Category Archives: 1940s

Phantom Lady (1944)

*. I think we’re all familiar with the femme fatale in film noir. Less celebrated, because far less common, is her opposite. I don’t know if this character has a name, but she is a dominant force for good who doesn’t aim at the destruction of the sappy male lead but rather works to effect his salvation.
*. Lucille Ball’s character in The Dark Corner is one such figure, and in this movie “Kansas” Richman, played by Ella Raines, is an even stronger example of the type. When her boss, a man she has long carried a torch for, is sent to death row for the murder of his wife she has to prove his innocence by locating a “phantom lady” who can provide him with an alibi.

*. In his essay on Phantom Lady Alastair Phillips begins by noting how the novel the film was based on was by Cornell Woolrich (under the pseudonym William Irish), who had also written the short story that inspired Rear Window, and that it had been produced by Hitchcock’s former secretary Joan Harrison. This leads to the following observation: “both films have similarly passive male leads and active female protagonists called upon to take a determining performative role in order to resolve the central narrative enigma.”
*. I think we can state what’s going on here in even stronger terms. Jeff is somewhat passive in Rear Window (he does what he can, given the condition he’s in), but Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) is totally absent throughout most of Phantom Lady, being in jail awaiting execution. A couple of years later, in Black Angel (which basically has the same story, also by Cornell Woolrich), the female lead would at least have the assistance of a male partner. But here the police detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) is no help to Kansas at all in her investigations. Kansas is a one-woman show, making the corny ending with her glowing over Scott’s proposal literally being dictated to her by way of Dictaphone, even more ridiculous than it is conventional.

*. The rest of the movie is very uneven, though Robert Siodmak’s very capable direction gives a touch of style and coherence. The main problems have to do with the plot, which sort of wanders in and out of focus. Scott is convicted on what seems to be some pretty flimsy evidence. In fact, I’m not sure what evidence there was, aside from his being married to the murdered woman. The cops who show up at his apartment, however, are so sleazy that I wouldn’t put it past them to have planted something.
*. The crazed killer, imaginatively rendered by a game Franchot Tone, has no real motivation, aside from being a psycho artist. Best not to trust those types. Indeed, the movie has a pretty casual attitude toward psychology, from the detective’s theorizing over paranoiacs to the depressed, or just excessively grieving, Miss Terry (that is: “mystery”).
*. But there are highlights as well. Elisha Cook, Jr. steals every scene he’s in, as per usual. Here he’s a skirt-chasing drummer who memorably beats himself off at a night club when the leggy Kansas goes into vamp mode. Apparently there is some argument over whether Dave Coleman or Buddy Rich were playing the drums on the soundtrack. That people puzzle over this is natural if you watch Cook, because he obviously isn’t playing the drums.

*. I’m not much of a car guy, but my eyes did widen a bit at Franchot Tone’s ride. Trivia tells me it’s a 1941 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible De Luxe Coupe. Wow.
*. Presenting the trial as a series of reaction shots was kind of neat. What really impressed me though was the clerk taking shorthand. How many people even know shorthand today? I have to think that’s a vanishing skill, if not effectively extinct.
*. Above average noir, with enough original elements (even if they are kind of silly) to be entertaining. Raines is good in the lead. There are some effective sequences, including one really good pursuit that winds up on an elevated train platform. The story doesn’t hold together at all, but it’s a quick bit of fun.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

*. Ride the Pink Horse is often described as an oddity, so let’s talk about some of what’s odd about it.
*. The title screen is odd. “Universal International Presents Robert Montgomery” fills one screen, followed in the next by “as Lucky Gagin in Ride the Pink Horse.” The title shares the screen with the main character’s name, and in fact the character’s name is in print twice as large as that of the title. This is odd because (1) we never hear Montgomery’s character referred to as “Lucky” in the film, and (2) the name “Lucky Gagin” could hardly have been a selling point since it was just something they made up. In the novel by Dorothy Hughes he’s called Sailor.
*. Lucky Gagin’s romantic interest is a girl played by 18-year-old Wanda Hendrix. In the book the character, Pila, was 14. But is it a romantic interest? On the DVD commentary noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini describe their relationship as “borderline taboo.” In the film the character of Pancho dismisses Pila as being “too skinny” for Gagin on a couple of occasions, without making any reference to her age. This is a girl who still likes to ride carousels! Such talk between men in their forties struck me as a little uncomfortable, especially given the fact that Gagin is the rich American come to throw money around Pila’s dusty hometown. Odd doesn’t quite cover this. Or the way she’s cast as a maternal figure, nursing Gagin with a bottle after he’s wounded. That’s some weird iconography.
*. Another oddity: guns are brandished but I don’t believe we ever see (or hear) one being fired. This despite the fact that in the novel the bad guy (an American senator named Douglass, who is a nastier piece of work than he is here, having arranged his wife’s murder) is shot by Sailor at the end. Could anything be more anti-climactic than the way Retz arrives at the last minute to save Gagin and Pila, and then just gets the all-important cheque from Gagin?
*. But the ending is even stranger than this. For one thing, it’s upbeat, to the point where Imogen Sara Smith (interviewed on the Criterion DVD) is led to consider the movie a sort of anti-noir. On the commentary track Silver says how it’s “very atypical of how one expects any film noir to resolve itself.” Then add the fact that the final dialogue is all in Spanish. Throughout the movie Spanish dialogue gets used, without subtitles or translations, quite a bit. But to wrap things up with Pila telling the story of her adventures to her friends in Spanish as Retz and Gagin walk away is weird.
*. Pauline Kael found the title “inappropriate.” That’s one way of putting it. Read literally, it only refers to a rather insignificant part in the movie. But it also has a more suggestive connotation that I don’t know if they were aware of.
*. Sticking with Kael, here is her take: “One of a kind; no one in his right mind would imitate it.” In particular, Kael called out its broken English, and not just that coming from the actors playing Mexicans. “Robert Montgomery . . . speaks in a tough-guy lingo that isn’t just broken — it’s smashed.” And this leads me to what I think may be the oddest thing about Ride the Pink Horse.
*. If you looked at the talent involved I think you would be pretty sure of one thing going in, that the script would be a gem. As noted, it’s based on a novel by Dorothy Hughes, a more than capable author of tales like this (she’s probably best known for In a Lonely Place). Producer Joan Harrison I believe wrote a draft of a screenplay, and she had a solid track record as a screenwriter too, having worked on a number of Hitchcock’s films (including Rebecca). The screenplay itself though was credited to Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, who were pretty much Hollywood all-stars. What could go wrong?
*. The odd thing is, I think it’s the script that lets Ride the Pink Horse down. Montgomery’s direction is fine, and even accomplished in many ways, ably assisted by the photography of Russell Metty (who would go on to do Touch of Evil). Montgomery makes a decent noir hero, projecting both cynicism (but not too much) and vulnerability (but only in an unfair fight). The supporting cast is capable. Thomas Gomez actually got an Oscar nomination for playing Pancho, which is hard to believe given the role. Fred Clark is very good as the hard-of-hearing villain Frank Hugo, but why bother with his hearing-aid contraption? It’s never used for any kind of plot purpose, and surely something could have been made out of the fact that he’s deaf.
*. But the story itself is of little interest, and at least to my ear it doesn’t have much of the seasoning you’d expect from Lederer and Hecht in the dialogue department. In terms of its basic structure I’ve already mentioned how it just sort of peters out at the end, with the hero semi-conscious and an arrest of the villain being made as we fade to black. The character of Marjorie, who had some potential, disappears. Gagin’s plan never adds up. It struck me as kind of dopey to begin with, and then as things went along I became unsure what his goal was. To get some money or to avenge Shorty? If revenge, why doesn’t he just kill Hugo? If it’s money, it’s kind of strange that he wants twice what Shorty was asking when Hugo is willing to pay him ten times as much.
*. To be honest, I don’t get the love for this one. It got a Criterion release, leading to it being discussed as some kind of lost treasure or at least underappreciated. Call it the Criterion effect. Despite its many quirks, however, it’s a pretty tame noir with a pagan-Catholic Mexican flavour (accompanied by a lot of unquestioned, casual racism on the part of our hero Gagin), some nice long takes, and not much else to set it apart from a mass of similar films. Not a bad film but not a must-see except for genre fans.

The Dark Corner (1946)

*. I’ll lead off with some thoughts on the cast.
*. Lucille Ball receives top billing. Before she was “Lucy,” after which audiences wouldn’t be able to imagine her in a role like this. According to the DVD commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini she “hated the movie and hated being in it.” She was a professional though and I don’t get any sense of that distaste on screen.
*. Clifton Webb just a couple of years after Laura, and playing the exact same role of Waldo Lydecker. Except here he goes by the name of Hardy Cathcart. Another snobbish and jealous conoisseur with a penchant for collecting beautiful young women, but without as many good lines (the only memorable one here being “How I detest the dawn. The grass always looks like it’s been left out all night.”). And Hitchcock had wanted him to play another similar part, Alexander Sebastian in Notorious (also 1946). The typecast was in.
*. Mark Stevens. My initial notes just say “lightweight.” According to Silver and Ursini he was trying to ditch his pretty-boy reputation and change his image into that of a tough guy. It doesn’t work, but to be fair it’s not all his fault. Bradford Galt isn’t a tough guy. Or, as the commentators put it, “the toughness is very thin in this character, very thin.” Despite being a private dick with a criminal record and a bottle of booze in the top drawer of his desk he doesn’t scare anyone. Even William Bendix (an actor at this time probably best known for comedy radio work), playing a professional heavy, has to pretend to be soft with him. But when Galt smears him with ink it seems less tough than bitchy.

*. What mainly undercuts Galt’s toughness is the way he falls apart, so that his secretary (Ball) has to carry him over the finish line. He is totally dominated by a woman who embodies the new independence of the postwar American female. She is the one who plays baseball at the fair while he watches. She also watches girly shows with him at the peep-show machines. And at the end she proposes to him, while allowing him to save a bit of face.
*. This is not entirely new. The sad sack loser is as much a traditional noir hero as the hard-bitten tough guy. In fact most noir heroes are weak in some important way. But here it reflects a broader failing of American masculinity. Isn’t Cathcart a wimp, hiring out the dirty work: first using Galt to get rid of Jardine and then Stauffer to get rid of Galt, before finally dispatching Stauffer in a sneaky way. And doesn’t Mari handle Cathcart in the end? It’s the women who get things done.
*. It’s a smart movie, full of artfully-arranged mirrors and shadows, and clues being dropped that will be picked up later. The ink on the jacket, the key chain, the girl with the pennywhistle. And I like the way Kathleen and Brad (to get them in the right order) put things together at the end. It’s far-fetched, but not outside the realm of all possibility.
*. That said, I also find it a bit dull. I don’t think many people rank this among their favourite noirs. Almost everything in it feels second-rate. But that’s still pretty good, and not even much of a criticism for an avowedly B genre.

Spellbound (1945)

*. I think Spellbound disappoints most people. It certainly disappointed me the first time I saw it. The reason is simple: it’s best known for featuring dream sequences “based on designs by Salvador Dali,” but these amount to only a couple of minutes of screen time and they don’t give us anything but recycled imagery from the surrealist canon. Indeed, there’s even an in-joke with a man cutting a tapestry painted with an eyeball in homage (or mockery) of Un Chien Andalou. Which had, after all, been nearly twenty years earlier.
*. Aside from the dreams I think the only other thing people know about Spellbound is that it makes a total hash of psychoanalysis. Which is something Hithcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht were both well aware of (Hitch called it “pseudo-psychoanalysis”), despite the movie getting a sort of seal of approval from David O. Selznick’s therapist.
*. Some of what was shot for the dream sequences ended up being cut but it seems like not much was lost. Bergman’s claim of twenty minutes was almost certainly a big exaggeration, though it’s a number that I find still being tossed around in the literature. According to James Bigwood, referenced in Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness in Light, it “might have been forty or fifty seconds longer than it finally wound up.” This makes sense. Dreams speak in a kind of super-condensed shorthand, especially in Freud’s theory of dreams, so it would be crazy to drag one out for twenty minutes. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any movie dream sequences that go on nearly that long. Mia Farrow’s inception-night dream in Rosemary’s Baby, for example, or William Hurt’s peyote spirit walk in Altered States only last for about as long as the dreams do here.
*. It’s long been a bit of movie mythology that Saul Bass actually directed the shower scene in Psycho. He didn’t, but it does seem as though William Cameron Menzies designed and directed the dream sequences in this movie. There’s probably some truth to the tales of how Hithcock planned everything out in advance, either through storyboards or in playacting scenes (which he apparently did a lot of with Ben Hecht while working on the script for this movie). On set, his direction was often reported to be automatic. Peck even mentioned thinking he was asleep.

*. So I’m not upset about the lost dream sequences. What’s more disappointing is that a love triangle involving Murchison (Leo Carroll) lusting after Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), which Selznick was really pushing, was dismissed by Hitchcock. I can’t figure out why. Watching Spellbound today it’s the sexuality of Petersen that is the most interesting part. She’s another of Hitchcock’s ice queens (or “human glaciers”), only this time she melts. Which is to say she takes her glasses off and lets her hair down and falls in love. She also mentions wearing more “feminine clothes,” though I think she’s well turned out right from the start.
*. Wouldn’t it have made more sense then to play up the angle of her being the unattainable prize driving the killer mad? As is pointed out on the DVD commentary by Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg, all the doctors at Green Manors are “clearly infatuated with her.” She’s a woman in a man’s world, and not just any woman but Ingrid Bergman. Who could turn into Rhonda Fleming, Dr. Petersen’s unleashed id, if the right guy came along.
*. We can laugh at the love-at-first-sight business, but let’s face it, if two people as beautiful as Bergman and Gregory Peck were to meet up in such an environment it wouldn’t take long for them to pair off. It’s natural selection. Leo Carroll couldn’t be seen as any kind of competition, though that might have given him some extra motivation.

*. Almost everyone refers to this movie as being the first to deal with psychotherapy (Hitchcock himself called it “the first attempt at psychiatry in film, don’t you know”). This may be technically correct on some level, but it made me think of Cat People (1942), which also has a therapist looking to treat a character’s anxieties by way of a kind of dream analysis. Either way, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy was a hot topic, meaning it was commercial.
*. Miklós Rózsa did the score and it won an Oscar. Neither Selznick nor Hitchcock thought much of it. The theremin (the use of which Rózsa pioneered) strikes an appropriately odd note, but I think the love theme is too conventionally romantic most of the time, and this is hardly a conventional romance.
*. There are the usual Hitchcock preoccupations. The backbone of the story is a manhunt, with an innocent man, girl in tow, on the run from the authorities. Improbabilities in the plot more gigantic than usual, and perhaps more gigantic than in any other movie he made, are only waved at. Unfortunately there are few signature suspense scenes to liven things up, and we rarely feel any sense of threat. Pauline Kael dismissed it as “a disaster” and “a confection whipped up by jaded chefs.” I feel where this is coming from.
*. The twist, and it is quite a significant twist, is that the hero is Bergman’s Dr. Petersen. She is strong, resourceful, intelligent, brave, and very cool under pressure. For all his rugged good looks, Peck is just luggage, and given to fainting spells. Which makes it all the more disappointing that at the end it looks like she’s going to become Mrs. John Ballantyne. Or will she? I mean, it looks like she’s going to be the breadwinner so maybe she can just keep Peck as a toy boy. That seems most appropriate.

Dr. Cyclops (1940)

*. I know I’m in for a good time when I see Technicolor announced. I love these early Technicolor movies, and in fact Dr. Cyclops was the first American horror film made in three-strip Technicolor. Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum had been made using the two-strip process.
*. I hope you enjoy, with me, that glowing green lab, looking like something Mario Bava was making notes on for future use. What with the weird spangle of lights we might as well be in an aquarium — a feeling that’s only deepened when Dr. Thorkel puts on his radium suit, which looks like some kind of Victorian diving apparatus.
*. Alas, despite this promising opening, which includes the usual warning directed to Thorkel about how “You are tampering with powers reserved to God!”, I have to rate Dr. Cyclops a disappointment.
*. The one part of the movie that gets a lot of praise is the performance of Albert Dekker as Dr. Thorkel. He’s certainly weird, but I’m not sure it’s a great performance. It’s more a case of a strange character with a striking appearance (a large man with a shaved head and small, thick-lensed glasses that make him look like a demented jeweler).
*. Thorkel is a mad scientist, sure. And, like all mad scientists, when people call him mad it only makes him angry. But is he a sadist? There I’m not so sure. His cruelty is inextricably bound up with his curiosity in the outcome of his experiment. This makes his cheery demeanour all the more disturbing.
*. However you want to read him, Dekker is the only member of the cast who holds our attention. The rest of the film is just waiting to see what sort of visual trickery they’re going to come up with next. Dr. Thorkel, you see, has discovered a way to (temporarily) shrink other living creatures, making this yet another movie about tiny people wandering through giant sets. Not that far removed from the explorers of Skull Island in King Kong, which is no surprise given that Ernest B. Schoedsack had a hand in both films.

*. Unfortunately, there’s a strange energy deficiency noticeable in the proceedings. When we first meet the character Stockton he’s reclining in a chair with flies crawling over him. His indolence strikes what will be a recurring note. Dr. Thorkel later proves to be a real sleepyhead. Upon discovering that he can now control life absolutely he immediately nods off. The later plan to kill him will involve rigging his shotgun to shoot him while he sleeps.
*. I think there might also be something related to this in the lack of urgency shown by the little people when they first escape. What do they do when they get out of Thorkel’s clutches? Remarkably they’re discovered in the next room, setting up a commune. Eating. Reading. Sewing new clothes. Apparently getting away was not a high priority.
*. Why do people keep cats? Every time we have one of these movies about people being shrunk the cats show their true stripes and try to kill their now tiny owners. That’s what your cat would do to you too, if they had the chance! They’d eat you! Dogs meanwhile, can be counted on to show a certain residual loyalty.
*. Sticking with the cat, could they not have found something in the sound library that sounded more like a cat? Even before the group shrinks its growls sound like a guy doing a very bad imitation of a cat. Which doesn’t sound like a cat at all.
*. So I like the Technicolor. Even more than the effects, which I don’t think are all that good. And Dekker’s Dr. Thorkel is a uniquely creepy mad scientist. The story here though is a waste of time, and something about it feels off in an uncomfortable way. It’s not just the air of laziness, but things like the casual way Dr. Bullfinch is disposed of. I usually give credit to a movie that gets under my skin, but in this case it’s a feeling I didn’t appreciate.

The Big Clock (1948)

*. Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock is a suspense classic, not because it’s particulary well written (it isn’t), but because of its brilliant central concept: a man caught investigating himself, as part of a plot to frame him for murder.
*. Such a great idea was a lock to be made into a movie, and the film rights were actually sold before publication (based on the success of Fearing’s previous novel). But the movie very freely adapts the book in ways that are both obvious and instructive. In fact, I find this to be one of the most interesting page-to-screen transformations in Hollywood history.
*. In the first place, film being a less cerebral and more visual medium, the title of the novel, which is only a metaphor for fate, is made literal with the presence of a giant clock device in the Janoth building, not to mention countless references to clocks and the passing of time. References that I think should have been left out. Fearing’s metaphor was strained enough, but the amount of shoehorning that has to be done to introduce it here is so obvious and awkward that it gets to seem ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that there’s no payoff. Clocks have no real function in the plot. I was even unsure what the point was in the resetting of the smashed clock in Pauline’s apartment. It’s worth pointing out that on its first publication the title of the story was The Judas Picture. But The Big Clock just sounded better.
*. Another point common to most book-to-film adaptations of this period is the censoring of the source. In the novel George Stroud is clearly having an affair with Pauline Delos (the name of the Pauline York character in the movie, played by Rita Johnson). Even more shocking, Janoth kills Pauline when she accuses him, with some justification, not of having a series of affairs with his secretaries but of being his associate Hagen’s homosexual lover. Pauline, in turn, is described as bisexual. We’re less judgmental about these things in the twenty-first century, but in the 1940s this would have been a sort of behaviour too degenerate even for a heavy in a mainstream Hollywood picture. As it is, George Macready gives Hagen a slight lisp, which was probably code enough.
*. Another example of the same cleaning up is that the painter Louise Patterson (Elsa Lanchester) has a brood of children by a series of former husbands. In the book, when she is asked about the father(s) of her children and her own marital status she loudly responds that they are all love children and that she has never been married. A little too much even for a comic character in a movie.
*. The sexual politics exercised Molly Haskell, who took The Big Clock as representative in its portrayal of women in the movies of the time. They are there for “distracting not only the hero but the audience from the fun and danger.” George’s wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) is a drag and a nag, even though the film was directed by her husband John Farrow (Mia would be one of their seven kids). “Indeed,” Haskell goes so far as to say, “the murderer (Charles Laughton) is by far a more sympathetic character than the wife.” This says something about screen vs. page values as well, as Georgette is actually a far more sympathetic character in the novel.

*. The final element in the page-to-screen transformation has to do with the ending. Fearing’s novel ends on a comically abrupt note. A hostile corporate takeover puts an end to the investigation like a deus ex machina, and a coda tells us that Janoth has committed suicide. This is hardly justice, not to mention rather dull. So here we get some gun play and a rather silly use of an elevator shaft, with some comic business involving Lanchester and one of her long-lost husbands. I don’t care much for the ending of the film, but I acknowledge something had to be done to fix what Fearing had come up with.
*. The Big Clock is not a movie that gets a lot of attention these days. Charles Laughton’s Janoth is the best thing in it, though Charles Laughton is usually the best thing in any movie he appears in. Unfortunately he’s stuck playing behind a ridiculous moustache here. Farrow fails to exploit the excellent premise for all the tension and suspense it is so rich in. Perhaps recognizing the unfulfilled potential, later remakes of the same concept — most notably Police Python 357 (1976) and No Way Out (1987) — would try to do better.
*. My response to this movie is mixed. Judged on its own it’s a solid little thriller, but given the strength of the material and the cast assembled I’m disappointed it didn’t turn out better. I don’t think the problem lies with the way Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay adapts the novel. I think it really needed a Hitchcock at the helm to milk more out of the numerous tension-filled traps in the plot. The camera work here is pedestrian, preferring to follow scenes through single long takes without focusing on the various key items that should be obsessive points of interest. This same lack of tension also led me to think Ray Milland was miscast as George. Wouldn’t he have been better as Janoth? I’m sure Laughton could have done a great turn as George if the roles were flipped. That might have been something odd and wonderful.

Laura (1944)

*. The mystery of Laura Hunt. I like that family name, both mundane and thematically suggestive of what’s to come. But her name’s not the point. When I say mystery I’m referring to the popularly held notion of the character being an unattainable woman of mystery and glamour.
*. This was not the original of Laura, meaning the character created by Vera Caspary in her 1943 novel (which was, in turn, adapted from a play she’d written). Caspary’s Laura was a “bachelor girl” and career woman — someone not unlike Caspary herself. Working for a New York ad agency, she’s Peggy Olson twenty years before that character took on Madison Ave. Certainly ahead of her time, but mysterious?
*. No. In the book she’s a kind person (the word most often used to describe her is “generous”), and despite being a professional she has a romantic streak that gets her into what she later realizes is trouble. Caspary would later describe her, I think critically, as an “independent girl who earned her living and pampered her lovers.”
*. But like any good proto-Cosmo girl Laura sees someone like Waldo Lydecker, who she has some genuine affection for, mainly as a resource to be mined. Not quite a sugar daddy maybe, but pretty close to it. Though they also work well as a team. In one analysis she’s his beard, while he runs interference for her, protecting her from worthless suitors. But it was a good decision to cut the scene (included with the DVD) where Waldo talks about how he made her. That doesn’t ring quite true. I don’t think Lydecker actually understands her at all.
*. For Danny Peary, Laura and Waldo make “the best couple imaginable” in the film, meaning not so much that they’re made for each other as that the alternatives (for her) are so much worse. I think Molly Haskell means something similar when she called them “a dazzling team.”
*. I have to confess I don’t understand what Laura sees in Shelby at all. Neither did Daryl Zanuck, who had a lot of problems with the film at pretty much every stage of its production. Shelby’s just not in Laura’s league. But I don’t think McPherson offers much better. Surely she’ll grow tired of him in a couple of weeks.

*. But in the movie much of the information we need to judge these matters is lost or transformed. Part of the problem is that the book had a sort of collage narrative switching from different points of view (the model was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins). In the movie we only hear Lydecker’s voice as narrative, though the second half of the movie is usually seen as being “told” from McPherson’s point of view (and for which he was originally meant to provide voiceover). Laura herself becomes a kind of blank, not unlike her famous portrait. A portrait you can fall in love with, though without knowing what you’re falling for.
*. Another change from the book is the character of Lydecker. In the novel he’s “a big hunk of blubber” whose “fat flesh shook like cafeteria jello.” He also wears glasses all the time. This reminded me of the character of Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, who is also a fat, bespectacled man-boy. Certainly not Anthony Perkins any more than Caspary’s Lydecker is Clifton Webb. Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with fat people other than use them as comic figures.
*. As a side note, Laird Cregar was considered for the part. He’d actually played a similar obsessive in I Wake Up Screaming and I think he would have been great here. But apparently Preminger thought it was too much typecasting after Cregar’s turn in The Lodger, and that his appearance would tip the audience off right away as to Lydecker being the villain.
*. Making Lydecker trim (Webb thought he looked like Gandhi when sitting in the tub), doesn’t help much in understanding his attraction to Laura. Roger Ebert describes Waldo as “a man insanely jealous of a woman even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual.” I’m not so sure of that. Though Webb was in fact gay I don’t find his performance here as camp as many people do. Instead he just seems like an intellectual shit. The character he most reminds me of is Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. Meanwhile, Caspary imagined him as impotent, a point symbolized by his gun being improbably concealed in his cane.
*. Building on this latter point, Haskell took Waldo as the “perfect example” of the figure of the “sexually unthreatening male.” Yes and no. If anything, I’d say Vincent Price’s Shelby Carpenter seems the gay, unthreatening one. Apparently, however, he is just meant to be dissolute. But in neither case does sexuality seem to be in play. Lydecker wants to possess Laura sort of like an art object (much as the next character Webb would play, Cathcart in The Dark Corner, would collect his wife Mira). Carpenter only wants her money, and is perfectly content to drop her for a sugar mommy of his own at the end (Judith Anderson).

*. This leaves us with McPherson as the last man standing, and if you’re picking up some romantic vibes coming off of Dana Andrews here then you’re more sensitive to these things than I am. He seems one of the least engaged (emotionally or intellectually) lovers I’ve ever seen. And is Laura really that interested in him? It’s hard to tell, though whether this is more the fault of the script or the performances is hard to say. Manny Farber described Laura as being “acted by Gene Tierney with no other qualities than there are in a fashion mannequin,” and dismissed Andrews’ McPherson as merely “wooden.” Ebert thought the two leads “cardboard”: Tierney “never seems emotionally involved” and Andrews is a portrait in indifference.
*. Yes, on the surface. And perhaps the surface is all we’re supposed to care about. But I think maybe they’re both playing the angles. I don’t agree with David Thomson’s thought that the film presents “a profound, nearly surreal romance in which desire is seen as more potent than any realization.” Unless. that is, you go on to explain desire for what?
*. It’s a movie that’s much loved (Pauline Kael: “Everybody’s favorite chic murder mystery”), probably more for its oddness than for any feeling we have for the characters. The median split, with McPherson falling asleep beneath Laura’s portrait is sometimes seen as opening the door for interpreting the rest of the film by way of dream analysis, which isn’t strictly justified but does go some way to explain the film’s swerve into ever greater weirdness. And if you consider the absurdity of the initial premise (because the victim was wearing Laura’s clothes and her face has been shot off she is misidentified as Laura?), that’s pretty weird.
*. To take just one example, McPherson doesn’t seem like much of a cop, does he? As Ebert observes, he never even goes to the station (though that depends on where you think he interrogates Laura). To which we might add he never seems to work much with other cops, preferring to let Lydecker follow him around. Is he already playing Lydecker, suspecting something is up? Is there any attraction between them? Critics have looked at that opening bathtub scene and raised their eyebrows. Is a game of seduction going on? And why does he leave the murder weapon at Laura’s place, saying he’ll pick it up in the morning? He can’t be using it as bait to catch Lydecker because Waldo has already stolen a march on him.

*. Not everybody likes it. Manny Farber concluded his contemporary review saying “it is hard to find anything good in Laura, or simply anything.” What he mainly objected to, I think, is the film’s emphasis on superficiality at the expense of moral significance. Even the film’s champions will go along with some of this. Laura is a clever and stylish picture certainly, but it’s also kind of silly and has a maddening (or mysterious) vagueness about it. The question I keep coming back to is whether that’s the point: that this is all there is to Laura and Mark.
*. It’s a movie full of memorable bits. From the opening line “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” through David Raksin’s Laura theme, the iconic portrait (actually a photograph of Tierney that was painted over), the opening scene with Lydecker in the tub and McPherson taking his measure, the unobtrusive way the clock keeps working its way into the frame, the justly celebrated turn in the middle of the picture with McPherson creepily going through Laura’s personal items before falling asleep beneath her portrait, and finally Lydecker’s hunting of Laura while his own voice, pre-recorded to play on a radio show, talks about love in the background. There aren’t a lot of movies that give you as many moments as this.
*. As observers have often pointed out, it’s a mystery without a mystery (since we don’t really care about poor Diane Redfern). It’s also a romance without any romance, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. It’s usually classified as a film noir, but the connection seems shaky there too. In the BFI 100 Film Noirs volume, for example, Jim Hillier admits it is “not a particularly typical film noir” (but then, what is?). In terms of its narrative it seems almost like a fragment: a story that the audiences comes in late for, and which ends before everything is wrapped up. That’s not a fault, but just another point that adds to its obscurity and appeal.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

*. While The Maltese Falcon is often referred to as the first film noir, this Fox title was made at almost exactly the same time and on the DVD commentary noir historian Eddie Muller makes a case for it being just as important. He describes it as “one of the first films that can legitimately be called film noir” and identifies it as the very first noir produced at Fox.
*. I mention this not to argue the case for it being the first noir, or proto-noir, or something else but only to indicate that it was an early example of what would evolve into a type. Some of the iconic noir elements are already here. There’s the dramatic use of shadow. There’s a pair of his-and-hers police interrogations, one of them under a glaring (not to mention steaming) spotlight. There’s an innocent man on the run from the law.

*. And yet for all the film’s psychological creepiness, it’s missing something of the noir edge. Muller mentions a couple of ways this is expressed. In the first place there are the many abrupt gear shifts from thriller (the murder mystery) to romantic comedy (young lovers on the lam). To this I would add the way Victor Mature plays the character of Frankie Christopher/Botticelli. It’s almost as though Frankie doesn’t take the jeopardy he’s in seriously, even when his life is on the line.
*. The other factor that lightens the noir edge is the score. Or the lack of an original score and the use of Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” throughout. Yes, “Over the Rainbow.” And I do mean throughout. Muller laughs at how many times it gets played. Is it inappropriate? I think so. The thing is, you can’t hear that song today (and probably couldn’t in 1941) and not think of The Wizard of Oz (1939), so it turns into a distraction as well as not really being suited to the action.
*. I also wonder how they got the rights to it. The Wizard of Oz was an MGM release and this is a Fox movie. I’m assuming they paid for it, but that just makes me wonder all the more why they wanted it.
*. I’m not a fan of Victor Mature, and even in a movie like this I think he falls short. As so often in noir, it’s the heavy who holds our interest. Unfortunately, while the imposing Laird Cregar starts off strong, by the end of the picture I almost feel that he’s become bored with the role. I enjoyed his almost sadistic pleasure in hunting Frankie though, and the way his “300 pounds of sexual perversion” (Muller) looms over America’s pin-up queen Betty Grable.

*. There are a couple of special touches. I like how the musical number is presented as a test shoot of the murdered woman being watched by several of the suspects. That was a neat idea. Also interesting was Cregar’s shrine to the victim. Is this the first such shrine in a movie? They would become almost standard in later stalker stories. Cornell’s worship of Vicky has reminded some critics of Lydecker’s obsession with Laura, and I suppose it may in fact have been an influence on that story most immediately.
*. I also liked the shot where the camera seems to pass through the florist’s window, taking us inside so we can hear the dialogue. For some reason Muller objects to it. I’m not sure why. When Welles’s camera passed through the skylight in Citizen Kane (a movie released only a month earlier) it was a showstopper.
*. The source novel by Steve Fisher had the same title. The movie, however, was originally released as Hot Spot, which I believe refers to the electric chair (a punishment Frankie is threatened with). After some fighting with the studio I Wake Up Screaming was restored. I’m not sure I agree with the decision. While catchy, I don’t see where it has anything to do with the movie. I haven’t read the book and I’m not sure where it comes from or what it refers to. I can’t even make a guess as to who might be waking up screaming.
*. It’s an interesting movie in a lot of ways. The leads were all just becoming stars. A new genre was coming into being. Cregar’s Cornell is a memorable villain with an obsession that would go on to have a long life (though Cregar himself would not). Elisha Cook Jr., hapless as always, is good for a laugh in his big scene. Victor Mature tossing his cigarette onto the deck at the public pool is one of those vintage moments that stick in your head, as was his line that nobody in their right mind goes to a library at 9 o’clock in the morning. Not true!

Detour (1945)

*. Why is a movie as bad as Detour considered to be a classic? Not because it’s so bad it’s good, in a campy Plan 9 from Outer Space sort of way. Its shortcomings aren’t that entertaining. And I don’t think it scores points for being quick on its feet at just over an hour. In fact, on every occasion I’ve seen it again I’ve been disappointed at how slow it moves. So, to ask the question David Thomson asks (but doesn’t answer): “how is a film like Detour endurable?”
*. I think its durability and the high esteem in which its held (however reserved) is due mainly to its purity. There are many formal elements of noir in place, and they’re taken to an extreme. In the foreground is the weak male lead, Al Roberts (Tom Neal). Al isn’t just a wimp, he is the wimp. It’s there in the flaccid brow of his hat and his hangdog face and his constant harping on all the bad breaks in his life — breaks that he can’t even rouse himself enough to get mad about. Instead he just registers as peevish and petulant.
*. Roger Ebert: “Most noir heroes are defeated through their weaknesses. Few have been weaker than Roberts. He narrates the movie by speaking directly to the audience, mostly in a self-pitying whine. He’s pleading his case, complaining that life hasn’t given him a fair break.” That sounds right to me.
*. Before moving on, I’ll interject a point here that Ebert and a lot of other critics I’ve read bring up, and which was apparently first raised by Andrew Britton. This is the idea that we need to call into question Al’s account. But why? Sure, we have no way of knowing if he’s telling us the truth. And I guess he has plenty of reasons to lie. But you could say the same for almost any first-person narrative. We can’t be sure if any voiceover, in any movie, is telling us the truth. What’s the point in doubting Al? “The world is full of skeptics,” Al tells us. Yes it is, but I don’t see where such speculation gets us.

*. Returning to what I’ve called the purity of Detour and its archetypal leads, we next have Vera (Ann Savage). She takes Al’s weakness and flips it to the opposite extreme. It’s hard to think of a femme more fatale. I will, however, pull up short of Danny Peary’s judgment on the pair. Yes, “Roberts is one of the screen’s all-time great losers,” but is Vera “quite possibly the most despicable female in movie history”? She’s bad, but shares the same sense of a fate controlling her destiny as Al. I think she knows that she’s a loser too. Only that knowledge has made her bitter where it’s led him to become resigned.
*. Adding to my list of pure noir elements is the dialogue. We expect some jaded poetry, tough talk, or snappy patter in a noir but as Peary points out the script here reads like a Bartlett’s of such gems. Again I would insist that these aren’t good lines, but they are somehow the essence of noir. Al’s description of a ten dollar bill as “a piece of paper crawling with germs,” or Vera as looking like she had been “thrown off the crumbiest freight train in the world.” The bickering over the cut Vera is going to take on the sale of the car. Vera mocking Al about getting caught and winding up “sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers.” It’s practically all like this.
*. Fate is the final noir element that I’d add to the list. It’s Al’s fixation but as I’ve also said Vera is just as stuck on its workings. “Life’s like a ball game. You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you find it’s the ninth inning.” And it’s not just talk. The thing is, Al’s story is one of terrible coincidences and bad breaks, to the point where, like the characterization of Al and Vera and the cheesy dialogue, it comes to seem almost ridiculous.
*. Detour‘s reputation soon outgrew the film itself. I always believed the legend (repeated by everybody who wrote about it) that it had been shot in 6 days for $20,000. Actually it was shot in 18 or (in some reports) 28 days (which strikes me as rather a lot) and cost over $100,000 (going well over budget). Does that change how we view it? I think it does make it seem a less impressive achievement. Couldn’t Roger Corman have done as much with less? Given how much time and money Ulmer actually had to work with, what excuse is there for the film’s more slapdash qualities?
*. Maybe not. Maybe there’s something to the idea that Edgar G. Ulmer was the Orson Welles of Poverty Row. I’m not as impressed, though I do enjoy Detour quite a bit. But I think it’s more of a guilty pleasure, something to be enjoyed for its silliness. It’s not a movie whose craft I appreciate in any department, or one that carries much of a message. To just change the title a bit, I’d call it a diversion.

Border Incident (1949)

*. Dana Polan begins his DVD commentary on Border Incident by mentioning how it’s less a film noir (as it’s usually packaged) than it is a police procedural or what he calls a “government agency film.” I think he’s right, and I’d also call it an issue movie, one that addresses a timely political matter.
*. Here the issue being dealt with is illegal immigration, a subject introduced by opening voiceover (typical, Polan tells us, of the government agency film). It’s certainly a timely enough political issue today, and Border Incident could probably be compared in interesting ways to Sicario. Even more timely, however, are the pictures of the All-American canal, the largest irrigation canal in the world, diverting water from the Colorado River to California’s Imperial Valley, turning the desert into a paradise. It’s not a point the film raises, but today I think we see all this and wonder how sustainable it is. As big an issue as illegal immigration continues to be, California running out of water may be bigger.
*. Whatever the issue being explored, Border Incident feels very contemporary. The reason, I’m almost sad to say, is its abrupt and brutal violence. Polan remarks on how life is cheap in many of director Anthony Mann’s movies, but it seems especially so here. People are just commodities, not so different from cabbages. Actually killing people isn’t as hard a job as disposing of the bodies after. Having a farm or a handy pit of quicksand is helpful.
*. Speaking of which: quicksand in a desert canyon? I’m not sure that’s even possible. Also, according to experts, drowning in quicksand is very unlikely anyway. In a movie that otherwise scores a lot of points for its brutal realism the quicksand pit is a false note.
*. On the subject of brutality, how is George Murphy being tortured in the truck scene? It seems to be pulling on him in some way but it’s not clear to me what is being done. Looks painful though, and the image of him being caught in the headlights nicely foreshadows his final moments.

*. It’s beautifully photographed, as usual, by frequent Mann collaborator John Alton, but there’s more to it visually than just the painting in light. The scene where Ricardo Montalban visits Murphy, who is imprisoned in a tower, is perfectly handled in terms of making use of that space in a way that allows us to understand what is going on and thus experience Montalban’s predicament and how athletically he gets out of it. That’s not at all as easy a thing as it seems. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker we wouldn’t have as clear a sense of what is going on and where the characters are in relation to one another.

*. Remarkably, it’s a movie where the violence still has the power to shock. This is felt in various places throughout the film, but most powerfully at the end with the murder of Murphy’s character. Yes, the all-American boy becomes mulch under the blades of the disc while his Mexican counterpart is the hero. What makes this even more surprising is the way they play with the idea that Montalban is going to be able to rescue him at the last minute. I think this is what everyone in the audience would have been expecting (it’s what I was expecting!) and to have that hope snuffed out in such a horrific way is very contemporary. There are few scenes I can think of so bleak in other movies of the time.
*. Polan praises the sound design in the water tower sequence where there’s no music but only the soft sound of the pump in the background. I think we could say the same about Murphy’s death, where again there is no music and all we hear is the clanking noise of the tractor’s caterpillar treads (like those of a tank). Added to this is the fact that Murphy makes no sound, no call for help, no scream, no muttering to himself. He is without speech in extremis.
*. For all its violence, the political issue of the braceros is actually kind of quaint. No one is smuggling drugs, and the braceros aren’t gangsters themselves or women being forced into prostitution. They’re just farm labour. The only real problem here is that they’re being murdered by the smugglers after they get paid.
*. Another surprising element is that, for a police procedural, the police really aren’t that effective. The bad guys are ahead of them every step of the way, and are ultimately only foiled because they fall out among themselves (for reasons I wasn’t clear on). On the plus side, at least our boys aren’t undone by a femme fatale. They aren’t falling for any floozies. But even here, among the few female characters we do see the gang seem to be miles ahead of the cops. The woman at the staging place for the braceros identifies Montalban immediately by his soft hands, while Amboy’s wife easily gets the drop on him while he’s on the phone. So despite not being sexual snares the ladies are still playing a game that’s more advanced than the men.
*. This is a good little movie, suspenseful and very professionally turned out. It’s bleakness and “uncompromisingly violent” (Leonard Maltin) story help it stand out from other titles of the time that were almost as dark. Just ignore the closing narration and its invocation of the happy valley and “the bounty of God Almighty.” This is a movie about the valley of the shadow of death.