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. There’s a hand written sign that states there are two showings, 4:30 and 7:30. Then we see 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 flickering images of this infant art. It is a great scene that gives film lovers 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 buried within, 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 Alfred 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 a circular 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 filled with scenes of drenching rain, 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. We have the womanizing Steven who is having a fling with his brother’s secretary Blanche. There 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.  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.

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All Through the Night (1941) Vincent Sherman

Bogart Takes on the Nazis.

Produced and released  by Warner Brothers, always the most socially conscience of the studios,  this 1941 propaganda film came out just months before America would enter World War II. Starring Humphrey Bogart as “Gloves” Donahue, a local hoodlum who runs the neighborhood bookie operations. “Glove’s” is a long way from Bogart’s other roles as a gangster. Here he is sort of a neighborhood Robin Hood with his gang, a bunch of Damon Runyonesque type comedic characters.

Most of the neighborhood seems to like “Gloves”, except for the cops, and his rivals led by Barton McLane. Conrad Veidt plays Ebbing, the head Nazi who commands an underground organization of fifth columnist with sabotage on their mind. Peter Lorre is Pepi, Ebbing’s little weasel of an assistant.

“Gloves” involvement begins when a neighborhood German baker is murdered by the master of creepiness, Peter Lorre. The baker was a friend of “Gloves” mother and made his favorite cheesecake, so at his mother’s beckoning he begins to look into the killing. When a nightclub bouncer is also murdered and one of “Gloves” gloves is found at the scene, the police can only conclude one thing, he is the murderer.

While trying to prove his innocence “Gloves” investigation leads him to discover a group of fifth columnist with plans to sabotage the New York Harbor by blowing up a naval battleship. The police, who are clueless about the German threat, are only interested in  fingering “Gloves” for the murders.

Surprisingly, the film is amazingly light in its humor considering that the war was going strong in Europe by this time. Released on December 2nd, according to IMDB, only days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America would enter the war. The release may have been only in Los Angeles though because the New York Times review is dated January 24th  1942 and makes note that this is a “pre Pearl Harbor” film, “lest anyone raises the  objection that it plays too fast and loose with a subject much too serious for melodramatic kidding in these times.”  The review, by Bosley Crowther, then goes on to say, “One would hate to think that an enemy plot of such elaborate magnitude as the one presented here should be so completely overlooked by our capable F. B. I. (italics mine), and that the responsibility for licking it should fall upon a semi-gangster. So don’t even let yourself think that this picture pretends to be fact. It is straight, unadulterated fiction pulled out of a script-writer’s hat.”

So here we are now some 70 years later, and considering what we have been going through since 2001, such blind faith in the F.B.I. or Homeland Security or any other Government Agency is naiveté of the highest order. I am not picking on Mr. Crowthers, as I usually do, I’m sure that many Americans had blind faith in and felt secure that organizations like the F.B.I had security matters well in hand back in those days.

Much of the films humor is supplied by members of “Gloves” gang, consisting of fanciful character actors like William Demarest and Frank McHugh along with some additional bizarre casting of Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. McHugh’s character is newly married and the running joke throughout the film is that he cannot consummate his marriage because he is always helping  “Gloves” in hunting down the Nazis. Gleason and Silvers are regulated to humorous roles that are close to slapstick level.

There is a touch of seriousness thrown into the mix when “Gloves” in his search to find the murderers comes across nightclub singer Leda Hamilton (Karren Verne), a young woman who is first made to seem to be aiding the Nazis. We soon find out that Leda is being forced to help them because her father is a prisoner in Dachau. Ebbing promises to keep him alive as long as she helps them with their sabotage plans.

The cast also includes Jane Darwell as “Gloves” mother, Judith Anderson as an assistant to Ebbing and Barton McLane as Callahan, the rival gang leader. Bogart handles his role in typical Bogie fashion, cool and unflappable. Peter Lorre and Karren Verne would marry, in real life, a few years after this film was made. Today, “All Through the Night” comes across as a bizarre little film, somewhat uncomfortable in its humor, melodramatic with some odd casting but still entertaining enough.

***

Alibi (1929) Roland West

“Alibi” is a early American film sound film that attempted to do more with the new invention of sound than just let its actors speak. Directed by Roland West the film opens with the credits in total silence. My first thought was what is wrong? However when the film proper starts we are introduced to an innovative use of sound that must have thrilled audiences back in those early days of 1929. We are in a prison and the camera is focused on prisoner marching, their feet seemingly pounding on the pavement.  The camera cuts to a prison guard beating his nightstick on the cement wall behind him in a rhythmic beat. More prisoners exit their cells marching, the shoes loudly proclaiming each step taken.  We cut to the warden’s office where Chick Williams (Chester Morris) is about to be released from jail. Here is the second piece of what makes this film interesting, the art direction. The warden’s office is bathed in sunshine coming from a window situated high up. The large room is stark, empty except for a desk. From there we cut to nightclub. West camera is amazingly mobile moving fluidly down and through the wide halls of the art deco styled club.

It is an amazingly stylistic opening, sophisticated beyond most films of the period. Unfortunately from this point on the film begins to go downhill. The script is creaky and  the acting by some cast members verges on laughable. One character’s performance,  a young Regis Toomey is unbelievably bad. His death scene is a dragged out affair as he says goodbye to everyone that you find yourself begging  for him to just croak and end our misery as well as his own.

As a result, “Alibi” is a film that turns out be both impressive and a disappointment. Impressive in it use of sound, with art direction by none other than William Cameron Menzies, and disappointing that the film is so outdated in its narrative and  acting, which is very much in the style of the silent’s, that is exaggerated to compensate for the lack of sound. However, with sound it just appears like everyone is over acting. Chester Morris who would go on to star in many films including about a dozen Boston Blackie B films stars, along with Mae Marsh, was nominated for an Oscar for his role.    

There is a decent rooftop chase toward the end of the film that is done well. Rooftop chase scenes were actually a  common motif in West films (See The Bat and The Bat Whisper) as was character leading double lives such a Morris’ character before he is exposed for the criminal he is.

,”Alibi” is a must watch for the impressive opening fifteen minutes or so, the visual aspects are stunning with their debt to German Expressionism, and in truth the film is not so long (about 83 mins.) that watching the rest is too much of a challenge.

***

Serpico (1973) Sidney Lumet

Heroes are in short supply these days. A recent article in the New York Times made me take another look at one real life hero from my own younger days.  Sidney Lumet’s 1973 work, “Serpico”, based on Peter Maas’ bestselling non-fiction book of New York City detective Frank Serpico, who along with fellow officer David Durk, confronted wide spread police corruption placing their lives on the line in the face of a closed culture that best considered to leave things status quo.  Maas’ book focuses on Serpico’s story reducing Durk to a supporting player, though one suspects he had to be more involved that the film lets on. In the film, Anthony Roberts portray Bob Blair supposedly Durk, under a fictional name.

Serpico is a young Italian-American who seems is alone in his position as an honest cop. Surrounded by a closed society, the blue wall, that consents to police officers getting a free lunch, literary, receiving payoffs to look the other way, and extorting money from criminal elements allowing to “do their business” without interference from the law.

An oddball within the police department, not just for his honesty and refusing to accept favors, but also in his rather bohemian lifestyle, at least bohemian for a police department filled with “straights” versus a “hippie” mentality. Serpico lives in the Village; he reads biographies of artists like Isadora Duncan. His girlfriend Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe) is a dancer with a seemingly waspish background. Serpico is the antithesis of your typical police officer wearing long hair and a beard in a time when the style was considered radical.

We first see Serpico graduating from the police academy with his proud immigrant parents at his side. As a rookie, Serpico just observes his fellow officers, saying nothing preserving his own code of ethics though every other cop seems to be accepting favors, even if it is just donuts from a local coffee shop. When he eventually expresses his objections to his superiors, he is placated by superiors who promise an investigation but do nothing. He soon builds a reputation as someone who cannot be “trusted” because he’s honest. He is transferred from one precinct to another. No one wants him around; the honest cop cannot be relied upon. His continuous accusations are met with false promises that there will be an investigation. His life is in danger; the threats come from his fellow officers, not from the criminal elements he faces in the streets every day.

Realizing the department will not clean up itself, Serpico and Blair leak the story to a major newspaper and the internal corruption becomes front-page news. Frank becomes a star witness in Mayor’s commission to investigate corruption within the police department.  Transferred to a narcotics squad in Brooklyn, it all come to a tragic eruption when during a drug bust, two fellow officer’s stand by and watch Serpico be shot in the face. The film concludes with Serpico sitting at a pier with his dog as the final words on the screen tell us he is now living somewhere in Switzerland.

Al Pacino gives a tense but controlled performance as Serpico, an intelligent and idealistic man who refuses to accept the status quo. At this early stage in his career, Pacino gave us some of his best work in a series of films that could not be sustained for long, “The Panic in Needle Park”, “The Godfather 1& 2”, “Scarecrow” and “Dog Day Afternoon”, it was one heck of a ride.  “Serpico” also gives us a rarity in American film, a heroic Italian-American instead of the usual portrayal of Italian-Americans as underworld figures or stereotyped as lower-class goomba’s from Brooklyn or the Bronx. Still the film plays down Frank’s Italian-Americanism, we do not see much of Frank’s background, his parents are shown only when he graduates from the academy and in the hospital when he is shot, other than that, Frank lifestyle is free of ethnicity. He moved out of the old neighborhood and into the more bohemian Greenwich Village, his girlfriends are non-ethnic and or artistic types.

Sidney Lumet has a feel for New York rivaled by only a few other directors (Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen are others that come to mind) and during his career Lumet has had a special affinity for looking at corruption and the relationships between good cops and bad cops within the New York City police department. He has address this subject in at least four movies, “Prince of the City”, “Night Falls on Manhattan”, “Q&A” and “Serpico” with varying degrees of success.

More than 35 years later “Serpico” remains a powerful and unsettling film. It’s not perfect, ii is marred specifically by an annoying soundtrack, and unlike, “All the President’s Men” a film made a few year later, by having to have use fictitious names for most of it real life characters. The film also gives the impression that practically the entire police department, except for two or three individuals, were corrupt, a fact that is hard to believe. That said the corruption that did exist at that time had to be wide spread enough that the true life Knapp Commission, formed by then Mayor John Lindsay did investigate police corruption and reform soon followed.

 

The Big Shot (1942) Lewis Seiler

Joe “Duke” Berne (Humphrey Bogart) is a three-time loser. One more arrest and the law will send him away for life. With that ingrained into his head, Duke has given up the criminal life. The problem is getting a regular job, you know how it is, who’s  going to hire an ex-con? No one, so here he is roaming the streets, unshaven, wondering where his next meal is going to come from. 

In desperation, Duke gets involved with some old cronies who are planning an armored car robbery. At first Duke wants nothing to do with it. He wants to remain clean despite taunts from a young punk named Frenchy who calls Duke a coward even throwing a glass of milk in his face. Duke takes it all.

When Duke finds out mob lawyer, Martin Fleming (Stanley Ridges) in backing up the deal he becomes interested.

Duke visit’s Fleming who is now married to Lorna (Irene Manning), Duke’s former lover. It’s obvious from the first time they see each other, Lorna still has a thing for Duke and visa versa. With Duke in charge they plan the robbery (Duke straightens Frenchy out by throwing a glass of milk in his face and kicking him off his chair) which all seems to think will be a piece of cake except for Duke. The night of the robbery as Duke is getting ready to join the boys, Lorna shows up at his door pleading with him not to go through with it. She tells him they could run away together and start a new life. Duke, still hooked on Lorna, stays with her.

The robbery, without Duke goes bad, all the criminals are killed except for Frenchy who will get his revenge on Duke soon after. A witness to the robbery, an elderly woman, is brow beaten by the police into mistakenly identifying Duke as the crook who got away.   

Duke, now being hunted by the police, figures the only way to get himself off the hook is to get Fleming to defend him by setting up a full proof alibi. Fleming double crosses Duke after Frenchy, getting his revenge, tells Fleming about finding Duke and his wife together.

The remainder of the film spirals out of control as Duke escapes from prison, but in an unbelievable moment of weakness agrees to give himself up in order to set the record straight about a young con who is innocently being accused of being part of the escape plan and the resulting murder of a prison guard. We know from the beginning, Duke is doomed since the entire story is told in flashback from Duke’s deathbed in prison.

“The Big Shot” was made after Bogart had finally become a major Warners star that is after “The Maltese Falcon” and “High Sierra” so it is surprising to see him in a film that has the look and feel of a programmer. Still, Bogie is Bogie and he makes the film enjoyable but overall there is not much there. The car chase sequence toward the end is poorly planned with state police on motorcycles chasing after Bogie and his girl along a snowy icy twisting road. The motor cycle cops are implausibly shooting at Bogart’s car with one hand while managing to steer the motorcycle along the icy curved road with the other. 

Directed by Lewis Seiler, who spent most of his career cranking out standard melodramas and westerns of little distinction. Bogart during his second tier days worked with Seiler in quite a few films (Crime School, You Can’t Get Away With Murderer and King of the Underworld), Seiler’s other works include some early westerns starring Tom Mix, “Tugboat Annie”, “Pittsburgh” and “Guadalcanal Diary”, probably his best known work. George Raft turned down this role and as he did with “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” and just like those earlier flicks, Bogart took over the part.  Don’t expect much from this minor film other than Bogie who makes it worth at least one viewing considering it was his last gangster role.

**

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