Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mildred Pierce (1945)

September 24, 1945, release date
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Screenplay by Ranald MadDougall, Catherine Turney (uncredited)
Based on the novel Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Music by Max Steiner
Edited by David Weisbart
Cinematography by Ernest Haller

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce Beragon
Jack Carson as Wally Fay
Zachary Scott as Monte Beragon
Eve Arden as Ida Corwin
Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce Forrester
Butterfly McQueen as Lottie
Bruce Bennett as Albert “Bert” Pierce
Lee Patrick as Mrs. Maggie Biederhof
Moroni Olsen as Inspector Peterson
Veda Ann Borg as Miriam Ellis
Jo Ann Marlowe as Kay Pierce

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Mildred Pierce opens with gunshots and the murder of a man whose dying word is “Mildred.” The killer, who is off screen, throws the gun at the body. The film cuts to a woman driving away into the night and arriving at a bridge. She contemplates jumping over the railing, but a patrol officer stops her.

When Mildred returns to the beach house with Wally Fay (played by Jack Carson), she knows that Monte is already dead, and her hope is to pin the murder on Wally. Viewers see the light and shadow that is so characteristic of noir, and these lighting effects are the result of diegetic light: reflections from the ocean off screen, flickering flame from the fire in the fireplace, headlights from a car (complete with horn honking) passing by the front of the beach house. All these effects draw viewers into the story and especially into Wally’s predicament when he discovers that he is alone in the beach house with a dead body. Mildred Pierce was released in 1945, but it showcases some sophisticated production techniques that would be worthy of any film. They are especially effective at enhancing the film’s noir characteristics.

(This blog post about Mildred Pierce contains spoilers.)

After leaving Wally, Mildred returns home, only to be met by police detectives who take her to headquarters for questioning. Other characters are also brought in for questioning, and they pass by Mildred, now seated in an uncomfortable chair waiting for her interrogation to begin. The setup of the shots in the police station show the lead actors most often framed by police officers—in other words, hemmed in by authority figures. The change in the sound is subtle: Now, at the police station, there is a slight echoing to everything, which emphasizes Mildred’s discomfort and the gravity of her situation. Conversations and all the other sounds are slightly exaggerated: the clock ticking, an officer sharpening a pencil, the crackling of newspapers folded and unfolded by others (witnesses? suspects?), an officer whistling. The lighting is dim, but it brightens when Mildred starts telling her story in flashback; the change in lighting emphasizes the transition.

Most of the story is told in flashback (a hallmark of noir), from Mildred’s point of view. The only people who have any idea who killed Monte, the man in the opening shots, are the police officers and detectives investigating the crime. Mildred talks of the events leading up to that fateful night, and viewers aren’t sure whether she killed Monte or if she knows who did. The story is written so anybody and everybody could be a suspect, including Mildred.

Did I mention that the story line heaps betrayal (another hallmark of noir) on betrayal? Mildred endures the ultimate betrayals in this film. Is it fate that deals her such hardships? Or does she bring tragedy upon herself because of her own flaws? Joan Crawford plays the title role so expertly that it’s hard for me to say whether fate plays the bigger part or whether Crawford’s performance brings out the character’s flaws so clearly. When she and her daughter Veda argue on the staircase of their home over a check that Mildred just tore into pieces, Veda slaps her mother, and Crawford, while falling backward, sends the pieces of paper flying and then grabs at the railing. The expression on her face throughout it all shows how stunned she is by her daughter’s actions. When Mildred is on the bridge contemplating suicide in the opening sequence, the expressions on her face do the most to reveal her intentions. Viewers really don’t need the patrol officer to talk about what he thinks Mildred is contemplating when he interrupts her. But even that bit of dialogue reveals the noir characteristics of the film: The patrol officer stops Mildred because he doesn’t want to have to dive in after her! He doesn’t show much sympathy for her state of mind.

I have not read the novel by James M. Cain on which the film is based. I want to now because the film is that good. I have heard that Mildred Pierce, the film, doesn’t bear much relation to the novel, but that has not changed my mind. I have also heard that some don’t consider Mildred Pierce to be film noir. They would rather classify it has a drama, a murder mystery, a melodrama. But I am happy calling it film noir for several reasons: murder, near suicide, betrayal, flashbacks, chiaroscuro lighting. Crawford’s performance alone is worth seeing. She apparently revitalized her career with her performance as Mildred, and it earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. And it really doesn’t matter how one classifies it (I’m still happy calling it film noir): Mildred Pierce is still a great story that keeps first-time viewers guessing until the very end.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Narrow Margin (1952)

May 2, 1952, release date
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Screenplay by Earl Felton
Story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard
Music by Gene Rose, Leith Stevens, Dave Torbett, Roy Webb (uncredited stock music composers)
Edited by Robert Swink
Cinematography by George E. Diskant

Charles McGraw as Detective Sgt. Walter Brown
Don Beddoe as Detective Sgt. Gus Forbes, Brown’s partner
Marie Windsor as Mrs. Frankie Neall
Jacqueline White as Ann Sinclair
Peter Virgo as Densel
Gordon Gebert as Tommy Sinclair, Ann’s son
Queenie Leonard as Mrs. Troll
David Clarke as Joseph Kemp
Paul Maxey as Sam Jennings                     

Distributed by RKO Pictures

The Narrow Margin has one of the best opening sequences of any film. A train whistle, no music, is heard over the RKO logo. Viewers hear another loud whistle behind a blinding headlight that fills the screen, and then they see the film’s title card. In 1950s movie theaters, the effect must have been especially effective. Then a train moving slowly on railroad tracks passes onscreen behind the opening credits. When the credits are completed, the train stops and Detective Sergeant Brown, played by Charles McGraw, steps off the train and onto a platform. It is a seamless opening and perfect for a movie about two police detectives responsible for picking up a witness against the mob and bringing her to Los Angeles to give her testimony.

(This blog post about The Narrow Margin contains spoilers.)

Detective Sergeant Walter Brown and his partner Detective Sergeant Gus Forbes have arrived in Chicago to pick up Mrs. Neall. Her husband has been killed by the mob, and now several mobsters are after her. Both Brown and Forbes are aware of the danger to their own lives, but they are committed to their work and to their assignment. The lighting in the foyer of the witness’s apartment building accentuates the building tension. The camera, from the upstairs landing, shows the two detectives climbing the stairs cautiously, with shadows of railing slats falling across them.

The witness, Mrs. Neall, is hostile to both detectives. She is concerned about her own safety, but she doesn’t stop playing her jazz music and thus bringing attention to herself. All of them have reason to worry: A shooter is waiting in the dark in the first-floor hallway of Neall’s apartment building. When the detectives and the witness head down the front hallway stairs, Detective Forbes is shot and killed. The killing of a main character, and a member of law enforcement, so early in the narrative is very noir.

The scenes on the train are claustrophobic. In one sequence, Brown is trying to evade a mobster, Joseph Kemp, who is wearing a plaid overcoat. The camera lurches as though it is handheld. The jarring movement adds to the tension and sense of impending violence. The fight scene later in the film between Detective Brown and Joseph Kemp is a long one, but it is realistic. It takes place in a cramped railroad compartment. At one point, Detective Brown kicks Kemp in the face: We see the sole of his shoe coming at the camera, at the viewer. It’s a bit of first-person point of view (POV) that works well.

While on board the train, Detective Brown meets Ann Sinclair and her son Tommy. Ann’s presence creates some confusion. The mobsters tailing Detective Brown on the train begin to think that she is the witness who will give her testimony at the trial in Los Angeles, and Brown is forced into the position of having to protect two people, and without any help because his partner has already died in the line of duty.

Jennings is traveling on the same train as Detective Brown and Mrs. Neall. At one point, suspicion is cast on his character because he and Brown argue over Brown’s double accommodations. In one scene, the camera lingers on Jennings, with bars of light falling across him, as he stares after Detective Brown in a rail corridor. Viewers learn later that he is a special agent for the railroad, but Jennings’s character at first helps to add more tension to an already tense situation. Jennings also gives some comic relief, however, when he says that no one likes a fat man: He is a portly gentleman traveling on a train with small spaces, and he and Detective Brown get stuck once or twice in a narrow train corridor.

What I really noticed about The Narrow Margin, in addition to the claustrophobia, is the way Detective Brown’s attitude toward the two women changes. He drops his snappy one-liners and his hard-boiled edge. By the end of the film, neither Mrs. Neall nor Ann Sinclair is a “dame.” He has new-found respect for the undercover policewoman who died protecting him and the whole operation. When Detective Brown and Mrs. Neall get off the train in Los Angeles, Mrs. Neall doesn’t want to hide any more. When other police officers meeting Detective Brown and Mrs. Neall protest her decision, Detective Brown says, “You heard the lady,” and he and Mrs. Neall walk away together. Not a completely noir ending maybe, but it’s a very satisfying one.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Jerichow (2008)

September 7, 2008 (Toronto International Film Festival), January 8, 2009, release dates
Directed by Christian Petzold
Screenplay by Christian Petzold
Based loosely on the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Music by Stefan Will
Edited by Betinna Böhler
Cinematography by Hans Fromm

Benno Fürmann as Thomas
Nina Hoss as Laura
Hilmi Sözer as Ali Özkan
André Hennicke as Leon
Claudia Geisler as Sachbearbeiterin
Marie Gruber as Kassiererin
Knut Berger as Polizist

Produced by SCHRAMM Film Loerner & Weber, Bayerischen Rundfund und Arte
Jerichow is loosely based on the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain, which puts this film automatically in the neo-noir category. Betrayal is a major theme of Cain’s novel, and it is a major theme of Jerichow. But the film has some surprises, even for readers like me who have read Cain’s novel. I blogged about the novel on September 7, 2016, and you can find the post by clicking here. (You can also click on the arrow for 2016 in the left-hand column of this screen and then click on the arrow for September.)

(This blog post about Jerichow contains spoilers.)

The opening of the film is eerie and sinister. It starts with a man named Thomas being questioned by two other men, one of whom apparently lent money to Thomas. The sequence could end in violence or not because viewers have no idea what to expect, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. It also shows Thomas’s capacity for deceit. Viewers learn later that Thomas was dishonorably discharged from the military, which is another mark on his character.

Thomas meets first Ali, who offers Thomas a job. Thomas then meets Ali’s wife Laura, with whom he begins an affair. Later in the film, Laura tells Thomas that Ali was the only respectable man that she had met before she married him, but this declaration of hers also paints a very dismal world for Jericho. None of the characters are either all good or all bad, but many of them would do almost anything to get ahead or to get what they want. Ali in particular spies on Laura, always testing her integrity and honesty, and he beats her. Thomas was a soldier fighting in Afghanistan, and his military expertise comes in handy later in the film: He shows surprising loyalty to Ali by defending him from one of his customers. All the characters are complicated, but Thomas may be the most complicated. He earns Ali’s trust by defending him, but he has an affair with his wife and the two of them plot Ali’s murder.

Fate plays a large role in Jerichow. Ali and Thomas meet by chance, and their relationship starts right away with lies and deceit. Thomas is walking home from the grocery store when Ali has a minor accident, with two of his wheels spinning in mud at the edge of what appears to be a river. Thomas offers to help him, and after he gets into the driver’s seat to get the car out of the mud, a police officer stops to ask Ali if he needs a ride to the police station. (The implication is that the police officer is targeting Ali because he is not a native German.) Ali tells the officer that he wasn’t driving; Thomas was. And Thomas goes along with the lie. Later in the film, after Thomas and Laura have planned to murder Ali and have already set their plan in motion, Ali tells Laura that he is terminally ill and has two, maybe three, months to live. Thomas and Laura don’t have to go through with their plan at all, but their affair is discovered, which leads to tragic consequences.

I liked this film version much more than I thought I would. It changes the plot of Cain’s novel in very satisfying ways, although it is obviously based on the novel. I found Jerichow much more believable than the 1946 film version starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. It’s possible that one of the best reasons to see Jerichow is that reading the novel doesn’t give the film’s ending away. The writer (Christian Petzold, who is also the director) updated the story, and not just the ending, while staying true to the themes and to the characters themselves. It’s almost like the characters (yes, the characters) read the novel along with Petzold and told him what they would change and what they would do in their current modern situations. The world of Jerichow, although inspired by Cain, is complete and current and stands on its own.