Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Film Noir’

The Black Glove aka Face The Music (1954)

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

The Black Glove is a 1954 British film noir directed by Terence Fisher.

For no particular reason, my mind turns this morning towards this underappreciated, but happily available on DVD thriller, set in London, as a Hammer Films /Robert Lippert UK/US co-production. A jazz trumpeter is involved in a murder mystery, and has to clear himself; the film is distinguished by its tough guy dialogue, excellent location shooting in the heart of London’s Soho district, and superb black and white cinematography by the gifted James Harvey. The lead is Alex Nicol, above right, a nice guy who never achieved super stardom, but whom I had the great pleasure of interviewing, and who told truly fabulous stories about old Hollywood; the woman is Eleanor Summerfield, who also never broke through to “A” level status, but who was a reliable leading lady in hardboiled melodramas in the 1940s and 50s.

The Black Glove, titled Face The Music in the UK, is one a of a group of noirs produced by Hammer Films in England during the 1950s, many of which – like this film – were directed by Terence Fisher, who would go on later in his career to become the foremost Gothic filmmaker of the second half of the 20th century with such films as Horror of Dracula (known simply as Dracula in the UK; 1958), the first Dracula film in Technicolor, with a career-defining performance by Christopher Lee as the title character. The Black Glove is certainly less ambitious than Fisher’s later work for Hammer, but it effectively captures the world-weariness of Post War Europe with such dialogue as “this didn’t look like a safe place to take your mother. In fact, it looked like a place you leave horizontally or not at all.”

All in all, worth a look; another film that seems to have been forgotten in film history.

Audrey Totter

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

“If you haven’t got enough brains to agree with me, then keep your mouth shut. From here on in, I’m answering all the questions — got it?”

Audrey Totter, one of the great noir stars of the screen in the 1940s, has died; as Matt Schudel noted in The Washington Post, “Totter, an actress who specialized in playing temptresses, dangerous dames and women harboring dark schemes in a series of movies from Hollywood’s film noir period of the 1940s and ’50s, died Dec. 12 at a hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 95. She had congestive heart failure after a stroke, her daughter, Mea Lane, said.

Miss Totter first set the screen afire with a small but sizzling part in the 1946 noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice [. . .] Over the next several years, Miss Totter was in demand as one of Hollywood’s sexiest and most alluring actresses, often playing cynical and malevolent women who, in the words of film historian Eddie Muller, ‘had a heart as big and warm as an ice cube.’ [. . .]

‘For years nobody bothered with me — didn’ t know who I was, didn’t care,’ she told the Toronto Star in 2000. ‘Now I’m recognized on the street, I’m asked for my autograph, I get loads of fan mail. Who knew these movies would be so popular 50 years later? Maybe it’s because the world isn’t like that anymore. The fantasy of it. They painted with light in those days, it’s a look that just isn’t done anymore.”

She acted in radio dramas before going to Hollywood and signing on as a contract player with MGM. After film noir began to fade in the 1950s, she acted in westerns and television, including a recurring role as a nurse on Medical Center in the 1970s. Miss Totter’s final acting role came in 1987, when she appeared on an episode of Angela Lansbury’s Murder, She Wrote. She continued to receive offers but seldom found anything that appealed to her.

‘What could I play?’ she asked in 2000. ‘A nice grandmother? Boring! Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand.’”

The Noir Vision of Max Ophüls, Romantic Fatalist

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s a new piece I wrote on the American noir films of the great Max Ophüls in Film International.

As I note at the start of my essay, “Max Ophüls, born Maximillian Oppenheimer on 6 May 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany, was a director known primarily for his romance films, often with sweeping tracking shots, and often taking place in the past. Ophüls’ luxurious camera style is evident in such superb romance films as Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948), with Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand, a ne’er do well pianist who seduces and then abandons a young woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and pays for his crime in a dueling match; La Ronde (1950), a sex comedy based on Arthur Schnitzler’s eponymous play, in which lovers float from one affair to the next with delightful abandon; Madame de… (1953), another romance film in which a spoiled Countess (Danielle Darrieux) engages in an extra-marital dalliance, highlighted by Ophüls’ trademark “waltzing camera” technique, and his penchant for long takes; and his final film, the Technicolor and CinemaScope extravaganza Lola Montès (1955), based on the life of a notorious courtesan who eventually winds up as the main attraction in a circus sideshow.

Ophüls started directing films in 1931, scoring an early success with his romantic drama Liebelei (1933), completing a total of eighteen films in Germany and France between 1931 and 1940. While these films, especially Liebelei, gesture towards his later, more mature work, Ophüls was still establishing himself. The director made only two true noir films in his long and distinguished career, back to back: Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949), both from his brief period in the United States. To this most European and continental director, for whom romance was a sacred trust, with the camera revealing the innermost workings of the hearts of his characters, these two noirs were a distinct departure from his earlier work, and stand out as near aberrations in the director’s long and illustrious career. But they were created out of necessity, not design, for Ophüls never really wanted to come to Hollywood in the first place.”

You can read the rest of the essay here; my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

Son of Dracula (1943)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Louise Allbritton in Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943); click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for the film.

I’ve been meaning to blog on this film for quite some time, but something always came up; in any event, Son of Dracula, one of the last of the truly serious Universal horror films of the 1940s, is a remarkable film in many respects, not least of which is the fact that it’s the first horror film to combine distinct elements of film noir with the Dracula legend, transported here to America’s south for the first time, and directed by the gifted noir stylist Robert Siodmak (at a salary of just $150 per week), from a screenplay by his brother Curt, both refugees from Hitler’s Germany who wound up in Hollywood, and brought their Expressionist style of cinema with them.

Son of Dracula’s plot begins in a fairly straightforward manner; Count Alucard (try spelling it backwards; persuasively portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) shows up at the Dark Oaks plantation in New Orleans, invited by Katherine “Kay” Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), a wealthy young heiress with a disturbingly deep interest in the supernatural. In short order, Alucard dispatches her father, Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), and marries Kay, who seemingly dismisses her long time fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) without a backward glance. Kay soon becomes one of the undead, and it seems as if Kay and Alucard are destined for a life of brutal immortality, scouring the countryside on a nightly basis for victims.

But — and here is the twist that makes the film unusual, and also constitutes a spoiler, so be warned — Kay has only one plan in her mind; after becoming a vampire, she infects Frank, hoping to turn him into a vampire, as well, so that Frank and Kay can live forever, as soon as Kay destroys Alucard by driving a stake through his heart. In short, Kay is a stylish 40s femme fatale, whose true motives can only be divined more than two-thirds of the way through the film, and who dares to double cross even the Prince of Darkness himself to obtain eternal life for herself and her beloved.

Siodmak thought the script was junk, but he’s wrong; it’s a smooth, solid piece of genre craftsmanship, and the film served as his “trial by fire” at Universal, as he soon moved up to more prestigious assignments, such as The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, and The Dark Mirror (1946), all certifiable noir classics. In addition, George Robinson’s atmospheric cinematography brings out every last nuance of the dark, decaying mise en scene of the film, and John P. Fulton’s masterful special effects — the first time Dracula transforms into a bat on screen, or a trail of vapor in another memorable instance — adds much to the film’s overall impact, to say nothing of Hans J. Salter’s suitably sinister music score, one of many for Universal’s classic horror cycle.

But in the end, it’s Louise Allbritton’s performance — alluring, sensual, willful — that serves as the centerpiece of the film, and balances nicely off Chaney’s masculine interpretation of Alucard. Son of Dracula is a one of a kind movie, made just as the Universal cycle was coming to an end — it would collapse entirely in 1944 and 1945, with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, respectively, but here, for one last time, with a top flight director who would go on to much greater things, and a serviceable cast that responds intuitively to his authoritative direction, the Dracula legend is taken seriously one last time, and the results are well worth watching.

Incidentally, I’ll post in a few minutes on Film Forum’s tribute to Universal and Robert Siodmak, an event those of you who live in or around Manhattan absolutely should not miss.

The Reward (1965)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Emilio Fernández (kneeling), Gilbert Roland (with gun), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (lying on the ground), and Henry Silva (back to camera) in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward (1965).

Here’s my essay on the remarkable and deeply eccentric film The Reward in the Noir of the Week website; this is the beginning of the text, and you can read the rest by clicking here, or on the image above.

“If you are looking for the latest news, Señor, you’re out of luck. News reaches us like light from the stars – it takes a long time.” — Gilbert Roland as Captain Carbajal in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward.

“I’m not going to deny that Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward is an odd film in many respects; it’s often classified as a Western, which it isn’t, despite the fact that most of the film was shot in Death Valley, and the film has a definite Western edge to it, with much of the dialogue spoken in Spanish with no translation. Produced as a West German/French/English co-production, the film seems to exist in no man’s land, a zone in which no nationality is dominant. Indeed, English is very much a second language here, and the equally eccentric casting of the film drives this home even further.

Top lining the film is Max Von Sydow as Scott Swenson, a down-on-his-luck crop duster whose plane isn’t even his own; as the film opens, Swenson is making one last flight for some much needed cash, but his plane crash lands after hitting an exposed pipeline, taking out a water tower and utterly destroying the aircraft. Crawling from the wreckage as the plane explodes behind him, Swenson coolly surveys the damage, and then walks to a local cantina, where he uses his last few dollars to buy some drinks. All of this is shown with almost no dialogue, and Bourguignon’s smooth CinemaScope framing makes the desert seem arid, endless, and infernal, a living Hell for all who inhabit it.”

It’s only a shame, as I note in my essay, that this isn’t on DVD; it runs occasionally on the Fox Movie Network in a “pan and scan” version that destroys the visuals in the film, but the real film is lost in the vaults, and will probably never get the restoration it so richly deserves.

Read the complete essay here.

Chicago Calling

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

I don’t usually blog on other blogs, so to speak, but I’m making an exception for this essay on the film Chicago Calling.

The film was originally brought to my attention by an article in the May/June issue of Film Comment by Dave Kehr; the director in question is John Reinhardt, who had a scattershot career to say the least, and I saw his film The Guilty a few weeks back, a sort of rundown version of Robert Siomak’s The Dark Mirror, and thought that despite the fact that it was unremittingly grim and depressing, it really didn’t have much to recommend it.

Chicago Calling is a different matter altogether; as Frank M. Young notes in his excellent essay on the Noir of the Week website, the film owes a considerable debt to the down-in-the-street neorealism of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, shot on the rundown streets of Los Angeles in 1951, with some minimal studio to round things out. Dan Duryea, a noir veteran to say the least, is perfectly cast in the role of William Cannon, once a promising photographer, but now a spectacular flameout, given to alcoholic binges and completely irresponsible behavior, and his wife Mary (Mary Anderson) is walking out on him at last, not in fury, but in resignation, because she simply doesn’t see the situation improving.

The family lives in a near hovel, on the absolute edge of starvation, and William has to pawn his camera to raise the cash so that Mary and their daughter Peggy (Marsha Jones) can pay $30 for a ride back to Chicago to stay with her mother until William cleans up his act, if he ever will. What happens after that forms the basis for one of the most harrowing, uncompromising, and original films of the early 1950s, a film that doesn’t flinch at showing what life was really like for the marginalized in the Eisenhower era — the dark side of the American dream.

As Young writes, “the film is, arguably, not a bona fide noir. Its main goal is to emulate the neo-realist movement of post-war Italian cinema. Director/co-writer John Reinhardt has no interest in crafting a routine tale of crime and punishment. Everything that happens in Chicago Calling could reasonably occur in your life or mine—were the chips to fall as miserably as they do for the feckless Cannon.” This is top shelf work from a generally unknown director who’s obviously out to make a personal statement, and in the process, gives Duryea the role of his career. A must see, now available from Warner Archives, and refreshingly, only 75 minutes long.

You can read the rest of the essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Roy William Neill

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Roy William Neill’s passport photograph, circa 1920.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Roy William Neill’s film Black Angel (1946), one of most interesting and atmospheric noirs of the late 1940s, and the last film he made before his untimely death at the age of 59.

From Wikipedia, All Rovi and other sources: “With his father as the captain, Roy William Neill was born on September 4, 1887, on board a ship off the coast of Ireland. His birth name was Roland de Gostrie. Neill joined the film industry in 1915 as an assistant to Thomas Ince, subsequently directing 40 silent films. He made one talkie for MGM before moving to Columbia Pictures, where he worked until the mid ’30s. While at Columbia, Neill directed the atmospheric period chiller The Black Room (1935), arguably the best movie that Boris Karloff made away from Universal in the ’30s.

In 1935, Neill moved to England, where better opportunities existed for American directors, and spent the next three years there, working for Gainsborough Pictures and later for Warner Bros.-First National. Among the features that he made while there was the 1935 drama Dr. Syn, starring George Arliss and Margaret Lockwood, about a local vicar who has a connection with a long-missing pirate, and who tries to save his village from the oppression of the king’s soldiers.

In 1936, Neill got what could have been the best picture-making opportunity of his career. In May of that year, screenwriter and future director Frank Launder suggested that Gainsborough Studios buy the rights to Ethel Lina White’s new mystery novel The Wheel Spins, which they did and assigned Launder and his longtime associate Sidney Gilliat to adapt into a screenplay called Lost Lady. The script was completed in August of that year and Neill was chosen as director of Lost Lady, and a film unit was sent to Yugoslavia to shoot some summer exteriors under an assistant director named Fred Gunn. Unfortunately, Gunn broke his ankle in an accident, and in the course of investigating, the police found his script and demanded to review the manner in which it treated their country.

The opening pages — which found parallels between goose-stepping soldiers and geese waddling — offended the authorities, and the entire unit was expelled from the country. By that time, both Neill and the studio had lost much of their original enthusiasm for the project, and it was shelved while Neill went to to other thrillers. A year later, as he was finishing up Young and Innocent for the same studio, Alfred Hitchcock was looking for another film and asked the studio if they had any screenplay on hand that would be suitable for him. What they pulled out was Lost Lady which, after a few minor rewrites, became The Lady Vanishes.

Altogether, Neill helmed 107 films, a remarkable accomplishment by any measure; he was known for directing films with meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, a style that would become the hallmark of film noir in the late 1940s. After working in Hollywood for Universal in the early 1940s, mostly notably on films in the long-running Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Neill returned to London, and a house he had just built for his retirement, only to die on the doorstep of a heart attack on December 14, 1946. Neill was a conscientious craftsman as a director, but his signature style of high key lighting, and his smooth, luxurious tracking shots set him apart from the more quotidian directors of the era.”

As Bruce Eder comments, “according to Rathbone in his memoirs and other survivors of the series over the years, Neill — who was known affectionately to Rathbone as ‘Dear Mousie’ — was the final arbiter in all things Holmes-ian on the set of the Universal series. In addition to being a master directorial interpreter of the character, Neill also got a joint writing credit (with Bertram Millhauser) for the screenplay of The Scarlet Claw, which is arguably the best entry in the entire Universal series. Neill also directed and produced Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man — considered by many to be the last wholly serious entry in Universal’s classic series of horror films. An instantly recognizable stylist, Neill’s work is characterized by meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, with restrained but mobile camera movements.”

Neill was one of the slickest visual stylists of the classical studio era, and his work has long been under-appreciated.

The Whip Hand (1951)

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Here’s an essay I published last week — November 28, 2011 — on one of the most deliriously paranoid noirs of the early 1950s, William Cameron Menzies’ The Whip Hand, which was produced by the reclusive financier Howard Hughes after he took over RKO Radio Pictures. The film was originally designed as a neo-Nazi espionage thriller, but at the last moment, Hughes scrapped large portions of the film to retool it as an anti-Communist effort. As I note in the web journal Noir of the Week, ably edited by Steve Eifert,

“Ultimately, The Whip Hand is a work as curious and resonant as the reclusive lifestyle led by its true auteur, Howard Hughes; while Menzies designed and executed the film, paying as little attention as possible to the actors but lavishing enormous attention on the sets and mise en scene of the film, it was Hughes own obsessions and paranoid delusions that really inform the bulk of the film’s convoluted narrative [. . .] Hughes typically reshot films after they were finished, and in his own mind, the Communist threat was not only more timely than the Nazi angle; it was also more real. What Menzies did was to give solidity to Hughes’ paranoid fantasies, and it is this, more than anything else, that makes The Whip Hand simultaneously preposterous, and yet all too real; this was the way Howard Hughes saw the world in the 1950s, and Menzies brought his vision to life.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking on the image above, or here.

Force of Evil (1948)

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil is one of the greatest, and bleakest of all noirs. Made in 1948, just before Polonsky became yet another victim of the HUAC Blacklist, Force of Evil boasts a stellar cast, including veteran heavy Thomas Gomez, the always dependable Roy Roberts, noir specialist Marie Windsor, and is toplined by John Garfield in one of his most memorable roles, as a mouthpiece for the numbers racket who tries to make a quick killing, while keeping his brother, who runs a small time policy office, out of the way of the big boys. Based on the novel Tucker’s People by Ira Wolfert, and immaculately photographed by George Barnes, this is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and ultimately horrific tales of greed, deception and betrayal ever brought to the screen. And it’s only 78 minutes long.

You can see the entire film by clicking here, on or the image above.

The Hoodlum

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Lawrence Tierney and Gene Roth in The Hoodlum

From the sublime to the infinitely depressing, here’s a piece I wrote for Noir of the Week on a film by Max Nosseck, The Hoodlum (1951), starring legendary tough guy Lawrence Tierney.

As I note in my essay, “Tierney got his first real leading role in an “A” film in Robert Wise’s memorably vicious Born to Kill (1947), where Tierney’s character, the appropriately named San Wild, is a homicidal maniac who kills on a whim, and tries to scheme his way into a wealthy marriage. With Wise’s sharp direction, and excellent support from Claire Trevor, Elisha Cook Jr. and Walter Slezak, to name just a few of the many superb cast members, was a critical but not commercial hit; the film was simply too bleak for mainstream audiences, and Tierney’s character was so violent and brutal that it was impossible to feel any empathy for him.

Born to Kill is a masterpiece, but it would be Tierney’s last uncompromised vision of hell; from here it was back to B territory with Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard (1948), which was dumped as a second feature. Convinced that Tierney would never become a major star, even in a sympathetic role (as he was as private eye Mike Carter in Bodyguard), RKO cut Tierney loose, and he began to bounce around from studio to studio; the big chance had eluded him. And then he made The Hoodlum.”

You can read my entire essay on The Hoodlum here.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/