Archive for August 9, 2022

Bar Sinister

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2022 by dcairns

Ominous watering holes: one from BLACK WIDOW, one from THE THIRD DAY.

BLACK WIDOW is a mystery-thriller from writer-director Nunnally Johnson in Gorgeous Lifelike Color by Deluxe, Cinemascope, and Stereophonic Sound. It’s a reasonably well-conceived puzzle with an ungainly structure — it takes forever to arrive at the stage where a who has dunnit, and we have to sit through a long flashback that introduces a shoal of red herrings to occlude a crime yet to occur. All with a Broadway backdrop. “Write ALL ABOUT EVE as a murder mystery!” seems to have been the command from Zanuck or whoever.

Van Heflin is OK as the hero caught in a web of deceit — Gene Tierney has a nothing role as his wife. Ginger Rogers and Reginald Gardiner — Schultz from THE GREAT DICTATOR — make an improbably couple, but it works storywise. Ginger overplays her bitch-queen of Broadway character horribly but then pulls off a bit of a triumph at the end, proving again that “Ginger can play anything she can understand.” It takes so long for a murder victim to step forward that it feels like a spoiler to tell you that it’s Peggy Ann Garner, who is excellent, she makes you want more flashbacks.

You also get George Raft and Virginia Leith (Jan in the Pan from THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE) and Skip Homeier, the creepy psycho kid from THE GUNFIGHTER. So you can’t complain. The best perf, however, is from Hilda Simms (above right), who got her one big break in THE JOE LOUIS STORY and has a couple of brief expository scenes which she delivers with such honest simplicity as to steal the show.

Kind of want to see THE JOE LOUIS STORY now.

In theory this is a Hitchcockian subject but there are few sequences of visual suspense, just a nice paranoid feeling of a trap closing in. Nunnally J. favours beautiful, theatrical wides, which look nice especially when there’s a scenic artist’s rendition of New York out the window. They’re not exactly fraught with tension but they work for the swellegant theaterland atmosphere.

What BLACK WIDOW has in common with THE THIRD DAY is that they’re both undemanding, time-passing, underpowered thrillers. They kind of forget to be thrilling, or else they don’t know what thrilling is. And yet they’re crowded with talent.

In THE THIRD DAY, George Peppard has total amnesia, and yet there’s no narrative reason for this except to make an excuse for exposition — the audience gets fed the plot and character set-up along with George. The story only really needs him to have amnesia with regard to the Chappaquidick-style car crash in which his companion of the night, Sally Kellerman (in flashback), perished.

But IS there a story? Too many stories, perhaps. There are business wheelings and dealings with conniving relative Roddy McDowall, there’s the crusading DA Robert Webber who wants to nail George for murder, there’s his estranged wife Elizabeth Ashley to be unestranged, and there’s Kellerman’s vengeful piano-playing cuckold husband, the remarkable Arte Johnson. I remember him as one of the sinister CEA agents in THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, who are all comically short. It’s quite strange to have a fight to the finish between little Arte and big George as the climax to this thing, but they do give AJ a gun. And what he lacks in height he makes up for in sheer malevolence.

I was interested in Elizabeth Ashley since we’ve loved her in Russian Doll, and I read about her in Mark Harris’ magnificent Mike Nichols bio, but I’d never seen her young. She’s striking. Very mobile face, making her hard to framegrab without making her look like a deranged mutant, but when you’re actually watching she’s fascinating and doesn’t seem remotely grotesque. I feel actors in general could get away with more facial movement. We also get Vincent Gardenia and Mona Washburne, which is a nice surprise, and Herbert Marshall, playing a guy with total paralysis to match Peppard’s total amnesia. This movie doesn’t do anything by halves, except everything.

This is Herbert Marshall’s entire performance:

Both these films needed Hitchcock but they have Nunnally Johnson and Jack Smight, preposterously unsuitable substitutes. Smight attempts some psychedelic transitions into the fatal crash flashbacks, but given the hero’s supposedly disorientated condition he could have tilted the whole thing much more into delirium. Robert Surtees’ photography is lovely and I liked the score by Percy Faith, with its emphasis on dreamy harp glissandoes.

BLACK WIDOW stars Kitty Foyle; Charles Bovary; Martha Strabel Van Cleve; Spats Colombo; Jane Eyre as a Child; Schultz; Jan in the Pan; Jules Amthor; Julia Rainbird; Marva Lewis; and Mr. Fearless.

THE THIRD DAY stars Paul Varjak; Ruth Brenner; Cornelius; Parnell Emmett McCarthy; Frau Lang; Gaston Monescu; Juror 12; Dr. Raymond Sanderson; Maj. Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ O’Houlihan; Reverend Sykes; Mushnik; 1st ‘Nameless Broad’; Hedda Hopper; and Spanky’s mother.