Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

The Chase

The Chase is an obscure, strange, yet compelling 1946 film noir. Made through low budget studio Monogram but released by United Artists, this off-beat movie is not for all tastes, but has developed a cult following among fans of the genre.

Based on a Cornell Woolrich’s pulp crime novel, the film tells the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-on-his-luck ex-GI who finds a wallet full of lolly on the street. After enjoying a hearty, much-needed breakfast, he nobly returns the wallet to its owner, a psychopathic gangster named Eddie Roman (played with presence and menace by Steve Cochran). He is such a boy scout that he even confesses his use of some of the money to eat. Roman is impressed and amused, and hires “Scotty” to be his driver, over the reservations of his sinister right-hand man Gino (Peter Lorre). But nothing in noir is ever that simple, especially once Scotty meets Eddie’s glamorous, lonely and desperate wife Lorna (Michèle Morgan, in an alluring and elusive performance). In their extended drives together, she tells Scotty that she longs from escape from her brutish husband…if only some man would take her away from all this…

The key development of the story is a twist that has delighted some viewers over the years, and confused and disappointed others. I am in the former camp, as everything that happens is consistent with the central character’s personality and motivation, and because expressionism, darkness, forbidden fantasies and dream-like atmosphere are as noir as noir can be.

There is much to enjoy in this film, including some thrilling high-speed driving sequences in an unusual car that instantiates the sadomasochistic, dominating nature of Eddie Roman. Peter Lorre, in a role few people remember, steals every scene he is in as Roman’s aide-de-camp. Franz Planer’s tenebrous photography, particularly in Roman’s house (including a wine cellar you’d be well advised not to enter…) establishes the mood of doom in which the film revels. Also fun for film buffs: The Chase is a perfect film to analyze and argue about over unfiltered cigarettes and bourbon afterwards.

The Chase is in the public domain, so you can legally watch it for free right here.

p.s. Many people know that the train station gun battle in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is an homage to the spectacular Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. It could well be that De Palma’s opening sequence with gangster Al Capone and the barber was inspired by a similar scene early in The Chase.

p.p.s. SPOILER ALERT: While the extended dream sequence is occurring, there is a tip-off, namely Cummings’ suit. Running through the streets of steamy Havana, battling bad guys and being chased by the cops, his white suit, shirt and tie are immaculate in every scene. No wrinkles, no perspiration, no dirt. You could think of this as the character’s fantasy of himself as a rescuing hero/angel, particularly when contrasted to the demeaning outfit the former solider wears as the chauffeur to a hoodlum.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Dial M for Murder

I have recommended a clutch of Hitchcock films (Notorious, Psycho, The 39 Steps, and The Lodger), but omitted some of his best known. Some of his classic films (e.g., Rear Window) have been written about so much that I can’ t think of anything novel to add. Others exceed my powers: I’ve seen Vertigo a dozen times but still can’t fully explain why it is one of the greatest works of art of the latter half of the 20th century, though I know in my heart that it is.

So let me recommend a film you may have missed, which is usually considered a minor success of The Master: 1954’s Dial M for Murder. The movie had a strong foundation because it was based on an extremely well-crafted hit play by Frederic Knott (who also wrote the screenplay for the movie version).

The story is a simple one: A tennis-playing effete British smoothie (Ray Milland) discovers that his glamorous wife (Grace Kelly, elegant and effective) is carrying on a passionate love affair with a broad-shouldered American (an appropriately manly Robert Cummings), so he decides to murder her. But rather than do the deed himself, he seeks the help of an intermediary, leading things to go horribly awry…unless of course he can clean up the mess by framing his wife for a terrible crime.

When film directors adapt plays, they typically insert scenes of exteriors, use many long shots and wide shots and trolley shots etc., in order to give the audience a cinematic experience. Hitchcock did just the opposite, shooting almost entirely on a single set, and using camera placement within it to keep things fresh. The claustrophobic framing adds to the tension of the film while somehow never coming across as stagy.

The highlight of this film is the astonishing performance of Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, the suave and unflappable villain. He won a Best Actor Oscar for The Lost Weekend, but I think he’s even better here. Even when he cruelly and cleverly blackmails an old college mate (Anthony Dawson) into participating in his murder plot, he is ever calm and smiling, the perfect British upper class sort. It is that emotional tone in his performance, combined with Hitchcock’s directorial genius, that makes the famous closing scene of this film so memorable.

The foil for Tony Wendice isn’t really his romantic rival Mark Halliday (Cummings), but the intelligent, moral Chief Inspector Hubbard. He is played by John Williams, never a huge star but someone Hitchcock used over and over in movies and TV shows because he consistently gave solid and intelligent performances. Williams is at his best here, nicely leavening his hard-headed cop role with touches of warmth and humour.

In summary: Fantastic source material, fantastic director, fantastic cast – what’s not to like?

p.s. You may wonder why such a short movie has an intermission. This film was originally made in 3-D, and the intermission was to give a chance for those theaters with only two cameras to load the next two parallel reels. I regret very much never having seen the 3-D version, because Hitchcock allegedly used the technique in a more creative, less gimmicky way than did other film makers. The most famous 3-D moment was the extreme closeup of Ray Milland’s finger dialing M. To get the shot right, they built a gigantic phone and a huge paper-mache finger tip! In any event, unlike most 3-D movies, it’s perfectly watchable without the 3-D effects.