Fear in the Night

December 23, 2009 at 4:25 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , )


Fear in the Night is a little known noir from 1947 that is based upon a Cornell Woolrich story. Woolrich is one of the most well-known mystery and noir writers of all time. His writings formed the basis of many noir films such as The Chase, Black Angel and Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Fear in the Night is directed by Maxwell Shane, who also contributed to the screenplay. Shane was a writer and director, though really only has a few noir credits, the only other of any note is Nightmare, which is also based upon a Woolrich story and stars Edward G. Robinson.

This film does not have many big names attached to it. It stars Paul Kelly, Ann Doran, Kay Scott, Jeff York and DeForest Kelley. The biggest name on the list is DeForest Kelley who later became well-known as Bones McCoy from both film and TV versions of Star Trek. Most of the other actors played bit parts in other noirs, most notable Jeff York and Paul Kelly, but never any really major roles to speak of.

The story focuses on a dream by Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) in which he and a beautiful, unknown lady kills a woman in a strangely mirrored room. The dream is so vivid that Vince feels as if he may have actually committed the murder. Then signs begin to show themselves, such as a key, some scrapes, blood and a coat button, that make Vince and his detective brother-in-law Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly) feel as if the murder may be possible.

Things take a turn for the worse for Vince when a picnic with his girlfriend Betty (Kay Scott), his sister (Ann Doran) and Cliff gets rained out, forcing the group to take shelter in what looks to be a deserted mansion. They make their way into the mansion and come across the strange mirrored room of Vince’s dream. As Cliff begins to think Vince could actually be guilty, the group is interrupted by Detective Torrence (Jeff York) who is investigating the murder of Mrs. Belnap.

From here on out it is touch and go as to Vince and Cliff attempt to find out if he really did murder Mrs. Belnap or if he was possibly set up.

Elements of Noir (Spoilers)

The lighting of the film is very noir. There are few darker pictures in terms of lighting that you will find. The use of psychology and dreams shows the influence of Freud, which is prevalent in a majority of film noirs. The opening of the film, which is the dream sequence, is similar to the drunken sequence in Moontide, though not as well-done and sets the stage for the psychological drama to come.

Vince Grayson is a noir protagonist who does have control over his fate; he is taken advantage of by those in power and by his own inability to recognize of what he is capable of. This film would be called a psychological thriller today, which would be the fate of many noirs.

The film certainly has its twists and turns and you are not sure for a long time whether or not Vince actually did the killing, but you do not see how his character could be capable of such a thing. The hypnotism angle is certainly something that would find itself the catalyst for a noir film and is treated as if it were an entirely new angle.

Recommendation

I have to say I don’t particularly recommend Fear in the Night. It is not a very well-done film. The acting is pretty bad across the board. It does have some good point. The look of the film is interesting in certain places, the ending with no soundtrack is really nice and there is potential in the story.

However, in addition to the bad acting, which is lead by DeForest Kelley, many of the plot points are incredibly contrived. The fact that their picnic, even though they were lead to the general area by Vince and his “feelings”, is next to the murder mansion. They really had no need to go to the mansion and then they just walk right in and begin treating the house as if it they lived there.   

Unless you are a Star Trek fanatic wanting to see DeForest Kelley’s first film role, or are a hardcore noir fan, this is not really a film you want to bother with. It has some interesting images, and you can see that the story itself has potential, but it was not realized fully, plot points leave you with questions and the acting is about as bad as it gets.

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Portrait in Black

December 17, 2009 at 5:56 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , )


Portrait in Black is a fairly late noir, released in 1960, that has an all-star noir cast. The films leading characters are played by the likes of Lana Turner, Richard Basehart, Lloyd Nolan, Anthony Quinn, John Saxon, and Sandra Dee. Turner, Basehart and Nolan are among noir elite and all three give good performances, though Basehart is the standout.

The film was directed by Michael Gordon who is a rather unknown director with only a few really low budget noir films such as An Act of Murder and Crime Doctor to his credit. The film was written by Ivan Goff, who’s screenwriting credits include the magnificent White Heat and later in his career, the TV series Charlie’s Angels.

The film is set in San Francisco and centers around a dying shipping magnate named Matthew Cabot (Lloyd Nolan). His doctor David Rivers (Anthony Quinn) tends to Cabot in Cabot’s office overlooking his little shipping empire. Suddenly we are introduced to Cabot’s wife, Sheila (Lana Turner). She is much too young and virile for the aging and dying Cabot, but she is just right for the vigorous young doctor.

David and Sheila cannot wait for Matthew Cabot to die on his own. Sheila uses her womanly charms to convince the good doctor that he should finish the job ASAP and they can be together forever, and with more money than they know what to do with. The major problem with their plan is that Howard Mason (Richard Basehart), a smarmy little guy who is too smart for his own good, wants his hand on the shipping fortune and the widowed Cabot. He has been running the shipping business for several years and feels he is entitled. This is the struggle that forces the action in the movie and leads to the inevitable outcome.

Elements of Noir

This film, though just outside the heyday of the genre, does have noir elements. Shadows are used for effect in several instances, such as when Dr. Rivers is bathed in shadow just before the idea of murder is mentioned and is split down the middle as the idea of killing Cabot is discussed. Anytime murder is discussed or about to take place, shadows rule the image.

Also Dr. Rivers, like most men in noir, doesn’t seem to really be in control of himself. He would have never committed murder if he had been permitted to simply continue his practice. However, his weakness allowed him to get mixed up with a femme fatale, Sheila Cabot, and his fate was made. He lost control of his life at that point and was simply going along for the ride.

Recommendation

This is certainly a film noir, but not a very good one. It is sad to see such wonderful actors and a writer that has written some wonderful material to be involved in something so bad. This film fails on many fronts.

First of all, its imitation of Hitchcock goes far beyond simple influence. The director Michael Gordon tries way too hard to make the film look like a Hitchcock to the point of making it appear amateurish. Also, the soundtrack is incredibly obnoxious and makes you want to watch the film with the sound off.

The most disheartening part of the film is watching Anthony Quinn. Quinn is generally a wonderful actor, but in this film he is miscast entirely and poorly directed. His love scenes with Lana Turner are among the worst I have ever seen. You can certainly tell that he doesn’t feel comfortable with the scenes or the dialogue. The dialogue is horrible and the delivery no better.

If you are looking for a quality, obscure film noir, keep on looking. Portrait in Black is a nice noirish title, but the film does not deliver. The only reason to see this film is to see Basehart, who is the class of this film, but it really isn’t worth the hour and a half it takes from your life.

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La Bete Humaine (The Human Beast)

December 10, 2009 at 10:44 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , )


La Bete Humaine is a 1938 French film directed by Jean Renoir. Though many do not classify this film as a noir, it does have all the characteristics of a quintessential film noir. In fact, it is one of the very first examples of film noir, though not self-consciously so.  It was made a full two years before what is regarded by many as the first ever American film noir Stranger on the Third Floor.

La Bete Humaine is one of the many pairings of Renoir and the greatest French actor of all time, Jean Gabin. Gabin plays the protagonist, the troubled train engineer Jacques Lantier. The cast also includes the beautiful Simone Simon, playing Severine Roubaud, Colette Regis as Pecqueux and Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud. The film also gives you a glimpse of Renoir showing off his acting chops. Renoir plays Cabuche, the man falsely charged with the murder of Grandmorin, a rich and influential older gentleman.

There are very few opening sequences in the history of film that are as breathtaking and memorable as the train footage that opens La Bete Humaine. Both Renoir and Gabin were fascinated by trains, in fact, both got their train engineering license and Gabin operated real passenger trains as part of his research for the role. The train itself is the center piece of the entire film.  

The station chief Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) is married to Severine (Simone Simon) and has to use the influence of her benefactor Grandmorin to get himself out of a jam, after he asserts is authority against a powerful official. Roubaud saves his job, but by doing so finds out that his wife had been a mistress of Grandmorin in the past and possibly still is. This he cannot take and forces Severine to come along to watch him kill Grandmorin.

Roubaud kills Grandmorin on a train and the only person to witness Roubaud and Severine come out of his car is Jacques (Gabin). Jacques is questioned by the police and denies seeing the couple because he is immediately smitten by the perceived innocence of Severine.

Jacques has problems of his own. He has these moods that come over him that he can’t control. Early on in the film, he almost strangles a childhood sweetheart of his before a train roaring by brings him out of the episode.

Jacques, of course, falls in love with Severine and she seems to fall in love with him, but it is hard to tell with her. She is too young and beautiful for her old and fat husband Roubaud who also has a jealousy complex and beats her when he feels the inclination.

Roubaud binds Severine to him through the murder of the Grandmorin, but the murder begins to wear on his conscious. He also knows that Severine is philandering with Jacques, but he seems to have lost interest in most everything, including her.

Jacques wants to run off with Severine, but she refuses, saying that Roubaud will turn her in and the only way out is if Jacques kills him. From this point on, the film only gets darker in spirit.

Elements of Noir

This film could be used in the classroom as a prime example of a film noir. Chiaroscuro lighting is prevalent throughout the film. Renoir takes a back seat to no one when it comes to the use of key light, shadows and contrasting light patterns to instill mood in a scene. Along with the look of the film, the story and character elements that you find in a noir are in abundance in La Bete Humaine.

If you are looking for a femme fatale, look no further than Severine. She makes every guy she knows fall in love with her and then attempts to bend them to her murderess will. She says she is in love, but it is hard to believe, because all she really cares about is her own interests.

The characters in La Bete Humaine are regular working class people, but that is common in noirs, Clash by Night is one of many American examples of working-class people as protagonists in a noir.

(Spoiler)

Jacques is a tortured soul who runs through life without the ability to control his own fortunes. Fate controls him, as it does most noir protagonists. He can’t kill Roubaud, who he desperately wants to, and then cannot control himself and kills Severine. Finally, flying along the tracks on his beloved train, he can’t take the guilt, he can’t take not having Severine, he can’t take not having control over his life: he ends his life. It doesn’t get much more noir than that.   

Recommendation

If you can handle the subtitles, La Bete Humaine is a great film for those interested in any genre. For film noir fans, it is a great early example of the genre. While Renoir was not trying to make a film noir, there was no such term at the time, he made one of the greats. The film is beautifully shot; you can watch it with the sound off and have an enjoyable experience simply through the stark images.

Jean Gabin is as good as it gets and you will not be able to take your eyes away from Simone Simon. The character actors are excellent, especially Colette Regis. This is truly one of the great Renoir films, and he made many good ones.

If you have never seen a Renoir film or a Gabin film, you should give them a shot. Gabin was a wonderful actor and Renoir is one of the greatest filmmakers of any genre, time, and in any language. If you give his films a shot, you will find a whole new world of film that you never realized was out there waiting to be discovered.

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