Monday, 30 October 2017

Movie-watch: The Grønmark Blog goes noir! (Part Two) - The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Secret Beyond the Door and The Testament of Dr Mabuse

This is a great trailer - but you'll have to turn the volume up:

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) is a slice of prime noir, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Van Heflin in tough, honest mode, Barbara Stanwyck in evil ratbag mode, Kirk Douglas - in his first film - in confused, drunken, weakling mode and Lizbeth Scott in ex-con-but-basically-decent-girl mode...

...The plot is too complex - and silly - to describe in detail. It starts with the teenaged Martha Ivers killing her overbearing guardian on the same night her friend Sam, who will turn into Van Heflin, runs away for good. By chance (i.e. Fate), years later, Van Heflin finds himself passing through his old hometown, and decides to stay for a few nights. He looks up Martha (Stanwyck), who is rich, and married to Kirk Douglas, the man she was blackmailed into marrying because he saw her kill her guardian. Later, we learn, this pair of charmers allowed an innocent man to be executed for the murder. They think Van Heflin is in town to blackmail them. It gets very messy, with one person shot dead and another committing suicide. So not exactly a chucklefest. It's professionally done, it moves along at a good pace, it's atmospheric, Van Heflin's pretty good and Kirk Douglas is excellent - but the set-up is too contrived, the plot's too cumbersome, and it's hard to see what it is about Barbara Stanwyck's Martha Ivers that would make grown men - and these grown men in particular - behave so goofily.

Secret Beyond the Door (1948): This Fritz Lang Rebecca/Bluebeard mash-up is loopy and unconvincing, but atmospheric and well worth watching. Rich New Yorker Joan Bennett is on the verge of marrying her worthy but dull accountant when, on a holiday with a friend in Mexico, she meets architect Michael Redgrave (whose American accent is execrable). They enjoy a whirlwind romance and are married within days. Long story short - when she moves into Redgrave's mansion back in the States, it begins to dawn on Joan that her hubby's a bit, well, odd. For a start, he was married before (which she didn't know), and his wife (yes, you guessed it) died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. His young son hates dad, because he thinks dad killed mum. The housekeeper is Redgrave's sister; his secretary is a frozen-faced cow who hoped to marry her employer, and keeps her face half-covered because it was disfigured in a fire. Oh yes... hubby says his architectural magazine's in trouble, and Joan Bennett gives him power-of-attorney over her fortune. And he "collects" murder rooms from around the world and adds them onto the mansion - he described these as "felicitous" rooms. He keeps one of them permanently locked, and when Ms Bennett takes a peek it dawns on her that it's...HER ROOM!!! So, hubs evidently wants to kill her. Instead of running away (as I think I might be tempted to do) our Joanie stays and confronts Mike, telling him she'd rather die than live without him. He picks up one of her stockings, winds it round both hands, and walks towards her...

You'll have to watch it to find out what happens next. Of course, with a plot as bonkers as that, it doesn't really work. Joan Bennett is no simpering Joan Fontaine (who played mousey little Rebecca) - she's a smart, sassy, sophisticated New Yorker who'd have had Redgrave pegged as a fruit-loop within 30 seconds. Even if she hadn't got his number right away, she'd only have stuck around long enough to have the pleasure of blowing the psycho bastard's balls off with a .38. You can just about believe Joan Fontaine (again) sacrificing herself to her charming but probably homicidal husband Cary Grant at the end of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) - but there is absolutely no way smart-as-a-whip Joan Bennett is going to sit still while this cold-fish creep strangles her. (Unsurprisingly, it was not a happy shoot - Ms Bennett described it as "disastrous". ) Still and all, I found it compelling.

I'm no expert on the origins of American film noir, but it seems to owe much of its look and feel to German Expressionist cinema: unsurprising, given how many film-making refugees from Nazi Germany ended up working in Hollywood. I'm not sure if The Testament of Dr, Mabuse (1933) qualifies as film noir, but I'm sticking it in here in any case. It was the last film Fritz Lang made before fleeing Germany. Despite the fact that it was banned by the Nazis - presumably on the grounds that the super-criminal, Mabuse, is a terror-fomenting, nihilistic exponent of destructive violence for its own sake, who seems to shares rather a lot of traits with one A. Hitler - Lang claimed that, after he'd finished the film, the testicularly-challenged Dr Goebbels called him in for a friendly chat and offered him the role of Führer of the German film industry. Lang had been raised a Catholic, but, as his mother was a Jew, his decision to turn down the job and, instead, to get out Dodge fast seems, on reflection, wise. The following trailer has no subtitles, but I'm not sure that matters:

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse - a sequel to Lang's 1922 silent film, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler - is a genuine classic: crime, psychology, politics, terror, the supernatural - they're all here. The atmosphere is extremely unsettling, the tension is palpable, and the plot is as mad as the mute Dr. Mabuse, who's locked up in a lunatic asylum, frantically scribbling fiendish criminal plots on bits of paper which are then smuggled out to his "gang", who follow his instructions to the letter. It's all held together by the fleshy, cigar-puffing figure of Inspector Lohmann, played by Otto Wernicke, whom film fans will recognise from his  performance in the same role in M, the director's previous film. Despite looking and sounding like a walking heart-attack, the 40-year old Wernicke would live for another 32 years! (It's no surprise to discover that his character in a 1962 remake of the film was played by Gert Frobe).  Mabuse is dark, febrile, and altogether crazy - and a work of cinematic genius.


  1. Really enjoyed your two "Movie-watch" posts and the trailers. Am ashamed to say I haven't seen any of these films, but they feel very familiar. I was sure I had seen "The Testament of Dr Mabuse", but got it mixed up with " The Island of Dr Moreau" [or perhaps "Dr Findlay's Casebook"? I don't know.]

    Anyway, more titles for my "Must See" list . Many thanks.

    1. "The Island of Lost Souls" is one of the creepiest films I've ever seen. It was made in 1932, before the Hays Office began strictly enforcing the Hollywood "code" in 1934, so the makers weren't constrained when it came to piling on the horror - and Charles Laughton is in terrific form.

      The Laughton film used to be available on YouTube, but seems to have been removed. All of the films mentioned in my two posts are currently available on YouTube - but hurry, because, eventually, all of these classics will disappear behind pay-walls.

  2. What is it about noir that is so alluring even in black and white. Actually better in black and white.
    I think Mr.G's nailed it. If I ever get a chance I'll try and watch one of them. Great post.

    1. Make it "The Hitch-Hiker" or "The Testament of Dr Mabuse", southern man - they're both currently available on YouTube. Depends if you fancy claustrophobic tension or apocalyptic weirdness.