#Noirvember Blu-ray: The rural noir of ‘On Dangerous Ground’ and ‘Road House’

ondangerousgroundOn Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.

Ryan carries his contempt for the denizens of the mean streets of his beat on his sleeve. “Why do you make me do it?” he says to one small time hood who goads him into losing his temper and then shrinks in panic when Jim rises to the bait. It’s less a question than a justification for meting out his own righteous justice, but that malign neglect kicks him in the gut when promises one tawdry blonde (Cleo Moore) that she won’t get hurt for turning informant and then promptly forgets her, until he finds the underworld carrying out its own street justice on the very same girl. The entire episode simply bleeds hard-boiled attitude: a brassy good-time girl with a come-on pout and a masochistic streak to her flirtations, a cop who barely considers human, and an explosion of fury fueled in part by guilt. The handsome, controlled camerawork by George Diskant (a noir standout who also shot Ray’s debut They Live By Night and such low-budget noirs as The Narrow Margin and Kansas City Confidential) loses its composure momentarily in a turbulent handheld shot as Jim chases one of the thugs, just a few seconds long but so startling it’s like a glimpse through the eyes of an adrenaline-powered rage.

It’s what finally gets him sent out “to Siberia,” out of the way as the media firestorm when his victims lands in the hospital and call out the police brutality, and the beginning of the emotional journey of his country sojourn. Ida Lupino is Mary Malden, a single woman in a remote home and the older sister of the troubled young man hunted for the murder of a schoolgirl. She’s neither fragile nor bitter and all she asks of Jim is to bring in her brother without violence. Ward Bond is the father of the murdered girl, a man worked into a vicious fury that makes him leery of everyone else on the manhunt, and a dark mirror of Jim’s own contempt and anger reflected back at him. He’s so suspicious that he winds up to slap Mary just to prove she’s faking her blindness. For the first time in the film, Jim is protective rather than aggressive. Mary rekindles his compassion.

Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in 'On Dangerous Ground'
Cleo Moore and Robert Ryan in ‘On Dangerous Ground’

On Dangerous Ground is an unusual film noir in more than the simply the journey from the brutal city to snow-covered farm country. It opens as a police procedural but the rhythms are unexpected, the procedural elements simmer with the desperation and conniving of the underworld characters swept into the investigation or drifting in on their own, and the journey out of urban garbage heap into the peace of the country has both a contemplative and a pensive quality to it. Is there a film noir that spends so much time watching the landscape change from the driver’s seat of a moving car, and then find the same fury and intolerance is here in the heartland too?

This is a beautifully remastered and restored edition, clean and clear and shadowy. The Warner Archive Blu-ray don’t claim to be restored but they are consistently beautiful and this is no different. Carried over from the 2006 DVD release is a commentary track by film critic Glenn Erickson, which is informative and well organized, like a lecture and or a formal presentation. “This is a cop film where the hero never fires a gun.”

road-house-48Road House (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) is a film noir in the sticks with a big dose of romantic melodrama. Ida Lupino is in the acute position of a romantic triangle with a hunky but impassive Cornel Wilde and a pathologically jealous Richard Widmark. Her big city chanteuse sashays into the road house of the title as Widmark’s “discovery” with scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude and instantly clashes with Wilde, the joint’s practical manager. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the psychotically possessive Widmark inevitable. While the title and the plot sound a little tawdry, it’s a handsome production that drops urban toughness in a back-country town setting, and it gives Lupino a real tough and knowing role. And why not? Lupino bought the story and developed the script herself, selling to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as a package with herself attached as star.

Lupino stage manages her introduction beautifully, sitting presumptively behind the desk of club manager Wilde, her long legs stretched out with a casual sense of arrogance and disdain that instantly antagonizes him. And her opening night entrance is just as good, striding to the piano in a sleek, off-the-shoulder gown that looks designed to stand out from the rural casual attire of the patrons and distract from her talent, and launching into that iconic saloon song of lost love and late night regret, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” with her husky, musically untrained voice. “She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard,” marvels cashier Celeste Holm with genuine appreciation, and indeed her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret as if she’s lived those lyrics of wounded hearts and bruised romanticism. Director Jean Negulesco is a little too clean for the messy little melodrama of the script, which cries out for a little more unsavoriness (Widmark helps some in that department with his volatile mix of swagger and anger and self-righteous revenge in the face of betrayal) but by the end of the studio-bound production, he turns the limitations of his manufactured location into an atmospheric prison cut off from the world by fog and mist, a primordial swamp of emotional instability with the same oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the shadowy city sets of conventional noir.

Features commentary by film noir historians Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan recorded for the earlier DVD release.

[Cross-published on Cinephiled]

Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in 'Road House'
Cornell Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Ida Lupino in ‘Road House’

Classic: ‘Private Hell 36’

Ida Lupino gets top billing in Private Hell 36 (Olive), and for good reason. In addition to starring in this low-budget film noir as a nightclub singer drafted into the police search for a counterfeiter, she so-wrote the script and co-produced through her company The Filmmakers, with partner Collier Young. The story revolves around the loyalties and temptations in a police partnership between the impulsive, younger cop Steve Cochran and family man Howard Duff, stretched thin on his salary. Temptation comes when Cochran pockets a portion of the recovered counterfeit stash after the crook is killed in a high-speed car chase and Duff’s conscience eats away as he keeps quiet and accepts his share (to come when they sell the phony bills in Mexico). The title refers to the address of their stash house.

Lupino had directed her share of films as well, many of them exploring similar moral quandaries, but she passed directorial reigns over to Don Siegel, who at the time was making his name with a series of tight, stylish little low-budget pictures. This is more about tension than action, with plenty of surveillance and scenes of police procedural detail, but he opens with a quiet street scene of a realist crime drama with an ominous sense of anticipation that explodes in a crime scene shoot-out and bookends it with a gut-punch of an ambush that ricochets with some dynamic twists. In between, greed and guilt divide the once devoted partners. Dean Jagger and Dorothy Malone co-star.

More cool and classic releases at Videodrone

“The Man I Love,” “Road House” and Ida Lupino: The Noir Heroine

The Man I Love (Warner Archive)
Road House” (Fox Film Noir)
The Hitch-Hiker” (Kino)

My MSN colleague, fellow blogger and partner-in-noir Kim Morgan has spent the week celebrating Barbara Stanwyck with notes on some of her signature noirs: “Sorry Wrong Number,” “Double Indemnity,” “Jeopardy,” “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers“and “Clash By Night.”

If Stanwyck was the Queen Bee of film noir (as she dubbed in an iconic issue of Film Comment), Ida Lupino was its tough cookie, a beauty with brass and a dame who knew the score. She was a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies without losing her sexiness or her independence. And she was arguably at her best when directed by Raoul Walsh, who made her a mad femme fatale in “They Drive By Night” (1940) before bringing out her potential as a scuffed survivor with a true heart in “High Sierra” (1941), their third film together and her first real signature performance as the modern Lupino. They reunited for their fourth and final collaboration in 1947 with a a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul.

It may be stretching definitions to call “The Man I Love” a true film noir—it’s not a crime film per se, though it is far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh, and for all the nocturnal lives it lacks the shadowy style that informs the genre. Yet this 1947 film, set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, is seeped in the post-war sensibility and it gives Lupino the confidence and control and narrative command usually reserved for men. Lupino’s calloused heroine is a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family: a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.

Continue reading at MSN Videodrone

Road House on TCM

Ida Lupino
Ida Lupino: Dressed to Bowl

My essay on Road House (the 1948 film with Ida Lupino, not the Patrick Swayze bar-bouncer classic) in up on the Turner Classic Movies website.

A minor classic of forties film noir with major pleasures, Road House (1948) is an unusual, and unusually fascinating, variation on the genre. Instead of the usual urban jungle, this road house is decidedly rural, a bar and bowling alley in the thick forest outside of a small town near the Canadian border. Ida Lupino is Lily, the big city chanteuse who sashays into the joint, all scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude. She’s the new “discovery” of the hopelessly smitten owner Jefty (Richard Widmark), who has discarded a string of similar sexy discoveries over the years. Cornel Wilde, at his most brawny beefcake and stolid, is the tree trunk of a manager Pete, who instantly clashes with this sassy dame. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the explosively jealous and possessive Jefty inevitable, but the method of his madness (and it does indeed turn into full blown madness) is genuinely pathological. Even in the realm of film noir, a genre rife with unstable personalities and violent reactions to emotional betrayals, Jefty’s obsessively plotted vengeance is unusual to say the least.

Road House may sound tawdry, with a title that evokes a rowdy juke joint (the design suggests a rural nightclub bar with an aggressively rustic design), a romantic triangle that turns pathological and a performance from Widmark that evolves from immature hothead to dangerously erratic sadist. But for all its urban toughness in a back country town setting, it’s a handsomely made film with adult banter and a tough cookie with a tender center in British-born but thoroughly Americanized and streetwise Ida Lupino.

Read the complete feature here. The film is also on DVD, featuring commentary by film noir expert Eddie Muller and my friend and fellow MSN contributor Kim Morgan.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on TCM

I investigate the 1939 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the second Holmes feature starring Basil Rathbone as the brilliant master detective, for Turner Classic Movies. The film is one of TCM’s Christmas Day presents to viewers: it plays on Friday, December 25.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce with co-star Ida Lupino
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce with co-star Ida Lupino

Decades after his final portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle’s coldly logical detective, Basil Rathbone still remains the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes for many of the character’s fans. There had been many screen incarnations before him (John Barrymore quite distinctively played the sleuth in the 1922 silent feature Sherlock Holmes) but most were forgotten when the gaunt, classically trained Rathbone, with his crisp diction and piercing eyes and aquiline features, stepped into the deerstalker cap for the 1939 thriller The Hound of the Baskervilles. Accompanied by Nigel Bruce as a portly Dr. Watson, Rathbone became the first screen version of Holmes to solve crimes in the flickering gaslight atmosphere of Victorian England, the era in which the original stories were set, and it was this incarnation in which he first uttered the signature line of the series: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” (Though Conan Doyle never quite has Holmes deliver such a line in his stories, Holmes does say “Elementary” and refers to his companion as “My dear Watson” a few times in print.) Rathbone received second billing to Richard Greene, the handsome, dashing young actor who played the haunted Baskerville, in his first appearance as Holmes. However, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), the film’s immediate follow-up, he rose to top billing: the first for the respected stage star and screen character actor.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not based on any of Conan Doyle’s original stories and, according to Holmes scholars, only nominally adapted from the credited stage play by William Gillette. The film pits Holmes against his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty (played with cool cunning and obsessive drive by frequent screen heavy George Zucco), who escapes a murder charge in the opening scene and proceeds to bait Holmes with a challenge. “I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late,” he taunts the detective. “It’ll be the end of you, Sherlock Holmes.” Thus he begins a master plan that involves enigmatic letters, a flustered young beauty, a murdered aristocrat, a South American stalker (complete with an eerie wooden flute that haunts the victims) and the priceless (and fictional) Star of Delhi. Ida Lupino co-stars as the terrified young heiress worried that her brother has been marked for death, a case that Holmes takes up despite his promise to oversee the transfer of the jewel to the Tower of London. Needless to say, Moriarty’s fingerprints are all over these seemingly disparate cases, but the mystery is just exactly how and why.

Read the complete feature here.

Junior Bonner on TCM

My feature on Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner in running on Turner Classic Movies Online.

Junior Bonner, Italian style
Junior Bonner, Italian style

At first glance, the elegiac rodeo drama Junior Bonner (1972) might seem to be an anomaly in the career of Sam Peckinpah, famed as the director of controversial studies in violence such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971). That was surely one of the factors that attracted Peckinpah to this gentle tale of aging rodeo champion Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen), who returns to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for his first rodeo in a year – and a return match with an unbeaten bull named Sunshine. Yet the themes couldn’t be more suited to the director. Bonner is the last of the cowboy loners in the modern world where housing developments and high finance tear down the past. Peckinpah’s first contemporary western is another tale of an outmoded hero in a changing landscape, the (symbolic) descendant of the heroes of Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch and (later) Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

Steve McQueen, who was looking for a change of pace role, signed on to play Junior and the film was rushed into production to shoot during the real-life Frontier Days Rodeo in Prescott. Peckinpah hurried back to the states from England, where he had been editing Straw Dogs, and quickly cast the supporting roles. Robert Preston plays Junior’s father Ace, a former rodeo champion now coasting on his glory and fantasizing about prospecting for gold in Australia. Ida Lupino is Junior’s mother, tired of Ace’s irresponsibility but still fond of the old charmer. And Joe Don Baker plays Junior’s wheeler-dealer of a brother, who buys out the family homestead and builds a housing development on it.

The film plays on Turner Classic Movies on August 27. Read the complete feature on TCM here.

DVDs for 8/11/09 – Lupino and Sheridan, Cantet and Wajda

Ida Lupino: a romantic and a realist
Ida Lupino: a romantic and a realist

Ida Lupino was one of Hollywood’s real tough cookies, a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies. The Man I Love isn’t a crime film per se, but it’s far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh. Set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, it’s a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul. Lupino is the calloused heroine, a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family – a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.

The Man I Love
The Man I Love

Lupino may have a weak singing voice but her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret, as if she’s lived the lyrics of her songs of lost loves and bruised romanticism, and her tossed-off delivery of smartly scripted lines gives her an American urban worldliness. The film is best known today for Scorsese’s claims that it was his inspiration for New York, New York, but it’s not the plot that found its way into his film. It’s the shadowy culture of working class folks tangled in the post-war culture of seductive night life, of dive bars and the itinerate musicians and singers and underworld types who frequent them, and in the tough attitude that Walsh and Lupino bring to the film. They made a great pair and she is the perfect Walsh heroine: tough, smart, experienced, and still something of a romantic at heart. This is one of the great “women’s pictures” of the era, never showy but always simmering with complicated relationships, frustrated desires and unfulfilled affections that are more authentic and conflicted than most Hollywood pictures.

This is part of the recent wave of Warner Archive Collection, the no-frills line of DVD-on-demand. Also released are two more Lupino films – The Hard Way (1942) and Deep Valley (1947, with Dane Clark) – and a trio of Ann Sheridan films. She was called “The Oomph Girl” and was a popular pin-up in the war, but behind her all-American looks was an urban girl with a lot of grit. Vincent Sherman directs her in two of her more shadowy melodramas. The Unfaithful (1947) is an uncredited reworking of The Letter with Sheridan as a married woman who kills a prowler who turns out to have been her lover while her husband was in the war. The potential salaciousness of the material is played down as the characters at the center of it – including Eve Arden as a gossipy cousin who becomes protective of Sheridan as the media vultures swoop in for the story – deal with the issues like adults. Sherman also directs her in the noirish melodrama Nora Prentiss (1947). None of the films have been restored for DVD, but the preserved prints from the Warner library are fine for what they are.

The discs in the Warner Archive Collection are available directly from the Warner Archive website.

Continue reading “DVDs for 8/11/09 – Lupino and Sheridan, Cantet and Wajda”