PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, 1953

18745t080fg0140925519wqnc5My oh my it’s been a long time! I don’t know what happened with the month – it simply got away from me and resulted in a deplorable absence. But blog, I thought of you daily (more or less), and hoped we’d be together again very soon. AND, it’s really come full circle because it’s another blogathon – SNOOPATHON hosted by the excellent Movies Silently, and another Richard Widmark joint, Fox’s notorious cold war noir Pickup On South Street.

Pickup on South Street doesn’t fuck around. If you’re looking for a noir with a slow build, melodrama, subplots, and intricate character back stories – you’d best look somewhere else. ‘Pickup’ out-Spillanes Mickey Spillane, and director Sam Fuller’s stark journalistic camera work and no-frills script assault the screen for a straight 80 minutes. It’s violent, it’s mean, it’s tawdry, it’s terrific, it’s some serious pulp and apparently the MPAA was asleep at the wheel because the knock-down drag-out between Jean Peters and Richard Kiley is crazy.

pickuptiltedRichard Widmark gives a trade-mark square jawed, shifty-eyed performance as master pickpocket and “three time loser”, the excellently named Skip McCoy. We meet Skip on a train, glancing around furtively and fixing to empty the purse of Candy – fabulous Jean Peters in a fabulous white wiggle dress. Tres Monroe. Sure, having your pocket-picked by a canon (a pickpocket who targets women) is bad enough, but it’s certainly worse when you’re being followed by FBI agents and your purse is chock-full of stolen US government secrets.

Yes Ma’am, Skip’s picked the wrong purse. See, our girl Candy was meant to deliver that microfilm on behalf of her commie ex-boyfriend Joey to some shadowy Red higher-ups. Joey and the Communists and the FBI agents have one thing in common – they both desperately want to recover that microfilm.

Pickup on South StreetJoey sends poor Candy to use her “connections” (read: Candy’s done some unsavory things for dress money) to track down the pickpocket. Meanwhile, on the side of the short arm of the law, police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) (also, seriously, he’s a police captain named DAN TIGER) and FBI Agent Zara (Willis Bouchey) put their heads together and pay local stoolie Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter, who should’ve won the Oscar) for a few likely suspects.

Candy tracks down Skip and uses more than a few feminine wiles and the promise of money to get the film back, but Skip, sensing the importance after viewing the microfilm, is holding out for a bigger score. Also, at some point Candy develops a crush on Skip – why? Well, it’s certainly not because he’s a gentle soul who treats her with the kindness she’s obviously never known. Probably because he’s familiarly caustic and they obviously want to nail each other. I’d sugar-coat that for you a bit if it were possible, but like I said – Pickup on South Street doesn’t care about your feelings.

apickup005There’s some back and forth, and with Joey feeling the heat from his Communist bosses, he pays Moe a visit to demand the address of the pickpocket. And here’s where Pickup slows down to one of its only emotional plateaus – if you only see one movie featuring the great character actress Thelma Ritter, this should be it. Moe will not surrender the address of Skip, even at gunpoint. It’s less of an act of patriotism than it is simply a person reaching the end of the road. It’s a heartbreaking, singular scene with Moe’s monologue about how she won’t ever have the fancy funeral she’s poured her life savings into. Oh, that? It’s nothing, I just have something in my eye. No, I get terrible hay-fever this time of year. (I CAN’T SEE MY KEYBOARD THROUGH THESE TEARS.)

Anyway, eventually Candy procures the film, but there’s a frame missing, which drives Joey to beat the living tar out of her. Skip, looking to settle the score, tracks Joey down at a subway, and ultimately, in kind of a film-noir-in-reverse move, does the right thing. Skip and Candy ride off into the uneasy and vaguely discouraging sunset.

Pickup on South Street 2As an ex-journalist, director Sam Fuller developed a very recognizable style which lends itself particularly well to noir, westerns, and war pictures. Pickup On South Street can certainly be broken down in terms of headlines – scene for scene, Fuller wastes no time in establishing who, what, when, where, and how. It’s the kind of pure cinema I’d liken to Hitchcock or Goddard – Joseph MacDonald’s camerawork is fluid and razor sharp as he effortlessly employs extreme close-ups, high angles, and shoots tightly choreographed fight scenes in long shots. Even the much-maligned push-in has its day in Pickup. In keeping with the journalistic style, the film doesn’t lean as much on arty shadows and contrast – instead, there’s a focus on gritty, physical details.

If you can track down a documentary or if you see any special features featuring Fuller – definitely do. He’s quite a character, barking out pearls of filmmaking and storytelling advice with his ever-present cigar. Dude’s an American master (and allegedly very proud that his cigars were a full two inches longer than Fox studio head Daryl Zanuck’s.)

And now, it is a Snoopathon, let’s take a moment for the spy stuff. Shhhh… come close. It’s a secret.

Many critics have read a deeper political agenda into Pickup on South Street, but I would think that any concrete conclusions Pickup draws on patriotism are arbitrary. There is certainly the suggestion that even the most marginal of characters, the stars of Pickup – the thief, the prostitute, and the stool pigeon – are not as bad as communists (nor will they, for the most part, do business with the Reds), but this is somewhat incidental. The characters are out for themselves, and though they do strike back at communism in some small way, it’s largely apolitical. Fuller has said alternately that the film is merely a thriller and made to poke a little fun at the paranoia of the Red Menace, when, as he claims, many Americans knew so little about it. (I am reminded Gary Cooper’s quote that he didn’t know too much about communism, but from what he heard, it’s not on the level. Oh, Gary. When you look that good in pants, it’s okay to say stuff like that.)

Sorry, it's late - here's an off-topic picture of G Coop thinking deep thoughts.

Sorry, it’s late – here’s an off-topic picture of G Coop thinking deep thoughts.

In the end, the microfilm is mostly a catalyst for a few monumental events in the lives of a few sad people. Who are the 39 Steps? Doesn’t matter. It is perhaps best summed up by Moe’s line “What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I just know I don’t like them.”

‘Til next time – and I’ll see you real soon; for Chrissakes, don’t keep your stolen government secrets in your purse.

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KISS OF DEATH, 1947

ImageWhen I saw that there was a Great Villain Blogathon going down, as hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin, and Speakeasy, I quickly narrowed my short list of noir bad guys I wouldn’t want to fuck with down to the giggling maniac himself, Tommy Udo in Fox’s KISS OF DEATH.

As we know, film noir is full of bad guys. It’s full of bad girls. It’s full of good guys who are kind of bad and bad guys who are a little bit good, but likely none are as irretrievably, murderously insane as Mr. Udo, as played by Richard Widmark in his unforgettable film debut. See, we’re not talking about a provocative, powerful James Cagney type. We’re not talking about a guy who fell off the deep end due to social misfortune, a flawed villain grappling with some kind of deep-seated moral quandary. Tommy Udo, in his black suit, white tie, and oversized fedora is just the kind of absurd, cartoonish nutcase who’d set the bar for all kinds of loose cannon socipaths to follow. Widmark was nominated for 1947’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar but lost to – get this – Edmund Gwenn as Kriss Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Yep, passed over for Santa Claus, but at least Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck knew a good thing when he saw it, and a good deal of the film’s advertising centered on Tommy Udo, with theatre owners putting up WANTED signs.

ImageWe are introduced to Tommy in the holding cell he’s sharing with our ever-so humble hero, Nick Bianco (an intense Victor Mature). Nick Bianco’s an ex-con and consequently unemployed – that’s why he’s been picked up for a jewel heist on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, Nick’s also a family man, so, Merry Christmas, Bianco daughters – see you in therapy. Tommy’s watching the prison guard, then leans over to Bianco, “Lookit that cheap squirt, passing up and down,” he says in a high, nasal voice, “For a nickel I’d grab him, stick both thumbs right in his eyes…. and hang on till he drops dead.”

Yessir, that’s Tommy Udo, and by the end of the film, we’re left believing he’d do it for free. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Nick. Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo is prepared to offer Nick a plea deal – if he names his accomplices, he’s looking at a lighter sentence. But there is honor among thieves, and Nick declines, knowing that his partners in crime and his crooked attorney Earl Howser will look after the wife and kids.

ImageThree years into Nick’s 20 year sentence, Mrs. Bianco Sylvia-Plaths her way into an early grave and Nick finds out from ex-babysitter Nettie Cavallo (Coleen Gray, always great as the love interest of the flawed hero, probably because hurting Coleen Gray is like stepping on a kitten) that his ex-accomplice Rizzo attacked his late wife. This motivates him to start all sorts of squealing, also telling slippery old Howser that Rizzo’s the rat to deflect any suspicion. Alas, Howser’s a closer and calls up Tommy Udo to dispose of Rizzo.

ImageUnfortunately for Rizzo’s wheelchair-bound Mom, Rizzo’s not at home, and Tommy doesn’t cotton to disappointments. It isn’t enough for him to drop his cigarette butt on her floor. So then he does… that thing that he does. Yep, in one of the more shocking moments of violence from the 40s, Tommy rips the cord from the floor lamp, restrains Ma Rizzo, and then PUSHES HER DOWN THE STAIRS. Here, let’s watch together. Note Tommy’s skeezy mouth wipe and ever-present chuckle.

Indeed, he didn’t get a chance to kill Rizzo, but he certainly took those lemons and made lemonade, as he relates the story of ex-Ma Rizzo to Howser with palatable relish. (It’s a particularly good scene, incidentally. Taylor Holmes as Howser is so cold.)

ImageA newly-paroled Nick is now free to marry Nettie and obligated to help D’Angelo by spending an evening out with Udo, mining information about his various crimes. Not that he has to mine too hard – Tommy is many things, but a criminal mastermind isn’t one of them. He alternates bragging about his crimes with urging boxers to tear each others eyes out, joking around with Nick at dinner, and being at once dismissive, insulting, and genuinely threatening to his lady friend. “Dames are no good if you wanna have some fun,” he chortles, after shoving his date in the hip.

Nick gleans enough valuable information to satisfy D’Angelo and when Udo’s trial comes up, Nick is called to testify. Reluctantly, he does, but it isn’t enough. Udo is then acquitted due to insufficient evidence (which is surprising, since he’s so obviously a ticking time bomb of crazy).

ImageCertain that the police can’t protect him or his family and not the sort of man who’s going to spend the rest of his life looking over this shoulder, Nick orchestrates a showdown, and no one comes up as the clear winner.

While not the best of director Henry Hathaway’s noirs, Kiss of Death has a lot going for it. A title card at the beginning asserts that the film was shot all on location (notably at Sing Sing prison, where the inmates had to be cleared out as a law prohibited photographing real live criminals), and though some scenes do look like studio sets, Kiss of Death still has the docu-noir style that gives it a certain freshness. Further, Kiss of Death is not best work of writers Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, (who have a ton of monster hits between them), however, there’s certainly a lot of meat in the story. It was definitely enough to piss off Joe Breen at the MPAA, who disliked the suggestion that law enforcement is “utterly futile ” and requires the testimony of a stool pigeon to convict criminals and felt that the script undermined the justice system and portrayed the courts as being ineffective. You bet it does! Despite these issues, all of this remains in the finished film, Bianco even notes, “Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine.” To which D’Angelo answers dryly, “With one big difference… we hurt bad people, not good ones.” The line is a paltry excuse to eschew the virtue of law enforcement – in Nick’s hour of need, law enforcement is typically ineffectual – the legal system doesn’t come through for him, echoing early in the story when his criminal cohorts hang him out to dry.

The MPAA x’ed one scene from the film, even though traces of it remain in a blink-and-you’ll miss it line – after dinner, Tommy takes Nick to a shadowy old house. “What’s that smell?” asks Nick, “Perfume!” giggles Tommy. Why, I do declare – it’s a drug den, and the original script allegedly contained more references to Tommy as a drug user.

ImageAnd speaking of Nick, Kiss of Death is often cited as one of Victor Mature’s best performances, and he’s marvelous – quietly believable as a hood and also as a loving, if misguided Father. However, despite the relatively low amount of screen time, Kiss of Death is Richard Widmark’s picture, and as good as Mature is, sometimes we’re just waiting for Tommy to show up, because shit gets real when a guy pushes an old lady down the stairs and all bets are pretty much off regarding what kind of mischief that crazy kid will get up to next.

ImageTommy Udo isn’t just Richard Widmark’s bravura debut performance. Udo is both a menace and a sadist, a cyclone of irritating habits, bleating obnoxiousness, and balls-out lunacy. He’s so over-the-top nuts that it all equals out to a kind of magnetism, and I’m not saying he’s the first berserk psycho that made audiences enjoy violence, but he’s certainly a front-runner. The early noirs brought murder into the home, made it acceptable to watch, but Tommy Udo made it fun which would prove an indelible influence on the crime dramas and horror films to follow.

‘Til next time, keep it on the safety brake.

ImageDefinitely do poke around the Blogathon for the silver screen’s best baddies, and if you’re not following me on Twitter, you should know that you’re missing out on shirtless Cary Grant beach running pictures.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, 1945

ImageI know I’m not alone in the opinion that Fox’s top grossing film of the 40’s, John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is one of the all time great Technicolor movies. Naturally, the supremely filmic, highly saturated Technicolor was avoided for the majority of Golden Age noir – it’s a little “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” for your average tale of morally questionable urban woe (though Paramount did attempt a Technicolor noir in the kind-of-nuts Desert Fury, which also features a homme fatale and the screen debut of Wendall Corey) , but Leave Her to Heaven manages to be chilling not in spite of the Technicolor, but because of it. Indeed, Leave Her to Heaven’s eerie signature scene takes place not in a shadowy alleyway or a police interrogation room, but on a sunny afternoon in a clear lake near a scenic cabin. Worst. Vacation. Ever.

Here’s the rundown. A writer, Richard Harlan (Cornel Wilde), accepts an invitation to his attorney’s New Mexico ranch. On the train, he meets Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), and they’re mutually attracted to each other – Richard, because Ellen is gorgeous, and Ellen, because Richard is a dead ringer for her late Father. So there’s that.

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As fate would have it, they’re heading to the same ranch, and Richard becomes acquainted with the rest of the Berent family, including Ellen’s charming cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain – she of wholesome beauty who makes plants grow) and Ellen’s Mother. Ellen and her Mother are clearly still sorting through Ellen’s extreme Electra complex, so there’s some pretty tangible weirdness there.

Not even Ellen’s existing fiancee, D.A. hopeful Russell Quintin (Vincent Price, y’all), can keep Richard and Ellen from each other, and they marry soon after, in spite of Richard’s misgivings. Ellen then accompanies Richard to Georgia to be reunited with his polio-stricken younger brother Danny. Ellen and Danny get on like a house on fire, and pretty soon Danny’s walking with crutches and accompanying them to their cabin in Maine, a tactical error on Ellen’s part. You see, Ellen has a pathological desire to do everything for Richard and have all of Richard’s love and attention, and Danny’s now a direct obstacle in the way of her single-minded goal. Bring the rowboat by – it’s time to take Danny swimming.

Incidentally, exactly what I would wear to a drowning.

Incidentally, exactly what I would wear to a drowning.

In a scene that has aged extremely well, Ellen, in a fabulous white overcoat and oversized sunglasses, coolly encourages Danny to swim out farther to impress Richard. So long, third wheel. The lack of score and cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s gorgeous and isolating wide shots clinch the scene and make it the bruiser it is – this is the one that’ll stay in your head, even years later.

Anyway, Ellen’s grand gesture has the opposite effect – consumed by grief, Richard is now more remote than ever. Ever resourceful, Ellen becomes pregnant, but finds this isn’t the perfect solution she’d hoped for. All the frothy blue peignoir sets and high heeled slippers in the world won’t change the fact that a baby would pull focus from Ellen, and besides, being pregnant allows Richard to pal around with Ruth. In one of noir’s more cold-blooded killings (and the screen’s first Production Code approved abortion!), Ellen is then no longer in a family way.

bannerleavehertoPredictably, this doesn’t help, so Ellen is driven to the ultimate sacrifice, but not before taking everyone else down with her. For the record, I felt very dramatic writing THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE. For the film’s third act, we’re treated to a somewhat expressionistic courtroom drama, led by Vincent Price’s particularly theatrical D.A. character. It’s a worthy denouement, and as ever, I’d watch Vincent Price eat cereal, but the real meat of Leave Her to Heaven is anytime Gene Tierney is onscreen.

Leave Her to Heaven may sound like a grand melodrama on paper, it certainly could be one of those trashy movies that W plays in the late afternoon, but it ends up being one of the most subversive studio films of the 40s. The deceptively slow start only solidifies the psychological horror to follow – in another life, a chance meeting on the train, a love affair in sun splashed New Mexico – we’re talking about a typical technicolor romantic comedy. Not the case – the promise of domesticity becomes a nightmare of manipulation and murder, in Richard and Ellen’s very own brightly-light and exquisitely photographed backyard.

Gene Tierney is at her best as Ellen with her icy, otherworldly beauty never used to greater effect. As the ideal wife, she’s charming, with disarming moments of genuine warmth, then instantly childish and withholding when the veneer slips and she fails to get what she wants. Her most shocking decisions are clinical and logic-based – if this obstacle was removed, I will get what I want. It’s a surprisingly modern and balanced portrayal of mental illness, even in her coldest moments, we never entirely dislike her; such is the pull of her sociopathic allure. Also, she wears immaculately tailored trousers and cute one-piece bathing suits and commands the screen like boss bitch. Gene was nominated for a what would have been a well-deserved academy award, but ultimately lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

In a major coup for art over censorship, the MPAA ‘strongly cautioned’ Ellen’s ‘miscarriage’, which is certainly a touching euphemism for throwing yourself from a flight of stairs on the pretense that you slipped on a throw rug while wearing fabulous satin bedroom mules. You know how it is. The MPAA warned that it was necessary to establish that the fetus would have to go because it would be a competitor for Richard’s affection, and not because Ellen believed the child would be born imperfect or misshapen. (Yes, ‘misshapen.’) They believed that this way, it would not be considered an abortion. Oh, bless.

Heaven2_zps94aaf8baLeave Her to Heaven is a prime example 3-strip Technicolor used to the height of its dramatic promise. Photographed by the great Leon Shamroy, Leave Her to Heaven was one of his Oscar winners, and it’s not hard to see why – the hyper-real colours and intense saturation, the gorgeous sets and locations – they just don’t shoot ’em like this anymore, friends. So much of the film occupies a familiar dream world –  the gorgeous homes, the beautiful cabin in the country, the attentive, perfect wife, and the loyal, loving husband – and never before have the noir shadows been quite so close.

Up next, I’ll be participating in the Great Villain Blogathon:

banner_villain2Who’s my villain? Well, let’s just say it’s the film noir bad guy you’re least likely to allow to care for your elderly, invalid grandmother.

‘Til then, no high heels on the area rug. xo.

DETOUR, 1945

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In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that no one has as much fun in the movie as they’re clearly having on this poster.

In the spirit of the day of love, I thought I’d share one of my personal favorites – DETOUR. And, guess what? It’s in the public domain, so if you have an hour and seven minutes and would like to feel worse, why don’t you pour yourself a drink (best make it a double) and spend some quality time:

Yep, Detour was certainly the premiere feel-bad movie of 1945 (unless you were a drinker on a downward spiral into melodrama and disappointment– in that case, The Lost Weekend probably hit you where you live… incidentally, beyond my girl Doris Dowling as Ray Miland’s doormat and noir veteran Miklos Rozsa’s theremin-laden score, I could take or leave it. I prefer my Billy Wilder a little more subtle or at least with a sense of humour.) (Or unless you’re a social-climbing, working woman bent on protecting the reputation of your murderous daughter who was unsuccessfully (the movie) or successfully (the book) knowing your husband in a biblical sense… then Mildred Pierce probably floated your sadness boat.) But, I digress (sorry – ’45 was a good year), and you’d be hard pressed to find a more sordid, grim, or utterly doom-laden story than Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour. Rife with technical errors and made for a song ($100,000 – cheap like borscht) Detour was nevertheless the first noir, and the first b-picture to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Oh yeah – it’s that good.

There were the big five and the little three, and then there were the Poverty Row studios. Poverty Row films were quick and dirty – made on shoestring budgets with minor stars, or possibly folks famous for other reasons (the 40’s equivalent of when you suddenly see one of the lesser known girls from The Hills pop up in a low-budget horror movie). Poverty Row films were typically the b-picture to the major releases, or sometimes the lead pictures in the second run theatres. Which basically means there was a lot of – but not exclusively – garbage. PRC, or Producers Releasing Corp. certainly lucked out with Austrian director Edgar G. Ulmer, who made three solid noirs for them, the most well-known being Detour.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal, before fighting with Franchot Tone and also pre – manslaughtering his wife) is having a bad night. He’s drinking coffee in a diner and being kind of a dick to everyone. See, they’re playing his song, the one that reminds him of his old life.

Al was a nightclub piano player with the love of a decent woman; Sue, the singer in his nightclub band. Sue heads to Hollywood to make it big, and Al thinks about their bright and happy Bon Jovi song future in this kind of terrifying daydream:

detour02But she ends up working as a waitress. Penniless Al decides to hitch to Hollywood to meet her. Between a life spent watching horror films and Detour, I know what’s up with hitch-hiking. It’s either backwoods cannibal families or a slow descent into your own personal hell, and in this case, it ends up being the latter.

Al catches a ride with a Mr. Charles Haskell, a fairly well-to-do fellow with a nice car and scratches on his hands. The scratches are from a girl he picked up. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws.” Well said, Chuck. Only Haskell’s time for one liners is almost up, and as soon as you know it, he’s dead. Accidentally. In his sleep. Or so Al says.

Al does the sensible thing, and I mean sensible if morals weren’t really a big deal for you. He reasons that no one would believe he didn’t kill Haskell, therefore, he should hide the body and take the car. Naturally, he should take his money too, as Haskell certainly can’t take it with him. And then Al decides to take Haskell’s clothes, too; after all, no one would believe someone dressed as he is would have such a nice car. Turns out once you’ve entered the moral sludge pit, it’s hard to climb out of.

detour2After successfully crossing the state line as Haskell, Al picks up fellow hitchhiker Vera – the incredible Ann Savage, who eats the role for breakfast with a performance that’s an easy 30 years ahead of her time. Vera will get her own post, but suffice to say, Ann Savage is the femme fatale of your worst nightmares. At 24, she’s a total powerhouse – Vera is a snarling, vitriolic hellcat, but Savage’s performance is nuanced enough that Vera’s few moments of vulnerability are enormously affecting.

Detour_Jaime_June11Turns out, Vera recognizes the car and the clothes, but not Al. She’s the dame with claws, and now she’s got them in Al, as she orders him to fence the car and give the proceeds to her for her silence. They spend hours in a motel room, tolerating each other, while Vera gets drunk. She even propositions him in a rather (1940s) overt manner, which he rejects. Vera’s a bit of a wistful drunk, and she’s equally revolting and alluring. Shame boner.

They’re about to sell the car, when Vera realizes she has more to gain by forcing Al to impersonate Haskell long enough to collect an impending inheritance. For a moment, this looks like it might be the main plot of the film, a rather familiar identity theft ruse that genre fans can cozy up to. But, not so fast – an absurd twist of fate sees to it that spineless Al is freed from his situation, but only until he’s carted off to the big house. No mercy for wrong-doers.

Detour doesn’t work despite its technical limitations – it works because of them. With a narrative that’s clumsy more often than sharp, reversed driving shots and amateurish rear projection, we can’t even retreat into the glamour and technical accuracy of the big studio noirs. Detour is story about irredeemable bottom feeders, and the movie is a distilled version of that. It’s seedy and unsafe in a way that few other, if any, studio films can equal.

vlcsnap-2010-07-26-15h21m58s3Typically noir is about the real locations, the real grit of the city in stark contrast to the theatrical sets of the studio backlot lovingly evoked in wonderous Technicolor in musicals or comedies. Detour’s ratty sets are used to great effect. The rear projection is strictly second-rate, which lends a bizarre, otherworldly quality. Al didn’t just take a detour to on the way to Hollywood, he set on another road entirely which leads to the great cosmic joke that his life becomes. The makeshift sets – the walk he takes with Sue on a ‘street’ which is only fog and a street sign, the police car which emerges from the darkness only adds a sense of impenetrable isolation to the already impossibly dire circumstances.

Otherworldly low budget-ness aside, also of note is Al as a narrator. He’s a slimy, simp of a man, and his version of events is questionable. He isn’t narrating the story we’re watching, only offering up pitiful excuse after pitiful excuse for his own behavior before lamenting what a victim of fate he is. And Vera? Well, Vera will get her own post, but until then, she’s a marvel – an absolutely vicious, castrating harpie. There hasn’t been another hard-boiled girl quite like her.

Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.

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Yessir, the abyss stares back. So have a Happy Valentine’s day, kid, and stick to the main road.

FALLEN ANGEL, 1945

ImageA wise old sage (Tom Waits) once said, “You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops.” Which is certainly true in Otto Preminger’s other film noir, 1945’s Fallen Angel. Hoping to capitalize on the surprise success of Laura – which also starred one-time SAG president and all around decent dude Dana Andrews, Fallen Angel was released to lukewarm reviews. While a little saggy around the middle, the film is well acted, well shot by the dependably great Joseph LaShelle (the man responsible for the first of many Twilight Zone dutch angles), and solidly directed by Preminger.

Eric Stanton gets kicked off the bus for insufficient fare in the sleepy town of Walton near San Francisco. (Just kicked off, not fined exorbitantly – What up, Vancouver?) He wanders into the nearest greasy spoon, Pops, and therein finds a whole pack of trouble in the form of waitress Stella (Linda Darnell). Stella thinks showing up for work is optional, seeing as how Pop (Percy Kilbride) has a sweaty-palmed, yet sweet, old-man crush on her.

And, oh yeah, she wanders in wearing this hat, kicks off her shoes, and takes Eric’s hamburger. Like a boss.

ImageEric, like every other fellow in the diner, is smitten. Shortly thereafter he leaves and spots a poster for a psychic act. Sensing a con (him being a conman and all), he inserts himself into marketing for the act by convincing the ex-mayor’s spinster daughter to allow them to perform their heathen spirit show. She agrees, and Eric introduces himself to her nicer, younger, and blonder sister, June – Alice Faye in her first non-musical. As an aside, legend has it that cuts to Faye’s performance caused her break-up from Fox and subsequent 17-year sabbatical from Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Eric courts Stella while at the same time watching her steal from the cash register and date various other men. He vows to give her what she wants, which isn’t so outlandish  – a home and marriage, even though he doesn’t have any money. She stands firm – he must marry her and provide a home if the relationship is to go any further. So, that’s a healthy start to a lifelong reunion, but anyway, Eric comes up with the classy plan to marry June, take her money, and have the marriage annulled.

ImageIt takes approximately one date for Eric to seduce June, as he tries to show her things he likes (alcohol, clubs, and kissing), and she confesses her secret – despite her love of piano, heavy books, and hanging out with her laugh-riot sister, she secretly wants to be just like girls in magazine ads. If you start the below clip at around 2:10, you’ll see this magic beach date for yourself.

It’s after they get their marriage certificate things start to go off the rails. After a shocking murder, Eric is – at the very least – a person of interest. He’d probably be advised not to leave town, but he does, ever loyal June in tow (at this point, she’s already been rejected on her wedding night and is amenable to giving Eric the money he wanted.) Imagine that xoJane article:

“I married this boy and then I found out he only wants to steal all of my money and have the marriage annulled so he can run off with his other girlfriend. Then he became a murder suspect. What should I wear on the train while we hide out?”

ImageAfter a police beating and an arrest, a confrontation at Pops, and a conviction, Eric is eventually won over by June’s kindness and good nature. Order is restored.

Except it isn’t. And Fallen Angel is unsetlling for just that very reason.

Stella’s end is particularly harsh and almost not in line with typical noir rules, after all, she isn’t a scheming, black-hearted, stone cold sociopath. But hey, that’s a noir rule in and of itself – bad shit happens to everyone, no matter where they’re tipping the moral scale. One could interpret Fallen Angel as merely a bad girl cautionary tale; if you go flashing your shit all over town you may – I hesitate to say – get what’s coming to you. But that’s too easy, and I think, an un-earned criticism. Stella isn’t your standard femme fatale, her wants are pretty typical – security and a home. She’s brusque, sullen, and hard-edged, but who wouldn’t be, when you’ve been lied to and yanked around as much as she has?

Her small, one room apartment is particularly affecting. It’s miles away from the home she dreams about, and there is the curious addition of a large stuffed bear, featured prominently in a few shots. We aren’t in a sin-laden boudoir of a girl with easy virtue – we’re in the rooming house of a lonely girl with a dead end job, trying to use what she has to get ahead. Stellas aren’t born, they’re made, and as she’s tossed aside by the men who took her out – most notably, Eric, by the end of the film, there is a profound sense of injustice and loss.

June’s prize for being kind, good, and loyal? Eric, who’s just barely made good on the substantial amount of faith she’s shown in him. Eric’s prize for being a charming yet conniving con man who certainly used Stella as much as she used him? June. Pop’s prize for loving Stella and putting up with her being kind of a shitty employee? Nothing. No one got what they deserved.

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ImageBeyond the gorgeous composition of shots like the two above, LaShelle’s cinematography also features a unique focus on faces in the crowd. At the cafe, in the audience, and walking around San Francisco, Fallen Angel wants you to keep your eye on the other lives surrounding yours. It’s an eerie tactic which helps to pay off the ending, and compensates for some of the film’s more arduous scenes.

Anyway, I’m probably due in some coffee shop somewhere, but, hey, in the meantime, play Stella’s song on the jukebox and be thankful you don’t get what you deserve.