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The classic film packagers over at TCM have once again found an interesting hook to organize their new DVD release TCM Vault Collection Dark Crimes Volume 2. Their first Dark Crimes set from 2012 combined three top-flight noir attractions, The Glass Key, Phantom Lady and The Blue Dahlia. The creative mix of this new sophomore outing offers two films each from directors Fritz Lang and William Castle. The amazingly talented Fritz Lang earned no popularity prizes in Hollywood but made consistently brilliant pictures. Sampled here is a slick wartime thriller written by Grahame Green, and a rare, strange genre hybrid. It may have been Lang's attempt to create a new kind of stylized musical-melodrama crime thriller. Castle is of course the brain behind everyone's favorite horror matinee gimmicks. A hotshot who made his mark emulating Alfred Hitchcock and consorting with Orson Welles on Mexican locations for The Lady from Shanghai, Castle worked hard at Columbia and Universal trying to distinguish himself as a director.
TCM's new "Noir Czar" Eddie Muller is a known and respected figure in disc extras. He provides introductions for all four films, going strong on human interest and relevant history plus a little academic nugget or two on the side. Each disc also carries the TCM Vault Collection's expected battery of stills and ad artwork galleries, plus a text essay overview of the collection's aims.
Let's take Lang's pictures first, as both are from an earlier era. Paramount's You and Me (1938) surely confused audiences. After his two successful social outrage films Fury and You Only Live Once, this tale is not a life and death struggle with fate. Sylvia Sidney and George Raft play employees at the department store of Jerome Morris (Harry Carey), a do-gooder who hires ex-cons to give them a second chance at going straight. Raft's former jailbird friends get itchy ideas about committing more crimes, but he vetoes their plans, as he's secretly engaged to Sidney, who encourages him to stay on the straight and narrow. Raft's morale sinks when he discovers that Sidney is also an ex-thief, and that she wants to keep their marriage a secret because it violates her parole. Raft gets the gang together to knock off the very store where they work.
The tone is mostly light and sweet, with the two lovers sneaking an exchange of affection on the elevator. It's exactly the kind of 'nice guy' role Raft coveted, and he's not bad, even if the double standard by which his character regards Sidney now comes off as mildly objectionable. Lang has no problem presenting sweet characters but his direction just isn't attuned to 'soft & fuzzy' sentimentality. The various clownish ex-mobsters are amusing but never endearing, something that the movie really needs. Roscoe Karns, George E. Stone and Warren Hymer lead the pack of goons and misfits, with Barton MacLane as the racketeer who lets them take the risk so he can skim off the profit. Looking nothing at all like a criminal type is a very young Robert Cummings.
Understanding the angle that makes You and Me a terrific, unique experiment requires some additional information. Lang reportedly wanted Paramount to make a Mabuse- like adventure with sinister Nazis and Japanese spies trying to seize a new ray weapon that causes blindness. It would have been a genuine premature-Anti Nazi film. You and Me instead attempts another German genre hybrid, using the theatrical technique of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Songwriter Weill contributes three tunes to the film, which Lang described as "something like a song without music, built only on words and sound effects." The musical sequences are brilliantly visualized but not as melodic as those Weill did with Brecht. They come off almost as chants... or perhaps a kind of proto- rap.
Three times in the picture the narrative pauses for musical numbers that are more like music videos. The "Song of the Cash Register" is an ominous warning that "You can't get something for nothing / And only a chump would try." "The Right Guy for Me" underscores Sidney's commitment to her man, even though he's got a bad record. The most elaborate number is just called the "Knocking Song". At a happy Christmas party the ex-crooks remember their Christmas in prison with a rap-like ritual centered on the chant, "Stay with the mob!" Its sense of gangland solidarity seizes Raft just as he walks out on Sidney. During these musical sequences Lang cuts away to images both literal and associative. Some of the visuals are more inspired than others but his imagination is definitely moving into new cinematic territory. Would 1938 audiences have liked these scenes? Perhaps not, as their closest correlatives would be the experimental musical numbers of Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian and Busby Berkeley, all of which were more melodic, romantic -- and far lighter in tone.
Sylvia Sidney spent an entire decade as a living symbol of the Depression, forever the downtrodden victim of poverty or the heartbroken consort of crooks and losers. It's therefore nice that You and Me takes her through the same paces but finally gives her a happy ending to enjoy... she could finally retire that character. Ms. Sidney is the main attraction in the odd, strange finish where she proves that Crime Doesn't Pay via the Fritz Lang method, a demonstration - lecture that reminds us of the classic "M". The crook's raid on the department store is also staged more or less like the big burglary in "M", as an army of crooks suddenly appears to invade the premises.
Ministry of Fear was released just last year in a pricey Criterion special edition. TCM hasn't the depth of extras to offer but the movie itself is just as satisfying. We're told that Lang was enthusiastic to adapt Graham Greene's bizarre tale of espionage and guilt, about a convicted mercy-killer that must take on an enemy conspiracy. Only after Lang signed did he find out that the contract didn't allow him to change the script. He instead embellished every scene with his personal viewpoint. As the farfetched story involves crucial secrets hidden in a cake, a séance and a master spy killer whose day job is tailoring men's suits.
In place of Greene's traumatized wife-killer, the hero is a merely conflicted man freshly released from an asylum. He's also Ray Milland, and is so handsome and resourceful that the moral issues in the novel are left far behind. Penetrating a fake war relief charity, Milland falls in love with a refugee/charity worker (Marjorie Reynolds) and helps her brother (Carl Esmond) track down the spies. The main culprit is the mysterious Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea). Under Lang's crisp direction, Ministry of Fear ambles from one dynamic set piece to the next. Cameraman Henry Sharp pours on the atmosphere, making Hillary Brooke's medium look like a spirit of the dead, and enlivening a fairly generic confrontation scene in the tailor's shop with a clever use of mirrors. The finale is given a visual kicker with another subtle but effective visual trick, an understated gunshot killing suitable for the next generation of 'cool' espionage movies.
The 'no rewriting' clause may have been a trick to keep Lang from making a political statement. His film just previous is the masterpiece Hangmen Also Die!, about a complex anti-Nazi resistance & assassination conspiracy, that has definite communist sympathies. His immediate postwar Cloak and Dagger took an "unofficial" attitude toward both surviving Nazis and the genie-out-of-the-bottle atomic threat, and mysteriously lost its last reel before release.
Ministry of Fear is a much safer fantasy. Its strongest plus is the introduction of actor Dan Duryea to the noir universe. Starting as slimy villains in this and two more Fritz Lang films, Duryea would become an ambivalent bad / good guy noir hero in many late-'40s noirs.
Forever associated with his horrormeister persona for promoting his later chiller matinee pictures, William Castle was also a connoisseur of great filmmaking. His breakthrough came with the cheap but carefully directed When Strangers Marry, a conscious attempt to replicate the camera style of Alfred Hitchcock. Castle made certain that that sleeper hit promoted him to the next rung of directing assignments. Interestingly enough, 1949's Undertow is the one title in this collection without a special gimmick. It's an inexpensive picture for Universal despite the use of considerable location filming in Chicago. The non-star cast features the likeable Scott Brady as the leading man, and Castle or his producer augment the two leading ladies with several walk-on lookers that definitely turn heads. Add to that, the story and its unfolding are reasonably intelligent for this level of genre fare. Undertow generates its share of excitement and has nothing to be ashamed of.
Ex-serviceman Tony (Scott Brady) was once in the gambling rackets in Chicago. He uses his military pay to buy a half interest in a resort, to start a new life and to help out his new partner, the father of a best buddy killed in action. In Reno he meets Danny (John Russell), an old associate from the Windy City who now runs a crooked casino. Tony tells Danny that he's returning to Chicago to propose to his old girlfriend Sally (Dorothy Hart). He no sooner arrives than he's wanted for the murder of the present-day gambling kingpin, Sally's uncle. Tony realizes that he's been set up and knows that his old associates will be against him. He contacts Danny for help and tells Sally to hang on. Pursued by detective Reckling (Bruce Bennett), another old friend, Tony looks up Ann (Peggy Dow), a schoolteacher he met on the plane from Reno. Can he stay alive long enough to find out who framed him?
Undertow has no special hook yet generates its fair share of suspense. We don't know exactly how to take Tony, as he is chummy with racketeers and cops alike, and is perhaps a little too willing to put the sweet Ann into the path of danger. Castle's direction makes good use of locations to open up the film. Lacking the resources for a spectacular finish, he uses a long corridor as an atmospheric place to stage the final confrontation. The script makes good use of the murdered kingpin's enormous black bodyguard Gene (Dan Ferniel) as an instrument of justice. Gene is almost like Chandler's Moose Malloy -- he nearly kills the hero and then apologizes when he finds out Tony is innocent.
Leading ladies Dorothy Hart and Peggy Dow make a nice contrast; the film would be more memorable had the screenwriters thought to give them a scene or two of their own to size each other up or perhaps become as violent as the men. In for about twenty seconds is a handsome newcomer in his first walk-on role, Roc (Rock) Hudson. His main contribution is to drink some water out of a paper cup. You can bet that Hudson's agent was thumping hard for his client. 1
Castle's intense interest in Tinseltown history becomes evident in the interesting Hollywood Story, a murder mystery that references the murder (not by name) of director William Desmond Taylor in the early 1920s. The historical crime took place in a bungalow apartment on Alvarado Street and involved booze, drugs, compromised starlets and an outrageous studio/LAPD cover-up. The fallout from the ensuing scandal contributed to the storm of outrage that brought the censors down hard on the licentious excesses of the new 'company town'. 2
In Castle's version the dead director is called Franklin Ferrara; it's implied that he directed the classic Phantom of the Opera. Agent Mitch Davis (Jim Backus) makes a deal for Broadway producer Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte) to move into the National Artists Studio (actually Charlie Chaplin's semi-abandoned studio on La Brea Avenue. Seeing the bungalow where Ferrara was murdered, Larry decides to turn the case into a movie, which stirs up a long-dormant hornet's nest. The old time suspects are movie stars Amanda Rousseau and Roland Paul (Paul Cavanaugh), and Ferrara's close associate Charles Rodeo, who disappeared shortly thereafter and was rumored to be related to the director. Larry's moneyman Sam Collyer (Fred Clark) withdraws his support and just as suddenly decides to keep backing the Ferrara movie. Police detective Lennox (Richard Egan) drops by to remind Larry that no unsolved murder case is ever closed. Larry finds Ferrara's favorite writer Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull) living at the beach as a bum, and hires him. But after somebody tries to shoot Larry, Amanda's daughter Sally Rousseau (Julia Adams) shows up and implores him to stop the movie to preserve Amanda's privacy -- she was Ferrara's lover. Thinking that he must solve the crime to finish his movie, Larry helps Lennox spring a trap for the main suspect. But it soon becomes clear that more than one of his new associates could have been the killer.
Castle's fairly novel approach to a Hollywood mystery pulls together some old-time stars (Francis X. Bushman, Betty Blythe, William Farnum & Helen Gibson) for a brief scene. But the movie never forms its own myth from film history as did Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett's Sunset Blvd.. It instead, has the spirit of walking around an old movie lot with someone who can point out evidence of pictures that were filmed there -- in 1950 an insider like Castle had probably heard every bit of gossip about every corner of every studio -- which were mostly still intact. Castle's interest in Old Hollywood extended to his later The Tingler which takes place in a silent movie theater showing Henry King's 1921 Tol'able David.
The movie takes us out to Santa Monica and along the Sunset Strip, but stops short of giving us a full tour of Hollywood circa 1950. Richard Conte provides the crime movie connection, Fred Clark and Jim Backus are comedy relief, and Henry Hull actually has an interesting role to play as an eccentric, normally unemployable writer. William Castle keeps the story busily humming at all times, even if we never feel an imminent crisis coming on. And you can bet that future producer Castle sweet-talked the amiable Joel McCrea into playing himself in a brief scene with Paul Cavanaugh.
After a series of small parts in ten pictures over little more than a year, Julia Adams finally stepped up to leading lady status. From this point forward she found featured roles opposite many stellar leading men. Hollywood Story did not become a part of Hollywood lore, and William Castle wouldn't get a taste of real industry success until 1958's Macabre, a horror effort that he ballyhooed with a life insurance policy for every theater patron.
The DVD of TCM Vault Collection Dark Crimes Volume 2 splits its four films by director on two discs, with the extras discussed above accessible through a fast menu. The 1938 You and Meshows more age than the other pictures but is still in fine shape. Ministry of Fear and Hollywood Story also look to be in prime condition. Undertow would seem to be a slightly older transfer, and is less sharp with a flatter image.
Looking as vibrant and fresh as ever, Julia Adams appears in a new interview appended to Hollywood Story. Each film is fully encoded with English subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The large comprehensive book The Universal Story is oddly selective about Universal's big stars. We don't read a great deal of background on the hugely successful personalities that kept the studio in black ink -- Deanna Durbin, Abbott and Costello, and lesser but crucial moneymakers like Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule. But author Clive Hirschhorn takes every opportunity to document every twist and turn in Rock Hudson's career. Most every early bit part of Hudson's gets special mention. Guess who's featured prominently in the photo offered to illustrate Undertow?
2. Around 1976 author-friend James Ursini told me that he had visited director King Vidor to make an Oral History recording for the AFI; Vidor instead invited him to the pool house on his property (where he'd been banished by his wife) and showed him the research he'd collected in a hurried effort to solve the William Desmond Taylor killing before all the witnesses were gone forever, especially the Baby Jane-like Mary Miles Minter, a huge teen star whose career ended abruptly with the killing. Vidor passed away but his investigation was written up by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick in his fascinating true-life murder investigation A Cast of Killers.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.