Showing posts with label Fritz Lang. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fritz Lang. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

On the surface Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) has everything going for him. He's a successful novelist and engaged to the beautiful and wealthy Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine). But the restless Tom keeps postponing their marriage. When Susan's father, newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), and Tom witness an execution, the two concoct a plan to prove that circumstantial evidence can send an innocent man to the electric chair. They want to prove to District Attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) that the justice system is inherently flawed in this way. The unsolved case of the murdered nightclub performer Patty Gray seems to be the perfect case for them to tackle. The two work together building up fake evidence to make it seem like Tom killed Patty. When Tom is inevitably arrested and brought to court, the end of their game is in sight. But when Austin Spencer dies in a fiery car crash on the way to the court house with the documents that will absolve Tom, now he's on his own. That is unless his fiancee Susan, who hadn't been privy to Austin and Tom's plan, can save him. But when Susan finds out something shocking about Tom, and why he wouldn't commit to a wedding date, she has to face some harsh truths and make one of the biggest decisions of her life.

Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine in a publicity photo for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Sidney Blackmer and Dana Andrews in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) has one of the best plot twists of all time. I've watched it on several occasions and even though I know the ending the film gets under my skin with every viewing. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it because the twist is what makes this movie so good. And beyond the plot device, the movie's exploration of capital punishment, double jeopardy and the justice system overall is thought-provoking.

This novel concept came from the mind of writer Douglas Morrow. Not only was Morrow an Academy Award winning screenwriter (The Stratton Story), he was also at one time an opera singer, a law student at Columbia, a movie producer and eventually went on to serve on an advisory council for NASA. The Space Foundation even has a public outreach award named in his honor. The original plan was for Morrow to create his own independent production company and develop his story idea into a screenplay with Ida Lupino. They both had Joseph Cotten in mind to star in the role of Tom Garrett. However, that plan fell through and another independent producer, Bert Friedlob, bought the rights to Morrow's story. Lupino and Cotten were eventually dropped from the project. I can only surmise that if Lupino had indeed contributed to the screenplay, the female characters wouldn't be so one-dimensional as they were in the final product.

This is one of two films Friedlob worked on with director Fritz Lang. The two had a contentious relationship (you can read more about this in my article on While the City Sleeps, their first film together). They worked on both While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt simultaneously with the latter shot in Chicago over 20 days. The atmosphere on the set was rife with tension. Lang and Friedlob butted heads on many aspects of the production and couldn't come to an agreement about the ending. Eventually Lang got the ending he wanted but he wasn't satisfied in the least bit with the final picture. According to Lang biographer Patrick McGillligan, Lang said the following about Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, "I hate it but it was a great success. I don't know why." While it failed at the box office, the film would go on to receive critical praise over the years. In 2009, director Peter Hyams remade the film in a drama starring Michael Douglas, Amber Tamblyn and Jesse Metcalfe.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt proved to be its own sort of death knell. Frustrated by the lack of control he had over his film projects, Fritz Lang left Hollywood for good. He made three films in Europe before retiring. Producer Bert Friedlob, once married to actress Eleanor Parker and renowned as a lothario and businessman, died of cancer in 1956 at the age of 49 just a month after the release of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. His cancer came on suddenly and developed rapidly despite several surgeries performed to save him. RKO distributed Friedlob's final film but their demise was just around the corner. In January 1957, RKO ceased operations. Actress Joan Fontaine was nearing the end of her movie career. She made only 6 more films after this one and went on to work in TV.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.
When you use my buy link to make a purchase at the WB Shop you help support this site. Thanks! The Blu-Ray features a brand new 1080p HD remaster as well as the original trailer and closed captions.

George, D.W. and Matt discuss the film on the Warner Archive Podcast episode The Darkness of Noir. For those of you participating in #Noirvember make sure you add Beyond a Reasonable Doubt to your to-be-watched list!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) on Blu-Ray for review!

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window (1944)

"Trouble starts from little things. Often from some forgotten natural tendency."

It's impossible to talk about Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) without talking about its famous ending. I'm not going to even try. You've been warned.

Years ago I taped this film off of TCM and watched it with my mother. We were completely engrossed in the film and developed a growing concern for Edward G. Robinson's character. As the movie progressed we knew there was no way out for him and panic started to set in. He was getting deeper and deeper into a bad situation. What was going to happen to this poor sweet man? All he did was admire a portrait in the window. How did he get into this mess? Just as the film reached its climax we held our breath. When the ending came and we saw it was all just a dream, we breathed out a huge sigh of relief. My mother still talks about the film to this day. Sometimes she doesn't remember the title or the particulars of the story. But the ending, she'll always remember that. It's the one instance where a movie becomes its own hero and saves the audience from falling off the precipice into heart ache. And we're grateful for it.

Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in The Woman in the Window (1944)

The Woman in the Window stars Edward G. Robinson as Richard Wanley, a professor of criminal psychology. With his wife and kids away on vacation, Professor Wanley spends time with his professional peers, including district attorney (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon). All three men are going through a mid-life crisis of sorts. They all have one thing in common: the admiration of a beautiful woman whose portrait is displayed in a shop window. One evening Wanley, as he stares at the portrait, sees a reflection. It's the portrait's subject, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). What starts as an innocent flirtation ends with Wanley at Reed's apartment and a dead body. Reed's rich boyfriend tries to kill Wanley and an act of self-defense, with the help of Reed passing a pair of scissors to Wanley, will easily be misinterpreted as murder. The two plot to dispose of the body but they've gotten more than they bargained for. Reed must face her beaut Heidt (Dan Duryea) who catches wind of what happens and wants to be paid in return for his silence. And Wanley is implicating himself more and more as his district attorney friend handles the investigation. Wanley only sees one way out but luckily wakes up in time to discover it was all just a dream.

Based on the novel Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis, The Woman in the Window was adapted to screen by Nunnally Johnson. Johnson had become a successful script writer at 20th Century Fox. Wanting to expand his business opportunities into both writing and producing, he founded International Pictures, Inc. Johnson's first project was adapting Wallis' novel onto film. He had both Fritz Lang and Edward G. Robinson in mind for the project. After Marlene Dietrich and other actresses turned down the female lead, Bennett was offered the part. Johnson's daughter Marjorie Fowler, then Marjorie Johnson, worked as an editor on the film.

Some major changes were in store for Wallis' story. According to Fritz Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, "the novel had hinted that the female lead was a prostitute; Johnson made the character more ambiguous, but still obviously a rich man's mistress." Then there was that ending. In the novel, the protagonist, a professor of English not criminal psychology, deems all hope to be lost and commits suicide. This just wouldn't do for the movie version. Johnson wanted the original ending but got push back from studio execs. According to Johnson biographer Tom Stempel, suicide was a "story solution discouraged by the Production Code. [William] Goetz insisted that the story be revealed at the end to be a dream. Johnson felt that kind of ending was a cheat but Goetz was insistent..."

And wouldn't you know it, the ending worked. The Woman in the Window was a hit at the box office. While critics complained about the ending, they praised the film overall. According to McGilligan, quoting Fritz Lang, "the happier ending 'made a difference of a million dollars more in receipts."

Upon the success of The Woman in the Window, Fritz Lang, Joan Bennett and Bennett's husband, producer Walter Wanger, teamed up to start Diana Productions named after Bennett's daughter from her first marriage. Their first production was Scarlet Street (1945) which reunites Woman's three main stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in what proved to be an eerily similar story. Many classic film fans like to joke that Scarlet and Woman are essentially the same movie.

Bennett and Lang collaborated on a total of 5 films which also include Confirm or Deny (1941), Man Hunt (1941) and the Diana Productions film Secret Beyond the Door (1947). This is notable because Fritz Lang was notoriously bad with his actors and many would give up working with him after one or two films. Stars like Brigitte Helm, Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda wrote off working with Lang. Sylvia Sidney, who collaborated on three films with Lang, and Bennett seemed to be the only ones who were willing to endure working with the director.

The Woman in the Window is a marvelous film. A taught film noir that tugs at your heartstrings. I love that Bennett's Alice Reed isn't a femme fatale caricature. There's more complexity than usual. Bennett really shines in this part which reminded me a bit of Jane Greer's character in Out of the Past (1947) but with more heart. Robinson does a fine job drawing out the audience's sympathy for his character. He's sweet and pathetic and we want to protect him like a baby bird that's fallen out of the nest. And Dan Duryea. Nice man in real life and pure evil on screen. A sign of true talent that he could so effectively play the opposite of himself. Robinson, Bennett and Duryea make for a dynamic trio on screen and are just as enjoyable in the next installment.

And for the record, I loved the ending. Sure it's a stereotype of an old Hollywood cop-out but I bought it hook, line, and sinker.

The Woman in the Window (1944) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The disc includes subtitles, audio commentary by film historian and film noir expert Imogen Sara Smith, and a variety of noir trailers. The film has been newly mastered in high definition and looks great on Blu-Ray. The package contains a reversible jacket with another poster design on the reverse side.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956)

Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews with director Fritz Lang

After two decades of making films in America, director Fritz Lang was at his wits end. The 1950s was difficult time in the film industry. Television was a major rival for audience’s time and attention. For Lang, good opportunities were fewer and far between. It also didn't help that Lang had developed a reputation for being cruel to his actors. In an effort to salvage his Hollywood career, Lang met with producer Bert Friedlob. Friedlob was quite a character. He had dabbled in many different businesses, (he was a liquor salesman and even managed circus acts) and became a film producer while he was married to his third wife actress Eleanor Parker. His films included A Millionaire for Christy (1951), The Steel Trap (1952), The Star (1952) and others. Lang needed a producer and Friedlob was ready and available. According to Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, after Lang signed with Friedlob, the producer wasn’t interested in any of the directors ideas however the two agreed on one project in particular. Friedlob owned the rights to the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein. The former  journalist's book was based on the true story of William Heirens, a Chicago based serial killer who targeted women and left messages behind scrawled in lipstick. Lang was familiar with the “lipstick killer” case and agreed to direct the movie. According to McGilligan, the killer in this story reminded Lang of Peter Kurten from his German film M. When William Friedkin interviewed Lang in 1973, they discussed Lang’s interest particularly in films about murderers and criminals. Lang didn’t want to admit it but he did agree that his interests did lie in “social evils.”

While the City Sleeps (1956) follows a cast of characters at the Kyne newsroom at a time when the company as at the brink of major change. Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick), head of the Kyne empire, died just at the time when his newsroom was working on their biggest scoop. A lipstick killer is on the loose. On the story is Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), the head of the Kyne telecast, Mark Loving (George Sanders), head of the Kyne newswire and Jon Day Griffth (Thomas Mitchell), the Kyne Newspaper’s chief editor. They are in competition for the top spot along with resident newspaper artist Harry Kirtzer (James Craig) to take over where Amos Kyne left off. Unfortunately they're faced with Kyne’s son Walter Kyne (Vincent Price), the spoiled rich brat who has no newsroom experience but likes the power his new position gives him. While the team battles for the top spot by trying to solve the lipstick killer case, the women of the newsroom are also making their mark. Mobley’s girlfriend Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) is Loving’s secretary and also Mobley’s pawn to lure the lipstick killer. Women’s story report Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) isn’t afraid to manipulate her coworkers to play office politics with the big boys. And then there is Kyne’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), who is having a secret affair with Harry. Dorothy and Nancy catch the eye of the lipstick killer (John Drew Barrymore, billed as John Barrymore, Jr.). Will Mobley and his police detective friend Burt Kaufmann (Howard Duff) get to them in time before the killer does?

Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino

Producer Friedlob's screenwriter Casey Robinson adapted Einstein’s novel to screen. According to Lang biographer McGilligan, "Robinson had no journalism experience; and the script would lack the real-life verisimilitude the director usually boasted." It did seem unrealistic to me that Andrews’ Edward Mobley was more instrumental in solving the mystery than Howard Duff’s Lt. Burt Kaufman. Friedlob and Robinson also injected an anti-comic book message into the story which did not age well. According to the AFI, “Friedlob announced that the film would address one of the concerns currently publicized by Senator Estes Kefauver, that of the effect of comic books on "juvenile delinquency’" and how the film would be a "weapon in the growing battle against the corrupting force of comic books on young minds." Comic book publisher Tony London pushed back saying that the film's message cast a bad light on an entire genre when only a few bad apples were to blame. Fast forward to 2018 and comic book franchises drive the current film industry. What would have Friedlob thought of that?

Rhonda Fleming and Vincent Price

In a publicity piece for the film, Fritz Lang said the following regarding Rhonda Fleming, "She amuses all the male instinct and she displays her physical assets to great advantage in the picture." Fleming often played such roles which were the complete opposite of what she was like in real life. In an interview with George Feltenstein for the Warner Archive Collection podcast, Fleming said,
“We went on to do While the City Sleeps with Fritz Lang. Which is one I really didn’t want to do because it was what my moral values didn’t stand for. A cheating wife, betraying her husband and lying. I almost turned it down but I guess I wanted to work with Fritz Lang and a great cast. But some of those naughty and not so nice roles were actually wonderful opportunities to play a wider variety of roles and not be mixed up in nice and sweet roles. It’s a favorite of many of my fans, these films.”

Independently produced, United Artists was originally going to distribute the film but in a last minute effort to get the film out on the market quickly Friedlob sold the completed film to RKO. Released in May 1956, While the City Sleeps was well-received. McGilligan said "it was considered a taut, well-made suspense film” and got good reviews in the trades. Friedlob and Lang went on to make Beyond a Reasonable Doubt released that same year (a review of that title coming soon!). Unfortunately, Friedlob died suddenly, just a month after the release of their second film together.

Fritz Lang is my favorite director and that’s because I’ve come to enjoy all the movies I’ve seen of his, even the not so great ones. (To date I’ve seen all but four, his two lost silents and his last two films made in Germany). In While the City Sleeps, the serial killer storyline is besides the point. This movie is really a suspenseful newsroom drama. It’s more about the social politics of an office than it is the hunt for a murderer. Everyone in the film plays to their strengths. And what a cast! Andrews, Lupino, Sanders, Mitchell, Fleming, Forrest, Craig, Price, they are all superb in this picture. Even Barrymore is convincingly frightening as the blood-thirsty Robert Manners. One thing I love about Lang’s films is how the female characters are portrayed. In a male-driven office, the three principal women are not simply pawns in their game. When Sanders tries to manipulate Lupino to get ahead, she manipulates him right back. Forrest isn’t content being the spurned fiancee who Andrews cheats on. A brief moment of defiance helps save her life. Fleming’s part is probably the weakest of the three but she also has her strengths including fighting off the killer. The film has some editing problems. There were some loops added for dramatics that were too noticeable to be taken seriously. A few shots seemed to be sped up or shot in reverse for a similar effect.

While the City Sleeps (1956) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a Blu-Ray copy of While the City Sleeps (1956) to review!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Haul and Summer Reading Video

I'm being brave and venturing out into the world of YouTube again. I've done a few videos in the past but with much trepidation. I'm not comfortable with public videos, ratings or comments yet but I won't let that stop me from trying out some videos. I was inspired by (i.e. stole the idea from) Vanessa from Stardust who has an excellent YouTube channel and also Aurora of Once Upon a Screen... who encouraged me to be more adventurous with my blog.

In this video I share with you my recent book haul as well as my six summer reading titles. Enjoy!

P.S. The Fritz Lang film I was trying to remember was Harakiri (1919).
P.P.S. I promise to do shorter videos in the future. I just really like talking about Fritz Lang and books apparently.

Titles mentioned:
'Tis Herself by Maureen O'Hara
The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda by Devin McKinney
Considering Doris Day by Tom Santopietro
Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy by Peggy Caravantes
Memoirs of a Professional Cad by George Sanders
Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan
Stepin Fetchit: The Life & Times of Lincoln Perry by Mel Watkins
Hollywood in Kodachrome by David Wills
The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935 by James Layton and David Pierce

Monday, July 13, 2015

Fury (1936) Essay for the National Film Registry

Recently I had the honor to write an article about Fury (1936) for the Library of Congress. This Fritz Lang film is part of the National Film Registry and my essay is one of numerous expanded essays available online. Every year the National Film Registry selects “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films” to be archived and preserved. They do great work and if you haven’t watched it already These Amazing Shadows is a wonderful documentary about the history of the National Film Registry.

Thank you so much the Library of Congress for allowing me to contribute an article!

You can check out the list of expanded essays here. My good friend Jonas wrote an article on King of Jazz (1930)!

Here is my article about Fury (1936).

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