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The Window (May 17, 1949)

The Window
The Window (1949)
Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
RKO Radio Pictures

Ted Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films dating back to the silent era. After shooting Notorious (1946) for Alfred Hitchcock, he moved to directing full time.

Tetzlaff directed a relatively small number of films, but the two I’ve seen so far have both been fantastic. The first was Riffraff (1947), a visually inventive detective thriller in a tropical setting. The second was this one, which I thought was even better than Riffraff.

Apparently The Window was filmed in 1947, but its release was delayed when Howard Hughes acquired RKO Radio Pictures.

The Window is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich called “The Boy Cried Murder” (also reprinted under the title “Fire Escape”). The story was originally published in Mystery Book Magazine in March 1947. The screenplay was adapted from the story by Mel Dinelli, who also scripted the terrific RKO thriller The Spiral Staircase (1945).

The Window opens with a quote from Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I guess they were concerned that people weren’t going to pick up on the concept immediately, so they’d get it out of the way before the movie even started.

Even without the opening text, I don’t think you’d need a PhD in Comp Lit to pick up on the “boy who cried wolf” theme pretty quickly.

The Window stars Bobby Driscoll, a child actor on loan from Disney. Driscoll plays Tommy Woodry, a nine-year-old boy who lives in a working class neighborhood of New York with his parents, Ed and Mary (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale). Tommy is an only child who plays in the street and in an abandoned building with the other boys in the neighborhood. He’s a bright kid, and he loves playing make-believe and telling tall tales.

“If it isn’t Indians it’s gangsters, and if it’s not gangsters it’s something else,” his mother complains. (Incidentally, Barbara Hale was 27 years old when The Window premiered in 1949. Driscoll was 12. What this means is that Kennedy, who plays Driscoll’s dad, would have been 23 when his 14-year-old wife gave birth. In fairness, Hale is made up to look older than she is, and I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to imply statutory rape and teen pregnancy.)

Bobby Driscoll

One sweltering summer night, Tommy asks permission to sleep out on the fire escape because it’s a little cooler outside. He lies down and gazes up at the black sky, pinpoints of stars, and white laundry flapping on a line above him. Still too hot, he climbs up one story to the top floor, where it’s slightly cooler. He drifts off to sleep, but wakes up later and witnesses something terrible. He thinks he sees his neighbors kill a man.

“With all the stories you tell it’s no wonder you have nightmares,” his mother tells him when he wakes her up.

Tommy persists with his story, but his parents refuse to believe him. When he takes his story to the police, it only makes things worse.

The wonderful thing about The Window is how believably adults relate to Tommy. His parents are both patient and understanding people, especially his dad. They’re not clueless buffoons or coldly abusive, the way so many parents are in movies with child protagonists. That they refuse to believe him is not their fault. It’s how the situation would play out in real life.

The police don’t just dismiss his story either. They are kind and indulgent. But when they investigate Tommy’s upstairs neighbors, everything seems to be all right, so they drop the matter. Again, this is probably how the situation would play out in real life.

The Window is genuinely suspenseful, and it has a fairly shocking climax. This is one of those films where everything comes together perfectly. The actors are wonderful, the writing is great, and the pacing is perfect. Tetzlaff and his cinematographers, Robert De Grasse and William O. Steiner, crafted a great-looking film that seamlessly blended New York locations and studio soundstages.

I always have more movies I want to watch than I can find the time to watch (and review), so I rarely watch movies twice, but I liked The Window so much that I watched it a second time and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time.

Incidentally, Bobby Driscoll ended up having a very sad life. I don’t feel like getting into it here, but if you’d like to know more about him, Google him.

The Window will be shown on TCM on March 10, 2014.

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Riffraff (June 28, 1947)

Ted Tetzlaff’s Riffraff, which premiered in New York City on June 28, 1947, was Tetzlaff’s first feature film as sole director. (In 1941, he co-directed the John Barrymore comedy World Premiere with the uncredited Otis Garrett and he was the uncredited co-director on Ralph Murphy’s Jackie Cooper comedy Glamour Boy.)

Before he made the leap to directing, Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films. He started working in the silent era, and his last credited film as cinematographer was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). Anyone who’s seen Notorious can attest to how beautifully it’s lighted and shot, and Tetzlaff brings his considerable skill to bear on Riffraff, elevating it from the very run-of-the mill detective story it could have been.

The opening sequence in Riffraff is the most talked-about part of the film. It’s five full minutes of dialogue-free bliss. After the credits roll, the film cuts to an unnerving shot of an iguana placidly lying on a log in the pouring rain. The iguana’s cold, reptilian gaze is a harbinger of things soon to come.

It’s 2:25 in the morning at El Caribe airlines in Peru. A meek, bespectacled man (Fred Essler) boards a cargo plane, the rain sheeting down on him. He sits nervously in the cargo hold, dripping wet and hanging onto his briefcase tightly. He’s sharing the space with a bunch of squawking chickens and an oily, mustachioed fat man with an unnerving smile. (He’s played by Marc Krah, and we’ll find out later in the film that his character’s name is Charles Hasso). The man with glasses watches Hasso fearfully as Hasso stares back at him. Then Hasso stands up and plucks an errant chick from the floor and replaces it gently in its box.

There’s an exterior shot of the cargo plane flying through the rain in the night, then an interior shot of the pilots lighting up a couple of smokes. A warning tone sounds in the cockpit. The co-pilot rushes back into the hold, where the door is wide open and rain is pouring into the plane. “I couldn’t stop him! He jumped!” exclaims Hasso.

Sure he did.

The cargo plane lands in Panama, where Hasso is questioned by the head of the secret police, Major Rues (played by an oddly accent-free George Givot). Hasso is evasive when he’s questioned about his fellow passenger’s death and suggests that the man might have killed himself for love.

Sure he did.

Major Rues’s suspicions (as well as the audience’s suspicions, if they’re awake) are confirmed when Hasso goes to see Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien), president and sole operative of Zenith Services, a detective agency. Hasso hires Hammer as a bodyguard for his two-day sojourn in Panama City, and while Hammer’s back is turned, he takes the map he stole from the man on the plane and tacks it to Hammer’s cluttered bulletin board, where it will remain for most of the film’s running time (there’s no better place to hide something than in plain sight.)

Eventually we find out that the map shows the locations of a number of unregistered oil wells. Hammer is approached by a shady businessman named Walter Gredson (Jerome Cowan), who wants Hammer to find Hasso for him. Hammer talks Gredson and his assistant up to $5,000 to do the job, and of course never tells them that he already knows exactly who Hasso is and where he is staying.

Hammer is a mixture of hero and con man. In fact, nearly everyone in the film is an operator who is looking out for number one. The beautiful girl in the story is named Maxine Manning (Anne Jeffreys) and even her motives are unclear for awhile. (After a scuffle in a bar, she deliberately pours a drink on her dress just so she can get close to Hammer.)

Pat O’Brien is an interesting choice for the protagonist, since he’s a middle-aged character actor with a pear-shaped body. (Although, based on the presence of Marc Krah and Walter Slezak, who plays a vicious killer named Molinar, I suspect Tetzlaff had a fetish for fat guys.)

There’s plenty of violence in Riffraff, and more hard-boiled P.I. clichés than you can shake a stick at, but it’s ultimately not a very dark movie. Aside from all the corpses that pile up, it’s breezy, fast-paced fun in an exotic tropical setting.

Besides the performances, which are all excellent, the film is elevated by Tetzlaff’s direction and the terrific cinematography by George E. Diskant.

It’s too bad there weren’t more Dan Hammer films starring O’Brien. He’s hardly anyone’s picture of a tough-as-nails P.I., but he crafts a great character who I wouldn’t have minded seeing in more pictures. Hammer is the kind of guy who never wears a necktie because someone could choke him out with it, and who says he’s not going to give up on the case not because of any noble conviction, but rather, as he he says, because “I’ve got a lot of time invested in this thing. Plus a good shellacking!”

In case you’re wondering, I looked into it and couldn’t figure out who came first, Dan Hammer or Mike Hammer. (Mickey Spillane’s first novel, I, the Jury, was also published in 1947.) While it’s possible that Spillane took his character’s name from Martin Rackin’s script for Riffraff, or that Rackin cribbed the name from Spillane, it’s equally possible that a P.I. with the last name of “Hammer” was just a good idea whose time had come.

Notorious (Sept. 6, 1946)

Notorious
Notorious (1946)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
RKO Radio Pictures

Notorious was Alfred Hitchcock’s second film to star Ingrid Bergman. Like the first, Spellbound (1945), it’s a perfect marriage of director and star. Later in his career, Hitchcock had a penchant for casting blond ice queens like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, so it’s easy to forget how good he and the brown-haired Bergman were when they worked together.

In Notorious, Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German-American man convicted of spying for the Nazis. As soon as the trial is over, she throws a little party in her Miami bungalow and gets good and blotto. The sense of intimacy that Bergman creates in this scene is remarkable. She doesn’t slur her words or make a fool of herself, but through her drunken ramblings she reveals some of her innermost thoughts.

Not so with the handsome stranger (Cary Grant) who sits alone at her party. He remains an enigma for awhile. After she throws everyone else out, she takes him out for some good old fashioned drunk driving. (And all the herky-jerky rear projection stuff made me feel a little inebriated, too.) When a motorcycle cop pulls her over, the stranger flashes a badge of some kind, and the cop lets them go. Alicia’s mood sours. She hates policemen.

Alicia learns that this handsome stranger’s name is Devlin, and he’s a government agent. He has listened to the recordings of conversations she had with her father, and knows that she is loyal to the United States, despite her anger about his imprisonment. Because of her father’s espionage work against America, however, she is the perfect person to infiltrate a group of Nazis who fled to Brazil after the war.

While waiting to begin her assignment in Rio de Janeiro, she falls in love with Devlin. It happens — as these things tend to in the movies — quickly and with little explanation. Devlin seems to love her, too, but when it comes time to put her into the field he is all business. And since part of her assignment is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old friend of her father’s and a member of the Nazi inner circle in Rio, Devlin chooses duty over love, and is cold enough to her that she eventually accepts Alex’s proposal of marriage.

Needless to say, living with a man she doesn’t love and his creepy, controlling mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) in a mansion in Rio, surrounded by Nazis who think nothing of killing traitors, is a dangerous proposition for poor Alicia, especially since her romance with Devlin continues to grow, despite both of their efforts to quell their own feelings.

Ingrid Bergman

Unlike Spellbound, which had all manner of baroque, Freudian lunacy, Notorious is an elegant and understated picture. The espionage plot isn’t overcomplicated, and it’s not really the focus of the movie. The love triangle is, as well as all the suspense and danger related to it. A sequence at one of Alex’s parties, in which Alicia and Devlin pass a key from hand to hand, achieves greatest emotional significance and more suspense than a complicated cryptography system or a series of twists and double-crosses ever could.

As a pure cinematic experience, I prefer Spellbound, despite — or perhaps because of — its craziness. Notorious is still a great movie, and Cary Grant is a less inert leading man than Gregory Peck. Ingrid Bergman is stunningly beautiful in this film, too. It’s not just the contours of her face, which are lovingly illuminated by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, it’s her intelligence and openness, and an ineffable quality of vulnerability.

Notorious was a critical and commercial success, and one of the biggest hits of 1946. Claude Rains was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor and Ben Hecht was nominated for best original screenplay, although neither won.