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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Oct. 30, 1948)

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)
Directed by Norman Foster
Norma Productions / Universal Pictures

Norman Foster’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands begins with some onscreen text that could fit at the beginning of nearly every single post-war film noir:

The aftermath of war is rubble — the rubble of cities and of men. They are the casualties of a pitiless destruction. The cities can be rebuilt, but the wounds of men, whether of the mind or of the body, heal slowly.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is based on Gerald Butler’s bestselling 1940 novel of the same name, and stars Burt Lancaster as Bill Saunders, a tightly wound, violent man with a mysterious past. He says he was born in Canada and raised in Detroit, but he doesn’t go into much more detail. When the film begins, he’s alone in a pub in an unnamed city in England, hunched over the bar and nursing a pint. When the barman tells him that it’s closing time, he lashes out violently. His assault on the barman starts a fire that his uncontrollable rage will continue to stoke throughout the film.

The role of Bill Saunders seems tailor-made for Lancaster at this point in his career. He made his debut in The Killers (1946) as Ole “Swede” Andreson, a brutish former prizefighter. In his next film, Brute Force (1947), he played Joe Collins, the toughest man in a tough prison. In Desert Fury (1947), Lancaster played a sheriff’s deputy who was also a former bronco buster. In I Walk Alone (1948), he played a former bootlegger and all-around alpha male who was determined to exact vengeance on his former partner.

Subsequent roles in All My Sons (1948) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) allowed Lancaster to stretch his thespic muscles a little, but Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a solid return to type.

Lancaster and Fontaine

In the NY Times review of the film, published on October 30, 1948, the headline was Lancaster Fights the World Again. The first paragraph of the review was as follows: “The process of humanizing Burt Lancaster obviously is not going to be easy and it is going to take time. Mr. Lancaster is handy with his fists and speaks most eloquently when using them. But to develop fully as an actor and to come over to the right side of society he will have to make a break someday, for there are only so many variations on the theme of being misunderstood and Mr. Lancaster has just about exhausted them all.”

The reviewer praised the film, however, especially its three-act structure and strong climax, two elements which the reviewer lamented were sadly absent from most current films (apparently this is not just a 21st-century problem).

I think that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a tremendously effective film noir. What it lacks in innovative storytelling it makes up for with strong performances — not only by Lancaster but also by Joan Fontaine as the woman who grows to love him and Robert Newton as the Cockney schemer who is determined to manipulate him through blackmail. In addition to the acting, the shadowy cinematography by Russell Metty sharpens the violence and suspense of the film, and the tense, driving score by Miklós Rózsa (who also wrote the music for The Killers, Brute Force, and Desert Fury) propels the action of the film and mirrors Lancaster’s barely controlled rage that constantly threatens to boil over.

A Double Life (Dec. 25, 1947)

A Double Life
A Double Life (1947)
Directed by George Cukor
Universal Pictures

George Cukor’s A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor named Anthony John — “Tony” to his friends — who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts.

When the film begins, Tony appears to be a charming, “hail fellow well met” sort of chap who’s as friendly with theatrical agents and his fellow actors as he is with stagehands and women on the street. It’s no coincidence, however, that he’s starring in Philip MacDonald’s comedy A Gentleman’s Gentleman.

When the run comes to an end and he’s offered the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello, Tony hesitates. He’s always wanted to play the part, and even worked out some staging ideas years earlier.

But the role of Othello is a dark one (no pun intended), and Tony fears what psychic and emotional depths he might sink to playing the tragic Moor night after night.

And he’s not the only one. His beautiful ex-wife Brita Kaurin (Signe Hasso) cautions against it. She and Tony still love each other, but when she tells her boyfriend, theatrical agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien), what it was like to be married to Tony, it’s clear that the good times and bad times all coincided with the parts he was playing. “When he’s doing something gay like this it’s wonderful to be with him, but … when he gets going on one of those deep numbers,” she says. “We were engaged doing Oscar Wilde, broke it off doing O’Neill, were married doing Kaufman and Hart, and divorced doing Chekov.”

Winters and Colman

Against her better judgment, however, Brita eventually takes the role of Desdemona, and everything goes just as badly as you might expect.

If A Double Life were just a burlesque version of Othello, with a stand-in for Iago whispering lies about infidelity in Tony’s ear, it wouldn’t be nearly as good or as interesting as it is.

Instead, it’s a hypnotic portrait of self-inflicted madness. We watch Tony slide easily from one persona to another early in the film when he slips on a pair of eyeglasses and goes out to eat in a new restaurant, convincing young waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) that he’s new in town.

Ronald Colman

He’s a hugely talented actor, but his talent comes with a price. The more popular his performances as Othello become, the more his mental and emotional health deteriorate. (And his performances are indeed popular; his Othello ends up running on Broadway for an unbelievable, not to mention unrealistic, 300 performances.)

When Tony finally commits the inevitable murder, it’s not a passionate reenactment of Othello’s murder of Desdemona, it’s a weird, tawdry killing committed in a dissociative state.

There’s much about A Double Life that’s heavy-handed, both visually and thematically. If you’re paying close attention, all the attempts early in the film to hammer home the point that Anthony John has a “double life” might seem like a bit much. (Even his name — two Christian names in search of a surname — is a clue.) By the second or third reel, however, I was completely enthralled.

Othello

The plot of A Double Life is essentially pulpy and exploitative, so I think a great deal of credit must be paid to Ronald Colman for his exceptional performance, not only as Anthony John, but as Anthony John playing Othello. (The role was originally intended for Laurence Olivier. When Olivier was unavailable, the producers went with another seasoned British thespian.)

Colman ended up winning the Academy Award for best actor for his role in A Double Life. It was the fourth time he was nominated and the first time he won. (Miklós Rózsa’s score also won an Academy Award.) There are moments when his performance tends to get a little exaggerated and “showy,” but I thought that was appropriate for the character. He’s playing a self-involved, grandiose stage actor, after all.

Milton R. Krasner’s brilliant cinematography bears mention, too. There are many things about A Double Life that don’t exactly place it in the category of film noir, but the look of the film is pure noir. It’s full of shadows, dramatic lighting effects, city streets at night, and cramped, dark rooms. There’s a mounting sense of dread running through the film, and Krasner’s cinematography is largely responsible for it.

I had no idea what to expect from A Double Life and I was completely blown away. It’s a film where everything comes together; Cukor’s direction, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s script, Krasner’s photography, and the performances of the three principal actors. I’m looking forward to seeing it again some day, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it.

Desert Fury (Aug. 15, 1947)

For me, Lewis Allen’s Desert Fury is currently running neck and neck with Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride for the honor of “wackiest movie of 1947.”

But maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges. While The Devil Thumbs a Ride was a zany thrill ride with oddball characters and a lot of unexpected humor, Desert Fury is a ridiculously campy melodrama in which most of the humor seems unintentional.

Also, it has gay undertones that are strong enough to power a small city for a year.

The poster on the right implies that Burt Lancaster and John Hodiak spend the movie fighting for Lizabeth Scott’s love, but that’s not the case. More accurate is the tagline: “Two men wanted her love … The third wanted her life!”

Scott plays a beautiful 19-year-old girl who lives in a “cactus graveyard” in the middle of nowhere — Chuckawalla, Nevada. She lives with her mother, Fritzi, who’s played by Mary Astor (an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age who was just 16 years older than Lizabeth Scott). Fritzi always calls Paula “baby.” Not in a sweet, maternal way, but the way a barfly might say, “Hey, baby! C’mere!”

Fritzi wants Paula to go back to school, but Paula wants to help her mother run the Purple Sage Casino. (Paula’s father was a bootlegger who was killed when Paula was very young.)

Burt Lancaster plays Tom Hanson, a former bronco buster who barnstormed around the country, but washed out of the rodeo and now works as a sheriff’s deputy in Chuckawalla. Fritzi wants Tom to marry Paula and make an honest woman out of her. He’d like nothing more than to marry Paula, but he doesn’t push, because he knows that her love for him is strictly platonic.

Into their lives comes runty, mustachioed gangster Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and his gunsel Johnny (Wendell Corey), and Paula — quite inexplicably — falls head over heels in love with Eddie.

The love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Tom is weak sauce compared with the love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Johnny.

Johnny is more than just Eddie’s “muscle.” He’s his longtime companion, his best friend, and — just possibly — his lover.

Is he or isn’t he? Let’s look at the evidence. Eddie and Johnny form a tight unit, and seem to both know what really happened to Eddie’s first wife, who died in a car accident. Johnny hates Paula, and seems insanely jealous of her relationship with Eddie.

And how does Eddie explain to Paula how he first hooked up with Johnny?

“I was your age, maybe a year older. I was in the automat off Times Square about two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. I was broke, he had a couple of dollars, we got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs,” he says, a note of shameful resignation creeping into his voice.

“And then?” Paula asks.

“I went home with him that night. I was locked out. Didn’t have a place to stay. His old lady ran a boarding house in the Bronx. There were a couple of vacant rooms. We were together from then on.”

The relationship between Eddie and Johnny isn’t the only hint of a gay union. Paula and Fritzi are so close in age, and Fritzi’s attitude toward her daughter lacking so much maternal warmth, that they seem more like a lesbian couple than anything else. Fritzi seems like the older, more dominant one, and Paula seems like the younger, more restive one, who might also be interested in men. (In further defense of this reading, Lizabeth Scott and Burt Lancaster might walk off into the sunset at the end of the picture, but their lips never meet. The final — and most passionate — kiss of the film is the one Fritzi plants on Paula’s lips.)

There’s a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, but that only counts for so much. For instance, compare Miklós Rózsa’s brilliant score for Brute Force (1947) with his score for Desert Fury. His score for Desert Fury is powerful, but without the dramatic underpinning of a great film, it just writhes and flails all over the place, seemingly in search of a better movie, or at least a more lively one.

The script by Robert Rossen (with uncredited assistance from A.I. Bezzerides), which is based on Ramona Stewart’s novel Desert Town, has a lot of snappy dialogue, but the story just doesn’t move with much intensity. Also, the Technicolor cinematography really undercuts some of the noir elements of the story and the situation.

Desert Fury is campy, and worth seeing if you’re into camp, but that’s about it. Also, if you’re a connoisseur of face-slapping, there’s plenty of that going around, too.

Brute Force (June 30, 1947)

Snitches get stitches.

Or, in the case of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force, they get forced into a giant machine press by a group of cons wielding acetylene torches. They also get tied screaming to the front of a mining cart and used as a human shield during a massive prison break.

Westgate Penitentiary is hell on earth. All the cells are filled to double capacity. The warden is a weak-willed jellyfish who cedes all authority to the sadistic Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn). There are punishing make-work assignments in the dreaded “drainpipe.” Capt. Munsey plants contraband on prisoners just to send them to solitary confinement. And worst of all, on movie night the cons are forced to watch The Egg and I.

Brute Force is director Dassin’s first film noir (and still one of his best). It’s also producer Mark Hellinger’s second great film to star Burt Lancaster (the first was The Killers, in 1946).

In 1947, Lancaster wasn’t the versatile superstar he would eventually become. He was mostly known for playing “The Swede” in The Killers. The Swede was a lovesick former prizefighter; a big, dumb brute who feels pain, but little else. Brute Force allows Lancaster to stretch a little as an actor. The character he plays, Joe Collins, is the biggest, toughest man in Westgate — on the surface, not that different from The Swede — but he’s also a canny tactician who is ruthlessly efficient at getting what he wants. Collins doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but Lancaster’s physical performance is phenomenal, and would have been at home in a silent film.

It’s a cliche to say that an actor’s body is his “instrument,” but it’s true of Lancaster, a former circus performer who expresses more with his body and his eyes in Brute Force than words ever could.

Collins is the de facto leader of the men in cell R17. He wants out of Westgate Penitentiary, but unlike all the daydreaming, hard-luck sad sacks who are behind bars with him, Collins has a plan, and it’s a good one. But for his plan to work, he has to have the support of the other five men in cell R17, as well as the cooperation and support of a hardened old convict named Gallagher (played with grumpy gravitas by the great Charles Bickford). Gallagher is up for parole, and he’s not sure if he wants to endanger his chances of release by throwing his lot in with Collins.

Brute Force is a film as lean and mean as Joe Collins himself, which makes the sentimental back stories of the convicts feel especially unnecessary. I’ve seen Brute Force at least three times now, and every time I see it I hate the flashback portions of the film more and more. I don’t think Dassin was fully committed to them either, and the abrupt tonal shifts they force on the movie are irritating and unnecessary.

They’re unnecessary because in a prison film about a sadistic captain of the guards and his unfair treatment of the prisoners, the audience will naturally identify with the prisoners without really caring about how they ended up in prison. (Imagine a flashback sequence in Cool Hand Luke that shows Paul Newman saving children from a burning orphanage — what would be the point?)

The fact that the audience knows from the outset of the film that Capt. Munsey arranged to have a shiv planted on Joe Collins in order to throw him into solitary is upsetting enough to most people’s sense of decency and fair play. We don’t also need a ridiculous subplot about Joe’s girl on the outside, Ruth (Ann Blyth), who has cancer and refuses to get the operation she needs unless Joe is with her.

Ditto for the backstory of “Soldier” (Howard Duff, in his first film role — he’s listed in the opening credits as “Radio’s Sam Spade,” the role he was best known for at the time). Duff’s boyish face and incongruously deep, soothing voice do more to elicit the audience’s sympathy than the smarmy flashback in which he’s captured by MPs in Italy and falsely accused of murder while distributed food to the hungry.

Not every backstory in the film is sentimental, nor does every backstory paint its criminal protagonist in a great light. But they are all, in their own way, unnecessary. For instance, the audience doesn’t need to see the flashback in which Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) gives his wife a fur coat with money he’s embezzled to know that he’s a white collar criminal. (Although it’s always nice to see the beautiful Ella Raines, who plays his wife.) Lister’s eyeglasses, his effete appearance, and Munsey’s line — “You’re no hoodlum, like the others in this cell. Why protect them?” — tell us all we need to know about Tom Lister.

The only flashback I enjoyed and would be sad to see excised from the film is the whimsical story Spencer (John Hoyt) tells about the beautiful girl named Flossie who helped him out of a tough jam only to turn around and take off with his money. Not only is the flashback funny and mercifully brief, it ends with the wonderful line, “I wonder who Flossie’s fleecing now.”

In fairness to producer Hellinger, who was largely responsible for the flashbacks, he knew what it took to get a picture made, and how to make a picture that would lead to another picture. The top brass at Universal probably wouldn’t have been crazy about a grim prison movie with no female characters, so the backstories of the prisoners allowed for several beautiful actresses under contract with Universal to draw people into the theater. (And even though I don’t like the flashbacks, I never mind seeing the aforementioned Raines or the beautiful Yvonne De Carlo, who plays Soldier’s Italian femme fatale.)

Also, Hellinger’s skill at wheeling and dealing helped him negotiate the film’s violence around the production code, and helped Dassin get away with things other directors might not have been able to. Brute Force is an extraordinarily violent film for 1947. Of course, it doesn’t show what really happens to human bodies blasted by Thompson submachine guns or .30 caliber machine guns, but it implies enough.

I haven’t said a lot about Hume Cronyn’s performance as Capt. Munsey, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise him. The diminutive, soft-voiced Cronyn is one of the most memorable villains in the film noir pantheon. Cronyn gives “Napoleon complex” a whole new meaning, and he gives lines like “I get quite a kick out of censoring the mail” a creepy, sociopathic edge.

It’s pretty clear that Dassin is using Munsey to make a statement about creeping fascism in America. Munsey is a homegrown little Hitler, and just in case you don’t immediately get the connection when Munsey professes his simplistic, Social Darwinist philosophy, Dassin drives the point home with the set design of Munsey’s office, which includes a giant framed photograph of himself, enormous shotguns that he relishes stroking and polishing, and sculptures and paintings that scream homosexual body worship, not to mention a phonograph on which he plays the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” while brutally beating a hapless inmate (Sam Levene) with a length of rubber hose for information.

Despite a few missteps here and there, Brute Force is a great film, and should be seen by anyone who appreciates prison movies, film noir, violence in the cinema, finely crafted black and white cinematography, or the brilliant film scores of Miklós Rózsa.

A note about Jules Dassin: because of his French-sounding surname, and the fact that one of his best and most well-known pictures, Rififi (1955), is a French-language film, a lot of people are under the mistaken impression that Jules Dassin was French. He wasn’t. He was an American who was born in Connecticut in 1911 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He immigrated to Europe after he was blacklisted following testimony about him that was given to HUAC in 1951.

The Other Love (May 14, 1947)

Director André de Toth is mostly associated with hairy-chested genres like westerns and war movies. The Other Love, which is based on a short story by All Quiet on the Western Front author Erich Maria Remarque, is a rare example of de Toth making a “women’s picture,” and it’s not a bad one. It’s also not a great one, so if you’re expecting Dark Victory (1939) or Now, Voyager (1942), don’t bother. But if you’re a fan of well-acted weepers, The Other Love is worth seeking out.

Karen Duncan (Barbara Stanwyck) is a world-renowned concert pianist who is gravely ill. She arrives at Mount Vierge, a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, unaware of the seriousness of her condition. On her first night in the sanitarium her physician, Dr. Anthony Stanton (David Niven), insists she have dinner with him. He tells the nurse to have the kitchen prepare the “Grade A stimulation diet” and have it sent to Room 17.

Someone sends Karen a white orchid corsage before her “date” with Dr. Stanton, but it wasn’t he. It turns out there is a standing order to have white orchids delivered nightly to Room 17. The order came from a man who died months earlier, and was for a woman who died the day before Karen arrived, but Dr. Stanton insists this is just a rumor, and that they were both cured and moved away. Karen doesn’t believe him.

The second day, Karen has to quit smoking. The patients in Mount Vierge all seem to be on rest cures, which means convalescing outdoors on chaise longues while wrapped snugly in blankets. Karen befriends another patient, Celestine Miller (Joan Lorring), who claims she’s only there to make her philandering husband jealous, but is in fact quite ill, even though she doesn’t know it.

Karen bristles under Dr. Stanton’s inflexibility. When he stops her from playing the piano after she gets too worked up while performing a piece, she shouts, “Is everything forbidden here?” Yes, he tells her. Everything except hope. But a month of bed rest? Being treated like a child? Yes, he tells her. Until she’s well.

Despite being forbidden from practicing her art, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol, Karen is apparently allowed to drive a horse and carriage all by herself on twisting mountain roads, which is how she meets the handsome and exciting auto racer Paul Clermont (Richard Conte). When he and his buddy Pete (Jimmy Horne) come tearing around a corner in their roadster, Karen’s horse rears up, and Paul comes to her aid after deliberately driving his car into a tree to avoid her.

Paul is in the Alps for an upcoming road race, and he and Karen are instantly attracted to each other, but Dr. Stanton refuses to let her go into the village again after learning of her affaire de cœur with Paul. Why must he take every bit of joy from her? “Too much excitement for one day,” the doctor says, simply.

Dr. Stanton tells her that she must never get overexcited. That she must be an automaton. “You haven’t got a free will anymore,” he tells her. She wants to live! He loves her! She doesn’t believe him! “Believe what you want,” he says. “But you’ve got to get well for your music! The world deserves your music!”

Karen runs away to the village for brandy and a cigarette with Paul. She gets into his car with him and reveals that she is Karen Duncan. Yes, THE Karen Duncan. “If Chopin could see me now,” he quips, and they go away to the Hotel Monaco together.

For most of the film the nature of Karen’s illness is as mysterious to the audience as it is to her. Once out of the crisp, dry air of the mountains, however, it quickly becomes clear that she’s consumptive, and she breaks down in coughing fits in the heavy air and rain of the low altitudes where Paul and she relax and play as only two well-dressed Hollywood actors in a mid-century film can play.

One way to see Karen’s disease in The Other Love is as part of a symbolic representation of the two men in her life. To follow Dr. Stanton’s dictates means a life of convalescence, but also one of security and contentment. To run around the world with Paul means a life of excitement and glamor, but also one of early death and frequent danger (represented quite literally by an amorous croupier, played by Gilbert “Cisco Kid” Roland, who tries to rape Karen in a doorway when she’s drunk and ill).

On the other hand, Dr. Stanton’s treatment of Karen hearkens back so strongly to the medical profession’s patronizing and deceitful treatment of women in less enlightened times that their “romance” is often more creepy than it is romantic. His refusal to reveal to her the seriousness of her illness — a subject he discusses freely with Karen’s mentor, Professor Linnaker (Richard Hale) — seems more like condescension than compassion.

The Other Love may be a “women’s picture,” but it’s certainly not a feminist one. (The Yellow Wallpaper this story is not.) But it’s a well-acted, well-directed, and beautifully staged film, so I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of any of the principal actors, or fans of André de Toth who want to see what he could do behind the camera without Joel McCrea blowing someone away with a shotgun in front of it.

The Red House (March 16, 1947)

The Red House

The Red House (1947)
Directed by Delmer Daves
Sol Lesser Productions / United Artists

Is there really a red house in Delmer Daves’s The Red House? The movie is filmed in black and white, so I can’t tell you.

I’m not being cheeky, I’m making a point. The “red house” in The Red House is a haunting presence, unseen for most of the film. And when it is finally shown, it’s an eerie sight. It’s a structure in disrepair, covered in lichen, standing close to another abandoned house, both on the banks of a stream deep in the woods.

If The Red House had been filmed in color, this uncanny effect would have been destroyed. As it is, the red house — while shown — still stands more strongly as a disturbing manifestation of all the creepy goings-on in the film than as an actual thing.

The setting of the film is indeterminate. It’s a region called Piny Ridge, where, the narrator informs us, “modern highways have penetrated the darkness.” The darkness remains in an area farther south called Oxhead Woods, where “obsolete trails wander vaguely,” but “only one leads to the Morgan Farm.”

The narrator goes on to tell us that “Pete Morgan’s farm has the allure of a walled castle that everybody knows about, but that few have entered.” This all sounds a bit like a fairy tale, which I think is deliberate.

Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) is a mercurial farmer who lives a lonely life with his sister, Ellen Morgan (Judith Anderson), and their adopted daughter, a pretty, demure 17-year-old named Meg (Allene Roberts). Fifteen years earlier, Meg’s parents both died in mysterious circumstances, and Pete and Ellen have raised her ever since.

Pete has a wooden leg, which makes farm work difficult, so he agrees to hire one of Meg’s high school classmates, Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), to help him out. Pete offers to pay Nath 35 cents an hour for his help after school, but Nath talks him up to four bits.

Pete seems reluctant to hire Nath, and is only convinced to do so by his sister and adopted daughter. It’s clear from the outset why this is. He has an unnatural interest in Meg, and wants to keep her all to himself.

After his first day helping out Pete, Nath plans to take a shortcut home through Oxhead Woods, but Pete tries to convince him to take the long way around. When Nath refuses to heed his warnings, Pete resorts to scare tactics. “You won’t save yourself from the screams in the night that’ll lodge in your bones all your life!” Pete tells him.

Nath asks, “Screams from what?”

Pete responds, “From the red house!!!”

Nath tries, but he can’t do it. The power of suggestion in the dark, terrifying woods amidst the howling winds proves too much for him, and he runs back to the Morgan farm and sleeps in the barn. Were they real screams? Or was it just the wind?

Meg and Nath are attracted to each other, but he has a girlfriend named Tibby, who’s played by the 20-year-old singer and actress Julie London. London is quite possibly the sultriest high school student I’ve ever seen in a film from the ’40s.

Tibby’s not very loyal to Nath, and throws herself at the strapping young woodsman named Teller (Rory Calhoun) who patrols Pete Morgan’s woods with a rifle. Teller never got past the ninth grade, but he’s as big and as handsome as Li’l Abner.

Teller is also the instrument of Pete Morgan’s twisted will, and goes even so far as attempting to commit murder when Pete Morgan asks him to.

The Red House, which is based on the 1943 novel by George Agnew Chamberlain, is sometimes classified as a film noir, but it’s not a noir. It’s a mystery wrapped up inside of a dreamy, avant-garde horror film. It’s halfway between Jean Renoir’s ode to rural American life The Southerner (1945) and Frank Wisbar’s backwoods ghost story Strangler of the Swamp (1946).

Daves’s naturalistic take on the uncanny tale, coupled with a lush score by Miklós Rózsa that alternates between being wildly dramatic and quietly eerie, elevates the pedestrian script and easy-to-figure-out mystery. The Red House could have easily been a forgettable B movie, but it’s a memorable little chiller with heavy doses of perverse sexuality running beneath the surface. With a few changes in costuming and dialogue, it could just as easily have taken place 300 years earlier, which is part of its power and its appeal.

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (July 24, 1946)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Paramount Pictures

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is based on a short story called “Love Lies Bleeding” by playwright John Patrick, who published it under the name “Jack” Patrick. I don’t know why the name was changed when it was made into a movie; possibly it was deemed too gruesome. It’s a great title, but I’m glad that it was changed to a more generic one. I had no idea what I was in for.

The film begins in 1928, in a smoke-filled Pennsylvania factory town called “Iverstown.” (Pronounced “Iverston.”) A young girl named Martha Smith Ivers (Janis Wilson) runs away from home in the pouring rain, jumping a freight car with a streetwise little tough named Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). It’s not the first time she’s tried to escape.

Their plans hit a snag when they’re found by the police. Sam gets away, but Martha is taken home, and we see exactly what she’s trying to get away from. Her aunt, Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson), is a villain straight out of a fairy tale. Mrs. Ivers is fawned over by the sycophantic Mr. O’Neil (Roman Bohnen), Martha’s tutor. O’Neil keeps dropping none too subtle hints that his bookish son Walter (Mickey Kuhn) is perfect Harvard material, if only they had the money to send him one day.

The tongue-lashing and threats Martha receive from her aunt when she’s brought home by the police are bad enough, but later that night, when the little cat that Martha keeps hidden in her room gets out, Mrs. Ivers really goes over the top in the cartoonish villainy department and attempts to beat it to death with her cane. To protect her pet, Martha pushes her aunt down the stairs. She tumbles down the staircase and breaks her neck. Walter O’Neil witnesses Mrs. Ivers’s death. His father didn’t, but he suspects what really happened. However, when the children are questioned by the police, he backs up the story Walter and Martha concoct about a mysterious intruder.

There’s just one more wrinkle. That night, Sam Masterson had snuck into Martha’s bedroom, and was somewhere in the house. Did he see what really happened? We won’t know for awhile, because Sam runs off, and isn’t seen again.

The story jumps forward 18 years to 1946. Walter O’Neil (immediately recognizable by his priggish demeanor and his wire-rimmed spectacles) is now played by Kirk Douglas. When we first see him, he’s three sheets to the wind, but through his slurred exposition we learn that he’s now the district attorney of Iverstown, and is married to Martha, who is now played by Barbara Stanwyck. Walter clearly loves Martha, but she despises him.

After the death of Mrs. Ivers, Martha’s tutor, Mr. O’Neil, took control of her family fortune, and blackmailed her into marrying his son. Walter lived up to his potential and went to Harvard with the help of Ivers money, but he is tortured by the secret he and Martha share. Not only did he help cover up Martha’s role in her aunt’s death, but years later, he prosecuted the drifter the police picked up for the murder of Mrs. Ivers, and sent the man to the death house. Martha isn’t just an innocent victim in the affair, however, and as the film goes on, she becomes more and more villainous.

Then again, so does Walter. Douglas gives a really fine performance in this film — the first of many in his long career — as a vindictive man who is morally weak but who possesses enormous political and legal power. Stanwyck, also, is fantastic as always. I think the first movie I saw her in was Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and I thought she was really funny-looking. I couldn’t see what Fred MacMurray saw in her, or why he would go to such ridiculous and homicidal lengths to be with her. But after seeing her in this film and the excellent melodrama My Reputation (filmed in 1944 but released theatrically in 1946), I’m starting to see it. While not a great beauty, Stanwyck has a gritty, vibrant quality that demands attention. She is always fascinating to watch.

The present-day plot gets rolling when Sam Masterson (now played by Van Heflin) rolls back into town. Now a good-natured drifter and gambler, he doesn’t even intend to visit Iverstown, but when he carelessly drives his car into a sign while giving a hitchhiker (Blake Edwards) a lift, he’s forced to.

While paying a visit to the house he grew up in, Sam meets a beautiful young woman named Antonia “Toni” Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), who has just been released from jail. The two itinerants are immediately drawn to each other, but their budding romance is going to be put through its paces as soon as Walter and Martha discover that Sam is back.

Believing that Sam has purposefully returned to blackmail them, Walter sets his thugs on both Sam and Toni, jailing Toni for violating her probation and taking Sam for a ride and leaving him beaten on the side of the road outside of town. If you’ve ever seen a film noir before, you’ll know that guys like Sam don’t like to be pushed around, and when they are, it only strengthens their resolve not to turn tail and run. But you’ll also know that dangerous women attract them like honey attracts flies, and when Martha tries to get her hooks back into Sam, things won’t be easy for any of the four leading characters.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is on the long side (just shy of two hours), and the plot has a lot of moving parts, but the script by Robert Rossen and an uncredited Robert Riskin is excellent, and never bogs down. Lewis Milestone’s direction is sharp. Really, this is just a great film. Everyone who likes classic cinema should see it, not just fans of noir.

On a note completed unrelated to the film, I find it interesting that three of the four principal actors worked under pseudonyms. Kirk Douglas was born “Issur Danielovitch Demsky,” Barbara Stanwyck was born “Ruby Catherine Stevens,” and Lizabeth Scott was born “Emma Matzo.”

Incidentally, Scott was born into the Matzo family in 1922 in Scranton, Pennsylvania (the state where this film takes place). With her angular features and husky voice, Lizabeth Scott reminds me a lot of Lauren Bacall, but she’s even sexier, which I didn’t think was possible until I saw this movie.

Spellbound (Dec. 28, 1945)

Spellbound
Spellbound (1945)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
United Artists

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound gets knocked around for its basis in Freudian theory. Many reviews of the film written in the past 20 years use words like “dated,” “implausible,” and “preposterous.” A lot of these same reviews also praise the dream sequence, which was designed by Salvador Dalí, as the most memorable part of the film.

Freud has been knocked around, criticized, and discredited since the turn of the century, so to dismiss a film’s plot and ideas merely because they are “Freudian” seems like picking low-hanging fruit. Granted, Freud had a lot of wild ideas, but he was a brilliant thinker, and should be viewed as a philosopher and a humanist as much as a doctor or scientist. Also, many people who dismiss Freud out of hand haven’t actually read any of his writing, and cannot discuss his ideas beyond the fact that they’ve heard that they’re loony.

Upon revisiting the film, I found the much-praised dream sequence by Dalí overly gimmicky, adding little to the narrative beyond a “gee whiz” moment. (Hitchcock had almost nothing to do with its production. Dalí worked with a production unit from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures on the sequence.) There’s nothing wrong with “gee whiz” moments, but Spellbound is an underappreciated film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and it bears rewatching as a complete work of art, not just as a showcase for pop surrealism or “dated” notions of neuroses and the unconscious.

In 1942, after winning back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture (then called “outstanding production”) for Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), producer David O. Selznick was morose. He took time off and sought treatment. His experience with the “talking cure” was so positive that he decided to produce a picture with psychoanalysis as its subject. In 1943, Hitchcock mentioned to Selznick that he owned the screen rights to the 1927 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, written by Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer under the pseudonym “Francis Beeding.” The Gothic potboiler was about a homicidal lunatic who kidnaps a doctor named Murchison and impersonates him, taking over his position as head of a mental institution. A female doctor named Constance Sedgwick uncovers the impostor’s ruse and eventually marries the real Dr. Murchison.

In early 1944, Hitchcock and his friend Angus MacPhail crafted a preliminary screenplay in which Dr. Murchison was the outgoing head of the institution and Dr. Edwardes was his successor. They also created a romance between Constance and Dr. Edwardes, as well as the downhill skiing set piece that cures Edwardes of his amnesia. In March 1944, Selznick offered Hitchcock the talents of Ben Hecht, and Hitchcock and Hecht worked together for months to refine the screenplay. They even visited mental institutions, and preliminary versions of Spellbound featured more semi-documentary material than the final product does.

The final product may be, as Hitchcock told François Truffaut, “just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” But with Hitchcock behind the camera, even the most pedestrian manhunt story can become something dazzling. Hitchcock considered Spellbound one of his minor works, but part of his underestimation of the picture could have been due to all the clashes he had with Selznick, who was known for meddling with his productions. Selznick even hired his own therapist, Dr. May E. Romm, as a technical advisor for the film. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when Dr. Romm told Hitchcock that an aspect of psychoanalysis in Spellbound was presented inaccurately, Hitchcock responded, “It’s only a movie.”

In Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital. Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), the director of Green Manors, is being forced into retirement shortly after returning to work following a nervous breakdown. His replacement is the young, handsome Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). “My age hasn’t caught up with me,” Dr. Edwardes responds when someone mentions how young he appears. But this isn’t the case, of course. He is actually an amnesiac who has no idea who he is or how he arrived at Green Manors. His state of confusion is such that he initially believed he was Dr. Edwardes, and is now playing the role because he doesn’t know what else to do. Dr. Petersen uncovers the truth, but she has already fallen instantly, madly in love with him. When the rest of the world learns the truth about Dr. Edwardes, he flees Green Manors. He still has amnesia, but he knows that his real initials are “J.B.” He heads for New York, and tells Dr. Petersen not to follow him. Does she follow his advice? Of course she doesn’t.

The romance is a high point of the film. The presentation of Dr. Petersen’s initial “frigidity” is certainly dated, but it leads to one of Hitchcock’s wildest sequences. When Bergman first kisses Peck, a shot of her forehead dissolves into a shot of a door. The door opens, revealing another door, which also opens, revealing another door, and so on.

Bergman’s performance is pitch perfect in every scene. Peck’s performance is less natural, but it works, since he is playing a man who literally doesn’t know who he is. (Apparently Peck craved more direction from Hitchcock, but Hitchcock just kept telling him things like “drain your face of all emotion.” Hitchcock had little patience for method acting.) Also, you would be hard-pressed to find two actors in 1945 who were more physically attractive than Bergman or Peck.

The cinematography by George Barnes is another high point. Each shot in Spellbound is beautifully constructed, and gives off a silvery glow. There are a number of choices that are still shocking, such as a flashback to an accidental death, or the penultimate sequence in the film, in which a P.O.V. shot shows a revolver being turned directly on the audience. When the trigger is pulled, there is a splash of red, the only instance of color in the film. It’s an assault on the audience par excellence from a man who spent his entire career assaulting his audience while almost never alienating them, which is not an easy thing to do.

Miklós Rózsa’s score for the film incorporates a haunting theremin melody, as did his score for The Lost Weekend, released around the same time. Rózsa won an Academy Award for best score for his work on Spellbound. Hitchcock was disappointed in the music, however, since it emphasized the romantic aspects of the film, and was more to Selznick’s liking than his own.

Sometimes creative dissonance leads to great creations, however. Spellbound is a great movie, whether or not its producer and director ever saw eye to eye.

The Lost Weekend (Nov. 16, 1945)

In the decades since Billy Wilder made The Lost Weekend, an entire vocabulary about alcoholism has entered the national consciousness through self-help books, 12-step programs, and daytime talk shows, such as “codependency,” “enabler,” “denial,” “intervention,” “addiction,” “recovery,” and “relapse.” None of these terms are heard in The Lost Weekend, but the film depicts the concepts they represent with grim thoroughness. (At the time of the film’s release, even the widespread understanding of the term “alcoholic” was fairly new, since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935.)

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a handsome, intelligent, and charming man who shares an apartment in Manhattan with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry). After receiving praise for his short stories during his time at Cornell University, Don dropped out before graduation and moved to New York to pursue his dreams of becoming a famous and respected author. Now in his 30s, Don has finished nothing and published nothing in all his time in New York. He has no money and no prospects. He survives on handouts from his brother, and he is an alcoholic.

As the film begins, he has supposedly abstained from drinking for several weeks, and is packing for a long weekend in the country with Wick. What his brother and his long-suffering girlfriend, Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), don’t know is that he has a bottle of cheap rye cleverly hidden. It’s hanging out his bedroom window on a string. Wick and Helen are optimistic about Don’s progress, but like so many people who love alcoholics, they are deluding themselves. Although perhaps only partly. When Helen says, “You’re trying not to drink, and I’m trying not to love you,” it encapsulates years of sadness and betrayal. In preparation for the getaway, Helen brings Don a care package with a new James Thurber novel, two Agatha Christie books, cigarettes, and chewing gum. Don is irritable and evasive, however. When Wick talks about looking forward to apple cider in the country, Don snaps, “Why this emphasis on liquids? Very dull liquids?” Wick eventually discovers the bottle of rye hanging out the window and pours it out. Don weasels out of the situation by claiming it was something he hid weeks ago, during a binge, and forget about. He then convinces Wick and Helen to go to the symphony without him, telling them he just needs a few hours to clear his head before they catch their train.

His denials and his lies are classic alcoholic behavior, and it comes as no surprise when, as soon as they leave, he turns over the apartment looking for money and anyplace he might have hidden liquor and forgotten about. He finds $10 intended for the cleaning lady and goes to the liquor store to buy two bottles of rye. The proprietor (Eddie Laughton) initially refuses to sell them to him, but it doesn’t take long for him to cave in.

“Your brother was in,” he says. “He said he’s not gonna pay for you anymore. That was the last time.”
“Two bottles of rye!” Don says, showing his money.
“What brand?”
“You know what brand, Mr. Brophy, the cheapest. None of that twelve-year-old aged-in-the-wood chichi. Not for me. Liquor’s all one anyway.”
“You want a bag?”
“Yes I want a bag.”
“Your brother said not to sell you anything even if you did have the money to pay for it, but I can’t stop anybody, can I? Not unless you’re a minor.”
“I’m not a minor, Mr. Brophy. And just to ease your conscience, I’m buying this to refill my cigarette lighter.”

Milland’s performance as an alcoholic is masterful. Before The Lost Weekend drunks in Hollywood movies were all bums on skid row or comical, hiccupping buffoons who saw pink elephants. No matter how drunk Birnam gets, he never slurs his words. He simply becomes more grandiose and irrational, and more desperate to keep drinking. After he hides his booze at home, he stops in at Nat’s Bar for a few shots before the weekend. After Nat (Howard Da Silva) pours him his first glass of rye, he moves to wipe up the bar.

“Don’t wipe it away, Nat,” he says. “Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning. What time is it?”
“Quarter of four.”
“Good! We have the whole afternoon together. Will you let me know when it’s a quarter of six? It’s very important. I’m going to the country for a weekend with my brother.”

Don then delivers a monologue about his plan to smuggle rye on his weekend. He plans to hide one bottle in a copy of The Saturday Evening Post, so his brother can discover it, which will set his mind at ease. The other will be hidden in his brother’s luggage, and Don will retrieve it and hide it in an old apple tree. He doesn’t need it, he says, he just needs to know that it’s there if he needs it. When the scene ends, Don lifts a glass to his lips, and the camera shows that there are five “vicious circles” in front of him; five rings of booze on the surface of the bar.

Back at home, Wick and Helen give up on waiting for Don to arrive, and Wick leaves without him. Helen pleads with him and defends Don. “He’s a sick person,” she says. “It’s as though there were something wrong with his heart or his lungs. You wouldn’t walk out on him if he had an attack. He needs our help!” But both of them–the two people in the world who really care about Don–are at the ends of their ropes.

The rest of the film alternates between Don’s nightmarish bender that eventually finds him in the alcoholic ward of a hospital with no memory of how he got there, and flashbacks to his corrosive relationships with Helen and his brother. We see Wick make excuses for Don and even lie for him, and we see Helen fall in love with Don, lie to herself about the depth of his problem, and struggle to help him. “But there must be a reason you drink, Don,” she says. “The right doctor could find it!” “The reason is me,” he responds. “What I am. Or rather, What I’m not. What I wanted to become, and didn’t.”

Wilder does not depict Don’s descent into delirium in a purely subjective fashion, but there are a lot of brilliant little moments in the film that put us inside Don’s head. The extreme close-up on Don’s eye as it slowly opens while a phone rings in the background will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had a crippling hangover, and Miklós Rózsa’s brilliant score, which incorporates haunting melodies played on a Theremin, mirrors Don’s altered mental states. The Theremin would become ubiquitous in science fiction films in the ’50s, but in 1945, most Americans had never heard the instrument before, and it must have sounded incredibly eerie. The rubber bat that Don imagines he sees in his apartment is less effective, however.

But The Lost Weekend is still a brilliant film, and remains one of the most honest portrayals of addiction ever put on film. When I first saw it years ago, I thought it had a happy ending. Watching it now, I’m not so sure. Don’s promise to stop drinking and finish his novel could just be one more lie; one that the audience itself wants to believe because the alternative is unbearable, that Don’s life is the vicious circle he referred to in Nat’s Bar, and that there is no hope for him. After all, Charles R. Jackson, whose semi-autobiographical novel was the basis for this film, did eventually commit suicide.

Paramount Pictures was initially reluctant to release The Lost Weekend. They were encouraged to bury it not only by the liquor industry, but also by temperance groups who felt the film would only encourage drinking. Critics loved it in limited release, however, so Paramount released it in theaters nationwide, and it went on to win numerous awards. The Lost Weekend is the only film to win both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix du Festival International Film. Milland won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Charles Brackett and Wilder won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and Wilder won the Academy Award for Best Director.

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