Tagged: Film Noir

House of Bamboo (US 1955)

House of Bamboo is remarkable only in its settings . . .

. . . It takes more than an original setting, though, to refurbish a formula production.

These are the first and last lines of the Monthly Film Bulletin review by ‘P.H.’ of this film. The MFB was the British Film Institute’s ‘journal of record’ which attempted to review films released in the UK. It was ‘absorbed’ by Sight & Sound in 1991. In 1955, reviewers weren’t named but I’m guessing this might have been Philip Hope-Wallace. The attitude towards many Hollywood films is neatly summarised by that reference to ‘formula’ and in the body of the shortish review the conventional elements of the film, including the playing which is “moderate”, are recognised as being used to present a “gratuitous emphasis on physical violence”. The only praise is for the cinematography of Joe MacDonald whose work is described as “handsome”.

Joe MacDonald’s ‘Scope framing

I’m not sure what I expected  and I would have to agree that this is a conventional ‘gangster melodrama’ – the term used in the review. However, I think the presentation is stunning and the performances are generally very good. The narrative has real intelligence in the way it explores a specific time and place and it has something to say about American culture as expressed in an unusual setting.

Robert Ryan as ‘Sandy’

House of Bamboo is a contemporary crime story filmed on location in Tokyo and Yokohama. In 1954 the Allied (i.e. mainly American) Occupation of Japan had ended some two years earlier and sovereignty was restored to a Japanese administration but there were still many thousands of US military personnel based in Japan. The film’s story deals with a criminal gang comprising ex-GIs which is carrying out a series of major robberies, each conducted like a military operation. The Tokyo police have joined forces with the American military police and organised an infiltration of the criminal gang by an undercover military policeman posing as another ‘dishonourably discharged’ GI.

Robert Stack as the morose and surly ‘Eddie’

The film’s script is actually a re-write of an earlier crime film, The Street With No Name (1948) directed by William Keighley and set in Los Angeles. That film was itself seen as a sequel to or ‘spin-off’ from The House on 92nd Street, Henry Hathaway’s 1945 film about an FBI undercover operation aiming to break up a Nazi spy ring. So, in this regard, the MFB review is on the right track. But House of Bamboo is very different to the two earlier films for two reasons. First it is a CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color production from 20th Century Fox, using the original 2.55:1 ‘Scope aspect ratio and 4-track stereo sound. Visually and aurally this is a significantly different proposition to those earlier films. Second this is a Sam Fuller movie. The mere mention of Fuller’s name may have had a negative effect on British critics in the 1950s. Fuller had two driving forces which informed all his films. These were his two main ‘life experiences’ – his early career as a journalist and his wartime experience. In between he wrote pulp fiction. Sam Fuller didn’t make staid, run-of-the-mill movies. As Phil Hardy puts it in his Studio Vista Movie Paperback (1970) on the director, Fuller was a writer, but not an intellectual. He presented stories like a tabloid sub-editor, punching out scenes and communicating quickly and directly with his audience. Fuller also had strong opinions and he believed his films should have a direct message. He had a strong belief in the potential of American ideologies to liberate people and he therefore supported American imperialism when it meant going to war to fight Communists. This led some critics to describe the director as a ‘fascist’, but that didn’t really make sense. Fuller was in some ways Utopian in his belief in multi-racial societies. He was also critical of how American policies were put into practice and he chose to explore them at moments of crisis and both inside the US and overseas.

Shirley Yamaguchi demonstrating the art of eating fried eggs with chopsticks

I first saw House of Bamboo many years ago on TV when it would have been ‘panned and scanned’ for a 4:3 presentation and when the colour was faded. Watching it now in HD with the colours restored and the original ‘Scope image, I found it a stunning spectacle. It should be remembered that Japan in the mid-fifties was still in the early stage of its economic miracle and Japanese cinema had not yet embraced widescreen technologies or colour (which would appear in the next few years). House of Bamboo looks fabulous, whether it is location shooting, much of it in long shot, or what I assume to be Japanese studio footage with some terrific sets.

Eddie (in the raincoat) crosses a city street . . .

. . . is taken to Sandy’s house in another long shot composition

The three principals are played by Robert Ryan as the gang-leader Sandy Dawson, Robert Stack as the infiltrator Eddie and Shirley Yamaguchi as Mariko, the widow who acts as Eddie’s ‘kimono’, the gang’s sexist slang for the women who live with them. Robert Ryan is, of course, terrific as always. Here he is both calculating and vicious but with an underling elegance that might derive from is repressed homoerotic attraction to Eddie. Robert Stack has a kind of double role to play. He has to show his more human side to Mariko when she decides to support his undercover work but he also has to appear mean and surly as a gang member. I’m not sure he quite pulls this off. I note one ‘user’ comment which complains that he talks to everyone as if he was playing Elliot Ness in The Untouchables (he starred in 119 episodes of the TV series between 1959 and 1963). There is some truth in this. I had forgotten that ‘Shirley Yamaguchi’ was actually Yamaguchi Yoshiko and that she appeared with Mifune Toshiro in Kurosawa’s Scandal (Japan 1947). Like Mifune she was born in Manchuria to Japanese parents in 1920 but then appeared in propaganda films made in Manchuko as a Chinese actor. Later she would make a career briefly in the US and then in Hong Kong. She was also a successful singer whose performances were used recently in both Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018) and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (HK-China 2013) under her Chinese pseudonym Li Xianglan.

Like many of Fuller’s films in this period, House of Bamboo begins with a journalistic commentary as voiceover, effectively setting the scene for us. I would argue that the ‘formula’ is exploited by Fuller such that he can explore his usual concerns. The mixed race relationship, Robert Ryan’s control over crime activities all planned as military operations and throughout the sense that America’s presence in Japan is both necessary but also prone to the corruption of idealism and the loss of control. As Phil Hardy notes, Eddie’s role as the American breaking up the American gang is an ironic reference to the American-Japanese treaty and the role of the US in Japan’s recovery. Japan is presented with sociological and cultural detail in place. Fuller’s art director also contributes towards this by providing a ‘bamboo curtain’, a transparent barrier which descends between Eddie and Mariko at night. It’s still early in terms of CinemaScope and most shots are relatively static with movement in an across the frame offered by the extreme width of the image and the long shot framings. It would take Fuller a little longer to re-discover the punchy style of his pre-CinemaScope work and it was that style that so impressed later directors such as Jean-Luc Godard.

I’m looking forward now to watching some more Fuller ‘Scope films from the 1950s.

Les diaboliques (France 1955)

The set-up in a single image. The two women together, the sadistic male headteacher at the window and a punished boy with his head lowered.

It’s amazing just how many classic films you can fail to watch in a long life of film viewing. I’ve now managed to watch Les diaboliques which I thought I hadn’t seen but now I realise that I’ve probably seen the key scenes before without ever knowing the whole narrative. This means the ‘reveal’ in the final scenes was possibly less shocking than it might have been. There were many things I either hadn’t known or forgotten about the production. The first is that this is an adaptation of a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac and that missing out on this adaptation spurred Alfred Hitchcock into acquiring the rights of the same pair’s novel that he adapted as Vertigo in 1957. There was plenty of rivalry and perhaps some bad blood between Henri-Georges Clouzot and Hitchcock. They were each held in high esteem in their own countries and measured against each other. Hitchcock was the great showman, but Clouzot was no slouch either. At the end of Les diaboliques, Clouzot implored the audience not to tell their friends about the ending. Hitchcock did something very similar in his promotion of Psycho in 1960.

A boarding school is a difficult place in which to plan a murder – there is always someone looking. Note the strangely girlish hair for Christina.

If you haven’t seen this film classic, I won’t spoil it either. I’ll just give the set-up of the narrative. Verá Clouzot (Clouzot’s beautiful Brazilian-born wife) is Christina Delassalle, the owner of a small private school outside Paris. Her dominant husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the sadistic ‘headmaster’ who treats the small group of staff and all the boys very harshly. But the staff have their ways of dealing with him, especially the science teacher Nicole (Simone Signoret) who has become his mistress. Surely no man could get away with dominating Ms Signoret? But she turns up in the first scene wearing dark glasses because he has hit her. It soon becomes apparent that Christina and Nicole are hatching an ingenious plan to murder Michel – and the plot thickens from there.

A Medium Close-Up of Paul Meurisse and Simone Signoret

Apart from an interest in Clouzot’s work, my main interest in watching the film was in Simone Signoret’s performance at the point where her international career was taking off. I’ve been using both Signoret’s autobiography and Susan Hayward’s excellent study of Signoret as star and iconic figure in French cinema, Simone Signoret: The Star as Cultural Sign, Continuum 2004. Hayward splits Signoret’s career into four sections and Les diaboliques comes into the second, ‘Trajectory to International Stardom 1952-59’ – which culminates with her Oscar success as Alice Aisgill in Room at the Top. Signoret herself writes about the close relationships between Clouzot and Verá and Yves Montand and herself. All four were together for periods during the shoot of The Wages of Fear (1953) in which Montand appeared for Clouzot. Signoret speaks highly of Clouzot’s intelligence and capacity to learn new skills, but she also seems to have had a tempestuous working relationship with him and, to a lesser extent with Verá. She seems not to have enjoyed working on the film – but it went on to be her biggest commercial success at the French box office.

The poster emphasises the different statures of the two women

The film demonstrates some of the oddities about Simone Signoret’s status as the great French female star of the 1950s-80s. Hayward conducts various investigations involving close textual analysis. She considers, for instance, the number of close-ups and medium close-ups of Ms Signoret compared to those for Verá Clouzot and Paul Meurisse. Surprisingly, Signoret has significantly fewer. This seems to follow a pattern in her other films around this time, even when there is a different director/cinematographer. Although Signoret has top billing and the films are popular at the box office, the media (film magazines and newspapers and industry publicity) seem reluctant to treat her as a star. Hayward also notes that Signoret’s costumes are more conservative and less revealing than the more ‘girlish’ or feminine attire worn by Ms Clouzot. This might also suggest that Signoret is the older woman, but in fact she was several years younger than Verá Clouzot. Coupled with the different heights of the two women this gives the scenes involving the pair a possibly comic appearance as they attempt to deal with the practical aspects of murder – such as disposing of the body. However, as Hayward suggests, the presentation of the three central characters is partly explained by the changes Henri-Georges Clouzot made in his adaptation, changing gender roles so that it is no longer a lesbian narrative. This creates the odd situation in which Meurisse in effect adopts a role that corresponds to that of the femme fatale and Signoret is to a certain extent de-sexualised.

One of the more noirish shots

I want at this point to refer to what British critics thought about the film on its UK release. I’ve only recently realised that I have access to the archives of Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound online and they have provided a welcome diversion during lockdown. I started reading both publications in the early 1970s and I find that I disagree with reviews from the 1950s. Perhaps it just demonstrates that so much has changed in the way we think about films today. It’s not that the reviewers in the 1950s were necessarily ‘wrong’ or guilty of missing or misinterpreting narrative events, it’s more that they approach any film with sharply honed critical faculties ready to dissect each title rather than attempting to analyse what the film is trying to do. They also show little interest in who might watch the film and what they might take from it. The reviewers in both of the BFI’s journals adopt similar positions, acknowledging Clouzot’s cleverness and the shocking nature of some scenes but arguing that the films suffer from a lack of tension in the central narrative. But the lack of perspective on how audiences might react is striking. It was then less than two years since Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had proved to be one of the most successful releases ever in the UK for a foreign language film. Presumably the reviewers thought that the new film would not create as much interest. They were both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ since Les diaboliques did not get the same wide release in the UK, but it has endured and is now a classic, complete with a Criterion disc release. In 1956 UK critical interest in Hitchcock had not developed to the extent that it would by the 1960s but looking back the similarities between the work of the two directors seem very clear and the body disposal is also reminiscent of later films by Chabrol with their clear Hitchcock references.

The retired Inspector (Charles Vanel) makes an unwelcome appearance at the mortuary

I’ve not really given much detail about the rest of the narrative but two features stood out for me. One is the role of the boys in the school and I did wonder if their performances, especially in spying on the two women and potentially revealing evidence, had any influence on Truffaut’s presentation of Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cents coups (1959). I also note the appearance of the veteran actor Charles Vanel as the retired police inspector who invites himself to begin an investigation. The eccentric police inspector became a feature of some of the best French noirs and polars. Clouzot himself introduced such a character in Quai des Orfèvres (France 1947) and the character was known to the British critics who don’t seem to enjoy his appearance. I always enjoy an eccentric investigator and I note that some US-based comments suggest that he might have been an inspiration for Peter Falk in the creation of ‘Columbo’.

I started this post with a view to focusing on Simone Signoret but I think I’ll return to her performance at a later date. She is as good as she always is in this film which also has so many other interesting facets. I’m glad I managed to catch up with it.

Beyond This Place (Web of Evidence, UK 1959)

Talking Pictures TV showed another rare and intriguing British film this week with this strange offering from 1959, distributed originally by Renown, the company linked to TPTV. I’ve given both titles as the film was released in the US by Allied Artists and it stars two well-known Hollywood names from the period.

There are many strange aspects of the production. It is an adaptation of an A. J. Cronin novel. Cronin’s work was the basis for many films, most famously The Citadel (1937), The Stars Look Down (1940) and Hatters Castle (1942). These were UK productions, but other adaptations were produced in Hollywood and, I was surprised to discover, in various Indian language cinemas. There have also been several TV adaptations in territories around the world. Beyond This Place is an adaptation of a novel written in 1950 – when Cronin was resident in the US. It had already been adapted for US television with Sidney Lumet directing in 1957. All of this suggests that a Cronin adaptation should still have been a ‘prestige’ production of some kind, yet this 1959 film was shot at Walton Studios (once Nettlefold Studios and in the late 1950s mainly involved in TV productions) by an independent producer. It was made in black and white and presented in 1.37:1, almost as if was produced for television.

Van Johnson as Paul and Vera Miles as Lena

But though it may seem a low-budget production, there is a starry cast and some well-known creatives are involved. It’s the second directorial feature for Jack Cardiff, the celebrated cinematographer, and also an early outing for Ken Adam, listed as ‘Art Director’. The camerawork itself is in the hands of Wilkie Cooper, a major figure in British cinema since his first film as DoP on The Foreman Went to France (1942). The two American stars are Vera Miles and Van Johnson and the British actors include Jean Kent, Emlyn Williams and Bernard Lee.

The confrontation before the murder with Bernard Lee as Patrick Mathry and Jean Kent as Louise Burt. Eira Heath as the murder victim, Mona Spurling, is in the background.

The narrative begins in Liverpool with Irish migrant Patrick Mathry playing with his young son Paul in the park. The time appears to be early in the war when Liverpool was the second most-bombed city in the UK after London. We then see Mathry visiting a young woman, but he leaves angrily when the woman’s room-mate intervenes just before an air-raid. After the air-raid Mathry is arrested for murder. The story then leaps forward to the present when Paul Mathry (Van Johnson) arrives on a merchant ship from America. With four days leave he is determined to find out what happened to his father and he finds a helpful librarian Lena (Vera Miles). Paul discovers that his father was found guilty of murder but was not hanged and instead is serving a long sentence in HMP Wakefield. Shocked by his discovery (his mother had told him his father had been killed during the war and she and Paul had subsequently been evacuated to New York) he begins to investigate the murder case, helped by Lena.

Vera Miles in a subdued ‘good girl’ role – her familiar star persona?

This brief description should already raise questions. The murder was in 1941 so Paul should only be in his mid-twenties (in the novel I think he is a recent graduate, working on ships to see the world). Van Johnson was 42 when the film was shot in 1958. He was always a fresh-faced actor but it doesn’t make too much sense to cast him in the lead. Vera Miles, at the time under contract to Hitchcock after The Wrong Man (1956), would have been in her late twenties, possibly a little old for the part, but otherwise OK. The plot later reveals that she is Canadian, but her accent is not pronounced.

There is a considerable amount of location footage in Liverpool in the film and this is what originally attracted me. As in some other Liverpool set films, there are trips on the ferry, through the Mersey tunnel and around the waterfront and the docks. This latter location raises a set of questions about genre. A chase sequence through the docks at night is atmospherically shot, making great use of bright lights and dark shadows, reminiscent of John Alton’s late 1940s work. This sequence could come from a film noir – as could the delving into a past murder case and the character of the chief witness, the ‘other woman’ played by Jean Kent. But much of the rest of the narrative feels more like a family melodrama. Cronin was well-known as a writer of exciting dramas that often feature a crusading character and conflicts built around questions of social class, privilege and injustice. That’s the case here too. As Paul investigates it becomes clear that his father’s trial was a career breakthrough for both the prosecuting counsel and the senior police investigator. Lena is a potential romantic partner for Paul but she too has a back story that raises questions about social issues. When I watched the film I had the very strong feeling that I was seeing a film from 1950 rather than 1959. The Academy ratio and the noir lighting are probably the main reasons for this. Jean Kent became a star as a young woman in the 1940s often playing ‘good-time girls’, femmes fatales or darker characters in melodramas. A couple of years after Beyond This Place she played Queen Elizabeth I in ITC’s tea-time TV series, Sir Francis Drake (1961-2).

Paul meets Louise in the club she owns – this image could easily come from a ‘Brit film noir’ in the late 1940s.

I enjoyed many aspects of the film despite its flaws. The Cronin story was adapted by Kenneth Hyde and the screenplay then produced by Ken Taylor. There are several changes to the original story and I get the impression that too much might have been crammed into the script. I found the film fast-moving but several commentators complain it is slow-moving. Perhaps this is connected to the confusion over genre expectations? The Liverpool setting works well in terms of location shooting but like those other Liverpool set films produced from London (e.g. The Magnet, 1950 or Waterfront, 1950), there are no genuine scousers, or at least actors with recognisable scouse accents, amongst the cast. I’m not sure the UK title helped the film – what does it mean? (The US title is more generic, but at least it offers something familiar.) I realise that I don’t really know the Cronin novels or the other film adaptations, though I have heard episodes of radio serials and of course as I a child I couldn’t avoid the BBC adaptation of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for 8 seasons between 1962 and 1971. Cronin (born in 1896) was Irish-Scottish by background (Paul in the novel of Beyond This Place lives in Belfast) and trained as a doctor. His medical training perhaps turned him away from religion to which he returned in the 1930s when illness and convalescence turned him towards writing which came to him very easily. Religion and medicine are both important elements in his stories. He was one of several popular novelists whose novels were adapted during the studio period of filmmaking. Some of that solid storytelling is certainly evident in Beyond This Place and I think I’ll now be more prepared to look at some other Cronin adaptations.

Nightfall (US 1956)

Jacques Tourneur is one of those filmmakers who was perhaps wasted by ‘Studio Hollywood’. He made some excellent films and some less good ones but nearly all show an understanding of techniques, a real imagination and a great feel for composing and choreographing scenes. Nightfall is a shortish feature (78 mins) adapted from a David Goodis novel by Stirling Silliphant. That’s a good starting point. Goodis was a noir novelist, arguably as well-known in France as the US, perhaps even more so with adaptations by Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960) as well as René Clement and Jean-Jacques Beineix. Silliphant was a prolific writer for TV and cinema from the 1950s until the 1980s, mainly for ‘tough guy’ action narratives. Nightfall was the first of his film scripts and the casting adds to the feel of the film which would sit well with some of his 1970s scripts. Aldo Ray is a distinctive figure and he is matched by Brian Keith as the lead villain, although Rudy Bond as the almost psychotic ‘Red’ eclipses Keith at times. The surprise for me was Anne Bancroft who had been appearing in films and TV for five years already, but this is the first role of hers that I’ve noticed and she is very good, even if underused in what is primarily a male action picture.

Jim searches for a newspaper

The set-up is classic film noir with Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray) introduced to us as a man perusing newspapers on a street corner in Los Angeles. It’s one of those long newsstands with papers from every major city in the US. When the cashier turns on the overhead lights as dusk approaches, the sudden brightness seems to really disturb Jim. A man asks him for a light and starts up a conversation before heading off to catch a bus. Jim goes into a bar-diner on the corner and meets a young woman, Marie (Bancroft). She wheedles $5 out of him and then they have a drink and he buys her dinner. In a parallel cut we see the man who caught the bus arrive home to meet his wife. Does he know Jim? Outside the bar Jim and Marie part and immediately two men bundle Jim into a car. Who are they? Was Marie set up to trap him? What has Jim done? It’s a brilliant start to a narrative and in a short while we’ll get a flashback that reveals the incident in which the wholly innocent Jim found himself caught up in the kind of story that only a noir writer could devise.

Marie and Jim together

Without describing the plot outline in detail, I’ll just point out that Jim was on an innocent trip to the hills in winter when he became involved with a pair of violent men. Fortunately Jim escaped and by chance discovered the men had left a briefcase of money. Jim hid the money and went into hiding. But now he has been found by both the two violent men and the third man – an investigator tracking the stolen money. The narrative is clearly going to return to the hills and it will become a matter of who gets there first and finds the hidden money. We know Marie must be involved further because she is a leading player. Other than that it’s all up for grabs.

Marie is a catwalk novel on an upmarket fashion show (in the open air)

There has been some discussion about the film as to the noir label. I’m certainly not a purist in these matters. The night-time opening sequence certainly suggests noir. The sequences in the snow in the hills might seem less so but there are certainly precedents in, for example, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1949) in which a ‘disturbed’ cop (Robert Ryan) and an angry father (Ward Bond) hunt for a young man across the snowy hills. There are also some parallels with Tourneur’s own classic noir, Out of the Past (1947) – including a scene where two urban heavies turn up in the peaceful mountain community where Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is trying to escape his past. And in turn we wonder if Marie will prove to be a femme fatale like Jane Greer’s Kathy in Out of the Past. Paranoia (and terror) can be represented in snowy and sunny landscapes just as it can in dark urban streets.

Jim appears caught by the Brian Keith character

Jeff has been in the forces but he makes his living as a commercial artist which is an interesting idea for an actor as physically distinct as Aldo Ray. (Ray was best known for military roles.)  Similarly, Ms Bancroft is a respectable fashion model and one of the film’s showpiece sequences is a fashion show in the open terrace of a famous LA department store watched by the two heavies and an anxious Jim Vanning. This sequence feels ‘modern’ – in fact the whole film seems to have moved on from the earlier noir world – though the slight story doesn’t have the complexity of some of the major 1950s noirs. But what it does have is the suspense and paranoia. Another reference might be Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) – two men on a fishing trip who inadvertently give a lift to a serial killer. There is also something of the same realist feel of Lupino’s films shot around LA. Overall the film is lean and mean. The closing sequence has been controversial and I won’t spoil it but the reference here might be a ‘looking forward’ to crime thrillers which bring city violence into the agrarian community like the later films North by Northwest (1959) with its crop duster plane chasing Cary Grant and Prime Cut (1972) with its chase featuring a combined harvester. Other films which have some of the same flavour include Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – Ray has a similar presence to Ralph Meeker and Anne Bancroft even looks a little similar to maxine Cooper who played Mike Hammer’s secretary Velda. Nightfall features some excellent camerawork by Columbia house lensman Burnett Guffey who was well versed in noirish crime thrillers (e.g. Human Desire 1954 and the Ida Lupino-produced Private Hell 36 (1954)). I enjoyed the film very much and would recommend it. Anne Bancroft is a revelation and Aldo Ray’s casting works for me. Nightfall can easily be found online but I watched the Blu-ray from Arrow in the UK which includes analysis by Philip Kemp and other contributors less familiar to me, but each offers something extra on a film that deserves to be re-discovered. I hope to feature more of Jacques Tourneur’s work on the blog, so watch this space.

Here’s the scene where Jim meets Marie for the first time.

Impasse du deux anges (France 1948)

Looking for the early starring roles for Simone Signoret I found this 1948 film which was not released in the UK. It has an English language title , ‘Dilemma for Two Angels’ which doesn’t make that much sense to me. ‘Impasse’ means much the same in French and English – a ‘dead end’. It’s difficult to categorise the film but we are clearly in noir territory, both in visual style and theme. This is the last film directed by Maurice Tourneur, a prolific filmmaker from 1913 onwards in France and in the US during the silent era. He returned to France in the 1930s and made over 80 feature films in all. He was the father of Jacques Tourneur. This film was written by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, photographed by Claude Renoir and with a music score by Yves Baudrier (also composer on La bataille du rail (1946).

Simone Signoret as Anne-Marie/Marianne

The story is slight. Anne-Marie, a girl from a poor background, has become ‘Marianne’, the star of theatre and variety in Paris (Simone Signoret). She has decided to marry into wealth and accepted the proposal of Marquis Antoine de Fontaines (Marcel Herrand). He has brought her a family heirloom, a valuable necklace, to wear for the wedding, and placed it in the safe in her house. She holds a pre-wedding party after her last stage performance at which she meets Antoine’s family and aristocratic friends. The necklace has attracted the interest of a criminal gang who hire a ‘specialist’ to steal it. This turns out to be Jean (Paul Meurisse) who was Anne-Marie’s lover seven years earlier when he suddenly disappeared from her life. He crashes the party, suitably dressed in evening wear. Recognising him, Anne-Marie slips out to join him and they go to a café. Will she leave her fiancé on the night before the wedding and stay with Jean? What about the criminal gang who are watching Jean? The answers to both questions make up most of the rest of the narrative. The film’s title refers to a dead-end street where there was once a small hotel, a rendezvous for Anne-Marie and Jean. It is now closed and the whole area is being re-developed.

Paul Meurisse as Jean with the crime boss who has hired him

Most of the action takes place at night using studio sets. An unusual element of these scenes for me was the use of double exposure so that when we see Marianne and Jean together in various locations, we also see the ghostly presence of their former selves, dressed as they would have been seven years earlier in the same location. I thought this was quite effective. The overall lighting and camerawork produces a familiar noir image and at 85 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. Meurisse was a leading man of equal status to Signoret at the time and they would appear together again in future features.

Marianne with the Marquis and the necklace

Having just acquired a copy of Susan Hayward’s book Simone Signoret: the star as cultural sign (Continuum 2004) it’s worth noting some of her analysis of Signoret’s developing star image. Hayward identifies different ways of dividing up Signoret’s life and in particular her film career. For convenience, here I’ll just refer to a couple of her observations. She notes that in the period 1946-51 Signoret appears three times as a prostitute, twice as a gold-digger and twice as a woman who has risen from a lower class (one of these films is Impasse des deux anges). This is seven roles out of ten films in which her role is leading or significant. Ironically in the film discussed here, her assumed name of ‘Marianne’ is linked to the national symbol of French womanhood (and is referenced as such in the dialogue). Hayward begins her chapter by comparing Signoret with Anna Magnani in Italy during the same period. She suggests that Magnani is symbolic of Italian recovery and “the moral and ethical strength of the people”. Hayward notes that although Signoret had all the same attributes of Magnani (intelligence, integrity and authenticity), French films didn’t attempt to showcase such a character and instead Signoret represented “France’s economic underbelly”. (p 64).

But Susan Hayward does recognise that Signoret presents a ‘strong and independent woman’, perhaps a woman of the 1970s rather than the 1940s. She suggests that this strength comes from three aspects of her performances. First is her sheer ‘corporeality’. She is aware of the strength of her body, the way she stands and how she walks and how she smokes – with “an insouciant vulgarity”. Second she has reduced her gestures to the minimum, aiming to convey more with less, the raising of an eyebrow, a momentary flash of the eyes etc. Finally, she stands out as part of the ‘real world’ not the artifice of cinema. We know she is going to be a great star. This film was released in 1948, the same year as Against the Wind, the British film in which Signoret stars as an SOE operative helping the Belgian resistance. It appears that French audiences just couldn’t accept the British script (which was based on real events) and the film flopped in France where the various ‘myths’ associated with the résistance in France were not dispelled for many years. I’ve also been reading Simone Signoret’s autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be (1976). It’s very good.

The Blue Gardenia (US 1953)

A lurid French poster which somehow remains accurate in detail but still misrepresents the Anne Baxter character

Fritz Lang had a difficult time during the period of ‘studio Hollywood’. Possibly he was his own worst enemy, but it is the case that he struggled to make the kinds of films he thought were appropriate for a filmmaker of his standing. In 1953 he would be 63 years-old and about to embark on his 36th directorial project. That means he directed 36 features over 34 years, including his ‘epic’ productions during the 1920s at Ufa.

In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (faber & faber 1997), Patrick McGilligan argues that in 1952 Lang was complaining that he was blacklisted for his leftist/communist leanings after finishing work on Clash By Night, but actually Lang was ‘out of work’ for only six months before he got the contract to make The Blue Gardenia. It was Columbia supremo Harry Cohn who intervened for Lang and helped him get the job. The Blue Gardenia was an independent production which was to be distributed by Warner Bros., not Columbia. After it was completed, Lang signed a contract to work at Columbia and his next picture would be one of his best known American films, The Big Heat which would appear later in 1953.

The Blue Gardenia was a low budget film adapted from a story by Vera Caspary, a writer with real pedigree and a long list of Hollywood credits including Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and Joe Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Caspary’s story was adapted by Charles Hoffman whose credits were also numerous if slightly less distinguished apart from the Michael Curtiz film Night and Day (1946) starring Cary Grant as Cole Porter. Despite the low budget, the production did have some class, enhanced by the cinematography of Nick Musuraca who was still working at RKO but had just completed Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. Presumably at this point he was available for loan-outs. He had also worked on Clash By Night (1952) which was an independent production released through RKO and using RKO contractees.

Nat King Cole sings the ‘Blue Gardenia’ song in the restaurant

The story is fairly straightforward , especially for what some critics see as a film noir. It also shares with Lang’s later films, While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a fascination with journalists and murder stories. Local fashion designer Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) has a reputation as a womaniser, luring young women back to his flat where he also has a sideline in painting glamour/pin-ups of his attractive conquests. His latest idea is to hang around a telephone exchange hoping to collect the phone numbers of the ‘exchange girls’ as new conquests. One of the switchboard operators receives a ‘Dear Joan’ letter from her boyfriend in the American forces stationed in Korea and accepts a date with Prebble on the rebound. She is not the kind of young woman Prebble usually dates and in her fragile state she drinks too much and passes out. At this point, the film begins to feel not just Langian but also Hitchcockian. Bad things happen! Richard Conte plays a crime reporter with a following for his column in an LA paper. He sees the possibility of a major story and cooks up a plan to entice the murderer into the open. I’ve avoided any spoilers so don’t leap to conclusions about what happens (and ignore the IMDb summary which is wrong anyway). I do think that there are some flaws in the plotting but overall this makes an intriguing 90 minutes murder mystery. The ‘Blue Gardenia’ refers to the restaurant where the couple eat and drink and the flower bought from a blind flower-woman. It is also the song sung by Nat King Cole live in the restaurant – I told you this film has class!

Norah (Anne Crawford, left) and Crystal (Ann Sothern)

The woman who goes on the date is played by Anne Baxter. She is very good and Lang said later that whatever his misgivings about the film (he routinely put down his own work), he was pleased with her casting. She was someone he had always wanted to work with. It’s not hard to see why. She was Oscar-nominated for her role as Eve in All About Eve (1950), she won as Best Supporting Actress for The Razor’s Edge (1946) and also appeared in leading roles for Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and for Hitchcock in I Confess (1953). Baxter’s character Norah is one of three single women, all working at the same telephone exchange and sharing a rented cottage-style house in LA. The older woman is played by Ann Sothern (who also appeared in A Letter to Three Wives) and the younger by Jeff Donnell. I spent much of the film trying to think why I knew her and eventually realised that she is the wife of the police officer, whose superior officer during the war was Humphrey Bogart, in In a Lonely Place (1950).

Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) on a high stool at the telephone exchange with Norah and Crystal. Sally (Jeff Donnell) is in the background

The two male leads are also interesting. Raymond Burr was very active at this time. He was an equally suspicious character in Rear Window (1954) for Hitchcock. Here he seems an enormously powerful physical figure, dwarfing the women he encounters. Richard Conte seems the only one of the cast who might be mis-cast. McGilligan describes him as a ‘hero-without-warts’ which is a little unkind, but I don’t see him as a reporter or a columnist. He seems too smooth and I think if it had been Dana Andrews, the journalist from Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the role might have worked better. Conte is ‘Casey Mayo’, a star reporter/columnist whose clout on the paper can enable him to mount his own campaign to find a wanted person before the police. He is so prestigious that he is invited to witness an H-bomb test and must therefore ‘solve’ the mystery and get into print before he boards a plane to see the test. This reference alongside the war in Korea and a reference to TV shows are all markers of a clever script that strives to be contemporary but Conte’s character with his ‘little black book’ seems full of contradictions. He’s man in his forties who acts like someone much younger and I felt that his actions in the final third of the narrative don’t serve the intriguing situation that had been set up earlier.

Norah with Casey (Richard Conte)

It seems that Lang had only 20 days in which to shoot The Blue Gardenia – roughly the time available for most B pictures. The script and casting are for an A picture and Lang did very well to produce what he did in such a short time. The speed of the shoot must also have put pressure on Musuraca. As it is there are some impressive night-time scenes, complete with heavy rain and fog, and a drunken haze scene which perhaps evokes films noirs from the 1940s. Otherwise the camerawork is efficient and functional on a first viewing. The Blue Gardenia now has a much higher reputation than it had at the time. I’m not sure about its status as a ‘forgotten’ or ‘unheralded’ noir, but aspects of the film are very good indeed, particularly Anne Baxter’s performance and I would like to have seen the ‘three women in the apartment’ angle developed more. I just wonder what Lang might have achieved with more time to work on the script and more time to shoot.