Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 1 February 2019

Watch Fate on the rampage in noirs

Trouble is going my way

FATE TORTURING THE WORKING STIFF is a subset of film noir and includes Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) Scarlet Street (1945) D.O.A. (1945) Quicksand (1950) Kansas City Confidential (1952) The Hitch-Hiker (1953) and 99 River Street (1953)
What made the real-life story surrounding Quicksand both poignant and ironic was working stiffs,  director  Irving Pichel, and musical composer Louis Gruenberg, were blacklisted after it and one of the lead actors, Peter Lorre, was bankrupted by bankrolling it.
The full story about the behind-the-scenes turmoil of Quicksand is yet to be told. It cries out to be turned into a film noir directed by Martin Scorsese or the Coen Brothers.
QUICKSAND MALE LEADS, Mickey Rooney and Peter Lorre, financed it, apparently the first of a proposed three-picture deal. There was a third partner but I could not find any source to confirm who that was.

“There was a Third Man; he didn’t give evidence.”
-         The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed, director)


Film critic Bruce Eder tells us the third partner stole Rooney’s and Lorre’s shares of the profits. Lorre declared bankruptcy in 1949 before the movie came out in 1950. As movies were pre-sold into cinemas, it is plausible that Lorre not receiving a profit share could have caused his bankruptcy before Quicksand hit the cinemas.

Quicksand should have been a success. It is a good movie about a motor mechanic (Rooney) whose life spirals out of control when Fate hooks him up with femme fatale (Jeanne Cagney, James’s sister) and tempts him to borrow $20 from his boss’s till. Quicksand received good notices (reviews) in Variety and Hollywood Citizen-News.
There does not seem to be a record of the financials of Quicksand. At the time, cinema was under threat from television. Cinema ownership was in disarray after the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court Paramount Decision which ordered the major Hollywood to sell their cinema chains because of anti-competitive practices against smaller studios and independents. Quicksand distributor United Artists was in poor financial shape.
In his autobiography, Life is too short, Mickey Rooney writes, “The less said about Quicksand the better except to say it was aptly titled. We sank in it.” Notice Rooney does not say the movie sank but that “we sank in it”. Guess we will need to wait for the film-noir biopic to find out what he meant.

The players

MICKEY ROONEY WAS ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR Hollywood stars after his success in musicals with Judy Garland and his role as girl-crazy Andy Hardy in the film series (15 films from 1937 to 1946 and one for old-times’ sake in 1958). When Hardy finished, Rooney returned to musicals and, somewhat oddly, turned to sports films.
His 1950s noirs after Quicksand were The Strip (1951) Baby Face Nelson (1957) The Big Operator (1959) and The Last Mile (1959).
In Quicksand, Rooney does well to maintain our sympathy despite the foolish choices he makes in the face of escalating misfortune. His voiceover works okay as it is in character but too sparingly used to be very effective.
One big loose-end is the tension between the male leads Rooney and Lorre goes unresolved.

AS NOIRISTAS WOULD EXPECT, Peter Lorre is excellent as the selfish greedy owner of a penny arcade, a great locale for noir scenes.
Austro-Hungarian-born Peter Lorre, whose parents were Jewish, was a theatre actor who rocketed into movies with the lead in Fritz Lang’s German film M (1931).
After the rise of Hitler in 1933, Lorre moved to Paris, and London, and, by 1935, to Hollywood where he had an unsatisfying career despite lead film roles as Japanese detective Kentaro Moto (1937-39).
Pain from a chronic medical condition was treated with morphine which gave Lorre a chronic addiction he overcame for the most part in the late 1930s but which did return later in life.
In 1940, Lorre appeared in the movie which is often credited as the first noir, Stranger on the Third Floor. His big break came the next year in another noir, The Maltese Falcon, in which he played determined homosexual grifter, Joel Cairo.
Noirs to follow included Casablanca (1942) The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) The Conspirators (1944) Three Strangers (1946) Black Angel (1946) The Chase (1946) The Verdict (1946) Casbah (1948) and Rope of Sand (1949),
Lorre’s career stalled in 1946 when Jack Warner of Warner Brothers terminated his contract and gray-listed him. Gray-listing was a less formal agreement among studio bosses than blacklisting but the result was the same – no film offers. Lorre’s offense was maintaining social contact with Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, a German in exile in California since 1941. Lorre was not officially blacklisted after his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in May 1947.
If Lorre’s career was more solid in 1949, he might have followed the theatrical wisdom of always using other people’s money (OPM) for productions and he might have passed on investing in Quicksand.
As it was, after bankruptcy, he went to Europe for a couple of years before returning to the United States for television roles as well as minor roles in successful films such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961). He also appeared in low budget horror films.
Most noir lovers would agree Lorre’s film career deserved a more rewarding finale. Happy endings can be as elusive in real life as they are in noir.

JEANNE CAGNEY IS QUITE GOOD as femme fatale Vera Novak whose back story as a neglected child fighting off the advances of boys in a small town elicits some sympathy to balance dislike of her dangerous greed. Vera’s desire for a mink coat imperils Dan Brady but it is a personal tragedy for her, too. Tragedy in Quicksand is downmarket Shakespearean as it stems from Fate playing cruel jokes as well as from human foibles.
The movie had rightly been called a morality tale but the moral is rather complex as business people do immoral things in the film without punishment. The moral seems to be that, because Fate is inevitably vindictive with working class people, they need to be scrupulously honest in all their dealings or suffer the consequences. That is hardly a revolutionary message but the moral guardians of Hollywood decided director Irving Pichel was best blacklisted anyway.

The director

AFTER GRADUATING FROM HAVARD in 1914, Irving Pichel spent 15 years as an actor in theatre before moving to Los Angeles for a decade acting in talking pictures. He also occasionally directed and from 1939 he began to cut back on acting for directing.
He worked across a range of genres and his noirs included Temptation (1946) They Won't Believe Me (1947) and Without Honor (1949).
Jewish born Pichel came into the view of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), co-founded and administered by Democrat Congressman John E. Rankin, an anti-Semite, racist, and isolationist who opposed America entering World War II. Rankin was suspicious of Pichel’s anti-fascist films made before the U.S. entered World War II.
Pichel was subpoenaed in 1947 to appear before the HUAC. He was never called but had the threat hanging over him for the next few years and the major studios blacklisted him. He developed a heart condition during this time.
After Quicksand he did two more US films before moving overseas.
In 1954 he died of a heart attack. He was 63-years-old.

The composer
RUSSIAN-BORN LOUIS GRUENBERG composed the music for Quicksand.
He wrote operas, concertos, and symphonies as well as film scores including those for Stagecoach, (1939) and All the King's Men (1949).
    A mere year after the success of All the King's Men, Gruenberg never worked in Hollywood again after Quicksand.

The cinematographer

SHOOTER LIONEL LINDON captured a great scene in which Dan and Vera (wonderfully bland names with apologies to the such-named in real life) look at a mink in the store window.
      Lindon won the color-picture Academy Award for Around the World in 80 Days (1956) in which Peter Lorre had a brief cameo as a ship steward.
      He shot the noirs: The Blue Dahlia (1946) Alias Nick Beal (1949) The Sun Sets at Dawn, (1950) The Turning Point (1952) and I Want to Live! (1958)

Good lines
“Men don’t die easily; they take a lot of killing.”
– A kind lawyer explains the facts of life.

Dan: (sings) There’s blues in your big brown eyes.
Vera: Oh, you sing, too.
Dan: Only for you, Honey.
– Mickey lampoons his Hollywood musicals while giving himself an unheeded warning of the danger in Vera’s eyes.

You would think some enterprising pop artist would have cottoned on to their being a good song chorus to Mickey’s throw-away lyric of “blues in your big brown eyes". It was in 1968 that country singer Jim Reeves came up with the hit That's when I see the blues (in your pretty brown eyes.)

The verdict

The full movie

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Our second feature

MY FAVORITE NOIR of all time is Detour (1945) directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal (Who?) and Ann Savage (Who?).
I am not saying this is a better movie than Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. But made in the Poverty-Row studio of Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) for a pittance with unknown actors and a gray-listed director, Detour showed how far a good suspenseful story, taut dialogue, and clever but cheap photography could carry a film noir.
And Detour is not just a film for the noir zealots. It grossed $1m, making it among the top 100 or so films of the year, 1945. Wikipedia has its production budget as within a rubbery range of $20-100,000. Taking the mid-point of $60,000, the multiples of gross to budget approaches 20, perhaps giving it the top ratio of return on investment in 1945. It definitely had higher multiples than the highest-grossing film of the year the goody-two-shoes The Bells of St Marys ($19.7m gross on a budget of $1.3m, enough to make 20 or more Detours).
This is in the context of independent distributor PRC battling against the unfair renting and screening-times practices of the cinema chains owned by the major studios. (As you will recall the anti-competitive practices were exposed a few years later in the Supreme Court Paramount decision and the major studios were forced to sell their cinemas.)
Thanks to word of mouth, cinema-goers will often find a good movie, even when it is largely unheralded.

Perfect noir start

DETOUR IS A LEAN MEAN, CRAFTILY PACED MOVIE which clocks out after 1hr 07min. It begins in a cheap diner with unkempt Al Roberts hunched over a cup of coffee until a jukebox jazz song sends him crazy. The song also sparks Al’s voiceover and the flashback. All is wrong in the world of noir.
      The acting from the unknown actors in the diner and the little-known lead, Neal, is good so we can feel the B-Picture ahead of us might be rewarding. It is.

Fate goes a-tripping
AL NARRATES MUCH OF THE STORY and he warns us early on that a lot of people including the police (and the viewers?) might think he is making stuff up. We are warned that what we are watching may not have been what really happened. And it is not like in Rashomon (1950) where we get to see alternative “truths”. Here we are stuck with Al’s truth, even while we are urged to doubt it. Clever and disturbing!
In Al’s truth, Fate unjustly trips you up. The voice-over says, “Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot and trips you.”
This is just one of the catchy lines in the voice-over which works so well because you can concentrate on the attractive photographic scenes rather than a talking head.

The cinematographer

The photography is excellent, probably as a result of cooperation between director Ulmer and cinematographer Benjamin Harrison Kline who also directed eight films from 1931-45. An early memorable scene is where jazz pianist Al and his vocalist girlfriend Sue are walking through fog of differing densities as she tells him she is going to try her luck in Hollywood. In another scene, Sue is singing a jazz tune with the horn section in silhouette behind her.
Well-framed car scenes with cut to eyes in the rear-view mirror are equally engaging. This is “small is beautiful” and "less is more” before their time in the sun.
Some may say this minimal set-design and photography were born from budgetary constraints but that only makes their effectiveness more laudable.
Kline, Ulmer, and Tom Neal worked in 1945 on the ultimate cheapie, Club Havana with no script, just a one-page outline, one set, and a four-day shoot. “I really had fun on that one,” Ulmer said Unlike Detour, Club Havana is not highly regarded.
The noirs Kline shot include Shoot to Kill (1947) Tough Assignment (1949) and Miami Expos√© (1956).

The players

I BELIEVE VERA (Ann Savage) is one of the best femmes fatale in all of noir. Tough as nails, and certainly “fatale”, she exudes vulnerability from memory of a harsh past and this endears her to an audience. When we first meet her, we see her silently deciding whether to ride with Al. Her slow walk to the car is surprisingly gripping.
Once she is in the car, the voiceover says, “She looked as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Narrator Al continues that Vera has ‘not the beauty of a movie actress   . . . (but) a beauty that’s almost homely because it’s so real.”
Savage remained stuck in B-pictures and gave the game away in the mid-1950s but she made a comeback in the critically acclaimed My Winnipeg (2007).
TOM NEAL was an amateur boxer as well as an actor who lived a particularly sordid life which you can read about if you are interested. Detour co-star Ann Savage described Neal unflatteringly as childlike. As an adult, he was a most dangerous child.

The screenwriter

MARTIN M. GOLDSMITH was a screenwriter and novelist who wrote two classic films noir, Detour, which he adapted from his 1939 novel of the same name, and The Narrow Margin (1952) for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He also wrote the screenplays for the noirs Dangerous Intruder (1945)) Blind Spot (1947) Shakedown (1950) and Hell’s Island (1955, story). 
As a teenager, Goldsmith hitch-hiked across America, part of the inspiration for Detour.

Some film grosses from 1945 from Ultimate Movie Rankings.
(There are some discrepancies with Wiki reports on individual films. For exanple, Wiki has the gross of Hotel Berlin at $2.5m, which still makes it a success.)
The Bells of St Mary’s $19.7m (Ingrid Bergman as a nun – really!)
Spellbound $12.5m
Mildred Pierce $9.7m
The Lost Weekend $9.5m
Scarlet Street $6.9m
Hotel Berlin $5m (with Peter Lorre)
Detour $1m
The Great Flamarion $900,000

The Verdict

The full movie

Next noir double feature
Johnny One-Eye (1950) The Big Combo (1955)

Our song 
picks itself as here is the song that drives Al crazy at the start of Detour


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