Friday, April 11, 2014

Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)

One of the problems with watching obscure b/w B-movies from the lower end of a double bill is that even if you can find a DVD or a source online to watch em, the video & audio quality can be pretty bad. In some cases, the movie isn't all that much better, but it also happens it's a shame there's not a more decent version around. Case in point, 1949's 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' which is a good noir but the seemingly only version of it available online is sourced from what appears to be a VHS recording of a late-night broadcast on the German WDR TV channel. And I've yet to find/see a version of it which doesn't seem to come from the same source. Which is unfortunate, 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' deserves better. I wish I could say this one has the worst video/audio quality of all noirs I've seen so far tho, but that's a whole other can of worms...

The movie was directed by William Castle who is known mostly for his cheap, but effective, horror movies like 'House On Haunted Hill' (1959) and '13 Ghosts' (1960). But he also directed some of the Whistler movies, as well as some noirs, 'When Strangers Marry' (1944) and 'New Orleans Uncensored' (1955). The original story was by Henry Jordan, which was adapted into a screenplay by Robert L. Richards. The cinematography was handled by Maury Gertsman ('The Glass Web', 'Rogues' Regiment'). All music played in the movie was stock music by uncredited composers including according to IMDb Miklós Rózsa ('The Killers', 'Double Indemnity').
You may be an awful tough man with those hoodlums of yours, but to me you're a dime a dozen.
George 'Mort' Morton (Howard Duff) is a young and ambitious federal agent working for the narcotics squad. He's investigating an up and coming international narcotics ring, and is about to arrest one of the lower people in the outfit who the bureau thinks can help them get to the people at the top. However, mere seconds before they can arrest the guy, he's killed by gun-for-hire Joey (Tony Curtis). The only lead they find on the dead body is the name of a Canadian trading company. Morton decides he needs to go undercover and check out this company to get anywhere in this case. He gets Johnny Evans (Dan Duryea), a gangster he put behind bars, out of Alcatraz so he can help him. Evans does not want to be Morton's stool pigeon (explaining the title of the movie) but after seeing his dead wife, who was addicted to drugs and died of an overdose, he reluctantly agrees. Together they go to Vancouver to meet up with crooked businessman William McCandles (Barry Kelley) to see if they can force their way in. McCandles arranges a meeting for them in a resort in the Arizona desert and sends his gun moll Terry Stewart (Shelley Winters) along with them. At the resort they find out the resort's manager, Nick Avery (John McIntire), who prefers dressing up as a cowboy, is the big man behind the drug smuggling operation. As Morton and Evans gain Avery's trust in order to set up a deal, his bodyguard/gun-for-hire Joey recognizes Morton's face, but he can't quite place it... Until he does.

1949's 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' is a relatively obscure entry in the exposé noir field, films noirs that deal with exposing, and always busting, some sort of criminal network or syndicate, usually with a government agent who almost single-handedly brings down the bad guys. Some of these noirs, like 'The House On 92nd Street' (1945), are shot in a documentary-like style, typically with some government official giving an introduction of some sort as well as a quick overview at the end of what happens to those who walk on the wrong side of the tracks. This movie walks the middle ground between a more straight-forward police procedural movie and this documentary-style. It's got most of the docu-noir elements at the very start and end of the movie. There are also a few instances however where a character does a brief monologue during the movie explaining the evils of drugs and the danger of addiction and death when taking drugs, which come off staged and awkward, because they're not aimed directly at the viewer as in more conventional docu-noirs, but at other characters.

The movie's finale is quite exciting and well-executed and includes a plane crashing into a car, which looks really well-done and convincing, even with the bad video quality. I have to say, the movie's budget must have been very modest, given it was clearly intended to be on the bottom end of a double bill, but the production team did wonders with it, they made great use of outdoor scenes and whatever sound stages they used, or more likely re-used, they look good as well.

Howard Duff ('The Naked City', 'Brute Force') is decent here as the young, straight as an arrow agent who thinks he knows it all and that he can crack this case. Also in 1949, Duff would play a very similar role, that of a man going undercover to bust a smuggling gang, in 'Illegal Entry'. Here his character is too focused on the case to really notice that Terry Stewart is taking an interest in him. He also doesn't notice that Johnny Evans has been around the block more than a few times, and can think faster and more creatively than he can. Morton is way too strict and much of a typical 'copper', as Evans likes to call him, to really be a noir anti-hero/protagonist. For that we have to turn to Johnny Evans. The hardened gangster who does have a good side to him, who recognizes that Terry deserves a break and not the same deadly fate his wife did. Dan Duryea is fondly remembered in noir circles for his portrayal of villains and other sorts of slimey characters in movies like 'Criss Cross', 'Ministry Of Fear' and 'The Great Flamarion'. Even when he plays a good guy, there's usually still a dark, twisted edge to his character, and likewise when he plays a bad character, he brings something sympathetic to the table, which is also the case here. His performance is easily the best of the movie for me.
You think you can get me on the outside and I get a taste of it and I go crazy. Well, let me tell you something... I'll rot in this place forever before I'll be a stool pigeon for a copper.
Shelley Winters ('The Night Of The Hunter') also does well with the little she's given. Terry is supposed to be a fairly complex character. She's had a rough life and wants out of McCandles' clutches. She sees Morton as an opportunity to get out and even tells him 'maybe after a while we might even make a go of it.' When he brushes her off she tells him all she really wants is money, because it's the only thing you can count on, and which probably drove her straight into McCandles' arms in the first place. Her character starts out as a potential femme fatale but once the movie settles at the resort she becomes almost a prop, which is a shame. Both Winters and Terry Stewart deserved better.

This was one of the first movies for which Tony Curtis receives credit, still called Anthony Curtis here, after appearing in an uncredited role in 'Criss Cross' the same year (but he was dancing with Yvonne De Carlo in that movie, I'm sure he preferred that over receiving credit!). He's even credited fourth, the first name below the title so to say, which is quite an accomplishment for a non-talking role! Here he plays a mute bodyguard/killer. So he doesn't have to do a lot here besides look intently yet quizical at Howard Duff, trying to recall where he first saw him. His stare definitely has some menace to it tho, which is what matters most for this part, so he does well here. He would of course go on to become a huge movie star, as well as give a superb performance in a classic noir called 'Sweet Smell Of Success'.

The main area where this movie is lacking is in the bland cinematography. The movie doesn't really have the dark, starkly lit look you expect and want from noirs, apart from a few small scenes. For the most part the movie is fairly heavily lit like you would expect a more 'normal' movie to be, and the overly bright washed out video quality doesn't help there either. The stock music is also pretty bland, and because of using work from so many composers (IMDb lists 4 names) there's no real theme or cohesiveness to the music. But as I said earlier, this a good noir, and I stand by that. It's lean and moves at a rapid pace with a 71 minute run-time, with solid performances and a nice story. This movie deserves a nice restoration and re-release on DVD or Blu-ray. It's a movie most noir lovers will enjoy I think, so until that restoration happens, don't pass up on this one based on the crappy video quality and give it a shot. It's worth it!

Oh btw, if anybody can get me these records, that would be awesome, thank you! I am also curious to know if other noirs had similar promo records made for them, and if so, which ones.


Here's the trailer, which is in much better shape than the movie!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Slightly Scarlet (1956)

Only a handful of color noirs were made during the classic noir cycle, which lasted from the early 40s till the late 50s (some would argue there is no such thing as color noir). The most well-known color noirs are 1945's 'Leave Her To Heaven' starring Gene Tierney and 1953's 'Niagara' starring Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe. In 1956, James M. Cain's 1941 novel 'Love's Lovely Counterfeit' became a color noir under the title 'Slightly Scarlet'. Cain of course wrote many novels which became source material for classic noirs, like 'Double Indemnity', 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' and 'Midlred Pierce'. This novel was turned upside down and adapted into a screenplay by Robert Blees. The movie was directed by legendary director Allan Dwan, who had directed close to 400 movies and shorts before this movie, having started his directing career in 1911! Some of his most well-known and remembered movies include 1922's 'Robin Hood' starring Douglas Fairbanks and 1949's 'Sands Of Iwo Jima' starring John Wayne. There's a nice biography on Allan Dwan here with more information on this fascinating director. The cinematography was handled by the noir master himself, John Alton ('The Big Combo', 'The Amazing Mr. X'). The, fairly unremarkable, music was scored by Louis Forbes ('The Crooked Way', 'The Man Who Cheated Himself').
All I can do is give you a gun, if you haven't got guts enough to pull the trigger, I can't help it.
The movie is set in the fictional city of Bay City, where Solly Caspar (Ted de Corsia) is the head of a local mob outfit, but working for a larger syndicate. Ben Grace (John Payne) works for him, and his latest job is to find dirt on rich businessman Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor), who's running for mayor with promises to clean up the city and drive all criminals out of town. He finds it in Dorothy Lyons (Arlene Dahl), the kleptomaniac sister of June Lyons (Rhonda Fleming), Jansen's secretary. However, after Solly humiliates him in front of his men, Grace has had enough and double-crosses Solly. He rats on Solly after Solly kills a large backer in Jansen's campaign, a local newspaper editor, and Solly's ordered by his bosses in the syndicate to skip town. After Jansen wins the election Grace uses his knowledge about Dorothy's kleptomaniac behavior to get June to work on Jansen, so his friend in the police department, Dave Dietz (Frank Gerstle), is promoted to Chief of Police. This way he is able to take over Solly's operations, and through Dietz make sure his new gambling outfit can run untouched by the police. He also makes a play for June, who also falls for him. But Dorothy is not just a kleptomaniac, she's a nymphomaniac as well. And Solly isn't going to stay away forever. Something's gotta give...

The plot revolves around corruption and sexual tension, 2 themes very common to film noir. The movie does not shy away from showing as much of either as it possibly could without running into problem with the production code. There's a scene where Dorothy is lying on a couch, legs wide open, scratching her leg with a back scratcher, when Solly, whom she's never met before, walks in on her unexpectedly. She doesn't flinch or pulls her legs together, but immediately starts to flirt with him. It is so blatantly sexual, it's a surprise it got past the censors. The movie also addresses corruption in a very direct manner through Grace's manipulation of both June to get Dietz into the Chief of Police's chair and then of Dietz to drop charges and look the other way. In some ways, especially in the way sex is used in this movie, the movie could not have been made in the 40s, the sexual tension is far more visual here, even if not acted upon, than in 40s noirs where it is implied more through innuendo. In general I prefer the innuendo approach, with its double-entedres and suggestive dialogue, but it's hard to deny that both Rhonda Fleming and especially Arlene Dahl ooze sex-appeal in this movie.

Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are at the center of this movie in many ways, and femmes fatales in distinct ways. Almost everybody gravitates towards them in one way or another, intentional or not, but most of all, they are the visual focal points. Both have bright red hair, they were both redheads in real life, and both ooze sex appeal. June/Rhonda in a more sophisticated way, Dorothy/Arlene in a sleazier and more carnal way. June is the older and more moral-appearing sister, but the movie also makes clear she's Jansen's lover. There's no way a secretary like June could afford a large house and a flashy convertible like she does. Dorothy is clearly a nymphomaniac, even if it's never mentioned or even alluded to, besides also being a kleptomaniac. When Caspar gives her a bundle of money, she throws it at his feet because, as she tells him, getting money that way is no fun. Both Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl give great performances here, especially Dahl who could have just let go and be over-the-top and campy but she doesn't. She's definitely out there but not in an outrageous way. Nice piece of trivia: Arlene Dahl is the mother of 80s/90s heart-throb Lorenzo Lamas.
I don't like killing people, I never did. But you're not people, I don't think I'd mind a bit.
In a typical noir storyline, Grace sets himself up to get screwed over one way or another. He thinks he can screw over Solly, take over his outfit and get away with it, but he doesn't realize that the top is where the predators reside. John Payne is good here as Ben Grace, in a typical noir role. Payne had plenty of experience in noir land with movies like 'Kansas City Confidential' and '99 River Street' and he gives a good and gritty performance here, but he lacks the tough guy charisma of someone like, say, Lawrence Tierney. His opponent, Solly Caspar, is played by Ted de Corsia, who also had plenty of experience in noirs ('The Naked City', 'Crime Wave'), typically as the heavy. De Corsia excelled at these kinds of roles, and even tho this is not really his best performance, he's his usual solid self here especially in the second half of the movie.

Aside from Fleming and Dahl, John Alton's cinematography is the stand-out aspect of this movie. Visually, this movie is not just pure eye-candy with its lush and lavish use of bright colors and almost kitsch interiors, it is also pure noir with the way Alton handles shadows. Alton was a master at noir chiaroscuro cinematography and 'painting with light' as he called it (which was also the title of a highly influential book on cinematography that he wrote), and here he also shows how to apply it to a technicolor movie. His shadows are deep and rich and almost characters in themselves, as in all his black & white noirs. He lights June's living room and Solly's beach house in a bright manner, but Solly's mansion has rooms that are ominously dark even with the lights on. People move from bright spot to bright spot in it, disappearing almost in the shadows inbetween. Combine this with the brightly colored carpets and furniture, in all interior sets, it makes for a very unique viewing experience. Apparently the movie was also released in a black & white print, but I have to say, I can't see how it would improve the movie, a large part of the movie's appeal is the almost crazy color palette mixed with Alton's shadows.

The movie is not without its flaws however. There's an unintentional comedic element in Grace's car, which is missing its windshield for most of the movie. Also the doors in Solly's beachhouse that lead to the balcony, clearly have no glass panels. I imagine budget costs, and an accidentally smashed windshield might have something to do with this, but it does look a bit silly. I also found the Frank Jansen character too flat in this movie, and underused. His part almost disappears in the second half of the movie. And the soft, soap opera like, soundtrack doesn't help much either, it doesn't really create a sense of urgency and dread. Thankfully the soundtrack is pretty minimal.

The movie is based on a James M. Cain novel but Robert Blees's screenplay restructures it. For instance Dorothy doesn't make an appearance in the novel until the final quarter, whereas here she's introduced as the very first character and plays a more important part. I haven't read the novel, so I can't say whether this screenplay/movie is better or worse than the novel. But I will say that 'Slightly Scarlet' is a pure noir to me, bright colors and all. I wouldn't say it's a great noir, but it's good and entertaining and definitely delivers.