Life and Death in L.A.: 2023

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Alton and Mann: A Partnership in Post-War Noir

Dennis O'Keefe, Marsha Hunt, Claire Trevor, "Raw Deal" (1948). 

They made only a handful of films together, but John Alton and Anthony Mann’s work threw a new light on film noir, police procedural dramas and documentary filmmaking

Silhouettes, fog, great pools of inky blackness — that’s a king-sized portion of the visual drama in store when viewing films made by both the ace of noir lighting, John Alton, and the master of dramatic action, Anthony Mann. 

With his supremely choreographed action scenes, Mann could be directing silent pictures, and that’s not a slight. His control of emotional tension through moving images makes dialog all but superfluous. Alton’s masterly touch with lighting gear and cameras makes the action sequences eerie, threatening and irresistible. Together they achieved a kind of alchemy that set a new pace in post-World War II film noir. 

A handful of features

The duo had a six-picture association, producing some of noir’s essential titles, including “T-Men” (1947), “Raw Deal” (1948), “He Walked By Night” (1948) (Mann was uncredited) and the thrilling masterwork “Border Incident” (1949). They also crafted spy thriller “Reign of Terror” (a.k.a. “The Black Book”) (1949) and western “Devil's Doorway” (1950).

Here’s a rundown on the noirs produced in that partnership:

 Alfred Ryder, Dennis O'Keefe, "T-Men" (1947) — raking light.

T-Men” (1947)

Crime dramas shot documentary style were popular in the 1940s, and “T-Men” is one of the best of its breed.

It opens with U.S. Treasury Department official Elmer Lincoln Irey detailing a bit of Treasury Department history and law enforcement capabilities of the federal department, lending a brass tacks newsreel-like quality to the film. 

We meet two treasury agents, Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder), who go undercover to bust a Detroit a counterfeiting ring. Undercover work is a jittery business, and the two operatives must work with care and agility to avoid detection, all of which ratchets up the tension as the two make their way to the inner reaches of the crime operation.  

Scorsese offers high praise

“T-Men” has had a powerful influence on filmmakers ever since its release, and at least one prominent director cites Mann and Alton’s craftsmanship as playing a defining role in post-war noir.

As he prepared to shoot “Casino” (1995), Martin Scorsese screened “T-Men” for the film’s star, Robert De Niro. 

Scorsese remarked, “It’s one of the quintessential films noir, and certainly one of the best photographed. Alton’s photography on that film is the very essence of film noir.” 

Admittedly, using theatrical lighting in a film with the tone and texture of a newsreel documentary may be confusing. Documentarians strive for veracity and they don’t shoot reenactments, or so the theory goes. “T-Men” is among the wave of films that includes another Alton-Mann film, “He Walked By Night” (1948) — see below — that blends fact with fiction. 

A mix of fact and fiction

The use of actors and non-actors, practical locations as well as the staccato narration common in newsreels all add up to a hybrid that’s neither purely fact nor fiction. 

The film implies that it’s a creative and not totally reliable retelling of the truth, and likewise the supposed ethical division between cops and crooks may not be all that we may think it is.

Alton’s high-contrast noir lighting and off-kilter compositions visually underscore O’Brien and Genaro’s metamorphosis. The two undercover officers become enmeshed in the criminal world that they’ve infiltrated, but in that shadowy environment the boundaries between criminality and the law become blurred.

A landmark for Mann

Anthony Mann considered “T-Men” to be his first film because he had more influence on the development of the story and its characters than he had in his previous Hollywood pictures. The film’s “semi-documentary” style was fashionable after World War II when an increasing number of crime melodramas used practical locations to achieve newsreel-style realism for increasingly jaded moviegoers. “T-Men” marked Mann’s second collaboration with screenwriter John C. Higgins and his first with Alton.

Alton’s employment of highly stylized low-angle camera shots, deep focus, and high contrast black-and-white cinematography was an apt visual foil for the film’s gritty realism. Alton found an ideal collaborator in Mann, who also believed that lighting could be a crucial dramatic element.

Richard Basehart, "He Walked by Night" (1948) — low camera angles.

He Walked by Night” (1948)

With its staccato voiceover narration and stone-faced reporting style, “He Walked by Night” fits snugly within the boundaries of documentary-style crime dramas. It’s based on a true story and the filmmaker wants us to feel the sharp edge of the brutal facts behind the case. 

Lighting effects are minimal at first and so is the music. It’s not until later in the film, in action sequences particularly, that Alton’s touch is felt. His distinctive ballet of shadows betrays a desperate criminal wreaking terror on the sprawling cityscape of Los Angeles.

A visual feast

Alton’s delicious handling of light is most notable whenever bullets fly. Dim light emanating from street lamps rakes through venetian blinds, casting horizontal bars of shadow on the walls of darkened offices, slicing those rooms into layer cakes of chocolate and marzipan strata. Silhouettes of heaving bodies charge into the darkened void, at times illuminated only by muzzle flash and hazy reflected light.

Anthony Mann took over the directing reins from Alfred Werker near the end of production, but Werker gets the directing credit. 

In the film, a thief turned cop-killer (Richard Basehart) eludes a police dragnet by hiding in the sewers of Los Angeles.  

Dum, dee, dum, dum

“He Walked by Night” helped launch the “Dragnet” radio and television series. Jack Webb plays a supporting role as a police forensics officer, and the film provided inspiration for the popular L.A.P.D. drama of the airwaves that would become Webb’s crowning achievement.

While "He Walked by Night" is held together with the loose thread of documentary-style filmmaking, those parts are no match or the last 20 minutes or so of the film that prowls the lower reaches of the city — dramatic footage that is widely assumed to be Mann’s handiwork.

Basehart as the killer who terrorizes L.A., can't be stopped. Few have ever seen him, and for a while the investigation goes nowhere.

Factual and dramatic

Make no. mistake about it, “He Walked by Night” is police procedural through and through. It cycles through rational, fact-based reportage until Alton’s dramatic lighting effects make us wonder if we’re watching a German Expressionist art film. When the camera moves into the subterranean world of storm drains of Los Angeles it’s hard not to think of Orson Welles running for his life through the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.” But “He Walked by Night” predates Reed’s the better known film by a year.

Inside the darkened cavern, the only sources of illumination is that of flashlights and the dim glow of street lamps filtering down into the subterranean world through storm drain portals. Caught like a rabbit in a snare, the killer’s luck and ingenuity run out. And that leaves him in the dark. 

John Ireland, Marsha Hunt, “Raw Deal” (1948)

 “Raw Deal” (1948)

Subtle touches help tell the story and draw us into the frame and that’s part of what makes “Raw Deal” an exhilarating viewing experience. Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) walks toward a prison’s gates and in voice-over begins to narrate the story. The frame subtly switches from a wide establishing shot to handheld footage from her point of view as she approaches the entrance. The slightly jittery frame informs us that for a brief moment we’re seeing through her eyeballs as she treads the path to the big house. Although her boyfriend, Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe), is the escaped jailbird driving the story forward, this is going to be Pat’s story. 

Prison gloom

Inside, the prison hallways are shrouded in shadow. Pat speaks with the desk officer and the camera is placed low, a bit less than shoulder-high to the seated jail keeper. He looms large in the frame, dominating the action. He’s the one Pat must get past, and it so happens that she’s blocked temporarily from the visiting room. Joe has another visitor and Pat is perplexed and dismayed. It turns out that social worker Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) is making a habit of visiting the convict and that becomes the crux of the story.

She’s believes he’s reformable and is visiting him for the second time. But there’s no denying that there’s a hint of romantic tension between the two — she’s aware of it and so is Joe, and soon Pat catches on, as well.

A divide in their relationship

The visiting room scene clues us in to the tension between Joe and Ann. The two are seated across from  each other, a glass partition diving them. We don’t see them together in the same frame, at first. But once some flirtatious banter enters the conversation the camera focuses on closeups of their faces. We’re better able to see the emotional subtlety that this turn on the conversation has taken. 

Once it’s time to end the visit they both stand and the camera shifts to  a sideview of both with the partition between them. Ann is reticent but interested, and Joe is more forthright. It’s evident that a closer, personal relationship between them is in the offing.

Light and fog

John Alton’s handiwork is evident throughout the film, from the foggy cityscape at nighttime, illuminating by diffused street lamps, to the tobacco clouded living room of mobster Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), a debonaire sadist who lounges about in a smoking jacket and brandishes a cigarette holder, smoke curling from his nostrils. He’s one of those sophisticated college-educated crooks who surrounds himself with half-bright henchmen. Coyle has it in for Joe, and that’s the other leg of this jailbreak tale that keeps us guessing about who will come out on top.

Lynn Whitney, Howard Da Silva, Charles McGraw, Ricardo Montalban,
"Border Incident" (1949).

Border Incident” (1949)

In “Border Incident,” Mann masterly manipulates figures, automobiles, gunmen, even farm machinery, dodging in and out of the darkness. Shards of light slice through night-cloaked landscapes. Exploited farm workers, under the jackboot of human traffickers, march toward their doom in the valley of death.

Of course the best scenes take place at night. That’s the optimal showcase for Alton’s work, as he frames intensely dramatic compositions of mind-blowing action. Mann’s exceptional direction builds drama in each sequence, barely allowing us to catch our breath as the film barrels toward a stunning conclusion.

Artistic compositions

It’s not all pyrotechnics and razzle-dazzle, though. When viewing scenes peopled with pensive Mexican farmworkers awaiting entry into the United States, it’s hard to avoid thinking of Diego Rivera’s paintings of workers toiling on sun-drenched farmlands. Alton frames a sea of humanity, all solemnly on edge — expressive faces and swooping sombrero brims, desperate, penetrating eyes focused on the gatekeeper who can send them to farms in the north. The lucky ones will be allowed to bring in the harvest for meager wages. The bosses, of course, skim off their take from the laborers’ earnings.

The old masters

The shadowy world in which the action unfolds might look disturbingly familiar. There’s a connection between Alton’s work and that of the great artists. While Hollywood had little use for “art,” the work of master painters such as Rembrandt, Leonardo, de la Tour and Caravaggio made a deep impression on Alton, especially those that display the human figure bathed in shadow.

He admitted, "When I got an assignment, I read the script — or the book and the script — and then I went out to the art museums, even to Paris sometimes, to see what the masters had done. 

“Border Incident” is set in rough bunk houses, craggy mountainous desert land and farms lined with monotonous rows of baby lettuce and and plowed furrows. Removed from the urban landscape, a more typical noir setting, “Border Incident” somehow makes the great outdoors, with its sweeping horizon and boundless territory, seem threatening and claustrophobic. It’s as if the desert canyon walls could cave in at any time and the air is too thin to support life. 

Gangsters at home on the range

This is a story of an industry built around the exploitation of the less fortunate. It’s a gangster story dressed in Stetsons and cowboy boots. Workers who cross the border legally are protected, more or less, by United States law enforcement agencies. Those who make illegal passage don’t have that blanket of protection and are vulnerable to cutthroat gangs who lay in wait for them. Early on we see the ugly side of  human smuggling. Alton’s low camera angles appropriately make the more threatening figures look like looming giants. Here, violence, as vicious as anything seen on the screen in that era, rains down on the unsuspecting.

Still relevant

Film and other artworks are often lauded when they remain relevant over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, in this case, the issues behind this story are as timely today as they were more than 70 years ago. “Border Incident” lets us consider the tension over imported labor and competing concerns about undocumented workers. It also leaves us to ponder the age-old questions of economic need, both that of the undocumented workers and the farmers, versus preserving human rights for the vulnerable — issues that will likely be discussed for some time to come.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Three Films that Set a Noir Mood: How John Alton Helped Define the Light and Shadows of Film Noir

Lynn Bari, Cathy O'Donnell, "The Spiritualist" (1948).

'It's not what you light, it's what you don’t light.' 
— John Alton                                                      

As legend has it, in the summer of 1923 a 21-year-old John Alton and four friends drove across the country to Los Angeles. They parked in front of the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd., and in the lobby a Gypsy fortune teller read their palms. Alton’s pals, she said, would seek their fortunes elsewhere, but her prediction for him was not the same. 

"You, I tell different," she said. "You'd better stay here. You're going to make it." 

Those were indeed prophetic words. Alton became one of Hollywood’s most influential cinematographers and his work had a major impact on film, especially film noir. 

Born on the Austrian side of the Austria-Hungary border in 1901, Alton came to America to attend college. His first foray into the film industry occurred when he was pressed into service at Cosmopolitan Studios in New York as a movie extra. In Los Angeles he worked as a lab technician in the 1920s and four years later became a cameraman.

He moved to France with Ernst Lubitsch to film backgrounds for “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” (1927) and ended up staying for a year heading the camera department of Paramount Pictures's Joinville Studios.

John Alton
Another assignment brought him to Buenos Aires, where he stayed for seven years, working in that country’s film industry before returning to Hollywood. In the late 1930s he shot 30 B-movies in seven years, mostly for Republic Pictures and RKO. He became one of the most sought-after cinematographers of the time, known for unconventional camera angles, especially low camera shots. His style is most notable in the films noir, including “He Walked by Night” (1948), “The Amazing Mr. X” (1948), “Raw Deal” (1948) and “The Big Combo” (1955).

Alton also photographed many color movies including the noir “Slightly Scarlet” (1956). He worked with Vincent Minnelli at MGM for 10 years including on “Father of the Bride” (1950) and “An American in Paris” (1951), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography with Alfred Gilks. 

His last film was “Elmer Gantry” (1960). He worked with director Charles Crichton on “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962) but both were fired after two weeks and Alton quit the industry.

In describing his experiences in Hollywood, he explains how his approach to cinematography differed from that of others in his profession:

"In the morning, when many cameramen came in, they didn't have any plans for what they were going to do, so they just lit [everything] up," he said. "When I got a story, I'd sit down with the director and work out each scene — just the two of us. I'd ask the director his opinion of how he would like to see each scene. Then I'd go home and, even though it took me a lot of time, I'd work out every scene — [including] which lights and tricks to use. So when the time came for shooting, I was ready.”

Directors were at first dumbfounded. They expected to cinematographers to merely flood a scene with light and no more.

“I'd say 'You don't 'pump' light into a scene. That light has to tell something. There's a meaning, and it establishes a mood.' That was the difference between my pictures and some of the others: [in mine], each mood was different. The mood had to be done with lighting.” 

Here’s the lowdown on several of Alton’s lesser known works, earlier noirs filmed on Poverty Row. They display his distinctive touch and are harbingers of things to come:

June Lockhart, Hugh Beaumont, "Bury Me Dead" (1947).

Bury Me Dead” (1947) Eagle–Lion Films

The title may sound like that of a horror film, but “Bury Me Dead” is an old school murder mystery dressed in noir clothing. Its resolution comes with a twist, as murder mysteries do. In the opening scene we encounter a horse stable engulfed in flames. The fire ravaged structure, piercing the night sky, is a preview of the dramatic use of light that we’ll be seeing throughout the film. 

A woman’s body is recovered from the blaze, and that’s the setup that sends us down a path crowded with suspects who each have motives to perpetrate the crime. From the start, we encounter one head-turning revelation after the next, and Alton’s lighting and camera angles guide us through the story and help frame the plot’s twists and turns. 

A distinctly minimalist touch arises now and then and creates visual drama not usually seen in Poverty Row films, such as when light spilling out of a refrigerator’s open door is all that illuminates the room. Near the climax, a shadowy figure attacks the heroine, Barbara Carlin (June Lockhart). Later, the killer’s identity is revealed in an arresting shot that illuminates the perp’s eyes. The reveal is only seen by the audience at first. Barbara is slower to catch on, making us want to yell for her to vamoose on the double. As spooky light rakes across the murderer’s face, Barbara is stunned by the revelation that she’s in mortal danger. 

Light is used here to dramatically drive the story forward, subtly preparing us for the story’s climax. A more run of the mill film might have used overheated dialog and swelling music to convey a dramatic conclusion. But Alton’s inventiveness presents us with a nuanced, emotionally gripping conclusion.

Francis Lederer, Gail Patrick, "The Madonna’s Secret" (1946).

The Madonna’s Secret” (1946) Republic Pictures

A crushing weight rests on the shoulders of artist James Corbin (Francis Lederer). It seems the women who model for him die violently, and although the police can’t link him to the killings he wonders if he’s responsible for those death. 

The Madonna of the film’s title is also a title of a Corbin painting. Corbin obsesses over the model and has the curious habit of painting  her face time and time again regardless of the sitter.

Newspaperman John Earl (Edward Ashley) is aware of the many coincidences that make Corbin look like a guilty man, and he sets out to see that justice is done. One evening Earl tails Corbin to a cabaret where his current model, Helen North (Linda Stirling), performs in what may be the oddest act in show business. She stands against a wooden wall and sings torch songs as a knife thrower pitches daggers that outline her form. 

Stranger still, Corbin sits ringside and sketches the chanteuse with a knife in her chest, which doesn’t help dispel the cloud of suspicion hanging over him. She’s got a jealous boyfriend who wants her to quit modeling for Corbin, and he might have a point. She promises she will, but then doesn’t

Mood is everything in this psychological drama, and Alton’s shadows and pools of light set the tone for the film’s brooding atmosphere. Corbin’s studio, awash in sunlight by day, morphs into a charcoal-black purgatory as the painter sits alone playing Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique on the piano. His isolation and despair seem to hang in the air. Gloomier still, when Corbin dines with his mother (Leona Roberts), with whom he lives, they sit in a dark candlelit room that’s as cozy as a mausoleum.

When another killing occurs, evidence against Corbin piles up, and yet no one can place him at the murder scene. But a revelation turns the investigation around and, as they say on “Dateline NBC,” sends the case in a whole new direction, just as we suspected it would.

Lynn Bari, "The Spiritualist" (1948).

"The Spiritualist" (1948) [AKA: The Amazing Mr. X] Eagle Lion

The home of spiritualist Alexis (Turhan Bey) is a frequent stopover for visiting specters who pop in for a visit whenever he arranges a seance. He offers his sympathy and insights on matters spiritual to Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), who lost her husband, Paul, two years before. Lately, she’s been hearing the voice of her deceased partner. 

This happens when she’s brooding over the magnificent ocean view from her balcony or walking on the beach below her cliff dwelling. By chance she bumps into the seemingly omnipresent Alexis on the beach one night as she’s close to having emotional breakdown. He seems to know everything about her and she resolves to engage him as a psychic medium.

Christine visits the mustachioed Alexis only after sunset because, we can suppose, the spirit world only works the night shift. But that’s perfect for the creepy atmosphere we expect when raising the dead. 

Alton fills the psychic medium’s lair with dusty light that seems to be filtered through a thousand layers of cobwebs. As Christine and her younger sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) become entranced by Alexis’s soothing voice, foreign accent and continental charm, Christine’s home seems to become more shadowy, bathed in candle light and aglow with dim table lamps.

One evening, Christine detects an eerie glow emanating from an open closet and upon investigation is terrified by a specter that emerges, gives chase and makes her scream. More spooky stuff is in store for her, especially after someone slips her a mickey in a glass of warm milk. Supernatural hallucinations grow stronger still and Christine seems to be under the influence of a bad batch of psychedelics — a precarious state of mind when you live atop steep cliffs overlooking the sea.

 In addition to his inventive lighting techniques, Alton’s hallmark is his unusual camera placements, and we see that here. He shoots the seance scene with the camera situated dramatically low, looking upward at Alexis’s crystal ball as well as the participants’ faces, adding to the scene’s topsy-turvy surreal effect.

With all the eerie goings on at chez Alexi we’re not so surprised when we learn that he’s a fraud who swindles well-heeled widows. But there’s an added twist that we might not see coming, and neither does Alexi, and it shifts the story’s focus to another character whom we don’t meet until later on. It turns out there’s an even more elaborate scheme in the works. As implausible as it may be, the story keeps us in the dark til near the end, just as Alton had planned. 

Next week I’ll cover more of John Alton’s Poverty Row films, the ones he did in collaboration with director Anthony Mann — you’ll probably be familiar with the titles.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Poverty Row Noir II: Scheming Communists Walk Among Us ... and So Does a Future Sitcom Dad

Hugh Beaumont, Frances Rafferty, “Money Madness” (1948).

Ward Cleaver as a psychotic killer? Say it ain’t so!

Like many up and coming Hollywood actors, Hugh Beaumont appeared in noir B-pictures before he became better known as an all-American TV dad, and he played some pretty despicable characters, too. But more about that later. 

From the 1920s to the 1950s, scads of B-pictures were produced by small studios located near the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Gower St. in Hollywood. These struggling film studios became known as Poverty Row. An untold numbers of westerns, adventure stories, comedies and crime dramas made on next-to-nothing budgets were produced there. 

The smaller studios, including Grand National, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Producers Releasing Corporation were among the cheapie movie production houses where newbie directors honed their craft and industry veterans found employment when work was scarce. 

Both the newcomers and seasoned pros churned out 55- to 75-minute films, most with shooting schedules of less than a week. Some of their films were golden, others were fool’s gold. It didn’t matter so much that the B-pictures were rough around the edges because they were destined to be shown as the bottom half of the bill alongside major studios’ releases. 

Most of these films lacked fancy production values, but some made up for it with hard-hitting stories — so hard-hitting that major studios, fixated on mass-appeal fare, would probably balk at producing them.

Ingenuity without Big Money

R.G. Springsteen
Tight budgets actually proved to be an advantage for some directors, who were forced to invent creative solutions that would make cheap productions sparkle.

One director who made his mark in B-pictures of Poverty Row is R. G. Springsteen, who directed “The Red Menace” (1949), one of the films discussed below. He was a prolific helmer of Hollywood B westerns and television episodes initially with Republic Pictures and later with A.C. Lyles's series of Westerns for Paramount Pictures.  

“The Red Menace” reflects  post-World War II anxiety over the threat of communist infiltration of America. It was released the same year that the Russians detonated an atomic bomb. The film makes no mention of the bomb, probably because it was shot before the nuclear threat was apparent and couldn’t be incorporated into the story.

In addition to “The Red Menace,” he directed noirs such as “Million Dollar Pursuit” (1951) and “Revolt in the Big House” (1958), as well as crime films “Double Jeopardy” (1955), “I Cover the Underworld” (1955) and “Track the Man Down” (1955), among others.

A Productive Director

Sam Newfield

The other film discussed below, “Money Madness” (1948), reflects none of the paranoia associated with communists and nuclear weapons, but instead explores a threat within American society — a mentally unstable ex-convict who terrorizes a naive young woman and her aunt. 

Directed by Sam Newfield (a.k.a. Peter Stewart), the film is a noir whose plot could be easily transformed into a western. In “Money Madness,” a charming and dangerous outlaw arrives in town, ingratiates himself with the locals while plotting to exploit them for his own evil purposes. 

Newfield is noted as one of the most prolific directors in American film history. He began his career in the silent era and directed more than 250 feature films and one- and two-reel comedy shorts, training films, industrial films and TV episodes. Many of Newfield's films were made for PRC Pictures, a company headed by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld. PRC produced  low-budget westerns, horror films and crime dramas. 

In addition to “Money Madness,” Newfield directed crime films “Western Pacific Agent” (1950), “Reform Girl” (1933) as well as “The Wild Weed” (1949) a.k.a “She Shoulda Said ‘No,’” a cautionary tale of the dangers of “Marihuana.”

So, here are a couple of crime stories made by Poverty Row studios, each quite different from the other, and both were made fast and on the cheap.

Hanna Axmann-Rezzori, Robert Rockwell, “The Red Menace” (1949).

The Red Menace” (1949) Republic Pictures

A cloud of dread hangs over war veteran Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell) and Nina Petrovka (Hannelore Axman) as they speed down dark roadways, trying to escape unnamed human predators nipping at their heels. They’re in the grip of paranoia and every stranger they encounter may be an agent of the dark force aiming to do them harm. 

“The Red Menace” wants us to know that the enemy is among us and is waiting to pounce when our guard is down. It’s one of a handful of B-movie noirs, including “The Woman on Pier 13” (1950), “I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.” (1951) and “Walk a Crooked Mile” (1948), that push the conspiracy hot button. The story is seen through Bill and Nina’s eyes. Bill meets her as he’s indoctrinated into the party. She’s been a lifelong member but is having her doubts, and later they will both become disillusioned by the party’s blatant misdeeds.

In Documentary Format

Presented in documentary fashion like films such as “The Naked City” (1948) and “The House on 92nd Street” (1945), the film gives us the lowdown on the fugitive pair in a flashback that begins months before. Fleeced out of his savings by a crooked real estate agent who’s running a G.I. housing project scam, Bill bellyaches to a government agent who offers him neither sympathy nor aid. A man who turns out to be a Communist Party plant lurks nearby. Hearing the frustrated ex-G.I.’s complaints, he swoops into action, chatting him up and bringing him to a bar to meet other party members who offer him a shoulder to cry on. Party member Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), whose job it is to help hook new male recruits, offers him more than a shoulder.

This parable of an average man thrice duped, first by a real estate scammer, then by an ineffectual government bureaucrat and finally by communists, doesn’t let Bill off the hook entirely for his misfortunes. He failed to perform due diligence before signing on the dotted line and his exasperation with the government isn’t entirely justified. In the film’s 81-minute run time we see what a stinging dose of reality can do to cure him of his naïveté and lessen his sense of victimhood.

Bill hangs out with party members but maintains a skeptical distance. While his new buddies talk a good game, preaching about worker’s rights, racial equality and equal rights for women, behind the scenes the party’s upper echelon is cynical, racist and sexist, much like the capitalist foes they oppose. Bill falls in love with Nina, an Eastern European born teacher of Marxism. Both she and Bill have good reason to become disenchanted and fearful of the party, especially after a rank and file member publicly questions the party’s hypocrisies and pays the ultimate price for his break with protocol. 

A Priest on a Mission

A priest, Father O’Leary (Leo Cleary), arrives on the scene at the behest of Molly’s mother, who disapprove’s of her daughter’s lifestyle. The clergyman delivers one of several lectures sprinkled throughout the film on the evils of communism. After which, he liberates a 50-cent piece from a party member that he says will go into the poor box — sort of like beating the communists at their own game.

The hatchet lady of the party, Yvonne Kraus (Betty Lou Gerson), goes on a Stalinesque rampage to rid the communist cell of traitors. Among the highlights of “The Red Menace” is the scene in which Yvonne has a mental breakdown, making a total confession to the police. Gerson’s performance here is heavy on the histrionics. Perhaps it was typecasting that got her the gig as the voice of the evil Cruella de Vil in the Disney animated film “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961). In any case, she hits the mark in both roles.

Hugh Beaumont, Frances Rafferty, “Money Madness.” 

"Money Madness" (1948) Film Classics

It’s a shock seeing family man Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) of TV’s “Leave it to Beaver” (1957 - 1963) playing former mental patient and cold-blooded killer Steve Clark in “Money Madness.” Beaumont’s most popular role as head of a middle class, suburban family is so thoroughly burned into our collective consciousness that the first sight of his bank-robbing rat of a character is, through no fault of the actor, laughable. But audiences in 1948 had yet to see Ward offer TV-dad wisdom to sons Wally and the Beav. So, those of us raised on 1950s - ’60s family sitcoms just have to suck it up and adjust to Beaumont as Ward’s evil twin. 

Then there’s the film’s title, which hits like a soggy loaf of bread and is a dead giveaway that this is a Poverty Row production. Another 15 minutes of brainstorming would likely produce something more grabbing than “Money Madness.” We can safely assume the clock ran out and they chose the first couplet that popped into their heads. No matter, the Poverty Row credo was shoot it, get it in the can and out the door, pronto — title, schmitle.

A Tough Sentence

At least the story begins with a tantalizing courtroom scene:  the sentencing of Julie Saunders (Frances Rafferty), who, we learn, will receive free room and board for the next 10 years courtesy of the state.

Bystanders mumble that she’s getting a raw deal, and in one long flashback we see how she landed in the mess she’s in. 

Clark rolls into town and fills a safety deposit box with thick stacks of moolah, then gets a job driving a taxi. He meets Julie by chance one night as she tries to fend off a drunken wolf. Clark gets rid of the oaf, then pours on the charm and pretty soon he and Julie are dating. Of course, we already know that things won’t go well for Julie, and that both Clark and his boat-load of cash will be at the root of her downfall.

Julie, who is roundly browbeaten by her overbearing invalid Aunt Cora (Cecil Weston) with whom she lives, is soon to be the useful patsy that Clark has been searching for. He works out a scheme involving Cora, and Julie becomes an unwitting accomplice. He convinces her to wed and the wheels of his scheme begin to turn.

It’s a bumpy ride throughout for Julie, as we begin to see the depths of depravity to which Clark will sink in order to hang onto his stack of loot.

A Study of Actors

What’s fascinating is observing the workings of second-string actors, whose not-quite-there performances can show us, in contrast, just how good the A-listers really are. It might be the indelible image of Ward Cleaver bleeding through Beaumont’s performance, a factor that was unforeseeable in 1948, that robs him of the intangible quality that makes a great performance. But I suspect that Beaumont’s refined demeanor, lacking any underlying danger or threat of violence, is what takes the edge off his performance. Those are qualities that, say, Robert Mitchum could communicate with a cold stare and a nonchalant drag on a Chesterfield.

Although he throws himself into the role and does a commendable job, Beaumont can’t project the smug self assuredness of a Mitchum, a Bogart or a Cagney, but that’s part of the reason why that trio made the big bucks.

Beaumont may not make a convincing tough guy, but he was a heck of a TV dad and, despite all, is still enjoyable to watch here. “Money Madness” holds together as a neat little package of impending doom and that’s what makes it worthwhile.

This is my second post about “Poverty Row Noir.” Click here to read Part 1. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

It Came from Poverty Row: Hollywood's B-Movie Factories Mined Noir Gold

Ann Savage, Tom Neal, "Detour" (1945).
Hitchhiking on the road to hell.
So many westerns were filmed at the small, independently owned studios near the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Gower St. in Hollywood that people began calling it Gower Gulch. From the 1930s to the ’50s it was the epicenter of low-rent film production and the gaggle of studios there was disparagingly known as Poverty Row. Monogram, Republic, Eagle-Lion and Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), among many others, cranked out westerns, gangster films, horror movies, comedies, teen musicals and films noir, usually on beer-money budgets with modest sets and B- or C-list actors. 
Back in the days when movie houses showed double features, cheaply made B-pictures were paired with big budget films produced by the major studios. Strong demand for B-pictures gave rise to an industry dedicated to knocking out 55- to 75-minute dramas, comedies and musicals that the larger studios were unwilling to bother with. 
Always pinching pennies, Poverty Row directors were known to use sets left behind by more prosperous productions that had been shooting at neighboring soundstages. To save money, directors shot scenes outdoors, often in natural light with Hollywood neighborhoods as backdrops. Interior shots with vast black pools of shadow could mask a lack of sets, props, costumes and even adequate lighting equipment.
Films were often spare, with unfiltered images that seemed to convey noir’s tales of murder and treachery with an air of authenticity not found in polished productions by the majors. 
Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) in Hollywood.
One of the studios where B-pictures were made.
Known for quick and dirty operations, Poverty Row studios took on films that Paramount or Warner Bros. would shy away from. Stories too tawdry for polite company may have been rejected at Fox, but they were the stuff that made Poverty Row’s engine fire on all cylinders. Titles such as “The Red Menace” (1949), “Bury Me Dead” (1947) and “For You I Die” (1948) rolled off the Poverty Row assembly line. Many had a sensational, ripped from the headlines feel that reflected the brash energy of American tabloid journalism of the 1940s and ’50s. 
Of course, not each an every film shot on Poverty Row sparkled like a diamond. With rushed schedules and budgets stretched to the breaking point there's bound to be some clunkers. Production values were less than top-notch, performances could be uneven and scripts had plot holes you could drive a Buick Roadmaster through. Shooting schedules were usually short and hectic, often less than a week for feature films. While a goodly amount of the output was dreck, a number of masterpieces were the product of those thread-bare productions. Ingenuity and craftsmanship could make up for tight finances and screenplays sorely in need of a rewrite. 
Many skilled technicians who’d been in Hollywood since the days of the silents found a steady income there. The low-rent studios didn’t pay much, but kept droves of film industry veterans off the breadlines during the Depression. It was a blue collar island in a neighborhood bulging at the seams with high falutin artistes.
Poverty Row was a corner of the industry that didn't take itself overly seriously. No one expected that Monogram, PRC and Eagle Lion’s pictures would ever be regarded as art, and the likelihood of critics ever seeing them was slim to none. Above all else it was a tough racket. Films were at times cut with the delicacy of a flying meat cleaver and distributors were often paid a flat fee for each film regardless of how many tickets were sold. 
This was a market of mass production and the goal was to deliver the product with great speed. 
The chaotic atmosphere and urgency to get a film in the can paradoxically offered directors and other artists greater latitude to try things that would never be approved by larger studios. The relatively low cost of each project allowed directors and actors to be largely left alone to do their work without interference, which resulted in some spectacular and enduring films that otherwise might never have been made. 

Five Noirs Made for Peanuts 
that Still Knock Our Socks Off
Here are a handful of top-notch crime dramas (and one that's not so top-notch) produced during Poverty Row’s heyday. I’ll list more of them in the coming weeks. Please feel free to enter your picks for the best Poverty Row crime and noir features in the Comments section below.:
Tom Neal, "Detour." Trapped in a paranoid nightmare.
Detour” (1945) Producers Releasing Corporation
We begin with the grand daddy of noirs done on dirt cheap budgets by independently minded directors. In this case it’s the King of B-pictures, Edgar G. Ulmer. It’s a classic example of how a bottom-rung budget can set a gritty, claustrophobic mood that looks just right for noir. We can almost feel desperation radiating off the screen. It’s the production’s thread-bare look that enhances the protagonist’s sense of hopelessness and isolation. 
The very down-at-the-heels look is in itself a character in this movie, and it’s that shop-worn texture that sets the mood and somehow makes the plot all the more credible. It’s the story of pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) who just can’t seem to catch a break. His head is filled with visions of Carnegie Hall, but instead he pounds the keys at a gin joint, scooping up tips from the punters and gritting his teeth. His gal sings at the saloon to his accompaniment, but fed up with their dead end existence, she cuts bait and heads for the West Coast in search something better. 
Al stays behind in New York until he finally gets the gumption to follow his love. He’s broke, so he gets out on the highway and sticks out his thumb. He feels a rush of enthusiasm he hasn’t experienced in years, like he’s on his way to the promised land. But his journey turns into something resembling the third circle of hell. 
He catches a ride with a big-wheel gambler, but that goes sour — real sour —and he decides to change his identity, as you do in noir. When he begins thinking his luck might be changing for the better he crosses paths with hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage), a spitfire whom he soon wishes he never met.
This is arguably Ulmer’s noir masterpiece (he felt that “Ruthless” [1948] was his best), a story so unyielding in its pessimism that big studios would likely pass on it. Just as well. They’d probably try to dress it up for maximum consumer appeal, and that would ruin everything. The film was remade in 1992 with Tom Neal’s son, Tom Neal Jr. — it’s best to stick with the original.
Edward Norris, Jean Gillie, Herbert Rudley, "Decoy" (1946).
"Decoy" (1946) Monogram Studios
When it comes to cruel, irredeemable femmes fatale, Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) wins top honors as the rottenest apple in the orchard. Told in flashback, “Decoy” features double crossers, a death row execution and a doctor who raises the dead. Then, things start to get weird.
Throughout the film, Margot remains a cold-blooded double crosser. For her sheer cruelty and outsized zest for sadism, she stands out among noir’s most treacherous females.
She pulls off a murder that is as hideous as any committed by man, woman or child onscreen at the time. In her crazed pursuit of a $400,000 stash of loot, she disposes of an accomplice as he’s fixing a flat tire by slamming her car into forward gear and running over the unsuspecting sap several times for good measure. She hops out and rifles through the dead man’s pockets before driving off.
Aside from Margot’s depraved antics, the centerpiece of the film’s first half is a whacky stunt that involves hijacking a morgue meat wagon that’s carrying the body of an executed man. Margot and her band of ghouls bring the corpse to a laboratory where a doctor administers a drug that brings the dead man back to life. (Yup, you heard right.)
In the film’s closing moments she lies on her death bed while Police Sgt. Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), who has been on her trail, stands over her. She asks him to come closer, as if she means to tell him something — something confidential — and he crouches down, bringing his face closer to her’s. Is she about to unburden herself and express regret for all the wrong she has done, we wonder? Nah! With her dying breath she cackles hysterically in the copper’s face. She can now leave this mortal coil, warmed by the fact that she’s had the last laugh at another in a long line of suckers. With her rotten-to-the core exit, Margot is the very model of a film noir femme fatale.

Elyse Knox, Don Castle, "I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes" (1948).
I Wouldn’t be in Your Shoes” (1948) Monogram Studios
Ann Quinn (Elyse Knox) wishes that a saint would deliver a pot of gold to her and her vaudeville hoofer husband Tom Quinn (Don Castle). Tom says it wouldn’t mind if that pot of gold was delivered by “the opposite of a saint.” We get a creepy feeling that in uttering those works he’s unintentionally summoning up a demon. When Ann switches off the lights a chorus of cats begins to howl outside their bedroom window. The hoofer chucks his shoes at the vocalizing felines, setting off a disastrous chain of events that no one could have predicted. 
Based on a Cornell Woolrich story, “I Wouldn’t be in Your Shoes,” like a number of Woolrich’s yarns, is the story of a man wrongly convicted of murder. As Tom sits on death row, Ann frantically searches for evidence that will prove him innocent. Frequently, Woolrich’s persecuted men are rescued by strong willed, inquisitive females who go to great lengths to dig out facts that will save the poor dope whose neck is on the chopping block. 
We get the story in flashback, with Tom’s echoey voice narrating as he sits in a prison cell. Ann is a ballroom dance instructor whose most dedicated pupil is a big tipper she calls Santa Clause. It turns out that Santa is really Police Insp. Clint Judd (Regis Toomey), a crusty veteran of the force known for cracking difficult cases. He finds a footprint outside of a murder scene that links Tom to the crime. The murder victim is Tom and Ann’s shut-in, cash laden neighbor, and coincidentally, not only does a thick wad of moolah find its way into Tom’s hands, the pair of shoes he hurled at the noisy cats unexpectedly materialized on their doorstep the next morning. It’s a cinch that there’s a frame-up in the works, but Tom has a date with the hangman’s noose and time is running out for him. 
Hokey touches (the echoey narrator), static camerawork and uneven performances don’t take much away from the outlandish plot that, while stretching credibility to the breaking point, is pure Woolrich, and that alone makes it worth a look. Strangely enough, if the film was a high budget production, I doubt that we’d be willing to forgive the parts that don’t make a lot of sense. How, for example, does Insp. Judd find the time to do the seemingly enormous amount of personal sleuthing and still hold down a job? No matter. In a low-rent, funky production such as this we sit back and go along for the ride.
Dolores Fuller, Herbert Rawlinson, "Jail Bait" (1954).
Jail Bait” (1954) Howco. 
When it comes to cheapie film productions with odd plot lines I could hardly neglect to mention Edward D. Wood Jr., director of cult classics such as “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1957), “Glen or Glenda” (1953) and “Bride of the Monster” Wood’s wild, frequently disjointed work tends to land in the science fiction and horror genres and is widely renown simply for being so, so bad. He was awarded two of film critic Michael Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards, one for Worst Director of all times and the other, a Worst Film award for his “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
Regardless of their premise, Wood’s films, be they science fiction fantasies with cheesy flying saucers or a pseudo documentary about transvestites and sex change surgery, don’t lean heavily on verisimilitude and plausibility. Perhaps because of that, the Wood oeuvre has for decades attracted packs of hipsters who view the stuff largely for its ironic comedic value.
“Jail Bait,” the director’s sole attempt at film noir, may be the lesser known Wood film on the midnight screenings circuit mostly because it avoids outrageous and inflammatory topics and the plot stays basically within noir’s conventions. The title doesn’t refer to under-aged girls, by the way. It’s what one character calls the gun her delinquent brother carries with him on the streets. Although it’s probably not an accident that the film is tagged with a suggestive title — in this business you gotta have a gimmick.
The film is a straight-ahead crime drama telling the story of Don Gregor (Clancy Malone), a partner in crime with gangster Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell). Don, fresh out of prison, is brow beaten onto committing a robbery with Vic, and it goes badly. That's when Don's father, plastic surgeon Dr. Boris Gregor (Herbert Rawlinson) is forced to perform a plastic surgery job on Vic, who wants to hide his identity. Don is being held hostage until the surgery is complete, so Dr. Gregor goes to work on the desperate criminal with great urgency. 
Vic is a wanted man, so they can’t risk using an operating room. Naturally, the procedure is done on the sofa in Vic’s living room. A nurse isn’t available to assist, so the doctor’s daughter, Marilyn (Dolores Fuller, Wood’s real life girlfriend) pitches in. The entire operation is conducted with a basin of hot water, some ether, a scalpel or two, probably, and some clean sheets used to make bandages. Voila! Vic gets a new face, but in an odd twist his new profile is something less than what he expected.
Produced on a measly budget, “Jail Bait” suffers from uneven acting, vacuous dialogue (Dr. Gregor thoughtfully remarks, “Plastic surgery, at times, seems to be very, very complicated.”) and scattershot direction. But somehow Wood’s strange ending and some laughably stiff line readings add up to a rather likable mess. It’s enough to make me wish that Wood had tried his hand at noir at least one more time.  
Leslie Brooks, "Blonde Ice" (1948).
Blonde Ice” (1948) Film Classics
San Francisco society columnist Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks) gets hitched to a rich dude, then shows off her mastery in the art of two-timing. Claire never met a man she couldn't play for a sucker, because she’s … you know, cold like ice.
“Blonde Ice” director Jack Burnhard also directed “Decoy,” and between both films he gave rise to two of the most dastardly femmes fatale in all of noir. Unlike gun moll Margot Shelby in “Decoy,” Claire is a wage slave working among ink stained wretches. But both are driven by an insatiable desire for riches and will Hoover up every dollar, diamond and mink they can extract from unsuspecting marks. The difference between them is that Margot is an underworld denizen and Claire is a social climber. Margot uses blunt force to get cash, while Claire would prefer to marry it. She does, however, pack a pearl handled revolver in her purse and isn’t afraid to use it.
Nicknamed Blonde Ice, we meet Claire as she’s about to walk the plank with a middle-aged moneybags while giving her whimpering ex-beau, sportswriter Les Burns (Robert Paige), the heave-ho. Even after taking the vows she still tantalizes crestfallen Les, stringing him along as her husband of 15 minutes grows huffy watching from the sidelines. She calms hubby, but he won’t stay pacified for long. For Claire, it’s a minor bump in the road. She always keeps an eye open for new prospects with bulging bank accounts should the need for a substitute arise. 
It’s no wonder that she took up her vocation in the news biz, chronicling the comings and goings of the conspicuously wealthy. According to her peers, she ain’t no newspaperwoman. That’s immaterial to Claire — the job’s main perk is a bird’s eye view of eligible dupes who are ripe for the picking. 
In large part, what’s most enjoyable about both films, for me, at least, is the cold bloodedness of the crimes to which both lethal ladies resort. Claire is blasé when she pulls the trigger, and is quick to put on a charming face when the situation calls for it. After shooing away a blackmailer who wants to take her for 50 grand, she switches from a snarl to a smile, deftly toggling into her charming socialite persona to greet arriving guests. In the end, Claire lives up to her nickname, but when the people around her get wise to her dark motives and darker deeds, the world becomes too chilly a place for her. 

Next time, I’ll talk more about Poverty Row, directors who learned their trade there and the films that they made.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Lovesick Wanderer Returns ... to a Double Cross

Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, "Criss Cross" (1949).

This article contains spoilers.

By Paul Parcellin

The magnetic attraction between Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo) is the stuff that drives “Criss Cross” toward its dramatic and deadly conclusion. Steve returns to town after two year’s absence and the first thing on his mind is rekindling their romance. In fact, it’s probably the only reason that he returned. As much as he tries to convince himself that he’s not interested in seeing Anna again we know it’s just a matter of time before the two get together. 

They’re the volatile kind of couple that seems to thrive on getting into scraps, making up and starting the cycle over again. Complicating matters is gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who is also pursuing Anna’s affections. We believe in Anna’s sincere feelings for Steve, and just when it seems that they’re going to pick up the pieces of their broken marriage — they divorced two years previously — they quarrel and she runs off to Yuma with Slim to get hitched. It’s a revenge marriage, perhaps, or maybe it’s all about the money, but one thing’s certain: there’s precious little warmth between her and her gangster hubby.

That should have been the end of their love triangle, but she and Steve can’t seem to stay away from each other. In voice-over he says it’s fate that keeps bringing them together, and for a while it seems that way. By chance, he glimpses her at Union Station seeing Slim off on an extended trip and that’s enough to set the wheels in motion for a disastrous outcome. Like Lancaster’s role as Swede in “The Killers” (1946), he plays an affable but naive gadabout who is putty in the hands of the people around him whom he mistakenly thinks he can outsmart.

Steve, we learn, has many good qualities, but sound judgment isn’t one of them. He can’t resist getting involved with Anna, despite efforts of Steve’s mother and his longtime buddy Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), who feed him well meaning advice that he stubbornly ignores. 

There’s something boyish about Lancaster’s Steve. We see it when he returns home and throws a ball to his dog and romps like a school kid after dismissal from class. He overlooks the long-term consequences of his actions when it’s extremely unwise to do so. Getting involved with a gangster’s wife is the beginning of his downfall, and when Dundee catches Steve and his wife together, Steve dreams up a heist scheme on the spot to explain why the two of them are alone upstairs. Steve works for an armored car company and he’s got a bright idea about robbing a truck he’ll be guarding when it’s full of payroll cash. 

DeCarlo, Dan Duryea, an uneasy marriage.

It’s a bold move and almost comically unthinkable for someone as devoid of criminal experience as is Steve. But it’s also a clever move considering that he pulls it out of thin air just to save his hide. Dundee wants to know why he’s coming to him for help and Steve bluntly answers that he’s the only crook he knows. Dundee is taken aback but still interested. 

This turn of events abruptly shifts the film’s tone from a tale of clandestine love to a straight-up heist movie. Dundee is well aware of the shenanigans going on behind his back, but is intrigued by the possibility of scoring a lot of cash, and he has plans for Steve once the robbery is over. Of course, Steve has plans for Dundee, and the outcome of this caper hinges on who is more successful in double crossing the other.

Apart from the tense give and take among the main characters who appear along side a bevy of terrific character actors, the city of Los Angeles is a character in itself. Director Robert Siodmak makes the most of the once stately homes that serve as a backdrop to the story. The old neighborhood Steve returns to is the Bunker Hill section of the City of Angels, a setting for many a noir. For appreciators of the city’s architecture that decades ago fell to the wrecking ball, “Criss Cross” is a stunning timepiece that treats us to tasty morsels of vintage eye candy. 

Stairways leading to double- and triple-decker dwellings, looming Victorian homes that are just this side of shabby and the views of City Hall and its surroundings could make anyone nostalgic for the Los Angeles of decades ago, even if they were born long after those once-majestic buildings were leveled. There’s even a scene in a rundown apartment with Dundee’s mob working out the details of a robbery in which we see through the windows in the background the two cars of the Angels Flight funicular gliding up and down the steep incline of Bunker Hill. 

The film opens with a nighttime aerial view of Los Angeles City Hall, the towering building that then also housed the L.A. Police Dept. It seems ever present in the background, a kind of center of gravity around which the characters in this story orbit. It also serves as a reminder that justice is awaiting those who follow criminal pursuits. 

Siodmak’s non-linear way of telling the story begins with the camera panning across the flickering lights of the city, bringing us to a dance hall parking lot where Steve and Anna are carrying on a clandestine affair while Dundee waits inside for Anna. 

We get the setup in short order. Anna and Dundee are married, there’s a big job worth six figures in the works and Dundee is more than a bit suspicious that Steve is after his wife. Later, we see Steve driving toward a rendezvous spot where the armored car stickup will take place. Then in a long flashback sequence we see what brought him to this juncture in his life. 

Burt Lancaster, Tom Pedi, caught in the crossfire.

The film’s final portion focuses on the robbery’s aftermath and the duplicitous Anna, who bears the responsibility of causing Steve’s downfall. But is she really deserving of the blame? Considering that the robbery wasn’t her idea and that the choices that she’s left with are not good, she opts to save herself and that’s probably not a bad idea. Steve, the romantic, says he never cared about the heist money, he only wanted to be with her. But then there’s Dundee to contend with, who, like Steve, sustained severe wounds in the botched robbery. Wounded or not, Dundee is coming after them and she decides to grab the dough and split. 

Up to that point we never doubt her feelings for Steve, but when the chips are down she observes “You have to watch out for yourself.” It’s a cold slap in the face to Steve, but her moment of clarity comes a little too late and she pays the price for not being more discriminating about the company she keeps. So does Steve. It’s not the heroic ending that Hollywood movies normally proffer, but it’s consistent with noir’s cold, cynical view of the world. Like Steve, we don’t see Anna’s true nature until death comes knocking at the door. Then all bets are off.


Wednesday, November 8, 2023

More Than a Gunsel: Elisha Cook Jr. Played Wobbly Tough Guys, Inept Would-Be Heroes and Dyed in the Wool Victims Often Displaying Raw Emotion and Unexpected Vulnerabilities

Humphrey Bogart, Elisha Cook Jr., "The Maltese Falcon" (1941).
Just a cheap gunman hanging around hotel lobbies.

When he died in 1995 at the age of 91, Elisha Cook Jr. was the last surviving cast member of John Huston's 1941 film noir classic “The Maltese Falcon,” whose players included Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. While his was a supporting role, Cook left an indelible impression that remains intact more than eight decades later.

Many say that “The Maltese Falcon” was the first ever film noir while others insist that “Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940) was the genre’s opening salvo. One thing is for certain: Having acted in both films, Cook’s film noir street cred is rock solid.

He appeared in more than 100 films, including comedies, westerns and war pictures, working with some of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors, a virtual who’s who of Hollywood heavy hitters, including Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks, Robert Wise, Sam Peckinpah, Andre DeToth, Mervyn LeRoy, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, and Jules Dassin, among others. Cook would be the first to admit that not every film in which he appeared rose to the level of the 1941 Huston-directed spellbinder. He once claimed that he was in more "B-for-bomb turkeys" than any other actor.

Frequently performing beside the likes of Bogart, Greenstreet, Gary Cooper, Allan Ladd and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few, Cook had an emotional presence that put him on equal footing with the stars even in his relatively minor roles. Whether he was playing a sniveling informant, sinister henchman or a flawed protagonist, his most complex characters put on a rugged facade that belied a spate of vulnerabilities that occasionally bobbed to the surface. At times his characters were lovestruck weaklings easily manipulated by scheming jezebels. He often played average joes who were pawns of the ruthless and were pushed around by low-life hoodlums and gangsters’ errand boys. He was Jonesy, the broken-hearted informant forced to drink poison in "The Big Sleep" (1946). As Cliff, the cuckolded husband who throws a monkey wrench into a racetrack holdup in Stanley Kubrick’s "The Killing" (1956), he drowns in pathos and inadvertently helps take his partners in crime down with him.

But the role most deeply etched into our pop culture collective consciousness is undoubtedly Wilmer the gunsel, the inept, brutally callous and cowardly bodyguard to Sydney Greenstreet in "The Maltese Falcon.” Part of what makes that film pure viewing pleasure is its cheeky dialogue and biting repartee lifted directly from Dashiell Hammett’s novel. Amid many ironic asides and withering retorts, Cook scores a zinger or two. 

”Keep on riding me," he tells Bogart’s Sam Spade. "They're gonna be pickin' iron out of your liver."

As Wilmer — humiliation and tears of rage.

But apart from some poisonous retorts, his characters’ emotional complexities leave a lasting impression on us. We see humiliation and hatefulness in his expression after Bogie swipes both of his pistols and mortifies him as his boss, Kaspar Gutman (Greenstreet), looks on with muted amusement.

"If you look at the scene closely," Cook said, "the tears are streaming down my face I'm so angry."

With more than a touch of self-deprecating humor, Cook liked to point out that he got the part of Wilmer simply because he had the same agent as Huston and Bogart. But it’s hard to imagine any other actor standing in Wilmer’s shoes.

"I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists," he said, although that wasn’t necessarily by choice. He had to take whatever happened to be on the studio’s schedule. "I didn't have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, 'You're going to work tomorrow.' "

A Career Spanning Over Six Decades

A native of San Francisco who grew up in Chicago, Cook was a traveling actor in the East and Midwest before going to New York, where Eugene O'Neill picked him to play the juvenile lead in "Ah Wilderness!," which ran on Broadway for two years.

His first screen roles were in the silent era — he made his film debut with “Her Unborn Child” (1930). The early roles were often uncredited, but he showed a knack for performing in front of the camera. By the time that the talkies arrived his career began picking up steam. 

He could handle a remarkable range of characters, from timid and neurotic to sinister and cunning. As a performer who could radiate vulnerability as well as menace he became a sought after character actor. He continued to make his mark in films-noir and gangster films with roles in “Born to Kill” (1947), “Dillinger” (1945) and “Phantom Lady” (1944). 

In “Phantom Lady,” Cook is a hophead jazz drummer who becomes the prime suspect in a murder case. He encounters Carol "Kansas" Richman (Ella Raines) and is knocked out by her slinky allure. In one of the most frequently cited scenes in noir, Cook pounds out a frenzied drum-solo with erotic overtones as Kansas looks on.

Cook as George Peatty — bamboozled by his wandering wife.

His work in noir extended into the 1950s with roles in such films as “Don’t Bother to Knock”  (1952), playing Eddie Forbes, whose attempt to help his unemployed niece, Nell (Marilyn Monroe), brings about disastrous results, and George Peatty, a hapless cashier involved in a racetrack heist in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.” Peatty’s loveless marriage ends up being his undoing and his fate is sealed in a tragic twist.

Other notable performances include that of Watson Pritchard in William Castle's horror film “House on Haunted Hill” (1959).

In the 1960s and 1970s he appeared in a wide range of television shows, including “The Twilight Zone,” “Perry Mason.,” “I Spy,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” “The Wild Wild West” and “Gunsmoke.” He also played a recurring role on “Magnum, P.I.” in the 1980s.

His late career work includes such high profile films as “Rosemary's Baby” (1968), “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973) and “The Outfit” (1973). 

Cook, never one to mix in Hollywood’s social circles, resided for many years in Bishop, Calif., and often summered at Lake Sabrina in the Sierra Nevada. He died of a stroke in 1995 at a nursing home in Big Pine, Calif. 

Here’s a list of some of Elisha Cook Jr. most memorable crime film performances and the characters he played:

The Devil is Driving” (1932) Tony Stevens

Scion of a wealthy businessman is charged with drunken-driving and causing an accident that kills a woman and cripples her child. A low-budget cautionary tale.

They Won’t Forget” (1937) Joe Turner

A small-time hood is suspected of murder. Political ambition and tensions between the North and the South lurk in the background This is one of Cook’s earliest crime film roles.

Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940) Joe Briggs

An aspiring reporter is the key witness at the murder trial of a young man accused of cutting a café owner's throat and is soon accused of a similar crime himself.

The Maltese Falcon” (1941) Wilmer Cook

San Francisco private detective Sam Spade takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar and their quest for a priceless statuette.

I Wake Up Screaming” (1941) Harry Williams

Inspector Ed Cornell tries to railroad Frankie Christopher into a murder rap for the killing of model Vicky Lynn. 

Keeping the tempo, in "Phantom Lady" (1944).

Phantom Lady” (1944) Cliff Milburn

A devoted secretary risks her life to try to find the elusive woman who may prove her boss didn't murder his selfish wife.

Dillinger” (1944) Kirk Otto

John Dillinger begins his life of crime as a petty thief and meets his future gang in prison, eventually masterminding a series of daring robberies.

Blonde Alibi” (1946) Sam Collins

Soon after a young woman breaks off her engagement to a doctor, the doctor is found murdered. Suspicion falls on his ex-fiancé and a pilot with a checkered past.

The Falcon’s Alibi” (1946) Nick

A wealthy woman's secretary, fearing that she will be blamed if her employer's jewelry is stolen, hires the Falcon as guardian. The Falcon is blamed when the jewels are stolen and murders ensue.

Two Smart People” (1946) Fly Feletti

A fugitive negotiates a five-year sentence for the theft of a half-million dollar worth of bonds while suspecting that a con-woman, a cop and a former crime-partner are after his hidden bonds.

The Big Sleep” (1946) Harry Jones

Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a wealthy family. Before the complex case is over, he's seen murder, blackmail and what might be love.

Fall Guy” (1947) Joe

Tom Cochrane (Leo Penn'), full of cocaine and covered with blood, is picked up by the police. Soon, he’s a prime suspect for murder.

Born to Kill” (1947) Marty

Marty Waterman (Cook), a henchman of the murderous Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), finds out the hard way that it’s risky doing business with a hot-tempered paranoid such as Sam.

The Long Night” (1947) Frank Dunlap

Police surround the apartment of apparent murderer Joe Adams, who refuses to surrender although escape appears impossible. During the siege, Joe reflects on the circumstances that led him to this situation.

The Gangster” (1947) Oval

Cynical gangster Shubunka (Barry Sullivan) controls the Neptune Beach waterfront. He runs a numbers racket with the local soda shop owner. The police are in his pocket and the local hoods are on his payroll.

Flaxy Martin” (1949) Roper

Mob attorney Walter Colby is manipulated by showgirl Flaxy Martin into taking the rap for a murder committed by mobster Hap Richie's goons, but he escapes and is out for revenge.

Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952) Eddie Forbes

A married couple staying at a swank hotel need a babysitter for their young daughter while they attend a function. Elevator operator Eddie Forbes recommends his niece, Nell (Marilyn Monroe), for the job — big mistake.

I, the Jury” (1953) Bobo

Detective Mike Hammer is determined to catch and kill the person who killed his close friend, and the clues lead to a beautiful, seductive woman.

Trial” (1955) Finn

A courtroom drama set in 1947 deals with post-World War II problems facing the United States such as stormy race relations and the growing threat of communism.

The Killing” (1956) George Peatty

Career criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) assembles a five-man team to plan and execute a daring racetrack robbery.

Accused of Murder” (1956) Whitey Pollock

Nightclub singer Ilona Vance (Vera Ralston) is accused of murder and Lt. Roy Hargis (David Brian) attempts to prove her innocence.

Chicago Confidential” (1957) Candymouth Duggan

In Chicago, a crime syndicate tries to take over a labor union by killing its whistle blower treasurer and framing the honest union boss for the murder.

Plunder Road” (1957) Skeets Jonas 

Five men rob a train in Utah of 10 million dollars in gold and head to Los Angeles in three trucks hoping to meet up with their beautiful accomplice and leave the country.

Baby Face Nelson” (1957) Homer van Meter

George "Babyface" Nelson (Mickey Rooney) became one of the most important gangsters of 1930s Chicago. To compete with Al Capone, he allies himself with John Dillinger.

The Outfit” (1973) Carl

Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) robs a bank owned by the mob, serves his prison time and is released, only to start a private war against the crime outfit that owned the bank.

Hammett” (1982) Eli the Taxi Driver

A fictional account of real-life mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and his involvement in the investigation of a beautiful Chinese cabaret actress's mysterious disappearance in San Francisco.