Life and Death in L.A.: 2024

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.  

Sunday, March 3, 2024

The 900 Pound Gorilla in the Room: Why Watching “Lady in the Lake” Requires Extensive Mind Over Matter Skills, and Perhaps a Bourbon on the Rocks

Robert Montgomery, "Lady in the Lake" (1946). 

By Paul Parcellin 

I have a confession to make: For as long as I’ve watched film noir (and I don’t care to go into exactly how long that is) I’d never sat down and watched “Lady in the Lake” (1947) until very recently. That’s not really a stunner, I guess. It’s not widely regarded as a top-shelf Raymond Chandler screen adaptation, as are “The Big Sleep” (1946), “Murder, My Sweet” (1944), and dare I say it, “The Long Goodbye” (1973) — I can almost hear the howls of disapproval over the last in that trio.

The reason why I’ve been ignoring “Lady in the Lake” all these years is the strange point of view camera placement that makes this one unique to all other Chandler adaptations, and come to think of it, to just about all other American films made up to that point.

The gimmick, and I don’t mean that as a put down necessarily, is that in each scene the camera sees the action from the point of view of private eye Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery). That means that we the audience are drawn into the film, walking in the shoes of Chandler’s immortal private dick, in theory, at least. Consequently, Montgomery, as Marlowe, has little if any screen time in the film except here and there when a mirror catches his reflection. We hear Marlowe’s voice and occasionally a hand will jut out into camera range when he’s reaching for something or putting up his dukes for a fight. Otherwise, he’s pretty much the invisible man.

That was about all I knew of the film except that I’d seen some short clips on YouTube and from them I inferred that Montgomery’s avant garde camera placement is the 900 pound gorilla in the room that we’re not supposed to notice, and as much as I like the animal kingdom the idea did not appeal to me.

But, as I mentioned, the other night I decided to drop my preconceived notions about the film and give it a watch, and overall, I thought it was surprisingly good. The camera stuff is a bit freaky at first. Yasujirō Ozu is about the only other director whose work I’ve seen who lets his actors look directly into the camera when delivering monologues. Although his films make undeniably powerful statements and Ozu is widely regarded as a genius, for me it took a little getting used to. 

On the positive side, “Lady in the Lake” is a tightly constructed drama with a multitude of surprises along the way, the first of which is that the story takes place at Christmastime. Music director David Snell provides a chorus of seasonal carols that at times offer a sardonic counterpoint to the grimmest action on the screen. Opening credits are printed on Christmas cards, to boot. It’s oddly appealing that this may be the most unChristmas-like Christmas film ever made.

Apart from its bone-dry humor, the whole package is quite watchable — gripping, even. I’ve read the novel on which it’s based, of course, but the twist at the end, which I won’t give away, still got to me. 

What makes the film even more remarkable is that Robert Montgomery took on the Herculean task of both starring in and directing it, a voluntary undertaking that should require a note from one’s psychiatrist. Although he doesn’t appear on camera much, which presumably lightens his workload, Montgomery’s endeavor is still an awe inspiring undertaking. When the tire treads come in contact with the asphalt he comes out looking pretty good, indeed.

Now comes the part where I complain, so you can stop reading here if you’ve gotten this far and prefer not to tolerate a wet blanket.

Audrey Totter, with a hairstyle
like the grill of a '59 Buick.
The cast includes Audrey Totter as magazine editor Adrienne Fromsett, who hires Marlowe to find her boss’s wandering wife. Fromsett, who’s as brassy as her hairdo, an explosion of then-fashionable “victory roll” curls, works hard to appear benevolent but her demeanor immediately gets Marlowe’s back up. He senses that she’s a phony and he aims to let her know exactly what he thinks of her. His prickly manner is meant to show both us and Fromsett that he won’t tolerate her brand of mendacity. The trouble is that he comes on a good deal too strong and seems to play the bully. The woman may be putting him on, but she hadn’t exactly bared her fangs at him, either. 

Montgomery’s Marlowe is quite different from those seen in other films. He’s much more abrasive and ill tempered than Bogart in “The Big Sleep” or Dick Powell in “Murder, My Sweet.” Consider Bogart’s first meeting with Lauren Bacall, as Vivian Sternwood, in “The Big Sleep,” where he uses his dry wit to tamp down her snooty, entitled behavior. He refuses to knuckle under, but he gets his message across without getting nasty. The same is true for Dick Powell, who can be cool and charming even when dealing with thugs and murderers.

Montgomery is sturdy and determined, but lacking in the charm that Bogart could exude, despite the fact that underneath it all he’s a tough guy, too. We get the sense that Bogie enjoys parrying with cranks, crackpots and cutthroats alike and only turns mean when he needs to do so. Montgomery’s Marlowe has a chip on his shoulder and is less enjoyable company for it. By the end of the film his personality gets a makeover, but first impressions are lasting ones.

Maybe it was Montgomery’s extra heavy workload of directing and acting that led to some important characters feeling a bit off. A more objective director might have identified and remedied the film’s flaws and dissonant tones. 

The first off-key note, other than Marlowe’s heavy handedness, is Audrey Totter’s performance, which feels self-conscious and out of place with the rest of the cast, especially in the scene of her first meeting with Marlowe. We’re too aware that she’s playing to the camera and her performance of the magazine editor of questionable character would seem more at home on the stage than in a movie. She comes off as a caricature rather than a character, with her every line reading telegraphed across her face. Another director probably would have told her to cool it.

Fortunately, veteran actors Lloyd Nolan as the corrupt Lt. DeGarmot and Tom Tully as Capt. Kane bring us back to reality with subtle, natural acting that puts the film on the right track. Both were veterans of the stage and screen and they knew how to play their gruff lawmen roles with a light touch. Leon Ames as magazine publisher Derace Kingsby also helps anchor the film in place with a subtle but colorful performance.

Then, there’s the story itself, typical of Chandler fiction, this adaptation nearly dips into incomprehensibility in expositional moments as the players tell us about important action that takes place off screen — no matter; if the plot isn’t at least somewhat confusing it isn’t a Chandler story.

Montgomery, Totter
What the film lacks, however, is both the lady and the lake. Unlike the novel, in which Marlowe spends a good deal of time in the Lake Arrowhead region, the camera never ventures out into nature or gets near the water, except in scenes that take place in the oceanside community of “Bay City,” which is really Santa Monica. That’s a shame since it would have been entertaining to see Marlowe out of his element, without pavement under his feet or a cocktail lounge where he could order a soothing gimlet. He’d no doubt wander through the woods and lakeside summer cabins in suit, tie and fedora, searching for clues in the drowning of the cabin caretaker’s wife. Typical of Chandler stories, Marlowe becomes embroiled in what seems like two separate cases, but lo and behold, it turns out they’re related.

The film concludes on a rather too sweet note, with Marlowe uncharacteristically in the throes of romance. Sentiment is never a good look for him, particularly when he’s been a snarling bear of a man throughout the film. It feels like a meet-cute romcom with gunplay, which now that I think of it isn’t a bad idea for a movie, but not quite the way it’s executed here.

Still, I enjoyed “Lady in the Lake” and will watch it again sometime soon despite Montgomery’s failed experiment in camera positioning. I must admit that some shots using mirror reflections of Marlowe’s kisser, as well as some woozy drunken driving scenes that seem to be shot with a jittery hand-held camera are quite effective.

It’s usually encouraging to see a director go out on a limb and try unconventional approaches to movie making, but this is the exception simply because it doesn’t work, at least not for me. I prefer to view the action from the sidelines and not be a participant. 

The bottom line is that had the film been shot in the more standard way it would almost certainly have been better. We’ll never know for sure unless someone gets the notion to remake it. Then we might get to see that theory put to the test.


Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Man From Nowhere: Who is Larry Cravat and why do so many people want to do him harm?

John Hodiak, Nancy Guild, "Somewhere in the Night" (1946).

Battle Fatigue on the Homefront:
Two views of life after the big one

By Paul Parcellin

Somewhere in the Night” (1946)

George Taylor (John Hodiak) awakens in a military hospital, and to his horror discovers that his memory has been wiped clean by a serious wound he received in the war. He can’t remember his name or anything of his past, but he hides his amnesia from the doctors to prevent them from holding him longer. After his bodily scars heal, he’s resolved to discover who he really is. 

Shell shocked returning veterans like George are often seen in noir. Characters such as Gerard (Dick Powell) in “Cornered” (1945) and the unforgettable Buzz (William Bendix) in “The Blue Dahlia,” with a steel plate implanted in his skull and tormented to the brink of insanity by “monkey music.” Both walk down hostile streets, vulnerable, filled with rage and terribly lost. 

Like his war damaged brethren, George embarks on a mission, believing he may fill the black hole that has replaced his memories. Back in civilian life, he searches for leads but there’s scant information to go on. A note from an anonymous person wishing him the worst of luck because he committed an unforgivable deed, and a letter from a man he doesn’t know, Larry Cravat, is all that he’s able to find.

Right away we notice that he has an intuitive ability to analyze clues, which is itself a hint about his ilife before the war. His quest begins in Los Angeles, his hometown — he wouldn’t have known that if the discharge officer hadn’t mentioned it. 

As the story unfolds, we’re left to ponder two equally mysterious men, Larry Cravat, whom we haven’t met, and George, who will lead us on a circuitous journey that is his quest. George sports the pencil thin mustache of a slick operator, and nearly everyone he encounters in his hunt for the truth lives a fast life, mostly on the wrong side of the law. 

Some might imagine that he’s been handed the opportunity of a lifetime, especially for someone with a sketchy past. This could be his chance to reinvent himself and start anew. But his blank slate of a life holds no appeal to George; it’s more like a nightmare from which he can never wake up.

It’s not until he encounters an older woman who reflects on her own isolated, lonely existence that George's existential crisis comes into focus. Few are as cut off from society as those with no history or ties to others. He’s not marooned on an uninhabited desert isle, but he may as well be. Worse still, danger can come from any direction, and he’s never sure who he can trust.

Once we see that desperation and terror are what drives him forward, it’s easier to understand why he takes the kinds of risks that he does. Most of us would go to the authorities for help if we were in George’s position, but he soon realizes that his pre-war activities make that impossible.

In Los Angeles he runs into some tough guys who want to know why he’s looking for the elusive Larry Cravat and are willing to pull a trigger to get rid of him.

The pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place when he discovers that a small fortune in cash is up for grabs and members of the underworld are eager to grab it. But most of all, the gangsters want to find the mystery man, Larry Cravat, and so does George. He finally does, and it’s an encounter that he could hardly have anticipated.

Hodiak’s Noir Films

John Hodiak was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” (1944) opposite Tallulah Bankhead. Fox gave him his starring role in “Somewhere in the Night,” and he acted with Lucille Ball in MGM’s “Two Smart People” (1946). He appeared with George Murphy and Frances Gifford in “The Arnelo Affair” (1947), and Paramount’s “Desert Fury” (1947) with Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott. He played a supporting role in “The Bribe” (1949) and co-starred with Hedy Lamarr in “A Lady Without Passport” (1950).

Co-star Nancy Guild also appeared in “The Brasher Doubloon” (1947).

“Somewhere in the Night” director Joseph Mankiewicz wrote “Manhattan Melodrama” (1934), and wrote and directed “No Way Out” (1950), which launched the career of Sidney Poitier. He’s probably best known for directing “All About Eve” (1950) with Bette Davis.

His last film under contract with Fox was “5 Fingers” (1952), starring James Mason and Danielle Darrieux.

Barry Sullivan, Loretta Young, "Cause for Alarm!" (1951).

Cause for Alarm!” (1951)

From the outside, everything looks chipper in Ellen and George Jones’s marriage, but for them, post-war domesticity is anything but blissful.  

Ellen (Loretta Young) and George (Barry Sullivan) meet during the war. She’s a nurse at a naval hospital and George is a pilot. Ellen has an amicable split with the physician she’s been dating, Dr. Ranney Grahame (Bruce Cowling), and takes up with George, who happens to be Ranney’s buddy. After the war, George and Ellen marry and settle down in the quiet of the suburbs. George, it turns out, is a brash lout whom Ellen can never seem to please. She endures a mountain of abuse from this narcissistic manipulator who never fails to play the victim.

“Nothing a woman likes better than shoving a man around,” he mutters at one point, although it’s clear that in his marriage, George is the one doing the shoving.

Later, he relates a telling story: As a boy, another youngster tried to take a toy ship he’d painstakingly built. He brutally assaulted the boy in retribution, and as punishment his mother made him give the toy to the battered youth. Despite the many hours it took to craft the ship, George intentionally dropped it on the ground and let it shatter.

It’s painfully obvious that Ellen will end up like that boat should she ever decide to leave him, although that seems unlikely. Despite George's rotten treatment of her, Ellen is devoted to him and is an apologist for his bad behavior.

But matters get worse when he shares with Ellen his paranoid delusion that she and Ranney are secretly involved and are planning to do him in.

A chain of events causes Ellen to rush madly across the city in an attempt to intercept a letter that George dropped into the post. In it, he fabricated evidence that could put Ellen in prison for life. The film’s last act is filled with near misses and constantly worsening complications. A nosey neighbor, her insistent mother-in-law and a child on a tricycle conspire to scuttle her quest to retrieve the all-important envelope from the rigid U.S. Postal Service. 

Despite its suburban setting, “Cause for Alarm!” shows us that  tree-lined residential streets can present a deceptively placid facade that masks what’s really happening behind the scenes. And it may be every bit as threatening as the mean streets of the big, bad city.