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Tag Archives: Film Noir

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.

Shockproof (Jan. 25, 1949)

Shockproof
Shockproof (1949)
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Columbia Pictures

This review originally appeared earlier this year at Film Noir of the Week.

Real-life married couples can have strange chemistry when they appear together in a film. For every Bogie and Bacall there’s also a Cruise and Kidman. Just because two actors want to tie the knot and spend the rest of their lives together (or in most cases, several years of their lives together before separating), it doesn’t mean their real-life chemistry will translate to the big screen.

When Patricia Knight and Cornel Wilde starred together in Shockproof, they had been married 11 years. It was the only film they made together.

In Shockproof, Knight plays a woman named Jenny Marsh who has been paroled after a five-year stint in prison for murder. She committed the murder to protect her lover, Harry Wesson (John Baragrey). Jenny grew up in poverty, neglected by her parents, and the smooth-talking, wealthy Wesson swept her off her feet. The problem is, he’s a criminal through and through.

Jenny’s parole officer, Griff Marat (Wilde), believes that all she needs is to spend time with normal, decent people, and she’ll straighten out her life. Griff is a “hands-on” parole officer, and he nominates himself (along with his mother and adorable kid brother) as the most suitable decent people for Jenny to spend time with, and his romantic notions carry the force of the law.

As an actor, Wilde’s line delivery was never as impressive as his physique, but in his scenes with Knight he still comes off as the more seasoned thespian. Knight’s face is lovely in an angular sort of way, but her performance is the stuff of high camp. Whatever sparks existed in their real-life relationship, they’re hard to see in Shockproof.

Knight and Wilde

Shockproof was also an intersection for two men whose best work lay ahead of them: Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk.

Sirk, the director of Shockproof, was born in Europe and made several films there before immigrating to the U.S. in 1941. He would go on to direct some of the most acclaimed American films of all time — the lush Technicolor melodramas Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959) (which, to be technically nitpicky, was filmed in Eastmancolor, not Technicolor).

At the time he made Shockproof, however, his Hollywood filmography amounted to a number of well-made potboilers that had a gloss of European sophistication; Hitler’s Madman (1943), Summer Storm (1944), A Scandal in Paris (1946), The Strange Woman (1946) (The Strange Woman was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, but Sirk also did some uncredited directorial work on the film), Lured (1947), and Sleep, My Love (1948).

Samuel Fuller, the screenwriter of Shockproof, was a newspaperman (he got his start as a copy boy at the age of 12), a pulp novelist, a screenwriter, a ghostwriter, and a veteran of World War II who had served with the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. Fuller would go on to become an acclaimed screenwriter and director of cult films like Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), and The Naked Kiss (1964).

Shockproof is the only collaboration between Sirk and Fuller. Fuller’s screenplay was originally called The Lovers, and it told the story of a man and woman doomed by their love for each other.

Knight and Wilde

Fuller’s screenplay for The Lovers was the film Sirk signed on to make, but it wasn’t the film that ended up being released into theaters. Co-producer Helen Deutsch rewrote the script and tacked on a ridiculous happy ending. (If you’re a connoisseur of trashy cinema, Deutsch’s best work also lay ahead of her, since her last film credit was the screenplay for Valley of the Dolls, which she co-wrote with Dorothy Kingsley.)

Deutsch’s rewrite makes the entire film feel pointless, since it undercuts all of the ethical lines that Griff crosses because of his love for Jenny. It also neuters any sense of doom or tragedy that was present in Fuller’s original script. Even the change of title from The Lovers to Shockproof feels wrong. The term “The Lovers” recurs throughout the film, and it’s what Griff and Jenny are dubbed by the tabloid press. What does “Shockproof” even mean in the context of this film?

Even though Sirk and Fuller never met, Shockproof has Fuller’s fingerprints all over it. It’s a choppy, uneven film, but like everything that Fuller wrote, there’s a nasty passion always bubbling beneath the surface. It doesn’t matter so much why people are doing things, just that they’re doing them and going for broke, pedal to the metal, damned and proud, racing toward oblivion.

Of course, to pull this off successfully a film needs to have actors who are utterly convincing no matter how contrived their actions are, as well as a script that has the courage of its convictions. Unfortunately, Shockproof has neither of these things, and while there is much that’s good about it, ultimately it’s an interesting failure.

Force of Evil (Dec. 25, 1948)

Force of Evil
Force of Evil (1948)
Directed by Abraham Polonsky
Enterprise Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Force of Evil was the first film Abraham Polonsky directed. It was also the last film he would direct for a long, long time.

Polonsky was blacklisted after he refused to testify before HUAC in 1951. He went on to write screenplays under a variety of pseudonyms, but he didn’t receive another directorial credit until he made the Robert Redford film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969).

A lot of great directors were blacklisted in the 1950s, but Polonsky’s inability to make more films seems especially tragic. Force of Evil is not only a great film, but it’s the kind of scathing critique of the foundations of America’s financial system that’s lacking from most crime films in the 1950s.

Polonsky wrote the screenplay for Robert Rossen’s boxing masterpiece Body and Soul (1947), which starred John Garfield. Body and Soul was a big hit, and it’s alluded to on the poster for Force of Evil above.

Force of Evil wasn’t as big a hit for John Garfield. There’s even some dispute over the original running time of this film, since M-G-M treated it as a B picture, and wanted it under 90 minutes so it could fit comfortably on the bottom half of a double bill.

Despite all that, it’s a film that’s aged remarkably well. It’s one of the best films Garfield ever starred in, and it’s one of the greatest film noirs ever made.

Garfield upstairs

Force of Evil is based on Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People. Polonsky collaborated with Wolfert on the screenplay.

Garfield plays Joe Morse, a lawyer for the powerful mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). The film begins with a montage of Wall Street and Joe telling the viewer, in voiceover, that he’s about to make his first million dollars.

On the Fourth of July, most of the suckers who play the numbers play “776″ as a superstitious form of patriotism. Tucker has a complicated plan that will force 776 to hit on July 4th, which will put all of the smaller numbers operations out of business when they’re forced to pay out. He’ll swoop in and take control of all the numbers rackets, just like he took control of beer during Prohibition.

Joe Morse is young, slick, and on the verge of being fabulously wealthy. His older brother Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) is old, overweight, and will never be well-to-do. He runs a small, neighborhood numbers racket (or “bank,” as they are known in the film). He may be taking suckers’ money, but the stakes are small, he pays out what he promises, and he cares about the people he employs.

Joe knows what the Fourth of July has in store for Leo and everyone like him. As Tucker’s lawyer, he’s not able to tell Leo exactly what’s going to happen, but he tries to warn him. When that doesn’t work, he tries to pull strings that will force his brother out of the numbers racket before it’s too late, but it only makes things worse.

Gomez and Garfield

Polonsky showed his cinematographer, George Barnes, some of Edward Hopper’s Third Avenue paintings to give him an idea of how he wanted the film to look. Force of Evil uses a lot of single-source lighting and sharp focus, and it’s full of simple but beautiful compositions.

All of the actors in the film give good performances, including Beatrice Pearson as a girl who works for Leo, and whom he considers a daughter, and Marie Windsor in full femme fatale mode as Tucker’s wife Edna.

Thomas Gomez’s scenes with Garfield are especially powerful. Their dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in a stage play, since Polonsky isn’t afraid to elevate their language to poetic, mythic heights.

There’s not a lot of violence in Force of Evil, but what there is makes a tremendous impact. One sequence toward the end of the film is as good as anything Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese did in any of their gangster films. (Incidentally, Scorsese is a great admirer of Force of Evil. His video introduction to the film is the sole special feature on the gorgeous-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.) You can watch that scene in the clip below, although it should go without saying that it contains spoilers:

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