Archive for Nightmare

The Black Smorgasbord

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2010 by dcairns

Various Woolrich adaptations I tracked down but didn’t have time to write about in depth –

STREET OF CHANCE deserves more attention than I can give it here. A 1942 release, it’s a very early noir and an early Woolrich crime adaptation. In addition, it deploys amnesia for perhaps the first time in a movie thriller (any suggestions for earlier usage?), appearing the same year as RANDOM HARVEST. Burgess Meredith makes an ideal Woolrich hero/sap, since he’s eye-catching and oddly charismatic despite a total lack of movie-star glamour or that stalwart trustiness projected by B-list leads. With his face, even in youth like some fantastic tumorous root, or an old woman’s elbow, and his husky, tremulous voice, he holds the attention as if he had a sniper’s laser-sight beamed onto his forehead at all times.

Wallop! Burgess begins the film flat on his back on the sidewalk, victim of fallen masonry. Recovered, he thinks, from the slight concussion, he returns home to Mrs Burgess Meredith only to learn he’s been AWOL for three years! It seems he’s the victim of double amnesia — an earlier blow caused him to depart his existing life and begin a new one, and today’s bludgeoning restored his old memories but has inconveniently erased the events of his secondary existence.

Good old Burge tries to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, but the occluded years flood back in the form of mysterious assailants. Turning private dick, the amnesiac hero tries to rediscover his past, meeting Claire Trevor, his alter ego’s girlfriend, a maid in a spooky old house where murder has been committed.

It all gets complicated from here, but we get the pleasure of meeting sneaky heirs Frieda Inescort (Edinburgh-born specialist in snooty sneaks) and Jerome Cowan (a Woolrich specialsit who’s also in DEADLINE AT DAWN, purveying his classic brand of the camp and craven), and granny, (Adeline De Walt Reynolds) paralysed and mute after a stroke, and the only one who knows whodunnit. Her presence leads to a nifty bit of “blink once for yes” interrogation, derived from Therese Raquin (and recently recycled wholesale in Korean vampire opera THIRST), followed by a surprise anticipation of the alphabetical blinking language used in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. Reynolds keeps her eyelids quiveringly apart as Burgess recites the alphabet, blinking when he gets to the letter she wants, slowly spelling out words like a wrinkled ouija board.

It’s all fairly B-grade in visual terms, but the cast is very fine, with Claire Trevor bringing the same tortured vulnerability she used so well in STAGECOACH three years earlier, and the plot, while slightly predictable, is decent, even if we never quite find out how BM’s second life got started in the first place.

***

CONVICTED is an oddity, a nominally British quota quickie shot in Canada to cash in on UK govt aid, but with an American cast and crew. And it stars a very young Rita Hayworth as a nightclub dancer whose brother is unjustly convicted of murder. Turning sleuth, Rita must try to clear him, pinning the blame instead on mobbed-up night club proprietor Marc Lawrence.

The basic idea here is a Woolrich favourite, the unjust conviction (his Number Two Plot is the Avenging Angel figure, and he sometimes merges them), and bits of the story feel like a dry run for the more complicated and satisfying BLACK ANGEL. Rita is appealing, although my smeary copy doesn’t allow her beauty to shine.

***

The 1946 production BLACK ANGEL is much starrier, and throws in a lot more plot turns, with the gangster merely an elaborate red herring, and alcoholic blackout, understandably a favourite Woolrich device, playing a part. Roy William Neill, who climaxed a long and  neglected career (eleven Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone, all of them stylish and entertaining) with this movie, occasionally serves up a genuinely arresting moment, like the swoop in on hi-rise apartment at the beginning. Dan Duryea is an ideal Woolrich protag, his face and body somehow all wrong. And there’s Peter Lorre too, who also turns up in the same year’s THE CHASE, a Woolrich adaptation that makes a narrative hash out of The Black Path of Fear.

***

The innocent man in I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES is Don Castle, who also played in THE GUILTY with Bonita Granville. He made only a faint impression there, but he has a great scene here, trying to reassure his wife on the eve of his execution for the proverbial Crime He Didn’t Commit. Castle’s gentle smile is much more affecting than tears or desperation would be. The circumstantial evidence here hinges on the hero’s distinctive tap shoes, hurled from his window at an annoying tom-cat, and subsequently used and returned by a murderer who also arranges for Don to find a wallet-full of the victim’s savings. (I did think it a little offensive that the radio news heard in the movie refers to the blameless murderee as an “aged miser”…)

The story’s resolution utilizes the same psychotic stalker / police detective figure deployed in I WAKE UP SCREAMING, whose killer is reputedly based on Woolrich himself. Regis Toomey plays him with a certain sleazy exploitativeness when he’s just a cop, then switches to gentle, childlike perplexity when he’s unmasked as a stone killer. Interesting choices!

***

Actors who have been in more than one Woolrich adaptation — let’s list them and then imagine them all in one SUPER-MOVIE.

Michelle Morgan managed to be in two adaptations on two continents, OBSESSION and THE CHASE. So maybe she should be our leading lady. Also in THE CHASE, Peter Lorre, who is also in BLACK ANGEL, and he’s always welcome! He can be villain or quirky support.

I hope we’re not going to be stuck with Don Castle (THE GUILTY, I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES) as leading man, as he’s decent but bland. He can play a decent but bland supporting character. The same but double goes for John Lund, who’s in NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES and NO MAN OF HER OWN.

But Elisha Cook Jnr is in both THE FALL GUY and, of course, PHANTOM LADY. I would love to see a movie with Elisha in the lead! And clearly a Woolrich adaptation would make sense as a vehicle for him — he’s the ultimate loserman.

Oddly, members of Preston Sturges’ stock company of decrepit supporting players keep turning up, but never the same one twice: William Demarest in THOUSAND EYES, Porter Hall in MARK OF THE WHISTLER, Al Bridge in DEADLINE AT DAWN. So I’d like to see Jimmy Conlin as a psychopathic hitman.

Another strong actor with two credits in Woolrich movies is the majestic Edward G Robinson, featured in NIGHTMARE and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES. Jerome Cowan would certainly make good backup in the losing department — he’s in DEADLINE AT DAWN and STREET OF CHANCE.

***

It’s that shot again!

FALL GUY is maybe the perfect Woolrich title (except it doesn’t have the word “black” in it). I’d never been very taken with Reginald LeBorg’s work before, it strikes me as adequate at best, but something about the combination of beyond-parodic intensity in the writing and sub-par woodenness in the acting here tickled me somewhere special (medulla oblongata?) — this movie is like a compendium of Woolrich tropes shoveled onto the screen with desperate abandon. “Film noir enacted on cheap sets,” as Errol Morris would have it, give you that authentic squalor and staleness no big studio production can invoke.

We have an alcoholic (in fact, drug-induced, as it turns out) blackout, followed by false suspicion alighting on the hero, who’s found by the police unconscious and blood-stained. Hilarious scene where the cops want to interrogate the comatose hero, (“Who did you kill? Why did you kill? Who did you kill? Why did you kill?”) while the doctor repeatedly assures them this is pointless. “I’m gonna throw the book at him!” “That’s fine, but the book will only land with a dull thud while he’s in this condition.”

Stupified patsy Clifford Penn (father of Sean and Chris) escapes the drunk ward in a superb scene at once frenetic and stilted, and must go on the lam with cop friend Robert Armstrong (a superb, one-note perf of barking belligerence, surly even by Armstrong’s pit-bull standards). Suspects along the way include the above-mentioned Elisha Cook Jnr, and crazy gambling couple Iris Adrian and John Harmon.

LeBorg throws in familiar tropes like the blurred POV shot slowly resolving into focus, and the dutch-tilted investogative montage, both of which appear in Maxwell Shane’s FEAR IN THE NIGHT and NIGHTMARE. They seem like stock techniques for Woolrich adaptors. But the best moment isn’t the director’s work at all — when Penn and Armstrong take off after a witness, the film suddenly breaks for a reel change, and the headlong pursuit turns into a baffling tumble of inverted words and numbers, picking up the momentum of the pursuit perfectly. While the few interesting shots make me wich I had a better copy of this film, I seriously dug this weird moment of Dennis Hopper-style film-as-film accidental avant-gardism.

***

Woolrich on TV. Recently I got my hands on several episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, none of which were very exciting in themselves, despite talents like John Brahm and Mitchell Leisen lurking off-camera. Guillotine takes a neat little Woolrich twist ending and elongates it beyond endurance, but the zinger when it comes is quite satisfying.

Shorter and sweeter was Black Bargain, an episode of the HBO series Fallen Angels, directed by the continually promising Keith Gordon. Very stylish, with Twin Peaks exiles Miguel Ferrer and Grace Zabriskie providing a pointer to KG’s influences. David Lynch does seem a very apt reference point for Woolrich’s paranoid universe.

And then there’s this, written about here back in Hitchcock Year. Four O’Clock, based on Woolrich’s story Three O’Clock.

The Dream Detective

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2010 by dcairns

The top movie opens like whorling  ink and oil and blood in a madman’s plughole. The lower movie opens like a five-dimensional bezoar viewed through a kaleidoscope — abstract clouds of translucent hair that seem to pass through us as we delve deeper. After that opening title though, they are the same.

Behold! The Floating Head of Death in NIGHTMARE and FEAR IN THE NIGHT.

Maxwell Shane liked Cornell Woolrich’s story Nightmare so much, he made it twice, first as FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which was DeForest Kelley’s first feature (and seeing the very fine performance of the Dr. McCoy guy in JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK reboot reminded me how warmly I feel towards DFK), in 1947, and again in 1956 as NIGHTMARE, with Kevin McCarthy in the lead but with Edward G Robinson accorded senior billing, as is only right.

In fact, it seems Robinson, who had previously starred in a real Woolrich classic, NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (not very faithful to the source novel, but very good), made this film mainly to clear his name after he’d had some trouble with HUAC. The Z-list producers, William Pine and William Thomas (known in the trade as “the Dollar Bills”) seem to have had some power to rehabilitate stars who were under a cloud: if you worked for them, you were judged OK.

According to unreferenced internet sources, Maxwell Shane himself was a writer for Black Mask magazine, linking him to the Woolrich tradition of pulp-noir writing, and he later worked on Boris Karloff’s Thriller show, where the Woolrich story Guillotine was adapted for TV.

Incidentally, in Woolrich’s 1947 story A Night in Barcelona, the hero is called Maxwell Jones, and he’s a jazz musician, like the hero of NIGHTMARE, although unlike the hero of the 1947 FEAR IN THE NIGHT. Make of that what you will. And Woolrich reused the name, according to CW authority Francis M Nevins, in his last completed novel, Death is My Dancing Partner.

It begins — with a nightmare! Kevin McCarthy, the chin who walks like a man, sees himself in a mirrored room, stabbing a man with an ice-pick/awl, and stashing the body in a closet. “I felt as if my brain was in handcuffs,” he narrates, absurdly. During the struggle, he tears off one of the man’s jacket buttons, and after hiding the cadaver he pockets the key. And when he wakes up — you guessed it, he has the button and key on him. Also bruises and bloodstains.

This, then, is the mystery. McCarthy, sweating and jutting his jaw, is convinced the murder was real, but he doesn’t consciously remember it, and he doesn’t, so far as he knows, know the murdered man.

There’s a faint echo of this scenario in MINORITY REPORT, Spielberg’s “science fiction film noir“, which makes me ponder the death of noir and the limitations of a lot of neo-noir. I have a suspicion that noir died as a result of creeping self-consciousness, and that the very act of naming the genre was a nail in it’s coffin. But I also think that noir succeeded in its heyday because the filmmakers were sincere about the paranoia and fear that fueled the stories they told, and nobody was more sincere than Woolrich, who lived the life of loneliness and alcoholism. It’s hard to think of a sensibility less noirish than Spielberg’s, isn’t it? So in his movie, a man is really driven to the brink of murdering somebody he doesn’t know, and he’s all set to do it, as predicted by a psychic (Philip K Dick’s original story is very Woolrichian — both are ham-and-eggs pulp writers with weird imaginations), but then Spielberg wusses out and needs an additional forty-five minutes of screen time to come up with a happy ending in which malevolent fate is replaced by a nonsensical bad guy with a foreign accent, played by a guy who played lots of Nazis and the Emperor Ming.

Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy ditches his girlfriend, a big-voiced jazz singer (Connie Russell, impressively full-throated) and visits his convenient cop brother-in-law, Eddie G. Who doesn’t believe him, until a family picnic is interrupted by a thunderstorm and McCarthy leads Robinson to the house he dreamed about, the house with the mirrored room. (The room also appears in Shane’s FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which is shot-for-shot near-identical to this one, save for a lower budget and no jazz subplot. FITN appeared the same year as Welles’ mirror-magic-show THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.)

Now we learn there’s been a real murder in this house and things are not looking good for Kevin. The only real clue comes in the reading material favoured by the unseen householder ~

Suspicious!

Do you sense a hypnosis plot lurking in the wings? Do you suspect that the old adage about hypnosis being useless to make somebody act out of character was possibly not extant at the time of this movie? How right you are!

Along the way we get further nice ideas like McCarthy searching for the haunting, sleazy and scary tune he heard floating through his dream, quizzing his jazz cohorts in a dutch-tilted montage sequence to find out if anybody can Name That Tune. And we get a few nice ceiling fans and shadow shots.

As long as I’m kicking MINORITY REPORT for its feelgood finale, I should really be consistent and smack NIGHTMARE for the cheery family-values-and-jazz coda that wraps things up into a neat bundle at the end. There were ample opportunities to kill or permanently dement McCarthy along the way. But the conclusion is put over with some enthusiasm and good spirits, and it’s pretty economical, and the song is nice. This is from late in the noir cycle, so one doesn’t expect too much (TOUCH OF EVIL and KISS ME DEADLY notwithstanding), but the movie is a snappy, happy little opus with a great crime jazz score, good New Orleans locations, and a few very pleasing visuals. Here’s a moment where Kevin thinks he sees a vision from his dream ~

Gotta love that split mirror image. In fact, the whole scene is part of the padding inserted to blow up the B-movie original to a beefier 1 hr 28 mins. McCarthy picks up the girl and goes home with her, and by way of Big Easy atmos there’s a black female voice singing blues in the night, and it really is atmospheric and kind of eerie, especially because the whole thing has nothing to do with the plot ~

“My closet’s full of men’s clothes / And no man to put ‘em on / Gonna find a man to love me / Before this day is gone.”

NB: DREAM DETECTIVE is the title of a film by Shinya Tsukamoto. I like his work, but that title is so evocative for me I almost don’t want to see it. How can the film be better than the title and the thoughts it conjures?

NB2: Francis M Nevins is right to say that FEAR IN THE NIGHT is the superior version. Now that I’ve watched it all, I can say that Paul Kelly in the Edward G Robinson role makes the difference — he’s always an alarming and unpredictable presence, c.f. that terrifying scene in CROSSFIRE…

First You Dream… Then You Die!

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , on April 8, 2010 by dcairns

Just a reminder — Monday the 12th is the start of Cornell Woolrich week. Please notify your pulp-noir loving friends, and any other interested parties.

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