Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 18 January 2019

Films show it's murder being a man

Another noir double bill
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Now an audiobook HERE

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN a sucker for narration in noir, especially if it is done in a deep bass voice like Reed Hadley’s in T-Men (1947). A Hollywood actor since 1938, Hadley had an uncredited role as narrator of Buffalo Bill (1944) followed with a credit for narration of the financially rewarding House on 92nd Street (1945), a documentary-style fictionalisation of the FBI cracking a major spy ring. A wit once said the only “ism” Hollywood believed in was plagiarism and, in 1947, we had Hadley narrating, T-Men about Treasury agents cracking a major counterfeiting ring.

The FBI co-operated with the filming of House on 92nd Street and the Treasury Department supported the T-Men project.
The attitude of noir to official law enforcement is ambivalent at best and often hostile. Philip Marlowe recounts how he was booted out of law enforcement for insubordination. Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer was fired because he knew too much about corruption. We are never sure why Hammett’s Sam Spade left but it was probably under a cloud.
Some critics have suggested the plot of counterfeiting and undercover agents leads to a theme that the civil order of post-war American society is a hollow façade”

I DON’T BUY this theory of noir’s dynamic duo of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton coming up with a subversive film critical of treasury agents and, by extension, authority in general.
The creators of T-Men would have received much benefit from co-operation with the Treasury Department. For starters they probably had some red tape cut for their on-location filming in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Why would the filmmakers risk upsetting their patrons at The Treasury Department? Second, co-operation with Treasury allowed the filmmakers to appeal to two sets of fans: those of the police procedural and those of noir. Third infiltrating a gang as a plot device guarantees the suspense of possibly being caught and is thus an entertainment rather than philosophical consideration.

Charles McGraw plays sadistic killer Moxie

Certainly counterfeiting or faking is an integral theme of the film and the Treasury agents or T-Men, Dennis O'Brien (Dennis O'Keefe)  and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) are counterfeit criminals in their roles as undercover agents. Or are they, one theory asks, counterfeit good guys as T-Men?  I'm not sure there is sufficient evidence that the T-Men are portrayed as going rogue and becoming savage men like the criminals they pursue. We should remember the audience wants the agents to bring retribution to the villains.
For many reasons, subterfuge is an effective device.  There is the continual suspense I have mentioned. Second, an analogy the film might be invoking, with undercover agents, a comparison with the European resistance fighters operating clandestinely against the Nazi regime during the recently ended World War II. Another possible motif is the undercover agent as the outsider, This might appeal to Director Mann who came from a poor background and had to work at night to sustain his career in New York theatre as an actor and director for  10 years before coming to Hollywood. The motif of the outsider, often a moral crusader, extends across Mann's work. The themes of infiltration and dread of exposure also lend themselves to the graphic expressions of noir sets and photography.

The real Star of T-Men is cinematographer John Alton who went to work with relish on this one, his first collaboration with director Anthony Mann. Techniques he uses include deep focus which we saw used by another cinema photographic legend, James Wong Howe Algiers (1938),
Deep focus involves a tricky process to have foreground, middle-ground, and background in focus at the one time. Because we are used to seeing the foreground in focus and the background out of focus, deep focus actually creates a confronting image. Other photo techniques in T-Men include contrasting light and shade, unusual camera angles including from below and the old favorite –  shadows often cast by one small light such as a table lamp.
If anything the noir tricks are overdone. The best of them are quite startling and memorable but one stand-out scene is shot traditionally. Undercover T-Man Tony Genaro supposedly unmarried is in the company of the criminal the Schemer when he has a chance encounter with his wife and her friend. The scene is well acted and well directed as the agent's wife tries to cover up when she realises the danger her husband is in.

The cinematographer
T-Men was the first of a prolific number of films noir shot by Hungarian-American John Alton. Others include The Pretender (1947) He Walked by Night (1948)Hollow Triumph (1948) The Amazing Mr. X (1948) Canon City (1948) Raw Deal (1948) Border Incident (1949) The Crooked Way (1949) Mystery Street (1950) The People Against O'Hara (1951) Talk About a Stranger (1952) Count the Hours (1952) I, the Jury (1953) Witness to Murder (1954) Duffy of San Quentin (1954) The Big Combo (1955) and Slightly Scarlet (1956, in color)
Alton wrote Painting with Light (1949) on cinematography. 

The performers

Charles McGraw plays handsies with Dennis O'Keefe

In 1947 Dennis O'Keefe had a bland role in Dishonored Lady and this much more nuanced role as an undercover detective. O'Keefe had signed a five-year deal with producer Edward Small who produced T-Men and Raw Deal (1948), both directed by Anthony Mann and photographed by John Alton.
O'Keefe went on to mostly undistinguished roles in pictures as well as on television. He died at the age of sixty from lung cancer caused by a lifetime of heavy smoking.

Wallace Ford, who plays The Schemer, was an established actor on stage and in film. He played the lead in some B-films including the Todd Browning 1934 classic Freaks the full version of which was banned for decades. Intriguingly Ford is listed in T-Men as Wally Ford, despite the fact his face and physique would be familiar to cinema-goers. Perhaps Ford was signalling that he would branch out as a character actor which he did particularly well in 1950s westerns. By the end of his career he had appeared in 150 films. Despite his long career Ford was buried in an unmarked grave. Greek tragedy has nothing on Hollywood biography.

Jane Randolph, who plays heartless crook Diane Simpson, fared well in Hollywood. She began acting in 1942 and concluded her career in 1948. Marrying into a rich family she moved to Spain and became a socialite. Hasta la vista, baby!

June Lockhart plays Mary Genaro, the wife of undercover agent Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder). As I mentioned earlier, Lockwood is fine in her brief role as the worried wife when Tony in company with the Schemer and they run into his spouse at a market. June Lockhart is the daughter of actors Gene and Kathleen Lockhart. June starred in the 1945 movie Son of Lassie and the television series Lassie (1958–1964) Lost in Space (1965–1968) and Petticoat Junction (1968–1970).

Charles McGraw plays sadistic killer Moxie, a role which, IMO, could have been played by with more exuberance.
McGraw had parts in other noirs including the Anthony Mann films Reign of Terror (1949) and Border Incident (1949) and Side Street (1950). He had the lead in the noir classic The Narrow Margin (1952),

The Producer
FILMGOERS often have only a vague idea of what a movie producer dies. T-Men producer Edward Small got his nose out of joint because he thought distributor Eagle Lion was claiming credit for his work. Hollywood newspaper Variety on Wednesday March 31 1948  said that Small had terminated an agreement with Eagle Lion after T-Men hit cinemas. Small Productions would continue with a promise to produce Raw Deal another noir using the combined talents of Mann, Alton, and O’Keefe. Like T-Men, Raw Deal was a success. Variety reported that Small decided Eagle Lion was taking credit in advertising and news reports for the production of T-Men and downplaying Small’s contribution to the film.

Unintentionally (I think) funny line
“Did you ever spend 10 nights in a Turkish bath looking for a man?”
– Spoken by O’Keefe who won the 1947 Matthew McConaughey Shirtless Award for his steambath scenes in T-Men.

Noirishing scenes

QUITE A FEW SCENES are visually stunning. Two that particularly impress me both involve psychopath Moxie. The first sees Moxie and the Schemer in a bathhouse. The second has T-Man Dennis O'Brien trying to retrieve a counterfeiting plate from beneath the washbasin where Moxie is doing his ablutions. In these scenes, the camerawork is superb and the actors’ movements are well choreographed by the director.

The verdict

Play the full movie

Our second feature is Bluebeard (1944).

RICH UGLY OLD MAN seduces beautiful young women and then destroys them - what possible relevance would such a storyline have for Hollywood? Well, the producers of Bluebeard (1944) felt this French folk tale might make a handy little parable for the movie-going masses.
Being Hollywood, one part of the Bluebeard legend had to be changed – an ugly central character just would not do. Instead, we have the compelling rather than handsome visage of John Carradine, the patriarch of an acting clan with the most prominent member being his son David.

Another change renders the victims from being Bluebeard’s wives to models of the painter, come puppeteer, come strange dude.
Some dispute that Bluebeard is noir and they say is a period horror film. But Director Edgar G. Ulmer’s distinctive set designs, close-ups, unusual angles, and playing with light and shade definitely make this a noir and probably one that is underrated.
The quality of the print leaves something to be desired and perhaps when it was originally produced in 1944 budgetary constraints might have detracted from the look and sound of the film. (Alternately, no one has uploaded a quality print yet.) However quality of the story and the suspense and the darkness of the theme all combine to make Bluebeard eminently watchable.

The distributor

PRODUCERS RELEASING CORPORATION (PRC) was a Hollywood film studio and distribution house in what was called Poverty Row, a term originally applied to a stretch of Gower Street in Hollywood known for low-budget studios. Rents were cheap.
PRC lasted from 1939-47.

Austrian-born and raised set designer turned director Edgar G. Ulmer began working for the studio in 1942 and directed three films there: Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusion (1945) and Detour (1945).

The Players

John Carradine played in more than 300 films, mostly B-pictures, and in many had lead roles. He is excellent as gaunt tormented Bluebeard creating a scary nemesis but with a dash of redemptive pitiable sorrow.

Teala Loring played a telephone operator in the noir classic Double Indemnity (1944) and in Poverty Row found a good address for better parts in (financially) worse pictures. Loring was unable to emulate the movie success of her sister Debra Paget. Loring gave the game away in 1950. In Bluebeard she plays undercover agent Francine who is also the sister of Bluebeard’s latest model Lucille (Jean Parker)

Ms Parker shocks an Aussie Inspector with a tape measure in one hand.

Jean Parker appeared in 70 movies from 1932 to 1966 as well as being a successful businesswoman and enduring four marriages,
Parker entered the folklore of my country Australia in 1951. She was kicked off Sydney’s Bondi Beach by a swimsuit inspector who measured her bikini and declared it too skimpy. The story made the international press and, back in Hollywood, Chief Censor Joe Breen would have been proud of Aussie Beach Inspector Abe Laidlaw, protecting Australian morals with his tape measure.

Nils Asther
 who plays
Inspector Jacques Lefevre was a Danish-born Swedish actor active in Hollywood from 1926. Described as impossibly handsome and the Male Garbo, Asther made 16 films in the silent era, including two opposite Greta Garbo.
He was blacklisted in 1934 by all major studios ostensibly for walking out on MGM but possibly also because his homosexuality was somewhat overt and his Swedish accent was deemed an impediment for talkies. He was also a vocal critic of the studio system by which studios owned stars.
Asther was forced to leave Hollywood from 1935-40 and when he returned he was offered roles only in B-pictures such as Bluebeard.

Trivia or perhaps not

Last week I explored how the Hays Code of censorship was enforced once Joseph Breen became the chief censor in 1934.
Filmmakers did not worry much about the code during its early pre-Breen years of 1930-33.
In the first talkies, Nils Asther played people of different nationalities such as a Chinese man in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) directed by Frank Capra. The film portrayed miscegenation (inter-racial relations) between the characters played by Asther and Barbara Stanwyck.
The code forbade the depiction of miscegenation and homosexuality as perversions but pre-Breen, The Bitter Tea of General Yen escaped into the cinemas to lukewarm public reception.
In 1950 when Censor Breen was still in power, Columbia wanted to re-release The Bitter Tea of General Yen, perhaps feeling the film did not receive the acclaim it deserved first time around.  The Hays Office advised against it and the re-release never happened,

The verdict

Play full movie

Next noirs
‘Scarlet Street is a 1945 film noir directed by Fritz Lang.

Strange Illusion is a 1945 film noir directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

See you then.

Our song is about people who did not admire T-Men

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