Film Noir: Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash
Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash

Quick and Dirty Tales of Murder and Journalism in Hollywood

Flicker Alley’s set of Hollywood B-films from 1934 provide sociological snapshots of the limits of respectable cinema.

In The Shadow of Hollywood: Highlights from Poverty Row | Flicker Alley
Flicker Alley
19 October 2021

We’ll say it again: it matters when films are seen in their optimal condition of image and sound, not ratty scratchy old prints with thick buzzy soundtracks. Public domain eyesores that get laughed off as inferior can then be appreciated for what craft they exhibit. Cases in point are the four independent B pictures, none running more than 70 minutes, to be found in Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray set In the Shadow of Hollywood: Highlights from Poverty Row.

All four films date from 1934, the cusp of the crackdown of Hollywood’s Production Code. Indie productions like this already pushed their contents beyond what mainstream studios permitted, so these films provide sociological snapshots of the limits of respectable cinema.

The most flamboyantly directed of the four titles is Midnight, based on Paul and Clare Sifton’s play of the same name as produced by the prestigious Theatre Guild. Chester Erskine, who had a Broadway background, produced, wrote, and directed the film for Universal at the old Edison Studios. He uses a mobile, expressive camera that frequently dollies and pans, creating lengthy shots that focus on characters’ hands or cut to visual symbols. He turns a basically stagy piece, set in a living room amid lots of dialogue, into a suspenseful analysis of a middle-class family and the pressures upon it.

The subject is capital punishment. The opening trial uses a series of slow pans across courtroom spectators, including several of the main characters, as the plaintiff delivers her emotional testimony offscreen. Suddenly, jury foreman Edward Weldon (O.P. Heggie) rises to ask a question, and the camera pans to our first glimpse of the distraught defendant (Katherine Wilson), who admits shooting her husband and taking his bankroll.

The bulk of the drama takes place over the course of one evening months later, the night the woman will be electrocuted, and the drama will cut several times between her situation and the Weldon home to imply parallel imprisonments and duress. The most important players are Weldon, his daughter Stella (Sidney Fox), an underhanded reporter named Nolan (Henry Hull) who has tricked his way in for an exclusive story, and the gangster-boyfriend Stella met at the trial.

This bad boyfriend is Gar Boni (Humphrey Bogart), who’s had his fun and plans to brush her off because he’s not really of her class. The film sets us up to expect a certain plot development, which does arrive, and what happens next is when the script reveals interesting teeth and becomes more than a socially conscious melodrama. The ending is the kind of thing mainstream studios couldn’t have gotten away with after the Code.

The print here is from the film’s 1949 reissue as Call It Murder, which took advantage of Bogart’s stardom to trumpet this once-unknown supporting player as the star. On the strength of his early portrayal as a likable criminal, the film has floated ever since in the public domain. It’s better than merely an early Bogart part. The film works as a cynical analysis of how the death penalty and rhetoric about it factors into political power, celebrity, hypocrisy, sensational journalism, and the public mindset.

The disc’s co-feature is Back Page, the only director credit for the mysterious Anton Lorenze. I knew I’d seen this film somewhere before, and in fact, I saw this restoration as a bonus on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray of Deluge (Felix E. Feist, 1933).

I’m glad I was perceptive of its merits when I wrote: “‘I’m a good newspaperman, and I know it!’ exclaims Jerry Hampton (Peggy Shannon), who’s not interested in marriage without having a job. When politics blackball her from a city paper, she runs a small-town rag that exposes local corruption in a wildly coincidental manner. Shannon, who would die at 34 from alcoholism, gives a magnetic, spunky, and sexy performance as a heroine with brains.”

Shannon isn’t only giving a good performance, but her independent-minded heroine engages in surprising blackmail that involves squashing the same scandalous story whose squashing got her fired in the first place. I guess what matters is whether she does the squashing herself and why. In other words, she joins the ranks of cynical unscrupulous manipulators like the journalist in Midnight, though she does so on her own terms to preserve her independence at the paper. As with Midnight, that’s a valuable lesson in moral ambiguity.

Shannon is surrounded by veteran character players: Claude Gillingwater, Edwin Maxwell, Russell Hopton, Sterling Holloway, Ottola Nesmith, and Richard Tucker. The clever, fast-moving script is the work of Harry Chandlee, Douglas W. Churchill, and F. McGrew Willis.

The two films on Disc 2 were shot at New York’s Biograph Studios for different companies. The disc opens with Phil Rosen’s Woman in the Dark, which prominently displays the name of source author Dashiell Hammett above the title. That should get noir fans excited, though it’s important to understand that this film, like Midnight, is what critics call a “pre-noir” or “proto-noir”, first because it’s a decade too early for that style’s formal flourishing and next because it’s really a standard happy-ending romantic melodrama with crime elements, not an exposé of existential darkness.

Woman in the Dark is probably the weakest film in the set, although it boasts three major stars who make it highly watchable. Only a year after making a splash in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s monumental King Kong, Fay Wray headlines this brisk B film as Louise Loring, who has gotten herself into financial and moral debt as the kept woman of smooth scoundrel Tony Robson (Melvyn Douglas), the picture’s villain.

She explains this in two quick flashbacks while she seeks refuge in the woodsy cabin of paroled convict John Bradley (Ralph Bellamy), who spends most of the picture leaning lankily against mantels, smoking his pipe, and trying to control the violent temper that got him thrown in prison for manslaughter.

As evidence of how this film isn’t really with the noir program yet, the cast offers no less than three candidates for femme fatale: Louise, young troublesome Helen (Nell O’Day), and Lil (Ruth Gillete), the semi-sleazy comic-relief wife of a stuttering thief (Roscoe Ates). However, they all get along as good people who do what they can to help Bradley out of his trumped-up jam with Robson. Even Helen’s angry sheriff-father (Granville Bates) isn’t bad, just a blusterer concerned for his daughter. Tony is the only scumbag in a basically decent demi-monde.

This reasonably sunny vision of people in trouble, with an emphasis on women who turn out never to be as bad as first impressions but who are oppressed and annoyed by various men, is probably a function not only of Hammett’s story but of screenwriter Sada Cowan, a playwright with a significant career in silents for Cecil B. DeMille and others. Director Rosen also has long roots in silent cinema, and he continued without let-up through the ’40s.

When the style of film noir did flourish during and after WWII, it derived its building blocks partly from German Expressionism and those filmmakers who admired its shadowy symbols, its oppressive set design, its moral cynicism, and sense of fatality. The genre that first adopted such stylistic tics was the horror film, as indeed German horror films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) and Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932) had displayed such elements.

We mention this because those two films are specifically evoked by Hungarian producer-director John H. Auer in his debut English-language production, The Crime of Dr. Crespi, shot in 1934 and given a delayed release the following year by Republic. Auer would end up spending most of his career at Republic, expertly and smoothly directing a wide variety of genres, including noirs.

Here, he’s jumping aboard the vogue for films inspired by, or at least taking their titles from, the works of Edgar Allan Poe – misspelled in the opening credits, alas. Other examples include The Black Cat (Edgar Ulmer, 1934) and The Raven (Lew Landers, 1935). The Crime of Dr. Crespi takes its idea from “The Premature Burial” (1844). Even more of a headline name than Poe is that of the star in the title role, Erich Von Stroheim, portraying another of his maniac martinets.

When Crespi’s old flame, Estelle (Harriet Russell), implores him to perform a miraculous operation that may save her paralyzed husband, Dr. Ross (John Bohn), she believes he’s forgiven and forgotten that Ross “stole” Estelle from him. No such luck. Framed by mad-science test tubes and fortified by swigs of alcohol from the cabinet with a little skeleton upon it, Crespi broods on a plan to inject Ross with something to mimic death for 24 hours, long enough to inter him while the immobile Ross remains aware of everything. Then Crespi can move in on the grieving widow, and Bob’s your uncle.

For much of this story about people talking in rooms, I’d felt that this film was the weakest of the four. I changed my mind during the nearly pitch-black scene when Crespi explains his plot to the corpse-like Ross. This is gloriously expressive chiaroscuro, shot by one Larry Williams. Darkness indeed. The whole last act works beautifully, with chilling moments that turn a stodgy hospital drama into creepy horror. The ambiance is aided by the craven presence of Dwight Frye, famous as Renfield in Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931).

All the excellent prints here belong to the Blackhawk Collection and were restored by Lobster Films, UCLA Film & Television Archive, and AMPAS. Each film offers commentary by a different film scholar-historian: Leah Aldridge for Midnight, Emily Carman on Back Page, Jake Hinkson on Woman in the Dark, and a particularly informative one for The Crime of Dr. Crespi by Jan-Christopher Horak, who also wrote the Blu-ray’s booklet.

As Aldridge observes during Midnight, little B’s like these are more representative of what audiences saw most of the time, and of Hollywood production in general, than the more celebrated A pictures. That doesn’t mean we avoid the A’s, but we shouldn’t avoid the B’s either. Their quick and dirty schedules and under-the-radar elements can be revealing of their culture in ways that more prestigious films often aren’t.

RATING 7 / 10