Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 25 January 2019

Filmmakers fled Hitler for Hollywood

Bleak noir is hard to watch

FRITZ LANG'S SCARLET STREET (1945) is well acted and well photographed but I find it a most unappealing movie.
I have watched it three times now over the course of many years. After the first time, I promised myself to never watch it again. But I had forgotten how it progressed so I watched it the second time, only to promise myself not to give it a third viewing. 
Watching for this review produced a similar result and I again had forgotten the details. That’s it, no more Scarlet Street for me.
The film is unrelentingly misogynist and misanthropic. The excellent acting from Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea cannot redeem such an unpleasant movie.

I am mindful film enjoyment is a subjective experience.  Some may consider Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) difficult to watch but I find it in engrossing, poetic even. Similarly, some noiristas will wax lyrical about Scarlet Street.
As I have mentioned before, many of the best villains/ femmes fatale in noir have redeeming features. In Scarlet Street, Kitty March (Bennett) and Johnny Prince (Duryea) have none as they relentlessly steal the cash, possessions, and dignity of Chris Cross (Robinson). Cross is a sympathetic character but that only makes it harder to watch him stumble to his inevitable doom.
For a noir to be successful there should be light and shade in central personalities as well as in photography. A minor character can be unabashedly evil and that device can work wonders.

SCARLET STREET WAS THE FIRST Hollywood movie where a murderer was not brought to justice. While that noteworthy plot twist escaped the Hays Office, other censors pounced. The film was banned in New York State, and in the cities of Milwaukee, and Atlanta. One of the three censors described the film as “licentious” and “profane”. You are going to watch it now aren’t you? I have always thought censors doubled as publicity officers for the products they ban.

Scarlet Street is a remake of a 1931 French movie La Chienne directed by Jean Renoir. In English, the French title translates into “the bitch” which gives some idea of the hard-core misogyny which will follow the opening credits. Renoir, who himself relocated to Hollywood after Hitler conquered France, was said to dislike Lang’s remake.
 Lang was born in Austria and became a filmmaker in the Weimar Republic, a designation of Germany between the end of World War I in 1918 and 1933, the year Adolf Hitler rose to power. Lang made three sorts of films in the Weimar Republic: art-house movies, popular thrillers, and a combination of the two as with the expressionist classic M, starring Peter Lorre as a serial child killer. Lang also made the Doctor Mabuse trilogy horror films about a megalomaniac and Metropolis one of the most amazing films of all time. These films combined the 1920s art and theatre aesthetic of expressionism with the photographic and composition tricks which would become central to film noir.

Discussion of art and focus on the amateur paintings of Christopher Cross were innovative for a popular movie and worked well or at least held my interest and I am sure the interest of a lot of other viewers. We see Cross painting what we expect to be a still life of a fragile flower and it turns out to be an expressionist flat splat of colors. Lang’s theme of industrial capitalism throttling creativity was explored in Metropolis and here in Scarlet Street, time-bound white-collar jobs imprison the spirit.
Expressionism projects psychological disturbances into the outside world, hence noir’s obsession with askew places and objects, shadows, misunderstandings and manipulation. As expressionism grew from the horrors of World War I, inner feelings are often of dread, anger, and seeking relief through desperate desire for physical pleasure and happiness.
There are a lot of themes explored in Scarlet Street, probably too many, and too many plot twists as well. The movie does seem to wander about the bush after the climactic murder.
It is a good-looking film and the print I have chosen for viewing is excellent. There are some short ads but I doubt you will find them too intrusive,
 You will notice in my noir reviews, I rarely disclose much of the plots. Some people reading this will not have seen the films and some readers will have forgotten them.  It surprises me that so many reviews of noir extensively discuss details of the plot. I don't see why noir should be excluded from general warnings against spoilers.

The director

FRITZ LANG WAS A RESPECTED FILMMAKER in Germany when Hitler rose to power in 1933. The Nazis were suspicious of Lang because of his films which they correctly judged as being critical of their authoritarianism, Paradoxically, as a director, Lang was authoritarian though his films such as Metropolis and the Mabuse series warned against it at a political level. Somewhat bizarrely Lang was also under threat because his mother was Jewish though she had converted to Catholicism soon after her marriage to a staunch Catholic,
Even more bizarrely Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda, invited Lang to head the new Nazi Film Board.  Lang left Germany in 1933 for Paris while his Nazi-sympathetic wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who had written the script for Metropolis stayed in Germany. There is some doubt how sympathetic to Nazism Harbou was and Lang was unfaithful to his wife during their marriage. The couple divorced.
In 1935 Lang moved to Hollywood clutching an MGM contract.
Lang’s first Hollywood noir was Moonstruck (1942) sort of. Lang walked off the set because leading man Frenchman Jean Gabin had started an affair with Lang’s mistress Marlene Dietrich. Archie Mayo took over the direction of Moonstruck which also starred Ida Lupino and Claude Rains. Moonstruck is an under-rated noir which, like Algiers (1938), with French lead Charles Boyer, has dashes of poetic realism. 
Lang’s first completed noirs were the anti-Nazi Hangmen Also Die! (1943) Ministry of Fear (1944), based on the Graham Greene novel,  and The Woman in the Window(1944). The Woman in the Window was essentially the same film as next year’s Scarlet Street. Robinson, Bennett and Duryea were in both and they had the same cinematographer Milton R. Krasner.
Noirs which followed Scarlet Street included Cloak and Dagger (1946) Secret Beyond the Door (1948) House by the River (1950) and Clash by Night (1952)
In 1953 Lang directed two of his most famous noirs, The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat which included the infamous scene of Lee Marvin disfiguring Gloria Grahame with scalding coffee over her face.
Lang’s last noirs were Human Desire  (1954) Moonfleet (1955) While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)..

The photographer

MILTON KRASNER WAS A PROLIFIC cinematographer of more than 150 films between 1933 and 1970. (In 1942 alone, he shot seven films.) Depending on the assessment of classics, he may have shot more classic noirs than any other shooter. As well as the Fritz Lang two-in-one, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, Krasner shot The Dark Mirror (1946) A Double Life (1947) The Accused (1949) The Set-Up (1949) House of Strangers (1949) All About Eve (1950) No Way Out (1950) and Deadline – U.S.A. (1952) He also shot the brilliant  Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) which I would suggest is neo-noir.
Krasner won the Academy Award for best color cinematography for Three Coins in the Fountain (1954). (From 1939 to 1967, there were separate awards for color and for black-and-white cinematography.) He also won best cinematography at the Cannes Film Festival for The  Set-Up, a boxing noir.
Krasner worked in black-and-white and color, standard format and widescreen, in a variety of genres, for a multitude of directors, at all the major studios. He also served an apprenticeship as a camera assistant from 1919 to 1932. Little wonder he was so good at his craft.

The finances
Backed by Universal Pictures, Scarlet Street had a quite substantial budget of $1.2m, enough to finance a dozen or more Poverty-Row films, and $16.75m in today’s values. (Again I will repeat my lament that modern Hollywood has lost its way with films with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars choking out diversity.)
Scarlet Street grossed $2.95m or $41.2m, today, making it a success in any accountant’s maths.

 The Players
EDWARD G ROBINSON MADE A NAME for himself in gangster movies which became popular among the first talkies of the 1930s.  This was also the era of the Great Depression. These three events produced gangster films which in style and storytelling were America's contribution to the future aesthetics of film noir when combined with European expressionism.

Little Caesar
Three of Romanian-born Robinson's early gangster films were Outside the Law (1930) directed by Todd Browning, Little Caesar (1931) directed by Mervyn Leroy, and Smart Money (1931( directed by Alfred E. Green. Smart Money was the only time Robinson play beside another gangster most wanted James Cagney.
Robinson did appear beside Humphrey Bogart in five films: Bullets or Ballots (1936) Kid Galahad (1937) The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) Brother Orchid (1940) and Key Largo (1948).
Robinson's portrayal of sadistic gangster, Johnny Rocco, is superb in Key Largo, undoubtedly one of the best noirs ever made. Robinson also had a pivotal role in another celebrated noir Double Indemnity (1944) directed by Billy Wilder with a script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

LIKE ROBINSON JOAN BENNETT was an anti-fascist campaigner and benefactor.
She appeared in the noir The Woman on the Beach (1947) directed by Jean Renoir. Obviously Lang’s Woman in the Window had relocated. Her other Fritz Lang noir was Secret Beyond the Door (1948). Also in 1948 was Hollow Triumph directed by Steve  Sekely. The Reckless Moment (1949) was directed by Max Ophuis.
Bennett’s husband Walter Wanger (pronounced as in danger) produced Scarlet Street, Secret Beyond the Door, and The Reckless Moment.
In 1951, Wanger shot Bennett’s agent Jennings Lang in the groin because he thought they were having an affair which Bennett denied.
Wanger served four months on a prison farm. They dispensed just sparingly to Hollywood celebrities in those days. The agent recovered.

FOR A MAN WHO PLAYED loathsome villains, Dan Duryea was quite the cheery type.  It pays well and you last,” Duryea said.
In real life, Duryea raised his family outside Hollywood. He led his son’s boy scout troop. In the movies, he would have stolen their lunch money and made them rob strangers.
Duryea played the most selfish, the most obnoxious person who ever lived in Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, The Great Flamarion, Criss Cross, Too Late for Tears, and Johnny Stool Pigeon.

The year 1944 was a good one in Hollywood for former filmmakers of the Weimar Republic. Lang directed The Woman in the Window. Otto Preminger, born in Austria-Hungary, directed the noir classic Laura. Billy Wilder, born in Poland of Austrian Jewish parents, directed another noir classic Double Indemnity. (Wilder had been a scriptwriter in Germany and took up directing in Paris.)

The verdict

The full movie

Second feature

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE LINE, some critics decided Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget tale Strange Illusion was a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This was something we might go with except it is only true at a most superficial level and only if we believe Freud’s interpretation that Hamlet was in love with his Mom and wanted to kill his Dad and got guilty when his uncle killed his Dad instead.

Not much of that happened in Strange Illusion though Paul Cartwright (James “Jimmy” Lydon) does see his dead dad in a dream which begins the movie and foretells the plot, making it the only flash forward I can recall in noir.
They did love their Sigmund Freud in noir and in other Hollywood movies from 1930-1960. My favorite Freudian film, the sci-fi Forbidden Planet (1956) constructed the whole movie around Freudian theory, not just dabbling with it here and there as in Strange Illusion.

As a movie, Strange Illusion is all over the shop with Freud, Hamlet, the generation gap, and noir scenes involving shadows, mirrors, angled photography, shots of reflections, and themes of lust and greed,
The film cries out, “we have no money” but honestly it should have been better.
Scriptwriter Adele Comandini was nominated for an Academy Award for Three Smart Girls (1936) and wrote the hit rom-com Christmas in Connecticut (1945).  Maybe she just did not connect with noir. She had created a crooked psychiatrist, and a crooked businessman, always good foils in noir but fun-loving teenagers speaking teen slang was an unwelcome intrusion. I did like the warning about sexual predators preying on teenage girls. Ms Comandini probably saw a bit of that in Hollywood.

The cast included veteran actors such as Warren William as Brett Curtis, Sally Eilers as Virginia Cartwright, Regis Toomey as Dr. Martin Vincent, Charles Arnt as Professor Muhlbach and African-American George Reed as Benjamin, the butler. The lead Jimmy Lydon was stretching his acting wings after playing the teen lead in the Henry Aldrich movie series, 1941-44. Maybe that was wgy we had teen biz in this one too.
I suspect lack of budget and putting too many ingredients in the stew detracted from the finished product. Still, with an Edgar G. Ulmer movie, something attractive is always going to grab your attention.

Strange line
Are ya  missin' ma kissin'?
Paul delivers this over the phone to his teen sweetheart and it seems out of character for the straight-laced Paul, his latent sexual attraction for his Mom, notwithstanding. The patter fools an eavesdropping Professor Muhlbach who wonders whether it is a coded message. Yes, it’s code for “we teens really need to come up with better slang”.

 I HAVE THREE ITEMS of trivia, one of which is personal.
1.      1. The first cigarette is at 14: 20 which is really late for noir.

2.   2. At 19.25 we meet bank manager Bill Allen played by John Hamilton, also editor Perry White on the television series Adventures of Superman (1952-58).
3.    3. At 54.1o, Paul places a sheet of newspaper under a door and retrieves a large metal key from the other side of the door. In my neo-noir novel Iraqi Icicle, my amateur gumshoe Steele Hill retrieves a metal key in a similar manner. I had actually done this when I was locked out of an old house I was living in. For some time now, doors have been sealed underneath, and electronic keys open many doors. But rest assured, Paul retrieval of the key is realistic, though, as I explain in my novel a bit of a fiddly exercise and a lot harder than Paul makes it look.
If you have somewhere to post a review and you would like a free review copy of Iraqi Icicle email me.

The verdict

The full movie

mpvieardew o is realsut exewrcuse and a lot hardewr than Pail males it look.wasa an unwelcome intrusion.
n Strange Ullu

Our song

Next noirs: 
Quicksand (1950) starring Mickey Rooney and Peter Lorre


The mystery movie, my favorite noir of all time. See you then.

No comments:

Post a Comment