Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tension (1949)

Mrs. Claire Quimby is one of the great femme fatales, but she occupies the center of a flawed movie. As Claire, star Audrey Totter creates a full blooded man-eater, but she has to swim against the tide of a silly script. In a way, this underscores a fundamental truth about film noirs: most of them are far from perfect.

If it misses perfection TENSION is still an excellent piece of work. Directed by soon-to-be-blacklisted John Berry (one of the names Edward Dmytryk ratted out to Congress), it stars Totter as the promiscuous wife of milquetoast pharmacist Warren Quimby (played by Richard Basehart). While poor Warren slaves away behind the counter at an all-night pharmacy, Claire runs around town with the likes of liquor salesman Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough). Finally, Claire gets bored with coming back to her husband, so she dumps him and moves in with Deager for a life of drinking and sunbathing. Warren goes out to Deager’s beach house to confront them and gets his ass kicked in front of his wife for his trouble. So far, we’re on pretty solid ground. We’re on pretty solid ground, too, when Quimby decides to kill Deager. It’s his brilliant murder scheme that presents the big problem of the script.

I won’t give away his master plan (because, as I say, the movie still works despite this flaw) but I will say that it does not represent a high point in the history of premeditated murder. You watch it unfold, and you think, “God, Quimby, that’s sorta dumb. There’re a lot simpler ways to go about this, you know.” This problem is compounded by watching the cops fail to figure out the "mystery" for a while.

And yet, TENSION demonstrates another fundamental truth about film noir: great style can redeem an inadequate plot. This movie is a textbook example what a film noir should look like. Berry is nimble with his camera, always finding the best shot and the most effective way to convey information with images. Watch the scene of Quimby coming home after work, afraid of finding his wife gone. The camera movements work like music to wed his fear of finding her gone to an erotic charge of finding her there. Berry’s camera is in synch with a tremendous score by Andre Previn. The composer laces a sexy saxophone under Totter’s every appearance in the film, musical shorthand for a fallen woman promising earthly delights in exchange for a man’s soul. The final component in the film’s style is the beautiful cinematography by Harry Stradling. Stradling’s work was less expressionist than that of someone like John Alton, but it is no less effective. His work here rivals his achievement in Preminger’s masterpiece ANGEL FACE.

On top of everything else, TENSION also boasts a great ensemble cast. Richard Basehart, so often cast as psychos, is perfect as the cuckolded husband burning to get revenge. It’s one of his best performances, and a sign that he was capable of much more than was so often asked of him. Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are a couple of smartass cops, laconic and amused by the world in which they operate (though they’re a little slow to pick up on Quimby’s goofy plan). And Cyd Charisse is lovely and likable as Mary, the dark-haired good girl who falls for Quimby, an effective contrast to Totter’s blonde goddess of evil.

And Audrey Totter—she of the perfect figure and severe eyebrows —here earns her place in the pantheon of deadly femmes. Allen Rivkin’s script may revolve around her husband’s doofus-level strategizing, but Clare electrifies every scene she’s in and lifts the whole movie to a different level. Totter never plays Claire as an evil caricature but rather as a woman with a large sexual appetite and a hunger for the easy life. Even as the plot progresses and Clare becomes more of a monster, she never completely loses our sympathy. She may be no damn good, but when she tells Warren what a schmuck he’s become ( “It was different in San Diego - you were kind of cute in your uniform. You were full of laughs then. Well, you're all laughed out now.”) it’s difficult to miss the disappointment that’s driving her. Femme fatales are always most effective when their evil derives from a real emotional place, in Clare’s case her violent reaction to the postwar suburban-utopia. She prefers the speed and movement of the war years over her husband’s enthusiastic promise of a house with a garbage disposal.

Well, hell, who can blame her?


Here's a link to an interesting interview with Totter.

And here again I'm going to give yet another shout-out to an amazing book by Eddie Muller called Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir. If you fall in love with Audrey Totter--and you should be warned that watching TENSION
might very well put you under her spell--you will want to read this book, which features a long section on her life and career. It also features sections on five other noir goddesses--Jane Greer, Ann Savage, Coleen Gray, Marie Windsor, and Evelyn Keyes. It's a fascinating book about these six women, their careers in Hollywood, struggles in life, and rebirth as cult figures.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Orson Welles and Film Noir

The new issue of NOIR CITY features my 5,000+ word essay "Hell Itself Couldn't Be a Stranger Place" about the film noir of Orson Welles. (Also included in my section on Welles are a bibliographic overview of works about the director as well as a review of ORSON WELLES AT WORK.) And my work on the Great One is just a piece of an impressive collection of essays and articles, including Vince Keenan's great piece on the place of female lounge singers in noir, profiles of stars Raymond Burr, Clare Trevor, and Alan Ladd, and a look at the writer Steve Fisher. You can get a subscription to the journal and help support film noir restoration and recovery here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Existentialism with a Happy Ending

Spoiler Warning: This essay concerns the way in which the endings of film noirs affect their meaning. As such, it gives away the endings of HE RAN ALL THE WAY, WHERE DANGER LIVES, THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, and PITFALL.


Hardcore noir fans love an unhappy ending, and we all remember the best of the bleak. Everyone has their favorite doom-filled closer, but perhaps the most brutal final moment comes at the end of HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951). John Garfield, fatally shot, stumbles down a sidewalk and drops dead in a rain splashed gutter. The End is his only epitaph, but Garfield is hardly the first noir antihero to go out this way. The downer final scene is as much a characteristic of film noir as tilted angles and cigarette smoke.

Which makes it all the more curious to observe how many noirs end on a high note. Crime pictures of the forties and fifties were, after all, no more immune to the dictated “Hollywood Ending” than were Westerns. Of course, manufactured cheerfulness was always the town’s chief export, but noir is defined, at least in part, by an opposition to the studio-mandated insistence that everything will work out fine. A major appeal of noir is that it tells the brutal truth about the end of things. Yet, many noirs are stamped with officialdom’s seal of approval: the last minute conversion to the cult of contentment.

What effect does this have on the films? After all, a story’s resolution is seldom inconsequential, and the right ending gives a film the aftertaste of perfection. Does it simply not matter when a film makes a swerve away from its tone and theme at the last minute? If the arc of a film is clearly bending towards doom, then how much do we discount its contortions to arrive at an ending designed to please a studio boss with his eye on the bottom line?

It depends, of course, upon execution. Often, a film will hurtle toward doom, and then at the last possible instant, it will swerve like a teenager playing chicken. Sometimes the film will even give us two endings, a downer followed by a burst of sunshine. In John Farrow’s WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950), a tacked-on happy ending steps on the end of a perfect, bleak finale. Robert Mitchum—everyone’s favorite fool for women—has spent an hour following beautiful psycho Faith Domergue (above) around Southern California as they run from the cops. At a sleazy border hotel, she decides she’s sick of him and, in a brilliantly staged scene, she smothers him with a pillow. Or does she? Since Mitchum made a career out of following sirens to his doom, the commutation of his death sentence here feels even more like an anticlimax. His last minute reprieve spares a foolish man the consequences of his attraction to a femme fatale, but we all know the movie would be better if Mitchum had died on the floor of that dirty hotel. The happy ending here is a clunky way to avoid the underlying logic of the story.

In the worst cases, the happy ending comes like a sloppy second thought. The end of Fleischer’s otherwise clockwork-tight THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) provides a particularly egregious example of the slapdash resolution. After revealing that gangster-girlfriend-turned-secret-witness Marie Windsor is actually an undercover cop, the film kills her off. Inexplicably, everyone in the movie promptly forgets about her. Charles McGraw and Jacqueline White stroll off sporting smiles, and Marie isn’t even cold yet. That cheerful final scene comes like a punch in the gut, but it does have the odd effect of making a rather dour point: nothing matters. You can die, but you will not be missed. In its way, the chipper last shot of THE NARROW MARGIN is as nihilistic as the final shot of HE RAN ALL THE WAY.

Of course, some happy endings function as ironic comments on the resolution of their plots. In THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947), salesman Ted North is driving home to his loving wife when he stops to pick up a hitchhiking sociopath played by Lawrence Tierney. Now, Tierney— being Tierney—promptly turns North’s life into an unbearable hell. In the end, Tierney is gunned down by the cops, and we return to North in his car, this time joined by his wife. She giddily announces she’s pregnant—a cue for celebratory music and the fade out. It’s too late, though. North’s plunge into chaos, his glimpse of the void personified by Tierney, is only reinforced by the ending’s nervous reassertion of the power of family and middle-class security. Shakespeare, it should be noted, often followed a similar structure—just look at his proto-noir MACBETH. He begins with the kingdom in order, hurls it into chaos, and then, once the stage is awash in blood, he quickly reestablishes order just before the final curtain.

At its best, this reestablishment of order can be as complex and subversive as the chaos it seeks to replace. Perhaps the best example of the multilayered ending in noir comes at the end of Andre De Toth’s brilliant PITFALL (1948). We follow a married insurance investigator played by Dick Powell as he embarks on an affair with sexy Lizabeth Scott. Trouble is, Scott is being stalked by a psycho private eye played by Raymond Burr. One can easily guess that in 1948 the censors weren’t going to let adultery go unpunished, nor were they going to let Powell leave his wife. As De Toth told Alain Silver in an interview in 2000, "In PITFALL, we did have problems with the ending before the Hays Code would approve....You couldn't commit adultery…When the Hays office looked at the script, they said no, no Code Seal.” How the film finesses the end of its plot, however, is one of its more fascinating features. Scott shoots Burr, and Powell comes clean to his wife (Jane Wyatt). The film ends with Scott being led away by the cops and Powell reunited with his betrayed wife. The ambiguity here and the intrinsic sexism of the punishment is as complicated as a Douglas Sirk film. This is not an uplifting ending—it is neither happy nor comical—but it does satisfy the dictated reassertion of the moral code. Things are once again as they “should be” with the man returned to his family and the other woman being punished for tempting him, yet everything feels irreparably damaged. The film has met its obligation to censor and studio, but in doing so it has crafted a finale that is deeply subversive. This is appropriate. Despite some ostensibly “happy” endings, film noir’s business is exposing tensions, not resolving them. Beyond whatever tidy resolutions might be arrived at, we know there’s more trouble to come. This too seems fitting. As Orson Welles once noted, to arrive at a happy ending “it just depends on where you stop your story.”

A previous version of this essay appeared in the NOIR CITY SENTIEL ANNUAL #2.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Recovering Norman Foster

Norman Foster was a writer/director of enormous skill who made impressive contributions to film noir (like the freaky WOMAN ON THE RUN and the tragically romantic KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS). He was also an expat whose fascinating work in Mexican cinema in the mid-forties (like the freakier-than-freaky EL AHIJADO DE LA MUERTE) is ripe for rediscovery. For years, Foster has been overlooked, but I explore his life--a life as surprising and fascinating as that of his friend and collaborator Orson Welles--in an essay in the new issue of Bright Lights Film Journal.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Altars of Forgotten Women (revisited)

above: Yvette Vickers in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN

The recent death of actress Yvette Vickers, whose mummified body was found in her apartment at age 73 last week, is a gruesome example of an old truth about Hollywood. The movies offer a weird kind of immortality, but it's only offered to a chosen few. If you've never heard of Vickers, don't feel bad. Most people haven't. In addition to being a one-time Playboy bunny, her main claim to fame is playing slutty bad girl Honey Parker in the campy ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN. That's not much of a claim to fame (though, for the record, Vickers is good in the role and probably would have made a fine femme fatale if given the chance), but it's what Vickers had. Interestingly, she was an extra in two excellent noirs, THE SOUND OF FURY and SUNSET BLVD. Imagine being that close to greatness and watching it slip by. Vickers was just another pretty face.

Except, of course, that she wasn't. She was a human being who came close to the center of the white hot light that shines on movie stars, only to watch the light move on to other people.

Her death has put me in mind of an essay I wrote a couple of years ago about the women of film noir, so many of whom were forgotten in their day only to find stardom in the cults that sprang up around discard B-picture masterpieces like TOO LATE FOR TEARS, ROADBLOCK, DETOUR, THE NARROW MARGIN, TENSION, NIGHT EDITOR, and so many more. I've decided to reprint the essay "The Altars of Forgotten Women" here in honor of Yvette Vickers.

above: Lizabeth Scott in DESERT FURY

One of the sad ironies of film noir is that many of its icons were never stars in their lifetime. More than any other genre, stardom in noir is retroactive. Someone like Ann Savage had only the most fleeting taste of fame in her youth before Hollywood showed her the door. Yet, Savage was one the lucky people who lived to see her fame catch up to her. A cheap little sixty-seven minute crime picture called DETOUR--a picture Savage appears in for all of thirty minutes--somehow endured and prospered over the years. Savage was in her sixties and working as a secretary when she discovered that she was at the center of a cult.

Savage’s cult is just a faction of something larger called film noir, which is, among other things, largely a cult of forgotten women. Savage was not alone in finding herself as an object of worship. Within this convocation there are many different sects, sects with passionately devoted followers. Actresses like Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Janis Carter, and Lizabeth Scott all have legions of admirers. None of them were really stars in their day, but their movies have a life all their own. Long after their careers fizzled out, sometimes after their own deaths, some actresses finally became stars. That just about defines the word bittersweet.

Of course, major stars like Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland experience the same life after death effect, and a select few even seem to reach beyond mere stardom and become a part of the larger shared consciousness of society. You could argue, at this point in Western culture, that Marilyn Monroe is nearly as iconic as the Virgin Mary.

Yet film noir is a genre born out of B-movie obscurity. Lizabeth Scott will never be as famous as Marilyn Monroe, but she is the queen of her own dark little corner of Dreamtown. She starred in more film noirs than nearly anyone else—and she was also unique in that her filmography consists mostly of noirs. She only made a handful of movies that didn’t involve people betraying each other and ending up gutshot at the end. She played the entire range of characters available to actresses in the genre, from doe-eyed innocents (THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS) to world-weary lounge singers (DARK CITY, I WALK ALONE) to cold-blooded femme fatales (TOO LATE FOR TEARS, STOLEN FACE). She starred in one of the genre’s real lowlights, the misogynistic DEAD RECKONING. She starred in what maybe the campiest noir ever made, the hilarious DESERT FURY. Perhaps most importantly, she starred in two of the finest noirs we have, Andre De Toth’s PITFALL and Byron Haskin’s TOO LATE FOR TEARS.

To understand the appeal of Liz Scott, one only need to look at those last two films. In the first, she plays a woman named Mona Stevens who falls into an affair with a married man played by Dick Powell. Their affair is discovered by a psychotic private detective (played by Raymond Burr) who is obsessed with Mona and proceeds to make life hell for everyone involved. The cast here is superb, and at the center , in a performance of great sympathy, is Lizabeth Scott. She makes Mona a sexy woman (which must have been fairly easy since Scott herself was gorgeous, blonde, and had a voice that was equal parts cigarettes and silk), but she also makes Mona a sad woman. Loneliness is the undercurrent of Scott's voice, the thing that pulls you further down into her trap. Even when she’s happy, you can tell that Scott is afraid of the worst. In PITFALL, she pretty much gets the worst at the hands of thoughtless men.

In TOO LATE FOR TEARS, she gets her revenge. As housewife turned criminal Jane Palmer, Scott creates a portrait of coolheaded evil. Jane and her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) are driving home one night when someone tosses a briefcase full of money into their car. Is the money a payment for a ransom? Perhaps a blackmail payoff? Alan doesn’t care, he just wants to turn the money over to the cops. His wife, ah, disagrees. She’s willing to do anything to keep the cash, even after slimy crook Dan Duryea shows up looking for it and slaps her around. Neither the crook nor the husband have any idea who they’re dealing with in Jane Palmer. These guys are toast. With her performance, Scott makes a pretty good grab for the most evil femme fatale on record, yet she also makes Jane Palmer curiously relatable. Again, there’s that sadness, that aching, unfulfilled need at the center of Lizabeth Scott that comes through in her performance. Jane Palmer is evil, yes, but she’s also smart, dogged, and utterly human.

It is, after all, humanity that is the great appeal of the forgotten women of film noir, our sense that we’re seeing a human being alive onscreen. Movies of the forties and fifties were made to be dreamlike, and all these years later they still seem like dreams. The dreams hook us; the humanity makes us obsessives, worshipers at the altar. Who was this woman? we ask. Not just Queen Liz (who, happily, is still alive), but so many others. We watch them laugh and cry and scheme and die and then we watch them do it all over again. It doesn’t take much to hook us.

Take Joan Dixon. In 1951 she starred in a vastly underrated film noir called ROADBLOCK alongside Charles McGraw. She plays Diane, a sexy conwoman who marries a straight-laced insurance investigator named Joe Peters, a marriage that will have disastrous results. Joan Dixon strolls through this movie as if she’s one of the great femme fatales. It’s not just that she’s beautiful, it’s that she projects that essential combination of intoxicating sexual allure and an untouchable, unknowable center. Is Diane bad? It’s tough to say. Dixon might be criticized for giving a performance that's too laid back, but I would argue that very ambiguity is her greatest attribute. She doesn’t set out to ruin Joe Peters, but once she meets him, he’s a goner. It’s an interesting take on the femme fatale. Many femmes are man-eating monsters. Diane is different. She’s a catalyst who opens up all the insecurity and greed buried beneath honest Joe Peters’ upright façade. It takes quite a gal to destroy Charles McGraw. Joan Dixon does it without really trying.

One thing’s for sure: she never had much of a career in Hollywood. She started out at RKO under contract to Howard Hughes (which was not somewhere a fresh-faced twenty-year old from Norfolk, Virginia wanted to find herself). Hughes promised to build her career, but he was too busy running RKO into the ground. Dixon spent most of her time in low budget westerns and ended her acting career in the late fifties doing bit parts on television. By then, she’d become a lounge singer and was mostly notable in the newspapers for a string of quick marriages and messy divorces. She died in Los Angles in 1992.

Yet she lives on in this little-seen masterpiece. Her fame hasn’t happened yet, unlike Ann Savage or Lizabeth Scott. Even in the insular world of film noir, Joan Dixon isn’t an icon—yet. I have faith, however, that her cult is coming. If there’s one thing that you can learn from the history of noir, it’s that there’s always time.