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Tag Archives: Raymond Burr

Pitfall (Aug. 24, 1948)

PitfallOne man’s domestic bliss is another man’s prison.

John Forbes (Dick Powell) has what some men only dream of — a home; a steady job with the Olympic Mutual Insurance Company; an attractive, intelligent, and loving wife (Jane Wyatt); and a son (Jimmy Hunt) who thinks his dad is the greatest guy in the world.

And yet, he’s dissatisfied. It’s a formless sort of dissatisfaction. He grumbles about how fast his son Tommy outgrows his shoes. He tells his wife Sue that the world won’t end if he doesn’t show up at his desk every morning at 9 o’clock. He asks Sue what became of those two young kids they were … the two young kids who were going to build a boat and sail around the world.

As Sue drives him to work he tells her, “Sometimes I get to feel like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel.”

“You and fifty million others,” she responds.

“I don’t want to be like fifty million others,” he says.

“But you’re John Forbes, average American, backbone of the country,” she says with a smile.

“I don’t want to be an average American, backbone of the country. I want somebody else to be the backbone and hold me up.”

Later that day — a day shaping up to be like any other — he goes to the apartment of Miss Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a beautiful but world-weary blonde who received gifts from a man convicted of embezzling.

It’s just part of his job. He doesn’t care one way or the other that one of the gifts he’s recovering is an engagement ring. But Mona sees right through him, and tells him, “You’re a little man with a briefcase. You go to work every morning and you do as you’re told.”

Her words get to him, and he softens towards her. They share a few afternoon drinks in a dark cocktail lounge. They go boating. And he never once mentions his wife or son.

Scott Powell and BurrOne thing I loved about Pitfall is that its characters are real adult people leading real adult lives. They’re not overblown film-noir caricatures, and their actions all have realistic consequences.

Mona is not a femme fatale who sees in John Forbes an easy mark. Aside from being unusually attractive, she’s an average woman who hates that she was involved with a man who was not only stupid enough to embezzle money to spend on her, but stupid enough to get caught. And she gets involved with John Forbes not because she has a dastardly scheme, but because he’s kind to her and she thinks he’s a decent guy. (Mona Stevens has a lot more in common with Ann Sheridan’s character in Nora Prentiss than she does with Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity.)

But Pitfall is not just a tale of marital infidelity and post-war suburban malaise, it’s a noirish thriller, which means there are some nasty surprises lurking.

One of them takes the form of the angry loser who embezzled for love of Mona — Bill Smiley (Byron Barr), whose prison term is nearing an end. The other takes the hulking form of a creepy private detective who is obsessed with Mona — J.B. “Mac” MacDonald (Raymond Burr).

Pitfall has all the ingredients of a great film noir, but director André de Toth mixes them together in interesting ways, and avoids over-the-top contrivances. Cinematographer Harry J. Wild’s solid but unpretentious shots of Los Angeles anchor the film, the actors all deliver really good performances, and Karl Kamb’s screenplay (based on Jay Dratler’s novel The Pitfall) is full of wit and intelligence.

Raw Deal (May 26, 1948)

Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948) together form one of the most powerful one-two punches in the history or film noir.

Both films star Dennis O’Keefe, both feature musical scores by Paul Sawtell, John C. Higgins has a writing credit on both, and both feature the exquisite cinematography of John Alton.

What makes these two films such a great one-two punch is that they are each one side of the film noir coin. T-Men is a docudrama, purportedly made to show square-jawed agents of the Treasury Department cracking a big case, but like all great noir docudramas, the depiction of the criminal demimonde and the gray areas of its protagonists’ moral codes are the most interesting parts of the film.

Raw Deal is the other side of the coin. It’s a film noir purely about crime and criminals, and it has all the great elements of noir — a doomed male protagonist on the run, a “good girl” and a “bad girl” competing for his love, dream-like voice-over narration, a casually sadistic villain, and it’s set in one of the great noir cities — San Francisco.

Like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), Raw Deal is the Platonic ideal of a film noir.

Raw Deal begins with aging gun moll Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) going to visit Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) in prison. Right away Raw Deal establishes that it is not a run-of-the-mill crime film, as Claire Trevor’s voice-over narration is accompanied by a haunting theme played on a theremin. The element of the theremin is only present in Paul Sawtell’s score during these voice-overs, and establishes Pat’s point of view as dreamy and hyperreal. Raw Deal is the first film in which I’ve heard a theremin since Miklós Rózsa’s masterful scores for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), both of which used the eerie sound of a theremin to establish altered states of perception.

When she arrives at the prison, however, Pat is told she has to wait a little while because Joe already has a visitor — Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). Ann works for Joe’s defense lawyer’s office and she cares about his case and wants to see him paroled, but she admits that he will probably have to wait at least three years. She leaves, Pat enters, and Joe is faced with a more tantalizing prospect. Gang boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) has devised an escape plan for Joe. If he can make it over the wall Pat will be there waiting in a getaway car.

Of course, nothing is what it seems to be on the surface, and Coyle — whose double-cross is how Joe ended up in prison in the first place and who still owes Joe his cut from a robbery — is hoping that Joe will be shot by prison guards during his escape, taking care of Coyle’s problem for good.

Burr formerly played a memorable villain in Mann’s noir Desperate (1947), but he’s an even nastier and more violent character in Raw Deal, casually setting his girlfriend on fire in a shocking scene of cruelty that presages a similar scene in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). His right-hand man, the bizarrely named “Fantail,” is solidly played by John Ireland, who formerly starred in Mann’s noir Railroaded (1947).

First and foremost, Raw Deal is a masterpiece of suspense. For most of the movie Joe, Pat, and Ann are on the run from the police, and the film hits all of the classic “fugitive movie” moments — navigating a road block, hiding out in a cabin in the woods, one narrow escape after another, etc. Finally, for the last act of the film, the type of suspense changes, and a ticking clock takes the film closer and closer to its inevitable violent confrontation.

Since so much of Raw Deal takes place on the open road, there aren’t as many opportunities for Alton to flex his cinematographic muscles in the same way he did in T-Men, which mostly took place in urban environments. But he makes the most of what he has to work with. There’s a lot of day-for-night shooting in Raw Deal, and it’s a technique that never looks quite right, but at least with Alton operating the camera it always looks good. Finally, scenes toward the end with Claire Trevor’s face reflected in a ticking clock as she weighs a decision in her mind are absolutely masterful.

Anthony Mann was a great director who made wonderful films in all genres, but among his film noirs, I’ll never be able to decide if I like Raw Deal or T-Men better. They’re both great, must-see pictures for every aficionado of film noir.

Ruthless (April 16, 1948)

He wasn’t a man … he was a way of life.

The last line of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless could have been the capper to an epic tale of striving and loss, but after almost one hour and 45 minutes of not-quite-there dramaturgy and characters that seem more like symbols and types than actual people, that last line rings utterly false.

Ulmer is a good director — he’s been called “the poet of Poverty Row” — but nothing he’s made since Detour (1945) has really struck a chord with me.

Detour is not only one of my favorite film noirs, but one of my favorite films, period, and would easily make the list of my top 10 favorite films of all time.

I liked both The Strange Woman (1946) and Carnegie Hall (1947), but neither ascended to the pulpy, brilliant heights of Detour. It’s been more than 15 years since I saw Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), but I remember loving it. The wonderful lead performances by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff didn’t hurt, but Ulmer’s direction and surreal set pieces took it to a level that most Universal horror films can’t match. His dreamy horror film Bluebeard (1944), which starred John Carradine, is good too.

My point is that Ulmer is a director capable of great stuff, but Ruthless doesn’t show him in top form. Based on Dayton Stoddart’s 1945 novel Prelude to Night, the film is a series of flashbacks that tell of the merciless rise to power of Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott).

The film begins with a glamorous party at Horace Vendig’s palatial seaside manor. He has thrown the party to coincide with his announcement that he is handing over all his wealth and possessions to world peace organizations. Among the guests are Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) and his date, Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn). Vic is Horace’s oldest friend, and his reappearance stirs up old wounds and painful memories.

Horace was an unwanted child. His parents (played by Raymond Burr and Joyce Arling) split up, and both of them were more interested in their own love affairs than in their son. But after Horace saves a girl named Martha Burnside (played as a child by Ann Carter), her parents accepted him as their own child, which allowed him to attend Harvard and make his mark in society. Incidentally, young Horace is played by Robert J. Anderson, who also played James Stewart as a young man in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

In the series of flashbacks that follow Horace’s childhood, Zachary Scott and Louis Hayward play the younger versions of themselves and Diana Lynn, who plays Mallory, also plays the grown-up Martha Burnside. I’m not sure what the point of this dual role was. The two characters aren’t related, and if Mallory’s resemblance to Martha is meant to remind Horace of everything he has lost then not enough comes of it.

Horace’s ruthless business machinations and his seduction of women are inextricable. When he’s used a woman for all the social advancement she’s worth, he throws her aside for his next conquest.

The film’s theme of sex & business is made most literal in the sequence in which Horace takes over the entire financial empire of Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet) by seducing his wife Christa (Lucille Bremer). With her comes everything. She tells Buck that she couldn’t transfer her affection to Horace without also transferring her loyalty, but the idea that she holds the key to all of Buck’s assets is still pretty far-fetched. She eventually wises up, as all of Horace’s women do, and she screams at him, “From the first moment you weren’t kissing me, you were kissing forty-eight percent!”

On the IMDb page for Ruthless, there are many user reviews that proclaim the film a classic, and nearly the equal of Citizen Kane (1941). I don’t know what movie these people saw, and can only ascribe their enthusiasm for Ruthless to the deep desire that lies in the heart of every cinéaste to champion an unfairly neglected film.

Besides the style of the film, which is passable but nowhere near the technical brilliance of a film like Kane, the lead performance of Zachary Scott is too one-note to ever make the viewer truly hate or love Horace Vendig. (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the scenes of Horace’s childhood, in which another actor plays him, are the most moving and compelling of the film.)

Scott crafts a character who is by no means likeable, but there’s also nothing particularly interesting or profound about his plutomania, and I could never dredge up the depth of feelings that his friend Vic experiences, making the “tragic” events of the film’s climax more laughable than sad.

Sleep, My Love (Feb. 18, 1948)

Sleep, My Love is a slick, classy thriller from the slickest, classiest director of all time, Douglas Sirk.

Granted, his greatest work was a few years ahead of him, but even when he was making run-of-the-mill potboilers like Sleep, My Love and Lured (1947), Sirk applied not only his considerable skill as a filmmaker to the material, but also his fetishistic attention to details, and his love of the sumptuous and the glamorous.

The film starts with a bang. Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes up from a nightmare on a train, screaming. She doesn’t have any memory of how she got there. The last thing she remembers is going to sleep next to her husband in their palatial home on Sutton Place and East 57th Street.

Oh, and there’s a small pistol in her bag that she doesn’t remember having, either.

Sirk introduces all the players in his mystery early in the film — Alison’s husband, Richard Courtland (Don Ameche), her friend Barby (Rita Johnson), Barby’s brother Bruce (Robert Cummings), Detective Sgt. Strake (Raymond Burr), a mysterious man with horn-rimmed glasses named Charles Vernay (George Coulouris), and the leggy, beautiful Daphne (Hazel Brooks) — but it’s not immediately clear how they all relate to one another.

Much of the pleasure in watching Sleep, My Love comes from seeing how Sirk moves all of his chess pieces around the board. It’s clear from the outset that someone is gaslighting Alison, but who is doing it? And why are they doing it?

This isn’t the kind of mystery in which the solution comes as a complete surprise and is explained by a brilliant detective who gathers all the suspects together in a drawing room; rather, it evolves and reveals itself naturally over the course of the film. It won’t take an astute viewer long to figure out what’s going on, but Sirk isn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. He’s simply making a thrilling film that’s beautiful to look at, and succeeding with aplomb.

Desperate (May 9, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s Desperate stars Steve Brodie (not to be confused with the other Steve Brodie) and Audrey Long (the future Mrs. Leslie Charteris) as a young married couple on the run from sinister thugs led by the glowering Raymond Burr.

Steve Randall (Brodie), the owner and sole operator of Stephen Randall Trucking, is such a sweetie that he buys flowers for his wife Anne (Long) on their four-month anniversary. (When I watched this movie with my wife, she turned to me and said, “You didn’t get me anything for our four-month anniversary.” Thanks for making the rest of us look bad, Steve.) But the happy couple’s celebration has to be postponed when Steve gets an offer he can’t refuse … $50 for just one night’s work.

When an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. The crew of mugs loading merchandise from a warehouse into Steve’s truck are clearly up to no good. When one of them flashes a rod, Steve balks, so they shove him back in the truck and keep the gun on him. They need a clean “face” for the cops.

When a police officer shows up to investigate, Steve signals him with his lights, which leads to a shootout between the cops and the thieves. Steve drives away. Al Radak (Larry Nunn), who has one foot on Steve’s back bumper and the other on the loading dock, falls and is captured by the police. His older brother, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), the leader of the crew, gets away with his henchman, Reynolds (William Challee).

Walt’s crazy about his kid brother, and Al will face the death penalty for the cop who was killed during the warehouse heist. So Walt demands that Steve turn himself in to the cops and claim he was responsible. To convince him, Walt calls in Steve’s license plate number and then has his boys work him over in a dark room with a single swinging overhead light. It’s a stunning sequence, and quintessentially noir.

When Steve doesn’t give in, Walt tries a new tactic. “Say, I’ll bet that new bride of yours is pretty,” he says while holding a broken bottle. “How ’bout it Steve?”

Walt has found Steve’s Achilles’ heel, and he agrees to Walt’s plan. Walt says, “I don’t care what you tell them, but if Al doesn’t walk out of that police station by midnight, your wife ain’t gonna be so good to look at.”

But Steve manages to slip away from Reynolds and call Anne from a pay phone. He tells her to meet him at the train station. They’ll go on the lam together, so Anne will be out of Walt’s reach.

Most of the rest of the film is an extended cross-country chase, as Steve and Anne move from place to place, establish new identities for themselves, and pick up work where Steve can find it. They’re pursued not only by Walt and Reynolds, but by the authorities, since Steve is still a person of interest in the murder of the police officer at the warehouse.

Along the way they have the obligatory conversation about how he can’t turn himself in to the police because they won’t believe him. They have a second wedding on the Minnesota farm owned by Uncle Jan and Aunt Klara (Paul E. Burns and Ilka Grüning) because their first marriage was just a courthouse deal and they deserve a big gathering with a real priest. Anne finds out she’s pregnant. They are crossed up by a sleazy private investigator named Pete Lavitch (Douglas Fowley) and they are assisted by a sympathetic police detective, Lt. Louie Ferrari (Jason Robards), who’s not above using Steve as bait to catch Walt.

Desperate is not a long film (it’s less than an hour and 15 minutes), but it drags a little during its middle act, which sometimes feels repetitive. It redeems itself completely in its final act, however, which is as dark and as tense as any film noir fan could ask for. Steve insures himself for $5,000 and heads for Walt dead-on, like a man playing chicken with an oncoming freight train. Six months have passed since Al was arrested, and he’s set to be executed. Walt gave up a long time ago on the idea that his brother could be freed, and all he wants now is the satisfaction of killing Steve at the exact moment that Al dies. A life for a life.

Walt and Reynolds take Steve to an apartment. Walt places a clock on the table between them in the kitchen. It’s a quarter to midnight. He gives Steve a last meal — sandwiches and milk — and a cigarette, and promises to shoot him at the stroke of midnight. There are increasingly tight close-ups of their three sweaty faces. “Now who was it said time flies?” Walt asks sardonically.

Desperate is the first really good noir from Anthony Mann, a director whose name is now inextricable from the term “film noir,” but who started out in Hollywood making mostly musicals and comedies. Desperate is not as interesting as T-Men (1947) or as powerful as Raw Deal (1948), but it’s a well-made, well-acted, exciting thriller. Audrey Long (recently seen as Claire Trevor’s little sister in Robert Wise’s Born to Kill) is probably the weakest actor in the film, but she’s called on to do the least. Steve Brodie is an appealing protagonist. He has a pleasant face and a regular-guy demeanor, and he’s believable as a man who’s pushed too far.

The real treat in Desperate is Raymond Burr as the vicious Walt Radak. This was only Burr’s third credited appearance on film, and while I enjoyed his role as the villain in William Berke’s Code of the West (1947), Desperate plays much better to his strengths as an actor. Burr was a remarkable heavy (no offense intended, big guy), and I never stopped to consider how ludicrous Walt’s plans were while I was watching this film. Burr sells every one of his hard-boiled lines with ruthless efficiency.

Mann’s cinematographer on Desperate, George E. Diskant, deserves mention, too. While he’s perhaps not as famous as Mann’s frequent collaborator John Alton, Diskant’s photography in Desperate is beautiful — full of darkness, hard angles, and vertigo-inducing chiaroscuro constructions.

Code of the West (Feb. 20, 1947)

Code of the West, a programmer from RKO Radio Pictures, has the same pedigree as Sunset Pass (1946). Both films are based on novels by Zane Grey, the screenplays for both films were written by Norman Houston, both are directed by William Berke, both star James Warren and John Laurenz, and both feature Robert Clarke, Harry Woods, Steve Brodie, and Harry Harvey in supporting roles.

In Sunset Pass, the tall, lean, blond-haired, scowling Warren played a cowboy named “Rocky.” Here, he plays a cowboy named “Bob Wade.” John Laurenz plays the same character, Chito Rafferty, a comical, musically inclined Irish-Mexican. (Incidentally, “Chito Rafferty” was a sidekick character made famous by Richard Martin, who played the character in 33 different westerns from 1943 to 1952. Laurenz was the only other actor to play the character, and he only did so in Sunset Pass and Code of the West.)

While I won’t be able to tell you the plot of either of these films at this time next month, I thought Code of the West was the better picture, largely due to the presence of a young Raymond Burr, who is a smoother and more malevolent villain than Harry Woods was in Sunset Pass.

In Code of the West, Burr plays a land baron (what else?) named Boyd Carter. Carter and his henchmen know that the railroad is coming through town, but they’re keeping the information to themselves as they buy up all the land they can get their hands on. When a young banker named Harry Stockton (Robert Clarke) lends Bob and Chito money to stake a claim of their own, Carter’s men go into action.

If you were drawn to this film by the poster above, be forewarned that Carter’s arson-murder gang that blasts the frontier is mostly a collection of stock footage. But if you squint your eyes, suspend your disbelief, and take another sip of bourbon, you’ll be fine.

Without Reservations (May 13, 1946)

Mervyn LeRoy’s Without Reservations is the kind of old-fashioned romantic comedy that frequently has adjectives like “sparkling” and “breezy” attached to it. It’s also the last film in which John Wayne appeared as one of the leads but did not receive top billing. Claudette Colbert’s star power still shone pretty brightly in 1946.

I thought that LeRoy’s previous film, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), was one of the best World War II films I’ve ever seen, so I was looking forward to seeing Without Reservations, but found it mediocre. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.

In the film, Colbert plays Christopher “Kit” Madden, a sort of socially progressive version of Ayn Rand. Her novel Here Is Tomorrow is a runaway best-seller, and is the one book it seems that everyone in post-war America has read. When the film begins, Kit is arguing with film producer Henry Baldwin (Thurston Hall), who is unable to fulfill his promise to secure Cary Grant for the part of Mark Winston, the protagonist of Here Is Tomorrow. Kit won’t consider making the picture without Cary Grant, and begins drafting a letter while traveling by train that will stop production of the film. Anyone who’s been paying attention, however, will notice that the heroic painting of Mark Winston on the cover of her novel looks an awful lot like John Wayne, and will probably be able to predict what will happen next.

Sure enough, Kit meets two Marine pilots, Rusty Thomas (John Wayne) and Dink Watson (Don DeFore), on the train. As soon as she lays her eyes on Rusty, she realizes he’s perfect for the role of Mark Winston, and immediately begins to rewrite her letter. Since she introduces herself only as “Kit,” and the novel was published under her full name, Dink and Rusty don’t realize that she’s the most popular author in America. When she asks Rusty what he thinks of the novel Here Is Tomorrow he rips into it with abandon. His main complaint seems to be that the romance in the novel is unconvincing. Mark Winston, a progressive with grand plans to remake America, is chased around by a woman, but they can’t make things work because she’s a political reactionary.

In reality, of course, it’s Kit who’s the progressive (Mark Winston is merely her mouthpiece) and Rusty who’s the reactionary. Without Reservations is based on the novel Thanks, God! I’ll Take It From Here, by Jane Allen and Mae Livingston. I haven’t read the novel, but if the film is in any way faithful to its source material, the title comes from a speech Rusty makes about the first men in America. According to Rusty, no amount of political disagreement is enough to keep a man and a woman apart if they’re hot for each other. (Can you sense, yet, where the film might be heading?)

Angry about the grand plan laid out for society in Here Is Tomorrow, Rusty says to Kit, “Have you ever heard of some fellows who first came over to this country? You know what they found? They found a howling wilderness, where summer’s too hot and winter’s freezing. And they also found some unpleasant little characters who painted their faces. Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age? For their crops? For their homes? They did not. They looked at the land and the forest and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids, and their houses. And then they looked up at the sky and they said, ‘Thanks, God. We’ll take it from here.’”

Watching the film in 2010, I found it hard to believe that no one from the Tea Party movement has latched onto this scene and played it on JumboTrons across the country, since its simplistic vision of America’s beginnings and total opposition to the federal government and even the most basic of social programs seem so close to that movement’s weltanshauung. Not to mention that the speech is delivered as only John Wayne can.

There’s a lot of great stuff going on here, and Wayne and Colbert have decent chemistry, even though he’s not that well suited to playing a romantic lead, especially in a comedy. If Without Reservations had kept up the momentum it establishes in its first couple of acts, I would have really liked it. Unfortunately, it goes off the rails and becomes a meandering road movie.

But not before Rusty, Kit, and Dink run afoul of one of the Pullman porters when they stack up the tables in the club car and have Kit “fly a plane” with a stand-up ashtray for a yoke. The drunken Kit eventually falls over, knocking everything to the ground. Like a bunch of goons, they run off, leaving the mess for one of the porters to clean up while they hide in one of the sleeping compartments (see the film’s poster above).

Once on the road, they buy a flashy sports car from its exasperated owner, and it constantly breaks down. They stay with a colorful Mexican family with a hot and spicy daughter named Dolores (Dona Drake) and a fiery patriarch, Señor Ortega (Frank Puglia), who teaches Kit a few things about love, namely how brutal, selfish, and turbulent it is, and should be. “Love and violence walk hand in hand, señorita!” he says.

The strangest thing about Without Reservations is that Colbert and Wayne do not appear in the same scene at any point during the last act of the film. Kit galivants around Hollywood with a series of leading men in an effort to make Rusty jealous, and the viewer is treated to cameos by Cary Grant (playing himself) and Raymond Burr (still young and trim enough to play an up-and-coming leading man named “Paul Gill”). In these sequences it makes sense for Colbert and Wayne to not appear together, since they’re in different physical locations, but when Rusty finally gives in and appears on Kit’s doorstep, we hear him ringing her doorbell and see her run out of her bedroom downstairs to let him in, but the camera pans right and stops and lingers on a shot of her bed as we hear her greet him off screen. Fade to black. It’s about as subtle as a train going into a tunnel.

I know there are legions of people who think Colbert was the epitome of class, beauty, and charm, but I found her unappealing in this film. With her little stick body, hunched shoulders, spastic movements, short hair in a tight perm, and heavy makeup, she looked to me like an eighty-year old woman with a forty-year old face.

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