30 Days of Noir #7: The Sniper (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


Halfway through the chilling 1952 film, The Sniper, there’s a scene in which a woman is seen standing on the rooftop of a San Francisco apartment building.  She’s nonchalantly hanging laundry.  When she steps to the side, we suddenly see that there’s a man standing on the next rooftop over.  And he’s holding a rifle.

Fortunately, in this case, the man is a policeman.  He’s one of several cops who have been ordered to stand on rooftops with their weapons drawn and to keep an eye on the city below.  There’s a killer on the loose and the city is demanding that the police capture him.  And yet, even with a city that’s caught in the grip of fear and even with heavily armed men watching everything going on in the streets, life goes on.  People go to bars.  People go to work. Couples stroll in the park.  And one woman hangs her laundry to dry on the rooftop of an apartment building.

Suddenly, the policeman spots someone on another rooftop, a man who isn’t supposed to be there.  He’s a young guy, carrying what looks like a rifle.  The police quickly rush to the rooftop where they arrest the young man.  Have they caught the sniper who has been terrorizing San Francisco?

The police think that they have their man but we know that they don’t.  We know that the sniper is a guy named Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz).  Eddie is a delivery man.  He’s handsome but, from the minute we first see him, we can tell that there’s something off about him.  He stumbles through life, keeping his head down and rarely speaking to anyone.  The few times he does attempt to smile, it’s painfully awkward.  He’s someone who is struggling to convince the people of San Francisco that he’s one of them but the more he tries, the more of an outsider he seems to be.  In fact, the only time that we see Eddie truly happy is when he goes to a carnival and comes across a dunk tank.  Over and over again, he throws a baseball and cause the woman inside to be submerged in cold water.

At first, Eddie tries to deal with his bad thoughts by deliberately burning his hand on an electric stove.  When he goes to the emergency room, he asks the attending doctor why he would do something like that but the doctor is soon distracted by another patient.  With his hand bandaged, Eddie goes on a shooting spree, targeting brunette women.

This dark film is fairly evenly divided, between Eddie, the cops that are trying to catch him, and the psychiatrist who tries to explain him.  Not surprisingly, the cops, led by the appropriately named Lt. Kafka (Adolphe Menjou), aren’t particularly interested in what makes the sniper tick.  They just want to get him off the street.  However, Dr. James Kent (Richard Kiley) is convinced that the only way to stop not only this killer but others is to understand what’s going on inside of his mind.  The differences between Kafka and Kent’s approaches are most obvious in a scene in which every registered sex offender in San Francisco is paraded into a squad room full of jeering cops.  While the detectives taunt the offenders that they know, the offender that they don’t know prepares to kill yet again.

The Sniper was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated (and superficially similar) Crossfire.  This was Dmytryk’s first film after his career was temporarily derailed by his refusal to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee.  (He later changed his mind and named names while testifying about his time as a member of the Community Party.)  Interestingly enough, top-billed Adolphe Menjou was one of the leaders of the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a prominent supporter of the blacklist that Dmytryk had narrowly escaped.

Filmed in a black-and-white, documentary style, The Sniper is a chilling and disturbing film.  When Eddie stalks through the city at night, the dark shadows that he casts against the walls of empty alleyways and closed storefronts serve to remind us that men like Eddie could be lurking anywhere, unseen and unknown.  During the day scenes, the harshly bright lighting reminds us of just how vulnerable we are.  If the night provides too many places to hide, the day provides too few.  Arthur Franz gives a disturbingly credible performance as Eddie.  While he plays Eddie as being obviously troubled, he also suggests how someone like Eddie has managed to survive without getting exposed.  Menjou is properly cynical as the world weary Kafka while Richard Kiley brings some needed passion and anger to the film’s most talky scenes.  The film ends on a note of melancholy ambiguity, leaving it to us to make up our own mind about how to deal with the Eddie Millers of the world.

Film Review: Invasion U.S.A. (dir by Alfred Green)


Here’s how Invasion, U.S.A. opens:

A bunch of strangers sit in a bar.  On the television, a blandly handsome anchorman delivers the news.  He talks about foreign wars.  He talks about domestic conflicts.  One of the bar patrons asks the bartender to turn off the news.  Who cares about all of that stuff?  All he wants to do is have a nice drink before heading home to his cattle ranch.  Can’t he just do that in peace?  The bartender agrees and turns off the news…

That’s a scene that gets played out a lot nowadays.  No one wants to watch the news.  Certainly not me.  I guess we all know that we should because it’s important to know what’s going on in the world and blah blah blah.  But seriously, people who spend all of their time watching the news inevitably seem to end up going insane and ruining twitter.  I’ve got no interest in doing that.

Here’s the thing, though.  Invasion U.S.A. may open with a contemporary scene but it’s hardly a contemporary movie.  Instead, it was made in 1952 and it serves as proof that we’re not the first Americans to get sick of watching the news and that our current crop of politically minded filmmakers are not the first to try to change our mind with heavy-handed propaganda.

Everyone at the bar has a complaint.  The Arizona rancher resents having to pay high taxes just to support the defense department.  The Chicago industrialist is upset that the government wants to use his factories to build weapons.  Congressman Haroway (Wade Crosby) is a drunk.  Socialite Carla Sanford (Peggie Castle) worked in a factory during World War II but she no longer follows the news.  Newscaster Vince Potter (Gerald Mohr) is a cynic.  Tim the Bartender (Tom Kennedy) is too busy selling cocktails to worry about the communists.

Only the mysterious Mr. Ohman (Dan O’Herlihy, who would later play Conal Cochran in Halloween III) seems to care.  While holding a conspicuously oversized brandy glass, Mr. Ohman explains that he’s a forecaster.  What’s a forecaster?  A forecaster is … oh wait!  There’s no time to explain it because the communists have invaded!

Everyone sits in the bar and watches as the news reports on the invasion of the U.S.A.  (Everyone except for Mr. Ohman, who has mysteriously vanished.)  In the tradition of all low-budget B-movies, the invasion is represented through stock footage.  Lots and lots of stock footage.  Planes drop bombs.  Soldiers run out of a barracks.  Cities burn.

When everyone leaves the bar, they discover that America has been crippled by people like them, people who never thought it would happen.  Some of our bar patrons die heroically.  (Not Tim the Bartender, though.  He’s still making dumb jokes and cleaning beer mugs when the bomb drops.)  Some of our patrons regret that they didn’t care enough when it would have actually made a difference.  The industrialist discovers that, because he wouldn’t let the government take over his factory, he now has to take orders from sniveling little Marxist.  The rancher discovers that taxis get really crowded when everyone’s fleeing the Russians.  And others discover that better dead than red isn’t just a catch phrase.  It’s a way of life.

Of course, there’s a twist ending.  You’ll guess it as soon as you see Mr. Ohman with that brandy glass…

Invasion U.S.A. is often cited as one of the worst films ever made but I have to admit that I absolutely love it.  I have a soft spot for heavy-handed, over the top propaganda films and they don’t get more heavy-handed than Invasion, U.S.A.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the entire film.  You have to love any film that features character authoritatively declaring that something will never happen mere moments before it happens.  Best of all, you’ve got Dan O’Herlihy, playing Mr. Ohman with just a hint of a knowing smile, as if he’s as amused as we are.

Politically, this film is a mixed bag for me.  The film argues that you should trust the government and basically, shut up and follow orders.  I’m a libertarian so, as you can imagine, that’s not really my thing.  At the same time, the villains were all communists and most of the communists that I’ve met in my life have been pretty obnoxious so I enjoyed the part of the film that advocated blowing them up.  The only thing this film hates more than communists is indifference.

In the end, Invasion U.S.A. is a real time capsule of a film, one that shows how different things were in the past while also reminding us that times haven’t changed that much.  Though the film’s politics may be pure 1952, its paranoia and its condemnation of apathy feels very contemporary.

(For the record, apathy is underrated.)

Seen today, what makes Invasion U.S.A. memorable is its mix of sincerity, paranoia, and Dan O’Herlihy.  Unless the communists at YouTube take down the video, you can watch it below!

 

 

The Fabulous Forties #50: Lady of Burlesque (dir by William A. Wellman)


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Way back in April, I started on a series of reviews.  I announced that I would be watching and reviewing all 50 of the public domain films included in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set.

At the time, I expected that it would take me maybe two weeks.  At the most, two and a half.  After all, I wondered, how long can I take?  Well, needless to say, it took me a little longer than two weeks.  In fact, it took me nearly 3 months.  (In my defense, May turned out to be a very busy month for me and I wasn’t able to review a single Fabulous Forties film.)  However, what’s important is that, after all this time, I am currently writing up the last of my Fabulous Forties reviews!

(And, right now, you’re reading it.)

On the whole, the Fabulous Forties has turned out to be pretty uneven box set.  It contains a few classics, like My Man Godfrey, His Girl Friday, and The Last Chance.  There are several good films, like The Black Book and Trapped.  And then there’s quite a few mediocre and forgettable films, like The Town Went Wild and Jungle Man.  (Dear God, Jungle Man…)  As I started on the final film in the set, I wasn’t sure what I was about to see…

Well, no worries!  The Fabulous Forties ends on a high note!  The 50th film is the wonderfully entertaining 1943 comedy-musical-mystery Lady of Burlesque!

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Lady of Burlesque (which was released in the UK under the title Striptease Lady) takes place in an old and somewhat decrepit New York burlesque house, the type of place where the audience is almost all male, the owners are somewhat sleazy, and the performers are a cross between cynical veterans and naive newcomers who are hoping for their first big break.

As quickly becomes apparent, the theater would fall apart if not for its main attraction, Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck).  Dixie serves as a mentor for the newcomers and a confidante for the veterans.  She knows how to keep the audience entertained, even when two dancers are loudly screaming at each other offstage.  She knows how to deal with the sleazy owners and how to placate the owners of the Chinese restaurant next door.  Dixie also knows better than to get romantically involved with any of male comics who perform at the theater but that doesn’t stop her from flirting with one of them, Biff Brannigan (Micahel O’Shea, playing his role with an almost poignant earnestness).  As I watched the film, I could tell that Barbara Stanwyck was neither a natural dancer nor singer but it didn’t matter because, whether Dixie was trying to keep peace backstage or performing onstage and singing a song called, “Take It Off The E-String, Play It On The G-String,” Stanwyck totally committed herself to the role.

Plus, her outfits were to die for!

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Seriously, as I watched Lady of Burlesque, I totally wanted to get a job dancing in an old timey burlesque house!  If only I had a time machine…

Of course, it should be understood that the acts in Lady of Burlesque are risqué but, by today’s standards, they’re also rather innocent.   The jokes may be full of double meaning but it’s all hidden in the subtext.  The costumes may be sexy but they also stay on.  (That probably had more to do with the production code than to do with the realities of 1940s burlesque.)

Anyway, Lady of Burlesque is technically a murder mystery but mostly, it’s just an excuse to show the performances happening onstage and a few comedic (and occasionally dramatic) vignettes of what it was like to be backstage in a burlesque house.  Two dancers are murdered but the show must go on.  Even as Dixie solves the murders and tries to keep everyone calm, the show must go on.  In fact, that’s one of the true joys of Lady of Burlesque.  Regardless of what madness might be going on backstage, the show never stops!  In fact, the film often seems undecided about whether or not the backstage murders are bad because of the loss of life or the fact that they threaten to interrupt the performances onstage.  Lady of Burlesque becomes a tribute to the work ethic of entertainers everywhere!

Lady of Burlesque was based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee.  The name of that novel was The G-String Murders.  Not surprisingly, that title was changed for the film version.

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Well, that concludes the Fabulous Forties!  In a few weeks, I’ll start in on my next Mill Creek box set, the Nifty Fifties!  Until then, enjoy Lady of Burlesque!