RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Glen Vernon

The Woman on the Beach (June 2, 1947)

Jean Renoir’s last Hollywood film, The Woman on the Beach, which is based on Mitchell Wilson’s 1945 novel None So Blind, is one of the oddest and most intriguing American films I’ve seen from the ’40s.

On paper, the plot sounds like a perfect vehicle for RKO star Joan Bennett, who was coming off the success of two wonderful noirs that she made with Fritz Lang, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Like both of those films, Bennett’s character in The Woman on the Beach is a seductive and alluring woman who may not be what she seems. And paintings — a major theme of both The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street — figure prominently in The Woman on the Beach.

But the similarities end there. The Woman on the Beach is a film that confounds expectations. It’s sometimes surreal, sometimes suspenseful, and never went in the direction I was expecting. Some of this could be due to studio interference. After a disastrous advance screening in Santa Barbara, the studio forced Renoir to reshoot and recut the film. The final cut is just 71 minutes long. There are numerous plot strands that seem to be left dangling by the end of the film. But overall, it’s still well-made and involving enough for me to recommend it.

Lt. Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan) is a haunted man. He’s sound of body, but he’s plagued by nightmares of the wreck he survived while serving in the Pacific. One of his nightmares opens the film, and it’s a brilliant and surreal juxtaposition of watery peace and fiery, swirling violence.

Scott is grinding through his last week at the U.S. Coast Guard Mounted Patrol Station. (He’s terrified of the ocean, so it makes sense that he’s serving in a Coast Guard station with no ships, just horses.) He’s engaged to be married to a pretty local girl named Eve (Nan Leslie), but as soon as Scott meets the dark and mysterious Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett) while she’s gathering driftwood on the beach, any film noir aficionado can tell you that things aren’t going to go the way Scott and Eve have been planning them.

Peggy instinctively understands Scott’s loneliness and fear. She invites him home to meet her husband, the blind painter Tod Butler (Charles Bickford). Bickford’s performance is masterful, and a key to the success of the film. At first I thought that Bickford was really bad at playing a blind man. He moves about effortlessly, seems to know where everything is, and it frequently seems as if he is making eye contact with the other characters. But it’s hard to tell for certain.

And sure enough, his blindness is called into question before too long. Peggy reveals to Scott that she severed Tod’s optic nerves during a drunken argument, but that sometimes she suspects he has just been feigning blindness ever since. Scott can’t believe that a man whose whole life was devoted to art would just give it up out of spite. Peggy tells Scott that he doesn’t know her husband.

In an unguarded moment when Peggy and Tod are alone, we hear them lay out their entire relationship in a classic exchange: Tod looks at her and says, “So beautiful outside, so rotten inside.” Peggy responds, “You’re no angel,” and Tod says, “No, I guess we’re two of a kind. That’s why we’re so right for each other.”

Scott is drawn into Peggy and Tod’s bitter little world, and begins secretly making love to Peggy while having increasingly tense get-togethers with Tod. In one remarkable scene, Scott walks Tod closer and closer to a cliff edge, trying to make him give himself away and reveal that he can really see.

The presence of Scott’s fiancée Eve seems almost like an afterthought, especially during the second half of the picture, and the way the story ends isn’t completely satisfying. But these are minor quibbles. The Woman on the Beach is a beautifully made film with very interesting performances from its three leads.

Advertisements

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.

The Bamboo Blonde (July 15, 1946)

Anthony Mann’s The Bamboo Blonde is a cute little World War II-era programmer based on Wayne Whittaker’s story “Chicago Lulu.” It’s a romantic comedy, but there are nearly enough songs to qualify it as a musical. There are also nearly enough bombing raids over Japan to qualify it as a war movie, but the tone is so light that all the death and destruction on the ground is just there to provide a context for the saucy pinup girl painted on the nose of the bomber. It’s a fun romp — hell and gone from the westerns and noirs on which Mann’s reputation currently rests, but a thoroughly enjoyable way to kill 67 minutes during the dog days of summer.

The film begins with a magazine reporter named Montgomery (Walter Reed) interviewing Eddie Clark (“Truth or Consequences” host/creator Ralph Edwards), the mile-a-minute talker who runs Bamboo Blonde enterprises, an enormous conglomerate that operates a recording studio, furniture manufacturer, hosiery company, cosmetics line, and more. The reporter wants to know how the company got started, and when Eddie finally tires of trying to push Bamboo Blonde brand candy bars on the poor guy, he settles in to tell the story. It all started, Eddie explains, “Around the time Japan was finding out the B-29 wasn’t another American vitamin.”

The picture then begins in earnest, and we see the Ransoms, a wealthy family from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, tearfully send their son, Patrick Ransom, Jr. (Russell Wade), off to war. I say “tearfully,” but I can’t remember if there were any actual tears. The send-off was so wrought with emotion, however, that the presence of waterworks is beside the point. The Ransoms are the type of blue bloods who think nothing of Junior kissing mom on the mouth to say goodbye.

After cutting — or at least loosening — the umbilical cord, young Ransom wanders into Eddie’s Club 50, heedless of the sign outside barring all servicemen from entering. A couple of MPs walk out of the back office, and a perky little blonde named Louise Anderson (Frances Langford) acts quickly, hiding Ransom behind some curtains and then walking onstage to perform the song “I’m Good for Nothing But Love.”

Ransom is the new skipper of a bomber crew, and as the new guy, his boys had sent him to the club as a practical joke, or, as Ransom explains it to Louise over dinner, “Sending me here was a tactical maneuver to ditch me.” The two hit it off right away, and go on the kind of date that was really “on the beam” for the greatest generation, and is still pretty fun today. It starts with dinner at a restaurant with red and white checked tableclothes and candles stuck in bottles that’s run by a woman named “Mom” (Dorothy Vaughan) and it ends in a photo booth. The only thing that seems weird by today’s standards is that Louise sits in the photo booth alone, and Ransom ends up with a little framed photo of her.

That little framed photo will lead to big things. After a disastrous series of runs in the Pacific, Ransom’s B-29 has the worst record in the Air Force, without a single Zero downed. To turn their luck around, one of the guys borrows Ransom’s photo of Louise and paints an Alberto Vargas-style pinup of her with a stacked body “painted from memory.” After a long argument about what exact color hair their sexy new mascot has, they settle on “bamboo blonde,” and they’re well on their way to becoming “that nightmare to the Nips,” as Eddie Clark will later describe them.

The only problem is that Ransom’s crew thinks that Louise is his girlfriend, and he hasn’t disabused them of the notion, even though he has a dark-haired fiancée back home named Eileen Sawyer (Jane Greer, who shows a little bit more of that Out of the Past malevolence than she did in Sunset Pass, which was released a week before this picture). Eileen is a real harpy, and her interest in Ransom is only rekindled because of his growing fame. Meanwhile, Louise first learns that she’s been painted on the side of a bomber while reading a copy of Look magazine that has a picture of Ingrid Bergman on the cover wearing a nun’s habit (presumably from the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s). You don’t have to be a genius to foresee the romantic complications that will arise once Ransom and his boys are called back home for a USO tour with Louise to help sell war bonds.

This is all frothy nonsense, of course, but Mann keeps things moving at a nice clip. Even when working with material that was clearly beneath him, such as this picture and Strange Impersonation (1946), he was able to craft something that was darned watchable. Langford was a classically trained singer, and has a really beautiful voice, which helps. (She was a radio star, and spent a lot of time as a USO performer.) For the most part, the musical numbers are staged in a straightforward fashion, but Mann takes a left turn into the realms of the surreal when Louise sings “Right Along About Evening.” Not only is everything in the idyllic farmland backdrop labeled (e.g., “mailbox,” “dog”), but it end with her rolling up a suddenly two-dimensional Ransom and stuffing him under her pillow before she goes to sleep. Truly odd.

Bedlam (May 10, 1946)

Bedlam,jpg
Bedlam (1946)
Directed by Mark Robson
RKO Radio Pictures

Mark Robson’s Bedlam, produced by the legendary Val Lewton, takes place in London in 1761. It was Lewton’s ninth and final horror film.

A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a master of suggestion and eerie ambience. His films were the antithesis of Universal’s horror offerings, which offered iconic monsters and more overt shocks. Lewton had phenomenal success with his first horror picture for RKO, Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), and his reputation continued to grow with a string of classic and near-classic horror pictures; I Walked With a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Leopard Man (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher (1945, dir. Robert Wise), Isle of the Dead (1945, dir. Mark Robson), and Bedlam (1946, dir. Mark Robson).

The screenplay for Bedlam, which was written by Robson and Lewton (under the name “Carlos Keith”), was inspired by the William Hogarth engraving of Bethlehem Hospital (a.k.a. Bedlam); the final plate in his 1735 series “The Rake’s Progress,” which depicts in detail the journey of its hero, William Rakewell, from an inheritor of his father’s wealth and happy cad to a broken man locked up in an insane asylum.

Neither Rakewell nor anyone like him appears as a character in the film Bedlam. Rather, Lewton and Robson took the nightmarish images Hogarth created with such elaborate care in his depiction of Bedlam and shaped them into the window dressing of a film that, like The Ghost Ship and Isle of the Dead, is a meditation on the abuse of power. Hogarth’s vision was of a morally bankrupt society, from the monarchy and the church all the way down to the commoners on the street. Lewton and Robson took this idea and shaped it to their own ends. The inmates of Bedlam may be strange and threatening, but it is the men who control them who are the real monsters.

This idea is exemplified in the first scene of the picture. A lunatic is attempting to escape St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum by scaling the wall. He is forced to jump to his death when a guard carrying a lantern grinds his boot down on the man’s hand.

The man who fell turns out to be an acquaintance of the grotesque Lord Mortimer (Billy House), who arrives at Bedlam that night for a spot of entertainment gawking at the loonies. “Everyone who goes to Bedlam expires from laughter,” he tells his companion, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee). When he discovers that his acquaintance has fallen to his death, however, Lord Mortimer is upset. He had paid the man for poetry to be delivered at a later date, and he feels he is now owed a night of entertainment. Enter George Sims (Boris Karloff), the apothecary general of Bedlam. Master Sims promises Lord Mortimer a play performed by his lunatics.

Sims is a combination of the worst qualities of the characters Karloff played in his previous two collaborations with Lewton; the pure malevolence of cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher and the twisted abuser of power General Nikolas Pherides in Isle of the Dead.

Disturbed by what she sees at Bedlam, but not fully able to admit it, Lord Mortimer’s companion Nell returns to Bedlam alone and is taken on a tour by Sims. Leering, he tells her, “Ours is a human world, theirs is a bestial world, without reason, without soul. They’re animals. Some are dogs; these, I beat. Some are pigs; those, I let wallow in their own filth. Some are tigers; these, I cage. Some, like this one, are doves.” (Students of script machinations, however, will want to keep an eye on that “dove,” a woman in white who stands immobile, not speaking or blinking.) Also, it should go without saying that Sims’s ability to have anyone he wants committed to Bedlam, regardless of their sanity, will put Nell in grave danger when she breaks with Lord Mortimer and publicly ridicules him.

The rhythm of speech and the language of the script is excellent, and evokes 18th century Britain in a way few of the hackneyed period pieces of the ’40s did. Even if it’s not a perfect replication of the time, it does a pretty good job, and all of the little details are a joy to pick out, such as the words “I love sweet Betty Careless” scrawled on the wall in Bedlam, a detail inspired by the man in the Hogarth plate who has scrawled the initials of his beloved, “Charming Betty Careless” — a famous prostitute of the day — on a banister.

Viewers looking for a straight horror picture might be disappointed by Bedlam, although its scenes within the insane asylum walls deliver plenty of chills. Like many of Lewton’s later horror pictures, it’s an ambitious film that uses the trappings of horror to deliver a deeper message about a sick society.