Saturday, December 14, 2013

Shock

I went into Shock (1946) expecting the usual "But-I'm-not-crazy" movie in which the main character is wrongfully declared insane and locked up in the nuthouse, and our heroine does in fact demand, "Don't talk to me as if I were crazy! I'm telling the truth!" as many heroines are wont to do in these sorts of stories.  But what surprised me about Shock was how it gave more attention to the villain and his guilty conscience rather than the heroine's efforts to escape and expose the truth. Stories set in insane asylums are often brooding and paranoid, but rare is the insane asylum story in which the doctor is the paranoid or complex figure.

Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) excitedly travels to a hotel in San Francisco to reunite after two years with her husband Paul (Frank Latimore), a recently released POW who was previously reported killed. Janet grows anxious when Paul does not arrive as scheduled, suffering a horrible nightmare, and the next morning, when Paul does show up, she's catatonic. Dr. Richard Cross (Vincent Price), a psychiatrist, determines she's in shock and takes her to his country sanitarium for treatment, claiming it's the stress of her husband's return. But Cross knows the truth: she witnessed him murder his wife the night before. When he fails to bury the truth through treatment, Cross and his lover, nurse Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari), resolve to break Janet's mind and convince everyone else she's delusional.

In a way, Cross is more of the protagonist, or at least the main character, of this piece than Janet. Most of the times, she's kept sedated and confined to bed, only coming out of it to accuse Cross, but Cross, even though he is the villain of the piece, proves to be the most complicated character in the movie. Yes, he's having an affair with Elaine, and yes, he murders his wife, but he demonstrates something very few villains, especially in the film noir genre, have: a guilty conscience. The murder, far from being an elaborate pre-meditated scheme, was a thoughtless, panicked act, and afterwards, Cross says he wished he had called the police then to turn himself in, but now, by hiding the body and waiting so long, it's too late. Insane asylum doctors in this type of story are often cruel, evil psychopaths or sociopaths themselves, blatantly acting in their own twisted self-interest whether it be greed, fame, or psychosis, by Cross's motive, self-preservation, is understandable

In another shift of expectations, Cross also feels guilt for what he puts Janet through. Other villains wouldn't give it a moment's thought, but Cross is torn between committing more crimes to save himself and not allowing himself to become even more tainted than he already is.. The same cannot be said for Elaine. Elaine serves as the Lady Macbeth of Shock, goading Cross and telling him what they have to do get away with it all. In one scene by the fireplace, she subtly plays on his sense of manhood, reminding him what he was like on the night they first were together in a romantic way.

Stylistically, there are some nice touches in Shock. In the beginning, when Janet suffers a nightmare about being unable to be with Paul, the camera pulls a trick similar to what Hitchcock used in Vertigo: the zoom-in/pan-out to elongate the space between Janet and the door she races to. Cross and Elaine are often shown scheming in the shadows, the environment as dark as their intentions, and during the climax, when a plan involves injections of insulin, the needles are show in extreme close ups that dissolve over Janet's battered face, and the effect is unsettling.

As a melodrama, Shock is quite effective. It's very rare to see a story built around the guilt, paranoia, and shame of it's villain, and in a way that almost makes him sympathetic (though that might be because of Price's performance, which is quite good). The thriller elements, as a result, are downplayed to a degree, and the movie's not as suspenseful or as intense as it could have been (the psychiatric elements are probably ludicrously out-of-date as well). However, if you're a Price fan, you'll want to check this out.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Beat the Devil

All right, a film noir movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre and directed by John Huston. Widely regarded as the first Hollywood film noir, The Maltese Falcon concerns ... oh wait, wrong movie.

The Big Lebowski has often been called a film noir starring a burned-out hippy played by Jeff Bridges instead of a cool detective played by Humphrey Bogart. Beat the Devil (1953) is kind of like The Big Lebowski if it had actually starred Humphrey Bogart and been made during the genre's heyday. Sure, there's something resembling a plot buried in it, but the focus is more on the interaction among these rather eccentric and bizarre characters. It's about attitude, not narrative.

Based on a novel of the same name (and co-adapted by director Huston and Truman Capote), Beat the Devil  opens in a small Italian port town where Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) and his wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) plan to go to Africa with a multi-international quartet of criminal associates of his - Peterson (Robert Morley), O'Hara (Lorre), Major Ross (Ivor Barnard), and Ravello (Marco Tulli). The four crooks intend to pose as vacuum salesmen in Kenya where they can cheaply acquire land rich in uranium and make a fortune. When their departure is delayed, the Dannreuthers fall in the with peculiar British couple, the Chelms, Harry (Edward Underdown) and Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones). A number of schemes and escapades materialize, complicated by Gwen falling in love with Billy and Maria being attracted to Harry.

Compared to other film noir pictures of the time, Beat the Devil is lighter and sillier. Many such crime thrillers are set in grimy, dark urban streets with deep shadows and twisted villains driven by psychological compulsions. Beat the Devil, by contrast, is set mostly at day in wide open streets of a resort town, and the villains, while having a fair amount of comic menace, are mostly played for laughs, and much of the humor derives from seeing them being stifled in their criminal enterprises. There's a potential dark subtext about American and European powers exploiting the wealth of Africa for their own gain, but one thing after another keeps them from implementing, whether it's a delayed plane ride, a wrecked car, or British busybodies who seem to know more than they let on.

Even the supposed thrilling moments are underscored by comedy. When the group is taken prisoner after becoming shipwrecked, Dannreuther cons his way out of it by talking about Rita Hayworth with the Arab interrogator. There's another point when he causes a car to go off a cliff, and the angry driver demands compensation for the wrecked vehicle, to which Bogey replies he's the one who gave him the car as a gift while the driver argues it's immaterial how the car came into his possession. When a ship the characters are on begins sinking, the sequence focuses more on the drunk captain lamenting his ruined boat and the sardonic sailor who seems to amuse himself by stirring the pot rather than the central characters scrambling for their lives.

Bogart at times looks ready to turn to the camera to ask the audience, "Can you believe these guys?" Sure, he had his sharp one-liners and cool put downs in other movies, but he seems more tongue-in-cheek, more self-aware about it, here. Instead of trying to be cool, he's trying to be funny. And yes, he's still got some good lines:

- "I was an orphan myself until I was 20. Then a rich, beautiful lady adopted me."

- "You don't care what I think as long as I don't do anything about it."

- "Fat Guy's my best friend, and I will not betray him cheaply" (That's a line, if any, that belongs on Archer).

Sure, Bogart's the star, but the others hold their own just as well. Major Ross has some decidedly pro-fascist lines about how Hitler knew how to keep women in their place while Lorre does his weasel bit and has a great passage about time. "What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook." Morley is also funny as the ringleader who grows increasingly befuddled as all his plans fall apart. The women, meanwhile, are on hand to be merciless and right to the point about what fools these men all are.

I admit I was confused trying to follow the plot at the beginning. Something about that uranium scheme in Africa and a murder in London, but after a bit, I just stopped caring what the schemes were, what angle everyone was playing, who double-crossing or blackmailing who, and where it was all going, but oddly enough, for a movie with so much background material and plot mechanics, narrative serves a secondary function to the dialogue and situations that begin intense and build into comic payoffs. This is not a film noir to take seriously or study for serious analysis. If you want that, go watch The Maltese Falcon. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

D.O.A.

Many classic film noir plots deal with the doom of their main characters as they descend deep into mysteries and intrigue that lead them to their death or damnation, but few are as explicit in this regard as D.O.A. (1950). The film opens ominously as our hero marches into a police station to report his own murder, and the rest of the movie is a flashback detailing what led him to this point. Unfortunately, what begins as a grim, stark spin on our main character's impending mortality gets off track, to steal a line from the movie, and becomes stuffed with unconvincing, melodramatic filler.

After a night of drinking while on vacation in San Francisco, accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) awakens not feeling too well. He goes to a doctor and learns he's been poisoned, most likely slipped into one of his drinks the night before, and by now, it's already too late; Bigelow will die. With only a couple of days left at most, he sets out to find who has murdered him and why.

The beginning of D.O.A. opens with a lot of promise as Bigelow (whose face we can't see yet) walks down long, massive hallways, his back to the camera, and the film generates a sense of unease and anticipation in this wordless sequence. Then, he reaches the homicide division of the police station, and we finally see his haggard, tired face when he says it's his own murder he's reporting, and then the story proper begins. It's an effective, attention-grabbing opening that tells us we're not going on a happy, carefree journey but rather something all together nefarious and darker. Literally, we're watching a man march to his death.

But then, the main story begins, and the eventual revelations about who poisoned Bigelow, why, and how are ultimately revealed as ordinarily anti-climactic. Instead on Bigelow's impending doom and his confrontation with that fact, the movie devotes more time to the more pedestrian elements of a stolen metal, a nagging girlfriend Bigelow can't commit to, and stereotypical gangsters, widows, and double crosses. The dialogue, while having its moments of hard-boiled wit, falls mostly into either plot exposition or overblown melodrama, the latter especially by Pamela Britton as the girlfriend Paul. If it wasn't for the fact our main character was already dying, there really isn't much to separate this narrative from dozens of other film noirs of the period.

Outside of the opening sequence and a few other scenes (notably the shootout in the empty plant and the showdown between Bigelow and the film's main villain), the direction is flat and not particularly inspired. I imagine someone like Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, or Howard Hawks using this setup for a visually striking, atmospheric tapestry, but here, it's mostly entrances and exits and nothing especially stylish that makes you stand up and take notice. What's worse, in a movie just 83 minutes long, it takes nearly thirty minutes to get Bigelow discovering he's been poisoned; that's just way too long.

While watching D.O.A., I was reminded a bit of Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy (the remake directed by Spike Lee is currently in theaters). Both movies deal with a man who only has so much time to learn who was responsible for the crimes committed against him and why, but while Oldboy ventures into territory where the protagonist learns answers he wishes he could unlearn, D.O.A. is disappointingly simplistic and straightforward. The story of a doomed man searching for answers should have the feel of a paranoid nightmare, but D.O.A. comes off as just another crime picture.