Life and Death in L.A.: February 2024

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.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Murder, Suspense and Mystery Take Hold in Two Films by Master Storyteller Henri-Georges Clouzot

Simone Renant, "Quai des Orfèvres" A.K.A. "Jenny Lamour" (1947).

By Paul Parcellin

“Quai des Orfèvres” is a Gaulish police procedural that holds its own with any American made crime drama of that era. The title refers to the location of the central police headquarters in Paris, where some of the film's action takes place.

The story is uncomplicated enough to make it seem almost routine, but as the richly imagined characters waver between loyalty and betrayal of each other, dramatic tension rises to the breaking point. 

Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), a music hall performer, is determined to succeed in the theater. Her mild mannered husband, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier), who is also her accompanist, gets jealous when she flirts with Brignon (Charles Dullin), an old, lecherous businessman who claims he can help her get movie roles.

The normally staid Maurice blows his stack one night and threatens to kill Brignon as a number of witnesses observe his tirade. When Jenny secretly visits Brignon in his apartment one night, Maurice catches wind of the rendezvous and heads off to find them, planning to murder the old man, and perhaps Jenny, too.

But instead of busting in on an adulterous affair, Maurice comes upon a bloody murder scene. He flees, but things immediately go wrong. Enter veteran murder investigator Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), and his world-weary eyes spy Maurice as the guilty man. 

Under the seasoned inspector’s scrutiny, Maurice’s alibi develops cracks. A handful of suspects are questioned and we get a taste of Antoine’s dark methods of squeezing out information and forcing witnesses to give false testimony.

Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose works include “The Wages of Fear” (1953) and “Les Diaboliques” (1955) (see below), co-wrote and directed “Quai des Orfevres,” and he peppers his scenes with background talent in handfuls of short comic vignettes, piling them into a music hall auditorium and the Paris police station. 

Like Hitchcock, Clouzot has a nice touch directing crowds as well as more intimate scenes. The cast is outstanding, and “Quai des Orfevres” marks the final screen performance  of Parisian stage legend Charles Dullin as Brignon.

Véra Clouzot, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Les Diabolique (1955).

Found on YouTube …

Speaking of Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Les Diaboliques,” which he directed and co-wrote, is available free on YouTube, both in dubbed English and in French with English subtitles

The mark of a great thriller can be measured by its capacity to hold our attention despite its implausibilities. “Les Diaboliques” is rich in improbable twists but it draws us in with an intoxicating tale of a love triangle among the staff of a French private boarding school for boys. 

The bullying Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) runs the school, which is owned by his frail wife, Christina (Véra Clouzot, the real-life wife of the director). Michel is having and affair with a teacher at the school, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and Christina is aware of the her husband’s extramarital shenanigans. 

But she and Nicole maintain a civil relationship and are united by their mutual hatred of Michel. The tyrannical Michel beats Nicole and taunts Christina about her heart condition. He’s also pretty awful to the pupils unfortunate enough to be stranded at this third-rate academy. 

Nicole devises a plan in which she and Christina will do away with Michel, and despite their jitters they do a remarkably efficient job of eliminating their tormentor. But then there’s a body to deal with, and the tension that goes with committing a crime in plain sight is nearly unbearable, particularly for Christina.

Worse still, Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), a retired senior policeman now working as a private detective, is gently insistent on joining the investigation into Michel’s disappearance. For Nicole and Christina, it’s a bit like trying to cover up a murder and then finding that Lt. Columbo has appeared on the scene. And if that’s not bad enough, events take a left turn at the end that upends everything we think we know.

Gene Tierney, Judith Anderson, "Laura" (1944).

The Otto Preminger directed “Laura” (1944), starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews is one of noir’s crown jewels. There are at least a couple more made for TV knockoffs of the original. One, made in 1968 stars Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She was roundly roasted for her weak performance in the title role. I made a brief YouTube search for the 1960s show but turned up nothing. It’s probably available somewhere and I’ll look a bit harder for it another time. 

An earlier television remake titled “A Portrait of Murder” (1955) is free on YouTube, and it isn’t half bad. The cast includes Dana Wynter as Laura Hunt, George Sanders as Waldo Lydecker, Robert Stack as Mark McPherson and Scott Forbes as Shelby Carpenter. 

Like the noirs turned into truncated radio plays in the 1940s and ’50s, this “Laura” is around an hour of highly watchable television, although it can’t hold a candle to the original. If you’re a “Laura” fan you might enjoy it. As I mentioned, I haven’t seen the 1968 production, and from all indications from those who have,  it’s just as well to keep it that way.


Thursday, February 1, 2024

The Demimonde After Dark: Two Visions of Paris, and the Gangsters Who Inhabit Each are Worlds Apart

Roger Duchesne, “Bob le flambeur” (1956).

Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

Two films about the Parisian underworld are as different as fire and water. One is awash in old world charm, a nostalgia-tinged tale of the gangsters and gamblers of Montmartre. The other takes place in a Paris at odds with the city’s romanticized past. It’s an icy portrait of an outlaw who’s more a cypher than a man. Both films are directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. He also co-wrote the screenplays.

Roger Duchesne — Bob had become an anachronism.

Bob le flambeur” (1956)

Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne) emerges from a Montmartre gambling den at dawn. The sky is steel gray; it’s neither night nor morning. He looks worn out, melancholic. He’s broke from a bad night at the card table. Gazing disapprovingly at his own reflection in a storefront window he mutters, “A real hood’s face.”

He does little but haunt bars and cafe and gamble, yet he appears to be well fixed financially. His apartment’s picture window looks out upon a stunning view of the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur atop Montmartre. Like most Melville antiheroes, we know practically nothing about his background. He merely lives in the present, roams from place to place until dawn, and retires to his residence. He lives a solitary life, save for frequent visits by his inquisitive landlady and housekeeper, who endlessly annoy him. 

The quaint cafes and cobbled streets of historic Montmartre, and the neon-lit Quartier Pigalle, the city’s red light district at the foot of the Montmartre hill, are the backdrop for the action. 

Bob meets Anne (Isabel Corey), an attractive young woman who has just lost her job, and he takes her under his wing. He wants to protect her from Marc (Gérard Buhr), a pimp whom he loathes. Instead, he guides her toward his young protégé Paolo (Daniel Cauchy).

Bob has stayed out of trouble for the past 20 years, although in his younger days he served time for a robbery. During the holdup he saved police commissaire Ledru’s (Guy Decomble) life, pushing another henchman's arm as he aimed at the weaponless lawman. He earned Ledru’s respect for that.

But his admiration for the legendary gambler doesn’t keep him from pursuing a tip that Bob is involved in another robbery plot. Bob is low on funds and the prospect of robbing a Deauville casino vault of 800 million French francs too tempting to resist. 

The plan seems foolproof, but human nature has a way of scuttling the most carefully arranged schemes.

Guy Decomble, Roger Duchesne, André Garet.

Bob’s downfall is his addiction to gambling — despite his current losing streak, he boasts that he was born with an ace in his hand. He gambles more and loses. On the day of the robbery he breaks his promise to abstain from gambling at the casino as he waits for his co-conspirators to assemble and the heist to unfold. The problem is, this time he begins to win and it has a narcotic effect on him.

He gets an endorphin rush from scooping up piles of chips. He’s riveted to the gaming tables and the action there causes him to shut out the rest of the world — a disastrous frame of mind for a robber who’s poised to knock over the most secure casino vault in France.

Other factors conspire to turn the meticulously planned heist into Bob’s Waterloo. Loose lips have passed along critical details to the commissaire, thus signing a death warrant for some in the gang. Yet, the final scenes are both tragic and wistful, and leave us wanting more.

An influential film of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), “Bob le flambeur” is Melville’s love letter to American gangster films. The director was a fan of American culture. He wore cowboy Stetsons and drove big American cars. Hollywood films were his true love.

In the end, Bob is but a mythical character, channeling the gangsters of Warner Bros. and other studios who created their visions of the demimonde. His is a nobility that is too good to be true. Fortunately, that romantic vision of the Paris Bob inhabits will live on in glorious black and white prints and in our imaginations.

Alain Delon, “Le Samouraï.”

Le Samouraï” (1967)

Killer for hire Jef Costello (Alain Delon) could hardly be cooler. He betrays little emotion and seems to live only for the jobs his masters pay him to handle. When he’s not preparing to exterminate another mark, he lives in a shabby, very gray apartment. Even the twittering parakeet he keeps in a cage is colorless, and we must wonder whether Jef or the bird is more the prisoner.

If the hired assassin is emotionally muted, Le Commissaire (François Périer), the lawman determined to bring the killer to justice, is his opposite. Agitated and obsessed with capturing his prey, Le Commissaire is frustrated by Jef’s wiliness as undercover officers follow and lose sight of him. He has an uncanny ability to give police the slip as he maneuvers his way around Paris Metro stations.

Prior to carrying out a contract killing, Jef visits Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon) and asks her to help establish an alibi. It’s never made clear whether or not she and Jef are lovers, but she’s most willing to help him evade the consequences for the crime. Their relationship brings up another in the many unanswered questions about Jef. We know little about him — who he is, where he came from and why he turned to the vocation he practices.

Lengthy scenes with little or no dialog are fleshed out with plot-advancing activity, a tribute to Melville’s minimalist approach, which gives the film its sharp edge. 

Alain Delon, set to boost a car.

Character details energize the story, such as Jef’s routine as he prepares to do his job. He dons standard film noir gear, a tan raincoat and gray fedora, carefully smoothing the brim. It’s his ritual, the meaning of which is never explained. But the film’s small mysteries make it all the more compelling. We’re left to absorb the actions, tics and traits and make of them what we will, for explanations would only let the air out of enigma that is Jef Costello.

We see Jef steal a car off the street, bring it to a back alley garage, where an attendant puts on new license plates and hands over paperwork — and a gun.

The killing goes off as planned, but as he’s making his escape from the scene of the crime, the back office of a nightclub, he hits a snag. Jef comes face-to-face with pianist (Cathy Rosier), an entertainer at the club, and she gets a clear view of his face. But when police interview her she fails to identify him as the gunman. Left open is the question of why she’s protecting him. We’re never quite sure of her reasoning, and neither is Jef. But through a tangled set of circumstances the film comes to a violent closing scene in which she’s involved.

In an interview with Sight and Sound magazine, Melville said of the enigmatic last scene, Jef Costello doesn’t want to commit the murder he’s been hired to do. He removes the bullets from his gun and walks into the trap that’s been set for him inside a nightclub.“He kills himself, he commits hara-kiri,” said Melville.

“From the outset, the black woman in white (the pianist) is the incarnation of death, with all the charm that death can have … Jef Costello is in love with his own death. In the first shot he’s stretched out on his bed, already ‘laid out,’ already dead at that moment.”

Jef’s prepared to die for his masters, as samourai at times do. But true samourai will make the ultimate sacrifice when honor or a principle is at stake. Jef kills to enrich himself. He’s his own employer, and with police closing in on him he chooses to walk into the line of fire. His idea of an honorable death, no doubt.

Cathy Rosier, the angel of death.

Post Script:

Bob may have been the last gangster in Paris who subscribed to an underworld code of ethics. His outlook was old fashioned: he wouldn’t tolerate pimps, and he saved the life of commissaire Ledru during a robbery because the lawman was unarmed. With that he earned a measure of respect from police and underworld figures alike. But a gentleman gangster such as himself was surely an anachronism in the 1950s. In the end, Bob may or may not live his final days in prison, but his code of conduct had certainly become extinct.

In “Le Samouraï,” life in the underworld has devolved into a chaotic jungle in which no code of ethics or sense of honor exists. By then, Bob’s Paris was but a hazy memory that few could recall. Perhaps Nazi occupation during the war was what wiped the slate clean. Survival had become difficult and no one could be trusted.

Jef Costello seems more connected to the world of espionage than he is to old school gangsters like Bob. That would make sense, since agent 007 and his ilk became the new movie heroes of the 1960s. Those matinee spies had no way of knowing from which direction the next life threatening attack might come. Either friend or foe might one day press a gun to one’s temple, the reasoning for which might be unfathomable. 

Jef belongs to that tribe — the ones who smile when they finally encounter the angel of death.