By Richard von Busack
Beautiful and doomed, the denizens of the two week retrospective at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater carry out their appointed fates: victims spared from the American movie industry’s insistence on the punished villain and the happy ending. Not for such as these is what Robert Warshow called "the euphoria that spreads out like the broad smile on the face of an idiot". The unmissable May 13 bill of three films and a TV show includes the just over an hour long melodrama Detour, a hot masterpiece of defeatism made in the year of national victory, 1945. More often than not ace programmer Elliot Lavine is exhibiting these rarities in 35mm prints, and they're films that are damn near impossible to see on screen in any format.
More next week on the second half of the program.
The Big Combo/ Hollow Triumph aka The Scar (1955/1948)
A symphony in black and white, visible in a 35mm print from the UCLA archives. The terrier-like "Combo" (gang) boss Richard Conte has had it with the cop (Cornell Wilde) who has been dogging him; amazing they could find each other in this fog-bound, blackout city, but then Conte's Mr. Brown has a couple of dogs of his own: the two close for comfort thugs Mingo and Fante (Errol Holliman and Lee Van Cleef). David Raksin's amazing sooundtrack has so much brass in it, it's surprising it wasn't stolen by metal salvagers. The director is Joseph E. Lewis (Gun Crazy.)
BILLED WITH Hollow Triumph aka The Scar. Paul Henreid, suave Germanic (actually, Trieste-born Austrian) best known for a short career as a Warner Brothers matinee idol, directed this tight study demonstrating Willy Sutton’s law: “Crime pays, but it don’t pay much.” Muller, the ingenious but luckless brain of a small gang, is just out of jail. He hatches a bungled robbery of an illegal gambling club. The robbery is cut into chunks, haywire images include a hanging electric light and a desperate fist-fight in a store room, all a taste of Henreid’s gifts as a noiriste. All this turns out just to be a roundabout path to the boring straight job in Los Angeles that Muller was trying to avoid in the first place.
His new gig is a a stinking 9-5er, as we see in a montage of clocks. But then a new opportunity pans out: he learns that he has a dead ringer, a scar-faced psychiatrist called Bartok (also Henreid). Moreover, the shrink has an interestingly overripe and slightly bruised-looking secretary (Joan Bennett). If Bennett is more the iconic in-heat slut in Scarlet Street, she’s got a far more soulful role here, while keeping her same air of someone who’s taken too many turns around the block. Loved Henried's citation of the Hitchcock Triplet (the three staccato consecutive close-ups, each one getting closer, a move well known enough to be parodied on The Simpsons). Henreid shows some serious talent when filling in the story’s blanks, as in the passage about the self-improvement crazed shrimp who works in a garage, gabbling about wanting to be a ballroom dancer.
Knock On Any Door/Edge of Doom (1949/1950)
The first collaboration between Nicholas Ray and Humphrey Bogart (In A Lonely Place, the better known duet, shows here May 19) was an adaptation of a novel by Chicago-born African American writer Willard Motley about a thug (John Derek) doomed from the outset by the circumstances around him; Bogart is the lawyer who also came from the mean streets. George Macready (of Gilda) is the district attorney who can't wait to fry the young killer. 35MM print.
BILLED WITH Edge of Doom “And that’s where it took our careers,” said the star, Farley Granger. A. Scott Berg’s Goldwyn tells the story of the film’s troubles: based on a novel by former Washington Post film critic (and noted drama teacher) Leo Brad; picked up for adaptation because of Samuel Goldwyn’s fantatically devout wife Frances, it resulted in a film too downbeat for the post-war years: a Brackett-Hecht rewrite couldn’t make it more appealing to the mass. It’s the story of a desperate slum kid’s murder of a priest, for reasons he only half-understands. 35mm.
Un Si Jolie Petite Plage/Detour/The Pretender/”The Red Dress.” (1949/1945/1949/1952)
Can’t top Mr. Lavine’s allusion to Yves Allegret’s Un Si Jolie Petite Plage ("such a pretty little beach") as a spot where Marcel Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve strikes the rising up of the French New Wave. It’s a poetic doomed gangster film, with touches of the capital-F Fate of a Grand Guignol play…or maybe the ruin and the absolute existential nastiness of a cheap seaside hotel (as much Tennessee Williams as Fawlty Towers) visualized to the last dusty splinter by photographer Henri Alekan.
The manager is a fat old gorgon (Jane Marken) chortling over the possibility of a TB hospital being built nearby (good for business, since the relatives of the patients have to stay elsewhere). Only imminent death could bring a person to this dump off season: built on the French side of the English Channel, surrounded with blasted concrete pillboxes from the Big War, and drenched with endless rain. The soundscape is as bad as the landscape: the symphony of squeals and whine from rusty shutters and the groaning of the pump in the yard (the place has no indoor plumbing), the lugubrious grandfather clock keeps tolling for thee. And everyone is mesmerized by a scratchy 78 RPM record of a recently demised chansoniste who once upon a time visited, bringing a touch of class and doom to this end-of-the-world hotel…
Mysterious new guest is a Parisian named Pierre (the appropriately tubercular-looking yet somehow Henry Fondaish Gerard Philipe) who is clearly at the end of his tether. He’s to be joined by a proud middle-aged creep, whom he avoids. On-lookers are an enslaved teen-age orphan (15 and still getting remorselessly slapped around by the gorgon) and Marthe (Madeleine Robinson), a coal-town trollop from Belgium now charged with carrying the place’s slops.
There isn’t a hack alive who can’t get a chuckle out of his readership by going after the French. To honor that custom, let me note the anxious before and after title card demanded by the censors of the day, apologizing to the orphans in the audience, not all of whom end up becoming gangsters, gigolos, or slop-carriers.
BILLED WITH Detour (1945)
Sweaty, calf-faced sap Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hitchhikes across the USA to join his beloved in Hollywood, but gets and gives two fateful rides: first, he’s picked up by a worthless rich kid. Second, he gives a ride to a harpy on her last legs: Vera (Ann Savage) a lady who looks like she was “thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” This cheap, drunken flooze is a cornering schemer.
In the last half of this impossibly spare drama, Vera keeps Al a prisoner as she cooks up a big swindle. Director Edgar Ulmer declares war on happy endings: “People knock themselves out trying to buck fate”: the epitaph for an S & M heavy forced partnership in a film that seems to take place completely in the front seat of a convertible. Ulmer’s boast that the film was made in 6 days isn’t true; even though this dark miniature masterpiece is public domain, it was released with as much fanfare as PRC afford. The heavy, rapid narration is the exception that proves the rule that narration is a bad idea: all the words here just add more pressure to the mania and the foretold doom.
BILLED ALSO WITH The Pretender
John Alton photographed this tale of a hustling businessman (perennial villain Albert Dekker) who turns to murder to finance his failing business.
Plus a half-hour TV episode “The Red Dress” a 1/2 hour drama reuniting Savage and Neal. “Kneel and Savage” two vaudevillians in Hell’s own floorshow.
Return of the Whistler/The Strange Mr. Gregory (1948/1945) The mysterious Whistler, a shadow on the wall, hosts this radio-play like tale (written by Cornell Woolrich, and it shows). A French fiancé (Leonore Aubert) disappears during the course of one night at an unpleasant New England hotel. The tale is as short and as diabolical as Peter Lorre himself. And there’s a handsome arc between the beginning (a couple who can’t find a bed) and the end (where they’re being forcibly put to sleep by one of those “barred-window boys” Philip Marlowe used to go up against). 35mm. BILLED WITH The Strange Mr. Gregory. Monogram: your mark of quality. Their 466th film was this adaptation of a story by Myles Connolly. He was the author of an popular Catholic parable novel Mr. Blue still cherished by the mackerel-snappers; he was also a large influence (says Joseph McBride) on Frank Capra….so much so, that Capra complained Connolly considered him “a ventriloquist dummy”. This brief mystery stars San Jose’s Edmund Lowe as a stage magician who decides to frame the husband of the woman he loves for murder.
The Devil’s Henchman/Highway 13 (1949/1948)
Best known as the snazzy producer in 42nd Street, Warner Baxter was coming to the end of his time as a b-movie revenant (he was “The Crime Doctor” for instance.) Baxter plays an insurance company investigator looking into waterfront thievery…and encountering “Rhino” (6’ 5” Mike Mazurki.) Script by Eric Taylor, who wrote John Wayne’s most anti-commie film Big Jim McLain, and who died in San Francisco. 35mm BILLED WITH Highway 13. “DANGER AND MYSTERY AHEAD...ON THE JINX HIGHWAY -- patrolled by a Phantom Killer!” A trucker (Robert Lowery) in peril in an hour-long drama presented by Alameda’s own “Quickie King” Robert Lippert, Sr. 16mm.
Storm Over Lisbon/Shadow of Terror
(1944/1945) Elizabeth Meehan, the former Ziegfeld showgirl who wrote the first film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, as well as the script of the Lon Chaney film Laugh, Clown, Laugh, cooked up this tale of a spy-ridden nightclub in neutral Portugal during the Big War, owned by the typically ambiguous Erich von Stroheim. Using smoke and filters, photographer John Alton saves Republic Studios the money they might have spent filming on location. And the star is former Czech ice-skater Vera Ralston nee Hruba, protégé and later wife of Republic’s 39 years older studio head Herbert Yates. Co-starring the Aida Broadbent Girls. 16mm.
BILLED WITH Shadow of Terror. Pretty much the first film (September 1945) to use atomic spying as a subject thanks to a desperate last minute grab of newsreel footage of a mushroom cloud. Poverty Row pillar Lew Landers helms this tale of espionage and amnesia, one of 9 movies he made that year, from a story by ambitious character actor Sheldon Leonard: deathless as Nick the bartender in It’s A Wonderful Life; and later a big time producer who still talked like Riff Raff on Underdog.
(Hunter and Jagger, above.)
Betrayed AKA When Strangers Marry/I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1944/1948)
William Castle, who made a career out of dogging Hitchcock, goes after the same material Hitch did in 1941 as Suspicion. From the cameo Castle gives himself (in a police photograph) and the borrowing of the scream/train whistle from The Lady Vanishes, the influence shows. Yet the freshness in Betrayed AKA When Strangers Marry may convince contrarian viewers that Castle did it better this time. Kim Hunter is more than usually fragile and bewildered as Mildred, a waitress from Grainball, Ohio (it might have been Granville, excuse me). She hitches up with a similarly odd traveling salesman Paul (Dean Jagger), after only three dates. They rendezvous in New York, but also waiting there is the boy Kim used to know. Fred (Robert Mitchum, looking unusually llama-like and accompanied by a little lapdog). If Mitchum seems camelid, Jagger’s Paul has the distinct odor of fish: he’s very uneasy, he’s full of petty fibs and he travels in dubious goods. “He sells something, I don’t know…”
And the new husband is also a person of interest in the “Silk Stocking Murder” which woke Philadelphia out of its torpor. Investigating the crime is a tough policeman with Sontagian two-toned hair (Neil Hamilton, more resolute looking than he was as Commissioner Gordon on TV’s Batman; man enough even to share a steam bath with Mitchum.
Castle’s summing up of stateside wartime is maybe darker than we’ve seen: the gravity of the off-screen fighting is pulling this world out of shape. Hunter’s path takes her through streets alive with whores and sailors, and on board an interstate jitney headed for Louisville, crowded with other passengers using the rationed tires and fuel. She and her Paul get caught in a Harlem nightclub, the only white faces watching a stiff, stylized dance by a pair of jitterbugs. Sure it’s racist, but it's racist in a different way: it’s more like a bad place in a David Lynch film than a 1940s nightclub where the natives are condescending to visiting whities. The grotesqueness gets amped during a stock-footage laden montage trip to Coney Island, where the mentalist Hugo the Great is waiting to tell Mildred what her husband is. Everything's out of kilter: a dead drunk enters a bar wearing a paper mache lion head, practically begging to be rolled, and in a spot of neo-realism, a pair of boys fighting savagely in an alley for a bag of marbles.
BILLED WITH I Wouldn’t Want to Be in Your Shoes. A wife (Elysie Knox) turns detective to find out who framed her husband for murder. Walter Mirisch’s second credit as producer is based on a Cornell Woolrich mystery.