Thursday, April 27, 2017

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

August 16, 1940, release date
Directed by Boris Ingster
Screenplay by Frank Partos, Nathanael West (uncredited)
Music by Roy Webb
Edited by Harry Marker
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca

Peter Lorre as The Stranger
John McGuire as Michael Ward
Margaret Tallichet as Jane
Charles Waldron as the district attorney
Elisha Cook Jr. as Joe Briggs
Charles Halton as Albert Meng
Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Kane, Michael’s landlady
Cliff Clark as Martin
Oscar O’Shea as the judge
Alec Craig as Briggs’s defense attorney

Distributed by RKO Pictures

Many consider Stranger on the Third Floor the first true film noir (click here for an example), and I would have to agree that the film is noir. By the way, French critic Nino Frank first used the term noir to describe The Maltese Falcon and other U.S films when they were finally released internationally after World War II. Maybe the French never had the chance to see Stranger on the Third Floor, or I Wake up Screaming, for that matter (click here to see my blog post about I Wake up Screaming). Some also place Stranger on the Third Floor in the avant noir (or proto noir) category. Either way is fine with me; the film is definitely noir either way.

Michael Ward is promoted to star reporter after witnessing the murder of Nick, the owner of a local neighborhood diner, and being the first to report the story. He is also the star witness in the subsequent murder trial of the prime suspect, Joe Briggs. Jane, Michael’s fiancée, attends the trial and is upset by Brigg’s emotional protest of his innocence on the stand. She discusses her doubts with Michael, who finally admits that he didn’t actually see Briggs kill Nick; he only saw Briggs leaning over Nick’s dead body. Briggs maintains his innocence even after his guilty verdict.

Michael begins to doubt himself. He wonders if Jane might be right and he worries about Briggs getting the electric chair. He’s having trouble getting to sleep one night, and he starts to suspect that his neighbor, Albert Meng, is dead because he can’t hear him snoring through the apartment walls. He has a nightmare in which he is accused of the murder of Meng, and he is put through a similar experience as Briggs.

Michael’s voice-over narration represents his thoughts and self-doubts. He sometimes introduces flashbacks with his train of thought, and these flashbacks are introduced seamlessly. The transition to Michael’s dream sequence is smooth: He puts his head in his hands, and viewers hear him in voice-over: “I’m just tired. I can’t think straight any more. If I could only dive it out of my mind. Get some . . . sleep.”

Stylized sets and dramatic lighting represent Michael’s dream sequence. He is found guilty of Meng’s murder and sentenced to death. His nightmare sequences are brilliant: minimal furniture; lighting that shows bars of light and shadow; the almost cathedral look to the courtroom scenes; distorted sound in the laughter and some of the voices, especially the witnesses; the slow, automaton pacing of the officers as they lead him to the electric chair.

(This blog post about Stranger on the Third Floor contains spoilers.)

Viewers may start to wonder about Michael Ward’s credibility at this point. His suspicion and paranoia seem extreme, but then he discovers that his neighbor Albert Meng really has been murdered when he knocks on his door to check on him. Jane becomes the strong, more confident character when Michael goes to her for help in fleeing the city: She’s the one who urges Michael to go to the police with his discovery of his neighbor’s body. After Michael’s worst fears come true and he is accused of Meng’s murder, she’s the one who canvasses the neighborhood and finds The Stranger, the real killer.

Although The Stranger is an odd character and no one knows his true identity, he is not portrayed as completely unsympathetic. He and Jane have a conversation after she finds him, and he implies that he has been institutionalized before. He says to her, “Did they send you to take me back?” He explains why he will not go back when he mentions some of the mistreatment he suffered: “They put you in a shirt with long sleeves and pour ice water on you.” Peter Lorre’s performance as The Stranger is amazing. Lots of little details convince viewers that he’s not quite right: the way he uses his hands, the way he never quite touches the brim of his hat or finishes what he’s trying to say when he says hello and goodbye. But he is still The Stranger, an unknown, something to be feared. He tries to strangle Jane when she tries to notify the police. She gets away by slipping out of her coat and running down the city street. The Stranger runs after her, and he is killed by a truck when he runs out into the middle of the street. A form of justice thus prevails, but viewers can understand what drove The Stranger to some of his crimes.

So what makes this 1940 film either a film noir or an avant noir? The ambiguous portrayal of The Stranger is one feature that is consistent with noir. Stranger on the Third Floor uses a lot of dark sets and low lighting to tell its story. The highly stylized sets and lighting that represent Michael’s dream are reminiscent of German expressionism, a technique used by many directors of film noir that works especially well here. Michael Ward’s self-doubt and angst come after his certainty that he saw Briggs kill Nick, and the knowledge that he might be wrong haunts him: He’s the quintessential noir protagonist. I’ve never been fond of a strict adherence to categories, and I am happy to call Stranger on the Third Floor both avant noir and film noir.

No matter how you want to categorize Stranger on the Third Floor, it’s a great film and a great story. It’s worth a look just to see Peter Lorre’s performance in the title role and to see Michael’s amazing dream sequence.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Born to Kill (1947)

May 3, 1947, release date
Directed by Robert Wise
Screenplay by Eve Greene, Richard Macaulay
Based on the novel Deadlier Than the Male by James Gunn
Music by Paul Sawtell
Edited by Les Millbrook
Cinematography by Robert De Grasse

Claire Trevor as Helen Brent
Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde
Walter Slezak as Albert Arnett
Phillip Terry as Fred Grover
Audrey Long as Georgia Staples
Elisha Cook, Jr. as Mart Waterman
Isabel Jewell as Laury Palmer
Esther Howard as Mrs. Kraft
Kathryn Card as Grace
Tony Barrett as Danny
Grandon Rhodes as Inspector Wilson

Distributed by RKO Pictures

Born to Kill is a great film, but it is an unusually dark story about murder and obsession. Most films noir are about these topics exactly; Born to Kill examines the reasoning and obsessive impulses of its main characters more closely, and in more detail, than most films noir. The story is quite unsettling, even for viewers today—and almost seventy years after its release.

(This blog post about Born to Kill contains spoilers.)

Helen Brent is in Reno, Nevada, for a quick divorce. Viewers are dropped into the middle of her story. No explanation is offered about her reasons for seeking a divorce, and the little that viewers learn of Helen’s back story occurs only as the current plot unfolds. While in Reno, she has a chance encounter in a gambling house with Sam Wilde. There seems to be some attraction between them, but Sam has other things on his mind that night. His girlfriend, Laury Palmer, is in the casino with another date in a misguided attempt to make Sam jealous. Her plan is effective, but she never anticipated Sam’s response: He follows her and her date to her house when they leave the casino and kills them both. He is efficient and methodical for someone who didn’t plan very far ahead, and that’s because he has had a lot of practice.

Helen is staying in the rooming house next door to the murder scene. She finds Laury’s dog, who escaped when Sam left Laury’s house. She brings the dog to the back door, enters the house, and discovers the bodies. Helen is calm about her discovery of the murder scene. She leaves the dog and returns to her boarding house. She contemplates calling the police but decides against it. She decides instead to leave Reno as quickly as possible.

Sam leaves Reno too, mostly at his roommate’s urging, that same night. Mart Waterman seems like the voice of reason in their friendship. Here is part of their conversation after Sam’s return following the murders:
Sam: “The Palmer dame’s dead.”
Mart: “Why’d you do it, Sam?”
Sam: “I had to. She caught me with him.”
Mart: “Him?”
Sam: “That kid. They were making a monkey out of me. Oh, I wouldn’t have killed her too, I guess, but she walked in and saw the kid lying there.”
Mart: “I’ve been scared something like this’d happen. The way you go off your head. And it’s been worse lately. Ever since the nervous crack-up last summer. Honest, Sam. You go nuts about nothin’. Nothin’ at all. You gotta watch that. You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It’s not feasible.”
Sam: “Why isn’t it?”
Mart: “All right, Sam. All right, it is.”
Mart knows Sam well and assumes right away that Sam killed Laury—and Sam doesn’t deny it. Their comfort level with each other indicates that they have had similar conversations before. Sam offers his rationale for killing both Danny and Laury: “It’s just that I never let anybody cut in on me on anything.” Viewers are not very far into the film, but they know almost from the start that the world in this film is off-kilter and unpredictable.

Helen Brent and Sam Wilde flee Reno for San Francisco and meet on the train when they leave town. The attraction between them is evident, but Helen neglects to mention her fiancé Fred Grover. When Sam discovers Helen’s engagement in San Francisco, a dangerous game of cat and mouse erupts between Sam and Helen. Helen wants both Sam and Fred; Sam decides to marry Helen’s sister Georgia (Helen and Georgia are foster sisters) and invites Mart Waterman to San Francisco. It’s a game both Sam and Helen enjoy and play to the death.

The following conversation between Helen and Sam occurs rather late in the film and explains much of what the two see in each other:
Helen: “Fred is peace and security.”
Sam: “It’s his money then.”
Helen: “Yes, partly. All my life I’ve lived on other people’s money. Now I want some of my own. But there’s another kind of security that Fred can give me. Without him, I’m afraid of the things I’ll do. Afraid of what I might become. Fred is goodness and safety.”
Sam: “And what am I?”
Helen: “You? You’re strength, excitement, and depravity. There’s a kind of corruptness inside of you, Sam.”
Sam: “That would drive most women off if they understood like you do.”
Helen: “Yes.”
Sam: “But not you. You have guts. Georgia [Helen’s sister] told me how you found those two in Reno. You had guts then. You didn’t yell or faint.”
Helen: “No.”
Sam: “And it wasn’t only finding them dead. It was the way they were dead. The kid jammed in the doorway, the Palmer dame lying there under the sink.”
Helen: ”Blood on her hair.”
Sam: “Blood all over the place, and you didn’t yell.”
Helen: “No, I didn’t.”
Sam and Helen see each other clearly. And Sam is right: Most women—most people—would be repulsed by these character traits and the events that Helen has witnessed. But in the world of film noir, these characters and events are the norm. And Born to Kill portrays its noir world well.

I very much enjoyed the DVD commentary provided by Eddie Muller. He describes the noir moment in Born to Kill, the moment when Helen Brent makes a conscious decision that leads her further into the dark side. This noir moment occurs when Helen decides not to call the police about the murder scene she has found in Laury Palmer’s house. Muller states, “If you are the kind of person who would ask yourself, ‘Why didn’t Helen just call the police?’ chances are that you may not get film noir.” And that may very well be true. But film noir also shows viewers what not to do if they want to sleep well at night. And Born to Kill does that very well, too.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Morning After (1986)

December 25, 1986, release date
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Screenplay by James Hicks, David Rayfiel (uncredited)
Music by Paul Chihara
Edited by Joel Goodman
Cinematography by Andrzej Bartkowiak

Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Produced by Lorimar Motion Pictures

Jane Fonda as Alexandra “Alex” Sternbergen, also known as Viveca Van Loren, an actress
Jeff Bridges as Turner Kendall
Raúl Juliá as Joaquin “Jackie” Manero, Alex’s husband
Diane Salinger as Isabel Harding, Jackie’s new lover
Richard Foronjy as Sgt. Herb Greenbaum
Bruce Vilanch as Harry, the bartender
Geoffrey Scott as Bobby Korshack
James Haake as Frankie, a cross dresser and friend of Alex’s
Don Hood as Mr. Hurley, the lawyer
Kathleen Wilhoite as Red, Jackie’s assistant at his salon
Kathy Bates as Korshack’s neighbor
Frances Bergen as Mrs. Harding, Isabel’s mother

The Morning After is a story full of suspense and plot twists. A female lead carries most of the film, which is a bit different from most noirs that more often feature male leads, a femme fatale, and maybe one more female character whose goodness serves to contrast with the femme fatale. Alex Sternbergen, the lead character in The Morning After, fails repeatedly to get her acting career off the ground and can’t seem to stay away from the bottle, but she is a sympathetic character and viewers care about her predicament.

Alex, whose stage name is Viveca Van Loren, is an alcoholic who drinks so much that she often blacks out and can’t remember what happens while she is drunk. Viewers learn details of her current situation as the film progresses, but The Morning After starts with one particular morning, when Alex wakes up and finds a bloody corpse lying beside her. The rest of the film involves her attempts to figure out how she knows the corpse and what happened the previous evening.

Brilliant colors are used in interesting ways, especially at the start of the film and especially during the opening credits, to highlight Alex’s loneliness and her being alone in a desperate situation. The long shots of Alex leaving the crime scene and walking past brightly colored buildings are especially effective. At one point during the opening credits, Alex passes a handwritten message on a wall: YOU ARE ALONE. Although the message is in capital letters, it’s easy to miss. I noticed it for the first time while watching The Morning After on DVD, even though I have seen the film several times on television. It’s more subtle than this mention here might lead viewers and readers to believe, and it works well in combination with the long shots of Alex walking alone in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Sidney Lumet returns again and again throughout the film to Los Angeles landscapes filled with vivid color, an emphasis that is another departure from traditional neo-noirs.

(This blog post about The Morning After contains spoilers.)

Alex’s predicament is the basis for her confusion, self-doubt, and angst. She isn’t quite sure who to trust, with the exception of her estranged husband, which proves to be a liability for her. She meets and accepts the help of Turner Kendall, an ex-cop with some problems of his own. But he is attracted to Alex and wants to help her. They begin a tentative love affair while they try to prove Alex’s innocence. Alex slowly lets down her guard with Turner and begins to reveal her true self. The following exchange even has Turner using the film noir term dame to describe Alex:
Alex: “What do we do now, Turner?”
Turner: “Wait for Greenbaum [Turner’s friend in L.A. Homicide] to do his stuff.”
Alex: “Waiting for Greenbaum. I think I saw the play.”
Turner: “You’re a rare dame, Viveca.”
Alex: “Listen, Viveca’s my fake name. I’m really . . . I’m Alex Sternbergen.”
Alex’s self-identification is part of her confusion and self-doubt. Is she Alex Sternbergen, the woman who tried to become a successful actress and instead drinks to forget, or is she Viveca Van Loren, the woman she wants to be and keeps trying to shore up? The film doesn’t spend a lot of screen time exploring this feature of Alex’s character directly. Viewers know that Alex drinks, that she hasn’t become a famous actress, and that she’s struggling to find work. But there aren’t frequent references to the person that she used to be.

When Alex turns to Jackie, her estranged husband and a famous hairdresser, for help in changing her appearance to evade the police, she specifically requests that he change her hair back to its natural color. He complies, and she is very pleased with the results; the way that she expresses her pleasure is to say that she recognizes the person in the mirror as Alex, not Viveca. She is finally accepting herself as she truly is and not the image that she has manufactured for herself over the years. Jackie Manero is an homme fatale, however; Alex trusts him implicitly, which sets her up for manipulation and ultimately for betrayal. Jackie is also manipulated and betrayed, and the plot twists involving this duality provide one surprise after another.

The two lead characters, Alex Sternbergen and Turner Kendall, are flawed in their own ways. If they had been played by other, less well known actors, maybe their flaws would have been bigger features of the film. I have seen The Morning After several times on television, and it was great to see it, uninterrupted and complete, on DVD. Fonda and Bridges are fantastic in their respective roles. But I have to admit that it was hard for me to forget that I was watching Jeff Bridges and Jane Fonda. I’m not going to count that as a liability for the film, however; I can still recommend The Morning After wholeheartedly. Maybe others won’t find the two famous leads quite as distracting as I did. The story is compelling, and I remember being completely surprised by its plot twists the first time I saw it.

And it was great to see a neo-noir where the main character is a woman doing most of the things that male leads in most neo-noirs do. She’s trying to clear her name after finding herself in dire circumstances—but without a gun. I guess the one drawback is that the male lead has the gun, but even he is limited in its use. You’ll know what I mean if you see the film.