Archive for Frank Fenton

The Schlub What Sends Me

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2020 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Chris Schneider weighs in on an obscure but fascinating semi-noir —

Once upon a time I was a teenager who learned about films from his paperback copy of AGEE ON FILM. One title I learned of was ISLE OF THE DEAD, the Val Lewton supernatural mood-piece. Another was THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a melodrama concerned with cash and adultery and death, one that’s very much a part of noir territory. You might even say, specifically, OUT OF THE PAST territory, since BELIEVE ME is 1947 and RKO and there’s music by Roy Webb as well as the presence of actress Jane Greer. All overlapping with OUT OF THE PAST, as the cognoscenti will tell you. Hell, one of the posters even employs the phrase “out of the past.”

My primary reaction has always been “Good … but not of a level with OUT OF THE PAST.” That’s still the case, but a recent TCM viewing has provoked some rethinking.

One poster for THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME shows the head of Robert Young (male protagonist) surrounded by the heads of Susan Hayward (second girlfriend), Jane Greer (first girlfriend), and Rita Johnson (wife). Young plays a no-better-than-he-oughta-be guy, an architect, who tries to hold onto both his wealthy wife and a girl or two on the side. We learn of this via courtroom testimony. Johnson finds out about Greer, and she buys Young a new job on the opposite coast. She learns of Hayward, who works in the same office, and his employment is threatened again. What Is To Be Done?

The whole screenplay, which was written by Jonathan Latimer of THE BIG CLOCK and THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, is structured around Young messing up and some female — Johnson, Hayward — stepping in to take care of the situation.

The film’s producer is Joan Harrison, associate of Hitchcock and Robert Siodmak, and there’s a case to be made that THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a noir shaped by a female perspective, one where (for once) an *homme* is fatal rather than a *femme*. Young certainly is bad news. Unlike my favorite example of *homme fatal* noir, though — BORN TO KILL — Young’s character is not dynamically bad. He’s no Lawrence Tierney. He’s just a guy who shoulda known better yet keeps getting in trouble. And yet women are still drawn to him. My nickname for the film became “The Schlub What Sends Me.”

The primary influence here, outside of generalized ‘40s zeitgeist, is James M. Cain. I forget if Agee was the first to cite Cain. But (SPOILERS AHEAD) Young gets into an auto accident with Hayward and her charred corpse is mistaken for that of Johnson, which he goes along with — very much in the POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE style of ironic fatalism. The original screen treatment, we learn from TCM, was narrated from a jail cell (POSTMAN again). And there’s stuff about water as uncontrollable fate, stuff that’s justified by Johnson’s corpse being found next to a river and accentuated by Young and Hayward doing some deep-water swimming much like POSTMAN’s Lana Turner and John Garfield.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME has Irving Pichel as director, alas, which means that it lacks the visual flourish Tourneur brought to OUT OF THE PAST. It also lacks the epigrammatic dialogue which Frank Fenton (probably) gave PAST. But it looks good and is compelling and has some fine performances. Did I mention that Robert Boyle is a production designer? Among those performances would be Rita Johnson, a good actress with an unlucky career, and Susan Hayward, who’s fresher here than in her later Stalwart Woman Warrior persona. It’s the film that gave me a taste for Hayward.

Historic note: the print of THEY WON’T BELIEVE that gets seen, these days, is usually a rerelease version that’s missing 15 minutes. That’s a lot in movie time. I gather that the missing material involves Young and Johnson at a concert running into Hayward, ending up with Hayward and Young canoodling behind a curtain. Also something about a blackmail threat to Young.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME ends suddenly, with a flourish of violence, a bit like the end of Verdi’s TROVATORE. One expects someone — perhaps Greer? — to clutch their forehead and exclaim “ … e vivo ancor!”

I saw THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME when I was young and I liked it. I watch it now and I like it. And I live on.

One-Way River

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2020 by dcairns

SHOW THEM NO MERCY! was originally going to be directed by Otto Preminger and star Wallace Beery, until Beery announced that he refused to be directed by anyone whose name he couldn’t pronounce.

RIVER OF NO RETURN was Preminger’s first Cinemascope film and a biggish hole in my Preminger viewing. Watching it on the Toshiba, I wished I’d been to see it restored in Bologna — the widescreen scenic images have a fantastic grandeur even on DVD, and on a big screen must be overwhelming.

Anyway, it’s a good film: Preminger’s long take sensibility is immediately a good match for ‘Scope, and he does a lot of impressive work with tricky elements like rafts, horses, etc. How many suitcases did they have to send downriver for this famous shot?

There’s a horrible scene, though, where Robert Mitchum’s character tries to straight-up rape Marilyn Monroe’s. He’s interrupted by a cougar attack, and then by two guys who show up and think about killing him, and what with one thing and another the incident is never referred to again. There are more moments when they seem on the verge of discussing it, but it turns out this was merely projection on our part.

As always with Otto-related questions, the answer is to be found in Chris Fujiwara’s critical study The World and Its Double. When Preminger finished shooting, Fox boss Darryl Zanuck was dissatisfied with the film, which he felt was unnecessarily cryptic about its characters’ goals, relationships, motives. He insisted on adding three scenes.

(His ally in the dumbing-down is the soundtrack, which helpfully embarks on Calhoun’s theme tune whenever anyone discusses him. Elsewhere it’s stirring and atmospheric, and Cyric Mockridge and an uncredited Leigh Harline are apparently responsible.)One was a conversation between Monroe and Rory Calhoun near the start, which explains why they’re together. Unfortunately, this information had already been covered extensively by later dialogue from Monroe to Mitchum, so screenwriter Frank Fenton (OUT OF THE PAST) ends up shoving paraphrases into the actors’ mouths, rendering the later scenes dangerously repetitive. (He gets away with it only because Monroe justifying her relationship in the words Calhoun has previously used is new material as far as her dealings with Mitchum is concerned.)

Another was a scene where Mitchum massages Monroe after a particularly exhausting stint on the rapids (the process photography on the raft is the film’s weakest point other than the following scene: the POV shots going downstream are terribly grainy and I’m guessing the background plates were shot “flat” in 1:1.33, because they’re grainy, everything seems too big, like our heroes have sailed into Land of the Giants, and there’s a lot of Anamorphic-mumpsy rubberwalling, as the scenery bends, as if trying to wrap itself around the leads (and who could blame it?).The third scene is Mitchum’s sudden, out-of-character attack on Monroe. These three bits were directed by Jean Negulescu. So, you see, Monroe and Mitchum couldn’t discuss the matter afterwards because the footage wasn’t shot.

Going by Zanuck’s comments, the massage and the attempted rape were both inserted to make the characters’ relationship clearer. But they don’t really do that, at least for a non-rapey modern audience. I suppose the massage scene could be there to suggest sexual attraction, but although it works as a sexy treat for the audience, it’s presented in the story as a practical answer to Monroe being freezing cold and exhausted.

And Mitchum pouncing on Monroe… this seems to be Zanuck’s idea of showing that he’s attracted to her. I suppose the character point is that he doesn’t respect her, regards her as a good-time girl who will submit to a rough embrace, and when she doesn’t, he just carries on because he can’t figure that out. But it’s rubbish. Mitchum isn’t dumb or brutish anywhere else in the movie. And they never mention it again.I don’t know of any evidence that the scene ignited any controversy at the time. For me, it hurts the movie’s ending quite a bit: Mitchum takes Monroe away from her saloon-singing life, slinging her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. This is already a bit too caveman for us modern folks. But Monroe ditching her sparkly shoes shows that she is a fully consenting partner in this change of lifestyle. The filmmakers were balancing out the audience appeal of Mitchum’s he-man stuff with the requirement that the leading lady have a mind of her own.

Zanuck’s raunchy intrusion upsets that quite badly. Monroe is now being carried off by a man who previously tried to force her into sex (while his young son, and, as it turns out, a cougar, were mere yards away). We’ll probably make some allowance since after all it’s Mitchum (and he’s not in Max Cady mode… rivers seem to bring out the worst in him, though), but damage is certainly done.

(I would quite like to see a director’s cut of this offered, perhaps as a bonus on a Blu-ray. (I think you always need to keep the original around to illustrate the historical record: THIS is what audiences saw upon release…)

 

“And then I saw her…”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2010 by dcairns

“And then I saw her, coming out of the sun…”

“She waited until it was late… then she walked in, out of the moonlight…”

“…and then I saw her, walking up the road in the headlights…”

OUT OF THE PAST is as near to a perfect film as I can conceive of. Screenplay is credited to Geoffrey Homes, from his novel Build My Gallows High. Homes was really Daniel Mainwaring, who has a slew of credits but nothing that even hints at the excellence of this. I’d like to read his book though. I hear his femme fatale is called Mumsy McGonagall or something though, which doesn’t quite have the soft allure of Cathy Moffat, Jane Greer’s character name in the movie.

Uncredited work was also done by Frank Fenton, who started in England with, among other things, an awful travesty of PG Wodehouse called STEP LIVELY, JEEVES! (where there’s no Bertie Wooster and Jeeves is an idiot) but went on to some reasonable credits including HIS KIND OF WOMAN and RIVER OF NO RETURN. But they have none of the epigrammatic wiz of OOTP’s dialogue. (“I hate surprises, myself.”)

An uncredited James M Cain must surely be responsible for the injection of genius, including, I suspect, the series of entrances from the light by Cathy, which form a kind of refrain. If the other writers managed to get lines in there, by some remarkable alchemy, all the good lines have been preserved and no bad lines taken their  place. Homes can perhaps be credited with the unusual structure, which redeems the stock noir elements by reconfiguring them in an odd shape. How stock are they? Well, Mitchum’s man on a run is discovered working in a gas station by a hood who enters a diner, exactly like in THE KILLERS. There’s no reason why Mitchum, a man on the run and a former private eye, should be able to start a new life as a car mechanic. Where did he get the skills? But it works symbolically — the garage is a little bit of urban grime transported to rural small-town America, so it’s the place where he fits in. (The third “start a new life in a garage” movie is LOST HIGHWAY, where Bill Pullman literally regenerates and rejuvenates from a felon into a grease monkey.)

This particular cliché is amusing and odd, and it isn’t by any means overused (I think Arthur Lubin’s IMPACT trots it out again though, and there may be others — do you know of any?) and as I say, the film’s crazy structure stops any feeling of over-familiarity. In addition to the rural and Mexican idylls, which add an unfamiliar feeling, and the fact that no private eye hero ever fell down on the job as badly as Mitch does here, we have this strange shape: leisurely intro in small town, flashback that eats up half of act one, taking in the first job Mitchum undertakes,the Mexican romance, and a time-lapse leading up to the first murder, then we come out of the flashback at the halfway mark and we get the second job, in San Francisco with a whole new plot and femme fatale (flaming Rhonda Fleming), and then our third act with climax bringing us full circle to the countryside and the original characters. Impressively, it follows the standard proportions of the Hollywood drama without giving you that familiar feeling of knowing where you are in the story.

Plus director Jacques Tourneur, among a hundred thousand felicities, offers this shot —

“The kid” played by Dickie Moore, is a very cool character. Here, the shot is beautiful in itself, and part of its beauty comes from the long lens which softens the background, but also gives us the sense of observing from a distance with Mitchum. It feels very modern when you see it in action.

But ultimately, what’s beautiful about this film goes beyond what can be expressed by talking about individual elements — Tourneur never had such strong material before or since, though I am second to none in my admiration of CAT PEOPLE, NIGHTFALL, NIGHT OF THE DEMON et al. This is the one where his poetic sensitivity rebounded off the material in THE most beautiful way.