Duds of 2015—TCM’s “Summer of Darkness”

Yes, I love le film noir. No, I don’t believe all noir films are good. Some are downright awful, for a variety of reasons—silly, unbelievable plots full of holes or plots too reliant on coincidence, insufficient characterization, weak endings, wooden acting, and any combination of the aforementioned. There’s also a special kind of noir dud, at least for me--the overt social problem/criticism flick. TRY AND GET ME! (aka SOUND OF FURY) is the perfect example of this last.

TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” made Fridays during June and July 2015 truly memorable. Every Friday, for 24 hours straight, it was nothing but noir. It was great fun to binge on all that noir; however, not all of them were great. Some left me curiously empty at the end or bored me stiff. Some I just couldn’t sit through, and their being on TV meant I didn’t have to do so. After all, It’s so much easier to flip the channel or even the ON/OFF switch than it is to walk out on a movie you’ve paid a hefty amount to see in the theater. The money makes you sit there.

The best noir I ended up disliking was Fred Zinnemann’s ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948). This movie deals with the consequences of cowardice and vengeance. The acting is superb, with Robert Ryan (a noir regular) as the vengeful stalker, Joe, and Van Heflin (not quite as much a regular of noir as Ryan), as Frank, who’s running from his cowardice. There's considerable tension between them. Janet Leigh plays the young, naïve wife who cannot believe Frank, the good citizen, is a coward who sacrificed twelve men to save his own skin; Mary Astor portrays the aging hooker who ropes in the desperate Frank and finds him a hit man to kill Joe. In the end, Frank finds he has courage and takes the hit for Joe. 

I found it taut and gripping till the end. It then became so curiously unsatisfying as to blow the whole film for me. Frank commits suicide to expiate his sin. Predicable, but doesn’t blow up the movie. Joe’s reaction to Frank’s death, however, is entirely too forgiving. He tells the cops that he’ll go and tell Frank’s wife what happened. This reaction strikes me as out of character in that it’s too redemptive, too quickly. Why should Joe forgive Frank? The most that can be said is the scales are even. Silence should’ve been the end. Let the cops do their job offscreen with Joe simply walking away, contemplative, if not satisfied.

It was that twist at the end that didn’t work for me. Lesson—don’t shirk from what needs to happen.

JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943) was officially directed by Norman Foster, but Orson Welles later said it was more of a “collaborative” effort. Certainly, Welles’s fingerprints are all over it. He ignored the original screenplay by Ben Hecht to write his own with Joseph Cotton’s help. Since I haven’t read the novel by Eric Ambler, I have no idea how much damage Welles and Cotton did to the original source material. I can say this movie bored me stiff, but I did get through it—barely.

In immediate post-war Turkey, an American industrialist (Joseph Cotton)—an arms merchant--is dragged into Istanbul nightlife against his will then gets mixed up in a murder, a botched assassination, that’s part of a German plot to prevent US rearmament of the Turkish Navy. Because the American is a witness to the botched killing, Colonel Haki (Orson Welles) of the Turkish Secret Police puts him on a boat—yep, the locked room mystery—with a full set of improbable characters, including the woman, a dancer (Dolores del Rio), he was with in the nightclub. 

Which one of these jokers is the assassin? By the time the viewer’s met all of them, one doesn’t care. Joseph Cotton looks like he doesn’t care, either, and many times, it feels as if he’s sleepwalking. Cotton cannot carry this contrived plot, and he's disappointing. (He could act, he could do noir, for he did a great one with Alfred Hitchcock, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, wherein he plays creepy Uncle Charlie.) Orson Welles in dark makeup and with a fake Turkish accent is magnificently over the top. Dolores del Rio was wooden, and the rest of the cast was forgettable, including Agnes Moorehead. 

What can I say? A bad script made for a snooze fest.

After that disappointment, a stupid, improbable plot unredeemed by anything else got the switch off. MINISTRY OF FEAR (1944) was based on a Graham Greene novel (which I haven’t read, but I might do simply to do Greene justice). Fritz Lang directed this hot mess, which I disliked intensely because it reminded too much of another Greene novel, GUN FOR SALE, which is a flop of a novel because it doesn’t quite have the right tone. It's not quite over the top enough to qualify as a black comedy. That’s the very problem with the movie MINISTRY OF FEAR. It's not quite over the top enough for comedy, nor does it possess with any of the oppressive guilt of the original novel, MINISTRY OF FEAR. So, it misses it marks for me.

This despite the presence of Ray Milland, a very bankable actor, who could carry all sorts of improbable things. In MINISTRY OF FEAR, he plays Stephen Neale, recently released from an insane asylum, where he’d been serving a sentence for the mercy killing of his wife. Neale is setup by a Nazi spy ring, courtesy of a mistake involving a gypsy fortune teller and a layer cake, which is later stolen by a blind man who takes shots at Neale during an air raid. Neale hires a detective to help him find out about this mistake; this decision takes him to the home of medium played by Hillary Brooke (a very similar role to the one she had in THE WOMAN IN GREEN). During a séance, a mysterious voice claims she was poisoned by Neale, a shot rings out, and a man is killed (Dan Duryea). Neale has the pistol, it’s the one he took off the blind man, and he flees with the help of Willi, who with his sister Carla, are Nazi spies. Neale then proceeds to fall in love with Carla. 

At this un-bloody-believable point, I quit watching. 

Checking out of BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956) by Fritz Lang was probably a mistake. I should go back and see it, if only to give Lang his due. This was his last American film, made in his stripped down Expressionist style, full of cynicism, world-weariness, and disillusionment. The narrative turned me off—it’s an expose on the risibility of the American legal system and the absurdities of the death penalty (something for which I have very little use). The opening hits the preachy button, and since I like my sermons, even from the pulpit, to not be preachy, this was a major problem. Furthermore, setting up an innocent man to take a capital murder rap to demonstrate the nonsense of the system struck me as both risible and cheap. But that knock goes to the screenwriter. I quit watching at this point, but should watch it. I may still dislike it, but I’ll have more of a base from which to form a judgment.

I quit on DETOUR as well, but it was one damned coincidence after another. And that seems to be the key for me—too much plot, too much silly plot, will kill a picture. I can sit through boring, I can sit through an unsatisfying end—one that pulls its punches—but under no circumstances can I endure a story in which I can no longer suspend my disbelief. Once I think the whole thing’s a farce, I’m gone.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com