An awful lot has been written about what truly makes a flick fall into this genre. Some critics like to take the easy way out by really only pairing up the prominent theme along with when it was produced; while there’s nothing wrong with that, I’ve always felt that does a disservice to what truly endears these stories to viewers. That would be the examination of these flawed, flawed characters willing to do just about anything to have their problem resolved.
And by resolved, I don’t mean ‘solved.’ I mean to have the problem just ‘go away.’ To disappear. To merely remove it from the day-to-day living. By taking a quick and convenient short cut, that trouble is likely to come back again, now exponentially more powerful and dangerous to face than ever before. By choosing an easy way out, they’ve made matters worse, and now their remaining options are few and far between. So much the better for those of us watching and enjoying our thrills vicariously. We wouldn’t want to be in any of their shoes.
The folks at Kino Lorber offered me a set of noirs to review, and I’m thrilled to sound off on each of them below. Buckle up, boys and girls. It’s going to be a rough night … and not everyone is going to make it out alive.
(NOTE: The following reviews will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“Following World War I, ruthless veteran Matt Brady inherits the clout of his political kingpin brother and climbs the ladder of corruption all the way to the top of the state.”
I think it’s safe to suggest that The Boss is the most character-driven entry into this three-film set: Brady (played by John Payne) is given the length of the film to establish himself rather quickly and then grow and change with the times as the years go by. Still, the film isn’t about any metamorphosis, per se, as it is an exploration about how corruption takes root fairly easily and then infects everything around the corrupted. Payne finds comfort in his illicit business affairs, so much so that he has absolutely no means to see his inevitable fall from grace in the last reel because of his blind faith.
Also, The Boss surrounds Payne with an assortment of characters with which the audience can come to understand him further.
His army buddy, Bob (William Bishop), ends up coming along for the career ride in graft and plunder largely because Matt makes it so lucrative. Doe Avedon plays ‘Elsie Reynolds,’ Matt’s one-time sweetheart whom – in a moment of drunken selfishness – he casts momentarily aside, inevitably forcing her into Bob’s arm. She, too, finds herself living a life made a dream come true because of Matt’s choices. Lastly, Gloria McGehee ends up stealing scenes as ‘Lorry Reed,’ a self-proclaimed ugly duckling who winds up married to Matt as a result of the same drunken binge that saw him rejecting Elsie. McGehee is particularly effective in the role; as the chosen woman who truly lives a life of luxury equally as a social cast out, she’s the only one who pushes back against Matt’s darkest desires mostly because she’s the only one here who examines life with both eyes open. It’s all imperfect – much as she sees herself – but she still tries to make the best of things.
Of this trio, Bishop’s portrayal – after some great scenes early in the film – ends up being a bit cardboard. He slips a bit too easily (for my tastes) into the deal, and then he plays a bit too close to non-responsive as the story progresses. (I’ll admit – without spoiling it – that there’s a respectable reason why that’s tied to the conclusion.) Avedon is good, but of these three she’s largely given the least to do, appearing in a handful of scenes as little more than the dutiful wife who never quite questions anything, despite the suggestion of impropriety here and there. But McGehee is a delight: hers is a balancing act between underplaying the charm of the square peg of the group but being the only one truly conscious of her predicament, and she’s fabulous in the role.
Eventually, Matt’s prospects grow grim – the weed of crime bares bitter fruit, as The Shadow would say – and he loses his kingship to the role of being the mob’s pawn. Such a fall can only mean that he’ll eventually have to pay the piper, and The Boss – despite trying to put some things right in the last reel – ends up being caught by the law when he least expects it.
The film works on all levels. It’s a crime drama with great performances and some respectable cinematography. Viewers not particular enamored with noir should still find plenty to enjoy as the drama steers away from traditional melodrama of the era, though the quick-and-convenient marriage does push the camp factor a bit high. Thankfully, the script by Dalton Trumbo never grows moss, even giving this mismatched couple the scenes needed to give their relationship the depth to defy screen conventions of the day.
Alas, I’ve read that McGehee – who I thought was fabulous in the role – left us all too early, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 42. I can’t help but wonder what we could’ve seen from her had she lived longer.
From the product packaging:
“When union crooks in collaboration with a gambling syndicate try to pin a murder rap on uncooperative union leader Blane, Fremont smells a set-up.”
Though Chicago Confidential could be argued as the most formulaic and derivative of these three films, I’ve no problem admitting that I liked it the best; and that’s because – when it stays away from the omniscient narrator framework it employs in a few places to move its slim plot along – it’s truly a bare bones, old school police procedural, the kind of which television has been doing so very well since the 1950’s. That said, it’s also the most predicable.
The late Brian Keith in the role of somewhat crusading States’ Attorney ‘Jim Fremont’ underplays everything here, delivering his lines and small speeches in an almost monotone ‘Jack Webb’ intensity. His dedication to the evidence ends up having him jail the wrong man – Blane (Dick Foran) – for a crime he didn’t commit; once science (aka further evidence) proves him wrong, he goes on a relentless crusade to not only free the jailed union boss but also uncover the conspiracy that misled the cops. In this regard – like all others who undertake such a personal mission against criminals – he puts his life and limb in jeopardy, and – yes – he even suffers more than a few blows to the head on his quest for justice.
What folks typically don’t like in film (i.e. the carbon-copied stereotypical mobsters and women of the night) is what makes all of this work for me. It’s all seedy underbelly, and only the servants of truth like Chicago’s finest (ahem) have what it takes to walk toe-to-toe with gangsters. As a side passion, I tend to lose myself in vintage crime novels, and so much of Bernard Gordon’s screenplay (adapted from a book of the same name by Lee Mortimer and Jack Lait) feels authentic to that world. (In fact, I just ordered myself a used copy of the novel based on some reviews.) It might be imperfect based on a certain measurement, but it’s pitch perfect for those of us who appreciate a little ‘hard-boiled’ prose in our regular literary diets, so I found the flick inspired.
Yes, it’s imperfect. Yes, it isn’t hard to see why it’s a bit of a forgotten film. Yes, it’s dated.
But it’s damn good law. And I approve.
From the product packaging:
“Dana Andrews is a Korean War veteran who returns home after being tortured and brainwashed as a P.O.W. and resumes work at a public relations firm in Washington, D.C., where he uncovers a hotbed of political manipulation that ensnares him in a web of suspicion.”
As a genre junkie, I was already familiar with director Jacques Tourneur’s work. In 1942, he directed Cat People for RKO Radio Pictures, a film I’ve known some people argue is as influential from its days as are the Universal Pictures Monsters Universe. (I’d stop short of that endorsement, but the film does have its merits.) In 1943, he directed the creepy I Walked With A Zombie also for RKO. And in 1947, he directed the great Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, a private eye film so revered that in 1991 is was inducted into the U.S.’s National Film Registry. (FYI: Cat People is also in there, so let’s just agree that – as a director – Tourneur had a solid, respectful grasp of spinning good tales.)
To my surprise, The Fearmakers seemed a bit undercooked, especially so given Tourneur’s involvement. Its script – adapted from the Darwin L. Teilhet novel by Elliot West and Chris Appley – occasionally moves in shorthand, almost completely ignored the how’s and why’s of political polling (and how its trustworthiness changed) in favor of pushing a rather banal melodrama about one marketing firm’s corporation corruption. There’s even a love triangle pushed to the forefront a bit too conveniently to heighten the suspense and even a subplot involving brainwashing whose harmful side effects manage to crop at the most inconvenient time possible that muddles the brew.
It's worth noting that The Fearmakers does bear a passing similarity to the vastly superior film The Manchurian Candidate (1962) that was still a few years away from coming to pass. Both flicks do traffic in themes of mental programing, but Fear’s is a far more conventional use of such treacherousness, instead sticking to Chinese meddling really as a subplot not really tied to its main points. In fact, its inclusion here really is more of a character sidebar for Andrews; his time in captivity produced a series of unpredictable migraines that nearly cripple his ability to defend himself and those around him when the going gets tough.
Having not read Teilhet’s novel upon which all of this is based, I can’t help but wonder if some of the film’s narrative failures are tied to ideas lost in translation. For example, I can imagine a prescient author winningly tying together Andrews’ indoctrination by the Chinese beside the advertising firm’s manipulation to shape public opinion; but as we’re never given ‘the inside track’ to see how all of this works – its effectiveness is only suggested by the script – then that association might be lost on some. There’s a great sequence that gets paralleled on film (i.e. Andrews is shown being beaten as torture by the Chinese in the opening and then he undergoes the same treatment by the ad firm’s goon), but because the latter sequence is all about thuggery and not about the ad firm’s programming I’d say nuance was chucked out the window in favor of simplicity.
Still, Andrews does good work as an affable lead. Though he was probably a bit older than what was necessary, he possesses an easiness as a player that it’s easy to forgive a few shortcomings. Mel Torme steals a few scenes as a somewhat bookish yet politely sniveling corporate toadie whose love for the office secretary compels him to look the other way until it’s too late. Veda Ann Borg makes the most in a small role; she ably chews scenery as the lustful host of a D.C. area boarding house who might offer more than an empty bed (and breakfast) to the right customer.
Recommended. As noirs go, these three are certainly good, though it’s easy to see why they’re probably not as revered as other films in the genre. They came along fairly late in noir’s central era, so audiences had seen many of these elements already put to use in perhaps more creative ways elsewhere. Good performances can take a film only so far; the novelty of stories involving fresh elements had worn a bit thin, leaving this trio perhaps a bit too formulaic to rise above the fray.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray set of Film Noir: The Dark Side Of Cinema VII by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.