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Monday, March 19, 2007

Rescue These Orphaned Noirs!

Accurately defining film noir has become a  dodgy proposition. Distributors selling deep library product have affixed noir label on every sort of title. Any vintage product is welcome, so gentle subterfuge is my least of worry, but others bring companies to task for calling generic crime and police thrillers "noir" as bid to camp following impulse buyers. Worthier prospects meanwhile lay dormant in studio vaults. The four I address today may or may not be authentic noir. You tell me. Everyone has their own definition. Common elements unite the quartet. They are cheap, mighty cheap. I picture deals closed during late afternoon happy hour and memorialized upon a cocktail napkin, neophyte investors sinking small inheritance they should have put against a mortgage in hopes of striking gold with Hollywood sharpers. These were features by virtue of being two or three times the length of a Racket Squad episode, booked if at all by exhibitors in need of something --- anything --- to reassure patrons there was some benefit for coming in a grindhouse other than getting out of rain or sleeping off a drunk. Actors headed down slopes toward television did these in hope of staying on theatre screens a little longer, so who paid heed to Cry Danger, Shield For Murder, Witness To Murder, and The Killer Is Loose? Distractions are rife in a drive-in parking lot after all, and that was first-run port of call for these in towns with limited indoor venues. "A" houses preferred bigger names, preferably in Cinemascope. Consider these numbers --- The Killer Is Loose had 7,987 bookings, Kirk Douglas in The Indian Fighter (color and scope) scored 21,030 --- both from United Artists and released within months of each other. Witness To Murder was a near photo finish for Rear Window and beat it into theatres by four months besides, but Hitchcock’s thriller took $4.8 million in domestic rentals while the former settled at $683,029. Life’s just not fair sometimes, even if Rear Window was the tale more artfully told. Justice is crrently served by TCM broadcast for these orphans, each deserving of that hour and a quarter you might devote to them. Wobbly sets and careening mike booms are more than offset by rich performances, terse dialogue, and you-are-there locales. Here is lean meat shorn of pretension and served minus big studio garnish. 

Dick Powell mentored Robert Parrish’s directing bow and disabused artistic notions just prior to start of Cry Danger. It’s only a movie. It’s not real life. It’s shadows on a screen. It’s nothing. It’s dreams. They were lunching at Preston Sturges’ Hollywood restaurant. We’ll make a quality movie for the price. That’s what it’s all about, Powell said. We’ll start on schedule in two weeks and we’ll finish on schedule twenty-two days later. They’d gotten money out of a mid-west theatre owner with producing aspirations. Howard Hughes pledged the rest along with distribution. Powell had an accountant’s brain with regard priorities. Anybody can direct a movie, even I could do it (and he would later on). I’d rather not because it would take too much time. I can make more money acting, selling real estate, and playing the market. Hard to reconcile such casual approach with fine work Powell did over a long career. Pragmatism can be a handmaiden to excellence, and I suspect Cry Danger wears well because Powell and crew kept grown-up, get-it-done attitude throughout, no stylistic excesses as with neo-noir pretenders of late. Known less by its title than long standing identification as the one in the trailer park, Cry Danger scores, as do most of budget noirs, with location filming --- by necessity, according to director Parrish, as only $7,500 was allocated to building sets. Nice to see characters enter dingy hotel lobbies from off the street, confirmation of its being the real thing. Actual bars and grocers stand in for clip joints and bookie parlors. You’d think Powell and company were making home movies but for guns they carry. Dialogue by ace scribe William (The Gunfighter, The Mob) Bowers was highlighted in a pressbook ad shown here, a rarity in merchandising. Powell works his customary magic with props. Watch how he plays among what-nots on William Conrad’s desk. Powell economy with words mirrored offscreen impulse to get a job done and move on. Powell to Parrish: You can cut it with Bernie Burton, we’ll ship it, and then we can start thinking about something else. OK? RKO would see Cry Danger to domestic rentals of $850,000, with an additional $250,000 foreign. Being an independent (Olympic Productions), the negative went from shelf to shelf and ended up with NTA for syndication packaging. By then, elements had degenerated to where Cry Danger was had, if at all, on duped 16mm. Two prints I collected years ago were (1) splicy original, and (2) clean dupe. It seemed you couldn’t win with Cry Danger. The US Copyright Office still lists NTA as owner of the negative, but my question is --- Does that negative even exist anymore?

Barbara Stanwyck watches as George Sanders strangles a woman in an adjacent apartment window. She confronts him and goes to the police, but nobody believes her, except Sanders, of course. Witness To Murder opened in April of 1954. There were 10,092 bookings. Someone must have seen it and experienced déjà vu when Paramount unveiled Hitchcock’s Rear Window in August of that year, though critics seem to have ignored the many parallels. Variety never mentioned them in its review. Rear Window was the big studio elephant stepping over a modest indie despite its having been first in line to tell a remarkably similar story. Foolish of course to submit Witness To Murder as the better picture, but it’s hard not to boost UA’s David over Paramount’s Goliath. Noir legend John Alton photographed Witness To Murder. His compositions surely dazzled 1954 viewers. All that is lost today in what look like 16mm broadcasts on TCM. Apartment dweller noir flourished in 1954. Columbia’s Pushover also dealt with renters peeping across courtyards and down hallways. The killer next door became a popular urban, as well as suburban, menace. Postwar Barbara Stanwyck either played murderers or was busy fleeing from them. She’d become a hard sell for romantic leads, and it wasn’t just an age issue (47 in 1954). Not for a moment could I buy Gary Merrill’s attraction to "bachelor girl" Stanwyck in Witness To Murder, for seldom was a woman so unapproachable on screen as here. The stridency B.S. could get away with in the thirties was now twenty years more off-putting, especially in contrived situations where she’s hurling opportunity at Sanders, inviting him to do her in. Acting is like roller-skating. Once you know how to do it, it is neither stimulating nor exciting, was a quote attributed to George Sanders, and his listless performance in Witness To Murder, four years out from the triumph of All About Eve, is proof enough he lived by those words. A somnambulant Sanders is preferable to most other players at full gear. Imagine his character in Manhunt or Confessions Of A Nazi Spy beating it across the Atlantic and setting up shop in the Americas after WWII. That’s essentially the part Sanders plays in Witness To Murder. I suspect a nice 35mm print of this on a big screen, or a Blu-Ray, would elevate its reputation quite a lot.

Aubrey Schenck and Howard Koch were an independent team in pursuit of whatever exploitation product sold at a given moment, shlock horror (Voodoo Island, The Black Sleep), exotic actioner (Desert Sands), or calypso music (Bop Girl. Returns for Shield For Murder were likely predictable as an average B western would have been a decade earlier. Anti-heroic Edmond O’Brien wears a drab overcoat and pistol-whips both friend and suspect. There are trailer bait shots of Marla English donning brief attire for  nightclub duty. Shield For Murder’s violence is sudden and vivid, beyond mainstream limits of the time. Competing with television required haymakers beyond what was free at home. You had to raise the bar on whatever had come before. Serving up less was never an option. The black-and-white cop genre was eventually wiped out by increased proficiency of TV crews pushing their own envelopes. Shows like Dragnet, Naked City, and M-Squad offered real inducement to skip theatre-going. Had Shield For Murder come along five years later, I’m betting it would have sunk like a stone. As it is, the August 1954 release earned $442,919 in domestic rentals, with $432,000 foreign. Within a couple of years, it too was playing television. Could this be reason for a scene where crime boss Hugh Sanders enjoys prizefights, and a clear image, on his remote control set? Unusual to see such a positive TV reference at a time when Hollywood was still resisting the home screen’s encroachment. By 1956, police protagonists took a back seat to psycho stalkers. The Killer Is Loose focuses on superhuman effort of vengeful Wendell Corey to even a score with straight arrow detective Joseph Cotton. Corey was just this side of TV series work in Harbor Command, which would start up the following year. The man is a revelation here. Formerly typed as a stick in the mud, forever losing the girl, Corey lights up his title role with one of the scariest meek-mannered head cases I’ve seen depicted in movies. There is really nothing out there like him. Too bad The Killer Is Loose, with its modest $392,768 in domestic rentals, got so little attention. Budd Boetticher warms up here for Randolph Scott westerns at Columbia. The Killer Is Loose moves fast, shocks frequently, and delivers all in 73 crackling minutes.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The film noir I would like to watch again is Hugo Fregonese's "Apenas un delincuente"; an Argentinean film he made in 1949, with a cameo by Faith Domergue. It is a great classic and it is much better than anything that Fregonese later made in Hollywood.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Extant elements for "Cry Danger" are available have a new print struck and the Film Noir Foundation is on the case. When we screened this film at our annual San Francisco festival, "Noir City" in January 07, we discovered that the last existing 35mm print had curdled to vinegar. The only other print was a 16 mm copy from the UCLA Film and Television Archive which they were kind enough to let us screen with both "Cry Danger" star Richard Erdman and the entire family of screenwriter Bill Bowers in attendance. (BTW- this 16 mm print used to be Dick Powell's personal copy!). "Cry Danger" and these other films are in danger of disappearing forever though. That's why The Film Noir Foundation is important.

In addition to taking on some specific film restoration projects this year, The Film Noir Foundation will soon add a new page on our site titled the "The Unusual Suspects". This page will list the most sought after film noirs that are currently unavailable for screening in their original 35mm glory.

As our friend John McElwee suggested, check out the Film Noir Foundation at

Alan K. Rode
The Film Noir Foundation

12:55 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Your selection here would make a nice little box set. Could it be done? WB could do it if anyone could, but what about all of the rights? Sometimes nothing gets in the way of preservation and presentation than the little matter of who owns the rights, and if they can authorize or sell them. Great article as usual John!

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three great picks, great summaries, great graphics, all as usual here at the Shows.... I also stuck The Killer Is Loose at the end of a triple-feature essay, although my theme was more specialized than overlooked noir: "A sissy in a mutally adoring marriage who's threatened by masculine hostility and a job crisis can solve all his problems by joining a bunch of gangsters."

7:36 PM  

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