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Tag Archives: Peter Lorre

My Favorite Brunette (April 4, 1947)

Elliott Nugent’s My Favorite Brunette begins with baby photographer Ronnie Jackson (Bob Hope) in the death house at San Quentin. Jackson is set to be executed that night, and he’s hoping for a stay from the governor. When none arrives, Jackson quips, “No word? Well, I’ll know who to vote for next time.”

Jackson takes a look into the chamber where he’s set to die. “Gas,” he scoffs. “You haven’t even put in electricity.”

Like any good film noir protagonist, Jackson gets to tell his story before he takes that last, long, lonely walk. (Of course, Jackson isn’t really a noir protagonist, since My Favorite Brunette is a spoof of hard-boiled detective movies, but he doesn’t know that.)

When Jackson’s story begins, he’s desperately trying to get an adorable little Chinese-American boy to smile for the camera, but he’s hungry for bigger problems. Jackson may be San Francisco’s premier baby photographer, but he idolizes the man who has the office across from him, two-fisted he-man Sam McCloud (an uncredited Alan Ladd, who’s clearly able to laugh at himself). Jackson longs to be a detective, too. “It only took brains, courage, and a gun,” Jackson says. “And I had the gun.”

When McCloud has to run off to Chicago for a few days, Jackson just happens to be sitting in his office when the beautiful and exotic Carlotta Montay (Dorothy Lamour) walks in. When she thinks he’s McCloud, he can’t bear to tell her the truth, and is off on his first case, tracking down Carlotta’s missing husband, the Baron Montay. (Or is he her uncle? The story keeps changing.)

I won’t summarize the plot any further, mostly because it’s beside the point, but also because it’s nearly as convoluted as an actual hard-boiled P.I. story. Also, some of Jackson’s hard-boiled narration is so close to the real thing that it’s remarkable. After he’s knocked out in his office, he says in voiceover, “When I came to, I was playing ‘post office’ with the floor. I had a lump on my head the size of my head. Inside, Toscanini was conducting the Anvil Chorus with real blacksmiths. I looked at the bottle of Old Piledriver and decided to stick to double malts.”

Sure, it’s over-the-top, but so was most of the dialogue in hard-boiled detective films. Threats like, “I’ll fill you so full of holes you’ll look like a fat clarinet,” sound funny when they’re coming out of Bob Hope’s mouth, but they’re no more ridiculous than half of the things Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell growled at tough guys.

Besides the genuinely funny script and manic direction by Nugent, the casting is key to the success of My Favorite Brunette. Dorothy Lamour is attractive and sleepy-eyed enough to be a real femme fatale, and the hulking Lon Chaney Jr. and the sinister Peter Lorre are both on hand to play bad guys. (All that’s missing is Boris Karloff with an eye patch and a hook for a hand.)

I’m not the biggest fan of Bob Hope, but he’s excellent in this movie, and frequently had me in stitches. The comedy mostly comes from the dialogue, but there are some classic bits of physical humor, too. The scene in which Lorre tries to force a false clue on Hope while hiding in various spots in a room, but Hope just keeps missing it, might be the funniest bit in the film.

My Favorite Brunette has fallen into the public domain, and is available to watch at archive.org. You’ll have to wait until the very end for Bing Crosby’s cameo, but it’s worth it.

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The Beast With Five Fingers (Dec. 25, 1946)

Robert Florey’s horror flick The Beast With Five Fingers begins with the following words: “This is the story of what happened — or seemed to happen — in the small Italian village of San Stefano — nearly fifty years ago.”

Normally in my reviews I try to avoid spoilers. I’ll summarize the plot, but only up to a point, and I try to talk around any big twists. But since The Beast With Five Fingers is pretty up-front about its unreal elements right from the start, I’m just going to give everything away about this movie willy-nilly. So if you don’t like spoilers, stop right now and go read my review of Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. I totally don’t give away how hot Brenda Joyce looks in it.

Anyway, The Beast With Five Fingers is based on a short story written in 1919 by W.F. Harvey (1885-1937), an English author who is also famous for penning the story “August Heat,” which was memorably adapted for the radio show Suspense in 1945, in a show starring Ronald Colman.

The script for the film was written by Curt Siodmak, who intended it to be a vehicle for Paul Henreid. Henreid turned it down, however, reportedly saying, “I’m not wild to play against a dead hand.”

Peter Lorre, in his last film role for Warner Bros., was cast instead. Siodmak felt this casting was less effective, since the audience immediately assumes that Lorre is a psychopath, which they wouldn’t when presented with a handsome, self-contained actor like Henreid. I tend to agree, especially since Lorre does nothing to disabuse the viewer of the notion that he’s a raving maniac. From his very first scene, Lorre does what he did best; act completely creepy and insane.

Lorre plays Hilary Cummins, an astrologer who takes his work very seriously. He’s employed as secretary to partially paralyzed concert pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), but if Hilary does any actual work for Ingram, we don’t see it. He’s unashamed to admit that he wants Ingram’s nurse, Julie Holden (Andrea King), to constantly dote on him so he can be left alone to discover a “key to the future,” which Hilary claims was known only to the ancient astrologers, but has been lost since the burning of the great library at Alexandria.

There are other hangers-on in Ingram’s Italian villa, such as Ingram’s attorney, Duprex (David Hoffman), and Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda), a small-time con man and composer who seems stymied by his association with Ingram. Conrad transcribed some Bach pieces, modifying them to be played by a one-handed pianist, and ever since, has been unable to write anything.

Ingram is a petty tyrant and thoroughly unpleasant man. His right side might be paralyzed, but his left hand is incredibly strong, as he demonstrates in a memorable scene in which he strangles Lorre — who is more than capable of the histrionic puffing and wheezing required of him when Ingram finally lets go.

One dark and stormy night, Ingram rolls around the villa in his wheelchair, pitifully crying for Julie. He pitches down the stairs, and the fall kills him.

His death brings a few greedy relatives (played by Charles Dingle and John Alvin) out of the woodwork, eager to hear the reading of the will. They’re not happy when Duprex informs them that Ingram recently changed his will to leave everything to Julie.

For most of its running time, The Beast With Five Fingers is a fairly standard haunted-house mystery, but it has a strange premise that’s always bubbling beneath the surface, namely that you’re going to see some kind of five-fingered beastie scuttle around for at least some of the picture.

This odd premise is delivered on eventually. After Duprex is murdered, the other occupants of the villa open the sarcophagus holding Ingram and find him clutching a push dagger in his right hand, his left hand missing … cut off.

Enter J. Carrol Naish as commissario of police Ovidio Castanio. It’s one of many “ethnic” roles Naish sunk his teeth into (see also Humoresque and the radio show Life With Luigi), and like everything else in the film, it’s more silly than scary, but Naish is a good actor, and he gets one of the film’s best moments, during the last minute of the picture.

The eponymous crawling thing doesn’t show up until almost an hour has passed. The final 20 minutes of The Beast With Five Fingers, however, deliver what the audience paid to see … a phantasmagoria that only exists in Lorre’s mind. He watches Ingram’s disembodied hand float over the keyboard, playing Bach’s Chaconne in D minor as arranged for the left hand by Brahms (who was friendly with composer Max Steiner’s family back in Vienna). He then rips apart the library to find the crawling hand and attempts to stop it by nailing it down. It’s classic Lorre … all bug eyes and feverish gasping. And although it probably played pretty gruesomely at the time of the film’s release, it’s all campy good fun now.

Florey directed the silly proceedings in a solid, professional fashion, with plenty of fluid camerawork and smooth dolly shots. Time magazine said in their review of the film that Florey was “plainly untroubled by considerations of taste,” but the worst thing in this picture is a disembodied hand that crawls around on its fingers, strangling a few people here and there. It’s an effective special effect, but too ridiculous to ever be taken seriously. This is one you can watch with the kids during prime time.

The Chase (Nov. 16, 1946)

Arthur D. Ripley’s The Chase is based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1944 novel The Black Path of Fear, which was adapted as a screenplay by Philip Yordan.

Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a sailor who was decorated during World War II, is now bedraggled and broke in Miami. While staring longingly through the window of a lunch counter at a griddle full of bacon and flapjacks, he finds a lost wallet full of $20 bills. He decides to return it to its owner, Edward Roman, whose I.D. says that he lives on Hermosa Drive, but not before he “borrows” a buck and a half to buy himself breakfast.

Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) turns out to be a smooth-talking criminal who lives in a palatial home with his creepy right-hand man Gino (Peter Lorre) and his beautiful wife Lorna (French actress Michèle Morgan), whom he keeps a virtual prisoner. Roman is sinister right from the get-go, slapping a woman (Shirley O’Hara) who pokes him while manicuring his fingernails before he talks to Scott.

Gino and his boss seem amused by Scott’s honesty. (He even owns up to the 12 bits he liberated.) Roman asks Scott why he brought the wallet back. “Now that I’m here I wonder myself,” Scott says. “I guess I’m just a sucker.”

Roman gives “Scotty” — as he calls him — a job as a driver. Scott doesn’t like or trust either Roman or Gino, but he can’t say no to paying work. Things get weird right away. Roman has a contraption in the back seat that allows him to control the accelerator, speeding the car up to more than 100 m.p.h. to see how Scott handles himself. (My wife probably wishes all cars I drove came equipped with this feature.)

One night, Roman entertains a prominent ship owner named Emmerrich Johnson (Lloyd Corrigan), an overdressed fat man who spends most of his time laughing nervously … he can never quite tell if Roman’s joking or not. Unfortunately for Johnson, he doesn’t see the depths of Roman’s villainy and sadism. He’s never joking.

After Johnson refuses to commit to sell Roman the two ships he wants to buy, Gino takes Johnson on a tour of Roman’s wine cellar. While Johnson is excitedly fussing over a bottle of 1815 Napoleon brandy, Gino slips away and locks Johnson in the wine cellar with Roman’s vicious dog. When Johnson is attacked he drops the bottle of brandy on the floor and it runs out along the floor in a convincing approximation of blood. It’s an old cinematic trick, but a good one.

Meanwhile, Scott and Mrs. Roman are busy falling for each other. After one of their many trips to the beach, where she looks out over the water longingly as he stands behind her, waiting with the car, Lorna offers him $1,000 to take her to Havana. She thinks she can trust him, and she can’t make it on her own. He mulls it over for a little while but quickly gives in, booking passage for two on the S.S. Cuba.

They make it to Havana, but their plan to continue on to South America hits a snag, and Scott finds himself on the run, accused of murder.

Things get really weird an hour into the picture, when Scott wakes up in a room with a bottle of pills on the night table and no memory of what happened to him over the course of the past few days.

I haven’t read The Black Path of Fear, but I have read other novels by Woolrich, and blackouts, amnesia, and lost periods of time were recurring themes in his work. Like a lot of Woolrich’s booze-soaked prose, The Chase starts out as a fairly standard thriller, but by the end it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. In a better film, like Detour (1945), this could be counted as a real achievement. With The Chase, however, the confusion between dreams and reality seems more the result of slapdash filmmaking than anything else.

Cummings has a pleasant way about him, and is believable as an earnest, soft-spoken Everyman. Morgan is beautiful, but the script doesn’t give her a lot to do. Cochran and Lorre are the real gems in this film. Every scene in which they appear is full of menace. Each man has a calm exterior, but there’s always violence roiling below the surface.

If you’re looking for tight plotting or a clever climax, you won’t find it here, but The Chase has just enough oddball charm to recommend it to noir enthusiasts.

Black Angel (Aug. 2, 1946)

Black Angel was directed by Roy William Neill, the dependable craftsman responsible for eleven of Universal’s fourteen Sherlock Holmes pictures. Black Angel isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s slick, well-made entertainment and a nice opportunity to see what Neill was capable of when he stepped outside of the formula of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes films.

The screenplay, by Roy Chanslor, is based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel of the same name. Woolrich was a prolific author, and an instrumental figure in film noir, even though his actual work for the film industry occurred only during the silent era and was brief and unhappy. He apparently wrote a few screenplays under the name “William Irish,” which was one of his pseudonyms. (“George Hopley” was the other.) He was also briefly married as a young man, but it was annulled after less than three years. After that, he headed back to New York City, his hometown, and went back to live with his mother.

Woolrich mostly kept to himself. A closeted homosexual with a drinking problem, Woolrich found his niche writing stories for the pulps. He was a frequent contributor to publications like Black Mask and Argosy. More screenplays for film noirs were adapted from Woolrich’s stories and novels than from the the work of any other crime writer, but that’s not the only reason he was instrumental to the genre. The inky darkness of noir is evident in the titles of his books alone; The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948) are just a few. The two novels of his I’ve read were not particularly well-written — he wasn’t a great stylist like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett — but he conveyed in his writing a sense of overwhelming dread and alienation, both emotions that are central to film noir.

Also, perhaps due to his his drinking, Woolrich’s characters frequently suffer from amnesia and alcohol-induced blackouts. In Fright, written in 1950 under the name George Hopley, a young man is convinced he has committed murder while blind drunk, but it’s not clear for most of the novel whether he actually has or not.

This is a theme that rears its head once again in Black Angel, in which a regular Joe named Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is convicted of the murder of a blackmailing singer named Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Bennett’s wife Catherine (June Vincent, who bears a fairly strong resemblance to Dowling) believes he is innocent, and sets out to prove it. She enlists the aid of Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), a composer and piano player who seems like a decent guy despite his alcoholism and unhealthy obsession with the murdered woman. (In the memorable first scene of the picture, we see Duryea leaning against a wall, staring up at the high rise apartment in which Mavis lives.) As Bennett’s execution date looms, the two pose as a professional singer and piano player in order to get closer to their prime suspect, an oily club owner named Marko (Peter Lorre).

One of the things I liked best about Black Angel was the opportunity to see Duryea in a sympathetic role. He wasn’t perpetually cast early in his career as villains and sniveling punks because he lacked charisma, he had plenty. But he was whip-thin and had a perpetual scowl, and he was good at playing nasty characters. The poster for Black Angel calls him “that fascinating tough guy of Scarlet Street,” and that movie and this one were both instrumental in creating his new image as a violent, dangerous, and sexy antihero.

Sadly, this would be Neill’s last film. He died of a heart attack on December 14, 1946, while visiting relatives in England. He was 59 years old. Neill was a superior craftsman, and his Sherlock Holmes films were some of the most entertaining and well-made programmers of the ’40s. He made all kinds of films, including the campy horror movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (a personal favorite), but Black Angel showed what he was capable of in the hard-boiled noir/mystery genre. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to make more movies like it.