Laura

The creepy parts of this picture are not what you’d expect. Yes, the murderer does sneak out of the kitchen at the end of the film, waving a gun at the heroine. But by the time he does this, we’ve seen him do worse. The way Clifton Webb’s character fawns over Laura, keeping tabs on her, chasing away all rivals, trying to get inside her head, to change her feelings: that’s scary!

Then there’s Dana Andrews’ character, the detective assigned to investigate Laura’s alleged murder. He ends up falling in love with her. If you can call it love. He goes through her drawers, practically sniffs her lingerie, hangs around in her apartment reading her diary and drinking her scotch. Laura calls him on it when she returns, then lets him haul her into the police station and interrogate her. Next thing you know, she’s in love with him.  That’s scary too!

Guess who comes off as the most affable of all Laura’s suitors? Vincent Price.

I’m not kidding. As the spoiled southern gentleman who was engaged to Laura before her alleged murder, he’s charming and has no illusions about himself. Suspecting that Laura killed the woman he was fooling around with in her apartment, he’s ready to sacrifice himself to keep her out of prison. Or, he’d like to be the sort of man who would do that, but maybe he’s not quite up to it? Or maybe Laura isn’t worth the sacrifice since it’s clear she doesn’t really love him.

The best noir shows people at their worst, and “Laura” gets to that place by the end. The story leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Too much honesty, yet it’s not quite enough to make you like these characters. All the performances are brilliant, pushing the boundaries of the genre but never over-the-top.

Sunset Boulevard

The dead monkey is the tip-off. William Holden has just arrived at Gloria Swanson’s estate and is mistaken for an undertaker by the butler. “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” Erich von Stroheim tells him, directing the screenwriter upstairs to the has-been actress’s lair. A few scenes later, he watches the two of them burying the animal in the garden by candlelight. Cut to a pair of white-gloved hands playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on an ancient organ. This is the stuff of horror movies, dark territory, for sure:  perverse and unsettling.

Don’t look for a killer jumping out from behind the curtains with a knife. The creepiness here is Joe Gillis’s decline into dependency and self-loathing as he allows himself to be “kept” by the has-been actress. We’re all afraid of going there.  Giving up on our dreams, losing our integrity. Letting someone else call the shots, the person with the checkbook.

Early in the film, Joe corners his agent and begs for a loan. “I’m doing you a favor by not lending you the money,” the agent says. “When you’re hungry enough, you’ll write.” Ha!  Those are the words of someone who’s never starved. The sweet little script reader played by Nancy Olson nailed the problem early on. Joe’s screenplay is “flat and trite,” she says, “….a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” Maybe he once had talent, she allows. “That was last year. This year, I’m trying to earn a living,” is his bitter retort.

Bitterness is the leitmotif of “Sunset Boulevard.” Long before Swanson shoots him, Holden’s character has died inside.  Norma Desmond may have been enfolded by her dream.  Joe Gillis was killed by his.

Angel Face

Bad women in B movies have to die. Usually they take some poor sucker down with them. Makes for a better story, a cautionary tale. But sometimes you can feel the director chafing against the constrictions.

That’s the case with “Angel Face,” Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Awesome camerawork, wonderful acting, and one hilarious line in the prison mental hospital where Simmons’s character has been committed after murdering her father and stepmother, with the presumed help of Mitchum’s character. Simmons is wealthy, and the family lawyer is determined to get her off, so he convinces her to wed Mitchum’s character right there in the ward. Mitchum resists; he’s really a decent sort, but no match for Simmons. Guy’s out of his depth.

So the Justice of the Peace pronounces them man and wife. Simmons is in bed, with Mitchum (under police guard) standing next to her. Off to the side, one of the lunatics applauds, then the camera pans to her and you see she’s carrying over a little wedding cake, trailed by another lunatic:

“There ain’t much we can say but, kid, we sure hope you beat the rap!”

I wish that irreverent spirit had been maintained throughout the film. Unfortunately, it grew more ponderous as it went on and by the end—which took ages to arrive—I was predicting that Simmons would kill both herself and Mitchum. It seemed like the only way out. Still, I was unprepared for the way she carried it off.

She had this sports car and she was supposed to be driving him to the bus station (he was leaving her). She brought along a bottle of champagne and two glasses. As he was opening the champagne, she reversed at high speed and backed them over a cliff.

Very satisfying.

The Third Man

It’s not difficult to understand what Anna saw in 3-the-third-manHarry Lime, the crooked American whose death is at the center of this film. Amid the ruined city of Vienna, the grim faces of its inhabitants, the climate of suspicion and paranoia that prevails throughout the occupied zones, regardless of which army is in charge, Harry stood out.  He never grew up, “the world grew up around him, that’s all,” Anna explains to Harry’s old friend, Holly Martins.  She refuses to face the truth:  that Harry’s black market dealing caused the deaths of countless children.  She prefers to hold onto her romantic illusions.

Can you blame her?  Three years after the Second World War ended, Europe — as embodied by the once shimmering cultural capital of Vienna — is bombed out, exhausted, physically and morally.  The grand ideals for which the war was fought are nowhere in evidence.  Freedom seems to be particularly lacking:  Holly is shadowed, manipulated and lied to, pushed around by the British occupiers, threatened by the black marketeers.

But there’s Harry, staging his own death to free himself from surveillance.  “He could fix things… [he knew] how to avoid this and that,” Holly says admiringly.  Holly himself is hopeless at fixing anything, barely able to look after himself in corrupt postwar Vienna.  Straightforward American integrity is a liability in this setting.  What’s needed is a clever liar like Harry.

And our first glimpse of him, sheltered in a doorway, unexpectedly illuminated by a streetlight, confirms the impression that he alone is at ease in the darkly-lit world. Look at how he’s smiling.

third-man

Seductive, the way he doesn’t let his guard down even when he knows you.  Even when you love him.  Irresistible to Anna, for sure.  I suspect that Harry Lime is Graham Greene’s alter ego. “I like to have a secret love affair, a hidden life.  Something to lie about,” the author of “The Third Man” once said.

Anything is possible from a man like that:  betrayal, certainly, but also excitement.  He gets his thrills from danger, and danger was everywhere in those days, but his zest for life keeps him one step ahead of the police.  Time and again you think he’s cornered during the dramatic chase in the sewers, but he manages to outwit his pursuers.  We see his fingers poking up through the grate the way a plant sends out new shoots.  Toward escape, toward the air.  Toward life.