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Tag Archives: Paramount Pictures

The Great Gatsby (July 13, 1949)

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby (1949)
Directed by Elliott Nugent
Paramount Pictures

Long before Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio played F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American striver Jay Gatsby, another iconic blond pretty boy tackled the role.

I first saw Elliott Nugent’s version of The Great Gatsby in 2012 as part of Noir City 4 at The Music Box Theatre. Although in the lobby after the screening I overheard one audience member very angrily denounce the film as “not noir in any way,” and I couldn’t disagree, it’s not a bad film and I’m glad I saw it.

At one point, both Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power were attached to the project. According to several websites, Tierney was deemed “too beautiful” to play Daisy Buchanan by both Nugent, the director, and Richard Maibaum, the producer, but none of those websites have a source for that claim. Personally, it seems an insane reason not to cast an actress as Daisy Buchanan. She’s the unattainable object of Gatsby’s romantic longing. Whether or not she’s really the most beautiful woman in West Egg, Long Island, is immaterial. Film is a visual medium and a beautiful actress playing Daisy just makes sense.

Betty Field, who plays Daisy in this film, is attractive, but she possesses none of the ethereal beauty of an actress like Tierney. Also, I can think of no better actress than Tierney to project outward beauty coupled with inward emptiness and callousness.

Alan Ladd, however, makes a better Jay Gatsby than I imagine Tyrone Power would have. Ladd was a handsome actor whose understated persona was always somewhat unknowable. Viewers could project whatever they wanted onto him.

Because of this, Ladd is perfect as Gatsby, the bootlegger who single-mindedly built a fortune and passed himself off as a man who came from money. Gatsby’s outward appearance was perfect, but like the beautiful books in his study, which all have uncut pages, there is nothing behind the façade.

Alan Ladd

The early parts of the film play up Gatsby’s early days in organized crime, exploiting Ladd’s facility with gangster movies and film noirs. Eventually, though, the film settles into a talky version of the novel that is largely drawn from Owen Davis’s stage adaptation that opened in 1926 and ran for 112 performances.

As I said, it’s not a bad film, but it’s not a particularly compelling one. Ladd is a good Gatsby, and the other performers are generally fine. I liked Barry Sullivan as Daisy’s husband Tom and loved Shelley Winters as Tom’s mistress Myrtle.

The film is at its best when it most resembles a hard-boiled noir, but those moments are few and far between.

The biggest flaw, of course, is that it’s a straightforward and very literal adaptation of a great American novel, and possesses none of Fitzgerald’s elegant prose. It’s worth seeing, but far from a masterpiece. It’s a great example of why the phrase “the book was better” became a cliché.

Sorry, Wrong Number (Sept. 1, 1948)

Sorry Wrong Number
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Hal Wallis Productions / Paramount Pictures

Lucille Fletcher was the greatest playwright who ever worked in the medium of radio.

Fletcher had an instinctive understanding of radio’s limitations and possibilities. Her dramas were often confined to a single location, never had more characters than the listener could keep track of, and exploited simple but primal fears like helplessness, confinement, and being alone in the dark.

Her most famous radio play was “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which was first broadcast on May 25, 1943, as an episode of the CBS anthology series Suspense. It starred Agnes Moorehead as a bedridden invalid who accidentally overhears a phone conversation between two men who are planning a murder. Distraught, she tries to get the operator to find out where the call came from. When that doesn’t work, she calls the police, but without specific information — she didn’t hear any names or exact places — there isn’t much they can do.

It’s a brilliant setup. Since all the action takes place in a single bedroom and all of the dialogue takes place over the phone, there’s never any confusion about who’s who, or what’s happening. Also, the fact that the story is told completely through sound creates a terrifying sense of intimacy.

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was the most popular episode ever broadcast on Suspense. It was so popular that it was performed seven more times, each time starring Agnes Moorehead; again in 1943, in 1944, in 1945, in 1948, in 1952, in 1957, and for the final time in 1960. (Suspense was on the air from 1942 to 1962.)

Stanwyck

It’s natural that such a popular radio play would be adapted for the big screen, but I wasn’t sure how well it would work expanded to three times its length for a visual medium.

People seem to have mixed feelings about Anatole Litvak’s film version, but I thought it was pretty good. I love Barbara Stanwyck, and she’s a more likeable protagonist than Agnes Moorehead was in the same role on the radio.

I found Sorry, Wrong Number similar in some ways to Robert Siodmak’s film The Killers (1946), which was adapted from the short story by Ernest Hemingway. Both films take a small, perfect little piece of art and expand it into a feature film by adding a bunch of characters and a whole lot of plot that’s not even suggested in the original work. (Incidentally, both films star Burt Lancaster and feature William Conrad in a small but important role.)

How well this works is up to the individual viewer, but I thought that Sorry, Wrong Number worked pretty well as a film. It doesn’t have the same impact as the radio play, but the integrity of the original story remains intact, even though it only occupies the first 15 minutes and the last 10 minutes of the film. The film version also humanizes her husband (played by Lancaster) and turns him into a victim of sorts, which is drastically different from the radio play, in which he is mostly an off-stage presence.

Anyway, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work for radio, so I thought I’d compile a list of some of the shows she wrote scripts for. You can click on the titles below to stream the shows or right-click to download them.

The Hitchhiker (first broadcast November 17, 1941)
This is the June 21, 1946, broadcast of the show on Orson Welles’s Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air. Welles reprises his role as a man driving cross-country who repeatedly see the same hitchhiker on the side of the road, even though there is no possible way the man could be moving from place to place so quickly. The chilling music is by Fletcher’s husband at the time, Bernard Herrmann. Like “Sorry, Wrong Number,” this play was done for radio several times, and was even adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1960.

The Diary of Sophronia Winters (first broadcast April 27, 1943)
Sophronia Winters (Agnes Moorehead), an unmarried middle-aged woman who is feeling liberated after her father’s death, meets a man named Hiram (Ray Collins) whose sister-in-law was also named “Sophronia.” Hiram marries Sophronia and begins to torment her with tales of the other Sophronia, an ax murderess. This is a claustrophobic, suspenseful story that evokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as memories of the real-life case of Lizzie Borden.

Sorry, Wrong Number (first broadcast May 25, 1943)
The original radio version stars Agnes Moorehead and is one of a handful of absolutely indispensable shows if you have any interest in radio drama.

Fugue in C minor (first broadcast June 1, 1944)
Ida Lupino plays a woman in the late Victorian era who is introduced to a widower with two young children. The widower, played by Vincent Price, is a composer, and his children believe that he murdered their mother, and that her spirit is trapped in their father’s organ.

The Search for Henri LeFevre (first broadcast July 6, 1944)
Paul Muni stars as a classical composer who believes his work has been plagiarized and broadcast on the radio by a man named “Henri LeFevre.”

The Furnished Floor (first broadcast September 13, 1945)
Don DeFore plays a man whose wife has died. He moves back into the apartment he used to share with his wife and restores it to exactly the way it was when his wife was still alive. Mildred Natwick plays his landlady.

Dark Journey (first broadcast April 25, 1946)
Nancy Kelly and Cathy Lewis play a pair of old friends who reunite after years apart. One of them is obsessed with a man who has spurned her, and believes that she can make him love her through sheer force of will.

The Thing in the Window (first broadcast December 19, 1946)
Joseph Cotten plays a man who thinks he can see a corpse in the apartment across from him, but he can’t be certain if his mind is playing tricks on him.

As I said, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work, and I hope you will too.

The Big Clock (April 9, 1948)

Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) wasn’t the only film in which Ray Milland got into trouble because of booze.

In John Farrow’s The Big Clock, based on the best-selling novel by Kenneth Fearing, George Stroud (Milland) misses the 7:25 train home because he’s knocking back stingers with Pauline York (Rita Johnson), a former model for Styleways magazine, one of the many imprints of Janoth Enterprises. In the film, Janoth is a Manhattan publishing juggernaut that also owns magazines with names like Artways, Airways, Sportways, Futureways, and Crimeways.

Stroud is the executive editor of Crimeways, and not long after the film begins he offers Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) his resignation. He’s been promising his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) a honeymoon since they were married, and now that they’ve been married long enough to have a five-year-old son, her patience has reached its breaking point.

Of course, Stroud strains her patience even further by missing that 7:25 train home, and Georgette leaves for their belated honeymoon alone while he goes out to nightclubs and passes out dead drunk in Pauline’s apartment, fully clothed on the couch. Oh, and did I mention that Pauline is the girlfriend of Stroud’s temperamental boss, Earl Janoth?

In Fearing’s 1946 novel, it’s made explicit that George Stroud has sex with Pauline (whose last name in the book is Delos, not York). He’s a regular cad and even has an overnight bag ready for any illicit sleepovers that might come his way.

With The Big Clock, Farrow crafted a remarkably faithful version of Fearing’s best seller. Stroud’s extramarital affair couldn’t be shown in a Hollywood film, obviously, and all mentions of homosexuality had to be expunged from the script, but in adapting the book Farrow and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer seemed to adopt an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach.

There are some minor changes that neither add nor detract from the story, like how the Strouds of the film have a five-year-old son while the Strouds of the novel have a five-year-old daughter, but there’s one big change that works extremely well. In the novel, “the big clock” was merely George Stroud’s personal metaphor for the rat race — the vast machinery of life and society that never stops ticking forward — but the big clock has been made literal for the film. It’s an enormous contraption that dominates the lobby of the building that houses Janoth Enterprises, and — no surprises here — the climax of the film involves a good amount of crawling around in its works.

The central conceit of The Big Clock is too good to screw up. Stroud leaves Pauline’s apartment moments before Janoth steps out of the elevator and sees a shadowy figure leaving down the stairs. Janoth and Pauline have words, he flies into a rage, and murders her. Janoth’s co-publisher Steve Hagen (George Macready) convinces Janoth that they need to find the mysterious witness and eliminate him.

Since Crimeways has an investigative team, Janoth and Hagen put Stroud in charge of the search for the mysterious witness. Stroud knows Janoth killed Pauline, but he can’t speak up or his marriage will be ruined. He also can’t mess up the search for himself too badly without raising any red flags. All he can do is try to stay one step ahead of things.

The Big Clock is full of nail-biting suspense — especially the last reel — and features fine performances all around. I can’t picture anyone but Charles Laughton as Janoth, a grotesque, vain, sensitive, mercurial publishing genius with one of the silliest little mustaches you will ever see on film, and Milland is perfect as a very intelligent man who knows just exactly how badly he’s trapped but who never stops trying to figure out his escape route. I also especially liked Harry Morgan as Janoth’s personal masseur and probable hit man Bill Womack, a creepy guy who wears dark clothes, has a perpetual scowl, and never speaks.

And in case you were wondering, the director, John Farrow, is indeed Mia Farrow’s father. He and Maureen O’Sullivan were married on September 12, 1936, and had seven children together; Michael, Patrick, John Charles, Mia, Tisa, Prudence, and Stephanie.

Albuquerque (Feb. 20, 1948)

Like Randolph Scott’s last western, Gunfighters (1947), director Ray Enright’s Albuquerque was filmed in Cinecolor, which was a two-color film process that was less expensive than Technicolor.

Unlike Gunfighters, it’s punchy and fast-moving, which could have something to do with the source material. Gunfighters was based on a novel by the long-winded Zane Grey, while Albuquerque is based on the 1939 novel Dead Freight for Piute, which was written by the terse, hard-boiled western author Luke Short.

Albuquerque isn’t quite on the level of André de Toth’s Ramrod (1947), which was the best adaptation of a Luke Short book I’ve seen to date, but it’s a well-made B western.

The lean, weather-beaten Randolph Scott plays Cole Armin, a man coming to Albuquerque to do a job. On the way there, he and his fellow stagecoach passengers are robbed by a group of masked bandits. Celia Wallace (Catherine Craig) loses $10,000 to them, and a young girl named Myrtle (Karolyn Grimes, best known for playing little Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life), is put in a perilous position when the stage goes out of control with spooked horses and no driver.

It quickly becomes clear that more pernicious forces are at work in Albuquerque than just a few stagecoach robbers preying on wayfarers. John Armin (George Cleveland), Cole’s uncle and the man he’s come to Albuquerque to work for, turns out to have a stranglehold on the territory, and he expects Cole to help him carry out all manner of dirty business.

So the honest Cole Armin goes into business with Celia and her brother Ted Wallace (Russell Hayden), forming Wallace & Armin Freighting. Their freighting company moves ore from the Half-High Mine down a steep, twisting, treacherous trail. (Even higher up the mountain is Angel’s Roost Mine, but it’s so high up that no one’s sure if it’s even possible to get the ore down from there.)

Naturally, none of this makes John Armin very happy, and he dispatches forces both foul and fair — a hulking henchman named Steve Murkill (Lon Chaney Jr.), who appears to have been hired not only for his great strength and mercilessness, but also his ability to get hit in the face without losing the cigarette clenched between his teeth; and a beautiful young woman named Letty Tyler (Barbara Britton), who ingratiates herself to our heroes with her feminine charms and a revolver that secretly contains blanks.

Albuquerque is a B western through and through (look no further than the presence of the rootin’, tootin’ Gabby Hayes as “Juke”), but its production values are solid and it’s pretty entertaining, especially for fans of Randolph Scott, who for my money is the most archetypal western star of all time.

I Walk Alone (Jan. 16, 1948)

It’s the battle of the strutting, preening alpha males!

Fighting out of the blue corner, with the prison pallor, the brand new cheap suit, and the “not good, not bad” room at the Avon, it’s Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster), former world heavyweight champion of bootlegging.

Fighting out of the red corner, with the jutting cleft chin, the expensive wardrobe, and the controlling interest in the swank night spot the Regent Club, it’s Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), the current world heavyweight champion of upscale criminality.

Let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuumble!

When the film begins, Frankie, a former hard man in the bootlegging rackets who came up in a tough neighborhood and knew how to handle himself, has just gotten out of prison after a 14-year stretch for murder.

He’s picked up at Grand Central Station by his old friend Dave (Wendell Corey), who’s now the bookkeeper for Dink Turner.

The killing that sent Frankie to prison occurred when he and Dink were running rye whiskey from Canada through upstate New York and they blew through a roadblock set up by hijackers, which led to a chase and a gun battle that left one of the hijackers dead. Afterward, Dink and Frankie split up and agreed to go 50-50 for each other, no matter what happened or which one of them got nabbed.

All of Turner’s men call him “Noll” now, but Frankie mostly still refers to him as “Dink.” When Dave takes Frankie to the Regent Club, Frankie recognizes his old friend Dan (Mike Mazurki), a hulking mug who used to be behind the door of Dink and Frankie’s speakeasy the Four Kings, staring through a little peephole. Now he’s out front, in a snappy uniform.

A lot has changed in 14 years, but Frankie’s still the same guy he was when he went to prison.

Dink tells him, “The world’s spun right past you, Frankie. In the ’20s you were great. In the ’30s you might’ve made the switch, but today you’re finished. As dead as the headlines the day you went into prison.” (On New Year’s Day, 1930, Burt Lancaster was 16 years old and Kirk Douglas had just turned 13, so I think both men might be a little young for the roles they’re playing.)

The Regent Club was built on the force of Dink’s personality. It was his personality that controlled Frankie back in their bootlegging days. He expects the force of his personality to still be able to get Frankie to do what he wants, but all of his smooth talk and finesse only carries him so far.

Frankie is bitter than Dink never came to personally visit him in prison, and instead sent Dave, even though the prison was only an hour’s drive on the new parkway. All Dink did was send Frankie a carton of cigarettes a month.

Dink tells Frankie he feels terrible about never coming to see him, but that he just couldn’t be associated with a convicted murderer when he was building up a high-class joint like the Regent Club. Back in the days of the Four Kings they ruled things by force, but now Dink deals with banks and lawyers, and his nightclub has a Dun & Bradstreet rating.

Dink manages to deflect Frankie for a little while by setting him up with his paramour Kay Lawrence, who’s played by the angular, dead-eyed beauty Lizabeth Scott. Dink tells Kay he wants her to find out what Frankie really wants, so he can help him, but she can’t help falling for Frankie a little, especially after Dink shows his true colors by planning to marry the wealthy Mrs. Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) while telling Kay that it’s just to increase his wealth and prestige, and his upcoming nuptials don’t have to change anything between him and Kay.

Frankie is volatile and brutish. He wants what’s his. But he’s like a bulldozer and Dink is like a silk curtain. No matter how hard he comes at him, Dink just seems to slide harmlessly to one side.

Dink tells Frankie that their 50-50 agreement was based on their partnership in the Four Kings, not on anything future. Dave brought Frankie a lot of things to sign in prison that he didn’t read very carefully, and one of them was a dissolution of his partnership in the Four Kings. After closing costs, plus 6% interest compounded over 14 years, there’s $2,912 Frankie has coming to him. Dink makes it an even $3,000 and wishes him well. Frankie wants half of everything Dink has, but Dink doesn’t think Frankie’s entitled to anything Dink earned on his own after the Four Kings closed down. “How can you collect on a race when you don’t hold a ticket?” Dink asks Frankie rhetorically.

This confrontation occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and it’s a great sequence. Burt Lancaster was a former acrobat and circus performer, and he was always wonderful at using his body. When he finally realizes how little he can do to get what he wants from Dink, he stands alone in the middle of Dink’s conference room, his fists balled, bent over in anguish.

I Walk Alone was directed by Byron Haskin and produced by Hal B. Wallis. The screenplay is by Charles Schnee, and it’s based on the play Beggars Are Coming to Town by Theodore Reeves.

It’s not a bad film, but it’s not good enough to be called a classic. Part of the problem is that it too often strays from its most compelling feature, the snarling macho men at its center who oppose each other. I was really caught up in the story when Dink denies Frankie his half and Frankie vows to kill him, but then the story veers into less interesting territory. Where does Dave’s loyalty lie? What does Dink have over Dave? Will Dave be able to break free? Does Kay really love Frankie? And so on.

Lancaster and Douglas are both outsized personalities who dominate the screen. By the time things come to a head two-thirds of the way through the film, the picture might have been more compelling if it focused solely on them and their head-to-head conflict, instead of spinning off a variety of plot threads.

The film ends with a shootout in a darkened room that we’ve seen a hundred times before and will probably see a thousand times again. Like everything else in the film, it’s not terrible, but it’s too run-of-the-mill to be truly outstanding.

I Walk Alone is definitely worth seeing if you’re a die-hard fan of either of the two lead actors, and worth a look for film noir fans who’ve never seen it. If, however, you’re looking for something truly great, I Walk Alone never quite rises above the level of entertaining mediocrity.

Unconquered (Oct. 10, 1947)

Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered is an overblown, bodice-ripping Technicolor epic that’s equal parts high drama and high camp. It’s also a whole lot of fun.

DeMille was 65 years old when he directed Unconquered, and by that point in his career he knew his way around an over-budget spectacle. (Unconquered cost almost $5 million to make, a king’s ransom in 1947.)

Most of the money shows up on screen, though. This is a great-looking picture. It drags a little in places, but for the most part it’s a fun ride. There are a few standout action set pieces — like a canoe chase that ends with a drop straight down a waterfall — but the talky bits are pretty enjoyable, too, even if they’re straight out of a potboiler.

Unconquered, which is based on Neil H. Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree, takes place in 1763, when Fort Pitt marked the end of the known and the beginning of the unknown in America. Located where one can now find Pittsburgh, the fort was the last outpost of civilization in the New World, surrounded by a vast forest filled with hostile Indians.

A beautiful Englishwoman named Abigail Hale (Paulette Goddard) stands trial for the murder of the royal officer who was killed when she was helping her brother fight off the King’s press gang. She is given a choice, face execution in England or be sold as a bond slave in Norfolk, Virginia.

Naturally, she chooses life over death, but life as a bond slave is no picnic, especially when she’s bought by the villainous arms trader Garth (Howard Da Silva). The handsome Capt. Christopher Holden (Gary Cooper) outbids Garth and then casually gives Abby her freedom, but the treacherous Garth makes a deal with the slave trader to double-sell her and retakes possession of her.

Garth’s villainy isn’t limited to his treatment of beautiful white female slaves. He also has a monopoly on the lucrative beaver-fur trade west of Fort Pitt, and will do anything to maintain it, including arming the hostile Indian tribes to prevent white settlement beyond the Alleghenies.

The chief of one of those hostile Indian tribes is named Guyasuta, and he’s played by Boris Karloff, who’s always fun to watch. Guyasuta’s medicine man, Sioto, is played by Marc Lawrence, a regular in gangster movies. The scene in which Capt. Holden tricks Guyasuta and Sioto into releasing the captive Abby by using his “magic” compass was the high point of ridiculousness in the film, but in a movie like Unconquered, once you’re along for the ride, the more ridiculous the better.

Cooper and Goddard were both a little too old for the roles they were playing in Unconquered, but they were both still extremely attractive, so it didn’t bother me that much. The action in the film is well-staged, especially the final battle for Fort Pitt, which is heavy on the pyrotechnics. Who cares if it’s all a little hokey? No one does epics like Cecil B. DeMille.

Incidentally, Unconquered was the highest grossing film of 1947, with total ticket sales of more than $6 million. So at least it made its money back.

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.

Fear in the Night (April 18, 1947)

Fear in the Night begins with a little floating dot of light dancing around the screen. It’s a will o’ the wisp that flits here and there before it morphs into the title and an odd, pulsating background pattern that is abstract, but vaguely obscene. The background music by Rudy Schrager is high-pitched and eerie.

After the credits roll, the visual abstractions clear away and are replaced by a black screen and the disembodied head of a beautiful woman with upswept hair (Janet Warren) floating toward the viewer. We hear Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) narrate his strange vision:

At first, all I could see was this face coming toward me, then I saw the room. A queer, mirrored room. And somehow, I was inside it. There was danger there. I knew that. I wanted to turn and run, but I couldn’t. It seemed as if my brain was handcuffed, and I had to do what I’d come to do.

Vince dreams that he stabs a man (Michael Harvey) in the heart with a steel bore. The man resists, and chokes Vince. One of the buttons on the man’s jacket pops off. The beautiful woman with upswept hair watches and silently screams, then Vince hides the body in one of the closets in the strange octagonal room full of mirrors. He locks the closet and puts the little key in his pocket. He wakes up from his vivid dream. He is relieved, but then he sees in his bathroom mirror that he has thumbprints in his neck. He looks down and sees a spot of blood on his wrist. He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a key and a button.

Distraught, Vince calls in sick to work. He’s a bank teller, and his pretty co-worker Betty Winters (Kay Scott) is happy to take over his window for the day, but she clearly has feelings for Vince, and is worried when she calls his room and no one answers.

Vince walks the streets alone, eager to be in the sunshine, afraid of the shadows and the coming night. He goes to see his brother-in-law, Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly), who just happens to be a police detective. Cliff tells Vince that his mind is playing tricks on him — selling him a phony bill of goods — and not to say anything about this to his sister, Lil (Ann Doran), since she’s expecting a baby and high-strung enough already, but Vince insists on following the leads from his dream. He takes out a newspaper ad that says “WANTED—I am interested in buying or leasing a house with an octagonal mirrored-paneled room or alcove. Location, size secondary, provided has this one essential, desired for reason of sentiment. Phone Grayson, FE-7648.”

Nothing pans out until Vince and Betty go on a picnic with Lil and Cliff. Caught in the rain, they take refuge in a large, unoccupied house. Guess what Vince finds upstairs when he starts poking around? You guessed it … an octagonal mirrored room, the same one he dreamed about.

In a nice bit of realism, as soon as it becomes clear that a murder actually was committed, Cliff jumps to the conclusion that Vince has been stringing him along the whole time with a crazy story so he’ll be able to plead insanity when the case goes to trial.

Fear in the Night was the first film that screenwriter Maxwell Shane directed. He also wrote the screenplay, which was based on the story “Nightmare” by Cornell Woolrich (originally published under his “William Irish” pen name). If you’ve seen Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946), which was based on a novel by William Irish/Cornell Woolrich, you’ll noticed a few similarities to Fear in the Night. Blackouts and murders possibly committed in hypnagogic states were frequent occurrences in Woolrich’s fiction, which is unsurprising once you know that Woolrich was an alcoholic shut-in.

Fear in the Night was DeForest Kelley’s first role in a feature film. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Star Trek, it will be impossible to look at him in this film and not constantly see Dr. “Bones” McCoy and all of his trademark twitches and catchphrases. Even though Kelley was only 26 or 27 when he made Fear in the Night, he doesn’t look that different than he would in the ’60s.

If you can get over that, though, Fear in the Night is a twisty and involving noir with some remarkable subjective camerawork. The bits of straight drama are filmed in a flat, conventional style, but all of the dream stuff (of which there’s plenty) is really effective. I’ve seen numerous other films that the cinematographer, Jack Greenhalgh, worked on, and up until now they’ve all been flat, uninteresting P.R.C. westerns, horror films, and mysteries. Fear in the Night really lets him shine, and there are all kinds of wonderful cinematographic flourishes, such as images that shatter into pieces and then are reassembled, scenes that flutter in and out of focus, and even a freeze frame of Kelley’s face while a murder plays out across his empty eyeballs.

The plot is a little wacky, and the solution to the mystery involves some willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, but no noir fan will be able to resist the central conceit of the film, which is summed up nicely by Vince when he says, “I’ve got an honest man’s conscience in a murderer’s body.”

My Favorite Brunette (April 4, 1947)

Elliott Nugent’s My Favorite Brunette begins with baby photographer Ronnie Jackson (Bob Hope) in the death house at San Quentin. Jackson is set to be executed that night, and he’s hoping for a stay from the governor. When none arrives, Jackson quips, “No word? Well, I’ll know who to vote for next time.”

Jackson takes a look into the chamber where he’s set to die. “Gas,” he scoffs. “You haven’t even put in electricity.”

Like any good film noir protagonist, Jackson gets to tell his story before he takes that last, long, lonely walk. (Of course, Jackson isn’t really a noir protagonist, since My Favorite Brunette is a spoof of hard-boiled detective movies, but he doesn’t know that.)

When Jackson’s story begins, he’s desperately trying to get an adorable little Chinese-American boy to smile for the camera, but he’s hungry for bigger problems. Jackson may be San Francisco’s premier baby photographer, but he idolizes the man who has the office across from him, two-fisted he-man Sam McCloud (an uncredited Alan Ladd, who’s clearly able to laugh at himself). Jackson longs to be a detective, too. “It only took brains, courage, and a gun,” Jackson says. “And I had the gun.”

When McCloud has to run off to Chicago for a few days, Jackson just happens to be sitting in his office when the beautiful and exotic Carlotta Montay (Dorothy Lamour) walks in. When she thinks he’s McCloud, he can’t bear to tell her the truth, and is off on his first case, tracking down Carlotta’s missing husband, the Baron Montay. (Or is he her uncle? The story keeps changing.)

I won’t summarize the plot any further, mostly because it’s beside the point, but also because it’s nearly as convoluted as an actual hard-boiled P.I. story. Also, some of Jackson’s hard-boiled narration is so close to the real thing that it’s remarkable. After he’s knocked out in his office, he says in voiceover, “When I came to, I was playing ‘post office’ with the floor. I had a lump on my head the size of my head. Inside, Toscanini was conducting the Anvil Chorus with real blacksmiths. I looked at the bottle of Old Piledriver and decided to stick to double malts.”

Sure, it’s over-the-top, but so was most of the dialogue in hard-boiled detective films. Threats like, “I’ll fill you so full of holes you’ll look like a fat clarinet,” sound funny when they’re coming out of Bob Hope’s mouth, but they’re no more ridiculous than half of the things Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell growled at tough guys.

Besides the genuinely funny script and manic direction by Nugent, the casting is key to the success of My Favorite Brunette. Dorothy Lamour is attractive and sleepy-eyed enough to be a real femme fatale, and the hulking Lon Chaney Jr. and the sinister Peter Lorre are both on hand to play bad guys. (All that’s missing is Boris Karloff with an eye patch and a hook for a hand.)

I’m not the biggest fan of Bob Hope, but he’s excellent in this movie, and frequently had me in stitches. The comedy mostly comes from the dialogue, but there are some classic bits of physical humor, too. The scene in which Lorre tries to force a false clue on Hope while hiding in various spots in a room, but Hope just keeps missing it, might be the funniest bit in the film.

My Favorite Brunette has fallen into the public domain, and is available to watch at archive.org. You’ll have to wait until the very end for Bing Crosby’s cameo, but it’s worth it.

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.

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