Life and Death in L.A.: March 2024

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. 

Whatever. 

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. Yasujir┼Ź 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.