Wednesday, June 26, 2013

D.O.A. (1950)

Edmond O'Brien is one of my favorite actors when it comes to film noir, and 1950's 'D.O.A.' is one of the reasons why. It's a classic film noir with a very noir protagonist, a man who simply cannot escape his doomed fate. The movie was directed by Rudolph Maté, who was better known as a cinematographer ('Gilda', 'Foreign Correspondent'), this was one of the first movies he directed. Cinematography was handled by Ernest Laszlo (1951's 'M', 'Stalag 17'), the music was done by Dimitri Tiomkin ('I Confess', 'Dial M For Murder'). The story was written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, who worked together in different capacities on a number of movies, including noirs 'The Well', 'The Thief' and 'New York Confidential'.

The movie's opening scene is a noir classic. The camera follows a man from behind as he enters a large police building and walks down seemingly endless hallways, with the dramatic music's tempo almost in sync with his footsteps. He finally reaches his destination, room 44: homicide division. There he has a classic conversation with the chief:
'I want to report a murder.'
'Sit down... When was this murder committed?'
'San Francisco, last night.'
'Who was murdered?'
'I was.'
It is only until right before the last line is said that the camera shows the man's face. It is Edmond O'Brien. His name is Frank Bigelow, and he recounts to the policemen the story of how he was murdered and his investigation into the murderer's identity and reasons.

Bigelow is an accountant in a small town, who has a girlfriend, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but isn't too committed and he enjoys looking at other women (shown/heard in a rather awkward way by the sound of a wolfwhistle whenever he spots a nice-looking dame early on in the movie). He is going on a week-long vacation to San Francisco, without Paula. There he joins a group of people who are staying in the same hotel as he is, and they end up in a small bar. When he's trying to talk to a woman at the bar, somebody switches his drink. He remarks how the drink tastes funny, but thinks nothing of it. The next morning he doesn't feel too well, and decides to get checked up by a doctor. There he gets the rather unexpected news that he's dieing, he's got a week to live at most. Bigelow has 'luminous toxic matter' inside his body, a poison that affects his organs and for which there is no antidote. Understandably upset he runs off to a hospital, only to have the diagnosis confirmed. The doctor there even shows him a testtube filled with the luminous poison, apparently extracted from his body, and indeed, it lights up in the dark! The doctor wants to inform the homicide department because Bigelow does not know where he ingested it, and as the doctor explains: 'I don't think you understand, Bigelow. You've been murdered'. Since the poison's been in his system for 12 hours and there's a lot of alcohol in his system, somebody must've spiked a drink the night before. This doctor gives him a week at most. But Bigelow wants to find his killer before he dies, and why he needed to die, so he goes off in search of the truth on his own. His first stop, the bar from last night... And then there's also this mysterious man that kept calling his office profusely during his absence, who committed suicide soon after...

The movie hints at the nuclear/radioactive paranoia of the time by using a 'luminous poison' (it even lights up in the dark) and later on in the movie a bill of sale for a shipment of iridium shows up which turns out to be critical to the plot and Bigelow's fate. It's not a far stretch to think of radioactive iridium isotopes, but this angle is not as obvious though as in for instance 1955's 'Kiss Me Deadly'. Still, it seemed pretty deliberate to me.

The aforementioned wolf-whistles are a strange and awkward sound that appears in the first quarter of the movie. But they were possibly added to make a quite melodramatic scene near the end of the movie even more melodramatic, when Bigelow finally declares his love for Paula to her. Through his predicament, he discovers that Paula is indeed the woman he truly loves. It is by far the least interesting part of the movie to me. There is also a hoodlum later on in the movie played by Neville Brand, who comes off as a second-rate copy of a more memorable hoodlum like Tommy Udo from 'Kiss Of Death', Brands' character is more laughable than crazy and menacing really.

The rest of the movie is extremely entertaining however. O'Brien gives a great and intense performance here, as usual. Bigelow is a doomed man with nothing left to lose, so he doesn't care that he has to ask direct and painful questions to a woman about her husband who just committed suicide, which of course isn't a suicide at all. There is also the, fairly stereotypical, suave villain with the foreign accent, played here in competent manner by Luther Adler. His part isn't big enough to leave much of an impression however, the movie focuses squarely on Bigelow.

There are plenty of memorable scenes here. There is a beautifully shot scene where Bigelow faces his killer inside the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles. Also, after Bigelow hears about his inevitable death, he runs from the hospital, and the camera follows him as he runs across San Francisco, seemingly for miles. He finally collapses against a newpaper stand, which ironically just happens to sell a lot of Life magazines. There is also a cool and suspenseful stand-off between him and the killer, who is never seen in this scene, in an abandoned industrial complex (which oddly enough has a lively photo studio next to it).

All in all, 'D.O.A.' is indeed a noir classic, it starts off with a bang, then briefly turns into a weird slapstick-like piece but quickly changes back again to a tense noir once Bigelow gets the bad news. Highly recommended!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Black Glove (1954)

'The Black Glove' was a British noir-but-not-really-noir released by the famed Hammer Studios in 1954. Long-time Hammer director Terence Fisher directed, with Walter J. Harvey handling the cinematography and Kenny Baker and Ivor Slaney responsible for the musical score. The screenplay was written by Ernest Borneman, after his own novel 'Face The Music', which was also the title under which this movie was released in the UK. 'The Black Glove' was its name for the US release.

Alex Nicol ('The Screaming Skull', 'The Sleeping City') plays famous US trumpet player James 'Brad' Bradley, who's touring the UK. After the 1st show he ends up in a nightclub on the way back to the hotel, where he meets jazz singer Maxine Halbard (Ann Hanslip). They instantly connect and she invites him to her apartment for a late dinner and some innuendo talk, done in rhyme. The next morning, the police wake him up in his hotel bed. He's a suspect in the murder case of Maxine, as his trumpet case was found in her apartment, and she was found murdered around the same time as when he claims to have left her apartment. He tries to find out the truth about Maxine's death, and comes into contact with her sister Barbara Quigley (Eleanor Summerfield), famous pianist Jeff Colt (Arthur Lane), barpianist Johnny Sutherland (Paul Carpenter) and recording studio owner Maurie Green (Geoffrey Keen, a very familiar face in British 50s & 60s movies as well as several James Bond movies). There's also a mysterious LP in the middle of all this, with a recording of Maxine and Colt on it, except Colt denies having ever made that recording. Bradley has to make sense out of all of it to clear his name and find the real killer.

The movie is a pretty straight-forward murder-mystery, but does lack in tension. Bradley's neurotic manager Max 'Maxie' Margulies (John Salew) doesn't help much either, he was clearly created to provide some comic relief. Unfortunately it works against the movie, also with Bradley making light of the manager's schedule before leaving the hotel to investigate Maxine's murder several times in the movie. There is also a short scene where Bradley is trying out new trumpets to replace the one impounded by the police, that is supposed to be funny, but feels even more out of place here than Max's character. The movie does however have some interesting characters and good dialogue. Maxine and her sister Barbara are very different but both are witty and can handle themselves in a conversation, albeit in completely different ways. Despite Maxine having such a small part in the movie, I felt she was given a 3-dimensional character and her exchange in rhyme with Bradley was quite riveting and full of innuendo. Barbara is the tough-speaking girl with the soft inside, who has only a sliver of the singing talent that her sister had and who feels unloved and unwanted in general. Alex Nicol is pretty decent as James Bradley, also when he's playing trumpet. But his character jumps too much between a tough, determined character and a more lighthearted character, specifically in his exchanges with his manager, which makes him seem less desperate than he ought to be.

Visually things are pretty straight-forward as well, there are only a few interesting shots and very little was done to add a dark, moody atmosphere to the various sets. There are a couple of shots taken from the point of view of Bradley, specifically when he's perusing through an addressbook. To make it more 'lifelike', there's a fluttering going on during these shots, as if Bradley/the viewer is blinking their eyes. I suppose it was done to look clever and smart, but it comes off looking like there's something wrong with the reel.

The music has a jazzy big band feel to it, and the main musical theme of the movie is quite nice. Kenny Baker wrote that theme and he is also seen alongside Bradley as the band leader during the scenes where Bradley performs in the Palladium theater.

This movie is included on VCI's Hammer Noir DVD series but, as with more of these movies, the movie lacks any real noir elements. It is still an entertaining murder-mystery however with an innocent man trying to prove his innocence and solve the murder. I prefer this one over the previous Hammer 'noir' I reviewed, 'Terror Street'/'36 Hours', mostly due to Nicol's performance and the interesting characters. All in all a decent movie, but marred by a lack of tension and out-of-place comic relief.

I couldn't find a trailer for this movie, but here's the scene in which James Bradley meets Maxine Halbard:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Val Lewton was a well-known B-movie horror producer ('The Body Snatcher', 'Cat People'). And 'The Seventh Victim' can easily be lumped into that category, especially because one of the characters from 'Cat People' makes another appearance here, played by the same actor (Dr. Louis Judd, played by Tom Conway). But really, his 'horror' productions were creepy, psychological and atmospheric rather than explicit. This certainly rings true for 'The Seventh Victim' which is not only creepy and atmospheric but also has a sinister gothic/noir feel to it, with perhaps one of the darkest and bleakest endings of all 40s movies. Apparently the screenplay of the movie was written by Charles O'Neal and DeWitt Bodeen based on the title alone. This was the first movie that Mark Robson ('Champion', 'Edge Of Doom') directed, with Nicolas Musuraca ('Stranger On The Third Floor', 'Out Of The Past') doing the cinematography and Roy Webb ('Notorious', 'Out Of The Past') responsible for the musical score.

Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter in her first movie) is a student at a private school paid for by her sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks). When her tuition hasn't been paid in a while and her sister's whereabouts are unknown, she's forced to leave the school and go in search of her sister, who lives in New York City. Her sister ran a cosmetics salon/company, but when Mary visits it, she finds out the manager, Esther Redi (Mary Newton), has bought it from her sister, which later on turns out to be a lie, her sister gave it to her. Through visiting the Italian restaurant where Jacqueline rents a room from Mary comes into contact with several persons who are somehow connected to Jacqueline, including her estranged husband Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont), her psychiatrist Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) and a poet who also rents a room there, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage). Eventually she does find Jacqueline, but also the Palladists, a secret satanic society/cult that Jacqueline was a member of, as well as Mrs. Redi. After Jacqueline spoke about them to Dr. Judd, which goes against their rules and is punishable by death, she had to go into hiding, but they're still after her.

This is a very dark and sinister movie which addresses, especially for 1943, controversial subject matter like suicide, self-determination, depression/psychiatric illnesses and satanic cults and manages to do so in a surprisingly thoughtful and respectful manner. The movie is very layered, both visually and in subject matter, and thought-provoking. It also has complex and a-stereotypical characters. Who would have thought that in a 'horror' movie from 1943 a cult of satanists would be portrayed as a group of civilized, well-mannered and eloquent people who have taken a vow of non-violence? Mind you, if they wish death on you, as they do on Jacqueline, they use their powers of persuasion, which leads up to a very eerie scene where they're trying to talk her into drinking poisonous wine, and later on to getting an assassin to do the dirty work for them, in again a creepy chase scene down dark alleyways.

Visually the movie is strikingly well done, especially in the more tense scenes, the environment and the use of shadows really adds to the atmosphere. It is here, as well as in Jacqueline, that the noir-ness of this movie really shines. Film noir is not just about femmes fatales and contrast-rich/chiaroscuro lighting, it is also about human nature and doomed protagonists/anti-heroes. And Jacqueline is doomed, not so much by outside influences, but because of her own mind/emotions. There are also scenes that would probably have been quite stunning and shocking in 1943. For instance when Mary first enters Jacqueline's room, only to find a chair with a hangman's noose hanging above it. Dr. Judd even explains to Mary a bit later how that room with the noose made Jacqueline happy somehow. And I will not divulge the end of this movie, but it is a real shocker, even today, and I have no idea how it got past the Hays production code that was in effect at the time. It is a beautifully done, incredibly dark and thought-provoking ending however. Then there's a (non-lethal) shower scene that predates Psycho's famed shower scene by over 15 years, an eerie subway ride, and so on.

Jacqueline herself not only stands out visually with her pale skin, striking raven-black hair, and her unusually lethargic demeanor, but also with her state of mind. She seems to carry a hefty load of melancholy on her frail shoulders, but it is made clear that she has severe psychiatric issues and struggles with suicidal tendencies. Mary on the other hand couldn't be more different. As her name suggests, she's very innocent and virgin-like, almost naive. It is a huge contrast.

'The Seventh Victim' starts and ends with a quote from one of John Dunne's Holy Sonnets: 'I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday' and this dark poetic feeling runs throughout this movie. Val Lewton once said that this movie's message was 'Death is good', that is how dark this movie was meant to be, and has indeed turned out to be. Recommended viewing for a late night. It might not frighten you, but it will almost certainly leave an impression and make you think about it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Terror Street (1953)

In the early 50's, US producer Robert L. Lippert struck a deal with UK-based Hammer Films to produce movies in the UK, using US lead actors and a UK cast & crew. These movies would be released in the UK and the US under different titles, in this case, the movie was released as 'Terror Street' Stateside (also the title under which I watched it) and as the more appropriate title '36 Hours' in the UK. I prefer the UK title in this case, as 'Terror Street' makes little sense in regards to the story, and the movie takes place over a period of 36 hours.

'Terror Street'/'36 Hours' was directed by Montgomery Tully ('The Counterfeit Plan') after a story and screenplay by Steve Fisher ('Dead Reckoning', 'I Wake Up Screaming', 'Lady In The Lake'). Cinematography was done by Walter Harvey and the musical score was done by Ivor Slaney, who both worked for Hammer Studios at the time.

Dan Duryea plays US air force pilot Bill Rogers, who was stationed in the UK during World War II. After the war, Rogers settled down with his Norwegian wife Katherine (Swedish actress Elsy Albiin) in London, but he's been stationed in the US on a training assignment for the past year. At the start of the movie he's hitched a flight back to the UK without permission to see his wife, and needs to catch a flight back to the US within 36 hours so he doesn't get reported as AWOL and face a court martial. In his absence however, his wife has been lured into a diamond-smuggling racket by customs intelligence officer Orville Hart (John Chandos), but she wants out. Hart kills Katherine the evening of Rogers' return and frames him for it. Rogers flees the murder scene and ends up in the apartment of mission sister Jenny Miller (Gudrun Ure) who believes his story about being innocent and together they try to unravel the murder, before he has to return to the States. Over the course of (less than) 36 hours, he learns a lot more about what his wife had been up to while he was away, and everything it entailed including the smugglers, blackmail, a secret admirer of his wife, and especially Orville Hart's involvement in it all.

The movie is very light on the noir elements overall. There are a few nighttime scenes that are filmed with some noir lighting, wet cobblestone streets, stark shadows, piercing lights. Also the final scene in the basement of an antique dealer has a noir feel to it, especially during a fight with a swinging light providing some nice visuals. The main noir element here is Bill Rogers, who is basically a desperate and innocent man, being framed for his wife's murder, while in a foreign country. He does find a companion in Jenny but ultimately is on his own, trying to clear his name as well as find the murderer of his wife. Dan Duryea had appeared in a number of noirs before, including 'Scarlet Street' and 'Too Late For Tears', portraying mostly shady, sleazy characters so this was quite a change for him, but his performance is too flat for the character. He is decent as the lone man on the run, but at times he seems too calm, too emotionless, as if he's got all the time in the world and everything's peachy. It didn't work for me.

The best parts of the movie, to me, were John Chandos as the slimey Orville Hart and especially Gudrun Ure as Jenny. She was using the stage name Ann Gudrun at that time to help her new film career, this was her first motion picture after she'd been a theater actress. Ure does a great job and despite her small frame, makes Jenny come across as a very strong woman who can stand her ground but is also compassionate and empathic. I really liked her performance here. She would gain fame much later in life in the UK and some parts of Europe as she starred as Super Gran, a popular British kids TV show of the same name in the mid 80s. There is also a small but good part for Eric Pohlmann as a smuggler/antiques dealer, who played in a few more Hammer noirs such as 'The Glass Cage' but also did the voice of Ernst Blofeld in 2 James Bond movies (but he was never the face of Blofeld).

This is more of a straight-forward innocent-man-on-the-run thriller than anything else. And it is half-decent at that, the movie doesn't hold interest enough throughout and at no point does it really give a sense of urgency to Rogers' predicament. Hammer noir's tend to be relatively light on the noir side, and this is not one of the better movies that Hammer Studios produced I'm afraid to say. It's okay enough to waste under an hour and a half with on a rainy evening, but don't expect greatness.