Year: 1941

Director: H. Bruce Humberstone

Cast: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Vicky Lynn, Laird Cregar, Alan Mowbray, Allyn Joslyn, Elisha Cook Jr.

I Wake Up Screaming is an engaging whodunnit told initially in a non-linear style through interviews, in which everyone appears to be a suspect, even perhaps those trying to solve the case.  It cuts right to the chase, in fact, the victim is already dead when the film begins.
As far as themes go, the film does deal with two or three intertwined themes that are perhaps more pertinent now than they were then.  It illustrates the importance of the media, not necessarily talent, in shaping and also perhaps destroying celebrities.  It tangentially discusses narcissism and the personality warping effect of having fame thrust upon you, rather than earning it.  It doesn’t dwell on these themes however.  This film is fairly quickly paced in fact, and doesn’t waste much time.  At a mere, according to IMDB, 82 minutes in length, this movie really moves.
The tone of this film feels unique, and depending on the audience it can arguably be perceived as oddly engaging or perhaps frustrating and disjointed.  It not only deals with a murder but other stereotypically twisted noir themes and plot points, yet it comes across as light, fun and chipper for the vast majority of its running time.  It has moments of menace too, but most of the movie is downright cheerful.  This reviewer kind of liked this imbalance.  It was sort of refreshing and endearing, though some may scratch their heads, especially if it is compared to other well known noir films.
The darker moments come from two excellent actors.  As far as performances go Laird Cregar and Elisha Cook Jr. really stand out amongst the otherwise perfectly adequate performances in this film.  Elisha Cook Jr., is always a scene stealer with memorable roles in many great film classics including, but not limited to, The Maltese Falcon (which happened to be released the same year as I Wake Up Screaming), The Big Sleep, Shane, The Killing, and Rosemary’s Baby.  He is perfect in this film, as he often is.  Unfortunately, you don’t see much of him, which is true of a lot of his characters.  It isn’t surprising Elisha Cook Jr. worked in television and movies from the early 1930s to the late 1980s.  The other performance really worth noting is that of Laird Cregar, who tragically didn’t have a similarly long career due to a radical diet that ultimately resulted in his death at the young age of 31.  Laird Cregar is really remarkable as a creepy and intimidating detective despite his soft voice and pudgy face.  He single handedly provides all the gravitas in this picture.
Part of what makes Cregar’s performance so ominous is the way he is shot.  This film may seem run-of-the-mill at first glance, but stylistically it makes really good use of shadows, canted angles, and music.  Whether or not these touches are consciously noticed or they just seep in to the brain, they have an impressive effect on the viewer and they serve to add to the impressive nature to this compact and fact paced film.  While watching it, pay attention to the use of lighting, especially in regards to Laird Cregar’s performance.
While it isn’t of the same caliber as Laura or Citizen Kane, it could be compared in some aspects to both films.  A fan of those two films and films from this era or genre will especially enjoy this wonderful little pseudo-film noir.

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I saw Pitfall, Deported, Fly-By-Night, and Cry Danger over the weekend. I’ll see four more later this week. On opening night, Eddie Muller opened the festival with this brilliant tribute to film noir called “The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir”:

Amazingly, this wonderful video was edited together by a 20-year old girl named Serena Bramble. Her homage brought the house down.

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Eddie Muller’s annual film noir festival starts next week in San Francisco and I am fired up. The film noir expert and author of books like Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir has a fantastic lineup this year. Several screenings will involve movies that have yet to see a dvd release. This year’s theme is “lust and larceny” and it will be the first time I’ve attended the legendary Castro Theatre. For those interested, you can go to this website and see the program:

http://noircity.com/noircity.html

If you’ve listened to one of Muller’s audio commentary’s on a film noir classic, then you know how informative and entertaining he can be.

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Year: 1954

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Gloria Grahame, Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford

Wanting to cash in on the success of Lang’s The Big Heat which had been released the previous year, Columbia had the great director re-team Grahame and Ford in another film noir called Human Desire. Personally speaking, I think Renoir’s La Bete Humaine w/ Jean Gabin is a better movie from the same book but it doesn’t have Grahame now does it? In this noir, GG plays her most twisted, depraved, and amoral femme fatale. Vicki Buckley is the wife of Carl (Broderick Crawford) and they have a brutal marriage. Carl is abusive and he lacks any urbanities whatsoever. As we find out from their arguments, it appears that Grahame’s character only married Carl because he had a good job @ the railroad and she had no other outs. It’s a decision she’s come to regret since.

Glenn Ford plays our protagonist in the film, Jeff Warren. Mr. Warren is a Korean War veteran who has come back to his sleepy hometown to re-claim his job as a railroad engineer. Jeff encounters Vicki a couple of times in town and her hotness cannot be denied. He asks around about who she is and he is intrigued by the hushed tones and curt responses he gets from his friends.

Crawford’s character screws up @ work by offending a customer and his blustery behavior costs him his job. Desperate and feeling emasculated, Carl pleads with his wife to go see wealthy industrialist Mr. Owens — played by Grandon Rhodes — to make his case and save his position. Mr. Buckley has seemingly bought the story his wife gave him re: how she knows Owens so well. Vicki claims that he is an old family friend that was very fond of her as a child. Is her husband actually asking his wife to bang this guy? Carl dances around any clarification but the implication is clear: do whatever it takes. The whole time Vicki is w/ Owens her spouse is seething in anger and jealousy. Upon her return, she informs him that Owens called in a marker and got him reinstated. His angry interrogation into what happened and what took so long quickly escalates into an ugly fight that gets physical.

Vicki begins seeing her new sugar daddy on the side and a suspicious Carl catches them on a train together. Crazed and out of control, Mr. Buckley kills the industrialist right in front of his wife. Surprisingly, Mrs. Buckley is quick to recover and help her husband figure a way out of their mess. Jeff is off-duty and happens to be on the same train bound for Chicago as the Buckleys. Looking to dispose of the body, Carl sees that Ford’s engineer is the only person in the car that would be able to see him pull the murdered industrialist through the door and out of sight. He orders Vicki to go flirt with him as a distraction. Jeff and Grahame’s less-than-reputable housewife hit it off quickly even resulting in a passionate kiss.

When the body is found it comes out in the police investigation that the Buckleys were in the train car adjacent to the murder victim. Jeff is called as a witness and reluctantly lies under oath to protect Vicki. He clearly is whipped. They begin a torrid affair and Jeff grows angrier as his lover tells stories and provides evidence of Carl’s mistreatment. Talk snowballs into discussion of murder. The film’s protagonist is so high off Vicki’s fumes that he contemplates ridding her of the brutish Carl. After all, he killed men in Korea. Why would this be harder?

I won’t reveal anything more about how Human Desire plays out. What’s left to be said are more thoughts on what makes Vicki tick. Yes, she’s being abused by her husband. But in their scenes together, Mrs. Buckley is no frightened mouse. She’s right in her spouse’s face taunting him and challenging his manhood. The psychology of her character is difficult to grasp. At times she is even what you’d call passive agressive, pushing all the right buttons that will set off the volatile Carl. By the end of the picture, the viewer has to believe that Grahame’s sinister femme fatale is incapable of loving anyone.

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Year: 1949

Director: Max Ophuls

Cast: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks, Roy Roberts, Shepperd Strudwick

This gem is a foray into film noir for the great director Max Ophuls. The Reckless Moment presents a 39-year-old Joan Bennett in a matronly role we’re not used to seeing from the wonderful actress. She played memorable femme fatales in films like Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. But in this movie, Bennett really expands as a performer. Lucia Harper is an anal, fidgety, bourgeois haus frau raising a family in the bland suburbs of Balboa, California.

The film begins in voice over as Mrs. Harper explains why she had to drive 50 miles to Los Angeles. It seems her underage daughter is romantically linked to a slimy art dealer named Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). She finds him at his business and admonishes the man to cease and desist where her daughter is concerned. Darby counters that he will only stop seeing Bea — played by Geraldine Brooks — if her mother is willing to buy him off. Offended by the very notion, Lucia refuses and leaves. Surely Bea will want no part of this lech when told about their conversation. Instead, Brooks’ teenager rips her mother for butting into her affairs and refuses to believe that Darby would make such a despicable offer. She arranges to meet her lover in the family boathouse out back later that evening.

When Bea meets the art dealer he shamelessly admits to his part in the blackmail. Furious at herself for having believed in such a foul man, Miss Harper slaps Darby and then hits him over the head with a flashlight. She stomps out of the boathouse leaving a dazed and confused boyfriend. As Strudwick’s character staggers after the girl, he accidentally kills himself by tripping on the dock and falling on an exposed anchor. Hurt and ashamed, Bea tells her mom everything but she is not aware that Darby is dead. When Mrs. Harper discovers the body early next morning, all she can do is think how this death would impact the family name and their standing in the community. Not to mention the fate of her daughter. She uses a motorboat to dump the corpse in the middle of the lake.

Murder doesn’t happen in a burg like Balboa. The newspapers are all over the scandalous mystery of this dead outsider who has washed ashore. Amid the stress of murder, cleaning it up, and not reporting the incident Lucia is presented with yet another obstacle: Martin Donnelly (James Mason). The Irish emigre works for a ruthless loan shark named Nagle (Roy Roberts). He has in his possession several incriminating love letters Bea wrote to Darby. Unless she comes up with $5,000, Donnelly is prepared to release them to the media. The Donnellys don’t keep that kind of money on hand, especially with her husband in Europe on business. She awkwardly tries to stall Mason’s character but he cautions that his employer is impatient and will stop at nothing to collect.

What follows as Mason and Bennett meet clandestinely several times comes from out of left field. Seeing the lengths this woman will go to protect her family members — Lucia hocks all her jewelry out of desperation — has an impact on Donnelly. He was raised by a terrible woman in Ireland and if he would have had a mother like this one, might his life have turned out differently? Mrs. Harper is surprised then when her blackmailer claims she doesn’t have to pay Nagle because he’ll take care of it. He reports that the police have already arrested one of Darby’s associates so Bea is in the clear. Lucia protests that she doesn’t want to see an innocent man take the rap but Mason’s henchman assures her if he was in the art dealer’s circle of acquaintances, then he was guilty of some other crime. Upon hearing there won’t be any payday, Nagle erupts and has a confrontation with Donnelly.

That evening, the loan shark pays his own visit to the Harper household. The suspicious housekeeper tells Nagle to wait in the boathouse for Lucia. When told she can’t pay, Nagle pulls a knife. The climax of this picture you can see coming but the cynical statement of Ophul’s last shot is a less than flattering comment on bourgeois values. There’s alway a ton of smoking in films noir but other than Jean-Paul Belmondo, I’ve never seen a performer smoke as much on screen as Bennett does in The Reckless Moment. I understand an actor’s desire to establish the mental/physical state of their character but man. While riding in the car with Donnelly, Lucia lights one cigarette with the butt of another. Even the Irishmen points it out as he warns how bad it is for her health.

Ophuls brings his circular camera technique in tow and he illicits compelling performances from our two leads. The Earrings of Madame de… is his best movie but this film noir is my second favorite from his fantastic body of work.

By James White



Year: 1948

Director: Jean Negulesco

Cast: Ida Lupino, Richard Widmark, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm

Katie recently said that she was at a Borders trying to find Richard Widmark dvds. She mentioned Road House but I believe she opted for another choice. That was a mistake. This twisted film noir love triangle is excellent. Widmark plays a sociopath for the last time and he really goes all out. I don’t ever remember Lupino being this sexy before but she was a film noir staple indeed.

Jefty (Widmark) is the owner of a combination nightclub/bowling alley in a Midwestern rural town somewhere just south of the Canadian border. His best friend Pete — played by Cornel Wilde — is the manager. Friends since childhood, the boys did a tour in WWII together and when they returned, Jefty inherited the watering hole from his father. Pete has always been grateful for the job Widmark’s character gave him. One night Jefty returns from Chicago with a new performer named Lily Stevens (Lupino). Pete’s initial encounter w/ Lily is less than auspicious as he sees her in his office making herself at home in his chair like she owns the place. Any hope the manager has of being rid of her is dashed the first time the torch singer performs. She is a big hit and Jefty can’t keep all the customers away.

Everything Lily does gets under Pete’s skin. She leaves lit cigarettes everywhere, dresses too provocatively, and Lily has a superior attitude. For his part, Jefty seems to be clueless and insists that his two favorite people spend time together. The first time we see an inkling that the proprietor might be off his nut is when he adamantly demands that the manager give his new star bowling lessons. One of the supporting characters that resents the presence of Lily is Susie — played by Celeste Holm. She’s the cashier @ the Road House and she’s had an unrequited crush on Pete forever. As the picture progresses, it’s obvious to her that Pete and Lily are falling in love, even if they don’t realize it.

When Jefty returns from a hunting trip, he brags to his friend that he plans to marry Lily. All the quality time spent with the singer has evolved into a romance for Cornel’s character and he contradicts Jefty, claiming that he will be the one to marry her. Jefty’s love for his friend turns into bitter vitriol at the betrayal and he threatens repercussions. Widmark’s character sets up Pete for grand theft and our hero is found guilty. For whatever reason, the judge agrees to release Pete into Jefty’s custody for a probationary period. It becomes apparent to the viewer just how far gone the nightclub owner is when he forces Lily, Pete, and Susie to join him at his cabin in Canada for a holiday. Nothing good can come of this.

One of the things that struck me is how thankless Holm’s part is. She plays a heroic role in the ending but you’d expect someone who had just won an Oscar to get juicier opportunities than Susie. Negulesco does some fantastic things with Lily. I already mentioned the cigarettes which leave burn marks all over the piano like battle scars. He also has some fantastic costume ideas for her as well. She shows up for bowling in one of the most inappropriate, skimpy outfits I’ve ever seen. When Susie, Lily, and Pete have a picnic at the lake, the singer shows up without a bathing suit. Not to worry. One minute behind a bush and she emerges with one she fashioned out of scarves.

Probably my favorite aspect of this disc is the fabulous commentary given by Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan. Muller is one of the best film noir experts in the business and Morgan is a film historian who really knows her stuff. The commentary was recorded the week of Widmark’s death so that just adds to the reverence they have for the great actor. Muller’s fondness for Lupino knows no bounds and the two really do a good job of fleshing out all the actors backgrounds. At one point in celebration of Widmark the performer, Muller whips out a hip flask and he and Morgan drink a toast. Pretty cool. See Road House for the deliciousness of Lupino and the zaniness of a legendary actor. It’s a great film noir experience.

By James White