Ransom Note


Never interrupt Ralph Morgan’s embroidery.

Charles Vidor was a very interesting stylist — some of his films are pretty ordinary, but then he’d do slightly mad things. GILDA, his masterpiece, has several eccentric flourishes, including a forced perspective shot with outsize dice as its very first image, and continually makes interesting cutting and framing choices that get more eccentric the more you think about them. His silent short, THE BRIDGE, (which you can see here) is full of striking moments, such as a double exposure of drumsticks beating with the chest of a prisoner about to be executed, making us not only hear but see and feel his pounding heartbeat.

MUSS ‘EM UP is a 1936 thriller based on a pulp detective novel by James Edward Grant (don’t know his work) — it’s faithful enough to the tone and conventions of Black Mask fiction to play like a true film noir, quite a few years early (even more so than Vidor’s BLIND ALLEY). Preston Foster is the hardboiled hero, and the un-starry but capable supporting cast comprise a fine net full of red herrings.

A wealthy man’s dog has been shot and he’s been receiving threatening letters. Gumshoe Tip O’Neil (Foster) moves in to crack the case, and finds that the entire family and staff are sharpshooters, making it tricky to narrow the field of suspects. Then there’s a kidnapping, and this happens ~

Ransom note from David Cairns on Vimeo.

So, Vidor tracks through the wall and on to another room — an Ophulsian trick, almost before Ophuls was doing it. What the roving camera finds in that room is the same group of characters, differently attired, at a different time of day. Again, like Ophuls in his very last films of the fifties, Vidor has TRACKED THROUGH TIME.

The other earliest example of this I can think of is the ambitious but slightly clunky shot in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP — “Forty years ago… forty years ago…” which takes us into flashback in a steam bath. Vidor’s version is earlier and possibly more successful, if less epic/romantic.

He repays watching.

7 Responses to “Ransom Note”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    James Edward Grant wrote a whole slew of John Wayne screenplays, including the notorious BIG JIM McLAIN. The crime story that would seem to be both good and reflective of him is JOHNNY EAGER (original story plus co-screenplay). The only Ford-directed Wayne is, I believe, DONOVAN’S REEF.

  2. James Whale did a “camera through the wall” shot in 1931’s “Frankenstein”, where Colin Clive’s Dr F. leads the rest of the cast into the lab from the stairway. “Are you sure you want to come in?” he asks before unlocking the door and leading them in. Cameraman Arthur Edeson would later repeat this shot while working on “Casablanca”, when Rick goes to his office to get some money out of the safe, and ends up making his “bet’ Capt. Renault.

  3. Good call! The Ophulsian wrinkle is doing a time-shift during a continuous shot. (Fun to imagine the cast rushing round the back of the camera and pulling on overcoats.)

  4. Andrew Sarris called this the “Look Ma — No Walls” approach.

  5. Parodied memorably in Police Squad!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: