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Tag Archives: Myrna Dell

Nocturne (Nov. 11, 1946)

Edwin L. Marin’s Nocturne is close to being a great film noir, but not that close. It’s an entertaining mystery thriller with plenty of clipped, hard-boiled dialogue that’s fun to listen to, if not particularly credible.

George Raft plays Lt. Joe Warne of the Los Angeles police, and it’s a role that seems designed to play to the public’s perception of Raft as a gangster and a thug. Warne conducts his murder investigation with the subtlety of a steamroller, pushing a mustachioed Lothario into the pool when he gets in his way and ripping up the roll of a player piano in a diner when the owner won’t cooperate with him.

And when was the last time you saw a hard-boiled detective who lived at home with his mother? It’s the kind of oddball detail that feels as if it would be more at home in a gangster movie starring James Cagney.

Raft’s first big role was as Paul Muni’s sidekick in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932). After that he starred in a string of gangster pictures, and was one of the most popular actors in crime melodramas, along with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. His boyhood friendship with gangster Owney Madden and association with men like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky aided the public’s perception of him as a hard man who didn’t just “talk the talk.”

By the ’40s, however, his star was beginning to fade. Turning down the lead roles in High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Double Indemnity (1944) didn’t help matters. (Raft was reportedly functionally illiterate, which may have made choosing scripts difficult.) It’s safe to say that by 1946, he was getting the scripts that Humphrey Bogart used to line his birdcage.

Raft wasn’t a very expressive actor, and he had the range of a T-bone steak, but his tight-lipped acting style was perfect for B movies like Nocturne.

A flamboyant pianist and composer named Keith Vincent (Edward Ashley) is murdered, presumably by one of the nine brunettes he was running around with. He has glamour shots of all of them lining one wall of his living room, and it’s clear they were all interchangeable for him, since he called them all “Dolores.” (This may seem like a clever device to hide the identity of the murderess from the viewer, but it’s not.)

Lt. Warne investigates with ham-handed glee, and his investigative technique is as sloppy as the filmmaking. For instance, in one scene his chief (Robert Malcolm) bawls him out for bothering a character named “Mrs. Billings,” but apparently her scenes were left on the cutting room floor. This is fine, but why leave references to her in the film? Similarly confusing is the fact that Warne’s chief gives him two days to investigate Vincent’s murder on his own, but we only find this out after the two-day period is over. And it’s only after this two-day investigative blitz that Warne goes back to Vincent’s house and notices that one of the pictures is missing, since the pattern is disrupted, and there’s an enormous nail hole in the wall. Looking at the stamp on the back of one of the other pictures leads him to a sleazy photographer named Charles Shawn (John Banner). Wouldn’t a detective worth his salt have noticed all this immediately?

The most enjoyable thing about this film is the atmosphere. Lt. Warne spends a lot of time in smoky nightclubs, including the unique Keyboard Club, in which a hulking man-child named Erik Torp (Bern Hoffman) pushes a pianist named Ned “Fingers” Ford (Joseph Pevney) and his upright around on a rolling platform so they can take requests, table by table. When they get to Warne’s table, he hands Vincent’s unfinished piece “Nocturne” to Fingers to play. When he reaches the end of the handwritten sheet music, Fingers asks, “What did your friend do, run out of notes?” Warne responds, “More or less.”

Plenty of sex and sleaze run right below the surface of the picture, but it’s all pretty lighthearted. There’s a funny scene in a dance studio in which Warne can’t learn even the most basic steps (it’s mostly funny because Raft was a professional dancer), and his romance with his prime suspect, Frances Ransom (Lynn Bari), doesn’t carry much sense of danger or menace.

Nocturne is a really fun picture, despite its shortcomings. It has some of the snappiest, most hard-boiled, least naturalistic dialogue I’ve heard since I watched The Dark Corner (1946). Fans of B noirs are encouraged to seek out this picture.

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The Spiral Staircase (Feb. 6, 1946)

Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.

The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).

Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.

Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).

Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”

The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.