[Originally published in Movietone News 21, February 1973]
The Italian Job got past me but, from what I can tell from descriptions thereof, it set in motion a trend in Peter Collinson’s work that is continued in Innocent Bystanders. The potentially portentous title notwithstanding, this latest Collinson takes us far from the significance-laden likes of The Penthouse, Up the Junction, and A Long Day’s Dying into the region of closeup slambang for (commercially if not morally) pure purposes of entertainment. The government arms that manipulate poor, physically unsexed Stanley Baker and his fellow/rival espionage agents are unrelentingly portrayed as cold, inhumane entities staffed by inhuman types like Donald Pleasence (who manages to be amusing about it) and Dana Andrews, but this has simply become a convention of the genre these days and no longer counts as the subversive gesture it once was in the black and white morality plays of Fritz Lang and the crimefighting semidocumentaries of Anthony Mann.
The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), a 1945 World War II espionage thriller based on a real life FBI case, launched what would become the semi-documentary strain of film noir. It opens with the authoritative narration of Reed Hadley (uncredited but omnipresent in the genre) insisting on that this is an accurate dramatic treatment of a true story shot on locations where it occurred and slips into procedural about a German-American scientist (William Eythe) who is recruited by the Nazis for their bomb project and goes undercover for the FBI to find the mole giving A-bomb research to Germany. It’s produced by Louis de Rochemont (producer of the March of Time newsreel series) and directed by Henry Hathaway with a rather flat style, which isn’t helped by the blandness of Eythe or the archness of Lloyd Nolan as the lead agent. It’s an interesting film for all of its detail and location shooting and use of real FBI agents in minor roles and it launched the docu-noir style that was picked up and developed in films like T-Men (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Hathaway’s own Call Northside 777 (1948). Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll co-star.
By all rights, the 1946 homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives (Warner, Blu-ray) should have been another well intentioned film left to the dated dustbins of history, but World War II vet William Wyler (working from an original Robert Sherwood script) put more soul into this picture than anything else in his career. Clocking in close to three hours, the characters creep up on you: stiff Dana Andrews whose displaced working class joe can’t seem to find himself again, moral authority Fredric March as a family man and frustrated bank manager, and Harold Russell, a real life paraplegic war survivor as a kid dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of life without arms. They come from different services (Army, Navy, Air Force), different ranks, and different home life situations (upper class husband and father, middle class family son, working class newlywed adult), covering a lot of bases of experience. All they have in common is the same hometown and the same ride home. They get to know one another in the nose of a transport plane as they hop their way across the country. It’s enough to give them a camaraderie and a connection that even their loved ones back home can’t fill.
It’s easy to see the script designed as a “statement” about the experience of the returning veteran and the state of the nation after the end of the war, and there is something sturdy and square about the film, but it fits the subject matter and the gravity of the film. Wyler takes his time to let the characters out slowly, feeling their way back into lives they don’t quite fit into anymore. March won an Oscar for his witty portrayal of a man whose values have been knocked off-balance by the war. Though he’s the least scarred by the war, he’s the first to lubricate his discomfort at social gatherings, getting drunk to avoid facing serious emotional situations or distasteful business obligations. It’s not like he’s an alcoholic (or at least Wyler isn’t quite making that case) but it’s also not as cute as Nick and Nora at cocktail time. He’s getting drunk to escape in a way his buddies do not. And Russell won two Academy Awards for his debut as the easy-going, self-effacing vet who uses humor to deflect pity before it gets spoken but can’t help but feel like he’s come back less a man than he was – the only performer to ever win two Oscars for a single performance. But it’s Andrews who gets the everyman part, the confident American guy who made officer and commanded men under fire yet comes home to find nothing but the same dead-end service job waiting for him. He doesn’t want much, just a chance, and even that seems out of reach in the town the passed him by.
Wyler and Sherwood resist any temptation for flashback illustrations (the closest they get is Andrews’ recurring nightmare of a bomber crash, all noise and shadows under his cries) and Wyler is very tender with their experiences. We twice see Russell’s ritual of removing his prosthetic arms and it is a quietly humbling experience that, when it’s over, leaves him dependent on others. Russell exhibits no self-consciousness in the scene, no self pity. It’s about vulnerability, helplessness, trust, and his willingness to be so naked in front of the camera invests an otherwise amiable performance with a life that the movies only previously showed in terms of horror or tragedy. Here, it’s just life and it goes on.
Interestingly enough, Myrna Loy gets top billing for a supporting role (and frankly, she is given little else to do, though she does it with grace, humor, and mature sexiness so little seen in the movies in any era), and Cathy O’Donnell, who went on to become the quintessential fragile or broken innocent of film noir, gets “introducing” credit. And while Virginia Mayo gets a rare dramatic role as Andrews’ fun-loving wife disappointed to find the dashing officer she married now a mere working class civilian, it’s bubbly Teresa Wright as the headstrong daughter of March and Loy who takes a decisive role in their drama.
It won seven Oscars in all, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The Blu-ray debut is very handsome (Blu-ray can give black-and-white movies such visual depth!) and features a video introduction by Virginia Mayo and interviews with Mayo and Teresa Wright.
The Right Stuff (Warner, Blu-ray), Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed portrait of the original NASA astronauts, is *the* American epic of the last great frontier and a genuinely romantic take on the first generation of space cowboys. In fact, we know that Kaufman’s heart lays with test pilot cowboy Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard as a man who rides horses when he’s not punching a hole through the sound barrier. The three-hour-plus film, narrated by Levon Helm in a storyteller’s drawl as if recounting a myth, follows the story of the race to claim the skies from the competitive culture of the test pilots in New Mexico to the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon after they put the first man in space. The shift in national priorities (“You know what makes those ships go? Funding!”) and public attention left Yeager and the jet cowboys behind and gave us new American heroes: the astronauts. And while Kaufman clearly reveres Yeager, he celebrates the courage and the commitment of the original astronauts and gives them their own mythic resonance.
Fritz Lang arrived in Hollywood as an artist in exile and, as the creator of some of Germany’s most famous and most successful films, accorded all due respect. Unlike a lot of artist refugees from Hitler’s Germany, he was offered prestige assignments, “important” subjects and major stars. At least at first. Without major hits or awards to his credit, and with a reputation for autocratic methods (there’s nothing a studio hates more than a “difficult” director), he very slowly slipped down the ladder into smaller budgets and increasingly turned to independent productions.
Fritz Lang’s final three American productions were released through the Warner Archive Collection this year. And while they never reach the heights of his greatest American films—You Only Live Once (1937), Man Hunt (1941), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953)—they have their pleasures and rewards.
Moonfleet (1955) was Lang’s last film for one of the Hollywood majors. The budget-minded MGM production set in 18th century England, it’s like “Great Expectations” by way of a gothic film noir, in this case a world of smugglers, knaves and decadent, corrupt gentry on the rocky, foggy British coast. Jon Whitely is the film’s answer to Pip, a plucky young orphan sent to live with the dark criminal aristocrat Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), a brigand with money and status torn between his mercenary instincts and his growing sense of responsibility for the innocent and unfailingly loyal boy, the son of the woman he loved and in many ways the symbol of the road not taken.
Lang shot in CinemaScope entirely in the studio and still creates a claustrophobic world of craggy moors and bleak architecture. Even the stony church is a bleak sanctuary where cold statues seem to judge, if not outright threaten, the parishioners. Visually it anticipates the look of the Hammer Gothic horrors and Corman’s Poe films, with its studio moors and gloomy sets of stone gray and rough wood and costumes of royal purple and soldier crimson, all shrouded in fog and mist like a perpetual purgatory. Granger delivers a perfectly sardonic and arrogant performance while George Sanders purrs pure aristocratic decadence and moral bankruptcy, relishing his easy corruption with wry looks and cheerfully greedy behavior. “You’re cheating,” accuses one man at a card game. He fixes a weary smirk and replies: “Even if I were, I’d consider it grossly impolite to say so in my own house.” Sure, there’s a redemption in the offing, but the brigands are a lot more fun.
After this low-end studio assignment, Lang ended his Hollywood career at RKO, once a major studio slowly withering under the capricious command of Howard Hughes, working with falling stars and budget-starved productions in black and white that he did his best to turn into an asset.
While the City Sleeps (1956) is less an all-star cast than a veteran line-up of studio pros: Dana Andrews as the ostensible lead, a TV newscaster in a multi-media news company that encompasses a metropolitan daily paper and a wire service, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price and Ida Lupino as the newspaper columnist whose nose for office politics is her greatest survival skill. Ostensibly a thriller about a serial killer (John Drew Barrymore) and the media circus around the investigation, there isn’t much tension or crime movie thriller energy, but it does offer a thoroughly corrupt portrait of life: while a psychotic leatherboy kills girls and blames his mom, the staff of a new organization plays politics to maneuver themselves into a promotion when the playboy son (Vincent Price) of the deceased owner takes over and essentially pits his employees against one another to vie from promotion.
Dana Andrews is back in the lead of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a clever little thriller that has Andrews and a crusading newspaper publisher (who is, not so coincidentally, the father of his fiancée, Joan Fontaine) staging his “guilt” in a murder investigation by planting circumstantial evidence. It’s all an elaborate anti-capital punishment protest, until an untimely accident destroys all the evidence of his innocence and leaves him facing the death penalty while Fontaine takes up his cause. It doesn’t have the poetry or the intensity of his best American films, and it lacks the power of “The Big Heat” or even the embrace of the decadent and corrupt world of “Moonfleet,” but it makes an odd little bookend to Lang’s 1930s dramas of social protest and it boomerangs back with a weirdly cynical twist. Those familiar with Lang’s disdain for Hollywood’s contrived happy endings will have a field day imaging how Lang would have preferred to end this barbed little picture.
Both of these films are presented in the SuperScope process, a cheap widescreen alternative to the anamorphic CinemaScope process. Where CinemaScope used the entire 35mm frame, the widescreen of SuperScope uses only a portion of the frame, masking off the top and bottom and rephotographing the image on an optically squeezed anamorphic print, which would then by widened out by an anamorphic lens in projection across the big screen at a ratio somewhere between 1.75:1 and 2:1 ratio (twice as wide as it is high). The process inevitably resulted in a soft, degraded image and for years television prints presented the original, unmasked version. David Bordwell offers much more detail on the process at his blog here. The process, needless to say, didn’t last long.
There is some debate over what Lang intended and how the film was ultimately shown in the U.S., given the rather inexact nature of the process and the sometimes capricious treatment of films by studios who could “widescreen” a film in post-production. These discs present the SuperScope editions at 2:1 and you can see that they are just a little softer and grainier than the usual widescreen movies, not distractingly so on home video but enough to notice the sacrifice. And they like fine to my eyes, though a little cramped at times. David Bordwell digs into the debate, does his research and offers illustrations here.
On a side note, these last two films got me thinking about the strange case of Dana Andrews, the leading man of the forties who aged into lower budget and off-studio productions as the fifties wore on. He was off the A-list but still cast as romantic leads, often opposite women decades his junior. Not an unusual state of affairs of Hollywood then (see Clark Gable) or now (Bruce Willis anyone?), but next to the square stiffness of Andrews it plays a little weird. Such as in “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” when he picks up a showgirl in his campaign to stage his guilt, or in Jacques Tourneur’s The Fearmakers (MGM Limited Edition Collection), a 1958 Cold War drama that plays on fears of spies and propaganda and the insidious manipulation of public opinion polls to shape (rather than measure) public opinion. The subject matter is as timely as ever but the film itself a confused production that, even as it hammers on its themes in speech after speech, conflates the Red Scare with Fascism and stumbles over its insistent exposition. Meanwhile, this Korean war veteran hero deals with PTSD (not named as such, of course, and rather too easily conquered) and solves the murder of his partner while winning the girl (Marilee Earle, easily two decades his junior) and striking back against the “fellow travelers” with his two American fists. The Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument watch on in approval.
Andrews starred in a great number of superb American films, well cast and directed in Laura (1944), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and two of Jacques Tourneur’s best films, Canyon Passage (1946) and Curse of the Demon (1957). The Fearmakers is a disappointment, but its attempt to discuss the complex issues of media manipulation and political opinion makes it and interesting disappointment. It also illustrates why Mel Torme, who has a supporting role as a milquetoast conspirator, never became a movie star.