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April 26, 2022

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VI

John Brahm - 1947

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Johnny Stool Pigeon
William Castle - 1949

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The Raging Tide
George Sherman - 1951
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Three-disc set

The three films are from the studio known at the time as Universal-International. That they are classified as film noir is indicative of how elastic that term has become. There is little of the stylization that is found in the canonical films. Not every film can or has to be a Touch of Evil or Kiss Me Deadly, so as long as there are no unrealistic expectations, there is no reason why one can not enjoy these films as they are.

If you have seen Casablanca, then you have already seen Singapore. I exaggerate, but not by much. The comparisons are part of several reviews of John Brahms's film. The story was by screenwriter Seton I. Miller, whose name might be remembered from several classic Warner Brothers movies from the 1930s and 40s. The main supporting cast includes Roland Culver, Richard Haydn, Thomas Gomez and George Lloyd taking parts that in a Warners' film would have Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre respectively. The leads are played by Fred MacMurray, then at the top of his career as a movie star, and Ava Gardner, newly minted as a star following The Killers from the year before.

MacMurray plays a pearl smuggler returning to Singapore following the end of World War II. He hopes to resume his business and recover a cache of pearls left in a hotel that survived the war. Gardner is the fiancee MacMurray thought had been killed during a Japanese attack, only she got amnesia and is now married to plantation owner Roland Culver. The film was made when Asia was referred to as the Orient. While Singapore is not exactly a Casablanca clone, there is that ending at the airport.

John Brahm is best remembered for such films as Hangover Square and his version of The Lodger. He also directed some of the best episodes of the early 1960s television anthology series, Thriller, with "A Wig for Miss Devore" unnerving me at age 10. There are several nice shots of MacMurray and Gardner mostly in the shadows, their profiles partially illuminated.

Even William Castle was dismissive of Johnny Stool Pigeon, called it "pedestrian". It is actually better than Castle recalls, especially the dialogue free opening scene at a San Francisco pier. Federal agent Howard Duff convinces convict Dan Duryea to help him bust a narcotics ring rather than enjoy the comforts of a long stay at Alcatraz. Shelley Winters, a mobster's girlfriend, tags along, although it is never certain whose side she's on. The three end up at an Arizona dude ranch run by the overly ingratiating John McIntire. When Strangers Marry from 1944 is proof that William Castle could make a stylish film within the restrictions of a Monogram budget. Johnny Stool Pigeon does benefit from some on location photography, plus a fourth billed Tony Curtis as a hired gun. Still credited as Anthony Curtis, this is a silent performance with the actor basically glaring at everyone else. I imagine that early in his career, the suits may not have been sure how to work with or around Curtis' Bronx accent, but they knew he had screen presence.

Many years ago I saw part of a movie on television in which Shelley Winters was being interrogated by a cop in her bedroom. She is asked what she does for a living and responds that she sells hats. As she puts it, and I am paraphrasing here, men give her hats and she sells them back. I never knew the title of that film until I saw The Raging Tide. The cop is played by Stephen McNally, and he is in pursuit of Winter's boyfriend, Richard Conte. On the run in San Francisco, Conte hides out in a fishing boat operated by Charles Bickford with Alex Nicol as his son. Conte discovers he likes the honest work of a fisherman over his previous life of crime although it does not stop him from temporarily recruiting Nicol to do collect money on his behalf. The story is ultimately a parable of redemption following the small fishing boat surviving an ocean storm. Of note is that the screenplay was by Ernest K. Gann from his novel. Gann is most famous for aviation novels that have been filmed including The High and the Mighty and Fate is the Hunter.

Director George Sherman is better known for his many low budget westerns, though he did work on a handful of films in other genres. His career was somewhat circular beginning with several film starring John Wayne at Republic Pictures prior to Stagecoach, with Sherman ending his career directing Wayne in what would be his most commercially successful film, Big Jake.

All three films come with commentary tracks. Lee Gambin and Kat Ellinger offer a casual chat covering the stars and director of Singapore, additionally discussing the film's historical context. Jason Ney's commentary for Johnny Stool Pigeon is a well prepared presentation on the film's location shooting, some biographical information, and placing the film within the context of film noir at the time of production. A highlight is the inclusion of an "interview" with Dan Duryea that was distributed to several radio stations in 1949, with Ney reading the scripted questions. David Del Valle and Miles Hunter share friendly banter on The Raging Tide, primarily covering the primary cast, with a few words on Ernest Gann and cinematographer Russell Metty. Curiously, while they discuss the similarities and differences of film noir with the western, no mention is made of George Sherman's career as mostly a niche director.

All three films have been sourced from 2K restorations and look quite good when the action takes place in the shadows.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 26, 2022 06:31 AM