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The Long Night (May 28, 1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange Woman (Oct. 25, 1946)

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman, directed with uncredited assistance from Douglas Sirk, is based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams.

Born in 1889, Williams was a prolific novelist who is probably best known today for the same reason he was famous in 1946; he wrote the novel Leave Her to Heaven in 1944, which was made into a hit film in 1945 starring Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, a calculating sociopath with twisted ideas about love.

The Strange Woman was a natural choice to be made into a film following the success of Leave Her to Heaven. Both stories are psychosexual portraits of women with Electra complexes who use their allure to ensnare men and who don’t allow conventional morality to keep them from their goals; even taboos like murder mean nothing to them.

Unlike Leave Her to Heaven, The Strange Woman is a period piece. The film begins in Bangor, Maine, in 1824. Young Jenny Hager (Jo Ann Marlowe) is being raised by a single father (Dennis Hoey) whose only love in life seems to be drink. After Mr. Hager receives stern words from prosperous shop keeper and importer Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart) when he once again begs a jug of liquor off of him, the scene switches to a river bank, where young Jenny is tormenting Mr. Poster’s son Ephraim (Christopher Severn), a sickly boy who can’t swim. She pushes him into the river and holds his head under with her bare foot, but when Judge Henry Saladine (Alan Napier) arrives in a carriage, she says, “Poor, poor Ephraim,” and jumps in. She drags him to shore and blames his predicament on the boys she was with.

The judge is disgusted with Mr. Hager for stumbling through life drunk and failing to care for his daughter, but once Jenny and her father are alone, it’s clear that she loves him unconditionally. “Before long we’ll have everything,” she says. “Just as soon as I grow up we’ll have everything we want, because I’m going to be beautiful.” Mr. Hager tosses his empty jug into the river, and when the ripples clear, child actress Marlowe’s reflection has become that of the beautiful Hedy Lamarr.

Jenny may be all grown up, but clearly only a few years have passed. All the adults are played by the same actors, and things are much the same in Bangor. Her father is still a hopeless drunk and Mr. Poster is still the wealthiest, most powerful man in town. Bangor appears to be a little rowdier, however, with more commerce coming through the docks, and more drunken sailors stumbling around. Jenny and her friend Lena (June Storey) hang around the waterfront, attracting the attention of sailors. Lena tells Jenny that, with her looks, she could get the youngest and best-looking men around, but Jenny replies that she’s only interested in snagging the richest.

When her father confronts her, she flaunts her sexuality, bragging that she can make any man want her, and he beats her viciously. The whipping he gives her, while they stand face to face, is a little ambiguous, and more than a little sexual.

She runs away to Mr. Poster’s house, and shows him the stripes on her back, throwing her hair forward and dropping the back of her dress, as if she’s posing for a racy portrait, and his face registers both shock and lust.

It’s not long before Jenny marries Mr. Poster. It’s clear that he is a replacement for her father. Her physical longing, at least for the moment, is focused on her old friend — and new son-in-law — Ephraim, who has been sent away to school. She writes Ephraim a letter telling him how lucky he is to have a “nice young mother” and that she will “demand obedience and love.” She writes that if he refuses her, “I will punish you by not kissing you good night” and ends her letter with the line “…come home and see what a fine parent I can be. I do think families should be close, don’t you? Your loving mother, Jenny.”

Ephraim (now played by Louis Hayward) returns home, and he and Jenny slowly but surely fall for each other.

As the film poster above rather obviously shows, Jenny has two faces. For instance, when she and Ephraim sit on the banks of the river together, her recollection of pushing him into the river when he was a boy is flawed. She tells him that those rotten boys did it to him, and she tried to save him. Is she lying? Does she know she is lying? Does he know? Does he go along with it because he loves her, or does he truly believe her?

Jenny’s dual nature mirrors the nature of Bangor itself. On the one hand it is a prosperous New England town with an active churchgoing population of well-to-do people (like Mr. Poster and his young wife), but on the other hand it is a seedy little port city full of drunken sailors and “grog shops and low houses” (a.k.a. pubs and brothels). Jenny uses her husband’s money from his shipping and lumber businesses to improve the town, shaming him publicly into contributing large sums to the church. In private, however, she is carrying on with Ephraim, and even encourages him to arrange an “accident” for his father so they can be married.

Ephraim won’t be the last man in Jenny’s trail of conquest, either. As soon as she lays her eyes on John Evered (George Sanders), the tall, strapping foreman of Mr. Poster’s lumber business, it’s clear that the weak-willed Ephraim doesn’t stand a chance.

The Strange Woman is a well-made film with fine performances all around (with perhaps the exception of Gene Lockhart, who as Mr. Poster exhibits some of the most over-the-top reaction shots I’ve seen since watching Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows). Its narrative is sprawling, and clearly adapted from a novel, but the filmmakers keep everything moving along nicely.

Director Ulmer was a talented craftsman who toiled away in Poverty Row for most of his career, producing a few masterpieces, a few awful pictures, and plenty of films in between. The Strange Woman represents the rare film on his résumé with a decent budget and a reasonable shooting schedule. He was lent out by P.R.C. (Producer’s Releasing Corporation) at Lamarr’s insistence (apparently they were friends back in their native Austria-Hungary). He was paid $250 a week for the job. P.R.C. studio boss Leon Fromkess, on the other hand, received roughly $2,500 from United Artists. While he may have gotten the short end of the stick financially, the deal gave Ulmer a chance to work with a professional cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), a major star or two, a well-written script based on a hot property, and major studio distribution.

Notorious (Sept. 6, 1946)

Notorious
Notorious (1946)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
RKO Radio Pictures

Notorious was Alfred Hitchcock’s second film to star Ingrid Bergman. Like the first, Spellbound (1945), it’s a perfect marriage of director and star. Later in his career, Hitchcock had a penchant for casting blond ice queens like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, so it’s easy to forget how good he and the brown-haired Bergman were when they worked together.

In Notorious, Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German-American man convicted of spying for the Nazis. As soon as the trial is over, she throws a little party in her Miami bungalow and gets good and blotto. The sense of intimacy that Bergman creates in this scene is remarkable. She doesn’t slur her words or make a fool of herself, but through her drunken ramblings she reveals some of her innermost thoughts.

Not so with the handsome stranger (Cary Grant) who sits alone at her party. He remains an enigma for awhile. After she throws everyone else out, she takes him out for some good old fashioned drunk driving. (And all the herky-jerky rear projection stuff made me feel a little inebriated, too.) When a motorcycle cop pulls her over, the stranger flashes a badge of some kind, and the cop lets them go. Alicia’s mood sours. She hates policemen.

Alicia learns that this handsome stranger’s name is Devlin, and he’s a government agent. He has listened to the recordings of conversations she had with her father, and knows that she is loyal to the United States, despite her anger about his imprisonment. Because of her father’s espionage work against America, however, she is the perfect person to infiltrate a group of Nazis who fled to Brazil after the war.

While waiting to begin her assignment in Rio de Janeiro, she falls in love with Devlin. It happens — as these things tend to in the movies — quickly and with little explanation. Devlin seems to love her, too, but when it comes time to put her into the field he is all business. And since part of her assignment is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old friend of her father’s and a member of the Nazi inner circle in Rio, Devlin chooses duty over love, and is cold enough to her that she eventually accepts Alex’s proposal of marriage.

Needless to say, living with a man she doesn’t love and his creepy, controlling mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) in a mansion in Rio, surrounded by Nazis who think nothing of killing traitors, is a dangerous proposition for poor Alicia, especially since her romance with Devlin continues to grow, despite both of their efforts to quell their own feelings.

Ingrid Bergman

Unlike Spellbound, which had all manner of baroque, Freudian lunacy, Notorious is an elegant and understated picture. The espionage plot isn’t overcomplicated, and it’s not really the focus of the movie. The love triangle is, as well as all the suspense and danger related to it. A sequence at one of Alex’s parties, in which Alicia and Devlin pass a key from hand to hand, achieves greatest emotional significance and more suspense than a complicated cryptography system or a series of twists and double-crosses ever could.

As a pure cinematic experience, I prefer Spellbound, despite — or perhaps because of — its craziness. Notorious is still a great movie, and Cary Grant is a less inert leading man than Gregory Peck. Ingrid Bergman is stunningly beautiful in this film, too. It’s not just the contours of her face, which are lovingly illuminated by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, it’s her intelligence and openness, and an ineffable quality of vulnerability.

Notorious was a critical and commercial success, and one of the biggest hits of 1946. Claude Rains was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor and Ben Hecht was nominated for best original screenplay, although neither won.

Don’t Fence Me In (Oct. 20, 1945)

Don’t Fence Me In is a particularly good Roy Rogers picture. Directed by John English (who with William Witney directed some of the best Republic serials of the late ’30s and early ’40s), it’s a well-paced, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable B western.

The film opens with a western montage, accompanied by the Cole Porter song from which the film gets its title. After the credits roll, we’re treated to a cheap-looking Boot Hill set with a matte painting background that looks as if it’s about two feet away. A narrator tells us that “Once upon a time, as a matter of fact nearly forty years ago, there was a notorious western outlaw named Wildcat Kelly. He didn’t want to be fenced in either. But they stuffed him into a pine box and buried him six feet under the sod, on Boot Hill.” A masked man rises from behind Kelly’s tombstone, carrying a gun and a Wells Fargo case. The narrator, sounding surprised, says, “Wait a minute, that looks like Wildcat Kelly. It is Wildcat Kelly. There’s something mighty strange about this. I think we’d better investigate the story of Mr. Wildcat Kelly.”

And investigate we shall, but the job will fall on the pretty shoulders of a girl reporter named Toni Ames (Dale Evans). Toni has enough moxie to make an 800-pound gorilla stop dead in his tracks. When we first meet her, she’s performing the song “A Kiss Goodnight” while dancing on the table at a hot party in a big city, displaying her shapely gams to maximum effect. She’s doing it all for a story, though. A reporter for a tabloid called Spread magazine, Toni is undercover, secretly snapping shots of the party’s guest of honor, a dirty old cad named Cartwright (Andrew Tombes) who’s running for mayor as an incumbent.

The plot eventually takes Toni out west to the R Barr Dude Ranch to investigate the legend of Wildcat Kelly, who it turns out faked his own death nearly 40 years ago and has been living as a regular western Joe named “Gabby Whittaker.” He’s played by George “Gabby” Hayes, and it’s a good part for him. In a lot of these pictures, Hayes was able to just coast on his ornery persona, but Don’t Fence Me In actually gives him something to do.

Rogers plays that charming and laconic singing cowpoke character called “Roy Rogers” that he played in dozens of movies. Roy is Gabby’s friend, and the only person who knows his secret. He tries to convince Toni not to publish what she knows about Wildcat Kelly, but she goes ahead with her story, and that’s when things get interesting.

There are a group of gangsters whose motives are shadowy, but who clearly want Kelly dead once it’s revealed he is still alive. One of them is played by the great character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career as a sinister-looking hood.

This is a fine showcase for all of the regulars from the ’40s Roy Rogers pictures. Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers back Rogers up both musically and when it’s time for fisticuffs. And the wonder horse Trigger does a high-stepping dance, with Rogers astride him, to an instrumental version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” and even takes a bow when he’s finished.

Roy and Dale’s relationship is more antagonistic than in many of their other pictures, but it’s still fun to watch. When she first shows up and tries to stow away in the boot of a coach, Roy tosses a hunk of stinky Limburger cheese in the back with her and takes her on a bumpy ride. She later pays him back by pushing him into a swimming pool.

Don’t Fence Me In ends with a delightful rendition of the title song performed by Roy, Dale, and the Sons of the Pioneers, with a few lines added at the beginning about Wildcat Kelly to tie the whole thing together.

Mildred Pierce (Oct. 20, 1945)

Mildred_PierceIf you’ve only seen the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce, you’re forgiven for never wondering whether the striking murder set piece that opens the film and informs the entire picture was an invention of the producer and the screenwriters that never occurred in the novel.

It was. But it’s a brilliant invention. Even though long stretches of Mildred Pierce (told in flashback) are essentially melodrama, the sequence that opens the film is one of the greatest examples of film noir I’ve ever seen. It is nighttime. Heavy shadows fall over caddish playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), resplendent in a tuxedo, as he is gunned down in a Malibu beach house. Not every shot hits him. A few smash into the mirror behind him. But enough hit him to kill him, and he falls to the floor. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) flees from the house, walks down the boardwalk, and looks as though she is contemplating suicide by jumping into the Pacific Ocean, but is stopped by a policeman. She talks her way out of the situation and later entices the beefy and amorous Wally Fay (Jack Carson) back to the house on the beach and locks him in, with the intention of pinning the murder on him. The scenes in which Wally realizes Mildred has left him alone in a locked house with a corpse and a revolver and he attempts to escape are stunning, and are one of the greatest noir sequences in film history.

Unlike Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), another noir classic adapted from a novel by Cain, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce takes a lot of liberties with its source material. This is partly due to necessity. I loved Cain’s novel, and found it every bit as good as his 1934 crime classic The Postman Always Twice and more believable than his 1937 novel Serenade, which is about a male opera singer who loses his voice after he gives in to homosexual temptation. Cain’s Mildred Pierce contains no murders, just plenty of bad behavior, and the most despicable character waltzes off at the end with no punishment in sight. Apparently the moral tone of the novel was troubling to the Breen Office, so producer Jerry Wald devised a murder plot with a culprit who could be punished, which sufficiently palliated the concerns of producer and studio head Jack L. Warner, and he purchased the rights to the novel in 1944. The script for the film went through eight different versions before Ranald MacDougall’s version was accepted. William Faulkner and Catherine Turney both made uncredited contributions. (And we can all thank our lucky stars that Faulkner’s scene in which Mildred’s maid, played by Butterfly McQueen, consoled Mildred while singing a gospel song was either never filmed or was left on the cutting room floor.)

Mildred Pierce is a fantastic film. Crawford’s longtime nemesis Bette Davis and fellow fading star Rosalind Russell were both considered for the lead role, but both turned it down. It’s impossible for me to imagine anyone but Crawford playing Mildred Pierce. She brings not only her finely controlled histrionics to the role, but her own life history as a woman who crawled up from nothing.

When the picture opened, it was a huge hit, both with critics and audiences. It was nominated for best picture, best actress, best supporting actress (for Eve Arden, who plays Mildred’s wisecracking best friend), best writing, and best black and white cinematography. Joan Crawford won the Academy Award for best actress, and accepted the statuette at home, where she was sick in bed. (Her adopted daughter Christina claims she was faking, but this is hardly the worst accusation she has lobbed at her mother.)

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