Tuesday, August 5, 2008

When it Rains, it pours

About three weeks ago, shortly after the inaugural post of Illusion Travels by Streetcar, my chum Tom Sutpen composed a review of the 1934 proto-noir Crime Without Passion, co-written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. I first learned of this movie by poking through the Torah of all books on noir—Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Third Edition—and jotted it down in my own admittedly hinky memory banks to be on the lookout for it.

I taped the movie off of The Movie Channel back in 1992—at the time when that titular cable offering actually showed classic films instead of the crap they have on there now. I kept meaning to getting around to watching it, but it was always being pushed aside for one reason or another until one day (when I was taping over some old videocassettes to get SP copies of movies from channels offered by my DirecTV system) I realized to my horror that I had erased it completely. (Yes, I can be a real dumbass sometimes.)

I commented about this incident over at Tom’s blog, and another commenter named Vanwall offered up a link to a site where Passion could be purchased, Yammering Magpie Cinema. (You may notice that I have linked to this website on the right, even though one dealer described them as “pushing the public domain limits.”) Since Magpie was having a sale on what can only be described as “movies with a federal investigation theme” (part of the F.B.I. centennial, I suppose) and since To the Ends of the Earth (1948), one of my favorite Dick Powell films, was 20% off I decided to give YMC a try and threw in Passion as an impulse buy.

I was sort of disappointed with the video quality of Earth (I recorded it from some cable channel onto a videocassette nearly ten years ago and it’s in much better shape that YMC’s copy) but the copy of Passion isn’t bad—a little fuzzy, but once you get involved with the picture you tend to forget all about that. Claude Rains plays ethically-challenged defense attorney Lee Gentry (nicknamed “The Champion of the Damned”), whose unscrupulous methods to free his clients have made him quite smug and arrogant about his profession. He’s in love with a chippie named Katy Costello (Whitney Bourne), but he’s unable to free up much time for her due to his continuing dalliance with mistress Carmen Brown (17-year-old Margo, in her film debut), a dancer at a burlesque show. Gentry is so jealous of Carmen’s attention to other men (notably Stanley Ridges) that he threatens to kill her—and accidentally does—but knowing that his tale of the events will be laughed out of court, he cleans up after his crime…only to have Fate bite him in the ass in a bizarre twist at the film’s conclusion.

Passion was the first of four independent features produced by the famous writing team who brought to the Broadway stage classics like The Front Page and Twentieth Century, and in Tom's opinion it outshines the collaborations that followed:

[It] endures in the cinephile consciousness, mainly for a breathtaking opening montage by Slavko Vorkapich; a wild, truly unhinged emanation that loudly and triumphantly introduced the avant-garde into mainstream American filmmaking. Vorkapich's opening has so much visual impact that it's nigh impossible to imagine what this film would have been like without it. It has the effect of amplifying the melodrama, virtually forcing everything thereafter into something very like a tabloid newspaperman's idea of expressionism: Caligari, by way of Walter Burns.

Tom’s not kidding about the opening sequence in this picture; it will literally knock your socks off. But Passion is crammed with these offbeat little touches (including an equally impressive montage viewed by Rains in his taxi cab); my favorite is a supporting character (Paula Trueman) whose stage routine requires her to be dressed as Baby Snooks…for a striptease act! And speaking of Fanny Brice, you can catch her as an extra in a hotel lobby sequence (if you’re quick enough) along Mrs. Charles MacArthur (aka Helen Hayes); meanwhile, directors Hecht and MacArthur do their part to up the cameo quotient by playing a pair of court interviewers, and Marjorie Main and Marion Martin can be glimpsed as a backstage wardrobe woman and theatre cashier, respectively.

No comments: