RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Audrey Totter

Tension (Nov. 25, 1949)

Tension
Tension (1949)
Directed by John Berry
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I recently did an MGM double bill and watched John Berry’s Tension right after I watched George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949).

After the wit, charm, and progressive gender politics of Adam’s Rib, I was turned off by the first reel of Tension and its tale of infidelity and murder. Audrey Totter is the classic femme fatale with no motivation, backstory, or realistic psychology. She’s just bad because she wants to be.

Ditto for her nebbishy husband played by Richard Basehart, who puts up with being cuckolded to such a ridiculous degree that I wanted to reach into the movie, slap him around, and tell him to stop deluding himself and just get a divorce, already.

Audrey Totter in Tension

But after the plot took one crazy turn after another, Tension totally won me over. The plotting is byzantine but never confusing, the performances are all solid, Allen Rivkin’s screenplay (based on a story by John D. Klorer) is clever and engaging, the score by André Previn is terrific, and the film offers a chance to see the lovely Cyd Charisse in a rare non-dancing role. Also, as an MGM production, Tension looks absolutely fantastic, and features a lot of great location shooting in and around Los Angeles.

Richard Basehart brings the same chameleonic everyman qualities to his role in Tension that he brought to his role in He Walked by Night (1948). Unlike that film, however, Basehart isn’t a trigger-happy sociopath in Tension, he’s just an average guy who changes his appearance to commit murder after he’s pushed to the edge by his cheating wife.

Richard Basehart

Basehart plays a pharmacist named Warren Quimby who works the night shift to make enough money to buy a house in the suburbs for himself and his wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). Unfortunately, she’s as faithless as the day is long, and she runs off with a hairy, knuckle-dragging he-man named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

After Barney Deager beats the tar out of Warren Quimby when he confronts Deager and his wife on the beach, Quimby vows revenge. He gets a pair of contact lenses to change his appearance and moves into an apartment under an assumed name. By creating a person who doesn’t exist, he thinks he’ll be able to murder Barney Deager and get away with it.

Events quickly spiral out of Quimby’s control, as they tend to in film noirs.

He falls for his pretty neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse), who falls even harder for him, his murder plot goes badly awry, and before he knows it, he’s in up to his neck as a dogged pair of homicide detectives played by Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are on his trail.

Tension isn’t exactly a realistic film, but it’s one of the most fun and twistiest noirs I’ve seen in a long time.

Advertisements

The Set-Up (March 29, 1949)

The Set-Up
The Set-Up (1949)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

My favorite sports movies are all boxing movies. Body and Soul (1947), The Harder They Fall (1956), Rocky (1976), Rocky II (1979), Raging Bull (1980), When We Were Kings (1996). The list goes on and on.

I love watching boxing, which is one reason I love movies about it, but that’s not the only reason I love boxing movies.

Boxing is an individual sport that lends itself well to film drama. Most of the movies about team sports that I like are comedies — The Longest Yard (1974), Slap Shot (1977), Major League (1989). That’s not to say there aren’t good dramas about team sports. There are plenty, like Hoosiers (1986), Eight Men Out (1988), and Friday Night Lights (2004), but there’s something about one fighter facing another in the ring that makes for a great drama. And the brutality and widespread corruption of the boxing world makes for great film noirs.

The Set-Up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s long, narrative poem of the same name, which was written in 1928. (March’s other enduring work is the narrative poem The Wild Party, also written in 1928, which was republished in 1994 with illustrations by Art Spiegelman.)

March’s The Set-Up is a masterpiece of hard-boiled writing, and especially impressive considering that it’s written in verse.

Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown
And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown.

Mean as a panther,
Crafty as a fox,
He could hit like a mule,
And he knew how to box.
A dark-skinned jinx
With eyes like a lynx,
A heart like a lion,
And a face like the Sphinx:
Battered, flat, massive:
Grim,
Always impassive.

The film version is only loosely based on March’s poem. Significantly, it sidesteps the racial angle by casting a white actor, Robert Ryan, in the lead. It also renames its pugilist protagonist “Stoker.”

Robert Ryan

Judged solely on its own merits, however, The Set-Up is a great film. It’s one of the great noirs, as well as one of the best films about boxing ever made. It’s lean and mean — just 72 minutes long — and unfolds more or less in real time.

Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Ryan) is gearing up to face a 23-year-old opponent in the ring. Stoker is 35 years old, which in his business makes him an old man. (John Garfield’s character in Body and Soul was also facing his own mortality as a boxer at the age of 35.)

Stoker’s wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), wants him to retire. His days as a fully functioning human being are numbered if he keeps fighting for measly purses and absorbing massive amounts of punishment in the process.

Stoker tries to reassure her, but his eyes tell their own story a little later in the film as he watches a punchy fighter repeat himself for the dozenth time before leaving the locker room for his fight. Gus, a trainer played by Wallace Ford, shakes his head and says, “I guess you can only stop so many.”

The boxing milieu depicted in The Set-Up is exceptionally sleazy. The arena where Stoker faces his opponent, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), advertises “Boxing Wednesdays, Wrestling Fridays,” and is located in Paradise City, a low-rent strip of arcades, dance halls, and chop suey joints.

Worst of all, Stoker’s manager, Tiny (George Tobias), has arranged with local hoods for Stoker to take a dive without telling Stoker about his plan. He’s that certain his man will lose.

Robert Wise’s direction is tight and unpretentious. His cinematographer, Milton R. Krasner, lenses some of the most starkly beautiful black & white images ever captured on film. There’s a scene early in the film where Stoker walks across the street from his rented room toward the arena with his bag in his hand. He moves straight toward the camera, and he looks like the archetype of every lonely hero who has faced a tragic fate without blinking.

Robert Ryan is key to the film’s authenticity. The 6’4″ actor was on the boxing team at Dartmouth College and had a 5-0 win-loss record, with 3 KOs. He continued to box while serving in the Marine Corps.

The Set-Up is a brutal, violent film, but despite its real-time plot that uncoils with ruthless efficiency, there are still quiet and reflective moments, like the sequence in which Audrey Totter walks the streets of Paradise City through a gauntlet of drunks and mashers. She eventually winds up on a bridge over a highway and slowly rips up her ticket to the fight and watches the scraps float down as a streetcar rumbles by.

Robert Wise had a long and interesting career in Hollywood. While The Set-Up will never be a crowd-pleaser like West Side Story (1961) or a family favorite like The Sound of Music (1965), it’s still one of Wise’s best films, and one of the all-time great noirs.

High Wall (Dec. 17, 1947)

High Wall
High Wall (1947)
Directed by Curtis Bernhardt
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Curtis Bernhardt’s High Wall stars Robert Taylor as that most venerable of film noir archetypes — the amnesiac combat veteran who may or may not have committed murder.

Bernhardt was one of many German filmmakers who fled the Third Reich to work in Hollywood, and whose dark artistic sensibilities helped create what we now know as “film noir.” So far I’ve seen two other films he made, the excellent melodrama My Reputation (1946), which starred Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, and the equally excellent psychodrama Possessed (1947), which starred Joan Crawford and Van Heflin.

High Wall lets Bernhardt flex his suspense-thriller muscles a little, and he’s more than up to the task.

At first glance, High Wall looks and feels like any number of similar dramas from RKO Radio Pictures — tight, well-made, black and white flicks designed for the bottom of a double bill — but it was actually produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a powerhouse of a studio that wasn’t usually in the “noir” business.

High Wall is a pretty lean thriller, but MGM production values are evident in a few scenes, particularly when the protagonist, Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor), is sent to Hamelin County Psychiatric Hospital. The sanitarium features a big cast of extras; there are legions of brusque, businesslike cops and hospital attendants, and dozens of hapless patients lolling around on beds in the open ward. If High Wall had been an on-the-cheap production for Monogram pictures, there probably would have been one night attendant, two other patients, and sets that looked like they were on loan from a theatrical production.

Most of High Wall is shot on sets, so the exteriors are pretty fake-looking, but not distractingly so. Shooting on a soundstage also allows Bernhardt and his cinematographer, Paul Vogel, to create a dramatic rain-swept finale full of rich textures that probably wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been shooting on location.

Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter

Also, with such a big cast of loonies, it’s more believable that Kenet has so much difficulty seeing his psychiatrist, Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter).

Kenet, you see, looks like the most likely suspect for his wife’s murder. Her strangled corpse was sitting right next to him when he drove his car off a bridge in a daze, after all.

But after Kenet finally gets a few appointments with Dr. Lorrison, she starts to believe that he might be innocent. Lorrison is a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth gal. (This is evident early in the film when she turns down a male doctor’s offer of a date at the opera because she has Red Sox tickets.)

It’s not just Kenet’s good looks, tragic aura, six-year-old son, and Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star from World War II that attract Lorrison, it’s nagging evidence of his innocence, so she starts helping him escape from the asylum for periods of time so he can investigate upstanding citizen Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), a middle-aged man who works for Brattle Press Religious Educational Text Books.

Marshall is the perfect villain for this type of melodrama. His bearing is patrician — and his voice is one of the smoothest and most charming you’ll ever hear — but there’s clearly something very wrong with him.

For a good portion of High Wall, it’s possible to be in doubt of the outcome. Kenet looks guilty, even to the viewer, and he suffers from fainting spells. He has a subdural hematoma in the left lobe that’s causing forgetfulness, irritability, and a possible proclivity toward murder and suicide.

High Wall is a fun movie. When it comes to the question of Audrey Totter’s charm and sexiness, I was a little on the fence after Lady in the Lake (1947), but she’s utterly charming in High Wall, and much more natural in High Wall than in Lady in the Lake. (It’s possible that not requiring her to stare into the camera the whole time might have let her deliver a more natural performance.)

I also really like the preview for High Wall. Its claims are actually accurate, too. “So tense. So taut.” That’s true. High Wall is a well-crafted suspense thriller. Also, when the preview says “Robert Taylor — more exciting than in Undercurrent,” that’s an understatement. Undercurrent is really pretty bad, and High Wall is really pretty good:

The Unsuspected (Oct. 3, 1947)

If you’re looking for proof that a mystery doesn’t have to be difficult to figure out to be thoroughly involving, look no further than Michael Curtiz’s The Unsuspected.

Claude Rains stars as Victor Grandison, the “genial host” of the radio program The Unsuspected on the fictional WMCB network. Grandison has turned his fascination with gruesome crimes into a lucrative career recounting tales of real-life murders to a nation of rapt listeners.

Roslyn Wright (Barbara Woodell), Grandison’s secretary, is the killer’s first victim. She’s working late in Grandison’s mansion in Croton, New York, when the door opens and a man’s shadow is thrown over the wall behind her. He strangles her, then hangs her from a chandelier to make it look like suicide.

Grandison lives with his niece, Althea (Audrey Totter), whom he maneuvered into seducing and then marrying Oliver Keane (Hurd Hatfield), who was set to marry Grandison’s other niece, Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield). Matilda is currently missing, presumed dead, after the ship she was traveling on was lost at sea. Althea is a grasping, scheming young woman who will do anything for money. Her husband Oliver really loved Matilda and has seemingly been on a bender since he married Althea.

The plot kicks into gear when Steven Francis Howard (Ted North) shows up, claiming he married Matilda shortly before she was lost at sea, and consequently is the heir to her fortune. This news is not taken well by Grandison, who has been moving the people in his life around like chess pieces in order to gain control of Matilda’s fortune.

Part of the fun of The Unsuspected is how the entire thing plays out as though it’s one of Grandison’s radio plays come to life. He’s the master of ceremonies, pushing and pulling, scheming and finagling.

He even uses 16″ transcription discs — which were used to record radio shows for later broadcast — as a part of his schemes, to divert and confuse people.

As I said, the identity of the killer isn’t difficult to suss out, and The Unsuspected is more of a thriller than a mystery, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a first-rate thriller, brilliantly directed by Curtiz and gorgeously shot by his cinematographer, Elwood “Woody” Bredell. Even though the story itself is standard stuff, the film is full of arresting visuals, recurring motifs like faces reflected upside down, and brilliant little moments like the one in which Mr. Press (Jack Lambert — recently seen as the villainous “Claw” in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma) sits in a dark hotel room. The neon sign outside says “Hotel Peekskill,” but when the shot cuts to inside the room, all we can see is “kill,” blinking on and off hypnotically.

The film isn’t perfect. Ted North isn’t a very good actor, and his scenes lack a certain something. (Interestingly, North is listed in the opening credits as “Introducing Michael North,” even though this was his last film. It was the first time he was credited as “Michael,” not “Ted,” but he’d had significant parts in plenty of films before, most recently The Devil Thumbs a Ride.)

But Curtiz wisely doesn’t make North the focus of the film, and allows Rains to carry things, propelled by taut pacing and Franz Waxman’s compelling score. Aside from North, the actors are all good, especially Totter, whose role is enjoyably juicy. I also really liked Constance Bennett as Grandison’s witty, smart-mouthed assistant, Jane Moynihan. She delivers my favorite line of the picture: “After slaving all day over a hot typewriter, there’s nothing I like better than a swan dive into a bottle of bourbon.”

If you enjoy classy, well-made thrillers, The Unsuspected is well worth seeking out.

Lady in the Lake (Jan. 23, 1947)

Lady in the Lake
Lady in the Lake (1947)
Directed by Robert Montgomery
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake is a one-of-a-kind experience. Like a lot of one-of-a-kind experiences, it’s one that some people will never want to experience ever again after it’s over.

It’s not like any other movie you’ll ever see, but the fact that its central gimmick was never used again should tell you something.

The gimmick is that nearly the entire film is shot in a first-person point of view (POV). The film is a series of long tracking shots, but there are a few jump cuts and wipes when necessary. The trailer for Lady in the Lake told audiences that the film stars Robert Montgomery … “and you!” But this isn’t entirely true, for reasons that we’ll get into later.

Lady in the Lake is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1944 novel The Lady in the Lake, and stars Montgomery as private investigator Philip Marlowe (whose first name in this movie is spelled “Phillip”). Montgomery also directed the film — his first time as director, although he provided uncredited directorial assistance to John Ford when he starred in Ford’s World War II PT boat saga They Were Expendable (1945).

The only parts of the film that aren’t filmed from Marlowe’s POV — every actor interacting directly with the camera, Montgomery’s face only visible if he happens to look in a mirror — are stiff monologues by Montgomery as Marlowe, seated at his desk in his office, speaking directly to the viewer. These monologues are used to introduce the picture and to cover some gaps in the narrative.

Montgomery begins the films by telling viewers that they will be solving the mystery alongside him. He recites a street address and says, “make a note of it.” The problem with this is immediately clear. The film will continue to spool forward for you the same way it does for everyone else in the audience, whether you remember the address or not.

A first-person POV version of a Chandler novel must have made sense on paper. Chandler was a master of first-person narration, and his brilliant prose made first-person narration inextricable from the P.I. genre.

But first-person POV in film is very different from first-person narration in a novel. Despite what many critics of slasher films in the ’80s would have had you believe, first-person POV in a film does not create identification with the killer, it makes the viewer feels trapped and terrified.

While you’re unlikely to feel terrified while watching Lady in the Lake, it does inspire a sense of claustrophobia and surreality that is at odds with its goal of putting the viewer in the center of the action like no film had before.

Lady in the Lake begins in an odd fashion, as Marlowe tries to sell his semi-autobiographical story “If I Should Die Before I Wake” to magazine editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter). When Fromsett’s stacked and gorgeous blond secretary (Lila Leeds) enters the office, she makes eyes at Marlowe, and the camera tracks her as she sashays out of the office. The eye contact she maintains with the camera is unbearably erotic. It’s ridiculous in terms of an actual narrative, but it works in the heat of the moment, like a tomahawk flying out of the screen in a 3D western. (Proponents of the “male gaze” theory can have a field day with this film.)

Audrey Totter

The problem with Lady in the Lake isn’t just its technique, it’s the fact that most of the actors interact with the camera in an unnatural fashion. Most of them never look away or even blink. Totter is the worst offender. She’s pretty, but her habit of arching one eyebrow while speaking to the camera is bizarre.

When Marlowe asks Fromsett a question — “What would happen if I kissed you?” — there’s no heat or interplay. It’s a purely technical question. If Marlowe kisses her, where will the camera go? Will it smoosh up against her face?

The only actor who interacts well with the camera is Lloyd Nolan, who plays the nasty and volatile police detective Lt. DeGarmot. Unlike the other actors — who seem afraid to break eye contact with the camera — he looks down, and around, occasionally turns his back on Marlowe, and steps forward to be threatening. In a memorable scene, he even slaps the camera in the “face” several times while sneering.

Lady in the Lake takes place during the Christmas holiday, and there’s very little incidental music, except for an eerie holiday vocal choir that shows up every now and then on the soundtrack.

While the first-person POV of Lady in the Lake doesn’t always work, there are a number of interesting “verité” moments, such as the scene in which Marlowe and the viewer sit around while observing Capt. Kane (Tom Tully) on the phone with his daughter on Christmas Eve. He’s embarrassed to be on a personal call while at work, but he chats with her anyway. There’s also an amazing quiet moment when Marlowe wakes up in Fromsett’s house on Christmas day, and the camera observes her lounging on the opposite couch in the living room, smoke curling out from behind the camera (Marlowe’s having a cigarette), as she and Marlowe listen to an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” on the radio.

Because of the nature of the film, I still don’t feel as if I’ve ever seen Robert Montgomery play Philip Marlowe. He seems like a good choice for the character, since he bears a resemblance to Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler, but his disembodied voice was too monotone to make up for the fact that he’s off-screen for most of the movie.

First-person POV would be used again in 1947 for the first section of Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage, and for memorable moments in other films, like the opening murder sequence in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and a fistfight in Gordon Parks’s Shaft (1971), but this was the only time it would be used for an entire motion picture.

I actually really enjoyed Lady in the Lake, even though I think it’s a failed experiment. It’s worth seeing at least once by anyone who’s interested in film, and there are enough powerful, uncanny, and interesting moments to make up for the long stretches of flaccidity.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (May 2, 1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Directed by Tay Garnett
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the 1934 novel by James M. Cain, opens on a lonely stretch of highway outside of Los Angeles, with a shot of a sign hanging outside a gas station that says “Man Wanted.” We’ll soon learn that the sign has a double meaning.

Itinerant drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is hitchhiking from San Francisco, and has thumbed a ride with a nattily dressed man (Leon Ames) whom we’ll soon learn is the local district attorney. Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), the owner of the gas station/lunch counter, runs out and greets Frank, assuming he has come about the job.

It isn’t long before Frank meets Nick’s wife, Cora, (Lana Turner), in one of the best introductions of a sexpot in ’40s cinema. As he’s eating at Nick’s lunch counter, a tube of lipstick rolls across the floor, the camera focuses on it, then pans back along the floor until it comes to rest on Turner’s legs. Cut to Garfield, his breath quickening, then to a full shot of Turner, in a skimpy white two-piece playsuit that would still turn heads today (although her turban might stand out as being a little odd).

As soon as Cora appears, we know Frank will take the job working for Nick just to be close to her. In the book, Nick is a Greek, and described in detail as a physically repulsive character. In the film, he’s just a harmless old fuddy-duddy. Things play out the same, however. Cora leaves a “Dear Nick” letter and she and Frank run off together, but life on the open road, hitchhiking with a delighted-looking Frank, who has two suitcases under his arm, doesn’t agree with Cora or her white blouse, or her white peekaboo toe pumps.

Lana Turner

So they return before Nick comes home and finds the note, and pick up again with their unhappy triangle. One murder attempt designed to look like an accident goes wrong, and after Nick announces that he is selling the business and taking Cora with him, Frank and Cora devise a simpler plan to just get Nick drunk and push him off a cliff in his car.

Technically The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film noir, but it occasionally borders on farce, especially after the murder, and is filmed in a professional and well-lighted but ultimately flat style. Too much of the film’s running time is taken up by courtroom machinations and the gamesmanship between Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), Frank and Cora’s lawyer, and district attorney Kyle Sackett (Ames). It’s all well-done and entertaining, but in a light and breezy way. There’s the threat of execution in the gas chamber for our two protagonists, but there’s no sense of impending doom during the courtroom proceedings, and with the focus on Ames and Cronyn, it borders on comedy. Things pick up in the noir department towards the end of the picture, but it takes too long to get there, and is undercut by a ridiculous, moralizing denouement. In some editions, Cain’s novel is barely more than 100 pages long, but this film is bloated and overlong at 113 minutes. More minutes in the film than there are pages in the original novel? There oughta be a law.

MGM wasn’t known for this kind of picture. In general, they didn’t even do crime pictures or thrillers. After the runaway success of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity in 1944, however, every big studio released at least one similar picture in an attempt to cash in on the craze, with all the attendant love triangles, murders, and doomed protagonists. What better choice for MGM than another novel by Cain? Especially the one most similar in its basic plot? Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce had already been done, and with a murder plot that was never in the novel, which was more of a straight kitchen sink drama. His 1937 novel Serenade was too weird. It featured a love triangle, but between a spicy Mexican prostitute, her opera-singing boyfriend who loses his voice when he’s tempted by homosexual desires, and the orchestra conductor whose magnetism threatens to draw him into a gay tryst. (Eventually Serenade was made into a film in 1956 starring tenor Mario Lanza and directed by Anthony Mann, but the gay theme was jettisoned.) And his 1942 novel Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, about a town full of gangsters and crooked politicians, seems as though it would have been a more appropriate vehicle for James Cagney or George Raft 10 or 15 years earlier.

So The Postman Always Rings Twice was a natural choice for MGM, a powerhouse of a studio that churned out high-quality product week in, week out. The film works as well as it does because of the presence of Lana Turner, who in 1946 may have been the sexiest woman in Hollywood. John Garfield turns in a credible performance, but he and Turner never quite click. So much of the film is spent setting up and knocking down plot points that their relationship seems almost like an afterthought.

A better adaptation of Cain’s novel is an unauthorized one, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). (Cain’s publishers sued for copyright infringement, and kept the film off American movie screens until 1976.) Both the grimy working class milieu and desperate, sweaty love affair are better handled in Visconti’s film. The American version is just too sterile.