Saturday, 24 June 2017


Back in the golden age of Hollywood, there were various levels of films released. At the top were the A pictures, which had the big stars, the big budgets and the big directors. Below them were the B movies, and below those were the programmers, which were even shorter and lower budget. With runtimes of just over an hour, the idea was that they could be sold on a double bill with another movie.

One of the most well-regarded directors of these 'quickies' was Joseph H. Lewis. Working with low budgets, Lewis had a special genius for devising visual strategies that could cover for the lack of dollars and running time.

Next week, the Auckland Film Society will be hosting a screening of Lewis's most famous movie, the 1949 crime classic Gun Crazy. As a prelude to that review, the Midnight Ramble takes a look at three of his movies that serve as perfect examples of his gift for making a lot out of very little.

My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

A young woman looking for work in London, Julia Ross (Nina Foch) finds a job working as a secretary for a well-to-do family. After she spends the night at their residence, Julia wakes up to find herself in a completely different place: a manor house in Cornwall. Her employers now call her 'Marion', and treat her like she is an invalid. It soon becomes clear that she is a pawn in some kind of mad scheme involving the family and the dead woman she has been made to impersonate...

This movie is boatloads of fun - the 65 minute runtime flies by. No scene is wasted, and the budget is never visible. The plot is a distaff combination of tropes from gothic melodramas like Gaslight

While Foch is solid as the title character, the cast is notable for the actors playing the villains. Dame May Whitty is chiefly famous for playing kindly old ladies. Here she has a great time sending up her image as a duplicitous old matriarch, Mrs Hughes. In a more conventional vein, George Macready plays her unstable offspring, Ralph. Macready is famous for playing the villain in Gilda, and is a standout here. A childlike sadist kept in check by his mother, Macready's Ralph is the best thing in the movie.

There really isn't much to the movie. It's just meant to be a solid time-waster, and as such, it does a great job. Joseph H. Lewis directs the whole thing with economy, but manages to inject moments of style and atmosphere (particularly a tense sequence in which a terrified Foch is tormented by an a mysterious intruder in her darkened bedroom).

While no masterpiece (some of the bit players can't hide their American accents -- they sound like Dick Van Dyke), My Name Is Julia Ross is a fine little potboiler and a fun introduction to Lewis's thrifty talents.

The film was later remade in 1987 as Dead of Winter, by Arthur Penn.

So Dark the Night (1946)

Henri Cassin (Steven Geray), a celebrated Paris detective takes a long-deserved holiday to the countryside. The middle-aged detective quickly falls in love with a young debutant - although their romance is curtailed by a jealous rival. When the debutant and her former boyfriend turn up dead, Cassin goes on the hunt for the murderer. Plagued by mocking notes from the killer, the detective grows increasingly despondent as the bodies pile up. But he has to act fast - the killer has one more victim in his sights...

The movie ends with a real humdinger of a twist: Ever dedicated to his craft, Cassin follows the clues back to their logical source: himself. A rather twisted take on Hercule Poirot, in the film's best scene the detective lays out the evidence to his superior and demands that he be arrested.

Steven Geray is an effective, unconventional lead. He is neither handsome nor young - at least by Hollywood standards - but he is incredibly sympathetic, and handles the character's shift into mono-mania with tact and understatement. Even when Cassin does go off the deep-end, it never comes off as hammy.

Unlike Julia Ross, the supporting cast are completely anonymous - there are no familiar faces here, and they all fit into their roles effectively. But apart from Geray, there is no one that really stands out.

More of a traditional whodunit than his previous effort, So Dark The Night is a terrific little picture that looks and feels nothing like Julia Ross. In fact, whereas the short running time worked for Julia Ross's more conventional plot line, the more character-based So Dark The Night could have benefited from more space for character development.

While neither of these films would rank as masterpieces, they are effective and entertaining examples of low budget genre cinema. While they are not as flashy as Lewis's more famous work, both My Name is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night showcase his ability to convey story and atmosphere with an extremely limited palette.

Both movies are available free online.

The Big Combo (1955)
"A woman doesn't care how a man make a living, only how he makes love..."

I saw this movie a few years back when I was on a noir kick. Directed by Gun Crazy's Joseph H. Lewis, The Big Combo is famous as one of the most violent and stylish noir of the classic period.

Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is a cop obsessed: First, with bringing down the gangsters who run his town, including their preening leader, Mr Brown (Richard Conte); and second, with Brown's  girlfriend  (Jean Wallace).

 Chiefly notable for cinematographer John Alton's artful use of chiaroscuro and Lewis's inspired direction, The Big Combo makes up for a fairly rote story with an incredibly vivid visual style. 

The film is stuffed with remarkable scenes: a torture sequence involving a hearing aid is shot with a single overhead light, throwing the victim and his attackers into darkness; an old man  loses his hearing aid before he is shot dead - in a POV shot, we watch gangsters silently shoot at the screen.

The film was infamous in its day for its controversial content - both in terms of its violence and its sexuality. While he uses brute force to get his way, Mr Brown's forte is seduction. Unlike the typical gangsters of Classic Hollywood, Brown bears a closer resemblance to the femme fatales of noir, using his sexual prowess and charm to keep Susan under his control. In one of the film's most bravura sequences, Lewis shoots Susan in an extremely intimate close-up while Brown descends below the frame. 

And then there are Brown's gay henchmen, who - in a daring move - are briefly shown sharing the same bed.

    The cast are a bit of a mixed bag.

    Cornel Wilde is incredibly dull as the protagonist. His obsession with Susan merits some Vertigo-style neurosis but Wilde plays Diamond with one setting: good cop. It's a cliche we've seen a million times before, and Conte brings nothing new to it. His wife Jean Wallace plays Susan, and she is cut from the same boring cloth as her real-life husband, but the script does not give her a lot to do.

    The star of the cast is Richard Conte as Brown. Urbane and arrogant, he is far more sophisticated and appealing than the stolid cop. It's easy to see why Susan could be seduced by a man like him. He steals the movie every time he's onscreen.

    A few familiar faces turn up in the supporting cast. Brian Donlevy is pretty subdued as Brown's second-in-command, while future spaghetti western star Lee Van Cleef plays one of Brown's henchmen.

    Aside from its visual style, the film is notable for its great brassy score by David Raksin. Most noir use orchestral scores (ala Double Indemnity) but Raksin, taking inspiration from the dingy clubs and back alleys of the film, and uses a big band sound to evoke the sleazy atmosphere of the film's underworld. It's terrific.

    However, despite these attributes, The Big Combo is no masterpiece. The script is pedestrian, and the gradual fall of Brown's empire is fairly unsurprising. It is a testament to the talents of the behind-the-scenes talent that The Big Combo is as memorable as it is.

    It is a flashy showcase for Lewis, and notable for some offbeat touches, but ultimately the movie comes up a bit short.

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