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It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

downloadStories involving special knowledge about the future nearly always appeal to me, so I was looking forward to seeing It Happened Tomorrow, a whimsical fantasy set in the 1890s, starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell. Unfortunately, it was not all that I had hoped for. It’s more of a curiosity, though not without its charms.

Lawrence “Larry” Stevens (Dick Powell) is an ambitious reporter who has just been promoted from writing obituaries. At a party, he jokes with his co-workers that he would give ten years of his life to be able to read tomorrow’s newspaper, but the old timer Pop (John Philliber) cautions him that he doesn’t even know if he has ten years to give. However, that night Pop hands Larry a newspaper that is indeed tomorrow’s newspaper. It says there will be a hold-up at the opera house and Larry makes sure he’s there, even copying down the article from the newspaper so he can reproduce it.

But things do not work out exactly as Larry expects. For one, the police suspect him of collusion and even suspect the woman he has fallen in love with, Sylvia Smith (Linda Darnell) – a professional clairvoyant who does her act with her hustling Uncle Oscar (Jack Oakie). Essentially, Larry becomes a prisoner to the future, always trying to either fulfill it, ignore it or avoid it. But no matter what he does, he always manages to act in a way that makes the headlines a self-fulling prophecy. The eventual result is comic despair and fatalism.

It Happened Tomorrow feels like a transitional (or filler) film for nearly everyone involved. Dick Powell was about to essay his career changing role as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, Linda Darnell was transitioning away from sweet ingenues to femme fatales or woman from the wrong side of the tracks and director Rene Clair was partly killing time while stranded in America during the Nazis occupation of France.

download (1)Rene Clair often gravitated towards fantasy and whimsy. His most famous movies include some early French musicals (A nous la liberte) and I Married a Witch and And Then There Were NoneIt Happened Tomorrow is definitely a lesser film, though it’s not a bad film. The pacing seems a little off, and the timing, and the acting and humor is a little broad. Would it have made a difference if Clair had gotten his first choice for Larry, Cary Grant?

Dick Powell, as I said was transitioning away from musicals and about to establish his wry noir persona. He seems much more understated in those films. For It Happened Tomorrow, he’s funny, but seems to be playing it too broadly, which is interesting because in later comedies, like Susan Slept Here, he seems spot on. Perhaps he was simply too old, or simply no longer looked like the eager young reporter he was playing and was trying to compensate?

Or perhaps it was because he was playing opposite Jack Oakie, who is the very definition of broad comedy. Oakie has a way of stealing scenes, even at one point wearing one of the loudest suits I’ve ever seen, and he tends to run away with things a little too much at times.

The ending is pretty hilarious, though. Larry has read that he is going to die at a certain hotel the following day and is trying his best to stay away, eventually settling into despair that no matter what he does he will end up at that hotel. He even decides to provide for his widow – Sylvia – by betting at the racetrack, knowing which horses will win and there is genuine suspense as one wonders both how he will end up at the hotel and how he will manage to stay alive.

download (2)Linda Darnell as Sylvia is still mostly in her ingenue phase, though she would play her first femme fatale that same year in Summer Storm with George Sanders. At this point, however, she still doesn’t quite know how to deliver a line or modulate her voice.

Linda Darnell’s career as an actress is a curious one. She began so young (and was initially cast mostly on the strength of her astonishing beauty) that one can literally track how her acting improved through the years. She made her first movie at fifteen (playing a society woman who was supposed to be married to Tyrone Power for three years!) and initially played beautiful ingenues in films like The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand.

It is in the late ’40s that she really comes into her own with films like A Letter to Three Wives (a personal favorite), No Way Out, and Unfaithfully Yours. By that point, she also seems to have learned how to use her voice as an asset and not just as a means of delivering lines. She’s especially good at conveying world-weariness with her voice (and uses her voice in A Letter to Three Wives to conceal her vulnerability). Sadly, her career began to peter out at just the age (late twenties) that most great actresses come into their own (like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck).

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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Pitfall (1948) and Raymond Burr

Poster - Pitfall (1948)_09Two words to describe Raymond Burr in Pitfall are menace and ooze. He oozes menace, but he also just oozes. You almost shudder whenever you see him. When Lizabeth Scott’s Mona tells Dick Powell’s Johnny that she’s “seen some weird ones in [her] time, but that one frightened [her] half to death,” I believe her.

I grew up thinking of Raymond Burr as the upstanding Perry Mason, so I was mildly surprised to discover that before his career defining TV show, he often played villains in film noir. And not just villains, but nasty villains. Creepy, brutal, hulking, psycho villains. His MacDonald in Andre De Toth’s Pitfall is one of his nastiest.

Pitfall is something of a downer, even for film noirs. Johnny Forbes (Dick Powell) is an insurance agent who must reclaim for the insurance company all the items that a man named Smiley (Byron Barr) bought for his girlfriend using stolen money. Johnny is bored with his life, his wife (Jane Wyatt), but mostly it seems with himself. When he meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), the girlfriend of Smiley, she snaps him out of his funk by demanding he not just be an insurance automaton, but a human being with sympathy. They embark on a brief affair, until she discovers that he’s married. She’s deeply hurt, but is too nice a person to make a stink about it and all seems to be over.

Except there’s MacDonald (Burr). He’s a private detective who was hired by Johnny’s company to find out what Smiley did with the stolen money and he’s decided that he’s in love. Mona is not interested, but MacDonald is not put off. He stalks her and when she threatens to go to the police, he threatens to tell Johnny’s wife about the affair. Once again, Mona is simply too nice a person to want to ruin Johnny and asks Johnny what she should do. But instead of telling Mona to go to the police, he says he’ll take care of it. He’s too scared to tell his wife or own up to his own actions, even though his wife knows something is wrong. His continued refusal to admit what he’s done causes Mona’s life, as well as his own, to spiral out of control.

Amazingly, everyone’s gut instinct seems to be to cover up. Johnny tells a friend of his what he’s done and his friend advises Johnny not to tell his wife (never mind that keeping Johnny’s secret is giving MacDonald leverage over Mona). Even Johnny’s wife’s initial reaction when she finally finds out what is going on is to demand Johnny not tell the police. In a telling scene where Johnny’s son has a nightmare, Johnny thinks it’s caused by the comic books he reads and tells him the secret to not having bad dreams is to essentially only look at nice things (ignoring the fact that his son is probably picking up on the unspoken tension in the house).

this scene never actually occurs in the film

this scene never actually occurs in the film

But MacDonald is a menace that cannot be ignored, covered up or dealt with by oneself. Johnny tries to play the tough guy and frighten MacDonald away, but MacDonald is not really deterred by that. He’s not deterred by anything. He honestly doesn’t seem to appreciate how repulsive he is to others, especially Mona. He really believes that if he can get rid of the men in Mona’s life then she would go away with him (as Princess Leia said, “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain”). He’s a cunning man at exploiting people’s weaknesses, but in many ways he’s completely obtuse.

Of course, if everyone had simply gone to the police, the film would have been over halfway through and a lot of heartache, violence and betrayal could have been avoided. Dick Powell is possibly at his least sympathetic in this film, with his tendency to feel sorry for himself and his inability to deal with things squarely (like telling Mona he’s married, telling his wife what is going on – as his wife tells him, “either it’s a marriage or it isn’t” – and the way he tries to save his own skin and leaves Mona with few options in dealing with MacDonald). He covers one lie with another and betrays so many people, there’s no way he can ease his conscience by the end. He’s just going to have to live with himself. It’s an excellent performance.

I really like Lizabeth Scott in Pitfall, too. She’s often compared with Lauren Bacall, but in this film she is warmer, more vulnerable, and looks like a person who has been kicked around a lot by life and other men. But she’s also a thoroughly nice, sympathetic person and she ends up being the real victim of the film.

In the case of Raymond Burr, it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the role better, being sleazier, slimier, more sure of himself. When he visits Mona’s workplace where she models gowns and makes her model several for him, your skin crawls. There is no ambiguity about his character – he is pure evil. Ironically, he used to work with the police force and likes to position himself as being “in” with the police, but at the same time a simple call to the police probably would have solved everything. Is he meant to be symbolic? The dark side of the system (government, authority)? Moral rot? A presence that boredom, fear and insecurity allows to assert itself? Whatever he is, Raymond Burr makes him one of the creepiest villains in film noir.

This post is part of “The Great Villain Blogathon.” My thanks to Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings for hosting! Be sure to check out all the other villainous posts, here.

villain-2016-anderson

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Movies

 

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Murder, My Sweet (1944)

225px-SweetPosterWhen I was watching Gold Diggers of 1933 some time ago, I marveled that Dick Powell, playing an eager, enthusiastic, boyish tenor, could turn into the hard-bitten and wry private eye, Philip Marlowe of Murder, My Sweet. It was one of the more radical mid-career changes I’ve seen. But for me, Dick Powell is Philip Marlowe, even more so than Humphrey Bogart. He has that world-weary, wry way of speaking typical of Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s novels and whenever I read a Chandler novel, I can hear Dick Powell’s voice speaking Marlowe’s lines.

Murder, My Sweet was based on Raymond Chandler’s novel, Farewell, My Lovely, but the title was changed because it was thought it sounded too much like a musical. But Murder, My Sweet is one of those movies I seem to enjoy more each time I watch it and it has become one of my favorite noirs. It also has one of those plots that is so confusing that I seem to have new questions about it each time I watch it. And it’s streamlined in comparison to the book.

Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) wants private detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) to find his girlfriend, Velma, who he hasn’t heard from since he was sent to prison. It seems like an innocent enough job, but it seems to trigger all sorts of things and people suddenly want to hire Marlowe to look in to different things, to get out of things, to keep things hidden. The police are on his case, a jade necklace is stolen, a man is murdered. An elderly millionaire, Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander), and his young wife, Helen Grayle, (Claire Trevor), and a daughter from his first wife, Ann (Anne Shirley) are involved. There is also a shrink, Mr. Amthor (Otto Kruger), who is also interested in the stolen jade necklace. Marlowe’s hit on the head, choked, drugged, vamped, threatened, plead with, and hounded by cops. He has a rough film. His outstanding strength is not that he’s such a great detective, but that he’s persistent. People always assume he knows more than he does, but he thinks on his feet and manages to outfox everyone anyway.

a chauffuer, Dick Powell and Mike Mazurki

A chauffeur, Dick Powell and Mike Mazurki

Murder, My Sweet is called a film noir, but it’s more lighthearted than the usual noir, mostly because of the colorful script that comes from Chandler’s novel and the way that Powell delivers his lines and voice-over narration: “My bank account was trying to crawl under a duck” or his description of the Grayle’s mansion: “It was a nice little front yard. Cozy, okay for the average family. Only you’d need a compass to go to the mailbox. The house was all right, too, but it wasn’t as big as Buckingham Palace.” He’s irreverent and so the viewer is never really allowed to take the film too seriously. Even when he’s been drugged and having bizarre dreams about falling, doors and syringes, he still keeps up a stream of sarcastic commentary, even though it’s clear he’s just trying to hang on to his sanity.

“‘Okay Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.”

Philip Marlowe dominates the film, but though the other characters are less central they are still highly picturesque. It’s not the deepest showcase for femme fatales, though. Clare Trevor as Helen Grayle does very well as the dangerous blonde who likes chasing men (I imagine they meet you halfway” Marlowe replies). She’s central to the plot, the reason everything is happening, but she only has about three or four scenes in the film (though she makes the most of them) and it is pretty obvious from the beginning where her character is coming from.

Dick Powell, Claire Trevor

Dick Powell, Claire Trevor

Anne Shirley as Helen’s step-daughter, Ann, gets one of the more forgiving non-femme-fatale roles in a noir that I’ve ever seen. It’s partially because she actually has more scenes than Claire Trevor does. She’s worried about what Helen’s shenanigans will do to her father and is trying to keep Marlowe away from both her father and Helen. I thought she brought a freshness and spunk to the role.

In the book, Ann was actually a reporter and you would think that would be a more empowered role than daughter of a millionaire, but to be honest, I think she’s better in the movie. In the book she has a case of hero-worship and makes a few slightly embarrassing speeches about how wonderful he is while he shrugs it off like a bored courtesan who has half of Paris at her feet. In the movie, she’s much more suspicious of him and there are mercifully no embarrassing hero-worship speeches.

Mike Mazurki as Moose Malloy is particularly memorable as the hulking lug who is not too bright, but just wants to find Velma (“Cute as lace-pants, she was”) and doesn’t usually mean to hurt anyone, but is just so strong (though a few times he does mean to hurt someone). He may be just a lug, but he’s still sincerely in love.

Dick Powell and Anne Shirley

Dick Powell and Anne Shirley

It’s not as bleak as many film noirs, though it does have that general atmosphere of corruption with a world-weary Marlowe who seems more, in the words of Ross Macdonald in regards to Chandler, like a “slumming angel” than an actual part of the corruption. But that should not obscure how much fun Murder, My Sweet is. It makes for a good transitional film for Dick Powell. Some of his later noirs, like Pitfall, are more uncompromisingly pessimistic. Another adaptation of a Chandler novel, The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart, is like that, too: a fun film noir.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2015 in Movies

 

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