“A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.”- Force of Evil
“All that Cain did to Abel was murder him.” –Force of Evil
“He pushed me too far!… So I pushed him just far enough.” –The Lineup
“You’re like a rat in a box without any holes” – I Wake Up Screaming
“From now on, no one cuts me so deep that I can’t close the wound.” – I Wake Up Screaming
“I’m gonna give you a break. I’m gonna fix it so you don’t hear the bullets!”- The Big Combo
“I was born on a Monday, I might as well go out on a Monday. Like dirty laundry.”- Man in the Dark
Heads up… this feature includes spoilers…💣
I Wake Up Screaming is the first official noir produced by Fox, directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (he worked on Charlie Chan programmers and B-movies) who was not considered a noir director. With a screenplay by Dwight Taylor based on the novel by Steve Fisher. Eddie Muller said it personified film noir and calls the 1941 film – Proto-noir, as it was the first of its kind.
Darryl F. Zanuck wanted the film’s location changed to New York City, so it wouldn’t reflect badly on L.A. There are a number of sleazy characters involved and he wanted to shift the story from Hollywood to Broadway.
The film was remade as Vicki in 1953 (with Jeanne Crane and Jean Peters, though it lacked the highly stylized artistry) Photographed by Edward Cronjager (Seven Keys to Baldpate 1929, Hell’s Highway 1932, The Monkey’s Paw 1933, Island in the Sky 1938, The Gorilla 1939, Heaven Can Wait 1943, Desert Fury 1947, Relentless 1948, House by the River 1950, The Girl in Lovers Lane 1960) pours out murky noir shadows, darkened streets, unusual camera angles, low key lighting and the high contrast, one-point lighting that illuminates the ink black threatening spaces. The film is stark yet dynamic.
With music by Cyril J. Mockridge, you’ll hear the familiar often-used noir leitmotif, the melody Street Scene by Alfred Newman. I Wake Up Screaming stars Betty Grable as Jill Lynn, Victor Mature as Frankie Christopher, Carole Landis as Vicki Lynn, and Laird Cregar as Ed Cornell. The film also co-stars Alan Mowbray as Robin Ray and Allyn Joslyn as Larry Evans. Quirky character actor Elisha Cook Jr. plays Harry Williams the desk clerk in Vicki’s apartment building who’s a real weirdo. William Gargan plays Detective Jerry ‘Mac’ MacDonald.
Cook is great at playing quirky oddballs (Cliff the crazed drummer in Phantom Lady 1944, George Peatty in The Killing 1956, anxious trench coat-wearing Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon 1941, Watson Pritchard in House on Haunted Hill 1959).
I Wake up Screaming bares a resemblance to a whodunit, as the killer is chased down with the story playing a bit of a shell game with us. There are common noir themes of obsession, perverse lust, corruption, and homicidal jealousy. The film also has a preoccupation with images and artifice, tossing up flashbacks like a circus juggler.
Right before model, Vicki Lynn heads to Hollywood to reach for her rising star, she is brutally murdered. Delicious Betty Grable in her first non-music role, plays Jill Lynn, Vicki’s sister, who is drawn to the man (Victor Mature) who is presumably her sister’s murderer.
Vicki functions as an essential part of the narrative early on in the film and is resurrected by way of flashbacks. Frankie knows that while there are images that still exist of Vicki she is no longer present. In fact, Vicki is a myth and a manufactured deception in some ways. Jill on the other hand is genuine, unpretentious, and warmhearted.
Carol Landis who died at 28 from an overdose, plays murder victim Vicki Lynn. I Wake up Screaming backflips into the weeks leading up to her death. The film is also somewhat of a noir variation on Pygmalion, as Victor Mature who plays Frankie Christopher, sports and show business promoter, discovers a beautiful girl waiting tables and gets the hot idea of turning Vicki into a celebrity and society girl. Vicki’s appeal is the sphere of influence that drives the plot. Mature always makes the screen sweat with his sexy brawny build, swarthy good looks, strong jaw line, and the aura of his glistening obsidian hair.
The film opens with a sensational news headline ‘MODEL MURDERED’ Right from the top Frankie is being grilled by the cops in the interrogation room. Burning white hot lights are up close in his face. He says to the shadow of Cornell (Cregar) who’s a bulky shadow shot with single source lighting) to his opaque figure, “You’re a pretty tough guy with a crowd around.”
The flashbacks begin. Frankie goes back to the first time he meets Vicki at the lunch room on 8th Avenue while eating with Larry Evans (Alan Joslyn) and Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray). Vicki asks “Is that all?” Lary Evans says “No, but the rest of it isn’t on the menu.” She handles his come on, “You couldn’t afford it if it was.” Frankie pours on the charm. He gets the notion to take Vicki and mold her into a celebrity. “You know I bet in 6 months I could take that girl and put her on top of the ladder.” Mature and Landis worked together in One Million Years B.C.
Has-been actor Robin Ray (Mowbray) and ruthless gossip columnist Larry Evans (Joslyn) decide to get involved in developing Vicki Lynn’s mystique and cultivate her glamour on the road to fame. Of course, both men wind up having a yen for her. A cynical Ray (Mowbray) complains that all women are alike. Evans (Joslyn) tells him, “For Pete’s sake, what difference does that make? You’ve got to have them. They’re standard equipment.”
Frankie takes Vicki Lynn out into New York cafe society – All three schemers, the columnist, the washed-up actor, and Frankie, bring her to the cafe and make a big noise, grabbing the attention of Lady Handel (May Beatty) who invites them over to her table. In order to give the impression that Vicki will now be a new sensation, Larry Evans brags in front of the table, that he’ll plug her In his column. They also think that it’ll help Vicki to get noticed if she’s seen on Robin Ray’s arm. The outing is a success. When they bring her home to her apartment building they meet the squirrely desk clerk Harry Williams (Elisha Cook), who takes his sweet time, getting up for Vicki. Frankie gives him a hard time after being so disrespectful. Williams sneers, “She ain’t nobody.”
Back to the present and Frankie’s still in the sweat box. They’re questioning Jill too. She’s telling the cops about Vicki’s plans. She’s got, “Grand ideas about becoming a celebrity.” They ask about Frankie’s involvement. Another flashback – the sisters are talking about Vicki’s new venture. Vicki tells Jill, “They’re gonna glamorize me.” Jill tells Vicki that she doesn’t trust Frankie’s promises, and apologizes for sounding stuffy. She warns Vicki about having unrealistic aspirations. Flashback even further. Frankie shows up at the cafeteria. Vicki keeps dishing out the wisecracks. He shows her the newspaper article about her making a splash at the El Chico Club.
“Why all the cracks you don’t even know me?” “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” Back in the present day, at the police station. Jill continues to tell the cops how successful Vicki’s climb was. Backward once again-
Jill Lynn I don’t want to tell you your business, but don’t you think you’re making a fool of yourself?
Vicki Lynn What do you mean?
Jill Oh, this Frankie Christopher. People like that, what have they got to do with people like us?
Vicki Jill, they’re going to help me!
Jill In what way?
Vicki They’re gonna’ glamorize me. They may have started this thing as a gag, but, after taking one look at those million-dollar debutantes tonight, I realized I can give them cards in spades and still come out on top.
Jill Vicky, you’ll never come out on top by any shortcuts. One week your picture’s on the cover of a magazine, the next it’s in the ash can.
Frankie arrives at the girl’s apartment, and Vicki breaks the news to Frankie that she’s going away to Hollywood. She’d done a screen test and signed a long-term contract. He’s angry. She went behind Frankie’s back after everything he did for her. She defends herself “Some people think I’m a pretty attractive girl. I’m no Frankenstein you know!” Frankie comments, “I wonder.”
Jill tells the cops she was pounding a typewriter breaking her fingernails, and Vicki did get the Hollywood contract, so she might have been right about taking the risk with an acting career and becoming a star.
Another flashback The three men are sitting around the bar.
Robin Ray [indignant] Can you imagine her walking out on me, after all that I’ve done for her? Me!
Larry Evans [slightly incredulous] “You’ve” done for her? What have *you* done for her?
Robin Well, I took her out to all the bright spots, I let her be seen with me everywhere… It made her feel important.
Larry Why, you parboiled old ham! You don’t think anybody thought there was anything between *you* two, do you? If it hadn’t been for my plugging in the column, people would’ve thought she was your trained nurse.
Robin Why, you ink-stinking word slinger! I was famous when they were changing your pants 20 times a day!
Jumping to the present again, Jill is still being questioned by the cops. They want to know if Vicki had anyone in her life. Jill remembers a peculiar thing that happened. She tells them she was sitting at the table in the cafeteria waiting for Vicki to get off work. The peeping prowling, Ed Cornell’s giant shape stares at Vicki through the window. He has a queer look on his face. Jill maintains her stare, holding her coffee cup, she is unable to put it down as she studies him, uncomfortably. Once he notices Jill catching him ogling Vicki, he skulks away. Mockeridge’s score undergoes a sinister change, with emphasis on the rhythmic accents of a classic horror picture.
Jill tells her sister, “You seem to have an admirer there’s some guy looking through the window like the wolf looking for the 3 little pigs.” The girls are walking on the street, Cornell is leaning against a wall, and Jill points out to Vicki that he’s the one. “He gives me the creeps,” Vicki says, “You’ll have to get used to that, they’ve got more wolves in New York than they have in Siberia,” She tells the cops she saw him several times after in odd places. He never said anything but watched Vicki, it frightened Jill. There was something strange about him, the way he looked at Vicki. Always turning up in strange places. The cops look skeptical about her “mysterious stranger.”
The cops think Jill is trying to protect Frankie “I just don’t believe he did it, that’s all” They ask if she’s involved with him, and accuse her of being in love with him and wanting Vicki out of the way. Jill demands to see someone in authority, so they tell Mac to get Cornell. Who walks in? The creep who watched Vicki through the plate glass!
Enter rabid, self-righteous homicide Detective Ed Cornell (Cregar). Once he sets his sights on Frankie he begins to mercilessly hound him to the ends of hell if necessary, going after him with a flaming vengeance, trying to pin the murder on him. Cornell knows that Frankie is innocent but he is determined to persecute him. Cregar made an all too short career out playing imposing characters. He died at 28 in 1944 due to complications from a crash diet, always struggling with his weight, striving to obtain leading man status.
Jill is startled, the room is smoky and this massive shape looms over her with his girth “That’s him, that’s the man!” They think she’s crazy. First, it’s a mysterious stranger peeking through windows and now it’s Ed Cornell. “That’s my job to look at people.” Leaving the dark corner of the sweat box into the smoke factory with Frankie, things become more visible as Cornell emerges as a menacing force. She insists, “I did see you.” “Alright Alright, I’m a peeping tom.”
Jill Relates what happened on the car ride with Frankie, the night he learned Vicki was leaving, and she tells him he’ll be glad to get rid of her because Jill is in love with him. Jill is just covering up her feelings. Frankie says Jill being in love with him, never entered his mind. Vicki is sure, “I know it’s much deeper than that. That’s why it’s so dangerous. Anything might happen.”
Cornell writes down everything on his pad. Jill says that Vicki didn’t mean the line about being glad to get rid of her, but he corrects her, “What she meant doesn’t count. It’s what she said.”
The night Jill found Vicki, as soon as she came out of the elevator she got a feeling something was wrong. There was music blasting from the radio. Frankie was there already – ”Jill you don’t think I did it, do you?” Jill is in shock.
Cornell goes back into the interrogation room with Frankie and tells him he knows about Vicki’s ‘get rid of me’ statement. The obsessed Cornell comes up with a scenario. Frankie’s mind got more and more inflamed with jealousy and hurt pride. Went up there and killed her in cold blood. Cornell loses his cool and lunges at Frankie, ”I’ve got a mind to kill you right now.”When Cornell gets rough, the other cops have to break it up. They all like Frankie and ask if he’s got any tickets to the fights. They ask Cornell “What’s the idea of riding him, so hard?” “I have years of experience in this racket. If that isn’t the look of a guilty man, I’ll take the rap myself.” The District Attorney winds up getting his back up with Cornell when he focuses so much on Frankie’s guilt.
The District Attorney (Morris Ankrum) apologizes to Frankie. Jill is in the office too and tells him they think they know the identity of the killer. It’s the switchboard operator at the sisters’ apartment building. They think it’s Harry Williams. Jill leaves the police station and Frankie asks why they think it’s Williams. The D.A. tells him, William’s been missing since 5 pm last night, probably hiding out scared and shaky.
Frankie is released and later that night, Mature wakes up to find the huge, menacing Cregar sitting beside his bed, “Well that’s the first time, I had a bad dream with my eyes open.” “Someday you’re going to talk in your sleep, and when that day comes I want to be around.” The scene hints at Cornell’s repressed homosexual passion.
Cornell tells him he’ll get all the evidence he needs and tie him up like a pig in a slaughterhouse. Frankie unrattled, tells him, ”You’re the bright boy” and reminds him that they think Williams murdered Vicki. Victor Mature is so smooth, so mellow when he’s playing at being sarcastic, He says, “You’re like something out of a museum you ought to have a magnifying glass and one of those trick hats with the ear flaps” Frankie throws Cornell out after he calls him cocky, and has had it his way too long. First with Vicki, then Jill. Cornell’s resentment is showing.
Jill finds Harry Williams who’s returned to the apartment building. She’s moving out, but he has already packed up her bags and taken them down to the lobby. Williams is a suspiciously hollow little insect who Jill finds strange. Frankie meets up with Robin at the police station. The cops show a reel of Vicki singing at a nightclub. Cornell watches her longingly which gives Frankie a window into Cornell’s longing for the dead girl. Cornell looks at Frankie with contempt.
The film of Vicki appears in the dark room filled with cigar smoke that makes wispy clouds float, and the rays of light from the projection booth. The light cast on Frankie’s eyes is like an illuminated mask, it accentuates his epiphany — that Cornell is obsessed with Vicki. He catches something in his stare. The light on Cornell’s face as HE stares back at Frankie, unmasks only half of his face, revealing the duplicity Cornell projects throughout the picture. It’s a brilliantly framed shot by Cronjager.
The film reel resurrects Vicki from the dead, like a ghost haunting the room. Robin Ray squirms in his chair and runs to get out. The door is locked. His behavior hints at his guilt. They put the lights on and bring him into the D.A.’s office. Ray tells them how he felt about her. She laughed at him. Called him “a has-been and didn’t want to hitch her wagon to a falling star.” He’s the one that arranged the screen test but she went down there alone. He is obsolete, they decided they didn’t need him. While he talks about her, Cornell looks out the window. Daylight casts patterns from the Venetian blinds that cut across his face. Odd angle profiles tilt the two-shot of Cornell and Mac off-kilter. Ray has an alibi. He was at a sanitarium. Cornell checked it out already and is gleeful that it rules out yet another suspect. He wants Frankie to fry for it. Cornell would have Frankie in the death house by now. “That won’t prevent you from going to the hot chair.”
As Frankie is leaving the police station Cornell asks him for a lift uptown “Sure, always happy to oblige a goon”
Ed Cornell [bumming a ride in Frankie’s car] “I’m sorry to have to ask you to do this, but I’m a little short on cash lately. You see, I’ve spent so much of my own dough, trying to build up this case against you.”
Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) “Well, if there’s anything you need, just let me know.”
Ed Cornell “Oh, I imagine they’ll make it right with me when I bring in the material for your trial. They usually do in these cases. I nick a guy on my own time and send him up to the chair, then I get back pay.”
Frankie Christopher “Must be a great life – like a garbage man, only with people!”
Ed Cornell “I got practically all the evidence I need now. I could arrest you today for that matter, but you might get some smart mouthpiece and get off with life instead of the chair. I won’t be satisfied until I’m *sure* it’s the chair.”
Frankie Christopher “You’re a gay dog, Cornell. You make me feel as if I’m driving a hearse!”
Ed Cornell “Oh, I know your type. I’ve seen hundreds of them. I don’t scare you enough to make you commit suicide, but I worry you just the same. And when the day comes they all act different. Some scream, a few faint, some light a cigarette and try a wisecrack. But it sticks in their throats – especially when they’re hung.”
Cornell shows up at Jill’s new apartment to intimidate her. Jill “What’s the good of living without hope?” Ed Cornell signals his own personal torture- “It can be done.” He advises her to just play along, insisting that she’s not even sure Frankie’s innocent. Once he’s left, Jill pulls out a note from behind a framed painting on the wall. It’s from Frankie to Vicki, “After what you did last night, the sooner you’re out of the way the better it will be.”
Frankie takes Jill to the fights and then out on the town. She asks if he ever brought Vicki to the fights, and tells him it’s the first New York nightclub she’s ever been to. The El Chico club, he first took Vicki to. She sees how nice he is without all the flashy bluster and pretense. He’s actually very real. Cornell follows them. Frankie asks her why she suddenly called him, “The trouble with you is that you pretend you don’t care about things but you do. You were very upset about Vicki’s death weren’t You? He tells her he’d like to find the guy, –“Save the State on its electric bill. She was a good kid” Jill doesn’t want him to be guilty. “Did you love her?“ “No, do you think if I’d loved her I would have tried to exploit her the way I did?… Vicki was pretty, gay, and amusing She had lots to offer and I wanted to put her in the right place on the map. After all, that’s my business But when a man really loves a woman, he doesn’t want to plaster her face all over papers and magazines. He wants to keep her to himself.”
Looking into her eyes, he tells her he’s in love with her. Larry Evans sees them together and calls in the story “Stepping out… Dancing on the grave.”
Frankie takes Jill to his favorite swimming spot. It’s a lovely scene, that brings some lightness to the external space in the story. She shows him the note he wrote to Vickie and he asks why she didn’t turn it in to the police. Jill tells him she knew he was innocent and what the note meant, at the moment they were dancing at the nightclub. When they are back at the apartment, Cornell walks in and takes the note. They cuff Frankie. Cornell who is obviously framing him is just waiting for the chance to catch him. Frankie tells him anyone could have written a note like that. He was burned up when Vicki dropped the bomb that she was leaving. He finds out that Cornell has planted a set of brass knuckles in his apartment. Vicki was hit hard behind the ear with a heavy object. The depraved Cornell punches Frankie in the guts. “You’re like a rat in a hole.”
As Cornell is about to take him downtown, Frankie is on the ground after Cornell’s hostile assault, Jill hits Cornell from behind and helps Frankie escape. Big fat head bullying him, she says.
Frankie proposes, “Mind marrying a hunted man?” She tells him, “Most married men have a hunted look anyway.” He tells her his real name – Botticelli, the son of Italian immigrants. Then he shows her how to hide in the city. They duck into an adult movie house, watching the same picture over and over. Then they decide to split up for the time being and she goes to the public library. The cops find her, and Frankie sees them taking her away. The newspaper headline says “Christopher eludes police dragnet.” Cornell stalks the streets. Frankie sneaks up on him. “Let Jill go”, and he’ll turn himself in. Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) “I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” “You’re not a cop you’re crazy trying to frame an innocent man.” Frankie throws a tootsie roll at him and takes off. Cornell assures him, he’ll eventually get him. Always smirking like the devil.
Cornell tells the D.A. a parable about the African Butterfly and how to trap the male to set the female free. He wants him to let Jill out of her box to lure Frankie. She goes home, sneaks out through the window, and surprises Frankie at the adult movie house. At the apartment, she has found little cards from flowers that were sent to Vicki, and at the funeral. She shows them to Frankie. The message on the cards says, “Because I promised.”
They go to Rosedale Cemetery and when he meets the caretaker, Frankie pretends to be a reporter and asks if anybody lately has been around Vicki’s grave. There were many flowers at the funeral, and the caretaker tells him that the grave’s been getting flowers each day since she died. Frankie learns where they were sent from, and goes to Keating Florist. It turns out that Larry sent them. Frankie confronts Larry who admits he was with Vicki the day she died. He had promised to send her flowers every day when she left for Hollywood, and he wanted to keep his word. Larry winds up giving Frankie a clue about the killer, and he goes to the old apartment and gets Mac to give him a half hour. He has a strong hunch.
The next scene is ripe with atmosphere when Frankie leans against the wall in Vicki’s old apartment. The lattice shadows fence Frankie in. Harry Williams is sleeping at the front desk. Vicki rings the desk and speaks in Vicki’s voice “Hello Harry, this is Vicki” He’s visibly shaken. Frankie watches his reaction. His eyes open wider as the buzzing mocks him, “Harry this is Vicki. Why did you do it, Harry? Didn’t you love me?” Frankie confronts Williams. “You let yourself in with your passkey and waited for her. You loved her. She panicked and screamed.” Williams admits, “I told the cop that when he chased me to Brooklyn. Cornell knew all along it was Williams. The dirty Cornell told him to just come back and keep his mouth shut. Mac hears the confession. Frankie tells him, he wants 5 minutes alone with Cornell.
He goes to his apartment and finds a perverse and macabre shrine to Vicki. Her image is like a talisman in his suffocating little apartment. He discovers the prominent photograph of Vicki in an elaborate frame. Cornell unaware that Frankie is there, comes in and places fresh flowers underneath the photograph, as an offering. Frankie watches then emerges, “You knew. Why’d you want to fry me?”He tells Frankie, “I lost Vicki long before Williams killed her. You were the one who took her away from me” Cornell wanted to marry her. Had this furnished apartment set up. Bought her perfume. “Til he came along and put ideas in her head. She thought she was too good for me. He could have killed him then.” Frankie puts it to him, “Why didn’t ya?” “Cause I had the hook in your mouth and I wanted to see you suffer.”
Cornell resented Frankie’s closeness to Vicki and inhabits a world that excludes him. In contrast to the suave Frankie Christopher, he is a lumbering and awkward outsider. To Cornell, Vicki will always be as unattainable as the first time he gazed upon her through the window. He was struck by her beauty, but she was completely and forever out of his reach. Cornell is like a lurking monster straight out of a classic horror movie. His uneasy presence lends to a surreal and menacing mood.
“A Black Paranoid Vision”
“Detour has legendary status as a landmark in the film noir movement… weird unsettling film that you’re not quite sure you’re watching it, or dreaming it.” -Eddie Muller
‘A filmmaker at the margins’ (Noah Isenberg) Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat 1934, Girls in Chains 1943, Isle of Forgotten Sins 1943, Bluebeard 1944, Strange Illusion 1945, The Strange Woman 1946, The Man from Planet X 1951, Murder is My Beat 1955, The Amazing Transparent Man 1960.) directs this vision of ‘pulp poetry.’ The cheaply made Detour was shot in less than a week, with only a budget of $30,000, which still proves that Ulmer had a striking noir sensibility. Filmed in just six days Detour is a low-budget B masterpiece. Detour was made by PRC, an acronym for Producers Releasing Corporation. an obscure studio that tinkered with low-budget B-movies. Folks in Hollywood joked that it stood for Pretty Rotten Crap-(Muller). Then Ulmer, who escaped the rise of the Nazis and emigrated to Hollywood joined PRC after he was blackballed by every major studio after his indiscretion with Shirley Castle, who had a connection to Carl Laemmle the founder of Universal Pictures. He was sent to the netherworld of poverty row for the rest of his career.
Screenplay by Martin Goldsmith is based on his 1939 novel and an uncredited Martin Mooney. Detour stars Tom Neal who’s an unsympathetic schmuck, the doomed Al Roberts, Ann Savage is the immortal noir harpy – Vera, Claudia Drake as Sue Harvey, Edmund MacDonald as Charles Haskell Jr., Tim Ryan as a Nevada Diner Owner, Esther Howard as the diner Waitress.
Detour is a cult classic allegory that makes clear and stripped down to its simplest unveiling, the terrifying force and unpredictable power of fate, which is the grand reverberation of film noir and its fatalistic credo. The film tells the story of a tortured composer Al Roberts (Tom Neal) who’s on a road trip to hell when he chases after his girlfriend, a nightclub singer who goes to Hollywood in search of stardom. His nightmarish journey is a dark adult fairy tale tethered to a series of mischances and bad decisions that have grave consequences. En route to the west coast hitch-hiking Al Roberts is picked up by Charles Haskell, who winds up dying from a freak accident when the guy hits his head on a rock. Al makes the mistake of picking up Vera, a drifter, and the mythic ideal of ‘the monstrous feminine’ who causes him misery. She’s straight out of the infernal pit, sent to terrorize him, on his irreversible journey, damned to a netherworld of paranoia and fear. Al steals Haskell’s identity fearing that he will be accused of his murder, but Vera knows the truth and uses it to blackmail him into participating in a scheme to collect Haskell’s inheritance by continuing to impersonate the dead man. Ulmer and Ann Savage create an unrelenting vampire in Vera who becomes one of the most venomous femme fatales in the history of noir cinema. Al Roberts too, possesses a hostility that lays in a very shallow pool, just waiting to come to the surface. As illustrated when he wallops the piano as if it were Sue after she leaves him behind. Al tortures the piano with his deranged version of the Brahms waltz.
Vera winds up becoming the second person that dies in a freak accident in Al’s orbit when he unwittingly strangles her with a telephone cord that gets caught around her neck.
“Ulmer is actually taking several American fantasies (going West, looking to Hollywood for success and happiness, finding freedom and happiness on the open road…) and performing unnatural acts on them, with devasting effects.”– David Coursen
“Give a lift to a tomata you expect her to be nice!”
A deeper look: The voice-over narration opens the film having the spirit of a confessional with Al’s self-indulgent soliloquy. He looks back on where he’s been and sees no future ahead. Wallowing in self-pity at a roadside diner, Al Roberts traces his steps in flashback, on how he got to this destination in noir purgatory. Al is a classically trained pianist and his fiancée Sue, a torch singer (Claudia Drake) performs regularly at the Break O’Dawn Club in New York City. She leaves Al behind to pursue her dreams of stardom. He calls her one night and finds out she’s working as a waitress. When a drunk tips Al a ten spot for playing a request, the bitter sad sack is so jaded the only thing he comes up with is, “What was it, I asked myself-a piece of paper crawling with germs? It couldn’t buy anything I wanted.” But now disaffected by his life playing cheap night spots, he can at least head for Los Angeles to follow Sue.
Al Roberts “Money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it.”
He hitchhikes across the country on his way to Hollywood where she’s slinging hash. Fate has other ideas and throws a chummy motorist in Al’s path, a guy named Haskell, carrying a large bankroll, who is on his way to L.A. He offers him a hot meal before they hit the road again. At the diner, Al devours his food like a starved animal.
What appears to be a primer to luck winds up becoming the beginning of his spiral down the rabbit hole, inescapable with unlikely coincidences. In the car, Al sees the scratches on Haskell, “Whatever it was, it must have been big and vicious” It was a woman Haskell says who went wild when he made a pass.
Al Roberts [as narrator after thumbing a ride] I guess at least an hour passed before I noticed those deep scratches on his right hand. They were wicked, three puffy red lines about a quarter inch apart. He must have seen me looking at them because he said…
Charles Haskell Jr. Beauties, arent they? They’re gonna be scars someday. What an animal!
Al Roberts Whatever it was, it must have been pretty big and vicious to have done that!
Charles Haskell Jr. Right on both counts, New York! I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman!
Al Roberts She must’ve been Tarzan’s mate! Looks like you lost the bout!
Charles Haskell Jr. Certainly wasn’t a draw! You know, there oughta be a law against dames with claws!
When Haskell, who’s been popping caffeine pills finally begins to feel tired, Al takes over the wheel. Haskell either dies of a heart attack from all the pills or he’s just fallen into a deep sleep when it begins to rain. Al wants to pull the car over to put up the ragtop, and when he tries to rouse Haskell, he falls out of the car and hits his head on a rock. Either way, he’s dead. Al is certain he’ll be accused of murder, so he disposes of the body, switches wallets, and takes off in his car.
As if Al wasn’t pitiful enough, he winds up offering a ride to hitchhiker Vera and quickly figures out that she’s the creature who drew her claws on Haskell. She figures out what has happened and uses it to keep the poor fool under her thumb.
Al Roberts How far you goin’?
Vera How far YOU goin’?
Al Roberts [as narrator] That took me by surprise, and I turned around to look at her. She was facing straight ahead, so I couldn’t see her eyes. She was young – not more than 24. Man, she looked like she had been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world! Yet in spite of that, I got the impression of beauty, not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you, or the beauty you dream about with your wife, but a natural beauty, a beauty that’s almost homely, because it’s so real. And suddenly she turned to face me…
Vera How far did ya say you were goin’?
Vera Say, who do you think you’re talking to – a hick? Listen mister, I been around, and I know a wrong guy when I see one. What’d you do, kiss him with a wrench?
Vera growls- But if you act wise, well Mr. – you’ll pop in the jail so fast It’ll give ya the bends!”
What almost makes Detour not only a sort of black comedy/tragedy but also an exercise in psycho-sexual foreplay, Al is both oddly repulsed by Vera, and yet drawn to her magnetism. She’s “almost homely because it’s so real.” Her ugly nature shows no mercy and has no limits. “I’m not through with you by a long shot” “Not only don’t you have any scruples, you don’t have any brains” and “You’re making noises like a husband.”
Once they arrive in L.A. they rent a room and Vera plans for them to sell the car and continue to have Al pass himself off as Haskell.
Vera I’m gonna see that you sell this car so you don’t get caught.
Al Thanks. Of course, your interest wouldn’t be financial, would it? You wouldn’t want a small percentage of the profits?
Vera Well, now that you insist, how can I refuse? 100% will do.
Al Fine. I’m relieved. I thought for a moment you were gonna take it all.
Vera I don’t wanna be a hog.
She discovers that Haskell was an heir to a dying millionaire and the family hasn’t seen him for 15 years. In the motel room they argue about the scheme and a sauced Vera runs into the other room and locks the door, threatening to call the police on Al. Once again, fate reaches out to the disastrous pair, and the telephone cord gets wrapped around her neck, with Al pulling on it from the other side of the door, accidentally strangling her.
Al ditches the idea of ever seeing Sue again and flees to Reno where the story opens as he sits in the diner reflecting on the bizarre circumstances that have cast him out of the ordinary world and cursed him to an eternity of hopelessness and guilt. In truth, it isn’t Vera’s hold on Al that chains him to his circumstances but the dynamism as a couple that binds them together.
As poverty row as Detour is, the film doesn’t need to compete with more distinguished noirs. With Ulmer directing, it almost certainly ensures that he will challenge the traditionally accepted model and delve into something more subversive. Haskell and Vera equally predatory, are actually both extensions, a conduit of Al’s self-loathing and belligerence. The detour is an allegory of his self-fulfillment.
Eddie Muller- “The action is confined to what’s rolling around in Al Robert’s head. Ulmer used every trick in his quiver to make an engrossing noir out of virtually nothing. Ulmers’ vision was to transform the rambling roadside saga into a head-trip”
In the film’s final scene, Al gives us a word of warning- That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you. Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.
Ann Savage played another ruthless femme fatale in Monogram’s Apology for Murder 1945, which was a ‘shameless knock-off of Double Indemnity.’ But it was Detour that earned her a place in the low-grade world of noir man-eaters we’ll remember.
Directed by Roy William Neill which was the last film, best known for his long-running Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone. Screenplay by Roy Chanslor, based on a pulp novel by Cornell Woolrich. Black Angel stars Dan Duryea as Martin Blair, June Vincent as Catherine Bennett, Peter Lorre as Marko, and Broderick Crawford as Police Captain Flood. Constance Dowling as Mavis Marlowe, Wallace Ford as Joe, Club manager Freddie Steele and Hobart Cavanaugh as Jake. With music by Frank Skinner and cinematography by Paul Ivano ( Strange Confession 1944, Flesh and Fantasy 1943, Dead Man’s Eyes 1944, The Suspect 1944, Destiny 1944, The Frozen Dead 1944, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry 1945, The Spider Woman Strikes Back 1946, Pickup 1951, Hold Back Tomorrow 1955).
Black Angel is a variation on Cornell Woolrich’s novel. After his treacherous ex-wife, Marvis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) his torch singing partner and extortionist leaves boozy composer Martin Blair cold. Weeks later he spends his days getting polluted, playing the one song incessantly on the piano that became their one hit. He goes to her luxury apartment to give her a ruby heart-shaped brooch for their anniversary. But Marvis tells the doorman to refuse to admit Martin. Later Marvis is found strangled with one of Martin’s ties. Police Captain Flood (Crawford) who heads up the investigation the case, brings him in as the only other suspect, Mavis’ estranged husband Marty. But his loyal friend Joe (Wallace Ford) gives him an alibi, telling the police that he had locked him in his room the night of the murder to prevent him from further going on another one of his dreadful binges. Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) also showed up at Marvis’ apartment to get back incriminating letters that Marvis was going to send to his wife Catherine. Bennett winds up getting convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.
“…I had a wife that needed killing, and you had a husband that took care of it…”
Though Kirk Bennett was Marvis’ former lover, Catherine still believes in his innocence and asks Martin to help her clear her husband and find the real killer, before he’s executed. Martin remembers a stranger leaving Marvis’ apartment the night she was killed. The man turns out to be Marko, a shady nightclub owner who hires Marty and Catherine to perform at his club. She has managed to pull him out of his funk. Little does Marko know, for the time being, that they have gone undercover to try and find evidence that Marko was involved in Marvis’ murder.
Marko “I don’t slug and you don’t think. Is that a deal?”
Catherine tries to find the ruby brooch that Marty gave Marvis, having mysteriously disappeared the night of the murder and could incriminate Marko. It turns out Marko is also innocent of the crime and was being followed closely by the police at the time she was murdered. He was also being blackmailed by her. Marty winds up falling for Catherine and hopes that she will move on and start a new life with him. But Catherine still loves her husband. Marty turns to alcohol again. Then he sees a woman at a bar wearing Marvis’ brooch and has a revelation that he was the one who murdered Marvis in a drunken rage. Joe was protecting him by lying to the police about that night. Marty gives himself up just in time to save Bennett’s life.
Dan Duryea is perhaps one of my favorite underrated actors from the 1940s through the 1960s. He was often cast as a pathologically cunning, predatory, and sly villain in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window 1944, and as the oily Johnny Prince in Lang’s Scarlet Street 1945, not to mention Criss Cross and Too Late for Tears 1949. Even playing a bigamist in Alfred Hitchcock Hour’s episode Three Wife Too Many 1964. One of the most poignant roles I can think of is his Al Denton, a rummy in The Twilight Zone’s Mr. Denton on Doomsday 1959. In Black Angel, he is a wonderfully sympathetic guy who’s been kicked around by a heartless bitch.
She’s “K-B” (Killer-Bait) – and her technique is TERRIFIC!
Directed by Douglas Sirk, with a screenplay by Leo Rosten (All Through the Night 1942, The Dark Corner 1946, Sleep My Love 1948, Where Danger Lives 1950, The Whistle at Eaton Falls 1951) Music composed by Michel Michelet (The Diary of a Chambermaid 1946, The Chase 1946, Impact 1949, The Man on the Eiffel Tower 1949, M 1951). The film is a remake of Robert Siodmak’s 1939 French film Pieges with its English title Personal Column. Producer Stromberg had writer Leo Rosten (from the original story Pieges) do the final draft of Personal Column (Lured). Eddie Muller theorizes that the changes must have been substantial because the original writer Norman Reilly Raine’s name is nowhere to be found in the final picture.
In the U.S. Lured’s gothic mystique is skillfully realized by art director, and set designer – Nicolai Remisoff (Guest in the House 1944, The Strange Woman 1946, Dishonored Lady 1947).
Sirk is most known for his 1950s technicolor melodramas, and the film stars the queen of comedy Lucille Ball and the king of cads, George Sanders. Eddie Muller makes the comparison of Ball’s sassy character to Ella Raines in Phantom Lady 1944 who was ‘slinking through nocturnal Manhattan trying to clear her boss of a murder charge.’ They have a lot in common, smart and spunky ‘navigating a demimonde of sinister eccentrics’ (Muller). Both play spunky amateur detectives hunting down a murderer. Initially, Joseph Breen rejected the film saying that it was both ‘salacious and suggestive’. Also, originally the film was to star Joan Leslie who after the film was left on the back burner for several months, bailed on the project to take a role in Repeat Performance 1947. The project was sold to producer Hunt Stromberg, a friend of Breen’s therefore it got the go-ahead and he quickly signed Sirk, Sanders, and Ball – who had already starred as a sassy dame in Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner 1946. Lucille Ball seemed to suffer a string of bad luck in the picture. She missed a week due to the flu. An arc light fell on her and she passed out from her corset being too tight. That’s a lot of dedication to one picture, but it was worth it, she is fabulous in the role.
Cinematography is by the great William H. Daniels (Flesh and the Devil 1926, Wild Orchids 1929, Anna Christie 1930, Grand Hotel 1932, Dinner at Eight 1933, Queen Christina 1933, The Painted Veil 1934, Camille 1936, Ninotchka 1939, The Mortal Storm 1940, Back Street 1941, The Canterville Ghost 1945, Brute Force 1947, The Naked City 1948, Winchester ’73 (1950), Thunder Bay 1953, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958, Ocean’s 11 (1960), How the West Was Won 1962, Von Ryan’s Express 1965, In Like Flint 1967, Valley of the Dolls 1967).
Lured is a psycho-sexual hybrid of film noir and mystery/thriller that casts Lucille Ball as the woman-in-peril. Ball is her usual wonderful self with swift comebacks and perfect comedic timing. She plays Sandra Carpenter an American who comes to England to perform in a show and winds up working as a taxi dancer in London. When her friend Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) goes missing she helps Inspector Harley Temple (Coburn) of Scotland Yard by acting as a decoy to catch a serial killer. Temple admires Sandra’s moxie and her eagle eye, and he gives her a temporary police id and gun.
Inspector Harley Temple “There’s a homicidal maniac loose somewhere in the vast honeycomb of London. A maniac with a weakness for young, pretty girls and not a thing we’ve done has brought us one inch nearer his apprehension.”
Inspector Temple is in pursuit of a psychotic killer, responsible for a number of missing girls, who have fallen victim to the Poet Killer, a maniac that lures his targets by placing ads in the newspaper. He then sends poems to provoke the police. Temple’s instincts tell him that the Poet Killer is somehow influenced by the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire’s most famous poem The Flowers of Evil.
Sandra is shadowed by a cheeky bodyguard Officer H.R. Barrett (George Zucco well versed in playing mad doctors and sinister types in low-budget horror pictures of the 30s & 40s The Mummy’s Hand 1940, The Mad Monster 1942, Dr. Renault’s Secret 1942, The Flying Serpent 1946). By putting an ad in the personal columns sponsored by the police, she meets a collection of oddballs including former fashion designer Boris Karloff as Charles van Druten. Barrett must come to Sandra’s rescue when the deranged eccentric van Druten threatens her life in a creepy screwball scene.
Among Sandra’s other misadventures while undercover, she comes across the mysterious Mr. Maryani who entices young women with the promise of a good career opportunity when in fact it is a white slavery ring delivering women to South America.
George Sanders is playboy Robert Fleming, a stage revue producer who can help Sandra’s career, and is immediately fascinated by Ball’s beauty and spirited charisma. Cedric Hardwicke is Flemings’s starchy partner and friend, Julian Wilde who lives in the opulent mansion with him.
Robert Fleming “You don’t object to kissing your husband’s business partner from time to time, do you?”
Sandra Carpenter “That depends on how many business partners you have.”
Fleming and Sandra fall in love and become engaged to be married. Temple gives her his blessings and agrees to come to their engagement bash.
The night of the party Sandra discovers her friend Lucy’s distinctive charm bracelet with elephants, on his desk, and her photograph. This is when Fleming learns that she has been working undercover for Scotland Yard. Though he asserts his innocence, he is arrested for Lucy’s murder. It doesn’t help that his typewriter is found to be the one used to write the poems sent to the police. Though the evidence is mounting against him, Sandra still believes him and remains loyal. Fleming believes that she only pretended to love him in order to help the police catch the killer. He refuses to see her. Lucy’s body is eventually found floating in the Thames. Wilde tells Fleming that he will do everything he can to help clear his friend.
Temple has a revelation that it is Wilde who has a preoccupation with poetry which points to his guilt. In the meantime, Temple, Sandra, and Fleming have planned a ruse to make it look like he has confessed to the crimes. As Wilde plans to leave England, he is visited by Sandra. He reveals that he has been obsessed with her just like the other women he lured into his perverted web of romantic delusions. After he manifests his desire for her, he plunges his scarf around her neck and begins strangling her. The men of Scotland Yard arrive just in time to rescue her.
Let’s get things straight about you and me and him…”I didn’t ask you to come into my life!”
Directed by Richard Wallace with a screenplay by Ben Maddow based on a story by John Patrick. Cinematography by Burnett Guffey (My Name is Julia Ross 1945, So Dark the Night 1946, The Sign of the Ram 1948, Knock on Any Door 1949, The Reckless Moment 1949, All the Kings Men 1949, In a Lonely Place 1950, From Here to Eternity 1953, Human Desire 1954, Private Hell 36 1954, The Harder they Fall 1956, The Strange One 1957, The Brother’s Rico 1957, Screaming Mimi 1958, Mr. Sardonicus 1961, Homicidal 1951, Birdman of Alcatraz 1962, Bonnie and Clyde 1967)
Columbia trying to cash in on the success of Gilda the following year made Framed cast their average guy noir hero in the lead role this time opposite Janis Carter. She was discovered by Darryl Zanuck singing in a show on Broadway, he brought her to Hollywood. Her career took off in Columbia’s low-rent noir Night Editor. Her alluring presence left an impression as a high society dame who sees a horrible murder and finds herself turned on, retelling that blueprint in Framed. Though initially cast in musicals, she found herself portraying alluring vixens, but by the fifties, she grew weary of being typecast as a femme fatale.
Glenn Ford (Gilda 1946, The Big Heat 1953, Human Desire 1954, Ransom! 1956) another staple of film noir, plays Mike Lambert an unemployed mining engineer who takes a job driving a truck and is inadvertently chosen to play the patsy for Paula Craig (Janis Carter-Night Editor 1946, The Woman on Pier 13 (1949)) and Steve Price (Barry Sullivan). Price is the president of the bank and opportunistic, philandering son-in-law who embezzles $250,000 and plans to fake his death so he can run off with Paula. While the two carry on, Paula takes a job at a local coffee shop pretending to be a waitress, waiting to seduce and then ambush the next sap to come along, so she and Steve can use him in their wicked plot.
The lovers plan to murder Mike who’s got the right body type and make it look like it’s Steve Price who dies in the wreck of a fiery car accident, the body burned beyond recognition. Paula is cold and calculating, with a sadistic sexual edge that comes forth on screen when she becomes aroused by violence and death. While the car with the unlucky passenger plunges off the cliff, Paula seems to become aroused. It’s an eroticized moment for her.
The crack in the whole deal – she falls in love with Mike which throws a wrench into her and Steve’s twisted plan. Character actor Edgar Buchanan plays Jeff Cunningham, a prospector who befriends Mike, both honest men, the two join together in a business venture when Jeff hits the jackpot. Price can’t afford to have Mike go into business with Jeff, so he refuses to give him the loan to finance his venture. Jeff winds up being framed when the shady Price involves him in his murder plot. But things really get twisted around, when after the robbery, Paula double crosses Price and he is the one who winds up crashing to the bottom of the embankment. Now she can take all the money and maybe have Mike too. She tells Mike that she killed Price while drunk but Jeff winds up being arrested for his murder. On top of Price’s murder, she then tries to poison Mike’s coffee, but she has a change of heart and stops him from drinking it at the last minute. Mike won’t let his friend take the blame for Price’s murder, figures out that Paula is guilty, and sets up a trap so she’ll reveal herself to be a thief and a murderous.
NOT EVEN HER KISSES COULD HALT HIS FURY…when his evil brain cried “KILL!”
Directed by Felix E. Feist (Donovan’s Brain 1953) Cinematography by J. Roy Hunt (I Walked with a Zombie 1943, The Brighton Strangler 1945, Crossfire 1947) The Devil Thumbs a Ride Stars Lawrence Tierney as Steve Morgan, Ted North as Fergie, Nan Leslie as Beulah Zorn, and Betty Lawford as Agnes.
Tierney landing the role in The Devil Thumbs A Ride is due to his breakthrough performance in 1945 Dillinger, which set him up for the lead role in RKO Picture’s Born to Kill 1947. Tierney’s booze-fueled belligerence (Muller) got him in trouble with the law so many times that he couldn’t maintain his top film status – he was relegated to making B pictures, hired by anyone with a strong stomach, willing to risk casting the powder keg actor.
An amiable drunk Jimmy Fergusen (Ted North) who’s driving back to L.A. in time to celebrate his anniversary picks up hitchhiker Steve Morgan (Tierney who is the personification of the malevolent noir psychopath-Dillinger 1945, Born to Kill 1947) not realizing that he has just robbed and murdered a poor gas station attendant. Morgan, a lecherous sociopath convinces North to bring two more thumb wavers along, Beulah and Agnes (Leslie and Lawford) on their way to LA. This will be the most rotten decision of his life, as he goes down a punishing noir road, just for being a nice gullible guy. He’s not like the sad sack schmuck Al Roberts. Morgan takes a lot of casualties along the way, steals Fergie’s identity and holds everyone captive within one perilous night.
North asks a gas station attendant about the picture of his little girl who brags, but the nasty Morgan, remarks “from the looks of those ears, she’s gonna fly before she walks” When North tells the guy to keep the change and buy something for the kid, Tierney says “Yeah, a parachute”
The raw, savage, screen-searing story of the Treasury’s tough guys!
Director Anthony Mann has contributed quite a collection of daring films in the noir canon that gear up with quite a high kick. (Strangers in the Night 1944, The Great Flamarion 1945, Railroaded! 1947, Raw Deal 1948, Border Incident 1949, Side Street 1949, Reign of Terror 1949, Winchester ’73 (1950), The Furies 1950). It was his first collaboration with cinematographer John Alton (Bury Me Dead 1947, Raw Deal 1948, Canon City 1948, The Amazing Mr. X 1948, Hollow Triumph 1948, He Walked By Night 1948, The Crooked Way 1949, Border Incident 1949, Mystery Street 1950, The Big Combo 1955, Lonelyhearts 1958) whose highly stylized photography is arresting with its placement of characters at opposite ends of the frame, in deep focus, low angle camera shots and high contrast black and white cinematography. John Alton is a master of low-key lighting and adventurous use of shadows, darkness, and light.
Both Mann and Alton believed that lighting would be the most critical element. What was born out of Mann’s vision as Jeanine Basinger puts it, T-Men is his ‘fully realized project.’ Alton uses visual iconography of anxious characters, in two-shot, who are concealed from each other but are visible to us. This was a trademark of his work, most notably in The Big Combo 1955. Alton’s camera sets up the visual dichotomy that transports the duality of the story – the harrowing transformation of the agents as they are absorbed by their new identities as criminals.
I used light for mood. All my pictures looked different. That’s what made my name, that’s what set me apart. People asked for me. I gambled. In most cases, the studios objected. They had the idea that the audience should be able to see everything. But when I started making dark pictures, the audience saw there was a purpose to it.- Alton
For example when Moxie traps Schemer in the steam room. In one of the most striking death sequences I’ve seen in film noir, Schemer dressed with only a towel around his waist, stomach protruding and body glistening in sweat, the imposing McGraw corners him in a profoundly unspoken moment of threatening intimacy using Alton’s low-angle two-shot. Alton manifests an eerie proliferation of light behind Ford’s head as he is about to die, Moxie smiling sadistically, as he enjoys his screams. It’s a beautifully done sequence for its subtlety of Schemer’s gruesome death.
The film’s narrative space exists between two characteristic landscapes, using frames that use high key lighting, one at the Treasury Department alternating with scenes in the murky realm of the underworld as if the two undercover agents descend into Hades. In this way, Mann and Alton are able to visualize the ‘most distinctive stylistics of the film noir movement. Its split narrative seems to offer an unassailable boundary between the criminal and law-enforcement environments’ ( Susan White and Homer Pettey) ‘The pull of the story itself is such as to make them schizophrenic: narratively they are stalwart heroes, visually they are brutal hoods’ (Blake Lucas). Mann’s earlier noirs did not retreat from graphic violence.
Alton establishes the men’s criminal facade by staging them in ‘hard top-lighting, diagonal compositions, and wide angles. Mann’s direction and Alton’s eye make for a good team. Within a year, after the sleeper success of T-Men, director Anthony Mann and cinematographer Alton were hired by MGM.
Written by John C. Higgins and Virginia Kellogg. T-Men featured a cast of lesser-known stars like former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player Dennis O’Keefe as Dennis O’Brien, Mary Meade as Evangeline, Alfred Ryder as Tony Genaro, Wallace Ford as The Schemer, June Lockhart as Mary Genaro, Charles McGraw as Moxie, Jane Randolph as Diana Simpson, Art Smith as Gregg.
T-Men is a significant contribution to noir’s cycle of the ‘docu-noir’ aesthetic. In post-war America, there was a growing taste for more realism in crime dramas coming out of Hollywood. T-Men was filmed on location in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., using a newsreel-style voice-over.
There’s a patriotic anthem delivered in voiceover by Reed Hadley whose narration also appeared in The House on 92nd Street and Boomerang! “These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist… and that fist hits fair but hard!”
The film opens with a wide view of Washington, D.C., which leads us to the Treasury Department and takes a turn as it melts away into the dark underworld that will prevail over the narrative. In shadow, shot using odd perspectives, an informant Shorty (Curt Conway) is shot dead in an alley by one of the elusive counterfeiting mob’s explosive devices – named Moxie (Charles McGraw). Shorty gets it while trying to pass a sample of the Chinese paper to Treasury agent Newbitt (Victor Cutler).
T-Men in the spirit of the noir police procedural, is about two treasury agents Dennis O’Brien now known as Vannie Harrigan, and Tony Genaro, who have taken the name, Galvani (O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder) who after their fellow agent is killed, go undercover as small time crooks to infiltrate the counterfeiting ring run by the Carlo Vantucci gang. The mob is suspected of being connected to the counterfeiters’ liquor stamps operation.
Let’s just call the two agents by their operative names, Galvani (Ryder) and Harrigan (O’Keefe).
Galvani must temporarily leave behind his new wife Mary (June Lockhart) in order to assume his new identity. His real life, soon afterward, almosts throws a wrench into the operation when Mary and Tony’s paths cross in San Francisco. The agents hit Detroit to obtain mob credentials before they head out to the west coast, trying to link the Vantucci mob to the “tough, tight outfit” in L.A.
Galvani tells Harrigan that his wife Mary would love to see him in his flashy new clothes, Harrigan tells him that he’ll have to put those thoughts away. “Don’t forget. You’re not married. You’ve been divorced for reasons of duty,” The two men have been recreated as the ruthless Harrigan and Galvani, members of the now disbanded “River Gang”, They can now immerse themselves in the underbelly of organized crime with its sleazy hotels and Turkish steam baths. Harrigan and Galvani befriend Pasquale the mob-friendly hotel owner (Tito Vuolo).
Vantucci puts Galvani through a bit of a rough interrogation but he sells his cover story and is let into their counterfeiting syndicate. Both men seem to settle into their criminal milieu which makes them narratively tangled up in knots as both stalwart heroes and brutal thugs.
Tony Galvani sweet-talks Pasquale by speaking Italian, allowing him to get some insight into the old River Gang, so he and Harrigan will be able to withstand any interrogation. Immediately Galvani is grilled by gangster boss Vantucci (Anton Kosta). Once the edge is taken off Vantucci’s suspicions, he hires them to work in a liquor warehouse he owns.
The Schemer (Wallace Ford) “Yeah. They been giving me the cold shoulder lately. Giving me the fish-eye, kicking me around. What’s behind all this?”
One lead they uncover is finding a paunchy con artist named Schemer who has fallen out of favor with the Detroit mob. Harrigan heads to L.A to track him down. He is able to produce a phony bill and negotiates a deal with the gang for the plates after he gets the green light to send for Galvani. One of his quirky habits of Schemer’s, aside from his obsession with steam rooms, is to chew on ‘Chinese dragon liver herb medicine’. This little tidbit helps Harrigan narrow his search. Like many of the striking scenes, Harrigan wanders through the hectic streets of Chinatown, the screen deluged by the shopkeepers with their wares, Harrigan looks for the right herbalist who knows Schemer.
This eventually leads him down a road with another haunt of Schemers. The steam baths of L.A. where Harrigan finally recognizes him by the scar on his shoulder. I’ve written in my essay Queers & Dykes in the Dark, about the eroticism of the homo-social tradition of men who are not queer (necessarily), but celebrate their gender bond. This is a very common theme seen in many of Howard Hawk’s films. The elements of eroticism implied by the semi-nudity and intimacy of the low lights adds to the atmosphere of a subversive universe. Harrigan lures Schemer into his orbit by getting him to notice he’s passed a phony bill (a little trick by folding money a funny way) in chiaroscuro during a heated dice game. Harrigan is beaten up by the other gamblers, and is left in a dark alley roughed up and bleeding. This is an instance when the two worlds blend together and going undercover at times can take over the agent’s reality.
Alton again shows off his visual style by setting up frames within frames, set pieces to track Harrigan’s journey from a brightly lit nightclub deep into the shadowy center of the gang, whose chief lieutenant to the boss, (in a predominantly hyper-masculine film) winds up being Diana Simpson (Jane Randolph). He arranges to bring the counterfeit plates he’s been supplied by the Treasury in order to help the subterfuge and keep the ruse going that he’s legitimate.
In Detroit, Vantucci’s thugs rough up Tony Galvani under the burning hot, internal space of the interrogation lights. When he doesn’t crack he earns Vantucci’s respect. Harrigan begins to get closer to the secret of the ‘Chinese’ counterfeit paper and the film accelerates its penchant for violence.
Charles McGraw as Moxie with his gravel voice and stone-like features- his threatening character emerges as the film’s evil spirit of torture, who has no aversion to causing pain, as seen in the sequence when he locks Schemer (Ford’s particularly engrossing role) in one of his beloved steam rooms to be scalded to death. And again, when Harrigan is being worked over by Moxie (and familiar lackey Jack Overman as Brownie) who interrogates him, making snide remarks about his clothes and asking about the phony bill Schemer caught him passing at the dice game. Harrigan tells him he can’t hear, so Moxie swiftly whams his ears and asks, “You hear better now?
Harrigan shows off the ‘agonized facial expressions characteristic of the Mann protagonist under duress.’ (White and Pettey).
Moxie (Charles McGraw “What’s the matter, you getting the wim-wams?”
Dennis O’Brien/Harrigan “Did you ever spend ten nights in a Turkish bath looking for a man? Don’t.”
Schemer begins to get scared that the ring is out to kill him, he’s got a coded ledger with incriminating information about the gang. Schemer relies on using his information as leverage for his life and plans on blackmailing the mob bosses. His secret ledger could rip the lid off the entire organization. When Galvani is out with Schemer, he accidentally runs into his wife (June Lockhart) at the market and must pretend not to know her, but Schemer just gets a gut feeling and uses his hunch to try and persuade Moxie to lay off.
Galvani figures out a way to break Schemer’s code, but he is finally discovered to be a Treasury agent and in a very uncomfortable scene Harrigan must watch his friend die at Moxie’s vicious hands, while maintaining his cover, he is helpless to rescue him. Galvani still manages to pass on the whereabouts of the little black notebook to his partner. Harrigan finds the book and sends it to the Treasury. When he passes the plates to Diana, she realizes that they are the work of a notorious counterfeiter which makes her suspicious. Paul Miller (William Malten) is called in to study the plates. He tells Diana they are the real deal, but when Miller gets Harrigan alone, he tells him he recognizes the workmanship on the plates and realizes that the counterfeiter is still serving time in prison. Miller tells him that he knows he’s an agent, and wants to make a deal for clemency. But at that moment, Miller is shot dead.
By the conclusion of the film, there develops a parallel, as Harrigan’s personality begins to reflect Moxie’s. In a confined scene in the men’s room, Alton, visually suggests that Harrigan has metamorphosized into an interchangeable character. This duality has already been graphically realized by showing, they both have a taste for assaulting people to force information out of them. Both have taken pleasure in toying with Schemer. Moxie in hard focus, is shown shaving in the ‘mirror’ while Harrigan’s right side profile is framed in the extreme left foreground making it look like Moxie’s reflection is his. The iconography of the noir mirror to illustrate duality is drawn upon brilliantly. Harrigan shown now in wide angle, attempts to grab the counterfeit bill from under the bathroom sink.
By T-Men’s climax, the action culminates on the ship where the fake currency is being manufactured and becomes engulfed in tear gas, reminiscent of the hazy steam room, the Treasury agents drive out the gang from their criminal hideout. Filled with a vengeance for the death of his partner, Harrigan kills Moxie just as the other T-Men arrive and take down the ring.
Directed by Michael Gordon, with a screenplay by William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser, based on a story by Harry Kurnitz. Music by Hans J. Salter and cinematographer by Irving Glassberg who’s adept at setting up a moody quality – (Undertow 1949, The Fat Man 1951, The Strange Door 1951, The Black Castle 1952, The Tarnished Angels 1957) The Web stars Ella Raines as Noel Faraday, Edmond O’Brien as Bob Regan, Vincent Price as Andrew Colby, William Bendix as Lt Damico, Maria Palmer as Martha Kroner, John Abbott as Charles Murdock, and Fritz Leiber as Leopold Kroner.
Part of what makes the film a slick piece of work, is the assemble of actors who are artisans of noir, O’Brien (The Killers 1946, White Heat 1949, D.O.A 1949, 711 Ocean Drive 1950, The Turning Point 1952, The Hitch-Hiker 1953, Shield for Murder 1954). Ella Raines is perhaps one the most underrated classy noir heroine who appeared in Phantom Lady 1944, The Suspect 1944, Brute Force 1947, and Impact 1949. And Bendix busts off the screen in The Glass Key 1942, Lifeboat 1944, Crashout 1945, The Blue Dahlia 1946, and as the glowering white suit in The Dark Corner 1946).
When Lawyer Bob Reagan boldly comes to collect for damages done to his client’s fruit cart, he refuses to leave until the matter is settled, even when the audacious Reagan disrupts Colby in the middle of a board meeting.
Bob Regan (Edmond O’Brien) “How many doors and secretaries do you have to go through to get to see this guy?”
Noel Faraday (Ella Raines) “Anything I can do for you?”
Bob Regan “Any number of things but unfortunately I’m here on business. I want to see Mr Colby.”
Noel Faraday “What did you want to see him about?”
Bob Regan “Well he’s been carrying on with my grandmother, I’d like to find out what his intentions are…”
Noel Faraday “If you have any business with Mr Colby…”
Bob Regan “I’ve lots of business but it’s all personal.”
Noel Faraday “I’m his secretary – his personal secretary.”
Bob Regan “Well it just goes to show you how far a girl can get if she keeps her stockings’ seams straight. Don’t get up! I’ll announce myself…”
The wealthy industrialist Andrew Colby (Vincent Price) offers small-time, self-confident Bob Reagan $5,000 to act as his bodyguard, in order to protect him from a former business partner, Leopold Kroner. Kroner just released from a five-year stint in jail for embezzling a million dollars from his firm is looking for revenge. Reagan asks his friend over at homicide Lt. Damico (Bendix) to push a gun permit through, though he’s not crazy about the idea of Reagan possessing a firearm. Against his better judgment, he issues the permit and Reagan winds up using it to shoot Kroner to death when it appears he’s threatening Colby’s life.
Though he is cleared by the police, killing Kroner doesn’t sit right with Reagan and it doesn’t help that Damico is suspicious and spends the time trying to figure out the truth. Reagan suspects that Colby’s played him for a chump to set up Kroner as a cunning frame, making it look like self-defense, and used the murder as cover for the money he in fact stole. While trying to get to the bottom of things, he falls in love with Colby’s secretary Noel Faraday (Ella Raines). The film co-stars character actor John Abbott as Colby’s baleful accomplice Charles Murdock who gets the double cross in the end.
Charles Murdock (John Abbott) “How did he die?”
Andrew Colby (Vincent Price) “Protesting his innocence.”
There’s nothing like a woman to come between men !
Directed by Jean Negulescu with a screenplay by Edward Chodorov from a story by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul. Music by Cyril J. Mockridge and Alfred Newman. Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle and Norbert Brodine (One Million B.C. 1940, The House on 92nd Street 1945, Somewhere in the Night 1946, 13 Rue Madeleine 1946, Kiss of Death 1947, Boomerang! 1947, Thieves’ Highway 1949) Brodine and LaShelle’s lighting and photography is filled with moody nuances, he sidelights the bar-room as Lily croons her sandy spoken torch songs, “She does more without a voice than anyone I’ve ever heard.”, the light catching her cigarette burning a notch on the edge of her piano. It’s got a sexy gritty feel of postwar fatigue. Thomas Little’s set direction creates an odd union of contemporary leisure with the rustic charm that belies the danger that stalks the lovers, with the look of a hunting lodge, the couple becomes the hunted.
Ida Lupino plays torch singer Lily Stevens who takes a job at a combination nite club/bowling alley, owned by the psychopathic Jefty Robins and managed by his best friend Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde). Both men fall for Lili, though Pete and Lily’s first impression of each other carries with it a lot of animosity.
Lily (Ida Lupino) “Well, I’m Lil Stevens, the new entertainer from Chicago. Right now I’d like to sleep.”
Pete (Cornel Wilde) “Oh. The new equipment.”
When they eventually fall in love, Jefty goes maniacal on both of them. Celeste Holm plays the stoic Susie in a role, not unlike her Anne Dettrey in Gentlemen’s Agreement 1947, where once again, she plays the amusing nice girl who suffers in silence and goes unnoticed by the leading man, projecting a bittersweet aura throughout the picture. When Lili starts talk-singing Johnny Mercer’s classic “One For My Baby”, Susie is asked what she thinks-
Sam “Hey, Susie! What do you think of this one? She’s somethin’, isn’t she?”
Susie (Celeste Holm) “If you like the sound of gravel.”
When Jefty goes away on a hunting trip, Pete and Lily finally get together and when Jefty returns certain that he’s going to marry Lily, we see the calculating demented personality emerge. He’s not about to let Pete take Lily away from him and devises a way to frame him for stealing money from the roadhouse’s profits. Pete is brought up on criminal charges, but Jefty pretends to be merciful and convinces the judge to release Pete into his custody. What that really means is that Pete will be under Jefty’s control and if he steps out of line once, he winds up going to prison for a long time. Pete’s subjected to systematic psychological torture. Jefty makes Pete, Lily, and Susie come with him to his cabin near the Canadian border, where he will pretend to have shot Pete trying to escape. While he and Lily make a run for it, Susie manages to find proof of Jefty’s plot to kill Pete and follows after them, but for all her self-sabotaging intrepidness, Jefty shoots her when she tries to warn them.
Edna Tucker (Marie Windsor) “A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.”
Garfield began his Enterprise Productions an independent studio, when he wanted to break with the status quo of Hollywood. He founded it in 1946 after his contract with Warner Bros. ended. The first picture produced through his studio which earned several Oscar nominations is Body and Soul, one of the finest boxing films in the noir canon.
Force of Evil is directed by Abraham Polonski (who also wrote the screenplay for Body and Soul 1947 with Garfield) and the screenplay was adapted by Polonski and Ira Wolfert based on Wolfert’s novel ‘Tucker’s People’. This was Polonski’s debut as a director, chosen by Garfield. he was blacklisted during the witch hunt of the 1950s and didn’t direct another film until 1969 with is Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. Polonski transformed Wolfert’s sprawling story into a streamlined tour de force for Garfield… A man whose lack of ethics has earned him an office in the clouds and a side hustle as personal counsel to a notorious gangster”. It possesses an uninterrupted transition into something more than a crime picture, it evolves into a blatantly subversive American film.
Art Director Richard Day started his career collaborating with Erich von Stroheim in the early 20s. His later films included The Grapes of Wrath and the magnificent How Green Was My Valley. His production design for Force of Evil is stark and arresting.
Music by David Raksin and masterful cinematography by George Barnes (Rebecca 1940, Ladies in Retirement 1941, Jane Eyre 1943, Spellbound 1945, The File on Thelma Jordon 1949, War of the Worlds 1953).Eddie Muller’s interview with composer Raksin before screening was filled according to Muller, with ‘vitriol’ calling Polanski “an artistic poser.”
Polonski gave Barnes a book of paintings by Edward Hopper in order to inspire him to set up the same sensibility when lighting the film. His camerawork managed to convey the artist’s impression of remoteness and alienation.
Force of Evil independently produced by Garfield stars Joe Morse, Thomas Gomez as Leo Morse, Marie Windsor as Edna Tucker, Howland Chamberlain as Freddie Bauer, Roy Roberts as Ben Tucker, Paul Fix as Bill Ficco, Paul McVey as Hobe Wheelock.
In post-WWII noir, the criminal rackets learn how to coolly navigate the capitalist system. The film manages to convey the parallels between vice holes and Wall Street. They crawl along the hidden spaces of society, all clean-shaven and well healed they set their sights on fitting in and appearing legitimate. Force of Evil is an artful work that studies the indictment of criminal racketeering. It also tells the story of the rift between two estranged brothers, Garfield and wonderful character actor Gomez both proud, one opportunistic, and one who, while a petty operator (Gomez), still lives by a code of ethics.
Leo Morse “The money I made in this rotten business is no good for me, Joe. I don’t want it back. And Tucker’s money is no good either.”
Joe Morse “The money has no moral opinions.”
Leo Morse “find I have, Joe. I find I have.”
It comes back to the consummate noir anti-hero Garfield to take on the role of Joe Morse a well-paid, shrewd, and ambitious lawyer who has given up his principles and sold his soul to gambling tsar Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). Joe has a creeping fear of failure and is unconsciously ambivalent while he tries to justify his part in a takeover of the city’s gambling enterprise. Tucker has a vision of legalizing, then monopolizing the numbers racket and plans a takeover of New York’s modest illegal lottery banks that thrive on millions of small bets. Tucker wants to expand his syndicate, by fixing the July 4th lottery so the winning number comes out to 776, favored by the majority of the superstitious betters.
The payoff will have an outcome that is manipulated beyond probable odds and will pay off thousands of little gamblers and bankrupt the small-scale banks. This will include Joe’s brother Leo who runs an independent bookie joint, allowing Tucker to put the smaller bookies operating throughout the city, out of business. Joe tries to salvage Leo’s impending ruin by bringing him on board in Tucker’s big-time operation, but Leo’s too honest and wants nothing to do with the mob’s filthy money. Beatrice Pearson plays Garfield’s love interest Doris Lowry who works for his brother Leo and noir icon Marie Windsor plays Tucker’s conniving wife Edna who manipulates Joe into enabling the fatalistic destruction of his brother, jeopardizing Leo’s survival and helping her husband maintain a fabricated legitimate racket.
Edna Tucker “You’re wide open, Joe. I can see into you without looking.”
Joe Morse “Don’t bother; besides it’s not nice to do.”
Edna Tucker “More interesting than when you have a rock for a husband like mine. He’s a stone, that man. Whole world are rocks and stones to him.”
Joe Morse “Why tell me? Tell him.”
Edna Tucker “Never tell him anything. Makes me feel unnecessary.”
Joe Morse “If I make you feel NECESSARY then I’m making a mistake”
Joe Morse (John Garfield) “If you need a broken man to love, break your husband. I’m not a nickel, I don’t spend my life in a telephone! If that’s what you want for love, you can’t use me.”
Edna Tucker “You’re not strong or weak enough.”
In their greed to control the city, a level of violence is invoked with acute proficiency in one scene where the reluctant bookkeeper for one of the small-time operations wants out of the syndicate – “ “If I go now and walk out of here, how’re you going to stop me?… How if I say I won’t stay and walk out of here, how’re you going to stop me.” A syndicate enforcer coolly answers him – “The Combination will stop you… stop you dead in your tracks.”
Things are relatively normal up until Garfield shares a flirtation during a cab ride with (Doris) Beatrice Pearson in her screen debut. Polonski gives free reign to an extraordinary flow of dialogue unnatural language. That seems to emerge straight from the characters subconscious. (Eddie Muller).
“don’t you see what a black thing it is for a man to do. How it is to hate yourself, Your brother, make him feel that he’s guilty, that I’m guilty Just to live and be guilty”
With Doris’ support, Joe eventually sees the truth about the corruption around him and struggles to break free of the syndicate’s hold on him. But too late for Joe to salvage the harm done, Leo is brutally murdered.
Joe is finally inflamed by his brother’s death, he has an existential crisis and the revelation about his complicity in the widespread corruption impels him to rebel against the mob. He confronts the mobsters at a rendezvous by the East River fully aware that he is calling out to death. The theatrical climax is the staging of Joe’s sacrifice which is his moment of redemption.
Force of Evil much like the work of director Elisa Kazan (A Face in the Crowd 1957, Panic in the Streets 1950, On the Waterfront 1954) is a sociological noir, an existential vision with its indictment of organized crime, which at the core, is only a slight veer from capitalism. With its use of familiar iconography of noir, Polonsky was able to convey his social criticism through the sensationalism of gangsters and the crime narrative.
And John Garfield’s character symbolizes the anti-hero every man who is too nearsighted to decipher the quality of morality and the advantages of ambition.
The final sequence, its long take of the bridge, with the span of steel girders that looms over Joe on the riverbank is expressionistic magic.
This is your EverLovin’ Joey sayin’ keep it dark, shadowy and out of the hands of fate! til I get back for Part 2
CRY OF THE CITY 1948, THE THREAT 1949, IMPACT 1949, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY 1949, THE SOUND OF FURY 1950, NIGHT AND THE CITY 1950, THE BREAKING POINT 1950, THE PROWLER 1951, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY 1951, HE RAN ALL THE WAY 1951. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET 1952…