Sudden Fear (US, 1952)

Plotting her reaction

It’s great at my age to find a mini-classic that I hadn’t even heard of never mind seen. Add to this the delight in seeing a remastered print (on Talking Pictures), so Charles Lang’s lovely cinematography can be appreciated to the full, Sudden Fear was a real treat. It’s a while since I’ve seen Mildred Pierce (1945), but it’s difficult to imagine Joan Crawford being better. She plays Myra Hudson, an heiress and successful playwright who has the misfortune to fall for Jack Palance, in all his battered-face glory.

As this excellent Film Comment piece suggests, Crawford draws on her silent era acting skills and there is a brilliant moment (when she knows of Palance’s plotting) where she hugs him and we see disgust on her face which is transformed into affection as the clinch ends, as he can now see her. She is more than matching his dissemblance. As the film progresses, Palance is shot less sympathetically, emphasising his angular facial features as an emblem of his monstrosity.

The film is not strictly noir as the plot lacks narrative convolutions and it is only toward the end that the chiaroscuro visual style kicks in. However, the ideas of noir are entirely in keeping with the story as Hudson’s life plunges from opulence to psychological despair. Miller’s direction is excellent and there’s a superb nightmare sequence.

Daringly we are given what is in effect a flashforward of Hudson’s plot for revenge. Whilst this seems dramatically compromising, as this is ‘classical Hollywood’ there’s no doubt that ‘justice will prevail’, the actual execution of it doesn’t go to plan adding to the tension. 

I can’t not mention glorious Gloria Grahame in one of her trademark ‘bad dame’ roles. She more than matches Crawford for screen presence and is the icing on a superb film.

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Whirlpool (US, 1950)

Jose Ferrer entangles Gene Tierney is his hypnotic web

Narrative implausibilities don’t matter too much in film noir as it is a genre that deals with often grim mental states rather than the ‘real world’. This is particularly true in the films from around the middle of the last century in America when Dr Freud’s ideas had passed, in some form or other, into the mainstream. That’s fortunate for Whirlpool as the way Charles Bickford’s lieutenant conducts his investigation more than beggars belief. Gene Tierney is mixed up in murder having been entangled by Jose Ferrer’s bad guy; Ferrer is brilliant in the role. The narrative allows the husband to question his wife in the presence of the cop, and vice versa, and this highlights the investigation is into a woman’s psyche rather than into crime.

Tierney’s husband (a miscast Richard Conte – he was a great heavy) is a psychiatrist so we can be sure that what ails his wife lurks in childhood. And it is this that makes the film particularly interesting as the psychological villain turns out to be patriarchy: her father and later her husband. There isn’t any ‘reading between the lines’ required to work this out for the film explicitly states this. Many noirs focused on male insecurity, particularly of veterans, and the femme fatales that brought them down. Whirlpool deals with female insecurity and the men that bring her down.

This insecurity manifests itself as an entirely patriarchal creation: the belief that women were weak and easily hysterical. Tierney’s character’s kleptomania also derives draws on the idea that women mentally were weak consumers.

Preminger restricts his use of chiaroscuro lighting and doesn’t offer expressionist angles but shoots the film efficiently enough. Arthur Miller’s cinematography looks great, as does Tierney even if her range as an actor was limited she does embody the part very well.

Shockproof (US, 1949)

Good-bad girl played by Patricia Knight

After yesterday‘s peculiar mixing of styles I immediately stumbled across another example with this melonoir. The reasons for the strange combination are easy to trace in Shockproof through the scriptwriters: Sam Fuller’s noir script, good guy brought down by bad woman (who is really good), was rewritten by Helen Deutsch of National Velvet (1944) fame. In its widest sense most films are melodrama as they require a contrived narrative and character types to function as mainstream texts but in this context the melodrama refers to the way, as Slant magazine has it, Deutsch ‘lobotomized’ the noir intentions.

Whilst the enigma of Patricia Knight’s femme fatale is interesting – is she as bad as she appears? – the schmaltzy home environment of the schmuck (Cornel Wilde), complete with ‘cute’ kid brother and smiling blind mother, suffocates the nihilism that John Baragrey’s bad guy struggles to sell (the ending is terrible).

Sirk’s expressionist visual style, that is celebrated in the melodramas that were to follow in the ’50s, is directly wedded to the look of noir. As can be seen in the publicity photo above, chiaroscuro lighting is present but my overall impression when watching the film was it is not one that relishes the noir visual style. Knight’s femme fatale, however, could be the cousin of Gilda who did go wrong. Sirk seems most interested in the interiors of the home, the key setting for melodrama.

Cornel Wilde has the thankless task of the parole officer who is unbelievably ‘good’. One thing noir movies reeked of was sex but Wilde’s far too anodyne here (not blaming him specifically – could be the script). It’s as if the Production Code had been swallowed when noir movies tended to push it as far as they could.

Apparently Sirk was so disillusioned with Hollywood after making the film he  returned to Europe. Fortunately he came back to make some of the greatest Hollywood films of the decade that followed.

Noose (UK, 1948)

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A melange of tones: Landis, Patrick and Calleia

This is a strange film that veers from expressionist noir to knockabout comedy throughout. The noir is brilliantly done but the ‘comedy’ distracts. Part of the post-war ‘spiv’ cycle were the bad guys are those who had a ‘good’ war economically by running the ‘black’ market, Noose doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in its material. Maybe the director decided to have some fun by messing about with camera angles and lighting whilst indulging in occasional slapstick. Edward T Greville’s direction veers between the brilliant and daft. At times it seemed like a bargain basement Citizen Kane: when a character looks at a dance floor through cut glass we see the fragmented images. The opening is a bravura shot of Bar (Nigel Patrick) arriving at work (it’s not quite one take but that was clearly the intention) and, to indicate the inebriation of a character who hiccoughs, the camera tilts left-right-left-right.

This film’s also interesting for the female protagonist played by Carole Landis in her last film before committing suicide. She’s a feisty American fashion reporter in London who decides to expose Joseph Calleia’s black market racket. She’s somewhat blasé about what’s she’s doing and BFI’s Screenonline piece is worth reading as it points out the narrative’s opposition between the ‘bad’ foreigners and the ‘good’ British criminal fraternity. I disagree about Nigel Patrick, however, who the piece suggests is over-theatrical; I found his performance entirely engaging. It was one of his first films and he became a stalwart of British cinema.

Noose (The Silk Noose in America) is an unusual example of a film that mixes its styles in a rather haphazard way which is a pity as many of the noir scenes are compelling.

The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, US, 1950)

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Katherine Locke as the ‘wallflower’

Blimey!

In my trawl through films noir I haven’t seen The Sound of Fury is a real find. A short Internet search shows me that it is (relatively) well known but there doesn’t seem to be a video copy available (I saw it on FilmFour).

It’s based on Joe Pagano’s novel (and adapted by him) The Condemned which was derived from real events that happened in San Jose in 1933. The film starts off following family man Howard (Frank Lovejoy) who is desperate for work. He falls in with ‘wide boy’ Jerry (played with demented vigour by Lloyd Bridges) who leads him off the ‘straight and narrow’. Some of the early scenes have a documentary feel emphasising that Frank’s predicament was experienced (and still is) by many; even though he is a good guy trying to provide (this was the patriarchal ‘50s) for his wife and kid, society gives him nothing. As things spiral out of control director, Cyril Endfield goes expressionist as guilt, booze and the attentions of a desperate ‘wallflower’ (Hazel) send him over the edge.

Hazel’s played by Katherine Locke who was better known as a stage actor; here she is simply sensational. I mentioned a few posts back the impact Claire Trevor made in a small role in Dead End; Locke is even better. She conveys the desperation of a woman who feels her looks are fading and her chance of ‘love and romance’ hang by a thread. She manages to convey her fears and hopes in her facial expressions with dazzling speed as she tries to believe that Frank (who is only with her for an alibi) might be the ‘one’.

The climax of the film is truly terrifying and brilliantly staged by Endfield who is better known as Cy Endfield the director of Hell Drivers (UK, 1957) and Zulu (UK, 1964). He was blacklisted by HUAC, directed under a pseudonym for a number of years and moved to Britain. The mob scene at the end has a newsreel quality that makes it even more effective. It’s rare to see a film that mixes so many visual styles and it works brilliantly.

Truly terrifying

The only false note the film strikes is through the character of a visiting lecturer who mouths the social message. However, maybe Pagano was right that the audience for the film at the time needed to be explicitly told that mob rule is wrong. Richard Carlson plays the newspaper man guilty of whipping up the violent fervour and he does well even though the role is slightly underwritten; his sensationalism could have been made clearer.

That said, The Sound of Fury is a great film. Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury was based on the same events and it would be interesting to compare them. I haven’t seen the Lang for nearly 40 years; I doubt it’s better than this. Further reading here.

Lady of Deceit (US, 1947)

aka ‘Lady of Deceit’ and ‘Deadlier Than the Male’

This deft thriller, with film noir morality, was directed by Robert Wise with a (I think) rare lead for Claire Trevor and sleazy support from Walter Slezak. I found Laurence Tierney a little wooden but then his character does epitomise blockhead male stupidity. The plot swings from murder in Reno to high class San Francisco where the ‘blockhead’ manages to marry a newspaper heiress (Audrey Long). What’s most interesting is Trevor’s character who takes the femme fatale role however Tierney’ s Sam doesn’t need to be seduced to destruction. The nihilism is piled up and topped by Slezak’s private eye who points out that subverting justice is expensive when taking a bribe.

As ever Elisha Cook Jr. manages to be disconcerting even when he’s being reasonable and Esther Howard does the lush old lady with telling pride.

It’s another gem unearthed watching the Talking Pictures channel (Freeview UK).

60 years ago today: Vertigo

Hitchcock’s  Vertigo was first released 60 years ago today; to celebrate this classic here’s an extract from my guide to the film on its expressionist visual style (available here).

 

Expressionist mise en scene seeks to externalise the disturbed state characters’ minds through distorted perspectives created by, for example, settings in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Germany, 1920), the enormous sets of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Germany, 1926) and chiaroscuro lighting in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, (Germany, 1922). Much of Vertigo is edited to be from the perspective of the mentally unstable protagonist so expressionist techniques are ideal to convey his weak grip on reality.

The scene where this is most apparent is when Judy is finally transformed into Madeleine. Judy’s cheap hotel has a green neon sign just outside her window that creates the garish green light that fills the scene. When she finally appears fully as Madeleine we see her, from Scottie’s point of view, suffused (by filters) in green light; she appears ghostlike – see below.  In a way she is a ghost because she is Madeleine returned from the dead and exists only as a creation of Elster and Scottie. Although the neon sign is casting the green hue the scene is not realistically lit; the exaggerated greenness makes it expressionist. The bed, where presumably they are about to have sex, is also in the frame.

The green light on the return of Madeleine makes her ghostlike

When they kiss, a virtuoso shot revolves around the couple and the background fades to black to be replaced by the stable at the Mission when Scottie had last kissed Madeleine. Before Judy was ‘made over’ he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. He looks up and sees the stable, which is obviously not really there; we are seeing what he is thinking (see below). The troubled expression on his face suggests he suspects something’s not right.

The stable appears in Scottie’s memory as he finally gets to kiss Madeleine again but he’s thinking something’s not right

Hitchcock remarked that this scene was linked to an earlier one when Madeleine visited Carlotta’s grave which was also given ‘a dreamlike, mysterious quality by shooting through a fog filter’ (Francois Truffaut Hitchcock, 1978: 306). This link reinforces the idea that the dead have come back to life.

These expressionist moments emphasise that Scottie’s mental state is unbalanced and so his attempt to remake Judy is the product of a disturbed mind. It’s clear from the film that he should have loved her for who she was: as she said when composing her letter of confession, “love me again as I am for myself”. It is rare in Hollywood to find such a tortured protagonist, though these were a feature of film noir, particularly as James Stewart, whose star persona was of an uncomplicated good guy, is playing the part – see chapter five.

In Vertigo expressionist flashing colours are also used to signify mental anguish. For example, throughout Scottie’s nightmare colours flash on and off. At the start of Judy’s flashback, where the truth is revealed, the screen is suffused with red during a close up of her anxious and pained face (see below). The choice of Ernie’s restaurant as a setting was probably due to the décor, which is overwhelmingly red. The meaning of red depends on the context it is used however it is regularly associated with passion and violence and this fits Vertigo perfectly. Hitchcock also used the device in Marnie where flashing colours signified the protagonist’s mental breakdown.

The screen is suffused with red at the start of Judy’s flashback indicating mental anguish

Another expressionist device is the zoom-dolly used to convey Scottie’s acrophobia when he looks down. The camera zooms forward and simultaneously, at the same ‘speed’, dollies backwards so the background seems to fall away even though, because of the dolly, what we can see in the frame remains the same (see below). Camera operator Irwin Roberts is credited with creating this effect for Hitchcock.

The zoom-dolly makes the background appear to fall away while the composition of the frame stays the same

After Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower, the final shot of the scene is a typical Hitchcock high angle shot – see below. This unusual perspective, which has the effect of distorting what we can see hence its expressionist nature, signifies how disturbing the events are.

A typical Hitchcock high angle shot after Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower

A similar high angle shot is used to establish the scene when Scottie’s nightmare, after Madeleine’s death, presages his mental breakdown.

One of striking ways Hitchcock is an auteur is that even the casual filmgoer knew exactly what to expect from his films: he was the ‘master of suspense’. So it wasn’t just critics who were aware of his authorship, audiences knew they were more or less guaranteed to be thrilled by his films hence his box office success.