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…

“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.

A Beach Too Far

womanonbeachThe Woman on the Beach, 1947, 71 mins, Cable TV (Classic Movies)

Oh, this was rough. Its another example of a film with decent talent that has an interesting premise -basically a love triangle with a kink (one of the characters is disabled) that would resurface in, for instance, Roman Polanski’s far superior Bitter Moon decades later – but this film simply does not work. At all. Its completely broken.  I don’t know if its failures lie within its screenplay or later studio interference, but as it was based upon an original novel – and one would think a novel would be sufficiently thought-out to function under the scrutiny of readers- I rather suspect interreference  or problems during the shoot scuppered the film.

So anyway, I’d never heard of this film before, but it caught my eye as it stars my recent ‘discovery’ Joan Bennett (The Reckless Moment, Scarlett Street) and growing favourite Robert Ryan (too many noir/recent films to mention, but lets go with House of Bamboo and Crossfire), two actors who promise much but are each severely compromised here. I’ve watched Bennett as a mother struggling to save her daughter and as a beautiful duplicitous temptress, but here she’s Peggy, an attractive but surprisingly bland woman, a frustrated wife in a toxic marriage almost accidentally starting an affair with Scott (Robert Ryan) who stumbles upon her lingering by a beached shipwreck while he is riding on the beach.

Scott is a navy lieutenant awaiting an imminent discharge, suffering from PTSD having survived the sinking of a ship struck by a mine, presumably during the war. The film opens with an arresting, partly-animated visual effects sequence which visualises a recurring nightmare of the sinking, only in the dream he too sinks to the ocean floor where he is called to a beautiful siren, to his doom. This sequence seems to promise a tale of nightmare and obsession (after Scott meets Peggy we have to suppose that the nightmare is a portent of what is to come- that the siren is Peggy and her temptation is his real-life doom). But this is certainly no Vertigo– we don’t ‘see’ any further recurring nightmares suggesting further haunted, sleepless nights and increasing mental instability on Scott’s part. In fact, this may be the main failing of the film- it doesn’t focus upon Scott and his breakdown, or elaborate upon the idea that he may be grasping after Peggy because of his haunting dream-siren. How much more interesting it would have been, had the siren of his dreams been first visualised as his fiancé Eve (Nan Leslie) and then, after meeting Peggy, in later dreams visualised as Peggy (Joan Bennett certainly accomplished playing the deadly temptress from other roles). But we don’t ‘see’ any further nightmares and Scott then waking up, screaming, as we do in that beginning.

Because of this, Robert Ryan suffers the worse of the two stars: Scott is a horribly under-written character who alienates viewers from the start when he cruelly breaks up from his fiancé Eve, who we clearly see is a beautiful, honest and sweet young woman who is the right girl for him: as far as we are concerned Scott is a heel and opportunist preferring an affair with a no-good, married woman, horribly undermining his status as nominal ‘hero’ of the film.

Peggy’s blind husband Tod (Charles Bickford) was once a successful artist and the two of them socialites enjoying fame and wealth in New York, but following an accident that struck him blind, his artistic career was over and they have moved to a life of remote anonymity in a beach-house. Its a little vague in the film, but the accident was Peggy’s fault and she is staying with Tod from guilt. I suppose she was a bubbly good-time girl attracted to Tod by his fame and wealth, but now resents him for her enforced life of loneliness and isolation. Tod, meanwhile, plays the pleasant loving husband in front of Scott but is a controlling figure who blames Peggy for his plight and wants to emotionally punish her, but this is underplayed or not the preferred focus of the film. Here again though is part of the problem of this film for me; it doesn’t seem to know where the focus should lie – Scott? Peggy? Tod? – and instead spreads itself too far. Tod seems to know of, and indirectly encourage, Scott’s affair with Peggy but to what end isn’t clear, and Scott’s moves to murder Tod so that he can have Peggy, without portraying his recurring nightmares and gradual mental breakdown, leaves him seeming all the more an unlikeable protagonist and utter heel. Its a shame, because Ryan’s natural intensity would often later result in him being typecast as a villain, but here it would have helped make his Scott a fascinating and convincing ‘broken’ hero who could have been as complex as the oddly similarly-named Scottie of Vertigo. Incidentally, while I love James Stewart in that film, I suddenly have the inclination that Robert Ryan would have been fantastic as Scottie in Hitchcock’s film: its fun to imagine it.

The Woman on the Beach is quite a slog to get through, and all the effort is betrayed by a totally nonsensical ending which sums up the broken nature of the film (or to be generous, maybe the broken nature of the film mirrors the broken characters within it?). Its a horrible, horrible ending which makes no narrative sense, construed to somehow give all three characters a happy ending which is utterly unconvincing and arguably undeserved. Its one of those endings where against all sense the title card ‘The End’ is placed over the closing image and you think ‘wtf?’ as if there is a missing reel somewhere. I suppose the one positive is that this film isn’t much more than an hour long, but all the same, I did come out of this thinking I’d just lost an hour or so that I wanted back, and desperately regretted watching it when I could have watched something else. I mean, I have the Blu-ray of The Third Man just sitting just an arms length from the Blu-ray player, and I watched this rubbish instead…

Last Week: one film leads to another. Endlessly.

they live byReal-life distractions got in the way of posting reviews last week, and it was a pretty weird week all round. I watched Nicholas Ray’s noir thriller They Live by Night having recorded it off a film channel on the cable box- not the best quality, and certainly no doubt far inferior to the Criterion Blu-ray which I nearly bought in their last sale several months back. Well, next sale-time I’ll be rectifying that mistake, because it was an outrageously great film and one I want to watch again in better quality. It really was one hell of a film.

Its a funny thing- for some reason, this particular January is actually becoming one of the best months I’ve had for catching really good films, although it is also becoming a little expensive purchasing catalogue titles on Blu-ray: my problem is how films seem to endlessly lead to others. You see a great film by one director and it leads to looking up what else he/she directed, or you are impressed by an actor so you look up their filmography. Sometimes it is the featurettes on a disc that do the deed, referencing films that I haven’t seen, which is great if they are accessible on streaming services but frustrating if it requires purchasing titles on disc. For example, a featurette on Indicator’s The Reckless Moment disc -and that’s another great film I need to post a review of soon- referenced James Mason and some of his films made around the time The Reckless Moment was made- one of which was Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, which from the scenes shown in the featurette looked interesting enough to get me buying it on a Blu-ray from network, but which itself somehow then led me to another Carol Reed film, The Fallen Idol, which again looked really interesting, and as both that and Carol Reed’s The Third Man are in a sale at both HMV and Amazon….

scarlst2Back to The Reckless Moment though, because I was so impressed by Joan Bennett in that film that I went looking at her filmography. Fortunately Fritz Lang’s noir Scarlett Street which starred Bennett was on Amazon Prime, and while it wasn’t the best quality (its obvious streamers dump these older films on their services without much attention to print quality etc), at least it was in its original black and white. Unfortunately, the edition of Lang’s The Woman in the Window, another noir starring Bennett, which is  available on Amazon Prime, is a colourised version (I thought those had been outlawed long ago, but colourised movies somehow still seem to be surfacing). My goodness its unwatchable, I switched that travesty off within minutes of it starting, so my only current avenue for that film seems to be a Blu-ray from Eureka. Oh my wallet. I did spot another Joan Bennett on a cable movie channel so have recorded it – The Woman on the Beach, which I’ll give a try, if only because it also features Robert Ryan- yeah, him. Again. Mind, goodness only knows what films both The Woman in the Window and The Woman on the Beach possibly lead to.

Strangely enough, I found myself watching two more episodes of 1970s popular cop show Starsky and Hutch last week. I don’t know why I’m so cruel to myself, but nostalgia can be a rude mistress. Anyway, one of these two episodes in particular was of some passing interest- the third season episode The Action, from 1978, featured an extraordinarily young Melanie Griffiths in a guest role, and also M Emmet Walsh (only a few years away from Blade Runner) and James B. Sikking, later of Hill Street Blues fame and parts in both Outland and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. That episode seems ridiculously overloaded with notable guest stars. The second episode I watched was a late fourth-season episode, with the series clearly on its last legs,  my attention drawn by the episode title (Starsky vs.Hutch, which was intriguing but the actual episode quite another matter). I stuck with the episode because of it featuring an unrecognisable Yvonne Craig (Bargirl sorry, Batgirl, in the Adam West Batman tv show) in a very minor -insultingly so, really, I has a hard time tracking her down- role, and the great Richard Lynch as the villain. Lynch played a psychopathic Vietnam veteran who hated blondes, hunting a dating bar/dance hall – only the brunettes were safe (but he wasn’t fooled by blonde wearing a dark wig, the cunning bastard). Lynch seemed to be a regular bad guy in television shows of that era (Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The A-Team, you name it he was a villain in it) and he had a notable turn in the fantasy flick The Sword and the Sorcerer (a poor-mans Conan which I gather is getting a 4K release before the John Milius film, somehow. Crazy world.).

On a curiously related note, I did see the very end of Conan The Barbarian during the week, catching the last moments of a showing on television when flicking the channels late at night. Every time I catch the end or mid-point of a film I have on disc -the Dirty Harry films were on over Christmas, so those are a few others- showing on the telly late at night, I think, wow, I’d love to sit and watch this right now, but its always at some ungodly hour. I must have had more stamina for late, late movie watching in the old days. I just can’t do it anymore.

Friday of course brought the final-ever episode of The Expanse (I’m still hoping that Amazon or Alcon Entertainment or the showrunners are bluffing us about it being The End). I had a long day work-wise on Friday (not helped by an eleventh-hour report of sickness re: our old nemesis, Covid) so had to bide my time until late in the evening before I could watch it. It was a bittersweet experience- a great finale, certainly, but we all know there’s three more books waiting to be adapted (as well as a few novellas) so we know the story isn’t complete and indeed, the seeds laid at the start of each of this season’s episodes for what happens beyond this final episode only added to the frustrations of all fans, I expect. But yeah,  its clear that the sixth book was a good cutting-off point (in the books there is a 30-year gap between books six and seven) so it makes some kind of sense. Anyway, Expanse Season Six is another post in the queue list. It seems a long time since I wrote about its first season, years ago; I just can’t believe I’m now writing about its ending.

The 2021 sort-of Statfest and my Top Ten

greenknightWell, 2021 is drawing to a close (or has already passed, depending upon when you’re reading this) and I had a few genuine questions myself regards the year’s viewing. Primarily I was curious regards the years of the films I was watching- it seemed like I was watching quite a lot of ‘old’ films this year, mostly because of lots of catalogue disc releases and my increasing fascination with all things noir (yeah, that kind-of blew up my attempts to curb disc purchases this year), and I was wondering how it all measured up.

So anyway, I went through my list of films I watched for the first time in 2021 and how they split up across the decades and here’s how it pans out-

1920s films- nil

1930s films- nil

1940s films- 13

1950s films- 23

1960s films- 10

1970s films- 3

1980s films- 2

1990s films- 1

2000s films- 2

2010s films- 27

2020s films- 42

Its inevitable that the 2020’s dominate- that’s mostly films from this year premiering on Netflix and Amazon Prime, or films caught on disc which I missed at the cinema such as the latest Bond, so films in this group were always going to be the biggest number. What did surprise me, frankly, was the paucity of 1970s/1980s/1990s films but upon thinking about it, it made sense. As I grew up in those decades my viewing experiences have primarily been of films from those years so there’s few left that I want to see that I haven’t seen. Which is nonsense, I’m certain that are great films from those decades I have yet to see but its really a case of stumbling upon them now, and most of the films I missed during those years was from choice as they didn’t appeal to me then and few of them do now. 

The second-largest group of films is from the decade prior, the 2010s, and again, that’s mostly Netflix and Amazon Prime. I think its fair to say the majority of content on the streaming platforms is post-Millennium stuff as that is what is perhaps most relevant to viewers, rightly or wrongly. Its certainly pressing upon me just how old today’s generation seems to think the films I grew up with are; to me they actually still feel recent, but its an inescapable fact that a film from 1982 is as old to viewers today as the Errol Flynn-starring The Adventures of Robin Hood was to me when I watched Star Wars back in 1978. Or another way of looking at it- Star Wars is as old today as the 1933 King Kong was back in 1977. 

the killers3The biggest other decades of films that I watched for the first time in 2021 date from the 1940s and 1950s, and this is where all those noir box-sets and other boutique Blu-ray purchases kick in. There’s some absolutely brilliant, classic films amongst this bunch that I had never seen before and feel all the better for having finally caught up with. Films of the 1940s like The Killers, Criss Cross, Gun Crazy, and films from the 1950s like The Garment Jungle, The Lineup, and Pushover to highlight just a few. Its clear to me that the films from these decades are generally of a much higher quality than the films from the 2020s., a group littered with soulless Netflix Originals and typical by-the-numbers blockbusters. I can certainly imagine re-watching many of these 1940s/1950s films next year whereas most of the 2020s films are better soon forgotten.

Which brings me to my favourite films of the year; I don’t usually do a Top Ten but I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m not going to list them in preference as getting a list of ten films is bad enough, actually narrowing it down to an actual order of favourite is just a nightmare. So in no order, here’s ten films I consider my favourite, most enjoyable discoveries from my 2021 viewing-

Nobody (2021)– my favourite action film of the year featuring the unlikeliest actor in an action role, Bob Odenkirk, absolutely nailing it and proving the sorcery that is casting. If films were cookery recipes, this one one would obviously be ounces of John Wick mixed with ounces of Taken and a dash of Die Hard etc thrown in- its not too far removed from any film starring Liam Neeson these days so while its nothing astonishingly original it distinguishes itself apart from what is fast becoming a derivative genre by just being… well, quite brilliant. It just works in the same way as Die Hard does; its a little bit of cinematic perfection. 

Dune (2021)– a film spoiled badly by its sudden (albeit inevitable) ending, which only gets healed in a few years when Part Two arrives. The irony that what makes it so great (being shot as two films rather than try squeeze too much into one film, as Lynch had to do in 1984) is also what handicaps it so badly, isn’t lost on me. Even as it is, the film felt too short, still having to cut out so much material (which hopefully may feature in Part Two). I loved the cast, I loved the huge sense of scale, the cinematography and the brutalist art direction… Villeneuve’s Dune does so much so right, but totally fluffs the ending. I still can’t work out what they were thinking. Villeneuve hates streaming and seems to dislike the Marvel method, but releases a film that screams modern-blockbuster tease as loud as any comicbook caper and seems designed for the streaming boxset experience. Maybe he was in a no-win situation, but I think I’d have preferred more screen time pre-Harkonnen attack and actually end the film with Paul and Jessica fleeing into the desert, with Paul maybe vowing revenge and closing with a triumphant Baron over the Duke’s dead body. Imagine that.

Red Notice (2021) – nah, only kidding.

The Green Knight (2021)– I really enjoyed this, it felt like a modern-day revisit of John Boorman’s Excalibur, historical myth as dreamlike fable that isn’t intended to wholly make sense or purport to be anything like reality. It looked absolutely gorgeous and would love to own it on 4K disc someday. There’s every chance subsequent viewings won’t be as rewarding, but when I watched this it just blew me away, it was so strange and unusual, with some arresting moments that took my breath away- so it qualifies for my top ten.

Hidden Figures (2016)– there must be a sub-genre now of films about the Apollo missions and everything that led up to the landing on the moon, and this film is one of the finest on the subject that I’ve yet seen. It works as an (unintended) companion piece to Damien Chazelle’s First Man and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in such a wonderful way; blessed with a sharp script, and heartfelt performances from a simply marvellous cast. So good I had to go buy the 4K disc almost immediately, a disc I really should watch soon. A fantastic film.

strangers1Strangers When We Meet (1960) – One of the discoveries of this year for me was Kim Novak, an actress I knew from Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo but little else, other than the 1980s Falcon Crest television series (which in particular would hardly suggest anything positive). Well I was doing the actress a genuine disservice, and this film in particular may have been one of her best roles. I found this to be a profoundly sad film; a drama about a married couple having an affair, it probably wasn’t scandalous in 1960 never mind today, but it certainly hasn’t dated as much as one might think, and what made it work for me was the real-life reputation of womaniser Kirk Douglas and the wholly sympathetic performance of Novak. The vividly-captured world of late-1950s America, on the cusp of the 1960s is one of the films charms (see also as a counterpoint the late-1960s drama The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster, another film whose appeal is partly the whole milieu of a surprisingly distant world). Douglas is fine, and possibly admirably stretching himself, but Novak is just brilliant in this though, a beautiful woman trapped in a distinctly man’s world. 

The Killers (1946) – Watching the first ten minutes of this Robert Siodmak film is almost the very definition of falling in love with a film; it starts in such a dark and moody fashion and masterfully sets up a mystery to grab hold of. This mystery, gradually solved by flashback accounts in a Citizen Kane fashion, doesn’t really live up to that opening section, but The Killers remains a tight-packed, very noir drama that blew me away. They really don’t make ’em like they used to. 

crisscrossCriss Cross (1949)– Which brings us to Criss Cross, reuniting Burt Lancaster with director Robert Siodmak in a clear attempt to recapture the success of their earlier film. I actually preferred this over The Killers – it features another Burt Lancaster character who is doomed but I found this actually more successful, possibly because its narrative was generally more traditionally told in linear fashion but mostly because the characters were more convincing. Its a tragedy writ large in noir black and white, with a brutal ending that is… well I’m still recovering from it. They don’t end ’em like they used to.

The Lineup (1958) -a film that starts out as one thing, but then becomes another- that kind of spin always appeals to me. Its rather like having the rug pulled from under your feet, something all too rare. Here Don Siegel transforms what is essentially an unremarkable police procedural in its early stages into a haunting nightmare of crazy hitmen loose in a San Francisco mostly lost now (the film almost as much an historical document as it is a dramatic piece, featuring landmarks now gone). Eli Wallach and Robert Keith as the psychopathic killers are something of a revelation, and its true, you can fall in love with a film just from one shocking moment – here one featuring a wheelchair and an instant of violence shocking and unexpected and, well, perfect. 

On Dangerous Ground (1951) – Alongside ‘discovering’ Kim Novak, this year seems to be the year I wised up to the genius of Robert Ryan, who just seemed to turn up in so many of the films I’ve seen this year (Crossfire, House of Bamboo, The Racket, Born to be Bad). Here he’s a bitter detective who has been brutalised by his job, having seen too much of the worst of humanity, who finds salvation in the love of a blind woman whose brother he is hunting down. Like The Lineup, its a film that seems to be one thing which then spins into something else- in this case, a thriller turning into a romance. It seems unlikely but it works, and much of this is thanks to Ryan’s performance. Ryan was wildly successful in film, in a career that lasted over three decades until his too-early passing at the age of just 63, and I gather he was disappointed in the roles given him, but I think he’s been quite brilliant in every film I’ve seen him in. There’s a dark intensity to his face and performances which left him largely cast as a villain and not the leads he felt he deserved, and he might have been right, but it seems he left a formidable body of work that I’ll hopefully discover more of in 2022.

gia2The Garment Jungle (1957)- I’m not sure why, but this film left such a mark on me. Perhaps its the performances, as it features Lee J Cobb, Robert Loggia and Kerwin Mathews in brilliant form in a tense noir with genuine twists- its certainly a solid film. But perhaps its more the haunting beauty of Gia Scala, an actress whose life is one of those Hollywood tragedies that lingers on because they are frozen in time in celluloid. Just on the strength of her role here, one would think Gia would have become a superstar, but due to real-life problems with depression (and, I gather, alcohol addiction, oh so Tinsletown) it was not to be, and she was found dead from an apparently accidental overdose at just 38 years in 1972 (although her sister would contest her death as suspicious, in similar manner to how some consider Marilyn Monroe’s death). Watching her frozen in time in The Garment Jungle, so talented and beautiful with the world surely at her feet, is a rather disturbing experience knowing what befell her later. She deserved better, but in life and Hollywood there is no ‘deserved’, there is just ‘is’; a fittingly noir thing to contemplate as I round off this top ten with another noir. One last thought- were women simply more beautiful back then in that era?

So that’s ten favourite films. Whether its even THE top ten of 2021 is another matter, but looking through my list of what I’ve watched this year, it looks about right regards which films I enjoyed the most. A pretty good year of films, really. I think its inevitable that I find more recent viewing (The Last Duel, No Time to Die for instance) hard to qualify as I haven’t absorbed them enough or had the time to properly judge them, whereas many of the films in that top ten have been bouncing around in my head for months in that way only the best films and performances do.  

 

House of Bamboo (1955)

bamboo3One of the attractions of film for me is the the way it freezes time and place, a time capsule, in effect. Curiously this even works for science fiction films and their visions of the future; Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the future seen through the prism of the optimism and ambition of the1960s, one of many movie futures that never happened (we’ll be lucky to see Kubrick’s space station wheel or moon-base before 2101, a century ‘late’, and we have yet to see 2019’s flying cars of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) but the point is, those future visions inform us of the times when a film was made and those visions created, something increasingly interesting as they become more removed from us.

But certainly the sense of films being time capsules applies chiefly to films of old, and its almost incidental to the storytelling process. A British film made and set in the 1960s is just a film made in the 1960s, they weren’t concerned with recording their milieu for posterity, but that’s what they have done- 1960s London being very different to that of today, and likewise Klute, French Connection or Taxi Driver all have visions of a New York of their time but now offering glimpses of a city long gone, for better or worse.    

Which brings me to one of the more arresting and fascinating aspects of Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo, a thriller set and filmed in post-war Japan. Its clear that Fuller seized the unusual opportunity with relish, because the location filming is quite extensive, offering a sense of time and place that is quite tangible. I would imagine that someone living in Tokyo today would find this film almost a revelation. Indeed a ‘locations then and now’ featurette, albeit prohibitively expensive would have been so fascinating (those types of featurettes are something I always gravitate to first if they are on a disc). I’m not sure how staged the locations were, but they certainly feel authentic, adding a docudrama feel to the film: there’s a sense of reality to it.

Which is perhaps just as well, because the film is quite bizarre otherwise, featuring an American gang of ex-servicemen who seemingly speak no Japanese, in charge of the Tokyo underworld, and the powerless Japanese authorities needing the help of American military police to root them out. Based upon an earlier Fox film, The Street With No Name, its a mob scenario like so many gangster noir films but transposed to the Orient – vividly filmed in glorious CinemaScope colour, its like no noir I’ve yet seen, and magnificently photographed.

The ‘hero’ of the film is Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) who arrives in Tokyo stirring up trouble until he is brought to the attention of Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) who’s the mastermind of the American gang. Stack is a blank, really pretty woeful with a one-note performance which must be what he approximates as a ‘Tough Guy’ but never really convinces. Did Stack always just get by with poor performances like this? Or is it possible its a deliberate commentary on the stereotypical rugged American hero stuck in a milieu where he doesn’t belong (shades of Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain decades later), finding him wanting? 

bamboo2The film is thankfully saved by Ryan’s cool and collected criminal czar: I’ve seen Ryan in several films of late and he continues to impress- he’s not, as one might expect, chewing up the scenery here but is instead calmly threatening, and there’s a weird homoerotic undercurrent that I’ve noticed before in other noir. Its subtle enough that viewers won’t necessarily notice it, but its evidently deliberate as Fuller remarks about it in the booklet that accompanies this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release. Sandy takes a sudden liking to Eddie, who’s quite oblivious, but it becomes clear to us something is going on- Sandy’s rule that any injured gang member must be shot dead to avoid giving anything away to the authorities, is shown in action, but when Eddie is injured Sandy orders him carried to safety. Eddies standing in the gang rises, and he becomes Sandy’s righthand man, usurping  the increasingly irritated Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Sandy’s attraction to Eddie blinds him to the fact that Eddie isn’t who he seems- he’s actually Eddie Kenner, a military policeman posing as Spanier, a criminal who is still serving time back in the States. Kenner seeks to destroy the gang from within, but doesn’t himself realise that a mole in the Japanese police will leak to Sandy there is a mole in his operation, setting up a tense last heist…

Along the way there are some remarkable moments, like when Sandy, realising he has been betrayed, dispatches Griff in error- shooting him dead while he’s in a wooden bathtub that, riddled with bullets, starts leaking bath water while Sandy walks over and cradles his victims head, explaining why he just killed him (explaining himself to his past lover/confidant?). Or seeing original 1960s Star Trek‘s DeForrest Kelley playing one of Sandy’s henchmen; it just feels so incongruous seeing Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy as a bad guy .Or indeed any scene featuring the rather forced and unlikely romance between Eddie and Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) the Japanese widow of one of Sandy’s deceased gang members.

bamboo1But despite the inherent silliness of much of the plot and the hackneyed performance of tough-guy Stack, the film works, and much of this is thanks to the sheer fascination/eye-candy of the locations. The action finale in an amusement/theme park on the roof of a Tokyo tower block, children and parents rushing everywhere while bullets are flying and the city of Tokyo sits oblivious below, is as strange and visually arresting as it should sound (what Scott could have made of it in his Black Rain one can only imagine). I thought the setting for that last gunfight was quite extraordinary and a major achievement. House of Bamboo is a thoroughly odd film but one that just constantly rewards, I really enjoyed it and look forward to listening to its two commentary tracks (viva physical media!).

 

Born to Be Bad (1950)

born2bHa, this was kind of fun, if only to imagine the moral outrage of audiences back in 1950 watching Joan Fontaine’s Christabel Caine use her feminine wiles (were men such schmucks back then?) to work her way through wealthy socialites and betray the woman who took her in, and desert the woman who raised her, to get the riches (and man) she feels she deserves. Oh the horrible duplicitous cow. So sly! So rude! And worst of all, even at the end she can’t see how bad she is, doesn’t see the error of her ways and goes onto her next target feeling wholly unrepentant.  What a thoroughly unpleasant little minx. I though bad girls were supposed to get punished by the end of these moral fables?

Nicholas Ray’s 1950 melodrama has dated pretty badly and in reality its really not that good a film- its pretty predictable but its enlivened greatly by a fine cast, particularly Robert Ryan (yeah, him again, he’s becoming quite a regular on my television) as Nick, aspiring writer who’s besotted by Christabel but is just a (lower) rung on the ladder she’s climbing. Ryan has some great one-liners, delivered with great gusto (“I love you so much I wish I liked you”) and has a wonderfully irreverent, somewhat Bohemian outlook that becomes quite endearing as the film goes on. Fontaine is possibly ill-suited for the role, hardly the manipulative femme fatale the character really should be, but in a weird sort of way, the casting rather works- she looks so sweet and nice one can imagine her hoodwinking everyone around her until finally her over-confidence undoes her, although, as I have noted, the film strangely lets her get away with it, seeing her moving onto other victims in the films coda. Its all daft fun, I suppose, and largely inconsequential, but the fact that she apparently goes unpunished gives this harmless melodrama a certain dash of noir.

The Racket (1951)

racketHot on the heels of Crossfire comes another noir thriller starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan – Hollywood was a pretty small world back then when actors were signed to studio contracts, and they sure were kept busy. In 1951 alone, Ryan appeared in five movies (including the wonderful On Dangerous Ground), Mitchum in three and co-star Lizabeth Scott appeared in four herself that year; one of the pleasures of watching these noir is seeing familiar faces turning up in all sorts of roles and movies (Scott for instance appeared in Dark City and I Walk Alone, two noir which I saw last year).

I actually first watched The Racket in early September, but although I enjoyed it didn’t write about it at the time  – after having seen Crossfire with Ryan and Mitchum onscreen together again, I decided it might be timely to give The Racket a re-watch, and hey, then opportunity to finally write a post about it. 

The Racket is a crime thriller, in which mobster Nick Scanlon (Ryan) has become increasingly marginalised as his turf has become amalgamated by a high-level organised crime syndicate, more prone to hire corrupt officials and law officers to manage its will rather than resorting to Scanlon’s old-school violence. This is a familiar theme in noir during this period (711 Ocean Drive is an example) – the idea of a nameless criminal syndicate operating across the nation, led by unseen masterminds corrupting the system from within and rendering the law powerless seems to have been perfect for the increasingly paranoid, reds-under-the-bed, enemy-within times. Science fiction films of the time suggested alien menace, while many noir suggested faceless criminal threats and communist espionage, but it all feels very similar and a reflection of the Cold War era. 

racket2Scanlon’s foil in this film is incorruptible police captain Tom McQuigg (Mitchum), who has been repeatedly sidelined to ever-more backwater precincts by corrupt superiors in the pay of the Syndicate in order to undermine him doing his job. Ryan is brilliant as the fiery mobster getting angrier and angrier at being reined back by his Syndicate superiors, bristling and ready to explode, but Mitchum possibly proves to be the films weakest link. To be fair his relentlessly honest police captain is sadly one-dimensional, but Mitchum just seems happy to stride around like a cowboy from one his western flicks transplanted onto the then-modern day streets. His whole demeanour (walk, sneer and drawl) is so much that of a cowboy its a little irritating, but one has to remember Mitchum wasn’t a trained actor (at least that’s what I gather from what I’ve read) but seems confident that he can get by with just his sheer physicality alone. He’s ruggedly handsome, tall and powerfully built: he looks the part of a cinematic hero and it seems that was enough: guys wanted to be him, girls wanted to be with him, its a familiar story in Hollywood. 

Unfortunately while its a competent crime thriller, The Racket has the air of almost comfortable routine- its cinematography doesn’t look as arrestingly imaginative as, say, that of Crossfire did, the script doesn’t surprise too often and the last reel fails to generate the tension it needs to. It certainly isn’t as edgy and dark as the best noir prove to be. This is a police procedural morality tale of an honest police captain inspiring one of his men, and a reminder of the supreme price some lawmen (and their wives) have to pay. A tale of corruption and frustrated lawmen trying to clean the dirty streets, unfortunately for the film those lawmen are awfully plain and unmemorable compared to the bad guys like Ryan and, in a nice sleazy turn William Conrad as an openly corrupt Detective, Turk. Strangely enough, its the latter who struck me as likely inspiration for Tim Burton and one of his films corrupt cops ( Lt. Eckhardt) in the 1989 Batman movie: it seems quite evident that Burton likely looked at films like The Racket for inspiration for the gothic noir look of his comicbook film that enabled its own timeless look. 

I think its safe to say that The Racket is Ryan’s movie though- he seems perfectly suited to playing ruthless, hardboiled bad guys and having seen him in a few films lately, he’s really caught my attention and impressed me. Maybe the reason Mitchum seems so lazy and seemingly uncommitted in this, is that he knows that its a waste of time trying any harder, Ryan is stealing every scene- mind, to be fair, the villains always tend to steal movies, and Mitchum would play some memorable ones himself (The Night of the Hunter, for one).

Crossfire (1947)

crossfire4Well we’re back to noir and the 1947 drama Crossfire starring Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past), Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground) and Robert Young. Directed by Edward Dmytryk (The Sniper, Bluebeard) the film also features Gloria Grahame (It’s A Wonderful Life, In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat) in a supporting role. That’s quite a pedigree, and also so many connections to other films I’ve seen; how could it fail?

Well, it can’t fail, really- as far as noir films go, this one looks utterly gorgeous, photographed by J.Roy Hunt, whose work here is simply high-art; its so beautiful (I only wish I had watched this on a Blu-ray, instead of an off-air recording). Although the script and acting are very good, its how the film looks that really struck me. Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve watched plenty of noir, particularly over the last year or so, so I’ve plenty to compare it to, and this film’s visuals compares with the best. Its moody, atmospheric and full of all sorts of creative and imaginative touches, painting with light indeed.

Police investigating the brutal death of Joseph “Sammy” Samuels (Sam Lavene) find that the evidence leads towards a group of demobilized soldiers, “Monty” Montgomery (Ryan), Arthur “Mitch” Mitchell (George Cooper), Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), and Floyd’s friend Leroy (William Phipps) who were seen with Samuels in a bar – particularly Mitchell whose wallet is found near the body, and who has gone missing. Capt. Finlay (Young) of the police department is approached by a fifth soldier, Sergeant Keeley (Mitchum) who is convinced his friend Mitchell is incapable of murder and sets out to investigate the crime himself, and try track down Mitchell before the police do.

Crossfire is a very atmospheric and gripping murder mystery telling the tale partially via seperate flashbacks of the events leading to Samuels murder, which we see in the immediate post-titles sequence but in such a way that we cannot identify the assailant. Gradually the film reveals to the audience who the murderer is and how he intends to cover up his guilt, instead pointing the blame upon Mitchell, and from that moment on it becomes a drama regards if the police or Keeley will discover the truth. The film is very good, with plenty of twists and turns, featuring some memorable characters and simply superb acting, particularly from Robert Ryan whose work resulted in him Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Gloria Grahame, whose turn as Ginny, a girl from the wrong side of the street resulted in a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

The film received five Oscar nominations in all, perhaps indicating just how well the film was regarded at the time, and its aged very well, except for when it becomes, for me, a little too preachy towards the end. That last observation really is just a personal viewpoint, films back then, as I have mentioned before concerning films of that period, had an habit of preaching messages at the audience and sometimes its just, well,  a little too forced, as I thought it was here, in the form of a long monologue from one character to another but clearly intended direct to the audience: I half-expected the speaker to directly face the camera. I’m not contesting the moral point that is voiced at all, the film carries a worthy and important  message that’s unfortunately as timely now as it was back then, its just that I would have preferred more subtlety, but as I say that’s a personal view and many will likely have little problem with it.

Other than that, the film is pretty much perfect, and I hope a Blu-ray release arrives over here in the UK so that I can watch it again in better quality. Its funny; noir films have been well represented on Blu-ray over the past few years and its clear I’ve been rather spoiled. It just goes to further prove just how important home video releases on physical media really are for older, classic films such as this, especially HD and 4K.

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.