Archive for John Alton

A Quick Jolt of Noir

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 25, 2021 by dcairns

TRAPPED (1949) is directed by Richard Fleischer and has some striking visuals. It’s one of those how-the-Feds-protect-you procedurals that don’t really partake of noir’s more radical elements, but which frequently stimulate with their single source lightning, especially if John Alton is shooting. TRAPPED is filmed by Guy Roe, whose name rang no bells, but he’d clearly been paying attention. His other credits include RAILROADED! for Mann and ARMOURED CAR ROBBERY for Fleischer again.

The climax in a bus depot is really something, with striking perspective shots but even more brilliant sound: the puffing of a bus engine somewhere which fades up and down, providing a breathless, panting commentary on the action, dropping out to make you feel the quiet, then coming back in to build anticipation. There’s no sound editor credit so we may never know who was responsible.

Thanks to David Bordwell for alerting me to this one. The story is disjointed but Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton and John Hoyt are all great presences.

Leftward, ho!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2019 by dcairns
The very welcome return of Chris Schneider to Shadowplay's pages -- he's been looking at THREE FACES WEST, directed by Bernard "Mad" Vorhaus, and he's dug up some interesting stuff...

One thought that occurs while watching the good-looking, if not exactly compelling, THREE FACES WEST is “What does this Republic Pictures drama of dust-bowl farmers have in common with the Billy Wilder SUNSET BOULEVARD? The answer? Both of ‘em allude to the luxury car Isotta Fraschini.

Only in SUNSET BOULEVARD the car, which belongs to silent star Norma Desmond, is real and rentable, whereas in THREE FACES WEST it’s an impossibility, the stuff of foolish jokes. The daughter of a refugee Viennese doctor (Sigrid Gurie), who has been sent with her father (Charles Coburn) to bring medical aid to a North Dakota full of dust and influenza, thinks that when John Wayne says “jalopy” he’s referring to a make of Italian car. “First cousin to an Iscotta Fraschini,” chuckles Wayne — who’s a local leader. The word “Anschluss,” meaning Nazi Germany’s overtaking Austria, is soon to follow.

This is 1940, you see, the year GRAPES OF WRATH was released. The director and cinematographer are Bernard Vorhaus and John Alton, the pair who later made notable noirs THE AMAZING MR. X and BURY ME DEAD. Wayne, the male lead, has already appeared in his star-making STAGECOACH role, but the John Ford cavalry films are in his future.

The phrase “left-ish” — or, at least, “Popular Front” — comes to mind … and would even if first googling *didn’t* produce a Vorhaus bio in Spartacus Educational. Vorhaus had just made a Dr. Christian film, with script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McClellan Hunter, concerned with medicine for the indigent. But it’s startling, in any case, to see Wayne in this context, the man who later would walk away from the family at the end of THE SEARCHERS involved in anything as communal as creating an Exodus-like convoy from the Dust Bowl to humid Oregon.

It seemed to indicate the writers’ left-wing cred that the radio show which connects Wayne with Coburn and Gurie is called We The People. But nah. This show actually existed, was broadcast on CBS from 1937 to 1949. Still, the name allows Wayne to say “We The People — left holding the bag!”

THREE FACES WEST is built around the equation of old-time pioneers with present-day (read early-‘40s) refugees. Pre-echoes of CASABLANCA occur when Gurie’s loyalties are torn between a fiancé in Vienna, who saved her life and turns out not to have died, and the more immediate Wayne. Not much suspense there. Not many of the Expressionist gestures I was hoping for, either, from director Vorhaus, although several gorgeous night shots with blowing wind and a single light-source indicate the hand of the d.p. who later shot T-MEN.

Coburn probably comes off best among the performers, although Gurie is affecting. Wayne has an unconvincing drunk scene, and another director might’ve advised him not to make a fist when talking about his desire to fight. Still, the camera loves Wayne’s *jeunesse doree*. As his recent costar Louise Brooks wrote, a shade backhandedly, “This is no actor but the hero of all mythology brought to life.” (Voice off: “No actor, you say?”)

There’s a chase, a wedding. Wayne gets handed an awkward line or two like “It was I who argued we stay here and fight.” A salient phrase of Victor Young’s score keeps sounding like the Warren & Dubin song “I’ll String Along With You” … although that’s probably because the words “Three Faces West” and “You may not be an angel” have the same rhythm. Not compelling, on the whole, but a film that’s historically notable and displays signs of virtuosity — says the writer before slamming the door and driving off in his imaginary Iscotta Fraschini.

*

The cast, as David Cairns might say, includes Ethan Edwards, Marya Volny, Benjamin Dingle, Pa Joad, Connolly the Barman, plus a cameo by Charles Foster Kane III.

The People Against The Thing From Another World

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2019 by dcairns
Called to the bar.

Casting Spencer Tracy as an alcoholic is a bit nervy… a scene showing him engaging in a sketchy interaction with Eduardo Ciannelli in the men’s room may be dicier still. THE PEOPLE AGAINST O’HARA (1951) has moments of subversion and dissonance unusual in an MGM picture.

Tracy plays a retired criminal lawyer and reformed boozer driven back to the bottle by his struggle to win the case of a young man (James Arness, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD himself) accused of murder. John Sturges directs — his early thrillers aren’t as noirish as Anthony Mann’s, but he does have cinematographer John “single-source” Alton on his side so the movie is beautiful.

I must have looked away during the credits because I missed Alton’s name, but the suspicion gradually donned on me as the film went on that I was seeing his work. One of the few DoP’s with such a distinctive style.

This is the shot that made me first glimmer and glom.

“Spencer Tracy’s always good as a lawyer. He’s so solid,” said Fiona. “He’s an immovable force.”

“I think you can have an immovable object or an unstoppable force…” I suggest, but then come to think she’s right. Spence is an immovable force. Or possibly an unstoppable object.

The film is very well cast — Diana Lynn has one terrific scene, John Hodiak is fine in his natural environment as third lead, Pat O’Brien fades into the furniture, Ciannelli and William Campbell are great nasties, and if you enjoy the look, sound and feel of Emile Meyer as much as I do, you will enjoy seeing, hearing and touching him here.

This is sort of a noir — there is some surprising stuff, including the ending. But the ultimate message of just about any MGM film is that the system works, so you don’t get a real sense of subversion and malaise, but then, maybe you already have enough of that in your life.

THE PEOPLE AGAINST O’HARA stars Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Hildy Johnson; Emmy Kockenlocker; John Kovac; Dr. Satan; the Thing from Another World; Cimmaron Rose; Walking Coyote; Concho; Chief Quinn; Reverend Cyril Playfair; Mrs. Carol Stark; Lt. Harry Kello; Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls; Paul Kersey; Molly Molloy; Mr. Rafferty; and the voice of Colossus.