Blackbeard's Ghost

Lobby card for Blackbeard's Ghost (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1968).

I remember being all broken up about missing this when it first came out. (I did have the comic book, and I remember reading Ben Stahl's original novel and being confused because its plot was so different from the movie's.) Well, I finally saw it. Biggest surprise: how talky and sloooow it is. It's probably about as close to Beckett as a Disney kid's film about a lameass track team helped to victory by the ghost of a centuries-old dead pirate could possibly be. Peter Ustinov is wonderful, despite (or maybe because of) looking completely unengaged. When he sings "a-diddly-diddly-yo-ho-arrrr" or whatever in that chubby, lazy voice, in imitation of the bad faux-eighteenth-century harpischord soundtrack, one must chuckle.


The Woman in the Window

Joan Bennett's reflection and a painting of Joan Bennett in The Woman in the Window (dir. Fritz Lang, 1944).

Dan Duryea and Joan Bennett.

Edward G. Robinson.

Fritz Lang made The Woman in the Window the year before Scarlet Street, which also featured Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea. Their stories are similar: in both, Robinson plays a sensitive soul drawn by a romantic obsession with a woman in a painting into a dark and sordid world of prostitution and murder. Window is even more harrowing than Street for most of its running time. Anne actually had to stop watching about halfway through, as the tension was just too much. She says that Lang was insane and had a sick soul. Well, yeah. She stopped watching just before Duryea came on and did his reptilian blackmailer bit. "You have to watch, it's Dan Duryea!" I said, but to no avail.

There is a plot turn in Window that is bound to infuriate anyone who loves noir, or just self-respecting screenwriting. I'm trying to convince myself that this particular turn is actually a wry bit of intentional self-subversion (as Spencer Selby argues here), but it's hard.

Watch for a young Robert Blake as the Professor's son, and George "Spanky" McFarland as an intrepid boy scout (in an inspired comic scene).


Where the Sidewalk Ends

Bert Freed and Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends (dir. Otto Preminger, 1950).

Dana Andrews exudes sourness and fatalism, but with an insolent grace that makes him possibly the quintessential noir leading man. (Am I right in my sudden realization that Steve Martin is primarily channeling Andrews in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, or do they both just have that rubbery shiftless walk and sneer?) In Where the Sidewalk Ends, Andrews' fallen cop Mark Dixon is so steeped in defeatism and desperation that his performance teeters on the edge of comedy--like when he opens a closet door, revealing to the audience, but not to his partner across the room, the body of the man he has just accidentally killed, saying with attempted nonchalance, "Nothing in there," before shutting the door again. Later, he snarls at a heavy: "I don't like it when rats grin at me."

You could probably count the number of cuts in the film on the teeth of your comb: Preminger and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle glide and linger through nearly each shot, using every inch of screen space to advance the story and explore character. Gene Tierney seems almost too glimmery and frail to exist in the same grimy world that Andrews represents, but they float around together well, like a couple of haunted fashion models (Andrews with his outstanding fedora, and Tierney with about a hundred outfits supplied by her husband Oleg Cassini, who makes a brief appearance as more or less himself). Gary Merrill plays a gangster whom Andrews attempts to frame: his indignation is hard not to sympathize with. Neville Brand, as an assistant goon, throws some wicked punches and seems even to be able to boss his boss around. Ruth Donnelly owns her brief scenes as a wisecracking restaurateur. Karl Malden lends some flair to a thankless role as the good cop with the wrong conviction. And Bert Freed fills his character with more depth and pathos than he has any right to, considering that he doesn't do much more than ride along with Andrews and glare disapprovingly at everything and everyone.


The Hitch-Hiker

William Talman in The Hitch-Hiker (dir. Ida Lupino, 1953).

Taut and scary. William Talman, who went on to play DA Hamilton Burger in the Perry Mason TV series, is beautifully understated as the psychotic serial murderer Emmett Myers, who hitches rides from unsuspecting motorists and dispatches them when convenient. Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy play two hooky-playing husbands who get snared in his web when they sneak down to Mexico for some R & R. Ida Lupino directs, keeping everything at a breathless pace: you feel like one of the poor lunkheads in the car with Myers, just waiting for him to decide you're finally useless to him. Some of the least stereotypical depictions I've seen in films from the period of Mexican characters, most of them actually played by Latino actors.


His Kind of Woman

Robert Mitchum in His Kind of Woman (dir. John Farrow, 1951)

Half top-notch noir, half tropical sex comedy. Towards the end, Vincent Price starts playing the farcical gallant with such intensity you may forget for a spell what movie you're watching. Thank Howard Hughes, whose grubby handprints are so all over this film that he should just have shared directorial credit (He did bring in the uncredited Richard Fleischer to take it over from Farrow). On the other hand, if it weren't for Hughes' interference, we wouldn't have Raymond Burr as the gangster Nick Ferraro. It's long and silly, but it does envelop you in its distinctive world of kitschy resort architecture and shaggy-dog supporting characters (like Jim Backus, Philip Van Zandt, and John Mylong). Jane Russell is the femme fatale, but she's more of a femme non-fatale. It's funny that the titular phrase refers to her (okay, that was not meant as a pun), as her presence in the narrative is more or less a big non-sequitur. Although I guess that could be said for almost all the characters. Anyway, Charles McGraw is always impressively menacing, Mitchum doesn't seem quite as bored in this as he does in The Racket, and there is some classic dialogue here: "I was just taking off my tie ... and deciding whether I should hang myself with it."


Track of the Cat

Robert Mitchum in Track of the Cat (dir. William A. Wellman, 1954).

The death bed.

Tab Hunter and Beulah Bondi.

Some "moonin'" by Keats.

Beulah Bondi, Carl Switzer (Alfalfa!), Tab Hunter, and Diana Lynn.

Wellman shot this film using as much black and white as he could. A few colorful objects take on added emphasis as a result: a red coat, a roaring fire, a bottle of whiskey. He manages to make the wide open Northern California wilderness look like a small, crowded cemetery (it helps that much of the action is shot on an obvious set). Mitchum plays an elemental jerk, a cynical bullying brother whose lack of empathy and imagination makes him oddly sympathetic, or at least reliable, like winter cold itself. Everyone is brimming over with resentment and contempt, certainly Beulah Bondi as the bitter and twisted matriarch, and Teresa Russell as the disillusioned spinster sister, but even fresh-faced Tab Hunter and Diana Lynn, the young lovers who have to get out somehow from under the tyranny of family dysfunction. Philip Tonge plays the father as comic relief, but it's grim relief: his drunkenness and smarmy lechery are a kind of grotesque affront to human dignity. Carl Switzer's corpse-like Joe Sam, the hundred-year-old Indian lackey, is so thoroughly defeated by life he can barely stand up. He seems fashioned after Beckett's Lucky in Waiting for Godot. William Hopper as brother Art is the only well-adjusted figure among all the anxiety and dread. Early in the film, when he's alone in the wilderness, he watches a young deer bounding through the snow, and his face lights up like an ecstatic mystic ... right before he gets killed by a panther. From then on it's up to everyone else to try to restore the balance that is lost at his death. They don't do a very good job. By the time it's all over (though there isn't really a true ending), the welcoming fires of home look like flames awaiting tired moths.