Saturday, June 4, 2016

THREE FILM NOIR GEMS

The fun in seeing old photographs of family and friends is taking in the images of people that have the same hair, eyes... impish grin of the people you care about today. For cinema fans, the fun in seeing older films is similar – the classic movies have the creative DNA of pretty much all the forms of entertainment we enjoy today. Indeed, the celluloid past has often been the most influential art form for many of our great filmmakers such as Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino. 

This month’s excerpt from THE DVD-LASER DISC NEWSLETTER, movie critic Doug Pratt examines three genre movies he calls Forgotten Film Noir Gems. When I watched one of the films he writes about - THE CHASE – I was struck by the notion that the film, rather than being forgotten, actually influenced a couple of filmmakers before shooting the 1983 gangster movie, SCARFACE, (screenplay by Oliver Stone; directed by Brian DePalma), now acknowledged as one of the finest (and most popular) film noir/genre pictures ever made. Take a look at my comparison chart of the two films —   


The Lead Character, Chuck Scott, is a penniless drifter in Miami tormented by bizarre dreams.  




The Lead Character, Tony Montana is a penniless Cuban Exile in Miami tormented by the American Dream. 



After finding a wallet and showing his honesty by returning it to a vicious gangster, Eddie Roman, Chuck is hired to work for Roman’s gang. 


After a tragic drug deal gone bad, Tony insists on delivering the recovered drugs and money to kingpin, Frank Lopez. Frank ends up appreciating Tony’s honesty and makes him part of his gang. 





Roman's Home has a lot of statues.



Tony's Home ends up having a lot of statues.







Chuck does not get along with Roman’s right-hand man, Gino.




Tony does not get along with Frank’s right-hand man, Omar.




Roman has a wife, Lorna, who he attempts to keep locked up all night. Chuck ends up falling in love with Lorna.


Frank has a girlfriend, Elvira, who he tries to keep locked up from the Miami night life. Tony ends up falling in love with Elvira.

Lorna tells Chuck she wants to get away from Roman and go to Cuba for a better life. As it turns out, this sequence is all in Chuck’s head… a DreamThe reality is that Chuck ends up eating in a Miami night club… just a few feet from Roman and Gino.


Frank and Omar take Tony to a Miami night club where Tony dreams of being in the same league with Elvira as they dance. 

In the middle of the night, Chuck and Lorna attempt to begin a new life by escaping to Cuba. When Roman and Gino try to stop them, the two gangsters are killed.





In the middle of the night, Tony ends up killing Frank, then takes Elvira with him to begin a new life.


Chuck and Lorna make it to Cuba... where they live happily ever after.


Tony and Elvira stay in Miami... where their future together is not as joyful.  


Whether there was an actual creative connection between the two films is not the point. I'm only trying to show with this comparison that the Legacy Filmmakers inspired and influenced great filmmakers of today - directly or indirectly - with their work.  


If you're a professional filmmaker (or an aspiring one), Doug Pratt's examination of these three film noir classics should almost be required reading...  




A remarkable, dreamlike 1946 crime thriller, THE CHASE , has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Incorporated as a Kino Classics title (UPC#738329202101, $30).  Directed by Arthur D. Ripley, the film could almost be said to suggest the roots of David Lynch’s crime features, and a film personage no less than Guy
Maddin stepped up to do a commentary.  You might not even believe that the film was made in 1946, were not for the presence of Bob Cummings and Peter Lorre. Cummings is an aimless vet in Miami who lands a job as a chauffeur for a very nasty gangster played by Steve Cochran (he’s about as close as you could get in the mainstream movies in those days to a drug kingpin), and soon concocts a plan to sail away to Havana with the gangster’s wife, played by Michele Morgan.  The gangster lives in a mansion over populated with statues, and has a device in his car that allows him to control the gas pedal and the brakes from the
backseat if he wishes.  The film’s imagery verges on the abstract, and the narrative advances with logic not uncommon to the stories one sees in one’s slumber.  Lorre, for example, plays the gangster’s quasi-buddy, quasi-partner, but basically, he’s just there, being Peter Lorre, and adding to the film’s dark atmosphere.  Running 86 minutes, not much more can really be said about the film without spoiling
things, but the experience that kept needling us as we watched the movie for the first time was a recollection of the first time we saw Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim, not because of any particular similarity in the plot, but because of the way the film played with our own imagination of what it was and what it might be.  In any case, THE CHASE  leaves a vivid impression, and it is surprising how little known the film is, since it is so resolutely unforgettable. 
Having undergone a restoration in 2012, the full screen, black-and-white picture looks fine, with enough detail to bring out the sometimes eccentric decor.  Once in a while the very edges of the image hint at a greater amount of wear in the past, and the picture is a touch soft in other spots, but for the most part, the presentation is quite effective.  The monophonic sound is also reasonably strong, and age-related static is manageable.  Some of the music sounds quite nice, in fact. 
Maddin’s commentary is that of an enthusiastic fan.  He often does little more than describe what is happening on the screen, and surprisingly, he barely mentions the film’s rampant surrealism.  He does talk extensively about Ripley, sharing stories that a friend who knew the director had shared with him, and he also talks about the backgrounds and careers of the main stars.  Curiously, he talks about wishing he could see the episodes of The Twilight Zone that some of them appeared in, apparently unaware that such episodes are readily available on DVD (YouTube appears to be his primary film delivery source).  On the whole, the commentary is worthwhile, but only because of Maddin’s stature and because it provides an excuse to watch the movie again. 
Speaking of watching the movie again, the Blu-ray also contains two additional adaptations of the Cornell Wolrich story the film was based upon, The Black Path of Fear.  The first is a radio adaptation for the CBS program, Suspense, starring Brian Donlevy and running 29 minutes, from 1944.  The program is essentially a replication of the film’s center section, and is 
reasonably entertaining.  Although no other performer is credited, the gangster sounds an awful lot like Everett Sloane.  Interestingly, considering that the show was being broadcast into homes across America, there is also a brief sequence involving prostitutes.  The second presentation is another Suspense performance of the same radio script, broadcast in 1946, with Cary Grant.  The presentation has no commercials and runs 27 minutes, but the last couple of minutes feature only the show’s theme music, as it seems that Grant is a bit of a fast talker.  He doesn’t really seem into it at first, either, and on the whole, we preferred the Donlevy version, but he perks up some after the show’s opening act and the basic rarity of his presence and famous voice is enough to make the program worthwhile.




If not the ultimate ‘found money’ thriller, then certainly one of the best ones ever, the 1949 Republic Pictures production, TOO LATE FOR TEARS, has been released as a Blu-ray & DVD by Flicker Alley 
as a Return of the Lost Noir Classic title (UPC#617311679698, $60).  Lizabeth Scott, who made a name for herself playing girls gone wrong, is at her most depraved when a passing car tosses a bag of money into the convertible she is riding in with her husband, played by Arthur Kennedy, because they accidentally toggled the headlights.  The bag is filled with cash and Kennedy’s character wants to turn it over to the police.  Scott’s character will have none of that, and even though they agree to sit on it a while, she starts shopping as soon as he goes off to work the next day.  She just can’t resist, and then the guy who wanted the money in the first place, played by the equally
and wonderfully depraved Dan Duryea, shows up, and she can’t resist him, either. Directed by Byron Haskin, the screenplay was adapted by author Roy Huggins from his own novel, and has some great dialog (“What do I call you, besides ‘stupid?’” Scott asks Duryea as they are getting to know one another), and several really terrific twists and turns, so that at a point where you’d think the story was about to wrap itself up, it is actually just getting started.  Running 102 minutes, the film has your full attention and carries you along with an iron grip even before the cash gets tossed into the car, and it is as stuffed with sex and greed and betrayal as the bag is stuffed with money. 
Kristine Miller, who has a compelling, Rita Hayworth-type vibe, co-stars, with Don De Fore.  Having undergone a complex restoration that is detailed in a 4-minute featurette, the full screen black-and-white picture is fine.  The image looks great, despite a slight grain in some places and a tiny speckle now and then.  Contrasts are finely detailed, with rich blacks.  The monophonic sound is quite strong and reasonably stable for its age.  There are optional English subtitles.  The transfer is so good that you really can’t tell the difference between the BD platter and the DVD platter.  There is a 16-minute featurette about the film that actually spends quite a bit of time providing a nice profile of Duryea.  There is also a commentary track, by film historian Alan K. Rode, who shares a complete history of the production and the backgrounds of almost every member of the cast and crew.  He also provides a cogent analysis of the story’s dynamics and charts the film’s disappointing financial history.




A man is out late at night walking his dog when he witnesses a mob killing and clearly sees the murderer.  He tells the police, but when they start talking about protective custody and the deaths of other witnesses, he panics and runs.  The police go to his wife, played by Ann Sheridan, and the first time you see her you almost think she’s a guy—the 1950 film, WOMAN ON THE RUN, another Flicker Alley Return of the Lost Noir Classic Blu-ray & DVD
(UPC#618311679797, $60), was shot and is set in San Francisco, so hey, it might be possible.  Cynical and bitter, she has no idea where he might have gone, but whatever is left of her feelings for him begin to tug at her when she learns that he needs heart medicine, and so, with the help of an earnest reporter played by Dennis O’Keefe, she ducks the police and starts to look for him.  The police chase after her, and the killer is also shadowing her.  The thing is, as she traces her husband’s steps and meets other people who know him, she begins to realize that she had shut herself off too much from his personality and spirit, and she starts to fall in love with him again.
 So in addition to being a terrific suspense thriller—there is a marvelous, make-you-shout plot twist along the way—the film is also an outstanding romance.  Sheridan, whose performance is excellent, softens palatably as the 79-minute feature progresses.  We won’t say she becomes more of
a woman, but she does become his wife again.  Directed by Norman Foster, best known for his ambiguous director’s credit on Journey into Fear (the quality of WOMAN ON THE RUN seems to underscore the argument that he was no Christian Nyby), the dialog has a snappy, elbowing-its-way-through-the-crowd rhythm that keeps the film’s tension pulsing.
 The climax is set at an amusement park with a rollercoaster, and doesn’t quite match the inventiveness or the wit that the rest of the film delivers, but by then the show can really do no wrong.
The full screen picture has a few more small speckles than TOO LATE FOR TEARS, but considering the film’s independent production history, it’s in terrific shape, with no distracting flaws.  Once again, contrasts are sharply defined and blacks are solid.  The monophonic sound is clear and stable.  The DVD is okay, although subliminally, the crisper BD image is more compelling.  There are optional English subtitles, a good 17-minute retrospective featurette, a 5-minute piece about the source material’s restoration, a fun 7-minute then-and-now itemization of the film’s locations, some of it cleverly edited to blend the past and the present, and a 10-minute celebration of a San Francisco film festival dedicated to Film Noir that includes some very nice montages. 
“How did WOMAN ON THE RUN, a work superior to many more heralded noir films of its era, end up relegated to obscurity?  The reasons reveal some dirty secrets about the commercial and critical factors that conspire to forge a film’s reputation.  First, the film was independently produced by an upstart company, Fidelity Pictures, which enjoyed none of the long-term protections afforded studio-financed films.  It didn’t make much money, essentially becoming 
an orphan once Fidelity’s distribution deal with Universal ended.  It was directed by a man with no critical cache, Norman Foster, a former actor who holds zero credibility within the auteur school of cinema scholarship.  If WOMAN ON THE RUN had been directed by Raoul Walsh or Joseph H. Lewis or Don Siegel, it would have been discovered decades ago, and heralded as a minor masterpiece.  Then again, maybe not, because it is, at heart, a ‘Woman’s Picture,’ with aging pinup girl, Ann Sheridan, dominating the
advertisements, some of which touted the film as, ‘A probing study of modern marriage,’ which didn’t help sell tickets.”  So begins Eddie Muller’s excellent commentary track (although even he runs out of things to say during the extended amusement park sequence), going into great detail over everything he broaches at the film’s beginning, including some of the less appreciated artists who worked on the feature—Alan Campbell, aka Dorothy Parker’s husband, collaborated with Foster on the script—the liveliness that Sheridan brought to her part, and how the film’s cinematography and other technical attributes, including some highly adept process shots, reinforce the film’s themes and artistry.  He also savors the movie’s San Francisco-ness, speaks extensively about Foster’s unusual and significant filmography (an American, he made several noteworthy Mexican films, and got Ricardo Montalban his start in the business, before connecting with Orson Welles), and pointing out the brilliance of the casting in every last bit part, reinforcing again and again the claim that the film is a true masterpiece that is only going to become more famous and respected now that it is finally preserved and readily available on Blu-ray.