Duds of 2015—DC Noir

My favorite film festival is DC Noir, held at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. Seeing stuff on the big screen is always good. We see it as it was meant to be seen. It’s more immersive. The eye catches more, especially small details that can go unnoticed or unseen on the TV screen. In THE MALTESE FALCON, one of my all time favorites that I recently saw on the big screen, Caspar Gutman’s hand clasp on Sam Spade’s thigh becomes much creepier when we see where the fingers fall--the inner thigh. It’s not innocent at all and adds the homosexual undercurrent.

The flaws can be equally apparent for the same reasons--immersion and visual detail. I’m not talking about the plodding nature of a plot--the major problem with THE GUILTY. That’s might be more obvious on TV because of the distractions in the home. No, if a movies flops around like a landed fish or doesn’t fulfill its promise, then it’s a dud.

I don’t know what CIRCLE OF DANGER (1951) was supposed to be. The straightforward and not very interesting plot centered on a postwar Clay searching for the truth of his little brother’s death during the war. Clay is willfully blind to clues to his brother’s character as he is equally unable to keep his dates with a woman to whom he is seriously attracted. Clay interviews all the survivors of his brother’s commando unit--they aren’t very many--and they all give straightforward answers though’ they do have a habit of dying.The officers appear shifty; one appears more than that. Finally, Clay finds out that what looks like a murder was a necessary execution--and walks quietly away and with the girl. 

What the hell?

CIRCLE OF DANGER contains elements of romantic comedy, mystery, suspense and intrigue, but it fulfills none of them. It misses all its marks. It’s carried by an always bankable Ray Milland, but I sat there wondering when it was going to become a noir. It never did. I saw it because it was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who did the absolutely black OUT OF THE PAST. The only thing the two films have in common is they are both shot on black and white film. 

CRIME OF PASSION (1957) is a strange movie, one that never feels quite finished with its ideas. At first, I thought it lacked characterization, which it does, but that’s not the whole story. The film’s a noir, but an incomplete one--it lacks a solid identity within the context of bad choices resulting in bad endings. 

Kathy Ferguson, a hard-nosed San Francisco journalist played to effect by Barbara Stanwyck, marries Bill Doyle, a cop up from Los Angeles on an investigation, after a whirlwind courtship. When she marries, she gives up her independent identity. She ends up having an affair with Bill’s boss, Inspector Anthony Pope played by Raymond Burr, out of sheer, intellectual boredom. (Yeah, he was a better actor than Perry Mason might suggest.) 

As far as that goes, the movie is an indictment of the restricted expectations of women. There’s a brilliant scene that visually states the middle-class division of the sexes--the guys are at a poker table, the gals are at their separate table talking, and Kathy stands in no-woman’s land between the two. We have to ask why Kathy betrayed her nature by marrying an unambitious flatfoot. 

That idea, betrayal of nature, because the theory of crime presented by Pope when he lets Kathy have access to the case files of female murderers. These women have all gone against their natures and become killers--usually they’ve snapped--as a result. (It’s not clear whether it’s employment or marriage is going against a woman’s nature.) Pope is a smart man; he knows himself and is comfortable with himself. He also knows the straightjacket of the job and what his wife has sacrificed for his career. That’s why he’s retiring--it’s time to do what his wife wants. That announcement sends Kathy into a tizzy. She kills him, and her own husband busts her. Ironically, it makes his career.

Another film that didn’t particularly work for me was NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1949). This film is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich. He liked to play with the theme of identity and to take coincidence as plot, which signifies inexorable fate. Usually, I’m no fan of too much coincidence, but Woolrich managed to reach the literary idea that life is all coincidence. There were other things that brought this one down for me.

Edward G. Robinson plays a stage clairvoyant in a vaudeville act whose second sight becomes real then never failing. He tries to forewarn people of danger, but they pay no heed and die. He can’t take it and tries to hide himself from society. He’s only drawn back out by his connection to the daughter of his ex-wife. He valiantly tries to save her from destruction. Fate does not care who dies, so long as someone dies.

Robinson is the best thing in this movie. He plays a tortured soul who truly believes he’s the voice of doom; he does it with genuine pathos. Unfortunately, the character is--sorry, Eddie Muller--a middle-aged sap. Other than Robinson, the acting barely made it a B movie. Two by fours have more expression than John Lund as the romantic lead, and Gail Russell gave a sleepy, rather than dreamy, performance in the same sort of damsel in distress role Ida Lupino had in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1938). (Lupino gave it more shoulder.) William Demarest is comic relief as the homicide detective. Worse, the movie comes to a messy end because it really didn’t know how to end. The last act is contrived and comes out as more drawing room farce than suspenseful climax.

Films and novels need an solid identity as much as a human being. In short, the Temple of Delphi is still correct--Know thyself (and be true to it).

Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com