Dark Genesis: STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (RKO 1940)

“Tuesdays in Noirvember” continues with what many consider to be the first film noir…

Fans of the film noir genre often cite movies like THE MALTESE FALCON or REBECCA among the first entries in this stylistic category, but a case can certainly be made for STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, a bizarre B-film made by director Boris Ingster. It features all the elements associated with the dark genre: a big city setting, interior monologues, an extended nightmare sequence, flashbacks, Expressionistic set design… hell, it’s even got noir’s favorite patsy Elisha Cook Jr ! The only thing missing is that downbeat cynicism you find in post-war films, but since America hadn’t yet entered World War II, we can forgive the happy ending and concentrate on what makes this movie the seminal film noir.

First, there’s the plot: star reporter Michael Ward is the key witness in a murder case against young Joe Briggs, an ex-con who swears up and down he’s innocent. Though the evidence is circumstantial, Briggs is found guilty and sentenced to die in the chair. Ward’s fiance Jane has doubts and is upset about the whole thing. When Ward’s neighbor Meng, a crusty old cuss who Ward’s had trouble with in the past, is found murdered in his bed, Ward becomes the prime suspect. Jane tries to find the mysterious man Ward saw lurking around the rooming house, a man with “big, bulging eyes, thick lips”, and a flowing white scarf, leading her to danger…

The innovative camerawork is by one of film noir’s masters, DP Nicholas Musuraca, heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Musuraca’s chiaroscuro lighting, drenched in inky shadows, and oddly tilted camera angles help evelvate this low-budget programmer to high art. His work on producer Val Lewton’s 40’s horror films like CAT PEOPLE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM , GHOST SHIP , CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, and BEDLAM set new standards in that genre, and he collaborated with some of film noir’s best directors: Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE), Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST ), John Farrow (WHERE DANGER LIVES ), Fritz Lang (CLASH BY NIGHT), Ida Lupino (THE HITCH-HIKER ). RKO’s music maestro Roy Webb provided the score, as he did for MURDER MY SWEET , NOTORIOUS , THE LOCKET, THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME , and those aforementioned Val Lewton chillers.

Leads John McGuire (Ward) and  Margaret Tallichet (Jane) never rose above the B ranks, but both are more than competent in their parts (Miss Tallichet retired from the screen after marrying director William Wyler). “The Man with the Flowing White Scarf” is none other than Peter Lorre , who is just a shadow throughout most of the film until the very end, where we learn he’s an escaped lunatic. Though his part is small, Lorre’s creepy as hell! Elisha Cook (Briggs) had already been around a few years in small parts; it’s kind of nice to see him as an innocent victim for a change, instead of his usual weaselly punk parts. Sour old Charles Halton plays sour old Mr. Meng, and you’ll spot Familiar Faces Cliff Clark, Donald Kerr, Paul McVey, Oscar O’Shea, and Herb Vigran in small roles.

Boris Ingster is somewhat of an enigma to me. Born in 1903, he apparently had worked with Sergei Eisnestein in his native Russia before immigrating to America. Married to German actress Leni Stengel in 1930 (they divorced in 1944), Ingster has but three directing credits – this one,  the 1948 comedy THE JUDGE STEPS OUT, and the 1950 low-budget noir SOUTHSIDE 1-1000. He later became a television producer on such series as WAGON TRAIN, CHEYENNE, and most notably THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.  Judging his work solely on STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, I can’t understand why he didn’t have a bigger career as a director. The film moves swiftly, and is full of little touches that would make some big-budget directors green with envy. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to be grateful for this dark gem of a film, the first of the stylistic films noir, and still (despite that happy ending) one of the best.

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: BACK TO BATAAN (RKO 1945)

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John Wayne  and Anthony Quinn fight World War II on the backlots of RKO (subbing for the jungles of the Philippines) in BACK TO BATAAN, a stirring exercise in propaganda ripped from headlines of the era. The film was made to stoke audience’s patriotic fires, and succeeds in it’s objective. It’s well directed and shot, has plenty of action, and superb performances by all, including a standout from 14-year-old Ducky Louie.

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Wayne plays Col. Madden, assigned to train Filipino freedom fighters (try saying that three times fast!) to battle the invading Japanese.  Quinn is Capt. Bonifacio, grandson of Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. He’s having issues with his girlfriend Dalisay, who’s the island version of Tokyo Rose (what he doesn’t realize is she’s secretly sending coded messages to the Allies through her broadcasts). Madden and his ragtag crew are out to destroy a Japanese gas depot, but first they encounter schoolteacher Bertha Barnes and little Maximo, whose village has been taken over, and whose principal refused to take down the American flag, and was hung in it’s place in a gruesome scene.

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The resistance fighters come across the infamous Bataan Death March, where Bonifacio has been taken prisoner. They free him, and Madden wants the men to rally around their former leader’s heir. He’s reluctant at first, but comes around and they make things hot for the Japanese. Little Maximo returns to his village and is tortured by the cruel invaders, but refuses to talk, and ends up sacrificing his life for the cause of freedom. Soon, the Americans are coming to the Philippines, and Madden and his guerilla band hold off the Japanese while the incoming Americans land and release the natives from their bondage.

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John Wayne, complete with scruffy beard, is his usual heroic self, and Quinn has never been bad in anything (although he has made some bad films, he always rises above them). The two macho men compliment each other well, with Quinn’s passionate Filipino trading off of Wayne’s stoicism. Wayne and Quinn only made one other film together, the 1947 South American western TYCOON, and it would’ve been interesting to have seen them make more.

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The wonderful Beulah Bondi shines as the schoolteacher, who’s just as tough as Wayne and his men. Miss Bondi was a two-time Oscar nominee (for THE GORGEOUS HUSSY and OF HUMAN HEARTS); although she never won the award, she did receive an Emmy for her final role in a 1976 episode of THE WALTONS. Always a welcome screen presence, Bondi appeared in classics and near classics like STREET SCENE (her film debut), RAIN (with Joan Crawford), the fantasy ON BORROWED TIME, with Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (both times as his mother), TRACK OF THE CAT (as Robert Mitchum’s mom), and A SUMMER PLACE.

That embodiment of Imperial Japanese evil, Richard Loo is on hand as the rotten Major Hasko. Loo, who was actually of Chinese descent, cornered the market on Nippon bad guys during the 40’s in such films as ACROSS THE PACIFIC, BEHIND THE RISING SUN, THE PURPLE HEART, GOD IS MY CO-PILOT, and FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO. Western fans will recognize Paul Fix (Micah on THE RIFLEMAN) as an American aiding the guerillas. And a young actor named Lawrence Tierney appears towards the end as Lt. Commander Waite, just before hitting it big in DILLINGER and other great noirs.

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Then there’s Ducky Louie, the boy playing young Maximo. Unlike a lot of child stars of the era, this kid had a natural acting ability, and holds his own with the pro cast. Ducky’s career was brief, appearing in only six films (most memorably in CHINA’S LITTLE DEVILS as a resistance fighter again,  and BLACK GOLD with costar Quinn). Young Ducky left show biz to become a dentist, and would be 85 if alive today (and if anyone can confirm whether he is or not, please let me know!). If his final death scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, you just don’t have a heart or soul.

Director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter Ben Barzman were the polar opposites of John Wayne politically, and I’m sure some sparks must’ve flew during shooting. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca lends his dark noir touches to the film, and Roy Webb’s score “borrows” from KING KONG, as well as some patriotic tunes. At film’s end, we’re introduced to some of the real survivors of the Bataan Death March, marching along with the cast. Now if THAT doesn’t get you up and saluting, I don’t know what will! BACK TO BATAAN is a rousing actioner, depicting the brutal realities of war, and the brave men who fought for liberty and freedom during WWII. It’s also a fine example of 1940’s Hollywood filmmaking, and contains many outstanding performances, particularly young Ducky Louie.

The real Bataan Death March
The real Bataan Death March

Halloween Havoc!: GHOST SHIP (RKO 1943)

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Val Lewton produced some of the most memorable horror films of the 1940’s, moody, atmospheric set pieces noted for their intelligent scripts, chiaroscuro lighting, and eerie use of sound. CAT PEOPLE, THE BODY SNATCHER,  and THE SEVENTH VICTIM  are just three that spring to mind when I think of Lewton movies. GHOST SHIP is one of his lesser known films, a psychological thriller about a sea captain obsessed with authority who goes off the deep end, and while it’s not supernatural as the title implies, it’s a good film worth rediscovering.

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A blind street singer on a fog-shrouded corner gives an ominous warning to 3rd Officer Tom Merriam, about to embark on his first voyage aboard the S.S. Altair, captained by veteran sailor Will Stone. Stone is stern but friendly, eager to teach Tom the ways of the sea, and implement his view’s of the captain’s authority. A crewman dies just before they’re about to set sail, victim of an apparent heart attack, and Stone, claiming “he was an old man”, launches without a replacement. A freshly painted grappling hook is left unsecured by the captain’s orders, despite Tom’s protestations. When the Altair hits rough seas, the crew risk their lives to secure it, and Tom learns his first lesson about questioning the captain’s authority.

When another sailor has an appendicitis attack, radioman Sparks puts in a ship-to-shore call to a doctor. Stone is unable to perform the delicate operation, and has Tom take over. Loyal officer Tom gives Stone the credit, as the captain explain he has the power if life and death over his men. We can see the cracks in Stone’s armor are beginning to show.

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Crewman Louie (an uncredited Lawrence Tierney ) dares to question Stone’s authority when he complains about being down two crewmen now. Stone once again offers an explaination for his actions, telling Louie before he leaves, ” There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. Later, Louie is down in the hold as the crew drop a massive chain down, and Stone locks him in, causing the sailor to be crushed to death. Tom sees him below, and accuses him of deliberately killing Louie. An inquest is held at the port of San Sebastian, and the sailors all side with the captain, even ‘The Greek’ who praises Stone for saving his life during his medical crisis. Tom is crestfallen and plans on leaving the Altair and settling up in San Sebastian.

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But Tom is knocked unconscious while break up a fight with the sailors in front of a bar, and shanghaied back to the Altair. Stone offers him the ship’s  hospitality, but reminds his former 3rd officer, “There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. The crewmen all give Tom the cold shoulder, even his friend Sparks. Tom returns to his quarters to find his door lock’s been tampered with, as well as his porthole. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when Stone tells Sparks to reply “no”, his supicions are aroused. Tom heads to the gun cabinet only to find Stone waiting for him. “Authority cannot be questioned”, says the unhinged captain. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when tone tells Sparks to reply “no”, the radioman’s suspicions are aroused. Sparks goes to Tom and says he’ll help him, but he’s intercepted by Stone. The captain then asks Tom to help send a wire, informing the shore that Sparks has gone overboard. The two men fight and the crew breaks it up, with orders from the captain to restrain and sedate Tom. The mute seaman Finn (whose inner thoughts we hear throughout the film) finds the wire and shows it to his mates. Stone overhears the men talking about the situation, and he completely snaps, hearing voices in his head saying “Maybe the boy is right”. He grabs a cutlass and heads to Tom’s cabin, murder in his eyes…

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The horror is strictly psychological here, there are no demons, zombies, or cat people, only the psychotic Captain Stone. Veteran actor Richard Dix (the Academy Award winning CIMARRON, THE WHISTLER series) gives a Queeg-like performance as the sea captain slowly descending into madness. Russell Wade(THE BODY SNATCHER) is fine as Tom, and Lewton regulars Edith Barrett (the only female in the cast), Ben Bard, Dewey Robinson, and calypso singer Sir Lancelot are also in the cast.

This is the American debut of actor Skelton Knaggs, playing the mute Finn. Knaggs had the creepiest looking face this side of Rondo Hatton, resembling a living skeleton, and has a long list of small but pivotal roles in horror films: THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, ISLE OF THE DEAD, HOUSE OF DRACULA, TERROR BY NIGHT, and BEDLAM, usually uncredited. He’s one of those actors whose name you may not recognize, but that face is unforgettable:

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Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is outstanding as always, and Mark Robson’s direction keeps this GHOST SHIP taut with suspense. Most readers are familiar with Lewton’s greatest hits, but this quiet, gripping little film is worth seeking out. While GHOST SHIP isn’t out-and-out horror, I think you’ll find it quite a treat for your Halloween movie basket.

Swing and a Miss: Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue in WHERE DANGER LIVES (RKO 1950)

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I have mixed feelings about WHERE DANGER LIVES. On the plus side, it features Robert Mitchum in a solid role as a young doctor trapped in beautiful Faith Domergue’s web. John Farrow’s direction is tight, the script by Charles Bennett is full of twists and turns, and Nicholas Musuraca turns in another atmospheric job as cinematographer. But there are two major flaws that make this film noir fall just short of classic status.

Dr. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) is about to leave work for a date with his fiancée, nurse Julie (Maureen O’Sullivan, wife of director Farrow and mother of actress Mia) when an emergency arrives. A young woman (Domergue) has attempted suicide. Jeff saves her life, but the woman, calling herself ‘Margo’, is still despondent, stating she “has nothing to live for”. The next day, Jeff gets a telegram asking him to meet ‘Margo’ at a certain address. The address turns out to be a mansion, and the woman explains her full name is Margaret Lannington, giving Jeff a vague story about being “lonely” since her mother died, and living under the thumb of her rich father (Claude Rains).

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Jeff blows off faithful Julie and begins dating Margo, falling madly in love with her in the process. Margo tells Jeff her father is sending her off to Nassau to get away from him. Jeff gets drunk and decides to confront dad at the mansion. Jeff is shocked when he finds out Mr. Lannington isn’t Margo’s father, but her husband! Dejected and disillusioned, Jeff leaves, but returns when he hears a scream from the house. Margo’s ear is bleeding, claiming hubby ripped her earring out, and Jeff gets into a fight with Lannington. The older man hits Jeff with a poker, but Jeff knocks him out. Woozy from the blow to the head, Jeff goes to the kitchen to get water for Lannington. When he comes back, Margo claims her husband is dead, and the pair take it on the lam.

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Jeff’s suffering from a concussion, and struggles to remain conscious. Jeff lets Margo take the lead, and she slowly begins to unravel. The duo head to Mexico, encountering trouble at every stop. Jeff finally finds out the truth about Margo (she suffers from mental illness), and learns through a radio broadcast that Mr. Lannington was smothered to death by a pillow. Margo gets her comeuppance in the end…and then there’s a sappy ending with Jeff getting treated for his concussion in the hospital, faithful Julie waiting patiently by his door.

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This ending just doesn’t feel right to me. It seems like it was tacked on for the sake of a happy denoument, and just doesn’t fit the dark tone of the film. Though Jeff is innocent of murder, he isn’t completely blameless in the whole matter. It was Jeff who initiated the whole sordid affair with Margo, kicking Julie to the curb along the way. Julie’s gotta be some kind of doormat to take him back after all he did to her. Then there’s Faith Domergue. One of Howard Hughes’s pet projects, Faith is a desirable woman for sure, yet leaves much to be desired as an actress. She comes off wooden, unable to project the emotions necessary as Margo, and though she tries her best, it hurts the movie as a whole. Most of WHERE DANGER LIVES is good, except those two little things….the ending and the costar. Mitchum fans will still want to see it. Too bad RKO couldn’t get Jane Greer (Out of the Past) to reunite with Mitchum on this one. I guess you’ll have to judge for yourselves, but as for me, WHERE DANGER LIVES is a minor effort in the noir canon.