Tuesday, November 11, 2008

T - Men (1947)

Director Anthony Mann’s 1947 breakout film T-Men duped me, but that’s what he had in mind. Deception is the theme that resonates throughout the story of Mann’s film and he cleverly delivers that premise of duplicity right into the lap of the audience. Mann sets up the viewer from the opening frames of the film by showing a stern and official statement from the Secretary of the Treasury regarding the money filmed, under their permission, in the movie. Mann then introduces wide shot of the Washington Monument which pans to the Treasury Department building. A narrator gives a brief historical background of the Treasury Department over these images which eventually lead into the office of Elmer Lincoln Irey. Responsible for bringing down Al Capone with Frank J. Wilson and Elliot Ness, Irey was also one of the lead investigators on the Lindberg kidnapping case among other high profile ones in a long illustrious career as a Treasury Agent (T-Man), coordinator of the Treasury Department's law enforcement agency and U.S. Secret Service operation overseer. Filmed sitting at his giant desk with the Washington D.C. skyline in the window behind him, Irey stoically explains that the case we are about to see is a composite of several counterfeiting cases the Treasury Department cracked over the years. With such a beginning we’re set up for all the makings of a by the book documentary style film. T-Men however is a surprisingly gritty and suspenseful work containing some of the most striking and impressive visuals in film noir history.

From Irey’s office we cut to Los Angeles where a man in a trench coat lurks in black slabs of shadow. Human forms are dwarfed by asymmetrical shots of stark buildings shrouded in the dark of night. A nefarious figure in an alley is uniquely framed by the camera between the legs of a man who guns him down. These sets of dynamic shots are beautifully jarring compared to the formal introduction of the film and also a key indicator that what we are about to watch unfold is certainly not a dry documentary style film. The murdered man, we later learn, was a Treasury Department informant set to turn over a paper sample used by a top counterfeiting ring. This opening sequence sets the stage for our story of a mafia counterfeiting operation and two T-Men going undercover to bust it up before their true identities are discovered and they wind up deader than Presidents on dollar bills.Treasury Agents Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) are put on the case of cracking the major counterfeiting ring that spans between the mob in Los Angeles and Detroit. O’Brien and Genaro are assigned to begin in Detroit where they research the local crime history and create their undercover identities of two hoods from a defunct motor city gang. With their new identities, flashy suits and help from the local police (who “legitimize” their criminality with the local hoods), O’Brien and Genaro sell their parts convincingly enough to get in on the ground floor of the Vantucci mob. This crew directly benefits from the L.A. based counterfitting production among other illegal enterprises.

After getting the lowdown on the Vantucci mob’s operation, O’Brien goes to Los Angeles to track down a man named The Schemer (Wallace Ford) who coordinates the fraudulent currency between L.A. and Detroit while Genaro stays behind keeping tabs on the Vantuccis. O’Brien tracks down The Schemer and infiltrates the counterfeiting ring in Los Angeles with a counterfeit bill of his own supplied by the Treasury Department. The engraving on O’Brien’s phony bill is of the highest quality but the paper is sub par. The Schemer’s counterfeiting connections have aesthetically inferior photoengraved bills but their paper is nearly indistinguishable from real U.S. currency. O’Brien uses these elements to bargain with the counterfeiters: his superior engraved plates coupled with their high quality paper to make the best fake bills possible. O’Brien gets to meet with the higher ups in the ring with their expectations being he will deliver them his superb plates. At that time O’Brien and his fellow T-Men will stop the presses on the fraudulent operation.

O’Brien and Genaro’s undercover operation is jeopardized on several occasions as their true identities are repeatedly on the verge of being discovered by the mob. Both men play their parts well, but The Schemer becomes suspicious after he and Genaro run into the agent’s wife and her friend at the market one day. Genaro and his wife (June Lockhart) awkwardly pretend not to know one another. The Schemer however detects the strange exchange between the two and tells the mob bosses there’s something fishy about Genaro. The Schemer is partially motivated to do so for self preservation as he has somewhat fallen out of favor with the mob and believes they may kill him. His paranoia was also the impetus for him keeping a coded book in which he recorded all the mob’s illegal activities. This book was a potential bargaining chip for The Schemer in case he got into dire straights with the mob or the authorities. Genaro and O’Brien learn of The Schemer’s book and exploit his paranoia in an attempt to get their hands on the book and the invaluable information it contains. The plans however go awry for our undercover T-Men and bodies on both sides of the law start dropping as the stakes increase.

For much of the film Anthony Mann focuses on the characters of O’Brien and Genaro; specifically each embracing their new identities. While deceit and duplicity are necessary means to breaking the case and keeping them alive, O’Brien and Genaro seem to adopt their roles so thoroughly, the viewer begins to question their lives outside of their undercover characters. When we’re first shown O’Brien he’s on an airplane headed to a briefing in Washington D.C. The woman beside him, wearing a feathered hat, falls asleep on his shoulder. The feathers keep tickling his face and a stewardess quietly questions him if he wants her to wake up the woman beside him. O’Brien shakes his head no and humorously pantomimes a request for a pair of scissors to supposedly clip the feathers that are bothering him. Showing an affable side, the brief scene is placed as a stark juxtaposition to the O’Brien we see for the rest of the film. The undercover O’Brien is a tough, streetwise, cunning and violent force. Mann seems to practically deny their humanity outside of their undercover identities. Our introduction to Tony Genaro’s character takes place on a train (heading to the same briefing as O’Brien) as he carefully sets a small standing frame containing a picture of his wife before beginning his paperwork. His wife is not an extension or indicator of Tony’s humanity. She simply becomes a plot device, adding to the sum of duplicity, double-crossing and corruption in the underworld in which they now operate and live. At times Genaro and especially O’Brien seem to relish the perversity of their lives as mobsters. Mann’s purpose in this approach leaves the viewer unsettled, anxious, and feeling hoodwinked without any stock or convenient emotional connections to the protagonists. Mann however keeps the audience off-balance not only by his narrative choices, but his stellar visuals helmed by the director of photography John Alton.

The overall look of the film is the real standout star. John Alton had a true gift for incorporating a tense dichotomy of light and dark in the same frame. His use of shadow often changes men into menacing silhouettes. Alton also integrated daring strokes of light against these black figures giving us just glimpse enough of their eyes, for example, to be reminded of their humanity (or lack of it). Alton was truly a master of the fast fall-off lighting effect. His expertise in this area yields stunning contrasts from the precisely lit characters to the near all-encompassing atmosphere of shadow in which they maneuver. Mann and Alton continue to keep the audience off guard by using oblique and unusual angles to film the action. John Alton excels in framing and positioning characters inside the natural landscapes of the city and other surroundings resulting in dynamic shots. He also had unique ways of creating tension simply by positioning the camera in low and unorthodox angles. One such instance occurs when O’Brien is quickly trying to recover one of the counterfeit plates he’s stashed under a bathroom sink while one of the mob cronies is at the same basin washing up. Time is of the essence as he literally has minutes to recover it, but if the goon sees him grab the plate his cover will be blown. Instead of perhaps a conventional medium shot depicting the action, Alton places the camera at the feet of the men pivoted up to reveal the bottom of the sink. This angle shows the plate’s hiding spot and O’Brien’s hands nervously fumbling to grab the plate while the casual banter between the two is taking place off camera. The anxiety and stress of the situation is exponentially magnified by Alton’s simple yet brilliant decision of camera placement. He also utilizes deep focus shots, reflective surfaces, camera movement and many other techniques masterfully. If someone asked me to choose one example of what film noir looked like, I would likely sit them down and show them T-Men. Aesthetically it’s simply astonishing.

T-Men however isn’t flawless. There are a few holes in the plot and I found the narrator’s voice-overs distracting toward the finale just to name a few. Despite some shaky areas in the story, Dennis O’Brien’s standout performance truly helped to compensate for the detractions. Despite the aforementioned weaknesses, director Anthony Mann adroitly stays on task with a nice narrative pace and quality exposition. What puts T-Men in a whole different stratosphere is Alton’s photography. The man had a true gift for visual composition, lighting and of course camerawork. If anything the visuals alone secure T-Men among the elite titles in the film noir cannon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hangover Square (1945)

As I was going down the list in my head to confirm that Hangover Square indeed met the proper criteria to be considered a film noir, on paper it seemed like a sure thing: adequate ice water running through the veins of a prominent femme fatale character – check, male lead character unable to resist devious charms of said femme fatale – check, crazy blackout and flashback sequences – check, murders occurring during said blackout sequences – check, lead character experiencing overwhelming sense of dread from events beyond his control – check, cinematographer being far from stingy with shadows and chiaroscuro lighting – check, detectives on the hunt for a killer - check. Sounds like we got all the fixings for a classic film noir right? Not so fast, Hangover Square isn’t your run of the mill noir. I’d say it’s more like a cousin to the conventional film noir. It contains much of the same DNA, but it’s not in the immediate family. Hangover Square, despite its surface appearance being incongruous to the film noir category, is a beautifully shot and overlooked thriller that merits a view through the noir lens.

George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) is a dull, sad sack type of figure, but he possesses a bright future as a music composer. He’s on the verge finishing a concerto that carries great potential for international recognition according to his sponsor Lord Henry Chapman (Alan Napier) and his talented pianist daughter Barbara (Faye Marlowe). Things would be looking pretty well for George if it wasn’t for those pesky blackouts he occasionally experiences. When he comes to from them, he has the sneaking suspicion that he has committed some bad deeds under their influence. We know George’s foreboding is valid as contained in the opening scene of the film where George stabs a London shopkeeper in his store and then flees the crime scene after setting it ablaze. George commits these crimes without conscious knowledge, but he has grave concern as to the nature of his blackouts and conveys these anxieties to Barbara. She tells him not to be burdened due to his gentile nature. George however decides to speak to Dr. Allan Middleton (George Sanders), an acquaintance at Scotland Yard who is not a police officer but a psychiatrist figure of sorts. He allays George’s fears after checking out his latest blackout story (he can’t find any evidence to link George to the shopkeeper stabbing and fire) and tells him to relax as the stress of completing his concerto may be triggering these blackouts. These spells don’t cease however and neither does the George Bone blackout violence that ensues as the movie progresses.

To distract himself from his worries, George decides to take in a show at a local beer hall. This is where he first sees dazzling songbird Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) performing a bawdy musical number in front of a bunch of drunken blokes. After the set George goes back stage and tells Longdon he admires her singing. She’s unimpressed with the compliment until her manager, who has heard of George's talents, properly introduces her to him with the intention of George possibly writing some new material for Netta. George spot composes a tune for her, amalgamates her lyrics into it and the result is a very catchy number. It’s so good her manager sells the song for 50 guineas soon after. Netta realizes that with George’s talents at her disposal, he would make an ample stepping stone for her career. George falls hard for the gorgeous Netta and is hopelessly wrapped around her finger. She exploits his affections and musical talents for her career gain and then tries to discard him when he gets wise to her plan. Unfortunately this wisdom came after George had just sprung an engagement ring on her. His moment of clarity, in realizing Netta’s opaque motives, happened after learning of her pending engagement to a successful promoter that could shoot Netta’s star much higher into the stratosphere than George’s talent ever could.

George is devastated at this development. Upon returning to his apartment he furiously throws Netta’s sheet music against the wall where a number of his instruments are leaning up against it. The violins, cymbals and other instruments come crashing down together and the loud discordant sound (we finally learn) is the catalyst for George’s murderous blackout spells. He immediately becomes thrown into a trance and is off to Netta’s place in a state of murderous somnambulism. He strangles Netta and his subsequent disposal of her body leads to the most striking and uncannily creepy scene of the film.

George formulates a clever plan (he’s apparently capable of doing such even under these homicidal spells) to destroy Netta’s fresh corpse out in the open, in front of hundreds of witnesses. Serendipitously the evening he snuffs out Netta is Guy Fawkes Night in England. The ceremonial burning of Guy Fawkes effigies in the center of the neighborhood square happens with a towering bonfire. Before the giant pyre is lit ablaze, people pile on the effigies and George is the last to contribute his own “Guy.” George climbs up the long ladder with Netta’s wrapped body slung over his shoulder and a Guy Fawkes mask over her face. George slowly inches his way up the mammoth mound and simultaneously we see the mask starting to slip off Netta’s face; it’s becoming exposed to the sizable crowd below at the base of the pile. The tension increases as the crowd eggs on George to hurry up. They even begin to light the base of the pile on the opposite side as George climbs down the ladder after depositing Netta at the top. At the very least it’s an extremely suspenseful and powerful scene. Not only is the entire sequence beautifully shot and edited, it concludes with people dancing in a circle around the bonfire. Their huge shadows cast against buildings and streets from the fire’s light makes for chillingly effective cinema. The scene is even more unsettling however when considering Linda Darnell’s real life demise came from a domestic house fire in which she suffered extensive burns and died the next day.

Hangover Square concludes with a distinctly dramatic, but very well filmed scene where George finally gets to have his concerto played in a concert hall with full instrumentation backing him. This finale has some truly impressive sweeping camerawork that’s well coordinated with the stellar soundtrack. The police and Dr. Middleton are on to his uncontrollable homicidal ways at this point in the film. George literally goes down in flames and concludes the films trio of fiery scenes that serve as narrative cruxes for George and the viewer. Tragically, George finally gets to hear his concerto, but the price of the ticket is his descent into all consuming madness. The insanity he once grappled with now totally engulfs him like the flames that claim his body in the timeless, haunting final shot.

Much of this description may sound like a film noir, but the twist to consider is the setting: 1903, turn of the century London. The street lamps are gas powered and not electric as were used to seeing in noir, but cinematographer Joseph LaShelle does a fantastic job with lighting, framing and camera movement. He especially exceeds in choosing some great low and high camera angles along with some textbook noir shots such as George showing up at Netta’s door with new song in hand for her. LaShelle and director John Braham made some clever visual choices along the way. In one sequence near the finale, Dr. Middleton (who now believes George is a killer) questions George (who now knows he’s a killer) in his flat as he prepares for his concerto debut. Braham films Middleton in near darkness while positioning George in well lit areas of the room in a nice contrast to symbolic visual conventions. Another clever touch in the scene is Dr. Middleton querying George about a particular type of knot identified as used upon some of the victims that were strangled while getting plenty of close-ups of George tying the knot on his bow-tie in tandem with all the strangulation chat.
One aspect of Hangover Square that stands out is the fantastic musical score by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. He’s able to deliver a superior suspenseful score for the film, but he also does a very impressive piece of composing with the concerto finale performed at the end. Herrmann did a similar task a decade later with Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much by writing a composition that served as the centerpiece of the films dramatic climax. While it doesn’t hinge on something as specific as the cymbal crash in Hitchcock’s film for example, the concerto is a device that drives the plot in the film. Hermann’s concerto piece sounds spectacular and for the story to have some weight, it had to be such. The concerto is what drives and motivates George Henry Bone to potential greatness, but ends up delivering him into actualized madness.

There is a ridiculous aspect to the film that sticks in the logic craw: the inexplicable homicidal trances that George undergoes when hearing loud discordant noises. Not only do we not know how this petite peccadillo began, but also why these types of sounds trigger this behavior in George Harvey Bone. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the William Bendix character in The Blue Dahlia that is driven crazy when he hears jazz “monkey music.” It does serve a purpose in that it facilitates the noir trope of the criminal as sympathetic victim. Its unaccountability is not so unforgivable as to completely undermine the many positives of the film. What bothered me most about the way it was not explained or handled was that John Braham didn’t seem to know how to do so in the first place. There’s a difference between being artfully kept in the dark and feeling like you’ve simply been left behind there.

The casting is strong all around with Laird Cregar turning in a truly fine (albeit slightly over the top during his wild eyed flashbacks) performance. Linda Darnell is fantastic however in the devious femme fatale role of Netta Longdon. Darnell lends enough credibility to Netta by not going overboard and hard selling her character’s selfish motives to the audience. She lets Netta’s self-centered ways show themselves in a seemingly organic fashion and unfold at a believable pace. Darnell’s less than consistent number of appearances in film over the years, before her demise, is a true loss for her fans of which I am certainly one.

While turn of the century gaslight Victorian London may not seem like an obvious setting for a film noir, at the very least it becomes a surprisingly serviceable one under the direction of Braham and the camerawork of LaShelle. The essential film noir elements are there, but more so it’s a well-crafted and finely acted thriller that deserves some recognition and kudos. At the very least it warrants viewing for the combination of Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, the score of Herrmann and those fantastic scenes combining infernos and insanity.