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Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema II

by Glenn Erickson May 25, 2020

Although only one of these 1950s B&W thrillers falls within a mile of a hard definition of film noir, all give us glamorous actresses in interesting roles. Claudette Colbert takes her turn at playing a nun, Merle Oberon tries a femme fatale role on for size and Hedy Lamarr does very well for herself as a man-hungry movie star. Kino gives all three excellent transfers, and one comes with an appropriately gossipy audio commentary.


Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema II
Thunder on the Hill, The Price of Fear, The Female Animal
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1951-58 / B&W / 1:37 Academy, 1:85 widescreen / 84,79,82 min. / Street Date May 12, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 49.95
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Ann Blyth, Robert Douglas, Anne Crawford, Connie Gilchrist, Gladys Cooper, Michael Pate, Phillip Friend; Merle Oberon, Lex Barker, Charles Drake, Gia Scala, Warren Stevens, Phillip Pine, Konstantin Shayne, Stafford Repp; Hedy Lamarr, Jane Powell, Jan Sterling, George Nader, Jerry Paris, Gregg Palmer, James Gleason.
Cinematography: William Daniels; Irving Glassberg; Russell Metty
Original Music: Hans J. Salter; Heinz Roemheld; Hans J. Salter
Written by Oscar Saul & Andrew Solt from a play by Charlotte Hastings; Robert Tallman from a story by Dick Irving Hyland; Robert Hill from a story by Albert Zugsmith.
Produced by Michael Kraike; Howard Christie; Albert Zugsmith
Directed by
Douglas Sirk; Abner Biberman; Harry Keller

Yes, it’s another grouping of B&W dramas marketed as noir. Although only one of these titles shows up in the standard noir texts, each does have a ‘dark’ quality or two. The first thriller takes place in a rainstorm and the third is an amusing extension of the older star/younger man setup of a couple of earlier noir classics. All three are from the Universal-International film factory at Universal City; one has genuine ‘auteur’ qualities.

First things first: an earlier Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema five-disc box set was released in 2016 and is still available. Its title selection includes fine examples of the noir style. I’ve reviewed three of them as singles, at these links: He Ran All the Way (1951) is the classic in which John Garfield’s fugitive wanted for murder takes a family hostage, and falls in love with a young woman, Shelley Winters. The show has a sad blacklist history; its ending is not compromised by sentimentality. Witness to Murder (1954) is a woman-in-jeopardy thriller, with Barbara Stanwyck victimized by George Sanders’ nicely-played smooth psychopat. It’s predictable but has its graces. Storm Fear (1955) is a smart home invasion story. For his first feature directing job, Cornel Wilde tries the one about escaping crooks hiding out in a farmhouse. It’s a little claustrophobic but the cast is really good: Jean Wallace, Dan Duryea, Lee Grant and Steven Hill.

I’ve seen the other two shows in this first collection, and they’re somewhat less exciting. Big House U.S.A. (1955) fumbles its story of desperate cons and a kidnapping gone wrong, but the cast is really attractive: Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, William Talman, Lon Chaney Jr., Charles Bronson and Felicia Farr. What director wouldn’t want to work with that lineup?   A Bullet for Joey (1955) is the only one of the five that didn’t make the grade for this viewer. It is one of the ‘greylist’ pictures that Edward G. Robinson found himself doing when the studios snubbed him. Some good names are involved, and Audrey Totter is in the cast, but so is the unexciting George Raft.

 


 

That’s the first disc set in the series. This month’s release, Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema II begins with 1951’s Thunder on the Hill, a perfect example of why Universal-International hired director Douglas Sirk and later graduated him to the studio’s top-tier productions — Sirk directs this patently dreadful story with taste and discretion and makes everyone in it look good.

Almost everyone. Charlotte Hastings’ laughable play would be excellent material for an Airplane!– like farce. The exaggerated characters and overdone dramatics play like a camp lampoon. Conversations are either accusations or instant psychological analysis. Some people have no purpose but to rattle off highly convenient exposition. One or two early scenes dish out info like a 24-hour all-news radio station.

Everybody comes to the Our Lady of Rheims Convent on the hill when a storm (and a broken dam?) floods the entire area. The idealistic, impulsive Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) breaks the rules and the law when she goes out of her way to prove the innocence of the tried-and-convicted Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth) — who was on her way to be executed for murder when the rains intervened. But who is the real killer?  The Convent halls are packed with suspects — a couple of other doctors (including Robert Douglas), a weak-minded servant (Michael Pate) and women both confused (Anne Crawford) and bitter (Phyllis Stanley). Good performances from Connie Gilchrist, Norma Varden and Gladys Cooper compensate for paper-thin, obvious characterizations; William Daniels’ spooky cinematography is a big asset. Come for the camp histrionics, not the mystery.

The dealbreaker is the presentation of Ann Blyth’s death row-bound Valerie. Although she was scheduled to be hanged in the morning, Valerie is attired and made up in full glamour mode. Douglas Sirk can’t do much about that or Valerie’s outrageously overwritten outbursts. His solution is to just let Blythe howl like a fire siren, lashing out at everyone around her. Blyth is doing the right thing — but Sirk realizes that the exaggerated dramatics require the close-ups of her shouting her lines.

It’s highly enjoyable, even if the play’s germ of an idea about Good Nun Ethics is trampled in the melodramatic stampede. Sister Mary repeatedly disobeys instructions to play cupid for Valerie and her boyfriend (Philip Friend). When she abandons her post, she’s blamed for the near-death of a baby. Everyone thinks it insane to question a closed murder case, but Sister Mary is divinely inspired. The film’s refugees debate proper etiquette, class distinctions, etc., in the middle of what’s supposed to be a dire emergency. The local flood refugees given haven in the Convent stand around like a resentful Greek chorus, grumbling about Sister Mary’s disloyalty and the indecency of having to spend a night under the same roof as a murderess. Phyllis Stanley’s miserable nurse behaves in such a nasty manner, one wishes that she’d turn up as a murder victim, just to give the rest of the cast some peace. The real killer is easy to spot — the actor in the role played villains almost exclusively.

Douglas Sirk forges ahead with his fine direction, undeterred by any of these liabilities. Thunder on the Hill is beautifully directed, with no lack of interesting camera angles and expressive cutting when needed. One of the final scenes sees a murderer dragging a woman up the steps of a chapel’s bell tower — a violent action staged very similarly to Alfred Hitchcock’s climactic bell-tower scene in Vertigo.

When critic Jon Halliday interviewed Douglas Sirk he skipped over most of these early Universal pictures, admitting that he hadn’t seen them and implying that they weren’t worth seeing. On the other hand, Cahiers de Cinema had this to say about Thunder on the Hill:

“Somewhat hampered by the script, which is a mixture of religious police
intrigue and metaphysical drama, Sirk finds in this extreme psychological
climate, among the unleashed elements, the exact sense of melodrama.”

Or better, MELODRAMA! All the movie needs is a few show tune parodies, and it could be Broadway bound:

🎵 “I’m getting strung up in the morning!” 🎵

I recently reviewed Douglas Sirk’s impressive Taza, Son of Cochise in 3-D. It seems likely that the director helped nurture the career of Rock Hudson as a way of getting free of movies like Thunder on the Hill — which he said he was very proud of. Sirk did great work with those six or seven Universal program pictures, making them all twice as entertaining as they had any right to be.

 


 

The Price of Fear is the recognizable Noir in the bunch — its criss-crossing crooked schemes involve gambling, a hit-and-run accident, murder for hire and an extra frame-up just for good measure. What happens is certainly complex, but it’s not involving enough to make us fully invest in its twists and turns. The attractive stars Merle Oberon and Lex Barker have little chemistry and not a lot of energy — the gorgeous Oberon did her share of classics but usually with a fine script and strong actors orbiting around her in support. We need to care about what happens to the schemers in this kind of film, and neither star takes us all the way to that point.

Director Abner Biberman (not to be confused with director Herbert J. Biberman of The Hollywood Ten) doesn’t do much with this show filmed mostly on the back lot. If one pays close attention, the maze-like storyline might be a grabber for its own sake. Lex Barker’s Dave is framed for a hit-and-run but wants to be framed because that crime gives him a convenient alibi for another crime he didn’t commit, a gangland murder. Merle Oberon’s Jessica is the most passive femme fatale ever. She just stands by as circumstances keep making Barker look more guilty. Mob killers (Warren Stevens, Phillip Pine) skulk around and eliminate witnesses to crimes; and the daughter of the hit-and-run victim (Gia Scala) mainly increases the lead characters’ guilt factor. Merle Oberon’s Jessica proves to be more of a femme mystery than a femme fatale — we don’t quite buy it when she falls in love with the man she’s framing, and then does something really weird.

At most, The Price of Fear should get a prize for plot convolutions. Even Douglas Sirk would be hard-pressed to make this into something more compelling than a noir narrative pretzel.

 


 

The third show The Female Animal is the least noir of the trio but maybe the most fun. Producer Albert Zugsmith and director Harry Keller concoct an incredibly un-original ‘inside Hollywood’ tale, and mis-cast it with three interesting actresses that nevertheless generate some very good scenes. Gorgeous star Vanessa Windsor (Hedy Lamarr) is getting old and feeling vulnerable — which is absurd, considering how devastatingly good Ms. Lamarr looks. Even when slightly drunk Vanessa performs a classy seduction of hunky bit player Chris Farley (!), played by Universal contract lead George Nader. Vanessa likes Chris’s muscles. He wouldn’t mind having the job of taking care of her isolated Malibu designer hideaway pad right on the beach.

Before you can say Joe Gillis, Chris is installed in the hideaway and being lavished with a wardrobe allowance. His spirits darken when he overhears cynical star Lily Frayne (Jan Sterling), who has made an art of snagging attractive boy-toys, giving Vanessa tips on how to keep Chris on a short leash. Everything goes wrong when Chris falls in love with Penny (ex- MGM star Jane Powell) a delinquent teenager he rescues from a wolf at a bar on the beach. Only later does he discover that Penny is Mrs. Robinson’s Vanessa’s daughter.

The title The Female Animal is now as obsolete as the jokes in old Howard Hawks movies that equate women to animals, mainly to avoid dealing with them as people. In this Hollywood the women are the beasts in control. Hunky Chris Farley doesn’t gigolo-ize himself as much as fall under the intoxicating spell of a glamorous star. This was Hedy Lamarr’s last feature film. There’s nothing at all embarrassing about it, even if the structure is a bit like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with George Nader taking the Victor Buono part. Lamarr spent twenty years being merely decorative, but her she gives her most consistently good performance this side of Edgar Ulmer’s The Strange Woman. Lamarr’s acting even smooths out an EGBOK finale that ought to be a total fizzle.

The script bears comparison to Sunset Blvd., but the gigolo aspect is a little forced. To begin with, it’s not absolutely certain that Vanessa even SLEEPS with Chris. She is in no way crazy or too old for him. Lily Frayne’s own boy toy looks like an older creep, not the young consorts she brags about. Vanessa’s smooth date with Chris, luring him to the beach house, makes the opening couple of reels a great sex fantasy — no young actor was ever seduced as nicely. Chris has an agent and a possible good acting opportunity waiting for him in Mexico, a Lex Barker-like muscle boy role. He’s too sensible to ruin himself in a The Day of the Locust way.

The Jane Powell character brings in another potential Hollywood Babylon angle. Penny Windsor whines that she was adopted by Vanessa to perform the role of Hollywood daughter, which is why she’s now running wild in bars as an underage adventuress. That’s awfully close to Joan Crawford/Christina Crawford territory, but Vanessa Windsor proves too loving for the comparison to develop. Jane Powell literally closed RKO the previous year with The Girl Most Likely, and she’s quite adept in her first non-musical role. But it’s still a case of serious miscasting. The almost-30 Powell in no way passes for a teenager, and having Penny and Chris just happen to meet cute over a fight outside a bar is an unforgivable coincidence. David Del Valle’s commentary tells us that the film’s original title was Hideaway, which explains why Penny doesn’t recognize her own mother’s beach cottage.

The ‘hideaway’ angle suggests that Vanessa is a serial seducer of hunky males, as was Ruth Chatterton in the saucy pre-Code sex fantasy Female. But nothing else in her behavior suggests this. Lily Frayne coaches Vanessa in that direction, but it seems her previous boyfriends have not been that callously picked up and discarded. If Vanessa is so crazy about her daughter, why wouldn’t she have made use of the beach property with her?

As there are no bedroom scenes in this sex relationship between Vanessa and Chris, the movie feels more than a little phony. Not helping is a flashback structure that fails to heighten suspense or add more meaning. Vanessa is twice drunk on the set, but her drinking doesn’t seem to be a problem, even when she flounders her way through movie scenes she doesn’t understand. Just the same, the under-appreciated Hedy Lamarr is terrific, Jan Sterling a little forced and Jane Powell quite good in an ill-fitting role. That leaves the mostly-ignored George Nader to figure out. Universal-International’s all-purpose utility player looks good and has an okay screen personality, yet just isn’t surefire female bait like Rock Hudson or even John Gavin. We’re told that producer Zugsmith wanted John Gavin to play Chris Farley… which might have been worse.

 


 

All three B&W titles in KL Studio Classics’ Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema II Blu-ray set are given flawless new scans. The first show is formatted in the old Academy ratio, the second in cropped widescreen and the third in CinemaScope.

All three films are given original trailers. The Female Animal has an audio commentary by David Del Valle, with an assist from director David DeCoteau. They introduce themselves by saying they’d never seen the movie before, although they can certainly talk a lot about it. We learn of the show’s reverse-fame significance: it was the main feature for the dumped-and-forgotten double bill release of Albert Zugsmith & Orson Welles’s now-celebrated Touch of Evil. The two Davids believe that The Female Animal as patterned after the earlier Zugsmith / Joan Crawford thriller Female on the Beach. They then engage in gossipy discussion of the actors. None of the film’s three actresses could be called a has-been, but all were figuring out how to navigate career Act IIs. The answer for all three was a transition to television work.

The thing I don’t follow is Del Valle and DeCoteau’s insistence that George Nader’s character is a gigolo, when he’s just a nice guy who finds that other people assume he’s a gigolo. Del Valle tells us that John Gavin actually began filming with Hedy Lamarr, but that she asked that he be replaced. Poor George Nader … he was quite capable, and yet his ‘headline’ role on the IMDB remains Robot Monster.

Already listed on Amazon are the future ‘Dark Side of Cinema’ compilations Three (June 9) and Four (July 14). Several of the titles promised are genuine films noir that I’m eager to finally see — Abandoned, The Sleeping City, Six Bridges to Cross.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema II
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: all Good but minor
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, commentary on Thunder on the Hill with David Del Valle and David DeCoteau.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 19, 2020
(6270noir)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.