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Tag Archives: Elisha Cook Jr.

The Long Night (May 28, 1947)

Anatole Litvak’s The Long Night is a remake of Marcel Carné’s 1939 drama Le Jour se lève. It stars Henry Fonda, Ann Dvorak, Vincent Price, and Barbara Bel Geddes in her screen debut.

Litvak, who was born in Kiev, worked in the Soviet cinema system in Leningrad, in the pre-war film industry of Berlin, in France after Hitler’s rise to power, and finally in Hollywood, where he became a contract director for Warner Bros. in 1937. Litvak became an American citizen in 1940, enlisted in the Army, and worked with Frank Capra on his Why We Fight series of short films. Litvak finished the war with the rank of colonel and returned to directing Hollywood features. Two of his most famous films would follow — Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948).

The Long Night, his first post-war feature, is less well-known. For a long time, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who remembered seeing it. But thanks to a pristine print on DVD from Kino Video (released in 2000 along with a VHS version), this flawed but worthwhile drama is now widely available. In the special features section of the Kino DVD, there are a couple of side-by-side comparisons with Le Jour se lève — a murder sequence in a darkened stairwell and the first meeting of the two lovers — that show how heavily Litvak borrowed from Carné’s film, at least stylistically. (The ending of The Long Night is radically different from the ending of Le Jour se lève, however, which is a standard practice in Hollywood remakes of depressing European art films.)

Despite the happy ending, Litvak infuses The Long Night with a pervasive sense of doom. After shooting a man in his apartment building in an unnamed steel town somewhere near the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line, Joe Adams (Henry Fonda) sits alone in his rented room, the door barricaded as police and onlookers swarm the street below his window. Accompanied by a refrain from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Joe tells his story through flashbacks, and we learn what brought him to this desperate place. “How can I explain when I don’t understand myself?” he thinks to himself.

Joe Adams grew up in an orphanage. “Class of ’34,” he tells the pretty young Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes) when he meets her. (We must presume that Joe is younger than the man who plays him, since Fonda was 29 years old in 1934.) Jo Ann also came from the orphanage, and her romance with Joe is simple, childlike, and profound. Fonda plays Joe as a sweet-natured boy with no ability to plan long-term or handle disappointment or frustration. Bel Geddes plays Jo Ann in much the same way, but instead of being petulant she is naïve and unworldly, and open to the manipulation of a slimy magician named Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price).

Maximilian is a congenital liar. His relationship with Jo Ann is nebulous for some time in the film. He first tells Joe that Jo Ann is his daughter, but that he had to go on the road for 15 years and leave her in the company of strangers. After another series of flashbacks, however, it becomes clear that Maximilian and Jo Ann were romantically involved. He took her to see the Cleveland Symphony when she had never been as far west as Pittsburgh, and forced himself on her when she had never been kissed. Jo Ann was uncomfortable with Maximilian’s actions, but she was also lonely, and Maximilian offered her a world of excitement and glamor.

The visual style of The Long Night, its doomed protagonist buffeted by forces outside of his control, and its story told through flashbacks are all hallmarks of film noir, but it also has elements of social realism. For instance, Joe befriends Maximilian’s assistant Charlene (played by the always wonderful Ann Dvorak). He lies on her bed on a Sunday afternoon, reading the funnies, in her crummy room full of clutter, next to a couple of big bottles of beer and a bag of pretzels he brought for them to eat. She provides a stack of toast. She’s in the bath when he arrives, and throws on a slinky silk robe. It’s unclear how close Joe and Charlene really are, but the realism of the setting and the intimacy of the situation push the limits of Hays Code acceptability.

Along with the realism and intimacy of some of the interior settings, there’s plenty of artifice in The Long Night. Unlike the typical Hollywood production in which backdrops were either matte paintings or rear-projection film, production designer Eugène Lourié used elaborate sets with tricks of forced perspective in The Long Night. For example, a factory on a hillside in the distance is really a small model that could be lit in whichever way the filmmakers wanted. Lourié and Litvak intended to achieve a kind of “poetic reality,” and they succeeded. At the same time, the artifice sometimes clashes with the realism, and when it does the film feels aimless.

The Long Night was a commercial and critical failure, and lost approximately $1 million, but it was also the springboard for Barbara Bel Geddes’s long onscreen career. After seeing her performance in the film, RKO signed her to a seven-picture deal.

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.

The Big Sleep (Aug. 31, 1946)

The Big Sleep is a classic of the mystery and noir genres. Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is one of cinema’s most memorable shamuses (a term which everyone in this movie pronounces “shah-mus,” not “shay-mus”). It’s also one of the most quotable movies of all time. When asked how he likes his brandy, Marlowe says, “In a glass.” After an encounter with a young coquette, Marlowe says, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”

And it’s not just Marlowe who gets all the good lines. Nearly every character in the movie makes an impression, even the ones who are only onscreen for a few minutes. Aging cowboy actor Bob Steele, whom I’ve recently seen in several forgettable B westerns, plays steely-eyed killer Lash Canino with icy resolve, and delivers lines like, “What do you want me to do, count three like they do in the movies?” in a way that makes you believe him.

It’s also a great showcase for Lauren Bacall and her chemistry with Bogart. She was still finding her way as an actress, but as Mrs. Vivian Rutledge, the older daughter of Marlowe’s client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), her star quality is undeniable. Beautiful and statuesque, with a deep, sexy voice, she doesn’t “perform” as much as she merely exists. After appearing together in To Have and Have Not (1944), Bacall and Bogart famously fell in love, got married, and — despite their nearly 25-year age difference and his three previous marriages that all ended in divorce — remained married to each other until Bogart’s death early in 1957. Of course, in 1945 no one knew whether their marriage would stand the test of time, but that didn’t stop America and the rest of the movie-going world from falling head over heels in love with “Bogie and Bacall.”

Just 20 years old when she made this film, and reportedly still extremely nervous in front of the camera, her performance was disparaged by many critics, most notoriously by infamous NY Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowther, who wrote in his August 24, 1946, review (published a day after the film’s premiere), “Miss Bacall is a dangerous looking female, but she still hasn’t learned to act.”

Time has proven this criticism unfair, and to be honest, Bogart wasn’t the greatest actor to appear onscreen either. But he was — and is — one of the biggest movie stars of all time. It doesn’t matter that his portrayal of Marlowe isn’t significantly different from his portrayal of Dashiell Hammett’s very different P.I., Sam Spade, in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), because he is believable as both. In each of these iconic performances, he serves as the anchor for all of the seamy characters and twisting plot elements swirling around him.

The plot of The Big Sleep is notoriously byzantine. In his review of the film, Crowther wrote, “This is a frequent failing in films made from Raymond Chandler’s books … if you haven’t read the original, as we haven’t, you are stuck.” It’s possible that Crowther never read any of Chandler’s mysteries that were published before this film was released; The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). If he had, he might have known that the plots of all of the Philip Marlowe mysteries were incredibly confusing, and that having read one of Chandler’s books was no guarantee that you would understand a film adaptation of it any better than the illiterate person in the seat next to you.

I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and frequently get details of the two novels confused with each other. This would be a criticism if the point of Chandler’s novels were “whodunnit,” but it never was. Plot was secondary to the writing itself, and to the colorful characters who Marlowe met in the course of his investigations. After reading Farewell, My Lovely, you may forget who did what to whom, but you’re much less likely to forget the first appearance of the hulking Moose Malloy, “not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck … arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.”

The dark underbelly of Los Angeles was another thing that Chandler evoked brilliantly, and his convoluted plots helped create a sense of constant movement beneath the surface, and of dark goings-on that even his superlative hero could never fully unravel.

Even Howard Hawks, the director of The Big Sleep, was confused by the novel he was adapting. When he wired Chandler to ask who had killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur, whose corpse is found floating in his sunken car, Chandler replied, “No idea.”

The screenplay by Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman, is a fairly faithful adaptation of its source material, although a few significant elements of the novel (e.g., homosexuality, pornography) were perforce glossed over. But there is one significant moment in which Marlowe sits down in the office of the D.A. and the viewer is led to expect that a recitation of the facts of the case is about to occur. Instead, the screen fades to black, and we rejoin our hero after any explanation has come and gone.

I believe that this scene remained intact in the film’s original version. The Big Sleep was originally shot during World War II, but with the end of the war approaching and a backlog of war films in the can, Warner Bros. released one war picture after another before the public’s appetite for them could diminish too much. A mystery picture like this one, on the other hand, was relatively timeless. (Astute viewers, however, will notice a photograph of President Roosevelt hanging in a bookstore, a reference to “red points,” and the presence of a female cab driver.) Starting in January 1946, many key scenes were reshot to focus more on Bogart and Bacall, and make their romance one of the focal points of the film.

Consequently, several scenes involving the coquette I mentioned in the first paragraph, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), were left on the cutting room floor, which is too bad. Not only is she beautiful, she’s an interesting and flawed tragic character. Also, the plot was probably made even more confusing. But whether it makes for a less satisfying overall film is debatable. As with Chandler’s novels, the plot is not really that important.

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