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Tag Archives: Harry J. Wild

The Woman on the Beach (June 2, 1947)

Jean Renoir’s last Hollywood film, The Woman on the Beach, which is based on Mitchell Wilson’s 1945 novel None So Blind, is one of the oddest and most intriguing American films I’ve seen from the ’40s.

On paper, the plot sounds like a perfect vehicle for RKO star Joan Bennett, who was coming off the success of two wonderful noirs that she made with Fritz Lang, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Like both of those films, Bennett’s character in The Woman on the Beach is a seductive and alluring woman who may not be what she seems. And paintings — a major theme of both The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street — figure prominently in The Woman on the Beach.

But the similarities end there. The Woman on the Beach is a film that confounds expectations. It’s sometimes surreal, sometimes suspenseful, and never went in the direction I was expecting. Some of this could be due to studio interference. After a disastrous advance screening in Santa Barbara, the studio forced Renoir to reshoot and recut the film. The final cut is just 71 minutes long. There are numerous plot strands that seem to be left dangling by the end of the film. But overall, it’s still well-made and involving enough for me to recommend it.

Lt. Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan) is a haunted man. He’s sound of body, but he’s plagued by nightmares of the wreck he survived while serving in the Pacific. One of his nightmares opens the film, and it’s a brilliant and surreal juxtaposition of watery peace and fiery, swirling violence.

Scott is grinding through his last week at the U.S. Coast Guard Mounted Patrol Station. (He’s terrified of the ocean, so it makes sense that he’s serving in a Coast Guard station with no ships, just horses.) He’s engaged to be married to a pretty local girl named Eve (Nan Leslie), but as soon as Scott meets the dark and mysterious Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett) while she’s gathering driftwood on the beach, any film noir aficionado can tell you that things aren’t going to go the way Scott and Eve have been planning them.

Peggy instinctively understands Scott’s loneliness and fear. She invites him home to meet her husband, the blind painter Tod Butler (Charles Bickford). Bickford’s performance is masterful, and a key to the success of the film. At first I thought that Bickford was really bad at playing a blind man. He moves about effortlessly, seems to know where everything is, and it frequently seems as if he is making eye contact with the other characters. But it’s hard to tell for certain.

And sure enough, his blindness is called into question before too long. Peggy reveals to Scott that she severed Tod’s optic nerves during a drunken argument, but that sometimes she suspects he has just been feigning blindness ever since. Scott can’t believe that a man whose whole life was devoted to art would just give it up out of spite. Peggy tells Scott that he doesn’t know her husband.

In an unguarded moment when Peggy and Tod are alone, we hear them lay out their entire relationship in a classic exchange: Tod looks at her and says, “So beautiful outside, so rotten inside.” Peggy responds, “You’re no angel,” and Tod says, “No, I guess we’re two of a kind. That’s why we’re so right for each other.”

Scott is drawn into Peggy and Tod’s bitter little world, and begins secretly making love to Peggy while having increasingly tense get-togethers with Tod. In one remarkable scene, Scott walks Tod closer and closer to a cliff edge, trying to make him give himself away and reveal that he can really see.

The presence of Scott’s fiancée Eve seems almost like an afterthought, especially during the second half of the picture, and the way the story ends isn’t completely satisfying. But these are minor quibbles. The Woman on the Beach is a beautifully made film with very interesting performances from its three leads.

Nocturne (Nov. 11, 1946)

Edwin L. Marin’s Nocturne is close to being a great film noir, but not that close. It’s an entertaining mystery thriller with plenty of clipped, hard-boiled dialogue that’s fun to listen to, if not particularly credible.

George Raft plays Lt. Joe Warne of the Los Angeles police, and it’s a role that seems designed to play to the public’s perception of Raft as a gangster and a thug. Warne conducts his murder investigation with the subtlety of a steamroller, pushing a mustachioed Lothario into the pool when he gets in his way and ripping up the roll of a player piano in a diner when the owner won’t cooperate with him.

And when was the last time you saw a hard-boiled detective who lived at home with his mother? It’s the kind of oddball detail that feels as if it would be more at home in a gangster movie starring James Cagney.

Raft’s first big role was as Paul Muni’s sidekick in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932). After that he starred in a string of gangster pictures, and was one of the most popular actors in crime melodramas, along with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. His boyhood friendship with gangster Owney Madden and association with men like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky aided the public’s perception of him as a hard man who didn’t just “talk the talk.”

By the ’40s, however, his star was beginning to fade. Turning down the lead roles in High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Double Indemnity (1944) didn’t help matters. (Raft was reportedly functionally illiterate, which may have made choosing scripts difficult.) It’s safe to say that by 1946, he was getting the scripts that Humphrey Bogart used to line his birdcage.

Raft wasn’t a very expressive actor, and he had the range of a T-bone steak, but his tight-lipped acting style was perfect for B movies like Nocturne.

A flamboyant pianist and composer named Keith Vincent (Edward Ashley) is murdered, presumably by one of the nine brunettes he was running around with. He has glamour shots of all of them lining one wall of his living room, and it’s clear they were all interchangeable for him, since he called them all “Dolores.” (This may seem like a clever device to hide the identity of the murderess from the viewer, but it’s not.)

Lt. Warne investigates with ham-handed glee, and his investigative technique is as sloppy as the filmmaking. For instance, in one scene his chief (Robert Malcolm) bawls him out for bothering a character named “Mrs. Billings,” but apparently her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. This is fine, but why leave references to her in the film? Similarly confusing is the fact that Warne’s chief gives him two days to investigate Vincent’s murder on his own, but we only find this out after the two-day period is over. And it’s only after this two-day investigative blitz that Warne goes back to Vincent’s house and notices that one of the pictures is missing, since the pattern is disrupted, and there’s an enormous nail hole in the wall. Looking at the stamp on the back of one of the other pictures leads him to a sleazy photographer named Charles Shawn (John Banner). Wouldn’t a detective worth his salt have noticed all this immediately?

The most enjoyable thing about this film is the atmosphere. Lt. Warne spends a lot of time in smoky nightclubs, including the unique Keyboard Club, in which a hulking man-child named Erik Torp (Bern Hoffman) pushes a pianist named Ned “Fingers” Ford (Joseph Pevney) and his upright around on a rolling platform so they can take requests, table by table. When they get to Warne’s table, he hands Vincent’s unfinished piece “Nocturne” to Fingers to play. When he reaches the end of the handwritten sheet music, Fingers asks, “What did your friend do, run out of notes?” Warne responds, “More or less.”

Plenty of sex and sleaze run right below the surface of the picture, but it’s all pretty lighthearted. There’s a funny scene in a dance studio in which Warne can’t learn even the most basic steps (it’s mostly funny because Raft was a professional dancer), and his romance with his prime suspect, Frances Ransom (Lynn Bari), doesn’t carry much sense of danger or menace.

Nocturne is a really fun picture, despite its shortcomings. It has some of the snappiest, most hard-boiled, least naturalistic dialogue I’ve heard since I watched The Dark Corner (1946). Fans of B noirs are encouraged to seek out this picture.

Cornered (Dec. 25, 1945)

Cornered was director Edward Dmytryk’s second film to star Dick Powell. Powell was a boyish crooner and star of musical comedies who made a 180 degree turn into hard-boiled noir territory at the age of 39 when he played detective Philip Marlowe in Dmytryk’s film Murder, My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. Powell jumped into his new, hard-boiled persona with both feet. Between the two films, Powell started appearing every week on the Mutual Broadcasting System as private investigator Richard Rogue in the radio series Rogue’s Gallery. The series was mostly standard P.I. fare, but it featured one unique element; every time Rogue was knocked out (which was nearly every episode) he’d drift off to “Cloud Eight,” where his alter ego, a little white-bearded gnome named “Eugor,” would taunt him, occasionally dropping a clue for Rogue to pick up on later, when he’d regained consciousness.

Cornered has no fanciful elements like that one, and the devil-may-care charm Powell exhibited in Murder, My Sweet has been completely done away with. In Cornered he plays a broken man who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

When we first meet Flight Lieutenant Laurence Gerard (Powell), an RCAF pilot, he is in London, receiving £551 back pay for the time he spent as a P.O.W. His next stop is a passport office, where he seeks passage to France. He wants to settle his wife Celeste’s estate. She was a French citizen, and they were married during the German occupation. When Gerard is told that all passports to the continent require investigation, and that it will take at least a month to clear, he walks out of the office without saying another word. In the next scene, he is alone in a rowboat, crossing the English Channel. When he sees land, he chops a hole in the hull, sinks the boat, and swims to shore.

In a muddy French town that is mostly rubble, Gerard meets with Etienne (Louis Mercier), a former resistance leader, and Celeste’s father. Gerard demands to know who is responsible for her death, and who betrayed her. “If there was any betrayal, I betrayed her, by fathering her in a century of violence,” Etienne tells him. Gerard doesn’t accept this circumspect response, and vows to hunt down the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac, who ordered the killing of Celeste and several other members of the resistance. Jarnac supposedly died in a fire, but Gerard refuses to believe he is dead. He sets out with a single goal; to kill Jarnac.

Gerard follows Jarnac’s trail to Buenos Aires, and it is there that most of the film takes place. As soon as Gerard steps off the plane, he is approached by a fat man in a white suit. This man, Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), is an operator with no clear allegiances. Gerard is quickly drawn into a world where no one is what they seem. Former Nazis and their collaborators have fled to Buenos Aires, biding their time until the next great war, while a loose-knit, clandestine organization seeks to root them out. Incza introduces Gerard to Jarnac’s wife (or possibly widow), Mme. Madeleine Jarnac (Micheline Cheirel), and even her loyalties are unclear.

While it may sound like a globe-trotting adventure film, Cornered is really a claustrophobic film noir with healthy doses of paranoia and tension. The script, by John Paxton (with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht), from a story by John Wexley, takes a run-of-the-mill manhunt plot and ratchets up the tension with crisp dialogue, excellent pacing, and a brutal finale. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is classic film noir, with inky nighttime exteriors, close-quartered interiors, and actors’ shadows frequently preceding them into the frame.

Powell plays Gerard as a shell-shocked man who suffers from frequent headaches. He’s on a mission to avenge a woman to whom he was only married for 20 days. He’s an amateur doing the work of a detective, and while he’s clever enough to connect the dots, he’s still just one man at the mercy of forces beyond his comprehension. “You are sick with fear,” Mme. Jarnac tells him. “You’ve been hurt so deeply you cannot trust anyone but yourself.”

Is there a better description of the classic film noir protagonist?

West of the Pecos (Aug. 10, 1945)

WestOfThePecos
West of the Pecos (1945)
Directed by Edward Killy
RKO Radio Pictures

After recently seeing early performances by Robert Mitchum in two top-notch World War II films, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and Story of G.I. Joe (1945), I was a little disappointed by his starring role in West of the Pecos. Mitchum is one of my favorite actors, and he’s always interesting to watch, but this movie is hard to take very seriously.

After small roles in a variety of films (including some Hopalong Cassidy westerns), and a larger role in William Castle’s B noir When Strangers Marry, Mitchum was signed to a contract by RKO, who needed a B western star in the Tim Holt mold. I haven’t seen the first western Mitchum made for RKO, Nevada (1944), which is based on a Zane Grey novel, but if it’s anything like West of the Pecos, I don’t think I’m missing too much. Like Nevada, West of the Pecos is also based on a Grey novel, and is typical “romance of the West” malarkey. In terms of plot and character development, it has more in common with 19th-century stage drama than anything else.

In West of the Pecos, Barbara Hale plays a young Chicagoan named Rill Lambeth, whose father, Col. Lambeth (Thurston Hall), is ordered out west for his health. The two of them travel by stagecoach to Texas with their French maid, Suzanne (Rita Corday). In the course of their travels, they cross paths with Pecos Smith (Mitchum), an outlaw who’s seeking revenge against the corrupt vigilantes who killed his best friend. There are plenty of western tropes in West of the Pecos, like shootouts and unconvincing portrayals of Mexican bandits (Richard Martin plays their leader), but at its heart it’s a light-hearted romance and cross-dressing farce. Soon after her arrival in Texas, Hale decides to dress as a boy to dissuade all the nasty cowboys she meets from sassing her. To say she makes an unconvincing fellow would be an understatement. Her long, flowing hair is simply piled up and pinned under a ten-gallon hat, and all she does to hide her pretty face is rub a little dirt on it.

Part of the problem is Mitchum. Even here, in one of his first roles, he’s simply too world-weary and knowing. Consequently, it’s hard to tell most of the time if his character is supposed to be convinced by Hale’s drag, or if he’s just playing along for his own amusement, like when he rubs her face and says, “You’re just a kid! I bet you haven’t even started shaving. How old are you, anyhow?” Hale petulantly responds, “Old enough.”

Their relationship is based on kidding around, but it’s so flirtatious that I was actually surprised at the end when Mitchum’s character acted shocked when he found out Hale was really a young woman. He plays all their scenes together as if he has every idea what’s going on. Take, for instance, the scene by the campfire in which Mitchum tries to convince Hale to get in his bedroll with him on account of the nighttime chill. He rolls over on his side, faces her, and throws the blanket aside.

“C’mon, kid, get in,” he says.

“But … I want to sleep alone,” she responds.

“Ah, no you don’t. C’mon. Get in and cuddle.”

“Cuddle?!?”

“Sure. Keep each other warm. And I hope you haven’t got cold feet.”

“Cold feet?” she says, too quietly for him to hear. “I got ‘em right now.”

It’s interesting to see Mitchum in this type of role. Not too long after appearing in this film, he would receive the only Oscar nomination of his career, for his role in the much better film The Story of G.I. Joe. After that, his days of starring in movies like this were pretty much over. Not every picture he made was great (some of them were even pretty bad), but by 1946 he was on his way to becoming an A-list actor, and eventually a Hollywood legend.

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