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.

 

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.

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.

Born to Kill (1947)- Robert Wise

 ★★★

 

One of Robert Wise’s early directorial efforts was the film noir “Born to Kill” (1947). It is without a doubt one of the darkest, most seedy crime stories to emerge from the 1940’s. What it lacks in identifiable “hero” type personalities, it more than makes up for in loathsome, revolting people who can’t help but make bad decisions without any regard for others- even their supposed loved ones.

Helen (Claire Trevor) is in Reno, acquiring herself a divorce. The night she is supposed to leave, her hard-drinking boarder, Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), and her sexually charged neighbor (Isabel Jewell) explain to the quiet, innocent seeming Helen how she should treat men in order to keep them in line. Born to Kill (1947)Soon we learn that Helen doesn’t need a lesson from these women. When she meets the strong and quiet Sam (Lawrence Tierney), her lust filled eyes tell a story that words would be unable to describe. Needless to say, Sam is no picture of morality, and later that same night in a jealous rage, he savagely murders his former fling (once again the neighbor) and her new man. Helen stumbles across the bodies but chooses to ignore the situation and leave for her home in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Sam is off to the same train station as well, looking to escape town before his crime is discovered.

In San Francisco it is obvious that Helen and Sam are going to have trouble escaping their attraction for one another. Helen is engaged to a nice-seeming, wealthy, ambitious man (Phillip Terry), so Sam decides to marry Helen’s foster-sister, Georgia (Audrey Long), who also happens to be filthy rich. Born to Kill (1947)With both of them marrying only for money and status, they have to satisfy their sexual urges with each other, even at the risk of being discovered.

To throw a wrench in the unhappy couple’s plans for eternal bliss, old Mrs. Kraft hires a Bible-quoting private investigator (Walter Slezak) back in Reno to find the killer of her dearly departed neighbor. He acquires a lead in Sam’s old friend (Elisha Cook Jr.), who essentially drops a trail of bread crumbs leading the detective straight to San Francisco, and directly into a handful of trouble.

Some movies have an uncanny ability to leave an audience feeling dirty. “Born to Kill” is one of those films. There is no escaping the nastiness and evil that seems to manipulate and overpower everyone in this picture. Born to Kill (1947)In fact if any character shows any real strength or any hope of morality, they are quickly discarded in one way or another. This is a film noir that doesn’t want happiness or sunshine- it wants misery in every manner of the word- and it gets plenty of it. Unlike so many other noir films of its time, “Born to Kill” isn’t filled with fast-talking, witty, smile inducing dialogue either. The screenplay, penned by Eve Greene & Richard Macaulay, is very straight-forward, giving the viewers little reason to escape.

Although it’s hard to find a connection with this cast of misfits (especially that of Lawrence Tierney who is frightening beyond belief), it’s easy to become caught up in the overall feel of the film. Robert Wise is more than an accomplished director. He gets in and out of this film without wasting his viewers’ time. He is direct and to the point, and he doesn’t ever attempt to make something out of nothing. He knew his characters were evil, and he exploits their dysfunction at every turn. Cinematographer Robert De Grasse adds an exorbitant amount of darkness and fog to a production that benefits from his (and Wise’s) talents.

“Born to Kill” is anything but a “feel-good” movie. But it does illustrate how much can be accomplished by quality filmmakers. It serves as an example to directors everywhere what can be created, even when the story and characters promise to repulse your audience.

Fourteen Hours (1951)- Henry Hathaway

 ★★★★★

 

The idea of a film centered around one desperate man standing on the ledge of a New York building is a difficult one because there are so many unanswered questions that arise. How do you keep the audience entertained when, in all actuality, very little is happening? How do you deal with a main character that just stands there, and in fact, doesn’t even really want to talk to anyone? And finally, what happens at the end of the film?  Paul Douglas in "Fourteen Hours" (1951)All of these questions had to have played heavily on director Henry Hathaway’s mind when filming his noir, suspense drama, “Fourteen Hours” (1951), but fortunately his talent for great storytelling and an extensive cast of sensational actors help turn this possibly entertaining film into a memorable movie, with an exorbitant amount of humanity under the surface.

In a New York City hotel, an emotionally tormented young man named Robert (Richard Basehart) steps out his window onto the ledge. The moment of desperation is seen from the street below by a traffic cop, Charlie (Paul Douglas). Charlie rushes up to the room where he sits on the ledge as well, trying patiently to get Robert to come back inside.

The event turns into a circus, with people filling the streets below, engrossed by the human drama that has presented itself to them. Taxi drivers place bets on what time he will jump, people walking to work stop, frozen, waiting to see what will happen. Even the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is cancelled. Richard Basehart and Barbara Bel Geddes in "Fourteen Hours" (1951)Obviously with a title like “Fourteen Hours”, you can guess that things aren’t resolved quickly, as every step towards a resolution just seems to make things worse.

The acting in this movie is the kind of stuff that directors dream about. Richard Basehart gives a towering performance as the sad, mentally unstable young man at his own personal crossroad. It amazes me how intense he is without being able to move more than a couple of inches the entire picture. He acts through his expressions. He eyes speak for him (his fear, his anger, and regret) present themselves with little dialogue and almost no physicality. It’s Paul Douglas who does most of the talking. The majority of his dialogue goes unanswered…but he keeps talking anyway. He is the driving force of the script, but being an amazing actor, he knows that he can’t take the focus off of Basehart, Richard Basehart in "Fourteen Hours" (1951)so Douglas keeps his perfect performance controlled.

The aspect that helps “Fourteen Hours” to shine is the inclusion of sub-plots that transpire during the 14 hours, and the performances given by the enormous cast of supporting players. Both of Robert’s parents (Agnes Moorehead & Robert Keith) show up to “help”, but end up bringing back years of family dysfunction and drama. His former fiance (Barbara Bel Geddes) also arrives, with Bel Geddes giving a brief, but touchingly memorable performance. And then there are all the individuals involved indirectly, whether down on the street or hiding in the hotel, trying to come up with new ideas; Howard Da Silva as the police chief, Martin Gabel as a psychiatrist, Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget as two strangers who meet on the street, even Grace Kelly shows up in her screen debut as a woman in the midst of a divorce, who reconsiders after witnessing Robert’s plight. Everyone who appears on the screen adds to the film’s intensity by acting a human as possible.

It’s been said that “Fourteen Hours” is, possibly, Henry Hathaway’s best film. As a fan of westerns and film noir (both of which he made in abundance), it would be hard to pick which one of his classic pieces of cinema is “best”. He spent an entire career making great movies that all continue to be enthralling because of Richard Basehart and Paul Douglas in "Fourteen Hours" (1951)his underrated skill as a director, and his uncanny ability to entertain an audience. “Fourteen Hours” is a unique film for him, and it is obvious that he was excited at the challenges that filming this type of story would offer. Although it has faded in popularity over the years, it is a film that deserves to be revisited and appreciated by a new audience.

Although “Fourteen Hours” goes out of its way to tell the audience that it wasn’t based on real events, the screenplay (masterfully penned by John Paxton) was based on an article in The New Yorker by Joel Sayre, who was in fact writing about the suicide of John William Warde in 1938. The details are quite different, but it did (unfortunately) serve as inspiration.

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.

The Big Clock (1948)- John Farrow

★★★★★

 

Based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Fearing, “The Big Clock” (1948) is a suspense thriller revolving around a magazine editor and investigator named George (Ray Milland), who has been hired by his less than compassionate boss, Janoth (Charles Laughton), to investigate a man, whom Janoth believes is having an affair with his girlfriend (Rita Johnson). The Big Clock (1948)Problems quickly arise as George realizes that he is the man that he has been hired to find, even though he is innocent of any wrong-doing (other than making a few stupid decisions). George is forced to continue the search (for himself), while juggling his aggravating boss, his suspecting wife (Maureen O’Sullivan), and while trying to find the real criminal on his own.

Somewhat surprisingly, “The Big Clock” is a pretty decent suspense thriller. The story has a couple of holes and “convenient coincidences”, but once those are put aside, everything falls into place nicely. The screenplay by Jonathan Latimer keeps things moving at a pace that is easy to follow, without ever dragging. It builds slowly until the final twenty minutes when the suspense completely takes over, catching the audience almost by surprise.

Director John Farrow directs without any pomp and circumstance, allowing the script and story to control the film. He also lets his group of actors do their own thing, and when you have a group like this, that works best anyway.The Big Clock (1948) Ray Milland is perfectly cast, reminiscent of his performance in the Fritz Lang thriller, “Ministry of Fear” (1944). Here, Milland recaptures that suspense-filled magic, and he plays the “wrong man” character extremely well. He’s easy to root for, and his sense of humor gives him the feel of an old friend that you’re always excited to see.

Charles Laughton is also very good, although the part isn’t huge. He makes a superb villain, and he and Milland seem like a couple of guys who could go head to head anytime. Rita Johnson and Maureen O’Sullivan perform well in their limited roles, O’Sullivan coming out of retirement to work with her husband, director John Farrow.  Once again, neither of these ladies have much screen time, but they get their jobs done despite it being Milland’s film. If you want to talk about a scene stealer, however, we have one of those too in the amazingly talented Elsa Lanchester. The Big Clock (1948)She plays a painter who can identify George, but for whatever reason, chooses to help him instead. She is hilarious, and one major downside to this film is that Lanchester doesn’t have a larger part.

The real highlight of “The Big Clock” is in the preconceived notions that you might have going into the film. Even the title suggests a “B” movie feel, but it deserves more credit than that. It’s pieced together nicely with a noir appearance without being quite so dark and dreary. It actually feels like the type of film that Alfred Hitchcock could have made, which would have made it a more remembered film today. John Farrow, however, rises to the challenge and delivers a masterfully conceived picture that delivers on every level.