Out of the Fog (1941) Anatole Litvak

out-o-fthe-fog-title

“Out of the Fog” is based on a 1939 play called “The Gentle People” by Irwin Shaw. The play ran for a respectable four and half months on Broadway and had one heck of a cast that included Franchot Tone, Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Sylvia Sydney, Elia Kazan, Martin Ritt and Karl Malden. It was produced by the legendary Group Theater and directed by the visionary Harold Clurman.  The play was an anti-fascist parable (Shaw subtitled the play, A Brooklyn Fable) of the meek overcoming the arrogant and the powerful. In the play the two main characters were elderly gentle Jewish men, Jonah Goodman and Philip Anagnos, who are shaken down for five dollars a week in protection money by a smart aleck, stylishly dressed, wise ass gangster named Harold Goff (Tone). Goff also awakens the dreams and sexuality of Jonah’s bored daughter Stella (Sydney) who has hopes of leaving her meaningless existence for a more exciting life. When Goff learns the two fishermen have money saved to buy a boat, he demands they hand the savings over to him too. In order to rid themselves of Goff’s extortion and threats, the two fishermen lure him into their boat. Once they are out in the ocean they kill him and toss him overboard but not before taking his wallet filled with the money. Continue reading

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Anatole Litvak

Sorry-Wrong-Number-movie-title-screen

Based on Lucille Fletcher’s highly popular radio play, “Sorry, Wrong Number” was brought to the screen in 1948 by producer Hal B. Wallis and Paramount. The film was directed by Anatole Litvak and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. The original radio show featured Agnes Moorehead and was primarily a tense one woman dialogue for the complete twenty-two minute show. The program was so popular, Moorehead reprised her role several times over the years, but when Wallis and Paramount purchased the property, they decided Moorehead was not a big enough star for the lead role in the film. So here came Stanwyck who had just signed a contract with Wallis making this her first film under the new agreement.

Sorry, Wrong, Number LC1To expand the original short radio script into a feature film, Lucille Fletcher “opened” up her original story which she accomplished by adding a series of flashbacks and even some flashbacks within flashbacks, expanding the role of the husband, played by Lancaster. Fletcher would also turn the screenplay into a novel the same year the movie was released.

Stanwyck is Leona Stevenson, the bed ridden wealthy invalid, neurotic to the core, with more pills on her end table than Pfizer Inc. produces in a month of Sundays. She is confined to her lavish bedroom apartment, overlooking the New York City skyline.  One evening Leona, attempting to call her boy toy husband Henry, accidently due to crossed telephone lines, overhears two men discussing a murder plot. She calls the police, then her father and finally her doctor, but no one believes her. Continue reading

Out of the Fog (1941) Anatole Litvak

“Out of the Fog” is based on a 1939 play called “The Gentle People” by Irwin Shaw that ran for four and half months on Broadway. The play had one heck of a cast that included Franchot Tone, Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Sylvia Sydney, Elia Kazan, Martin Ritt and Karl Malden. It was produced by the legendary Group Theater and directed by the visionary Harold Clurman.  The play was an anti-fascist parable (Shaw subtitled the play, A Brooklyn Fable) of the meek overcoming the arrogant and the powerful. In the play the two main characters were elderly gentle Jewish men, Jonah Goodman and Philip Anagnos, who are shaken down for five dollars a week in protection money by smart aleck, stylishly dressed, wise ass gangster, Harold Goff (Tone). Goff also awakens the dreams and sexuality of Jonah’s bored daughter Stella (Sydney) who has hopes of leaving her meaningless existence for a more exciting life. When Goff learns the two fishermen have money saved to buy a boat, he demands they hand that over to him too. In order to rid themselves of Goff’s extortion and threats, the two fishermen lure him into their boat, once out in the ocean they kill him and toss him overboard but not before taking his wallet filled with the money.    Continue reading

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) Anatole Litvak

“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”  is an odd little Warner’s film with Edward G. Robinson as a Park Avenue doctor who decides to do some research on criminal behavior by becoming a criminal himself. After stealing some expensive jewelry at a dinner party he seeks out a fence by the name of Joe Keller who turns out to be Jo Keller (Claire Trevor), a woman. Jo’s gang includes “Rocks” Valentine (Humphrey Bogart), a young Ward Bond, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and Warner Brothers’ regular Allan Jenkins.

To continue his research the good doctor goes on “vacation” in Europe freeing him up from his practice to secretly join the gang in a series of daring robberies. This is a out of the ordinary film that manages at times to be suspenseful, funny, and sinister with a whiff of mad scientist thrown in for good measure. At times the actors seem to be in different films; Bogart in a straight gangster film with “Rocks” in the ranks of his greatest slime ball characters while Robinson acts as a scientifically aloof madman obsessed with his findings going to any length to save his breakthrough research.

In the final courtroom scene Clitterhouse is on trial for poisoning “Rocks” after he discovered the Doctor’s real identity and blackmails him forcing in to stay in the gang. Clitterhouse objects to testimony in court that he must be insane fearing all his research would be disregarded. Still the jury finds him innocent by reason of insanity leaving Clitterhouse not only confused but innocent of murder charges, an ending that was daring for its time when the production code was strictly enforced and criminals must pay for their sins.

The script was written by John Wexley and John Huston based on a play by Barre Lyndon, and was directed by the reliable Anatole Litvak. It was during the filming of this movie that Bogart and Huston met and became friends, a partnership that would lead to some of Hollywood’s greatest films. Huston, Robinson, Bogart and Trevor would reunite some ten years later in “Key Largo.”    

 ***

The Snake Pit (1948) Anatole Litvak

There were few films in 1948 that match up to the power of Anatole Litvak’s “The Snake Pit,” a film that was groundbreaking in its day.  Mental Illness was not dealt with on screen, at least not at the level and detail seen here.  The institutional living conditions these people were forced to live in was swept under the rug, as they say. Mary Jane Ward’s novel was based on her own experiences as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. After reading Ward’s first person novel, director Anatole Litvak wanted to bring the harrowing story to the screen. Naturally, the subject matter was considered too controversial and downbeat for most studios. 20th Century Fox finally agreed to make the film, which Litvak would not only direct but co-produced.

Olivia de Havilland was not the first choice for the role, that spot went to Gene Tierney who had to bow out due to a pregnancy. de Havilland threw herself into the role, spending time researching, personally watching shock therapy treatments and visiting institutions, talking with doctors, nurses and patients. She apparently also was able to spend time in doctor/patient therapy sessions.  Director Litvak wanted the actors and crew members to visit mental institutions in order to experience first hand what it was like.       

The film tells the story of Virginia Cunningham, a young married woman who has a nervous breakdown and is committed to a mental hospital. We follow her as she slowly finds her way back from depths of insanity. At her lowest point, Virginia is incapable of remembering who she is, where she is or why. She is subjected to electro-shock therapy and other treatments, forced to live in a dorm like environment with other patients. Eventually with the help of a caring doctor (Leo Glenn) Virginia begins to explore her subconscious delving back to her childhood, (through flashbacks), the strict upbringing by her mother and the loss of a considerate father. Here she discovers the roots of her illness, the pain and guilt she has been carrying inside, and ultimately she is cured.    

The conditions inside the institution are horrid. The nursing staff headed by Nurse Davis (Helen Craig) an obvious relative to Nurse Ratched who seems to derive pleasure, in one of the film’s most shocking scenes, when she turns on the juice over and over again during the administration of Virginia’s Electro-Shock sessions. 

While Virginia’s illness is portrayed realistically, her cure is a little too straightforward though one must remember the medical treatments are limited to knowledge and practices of more than 60 years ago. The film also gives us a strong flavor of other patients in the wards. There is Marty (Betsy Blair) who does not like to be touched and will strangle anyone who comes near her. Celeste Holms is Grace, seen early in the film who tries to comfort Virginia soon after her arrival and a host of others portrayed by some fine character actors among them Beulah Bondi, Ruth Donnelly, Minna Goombell and Katherine Locke.

There is one particularly visually stunning sequence when, after Virginia has a “relapse,” she is put into a pit like area with other patients. The theory as it is explained is that putting normal people into this pit like area would drive them insane, subsequently, putting insane people into the pit would cure them. As this sequence is filmed, Litvak’s camera is shooting down from extremely high above toward the pit, continuously pulling back revealing a long deep pit with the patients walking aimlessly around. 

Other films have dealt with mental disease over the years, (The Bell Jar, Frances) but this film still remains a harrowing experience. After its release, the film led to reforms in mental institutions in various states across the country. In England a disclaimer was added at the beginning of the film stating that everyone appearing in the film was an actor and that similar institutions in England were not like the one portrayed in the film.

 In the 1960’s there was a backlash against this film by feminist who claimed that Virginia only improved once she accepted that her role in life was subservient, first to the nurses and then as she prepares to accept a life of that of a  mother and a housewife.  A closer look at the film reveals that throughout the film, Virginia fights the authorities the best she could under the stringent circumstance and as a writer never reveals any sign that, she is giving up her career upon her release.

The film received multiple Academy Award nominations that year including Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Music Score. The film won an Oscars for Best Sound Recording.

The Spiral Staircase (1946) Robert Siodmak

The opening scenes of “The Spiral Staircase” where we first meet Helen (Dorothy McGuire) takes place in a hotel ballroom that has been set up as a make shift Movie Theater. The hand written sign states there are two showings, 4:30 and 7:30. There is a silent film flickering on the screen, a woman is on the piano accompanying the storyline. In the back, we see a “projectionist” hand cranking the film through the projector. Finally, there is the audience sitting on hard wooden benches enthralled by the flicking of this infant art. It is a great scene for film lovers who get a glimpse at what it was like when the movies were young.

While the movie is playing, up in one of the hotel rooms a young woman is changing her clothes, the closet door is open and we get an eerie feeling she is not alone. The camera moves toward the clothes and suddenly we can sense there is someone in the closet. The next shot is an extreme close up of a wide-open eye, almost hidden between the hanging clothes. In the eye we see the reflection of the woman who is about to be murdered.

It’s a brilliant opening to a magnificent thriller that Hitchcock would have been proud to have made. Instead, the film is the child of another master of dark suspense, Robert Siodmak and the master of shadows and light, Nicholas Musuraca. It is Musuraca’s evocative lighting, his painting shadows on the walls, combined with the masterful camera placement of Siodmak that make this film so thrilling. A combination of low-angles and stark lighting against wrought iron fences and circular a staircase creates an eeriness that sends chills down the spine. The entire film is painstakingly crafted and well acted. The film is both a throwback to works like “The Old Dark House” where there are drenching rains, crackling thunder, candles that mysterious blow out, and the more current cinema of directors of recent thrillers like John Carpenter.

Though the plot is standard fare, the fine direction and magnificent cinematography make it all quite terrorizing. Helen is a mute servant for the sick and elderly bed-ridden Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also living in the mansion are the ill matriarch’s womanizing son Steve (Gordon Olivier), her stepson, Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), his assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming),  an abusive old biddy of a nurse (Sarah Allgood) , Mrs. Coates the housekeeper (Elsa Lanchester) who likes to hit the bottle and her groundskeeper husband, Mr. Coates. There is the new doctor in town, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) who wants to take Helen to Boston for treatments that will hopefully restore her voice, the result of a childhood trauma.

When another beautiful handicapped woman is murdered in town, the third in a series, it becomes apparent a serial killer is on the loose focusing on “imperfect” women. Fearing Helen might be next, Mrs. Warren tells her that she should leave town immediately, go somewhere safe. However before she can get out……..well, let me stop here, I don’t want to spoil it.

Most of the story takes place inside the Warren’s large Victorian style home. The murder suspects are plentiful. There is the womanizing Steven who is having a fling with his brother’s secretary Blanche, or maybe it is the “kind” Professor Warren, or maybe it is the groundskeeper Mr. Coates who sneaks leering peaks at Helen.  Who the killer is becomes fairly obvious but this does not distract from the fun.

The movie is based on a novel called “Someone Must Watch” by Ethel Lina White who also penned the original story that was the source for Hitchcock’s film, “The Lady Vanishes.” The novel was first turned into a radio play with Helen Hayes. The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli who would go on to write other suspense films like “Cause for Alarm”, “The Suspect” and “Beware, My Lovely.” The screenplay would not only change the novel’s setting from England to New England but would also move the setting back from contemporary times to the early turn of the 20th Century to give it a more gothic feel.  At one point, Ingrid Bergman was considered for the lead role.

The cast is a good one starting with Dorothy McGuire’s performance as Helen. Though mute, McGuire manages a wide range of emotions in a compelling performance. Surprisingly, Ethel Barrymore was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the belligerent bed-ridden matriarch of the Warren family. Not that she is bad, she’s fine, it just seems like the role did not require the best use of her talents. The rest of the cast includes George Brent as the stepson, Gordon Oliver as Steven her playboy son, Rhonda Fleming is Professor’s secretary who has a fling with Steven and a rib tickling performance from Elsa Lanchester as the inebriated Mrs. Coates.

“The Spiral Staircase” became a blue print for many disabled woman thrillers that would follow in its path, “See No Evil,” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “Wait Until Dark” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” to name a few. The film was remade in 1975 with Jacqueline  Bisset and again in 2000 as made for television movie with Nicollette Sheridan.  Almost needless to say neither reached the level of the original film.

****1/2

Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) Anatole Litvak

The effects of what was happening in Europe during the 1930’s changed attitudes of many in Hollywood. Anti-fascist groups organized, some led by movie stars like Paul Muni, James Cagney Melvyn Douglas and Sylvia Sydney. Most of the American public was still recovering from the depression and were not concerned about the potential war that was about to erupt in Europe and felt that American interest were best served by staying out of the furor building up over there. As late as 1939, Joe Kennedy, America’s Ambassador to England was at odds with President Roosevelt over Roosevelt’s providing ships to aid Churchill and England who feared an invasion by Hitler.

Warner Brothers, the most socially committed of all the major studios, led by Jack Warner, always persisted in making films that provided more than just entertainment value. In the early 1930’s Warner’s produced films that were ripped from “today’s headlines”, films with a message, “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, “Heroes for Sale”, “The Public Enemy” and “They Won’t Forget” to name a few. In the late 1930’s Warner’s, unlike MGM, closed their business operations in Germany after their offices were attacked by hate mongers that resulted in the death of one employee. This was done despite the fact that Germany was Hollywood’s largest European customer at the time.

Based on a series of articles by former FBI agent Leon G. Torrou, who had been active as an agent investigating the infiltration of Nazi spies in the United States, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” is considered the first anti-Nazi film to come out of Hollywood.

The story involves Dr. Karl Kassel (Paul Lukas) a propagandist who has come to America to rally support for the Nazi cause focusing on German-Americans. He brings forth the Fuehrer words that Germans are Germans first and Americans second and that they need to help bring down the evils of democracy.  An unemployed disaffected man name Kurt Schneider (Frances Lederer) joins the cause, agreeing spy for the Nazis. Schneider manages to obtain sensitive troop information deceiving a German-American soldier (Joe Sawyer) into providing the data.  A German passenger ship, the Bismarck, is continuously transporting new agents into America, including Hilda Kleinhauser who will eventually be apprehended by FBI agent Ed Renard (Edward G. Robinson) who has been assigned to investigate the case. When Miss Kleinhauser confesses and Schneider is arrested, the domino effect of the entire spy ring begins to crumble.

Directed by Anatole Litvak, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” was a powerful document for the time, awakening Americans to the threat that war at their front door. Believing that Hitler and the war was Europe’s problem only, many American’s wanted to continue an isolationist policy. For making the film, producer Jack Warner would face accusations of being a warmonger. The film is done in a semi-documentary style incorporating actual news clips throughout the story.  Overall, the film is fast paced and thoroughly engrossing. Edward G. Robinson delivers a typical strong performance as the lead FBI agent Renard expounding  on the evils of the Nazi threat and America’s do nothing policy. The real acting highlight belongs to Paul Lukas as Dr. Kassel whose pro-Nazi rants are frighteningly as real as those you see of Hitler himself. George Sanders is also on board playing Nazi officer Franz Schlager. 

It should be mentioned that many actors and behind the scenes artists who worked on this film feared a backlash back in Germany. Actors and crew with family members still living in the fatherland feared for their safety. Some actors resorted to changing their names to help in hiding their identity.  Composer Max Steiner and cinematographer Ernest Haller received no credit on this film, which may have been purposeful on their part fearing a backlash to relatives back in Germany. The film was banned in both Germany and Japan as well as other European countries that had fallen to the Nazi machine. It is rumored Hitler promised to kill everyone involved in the making of this film after Germany has won the war.

Considered the first film to be released on the topic of anti-Nazism the film was released six months prior to the start of the war in 1939, awakening Americans to the danger of Hitler’s Germany. Still, there were isolationists who refused to take heed. There were groups in America who considered anti-Nazism to mean you were pro-communism. Supporters of Germany branded actors like Edward G. Robinson, Frances Leader, studio head Jack Warner and others communists or at least communist supporters.   In the film if you look closely you will see a propaganda flyer headline that accuses then President Franklin Roosevelt of being a communist.  

By 1940 and after, other filmmakers and studios jumped on the anti-Nazi bandwagon as Hitler’s terror spread across Europe with films like “All Through the Night”, “Foreign Correspondent”, :Man Hunt and “The Mortal Storm.”  After MGM released “The Mortal Storm in 1940, Hitler banned MGM films.  “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” remains the most blatant and one of the most interesting. 

One last note, director Don Siegel worked on the montage sequences of this film.

***1/2