Sunday, February 12, 2012

Desperate Housewives of Film Noir

Caftan Woman's number one movie rule:
  "All film noir are crime drama, but not all crime drama are film noir."


The French have a word for it. Not only does "noir" perfectly evoke the fatalistic driven plots and dense cinematography of Hollywood crime pictures of the World War 2 and post-War era, but it is so much fun to say. Everybody, on three, 1 - 2 - 3, "nwarh".

A movie gets my noir seal of approval if it gives me an emotional kick in the gut and sustains that mood. Many scholars and fans have a check list of expectations to define film noir. Topping many such lists is the femme-fatale who drags our "hero" into the depths of despair and tragedy. Aw, poor baby. Did the strong, sexy woman scare the little man?

Film noir are not only populated by obsessive cops, vengeful crooks and stubborn private eyes. Some stories focus on the keeper of the house, she of the starched apron. Every lifestyle has its pros and cons, and the mid-century housewife was equally the object of envy and scorn. Many senior citizens of my acquaintance look back at that time as a golden one when the kids were young and the hubby still had all his hair. However, the makers of crime pictures told their stories from the angle of lives lived in quiet desperation.


Without Honor (1949)

We meet Jane Bandle (Laraine Day) in her sun-filled kitchen tending to shish kebob skewers for the evening's repast. Dennis Williams (Franchot Tone) furtively enters the home and anxiously confronts Jane with the news that a detective has been nosing around and they have been found out. Jane is so relieved about no longer having to hide her love that she doesn't initially comprehend her lover's anxiety and references to his impressionable teenage daughters. When it finally dawns on Jane that her disloyalty has been for naught, she becomes hysterical and attempts harakiri with a kebob blade. Dennis is at least gentleman enough to struggle with Jane and is himself stabbed.

It is a shocking situation to find oneself with blood on her hands and a body in the laundry room. It is in shock that Jane changes into a demure frock and calls a cab to get her away from the house. Honourably, she does intend to go to the police station, but her ill-formed plans are scuttled by the arrival of her brother-in-law Bill (Dane Clark). No love is lost between these two, although Bill's dislike has crossed the border into pathological land. Not only has Bill hired the detective who discovered Jane's affair, he has arranged for all interested parties to convene at the house for a grand showdown where his brother will be freed from Jane's clutches.

Laraine Day, Agnes Moorehead

Mrs. Williams (Agnes Moorehead) is sympathetic and noble, playing by her own rules and not willing to play Bill's game. Jane's husband Fred (Bruce Bennett) is more easily manipulated as the revelation of his wife's betrayal is a surprise to him. As we know, Jane has a further surprise of her own to share before the day comes to an emotional end.

Without Honor was directed by actor/director Irving Pichel (The Pied Piper, Quicksand, They Won't Believe Me, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid) from a succinct script by James Poe (Lilies of the Field, The Bedford Incident, Last Train from Gun Hill) which is able to make some telling comments about relationships. The main flaws in the film are the cheapness of the production and, unfortunately, Max Steiner's exclamation point filled score which undermines the subtler aspects of the performances. In another incarnation Without Honor might have been the best remembered episode of an anthology series, but as a motion picture it misses the mark.

Cause for Alarm! (1951)

Ellen Jones (Loretta Young) lives a lonely life caring for her invalid husband George (Barry Sullivan). On the day we meet her Ellen is so weary that even her housework fails to give her pleasure, but she brushes aside such selfish thoughts. After all, George is bedridden with a heart condition and needs her to be cheerful. In a flashback she recalls meeting the devil-may-care pilot during the war when they shared a picnic of potato salad and ration cards, and dreamed of a future together. Ellen will soon come to realize that George has planned a very different future not only for her, but for family physician and best friend Dr. Graham (Bruce Cowling). George imagines the two are having an affair and mean to do away with him. So strong is George's delusion that he has, that very day, had Ellen mail a letter to the district attorney outlining the plot. George plans to shoot Ellen and use a self defense claim to trap Dr. Graham. George has issues! George also has that heart problem and dies with a pistol pointed at his shocked wife.

A dead husband with a bum ticker is one thing. A dead husband and an incriminating letter on its way to the DA's office is quite another thing. One misconception people have about those who work at home is that their time is their own. Not true. Unwanted phone calls and unexpected visitors annoyingly fill the hours. In the case of a woman facing a murder frame these interruptions are alarming.

On this day of all days, Ellen must cope with the little neighbourhood Hopalong Cassidy fan (Brad Morrow), George's solicitous aunt (Margalo Gilmore) and a suspicious neighbour (Georgia Backus). Above all, she must find a way around the loquacious and officious mailman (Irving Bacon) and his bureaucratic superior (Art Baker). How would you deal with these stresses? Exactly. Ellen does no better than you or I might. She does not suddenly become a cool and collected mastermind. Her desperation and fear simmers just below the surface boiling over to hysteria before something commonplace upsets George's plan.

Directed by Tay Garnett (The Valley of Decision, Cheers for Miss Bishop, Bataan) from a story by Larry Marcus (Dark City, The Bigamist), Cause for Alarm! is a tense story nicely paced with fine juxtaposition between the terror of the situation and the everyday setting. The use of intermittent narration does not mar the story, but neither does it add anything to the presentation.

Cause for Alarm! is a must see for the next wedding shower you are asked to organize.



Crime of Passion
(1957)

Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a successful advice columnist for a San Francisco newspaper. Assigned by her dismissive editor (Jay Adler) to work up the "woman's angle" on a murder case, Kathy causes a sensation with her article and gains a career opportunity with a New York paper. The case also introduced Kathy to L.A. detective William Doyle (Sterling Hayden). Kathy is an ambitious career woman who considers marriage a life sentence, but when she's wrapped up in Bill's strong arms she dreams only of being the "little woman".

The wifely idyll is not enough for Kathy who is a total fish out of water. The card parties with their circle of friends, other cops and their wives, drive Kathy to distraction. She cannot cope with the insipid gossip of the females and their constant fawning over the captain's wife, Sara (Virginia Grey). She is not welcomed as one of the boys where they sit in court to Captain Alidas (Royal Dano). When the captain takes credit for a work coup pulled off by her Bill, Kathy has had enough. All of her thwarted ambition goes into improving Bill's position. Never mind that the easy-going detective has no dreams of professional glory, only of making a home with his girl.

The next step up from Bill and Kathy's circle is that of the superintendent, Inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr) and his wife Alice (Fay Wray). Kathy maneuvers her way into that set, cutting Sara out by becoming Alice's new friend. However, Kathy has more in common with Tony. They recognize in each other a drive that sets them apart. Quickly Bill becomes attached to the Inspector's office with duties which frequently take him out of town. Kathy also manufactures an incident which disgraces Captain Alidos and sends him into exile. At this point Kathy and Tony could be said to be having an affair of the mind. He shares his most interesting cases and she casually has liquor on hand for the not unexpected visits when Bill is away. When Tony confides his imminent retirement to care for an increasingly ill Alice and ponders his replacement Kathy moves in for the kill. Her Bill must have that promotion and Tony's promise is implicit in the night they spend together.

In the cold light of day Tony decides Captain Alidos is the right man for the job, not Bill, and Kathy should cash in her chips while she is ahead of the game. Foolish man. Hell hath no fury like Stanwyck scorned. Opportune access to a gun used in a crime and bound for the property room seals Tony's fate. After the body is discovered Bill phones Kathy to ask her to look after Alice. I am moved by the way Barbara Stanwyck says "Alice" as if hearing the name for the first time and suddenly realizing the world of pain she has given to a friend. Kathy has also proven to everyone the worth of her detective husband as he doggedly tracks the evidence to his own doorstep.

Crime of Passion was directed by Gerd Oswald (A Kiss Before Dying, Screaming Mimi) and written by newsman Jo Eisenger (Gilda, Night and the City). Kathy may be an extreme example of stifled ability and misdirected energy, but Eisenger makes a strong case for madness from the mundane.

The next time you watch His Girl Friday imagine that this could have been Hildy if Walter hadn't kept her from marrying Bruce.


Nice photograph of our stars of Crime of Passion during a career upswing holding their 1961 Emmy Awards for The Barbara Stanwyck Show and Perry Mason.



Saturday, February 11, 2012

Nothing beats a Nick Barkley fight!

Peter Breck
1929-2012

Nothing beats a Nick Barkley fight! On The Big Valley, actor Peter Breck gave us Nick Barkley. Nick the hot-headed. Nick the hard-headed. Nick the fighter. Nick would fight with anybody and everybody. He might take on a whole saloon or maybe even a whole town - single handed. Fists flying, furniture throwing, leaping from staircases Nick was in the thick of it. There would be a point in the proceedings where things would look pretty bleak for our lad and then Nick would get that second wind and "Yee-haw" his opponents had no chance. Now, every once in a while he'd get help from brothers Jarrod (Richard Long) and Heath (Lee Majors), but there was no doubt that Nick Barkley would always finish what he started. Nick's boisterous personality hid a sentimental nature, especially where his family was concerned. Of course, he was willing to fight kin when he had a just cause, but one look from his mother Victoria (Barbara Stanwyck) and Nick would be meek as a lamb.

Lee Majors, Peter Breck, Richard Long, Barbara Stanwyck, Linda Evans

A working actor for most of his life, Peter Breck had a pragmatic and honest attitude toward his profession. A few years ago he hosted a marathon of The Big Valley on a Canadian television network. He reminisced about his co-stars and the fun he had with the success of the show with genuine affection and humour.

With Peter's passing at age 81 on February 6th his friends and family have lost someone close to them. For fans, the darkly handsome and personable Peter Breck will always be fun to watch on all those tv shows such as Black Saddle, Maverick, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, etc.

Note: Currently only season 1 and volume 1 of season 2 of The Big Valley are available on dvd.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Frankly, My Dear: Rianna's film survey

The charming Rianna of Frankly, My Dear poses some interesting classic movie questions and, being as I want to avoid my Saturday chores, I'm more than happy to oblige with some answers.


1. Favorite classic Disney?

"The little elephant with the big ears - Dumbo!"

Seamless storytelling that expertly combines the sentimental and the cynical with a lovely Oscar winning score.


2. Favorite film from the year 1939?

John Ford shows everybody how to make a movie.


3. Favorite Carole Lombard Screwball role?

Lily Garland from Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century
Carole Lombard and John Barrymore


4. Favorite off screen couple? (It’s ok if it ended in divorce.)

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans
No divorce for these lovebirds.


5. Favorite pair of best friends? (i.e: Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford)

Frank McHugh, Pat O'Brien, James Cagney

James Cagney and Pat O'Brien were not only compatible screen partners, with ten movie collaborations to their credit, but pals (drinking buddies) outside of work as well.


6. Favorite actor with a mustache?

The Mouthpiece himself - Warren William.


7. Favorite blonde actress?

The world's most talented girl next door - Doris Day.


8. Favorite pre-code?
The pace is remarkable in this not for the politically correct thriller. You can't take your eyes off the screen for a moment or you'll miss something. Lewis Stone as a senior citizen James Bond type going up against a maniac Boris Karloff bent on world domination? Irresistible.


9. Which studio would you have liked to join?

The studio sorting hat places this community theatre character actress at Twentieth Century Fox where she can appear in Charlie Chan movies, be spotlighted in the odd film noir, kick up her heels in a musical or two and maybe have a bit in a John Ford film.


10. Favorite common on screen pairing that SHOULD have gotten married?

John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara


11. Favorite I Love Lucy episode?

One? The Operetta from Season 2. It is so very funny.


12. Out of these actresses which one do you like best: Lucille Ball, Ingrid Bergman, Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Greer Garson, Grace Kelly, or Katharine Hepburn?

My favourite actress of those listed is Katharine Hepburn. Her versatility and strength continually astounds me. Although I could make a strong case for all of the ladies listed.


13. Shadowy film noir from the 1940’s or splashy colorful musicals from the 1950’s?

So, you're asking me to choose between Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Laura? Impossible. Although, once I recommended a movie to someone and she asked "It's not one of those noir things you like, is it?" So, I guess I'm really the dark, moody type.


14. Actor or actress with the best autograph (photo preferred).

Have you ever seen a neater hand than Randolph Scott's? I appreciate nice handwriting.


15. A baby (or childhood, or teenage) photo of either your favorite actress or actor (or both, if you’d like.)

Little Jimmy Cagney would grow up to be my favourite actor. The kid was born with attitude.



Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for February on TCM


TCMs annual 31 Days of Oscar is once again upon us and my recommendation for the month is John Ford's The Long Voyage Home from 1940 which was invited to the Oscar party with six nominations, including Best Picture, but left empty-handed after the festivities.

Ford's frequent screenwriting collaborator Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach, The Informer, The Lost Patrol, Pilgramage, Judge Priest, The Hurricane, etc.) had an idea to unite "two poets" when he suggested a film based on Eugene O'Neill's plays of the sea. Ford and Nichols visited and received full approval and co-operation from the playwright and The Long Voyage Home was born. John Ford and Darryl Zanuck of Fox had had one of their falling outs, so Ford took the project to Stagecoach producer Walter Wanger and it was released under the Argosy banner.

Innovative cinematographer Gregg Toland, Ford's collaborator on another Best Picture nominee of the season, The Grapes of Wrath, contributed immensely to the poetic, moody feel of The Long Voyage Home. Henry Fonda said in an interview that Ford with his unerring eye "won Oscars for his cameramen", however it is obvious from the above credit card for the film that Ford had great respect for his fellow artist.

Barry Fitzgerald, John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell
David Hughes, John Qualen, Joe Sawyer, Jack Pennick

The Long Voyage Home has a wonderful ensemble of actors who bring to life the men of the Merchant Marine steamer the Glencairn. Our first look at the crew reveals "types" in everybody's pal Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell), the boisterous Yank (Ward Bond), the philosophical Donkeyman (Arthur Shields), the secretive gentleman (Ian Hunter), the youngster (John Wayne), the sneaky Cocky (Barry Fitzgerald) and others.

"The best thing to do with memories is forget them."

Throughout a perilous journey transporting ammunition through the war zone of the Atlantic, fear strips away the facades to reveal the souls of the crew through their trials, longings, bravery and folly. The Long Voyage Home is an emotional drama filmed with great sensitivity and power.

Oscar nominations:
Cinematography, Black & White (winner, George Barnes, Rebecca)
Effects, Special Effects (winner, The Thief of Bagdad)
Film Editing (winner, Anne Bauchens, North West Mounted Police)
Original Score (winner, Pinocchio)
Picture (winner, Rebecca)
Screenplay (winner, Donald Ogden Stewart, The Philadelphia Story)

TCM is screening The Long Voyage Home on Tuesday, February 7th at 7:45 am. Note: the film is not airing on TCM Canada although three cast members, John Qualen, Joe Sawyer and Douglas Walton were Canadian born.