JULY IS WARNER ARCHIVE MONTH
Sure, I admit, it’s always great to see some obscurity or popular item get the Blu-Ray treatment; but when the entries are 100% bona fide classics, the results are 110% bona fide startling! And when they’re from the world of noir – revealing the textures of dark, and layers of detail rarely seen (often, since the title’s original release) in optimum quality (aka, 1080p High Definition), the artistic rewards are immense. I’m so thrilled to have been able to view a quartet of recently remastered Forties classics – three iconic A-pictures and one B-movie, the last so revered that it easily shares the pantheon with the genre’s Best of the Best. We know the titles, we know the plots, we know the stars and directors, we quote the lines…Yet, seeing them on Blu-Ray is so refreshing and stunning that it’s tantamount to viewing them for the first time. All hail from near-perfect 35MM materials, all contain extras worth exploring and all deserve a spot in any serious film noir (or classic movie library). And below is why. Yay, Warner Archive, for bringing us the definitive home video versions of MURDER, MY SWEET, POSSESSED, OUT OF THE PAST and GUN CRAZY.
One of the shining jewels in the crown from that banner noir year of 1944, when all the studios were rushing to compete with the newest nastiest art form (Double Indemnity, Phantom Lady, Laura, Strangers in the Night, etc.), MURDER, MY SWEET remains a great example of how perfect noir is done.
The first official Phillip Marlowe cine-venture (the unofficial one, a B-version, The Falcon Takes Over, released by the same studio, RKO — with characters’ names changed — beat it to the public by two years), MURDER didn’t scrimp for an instant with the festering evil in the modern metropolis shtick. The story, which memorably begins with hulking brute Moose Malloy (hulking brute Mike Mazurki) using his “charm” to get bedraggled, rumpled detective Marlowe to search for his missing girl, opens up a labyrinth of sinister plotting, double-crossing, triple-crossing, and, that noir favorite pastime, knocking people off. It leads down a path of sexual blackmail, drug den comas, and, as Marty Milner chides (about Burt Lancaster) in Sweet Smell of Success, “more twists than a barrel of pretzels.”
The tale of the pic’s making is as fascinating as the scenario. The movie revitalized and reinvented the fizzling career of crooner Dick Powell. The idea of casting him as a sour, violent, snarky tough guy was a BIG gamble on RKO’s part. The Raymond Chandler novel was entitled, Farewell, My Lovely; but, with Powell, involved, RKO suits thought it wise to do a title change, lest moviegoers mistake it for another musical. That said, MURDER, MY SWEET is almost as lyric-friendly, when one comes to think about it – or sing about it.
There’s nothing musical about MURDER (hey, what a good noir opening narration). The dudes are not to be trusted, the women worse. Templates for film noir males and females seem to emanate from MURDER, MY SWEET. Aside from Powell, who ascended to A-list heaven, where he remained for the rest of his life (additionally playing sarcastic characters in comedies, and later becoming a producer and, even, a director – and a pretty good one at that), fellow musical star, John Payne, too, took Powell’s lead, and ditto had a very healthy noir movie lifespan, successfully transformed from a singer of tunes to slinger of goons. As far as MURDER goes, Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley also notched up critical kudos for their femme fatales, as did oily Otto Kruger, Miles Mander, Douglas Walton, Dewey Robinson, Ralf Harolde, Esther Howard, Ernie Adams and John Indrisano. Edward Dmytryk, the director, likewise soared to the top of the DGA, where he remained until the blacklist took hold. Dmytryk, after a decade in B-movie land, didn’t want to look back, and named names that eventually returned him to blockbuster status (MURDER producer Adrian Scott also felt that sting of the blacklist, but held fast and refused to cooperate). MURDER’s script (by John Paxton) is a beauty, bursting with Chandler-esque prose and rain-swept sidewalk poetry (“I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good – like an amputated leg.”). The shimmering black-and-white photography of the great Harry J, Wild is another plus – never more effervescent than in this superb 1080p High Definition master; can’t ignore the menacing score by Roy Webb either. With audio commentary by Alain Silver, the Warner Archive Blu-Ray of MURDER, MY SWEET is the only version to own.
Possibly the most haunting noir ever, 1947’s POSSESSED presents an engrossing, yet disturbing look at mental illness, much of it from the protagonist’s delusional point-of-view. The picture is a tour de force for star Joan Crawford, one of her best, and certainly a role for which she should have won another Oscar (she was nominated; the award that year went to Loretta Young for The Farmer’s Daughter!!! Yeah, I know).
Stylistically using actual locations (blended with the studio-generated stuff), POSSESSED opens chillingly with a zombie-like Louise Howell (Crawford) walking through the deserted streets of downtown L.A. at dawn. Soon, she is spotted and transported to the nearest hospital, where the sensitive attendants audibly demand she “be taken to ‘Psycho.’” That pretty much describes Howell’s plight and prognosis – the story of a vital woman, whose stunning looks betray her to an insidious sexual predator. This, in turn, sends her down the path to insanity. And murder.
When Howell first meets David Sutton (Van Heflin), a brilliant nuclear scientist, the sparks immediately fly. Louise does the walk of shame from the get-go, believing the platitudes of Sutton. But the scientist’s promises are just that. With Louise, now hopelessly in love, obsessed and possessed by the intelligent and admittedly charming seducer, she can’t and refuses to accept her role as merely his latest belt notch. She stalks, cajoles and again is used for his pleasure. Eventually, Louise becomes an obsession for Dean Graham (Raymond Massey), a millionaire entrepreneur involved with the then-dotcom-equivalent late-1940s industry of nuclear energy. In a cruel, but Bizarro World logical move (remember, much of the narrative is from Howell’s perspective), the woman agrees to marry Graham, if only to be close to David, who is employed by her husband. It’s not the usual nightmare liaison; Graham truly loves Howell, and she genuinely likes him. It gets worse when Graham’s teenage daughter (Geraldine Brooks) from a previous marriage arrives on the scene. At first, Louise and Carol hit it off; then David targets the younger Graham as his next joyride (and, likely a bride, thus connecting him to the Graham millions). To use an oft-turned phrase: this cannot end well. Nor does it.
As remarkable as Crawford’s performance is, Heflin is just as good. Adept at playing heroes or villains, he makes David Sutton, certainly despicable, but definitely oozing enough likeability to understand how smart women fall under his spell. The other thesps, too, prove themselves admirably, especially Massey (another victim), Stanley Ridges, John Ridgely, Moroni Olsen, Douglas Kennedy and Don McGuire. The sharp, absolutely spine-tingling script (with authentic psychiatric-approved depictions of paranoia and schizophrenia) by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall (from a story by Rita Weiman) is landmark. But it wasn’t a one-two punch. Crawford, unhappy with Richards’ work, demanded MacDougall, who scripted Mildred Pierce, be brought in. Still dissatisfied, she insisted the Epstein brothers be hired immediately for another rewrite; while this did indeed become the case (uncredited), many suspensions flew over the cuckoo’s nest, aka Warner Bros. Loaded with great dialog and beautifully see-sawing between reality and self-deception (including a frightening sequence wherein loving stepmom Louise plots Carol’s murder), POSSESSED hits the cinematic bullseye with every twist and turn.
POSSESSED (the second time that title was used for a Crawford vehicle, the first being a 1931 classic from her Pre-Code Goddess days), is a fantastic movie on every level. It’s a reasonable exploration of a perceptive, astute mind bent into mania. Crawford and director Curtis Bernhardt (hands down, his greatest pic) spent time researching mental institutions and patients. It had a negative effect. An inmate from a California psychiatric ward later sued Warner Bros. for invasion of privacy, even going as far to claim Crawford totally based Louise Howell on her. A back-handed albeit expensive compliment. Professionally, it was a wondrous year for Crawford, who also excelled in the Fox loan-out noir Daisy Kenyon. That said, initially, this movie failed to recoup its quarter of a million dollar budget, bringing in around $2M. It did terrifically well outside the States, and ultimately moved from red to black on the Warners books. Since then, it’s become one of their most revived Golden Age titles.
POSSESSED looks gorgeous in this new 1080p evocation, in fact, better than ever; the trance stroll through L.A. looks as if it were shot yesterday. At last, Joseph Valentine’s exceptional monochrome cinematography (replacing house studio ace Sid Hickox) is done justice (after more than a half-century of gray, murky prints). The score, which eerily apes Louise’s psychological deterioration is a Franz Waxman triumph; that said, there are nods to previous insane-strains as utilized by Miklos Rozsa (Spellbound and The Lost Weekend).
By the last half of the1940s, mental illness had become a movie cottage industry. Psychotic female crazed fruit even more so. Olivia de Havilland mined it twice in The Dark Mirror and The Snake Pit), once copping an Oscar nomination (for the latter). Gene Tierney, Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and others all dipped their pedicured toes into the quicksand pool. Crawford, as the ultimate personification of dementia prey-cocks, dove in head first.
Many western buffs consider John Ford’s The Searchers to be the greatest western ever made; arguably, many noir fans consider Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 masterpiece OUT OF THE PAST to be the finest noir ever lensed. And I don’t necessarily disagree. All the elements that make great noir are here – in spades! The duped hero, the deliciously evil femme fatale, the slimy head mobster, his sociopathic henchman…And all have never been better.
Based on the novel with the delectable title Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring (using the pseudonym of Geoffrey Holmes), OUT OF THE PAST benefits from a fantastic script by “Holmes,” with uncredited assist by Frank Fenton, and, most importantly, James M. Cain. Undoubtedly, RKO was scouring the publishing world for a project that would rival Universal’s The Killers, and Mainwaring/Holmes’s venom-tempered tome handily fit the bill, right down to the plot-point of the lead protagonist, Jeff Bailey, hiding out in a small town. Even Bailey’s new vocation is the same as The Swede in the Hemingway novel/adaptation: gas station car mechanic (although, in this case, Bailey owns the joint). But it’s his former gig as another type of mechanic that has brought a sinister human cloud to the picturesque tiny American community. And, to quote the noir coat-of-arms, you can run, but you can’t hide. The dialog is sizzling, instantly quotable, and never fails to elicit snarky laughter from a theater full of the pic’s legions of admirers.
But first, the aforementioned cast. As Jeff, a one-time respectable private eye turned rogue by the lust and love of an out-of-your-league woman, Robert Mitchum delivers one of his patented…well… Robert Mitchum performances. His cynicism, violent streak, and accentuating lawlessness – all to the point of realizing (too late) that knowing you’re doing wrong while you’re doing it means damn nothing! As the treacherous female who lures him (and all other males) into her luscious web, Jane Greer enters movie history. Mitchum loved working with her, and, depending upon which interview you read, either considered her one of his favorite leading ladies, or, quite simply, his absolute favorite. Their chemistry is intense, like an A-bomb ready to obliterate all around them.
The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Kirk Douglas, adding to an array of detestable evil characters that dominated his early work (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, I Walk Alone), is aces as the smart, successful mobster, who nevertheless can’t shake the human wickedness he’s obsessed with (Greer). As his intellectual, but reptilian bodyguard/personal equalizer, Paul Valentine excels in a remarkably modern impersonation. Steve Brodie, as Mitchum’s creepy, crooked partner radiates scumbaggery; it’s almost a joy to see what happens to him. Almost. Dickie Moore, the child actor, now a teenager, is also great as The Kid, a mute that Mitchum’s Bailey hires and befriends. There’s also the doomed Ann (Virginia Huston), the good girl Jeff finally meets, again, all too late. Other noteworthy thesps include Rhonda Fleming (as a skank supreme), Richard Webb, Ken Niles (as a slippery character appropriately named “Eels”), Theresa Harris, Frank Wilcox and Mary Field.
The verbal exchanges, as indicated, rival the shocking outbursts of physical brutality. Jeff, angrily confronting Kathie (his sexual addiction), explodes in one of the most memorable spoken bitchslaps in all of cinema. It occurs when Greer tells him their grim, but inevitable future. “I don’t want to die,” worries the lady. “Neither do I, baby,” responds Jeff, “but if I have to, I’m going to die last!” This is the line I spoke of earlier, that has had audiences roaring with sardonic laughter and applause for over seventy years. Earlier, when Mitchum, pulling one of his many double-crosses, attempts to validate his actions, an underling cuts him off “I always say, ‘everybody’s right.’” The “there’s no escape” Damoclean sword hovers over the entire pic.
OUT OF THE PAST was photographed, partially on-location (in California’s Silver Lake and June Lake Loop), by the awesome Nicholas Mursuraca. It’s a superb example of monochrome camerawork. For years, this was torpedoed by less-than-perfect copies (remember those lousy 16MM C & C TV prints?). Not only can we now enjoy a pristine 35MM rendition, but we can additionally savor its shadowy elegance in 1080p High Definition. Audio, too, reaps the Blu-Ray rewards, via a noise-free, crisp mono track, ideal for listening to the multitude of poison bon mots, appended by Roy Webb’s excellent score (featuring the haunting main theme). I know I’ve said this often (and meant it each time), but this is the Blu-Ray I’ve been waiting for!
Were it any other genre, putting a “B” title in with the “A”s would be considered sacrilegious, but noir is an equal opportunity movie colony, where the pulpier the better is an attribute, so…
But let’s face it: when discussing great “B” flicks of ANY genre, two titles inevitably always immediately hit the top tier: Edgar Ulmer’s Detour and this 1949 triumph, Joseph H. Lewis’s incredibly scary, erotic, and prophetically (and freakishly) contemporary effort GUN CRAZY (both feature indelibly creepy women in the lead female roles). How wonderful that GC and the Ulmer classic are now on Blu-Ray. GUN CRAZY has an edge, however, possibly because it’s edgier – if for no other reason than to rip the guts out of America’s fascination with gun culture. Truth be told, “B”s were able to get away with a lot more than “A”s, as frequently the censors weren’t that concerned about the one-week nabe, grindhouse and drive-in fare. Thank God for their celluloid prejudice (nevertheless this movie WAS banned in several venues, and/or prints severely cut).
GUN CRAZY wasn’t merely sausage factory-ed out by The King Brothers. It was a carefully calculated attempt to elevate bottom-of-the-bill fodder to Grade-A harvest. And it succeeded. The participation of Lewis alone (already hailed for his previous “B” works, My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night) was a step up. But the script was not by Poverty Row hacks; GUN CRAZY was penned by no less than the story’s author, MacKinlay Cantor, and, uncredited, Dalton Trumbo (with the blacklisted writer using Millard Kaufman as a front). It was shot by the brilliant Russell Harlan and scored by Paramount’s music chieftain Victor Young.
And then there was the cast, led by John Dall (acclaimed for his cold-blooded performance in Hitchcock’s Rope) and Peggy Cummins, the beauteous waif-like Fox British import, looking to stretch her formidable gams in something a bit more adventurous (she had previously been resigned to portraying honey-haired ingénues in a series of Technicolor Lon McCallister horse dramas and/or perennial good girls in such higher profile titles as The Late George Apley. She’d later star in the classic British 1957 Jacques Tourneur horror flick Night of the Demon.). Supporting these two powerhouse thesps are Morris Carnovsky, Trevor Bardette, Virginia Farmer, Robert Osterloh, Joseph Crehan, Ross Elliott, silent screen star Franklyn Farnum, Ray Teal, and, as loathsome ever, slithery noir go-to guy Berry Kroeger.
GUN CRAZY depicts the story of Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr. Bart’s an above average sprout (played in the opening sequences by Russ Tamblyn, billed as “Rusty”), adopted and loved by his foster family and the community. He outshines the competition in school, baseball, you know…the whole all-American boy bit. But he has a can’t-shake jones: he’s fascinated by guns, even after freaking out in his first post-kill of a small woodland animal. Tare’s growing addiction possesses him to break into a pawn shop to steal a weapon he’s dying to handle. He’s caught, and sent to reform school. Years later, now as Dall, Bart returns to the community, fully reformed. His gun adoration still exists, but is under control. He plans to seek employment at Remington, or another firearm manufacturer. Best of all, he hooks up with his two childhood BFFs, one now a cop (Harry Lewis), the other a journalist (Nedrick Young). Things look good, and they decide to celebrate by heading out for an evening of fun at a local, lurid traveling carny. And there Bart meets the siren goddess of his dreams. Adorned in sensual cowgirl togs, Cummins is billed as the new Annie Oakley – a girl who can outshoot any man. And Packett, her sleazy promoter (the aforementioned Kroeger), is putting his money where his filthy mouth his – the old “who in the audience thinks they can best her in a shooting contest?” Egged on by his pals, and already sexually aroused, Bart volunteers and, in a vigorous twofer showmanship, beats her. But it’s a loss that Annie doesn’t mind, because she’s as turned on as he is. Kroeger offers him a spot in the show, and, since he’s obsessed with the beauty anyhow, Tare agrees. They pant, writhe and shoot their way across the small town circuit of Middle America, before yearning for more. That comes when Annie reveals that she’s being blackmailed by Packett (possibly sexually) because he knows she killed someone. They split from the show after going napalm on Kroeger.
Still planning to pursue his Remington dream, with his fantasy woman as his wife, Bart’s world is literally shot to hell when he discovers her “mania” (the word used by the law earlier to send him to the reformatory) for gunplay far outshines his. With money running out, the pair needs to replenish their funds, and Annie uses her carnality to convince Bart to participate in a series of mom and pop robberies. Bart’s caveat: no killing, no shooting. Naturally, Annie agrees, with her manicured fingers crossed. While Bart harbors sociopathic tendencies that he can keep in check, his squeeze, he discovers too late, is a full-blown psychopath. With the murder of innocents on their resumes, the post-war Bonnie and Clyde go on the run before the gruesome and unsettling climax in a fog-shrouded marsh.
GUN CRAZY is an exceptional movie no matter whether you love noir or not. It transcends any tag of “A” or “B.” It’s just one brilliantly insane cinematic journey. Lewis’ spectacular use of real California locations (Reseda and Los Angeles), and his outstanding utilization of long takes (POV car) to chronicle a robbery is move-making at its epoch.
The only thing better than experiencing a theatrical screening of this lollapalooza is to be able to view it in this striking new Blu-Ray; furthermore, there are some enticing extras, including the documentary, Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light and audio commentary by genre specialist Glenn Erickson. As foreboding and downright terrifying now (if not more so than it was in 1949), GUN CRAZY (alternately entitled Deadly is the Female) is the perfect intro for noir novices looking to get their feet wet (that crimson stuff ain’t water) and cold-cocked into the greatest genre in the movie universe.
MURDER, MY SWEET. CAT # 1000574978
POSSESSED. CAT # 1000505897
OUT OF THE PAST. CAT # 1000501605
GUN CRAZY. CAT # 1000714250
All black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment. SRP: $21.99@
Available from the Warner Archive Collection: http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.