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Tag Archives: Claire Trevor

Key Largo (July 31, 1948)

Key LargoJohn Huston’s Key Largo was the fourth and final film Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart made together.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Bogie and Bacall are one of the most famous couples — perhaps the most famous couple — in Hollywood history. And yet, their onscreen work together boils down to just four films made over the course of five years: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo.

Key Largo is very loosely based on the 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson. I often don’t like films adapted from plays. The dialogue and the way the characters enter and re-enter the action usually feels very strange. But Key Largo never feels “stagey,” and confining the action to a single location only heightens the tension between the characters.

The film opens with beautiful footage of the Florida Keys. By opening with establishing shots of the steamy, summertime Keys, by the time the action is confined to a hotel while a hurricane rages outside, nothing about Key Largo feels stagey or stilted. The viewer is right in the middle of the action, and the suspense grows as the film goes on.

Summertime is the off season in the Florida Keys, when the mercury never dips below 100 degrees, and all the hotels are closed. Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a veteran of World War II who is in Key Largo to visit James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound man whose son George was killed in the war. (McCloud was George Temple’s commanding officer.) Temple runs a hotel in Key Largo with George’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall).

When Bogart sits down at the bar in the Largo Hotel, he laconically introduces himself to the boozy moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) as “McCloud. Frank. By John, out of Ellen.”

Gaye is not the only oddball occupant of the Largo Hotel. There are also a trio of men — Curly (Thomas Gomez), Angel (Dan Seymour), and Toots (Harry Lewis) — and with names like those, it’s clear that their story about coming down to the Keys from Milwaukee to do a little fishing isn’t on the up-and-up.

The full terror of the situation becomes apparent when we catch our first glimpse of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), sitting in a bathtub in one of the upstairs rooms of the hotel, chewing a cigar and exuding menace.

Robinson is a great actor, and Johnny Rocco is one of his most memorable creations. Rocco craves power and money, and there will never be enough power and money to satisfy him. He delights in toying with his hostages, taunting them with their helplessness. He even goes so far as to give one of them a pistol, daring them to kill him. But his bullying takes all forms. One of the most harrowing scenes in the film is when he humiliates Gaye by forcing her to sing for everyone before he’ll give her another drink. And like most bullies, Johnny Rocco is a coward at heart. As the hurricane builds in ferocity outside the hotel, so does his fear.

Key Largo was John Huston’s second film to be released in 1948. (The first was another collaboration with Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Key Largo is a masterfully directed film. The actors are all at the top of their game (Claire Trevor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role). The film’s music, by Max Steiner, is perfect; full of tension and menace, and — when the scene calls for it — a crushing sense of inevitability. Rudi Fehr’s editing accentuates the tension, and Karl Freund’s cinematography is beautiful.

Raw Deal (May 26, 1948)

Raw Deal
Raw Deal (1948)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Eagle-Lion Films

Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948) together form one of the most powerful one-two punches in the history or film noir.

Both films star Dennis O’Keefe, both feature musical scores by Paul Sawtell, John C. Higgins has a writing credit on both, and both feature the exquisite cinematography of John Alton.

What makes these two films such a great one-two punch is that they are each one side of the film noir coin. T-Men is a docudrama, purportedly made to show square-jawed agents of the Treasury Department cracking a big case, but like all great noir docudramas, the depiction of the criminal demimonde and the gray areas of its protagonists’ moral codes are the most interesting parts of the film.

Raw Deal is the other side of the coin. It’s a film noir purely about crime and criminals, and it has all the great elements of noir — a doomed male protagonist on the run, a “good girl” and a “bad girl” competing for his love, dream-like voice-over narration, a casually sadistic villain, and it’s set in one of the great noir cities — San Francisco.

Like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), Raw Deal is the Platonic ideal of a film noir.

Raw Deal begins with aging gun moll Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) going to visit Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) in prison. Right away Raw Deal establishes that it is not a run-of-the-mill crime film, as Claire Trevor’s voice-over narration is accompanied by a haunting theme played on a theremin. The element of the theremin is only present in Paul Sawtell’s score during these voice-overs, and establishes Pat’s point of view as dreamy and hyperreal. Raw Deal is the first film in which I’ve heard a theremin since Miklós Rózsa’s masterful scores for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), both of which used the eerie sound of a theremin to establish altered states of perception.

When she arrives at the prison, however, Pat is told she has to wait a little while because Joe already has a visitor — Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). Ann works for Joe’s defense lawyer’s office and she cares about his case and wants to see him paroled, but she admits that he will probably have to wait at least three years. She leaves, Pat enters, and Joe is faced with a more tantalizing prospect. Gang boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) has devised an escape plan for Joe. If he can make it over the wall Pat will be there waiting in a getaway car.

Of course, nothing is what it seems to be on the surface, and Coyle — whose double-cross is how Joe ended up in prison in the first place and who still owes Joe his cut from a robbery — is hoping that Joe will be shot by prison guards during his escape, taking care of Coyle’s problem for good.

Burr formerly played a memorable villain in Mann’s noir Desperate (1947), but he’s an even nastier and more violent character in Raw Deal, casually setting his girlfriend on fire in a shocking scene of cruelty that presages a similar scene in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). His right-hand man, the bizarrely named “Fantail,” is solidly played by John Ireland, who formerly starred in Mann’s noir Railroaded (1947).

First and foremost, Raw Deal is a masterpiece of suspense. For most of the movie Joe, Pat, and Ann are on the run from the police, and the film hits all of the classic “fugitive movie” moments — navigating a road block, hiding out in a cabin in the woods, one narrow escape after another, etc. Finally, for the last act of the film, the type of suspense changes, and a ticking clock takes the film closer and closer to its inevitable violent confrontation.

Since so much of Raw Deal takes place on the open road, there aren’t as many opportunities for Alton to flex his cinematographic muscles in the same way he did in T-Men, which mostly took place in urban environments. But he makes the most of what he has to work with. There’s a lot of day-for-night shooting in Raw Deal, and it’s a technique that never looks quite right, but at least with Alton operating the camera it always looks good. Finally, scenes toward the end with Claire Trevor’s face reflected in a ticking clock as she weighs a decision in her mind are absolutely masterful.

Anthony Mann was a great director who made wonderful films in all genres, but among his film noirs, I’ll never be able to decide if I like Raw Deal or T-Men better. They’re both great, must-see pictures for every aficionado of film noir.

Born to Kill (May 3, 1947)

Born to Kill
Born to Kill (1947)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill has never been one of my favorite noirs. It regularly tops “best of” lists, and many film noir enthusiasts whom I respect love it, so I was hoping a fresh viewing would reveal something new to me.

Alas, for me it was still the same old flick. It’s an enjoyable picture, but it’s wildly melodramatic, there are subplots that never really go anywhere, and its over-the-top characters are mostly two-dimensional. The key to a great noir, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), is the sense that it could happen to you, or to someone you know. No matter how outlandish the schemes in a film are, if they’re carried out by believable characters then I’m usually able to go along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Born to Kill tells the tale of a pair of sociopathic social climbers, the recently divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the recently paroled Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). Their paths cross in Reno, the biggest little city in the world. Helen is there for a quickie divorce and Sam is there with his reedy little sidekick, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.). Helen is staying at a boarding house run by the slovenly Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), who, when we first see her, is getting lit up on beer in the middle of the afternoon with the adenoidal tart Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

After Laury goes on a date with dapper Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) just to make the big lug she’s dating jealous, she invites Danny inside for a nightcap. When Danny goes to the kitchen, he finds Laury’s big lug waiting for him. It’s Sam Wild, of course, and his brutal killing of both Danny and Laury is the film’s high point. (Or the lurid low point, if you’re a prissy scold.) The sound of crickets in the background, the neatly manicured suburban lawns surrounding Mrs. Kraft’s boarding house, the dog barking in the background, and the uptempo swing music playing on the radio in the kitchen all lend a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the murder.

The rest of the film, however, just doesn’t hang together for me. Sam’s little buddy Mart tells him, “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain’t feasible.” I feel the same way about the plot of Born to Kill. It just ain’t feasible.

After the murder, Sam blows town. He and Helen meet again on the train to San Francisco. When they disembark, Sam suggests splitting a cab, but Helen tells him she’s going in a different direction. He responds, “That’s where you’re wrong. We’re going in the same direction, you and I.”

Sam insinuates himself into Helen’s life. They are clearly drawn to each other, but she tells him that nothing in the world will stop her from marrying her fiancé, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). So Sam moves in on her sister, wealthy heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), or, to be more precise, her foster sister, as Helen bitterly reveals to Sam. Not only is Georgia a beautiful blonde, but — as Sam tells Mart — “Marrying into this crowd will make it so’s I can spit in anyone’s eye.”

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs. Kraft retains the services of a sleazy, corpulent private investigator named Matthew Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). Mrs. Kraft is played by Esther Howard, and her bizarre, bug-eyed performance in this film is nearly identical to the “Filthy Flora” character she played in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

Helen and Sam pursue their doomed, twisted love affair. (“Fred is peace and security,” Helen moans. “You, you’re strength, excitement, and depravity. You’ve a kind of corruption inside of you, Sam.”) Arnett sniffs around. Sam and Georgia quarrel after she refuses to let him run her family’s business. Mart Waterman shows up in San Francisco and starts living with the unhappy foursome. (Is he Sam’s partner or his secret lover? The film is never completely clear.) Slowly but surely, the plot threads of the film intertwine, culminating in an orgy of murder and betrayal.

This is the second or third time I’ve seen Born to Kill. While I’ve griped about the ridiculously melodramatic plot, maybe I just want it to be something it’s not. I could certainly see myself watching it again in the future and loving its over-the-top characters, unrealistic scenarios, grotesque supporting players, and generally high level of camp.

I think my biggest problem with Born to Kill is the relationship between Sam and Helen. Claire Trevor is a wonderful performer, but I was never able to accept that she’d love Sam enough to give up everything for him. Helen’s histrionics in her scenes in tastefully appointed drawing rooms with Fred, Georgia, and Sam seem more scripted than natural, and Claire Trevor’s performance as Helen seems too intelligent and composed for the debased character she’s playing.

But maybe that’s the point. Lawrence Tierney is a powerful presence, but he isn’t a particularly gifted actor, especially when either subtlety or range is called for. Not only does Sam Wild commit murder whenever the notion strikes him, he can bend others to his will, getting his friend Mart to kill for him and getting Helen to provide him with an alibi for murder at the drop of a hat. He’s a brutal alpha male, and loving him may go against all reason and sense, but that never stopped anybody before.

Born to Kill is directed by Robert Wise with vigor. The cinematography, by Robert de Grasse, is great, especially in the nighttime exteriors. Paul Sawtell’s music is exciting. I found the plot ridiculous, but that shouldn’t stop any noir fans who haven’t seen Born to Kill from seeking it out.

Murder, My Sweet (Dec. 9, 1944)

murdermysweetDick Powell was known as a song-and-dance man when he was cast as hard-boiled dick Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely.

He nailed the role by not overplaying it. It didn’t hurt that the script and direction were pretty good, too. Powell in Murder, My Sweet will never give Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep much competition, but he does a pretty good job.

This film marked a turning point in Powell’s career, too. At the age of 40, Powell was able to slough off the public’s perception of him and reinvent himself as a noir tough guy.

He would go on to star in film noirs like Cornered (1945), which, like this film, was directed by Edward Dmytryk, Johnny O’Clock (1947), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), and Pitfall (1948), among others, as well as two classic radio detective shows, Rogue’s Gallery, which premiered in 1945, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which premiered in 1949.

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