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Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema III

by Glenn Erickson Jun 13, 2020

Today’s noir forecast is vice, kidnapping, murder, suicide, narcotics and a sleazy stolen baby racket!  Kino’s third volume of Universal-International pix contains two seldom-screened quality urban noirs. Expect genuine dark themes in these sizable-budget location noirs filmed before Universal pulled most production back onto its one-size-fits-all backlot sets. Barbara Stanwyck dominates one show, while noir stalwarts Richard Conte and Dennis O’Keefe anchor the other two dramas, with dynamic showings by Coleen Gray, Edith Barrett, Peggy Dow, Jeanette Nolan, Meg Randall and especially Gale Storm.


Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema III
Abandoned, The Lady Gambles, The Sleeping City
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1949-50 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 79,99,86 min. / Street Date June 9, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.99
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Gale Storm, Jeff Chandler, Meg Randall, Raymond Burr, Marjorie Rambeau, Jeanette Nolan, Mike Mazurki, Will Kuluva, David Clarke; Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston, Stephen McNally, Edith Barrett, John Hoyt, Elliott Sullivan, John Harmon, Philip Van Zandt, Leif Erickson, Jerry Paris, Tony Curtis; Richard Conte, Coleen Gray, Richard Taber, John Alexander, Peggy Dow, Alex Nicol, James Daly, Robert Strauss.
Cinematography: William H. Daniels; Russell Metty; William Miller
Original Music: 0; Frank Skinner; Frank Skinner
Written by Irwin Gielgud, William Bowers; Roy Huggins, Halsted Wells story by Lewis Metzer, Oscar Saul; Jo Eisinger.
Produced by Jerry Bresler; Michael Kraike; Loenard Goldstein
Directed by
Joseph M. Newman; Michael Gordon; George Sherman

 

Only one of these three noirs appears ‘factory-made’ like the three features on Universal-International’s previous Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema II set. That’s only because it’s mostly an on-the-lot production, featuring Barbara Stanwyck. Women feature strongly in all three of these pictures, but only the Stanwyck film is a ‘women’s picture’ in the accepted sense. Why the other two genuine noirs here haven’t been revisited more often can only be chalked up to relative unavailability. For the last twenty years one had to attend a Muller/Rode Dark City film festival screening to catch them. A couple of the storylines court Production Code disapproval with sordid crime-page activities, which makes them seem even less like U-I product.


 

The set leads off with a show that noir fans will recognize for purely alphabetical reasons: in any particular overview of classic noirs, it’s usually first on the list. Abandoned opens and closes on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall [where we’ve been seeing mass demonstrations lately] and roams the streets of Bunker Hill, Echo Park etc.. The subject is illicit ‘baby brokering’ — putting babies up for adoption that have been obtained by nefarious means. That was considered so lurid in 1949 that producer Jerry Bresler surely had to watch his step — when a baby is placed in harm’s way at the conclusion, the direction keeps its distance from sensational effects.

The story begins identically to Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim. Young Paula Considine (Gale Storm) arrives in L.A. to find her lost sister. The nervy-but-sincere reporter Mark Sitko (Dennis O’Keefe) helps her stay on the trail, which leads directly to a fake charitable institution is run by the imposing Mrs. Donner (Marjorie Rambeau of Primrose Path), who employs a henchman (David Clarke of The Narrow Margin). Her sleazy associate Little Guy Decola (Will Kuluva of Odds Against Tomorrow), and his henchman is the hulking Hoppe (Mike Mazurki of Murder, My Sweet). To spring the trap, Sitko, D.A. McRae (Jeff Chandler of Merrill’s Marauders) and Salvation Army Major Ross (Jeanette Nolan of The Big Heat) enlist the unmarried & pregnant Dottie Jensen (Meg Randall of Without Warning!) to walk into Mrs. Donner’s trap, while Sitko and Paula pretend be wealthy out-of-towners looking to purchase an infant, no questions asked.

The screenplay is nicely paced and laced with interesting details of the appalling scam. Mrs. Donner says that Dottie will sign into the hospital under the prospective adoptive mother’s name to ‘avoid unnecessary red tape.’ “That’s very clever,” responds Paula. The plot thickens with the addition of a corrupt Private Eye, Kerric (Raymond Burr), who has also been looking for Paula’s sister, and knows that her supposed suicide was faked by Donner and Decola. Kerric’s attempts to weasel out of his culpable position only deliver him into a makeshift torture session. By this time The dark, brooding and complex Burr was established as the one of the best villains in the noir style.

Reviewers tended to slam Gale Storm’s performance, when her Paula Considine is simply not written as a take-charge heroine in the tradition of Carol Richman or Julia Ross. I find Storm convincing enough, especially When Paula spots her sister’s photo in the Morgue’s ‘Jane Doe’ book. Dennis O’Keefe’s Sitko is a standard nice guy, somewhere between his sober government agent in T-Men and his shifty newsman in Woman on the Run. Sitka pursues Paula from the start, and it’s apparently okay for him to glom onto her at City Hall and keep stalking her until they’re good friends.

The conclusion is a little subdued, even though a good gunfight takes place. When both the leading lady and a baby are set up for another faked suicide the camera stays at a discreet distance. Critic John Grant points out a big gap in the storyline — Paula’s unseen but very much discussed father is responsible for hiring Kerric to follow Paula, and we never learn exactly why. Grant suggests the possibility of an incest backstory involving Paula’s DOA sister. Now that would be noir. Producer Jerry Bresler later became infamous for gutting another of his movies, an expensive epic.

Abandoned really glows on Blu-ray — the shiny-marble atmosphere of City Hall couldn’t be recreated on a set. The police department must really have been located in the iconic building, because it also is in the same year’s noir classic D.O.A.. There is some back-lot filming work but the feel for L.A. is almost as strong as in Crime Wave.

The titles look much cheaper than the U-I norm; either the title animation photography is sloppy or the HD scan saw too deep into the blacks, revealing paper and tape outlines all over the place. Otherwise the show is pristine.


 

The Lady Gambles is not really noir but a decent-enough melodramatic vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck. Her star presence motivates the hiring of name actors to play a tag-team of romantic interests, one honest and the other shady. Future TV creative czar Roy Huggins had good noir credits. His screenplay shapes a Lost Weekend– type tale, substituting a gambling woman for a drinking man. We know where the story is going as soon as Stanwyck’s Joan Boothe starts lying and cheating on her husband David (Robert Preston), all to keep rolling the dice. She’s suckered into the addiction by Vegas casino executive Horace (Stephen McNally), who gives her free chips to play and then can’t control her.

There’s nothing logically wrong with the story, as Joan’s nose-dive into irresponsibility likely happens every day in Vegas. If we resist the show’s fantasy it’s because it is difficult to accept Barbara Stanwyck as a weak-willed woman susceptible to such influences. Joan drifts away from David, blows the money he’s saved to enable him to write a book. Later on, she tries to cheat Horace as well. Robert Preston’s David comes off as a dummy for letting Joan out of his sight — even when she is ‘cured,’ old contacts pull her back into the gambling game, as happens when she’s left alone in Mexico for a few minutes.

 

Even when Joan deserts David to serve as a front for Horace’s crooked racetrack scheme (cronies in crime include Philip Van Zandt and Leif Erickson) she ruins everything, simply because she can’t keep from gambling and blows their  Grifters– like odds-fixing scheme. We know the movie isn’t working well when Horace breaks off their romance by literally ditching her on the side of the road. Since Joan has never behaved like a low-life (any indication of sex with Horace is skirted) she just doesn’t seem to sink that low.

The melodramatic finale with its suicide attempt feels pro forma, as does the awkward psychological justification for Joan’s gambling neurosis — she’s suffering under the influence of a malign, crazy sister, played by Edith Barrett (I Walked With a Zombie). In the spectrum of almost-always-good Barbara Stanwyck movies, I place this one just below the disappointing To Please a Lady, which is at least good for laughs.

The Lady Gambles is a slick production with plenty of attractive sets; Stanwyck and Preston appear to have gone to Nevada’s Lake Mead for one scene but most everything else is stagebound. The great actress’s career was slowing down by this time, but she still chose her projects wisely. Every year she’d show up in at least one movie that anybody would be proud of.

One highlight of the show is an appearance by young Tony ‘Anthony’ Curtis, who gets screen credit for a small bit when a score of actors with bigger parts do not. Barbara opens her hotel room door and there’s our boy with a big smile, playing bellboy. Curtis looks instantly likable, even in medium shot. He had already been given billed parts in two movies, so maybe he had attracted Ms. Stanwyck’s attention and wanted to be in a scene with her, under any conditions.


 

The third noir feature The Sleeping City is the best, and is quite a special achievement. I think it’s the earliest movie I’ve seen that had to disassociate itself from a location for reasons of public relations. Such things weren’t automatically a problem in 1949. Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy staged a robbery scene in a name-brand meat packing plant, and depicted an employee being killed execution-style. The company didn’t mind.

But the institution where The Sleeping City was filmed did mind, after the fact. The sordid tale of drug trafficking clearly takes place in in New York’s Bellevue Hospital, and no New Yorker would mistake the setting. The compromise was that the star Richard Conte comes on camera before the movie begins to assure us that we’re not looking at Bellevue but a generic hospital in a generic city… even though a minute later we can see the Empire State Building in the background skyline.

In every other respect The Sleeping City is refreshingly uncompromised, and impressively grim. Internes at Bellevue a hospital are committing suicide under mysterious circumstances, and perhaps being murdered. Nobody on staff will be candid with police Inspector Gordon (John Alexander of Arsenic and Old Lace), so he sneaks an undercover man into the mix. Detective Fred Rowan (Richard Conte) spent two years in medical school and has experience as a combat medic. He joins the hospital staff as an interne and finds various tensions among his peers, a decidedly cynical lot. At first the only problems seem to be interpersonal: interne Dr. Steven Anderson (Alex Nicol in his screen debut) is furious about the depressing working conditions, and the low pay that prevents him from marrying his sweetheart Kathy (Peggy Dow, top big image ↑). Ward nurse Ann Sebastian (Coleen Gray of The Killing and Red River) cozies up to Fred, and spends her free time with him. The eccentric elevator operator ‘Doc’ (Richard Taber) helps the internes place bets on horses. Only by running up his own gambling tab does Fred begin to crack the case.

This time around the on-location vibe is very realistic. We can almost touch the atmosphere when the anxious internes take smoking breaks on the old wharf behind the hospital. The dorm-like quarters and enclosed space of the hospital require doctors devoted to their work — and free of outside influence.

 

It’s just a solid thriller. Even when the conspiracy is revealed, we’re still anxious to see if Fred will come out alive, as two other internes have not. The original screenplay is by the great Jo Eisinger, who had a way with sordid material that criticizes the way society functions: Night and the City, Crime of Passion. The mood is almost always somber. Nice touches include a man seen in a hallway, waiting with his head in his hands, and Fred’s reaction when he sees that a patient given opiates for pain is still suffering. Economic hardship seems to rule everything. Alex Nicol’s unhappy interne rails against a medical system that favors rich candidates — with no connections, he thinks he’ll have to work as an underpaid slave indefinitely. In 1950 America, most people assumed that anybody with a doctors’ license had it made.

The unsung king of noir Richard Conte carries a difficult role. Conte is utterly convincing as an under-educated medic who can impress a nurse with his diagnoses. When we see Fred administering a shot there’s only a bit of hesitation — passing as an experienced doctor never becomes an issue. His main problem is avoiding being shot point-blank in the head, a nasty fate dished out to an earlier interne, on camera. Director George Sherman (producer of The Comancheros) seems comfortable with the film’s realistic surface.

Coleen Gray (remember just one L, Glenn) is as dreamy as ever. Her nurse is mystified as to why an interne she dated would meet a violent end. Future comedic favorite Robert Strauss (The Seven-Year Itch) makes his screen debut as a cop, the inspector’s right-hand operative. The unusual old-timer Robert Taber was primarily a stage actor — his career ranges from movies in 1915 to a nice character bit in the comedy Born Yesterday.

The Sleeping City has a non-standard title design as well but appears to be a solid U-I production from the ground up. William Miller’s highly effective cinematography lends a semi-docu sheen to the hospital interiors. Miller’s long career started in silents at Paramount and took interesting side trips, to Argentina for Carlos Gardel musicals, and to the wilds of New Jersey to shoot Edgar G. Ulmer’s movies, including his Yiddish musicals. He’s also associated with socially conscious cinema like the New-Deal activist film …One Third of a Nation… (1939) and the searing racial exposé Lost Boundaries.

 


 

As seems to be the case with most Universal-International product, all three titles in KL Studio Classics’ Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema III Blu-ray set are given flawless new BW scans. All are formatted in the old Academy ratio and trailers are present for each.

This time around each film is given a quality audio commentary. Samm Deighan (Abandoned), Kat Ellinger (The Lady Gambles) and Imogen Sara Smith (The Sleeping City) bring different styles and deliveries, but each is a qualified, published expert.  The commentaries dispense information and analysis, not simply IMDB info and gossip. When they offer a thought, it’s much more than just a personal opinion or rumor. Best of all, their aim is to communicate enthusiasm and interest for the films, not merely to entertain.

Still listed on Amazon as coming is Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema IV collection, for July 14. It features another title I’ve read about for forty years but haven’t yet seen, Six Bridges to Cross. Yes, even right here in Hollywood I never got out to as many Dark City screenings as I should have.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Film Noir the Dark Side of Cinema III
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Abandoned & Sleeping City: Excellent; Lady Gambles: Good -minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, commentaries by Samm Deighan (Abandoned), Kat Ellinger (Lady Gambles) and Imogen Sara Smith (Sleeping City).
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Three Blu-rays in three keep cases
Reviewed:
June 9, 2020
(6286noir)
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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.