Life and Death in L.A.: January 2024

Friday, January 26, 2024

Gumshoe Confidential: Would-Be White Knights, Reluctant Heroes and Rotten Apples, Otherwise Known as Private Detectives, Walked the Mean Streets of a Noir Hellscape

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor,
Sydney Greenstreet, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941).

By Paul Parcellin

Private eyes, those lone rangers who traverse bleak urban landscapes, are romanticized in books, radio dramas and movies as upholders of right and wrong. They do the dirty work that the cops can’t or won’t touch. Often hired by those who are monied, corrupt, or both, they’re the go-to guys when it comes to cleaning up messes that the well heeled and their offspring leave in their wakes. 

But reality clashes with the fictional representation of the private eye. 

Some shamuses may be straight arrows, but few are Boy Scouts. In the 1930s-’40s, private detectives were apt to earn their bread and butter by spying on adulterers and snapping steamy photos that would turn up in divorce proceedings. Others were thugs for hire who busted heads to break up strikers’ picket lines — company men had no use for organized labor, you see.

Both crime fiction and movies of the 1940s paint a morally ambiguous but mostly favorable picture of the private sleuth. They are renegades, loners and upholders of justice in a world where, to quote crime novelist Jim Thompson, “Nothing is what it seems.” 

They’re often weather-beaten men with shabby offices and thin bank accounts. The honest ones mostly live in cramped walk-ups. A couple have a penthouse and a country club membership, but it’s a cinch that dirty money pays for their luxuries. 

Here’s the rundown on some noir private detectives — my favorites, not an exhaustive list, mind you — who work for the greater good, and a couple who never heard of the word “ethics”:

Many actors have played Philip Marlowe in adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s novels, but let’s stick with the two most prominent ones from the classic noir period, about 1940 to 1959.

In describing Marlowe and his world, Chandler notes that “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything.” 

Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, “The Big Sleep.”

The Big Sleep” (1946)

First-time viewers may find the film's labyrinthine plot challenging. No matter. We're immersed in Philip Marlowe's world and wherever he goes we gladly follow. Then, there's the Bogart-Bacall chemistry — always a treat to behold.

Humphrey Bogart gives Marlowe a streetwise, working class persona. He went to college and worked in the district attorney’s office, parting ways due to his tendency toward insubordination and a dislike of red tape. He’s not above skirting the edge of the law when the situation calls for it, but strongly believes in an incorruptible code of ethics.

Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, "Murder, My Sweet."

Murder, My Sweet” (1944)

This adaptation of Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely” was retitled to avoid confusion. Dick Powell, who stars as Marlowe, was best known for musicals, and audiences might have thought it a romance or light comedy. Far be it from the truth. Marlowe is hired by ex-con Moose Malloy who is obsessed with finding his former girlfriend, Velma. Be careful what you wish for, Moose.

Powell plays Philip Marlowe with the air of a sophisticated wise guy who harbors an extreme reluctance to toe the line. He’s an outsider who doesn’t suffer fools and can’t bring himself to play ball with the big guys. The actor's background as a song and dance man shows through when on a whim he playfully skips across a kid’s chock-drawn hopscotch outline on the pavement — a move we could never picture Bogart making.

Jack Nicholson, "Chinatown."

Chinatown” (1974) 

In 1930s Los Angeles, murder and corruption tarnish the city's pastel vistas. He who controls the water supply is king, and private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) stumbles upon a scheme to grab land, money and natural resources from humble farmers.

Jake Gittes wants respect. He’s got a fancy wardrobe, — he’s dapper and vain — a swell office with a staff at his beck and call. But he ain’t respectable. Like the guy in the barber shop says, “You’ve got a hell of a way of making a living.” Jake sees the water scheme as a means to redeem his reputation. He’s a sleazy but successful detective who specializes in catching adulterers en flagrant. He wants to be the white knight who rescues a damsel in distress (Faye Dunaway), perhaps making up for another woman in his past whom he tried to help but ended up hurting. Add to that, he means to save the humble working people of Los Angeles from the clutches of evil men who would steal their land and their water rights. He overreaches and it gets him in trouble.

Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, "Out of the Past."

Out of the Past” (1947) 

We're doomed to repeat our mistakes, especially if Jane Greer is involved. In "Out of the Past,” gas station owner Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) thinks he left his days of shady dealings behind. But gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) thinks otherwise.

Jeff Bailey used to ply his trade as a shamus in New York, then dropped out of sight. By chance his past comes back to haunt him. He’s unlike real private detectives of that era. He doesn’t peep through open transoms or photograph adulterous couples in the heat of passion. He couldn’t abide by his employer, gambler Whit Sterling, but his weakness for the dangerous Kathie Moffat (Greer) proves to be more than he can resist. He wants to disappear, but he’s smitten with Kathie and will go down with the ship if he must. As the reluctant private eye forced out of retirement he’s about to be framed for murder. His respectable life in a small town is about to go up in flames. Yet he tells the scheming Kathie, “Baby, I don’t care.” 

Ward Bond, Humphrey Bogart, Barton MacLane,
"The Maltese Falcon."

The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

A motley gaggle of thieves and cutthroats enlist private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) to help locate a missing jewel encrusted statue, the "dingus," as Spade calls it. The search is an exercise in futility. The film itself? Exhilarating.

Sam Spade wants to protect the code of honor among private eyes everywhere. He needs to avenge his detective partner Miles Archer’s death even though he didn’t like him much. He messed around with Miles’s wife once — loyalty has its limits. Much of Dashiell Hammett’s book, on which the film is based, is taken nearly verbatim in the movie. But Bogart’s Samuel Spade isn’t as callous and ruthless as the one in the book. Spade is smooth and can pretend to be corrupt when it helps him take down the bad guys, all of whom want to hire him to do their bidding. But he’s a straight arrow who protects his clients, even when he doesn’t follow in their criminal ways.

Nick Dennis, Ralph Meeker, “Kiss Me Deadly.”

Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

P.I. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) roams Los Angeles with a suitcase full of hell fire. Mickey Spillane's blood and guts opus, transported from the grimy streets of New York to L.A., sees the city teetering on the brink of nuclear armageddon. And Hammer means to stop it.

Mike Hammer is the kind of private eye who doesn’t mind twisting an arm when vital information is being withheld. He’s sleeker and better looking than others in his field. He’s got a swank apartment, drives a Corvette and lives the lifestyle of James Bond. A crew of marauding gangsters is after a suitcase full of hot nuclear soup and Hammer finds himself in the middle of a mad scramble for the deadly stuff. It’s a detective story for a world living in the shadow of the H-bomb. The film received the condemnation of the U.S. Senate’s Kefauver Commission, which accused it of being "designed to ruin young viewers.” 

Sounds like an endorsement to me. 

Friday, January 19, 2024

An American Story: Murder In the Living Room

Left: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, "Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Center: Gene Nelson, Phyllis Kirk, Sterling Hayden, "Crime Wave" (1953)
Right: David Janssen, "The Fugitive" (1963).

By Paul Parcellin

The first time I saw a film noir I didn’t know what I was watching. Sure, I could tell that it was a crime film, a detective story, a mystery, but no one I knew called those movies “film noir.” The term did exist back then, but it was used by French critics, vintage film fans and the literati. To me, they were just movies. 
I didn’t see noir in an art house theater, either. These black and white prints were shown on television — “Dialing for Dollars,” if you want to be specific. It was a weekday afternoon broadcast in my berg and on any given day you might see a war picture, a western or a romance. Sometimes you got straight-ahead crime and gangster films, and those were the ones I liked best.
The show’s gimmick was a cash jackpot that lucky viewers could win. During breaks for station identification the host picked a random number out of the phonebook and dialed it. If he reached someone — usually no one picked up the phone on the other end — and they knew how much money was in the jackpot they’d win the cash. It was often a measly amount of dough, around 25 bucks or so and hardly anyone ever won.
If you could put up with commercial breaks and station identification you could see scratchy prints of old movies, and that’s where my film education began.
If you were lucky you might see William Holden’s car get a blowout with automobile repo men in hot pursuit. Holden ditches them by turning into a stranger’s driveway. He thinks he’s in the clear but his troubles are just beginning (“Sunset Blvd.” 1950).
Then there was Sterling Hayden as Det. Lt. Simms, chewing on endless numbers of toothpicks, one after another, as he sweats down suspects in L.A.P.D. headquarters. A compulsive smoker, Simms got the bum news from his doctor: Drop the coffin nails. So he chews toothpicks instead, hundreds and hundreds of them (“Crime Wave” 1953). Incidentally, Lt. Simms was James Ellroy’s inspiration for L.A.P.D. Det. Bud White in “L.A. Confidential” and other crime novels he authored.
Even though I didn’t see any connection between these films, it was clear to my youthful eyes that there was something different here. They weren’t like the spoon-fed pablum that was going out over the airwaves. The stories were darker, the characters were more desperate — these movies seemed to create an alternative universe where all hope goes to die. I was intrigued.
Gloria Swanson, "Sunset Blvd." (1950).
My afternoon movie oasis showed other noir titles, the details of which are blurred by the passage of time. Of course, I had no way of knowing that I’d be seeing those films again one day, except in later years there were crystal clear restored prints. And they’d be shown in theaters with large screens and good sound systems. Hell, you could even own a copy that you could watch at your leisure. But that was a number of years off.
In that pre-Internet era, “Dialing for Dollars” was our YouTube and, offering an opportunity to see films that weren’t being show in many movie houses, certainly not in my town. But all was not lost. 
Little did I realize that a lot of the prime time TV shows, some dating back to the 1950s, were short noir movies with dozens of episodes each season.
When noir’s classic period peaked near the end of the 1950s, and fewer noir titles were shown in theaters, radio and television had already absorbed the genre and was broadcasting noir influenced shows with dark themes, intricate plots and moody cinematography. Notable examples include “Dragnet" (1951-’59) a pioneering police procedural series that showcased gritty urban landscapes and complex investigations. It helped set the tone for future TV crime dramas. Also influential was "The Twilight Zone” (1959-’64) and “The Outer
Limits” (1963-’65), both of which skillfully blended science fiction with elements of noir, creating thought-provoking narratives that reflected the moral ambiguity often found in noir. 
Jack Webb, "Dragnet" (1951-'59)
Other early TV shows that contributed to the evolution of storytelling by incorporating the shadows and mysteries of film noir include: “Johnny Staccato,” “The Man With a Camera,” 
“77 Sunset Strip,” “Naked City” and “The Untouchables.” Yes, this is nothing like a complete list of noir-influenced TV. Tons more were broadcast, not to mention the noir influenced episodes of anthology series that broadcast various kinds of stories including noir-like faire. Like early soap operas, these anthologies were broadcast live and so viewers were treated to the occasional boom microphone swooping into the picture and corpses that awoke from the dead and walked off camera.
But getting back to the weekly shows captured on film, one noir-laced series, “The Fugitive” (1963-’67), caught the viewing public’s attention and was perhaps the first such network drama that ended with a finale episode that brought the series to a conclusion. 
“The Fugitive” demanded a satisfying denouement. Each chapter of the story seemed to point toward an inevitable outcome and the show delivered on that promise. The last episode was ratings dynamite, with 78 million people tuned in. 
Based on the true story of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who like the fictional character Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen), was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Sheppard was later acquitted after spending years in prison.
The fictional Dr. Kimble isn’t quite so fortunate. He’s convicted and sentenced to execution. But the train carrying him to the death house goes off the rails and wrecks. Riding with him is Lt. Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), the officer responsible for his arrest. Kimble escapes and stays on the lam for the remainder of the series while Gerard pursues him with the obsessiveness of Capt. Ahab hunting the great whale.
Ed Asner, David Janssen, "The Fugitive" (1963-'67).
Why single out “The Fugitive” among a sizable array of noir-influenced crime shows? With the possible exception of “Run for Your Life” (1965-’68), the story of a terminally ill man who has two years to live, “The Fugitive” may be the most noir of all 1960s American TV shows. Yes, there are other mind-benders, such as the British series “The Prisoner” (1967-’68) that inspired a cult-like legion of fans and became a favorite of stoners everywhere. Like “The Prisoner,” “The Fugitive” considers the plight of a man who has lost his identity. Both tend to land in some tight spots, but for very different reasons. 
As a fugitive from justice, Kimble cannot return to his normal life and must assume false identities, labor at minimum wage jobs and somehow remain invisible as he searches for the man who killed his wife. 
In one shot, foreshadowing the doctor’s unexpected transformation into a drastically different persona, he’s on the train bringing him to his execution and is seated next to the window. A cloud of cigarette smoke swirls around him, adding to the scene’s surreal quality. We see him and his reflection in the glass. The double image is the first indicator that he’s about to experience a split in identity.
He’s transformed into a loner who can never become attached to people or locales. Each day he risks discovery, and discovery means a return trip to the death house. 
Because of his precarious existence, existential dilemmas crop up. In the pilot episode a relationship between himself and a woman (Vera Miles) he meets begins to blossom. She’s married to an abusive man (Brian Keith) whom she’s trying to leave, but he won’t have it. Kimble knows he must protect her, but by doing so he’s taking his life into his hands.
Patrick McGoohan, "The Prisoner" (1967).
Like “The Prisoner,” Dr. Kimble’s misadventures are one long story told in multiple episodes. It’s something akin to an hours-long movie and it held the viewing public’s rapt attention for several seasons. The show wrapped at a good place in its run. After all, how long can a fugitive flee without getting caught?
No, it isn’t a private eye show or a police procedural, but “The Fugitive” gets to the heart of noir — loss of identity, alienation from society and the victimhood of the individual who is railroaded into paying for a crime for which he’s innocent. It's nightmarish stuff — the stuff that noir is made of.


Friday, January 12, 2024

Two Couples Who Murder: “Double Indemnity” Faces Off Against “Body Heat” — And It’s Not Even Close

Left, Kathleen Turner, William Hurt, "Body Heat" (1981).
Right, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, "Double Indemnity" (1944).

Warning: Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

After I moved to L.A. in 2008, I got together with a Meetup group that was going to see a screening of “Double Indemnity” (1944) at the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood. I was chomping at the bit in anticipation of watching one of my all-time favorite films with a group of cinema enthusiasts. I pictured us moving enmasse to the theater’s cafe after the screening and having a long discussion about the film, going over its finer points, savoring the subtlety of Billy Wilder’s direction, analyzing the screenplay co-written by Wilder and consummate grouch Raymond Chandler. Then there were the performances — Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson — how great was that cast?!

My fellow viewers were younger than me — let’s face it, almost everyone is these days — ranging from early 20s to around 30 or so. After the movie unreeled we drifted into the cafe. I was set for a stimulating, caffeine fueled conversation about classic film, old Hollywood and the like. But the banter took a dark turn. Not dark, as in noir-like shadows of venetian blinds on the wall. Dark as in, “Who the hell saw this coming?” The general reaction, saturated in Millenial social-media-ingrained ennui, was, “So, like, why is that supposed to be so great?” 

MacMurray as Walter Neff, spilling the details of his crimes.

The film’s opening scenes follow the mortally wounded insurance salesman Walter Neff (MacMurray), who makes his way to the office of his boss, claims adjustor Barton Keyes (Robinson) and records a voice memo on a Dictaphone machine in which he confesses to two murders, that of his paramour Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) and her husband (Tom Powers). It’s an emotional sequence that draws us into the story leading up to the confession, but the discussion went off the rails from the get-go. 

One young woman in the cinema group in her early 20s opined with incredulity, “Somebody shot him and he goes to make a recording? Nobody’s going to do that!”

Another noticed that MacMurray was wearing a wedding ring and the character he plays was unmarried. “Yeah, I noticed that, too!” another added. (MacMurray refused to remove the ring, and it was visible in that scene).

The conversation went on like that for a number of depressing minutes. I didn’t say a thing. Finally, someone noticed I was keeping it shut and asked me what I thought of the film, and I said I think it’s a masterpiece. That got their attention, but not in the way you’d hope. They looked at me with a mixture of pity, curiosity and annoyance, with annoyance being the dominant reaction. 

Explaining myself, I said that the film is witty, dramatic and character driven. It contains dialog that is the very definition of smart noir repartee. I called the script a marvel and, borrowing Barton Keyes’s description of the insurance scam Neff masterminds, noted that it “all fits together like a watch.”

Most of them paused for a nano-second to consider this, then silently dismissed my insightful, cleverly worded summary and began talking amongst themselves. 

A hellish red glow is the backdrop for Hurt and Turner in "Body Heat."

The 30ish guy hadn’t fully bailed on the discussion just yet, and he said he’d seen “Body Heat,” with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner and noticed the similarity between the two movies — “Body Heat” is based on “Double Indemnity.” 

In “Body Heat,” hack attorney Ned Racine (Hurt) kills Matty Walker’s (Turner) husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna), much like MacMurray in “Double Indemnity.” There’s a snag in both killers’ plans, however. In each movie an eyewitness is brought forward for questioning. Both Neff and Racine are present in the same room as their respective witnesses. 

For Neff, a man who saw him at the scene of the crime, and for Racine, a little girl who saw him in a passionate encounter with Matty. The tension has both perps on tinder hooks, but somehow they escape a close scrape with the law, temporarily, at least.

The 30ish guy in the cafe said that “Body Heat” did a better job of depicting that spine tingling encounter with justice, and the “Double Indemnity” version just wasn’t as good. 

Quelling my mounting apoplectic rage, I strongly disagreed, but it was pointless. He joined the discussion with the others about a current super hero film. Case closed.

I resisted the temptation to launch into a heated defense of “Double Indemnity,” realizing that I'd probably sound a lot like the old codger who shouts, “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!” But the encounter also made me think about those two movies.

I’d be the first to admit that Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat” (1981) is a fine film. William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Richard Crenna, as the unfortunate husband, all put in terrific performances. The script is a tightly modulated work of emotional tension and release, and the twist at the denouement sews up the loose ends ably. 

But better than “Double Indemnity”? I think not.

Ruth Snyder, Henry J. Gray, murderers who inspired James M. Cain's novella.

The film “Double Indemnity” is adapted from James M. Cain’s 1943 novella of the same title. The book is based on a real-life 1927 murder perpetrated by Ruth Snyder, a married woman from Queens, N.Y., and her lover, Henry Judd Gray. They conspired to kill her husband, Albert, and both went to the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.

Wilder and Chandler crafted a script rich in detail with finely realized characters, including the murderous couple. 

Kasdan crafted the “Body Heat” screenplay, which is rich in twists and turns and includes an erotic encounter between Ned and Matty that could only be hinted at in “Double Indemnity.” But there are big differences between the two that in my not so humble opinion demonstrate why “Double Indemnity” is by far the superior film:

 D.I. — Phyllis and Walter meet by chance; she seems to begin plotting the murder only after their second meeting, when she asks Walter about accident insurance.

Matty has long-range plans in mind.

B.H. — Matty has been playing the long game. She steals and assumes her best friend’s identity, and begins searching for a sloppy, careless attorney with questionable morals. Ned’s name comes up, and she figures out a way to meet him that will seem like a randon encounter — quite a far fetched turn of the plot.

Phyllis and Walter’s meeting is more plausible than that of Matty and Ned. Plausibility is not necessarily the most critical element in a film, but chance and character are all important in "Double Indemnity.” In “Body Heat,” Matty merely fabricates the illusion of a chance encounter to attract Ned into her web of deceit and murder. 

Fate is the big kahuna of film noir, and “Double Indemnity” wins points for its adherence to this existential tenet.

D.I. — “Double Indemnity” has a far greater emotional range than does “Body Heat,” especially in a scene between Walter and Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), that takes place after the murder. Neff’s conscience — yes, we learn that he does actually have one — begins to get the better of him. This is an element that’s crucial to the film’s ending, by the way, but more about that later. 

Phyllis, savoring the moment as her husband is strangled.

Phyllis, however, may as well have Freon coursing through her veins. The depths of her sociopathic personality is beautifully revealed in the gruesome scene in which Neff strangles her husband while she sits inches away from him. The camera cuts away from the film’s most disturbing scene, which government censor would surely demand, to a closeup of Phyllis’s face. She’s not cringing, as any normal person would. Instead, she’s barely able to suppress a smile. 

Wilder’s brilliance shows through here. Rather than waste the cutaway shot, he uses it to give us more information. We see Phyllis’s insanely calm reaction to her husband’s horrible death, but Walter doesn’t see it — he’s busy attending to business. This is the first time in the film in which we have more information than does Neff. His ignorance of Phyllis’s true demeanor allows him to continue on with their plan without reflecting on her abnormal behavior. Later, in voiceover, he says he expected Phyllis might fall to pieces, but is relieved that she’s managed to keep her composure.

Neff and Phyllis, a chance encounter.

Getting back to the disappointing discussion at the ArcLight, I’d answer that young woman’s disbelief that the wounded Neff — Phyllis plugs him before he returns the favor — would take the time to leave a confessional recording, with a clear and simple explanation — the kind that never seems to occur to me in the heat of a discussion:

The reason why Neff returns to record a confession despite the fact that Phyllis popped a cap in his chest, is two-fold.

First, he needs to explain himself to his father confessor, Keyes, who’s about the only one in the film who genuinely cares about him.

Second, he needs to save Nino Zachetti’s (Byron Barr) life. Who is Nino Zachetti? He’s the abusive jerk who’s secretly dating Lola. Neff realizes that Zachetti is the perfect dupe to frame for both murders. Keyes believes Zachetti might be guilty of killing Mr. Dietrichson and that gives Neff the perfect opportunity to keep his trap shut and let Nino go to the chair. 

But he can’t. 

Lola (Jean Heather) makes an unwelcome office visit to Neff (MacMurray)
and his stoic facade begins to crack.

Unlike Phyllis, Neff has a conscience. He’s been fighting off feelings of guilt for killing Lola’s father ever since the day she came to see him in his office. Her appearance throws a monkey wrench into his plan to keep his head down and remain stolid. 

But Neff can’t bear to send Lola’s boyfriend to the chair after all of the pain he’s caused her by killing her father. Instead, he plans to tell the whole truth to Keyes by leaving him a voice recording he’ll hear the following day. By then, Neff plans to be a free man in Mexico. He can’t explain himself to the cops, for obvious reasons, but Keyes is the perfect recipient of the message. There’s as much apology as confession in Neff’s memo to Keyes. He’s finally contrite for his deceptions and horrible behavior. 

So, the reason why Neff drives like a madman to the office and pours his heart out into a Dictaphone machine is because he feels that he must. It’s the final decent act he can perform in his foolishly wasted life. His confession will prevent Zachetti, whom Neff passionately dislikes, from paying for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a moral judgment that shows us that, in the end, Neff does have a suppressed sense of morality that finally comes to light. But it’s too late to save him from the debt he must pay for his evil deeds.

We don’t see anything close to Neff’s moral journey in “Body Heat,” which is a clever story with a clever ending. But where’s the emotional and moral conflict? Both Matty and Ned are cold and calculating, with no visible remorse. 

Christian Bale is the killer Yuppie in "American Psycho" (2000).

In a sense it’s the perfect adaptation for its time, the early 1980s, when materialism and consumerism were at full dudgeon. Matty and Ned are like remorseless Yuppies who kill, maybe with a greater affinity to murderous investment banker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in “American Psycho” (2000) than to Walter Neff. 

“Body Heat” is still fun to watch now and then, but I don’t rewatch it like I do “Double Indemnity,” which I’ve seen innumerable times and will probably continue to do so. 

I wish I’d had all of this stuff in mind when I encountered the “Double Indemnity” doubters at the ArcLight. But if any of them are reading this — highly doubtful — I’ve laid out what I should have said. Not a quick answer, but better late than never. 

Fortunately, there’s always the option to rewatch “Double Indemnity” and give it another chance. I hope that they do.


Wednesday, January 3, 2024

In the trenches: deep in the heart of Hollywood the rough and tumble world of bargain basement noir thrived for a while

Joan Blair, John Hubbard, "Whispering Footsteps" (1943).

Script’s running too long? Grab a handful of pages, rip them out, shoot the sucker!

I’m on a Poverty Row tear these days. As you probably know, many of the films made there aren’t quite as polished as the gems turned out by Paramount, Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox. But they have a certain something that the big budget movies lack: a rag-tag, rough around the edges quality that makes certain films, especially noirs, more credible, more lived in, and sometimes as piercing and toxic as a bucket of rusty nails.

Made on a shoestring

Feature-length films were shot in six days or less. Their budgets averaged $20,000 and production were usually done with a crew of less than a half-dozen, many doubling or tripling up on jobs. Films typically ran 70 minutes or less.

Back in the first half of the last century, those looking to make prestige films would be well advised to steer clear of Poverty Row. A director on Poverty Row, wrote museum curator and film critic Dave Kehr, labored on films “in the absolute certainty that no film critic would see them, no sophisticated public would encounter them, and no financial reward whatever would accrue to their auteurs.” 

For filmmakers, Poverty Row’s advantage over the big studios was the lack of oversight exerted by studio executives. It was a place where directors could take risks, experiment with unconventional techniques, try out unusual screenplays — or even rip a dozen pages out of the script and shoot the sucker. 

The Wild West on Sunset Blvd.

Lots of westerns were made on Poverty Row, and the studios that cranked out those B-pictures and serials by the dozen had a sort of raw, untamed ethos that matched their films’ subject matter.

One such studio, Republic Pictures, operated from 1935 to 1967 and specialized in westerns, cliffhanger serials and B-pictures. The studio also produced some noirs that stand out, even among those made with bigger budgets.

Here are a few low-budget noirs, all released under the Republic Pictures banner, that kept me entertained:

Whispering Footsteps” (1943) Republic Pictures

The film opens with a closeup of shoes being buffed as a radio newscast reports a woman’s murder. The shoes belong to bank clerk Marcus Borne (John Hubbard) who happens to look the spitting image of a composite photo thought to resemble the killer. 

Marcus’s neighbors and co-workers scoff as investigator Det. Brad Dolan (Cy Kendall) tails him and probes him for an alibi. It’s just not possible that such a nice young man would commit such a terrible crime.

Later, after townsfolk begin to have their doubts about Marcus, he reveals to a confidante that he hears whispering footsteps behind him when he walks at night. It’s the sound of the stifling scrutiny he’s being placed under, he says, but is it?

Marcus has doubts of his own. He checks out a copy of “Psychology of a Homicidal” from the town library and confesses that he’s begun to suspect that he’s a serial killer with a split personality. When the one woman in town who never doubts his innocence turns up dead, the weight of public opinion bears down on him. No charges are lodged and he remains a free man, but the community shuns him and he feels that he might as well be in prison.

Meanwhile, others, such as Marcus’s employer, banker Harry Hammond (Charles Halton), might have motives of their own to kill, but the investigation remains laser focused on Marcus.

On the surface “Whispering Footsteps” is about murder, but the real culprit is small town narrow mindedness. A fever to convict spreads among the suspected man’s neighbors. Some with petty grievances against him fan the flames of incrimination just to have the satisfaction of seeing the young bank clerk clapped into irons. 

Another murder occurs and a body is left on a river bank. Dazed and unsure of his own innocence, Marcus checks to see if his shoes have traces mud. At least one other person in his circle turns up with muddy shoes. Alibis are proferred, but the mystery deepens. 

All the while we can’t be sure whether or not Marcus is a psychopath and a murderer or just extremely unlucky. Meanwhile, those whispering footsteps seem to follow him everywhere.

Jane Randolph, Nils Asther, "Jealousy" (1945).

Jealousy” (1945) Republic Pictures

Lady cab drivers pop up now and then in noir, and Janet Urban (Jane Randolph) is one of them. No doubt, during the war years more women got into the taxi game while the soldier boys were off fighting the dark forces overseas. 

Janet drives a hack in Hollywood to support herself and her author husband Peter (Nils Asther). He’s a scribbler who’s hit a two-year dry patch and is wetting his whistle a tad too much. On the plus side, if you’re an unemployed writer who drinks, you’ll have lots of company in Hollywood.

Janet is fed up with the would-be Hemingway, who is a bully and a bottomless pit of neediness. She’s looking for a way to escape his clutches and get together with a new beau, the suave Dr. David Brent (John Loder), who was one of her fares.

Meanwhile, the taxi business is a tough racket and she’s packing heat in her purse as protection when driving on the mean streets of La-La Land. Naturally, as the story develops the gatt is going to be used as something more consequential than a paper weight.

Dr. Brent’s assistant, Dr. Monica Anderson (Karen Morley), also has eyes for the mustachioed sawbones. Tensions build, and then someone ends up dead.  

Yes, we know where the plot is going sometime before the movie gets around to revealing it. But for the cool cheap-o effects (double-exposures, an unexpected jittery hand-held shot worthy of Jean-Luc Godard) not to mention footage of World War II era Los Angeles minus the urban sprawl, it’s well worth a look.

Hillary Brooke, Raymond Burr, "Unmasked" (1950).

Unmasked” (1950) Republic Pictures

Raymond Burr fans will want see him in “Unmasked,” where he steps into the shoes of perhaps the rottenest character he’s ever portrayed.

He’s scandal sheet editor Roger Lewis, head of a New York paper that’s fallen on bad times. To keep his sleazy operation afloat he’ll do anything. 

Beloved by millions as Uber attorney Perry Mason on the eponymously named TV series that ran from 1957 to ’66, Burr’s likability remained high despite the various scum of the earth characters he played in Poverty Row films. Burr was an actor who didn’t mind getting his hands dirty. As the unspeakable monster Lewis, he seems to savor every last drop of venom that he spews on everyone around him.

What’s more, he’s the Joseph Stalin of journalism, using his position to publish revoltingly self-serving articles and opinion columns aimed at framing his enemies. Among the items on Lewis’s To-Do list is writing columns that will help send an innocent man to the electric chair.

Linda Jackson (Barbra Fuller) teams up with Det. Lt. Jim Webster (Robert Rockwell) after her father’s untimely death. A packet of high-priced ice has gone missing and Lewis, as well as a band of outlaws, are after the rocks, but for very different reasons.

Greasy little henchman 'Biggie' Wolfe (Norman Budd) is a standout as the wonderfully deplorable double crosser among a band of double crossers. It’s a contest to see who’s going to stick a knife in whose back first.

But the picture belongs to Burr, who responds to cold-blooded murder with a warm smile. In his lengthy career the actor portrayed a lot of stone-cold sociopaths. This one may be my favorite.