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Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Invisible Wall (Oct. 15, 1947)

Never gamble with the boss’s money.

I don’t know about you, but that seems to me like a pretty simple rule to follow.

Then again, more film noirs than I can count are based on doomed protagonists breaking simple life rules because of their uncontrollable urges.

In the case of Eugene Forde’s The Invisible Wall, the protagonist’s uncontrollable urge is the urge to gamble.

When World War II veteran Harry Lane (Don Castle) is sent to the Hotel Flamingo in Las Vegas by his once and future boss, big-time L.A. bookie and racketeer Marty Floyd (Edward Keane), he has $1,000 of his own money, and he plans to blow his roll fast. He’s holding $20,000 of Marty Floyd’s money that he needs to make a payoff with, though, so when he meets a man who claims to have a system for beating roulette, his goose is cooked.

The man who draws Lane into his gambling scheme in Las Vegas, Richard Elsworth (Richard Gaines), is accidentally killed, so Lane heads to Denver, where he impersonates Elsworth. The only snag is Elsworth’s wife, Mildred (Virginia Christine), who shows up and throws a monkey wrench into Lane’s plans.

The Invisible Wall follows a familiar film noir structure. It begins in St. Louis, where Harry Lane works at the Crown Jewelry Company under another name. He’s arrested for murder and gives a full confession, telling the story in flashback.

The Invisible Wall isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s solid entertainment from Sol M. Wurtzel Productions, theatrically distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox. The actors are all stiff, but not laughably so, and as far as B noirs go, you could do a lot worse.

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.

Nightmare Alley (Oct. 9, 1947)

Nightmare Alley is a harrowing tale of manipulation and degradation. It’s a journey through a night-lit carnival world in which everyone is out for themselves and no one cares who they chew up and spit out if it means climbing one more rung on the ladder.

It was Tyrone Power’s second film directed by Edmund Goulding, and it’s miles ahead of their first collaboration, The Razor’s Edge (1946).

While The Razor’s Edge was more acclaimed at the time of its release — four Oscar nominations and one win — it’s aged poorly, and the Eastern mysticism at its center is supposed to be profound but is really just high-minded hokum.

Power made The Razor’s Edge with Goulding as a deliberate attempt to break out of the mold he’d been cast in as a handsome swashbuckler with a limited range. His performance wasn’t bad, but at times it seemed forced.

In Nightmare Alley, however, he completely loses himself in his character. His performance as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle — a grasping, duplicitous carny who graduates to tony nightclub performances and fleecing the wealthy — is so natural that I think someone who’d never heard of Tyrone Power before seeing Nightmare Alley would never guess that he wasn’t always seen as a serious actor.

Stan is one of the most memorable film characters I’ve seen in a long time. He’s a drifter who joins a carnival and attaches himself to an aging mentalist named Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her husband, broken-down alcoholic Pete (Ian Keith), then throws both of them aside when he’s learned all he can from them.

He takes up with Molly (played by the stunningly beautiful Coleen Gray), much to the dismay of her boyfriend, the brutish, simple-minded carnival strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki). Using the techniques he learned from Pete and Zeena for cold reading a subject and conveying information through a spoken code, he and Molly take their mind-reading act to posh nightclubs, where they’re a sensation. Stan is more than just a quick study. He has an innate ability to see through people and glean their pasts, their innermost desires, and their secrets. The fact that he uses his talents to take people’s money doesn’t bother him, but it bothers Molly, who’s the only character in the film who’s essentially good and decent.

I love the scene in which Stan breaks down and finally uses the oldest trick in the book on Molly. He admits he’s a bad person and a hustler, but that he’s never lied to her. He may have used everyone else in his life, but he’s never used her.

This is, of course, also a lie, which becomes clear when he tosses Molly aside for Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), consulting psychologist to Chicago’s upper crust, and uses Lilith’s knowledge of the intimate details of the lives of the wealthy to take them for all they’re worth.

While The Razor’s Edge was about Power’s character’s spiritual awakening, Nightmare Alley is about his character’s use of spiritual tropes to lie, cheat, and steal. Maybe it’s just the cynical age in which we live, but I thought that The Razor’s Edge came off as disingenuous, while Nightmare Alley was utterly convincing.

Nightmare Alley is based on the best-selling novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Certain aspects of the novel had to be sanitized for the film version, but it’s still a kick to the stomach. Its story of degradation is so powerfully told that there are many people who saw the film a long time ago and claim that there was a horrifying scene that was deleted for the DVD release. The scene they remember never existed (even in the novel), but it’s easy to see why they think they saw it. Like Psycho (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Nightmare Alley uses the power of suggestion to make you remember horrifying things that you never actually see. It’s a great film, and one that will stay with you a long time after the credits have rolled.

Ride the Pink Horse (Oct. 8, 1947)

Ride the Pink Horse
Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
Directed by Robert Montgomery
Universal Pictures

Robert Montgomery directed and starred in two movies released in 1947. The first, Lady in the Lake, was an interesting stylistic experiment — an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel that was filmed entirely from private eye Philip Marlowe’s point of view. The second, Ride the Pink Horse, is more traditionally lensed. It’s based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, with a screenplay by Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht. It’s also the better of the two films, so naturally it’s the one that isn’t available on DVD.

Besides being a more satisfying and involving film, Ride the Pink Horse also lets Montgomery flex his acting chops. In Lady in the Lake, since we only see what he’s seeing, all we hear is his voice, and his performance is somewhat listless.

The character Montgomery plays in Ride the Pink Horse — Lucky Gagin — is a noir archetype; the returning veteran of World War II. But unlike baroque, oneiric noirs like Somewhere in the Night (1946), in which a veteran suffers amnesia, brainwashing, or any number of high-concept emotional injuries, Montgomery’s character in Ride the Pink Horse is believable as a returning combat veteran. Lucky Gagin is a bitter, tight-lipped man whom violence hangs over like a dark cloud. As soon as he steps off a Greyhound bus in the little town of San Pablo, New Mexico, we can read in his face miles of hard road, lost friends, and random death.

Lucky Gagin is obviously a less intelligent person than the man who plays him, and I wasn’t always convinced that Gagin was as dumb as some of his words and actions, but Montgomery’s performance is mostly believable. His pain-wracked sneer is especially easy to buy, which is good, since Gagin spends half the film clinging to life, bleeding out from a knife wound.

Room 315

Gagin is in New Mexico to blackmail racketeer and war profiteer Frank Hugo (Frank Clark) with a canceled check that proves Hugo’s involvement in criminal enterprise. Hugo ridicules Gagin for asking for a paltry amount. Nevertheless, there’s the sense hanging over the film that whether Gagin asks for one dollar or a million, he’ll never get it.

In one of those little touches that I love, Hugo wears a hearing aid, and he often has to move the receiver clipped to his shirt into a better position to hear what’s going on. It’s never played for laughs, but it humanizes him, which makes his power and malevolence all the more believable.

Like a lot of thrillers, Ride the Pink Horse is replete with characters whose motivations are vague and mysterious. The most mysterious of all is the Mexican-American Indian girl Pila (Wanda Hendrix), who develops an unnatural attachment to Gagin as soon as he steps off the bus. She foresees his death, and gives him a little doll to carry that she says will protect him. She also follows him around for the entire picture, despite the fact that he’s constantly mean to her. Long braids and brownface notwithstanding, Hendrix isn’t very believable as an American aboriginal, but she’s nice to look at, which makes up for a lot.

Montgomery

The other angels who come into Gagin’s life — and who might be able to help him if he could only get over his distrust of everyone — are an elderly G-man named Bill Retz (Art Smith), who wants Gagin to help him bring in Hugo using legal means, and a chubby, good-natured Mexican named Pancho (Thomas Gomez), who runs a carousel, and who gives Gagin a place to sleep.

It’s Pancho’s carousel that gives the picture its title, but if there’s a deeper meaning to the pink merry-go-round horse, I couldn’t suss it out. Does it symbolize death? Life? Everything? Nothing? Your guess is as good as mine.

Ride the Pink Horse is a crisp, well-made thriller. It’s not quite an all-time classic, but it’s worth a look, especially if you’re a noir aficionado, and it’s well deserving of a proper DVD release.