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The Lady Confesses

This is a pretty shabby film noir from Poverty Row studio PRC. It is a bit of a novelty today as Hugh Beaumont, who went on to play the ideal suburban father in “Leave it To Beaver,” here portrays a drunken playboy who becomes embroiled in a homicide investigation when his estranged wife suddenly reappears just before their divorce becomes legal, and soon turns up murdered. Although the shoestring budget is evident throughout, there are a few nice shots that pop up every now and then, such as a woman opening her jewelry box to find the shadowy figure of a man lurking in the reflections of the mirrored lid.

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Laura

After watching Anatomy of a Murder a few days ago, I knew I wanted to see as many Otto Preminger films as possible. It turns out this one is not one of his typical films. First of all, Preminger started the project as a producer, and gave directorial duties to Rouben Mamoulian. It was only when it became clear that Mamoulian was getting nowhere that Preminger took over the reins. By this point, there were already elements worked into the script that worked counter to his usual style. For example, Preminger usually shunned flashbacks, and made Anatomy of a Murder without any, despite the fact that the courtroom drama usually relies heavily on them. While Laura might not be typical Preminger fare, it is a spellbinding film that deserves multiple viewings.

The story revolves around the title character, an ambitious young worker in an advertising firm who is dead by the opening of the film. Police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is sent in to investigate. There are plenty of suspicious character to consider, namely Laura’s good-for-nothing playboy fiance (Vincent Price), her aunt (Judith Anderson), who has been throwing her money away on the fiance, and her mentor Waldo Lydecker, an effete radio columnist with an acerbic wit, loosely based on theater critic Alexander Woolcott. Lydecker is played with great relish by Clifton Webb, who hadn’t been in a film since the silent era, and was cast despite the fierce opposition of the studio. Preminger’s gamble paid off. Webb won an Oscar for his performance in Laura and went on to a number of successful roles, including Sitting Pretty (1948), which was the ’80s TV show “Mr. Belvedere.” Yet another suspect shows up through a surprise twist halfway-through the film, but you won’t hear it from me, and I urge anyone who has not seen the film to not read anything on imdb.com or Wikipedia before watching, so they can view it in the same way as audiences of 1944.

Although Laura falls neatly into the look and pattern of film noir, with  is is also more sophisticated and complicated in terms of plot and themes than anything else in the genre. The central theme of a detective obsessed with a dead woman aligns it more closely with Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

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The Howards of Virginia

Cary Grant thought he was miscast in this film about colonial Virginia, and I am inclined to agree with him. It is strange to see the actor, who looked better in a pinstripe suit than any other man who ever appeared on screen, stomping around the woods in buckskins. Although he didn’t have any idea why he was in this film, being a consummate professional, Grant did the best he could, and more or less pulls off his portrayal of an impassioned separatist during the American Revolutionary War with a father-in-law who is a fierce loyalist.

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The Wrong Road

I found this film on the Internet Archive (www.archive.org), and decided to watch it right away in order to see Helen Mack in a leading role. Mack left a lasting impression in a small, but pivotal role in His Girl Friday (1940), as the girlfriend of the man condemned to execution, who jumps out of the window of the city court press room. She also had a larger role in King Kong‘s sequel, The Son of Kong, basically playing a supporting role to a lot of stop-frame animation. In both of these roles, Mack balances herself between tender, good-girl innocence and a big-city brassiness. After seeing these films, I considered myself a Helen Mack fan, probably one of a handful in the world, and headed to eBay to get some old promo photos, for which there was not much competition. Mack starred opposite Cary Grant in Kiss and Make Up in 1934, but that is one of Grant’s harder-to-find films and I haven’t seen it yet. So this was actually the first time I have seen Mack in a lead role.

The story of The Wrong Road strains credibility. A young couple (Mack and baby-faced Richard Cromwell, who were actually 33 and 27 respectively), decide to rob the bank where he works as a clerk. Rather than a big shoot-out, she comes in and he simply hands her the money. Their plan is to hide the money, turn themselves in, do the time, and then retrieve the money and get married after they both get out of jail. A detective (Lionel Atwill) is assigned the case, and believing them to be essentially good kids, encourages them to turn in the money. They refuse, do the time, and find the detective is following them when they get out. Bad soon turns to worse for the young couple, as a hardened criminal who heard of the stashed loot in the pokey is freed and comes looking for it. “What I have to say now concerns both our lives,” Mack’s character says in the final moments of the film, “we are giving up this money. Even if we get away, we will be hunted. We will always be on the run. I don’t wanna be on the run. I wanna stand still. I wanna laugh again.”

Ironically, Lionel Atwill, who serves as the moral voice in this film, was embroiled in a sex scandal a few years later, being convicted of perjury after he concealed the names of high-profile Hollywood friend who attended an orgy at his house.

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Anatomy of a Murder

Along with Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and And Justice for All.. (1979), Anatomy of a Murder is a masterpiece in the notoriously difficult genre of the courtroom drama. Based on a real murder case, much has already been written on the detail with which it describes the the American legal system and its shortcomings, as well as the few places where the film gets it wrong. But Anatomy of a Murder also holds an important place in the history of cinema. Director Otto Preminger is doing what he does best, tackling taboos  in a balanced, critical way, critiquing the legal system and tackling the crime of rape head on. Star James Stewart’s father, who was still running his hardware store in Pennsylvania, famously took out a full-page ad in the local paper urging people not to see see this “dirty picture” (in which the word “panties” is used repeatedly). In addition to making the kind of films he wanted, Preminger was also pounding away at the film production code, which had been hampering the artistic freedom of filmmakers since it went into effect in 1934. The code was on its way out by the late ’50s anyway, but Anatomy of a Murder, along with Some Like It Hot, also from 1959, battered it against the ropes, and one year later, Hitchcock would come along with Psycho and knock it out for the count.

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Shock

This B thriller starts with a young woman arriving to a San Francisco hotel where she has arranged to meet her husband, a soldier who had mistakenly been reported killed in the war. When his flight is delayed, she checks into a room alone. While waiting for him to arrive, she witnesses a couple arguing in the room across the courtyard, and goes into shock when the man grabs a candlestick and bludgeons the woman to death. A psychiatrist who happens to be staying in the hotel takes her on as a patient, and brings her to his sanitarium. When she comes to, she realizes that her doctor is the very same man she had seen killing his wife. The doctor’s head nurse, who also happens to be his mistress, presses him to bump off the patient in order to prevent her from turning him in to the police.

Made a short time after Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), which also set a thriller into the jargon of psychoanalysis, this low-budget film, which was shot in only 19 days, would have easily faded into obscurity if it were not for a few remarkably filmed sequences and an early, restrained performance by Vincent Price as the doctor torn between the Hippocratic oath and his lust for his conniving nurse. A central scene has a disturbed patient barge into the room of the comatose murder witness, who comes to and confuses the intruder with the murderer. Almost completely without dialogue, and filmed in an expressionist style, the sequence is the epitome of film noir. A later scene in which the doctor subjects his patient to a series of insulin shock treatments in order to silence her permanently is a stunningly constructed montage of hypodermic needles, calendars and medical charts.

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Scum

The social issues dealt with in this film set entirely in a British borstal are so overwhelming, and the portrayal of them is harrowing, they can overwhelm the film and make it a bit hard to see it as a work of cinema. However, the writing in Scum is excellent throughout. A crucial scene comes two-thirds in, in which Archer, one of the few free-thinking boys in the institution, has a heart-to-heart with one of the wardens. All of the other boys are away at chapel. Archer, who insists he is a vegetarian as well as an atheist, is exempt from attending. “How can anyone build a character inside a regime based on deprivation?” the teenager asks. “It is a one-way contamination. My experience tells me that more criminal acts are imposed on criminals in institutions than by criminals on society.” Of course the warden doesn’t care for this expression of free thinking and reprimands the boy. Archer’s observation is really the core idea of the film, although it is the billiard balls in a sock beating scene and the climatic riot that most people will remember.

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Too Late for Tears

Having seen the beautiful Lizabeth Scott for the first time the other day in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, I was anxious to see her in something else. Anything else, really. Luckily, another one of her films, Too Late for Tears,  is in the public domain, and available at the Internet Archive (www.archive.org).

At the beginning of her career, Paramont publicity dubbed Scott “The Threat,” due to her femme fatal persona, sultry looks recalling Veronica Lake, and Lauren Bacall husky voice. Scott excels as a femme fatal in Too Late for Tears, a low-budget noir on money and greed set in L.A. She plays Jane Palmer, a head-strong housewife who domineers her husband. In the opening scene, the couple are on their way to a friend’s party. Jane doesn’t want to go, insisting the hostess dislikes her. “I don’t like the way she looks down her nose at me, the way her house looks down on Hollywood,” she snaps in the first of many lines of classic noir dialogue that pepper this film. When her husband Alan doesn’t relent, she grabs the wheel and takes control of the car. When she forces the car off the road, a stranger drives by and throws a suitcase in their back seat. It is full of money. Alan immediately proclaims the bag to be “full of dynamite,” probably a blackmail payoff, and urges his wife to agree to immediately turn it over to the police, she of course has other ideas.

The couple decide to keep the money for a week while they wait and see what happens. In a plot resembling Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), Jane’s life is soon embroiled in deceit, paranoia, and murder. When Danny Fuller, the man who the money was actually intended for turns up, claiming to be a private detective, Jane decides not to flee but to stay and play ball, entangling him in her web of lies and double crosses. “You know, tiger, I didn’t know they made them as beautiful as you,” Fuller tells Jane, “or as smart, or as hard.”  Homicide police, Jane’s sister-in-law, and a man who may or may not have flown in the air force with Jane’s husband, played by Don DeFore, are all on Jane’s trail, and she flees to a high-class hotel in Mexico where she meets her inevitable end.

While Lizabeth Scott sizzles throughout, the weak link is Don DeFore, best known as the father from TV’s “Hazel,” who has to carry the duties of lead man in the second half of the film, after all the other males have been killed and disposed of. This film has been in the public domain for years, and as a result there are many edits of various lengths available.

The free download available at The Internet Archive is marred by a crackling  soundtrack and many clipped lines of dialogue, due to a repeatedly patched print. Nevertheless, it is worth viewing.

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Letty Lynton

After watching Dishonored Lady (1947) the other day, I was reading a little about its background and found out about Letty Lynton, an obscure early Joan Crawford film. The details of the  legal battle over the film, which has made it the hardest-to-find Crawford film, are long and complicated, but also fascinating. A brief summary: in 1930, playwrights Margaret Ayer Barnes and Edward Sheldon had a successful run on Broadway with their play “Dishonored Lady,” loosely based on the 1857 case of Madeline Smith, a Glasgow socialite who had affair with Pierre Emile L’Angelier, a gardener from the Channel Islands. Unaware of what was going on right under their noses, her parents arranged a financially upward marriage to William Harper Minnoch. When Madeline tried to break things off with Emile by asking that her love letters be returned, Emile turned to blackmail, threatening to use the letters to expose their affair, and ruin Madeline and her family. Soon after, Emile died of arsenic poisoning. Although evidence showed that Madeline had bought arsenic, her responsibility for his death was not proven and she was set free.

The Barnes and Sheldon play was a hit in 1930, and in 1931 Marie Belloc Lowndes, best known for the novel The Lodger which Hitchcock adapted into his best silent film, published the novel Letty Lynton, also based on the Madeline Smith case. The MGM film Letty Lynton, released in 1932, was nominally based the Belloc Lowndes novel. The problem is Barnes and Sheldon had been fishing around Hollywood to sell the film rights to the play and had been turned down by MGM. Since both their play and the Belloc Lowndes novel were based the same real-life event, it is not surprising that the playwrights found similarities between their play and the film, and filed a lawsuit. The trial dragged on until January 1936, and the courts ruled that the film followed the play “Dishonored Lady” closely enough to constitute copyright infringement.

The film has been out of distribution ever since. In July of 1939, a legal precedent was set when courts awarded Barnes and Sheldon one-fifth of the profits of the film. MGM appeal up to the US Supreme Court by the end of the year, but couldn’t get the ruling overturned. To make the story even more complicated, Dishonored Lady was released in 1947, nominally based on the Barnes and Sheldon work, but less like the play than Letty Lynton. Then in 1950, David Lean directed Madeline, which was closer to the actual case than any of the previous adaptations. Because of this complicated history, Letty Lynton is still not available as a commercial release, and is not likely to be until the copyright on the Barnes and Sheldon play runs out in 2025.

Not willing to wait 15 years, I got my hands on a copy (not saying how) and really enjoyed this film. Crawford’s role in Grand Hotel, also from 1932, is the most well-known example of her early sound-film work, but her lead role here is far more substantial and is infused with much greater emotional depth. Letty Lynton is not only a great early Joan Crawford film, it is also a great example of a pre-code film, full of sexual innuendo, and free of the awkward endings that post-code films were often forced to tack on in order to punish the supposed villains so as to not glamorize crime. As this film was released four years before the body enforcing the production code went into effect, Letty, like the real-life Madeline Smith, gets away with murder and goes on to live her life.

An Adrian-designed dress Crawford wears in one scene is definitely of note, but I think I will save that for a future article on great cinema dresses on one on Adrian’s career.

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Modesty Blaise

I had never heard of this film until a friend of mine in Beijing, who is a big Monica Vitti fan, asked me if I might be able to track down a copy for him. I found a used one and decided to give it a watch before sending it on.

This odd film falls into two genres: the stylish comic book adaptations of the ’60s, such as Danger: Diabolik, and spy spoof exemplified by the Peter Sellers/Woody Allen version of Casino Royale (1966). Disappointingly, the film never seems to make up its mind about which it most wants to be. It is hard for a viewer to care about characters and story when the director doesn’t seem to. The plot meanders aimlessly, Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise changes her wig so often it is sometimes hard to actually follow who she is on the screen, and the duets between Vitti and Blaise’s sidekick Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp) seem painfully misplaced. Yet, there is plenty of eye candy here. The futurist sets, especially Modesty’s revolving bedroom in the opening scene, are well done, and it is fun to watch Vitti and Stamp strut around in mod couture. The movies starts out in kitsch mode, and with the appearance of arch-enemy Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) the camp value goes into overdrive.

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The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

I had never heard of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and just happened upon it while trolling through the Internet Archive (archive.org) looking for a public domain film to download. It turned out to be a new favorite.

The story revolves around three childhood friends who are around 15 years old in the opening scene. Martha Ivers is an orphaned heiress of a steel mill who despises having to live with her aunt (played by Judith Anderson with the same chilly, domineering quality she brought to the role of Mrs. Danvers in Htichcock’s Rebecca). Martha has run away several times with the help of her friend Sam, as streetwise kid from the wrong side of the tracks, but is always brought back thanks to her aunt’s influence and the aid of her sycophantic tutor and his son Walter, a timid boy who is Martha’s study mate. Martha agrees to run off once and for all with Sam, but misses the circus train as it is pulling out of town.

18 years later, Sam (Van Helfin) comes back into Iverstown by mere chance, a fateful car wreck stranding him in his hometown. He looks up his old friends and finds that Walter (Kirk Douglas in his film debut) is the district attorney and is married to Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), who works hard to hide her husband’s alcoholism from the public. But the couple have much darker secrets to hide as well. Sam meets Toni (a sultry Lizabeth Scott, seemingly channeling Lauren Bacall), a pretty girl with a somewhat troubled past who runs afoul of the law in the small town. Sam, wanting to help Toni, calls a favor in on Walter, who worries that he actually has blackmail in mind. While the story lacks the police detectives and private shamuses that so often define the genre, this is classic film noir at its best. The performances are wonderful all around, and a strapping Kirk Douglas actually pulls off playing a real weakling, a feat he was never called on to repeat. Lizabeth Scott, who has a relatively minor role in the film, stands out in all of her scene, and Barbara Stanwyck builds on the role she established in Double Indemnity (1944).

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Super Fuzz

There are lots of reasons to watch a movie, and nostalgia is just as good as any of them. Super Fuzz is a movie that was made when I was 6 years old, and first aired on TV in the US when I was 8. I also distinctly remember it as one of the very first films I ever rented, around the age of 10. At that time, I had no idea the original title is Poliziotto superpiù, that this was an Italian production filmed in Miami, or that the star was an Italian actor with the pseudonym of Terence Hill. Watching the film again now is not only a nostalgic experience, but also a good experiment in testing how we remember films seen years ago.

The title refers to Dave Speed, an eager rookie cop who is sent  to the swamps of southern Florida to deliver a summons over an unpaid parking ticket. The area is deserted, as all the residents have been evacuated due to a NASA rocket launch test. When Speed fires his pistol into the air as a warning shot to an alligator who has taken over his canoe, he accidentally brings the rocket down in a massive red explosion. Although presumed dead, Speed survives. He soon discovers that he has superpowers, although it takes him a while to learn that seeing the color red makes him loose his powers. A subplot involves a fading film star, Rosy Labouche, who is the object of a crush held by Speed’s partner and superior officer (Ernest Borgnine). Rosy is the mistress of Torpedo, a gangster who is using a fishing boat as a front for counterfeiting money, all in one-dollar bills, and smuggling it ashore sewn into the bellies of fish. When Torpedo’s goons try to rub out the Sarge, Officer Speed is speed is mistakenly charged, escapes execution three times, and saves the day in the end.

Released two short years after the first Christopher Reeves Superman movie, Super Fuzz is a silly, low-budget parody of the superhero genre. The dialogue is corny, the sound effects cartoonish, and the special effects obviously cheap. And yet this small-budget film, through clever scriptwriting and likable characters, hold up better today than the big-budget Superman films, which rely mainly on their special effects, which were start-of-the-art at the time but quickly began to look dated.

It was interesting to see this film again after so many years. Some scenes, such as Officer Speed losing his superpowers and crashing slow-motion into the red shuttered door of a garage, were exactly as I remember them. The scene Speed lifting the veil of his bride at their wedding to discover that he has dyed her hair a deep red, which he reacts to by winking at the camera in the final shot, was a bit over my head when I was 10 years old.