Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Street Of Shadows (1953)

'Street Of Shadows' is a British noir-ish movie from 1953, one of many churned out by UK crews but with American leads. Originally produced by Nassour Studios, it was subsequently bought by Lippert Productions, who co-produced a ton of these cheap programmers in the UK, and who released it Stateside as 'Shadow Man'. According to VCI, who included this movie in its 'Forgotten Noir' series, the US version runs 7 minutes shorter than the original UK version, but they included the UK version on the DVD, complete with the 'Street Of Shadows' title card in the movie, while using the 'Shadow Man' title on the DVD jacket, possibly for the same reason as there being a 'Shadow Man' poster to the left, I couldn't find any sort of poster for 'Street Of Shadows'.

The movie was directed by Richard Vernon, who also wrote the screenplay based on a novel called 'The Creaking Chair' by Laurence Meynell. This was Vernon's only writing and directing effort, but he did (co-)produce 1940's 'Gaslight' and 1948's 'Kiss The Blood Off My Hands'. Cinematography was done by Phil Grindrod and music was done by Eric Spear, they both worked on a lot of these low-budget crime flicks. In this case, they did a pretty good job.

The aforementioned American lead here is Cesar Romero, who plays Luigi, the owner of a 'pin-table saloon', which is a mix between a penny arcade and a dance club, helped by his loyal aid 'Limpy' (Victor Maddern), who does indeed have a limp. One night, Luigi and Limpy bump into Luigi's ex Angele Abbé (Simone Silva) who is being harassed by a sailor. Luigi interferes and KO's the sailor. The police visit his saloon later that night, warning him to keep his hands to himself, he's got a bit of a toughguy reputation and they'll close his saloon sooner rather than later should he get into a fight again. That same night unhappily married socialite Barbara Gale (Kay Kendall) visits his saloon with a bunch of her friends, and Luigi and Kay connect. They have no time to enjoy the still burgeoning sparks however, as soon afterwards Luigi comes home to find Angele sprawled on a rug in his living room, stabbed to death, after he sees Barbara running away and finding one of her gloves on his doorstep. Not knowing what to make of it or what to do, he tries to get rid of the body by dumping it elsewhere, but he accidentally leaves his front door open, attracting the attention of a patrolling streetcop, who discovers the bloody knife and rug. Luigi gets Limpy to get his car and together they take off with Angele's body, only to be picked up by the police in quick fashion, led by inspector Johnstone (Edward Underdown). During a brief interrogation, Luigi manages to escape and he goes underground in search of the real murderer, as he cannot believe Barbara had anything to do with it, and he's wanted for a murder he did not commit.

The main storyline of Angele's murder and Luigi's hunt for the murderer is pretty straight-forward and dare I say it, pretty average (the identity of the murderer can hardly be called a surprise, I'm sure most readers will be able to guess who it is without even seeing the movie). So it helps that there a few side stories woven into the larger story. There's Luigi's affair with Barbara, the unhappily married wife of Gerald Gale (John Penrose), who is gambling away their money. And Limpy has his own storyline as well, his limp prevents him from finding a girlfriend, something he desperately wants, so he sees any female smile thrown his way as a sign of potential love. What doesn't help is that none of the storylines introduce too many likely candidates for the murderer, despite using over half of its running time to establish the characters and relationships. Gerald and his shady, and arrogant, friends aren't the friendliest bunch of people and while Gerald suspects there is something between his wife and Luigi, suggesting a hint of possible involvement on their part, it's too weak to really be considered, leaving only a couple of suspects.

But quite frankly, the plot or the 'mystery' is not where this movie shines. The stand-out feature of this movie is the soundtrack, which features a lot of harmonica, played by Tommy Reilly, and it gives the movie a very different feel, which works in favor of the movie. The harmonica played theme of the movie was actually good enough to warrant being released on record and even as sheet music. I doubt a lot of other B-noirs can say the same. While it's not as quirky, let alone iconic, as the zither music of 'The Third Man', it does give this movie a fairly peculiar and unique feel. There is also a rather massive jukebox which plays an important role in this movie, providing the blaring soundtrack for some nightmarish scenes. Soundwise this movie is exceptionally well-done given its low budget and obscurity.

The main actors also help elevate this movie to a higher level. Not that there are Oscar-worthy performances here, but Cesar Romero, Kay Kendall and especially Victor Maddern are quite solid here. Romero had already done another British 'noir' called 'Scotland Yard Inspector'/'Lady In The Fog' the year before, as many US actors who weren't in the top-echelon or had a declining career travelled to the UK to star in what were otherwise completely British movies. Romero, who had a long and varied career, would become most well-known for his portrayal as The Joker in the 60s Batman series. Maddern is the standout actor here, he gives Limpy a well-rounded and multi-faceted character, loyal and friendly towards Luigi and the locals, crude towards strangers, especially when they dare call him Limpy, and naive in his attitude towards women. If this movie had been shot in the US 10 years earlier, no doubt Elisha Cook Jr. would've played Limpy, Limpy is the sort of sucker that Cook could play to perfection while asleep.

Kay Kendall also played in a couple of these types of movies opposite US leads, like 'Wings Of Danger'/'Danger On Course' opposite Zachary Scott and 'Mantrap'/'Man In Hiding' opposite Paul Henreid. She was a beautiful and dignified actress and she's perfect for her role, and she could really act. Almost the same can be said for Simone Silva, who had the right look to play the promiscuous and sleazy Angele, except her acting abilities didn't quite match Kendall's, to put it mildly. Both women died at an early age unfortunately, Kendall in 1959 at the age of 32 from leukaemia, and Silva in 1957 at the age of 29 from a stroke. Silva would gain a lot of publicity and notoriety in 1954 when she took off her top while doing a photo shoot with Robert Mitchum at the Cannes film festival, but it didn't do much for her career.

The scenes in the pinball saloon are quite nice. The place has a threatening and claustrophobic feel to it, even when it's fully lighted and filled with people, due to the cornucopia of machines like a maniacal laughing sailor machine, a guitar playing and fortune telling robotic monkey and the jukebox, but once the place is closed and the lights are off, it becomes a very dark, shadow filled and noir place. The narrow streets which are almost like tunnels with its pitch-black shadows also help give this movie a distinct noir feel, even if the plot doesn't.

All in all, at 80+ minutes 'Street Of Shadows'/'Shadow Man' is an above-average movie which is not pure noir, but pushes enough of the noir buttons to provide a fun evening of movie watching. It really should not be a 'forgotten noir', despite being labelled like that. It's worth checking out.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Clay Pigeon (1949)

40s & 50s B movies (movies made for the lower end of double bills) and film noir go together exceptionally well, sometimes even resulting in genuine classic noirs like 'D.O.A.'. And while 'The Clay Pigeon' from 1949 is not a classic by any means, it is still a pretty good and entertaining movie that was made for the lower end. Apparently based on a true story, this noir was directed by Richard Fleischer who directed about half a dozen noirs at RKO, probably the best late 40s/early 50s studio for B noirs, including this one. Carl Foreman (Oscar-winner for 'The Bridge Over The River Kwai' but only receiving it in 1984, because of being blacklisted at the time) wrote the story, Robert De Grasse ('Bodyguard', 'Follow Me Quietly') did the cinematography and Paul Sawtell ('Raw Deal', 'Bodyguard' and over 300 other movies!) did the score.

This is one of the many amnesia noirs, and an above-average one at that. After being a in a coma for 2 years, Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams, 'Deadline At Dawn') wakes up in a naval hospital with 2 hands gripping around his neck. The hands belong to a blind man, and are pulled off him by a nurse who gives him a disgusted stare, and the guy calls him a traitor, but he has no idea why. A few minutes later he overhears the nurse having a conversation with a doctor, and again he's called a traitor, and that he'll be up for court-martial soon. To his astonishment, because while Fletcher knows who he is, he has no recollection of why he's in the hospital, let alone why he's about to stand trial. Not willing to go down that easily, he escapes from the hospital in search of his memory and the truth. His last memories include being held as a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp, and he goes in search of one of his army buddies, Mark Gregory, who was also with him in that camp, only to find Mark's widow Martha (Barbara Hale, 'The Window'). There he reads about his escape from the naval hospital and the torture killing of Mark in the newspaper, for which he is wanted. He contacts another buddy from the POW camp, Ted Niles (Richard Quine), who tells him he ratted out Mark and some others to the Japanese guards for stealing food, causing Mark's death as a result, something he can't believe he did. He takes Martha with him, who still thinks he's responsible for her husband's death, and they drive to LA to meet up with Niles. After an attempt on their life on the way to LA, making Martha think Fletcher might not be so guilty, they arrive in LA. There they have dinner in Chinatown where Fletcher sees Ken 'The Weasel' Tokoyama (Richard Loo), a sadistic and brutal officer from the prison camp. Even though Ted tells him to lay low while he hires a detective to look into Tokoyama, Fletcher goes on his own investigation. The problem however is that the men who wanted him dead seem to know his every move, and he still has no idea what exactly happened in the prison camp and what the connection is to these men.

The movie's short length of 60 minutes and a few seconds forces the movie to be brisk and lean and the plot to move at a swift pace, and it does all of that. There are hardly any filler scenes here, and even those serve a purpose and are kept short and sweet, like a sort of breather before the whirlwind picks up again. The action sequences are well-done, with some nice shots, especially considering the low budget. There are also some recurring shots, notably some where a threat to Fletcher's life is seen in a mirror, be it a car in a rearview mirror, a man with a gun standing behind a door or an oncoming train he's about to be thrown in front of. That is not to say this is a visual noir nirvana, in regards to noir visuals this movie is severely lacking. The overall cinematography is pretty mediocre and the noir-looking dark, shadow-filled shots are few and far between. But those recurring shots, the great opening scene with Fletcher waking up to a man trying to strangle him, and the train scene as a whole, definitely are a precursor to Fleischer's later noir work like 'The Narrow Margin' from 1952, an overall much better and more accomplished noir. There is also a nice chase through LA's Chinatown, which at the very end includes a short (and at the time probably fairly unusual/uncommon) tribute to the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a highly decorated US division of soldiers of Japanese descent during WWII, adding some depth and counterbalance to the crooked and evil nature of the only Japanese character of note here, Tokoyama.

Bill Williams and Barbara Hale were married in real life, and it shows, they have great and warm on-screen chemistry, adding to the overall enjoyment of watching this movie. Maybe their chemistry is a bit too good however, Hale looks very comfortable around Williams, even when her character still thinks he is a traitor responsible for her husband's death. But once she starts to believe Jim is innocent, their partnership becomes very believable and real. Unfortunately, while I enjoyed their performances and their obvious warmth & affection for each other, neither are really fit to be noir icons, especially Williams. The movie's poster depicts Williams as some sort of Dana Andrews knock-off with his chiseled facial features, but his face is much smoother in reality, and like Hale, he comes off as way too nice to be a true noir lead. Both did appear in other noirs, but not too many. Hale's biggest noir connection is playing Della Street in the 80s & 90s Perry Mason reboot opposite noir heavy Raymond Burr. As a sidenote, Williams and Hale were one of the few Hollywood couples that lasted, they were married for 46 years until Williams' death in 1992, and they are the parents of actor William Katt ('Carrie'), who is the spitting image of his dad.

Richard Quine would not do many noirs as an actor, but he did direct a couple of noirs, namely 'Pushover' and 'Drive A Crooked Road', both from 1954. He was involved with more movies as a director than as an actor, and he is onlt decent here, coming off as a nice, handsome fellow with a sinister, but also cowardly, edge, but Quine seems wooden and awkward at times. Richard Loo has a pretty one-dimensional character, one he played many times in various ways. His part is too small really to make any sort of real impression.

Overall, 'The Clay Pigeon' is a fairly mixed bag, especially when viewed as a noir. It is a highly enjoyable and fast-moving thriller that starts off in a great and intriguing way, has real chemistry between the leads, some memorable scenes and shots, but is too nice and light overall to convince as a pure noir. So as an amnesia noir, it falls a bit short but as an amnesia thriller, it delivers. So it's still thumbs up for me.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The 13th Letter (1951)

'The 13th Letter' is a noir-ish mystery movie directed by Otto Preminger, whose noir output includes classics like 'Laura' and 'Where The Sidewalk Ends'. Like the French movie 'Le Corbeau' from 1943 it is based on the story 'Le Corbeau' ('The Raven') by Louis Chavance, which was turned into a screenplay for this version by Howard Koch. Cinematography was handled by esteemed cinematographer Joseph LaShelle who also worked with Preminger on 'Laura' and 'Where The Sidewalk Ends'. The music was scored by Alex North who would also do 'A Streetcar Named Desire' the same year and 'Spartacus' later on, so he was no slouch either.

Dr. Pearson (Michael Rennie, 'Dangerous Crossing') is a clock-collecting doctor who now works in a small community hospital in the Quebec province of Canada, which is run by Dr. Laurent (Charles Boyer, 'Gaslight', 'Algiers'). Pearson was once a successful doctor in London but after issues in his marriage, resulting in his wife's suicide, gave up his practice and ended up in Quebec. Because of this tragedy he's become an even more professional and distant doctor, not allowing himself to get too close or attached to anybody else. But some of the local women have taken an interest in him anyhow. Denise (Linda Darnell, 'Fallen Angel', 'Hangover Square') is a young woman who's feigning various illnesses to have Dr. Pearson pay her visits, even though she has a real medical issue that she's hiding from him. And also Cora (Constance Smith, 'Impulse', 'Man In The Attic'), Dr. Laurent's much younger wife, seems interested, to the annoyance of her sister Marie (Judith Evelyn, 'Rear Window'). Marie is not the only who seems upset with Dr. Pearson however, as mysterious letters arrive in the small community, all signed with the image of a feather. They urge for Dr. Pearson to leave town, threatening to expose the secrets of the various people in the town otherwise. Pearson stays calm and doesn't think much of it, until a patient in the hospital also receives such a letter, which claims he has incurable cancer, and commits suicide because of it. The community becomes more paranoid and torn and Marie is seen as a likely suspect and locked up, but more letters appear still...

The tagline of the movie's poster is about as deceiving as it gets, 'A strange kind of killer is loose in this town!'. The writer of the poison letters is not a killer, in fact for the majority of the movie, libel is about the worse offense happening in this movie. The man with the hat from the poster doesn't make an appearance in the movie either. And to make matters worse, despite clearly being the main charactor of the movie, Michael Rennie is billed third on the poster, and fourth even on the opening credits of the movie. I can only assume 20th Century Fox felt Linda Darnell and Charles Boyer and even Constance Smith were bigger names than Michael Rennie and would attract more people to the cinema.

Michael Rennie does a decent job as the male lead, he seems a natural at playing the professional but kind doctor who keeps his composure at all times (he plays almost the exact same role in 'Dangerous Crossing'). It doesn't give him much room for showing emotion however, making his performance decent but also unremarkable. And to be honest, the same can be said for the other performances as well, decent but unremarkable. Linda Darnell normally has no problem playing the attractive girl seducing whoever she fancies, but she's pretty timid here, also because she's not a sultry femme fatale here. I liked Constance Smith the best here, although her on-screen time is fairly limited she has the most interesting character and material to work with.

The movie does not really go into noir territories until very late into the movie when Pearson has pieced together all the clues. It is preceeded however by a few memorable lines by Dr. Laurent, which explain the role of ambiguity in film noir fairly well:
You believe that people are either good or bad, yet good and evil change places like light and shadow. How can we be sure where the one ends and the other begins, on which we're on at a given moment?

Like in Preminger's classic noir 'Laura', there's a portrait painting of a female character here. But I wish more had been done with this in the movie in terms of noir-ness and darkness, especially visually. There is a sense of claustrophobia here, not just due to the small community, but also due to the small rooms and people generally standing close to each other. But a lot more could have, and should have, been done with this lighting wise I feel, to really bring threat and urgency to the power of the letters and the potential severity of the situation. There is almost no tension and sense of urgency in this movie, and the movie suffers as a result. As a mystery, the movie sort of works, but the author of the letters won't come as a surprise either. Unfortunately at the end of the day, nothing really pops out here, Preminger and LaShelle did a good job here, but not a remarkable one.