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Monday, March 19, 2007

Rescue These Orphaned Noirs!

Accurately defining film noir has become an increasingly dodgy proposition of late. Distributors intent upon selling deep library product have affixed noir classification upon titles at best questionable as such. As I’m happy to see any and all vintage product out there, such gentle subterfuge isn’t the least offensive to me, but others have brought companies to task for capricious marketing of generic crime and police thrillers, calling them noir to reel in camp following impulse buyers. Meanwhile, hundreds of worthier prospects lay dormant in studio vaults. The four I address today may or may not be authentic noir. You tell me. Everyone has their own definition. Common elements are rife among this quartet. They’re cheap --- mighty cheap. I picture deals closed during late afternoon happy hour and memorialized upon a cocktail napkin. Neophyte investors sinking that small inheritance they should have put against the mortgage in hopes of striking gold with known (if faded) Hollywood pros. These were features only by virtue of being two or three times the length of a Racket Squad episode, booked if at all by exhibitors in need of something --- anything --- to reassure patrons there was some benefit to be had for coming in a grindhouse other than getting out of the rain or sleeping off a drunk. Actors headed down a sliding board toward television did these in hopes of staying on theatre screens a little longer, so who paid heed to Cry Danger, Shield For Murder, Witness To Murder, and The Killer Is Loose? Distractions are rife in a drive-in parking lot after all, and that was first-run port of call for these in towns with limited indoor venues. "A" houses preferred bigger names, preferably in Cinemascope. Consider these numbers --- The Killer Is Loose had 7,987 bookings, Kirk Douglas in The Indian Fighter (color and scope) scored 21,030 --- both from United Artists and released within months of each other. Witness To Murder was a near photo finish for Rear Window and beat it into theatres by four months besides, but Hitchcock’s thriller took 4.8 million in domestic rentals while the former settled at $683,029. Life’s just not fair sometimes, even if Rear Window was the tale more artfully told. Justice is finally served by way of frequent TCM broadcasts for these orphans. All four are richly deserving of that hour and a quarter you might devote to each. Wobbly sets and careening mike booms are more than offset by rich performances, terse dialogue, and you are there LA street locales. This is lean meat shorn of pretension and served minus big studio garnishment. For a single viewing of most Metro biggies, I’d look at Cry Danger a dozen times, and have.

Dick Powell mentored Robert Parrish’s directing bow and disabused the youngster as to notions of art just prior to starting Cry Danger. It’s only a movie. It’s not real life. It’s shadows on a screen. It’s nothing. It’s dreams. They were lunching at Preston Sturges’ Hollywood restaurant. We’ll make a quality movie for the price. That’s what it’s all about, Powell said. We’ll start on schedule in two weeks and we’ll finish on schedule twenty-two days later. They’d gotten money out of a mid-west theatre owner with producing aspirations. Howard Hughes pledged the rest along with distribution. Powell had an accountant’s brain with regards priorities. Anybody can direct a movie, even I could do it (and he would later on). I’d rather not because it would take too much time. I can make more money acting, selling real estate, and playing the market. Hard to reconcile such casual philosophy with great work Powell did over the years. Pragmatism can sometimes be a handmaiden to excellence, and I suspect Cry Danger wears well precisely because Powell and crew maintained grown-up, get it done attitudes throughout, unburdened by stylistic excesses indulged by so many of today’s neo-noir pretenders. Known less by its title than long standing identification as the one in the trailer park, Cry Danger scores, as do most of these budget noirs, with its location filming --- by necessity, according to director Parrish, as only $7,500 was allocated to set building. Nice to see characters enter dingy hotel lobbies from off the street, thus confirming we’re seeing the real thing. Actual bars and grocers stand in for clip joints and bookie parlors. You’d think Powell and company were making home movies but for guns they carry. Dialogue (rewritten) by ace scribe William (The Gunfighter, The Mob) Bowers was so good as to be highlighted in the pressbook ad shown here, indeed a rare thing among annals of movie salesmanship. Powell works his customary magic with props. Watch how he plays amongst contents of William Conrad’s desk drawers. The star’s economy with words mirrored offscreen dedication to get this job done and move on. Powell to Parrish: You can cut it with Bernie Burton, we’ll ship it, and then we can start thinking about something else. OK? RKO did indeed ship Cry Danger to final domestic rentals of $850,000, with an additional $250,000 foreign. Being an independent (Olympic Productions), the negative went from shelf to shelf and ended up with NTA for syndication packaging. By then, elements had degenerated sufficiently as to leave Cry Danger available, if at all, on duped 16mm. The two prints I collected years ago were (1) splicy original and (2) clean dupe. It seemed you couldn’t win with Cry Danger. The US Copyright Office still lists NTA as owner of the negative, but my question is --- Does that negative even exist anymore?

Barbara Stanwyck watches as George Sanders strangles a woman in an adjacent apartment window. She confronts him and goes to the police, but nobody believes her, except Sanders, of course. Witness To Murder opened in April of 1954. There were 10,092 bookings. Someone must have seen it and experienced déjà vu when Paramount unveiled Hitchcock’s Rear Window in August of that year, though critics seem to have ignored the many parallels. Variety never mentioned them in its review. Rear Window was the big studio elephant stepping over a modest indie despite its having been first in line to tell a remarkably similar story. I’d sound foolish submitting Witness To Murder as the better picture, though it’s hard resisting an impulse to boost UA’s David over Paramount’s Goliath. Noir legend John Alton photographed Witness To Murder. His compositions must have dazzled 1954 viewers. All of that’s lost today in what look to be 16mm broadcasts on TCM. Apartment dweller noir flourished in 1954. Columbia’s Pushover also dealt with renters peeping across courtyards and down hallways. The killer next door became a popular urban, as well as suburban, menace. Postwar Barbara Stanwyck either played murderers or was busy fleeing from them. She’d become a hard sell for romantic leads, and it wasn’t just an age issue (47 in 1954). Not for a moment could I buy Gary Merrill’s attraction to "bachelor girl" Stanwyck in Witness To Murder, for seldom was a woman so unapproachable on screen as here. The stridency B.S. could get away with in the thirties was now twenty years more off-putting, especially in contrived situations where she’s hurling opportunity in Sanders’ direction, inviting him to do her in. Acting is like roller-skating. Once you know how to do it, it is neither stimulating nor exciting, was a quote attributed to George Sanders, and his listless performance in Witness To Murder, four years out from the triumph of All About Eve, is proof enough he lived by those words. A somnambulant Sanders is preferable to most other players on their best day, however, so seeing him enact yet another would-be Nazi superman, albeit one transplanted to stateside environs, is a delight for fans of this actor, particularly when he lapses into Teutonic tirades. Imagine his character in Manhunt or Confessions Of A Nazi Spy beating it across the Atlantic and setting up shop in the Americas after WWII. That’s essentially the part Sanders plays in Witness To Murder. I suspect a nice 35mm print of this on a big screen, or a DVD release, would elevate its reputation quite a lot.

Aubrey Schenck and Howard Koch were an independent team in pursuit of whatever exploitation product sold at the given moment, whether it be shlock horror (Voodoo Island, The Black Sleep), exotic actioner (Desert Sands), or calypso music (Bop Girl). The rogue cop saga that was Shield For Murder amounted to just another day’s work for these two, and returns for the United Artists release was no doubt predictable as an average B western would have been a decade earlier. Anti-heroic Edmond O’Brien wears a drab overcoat and pistol-whips both friend and opponent. The sex angle is front and center via trailer bait shots of Marla English (shown here) donning brief attire for seedy nightclub duty (… and does Marla remain the elusive and hotly sought after object of would-be Filmfax interviewers? Has anyone found her yet?). Shield For Murder’s violence is sudden and vivid, beyond self-imposed mainstream limits of the time. Competing with television required haymakers surpassing what was given away on home screens. You had to raise the bar on whatever had come before. Serving up less was never an option. The black-and-white cop genre was eventually wiped out by increased proficiency of TV crews pushing their own envelopes. Shows like Dragnet, Naked City, and M-Squad offered real inducement to stay home. Had Shield For Murder come along five years later, I’m betting it would have sunk like a stone. As it is, the August 1954 release earned $442,919 in domestic rentals, with $432,000 foreign. Within a couple of years, it too was playing television. Could this be reason for that scene where crime boss Hugh Sanders enjoys prizefights (and a clear picture!) on his remote control set? Unusual to see such a positive TV reference at a time when Hollywood was still resisting the home screen’s encroachment. By 1956, police protagonists took a back seat to psycho stalkers. The Killer Is Loose focuses on near superhuman efforts of vengeful Wendell Corey to even a score with straight arrow detective Joseph Cotton. Corey was just this side of TV series work in Harbor Command, which would start up the following year. Had I been an Academy member in 1956, I’d have nominated him for The Killer Is Loose. The man is a revelation here. Formerly typed as a stick in the mud, forever losing the girl, Corey lights up his title role with one of the scariest meek-mannered head cases I’ve ever seen depicted in movies. There’s really nothing out there like him. Too bad this movie, with its modest $392,768 in domestic rentals, got so little attention. Budd Boetticher warms up here for all those Randy Scott westerns at Columbia. The Killer Is Loose moves fast, shocks frequently (John Larch’s death scene!), and delivers admirably within 73 crackling minutes.

Here's a tip. Go to Eddie Muller's Film Noir Foundation and join up. There's an informative newsletter that comes with membership, plus news of noir import and up-to-the-minute dope on happenings in genre underworlds. Muller's site is terrific too.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The film noir I would like to watch again is Hugo Fregonese's "Apenas un delincuente"; an Argentinean film he made in 1949, with a cameo by Faith Domergue. It is a great classic and it is much better than anything that Fregonese later made in Hollywood.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Alan K. Rode said...

Extant elements for "Cry Danger" are available have a new print struck and the Film Noir Foundation is on the case. When we screened this film at our annual San Francisco festival, "Noir City" in January 07, we discovered that the last existing 35mm print had curdled to vinegar. The only other print was a 16 mm copy from the UCLA Film and Television Archive which they were kind enough to let us screen with both "Cry Danger" star Richard Erdman and the entire family of screenwriter Bill Bowers in attendance. (BTW- this 16 mm print used to be Dick Powell's personal copy!). "Cry Danger" and these other films are in danger of disappearing forever though. That's why The Film Noir Foundation is important.

In addition to taking on some specific film restoration projects this year, The Film Noir Foundation will soon add a new page on our site titled the "The Unusual Suspects". This page will list the most sought after film noirs that are currently unavailable for screening in their original 35mm glory.

As our friend John McElwee suggested, check out the Film Noir Foundation at

Alan K. Rode
The Film Noir Foundation

12:55 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Your selection here would make a nice little box set. Could it be done? WB could do it if anyone could, but what about all of the rights? Sometimes nothing gets in the way of preservation and presentation than the little matter of who owns the rights, and if they can authorize or sell them. Great article as usual John!

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Ray Davis said...

Three great picks, great summaries, great graphics, all as usual here at the Shows.... I also stuck The Killer Is Loose at the end of a triple-feature essay, although my theme was more specialized than overlooked noir: "A sissy in a mutally adoring marriage who's threatened by masculine hostility and a job crisis can solve all his problems by joining a bunch of gangsters."

7:36 PM  

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