A lesser Lang, a better Baxter: The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang, 1953)

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The Blue Gardenia lacks the extra creative push that could have made it an impactful film, and it falls short of its own clear potential. It stars Anne Baxter as Norah, a telephone operator who makes the mistake of going out with Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) on an impulse. Hurt after being dumped by her boyfriend, having eagerly awaited his return from Korea, Norah doesn’t recognise the signs that Prebble has predatory intentions. Following a drunken struggle with him back in his apartment, she wakes with no recollection of what happened. Prebble is dead, and while the police are hunting for Norah, newspaper columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) offers to help the mysterious murderess he’s dubbed the Blue Gardenia.

Anne Baxter may be remembered for her knack for playing “bad girls,” Eve of All About Eve among them, but she gets to show another side of her talents here. Norah starts out as an upbeat, easy-going character, and Baxter plays her as downright cute when she’s drunk. When her life turns upside-down, Norah is just as sympathetic as Edward G. Robinson’s fellow hapless, unlikely criminal in Fritz Lang’s more famous The Woman in the Window. Her dilemmas are more complex, too. Norah has to listen to her roommates Crystal (Ann Sothern) and Sally (Jeff Donnell) paint the Blue Gardenia as someone who deserved what she got. No one seems to care about her plight besides Mayo – and in his own way, he’s as duplicitous as Prebble.

The Blue Gardenia is laced with social commentary. Lang, one of the many German directors who immigrated to the US to escape the rise of Nazism, seems to take glee in portraying 1950s America as being full of untrustworthy people who find pleasure in others’ suffering. He cites the McCarthy hearings as having influenced his feelings at the time. In some ways, the film pulls no punches. In other ways, however, it doesn’t seem interested in giving its treatment of the newspaper business more than a few token jabs.

The film works best in its examination of Norah as a woman who’s misused by every man she comes into contact with. Prebble’s attempt to rape her is surprisingly frank for a film of this era. Her drunkenness and ignorance of his intentions are shown as being part of his gameplan, even as they are later used by others to lay the responsibility for Prebble’s actions entirely on Norah’s shoulders. The scene in which Prebble attacks her is set to Nat “King” Cole’s “The Blue Gardenia,” and the contrast between the smooth music and the unfolding violence is so effective that it’s no wonder that Zach Snyder would think to use one of Cole’s songs for a brutal fight scene in Watchmen about 60 years later. (Cole himself makes a charming appearance earlier in the film.) Unwanted pregnancy must have been too sharp an issue for the film to deal with at length, but it also plays a part in the story.

Some people do not see The Blue Gardenia as a film noir. I’d say there are three reasons for this: firstly, that the film focuses a good deal on Norah and her roommates (none of them a noir stereotype), sometimes taking a lighter tone; secondly, the well-debated matter of whether or not directors of the 40s and 50s were consciously making “film noirs” rather than crime films or melodramas; and thirdly, that only rarely does this film truly look like a noir. The blame for this must lie with Lang. Some of his other American films prove that he was capable of bringing atmosphere, texture, and a marked visual style to simple stories. However, the lighting in The Blue Gardenia is flat for the most part, with only one scene standing out as having Lang’s touch. When Norah goes to meet Mayo for the first time, his office is lit by a flashing neon sign, and she moves uncertainly through the temporary shadows it casts. However, the scene pales in comparison to, say, the similarly-lit final hotel room scene in Lang’s Scarlet Street.

The mystery’s missing pieces are not difficult to guess. The predictability need not be a problem, however. The real problem is that the story does not have a sense of urgency. It often seems to be moving at a crawl, and there’s no atmosphere to cloud the fact. It’s hard not to wish that the social commentary was given more detail, and that Baxter’s strong central performance could have been harnessed by a better paced plot.

The Blue Gardenia clearly has talent behind it. Lang did direct some viciously wonderful films in Hollywood. In addition to Baxter, Conte (adept at being likeable in an unlikely way) sells his character, and Sothern and Donnell are full of personality and verve. As if that wasn’t enough, the story was written by Vera Caspary, whose novel Laura was adapted into one of the most beloved film noirs of all time. However, the end product is lacking the time and attention that could have improved it. It’s the film’s potential that makes it so disappointing.

Bogie in the desert: Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943)

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Sahara is, essentially, a propaganda film about the United States’ entry into the North African theatre in World War II. It has a simple story, but also a few details to commend it. The film stars Humphrey Bogart as Joe Gunn, an American sergeant who has been training with the British. Following the fall of Tobruk and subsequent British retreat, Gunn and his tank crew encounter a motley group of characters: first, the British, French, South African, Australian, and New Zealander survivors of a bombed-out medical camp, and second, a Sudanese soldier with an Italian prisoner in tow. In their search for water, they also capture a decorated German officer. Upon finding the only well for miles around, Gunn decides to try to hold off the advancing Germans, a severely dehydrated but much larger force.

Despite being an American war film, Sahara is unusually interested in its non-American characters. (U-571 is only the most notorious instance of pro-US bias in the genre – where are the French in Saving Private Ryan?) Perhaps Sahara was intended to reassure American audiences of their allies’ competency and bravery. Regardless, the film frequently shows the soldiers sharing stories about their homes. Even Sgt. Major Tambul (Rex Ingram), the Sudanese man, is treated as a prominent character.

Though filmed no further afield than California and Arizona, Sahara is full of marvelous desert landscapes. The motionless clouds and glaring sunlight are well-captured. Even through its patchier moments, the movie practically radiates heat.

Sahara has many scenes that can only seem cliched from today’s perspective. When a character decides to take his helmet off for a spell, you can bet he’s about to get shot. When another man, having been wounded, insists it would take more than that to kill him, something more is about to happen seconds later.

Throw in an inspirational speech from Gunn in which he claims that the Germans are going to lose because they “don’t know freedom like we do,” and the film is unavoidably manipulative. Bogart sells his moments of leadership well, however, and the rest of the cast hold their ends up too. Ingram has a strong onscreen presence, while Dan Duryea takes on a rare heroic role with ease. The lesser-known Louis Mercier is another standout as the Frenchman.

Sahara does offer some food for thought. Gunn has to decide whether or not to take the Italian with them and let him drink their water, or leave him to die. Later, they must all decide whether or not to sacrifice their lives on the chance that they’ll make a difference in doing so. Though the film isn’t especially invested in exploring these conundrums to their fullest, they do give the story some resonance.

Compare Sahara with Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo, released in the same year and set in the same time period. It’s a film with varied tones, experimental lighting, snappy dialogue, and complex characters (Field Marshal Rommel among them). Wilder wrung something more creative out of contemporary material, and his film holds up better today. Nonetheless, if you’re in the mood for a simple, well-made adventure story and don’t mind a streak of propaganda, Sahara may satisfy.

Sympathy for Norman Bates: Peacock (Michael Lander, 2010)

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When Inception hit in mid-2010, Cillian Murphy and Ellen Paige had already shared the screen a few months before in Peacock, a film with a far more modest budget. Peacock’s failings, however, don’t include lack of ambition. Its aim is no less than to revive one of cinema’s most famous characters: Norman Bates.

Murphy is John, an incredibly withdrawn man living in his dead mother’s house, doing his best to avoid speaking to anyone else in the small town of Peacock. Murphy is also Emma, the alternate personality who looks after John and follows a strict timetable in which they abdicate control of his body to each other. After a train derails while Emma is in the backyard, the townspeople meet her for the first time and assume she’s John’s wife. Emma decides she doesn’t want to stay confined any longer, and ventures out into the world. Of course, this has significant implications for John, including the likelihood that his terrible history will repeat itself.

Peacock expects the viewer to spend the film guessing at what exactly is going on with John and Emma. Some of it is obvious if you’ve twigged onto the Norman Bates similarities, but other matters are more ambiguous. Are John and Emma aware of each other’s existence? Which of them is stronger, and who needs who more? What was John’s mother’s role in his life? Most effectively, the story plays with the viewer’s expectations of which character should be more sympathetic.

This film is peopled with an unusual combination of familiar faces. Keith Carradine, in full charmer mode, is a local politician. Bill Pullman, sporting terrible hair, is John’s manipulative boss. Susan Sarandon is the head of a local women’s shelter, reaching out to Emma, who she sees as a downtrodden wife. Ellen Paige is a waitress with an unlikely connection to John, and she falls short in comparison to the other actors. Her accent is inconsistent, her stuttering unconvincing, and her whole demeanour inauthentic. Perhaps she was cast for her fairly androgynous features, an interesting face to put opposite Murphy, or perhaps for the one or two roles that she’s been coasting on for years.

Peacock has an oddball premise, but it’s the moments of dark weirdness that jar its believability. Through ellipses, silences, flashbacks, and repetition, it explores John and Emma’s lives. Its mysteries are intriguing, but when presented in this manner, certain elements of the story are difficult to accept. I would have preferred for the film to be either more straight-forward in its telling or less lurid in some of its plot points. As it is, the tone is uncomfortable and the whole film feels unbalanced.

None of these problems matter, however, with this lead actor. Murphy strongly delineates John and Emma, he all hunched shoulders and hostile fear, she quiet steeliness behind a demure demeanour. Excellent makeup is a help, but the inevitable scene where Murphy is playing one of these characters pretending to be the other is so masterfully done that it’s instantly clear what he’s doing. The film rests entirely on Murphy’s performance, and he makes its weak points tolerable. His commitment to pursuing challenging, unconventional roles no matter how far his star rises could not be more obvious in the contrast between Inception and Peacock.

An idiosyncratic noir: Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)

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Phantom Lady may be an inconsistent film, but its better aspects are so striking and, at times, unique that it’s not one to pass over. Its first half hour is slow going, largely because it focuses on Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who isn’t really the lead character and should have been treated more as an impetus for the story. Scott is easy-going and not terribly sharp, which gets him into hot water after his unpleasant wife turns up dead. His only alibi is a mysterious woman (or rather, Phantom Lady) who he took to a show, on a whim, after his wife stood him up. This woman, obviously troubled, refused to tell Scott anything about herself, and his only observation is that she wore a sizeable hat. This hat is impressive enough to get its own screen credit (as the “Phantom Hat,” no less, created by Kenneth Hopkins), but no one else who saw Scott can seem to remember it, or the woman.

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Scott’s neck is on the line but, luckily, his secretary is is love with him and determined to clear his name. Carol (Ella Raines) starts her own investigation, and the film gets going too. She’s helped by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez, in an interesting example of a Latino actor in the 40s getting to play a competent character), who doesn’t believe that Scott was really guilty. She’s the one doing the dangerous work, however, quickly managing to unnerve one suspicious fellow so much that he almost pushes her in front of a train. Moments later, she’s chasing him down a dark street, demanding that he answer her questions, and shaking off the local men who come to her defense. Carol is tougher than she seems.

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The film’s top-billed performer, Franchot Tone, was correct when he insisted that this is Raines’ film. She really comes into her own when Carol takes a different tactic with another potential witness. To charm a drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) at the show Scott and the Phantom Lady went to see, she becomes a gum-chewing airhead in a tight dress and high heels. The seduction sickens her (she keeps her fists clenched while getting kissed) but she throws herself into the part.

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This leads to the film’s strangest sequence. The drummer takes Carol to a hole in the wall packed with jazz musicians and sets about showing off. She drives him into a drumming frenzy until, convinced, she gestures that she’s willing to leave with him. The lascivious camera placements and unrelenting close-ups make this one of the most (bizarrely) suggestive moments you’re likely to see in a G-rated movie.

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Carol’s investigation is getting results, and it’s at this point, more than halfway into the film, that the killer appears. He enters shadow first. He’s played by the film’s biggest name, so it’s no great surprise that he is the killer (and he quickly makes his identity obvious), but both the character and the actor represent a betrayal of sorts. The character is Jack Marlow, Scott’s best friend, and the actor is Franchot Tone, better known as a suave leading man. A well-respected and well-dressed architect, Jack may have the outward appearance of a typical Tone role but, inwardly, he’s insane.

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Tone was trying to stretch his talents with Phantom Lady, and he has in the past been so adept at playing sophisticated, charming men that he should be able to convince us that Jack has everyone fooled. He’s undercut, however, by the film’s rather simple take on mental illness. There’s more than one scene where Jack basically stands in the corner twitching while Carol and Burgess question witnesses. Was this character type fresher in 1944 than it is today? I couldn’t answer that with any more surety than I could say that surrounding a character with reflections was still an unfamiliar way of conveying madness. I do find Jack outright comedic at times, however, which is through no fault of Tone’s.

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Phantom Lady is full of marvelous visuals. The image I’ve used at the top of the post is more famous than the film itself. The section of about twenty minutes between Carol beginning her investigation and Jack revealing himself is a nightmarish journey through an urban underworld. The final confrontation between Jack and Carol in his apartment is strikingly staged and shot, with the strong performances from both actors making it a wonderfully tense sequence. Even before Carol was in danger, we must have noted Jack’s sculpture of two outstretched hands, an expression of his fascination with his own ability to do both good and evil. After Jack has made his intent clear, the sculpture stands in his place as a threat even while he’s not onscreen.

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Given the plethora of notable moments that take place in Phantom Lady‘s last two thirds, it’s all the more odd that its first half hour should be so unremarkable. This beginning makes the film seem as though it will be a dull procedural with little original to offer. Persevere, however, and you’ll find that Phantom Lady is anything but.

Vincent Price in a… western?: The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950)

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I was surprised and delighted to get my hands on The Baron of Arizona, not because it’s a particularly good film, but because it stretches the limits of what a western can be. An early work by Samuel Fuller, who also wrote the script, it stars none other than Vincent Price as James Addison Reavis, a real historical figure. Reavis was a swindler who hatched an incredible plan to gain ownership of the entire territory of Arizona. While the western is often concerned with exteriors and grandiosity, this film is largely set indoors, in Spain as well as America, and focused on following the complex machinations of an (initially) amoral man.

Though it has an original story, The Baron of Arizona is fairly slow and cheaply made and, to its own detriment, puts little emphasis on the characters other than Reavis. It’s up to Price to carry the film, and fortunately he was an incredibly charismatic actor no matter the part. He gets to do something different here to both his earlier typecasting as layabout playboys and his later iconic horror roles. He delivers his most fervent scene in this film with a noose around his neck, the performance only bettered by the rope having being tightened enough to constrict his voice.

Unfortunately, the film tries to redeem Reavis, contrary to the historical record. This conflicts with the amount of time we’ve spent following him play at being a forger, romeo, Gypsy and even monk over the course of many years as he pursues his goal. It also highlights that fact that the script hasn’t been terribly interested in the people who remain devoted to Reavis, including his wife Sofia (Ellen Drew), who he’s falsely established as being the heir to Arizona, and Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff), her adoptive father. These two find something to love about the erstwhile Baron, but even though all the actors play their parts well, we haven’t seen enough ourselves to be convinced.

Despite its flaws in pacing and characterization, The Baron of Arizona remains intriguing viewing for fans of Vincent Price and of the western. Price could convincingly take on a great many roles, and the genre can be bent howsoever a creative mind wishes. This film stands as proof.

Pinhead goes to Hollywood: Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (Anthony Hickox, 1992)

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Hell on Earth is as far as I go with the Hellraiser series. This ride’s taking a downward plunge in quality, so I’m going to jump off quick and hope that I can’t get hurt in my own metaphor. It would be more painful, anyway, to see the concepts of the original film distorted further for the sake of grabbing a buck. The ideas haven’t quite run out yet and the budget certainly hasn’t, so there’s still some positives to find here if you can stomach how far the series’ intelligence level has dropped, and how quickly.

So Pinhead’s a slasher villain now, dispatching innocent victims at will. In comparison to the character as Clive Barker originally conceived him this is, in a word, stupid, but scriptwriter Peter Atkins at least tries to find a reason for it. As a result of Kirsty’s actions at the end of Hell Bound, Pinhead’s human aspect has been separated from the Cenobite, each now operating as independent beings trying to break through to the Earthly realm. In Pinhead’s case, this involves convincing New York fetish club owner J.P. Monroe (Kevin Bernhardt), who’s in possession of the Hell Pillar in which the Cenobite is imprisoned, to bring him enough blood to create a physical form. In Captain Spencer’s case, this involves seeking help from Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell), a TV news presenter who’s investigating the violence at J.P.’s club, by contacting her through her dreams.

Doug Bradley now gets to play two characters, and considering that his performance was one of the most enjoyable parts of the first two films, this is no bad thing. He seems to have seized upon the notion of Pinhead being totally free to kill and enjoy killing, and hams it up with gusto. The scenes where Pinhead annihilates a club full of people and commits sacrilege at a church altar may be far removed from anything the character should be interested in doing, but they do have a certain inventiveness about them. Spencer, meanwhile, is terribly British, a self-aware man who could have been quite different were it not for his experiences in The Great War. His realization that he needs to recombine with Pinhead, to give the Cenobite a sense of restraint and honour, works as character development and is a reasonably satisfying conclusion.

We didn’t need any of this development and backstory, and we didn’t need a film full of Pinhead. Hellraiser is a perfect example of how a character can have tremendous impact with less than five minutes screentime if the concept, actor, and makeup are just right. Nonetheless, a film full of Pinhead is what we get, and it is hard to say no to being shown a bunch of shots designed specifically to make him look good. Unfortunately, this is undermined by the fact that the makeup is also weaker here; a brief insert of footage from Hell Bound proves that a cheap British film did a better job of creating the character than this Paramount-funded production. Moreover, the name “Pinhead,” which Barker always disapproved of, is used as an insult here, and Joey calls him an “ugly fuck” to boot. These are pretty ill-advised ways of undermining the dignity of a character who embodies powerful concepts of morality, physicality and metaphysics.

Hell on Earth does manage to be almost as female-centric as the first two films. Joey faces the problem of not being taken seriously in her profession, and a chunk of the story relies on her friendship with Terri (Paula Marshall), a former girlfriend of J.P.’s who needs help to clean up her life. The relationship is actually just one scene away from being a romance, which J.P. makes some biting remarks about at one point. Bernhardt himself was clearly cast for looking like an underwear model, and the movie is arguably equal opportunity about nudity. On the whole, it’s less exploitative than the average slasher film, though more problematic than Hellraiser, Hell Bound or the Barker-connected Candyman. (I would like to write a post about the series’ female characters, but to do that I’d have at least watch Bloodline oh god help.)

I’m not going to claim Terry Farrell is a greatly talented actor, but she does have an innate likeability. Maybe I’m influenced by her role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but I have no issues with her here. Despite being lumbered with plenty of lazy dialogue, Farrell is still charming and moves well in the many action and horror oriented scenes toward the end.

Hell on Earth has plenty of things to get annoyed about if you’re so inclined. The new Cenobites, in particular, have none of the style of the original lineup, and are the final nail in the coffin when it comes to Hell on Earth’s disregard for the first two films. However, the bigger budget gives the film a larger sense of scope as well as pleasing imagery in some scenes, and Bradley, Farrell and Marshall are quite enjoyable. While you watch Hell on Earth, forget that Hellraiser and Hell Bound were full of vivid ideas ripe for exploration, because that’s certainly what this film does. I managed to find a few things to like about it, for one viewing, at least. If the series gets worse than this, however, there are some things that I don’t have to see and don’t have to know.