Friday, August 23, 2013

The Chase (1946)

'The Chase' from 1946 is one of several films noirs based on Cornell Woolrich stories, in this case on his novel 'The Black Path Of Fear'. Other films noirs based on his work include 'Deadline At Dawn', 'Black Angel' and 'No Man Of Her Own'. For 'The Chase', Philip Yordan turned the novel into a screenplay. Arthur Ripley directed this movie, he did most of his work, as a director but especially as a screenwriter, in the 20s and 30s. The music was done by Michel Michelet ('Impact', 1951's 'M') and cinematography was handled by Frank Planer ('Criss Cross', 'Champion'), one of the many moviemakers who fled Germany after Hitler came to power and brought the German expressionist movement to Hollywood, which was a major influence on the look and feel of film noir in general.

The rest of this review reveals and discusses the main plot twist of this movie, because it's almost impossible to discuss this unique movie without doing so. Please keep that in mind.

Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings, 'Dial M For Murder', 'The Accused') is a Navy veteran in Florida who's down on his luck, out of a job and out of money. One morning he finds a wallet loaded with money lying on the pavement. After buying himself a big breakfast he returns the wallet to its owner, gangster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran, 'White Heat', Private Hell 36') who lives in a mansion together with his wife Lorna (Michèle Morgan, 'Passage To Marseille', 'The Fallen Idol') and his side-kick/business associate, the slimy Gino (Peter Lorre, 'M', 'The Maltese Falcon'). Roman appreciates Scott's honesty and hires him as his new chauffeur. Chuck also becomes Lorna's chauffeur for evening trips, usually to the seaside. Lorna is unhappy in her marriage to the violent & ruthless Eddie, and she dreams of escaping to Havana. She asks Chuck if he can help her, and he accepts, as they've slowly grown closer and closer. The next morning, he buys them tickets and in the evening they board the ship to Havana. On the boat they finally admit their feelings for each other. In Havana they end up in a busy nightclub, but it is there that Lorna dies in Chuck's arms with a knife in her back. Nobody saw who did it, and Chuck is interrogated. When Chuck explains he bought a similar, but slightly different, knife that same day, he becomes the police's only suspect, even more so when the shopkeeper confirms he bought the knife that killed Lorna. Chuck manages to escape from the police however, but when he backtracks to the shopkeeper's place later that night, Gino is there, they were on to Lorna and Chuck the entire time! Chuck's been framed for Lorna's murder, and even worse, Gino spots Chuck and kills him... And then Chuck wakes up from a feverish nightmare, it's still the afternoon after he bought the tickets to Havana, he's dizzy and nauseous and doesn't know why he's wearing a chauffeur's uniform or why he's in a room next to the mansion's garage. The whole trip to Havana was nothing but a dream, one which Chuck can't remember either. Chuck calls his Navy shrink, Commander Davidson (Jack Holt) and goes over to see him. Davidson realizes Chuck has had another bout of 'anxiety neurosis' which he suffered from during his time in the Navy and takes him to a bar to have a drink and calm down. There Chuck slowly puts together the pieces of the puzzle and makes his way to the mansion to pick up Lorna to go to Havana after all. But Roman and Gino, sitting in the same club as where Davidson and Chuck are, are made aware of Lorna & Chuck's plans by sheer coincidence and drive off to the harbor to stop them...

The plot of the movie contains the major, and highly unexpected, twist of the whole escape to Havana which culminates in the deaths of both Lorna and Chuck being nothing more than a dream sequence. It turns the movie upside-down, from a fairly straight-forward noir thriller about Chuck and Lorna trying to escape from Eddie Roman's crooked ways with them eventually ending up dead, to a weird amnesia-like noir where Chuck might or might not relive/escape the events in Havana once again. It is a weird, but very intriguing twist, but not exactly the only crazy thing about this movie. Another unique thing is Eddie Roman's car, which has a James Bond-like gadget: it has an extra set of pedals fitted in front of the backseat, so Eddie can take over and control the speed of the car. It provides for a memorable scene where Eddie tests Chuck's nerves, as well as Gino's, trying to overtake a speeding train. Yet another unusual aspect of this movie is the use of repetition, which happens not just with the whole escape to Havana plot which Chuck is set to relive again after waking up. The scene with Eddie taking over the car controls occurs again near the end of the movie, using similar camera angles to emphasize the repetition element. And when Chuck first arrives at the mansion to return Eddie's wallet, Chuck has the exact same conversation twice to the person peering through the door's spyhole, first to the servant, and then to Gino.

While Robert Cummings is better known for playing in more lighthearted movies, he does okay here, although he's a bit bland here as Chuck. Michèle Morgan doesn't convince all that much either as Lorna, she's beautiful but too much of a demure wallflower for me to see how Eddie Roman ever fell for her, nor does she come off as sultry, even though it's clear she's supposed to. Morgan was a far more successful actress in her native France than in the USA, this was the last movie she did in the USA. To her credit, she has only the slightest foreign accent in this movie.

Per usual, the villains are the more interesting, and in this case also convincing, characters of this movie. Steve Cochran as Eddie Roman is suave but ruthless and violent. The first time he makes an entrance in the movie he verbally abuses 2 women, a barber and a manicurist, and when the manicurist accidentally scratches his finger, because he moved but she didn't, he gives her a vicious slap around her face. Later on in the movie he demands some perks from a wealthy businessman, and when the man declines, Roman casually invites the man into his wine cellar where the unsuspecting man dies a gruesome death when Roman's huge and beastly dog is set loose on him. Gino is equally callous and ruthless but is much slimier, something Peter Lorre excelled at. His role is pretty small here, but he has a few good oneliners and the typical cigarette dangling from his lips, and Lorre is always a treat in noirs. The relationship between Cochran and Gino is never fully explained in the movie, but it is clear that Cochran is closer to Gino than he is to Lorna, who he sees more as property than as a real person.

The movie, despite being weird and unique in places, is also dark and pure noir. Lorna is the femme fatale here, and the plotlines are as noir as they come. Visually it's also pure noir, there are tons of looming shadows, providing an ominous atmosphere throughout the movie, especially during the dream sequence in Havana. And the use of repetition, sometimes down to using the same camera angles or dialogue as mentioned before, gives the movie an even more creepy & dreamlike atmosphere than the dream sequence already does. The camera and lighting work is well done, with a few great shots and even some nice tracking shots, especially in the nightclub in Havana.

The movie's story is really good and quite clever and the weird aspects of it make it a pretty unique movie. But while Cochran and Lorre are good and convincing, Morgan and especially Cummings are a bit too lightweight to take this movie to the next level. So it's a bit of a frustrating movie as well, because it is also clear this movie had potential to be a lot mmore, with better actors for the protagonists and maybe some more work on the camera work. It's still a good and enjoyable film noir tho, and pretty unique. After re-watching it again I started to appreciate and see the quirkiness and small clues about the dream sequence much more. Definitely one to watch if you're a noir aficionado.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

In A Lonely Place (1950)

1950 was an amazing year for film noir. A number of great noirs, including some genuine classics, were released that year: 'Sunset Boulevard', 'D.O.A.', 'The Asphalt Jungle', 'No Way Out', 'Night And The City', 'Where The Sidewalk Ends' and so on. Another noir classic from that year is 'In A Lonely Place'. It was directed by Nicholas Ray ('Knock On Any Door', 'Rebel Without A Cause'), with cinematography by Burnett Guffey ('Johnny O'Clock', 'Nightfall') and music by George Antheil ('Knock On Any Door', 'The Sniper'). The story was based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, which was adapted by Edmund H. North and turned into a screenplay by Andrew Solt.

Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter who hasn't produced a decent screenplay in a decade, also due to having served in the US army during WWII. One evening his agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith, 'Quicksand') gives him a mediocre, but best-selling, book to read, so he can turn it into a screenplay. Steele is not exactly interested and takes hatcheck girl Mildred (Martha Stewart) home with him, who just finished the novel and is raving about it. He wants her to give him a summary, and sends her home afterwards. The next morning he's woken up by his old army friend Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy, 'The Hitch-Hiker'), who's now a detective. Mildred was found murdered, strangled and then thrown from a moving car. Steele is suspect #1, at least for police captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid, 'Convicted'), as he's the last person to have seen Mildred and he has a long list of assault charges indicating a violent disposition. At the police station Steele shows very little interest or remorse for the murdered girl, but his new neighbor and actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, 'Crossfire') gives him an alibi as she saw Mildred leave his apartment. Steele and Laurel fall for each other, hard. But Steele treats the murder almost like a joke, never really denying his involvement, and Laurel is feeling more and more doubts about Steele's innocence as time passes by, also because Dixon Steele has a volatile personality that can turn to violent rage in a matter of seconds.

The movie acts out in 2 halves, the first half is more concerned with Dixon Steele and his possible involvement in the murder, in the second half the murder takes a bit of a backseat and this part is more concerned with Laurel, as the romance between Dix and Laurel intensifies and she sees more and more of Dix's dark side and starts to doubt his innocence, or at least her own feelings about his possible involvement. The movie ends with a dramatic, intense and moving finale that is an acting tour-de-force. Those who say film noir and romance don't mix, need to see this movie.

The movie title reflects Dixon Steele's position in life, he's in a lonely place, created by his own persona. He's intensely cynical, moody, defiant (even when there's no reason for it) and seemingly always ready to burst out in anger and rage. The police records on charges filed against him for assaults and fights only speak against him. But despite being unlikeable and hard to deal with he also has a loyal side to him. In his own way he's also a rebel without a cause (Nicholas Ray pun intended). Steele doesn't deal well with stress and frustration, he lashes out and takes it out on anybody who happens to be in his vicinity. Steele has plenty of demons within, and is not afraid to let them out every so often. But he also sees Laurel as his last shot at a real relationship, a shot at redemption, which also makes him feel obsessive over her. Bogart, who shared a number of Steele's traits in real life, is perfect here, as the deeply flawed Dixon Steele who you should dislike and even hate but who you still care for, because there's a glimmer of humanity inside him, and his love for Laurel is so genuine.

Gloria Grahame is amazing as Laurel Gray, I might even prefer her performance here over Bogey's. Grahame was able to convey her beauty in sleazy ways like in 'Crossfire' (which earned her an Oscar nomination) and 'The Big Heat' as well as in classy ways like here, and she was a very gifted actress, more so than she's usually given credit for. Bogart, naturally, wanted his wife Lauren Bacall for the part of Laurel Gray but Warner wouldn't lend her out for the movie. But Grahame's own failing marriage at the time with director Nicholas Ray ended up giving her performance a very real and personal edge that shines through. Laurel's background story of her previous relationship isn't given a lot of attention, but enough so to make her character vulnerable despite her quick-witted remarks and general confident and very classy demeanor. Suffice it to say, Bogart and Grahame have incredible chemistry in this movie and their romance is as real and alive as any classic cinematic romance.

Steele makes a very good point in the movie when Laurel and him talk about a love scene he's written and he remarks how it is such a good scene because it is clear the two characters love each other without having the need to say 'I love you' constantly, comparing it to him preparing breakfast for them while she's sitting there half-asleep, claiming anybody can see they're in love. It is touching because of the lack of 'I love you's, not despite it. He's also written a few sentences for the screenplay that sum up their romance, and thus the movie as a whole, very succinctly: 
I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

The cast does a stellar job throughout really, every character has a distinctive personality, and the actors are all doing a great job. Aside from the already mentioned characters, there's a small but memorable part for Robert Warwick as the almost forgotten actor-turned-drunkard Charlie Waterman, one of the very few people that Dixon Steele does not feel any contempt for. Steele jokingly, and lovingly, refers to him as 'thespian'. Which had a connection to real life as well, Bogart had the part of Waterman written specifically for Warwick, who helped Bogart out during his early years on the stage, well before his movie career.

Visually the movie is less noir and heavy on shadows than more traditional noirs, but it is used more subtly here to show the darkness in Steele. In one scene Steele is having dinner at Brub's place and has Brub and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) act out the way Steele envisions the way the murder happened. The light that falls on his face changes subtly in this scene to highlight his manic eyes as he gets wrapped up more and more in the scenario. He keeps telling Brub to squeeze harder, almost choking Sylvia, while he watches on with clear glee and excitement. Similarly, in other scenes where Steele shows his dark side, the light becomes a touch more contrast rich, changing the overall mood of the scene together with Steele's changing mood.

'In A Lonely Place' is a truly great movie, one that lingers on inside your head for a long time. It is a noir about the darkness of the soul, not the darkness of a criminal's soul but that of a damaged individual, who has a good heart, but one which might be damaged beyond repair. A must-see movie.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dear Murderer (1947)

1947's 'Dear Murderer' is a great British noir thriller. It was directed by Arthur Crabtree with cinematography by Stephen Dade and music by Ben Frankel. The screenplay was co-written by Muriel & Sydney Box and Peter Rogers based on a play by John Legh Clowes.

Lee Warren (Eric Portman) is in New York for over half a year on a business trip, and he made his wife Vivien (Greta Gynt) promise to write him a letter every day. She's been unfaithful to him in the past so when letters start arriving erratically and eventually no longer arrive he grows suspicious. One night in a bar he sees a picture of his wife and one Richard Fenton (Dennis Price) in a tabloid-like magazine. He puts two and two together, and returns back home without telling Vivien, with murder on his mind. When he gets back home, Vivien is out, and he finds a stack of cards signed 'Love always, Richard' in her desk. He goes over to Fenton's place and confronts him. After making Fenton write a suicide note, he kills Fenton and organizes things so it does indeed look like a suicide. But as he's about to leave, Vivien and her new lover Jimmy Martin (Maxwell Reed) pay Fenton a visit for a drink. Warren hides in the kitchen with the dead body, as he waits for Vivien and Martin to leave, who have a quick drink and leave again. Warren can't resist the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, and re-organizes things, framing Martin for the murder of Fenton. Fenton's sister Avis (Hazel Court), Martin's former girlfriend, doesn't believe Fenton's suicide note and inspector Penbury (Jack Warner) also senses something fishy is going on, but after his assistant sergeant Fox (Andrew Crawford) finds a damning piece of evidence in Martin's car, Martin is arrested. Vivien realizes what Lee has done and promises to stay faithful if Lee will clear Martin's name. Lee comes up with an inventive story of how he followed Vivien and Martin that fateful night and arranged Fenton's suicide to look like a murder committed by Martin, to get rid of him. Penbury doesn't believe it and is now convinced Lee is responsible, but he has no evidence to back him up. But Lee isn't off the hook, as Vivien has a few tricks up her sleeve as well.

'Dear Murderer' boasts a very dense & twisty plot, which is executed in a very tight and effective manner, with very few filler scenes. It is similar to 'The Unsuspected' in many ways, it also takes places in relatively upper class circles, the main character is a polite, extremely clever and witty but ruthlessly calculated killer, there is a devious woman with an agenda of her own, and a lot of the fun of watching this movie comes from the sparks that fly off the razorsharp, yet civilized, dialogue and the seemingly clever murderous plans and the ensuing twists. There is also a lot of very black humor sprinkled throughout the dialogue in this movie. As this is a fully British movie, the hard-boiled dialogue of US crime/noirs of that era has appropriately been replaced by posh dialogue with a British accent with an almost innocent-sounding matter-of-factliness to the words, which hides the malice under a thin layer of polite veneer. When Warren holds Fenton at gunpoint and tells him to go lie on the sofa, he tells him he has 15 seconds to do so, despite the sofa being about a meter away from Fenton. I love this weird type of polite maliciousness, but I can also see how somebody else might just see it as contrived and ridiculous.

Eric Portman is perfect as Lee Warren, he's icingly charming and extremely polite even when he insults people, yet it is clear he is a ruthless and calculated killer. He is also extremely possessive and jealous, at no point during the movie does he seem to really love Vivien, but they're married so she's his property. Greta Gynt is equally impressive as Vivien, and is also equally unlikeable with her vile ways, and you almost feel like they deserve each other. They maintain their 'loving' image towards Penbury, but you can see and tell they loathe each other. I can see how some people find it unpleasant to watch such vile creatures as the main characters of a movie, but I thoroughly enjoy it, especially because they're so 'civilized' and 'polite', it makes for a very nice contrast, emphasizing their true natures.

The other actors do a pretty good job too, although they are less interesting as they are given less personality to work with, and let's be honest, the villains are almost always more interesting to watch. The exchange between Warren and Fenton however during Fenton's final night, is quite nice. Fenton's a barrister, a lawyer, and he is a typical stiff upperlip Englishman, polite through and through. Coupled with Warren's need to detail his 'perfect crime' plan on how to kill Fenton to him to see if Fenton can find a hole in it, it makes for a very exciting first third of the movie.

The scene where Warren goes to Penbury and explains to him how he intentionally tried to frame Fenton's suicide as a murder committed by Martin, is done in a wonderful manner. Warren is so quick with his mind, and clever, that during the course of this movie he's able to fairly convincingly turn Fenton's murder into a suicide, then into a murder committed by somebody else, and then back into a suicide again. It is to the credit of the screenplay (and ultimately the original play) that everything comes off fairly believable.

Visually the movie feels a bit cramped, due to the confined spaces where most of the movie takes place in, which is further aided by the dark shadows, when someone enters a unlit room during nighttime, it is indeed dark, not semi-lit by offscreen lights. It helps make this movie feel claustrophobic and adds tension and suspense. Also, as is not uncommon in noirs, when lights do get turned on, they only manage to light up a part of the room, leaving other parts still obscured.

Near the end of the movie, Lee says to his wife 'I don't like putting things on paper, you never know what people will make of it afterwards.' which bookends the start and end of this movie perfectly with an ironic twist of events, or a reversal of fortune if you will. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie with its witty posh dialogue, clever story and some truly nasty characters. Highly recommended!