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Tag Archives: Eagle-Lion Films

He Walked by Night (Nov. 24, 1948)

He Walked by Night
He Walked by Night (1948)
Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Bryan Foy Productions / Eagle-Lion Films

He Walked by Night is a police procedural directed by Alfred L. Werker, with uncredited directorial assistance from Anthony Mann. The starkly lighted cinematography is by John Alton, who had previously worked with Mann on two of his most memorable film noirs: T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

Docudrama films were a popular genre after World War II. The genre began with documentarian and newsreel producer Louis de Rochemont’s purportedly true espionage stories The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), as well as his fact-based legal drama Boomerang (1947).

Producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin’s film The Naked City (1948) wasn’t based on any single true incident, but it sought to depict realistic police work — a team of detectives recording the details of a crime scene, interviewing witnesses, tracking down leads, and pursuing suspects.

He Walked by Night didn’t invent the police procedural, but it’s probably the single most influential film in the genre. It featured Jack Webb in his first credited role, and his relationship with the film’s technical advisor, LAPD Sgt. Marty Wynn, led to the creation of the radio show Dragnet in 1949. (The series hit television in 1951.)

The film begins with a screen of text explaining that what you’re about to see is a true story, and is based on the case of one of the most diabolically cunning killers ever to be hunted by the police. It ends with the following sentence: “Only the names are changed — to protect the innocent.” Sound familiar, Dragnet fans?

Like every film or book that can properly be called a police procedural, He Walked by Night features a team of police officers and detectives. The lead investigator in the case, Sgt. Marty Brennan, is played by Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady, fresh off a starring role in another docudrama, the “ripped from the headlines” prison escape drama Canon City (1948). The other police officers include Capt. Breen (Roy Roberts), Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell), and police laboratory technician Lee Whitey (Jack Webb).

Richard Basehart

The meatiest role in the picture belongs to Richard Basehart, who plays Roy Morgan (a.k.a. Roy Martin), an electronics-obsessed former serviceman who — in the tense opening scene of the film — graduates from breaking & entering to murder.

Basehart delivers a lean, mean performance. He has some great scenes with his fence, Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), but other than that he has very little dialogue. The film hangs on his performance, and he’s completely believable as an endlessly resourceful sociopath who’s able to elude the police through a combination of planning and luck. (The character was inspired by the real-life case of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, who went on a crime spree in 1945 and 1946.)

He Walked by Night in the Sewers

It’s a cliche to say that the real star of a film noir is its cinematography, but it’s usually true. John Alton’s photography consistently gives the low-budget film an intense, driving atmosphere. Nearly ever shot in the film is a masterwork of lighting and composition, culminating in the final chase through the Los Angeles sewer system.

He Walked by Night is currently in the public domain, so it can be seen on YouTube (below), and is available on DVD from a variety of companies. The only caveat is that some of them look pretty lousy, so noir fans who want to own this film on DVD are advised to pick up the disc from MGM and to avoid at all costs the cheapo disc from Alpha Video, which looks just terrible.

The Red Shoes (Sept. 6, 1948)

The Red ShoesMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century fairy tale about a girl who can’t stop dancing after she puts on a pair of magical red shoes. An angel appears and tells her she will continue to dance after death as a warning to vain children everywhere. Her feet keep dancing in the red shoes even after they are amputated.

It’s a potentially wonderful parable for the way ballet dancers suffer for their art, but as a cinematic experience, The Red Shoes left me wanting. I’ve been hearing for most of my life about how wonderful this film is, but for me it was the most disappointing production from Powell and Pressburger that I’ve seen so far.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like it, but I had very high expectations, and I felt let down.

In terms of Powell and Pressburger’s filmography, The Red Shoes lacks the warm, human drama of I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and the sublime comedy of a film like A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It’s most similar to Black Narcissus (1947), in which lush visuals eroticized a slight story.

The Red Shoes is beautiful to look at, and the dancing is marvelous, but the story never completely captured my interest, and I found the performances of the actors campy and overblown.

The intense, youthful-looking 51-year-old Austrian actor Anton Walbrook plays composer and ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, the head of the Ballet Lermontov. For him, dance is a religion, and when Lady Neston (Irene Brown) tries to get him to watch her niece dance at a party, he witheringly replies that he doesn’t care to see his religion practiced “in an atmosphere such as this.”

Her niece has real talent, however, and she soon becomes one of Lermontov’s principal dancers. Her name is Victoria Page (“Vicky” for short), and she’s played by the beautiful red-haired ballerina Moira Shearer.

Shearer

Powell and Pressburger wisely chose to cast real ballet dancers who could act a little, rather than actors who could do a little ballet. For the most part it works, but except for Shearer — whose performance in The Red Shoes I find quite wonderful — the ballet dancers don’t have a lot of range as actors.

When there’s no dancing going on in The Red Shoes, things feel a little lifeless. The film is ostensibly about Vicky being torn between her love for the “attractive brute” Lermontov and her love for the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), whose creativity is burgeoning as Lermontov’s is failing. I never felt compelled by either of these relationships, however, and it didn’t help that I found Goring utterly devoid of charisma. It also doesn’t help that this plot device kicks in too late in the film to feel authentic.

The Red Shoes is a visual feast with some wonderful ballet sequences, but dramatically, I found it sodden and overlong.

Canon City (June 30, 1948)

Crane Wilbur’s Canon City is a low-budget entry in the docudrama genre, a genre that began in 1945 with the Louis de Rochemont-produced espionage melodrama The House on 92nd Street and enjoyed enormous popularity in post-war Hollywood.

Docudramas were dramatizations of actual events that featured actors but that strove for authenticity by filming in actual locations, using real documents in key scenes, and featuring participants in the case playing themselves in bit parts.

After The House on 92nd Street followed more fact-based spy thrillers like 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and The Iron Curtain (1948), and legal docudramas like Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948).

Some films, like Kiss of Death (1947), T-Men (1947), and The Naked City (1948), were mostly fictional, but were presented in a docudrama fashion and filmed on location to add authenticity to otherwise run-of-the-mill crime stories.

Canon City uses a combination of docudrama techniques. It begins in a straightforward documentary style, and slowly draws us into the fictional world of its incarcerated protagonists. The obligatory scroll of text that opens the film informs the viewer that all events depicted in the film are based on actual events that took place in and around the Colorado State Prison in Canon City on the night of December 30, 1947. (Canon City is pronounced “Canyon City,” and is sometimes spelled Cañon City.) It goes on to say that the convicts shown in the film are the actual convicts involved in the case, and that Roy Best, the warden of the prison, plays himself. Finally, we are told that “the details of the break are portrayed exactly as they occurred and were photographed where they happened.”

Reed Hadley narrates the opening in his signature style (docudramas provided a lot of work for Hadley). He describes the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City as “a home for those who like to have their own way too much, and have taken forbidden steps to achieve their aims. All kinds are here; murderers, kidnappers, thieves, robbers, embezzlers.”

Warden Best and the disembodied voice of Hadley lead the viewer on a tour of the prison, introducing the variety of work that the prisoners do and conducting short interviews with actual inmates of various types; a man soon to be paroled, an old man who’s been doing time since 1897, a 14-year-old murderer sentenced to 20-30 years who’s working on a hooked rug in the art shop, and a murderer whose death sentence was commuted to life by the warden, and who now hopes to be paroled in 1949.

We then see the process of nighttime lockdown, and at the 9-minute mark of the film Hadley’s narration introduces the viewer to a pair of inmates with adjoining cells: Jim Sherbondy, a 29-year-old inmate who was sentenced at the age of 17 for killing a police officer, and Johnson, a long-termer who is working on the model of a ship. (His real work — a zip gun — is hidden behind the ship. He’s part of a plan to break out.)

Hadley’s narration doesn’t stop after Sherbondy and Johnson are introduced, and the film continues in a semi-documentary style, but the introduction of these two characters marks the moment when the film moves from fact to fiction. Remember that opening text from the beginning of the film I mentioned? The one that said “The convicts you will see are the actual convicts”?

Well, this was clearly a lie, since Sherbondy and Johnson are both played by actors, not actual convicts. This is par for the course, though. Despite what they invariably claimed, docudramas in the ’40s usually had a tricky relationship with the truth.

I couldn’t figure out who the uncredited actor who plays Johnson is (if you know, please comment on this review), but Sherbondy is played by Scott Brady, the younger brother of notorious tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney. (Lawrence Tierney and Scott Brady’s youngest brother, Edward Tierney, who turned 20 years old in 1948, also had a career in the movies starting in the ’50s.) Brady was born Gerard Kenneth Tierney, and Canon City was his first major film acting role, and the first film in which he was credited as “Scott Brady.” (His first appearance was a small role in Sam Newfield’s 1948 film The Counterfeiters, in which he was credited as “Gerard Gilbert.”)

Brady bears an uncanny resemblance to his older brother, but his face is a little softer and more innocent-looking, which works well for his role in Canon City. Sherbondy is a reluctant participant in the breakout. He has a job in the prison’s photography shop working in the darkroom, which is the perfect place for the conspirators to hide a load of zip guns, since the darkroom requires guards to wait outside until it’s safe to turn the lights on and open the door.

I wonder if anyone who saw Canon City during its initial theatrical run noticed Brady’s resemblance to Lawrence Tierney, or if there were any astute viewers who noticed the slim, bespectacled Whit Bissell and said to themselves, “Hey, wasn’t that guy in Brute Force?”

I also wonder how many viewers didn’t specifically recognize any of the actors but were able to tell that they were watching actors and not the actual participants in the case. And if they did, did they feel cheated after the opening claim of total and complete veracity?

I wonder these things because I do think that Canon City is remarkably skillful in the way it draws the viewer in and the way it manages to feel raw and real throughout. A little before the half-hour mark, the breakout kicks into high gear with an assault on a guard and a furious rush to fit all the pieces of the plan together. For nearly an hour, Canon City is as tense a picture as one could ask for. A dozen men pour out into a snowy night, disguised as prison guards. The prison alarm tolls throughout the small town. Terrified moviegoers swarm out of a theater whose marquee shows the Abbott and Costello comedy The Noose Hangs High (which wasn’t released until the spring of 1948, incidentally) and people on the streets rush to get home. But home offers no solace, as the convicts break into house after house looking for shelter, food, and weapons.

The cinematographer of Canon City was John Alton, who was responsible for brilliant work on many film noirs (most notably his collaborations with Anthony Mann). There aren’t a lot of memorable “noir” setups in Canon City, but overly stylized lighting wouldn’t have fit with the docudrama approach to the material. The darkness and the driving blizzard are terrifying enough filmed in a straightforward fashion. Canon City is the kind of movie where the cold gets into your bones just watching it.

Canon City is a film that is dated in many ways, but it still packs a punch if you can go along with the semi-documentary style. Writer-director Crane Wilbur gets the most out of his limited budget by filming inside the prison and in the rugged beauty of the southern Colorado landscape around Cañon City, and the pacing is swift and brutal once the breakout occurs.

Oh, and if you’re a Star Trek fan, keep your eyes peeled for a young DeForest Kelley as one of the dozen escapees.

Shed No Tears (June 9, 1948)

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times … only a chump fakes his own death.

And yet, that’s exactly what Sam Grover (Wallace Ford) does in the very first scene of Jean Yarbrough’s Shed No Tears. He sets fire to his hotel room and leaves a cadaver behind as he sneaks out the back way. It’s all part of a scheme he’s cooked up with his wife Edna, an icy blonde played by June Vincent, whose best-known film noir performance was probably in Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946).

Edna is as young and beautiful as Sam Grover is middle-aged and schlubby. When an old woman on the bus sees Sam looking adoringly at a picture of Edna, she asks him if it’s a picture of his daughter. “My granddaughter,” he responds with a sigh.

If you’ve ever seen a B noir before, you’ll know that Edna’s up to no good before Sam even kicks over the flaming wastebasket in his hotel room, but all doubt is erased a few minutes into the film when Sam scurries off to hide out and Edna falls into the well-muscled arms of her handsome young boyfriend Ray (Mark Roberts, listed in the credits as “Robert Scott”).

The plot thickens when Sam’s adult son, Tom (Dick Hogan), suspects foul play and engages the services of a slippery and pompous private investigator named Huntington Stewart (Johnstone White). Meanwhile, Sam grows restless in hiding and gets itchier and itchier as he waits for Edna to come through with the insurance dough for his “death.”

Shed No Tears is based on the novel by Don Martin. Its dialogue is heavy on exposition, but the editing and visual storytelling are tight. The acting by everyone except the always dependable Wallace Ford is merely passable, with Dick Hogan’s stilted performance qualifying as the most egregious. I suspect that he was cast more for his cute little face than for his acting ability. Incidentally, this was one of Hogan’s last roles. After Shed No Tears he would go on to appear in the Alan Ladd vehicle Beyond Glory (1948) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), in which he played the murder victim.

Shed No Tears never rises above the level of a B-movie programmer, but for what it is, it’s an entertaining 70-minute melodrama. It’s in the public domain, and there’s an OK-looking DVD available from Alpha Home Entertainment that was transferred from a 16mm print. There are also a few versions currently streaming on YouTube:

Raw Deal (May 26, 1948)

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.

Ruthless (April 16, 1948)

He wasn’t a man … he was a way of life.

The last line of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless could have been the capper to an epic tale of striving and loss, but after almost one hour and 45 minutes of not-quite-there dramaturgy and characters that seem more like symbols and types than actual people, that last line rings utterly false.

Ulmer is a good director — he’s been called “the poet of Poverty Row” — but nothing he’s made since Detour (1945) has really struck a chord with me.

Detour is not only one of my favorite film noirs, but one of my favorite films, period, and would easily make the list of my top 10 favorite films of all time.

I liked both The Strange Woman (1946) and Carnegie Hall (1947), but neither ascended to the pulpy, brilliant heights of Detour. It’s been more than 15 years since I saw Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), but I remember loving it. The wonderful lead performances by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff didn’t hurt, but Ulmer’s direction and surreal set pieces took it to a level that most Universal horror films can’t match. His dreamy horror film Bluebeard (1944), which starred John Carradine, is good too.

My point is that Ulmer is a director capable of great stuff, but Ruthless doesn’t show him in top form. Based on Dayton Stoddart’s 1945 novel Prelude to Night, the film is a series of flashbacks that tell of the merciless rise to power of Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott).

The film begins with a glamorous party at Horace Vendig’s palatial seaside manor. He has thrown the party to coincide with his announcement that he is handing over all his wealth and possessions to world peace organizations. Among the guests are Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) and his date, Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn). Vic is Horace’s oldest friend, and his reappearance stirs up old wounds and painful memories.

Horace was an unwanted child. His parents (played by Raymond Burr and Joyce Arling) split up, and both of them were more interested in their own love affairs than in their son. But after Horace saves a girl named Martha Burnside (played as a child by Ann Carter), her parents accepted him as their own child, which allowed him to attend Harvard and make his mark in society. Incidentally, young Horace is played by Robert J. Anderson, who also played James Stewart as a young man in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

In the series of flashbacks that follow Horace’s childhood, Zachary Scott and Louis Hayward play the younger versions of themselves and Diana Lynn, who plays Mallory, also plays the grown-up Martha Burnside. I’m not sure what the point of this dual role was. The two characters aren’t related, and if Mallory’s resemblance to Martha is meant to remind Horace of everything he has lost then not enough comes of it.

Horace’s ruthless business machinations and his seduction of women are inextricable. When he’s used a woman for all the social advancement she’s worth, he throws her aside for his next conquest.

The film’s theme of sex & business is made most literal in the sequence in which Horace takes over the entire financial empire of Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet) by seducing his wife Christa (Lucille Bremer). With her comes everything. She tells Buck that she couldn’t transfer her affection to Horace without also transferring her loyalty, but the idea that she holds the key to all of Buck’s assets is still pretty far-fetched. She eventually wises up, as all of Horace’s women do, and she screams at him, “From the first moment you weren’t kissing me, you were kissing forty-eight percent!”

On the IMDb page for Ruthless, there are many user reviews that proclaim the film a classic, and nearly the equal of Citizen Kane (1941). I don’t know what movie these people saw, and can only ascribe their enthusiasm for Ruthless to the deep desire that lies in the heart of every cinéaste to champion an unfairly neglected film.

Besides the style of the film, which is passable but nowhere near the technical brilliance of a film like Kane, the lead performance of Zachary Scott is too one-note to ever make the viewer truly hate or love Horace Vendig. (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the scenes of Horace’s childhood, in which another actor plays him, are the most moving and compelling of the film.)

Scott crafts a character who is by no means likeable, but there’s also nothing particularly interesting or profound about his plutomania, and I could never dredge up the depth of feelings that his friend Vic experiences, making the “tragic” events of the film’s climax more laughable than sad.

Open Secret (Jan. 31, 1948)

The years following World War II gave us a number of films that explored anti-Semitism in America. On the top of the heap were Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), a thoughtful, Oscar-winning drama, and Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947), a taut, Oscar-nominated thriller.

On the bottom of the bill, so to speak, were movies like the Monogram cheapie Violence (1947), which was about a cabal of American fascists who were dedicated to preserving “America for Americans,” although the film never really got into specifics about who they intended to preserve it from.

John Reinhardt’s Open Secret, on the other hand, is just as cheap as Violence (possibly even cheaper), but it’s very specific about who its anti-Semitic antagonists hate.

Open Secret grabs viewers right from the beginning with a pre-credits sequence. (A rare occurrence in movies made in the ’40s.) A man walks into the back room of a bar, where a group of men sit around a poker table, and stands in the shadows, his face hidden. The camera pans across the men’s faces until one of the men finally speaks. “He’s guilty,” he says. “Well, get going,” says the man in the shadows. The men get going, and walk by Marathon Pictures Presents painted on the side of a fence like “Kilroy Was Here.”

The following 66 minutes of Open Secret don’t always live up to to the exciting promise of the first 2, but it’s briskly paced and features a good lead performance by the always-dependable John Ireland. He’s reunited with Jane Randolph, his co-star from Railroaded (1947). They play a newlywed couple, Paul and Nancy Lester, who are the polar opposites of the boozy thugs they played in Railroaded.

Faced with a hotel shortage on their honeymoon, Paul and Nancy stay with Paul’s old friend Ed Stevens (Charles Waldron Jr.), and are shocked when they find pamphlets in his apartment with titles like “The White Knight” and “Were the Nuremberg Trials Fair?”

“Somebody probably stuffed them in his mailbox. Must be. Ed isn’t like that,” Paul says to his wife.

Open Secret has all the hallmarks of a B picture. Like similar offerings from Monogram Pictures and P.R.C., the sets look like they’d fall over if one of the actors sneezed, the music is obtrusive, and the supporting players’ acting is more wooden than a Louisville Slugger. But on the plus side it has an interesting premise, a decent script, and the “star” players are all convincing. I always enjoy seeing Sheldon Leonard (he plays a detective in Open Secret), and George Tyne, who plays Harry Strauss, the proprietor of a camera shop, is also good.

Strauss is targeted by his prejudiced neighbors, not only because he’s Jewish, but because he’s in possession of some damning photographic evidence.

Open Secret is also interesting because it’s the earliest film I’ve seen in which a television is present. There’s a scene in Strauss’s shop that shows him and another man watching a baseball game on the television behind his counter. Full-scale commercial television broadcasting began in 1947, and televisions started showing up in large numbers in bars, hotels, and private homes, but Open Secret is the first film in which I’ve seen characters watching television.

Excluding science-fiction films, does anyone know of an earlier film that showed people watching television? If you do, please comment.

T-Men (Dec. 15, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s T-Men sneaks up on you like a sap-wielding mug in a dark alley.

For the first 10 minutes or so, it seems like just another docudrama about the heroic exploits of undercover government agents — like Henry Hathaway’s films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) — right down to the stentorian voice-over narration by Reed Hadley, the guy who always did the stentorian narration in patriotic docudramas.

The title and opening credits of the film appear superimposed over the Seal of the United States Department of the Treasury as triumphant music plays. Then a disclaimer appears explaining that all the U.S. currency in the film was reproduced with special permission of the Treasury Department, and that reproduction of said currency is strictly prohibited. (Don’t film yourself fanning out a bunch of sawbucks at home, kids!)

Then the former chief coordinator of the law enforcement agencies of the Treasury Department, Elmer Lincoln Irey, haltingly reads from a piece of paper and explains the six units of the Treasury Department: “The Intelligence Unit, which tracks down income tax violators, the Customs Agency Service, with the border patrol, which fights smuggling, the Narcotics Unit, the Secret Service, which guards the president and ferrets out counterfeiters, the Alcohol Tax unit, which uncovers bootleggers, and the Coast Guard. These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard.” (Incidentally, the mild-looking, bespectacled Irey was one of the men who brought down Capone. He also worked on the Lindbergh kidnapping case.)

Irey goes on to say that what we’re about to see is called “The Shanghai Paper Case,” a composite of actual counterfeiting cases tackled by the Treasury Department.

Over the course of the first couple of reels, however, it becomes clear that T-Men is a very different film from The House on 92nd Street, and that its dry, fact-filled introduction is only the tip of the iceberg.

Although Reed Hadley’s hokey narration occasionally dominates the proceedings, the script is tight and the actors are all excellent. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder, who play undercover treasury agents Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro, are solidly believable, and Wallace Ford — who plays “The Schemer” — is always fun to watch, but for my money, the most memorable character in the film is “Moxie,” played by the granite-jawed Charles McGraw. Moxie is a merciless thug who shoots men dead without blinking, breaks fingers as easily as he asks questions, and boils a man to death in a steam bath without changing his expression.

But it’s not just the sudden, brutal acts of violence or the sense of paranoia that suffuses T-Men that set it apart from other films of its ilk, it’s also the dimly lit, “you are there” cinematography by John Alton.

Director Mann and the studio had faith in Alton, and pretty much let him do whatever he wanted. Alton, quoted in the press book for T-Men,* said “…we shot scenes just as they came along. We shot under all conditions. Some of our night shots were made without any lights at all. I know some people thought the scenes wouldn’t match and it would turn out to be a horrible mess. Fortunately, it turned out as I was sure it would.”

T-Men was Mann’s first collaboration with Alton, but it wouldn’t be his last. Together they would go on to make Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) (which Alfred Werker directed and Mann co-directed), Reign of Terror (1949), Border Incident (1949), and Devil’s Doorway (1950).

Alton and Mann’s contribution to what we now call “film noir” is enormous. T-Men is a great picture. It’s tense, violent, and looks amazing. Despite its low budget, it was a big hit when it was released, and it’s still fresh today.

*And cribbed by yours truly from Alan K. Rode’s fantastic book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy.

Repeat Performance (May 22, 1947)

The stars look down on New Year’s Eve in New York. They say that fate is in the stars, that each of our years is planned ahead, and nothing can change destiny. Is that true? How many times have you said, “I wish I could live this year over again”? This is the story of a woman who did relive one year of her life. It’s almost midnight, and that’s where our story begins.

A shot rings out. Beautiful stage actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) has just killed her alcoholic, cheating husband Barney Page (Louis Hayward) in self-defense. Distraught, she flees and finds herself in the midst of New Year’s Eve revelers. She wades through the crowd and finds her friend, the troubled poet William Williams (Richard Basehart).

She tells him what happened. “Should I call the police?” she asks.

“Oh heavens no,” he says. “They’d only arrest you for murder. They’ve got such one-track minds.”

Instead, William suggests that she see the influential and wise theatrical agent John Friday (Tom Conway) and ask his advice. On the way, she wishes that she could somehow live the past year all over again, and never go to London, where her husband Barney met the scheming adventuress Paula Costello (Virginia Field). Things would be different for William, too, who is fated to be committed to an insane asylum by a woman named Eloise Shaw (Natalie Schafer).

To Sheila’s surprise, William is no longer standing behind her when she arrives at John Friday’s flat, and she’s suddenly wearing a different evening dress. Furthermore, John insists that it’s only the first day of 1946, not the first day of 1947.

Once Sheila wraps her head around what has happened, she realizes what a rare gift she’s been given, and sets out to make things turn out right this time around.

But she quickly finds that events are conspiring to work themselves out the same way, no matter what she does. She doesn’t need to go to London with Barney to make Paula Costello a part of her life, because Paula knocks on the wrong door when she’s in Greenwich Village in New York, and winds up at Sheila and Barney’s party.

Sheila confides in her friend William, who doesn’t quite believe her cock-eyed story, but is sensitive and open-minded enough to listen to her when she tells him what she thinks will happen. “Barney will fall in love with that woman, William. He’ll go on drinking, become a hopeless alcoholic. He’ll grow to hate me. He’ll try to kill me. I’ve got to escape all that, William.”

Sheila vows that she won’t act in Paula’s play, Say Goodbye, which she did the first time she lived through 1946. She and Barney move to Los Angeles, where he stops drinking and gets back to work on his second play. For awhile, it seems as if Sheila will escape her fate, but then a package arrives. It’s a brilliant new play, Barney declares, but there’s no author’s name on it. “What’s the title?” asks Sheila in horror. “It’s called ‘Say Goodbye,’” Barney responds innocently.

Alfred Werker’s Repeat Performance is very much like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. The narrator, John Ireland, even sounds a little like Rod Serling. It’s a tricky, clever film with hints of metafiction, particularly in the scene in which Sheila says she doesn’t want to play an actress because audiences don’t like actresses as characters.

It’s a wonderful film that stands up to multiple viewings. It doesn’t need to be seen twice to be appreciated, but if you do watch it twice, you’ll catch many bits of dialogue that have a deeper layer of meaning once you know how everything will end.

Walter Bullock’s script, from a novel by William O’Farrell, is intelligent, and does an excellent job of balancing its science-fiction elements with its human drama. The acting is great, too, especially by Louis Hayward, who gives a weird and brilliant performance as Sheila’s unlikable but ultimately tragic husband Barney.

A Matter of Life and Death (Dec. 25, 1946)

Stairway to Heaven
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Archers / Eagle-Lion / Universal Pictures

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s brilliant fantasy A Matter of Life and Death premiered in the United Kingdom on November 1, 1946, and later that year in New York City, on Christmas day, retitled Stairway to Heaven. (After World War II, the word “death” was verboten in film titles for awhile in the United States.)

The film begins with the following statement: “This is a story of two worlds — the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.” It’s a playful opening, and can be interpreted in more than one way. “The Archers” (the name Powell and Pressburger used for their partnership) had a light touch, and were able to weave magical realism into their stories without ever seeming childish or silly.

After a cheeky narrated tour through the cosmos, we see Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), his Lancaster bomber in flames and about to crash. Peter’s parachute is shot too full of holes to function properly, and he is desperately trying to reach someone on the radio. Next to him lies the body of Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote). Peter manages to get in touch with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and pours out his heart to her. Finally, he professes his love before leaping out of the bomber without a parachute.

The scene in which Niven wakes up in the pounding surf and believes himself in the afterlife is a masterpiece of subtle humor. He stands, breathes deeply, and walks toward the beach with a beatific gaze, shedding his earthly raiments. The first person he sees is a boy playing a pipe, tending sheep, so why wouldn’t he think he’s passed on to his final reward?

Meanwhile, his mate Bob finds himself in the “other place,” an otherworldly bureacracy in which angel wings arrive en masse on long runners, ready to be attached to newly arrived bodies, and businesslike clerks take names and hand out assignments. Bob is told that there was a clerical error that caused Peter to fall through the cracks, and that he’ll need to be collected forthwith.

The scenes on terra firma are filmed in beautiful Technicolor, while the scenes in the afterlife are filmed in black and white. (Technically it’s “monochrome Technicolor,” not proper black and white, but since I’m not as big of a film nerd as Martin Scorsese, I couldn’t tell the difference.) It’s a simple but brilliant stylistic choice, and it’s way ahead of its time. Films in the ’30s or ’40s that mixed black and white with color film invariably depicted the fantastical world in color and the prosaic world in black and white. To do it the other way around looks forward to the ’80s, when black and white was coming back into vogue, and filmmakers like Scorsese and David Lynch showed just how surreal and otherworldly black and white film could look.

Kim Hunter and David Niven

June and Peter fall in love, but for Peter, time occasionally stops all around him while a ridiculous French aristocrat from the other world known as “Conductor 71″ (Marius Goring), pays him visits.

June’s friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) believes that Peter’s visions aren’t supernatural, but symptoms of a brain injury. Eventually this “matter of life and death” comes to a head as Peter is operated on in our world while simultaneously facing trial in the other.

A Matter of Life and Death is a fantastic film that is satisfying on both a technical level and an emotional level. The performances are all wonderful, and Powell and Pressburger are masterful filmmakers.

Incidentally, in a 2004 poll of 25 film critics in Britain’s Total Film magazine, A Matter of Life and Death was named the second greatest British film of all time, sandwiched between Get Carter (#1) and Trainspotting (#3).

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