Saturday, November 27, 2021

Noirvember Quick Picks and Pans


Where Danger Lives Poster

Where Danger Lives (1950) Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is about to finish his stint at a hospital to go into private practice. His life takes a detour for the worse when he crosses paths with young, attractive suicide patient, Margo (Faith Domergue). They seem to hit it off until he learns about her older husband (played by Claude Rains in a small but substantial role). An argument and ensuing scuffle result in the accidental death of Margo’s husband. Now they’re on the run from the law, in a last-ditch attempt to reach the Mexican border. As Cameron slides deeper and deeper into trouble, he begins to question if Margo was lying about more than just her spouse. Where Danger Lives features solid performances all around. The normally sleepy-eyed Mitchum is used to best effect here, playing a man with a concussion who’s forced to stay awake. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD (Warner Archive double feature disc with Tension)

A Colt is My Passport Poster

A Colt is my Passport (1967) This Japanese neo-noir balances ample doses of crime drama with a spaghetti western sensibility. Jô Shishido stars as Shûji Kamimura, who’s hired by a local kingpin to assassinate a rival gang leader. He carries out the hit successfully, but now the leader’s son, teaming up with former enemies, is determined to rub out Kamimura and his guitar-strumming partner, Shun (Jerry Fujio). Shishido is riveting as Kamimura, a hitman with a staunch code of honor amidst a world without honor or integrity. The bullet-paced action sequences are punctuated by Harumi Ibe’s spirited western-tinged score (with shades of Ennio Morricone). 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD (part of Criterion’s Nikkatsu Noir set)

Leave Her to Heaven Poster

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) While the lush Technicolor cinematography doesn’t quite fit the noir aesthetic, Leave Her to Heaven’s sordid story (based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams) certainly qualifies. Novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) marries attractive Ellen (Gene Tierney), and soon discovers that things are not quite right with his wife. She wants him all to herself, and anyone who dares to get between them risks his or her own peril. Tierney is terrific as the manipulative, sociopathic Ellen, who will stop at nothing to keep her hold on Richard. The film also features a young Vincent Price (who also appeared with Tierney in Laura and Dragonwyck) as Ellen’s jilted former fiancé Russell Quinton. Price shines in a great scene cross-examining Richard and Ellen’s sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) in the courtroom. 

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD  

Tension Poster

Tension (1949) Richard Basehart stars as Warren Quimby, a mild-mannered pharmacist married to shrewish Claire (Audrey Totter). Claire wants more than what his modest salary can provide (in an early scene, she turns her nose up at his offering of a house in the suburbs), promptly leaving him for wealthy businessman, Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough). Quimby creates a second identity so he can carry out his revenge against Deager. His plans are thrown off, however, when he encounters something he hadn’t counted on, a new love interest (Cyd Charisse). Barry Sullivan is good as a police detective investigating Deager’s murder, but the film’s best performance is by Totter, as the self-obsessed, thoroughly despicable Claire.   

Rating: ****. Available on DVD (Warner Archive double feature disc with Where Danger Lives)

Sudden Fear Poster

Sudden Fear (1952) Joan Crawford stars as noted playwright Myra Hudson, who falls in love with, and subsequently marries, Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), an actor whom she fired from a stage production. We soon discover that Blaine’s devotion is little more than a ruse, as he plots Myra’s demise with his scheming girlfriend Irene (Gloria Grahame). Crawford is good in her role as a woman scorned, although it’s a little tough to accept Myra and Lester as a credible couple. Although this might be a step below some noirs on this list, the performances are solid, and there are some tense moments during the film’s climax, when Myra flees for her life. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy

The Man Who Cheated Himself Poster

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950) Lee J. Cobb stars as San Francisco police detective Ed Cullen. When his new flame, Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt), shoots her estranged husband, he helps her cover up the crime. Unfortunately for Ed, eager rookie detective Andy (John Dall), his younger brother, seems to be connecting the dots. It soon becomes a game of deflection and obfuscation, as Ed attempts to throw him off the trail. Director Felix E. Feist makes good use of the film’s San Francisco setting, particularly the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point. Dall is a bit stiff, but Cobb is excellent as a formerly good detective turned bad, consumed by his guilty conscience. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Kanopy

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train Poster

(1951) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde; Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith; Starring: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock and Kasey Rogers; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **** 

Thanks to Rebecca Deniston from Taking Up Room for hosting the Distraction Blogathon, a celebration of cinematic sleight of hand. Keeping this in mind, I thought it was an appropriate occasion to shine the spotlight on a title by the Master of Misdirection himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

Bruno and Guy

 “There was a thing in Strangers on a Train that I would never do again. I had an old man – an old actor – crawl underneath the real merry-go-round to switch it off. If his head had gone up an inch or two, I would have been in jail. It would have been manslaughter. And I sweat when I even think about it… at the time.” – Alfred Hitchcock (excerpted from 1974 interview by Andy Warhol, compiled in Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb) 

Strangers on a Train begins with an intriguing, deceptively simple premise – a chance encounter between two men that ends up in murder. Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) approaches tennis ace Guy Haines (Farley Granger)* with a modest proposal. Based on his research about Haines, he deduces each would like someone in their respective lives out of the way (in this case, Guy’s two-timing wife Miriam and Bruno’s overcritical father). Bruno’s elegant solution: they would trade murders, effectively eliminating the respective motive for both men. Guy takes it as a morbid joke, but doesn’t consider this a serious offer, and leave it at that. Bruno, on the other hand, views Guy’s humoring his idea as a tacit agreement, and proceeds with his twisted plan.   

* Fun Fact #1: In Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Guy was an architect.

Guy and Miriam

Guy is stuck in a tight bind. His aspirations go beyond becoming a professional tennis player, and going into politics He’s in love with Senator Morton’s daughter Anne (Ruth Roman), while his estranged wife Miriam* is pregnant with someone else’s baby. After Miriam changes her mind about their impending divorce, a visible argument ensues in the record store where she works. Guy is racked with guilt after he learns that Bruno’s offer was more than idle speculation, and his wife has been murdered. Now, his future plans are in jeopardy, as he’s become the primary suspect. Farley Granger does a credible job, playing someone with a conflicted conscience – simultaneously relieved and horrified that Miriam is gone. Hitchcock is careful to portray Guy as not quite the innocent man he appears to be. When he brings a gun to the Antony residence, there’s a moment when he hesitates, as if he considers going ahead with Bruno’s twisted plan,** perhaps if only so he can return to his own life. 

* Fun Fact #2: The thick glasses worn by Kasey Rogers (who appeared under the pseudonym Laura Elliot) as Miriam prevented her from seeing anything on the set, so she was reduced to feeling her way around. 

** Fun Fact #3: In Highsmith’s novel, Guy went ahead with murdering Bruno’s father, which, of course, would have changed the film considerably.

Bruno stalks Miriam

Without a doubt, all eyes are on Bruno, as expertly played by Robert Walker (in what sadly proved to be his penultimate film). He’s an oddly charming sociopath, easier to like than his counterpart (compared to Guy, who’s a bit aloof). Considering how much he knew about Guy prior to their first encounter, it’s clear that their “chance” meeting was a calculated move. Walker plays the scene as if he’s simply a big fan of Guy, and their murder pact is an agreement between friends. Bruno enjoys having an audience, as he attempts to ingratiate himself to the Morton family in a later scene. With the relative ease that he works his way into social situations, you get the feeling he can convince someone to do just about anything. He continues his amiable appearance, even when he coldly stalks Miriam at an amusement park,* waiting for the perfect moment to strike. The more we learn about Bruno, the further we uncover the depths of his profound mental illness. He exhibits a classic Oedipal relationship with his parents, as exemplified by his close (some might say enmeshed) relationship with his overbearing mother, while wanting to kill his father. He’s prone to flights of fancy cavalierly referring to his plot to blow up the White House as merely a joke (But considering what we know about Bruno, it might not have been completely in jest). When he crashes Senator Morton’s (Leo G. Carroll) party, he speaks with the senator about his idea for a new power source. There are moments, however, when Bruno’s controlled façade crumbles, and his true nature emerges. He has a momentary lapse of composure, bristling at Guy when he calls him “crazy.” In a later scene, Bruno loses control at the senator’s party, while demonstrating his strangulation technique to an elderly woman.

* Fun Fact #4: If you’re wondering which amusement park Hitchcock chose for the film, you might be disappointed (or not) to learn that it was created specifically for the film, on a ranch in Chatsworth, California (my old stomping grounds), owned by Rowland V. Lee.

Anne and Barbara

Patricia Hitchcock* is a delight as Anne’s true crime-obsessed little sister, Barbara, who’s the icing on the cake for the film’s darkly comic moments. When the Morton family discusses Miriam’s murder, she gleefully points out Guy’s motive for the murder. At the same time, she plays the role of the supportive future sister-in-law, providing a foil for the police detectives who are tailing Guy. Strangers on a Train is peppered with other comic touches, tempering the moments of suspense, as when Bruno pops a little boy’s balloon with his cigarette. In the tense, climactic fight between Bruno and Guy on a whirling, out-of-control carousel, a kid joins in on the fisticuffs. 

* Fun Fact #5: According to Patricia Hitchcock, she was afraid of heights, and protested when her father wanted her to ride the amusement park’s Ferris wheel. When he asked her how much money it would take, she requested $100. After the director agreed, she reluctantly went ahead with boarding the ride, but claimed she was never paid for her troubles.

Miriam's Glasses

Hitchcock loves ratcheting up the tension, including visual cues at every turn. Bruno’s hands are featured in multiple shots, foreshadowing Miriam’s murder. In one of the most memorable images, the murder is shown, reflected on Miriam’s glasses. Even something as benign as a tennis match takes on sinister overtones. In one beautifully shot scene, Guy glances across the court, only to see Bruno sitting in the stands. While everyone’s heads turn back and forth, following the ball, Bruno’s eyes remain fixed on Guy. The film maintains the disturbing notion that wherever Guy goes, he’s never alone. As he rides through the streets of Washington, D.C., he finds Bruno standing alone on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial – a constant reminder of the crime that was committed, and his implied obligation. Another repeated image is the film’s MacGuffin, Guy’s lighter* inscribed “A to G” (Anne to Guy), which Bruno intends to plant at the scene of the crime. 

* Fun Fact #6: Besides being a MacGuffin, the lighter also served as product placement for Ronson lighters.

Guy at the amusement park

An innocent man, implicated in something far beyond his control is a common Hitchcock theme, explored to the hilt in Strangers on a Train. Many elements of the film, especially the charismatic sociopath (think Hannibal Lecter) have appeared in many subsequent movies and television shows over the years (an especially notable example is director/star Danny DeVito’s underrated 1987 Hitchcock parody, Throw Momma from the Train). If you’ve never seen a Hitchcock movie (If so, why not?), Strangers on a Train is an excellent introduction to the director’s modus operandi. If you’re already a fan, you probably know this is a stellar example of a filmmaker at the top of his craft. 

Sources for this article: Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb; Warner Brothers Blu-ray commentary; “13 Unfamiliar Facts About Strangers on a Train,” by Eric D. Snider, Mental Floss