Just a thought: noir happy endings

shock1Watching Shockproof (review coming soon-ish) I was struck by how a few noir just aren’t allowed to stay true to their narrative and intent, instead hijacked by presumably nervous studio execs and saddled with audience-friendly happy endings. In the case of Shockproof, I’ll get into it in more detail within the review, but suffice to say for about 75 minutes its a great noir about a parole officer gone bad because of his love for a beautiful woman who killed someone, and then in its last five minutes, maybe less, it becomes a different film entirely with a stupid ending that practically ruins the film. I mean, literally I was loving it, the cast, the story and the locations (they even filmed at the Bradbury Building!) and then boom, Game Over.

Its an ending that comes out of nowhere and I can’t see how anyone ‘buys’ it. A pretty much identical thing happens in The Brothers Rico, a edgy noir directed by Phil Karson (The Killers, The Dark Mirror) about an ex-Mafia book keeper who thinks going straight means he has left the mob behind. Its a very dark thriller that is totally undone by a happy ending so blatantly tacked on it almost undermines everything that has occurred before (which reminds me, I really need to rewatch that film and post a review).

One of the most beautiful and intoxicating things about film noir, about great film noir, are the grim, ‘downer’ endings that sometimes frustrate and sometimes disturb but yet always feel fitting and right, like  the ending of Criss Cross, which continues to haunt and disturb me, months after having seen it. Real-life is less like traditional Hollywood films and more like film noir; things don’t always go right, things sometimes get out of control and when push comes to shove, we are all far less in control of our fates than we like to think we are. Very often things go bad, very bad: there is a Truth in that. Noir films often get away with grim endings because they are about bad guys or good guys gone bad or good guys who do the wrong thing for the wrong woman- and the Production Code always stated that films should show that crime doesn’t pay, so hey, they get away with grim endings that ordinary flicks couldn’t. But sometimes the studio execs just can’t let it go.

Which allows me the excuse to mention Blade Runner again (oh yes, yet again) as everyone will recall its own abortive 1982 release version and its own tacked-on happy ending in which Deckard and Rachel are literally driving off, escaping to a happy future into the sunset. I just never appreciated at the time that the film had been shockproofed.

There. ‘Shockproofed’ is a thing now.

Columbia Noir: Tight Spot (1955)

tight1This was such a strange film, carrying an unlikely tension throughout, between comedy and noir- and I have the suspicion that it was possibly even unintentional, that the film was somehow out of control. But then again, if it was intended to be a gritty, tense noir about the long reach of the mob to intimidate and silence witnesses via corrupt administration and police, then how come director Phil Karlson didn’t pull up star Ginger Rogers on the first day of shooting and inquire “Ginger honey, what the hell are you doing?”

Because to be clear, Ginger Rogers, playing prison inmate Sherry Conley and last-hope witness for a desperate  prosecution of a mobster who has hitherto escaped the law, is all wrong for this picture. I suspect the role was just too much of a stretch for her, resulting in her streetwise, bad-luck criminal being too loud, too over the top, bordering on farce and almost breaking the fourth wall as she delivers sharp one-liners directly at the audience. Its specially jarring as the rest of the cast are so restrained and subtle – the great Edward G Robinson is marvellous as the tough, dedicated prosecuting attorney Lloyd Hallett and Brian Keith surprisingly endearing as police detective/minder Vince Stalker. Indeed, the film is almost stolen from all of them by Katherine Anderson’s Mrs Willoughby, a prison warden who is Conley’s escort when she is removed from prison, who steals scenes with her calmness. I’m really not at all familiar with Ginger Rogers but it seems patently clear that in a drama such as this she was out of her comfort zone  and perhaps as a result, she over-acts as if in a panic and attempts to steal every scene she’s in by just drawing attention to herself, practically crying out to the audience “look at me! Look at me!”

I cannot understand why she wasn’t asked to dial it down somewhat. Maybe you didn’t do that with stars of her calibre back then: at this point in his career Robinson was out of favour, almost backlisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee and relegated to b-movies rather beneath him, and Brian Keith was on his way up after a career in television and hardly one to rock the boat. I can imagine Robinson walking of set shaking his head with a wry grimace that such was his lot and Keith wary of speaking out. The alternative of course is that it was all intentional, and Rogers’ broad strokes welcomed, and yet it doesn’t work-  I can only imagine jittery producers watching the Dailies with a rising panic.

Tight Spot is not a bad movie: based on a stage play and basically a one-set movie (mostly taking in place in a hotel room in which Hallett endeavours to convince Conley to testify against mobster Costain (Lorne Green)) the original source was obviously a character study and so ideal subject matter for a tense dramatic film (like 12 Angry Men maybe) but it keeps on swerving into romantic comedy. Rogers chews up scenery and rattles off witty one-liners like bullets from a machine gun, and scenes are occasionally broken up rather jarringly by sequences from a television broadcast of a charity marathon with a singing cowboy that is given surprising screen time. Its quite a bizarre experience that’s difficult to really explain. The film is partly saved by a surprise twist that I won’t share here (even if the film is over sixty years old) and I feel the need to point out that Lorne Green makes a memorable bad guy even if he has little more than two scenes.  Indeed its the performances from the rest of the cast that saves the picture almost in spite of Rogers; I much preferred Brian Keith here over his role in 5 Against the House and the film proved a very welcome reminder of just how good Edward G Robinson was. It has some tense moments (mostly a gritty beginning and finale, leaving the film feeling like a madcap comedy bookended by noir) and really is very enjoyable once one can dial-out or ignore Rogers’ ill-judged performance. Or maybe I’m missing something unique to 1955.