Random Harvest of Thoughts: CITY NOIR by John Adams

The Summer of Darkness has come and gone but the thirst for noir still remains.

My Dad recently told me about a piece of music written by modern American composer John Adams.  I have liked some of Adams’ other works so I thought I would give this one a try, especially after my Dad told me that the piece was meant to be part of a soundtrack to an imaginary film noir.  I listened to it and definitely felt the influence of noir on his work, and decided to share it with all of you.  I think that you’ll enjoy this piece, even if you aren’t usually a fan of modern classical music.  Here is an article about Adams’ more recent saxophone concerto (2104) which was inspired by City Noir (2009).

Without further ado…City Noir.


Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: THE SET-UP (1949)

Some time ago I asked for suggestions of films I should watch and post about here.  Among the suggestions was a movie called THE SET-UP starring Robert Ryan, which was recommended to me by Karen of Shadows and Satin.  Well thanks to the Summer Under the Stars my DVR has been working overtime and I am now finally getting a chance to watch some of the films I recorded in the previous months in an effort to make more space!  Which leads me to this post as I finally watched THE SET-UP.

Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is an aging boxer.  At the age of thirty-five he is considered ancient by his sport’s standards.  He is also not a very successful boxer, usually being the one down on the mat rather than standing up and basking in the cheers of the crowd.  Thanks to his reputation pretty much everyone has counted Stoker out.  The older boxers have a fondness for him but for the most part Stoker is a joke to everyone else.  Among those who have little respect for Stoker are his manager Tiny (George Tobias) and his trainer Red (Percy Helton).  So it should come as very little surprise to anyone that Tiny and Red have very little compunction about taking bribes.  They are doing just that on the night of Stoker’s fight against a new boxer.  Apparently the new kid is the personal fighter of  one Little Boy, a gambler with big dreams for his new champion and even bigger threats to back them up.  Little Boy’s man offers Tiny money in exchange for Stoker to take a dive in the second round.  Tiny and Red agree but don’t tell Stoker, figuring he is bound to get beaten anyway, and pocket the money for themselves.

In the hotel across the street from the boxing arena, Stoker and his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) are arguing.  Stoker wants Julie to come and see him fight just like she always has.  But Julie, after dutifully supporting her husband all these years, is tired of watching the man she loves be beaten to a pulp night after night.  She is tired of hearing that he is just “one punch away from the top”.  She tells Stoker that she has a headache and will not be going to the fight.  She begs him to retire from the ring, fearing that the fights will one day kill him.  Stoker is hurt but leaves any way, telling Julie “when you’re a fighter, you fight”.

Backstage at the arena Stoker is surrounded by fighters old and new.  The older fighters chat easily while they prepare, while the new guys are more energetic.  One young kid prepares for his very first fight with a few trips to the bathroom before heading out.  Some fighters win and others lose.  Stoker watches them all, pensive and disturbed by Julie’s words.  He believes that he can beat his opponent, that he can come out on top this time, but he feels Julie’s sadness and concern.  It all becomes too possible when the door to the backroom bursts open and one of Stoker’s buddies, a washed up fighter named Gunboat Johnson, is rushed in in bad shape from a severe pummeling.

Stoker prepares for his fight and looks out the window to the hotel across the street.  Julie begins to head out and at the last minute takes the ticket her husband left her.  Stoker sees the light go out and happily believes his wife is coming to see him fight.  Julie makes her way to the arena but as she enters the door she hears the familiar sounds of the crowd reacting to a man being beaten to within an inch of his life.  She turns and hurries away into the night.  Stoker heads to the ring full of confidence, unaware of what awaits him.  Tiny and Red advise him to hold back and keep away from his opponent but Stoker insists that he is going to beat the newcomer.  Tiny and Red share a look and a smirk as they send Stoker off to meet his fate.

This is one of the first movies to utilize the concept of taking place in real-time.  The film lasts little more than seventy-two minutes and packs quite a bit of action into that short amount of time.  The various clocks shown during the film not only give a sense of the passage of time but they also give a feeling of doom as the countdown closes in on an unsuspecting Stoker.  It is a very similar experience to that of watching HIGH NOON, as the audience knows what is coming for the main character and we can see time slipping away as he tries to prepare.

Watching THE SET-UP I noticed how much of the action and drama actually takes place in the facial expressions, reactions, and unheard thoughts of the characters.  The noises and conversations of the other people often seem to be just so much noise as we try to watch the faces of Stoker, Julie, Tiny, and Red.  Robert Ryan is just fantastic at this, often saying so much with just one look.  He is definitely an actor that I am growing in appreciation of.  He brings a quietness and a stillness to his role, one that gives the viewer the feeling of a man who has been beaten down and made fun of for so long that he has almost started to believe it.  Almost.

THE SET-UP also gives a look at the corruption of the boxing world without being too heavy handed.  Instead of holding Stoker up on the moral high-ground and having Tiny get what should be coming to him, director Robert Wise simply shows the corruption as part of the environment that everyone acknowledges and accepts.  THE SET-UP is a fast, tense, and brutal film about a man surrounded by darkness with no way out except to fight.

More Classic Crafting and Decoupage

The lovely Karen over at Shadows and Satin is awesome, we know this. So when she said she would be interested in a decoupage notebook, something pre-code or noir, I wanted to make something as awesome as she is! Here is what I came up with:

It’s a pre-code and noir decoupage mashup! I am happy with how it came out and I hope Karen will enjoy it! This bad boy will be whisking his way to his new home soon…but if you like what you see let me know and maybe we can create a mashup just for you!

Spending Time With Turner Classic Movies: THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

When was the last time you invited death into your car?  This was the question posed to movie-goers by Ida Lupino’s THE HITCH-HIKER, a film noir that is tense, action packed, and unnerving…and one that is more than likely to make you second guess letting anyone into your car.

Citizens beware, a madman is on the loose.  His victims include a couple of newlyweds and a hapless salesman.  Police release the photo of their suspect, ex-convict Emmett Myers (William Talman), but he has already moved on from Central California to Mexico.  It is here that he flags down two men on their way to Baja for a fishing vacation.  Draughtsmen Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and garage owner Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) are in for a rude awakening as their helpless hitch-hiker quickly pulls a gun and takes the two hostage.  Myers orders the man to pull of the road where he takes charge of their guns and ammunition and informs them as to his true identity.  Myers then asks when the two men are expected back from their trip and Roy assures him that they are not going to be missed anytime soon, which is of course a lie.

Later at a roadside gas station Roy converses with the owners in Spanish which sends Myers, who does not speak Spanish, into a paranoid snit.  He flashes his gun to warn the two men to keep quiet about what is happening.  Myers then takes a look at the road map and decides that he will catch the ferry at Santa Rosalita which is about 500 miles away.  Forcing the two men to drive him, Myers takes great delight in abusing them mentally and physically.  At one point he forces Gil to shoot a can out of Roy’s hand with a rifle.  He also berates them for being “soft” and tells them tales of his physical toughness.  He also warns them to not try to escape as one of his eyes does not close so they would never know if he was really sleeping or not.  Listening to the radio as they drive the men soon hear a report about Roy and Gil’s disappearance causing Myers to realize that they lied to him about when they were expected back.  Now even more paranoid, Myers becomes extremely agitated when the car horn becomes stuck and forces the men to pull the car over.  Demanding the men fix the horn, Myers becomes even more panicked when a man with a burro comes down the road.  Luckily the man passes them by and the horn is fixed.  Back in the car the radio has stopped working and Myers, convinced the men have sabotaged it, hits Roy over the head with his gun.  Gil convinces him that the mountains are interfering with reception and Myers calms down.

Despite Myers’ best efforts the group has attracted attention, namely of the gas station owner of the last stop they visited.  The owner goes to the police with his suspicions and soon his information is being sent to an American agent who has come to Mexico to work with the police in this disappearance.  The American agent and the Mexican police commissioner agree that the most likely destination is Santa Rosalita and focus their efforts in that direction.  Back on the road Myers is getting even more paranoid and demands that Roy drives faster.  Roy protests but gives in when Myers waves his gun around again.  It doesn’t take long before a tire blows out and Roy barely controls the car over to the side of the road.  Both Roy and Gil are working on a frayed nerve and Roy in particular is starting to lose his cool.  Myers is also coming unglued and this frustration and upset is evident as the men exit the car to fix the tire.  Myers keeps his gun trained on them and when a car begins to pull over to help, he leaps into the backseat and warns  Roy and Gil to say nothing unless they want to die and get the good Samaritans killed too.  Roy and Gil say nothing to the young couple who stops to help and they soon leave but not before becoming suspicious of the strange and silent Americans by the roadside.

Let’s talk about Ida Lupino for a moment here.  While mostly known for being a fine actress, recognized for roles in films like THEY RIDE BY NIGHT, THE MAN I LOVE, DESPERATION, and LADIES IN RETIREMENT, Ida Lupino also had quite a career as a director.  Directing a few major motion pictures and many television episodes, Ida Lupino was the first female director to direct a film noir.  How did this happen, how did Ida Lupino get her start in directing?  In the mid 1940s while on suspension for turning down a role she began to become interested in directing.  But it wasn’t until 1949 that she finally got her chance to put these skills to use but it wasn’t through the best of circumstances.  While making NOT WANTED the director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a heart attack and was unable to complete the filming.  Ida Lupino, who had co-written and was co-producing the film, stepped in and the rest is history.

Does the fact that THE HITCH-HIKER was directed by a woman make a difference?  Maybe, but not in the way that you might think.  THE HITCH-HIKER is a very different noir starting with the setting.  While most noirs take place in dark alleys and rain-soaked roadways, this film takes place in a car riding along a deserted highway in the desert.  This is not to say that there is a lack of atmosphere or tension, in fact there is atmosphere to spare.  The isolation of the desert, the empty highway, the oppressive heat and desolation, the fact that the very environment is trying to kill you, all add up to seventy-one minutes that never let up.  Ida Lupino takes a different spin on the noir though.  Instead of focusing on the “big picture” of it all, instead she examines the more intimate relationships and interactions between the three men in the car.  More to the point she focuses on the effects of the interactions, the effects that Myers’ up bringing had on his psyche, the effects of Myer’s torture on Roy and Gil, the effects of being trapped for days in a car with a psychopath.

THE HITCH-HIKER is not rife with subplots and secondary characters.  In fact the only times that a subplot is brought up it is simply to help move the primary story line along.  Secondary characters come and go so quickly you might be tempted to consider them a walk on role.  But because of this lack of extra padding the film feels lean, sparse, and to the point.  It seems that Ida Lupino had a good story, one based on the real life killing spree of Billy Cook in the 1950s in California and one that she co-wrote with Robert L Joseph and her husband Collier Young, and she let the story speak for itself.  While many other noirs would most likely have played up the police search, the ensuing manhunt, and the search for the missing men, Ida Lupino takes things down to a much more intimate and personal feel which makes the stakes feel even higher and more urgent. The fact that Roy and Gil are so completely ordinary and un-remarkable makes the premise even scarier. These men are not heroes in hiding, not detectives, not even reformed tough guys. These men are just two friends trying to have a fishing trip. They have wives and kids and jobs, and they could be anyone of us.

If you want to hear more about Ida Lupino and her career in acting and filmmaking check out that fabulous podcast from You Must Remember This.  Also, the fabulous Girls Do Film has an equally fabulous post about THE HITCH-HIKER which you should definitely go read!

The Great Villain Blogathon: THE UNSUSPECTED (1947)

This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Kristina at Speakeasy, Ruth at Silver Screenings, and Karen at Shadows & Satin.  Check out the other entries here!

“The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist” – Charles Baudelaire

The opening scene of THE UNSUSPECTED shows us the murder of a young woman.  It then follows this up with several shady characters, all of whom could be the murderer.  But as we will see it is the unseen person, the unsuspected man, who is the most dangerous. 

Warning Spoilers Ahead! The ending of the film will not be revealed but we are going to talk about several plot points!

 Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) is a famous radio personality, known for his gory and thrilling crime dramas.  He is on the air sharing one such story when his niece Althea (Audrey Totter) phones his home and reaches Victor’s secretary, Roslyn White.  Althea is looking for her lay about husband Oliver but Roslyn hasn’t seen him.  While Althea is speaking with her, Roslyn is interrupted by a shadowy figure at the door.  She screams and then the line goes dead.  Althea slowly hangs up the phone and returns to her dinner companion.  Meanwhile Roslyn’s dead body is set up to make it appear that she committed suicide.

Not too long after Althea is throwing a surprise birthday party for Victor when she receives the unwelcome news of a party crasher.  A young man by the name of Steven Francis Howard (Michael North) has arrived and claims to have been married to Victor’s other niece, Matilda (Joan Caulfield).  Matilda had been in love with Oliver and was devastated when Althea stole him away.  To recover from her broken heart, Matilda went on a cruise abroad only to be lost at sea.  Victor soon turns up with his director Jane Monyihan (Constance Bennett) and is shocked to hear of this new addition to the family, especially since Matilda’s estate is about to be settled. Suspicious, Victor invites Steven to stay at the house while friend of the family and policeman, Richard Donavan, does some digging into Steven’s story.  But Steven checks out and it seems that his story is genuine.  It is about this time that Victor receives news that Matilda is alive and on her way home, after spending some time to recover in Brazil.

Steven goes to meet Matilda at the airport and while she is very grateful for his kindness and assistance, she does not remember being married to him.  She is surprised when Steven knows information about her family and when she meets the Justice of the Peace who married them.  She still has no memory of the marriage and refuses to believe Steven, however.  Back at Victor’s estate, Matilda tries to settle in when she finds that Althea has taken over her room.  The two women argue, mostly about Oliver who is now drinking quite heavily, and Matilda kicks Althea out of her room.  Victor meanwhile has been snooping and has found a snapshot of Roslyn in Steven’s coat pocket.

Steven is elsewhere, having a secret meeting with none other than Jane.  The two are convinced that Roslyn did not commit suicide and Jane provides Steven with a letter that Roslyn wrote the day before she died.  Steven takes the letter to Richard, to have the homicide department look into.  The police reopen the investigation of Roslyn’s death now with a motive of murder.  The police come to visit Victor to examine the crime scene more closely.  Althea meanwhile has taken Steven off for a private chat where she confesses to him that she called Roslyn the night that she died and heard her scream.  Victor is close by and overhears everything.  He later takes the time to record an argument between Althea and Oliver, regarding Oliver’s continued pining for Matilda, and then goes to speak with Althea in his private (and sound proof) office.

Althea confesses that she knows that Victor killed Roslyn but that she didn’t tell the police because she didn’t want anything to happen to him.  It seems that Victor and Althea have been enjoying spending Matilda’s money, something that Roslyn suspected.  Victor admits his part in Roslyn’s demise readily and then shoots Althea, killing her.  Moving quickly he goes out to one of his cars and cuts the brake lines.  When Oliver tells him that he is leaving the estate, Victor hands him the keys to his private car and then goes to get Oliver his coat.  Into the pocket Victor slips the gun that killed Althea and then sends Oliver on his way.  Not long after Oliver is killed in a fiery car crash, the murder weapon still in his pocket.  Victor then rigs up the recording of the earlier argument and lets it play as Steven and Matilda come down the stairs.  Shots ring out and the party finds Althea’s body.  The police now believe that Oliver killed Althea and Roslyn before being killed himself.  Satisfied they close the case but Steven is not so convinced.  He meets with Matilda to tell her three things.  One; that he lied to her about their marriage, two; that he grew up with Roslyn and is searching for the truth behind her death, and three; that she is not safe because her dear uncle Victor is the murderer.

At its original opening the film was not well reviewed, rather it looked upon as a weak version of LAURA.  And yes there are similarities, the painting over the fireplace for one, but this is a far more stylized and modern noir than it is given credit for which may have led to this film being somewhat overlooked.  This is a shame because not only is there a terrific film pedigree to be had here, Michael Curtiz and Max Steiner for heaven’s sake, but there is also a deliciously evil villain played by the fabulous Claude Rains.  While he will always be the only Prince John for me, Claude Rains does a great job as Victor Grandson and creates a villain that not only commits terrible crimes and diabolical schemes, but one that we enjoy watching right up to the end.  Victor Grandison is a villain that would be just as comfortable in the world of GAME OF THRONES as he is in this 1940s noir.

There is some question as to why Victor decided to kill Roslyn and I think that the reason is much darker and twisted than just she got too curious about the money.  I think Victor kills because he wants to and he knows he can.  He kills because he thinks he is smarter than everyone else and wants to prove it by remaining unsuspected even while he is committing terrible crimes.  I think his true ambitions are much more motived by personal satisfaction than simple material gain, and this is what makes him such a modern villain.  Now it is very common to make television shows and movies about serial killers and murders who commit crimes simply because they want to, because it is fun, because they enjoy the sense of superiority, even because they were bored.  To us, Victor and his desire to kill because he can is nothing new or even really shocking.  But in the 1940s this wasn’t the usual motivation of the film villain.  More often than not they committed crimes because they were bad people, fallen women, or hardened criminals.  They killed because they were insane, violent, or just evil.  To create a villain who kills for different reasons entirely made this film distinctly different from other noirs of the time.

Here is my theory on Victor and his descent into murder.  He created a radio drama about crime because it always interested him.  For a time he was able to create stories that satisfied him and his listeners, but then one day he decided to seek out some outside help for greater authenticity. Somehow he found Pres, his pet murder, and managed to get a recording of Pres’ confession of his crimes.  Using this recording as blackmail he milked Pres for more and more gory tales of the world of murder.  Perhaps he even coerced Pres into committing more crimes and more murders.  Pres was good inspiration for a time but soon Victor began to wonder how hard could committing crimes be if an idiot like Pres could do it?  Why couldn’t an intelligent person like Victor do it, and do it better?  So maybe he began stealing Matilda’s money and this satisfied him for a time.  He enjoyed the feeling of superiority he got from taking money that wasn’t his, and no one ever questioned it.   But then Roslyn started poking around and Victor decided that he would have to kill her.  But he wouldn’t do it in the same rough handed way that Pres did.  He was different, more intelligent, and so his murder would be complex and fool-proof.  He would commit the perfect murder and remain free because no one would suspect him.  When Althea threatens to reveal everything Victor decides to kill her and Oliver, once again committing a complex crime that would keep him free from suspicion.  Moving like a puppet master above the entire scene, Victor sets in motion a series of events that will keep his past crimes hidden and his cash flowing.  He is the king of his castle and all the world.  As he tells Pres;

Don’t come here again. I’ll call you if I need you. In your place I rather enjoy playing God.

Watching With Warner: ANGEL FACE (1952)

And now for something completely different…

One of the things I like the most about films from the Warner Archive is that there is such a variety of films available, from pre-codes (which we will be getting into next month for sure), to comedies, to melodramas, and historical dramas. The first two films of my watch-a-thon were definitely comedies but for my third film we are going to the complete other side of the spectrum for a film noir from Otto Preminger.

One night in Beverly Hills a call goes out to the local ambulance company.  Two drivers are dispatched to the estate of Catherine and Charles Tremayne, but by the time that they arrive the patient is already being treated by the doctor.  Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neil) has suffered the effects of gas inhalation from the fireplace in her room.  She insists that someone has tried to murder her, but her husband Charles (Herbert Marshall) and the doctor dismiss the idea.  When the key to the gas shut off is found in the back of the fireplace by driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) the suggestion that Catherine might have tried to commit suicide is brought up.  Charles dismisses that as well and Frank is told that he is no longer needed.  On his way out of the house Frank comes across the beautiful Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons), daughter to Charles and stepdaughter to Catherine.  Frank tells Diane that her stepmother is going to be fine and Diane becomes hysterical.  Frank slaps her to stop her hysterics, and Diane slaps him in return.  When Frank explains it wasn’t anything personal, Diane apologizes but later follows Frank after he gets off of work.  Frank goes to a local diner to call his girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman), but gets no answer.  His disappointment is soon forgotten, however, when Diane appears and offers to go to dinner with him and later dancing.

Over dinner and drinks, Diane tells Frank about how her father used to be a famous novelist but he has not written a thing since marrying Catherine.  She then asks Frank about himself and Mary, and soon learns that Frank is a former race car driver who has aspirations of owning his own garage in the future.  As for Mary, Frank relates that she is a hospital receptionist with blonde hair and blue eyes, and has been saving money to help Frank open his garage.  The next day Diane invites the unsuspecting Mary to lunch.  Under the guise of offering to help lend Frank money for his garage, Diane lets Mary know that she and Frank spent the previous evening together.  Mary quickly catches on to Diane’s true intentions and rejects her offer, but does admit that her faith in Frank has been shaken.  She has more reason to doubt Frank when, later that day, he lies again about his activities the night before.  Mary reveals that she had lunch with Diane and knows everything about their date, and then agrees to go out with Frank’s partner Bill instead of him.  Diane meanwhile has convinced her family that they need a chauffeur and, during a moonlit drive and some kissing, convinces Frank that he should take the job to help fund his garage.

Working at the Tremayne household is going well for Frank, especially when Diane tells him that Catherine has agreed to consider funding his garage.  Frank goes to present his business plan to Catherine who, while suspicious of Diane’s motives, agrees to talk to her lawyer about the garage.  However, when she calls his office she finds that her attorney is out-of-town and won’t be back for at least a week.  Later that day, during a secret meeting, Diane shows Frank the crumpled papers of his business proposal that she claims to have found in Catherine’s wastebasket.  Diane complains to Frank that Catherine is doing everything she can just to hurt her.  She claims that Catherine uses Diane’s love for her father, who is weak-willed and bad with money, as a way to control her.  Frank tells Diane not to worry too much about the garage plans but Diane won’t hear of it.  Later that night Diane comes into Frank’s apartment over the garage and claims to have just survived an attempt on her life.  She tells Frank that Catherine snuck into her room and opened the gas, just like what had happened before.  But if she thinks that Frank is going to be a push over, Diane is in for a surprise.  Frank refuses to believe her story and orders her back to her room to consider what she is really trying to do.  He says he knows that Diane hates her stepmother but she needs to stop and reconsider her actions before she does anything rash.  Stunned, Diane agrees and leaves the apartment.  The next day Frank visits Mary and tells her that he is quitting the job with the Tremaynes.  Upon his return to the estate he begins to pack his suitcase when Diane finds him.  She shows him her own packed suitcase and begs him not to leave her, to take her with him.  Frank finally relents, after admitting that he is in love with Diane, and agrees to wait a few more days before leaving but only if Diane takes the time to seriously think over their situation.

The next day Catherine is searching the house for Frank when she instead finds Diane.  Frank has gone into town and won’t be back for several hours, and Catherine needs to go to a bridge tournament.  Resolving to drive herself, Catherine borrows Diane’s car (at her insistence) and prepares to leave when she is approached by Charles.  Charles asks his wife to drop him off in town on her way out and she agrees.  She puts the car into drive and presses down on the gas, but the car lurches backwards and speeds off a cliff and down into a ravine.  Her father and step-mother lying dead below, Diane calmly plays the piano inside.  Following some investigation Diane is arrested under suspicion of murder, but she isn’t the only one.  Frank is also arrested and is to be tried along with Diane in the murder of the Tremaynes.

This is a movie that I had caught several times but always halfway through.  Finally seeing the whole story made me realize what an underrated noir this is.  While it isn’t on the same level as a film like OUT OF THE PAST, this is still an intriguing and well told story.  There are definite tones of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN here, the woman who wants to have love all to herself, which was made about seven years prior.  There are differences of course, including Diane’s remorse about involving Frank in her crimes and her devastation at the death of her father and Catherine.  The real fun of this movie is to watch it while asking the question, is Diane just crazy the whole time or is there something more?  If you go into it with this question in mind then the whole film takes on a much more complex tone.

Otto Preminger made one of my other favorite noirs, the terrific LAURA, and you can the similarities between the films.  The way he uses conversation to move the plot along, the way that the small moments have just as much impact as the large, really make this a unique film.  The production was not without problems however.  This was Jean Simmon’s last picture while under contract with Howard Hughes.  In an attempt to dissuade Hughes from using her in the film, thereby running out her contract, Simmons cut her hair as she knew Hughes preferred long hair.  Hughes responded by casting her in this film and forcing her to wear a wig throughout production, he also promised Preminger a bonus if he completed filming before Simmons’ contract was up.  Preminger did just that and collected his bonus.  Another story tells of how Mitchum grew frustrated by Preminger’s repeated re-takes which required him to slap Simmons repeatedly.  Finally, Mitchum slapped Preminger and asked if that was how he wanted it.  Preminger was furious and demanded that Hughes replace Mitchum, which Hughes obviously refused to do.

While this is not one of the best noirs, I think it is much more underrated than it deserves to be.  The story isn’t new but the character of Diane is much more complicated than I think she first appears.  Frank Jessup is a terrific character as well, because he is not a willing patsy to Diane’s scheming.  In fact, contrary to the men in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, Frank is well aware of Diane’s games and schemes.  He knows her true intentions and has no desire to put up with them, something he tells her to her face.  It is the fact that he knows what she is and what she is capable of but still loves her that makes this noir so tragic.

Even now I find myself thinking about parts of this film and coming to new realizations about the characters and their motivations.  Any film that can provoke that sort of thought is definitely worthwhile.

Watching with Warner: THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)

I think that I have an addiction to the Warner Archive.  Between the sales, the podcast, and the AWESOME movies I have bought so many films that I haven’t even seen yet.  So, the other night I decided to watch one of my many offerings from the Warner Archive and I decided to let my husband pick it.  After some careful perusal he handed me a copy of THE NARROW MARGIN starring Charles McGraw and directed by Richard Fleischer.

Arriving from Los Angeles, Detectives Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) head out from the train station to the Chicago hideout of a federal witness.   Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) is a gangster’s widow who is set to testify in front of the grand jury and to present them with his “pay-off” list.  Brown and Forbes are sent to make sure that she arrives unharmed, but there is one catch.  No one, not even the hitmen gunning for her, know what Mrs. Neall looks like.  Brown and Forbes arrive at the apartment where Mrs. Neall is waiting, not at all patiently.  She is surly, argumentative, and scared.  The three get ready to head back to the train station and start down the stairs.  As they descend, from the shadows a man with a fur collared coat readies himself to take the shot.  Suddenly, the back door opens and an unsuspecting tenant enters the building.  The hidden gunman startles and begins firing wildly.  Forbes comes down first and is hit immediately, Brown giving chase to the assailant while Mrs. Neall stays hidden on the landing.  Brown manages to clip the fleeing gunman, but loses him in the alley when a car pulls up and takes him to safety.  Upon returning he finds his partner is dead and Mrs. Neall is in no mood to mourn him.  She demands to be taken to safety and quickly.  Brown leaves instructions for the tenant to call the police and give his information about the assailant, and then proceeds to a taxi with Mrs. Neall.

During the ride to the station Brown bemoans the loss of his partner but Mrs. Neall once again proves herself to be a class act by showing no sympathy for the dead man.  She figures that the job of both Brown and Forbes is to protect her no matter what, and if that means dying for her than that is just fine.  Brown is disgusted but duty-bound to help her, so he hops out of the cab two blocks before the station after giving detailed instructions as to how to safely board the train to the irate Mrs. Neall.  Brown knows that he was spotted by the hitman and his getaway vehicle but that Mrs. Neall was not.  That means he is the only one who can lead them to Mrs. Neall, so by separating they have a chance to keep up her cover.  In the station, two men are waiting for him not knowing that their actual target just walked right by them.  Brown makes every effort to lose his tail, but he can’t shake them before boarding the train.  Arriving at his compartment, Brown has little time to settle in before there is a knock at his door and the conductor is standing there with a man.  The man is Joseph Kemp (David Clarke) and he claims to have lost his luggage which he thinks might be in Brown’s compartment.  Brown recognizes Kemp as the man who was tailing him at the station and knows that he is just trying to snoop around his compartment for signs of Mrs. Neall.  Brown calmly shows Kemp and the conductor that his compartment is empty of rogue luggage when Kemp wants to look into the adjoining room.  The door is locked and on the other side is Mrs. Neall, hiding in the darkness.  Brown tells the conductor that his partner missed the train and so the compartment is empty.  Satisfied, the conductor escorts Kemp from the room though Kemp promises to be back.

Brown makes his way to the dining car to get a drink but he soon spots Kemp sitting nearby.  In order to keep an eye on him, Brown takes a seat at the same table as a young woman.  The woman, Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), is surprised at her new visitor but soon strikes up a conversation.  Brown makes absentminded small talk until he sees Kemp exit the dining car, at which point he hastily takes his leave of Ann and hurries after Kemp.  Kemp is searching through Brown’s compartment and finding nothing.  While Brown spies on him, Kemp makes his way into the adjoining room and finds nothing again.  Frustrated, Kemp leaves and Brown ducks into a nearby compartment in order to remain hidden.  The room that he has picked is occupied however, and a little boy named Tommy (Gordon Gebert) accuses him of being a train robber.  Brown gives excuses to the woman in the top bunk and hurriedly exits, while Tommy locks the door behind him.  Brown retrieves Mrs. Neall from the bathroom, where he sent her to hide, and they both return to their respective cabins.  As Brown gets ready for bed he notices the handle of his door beginning to turn.  Grabbing the handle, Brown finds a man trying to enter his room.  The man introduces himself as Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco) and he offers Brown a lot of money, if he will turn over the list carried by Mrs. Neall.  Brown refuses the bribe and Yost begins to leave, pausing only to entreat Brown to reconsider because they are going to find Mrs. Neall eventually so why not make some money for himself?  Unbeknownst to Brown, Mrs. Neall is listening at the door and hears the whole exchange.

The next morning Brown spots Kemp leaving his own berth and seizes the opportunity to do some snooping of his own.  He finds a telegram informing Kemp that a man named Densel will be contacting him soon, but is unable to find much more before Kemp returns from the bathroom.  Entering the dining car again, Brown is met by Ann and the two strike up a conversation.  Soon Brown notices that Kemp is sitting nearby having a conversation with a very large man.  The man approaches Brown and introduces himself as Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey).  He says that Kemp has informed him that Brown is in possession of a spare compartment which he would like to buy.  Brown refuses and Jennings angrily goes to ask the conductor to intervene.  Brown goes after him and is able to smooth things over with Jennings, just as the conductor informs them that they are approaching their next stop.  During their twelve-minute stop in a small Colorado town, Brown sends a telegram to his home office informing them about current developments onboard the train.  Outside he runs into Tommy once more, and takes the time to make friends with the boy.  He then discovers that the child’s mother is none other than Ann Sinclair, the woman he has been talking to.  The two spend time conversing on the platform all under the watchful eye of Kemp, who sends a telegram of his own.  Having no idea what Mrs. Neall looks like, Kemp has picked out Ann Sinclair as most likely target and has sent word back to his bosses of his suspicions.

This was a movie that I had neither seen nor heard of before it was brought up on the Warner Archive podcast.  As mentioned in a previous post, this is a fantastic podcast that often prompts me to buy films that I might never otherwise purchase due solely to the enthusiasm of the hosts.  This film was described with such fervor I knew that I had to check it out, and I certainly am glad that I did!  This is a terrific noir, a tight little story that moves quickly and packs a punch (no pun intended).  The setting of the train makes it really claustrophobic but only in the best sense.  I felt like the story was similar to the modern film 16 BLOCKS with Bruce Willis, but having it take place on a train gave a greater sense of tension and urgency.  On a train there are only so many places to hide and only so much time available to find what you are looking for.  Having all your characters in one small place adds a dimension of fear that around any corner there is someone waiting, or someone might spot the hidden witness on her way to the bathroom.  At seventy-one minutes, this story MOVES but never feels rushed or slapped together.  There are some really great twists and turns that I don’t want to spoil for you here, but if you go along for the ride you will definitely have some surprises.

One of the best parts of this film is the camerawork.  This was one of the first films to use handheld cameras, in order to avoid removing walls on sets.  The handheld look works with the grittiness and “down in the streets’ mentality of the story, and actually adds to the feeling of tension and claustrophobia.  Another great feature is that the background is just as important as the foreground.  More than once I noticed characters walking by in the background or drifting in and out of the frame that caused me to wonder what they were doing?  Were they listening to the conversation happening on camera?  Were they spies too?  It added to the feeling of not knowing who to trust or who might be hiding around the corner.  When you watch this film, make sure you keep your eyes on all characters because you might catch them doing something.  It almost felt like a WHERE’S WALDO book in that there are people all around, but once you stop looking for Waldo you notice other little details that were thrown in.  It makes viewing and re-viewing an enjoyable possibility.

All in all this is a fun and punchy (again, no pun intended) film noir.  A B-picture that has the qualities of an A-picture, and one that I really enjoyed.  Guess I’ll have to thank my husband!