Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Radio plays were quite popular in the first half of the 20th century, and movies were regularly adapted into radio plays (often with the same actors even), and vice versa. 'Sorry, Wrong Number' was a popular radio play, written by Lucille Fletcher, which starred Agnes Moorehead in what was pretty much a one-woman show. Moorehead performed the radio play several times between 1943 and 1960. It was such an over-night success that Lucille Fletcher turned it into a book as well as a screenplay for a movie. In 1948, the movie was released but not with Moorehead in the lead role even though she was a movie actress in her own right, having already played in movies such as 'Citizen Kane', 'Jane Eyre' and 'Dark Passage'. Paramount Studios felt that Moorehead didn't have enough star power to carry the movie tho, so Barbara Stanwyck took the role and she did so well she was nominated for an Oscar. Fletcher's screenplay added a big additional plot to the movie, which the radio-play didn't have.

Stanwyck plays Leona Stevenson, a spoiled woman who is bedridden due to a weak heart and she has a lot of problems walking or even moving her legs (which, as we learn along the way, is all inside her head). She is the daughter of James Cotterell (Ed Begley) who owns a pharmaceuticals company, and she is married to Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster). Henry and Cotterell don't get along, Cotterell thinks Henry is below Leona's standards and Henry is unhappy with the (pretty cushy) job Cotterell gave him in the company. The fact that they're still living at her father's house doesn't help either. The movie takes place in a single evening, but in true film noir fashion, has plenty of flashbacks, even flashbacks within flashbacks. This particular evening Leona is in her bed waiting for Henry to get back home, the maid had already left for the day, so she is all alone inside the big house because her father's at a party. The telephone rings and naturally Leona answers. However, it seems some lines are crossed as she ends up listening in on another phone conversation between 2 unidentified men. The conversation details the murder of a woman that will happen at 11.15pm that same evening. Before Leona can hear who is the target, the line gets cut off. She tries to frantically get the details of the callers from the operator but is unsuccessful. Calling the police also doesn't do her much good, because she has very little details. Slowly but surely, by calling her husband and various other persons close to her, she becomes more and more convinced that the 2 men she overheard were talking about murdering her. Slowly but surely the hour of 11.15pm approaches...

That is the basic plot of the radio-play. What was added by Fletcher was a story-line that explains how Leona met Henry and Henry's involvement with the telephone conversation Leona accidentally intercepted. Leona finds out from Henry's (nosey!) secretary that Henry had seen his old sweetheart Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) earlier that day, she was his sweetheart right before Leona got her hands on Henry. As it so happens, Sally's current husband Fred Lord (Leif Erickson) is a lawyer working for the district attorney's office on special assignments. He is investigating Henry's involvement in a case he's working on, which Leona overhears parts of as she's calling Sally. Sally later calls Leona back and explains as much as she knows about the investigation, including following her husband and his associates to a remote corner of Staten Island. By following up on new leads given to Leona by the people she talks to, Leona slowly finds out about the case Lord is working on. As it turns out Henry has started a little business on the side, selling stolen pharmaceutical ingredients from her father's company, with the help of Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) who works in one of the company's labs. When Henry decides to cut out the middle-man, Morano (William Conrad), things start to go awry for him and Evans, which leads to the connection between the intercepted call and Henry, and to Leona. At 11.10pm Henry and Leona finally get to talk on the phone and everything comes together in the movie's final few minutes, which are incredibly tense and exhilarating as the clock approaches 11.15pm. Even as I watched the movie for a second time, I was on the edge on my seat. The bombastic & dramatic musical score was also very effective in bringing across the intensity of the scene. A great ending to a pretty good movie.

Barbara Stanwyck does a really good job at portraying Leona. Leona's been spoiled rotten by her father, aided by her health. She has a tendency to fall ill whenever she gets too distressed, so her father pampers her. Because Leona's spoiled and used to getting what she wants, Stanwyck gives her a manic, overly dramatic edge which works great in those scenes when Leona is losing all control and starts to panic. Stanwyck's not an actress I would really watch a movie for, but she is a very good actress nonetheless, and I enjoyed her greatly in this movie. I can see why some people think it's too over-the-top however. This movie is all about Leona/Stanwyck, make no mistake about it, and Stanwyck carries the movie. In 1950, Barbara Stanwyck starred in a radio-play adaptation of the movie adaptation of the original radio-play.

Burt Lancaster's role is much smaller than you'd expect, seeing as he's billed second on the poster.  Lancaster is fairly decent as Henry Stevenson, but also unremarkable. Stevenson's almost a wallflower, but even after he starts up the illegal side-business, he seems sullen. To be fair, most of the other roles are fairly one-dimensional, which might be a consequence of Fletcher having to create all these characters as well a (pretty decent) side-plot for the movie. So Lancaster might have felt too good for the part? Either way, besides Stanwyck, only Harold Vermilyea as Waldo Evans really stands out. I quite enjoyed his characterization of an employee who's worked diligently for many years, trying to save up some money only to lose it in a bad investment, and being given a chance to make up for all of that and make quite some money before his retirement.

The movie was directed by Anatole Litvak with cinematography by Sol Polito and the musical score was done by the great Franz Waxman. They manage to give the movie the right claustrophobic edge that is necessary, both visually as well as aurally/musically. There is a really nice long shot where the camera moves away from Leona's terrified face as she's making a call for a nurse, it then exits her room through a window, and pans down to the first floor where the shadow of a man is moving towards the house. It really exemplifies her solitary confinement and how the walls of her room are closing in on her, as well as creates a lot of tension. Masterful shot. But most of the shots inside Leona's room are effective at showing her claustrophobic surroundings, despite the size of the room, which is also emphasized by the large empty, echo-ey staircase when somebody rings the doorbell and Leona cannot come down to answer it.

One of the recurring themes in film noir is that a lot of the main characters, even if they're 'good' people, aren't 100% good or even likeable. Just like in real life, people are flawed, nobody's perfect. This can certainly be said for 'Sorry, Wrong Number'. None of its characters, apart from Waldo Evans and Sally Hunt maybe, are very likeable. Leona is a spoiled brat who's used to getting what she wants, Henry Stevenson is spineless and spiteful and Leona's father is overbearing and likes to boss people around. For me, it works, I don't need to identify fully with a character or even feel sympathy, or empathy, for a main character to enjoy a movie. In the case of 'Sorry, Wrong Number', it's the story and the way it develops and is shown that keeps me intrigued. It's not a classic film noir, but it is certainly a very enjoyable one, which I intend to re-watch every now and again.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

'Murder, My Sweet' is a 1944 adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel 'Farewell, My Lovely' from 1940, and is the first movie with iconic private detective Philip Marlowe as the main character. It wasn't the first time the novel had been made into a movie however. The first version was called 'The Falcon Takes Over', but it took elements from the novel and the Marlowe character was replaced with a different one, the at the time popular 'Falcon' character. This movie however stuck closer to the novel, and as mentioned was the first time Philip Marlowe appeared on the white screen. Edward Dmytryk ('Cornered', 'Obsession', 'Crossfire', and who directed another 'Falcon' movie a few years prior actually) directed this movie and Harry Wild ('Pitfall', 'Cornered') did the cinematography. In 1975 the novel would be made into a movie once again, called 'Farewell, My Lovely', starring film noir icon Robert Mitchum.

This version however stars Dick Powell, who was primarily known for light-hearted song and dance type movies at the time, and wanted a change of character (apparently he signed to RKO with that wish as a stipulation). He sure managed it with this movie! He would star in a number of film noirs afterwards ('Cornered', 'Pitfall', 'Johnny O'Clock') as well as other less light-hearted movies. He was also the reason the movie was renamed from 'Farewell, My Lovely' to 'Murder, My Sweet', as the original title in combination with Dick Powell's name and reputation might lead casual viewers into believing they were going to see a typical Powell movie.

On to the story... In typical Raymond Chandler fashion, the plot of this movie is complex, convoluted and might leave the viewer with some questions about events that are never answered. Chandler didn't worry too much about tieing up loose ends, creating atmosphere and interesting characters was his main goal. The movie starts with Marlowe (Dick Powell) being interrogated by cops while being blindfolded. It isn't clear right until the very end of the movie why he's blindfolded. The rest of the movie is a long flashback sequence as Marlowe tells the entire story, in narration ofcourse, of how he got involved in 2 cases which were linked in more ways than one. The first case happened when a big guy called Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hires Marlowe to find his old sweetheart, Velma Valento, whom he hasn't seen since he went to jail 8 years before. Marlowe doesn't have much to go on, as Malloy cannot even supply him with a pic of Velma. But Marlowe obtains a pic of Velma when he visits the wife of the former owner of a nightclub Velma was working at last time Malloy saw her. So that would be good start... But the next day, a well-off man named Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) hires Marlowe to do a quick and easy job for him. He wants Marlowe to accompany him to a drop-off where Marriott is supposed to pay off some robbers to buy back a jade necklace that was stolen from a friend of his. Marlowe doesn't trust it, but figures that as long as he gets paid, it's an easy way to earn some money, and he can get right back to looking for Velma the next day. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite go that way, as Marlowe gets knocked over on the head at the drop-off. 'A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived right in. It had no bottom.' When he wakes up, a young woman asks him if he's all right, and then runs off. And to top it off, Marriott is dead. Marlowe explains everything to the cops, at least what he knows, who let him off, for now. The next day, Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) is sitting in his office, who turns out to be the woman at the drop-off, but Marlowe doesn't realize this until much later. It was her father's jade necklace that Marriott wanted to buy back. Marlowe and Grayle go to her father's mansion, where Marlowe meets the father (Miles Mander) and his much younger wife Helen (Claire Trevor), who implicates a doctor, or a quack as Mr. Grayle calls him, called Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger). Marlowe is then hired by Mr. Grayle to find the jade necklace, and he gets dragged deeper into its murky waters, and the search for Velma seems unimportant. But eventually it becomes clear that the two cases are linked together tighter than hairs in a hairball.

The movie moves at a fairly rapid pace courtesy of the convoluted plot and tight screenplay, and especially in the second half of this 90+ min movie the amount of twists and doublecrosses that occur are enough to fill 3 feature-length movies. It can become quite dizzying, I have to say. Let's just say that in good film noir fashion, almost everybody gets doublecrossed and/or doublecrosses somebody else several times in this movie. Gotta love it.

Dick Powell does a pretty good job at playing Marlowe, although his Marlowe isn't as hardboiled as one would imagine. Maybe it's Powell's past as an actor, but at times his hardboiled one-liners seem more comical and out of place, solely because it's Powell reciting them. Overall tho, great job, and judging by the movies he did afterwards, people seemed to be into Powell's change of character, so good on him. There is a drug-induced, nightmare-ish dream sequence where Powell does over-act a bit, as well as in the following scene where he confronts the doctor who kept him drugged. The dream sequence is pretty decent however and has a few interesting effects. But the change between Marlowe the cool detective and Marlowe the delirious, emotional patient is a bit too much really.

Anne Shirley and Claire Trevor as the two leading women do great jobs. It is pretty clear that Shirley/Ann Grayle, is more on the up-and-up than Trevor/Helen Grayle who is the femme fatale here, but there are a few curveballs here and there as to who Helen really is and what her intentions are. Solid performances, and the same can be said for Mike Mazurki as the not so clever, but humungous, Moose Malloy who gets used by Amthor to do his dirty work for him.

In terms of directing and cinematography, the movie's done in a clean and effective manner. It's definitely noir in look, feel and lighting. But it doesn't stand out in this respect. The scenes at the beach house are definitely the ones which stand out the most here for their lighting and cinematography as there's a good use of light and especially darkness to create a tense atmosphere. But it also felt at times that Dmytryk, or maybe it was RKO, wanted to show glimpses of Powell's light-hearted past to keep his old fans entertained, for instance when he jumps around on the floor of the entry hall (or mausoleum as he calls it) of Grayle's mansion.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, it's got pretty much everything you'd expect to find in a film noir. Powell did a great job at shaking off his stereotypical type of role and entering a new phase in his career. Make no mistake tho, he's no Humphrey Bogart or Alan Ladd in terms of being a tough hardboiled character actor, at least not yet. But I'm definitely going to check out the film noirs he did later on to see how he evolved.

Here's the trailer for it. Notice how it mentions the 'amazing new type of role' for Dick Powell.