Holiday Film Noir: "The Reckless Moment" (1949) starring James Mason & Joan Bennett

This splendidly nuanced work has emerged as one of the standouts of the noir cycle…

Ophuls… drew from Bennett her most natural, believable performance. She has never been better.

Near perfect, this is a marvellous and magical non stop emotional thriller with the camera moving with such fluidity we can only stare in wonder.

James Mason is great as a refined crook who suddenly finds himself feeling empathy for others. Can’t think of too many actors who could pull this off…

Traumatic as Lucia’s experience is, Donnelly’s devotion to her connects Lucia with the love and sexuality that may be missing from her marriage.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett, then 39 y.o.) is an upper middle-class wife/mother w/ an energetic teen son and stubborn/beautiful 17 y.o. daughter. Lucia’s husband, Tom, has to go away on business to Berlin (during the holidays). The family lives in an ocean-front home in Balboa, 50 miles south of LA. Bea, who is an art student, is involved w/ an older man, Ted Darby. He is sleazy and lives in a sketchy hotel in LA. When Lucia realizes what’s going on, she warns the man to stay away from Bea (who is underage). Ted ends up dead on the beach, not far from the Harper’s house. Lucia thinks Bea was responsible, so quickly takes action to protect her daughter (as well as her family, respectability, and lifestyle).

When the dead body of the man is discovered by police, they suspect murder! Lucia is visited by an Irishman, Martin Donnelly (James Mason, then just 40 y.o. in his third American movie). He has love letters written by Bea to Darby; these could be damaging if turned over to police or the press. The price for the letters is $5,000 (which Lucia doesn’t have on hand). Donnelly’s boss Nagle wants payment- fast. Soon, the crooked man finds himself empathizing w/ – something you don’t expect- and developing feelings for the housewife.

She’s lucky to have a mother like you. -Donnelly comments

Everyone has a mother like me! You probably had one, too! -Lucia retorts

This is a tight, tense, and quite effective movie (which I learned about when browsing online through holiday classics playing at AFI). It’s an unique blend of melodrama and noir; you can see it (free) on YouTube. The director, Max Ophuls, is an immigrant from Germany; he worked in several European cities before coming to the U.S. in 1941. Often times, the outsider has a fresh take on something that others take at face value. Mason here may remind you of Gregory Peck (tall w/ high cheekbones and dark hair), BUT w/ potentially dangerous vibes. IMO, to be an effective leading man, a actor MUST be able to project a hint of danger. Some actors didn’t stray (or perhaps get chances to stray) from the “gentleman” role. Though Mason is British, his Irish accent is very good. Bennett does a great job- her character is quick-thinking, determined, and tough as a mother. Lucia gets drawn into the seedy side of life, much to her dismay and discomfort, but she has the guts to go there.

Hitchcock in Color: “Rope”(1948) starring James Stewart, John Dall, & Farley Grainger

1. The story unravels in typical Hitchcock fashion. The suspense is built, then lessened by some well timed comedy, and then built again to a final crescendo.

2. The dialogue is natural and flowing. The finest bit of timing involves a swinging kitchen door, the rope, and the fear of discovery.

3. ..it seems to be a very modern film.

4. There’s plenty of black humor throughout.

5. He manages to fit in many of his trademark angles and closeups in, without it seeming forced.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Grainger- later starred in Strangers on a Train) are two young men who share a spacious NYC apt. They consider themselves “intellectually superior” to their friend, David Kentley, and decide to murder him. In the first scene, they strangle David (w/ a rope), place the body in an old chest, and hold a small party. The guests incl. David’s father, his fiancée Janet (Joan Chandler), and their former prep school housemaster, Rupert Caddell (James Stewart). While Brandon is cocky and keeps joking, Philip is fearful (esp. since Rupert is at the party).

The story was loosely based on the (real-life) case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy students at the University of Chicago who in 1924 kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old boy. They committed the murder (called “the crime of the century”) as a demonstration of their perceived intellectual superiority, which, they thought, enabled them to carry out a “perfect crime” and absolved them of responsibility for their actions. This movie is very different from Patrick Hamilton’s play which was set in England. Sir Alfred Hitchcock made his own adaptation w/ Hume Cronyn (also a prolific character actor); they created new dialogue and characters for this adaptation.

This is Hitchcock’s first movie filmed in color and also his shortest (w/ a running time near 80 mins). The theatrical trailer features footage shot specifically for the ad that takes place before the beginning of the movie. David (the victim) sits on a park bench and speaks with Janet before leaving to meet Brandon and Phillip. Stewart narrates the sequence, noting that’s the last time Janet (and the audience) would see him alive. This movie, considered the director’s most controversial (at that time), was banned in several American cities b/c of the implied homosexuality of Phillip and Brandon.

Rope was filmed entirely in the studio, except for the opening credits (where we see the street outside the apt). The clouds seen out the window were made out of fiberglass. Hitchcock created a (new) way of editing by making the movie look like one continuous shot. He later said that the 10 min. takes were “a stunt” (a challenge for himself). Most of the props and some of the walls were movable. The cast had to avoid tripping on cables on the floor, b/c of the moving cameras and lighting.

This is the kind of movie that you need to see more than once to appreciate, esp. if you saw it as a teen or young adult. There are undercurrents that less mature viewers may not get, particularly the nature of the relationship between the two killers. Stewart is one of my faves, but some critics/viewers have commented that this “dark” role would’ve suited someone like James Mason better. This was the only movie Stewart made with Hitchcock that he did not like; he felt miscast as the professor. The actor was paid $300,000 (a huge portion of the $1.5M budget). The first choices for Philip and Rupert were Montgomery Clift and Carey Grant, but they both passed (due to the gay subtext).

Early Hitchcock Movie: “The 39 Steps” (1935) starring Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll

An unassuming Canadian bachelor, Mr. Hannay (Robert Donat), living in London tries to help a mysterious woman w/ a German accent, Miss Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who turns out to be a double agent. She is killed in Hannay’s hotel room, he is accused of the murder, and goes on the run to save himself. With a map and some details (provided by Miss Smith), he also hopes to stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information. He travels by train to Scotland, hoping not to be noticed by his fellow passengers and the police. The papers are all covering the incident, of course, and some people are bound to be intrigued by the details. When Hannay pops into a car w/ a pretty blonde woman, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), he begs her to help him. As the police approach, he grabs her and kisses her (pretending like their newlyweds). She is not having it, so tells the police that she has never seen this man before.

In Scotland, Hannay travels on foot for some miles, looking for a certain town. He comes across a farmer in a very rural area, Mr. Crofter, who says he can stay overnight at this little house. The wife, who is much younger and mismatched w/ her gruff husband, is played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft (one of the most respected actresses of her time). When Mr. Crofter is out, Hannay and Mrs. Crofter chat about life in London, and she develops a crush on him. Later, when he tells her about his plight, she is very empathetic. After her husband gets jealous, she helps Hannay escape. The local cops are close on his trail. Hannay finds the house of a wealthy/powerful British man, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), just in time for a Sunday lunch. He runs across Pamela (again), and more improbable adventures ensue!

Some critics and viewers consider this to be Hitchcock’s most economical and best film. The 39 Steps is a romantic adventure (Hannay and Pamela share moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a rom com) with the usual Hitchcock humor; there is also a lot of metaphor and symbolism. Many of Hitchcock’s typical themes are here: marriage (of different types), human relationships, and types and levels of deception. It’s well-written and each character has a distinct look, attitude, and personality. The plot provides suspense, comedy, and drama in a rather short period of time.

You can watch the full movie (for free) here:

Pushover (1954) starring Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak, Philip Carey, & E.G. Marshall

This film noir is considered a kind of sequel- in spirit- to Double Indemnity. Both movies feature blonde femme fatales, temptation, and (of course) the lure of easy money. It opens w/ a bank heist where over $200,000 is stolen by a pair of armed men in plain clothes. After a late movie, Lona McLane (Kim Novak- just 20 y.o. in her first role), can’t start her car. She gets help from Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray), who was also alone at the movies. After her car is taken to a local garage, Lona decides to go home w/ Paul, and have an affair. A few days later, Paul reports to his boss’ office- we learn that he’s an undercover police detective! In order to catch the man who planned the robbery, Paul has been keeping track of his girlfriend- Lona.

The boss, Lt. Eckstrom, is played by E.G. Marshall- a face recognizable to movie fans of several generations. He had a long/successful career as a character actor, incl. as a juror in 12 Angry Men (w/ Henry Fonda) and the billionaire philanthropist in Absolute Power (w/ Clint Eastwood). Paul’s younger partner in the stakeout is Rick McAllister, played by a tall/deep-voiced actor named Philip Carey. He later became known as Asa Buchanan- patriarch of one of the families on the soap opera One Life to Live. Wow, I never knew he was so handsome as a young man! After a few moments, I recognized his name and that voice.

Rick (re: Lona): New car, mink coat, no clocks in the joint… probably the story of her life.

Paul: You just don’t like women, Rick.

Rick: What keeps you single?

Paul: Maybe I like ’em too much.

Rick: I’ve seen all kinds since we joined the force… B-girls, hustlers, blackmailers, shoplifters, drunks. You know, I think I’d still be married if I could find a half-honest woman. Must be a few of ’em around.

Paul: Watch yourself! Those few might just be smarter!

It doesn’t take Lona too long to discover that Paul is a cop; she’s mad and says they are through. Paul, Rick, and another cop stakeout Lona’s apt, waiting for her man to call or (maybe) visit. During the lull times, Rick watches Lona’s neighbor through his binoculars. This is Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone), a nurse who is always busy and in a cheerful mood.

MacMurray does a fine job as a good, but weary, middle-aged guy who is emotionally vulnerable once he meets Novak. The femme fatale is not a master manipulator; she resents being the trophy of a criminal. Is their hope to their relationship? Rick and Ann seem to almost live in a separate world; their relationship starts off shady, but grows hopeful once you see their chemistry. The atmosphere created in this movie also keeps you interested. The filmmakers are good at setting the mood; we see L.A. mostly at night when there are shadows, streets lit by large lamps, and a few rooftop scenes. This isn’t any fresh territory for Hollywood, but I stayed interested, wondering how far Paul would go.

Rewatch: “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizbeth Scott, & Kirk Douglas

The prologue suggests a Gothic movie, with the spooky figure of Mrs. Ivers dominating the eerie household that Martha wants to flee; then, the film changes to a noir with a fine plot. In fact, Lewis Milestone, the director, has mixed styles in the picture, but the end result makes a satisfying film to watch.

Barbara Stanwyck is at her peak–sure, confident, and unfailing. Van Heflin’s natural talent makes everything he does seem effortless. Kirk Douglas offers a most impressive film debut in what, in retrospect, is an uncharacteristic role. Lizabeth Scott (who seems to me a fascinating cross between Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Clooney) is constantly engaging.

The black & white cinematography is magnificent, and the fatal character of Barbara Stanwyck is one of the most dangerous and manipulative villains I have ever seen in a film-noir.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

I discovered this classic film a bit late (my earlier review was from 2011). I’ve seen it maybe three times over the years; somehow, it feels fresh each time! The film (which is a blend of melodrama and noir) was written by Richard Rossen, who went on to work on “The Hustler.” The director is Lewis Milestone, an immigrant from Moldova (then part of Russia), who worked on many fine films, incl. The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, and Mutiny on the Bounty (w/ Brando). According to film historians, a few days of this film (which started shooting during a strike in Hollywood) were directed by Byron Haskin.

Barbara Stanwyck was 39 y.o. in this movie; her two co-leads were 36 y.o. Van Heflin (who had just served in WWII), and 30 y.o. Kirk Douglas (in his film debut). According to film historians, Stanwyck did not like to be upstaged; when she saw the coin trick Heflin had learned (Milestone’s suggestion), she informed him he should make sure he did not do it during any of her important lines. Heflin only used the trick once in a scene with her. And what a debut for Douglas! Even though the actor (recommended to producer Hal Wallis by his close friend Lauren Bacall) is playing a weak-willed alcoholic spurned by his wife, his role is meaty and the star potential in clear onscreen. You see the maturity and commitment to character (honed in the theater) and the ironic expressions which he came to be known for in his prime years.

Martha Smith (Stanwyck), Sam Masterson (Heflin), and Walter O’Neil (Douglas) grew up together in the small city (Iverstown) w/ a burgeoning steel industry. As teens in 1928, Martha and Sam (a rebellious boy from “the wrong side of the tracks”) are the best of friends who plan to run away to join the circus. Walter, an obedient/fearful boy and son to Martha’s tutor, knew about the plan. Martha was an orphan determined to escape her controlling aunt (played by famed villain Judith Anderson). Martha, the child of a wealthy mother and a humble mill worker father, hated her aunt, who disapproved of her heritage and behavior (strong-willed). After Martha is caught and brought back to the family mansion, her aunt reveals that she has changed the girl’s last name to “Ivers” (reflecting her maternal heritage). Of course, young Sam escapes and goes on adventures of his own. After her aunt is dead, Walter’s father (an ambitious/calculating schoolteacher), takes over caring for her and securing the future of his son.

As adults in their 30s in 1946, the trio is reunited. Sam notices the sign of his old town, gets distracted, and runs into a pole (minor fender bender). FYI: The young sailor who is in the passenger seat is director Blake Edwards. This requires Sam to stop at the local garage for repairs and look for a hotel to stay. He runs across an old cop on his beat who used to chase him as a kid. When he goes back to his childhood home, Sam meets Toni (Lizbeth Scott), a pretty young blonde w/ a husky voice (reminding us of Bacall). She misses her bus to her hometown, but isn’t too upset about it. Sam has lived the life of a gambler (after leaving the circus), getting in trouble w/ the law, and spending a lot of time in hotel rooms.

After Toni gets in trouble, Sam goes to see Walter (who is running for DA) at his office. While they talk, Martha comes in; at first, she doesn’t realize who this man is. After a few moments, she runs into Sam’s arms. Sam hugs her twice, surprised at how beautiful she has become. Walter is (obviously) jealous, imagining that they may still have feelings for each other. Later, in these scene w/ Sam and Martha at her office, we learn that she has the real power in Iverstown (not her husband). She has grown the steel mill in size and workforce. The Ivers mansion has been redecorated to suit her style.

The melodrama element of this film is heightened by the music and costumes (designed by the famed Edith Head). Martha doesn’t dress like a typical businesswoman. She wears a lot of outfits, incl. a fur stole, cape, and several gowns that would suit a Manhattan cocktail party (not a steel town). In the final scene of the movie, Stanwyck wears a gorgeous flowing gown with a beaded waistline which is high in the front and lower in back. Film historians said Head designed this to draw attention from the actress’ long waist and somewhat low hips.

The film noir genre is known for it’s theme of the past (incl. old flames, friends, enemies) coming back to haunt you, and this film is no exception. Though Heflin is the hero who the audience can relate to, it’s the (explosive) scenes between Stanwyck and Douglas that reveal just how dysfunctional marriage can become! I really enjoyed how the romance between Sam and Toni, who both have somewhat shady pasts and alcoholic fathers, enfolded in a natural way. Their fresh and hopeful relationship is in direct contrast to that of the O’Neils. In the very last scene, we see Sam and Toni driving happily westward. He advises: “Don’t look back, baby. Don’t ever look back.”