UCLA Film & Television Archive to the Rescue

by Michael Barrett

17 June 2016

The Chase, Too Late for Tears, Woman on the Run and The Southerner are all examples of postwar indie cinema that had fallen through the cracks -- until now.
The Chase 

The good folks at UCLA Film & Television Archive have been restoring overlooked movies, and four of their efforts are freshly available on Blu-ray. Three are noir films and one’s an unusual drama with a Frenchman’s view of America.

Produced independently by maverick European refugee Seymour Nebenzal for United Artists, The Chase (1946) is a doozy of a postwar headache starring “Love That Bob” Cummings as a troubled, decorated, unemployed war vet who’s hired as a chauffeur by a suavely sadistic gangster (Steve Cochran). It’s fair to wonder if the psychopath actually intends the chump to fall for his sultry trophy wife, played by Michele Morgan in long blonde locks and shimmery gowns. An unfailingly wonderful Peter Lorre hangs around in world-weary cynical mode as a henchman. He spends most of his time shrugging and yawning, so it means something when his boss’ moods make him wipe his brow.

At first it seems like a basic, predictable template based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, The Black Path of Fear. However, screenwriter Philip Yordan departs from the novel in extravagant ways that are still quintessentially Woolrichian in matching his other yarns of traumatized heroes who suffer amnesia and wonder if they’ve committed murder in a dream or addled haze.

A twist in the middle is so unexpected, it could only be topped by an even more amazing one that lifts this into the surreal. It’s one of those rare films that justifies the critical term “oneiric” or dreamlike (sometimes a code for making no sense at all), which is why noir scholar Eddie Muller labels it “the closest thing to a David Lynch film made during the classical Hollywood era.” That’s both misleading and oddly appropriate. We do end up wondering about parallels between the hero and the bad guy, who both know the same psychiatrist as though one is a warped alter ego—but which is more warped?

Unless you’ve suffered through the public domain print that’s been circulating for years, it may be difficult to appreciate the miracles wrought on this Blu-ray, for the film is far from pristine with its flaws and scratches. They don’t matter. That print had been so dark and choppy, with two crucial scenes becoming unintentionally impressionistic, that you might as well have watched by closing your eyes and wondering later if you’d dreamed it, and the sound was clear as pea soup.

Even so, it was fascinating, and now it’s fascinating in amazing clarity that allows us to appreciate Franz Planer’s graceful crane shots, Michel Michelet’s classy score and Robert Usher’s sets. The extras are two radio versions of the Woolrich novel and a fannish desultory commentary by Guy Maddin. He, too, can’t get over the difference between the old print and this restoration.

Too Late for Tears

Too Late for Tears

Speaking of unpredictable twists, more miracles have been performed on Too Late for Tears (1949), previously circulating as an overly dark and ragged TV print with unplanned jump cuts. Now, although still riddled with scratches and imperfections, this Blu-ray/DVD combo does justice to the real night filming of photographer William Mellor amid Los Angeles locales. An extra explains how the restoration involved several prints, and there’s informative background commentary by Alan K. Rode.

As for the story, it’s written with meticulous detail and diversion by Roy Huggins, later creator of 77 Sunset Strip  and The Rockford Files  amid many other TV shows, and directed by Byron Haskin of Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Huggins was adapting his own novel, and the result is possibly the greatest vehicle for iconic femme fatale Lizabeth Scott, who’s never played a smokier devil while also being a plaything of cruel ironic fate.

 

When a suitcase full of money drops into the convertible driven by her husband (Arthur Kennedy), Jane Palmer reads it as the answer to her prayers and vows to do anything to keep it. She makes good on that promise as she’s plagued by a lowlife (Dan Duryea) and a mysterious stranger (Don Defore), and it tells you plenty that Scott could be in the same movie with Duryea and come off as the darker piece of work. It’s a bleak ride with sharp dialogue among duplicitous characters, as it roils with restless middle-class discontent embodied by one of the original desperate housewives.

Woman on the Run

Woman on the Run

The best of the restored noirs, 1950’s Woman on the Run, is even more obscure because hardly anybody could see it for years before this resurrection from multiple elements. Ann Sheridan, one of the smartest and sassiest stars in Hollywood, co-produced this indie as the kind of role she wanted and deserved, and she’s perfect. As a wife disenchanted and bored with her puttering artist-husband (Ross Elliott), she’s one of the most fiercely intelligent and resourceful female characters in the genre, even as she learns about her own ignorance of certain matters and even while classic suspense is created by giving the audience information she doesn’t have.

The story begins when hubby witnesses a murder and takes it on the lam from cops and gangsters, leaving the wife to piece together clues with the help of a nosy reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) and a wily inspector (Robert Keith). This script is so clever, it gives the audience credit for guessing what another movie might have saved as a surprise ending. The literal rollercoaster climax is magnificent: visually expressive and emotionally complex and heartfelt, while an annoying “laughing woman” mannequin mocks all human endeavor on the busy soundtrack.

Hal Mohr’s photography of San Francisco is beautiful in day and night scenes, and director Norman Foster’s choices demonstrate this under-appreciated master’s apprenticeship with Orson Welles. Foster co-wrote the brilliantly constructed, snappily dialogued, and insightfully marital script with Alan Campbell. A making-of points out that Campbell was tempestuously married to Dorothy Parker while Foster had been problematically wed to Claudette Colbert. These husbands of smart, powerful, witty women produced a more sympathetic heroine under Sheridan’s influence than in the original magazine story by a woman, Sylvia Tate; the prose samples from that in the liner notes are dreary.

This Blu-ray/DVD combo includes commentary by “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller, who gives thorough background and discusses how this film fell into obscurity. There’s also a making-of, restoration background, a plug for Muller’s San Francisco noir festival, and best of all, a comparison of the film’s locations then and now.

The Southerner

The Southerner

The best-looking restoration of all is of Jean Renoir’s 1945 indie The Southerner, shot in sunstroked open-air clarity by Lucien Andriot and designed in modern rustic by the illustrious Eugène Lourie, with an Oscar-nominated score by Werner Janssen. Renoir, who made a handful of Hollywood films during WWII, also received an Oscar nomination for this simple drama of the hard work of farming cotton, as organized by the four seasons.

Renoir and Hugo Butler (with an uncredited William Faulkner) adapted the script from William Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, the most acclaimed work by this writer of rural Texan subjects. That anchoring, and the photography, pull the film back from too-obvious condescension, although the perfect farmer and his wife are still a bit Hollywood. We learn that life is hard and nature’s harder, and that this sometimes hopeless stubbornness is preferable to working as a sharecropper for someone else.

Zachary Scott, best known for his shady city slickers, makes an attractive and sympathetic hero who seems to be laying a template followed by Gregory Peck in the following year’s The Yearling, in turn a dry run for Atticus Finch. Betty Field is the too-good-to-be-this-beautiful hardworking wife with two kids (and only two seems a compromise), while balance is offered by a wonderfully insupportable granny (Beulah Bondi, seemingly a dry run for Irene Ryan in The Beverly Hillbillies ), an ornery neighbor (J. Carrol Naish), his goonish nephew (Norman Lloyd) and a local yokel (Percy Kilbride in a dry run for his own Pa Kettle). James Agee had more to say about the casting, but he called this one of the most sensitive and beautiful American films he’d seen.

 

The extras on this Blu-ray are Pare Lorentz’s documentary The River (1938), which influenced Renoir’s eye and tone on The Southerner, and a wartime propaganda short Renoir made with Garson Kanin, A Salute to France (1944). The latter mixes newsreels and dramatic scenes in an intermittently effective manner, while the former is famous for its sense of majesty and Virgil Thomson’s lyric and thunderous score, culminating in a paean to the monumental Tennessee Valley Authority. For a more nuanced examination of that topic, check the 1960 film Wild River.

Although all these films have been out in eyesore copies on Youtube and various public domain releases, I stress that what’s been available heretofore in no way comes close to the look and sound of these UCLA restorations, and thus the Youtube clips don’t do them justice. This is as close as these independently produced films will probably ever look to when brand new prints played in theatres back in the day.

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