30 Days of Noir #30: The Stranger (dir by Orson Welles)


“No, you must not miss the newsreels. They make a point this week no man can miss: The war has strewn the world with corpses, none of them very nice to look at. The thought of death is never pretty but the newsreels testify to the fact of quite another sort of death, quite another level of decay. This is a putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage. For some years now we have been calling it Fascism. The stench is unendurable.”

Those words were written in 1945 by director Orson Welles.  He was writing about the footage that had been filmed at the Nazi concentration camps during the final days of World War II.  These films not only revealed the crimes of the Third Reich but they also proved the existence of evil.  With World War II finally ended and Hitler dead, many people were eager to move on and forget about the conflict.  Many even claimed (and some continue to do to this very day) that the reports of the Nazi death camps were exaggerated.  Writing in his syndicated column for the New York Post, Welles told those doubters that the reports of the Nazi death camps were not exaggerated and that, unless people confronted the horrors of the Nazi regime by watching the newsreels and seeing for themselves, history would repeat itself.

A year later, Welles would use that documentary footage in a key scene of his 1946 film, The Stranger.  A government agent named Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) shows the footage to Mary Longstreet Rankin (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.  Wilson is hoping that, by showing her the footage, he’ll be able to convince her to help him bring a Nazi war criminal to justice.  Complicating things is that Wilson believe that the Nazi war criminal is Mary’s new husband, Professor Charles Rankin (played by Orson Welles, himself).

In this shot, the horrors of the Holocaust are literally projected onto Edward G. Robinson’s face, a reminder that is on us to prevent it from ever happening again.

Rankin’s real name is Franz Kindler.  One of the architects of the Holocaust, he escaped from Germany at the end of World War II and, after making his way through Latin America, he ended up in a small town in Connecticut.  He got a job at the local prep school, where he instructs impressionable young minds.  He also found the time to work on the town’s 300 year-old clock.

When we first see Kindler/Rankin, he’s walking out of the school and it’s obvious that all of his students love him.  Rankin has a quick smile, which he uses whenever he has to talk to Mary or any of the other townspeople.  However, that smile disappears as soon as he’s approached by another Nazi fugitive, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne).  Rankin assures Meinike that he’s merely biding his time until he can establish a Fourth Reich.  Meinike, meanwhile, announces that he’s found God and he suggests that Rankin should turn himself in.  Correctly deducing the Meinike is being followed by Wilson, Rankin promptly strangles his former collaborator and spends the rest of the movie trying to cover up his crimes.

Welles was best known for playing characters who had the potential for greatness in them but who were ultimately brought down by their own flaws.  Think about Charles Foster Kane or Harry Lime or the detective in Touch of Evil or even Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.  The Stranger is unique as one of the few instances in which Welles played an outright villain.  Unlike Kane or Falstaff, there’s no greatness to be found in Rankin/Kindler.  He’s fooled the town into thinking that he’s a good man but, instead, he’s a soulless sociopath who is even willing to murder his wife if that’s what he has to do to protect his secret.  Franz Kindler is the Third Reich and, by having him thrive under a new name in America, Welles argues that the Nazi threat didn’t end just because Hitler killed himself in Berlin.

And that’s an important message.  It was an important message in 1946 and, I would argue, it’s an even more important message today.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise in both America and Europe, with activists on both the Left and the Right embracing the type of bigotry and conspiracy-mongering that previously allowed madmen like Adolf Hitler to come to power.  Just today, I read a story about a Jewish professor at Columbia who arrived at work on Wednesday, just to discover that someone had vandalized her office with anti-Semitic graffiti.  Watching The Stranger today, it’s important to remember that the Franz Kindlers of the world are still out there and many of them are just as good at disguising themselves as Charles Rankin as Kindler was.

The Stranger was Welles’s third completed film as a director.  It was a film that he reportedly agreed to direct in order to prove that he was capable of bring in a film on budget and ahead-of-schedule.  Because Welles was largely acting as a director-for-hire on this film, there’s a tendency to overlook The Stranger when discussing Welles’s films.  While that’s understandable, The Stranger is clearly a Welles film.  From the use of shadow to the skewed camera angles, the film has all of Welles’s visual trademarks.  Thematically, this is another one of Welles’s films about a man who is hiding a secret underneath his ordinary facade.

It’s a good film, with Welles giving an appropriately evil performance as Kindler and Loretta Young providing strong support as Mary.  That said, the film’s soul is to be found in Edward G. Robinson’s performance.  Robinson was born Emmanuel Goldenberg in Romania.  In 1904, his family fled to America after one of his brothers was attacked by an anti-Semitic mob.  As someone who had experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, Robinson brought a righteous fury to the role of Mr. Wilson.  Wilson isn’t just pursuing a fugitive in The Stranger.  Instead, he’s seeking justice for the six million Jews who were murdered by men like Franz Kindler.

The Stranger is an important film and it seems like the right film with which to end my 30 Days of Noir.  Noirvember is ending and so ends our 30-day walk through the shadowy streets of noir cinema.

30 Days of Noir #29: Johnny O’Clock (dir by Robert Rossen)


The 1947 film, Johnny O’Clock, invites us to take a behind-the-scenes look at the sleazy and sordid world of casino management.  If that doesn’t intrigue you, just consider that the man character is named Johnny O’Clock.

Seriously, that’s a really kickass name.  I have to admit that, if my last name was O’Clock, I would be tempted to name my child Four Twenty.  But, that said, Johnny is a pretty good name too.  On the one hand, he’s got an all-American name like Johnny but he’s also got a last name — O’Clock — that promises mystery and danger.  Johnny O’Clock is also played by Dick Powell, who was always good at playing tough guys who had a heart of gold.  (Along with appearing in several noir films, Dick Powell was also the first actor to ever play the famed detective, Philip Marlowe.)

Johnny O’Clock is a partner in a casino with Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez).  Johnny and Guido are longtime business partners who find the future of their casino threatened when a hat-check girl named Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch) dies under mysterious circumstances.  Even though the crime scene was clearly set up to make it appear as if Harriet committed suicide, it doesn’t take Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) long to figure out that Harriet was actually murdered.

Who killed Harriet?

Was it her boyfriend, Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon)?  Chuck is a corrupt cop who has been trying to convince Guido to force Johnny out of the casino and instead hire Chuck instead.

Or is the murderer Guido’s wife, Nellie (Ellen Drew)?  Nellie used to be Johnny’s girlfriend and, as soon becomes obvious, she still has feelings for him.  When she attempted to give Johnny a romantic present, Johnny’s response was to give it to Harriet so that Harriet could return it.  Did Johnny’s rejection of Nellie push her over the edge and did she take her anger out on Harriet?

Or maybe the murderer was Guido.  Guido, after all, is a rather shady sort.  Maybe Harriet discovered something that she shouldn’t have.

Then again, you could also say the same thing about Johnny O’Clock….

Inspector Koch isn’t the only person determined to get to the truth!  Harriet’s sister, Nancy (Evelyn Keyes), also shows up and starts to investigate on her own.  Soon, she and Johnny are falling in love but Johnny knows that the situation is too dangerous for either him or Nancy to stick around the casino.  He starts to make plans to flee with her to South America but he’s got just a few things to do before they can leave….

Johnny O’Clock was the first film to be directed by Robert Rossen, who is often credited as being one of the most important filmmaers in development of American film noir.  A year after Johnny O’Clock was released, Rossen’s All The King’s Men would win best picture.  Rossen’s career was derailed when he was accused of being a communist and blacklisted in the 50s.  Like Elia Kazan, Rossen initially took the fifth but he later relented and “named names” to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.  Though Rossen would later direct the Oscar-nominated The Hustler in 1962, it can be argued that Rossen’s career never recovered from either being blacklisted or from naming names.

Clocking in at 93 minutes, Johnny O’Clock is probably about 20 minutes too long and the murder mystery is never really as intriguing as you might hope it would be.  On the positive side, the casino is stylish and the cast is full of noir talent.  Dick Powell is a likable, if occasionally bull-headed, protagonist and Lee J. Cobb is well-cast as Inspector Koch.  (The film has some fun contrasting the glitz of the casino with the shabbiness of Koch.)  Burnett Guffey’s black-and-white cinematography gives the film a properly noirish look and, while the pace may be slow, the occasional bursts of action are well-handled.  The scene where Johnny is nearly the victim of a drive-by shooting is particularly exciting.  Johnny O’Clock is a flawed noir but the cast is good enough to hold the interest of fans of the genre.

30 Days of Noir #28: Time Table (dir by Mark Stevens)


Like many good crime films, this 1956 film noir opens on a train.

A passenger has suddenly been taken ill and his wife, Linda (Felecia Farr), wants to know if there’s  a doctor on board!  Fortunately, there is!  Dr. Paul Bucker (Wesley Addy) just happens to be on the train and it only takes him a few minutes to figure out that the man is suffering from polio.  Paul arranges for the train to make an unscheduled stop in the next town so that the man can be taken to the hospital.  Paul also asks to be allowed to go to the baggage car, so that he can retrieve his doctor’s bag.  Of course, he can!  Who is going to say no to doctor, especially in a situation this serious?

Paul goes back to the baggage area to claim his little black bag and that’s when something unexpected happens.  He opens up his bag and pulls out a gun.  It turns out that Paul is not only a doctor but he’s a thief as well.  After tying up everyone in the car and knocking them out with a sleeping drug, Paul proceeds to blow open a safe and steal all the money within.

When the train makes it unscheduled stop, Paul, the man, and Linda (who is actually Paul’s wife), disembark.  They get into an ambulance driven by the shady Frankie Page (Jack Klugman) and they head off.  It’s only after Paul’s escaped that the robbery is discovered.

With authorities baffled by the crime, insurance investigator Charlie Norman (Mark Stevens) is assigned to investigate the robbery with railroad policeman, Joe Armstrong (King Calder).  Despite the fact that Charlie has been promising to take a vacation with his wife (Marianne Stewart), Charlie takes the case.  Everyone knows that Charlie is one of the best in the business.  If anyone’s going to catch these criminals, it’s going to be Charlie!

Of course, Charlie has another reason for taking the case.  It turns out that Charlie’s the one who masterminded the entire robbery!  He’s the one who first met Paul while the alcoholic doctor was attempting to file a false claim.  It also turns out that Charlie has been having an affair with Linda and that Charlie’s planning on running off with her as soon as they take care of Paul.

Mark Stevens both directed and starred in Time Table and the end result is a well-made and genuinely exciting film noir, one that features all of the hard-boiled dialogue, shadowy interiors, and twisty complications that one could hope for from a good heist film.  Stevens not only keeps the action moving at a steady pace but he also keeps you guessing about whether our band of criminals are going to make it to Mexico or if they’re going to all fall victim to one betrayal too many.  The film is full of nice character turns, though the strongest performance comes from Wesley Addy, who brings a wounded dignity to his duplicitous character.

For fans of film noir, this is definitely one to watch.

30 Days of Noir #27: Parole, Inc. (dir by Alfred Zeisler)


The 1948 film noir, Parole, Inc., begins with a lengthy opening crawl, informing the viewer that this film — though fictional — deals with a real-world problem.

Apparently, too many people are getting out of prison!

That’s right!  The opening crawl informs us that half of all crimes are committed by people who have already served time in prison.  Apparently, there would be less crime if we just never released people from prison but, unfortunately, state parole boards are way too quick to let some criminals out early.  Is it because the members of the board truly believe that these offenders have been rehabilitated in prison?  Or is it because they’ve been bribed?

That’s what FBI Agent Richard Hendricks (Michael O’Shea) is going to find out!

Now, we already kind of know what he’s going to discover and what’s going to happen to him as a result because, for some reason, the film opens with Hendricks in a hospital bed, dictating the events of his latest case.  The rest of the film is largely an extended flashback, occasionally interrupted by a shot of Hendricks recovering from his injuries.  I’m not sure why the filmmakers decided that this would be a good format to go with.  It basically robs the story of any suspense.  Whenever a gangster says that he’s going to kill Hendricks, the declaration doesn’t carry any weight because we know that Hendricks is alive and that he managed to solve the case.

Anyway, in the flashback, Richard is working directly for the governor of California.  The governor is worried that the state parole board is accepting bribes so Richard goes undercover as an ex-con who wants to buy a parole for a friend of his who is still in jail.  As a part of his assignment, Richard befriends a recently paroled criminal named Harry Palmer (Charles Bradstreet).  It turns out that, for a criminal, Harry isn’t that bad of a guy.  He may still have underworld connections but, for the most part, Harry seems like he could easily go straight.  Of course, that doesn’t make much difference to the nefarious crows that Harry runs around with and Harry ends up getting gunned down about halfway through the film.  Richard seems to be more annoyed over the inconvenience of Harry dying than anything else.  Now, he’s going to have to do all sorts of extra work!

Though Michael O’Shea has just enough screen presence to be an acceptable hero, the main reason to see the film is for Turhan Bey and Evelyn Ankers.  Bey plays the crooked attorney who is in charge of the parole buying ring.  Evelyn Ankers play the wonderfully named JoJo Dumont, who owns the bar out of which the gangsters operate.  These two actors both throw themselves into their roles, bringing just the right amount of B-movie grit to their characters.  Horror fans may recognize Evelyn Ankers from her performance as Lon Chaney Jr.’s girlfriend in The Wolf Man.  Ankers appeared in several classic Universal horror films and was menaced by everyone from Dracula to Frankenstein’s Monster to the Invisible Man.  Turhan Bey also appeared in his share of horror films, even co-starring with Evelyn Ankers in The Mad Ghoul.

Parole, Inc is a largely forgettable movie but worth seeing if you’re a fan of Universal horror and you’re interested in seeing Turhan Bey and Evelyn Ankers in a change-of-pace film.

30 Days of Noir #26: Behind Green Lights (dir by Otto Brower)


The 1946 film, Behind Green Lights, takes over the course of one night at one police station.

When tough-but-fair Police Lt. Sam Carson (William Gargan) shows up for work, he discovers that a car has been haphazardly parked in front of the station.  Inside the car is bullet-ridden body of Walter Bard, a somewhat notorious private investigator.  If the brazenness of the crime wasn’t already enough to indicate that there’s more going on here than just a detective following the wrong lead, it is soon discovered that Bard was acquainted with Janet Bradley (Carole Landis), the daughter of a reform-minded mayoral candidate.  As Janet explains it to Lt. Carson, Bard was blackmailing a friend of hers.  Janet admits that she had a gun with her the last time that she saw Bard but she swears that she didn’t murder him.

Corrupt newspaper publisher Max Calvert (Roy Roberts) views Janet’s father as being a potential rival and he immediately starts to pressure Lt. Carson to make an arrest in the case.  Not convinced of Janet’s guilt, Carson refuses.  Meanwhile, the crooked coroner (Don Beddoe) comes across evidence that could change the entire case but, as a favor to Calvert, tries to cover it up….

But that’s not all.  It’s a very busy night at the precinct.  Not only does Carson have to deal with the murder and all of the political fallout, he also has to deal with an escapes prisoner and a collection of snarky crime reports who spend all of their hanging out at the station house and waiting for a big story to drop.

Largely set in one location and featuring a cast made up of fast-talking, quick-witted cynics, Behind Green Lights sometimes feel more like a play than a film.  (One could easily imagine it taking place in the same cinematic universe as The Front Page.  Call it the MacArthur/Hecht Cinematic Universe, or MHCU for short.)  Though the film only has a running time of 64 minutes, it manages to pack a lot of twists and turns into that hour.  For the most part, it all works.  The mystery is intriguing, the cast is made up of properly tough character actors, and the tragic Carole Landis is well-cast as a character who could be an innocent victim or a dangerous femme fatale.  The film and her performance will keep you guessing.  (It has been written that Landis, a talented actress who never quite got the roles that roles that she deserved, was heart-broken when Rex Harrison refused to divorce his wife and marry her.  Two years after the release of Behind Green Lights, she was found dead at the age of 29.  The official ruling was suicide, though members of Landis’s family dispute that.)

Behind Green Lights may be a minor noir but it’s still an entertaining one.  And it can be viewed for free on YouTube!  Just remember, when doing an online search, that the film is called Behind Green Lights and not Behind the Green Door.  Don’t make the same mistake that I did!

 

30 Days of Noir #25: Gangster Story (dir by Walter Matthau)


The 1959 film, Gangster Story, holds the distinction of being the only film ever directed by the Oscar-winning actor, Walter Matthau.

That’s right, this low-budget film about a bank robber and the people who want to kill him was directed by TCM’s favorite curmudgeon.  The man who would later be nominated for multiple Oscars and who would star in numerous Neil Simon adaptations only directed one film and that movie was a low-budget, 68-minute, black-and-white movie about cops and robbers.

(And no, Jack Lemmon is nowhere to be found.)

Walter Matthau not only directed this film but he starred in it as well.  He plays Jack Martin, a career criminal who pulls off a daring bank robbery.  How does he do it?  Well, first, he rents an office in the same building as the bank.  He gets to know everyone at the bank.  He wins their trust.  No one can resist the charms of Jack Martin, which I guess is the advantage of getting to direct yourself.

On the day of the robbery, Jack approaches the cops who are hanging around outside the bank.  He tells them that he’s from Hollywood and he’s going to be shooting a scene in which he pretends to rob the bank.  He assures them that it will look realistic.  They might even see a rather flustered bank manager leading him into the vault.  But it’s just a movie and therefore, it’s very important that the cops not rush into the bank with their guns drawn or anything silly like that.

Of course, the cops fall for it.  While Jack is busy robbing the bank, the cops are just hanging around and shooting the breeze outside.  When Jack walks out of the bank, he thanks the cops for not ruining the scene and then promptly leaves.  Needless to say, the cops are humiliated when they realize how they’ve been tricked.  For them, tracking down Jack isn’t just about upholding the law.  It’s about vengeance.

Meanwhile, the local mob boss is upset because not only did Jack rob the bank without permission but he also failed to shared any of the stolen money.  Not only does Jack have the cops after him but he also has all the local gangsters!

What a mess!

However, Jack isn’t worried.  He’s happy because he’s met and fallen in with a local librarian, Carol (played by Carol Grace).  Will Jack find love or will his criminal past find him?

It’s always a bit strange to watch a film that’s been directed by an actor with a firmly entrenched persona.  Matthau was famous for playing urban misanthropes and, when watching Gangster Story, your natural instinct is to look for signs of that curmudgeonly worldview.  There are hints of it in the scene where Jack tricks the cops outside the bank but, for the most part, there’s really not much personality to be found in any of the film’s scenes.  Matthau’s direction is workmanlike but never particularly memorable.  For reasons that will soon become clear, as a director, Matthau seems far more interested in the unlikely love story between Jack and Carol than in the film’s criminal-on-the-run storyline.  After making this film together, Walter Matthau and Carol Grace married.  It was her third marriage and Matthau’s second and it lasted for 41 years, ending only with Walter Matthau’s death in 2000.

Not surprisingly, the scenes between Jack and Carol are the best in the film.  As for the rest of it, it’s pretty much a standard crime film.  As a director, Matthau struggles to keep the story moving at a steady pace and the film’s low-budget certainly doesn’t help.  Watching the film, you can tell why Walter Matthau devoted the rest of his career to acting as opposed to directing.  It’s hard not to feel that he made the right choice.

30 Days of Noir #24: Fourteen Hours (dir by Henry Hathaway)


As a genre, film noir has always been associated with crime: murder, brutish gangsters, seductive femme fatales, and occasionally a cynical private detective doing the right thing almost despite himself.  However, not all film noirs are about criminals.  Some are just about desperate characters who have found themselves on the fringes, living in a shadow-filled world that appears to be monstrously indifferent to all human suffering.

That’s certainly the case with the 1951 noir, 14 Hours.  The film centers around Robert Cosick (Richard Basehart, who previously played a murderer in another classic noir, He Walked By Night).  Robert isn’t a gangster.  He’s not a private detective.  He doesn’t carry a gun and he doesn’t provide any sort of hard-boiled narration.  In fact, for the majority of the film, Robert is defined by less who he is and more by what he’s doing.  Robert Cosick, having earlier checked into a room on the 15th floor of a New York hotel, has climbed out of a window and is now standing on a ledge.  Robert says that he’s going to jump.

What has driven Robert Cosik to consider such an extreme action?  The film never settles on any one reason, though it gives us several clues.  When his father (Robert Keith) and his mother (Agnes Moorehead) show up at the scene, they immediately start bickering about old family dramas.  When Robert’s ex-fiancee (Barbara Bel Geddes) begs him to step in from the ledge, he listens a bit more to her than he did to his parents but he still refuses to come in from the ledge.

But perhaps the real reason that Robert Cosick is out on that ledge can be found in the film’s shadowy visuals.  Directed in a semi-documentary fashion by Henry Hathaway and featuring harsh, black-and-white cinematography that’s credited to Joe MacDonald, Fourteen Hours emphasizes the indifference of the city.  From the menacing landscape of concrete buildings to the crowds gathering below the ledge to see if Robert lives or dies,  New York City is as much as a character in this film as Robert, his family, or the cop (played by Paul Douglas) who finds himself trying to talk Robert into reentering his hotel room.  When night falls, the city may light up but it does nothing to alleviate the shadows that seem to be wrapping themselves around Robert.  For the fourteen hours that Robert is on that ledge, he may be the center of the world but the film leaves little doubt that New York City will continue to exist in all of its glory and its horror regardless of how Robert’s drama plays out.  Whether he lives or dies, Robert appears to be destined to be forgotten.

When the film isn’t concentrating on the cops trying to talk Robert into getting back in the hotel room, it shows us the reactions of the people who see him standing out on that ledge.  (If this film were made today, everyone would be holding up their phones and uploading Robert’s plight to social media.)  Some people are moved by Robert’s struggle.  For instance, a young woman played by Grace Kelly (in her film debut) reaches a decision on whether or not to get a divorce based on what she sees happening on the ledge.  Two office workers (played by Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget) even strike up a romance as they wait to see what will happen.  Some people view Robert as being a madman.  Others see him as being a victim.  And then there’s the many others who view him as being either a minor distraction or a piece of entertainment.  For them, it’s less important why Robert’s on the ledge or even who Robert is.  What’s important to them is how the story is going to end.

It’s not a particularly happy film but it’s made watchable by Hathaway’s intelligent direction and the performances of Paul Douglas and Richard Basehart.  With its theme of instant fame and hollow indifference, it’s a film that remains as relevant today as when it was initially released.