I remember reading about Phil Karlson back in the early 1970s when some of his 1950s films were re-released on 16mm and he was written about in Monthly Film Bulletin. Kansas City Confidential was one of the titles that lodged in my brain but I don’t think I saw it in the 1970s. The film was released as The Secret Four in the UK in 1953. That title does refer to the plot but makes it sound like an Enid Blyton children’s story. ‘Kansas City Confidential‘ as a title is explained in the poster above (and in the opening credit sequence) as a police story that the authorities didn’t want to be told. This is a tough crime film related to 1950s film noir. It has a deserved reputation as a film with an intriguing plot that was referenced by more than one later film and perhaps most famously by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Karlson began as an assistant director in the early 1930s and progressed to directing in 1944, proving to be an efficient director of B films. By the early 1950s as the B units of the majors were winding down he was working for independent producers. In this instance it was Edward Small and the film was released through United Artists. Small may have been a low budget producer but this is not a B picture, running at 99 minutes and looking very good in HD on MUBI in the UK. The film has an interesting script by George Bruce and Harry Essex based on a story by Harold Greene and Rowland Browne. It has a strong cast and excellent photography by George Diskant, best known perhaps for his work at RKO, especially on Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951). His work on Kansas City Confidential features close-ups of the leading characters and emphasises the tension in an unusual story.
There are three of cinema’s natural ‘heavies’ here, played by Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef. They are recruited for an armoured car robbery by a ‘Mr Big’ who recruits them individually and forces them to wear a felt mask so that they will not know each other after the robbery. The haul is over $1 million and the three are sent to different locations to await instructions about meeting up and dividing the spoils. The planning for the robbery implicates an innocent man, ‘Joe Rolfe’ played by John Payne, the tob-billed actor in the cast. Is this deliberate or accidental? Either way he isn’t going to be happy and we know he will find a way to track down the others.
Most of the narrative focuses on the aftermath of the robbery and takes place in Mexico where the four robbers and are intended to meet at a fishing resort and Mr Big will divide the spoils. A fifth character is introduced in the form of a youngish woman played by Coleen Gray who inevitably becomes interested in Joe. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. Needless to say it all ends badly after a ‘reveal’.
My initial reaction to this film was simply how good it looked. This is a film which somehow did not have its intellectual property rights renewed and fell into the Public Domain in the US, meaning that anyone could circulate poorly copied prints. This HD print is a revelation. I was reminded of a host of American crime films from the 1940s to 1960s. The Mexican setting (actually filmed in California) made me think of Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), both seen as films noirs. It doesn’t have the romanticism of Out of the Past but instead it has the hardness and brutality of the 1950s films like The Big Combo (1955). In fact, the brutality is picked out by several commentators. Joe in particular is subjected to several beatings and he also delivers his own. Jack Elam, in particular suffers badly. These beatings are ones in which the victims seem to recover remarkably quickly – that’s possibly a reason why, for a modern audience they seem more shocking, as if the kicks and punches are of no consequence. Joe is an interesting character, well played by the experienced Payne, who has a back-story that is hinted at but not filled in with any detail. This seems like another difference compared to the late 1940s noirs in which the war is only a few years past and there might be some kind of explanation for why some men behave as they do. I did also think about Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1956), a film which shares some narrative elements with Kansas City Confidential and was also overlooked at the time perhaps but has since been appreciated. Tourneur and Karlson had similar early careers and made a broad range of films, Tourneur was given his chance by Val Lewton in the RKO B-unit and from then on got more interesting jobs (including Out of the Past) but in the 1950s found himself again being badly treated by the studios. I don’t know enough about Karlson to make a proper comparison but he seems to have remained within the world of low budget genre pictures.
Kansas City Confidential isn’t perfect. The low budget shows in places. I noticed several continuity errors that perhaps should have been re-shot – a gun is placed in a holster under a jacket on the right but in a fight is drawn from under the jacket on the left and so on. The plot is cleverly thought through but still has a few holes, I think. Nevertheless, I think this film deserves its high rating on IMDb and I’ll certainly take any other opportunities to see films by Phil Karlson.
This is the final film in the trilogy about ‘losers’ from Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki following Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002). In some ways it might be the darkest of the three, especially if you find ‘miserable’ characters hard to follow. On the other hand, this is perhaps the ‘purest’ downbeat character you are likely to meet. Another way to think of the trilogy is as narratives successively about joblessness, homelessness and here loneliness. Seppo Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) barely raises a smile and takes every disaster that befalls him on the chin. He doesn’t betray anyone (when perhaps, for the good of the society, he should) and he retains an iron determination to ‘make it’ eventually. Buster Keaton’s screen persona comes to mind – which isn’t so surprising in the world of Kaurismäki narratives. But in the Press Notes Kaurismäki refers to a ‘Chaplinesque’ character.
Koistinen (as most people call him, if they can remember his name at all) lives in a bare apartment close to the liminal space that is the Helsinki docklands. He works nights as a security guard for a company covering a major shopping mall. On his way home he stops at a late night food stall close to the water where he passes a few words with the woman who runs it. He has no friends and his work ‘colleagues’ ignore him. Occasionally he buys a vodka or a coffee in a bar and drinks it alone. But he has been spotted by a gangster who sends his ‘moll’ Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) to seduce Koistinen and to use him to get the necessary information to enable a robbery. The gangster knows that it will be possible to frame Koistinen for the robbery and that he won’t tell the police about the girl and will accept his own guilt. All this comes to pass and the unrelenting awfulness is only relieved by a small attempted good deed which Koistinen carries out – and which of course backfires on him. This deed will not, however, be ignored and will save him in the end. In Kaurismäki’s films (or at least in the ones I’ve seen), there are still pockets of human feeling whatever the attempts of late capitalism to destroy them all. Kaurismäki refers to himself in this way:
Luckily for him, the film’s author has a reputation as a kindhearted old man, so hopefully a spark of hope will light up the final scene.
Kaurismäki’s films have found audiences around the world and generated critical acclaim, not because of the events they portray or even the ideas they explore (though both are important in his other films). Instead it is the style and the overall ‘feel’ of the presentation that is important and what this conveys is a dry wit and a deep humanism. Sometimes this can evoke humour from the absurdist situations which confront the protagonist – in this trilogy the ‘loser’ character. I must confess that in this particular film I experienced fewer comic moments but I still found the narrative oddly gripping. Kaurismäki usually has a working-class male as his lead and the female characters are supporting roles, even if sometimes the drivers of the narratives. In this film there are the two women, one leading Koistinen astray, the other trying to save him.
The film is as usual quite short for a feature at 78 minutes and I wanted to know more about both women. Partly, the mystery of the women is buried in the generic elements of the narrative. This is Kaurismäki’s film noir and I kept thinking of the central character in terms of an Elisha Cook figure – the poor sap who wouldn’t make it to the end of the story. But much more likely, this is Kaurismäki in a French study, part poetic realism from the 1930s and part Jean-Pierre Melville. These references emerge much more strongly in the director’s next film Le Havre. Here Koistinen might be a role for Jean Gabin, albeit stripped of his energy. I guess that in Janne Hyytiäinen there is also something of Melville’s Alain Delon, but again stripped of vitality.
Music is always essential in Kaurismäki’s films and this film has a particularly strong soundtrack including two songs by Carlos Gardel. Born in France but taken to Argentina as an infant he was one of the most important ‘tango singers’ whose career had a tragic and almost rock ‘n roll ending when he was killed in a plane crash at the height of his powers in 1935. Kaurismäki is obviously taken by tango and I’ve realised that it fits his frequent dockside location being developed in the dockside bars of Argentina and Uruguay. There are also three songs by the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960), all from Puccini’s operas. One is from The Girl of the Golden West and the others from Tosca and Manon Lescaut. The French singer Fred Gouin contributes a 1928 song ‘Les temps des cerises’, possibly also a Japanese reference to ‘cherry blossom time’? (Kaurismäki has a real passion for Japanese culture.) The remainder of the soundtrack offers a selection of later Finnish recordings. I wish I knew more about music – surely someone has studied Kaurismäki’s choices? He includes elements of Finnish culture in his films but often in quite subtle ways. In this film we get to see a prison and I’m always struck by how much more civilised (and effective) prisons seem to be in Nordic countries compared to the US, UK or France.
Out of the four most recent Kaurismäki films this is perhaps the most ‘contained’ story. It does fit into a development of an overall narrative, however. Janne Hyytiäinen appeared at the end of The Man Without a Past and the young Black boy who appears in this film (with the dog – there is a dog in all four recent films) points towards what will happen in Le Havre. I think I’m ready now to work back through some of Kaurismäki’s films in the 1990s.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.