Archive for Barry Sullivan

The Insult that made a Man out of Quimby

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2019 by dcairns

TENSION (1949) is a film I always used to get mixed up with SUSPENSE (1946) and also IMPACT (1949), but I think I’ve got it straight now. Barry Sullivan helpfully illustrates the title with an elastic band in scene one, where he talks to us, his chums in the audience, about his patient, sadistic, Porfiry Petrovich style cat-and-mouse approach to catching killers.

But the star of the film is Richard Basehart, that character actor in a leading man’s body, who plays milquetoast drugstore proprietor Warren Quimby — and this is an MGM film so Fred Quimby was running the animation unit — and I’m also assuming at least one of the three writers knew the obscure meaning of that first syllable.

Basehart is quimby-whipped by his mean wife, Audrey Totter, cast much to type, and the noir staples of misogyny and post-war malaise are much in force: “You were cut in uniform,” is Totter’s explanation for her otherwise incomprehensible decision to marry this wimp for whom she expresses nothing but contempt. When she runs off with rich lout “Barney Deager” — the names in this movie are GLORIOUS — Quimby hatches the most pathetic murder scheme ever put on film.

Humiliated by hairy-chested (and hairy-backed, and hairy-armed) Deager on the beach, Quimby breaks his specs. Getting them repaired, he learns of the new miracle of contact lenses, and has an idea. He’ll get a pair of these new-fangled things and be A NEW MAN — unrecognizable as he sets up a false identity as Deager’s neighbour, snuffs him, and then vanishes without trace. Sort of a Clark Kent/Superman thing, only with more murdering. Like the Zack Snyder Superman, in other words.

This plan is so dumb it doesn’t even have to gang aglae for Quimby to be in trouble, but it gangs aglae from the start: he falls in love with Cyd Charisse, who embodies every submissive virtue lacking in his spouse. Then he decides, at the last minute, not to go through with the killing, but someone else does, and suspicion rapidly falls on our mild-mannered pharmacist.

This being MGM, the more conservative aspects of noir are to the fore, but being a John Berry film (subsequent blacklistee), it’s also more complicated. The institutions of marriage and the police don’t emerge untarnished: Sullivan and his partner, surly William Conrad, are nasty pieces of work. When Totter memorialises her slaughtered lover with the words, “He was full of laughs,” Conrad snarls back, “Now he’s full of lead.”

Charisse is a delightful presence so she manages to make her insipid role bearable, but Totter is much more fun. The daft plot’s machinations are cruelly effective in that she and Basehart are thrown back together just when he’s decided he doesn’t want her anymore, and the finger of guilt starts prodding him in the nose even as Sullivan woos his wife right under it.

For a while there I wondered if the writers had lifted the concept from Clouzot’s QUAI DES ORFEVRES, but if so they left out the final twist that allows that movie an absurdly happy ending.

SPOILER:

This one contrives to punish the guilty and reward the innocent (after making them sweat a little), but fades out in a hurry before the final clinch, since embracing a woman other than your wife is technically a no-no even if it’s just a matter of time before the execution.

TENSION stars Ishmael; Adrienne Fromsett; Gabrielle Gerard; Tom Amiel; Walter Winchell; and Frank Cannon.

Crossfade

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2014 by dcairns

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Thanks to David Wingrove for recommending PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951) — I think we were discussing theatrical tropes in film and he mentioned this Curtis Bernhardt flick — co-written by Bernhardt himself, unusually enough. Bette Davis plays a tyrannical homemaker whose husband leaves her, prompting a reassessment of their lives via flashback — the really interesting part of the film. There’s a good bit afterwards where Davis ruins hubby in the divorce settlement, and then a rather unconvincing bit where she has to redeem herself, which is a depressing thing for Bette to have to do. With the new look dresses comes a new conformity. In the old days she would have fallen under a train or something, but at least her vivacious malevolence would be undimmed until the final fade-out.

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Bernhardt’s framing and cutting are sharply expressive. In the best scenes, every shot brims with tension, and clashes boldly with its predecessor and postdecessor (well that ought to be a word).

But those flashbacks are remarkable. Here’s how Bernhardt gets us into the first, which shows the young Bette (“Not too close!”) plotting elopement with future hubby (Barry Sullivan).

Present tense: Bette was all dressed up to go to a party, but since it turns out her husband is leaving her, she begs off. Sitting at the dressing table, she removes her jewelry and grows wistful. A soft focus effect fades in, blurring her surroundings in luminous mist. I think how you do this is an in-camera effect — there’s gauze — possibly a bit of silk stocking with a hole in — over the lens, but it doesn’t show up until the light hits it. So it’s a Death of a Salesman type lighting change effect, and not the last.

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Then, rather than do a straight dissolve, Bernhardt mixes through ever so slowly, keeping Bette’s head and shoulders solid as her environment melts away and is replaced by the past. This is either a complex optical involving a circular wipe to remove Bette’s background, or it’s simply a lap dissolve over a shot in which Bette’s surroundings have been faded down on a dimmer, a spotlight keeping her face illuminated so that it cuts through the dissolve and remains dominant (the CITIZEN KANE approach). I suspect it’s optical, and a bit of an afterthought, since ideally you’d have Bette’s bedroom, around her head, disappear much earlier, and this would be perfectly easy to do with faders on the set.

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But wait! This is where it gets really interesting, and beyond anything anyone else was doing at the time. As Bette’s pensive visage disappears, we find ourselves looking at a peculiar inside-outside environment. A barn interior with a silhouetted buggy. Behind it, a farmhouse seen from outside. As Bernhardt slowly dollies in towards “teenage” Bette (“Not too close!”) and “teenage” Sullivan proposes that, since it must be the 30s, they should run a way on a freight train and she should disguise herself as a boy (he’s very keen on this part) like in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Plan B: she can say she’s his sister, like DAYS OF HEAVEN), something very strange happens.

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An openly theatrical lighting change causes Bette and Barry to emerge from the shadows (“Not too clearly!”) while a wall fades in to obscure the farmhouse. We’re now in an enclosed set. The farmhouse was only visible due to the kind of X-ray vision that Bette Davis has in her memories, apparently. This means that during the Old Hollywood scenes in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, Bette’s character can see everyone naked. Bear that in mind next time you watch it.

Since the camera is in motion, we know this isn’t a dissolve (since motion control hadn’t been invented yet, though Howard Hawks rigged up something similar for the fake 360° pan in RED RIVER — a motorized pan — and on careful examination we can see faint traces of the planks of the barn wall visible over the farm exterior. So that whole wall is painted on translucent gauze, and becomes opaque in as the lighting changes. A technique unseen until Coppola revived it for ONE FROM THE HEART, unless I’m forgetting something.

At the end of the scene, Bette’s mother starts calling from the house, an echoing offscreen spoil-sport like the mothers in PSYCHO and KING OF COMEDY, and Bernhardt renders the barn see-through again to visualise her — a great black building with staring bright windows. Bette is a tiny outline in the foreground. Then we dissolve back to New Look Bette in 1951.

And this is just No. 1 in a cluster of flashbacks, all of which contain some similar trick — lighting changes that melt walls away, impossible inside-and-outside perspectives, theatrical as hell but inhabiting that strange space where the theatrical becomes the cinematic. OUR TOWN (1940) is the only earlier example that comes to mind, though RED GARTERS is a weird parallel from three years later. I do suspect Death of a Salesman, staged in ’49, is the key influence. I also suspect that Bernhardt got a little carried away with the opportunities for this technique and rushed ahead before he’d worked out his story properly. I’m not even convinced the flashbacks happen in the right place. But they’re magnificent.

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These two totally different frames are actually from the same angle, with only a slight pull-back. Bette’s beau and her partner are revealed digging roads since their law practice hasn’t taken off yet. They enter what seemed to be a shadowy diner and it lights up and becomes a kind of site office, the back wall materializing at the same time to close it off for a more naturalistic scene which plays out in a single shot, returning to the astral-ghost perspective at the end.

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Panels of miniature hillside — the little one on the right is a mirror. Crossfade lighting so that night falls outside and the bedroom appears, Bette hoisting her offspring.

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The baby is crying, I think, because she’s the only one who’s noticed they live in a square tent made of translucent gauze where the lights keep dimming up and down.