Snap! Crackle! Pop!: TENSION (MGM 1949)

The best films noir deal with post-WWII disillusionment, and that’s exactly what drives Richard Basehart’s sad sack Warren Quimby in TENSION. This cynical, downbeat, and downright sordid little tale of infidelity and murder is  boosted by first-rate performances from Basehart and scorchingly hot Audrey Totter as his manipulative bimbo of a wife, with a taut screenplay by Allen Rivkin and solid direction by John Berry. It may not make anyone’s top ten list (or even top thirty), but it’s one of those ‘B’ films that really works, provided you’re willing to suspend disbelief for an hour and a half.

Mild mannered pharmacist Quimby met and married Claire while stationed in San Diego during the war. He, like many others, hopes to someday live the American Dream: house, kids, the whole nine yards. Trampy Claire doesn’t give a crap about that; she prefers excitement, the high life. Claire is messing around with well-off Barney Deager, and when Quimby confronts them on the beach, he gets an ass kicking (Deager: “Now get going and don’t come back, ya four-eyed punk!”). Something snaps inside Quimby, and he gets contact lenses, calls himself ‘Paul Southern’, and rents a place to establish a residence, meeting and dating pretty young Mary Chanler.

But Quimby has a plan, and begins a series of harassing phone calls to Deager, saying he’s “gonna get” him. He goes to Deager to tell him there’s no hard feelings, then (as Southern) sneaks into Deager’s house to murder him. But the meek Quimby can’t go through with it, and his plan changes to move forward with Mary and start a new life. Then Claire comes back, Deager is found dead, and homicide cops Collie Bonnabel and Blackie Gonzalez are on the case, ratcheting up the tension to trap a killer…

Basehart is perfect as wimpy Warren Quimby, the would-be killer who can’t get the job done. He’s such an underrated actor, never quite getting that signature role but doing fine work throughout his career. His noir resume includes the classics HE WALKS BY NIGHT and Robert Wise’s HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, mainstream dramas like Fellini’s LA STRADA, MOBY DICK (as Ishmael), THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, and the title role in HITLER. Basehart’s most familiar to fans as Admiral Nelson on Irwin Allen’s 1960’s TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA , adding gravitas to the sci-fi silliness. One of my favorite Basehart films is the early TV Movie SOLE SURVIVOR (1970), a supernatural WWII drama featuring William Shatner and Vince Edwards; you can catch this one on YouTube – it’s worth it!

Noir’s Queen of Mean Audrey Totter is the slutty, manipulative Claire (sexy sax music plays whenever she comes onscreen!), treating Quimby like dirt until she needs him. Claire’s hot as a pistol and hard as nails, and is another fine portrayal in Audrey’s Bad Girl Hall of Fame. Barry Sullivan plays homicide Lt. Bonnabel, introducing the movie in a pre-credits sequence while fiddling with a rubber band. Sullivan’s Bonnabel uses some unorthodox (and probably unconstitutional!) methods to snare the killer (and I’m sure you’ve guessed whodunnit by now), and that’s where that suspension of disbelief I mentioned comes in handy. His partner Gonzalez is another film noir regular, beefy William Conrad Cyd Charisse gets a non-dancing part as sweet’n’innocent Mary, Lloyd Gough plays the unsympathetic victim Deager, Tom D’Andrea is Quimby’s soda-jerk pal, and Familiar Faces Virginia Brissac, John Gaulladet, Theresa Harris, and Phil Van Zandt appear uncredited.

Though TENSION may not rank high on anyone’s all-time great films noir lists, it’s a grimy little ‘B’ thriller that’s worth watching. It’s got good performances by Basehart and Totter, moody cinematography by Harry Stradling, and a premise that, while maybe not believable, will have you stretched out in suspense right until the end.

 

 

 

Claude Reigns Supreme: THE UNSUSPECTED (Warner Brothers 1947)

As a classic film blogger, I’m contractually obligated to cover film noir during the month of “Noirvember”, so every Tuesday this month I’ll be shining the spotlight on movies of this dark genre!


Claude Rains  received second billing in 1947’s THE UNSUSPECTED, but there’s no doubt who’s the star of this show. Nobody could steal a picture like Rains, as I’ve stated several times before – his sheer talent commands your attention! Here, he gives a chilling portrayal of a cold, calculating murderer in a Michael Curtiz noir based on a novel by Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, and runs away with the film. Joan Caulfield gets top billing, but let’s be honest – it’s Claude’s movie all the way!

The film begins with a frightening scene played mostly in shadow, as a figure creeps into the office of Victor Grandison (Rains) and murders his secretary Robyn Wright while she’s on the phone. The call is cut off as she screams, and the figure hangs her body from the chandelier to make it look like a suicide. We get a brief glimpse of the killer’s face reflected in the polished desk…

That face belongs to Grandison, who we learn is the host of a radio series called “The Unsuspected”, and here Rains (as Grandison) uses his mellifluous cultured voice to relate true-crime tales of terror to his listening audience. A surprise birthday party is given in his honor at the mansion he lives in, owned by his late niece Matilda Frazer. Accompanied by his producer Jayne Moynihan, Victor’s greeted by his guests, including his other niece, the slutty Althea Keane and her lush of a husband Oliver, whom she once stole from Matilda. Homicide detective Richard Donovan, a friend of Victor’s, is also on hand, as is a mysterious stranger named Steven Howard.

Howard, it seems, married Matilda before she died in an accident at sea. Victor is suspicious of Howard, thinking he’s out for Matilda’s money (which Victor’s been lavishly living off), and has Donovan do a background check. Turns out Howard has money of his own (his dad’s in oil), and Althea takes an interest in him. But Matilda is not dead, and she returns home with no recollection of who Howard is…

The strength of THE UNSUSPECTED lies in Rains’s performance as Victor, a smiling cobra who’s smooth as silk and deadly as a razor. Victor is outwardly  kind and gentle, masking the murderous beast within. He’s wound tighter than a drum, and it’s not until the final scene where, while broadcasting his show, he realizes he’s been found out and is trapped, that he cracks under pressure and makes his confession. Anyone interested in a Master Class in film acting need only to watch Claude Rains perform in this film – or any of his films, for that matter!

Nominal star Joan Caulfield (Matilda) was a popular player in the 1940’s and early 50’s, usually cast in lighter, more comedic fare. She’s okay in this one as the loving niece of Rains, but let’s be honest… the film’s remembered today as a showcase for Rains’s talent. Constance Bennett (Jayne) was a big star in the 30’s, now moved into character roles as she’d gotten older. Audrey Totter , adding another superb ‘Mean Girl’ characterization to her impressive film noir resume, is at her bitchy best as Althea. Hurd Hatfield doesn’t get much to do as soused spouse Oliver, Fred Clark (making his film debut) as Donovan is good as always, and Jack Lambert stands out as Victor’s sometimes accomplice Poole. Michael North (usually billed as Ted) failed to impress me in the key role of Howard.  There’s plenty of other Familiar Faces to spot: Nana Bryant, Bess Flowers (in the birthday party scene), Art Gilmore (as Victor’s radio show announcer), Douglas Kennedy , Harry Lewis, and Ray Walker .


This was Curtiz’s first film for his new production company and he made the most of it. His skillful direction is aided by DP Woody Bredell , who worked on all those 40’s Universal Horror flicks and with Robert Siodmak during that director’s Universal run of film noir classics. Frederick Richards’s editing really stands out, and Franz Waxman provides another classic score. There are echoes of LAURA and GASLIGHT in THE UNSUSPECTED, but the film’s not derivative; it’s a powerful noir drama made by pros, and though it may not be at the top of anyone’s film noir lists, it’s a damn good one, with Claude Rains leading the way in another memorable performance.

Halloween Havoc!: ALIAS NICK BEAL (Paramount 1949)

The worlds of supernatural horror and film noir collided to great effect in ALIAS NICK BEAL, John Farrow’s 1949 updated take on the Faust legend. The film wasn’t seen for decades due to legal complications, but last August the good folks at TCM broadcast it for the first time. I have been wanting to see this one for years, and I wasn’t disappointed! It’s loaded with dark atmosphere, a taut screenplay by hardboiled writer/noir vet Jonathan Latimer , and a cast of pros led by a ‘devilish’ turn from Ray Milland as Nick Beal.

The Faust character this time around is Joseph Foster, played by veteran Thomas Mitchell . Foster is an honest, crusading DA with political ambitions. When he says aloud he’d “give my soul” to convict racketeer Hanson, Foster receives a message to meet a man who claims he can help. Summoned to a seedy tavern on the fog-shrouded waterfront, he meets the dapper Nick Beal, who describes Foster as an “incorruptible enemy of the legions of evil”, with just a hint of disdain. Beal leads the DA to Hanson’s hidden ledger, containing proof of the gangster’s various crimes. While Foster looks it over, Beal mysteriously vanishes into the night.

Soon Foster’s party bosses offer him the governorship, and up pops Beal again. Foster’s wife warns him to stay away from the stranger, so Beal recruits a down-on-her-luck bar girl named Donna Allen to do his bidding. The Reverend Dr. Garfield, an ally of Foster’s, feels he’s seen Nick somewhere before, but can’t quite place him (Garfield: “Did anyone ever paint your portrait?” Beal: “Yes, Rembrandt in 1665”). Beal’s machinations, including a bargain with corrupt political boss Faulkner, put Foster in the governor’s chair, causing the party to disown the formerly incorruptible DA, accusing him of “misuse of unauthorized campaign funds”. Beal demands the office of Keeper of the State Seal, Faulkner demands his cronies get choice appointments, and the beleaguered Foster confesses all in his inauguration speech, resigning from the post. Politically and financially ruined, his marriage in a shambles, Foster is at his lowest ebb when Beal decides to cash in on their bargain, accompanying him to “los isla de las almos perditas”… Spanish for the island of lost souls!! Can Joe Foster be saved??

Ray Milland was one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, moving from romantic leading man to two-fisted hero to despicable villain with the greatest of ease. His Nick Beal is suave and sophisticated, cunning and cruel, and his sinister malevolence permeates every scene. He scares the hell out of Donna, manipulating a word-for-word dialog between her and Foster before it even happens. His whistling though the chiaroscuro shadows and fog bound wharf of DP Lionel Linden’s cinematography is eerie to behold, and Milland makes for one hell of an emissary of evil.

Thomas Mitchell as Foster is the film’s main focus, and the actor was a master of eliciting sympathy from an audience, as he proved time and again in classic movies from STAGECOACH  to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife is played by Geraldine Wall, usually relegated to uncredited or bit parts, and she shows she could’ve done so much more if given half a chance. George Macready , of all people, plays the good Rev. Garfield, who stumbles on to the truth about Beal. This is probably my favorite performance by actress Audrey Totter , who plays the prostitute Donna, trapped in Beal’s dark web. Her early scenes as the hardcore hooker stand in sharp contrast to what happens when Beal glams her up and sics her on Foster, and her fear of the demonic Beal is palpable. Totter, one of noir’s best bad girls, really gets to shine in this part!

A plethora of Familiar Faces parade across the screen on the sides of both good and evil. Among them you’ll recognize Henry O’Neill as Judge Hobson, Fred Clark as the crooked boss Faulkner, Daryl Hickman as a teen involved with Foster’s Boys Club, and Danny Borzage, King Donovan , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Maxine Gates, Theresa Harris , Percy Helton, Nestor Paiva, Tim Ryan, Douglas Spencer, and Phil Van Zandt. ALIAS NICK BEAL works on so many levels, as fantasy, as film noir, as a political expose’, and as dark horror, and reminded me so much of the works of Val Lewton. With that excellent, powerhouse cast and timeless story, it’s a classic that will fit well into your Halloween viewing season, but can be enjoyed any time of year.

Bloody Pulp Fiction: THE SET-UP (RKO 1949)

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The seedy worlds of professional boxing and film noir were made for each other. Both are filled with corruption, crime, and desperate characters trapped in situations beyond their control.  Movies like CHAMPION, BODY AND SOUL, and THE HARDER THEY FALL expose the dark underbelly of pugilism. One of the best of this sub-genre is THE SET-UP, Robert Wise’s last film for RKO studios. He doesn’t fail to deliver the goods, directing a noir that packs a wallop!

THE SET-UP follows one night in the life of aging, washed up fighter Stoker Thompson ( Robert Ryan ). Stoker’s 35 now, ancient in boxing terms, but still has delusions of making the big time. Wife Julie (Audrey Totter ) is tired of going from one tank town to the next, and fears for Stoker’s safety. She refuses to go to tonight’s fight, a matchup with up and coming young contender Tiger Nelson. Julie, unlike Stoker, knows the man is running out of time.

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Time plays an important role in this movie, as the script is laid out in real-time, three years prior to the Oscar-winning HIGH NOON. The clock in Paradise City’s town square looms large in the film’s beginning (9:05) and end (10:16). Clocks pop up frequently throughout the movie, letting us know, as Julie already does, that Stoker’s time is running out. Wise’s brisk direction keeps the 72 minute film marching towards Stoker’s inevitable date with destiny.

Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias) and trainer Red (Percy Helton) have made a deal with crooked gambler Big Boy (Alan Baxter) for Stoker to lose in the third round. But they don’t tell Stoker because they assume the bum will lose anyway, and why split the dough three ways? But they fail to realize the fighter in him, angry his wife hasn’t shown up and determined to prove himself worthy, won’t allow him to do anything but his best.

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The locker room is filled with fighters on their way up and down. Young Shanley (Daryl Hickman) is a bundle of nerves before his first professional bout. Cocky Danny (Edwin Max) lives for wine, women, and song, while devout Tony (Phillip Pine) depends on a Higher Power. Black fighter Luther (James Edwards) has big dreams ahead, but punchy Gunboat (David Clarke) has taken one too many blows to the head. The locker room is held together by cynical Gus ( Wallace Ford ) who’s seen ’em come and go, and knows that no one here gets out alive.

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The main event between Stoker and Tiger Nelson is well choreographed by ex-welterweight Johnny Indrisano, a stuntman and bit player (GUYS & DOLLS, SOME LIKE IT HOT, JAILHOUSE ROCK ). The bout is intense and realistic, with Wise using three cameras to capture the brutality. DP Milton Krasner’s use of shadows and light should’ve been Oscar nominated, but wasn’t (Paul Vogel won B&W cinematography that year for BATTLEGROUND). Editor Roland Gross ( THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD ) intersperses the action with shots of the bloodthirsty crowd, including a fat man who keeps stuffing his face, a blind spectator and his pal who interprets the carnage, a young couple, an older couple (the husband seems appalled at his wife’s blood lust), and a gentleman trying to watch the fight and listen to the ballgame on his transistor radio.

Tiny and Red finally tell Stoker to lay down, but the proud fighter is determined to prove himself one more time, and winds up knocking Tiger out. This doesn’t sit well with Big Boy, who just lost a bundle. The gambler, Nelson, and his people confront Stoker in the locker room. He tells them the truth, he didn’t know the fix was in. Tiny and Red have taken a powder, and now Stoker is truly alone. He attempts to leave through the arena, which is locked, and has no recourse than to head out through the alley, where Big Boy and his crew await. He valiantly fights back, but the odds are against him once again, and he’s held down as Big Boy crushes his hand with a brick. Julie sees her husband stagger out of the alley through their hotel window and rushes to him. Bloodied but unbowed, his meal ticket hand ruined, Stoker tells his wife “They wanted me to lay down… I took that kid… I can’t fight no more”. “I won tonight. I won”, he says, and Julie tells him “We both won tonight”, as the camera pulls back to show the town square clock, signaling time has finally run out for Stoker Thompson.

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The powerhouse script is  by ex-sportswriter Art Cohn, who died in the same 1958 plane crash as producer Mike Todd. It’s based on a poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh, with the protagonist changed from a black man to white due to the unsteady race relations of the era (RKO didn’t think a film starring a black boxer would sell in the segregated South). The casting of James Edwards (HOME OF THE BRAVE) was a crumb tossed to black audiences. Even with the change of race, THE SET-UP is still one of the best boxing films in film noir, and holds up well today. Special mention should be made to the use of sound in the movie, with Phil Brigandi and Clem Portman’s work outstanding. Plenty of Familiar Faces show up, like Herbert Anderson, Bernard Gorcey (Louie Dumbrowski of THE BOWERY BOYS series), Donald Kerr ( THE DEVIL BAT ), Tommy Noonan , Charles Wagenheim, and Constance Worth. Famed New York crime photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig has a cameo as the timekeeper.

THE SET-UP is downbeat as all hell, but that’s what makes a good noir, a glimpse into the dark side of life. With its squalid boxing milieu and shady cast of characters, this is one movie fans of the genre will not want to miss.

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Marlowe at the Movies Pt 2: LADY IN THE LAKE (MGM 1947)

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Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories are all done in first-person narrative, so it must have seemed logical to director/star Robert Montgomery to shoot THE LADY IN THE LAKE in the subjective point-of-view. Aside from a few brief narration scenes, we see everything through the eyes of Marlowe. The actors play straight to the camera, doubling for the private eye. Does it work? Well….I guess that all depends on YOUR point of view!

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“My name is Marlowe”, the film begins, as we see him sitting at his office desk. He relates the tale of how he submitted a short story to a pulp magazine, and received a reply from an editor named “A. Fromsett”. The movie is told in flashback, and now the POV changes to that of Marlowe’s for the bulk of the story. We meet A. Fromsett, who’s a gorgeous woman named Adrienne. She likes his story, but has an ulterior motive: Adrienne wants to hire Marlowe to find her publisher’s missing wife Crystal, a “liar, a cheat, and a thief” who’s run off to Mexico for a quickie divorce. Marlowe doesn’t trust Adrienne or her motives, but the perennial down-on-his-luck gumshoe takes the case.

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The effect of Adrienne speaking directly to the camera is off-putting at first and lends an artificial quality to the film as a whole. I could clearly see the actors acting, playing to the camera, and as a result I wasn’t as engrossed in the story as I was in MURDER MY SWEET. The novelty of the first-person POV wore off quicker than a Monday morning hangover. It distracts from the story, rather than pulling me in as intended. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy all those “found-footage” films of recent vintage.

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Robert Montgomery’s first directorial effort is an interesting but ultimately disappointing film. Montgomery himself is another reason I didn’t like LADY IN THE LAKE as much as I thought I would.  Even though we mostly just hear his voice, I didn’t find him sufficiently “hard-boiled” enough to be convincing as Marlowe. I would’ve preferred cast member Lloyd Nolan in the role, and had Montgomery switch off to play Nolan’s Lt. Degarmot. Nolan had plenty of gumshoe experience, playing Bret Halliday’s pulp detective Michael Shayne in seven films (including TIME TO KILL, an adaptation of Chandler’s The Brasher Dubloon). He also stood out in films like BATAAN, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, A HATFUL OF RAIN, PEYTON PLACE, THE GIRL HUNTERS (with author Mickey Spillane playing his own hard-boiled P.I., Mike Hammer), ICE STATION ZEBRA, and AIRPORT. Nolan also portrayed cranky Dr. Chegley on the groundbreaking late 60’s sitcom JULIA, starring Diahann Carroll.    

Audrey Totter (Adrienne), a noir queen featured  in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, THE UNSUSPECTED, and THE SET-UP, later joined the cast of TV’s MEDICAL CENTER as head Nurse Wilcox. Other Familiar Faces in THE LADY IN THE LAKE include Tom Tully, Jayne Meadows (better known as Mrs. Steve Allen), Leon Ames, Morris Ankrum , and Richard Simmons. No, not the 80’s fitness guru, this Richard Simmons later gained fame in the 1950’s series SGT. PRESTON OF THE YUKON. Also appearing briefly as Adrienne’s shapely secretary (who Marlowe can’t keep his eyes off of) is Lila Leeds, noted as Robert Mitchum’s accomplice in that famous 1947 pot bust (just follow this link).

Miss Lila Leeds
Miss Lila Leeds

THE LADY IN THE LAKE is to me a failed experiment in the film noir genre. I think I would have liked it better if director Montgomery had shot it in the usual objective POV, and stepped back to allow Lloyd Nolan to play Marlowe. Then again, that’s just MY point of view. I’m sure there are fans of this film out there who have their own. What do all you Cracked Rear Viewers think?