Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

Funny how movie connections happen; within days of watching Jean Simmons in A Bullet is Waiting, a film which baffled me as to regards how it merited inclusion as a noir in Indicator’s most recent Columbia Noir box, I noticed Footsteps in the Fog in the TV schedule: this was most likely Jean Simmons’ very next film. I seem to recall when looking up some A Bullet is Waiting details for my review that upon production wrapping on that film her then-husband Stewart Granger whisked her off to England to make his next movie, the third and last film they would make together (I’ve since looked for where in the world I read about them sailing to England for another film together, but can’t find it at all so take that for what its worth- in anycase, its quite likely as the film was released the following year).

footsOstensibly a thriller, I had an absolute hoot with Footsteps in the Fog: it seemed more a dark comedy than a genuine dramatic thriller, and in that sense, it had a surprising sophistication, and felt remarkably modern, really. There just seemed something tongue-in-cheek about it, a self-knowing, rather like a comic spin on what might otherwise have been a serious Hitchcockian twister. Heaven forbid it was supposed to be a genuinely tense, edgy entertainment, in which case I’m damning it with faint praise, but the films director Arthur Lubin just seemed to find this lovely quality of actor performance and direction that gave it the feel of a delicious dark comedy. 

The film begins like the Gothic mystery/drama one expects it to be- Stephen Lowry (Granger) is mourning his recently deceased wife; the funeral is a grim, moody affair under grey skies and rain but when Lowry returns home wishing to be alone for awhile, he retires to his lounge and gazes at the painting of his wife above the fireplace, pours a drink and grins like a Cheshire cat, or indeed the cat that got the cream. It transpires he in fact killed his wife -poisoned her- and has gotten away with it: except that his quiet housemaid Lily Watkins (Simmons) knows what he has done and is canny enough to realise she can blackmail him for her personal gain. What follows is a delightful battle of wits between the two- Lily seems quite attracted to Lowry and ultimately wishes to replace his dead wife and enjoy living a life of luxury, but Lowry has his mind set on moving upwards socially through marriage to a wealthy business partner’s daughter and needs to be quietly rid of Lily…another murder then? If only it were that easy.

There are a surprising number of twists in this film that keeps the viewer alert and guessing, and Lowry is such a cad you can’t help but root for Lily, but they are both fairly disreputable characters who will cheat and scheme for their own ends- I think its this that makes it feel modern, they seem unlikely characters for a film from 1955 when we’re used to better moral codes (well, unless we’re watching a noir). Granger seems eminently suited for a role such as this; he often seemed aloof and self-reverential in films and so there is a genuine pleasure in seeing him squirm when things don’t go his way. Simmons of course seems to always have such a lovely sweet personality leaking through her roles that its just too easy to try to excuse her misdeeds and hope she succeeds in outwitting the despicable cad. Both actors are supported by a wonderful cast-  Bill Travers, Belinda Lee, Finlay Currie (who I remember well from Ben Hur, no less), and William Hartnell are all excellent, and the production design is lovely, the film looks gorgeous; the sets, the costumes…

I can only repeat that I had a fine old time with this- I’d expected a staid, Victorian Gothic murder mystery but instead it was a deliciously quirky black comedy which was such a surprise – maybe it was a surprise to the film-makers, I don’t know, but I’d like to think it was deliberate. The finale is wonderfully dark, redolent of an Edgar Allen Poe story perhaps and quite perfect. I honestly think there is some repeat value to this film and I look at Indicator’s Blu-ray with a suddenly curious eye…

Columbia Noir: A Bullet is Waiting (1954)

abulletOh this was cheeky, Indicator slipping this modern-day (well, modern in the 1950s) Western into a film noir boxset. Okay, there is some excuse for some noir undertones but really, its just spectacularly flimsy nonsense that doesn’t really validate its inclusion here: noir is a notoriously debatable style that can be seen in all sorts of widely different films, but this film… noir? Naughty, Indicator. That said, I suppose I’m thankful that it was included in this noir box, because there’s simply no way I’d probably encounter this film otherwise, and I’m always glad of experiencing something I might otherwise have never seen. I mean, when is this film ever next going to get shown on television, and when indeed was it ever aired on any network here in the UK in the past? This is a film that simply screams obscure.

My chief interest in the film is seeing a young Jean Simmons in an unlikely and rewarding role (I think she was a very good actress generally denied the roles she really deserved) and the way the film weaves the general plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a 1950s-set Western. It was something done, albeit with a science-fiction bent, not long after by MGMs Forbidden Planet (1956). To be honest, Forbidden Planet did it much more successfully- the unhealthy dynamic of a daughter on the brink of sexual maturity having lived too close to her father and remote from other people, when young males come upon the scene threatening to break up the status quo, is one that is clearly ripe for drama. Heaven only knows what either David Lynch or Lars von Trier could make of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in a film, set either in some dim period or present-day. Obviously you couldn’t expect something like that from a studio film in the 1950s, but oddly enough some of the social mores of the day can be decidedly troubling. There is a scene in which Rory Calhoun and Jean Simmons get caught in a romantic clinch that’s uncomfortably more akin to rape than anything particularly romantic, but I guess audiences didn’t mind their heroes getting a little rough with their romantic interests back then? It certainly felt an uncomfortable watch from the vantage point of 2021.

Its clearly not a noir, no matter what tenuous claim some might make about one character’s actions/motivations in particular, and really, its also not a film I’ll rush to return to, but I’m glad I own it and that I can return to it someday. I’m not familiar with Rory Calhoun but he’s very good here with considerable screen presence, and I understand he had a long career particularly in Westerns, so I figure he might become a familiar face if I watch a few Westerns over on TNT. The disc’s commentary, and a short featurette, both cast some light on Jean Simmons’ life and career that I was quite ignorant of- its actually rather alarming how the studio system and its old contract system (Simmons running foul of a contract with Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures) harmed some careers, and Simmons’ marriage with Stewart Granger seems to have been shockingly dysfunctional, frankly. Likely my view on the latter is unfair but goodness me, in some ways it reflects the subject of A Bullet is Waiting in some curious way, as Simmons apparent tendency to look for something of a father figure in her love life (both Granger and her second husband Richard Brooks were rather older than she) seems to mirror an uncomfortable subtext of Shakespeare’s tale, dimly as it may have been transferred to a Western and a science fiction film over sixty years ago.  It adds a certain element to whenever I do return to the film, anyway.