Nights at the circus: Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

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It can sometimes get difficult to pin down whether or not a movie is a film noir. Nightmare Alley has the right kind of feel – it occurs primarily at night, has a (mostly) cynical attitude, and involves a protagonist who makes one dreadful mistake. His sense of identity and mental stability are also shaky at best. However, the film’s characters and settings are, mostly, quite atypical. Our lead is Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a circus tagalong who hits paydirt when he uncovers the secret code that medium Zeena (Joan Blondell) uses to fake her clairvoyancy. Stan gets help from sideshow girl Molly (Coleen Gray), who becomes his wife and beautiful assistant, and psychiatrist Lilith (Helen Walker), who feeds him information about her wealthy clients, but both of them betray them in their own ways.

The real mindfuckery Stan experiences doesn’t happen until the third act, and prior to this, Nightmare Alley seems less like a noir than a character study. We know Power can play oversized characters, but this is a juicier role for him. He gives us hints that Stan’s charming exterior, used to great effect during his performances, hides his inner fragility. We can see the cracks before he shatters. Close to the end, Power goes from horror to despair to acceptance in just a few seconds. It’s a great moment.

Power is backed by three highly capable women in this film. As the fraud who believes in her tarot cards, Blondell was well into her progression from comedian to character actor. As the “good kid”, Gray was seeing her career on the rise; she featured in this film and Kiss of Death in 1947 and Red River in 1948. As the closest woman to being a femme fatale here, Walker was trying to recover from a driving accident that saw her condemned by the public. She performs with such a sense of control and self-possession that it’s a great pity her career would soon be over.

Does Nightmare Alley qualify as a noir? The fact that it steers clear of familiar trappings and character types, and involves little direct violence, undercuts an affirmative answer. The tacked-on upbeat ending also disturbs the tone, but this wasn’t unusual for the time. It’s better, perhaps, to say that Nightmare Alley is a distinctive film – and that this makes it an easy one to recommend.

Agatha Christie goes noir: The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz, 1947)

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The Unsuspected begins with a murder: the secretary of renowned radio host Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) is strung from a chandelier to make her death look like suicide. Odd things are happening around Victor; only a few weeks previously, his ward Matilda (Joan Caulfield) seemingly perished in a shipwreck. In the meantime, a mysterious young man named Steven (Michael North) has emerged, claiming to be her husband – but when Matilda reappears alive, she has no memory of him. Throw into the mix Victor’s brassy blonde assistant Jane (Constance Bennett), his nasty niece Althea (Audrey Totter), and her alcoholic husband Oliver (Hurd Hatfield), not to mention a cop and crook or two, and we’ve got a complex house-bound murder mystery on our hands.

This film actually reveals the murderer, in a brief flash, in the opening scene. It’s taking the Colombo approach, then. It works here because the murderer’s motives remain a mystery, and more than that, the motives of everyone around this individual remain quite uncertain too. Take the initial murder: Althea is on the phone with the secretary at the time, and hears her scream, yet does nothing other than quickly establish her alibi for the time of death. This, and a host of other curious twists and turns, keep the viewer off-balance.

The whole film has an Agatha Christie air to it, but with fewer affectations. Maybe that’s a side-effect of the American setting. The film doesn’t believe in itself too much, either – while not a parody, it’s not completely serious. The fact that Victor’s radio show is about murder mysteries indicates that the story is knowing about its genre.

The Unsuspected is a marvellous looking movie. Curtiz doesn’t miss a trick – nearly every scene has some inventive use of light and shadow. It far surpasses the typical noir shuttered-blinds-lighting. There’s plenty of fine camera choices, too: here, we’re looking down on Matilda from a high angle as a figure (who proves benign, but startles her) hurries towards her; here, a victim’s shadow slumps in the frame before her body falls into view; here, we’re peering through a thin curtain at an illicit meeting, the camera pulling back to reveal the reactions of two people watching from outside.

The actors in The Unsuspected are almost as curious as their characters. Totter was a noir staple, perfect at paying bad girl roles. Caulfield is a favourite of Joss Whedon’s, which is something to puzzle over. Hatfield had a certain something about him, but never made much of an impact beyond the starring role in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – only his second film. Bennett is now less famous than her sister Joan, not for her lack of talent, but perhaps because she was almost disinterested in Hollywood. Michael North (the weakest link here) gets an “introducing” credit in this film, but had been in many films as Ted North, and has no acting credits after this one.

Claude Rains, of course, is Claude Rains. In this film he gets to do all the things we like him for. He could not be more perfect as a radio host who happily refers to himself as “mellifluous.” Take away the nicely baffling plot, the odd collection of co-stars, and the fantastic cinematography, and you’d still have a terribly enjoyable performance from Rains. That alone would make The Unsuspected good fun, but as the film stands, it’s one well worth hunting after.

Screwball schemes and frilly dresses: The Flame of New Orleans (Rene Clair, 1941)

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Universal’s Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection box set is good value, including as it does not one but three, count ‘em, three Josef von Sternberg films. This leaves The Flame of New Orleans and Golden Earrings as filler, but as far as filler goes, Flame in particular is a nicely silly film that’s a pleasure to watch. It literally invites you in. A narrator tells us that in New Orleans, in 1841, a wedding dress was found in the river. Promising that we’ll learn how this came about, the narrator leaves us, the camera temporarily acting as our point of view as it moves into an opera house, servants beckoning us forward, until we encounter Lili (Dietrich). Disguised as Countess Claire Ledoux, she’s engaged in a scheme to ensnare the wealthy Charles Giraud (Roland Young). However, her affections for ship captain Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot) keep things from running smoothly, and quicker than you can say “Positively the same dame,” Lili’s disguising herself as her own cousin to cover up her mistakes.

It’s not difficult to guess how this story’s going to end, but because the film embraces its silliness, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen scene by scene. We get a fake-stickup foiled by a runaway monkey, a highwire act that leads to a duel, a quick costume change, a spot of trellis-climbing gone awry… Even Dietrich’s obligatory musical number turns into a neat little set piece; she performs it with a panicked expression as rumours about Lili’s conduct in Russia and Europe spread around the room. Through it all, the film is often genuinely funny, no more so when Dietrich reacts to a high society lady trying to explain the ordeals that Lili will face on her wedding night.

Also of note is Theresa Harris as Clementine. Harris spent most of her career, by virtue of being black, getting uncredited roles as maids. Clementine, however, is more than a servant; as well as getting some good comedic scenes, she shows herself to be as intelligent as Lili, working with her as a team. At one point, Clementine even obstructs Lili’s unwillingness to go through with their plans. Lili messes things up more for Clementine than for herself by the end, but the film gives Clementine a romance with local carriage driver Samuel (Clarence Muse) as compensation.

The Flame of New Orleans is no classic, but watched decades after it was made, it has acquired a campy charm. It’s a visual treat, with large sets, and even larger hats for Dietrich. The star plays both her roles with good humour. Perhaps the film’s biggest drawback is that Young and Cabot, though fine, don’t make enough of their parts. They’re not quite distinctive enough, which leaves Harris (like Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express) as the actor who has the most interesting interactions with Dietrich but relatively little screentime. A film that focused more on the two of them would be a better one – but as a bit of 40s fun, Flame is fun enough.

Family drama, Italian-American style: House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949)

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The enduring greatness of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and the flaws in his larger subsequent films Cleopatra and The Barefoot Contessa have left him with a reputation for making staid, dialogue-heavy pictures. I think it would be more fair to say Eve was the peak of his career (as it was for many of the people involved), but many of his films are well worth watching. Between the noir 5 Fingers, gothic melodrama Dragonwyck, and seaside romance The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, it’s also wrong to say he couldn’t make a visually interesting film.

Funnily enough, though, House of Strangers is indeed a film that’ll make you feel like someone needs to open a window. In its talkiness and textured set design it bears a resemblance to Eve, despite its dissimilar story. Made just a year earlier, it’s a strong entry from Mankiewicz that makes excellent use of its actors.

Gino Moretti (Edward G. Robinson) is an Italian immigrant who started out as a barber and now owns a bank, but has alienated his family along the way. Of his four sons, lawyer Max (Richard Conte) is the only one he treats with respect. The other three, who all work in the Moretti bank, are displeased with the salaries that their father metes out to them.

The film opens with Max released from prison after serving a seven year sentence. His father has been dead for five years; will Max seek revenge against his double-crossing brothers, as his father would have wanted, or will he leave New York with Irene (Susan Hayward), who has been waiting for him?

Robinson was hardly new to playing Italians, but this one isn’t a gangster. A criminal and a bully, but not a schemer on a grand scale. Gino is simultaneously human and larger-than life, blind to his own flaws. A scene where he insists on playing opera music full blast during dinner is enough to drive the viewer insane, let alone his family, but it’s the kind of tyranny that might seem innocuous to outsiders. It turns out, though, that he’s a traitor to his own community – and sees this as his American right.

Robinson makes full use of his role, and Hayward and the supporting players are quite good, but the film would not work without Conte. Max is a complicated character who has a dark streak, but Conte manages to make him sympathetic. It’s easy to get caught up in the outcome of his decision – and even then, the film just may take his choice away from him.

House of Strangers feels a little long, especially in the scenes involving Max and Irene’s romance. Impressive location filming involving a boxing match and New York streets broadens the film’s scope and helps keep things lively. Nonetheless, a bit of editing at the script level could have kept the story moving along better.

Mankiewicz did not write this film (Philip Yordan wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Jerome Weidman), but it involves plenty of dialogue that the viewer needs to follow closely. As with All About Eve, clever lines are scattered throughout, treated as though they’re of no particular importance. Conte and Hayward also give performances somewhat like Gary Merrill and Bette Davis in Eve. Perhaps Mankiewicz, who did write Eve‘s screenplay and based the main couple on his own parents, directed Conte and Hayward in a similar way.

House of Strangers was remade in 1954 as a western. This film, Broken Lance, did not lack for action or panoramic landscapes, and certainly didn’t feel stuffy. It also made interesting changes, such as increasing the mother role in the story: here played by Katy Jurado, she’s an Indian woman who the local townspeople pretend is Mexican, to give her marriage to Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) a semblance of respectability. Devereaux’s older sons are from an earlier marriage, which puts a twist on the relationship between them and youngest son Joe. The film has fine performances from Jurado, Tracy, and Richard Widmark as one of the older sons. It’s also fun to see how well the story has been adapted into a different genre.

House of Strangers, however, remains a stronger film than Broken Lance. It’s a quality drama with vivid characters, intricate dialogue, and committed performances. It seems to have a throughline to The Godfather, in which Conte also appeared. It’s definitely a must-see if you like Robinson – and I doubt the character of anyone who doesn’t. Another winner from Mankiewicz.

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.

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.

The boy who knew too much: The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949)

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Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) is a Boy Who Cried Wolf of mid-century New York, unable to convince anyone that he witnessed his upstairs neighbours commit a murder. This makes for a fairly simple story, but one in which all the elements are sound. Driscoll, that classic tragic child star, is capable of carrying the film when called for. Meanwhile, stalwarts Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale are perfectly likeable and reasonable as Tommy’s quite mistaken parents. Of the murderous couple, Paul Stewart gives Joe Kellerson an overconfident sadism, while Ruth Roman is underserved in the promising role of a housewife who turns femme fatale by night.

The Window obviously didn’t cost a good deal of money, much of it taking place within a couple of interiors. They look convincingly cramped and grimy, however; this is not a wealthy part of town. Many scenes feature strong noir lighting, while those that are set outside on New York’s streets provide a fascinating document of a time and place. Numerous details, such as Mary Woodry hanging out washing on a line strung between apartment blocks, Tommy venturing further up a fire escape in search of a cooler place to sleep, or the family having to visit a local store just to make a phone call, add to the verisimilitude. While The Window is not complex or ambitious, what it does, it does well.

The perennial noir favourite: Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

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I recently watched the much-beloved film noir Laura and didn’t wind up feeling much affection for it, but still respect it as a polished and sophisticated movie with a unique combination of various elements. The plot alone is genius: advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is found murdered, only to seemingly reappear in her apartment while Detective Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), having begun to fall in love with her while investigating her death, sleeps beneath her portrait on the wall. She’s now one of the suspects, whose number also includes ascetic radio commentator and journalist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura’s wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), and Laura’s fiance, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price).

Tierney was stunningly beautiful, but didn’t always deliver strong performances. It doesn’t help that Laura is meant to be more of a mystery than a person, or that Tierney appeared in the film strictly under contract obligations. Perhaps a different actress could have built a stronger character out of the script, but Laura stays a cipher here. However, every other actor in this small cast brings something distinctive to their role. Andrews has a troubled quality that befits a noir hero, and Webb is so perfect as the cynical, witty Lydecker that he would become somewhat typecast in other films. Price is just right as a lunk-headed playboy, while Anderson, an extremely capable actor, brings out every possible nuance in Treadwell.

The least convincing aspect of the movie is, for me, McPherson falling for Laura. It’s not that I don’t believe he would, but there’s simply little screentime devoted to showing what he’s feeling about her. Most of the first half of the movie focuses, through flashbacks, on all the other characters rather than the detective himself, or how he’s responding to what he’s learning about Laura. The only scene that really shows that he’s taking a personal interest in her, in which he explores her apartment, comes just before she reappears. The scene was nearly cut from the the movie, and its absence would truly hurt the characters. As it is, McPherson’s affections don’t quite seem strong enough, but Andrews does sell them in the detective’s interactions with Laura.

Some would call Laura a perfect film. Personally, I’m more drawn to a classic that’s a bit rougher and stranger, like Gilda. Nonetheless, Laura is undoubtedly an essential film noir, consumately made, with some talented actors, and a plot that’s great fodder for the imagination and a pleasure to watch unfold onscreen.

A delightful romance: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)

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I knew just enough about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to not expect a good deal from it. However, I was curious to see Joseph L. Mankiewicz working again with Dragonwyck star Gene Tierney. Having low expectations left me open to the surprise of finding that this familiar story is far from trite, and sparkles with charm, intelligence and humour. In some ways, it reflects interestingly back on Dragonwyck. Most importantly, it creates a world that’s a pleasure to spend time in.

You probably know this story too, if not from the film, then from the 1960s sitcom of the same name. Widow Lucy Muir (Tierney) moves into a house by the sea, hoping to start a new life, only to find that the house is still occupied by the ghost of the former owner, sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). What develops is a love story with a lot of respect for plot pacing and character nuances.

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Lucy is a complicated woman. She thought she loved her husband, but found she was mistaken, after their wedding. She’s now more interested in escaping her mother and sister-in-law than mourning him. She has a prim manner and yet also has a rebellious streak. Tierney seems well suited to the warmth and good humour of the character.

Gregg may seem like a caricature, being salty as he is. Harrison has enough charisma, however, that this becomes unimportant. His funniest moment may be when Lucy (who he insists on calling “Lucia”) starts crying and he barks at her, “Belay that!” The character is a fine foil for Lucy, as he has no regards for the respectable standards that she also (inwardly) balks at. She finds his outrageousness delightful, even if she wouldn’t always admit it.

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has some visual similarities to Dragonwyck. They don’t share the same cinematographer; Charles Lang worked on the former, and Arthur C. Miller worked on the latter. While both had highly distinguished careers, I have to wonder if Mankiewicz had a strong influence on the look of both films. He’s generally more respected as a writer than as a director, but perhaps his visual style is underestimated by people who don’t look much further than films such as All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa.

I praised Dragonwyck’s gothic atmosphere, and something similar can be seen again in a couple of scenes here. What I didn’t mention, however, is that Mankiewicz’s earlier film also sometimes had scenes in pleasant, open rooms; Gull Cottage looks much the same. The changing backdrops beyond the window in Lucy’s bedroom further open up the set.

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Dragonwyck’s outdoor scenes were also quite striking, and here, the coastline beyond Lucy’s house is always a treat. The sheep-dotted hillsides are another resemblance to that earlier film.

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On the whole, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir feels open and airy, and full of story possibilities. It’s no surprise, really that this story was adapted for TV. It seems at various points as though it could have gone in a number of directions. The addition of George “Memoirs of a Cad” Sanders as a potential suitor for Lucy is only one of them, though Sanders is not unwelcome. Neither is the quick passage of many years towards the end of the story, which is unexpected, but thoughtful and well-paced. If you’ve never seen this film and thought there probably isn’t much to it, take a look anyway; Mankiewicz, Tierney and Harrison may surprise and delight you.

Noir on a dark night: Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

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Sorry, Wrong Number’s plot is based in 1940s technology that well and truly dates it, but the film has lost none of its suspense over the years. The technology in question is the telephone, the clunky kind, with operators and switchboards keeping the connections going behind the scenes. Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a bed-ridden heir to a toiletry products empire, overhears a disturbing conversation when she tries to make a call. It seems to be about a plan to kill a woman at 11:15 that night. Alone in her house, she calls everyone she can think of to try to prevent the murder, but encounters disinterest from the authorities and a bafflingly complex mystery involving the people in her own life. The danger may be closer to home than she first thought.

Leona is not a likeable character. The more we learn about her marriage and her illness, the more selfish and pathetic she becomes. It would be a mistake not to see that this is how Stanwyck plays the part. Aside from Leona’s old college friend, Sally (Ann Richards), everyone else in the film is only barely more pleasant, from Leona’s husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), to her magnate father, J.B. (Ed Begley). None of them seem especially malicious, per se, but Sorry, Wrong Number is a true film noir in which anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, can be corrupted or simply make terrible mistakes.

The film is not just bleak, but at times achieves a downright eerie quality. Much of the story is told in flashbacks from multiple perspectives, strongly influenced by the teller’s bias or lack of knowledge. When Sally describes following Henry out to Staten Island, the things she witnesses are mystifyingly strange. The music and day-for-night filming make the mystery unnerving. And one of the last phone calls Leona takes is thoroughly cryptic, even as it tells us the facts we have been waiting to hear. The painting shown in this caller’s hotel room would be haunting even if Leona’s next call didn’t reveal how it reflects upon what that caller intends to do next.

Sorry, Wrong Number was adapted from a radio play, and clearly would work in audio form. However, Anatole Litvek gives the film some nice visual touches, such as Sally at a train station, trying to stay on the phone but out of her husband’s sight, or the scenes on Staten Island. He uses several long shots that tell a story in themselves, whether by moving slowly around a room to show the occupant’s belongings, or moving from a clock over to Leona in bed, then out her window and down a level to show a figure outside her house.

Sorry, Wrong Number is based upon a premise that is irresistible despite being dated, and involves a mystery that manages to be truly mysterious. We can easily guess that Leona may be the woman intended to die at 11:15, but the why of it is a complex question. The film has strong performances, particularly from Stanwyck and Lancaster. In fine noir style, it depicts a dark world in which everyone is connected and yet help still could not be further away.