Reign of Terror (Anthony Mann, 1949) and The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951). Two period tales built with noir parts by the great Anthony Mann—both triumphs of visual savvy and moral exactitude. The plot of Reign of Terror, set during the French Revolution, is just short of pure cheesecake, but Mann subversively stimulates a vicious sense of intrigue and a ridiculous level of suspense through grotesque, Eisensteinean close-ups, nervy compositions, and rhythmic editing. The Tall Target is similarly calibrated and also catches a country (this time ours) in a difficult period of social transition. A remarkably sustained crime thriller that effects mystery-suspense tension loaded with healthy liberal opinions about social change; the steaming, stop-go locomotive in the film reflects the pressure-cooker mentality of our Civil War-era nation. We know how the incident in the story will turn out—and what will eventually happen to Lincoln—and still the film surprises you at every turn.
Circle of Danger (Jacques Tourneur, 1951). Does Clay Douglas (Ray Milland) want to find the man who killed his brother during the war or does he want to make whoopee with Elspeth Graham (Patricia Roc)? I don’t think he knows the answer to that question, and neither does Jacques Tourneur apparently, who uses the man’s trip to England mostly as an excuse to snap pretty location pictures. The climax between Douglas and the two men responsible for his brother’s death, one an effete soldier who became a ballet teacher (!) after the war, is visually stunning but the scene gets the wind knocked out of it by a revelation that’s about as forceful as getting smacked in the face by a pancake.
He Ran All the Way (John Berry, 1951) and Tension (John Berry, 1950). Look to these two films and John Berry’s uncredited work on Caught as examples of how the director was trying to push a melo-noir style. The man thought in very schematic psychological terms and his style wasn’t very distinctive, but his plots are devilishly outlandish. In He Ran All the Way, John Garfield kills a cop after a robbery, endears himself to Shelley Winters at a local pool (someone—not me—should write an essay about the actress and her strange, almost fetish-like relationship to water), and holds her family hostage inside their apartment over the course of several days. Garfield’s character is so lightly drawn he never really garners the sympathy Berry is after, but the actor works his ass off to pick up the slack, most amusingly in a scene where his murderer’s guilt manifests itself as a fever. Anthony Mann could have really made this one snap and pop visually (he might have also spiked it with an interesting political angle), but it’s still worth seeing for Winters’s outstanding performance, the remarkable dinner scene with Garfield and Winters’s family—a startling, morally-charged battle of wills in which the hostages resist the kidnappers’ sad attempt at kindness—and its stunning finale. Tension is impossible to take seriously as soon as Barry Sullivan’s detective character illustrates in a direct-to-camera address the film’s tension-as-rubberband thesis but Audrey Totter, playing one of the meanest women the noir genre has ever seen, is an absolute hoot: Every single time she slithers into frame, she’s accompanied by the same trashy trumpet squawk. When she leaves her pharmacist husband for another man, the country’s new contact lens craze gives the schmuck the idea to create an alter ego and kill the woman. The film is impossible to take seriously but its utter ridiculousness at least sees some unpredictable outlets of expression.
Bodyguard (Richard Fleischer, 1948) and Shakedown (Joseph Pevney, 1950). Bodyguard feels almost twice as long as its 62 minutes. Lawrence Tierney, as an ex-homicide police officer being framed for murder by lowlifes at a meat-packing plant, has tons of great lines (the best one is when he calls Elisabeth Risdon’s butler “Dracula”), but the June-Cleever-in-peril role Priscilla Lane gets slapped with is insulting to women (and the audience). Poor Peggy Dow doesn’t fare much better in Shakedown. She’s the “Picture Editor” at a newspaper where ridiculous Howard Duff wants to work by any means possible. He thinks only about money and status, and with the help of sparring mob lords (Brian Donlevy and Tierney) he turns against one another, he gets everything he wants. James Cagney or John Garfield could have really sold the character’s bald-faced ambition, which is presented neatly in one scene and then psychologically parsed by the man’s foes in the next. Not a smidgen of backstory to explain his lunacy, which wouldn’t even be necessarily if Duff were a richer actor. You just want him to die—as quickly as possible and certainly not with the heroish flash the film ends with.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.