The Noir File: Dark treats from Preminger, Dassin and Lang

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are one of film noir’s great couples.

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950, Otto Preminger). Thursday, Dec. 27, 1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m.).
While investigating a murder, a smart but sometimes savage Manhattan police detective named Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) accidentally kills an innocent suspect (Craig Stevens). Dixon tries to cover it up, but his relentless new boss Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) keeps pushing the evidence toward an affable cabbie named Jiggs (Tom Tully). And Dixon has fallen in love with Jiggs’ daughter, model Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney). Gary Merrill plays a crook/gambler.

Scripted by Ben Hecht from William Stuart’s book “Night Cry.” If you want to know what film noir is all about, check this one out.

Thursday, Dec. 27

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Black Widow” (1954, Nunnally Johnson). Crime among the Broadway elite, from one of Patrick Quentin’s mystery novels. Not much style, but the cast includes Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, George Raft and Peggy Ann Garner.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “Night and the City” (1950, Jules Dassin). In shadow-drenched, dangerous London, crooked fight promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) double-crosses everyone he encounters as he tries to outrace the night. The night is faster. This is a top film noir, a masterpiece of style and suspense. From Gerald Kersh’s novel; with Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom, Francis L. Sullivan and Googie Withers.

Sunday, Dec. 30

8:15 a.m. (5:15 a.m.): “Bunny Lake is Missing” (1965, Otto Preminger). Bunny Lake is an American child kidnapped in London, Carol Lynley her terrified mother, Keir Dullea her concerned uncle, Anna Massey her harassed teacher, Noel Coward her sleazy landlord, and Laurence Olivier the brainy police detective trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The most important of those pieces: Was Bunny ever really there at all? A neglected gem; based on Evelyn Piper’s novel.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “Ministry of Fear” (1944, Fritz Lang). Ray Milland, just released from a British mental institution, wins the wrong cake at a charity raffle and becomes ensnared in a nightmarish web of espionage and murder. The source is one of novelist Graham Greene’s “entertainments.” Co-starring Marjorie Reynolds and Dan Duryea.

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A little bromance, a beautiful woman, a battle with Fate

The Woman in the Window/1944/Christie Corp./99 min.

When you least expect your life to unravel is exactly when your life will unravel, at least in a Fritz Lang film. Take “The Woman in the Window” from 1944. Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) lives a cozy bourgeois life – he gives lectures on Freud by day, enjoys after-dinner port and cigars by night. But by the end of this night, Richard will be covering up a murder.

Sipping and smoking with him at their Manhattan men’s club are his friends, District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon), who’s fond of barking “Great Scott!”

Richard leaves the club after their booze-fueled yack-fest and lingers at the window of the art gallery next door. While he gazes at the creamy-skinned, raven-haired lady peering out from the canvas, another creamy-skinned, raven-haired lady materializes – it’s the model, a woman named Alice Reed (Joan Bennett).

Alice (Joan Bennett) is the woman in the painting Richard (Edward G. Robinson) and his friends admire.

After chatting over drinks, she invites him back to her splendidly appointed place. Just as they’re getting to know each other, her flashy peacock boyfriend Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) barges in. Clearly, Alice and Claude haven’t had that “Are we seeing each other exclusively?” talk and violence erupts.

Claude’s rumored “disappearance” doesn’t fool people for long – the cops are digging for info, Richard’s pals Frank and Michael chatter about the case endlessly, and a sleazy associate of Mazard’s named Heidt (Dan Duryea) sees a plum opportunity for blackmail.

Alice and Richard are randomly bound together.

Sharply written and brilliantly acted, “The Woman in the Window” proved a box-office hit. Nunnally Johnson produced the movie and wrote the script from the J.H. Wallis novel “Once Off Guard.” The movie’s original score, a group effort led by Arthur Lange and Hugo Friedhofer, received an Oscar nom.

Vienna-born Lang infuses the film with fatalism, despite its upbeat ending. “I always made films about characters who struggled and fought against the circumstances and traps in which they found themselves,” he said.

And, as usual, Lang pulls out all the visual stops, suggesting powerlessness, alienation and doom. A signature noir shot is Claude entering the shadowy lobby of Alice’s apartment building, against the backdrop of a lonely, rainy nightscape pierced by the glare of a neon clock. Later his body will be draped in more shadows, in the back seat of Richard’s car.

Alice sweet-talks Heidt (Dan Duryea).

Inside Alice’s pristine white apartment, mirrors splice and distort images, contributing to a fractured sense of reality. The effect may have helped inspire Orson Welles to create the fun-house mirrors sequence in 1948’s “Lady From Shanghai.”

Though he got typically great work from his actors, Lang also had a reputation for being difficult. But he clicked with Bennett. Maybe he appreciated the sacrifices she made for her art – a natural blonde, Bennett dyed her hair black. ;) She also had lots of drama offscreen – she married four times and endured a scandal after her third husband, producer Walter Wanger, shot her lover in the groin. (Her second husband was producer Gene Markey).

Lang and Bennett made four (almost five) films together: another famous noir, 1945’s “Scarlet Street” (which also starts Robinson and Duryea, and is definitely the darker of the two), “Man Hunt” 1941, and “Secret Beyond the Door” 1948. Bennett also starred in “Confirm or Deny” 1941, but director Archie Mayo was brought in to replace Lang.

Johnny Depp

Later in her career, Bennett portrayed Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in the ’60s TV series “Dark Shadows” and she appeared in the 1970 movie “House of Dark Shadows.” The Collinses will hit the big screen again next spring in a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration.

The mood of “The Woman in the Window” is pure Lang, and much of that mood comes from the actors. Duryea convincingly plays a slimy loser while, in reality, he was a standup guy. It’s a testament to his versatility that Robinson, though famous for his tough gangster roles, is completely at ease as the innocent, cultured professor caught in a film-noir web.

Best of all is Bennett, noir to the nines, spinning that web.

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