Monday, June 27, 2011

Noir Nights at the Paramount Center

Their "Noir Nights" series doesn't quite bring ArtsEmerson's first year of operation to a close, but I'll hopefully be out of town when they pop up again for another weekend "mini-festival" in July, so it's a good enough place for me to look back. I'm not certain if it can be called a complete success, but I've been fairly impressed. The Bright Screening Room is a small but enjoyable place to see a film, although one caveat applies: While it's generally good advice to sit a little bit closer to the back when a movie is projected digitally than from film, that's doubly true here; my first experience with The Azemichi Road was tremendously disappointing because of this. It's a relatively short, wide room, so it's easy to get off-center fast if you like sitting close to the front. This particular series was pretty great, though. Five of the six films advertised are not available on home video in the U.S. (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt got a Warner Archives release in May; Amazon's got an entry in their streaming store for Alias Nick Beal, but it is apparently not available right now), but all were presented on excellent-looking prints, whether archival or restoration. Admittedly, the reason why these movies aren't available on video is that they're not quite essentials; they are, in general, competently made but flawed in some way that kept them from becoming classics. Most are still worth watching - even the one stinker of the batch, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, is Fritz Lang directing Joan Fontaine, so it's at least interesting as part of a catalog - but they aren't things you need to have on your shelf. It's nice to see them cleaned up and looking so nice, though. It was even a perfectly rainy, miserable evening for the opening night screening of Cry of the City (bad enough that I begged co-workers for a ride into town rather than wait for the bus). After all, clear skies don't make for proper noir. Cry of the City * * * (out of four) Seen 9 June 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Noir Nights) Cry of the City offers up traditional heroes and anti-heroes, making for a decent if unremarkable film noir, and if that's all it had, it's current unavailability on home video would just be unfortunate. Its last act is pretty clever, though - director Robert Siodmak and his fellow filmmakers know how to use a sledgehammer with finesse. Marty Rome (Richard Conte) is going to the chair; he killed a cop in his latest robbery. Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) grew up in the same Italian-American neighborhood and is watching him like a hawk, and with good reason - corrupt attorney W.A. Niles (Berry Kroeger) wants him to take the fall for one of his clients, and though Rome initially says no dice, he thinks again when he escapes from prison and sees in the payoff the possibility of starting a new life with his sweet girlfriend Teena (Debra Paget). Thing turn sideways on him, though, and even though his little brother Tony (Tommy Cook) and old flame Brenda (Shelley Winters) will help him out, he's got to move faster than some crooks a lot meaner than him, the relentless pursuit of Candella and the police, and the bullet wound he sustained during that last robbery. Siodmak and screenwriter Richard Murphy start the movie where they do for a reason - rather than being engaged in a shoot-out, Marty is being rushed through the hospital, preyed upon by an opportunistic lawyer; it's not hard to muster up a little sympathy for him then, especially once we see the angelic Teena at his bedside. Conte milks that initial good impression for all it's worth, but he also needs it, because he plays Marty like a shark, a carnivore always moving forward. He's got an easy charm and charisma, but there's always a sneer ready to come out when he thinks he's got the best of someone. Mature, meanwhile, has an idealist to play, the sort of guy who has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, and he captures the best and worst of this sort of man. He believes in the system, almost desperately, and he projects that air of a good and honest man who wants to help everybody he encounters. But, even when the script isn't having him say so explicitly, it's clear that he holds the rest of the world to his own high standard, and there's a little impatience when the rest of the world doesn't quite follow suit. That's what makes the movie a fair amount of fun as the noose tightens around Rome - it's clearly a movie made under the auspices of the Hays Code, so the final outcome may be a bit of a foregone conclusion, but Siodmak and Murphy subvert a bit - justice may eventually be served, but it's a harsh and unforgiving justice. It's an unblinking Crime Does Not Pay flick that does an impressive job of simultaneously pointing out that a life of crime has consequences not just for the criminal, but those around him while simultaneously making the audience wonder if unbending adherence to the letter of the law is necessarily true justice. It happens in little moments, and that's a big part of what makes Cry of the City impressive. Yes, it's got a solid core in the contrast between Candella and Rome, but the story has enough twists to keep it interesting and some fun supporting characters, especially Hope Emerson as the crook Rome tries to blackmail toward the end. She's a massive, intimidating figure with a dry and confident delivery who makes a great foil for Rome; it's almost a shame that the movie didn't get to her sooner. It's enough good bits to push the film into the category of solidly above average - maybe not the greatest film in Siodmak's filmography (he did some great crime flicks), but quite far from the worst. Originally at EFC (possibly dead link). So Evil My Love * * * (out of four) Seen 10 June 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Noir Nights) Ray Milland had several distinct phases to his career, and as the title may suggest, So Evil My Love comes toward the start of his villain years. It's a role that suits him, and while this particular heel is not quite so well-remembered as his turn in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, the film is an enjoyably pulpy bit of gaslight crime. The film opens with Olivia Harwood (Ann Todd) returning home to London via steamship, a widow who's missionary husband died of malaria in Jamaica. Some on the ship are suffering from the malady as well, including Mark Bellis (Milland), an artist ahead of his time who supplants his meager sales with crime. Though Olivia initially denies the attraction, she agrees to ask her school friend Susan (Geraldine Fitzgerald) for money when Mark is tapped out, his eyes really light up when he learns about some indiscreet letters Susan had written Olivia which the latter had saved - the sort Susan's domineering husband Henry (Raymond Huntley) would rather not come out. These sorts of plans seldom come off without a hitch, of course, and writers Ronald Millar and Leonard Spigelgass (working from a novel by Joseph Shearing) throw all manner of obstacles in Olivia's and Mark's way. Indeed, one can look at the way Mark Bellis's schemes go sideways over the course of the movie and wind up wondering if maybe he wouldn't be better off getting into the forgery game like his partner-in-crime Jarvis (Leo G. Carroll) suggests, even if respect for the work is apparently the one scruple he has. So Evil My Love doesn't play like a bumbling-criminal movie, though - director Lewis Allen and the writers always make sure that one plan leads into another. Maybe Bellis doesn't plan it this way, but he's ready to seize new opportunities as they come. Some of those plots may be sketchy, but it's forgivable because the cast and crew make being villains seem like a lot of fun. Of course, there's bad and there's bad - Henry is a controlling, domineering creep, the quintessential "worse guy" that the audience wouldn't particularly mind seeing get taken to the cleaners, while at the other end of the spectrum, Olivia is being carried along by infatuation and a lifetime of repressed propriety. Bellis, meanwhile, seems like more of a romantic scoundrel than Henry, but is just as selfish as anybody; the question, obviously, is whether Mark will influence Olivia more than she does him. Well, and how badly things will turn out for poor, trusting Susan. Sure, a likely answer is spelled out right in the first scene, where Olivia initially turns away from helping nurse the sick on board the ship but soon gives in to her better nature, but the filmmakers do such a fine job of dragging her into the muck that the film ending the same way is no foregone conclusion. Nobody seems to have more fun being evil than Milland, who attacks the role with a sort of ruthless glee. He does a nice job of letting the audience see both faces at once - the affectionate, seductive one meant for his victims or would-be-accomplices and the one sneering at them for being a sucker; it's also fun to see him somewhat annoyed that he might be starting to have genuine affection for Olivia. Ann Todd is also impressive as Olivia; she does a nice switch from naive to calculating that simultaneously makes her seem both more lost and potentially not completely beyond stepping away from the abyss. The rest of the cast is good, too, from Raymond Huntley and Geraldine Fitzgerald as opposites no longer attracting to Moira Lister as the model Bellis is seeing on the side. Almost all of them are doing wrong in some way at some time, and they're pretty good at it. So Evil My Love is sometimes as melodramatic as its title, but more often than not it's the right sort of crime. Originally at EFC (possible dead link). Alias Nick Beal * * ¾ (out of four) Seen 10 June 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Noir Nights) At one point in Alias Nick Beal, a man actually says "I'd sell my soul", followed moments later by the entrance of the demonic title character; all that's missing is the thunderclap. Sure, there were sixty fewer years of general snarkiness and tired screenplays when the movie was released, but it's a good bet that moments like that had whiskers on them even back then. The frustrated man in that example is Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell), an honest district attorney trying to put a gangster away for good; the man who walks through the door is Nicholas Beal (Ray Milland), who would seem to be to slick and prosperous to meet people in a dockside bar. That's where he does his business, though, not just to offer Foster his chance at some incriminating ledgers but to recruit Donna Allen (Audrey Totter), a lady of the night that he dresses up as an heiress. After all, this conviction wll make Foster the front-runner in the upcoming governor's race, and if Beal's going to have a man inside the governor's mansion, it can't hurt to have a woman inside Foster's campaign. Ray Milland is billed first, being in the title role and all, but the movie is really about third-billed Mitchell's character (Totter is listed second). Sight-unseen, that probably says more about the relative popularity of the three main cast members at the time: Milland was a star, Totter a familiar-enough face who never quite broke through to the A-list, and Mitchell a reliable character actor. That about describes their performances, too. Milland steals what scenes aren't straight-up handed to him with his slick demeanor; there's an assured but impersonal sense of malice to Nick. He doesn't lose his temper, but occasionally sets it aside when a little intimidation may wind up useful. Audrey Totter was a professional bad girl, and she's got all the tricks down for Donna - a brassy sense of self-reliance, even when she's taking Nick's largesse; enjoying her taste of the good life but still letting her coarser nature peek through; and realizing that she may not be the greatest person in the world, but that she's working with a monster. And Thomas Mitchell doesn't make a mis-step as Foster; he keeps the saintly attorney grounded at the start and manages the descent into corruption quite believably. None of those performances is really a problem, per se, but their prominence relative to each other and the way this movie is set up highlights something true in many cases, but especially here: The devil is actually superfluous in most "deal with the devil" stories, and with Nick Beal seldom-if-ever doing anything overtly supernatural, it's possible that there's a much more interesting story in Foster sinking into the muck without unconventional help. Despite the smaller stakes in the grand scheme of things, Nick's involvement with Donna potentially seems like a bigger deal. The end result is that the movie is structured around a main story whose protagonist is solid but slightly less than compelling, with a good supporting character in Donna underused and an entertaining title character who doesn't really get interesting until the last scene. That's the one where the supernatural elements get their most interesting workout (they are often awkwardly used and half-dismissed), although director John Farrow and writer Jonathan Latimer (working from a story by Mindret Lord) do a good job of using it to build atmosphere at various points - Nick is threatening not because he can make things happen by snapping his fingers, but because he can seemingly be anywhere and know everything. It's a shame that Latimer's script splits itself a bit too evenly between being a supernatural thriller and a tale of corruption, because if they'd laid a stronger focus on one or the other, the end result might have been quite something. Farrow turns in a slick job in the director's chair, marshalling good work from the entire cast and crew to create a movie that often impresses despite the weak story. Sometimes, a movie just has to decide what it's going to be and commit to it. Farrow and company do as fine a job as they can working both sides of the street, leading to a movie that is well-executed but never as gripping as it could be. Originally at EFC (possibly dead link). Tight Spot * * ¼ (out of four) Seen 11 June 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Noir Nights) I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most people, when one or the other is mentioned, don't really associate Ginger Rogers and film noir. Surprisingly, Tight Spot doesn't show them as terribly incompatible, but even if Rogers does play a better tough dame than one might expect, she's doing it in the middle of a thoroughly mediocre story that leads to a groan-worthy last scene. Sherry Conley (Rogers) used to be a model, but she sports a prison jumpsuit these days, at least until she's called to the warden's office and then spirited off to a hotel by matron Mrs. Willoughby (Katherine Anderson) and detective Vince Striker (Brian Keith). There, she meets with district attorney Lloyd Hallett (Edward G. Robinson), who asks her about a trip she took on a man's yacht some years ago. Her testimony could be the key to revoking the citizenship of mobster Benjamin Costain (Lorne Greene), but Sherry's no dummy - even without having seen the first scene of the movie, she knows how guys like Costain deal with potential witnesses, and while she doesn't mind ordering some room service, she'd like to go back to her nice, safe cell. And for a while, that's how things stand - Sherry, Vince, and Mrs. Willoughby in a hotel suite, with Hallett occasionally showing up to implore Sherry to consider her civic duty while Sherry shoots back with questions about what the law has ever done for her. There's a false alarm or two in regards to Sherry's safety, some painful comic relief in the form of a telethon playing on TV, and some token "opposites attract" banter between Sherry and Vince that would play a lot better if the two did more than just look nice and bark at each other. Things pick up in the last act, when things of real consequence start happening, but before that, there's a lot of time when the most tension comes from just what dish Sherry will indulge in for supper. This could be a recipe for a terribly dull movie, but this one has a pretty good cast who either came from or would go on to better things, and they manage to elevate the experience a bit. Ginger Rogers, for instance, plays to the balconies, but does so in a way that fits the character. Both Ginger and Sherry are somewhat past their glamor-girl heydays, and Rogers plays Sherry as maybe half-aware of this - pushy and sarcastic, just smart enough to know how to use her assets (whether they be her figure or her knowledge) and not particularly coy about doing so. Brian Keith gives Vince a somewhat similar working-class appeal, the sort of cop who could have been a crook if circumstances had been just a little different, and still has that unrefined air. Edward G. Robinson, of course, was one of the most enjoyable character actors of his era, and he manages to pull off being gruff and no-nonsense while also having a bit of ingratiating charm. Lorne Greene is a suave, ruthless villain. And though she was in almost nothing else, Katherine Anderson is a bright spot here as the matron who doesn't mind spending a weekend in a nice hotel, reading pulp novels. The filmmakers' fondness for that pulp style is both the film's greatest strength and weakness. After a talky first half, the second half winds up being a lot of fun, with gunfights, tough-guy (and -girl) dialogue, and clashes of wills between the good and the selfish. It's pure crime melodrama, right up until the last line, which is as goofy as they come, but would playing it completely straight have been the right call by this point? Probably not. Nothing was going to make this a great movie, but a better cast than it deserves certainly make it a fairly entertaining one. Originally at EFC (possibly dead link). Beyond a Reasonable Doubt * ¾ (out of four) Seen 11 June 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Noir Nights) Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was Fritz Lang's last American movie, and while I doubt that it, individually, was what soured him on Hollywood enough to send him back to Europe, it's not the triumphant note a master should leave on, but a ludicrous thing that trades away its chance to make a point for an absurd plot. The film opens with a man being brought to the electric chair, a sight that makes quite the impression on writer Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews). He was sent to witness the event by his former employer, newspaper editor Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), who has been using his editorial page to crusade against the death penalty, especially when applied on the basis of circumstantial evidence. He hatches a plan, which could form the basis of Garrett's next book: Frame Garrett for an unsolved murder, and then, after sentencing, reveal how they did it. It's the big city, so one naturally turns up - a burlesque dancer found strangled at the side of the road - and they put their plan in motion. Of course, they keep Tom's fiancĂ©e - and Austin's daughter - Susan (Joan Fontaine) in the dark about it so that her reactions will be genuine. How could such a plan fail? Well, obviously, in any number of ways, since it's idiotic. Even ignoring some of the dated elements of the script, such as how Austin thinks the courts should rely more on eyewitness testimony (which has since been found to be far less reliable than the circumstantial evidence railed against), it is only able to succeed because apparently this city's police force doesn't secure its crime scenes at all and doesn't do any real detective work until the apparent perpetrator has made the absurd claim that he framed himself after his case has been sent to the jury. It's a stupid premise with plot holes that one could drive a truck through - and that's before taking into consideration just how convenient it is that the cop investigating the case is Susan's ex-boyfriend. Then the movie gets to its last-act twists, which undermine everything that has gone before so systematically that it must be writer Doughlas Morrow's plan. If so, it's a plan without a worthy goal. The first twist is merely obvious and dependent on some easily-preventable terrible planning (if I'm Garrett, I certainly want a hell of a lot more redundancy built into the "present evidence that I'm not really guilty" part of the caper than there turns out to be), but it's sort of necessary. Lang and Morrow keep piling switch-ups on, though, until the movie is no longer about anything - what had started out as taking a stand against capital punishment drifts toward becoming a tale of hubris, and even that ultimately devolves into a fairly standard murder mystery. By the time the end arrives, it's hard for the audience to feel anything; the passion and the thrills have given way to explanations. The cast is somewhat muted to modern ears - everybody has crisp diction and says exactly what they mean to get across, smothering personality just a bit. Dana Andrews, in particular, has something of a weird performance - Tom Garrett is a bit of a cipher; his best moments are actually when he plays at slumming to plant the idea of himself as a suspect in the heads of the victim's co-workers. Fontaine is charming enough as Susan - elegant, perhaps a bit class-conscious but not enough for the audience to hold it against her. She hits all the right beats but isn't given enough to see what makes Susan click with Tom. Or Arthur Franz's Detective Hale, for that matter. Nothing wrong with his performance, but no spark. It's also a bit of a shame that Sidney Blackmer and Philip Bourneuf don't get more scenes together - they sell the newspaper publisher and district attorney as friendly enemies immediately, each giving their characters the right balance of intelligence and imperfection. Lang stitches things together ably enough, although his best moment comes early, in the execution scene that shows about as much as one might expect from a 1956 studio picture but is shot and edited so well that it makes a far stronger impression. He and his crew put the film together meticulously, there's an early cut that seems much more clever toward the end, and director of photography William Snyder makes good use of his widescreen black & white canvas. In many ways, this film is hoisted by its own petard - clear storytelling, in this case, lays a bad script's faults bare. A filmmaker whose nature is to distract might have made Beyond a Reasonable Doubt busy enough to keep the audience from thinking about it too much until the movie was over, but that's not Lang, and so the film is an obvious mess from the start. Originally at EFC (possibly dead link). The Dark Mirror * * * (out of four) Seen 12 June 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room (Noir Nights) For a movie whose entire plot is driven by deliberately created ambiguity, The Dark Mirror springs an unusually small number of surprises on the audience without fair warning. It's maybe not quite the thriller it could be because of that, instead opting to flesh out some of the bits thrillers leave out or negate in order to get one more shock. It's an approach that works surprisingly well, even if the style does seem a little dated sixty-five years later. A doctor has been murdered in his own home, but a some good detective work by Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) quickly identifies the likely perpetrator - his girlfriend Teresa Collins (Olivia de Havilland), who works at the newsstand in the man's office building. Two eyewitnesses identify her, but several other eyewitnesses place her at a Central Park concert around the estimated time of death. Stevenson is baffled, at least until he stops by Teresa's apartment and meets her sister Ruth - more specifically, her identical twin sister. The pair refuse to clear up just which of them was actually at the concert, leaving the police without a case. Not wanting to believe there is a such thing as a perfect murder, Stevenson asks Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), a colleague of the murdered man who has published several papers on the psychology of twins, to talk with the Collins sisters and see if finding the answer is possible, even if it can't be used in court. Playing twins is a tough gig, and when you consider just how dated performances from this era can seem to modern eyes used to a more naturalistic, less theatrical style, the quality of Olivia de Havilland's performances becomes all the more remarkable. Though the filmmakers helpfully tag the two characters (with letter broaches and necklaces that say "Terry" and "Ruth"), the audience is able to tell the two apart with relatively ease quickly enough. There's a cool confidence to Terry and a sweetness to Ruth that's reflected in their body language, but de Havilland doesn't exaggerate these traits; the ladies are similar enough in manner that one could easily see people being confused despite their individuality. Director Robert Siodmak faces an unusual technical challenge in getting both twins on-screen at once, but he and the other filmmakers do a very impressive job given the technology of the time. The girls' apartment is designed with vertical stripes in the wallpaper so that seam lines from splicing two halves of the film together disappear, for example, and the editing cuts between those scenes and ones using a double smoothly enough that the audience gets the impression of Terry and Ruth interacting rather than just standing on opposite sides of a room. Sometimes there isn't a particularly good angle to be found, and scenes look unnatural because the audience expects to see both faces; other times Siodmak is able to get a nifty effect from the limitations imposed on him, like a scene where one twin in silhouette appears to be the other's dark shadow. The performance of de Havilland (as well as Ayres and Mitchell) and fine work of Siodmak and crew do a fine job of elevating the story. It's not a bad story by any means; screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (working from an original story by Vladiir Pozner) avoids falling into the traps many other writers might: The crime itself is kept simple, with the focus kept on these two girls rather than a mess of subplots and supporting characters. Even the romance with Dr. Elliott is much less about him than them. The ultimate unraveling of things may seem rather simplistic to a modern audience, though - like the ungainly monologue at the end of Psycho, Elliott's explanation takes the complex and evolving science of psychology and attempts to simplify it enough to fit into a pulp thriller. Olivia de Havilland also tends to let fly with her performance as the movie approaches the finale, although at that point in this sort of movie, subtlety isn't exactly necessary or wanted. This is a crime story, after all, even if it does lean more toward the psychological than usual. It's a fun one, too, as might be expected from the team of Siodmak and de Havilland. Originally at EFC (possibly dead link).

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