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Category Archives: Film Noir

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – A Romantic Noir Melodrama

PostmanAlwaysPosterWhen I learned that The Postman Always Rings Twice was made at MGM, it explained a lot. MGM is known for gloss, musicals, glamour, lavishness and star-wattage. It is not known for film noirs and The Postman Always Rings Twice is an unusual film noir. It occurred to me while I was watching it this weekend that it was just as much a melodrama as a noir: heightened emotions, coincidences, rapid reversals of fortunes (and The Postman Always Rings Twice has more reversals of fortune than several Bette Davis films put together) and complicated and agonized inter-relational dynamics. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; a good melodrama is an art form.

And for a film about murder, adultery, betrayal, lust and blackmail, it lacks the edge, shadows and sharp camera angles and bleak cynicism one would expect. By the last third, the film has left noir behind and lodges itself in romance territory, though a romance gone awry.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s short novel from 1934, one of three of his books to be turned into film noirs: Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. The movie follows the plot of the book quite closely, though the violent sexual charge is considerably toned down for the movie.

Lana Turner as Cora

Lana Turner as Cora – Frank’s first sight of her

Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a vagrant by choice, hitchhiking from odd job to odd job and staying until he gets the well-known itching in his feet and moves on. He stops at a gas station and diner by a rural highway in California and is hired by the owner, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) to help out. Nick is a genial fellow, unless there is any money at stake and then Nick’s paranoia that people are trying to cheat him comes out. Nick has a wife, much younger than him, named Cora (Lana Turner). There is instant electricity when they meet and through a series of plot turns, they decide to run away together. But Cora ultimately can’t do it. She doesn’t want to be a tramp or have to go back to working at a hash house. She wants to make something of herself and she and Frank decide instead to kill her husband, which would allow her to take over his business and employ some of her ideas to make it more profitable.

The plot is a bit mind-bending. Most noirs plots follow the three part formula of seduction, crime and reckoning. This film goes from initial seduction, failed murder attempt, abandonment of murder attempt, renewed attempt and success, a trial, betrayal, getting off at the trial, hating each other after the trial, dealing with a blackmailer, paranoia, jealousy and thoughts of killing each other, genuine reconciliation and the final reckoning. It doesn’t feel convoluted when you watch it, though. It all seems like a natural development of the characters.

I was especially impressed by Lana Turner, an actress famous for being beautiful rather than talented. Admittedly, she does not have an expressive voice (Barbara Stanwyck can seduce partially with her voice and can convey so much with a word), but her performance as Cora was surprisingly subtle. Cora Smith is not a usual femme fatale. When we first meet her, she is in the role of siren. However, later she reveals ambivalence. She seems to be almost afraid of Frank and the feelings he will bring out in her, like she knows she has a dark side and is afraid to unleash it.

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner

Several times when Frank is making advances, she tries to get her husband to pay attention to her as if she wants to remind herself that he loves her and she must remain loyal (Nick seems to suffer from a common noir and melodrama problem of remaining so blind to what is going on in his house that he even inadvertently encourages the affair).

There are moments when you can tell that she is manipulating Frank, but other times when she seems genuinely to want him. She gets to be the vulnerable and unhappy wife, the seductress, the manipulator, a vengeful woman (when Frank gets tricked into betraying her at her trial for her husband’s murder), unflinching, quick and surprisingly unfazed by Frank’s brutality in dealing with the blackmailer, ambitious, perpetually trying to start afresh and wipe the slate clean. She married Nick because it meant a new beginning; she tells Frank they must kill Nick so they can have a new beginning and she later believes that when she is pregnant the baby will provide yet another fresh beginning. But there is an imbalance in the force, so to speak, and she never can start afresh, but must pay for her actions and it is ironic that she finally does pay through a freak accident rather than human agency.

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner - Cronyn is the shifty lawyer who manages to get Cora off

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner – Cronyn is the shifty lawyer who manages to get Cora off

John Garfield is a natural fit for Frank Chambers as the drifter who knows better, but can’t help himself. Like most noirs, his motivations are simple: he wants her and that overwhelms everything else he knows and feels. His voice-over narration of the story is also unique. Most voice-overs are stoic or ironic, but not Garfield’s. His is desperate to be understood and to explain what happened and it is almost breathless.

The DA prosecuting Cora and her defense attorney are real highlights in the film. Leon Ames is the DA who is not above a few tricks to make his case, though he does want to see justice done. Hume Cronyn is the slimy, but brilliant, defense attorney, a man with no interest in justice who seems to be a lawyer for the sheer kicks of it, testing his ability. He won’t even take a fee from Cora when he could have demanded a large one. Instead, he wins a bet with the DA and an improbable case.

The ending, oddly enough, is positively upbeat, all things considered. Frank is indicted for murdering Cora – though it really was an accident – but when he realizes that it was only justice for the murder of Nick he embraces his end. He and Cora pay for their crimes with their death, balance to the force is restored and he even seems in hopes of being reunited with Cora after his execution. This is a romantic spin on what has come before. It is not entirely out of the blue, since the film increasingly seems to take on a romantic hue. Murder didn’t bring them what they wanted and actually brought them fear and paranoia, but unlike Double Indemnity, where  lack of trust is the lovers’ downfall, they really do seem to love each other and perhaps do genuinely overcome their fear. Their ultimate demise has nothing to do with self-destruction but cosmic justice.

John Garfield, Lana Turner and blackmailer

John Garfield, Lana Turner and blackmailer

I can’t end without discussing Lana Turner’s costumes, designed by Irene. In almost the entire movie she wears white  – usually associated purity – and some sort of heard covering: turbans, swimming cap, hat, even a towel at one point. My theory is that Cora is a relatively self-aware femme fatale. She’s not entirely evil, she wants to be good, but knows what she is capable of and fears it. In self-defense from herself, she constantly wears white to reinforce who she wants to be. It’s the adage about dressing like the person you want to be…though there is a distinctly sexy edge to her wardrobe. The head coverings I find more puzzling. At one point, just before she dies and believing she finally has that fresh start, she has a towel draped over her head and it looks like a wimple like nuns wear. Head coverings have traditionally been associated with modesty, so perhaps it is all part of the general attempt at modest dressing, even if the affect is seldom modest.

She does wear black twice and it stands out when she does. The first time she is in a black dressing gown and is contemplating suicide (she says; not sure how far we can believe her) and then she and Frank plot the final murder of Nick that actually succeeds. The second time is when she returns from her mother’s funeral and is ready to tell Frank that she is pregnant and ready for another fresh start, though the fresh start is deferred by the appearance of a blackmailer, who through quick thinking on her part and violence on Frank’s, they manage to foil. But in that scene she reveals a tellingly ruthless streak in how she handles the situation and watches Frank beat the blackmailer. It is possible that the moments when she is in black are the moments when she is most herself…fundamentally despairing and cold inside, but grasping for a better future, to be a better person, and capable of doing anything to achieve it.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Film Noir

 

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Fallen Angel (1945)

Fallen_Angel_1945_posterIf anyone ever offers you the role of the good girl in a film noir, say no. It is one of the most unforgiving roles I have ever seen in the movies – like playing “the other woman,” a third wheel – and femme fatales were made to run away with movies. Unfortunately for Alice Faye, she said yes in 1945. An extremely popular star at 20th Century Fox, she was previously known for her musicals (I love her voice) and wanted to move on to more dramatic films; as Dick Powell managed to do in 1944, transitioning from singing tenor to playing hard-boiled detectives. But Dick Powell’s first foray into noir was with Murder, My Sweet and Alice Faye chose Fallen Angel.

It’s not that Fallen Angel is a bad film; it’s definitely worth a look and is fairly enjoyable, despite some plotting issues. And Alice Faye wasn’t even that bad in the role; it was just a role not even Bette Davis could turn to much account and it did not further her career. In fact, it was the last film she made for sixteen years. It did, however, further the career of Linda Darnell, who played the femme fatale.

Dana Andrews is Eric Stanton, a drifter and a con artist who drifts into Walton, a small town between Los Angeles and San Francisco. He stops at a tiny diner and meets Stella (Linda Darnell), who seems to have all the men obsessed with her. There is Pop (Percy Killbride), who owns the bar and is nuts about Stella. There is also Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), a married man and a retired cop who always comes into the diner just to gaze at Stella and who plays the same song on the jukebox that Stella likes called “Slowly.” There is also another guy who services jukeboxes named Atkins (Bruce Cabot). Stella does not seem noticeably impressed by all this attention.

Dana Andrews and Stella

Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell

Inevitably, Stanton falls for Stella, but though she likes him she is rather dismissive of him, too, since all he seems to be offering is the same line that all the men have offered through the years and she has decided that she’s done with that. She wants a home and a husband with a little money and she’s no longer giving anything unless there’s a ring. Stanton says he’ll marry her and promises that he’ll get some money, somehow.

Stanton’s plan to get money is to fleece June Mills (Alice Faye), daughter of a much respected former mayor, who plays the organ, likes books and lives with her protective older sister, Clara (Anne Revere). June falls in love with him quickly, but he soon realizes that he can’t get her money without getting married, which they do, despite Clara’s warnings that he’s no good.

When Stanton tells Stella what he’s done she’s even less impressed and they argue (I would be nonplussed, too, if a man told me he was crazy to marry me and then arrived to say that he’d married another woman, all for me).That night Stella is murdered. Judd is asked by the police to help with the investigation and there are no shortage of suspects: Judd himself, Pop, Atkins, Stanton and even Clara, who found out about Stella and seems just protective enough of her sister to be capable of it. Stanton, however, is afraid that Judd will pin the murder on him and flees Walton, with June coming along with him.

Alice Faye and Dana Andrews

Alice Faye and Dana Andrews

The rest of the film is part mystery and part romance, with the con artist redeemed through the unalterable love and faith of a good woman. June is probably the first person who ever believed in him. The trouble is that her faith seems a trifle willful. There’s nothing in his behavior to indicate that he might have a good heart, hidden, somewhere and her faith seems less based on anything we see in him and more on her apparent determination to have him. She loves him, she wants him, so she has faith. The result is that she gets stuck with some rather weak dialogue and not much motivation. Her role is to be patient and sympathetic. Alice Faye plays her gracefully, but there’s just not much to do with it and nobody can look good in a film when they are obliged to to be seduced and then stand by their man.

Linda Darnell, however, is a more interesting character. She’s more siren than femme fatale and one you can sympathize with. Stella is world-weary, a bit sulky, and has seen it all (except a ring) and been given promises by a lot of men. She’s a femme fatale who would rather be somebody like June (whereas June wants to be more of a Stella, which I assume is why she marries Stanton despite the fact that he’s obviously on the make). If Judd, Stanton and Pop are any sample of the kind of men Stella’s met through life, you can understand her attitude and I couldn’t help rooting for her to find what she is looking for.

Murder suspects - the landlady looks on as Charles Bickford, Bruce Cabot and Dana Andrews warily check each other out

Murder suspects – the landlady looks on while Charles Bickford, Bruce Cabot and Dana Andrews warily check each other out

Fallen Angel is kind of like a sequel to Laura. It has the same director (Otto Preminger), same leading man (Dana Andrews), same composer, (David Raksin), same cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle) and even same set designer and so forth. And a similar theme of obsession and ownership over a woman. The result is that it looks very good. It is the plot that falters. It’s a bit incredible and a trifle choppy and uneven. The acting is universally fine, however – even Alice Faye is not bad.

It’s too bad that Fallen Angel was Alice Faye’s last movie. Supposedly her role was cut down by producer Darryl Zanuck and Linda Darnell’s role was built up (Darnell went on to play many more sirens). Also, Faye was supposed to sing the song “Slowly,” which was removed from the film. When she saw the finished product, she wrote an angry note to Zanuck and left the studio. It wasn’t a decision completely out of the blue, however. She had recently given birth to her second child with husband and bandleader Phil Harris and when she finished making movies, she devoted more time to her family, also working in radio with her husband. She later said she was perfectly comfortable leaving her movie career behind, despite many of her fans’ and even Darryl Zanuck’s attempts to get her back into movies.

I think the moral of the story is, however: never play the good girl in a film noir.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2015 in Film Noir

 

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No Way Out (1950) – Sidney Poitier’s Movie Debut

Poster - No Way Out (1950)_01Part social commentary and part film noir, No Way Out‘s main theme is racism and it has really aged well, partially because the film manages to never allow its message to slow down the film with long, implausible speeches or sententious dialogue. It definitely has its moments of making a point, but overall doesn’t need to bash us over the head because the story and the acting is strong enough without it. The film marks the debut of Sidney Poitier and was both directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz, a man interested in exploring social concerns in his films.

Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) is an intern working in the prison ward of the county hospital. He’s still a little unsure of himself and though he’s passed the state board examination and has a license to practice, he asks for another year there before going out on his own. He is the first black doctor at this ward and has the complete support of his superior, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), though he occasionally meets a policeman who seems surprised to see a black doctor.

After a failed attempt at robbing a gas station, the two Biddle brothers are brought into the hospital, both shot in the leg. They’re from Beaver Canal, the white slum section of the city. Dr. Brooks notices that though Johnny Biddle was only shot in the leg, he seems to be exhibiting other symptoms, like confusion, lack of sense in his fingers. He suspects a brain tumor and wants to do a spinal tap, but Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is furious to have a black doctor tending them. He begs the police not to leave him and his brother alone with Dr. Brooks, uses every racial epitaph in the book and tries to prevent and distract Dr. Brooks from examining his brother.

But while Dr. Brooks is administering the spinal tap, Johnny Biddle dies. Ray is convinced that Dr. Brooks murdered him. Dr. Wharton trusts Dr. Brooks judgement, but Dr. Brooks wants an autopsy done to prove that his diagnosis was right and that there was nothing that could have been done to save Johnny. Ray, of course, refuses. Dr. Wharton and Dr. Brooks go to see Johnny’s ex-wife, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell) to ask her to ask Ray to allow the autopsy. She is at first extremely surprised to see a black doctor. You can see it in her eyes. It’s almost as if she’s never stood that close to a black person before or held any conversation with them and you can see that it throws her off balance how he talks and acts just like any other person. Her expression is almost what it would be if she were standing face to face with a Martian who turns out to be just like her.

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

But when Edie does go to see Ray, he pulls out all the stops. He appeals to the fact that she grew up next door to Johnny and Ray (their parents used to get drunk together), old loyalties to Beaver Canal, an ‘us vs. them’ mentality regarding both blacks and whites, policemen and establishment people like doctors. He then piteously pleads that he saw Dr. Brooks kill Johnny and that people are trying to cover it up. Edie is swayed, reverts to old habits of thought, and agrees to tell Ray’s other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), and the other members of Beaver Canal what Ray told her. The whole incident, they know, will start a riot.

But the black community near Beaver Canal hears about the impending attack on their neighborhood and decide to preemptively attack Beaver Canal, despite Dr. Brooks pleas not to. He feels that such attacks never do any good and only inflame hatred. But the riot still occurs, with Beaver Canal getting the worst of it.

Edie is disgusted with herself and with the violent, almost animal (her word) hatred and brutality displayed by the members of Beaver Canal. Meanwhile Dr. Brooks feels the entire riot occurred because of him and confesses to the murder of Johnny to force an autopsy of Johnny that will prove him right. When they find the tumor that proves his diagnosis, Ray escapes and sets out to murder Dr. Brooks.

No Way Out was Sidney Poitier’s film debut. He was only twenty-two years old, though he said he was twenty-seven, but he is already a powerful actor. Dr. Brooks is portrayed as a good, though flawed, human being and not just a cardboard cutout saint. He’s had to deal with hatred all his life and has grown used to it, but there’s something about the intensity and single-minded focus of Ray that shakes him up. He wants to prove himself in the eyes of others and can’t just let it go, despite Dr. Wharton’s assertion that there is no need, and he has a slight crisis of confidence. His reactions are complicated: determination, nobility, anger, frustration, patience, impatience. He wants to deal rationally with the situation, but keeps encountering the irrationality of Ray.

1083_019851.jpgRichard Widmark is superb and plays truly one of the most hateful characters I have seen in film. Even other members of the hospital acknowledge that his racism is almost a pathology. He unleashes an incredible volley of racial slurs, using the N-word multiple times. He represents a mentality of Beaver Canal, something Edie wants to leave behind, that is almost like arrested-development.

Edie seems to bring out more of the noir elements of the film in her struggles to extricate herself from Beaver Canal and is played very convincingly by Linda Darnell. It is fascinating to watch her character change and see her ideas transformed. She begins by referring to Dr. Brooks as “that colored doctor” or “negro doctor.” By the middle of the film, you can see her consciously stopping and choosing to say “Dr. Brooks.” She goes out of her way to acknowledge Dr. Brooks’ wife by greeting her. By the end, she calls him Luther, and not in a condescending context. Every time she meets a black person, you can see her curiosity and as she talks to Dr. Wharton’s black housekeeper, Gladys, she begins to come to that realization that Gladys is not “other,” but that they actually have much in common.

No Way Out is a film that reflects its time. Dr. Wharton is a good example of this. He says he believes in good doctors, not white doctors or black doctors, and he is a good friend to Dr. Brooks. However, you can still see the racial bias of the system at work, through no fault of his own. He is in the position of patron, not just friend. And when Mrs. Brooks holds back her tears until after he has left and cries on Gladys’ shoulders, you can see that there is still lurking an ‘us vs. them’ mindset. You don’t cry in front of the patron.

In real life, Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier were good friends. In fact, Widmark felt so bad about how he treated Poitier’s character in the film, that he frequently apologized during filming. It’s a well-acted, intense, and compelling drama, that holds up well as a movie and not just as social commentary.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir

 

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