Sunday, February 12, 2012

Desperate Housewives of Film Noir

Caftan Woman's number one movie rule:
  "All film noir are crime drama, but not all crime drama are film noir."


The French have a word for it. Not only does "noir" perfectly evoke the fatalistic driven plots and dense cinematography of Hollywood crime pictures of the World War 2 and post-War era, but it is so much fun to say. Everybody, on three, 1 - 2 - 3, "nwarh".

A movie gets my noir seal of approval if it gives me an emotional kick in the gut and sustains that mood. Many scholars and fans have a check list of expectations to define film noir. Topping many such lists is the femme-fatale who drags our "hero" into the depths of despair and tragedy. Aw, poor baby. Did the strong, sexy woman scare the little man?

Film noir are not only populated by obsessive cops, vengeful crooks and stubborn private eyes. Some stories focus on the keeper of the house, she of the starched apron. Every lifestyle has its pros and cons, and the mid-century housewife was equally the object of envy and scorn. Many senior citizens of my acquaintance look back at that time as a golden one when the kids were young and the hubby still had all his hair. However, the makers of crime pictures told their stories from the angle of lives lived in quiet desperation.


Without Honor (1949)

We meet Jane Bandle (Laraine Day) in her sun-filled kitchen tending to shish kebob skewers for the evening's repast. Dennis Williams (Franchot Tone) furtively enters the home and anxiously confronts Jane with the news that a detective has been nosing around and they have been found out. Jane is so relieved about no longer having to hide her love that she doesn't initially comprehend her lover's anxiety and references to his impressionable teenage daughters. When it finally dawns on Jane that her disloyalty has been for naught, she becomes hysterical and attempts harakiri with a kebob blade. Dennis is at least gentleman enough to struggle with Jane and is himself stabbed.

It is a shocking situation to find oneself with blood on her hands and a body in the laundry room. It is in shock that Jane changes into a demure frock and calls a cab to get her away from the house. Honourably, she does intend to go to the police station, but her ill-formed plans are scuttled by the arrival of her brother-in-law Bill (Dane Clark). No love is lost between these two, although Bill's dislike has crossed the border into pathological land. Not only has Bill hired the detective who discovered Jane's affair, he has arranged for all interested parties to convene at the house for a grand showdown where his brother will be freed from Jane's clutches.

Laraine Day, Agnes Moorehead

Mrs. Williams (Agnes Moorehead) is sympathetic and noble, playing by her own rules and not willing to play Bill's game. Jane's husband Fred (Bruce Bennett) is more easily manipulated as the revelation of his wife's betrayal is a surprise to him. As we know, Jane has a further surprise of her own to share before the day comes to an emotional end.

Without Honor was directed by actor/director Irving Pichel (The Pied Piper, Quicksand, They Won't Believe Me, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid) from a succinct script by James Poe (Lilies of the Field, The Bedford Incident, Last Train from Gun Hill) which is able to make some telling comments about relationships. The main flaws in the film are the cheapness of the production and, unfortunately, Max Steiner's exclamation point filled score which undermines the subtler aspects of the performances. In another incarnation Without Honor might have been the best remembered episode of an anthology series, but as a motion picture it misses the mark.

Cause for Alarm! (1951)

Ellen Jones (Loretta Young) lives a lonely life caring for her invalid husband George (Barry Sullivan). On the day we meet her Ellen is so weary that even her housework fails to give her pleasure, but she brushes aside such selfish thoughts. After all, George is bedridden with a heart condition and needs her to be cheerful. In a flashback she recalls meeting the devil-may-care pilot during the war when they shared a picnic of potato salad and ration cards, and dreamed of a future together. Ellen will soon come to realize that George has planned a very different future not only for her, but for family physician and best friend Dr. Graham (Bruce Cowling). George imagines the two are having an affair and mean to do away with him. So strong is George's delusion that he has, that very day, had Ellen mail a letter to the district attorney outlining the plot. George plans to shoot Ellen and use a self defense claim to trap Dr. Graham. George has issues! George also has that heart problem and dies with a pistol pointed at his shocked wife.

A dead husband with a bum ticker is one thing. A dead husband and an incriminating letter on its way to the DA's office is quite another thing. One misconception people have about those who work at home is that their time is their own. Not true. Unwanted phone calls and unexpected visitors annoyingly fill the hours. In the case of a woman facing a murder frame these interruptions are alarming.

On this day of all days, Ellen must cope with the little neighbourhood Hopalong Cassidy fan (Brad Morrow), George's solicitous aunt (Margalo Gilmore) and a suspicious neighbour (Georgia Backus). Above all, she must find a way around the loquacious and officious mailman (Irving Bacon) and his bureaucratic superior (Art Baker). How would you deal with these stresses? Exactly. Ellen does no better than you or I might. She does not suddenly become a cool and collected mastermind. Her desperation and fear simmers just below the surface boiling over to hysteria before something commonplace upsets George's plan.

Directed by Tay Garnett (The Valley of Decision, Cheers for Miss Bishop, Bataan) from a story by Larry Marcus (Dark City, The Bigamist), Cause for Alarm! is a tense story nicely paced with fine juxtaposition between the terror of the situation and the everyday setting. The use of intermittent narration does not mar the story, but neither does it add anything to the presentation.

Cause for Alarm! is a must see for the next wedding shower you are asked to organize.



Crime of Passion
(1957)

Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a successful advice columnist for a San Francisco newspaper. Assigned by her dismissive editor (Jay Adler) to work up the "woman's angle" on a murder case, Kathy causes a sensation with her article and gains a career opportunity with a New York paper. The case also introduced Kathy to L.A. detective William Doyle (Sterling Hayden). Kathy is an ambitious career woman who considers marriage a life sentence, but when she's wrapped up in Bill's strong arms she dreams only of being the "little woman".

The wifely idyll is not enough for Kathy who is a total fish out of water. The card parties with their circle of friends, other cops and their wives, drive Kathy to distraction. She cannot cope with the insipid gossip of the females and their constant fawning over the captain's wife, Sara (Virginia Grey). She is not welcomed as one of the boys where they sit in court to Captain Alidas (Royal Dano). When the captain takes credit for a work coup pulled off by her Bill, Kathy has had enough. All of her thwarted ambition goes into improving Bill's position. Never mind that the easy-going detective has no dreams of professional glory, only of making a home with his girl.

The next step up from Bill and Kathy's circle is that of the superintendent, Inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr) and his wife Alice (Fay Wray). Kathy maneuvers her way into that set, cutting Sara out by becoming Alice's new friend. However, Kathy has more in common with Tony. They recognize in each other a drive that sets them apart. Quickly Bill becomes attached to the Inspector's office with duties which frequently take him out of town. Kathy also manufactures an incident which disgraces Captain Alidos and sends him into exile. At this point Kathy and Tony could be said to be having an affair of the mind. He shares his most interesting cases and she casually has liquor on hand for the not unexpected visits when Bill is away. When Tony confides his imminent retirement to care for an increasingly ill Alice and ponders his replacement Kathy moves in for the kill. Her Bill must have that promotion and Tony's promise is implicit in the night they spend together.

In the cold light of day Tony decides Captain Alidos is the right man for the job, not Bill, and Kathy should cash in her chips while she is ahead of the game. Foolish man. Hell hath no fury like Stanwyck scorned. Opportune access to a gun used in a crime and bound for the property room seals Tony's fate. After the body is discovered Bill phones Kathy to ask her to look after Alice. I am moved by the way Barbara Stanwyck says "Alice" as if hearing the name for the first time and suddenly realizing the world of pain she has given to a friend. Kathy has also proven to everyone the worth of her detective husband as he doggedly tracks the evidence to his own doorstep.

Crime of Passion was directed by Gerd Oswald (A Kiss Before Dying, Screaming Mimi) and written by newsman Jo Eisenger (Gilda, Night and the City). Kathy may be an extreme example of stifled ability and misdirected energy, but Eisenger makes a strong case for madness from the mundane.

The next time you watch His Girl Friday imagine that this could have been Hildy if Walter hadn't kept her from marrying Bruce.


Nice photograph of our stars of Crime of Passion during a career upswing holding their 1961 Emmy Awards for The Barbara Stanwyck Show and Perry Mason.



32 comments:

  1. You had me with the clever title of your post. I can't believe I've failed to see any of these films--which all sound interesting (on the basis of cast choices alone). Plus, I'm always game for a Stanwyck noir!

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  2. Yes. Interesting casts making interesting choices. Stanwyck never disappoints. These nifty films all come in under 90 minutes, so hopefully you'll be able to fit them in sometime during the year. Every so often I just have to have a noir binge. How about you?

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  3. Great title for your post, and I enjoyed your take on three films I have not seen. I'll have to check them out.

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  4. Laraine Day, Franchot Tone, Dane Clark, Bruce Bennett, and Agnes Moorehead all in the same movie? This I've gotta see!

    Earlier today you thanked me for pointing you in the direction of FROM THIS DAY FORWARD; now I can thank *you*! Sounds like great fun.

    Saw CAUSE FOR ALARM a couple years ago and really enjoyed it, especially the ending. Just ordered Young's PAULA, made in the same era, from Warner Archive.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  5. Cute post title. I saw Crime of Passion--it's passable. Stanwyck was at the noir stage of her career, but this isn't her best work. Haven't seen the other two, but found this line hysterical: "Cause for Alarm! is a must see for the next wedding shower you are asked to organize." Great post. I enjoyed reading all of your great asides.

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  6. What a great post! The great thing about the Film Noir genre is that the "B"s - or at least the obscure - are just as much fin - if not more - than their more famous relatives. Thanks for the great suggestions. I am writing them down now!

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  7. I love this: "Cause for Alarm! is a must see for the next wedding shower you are asked to organize."

    Great post. Somehow I've missed these movies, but I'll think of you when I catch up with them.

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  8. Classicfilmboy, thanks for the kind word. It tickles me to introduce you to different titles.

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  9. Laura, there is some really nice work done by the cast of "Without Honor" that I think deserves our appreciation.

    I haven't seen "Paula" in many, many years. Maybe I'll go on a Loretta Young kick this year.

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  10. Thanks, Kim. I was hoping folks would get a giggle or two out of my efforts.

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  11. FlickChick, I'm definitely a "B" girl when it comes to film noir. While I worship stuff like "Double Indemnity" and "Laura", whenever I discuss noir with other movie fans, I always count the lower budget pictures as tops in the style.

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  12. Thanks, Jacqueline. Sometimes I get the feeling that there are just too many movies to catch up with, but a night of noir never did anyone any harm.

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  13. Caftan Woman, like you I sometimes feel like there are just too many movies to catch up with, but I'm all but powerless to skip a night of noir! :-) I had seen CAUSE FOR ALARM! years ago, and enjoyed it, and now you have me interested in the others; besides, who can resist Barbara Stanwyck in film noir mode? :-) Loved your reviews, CW!

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  14. I share your love for the "B" noirs! And "B" movies in general. Short & snappy movies are such fun. And like you I wonder if I'll ever catch up with all the movies I want to see. :)

    I just remembered today that Robby did a post on the CRIME OF PASSION locations at Dear Old Hollywood, thought you might enjoy if you hadn't seen it before! I'm going to be checking that film out too.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  15. Thanks a lot, Dorian. My late father's description of a good movie was "that's a dandy". I've come to realize that he used that expression most often when it comes to film noir.

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  16. Thanks, Laura. I don't recall seeing that article before, and I really enjoyed it. Although I've never been to Los Angeles, the location is of great interest to me and does add a lot to these smaller budgeted pictures.

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  17. Caftan Woman, please add me to the list.. I also feel like there are just too many movies to catch up with, but.. I can not resist Barbara Stanwyck in a film noir.

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  18. Dawn, it's a wonder any of us get anything done with so many movies to watch!

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  19. Oooh, I've never seen any of these, C.W. Where have I been? I have a feeling there will just not be enough days in my life to watch every movie and read every book recommended on all my favorite blogs. Jeez!

    I too love the title of your post. :)

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  20. I'm glad you got a kick out of it, Yvette. Someday you'll turn on the TV and one of these little movies will be on, and you'll sit on the couch and wonder where you heard of it before.

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  21. Thanks Caftan Woman for bringing these dark films to light. I'll be on the lookout for them as I'm a big noir fan too.

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  22. Christian, I hope you enjoy these movies that take us out of the back alleys and nightclubs, and into the kitchen.

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  23. I caught up with WITHOUT HONOR tonight; thanks again for leading me to it!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  24. Your title is an eye-catcher, CF, and your article is one of your best. What a wonderful take on these movies. I especially liked: "Aw, poor baby. Did the strong, sexy woman scare the little man?" I have always felt like that when the woman is always held responsible, whether as femme fatale or housewife. Loved this post!

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  25. Laura, I really felt the cast deserved a big hug and a round of drinks. I'm glad you were able to add the movie to your "seen it" pile.

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  26. Thanks a lot, Becky. I must admit, I made myself chuckle heartily with that line and thought it might strike a chord with certain friends of my acquaintance.

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  27. Agnes M. 'Nough said. She never failed.

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  28. "Laura, I really felt the cast deserved a big hug and a round of drinks."

    *Love* that! LOL.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  29. Great Post Miss Paddy. Enjoyed it immensely. I liked the part about attempting suicide but killing someone else. Off topic, reminds me of Mrs. Harris killing the Diet Doctor by shooting him "accidently" six times.

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  30. I liked "Cause for alarm" but was disappointed that Loretta had learned so little after that previous marriage with the Nazi war criminal.

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  31. CW,
    Laraine Day's face on that poster is pure terror. That alone would have gotten me into the theater to see the film.

    You've listed some great "Desperate Housewives" here and I do hope you'll continue with this series.

    Sadly, I haven't seen Crime of Passion.
    An enjoyable read as always CW. Your film descriptions are highly entertaining.
    Have a nice weekend!
    Page

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  32. awesome I put-off buying this for months,

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