Fever Dreams: Fritz Lang’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (RKO/International Pictures 1944)

Back in 2016, I did a post expounding on one of my favorite films noir, 1945’s SCARLET STREET . This dark masterpiece of corruption starred the titanic trio of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in a sordid tale directed by German legend Fritz Lang, with moody cinematography courtesy of Milton Krasner. Recently, I viewed a film this team made the year previous, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, with a screenplay by producer Nunnally Johnson. Comparisons were inevitable, but though there are certainly similarities between the two films, this one stands on its own as a powerful entry in the film noir canon. With all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Robinson plays college professor Richard Wanley, an intellectual lecturing on the psychology of homicide to his students. He’s a happily married father of two kids, left alone while the fam visits relatives. Whaley goes to his men’s club to meet his pals for supper, but before going in, the three men gaze admiringly at a portrait of a beautiful woman in the window next door. Wanley’s friends, DA Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon) leave after dining, but Wanley stays behind to finish his brandy, and reads a copy of Solomon’s Song of Songs.

As Wanley departs, he stops to again gaze at the portrait – and the woman appears in the flesh, her face reflected in the window! He strikes up a conversation with her, learns her name is Alice Reed, and impulsively joins her for a late night cocktail. Alice takes the professor to her apartment to look at some artist sketches she posed for, all quite innocent. That is, until a man (Arthur Loft) barges into the apartment, angry she’s with someone else, and slaps her hard across the face. A fight breaks out between the man and the scared professor, who grabs a pair of scissors and stabs the intruder to death!

To say things go steadily downhill for Wanley is an understatement, as he methodically concocts a cover-up, dropping the body in a wooded area miles away. His buddy Lalor is on the case, as the deceased turns out to be a big shot financier, whose sleazy bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea of course!) comes calling on Alice with blackmail on his mind, and Professor Wanley sinks deeper and deeper into that old familiar noir quicksand…

Fritz Lang’s Expressionist visual roots show up all over this film, and the dark scene where Wanley dumps the body in a rainstorm particularly stood out for me. Krasner’s cinematography is outstanding; he was one of Hollywood’s top DP’s, from his work on 40’s Universal Horrors (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS,  GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN , THE MAD GHOUL ) to film noir (THE DARK MIRROR, THE SET-UP ), comedies (HOLIDAY AFFAIR, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH), drama (ALL ABOUT EVE), his Oscar winner THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN), and everything in between.

Johnson’s script is a murderous marvel of construction that features a twist ending I admit I did NOT see coming – and I don’t think you will, either! While THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW didn’t supplant SCARLET STREET as my favorite of the Lang/Robinson/Bennett/Duryea/Krasner collaborations, it’s a great film that noir fans will surely love. Like I said before, with all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Christmas-tery: Deanna Durbin in LADY ON A TRAIN (Universal 1945)

Deanna Durbin was the best Christmas present Universal Studios ever received. The 15-year-old singing sensation made her feature debut in 1936’s THREE SMART GIRLS, released five days before Christmas. The smash hit helped save cash-strapped Universal from bankruptcy, and Miss Durbin signed a long-term contract, appearing in a string of musical successes: ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, THAT CERTAIN AGE, SPRING PARADE, NICE GIRL?, IT STARTED WITH EVE. One of her best is the Christmas themed comedy/murder mystery LADY ON A TRAIN, one of only two films directed by  Charles David, who married the star in 1950, the couple then retiring to his native France.

Our story begins with young Nikki Collins travelling by train from San Francisco to New York City to visit her Aunt Martha, reading a murder mystery to pass the time. Nikki witnesses a real-life murder committed through a window, and after ditching her wealthy father’s assistant Haskell (“of the New York office”), goes to the police, who laugh her off, thinking the crime novel’s gone to her brain. So Nikki seeks help from the mystery writer himself, Wayne Morgan, who wants nothing to do with this ditzy dame (and neither does his society gal, Joyce Williams). Nikki learns at a newsreel screening the man was shipping magnate Josiah Waring, whose body was moved from the scene of the crime to his Long Island estate to make his death look like he fell off a stepladder while decorating his Christmas tree.

The plucky girl heads to Long Island, and is mistaken for Waring’s “fiancé”, nightclub singer Margot Martin, by the deceased’s irresponsible nephew, Arnold Waring. She’s arrived just in time for the reading of the will, in which Arnold and his more sedate brother Jonathan receive a grand total of a dollar each, while the bulk of the estate goes to Margot. Nikki keeps up the charade, and finds a pair of bloody slippers stashed in Waring’s room. The trail leads to the Circus Club, where Nikki meets the real Margot, and she and Wayne get arrested for the murder of the club’s manager. Nikki’s bailed out, not by Haskell, but Arnold, and the entertaining comedy-mystery winds up with a suspenseful conclusion that’ll keep you guessing whodunnit right until the end.

Deanna’s a delight in a film that juggles elements of screwball comedy, musical segments, film noir, and straight mystery, never once dropping any of the balls. Deanna was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time (second only to Bette Davis), and the studio lavished attention on their star, with numerous costume and hairstyle changes throughout the film. Of course, her beautiful soprano voice is on display, and she sings “Give Me a Little Kiss”, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, and the Christmas perennial “Silent Night”, sweetly serenading her dad in San Francisco over the phone on Christmas Eve:

The supporting cast is a real Christmas present for Familiar Face spotters: there’s Ralph Bellamy as Jonathan Waring, Dan Duryea as his wastrel brother Arnold, the underrated and underutilized David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL) as Wayne, the late Patricia Morison as Joyce, Edward Everett Horton as the flustered Haskell, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris as a pair of henchmen, Samuel S. Hinds as the family lawyer, plus Jane Adams , Bobby Barber, Barbara Bates, Ben Carter (Mantan Moreland’s longtime vaudeville partner), Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Jaqueline deWit (as nasty Aunt Charlotte Waring), Tom Dugan, William Frawley Thurston Hall (the unfortunate victim), a pre-stardom Lash LaRue, George Lloyd, Sam McDaniel (the friendly train porter), Matt McHugh, Maria Palmer (the real Margot), Addison Richards, and Bert Roach, among many others.

LADY ON A TRAIN’s screenplay was written by Edward Beloin and Robert O’Brien, based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who knew a thing or two about mysteries – he was the creator of Simon Templar, aka The Saint! DP Woody Bredell adds some shadowy shots reminiscent of his work on Universal’s horror and noir flicks that enhance the film’s overall atmosphere, and Bernard B. Brown (who once  contributed sound effects for Warner’s early Merrie Melodies cartoons) garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Sound. Every Christmas season, I try to find holiday-themed films a little off the beaten track, and LADY ON A TRAIN is a real gem. Add it to your Christmas watch list!

Merry Christmas from Deanna Durbin!

Heel with a Heart: Dan Duryea in THE UNDERWORLD STORY (United Artists 1950)

Hollywood’s favorite heel Dan Duryea got a rare starring role in THE UNDERWORLD STORY, a 1950 crime drama in which he plays… you guessed it, a heel! But this heel redeems himself at the film’s conclusion, and Duryea even wins the girl. Since that girl is played by my not-so-secret crush Gale Storm , you just know I had to watch this one!

The part of muckraking tabloid journalist Mike Reese is tailor-made for Duryea’s sleazy charms. He’s a big-city reporter who breaks a story about gangster Turk Meyers spilling to the D.A., resulting in the thug ending up murdered on the courthouse steps in a hail of bullets. DA Ralph Monroe (Michael O’Shea )  puts the pressure on Mike’s editor, and Reese becomes persona non grata in the newspaper game. Seeing an ad for a partner at a small town newspaper, Mike gets a $5,000 “loan” from crime boss Carl Durham (a scary Howard DaSilva ), and hightails it to the sedate New England burg of Lakeville.

The Lakeville Sentinel is run by ‘Our Little Margie’ Miss Storm, as Cathy Harris, who inherited the failing rag from her late father. Cathy’s reluctant to take on the aggressive hustler as her partner, but is persuaded by old-time printer George “Parky” Parker (veteran Harry Shannon). Things get shaken up in Lakeville when the wife of Clark Stanton (Gar Moore), son of publishing mogul Ed Stanton (Herbert Marshall  ) is found murdered, and Mike exploits the tragedy for all its worth, leading to the frame-up of the Stanton’s black maid Molly (Mary Anderson).

THE UNDERWORLD STORY was pretty bold for it’s time in its subject matter, dealing not only with “yellow journalism”, but also issues of race and class. I had to rewind twice when rich Clark Stanton, who killed his wife and pins the blame on Molly, tells his dad, ” Who’ll believe the word of a nigger against ours?”. You just don’t hear something like that in a film made in 1950! The only complaint I have is that Anderson, who gives a sympathetic performance as Molly, is a white woman. Couldn’t the producers have hired a black actress to essay the role? It’s also implied that old man Stanton was a bit more than just fond of his daughter-in-law. The Stantons conspire to put the Sentinel out of business when Mike crusades for Molly’s innocence, using their blue-blood connections to get local businesses to stop advertising in the paper.

There are allusions to the HUAC hearings, as the case against Molly becomes akin to the “witch trials in old Lakeville”. Indeed, this was Howard DaSilva’s last film for awhile, as the actor wound up on the blacklist. He didn’t make another film until 1961’s DAVID AND LISA. Director Cy Enfield was also blacklisted, and had to move to England to continue his career with films like MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and ZULU. The screenplay by Henry Blankford (adapted by Enfield) contains some great, tough dialog, delivered by Duryea and company with gusto. Also of note is the cinematography by the great Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), whose keen eye adds immensely to the film despite its obvious low budget.

The Familiar Face Brigade is well represented by stalwarts like Phil Arnold, Art Baker , Melville Cooper, Ned Glass, Alan Hale Jr, Frieda Inescort, Donald “Devil Bat” Kerr (once again a photographer!), Edward Van Sloan (yes, of Universal Horror fame!), and ‘The Last Charlie Chan’, Roland Winters. But it’s Dan Duryea who runs away with the acting honors, making the most of his starring opportunity. Plus he gets to clinch Gale Storm in the end. Lucky bastard!

Dark Western Sky: James Stewart in WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal-International 1950)

James Stewart  and Anthony Mann made the first of their eight collaborations together with the Western WINCHESTER ’73, a film that helped change both their careers. Nice guy Stewart, Hollywood’s Everyman in Frank Capra movies like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, took on a more mature, harder-edged persona as Lin McAdam, hunting down the man who killed his father, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally ). As for Mann, after years of grinding out B-movie noir masterpieces (T-MEN, RAW DEAL ), WINCHESTER ’73 put him on the map as one of the 1950’s top-drawer directors.

The rifle of the title is the movie’s McGuffin, a tool to hold the story together. When McAdam and his friend High Spade (the always welcome character actor Millard Mitchell) track Dutch Henry to Dodge City, the two mortal enemies engage in a shooting contest judged by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). Lin wins the event, only to be jumped at his hotel by Dutch Henry, who steals the prized “One of a Thousand” Winchester and rides off with his gang to Riker’s Bar, a lonely outpost saloon. It’s there Dutch loses the rifle in a poker game to gun-runner Joe Lamont (a very good John McIntire ). Lamont sells his wares to renegade Indians, all riled up after the Sioux massacre Custer at Little Big Horn.

But Indian warrior Young Bull (played by a young Rock Hudson !) covets the new repeater, and Lamont pays a heavy price, losing his scalp in the process. The renegades chase Lola Manners (pretty Shelley Winters ), a “dance hall girl” run out of Dodge by Earp, and her fiancé Steve Miller (Charles Drake) into an encampment of soldiers led by Sgt. Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen ), then Lin and High Spade are also corralled, and a battle at dawn between the soldiers and renegades ensues, with marksman Lin picking off Young Bull. The two men ride off, and a young recruit (young Tony Curtis!) finds the rifle. The sergeant hands it over to Miller, who rides away with Lola to meet Waco Johnnie Dean.

Waco Johnnie is played by Dan Duryea at his psychotic best, a thoroughly nasty character if there ever was one. Waco kills Miller and steals both his rifle and Lola, sends his men out to their doom in a fierce gunfight with the local marshal and his posse, then rides away with Lola as a shield to meet up with… you guessed it, Dutch Henry, who takes possession of the Winchester. Waco and Dutch plot to rob a gold shipment in Tascosa. But Lin and High Spade are still tracking Dutch (who, it turns out, is Lin’s brother), and manage to foil the robbery, leading up to a memorable mano y mano shootout between Lin and Dutch among the high rocks.

The screenplay by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards is filled with tension, keeping the viewer on the edge of his (or her) seat. William H. Daniels’ B&W cinematography beautifully captures the Arizona locations, and matches them well with the studio-shot footage. The other cast members are all Familiar Faces on the sagebrush trail: John Alexander, James Best Abner Biberman Steve Brodie John Doucette , Chuck Roberson, Ray Teal, Chief Yowlachie, and John War Eagle.

James Stewart gives a us a brooding, deeply shaded performance, guided through the darkness by film noir vet Anthony Mann. Out of all the Stewart/Mann Western collaborations, WINCHESTER ’73 remains my favorite, a gritty saga of revenge that gave new screen life to both the actor and director, aided and abetted by a superb cast of character actors. It’s a must-see oater for film fans in general, and Western buffs in particular.

 

A Bout De Souffle: Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS (Universal-International 1949)

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CRISS CROSS hits you like a sucker punch to the gut, delivered hard and swift, followed by a non-stop pummeling that doesn’t let up until the final, fatal shot. Things kick right in as we find clandestine lovers Steve Thompson and Anna Dundee going at it hot’n’heavy in a nightclub parking lot. They go inside, and Steve gets into it with Anna’s husband, the gangster Slim Dundee, who pulls a knife, but the fight’s interrupted by Lt. Pete Rameriz, Steve’s boyhood pal. What Pete doesn’t know is the fight was staged for his benefit: Steve is the inside man on a planned armored car heist Dundee’s gang is pulling off.

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Flashbacks tell us how Steve got here: he was once married to Anna, and after the volatile couple divorced left L.A., drifting across country picking up odd jobs along the way. Returning to the City of Angels, he finds himself drawn back to their old hangout, hoping to run into the woman that still haunts his dreams. He spots her doing the rhumba on the dance floor, they talk, then Dundee drops by, her latest beau. After getting his old job back with the armored car company, Steve still pines for Anna. The bartender at “their” place gives him bad news: Anna has wed Dundee, and they’ve taken off for Yuma.

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The star-crossed Steve and Anna meet at Union Station, and she blasts him, saying everyone from his mother to Pete warned her to stay away from Steve, so she wed Dundee in haste. She shows him bruises and welts left by her new hubby, and Steve gets drunk as a skunk, confronted by Pete at the bar. They continue to see each other on the QT, and when Dundee and his boys catch them, Steve swerves the hoods by saying he can set up an armored car job and make everybody rich.

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The robbery is meticulously planned, and now we’re back to the present: Steve is driving the truck with the oil refinery payroll, there’s an explosion from a manhole, and Dundee’s gang tosses teargas to cover their tracks. Things then take a wrong turn as Steve’s partner is killed, and a shootout leaves both Steve and Dundee wounded, the money gone with Anna, and deadly repercussions…

To give away anymore would spoil one of the best damn noir flicks I’ve seen in awhile, so you’ll have to watch this one yourselves. In fact, you owe it to yourselves to see this cynical masterpiece from director Robert Siodmak , pulling out all the stops to bring his dark vision to the screen. Producer Mark Hellinger died before the cameras started to roll, so Siodmak had no restraints, and this is his finest hour, creating the quintessential noir complete with doomed characters, moody camerawork (by DP Franz Planer), and a sense of paranoia marked by people who know, despite everything, no one here gets out alive.

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Burt Lancaster’s Steve is a man whose fatal attraction slides him quickly downhill; he knows deep down Anna’s no good, but wants her anyway. Yvonne DeCarlo steals the show as Anna, the femme fatale that brings everyone around her down to her depths. The marvelous Dan Duryea (Slim) tones it down, bringing a quietly menacing presence to his role. Stephen McNally tries to be the voice of reason as Pete, warning Steve to steer clear of these unsavory characters. Even the minor roles deserve recognition: Tom Pedi stands out as a hood with his catchphrase “That’s the ticket”, Alan Napier shines as an elderly criminal mastermind with an unquenchable thirst, Percy Helton makes the most out of his bartender role, and Joan Miller adds to the atmosphere as a barfly. Familiar Faces pop up throughout the film: Richard Long , Meg Randall, John Doucette, Gene Evans, Vito Scotti, Charles Wagenheim, and Bud Wolfe. The young man doing the rhumba with DeCarlo early on is Tony Curtis, making his film debut.

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All this aided by a superb Mikos Rozsa score (with Esy Morales and His Orchestra providing the rhumba rhythms) add up to make CRISS CROSS a shadowy tour de force from all concerned. This is cinematic dynamite you don’t want to miss, a devilishly good time for fans of pessimistic pictures that will leave you breathless. Highly recommended!

The Art of Noir: Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET (Universal 1945)

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One of my favorite movies of any genre has always been SCARLET STREET. I used to watch the grainy Public Domain print on my local cable access channel over and over. When I saw that TCM was running the film last October, I recorded it for future reference, as I was in the midst of my “Halloween Havoc” marathon. I finally got the chance recently to sit down and enjoy this beautiful, crispy clear print and watch the film as it was meant to be seen.

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Meek, mousey cashier Christopher Cross receives a gold watch at a party honoring his 25 years of service to J.J. Hogarth’s company. Chris has done his boring, repetitious job without complaint, though his dream has always to be a successful painter. When Hogarth leaves the party, Chris watches him get into a car with a pretty young girl. Walking home with friend and co-worker Pringle, Chris muses aloud what it would be like to have the love of a young beauty. His  wife Adele is a ballbuster, constantly berating his art and lack of gumption, and unfavorably comparing him to her late policeman husband.

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Enter Kitty March. Chris encounters her getting slapped around by an unknown assailant (later revealed to be her boyfriend Johnny) and rescues her. They go for a cocktail, where Chris tries to impress her by passing himself off as a painter. Kitty, thinking he’s rich and famous, claims to be an actress. Johnny schemes to have Kitty string Chris along, playing him for a sucker. Gullible, lonely Chris now becomes a thief and embezzler in order to fund Kitty’s lavish lifestyle. Johnny brings Chris’s paintings to sell in Washington Square, where they’re snapped up by an art critic named Janeway. Believing he’s discovered a new sensation, Janeway tracks down Johnny to Kitty’s apartment, where he’s tricked into believing Kitty is the artist. Chris’s “modern art”, under Kitty’s name, becomes the toast of the art world. Things fall apart when Adele’s ex-husband shows up, quite alive, and demands to be paid off. Chris, finally free of Adele, can now marry Kitty. But the vixen cruelly rejects him, and Chris murders her, pinning it on Johnny. But Chris will never be rid of Kitty and Johnny, as we discover in the film’s haunting finale.

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Edward G. Robinson has one of his best roles as Chris. Henpecked, his dreams never fulfilled, Chris Cross is one of the most pitiful, heartbreaking characters in film noir, and Robinson pulls it off beautifully. Joan Bennett was never sexier or sluttier than here as Kitty. She’s cruel, lazy, and downright treacherous, without an ounce of kindness, the complete opposite of Chris. Dan Duryea is her man Johnny, giving one of his patented sleazebag performances. Even though he’s framed on a murder rap, I felt no sympathy for Johnny paying for his countless other, unacknowledged sins. Rosalind Ivan (Adele) is as good here as she was in another noir, Robert Siodmak’s THE SUSPECT. Jess Barker, Russell Hicks, Samuel S. Hinds , and Margaret Lindsay round out the excellent supporting cast.

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Fritz Lang’s  expressionistic direction is top-notch, and SCARLET STREET is (in my opinion) one of his top three films, right up there with METROPOLIS and M. Dudley Nichols’s screenplay was based on the French novel LA CHIENNE, filmed in 1931 by Jean Renoir. Of course, since “La Chienne” translates in English to “The Bitch”, the title had to be changed! (We’d have to wait til 1979 for a film with that title, starring the eternally bitchy Joan Collins) Milton Krasner’s B&W photography gives SCARLET STREET an atmospheric, melancholy mood, as does Hans J. Salter’s score.

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The paintings in the film are by John Decker, artist and notorious Hollywood reprobate. Decker was a talented portrait artist known for his drinking bouts with famous pals like Errol Flynn, John Barrymore, and W.C Fields. His paintings are certainly unique, and I’ll leave you with a gallery of some of his artwork:

W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
Errol Flynn
Errol Flynn
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
John Wayne
John Wayne

 

Bad Blonde: TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949)

Too_Late_for_Tears_DVDI just finished viewing the 1949 feature TOO LATE FOR TEARS on TCM. The title may sound like a weepy tearjerker, but this is film noir dynamite. Once incomplete due to falling into public domain, the UCLA Film & Television Archive have restored it to its black & white glory. I’d never seen this one before, and it was time well spent. It’s based on a Saturday Evening Post serial by screenwriter Roy Huggins, who later went on to produce television classics like MAVERICK, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, and BARETTA. TOO LATE FOR TEARS can hold it’s own with the better known noirs of the era.

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