The Woman in the Window (1944)- Fritz Lang

 ★★★★

 

Apparently there really is no limit to the greatness of Fritz Lang. It’s true. Every time you watch or re-watch (even if it’s for the tenth time) one of his films, it is still amazing how beautifully they are filmed, and how impressive Lang is as a director. “The Woman in the Window” (1944) is a special little film noir, filled with everything that fans of the genre hove come to treasure, and it is yet another in a long line of examples that exemplify Lang’s brilliance.The Woman in the Window Based on the novel “Once Off Guard” by J.H. Wallis, this film tells the story of Professor Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) who happens to be an expert in criminology. He is also a dignified man- a pillar of the community, and a testament to the “honest men” of the world. After sending his wife and two small children out of town, Wanley heads to his club to have dinner and drinks with a couple of friends including district attorney Lalor (Raymond Massey). Just before entering the club, a picture of a young attractive woman hanging in the window next door catches his eye, his attention, and his imagination. This prompts a conversation over dinner and drinks about the duality of man, and his desires for adventure, especially when involving a young, beautiful woman.

After leaving the club Wanley happens to meet Alice (Joan Bennett), who is the woman from the picture in the window. Against his better judgment, he goes to spend the evening with her talking about life and art.The Woman in the Window While drinking together back at her apartment, another older man (Arthur Loft) comes barging in, and attempts to kill Wanley in a jealous rage. Alice hands Wanley a pair of sciccors and he stabs the much larger man to death. Instead of calling the police, Alice and Wanley choose to hide their crime in order to protect themselves, and to hopefully avoid prison. Being a criminologist, one would think that Wanley would know how to hide a murder, but as it turns out, it is much easier to talk about a crime than to cover one up. Things really get complicated as Wanley’s as his old pal Lalor quickly becomes hot on his trail, constantly giving updates as to all the mistakes that Wanley and Alice made. Simutaneously, Alice is being hounded by a con-man (Dan Duryea) who knows about (or at least suspects) the crime, and has decided to blackmail Alice.

So often “The Woman in the Window” and Lang’s next feature “Scarlet Street” (1945) are remembered together for their simalarities. After all, they are both directed by Lang, both films star Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, and Milton R. Krasner provided his impeccable cinematography to both films. Even with all of these similarities however, it’s what sets them apart from each other that makes each special in their individual way.The Woman in the Window While both Robinson and Duryea play similar characters in both films, Joan Bennett is exceedingly different. All three actors are marvelous in each film, but it is Bennett that pulls it all together. In “The Woman in the Window” she is mysterious, humanistic and unpredicatable. In “Scarlet Street” she is a femme fatale, and therefore follows a somewhat predicatable (albeit marvelous) path. “The Woman in the Window” allows her to share an emotional depth from within her character, and her realistic portrayal feels more genuine, or at the very least, more relateable.

There are some negative opinions floating around about the influence of the Hays Code on “The Woman in the Window”. Obviously you can see the big hands of the production code guiding certain parts of this film, but perhaps this is one of those times where a forced change in story helps set the picture apart from all the similar films that had come, and were going to come.The Woman in the Window “The Woman in the Window” is unique and interesting. It frustrates its audience, but keep them involved, sitting on the edge of their seats, hoping, praying these misguided, unsuspecting criminals find some way out of this suspenseful mess that only true masters of the genre (like Fritz Lang) could create for his characters.

 

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Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)- Don Siegel

 ★★★★★

 

When watching “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954), one can’t help but be surprised by the film’s gritty, bold style, and stark realism. This is not a documentary, or a film based on an actual event, but it feels like it could be. Its distinct style and down-right brilliant overall production provide the exact ingredients needed in order to create aRiot in Cell Block 11 (1954) lasting film-watching experience that serves as an example to so many filmmakers that would emerge over the next generation.

The picture stars Emile Meyer as a warden who has spent years yelling from his soapbox about the deteriorating conditions of the enormous prison under his control. He has over 4,000 inmates under him, that is, until the men in cell block 11 decide they have had enough. Lead by James Dunn (Neville Brand) and the ruthless Mike Carnie (Leo Gordon), the men in cell block 11 overpower the four guards, holding them hostage. They are all still contained in the cell block, as they aren’t trying to escape- they just want to be heard, and treated like people. The men have a list of demands that they want met, all of which have to do with their mistreatment by guards, and the inhumane way that they are housed. Police Commissioner Haskell (Frank Faylen) is brought in to help with the negotiations, but he doesn’t Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)care about the conditions that the criminals are forced to live in, day in and day out, so his presence only makes matters worse, resulting in an intense and thrilling standoff.

“Riot in Cell Block 11” has everything that a film needs to entertain and entrance an audience. Filmed on location in Folsom Prison, shot by the amazing cinematographer Russell Harlon, this movie truly makes you feel as if you’re experiencing something real. Not as a leading character fighting alongside the other men, but as an observer, sitting on the catwalk above the action. Don Siegel directs, before his glory days when he made five films with Clint Eastwood (including 1979’s “Escape From Alcatraz”), and even before the popularity that he would receive with hits like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)Although it is an earlier film in his career, there is already a clear indication that the man knows what he is doing. Siegel crafts with a precise goal in mind, and he is unwilling to compromise any realism for a more polished picture, which many producers surely would have pushed toward, in order to appeal to a wider audience. This, however, was not the case. Producer Walter Wanger famously served four months after shooting the suspected lover of his wife, actress Joan Bennett. It was his experiences surrounding that event that are said to have inspired him in the producing of this film.

This is a film that was made better because of the circumstances that surrounded the production. Even the actors add to the overall realism here. Sure there were a handful of seasoned character actors, but many of the extras are real guards and prisoners from Folsom Prison. And then there is Leo Gordon, whose dominating physical stature is enough to intimidate anyone. Earlier in his life Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)he actually served five years after being involved in an armed robbery that also left him shot in the stomach. Even though that part of his life was behind him, it is obvious from his commanding performance here that the effects of his time inside helped in insurmountable terms to creating the most realistic portrayal possible.

“Riot in Cell Block 11” is an extremely interesting movie to come out of the mid 1950’s. It’s a dark, unflinching examination of the prison system, at a time when movies like this just weren’t made. It’s a throw back to those pre-code, ruthless, hard-hitting films like “The Big House” (1930) or even “The Racket” (1928). It also is a film that has spent enough time in obscurity, and now thanks to the Criterion Collection, has a chance once again to gain the recognition that it so clearly deserves.

 

Pushover (1954)- Richard Quine

 ★★★

 

“Pushover” (1954) is a film noir, skillfully directed by Richard Quine, and adapted for the screen by Roy Huggins. The story is based on two separate novels, “The Night Watch” by Thomas Walsh and “Rafferty” written by Lester White.Kim Novak and Fred MacMurray in "Pushover" (1954) The quick developing story revolves around a bank robbery that takes place during the opening credits, masterminded by gangster Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards). Wheeler has a young girlfriend, Lona (Kim Novak), who the police are watching carefully. In fact, Lieutenant Eckstrom (E.G. Marshall) has sent in Detective Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) to get to know her more “intimately”. Sheridan quickly falls for Lona, and it doesn’t take much convincing (once she figures out he is a cop) for the two to conspire to kill Wheeler and run off with the $200,000 in robbery money. The problems arise when Sheridan is seen in Lona’s apartment by a neighbor (Dorothy Malone), who happens to be the voyeuristic object of affection of Sheridan’s partner (Philip Carey). Sheridan’s plan also runs into a few problems when another police officer (Allen Nourse) figures out that Sheridan has more on his mind than just law and order.

When watching “Pushover”, one can’t help but make comparisons to “Double Indemnity” (1944). Obviously they both star MacMurray, but even with a different actor, the plots would still seem similar, with the attractive “bad girl” convincing the upright man to kill for love and/or money.Kim Novak and Fred MacMurray in "Pushover" (1954) “Pushover” is nowhere near the same calibre of film as “Double Indemnity”, but it’s unfair to compare any film to the greatness of “Double Indemnity”. The truth is, all the faults of “Pushover” are forgivable. It runs a fast 88 minutes, which doesn’t leave enough time to develop things properly. The result is a “love” motivated story that feels more like one about sex, attraction, and a love of money than actual love. In fact all the characters are enigmas, hiding their true feeling from the audience. Everything is kept in the dark when it comes to the motivations of pretty much everyone, and in the final reel we are expected to believe whatever happens, and just take it at face value. Richard Quine directs this film with a skill that benefits the plot holes. He keeps things moving with excitement and suspense, so that the audience doesn’t even have time to start asking questions, or even trying to understand which relationships are real. Pushover (1954)It’s only later that you can look back and start to really think about what you watched.

I don’t typically have a problem with young actresses and their on-screen romances with older men, but in “Pushover” I had a difficult time believing that these two leading players had any real spark between them. Don’t get me wrong, each plays their individual roles perfectly, but together they seem to be on different pages. Novak was only 21 when “Pushover” was released, while MacMurray, 25 years her senior, was almost 46. A different casting choice (for either part) would have fared well.

With so many film noir’s in the 1940’s and 1950’s, some of the smaller ones can get lost in the shuffle. “Pushover” falls somewhere in the middle, where overall quality is concerned, but because of an almost unexplainable entertainment, it ends up in the category of “worth watching”- it just could have been better.

The Reckless Moment (1949)- Max Ophuls

 ★★★★

 

“The Reckless Moment” (1949) is a dark crime film directed by German filmmaker, Max Ophuls. The story, based on “The Blank Wall” by Elisabeth Sanzay Holding, is about Lucia Harper, marvelously portrayed by Joan Bennett. Her husband is working overseas, so she is forced to play both mother and father to their almost 18-year-old, trouble-causing daughter, Bea (Geraldine Brooks), and their younger, inquisitive son, David (David Blair). The Reckless Moment (1949)Bea, an aspiring artist, has become involved with a con man named Ted (Shepperd Studwick), who she thinks will aid her in her career. Lucia is against Bea’s involvement with a man like Ted, and soon an accident leaves Ted dead. Lucia knows that her daughter will be a suspect, and attempts to cover the death up. What she never expected was Mr. Donnelly (James Mason), a smartly dressed, well-mannered young man, who appears out of nowhere, holding love letters written to Ted from Bea. He, along with his partner (Roy Roberts), blackmail Lucia, who has no idea what she should do next.

A movie like “The Reckless Moment” often goes unnoticed, or at least unappreciated because it isn’t flashy or overly sophisticated. Max Ophuls directs with care and precision. His movements glide in a fluid manner that allows the audience to enjoy, without noticing his work. He is the film’s guide, but he makes sure that he (and his work) goes unnoticed as well. He is there to make sure that everything is presented the way he intended, without letting anything interfere. The Reckless Moment (1949)Cinematographer Burnett Guffey adds his usually delightful skill to the picture, but once again, it’s the fact that he doesn’t try to do too much that helps things move along- still, he deserves to be praised.

Ophuls was known throughout his career to be a feminist director. His leading ladies aren’t there for their sex appeal, but for their talents, both the characters and the actresses. Enter Joan Bennett. Bennett is the perfect fit for this type of role, just coming out of the 1940’s that saw her play many film noir characters, and just before the 1950’s that would give her the “motherly” roles that would consume much of her time from this point forward. This is her movie. She is the leading character, and she is very much alone. She dominates scene after scene, and even seems capable of taking on these blackmailers that are messing things up. Of course it helps that her husband, Walter Wanger, served as producer on “The Reckless Moment”, so between him and Ophuls, she had plenty of support in taking on an enormous role such as this.

James Mason is a wonder to behold, in what, in all reality, is a very small but crucial role. Already, at this relatively early point in his career, his screen presence is undeniable. He plays a no-good, low-down, contemptible man, but one that has a heart. It’s not an easy role to pull off, but Mason (who we would soon discover could do anything) makes it all look so easy.

Max Ophuls is one of those directors who has flown under the radar for many years. He made his early films in Germany, but (being Jewish) left for France before WWII began. The Reckless Moment (1949)By 1941, he had to move on once again, ending up in the United States, and (somewhat unbelievably) he was unable to find work. Before returning to Europe after WWII he made four films, including “The Reckless Moment”. It, along with the underrated “Letter From an Unknown Woman” (1948), are both marvelous examples of the kind of pictures that he was capable of creating. After the War ended, and he returned to the more comfortable confines of Europe, he would go on only to direct four more films before his premature death at the age of 54. These films, “La Ronde” (1950), “Le Plaisir” (1952), “The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953), and “Lola Montes” (1955) are all magnificent features that perfectly illustrate how to turn a movie into a work of art. It was as if he could paint the images on the screen, so that forever we would have the ability of enjoying his vision- in each and every painstaking detail- just the way he would have wanted.

As long as I am standing up shouting my praise to Max Ophuls, I may as well include this short poem written about the director by James Mason, who also starred in another one of his American films, “Caught” (1949). Part in jest, part in honesty, Mason sums Ophuls’ directing style up quite nicely:The Reckless Moment (1949)

A shot that does not call for tracks

Is agony for poor old Max

Who, separated from his dolly

Is wrapped in deepest melancholy

Once, when they took away his crane

I thought he’d never smile again

 

Whirlpool (1949)- Otto Preminger

 ★★★

 

“Whirlpool” is a film noir, crime, suspense movie effectively written by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, based on the novel, “Methinks the Lady”, by Guy Endore.Whirlpool (1949) The story revolves around a well to do, attractive woman named Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), who also happens to be a kleptomaniac. Her husband, Dr. Sutton (Richard Conte), is a renowned psychoanalyst, who knows nothing of his wife’s condition. When she is caught shoplifting in a department store, the smooth talking David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) come to her rescue and gets her out of trouble. It turns out that he is a hypnotist, and he claims that he can help Ann to overcome her problem. Things go wrong, as Korvo ends up being more than Ann suspects, and she gets mixed up in a crime. Lt Colton (Charles Bickford) comes in to help sort out the facts and psychological details, but Korvo has planned things far better than anyone could have expected.

Otto Preminger is a brilliant director, whose expertise and skill in the crime genre seem to have no limit. “Whirlpool”, however, doesn’t bring everything together.Whirlpool (1949) Is it even really a crime film, or is it just a psychological melodrama? In the years before “Whirlpool”, Preminger delivered time and time again with films like “Laura” (1944), “Fallen Angel” (1945), and even “Daisy Kenyon” (1947), but this one just doesn’t have the excitement of his previous pictures.

What is strange is that there isn’t anything wrong with the construction of “Whirlpool”. The script flows nicely, and the story is interesting. Legendary Oscar-winning cinematographer Arthur C. Miller contributes with his usual high quality skills, and David Raskin provides an unsettling eerie score that seems to fit the overall feel perfectly.

And then there is the acting, which quite honestly, couldn’t be any better.Whirlpool (1949) Gene Tierney is marvelous, especially because she always seems to have that far off distant look in her eyes anyway, so playing a woman under hypnosis fits quite well. Jose Ferrer can do almost anything, but he plays evil best, and “Whirlpool” offers him plenty of chances to shine. Richard Conte and Charles Bickford aren’t given much screen time, but they use it effectively. All in all, it’s a wonderful ensemble picture, and this cast of professionals mesh together extremely well.

The only problem here is that with everything- all the work and all the effort-nothing ever really happens. It sounds interesting and exciting, but doesn’t develop beyond what’s on the surface. Essentially, the first twenty minutes is good, but as things progress it just doesn’t get better.

Whirlpool (1949)“Whirlpool” is one of those rare missteps for Otto Preminger. He would follow this one up with the superior “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950), also with Gene Tierney, the hard to find, “The 13th Letter” (1951), and (one of my personal favorites) “Angel Face” (1952). He has the ability to make films that are entertaining time and time again, and I suppose “Whirlpool” will just have to go under the heading of close… but not quite enough.

He Ran All the Way (1951)- John Berry

 ★★★★

 

My, what a difference a decade can make. Ten years after the release of Anatole Litvak’s “Out of the Fog” (1941), John Garfield teamed with director John Berry to make a very similar film noir, “He Ran All the Way” (1951).John Garfield and Shelley Winters in "He Ran All the Way" (1951) Garfield again plays a small time hood named Nick, who at the urging of his friend (Norman Lloyd), robs a businessman of $10,000. In a frantic moment while on the run and dodging bullets, Nick’s partner is shot, and Nick shoots a police officer.

While scrambling to gain control, Nick hides out at a pool where he meets a young bakery worker named Peg (Shelley Winters). He uses her as a cover, and offers to take her home, where he is introduced to her parents (Wallace Ford & Selena Royle) and her younger brother (Bobby Hyatt). Nick, in a state of paranoia, keeps the family hostage, while trying to figure out a plan. Peg, meanwhile, remains attracted to him, even once she understands his true nature.

The reason that I have compared “He Ran All the Way” to “Out of the Fog” (other than the fact that I just watched them both) is because when you examine them, they are actually veryJohn Garfield and Shelley Winters in "He Ran All the Way" (1951) similar.

  1. Both films are about a low-level hood (John Garfield both times)
  2. Both films have a sympathetic father character, being terrorized
  3. In each movie the daughter character continues to be attracted to the criminal, despite the fact that he is physically hurting her father
  4. Also, both movies happen to have the same magnificent cinematographer (James Wong Howe), which does give each of them a similar overall feel

So what makes “He Ran All the Way” such a better film? Well, the direction here, under the helm of John Berry, is far superior. He manages to capture the feel of a rotten criminal living in despair and anger with a reality that is hard to match. The locations and the claustrophobic feel of the city give off the feeling of a criminal trapped by the world around him. Also, the screenplay is believable, without being frustrating. (Written by Hugo Butler and Dalton Trumbo.) It’s easy to point to mistakes that characters make, but they are realistic mistakes made by people who are scared and worried.He Ran All the Way (1951) The Shelley Winters character, in particular, is a great role, filled with personal flaws that can be easy to question. Her motivations are kept quiet. She is obviously attracted in a sexual way to Nick, and is quick to come to home dolled up, ready to throw herself at him, even with her family members being held hostage in the next room. Her reasons for doing this, however, at not as clear. Is she trying to save the others, or is she ready to move on from her mundane existence and start a new life with Nick? Winters gives a remarkable performance in this movie, and although it isn’t as flashy or intense as Garfield’s, it has an element that will linger in your mind.

John Garfield, in what turned out to be his final film, gives a marvelous performance that shows how far he had come as an actor, and gives us a glimpse of how far he could have gone.John Garfield and Shelley Winters in "He Ran All the Way" (1951) There is an intensity and passion in his performance that is chilling and invigorating. He is a no-good, two-bit criminal, but somehow, we still feel sympathetic toward him. What we know about his past, including his awful relationship with his mother (Gladys George), enables us to have hope that, somehow, things will work out. This is one of the hardest types of characters to play, and yet, Garfield makes it look easy. It’s not necessarily his best, but it is definitely toward the top of the list.

Out of the Fog (1941)- Anatole Litvak

 ★★

 

A few words come to mind when watching Anatole Litvak’s film noir, “Out of the Fog” (1941), or more appropriately, a few words come to mind once it’s over. The most common one is awkward. Perhaps this film seems to misfire because, due to the Hays Code, it wasn’t allowed to be honest and true to the original source material (Irwin Shaw’s play, “Gentle People”). Then again, maybe it’s just the fact that under the surface there simply isn’t much there.

The story revolves around Goff (John Garfield), a low-level gangster who extorts money from old men who like to fish after a long day of working. His new victims are Jonah (Thomas Mitchell) and Olaf (John Qualen), who, against their better judgment, begin paying Goff to stay out of harm’s way. Out of the Fog (1941)While down by the pier, Goff also meets Stella (Ida Lupino), a young woman who just wants out of her monotonous and mundane life. The two begin dating, where Goff spends extravagant amounts of money on her and takes her to nightclubs that her longtime boyfriend (Eddie Albert) could never afford. The catch here is that Stella happens to be Jonah’s daughter, and even though she knows that Goff is chiseling her father’s hard-earned money, she proceeds to see him, and in fact, becomes more infatuated with his outlook on life.

The film starts off as many other crime noirish films from the early 1940’s. It’s a little mysterious, very intriguing, and is loaded with characters portrayed by actors that are easy to watch. Garfield plays the weasely Goff extremely well, and right from the onset he manages to have the audience rooting against him. Lupino is marvelous (as always) because even though she’s a little obsessed with getting out of her trapped life, she is still relatable, and her desperation and hopelessness feels very real.

The real problem here is the story, that despite arousing our interest in the opening, quickly begins to tread water, waiting for something to happen. Out of the Fog (1941)The movie runs only 85 minutes, but 20 of those could have disappeared- easily. Even then, in the final reel, which should be the most energetic and suspenseful, everything completely falls apart. It’s fake, uninspiring, and to a degree, even aggravating to watch.

“Out of the Fog” certainly isn’t one of the worst films around, but considering how many quality film noirs were popping up around the same time, this one can be skipped. There is a great deal of quality cinematography from James Wong Howe that deserves praise for its style and charm, and Litvak’s direction is acceptable- if not good. Still, they aren’t enough to salvage this wreck. Rarely is there a film that has good acting, cinematography, and direction, but still can’t pull it all together to make a decent and entertaining picture. If only “Out of the Fog” was as awesome as its poster!