On Sunday and Monday, Noir City went gaga for blondes. Even in black and white, the women whom gentlemen supposedly prefer were easily identifiable and casually cold. One blonde was literally put on ice, while the other chose its liquid form to wash that man right outta her hair. One did her business at Fox and MGM, and the other on Poverty Row, but regardless of their pedigree, these were sirens serenading the weaker sex (men, that is) while leading them to their doom.
To prove today
Niagara‘s premise is simple: Polly and Ray (Jean Peters and Casey Adams), a newlywed couple celebrating their honeymoon in Niagara Falls, encounter an older couple with serious marital problems. The couple in trouble consists of a younger blonde who loves attention and an older man who seems close to a nervous breakdown. George and Rose Loomis (Joe Cotton and Monroe) occupy the room Polly and Ray were promised, which is not as big an inconvenience as Polly’s dilemma when she catches Rose making out with another man near the Falls. Polly keeps her mouth shut, but Rose seems to relish making her husband jealous and crazy with her flirtatious ways.
The young lovers question how a relationship this volatile can survive, and so do we after we discover Rose’s plot to have her lover murder George and toss him off Niagara Falls like a barrel. Rose will know when the deed has been done when the bell tower plays her favorite song. While the murder is occurring, Rose plays the concerned wifey role to the hilt. As soon as she hears the song, she becomes a completely different person. On my first viewing of Niagara, I thought Monroe’s reaction in this scene was a case of bad acting; at this screening it felt perfectly calibrated. Concern leaves her face and she develops a spring in her step as soon as those bells start playing. She broadly smiles as she walks out of the scene.
Of course, this being noir, fate steps in to wipe that smile off her face. The Canadian Mounties find the body of a murdered man, and when Rose goes to identify the body, she discovers that it ain’t George. She winds up in the hospital suffering from shock. Meanwhile, Polly keeps seeing George, but nobody will believe her, least of all her husband. Everyone thinks the body in the morgue is the unstable husband who, in a fit of rage, smashed a phonograph record with the fury of a disco hater at Comiskey Park. We keep seeing George too; he opened a can of whup-Ass with a wrench on his cuckolder and now he’s looking to get even with Rose.
Monroe holds her own against Cotten, but Peters is the beneficiary of the most suspenseful and strongest scenes with Cotten. Despite being in bright ass Technicolor, Niagara manages to honor the dark, shadowy genre to which it belongs.
Marilyn is far more intriguing in a small role in the first feature on Sunday’s double bill, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. The tale of a hick with a criminal past and the jewel thieves he involves himself with is one of the best caper films ever made. Adapted by Huston from a novel by W. R. Burnett, Jungle follows a gang of thieves, each with his own special skill, during the planning and execution of a successful jewel theft. Unfortunately for them, very few people get to keep the money in this genre. I know you’ve heard it all before, but keep in mind that, in 1950, these plot devices weren’t as old hat as nowadays.
Sam Jaffe is memorable, and even a little tragic, as the German mastermind behind the heist. His gang includes Marc Lawrence, Louis Calhern as a lawyer and Sterling Hayden, still in full possession of his precious bodily fluids, as a shitkicker from Ken-TUCK-ee. James Whitmore shows up in a superb supporting role as a bar owner whose philosophy on cats results in one of noir’s greatest lines. Jean Hagen represents the ladies, and though she has far more screen time and is quite good, we momentarily forget about her for the two scenes that feature Marilyn Monroe. This appearance is so early in her career that she isn’t even credited. Huston uses her sparingly, but effectively. She gets a heartbreaker of a scene with the cops, and looks almost better in black-and-white than she did In color. After this small role, Fox dragged her up to Canada for her rendezvous with Teresa Wright’s Uncle Charlie.
During his introduction, Eddie Muller said that this film was the best one he’ll be showing at Noir City. So far, he’s been right. It was certainly better than the first feature I bore witness to on Monday.
Monday’s Movies: Put on ice. Literally.
I had never heard of Belita, the star, along with Barry Sullivan, of Monday’s double bill. According to Muller’s piece in the Noir Sentinel book, she was hired by poverty row studio Monogram Pictures to counter Sonja Henie’s success over at Fox. Heine was a famous figure skater turned actress, which means that Belita had to strap on skates as well. The difference between the two is Henie skated in musicals and romantic comedies, films that can sustain the Ice Capades. Belita worked at the studio that turned out action pictures, noir and Mantan Moreland movies. Until Tonya Harding, ice skating wasn’t known for its violence, so I have no clue why Monogram ponied up $1 million in 1946 to showcase Belita’s debut in a noir film called Suspense. It must be seen to be believed.
Sullivan was quoted as saying that Belita “didn’t know what the fuck was happening…acting and particularly filmmaking were totally foreign to her.” Though she has glamor, and she’s quite good on skates, Belita is terrible in Suspense. The moment that best describes Belita’s acting occurs when, during a bedside crying scene, the dog actor sharing the scene with her makes an immediate beeline for her cleavage. The filmmakers left this scene in the picture, presumably because it took attention from the actress’ attempt at emotion.
The plot involves an ice skater who runs around on her husband/boss with Joe Morgan (Sullivan). The husband, Frank Leonard (Albert Dekker), runs the ice rink where Roberta Elva (Belita) performs her nightly shows. Sullivan gets involved with Roberta, and her husband gets wise to the duo. During a romantic ski lodge trip between the Leonards, Morgan shows up and Frank invites him to stay so that he may kill him. Frank’s attempt at sniping Morgan results in an avalanche that kills Frank. Or so Roberta and Joe think. Like Niagara‘s Polly, Frank and Roberta start seeing the deceased in places other than Heaven and Hell. Is it their conscience, or did Frank survive the avalanche?
One part circus act, one part Disney on Ice, Roberta’s ice skating numbers stop the show cold, but they’re fascinating to witness. Screenwriter Philip Yordan uses the skating sequences to justify one particular sequence where Roberta skates through a ring of sharp knives. The opening between the ominous looking knives is small enough to generate suspense as to whether Roberta will be julienned upon execution of the stunt. This same device is featured in the climax, where Sullivan, now a murderer, rigs the contraption so the knife openings are a tad closer than Roberta is expecting. This scene lives up to the film’s title, if only because I thought “how were they going to show a woman impaled on twenty knives in 1946?”
According to Belita’s self-interview, conducted a few years before her death, the knives were real. She demanded the cameras roll while she rehearsed the stunt, so that if it ended badly, at least it would be in the film. What she doesn’t discuss, at least not in the portion I read, is what the studio spent $1 million on. Suspense looks better than all of Monogram’s other output, but there’s nothing ostentatious enough to warrant such a high price tag.
On the other side of Monogram’s budgets is Gordon Wiles’s The Gangster, the second part of Monday’s double feature. Made in 1947 when Monogram had been rechristened Allied Artists, The Gangster is as low-budget as poverty row features go, and is more creative as a result. Again, Sullivan teams up with Belita, but he’s far more unhinged and she’s completely de-skated. Sullivan plays Shubunka, a man whose name caused considerable laughter every time it was uttered; in the mouths of some of the foreign accented actors in the film, Shubunka comes out like “Chewbacca.” Belita plays Shubunka’s dame, whom his escalating paranoia won’t allow him to trust. She has only a few scenes, but she’s far more convincing and comfortable than in her debut. She is one of the many desperate people who inhabit The Gangster, and the budgetary restrictions work in favor of the film’s sense of despair.
Shubunka seems to be losing his mind, and as the film progresses, it becomes more claustrophobic in its camera setups and its settings. The plot concerns a list that Shubunka’s rivals want to get their hands on in order to control Shubunka’s rackets. Shubunka has a weak-kneed partner named Jammey whom Shubunka thinks will bow to the pressure put on him by rival Cornell (Sheldon Leonard, who would later go on to create several famous sitcoms including The Dick Van Dyke Show). Also in the mix is John Ireland as a desperate gambler whose constant pleading and begging for money to save his skin transcends redundancy to achieve a kind of pathetic grandeur. All this means little to Shubunka (yes, I keep typing Shubunka because it’s fun to say it) because he’s hooked on dames, not only Belita but another, far younger and more innocent girl who works at a soda shop. Had he been handling his business literally instead of figuratively, he might not have wound up heir to one of the coldest noir endings I’ve ever seen.
Keeping the proceedings lively despite the subject matter are Harry Morgan in a comedic role as a horny soda jerk whose Neanderthal comments about women lead him to a very uncomfortable date with a rich cougar, and Elisha Cook Jr. in a cameo as a gun-crazy hitman. They’re fun, but The Gangster wants to be a cautionary tale about how women and crime can fry a man’s conscience and his soul. The underrated Sullivan is compelling as a man whose entire life has been one bad break after another, and he wears his psychological scars both as badge of honor and sense of entitlement. His last scene, in which he stands in the driving rain demanding that his life be taken, is raw and powerful in unexpected ways. Gunned down in the street, The Gangster leaves us with a God’s eye view of our anti-hero laying in the gutter.
Next time: Ringing Postmen, Women in Prison, and The Noir of De Lawd.
The Odienator is still retired from blogging, though the next six weeks in the blogosphere will sorely test that retirement.