Monday, May 27, 2013

The Unsuspected (1947)

Try and guess which movie this is... It deals with the death of a woman... There is a portrait painting of her hanging over a fireplace, and an outsider takes a keen interest in it... There's a devilish older man with a somewhat awkward relationship with this woman... It all takes place in upper class socialite circles... The woman turns out to not be dead after all... Oh, before you hit the buzzer, this is not 'Laura' from 1944. That's right, the movie I am talking about is 'The Unsuspected' from 1947. And while this movie has 'borrowed' heavily from the classic film noir, it is much more than a mere copy. It is actually a really clever, good and fun movie. And like 'Laura', it is a very stylish thriller.

'The Unsuspected' was directed by Michael Curtiz ('Casablanca', 'Mildred Pierce'), cinematography was done by Elwood 'Woody' Bredell ('Christmas Holiday', 'The Killers') and the musical score was done by the great Franz Waxman ('Sunset Blvd', 'Sorry, Wrong Number'). A very strong group of people at the helm of this production therefore, and it shows. And to be fair, Charlotte Armstrong's story was published after 'Laura' was released, so if anything we have Charlotte Armstrong to blame for the blatant similarities. Her story was adapted by Curtiz' wife Bess Meredyth and then turned into a screenplay by Ranald MacDougall ('Mildred Pierce', 'Cleopatra').

The movie opens with the murder, disguised as suicide, of Victor Grandison's secretary during one of his radio shows. 'Genial host, renowned writer, art collector and teller of strange tales' Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) is the host of a very popular real life mystery/crime radio show. He is very charming, suave, highly intelligent and lives in a large mansion. He's kind enough to have 2 of his nieces live in the mansion with him, Matilda Frazier (Joan Caulfield) who is presumed dead at the start of the movie and who was to inherit a fortune, and Althea Keane (Audrey Totter) who lives there with her alcoholic husband Oliver Keane (Hurd Hatfield) and who is pretty much broke. A week after the secretary's suicide/murder an uninvited guest to Grandison's surprise birthday party arrives, Steven Howard (Michael 'Ted' North) who claims to have married Matilda a few days before she died at sea. At the same time Matilda shows up again, who isn't dead at all but survived the accident at sea and needed time to recuperate and get herself together again. This triggers a chain of events that leads to a couple more murders, and the truth behind Steven Howard's motives and ofcourse, the identity of the murderer.

The movie has a lot going for it. First off, it looks absolutely beautiful. The lighting is quite extraordinary, especially with its use of long, moving shadows. There are also some really nice camera shots of people's reflections (the secretary's killer's reflection can be seen in the murder scene, revealing its identity, but you'll miss it if you blink), a large part of which are actually upsidedown.
Another visual gem is when small-time hoodlum Press (Jack Lambert), who's being blackmailed by Grandison, is lying on his bed in his hotelroom and the lights of the hotel (called the Peekskills) flicker on and off, showing only 'KILL' from his point of view... KILL - KILL - KILL.
Then there are 2 fun car chases, with the typical sped up footage of cars doing turns at impossible speeds. There is an unintentional funny moment when one of the cars changes color for a moment before going back to its original color.
The story also has some nice twists and turns that take it out of 'Laura' territory. There is an element of blackmail involved here with Grandison using a 16" vinyl platter recording machine to record conversations with people so he can blackmail them with it later on.
Grandison's background as a radio host also allows for some very interesting scenes of the recording of a radio show.

A separate remark needs to be made about the wardrobe of Matilda and Althea. The contrast between the characters of the nieces is also reflected in their wardrobe. At the start of the movie Althea wears light-colored dresses, and when Matilda first sees Althea again, Matilda is wearing dark clothes, as she just returned from a dark episode in her life. But as the movie progresses, and Althea shows more and more of her true colors, her dresses also become darker until they're pitch black. While Matilda soon starts to wear virgin white dresses, reflecting her good-mannered and somewhat naive character.

As far as the acting goes, Claude Rains and Audrey Totter stand out. Claude Rains does what he does best, playing a debonair, upper-class socialite who's always got an answer, a retort or a comeback. He is devilish and devious as Grandison who has alterior motives when it comes to his affection towards Matilda, while Totter's Althea is quite the bitch who is jealous of Matilda and stole Matilda's boyfriend Oliver out of spite. She's also resentful because Oliver turned out to be a no-good drunk and they've got no money of their own. Joan Caulfield is decent as Matilda, but she's hindered by the very demure, naive and tender character of Matilda. This movie would be the final movie role for Michael North, and maybe for the best, he's a decent actor but he does come across a bit stiff and wooden here as Steven Howard who, surprise surprise, never really married Matilda after all.

'The Unsuspected' is above everything else, a murder-mystery movie. It does fall into noir territories, but doesn't have the grittiness usually associated with noir. At least not on the surface. Some of the characters here are extremely vile underneath the thin veneer of upper-class politeness tho, and the cinematography is very noir, as well as very stylish. I highly enjoyed this movie, and highly recommend it. Don't let the comparisons to 'Laura' hold you back, this is a fun movie!

I couldn't find a trailer for this movie, but the aforementioned blinking KILL scene will do just fine:

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Life At Stake (1954)

'A Life At Stake' seems to have been the love-child of its producer Hank McCune. He came up with the idea for the movie, which was then turned into a screenplay by Russ Bender, who worked primarily as an actor and did only a handful of screenplays. This might explain why the movie never really takes off and has cardboard characters. McCune also co-wrote a song used in the movie, together with Les Baxter who also handled the musical score. The movie was directed by Paul Guilfoyle who was an actor and as a director worked primarily on TV series and directed only 3 feature-length movies. The cinematography was handled by Ted Allan, this was his first of 3 movies working as a DoP.

The story: Edward Shaw (Keith Andes) is a struggling architect with a suspicious disposition after he lost his life savings in a bad business venture. So when he's asked about a partnership in a new company by Doris Hillman (Angela Lansbury), he's reluctant. She seems to be nothing more than the bored wife of a wealthy businessman who does nothing more than sit by the pool. It also doesn't help that she asks him to get a hefty life insurance, something her husband Gus Hillman (Douglass Dumbrille) insists upon, as he's putting up the starting capital for their company, a cool half million. But he's broke so he accepts. Naturally, as this is a noir, Shaw and Doris have a secret affair. But when Madge (Claudia Barrett), Doris' sister, tells him about Doris' first husband, who died under suspicious circumstances, and when Edward almost has a fatal accident seemingly caused by Doris' recklessness, he is convinced Doris and her husband are out to kill him and collect the $175,000 insurance money. But how can he find out whether their intentions are good or evil?

'A Life At Stake' was the 1st noir that Angela Lansbury starred in. Yes, she does have a small role in 1944's noir 'Gaslight' but she was not the star/main actress of that movie. The other noir she starred in, 1956's 'Please Murder Me' opposite Raymond Burr, is also far from a classic noir, but it's far more bearable than this movie. Lansbury just wasn't cut out to play the seductive femme fatale part. She doesn't have the looks or charisma to come off as a sultry, sensual woman. Lansbury's a fine actress, but the one-dimensional character she's given doesn't give her a lot to work with. Even so, Lansbury is the one small speck of light in this movie.

I had never heard of Keith Andes before watching this movie, and he's pretty unremarkable here, so it might be for good reason. Whether that is due to the bad script and cardboard characters as mentioned before or to his lack of acting chops, I don't know. But he's pretty mediocre here. The other main actors here will also not be remembered for their part in this movie.

All in all, the movie is fairly boring and just plods along, and offers nothing exciting visually either. By the time the finale is reached things do pick up a bit, but all emotional investment and engagement has long been thrown out of the window by then (or in this movie's case, out of a door which is conveniently placed right at a mountain ledge without a balustrade). A forgettable noir, which is only remembered, if that, because of Angela Lansbury's involvement and her future career.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Crime Wave (1954)

In 1954, several people involved with 1953's horror classic 'House Of Wax' were teamed up again for the film noir 'Crime Wave', which was also released under a different title, 'The City Is Dark'. Director André De Toth, cinematographer Bert Glennon, screenplay writer Crane Wilbur, composer David Buttolph, actress Phyllis Kirk and actor Charles Bronson (still working under his real name Charles Buchinsky at the time) among others, all worked again on 'Crime Wave'. Or maybe it's the other way around, apparently 'Crime Wave' was shot in 1952 and wasn't released until 1954. Either way, the team collaboration worked for 'House Of Wax' as well as for 'Crime Wave', which is a good and solid film noir. The story was adapted from the novel 'Criminal's Mark', written by John & Ward Hawkins, and (almost?) the entire movie was shot on location, including the shots inside the precinct, which wasn't exactly common at the time.

The story is as noir as it gets (minus the ubiquitous femme fatale) but also fairly commonplace, with the main character, Steve Lacy (Gene Nelson), caught between the strong arm of the law and a couple of criminals that force him to help them with a robbery. Steve Lacy is a San Quentin parolee, trying to straighten out his life. He's living together with his loving wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) and working as an aircraft mechanic. But due to a robbery that turned sour and a dead cop, San Quentin escapee Gat Morgan (Ned Young) ends up dead on Lacy's couch, who sees his new life fall apart quickly especially when detective lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden) is on to him. Sims leads the hunt for the copkiller, and he makes the connection with 3 San Quentin escapees, Morgan, Doc Penny (Ted De Corsia) and Ben Hastings (Charles Bronson) and that they might shack up at Lacy's cuz of knowing him from doing time together. But Lacy has more worries, as Doc Penny and Hastings also find their way to his apartment and take Ellen so they can extort Lacy into helping them out with a bank robbery.

The story is pure noir, and so is this movie. From start to finish, the movie moves at a steady pace without moving too fast or too slow. It's gripping and quite thrilling. The movie has a documentary style to it at times, especially in the earlier parts, which is also due to the shots that were taken at an actual police bureau, as well as the many shots of downtown Los Angeles. It is shot beautifully, both the day time as well as the nighttime shots, where shadows take on a life of their own. Very few of the shots look staged, giving the movie a very natural kind of look, whole still looking very noir, especially during the nighttime scenes.

Sterling Hayden is the standout actor here. His Sims is a tough, hardboiled cop who at one point explains his philosophy on criminals: 'Once a crook, always a crook', even though he eventually realizes Lacy is on the up-and-up. Due to his health, Sims has given up smoking and now chews toothpicks, by the dozen. With his tall frame, Hayden towers above everybody else, giving him even more of an authorative aura. There are a couple of great scenes inside the police bureau, including one where Sims walks around a room where several people are being questioned about the cop killing, with Sims looking down on the people, seeing right through them, while casually chewing on a toothpick. They show Sims as the natural king of the precinct, self-assured, confident and all-knowing.

Gene Nelson's Lacy seems like a lightweight compared to Hayden's Sims. Nelson is decent here, giving Lacy a soft edge but enough of a spine to stand up to Sims and not become his 'pet rat'. Lacy drives around in a spiffy 1930 Ford Model A Roadster, something which seemed a bit out of character for the Lacy as portrayed by Nelson, but who's complaining seeing a hot car like that make an appearance? I was least impressed with his part, and Phyllis Kirk just doesn't get a lot to do here either besides being 'the wife', which is a shame.

On the other side of the fence, Ted De Corsia and Charles Bronson are great as crooks. De Corsia was born to play these small-time ringleaders, and Bronson gives his character a playful air with a vicious mean streak. There's also a small but memorable part in this movie for the truly eccentric Timothy Carey as a crazy crook with some strange facial mannerisms, something he would become famous for.

There's also a veterinarian who makes a few appearances, a former doctor and also an ex-con, Otto Hessler, played by Jay Novello. He was convicted after a patient of his died, and he's grown into a resentful man since. He hates people and loves dogs. He has some memorable philosophical lines: 'People... They accept the love of a dog, and then when it gets old and sick, they say, "Put it to sleep." And do you know what they call it? Mercy. That's what they call it.'

Overall, 'Crime Wave' is an impressive noir which easily stands the test of time. It is beautiful visually and has pretty solid performances all around. I wouldn't call it a classic, but it definitely deserves more praise and recognition than it seems to get. Mandatory viewing if yer into noir.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Time Table (1956)

Is there such a thing as the perfect crime? Dozens, if not hundreds of movies have been made about people who thought they had found the plan for the perfect crime. 1956's film noir 'Time Table' is one such movie and it hits all the right spots, and we can thank Mark Stevens for that. Not only did Mark Stevens play the lead role in this movie, this movie was also directed by him and was made by his own production company, Mark Stevens Productions. Quite the busy man here! He didn't do everything however, Abel Kandel wrote the script for the movie, based on a story by Robert Angus, Charles Van Enger did the cinematography and Walter Scharf wrote the musical score.

The movie starts off with a  pretty clever heist. In this case a robbery executed on a moving train. Somebody feigns illness on a night train, a doctor who just happens to be on the train checks up on him and finds the patient has a contagious disease, so he orders the train car to be quarantined and the train to make an unscheduled stop at the next station to take the patient to a hospital. He also needs to get his medical bag from the baggage car. But his 'medical' tools consist of a gun, some syringes with a sedative to sedate the baggage car crew with and high-end explosives to blow the car's safe. The doctor, the patient and the patient's wife then drive off in an ambulance waiting at the platform, taking $500,000 taken from the safe with them. Because it's a night train, the robbery isn't discovered until the next scheduled stop a few hours later, and the robbers have of course vanished into thin air by then.

The railroad insurance agency is naturally keen to solve the robbery and retrieve the money. So they put their best man on the job, Charlie Norman (Mark Stevens), much to the chagrin of his wife Ruth (Marianne Stewart), as they were about to go on a vacation to Mexico. Norman's teamed up with his good friend Joe Armstrong (King Calder), who is a railroad detective. But the twist of this movie is that Norman already knows all about the robbery, as he is the mastermind behind it! But as always, there is no such thing as a perfect crime. And at no point in the movie is this made clearer than when Norman is leaning against a wall with a pictureframe mounted on it warning him: 'There is no such thing as a Perfect Crime'. You should've known better, Charlie Norman! Norman is having an affair with Linda Bruckner (Felicia Farr), who posed as the patient's wife. She's also the wife of Paul Bruckner (Wesley Addy), the doctor in the heist. Bruckner lost his license to practice due to drinking problems as well as an insurance claims scam he tried to pull a few years earlier, one which Norman investigated. The original plan for the 3 robbers was to escape to Mexico and meet up there with Norman, who was supposed to be on vacation there with his wife. But during the escape the 'patient' accidentally dies, messing with their plans and forcing them into hiding. Meanwhile Norman has to make sure Armstrong isn't getting any closer to solving the crime...

Mark Stevens liked keeping busy it seems, not just on this movie. He directed himself in a couple more movies including another noir, 1954's 'Cry Vengeance', and was also the producer on a TV show called 'Big Town', in which he also starred. And he was quite a talented and versatile actor. He played tough, hard-boiled men like in 'Time Table' as well as having singing roles in musicals such as 1947's 'I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now' (in that sense he reminds me of Dick Powell, except Powell was an A-list actor, Stevens wasn't). I have to say, he plays pretty well here and his directing is pretty spot-on as well, the movie moves along at a nice pace without really dull or rushed moments. He plays Norman well and you can see him becoming more and more stressed and agitated while trying to maintain his composure, as Norman's 'perfect' plan starts to fall apart.

Wesley Addy is another highlight of this movie in the role of Dr. Bruckner. Good performance and his natural charm and acting ability make him a credible doctor at the start of the movie, a calculating and precise robber during the heist and a drunk who's got no pride left and doesn't even care anymore about Norman's affair with his wife, and he is believable throughout the entire movie.

As mentioned, the movie moves along nicely, it is never breaking any new ground in any shape or form, but it is most certainly entertaining. It has some snappy dialogue, and overall good performances from the actors. Nobody will mistake this movie for a classic film noir, but it will most certainly please any film noir fan.