Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Night of Noir- "Crime Wave" (1954) and "Decoy" (1946)

It was refreshing to get the chance last night to sit down and watch a couple of Film Noir movies, back-to-back. These films are usually under an hour and a half in length, and so it's usually no problem to fit two within the space of three hours. I still had a few flicks from the Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 4 set to watch, and so I set in for an evening of easy entertainment. I've written at some length about my appreciation for the genre, but there's an entirely separate emotional component to watching these films that I haven't really touched on. It's a bit tough to communicate the feeling I get when I settle into the couch at night in preparation to take in some classic Noir. I read once about the concept of being nostalgic for a time you've never experienced, and I suppose this comes close to describing what I get from these films. There's more to it, but I'm going to keep it for myself for fear that I'd lose out if I analyzed it to deeply.

The first selection was Crime Wave (1954)- a flick directed by Andre De Toth, and starring Sterling Hayden, Ted de Corsia, a very young Charles Bronson, Phyllis Kirk, and the relatively unknown Gene Nelson. De Toth was a Hungarian immigrant who made the 3D House of Wax (1953), despite only having the use of one eye. He became known for delivering tough flicks with no-holds-barred violence. Of course that meant something radically more restrained than it does today, and so Crime Wave does not stand out for its brutality. But there is a certain cynicism in the role of the top cop (Hayden) that suggests that De Toth was no stranger to the rough-and-tumble tactics of law enforcement in 1940's Los Angeles. It should come as no surprise that Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of Crime Wave.

The studio in charge of production tried to convince De Toth to hire Humphrey Bogart for Hayden's role, but the director was set on his choice. He ultimately delivered the final reel after 13 days of shooting. Crime Wave is exceptional for its gritty atmosphere, as most of the scenes were shot in real locations rather than on a sound stage. The opening scene features three escaped convicts in a penny ante hold-up of a service station. The stick-up job doesn't go as planned, and sets the tone for the rest of the story. An ex-con named Steve Lacey (Nelson) is trying to live the "square john" life, but is interrupted by an appeal to the prisoner's code. Unfortunately his wife is caught up in the mess, and Lacey is forced to pick from a set of unpalatable options. The tale is standard fare, yet the presence of Bronson as a thug, and some of the other bit players make it adequately entertaining.

I followed up with Decoy (1946). Director John Bernhard made the film for a "Poverty Row" studio named Bernhard-Brandt Productions. Because of its low budget, there really aren't any recognizable actors on-screen. That's not to say that the performances are bad- in fact, the performers do pretty good work relative to the standards of the genre. Lead actress Jean Gillie may have been able to put together a high profile career had she not died three years after this film's release (at age 34). She certainly makes an impression as one of the most ruthless femme fatales in the history of Film Noir. Her character (named Margot Shelby) is so adept at manipulating adoring males that she is able to pull off some amazing schemes. The narrative is centered on Margo's quest for the dough stolen by her death-row-inmate-boyfriend. Unfortunately for her, he's not giving up the goods unless he walks out of prison alive, and so she has to put together a plan to make that happen.

When one guy outlives his usefulness to this dangerous dame, he is quickly thrown over for someone who can help her with her next set of objectives. It is for this reason that Margot begins to court an altruistic doctor named Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley). He is a particularly soft touch for the wily Ms. Shelby, and finds himself ultimately willing to sacrifice his scruples to keep his "love object" happy. It is her relationship with Dr. Craig that most clearly illuminates just how truly sociopathic Margot Shelby is. Her lust for the trappings of material success knows no bounds. And the director's portrayal of her appetites is similarly over-the-top. In fact there is a healthy strain of melodrama underlying the entire running length of Decoy. But rather than spoiling the film, that quality adds a strange hint of surrealism that ends up making the whole affair quite fascinating. That's why if you only have time for one of these movies, I suggest seeing the latter.

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