The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947): Bad Trip

The killer admires himself in the gas station mirror. He straightens his tie and eyes his reflection with a flicker of pride, as though working out which angle would look best on his Most Wanted poster.

While bad hombre Steve Morgan adjusts his fedora and exhales billows of smoke, the camera invites us—or perhaps dares us?—to drink him in. Think of it as the tough guy equivalent of a femme fatale applying her lipstick or running a brush through her luscious locks.

Meanwhile, James ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, the tipsy sap who ill-advisedly gave Steve a lift, coos to his wife on the phone, despite the intrusions of a nagging mother-in-law. Steve shoots a sly glance towards the camera with the hint of a mocking smile. What a swell sucker he picked.

Just 5 minutes into the movie, we’ve got the low-down on Steve Morgan. Heck, in the first 20 seconds after the credits, we hear Steve’s snarling voice pulling a stickup, right before he shoots the manager and leaves him to die.

But these lovingly captured moments of before-the-mirror posturing and carnivorous glee tell us a whole lot more about Steve as the film’s perverse main attraction. Brought to life by the dangerous Lawrence Tierney, he’s the pin-up boy from hell. He’s a barrel of laughs and razor blades. He’s a hunky psychopathic tomcat. And the world is full of mice.

Adapted from Robert DuSoe’s novel, Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an icky little movie, a heady cocktail of chuckles and dread. Through some unholy miracle, screenwriter-director Feist managed to pack two car chases, a dragnet manhunt, a stomach-churning woman-in-jeopardy sequence, and maybe the worst house party ever into a lean, mean 62-minute runtime.

This pulpy, high-octane B noir from RKO flirts so outrageously with comedy that you may not see its nastiest blows coming. Deranged tonal shifts and a farfetched plot make The Devil Thumbs a Ride more disturbing than many comparatively somber and cohesive entries in the noir canon. Murder, sadism, depravity, greed, and betrayal: that’s business as usual. But peppered with wacky sitcom-style hijinks? Now that’s twisted.

This is a movie where the bad guy brazenly runs over a cop then convinces his three passengers to roll with that, because he’s just a poor misunderstood soul, see? A movie where the psycho-killer has to take a break from assaulting someone to scrub a liquor stain off the rug while pouting like a scolded little boy. Where a life-or-death warning is scribbled on a piece of paper torn from a hideously racist novelty notepad in a sleazy beach house. Where the good-time gal briefly checks out from the movie to read Balzac (tee-hee!) in her pajamas then exclaims, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” upon learning that someone has been brutally slain. Like I said: icky.

More than mere cheap thrills, all the inappropriate comedy softens the viewer up for a shock with few equals in studio-era cinema.

Here’s the setup: traveling salesman James Ferguson (Ted North) is driving home to the ever-loving arms of his wife—on his birthday and anniversary, no less—when he picks up Steve, a hitchhiking robber on the lam. (Good call, Fergie. He has an honest face.) When the men stop for gas, two stranded dames, hardboiled blonde Agnes (Betty Lawford) and soft-spoken brunette Carol (Nan Leslie), ask for a ride. Sizing up Carol, Steve ushers the pair into the car, and Fergie, being an easygoing schmoe, doesn’t object.

Meanwhile the gas station attendant recognizes Steve from a radio bulletin and joins forces with the cops to hunt the criminal down. With the dragnet tightening, Steve persuades the crew to hide out in the unoccupied beach house bachelor pad owned by Fergie’s colleague. What could possibly go wrong?

If that plot sounds unbelievable, I urge you to park your skepticism at the credits. And remember: while normal people act pretty stupid in this movie, normal people act pretty stupid in real life too. The traits that Steve exploits—from mistrust of authority to thundering denial in the face of unpleasant facts—are present, more or less, in all of us.

The architecture of the film’s suspense turns the viewer into Steve’s accomplice; we know what he knows and what his companions apparently don’t. Willingly or not, we’re hep to his jive.

When the heat is on for Steve, the audience starts sweating. When he smirks, we’re in on the joke. We see Steve breaking bottles on the tires of Fergie’s car to prevent any members of his party from making a sudden exit. So, a few minutes later, when Fergie finds out about the flats, Steve’s wry, wolfish gaze over the poor sap’s shoulder is a private punchline for those of us keeping score at home.

Whether he’s spinning a sob story about reform school or swiping Fergie’s identity right in front of him, Tierney’s Steve lies with such fluency that I, like Sam Spade wondering at Miss Wonderly, can’t resist chuckling, “You’re good. You’re very good.”

Indeed, Devil toys with the viewer’s tendency to identify with—or at least enjoy the antics of—a charming psychopath, that evergreen pop culture favorite. At the risk of overanalyzing a B noir, the push-pull of attraction and repulsion towards Steve operates as a meta commentary on cinema’s addiction to violent men. This Devil reels us in with the promise of a good time, only to leave us grossed out by how far we’ve gone with a killer.

Most subversive of all, Devil reminds us that reality doesn’t respect the Production Code. And clutching the guardrails of conventional moral wisdom might lead you right off a cliff. Almost like a matched-pair experiment, the film’s two main women take contrasting approaches to being cooped up with a killer, and let’s just say it turns out far better for one of them. Virtue might be its own reward, but sometimes it’s incompatible with survival.

Worth the price of admission then as well as now is Lawrence Tierney. One contemporary trade journal reviewer advised, “Plug Tierney as the screen’s new ‘tough guy.’” Interestingly, Tierney doesn’t engage in much tough guy business. He doesn’t throw a punch or fire more than a shot until the very end. Yet he radiates the promise of toughness, a laid-back assumption of dominance and ownership over everyone and everything around him.

Consider the speech Steve lavishes on Carol, minutes after they’ve met. Taking up more than his share of the backseat, he praises her hair, her teeth, her skin, and “them hard-to-find Technicolor eyes.” An actor bent on winning our sympathy, or simply building up his appeal to the female public, might be tempted to wring this spiel and its glib cosmetic-commercial poetry for a little romantic kick.

Feist and Tierney, however, understood that this is not so much a string of compliments, or even a proposition, as a threat. He delivers the lines with a combination of oleaginous sensuality and deadpan calculation that would be humorous if it weren’t so creepy. Behind him, a silhouette of his fedora and head crowds the tight frame further, as though his dark intentions had materialized into a shadowy form. Make no mistake: Steve is itemizing her attractions like he’d make a mental note of jewels in the window of a store he’s planning to rob.

As an antisocial nightmare hitchhiker, Steve is a male counterpart to the volcanic Vera from Detour. Both of them hijack their weak-willed drivers, wheedle their captive audiences off the road, and trap them in claustrophobic private hells of booze and bad vibes. Both fuel their respective films with exhilaratingly unwholesome rock-and-roll energy. And both incarnate the underbelly of post-WWII America, but from different gender perspectives.

Just as Ann Savage’s Vera seemed to erupt with the long-silenced fury of a million women harassed, abused, and exploited, Tierney’s Steve incarnates the mid-century straight male id, the essence of toxic masculinity in a sharp suit and fedora. Rather than mere parallels, a cause-and-effect relationship connects these two landmark psychos of the noirverse. Men like Steve are the reason why Vera is, well… Vera.

Steve stands in stark contrast to the two cloyingly domestic men who round out the main cast: Fergie, a devoted married man, and Jack, the boyish gas station attendant who proudly displays a picture of his little daughter. Bookended by these happy hubbies, our resident psychopath comes across as the return of a collectively repressed killer instinct. After all, when you ship out thousands and thousands of men to shoot people in a strange land for a few years, not all of them can come home and settle down to become a Fergie or a Jack. There are bound to be complications.

In 1946, according to the Motion Picture Herald, the Office of War Information communicated with Hollywood because “Washington felt it would be a good idea for the screen to prepare the population for the arrival home of a large category of veterans in the psycho-neurotic category.” A dirtbag like Steve probably wasn’t what the OWI had in mind, but “having started delving into the realm of abnormal psychology, Hollywood’s considerable colony of writers kept right on delving,” the Herald dryly noted.

Savage’s Vera and Tierney’s Steve Morgan operate outside the margins of polite society; yet both hitchhikers paradoxically serve as bleak, noirish parodies of awful spouses. One can imagine a henpecked husband in 1945 recognizing his own ball-and-chain in shrewish Vera, as she nags Roberts to the breaking point with her get-rich-quick schemes. Steve’s habit of ordering women around—and slapping them when they don’t comply—casts him as an abusive husband figure.

No sooner does Steve reach the beach house than he starts barking orders at Carol like a domineering hubby fresh from a long day at the office. “Look, baby, you heard me: bring over that bottle and two glasses,” he snaps. A few scenes later it’s Agnes’s turn to play wifey. He literally tells her to get in the kitchen and make him a sandwich: “Hey, Aggie, if you’re cleanin’ out the icebox, how about whippin’ me up a cheese on rye?” (Because murder apparently works up an appetite? Look, I warned you this movie was icky.)

Regardless of what Steve might represent, Feist makes the most of Tierney’s intimidating physical presence and his unusual face, which could morph from stone-cold handsome in one shot to downright gruesome in the next. Or within the same shot, for that matter. When he first makes a move on Carol at the beach house—only to be interrupted by the doorbell—he’s all matinee idol in profile, then all craggy villain from the front.

Cameraman J. Roy Hunt’s lighting takes the title literally, amplifying the diabolical impact of Tierney’s mug. During tense moments, Hunt shines vampirish beams around the criminal’s eyes or makes him glow and leer like a possessed waxwork figure.

Lately I’ve been noticing how much more men’s hair seems to move in film noir compared to other classic films, but Steve’s hair in The Devil Thumbs a Ride might set the record for most activity. A big mass of wavy dark hair often escapes its Brylcreem bonds to hang rakishly across his forehead. That says something about him: even this man’s hair is out of line. It’s 1947; hair isn’t supposed to work like that. If a man’s hair moves this much in a studio film, he’s Trouble with a capital T. Not that we need confirmation.

For a lot of this movie, Steve has command of our eyeballs. A professor of mine once pointed out how much of The Big Sleep consists of Bogie walking across rooms, because Hawks knew Bogie looked good doing it. Feist capitalized similarly on Tierney here. Even when the movie parks itself in an isolated location, Steve’s self-assured gestures and perambulations maintain a sense of entertaining movement, whether he’s lighting cigarettes, surreptitiously locking doors, disabling phones and getaway vehicles, or rifling people’s pockets.

Some actors can play scary. Some actors are scary. Tierney belongs to the latter category. Nowadays it’s a meme to joke about wanting celebrities to murder you; Tierney’s star image got there about 70 years ahead of the curve. Ironically, the run of destructive behavior and arrests that derailed Tierney’s career also boosted his mystique and secured his place in noir history. Part of the morbid thrill of watching Tierney lies in wondering exactly where the actor ends and the performance begins.

He’s more or less the whole show in The Devil Thumbs a Ride and arguably more in his element here than in the lurid Born to Kill, made the same year. As social-climbing, murder-happy Sam Wild, Tierney got to rack up a higher body count, indulge in more onscreen violence, and lounge on beds while smoldering with forbidden proto-punk allure. But Sam’s muddied motivations and sheer recklessness dealt the actor a tricky hand to play. Though Tierney makes an electrifying homme fatal, Sam is way out of his depth and not exactly blessed in the brains department. Luckily, his other assets convince couger-ish divorcee Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) to cover for him, even as she reminds him, between kisses, of what an awful bungler he is. Indeed, Tierney probably never topped the bloodthirsty heat of That Scene In The Pantry with Trevor. Maybe nobody has. But he’s a fish—a shark, surely—out of water in his big A-picture showcase. Robert Wise emphasized Tierney’s garishness in the mausoleum-like trappings of wealth and power that don’t truly belong to Sam. Perhaps that’s one reason why Born to Kill failed to rake in the box office that might have made RKO happy to overlook Tierney’s extracurricular antics.

Tierney seemed more at ease and frightening playing sharp, vicious bastard Steve Morgan, unhampered by long-range social aspirations. His occasional awkwardness, a liability in Born to Kill, only added to his unvarnished scariness and verisimilitude as Steve. At times you feel as though you’re watching an escaped psycho-killer who just wandered onto the set and started doing his thing.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride gave Tierney the chance to hone the lethal charisma that catapulted him to fame in surprise box office hit Dillinger (1945). Though supported by such old pros as Edmund Lowe, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Eduardo Ciannelli, Tierney carries the film on the strength of his desperado swagger. Photoplay reviewer Sara Hamilton wasn’t too impressed by the film, but rather taken with the star: “The lad looks good in both the longshots and close-ups.” Sure, he guns down a bunch of people and chops up his moll’s boytoy with an axe, but it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him in the end, holed up in a garret then led to his ignominious death, like a prize bull to the slaughterhouse.

The success of Dillinger—along with Tierney’s reputation for brawling and boozing—contributed to his typecasting as criminals and tough mugs. “For some reason they always cast me as the mean asshole,” a still-pugnacious Tierney lamented to Eddie Muller in 1999. Well, not always. He did play a few heroic guys in his prime and imbued them with more endearing flair than I would’ve expected. Yet an air of menace and haywire virility clung to Tierney, onscreen and off.

In Bodyguard (1948), he’s a 1940s Dirty Harry who gets kicked off the force after belting his superior in the jaw—which makes him suitable for framing when the boss turns up dead. In Step by Step (1946), he’s a damsel-saving, Nazi-punching ex-Marine who travels with an adorable dog. And even so, you can’t quite blame the aforementioned damsel (Anne Jeffreys) for locking her door and pushing a chest of drawers in front of it before she can sleep easily in the same hotel suite with Tierney.

After watching The Devil Thumbs a Ride, you definitely won’t blame her. Because (spoiler alert) all the film’s queasy comedy temporarily comes to a screeching halt when Steve, having eliminated all apparent obstacles, decides to force himself on Carol. Once Agnes shuts her door on them, the situation escalates rapidly, as brassy swing music—Steve’s choice to set the mood—blares shrilly from the radio.

Realistically blocked with struggles shown mostly from an unromanticized distance, this attempted rape scene hits hard even today. “Don’t make me chase ya, baby. It’s not gonna help,” Steve snarls, pushing Carol towards a divan and wrestling her arms down.

Just as he gets Carol in a headlock, the music breaks for a news bulletin. Steve lets go and Carol darts away to hear a warning about a guy called Steve Morgan who killed a theater manager and won’t hesitate to kill again. The camera tracks into a stunned close-up of Carol. A scenario that seemingly couldn’t get any worse somehow did. She’s trapped with a potential rapist. In a locked room. In the middle of nowhere. And it turns out he’s a murderer too.

Suddenly the film’s whole structure of identification shifts. The audience is no longer Steve’s knowing accomplice, but Carol’s paralyzed ally. We’re in the moment with her and this monster, and it’s scary as hell. Mercifully, Fergie returns, but not before Steve clips Carol on the jaw—loudly enough to make the viewer flinch—and warns her to “keep that little trap of yours clamped up tight.” Unaware of what he’s interrupting, Fergie proceeds to bawl Steve out for being an untidy guest.

Now ensues a white-knuckle scene of Hitchcockian normalcy-gone-wrong as Carol tries to signal to Fergie how much of a jam they’re in—without alerting Steve—while they clean up the beach house. She scribbles a note to warn Fergie, crumples it up, and passes it to him, along with the vacuum cleaner. But the note tumbles to the floor.

Clueless Fergie runs the vacuum and nudges the balled-up note closer… closer… closer to Steve as Carol watches in horror. Again, swing music from the radio frets on the viewer’s nerves, its cheeriness mocking the direness of what we’re seeing.

Steve picks up the piece of paper. And promptly tosses it in the fire. Phew.

Relieved but desperate and disgusted, Carol snatches a makeshift map and dashes out of the house. Steve, squatting on the floor, relaunches his aggressive pitch, now in the form of lewd life coaching: “You wanna be an actress, ya gotta live. What’d’ya think makes those love scenes in pictures look so real? Experience! Nothing but!” Turning his head and realizing that Carol’s about to escape his clutches and probably contact the cops, he runs after her, much to Fergie’s puzzlement and dismay.

Since the film has pivoted to Carol’s perspective, nothing bad will happen to her, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.

After a scene at police headquarters, we’re back to the beach house. Steve returns. Alone. Sullen. Casually dabbing blood from the scratches on his face. The canary is missing, and he’s got yellow feathers sticking out of his mouth. It’s both a punchline and a punch in the gut.

Obvious though the implication is, I confess that my brain refused to add it up for a few minutes. I thought, “Oh, good, she fought him off.” Because that’s how these movies have trained my brain to work. In an ordinary old Hollywood film, we’d find out that Steve only beat Carol up and locked her in the trunk of the car or something. While such a contrivance would stretch our disbelief (think Mrs. Vargas in Touch of Evil), we’d be grateful enough to accept it.

But no.

When Fergie goes to look for Carol, we find out that this is no ordinary old Hollywood movie. That grating, upbeat swing music drifts eerily from the house. And then Fergie sees something off-screen; the camera tracks into a shocked close-up as dramatic music drowns out the radio. It’s bad. Really bad.

Carol is dead. Floating face-down in the lagoon with bruises on her jaw and God only knows where else. A sweet little gal who didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and put up a fight.

Even once the edgy shock of this thriller wears off, it rewards repeat viewings to notice how Nan Leslie mines the more interesting aspects of her ill-starred character. Instead of a mere sacrificial lamb for the big bad wolf to destroy, Leslie astutely portrays Carol as a gentle, intelligent girl marked by a hard-knocks childhood. Pay attention to her firm refusal in the backseat of the car when Steve tries to push a “snort” of brandy on her. Then watch for the aching, silent, oh-no-not-again sadness that Carol exudes while Steve plies the alcoholic nightwatchman with booze. Like she’s having flashbacks to the home she ran away from.

Carol knows—knew—that this can be a cruel world. She had almost certainly slapped a guy for getting fresh before. Yet, as is so often the case in real life, the lost girl did gravitate towards the big, handsome, morally bankrupt guy who built her up and played her compassion like a virtuoso. “Background and environment can do strange things to people. I know because, as a child, I had a difficult time myself,” Carol says to Steve at one point, sympathetically handing him a cup of coffee while rationalizing his actions with some choice bits of pop psychology. (His expression of stifled amusement is priceless. I can stop selling her a bill of goods, he seems to be thinking; she’ll do all the work for me.) Primed by her own “background and environment,” Carol convinces herself that he can’t be all bad, then gets killed finding out that, yes, indeed he can. That Carol is ultimately too decent to fathom what she’s up against—that her empathy causes her downfall—makes her fate all the more disturbing.

According to the strict moral laws of the day, she commits no major transgression. The film doesn’t try to victim-blame her, which is significant, given that classic Hollywood films often threaten sexual violence, but rarely inflict it on characters we care about. (The bogus implication, in most cases, is that being good is enough to save you.) Weird and wild though it seems, Feist’s no-holds-barred noir is not inconsistent with the world we inhabit; sometimes bad things happen to good people, simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

At this point, there’s only one lady hitchhiker standing, so let’s spare a moment for Agnes, the film’s second most chilling character. Despite her bargain-basement Blondell mannerisms and general 1930s throwback vibe, as this thread discusses, she’s no chorus girl with a heart of gold. She’s a peroxide Judas Iscariot, ready to sell you out for a pair of stockings. When Steve is assaulting Carol, Agnes peers out from her cozy pajama party of one in a side bedroom. Does she say, “Quick, Carol, hide in here” or “Hey, give it a rest, Steve. The kid said she’s tired”? Nope. She says, “Ain’t a lady entitled to some privacy? Close that door.” So much for solidarity, sister.

After emerging from her beauty rest, Agnes teasingly addresses Steve as “Romeo,” then gushes “You’re a right guy!” when he volunteers to filch some stockings for her. Steve lights her cigarette in a shot of sinister communion, strangely dark and classically noirish for the well-lit beach house, that cinches their bond of shared rottenness.

Unlike Steve, Agnes appears to have a working set of moral gears; she just doesn’t bother to wind them up too often. I detect a hint of reproach in her voice as she asks, “Why’d you have to give it to the kid?” after Fergie discovers the body. Agnes listens to Steve’s too-convenient explanation and decides not to probe further, lest she end up floating in the lagoon herself.

From the way she purses her lips, we know that she knows there was a lot more to Carol’s death than a misplaced punch on the jaw, but she aligns herself with Steve nevertheless. And takes his blood money. And tackles the role of Mrs. James Ferguson with riotous gusto, simpering over Carol’s fate while accusing the real Fergie of Steve’s crimes. Agnes, for goodness sake, Carol’s cold, wet corpse is lying on the sofa. Being a cynical survivalist is one thing, but you don’t have to be so damned enthusiastic about it.

While the film’s too-neat wrap-up informs us via newspaper that Agnes is facing jail time for her misdeeds, that fate strikes this viewer as a weak comeuppance. I’d still rather be in Agnes’s shoes than Carol’s. Better a perfidious floozy behind bars than an angelic waif 6 feet under. By denying the audience the fair outcomes it expects from Breen-sanctioned Hollywood movies, The Devil Thumbs a Ride thumbs its nose at the idea of a just universe with a cohesive moral logic. Sometimes the only one with his eye on the sparrow is the predator preparing to devour it. God is nowhere to be found in this film, but the devil? He gets around. And that, friends, is the true meaning of noir.

Perfect movies have their place, but sometimes a flawed, outlandish, off-kilter one haunts you more. Just how much of an impression did this nasty B noir make on me? Well, a few nights after I first saw it, I had a bad dream that late-1940s Lawrence Tierney was threatening me. I woke up right then, which is fortunate. Based on this movie, I wouldn’t give myself great odds.

Where can you see it? The Devil Thumbs a Ride is not currently available on a legit Region 1 DVD. I shelled out for the Region 2 Spanish DVD. It’s crisper and much easier on the eyes than some of the pixelated DVR-ed prints around the internet. The screenshots in this post show what that DVD looks like (though I color-corrected the bluish tint).

Update from Eddie Muller on Twitter: “This was just restored through a partnership of the Library of Congress and Film Noir Foundation. Only problem is that rights issues prevent us from screening the film in North America.”

Darn. I hope they resolve those issues in the future. Because more people deserve to see this vividly messed-up movie looking as good as possible.

Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1945): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 9

I like to consider Murder, My Sweet a film noir sampler. If you can handle this, we’ll let you wade into deeper waters, but even the gentlest of dispositions can take the shallow end of the pool (or cesspool, as the case may be) with unshaven crooner Dick Powell to provide wisecracking reassurance.

Powell makes a surprisingly decent Philip Marlowe—hey, Raymond Chandler liked him—especially thanks to a script bright enough to borrow substantially from source material with extended passages of voice-over narration.

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Although Dmytryk’s entry into the private eye thriller cannon lacks the bitter moral ambiguity of The Maltese Falcon and the madcap perversity of The Big Sleep, it puts noir’s most significant tropes on display. The weary detective. The bad woman. The sinister doctor. The goofy Goliath. The flashing neon lights. The crazy mirror esthetic.

Most importantit weaves some heady (if slightly silly) surrealist moments and subjective freakout sequences into its narrative framework—a major contribution to the noir style. Even so, despite its undulating black pools of unconsciousness, Murder, My Sweet fails to evoke the consuming darkness of the greatest films noirs.

The Locket (1946): Cassandra’s Revenge

the_locket_posterA flashback. Within a flashback. Within a flashback. Have I whetted your appetite? Or do I detect a glazed look in your widening, screen-bleary eyes?

For those not as enamored of narrative brambles as I, let me offer some immediate reassurance: you won’t need a diagram to follow The Locket. In fact, the surprising clarity of the film’s symmetrical progression—burrowing deep into the past and then rising to the present again—strikes me as a small miracle.

Mysterious Nancy Monks (Laraine Day) is all set to marry rich John Willis (Gene Raymond) and has thoroughly beguiled his family. However, on the day of her wedding Dr. Blair (Brian Aherne), a psychiatrist claiming to be Nancy’s ex-husband, shows up and demands to speak with the groom. Cue the flashbacks! Dr. Blair launches into a multi-layered story about Nancy’s kleptomania, her deadly web of lies, and the childhood trauma that triggered her compulsions. Is it true? And will the groom go through with the wedding?

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This psychological thriller, directed by overlooked auteur John Brahm, hasn’t gotten the recognition it merits within the noir canon. (Only 2 stars, really, Leonard Maltin? No better than Laserblast? That simply won’t do.) Though remembered mostly for its plot eccentricities, The Locket is so much more than a curio. I’ll admit it suffers from a slight case of Rosebud syndrome, but the overall brilliance of the movie transcends any individual contrivance.

The conviction of its performances, the burnished splendor of its cinematography, and the acerbic social commentary of its script all combine to produce a level of quality I associate with top-tier films noirs.

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By jumbling the beginning, middle, and end, this film unnervingly draws the viewer into the fractured mind of its heroine. Director John Brahm had already proved his gift for illuminating disturbed souls with the obsessive flourishes in Guest in the House, The Lodger, and Hangover Square.

brahm_the_locketHere, he takes a structure designed to tax the limits of plot continuity and, instead of backing off, brazenly cloaks it in another layer of expressionistic anxiety. This is a movie that gently lures spectators to the edge of the abyss then dares them to look down.

I have a lot to say about this underrated gem, but I’ll get the most important part out there now: do yourself a favor and watch The Locket. (And, thanks to Warner Archive, it’s available on DVD!)

If ever a film noir deserved to be “rediscovered,” this is it.

We now return to your regularly scheduled screenshots and analysis. Oh, and beyond this point there be spoilers. 

The Curse of Cassandra

What does it matter now if men believe or no?

What is to come will come. And soon you too will stand

beside, to murmur in pity that my words were true.

—Cassandra in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon

In case you’re craving a Western Civ refresher, let’s revisit one of the worst breakups in Greek myth. When Trojan priestess Cassandra refused to have Apollo’s child, the Sun god cursed her to foresee the future perfectly—only to meet with disbelief from those around her.

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The Locket directly alludes to the story of Cassandra with a creepy portrait of the unfortunate prophetess, modeled on Nancy and painted by her then-lover Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum). The grotesquely blank eyeballs of Clyde’s Cassandra initially seem like they’d be more at home in a horror movie. In fact, they offer the first window into the howling chaos lurking beneath Nancy’s pert, abnormally normal exterior.

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The film’s most potent link to the Cassandra myth, however, stems from Nancy’s youth, as revealed in the innermost layer of flashbacks. To signal the start of each flashback, the camera tracks into the character’s darkened face, as though the camera were slipping into their subconscious. We peel back through Dr. Blair’s memories as he confides in Nancy’s groom and then through Clyde’s memories as he recounts them to Dr. Blair. Finally, when the camera slides towards Nancy, she shares the experience that fuels her compulsion.

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Shortly after Nancy’s father died, Mrs. Willis, the snotty, sadistic dowager who employed Nancy’s mother as a housekeeper, accused little Nancy of stealing a valuable locket. Although Nancy didn’t do it, Mrs. Willis insisted she was guilty and forced a confession out of the scared child. The injustice of the scene—laden with ugly overtones of class entitlement—will rankle anyone with half a heart. It’s downright painful to watch.

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Like Cassandra, Nancy told the truth, but no one believed her.

Past and Present

The girl stands shocked by the words that flew out of her mouth under duress. A music box that tumbled on the floor during Nancy’s scuffle with Mrs. Willis attracts her attention. Its chirpy, inappropriate tune cuts through the suffocating tension. Brahm gives us an extreme low angle shot of Nancy, dazed, almost paralyzed.

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Have you ever felt smote by fate, squashed by forces beyond your control to the extent that, for a moment, you have the impression of looking at yourself from the outside? I have, and that shot is just about the best I’ve seen that feeling caught on film.

Something breaks inside of Nancy right there. The mechanism that lets her distinguish between true and false, between good and bad, shatters. Whatever face she puts forward to the world, she’ll always be the Cassandra of Clyde’s portrait, staring emptily out from a private hell.

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At the end of the film, Nancy comes full circle and returns to the place where she learned to lie. The music box again tumbles to the floor and Brahm punctuates the parallel with the exact same angle—peering up at Nancy. Not even her bridal veil can shield her from the uncanny gaze of the camera. The veil trembles like a canopy above us, enfolding us with Nancy as we look up, as if from a point within her. She suddenly relives the trauma that pursued her and drove her to repeat a cycle of crime and deceit.

The Eyes of a Prophetess

Time, that enigmatic thing that healthy people perceive as a one-way linear path, doesn’t go forward for Nancy.

Her childhood ordeal, petty yet dense as the dying star mass at the center of a black hole, ruptured the chronology of her life. Nancy can’t escape the gravitational pull of her past, and she traces the edge of the chasm again and again. Is she even aware that she’s recreating a pattern of disaster? Probably not, the film suggests.

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When Dr. Blair confronts Nancy with incontrovertible evidence of her thefts, she can’t compute the facts. As she stands in the rubble of her apartment (in England during the Blitz), the camera moves into Nancy’s vacant face as the flashes of bombs light alternating sides of her face. She dissolves into the painting of Cassandra—except in place of the portrait’s blank stare are her own glassy eyes. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

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Nevertheless, it’s a familiar nightmare. We might draw back from the freakish dead face with living eyes, but the compulsion it represents doesn’t diverge too significantly from the somnambulistic pursuit of things and stuff that governs millions of lives.

Of all femmes fatales, Nancy strikes me as one of the most alarming since she doesn’t fully understand what she does. If she can wreak havoc without knowing it, can’t we all?

And who’s to say we’re not doing so already?

Indeed, I’d argue that Nancy’s craving for valuable jewelry (and, by extension, the status they symbolize) only intensifies the everyday materialism that motivates modern society. While The Locket delivers a grim, universal meditation on truth and compulsion, it also clearly and specifically condemns the American Dream and its underpinnings of greed and social exclusion, as so many noirs do.

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Nancy’s mother expressed her faith in such a dream, telling her child, “If you want things badly enough, someday you’ll have them.” Innocent as it sounds, that cycle of wanting, getting, and then wanting more consumes Nancy’s existence. Drawn to signifiers of upper class privilege and comfort, Nancy manifests a stronger, more maladaptive version of the desires that, more or less, control all of us. The Locket implies that (in)sanity is a continuum; our common unhappiness falls closer to normal than Nancy’s neurotic misery, for sure, but the average person is not as far away as she’d like to imagine.

When the prophetess stares out at me from the painting, maybe her unseeing eyes curdle my blood because because they remind me of myself.

The Realness of Lies

It’s fundamentally human to trade in lies and to want to believe in lies. Falsehood is the path of least resistance. Lying for profit goes back even beyond mankind, to our primate ancestors. We’ve evolved to be fluent in deceit.

The trouble with lies, though, is that they’re a lot more real than we think. Unchecked, the lies we tell others can warp reality, punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty. And the lies we tell ourselves? They can be as devastating.

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Although The Locket depicts its male characters with sympathy, these men deceive themselves almost as much as Nancy deceives them.

Three highly intelligent individuals—an astute artist, a psychoanalyst, and a well-educated heir—develop intimate relationships with Nancy while remaining completely oblivious to her unstable mind. Why? Because the truth would interfere with their fantasies. Interestingly enough, different as their personalities are, they all make similar comments about how Nancy represents their ideal woman.

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John Willis tells her, “I’m living in a dream world. I keep pinching myself. I think I’ve always wanted to marry you, Nancy, even before I knew you.”

Dr. Blair recalls, “She seemed so perfect it was alarming, and, despite my psychiatric training, I was unable to detect the slightest flaw in her, which in itself should’ve given me pause, since none of us are perfect.”

Norman Clyde reminisces, “It was as though the perfect girl, the one you’d always imagined but never expected to meet, suddenly materialized, if you know what I mean.”

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Nobody questions paradise, not even when serpent slithers in. Not until it’s too late. Perhaps we should all be on guard against things that seem too good. When people see something they want, they become accomplices in their own downfall.

Ironically, just as Nancy told the truth and was punished for it, Nancy (unwittingly?) inflicts the same fate on her lovers. Both Clyde and Blair discover Nancy’s larcenous impulses and, on separate occasions, try to warn her current fiancé or husband. Nobody believes Nancy’s spurned accusers. In comparison to poised, lucid Nancy, they seem like the crazy ones. Truth looks like a liar and lies become true.

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The cinematography of The Locket, some of the legendary Nicolas Musuraca’s best work, eloquently suggests the encroaching danger of lies. From the cheerfully bright opening scenes, the lighting advances towards noir by degrees. The virtuoso lighting reaches its shadowy pinnacle as Clyde and Nancy argue about their involvement in a murder; a crackling fire makes their faces and outlines glow, like figures in a Caravaggio painting. The film’s visual progression into noir also amps up the captivating beauty of its visuals, emphasizing how seductive delusions can be.

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Shrinking the Shrinks

Most examples of Hollywood’s Freudian craze haven’t aged well. They strike modern audiences as silly—if not irresponsible—because they present psychoanalysis as the secret decoder ring for human misery. Appropriated even by some of the best screenwriters, Freud’s complex theories of symbolic interpretation and transference often reduce to just another convenient shortcut leading to the inevitable: a happy ending.

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In the movies, psychoanalysis efficiently fixes confused good people (as in Spellbound and The Secret Behind the Door) so that they can settle down and fulfill their socially-appointed destinies. When such a positive result isn’t possible, Freudian theory provides a means of sniffing out irrevocably bad people (as in Conflict), surgically removing them from society, and delivering them to their Hays-Code-sanctioned doom.

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Rather than indulge in retrospective smugness, though, let’s note that audiences regarded psychoanalytic thrillers as silly even when they were first being made. In 1948, The Screen Writer magazine chuckled over the emergence of the psychoanalyst-hero trope: “the mental wonder-worker who is half physician and half super-sleuth… Vienna and Scotland Yard rolled into one. What fun!”

By contrast, The Locket stresses Dr. Blair’s fallibility and lack of insight. He lived for years in blissful ignorance of the kleptomaniac under his roof. As Clyde sneers, “You’re no psychiatrist! You don’t know truth from lies. You’re just a lovesick quack.” In a masterstroke of irony, Dr. Blair’s failure to diagnose and cure his wife’s compulsion ends up landing him in a mental asylum!

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At the film’s conclusion, Dr. Blair doesn’t offer the glib reassurance we expect from a psychiatrist in the last five minutes of a studio-era movie. He can’t guarantee Nancy’s recovery. Instead he and John Willis lead a nonresponsive Nancy out, presumably to an institution. Meanwhile, the wicked Mrs. Willis lingers by her mansion gates, no less a prisoner of her twisted emotions than Nancy is.

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In 1946, ending on such an unresolved chord, leaving the viewer to wonder about Nancy’s guilt and her future, was an awfully bold thing to do.

The bitter words of Aeschylus’s Cassandra apply to The Locket: “there is no god of healing in this story.” And that is why Brahm’s film remains so disturbing and tantalizing almost 70 years later.

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A Breakthrough in 1935: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 7

An iconic portrait of Cary Grant, photographed by Robert W. Coburn in 1935 to promote George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett. Although the film flopped at the box office, it proved a surprising triumph for Cary, singled out by critics for showing the raffish flair he’d never had a chance to display through a parade of sophisticatedly dull early 1930s roles.

Cary would later confirm the importance of the movie in his career and express his fondness for the Cockney shyster he portrayed, saying, “Sylvia Scarlett was my breakthrough. It permitted me to play a character I knew.”

Cary Grant, 1935

Scanned from The Image Makers: Sixty Years of Hollywood Glamour by Paul Trent (McGraw-Hill, 1972).

 

Man of Mystery: Why I Love the Falcon Series

the-falcon-and-the-co-eds-movie-poster-1943-1020548505I like to think of the Falcon movies as film noir lite.

When I can’t stomach the amoral bitterness and grisly endings of true noir, this mystery series still satisfies my craving for seductive low-key lighting, cynical dialogue, and underworld intrigue. With his Bond-like resilience and devil-may-care banter, the debonair amateur sleuth known as the Falcon makes the viewer feel reassured and protected as he leads us down those mean streets in search of answers—and gorgeous dames.

Between 1941 and 1946, RKO’s B-movie unit churned out thirteen Falcon programmers. Amazingly, the quantity did not undermine the quality of the thoroughly enjoyable films. Distinguished up-and-coming directors like Edward Dmytryk and Joseph H. Lewis helmed individual movies, and more workmanlike directors still served up polished, competently-made films that clock in at a little over an hour. On a broader level, I suspect that Val Lewton’s successful RKO horror cycle strongly influenced the sleek, shadowy look of the Falcon movies. In any case, one can only assume that the studio—which managed to produce The Stranger on the Third Floor (widely considered the first film noir), Citizen Kane, Cat People, and Out of the Past within a span of a few years—must’ve been an environment conducive to good ideas and an eye-catching, moody style.

vlcsnap-2014-03-18-12h40m28s223Although the wry, purring George Sanders created the role of the Falcon, after just a few movies he moved on to more prestigious gigs and bequeathed the title to his equally wry and purring real-life brother Tom Conway. Years before, in 1937, when starting out on acting careers, the Russian-born, British-raised brothers had flipped a coin over who’d get to keep the family name. (The self-destructive genes in the family had already been split between them.) Well, George won the Sanders name, but Tom comes out the clear winner in the Falcon series.

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Sanders might ooze deadly charm when playing bad guys, but he makes a less convincing ladies’ man on the right side of the law. By contrast, when Conway’s Falcon flirts with ladies, they stay flirted. (Warning: buckle up for fangirling, folks. This is a Tom-centric article and I feel no shame for it.)

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Probably best known for his turn as the spectacularly unethical Dr. Judd in Cat People and The Seventh Victim, Conway delivered some fine performances, but didn’t possess the ample dramatic gifts of his younger brother. However, he proved much more adept at sustaining the Falcon series. As Kim Newman observes in The BFI Companion to Crime, “Conway was less sullen with material his brother clearly believed beneath him.”

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Whereas much of Sanders’s star image depends on his disdainful aura of boredom, Conway’s less caustic brand of sprezzatura gave the Falcon persona a much-needed infusion of curiosity and energy. Over the years I’ve acquired a great deal of respect for actors who can play the same static character over and over while still making him amusing and engaging. Conway bore this onus brilliantly.

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Conway’s work in the Falcon deserves the Errol Flynn Prize for Formulaic But Consistently Awesome Performances. I’d also award him the Ronald Colman Cup for Fine Moustaches. If anybody ever looked more badass holding a teacup, I’ve never seen it. It’s not difficult to understand how the Falcon series—which RKO initially planned on cancelling soon after Sanders left—actually grew more popular once Conway took it over.

vlcsnap-2014-03-18-11h22m04s30Sanders and Conway appeared together in just one film, The Falcon’s Brother, and their collective swoon-worthiness might cause temporary blindness in certain scenes. Gay Lawrence (Sanders) begins the investigation when his brother, Tom, is falsely reported dead. In an interesting reversal, by the end of the movie, Nazi spies have killed off Gay, leaving Tom to inherit the mantle and seek out further adventures as the Falcon.

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If taken out of context, audiences’ first glimpse of the future-Falcon Tom Lawrence wouldn’t seem out of place from any purebred noir. As policemen load into a car in pursuit of Gay Lawrence, a cut shows a presumably nearby alleyway—in almost total darkness. An indistinct movement, the sound of a match striking a wall, a spurt of flame, and there he is: coolly lighting his cigarette, the contours of his face flickering in the smoky glow.

In the initial installment of the series, The Gay Falcon, the other Lawrence brother was introduced to us as a mischievous, easily distracted white-collar socialite who works in an office but shirks his duties to go off hunting killers. By contrast, Tom Lawrence strikes the viewer from the first as a less frivolous sleuth, a slightly shadowy gentleman slummer with one foot in the noirverse.

vlcsnap-2014-03-17-19h01m10s34 Adding to the more hard-boiled qualities of the series, a number of actors better remembered for their work in iconic films noirs—including Jane Greer, Elisha Cook Jr., Martha Vickers, and Sheldon Leonard—bring a darker acting style to individual movies. However, to take the edge off of that intensity, RKO drafted in a number of recognizable comic character actors, like Don Barclay, Edward Brophy, and Cliff Edwards, to play the Falcon’s sidekick.

The Falcon movies feature many classical noir plot tropes, such as psychotically jealous spouses, mercenary femmes fatales, and gangsters living under assumed identities. The better installments mesh noir elements more or less seamlessly with their high quotient of comic relief. For instance, in The Falcon and the Co-Eds, my favorite of the series, an idyllic school for girls offers plenty of opportunity for giggly hijinks, but the façade drops to reveal a roiling undercurrent of repressed passion and neuroticism.

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The Falcon in San Francisco, with its urban environment and preponderance of thugs and baddies, channels the noir atmosphere the most distinctly, but even The Falcon in Mexico and The Falcon Out West manage to cull a noirish aesthetic out of atypical settings. The Falcon in Hollywood wins my personal recommendation as the series installment that most elegantly fuses incongruous elements of dark visual textures with pervasive light comedy.

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Speaking of comedy, the main running gag of the Falcon series consists of bookending almost every film with glamorous ladies begging the sleuth for help with some conundrum or other. As the detective quips in The Falcon in Danger, cornered by a distraught stunner with a ransom demand for her father, “Why is it every beautiful girl I meet is in distress and has a note?” A Falcon movie usually finishes by opening the door for the next movie; just as the Falcon has cracked the case, a woman runs up to him and pleads for his help. Although these teasers seldom relate to the plot of the following film, they end the films on a high note of, “Here we go again!”

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It’s a miracle that the Falcon can get any detecting done at all, what with the sundry dames clamoring for his attention. In one typical scene, from The Falcon Strikes Back, the sleuth tries to deter perky reporter Marcia Brooks (Jane Randolph) from meddling in his case by bestowing a generous smooch. The ploy works a little too well, because he then has to revive her from the resultant reverie with a snap, like a hypnotist!

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I always used to wonder why men carried handkerchiefs in their pockets. After watching a few Falcon movies, I finally understood the reason: to wipe away bright traces of lipstick left on their faces by amorous ladies—or that was the hope, at any rate. Yet, as the films make clear, the Falcon is at heart a gentleman, not a playboy. For instance, when trapped among a coatrack of costumes in a dressing room full of chorus girls during The Falcon in Hollywood, he surreptitiously reaches from his hiding place to put in place a sagging shoulder strap and thus protect the young lady’s modesty.

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I find the incessant flirtatiousness in the series somewhat refreshing because, just as much as the Falcon eyes women up, they eye him up right back. Cigarette girls, hotel maids, and random broads sitting around bars look him up and down and express their approval with an enthusiastic “mmm!” of delight.  When a mysterious lady bails Lawrence out of jail in The Falcon in San Francisco, she immediately pulls him into a liplock with nary a word of introduction. In The Falcon and the Co-Eds, Lawrence has to contend with classrooms full of googly-eyed maidens who instantly crush on him as hard as I do.

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All the pretty girls that populate the Falcon’s universe are clearly furnished to satisfy the gentlemen in the audience, but you can’t mistake a robust female gaze implied in the series. I mean, how else can you explain the scene in The Falcon’s Alibi where Tom Conway is shirtless for about five minutes—freshly oiled from having a massage and wearing nothing but pajama bottoms? Sleuth that I am, I can detect no narrative rationale for this shirtlessness, apart from unabashed eye candy. (Then again, I lose consciousness whenever I watch that scene. Smelling salts must be sent for.) At the risk of rationalizing my guilty pleasure, I would argue that there’s something healthy about the equal-opportunity checking-out that the Falcon movies heartily encourage.

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Like many programmer mystery series, the Falcon movies ride high on a breezy stock company ambiance. You can discern the sense of camaraderie and ease between performers who worked with each other practically every week. Keep your eyes peeled for repeating players, including Jean Brooks, Jane Randolph, Rita Corday, Barbara Hale, and, most frequently, Cliff Clark and Edward Gargan as the flatfooted policemen consistently flummoxed by the Falcon.

Raymond Chandler once wrote, “The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.” I believe this statement applies equally to movies. Now, I’m pretty damn sure that Chandler wouldn’t have expected that statement to relate to the Falcon movies. Especially since the first film adaptation of a Chandler work was the mutilation of Farewell, My Lovely into The Falcon Takes Over. Needless to say, the already cranky author felt trivialized. I admit that the Falcon movies lack the dramatic architecture and emotional tension that supports a great screen or literary thriller, regardless of the conclusion.

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But there’s a very different quality at work that would make me tune into a Falcon film even if the ending had been spliced away. It’s the cozy charm of the situations and the rapport of the characters that brings me back to these movies. The series invites you into its world and makes you feel right at home with a cluster of familiar tropes that grow more amusing with each Falcon movie you watch. You get in on the in-jokes and experience the vague feeling, when each film is over, that you’re expected at the cast party. In the end, try as I might to analyze why I find the series so appealing, I can’t get much further than to conclude, well, they’re darn fun to watch.

conwayAnd apparently they were fun to make. Conway, often typecast as villains or tortured souls, relished his chance to play a witty detective and found the series cathartic. As he told Hollywood magazine in 1943, “every now and then I get a breather like one of the Falcon series, which acts as a purifying agent. Then I’m ready for a fresh dish of dastardly doings.”

I guess that when I need a break from noirdom, the Falcon movies are my “purifying agent,” too.

This post is part of the Sleuthathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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And for those of you who are interested, I’ll be hosting a tweetalong to two Falcon movies on March 19 in partnership with #Bond_Age. Click here for details!