June 18, 2011

Evil in a Sequined Evening Gown

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

First, let's talk about truth in advertising. The title sure makes this film sound like a sequel, and an interesting one at that-- who is this mysterious Spider Woman? Who is she striking back at, and why? Any amateur IMDb sleuth would quickly discover that The Spider Woman played by Gale Sondergaard tangled with Universal's Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) just a couple years before, but to paraphrase the great detective, "it's not so elementary my dear Watson."

Truth is, Universal had planned to cash in on the earlier film's reputation with a whole series to be helmed by Ford Beebe and featuring the deliciously evil character.  But studio politics and/or financial concerns scuttled the project, with the exception of Strikes Back. Universal obviously wanted to recoup some of the money they'd sunk into the ostensible sequel, but delayed shooting for several months while they scaled it back. 

Further evidence of the studio's lack of faith in the film can be seen in the IMDb entry, where half the credited cast are noted as having "scenes deleted." It seems to have been downsized both before and after cameras started rolling. It's a wonder it survived at all-- the end product clocks in at 59 minutes, short by even B programmer standards. What the poor misled moviegoers did get for their hard-earned money was a spider woman of sorts played by the same great Sondergaard, but Holmes and Watson were nowhere in sight.

In spite of the faux Sherlock Holmes association thrust on it, The Spider Woman Strikes Back is a decent, if low rent, horror-thriller programmer with one rich, ripe performance (Sondergaard), a plucky heroine-in-peril (Brenda Joyce), and "Brute Man" Rondo Hatton skulking around for good measure. Given the studio's careless handling, Strikes Back has its flaws-- it drags in places (even in a 59 minute running time!), and there are more than a few continuity lapses and plot holes due to the hack edit job. But it has a couple of scenes of jaw-dropping, gothic campiness that make for a very good time if you're in the mood.

It all begins with chic Jean Kingsley (Joyce), arriving by bus in the small rural community of Domingo. It seems she's come to town to be a companion/assistant to wealthy recluse Zenobia Dollard (Sondergaard), a botanist who lost her sight in the jungles of Central America. Inexplicably dressed in an expensive fur coat (later we find out she quit her merchandising job for more peace and quiet), she discovers that she's missed the last taxi for the evening. By coincidence, she runs into ex-boyfriend and rancher Hal Wentley (Kirby Grant), who is more than happy to drive her out to Zenobia's. Jean is grateful, but a little peeved-- she obviously doesn't have room for old beaus in her new life.

Jean wonders what she's gotten herself into.
As they drive up to the house, Jean remarks on how dark and quiet it is. Hal reminds her that Zenobia is blind, so she doesn't need the light. Jean gets a second bad feeling when they're greeted at the door by Zenobia's mute, dour, and world-class ugly manservant Mario (Hatton). The doubts seem to be dispelled, however, when the mistress of the house greets Jean in the parlor. Even though she tells Jean she wasn't expecting her until morning, nonetheless Zenobia is dressed in an elegant, formal evening gown. "I do hope you like me and will be happy here Miss Kingsley," she says, smiling sweetly. When Jean declines her offer of dinner, Zenobia insists that she at least drink a glass of milk. Zenobia is a very firm believer in a glass of milk before bed -- a little too firm -- but Jean brushes off the eccentricity and dutifully drinks it.

It turns out that in this house, milk before bedtime is not such a good idea. At first, Jean is captivated by the elegant, worldly woman with her stories of adventure and exploration in the wilds of Central America. And as she interacts more with the locals, everyone she talks to (including rancher Hal) have only the nicest things to say about her kindness and generosity. But gradually, Jean's suspicions build again. For all her kindness, Zenobia seems to have had bad luck in keeping companions for very long. A letter for Jean's predecessor, who was supposed to have quit to get married, comes to the house. Jean writes back to the forwarding address, but that letter is returned. And in spite of all those wholesome glasses of milk before bed, she finds herself lethargic and unable to get up at a decent hour-- something that's never happened to her before. It doesn't help that she hears strange tapping sounds coming from behind the wall of her walk-in closet, or that every time she turns around in a long, dark hall, the frightful Mario seems to be following her.

Adding to the intrigue, she hears gossip at the local dry goods store / post office about the terrible luck that the local ranchers are having. Cattle are mysteriously dying, and a local boy is sick from drinking suspect milk. The problem is so bad that many cattlemen are packing up and leaving for greener pastures. Rancher Hal thinks the cows are eating some kind of poison weed new to the area, and calls in an agriculture agent (Milburn Stone) to help investigate.

"You're going to die Jean, just like the others..."
Meanwhile, back at the old dark house, Jean gets a shock when she quietly observes Zenobia concentrating on collecting spiders from the leaves of a plant, and realizes that her employer is not blind after all. Mario, seeing everything, tries to warn his mistress in sign language that she's been spotted. Jean faints (or pretends to faint), and the unflappable Zenobia feigns concern and fusses over Jean as she comes to. Jean's eyes are now wide open concerning her duplicitous employer. She soon learns that night after night, as she's lain in bed drugged, Zenobia has been draining her blood to feed to her prize carnivorous plant. The plant in turn supplies Zenobia with deadly blossoms that she's using to secretly poison the local cattle and drive the ranchers off the land once owned by her family.

More truth in advertising: moviegoers who expected to see large, venomous tarantulas crawling around, killing unfortunate victims in their sleep were no doubt disappointed. The "Spider Woman" here is more of a "Carnivorous Plant Woman," who needs spiders and human blood to keep her strange, precious pet happy. But when you're famous for being the Spider Woman, you go with it. Gale Sondergaard went with these exotic, villainous roles more than she cared to. Years later she told an interviewer:
They thought they would do a series starring me as the Spider Woman and it had nothing to do with the other one. Well, I almost had hysterics at one time out of just hating it so, I remember. It came out, and people still talk about it, think it's great. And I'm all right… I've seen it, and it isn't anything to be ashamed of, but I didn't like it when I did it. (Quoted in Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd ed., Weaver, et al.)
Dahling, you look absolutely mahvelous!
Having won the very first best supporting actress Oscar for her debut performance in Anthony Adverse (1936), I suppose she can be forgiven the frustration she felt at the kinds of cartoonish roles she was getting ten years later. However, around the same time as The Spider Woman Strikes Back, she sufficiently impressed Hollywood and audiences with a supporting role in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) that she was nominated again (she lost to The Razor Edge's Anne Baxter).

Rondo Hatton (Mario the mute manservant) is a tragic story. Deciding to pursue a military career as a young man, he ended up in the trenches in France in World War I and was exposed to poison gas. Pensioned, but still needing to remain active, he became a reporter for a Tampa, Florida newspaper. During that time he developed the rare syndrome acromegaly, which causes deformation of bones, swelling of the soft tissues of the head, hands, and feet, and swelling of internal organs. (While acromegaly is a disorder of the pituitary gland, speculation was rampant that the poison gas was ultimately responsible for Hatton's condition.) Hatton, covering the shooting of a movie in the Tampa area, was noticed by director Henry King, and ended up being lured out to Hollywood in 1936.

He secured a contract with Universal, and earned notoriety for portraying a succession of bogeymen in cheap thrillers. Like Sondergaard, he has a Sherlock Holmes connection-- perhaps his best known role is that of "The Creeper" in Universal's 1944 Holmes entry The Pearl of Death. Hatton died of a heart condition brought on by the acromegaly a month or so before The Spider Woman Strikes Back was released. (Another story related in Universal Horrors is that during filming of Strikes Back, Sondergaard thought Hatton's looks were the product of the studio's make-up department!)

Strikes Back is worth seeking out if only for Sondergaard's deliciously evil hamming. Who can resist The Spider Woman, decked out in a slinky black evening gown, her eyebrows arched, declaring triumphantly to the cowering heroine: "You'll die Jean, just like the others. But it won't be really dying… you'll live on in this beautiful plant!…"?

The Spider Woman Strikes Back is available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema (the print from 16mm is watchable, but degraded in spots).

Wealthy recluse Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard) and her mute manservant Mario (Rondo Hatton) feed the "beautiful creatures" in her basement laboratory:

June 9, 2011

Dark Moon Over Miami

The Chase (1946)

A veteran comes home from a long war to a supposedly grateful nation, but instead of finding a job and a caring community, he finds himself staring longingly through the window of a diner in a cold, impersonal city, unable to afford even the cost of a good breakfast. It's an old story, and unfortunately, a very current one as well. Lost in all the heroic tales of the "good" war -- World War II -- is the fact that countless veterans struggled to find jobs in an economy that wasn't ready for them, and bore physical and psychological scars that remained with them the rest of their lives. During the war years and the following period of angst and malaise, a new kind of crime drama emerged. Heroes were replaced by anti-heroes, deduction replaced by seduction, and the world in which these dramas played out was dark, unforgiving, and festering with corruption.

The Chase's opening scene finds luckless Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) walking the grimy streets of Miami, wondering where his next meal is coming from. As he dejectedly turns away from the diner window, he stumbles into a seemingly lucky break in the form of a wallet lying on the sidewalk. After helping himself to a hearty breakfast from the wad of cash, he decides to do the right thing and return the wallet. In typical noir fashion, this small, honorable act propels him into a seething world of sociopathic gangsters, illicit love, murderous jealousy, and danger.

Chuck traces the owner's address to an ornate, gleaming white mansion in a swanky part of town. Sporting a cheap, dirty suit and a heavy five o'clock shadow, Chuck is a bit uneasy as he rings the bell. In a neat little visual twist, the grinning head of a winged cherub on the door swings up and is replaced by a an eye staring out of a peephole and a gruff voice asking "what do you want?"  The door opens and Chuck is confronted by a life-sized, sneering "cherub" in the form of assistant Gino (Peter Lorre), an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Gino plays it cagey, refusing to introduce himself. "What have you got?" he languidly asks Chuck. "You're not Mister Roman," Chuck counters. "How do you know?" "You just don't fit," Chuck says, a little of his confidence returning.

Chuck knows he's not in Kansas anymore as he cools his heels in an opulent waiting room with huge chandeliers and classical statuary. Two women emerge from an adjoining room-- one is crying and the other is consoling her companion. This is a big clue that Chuck needs to turn tail and run, but then, film-noir protagonists tend to be stubborn, unlucky, and not always the sharpest pencils in the box. Gino introduces Chuck to the master of the house (and apparently master of lucrative schemes) Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). Eddie is obviously very well off, dressed in an expensive double-breasted suit and hat, with a carefully folded handkerchief in his breast pocket. He's busy with a phone call as Chuck hands him the wallet. The ensuing conversation is a second big clue that Chuck should turn and walk away:
Eddie: Where did you find it?
Chuck: I don't remember the name of the street… it was in front of a restaurant…
Eddie (warily): How much was in it?
Chuck (sheepishly): 81 dollars. I spent a dollar and a half for breakfast… there's 79.50 there now.
Eddie (pausing, not quite believing what he's hearing): How do you like that… an honest guy!
Gino: I don't! Silly law-abiding jerk!
Eddie: How do you like that? He comes all the way out here just because he found it! … You know, you ought to get a medal… Gino, go buy him a medal.
Chuck (perturbed): Thanks, I've got a medal.
The ultimate set-up for the backseat driver.
Apparently Eddie's contempt for honest men doesn't extend to veterans, and in a weak moment he offers Chuck a job as his chauffeur. Circumstances being what they are, Chuck has little choice but to accept the offer. However, the seemingly innocuous job very quickly puts him in deadly danger. The dapper pillar of Miami society decides to test Chuck his first time out. Eddie's car has been rigged with a second accelerator and brake on the floor of the back seat. With a cruel smirk, he overrides Chuck's controls and slowly presses the back-seat accelerator to the floor. As the car speeds up seemingly by itself, an alarmed Chuck reports to his boss that there seems to be something wrong, only to be reassured by a very calm Eddie: "Relax, I take care of all of that back here… just keep your hands on the wheel." Eddie is apparently both a control freak and an adrenaline junkie. The car is speeding at 100 miles an hour toward a train, as Gino pleads with his boss, "But you don't know how he drives!" Eddie brakes just in time, allowing Chuck to swerve to avoid hitting the speeding train.

This is only a small taste of the dangers that lie ahead for Chuck. Like many noir chumps, he falls for an alluring dame, only this dame is the boss' wife! Ouch! One moment he's driving the sad, beautiful Lorna Roman (Michele Morgan) to the beach to stare vacantly and longingly at the crashing waves, and the next he's fleeing to Havana (pre-Castro Cuba) on a tramp steamer with her. And the next, he's being framed for her murder, desperately explaining to the Cuban police inspector that the knife that killed her only looks like the one he purchased in an out-of-the-way curio shop.

The Chase is based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, The Black Path of Fear (Doubleday, 1944). Woolrich was an odd duck-- a near-recluse who lived most of his life with his mother and rarely ventured outside of New York City. Yet this sheltered man wrote dozens of dark, wildly imaginative novels and short stories that helped launch the film-noir wave of the '40s and '50s. Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) is the best-known Woolrich adaptation (originally published as "It Had to be Murder"). An IMDb search on Woolrich's name demonstrates his extraordinary influence-- nearly 160 films and TV shows based on his work. In his essay "Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich," David Schmid cites Woolrich as one of the signal founders of the genre:
Although his work is not as widely read as that of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich almost single-handedly invented the noir genre--creating a dark, psychologically menacing world--and producing some of the greatest works of pure suspense fiction ever written. … Woolrich's heroes [are] victimized and damaged by forces of evil that are often abstract, nameless, and all-powerful. Woolrich's plots and techniques reflect a worldview far more bleak and pessimistic than that of most other hard-boiled writers, and his ability to evoke the dilemmas of those unfortunates caught in his world is his most signal contribution to the genre. ("American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 226. Gale, 2000.)
Lorna wonders if she can ever truly escape
from her psychopathic husband.
The Chase takes some liberties with the source material. The book starts off with Mrs. Roman's murder (Eve in the book), while the film leisurely works up to it, immersing the viewer in the pathos and near-hopelessness of the illicit love affair before setting the chase and the murder in motion. Lorna is a beautiful, ethereal vision in her expensive evening dress and long, flowing hair, yet living for three years with a sociopath has left her cold and bloodless, almost zombie-like. Her only joy is to stand on the shore, watching the crashing waves and wondering what it's like beyond. "What's out there, straight ahead?" she asks Chuck, the new chauffeur.
Chuck: "Havana I think."
Lorna: "Have you ever been there?"
Chuck: "Yes, I was a long time ago."
Lorna: "What was it like?"
Chuck: "Oh, for me it was cheap hotels, cheap restaurants, cheap friends… all places are alike when you're broke you know."
The next thing you know, she's offering him $1000 to take her there-- and their fate together seems to be sealed. Having almost immediately fallen in love with her, Chuck begs off the financial part of the deal. They flee to Havana, but realize it can only be a brief way station. They plan to go to South America to get as far away as possible from the implacable Eddie. Stranded in the heart of the chaotic city with little time left before their ship sails, she asks Chuck, "How much time do we have left?", and it's not quite clear if she means how much time before the boat leaves, or how much time before her psycho husband catches up with them.

The Chase employs a very different narrative structure, and springs a plot "cheat" about two thirds of the way through that is risky for a B movie aimed at a fairly broad audience. It ultimately wraps things up a little too neatly for film-noir, especially for something based on Cornell Woolrich's dark, pessimistic visions. Still, it rewards the open-minded viewer with fascinating characters, biting, hard-boiled dialog, and haunting imagery.

Eddie (Cochran) and Gino (Lorre) make a deliciously evil pair. They act like a couple who've been together just a little too long-- mercurial Eddie alternates between bored and disinterested one minute and homicidal the next, while dour Gino grumbles and second-guesses his boss at every opportunity. A scene in which the black-hearted pair, nattily attired in white dinner jackets, have some cruel fun at the expense of a clueless business rival is priceless (see the clip below). Steve and Peter specialized in meaty, villainous roles, and their combined film-noir resume includes some of the great classics: Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, Lorre), The Maltese Falcon (1941, Lorre), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944, Lorre), White Heat (1949, Cochran), and The Damned Don't Cry (1950, Cochran).

Doomed love in the shadows.
Michele Morgan / Lorna Roman is achingly beautiful, and almost unreal-- like a too-perfect robot. Three years of marriage to a manipulative, controlling psychopath has practically drained her of any emotion. We don't often see characters this beautiful and this pitiable. Cinematographer Franz Planer saves his best stuff for Lorna: standing silhouetted on the shore, longingly staring at the waves; looking apprehensively out of the porthole of the Havana-bound ship, shadows creeping up and down the side; embracing Chuck in a hansom cab, her face glowing in soft, white light, his obscured in deep shadow.

Cummings, better known for light comedy and the folksy The Bob Cummings Show of the late '50s - early '60s, is nonetheless effective as the down-on-his luck everyman thrust by fate into the arms of a sad, angelic beauty. His everyman image also appealed to Alfred Hitchcock, who featured him in two of his better mystery-thrillers, Saboteur (1942) and Dial M for Murder (1954).

With the economy still sputtering and more and more politicians, business executives and entertainers acting like Eddie and Gino, it seems like we're all living in a noir world. But while the Eddies and Ginos of the world may be bat-sh*t crazy, they also make for great entertainment. So don't despair-- sit back and enjoy the show!

The Chase is available online at the Internet Archive, and on DVD from Alpha Video.

Crime boss Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) and henchman Gino (Peter Lorre) practice their own special art of persuasion on a rival businessman: