“The Long Night” (1947) starring Henry Fonda, Vincent Price, & Barbara Bel Geddes

The opening credits fade onto a town square where a blind man, Frank (Elisha Cook Jr. – a staple in several film noirs) is tapping his way down the sidewalk. He enters a 4-story boarding house and hears a shot fired in one of the upstairs bedrooms. A door opens (from audience’s POV) and a man stumbles out of the door and falls down two flights of stairs. He is dead when he hits the bottom. This follows nearly 100 mins. of flashback (and flashbacks-within-flashbacks) about the unraveling of a WWII veteran/factory worker, Joe (Henry Fonda). Though it has some fine dialogue, the film lacks momentum and feels slow at times; it resulted in a loss for RKO Pictures ($1,000,000). This lesser-known movie (free on YouTube) is a remake of Le Jour Se Leve (1939) from France. Directed by Anatole Litvak, it is well-made and creates a noir-ish atmosphere in a seemingly normal Midwestern setting. Dmitri Tiomkin’s haunting music includes a rearrangement of a familiar piece by Beethoven.

Well, I never knew that Fonda did a noir picture! Over a few weeks, Joe falls in love w/ Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), a young woman who works in a floral shop. They are both alone, as they are orphans raised in the same home (though several years apart).When he mentions the idea of marriage, she is not too eager. Joe says that she’s free, as everyone should be, and goes to his truck. Joe then follows Jo Ann, curious why she’s going out so late (after 9PM). He ends up at a busy bar and sees her meeting w/ the performer- a magician named Maximilian (Vincent Price). Joe quickly learns re: this man’s character, thanks to his bitter/chatty assistant, Charlene (Anne Dvorak), Joe’s image of Jo Ann is shattered, and his thoughts get darker after he talks w/ Maximilian (an arrogant liar who has a way w/ words).

The dialogue will keep your attention, esp. the heated scenes between straight-talking Fonda and Price (both charming and creepy). Dvorak’s weary cynicism is in contrast w/ Bel Geddes’ youthful optimism. Fonda gets to show his range, in the flashbacks and in the present (where he is holed up in his small room w/ police surrounding the house). I didn’t think the characters were very fleshed out. The ending was not what I expected; it was too sentimental and unrealistic. Check it out if you like these actors and/or the noir genre.

[1] …I saw working class heroism, touches of popular justice, and just a hint of bourgeois deceit. The latter showed in the fantastic performance by Vincent Price as his character continued to try to sell a fantasy to Jo Ann by means of magic and falsehood.

[2] I never see anything that Fonda’s character has been put through as far as shock or emotional torment or even disillusionment that would justifiably cause him to kill a man.

I believe the production code is the reason any hard edges that seem to be just under the surface never appear. I’m almost positive the script would have gone further if the censors would have allowed it to be so.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Pickup on South Street” (1953) starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, & Richard Kiley

This is considered one of the “essential noirs” for anyone interested in the genre. It was written/directed by a 1st generation Jewish-American, Samuel Fuller, a legend of the genre. As a teen, Fuller got into the newspaper biz, then worked as a crime reporter for several years. When WWII started, he served as an infantryman in several dangerous campaigns, and even shot one of the first docs inside a concentration camp! Later in his Hollywood career, Fuller was known for his prolific screenwriting (some of which were made into films), tacking controversial subjects w/ an unflinching eye (to the extent that censors allowed), and making the most of small budgets.

On a crowded subway, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) picks the purse of a streetwalker- Candy (Jean Peters). Inside the pocketbook is a piece of top-secret microfilm that was being passed by Candy’s ex-boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley), a Communist agent. Kiley (who is sort of handsome w/ his dark eyes) looked very familiar to me; it turns out he was the father in the famous ’80s miniseries- The Thorn Birds! Candy discovers that Skip is the thief who has the film through an older police informer/saleswoman- Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter).

[1] None of them are really good guys and they all of their flaws and weaknesses. Really humane. It also especially features a great performance from Thelma Ritter, who even received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for. It has really got to be one of the greatest female roles I have ever seen.

[2] ...even though the characters aren’t perfect, you do care about them — perhaps because they have been somewhat branded by their pasts in ways that are hard to escape: Skip as a “three-time loser” and Candy as a youngish woman who has “knocked around” a lot.

[3] It is hard to believe that when Widmark made this film he was already in early middle age. The 39-year-old star… plays the upstart Skip McCoy with the irreverent brashness of a teenager. 

Haunting urban panoramas and subway stations offer a claustrophobic evocation of the city as a living, malevolent force. Like maggots in a rotting cheese, human figures scurry through the city’s byways. Elevators, subway turnstiles, sidewalks – even a dumb waiter act as conduits for the flow of corrupt humanity.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Pickup on South Street was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2018, by the Library of Congress for being, “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The film is about espionage, but in the French and German versions, the title was changed and all dialogue referring to spying was replaced by language about drug dealing. After seeing a preview of the film, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover demanded a meeting w/ studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and Fuller. He objected to the unpatriotic nature of Skip, even when he realizes he’s dealing w/ communists. Surprisingly, Zanuck refused to make any changes to the film, backing Fuller! This ended the studio’s close relationship w/ the FBI and all references to the agency were removed from the film’s advertising.

Marilyn Monroe read for the role of Candy; Fuller liked her very much, but said her “overwhelming sensuality” was wrong for the story. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Shelley Winters was originally cast to play Candy, but due to pregnancy, the studio assigned the role to Betty Grable. She refused the part when she learned that she’d be playing a prostitute. Anne Baxter and Linda Darnell were also considered for the role. Fuller saw Peters in the studio commissary, thought the way she walked was perfect for the part, and cast her on the spot. Candy acts tough, but is also naive in some ways.

Ritter’s New York accent lends authenticity to the film, though it was not shot in that city. New Yorkers will be surprised when Candy refers to Houston Street (pronouncing it like the Texas city), though the correct way is pronounced “House-ton.” Classic film fans may have admired Ritter’s supporting roles in two great films- All About Eve (as Bette Davis’ friend/assistant) and Rear Window (as a nurse who gives Jimmy Stewart some good relationship advice). Actors of her caliber really add something extra to whatever movie they are in!

Much of this film is shot in extreme close-up, which (as Eddie Muller commented) was rare for its day. Character drives the plot here and the close-ups are used to support character. When Skip interrogates Candy, the close-up captures the sexual tension/energy between them. Peters is shot in soft focus close-ups, enhancing her beauty. The device is employed to heighten the tension. The opening has no dialogue; the drama relies entirely on close-up.

“The Accused” (1949) starring Loretta Young, Robert Cummings, & Wendell Corey

Wilma Tuttle (Loretta Young) is a 30-something Psychology professor at a small college in California. One night, she agrees to have dinner w/ one of her students, Bill Perry (Douglas Dick), in order to discuss his behavior. Though he is an intelligent young man, he is too forward in his attentions (even in class). After dinner at a drive-in restaurant, Wilma insists on going home, but Bill drives up to a cliff high above the ocean in Malibu, making Wilma nervous. He quickly changes into his swimming trunks, saying they should go down to the beach. Wilma grows more scared, but she is strong enough to she act in self-defense (when Bill attempts to rape her). This results in his death, which Wilma covers up. Soon, she finds her conscience bothering her, which could jeopardize her mental health and promising career. Bill’s guardian/lawyer- Warren Ford (Robert Cummings)- arrives from San Francisco. He takes a liking to Wilma, as does his old friend- Lt. Ted Dorgan (Wendell Corey). The policeman (who has some of the best lines) wants to investigate further into Bill’s death, though an inquest ruled it an accident.

At the time, this must have seemed daringly modern and contemporary. Now it just seems quaint, a waystation in the breakdown of small-town American values…

Wendell Corey is his inscrutably poker-faced self, as always, hinting between the lines…

Each of the main characters is an interesting study, with ambivalent emotions that alternately spark and grate against those of the others.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Accused has noir-like psychological elements, though isn’t typical of the film noir genre. Wilma’s behavior is understandable to viewers, so she has our sympathy. The directing will hold the viewer’s attention to many scenes, though there is not much suspense. These scenes were esp. handled well: the opening sequence of Wilma trying to get home, a boxing match where she suffers a flashback, and the reconstruction of the killing.

Going w/ conventions of the time, a woman can’t have a career and a romantic life at the same time. As she gets closer to Warren, Wilma transforms into a glamorous woman from the prim stereotypical schoolteacher (w/ hair in bun, high collars, and long skirts). I thought the most interesting character was Lt. Dorgan (who wondered if he might have a chance), and felt bad about investigating Wilma. Though he admires her beauty, brains, and charming manners, he is compelled to get to the truth!

“Seventh Heaven” (1937) starring James Stewart & Simone Simon

James Stewart is superb as Chico. He’s awkward, gruff, reluctant to get involved with other people…

It’s as if Stewart’s star quality is irrepressible. It’s as if his personal good character comes across better than the script can tell...

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This was James Stewart’s first film in 1937; he was loaned out from MGM (the studio to which he was contracted) to 20th Century Fox. This is a remake of a silent classic that starred Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor (who won the first Best Actress Oscar). It was based on a play by Austin Strong that ran for 704 performances on Broadway (1922-1924). Some are going to think it’s odd that Stewart is playing a Frenchman, but it was common for American actors then not to attempt accents when playing foreign parts. I came across this movie on YouTube; it’s in the public domain.

In pre-WWI Paris, Chico (a late 20s Stewart) is sewer worker and atheist b/c his prayers were not answered. He wanted a better job and a beautiful, golden-haired wife. Though disappointed w/ his lot, Chico continues to do the right thing, but wonders why. A young woman, Diane (Simone Simon), is working for her abusive sister (a madam) in a small tavern (until she throws wine at a customer who violently kissed her). When that customer threatens to have the police close the tavern, Diane’s sister beats her all the way out to the street! Chico pops out of the sewer and saves her; he even claims that she is his wife when a policeman comes by. Several colorful characters join in the film w/ this pair, as they pretend to be married while waiting for the police to verify their claim. Chico’s flat is on the 7th (top) floor of the apt. building, hence the title.

In the late 30’s to early 40’s, Simon was a wanted actress by the studios. She’s petite, bouncy-haired, and adorable (reminding me of a more mature Shirley Temple). In 1936, Darryl F. Zanuck signed Simon to a contract at 20th Century Fox. She was launched with an expensive publicity campaign which accentuated her European allure, esp. her pout. Problems surfaced re: her command of English and also her limited singing skills. Dissatisfied w/ the roles she was given, she returned to France for a time. During the production of the cult classic Cat People (1942), Simon was under FBI surveillance (b/c of her relationship w/ a Russian MI-5 spy)!

“The Strange Woman” (1946) starring Hedy Lamarr

Bored with being a film star, Hedy became an accomplished amateur scientist, designing in the early 1940’s the basics of spread spectrum and frequency hopping for radio waves – a concept embodied in every wi-fi and cell phone in use today.

…I feel like the writers read Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind in the same sitting and said “let’s combine the two”. FYI “Strange” was the term used for “adulteress women” back in the day.

I really see this movie as about a woman who learns that she can “pretend” her way into being a better person. She may seem sociopathic or narcissistic to some, but she is desperate to survive and thrive in a world where she has no education, no money, and only her looks and charm in a rough land.

-Excerpts from reviews on Amazon

I came across this film from a Facebook group; it is in the public domain (as are most films directed by Edgar G. Ulmer). It has a mix of historical melodrama, film noir, and feminism. In 1824 in the port city of Bangor, Maine, Jenny Hagar grows up w/o the love and guidance of her mother (who left her and her drunken/violent father). As a girl, she tries to drown her friend, Ephraim, but then saves him (while other kids look on in wonder). A wealthy local man, Judge Saladine, stops his carriage upon seeing this commotion. His young daughter, Meg, asks if Jenny can go to boarding school w/ her; the judge considers it for a moment, then says Jenny can come work/live in his household. Jenny’s father, Tim (Dennis Hoey), admits that he’s not equipped to raise a child properly. However, Jenny turns down the offer. She demonstrates both her anger at the inequity of her circumstances and her determination to rise by her bootstraps. Jenny tells her father not to worry, b/c “I’ll grow up to be beautiful!” Douglas Sirk (uncredited) directed the opening sequence.

Men like me… and it’s men that have the money in this world! -Jenny declares to her father

After her father hears of Jenny (Hedy Lamarr) walking out w/ a young sailor, he beats her so roughly that she runs to the richest man in town. The owner of several businesses, Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), sent Ephraim (his son) away to college to keep him away from Jenny. After Jenny is cleaned up by his housekeeper, Mr. Poster marries Jenny that same night! He discussed the matter of her safety w/ Judge Saladine (Alan Napier) and the town pastor, Rev. Thatcher (Moroni Olson). Napier would later become famous as Alfred the Butler, in the 1960s series- Batman.

It wasn’t by knowing how to set a table that Cleopatra got along. -Jenny comments to her friend Meg

Jenny pledges a generous amount to the church, earning the respect of her neighbors. She starts doing charity work in the community, visiting those in need w/ food and kind words. Jenny remembers where she came from and she means to do something about those she left behind. When Epraim (Louis Hayward) returns home, he’s still deeply in love w/ Jenny, and she encourages his attentions. Mr. Poster is eager to have his son gone. After her husband falls ill, Jenny nurses him herself. Mr. Poster recovers and other town leaders come to him for help w/ a violent riot. Jenny is so concerned for her older friend, Lena (June Storey), that she takes her in after her tavern is burned down. Unlike Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, Jenny doesn’t care for propriety; she despises it, recognizing that its standards are applied far more strictly to women than men. Some of Mr. Poster’s lumbermen are called in from the hills to serve as a police force. Jenny becomes infatuated w/ one of the men; he is Meg’s (Hillary Brooke) fiance, John Evered (George Sanders).

There are similarities between Jenny Hager and Scarlett O’Hara, but Jenny’s intentions and the root of her flaws are much darker and more mysterious.

So often in films, femme fatales are portrayed to have no conscience, no sense of compassion for others, and yet Jenny does.

…Ulmer has crafted a moody and daring picture that strikes devilish notes without banging the drum too loudly. Striking scenes and imagery are many…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews