Shockproof

Shockproof, 1949, 80 mins, Blu-ray

sam7The clue is in the credits: Written by…. with Helen Deutsch’s name above that of Samuel Fuller. Which I didn’t really question when first watching the film, but in retrospect, considering how greatly the film is derailed by its lousy ending (which I mentioned in an earlier post) I should have smelled a rat. Turns out the script was entirely written by Samuel Fuller but the studio got nervous about its original conclusion so hired Helen Deutsch to give them a happy ending, which spoils the film terribly, and then to add further ignominy to it all, credited Deutsch above Fuller (ensured by Deutsch nabbing a co-producer credit too, further reward for arguably ruining the picture – that’s Hollywood folks).

But it is a terrible shame, because Shockproof is a great dramatic noir and has such a lot going for it, not least of which is Patricia Knight, whose performance here is particularly nuanced and arresting, and actually astonishing when one realises she had no formal acting training, according to what I’ve read about her since. She plays ex-con Jenny Marsh, whose parole officer Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde (Leave Her to Heaven)) is instantly attracted to her and whose attempts to ensure she goes straight may not be entirely professional or decent. Jenny served five years for murdering a man while defending her shady gambler lover, Harry Wesson (John Baragrey) and remains romantically involved with Harry, who stayed in contact with her during her incarceration. Griff threatens Jenny that she’ll break her parole if she continues seeing Harry, but while that seems reasonable, it also fits in with his own attraction to her and his attempt to be with her himself- to the extent of finding her a job within his own home, something against regulations. Griff further compromises himself by intending to secretly marry her, again against regulations, which is something which Harry and his criminal associates see as a way of ruining Griff’s prospects for political office, from where he could be trouble for them.

The brilliance of Shockproof, and of Knights’ performance, is that there is subterfuge and lies from the start. It is no mistake that prior to her first parole meeting with Griff, the brunette Jenny is seen shopping on Hollywood Boulevard for new clothes and visits a salon to have her hair dyed platinum blonde. She’s obviously using her sex and beauty as a possible distraction against Griff, assuming a role of wounded beauty, manipulating him to give her special treatment. This is tested immediately, as soon after her first meeting with Griff she is arrested with Harry in a police raid on a bookie joint, contrary to Griff’s instructions to stay away from her old lover and the criminal fraternity. Returned to Griff’s office and a likely immediate return to prison, Griff instead sends her to a doctor on the pretence of checking out her twisted ankle. Rather than just the physical examination it pretends to be, this is actually a psychological test of Jenny’s character which she passes, saying all the right things to the doctor, but unknown to Griff, Jenny has sussed it was a test and her responses are all an act to ensure he gives her another chance. She has no intention of breaking up with Harry and knows Griff’s fascination/attraction to her leaves him open to manipulation.

So far, so very noir and typical femme fatale. But there’s all sorts of things going on here. Griff’s attraction towards Jenny increasingly forces him to break the rules, and when she can’t get a job because of her criminal record, he gives her a job at his house which enables him to keep her close and romance her, which makes one wonder who is manipulating who? His controlling influence of who she can see, where she can go, becomes something possibly dark and questionable. Dependant on him for a job and a roof over her head, and living with his family, it could be argued that Griff’s seduction finally works when Jenny starts to have feelings for him too.

sam8Or does she? Because she’s also still in contact with Harry, who knows that Griff is breaking all the rules of his profession and therefore encourages Jenny to go along with it and lead Griff to ruin.

Shockproof is a brilliant tale of subversion and possible perversion. What makes it all work is Knight’s excellent performance- very often the viewer just can’t be sure if what she’s doing and saying is real or just part of an act. Are her growing feelings for Griff real? Just when you think her loyalties lie with Harry, who is clearly no good for her and likely manipulating her himself, one starts to wonder if her loyalties are really with Griff and her love for him genuine. And of course in the background one has to wonder if Griff’s feelings for her are natural or from some dark obsession of his own, manipulating a woman he knows is dependant upon him keeping her out of prison?

The chemistry between Wilde and Knight is inevitably genuine because they were actually a married couple when the film was made. There is an added tension to it which may stem from the fact that Knight later claimed that Wilde was a controlling and dominating figure in their marriage, and increasingly jealous- they were divorced soon after, in 1951. So does this inform the elements of Shockproof that suggest Griff’s controlling attentions towards Jenny and how he uses his professional authority over her are unhealthy and obsessive? It certainly seems to suggest an added darkness to it all.

sam9Incredibly, Knight only appeared in five films and one television episode, her acting career curtailed upon divorcing Wilde, which to me seems such a loss, because I really think she’s terrific in Shockproof. I can understand the impact she made upon Griff because she made such an impact upon me too. She’s beautiful and dangerous but there’s a fragility there. Possibly her limitations as a non-trained actress would have been found out in other roles, maybe its just that this one particularly suited her, but I think she was really impressive here, a femme fatale with some depth.

Which yes, brings us to the ridiculous ending. If you haven’t seen the film and wish to remain unspoiled, stop reading this post here and maybe come back later. In the film Jenny becomes increasingly desperate, caught between and manipulated by the two men in her life, and she eventually turns upon Harry after he threatens to ruin Griff, shooting him dead in a bizarre repeat/twist of her original crime years before. There is at least a suggestion that Jenny actually wanted to flee from both men, knowing its all destined to end badly, but instead she and Griff go on the run together. In Fuller’s original script, which was titled The Lovers, an increasingly desperate Griff and Jenny get into a shootout with cops and come to an ill end. In this reading, Griff’s love for Jenny is genuine and, as director Douglas Sirk observed, “something had changed… something had started blooming in (Griff’s) soul!”, something forbidden by his profession and society.

Instead, we get a ridiculous revelation that Harry isn’t actually dead, and he has a sudden change of heart/pang of conscience and takes the blame for the shooting himself in order to allow the lovers a wildly sudden and inappropriate happy ending: as bad a ‘love conquers all’ ending as any. Its so jarring that it is like it has suddenly become entirely another movie in its last five minutes. It doesn’t work at all, unless you subscribe to the inherent darkness of Griff’s own obsession and his own schemes winning out, which is digging out a noir ending not intended at all, but hey, that’s perhaps me just trying to save what is, other than the ending, a pretty great film.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

leave1I thought Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) was Born to be Bad, but she had nothing on Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), the beautiful psychotic narcissist who… well, I guess no man forgets this film in a hurry. 

I will confess, I took a little while getting into this- I think I was side-tracked by the gorgeous, golden-hued cinematography which suggests a melodramatic, intense romantic feature, belying the noir-tinged psychological thriller it turns out to be. It just looks so Gone With the Wind, its so, well, Hollywood Technicolour, larger than life- I knew of the year the film came out and assumed it would be post-War escapism. I honestly think that, had it been shot in traditional black and white, it would have been much more obviously classic noir, right from the start, but instead thanks to its Technicolour charms it all rather sneaks up on the viewer. Well, that’s how it progressed for me; I had no idea what was coming.

Gene Tierney, of course, starred in Laura, that highly-regarded (and rightfully so) noir that I watched last year, and the role for which she is best-known, but I think she might actually have been better in this. We first see her on a train, staring at a male passenger across from her – we think she’s slowly recognising him from the back cover of the book that she has been reading (he’s the novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde)) but instead she’s fascinated by his resemblance to her recently deceased father. We don’t know it yet, but Ellen has an unhealthy obsession regards her father and that’s soon to be transferred to Richard, and woe to anyone who gets in her way.  The two soon learn that they are vacationing in the same luxury resort in the desert, a favourite place of Ellen’s father, and it transpires that she has come to spread his ashes there.  Once this duty is done (whilst racing on horseback with big, sweeping music playing on the soundtrack) Ellen begins seducing Richard who is quickly beguiled by her mysterious enigmatic beauty. 

leave2Richard is pretty much a moth to the flame and something of an insipid wimp. Ellen’s fiancé, attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), suddenly arrives on a (typically) stormy night, furious that Ellen has broken their engagement. Much surprised by this unexpected turn of events, Richard is even more shocked when Ellen announces to everyone that she and Richard are to be married. He lets himself get swept away by the events and the whirlwind romance, clearly intoxicated by her beauty.

There’s a moment, perhaps midway through the film, which is so shocking that… well, its perhaps silly to worry about spoilers with a film already 76 years old, but hey, I’ve already stated I had no idea what I was watching. Richard has a younger brother, Danny, who has been crippled by polio and comes to live with the newly married couple. Ellen clearly resents the young man intruding upon her marital bliss, although outwardly she pretends to enjoy having him with them and content at the immediately extended family unit. What happens to poor Danny is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in any film; I just cannot believe it isn’t something as infamous as Psycho‘s shower scene, its remarkable that I’d never even heard about it.

By this point of course, Leave Her to Heaven has become some other film entirely from the one I thought I was watching. Its a trick increasingly difficult to fall for, the more films one watches, and of course I’ve seen many, many films, so its immediately a special experience. There’s a few moments later on… I mean, Ellen is one of the most incredible characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. Whether she actually qualifies as a femme fatale, I’m not certain, but she’s certainly bad to know, and a nightmare when the subject of her romantic interest. Gene Tierney was evidently some kind of extraordinary talent- I can’t imagine too many actresses carrying off a role such as this as well as she did. Its so strange that I haven’t seen many of her films – indeed, this is only the second, although I have her following film, Dragonwyck on an Indicator Blu-ray to watch soon. How strange this world is that I can ‘discover’ an actress and films like this after such a long time. Times and situations such as this, I rather wonder whatever next.

The Big Combo (1955)

big1Another lapse on my disc buying- a sale on the Arrow website for a budget re-release of their previously OOP Four Film Noir Classics Blu-ray set was like Kryptonite straight to my current weak spot (£25 for four noir in HD with plenty of extras seemed a steal). So we start with what seems to be the highest-regarded film of the set: The Big Combo (a no-doubt inebriated Time Out reviewer during a 1970s revival gushed that it was the greatest film of all time, or something along those lines).

The Big Combo clearly isn’t the greatest film of all time, or the greatest noir film, either, but it is a very solid and beautifully photographed piece of work (the great cinematographer John Alton truly painting with light in this- its an exquisite-looking film, one of the most beautiful noir’s I’ve yet seen and a wonder to behold on Arrow’s disc). The music score is also particularly memorable, a moody, jazzy score typical of the genre but definitely one of the better ones I’ve heard. The film is very inventive in places- it features a truly bizarre torture scene and a later on a murder scene that plays out in complete silence: I can easily understand why the film is so highly regarded.

big2Its also, having watched Kiss Me Deadly the night before, a refreshingly subtle film (although to be honest, compared to that film, what film wouldn’t seem subtle?).

Sure, this film was quite dark and violent, full of typical noir tropes but it didn’t feel the need to bash me over the head every few minutes, and strangely enough, in the end this film was possibly even more subversive and daring in many ways. Gangster boss Mr Brown (a smooth but threatening Richard Conte) has two henchmen- Fante (an impossibly-young looking Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Hoffman) – who are homosexual lovers, something not made explicit but clearly signposted for anyone paying attention. Beautiful blonde Susan (Jean Wallace) is Mr Brown’s girl, but she’s captive lover, a trophy for the big tough boss (she’s already tried suicide as a way out). One evening during an argument when they are alone in his apartment, Mr Brown grasps at her and she tries to push him away, but he persists, lowering his head behind her out of camera view, and she eventually lets out a near-orgasmic sigh of guilty pleasure at whatever he’s doing to her (I’m not sure how this got past the censors at the time). This film seems to be confirming what other film’s good guys always suspected- the bad guys are better lovers.

Certainly the hero of the film, Police Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde) who is himself unhealthily obsessed with Susan, seems a rather impotent individual (his ill-fated girlfriend is a nightclub dancer who hints its been six months since she last saw him). Diamond is wound up too tight, obsessed with bringing down Mr Brown and rescuing Susan -indeed  its suggested that he is so focused on Mr Brown simply because of Susan, the object of an unrequited love. As usual with these roles, Mr Brown is obviously the more interesting of the two- dynamic, strong and bold, while Diamond is very square, repressed and frustrated. Its interesting that at the close of the film (and I hope I’m not crossing too far into spoiler territory with a film 65 years old), that Susan and Diamond don’t fall into a typical clinch at the end- suggesting that Diamond may have saved the girl, but he won’t necessarily get the girl. This was really very refreshing, frankly, and typical of the restraint and sophistication of the film and how it bucks trends with impressive grace. This film is definitely one of the greats, and that Time Out reviewer wasn’t far wrong.