The Original Nightmare

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Nightmare Alley, 1947, 110 mins, Blu-ray

Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (although it feels better calling it Tyrone Power’s Nightmare Alley, as he owns the film, every scene he’s in) is like many films of its era, particularly those that are noir, an exercise in taut, efficient film-making. There is a lovely rhythm to it, the snappy dialogue that informs character and plot at the same time (without telegraphing anything, a neat trick), the brisk pacing, the way the scenes flow. No moment seems wasted. While the film is saddled with an unfortunate (likely studio-mandated) positive ending, it does everything up that last scene so well that its a forgivable cop-out; indeed, just stop the film before that very last scene and you’ve got a nigh-on perfect movie.  In comparison the 2021 version feels lazy, wasteful, padded, self-indulgent. It tells largely the same story but takes forty minutes longer, never earning it.

Sure, Del Toro’s film may be prettier, slicker, bigger, but it is so curiously badly staged compared to the original- I cannot fathom why, except to suspect that Del Toro became too seduced by noir’s visual qualities, losing himself in the image, the lighting, and failing to manage the storytelling, the narrative, becoming a slave of style over content. Sadly typical of so many films now.

Scenes like Stanton handing Pete the wrong, deadly drink by accident, and then his horror the next morning at what he’s done, is oddly confusing in the remake; is it supposed to be deliberate, if so why be so obtuse? It felt like shots were missing, it was so clumsily edited. Later, in the 1947 film, Molly’s appearance as the fake ghost out in the moonlit garden is spine-tingling, you can understand Ezra Grindle being absolutely convinced that its the dead returning to him- its bewitching and creepy, whereas in the remake the same scene is so lazily staged its almost to the level of perfunctory (Molly just walking up the path in the snow, whereas in the original there’s a sense of wonder- she’s walking between the trees, glimpsed for a moment then hidden, then caught in the moonlight, Grindle getting more enraptured at every glimpse).

nightmarealley47bThe most devastating difference between the two, and possibly the most alarming, is the quality of the cast and the acting. I think there is no performance in the 2021 film that is equal to the comparable performance in the 1947 film. Joan Blondell’s Zeena is more lively and motherly than the cardboard Toni Collette, Coleen Gray’s Molly is a far more enchantingly passionate innocent than Rooney Mara’s listless version. Helen Walker is absolutely convincing as Dr Lilith Ritter, an intellectual equal of Stanton Carlisle who outwits him with both smarts and charm, against whom Cate Blanchette suffers terribly in comparison, Blanchette all pose and style and no substance, her face literally becoming a mask.

I think similar things can be said regards all the cast: in the 1947 film, the actors have passion and conviction, in the 2021 film, they bluster and frown, largely lacking any real chemistry. Bradley Cooper invokes ‘Indiana Jones and the fun fair of Doom,’ more than Stanton Gate’s descent into Nightmare: in the 1947 film, Tyrone Power charms first, then horrifies as he becomes a heartless monster, before further descending into -literally- a physical monster when he is undone. His arc is the story of a guy who sees an opportunity but is eaten alive by it, whereas in the 2021 film, I’m not sure what Stanton’s arc is: but maybe its because Cooper can’t really convince as a bad guy, he can only do moody, as if that’s all his range. I’m surprised at this, he’s seemed pretty fine in most previous films I’ve seen him in but he seems out of his depth here, and it looks like Del Toro wasn’t helping.

The 1947 Nightmare Alley is a lean, brutally efficient tragedy of a man’s rise and subsequent fall, and a shining example of a time when films just told stories better. Its the one thing I’ve noticed in many of the noir b-movies I’ve watched this past year or two  their ability to be concise and effective in telling a narrative (and to be fair, Nightmare Alley is surprisingly ‘A’, its not a b-picture at all, its production values are obvious, clearly a sign of Tyrone Power’s clout).

Certainly, Nightmare Alley can seem dated at moments, like other films of its day maybe betrayed to some extent by the limitations of what censors would allow, but one can argue conversely that this is often one of their strengths; suggestion: we hear the geek eat a chicken, the sounds giving us a minds-eye picture more daunting than graphically seeing it as we do in the remake. There’s a lesson there which maybe current film-makers should heed.

How refreshing to see a film in which a man cannot be saved by the love of his woman (barring the films jarring coda). There is something genuinely quite haunting about this film as it gets under your skin; massively impressive for a film that is so obscure its arguable that it was buried by it studio, and one I hadn’t even heard of until the remake was announced. Well, at least some good came from that Del Toro film.

The crushing disappointment of Nightmare Alley

nightmare2021aNightmare Alley, 2021, 150 mins, 4K UHD

Well I guess the title of this post tells it all; Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a misfire, vastly inferior to the 1947 noir original. After seeing all those gushing reviews at the end of last year and all that talk of Oscar (whatever that really means) I finally watched this imported 4K disc and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sure its pretty, that is typical of Guillermo, he’s a great visual stylist, but I was actually shocked how badly staged this film was- scenes that are disturbing in the 1947 original just seem staid and even confusing in this version, and the star-studded cast are left wasted, Guillermo unable to extract any interesting performances from them: they look like millionaire actors playing bums and are about as convincing. I usually like Bradley Cooper but he lacks sufficient intensity to pull this off, and now that I think about it, most of the cast seem unaware they are in a noir, their performances tuned for something else. So I was left at the movies end wondering had I seen the same movie as those adoring critics, had I missed something?

Is it as simple as the critics thinking Guillermo their new darling (after the over-rated The Shape of Water), who can do no wrong, or that they are largely ignorant of the superior 1947 original film demonstrating how it should have been done? This one is just too long, horribly paced and curiously uninvolving, considering that the original freaked me out and had me disturbed for weeks afterwards. The original was as much a horror film as it was a noir and like so many noir, briskly paced with no fat at all, like some runaway train pulling its despairing character to his doom. There’s no relentless nightmare down this particular alley, little sense of its character at the mercy of terrible fate, and none of the surprises of the original.

So I am left wondering, what film were those fawning critics watching? I cannot understand, for instance, how none of them seem bothered by some glaring continuity errors that seem rather odd for such a well-regarded film. One early one bothered me so much that it likely spoiled the film for me entirely, as my head kept on referring back to it thinking it would constitute something of a twist, eventually, but it was a twist that never came. The Carnival is taken down to be moved some twenty miles to join another carnival site, and soon after arriving there, the geek escapes and following a tense search in which Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) suffers a head injury mysteriously absent the next day, the geek is captured and returned to his cage- but this location/tent is the one they left behind at the previous site. They carnies have not had time to put up the tent etc or dig the pit, and it wouldn’t be so clearly identical if they had, right down to rows of formaldehyde jars and their grisly contents. It doesn’t make any sense, frankly, and in that way that continuity errors sometimes do, took me straight out of the movie, and I struggled to get back ‘into’ it.

So instead I’m just left with an urge to re-watch the 1947 original again and a pretty 4K coaster. I don’t know, maybe I need to muster the courage (and time, this thing is 150 minutes long) to give Guillermo’s film another try with lower expectations. But unless The Batman proves different next month, I fear this Nightmare Alley could likely be the biggest disappointment of the year.

One of the eight million stories…

One of the most seductive aspects of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City is its extensive (and pioneering at the time) location shoot in New York during 1947. The film captures the hustle and bustle of the city, featuring New Yorkers travelling, shopping, working, attending their own concerns largely (and even entirely, thanks to hidden cameras) ignorant that a film was being shot. As a document of the time, the film is quite priceless, like a window into the past.

Moments catch my attention. Its like the film’s crime drama  narrative is an obstacle to the fascinating glimpse of the real lives, the real city. There is a scene early in the film in which Det. Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) walks a crowded street in search of clues to a murder. As he does so he almost stumbles over a dog being walked, and behind him we can see an attractive young woman walking in his same direction, screen right and after they cross the road (she reacts irritated by a car that gets too close to her) eventually passing out of shot screen left as Halloran enters a premises. I wonder who she is, who she was, what she was doing, where she was going, and what happened to her, what was her life. Impossible questions to answer. One of the untold eight million stories of this Naked City.

Recent Additions/ Capsule reviews

P1110251I’ve been weak, and succumbed to a few sale offers over the past several weeks, and there have also been a few disc releases of the films from last Autumn/Winter that I’d been waiting for.

Matrix Resurrections 4K UHD: A film of two halves, really, but my review can be found here.

Whiplash 4K UHD: I watched this on a rental a good while ago, when it absolutely terrified me. I don’t know why I’m putting myself through this again, except that the 4K disc was in a sale and yeah, it seemed like a great film last time around. We’ll see what I think if/when I can muster the courage for another anxiety trip…

Cliffhanger 4K UHD: A guilty favourite, my review can be found here.

Beverly Hills Cop 4K UHD: No, I don’t know what I was thinking. It was in a sale, I used to love the Axel F single back in the day (I have the 12″ in storage somewhere), I’d seen the film on a VHS rental. Once. Actually I quite enjoyed this disc, there must be something of a nostalgic pull from anything 1980s just lately. There’s a scene in a bar where a Prince song I didn’t know was playing on the soundtrack and it bugged the heck out of me until I learned from the credits that it was a Vanity 6 song (so yeah, Prince in all but name) but it only intensified that whole 1980s ‘thing’ running through this film. The hairstyles! The fashions! That Glenn Frey song!

Eddie Murphy was actually bearable back then. There’s a story about Eddie Murphy and Jack Lemmon on the Paramount backlot which I’ve probably mentioned before, so I won’t go on with it here unless someone wants me too…

West Side Story (2021) 4K UHD: I watched this a few nights ago; quite magnificent, I thought, and easily Spielberg’s best film in twenty years. I actually think there is something in Spielberg’s style, like his slow camera crawls into actor’s reaction shots, how staged his set-ups tend to be, how much he leans on John William’s music scores, that is wholly suited to musicals. I hope to give this a proper review post sometime, but yeah, I thought it was brilliant. The staging, the use of the camera, the art direction, the casting… I could imagine it winning all sorts of Oscars in a non-Covid universe in which this film made any money (shame Oscar seems to ignore a dud). It goes without saying that the music is sublime, I’ve always loved Robert Wise’s original film and have seen the show on the stage once (albeit something provincial) so it was a given I’d enjoy it, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Spider Man: No Way Home 4K UHD: Dude! Dude! Dude! Oh dear, the writing in this film… what, described somewhere as the best comicbook movie ever made? What? I’ll write a proper post about this film someday, but just an observation: there were a few times in the Lee/Ditko/Romita era comics that Peter Parker was revealed to be Spider-Man but those guys usually managed to write an elegant and imaginative way of Peter outwitting people and fixing things and maintain his secret identity. But the film Peter Parker shown here is some kind of selfish idiot or the films writers lacked the imagination and wit of 1960s comic writers/artists, because this film… maybe its cleverly undermining traditional super-hero tropes and the films actual uber-villain is Tom Holland’s Spidey himself. Or maybe I’m giving them way too much credit…

The Shawshank Redemption 4K UHD: I wasn’t going to do it. Its one of my favourite films (I was one of the few who saw it in the cinema when it came out, so hey, kudos to me) but the Blu-ray was fine. But sales. Bloody sales.

Ratatouille 4K UHD: My favourite Pixar movie, and a lovely feel-good film that I probably need now more than ever. I don’t expect any great leap over the Blu-ray, but it does seem I’m upgrading too many of my favourite films to 4K UHD, especially when the sales make it seem a reasonable decision rather than inherently dumb, which it really probably is.

Backdraft 4K UHD: Sales. Sales. Sales. Actually, I watched it a few nights ago and I quite enjoyed it. I’d actually forgotten Robert De Niro was even in it, its been so long since I’d last watched this (probably on DVD). It takes a few too many liberties with my intelligence with some of its heart-tugging silliness “Look at him… that’s my brother goddammit!” but it does look awfully good in 4K. I seem to recall it was this film that made me dislike Hans Zimmer scores for years, my goodness he never did do subtle.

Death on the Nile 4K UHD: Watched this on Saturday. Its quite inferior to the previous Murder on the Orient Express, from the pretty woefully miscast cast to the strangely uninvolving plot… and I’m not sure the virtual sets nonsense worked at all. I guess it was a deliberate stylistic choice but it left it feeling very… distractingly artificial? I can accept that in a Star Wars prequel with George playing with his toybox but a period murder mystery that could have been shot on location?

Nineteen Eighty-Four Blu-ray/DVD: Ah, the Peter Cushing one, that I’ve never seen but always wanted to. I’m only irritated by the fact that since this arrived in the post, Amazon has been repeatedly reducing the price of this thing. I hate it when that happens, especially when I haven’t seen it yet. See also too many other discs currently unwatched to mention, but still, its the principle of the thing.

The Proposition 4K UHD: Saw this on Sunday. Lengthy fawning post to sometime follow. Quite breathtakingly brilliant. One of those times that I blind-buy a physical disc release of a film I’d previously missed somehow and discover something quite excellent. Does this qualify as a Christmas movie? Was John Hurt ever better?

Brute Force/ Naked City (Blu-ray): I watched Brute Force last night. Brilliant film. They really don’t make ’em like they used to. I shall catch up with Naked City sometime soon. This was another sale buy that had me wondering why I hadn’t succumbed to its charms before. Arrow’s double-bill package is well designed (lovely hardcase box) with a fine book to pour over, bountiful extras; another great example of why I still love buying physical releases of old films. But its gotten me ordering Jules Dassin’s Rififi on Blu-ray, further proof that it gets expensive sometimes as one film leads to another. Damn those trailers…

Linda Darnell, Noir’s Fallen Angel

lindadurnellnoirLinda Darnell, dark-haired, long-legged beauty who bewitches hungry men in Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel and anyone who has watched the film over the long years since. Sexy, sassy, fragile and doomed, she’s surely one of noir’s most memorable sirens. I met her for the first time just a few nights ago.

One of the (perhaps dubious) pleasures of watching old films, certainly those from the 1940s and 1950s, is when I see someone who grabs my attention and I wonder what other films they have been in. Sometimes it might be a face that seems familiar somehow from some other film, like Anne Revere in Fallen Angel. Sometimes it might be just be being struck by a performance (Ronald Lewis, or Laurie Zimmer for instance) or simply being taken aback by a woman’s beauty, as was the case of Gia Scala in The Garment Jungle. These are actors and their faces given some measure of immortality, and endless beauty, moments of their lives frozen in time on celluloid, with lives and careers that can be researched and reviewed in minutes, summarised in mere paragraphs. I’ve been here so many times before but its endlessly fascinating.

One sometimes forgets, in the ‘heat’ of being caught up in a thrilling or absorbing noir, that any given scene is something filmed, usually on a studio set, at a time incongruous to that being filmed- maybe its a Tuesday morning or a Friday afternoon, and when the director yells ‘cut’ everyone breaks and costumes are doffed and casual clothes are put on, Hollywood magic dispelled and real-life returned, whatever ‘real-life’ was back in 1944 or 1949, a reality as distant and foreign to us now as anything captured in Hollywood fantasy. Naturally working in Hollywood was rather more mundane than the magical spectacle the Hollywood spin-masters or tabloid gossip writers would have it, and careers harder and less care-free. Hollywood lives could be as noir as anything in its darkest thriller.

All these years later, of course, Hollywood and its denizens are like that of some other, alien planet. The music they listened to, the cars they drove, it’s not really something we can ever ‘know’ except, ironically, from the versions of that world that we see in those movies. We can’t ever really ‘know’ Linda Darnell, only glimpses through the filmography (fifty-six credits in films and television between 1939 and 1965) and the milestones of her personal life.

So Linda Darnell; born October 16th 1923, died April 10th, 1965, aged 41. Right there one is taken aback. That’s a young age, just twenty years after the film I’d just seen, Fallen Angel, in which she was just 21. It gets worse: in the tradition of all things noir, she didn’t die well: she died after being caught in a fire at a freinds apartment, painfully lingering for a few days having suffered horrific eighty-percent burns. Some accounts have it that a dropped cigarette on a downstairs sofa ignited the fire; one account claimed that Darnell was initially trapped upstairs but fire-fighters found her lying near the burning sofa. Its probably overly-dramatic hyperbole in accounts that describe her falling asleep on the sofa watching one of her old movies, reliving past glory before absently dropping a still-lit cigarette- that’s like something from that old Twilight Zone episode, or Sunset Boulevard, or a typically dark noir. A case of Hollywood life blurring into Hollywood myth?

It doesn’t get much better, the more I read. Her beginning was almost as noir as her end.  Born to parents who were not happily married, Linda Darnell (originally Monetta Eloyse Darnell) was one of four children (plus two from an earlier marriage) but she was evidently the prettiest- her mother Margaret ‘Pearl’ Brown was a failed actress herself and decided, like the darkest of noir mothers, to succeed vicariously through her daughter, pushing her into a modelling career and later into theatrical work at a very young age. Darnell said “Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another. I had no great talent, and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly, but Mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.” Pearl would later, unsurprisingly earn a bad rep in Hollywood for being pushy and domineering.

Marriages often offer a glimpse of a life beyond that captured by the camera: husbands were Paverell Marley (m.1943, div.1951), Phillip Liebmann (m.1954, div.1955) and Merle Robertson (m.1957, div. 1963). Three marriages, so very Hollywood: tempestuous affairs (Howard Hughes, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and numerous marriages spell a grim love-life to me (maybe I’ve never lived, but did Darnell live well?) Paverell was over twice Linda’s age; 42 to her 19, they’d eloped to Las Vegas. The second marriage was a loveless one, apparently- of all things, a business arrangement (a wealthy man’s trophy wife?) that proved a nightmare she couldn’t maintain, while at the divorce proceedings for her third marriage, Darnell accused her airline pilot husband of infidelity and fathering the baby of another actress. So love was something that didn’t go particularly well for her: an ironic price of beauty, perhaps?

Unsurprisingly, Darnell suffered from depression and alcoholism and a faltering film career full of what-if’s and maybes, finally released from her contract with 20th Century Fox in 1952 (just seven years after Fallen Angel). “Suppose you’d been earning $4,000 to $5,000 a week for years. Suddenly you were fired and no one would hire you at any figure remotely comparable to your previous salary. I thought in a little while I’d get offers from other studios, but not many came along. The only thing I knew how to do was be a movie star. No one expects to last forever in this business. You know that sooner or later the studio’s going to let you go. But who wants to be retired at twenty-nine?” she would later ruefully comment, aware there was likely little unusual regards her career. How many other beauties suffered a similar fate in the noir reality of  Hollywood’s dreamland? Well, not many of them are immortalised forever in something as memorable and iconic as her performance in Fallen Angel, certainly.

Preminger Noir: Fallen Angel

fallen1Fallen Angel, 1945, 98 mins, Blu-ray

Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews, Laura, Night of the Demon) is not a Good Guy; Stella (Linda Darnell) is not a Good Girl. So typically noir; these two leads are not at all likeable but they do feel real: its something I often find watching these noir films, a convincing sense of reality in how people behave, what they say, what they do, which sucks you into even the oddest noir drama. Much of  their behaviour can be quite abhorrent and yet its endlessly fascinating- also curiously refreshing, watching films with unlikeable protagonists who are broken or of bad character. They certainly don’t come much worse than Eric Stanton. Stella, meanwhile is a sensual beauty who knows how to use her charms: the kind of girl that instantly excites but hardly one you could trust, and you certainly wouldn’t take her home to meet your mother.

Stanton is a drifter, a chancer and a con-artist on his way from LA to San Francisco with only a dollar in his pocket, who is thrown off his bus when his ticket runs out, landing in the small coastal town of Walton. Walking to a lonely diner situated near the beach, he bides his time trying to work out some angle when Stella walks in, the waitress of the diner and the town’s main attraction for frustrated male folk. World-wise Stella is a beautiful woman who feels trapped in Walton and craves a way out – Stanton is instantly attracted to her, but she’s clearly only interested in someone with money or prospects, and will only sleep with someone after they have married her and given her a home (preferably somewhere other than Walton). It’s obvious that Stanton and Stella are made for each other but unless Stanton can figure out a way of making money he has no chance, and Stella already has her sights on Dave Atkins (Bruce Cabot) as a likely alternative.

After demonstrating his dubious skills when promoting a visiting fake spiritualist/mentalist, ‘Professor’ Madley (a memorable John Carradine). Madley cons the smalltown folk with messages from deceased loved ones, in particular upsetting rich sisters Clara Mills (Anne Revere, Secret Behind the Door) and June Mills (Alice Faye) with some bitter comments from their dead father that sees them rushing out of the hall in disgust and their neighbours flapping. Stanton sees in the sheltered, repressed Alice an easy mark; seducing her and quickly marrying her in a breathless romance with the intention of getting all her money then dumping her in favour of Stella. Indeed, this cad is so reprehensible, he even deserts Alice on their wedding night, visiting Stella instead- but this makes Stanton a prime suspect when Stella is found murdered the next morning.

The way both Stanton and Stella abuse, manipulate and secretly mock the honest people around them makes Fallen Angel, in some ways a surprisingly nasty film – indeed, like the original Nightmare Alley (which also shares an uncomfortable interest in mentalism and exploiting peoples grief) it is one of the darkest noirs I’ve yet seen (I actually found Nightmare Alley so disturbing I still haven’t managed to write a review of it). If anything, Fallen Alley has more of the ring of truth than Nightmare Alley‘s literally nightmarish excesses, certainly in regards how the regulars at the diner fawn and moon over Stella (the proprietor, Pop (Percy Kilbride) and Mark Judd (Charles Bickford, The Woman on the Beach) a former New York City Police Inspector convalescing in Walton), there’s a reality to it, and a sadness of empty longing regards the older men wasting their attention on her when she’s clearly got her eyes set elsewhere. Both Kilbride and Bickford are great character actors, and it was nice to see King Kong‘s Bruce Cabot again.

Fallen Angel‘s biggest weakness compared to Nightmare Alley is its suddenly positive, rather unlikely ‘happy’ ending for Stanton, a love conquers all text that doesn’t ring true, unless the virginal Alice is herself only using Stanton to escape her controlling elder sister and the boredom of a cosy protected life in Walton. The ending doesn’t break the film, but it doesn’t carry the disturbing sense of inevitable truth which the conclusion of Nightmare Alley does (unless, as I say, maybe the con-artist is being conned, but the films not really suggesting that even as a possibility, its just me running off on a tangent).

Dana Andrews is very good; although I understand his tightly-strung noir roles might have had some impact on his life away from the camera. And Linda Darnell is just darkly, fascinatingly wonderful, albeit her own life had more than a slight taint of noir to it. Perhaps more on that, later…

The Woman on Pier 13 (aka I Married a Communist)

womanpier13The Woman on Pier 13, 1949, 73 minutes, Classic Movies

Is there a Robert Ryan Appreciation Society? If there is, I might as well join up, it seems I’ve seen so many of his features over the past few months I should likely qualify as a member. The Woman on Pier 13 is a 1949 film noir drama with a heavy dose of anti-Red propaganda (the clue is in the films original title, I Married a Communist) starring Robert Ryan as Brad Collins, a respectable newlywed whose life is unravelled by a secret past and the foolish mistakes he made during his angry youth. Working as a shipping executive over the San Francisco docks, he is blackmailed by a communist cell run by Vanning (Thomas Gomez, (Force of Evil, Johnny O’Clock)) into wrecking talks with the dock-workers union. Collins faces ruin; he could lose his job and his wife when Vanning threatens to reveal a past Collins is trying to escape; that his real name is Frank Johnson, a member of the Communist Party and (allegedly) responsible for a murder. Collins reluctantly accedes to Vanning’s demands while trying to work his way out of the trap he’s in.

Janis Carter (Framed) plays Christine Norman, beautiful Communist femme fatale who used to be Collin’s lover – she still has feelings for him and is bitter about him leaving her, and she sets about seducing Collin’s new brother-in-law Don Lowry (John Agar) and indoctrinating him into the Communist Party. Possibly this is what she did to Collins himself, years ago, and in what’s possibly a case of history repeating she finds herself falling in love with Lowry in just the same way as she fell in love with Collins.

I quite enjoyed The Woman in the Pier. Ryan is as dependable as ever; he always convinces in these kinds of roles; a good guy with a shady past or inner demons, he just had the chiselled face and natural intensity to pull off this kind of material with ease: perfect casting, really, although Ryan would later become frustrated by such roles and usually being cast as villain. Did he ever play a wholesome all-American good guy?

womanpier13bGomez is a little overly melodramatic as the manic Communist and Laraine Day, playing Collin’s newlywed Nan Lowry Collins, is a little bland in an underwritten role, but I thought Janis Carter was brilliant as the sultry femme fatale seducing poor Don. She comes across has much more sympathetic and believable than the one-dimensional vixen she might have been, and I think she almost steals the picture, she’s great. Looking her up on IMDB, I find she’s another promising actress who it seems didn’t stick around in Hollywood for very long, instead marrying a shipping tycoon and retiring from showbusiness after a spell co-hosting a quiz show on television.

There’s nothing really ground-breaking or particularly complex regards The Woman on Pier 13; its fairly predictable albeit it does feature two murders that genuinely surprise- its quite ruthless, and also features a grisly execution when the Communists drown a suspected traitor in the docks, so it certainly held my attention throughout. I love these narratives of trapped characters trying to get out of trouble, caught in a tightening web of menace; its one of the appeals of noir, these lives out of control and gradually unravelling as we watch. The film even manages to hold fast to its noir sensibilities with regards Ryan’s character not being able to walk away at the end- the moral code of the time seems to suggest no Communist (even an ex-Communist) can get away unpunished so -spoiler ahoy- there’s no sudden happy ending/unconvincing twist ruining this noir.

As usual with many of these pictures, its brevity -here hardly 73 minutes- probably proves its biggest asset; its another exercise in efficiency. Sure its not perfect and its certainly not great, but its a fine melodrama/noir which just, well,  works, somehow- Hollywood was something of a machine with these b-pictures back then. Ryan himself may have made better films (The Set-Up, Crossfire etc) but he’d made worse, too- like the curiously similarly-titled The Woman on the Beach.  I just wonder what the next Robert Ryan film will be to come my way…

“I’m tired. I’m through… It’ll happen to you too, someday.”

pickup1Pickup on South Street, 1953, 80 mins, Blu-ray

Another Sam Fuller picture, this time a dark crime-noir from 1953 during his spell at Fox, and two years prior to House of Bamboo which I saw back in November. Pickup on South Street his an excellent thriller, in which career-criminal Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) pick-pockets the purse of Candy (Jean Peters) and inadvertently stumbles into an espionage crisis involving Communist agents and a lot of unwelcome heat from the Feds and cops. To some extent this is a typical cold-war thriller reflecting the West vs East tensions of the time, as as such would ordinarily feel dated and an exercise in propaganda as several noir espionage thrillers of its era that I have seen are.

But of course I’m watching this when world tensions are at a fever-pitch as Russia has invaded Ukraine, and the news is endlessly discussing the collapse of relations between the West and Russia and the return of old Cold-War sensibilities. So there’s an added discomfort in this film’s depicted tensions, and what is old is new again.

Richard Widmark is very good in this, he’d memorably featured as psychopathic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death several years before, and while there’s a similar energised tone to his performance here its thankfully more restrained and grounded; Skip is much less manic than Tommy Udo but none the less convincing. I was particularly taken by the performance of Jean Peters as Candy, reluctant courier for the communists and eventual love-interest for Skip (this romance an inevitable development but one that oddly convinces). Peters is very good and lifts what could have been a one-dimensional part into something much more interesting.  I wasn’t familiar with the actress and looking her up on IMDB, its little wonder-  she only made 23 features, working under contract to Fox between 1947 and 1955 before then pretty much retiring from the screen to be the wife of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. There’s worse career choices I guess.

pickup2Possibly stealing the show though is character actress Thelma Ritter, who plays streetwise police informer Moe Williams. I get the feeling that she’s the character that Sam Fuller was most interested in, what could have been a minor role elevated instead to possibly the most critical part in the film. I’m rather seeing that this is a  common aspect of Fuller’s writing and directing, drawn to characters who would ordinarily be in the background or of lesser importance to the usual larger-than-life heroes and villains. I’ve read that Ritter’s performance saw her nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year and I’m not at all surprised. Her final scene is outstanding, a sad and broken old lady weary of the world facing her final moments with resigned grace.

The film is also blessed by some wonderfully moody, waterfront locations that brought to mind early-sixties Spider-Man strips drawn by Steve Ditko, the eight-year old kid in me getting ridiculously excited seeing those scenes and remembering the web-slingers encounters with the mob in Ditko’s finely-drawn panels of criminal-infested waterfronts. The film is, typically of Fuller, very gritty and convincing, and indeed some of the action is quite shocking, particularly scenes of Candy getting beaten and the offscreen denouement of Moe is very effective. You can certainly tell its a Sam Fuller picture. As I have noted, in other hands a film such as this could have been just a typical anti-Commie propaganda piece of its time but Fuller lifts it into something much more. Its a very effective thriller with a great cast and screenplay, an excellent noir.

“It’s a long story and not pretty”

murdermyMurder, My Sweet (1944), 95 mins, Blu-ray

Actually it is a short story and it is absolutely very pretty- the cinematography, the women. Just look at that image above, in which Marlowe is sitting in his office looking at the night-time streets beyond his office, when in the flicker of the neon lights he suddenly sees the reflection of a brutish man standing behind him. Its an arresting moment and one that typifies the impressive noir lighting. But regards that story- well, I had a grip for the first fifteen minutes but beyond that I was mystified throughout, which detracted from my enjoyment of the film. This might be a case (sic) when a noir’s tightly-paced plot and brevity, usually a big plus, actually works against it., as I think a two-hour running time and a more sedate pace may have helped it no end- but then again, I may be missing the point. Maybe we’re supposed to be left guessing throughout, frustratingly feeling like we’re still floundering in the previous reel, bewildered and behind everything that’s going on.

By the end of the film, I felt dizzy and even Marlowe explaining everything left me at a loss.

Murder, My Sweet opens with private investigator Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), his eyes bandaged due to injury, being interrogated by police as a murder suspect. Marlowe tells them the events of a case that has left him in this predicament –  first he was hired by brutish ex-con Joe “Moose” Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his girlfriend, Velma Valento, who he lost track of while he was in prison for eight years. While investigating this case, Marlowe is then hired by sweet-smelling dapper Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) for protection when Marriott’s to meet someone in a secluded area to buy back a lady’s jewellery. However, the meet goes awry, Marlowe is knocked unconscious and later awoken by a mysterious woman who flees, and Marlowe discovers Marriott is dead.

The next day Marlowe is approached in his office by Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) who claims that the missing jewellery belonged to her father Leuwen Grayle (Miles Mander) and her stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor), who Ann despises. Marlowe later goes to visit the Grayle’s who live in a huge mansion (“but it wasn’t as big as Buckingham Palace,” observes Marlowe with his usual sarcastic wit). where he discovers that Helen is decades younger than the sixty-five year old Leuwen, and that Helen may have been the victim of’ ‘psychic consultant’ Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), someone well-known to the police as a blackmailer.

Eventually Marlowe learns that Malloy works for Amthor, and that the two cases are indeed linked, but by that point I was already fairly at a loss and by the end… well, summarising the story here helps a little but I still can’t say that I’m comfortable with it, remaining puzzled by elements at the end. Well, I guess that’s the advantage of Blu-rays, its easy to re-watch and piece the puzzle together, but I’d contend that if the film worked properly that shouldn’t be necessary.

There were a few familiar faces in this film- primarily Otto Kruger, an actor gifted (or cursed, it depends on what one thinks of typecasting and regular gigs) for playing untrustworthy types/ slimy villains, as evidenced by roles in Power of the Press, 711 Ocean Drive, and Escape in the Fog.  Murder, My Sweet‘s lead, Dick Powell was, at the time, famous as a star of Hollywood musicals, and this was a deliberate attempt at a career-adjustment for him as he approached middle-age; I’ve only seen him before this in the superior Johnny O’Clock, which he made a few years after, the title role of which suited him better than does Marlowe here. I guess if I saw him in one of those musicals I’d be in for a shock and perhaps appreciate his turn in something like this all the more.

But I certainly can’t help wondering, considering some of the films I’ve seen over the past several months, what Robert Ryan would have brought to it, if he’d been cast as Marlowe in something like this. Physically at least he’d have been a better fit, and likely with his innate intensity more believable as the life-worn cynic most private detectives seem to be.

murdermy2Curiously, I was most taken by Ann Shirley, who played the beautiful Ann Gayle, eventual romantic muse of Marlowe and who proves a mysterious figure appearing in and out of the film (she’s the woman who awakes Marlowe to find Marriott is dead). Its a fine performance and I was amazed to discover that Murder, My Sweet would be her last film, at just twenty-six years old. According to her bio, she’d already made 60+ films at that point, a child actress who became increasingly weary of the Hollywood rat race and decided to call it a day. After nearly 70 appearances in just over twenty years its understandable, and  I guess Murder, My Sweet wasn’t a bad film to end one’s career with, but on the evidence of her performance here I think its a pity.

Murder, My Sweet isn’t a bad film at all- I was just perplexed by its hectic, labyrinthine plot which I hope will prove easier to decipher on subsequent viewings. I’m increasingly of the opinion that with some of these noir, reviewing them after just one viewing may do them a disservice and indeed there are one or two recent examples –NIghtmare Alley (1947) and The Reckless Moment (1949)- that I have seen and greatly enjoyed which I’ve been hesitant regards posting reviews of because, well, I think I need a further viewing to do them proper justice. Perhaps Murder, My Sweet should have been another, but we’ll see when I revisit it (that re-watch roster is getting to be a long list).

“Hey, Pops, where’s your wheelchair?”

set-upThe Set-Up, 1949, 73 mins, cable TV (Great! Movies Classic)

Robert Ryan delivers, again. While he could be regarded as one of Hollywood’s forgotten actors, I’d argue from the evidence of the films I’ve seen him in recently (Crossfire, On Dangerous Ground, Born To Be Bad, The Woman on the Beach, The Racket and  House of Bamboo), and now in Robert Wise’s brilliant boxing-noir The Set-Up, that Ryan was one of the screen’s most dependable and solid actors who didn’t get the roles/films he truly deserved.  His lower-tier casting, often with him portraying a film’s villain, is attributed to his intensity and his hard, life-worn looks that suggested a weary coolness rather than the romantic warmth of the typical lead.

The Set-Up is one of those rare entries that cast him as the protagonist but it certainly benefits from his wary stare and gritty countenance. Ryan plays ageing washed-up boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson whose run of twenty-one defeats finds him facing the end of his boxing career but who insists that he can win one more fight to get him back in the running for a stab at decent money. His wife Julie (Audrey Totter) pleads with him to quit, terrified that another fight will possibly kill him. Stoker’s next fight is against young rising star Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor), who unbeknown to Stoker is backed by tough gangland gambler Little Boy (Alan Baxter). Little Boy has made a deal with Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias) that Stoker will take a dive in the third round, but Tiny is so confident that his fighter will lose anyway that he doesn’t cut Stoker in on the deal, keeping the bribe to himself. So Stoker’s fighting with everything to prove -to his wife, his manager, and the baying fans in the crowd- not realising that if the fight doesn’t kill him, actually winning the fight might too.

The Set-Up is one of those films that is to all intents and purposes, perfect. Its a film with a tight, efficient script with a lean, taut running time of just 73 minutes, its well cast with excellent performances and is beautifully photographed. For what it wants to be – a brutal thriller about corruption in the boxing game of its day, and how it chews up the fighters who can never escape the gutter- its brutally effective. The fight scenes are surprisingly violent and ugly, the close-ups of the crowd who in the film degenerate from fine citizens to frenzied fans baying for blood; its all brilliantly choreographed by Wise, and just as impressive are the scenes of the night-time streets through which Stoker’s wife Julie wanders, fearing the worst. Its a solid noir that I can’t really find any fault with- its not exactly sophisticated cinematic art but as I have noted, for all intents and purposes, its perfect. One of the best noir I’ve yet seen; I absolutely loved it from start to finish.

set-up2Watching this on a cable tv channel with a typically inferior print/compression, I’ll certainly be buying the film on Blu-ray soon, to be able to enjoy it again in better quality. At just 73 minutes long, like many of these noir, I can see myself putting this on again several times late in the evening to just soak it up again. Available on Warner Archive in the US, its recently been released as part of the Premier Collection unique to HMV here in the UK. Warner’s actually have a trailer for their Blu-ray release on YouTube which features roughly the first four minutes of the film, and even there it looks so much better than the copy I watched last night: thank goodness so many of these older films are resurfacing restored on Blu-ray disc. Physical media seems to be becoming a bastion of catalogue releases through archive releases and boutique labels, and while more newer films seem to be getting half-hearted physical releases if at all (no 4K edition of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley here in the UK?) in favour of pushing streaming channels, at least these classics are getting decently curated editions for posterity.