Saturday, November 10, 2007

“I’ve got an honest man’s conscience…in a murderer’s body.”


Every two or three weeks, I’ll get in the voluminous Rancho Yesteryear mailbag a big honkin’ circular from Oldies.com…and if I know what’s good for me, I’ll toss it in the trash. Fortunately—at least for Oldies.com—I do not know what’s good for me, and when I need something to stare at while I’m eating lunch I’ll leaf through it…and then I find something I just have to have…and I’ll look for it at their website…and then find something else…and, well, I think you’re getting the picture by now. It’s a siren song I can’t resist.

Recently, I ran across an interesting CD entitled Jimmy Durante: The Ultimate Collection, a compendium of the Schnozzola’s big hits (Inka Dinka Doo, Start Off Each Day with a Song, I’m the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord, etc.) on an UK import, and while I was ordering that I decided to check out the Alpha Video DVDs (five for $25!). Before you can say “Umbriago,” I’m back in the “my-bedroom-is-a-sea-of-DVDs” business.

I watched a couple of these recent purchases last night, beginning with Fear in the Night (1947), a nifty little B-picture that has gained a considerable cult following. DeForest Kelley (of Star Trek fame) plays a confused bank teller who’s had an entirely-too-vivid nightmare in which he murders an attacker with an electric drill in a room surrounded by mirrors. After discovering a few clues in his hotel room, Kelley becomes convinced that it may have been more than a dream, and relates the incident to his cop brother-in-law (Paul Kelly)…who advises him that he’s just overworked and could use a little R&R. Later, the two men take their sweethearts (Ann Doran and Kay Scott) out on a picnic and are forced to seek shelter from a real gully washer…and the house that they eventually end up in is the same one in Kelley’s nightmare!

Fear was directed and scripted by Maxwell Shane (the story originally written by the prolific Cornell Woolrich, under his pen name of “William Irish”), a one-time Black Mask writer who later turned to the movies and television for a lucrative career as a director-writer-producer. (Shane wrote the screenplay for Mummy “sequel” The Mummy’s Hand and also supervised a series of B-pictures inspired by the radio series Big Town.) Kelley, in his motion picture debut, acquits himself quite nicely here but in all honesty, I prefer Kevin McCarthy’s performance in the 1956 remake, Nightmare. (Actually, I didn’t enjoy Fear as much as I thought I would only because I saw Nightmare first long ago—I like Nightmare's New Orleans backdrop, with music by Billy May and His Orchestra—and of course, any movie starring Edward G. Robinson is going to overshadow the original, no matter how good the first one may be.) Kelly is also good, but I wish Doran (who’s always been a favorite since I’ve seen her in so many of the Columbia shorts opposite The Three Stooges, Charley Chase, etc.) had a little bit more to do. So if you want to maximize your viewing pleasure, catch Fear in the Night first before seeing the remake.

I followed Fear with another obscure noir that made quite a stir at the San Francisco Noir Festival four years ago…and Vince Keenan also gave it a hearty thumbs-up, so I knew I had to seek it out sooner or later: Woman on the Run (1950), starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe. Sheridan, formerly Warner Brothers’ “Oomph Girl” (and I’m glad I’m not the only one repulsed by her hairstyle in this flick, Vince), plays a wisecracking spouse whose husband (Ross Elliott), a frustrated artist reduced to working in a department store doing window displays, drops out of sight shortly after witnessing a gangland hit. Cops Robert Keith and Frank Jenks need to locate Elliott, as he’s the only witness to the murder of a racketeer who was scheduled to testify in a big case against the mob, but Elliott and Sheridan’s marriage is sort of on the rocks, so she couldn’t care less as to his whereabouts. She softens a bit when she learns that he needs medicine for his bad heart, but rather than throwing in with the police agrees to give her husband’s exclusive story to a tabloid reporter (O’Keefe) in exchange for O’Keefe’s help in tracking him down.

Woman on the Run is starting to gain a reputation for itself, and well it should—the acting is first-rate, not only among the principals (Sheridan, O’Keefe, Keith) but the supporting cast, which includes Joan Shawlee, J. Farrell MacDonald, Victor Sen Young and John Qualen as Elliott’s endearingly meek co-worker. The dialogue and patter in this film is particularly snappy—I love the bit when Keith asks Sheridan why her dog is named “Rembrandt” and she snaps, “It’s the nearest we could get to owning one.” Director Norman Foster (Journey Into Fear) makes good use of location shooting in and around San Francisco (North Beach, Chinatown, Telegraph Hill), culminating in an edge-of-your-seat climax at the now defunct Playland at the Beach amusement park. In fact, the suspense in Woman is what makes it stand out from similar noirs of the period: the picture drops the whole “whodunit” angle at the thirty-six minute mark (by cluing the audience as to the identity of the killer) to become a taut, engrossing film not soon forgotten.

2 comments:

Vince said...

Glad you enjoyed Woman on the Run ... although how they could do that to Ann Sheridan's hair will always be a mystery to me.

Linda said...

I saw Fear in the Night years ago on Channel 56 in Boston...can't remember much about it, though. Thanks for refreshing my memory!