Life and Death in L.A.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Peter Lorre: His first starring role was a massive hit and one of the most influential works of art in the history of film — and that was the problem

Peter Lorre, "M" (1931). An unforgettable psychological portrait.

By Paul Parcellin

Renowned character actor Peter Lorre created many indelible roles in groundbreaking noirs, thrillers and films of other genres while achieving greatness in Hollywood. Since June 26th marks the 120th anniversary of his birth, this is a good time to look back at some of his remarkable performances from the 1930s onward.

Born László Löwenstein in 1904 in Austria-Hungary, Peter Lorre began his career in theater on the stages of Vienna and Berlin. But it was his mesmerizing performance as the psychotic child murderer in Fritz Lang’s film “M” (1931) that elevated him to worldwide fame and established Lorre as an actor with a gift for portraying psychologically complex characters. 

Lang had Lorre in mind while working on the script for “M” and did not give him a screen test because he was already convinced that he was perfect for the part. Lorre did not disappoint the notoriously demanding Lang. Of his performance in “M” the director said, “(Lorre) gave one of the best performances in film history and certainly the best in his life.”

Despite a flourishing early career in Germany alongside theatrical giant Bertolt Brecht and Lang, Lorre, a Jew facing Nazi persecution, was forced to flee. London became a temporary haven before he landed in Hollywood.

Despite fluency in several European languages and a continental filmography, he arrived in Britain for a role knowing no English. Faced with director Alfred Hitchcock, Lorre adopted a curious strategy. He simply let Hitchcock talk, using smiles and nods to create the illusion of comprehension. This comedic performance convinced Hitchcock of Lorre's English proficiency, landing him a role in "The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934). Amusingly, it took Hitchcock two weeks to realize Lorre was a master of silent communication, not the English language. By the film's completion, Lorre's English had miraculously improved, paving the way for his 1934 Hollywood arrival.

With his large, luminous eyes and a voice unlike any other, Peter Lorre cut a striking figure amongst his peers. This, combined with his remarkable acting range, made him a highly sought-after talent in Hollywood. Lorre could effortlessly shift between portraying sympathetic souls and sinister masterminds. He wasn't confined by genre, bringing the same level of skill to villainous roles, comedic sidekicks and even tragic heroes.

From 1941 to ’46 he mainly worked for Warner Bros. His first film at Warner was The Maltese Falcon (1941). It was the first of many films in which he appeared alongside actors Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet. 

So instantly recognizable was he, his idiosyncratic screen persona was later caricatured in movies, television and other media. A number of animated cartoons presented highly exaggerated versions of the shady characters he often played onscreen. His characteristic Eastern European accent and wide range of vocal delivery styles, from hyperkinetic to asthmatic, were often parodied. 

Lorre took on roles that poked fun at his screen persona, including alcoholic plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein in “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944). In “Beat the Devil” (1953) he was Julius O’Hara, a fortune hunter with a Teutonic accent living in Chile since the end of the war — “O’Hara is a common name for German transplants,” he states matter of factly.

He worked to eliminate his accent, but filmmakers often insisted that he speak in the accent of his native land. Still, his dramatic roles, including those in classic noirs, are plentiful and filled with passion, pathos and wry wit. Yet he felt that he was forever a prisoner of the image he created in his earliest starring role as the child killer.

He was able to jettison his all too well known persona, but at the cost of taking on another stereotypical character. Lorre’s first major American success came with the character of Mr. Moto — he made eight "Mr. Moto" movies between 1937 and 1939. Disguised with gold-rimmed glasses, taped eyelids, and a hint of buck teeth, Lorre shed his previous image. Mr. Moto, though ostensibly a champion of law and order, employed unconventional methods. Elaborate disguises and ruthless deception were his tools, with hints of something darker lurking beneath the surface. In at least one instance the line between justice and murder blurred, adding a layer of ambiguity to the character. 

Driven by a desire for more creative control, Lorre formed his own production company. Unfortunately, this ambition coincided with the McCarthy era blacklist, and Lorre found himself unofficially ostracized by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. With dwindling opportunities in Hollywood, he returned to his native Germany in 1950.

There, he attempted to reclaim his artistic voice by co-writing, directing, and starring in the film “Der Verlorene” (The Lost One) (1951), a dark exploration of Germany's recent past. However, German audiences weren't receptive to this introspective look and a disappointed Lorre returned to America. Left with few options, he begrudgingly accepted roles that poked fun at his typecast villainous persona.

A lesser-known aspect of Lorre's life is his struggle with chronic pain and addiction. A burst appendix at age 21 left him with persistent stomach issues, treated by doctors with the highly addictive morphine. This treatment likely sparked a lifelong battle with opiates.

Biographer Stephen Youngkin's "The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre" suggests the addiction played a role in the breakdown of Lorre's three marriages and contributed to his financial struggles later in life.

By the 1950s, with television offering new opportunities, Lorre found himself still typecast, often a comedic reflection of his past menacing roles. Living in a tiny Hollywood apartment, he passed away from a stroke in 1964. A complex performer forever linked to a specific on-screen persona, it’s open to speculation what he might have accomplished had his creative powers gone unhindered by his early success.

Here’s a sampling of Peter Lorre’s noirs and thrillers with a few words about each:

M” (1931)

A cornered killer.
Child killer Hans Beckert (Lorre) stalks young girls in Berlin and is powerless to fight his compulsion to murder. Director Fritz Lang’s masterwork is a portrait of how a city reacts to a wave of heinous crimes, from the police, politicians, ordinary citizens to the members of the city’s underworld. Lorre’s character is a mass of uncontrolled psychotic impulses who holds the city at bay as he methodically seeks out and terminates young victims. 

The killer is a childlike psychotic who kindly offers his young female victims candy before killing them. Lorre manages to make the tormented Beckert sympathetic as his world collapses around him. He’s a monster, tortured by his impulses and unable to stop his dark deeds. Eventually, the underworld, not the police or courts, catch up with him. 

It’s not the killings, per se, that inspire the criminal element to capture and try him. His terrible acts have upset the natural order of things and brought extra police scrutiny down upon the city’s underworld. The outlaws want to dispose of the matter and go about their business once again and only a swift verdict and brutal justice will do.  

This, his first starring role, gave Lorre a career boost, but it typecast him as a villain after having previously played largely comedic roles.

The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934)

The streak of white in his hair makes espionage agent Abbot (Lorre) seem feral and cunning as he leads a troupe of terrorists on a mission to assassinate a foreign diplomat visiting London. Lorre’s natural European accent lends the right touch of spookiness to the grinning Abbot, as he tries to out-gentleman the ultra-refined British gent Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks). 

Abbot and his associates kidnap Lawrence’s young daughter and are holding her hostage. They aim to prevent Lawrence from spilling details of the assassination plot that he stumbled on. When they finally meet, both men exercise an exaggerated etiquette normally reserved for high tea at the Savoy. 

Abbot, the smiling spy master, is ruthless, although British authorities suggest that Lawrence might consider revealing to them the information he knows despite the fact that the youngster held hostage would likely be killed. Lawrence doesn’t cave in to either side, and fortunately his sharpshooter wife, Jill (Edna Best), proves she can do more than shatter flying skeet.

Secret Agent” (1936)

“The General” (Lorre) is an enigmatic character also known by some as the “hairless Mexican.” He’s neither hairless, Mexican nor a general. Rather, he’s a killer for hire who affects a jolly, carefree manner as he performs his freelance occupation. British agent Capt. Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud) is tasked with eliminating a German spy holed up in Switzerland. 

Brodie has been provided with a new identity and an attractive wife, Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), to further mask his true identity. He contracts the General to help accomplish his mission, but the hired killer’s carefree attitude toward murder sticks in the craw of both Brodie and Elsa, especially after a significant mistake is made. 

The General is utterly without remorse and capable of dispatching anyone for the right price. Lorre gives him the tinge of mental instability beneath his jovial demeanor. He howls with laughter when an innocent victim is killed in error, and when it’s time for him to go to work he does so with efficiency and a lack of compunction. His is a personality whose qualities, taken as a whole, don’t seem to add up. Yet, he’s somehow quite convincing and not just a little disturbing.   

Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940)

Margaret Tallichet, Peter Lorre,
"Stranger on the Third Floor.
Aspiring news reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire) is the key witness at the murder trial of a young taxi driver Joe briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) accused of cutting a café owner's throat and is soon accused of a similar crime himself.

Lorre plays the stranger living in a rooming house who, despite the conviction, is suspected of committing the crime. Like his Hans Beckert in “M,” Lorre’s unnamed “stranger” has reptilian bulging, anxious eyes and contorted, fearful facial expressions that suggest genuine terror. He’s mysterious, menacing and may be a cold blooded murderer.

Novelist Nathaniel West did an uncredited revision on the script, an unconventional telling of the story featuring flashbacks within flashbacks. In it, the broken-hearted characters who populate a tawdry rooming house are like the residents of a cheap hotel at which West worked on the night shift as he wrote during the day. His published works include “Day of the Locust” and “Miss Lonelyhearts,” stories of tormented individuals living on society’s fringes and other outsiders, much like those of “Stranger on the Third Floor.” 

I Was an Adventuress” (1940)

Mild mannered kleptomaniac Polo (Lorre) is a member of a trio who travel about Europe, fleecing the well heeled. With hair pasted to his scalp and remarkably bad dental work, Polo pretends to be a scholar of antiquities, assuring the dupes that the phony artifacts they purchase are of the genuine articles. Lurking beneath his nerdish surface lies a dedicated thief. 

While helping to bilk a greedy collector he can’t restrain himself from also lifting an ambassador’s wallet. When gang ringleader Andre Desormeaux (Erich von Stroheim ) scolds him for his unsanctioned thievery, he laments, “I guess I’m just a pathological case,” adding, almost proudly, “I am a weak character. So is my whole family.”

Polo is teamed up with Desormeaux and phony countess Tanya Vronsky (Vera Zorina), who winds up falling in love with one of their would-be victims, Paul Vernay (Richard Greene). This throws a wrench into Desormeaux’s plans and he later blackmails, by then, the happily married Tanya. But she’s not about to take the matter lying down.

The Face Behind the Mask” (1941)

Hungarian watch maker Janos “Johnnie” Szabo (Lorre) is a naive, child-like immigrant who arrives in Manhattan and soon gets schooled in the tough breaks one faces in the big city. Caught in a hotel fire, his face is disfigured and he can’t find honest work. Despondent, he’s set to jump off of the docks when a stranger, Dinky (George E. Stone), stops him. Dinky splits the cash he pilfers from a bystander’s wallet with Johnnie, giving the greenhorn a first taste of the fruits of lawlessness. 

Destitute, Johnnie later commits a crime to help heal a sick friend, then plays ball with some mobsters in hope of earning enough for plastic surgery. His mechanical genius serves him well as a thief. He dispatches alarm systems with unusual dexterity, skills that could be used in honest employment if society would only let him into the workforce.

Flush with cash, Johnnie is fitted with a custom made mask resembling his face prior to the accident, and he plans to save his money for a more costly operation. The mask gives him a stern, unsmiling countenance that contrasts greatly with his fresh faced look before the disfigurement. His outlook has also changed markedly. He’s hardened to the ways of the new world and his enthusiasm, naïveté and youthful vigor have died. 

Lorre does a remarkable job of navigating the emotional range of the once optimistic Johnnie who has morphed into an unflinching cynic.

The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Sydney Greenstreet, Lorre.
World traveler and international criminal Joel Cairo (Lorre) is after the storied Maltese Falcon, a jewel encrusted statue worth a vast fortune, but he must compete with others of similar ambition, including rotund adventurer Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) — it’s one of the most enduring Lorre-Greenstreet on-screen pairings. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) takes on a case that involves Cairo, Gutman, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) and femme fatale Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), all of whom want the statue and are each willing to cut the other’s throat to get it. They call a truce and decide to join forces, but how long will their good will last? In all, Lorre made five films with Bogart.

Lorre’s Cairo is vain, ruthless and conniving, but makes the mistake of scrapping with Wonderly, and she draws blood. 

This impromptu band of fortune hunters is like a school of piranha, madly scrambling for the “dingus” as Spade calls it, and ready to betray one another and draw blood in a heartbeat. Their pursuit of the legendary statue is an obsession, and the fortune it could bring the owner is beside the point. It becomes a struggle for the upper hand and the supposed glory of becoming the prize’s sole possessor. In the end, the taste of victory turns to ashes in their mouths. Still, a more entertaining assembly of offbeat characters in this or any other genre is hard to come by.

The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944)

Mystery writer Cornelius Leyden (Lorre) is intrigued by a violent career criminal whose murdered body washes up on an Istanbul beach. He meets smuggler Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet) who is also interested in the drowned criminal, Dimitrios Makropoulos (Zachary Scott). 

Skeptical that the lawbreaker met his doom, Peters plans to blackmail Makropoulos after a smuggling scheme the two worked on went wrong. Makropoulos is now a respectable banker and details of his sordid past would ruin him. Leyden goes on a journey around Europe to learn more about the story behind the supposedly deceased master criminal.

Lorre’s Leyden is not the sinister character that he often played on screen. In fact, he’s more the detective trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together because he senses that the facts will make a great novel. Much of the story is told in flashback as Leyden interviews those who know, or knew, Makropoulos, a la “Citizen Kane.” Greenstreet’s Peters is Leyden’s corrupt foil, and both have a deep interest in the same criminal for very different reasons. 

Peters needs Leyden’s help to pull of his blackmail scheme, since the mystery writer was one of the few who saw Makropoulos’s body in the morgue. They are to meet in Paris, where Peters will attempt to extract a million francs from Makropoulos, if he’s still alive. Of course, things don’t work out as Peters had hoped.

The Chase” (1946)

Gino (Lorre), the tight-lipped right hand man to Miami gangster Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) is brutal and intimidating for a man of his physical stature. Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) gets a job as Eddie Roman’s chauffeur, and he risks everything by getting involved with the gangster’s nervous wife, Lorna (Michèle Morgan). Gino is as cold blooded as his boss and has no second thoughts about killing whoever must be gotten rid of. 

Needless to say, Scott realizes, albeit too late, that he’s working for a maniac. Roman has a set of controls in the back seat of his limo that let him take command of the car’s gas pedal and the brake, much to Scott’s terror. They have a close call with death as Scott’s nerves are tested. Roman pushes the accelerator to the floor, but it’s all a ruse and Roman approves of Scott’s clear headed driving while under great pressure. Gino, also in the back seat, is scared out of his wits, although he’s no stranger to his boss’s savagely deranged sense of humor.

Adapted from the Cornell Woolrich novel, “The Black Path of Fear,” the chase moves from the sunny shores of Miami to Cuba. Scott and Lorna run off to Havana after he agrees to help her get away from Roman — not a wise decision for anyone who hopes to die of natural causes.

Black Angel” (1946)

Lorre, Dan Duryea.
Nightclub manager Marko (Lorre) has a permanent hangdog expression and an air of effortless control over his underlings. He moves at a lethargic pace — and even the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth seems to droop under a heavy weight. It’s a classic Lorre performance that demonstrates yet another variation on his seemingly infinite storehouse of shady characters. 

Marko is somehow connected to a murder mystery that’s the heart of the story, another Cornell Woolrich adaptation.

When Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is convicted of a singer's murder, his wife, Catherine (June Vincent), tries to prove him innocent. Teaming up with the victim's ex-husband, pianist Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), they land a job performing in Marko’s club.

It turns out that Blair spotted Marko going into the dead girl’s apartment on the night she was murdered, and he’s a top suspect in the killing. But the pianist is a heavy drinker and was intoxicated on the night in question. He still carried a torch for his ex-missus, and was lurking outside of her building when the slaying by strangulation occurred. 

Catherine is convinced that her wandering husband is innocent of the crime and is determined to save him from the death house. But the clock is ticking.

Three Strangers” (1946)

Another Lorre-Greenstreet paring, this time in a story with a supernatural bent. Johnny West (Lorre) is a boozy, good natured gent who has a chance encounter with two others, the conniving Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and solicitor Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet). 

They make a bargain involving a Chinese idol and a sweepstakes ticket for the Grand National horse race. Through some hocus-pocus they end up winning. But both Crystal and Arbutny make some underhanded maneuvers that cause their dreams to go up in flames.

If “Three Strangers” feels a bit like “The Maltese Falcon” it’s no coincidence. At one point it was envisioned as a sequel to that film starring Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor, but it turned out that the rights to those characters had reverted back to Dashiell Hammett. 

The story’s original title was “Three Men and a Girl,” and Bette Davis and George Brent were to star in it before Warner Brothers finally settled on the Lorre-Fitzgerald-Greenstreet cast. 

John Huston, who directed “The Maltese Falcon” and teamed up with Hammett to write the “Falcon” screenplay, co-wrote “Three Strangers” with Howard Koch. It’s not in the same league as “The Maltese Falcon,” but few films are.

The Verdict” (1946)

A modest Scotland Yard mystery set in the 1880s, “The Verdict” is yet another Lorre-Greenstreet paring — they did nine in all, although I’ve heard that both were extras in another film, so technically it’s 10. They didn’t necessarily share a lot of screen time in all of them, but were a legendary Hollywood duo.

As the story goes, after an innocent man is executed for homicide, a Scotland Yard superintendent investigates the murder of his key witness. Jolly Olde London is mocked up on the Warner lot with pea-soup fog so dense as to be laughable.

Lorre, as artist Victor Emmric, is understated yet ghoulish and darkly comic when he shows up uninvited to a nocturnal exhumation and delivers lines such as, “I’ve always had a suppressed desire to see a grave opened, especially at night.” He’s dangled before us as an obvious suspect in the killing, but is he just a red herring? 

Take note that this is director Don Siegel’s debut, and that Joan Lorring, also in the cast of “Three Strangers,” appears here as showgirl Lottie Rawson.

Burt Lancaster, Lorre amid a field of diamonds.

Rope of Sand” (1949)

Clad in a white linen suit and Panama hat, fast talker Toady (Lorre) chats up hunting guide Mike Davis (Burt Lancaster). Davis knows where a cache of diamonds are hidden and Toady wants a piece of the action. The story is set in the South African desert, where, in Toady’s words “gems lie just below the surface.” It’s one of the world’s richest diamond fields and sadistic security chief Vogel (Paul Henreid) brutalizes anyone who tries to steal the precious stones.

Toady speaks in purple poetic phrases and his oily lines of patter get under Davis’s skin. “Why do we stay here, plucking at the skirt of this woman, this desert, this heartless courtesan?” he asks Davis, who promptly brushes him off, unmoved by Toady’s self assessment as, “Splendidly corrupt and eager to be of profitable service.”

Hoping to regain his revoked license as a hunting guide, Davis intends to tell the politically powerful mine owner where the missing rocks are hidden. But Vogel assaults him and he decides to steal the diamonds instead — a risky endeavor stacked with long odds against him.

Quicksand” (1950)

Dan Brady (Mickey Rooney) takes $20 from his employer to go on a date, planning to replace in the next day. Turns out, his date, the marvelously self-serving blonde femme fatale Vera Novak (Jeanne Cagney), brings him to view a a mink coat in a shop window. She’d do anything to get it, she tells Dan.

Next, they go a penny arcade operated by the acerbic and quite sleazy Nick Dramoshag (Lorre). Vera seems to have a romantic past with Nick, and hints to him that she’s still waiting for a mink coat. Dan is slow to realize how much trouble he’s getting himself into — and what kind of woman he’s dating — as he attempts to wheel and deal to pay back his employer. 

Making one bad choice after another, Dan’s life spirals out of control. For an average guy who never got in trouble before, Dan does an efficient job of painting himself into a corner. It’s no wonder — he’s really no match for Vera and Nick.

Congo Crossing” (1956)

Col. John Miguel Orlando (Lorre) is the weary face of governmental oversight in Congotanga, West Africa, where gangsters are the defacto rulers. The country’s main attraction is that it has no extradition treaties. 

An assortment of lawbreakers on the lam take advantage of the country’s laissez-faire policies. Among the fugitives enjoying safe haven is Louise Whitman (Virginia Mayo), who is fleeing a French murder charge. 

Meanwhile, surveyor David Carr (George Nader) is on a mission to determine the true border of Congotanga, a project on which head gangster Carl Rittner (Tonio Selwart) wants inside information. The land survey could determine that Congotanga belongs to the Belgians, and the transfer of authority would put an end to the rackets there.

Lorre’s Orlando is an ineffectual policeman who walks a tightrope between his official duties and the gangsters’s powerful influence. Orlando double-crosses the surveyor, telling him, “It serves you right for making a deal with someone like me.” Anyone who’s seen the bulk of Lorre’s movies would have guessed that.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Scrapped: The Original Opening Sequence of “Sunset Boulevard” was Even Stranger than the Final Cut, and Audiences had a Peculiar Reaction to It

Erich von Stroheim, William Holden, Gloria Swanson,
"Sunset Boulevard" (1950).

Test Viewers Were Stunned, Amused and Confused

Joe Gillis (Holden), a life cut short.

By Paul Parcellin 

At the start of "Sunset Boulevard," hapless screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) floats face-down in a swimming pool with several bullet holes punched into his torso. He’d been the long-term houseguest of deranged former silent screen siren Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) until, in a fit of grief and jealous rage, she used him for target practice.

She’d hired Gillis to polish a hopelessly disorganized screenplay written by and for the delusional Norma as a vehicle to reignite her long-dormant career. Of course, things didn’t work out that way. By the film’s end, we learn that Norma’s return to the klieg lights is on permanent hold and she’s about to be hauled off to a sanitarium. Meanwhile, cops are fishing Gillis out of the pool with pruning hooks. So much for Hollywood endings.

For those who’ve never seen the film, that’s hardly giving too much away. Almost everyone has at least heard of the gruesome setup that puts the story in motion. As the film opens, we see the police and a caravan of news reporters speeding down Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard toward the scene of the crime as daybreak washes over the City of Angels. Angelenos will immediately sense that this story is fictional – Sunset is all but traffic-free. Even in the early morning hours in 1950, that’s pure poppycock.

Norma Desmond (Swanson)
in a hysterical rage.
But the opening sequence that appears in the final cut wasn’t the first one that director Billy Wilder had in mind. Preview audiences viewed a quite different and even more bizarre opening, and their reaction was not the one Wilder anticipated. 

The sequence in question was quickly re-edited into the version we’re all familiar with. All that remains of the original are a few short clips without sound and some still photos. Consequently, few have ever seen the completed original opening and it appears that no one is sure if copies of the entire sequence still exist.

However, surviving script pages outline the remarkably strange introduction that ended up in the dust bin. It opens with shots of the coroner’s wagon speeding along the streets, delivering the earthly remains of Joe Gillis to the city morgue. 

The body is taken into the sterile facility, toe-tagged, and wheeled into a room temporarily housing other recently deceased unfortunates. But ethereal music fills the air and a strange glow emanates from beneath a bed sheet covering the cold, still dripping wet Gillis. Suddenly, he reanimates, as do his new roommates, who begin to chit-chat among themselves. 

Each has a tale of woe about the circumstances leading up to their demise – a truck crash here, an accidental drowning there. Gillis is a bit of a curiosity to the others due to his Hollywood connections and because he was murdered. So, he begins telling his story, and thus, narrating the rest of the movie from beyond the grave, or in this case, the slab.

Preview audiences in Evanston, Illinois, and Poughkeepsie and Great Neck, N.Y., laughed at the morgue sequence and were unsure whether the film was a comedy or drama.

Enroute to the city morgue.
After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A. County Morgue, spectators were stunned. Years later Wilder recalled, “When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. I walked out of the preview, very depressed.”

The revised cut shows the arrival of police and reporters. Next, we’re assaulted by a complex and eerie view of the corpse that appears to be filmed from the bottom of the pool. From our vantage point, we look up at Gillis and see his lifeless face. The cops are poolside, looking down at the dead man and they seem to be looking down at us, too, as we gaze upward from the depths of Gillis’s watery grave.

Getting that one shot took a good deal of work and planning. First, since there was no swimming pool at the location, Paramount had to dig one. After much experimentation, art director John Meehan set up the shot. At the bottom of a portable process tank, he placed an eight-by-six-foot dance rehearsal mirror.

 After sinking the tank to the bottom of the pool, he placed a muslin canopy behind the police and news photographers, which, shot in black and white, would mimic the dawn sky. With those elements in place, cinematographer John F. Seitz could light the scene effectively in a short time. The camera was set up alongside the pool and Seitz pointed it down at the mirror on the bottom of the tank and filmed Holden’s bobbing reflection. 

According to Meehan, the shot “turned out to be a simple, inexpensive way to get through-water or underwater shots” by removing the need to use expensive underwater equipment. Meehan noted that the water had to be well filtered for clarity and kept at a low temperature of about 40 degrees because at higher temperatures the natural gases that build up in water would cut down on light transmission.

It’s unclear, however, how long Holden, face down in the frigid water, had to keep his eyes open and how he managed to stave off hypothermia.

A grim end for Gillis.
Despite the efforts to smooth over the original segment’s jagged edges and tone down its comedic content, the revised opening still caused a stir. In Hollywood, Paramount arranged a private screening for the various studio heads and specially invited guests. 

While many were appreciative of the film, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer was incensed by the cheeky sendup of Tinsel Town. He allegedly shouted at Wilder, “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you.” The outraged movie mogul tried to buy the film so that he could bury it. Fortunately, he failed to do so.

Critical response was positive and box office receipts were good, making “Sunset Boulevard” an undisputed hit. But Gillis’s snappy, matter-of-fact voice-over narration, a sardonic mix of blunt fact, barely restrained venom, and self-deprecation didn’t sit well with all reviewers. 

Thomas M. Pryor wrote for The New York Times that the plot device of using the dead Joe Gillis as narrator was “completely unworthy of Brackett and Wilder, but happily it does not interfere with the success of ‘Sunset Boulevard’.” Taking a more hostile tone, The New Yorker described the film as “a pretentious slice of Roquefort,” containing only “the germ of a good idea.”

According to Sam Staggs in his book Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard, no audience has seen the morgue sequence since 1949, although Wilder did save the footage.

When Sherry Lansing, head of Paramount, approached Wilder about including the deleted sequence as an addendum to the DVD version of “Sunset Boulevard,” he refused. Although Wilder sometimes claimed to hold the missing sequence, he told director Cameron Crowe, “I don’t know who has it now.”

This article was originally published in the Dec. 2023 issue of The Dark Pages. Check out The Dark Pages newsletter at:

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Pop! Goes the Flashbulb: In Noir, Photographers Did It the Old Fashioned Way, and their Pictures Usually Turned the Town, and Crime Investigations, Upside Down

Howard Duff snaps a candid shot in "Shakedown" (1950).

Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

Lighting and photographic style play an outsized role in crime dramas of all kinds, including film noir. But then there are the noirs and thrillers that put a camera in front of the camera — or to be more precise, they’re films in which a photographer and his or her pictures play a key role in the story. 

It turns out that the camera can perform a number of roles, as recorder of truth, an instrument of deception and blackmail, a shield against assault or a device that uncovers crime that the naked eye wouldn’t notice. 

Holding a camera and press credentials — real or fake — can help get you into places that normally restrict access, be it a crime scene, lavish party or a war zone — and some are a combination of all three.

Here are some films featuring paparazzo whose pictures shake up the status quo for better or worse:

Martha Vickers, Humphrey Bogart, "The Big Sleep."

The Big Sleep” (1946) 

A camera is a blackmailer's best friends. It can catch a dupe in the act of regrettable deeds and preserve that transgression for ill-gained profit. Private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired to get elderly Gen. Sternwood’s young daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) out of just such a pickle. 

A blackmailer catches her on film, drugged up and in a compromising position. 

It’s highly embarrassing for Gen. Sternwood. For Carmen? Meh.

The incriminating pictures are taken with a camera hidden inside an Asian sculpture in the home of shady bookseller Arthur Geiger. In addition to handling volumes of Shakespeare and Spinoza, Geiger also maintains a backroom lending library of smut.  

But his blackmail scheme is just the tip of the iceberg, and the deeper Marlowe dives into this black pool of treachery the greater the number of players he discovers. So sprawling and complex is this mystery that even after hearing the solution you may be a bit confused. I certainly was.

Duff, "Shakedown" — the last shot.

Shakedown” (1950)

News photographer Jack Early (Howard Duff) blows his boss’s mind with his candid shots of crimes in progress. Turns out his uncanny luck of being at the right place when the action unfolds has little to do with good fortune and a lot to do with inside info. Through manipulations and backroom arrangements he snaps pictures that other photographers miss, making him the newsroom star.

His editor sends him on a near impossible mission to photograph a crime boss who won’t allow his picture to be taken, and the camera clicker makes a deal with the kingpin — then double crosses him. 

The film’s wrap-up sees the slimy photographer set up his camera for a spectacular shot, and it turns out to be his last.

Keep an eye out for Hollywood wild man Lawrence Tierney and an uncredited Rock Hudson. 

Cyd Charisse, "Tension."

Tension”  (1949)

It doesn’t take a pro photographer, an FBI agent or a blackmailer to shoot a picture that blows a mystery wide open. Sometimes an ordinary “Jane Q. Public” can handle the job.

Shutter bug Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse) is romantically attracted to dashing salesman Paul Sothern (Richard Basehart). The problem is that Sothern isn’t who he says he is. He’s milquetoast pharmacy employee Warren Quimby, who’s planning to kill his cheating wife Claire’s (Audrey Totter) boyfriend, Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

Quimby assumes the fictional identity of Sothern, hoping to get close enough to Deager to do him in. 

He doesn’t go through with it, and his plan backfires after he drops the “Sothern” guise and goes back to being Quimby. Mary thinks he’s gone missing and gives the police a photo of him she snapped as a lark. Before long, the authorities figure out that Quimby and Sothern are the same person, and things begin to look worse for Quimby when Deager turns up dead.

If nothing else, it’s probably a good idea to remember that, in noir, there is no such thing as a harmless photograph. 

James Stewart, "Rear Window." 

Rear Window” (1954)

Photographs can record information that the untrained eye would not normally see. And strangely enough, the camera can be used as a defensive weapon to obscure an intruder’s vision and stop him in his tracks.

Confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, photo journalist L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) wiles away his time watching the goings on visible through his neighbors’ windows. None of it is X-rated, but there’s an undercurrent of voyeuristic impulse on display in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

One resident in the unit across the courtyard catches his interest. It’s the apartment that Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) shares with his wife, and Jefferies begins to suspect that the burly Thorwald has done away with her.

Pondering this, Jefferies pores over photos of the garden and realizes that the camera has picked up something suspicious. A buried object, perhaps? 

Piece by piece, Jefferies and his lady friend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) collect evidence and turn up the heat on Thorwald. His brooding neighbor finally breaks and comes to Jefferies’ apartment intending to silence him for good. 

But Jefferies’s trusty camera comes in handy when he repeatedly fires the flash attachment to temporarily blind the intruder. Flash bulb after flash bulb, Jefferies clicks away to ward off the attack. But like a soldier running out of ammo, his ploy can only stave off trouble for so long and the outcome could be very bad.

David Hemmings, "Blow-Up."

Blow-Up” (1966)

Here’s another example of a camera capturing the truth and revealing odd details that the eye tends to miss. Sometimes that obscure information can reveal a criminal conspiracy. But no matter how air-tight the photographic evidence may seem, the pursuit of justice can be a futile endeavor. 

Fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) plies his trade in 1960s Swinging London. Occasionally he delves into art photography, a pursuit that unexpectedly plunges him into a sinkhole of doubt and paranoia.  

While shooting landscape photos in a park one day, he photographs a couple lingering there. Upon enlarging and examining the resulting photos he sees a man with a gun and a body hidden among the greenery. He realizes that he’s stumbled onto a crime scene and the lingering couple are likely the victim and a co-conspirator.

Try as he might, he can’t seem to elicit any concern from his peers, all of whom seem to wallow in a haze of pot smoke, aloof and coolly detached from reality. 

When the alleged crime scene photos are stolen, Thomas is left with nothing tangible to persuade authorities to investigate and his efforts hit a brick wall. 

In the park he meets a mime troupe playing a mock game of  tennis with invisible rackets and balls, and he soon becomes wrapped up in watching the faux game. Reality, it seems, is what the majority believe it to be, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

Joe Pesci, "The Public Eye."

The Public Eye” (1992)

Freelance news photographer Leon "Bernzy" Bernstein (Joe Pesci) roams the streets of 1940s New York in search of gruesome crime scenes and other tabloid  fodder.  He’s a thinly veiled stand-in for shutter-snapper Arthur Fellig, a.k.a. “Weegee,” whose work is still shown in museums and published in fine art catalogues as well as coffee table books. 

Weegee, so called because of his ability to anticipate when and where juicy photo opportunities would crop up, was not above ginning up a crime scene to make more spectacular pictures. Likewise, Bernzy might move a fedora closer to a corpse for dramatic effect at the expense of fidelity to the truth. But that’s because Bernzy, like Weegee, sees a higher truth in his art — and he does see his photographs as art, not mere junk journalism. 

His aesthetic sense, his nose for news as well as his marketing savvy tell him to go for the dramatic gut-punch and leave the detective work to the coppers. He may have smudged a latent fingerprint here or there, but his pictures deliver the sort of blood and guts shots that leap off the page in tabloid bulldog editions.  

Jake Gyllenhaal, "Nightcrawler."

Nightcrawler” (2014)

So far we’ve only talked about still photographers, but an exception can be made for “Nightcrawler,” which shines a harsh light on the TV news biz, more specifically, the sleazy, deceptive practices of freelance videographer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), who covers nighttime Los Angeles and distorts the truth to fit what the viewing public wants to see and hear. 

As his career advances, Bloom reveals his utter lack of ethics as he makes a grotesque lunge toward success while trampling the journalistic ideals of even handedness, fair play and above all else, the truth. 

Charles Bronson, "Man with a Camera."

Man with a Camera” (1958-1960)

This TV crime drama features war veteran turned freelance photographer Mike Kovac (Charles Bronson). Kovac usually snaps pictures for insurance companies, the police and average citizens. He’s known for taking dangerous assignments that others turn down and he often acts as a private eye, to boot. 

His police liaison is Lt. Donovan (James Flavin) and he seeks counsel from his dad, Anton Kovac (Ludwig Stössel). 

When working undercover, Kovac uses slick devices such as cameras hidden in a radio, cigarette lighter and his necktie — shades of James Bond. Better yet, he’s got car phone and a portable darkroom in the trunk for developing film on the spot, as did Weegee. Some ideas are just too good not to copy.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Kings of the Road: Alienated, Disenchanted Drifters May Think They’re Heading Toward their Destination, but They’re Really on Course to a Tragic End

Ann Savage, Tom Neal, "Detour" (1945).

Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

Film noir is full of cheap hotel rooms, train stations, roadside diners, filling stations, bus depots — places that transients inhabit while on their way somewhere, or perhaps rambling toward nowhere in particular. 

A compulsive desire to take to the highways is part of the American psyche, frequently rhapsodized in popular culture as the restless energy of a mobile society on the go. 

But in noir, the lone wanderer is often an alienated, disenchanted outcast leading a rootless existence and perhaps just one step ahead of the law. 

The drifter, who remains detached from others either by choice or for fear of capture, can bring trouble to town or land in the quicksand of diabolical schemes lying in wait for him or her. They may not know where they are headed, but their ultimate destination is a meeting with fate and the outcome will be the stuff of Greek tragedy. 

Here are four drifters whose travels lead them to shadowy destinations:

Lana Turner, Hume Cronyn, John Garfield,
"The Postman Always Rings Twice."

The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)

Let’s say your wife happens to be Lana Turner. It’s unwise to hire a rugged young drifter to work in your lunch room, especially if yours is a May-December marriage and you haven’t been living in perfect matrimonial bliss. The drifter, Frank Chambers (John Garfield), is a restless spirit who can’t seem to stay in one place for long. He’s hitched a ride to the Twin Oaks, the roadside diner and filling station where a job awaits him. 

The driver dropping him off is the district attorney, who happens to live down the road from the place — turns out the D.A. will have a ringside seat to the unpleasantness that’s about to unspool. Chambers doesn’t realize it, but that fateful ride is the first link in a chain of events that begins his downward spiral. He’s the kind of drifter who seems to have no past and we sense that every step of his life is one more pace toward a tragic end.

Husband and wife Cora (Turner) and Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) are an oddly matched pair who own the Twin Oaks, and as soon as Chambers gets an eyeful of the ravishing Cora, he’s hot to dive into an adulterous liaison. Soon, Nick Smith’s life expectancy takes a dramatic dip thanks to the two love birds now locked in a tryst and making dark plans.

Like many a fall guy, Chambers wouldn’t have landed in hot water if many events hadn’t lined up and shepherded him toward his demise. The disloyal pair have numerous opportunities to drop their deadly scheme and split up, but a magnetic force draws them toward homicide. As the title states, “the postman always rings twice” — Chambers and Cora think they’re getting away with a deadly deed, but fate has a way of boomeranging back at you and it’s pointless to resist.

Tom Neal, "Detour."

Detour” (1945)

Hitchhiking is a risky means of getting around, but for an unlucky saloon pianist with mere pennies in his pocket the price seems right. It turns out that Al Roberts (Tom Neal) should have considered the old adage that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The same applies to transportation. His trip across the Arizona desert proves costly for the lovesick traveler who wants nothing more than a rendezvous with his gal in Los Angeles. 

His journey has its up and downs, and the one time Roberts thinks he’s hit a stroke of good luck it all turns sour. A freak accident claims the life of a man with whom he’s hitched a ride and in a panic Roberts decides to swap identities with him, dump the body and take his car. Things start to look up and he just might make it to the City of Angels after all. Then on a whim he picks up another drifting hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage), and the bottom drops out. Vera turns out to be the femme fatale’s femme fatale. She’s dangerous, impulsive, streetwise and perhaps more than a little crazy. She’s wise to the fact that Roberts left a stiff in the desert and she believes it was murder. It wasn’t, but heaps of circumstantial evidence point toward him as the culprit. Vera has got him over a barrel and it’s clear that she’s going to be the one running the show. 

Roberts, a mostly innocent dupe, falls victim to the culture of rootlessness he finds in random encounters on the road. His fellow travelers are detached from society and their motives can be dark. To him, this lonesome road of strangers is a territory with which he is unfamiliar and ill-prepared to navigate. Once he stood on the side of the road with his thumb out his fate was sealed. There’s no exit ramp off of this highway.

Sure, he makes hare brained decisions along the way and has the worst luck imaginable in traveling companions, but he can’t be blamed much for that. 

Or can he? 

We see the story in flashback and Roberts is the voiceover narrator. Possibly, he’s an unreliable narrator and may be more responsible for his destiny than he’s willing to fess up to, but we’ll never know. 

Broken and near his journey’s end, he observes, “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” That’s a pretty good summary of his journey on this road.

Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, "Shadow of a Doubt."

Shadow of a Doubt” (1943)

When Uncle Charley (Joseph Cotten) comes to visit the folks take out the good china and lay down the welcome mat. Too bad they have no idea who they’re letting into their household. Uncle Charley, also known to authorities as the Merry Widow Killer, murders lonely women and steals their money and valuables. If Uncle Charley shows up at your door, it’s best to turn off the lights and duck behind the davenport. He’s one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite story devices — a ticking time bomb.

His charm and sophisticated manner are a smokescreen that hide his true psychopathic nature. He’s got his sister and her family believing that he’s a wealthy businessman, but the truth is he’s been laying low in a cheap rooming house in the bad part of town. 

A couple of detectives have tracked him down and he decides the time is right to skip town and visit his sibling’s clan in California. His admiring niece, Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright) is initially delighted by his arrival, she being a bored teenager who is hungry for a diversion from dull small town life. As if by premonition, she decides to invite her uncle to come and stay with the family, but Uncle Charley is already on his way. Initially, she’s full of admiration for the man, but once moved in Uncle Charley’s mystique begins to evaporate. As the brutal facts of her deranged uncle’s true nature come to light, Charlie, as her family calls her, decides to protect her kindly, sensitive mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge), from learning of her brother’s criminal pursuits. 

She’s determined to make her murderous relative leave quietly without tipping off the rest of the family. But he won’t go, and things get worse when Uncle Charlie learns that young Charlie is aware of his dirty deeds and decides he must silence her. Needless to say, young Charlie really has her hands full.

William Talman, Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy, "The Hitch-Hiker."

The Hitch-Hiker” (1953)

If you’re motoring to the lake, stream or ocean for a few days of fishing, here’s a piece of advice: don’t stop for the stranger who’s flagging down a ride. That stranded nomad standing by the side of the road might be a psychopath who leaves a trail of corpses in his path.

Take for example “The Hitch-Hiker,” which is based on the true story of the 1950 killing spree of Billy Cook — he murdered six people, including a family of five. 

In the film, hitchhiker Emmett Myers (William Talman) takes Roy Collins (Edmund O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) hostage and forces them at gunpoint to drive across the desert toward Mexico. Myers is the most fearsome of drifters because, unlike other murderous gadabouts, he kills for no reason other than to eliminate witnesses and satisfy his bloodlust. He also takes great pleasure in tormenting his captives with the constant threat of death.

Aside from its riveting story and fine performances, “The HItch-Hiker” in notable for being directed by a woman. Ida Lupino, who also directed “High Sierra” (1941) and “While the City Sleeps” (1956), helmed this film in an era when few woman got to sit in the director’s chair. What’s also exceptional is the high production quality she managed to craft on a budget of less than $160,000. 

Among the realistic touches baked into the film, Lupino gives Myers one specific physical characteristic taken from Cook — a genetic deformity that made it impossible for him to close his right eye, making Myers all the more terrifying.

Hauntingly enough, what comes to mind after viewing “The Hitch-Hiker” is the old Prestone Antifreeze jingle, which urged, “Never pick up a stranger … ” That’s wisdom we can all live with. 

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Is It or Isn’t It? “Clash by Night” is a Gripping Drama, Alright, But Some Insist It Doesn’t Make the Cut as an Authentic Noir Because It Lacks One Crucial Element

Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan,
"Clash by Night" (1952).

Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

“Clash by Night” has  the look and feel of noir, but not everyone thinks of it that way. It stars Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan, two giants of the shadowy crime dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s that define those dark films. Some might say they make the perfect brooding noir couple.

If that’s not enough to establish the film as noir, note that Fritz Lang, dean of saturnine German expressionist films and American made noirs, directed. The Austrian-born Lang came to America in 1934 and brought the angst and shadows of German Expressionism with him. With an immigrant’s objective eye, he saw beyond the glossy surface of American life depicted in Hollywood films and instead turned his focus to the alienation and desperation seething within common folk. 

Fritz Lang,
master of noir.
He directed noir classics such as “The Woman in the Window” (1944), “Scarlet Street” (1945), “The Big Heat” (1953) and “Ministry of Fear” (1944), not to mention his German expressionist masterpieces, “M” (1931) and “Metropolis” (1927), among many others. Set in Monterey, Calif., “Clash by Night” is about working class people who toil on fishing boats and in a cannery, away from the big cities where noir tales typically unfold. 

Director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich, speaking on the DVD’s commentary track says that, although he’s a fan of “Clash by Night,” it’s not a noir. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain his reasons for that judgment call. The disc was released as part of a box set called “Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume Two,” and Bogdanovich’s pronouncement must have dismayed the distributor.

What others who doubt the film’s noir pedigree say is that because no one gets murdered it’s not noir. 

Hand to hand combat with the intent to murder erupts at one point, and there’s even a kidnapping, although neither turns into much of an actionable offense.

Even if the film comes up short in the homicide department, it’s got atmosphere galore and conflicted, alienated characters living under a cloud of existential dread, all of which makes it an awful lot like a noir.

The story begins when Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to town after a decade long absence. Her hopes of marrying a rich man and enjoying the good life somewhere far from the fish cannery have turned to ash. She runs into Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), a kindly but unsophisticated bachelor fisherman who wants nothing more than for Mae to be his wife. She warns him it would be a mistake, but Jerry is too smitten to take her advice. 

Meanwhile, his friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Ryan), a projectionist at the local cinema, turns up. He’s the polar opposite of teddy bear Jerry. Earl is arrogant, disenchanted with life and he harbors a hatred of women — he’s separated from his burlesque dancer wife. In his typically sardonic sense of humor, Earl mutters, “Some day I’m going to stick her with pins and see if blood runs out.” He’s joking, of course, but with Earl there’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy.

Earl is attracted to Mae, but she deflects his bravado and thinks he’s a lout. Earl harbors contempt for his so-called buddy Jerry, and it’s obvious to everyone but Jerry, who remains oblivious to the emotional stirrings around him. Mae resents Earl’s condescending attitude toward Jerry, probably because she secretly harbors similar thoughts and feels guilty about it.

She finally agrees to marry Jerry because she wants a safe harbor that will protect her from the uncertainty and disappointments life dishes out. Earl may be the more exciting of the two gents, but he’ll never be the protector that Mae believes she needs. But we know she’ll have trouble sticking to her promise to be the kind of wife that Jerry wants.

Later, Mae’s brother, Joe (Keith Andes), gets engaged to his sweetheart, cannery worker Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), and for a while she shares Mae’s darkest view of marriage, that of being trapped in the small fishing village with nothing to relieve the dullness.

When Peggy’s doubts surface, Joe tells her he’d kick down the door to get her back, and with that her indecision is vanquished — a testimony of true love if there ever was one, she feels.

Marilyn, scandal followed her.
This was Marilyn’s first above-the-title billing, and in her small role she makes a fine showing as the naive but plucky hometown girl. The casting was tough luck for Andres, however. Whenever Marilyn’s on the screen everyone else in the shot might as well be invisible. 

Adding more spice to the mix, Marilyn was the source of a scandal during production. The actress was on loan to RKO from Fox, and during production some nude photos she’d posed for a few years prior came to light. Fox protected her reputation and kept the photos under wraps. But RKO, then headed by Howard Hughes, had no long-term investment in the actress and leaked the story to the press to reap publicity from it. Consequently, reporters mobbed Marilyn and the film’s star, Stanwyck, got the short end of the publicity stick. Stanwyck took it all in stride and continued to perform like the trouper that she was. 

It’s easy to imagine Stanwyck rolling with the punches and getting on with the job, and that same sense of self-reliance carries over to her characterization of Mae. She’s in control and unflappable in the face of temporary agitations. But even Mae has her limits. As the story progresses she stoically resists Earl’s advances. Now married to Jerry and the mother of a baby girl, Mae puts the boorish Earl in his place. She calls him “crude” when he suddenly comes on too strong. “You impress me as a man who needs a new suit of clothes or a love affair and he doesn’t know which,” she tells him. 

Clifford Odets,
poetic dialogue.
The streetwise poetic flair in the dialogue comes in part from playwright Clifford Odets — others worked on the screenplay — whose play was adapted into the movie. Typical of Odets, words coming out of the characters’ mouths are strangely flamboyant and display the writer’s idiosyncratic manner of capturing the cadence of working class speech.

Verbal fisticuffs ensue when Jerry invites Earl to visit the couple, Earl has had too much to drink and is allowed to sleep it off. The next morning, with Jerry away at work, Earl, still impetuous as ever, tells Mae that she and him are alike, “You’re born and you’d like to be unborn,” he says. His gloomy outlook is an apt description of both her and him, and that shared sense of alienation causes Mae to let her guard down. 

Tensions among the three grow stormier like the roiling ocean just beyond their doorsteps, and the film’s occasional cutaways to the briny deep signal trouble on the horizon. Partly shot on location, the film opens with a montage of fishing boats in the harbor, Jerry and Joe hauling in a catch and Peggy laboring in the cannery, in essence we see the community in a nutshell. 

Lang’s career began in the silent era, and it shows in the way he tells stories without dialog. It’s a cliche to say that you can almost smell the air, but this composition of coastal shots have just that effect.

If you’re still in doubt that “Clash by Night” is in fact noir, consider this:

In the absence of felonious behavior — murder, robbery, assault — other forms of anti-social behavior — adultery, violence, betrayal and corruption are at the core of noir. Add to that the sense of existential dread and misanthropy that runs throughout “Clash by Night,” and yes, it is noir, through and through. In the end, it’s the emotions and mood, not the murder that counts.

Monday, March 11, 2024

One Revealing Moment: Something that Happens in “The Night of the Hunter” Made Me Rethink My First Impression of the Film and See It in an Entirely New Light

Robert Mitchum, "The Night of the Hunter" (1955).

By Paul Parcellin

I first saw “The Night of the Hunter” (1955) around 20 or so years ago and walked away impressed but not particularly in love with the movie, and having said that I know what many of you are thinking: Heresy! 

I have no real excuse for my initial reaction. I’ll blame it on a lack of sleep, fatigue after sitting through too many double features in a row, or some other convenient but less than honest alibi. 


Sometimes the point of a film, that is, the thing that distinguishes it from others, can fly right past you. At least in my case it did. But, I’m glad that I recently rewatched it because I’d missed one salient point. Perhaps that is the reason why the popularity of this Charles Laughton directed drama, the only film he ever helmed, which has been an audience and critics’ favorite for decades, puzzled me a bit.

The story goes like this:

Itinerant preacher and psychopath Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) scours the American countryside during the Great Depression, preaching the word of the Lord as he searches for rich widows to romance, marry and bump off, after which he absconds with their dough. To say the least, Harry’s theological credentials are questionable. He’s the picture of evil, and if that isn’t obvious enough he has the words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on the fingers of both hands. 

Sally Jane Bruce, Billy Chapin,
Shelley Winters, Robert Mitchum.
Before long he finds Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), widow of Ben Harper, who was executed for a couple of murders he committed during a bank robbery. Harry was Ben’s prison cellmate, and the evil preacher suspects that Ben stashed a pile of the loot from the robbery in his homestead. Once he locates his prey, Harry expertly worms his way into the Harper family, which includes 9-year-old John (Billy Chapin) and 4-year old Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). 

A supreme conman, Harry earns Willa’s trust and dazzles her friends and neighbors with dramatic sermons. A look of serene satisfaction washes over the townsfolk’s faces whenever Harry waxes poetic about the struggle of good over evil. While his LOVE/HATE tattoos ought to be ample warning that something’s rotten in Denmark, a gaggle of believers, including Willa, remains deeply under his spell.

Before long, young John finds himself in the increasingly treacherous position of resisting his gullible mother, who marries the evil man and wants John to embrace Harry as his stepdad. The youngster already has Harry’s number, and tries to make his mother see the truth, but she’s smitten and unable to accept the obvious. It seems that nearly every adults in town has fallen down on the job of protecting the little ones.

Another Serial Killer Comes to Mind

Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten,
"Shadow of a Doubt" (1943).
“The Night of the Hunter”’s plot resembles Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), in which Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, a mentally disturbed rake who hides from the law with his sister and her family, and has a habit of knocking off rich widows for profit. But Hitchcock’s film is anchored in a more natural and realistic view of small town American than is Laughton’s. “The Night of the Hunter” has a surreal edge that at times makes it seem like a storybook legend of horrific proportions come to life. 

Unlike Cotten’s seething but restrained Uncle Charlie, Mitchum’s bad guy is a thundering force of nature whose mere presence can charm an entire community whilst putting the lives of the vulnerable in danger. Like most villains, Harry is the hero of his own story and is only doing the Lord’s work, he reasons. He talks to God, seeking direction, and the Almighty furnishes the phony preacher with victims to murder and rob so that Harry can continue to spread the good word. Or at least that’s what Harry believes. 

So, is Harry delusional and psychotic or crystal clear about the ethics of his deeds and purely remorseless? Hard to say, exactly, but most likely it’s a bit of each of the above. But there’s no doubt that he’s a monster and what is most disturbing is that no one is suspicious of him when they ought to be — no one except John, that is, who seems to have inherited all of the common sense in his family. 

Mitchum, glowering at the Burlesque show.
Early on, we see the psychological conflicts behind Harry’s anti-social behavior. When we first meet him he’s tooling around in stolen car. The cops eventually catch up with him and haul him out of a burlesque show where he’s been seething and glowering at a dancer. It’s distinctly possible that the highly repressed preacher is window shopping for victim on whom he could murderously vent his psycho-sexual rage. Later, on his and Willa’s wedding night, she nervously prepares for her first erotic encounter with her new spouse, but Harry is enraged and disgusted by her conjugal expectations. Clearly, Willa is not in for a memorable honeymoon.

So, What’s the Problem?

From the above plot summary you’d rightly conclude that this film has a lot of the elements that a noir ought to have, and you may be wondering why I hadn’t revisited it over the years.

As I relate this to you I can almost hear the crowd gathering on my doorstep, pitchforks, torchlights and axes in hand, so I’ll have to make this somewhat brief. This isn’t going to be a hatchet job, so please lay down your weapons for a moment as I make my case.

Part of the reason why I allowed this film to lie dormant in my memory for so long might be because it’s just plain hard to pin down exactly what kind of movie it is. Depending on who you talk to you might call it a noir, which I do, but it skirts other genres and styles, too. 

For instance:

An escape on the river.
If you think of it as a noir, you’ll probably notice that it tends to wander into unfamiliar territory from time to time. The young ones flee Harry’s murderous wrath, narrowly escaping on a skiff that carries them downstream on the river Huckleberry Finn style, and the film begins to feel more Mark Twain than James M. Cain.

At other times we get a distinctly western vibe, in part because of its rural setting, but especially when Harry takes to horseback in pursuit of the runaway children. 

To add yet another flavor to the stew, you might call it a monster movie and that wouldn’t be too far off base, either, although nothing supernatural occurs and it has not a hint of science fiction. But Harry Powell is clearly a demon and a serial killer in clerical garb who wants money and is willing to murder women and children to get it. 

Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce.
Also muddying the noir waters are those carefully arranged visual motifs that crop up every now and then. Even the dark, forbidding basement, with the staircase and doorway looming above the kids as they hide from Harry, is an artfully framed composition that is at once terrifying and strangely aesthetically pleasing. Almost each scene begins with a well composed, meticulously framed shot, like photographs in a picture book that come to life. Shots of the crescent moon, jackrabbits and an owl are incorporated into the nighttime scenes on the river. We see the kids on their skiff shot through a spiderweb in the foreground —  a metaphor that makes us wonder if they will be caught in Harry’s web? 

As the youths journey downriver, heavy (maybe heavy handed) symbolism continues. They pass a flock of sheep and we think of sacrificial lambs — Harry liked to call the kids “little lambs,” a creepy smokescreen that fooled everyone except John. 

Safe at Last?

Lillian Gish, Robert Mitchum, Gloria Castillo,
Harry waits to pounce.
They finally drift into the sheltering arms of kindly Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish), who has turned her home into a refuge for orphans and we’re allowed to breathe a momentary sigh of relief. Echoing John and Pearl’s dramatic trip downriver, more symbolism is in store at Miss Cooper’s nightly Bible reading, which happens to include the parable of Moses and the bulrushes; the infant Moses, floating downstream, is rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, a story that is all too familiar to the two youngsters.

I must admit that part of my problem with these thoughtfully composed sequence was that I didn’t get the B-movie charge I’d associated with noir. That’s not to say I didn’t care for films from the major studios, but I was, and still am, hooked on the slapdash craftsmanship that went into low budget Poverty Row B-movie, such as “Detour.” To me, their kind of ragged, shot on the fly aesthetic has an unselfconscious energy that’s hard to replicate.

Confronted with “The Night of the Hunter,” a strangely allegorical film, I had trouble accepting it as a noir. It’s full of dark shadows, thundering locomotives and murder; all the stuff that sounds like noir. But how could it be noir? It doesn’t take place in the present day, nor is it set in the city. Needless to say, my short-sighted views have since been revised.

Most significant of all was that “revealing moment” in “The Night of the Hunter” that caused me to rethink my opinion of the film. It’s one of the story's most important scenes: Harry’s arrest. 

It passes rather quickly so it’s easy to miss its significance — especially if you’re not particularly alert at the time. In it, John witnesses the lawmen’s takedown of Harry. As the police wrestle him to the ground and snap on the cuffs, John is nearly moved to tears, pleading with the cops to take it easy on Harry. 

John and Pearl's father, Ben (Peter Graves),
is taken into custody.
That scene is a replay of the one we see in the beginning of the film in which John witnesses his father, Ben, being roughly taken into custody. It’s a dramatic flashback for the young boy, who had remained stoic as he and his sister traveled through hell before arriving at this concluding scene, and it opens a floodgate of emotion in him. The whole experience may have cost him his innocence, but John has not forfeited his humanity. He still regards Harry as a human being even though the murderous thug killed his mother and was inches away from slaying him and his sister.

Because John was dragged through the virtual fires of Hades and survived, and was not tarnished or jaded from the experience, he is one of the film’s heroes. The other is Miss Cooper, who, with her trusty rifle saves the day. 

Another thought I had after seeing the film again:

In the end, it took a perceptive 9-year-old boy to see through a charlatan’s facade while most of the adults were hoodwinked by a conman who exploited their religious fervor. 

John's clarity of vision is something we could well use more of today.