For our final 1950’s film noir class, our teacher Elliot Lavine handed us three films, and all I can say is . . . nobody said making it to the end in a noir world would be easy. First of all, these films are not all late examples; rather they span most of the decade, from 1953 – 1958, so you can’t really call this a finale. I get Touch of Evil: despite Elliot’s assertion that the noir genre continued into the mid-1960’s, I know some consider Orson Welles’ film the last “great” noir. But what to make of John Parker’s Dementia (shot in 1953, released in 1955, and banned almost immediately thereafter) or Bruno VeSota’s Female Jungle (1955)? What do these two films tell us about the fate of film noir?
Ultimately, the answer to that question is, “Who cares?” We who love noir know that the original movement faded away, but the things we love about it never died. One of these days, I figure Elliot will offer a class on neo-noir. Although most of them are in color, and they aren’t subversively pushing back on a now-defunct Production Code, there are some great films that pack a different sort of punch from their more repressed, and thus, in my mind, more glorious, ancestors.
That, however, is a story for another day. Here and now, what are we to make of the three films currently on offer?
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Tonight, when we start to talk about Female Jungle, I will look Elliot in his virtual eye and ask him, “Why, sir? Just . . . why?” There are two answers he can give: the factual and the subjective. As to the former, Female Jungle was directed by Bruno VeSota, who is an important figure in our third film Dementia and vaguely resembles Orson Welles. Neither is a good enough reason to subject us to this, so I’ll have to accept Elliot’s subjective reason: he likes it . . . he really likes it.
Female Jungle is a whodunnit, which should account for something in my head, but only scores a few points there. In the opening moments, a beautiful movie star named Monica Madison (Eve Brent) is brutally strangled right in the street. The suspects are three: Detective Sergeant Jack Stevens (Lawrence Tierney) who was in the vicinity of the crime getting blackout drunk at his favorite bar; gossip columnist
Waldo Lydecker Claude Almstead, who had escorted Monica to the bar after a radio interview where they talked about how he made her a star (just like Laura); and caricature artist Alex Voe (Burt Kaiser), who is married to kind and pretty Peggy (Kathleen Crowley) but is carrying on with nymphomaniac Candy Price (Jayne Mansfield is back in her first film role!!!) and who wears his psychological damage on his sleeve.
You know that a film is in trouble when the killer is gunned down in the 66th minute and then the next eight minutes are spent having the other characters sit in a bar and try to explain to each other (and the audience) what the heck was going on the whole time. My fellow mystery nerds will acknowledge another major faux pas in crime fiction – most of information they dole out is brand-new.
Film noir fans may not care about these things while they’re salivating over the fact that the movie was shot in six days for $49,000 and looks every bit of it. To be fair, the main cast is not bad at all. In better days, getting Lawrence Tierney for the lead would have been a coup. We saw him in our 40’s noir class in the Robert Wise film Born to Kill (1946). By 1955, his real-life bad boy ways had landed him in so much trouble that he had been reduced to supporting roles. Female Jungle was his last good part in films for a long while, but he went back to the stage, did a lot of TV, and bided his time ending up as a crime boss in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
Then there’s John Carradine, one of the great character actors perhaps best-known today for his contributions to the horror genre – but who can forget his dashing redeemed-at-the-last-minute Southerner in Stagecoach? – who here plays the Clifton Webb role of the columnist who is tasked at the end with most of the explication. And Jayne Mansfield proves in her debut that the role of a nymph was well within her wheelhouse.
The two I hadn’t heard of were Burt Kaiser and Kathleen Crowley as the artist and his wife. Kaiser is good-looking and appropriately tortured, and Crowley, who did a ton of TV shows in her lifetime, is lovely and appealing . . . at least, when she’s in the movie. According to Wikipedia, (so it’s iffy) Crowley appeared late to work in the middle of shooting and claimed she had been raped. She was basically pulled out for a while (in the film, she is invited by Carradine to swim in his pool and for at least a half an hour, she is gone from the movie and a couple of shots with a double are all the sight we have of “her”), and the role that Mansfield played was beefed up.
By far, my favorite actor in the film is Connie Cezon, who went on to play Gertie the receptionist in the first few seasons of Perry Mason. The worst actor was the director himself: VeSota plays the role of the guy who owns the bar where stuff happens. I think he was meant to be comic relief; instead, he was loud and annoying.
Honestly, I’m not sure why we watched this, and it’s hard for me to recommend it to anyone but a completist in terms of noir, Tierney, Carradine, or Mansfield. It doesn’t even look that good – at least, it didn’t in the print I watched on YouTube. (After I watched it, Elliot sent a better link, but I’m not going through that again!) I’m sure someone can tell me what I missed in the comments below.
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I predict that Dementia will strongly divide our class. It is 58 minutes long and unlike anything I have watched in any noir class. (Think of it as the Eraserhead of noir.) Director John Parker based the plot on a nightmare told to him by his secretary, and then he went and cast the secretary, Adrienne Barrett, in the leading role. Another main part went to VeSota, and some say he directed a lot of the film himself. The resemblance of the film to an actual nightmare is extraordinary. I mean that in the best of ways.
The film had a tortured history. It was made in 1953, but shortly after its release, it was banned by the New York State Film Board (“Inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness . . . “). Two years later, it was re-released only after the producers acquiesced to the censors’ demand of four edits, and then two years after that, the film was re-released again with a further disturbing change. One of its unusual qualities is that it has no dialogue, and in the final release (where the film was retitled Daughter of Horror), the distributor, Jack H. Harris, added narration by none other than Ed McMahon!!
Honestly, I read this information before I sat down to watch the film, and I truly thought I was in for a slog. Reviewers were not kind, although Preston Sturges loved it. Even Elliot warned us that we might need patience to get through it. Obviously this movie isn’t going to be everyone’s shot of bourbon. Here’s what I found:
First, the film is gorgeous. Set in L.A.’s Skid Row, it was shot in Hollywood studios and on location in Venice, California. The cinematographer was William C. Thompson who had been working behind the camera since 1914 and was probably well on his last legs. Four years later, he would make Plan 9 from Outer Space, often crowned the worst film of all time. I have to tell you, though: the imagery and lighting in Dementia is awesome, like diamonds presented in cheap wrapping
Secondly, the film eschews realism and embraces the dreamlike, both in plot and style. Admittedly, this can generally be a problem for a lot of people (myself included sometimes, but not here), as it requires you to stop resisting and just go with the flow of what you’re watching. The question will arise from start to finish as to whether the leading character is actually asleep. I suppose the film might answer that question in the final moments, but the real answer is that it doesn’t matter; whether real or dreamt, the nightmare is complete.
In terms of what the film is about . . . well, there is a plot of sorts: a woman, whom we only know as The Gamine, wakes up in her Skid Row hotel room from a troubled sleep, walks out into the streets and then really gets into trouble. I could go into lots of detail, but more important than the plot is what this film is showing us about the treatment of women in the 1950’s, not as a sociological side effect of viewing a typically unfolding 50’s plot, but evidently as a deliberate motivation of the (male) director.
The Gamine is brutalized by all sorts of men, as are all the other female characters in passing. We see a neighbor showing a policeman the bruises inflicted on her by her husband. We see a man toss a cigar on a cleaning woman mopping floors and a dancer forced to dress and gyrate for the sexual titillation of the male customers. For a large section of the film, the Gamine is “pimped out” to a Rich Man (VeSota), who squires her about town in his limousine, takes her to dinner and that dance show, where he leers at the performer to get his own mojo going and then escorts his date to his upscale apartment for the final act. As much as I hated VeSota’s acting in Female Jungle, here he perfectly embodied a loathsome man: his despicable treatment of The Gamine is fascinating to watch.
Barrett is also brilliantly effective in the leading role, which calls for such a complex range of emotions and reactions, all without dialogue, in a setting that is simultaneously real and abstract, that she becomes both a horror film heroine and a noir villainess rolled into one. I would be fascinated to learn what other folks experienced watching this film. It may excite you, or it may bore you to tears, but it cannot be dismissed as an hour of “style without substance.” A bold experiment for its time, I believe Dementia confronts the role of women in film noir for the first dozen years of the genre’s existence and turns it on its ear.
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I’m not going to dwell on Touch of Evil. Far smarter writers, who like this film more than I, have said a lot about it. Its history, like most of Orson Welles’ films, is a tortured one. How that man got any films made after Citizen Kane is one for the books (and there are many books about it), but if you know anything about the director, you know that he was always at war with his studio, and several key films, beginning with his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) were re-cut (no, let’s say it – butchered) behind his back or against his will. It happened again with The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and it happened again here.
I own the “restored” version that was edited together based on extensive notes Welles wrote when he beheld what Universal had done to Touch of Evil, but this time, based on Elliot’s advice, I watched the original 94-minute release. Frankly, huge fan of this movie that I am not, I didn’t care, and I can’t remember enough to compare them. The first 108-minute cut was edited without the director’s approval after a poorly received preview because the studio thought Welles’ experimental editing was bordering on incoherent.
I don’t think the studio fixed that problem with its original cut, but I don’t have the energy to go watch this again. I don’t want to spend more time with Welles’ villainous corrupt cop or Akim Tamiroff’s sweaty, pathetic drug lord. I don’t want to watch the brutalization of Janet Leigh by Mexican thugs, including a bizarrely costumed Mercedes McCambridge as a sadistic lesbian. I don’t even want to watch our hero, a Mexican special prosecutor named Miguel Vargas, played by Charlton Heston, painted brown, as he does his thing.
Based on plot and script alone, the film is tough. It jumps around, sometimes in this version because Welles wanted it to and sometimes, I gather, because the studio was trying to “fix” it. Scenes shift suddenly, characters literally pop into the screen, things get jumbled and confused. Based on a novel by Whit Masterson called Badge of Evil, Welles made Heston’s character Mexican and switched the setting from San Diego to Mexico because “I wanted to show how Tijuana and the border towns are corrupted by all sorts of mish-mash, publicity more or less about American relations.” That corruption is beautifully rendered both in production design and in the actors’ performances, but it suffers from a bit of “stuck-in-its-time”-ness. And even at 94 minutes, the film exhausts you.
That said, it is a fascinating film to watch. It was made, after all, by Orson Welles, the man who at sixteen conned his way into starring roles with a Shakespearian company in Ireland, who wormed his way without true experience into dominant positions on Broadway and in radio, who ended up having to testify before Congress the day after his science fiction play on radio induced panic on the nation’s streets, and who in his first movie broke every rule and redefined the way you film a drama. (He did this, mind you, with the great good fortune of having cinematographer Gregg Toland by his side. But then Welles always knew how to surround himself with amazing talent – and then take most of the credit.) And being made by Welles, Touch of Evil is mesmerizing. From the brilliant long opening tracking shot to the Aristotelian final act filmed on a crumbling Venice, California bridge, you can’t take your eyes off of Welles’ direction, Welles the actor, or Russell Metty’s cinematography.
Of course, compared to the acting here, the performances in Kane feel like low-key realism. The level of scenery chewing is sometimes off the charts. (I can barely watch Dennis Weaver, whose role as a freaked out religious maniac of a night hotel clerk was evidently improvised by order of the director.) Plus, Welles films much of this in tight two-shots and head shots but lets his actors perform as if they’re onstage in an opera so that the whole effect feels especially intense; hence, the exhaustion.
Sometimes, however, actors you would expect to over-emote, like Marlene Dietrich, turn in one of the most restrained performances of their lives. (Dietrich was 57 at the time the film was made, and she is drop dead gorgeous here, even playing a sort of gypsy prostitute.) Leigh is wonderful as well, playing a naif compared to her more famous victim role two years later in Psycho; so is Joseph Calleia as Welles’ partner in law enforcement and in crime, whose sad face mirrors the struggle between love and duty. Can I help it if it’s hard for me to understand why he would love Hank Quinlan any more: Welles’ portrayal exudes Shakespearian rot from his pores, taking a bad cop and turning him into Titus Andronicus.
Touch of Evil is sweaty and brutal and often hideous, a deranged noir opera, that also happens to be gorgeous and fascinating and grand. I do not love this movie, but, like Dementia, it is a moving, breathing nightmare from which I cannot look away.
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Rumor has it that after our class is over, Elliot is going to bestow upon us some “parting gifts,” links to other 50’s films that we didn’t get to cover. He did this after our 40’s noir class, and I managed to put together a compendium of impressions on those films. Let’s see if it happens again. Meanwhile, this isn’t farewell, my lovelies, it’s just a pause while we change the reel.
See you at the movies.