Thursday, March 28, 2013

Black Widow (1954)

'Black Widow' is a 1954 whodunnit mystery that Fox conveniently lumped into their 'fox film noir' DVD series for marketing purposes, but really is only marginally noir at best. Not that it matters, as it's a pretty good movie that is both fun and thrilling. It was produced and directed by Nunnally Johnson, who also wrote the script which was based on a story by Patrick Quentin (which was really one of several pseudonyms used by a group of authors, 2 of which wrote this particular story, namely Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb). The beautiful (in a non-noir way) cinematography, in colorful and 2.55:1 widescreen Cinemascope, was done by Charles G. Clarke.

At the start of the movie successful Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) is putting his wife Iris (the ever-so-beautiful Gene Tierney) on a plane, so she can take care of her sick mother. He then goes to a party thrown by Carlotta 'Lottie' Marin (Ginger Rogers), who is the star of his latest production. She happens to live in the apartment right above the Denver's with her husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner). At this party he meets Nancy Ordway (former child actress Peggy Ann Garner, who looks nothing like that hit, seductive girl in the poster), an aspiring writer. She throws him a classic line 'My mother always told me that if a girl could be at a party for thirty minutes without getting a man to talk to her, she might just as well go on home and shoot herself. I've already been here twenty-five.' and ofcourse he's more than happy to save her life. But no, he's not into her that way. After all, he's married to Gene Tierney, if you know what I mean. He does take her out to dinner, which he later jokingly talks about to his wife over the phone, because she ate a ton (there's a running gag throughout the movie where Nancy claims she's 'hungry enough to eat a bear'). The movie then does a flashback and recounts how Nancy arrived in NYC from her hometown of Savannah, GA and visits her uncle Gordon Ling (Otto Kruger), who is a stage actor in one of the Peter's plays. She then befriends siblings Claire and John Amberley (Virginia Leith and Skip Homeier) while working as a waitress, and eventually moves in with them, and it is with Claire that she ends up at Lottie's party. Some time after the party, she gets Peter to allow her to work on her writing from the Denver apartment, because the view is inspiring her. This ofcourse raises more than a few eyebrows, but Peter ignores it, and Iris is more understanding than any woman I know. When Iris returns to NYC she finds Nancy hanging dead from the ceiling in the bedroom, and there's a note with a drawing of a hanged person with a quote from 'Salome' about love and death above it. It is assumed this is her suicide note. Detective lieutenant Bruce (George Raft) is investigating the suicide, which eventually turns out be murder. And not only that, but the persons who knew about Nancy working at the Denver apartment are all under the impression that Nancy and Peter's relationship was not quite as platonic as Peter makes it seem. Nancy wasn't quite as innocent and sweet as Peter thought she was, as she's been telling Claire she was having an affair with Peter, which also ruined her relationship, and possible engagement, with John. And to make matters even worse, the autopsy revealed she was also pregnant! Peter quickly becomes the #1 suspect and he has to conduct his own investigation to clear his name.

Peter Denver's character has two sides in this movie. Before Nancy's death, he's a very friendly, almost naive good guy who's liked by pretty much everybody, and who holds no grudges. After her death, he becomes almost a polar opposite of himself and has no qualms about squeezing a girl's arm hard and shaking her wildly to get an answer out of her. He's desperate and determined. That is one aspect of this movie that does have a noir element to it, Peter is forced far out of his comfort zone in order to be able to clear his name, but it is also never truly clear if he's on the level about his relationship with Nancy. Van Heflin is a great actor and he gives a good performance here.

Ginger Rogers is the real star of the movie however. Her Lottie is a true bitchy diva, who has to put everybody down in order to feel good about herself, she enjoys gossiping, thinks very highly of herself and has to be the centerpiece always. Rogers almost radiates in every scene she's in, you can definitely tell she enjoyed this role greatly. Lottie does show at some point that she has a heart and has her own insecurities and that it is really Brian who controls her rather than the other way around (tho not in a mean-spirited way, more in a loving way). Reginald Gardiner plays the loving husband who introduces himself not by his own name but as Carlotta Marin's husband pretty well, with a thin smile that can be thought of as meaning both amusement and resignation.

The weakest character/actor in the movie is George Raft because well... he's George Raft and the only character he can play is George Raft as he rattles off his lines without emotion. Also Gene Tierney was going through a bad depression at the time and was taking heavy medication so her part is understandably kept to a bare minimum, and she comes across as slightly lethargic at times. Which is unfortunate, she was a great and dropdead gorgeous actress, but her truly tragic life also held her back a lot. In fact, this was one of the last movies she did before she took a break from acting due to her personal issues. Also, I couldn't help but notice that Otto Kruger looked so much older in this color movie compared to his 40s black & white movies, even though timewise it was only 10 years earlier that he played in 'Murder, My Sweet' for instance. His portrayal of the dandy-esque Gordon Ling is good tho, unfortunately his part is quite small.

The movie has only a few scenes that were shot on location, the majority of the scenes take place on studio sets and more specifically in the apartments of Peter and Iris Denver and Lottie Marin and Brian Mullen (which was really the same set but with different props, especially the Marin/Mullen apartment is beautifully decorated). The living room is quite spacious and is the perfect location for the 2.55:1 aspect ratio. I understand that this movie is occasionally shown on TV in a cropped pan & scan version, it must look awkward that way with actors positioned on the edges of the widescreen regularly. Even though it is fairly obvious that the daytime & nighttime backdrops of the apartments of the NYC skyline were painted, they look really good and real enough to not be distracting. Visually the movie is far from noir, but the extreme widescreen look and the usage of the large apartments, the backdrops, the way the actors are generally occupying as much of the available space as possible, and the fairly subdued colors give the movie a very pleasing and classic, almost stage-y, aesthetic.

While the movie is not exactly a film noir and it is even debatable whether it is borderline noir, it's a fun and beautiful-looking movie with a bit of a surprise ending, and personally I rate it much higher than the 6.6 it currently has on IMDb.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Blonde Ice (1948)

A lot of reviews of this movie will mention its tagline at some point, and it's a pretty good one indeed, so let's get it out of the way, shall we?

ICE in her veins - ICICLES on her heart

Now, if that isn't a film noir tagline, I don't know what is. It is immediately clear this movie has a true 'femme fatale', a fatal woman, and a blonde one as the movie title suggests. The movie is based on a novel by Whitman Chambers and supposedly, but unconfirmed, the screenplay was written by Edgar G. Ulmer ('Strange Illusion', 'Detour') and not Kenneth Gamet as the credits suggest. It stars Leslie Brooks as one of the deadliest femme fatales to grace the 40s film noirs. It would also be one of her final roles before she retired at the age of 26. Leslie Brooks plays Claire Cummings here, a columnist for a newspaper who wants it all, power, money and social standing, and she'll stop at nothing to get what she wants. Even though she's short on writing talent, she's positively bursting with ambition and has managed to work her way up to the position of columnist. But her ambition is not in the area of journalism, but in the area of becoming a wealthy and powerful socialite. And she'll take no shortcuts in getting there, come what may.

The movie starts in a mansion on the outskirts of San Fransisco where Claire's about to get married to Carl Hanneman (John Holland). Two of her co-workers, Les Burns (Robert Paige) and Al Herrick (a slimey James Griffith who looks like a weasel) are also there and it becomes painfully clear they're both former lovers of Claire who got nothing to show for it but having identical cigarette cases with almost identical engravings, save for the first names, that she gave them. There's a nice shot where Claire descends from the stairs and gives them both a smile. She then extends her arm right after the camera shows Les' face, making it seem she's offering Les to walk her down the aisle. But alas, her newspaper chief Hack Doyle (Walter Sande), takes her arm and off they go. Claire gets married to Carl and so far things are looking quite normal. But to show the true nature of Claire, a few minutes after the wedding, right before the newly weds are off on their honeymoon, Claire meets up with Les on the balcony right next to the room where she got married, and after some chit-chat they make out. The groom notices but she manages to make it seem innocent enough. Les know she's not in love with him or with the groom, and is only after material gain, but he is in love with her despite everything, so he puts up with her antics. And as the movie progresses, he puts up with a lot.

On their honeymoon, Carl accidentally sees a letter she's writing to Les, despite Claire even preparing a less steamy letter for Les' secretary. The letter starts with 'My darling Les' and how she can't wait to see him again. Carl realizes she was never in love with him and is only interested in his money and returns to San Fransisco, to file for divorce. But Claire has something else in mind, and buys off a local airplane pilot to fly her to San Fransisco and back again, all within the night. She also has a physician prescribe her some sleeping pills at a local pharmacy to give her an alibi as well as make sure a hotel employee notices her in the morning, to make it seem like she was in her hotel room the entire night. Carl ofcourse never wakes up that morning, or any morning thereafter for that matter. Her devilish character doesn't stop there, as she cleverly manages to implicate Les in Carl's death, because she knows Les will do anything for her. Les is a tough and masculine sports columnist but with Claire he's also a meek little lamb and against better judgement he cannot let Claire out of his heart, even tho he is fully aware Claire will let nothing stand in her way.

The chief of police who is investigating Hanneman's death knows he's dealing with murder and not suicide, which his death was made out to look like, but he can't make a case against either Les or Claire so eventually the case ends up in a desk drawer. Claire then sets her eyes on a local up & coming attorney who's running for senator, Stanley Mason (Michael Whalen), and he falls for her, hard. But things get complicated when the airplane pilot she hired the night of Carl's murder comes back to blackmail her. She eventually manages to get rid of him tho, in the most permanent of ways. After Mason wins the poll to run for senator he announces his upcoming marriage to Claire, but that same evening she goes over to Les' apartment who's distraught over her. She explains she does love him, but that he could never give her what she wants. The senator comes over and catches them as they're about to kiss, and tells her the marriage is off. Les takes off to drown his sorrows in booze and when he returns, Claire's already stabbed the senator to death and he just picked up the penknife she did it with. Claire might love Les, but Claire looks out for only one person, herself. The movie then rushes to its end. The ending of the movie is a complete disaster, one moment yer pretty much glued to the screen and a minute later yer wondering what the hell just happened. I won't spoil it for you, but it definitely came out of nowhere and makes no sense whatsoever. It appears that whoever wrote the ending had a slightly skewed idea about psychoanalysis (and possibly was a bit too concerned about the Hays production code). In any case, it's not the ending I was hoping for, and definitely not the ending this movie deserved.

The movie was directed by Jack Bernhard ('Decoy') and cinematography was done by George Robinson, who mostly worked on horror movies before that, such as 'House Of Frankenstein'. Robinson did a lot of work for Universal, which might explain the very nice look of the movie and the use of tracking shots. It was made for Film Classics however, a short-lived poverty row studio and while the actors weren't exactly A-list actors either, and their acting is not amazing, they do an adequate job. Leslie Brooks won't be mistaken for a Shakespeare actor, but she's pretty and certainly was able to smile and glance in a manner that made her role memorable and convincing. She would marry actor Russ Vincent not too long after making this movie and unlike so many marriages of actors and actresses at the time, they stayed married for the rest of their lives. As an interesting sidenote, Russ Vincent plays Blackie, the blackmailing pilot, in this movie. Robert Paige gave his character enough character to not come off as a complete loser while also not being too soft to be the macho sports buff he was if it hadn't been for Claire. James Griffith is great as Al who cannot say a sentence that isn't implying something or isn't some sort of snide remark.

What I like about this movie is that the typical gender roles have been reversed, at least for the two main roles (which is not exactly uncommon for films noir). Claire is in power, all the time, and she can work everybody in a way that's to her advantage. And if someone isn't willing to do what she wants, well, they'll be sure to regret it. Les on the other hand is like putty in her hands, despite being a man's man when he's not around her. Even when he knows exactly how deadly she is, and how far she'll go for what she wants, he cannot give her up to the police. The female is masculine here and the male feminine. But don't get me wrong, there are plenty of steeotypes left. All the men, at least when they first get to know Claire, like her or even fall for her, while all the women, even those who don't know Claire, instantly see her for what she truly is. Men love women they cannot possess and women hate women who outmatch them in looks and sexuality/sensuality. Then there's also Les' homely secretary who ofcourse has a secret crush on him, and ofcourse Les is too blinded by Claire to notice. There's the psychoanalyst with the slightly foreign accent, to add more gravitas to his words. In fact, pretty much all characters besides Claire and Les are fairly one-dimensional and you can get a pretty good idea of their general actions based on their first appearance in the movie.

There's more to like about this movie tho. It's simply a lot of fun to watch Claire get away with everything and to watch how she plays with Les. You do often wonder why Les puts up with it all and how dumb he must be, but it's fun to watch anyway. Which is all the more reason why the ending is so bad, it really brings down the overall effect of the movie. Not that this movie would have been a classic film noir if the ending had been any different, most of the characters are too obvious for that, but it could have been a more memorable movie anyway. It's not recommended viewing, but don't pass up on it either if you get the chance to watch it.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Dangerous Crossing (1953)

The locked room mystery is a staple when it comes to detective/mystery movies. It involves a confined space in which an event takes place (usually a crime of some sort) which seems impossible within the constraints of the confined space and/or where vital ingredients of the event (usually the body, the perpetrator or the weapon, or a combination thereof) have seemingly disappeared from the confined space. A well-known and early movie to depict this type of mystery is the classic Hitchcock movie 'The Lady Vanishes' from 1938, which is placed on a moving train. In the case of 'Dangerous Crossing' a person disappears on a cruiseship, and is nowhere to be found, and apart from one person nobody seems to know about the missing person. The story was based on a radio play, 'Cabin B-13', which was written by John Dickson Carr, who was very adept at this type of mystery and he wrote several radio plays in this genre. The radio play was written for the popular Suspense radio play series, which also hosted the radio play after which the movie 'Sorry, Wrong Number'  was made. Leo Townsend adapted 'Cabin B-13' into a screenplay, Joseph M. Newman directed the movie and Joseph LaShelle did the cinematography.

At the start of the movie, newlyweds Ruth Bowman Stanton (Jeanne Crain) and John Bowman (Carl Betz) board a cruiseship for a honeymoon. Due to the large amount of people trying to board the ship, they don't board it at quite the same time with several people entering the cruiseship after Ruth and before Bowman. After they find their cabin, B-16, Bowman goes off to give some money to the purser to store in a safe, and tells Ruth to go to the main deck and watch the cruiseship leave the harbor and meet him at the bar in 15 minutes afterwards. But he never shows up at the bar. When Ruth returns to their cabin to see if John is there, she finds the room locked. After she has an attendant open the room for her, she finds the room empty, without their luggage. It turns out it was never booked for this trip, and Ruth is booked into room B-18 instead, under her maiden name, and by herself. And her luggage, but not John's, is already in B-18. Ruth is flabbergasted and slightly worried, trying to convince everybody she did not come by herself, that they were really in B-16 before, and asking people where her husband is. She becomes increasingly hysterical and frantic and eventually the ship's doctor, Dr. Paul Manning (Michael Rennie), is called in. Despite nobody knowing anything about her husband, or seeing her board the ship with him, he is helpful and while he doesn't fully believe Ruth, he tries to check her story as much as he can. The captain entrusts her with him, provided he keeps a close eye on her, because he doesn't want her throwing a scene and making the trip unpleasant for the other passengers. He doesn't believe her story, also because she has no wedding ring nor can remember vital details of the wedding (due to it happening so fast and in a random wedding chapel church by the side of a road in Maryland, in fact they'd only met a month before), but Manning doesn't let her out of his sights. Ruth finds herself in an even bigger mystery when John calls her in her room that evening and says he cannot make himself known to the crew but wants to see her. As Ruth struggles to find out why John has to keep in hiding Manning stays on her tail, and eventually the twist is revealed what is going on with John and how involved Ruth is in John's plans. In the meantime, it's hard for Ruth, and the viewer, to know who she can and cannot trust, and she is slowly driven into madness.

At various points during the movie, characters are introduced which are potentially involved in one way or another with the mystery of the disappearing husband. Several scenes can be interpreted multiple ways, suggesting that there's some sort of conspiracy going on, involving a German-speaking old man with a cane. In some of these instances, perfectly reasonable explanations are given later, but ofcourse, can these explanations be trusted? Ruth does not know who to trust or not, especially after John's call in which he warns her to not trust anybody, and she becomes increasingly worried and alarmed. She isn't even sure about Dr. Manning, whether he's an ally or not. But he also seems to be the only person who's trying to help her.

Jeanne Crain, who plays Ruth Bowman Stanton, is a beautiful actress who gives her character a pretty soft edge. Ruth seems slightly hapless and naive and a bit too hysterical at times, but it's also understandable that she's doubting everything and everybody, especially after John tells her so during his first call. At various points in the movie, there's a voice-over where she's talking to herself inside her head, mostly to tell herself to not trust anybody and play along with the people around her so she does not raise any suspicion. This device to keep the viewer informed of her state of mind and reasonings for certain actions seems a little redundant and unnecessary as it is usually pretty clear why she does something. On the other hand, it is a good way to keep the viewer involved with her, also because the majority of the scenes have Ruth in 'em. In that respect, credit has to be given to Crain for keeping the viewer interested in her and the story.

Dr. Paul Manning is played by Michael Rennie. He's most famous for playing Klaatu in the sci-fi classic 'The Day The Earth Stood Still'. He does a nice job here, albeit a somewhat bland one. He does have a somewhat striking face (I didn't know him beforehand and the first comparison that came to mind was a cross between Jack Palance and Leonard Nimoy). He plays his character with a very distinguished and calm demeanor, becoming of a seasoned doctor who's seen it all. Dr. Manning seems to see Ruth as more than a patient after a while, even telling her at some point that maybe he wishes there was no Mr. Bowman. But the way he acts, you'd never know it, he's just too reserved, not even his eyes really show his affection for Ruth.

There's also Kay Prentiss (Marjorie Hoshelle), a wealthy single woman who's been married several times and has a good line during her first encounter with Ruth: 'Husbands can get lost so easily, I know'. They meet as Ruth is standing on the deck, waving at the people on the harbor when the ship is sailing off. They bump into each other several times afterwards, including one encounter which gives Ruth reason to believe Kay knows more than she's telling. It is kind of weird how Kay continues to be friendly towards Ruth and treats her as a friend when during most encounters Ruth brushes off Kay or even openly ignores her.

Oddly enough one of the best part of the movie to me is the monotonous & droning foghorn sounding every few seconds during the night scenes, which creates a very ominous & tension-filled atmosphere, it has an almost foreboding quality. It's a simple but effective and dramatic effect. Add to that the thick, soup-like fog making ghostlike shadows out of anybody who dares enter it (before they disappear completely into the dense soup), and you've got some great and atmospheric noir scenes. During some of the more thrilling scenes the music takes over from the foghorn but continues with the monotonous droning theme, again with very effective results.

Another interesting visual, besides the fog, is the moment Ruth gets handed a telegram that was sent to the doctor, from the head of her dad's company. It explains her dad died 4 months ago and Ruth has been seeing a doctor since. The last sentence says that neither the housekeeper nor the doctor know anything about John Bowman and are certain Ruth is not married. What's so interesting about the shot is that the light shines on the telegram she's holding in such a way that this last line is in the light while the rest of the telegram is in the shadows. It gives this line, which confirms the belief of everybody else on the ship that Ruth's lost it, an even more damning quality.

'Dangerous Crossing' was shot on a pretty tight budget in 19 days and re-used some of the sets used for 'Titanic', which had already been re-used for 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'. That's how you churn out movies, conveyor-belt style. Thankfully, and because of re-using sets from A-movies, this movie doesn't feel like cheap at all. It's not too long at 76 minutes, but it doesn't look or feel cheap, and it does what it's supposed to do, and it does so pretty well. It was also one of the last cheap B-movies that Fox made, with the rise of television the need for 2nd features on a double-bill diminished.

The cinematography was done by Joseph LaShelle, a very good cameraman who had won an Oscar for his work on 'Laura' in 1944 and who also did the cinematography on some other film noirs by Fox, namely 'Fallen Angel' in 1945, 'Road House' in 1948 and 'Where The Sidewalk Ends' in 1950. As mentioned before, his use of fog in the outside night scenes is very noir, even if the movie as a whole isn't. I don't know whose choice it was, but in several scenes the camera moves up and down, slowly and almost unnoticable. It's a neat little trick to make the viewer feel as tho he/she is also on the ship, as it moves across the waves.

This movie is not exactly film noir, it's more of a straight-forward mystery movie and only has some of the visual characteristics of a film noir. But it is entertaining nonetheless and despite some characterizations which seem quite outdated now, the movie is well-made and clever.