Archive for Irving Pichel

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.

And lead us into TEMPTATION…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2015 by dcairns

David Melville fills the gap between his series on Mexican melodrama and his upcoming series on… but that would be telling… with a special piece on a neglected 1946 melodrama sure to be of interest to Shadowplayers everywhere ~

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Was there ever a better year for Bad Girls than 1946? Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman. Each one stronger, smarter, sexier and more subversive than…well, just about any woman since. But one lady, that same year, could hold her own with any of them. An actress who’s been criminally underrated, in a film that’s been tragically forgotten. I’m talking about Merle Oberon in Temptation.

If the title doesn’t ring any bells…well, it’s not an easy film to see. Directed by Irving Pichel and produced (lavishly) by a long-defunct entity called International Film Corporation, Temptation is unavailable on DVD or any other home video format. It survives (just about) in blurred copies recorded from TV in the 90s. Not that it doesn’t still look splendid. The cameraman, Lucien Ballard, was Merle Oberon’s second husband. (He also photographed her in The Lodger (1944), This Love of Ours (1945) and Berlin Express (1948).) She married him, presumably, because he was the one man who could make her look more exquisite than she did already.

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So what is Temptation about? Many things…not all of which are directly apparent on screen. It was based on Bella Donna, a novel by the English author and aesthete Robert Hichens (1864-1950). A member of the camp gay circle that surrounded Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he is best remembered today for The Green Carnation (1894) – a witty if rather scurrilous roman á clef about the, er, home life of his two famous friends. He also wrote the kitsch masterwork The Garden of Allah (filmed in 1936 with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich) which, like this story, has a North African desert setting.

Temptation opens in Cairo in 1900. Merle plays an outwardly genteel Victorian lady, who gets into a spot of bother over some compromising letters sent to an Egyptian gigolo lover (Charles Korvin). Dare we suspect this story has autobiographical echoes? We do know Wilde and his pals spent almost as much money paying off blackmailers as they earned in royalties. (More, perhaps, in the case of the sexually voracious Lord Alfred.) It’s tempting to see Merle’s character (who boasts the achingly exotic name of Ruby Armine) as a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. She could – if only this film were better known – win herself a cult following to rival Bette Davis in All About Eve.

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We see her first in long-shot, drifting through the garden of her sumptuous villa in a plush suburb of Cairo. (I was not aware, until now, that Cairo had plush suburbs.) A vision in a long and trailing white gown, with a white lace parasol to match. Her clothes are by the great Orry-Kelly and Merle herself remarks within the first few minutes: “The things I remember best are the hats and gowns I wore – and the way I felt when I wore them.” At the risk of sounding shallow, I must admit much of the pleasure in Temptation comes from seeing what our heroine will wear next. Let’s just say Merle Oberon is never knowingly underdressed.

As the star wafts her way slowly through the garden, we learn that a sinister Egyptian police inspector has come to call. By the time we see her in close-up, it’s clear she’s wanted for questioning about a murder. Her dreary archaeologist husband (George Brent) does not seem unduly concerned. He’s too busy pondering the opening of a long-lost tomb. But his close bachelor friend, a gimlet-eyed Jewish doctor (Paul Lukas), has distrusted and disliked Ruby from the start. A flashback in London tells us she was once what’s euphemistically called an ‘adventuress’. Her first husband divorced her on “urgent medical advice” from Lukas, who then tried to dissuade Brent from marrying her “as I would stop an infectious disease from spreading”. We wonder, momentarily, if the poor girl has some sort of VD. Or is the doctor one of those movie characters (normally played by Clifton Webb) who seem to regard any woman as ‘unclean’?

With these two dullards as her day-to-day companions, it’s hardly a surprise when Merle (still in a flashback) decides to have a little fun on the side. ‘Fun’ comes in the form of a bogus Egyptian prince called Mahmoud Bahroudi. He’s played by the Hungarian actor Charles Korvin – the one actor with a cleft chin more prodigious than Kirk Douglas or Cary Grant! In any other department, he’s not much of a threat but Merle likes him from the start. They first meet when he tries to blackmail a young acquaintance – and are drawn together by recognition of each other’s mutual depravity. “You’re the first person,” marvels Korvin, “who lies as well as I do.” To put it more simply, the two are a perfect match.

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Korvin, of course, is only out for money. But all of Merle’s is under the control of her husband. “I wish he were dead,” she says with an air of mild annoyance. Her lover promptly hands her an untraceable poison in an exotically carved antique box. Soon enough, she’s found a villainous servant who can stir it discreetly into anything poor Brent eats or drinks. In the tensest moment, some poisoned tea is placed strategically on a tray with six or seven other cups. The servant swivels the tray, with a dexterity that is truly breathtaking, to make sure that hubby gets the right one. Merle’s beautiful dark eyes follow the tray’s every move. They glow anxiously as her husband lifts the drink to his lips – and puts it down twice, untasted.

It’s a truly mesmerising piece of silent-screen acting, made all the more offbeat and effective by the fact that it takes place in a talking film. In forty years as an internationally famous star (stretching from her doomed Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 to her even-more-doomed vanity project Interval in 1973) Merle Oberon never enjoyed much reputation as an actress. The focus was on her exotic Anglo-Indian beauty and her early life as a ‘nightclub dancer’ (among other things) in the back streets of Calcutta. Yet anyone who doubts her ability to carry a film should track down a copy of Temptation. It’s a banquet of a role and she chomps it down and swallows it in one gulp. Only the lynx-eyed Lenore Ulric, as her sinister and possibly lesbian French maid, gets to steal even a tiny corner of the screen.

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Am I spoiling any surprises if I say that Merle/Ruby does reform before Temptation is quite over? Hichens’ friend Wilde deplored “the modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice” but that is what Hollywood in the 40s forced most movies to do. It’s reassuring to note that – while she is still satisfyingly wicked – Oberon sports a truly eye-popping dress with a black-lace-and-diamante bodice, festooned with pyramids and sphinxes and other Egyptian motifs. Surely no girl who wears a gown like this could ever be that good?!

David Melville

Aunt Julia Vs the Scriptwriter

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2010 by dcairns

In MURDER BY THE CLOCK, Aunt Julia (Blanche Friderici) is a nasty old woman with a morbid fear of premature burial. Taking a leaf from Poe, she’s installed the family crypt with a kind of horror horn, which she can sound off should she awaken unexpectedly entombed. Meanwhile she’s changed her will, various grasping relatives are plotting her assassination, and her “idiot” son Philip (Irving Pichel) has an unhealthy obsession with murder: when she asks him what he’d like to do in life, he replies “Kill!”

I was seeing this movie as part of my ongoing odyssey to view every movie depicted within the quaint and curious A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford, and it just happened to tie into Poe Week, via the premature burial theme, so it serves as a suitable aftershock of that festivity. It’s not great, but it’s from 1931 so it’s a fascinating historical artifact, showing how the fear film hadn’t yet gotten to grips with the supernatural can of worms opened by DRACULA. Here we’re in CAT AND THE CANARY terrain, with every creepy event solidly rooted in the criminal psychology of melodrama.

Apart from Mr. Pichel (above, right), who would go on to direct SHE and co-direct THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF, we have clown-faced Regis Toomey, stalwart William “Stage” Boyd, and sultry Lilyan Tashman (above, left), who seduces three men into killing for her. Her husband is particularly unfortunate: strangled by Tashman’s lover, he’s revived by an adrenalin shot to the heart, Uma Thurman-style, then nearly stabbed to death by the lover, and finally scared to death by the spectre of his resuscitated aunt, before he can name the man who originally throttled him. Unlucky stiff.

With its witless comedy and on-the-nose dialogue, this creaker is no classic — it makes James Whale’s often rigid FRANKENSTEIN look fluent and pacy, and lacks that movie’s moments of the sublime. But it is extremely handsome, photographed by Karl Struss in the Paramount soft-focus style, which makes for an unusual-looking horror film. Director Edward Sloman sure lives up to his surname, but obtains good perfs, especially from the sly Tashman and amiable maniac Pichel.

Seeing as how most talkies by 1931 had shed the stumbles, cracklings pauses and enunciation of the early sound misfires, I guess it was deliberate policy to play horror movies slower, for creepy atmos and suspense. Makes sense. But when it doesn’t quite work, it feels like the movie’s slipped back to 1929…