Monday, 7 January 2019

Yet more classic Noir films, Part 1: Phantom Lady, the Glass Key, and Angel Face

Phantom Lady is a 1944 murder mystery based on a story by the great Cornell Woolrich (he also wrote Rear Window, Black Angel and The Bride Wore Black), directed by noir-specialist Robert Siodmak, and starring Franchot Tone and Ella Raines. As it didn't seem to be available online, I had to order a DVD. Wise move, because it's an 87-minute stunner. Engineer Alan Curtis (who gives a rather wet, hangdog performance) is nursing a drink and two tickets to a Broadway musical when he strikes up an awkward conversation with a distracted fellow-drinker, and asks her if she'd accompany him to the theatre. She reluctantly agrees, but refuses to tell him her name...

...At the theatre, junked-up drummer Elisha Cook Jr keeps leering at Curtis's companion, and the Carmen Miranda-style star of the show keeps glowering at her from the stage, because they're wearing the same hat!Afterwards, the nameless woman declines a drink, and she and Curtis part. Curtis returns home, calling out his wife's name as he enters their apartment, only to be confronted by three police detectives.

Curtis's wife is lying in their bedroom, strangled to death with a tie (so fiercely that it has had to be cut to remove if from her neck  - the sort of typically ghoulish Woolrichian touch that tends to stick in the mind).
Curtis admits having rowed with his wife earlier in the evening. It's their fifth wedding anniversary, and, although he was trying to mend their broken marriage, his ratbag missus had refused to play along, and had also refused to grant him a divorce. Not only can't Curtis identify his main alibi witness - or tell the cops where she lives - but when he takes the lead detective to question, in turn, the bartender at the place where he picked her up, the cab driver who drove them to the theatre, the drummer who practically undressed her with his eyes, and the Mexican spitfire singer who had glared repeatedly at his companion, they all deny that he had a woman with him. He is duly convicted of murder. The only person willing to even try to prove his innocence is his loyal (and loving) secretary, the toothsome Ella Raines.

Where does Curtis's bestest pal, a sculptor played by the excellent Franchot Tone, come into all this? You'll have to see the film to find out. Well worth doing so, believe me. Brilliantly taut, fast-paced,  suspenseful, and full of intriguingly original lighting effects and camera angles,  it's a dilly (a sequence involving Elisha Cook Jr and some genuine jazzers holding a frenzied after-hours jam session in a lock-up is alone worth the price of the DVD).

Another must-see is The Glass Key (1942), based on the1931 Dashiell Hammett novel, directed by Stuart Heisler, and starring Alan Ladd, Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake and William Bendix. The plot? A reformist politician's feckless son is battered to death in the street near the family home/mansion. Someone then tries to frame political fixer Donlevy, who is in love with the politician's daughter, Veronica Lake, who, in turn, is in love with Alan Ladd, who's too loyal to boss/chum Donlevy to take advantage. Bendix gives a standout performance as the psychotic goon who beats the crap out of Ladd, and is just itching to finish him off (the beating is notable because, afterwards, Ladd actually looks as if he's been pulverised to within an inch of his life - surprised they got his make-up past the censors). Ladd does more smiling than usual, but even his smile is menacing.
Various observations: the four somewhat limited principal actors do precisely what Hollywood paid them to do - and bloody good they are at it; being early noir, the film is almost entirely devoid of sentimentality; while I don't normally go looking for homo-erotic undertones, this film is drenched in the stuff (I'm sorry if that sounds vaguely disgusting) - it's quite obvious that Ladd and Donlevy have the hots for each other rather than for Veronica Lake,  and the enjoyment Bendix derives from smashing Ladd's face in (and the distinctly priapic relish with which he contemplates doing so again) is about as homo-erotic as you could get outside a gladiator movie until the '60s - get a room, guys! (Needless to say, the rematch doesn't quite go the way Bendix expected.) The Glass Key is pure noir gold for film fans who appreciate the hard-core, below-the-counter stuff.

Angel Face (1953) is yet another film I was sure I'd seen, but hadn't. Directed by Otto Preminger (like Robert Siodmak, a noir specialist who later branched out into a variety of other genres), and written by Frank Nugent (his only true noir script - he wrote many John Ford classics, including The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and The Quiet Man (begorrah!) - it starred Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. The very English Ms Simmons (with a convincing American accent) is a spoiled rich man's daughter who entices Mitchum (a big lug of a former race-car driver who's saving to buy his own garage) into an affair by destroying his relationship with his sensible, supportive girlfriend, and getting him a job as her family's live-in chauffeur. Eventually, Mitchum (not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer) realises that Simmons is a poisonous, scheming little minx - but still fails to grasp that she is totally tonto. *SPOILER ALERT* Even after learning that Simmons was responsible for the death of her stepmother and, inadvertently, of her beloved father by tampering with their car, causing it shoot backwards over a cliff oddly situated right next to their Beverly Hills home, Mitchum still agrees to let her drive him to the nearest station, to catch a train out of her life! (I told you he wasn't too bright.) Not quite first-class, but well worth a watch.

Part 2 coming right up...

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