Scarlet Street (1945)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 December (8.55 am)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Some time ago on these pages, I covered Ms Joan Bennett and her luminous starring role in Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment. Both in real life and on screen, Bennett was a compelling and fascinating lady, capable of adapting her talents to various guises just as her world away from film spun through a series of controversies and scandals. You can imagine her acting ability being put to good use as she switched from delicate victim to femme fatale, always with her survival instinct present and correct.

Before Ophuls cast her as a compromised middle class housewife in his 1949 movie, Bennett was perhaps best known for the two films she made with Fritz Lang in the middle of that decade, The Woman in the Window followed by Scarlet Street. Both feature the same cast members – downtrodden, broken Edward G Robinson and thuggish spiv, Dan Duryea – but it’s Bennett who takes two very different parts. In the earlier film she’s classy, but in Scarlet Street she plays Kitty, a low rent tramp, tied to petty conman Johnny (Duryea), who she loves despite suffering physical abuse from him. Though the script never states it Kitty is almost certainly a prostitute, or at least ‘fallen’ enough to use sex casually, and as a consequence she’s beautiful, brassy and in her manner and speech as pure as the driven slush. It would take a true sap to see anything in her beyond irredeemable white trash, and into her world slopes Chris Cross (Robinson), middle-aged, subservient, his soul crushed by life, and yet hopeful.

Through Dudley Nichols’s screenplay, Lang’s direction and a top notch performance by Robinson, Chris is one of those characters who appears to have stumbled into the film from bitter reality. He represents everyone’s broken dream. His lowly cashier’s job pays little and offers nothing, and yet he’s just completed 25 years’ service. He’s married to a lady who dotes on her former late husband, his portrait hanging in pride of place within the parlour to put Chris squarely in his place. Chris works and does the domestic chores while spending his scraps of spare time painting, a release from the dirge that offers him some tiny sense of pleasure. He knows his attempts at art aren’t very good, but that isn’t the point – he loves doing it, despite his harridan wife (Rosalind Ivan) complaining about the smell of paint and threatening to throw all his work away.

In Kitty – who he chances across one night – he sees a chance to turn his life around. She seems to show an interest in him, and that morsel of attention is enough to compel Chris to begin lavishing her with money and gifts, but the entire relationship is based on misconceptions and assumptions. He refuses to let the shades fall away and see her for what she really is, choosing to ignore shady Johnny who always appears to be around while claiming to be just a friend. As for Kitty, her initial meeting with Chris happens when he’s returning from a night out – he’s dressed opulently and is taking about £50,000 art purchases, which suggests to her he’s loaded, a big shot. Johnny tells her to exploit this, which she does half-heartedly. She doesn’t want to take their plan of swindling Chris out of his money too far, but it isn’t long before she’s in over her head. While Johnny starts selling Chris’s paintings to make a bit on the side, the pair have no idea that his largesse is coming from robbing the work safe, that he thinks it will all be worth it because it will ultimately lead to marriage with Kitty and some half grasped happily ever after.

The result of all this scheming and dreaming is an inevitable spiral towards destruction and doom for Chris, Kitty and even Johnny. Each character is punished in some poetic fashion, and while The Woman in the Window came with a final twist that suggested redemption and lessons learned, there’s no such optimistic coda to be found here. It’s as though Lang was robbed of taking his earlier feature to its natural conclusion by a studio fearful of such downbeat storytelling, but was allowed free rein on Scarlet Street and seized the opportunity, handing his characters their just desserts in various degrees of bleakness. As a cruel irony, Chris’s paintings happen to be spotted by a prestigious studio and go on to sell for thousands, though thanks to Johnny’s machinations by then the pictures bear someone else’s name. It’s a satirical note, a comment perhaps on the whims of fate, or a wink back in time to the director’s own early years as a struggling artist before entering the German film industry and becoming part of the Expressionist movement. In any event it shows the possible ‘happy ending’ Chris wishes for, but has long since pulled it from beneath him.

Scarlet Street builds to one of the most pessimistic and indeed depressing finishes I remember seeing on film, certainly where romantic Hollywood cinema is concerned. It brings a European ethos to bear, the sensibility that stories in which people do bad things won’t necessarily lead to an ending where the characters are compensated but instead face ruin, whether through death or forced to live, destroyed morally and haunted by the ghosts of the past.  It isn’t an easy film to stomach, but it successfully holds a mirror to the attitudes of the period, the Noir ethic reflecting society’s sense of uncertainty as the horrors of war and endings that held no satisfactory note were all too real. There’s a hint of unfairness about Chris’s fate, that his only real mistake was to fall in with a ‘bad crowd’ and allow himself to be duped, but hey, bad things happen to people who don’t necessarily deserve it and Chris, who lets himself be manipulated and has no right to imagine a future with Kitty, sort of has it coming. While Lang does offer a note of pity in his instance, it doesn’t really amount to much and the character, shattered and in the grip of a complete mental breakdown, is left to shuffle off into the void of his own making.

So why watch it at all? The reality is Scarlet Street is masterly film making and that ought to be reason enough. Lang was a perfectionist, slave driving his cast and crew to put his personal vision onto the screen, and in this film he spared no effort in capturing it. Milton Krasner, the cinematographer who would be rewarded with an Academy Award for Three Coins in a Fountain a decade later, applied Lang’s visual language with some stunning imagery. The way Chris sees Kitty, bathed in white and angelic, utterly at odds with reality but emphasising his ironic perception, is bathed in soft white light. Later, as our ‘hero’ embarks on his walk of ruin, the shadows creep into the frame more. He’s living in a pathetic hovel, light offered harshly by a neon sign outside the window, which leaves most of his room shrouded in darkness. Chris hears the voices of Kitty and Johnny, his ‘Hello, Lazy Legs‘ and her whispered, sexy ‘Jeepers Johnny, I love you‘ taunting him, presumably for the rest of his days, and the camera all but suggests that those black corners contain their spirits.

Robinson is absolutely believable as the film’s victim, to such an extent in fact that when I picture him it’s as this character, all those years playing hoodlums and the likes of Keyes in Double Indemnity playing support to his role in Scarlet Street. The same with Bennett. Lang saw in her the beautiful woman who has lived and those years of blows, bad choices and bitterness have created the jaded character of Kitty, in her own way every bit as pathetic as Chris, trapped within a destructive relationship and heading in just one direction. There aren’t very many film roles, especially for females, from the classic period that hinted at such a complicated back story for their characters, honing them into the people they are in the movie, but Scarlet Street suggests exactly that and without slapping minutes of exposition onto the screen. The result is a pessimistic work, but a masterpiece in the telling and execution.

Scarlet Street: *****

The Stranger (1946)

When it’s on: Thursday, 22 October (7.20 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

A real curiousity of an Orson Welles picture, The Stranger is never talked about as one of the great man’s finest pieces of work. Working under severe studio restrictions and and without his usual freedom of expression, Welles turned in a film that was the closest he ever came to a standard production, hence the lack of love from those who talk about him as one of the great auteurs. And in truth it’s far from the best stuff he directed, but a film by Orson Welles is still a film by Orson Welles, with all the interesting camera angles, moody lighting and multi-faceted characters such a work entails. Would anyone else give such depth to a supporting player like Billy House’s wily old shopkeeper?

Just five years on from Citizen Kane, Welles was increasingly being seen as a pariah in Hollywood, wasteful and indulgent, and accepted the job of directing The Stranger – when John Huston left the production – in order to re-establish his reputation. Challenged to make the film in time and within its budgetary limits, he went one better and under-spent whilst taking on board RKO’s demand that he cast Edward G Robinson as the lead actor over his own preference of Agnes Moorehead. The prospect of Moorehead playing a hunter of escaped Nazi war criminals is a tantalising one, whereas Robinson appears to have stepped out of Walter Neff’s office in Double Indemnity and straight into portraying his character in The Stranger in exactly the same way. By all accounts, Robinson was unhappy with Welles’s direction, claiming he was constantly shot on his bad side, though Welles countered by wondering what his best side was exactly.

The resulting film is a fine, taut thriller shot in the Noir style and remains an absorbing watch. Welles plays Franz Kindler, a war criminal who has surfaced in sleepy Connecticut and now poses as History teacher Charles Rankin. Thoroughly absorbed into his new surroundings, Kindler/Rankin quickly establishes himself as part of the little community of Harper, volunteers to repair the damaged 300-year old church clock, and is even marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). Hiding in plain sight, Rankin thinks he’s safe, but he’s reckoned without the efforts of Nazi hunter, Mr Wilson (Robinson), who releases compatriot Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) knowing full well he’ll lead him straight to his target. Sure enough, the desperate Meinike turns up in Harper, only to be murdered in the woods by Rankin, who buries him then and there. His nuptials with Mary take place; meanwhile Wilson is ingratiating himself within the town’s circles and the noose around Rankin’s neck slowly tightens.

Robinson is far from the most interesting thing about The Stranger. Whilst the audience’s sympathies are with him from the start, there’s something just so linear about his character – he knows what he wants and gets it, with a dogged, almost ‘Columbo’ sense of right on his side and the townspeople steadily coming round to his point of view. Young’s character is a lot more fun. For the most part, she stands by her man despite the evidence that’s growing against him, almost walking into a death trap due to her blind allegiance. Her crumbling resolve in the face of reality is heartbreaking to watch, the developing signs of guilt in everything she does nicely presaging her turn in The Accused, a great Noir flick from 1949. Even better is Welles himself, the veneer of warmth and rationality that surrounds him turning out to be just that as he realises Wilson is onto him, compelling him to take dramatic and increasingly insane steps in order to protect his identity, even if that means killing Mary, the only person who has any kind of solid clue about who he really is. And then there are the supporting characters, principally House’s Mr Potter. Running the local store feels like a front for his efforts to snoop on everything that’s happening in Hadley. His cheating at checkers, whilst mildly charming and roguish, actually gnaws at the town’s respectable and good natured sheen. You feel that if you chip away at it enough, the people are just as devious and self-serving as the Nazi in their midst.

Throw in some great photography, especially the vertiginous ladder climb up to the church clock on which Rankin works, and you have a very good pot-boiler. A long, long way from the best of Welles, yet efficiently made and with questions, not to mention a mean streak of black humour, bubbling under the surface.

The Stranger has been available in the public domain for some years – I watched it on Amazon Prime – though this does come with the usual health warning. It’s certainly worth a viewing.

The Stranger: ****

Double Indemnity (1944)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 20 January (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Many moons ago, I had a job that didn’t involve a lot of work and allowed much time for meaningless surfing of the web, which at the time was a fairly recent novelty. Whilst AltaVista-ing for movie sites, I came across a page that promised to explain the tropes of Film Noir. Innovatively, you could read the comments by clicking on certain items held within a single shot; the still was naturally from Double Indemnity, and if you clicked, say, on Barbara Stanwyck, you would then open a new page entitled Molls, and there were further descriptions on lighting, smoking, suits, and so on. The point is that Double Indemnity was the obvious choice for the site’s portal. If not the first Film Noir, it’s almost certainly its ultimate expression, the quintessential Noir picture. It’s a happy collision of talents who would go on to be names synonymous with the Noir style, and in my eyes it’s about as close to perfection as cinema gets.

The list of credits alone is a roll-call of the great and good. Director Billy Wilder was an Austrian emigré, leaving Vienna when Hitler came to power and realising his Jewish ancestry would cause him problems as the Nazi influence spread. Better known in the German speaking world as a screenwriter, Wilder directed one feature in France before moving to America; Double Indemnity was his third directorial effort in the States, and whilst he had a hand in the script he found his grip on English would be an impediment and hired Raymond Chandler to work alongside him on it. The two men hated each other, but Wilder encouraged the working relationship, thinking the antipathy would make for a screenplay crackling in tension. For Chandler, already a noted crime writer with The Big Sleep bringing him to Wilder’s notice, there was little love for the source material, the short novel written by James M Cain in 1936, and he updated much of the dialogue to his own, whiplash exchanges between the characters.

Wilder hired Hungarian composer, Miklos Rozsa, for the soundtrack. Better known later in his career for scoring some of epic cinema’s biggest hits, this was an early credit in his Hollywood body of work (his first was for Wilder’s previous film, Five Graves to Cairo) and for it, he was Oscar nominated. Rozsa claimed he wrote the score as though for a love story, increasing the mood of doomed melodrama that soaks the film, whilst the trembling strings that accompany the flashbacks ramp up the tension.

Just as important to the production was regular Wilder collaborator, cinematographer John Seitz, who for Double Indemnity helped to establish the atmospheric lighting that would become a hallmark of Film Noir. For a film of such dark subject matter, the screen is often suffused in darkness, using night-for-night filming to marvellous effect. Even more iconic is the ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting, star Fred MacMurray often filmed against blinds to give the impression he’s already behind bars whilst plotting ‘the perfect crime’.

Lead actress Stanwyck was the first and only choice for Phyllis Dietrichson, the scheming wife who arranges a double indemnity insurance policy on her husband’s life that will net her a windfall if he dies. The best known female actor in Hollywood at the time, Stanwyck was unsure about taking the role initially as she normally portrayed heroines, which this part most certainly was not. However she accepted, and was duly given a blonde wig and anklet to wear throughout the film, heightening her character’s essential trashiness. Opposite her was MacMurray as the doomed insurance broker, Walter Neff. MacMurray was cast at the end of a long list of auditions and considerations, and like Stanwyck was playing against type whilst similarly putting in a brilliant performance. The film is framed by Neff’s lengthy confession to his manager, Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson). Speaking into a dictaphone, Neff’s story leads to a series of flashbacks, his description of meeting Phyllis, arranging the policy and simultaneously falling for her, helping to concoct a plan that takes in the murder of her husband before claiming the money and riding off into the sunset together. Or so he believes that’s what’s going to happen. In reality, he learns that Phyllis isn’t as devoted a partner as she made out, and that there’s a strong possibility he’s been played all along. Worse still, as Neff begins telling his tale it’s clear he’s in pain, possibly terminally, which means the ‘perfect crime’ he’s describing will, at some point, go horribly wrong.

The biggest hitch in the lovers’ plan is none other than Keyes himself. A bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out cases of insurance fraud, Keyes is assiduous and Neff knows he will need their scheme to run perfectly in order for them to get away with it. It’s possible all will go well, but only if the execution is meticulous. Neff knows the key is to give Barton no hint that anything is awry, and he very nearly manages it, and apart from the issue of the money there’s his friendship with Keyes to consider. The two men are on fine terms and Neff sees this as vital in minimising the sense of suspicion. Then again, Keyes is the Sherlock Holmes of the insurance world; as he at first seems to see the death of Phyllis’s husband as a fluke, one of those things that will end in a big payout, his ‘little man’ is troubling him, and the slow realisation that something’s rotten and the uncovering of Neff and Phyllis’s plot is deliciously suspenseful, really agonising and inevitable. Robinson was also taking on a unusual role for himself, but his is a smart and measured turn, and it’s heartbreaking to see the complete lack of pleasure he takes in exposing Neff, such is his affection for the younger man.

Double Indemnity is an exercise in tightening tension, wonderfully realised, from the wounded Neff relating his story through to the almost completely successful crime being steadily unpicked. It’s one of those few titles that I dust off on a fairly regular basis for another viewing, and each time I’m gripped by something new. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Double Indemnity: *****

The Outrage (1964)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 22 May (11.35 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

Akira Kurosawa loved Westerns and transferred many of the relevant themes and memes into his own work. It stands to reason that when US filmmakers came to adapt Kurosawa’s films for their audiences, they were translated into Westerns. A case in point is Martin Ritt’s 1964 entry, The Outrage, an update of Rashomon. The action moves from feudal Japan to the Old West, but otherwise the transfer is faithful to quite an eerie extent. Rashomon’s structure, characters and even many of its scenes are copied, sometimes word for word, which of course begs the question – why not just watch Rashomon? I made the mistake of catching both films back to back. The Outrage really does play like a love letter to Kurosawa, as though Ritt couldn’t bear to omit such sublime art from his film.

Rashomon’s reputation now ensures it’s one of the world’s cinematic treasures, which pales The Outrage still further. That said, it’s not a bad film, and it’s possible to argue that much of the criticism levelled against it is really consternation at Ritt’s temerity in attempting to touch the material. The adaptation for the stage never had so much trouble, though it played the material fairly straight and never attempted to turn it into a Western. Another way of looking at it is to argue that it’s evidence of the genre’s limitless flexibility. You could use the Western canvas upon which to paint any picture you chose. If The Outrage has an appropriate Western connection, perhaps it’s with William A Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident, which covers similar ground with an exploration of the vagaries of justice in the Old West.

The Outrage is essentially a series of flashbacks, telling the same story but from four different perspectives, each one identifying somebody different as a murderer. The crime is placed on the shoulders of Mexican outlaw, Juan Carrasco, who may very well have committed it, though there’s a sense of the authorities just waiting to lynch him for something. The story goes that Carrasco tricked a wealthy southern gentleman into buying some Aztec treasure he discovered, only for the man to find himself tied to a tree while Carrasco raped his wife. After that, someone killed the gentleman, but at Carrasco’s trial three different testimonies are offered – one by Carrasco, another by the wife, and finally one from the dying lips of the gentleman, as related by an Indian shaman – that don’t point to a single person as the killer. Who’s telling the truth? And will the fourth take on the incident reveal it?

The tale is chewed over by three individuals waiting at a lonely, rain-soaked station for a train that may never come. They are a disillusioned preacher (William Shatner), a prospector (Howard Da Silva) and Edward G Robinson’s con man, whose questions and badgering fuel the account-telling. The gentleman and his wife are Deep South lilting British actors, Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom, while Carrasco is a scenery-chewing Paul Newman. All the parts are well played, though special mention goes to Newman, almost unrecognisable as a swarthy bandit and putting on an outrrrrrrrrageous accent. His over the top rendition didn’t go down well with the critics, but in fact Newman researched the part by spending several months in Mexico, learning da lingo and mannerisms, and eventually losing himself in the part. I also thought Bloom was really interesting. Reprising her role from the Rashomon stage play, she nails it both as an innocent victim and as the harpy, and which version you believe more depends mainly on you.

If things fall apart, it’s in the fourth version of the murder. The three alternatives beforehand have all been handled seriously while the latter heads into comedic territory, which undermines the heavy, foreboding tone that the film has worked so hard to develop. It’s as if Ritt felt the audience would have had enough of the rape, murder and shame themes and shifts emphasis into near-slapstick. It’s a misstep, though things are put right again at the close as the unresolved central question leads to a surprisingly hopeful conclusion.

A note about the cinematography, which is rather lovely. Ritt mimicked Rashomon again by filming in black and white, but it works as The Outrage achieves a shadowy, almost noirish tone early. Unfortunately, the station occupied by the preacher, prospector and con man is studio-based and even the lack of colour can’t disguise what is clearly a matte painting as the background, but the location work is great. The camera casts a clear eye over much of the action, whilst the scenes in the glade where the murder is committed are filmed in a softer focus as though reflecting the blurred truth. There’s a particularly good moment in the wife’s testimony, which is shame-themed and sees Bloom imagining that she throws herself into the river, only for it to spit her back out again in sheer contempt.

The Outrage: ***