Friday, 19 February 2016

A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)

Written by Valerie Deane



Film noir…or not film noir? The question seems to nag this movie like a toothache.  

Which I have to say is baffling to me. It’s hard to imagine a film in which fate lays its hand upon a protagonist more heavily than it does in A Place in the Sun. Having just watched it again, I’m convinced more than ever that the movie's depiction of young lives tragically disrupted is truly, deeply noir-stained.

But let’s start at the beginning.

George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is a young man from a working-class background who’s been given a chance to get ahead thanks to a wealthy family connection. But from the moment we see him hitching a ride to his new job, we know he’s not going to have an easy time of it.


Clearly ambitious, George covets the American Dream. But though he’s attractive and personable and shares a respected name, he’s not readily accepted by the Eastmans and their circle. Nor is he able to make friends with his co-workers since his uncle has forbidden social contact between family and employees. George becomes infatuated with one of the smart set, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), who chooses to ignore him or just doesn’t see him. Disillusioned, he falls into a relationship with Alice Tripp, a factory girl who’s as lonely as he is. Played by Shelley Winters, she’s a plain but friendly young woman who clearly relishes the attention.


George for a time seems content with it all. Though he’s uneasy flouting his uncle’s rules, he feels he’s not doing  badly – he has a steady job, some money to spend, a room, a car, a girl, perhaps a future. It’s a far cry from living at his mother’s mission, finishing his schooling  at home, and working as a bellhop.

But then fate begins to show its ultimately deadly hand. At the moment that George and Alice’s relationship becomes intimate, his uncle promotes him and invites him – now as one of them - to the Eastman home. He’s formally introduced to Angela who now sees him as an Eastman. She flirts shamelessly with him and the attraction between these two impossibly beautiful people is immediate and intense.


However, it doesn’t take long for things to start to unravel. Alice announces to George that she’s pregnant and although at first he insists that he’ll marry her, he begins to retreat from her as he’s drawn further into the Eastman circle and to Angela. His place in the sun, now tantalizingly close, is all he can think about. Alice, angry at being neglected, threatens to tell all and undo the idyllic romance. George is distraught. His relationship with Alice is now the only barrier to the fulfilment of his dream. He feels that the fates are conspiring to send his life spiraling out of control. However, what he thinks of as ‘the fates’ could be his own moral frailty – the actions he’s taken, the choices he’s made, and his inability to deal with the consequences.


But then Angela suddenly provides George with what he thinks could be a solution to his problem. In passing, she mentions a drowning at the lake. He listens carefully. Angela has become an accidental femme fatale who causes him to stumble into a classic dead-end street where murder looks like the only way out. George moves ahead with a plan to kill Alice, but it’s hastily conceived and it’s clear that he’s ill-equipped to commit such a crime.


He takes Alice rowing on the lake but what happens is not what he’d planned. At the critical moment, he’s unable to kill her. Then Alice accidentally stumbles and falls into the water. Panic-stricken, unable to swim, she will drown. George has a chance to save her (as well as himself) but is unable or unwilling to do so and Alice dies – exactly as he’d wanted.

What is George to do? He could report the accident and face up to the consequences. But if he did report it, would anyone believe him? He had set out with the intention of killing Alice and given his premeditation, his innocence might be hard, if not impossible, for him to argue. The line between guilt and innocence is blurred at best. We know Alice had told George that she was afraid of water and couldn't swim. We see his reaction to Angela’s telling of the drowning at her lake. We watch him listen to the news report on weekend accidents with aroused interest. We listen to him lie to Alice with greater frequency and ease. We feel his anticipation as a plan takes form. And in the end, Alice dies because he makes no attempt to save her.


With his religious upbringing, George knows that guilty thoughts count as much as guilty deeds. There is no way out – he is doomed and he knows it. With scarcely a word in his own defense, he succumbs to the inevitable - capture, trial, condemnation. Unwilling to act to save his intended victim’s life, he’s unable to move to save his own. His loss of moral certainty, his vision of himself as the victim (rather than Alice or even Angela), and his inability to see the inevitable and tragic consequences of his actions place him at the very center of the noir universe.

Visually, A Place in the Sun registers as high noir. High-contrast lighting and multiple off-angle camera shots emphasize the drama’s overwhelming sense of despair. In one striking scene, George is on the first day of his new job only the morning after Alice has told him she’s pregnant. The film’s director George Stevens frames his interiors to suggest George trapped in a cage – an indication of his state of mind and a foreshadowing of the prison cell waiting. Stevens even subverts our appreciation of exteriors of great natural beauty, rendering them ominous and ill-disposed.


Costuming in A Place in the Sun also is central to its sense of noirness. Angela is dressed either in white or in black depending on whether she’s seen as part of George’s place in the sun or conversely as the catalyst for Alice’s death. George is dressed in light tweeds on his first visit to the Eastman family and is both dwarfed by the chair in which he is sitting and made invisible by the pillars and grandeur of the home. However, as he is accepted into that social circle, George’s clothing becomes darker and he increasingly dominates the scene.


A Place in the Sun is based on Theodore Dreiser’s epic novel, An American Tragedy, which runs over a 1,000 pages. Stevens replaces the sweep and detail of the novel with an intensity and focus that charts George’s incremental progression from an innocently ambitious young man to a confused, guilt-ridden wretch condemned for murder. As he’s led to his execution, his fellow inmates express the hope that he’s headed for a better world than the one he has known. Ironically, he was just beginning to know how good his world could have been. A place in the sun could have been his if he hadn’t been so blinded by the desire for it that he was prepared to do anything, even murder, to attain it. How could anything be more noir than that?




Valerie Deane

Saturday, 13 February 2016

STOLEN IDENTITY (1953)


“Everyone has a chance. Mine came today and I won’t let go of it”


It is a shadowy, harrowing tale passionately told by Austrian author Alexander Lernet-Holenia in his best-selling novel, Ich war Jack Mortimer (1933).  

Ferdinand ‘Fred’ Sponer, a Budapest taxi-driver, picks up a wealthy American passenger, Jack Mortimer, at the train station on New Year’s Eve. When he goes inside to retrieve his fare’s bags, Mortimer is shot. Fred is about to start a new job as a chauffeur and doesn’t want to get involved with the police. He pulls away and dumps the body in the woods. But he worries that he still could be connected with the disappearance and decides to fake the man's arrival by checking into the man's hotel wearing his clothes and assuming his identity.  

Waiting for Mortimer is Winifred Montemayor, who’s about to leave her husband, renowned orchestra conductor Pedro Montemayor, and run away with the American. When she goes to Mortimer’s room and finds Fred there with her lover’s bags, she threatens to expose him and he flees. However, he soon learns that his is not the only deception and he has far more to fear than just the police.

In 1935, the book became a film, Ich war Jack Mortimer, directed by Carl Froelich from an elegant script by Thea von Harbou (recently profiled in the Fall 2015 edition of Noir City magazine).  Anton Walbrook stars as the ill-tempered Fred, a prole who’s increasingly bitter about the hand he’s been dealt as he toils away with little hope of bettering himself.  He takes out his frustration on Marie, his fiancée, whose affection he does not deserve.


Though Fred is not a very likeable character, he's also not without charm. Walbrook was an engaging actor, an Austrian who in 1936 settled in England after changing his name from Adolph to Anton (Walbrook was gay and also classified under the Nuremberg Laws as half-Jewish).  In Britain, he continued to work as a film actor, making a specialty of playing imperious continentals including the tyrannical impresario Lermontov in The Red Shoes, 1948 (a highlight of San Francisco’s Noir City festival in January 2016).


Ich war Jack Morimer shares some of the saturnine expressiveness of the great silent melodramas. It’s formal, Teutonic, and gloomy, a compelling proto-noir. 

A second movie version of the tale, Abentueur in Wein aka Adventures in Vienna was released in 1952, starring Gustav Fröhlich (Metropolis, 1927) as ‘Toni’ Sponer  and Francis Lederer as the husband, now Claude Manelli.  A year later Lederer was able to reprise his part in an Austrian/ US co-production, Stolen Identity, 1953, a near shot-for-shot remake of Abentueur in Wein featuring an English-speaking cast in the main roles. 


Produced by Turhan Bey (The Mysterious Mr. X, 1948; Parole Inc., 1948) and directed by Gunther Von Fritsch (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), Stolen Identity remains set in Vienna amid the destruction of WWII.  Like The Third Man, 1950, the movie is a deeply atmospheric suspense thriller that plays like a post-war spy/ espionage drama without actually being one.

American actor Donald Buka plays Toni Sponer, this time an undocumented refugee from Eastern Europe who had fled to Austria. But no papers means no work permit and no permit means no passport.  Toni is desperate to leave Vienna and to get to the US where he once lived as a child. Meantime, he survives by driving a taxi illegally. When Jack Mortimer is murdered in his cab, Toni recovers his passport and cash and jumps on them as a way out.


As before, problems arise when Toni goes to the hotel impersonating Mortimer and is met by Karen Manelli (Joan Camden), Claude Manelli's beleaguered wife. But this time Karen reports Toni to the police and they pick him up on suspicion of identity theft.  However, Manelli, for his own reasons, identifies Toni as Jack Mortimer, telling the police that his wife has a history of mental illness and is always making up stories. Karen is released to her husband but escapes, realizing Toni has been set up.

Though based on the same story, Ich War Jack Mortimer and Stolen Identity are very different movies – as might be expected having been made nearly twenty years apart,  one prior to WWII, the other following. Diverging dramatically in tone and style, Ich War Jack Mortimer is a contained crime drama while Stolen Identity is an expansive thriller that provides its characters with backstories as well as giving attention to their development.  Toni, as played by Buka, a handsome and forceful actor (The Street with No Name, 1948; Between Midnight and Dawn, 1950) is a more sympathetic protagonist than his morose, self-absorbed predecessor, Fred.  While there are actors who would have turned Stolen Identity into a florid melodrama, Buka gives a restrained and believable performance.

Likewise, Joan Camden (The Captive City, 1952), a more responsive actress than Jack Mortimer's enigmatic Sybille Schmitz who committed suicide by barbiturate overdose while under the ‘care’ of her doctor. Camden was a fragile beauty, never a show-off, who made an impact in a gentle way, often portraying wholesome, devoted wives and girlfriends. She shared that quality with the likes of Margaret Sullavan, June Allyson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Teresa Wright, though without ever managing to share their star power.   


But it’s really Francis Lederer (Confessions of Nazi Spy, 1939; The Madonna’s Secret, 1946) who claims center stage (as he actually does several times in concert performance). Lederer was a Czech-born actor whose dark good looks and silken air won him movie roles as a suave continental type in films from the silent era into the 1950’s, after which he switched mostly to television.

Lederer began on stage and with a half-dozen films made in Europe – including the silent classic Pandora’s Box (1929) starring Louis Brooks - before being brought to America by RKO as a romantic European lead. However, Lederer, in his many appearances as assorted rogues, charmers, horror villains and Nazi spies never really fulfilled his potential in Hollywood. Though Ginger Rogers wrote of him, “The studios didn’t know how to handle Francis or buy stories for him”, Lederer believed that it was his inherent shyness and reluctance to do publicity that worked against his becoming a big romantic star like Charles Boyer.  Nevertheless, he was a fine actor and even in unsympathetic roles like that of Claude Manelli, was able to imbue his characters with humanity. He was impressive in the classic noir The Madonna’s Secret, 1946 as a troubled artist who might be trusted one second but never the next.



Lederer is equally good in Stolen Identity, a B production that, as suggested, can be compared favorably on its own more modest terms to director Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Among its merits are Gunter von Fritisch’s polished direction and stunningly restless noir cinematography by Helmut Ashley who worked later on German director Frank Wisbar’s gripping drama, Wet Asphalt (1958), starring Horst Buchholz and Gerte Frobe. Stolen Identity’s intelligent script also captures the despair, pain, and bone-weariness of post-war Europe. 

And though there’s no real mystery to Stolen Identity, there is still tremendous suspense, built upon small incidents and many surprises including a memorable finale.  The stolen/ mistaken identity trope is common in film noir but Stolen Identity’s reckoning is not. This unpretentious B production fulfils its promise and does so uncommonly well.   

Gary Deane


Friday, 5 February 2016

JAIL BAIT (1954): THE BEST "WORST FILM NOIR EVER MADE"




“Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.”  Vladimir Nabokov


Once upon a time, Friday night just wasn’t Friday night on college campuses without a screening of one or both of Ed Wood’s famously bad Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956) or Glen or Glenda (1953), a demented cult classic that still baffles to this day. The latter is notable for its groundbreaking, if weirdly unhinged portrayal of LGBT issues (Wood himself was an enthusiastic cross-dresser, with a particular fondness for angora).  

Wood’s story is well-known (if not entirely understood), mostly thanks to Plan 9’s epic exposure on late night television beginning in 1961, followed by its citing as ‘The Worst Film Ever Made’ in Michael Medved’s best-selling book The Golden Turkey Awards (1980). Wood along the way had become an object of cult fascination himself, an obsession fed further with the release of Tim Burton’s small masterpiece, Ed Wood (1994), one of The Best Films Ever Made Not to Receive an Oscar Nomination.  




In 1947 Wood came to Hollywood and began writing scripts and directing commercials and TV pilots along with several micro-budget westerns.  Glenda or Glenda was Wood’s first feature and it was probably a miracle that he ever got to direct another one.  However, two years after Glen or Glenda, Wood teamed up with Alex Gordon, a writer from the UK and together they set to work on a grungy little crime drama called Jail Bait

The title was provocative and meant to be, even though the film itself had nothing to do with under-aged girls. Gordon, who would go on to co-found American International Pictures, provided Jail Bait a semi-coherent story line and narrative flow, something to which few other Ed Wood films can lay claim. For that reason alone, it stands as one of the least woeful movies the director ever made. 


The jail bait in question is a gun and Jail Bait is the story of how a gun can get a person into a lot of trouble.  As the film opens, Don Gregor (Clancy Moore), the wayward son of a world-famous plastic surgeon is being bailed out of jail by his sister, Marilyn (Dolores Fuller), for possession of an unregistered firearm. Keeping an eye out are the two cops in charge of the case, played by Lyle Talbot and a pre-Hercules Steve Reeves in his first shot at stardom.  The pair knows that Don has fallen in with a low-rent gangster, Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell) and that they’ve pulled off a couple of small time heists together. Otherwise, the cops haven’t been able to nab them on anything more than weapons possession. 
  
When Don gets home, he grabs another gun and goes out to meet Vic. Brady and Don go off to rob a movie theater but not before the action cuts to a striptease show (in some expurgated versions of the film, it’s a blackface minstrel show), something that has absolutely nothing to with anything, a hallmark of most Ed Wood productions.  Later the robbery goes awry when Don panics and kills a security guard and a woman is shot. Things pretty much go to hell after that. To protect himself, Vic kills Don and then blackmails Don’s father into giving him a new face. However, before the operation, the good doctor discovers Don’s body at Vic’s apartment (Vic already had been muttering, “I don’t like dead men cluttering up my place.”) Overcome with anger, Gregor Sr. makes plans to take his revenge. 

Doctor Gregor is played by Herbert Rawlinson, a former silent era leading man who scratched out a living afterwards by taking any roles he could get, a lot of them uncredited.  It’s hard to say who gives the worst performance in Jail Bait but the winner (loser?) might as well be Rawlinson, who suffers the lion’s share of bad dialog in a film which revels in it. As he says after a hard day at the office, “You know, I had to perform a very difficult operation this morning…and it was very strenuous and complicated. Plastic surgery seems to me at times to be very, very, complicated.”  Or when he allows Don to escape from the police: “Out the back door and into the alley! The Doctors of the Night will hide and protect you!” And, "This afternoon we had a long telephone conversation earlier in the day”. Maybe it was just as well that Rawlinson died the night after shooting his last scene in the movie.

But then ripe dialog is all to be expected in an Ed Wood movie. That and sets and décor so impoverished and tacky that one of the biggest laughs comes when Fuller calls Brady a ‘cheap crook’, only to have his girlfriend, Loretta (Theodora Thurman exclaim, “Cheap? Just look at the place! Vic is anything but cheap!”  
     
However, given that the budget on the film was only $21,000 for a 4-day shoot, Wood did well by it and there’s arguably something more there than might meet the uncommitted eye. Jail Bait is the closest Wood ever came to making a legitimate movie and entering the Hollywood mainstream. Though he was out of his depth as a director, especially with actors, the movie manages to be far more enjoyable than many run-of-the-mill crime dramas and B noirs of the period that are far less suspenseful. Jail Bait’s wacko plot and daft dialog are all just part of the movie’s aberrant charm. It’s so consumed with its own internal logic and so thickly riddled with clichés that they almost stop being clichés and the movie takes on a strange, otherworldly, intoxicating sense of its own (or almost of its own. Always looking to cut corners, Wood used the same dream-like flamenco-guitar score as he did in Mesa of Lost Women, 1953).  

A good chunk of Jail Bait’s perverse allure can be credited to Timothy Farrell, an actor with mustachioed good looks, an authoritative baritone and a smarmy, suspect manner. Farrell actually was purpose-built for film noir and played the lead in half a dozen crime titles involving Wood. The problem for Farrell was that he wasn’t that much of an actor and Wood was just about the only one who would hire him. But no matter how chintzy the production, incongruous the story, or cheap the patter, Farrell managed at least to give a conscientious performance, often at sizeable odds with material. Perhaps he just had ambitions at sizeable odds with reality. 



Farrell, born Timothy Sperl, grew up in Los Angeles and after serving in the Army Air Corps in WWII, got a job as a bailiff with the Los Angeles Marshal’s Office. Around the same time he started getting bit parts in low-rent B titles. The first was Test Tube Babies (1948) in which Farrell played a sympathetic doctor who counsels a young couple that there’s no shame or scandal in test tube fertilization and artificial insemination. Of course the information is sandwiched between gratuitous nudity, wild parties, a striptease and a cat fight.

Farrell’s bedside manner won him a similar part in Hometown Girl (1949) another ‘sex hygiene’ film that dealt with unwed motherhood. Both films had been produced by schlockmeister George Weiss who then cast Farrell as a scumbag gymnasium owner and drug pusher in a trio of crude quickies, The Devil’s Sleep (1949), Racket Girls (1951), and Dance Hall Racket (1953). The first of them was mostly an excuse to showcase endless lengths of female-wrestling and cat-fighting footage, the last a cheesy curio written by and co-starring stand-up social satirist and fall-down substance abuser Lenny Bruce who died of a morphine overdose at age 40.  



Shortly after, Farrell appeared in another seedy Weiss-produced title Paris after Midnight (1951) which boasted famous stripper, Tempest Storm. During production, Farrell along with everyone else on the set was busted in a highly-publicized vice-raid, never a good thing to happen to a sworn peace officer.

However, none of the shit seemed to stick and in 1954 life met art when his legal and theatrical careers dove-tailed in the George Cukor film, A Star is Born in which he was cast as a an officer of the court. It happened again when Farrell secured a regular part as court bailiff in a late ‘50’s television series, Accused, starring among others Robert Culp and Pamela Mason.  
    
Farrell’s screen career ended in 1957. Meantime, he’d managed to hold on to his job in the Los Angeles County Marshall’s Office and rose through the ranks and was appointed County Marshall in 1975. However, he was fired four years later following conviction on corruption charges. 

Otherwise, the legacy of Ed Wood lives on with events such as the University of Southern California’s annual ‘Ed Wood Film Festival’ at which students are charged with writing, filming, and editing an Ed Wood-esque short film based on a predetermined theme. His movies were spoofed on the much-loved Mystery Theater 3000 and several remade as pornographic features. Additionally, many of his bizarre transvestite-themed sex novels have been republished.

Wood also established a theme with Jail Bait that he would return to several times: that lenient, weak-willed parenting can lead to disaster. This was hinted in Glen or Glenda, then given full-throat in Jail Bait and The Violent Years (1956), a juvenile delinquency yarn in which a rich and spoiled girl with indulgent parents forms a vicious girl gang with a penchant for robbing gas stations. Parents, please be warned! This could happen to you! 




Gary Deane

DON MARTIN: SCREENWRITER IN THE SHADOWS

When queried on the whys and wherefores of film noir, the late Arthur Lyons, founder and patron saint of the Palm Springs Film Noir F...