Columbia Noir: Chicago Syndicate (1955)

chicagosynThere’s a few stories behind Chicago Syndicate possibly more interesting than anything in the film itself. Twenty-three-year-old singer/dancer Abbe Lane plays Connie Peters, the mistress of the criminal syndicate overlord Arnold ‘Arnie’ Valent (Paul Stewart). Connie is a nightclub performer fronting Benny Chico’s band, and she oozes sensual allure- these nightclub song/dance routines are a frequent staple of noir of this period – nightclubs for criminals were like what football clubs are for millionaires now- and Lane’s is one of the finest I’ve seen. The curious thing is that in real life, Abbe Lane was married to the guy playing the bandleader –  Xavier ‘Cugie’ Cugat, thirty-two years her senior. Cugat’s Benny Chico, hopelessly smitten by his singer, looks an unlikely partner for Abbe in the film but there you go- truth proving stranger than fiction. The two would divorce years later, whereupon Cugat went and married a twenty-year-old singer, then forty-five years his junior. That guy had a gift for charming the ladies and a few tales he could tell, I’m sure. Next time I watch the film I’ll keep my eye on him; no wonder he had a swagger and a twinkle in his eye. 

According to the excellent Indicator book that accompanies this set, the other female lead in the film, Allison Hayes, suffered horse-riding accidents while making two seperate Westerns subsequent to this film, and suffered ill-health afterwards, eventually dying in 1977 at the far too-young age of 46. She really quite impresses in Chicago Syndicate, playing a woman with a surprise motivation who is much more than she initially seems – a twist that actually caught me by surprise, so it was masked quite well and I won’t divulge it here. In any case, she makes a solid leading lady and romantic interest.

Chicago Syndicate is a pretty good film; the opening narration over the first reel or so, and the preachy script setting things up regards the general plot (a criminal syndicate needs taking down by the good old boys of law and order), proved rather underwhelming, but thankfully things settled down and the film proved quite fun with, yes, some genuine surprises. Interesting characters with some fine acting helped to lift things up too, and its one of those films that just gets better as it goes along. That real-world trivia I noted earlier is really just the icing on the cake which adds a certain spice and pathos to the film.

Dennis O’Keefe (who I’d just seen in Walk A Crooked Mile) makes for a decent, if unremarkable hero, rather overshadowed by Paul Stewart’s villain but he’s hardly the first good guy to have his film stolen by the bad guy: its curious how so many bad guys have meatier background stories and arcs in these movies, something not exclusive to noir but its certainly very common in noir. Somehow I can’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment whenever the villain comes unstuck in noir movies, they tend to blur our allegiances, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s undone by a woman, another typical noir trope. These guys never learn.

Columbia Noir: Pushover (1954)

pushoverWatching old films for the first time from the vantage point of, in this case 2021, is that the perspective cannot be anything like watching a film when it first came out. In the case of Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Pushover, I suppose my viewing was skewed from having seen Fred MacMurray so many times in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Kim Novak being, in my eyes, forever the doomed fantasy of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

In MacMurray’s case, he will always be the slimy cheat Mr Sheldrake that I despised so much whenever I re-watched The Apartment growing up, so I had no problem at all with Pushover‘s greedy detective Sheridan, smitten by Kim Novak’s Lona McLane and tempted by the chance of what he thinks is easy, life-changing money. Far as I was concerned, its perfect casting – I seem to recall reading of people actually being shocked by his turn in The Apartment as they had previously watched him in his run of wholesome Disney family titles, but on the evidence of films like Pushover, it seems to me he was almost lazily cast to type in Wilder’s dark comedy. There’s a nervous edge to him that’s fascinating to watch and I’m almost surprised he didn’t have a career typecast as a Hollywood bad guy. There’s something wrong about him, and he’s perfect here; I believed in his fall from grace absolutely. Of course, he’d done much the same in Billy Wilder’s earlier noir classic, Double Indemnity.

As for Kim Novak, I’m beginning to think my film education needs some revision. Novak didn’t make very many films, really, considering how famous/infamous she is, and I’ve actually seen almost none of them. I grew up seeing her late in life in the frankly awful television series Falcon Crest in the 1980s, and nothing else until I caught up with Vertigo and was totally blown away. But that’s it, until I saw her in the very average thriller 5 Against the House  early last year (part of Indicator’s first Columbia Noir set), a film which did her few favours, really, but in Pushover she’s quite incandescent. In this she has star written all over her, and I believe this was her Hollywood debut, no less. There’s always some kind of tag line about someone being the hottest thing to hit film since whatever, but in this case it would have been very true- Novak is hot, hot, hot. Just twenty-one, I understand, when she made this film, her turn is at times daring (her dress in her first scene that is practically see-through), at times sympathetic, at times over the top… its a tour de force and frankly totally distracting. I couldn’t take my eyes of her and she really makes MacMurray’s fall not just believable, but actually inevitable.

After the pretty mundane Walk A Crooked Mile, this film is a real return to form for this fourth Indicator noir box- Pushover is totally noir, totally cool and totally dark and fascinating. I loved it. There is something wonderful watching a guy’s increasing desperation as his scheme continues to unravel and the clear futility of him trying to get things back on track. Novak’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, and I think its quite a pity she was never (as far as I know) cast as a genuine, scheming femme-fatale in some dark noir. You’d believe she could turn a man to anything and I suspect, on the strength of this film, that Hollywood missed a trick. Or maybe not: its actually curious how much her Lona McLane is like her Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton character in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For a woman who seems so naturally gifted with an ability to bewitch and control men, she always seems so fragile and easily manipulated by them: almost a sweet girl in a body built for sin, quite a combination, and perhaps an indication of her real persona?

In any case, Pushover is a simply terrific noir: it looks ravishing at times, mostly shot at night in streets hammered by rain, and it has all the usual tropes of lots of smoking and drinking, with a rather disturbing dash of voyeurism when a cop spies upon McLane’s pretty neighbour who doesn’t realise she’s being watched and really shouldn’t be, especially by a guy who creepily has the hots for her while he should be watching her neighbour. There’s shades of the more uncomfortable moments of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which curiously was released the very same year so while I thought, when watching Pushover, that it was simply mimicking Hitchcock’s classic, I should have given it more credit- I imagine both films were shooting pretty much concurrently and its just a case of Hollywood coincidence. 

Very often watching these ‘old’ movies, I see familiar names in the credits, catching my eye- in this case, that of Arthur Morton, who composed this films effective score but is much more famous to me for his later career as a Hollywood orchestrator, chiefly for the scores of Jerry Goldsmith, particularly Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Poltergeist, First Blood, Innerspace… you name it, practically  every soundtrack by Goldsmith I ever bought has Morton’s name in the credits. I didn’t actually appreciate he worked as a film composer in his own right, so hey, you learn something new every day. 

Director Richard Quine had earlier directed the excellent noir Drive a Crooked Road and would later direct one of my favourite comedies, How to Murder Your Wife, which I have on Blu-ray and really need to watch again sometime soon. He also made two more films that starred Kim Novak which I have on my watchlist already: Bell Book and Candle and Strangers When We Meet, which like too many older movies are just very hard to get hold of, certainly on Blu-ray. If only Indicator could turn their attention to them and treat them to that magical Indicator TLC.

 

Columbia Noir: Walk A Crooked Mile (1948)

walk1Not, as the title might suggest to our more sequel/prequel/reboot-cynical eyes, a prequel to Columbia’s 1954 noir Drive A Crooked Road, this is a pretty mundane espionage thriller that’s shot in a semi-documentary style, as if its a dramatic re-enactment of contemporary events. Unfortunately that documentary style, peppering the film with a distracting, incessant narration, dilutes the film of any actual drama – it simply doesn’t work properly as a dramatic film. Indeed when watching the film I wondered how this would work on its original theatrical release, regards whether audiences back then more readily accepted being preached at and warned/informed of a horrible Red Menace. I guess its just a case of a film being of its time.

Russian spies have somehow infiltrated atomic research facility Lakeview Labs, the FBI stumbling upon a nefarious scheme stealing crucial atomic formulas out of the country, shipping them to London (and then onwards to Eastern Bloc locations unknown) hidden inside oil paintings. Thanks to the London link, Scotland Yard ‘exchange agent’ Scotty Grayson (Louis Hayward) has come to America to assist his colleagues in the F.B.I. in bringing down their common Red enemy. Partnered with F.B.I. agent Dan O’Hara (Dennis O’Keefe), Grayson works to uncover and bring down the spy network before it can steal all Lakeview Labs research and possibly use its formulas against the Free World. 

As you can possibly imagine, there is a lot of preaching in this film- its practically a propaganda piece and full of paranoia; audiences likely lapped it all up back then but it feels very forced and more than a little unpalatable now. That said, though, one has to remember here in the UK we recently had the situation of the Salisbury poisonings so maybe films like this are a timely reminder of how little has actually changed for the better. I can only imagine how the high-tensions of this films era would have reacted to such events back then (American citizens actually poisoned by chemical warfare? Yikes!).

How much this film qualifies as noir is debatable. It has some visual noir references and naturally all the subversive menace it accounts is a typical noir staple. What I always get from films like this is a great appreciation from seeing what is essentially a Lost World, especially with this films semi-documentary style allowing us here a pretty candid, realistic look at San Francisco’s 1940s streets, decor and fashion. I just have an endless fascination with the Time Machine aspects of films like this- the mood and tensions of the era, the ‘look’ of the world back then. Walk A Crooked Mile may not work as a film as films should, but its does give me a glimpse of another world that is quite enthralling and seductive. Also, spotting locations from other films is always a bit thrilling- I believe I glimpsed the apartment building from which Scottie tails Madeleine Elster in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Brocklebank Apartments, 1000 Mason Street on Nob Hill) through a car window in one fleeting shot.

Even better then, is that Indicator’s new release (this film first up in its latest Columbia Noir boxset) features an intriguing documentary short Routine Job: A Story of Scotland Yard (1946) portraying the routine work of detectives in the London of its day, a world as much science fiction now as anything in a James Cameron Avatar movie.  Filmed in real London locations and featuring what does seem to be real people its a more rewarding watch, to me, than the main feature, and one of those cases of special features outweighing what should have been the main draw. And hey, you can even watch it here for free on good old YouTube if you have no interest in the noir box. I’m dubious that I’ll be rewatching Walk A Crooked Mile very often, but this short feature will likely pull me back with its hypnotic window to the past and its own long-gone city and people. 

The 2021 List: August

I don’t know how, but I’ve managed to reach the magic 100 by the end of this month. The irony is that its not really been a target this year, as I’d intended to try keep the quality up (watch less, watch better) this year, so I’m not really sure how well I’ve kept to that maxim. That said, this wasn’t a bad month quality-wise. Babylon Berlin, which I haven’t gotten around to reviewing yet was a particularly fine series and I look forward to catching up with the third season sometime. Film-wise I didn’t really see an absolute stinker (The Blood Beast Terror possibly qualifies but I hadn’t expected much of it anyhow) and the film noir films I watched were very good. So August wasn’t a bad month at all, I even managed to fit in some quality re-watches thanks to some 4K releases and a lack of new/interesting stuff handed me opportunity to pick discs off the shelf that I haven’t seen in awhile.

Real-life problems are increasingly impinging my time for viewing films and writing posts, and I can’t see that getting any better for awhile yet. Ain’t getting older and all the resultant responsibilities grand? It may be that my posts may have to get a little shorter and there may be a few spells of slim updates but I’ll see how it goes, I enjoy the writing etc and would hate to see things slide too far. 

September will see a few notable releases – I should have Arrow’s 4K edition of Dune in a few days, the new 4K edition of The Thing is due in a few weeks and there’s that Star Trek 4K set of the first four films coming out. Towards the end of the month Indicator should have some discs coming my way too (yay, another Columbia Noir set as well as what is said to be the film Peter Cushing most regretted being involved in- how intriguing is that?). I’m certain there’s going to be a few surprises I’m not even aware of yet; Amazon of course has the Eva rebuild films including the finale. Its all just a matter of finding the time, and I’m certain if I can manage that it will be a very interesting month ahead indeed. 

Television

92) Babylon Berlin Season One

93) Babylon Berlin Season Two

Films

94) Gilda (1946)

95) Enemy (2013)

96) The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

97) Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed (2021)

98) On Dangerous Ground (1951)

99) Gun Crazy (1949)

100) Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

Gun Crazy (1949)

gun1Bart (Russ Tamblyn) is first seen as a young man smashing a gun store window in order to steal a gun, and its then revealed that he has had an unhealthy fascination with guns ever since he was given a bb-rifle when a child (the reasoning that buying a child a bb gun is a good idea is uniquely American, I guess). Bart is caught during the theft and subsequently sent to reform school. Several years later when he returns home as a young man (at this point played by John Dall) fresh from a stint in the army, it’s clear he hasn’t grown out of his obsession with guns.

A trip to a carnival soon changes his life when he attends a demonstration by beautiful sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr and enters a shooting match against her – each becomes attracted by the other’s skill with guns; the chemistry between them is immediate, gunplay as foreplay in a very daring sequence. Soon after Bart joins the carnival to be with Laurie, the two run foul of the jealous carnival owner, Packett (Berry Kroeger), and they run away, soon falling into a life of crime robbing gas stations and banks in order to get the life of luxury that Annie craves. On the run from the law, their crimes escalate and it can only end one way once the FBI get involved.

Joseph H Lewis’ Gun Crazy feels a mixture of surprisingly modern (it could have been made yesterday, and probably has been when one considers Badlands, True Romance, Natural Born Killers etc), and wildly profane (I find the gun fetish displayed within the film quite abhorrent but I suppose across the pond individual mileage may differ). Both lovers seem as aroused by their gunplay as in each other, and the early scene where they meet and compete in a shooting contest has such brazenly sexual undertones that it makes me wonder how it got past censors in 1949 – I can only imagine they were side-tracked by the films stylised direction/photography and the pseudo-psychotherapy used as some vague explanation/justification of Bart’s actions.

The film features possibly the most quintessential femme fatale that I have ever seen; Bart’s lover Annie (Peggy Cummins) a beautiful blonde temptress who uses her wiles to coerce well-meaning (albeit gun-obsessed) Bart to criminality. After Annie declares that  “I want things, a lot of things, big things,” she threatens Bart that “You better kiss me goodbye, Bart, because I won’t be here when you get back.” After Bart backs down, she huskily announces “next time you wake up, Bart, look over at me lying there beside you. I’m yours and I’m real,” the sexual heat that Annie oozes is almost tactile and Bart can forbid her nothing. Once Bart sees her and falls for her, there’s no escape for him, nor for her either, funnily enough. If they had never met they may have had fairly ordinary lives but together triggered a fetish-driven plunge into violent crime and grim ends. Very noir.

Some connections-

Joseph H Lewis also made the impressive noir The Big Combo and The Undercover Man.

John Dall, so memorable as the ice-cold killer in Hitchcock’s Rope before making Gun Crazy, would later appear in Spartacus but all told was in just eight films before dying in 1971 at the age of just 51. I thought Dall was brilliant in Gun Crazy but while both Rope and Gun Crazy are quite highly respected now, they failed at the box-office at the time, likely explaining his limited film career. Irish actress Peggy Cummins passed in 2017 at the grand age of 92; of her 29 film roles, nothing seems to have been like her role here as hot-tempered Annie, and other than Gun Crazy, her most notable appearance is probably in the 1957 horror classic Night of the Demon – she seems to have retired from acting in the mid-sixties.

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

dangerous1While Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground in some respects betrays its age with some of its melodrama, settings and fashions (sometimes period films can seem like so much science fiction, its so alien) and certainly isn’t quite the film that Ray intended it to be (the film was shelved for two years and altered in post-production against his wishes) it is nonetheless a massively impressive, fascinating picture. In a clever usurping of the ‘wholesome good cop/authority figure’ characters of Between Midnight to Dawn (1950), a more routine crime drama in which clean-cut cops remain untarnished by the dirt they are working in, this film feels much more honest and real. For the first thirty minutes its a distinctly brutal noir showing how a good hard-working cop has been dehumanised by the relentless grimness of his job, genuinely traumatised by the lowlife underbelly of society he has to work in and the negative public perception of cops (a pretty woman confesses she’d never date a cop). Then when he is tasked with investigating a sex-murder out in the high mountains away from the city the film becomes a romantic melodrama and study of redemption. Would anyone believe a happy ending in a film noir? On Dangerous Ground‘s ending, if it doesn’t entirely convince, at least suggests that a ‘happy ever after’ and redemption can be possible, however fleeting.

As our frustrated honest cop Jim Wilson, Robert Ryan is some kind of revelation with a fantastic performance- his rage is evident in his chiselled jawline and stark eyes, but there’s a subtle fragility there too. His job is gradually destroying him, that much is clear; his worried partners and boss Captain Brawley (Ed Begley) know that Jim is a good man teetering on the edge, and that’s why Brawley sends him out of the city to cool down. The city sequences in which Jim lashes out at anyone who opposes him (viciously beating a suspect and allowing a woman to fall foul of the criminals she snitched on) are gritty and convincing, with an occasional hand-held camera really intensifying the you-are-there feeling. Accompanied by moody driving sequences and a brilliant Bernard Herrmann score, the film prefigures Taxi Driver by some twenty years and is surely an inspiration for Scorsese’s film, from the rain-swept city streets at night to the alienation felt by Jim: one could almost imagine Jim ruminating “one day a real rain will wash away these streets.”

But then Jim is sent to the mountain wilderness of snow and bitter cold, the landscapes suddenly devoid of humanity, barren and stark and beautiful (the location photography in these sequences is exquisite and really impressive- magnificent desolation indeed). The tonal shift is immediate, particularly in Jim- tasked with accompanying the child victim’s father Walter Brent (Ward Bond) who is incandescent with rage and desperate for bloody revenge, wildly brandishing his shotgun- he’s everything Jim was back in the city, and Jim is suddenly faced with seeing himself in Walter and appreciating the folly of his own violent madness. Tracking the child’s killer in deep snow, Jim and Walter reach an isolated farmstead and meet Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind woman who assures them she lives alone and has no knowledge of anyone else being there, despite the tracks saying different. Why would Mary, a decent honest woman who ultimately offers Jim some kind of redemption from his past, hide the killer? 

dangerous 4On Dangerous Ground is quite remarkable. It shouldn’t really work, and I guess some noir aficionado’s would claim it doesn’t, citing its ending and the romantic interludes that lead up to it, but that’s just part of what makes it so memorable and unique. The wilderness scenes were shot in Colorado and are amazing, really- the snow and the blizzards are real and the filming must have been something of a nightmare, but its totally effective, barring what look like a very few front-projection shots (reshoots setting-up the happy ending?). The cast is excellent and Herrmann’s music just sublime, shades of what we would hear in Vertigo several years later. The miracle of so many old films such as these is how timeless they seem to be, and how perfect they are. Script, direction, acting, production values, everything seems to click into place in spite of or perhaps because of low budgets (necessity the mother of all invention, a lesson so many bloated modern films should heed). 

So ultimately we come back to that earlier question I raised- would anyone believe a happy ending in a film noir? Or maybe we are supposed to take it on face value, and then only afterwards start to doubt it, realise its only the promise of a happy ending, and that maybe the noir wins out after all, maybe a missing reel onwards that we never see. Endings in movies are funny things after all, and quite arbitrary. We often see couples walk off together into the sunset, films ending well before we see them divorcing months/years later, or characters dying- well, that’s how everybody’s story ends eventually; films just tie things up and cut us loose before Time wreaks its inevitable revenge. But I digress (I’ve seen perhaps too many noir movies this year), so I’ll choose my own ending here.

Another Murder By Contract

murder2Its becoming clear to me that August has been a largely a month of re-watching movies, whether it be because of new 4K editions (True Romance), revisiting films that perplexed me first time around (Tenet), or just revisiting old favourites, as in the case of this film, the noir classic Murder By Contract, which came out as part of the second of Indicator’s Columbia Noir boxsets and which I first watched back in March. The fact that I have returned to it within the space of six months hopefully indicates the high regard in which I hold this film. Its really quite extraordinary. There probably isn’t anything more I can say about the film that I didn’t when I first reviewed it, but it is a remarkably cool film, from the catchy guitar score by Perry Botkin (which so good its unfathomable that Tarantino hasn’t used it in one of his films somewhere), to the deadpan performances of its cast, particularly that of Vince Edwards as psychopath assassin/amateur philosopher Claude, a character who will haunt me for years. Part genius, part idiot, a handsome dude who is horribly detached and casual in his violence until he finally, incredibly comes undone by his final target. It’d be a bit akin to casting a young Harrison Ford as Jack the Ripper or Scorpio; you want to be with Claude as he seems so cool but you know you’d be much safer in another country.

Released in 1958 (with such a low budget it was allegedly shot in just eight days), Murder By Contract was made at the tail end of the ‘classic’ American noir period, nodding towards the stylistic changes that the 1960s would bring (and the eventual advent of neo-noir). As much as it is a richly bleak noir it is a very, very black comedy. In some moments, its a little like the Wile E Coyote/Road Runner cartoon hijinks transported into a noir movie and really quite unlike any other film I have seen, other than Kiss Me Deadly and Taxi Driver, two examples which hopefully indicate just how odd a film this really is. Its a work of some crazy genius, one of the best films I will have watched this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I give it another watch before the end of the year. Some films really make a connection and this one did with me.

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

lady2I first watched this film back in 2017, when I bought the Indicator Blu-ray- I didn’t write a review about it at the time because I honestly didn’t know what to make of the film. I decided to wait for a second viewing, not realising that it would take as long as it has, but having just seen Rita Hayworth in the brilliant Gilda it seemed its time had come at last.

Second time around then, what did I think? Well, I think I’m in about the same frame of mind as I was first time around: there’s something very wrong with Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, a film that continuously veers from melodrama to farce, is peppered by brilliance but seems to waste all its promise as it routinely slips from jittery noir to black comedy to unconvincing romance to weak drama, as if there’s four different films fighting for dominance and none of them wins.

The thing I love, and find endlessly fascinating, regards film noir is that for the most part, however stylised they may be with expressionistic, nightmarish lighting etc, they are gritty, down-to-earth, realistic tales with believable, albeit flawed characters. Very often the worlds of the 1940s and 1950s may look and sound very different from our own but they are always convincing, there is always a sense of truth to them. The Lady of Shanghai deliberately bucks this approach, as if Welles was deliberately usurping Hollywood tropes, to the point at which the courtroom sequence towards the end is practically a mockery of Hollywood courtroom scenes (really, it almost seems disrespectful). The main characters, too, are far from realistic- quirky, camp, irreverent and often annoying, they don’t feel ‘real’ at all (what in the world is going on with Glenn Anders monstrously misjudged George Grisby, a central character to the plot who grates throughout?). Its hard to empathise with what is essentially a freakshow, and harder still to believe anything they do or say.

The central problem I have with the film, and its a fundamental one that it can never really recover from, is the frankly bizarre performance by Orson Welles in the role of the central protagonist, Michael O’Hara. I’m not exactly sure what Welles was trying for, and believe that as he was the writer, producer and (the oddly uncredited) director of the film, perhaps he should have hired another actor better suited for the role. He’s really pretty awful as the Irish adventurer, utterly unconvincing and painful to watch: I just didn’t ‘get’ him at all: perhaps individual mileage varies, but its hard for a film to recover when central casting derails everything. I suspect that Welles was being deliberately contrary, an intellectual approach to the role perhaps that doesn’t at all come off. Chiefly its the odd accent but to be honest, there is something wrong with the character in general: aloof, noncommittal, he doesn’t feel convincing, and most  damning of all, there seems little if any chemistry between Welles and Hayworth, who were married at the time (albeit estranged, I understand) – perhaps the state of their failing marriage surfaced in their performances. As it is, the lack of chemistry is like a black hole at the heart of the film, for all the pouting and panting Hayworth attempts here (compared to the sexual fireworks between Hayworth and Ford demonstrated in Gilda, its a bleak chasm that the film can’t climb out of).

Hayworth, of course, was ‘the Love Goddess’ of 1940s Hollywood, and her transformation from Gilda to how she appears here as femme fatale Elsa Bannister is quite astonishing, and indeed caused some consternation at the time. Gone were Hayworth’s long red locks, replaced with a short platinum-blonde hairstyle – she looks like the archetype for Kim Novak’s Madeleine from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Considering that this film came out just a year after Hayworth’s seminal role as Gilda in Charles Vidor’s classic noir, the change is breathtakingly brave (or recklessly foolish as studio head Harry Cohn believed, horrified by what Welles had done to his star performer).

Alas, Elsa isn’t nearly as fascinating as Madeleine would be a decade or so later. Certainly Hayworth is as beautiful as ever, but the character is underwritten and I suspect this too was deliberate by Welles, bucking the traditional femme fatale role. Hayworth isn’t given anything with which to chew up the noir scenery as the scheming temptress the film needs her to be. Partly this issue is down to enabling the ‘twist’ that it doesn’t want us to see coming, but this scuppers what could have been a memorable and even iconic role – Hayworth looks the part but has to play a trapped wife and insipid, romantically frustrated victim for most of it. If she’d been more of a traditional femme fatale it might have helped Welles’ Irishman to have been more convincing, too, his role then more of a traditional luckless noir hero seduced by a beautiful woman- but again, Welles isn’t making that kind of noir here. 

Welles, perhaps true to his own nature rather than as professionally workmanlike as he should have been, wasn’t looking to be traditional, and this is hardly traditional noir (brave indeed perhaps but when it undermines a film working as well as it should, perhaps actually pretty foolish). The fact that this film even IS noir is mostly down to its remarkable, visually audacious ending in a hall of mirrors (if you haven’t seen it, you’ve certainly seen some film mimicking it). After the failure of Citizen Kane and Welles subsequent loss of final cut and his troubled films after, its unfortunate that Welles couldn’t just make a more traditional, ordinary, moody noir. I’m sure it would have been spectacular (Kane itself is proof enough of that). But for some reason -likely sheer ego, it was Welles, after all- Welles seemingly couldn’t be a director for hire and play by the rules, he had to do his own thing like some crazy maverick in the studio system. Inevitably, he wouldn’t be able to find work in that studio system for long; this, the man who made Citizen Kane, arguably the finest (certainly most influential) film of all time. Turns out Welles was probably his own noir hero; how ironic is that, on the evidence of the horribly flawed The Lady From Shanghai?  

lasy3

 

Gilda (1946)

gilda1

Crikey, I’m sure nobody forgets Gilda.

I actually think my expectations were skewed somewhat by having watched Affair in Trinidad a few months ago – a film that was made several years after Gilda, reuniting its stars Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in a film with a very similar plot in a blatant attempt to recapture the earlier film’s success. So I came to Charles Vidor’s Gilda rather expecting more of the same- a similar romantic drama set in exotic climes, but instead GIlda turned out to be much more. A growing sense of unease settles in when all sorts of subtext becomes apparent, the film gradually revealing itself to be a very subversive noir with all manner of sexual tension and homoerotic intrigue (I’m endlessly surprised by just how much homoerotic tensions are often hidden under the surface in noir films- the two killers in The Big Combo the most obvious example). 

“Pardon me, but your husband is showing.”

Presumably on the run in Buenos Aires from some past he’d sooner forget crooked gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is almost undone by his slick tricks when he is saved from a dockside gunman by mysterious German sophisticate Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Mundson is a rich but crooked businessman whose illicit gambling casino across town is actually a front for something darker, and he takes Farrell under his wing, over time making the young American his right-hand man and confidante. Naturally one might wonder what Mundson was doing across town wandering the docks alone at night, but that’s one of the mysteries that simmers under the surface, unspoken. I didn’t catch onto it at first, but lines of dialogue that hint that they live together, and Farrell’s intense loyalty to Mundson which borders on psychopathic once Gilda is on the scene, begins to suggest all sorts of possible hidden meanings.

“You’re out of practice aren’t you – dancing I mean. I can help you get in practice again Johnny – dancing I mean.”

I’ve seen Glenn Ford in several noir of late, and in most all of them he is a calm, confident, quietly righteous man- he was generally cast as the handsome, clean American hero he tends to look like. Farrell, however, is a younger, rougher character than I have seen him play before, and I wonder how much he was aware of some of the subtext running under the surface: part of me thinks he must have done, but if so he was very brave accepting the role. Certainly his sexual chemistry with Hayworth is undeniable (indeed it slipped over into real-life) but his relationship with his mentor is perhaps the most interesting in the film.

“I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?”

Following a business trip Mundson returns with a surprise package- a wife, Gilda, who is, of course, the woman who Farrell is trying to forget, and all sorts of jealous tensions arise – albeit from interesting quarters and unusual directions. Indeed, what we see of Mundson’s marriage to Gilda makes one wonder what kind of marriage it is, and whether Gilda is simply a trophy wife that serves one purpose, while his young protégé serves another.

“Quite a surprise to hear a woman sing in my house, eh Johnny?”

Gilda was, essentially, a Rita Hayworth vehicle, Hayworth being a major sex-symbol at the time (famously coined ‘The Love Goddess’ during the 1940s)-  the title character being a provocative, wildly sensual woman caught between two men: Gilda‘s particular twist being the two men. Gilda remains a powerful cinematic icon, perhaps indeed a scandalous one when the film originally came out, that perhaps overshadowed Hayworth for the rest of her life. Hayworth claimed to be a naturally shy, insecure woman, quite unlike her screen character, but one has to wonder- she was married five times and had an on/off affair with Glenn Ford that lasted some forty years, and was reported to have ruefully stated that “Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.” Gilda is the kind of role that actresses die for, the role of a lifetime, and Hayworth’s remarkable performance, fiery and tender, angry and wounded, is really quite haunting with an undercurrent of truth to it which suggests that perhaps Hayworth was more like Gilda than she cared to admit. She certainly has a raw beauty and sensual charisma that smoulders on the screen, a genuine force of nature, convincingly passionate and wanton and yet also tortured and insecure.

“Any psychiatrist would tell you that means something, Johnny.”

As usual with the best 1940s noir, the script is as sharp as a knife, with some wonderful quotable dialogue (which I’ve naturally sampled during this post). Gilda is an amazing film, and while one naturally has to wonder if someone watching the film from the perspective of the 21st Century is perhaps seeing too much under the films surface, I think as usual the rewards of some of these classic movies is that there really is more to them than meets the eye. We are too used, these days, of films that telegraph the plot, and in which characters and arcs are blatant and obvious, but suggestion can be far more powerful, I think. It gets under your skin more.

Sure, one can watch Gilda as just a darker riff on Casablanca, an escapist romantic drama set in an exotic location with colourful characters, but scratch under the surface and there’s another film in there. One darker and more seductive and mysterious. Certainly the differences between Gilda and the later Affair in Trinidad are pronounced and telling, and Gilda is ultimately a far more uncomfortable viewing experience for all sorts of surprising ways. 

And of course, one can simply re-watch the film to enjoy Rita Hayworth in a role and performance for the Ages: her Gilda is quite magnificent.  I’m sure nobody forgets Gilda.

Criss Cross (1949)

criss crossSteve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) returns to his home town ostensibly to reconnect with his family, but it’s really just an excuse to revisit his old haunts in an attempt to reconnect with his ex-wife, Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), and inevitably she appears in one of the old clubs they used to frequent. He finds her dancing a sultry rhumba (with an astonishingly young Tony Curtis, no less) that only confirms her credentials as the target of his desire, and when he then discovers she is dating crime-boss Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) it’s clear his frustrated desires will only further cloud his reason. Refusing to accept advice when all his friends and family try to warn him away from her, Steve seems to have forgotten why they divorced in the first place. Having failed to start afresh someplace else he has returned unable to accept that she’s all wrong for him. He’s a typical noir ‘hero’, doomed from the start and we’re here just to witness his ruin.

Anna, meanwhile, seems to see in Steve fresh opportunity and when she subsequently marries Slim, it seems clear that she perhaps provoked Slim into proposing once he learned that her ex was back on the scene and interested in her again. Steve of course never knows when he’s beaten, and a crime caper unfolds through which he thinks he can finally win Anna back. 

Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross was a reteaming of the director with actor Burt Lancaster, having both worked together a few years earlier in The Killers (1946), a film widely considered one of the finest film noir ever made, and which I first saw just a few weeks back. That earlier film benefited from a fascinating premise spinning from an Ernest Hemingway short story, a great cast including Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien, and was a visual feast of moody expressionistic lighting that would pretty much define film noir. Criss Cross lacks the startling premise of The Killers, and also its cast, and to be honest, is nowhere near as impressive visually- and yet for me it works so well, as a work of cold precision film-making, that it ranks up there with The Killers and in some ways surpasses it.

While Lancaster and Criss Cross co-star/romantic interest Yvonne De Carlo lack the intense chemistry that Lancaster shared with the smouldering Gardner, I actually found that to be one of this films strengths, as its clear throughout that while Lancaster’s character Steve Thompson is smitten by his ex-wife Anna, unable to move on after their divorce, Anna has clearly moved on and is only using Steve for her own gains. The lack of chemistry is part of the plot rather than a misstep of casting: it’s pretty much all one-way. Indeed its archetypical noir, Steve trapped by his doomed romantic yearnings in a web of fate he cannot escape and the ending is one of the bleakest things I have seen: the last shots (sic) as grim as anything I can remember. 

In my mind, Anna is working Slim and Steve against one another but some read the film as Anna less the cunning femme fatale and more an unwitting romantic fool like Steve, both of them haunted by the good times of their failed marriage and, stuck in unfulfilled lives, both unable to walk away from each other. I’m not so sure of that; maybe it is just that lack of intense chemistry but Anna always seems a bit more aloof- or maybe I’ve become just too suspicious of women in these noir (the prettier they are, the badder they are). I think I need to watch the film again and perhaps give Anna a little more credit. 

Criss Cross doesn’t look as moody and visually striking as The Killers but that just seems to demonstrate the almost relentless efficiency of Criss Cross. Its a more realistic, rather than as hyper-stylized a film than The Killers. Its comparatively routine, linear narrative is also to its benefit, as I found Lancaster’s character here more developed and convincing than the one he played in The Killers. We had to piece together that character from the Citizen Kane-like  recollections/flashbacks of others, but here it’s much easier to appreciate that Steve is a fool, and we can understand why- he just can’t get Anna from under his skin, his romantic need (or perhaps nostalgic yearning for something that possibly never really existed other than in his head) blinding him to his gradual doom. 

Again, that ending- my goodness, what a brutal, jaw-dropping conclusion, when the stunned realisation of what just happened dawns. They really don’t make films like they used to, but thank goodness they did, because Criss Cross is quite utterly brilliant.

Some connections-

Robert Siodmak of course previously made The Killers, and also The Dark Mirror.

Other than The Killers, Burt Lancaster also appeared in I Walk Alone and The Swimmer.