The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Two pals, Gil and Roy, head down to Baja California for a fishing trip in The Hitch-Hiker, Ida Lupino’s noir nail-biter. Gil’s already having second thoughts, missing his wife and kids, throwing cold water on his friend’s plan to hit the bars in Mexicali for old time’s sake. “Remember Florabelle at the Alhambra club?” says Roy in an effort to bring him around. “She’s probably dead by now,” snaps Gil. “That was a long time ago.” You get the feeling he’s not the same man he was in the old days, before the war. There’s an edge to him, a wariness. From the moment the hitchhiker forces them at gunpoint to drive through the Sonoran desert, we see Gil weighing his options, calculating the chances of survival, falling back on battle-honed instincts. But battling a sadistic killer is beyond the scope of his training.

Early in their ordeal the hitchhiker, on a whim, sends Roy off to hold a tin can at arm’s length, setting up a high stakes shooting match with Gil. The tension mounts as Roy is ordered to move farther away and hold the can closer to his body. We know Gil is an excellent marksman, but for an instant he loses his nerve. Then cold fury takes over. Gil aims and blows the can out of Roy’s hand without killing his friend, but it’s a hollow victory.

“You guys are gonna die, that’s all. It’s just a matter of when,” the hitchhiker announces, his tone matter-of-fact. He could be forecasting the weather. High probability of showers in the next twenty-four hours. Lupino underscores the men’s vulnerability in stunning overexposed shots of the desolate landscape and it’s scary, how utterly alone they are. In fleeting encounters with Mexicans when they buy food or fill up the tank, their distress goes unnoticed. One night, while stealing gas at an unmanned filling station, Gil surreptitiously removes his wedding ring and leaves it on the pump. I read this not as a plea for help, but as a farewell gesture. He expects to be dead by the time it’s found, whereas Roy rages against their fate, endangering them both in a botched attempt at escape. Finally he cracks. “You haven’t got a thing except that gun,” he threatens their captor. “You better hang onto it because without it you’re nothing, you’re finished.” He’s wearing the hitchhiker’s clothes and it’s hard to tell them apart. Nothing remains of the innocent guy who fantasized about Florabelle—which is Lupino’s point, I think.

Macao

Macao (1952) was  the last film Josef von Sternberg made in HollywoodMacao slouch and he didn’t get to finish it. A tyrant on the set, particularly with his actresses, he treated Jane Russell so abominably that Howard Hughes removed him from the picture and brought in Nicholas Ray to reshoot the ending.

I can’t condone a director who calls his lead actress a “beautiful stupid broad” and makes every effort to humiliate her on the set. I guess this was the pattern, from Marlene Dietrich onwards, and it seems to have worked with Dietrich. The two tormented one another over the course of seven films—the best either would make: Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express among them.

But getting back to Macao, there’s an awful lot to like here even if Ray messed with von Sternberg’s vision. Robert Mitchum slouches to excellent effect, winning Jane Russell’s heart, and charming the tough-as-nails croupier played by Gloria Grahame while he’s at it. The dialogue is edgy from the start. Even bit players get their moment: the opening scene of the would-be Lothario doing a little rumba all by himself in his cabin, all to no avail, is a delightful vignette. 

The shadows are perfectly calibrated, during the chase scenes especially, when fishing nets lend a claustrophobic touch to the action. Russell sings, and she’s pretty good as a torch singer — far better than in her musical number with the gymnasts in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This noir may not be noir enough to satisfy purists, but I enjoyed it.

Release Date: March 18th!

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Old Hollywood glamour comes vividly to life in historian, novelist, and film blogger Lieberman’s series debut, highlighting the effects of the 1950s Red Scare on the movie industry and the tragedies that happened off the silver screen. Aficionados of Alfred Hitchcock and Hollywood-themed mysteries will find this historical noir right up their alley.

 – Library Journal

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.

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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.