RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Van Heflin

The Prowler (May 25, 1951)

the-prowler
The Prowler (1951)
Directed by Joseph Losey
United Artists / Horizon Pictures / Eagle Productions

The Prowler is a queasy movie about voyeurism, stalking, and sexual power dynamics, and it’s just as relevant today as it was when it was released.

Evelyn Keyes — a very good actress who appeared in a lot of “small” films but is mostly remembered for playing Suellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind — turns in a star performance as Susan Gilvray, a lonely and frustrated married woman who spends her nights alone in a great big house in Los Angeles. In a brief POV shot before the opening credits, we see her in her bathroom, wearing a towel. She looks out the window, directly at the camera, and screams.

The interesting thing about The Prowler is that while that Peeping Tom looms large over everything that happens next, we never see him, and the viewer can never entirely be sure that he wasn’t a figment of Susan’s imagination.

But whether or not he exists is beside the point, because Susan soon opens her door to a more insidious threat. One of the two patrolmen who responds to the report of a prowler is Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), a slimy, bitter, superficially charming man who hates being a cop and is always looking for an “angle” so he can move up in the world.

keyes-and-heflin

As LAPD superfan James Ellroy is quick to point out in the supplemental features of the Blu-ray, Webb Garwood is never specifically identified as a member of the LAPD, and his badge and certain identifying features of his uniform are different from the ones worn by LAPD officers. However, Garwood’s black uniform and the fact that The Prowler clearly takes place in Los Angeles seem to mark him as an LAPD officer, despite the filmmakers’ decision to err on the side of political caution.

But just like the mysterious and unseen creeper who sets things in motion, it doesn’t really matter whether Webb Garwood is a member of the LAPD or not. He’s a rotten symbol of something much bigger. He represents the worst possibilities of unscrupulous people who have the power of the state behind them. He can sexually manipulate women, commit murder, and perjure himself, but because of his badge, juries and the general public will give him the benefit of the doubt.

heflin-and-keyes

The screenplay for The Prowler — based on the story “The Cost of Living” by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm — was written by Dalton Trumbo, who was no stranger to the cruel power of the state. Trumbo had been blacklisted, but it didn’t stop him from working throughout the ’50s. It just meant he got paid much less than he deserved. (His front for The Prowler was Hugo Butler.) Trumbo is one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history, and The Prowler is Trumbo at his down-and-dirty best.

I’ve seen The Prowler several times, and it gets a little better with each viewing. Evelyn Keyes and Van Heflin embody their characters. Arthur C. Miller’s black & white cinematography is haunting, and makes Susan’s hacienda look like the loneliest place on earth. Losey’s direction is crisp. Lyn Murray’s music is powerful without being overbearing. Dalton Trumbo’s script is timeless.

The Prowler is classic Los Angeles noir, and one of the best “bad cop” movies of all time.

Advertisements

Act of Violence (Dec. 21, 1948)

Act of Violence
Act of Violence (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence opens with a shot of New York City at night. The Chrysler Building is silhouetted against a dark gray sky. Bronislau Kaper’s musical score is ominous and intense. Robert Ryan crosses the street toward the camera. He’s wearing a hat and a trench coat, and his stride is determined despite his limp.

The sound of his limping walk is distinctive. Step, drag, step, drag, step, drag, step, drag. It’s a sound that will haunt the film.

He walks upstairs to a shabby rented room and pulls a semiautomatic pistol from a dresser drawer. He slaps a magazine into the pistol, checks the barrel and the ejection port, and then the title of the film appears onscreen in block letters.

Act of Violence title

Now that’s the way to start a movie. Zinnemann, his cinematographer Robert Surtees, and his editor Conrad A. Nervig build more suspense and engagement in the first minute of Act of Violence than most movies are able to muster in their entire first reel.

It helps that the film drops us right into the action. Most movies in the 1940s began with screen after screen of opening credits; a time-honored cinematic tradition. Act of Violence and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night are the only films from 1948 I’ve seen that eschewed that hoary convention, and both films immediately arrest the viewer.

After the opening, Ryan’s ominous character Joe Parkson takes a Greyhound bus to California, where the viewer meets the other star of the film; Van Heflin. Heflin plays Frank Enley, a World War II veteran, housing contractor, and family man with a beautiful young wife named Edith (Janet Leigh) and an adorable baby boy. (Janet Leigh was just 21 when this film was made. Heflin and Ryan were both in their late 30s.)

We know right from the beginning that Joe Parkson wants to kill Frank Enley, but we don’t know why. For awhile, all we know is that Enley was Parkson’s CO in the war, and that Parkson has a vendetta against him.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan

M-G-M didn’t produce very many noirs, but when they did, they were glossy affairs with high productions values and great actors, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), and High Wall (1947).

Act of Violence is a stylish thriller that looks and feels ahead of its time. The cinematography is meticulously constructed and dripping with noir atmosphere, but it never feels studio-bound and uses real-world locations beautifully. The sound effects in the film sometimes do a better job of creating suspense than any musical score could.

All the actors in Act of Violence are really good. Van Heflin was a sad-eyed Everyman, and Robert Ryan had a physically intimidating presence, but enough charisma to make even his most villainous characters magnetic. Apparently Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were originally slated to star in Act of Violence, but I can’t picture anyone but Heflin and Ryan as these characters.

Janet Leigh has a pretty thankless role, but she has enough star power to make it interesting. Phyllis Thaxter doesn’t have much to do as Joe’s girl Ann, but she’s fine. Mary Astor is wonderful in an unglamorous role as a barfly obsessed with “kicks” who Frank meets on a business trip to Los Angeles, and the always-creepy Berry Kroeger is great in a small part.

I thought Zinnemann’s previous film, The Search (1948) was a minor masterpiece, and I feel the same way about Act of Violence. Zinnemann’s best work may have been ahead of him, but Act of Violence is an exceedingly well-made, visually inventive thriller with enough moral ambiguity to keep it interesting. I think our cultural views have evolved since World War II in ways that make the central conceit of the film even more ambiguous than it probably seemed when the film was first released.

I don’t want to go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but for me there’s a great deal of meaning packed into Enley’s statement to his wife, “A lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn’t understand. Why should you? I don’t understand them myself.”

Possessed (July 26, 1947)

If you like to see Joan Crawford get her crazy on as much as I do, then you’ll love Possessed.

Curtis Bernhardt’s fevered noir melodrama begins with a surprisingly unglamorous-looking Crawford wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze, asking everyone she passes if they’ve seen “David.”

Crawford isn’t wearing any makeup, and her journey through the early dawn streets reminded me of a similar scene that appeared a decade later in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1958), in which Jeanne Moreau wanders the streets of Paris without makeup. (Was Malle influenced by Possessed? It’s certainly possible.)

The character Crawford plays, Louise Howell, is taken by ambulance to the psychopathic ward of the Los Angeles Municipal Hospital, where she is cared for by Dr. Willard (Stanley Ridges). He gives her narcosynthesis to lift her out of her catatonic stupor, and the tale of what brought Louise to this place is told through a haze of flashbacks and psychobabble.

Louise was a nurse in the employ of wealthy Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). Her job was to care for Graham’s infirm wife.

After a brief love affair with an average-looking but very charming architect named David Sutton (Van Heflin), Louise became hopelessly attached to him. When David told her that he wasn’t the marrying kind, and that he had to break things off with her, it began her spiral into madness. She was convinced that there was another woman, but he assured her there wasn’t.

“Louise, don’t hang onto me. You’ll get hurt,” he said in exasperation, and his words were prescient. The straitlaced, self-possessed Louise began to unravel.

Dr. Willard diagnoses her with a persecution complex. She thought that David breaking up with her was all part of a plan. Everyone was against her. Dr. Willard calls it “typical schizoid detachment … split personality.”

Despite its sometimes overheated story and dialogue, Possessed is a stylistic feast. Franz Waxman’s musical score perfectly underscores every one of Joan Crawford’s scenes, and Joseph A. Valentine’s cinematography visually expresses her madness.

There are recurring visual motifs, most notably water. For instance, when David gets into his boat and leaves Louise sobbing on the dock, the churning water symbolizes her inner turmoil. The doctors hovering over Louise’s bed discuss her case, then the scene cuts to a shot of the carafe of water by her hospital bed that dissolves into a shot of the water around Dean Graham’s home.

When Louise stops the little pendulum of her bedside clock from ticking because it’s “driving her crazy” the sound is replaced by the sound of dripping water outside her open window. She slams the window shut, trying to control her madness.

Possessed could never be called a realistic film. But that’s not its goal. It subjectively depicts an unraveling psyche, and isn’t afraid to veer into territory that sometimes seems as if it would be more at home in a horror movie than in a melodrama.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (July 24, 1946)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Paramount Pictures

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is based on a short story called “Love Lies Bleeding” by playwright John Patrick, who published it under the name “Jack” Patrick. I don’t know why the name was changed when it was made into a movie; possibly it was deemed too gruesome. It’s a great title, but I’m glad that it was changed to a more generic one. I had no idea what I was in for.

The film begins in 1928, in a smoke-filled Pennsylvania factory town called “Iverstown.” (Pronounced “Iverston.”) A young girl named Martha Smith Ivers (Janis Wilson) runs away from home in the pouring rain, jumping a freight car with a streetwise little tough named Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). It’s not the first time she’s tried to escape.

Their plans hit a snag when they’re found by the police. Sam gets away, but Martha is taken home, and we see exactly what she’s trying to get away from. Her aunt, Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson), is a villain straight out of a fairy tale. Mrs. Ivers is fawned over by the sycophantic Mr. O’Neil (Roman Bohnen), Martha’s tutor. O’Neil keeps dropping none too subtle hints that his bookish son Walter (Mickey Kuhn) is perfect Harvard material, if only they had the money to send him one day.

The tongue-lashing and threats Martha receive from her aunt when she’s brought home by the police are bad enough, but later that night, when the little cat that Martha keeps hidden in her room gets out, Mrs. Ivers really goes over the top in the cartoonish villainy department and attempts to beat it to death with her cane. To protect her pet, Martha pushes her aunt down the stairs. She tumbles down the staircase and breaks her neck. Walter O’Neil witnesses Mrs. Ivers’s death. His father didn’t, but he suspects what really happened. However, when the children are questioned by the police, he backs up the story Walter and Martha concoct about a mysterious intruder.

There’s just one more wrinkle. That night, Sam Masterson had snuck into Martha’s bedroom, and was somewhere in the house. Did he see what really happened? We won’t know for awhile, because Sam runs off, and isn’t seen again.

The story jumps forward 18 years to 1946. Walter O’Neil (immediately recognizable by his priggish demeanor and his wire-rimmed spectacles) is now played by Kirk Douglas. When we first see him, he’s three sheets to the wind, but through his slurred exposition we learn that he’s now the district attorney of Iverstown, and is married to Martha, who is now played by Barbara Stanwyck. Walter clearly loves Martha, but she despises him.

After the death of Mrs. Ivers, Martha’s tutor, Mr. O’Neil, took control of her family fortune, and blackmailed her into marrying his son. Walter lived up to his potential and went to Harvard with the help of Ivers money, but he is tortured by the secret he and Martha share. Not only did he help cover up Martha’s role in her aunt’s death, but years later, he prosecuted the drifter the police picked up for the murder of Mrs. Ivers, and sent the man to the death house. Martha isn’t just an innocent victim in the affair, however, and as the film goes on, she becomes more and more villainous.

Then again, so does Walter. Douglas gives a really fine performance in this film — the first of many in his long career — as a vindictive man who is morally weak but who possesses enormous political and legal power. Stanwyck, also, is fantastic as always. I think the first movie I saw her in was Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and I thought she was really funny-looking. I couldn’t see what Fred MacMurray saw in her, or why he would go to such ridiculous and homicidal lengths to be with her. But after seeing her in this film and the excellent melodrama My Reputation (filmed in 1944 but released theatrically in 1946), I’m starting to see it. While not a great beauty, Stanwyck has a gritty, vibrant quality that demands attention. She is always fascinating to watch.

The present-day plot gets rolling when Sam Masterson (now played by Van Heflin) rolls back into town. Now a good-natured drifter and gambler, he doesn’t even intend to visit Iverstown, but when he carelessly drives his car into a sign while giving a hitchhiker (Blake Edwards) a lift, he’s forced to.

While paying a visit to the house he grew up in, Sam meets a beautiful young woman named Antonia “Toni” Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), who has just been released from jail. The two itinerants are immediately drawn to each other, but their budding romance is going to be put through its paces as soon as Walter and Martha discover that Sam is back.

Believing that Sam has purposefully returned to blackmail them, Walter sets his thugs on both Sam and Toni, jailing Toni for violating her probation and taking Sam for a ride and leaving him beaten on the side of the road outside of town. If you’ve ever seen a film noir before, you’ll know that guys like Sam don’t like to be pushed around, and when they are, it only strengthens their resolve not to turn tail and run. But you’ll also know that dangerous women attract them like honey attracts flies, and when Martha tries to get her hooks back into Sam, things won’t be easy for any of the four leading characters.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is on the long side (just shy of two hours), and the plot has a lot of moving parts, but the script by Robert Rossen and an uncredited Robert Riskin is excellent, and never bogs down. Lewis Milestone’s direction is sharp. Really, this is just a great film. Everyone who likes classic cinema should see it, not just fans of noir.

On a note completed unrelated to the film, I find it interesting that three of the four principal actors worked under pseudonyms. Kirk Douglas was born “Issur Danielovitch Demsky,” Barbara Stanwyck was born “Ruby Catherine Stevens,” and Lizabeth Scott was born “Emma Matzo.”

Incidentally, Scott was born into the Matzo family in 1922 in Scranton, Pennsylvania (the state where this film takes place). With her angular features and husky voice, Lizabeth Scott reminds me a lot of Lauren Bacall, but she’s even sexier, which I didn’t think was possible until I saw this movie.