Archive for Joan Harrison

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.

The Gaze

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on May 25, 2019 by dcairns

We had our friend Marvelous Mary round last night for the first time in an age. She’d just been reading about producer Joan Harrison, and I offered to screen PHANTOM LADY, a favourite film of mine. I hadn’t seen it for years, but remembered most of the iconic images. But I had forgotten the above.

Ella Raines may not be the strongest actress in history, but she had a great LOOK, in the sense both of her physiognomy and style, and in the intentness she can bring to her gaze. This is a male/female gaze movie. At one point, she seems set to stalk a man to his death by her stare alone, like Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD. And she’s the heroine!

The movie gives us a sound-stage/back-lot/process shot New York, and combines Cornell Woolrich’s fervid pulp fiction style with the noir look and the dollar-book Freud beloved of Hollywood scenarists (in this case, Bernard C. Schoenfeld, of THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW and THE SPACE CHILDREN, of all things).

The low budget seems to show only in the B-list casting (but Raines, Thomas Gomez and Franchot Tone are all perfect and Elisha Cook raises the tone, temperature and stakes) and in the curiously thin soundtrack. There’s basically no score, which allows the jazz number and song (from Carmen Miranda’s sister Aurora) to pop out, but leaves a lot of dead air on the soundtrack, which detailed atmos and effects tracks might have effectively filled… but nobody took the trouble to make this happen.

Elisha Cook Jr. gets the shaft again

However, the suspenseful climax really turns this to its advantage, the long silences pregnant with terror, the white walls of the killer’s studio complimenting the blankness of the audio. The whiteness of the white whale.

THE KILLERS and other later Siodmak noirs are far more convincingly set in a version of the real world: this movie has a comic-book simplicity to every character and every line, though details like the two mean cops discussing ice-cream flavours impart a surprisingly Tarantinoesque quality (though without any of the concomitant vulgarity).

Really nice to revisit this: may be time to delve into UNCLE HARRY, CRISS-CROSS, THE SUSPECT, again too…

“You have a saboteur’s disposition.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2009 by dcairns

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So says Priscilla Lane to Robert Cummings in SABOTEUR, another retread of the 39 STEPS idea, complete with handcuffs, disbelieving blonde, embarrassment versus peril at a social gathering, and adding in the climax on a monument idea which Hitchcock had first developed, aided by the young Michael Powell, in BLACKMAIL.

Digression: watching THE BEAST OF THE CITY, a great pre-code cops and gangsters drama with Walter Huston, we got fascinated by Huston’s family. This being an MGM movie, it dispenses somewhat with the hard-edged proletarian qualities of Warners gangster films, instead endorsing shady and brutal police methods with fascistic relish, and part of the strategy is to celebrate the police chief’s family and home life. First off, a foetal Mickey Rooney plays Huston’s youngest kid, which is distracting enough, but when his twin daughters enter, side by side and carrying a single platter between them, and talking in unison, we wondered for a moment if they weren’t the Hilton sisters, the conjoined twins who appeared in FREAKS (and one other movie, CHAINED BOUND FOR LIFE). But then they exited separately, which pretty much proved that they weren’t. No doubt we were influenced by the fact that it was an MGM movie, like FREAKS, and Huston’s younger brother was played by the guy who played Phroso the clown in that Tod Browning masterpiece.

0417Another thin man.

This pointless anecdote connects to the fact that SABOTEUR also features Siamese twins, but these are fake (real twins, though), and that it’s also the source of a similar case of mistaken identity. When I first saw SABOTEUR as a teenager, I formed the mistaken impression that the actor playing the living skeleton in the same freakshow scene was John Carradine. That mistake stayed in my memory, and I was surprised to find out I was wrong (it’s Pedro de Cordoba, who has a similar seedy elegance and Shakespearian delivery), just as I was about Mel Blanc being in MR AND MRS SMITH. De Cordoba is very good, but I’m still disappointed he’s not Carradine and he’s not a real living skeleton (what, was Miles Mander unavailable?)

Movie begins with the silhouette of the saboteur (Norman Lloyd, later Hitch’s TV producer) leaving the scene of his crime, an image echoed at the end with his tiny figure silhouetted against a movie screen at Radio City Music Hall, smoke from his gun mirroring the black cloud that issues earlier from his act of arson.

The opening scenes are fairly sombre, as Cummings’ pal (a crewmember recruited by Hitchcock for his blue-collar appearance) is killed in the fire. Cummings, a popular whipping-boy among classic film fans, is actually pretty good at the emotional scenes after the death (although it seems to me that it’s this film, and not FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, that’s undercast in its star roles — I’ll take McCrea over Cummings any day. According to Bill Krohn, Hitchcock originally envisaged Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for this one, but was forced to accept Cummings and Priscilla Lane who had been paired for another project that collapsed).  But the script (Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker) surprisingly squanders a few opportunities for suspense as Cummings is suspected of the crime and forced to go on the run.

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They drive by night.

The film repeatedly pulls off a neat trick though, sending Cummings from one scrape or dead end to another, and always managing to provide some slight clue to motivate the next part of the chase. And through the episodic narrative, a romance is nurtured and several themes develop.

One theme connects to Cummings proletarian side: a factory worker, he often finds himself disadvantaged by his lowly social status, although he receives the help of a truck driver who recognises him as a brother, and a blind hermit who seems to have wandered in from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, spouting philosophy like Rock Hudson’s pal in MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. Cummings’ greatest enemies are the rancher Toban (a wonderfully oily Otto Kruger) and society lady Mrs Sutton (Alma Kruger, no relation).

Another motif is the presentation of the bad guys: Hitchcock gives Tobin a cute little granddaughter, has another speak of his long-haired baby son (a genuinely weird scene — what are they saying here?), while another talks about taking his kid sister out. And a whole coterie of thugs sings Tonight We Love while taking Cummings for a ride. All of which, perversely, doesn’t humanize them in any positive way, it makes their evil all the more chilling. Observing that the enemy love their families too does not mean we shouldn’t hate them: the ability to feel love for a child and then commit acts of murder against strangers is a particularly insidious kind of evil, Hitch seems to be saying.

Hitchcock’s reaction to an air raid warden’s announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor — “Why was he wearing that funny hat?” — does not suggest a man particularly attuned to world affairs, yet such was the script’s topicality that the declaration of war did not substantially alter it. Perhaps the freakshow scene, in which a bunch of typically atypical Americans have to decide whether to get involved, would have played out more urgently if America were still sitting on the fence, but it’s still an intriguing scene, even if the little fascist is the only guy in it who could have made a living in a real sideshow.

0892Film.

“What do they have in America?” seems to have been the question asked as Cummings and lane traverse the nation, taking in the Hoover Dam, deserts, a ghost town, Radio City and finally the Empire State Building, a fairly wide range of US signifiers. Krohn calls this the first American Hitchcock to take place in America, which is true if we discount MR AND MRS SMITH (but should we?) — so Hitch is busy trying to make the landscape his own. It’s essential preparation for SHADOW OF A DOUBT, a real masterpiece and possibly Hitchcock’s most American film of all.

Script: Joan Harrison turned Hitch’s ideas into a long outline, what we’d call a “scriptment” today, with Viertel (whose father had collaborated with Alma Reville on THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK) filling that out into a first draft and Dorothy Parker providing dialogue sparkle. Parker’s work really enlivens the truck driver scenes, the blind philosopher, the sideshow artists scene and those colourful bad guys. Arguably the construction is even more artificial than usual, with Cummings escaping from a locked room simply by setting off a fire alarm. Panic ensues throughout the building — cut to Cummings outside, an all-too-typical smug look on his face. “How did he get out?” wondered Viertel. “They’ll never ask,” smiled Hitchcock.

That interlude within the swank Manhattan hotel is probably the weakest part. The explanation of why Cummings can’t simply walk out isn’t too compelling, and his attempts to enlist the help of party guests lack conviction too. the whole scene is a series of partial escapes from no clearly defined peril: simply exposing Cummings to the bad guys and cutting to him locked in the cupboard would have saved a lot of time (which might have been expended on a more interesting escape) and cost the film little in the way of real suspense. But I do like the way Lane keeps saying “This is like a nightmare!” and “It all seems so unreal!” She’s not wrong. And maybe this is another scene with a pre-war undercurrent, the serene society people waltzing away with the city about to explode around them.

There are two more problematic bits: the Radio City scene has an audience laughing uproariously at a film which doesn’t seem to be even trying to be funny. This can also be chalked up to the dreamlike atmosphere, I guess. Hitch also indulges in his propensity for killing innocent bystanders (see the unfortunate Dutch cyclist of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), which I always find a little upsetting.

Then, the grand finale atop Lady Liberty (and I like the synchronicity of the statue being reopened to the public this week to coincide with my posting this). Ben Hecht reportedly watched the scene where Norman Lloyd’s sleeve ripped off and he falls to his death and dryly remarked, “Should’ve gone to a better tailor.” I suspect this anecdote inspired the scene in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY where Paul Newman dangles from a skyscraper, his fate decided by a series of flashbacks exploring the strength of the stitching in his jacket. “My sleeve…”

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Of course, if Norman Lloyd had grabbed the cuff before his arm slid free, he’d have been fine. He seems to have had plenty of time to do so.

I also like the cops shouting “Get a rope!” I’d like to see a short about the cop who runs all the way downstairs and scours Liberty Island for a good length of hemp, finds it, desperately negotiates its purchase, then runs all the way back up to find everybody gone.

But the problem here, as Hitchcock described it, is that it’s the villain who’s in jeopardy, not the hero. Paul Schrader uses the same ending in AMERICAN GIGOLO, in a way, but boosts the drama by having the suspended bad guy be essential to clear the hero. Hitchcock makes a faint stab at this, but Cummings has effectively already been cleared, so it doesn’t really amp up the tension. However, the sequence is so brilliantly put together, including some of the best special effects of the period (by INVISIBLE MAN genius John P Fulton), that considerable suspense, and even terror, is created.

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Norman Lloyd’s death fall was photographed from above by a rising crane, with the actor spinning on a rotating saddle.

I always enjoy SABOTEUR, but I prefer FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, which has George Sanders and Herbert Marshall and a giant budget. But this later film shows tons of creativity, especially as it was achieved at much lower cost, necessitating many cost-saving devices. Here, Hitchcock’s meticulous preparation was essential, and assistant art director Robert Boyle, who storyboarded the movie, would become an important collaborator on future projects. Hitch was starting to build his team.