Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In the 1950s even the top film companies were compelled to slash their payrolls and cut corners on production costs. At Universal and Columbia, expensive projects were far outnumbered by cheap program pictures acquired from independent producers or churned out in-house on short schedules. The previously distinctive and artful thrillers later branded film noir began to become less distinguishable from other assembly line product. Artfully crafted mood photography was the first aspect to be toned down, along with the fashionable trend in location photography, as fewer film units were sent out of town. Nobody worked all night to get that that pre-dawn "magic hour" look favored by directors like Jules Dassin. Stock shots were mixed with process photography, even on pictures set entirely on the streets of New York.
Sony's 2-disc set Bad Girls of Film Noir Volume 1 shows Columbia filling marquees with name stars in titles promising sex and murder, even when little of either is on display. The "Bad Girl" name does fit, as each movie features a bona fide noir icon: Evelyn Keyes, Lizabeth Scott and Gloria Grahame. The films chosen also demonstrate how noir thrillers formerly concerned with psychological states and existential dilemmas, were broadened to promote progressive social ideas ... in a manner unthreatening to the status quo.
1950's The Killer that Stalked New York looks suspiciously like an attempt to replay Elia Kazan's arresting noir from earlier in the same year, Panic in the Streets. In both pictures a deadly disease suddenly appears in an American metropolis, forcing the police and health experts to find the malignant carrier. Diamond smuggler Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes) is the luckless vessel for smallpox, infecting everyone she meets: a mailman, a cute child, a randy nightclub owner (Jim Backus) and jewel thief Matt Krane, her duplicitous husband (Charles Korvin). Sheila has personal problems with a disapproving brother (Whit Bissell) and a vindictive landlady and is crushed to discover that she has been betrayed not only by Matt but also by her own sister, Francie (Lola Albright). One out of three who contract the disease dies a horrible death. The trail of extremely sick people is traced by a dedicated doctor and nurse (William Bishop & Dorothy Malone). Before the cops and the medical authorities finally compare notes and locate the source, Sheila has forced the mayor to begin a crash program to immunize the entire population of the city.
The script by Harry Essex has been redirected into a feature-length public service message. A stentorian narrator (Reed Hadley) breaks in frequently to explain how Sheila is spreading death by actions as simple as using a water fountain in a children's park. The real-life threat in th actual 1947 incident on which the film is based was quickly stopped because the carrier was identified and quarantined early. Yet a gigantic immunization program was put into effect, just as shown in the movie. As in many films from this period about political threats, the voice-of-doom narration promotes the idea that an epidemic may strike anywhere, at any time. Because Sheila remains unaware of her killer status, the interior drama of her situation is not allowed a chance to develop. Instead, the impersonal narrator treats her only as a menace to be eliminated.
The beautiful Evelyn Keyes breaks out in a sweat but never takes on severe, disfiguring smallpox symptoms. The Energizer Bunny of disease carriers, she keeps right on ticking even after many of her casual contacts have perished. With so much time given over to Public Health scare tactics, the film shortchanges the personal side of the story. Noir perennial Art Smith has a good bit as an "ethical" fence, but the talented Lola Albright, after a promising scene, is dropped from the picture without even a farewell.
Earl McAvoy's good direction is lost in an editorial puzzle of stock shot montages. Even the finale is fudged, with downtown L.A. standing in for New York City when Sheila Bennet is cornered atop a tall building.
1951's Two of a Kind could well have started life as a radio play. The stock characters and pat ironies of its storyline are instantly forgettable, and the mostly talented cast marks time. Despite an instance of perverse self-mutilation and the presence of not one but two potential "bad girls", there's really nothing very noir here. Henry Levin's direction is anonymous but Burnett Guffey, the camera talent behind Columbia's best films noir, gives the film a fine polish.
Ambitious schemer Brandy Kirby (Lizabeth Scott) connives with crooked lawyer Vincent Mailer (Alexander Knox) to cheat a rich, elderly couple, the McIntyre's (Griff Barnett & Virginia Brissac) out of a fortune. The McIntyres have been searching all their lives for their son, lost at the age of three in Chicago. After extensive research, Brandy locates the perfect shill to pass off as the grown McIntyre boy: Lefty Farrell (Edmond O'Brien), a shady gambler raised in a Chicago orphanage. The plan is to arrange a "coincidental" family reunion by introducing Lefty to the McIntyres' niece, Kathy (Terry Moore). But Lefty must first have two joints of one finger amputated: the lost boy had already sustained such an injury in an accident.
The rather lightweight Two of a Kind generates sparks early on as noir icon Lizabeth Scott seduces the suspicious Lefty into taking part in a highly unlikely con game. The problem is that the film insists that they become a conventional hero and heroine. Little tension develops because we know all will turn out fine. Any noir possibilities evaporate with the introduction of Terry Moore's flighty niece, an eccentric who reforms "bad men" through romantic means. The character is more suited for a screwball comedy and Ms. Moore's acting is wholly inadequate. Although the con escalates into a murder attempt, the film wraps up as an inconsequential farce.
The only really memorable moment comes when Lefty nonchalantly allows his little finger to be crushed in a car door, and then strolls into a medical clinic as if to have a splinter removed. He impresses the cool blonde Brandy by barely registering the pain. If Two of a Kind were a serious noir this odd, masochistic moment might have offered an insight into a twisted relationship. As it plays now, we wonder if Japanese audiences considered the unlucky gambler Lefty to be some sort of American yakuza.
The previous picture may be borderline noir but the laughable drama Bad for Each Other has nothing whatsoever in common with the noir style. Horace McCoy contributed to this utterly unoriginal tale of medical ethics, along with the prolific Irving Wallace.
The pure soap plotline sees Army Medical Colonel Tom Owen (Charlton Heston) returning to his small Pennsylvania mining town to face a moral dilemma. Should he become a rich city practitioner, pushing pills at wealthy hypochondriacs? Or should he put his talent to work studying miner's diseases with his old mentor, the poor but dedicated Dr. Scobee (Rhys Williams)? Lured by Helen Curtis (Lizabeth Scott), a champagne socialite eager for more money to spend, Tom becomes an associate of a doctor with the richest clientele in the city. But Tom's ethical nurse Joan Lasher (Dianne Foster) objects when Tom willingly performs "ghost surgeries" for his partner, who has been coddling his customers so long that he's neglected his professional skills.
Tom directs his old army buddy Jim Crowley (Arthur Franz), now a socially minded young doctor, to help Dr. Scobee up at the mines, and Joan quits in disgust to join him. Seduced by Helen and his growing bank account, Tom doesn't see reason until a mine disaster strikes compels him to rush back to his hometown to help in the rescue efforts.
Bad for Each Other could be a story from a Women's Magazine of the fifties, minus the sexuality. The real entertainment value here is seeing Charlton Heston's consistent overacting. A supposedly experienced and principled Army doctor, Dr. Tom is easily steered toward the easy money. He shuns the True Path offered by Nurse Joan as if he were Moses just prior to enlightenment. All of Heston's gestures are big and broad -- he almost knocks people down when he makes a dramatic exit from a cocktail party.
The film promotes the somewhat insulting notion that wealthy people don't need medical care, and that a doctor from a mining town is betraying himself if he doesn't bury himself in poverty treating the poor. Dr. Tom's rare surgical skills will be going to waste in Coal Town. Why doesn't he continue his lucrative practice while using his money and influence to fund a clinic in his hometown and supervise its research efforts?
Irving Rapper can't do anything with Bad for Each Other, which over-uses stock shots of a mining disaster. Naturally, Arthur Franz's second-string ethical doctor should have checked his billing before going down in that rickety mine shaft. His abrupt exit opens a romantic opportunity for the humbled Dr. Tom.
Classic noirs about immigration problems deal with gangsters sneaking into the country, or other notorious adventurers trying to return to the land of their birth. 1953's The Glass Wall is a rather forced attempt to express a Big Liberal Message, in this case to create sympathy for Displaced Persons who want U.S. citizenship. The well-intentioned issue picture marks an attempt to import Italian star Vittorio Gassman (Bitter Rice) for American audiences. The film's trailer urges us to welcome this new personality -- his wife Shelley Winters loves him!
Hungarian refugee Peter Kaban (Gassman) smuggles himself to America, only to be stopped at the New York docks by the immigration authorities. Kaban tells skeptical investigator Bailey (Douglas Spencer) that he saved the life of a wounded American G.I. named Tom, and thereby qualifies for immigrant status under an article of the law. As he has no proof, Peter is told he'll be returned to Europe, where he claims he'll be murdered by the new Hungarian regime.
Peter jumps ship, breaking a rib in the process, and searches Manhattan for "Tom", who identified himself as a clarinetist in a New York nightclub. Hunted by the authorities, Peter stumbles through Time Square until he's befriended by Maggie Summers (Gloria Grahame), an unemployed factory worker on the edge of desperation. Peter's picture has made the evening papers; little does he know that Tom (Jerry Paris) is in town and has seen it. But Tom puts off informing the authorities because he's fixated on an audition for a top swing band.
A desperate man on the run is a recurring noir theme, and Peter Kaban is definitely under a great deal of strain. But The Glass Wall is too interested in making grand humanistic gestures to realize that it undercuts its own premise. Millions of foreigners seek the opportunity of a better life in the U.S.A. but simple reason indicates that few can be allowed in. Peter Kaban is held up as a deserving individual who qualifies under a law extending possible immigration to "those who fought with our troops" in key areas of the war. I doubt that such a law applied to thousands of partisans and others who gave aid to our troops, and in fact it sounds like a loophole designed to sweep "special cases" through Ellis Island red tape, most likely individuals nominated by the Pentagon. To be thoroughly cynical, what's to prevent a foreigner and a G.I. from inventing an incident that would qualify?
The Glass Wall ends with a big dramatic scene at the new United Nations building, to emphasize the theme of humanitarianism across national boundaries. Yet we can't help feel that Peter is just a special case really representing only himself. Gloria Grahame's sympathetic working girl comes to his aid, along with a Hungarian-American stripper (Robin Raymond) who takes him home to momma. Character actor Joe Turkel has a nice bit as the stripper's streetwise brother.
Peter's fate ultimately lies in Tom's hands. The musician's girlfriend Nancy (Ann Robinson) doesn't see why he should make the effort, but the grateful ex-G.I. wants to repay Peter for saving his life. The sentiment that "we're all in this together" doesn't change a thing -- policing immigration is a necessary function.
Although film boasts that it was filmed on location in New York, many scenes are accomplished through rear projection. Mr. Gassman stumbles through Times Square in footage filmed from a hidden truck, but it's obvious that doubles for the main cast members are used in the finale at the U.N.. Alfred Hitchcock was refused permission to shoot at the U.N. for North by NorthWest; perhaps this is the film that precipitated the filming ban.
Vittorio Gassman plays the entire picture with the same pained look on his face. Three films later, he was back in Italy to stay. Gloria Grahame is quite good as the penniless Maggie, trying to steal a coat from an automat. The coat belongs to the young actress Kathleen Freeman, who is identified in the cast crawl as "Fat Woman". So much for the film's overall sensitivity.
Each of the films in Sony's Bad Girls of Film Noir Volume 1 is a spotless B&W transfer with solid audio and English subtitles. Original trailers are also included for each title. An unusual extra is The Payoff, a 1956 Ford Television Theater drama written by Blake Edwards and starring Howard Duff as a private eye picking up a mystery envelope for dangerous Janet Blair. It plays like a warm-up for Edwards' TV show Peter Gunn. Accompanying Two of a Kind is a new career interview with actress Terry Moore. A second volume of "Bad Girls of Film Noir" is being released concurrently, featuring Night Editor, One Girl's Confession, Women's Prison and Over-Exposed.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bad Girls of Film Noir Volume 1 rates:
Supplements: trailers, extra TV show "The Payoff"
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case
Reviewed: January 23, 2010
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson
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