Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 8 February 2019

Free films put the noir into film noir

Take a walk on the dark side

A NOIR blending violence, sentimentality, and comedy may struggle for balance and Johnny One-Eye (1950) certainly does.
I could not recall having seen this movie before and I was expecting the Johnny in the title to be a gangster, somebody sprouting wise-cracks and New York slang, given the movie is based on a Damon Runyon short story. A fair way into the movie we find Johnny is not a gangster, not even a person.
We watch and hear murder, shoot-outs, threats of revenge, and animal cruelty before the plot-twist that telegraphs the picture is morphing into a sentimental weepie.  Earlier, we had been given a hint of the schizoid nature of the film when would-be Broadway star Lily White (Dolores Moran) performs a dance which is meant to be sexy and funny at the same time, an uneasy combo. Even the sardonic name Lily White seems strange. Hollywood felt obliged to transform gangster’s widow and single Mom Lily onto a sweet, even-tempered young woman with a well-modulated, middle-class accent. Not quite the sort of woman you would expect to have a sweetheart like vicious crook Dane Cory (Wayne Morris).

Pat O’Brien plays another gangster turned wealthy political fixer Martin Martin. The silly names work well in print but, like other aspects of the short story, offer little screen value. I mean a cute kid on the page can end up quite annoying on the screen as does Elsie White (Gayle Reed). Gayle had one more crack at the cute kid in the noir melodrama Because of You (1952) before acting and she parted company forevermore.
Suspense is the saving grace of Johnny One-Eye. The moral standards of 1950 censors predict pretty much how the movie will end but it is constructed efficiently enough to have us eager to see what comes next. The scene in the pet shop is a pleasant surprise.

The writer

DAMON RUNYON WAS A NEW YORK sports journalist and short-story writer who had great success with his fiction about the city’s demiworld. He engaged in the literary reformation of humanity from the unsavory (gangsters, gamblers, grifters, pimps, prostitutes, pick-pockets) into the colorful (of language and leisure pursuits.)
Twenty of Runyon’s stories became Hollywood films and most were successful.
Typical of the successes were Lady for a Day (1933) directed by Frank Capra, Little Miss Marker (1934) introducing Shirley Temple, and Guys and Dolls (1955) based on the 1950 Broadway musical. These movies played for laughs and pathos and were rewarded for doing so. The gangsters were spruced up and spring cleaned. The mobsters of Johnny One-Eye are more realistic and hence less appealing.

The Players
A day at the races for Pat O'Brien, Spencer Tracy, and Bing Crosby

THE SON OF IRISH IMMIGRANTS, PAT O’BRIEN was lifelong friends with two other Irish actors, Spencer Tracy and James Cagney.
After a decade in theatre, O’Brien became a movie star in the 1930s, top-billing in a diverse portfolio of films. In 1940, he left Warner Brothers and ended up at RKO which meant films of lower budgets and inevitably film noir as well as war movies and stories about priests. His string of noirs included Crack-Up (1946, definitely the best in this list) Riffraff (1947) A Dangerous Profession (1949) Johnny One-Eye (1950) Criminal Lawyer (1951) The People Against O'Hara (1951, in an MGM film which O’Brien was cast in at the insistence of his old mate and Star Spencer Tracy)  and Inside Detroit (1956, with Dennis O’Keefe as O’Brien’s foe which makes the film compulsory for some Noiristas.)

BEFORE WORLD WAR II, WAYNE MORRIS was being groomed for stardom with the title role in Kid Galahad  (1937) alongside Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Morris returned from the war and his was a falling star which he was unable to catch.
As the villain of Johnny One-Eye, Morris is easy to boo, but not memorable.
Morris had a key role in Stanley Kubrick’s critically acclaimed Paths of Glory (1957).
He starred beside noir hero Ida Lupino in the melodrama Deep Valley (1947) and the next year in the noir The Big Punch (1948).
Morris died of a heart attack, aged 45, in 1959.

DOLORES MORAN, TOO WAS PRENCILLED in for stardom with second female lead in To Have and Have Not (1944, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in her first starring role.)
Stardom did not pan out and Moran had smallish parts in the noirs The Man I Love (1947, starring Ida Lupino) and Count the Hours (1953).
Her film career ended in 1954.

The director

AFTER JOHNNY ONE-EYE, DIRECTOR ROBERT FLOREY gave up his film career to direct in television. He was 50-years old at the time, and he was to live for another 30 years.
      With Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) French-born Florey used expressionist sets and camera techniques by cinematographer German Karl Freund (Metropolis (1927), Dracula (1931). Florey directed Daughter of Shanghai (1937) which featured Asian-American actors Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn as the leads.
        He directed the horror noir The Face Behind the Mask (1941 with Peter Lorre) followed by Lady Gangster (1942) and Roger Touhy, Gangster (1944) and Danger Signal (1945). 
         His noir before the disappointing Johnny One-Eye was the acclaimed The Crooked Way (1949).
         He wrote a dozen books on movie making.

The shooter

FRENCH-BORN CINEMATOGRAPHER LUCIEN ANDRIOT has some compelling but sinister shots of New York at night with the neon lights looking garish and the slanted skyscrapers appearing threatening. In expressionist tradition, they reflect the mental unease of Pat O’Brien’s character who has been shot.
From 1920, Andriot shot more than 200 films and television shows, including the noirs  The Strange Woman (1946) Dishonored Lady (1947) Johnny One-Eye (1950) and Borderline (1950).


THOSE ALIVE DURING THE US PRESIDENCY of former actor Ronald Reagan may recall an expression used in relation to him. “Let’s win one for the Gipper” was a phrase which baffled me to what it implied and why it referred to Reagan. It derives from the biopic Knute Rockne, All American (1940) in which Pat O’Brien plays University of Notre Dame football coach Rockne. Ronald Reagan was player George Gipp who died of pneumonia. Reagan asked his former Vice President George Bush Senior to win one (the 1988 Presidential Election) for him, the Gipper, just as he and O’Brien did in the movie. Bush obliged.

The verdict

The full movie

Our second feature

A STILL FROM THE BIG COMBO (1955) is the photo most often used to illustrate film noir. It is incredibly atmospheric with the man and woman in silhouette in the shadows with dark above and below them. The image reeks of suspense.
The Big Combo director is Joseph H. Lewis and our old mate John Alton shot it.
The cinematographer
T-MEN (1947) 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 colour)
Alton wrote the book Painting with Light (1949) on cinematography.
Alton moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1932 to design the country's first sound film studio, after working in Hollywood and Paris. He remained in Argentina for seven years, shooting many pictures and making his debut as director with 'El hijo de papá' (1933).
He returned to Hollywood where he found his substantial Argentinian portfolio did not cut it with the big studios and he settled in with the B-studio Republic.
After war service, Alton hooked up with two of the other stable B-studios RKO and Monogram.
The A-studios probably would have fired Alton who refused to light everything in the frame. Even the Bs objected.
In most cases, the studios objected,” Alton said. “They had the idea that the audience should be able to see everything. But when I started making dark pictures, the audience saw there was a purpose to it.”
After the success of his B-pictures, he worked with MGM as early as Border Incident (1949). The majors liked his speed and use of small crews but were aghast at the results of his techniques such as chiaroscuro lighting.


CHIAROSCURO is an Italian word which means “light and dark” and it was a style used in Renaissance painting where you had high contrast between light and dark. In noir, a classic example would be in an interrogation scene where only parts of the faces of the characters are lit.
John Alton said he could picture in his mind where light would fall with certain set-ups and that was why he was so fast.

The director

B-PICTURE DIRECTOR JOSEPH H. LEWIS’S noirsterpiece is usually regarded as Gun Crazy (1950).
His other noirs include My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) So Dark the Night (1946) The Undercover Man (1949) A Lady Without Passport (1950) Cry of the Hunted (1953)
Five weeks before he died aged 93 Lewis introduced a screening of Gun Crazy at UCLA. You could say he went out with a bang.

The musical director

THE JAZZ SCORE BY DAVID RAKSIN is very good. The up-tempo musical  intro promises excitement and originality which the director and the photographer deliver though their efforts are undermined by a clichéd script, poor dialogue, and uneven acting.
Raksin scored the noir Laura (1944) and the music from that film became a hit record.
Other noirs he scored included Fallen Angel (1945) Daisy Kenyon (1947) Force of Evil (1948) Whirlpool (1949) and Suddenly (1954).

The players

I ALWAYS THOUGHT HUNGARIAN-BORN CORNEL WILDE had a wooden face which detracted from his otherwise commendable acting ability. He was good in the successful noir Road House (1948) in which he played beside Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark. That was followed by the unsuccessful noir Shockproof (1949).
Wilde was a graduate of the Matthew-McConaughey School of acting which believed a shirtless male lead added to the aesthetics of a theatrical art form. Wilde goes topless in The Big Combo.

WILDE AND HIS WIFE JEAN WALLACE were co-producers of The Big Combo and Wallace played the female lead, Susan.  Wallace is dull and unconvincing as the trapped victim of a controlling husband, Mr. Brown. (Richard Conte).
Wallace attempted suicide in 1946 with sleeping pills and it seems a trifle tacky for her character Susan to also attempt it in the same manner.  
She was a Democrat and Wilde was a Republican so they supported different candidates at the 1952 Presidential Election.. Still, their marriage survived 30 years before their divorce in 1981.

THE PICK OF THE ACTORS ON SHOW IS RICHARD CONTE. Overcoming some trite dialogue, the script constantly telling not showing, and his ridiculously being called Mr. Brown all the time, Conte is convincing as the win-at-all-cost mobster whose constant lectures on achieving success fails to conceal his pathology.
Conte got his start in noir with a starring role in The Spider (1945).
He had a substantial role in the successful noir Call Northside 777 and his performance in New York Confidential (1955) was well-received.
Like many a movie actor who never quite made the big time, Conte drifted to television in the 1950s. His movie career was revived with a good part in The Godfather (1972).

TALL THIN LEE VAN CLEEF plays Mr Brown’s loyal henchman Fante in The Big Combo.
Van Cleef was often cast as a minor outlaw in noirs and westerns. He does quite well in The Big Combo and Kansas City Confidential (1952).
Sentenced to television in the 1950s and with a serious car accident in 1958, Van Cleef’s career was slow by the mid-1960s when he was cast in the spaghetti westerns For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Faster than you can say cult favorite, Van Cleef’s career was revived. In fact it was better than it had ever been.

The Screenwriter
Experienced writer Philip Yordan was Oscar nominated for the noir Detective Story (1951) and was employed as a script doctor to revive sick scripts. The Big Combo is a case of physician, heal thyself.
There are some deft touches, particularly those involving a hearing aid. But there is too much exposition, too much talking in general. And the idea that detective Cornel Wilde is in love with a woman he had never met and tells her he loves her is stretching credibility a wee far. A better script might have made The Big Combo a great noir.

The verdict

The full movie

Our musical interlude honors Mr. Van Cleef and also sums up both today’s noirs

Next noirs:
I resume full-time studies shortly and our noir double bills will be monthly from noir (punny) on – on the first Friday of each month, 8pm Hollywood time.
On Friday March 1, we will have the most watchable

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

And the five-star

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

See you then.

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