Cinemascope! Blogathon: House of Bamboo (1955)

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10 Reasons You Should Drop What You’re Doing and Watch Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo Right Now

1) Samuel Fuller. Samuel Fuller did not mess around. His films are usually described as “in-your-face,” “pulpy,” and “crude.” They are, and they are magnificent. Fuller made films about things that mattered to him, and you can tell. He said films should start with a punch, and at least one of his films, The Naked Kiss (1964), does exactly that. Not a fan of establishing shots (meant to help orient the viewer in a new scene or space), Fuller was a natural editor. He wanted every shot, every move, every word, to count. Fuller would never sacrifice the raw emotion or the heart of a story just to make a point. But a few jagged edges on the plot were just fine.

House of Bamboo, like other films of Fuller’s, has an integrated cast, though there aren’t a lot of Japanese characters. (Four years later, in The Crimson Kimono, there are two interracial relationships.) Because this is a studio picture, its politics are pretty submerged, but the more control he had over his films, the more apparent Fuller’s politics were, as well as his proclivities. The hero of his film might be a prostitute, as in The Naked Kiss, or a pickpocket, as in the awesome Pickup on South Street (1953); the setting might be a mental hospital, as in Shock Corridor (1963), or the Korean War, in The Steel Helmet (1951), in which Americans execute a prisoner of war, royally pissing off the real U.S. Army. Fuller insisted he’d seen it happen during his service in World War II.

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Of course, he also took to starting shooting by firing a pistol, and he dribbled cigar ash everywhere. Nobody’s perfect.

Here’s some classic Fuller from the shooting of House of Bamboo: “To make matters even messier, Fuller shot [Robert] Stack hoofing it around the pachinko parlors of Tokyo without letting the local citizenry know that a movie was being filmed. When Fuller commanded Stack to be attacked by an angry mob, he didn’t bother to let his unpaid extras know that Stack was acting… and the mob nearly killed the actor right there in front of the hidden cameras. Stack was none too thrilled by the turn of events but Fuller was in his glory.” (From Richard Harlan Smith’s post on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog)

Twentieth-century Fox wanted a heterosexual relationship and a happy ending in House of Bamboo, and they got that. Sort of. Fuller made some compromises in for the studio; the relationship between Robert Stack’s character, Eddie, and his “kimono girl,” Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) is one of the bigger ones. But only a fool would think that the film is about Eddie and Mariko. It’s about Eddie and the crime boss he betrays, Sandy, played by the incomparable and underrated Robert Ryan. Which brings me to…

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2) Robert Ryan. You probably don’t spend as much time as I do thinking about how amazing Robert Ryan is, but you might, if you watched this movie. One of Ryan’s specialities is a barely suppressed rage that’s constantly in danger of erupting into violence. Depending on the character, carrying around this rage can seem to wear him down or give him the volatility of a downed power line. He isn’t especially violent in this picture, but with Ryan it’s those moments when you’re afraid he’s about to crack someone in the face with, say, the cue ball he’s been holding that stay with you. Fuller knows how to milk those moments.

Ryan played a lot of bad guys, but he seems to have played racist bad guys more often than most actors, especially in the 1940s – 50s. Just off the top of my head, he’s an anti-Semite in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947, which got him an Oscar nomination), and a bigot in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Perhaps he was so good at these and other bullying roles because, in real life, he campaigned for civil rights and opposed McCarthyism. He knew injustice and cruelty when he saw it. Plus, he was 6′ 4″. I can almost guarantee you that there’s not enough Robert Ryan in your life. You should do something about that.

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3) It’s in Cinemascope. Oh, the glories of Cinemascope. No, it wasn’t perfect, but it remains breathtaking, even when you notice that little curvature at the edge of the frame’s width, even when you have to watch it on a television screen. Cinemascope films, with an aspect ratio of 2.55:1 (versus the old Academy ratio of 1.375:1) were meant to be shown (ideally) on 62-foot long by 32-foot high screens, give or take. The limitations of filming in Cinemascope, like those of silent film, the Production Code, and early sound technology, either defeat a picture or produce inspired solutions. Fuller took it as part of his job to push against limits of all kinds, and the results are invariably dynamic. This film in particular is incredibly visually satisfying. Fuller uses the screens common to traditional Japanese interiors to frame characters and to create staggered or layered depth of field (a screen opening on a room beyond the one, or in front of the one, which has our attention, for example).

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Notice, too, how a number of these shots have a sharp corner in the center of the foreground, rather than narrowing towards a point in the distance: the corners of buildings, offices, rooms. It’s an unusual (at least to me) way of creating depth in Cinemascope.

4) It was filmed on location in postwar Japan.

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Tokyo is dreary and smog-filled. The empty trees suggest that Fuller made a point of filming in late fall or winter—even the natural landscapes are brown and grey. And yet, the film is filled with color—in particular the colors of traditional Japanese culture. Though the Western protagonists seem to take a chauvinistic pride in refusing to even acknowledge that they are in someone else’s country, the audience cannot help but get a feel for this time and this place. Fuller makes sure that the sights, sounds, and customs that the men ignore are there for us to take in. One of Fuller’s interests in this film, as in some of his others, is the clash of cultures, and the gang’s pointed lack of interest in their surroundings is their own bigotry, not the film’s. A motif is one of these guys shouting into a phone, or at a person, “English! ENGLISH!”

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5) Fuller’s shot composition and staging

No, silly. This is the *beginning* of the movie.

No, silly. This is the *beginning* of the movie.

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Three pivotal scenes take place in this gazebo and in each the characters are framed differently, emphasizing their state of mind.

 

6) The ass-kicking ending. SPOILERS AHEAD. Obviously.

I mean the real ending, not the silly tacked-on one with Eddie and Mariko holding hands. The final sequence is bizarre and brilliant from the moment Sandy sets up his revenge, getting Eddie shot by the Tokyo police, to the end, a Hitchcockian chase through the rooftop amusement park of the department store they were robbing. The highest point on the roof is a rotating globe, and that’s where Sandy goes down.

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7) Bones!

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Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not an ex-pat hood in postwar Japan!

8) Love triangles and gender reversals. Robert Stack in the tub, Robert Stack showing some shoulder. Meanwhile Shirley Yamaguchi is completely covered. (There is one obligatory shot of her in a skimpy towel, but that’s before the two of them get to know each other.)

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A lot of the shot compositions also emphasize Sandy’s feelings for his “ichiban” (number one), first Griff (Cameron Mitchell), then, of course, Eddie. There’s at least one major plot point that doesn’t make much sense unless you understand that Sandy has developed feelings for Eddie. Fuller made it clear in interviews that he fully intended this homoerotic tension. Apparently, the only other person on the set who figured it out was Ryan, and there are a couple of scenes where he plays to this, and Stack/Eddie just looks blank, totally unaware of how important he has become to Sandy.

9) Kabuki. As James Ursini and Alain Silver point out in their DVD commentary, Fuller borrows a fair amount from Kabuki theatre in his staging and in the way he creates depth using the interior screens.

Yes, this is from the same movie.

Yes, this is from the same movie.

There’s also a Japanese party with traditional music and fan dancers that morphs into a sock hop. The women disrobe to reveal poodle skirts and bobby socks but keep their white pancake make up on. Because Fuller.

… aaaaaaaand this:

10) Having a heart-to-heart with guy you just shot. Dead. In his bathtub.

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Fuller’s pulp rendering of Marat’s assassination, the scene in which Sandy shoots first and talks later, is gripping, both for its total weirdness and for how it elaborates on Sandy’s feelings about the two men in his life, Griff and Eddie. Sandy cradles the dead guy’s head, keeps it from sinking into the water twice, as he tenderly explains why he had to kill him. It’s a speech that applies equally well, if not more so, to other relationships in the film: You weren’t responsible for your actions. You didn’t know what you were doing. I could see you had no control of yourself. Absolutely none.

P.S. The great Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa is also here, but you’d hardly know it. He looks uncomfortable and has a thanklessly dull part.

This is a movie that should be a lot easier to see, and, hey, Fox, it should be available in Blu-ray. Get on that, willya?

Bluebeard in Black and White: Fritz Lang’s “Secret Beyond the Door”

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This is my contribution to the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by the always-fascinating Movies Silently.

Check out more of the posts there!

Let me start this post about Secret Beyond the Door by blaming the enchanting Angela Carter. Carter (1940 – 1992) wrote some of my favorite books, including The Bloody Chamber (1979), which is a collection of feminist (and often erotic) revisions of fairy tales. If you’re familiar with Bluebeard, you’ve probably figured out that the title of that book is also the title of a story that revisits the Bluebeard fairy tale. Carter is an amazing writer; she (re)wrote a lot of fairy tales as well as writing about how they work and why they’re important. You might have heard of her story “The Company of Wolves,” a version of Little Red Riding Hood from the same collection, made into a peculiar and magical film by Neil Jordan (1984), or her novel The Magic Toyshop, turned into the equally unsettling film by David Wheatley (1987). I think Carter’s may have been my introduction to the Bluebeard story, which is doubtless why it’s one of my favorite fairy tales.

As with so many fairy tales, it’s not a great template if you’re a lady: The Bluebeard figure, an older, often ugly or darkly handsome, wealthy, and mysterious fellow, courts and marries a beautiful young woman and spirits her off to his desolate castle, country house, log cabin, or what-have-you. At first the new wife is dazzled by the jewels, the dresses, the fancy parties (or she is miserably isolated, depending on the version). Soon, the husband has to leave for business. He entrusts his wife with all the keys to the house except one. Never, ever open the door to this one room, he says. Well, obviously, that’s the only door she is interested in opening. She contrives a way to get into the room and discovers the dismembered corpses of Bluebeard’s many and sundry previous wives (suggesting a tiresomely predictable terror of women who seek knowledge). When the husband returns and (somehow instantly) realizes the betrayal, he murders her. Or, in some versions, the wife’s brothers come galloping to her rescue. The punishment of the woman is typical, as is the Victorian-ish addition of male rescuers. Meh.

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If you’ve read any books like, say, Jane Eyre, or seen a movie from the 1940s, like, say, Gaslight (1940), this plot will probably sound pretty familiar. According to scholar Maria Tatar, another wonderful author who writes an awful lot about fairy tales and folklore, Hollywood in the 1940s was rife with Bluebeard stories, and for good reason. Women were marrying strangers—beaus who had returned from the war not quite the same as when they left—and married women were discovering that the man they’d married, recently home from the war, had become a stranger. Part of the strangeness was this new undercurrent of violence—in the men’s dreams or nightmares, stories they told or wouldn’t tell their families about their war-time experiences, and sometimes that violence that spilled over into the family.

Now that we’ve got that out of way, let’s also take a moment to blame Fritz Lang. It’s been sort of a Lang-y month around here. I recently wrote about his 1944 film Ministry of Fear, I went and saw Hangmen Also Die (1944) at the Skirball Cultural Center (which is hosting a noir exhibit focusing on its many émigré artists—if you’re in the LA area, go, go, go!), and now Secret Beyond the Door (1947), Lang’s version of the Bluebeard tale, or his “wife-in-distress film,” or “paranoid’s woman’s film,” depending on which critic you read. Lang is a master of mood and lighting (assisted by some fantastic cinematographers), and for me, this is what carries Secret. It doesn’t hurt that it stars Joan Bennett (a sometime Lang favorite) and Michael Redgrave, but the plot is so goofily Freudian that if Bennett and Redgrave weren’t adrift in Lang’s parallel universe, the film probably wouldn’t work.

7614704076_5ffbd86407_zIf you’re willing to accept the film as a kind of nightmarish Freudian fairy tale, it’s quite something. The opening sets the mood: an animated pond with submerged flowers (created by Disney specially for the film) and Celia (Bennett) speaking in a dreamy, hazy way about her wedding, as though it’s a memory. In fact, she is approaching the altar, about to marry Mark (Redgrave). As if waking from a dream, Celia’s voice-over worries, “I’m marrying a stranger.” Like all therapy sessions, the story begins in the past.

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What could go wrong?

The trouble starts on the honeymoon when, as a joke, Celia locks Mark out of her room. Thus begin the lying, the silences, Mark’s locking himself up away from his new bride. All she really knows about Mark is that he’s an architect, and he “collects” rooms, “felicitous rooms for felicitous people,” he says. He theorizes that the way spaces are built can determine what happens in them. Celia quite sensibly tells him he’s touched in the head. When they return to Mark’s isolated manor in the States, Celia realizes just how little she really knows about her husband. I won’t spoil the series of surprises that await her, but rest assured, they are Jane Eyre-sized revelations.

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Oh. That.

I will tell you that Mark’s collection of rooms (all but one) are introduced to Celia and their housewarming party guests. Each room is an exact replica (with as many of the original furnishings as possible) of a murder room, a room in which a real man murdered his wife, his mistress, or his mother. Nothing weird about that. When Celia points out that he used the word felicitous to describe the rooms, he explains that the word means “apt,” or “well-suited.” (“Look it up, darling,” he says rather snottily, but to be fair to Celia, the word can mean either apt or pleasantdelightful.) Mark’s architecture magazine is, in fact, named Apt. 

Secret Beyond the Door hits most of the Bluebeard marks: naïve young woman’s sexual awakening, marriage to a mysterious man who keeps secrets, including the room he won’t allow her to go in. The new husband is moody and unreasonable. She is isolated out in the country, and her only family, her brother, dies before she meets Mark.

25Tatar notes that Secret Beyond the Door, like many of the 1940s Bluebeard film plot lines, is actually female noir. Rather than a damaged man set irrevocably on a destructive path, helped along by a suspicious and very attractive woman, the Bluebeard pattern gives us a psychologically unstable or masochistic woman who succumbs to the initial charms of mysterious (and older) man. One of the things that’s interesting about this is that it can give the female character a lot more agency than you might expect. Celia puts up with a lot of crazy from Mark, but she is impressively strong-willed and once she decides to stick with him, she is determined to figure out what happened to him, to help him overcome his, well, frigidness. Mark becomes more and more helpless in the grip of some mysterious neurosis, and, risking her own life, it is Celia who must save him. The shift is visible in Lang’s placement of Celia and Mark relative to each other as the couple snuggles in the hammock at their hotel, first on their honeymoon at the beginning, and then when they return to the same hotel at the end of the film (see below).

As you might imagine, Lang and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, turn what might have been a warm, even cozy house into a nightmare labyrinth of claustrophobic, shadowy rooms and hallways. We often find Celia lingering in doorways and hallways, liminal spaces that emphasize her unstable status in the household and how uncertain she is about who she has really married. Many conversations between characters are abruptly interrupted by a third character and never finished, adding to the atmosphere of invisible menace.

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The family’s collection of creepy masks: Nope, nothing to worry about here.

Celia’s rising alarming is mirrored in our own sense of instability in this narrative, in which things are not as they seem. Who is the victim? Who is the villain? Who is(n’t) crazy? And what do those lilacs represent? Mark’s career as an architect also calls our attention to how spaces are used, and not just those dark hallways or murder rooms. Mexico, where Celia and Mark meet, get married, and briefly honeymoon, is a Mexico of the mind, or perhaps of the libido—an exotic otherworld in which the natives are passionate and untamed. (It’s a convenient and creaky stereotype for the picture’s symbolic system, and it could just as easily have been Spain or a country in Africa, as Lang’s version of Mexico has nothing to do with the real place or its real people.) The scenario in which Celia and Mark meet is terribly contrived, but that’s part of why it works—Celia and Mark were destined to meet. Joan Bennett is wonderful as a woman who appears trapped in a dream she can’t quite get a grip on, and Redgrave manages to be loftily aristocratic, manic, and, in rare glimpses, charmingly down-to-earth.

Don’t pay any attention to reviews that call the film “a pretty silly yarn.” It is a pretty silly yarn, but so are most fairy tales. The plausibility of the story line is beside the point. Like all fairy tales, the film’s power comes from its imagery and the pull of the strong but often submerged instincts and emotions that fairy tales have always narrated. (I also think the film works better than Spellbound in its use of psychoanalysis–everything Beyond the Door is overdetermined from the get-go. There are no half-measures with Lang.) Give yourself up to the film and enjoy the beautiful and unsettling ride.

Before.

Before.

The making of Secret Beyond the Door was nearly as fraught as Mark’s psyche, with Bennett’s marriage to producer Walter Wanger breaking up, Lang having an on-again off-again affair with the screenwriter and bullying his cast and crew. The TCM article has some juicy details.

If you’re interested in Bluebeard (or other fairy tales), check out some of the many versions, with illustrations and

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After.

lists of related novels and films at fairy tale compendium Sur La Lune.

In addition to the 40s films noted above, other versions of Bluebeard include magician Méliès’ Barbe-bleue (1901), Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), which I wrote about here, a 1944 Edgar G. Ulmer version I can’t wait to watch (streaming via Amazon Prime), and Catherine Breillat’s 2009 Barbe blue.

More Bluebeardiana:

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Ministry of Fear (1944)

Ministry-of-Fear-swastikaAfter the first couple of paragraphs, this post is pretty much nothing but spoilers. Ye’ve been warned.

During the 30s and early 40s, Austrian-exile Fritz Lang wanted to make not just anti-fascist pictures, but anti-Nazi pictures. In the American studios where Lang began making movies in 1936, this was a hard sell for much of the war. He did make four films in which Nazis are central to the plot—Manhunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946). Of these, Ministry of Fear is the only one that has no actual Nazis* in it. Ministry is instead filled with collaborators, making everyone a potential threat.

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A mischievous Lang at a typically Expressionist angle.

The film, adapted from the Graham Greene novel, opens with our hero, Stephen Neale (the sporting Ray Milland), being released from an institution where he’s been remanded for the “mercy killing” of his wife. In other words, Neale has been something of a collaborator himself. (He brought his dying wife some means of killing herself but couldn’t bring himself to administer it. Unbeknownst to him, she found it and killed herself.) Since the trial, Neale has been resting up in the Lembridge asylum.

In the Criterion Collection liner notes for the film, Glenn Kenny describes Ministry as a “nightmare film” rather than a Nazi film—that is, a film like Lang’s earlier M (1931) or the Mabuse (1922; 1933) films, movies in which the Ministry of Fearprotagonist is not so much involved in a plot as trapped in a psychologically overwrought context, an atmosphere rather than a real place. That atmosphere—which Lang excelled at—veers uncomfortably between oppressive and angst-ridden. Even before we know what sort of trouble Neale will get himself in, there is an unnerving emphasis on the passing of time. The film opens on a clock—the one ticking away the minutes until Neale is once again a free man. When he buys a ticket back to London at the Lembridge rail station, the clerk says he’ll have it “in the wink of an eye.” The train, however, Neale has to wait for.

To pass the time, Neale attends a village fête (pronounced by all and sundry as “fate”) benefitting the Mothers of Free Nations charity. Looking a bit dazed by what appears to be more social interaction than he’s had in a long time, Neale is first pressed into guessing the weight of a cake—made with tightly rationed eggs—and is then compelled to have his palm read. And here is where things go sideways for Neale.

The palmist tells Neale he will make a woman very happy; Neale protests, “I’m not married.”

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“Well, you will be!” she practically shouts at him. “You’ve made at least one woman happy,” she insists, but Neale doesn’t want to hear any more about the past, and who can blame him?

“Don’t tell me about the past,” he says, “show me the future.”

Unfortunately, these turn out to be the magic words the palmist is waiting to hear from a Nazi spy. Brushing issues of romance aside, she informs Neale that what he really wants is that cake, and she tells him what guess will win it for him. (For a cake everyone insists is very light because of those rare eggs, the “magic” weight of the cake is pretty heavy.) Confused, but cheerfully following directions, he returns to the cake stand and offers this new weight, winning the cake.

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It’s a Congratulations-on-getting-out-of-the-asylum cake!

Just as he is heading back to the station with his prize, the fête ladies stop him. The real spy (the criminally under-appreciated Dan Duryea) has materialized, and he wants his cake. The ladies insist that they’ve made a mistake, and that this new fellow has guessed much more closely to the “real” weight. Neale triumphantly points out that his original guess is much closer to this new weight than the angry, bowler-hatted interloper’s and heads back to the station. Fate, indeed.

In such circumstances, what can a spy do but send in a fake blind man to share Neale’s train carriage and steal back the made-with-real-eggs-secret-spy cake? Neale offers the fellow a slice (using the pocket knife all gentlemen used to carry), but rather than popping it in his mouth like a normal fake blind man, the man crumbles it in his fingers as though trying to find something in it. While the two men share the cake, the Nazis begin bombing a nearby munitions factory. The train slams to a stop. The fake blind man, not finding what he was looking for in the cake, whacks Neale over the head, hops off the train, and makes off with the rest of the cake.

The bombs are going off, the train is stopped somewhere in the countryside, and we can see the fake blind man scurrying off with his contraband, but Neale comes to pretty quickly. And this is where things get weird. Neale gathers himself, jumps off the train, and runs—towards the Nazi bombs—after the man who stole his cake. Just take a minute to savor that.

Of course, things have to clatter off the rails for Neale to really reassimilate. In order to rejoin civilization, he needs to be purged of his guilt in collaborating in his wife’s death. When Neale confesses his part in his wife’s death to his new love interest, Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds), they are even Underground, so that Neale can re-emerge a truly free man. Now, he can be the good guy, pursuing collaborators and Carla with a free (well, free-ish) conscience. So, when he says, “Show me the future,” it isn’t so much an unfortunate coincidence as a gateway to actually having one.

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Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) in a fabulous Edith Head suit with a slightly spooked Stephen (Ray Milland). Hey, remember the box in “Kiss Me Deadly”?

Austrian exiles Carla and her brother, Willi, run the Mothers of Free Nations, which has been hijacked by Nazis spies and collaborators. As Neale runs around London trying to find out who stole his cake, he and Carla are constantly framed in doorways, suggesting both a sense of being trapped and that somehow the pair are inescapably visible to their pursuers. In an attempt to track down the cake-foisting palmist, Neale and Willi attend a séance, and the angry man who wanted his cake (Duryea), turns up—and then gets shot, apparently with Neale’s gun. Then we see a second dour, bowler-hatted fellow tailing Neale.

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Bowlers, bowlers everywhere…

Neale is surrounded not only by people with suspect motives but also by fakes of one sort or another. Neale’s palmist was the spies’ replacement for the regular palmist, a professional fake who runs the séance. (But of course Neale’s palmist is quite real in that her readings turn out to be quite accurate.) There is the fake blind man, of course. The man who wanted the cake and then gets shot at a séance later turns up with yet another name, as a tailor, and very much not dead. The second bowler-hatted man who seems so menacing is a good guy. One can’t even be sure of the cake. The unknowableness of others’ motives until it is perhaps too late is essential to the queasy atmosphere Lang creates, and it is superbly effective at conveying an aspect of the terror Nazis were so good at manufacturing: paranoia. Upon finding the names of various suspect persons in their files, Carla exclaims to Willi, “They’re Nazis, Willi, I know it! The same as they were in Austria. It’s the way they work, all around you, knowing about everybody, everything, where to find you. …They’re here.” It’s this sense of collaborators hiding in plain sight, turning up everywhere you go, that I think makes Ministry of Fear not only a classic Lang “nightmare” film, but a Nazi film as well.

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Hillary Brooke as the real Mrs. Bellane, psychic.

Ministry of Fear is often introduced (or dismissed)  as one of Lang’s lesser films, but recently—especially since the Criterion re-release in 2013—interested parties are making a case for it. Perhaps trying to see the film as an anti-Nazi picture has masked its finer qualities. Looking at Ministry of Fear as a noir, a genre for which Lang is justifiably famous, might shift the focus to what the picture does (really) well, rather than its failure at things it’s not trying to (and maybe couldn’t) do. It certainly hits many of noir’s high (low?) notes: an imperfect man in over his head, the constant sense of unease and danger, typical noir angles, framings, and some noir-ish lighting.

Ministry is a fine film either way, not only because it’s Fritz Lang; it had loads of talent working on it. I’m becoming quite a Ray Milland fan, especially after watching this and another 1944 Milland picture, The Uninvited, a ghost story directed by Lewis Allen. Art director Hans Dreier (who has a whopping 535 credits on IMDb) worked on both, to wonderful effect. The unflappable and very tall (6′ 6″) Alan Napier (Alfred to Adam West’s Batman, for those of my generation) is also in both pictures. Character actor Dan Duryea, no slouch at 6′ 1″, deserves a post of his own; here, he gives us what Kenny describes as “uncharacteristic but altogether deliberate blandness” in a character who turns up like a bad penny, helping to evoke the paranoid sense of imminent betrayal that pervades the film. Plus, Duryea gets to dial a phone with a pair of ludicrously enormous tailors’ scissors, which look like an overisze prop for Hitchcock’s 3D Dial M for Murder (1954, another Milland picture).

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Unfortunately, Ministry of Fear isn’t currently streaming on any platform I’m aware of—you just gotta wait for it from Netflix or buy it (or get it from your library, of course—mine had it!).

Here’s a peek – the fake blind man and the cake:

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(*There is no one in the film who identifies as a Nazi, no one sporting jackboots or spouting fascist rhetoric. But one can make an argument for Carla’s brother Willi as one of those apparently affable Nazis who are inevitably revealed as cold-blooded bastards, both because of his false “old boy” avuncularity and the fact that he is the person giving the other collaborators their marching orders.)

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More Reading on Ministry of Fear:

MUBI essay focusing on the romance between Carla and Stephen

Turner Classic Movies’ page on Ministry of Fear

Bosley Crowther’s 1945 New York Times review 

IMDb’s page on Ministry of Fear

 

Tyrone Power lurches down Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley (1947) Directed by Edmund Goulding

nightmare alley posterAn odd but now well-regarded film noir, with A-list stars and production staff, and a larger-than-normal budget, Nightmare Alley is based on William Lindsay Gresham’s squalid 1946 novel. In an attempt to move away from his usual roles as a romantic lead and adventurer, Tyrone Power bought the rights to the novel in order to play its antihero, Stan Carlisle (which explains the stars and budget). Film critic J. Hoberman commented in 2000 that the film is “remarkably sordid for so high-profile a release,” a tagline that might have increased the film’s popularity when it was originally released. It’s a terrible shame that Gresham couldn’t have written this novel 15 years earlier—it’s hard not to daydream about what a pre-Code production might have made of it. The story begins and ends at a carnival sideshow, with characters musing about the show’s geek, a man brought so low that he bites the heads off chickens and drinks their blood or swallows the heads, depending on your source, in order to stay in liquor (or narcotics).

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James Flavin as carny owner Hoatley.

What motivates our man Stan is feeling superior to others, so operating as a carny is a natural fit—he enjoys scoffing at the gullibility of the “chumps” and feeling “as if you were in the know, and they were on the outside.” Within short order, Stan has accidentally murdered Zeena the Psychic’s washed-out, alcoholic partner and husband, Pete (Ian Keith). Stan mistakenly gives Pete the bottle of wood alcohol used in Zeena’s act instead of the moonshine he’s been drinking. Stan is the sort of fellow who accidentally murders people, and he’s sorry, in the sense that he didn’t actively want Pete to die, but he doesn’t skip a beat in using the death to his own advantage. By taking Pete’s place in Zeena’s act, and in her life, Stan becomes a valuable asset. Zeena (a worn-looking Joan Blondell) teaches him the complex word code that allows her to appear psychic when answering questions from the crowd. When he is more or less kicked out of the carnival because he’s been secretly wooing Molly (Coleen Gray), the Electric Girl, behind Zeena’s back, he finds that this too is opportunity in disguise. Employing Molly (after marrying her rather unenthusiastically), he takes Zeena’s psychic act where the money is, upscale nightclubs, becoming Stanton the Great in the process.

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Tyrone Power goes from carny Stan…

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…to “The Great Stanton.”

Though Stan engineers his own downfall, he has some help along the way. The vehicle of his destruction is an even more sociopathic con artist—the aptly named Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychiatrist, who, in the novel, is faking even her credentials. By the time Stan gets the best advice he probably ever will—“Don’t cry in that good liquor!”—he is riding the rails with the other bums, holding them briefly spellbound with a reading, stolen from Pete, that fits any man. Unlike the novel, which wallows in its seedy fug to the last page, the film allows Stan a glimmer of hope, as he reunites with Molly at another carnival.

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Joan Blondell as Zeena, wondering what a nice girl is doing in a place like this.

The heart of the movie is the doubling of Pete and Stan. Believing he’s smarter than everyone else makes Stan think Pete is just a loser, a weak man who couldn’t hack it. But, as Pete points out, he used to be just like Stan. Like Stan, he could do cold readings that worked like magic. And then something happened, and Pete broke. The scene in which Stan accidentally leaves Pete with the wrong bottle of booze demonstrates how alike they truly are. Pete can still manage to enchant an audience, at least for a few minutes. Crouching underneath Zeena’s stage, Pete holds the cynical and ambitious Stan spellbound as he reels out a stock reading. The Self-Styled Siren’s description captures it: “Stanton is immediately drawn in by Pete’s ‘psychic’ spiel: ‘I see a boy…a dog…’ Immediately Stanton says yes, that’s me! that’s my dog! ‘There’s always a dog,’ says Pete, with a malicious, wheezing laugh.” Forgetting that he was just as gullible as the “yokels” he mocks, Stan absorbs the trick and doesn’t look back when Pete turns up dead. Stan remains confident of his own unique superiority to failures like Pete, but we can see that Stan is going to follow Pete’s footsteps all the way to his fetid fate as an alcoholic has-been. The ruthless Lilith will become the insider, manipulating her mark, and Stan will find himself stranded on the outside.

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Lilith (Helen Walker) knows *exactly* how she got here.

That Stan’s destination seems inevitable the moment he falls for Pete’s reading might suggest that the story buys into some of its own hokum. As part of her psychic act, Zeena reads the cards—the Tarot, which Zeena endearingly pronounces as though it rhymes with “parrot.” And though she doesn’t believe she’s psychic, she does believe in the cards. The cards are always right. Stan is a bit like poor Oedipus—in his hurry to get away from the humiliating fate he’s worried about, he finds himself careening towards it. Of course, the cards don’t read Stan’s future; they read Stan. It is Stan’s character, lacking in empathy and smug in the certainty of his superiority, that determines his fate.

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The end of the line: Stan realizes he was made for the part of the geek.

Tyrone Power didn’t get to play a lot of great roles; it’s easy to understand why he went after the part of Stan with such zeal. And Power pulls it off beautifully. For an actor allegedly dull as a bank clerk, Power is utterly convincing as Stan, at every stop along the journey. The Siren deconstructs his best scene, in which Stan rescues the carnival from being shut down by a doubting rural sheriff. The cold reading, a masterful riff on Pete’s boy-and-his-dog yarn, shows Stan settling into the role of first-rate manipulator, both physically and verbally. To be fair, everyone here is remarkably good, especially Joan Blondell, who, like Power, allows her character’s past to run roughshod over her movie-star good looks, and without tamping down Zeena’s sexuality in the least.

Edmund Goulding wasn’t a name I recognized, but I should have, both as writer and director. Nightmare Alley was for Goulding, as it was for Power, the odd film out. At MGM, Goulding was known for satiny, high-polish projects like Grand Hotel (1932), the Norma Shearer vehicle Riptide (1934), and Dark Victory (1939), as well as 1941’s The Great Lie with Bette Davis and Mary Astor, which has played recently on Turner Classic Movies. As a bonus, the hulking Mike Mazurki, who played Moose Malloy in the Dick Powell version of Murder My Sweet three years earlier, is here an overprotective lug who takes up with Zeena once Stan has run off with Molly.

A cineaste with impeccable taste, a fathomless love for classic film, and a sharp tongue, the Self-Styled Siren posts about Nightmare Alley (1) and again about Tyrone Power (2).

Johnny Eager (1941)

Dir. Mervyn LeRoy

David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film refers to Johnny Eager (1941) as “fatuous,” which I think unfair. (The IMDb hordes gave it a 7.1, for whatever that’s worth.) Casting the famously good-looking Robert Taylor was something of a gamble; Thomson’s other complaint about the film is that Taylor looks like “a male model after memories of Cagney and Robinson.” Taylor undoubtedly attracted female moviegoers, but would he be able to pull off being a bad guy gangster? I think he does alright. That’s in great part because he’s got Van Heflin at his side, as Johnny’s best and only friend, Jeff. Heflin won a Best Supporting Oscar for his lugubrious lush with a penchant for quoting literature.

Johnny-Eager-1941Johnny Eager (1941) is an interesting instance of movies that have a central heterosexual romantic relationship but in which the arguably more important relationship is the one between two male characters. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), one of my favorite movies, is another. This is not to knock Barbara Stanwyck’s sly and scary performance. Double Indemnity was my introduction to the amazing Stanwyck, who might be my favorite actress of all time. But the relationship between Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff and Edgar G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes (and his “little man”) is the one that underpins the story, and that makes Neff something other than a weak-willed adulterer. That is another post for another day, however.

The Turner Classic Movie web site does a pretty good job of summing up Johnny Eager’s plot: “Sporting a new, manly mustache, Taylor plays a cold-blooded gangster who succumbs to the charms of [Lana] Turner, the district attorney’s daughter.” Johnny is on parole, allegedly driving a taxi. He’s actually living in a penthouse and trying to open a dog-racing track. Though his attraction to Lisbeth is genuine, it turns out to be convenient as well when he discovers that she is the district attorney’s stepdaughter. In order to keep the district attorney, who has already sent him to jail once, out of his way, Johnny makes Lisbeth think she has murdered someone in an attempt to save Johnny’s life. And that’s when thing start to go off the rails.

Johnny is a smart man who can’t figure out what the percentage is in doing anything that won’t net him some kind of profit. Motives other than self-preservation and acquisition are unfathomable. His constant refrain: “But what was his angle?”

“Sentiment!” he scoffs, not unlike Loki in The Avengers (2012), “Since when does that pay off?” (I’m afraid that Robert Taylor isn’t nearly as compelling as Tom Hiddleston, unfortunately.) When Johnny gives his current girlfriend the brush-off—while telling her explicitly that it is not a brush-off—Jeff feels sorry for her, though he doesn’t like her much. It’s a position Johnny cannot understand.

“Well, Johnny,” he tries to explain, “you can feel sorry for someone you don’t like if you’ve got a heart or soul or decency.” Beat. “I guess you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

He has precisely the same trouble understanding why his dog (an unwanted gift) wants to play with a stuffed toy. Lisbeth explains, “He wants you to throw it for him.”

“Why?
“So he can chase it, silly.”

“Where’s the percentage in that?” Even retired racing dogs must be looking to make a profit. More than his attitude to Lisbeth, we can keep track of Johnny’s progression from cold-hearted gangster to sucker, as he puts it, by the changes in his response to the dog.

Johnny’s first significant encounter with Lisbeth is at the apartment his parole officer believes is Johnny’s humble home. She and her friend, supposedly students of sociology, are tagging along on a surprise visit, a sort of social work ride-along. There is nary a mention of Lisbeth’s studies after this, which is just as well, since Lana Turner as a sociology student is only slightly less ridiculous than Robert Taylor as a modern Medici. Johnny pretends to be helping his deplorable niece, Matilda, with her homework, to write about a literary character of her choice. Lisbeth’s hopelessly tactless friend suggests the Count of Monte Cristo. Lisbeth suggests Cyrano, his definition of a kiss coming to mind—“a divine secret which two mouths tell each other while neither needs to listen.” Johnny pricks up his ears, but when Lisbeth explains that Cyrano was making love to a woman on behalf of another man, he loses all interest. When he returns to his real apartment, he asks Jeff about Cyrano. “Are you starting to meet literate dames?” asks Jeff, in disbelief. As Johnny stalks off, Jeff has the delightful line, “Mr. Freud, take a letter.”

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The romance has some darkly wonderful repartee. After Lisbeth tells him the fact that he didn’t have a dog as a boy explains Johnny Eager “completely,” he shoots back with “Some day a man’ll come along and put you in a zippered bag.” What better way to sweep a woman off her feet? More tellingly, he says to Lisbeth, “Don’t turn ordinary on me…I don’t want to get tired of you.” Lana Turner has a wonderful moment when her boyfriend predicts that with Johnny, “You’re going to get hurt, you know.”
“No, Jimmy,” she says, almost sadly, “I don’t know.”

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Turner and Taylor – T’nT!

Lisbeth’s quotation of Cyrano is echoed in the quotations that Jeff tosses off at Johnny, quotations which aim to explain Johnny to himself. Jeff claims he is “a modern Boswell,” and later laments, “I was going to be the troubadour of all the Eager folk songs.” (Having not read Life of Samuel Johnson [apologies to DWN], I can’t say for sure, but, to me, Jeff seems more like a drunken consigliere than a modern Boswell—a drunker, lighter-hearted Robert Duvall.) Just as Johnny tells Lisbeth not to be ordinary, Jeff insists that Johnny shouldn’t be “obvious.”

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Van Heflin in Johnny Eager.

It is, to a great extent, Jeff’s commentary on Johnny that makes Johnny interesting. It’s not always clear what Jeff sees in Johnny, but he conveys the feeling he has for Johnny, and that makes us care about him. Johnny is at least dimly aware of the value of Jeff’s friendship. When Johnny finally goes to tell Lisbeth he tricked her and put her out of her misery, he takes Jeff along with him, saying, “Come on, I’m doing this as much for you as for anybody.” Jeff is Johnny’s partner, his better nature.

[SPOILER ALERT!] When Johnny is fatally shot down in a street, after sending Lisbeth off to safety with her ex-boyfriend, Jeff is there to cradle him in a Pietà. Jeff offers a quick eulogy of Johnny, who could have been anything, he says, if only he had started on a different path. Jeff and Johnny’s Pietà is repeated three years later with Keyes and the dying Neff, in Double Indemnity’s last moments.

Director Mervyn LeRoy (1900 – 1987) is an interesting fellow in his own right. He was cousin to producer Jesse L. Lasky, who introduced him to the movie business, where he started in the costume department. He also worked as a lab assistant, camera assistant, and part-time silent film actor. LeRoy was nicknamed “The Boy Wonder” of Warner Bros., ostensibly because his pictures consistently made money. It’s a pretty good nickname for a (male) director who could shoot any kind of story. (He was also married to Harry Warner’s daughter, Doris. Maybe that’s not irrelevant.) He directed 13 Oscar-nominated performances, three of which (Heflin, Lemmon, Gale Sondergard) won, though he never won an Oscar for Best Director. In its usual game of catch-up, the Academy did give him the Thalberg (Irving Thalberg G. Memorial) in 1976. He was nominated for Random Harvest, which I haven’t seen. (It was on TCM earlier today, as part of an homage to Joan Fontaine, but I was not giving it my full attention.) But he also directed Little Caesar (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)—two enormously important films in the history of film genre—Three on a Match (1932), a pre-Code classic starring Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis, the enormously entertaining The Bad Seed (1956), as well as contributing to The Wizard of Oz (1939).

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Perhaps not incidental to Johnny’s dog track, LeRoy was one of the organizers of the Hollywood Park Mervyn+Leroyracetrack, and a director from 1941 until his death in 1987. Its chairman was Harry Warner and many of the shareholders were from the same social set. The Mervyn LeRoy Handicap has been run at Hollywood Park since 1980.

And, in case you need a vintage insult: “You couldn’t stop being a thief any more than a weasel could stop sucking chicken blood.”

 

 

The Hoodlum

Poster_of_the_movie_The_HoodlumDir. Max Nosseck

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043655/?ref_=sr_1

Screened at UCSB, Tuesday, Jan. 22, with Q&A with Dir of UCLA Film & Television Archive, Jan-Christopher Horak

If you’ve never seen Lawrence Tierney in his prime, you’re missing out. Described as “quite possibly the meanest man in motion picture history,” Tierney had several leading man roles before, according to rumor, at any rate, his nasty attitude and extra curricular brawling relegated him to a career of guest spots on television shows—among them “The Naked City,” “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Remington Steele,” “Tales from the Darkside,” a recurring role on “Hill St. Blues,” “Hunter,” “Seinfeld,” “L.A. Law,” and “ER.” Surely some enterprising soul is working on a biography of Tierney by now. I hope so.

I watched a screening of the restored The Hoodlum (1951) at UC Santa Barbara in January, accompanied by a Q&A with the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Jan-Christopher Horak.

This is probably where you've seen him before. (Joe Cabot, Reservoir Dogs [1992])

This is probably where you’ve seen him before. (Joe Cabot, Reservoir Dogs [1992])

The opening of the film says it all: A two-shot of Tierney’s anxious, sweaty, and snarling Vincent Lubeck and his brother, Johnny, framed in—and divided by—the windshield of a car, as Johnny (Tierney’s real-life brother, Edward) drives his brother back to the city dump by which they grew up. This moment out to be a flash forward, and the film tells the story of how they—especially Vincent—end up on that road.

After a montage of Vincent’s rap sheet—a series of increasingly violent crimes—we settle in to his parole hearing. The D.A. (?) is mid-rant: “The Vincent Lubecks never change!” Another member of the parole board suggests what would now be the wackily progressive notion that prison is “an institution for correction not punishment” and that if the board proceeded in “so prejudiced a manner” as to deny Lubeck parole, “we’d be attacked by the public.” Enter Mrs. Lubeck (Lisa Golm), Vincent’s long-suffering mother, an old lady from the old country, replete with black shawl. “Why do you hate my boy?” she asks plaintively. Her explanation for Vincent’s “hoodlum” behavior isn’t too far off: “He fights the whole world because he wants to be big!” But it doesn’t really support giving the guy parole.

The warden, unimpressed with Mrs. Lubeck or her son, takes Vincent to see the electric chair in an effort to scare him straight. But we’ve seen the prison bar-like shadows as Vincent follows the warden. We know there’s no straightening out Vincent.

Mama and Vincent arrive home—one new to Vincent since he’s been locked up, and because, after Papa died, Mama and Johnny could afford a slightly better apartment. Mama makes much of the fresh air Vincent will be able to breathe out this window. But the home is still too close to the city dump for Vincent. He can still smell the stink.

Johnny, at Mama’s behest, hires a resentful Vincent to work at his one-man gas station. Johnny understands Vincent’s sense of inferiority at being poor. He has dirt under his fingernails, but, he promises Vincent, “this kind of dirt you can wash off.” At the gas station, we can see how unsuited—quite literally—Vincent is for this gig. Vincent has a suit on underneath his coveralls. It’s hard to be big at a tiny gas station. “Dough,” he mutters, “that’s the only thing that’ll cover up the stink of the city dump.”

Perhaps the best scene is at the apartment, after Vincent stomps out on his brother. Johnny has suggested that Vincent’s surly behavior is driving away customers. In response, Vincent crumples his newspaper and stomps out, heading up to the roof. Johnny explains to Rosa (Allene Roberts), his silly fiancée, that Vincent always liked to go up to the roof. “He liked to look down at the people. They looked so small—made him feel good.” The gentle but apparently dim-witted Rosa is going to go magically fix him. The next scene opens with Vincent awkwardly bent over in front of a pigeon-coop, shot from the front, so, like the pigeons, he is caged, somehow still in prison. He rails at Rosa about being an ex-con:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvluOfKYdus]

Cops are always after you. People don’t want you around. Everybody wants to play warden. Keep them locked up. Keep them penned in. Don’t let them run free. Humans. Animals. Birds!

And with that he rather forcibly sets the pigeons free. Tierney gives the speech undeserved pathos—but Vincent’s desperation at feeling watched and penned-in is so potent it overwhelms our sense of his hypocrisy.

Rosa is Vincent’s timid opposite—she has plans that she believes will keep bad things from happening to her. Like the Joker (who debuted eleven years earlier in 1940) Vincent is an agent of chaos, and Rosa’s plans are toast. “What if [your plan] explodes in your face? What if, for instance, something like this [happens]?” He kisses her passionately, but the passion is not for her. It’s for introducing chaos into her orderly life.

Meanwhile, Vincent has started talking up Eileen (Marjorie Riordan), a bank manager’s assistant, who cheerfully informs him about the Federal Reserve deposit schedule. As they ride along in her car (“Heaven must really be helping the working girl these days.”), Vincent muses over what he would do with the money. “There’s wine I’ve never tasted, music I’ve never heard…”h8os8.5205

“And women?” Eileen sweetly asks.

“And women. Only there I’m even more particular. It’s like a kid working at a candy factory. First he takes everything that comes along. After a while the only thing he touches the silver-wrapped stuff. Then, he’s sick of that and he looks for something real special. Like you.”

“And when he does find it?”

“Oh, he’s extra careful. Babies it so it’ll last. How ‘bout some night this week?”

As Vincent gathers cronies and plans a heist, it becomes clear that he has seduced Rosa, who, against even her better judgment, has become enthralled, if not fallen in love with him. Two months have gone by since their first encounter, and Rosa is ready to run away and get married. She is racked with guilt at tormenting Johnny—whom she cannot bring herself to talk to, even over the phone. Back up on the roof, Vincent explains with a little smile, “You seem to have misunderstood.” Getting married? That’s just “a little plan that didn’t work out.” And that is the end of Rosa.

During a Lubeck family dinner, we learn that Rosa was two months pregnant when she threw herself off the roof. Was it in front of Vincent? Either way, he doesn’t care. Johnny is frantic with grief, but Vincent tucks into his dinner with the appetite of a hungry Viking. Why would she have done such a thing, Johnny wonders aloud. Vincent knows: “Cos she was nuts! Any dame who’d jump off a roof has gotta be nuts.” Ouch.

Like in any good noir, once the money appears to be in hand, things spin out of control. There’s a wonderful scene with the members of the gang who have survived the heist dividing up the spoils. More of the robbers are killed in a chase. Vincent tries to crash at Eileen’s and she pulls a gun on him. (Someone like Mary Astor or Claire Trevor would have done this role justice. Riordan’s Eileen comes across as hard, but not sultry or dangerous–or funny.) He goes home to his now-invalid mother, who, despite her maternal instinct, is no dummy. When she accuses him of breaking Papa’s heart, and shaming Rosa, Vincent tells her to “Shut up!”

“I should have shut up a long time ago,” she tells him. If she hadn’t spoken up for him, she laments, “at least Rosa wouldn’t have thrown herself off the roof…and she died with your baby unborn!”

“Ma!” he cries, “I didn’t know!”

“And if you had—would you have cared? HOODLUM!” she curses him, “YOU ARE THE SMELL! YOU ARE THE STINK!”

Johnny catches him moments after Mama dies, and forces Vincent out to the car. They are going to “the city dump, where we belong. The only place we’re fit for!” And so the movie catches up with the opening flash forward. Ultimately, Johnny can’t bring himself to shoot Vincent. But the cops can, and Vincent collapses in the trash, stretched out along the bottom of the frame, with Johnny standing over him.

The heist has one of the better will-they-or-won’t-they-get-caught moments. A hearse from the funeral parlor next to the bank (handy!) is repurposed as a getaway car. The thieves slap a “FUNERAL” tag on the windshield, exempting it from traffic lights. As the driver of the hearse tries to talk their way through the roadblock set up to trap them, a uniformed cop looks over the getaway car and walks away. Then he walks back, slowly. And crosses in front of the car to the other side, where he’ll be able to see Vincent hiding on the floor in the backseat. The cop approaches the car and tamps down the tag on the windshield, which has started to peel off.

The script for this B-movie is considerably better than a lot of “A-list” scripts these days, as I hope I’ve made clear. And Tierney transforms a detestable character into one we can’t take our eyes off, a force of chaos who clearly can’t help himself. Perhaps the most telling moment in the film is when Johnny stumbles onto Vincent’s plan as it is about to go into action. He pleads with Vincent, “How can I make you see it’s all wrong?”

Vincent’s reply is probably the most honest he’s ever been: “You can’t!” Despite the deathbed scene with his mother, Vincent never changes, never grows, never has an epiphany, or a moment of true regret. It’s amazing how riveting a character without a character arc can be, even when at the center of a film.

The restoration reintroduces some lost footage as well as improving the picture and sound. The unrestored version is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rcl2MgwgALA

(Other) Best Lines:

Lt. Burdick has Vincent’s number: “You cheap hood. Always lookin’ for a fall guy and never realizin’—you’re it.”

More on Tierney:

http://www.eddiemuller.com/tierney.html