January 5, 2013

Net-accessible Noirs for the New Year

Some time ago on this blog I took media content providers and deliverers to task for their all too frequent (and way too public) spats over licensing terms and fees, and how this unending public feuding was ultimately doing a disservice to their customers. Since then, the media licensing wars seem only to have escalated, as the fighting has broken out into new territories, using new means for bashing each other. Just the other day I was mucking around on Facebook and noticed an ad for a page warning the subscribers of some Big Cable company that they'd be losing access to all of FX's great programming soon unless something drastic was done. So not only do we ever-suffering media consumers get to constantly see banners on our favorite channels warning of some coming blackout due to the inability of corporate suits to come to terms, we get to see the fights in all their glory even when we retreat to our favorite social media hangouts. It's not enough that these obese corporations fight tooth and nail for every last crumb, but they have to drag their innocent customers into their ridiculous food fights.

The wars between the Big Media Corporations make Braveheart's battles look like child's play
Braveheart looks on with amazement as the Big Media
Corporations ferociously do battle with one another.
Whenever I see a channel banner or Facebook ad urging me to contact my [fill in the blank] provider and demand that they cave in so as to save my cherished programs, I get this picture in my head of an overweight, balding lawyer in an Armani suit, on horseback, his face painted like Braveheart's, riding furiously up and down the assembled ranks of desperate, hungry, media-addicted consumers, crying for them to attack that other fat, evil guy over there in the tailored suit and the stupid war paint. I also imagine the dirty, emaciated consumers with their pitchforks and torches standing there looking at each other, shrugging their shoulders and thinking, "who are these stupid a**holes?" I for one am tempted to throw down my pitchfork, desert the field of battle, cancel my satellite subscription, and go find a good book to read. (Sounds like a New Year's resolution…)

Of course, all the fighting and chaos is really the beginning death knell of the venerable broadcast model that served us so well (?) throughout the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Older, unimaginative corporate suits are trying to figure out how to generate dependable revenue streams out of the not-unreasonable expectations of teens and twenty-somethings to be able to access the content they want, when they want, wherever they want (and especially on their smartphones, tablets and in the near future, the virtual displays available through their special glasses and contact lenses). Coming soon to a future near you, more of the same, only more convenient for the on-the-go individual. Companies that only a couple years ago seemed so innovative and invincible (Apple, Netflix) will stumble and fall, new companies will rise up, arrogant young hipsters will kick the old men out of their corner offices (as they've always done), and we'll have a ubiquitous cloud-based anytime, anywhere media environment. Like the present, some of it will be pay-per-use, a portion will be subscription-based, and a huge chunk will be supported by ads. Schedules will be a thing of the past, to be replaced by instant notifications of new content available in the great cumulated-nimble-cumulonimbus network cloud covering the entire planet. And fuggedabout popping those fragile, shiny discs into players-- just stream it through your integrated display glasses and listen in on the micro-speakers embedded in your ear canal.

Will this brave new media future lead to even less real-time-and-place, face-to-face human interaction, and more solitary addiction to tiny screens? Probably. I'm tempted to condemn this in an old fart kind of way, but then, as someone who's been addicted to screens (especially TV and movie screens) all his life, I'm maybe not the best person to be telling others how to spend their time. In the meantime, I'll be puttering along, attending the occasional movie at the multiplex, DVRing movies and TV shows, streaming here and there from some online sources, downloading from others, and yes, every now and then popping a shiny disc into an ancient DVD player (for that obscure, old-time content that hasn't been made it into the cloud yet… and may never make it).

In spite of all the big media turmoil, it's not a bad time to be a fan of old movies. There are more options than ever for delving into the old stuff, and a lot of fairly obscure titles are surprisingly making it into some big time commercial streaming services. Take Netflix for example. Much has been written on Netflix' difficulties with content providers, and how much their instant view selection has suffered for it. At the time of this post, the service had amassed almost 50,000 titles in their instant watch catalog, but most of these are older titles -- the low-hanging, cheaply licensed or public domain fruit, so to speak -- and not the recent hit movies that most subscribers are looking to stream (don't throw out that DVD player quite yet-- the DVD by mail catalog is still over twice as large).

Still, one person's junk is another's treasure, and fortunately for B movie fans like me, Netflix' instant watch catalog is replete with low-budget, black and white gems. I discovered this by accident about a year and half ago, when I finally broke down and bought a network-capable Blu-ray player to stream movies on the TV. One of the first titles I streamed was Richard Attenborough's 10 Rillington Place (1971; about a notorious English mass murderer), which at the time was only available on Instant Watch (and subsequently has been yanked from Netflix altogether). Then I stumbled on an obscure horror title from Republic Studios, The Vampire's Ghost (1945) that I had written up earlier on this blog, and thought was only available from one source on DVD-R. I started searching for other B movie titles, found a lot of Instant-only selections, built up a queue, and the rest, as they say, is history. (I have no illusions that these particular titles will keep Netflix thriving and profitable, but I'll continue to enjoy them for as long as Netflix is willing to stream 'em.)

The cold, dark winter months usually put me in the mood for dark, atmospheric movies, so predictably, I spent a good deal of time over holidays watching supernatural horror, thrillers, and film noir.  Below are three lesser-known film noirs that I enjoyed over the break, and that illustrate the rough gems that noir buffs can dig up from the Netflix Instant Watch database. (All three are also available on Amazon Instant Video.)

Poster for Sleep, My Love (1948)
Now Playing: Sleep, My Love (1948)

Pros: Great cast; Odd plot and character details give the film an almost dream-like quality
Con: Hoary "Gaslight" plot is telegraphed early on

In Brief: Wealthy New York socialite Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes up on a train bound for Boston, not remembering how she got there. A fellow passenger trying to help her discovers a gun in her purse. Back in New York, her husband Richard is talking to a police inspector (Raymond Burr) about his missing wife and a gunshot wound in his arm, which he claims was self-inflicted while cleaning his gun. Once in Boston, Alison calls Richard, who arranges for the Boston police to escort her to the airport for a flight back to NYC. At the airport, Alison bumps into an old Boston friend, Barby (Rita Johnson), who's seeing her friend Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings) off on the same plane. Bruce offers to accompany the distressed Alison back to New York.

Bruce takes an immediate shine to Alison, asking her out on a date before he realizes she's married. Once back at her palatial townhouse (part of her family's estate), Alison learns from her hubby that she had been sleepwalking in the middle of the night, and when he'd tried to get her back to bed, she shot him. Horrified that she might have killed him, she reluctantly agrees to see a psychiatrist. The doctor, a creepy-looking man with thick horn-rimmed glasses, makes a house call. Alison becomes alarmed when he makes vaguely menacing advances on her, then asks to use the telephone to call her husband with dire news about her mental health. When he abruptly disappears, she faints. When Richard arrives home, he denies that he sent anyone to the house, or received a phone call from the doctor. Alison can't get anyone to believe her story about the weird man.

As Richard keeps insisting that his wife needs help for her sleepwalking and hallucinations, and Alison insists that's she's not going crazy, Bruce, who's still attracted to Alison despite her married status, starts to get suspicious.

Key Player #1: Oscar winner Claudette Colbert was in her mid '40s when this film was made, and her movie career was winding down. Even so, she gives it her all in her new role of "scream queen" -- and she belts out a good one at the beginning of the movie, when she wakes up disoriented and frightened on a speeding train. She made another very underrated film noir a couple of years later, The Secret Fury (1950), wherein a stranger interrupts her wedding ceremony to declare that she's already married. As she tries to clear up the misunderstanding, the other supposed husband dies mysteriously, and she's accused of the crime.

Key Player #2: Husky-voiced, sultry Hazel Brooks makes quite an entrance as Daphne, a femme-fatale who has gotten her hooks into Alison's husband. She saunters down the stairs in the sheerest of nightgowns, and then proceeds to berate hapless, near-sighted Charles Vernay (George Coulouris), sneeringly calling him "four eyes." She has the best line in the movie: "I want what she's got, I want it all: I want her house, her name, her man, and I want them now, tonight."  Brooks made a handful of movies in the '40s and early '50s, and then abruptly retired to become a successful photographer (earlier she had been on the other side of the still camera as a highly successful model).

Poster for The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me, 1950)
Now Playing: The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me, 1950)

Pros: Gritty, well-acted drama with a social message; Frank Lovejoy is particularly good as the down-on-his luck everyman who comes to deeply regret his association with a sociopath played by Lloyd Bridges
Cons: The social message becomes a bit too heavy-handed at times; Richard Carlson's newspaper columnist sees the error of his ways a little too quickly and conveniently

In Brief: Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) has moved out to California with his young pregnant wife and little boy to try to find work. His job search is going nowhere when he runs into Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a flashy braggart who wears expensive suits, knows how to talk up the ladies, and always seems to have huge rolls of cash on him. Jerry takes pity on the shy, down-on-his luck Howard, promising him a job which turns out to be driving Jerry around to knock off liquor stores and gas stations. Howard hesitates, but with the pressure of a baby on the way and no money, he relents. Howard is disturbed when Jerry pistol whips a gas station attendant, and wants out. Jerry browbeats him, then lures him with the promise of one more big job that will put them both on easy street.

Howard, basically a good man, comes to find out to his everlasting regret that slick Jerry is a homicidal sociopath. Meanwhile, well-known columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson), has been convinced by his editor to write sensationalistic, scaremongering stories about the crime wave hitting the sleepy California town. When he starts writing about the horrific consequences of Jerry and Howard's big job, he sets in motion scary forces that no one can control.

Key Player #1: Square-faced, everyman-looking Frank Lovejoy played in a variety of gritty crime and war pictures in the early-mid '50s before being swept up by TV. Other quality film noir roles include In a Lonely Place (1950) with Humphrey Bogart, I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), and Ida Lupino's creepy The Hitch-Hiker (1953). He died way too soon of a heart attack in 1962.

Key Player #2: Katherine Locke turns in a great, understated performance as a lonely manicurist, Hazel, who Jerry introduces to Howard in order to set up an alibi. The interaction between Howard, wracked with guilt, and Hazel, quietly desperate for a good man to share her life with, is one of the best parts of the movie. Katherine gained some fame on Broadway in the '30s before making a handful of movies in the following two decades.

Now Playing: Private Hell 36 (1954)

Pros: Good acting turns by Howard Duff, Steve Cochran and Ida Lupino
Cons: Certain plot elements, like a multi-day stakeout of a racetrack based on the slimmest of clues, strain credulity

In Brief: Tough-guy detectives Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) and Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) are assigned to investigate money from a robbery-homicide in New York suddenly showing up in LA. They trace a $50 dollar bill from the job to an attractive nightclub singer, Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), who received it as a tip. Lilli tells the cops that the big-tipper talked about having a good day at the horse races, so Farnham and Bruner take Lilli to the track to see if she can spot the guy. Bruner falls for Lilli, but starts to realize that his cop's salary is not going to cut it with the ambitious singer.

After days of staking out the track, Lilli finally spots the guy, and Farnham and Bruner give chase. The robbery suspect wrecks his car and dies. As the detectives check on the driver, they see bills flying in the wind, and discover a suitcase full of cash that was ejected from the car. Bruner starts stuffing his coat pockets with the money, while Farnham looks on, speechless. Bruner convinces Farnham against his better judgment that the higher-ups will just assume the robbers spent the money earlier. Bruner arranges to stash the marked money in a trailer he has access to at a remote trailer park (lot 36), to sell on the black market later. While Bruner dreams of running down to Mexico with Lilli, guilt starts to consume his partner. Soon, Chief of Detectives Captain Michaels (Dean Jagger) starts to suspect something's up. To top it off, a blackmailer (a partner in the heist?) with knowledge of the missing dough threatens Bruner. The two tough cops are in deep trouble.

Key player #1: Ida Lupino co-wrote the screenplay in addition to acting in the film. By this time in her career, she had started moving over to the production side as the glamorous roles waned. Between 1949 and 1953 she directed several hard-hitting dramas and film noirs, including Outrage (1950), Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), and The Bigamist (1953). She then directed a wide variety of TV programs into the late 1960s.

Key player #2: Steve Cochran is one of the original bad boys of crime drama and film noir, specializing in slick gangster and tough guy roles (and in this case, a corrupt cop). Cochran appeared in some of the better noirs of the '40s and '50s, including The Chase (1946; see my write-up here), White Heat (1949) with Jimmy Cagney, and The Damned Don't Cry (1950) with Joan Crawford. His off-camera life was almost as exciting and dangerous as his on-screen exploits, as he was constantly cropping up in the news for various assault and battery, reckless driving, and adultery charges. His death was equally bizarre-- he died of an acute lung infection while captaining a yacht with an all-female crew from Acapulco to Costa Rica in 1965. The women had been adrift for 3 days with his body before the boat was towed into a Guatemalan port. (For more on Cochran's incredible life and career, see Karen Burroughs Hannsberry's Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, McFarland, 2008 [2003].)


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  2. Not the biggest fan of Sleep My Love, but I loathe Robert Cummings in general. I did like what you said about content provider wars, as the whole landscape is becoming a large never ending pissing contest. This is fine since it eventually means I'll be getting a lot of cool, obscure stuff for cheap.

    I'm enjoying your site a lot so far. So much I haven't seen!

    1. Hi Danny! Someone else remarked on my review of The Chase that they couldn't abide ol' Bob. I started out not liking him myself, but I've seen so many good/great movies that he was a part of -- The Devil and Miss Jones, Saboteur, The Chase, Dial M for Murder, etc. -- that I've developed a greater appreciation for him... instead of guilt by association, it's admiration by association. :)

      Glad you're enjoying the site-- as you've no doubt noticed, I like picking out things that even fans of old B movies may have overlooked.