Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Web (1947)

It is usually not a good idea to judge a book by its cover, but if you've not seen this movie yet you might be tempted to judge 1947's 'The Web' by its poster. The main names on there are all well-known and well-remembered noir names: Edmond O'Brien ('D.O.A.', 'The Killers', 'The Hitch-Hiker', 'White Heat'), Ella Raines ('Brute Force', 'Phantom Lady'), William Bendix ('The Glass Key', 'The Blue Dahlia', 'The Big Steal') and Vincent Price ('Laura', 'Shock', 'The Bribe')... And those are just some of the noirs they've played in. Enough to make anybody interested in film noir salivate. But there's more...

Director Michael Gordon, while not showing up often in the list of noir directors, also directed a few more noirs such as 'Woman In Hiding' and 'The Lady Gambles'. The story was originally penned by Harry Kurnitz who wrote a couple of stories in the popular Thin Man series as well as co-wrote the screenplay for 'Witness For The Prosecution' together with legendary director Billy Wilder. Kurnitz's story was turned into a screenplay by William Bowers ('Convicted', 'Cry Danger') and Bertram Millhauser ('Walk A Crooked Mile'), Bowers still at the start of his career while Millhauser had already done most of his work by this time, his earliest credit on IMDb is from 1911! The cinematography was handled by Irving Glassberg ('Shakedown', 'Larceny'), according to IMDb this was only his 2nd movie as a DoP, his first one was a movie from 1932! The music was composed by Hans J. Salter ('The Reckless Moment', 'Scarlet Street'). So the noir credentials are there, especially but not just in the acting department.
'If you prove that it's murder, you prove that you're a murderer.'
The story is centered around Robert 'Bob' Regan (O'Brien), a cocky and smug low-level attorney who storms into the office of wealthy enterpreneur Andrew Colby (Price) to give him his summons for damages he caused for the royal sum of $68.75. Impressed with Regan's attitude, Colby hires him as a bodyguard, to protect him from Leopold Kroner. Kroner did 5 years for selling counterfeited bonds from Colby's company, raking in a cool million dollars before getting caught, and sentenced in part due to Colby's testimony. Kroner was released earlier that day and Colby suspects he wants to come after him. Regan is wary but the $5000 paycheck is too good an opportunity to pass up on, plus Colby's personal secretary Noel Faraday (a ravishing Raines) is an added incentive. He gets himself a gun permit from his old neighborhood buddy Lt. Damico (Bendix, for once on the good side of the law) and he is on the job. That evening, after making sure all entrances and exits to the Colby residence are closed, and Regan is chatting up the cool-playing Faraday, a shot is fired upstairs. Regan rushes upstairs and finds Colby in a struggle with Kroner, and when Kroner turns around with a gun in his hand, Regan shoots and kills Kroner. At the inquest it is determined it was self defense and justifiable, so Regan gets off without any charges, but Damico doesn't trust it. And after Regan finds soon after that Kroner was in fact invited by Colby to drop by that fatal evening, Regan knows he's been used as a patsy, as a convenient way for Colby to get rid of Kroner. But what can he do, he killed Kroner, if he proves it was murder, he's the murderer, not Colby...

Regan's predicament is pure noir. He's your archetypical patsy, who comes in thinking he's clever and pretty content with himself, and then realizes he has been taken for a ride all along. Edmond O'Brien, a bonafide noir icon, was made to play these types of smug characters, he had the perfect type of personality and aura, and he's great here, giving his usual solid performance. He's one of my favorites in film noir, and this movie gives me no reason to change my opinion of him. The same can be said for Vincent Price who plays a suave industrialist who seems too oily and devious right from the start but who is also smart and quick with his mind. Price was great at portraying these debonair, but menacing, characters. Bendix usually played heavies/criminals in his noirs, but here he's a cop, even wearing glasses. As Damico he does not mind bending the rules a little tho, when he gets Regan a gun permit without any hassle or tests, simply because of their neighborhood past. He doesn't have too much to do here, but it's always great to see Bendix in a noir.

Together with O'Brien, Ella Raines is the revelation of this movie however. I loved her in her role as Noel Faraday, whose name and character seems an obvious reference to the term Girl Friday. Noel lives in with Colby and Colby's friend and assistant Charles (John Abbott, 'The Mask Of Dimitrios', 'Deception'), but a romantic or sexual relationship between her and Colby is hardly ever implied. Some vague remarks are made that could be interpreted as such, but not a whole lot more. There's some funny and playful banter between her and Regan however, who is more than a little interested in her. Faraday keeps her distance but also enjoys the attention and does not mind getting involved in all the indirect and direct innuendo's that are exchanged between them. But she also has her loyalty to Colby to maintain. Raines is perfect here, as Noel Faraday she is beautiful, friendly, cheeky but coy, but also distant and professional. All the main actors do a great job in this movie, but Raines stood out the most for me here.
'If I could get loose for 5 minutes, I'd kick myself around the block.'
There's a very small part for Howland Chamberlain as the author James Nolan who's hit it big with a novel but was once a reporter working on the Kroner case. Regan visits  him looking for a clue or a lead. At first Nolan speaks in a pretty posh manner as he's a distinguished author now, but once Regan asks about the old case Nolan falls back into his past reporter persona, speaks again in his true accent and has his cigarette in his mouth instead of in a cigarette holder. Once Regan has the information he wants and is about to leave, Nolan goes back to his distinguished author persona, thinking Regan really wanted to talk to him about his book. It's a small and funny touch, but it does add to the movie's level.

There's a nice scene in this movie where Colby and Regan discuss the situation and the consequences of Kroner's death over a game of showdown poker and, almost as in a verbal game of poker, lay their respective cards on the table with more than a few implied bluffs. This verbal jousting lays out the majority of the plot of this movie within a couple of minutes, explaining their own position, the other persons position, and where things can or cannot go. It's great to watch, because it also shows how Colby has thought things through quite thoroughly. Something which is reiterated later on in the movie when Regan has tracked down the name of the person who made the engravings necessary to print the counterfeit bonds 5 years ago. When he, through someone else, tries to confront Colby with this name, Colby switfly bounces the ball back and instead plays with Regan, knowing this person isn't alive anymore, something Regan is unaware of. It is then also and ever so subtly implied that Colby had a hand in this engraver's death as well.

Something else that is nice about this movie, and I would say is rather unusual, is that while Colby does get his comeuppance, it is not Regan who manages it. Even though Regan eventually realizes the truth and how Colby fits in, he is unable to clear his name and prove Colby's guilt. In fact, Colby manages to implicate Regan, as well as Faraday, who he thinks is now siding with Regan, in another murder. And again, it is arranged in such a way that all evidence points to Regan, and Regan cannot prove he didn't do it. Good stuff.
'A lot of things can happen in a week. France fell in eighteen days and you're not as tough as France.'
The movie contains plenty of twists and turns and of course the usual double-crosses. Most of them aren't all too surprising and quite out in the open for the viewer to see, but thankfully in this case it does not matter too much. The movie is quite fast-paced and is well-plotted, with some snappy and witty dialogue. It basically ticks all the noir boxes for me, except the cinematography one. Visually, the movie isn't very exciting safe for the last third of the movie, and even then it's quite average and middle of the road. It's a shame, but don't let that hold you back from watching this movie, it more than deserves a viewing.

BTW, that poster has some really bad renditions of Edmond O'Brien and Vincent Price. I'm only assuming it's them together with Ella Raines and William Bendix, because they look nothing like the actors.