[21 July 2014]
Above: From A Fever in the Blood
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Warner Brothers put actors under contract for TV shows and used them in features at the same salary in the off-season. Some actors, like James Garner, objected to this, while others went along. Two examples of these trimly budgeted, earnest, dialogue-heavy, “serious” adult dramas are now available on demand from Warner Archive.
A Fever in the Blood is based on the classical conceit wherein the audience knows something the main characters don’t, a long-standing trait of the theatre called dramatic irony. In the opening scene, we see a man murder a woman after failing to rape her. Her estranged husband will be arrested for the crime, while viewers know he’s innocent. District Attorney Dan Callahan (Jack Kelly of TV’s Maverick) sees an opportunity for a sensational prosecution that will help launch his bid for governor.
Judge Hoffman (Efrem Zimbalist Jr. of 77 Sunset Strip), also seeking the nomination, is the movie’s conscience, agonizing when offered a bribe by the third primary candidate, Sen. Simon (Don Ameche), who’s married to the woman (Angie Dickinson) Hoffman loves. In one scene after another, characters confront each with articulate arguments about deals and manipulative shenanigans while, on the public stage, the trial is going on.
This movie comes between and feels like a combination of Anatomy of a Murder (a 1959 hit based on Robert Traver’s bestseller) and Advise and Consent (a 1962 hit based on Allen Drury’s bestseller). Both of those films had director Otto Preminger, while this one has Vincent Sherman, a studio hack who ended his career with talky, soapy TV shows like Medical Center.
Producer Roy Huggins (also of Maverick) co-wrote the script with Harry Kleiner based on William Pearson’s novel. The few online book reviews I’ve found indicate that the script takes liberties, first by focusing on the noble idealist Hoffman over the ambitious Callahan, and last by tacking on a jarringly tacked-on ending that aims to reassure us about human nature and politics.
At the setting of an illustrious career, J. Peverell Marley’s black and white photography takes a sharply etched, flatly lit approach that feels like serious TV writ large. I’d argue the movie’s best asset is William H. Ziegler’s tense editing rhythms, providing a modern sense of pace as the story flips among characters. Ziegler is one of the era’s major, versatile editors and would make a good candidate for studying the editor-as-auteur.
Wall of Noise
Ziegler also did Wall of Noise, produced and written by Joseph Landon from Daniel Michael Stein’s novel. An adulterous soap opera set in the world of horse-racing, it doesn’t feel like the typical horse movie, which is about poor but likeable people (especially a child somewhere) and the wonderful animal they love and nurture. Rather, this film foreshadows the decade’s car-racing movies (Grand Prix, Le Mans, Winning) about hard-driving, tunnel-vision guys and the women who love them to little avail.
This item gives feature exposure to TV stars Ty Hardin (Bronco) and Dorothy Provine (The Roaring 20s), with the main credit going to Suzanne Pleshette, who had an interesting half-and-half career at the time. Hardin plays the man who likes horses better than people, and he’s not too heavy-handedly symbolized by the enormous skittish “stud” who keeps bringing himself up short. His world and the plot are structured on competition, mostly between men (expressing control through money) and more behind-handedly between women.
Pleshette plays the boss’ wife, très chic as she orders in French at a fancy retaurant. (Blink and you’ll miss Kitty White singing “Blues in the Night” in that scene.) Pleshette’s very good at playing intelligent-but-trapped, but despite her top billing, this isn’t her movie and it even takes a while for her to show up. She’s about even with Provine, who injects interest into her more thankless role as a continually humiliated ex-squeeze.
The script isn’t flabby and it’s always well-played, with supporting work from Ralph Meeker, Simon Oakland, Jimmy Murphy, and Murray Matheson as various racetrack types, from blowhards to thwarted friends. It’s mostly a character study of Hardin’s difficult protagonist and, through him, the harsh world. The ending doesn’t feel nearly as compromised as A Fever in the Blood, and the whole thing is smoothly watchable even though it’s not much more than a sour snapshot.
The director is Richard Wilson, who began his career working with Orson Welles before moving on to nothing of consequence. Wilson’s work is a cut above solid here, with well-composed contrasts from conflicting characters within shots and a few scenes staged in relatively long takes, like a crossroads-conversation in a glass-walled apartment. Note also a jittery, lengthy scene of two men fighting in front of a rearing horse, whose whinnies are more unnerving than music would have been.
I’m struck by the excellence of Ziegler’s work as he edits the black and white cinematography of Lucien Ballard—not flat and sleek, but with weight and balance between the clean and gritty, as necessary. Throughout, Ziegler’s rhythms keep it propulsive and restless, with real excitement where required. I’ve sat through many Big Races, and this one can hold its head up. The unpredictable nature of its huge black animal, distracted by the “wall of noise”, keeps us on edge, and it’s really put over by the first-class shooting (including subjective shots, again anticipating Grand Prix) and cutting.
The poster on the DVD cover calls it “the modern motion picture that looks hot and hard at today’s go-for-the-money generation”, which sounds like it’s promising sexiness within the standard tone of moral condemnation. Well, this simple drama among several harsh men and sexy women hasn’t dated badly and still feels pretty modern. I think Ziegler has as much to do with that as anyone.
No extras are included with either DVD.