fascism — the dumb, mean, resentful men who “just carry out orders,” and do so happily. Ryan doesn’t overplay his role, and he’s all the more scary for it.

Something in the Wind (July 21, 1947)

I mentioned in my review of I’ll Be Yours, which was released earlier in 1947, that Deanna Durbin called the last four films she made “terrible,” and permanently retired from acting in 1948.

But just like I’ll Be Yours, I found Something in the Wind thoroughly enjoyable. The songs are great, the dancing is spectacular, and for the most part, it’s genuinely funny.

I think that Durbin’s retirement from acting had less to do with the quality of the films she was starring in and more to do with her desire for privacy and a normal life. (She apparently hated the public persona she’d been saddled with since she appeared in her first musical comedy, Three Smart Girls, in 1936 at the age of 14.)

Something in the Wind is by no means a great film, but Durbin’s impish sense of humor, beautiful singing voice, and perfect comic timing make up for a lot. It’s also a lot of fun to see tall drink of water John Dall in a light role. (Something in the Wind was made shortly before he would stake his place in cinematic history in 1948 as one of the thrill killers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and again in 1950 as the firearms-fancying protagonist of the noir classic Gun Crazy.)

Dall plays Donald Read, the scion of the wealthy Read family. When he attempts to “make things right” with the woman to whom his recently deceased grandfather has been making regular payments, he confuses Mary Collins (Durbin) with her aunt (Jean Adair), who is also named Mary Collins. Mary Collins (the younger) is a struggling radio DJ with a beautiful voice, and she has no idea what Donald is talking about, but she’s offended by the very nature of his proposal. When she finds out that her aunt has been receiving payments from the Read family after a failed love affair with the late patriarch of the family, she’s doubly offended, and sets out to ruin the Reads.

The Reads are a pleasantly screwball family — the kind that regularly engages in hilarious kidnappings and fun-loving extortion.

Donald is the straight man of the bunch, his cousin Charlie (Donald O’Connor) is the wacky cut-up, and his uncle Chester (Charles Winninger) is the blackmailing con man who will screw over anyone for a buck.

All of this is just an excuse for laughs, music, and dance, of course, but who cares? Donald O’Connor’s wild, no-holds-barred performance of Johnny Green & Leo Robin’s “I Love a Mystery” is the stuff of legend, and must be seen to be believed. And Durbin is a one-of-a-kind star, and as far as I’m concerned, every film she appeared in is worth watching.

Cry Wolf (July 18, 1947)

Peter Godfrey’s Cry Wolf is a good-looking thriller with two great stars and an intriguing setup, but it never quite fulfills its promise, and eventually peters out with an ending that you can see coming a mile away.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a young widow, Sandra Demarest née Marshall, who arrives at the creepy New England mansion of Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn). Mark is a cold, imposing patriarch who lives with his brother, Senator Charles Caldwell (Jerome Cowan), and his teenage niece, Julie Demarest (Geraldine Brooks).

Sandra claims she was married to Mark’s deceased nephew, James Caldwell Demarest (Richard Basehart). She says she was working toward her doctor’s degree in geology. Jim came to her as a friend and she helped him. She needed money. He needed his inheritance. (Jim and his sister Julie have money that is kept in trust until they are 30. If, however, Jim were to marry, control of his inheritance would immediately pass from Mark to Jim’s wife.)

Sandra tells Mark she knows he would have preferred to choose a wife for Jim himself — someone placid — and she assures Mark that she is not a placid girl.

Jim gave Sandra $2,000 to complete her studies and she was to divorce him in six months. There were no other strings. They were married five months before his death. She has come to collect his inheritance. Two thousand dollars has become $2 million.

Doubt and mistrust informs Sandra’s relationship with Mark. Mark isn’t convinced that Sandra’s marriage certificate is genuine, and Sandra suspects Mark is up to no good in his mysterious laboratory. Nevertheless, there are clearly romantic sparks between the two. Also, Mark’s niece Julie instantly becomes attached to Sandra, and begs her to stay.

So it’s a perfect setup for a Gothic thriller. Mark struts and preens about the house, a pipe clenched between his teeth, spitting out nasty one-liners like, “Next time you hear some odd noise in the night, just follow the memorable custom of your sex and stick your head under the bedclothes.” And Sandra gets to play at being a grown-up Nancy Drew, pulling herself up to Mark’s lab in a dumbwaiter and then hiding behind a door when he unexpectedly arrives, and later climbing along the eaves of the mansion and dropping down a skylight to spy on him.

Cry Wolf reminded me a lot of Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946), which is another Gothic thriller about a not-terribly-romantic love triangle in which one-third of the equation is absent for most of the picture.

Like Undercurrent, Cry Wolf is competently put together, and it’s worth seeing if you like the film’s stars, but it never really takes flight. Franz Waxman’s musical score and Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography are both top-notch, and add a good deal of suspense to the shadowy proceedings, but there’s only so far that atmosphere can take a picture. Ultimately, Cry Wolf is a mystery that’s not terribly mysterious.

Gunfighters (July 1, 1947)

Another day, another western based on a Zane Grey novel.

Unlike the last movie I watched that was based on a book by Zane Grey — Thunder Mountain, which was a fun little 60-minute black and white western from RKO Radio Pictures — George Waggner’s Gunfighters gets the prestige treatment from Columbia Pictures. It’s a feature-length film (almost 90 minutes long), and it’s shot in Cinecolor.

Cinecolor was a two-color film process that was cheaper than Technicolor, and could sometimes look washed-out or unnaturally reddish, but Gunfighters looks great. For what it is, the production values are high, and legendary cowboy star Randolph Scott is always fun to watch.

In Gunfighters, which is based on Zane Grey’s posthumously published novel Twin Sombreros, Scott plays a seasoned gunman with the unlikely name of Brazos Kane.

Brazos is the veteran of so many shootouts that as soon as the opening credits are done rolling, his best friend steps out of a cantina, calls him out, and Brazos is forced to kill him. As his friend lies dying, he offers no explanation for starting the duel. In the world of Gunfighters, gunmen are like mountain climbers — ask mountain climbers why they want to climb a mountain, and they’ll respond, “Because it’s there.” Likewise, Brazos’s friend just had to know who was the faster draw.

But Brazos doesn’t want to be a part of this topsy-turvy fast-draw world anymore. As he says in one of the film’s bits of sporadic voice-over, “When your best friend tries to beat you to the draw, it’s time to put up your guns.”

But it’s the same everywhere he goes — the Texas Panhandle, Wichita, Dodge — so Brazos heads for the Inskip Ranch, where he plans to ride the range with his old friend Bob Tyrell.

And that’s just what they do. After Brazos arrives at the Inskip Ranch, he and his old buddy Bob herd cattle, bust broncos, sleep under the stars, start their days with strong coffee and hot biscuits, pass a jug of whiskey around the campfire at night, tell tall tales, and live happily for all the days of their life, making Gunfighters unique among ’40s westerns, since it contains almost no gunplay or violence.

Ha ha! Just kidding. As soon as Brazos shows up at the Inskip Ranch, he finds Tyrell’s corpse facedown in a creek.

And even worse, he’s immediately blamed for the murder, and finds himself on the wrong end of a lynch mob.

Gunfighters has plenty to recommend it. It looks good and contains some of the most impressive chases on horseback I’ve seen in a western. But for every exciting five-minute stretch there’s a boring one, and the final showdown between Brazos and the bad guys seems to take forever to get to.

I enjoyed the performances of both Dorothy Hart and Barbara Britton, who play sisters Jane and Bess Banner. Most of the humor in the film comes from the fact that the two sisters look enough alike to be mistaken for twins, and there’s plenty of cases of mistaken identity, if that’s your thing.

Forrest Tucker, who is probably best remembered for playing Sergeant O’Rourke on the TV show F Troop, makes a great sneering bad guy, but the other major villain, Bruce Cabot (of King Kong fame), never makes much of an impression.

I didn’t love Gunfighters, but I didn’t hate it, either. And you can’t beat scenes like the one in which Brazos tells a crooked sheriff’s deputy played by Grant Withers, “Never mind my shots. Count my guns.”

Thunder Mountain (June 1947)

Thunder Mountain, which was directed by Lew Landers, is one of a long line of RKO westerns that were loosely based on Zane Grey novels, including Nevada (1944), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1945), West of the Pecos (1945), Sunset Pass (1946), and Code of the West (1947).

In some cases, a character’s name was all that remained from the source material, and the use of the name “Zane Grey” above the title was just a way to sell the film.

But even when the plots followed Grey’s novels, the RKO westerns based on his books bore little resemblance to Grey’s feverish prose, larger-than-life Romantic heroes, and old-fashioned dime-novel plots. They were straightforward B westerns with straight-shooting heroes, vicious bad guys, comical sidekicks, and beautiful women. They were rarely much longer than an hour, and they were fashioned solely to entertain.

Thunder Mountain, which stars quiet, understated cowboy star Tim Holt (the son of cowboy star Jack Holt and a veteran of World War II — he served in the Army Air Corps as a bombardier), is solidly in this tradition. Its story about greedy land-grabbers and old family feuds is the standard stuff of horse operas, but it’s still a well-made and enjoyable way to spend an hour.

Marvin Hayden (Holt) returns to Grass Valley, and lands smack-dab in the middle of a long-standing feud with the Jorth family. Hayden is the last surviving member of his family, and his romance with the pretty little Ellie Jorth (Martha Hyer) is cut short as soon as they discover each other’s parentage.

Ellie’s brothers, Chick Jorth (Steve Brodie) and Lee Jorth (Robert Clarke), are itching to put Hayden six feet under, but what none of them knows is that the real bad actors in Grass Valley are Trimble Carson (Harry Woods) and his right-hand man Johnny Blue (Tom Keene), who quickly realize how easy it will be to play Hayden against the Jorths.

But like any good western hero, Hayden has a solid group of compadres — the Mexican-Irish Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin), the feisty Irish bar girl Ginger Kelly (Virginia Owen), and the alcoholic and broken-down old lawyer Jim Gardner (Jason Robards Sr.) — not to mention Ellie and her conflicted feelings about Hayden. It’s a foregone conclusion that Hayden will come out on top, just like it’s a foregone conclusion that his vow to never wear a gun will be broken by the end of the picture, but the journey is a fun one, and well worth watching for fans of ’40s B westerns.

Brute Force (June 30, 1947)

Snitches get stitches.

Or, in the case of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force, they get forced into a giant machine press by a group of cons wielding acetylene torches. They also get tied screaming to the front of a mining cart and used as a human shield during a massive prison break.

Westgate Penitentiary is hell on earth. All the cells are filled to double capacity. The warden is a weak-willed jellyfish who cedes all authority to the sadistic Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn). There are punishing make-work assignments in the dreaded “drainpipe.” Capt. Munsey plants contraband on prisoners just to send them to solitary confinement. And worst of all, on movie night the cons are forced to watch The Egg and I.

Brute Force is director Dassin’s first film noir (and still one of his best). It’s also producer Mark Hellinger’s second great film to star Burt Lancaster (the first was The Killers, in 1946).

In 1947, Lancaster wasn’t the versatile superstar he would eventually become. He was mostly known for playing “The Swede” in The Killers. The Swede was a lovesick former prizefighter; a big, dumb brute who feels pain, but little else. Brute Force allows Lancaster to stretch a little as an actor. The character he plays, Joe Collins, is the biggest, toughest man in Westgate — on the surface, not that different from The Swede — but he’s also a canny tactician who is ruthlessly efficient at getting what he wants. Collins doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but Lancaster’s physical performance is phenomenal, and would have been at home in a silent film.

It’s a cliche to say that an actor’s body is his “instrument,” but it’s true of Lancaster, a former circus performer who expresses more with his body and his eyes in Brute Force than words ever could.

Collins is the de facto leader of the men in cell R17. He wants out of Westgate Penitentiary, but unlike all the daydreaming, hard-luck sad sacks who are behind bars with him, Collins has a plan, and it’s a good one. But for his plan to work, he has to have the support of the other five men in cell R17, as well as the cooperation and support of a hardened old convict named Gallagher (played with grumpy gravitas by the great Charles Bickford). Gallagher is up for parole, and he’s not sure if he wants to endanger his chances of release by throwing his lot in with Collins.

Brute Force is a film as lean and mean as Joe Collins himself, which makes the sentimental back stories of the convicts feel especially unnecessary. I’ve seen Brute Force at least three times now, and every time I see it I hate the flashback portions of the film more and more. I don’t think Dassin was fully committed to them either, and the abrupt tonal shifts they force on the movie are irritating and unnecessary.

They’re unnecessary because in a prison film about a sadistic captain of the guards and his unfair treatment of the prisoners, the audience will naturally identify with the prisoners without really caring about how they ended up in prison. (Imagine a flashback sequence in Cool Hand Luke that shows Paul Newman saving children from a burning orphanage — what would be the point?)

The fact that the audience knows from the outset of the film that Capt. Munsey arranged to have a shiv planted on Joe Collins in order to throw him into solitary is upsetting enough to most people’s sense of decency and fair play. We don’t also need a ridiculous subplot about Joe’s girl on the outside, Ruth (Ann Blyth), who has cancer and refuses to get the operation she needs unless Joe is with her.

Ditto for the backstory of “Soldier” (Howard Duff, in his first film role — he’s listed in the opening credits as “Radio’s Sam Spade,” the role he was best known for at the time). Duff’s boyish face and incongruously deep, soothing voice do more to elicit the audience’s sympathy than the smarmy flashback in which he’s captured by MPs in Italy and falsely accused of murder while distributed food to the hungry.

Not every backstory in the film is sentimental, nor does every backstory paint its criminal protagonist in a great light. But they are all, in their own way, unnecessary. For instance, the audience doesn’t need to see the flashback in which Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) gives his wife a fur coat with money he’s embezzled to know that he’s a white collar criminal. (Although it’s always nice to see the beautiful Ella Raines, who plays his wife.) Lister’s eyeglasses, his effete appearance, and Munsey’s line — “You’re no hoodlum, like the others in this cell. Why protect them?” — tell us all we need to know about Tom Lister.

The only flashback I enjoyed and would be sad to see excised from the film is the whimsical story Spencer (John Hoyt) tells about the beautiful girl named Flossie who helped him out of a tough jam only to turn around and take off with his money. Not only is the flashback funny and mercifully brief, it ends with the wonderful line, “I wonder who Flossie’s fleecing now.”

In fairness to producer Hellinger, who was largely responsible for the flashbacks, he knew what it took to get a picture made, and how to make a picture that would lead to another picture. The top brass at Universal probably wouldn’t have been crazy about a grim prison movie with no female characters, so the backstories of the prisoners allowed for several beautiful actresses under contract with Universal to draw people into the theater. (And even though I don’t like the flashbacks, I never mind seeing the aforementioned Raines or the beautiful Yvonne De Carlo, who plays Soldier’s Italian femme fatale.)

Also, Hellinger’s skill at wheeling and dealing helped him negotiate the film’s violence around the production code, and helped Dassin get away with things other directors might not have been able to. Brute Force is an extraordinarily violent film for 1947. Of course, it doesn’t show what really happens to human bodies blasted by Thompson submachine guns or .30 caliber machine guns, but it implies enough.

I haven’t said a lot about Hume Cronyn’s performance as Capt. Munsey, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise him. The diminutive, soft-voiced Cronyn is one of the most memorable villains in the film noir pantheon. Cronyn gives “Napoleon complex” a whole new meaning, and he gives lines like “I get quite a kick out of censoring the mail” a creepy, sociopathic edge.

It’s pretty clear that Dassin is using Munsey to make a statement about creeping fascism in America. Munsey is a homegrown little Hitler, and just in case you don’t immediately get the connection when Munsey professes his simplistic, Social Darwinist philosophy, Dassin drives the point home with the set design of Munsey’s office, which includes a giant framed photograph of himself, enormous shotguns that he relishes stroking and polishing, and sculptures and paintings that scream homosexual body worship, not to mention a phonograph on which he plays the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” while brutally beating a hapless inmate (Sam Levene) with a length of rubber hose for information.

Despite a few missteps here and there, Brute Force is a great film, and should be seen by anyone who appreciates prison movies, film noir, violence in the cinema, finely crafted black and white cinematography, or the brilliant film scores of Miklós Rózsa.

A note about Jules Dassin: because of his French-sounding surname, and the fact that one of his best and most well-known pictures, Rififi (1955), is a French-language film, a lot of people are under the mistaken impression that Jules Dassin was French. He wasn’t. He was an American who was born in Connecticut in 1911 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He immigrated to Europe after he was blacklisted following testimony about him that was given to HUAC in 1951.

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