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Tag Archives: Film Noir

Stray Dog (Oct. 17, 1949)

Stray Dog
Stray Dog (1949)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Toho Company

Akira Kurosawa’s ninth film is one of my personal favorites. I love a good police procedural, and Stray Dog is one of the best.

Kurosawa originally wrote Stray Dog as a novel. He was influenced by the Inspector Maigret novels by French writer Georges Simenon. In the 1960s, in an interview with Donald Richie, Kurosawa expressed his disappointment about the film. “I wanted to make a film in the manner of Simenon, but I failed,” he said. “Everybody likes the picture, but I don’t.”

I think it’s good for artists to be their own harshest critics, but in this case I think the public is right. Kurosawa may have failed to make the film he wanted, but he succeeded in making a great film nevertheless. For my money, Stray Dog and Drunken Angel (1948) are Kurosawa’s two earliest masterpieces.

Like The Naked City (1948), which was one of the first police procedural movies, Stray Dog pairs an older, seasoned detective with a younger, inexperienced detective. They’re played by Kurosawa regulars Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune.

If you’ve seen Seven Samurai (1954), you know Shimura as the de facto leader of the samurai (he’s the one with the shaved head) and you know Mifune as the wild and unpredictable odd man out.

Shimura and Mifune played variations on this relationship in numerous Kurosawa films. In Drunken Angel Shimura was an alcoholic physician who struggled to convince the swaggering young gangster played by Mifune that he had to treat his tuberculosis. In The Quiet Duel (1949), Mifune played a young surgeon desperate to keep his syphilis infection a secret, and Shimura played his father and the head of their medical practice.

In Stray Dog, Shimura plays Detective Sato and Mifune plays Detective Murakami. Their relationship has elements from their previous two collaborations with Kurosawa, but there’s a playfulness and sense of humor that was absent from both Drunken Angel and The Quiet Duel.

Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket

The film begins when Murakami’s service weapon is stolen, and Murakami’s shame is more than he can bear. The little .25 caliber Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket was lifted by a pickpocket on a crowded bus. Its magazine was loaded with all seven rounds. After the weapon is used in a mugging, Murakami writes a resignation letter, but his lieutenant rips up the letter and advises him that catching the thief would be a better form of penance.

Stray Dog presents a panoramic view of postwar Japan. Unlike the huge cesspool in Drunken Angel that functioned as a grim and fairly obvious metaphor for life during the American occupation, Stray Dog presents a world that has changed forever, in ways both good and bad.

After Murakami makes a positive identification of a female suspect, another detective who is familiar with the woman is surprised to learn that she was wearing a dress, since she always wore a kimono in the past. Murakami assures the older detective that she was wearing a Western-style dress, and that she had a perm and stank of perfume. The older detective shakes his head and observes that times have certainly changed.

When Murakami goes undercover to track the passage of the stolen pistol through the black market, we see one destitute person after another in a series of dissolves. Life is not easy for most people after the war.

But there’s also the sense of life returning to normal. Sato and Murakami track a suspect to a baseball game and keep him under observation in the stands. This tense sequence features seamlessly integrated 16mm footage of an actual game between the Nankai Hawks and the Yomiuri Giants. The players all have numbers on their uniforms, which was forbidden as “too individualistic” during World War II.

Sato and Murakami

I think that Stray Dog presents a more realistic view of police psychology than The Naked City. After Murakami and Sato narrow down their search to a single suspect, Murakami feels sympathy for the man. Like Murakami, the criminal is also a returning serviceman, and Murakami thinks that he could have easily become a criminal if he hadn’t become a cop. As his stolen Colt is used in a series of increasingly brutal crimes, he feels responsible for each one. Sato tells him to leave the psychoanalysis to detective novels and just focus on arresting the bad guys. Sato says that Murakami will never forget his first arrest, but after each subsequent collar he will grow less and less sentimental.

Sato has a much lighter touch than Murakami. When we first see him, he is laughing and sharing popsicles with the female suspect who Murakami got nothing from after leaning on her too hard. Sato’s way with suspects appears more lenient than Murakami’s, but it’s because he has a much better idea of what he’s doing.

Murakami is dogged but fairly incompetent in the early stretches of the film, but as he learns from Sato he becomes more patient and observant. A young person learning from a seasoned veteran is one of the oldest stories in the book, but it’s a damned good one when told well, and Kurosawa told stories extremely well.

Mifune

In addition to the convincing performances and the involving story, Stray Dog is a triumph of atmosphere. The film takes place in the hottest days of summer, and Kurosawa never lets the viewer forget it. The opening shot is a closeup of a dog lying on the ground and panting. The first words we hear from the narrator are, “It was an unbearably hot day.” In nearly ever scene there is something that conveys the humidity and languor — people fanning themselves, sweat glistening on faces and staining clothing, men mopping themselves with handkerchiefs and rolling up their sleeves. When a chorus of scantily clad showgirls led by the beautiful and petulant Harumi Namaki (Keiko Awaji) traipse off stage and collapse on the floor, their flesh is beaded with perspiration.

At just over two hours, Stray Dog is a long movie, but even in the stretches where not much happens there’s always a sense of forward movement conveyed by well-paced edits, frequent dissolves, and wipes to transition from one scene to another. (Kurosawa loved wipes.)

Fumio Hayasaka’s score conveys tension and excitement, but it’s used judiciously. Kurosawa also makes great use of diegetic music in the film’s two climactic scenes. In the first, the heat has finally broken and there is a tremendous rainstorm as the radio in a hotel lobby plays Sebastián Yradier’s “La Paloma” in the background. In the second climactic scene, Murakami confronts his quarry behind a house where a young woman is playing Friedrich Kuhlau’s Sonatina in C Major, Op. 20 No. 1. The music tinkles out of an open window, its serenity at odds with the violent confrontation that is about to explode.

Stray Dog is one of the best police procedurals of all time, but like a lot of great films it transcends its own genre to tell a universal story.

Starting in 1950 with Rashômon, Kurosawa would gain more and more attention worldwide as he produced one great film after another. Stray Dog was one of the last films Kurosawa made that was pretty much unknown outside of Japan until the 1960s. It’s still not as widely seen as his best-known films, so if you like Japanese cinema and haven’t seen it yet, you have something to look forward to.

Thieves’ Highway (Oct. 10, 1949)

Thieves' Highway
Thieves’ Highway (1949)
Directed by Jules Dassin
20th Century-Fox

Welcome to the white-knuckle world of trucker noir!

Trucker noir is a sparsely populated subgenre, even though the world of long-haul trucking seems tailor-made for film noir. Truck drivers are blue-collar everymen who push themselves to the limit and exist in a nighttime world where sleep equals death. They battle corrupt syndicates and each other for a little cold hard cash.

And yet, when I was trying to think of great noirs (and not-so-great noirs) specifically about truck drivers, I could only come up with a handful.

The original, and still one of the best, trucker noirs is Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940), which is based on the 1938 novel The Long Haul, by A.I. Bezzerides. Produced by Mark Hellinger and released by Warner Bros., They Drive by Night still stands up as superior entertainment, and was the template for most of the trucker noirs that followed. It stars film-noir mainstays George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as brothers who run a small trucking business in California that carries fresh fruit from farms into the markets of Los Angeles. The beautiful and talented Ann Sheridan plays a truck-stop waitress who takes a shine to Raft, and Ida Lupino — one of my favorite actresses from the classic noir cycle — is the femme fatale who wants to get her claws into Raft.

Other noirish tales of brave men fighting rackets and trying to stay awake through the night include Truck Busters (1943) (directed by B. Reeves Eason), Speed to Spare (1948), and Highway 13 (1948) (both directed by William Berke).

Trucker noir reached its apotheosis in 1953 with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), which was remade by William Friedkin in 1977 as Sorcerer. The Wages of Fear is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of the few thrillers that lives up to the term “edge of your seat.”

Conte and Mitchell

But before that high-water mark, Jules Dassin directed a very good film called Thieves’ Highway. It’s similar in a lot of ways to They Drive by Night, probably because they’re both based on novels by A.I. Bezzerides. Thieves’ Highway is based on Bezzerides’s novel Thieves’ Market, which was published earlier in 1949.

Richard Conte plays Nick Garcos, a Greek-American who has returned home to Fresno, California, after serving overseas. He discovers that his father, Yanko Garcos (Morris Carnovsky), has been crippled following an altercation with the crooked produce distributor Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb).

Nick vows revenge, and teams up with a salty old trucker named Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell) to deliver a big load of Golden Delicious apples to Figlia’s market in San Francisco. Nick drives a military surplus Studebaker US6 and Ed drives an old Mack AB that’s on its last legs.

My favorite sections of Thieves’ Highway are the ones that take place on the road. Jules Dassin’s direction is at its best in these sequences, which are full of tension and drama. There are another pair of wildcatters, Pete (Joseph Pevney) and Slob (Jack Oakie), who are trying to beat Ed and Nick to the San Francisco markets. I love Pevney and Oakie’s performances in this film. Even though they come off as jerks in most of their early scenes, they’re both able to craft fully realized and relatable characters who are as much a part of the fabric of the film as Ed and Nick are.

Lee J Cobb

I also love the scenes in the market, which were shot on location in San Francisco and are dominated by the menacing bonhomie of Lee J. Cobb as Figlia. I’ve never seen Cobb give a bad performance, and Thieves’ Market is no exception.

Ditto for Richard Conte, who plays Nick as a determined guy who doesn’t have a lot of experience, but is good at thinking on his feet and won’t ever back down from a conflict. I love the scene where he snarls the extremely old-school threat, “Touch my truck and I’ll climb into your hair.”

The scenes in the market are punctuated by Nick’s burgeoning love affair with a prostitute named Rica, played by Valentina Cortese. (She’s listed in the credits as Valentina “Cortesa.”) She invites him up to her rented room, and lets him sleep and bathe after spending hundreds of miles on the road. These scenes are strongly reminiscent of the bits in They Drive by Night where Ann Sheridan cares for the bone-tired George Raft, but they’re much more sexually charged. Not only does Nick remove his shirt and allow her to caress him, but it’s brazenly obvious that she’s a prostitute. Figlia even refers to her as a “trick” when he admits to Nick that he paid her to get Nick up to her room.

Valentina Cortese

Dassin directed a bunch of films for MGM before making his two early masterpieces, Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) for Universal with producer Mark Hellinger. He was blacklisted around the time he made Thieves’ Highway, and it would be the last film he directed in Hollywood. (He was still under contract with 20th Century-Fox when he directed his final post-blacklist film, Night and the City, but that movie was shot in London.)

Thieves’ Highway was a modestly budgeted film shot on a very tight schedule, and it suffered some narrative tinkering by Darryl F. Zanuck, but it still stands as a typically great film by Dassin. It’s also an important part of the wave of post-war/pre-HUAC film noirs that explicitly critiqued the American capitalist system.

Thieves’ Highway is a tale of capitalism in miniature. The Golden Delicious apples that Ed and Nick struggle to get to market are a hot but perishable commodity. They’re gambling with their livelihoods and their lives to get them to Figlia’s market as fast as they can. Dassin presents capitalism as an economic structure that, at its best, encourages daring, shrewd negotiation, and hard work. At its worst, it encourages deceit, treachery, and the exploitation and death of laborers as long as there’s a buck to be made.

White Heat (Sept. 2, 1949)

White Heat
White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

White Heat lives up to its name. It starts with a bang and ends with an even bigger bang.

The tempo doesn’t slacken in the middle, either. Director Raoul Walsh had a great sense of scope and pacing, and White Heat is one of his best films.

Walsh is a director I’ve seen a lot of lately. I recently re-watched High Sierra (1941) and watched The Roaring Twenties (1939) for the first time. I’ve also reviewed six of his other films since I started this blog.

I had good things to say about Walsh’s last movie, Colorado Territory (1949), but White Heat is a masterpiece. It features a blistering performance by James Cagney as the psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett and rolls together elements of gangster films, police procedurals, heist movies, prison dramas, and movies about undercover cops.

White Heat brought the era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie to a close, while laying the groundwork for all the crime and heist pictures to come.

Cody Jarrett headline

The era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie began in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar, which made Edward G. Robinson a star, and The Public Enemy, which made James Cagney a star.

As a contract player for Warner Bros. and as an independent actor, Cagney played all types of roles, but his persona is most closely associated with gangster roles in movies like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

White Heat is unique because Cody Jarrett lacks any redeeming characteristics. Unlike his previous gangster roles, where glimmers of humanity and acts of redemptive self-sacrifice were commonplace, in White Heat he’s a trigger-happy psychopath.

Even the thing that should make him more human — his relationship with his mother — is twisted. Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) is just as cold-blooded as her son, and has a more important leadership role in Cody’s gang than his own wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).

In the scene where Cody Jarrett says goodbye to his mother and wife at a drive-in theater, Ma Jarrett is sitting between them and there is clearly more affection between Cody and his Ma than there is between Cody and Verna.

Mayo Wycherly and Cagney

Virginia Mayo was the female lead in Walsh’s previous film, Colorado Territory (which was a loose remake of Walsh’s own film High Sierra), but that role couldn’t have been more different from Verna Jarrett.

In Colorado Territory, she was the ultimate ride-or-die chick, ready and willing to go down in a hail of bullets with her man by her side.

In White Heat she a faithless slattern who’s only out for herself.

She might be a better role model in Colorado Territory, but her performance in White Heat is one for the ages. When we first see her, she’s in bed and snoring. Later, when she’s serving drinks to Cody and another man, she serves herself a big slug of whisky first and gets good and loaded. In one scene, she spits out her chewing gum before kissing Cody. These are all things that were simply not done by Hollywood actresses at the time of the film’s release.

Cagney and OBrien

The memorable villains in White Heat have their stolid good-guy counterpoint in Edmond O’Brien, who plays a Treasury Agent named Hank Fallon. After the daring train heist that opens the film, Cody Jarrett turns himself in for a smaller crime he didn’t commit to beat the bigger rap. The T-men send Fallon into the prison under the name “Vic Pardo” to cozy up to Jarrett. Fallon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s in an interesting situation, and O’Brien excelled at playing Average Joes up to their necks in trouble.

The T-men who back up Fallon are all interchangeable squares, but their methods are fascinating. Police procedurals and docudramas were extremely popular when Walsh directed White Heat, and the film features modern law enforcement techniques like a three-car tail with radio communication to coordinate cars A, B, and C. The police tail that leads up to the climax of the film involves long-range surveillance that uses two electronic oscillators zeroing in on a transmitter secretly placed by Fallon.

Made It Ma

It might be hard for today’s viewers to see, but White Heat was an extremely current film at the time of its release. The law-enforcement methods are modern, and the film playing at the drive-in where Cody says goodbye to Verna and his Ma was a current release, Task Force (1949).

Most importantly, it’s not a story of romantic gangsters who belong to the past. Cody Jarrett is nothing like the tragic gangster Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, who meets his fate on a lonely mountain range. Cody Jarrett’s last stand takes place amid the gleaming silver pipes and Horton spheres of a Shell Oil plant.

There’s nothing romantic or tragic about Cody Jarrett’s last stand. It’s a violent, psychopathic “screw you” to the world, and one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.

The Third Man (Aug. 31, 1949)

The Third Man
The Third Man (1949)
Directed by Carol Reed
London Film Productions

OK. True confessions time.

I don’t really like the music in The Third Man.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s catchy as hell and does a good job of establishing the post-war Vienna setting, but I find it wildly at odds with the mood of some of the dramatic scenes. After the first couple of reels I was sick of it. Not because it’s a bad tune, but because of the way it was used in the film.

I know I’m in the minority with this opinion. The music is one of the most commonly praised aspects of the film. The simple zither melodies in The Third Man made the previously unknown Viennese musician Anton Karas internationally famous. After the film’s release, “The Harry Lime Theme” — which recurs throughout the picture — sold half a million copies and worldwide sales of zithers reportedly skyrocketed (from their previous sales position of “next to nothing,” one presumes).

I first saw The Third Man about a decade ago. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was a masterpiece.

Recently, I’ve seen more films by the director, Carol Reed, and better come to appreciate his talent. Three years ago I reviewed Odd Man Out (1947) and said that I thought it was better than The Third Man. I wrote, “[James] Mason is a more compelling central presence than any of the actors are in The Third Man, and the music, cinematography, editing, and direction are all tighter in Odd Man Out.”

Last year I reviewed The Fallen Idol (1948). With that review I didn’t take another swipe at The Third Man, and simply said that Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man are “as brilliant a trio of films as any director has ever made.”

I stand by that statement, and I liked The Third Man a lot more this time than the first time I watched it. I don’t like it quite as much as The Fallen Idol, which had more personal resonance for me, but it’s a brilliant film.

Three films in a row that are as good as Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man is an extremely rare feat, and only the greatest of directors have ever pulled it off (like Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick).

Cotten on the stairs

Like The Fallen Idol, The Third Man is a collaboration between Reed and writer Graham Greene. It stars Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, an American writer of popular western novels. Holly Martins arrives in Vienna, looking for his old friend Harry Lime, only to find out that Harry Lime was hit by a car and died a few days before his arrival.

At Harry’s funeral, Holly Martins meets a pair of British Army Police, the stiff-upper-lipped Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) and the more rough-and-tumble Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee). (Incidentally, if you’ve ever seen a James Bond film from the ’60s or ’70s, you’ll recognize Lee as Bond’s superior, “M.”)

Holly Martins also meets Harry Lime’s girlfriend, the beautiful actress Anna Schmidt, who is played by Alida Valli — she’s listed in the credits as simply “Valli,” as she was in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) and the Frank Sinatra shmaltz-fest The Miracle of the Bells (1948).

Eyewitness reports of Harry Lime’s death don’t add up — did only two men spirit his body away from the scene of the accident, or was there a “third man”? Holly Martins begins to suspect that there is more to the story than he’s been told.

Cotten at the fairgrounds

Joseph Cotten has the most screen time in The Third Man, but the presence of the mysterious Harry Lime and the character of postwar Vienna both dominate the film.

Like Germany and Berlin, Austria and Vienna were broken into zones after World War II — British, American, French, and Russian. And just like in Berlin, the black market was booming.

Harry Lime was deeply involved in the black market, and in the worst way possible. He sold penicillin, which was desperately needed, but he diluted it to make more money, and many children and adults died as a result.

Orson Welles shows up late in the film to explicate Harry Lime’s philosophy to Holly Martins, and it’s these lines that are some of the film’s most enduring.

Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.

Welles is a magnetic presence, and his nihilistic philosophy in The Third Man is seductive. I’ve even heard his words quoted as a celebration of death and destruction. (I suppose that like all great art, his speech is what you make of it.)

Third Man sewers

You know what? I take back what I said about the music. I started writing this review last night, and woke up with “The Harry Lime Theme” in my head. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack all morning while finishing this review.

I still find it at odds with the mood of the film, but perhaps a delicious sense of irony was Reed’s intention.

The Third Man is a brilliantly shot, brilliantly acted, and wonderfully involving film.

After three amazing films in a row, I’m really looking forward to seeing Carol Reed’s next picture, Outcast of the Islands (1951), which no one ever talks about.

Mr. Soft Touch (July 28, 1949)

Mr Soft Touch
Mr. Soft Touch (1949)
Directed by Gordon Douglas and Henry Levin
Columbia Pictures

I saw Mr. Soft Touch two weeks ago at the Music Box Theatre, and I loved everything about it.

I couldn’t find many reviews of Mr. Soft Touch online, but most of the reviews I found were lukewarm, and criticized its dichotomous nature. “It can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a film noir or a comedy” seems to be the consensus. Another refrain I saw was “Could have been a holiday classic but misses the mark.”

Most of those reviews blame the fact that the film has two directors.

Well, for once in my life I don’t care what went on behind the scenes, or which director contributed to what parts of the film, because I loved Mr. Soft Touch and I’ll sing its praises from the rooftops.

It probably helped that I saw it on the big screen in a real theater on a gloomy winter afternoon. If it wasn’t a pristine and fully restored 35mm print then it was a damned good facsimile of one. I watch most of the movies I review on DVD (occasionally Blu-ray) or on a streaming service, but that’s out of necessity. If you love classic films there is simply no substitute for the theatrical experience.

Glenn Ford

Mr. Soft Touch stars Glenn Ford as Joe Miracle, a shady character who’s running from the law with a bag full of cash when the movie begins. The opening sequence is suspenseful and features some great San Francisco location shooting. Joe Miracle uses his wits to get through a series of close shaves and eventually winds up hiding out for several days in a settlement house run by a woman named Jenny Jones (Evelyn Keyes).

The settlement house is staffed by Jenny and a group of older women, including actresses Beulah Bondi and Clara Blandick. They tend to the needs of homeless men, juvenile delinquents, and poor immigrants.

For the first reel or two of Mr. Soft Touch I kept waiting for a flashback sequence that would show how Joe Miracle wound up with a bag full of cash, fleeing for his life, and biding his time until he can hop on a steamer bound for Japan. A flashback like that would have been a classic film noir device, but the story unfolds in a linear fashion, and everything is explained along the way.

A bunch of gangland toughs are on Joe’s tail, and they’re led by the always entertaining mug Ted de Corsia. There’s also a muckraking radio reporter, Henry “Early” Byrd (played by a bespectacled John Ireland), who sends warnings to Joe over the airwaves but who might not have Joe’s best interests at heart.

Significantly, Mr. Soft Touch takes place at Christmastime, and adds the layer of “holiday film” to the already rare blending of hard-boiled noir, romantic comedy, and “social issues” picture.

Santa Ford

I got very involved with the story and characters in Mr. Soft Touch. I tend to dislike movies that have an inconsistent tone. Despite the blending of genres, I never felt like the tone of Mr. Soft Touch shifted uncomfortably from one genre to another. It was unpredictable, but it all worked.

I don’t know which director did what, but I never had the sense that there were two different films fighting each other for supremacy. Mr. Soft Touch is all about dualities, though, so perhaps having two directors works in the film’s favor. Joe Miracle’s last name is an Americanization of a much longer Polish surname that starts with the letter M. But it also symbolizes the unexpected gifts of the holiday season, and the element of the unexpected that he brings to Jenny’s settlement house. The title of the film has a double meaning, too. Joe Miracle has hands that can make the dice in a craps game come up the way he wants them, but the title of the film also refers to the goodness lurking behind his tough exterior that Jenny helps expose.

It’s a somewhat odd film, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Too Late for Tears (July 17, 1949)

Too Late for Tears
Too Late for Tears (1949)
Directed by Byron Haskin
United Artists

With Too Late for Tears, director Byron Haskin continued his postwar run of unremarkable but solidly entertaining B movies.

After I Walk Alone (1948) and Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948), I wasn’t expecting anything special from Too Late for Tears. But I was expecting a well-paced, twisty little thriller, and that’s exactly what I got.

Dependable everyman Arthur Kennedy and icy femme fatale Lizabeth Scott play a married couple, Alan and Jane Palmer. One night on a lonely stretch of road in the Hollywood Hills, a huge sum of money literally falls into their laps. They are both tempted by the possibilities that so much cash offers, but they have different ideas about how to proceed. Alan sees nothing but trouble ahead and thinks they should turn the money over to the police. Jane thinks they’d be fools to give it up so easily.

Jane is a striver who’s not above chipping her manicured fingernails to claw her way to the top. She tells Alan that she was never poor, but something much worse — her family was “white-collar poor, middle-class poor,” and they could never quite keep up with the Joneses. Alan tells her there will always be Joneses with more money and shinier toys. Money isn’t the key to happiness.

Lizabeth Scott

Jane disagrees, and the plot of the film is driven by her limitless avarice. Dependable beanpole villain Dan Duryea shows up in the early going as a man named Danny Fuller who’s after the money for his own reasons. He throws his weight around, and attempts to intimidate Jane with harsh words and several slaps to the face.

When she says to him, “What do I call you besides Stupid?” he responds, “Stupid’ll do if you don’t bruise easily. Otherwise you might try Danny.”

But in the great tradition of tough-talking bad guys in film noirs, Danny badly underestimates the craftiness and ruthlessness of the femme fatale in the picture.

Lizabeth Scott appeared in a lot of noirs. She chronically underacted, but it works for movies like Too Late for Tears, which are light on characterization but heavy on plot. In addition to the Palmers and the vicious Danny, there is also Alan’s suspicious sister, Kathy Palmer (Kristine Miller), and the mysterious stranger Don Blake (Don DeFore), who may not be who he claims to be.

Too Late for Tears is not a classic film noir, but it’s a good afternoon time-waster. It premiered in Los Angeles on July 17, 1949, and went into wide release in August. It was re-released in September 1955 under the title Killer Bait. It’s in the public domain, so you can download it from archive.org here: http://archive.org/details/TooLateForTears. You can also watch the film in its entirety on YouTube (link below).

Killer Bait

The Window (May 17, 1949)

The Window
The Window (1949)
Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
RKO Radio Pictures

Ted Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films dating back to the silent era. After shooting Notorious (1946) for Alfred Hitchcock, he moved to directing full time.

Tetzlaff directed a relatively small number of films, but the two I’ve seen so far have both been fantastic. The first was Riffraff (1947), a visually inventive detective thriller in a tropical setting. The second was this one, which I thought was even better than Riffraff.

Apparently The Window was filmed in 1947, but its release was delayed when Howard Hughes acquired RKO Radio Pictures.

The Window is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich called “The Boy Cried Murder” (also reprinted under the title “Fire Escape”). The story was originally published in Mystery Book Magazine in March 1947. The screenplay was adapted from the story by Mel Dinelli, who also scripted the terrific RKO thriller The Spiral Staircase (1945).

The Window opens with a quote from Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I guess they were concerned that people weren’t going to pick up on the concept immediately, so they’d get it out of the way before the movie even started.

Even without the opening text, I don’t think you’d need a PhD in Comp Lit to pick up on the “boy who cried wolf” theme pretty quickly.

The Window stars Bobby Driscoll, a child actor on loan from Disney. Driscoll plays Tommy Woodry, a nine-year-old boy who lives in a working class neighborhood of New York with his parents, Ed and Mary (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale). Tommy is an only child who plays in the street and in an abandoned building with the other boys in the neighborhood. He’s a bright kid, and he loves playing make-believe and telling tall tales.

“If it isn’t Indians it’s gangsters, and if it’s not gangsters it’s something else,” his mother complains. (Incidentally, Barbara Hale was 27 years old when The Window premiered in 1949. Driscoll was 12. What this means is that Kennedy, who plays Driscoll’s dad, would have been 23 when his 14-year-old wife gave birth. In fairness, Hale is made up to look older than she is, and I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to imply statutory rape and teen pregnancy.)

Bobby Driscoll

One sweltering summer night, Tommy asks permission to sleep out on the fire escape because it’s a little cooler outside. He lies down and gazes up at the black sky, pinpoints of stars, and white laundry flapping on a line above him. Still too hot, he climbs up one story to the top floor, where it’s slightly cooler. He drifts off to sleep, but wakes up later and witnesses something terrible. He thinks he sees his neighbors kill a man.

“With all the stories you tell it’s no wonder you have nightmares,” his mother tells him when he wakes her up.

Tommy persists with his story, but his parents refuse to believe him. When he takes his story to the police, it only makes things worse.

The wonderful thing about The Window is how believably adults relate to Tommy. His parents are both patient and understanding people, especially his dad. They’re not clueless buffoons or coldly abusive, the way so many parents are in movies with child protagonists. That they refuse to believe him is not their fault. It’s how the situation would play out in real life.

The police don’t just dismiss his story either. They are kind and indulgent. But when they investigate Tommy’s upstairs neighbors, everything seems to be all right, so they drop the matter. Again, this is probably how the situation would play out in real life.

The Window is genuinely suspenseful, and it has a fairly shocking climax. This is one of those films where everything comes together perfectly. The actors are wonderful, the writing is great, and the pacing is perfect. Tetzlaff and his cinematographers, Robert De Grasse and William O. Steiner, crafted a great-looking film that seamlessly blended New York locations and studio soundstages.

I always have more movies I want to watch than I can find the time to watch (and review), so I rarely watch movies twice, but I liked The Window so much that I watched it a second time and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time.

Incidentally, Bobby Driscoll ended up having a very sad life. I don’t feel like getting into it here, but if you’d like to know more about him, Google him.

The Window will be shown on TCM on March 10, 2014.

The Set-Up (March 29, 1949)

The Set-Up
The Set-Up (1949)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

My favorite sports movies are all boxing movies. Body and Soul (1947), The Harder They Fall (1956), Rocky (1976), Rocky II (1979), Raging Bull (1980), When We Were Kings (1996). The list goes on and on.

I love watching boxing, which is one reason I love movies about it, but that’s not the only reason I love boxing movies.

Boxing is an individual sport that lends itself well to film drama. Most of the movies about team sports that I like are comedies — The Longest Yard (1974), Slap Shot (1977), Major League (1989). That’s not to say there aren’t good dramas about team sports. There are plenty, like Hoosiers (1986), Eight Men Out (1988), and Friday Night Lights (2004), but there’s something about one fighter facing another in the ring that makes for a great drama. And the brutality and widespread corruption of the boxing world makes for great film noirs.

The Set-Up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s long, narrative poem of the same name, which was written in 1928. (March’s other enduring work is the narrative poem The Wild Party, also written in 1928, which was republished in 1994 with illustrations by Art Spiegelman.)

March’s The Set-Up is a masterpiece of hard-boiled writing, and especially impressive considering that it’s written in verse.

Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown
And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown.

Mean as a panther,
Crafty as a fox,
He could hit like a mule,
And he knew how to box.
A dark-skinned jinx
With eyes like a lynx,
A heart like a lion,
And a face like the Sphinx:
Battered, flat, massive:
Grim,
Always impassive.

The film version is only loosely based on March’s poem. Significantly, it sidesteps the racial angle by casting a white actor, Robert Ryan, in the lead. It also renames its pugilist protagonist “Stoker.”

Robert Ryan

Judged solely on its own merits, however, The Set-Up is a great film. It’s one of the great noirs, as well as one of the best films about boxing ever made. It’s lean and mean — just 72 minutes long — and unfolds more or less in real time.

Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Ryan) is gearing up to face a 23-year-old opponent in the ring. Stoker is 35 years old, which in his business makes him an old man. (John Garfield’s character in Body and Soul was also facing his own mortality as a boxer at the age of 35.)

Stoker’s wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), wants him to retire. His days as a fully functioning human being are numbered if he keeps fighting for measly purses and absorbing massive amounts of punishment in the process.

Stoker tries to reassure her, but his eyes tell their own story a little later in the film as he watches a punchy fighter repeat himself for the dozenth time before leaving the locker room for his fight. Gus, a trainer played by Wallace Ford, shakes his head and says, “I guess you can only stop so many.”

The boxing milieu depicted in The Set-Up is exceptionally sleazy. The arena where Stoker faces his opponent, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), advertises “Boxing Wednesdays, Wrestling Fridays,” and is located in Paradise City, a low-rent strip of arcades, dance halls, and chop suey joints.

Worst of all, Stoker’s manager, Tiny (George Tobias), has arranged with local hoods for Stoker to take a dive without telling Stoker about his plan. He’s that certain his man will lose.

Robert Wise’s direction is tight and unpretentious. His cinematographer, Milton R. Krasner, lenses some of the most starkly beautiful black & white images ever captured on film. There’s a scene early in the film where Stoker walks across the street from his rented room toward the arena with his bag in his hand. He moves straight toward the camera, and he looks like the archetype of every lonely hero who has faced a tragic fate without blinking.

Robert Ryan is key to the film’s authenticity. The 6’4″ actor was on the boxing team at Dartmouth College and had a 5-0 win-loss record, with 3 KOs. He continued to box while serving in the Marine Corps.

The Set-Up is a brutal, violent film, but despite its real-time plot that uncoils with ruthless efficiency, there are still quiet and reflective moments, like the sequence in which Audrey Totter walks the streets of Paradise City through a gauntlet of drunks and mashers. She eventually winds up on a bridge over a highway and slowly rips up her ticket to the fight and watches the scraps float down as a streetcar rumbles by.

Robert Wise had a long and interesting career in Hollywood. While The Set-Up will never be a crowd-pleaser like West Side Story (1961) or a family favorite like The Sound of Music (1965), it’s still one of Wise’s best films, and one of the all-time great noirs.

The Undercover Man (March 21, 1949)

The Undercover Man
The Undercover Man (1949)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Columbia Pictures

The Undercover Man is a tightly paced, hard-driving procedural that grabbed me from the first few minutes and never let go. It’s a fictionalized version of the federal case against Al Capone in which Capone not only never appears onscreen, his name is never spoken aloud. He’s referred to simply as “The Big Fellow,” even in newspaper headlines.

Director Joseph H. Lewis’s two most enduring films — Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955) — lay ahead of him, but he’d been working in Hollywood for more than a decade and had directed more than two dozen pictures (mostly westerns) before he directed The Undercover Man. The only one I’ve seen is The Swordsman (1948). I never thought I’d enjoy a Technicolor swashbuckler starring Larry Parks that took place in the Scottish highlands, but I really enjoyed The Swordsman.

Lewis made stylish films with great pacing. The Undercover Man has a standard story and stock characters, but it kept me involved because it’s paced really well. It’s loosely based on the career of Treasury agent Frank J. Wilson, who was involved with the 1931 prosecution of Al Capone and investigated the Lindbergh kidnapping. The film takes place in the present day, however, and isn’t specifically about Capone.

Whitmore and Ford

Glenn Ford plays a fictionalized version of Frank J. Wilson, named “Frank Warren.” The title of the film is misleading, since Warren doesn’t go undercover. The only “undercover man” in the film is a contact of Warren’s who’s gunned down by mobsters in the early going.

The film sticks to the tax evasion angle of the Capone case, and most of the drama involves Warren poring over financial records and butting heads with The Big Fellow’s crooked attorney, Edward O’Rourke (Barry Kelley). So if you’re looking for an accountant who picks up a shotgun and blasts mobsters by the dozen, like Charles Martin Smith does in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), then you might find The Undercover Man pretty boring.

But if you’re looking for a hard-nosed flick about cops and criminals made in a semi-documentary style, you can’t go wrong with The Undercover Man.

Knock on Any Door (Feb. 21, 1949)

Knock on Any Door
Knock on Any Door (1949)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Santana Pictures Corporation / Columbia Pictures

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.

Knock on Any Door was the third film Nicholas Ray directed, but it was the first of his films to have a wide theatrical release.

Ray directed his first film, They Live by Night, in 1947, but RKO didn’t know how to market it, and it premiered in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948.

They didn’t know how to market his second film, either — A Woman’s Secret — which he directed in 1948.

However, They Live by Night had been screened privately for many actors and producers in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart was impressed by it, and he enlisted Ray to direct Knock on Any Door, the first film made by Bogart’s independent production company, Santana Pictures.

Knock on Any Door was an enormous success, and Ray’s earlier films soon found their way into theaters; A Woman’s Secret in March 1949, and They Live by Night in November 1949.

Bogart and Derek

The screenplay for Knock on Any Door, by Daniel Taradash and John Monks Jr., was based on the best-selling 1947 novel by Willard Motley, an African-American writer from Chicago.

Motley’s novel is the story of a young Italian-American named Nick Romano who went from being an altar boy to a career criminal after growing up in a crime-ridden neighborhood and being cycled through the juvenile justice system.

In the film, “Pretty Boy” Nick Romano is played by John Derek. It was Derek’s first credit for a motion picture, although he’d had small roles in a few films before it. The 22-year-old actor was pretty much the perfect choice to play a young hood called “Pretty Boy.”

Much is made of Derek’s good looks. When he’s put on trial for murdering a police officer, his lawyer, Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart), makes sure to get as many women on the jury as he can.

Morton feels responsible for the man Romano has become, since his lackadaisical legal work for the Romano family when Nick was a young man doomed Nick’s father to prison. He wants to stack the jury with as many women as possible, since he believes they’ll be swayed by his cherubic face.

Morton’s argument in court is that while Nick Romano has a criminal past, he is innocent of the crime of murder. And because Morton feels partially responsible for Nick’s criminal career, he fights for him with everything he’s got.

Bogart and Derek

Knock on Any Door superficially resembles Call Northside 777 (1948), another movie set in Chicago about a man on a crusade to prove that a second-generation American accused of murdering a police officer has been railroaded. But there’s a major difference between Knock on Any Door and Call Northside 777, and it’s why I put a spoiler alert at the beginning of this review. “Pretty Boy” Nick Romano is guilty.

I don’t know if this is obvious to some viewers. It wasn’t obvious to me. In fact, I felt so completely hoodwinked by Knock on Any Door that I couldn’t stop thinking about its climax after I watched it. Humphrey Bogart is such a likable protagonist, and his adversary — District Attorney Kerman (George Macready) — is so unlikable that I never once stopped to consider that Romano might actually be guilty. The film even sets up Romano as a handsome foil for the D.A., whose face is scarred. It’s strongly implied during all of the cross-examination scenes that Kerman is jealous of the young man’s good looks.

But then the film pulls the rug out from under the viewer. Not only does Romano finally break down on the stand and admit his guilt, but the last shot of the film is of Romano with the back of his head shaved, walking down a long corridor to the electric chair. I couldn’t believe it.

After Romano’s confession and before his walk to the death chamber, Bogart has a chance to speechify as only Bogart could. It’s a well-delivered speech about how crime is everyone’s fault when it’s grown in the Petri dish of the slums, but in the decades since Knock on Any Door was made, “Don’t blame me, blame society” has become a cliché.

The shouted message of the film didn’t have the same impact as the simple fact that I had grown to like Romano and was looking forward to seeing him found not guilty. When the film ended I felt betrayed and devastated.

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