Noir melodrama: Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer, 1955)

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Violent Saturday mixes small-town melodrama with film noir. Bisbee, Arizona stands in for Bradenville, a place with an oddball on every corner. Boyd (Richard Egan), a wealthy boozer, drinks away his sorrows while his wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) sleeps around. Nurse Linda (Virginia Leith) is brazen about wanting Boyd, and happy to take on Emily to get him. Bank manager Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan) is a full-blown peeping tom. Librarian Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney) snatches purses to pay off her bank loan. Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) is comparatively normal, but his son is upset that Shelley’s an engineer, not a war hero.

In the midst of all this fetid to-ing and fro-ing step three crooks, played by Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish, and Lee Marvin. They’re planning a bank heist on Saturday, which is going to turn violent whether anyone likes it or not. An Amish farmer will be the only one who can save the day—good thing he’s played by Ernest Borgnine.

The hiest and its aftermath are reasonably entertaining, generating a certain amount of suspense. Marvin’s sadistic but insecure Dill is good sick fun (the moment where he steps on a child’s hand is rather nasty). His confrontation with Borgnine is not their best (how could it be?) but it’s a memorable one.

The melodrama is where the film falls down. Few of the characters are likeable, and most aren’t written or acted vividly enough to leap off the screen. Harry’s deserved come-uppance never arrives – which would be less egregious if Linda didn’t forgive him for spying on her at night. That this scene comes right before a sappy moment between Shelley and his son just doesn’t mix well.

Violent Saturday‘s genre play and eclectic cast make it a worthwhile curio, but it doesn’t measure up as a strong example of anything much.

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In the sunset of the world: The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz, 1954)

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More than many other historical eras, Ancient Egypt has a wide-reaching appeal. Who doesn’t find it intriguing in some way? Odd, then, that it should have so rarely been brought to life on the big screen. Is expense the issue, or was 1963’s Cleopatra such a bomb that it took a chunk of the genre out with it? Whatever the reason, while it’s hard to claim that any particularly good films have been made about Ancient Egypt, The Egyptian certainly isn’t the worst attempt.

This film follows the life of Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom), a real folkloric figure. Abandoned at birth and adopted by a doctor, Sinuhe’s fortunes rise and fall. Babylonian temptress Nefer (Bella Darvi), ambitious soldier Horemheb (Victor Mature), loyal barmaid Merit (Jean Simmons), wily princess Baketamon (Gene Tierney) and weak Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding) figure largely in his story.

The Egyptian is hampered by an unremittingly slow pace. Even where particular outcomes are clearly evident well in advance, events proceed methodically. Nearly all of the conversations unfold at half their ideal speed. The film is over two hours long, but doesn’t need to be.

Not to say that The Egyptian doesn’t have its fair share of memorable characters and performances. Though Purdom is competent but lacking spark, Mature plays his character to the hilt. Darvi, best known (and unkindly mocked) as Daryl F. Zanuck’s then-girlfriend, makes Nefer a peculiar creature – in that blue wig, she could be from another planet. Peter Ustinov offers lively comic relief as Kaptah, Sinuhe’s self-appointed servant. Simmons’s Merit is a steady presence, while Michael Wilding conveys that Akhnaton is not completely situated in the physical world (for better or worse). Tierney is a real delight – she was made for these sort of costumes, and though it isn’t a typical role for her, she’s quite good at playing tough. John Carradine, not always a guarantee of quality, is so good as a grave robber that his single scene becomes the film’s standout moment.

I bring the same complaint to The Egyptian that I have to other historical epics: there’s not enough closeups. This may have something to do with the difficulties of achieving proper focus in Cinemascope. Regardless, there’s a distancing effect that becomes a real drawback in a film that’s already not especially gripping.

When the dialogue fails to engage, there’s plenty to look at, at least. Various historical artifacts, such as Nefertiti’s headdress, have been authentically recreated here. Street scenes bustle with life. Akhnaton’s throneroom, which cost $85 000 to build, never gets dull. The costumes and wigs are gorgeous throughout; if accurately replicating these is an impediment to getting this time period onscreen, then at least there’s plenty of them to savour here.

The Egyptian does feel ponderous, but this is partly a side effect of one of its more impressive qualities. It’s ultimately a story about the meaning of life; Sinuhe is an intellectual who’s trying to find his place in the world. The film becomes a tragedy by avoiding the conclusions that other films would have chosen: Sinuhe gets neither love and poverty nor wealth and power. His claim that he’s living “in the sunset of the world” is given lasting impact as he loses everything, and Egypt seems poised to fall into dark times.

The film does suggest a new dawn is coming. It’s hard to find a historical epic from the 50s that’s not Biblical, and though I thought The Egyptian would be an exception, it sneaks a Christian message in at the end. Ironically, Akhnaton’s view of the world as God’s temple is not terribly specific to any religion, but the film seizes on his monotheism as a harbinger of the coming of Christ. This is the only upside of the film’s ending – as far as it goes.

Within a few years, Gods of Egypt, starring Gerard Butler (the Victor Mature of our times?!), will make its way to a cineplex near you. No doubt it will be a CGI-driven extravaganza that won’t have a fraction of The Egyptian’s thoughtfulness, but just as much white-washing. For its traces of historical accuracy and occasional high points, I’ll be looking back on The Egyptian with a certain amount of tempered admiration when that time comes.

A killer’s game: No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold, 1959)

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The extent to which Audie Murphy gets derided for his acting is, I think, a little unfair. An actor doesn’t need to be able to adopt two dozen different accents or transform their appearance or even be particularly versatile to be effective in a film. As for the fact that Murphy was only taller than his onscreen love interests through artificial means… Perhaps it says more about ideas of gender (in the 50s, if not now) than anything else that the most decorated American soldier in WWII had to stand on a box to look manly.

Murphy had a fast draw and strong horse-riding skills, and worked well in the three westerns I’ve seen him in thus far. He has a great rapport with Dan Duryea in Ride Clear of Diablo, which is a hugely enjoyable movie. Though it pains me to say it, he’s better than Duryea in Night Passage – he has a good amount of swagger and gets to be the only character to make any negative comments about James Stewart’s accordion. And in No Name on the Bullet, he plays against type and makes John Gant one of the film’s best attributes. It helps that No Name on the Bullet has a clever premise, but as the only name actor in the film, Murphy keeps his character intriguing to watch.

Gant is a notorious assassin for hire, and when he rides into the small town of Lordsburg, the locals assume he’s there for one of them. As Gant points out more than once, everyone has enemies, and this is proven out as the townsfolk react to his passivity by turning on him, themselves, and each other. The only man who doesn’t fear Gant is Luke Canfield (Charles Drake), the local doctor. He’s a good-hearted optimist, and as he tries to get to know Gant, their worldviews clash.

No Name on the Bullet is directed without imagination by Jack Arnold, which brings the characters to the forefront. The film’s twists and turns stay interesting, and the moral conflict between Gant and Canfield steadily comes to a boil. Drake is the only actor other than Murphy who I recognise here (his character is memorably shown up by (who else?) Dan Duryea in Winchester ’73), and he ably plays Canfield as a man who has his convictions tested in ways he never expected. His affable manner stands in contrast to Gant’s cold, inexpressive demeanour, with Murphy avoiding any temptation to overplay his character in the slightest.

The film is strongly fatalist, but not in an oppressive way. It could feasibly have been blacker, but it is enough, perhaps, that Gant is at times made more disturbing by the sole fact that he’s being portrayed by Audie Murphy. This plays somewhat into the film’s theme of concealed darkness. So, Murphy’s not a great actor, and he’s short – but No Name on the Bullet is a good little film, and Murphy’s performance is no laughing matter.

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.

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.

Genre as variations on a theme: Seven Men From Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)

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Seven Men from Now is a film entirely concerned with being what it is, not just by avoiding larger matters, symbolic or otherwise, but in how it focuses on showing and revealing one small story. It’s about the journey Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) takes to revenge himself upon the seven men who killed his wife during a train robbery. Along the way, he meets two settlers, Annie (Gail Russell) and John Greer (Walter Reed), and gunslinger Bill Masters (Lee Marvin); these three become part of his story too.

This film only involves a few characters. Even the seven men play little part. Rather, the film gradually explores the relationships between the four leads. They are all connected, and slowly drawn closer together. Reveals are made slowly and with understatement, and many thoughts are unspoken. Every nuance is explored as the journey continues, and as the characters separate and reunite.

In this context, an actor such as Lee Martin can be a standout with little effort. In only a few exaggerated gestures, Masters becomes positively flamboyant. He makes advances toward Annie in full view of her husband, he practices his quickdraw, he delivers exposition about the past that Stride has no interest in revealing. He’s charismatic, and funny, and ruthless, and his self-confidence may be his downfall.

Stride and Masters stand in stark contrast. Scott is stoically inexpressive, making every slight indication of Stride’s inner feelings significant. In an inventive scene, Stride sleeps out of the rain under a wagon, directly beneath where Annie will spend the night. A great deal passes between the characters even though they cannot see each other. Stride has been ruined by loss, and all that remains are remnants of emotions connected to his former life.

This film is rarely visually striking. Its landscapes are barren, with only one desert scene having a sense of beauty to it, and an unlikely one at that. Little details are important: a cloud of dust rising signals approaching riders; a wagon crossing a river sends sunlit ripples across the water, the journey briefly taking a pleasant turn; hidden gaps between rocks offer misleading means of escape, or entrapment. These are not Ford’s landscapes, or even Leone’s; they are unextravagant and often as ungiving as the film’s protagonist.

Seven Men From Now will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a western. However, in its lack of scope, downplaying of iconography, and disinterest in violence, it shows how thoughtful decisions can create distinctiveness and defy expectations. As much as anything, the film is a highly successful commentary on the western. Its simplicity belies its intelligence and, under analysis, becomes its most accomplished feature.

The one with the killer twist ending: Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957)

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Witness for the Prosecution outsmarted me. Up until its last ten minutes, it had me convinced that I was watching a well acted and well made, but ultimately undistinguished courtroom drama. Then the final scene hits, with a series of gob-smacking reversals that somehow manage, through the capability of the script, to be completely earned by everything that has come before.

In the stellar cast, Charles Laughton is the standout as ailing lawyer Sir Wilfred Robarts. Despite being in terribly poor health, Robarts can’t resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), war veteran and unemployed inventor, who has been accused of murdering an elderly woman for her money. Vole’s troubles grow when his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), a German woman he met during the war, appears in court as a witness for the prosecution.

Obviously, things aren’t as they seem. Christine must have unseen motives. My expectation of this made me feel a little bored; I could sense a reveal coming, so didn’t think it would be much of a surprise. The performances, while strong (the perpetual struggle between Robarts and his overbearing nurse, Miss Plimsoll, is helped by the fact that she’s played by Laughton’s wife, Elsa Lanchester), couldn’t quite overcome my disinterest. The film is full of humour, but the only line I particularly liked was Robarts’ “I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.”

However, the genius of this script (based on Agatha Christie’s play and added to by Billy Wilder) is not just that Christine’s trick is a surprise, but that she’s not the only character who’s hiding something. More than that still, the way the characters react to their new knowledge manages to be surprising as well. And yet the reveals don’t conflict with what we have seen of the characters so far, especially since the performances work either way, whether they were being honest or otherwise.

Witness for the Prosecution’s ending doesn’t just redeem the film, it makes the entire two hour experience worth embarking upon. One of the characters exclaims, “I suspected something but not that! Never that!” and the highest compliment I can give this film I that it made me feel exactly the same way.

Poitier takes to the screen: No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

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Sidney Poitier makes his film debut in No Way Out, and befittingly, it’s a daring drama about racial hatred. Poitier is Luther Brooks, a recently graduated doctor who has already faced prejudice and financial difficulties, but whose life takes a turn for the worse when he falls afoul of Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark). Ray and his brother Johnny are injured in a stickup, but Johnny dies while Brooks tries to treat him for an unrelated but more serious illness. Ray was already a rabid racist, but Johnny’s death gives him a vendetta against Brooks and the nearby African-American community. Meanwhile, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell), Johnny’s ex-wife, can’t bring herself to help Brooks at the expense of her own reputation.

No Way Out is, obviously, a message film, and to its credit, it gives quite a bit of subtlety to the message. Ray is ferocious in his hatred for black people, hurling invectives left and right in a way that‘s still shocking. However, even people who work with and know Brooks use a few of those words themselves. Doctor McNally tries to remain colour blind, supporting Brooks as he would any other competent doctor, but Brooks and the hospital head alike consider him naïve for not acknowledging the issues right under his nose. Brooks is always under inequitable scrutiny. Other black characters in the film are only too willing to respond to an oncoming race riot by starting one themselves. Few people in No Way Out, black or white, are able to escape the circumstances they’ve been born into, and how these have shaped them.

No Way Out is a little lacking on the entertainment side. The pace is slow from beginning to end, and sometimes the way the story fits together is too obvious. However, it does have thick tension and some strikingly shot moments, particularly the riot. Poitier is, predictably, a charismatic presence, Darnell makes Edie a tough but troubled character, and Widmark plays Ray without restraint. (I’ve read that he apologised to Poitier after each take.) All of this makes No Way Out a film to watch if you’re in the mood for one that’s about something, even if it’s not quite satisfying as a thriller.

Mann and Stewart, Take Two: Bend of the River (Anthony Mann, 1952)

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Anthony Mann and James Stewart team up for the second time in Mann’s third western, Bend of the River. This Technicolor film is brighter looking than Winchester ‘73 and The Furies, which is befitting, given that it feels less intense. Nonetheless, Mann is concerned as ever with the darker undercurrents in his characters’ psyches. No pun intended.

Stewart is Glyn McClyntock, a former Missouri raider who’s trying to turn good, starting with helping a group of settlers on their way to Oregon. Hoping to join them and become a rancher himself, he earns the affections of their leader, Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), and his daughter, Laura (Julie Adams). Along the way, Glyn saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a hanging. Cole, too, was a raider – and he doesn’t believe either of them can ever really change. When a Portland businessman tries to cheat the settlers out of their food supplies, leaving them in danger of starving over winter, Glyn and Cole’s morals will be put to the test.

Stewart and Kennedy make a great pairing, with the connection between the two characters obvious on their first meeting. The whole film centres around their duality. While Stewart plays a seemingly good man, with flashes of violence a la Lin in Winchester ‘73, Kennedy switches very well from a smile to a sneer. (Between this film, The Lusty Men, and Rancho Notorious, Kennedy had a great streak of psychological westerns in 1952.) There’s rarely much doubt about which way Glyn’s going to go, but not so with Cole, who makes some quite surprising decisions at times.

Beyond the main two, several other characters in the film deal with their ability to commit violence. Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) is a gambler who’s quick with a gun but perhaps not ruthless enough. Laura seems a little too soft, though independent minded, but is willing to shoot when driven into a rage. Jeremy, unaware of Glyn’s past, is insistent that men don’t change their natures, but by the end of the film finds himself able to kill. The issue, perhaps, is what lies behind violent acts: personal greed, or a wish to protect others? Bend of the River stays ambiguous about this, however.

Plot, landscapes and character development are all tied together in Bend of the River. Geographical features that get mentioned early on figure largely in later events. Though night scenes take place in a studio, the film involves impressive use of location filming. A snowcapped mountain dominates many scenes, and when the characters are actually up on the mountain, the location choices clearly show how far they have come on their journey. Glyn must make an uphill climb in more ways than one, and the place where he and Cole resolve the divergence between them will indeed be where a river bends.

Marilyn as serious actress: Don’t Bother to Knock (Roy Ward Baker, 1952)

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Though the film noir Don’t Bother to Knock is far from the most famous of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, it’s a fine dramatic vehicle for her. It follows several of the occupants and staff of a New York hotel. Jed Towers (Richard Widmark, no stranger to noir) is a pilot who has been dumped by the hotel’s resident singer, Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft, making her film debut), for being too cold-hearted. On the rebound, Jed starts up a flirtation with Nell Forbes (Monroe), who is supposed to be child-minding for the night, but finds that she is deeply wrapped up in her past troubles.

I’d like to be able to see Monroe as just another actress, but it’s difficult, considering she’s one of the most iconic individuals of the twentieth century. Still, I think she does a good job as Nell. She is believably disturbed, and sometimes downright frightening. Her familiar vulnerability suits the role, and she certainly makes Nell sympathetic.

Clocking in at 76 minutes, Don’t Bother to Knock doesn’t waste time.  It’s thoughtful in how much it reveals about the characters, and when, and it ties them all together well. Despite using barely any non-diegetic music, it skilfully builds in tension as the extent of Nell’s mental illness becomes clear. Interesting as it is to see Monroe in this role, Don’t Bother to Knock is an entertaining little film noir in its own right.