Let’s imagine you ask a film noir fan to name a low-budget movie that came out in 1947 from Monogram, barely over 70 minutes, as produced by Jack Wrather, directed by John Reinhardt, written by Robert Presnell Sr., shot by Henry Sharp, scored by Rudy Schrager, and starring Don Castle as the protagonist who tells the story in flashback, supported by Regis Toomey as the police detective. Your quizzee would be forced to reply, “Which one? I need more data.”
You could say, “Here’s a hint. It’s based on a pulp story by a classic writer for Black Mask Magazine whose last name starts with W.” Alas, that still wouldn’t narrow it down.
The double feature of The Guilty and High Tide marks the latest entry in Flicker Alley’s series of lost and forgotten noirs restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive and Film Noir Foundation, presented as a DVD/Blu-ray combo. Apparently, these prints were tracked down in England, because they have British Censor notices. They look beautiful. Despite being obscurer than cats in a midnight alley, both films are very good. And despite how it sounds, they’re really not the same film
Cornell Woolrich Unmasks The Guilty
The credits of The Guilty play while the camera follows the trench-coated back of our narrator, Mike Carr (Don Castle). He’s walking down a dark wet street, a street he says “smells like murder”. He glances up at the window of the apartment where he used to live, then goes into the bar he used to visit. He tells us he’s keeping an appointment made six months ago to meet Estelle on this night, “after all that business in the papers”. The bartender, Tim (Thomas E. Jackson), asks him what happened, and he tells the tale in flashback.
Mike was living with a roommate, an army buddy named Johnny (Wally Cassell) who’d been in the hospital with a nervous breakdown (“a psycho discharge”). He had what used to be called shellshock and today is PTSD. “He’s pretty hysterical. He doesn’t make much sense,” says Mike at one point.
Johnny is a classic Hysterical Man in the fiction of Cornell Woolrich, whose story “He Looked Like Murder” (aka “Two Men in a Furnished Room”) is the source here, though considerably altered. Several Woolrich heroes are veterans who suffer blackouts, either from alcohol or other causes and wake up haunted by the idea that they may have committed murder. In this film’s iteration, that character is moved to a supporting role who serves as a double for Mike, and this doubling device is reflected in the fact that, unlike the short story, the screenplay doubles its female lead by making her twins.
Estelle and Linda are portrayed by former child star Bonita Granville, who once played Nancy Drew and was now married to producer Jack Wrather. The sisters are shown together in one scene using the standard split-screen device where each stands as far as possible on either side, with Estelle in her sexy nightgown to emphasize what a liar she is.
If identical twins ever had the same personality, a noir melodrama would have no use for them, so the women are the classic twin dichotomy: Linda is the old-fashioned Good Girl (“the nice one”) while Estelle is the Bad Girl who keeps multiple boyfriends on a string. The ironclad rule is that Bad Girls are “tramps”, or in other words display sexual agency akin to men, and that’s where the genre’s moral ambiguities begin undermining society.
While Linda hangs out with Johnny, Estelle has switched from Johnny to Mike, who states in voice-over, “It was one of those things where a guy knows it’s all wrong but still can’t let go of it.” That’s noir in a nutshell. When Linda disappears, all eyes fall on the jittery Johnny and his suspicious tale. Mike checks out his story, to the chagrin of archetypal Detective Heller (Regis Toomey). Not much should be said about the film’s narrative save that it keeps its cards close to the vest, and that major characters are the sisters’ mother (Netta Packer) and their avuncular boarder (John Litel).
To keep us on our toes or waltzing further into darkness, some scenes strongly imply that Mike isn’t a reliable source (nor anyone else), the better to pull some surprise stunts on us. I believe the screenplay follows the rules by having neither Mike nor his flashbacks tell a lie, although I can’t get around the point that his flashbacks include scenes he wasn’t privy to. The commentary by author Jake Hinkson discusses the differences between Woolrich’s story and the film. Both Hinkson and the introduction by Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller express the opinion that these liberties conform to the spirit if not the letter of Woolrich’s world.
A bonus segment on Woolrich discusses his early success as a Jazz Age storyteller in F. Scott Fitzgerald territory. A Hollywood scandal sent the deeply closeted and reclusive Woolrich to New York and a masterful oeuvre in clammy claustrophobic pulp tales about guilt, paranoia, and the world as a fatal labyrinth. If that sounds like two different literary modes, pause to consider how Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) might fit Woolrich’s noir universe. They’re not as far apart as West Egg and East Egg. Fitzgerald’s is a largely unrecognized candidate for the Great American Crime Novel of hostile existential fate, and if it doesn’t take the prize, that honor goes to something by Woolrich.
Reinhardt’s direction keeps everything tight as the budget. A preference for simple set-ups means some scenes are constructed before a largely passive camera, such as a queasy moment staged in depth when the police arrive at the sisters’ home, or the quick fight between Mike and Johnny with gunfire. A modern film would shatter that into a hundred shots.
Other scenes break into flourishes, like the overhead moment in the bar’s restroom, the diabolical morgue scene, and the wrap-up amid dark hallways and odd angles. At one point we see Mike through Johnny’s distorted funhouse vision; it’s supposed to be Mike’s flashback but let’s not nitpick as Reinhardt cuts loose. One of the disc’s most valuable extras is the history of this unknown director’s fascinating career in several countries and languages.
Raoul Whitfield Pulls the High Tide
You want existential? High Tide starts with a doozy of a situation to frame a flashback. A car is smashed to hell on the rocks by the ocean. One man sags inside the car, the door torn off. Lying on the sand is the man we’ll know as Tim Slade (Castle), who announces his leg is trapped under the wreck. Fresney (Lee Tracy) revives and declares that his back feels broken. Like a crippled Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot(1953), they wonder how soon before the tide comes in (and aren’t we all wondering the same?) as Tim’s flashback begins.
Tim, an ex-crime reporter turned private investigator, was summoned by Fresney for a job. Early dialogue between them quotes Shakespeare’s remark on tides in the affairs of men as we realize what they don’t yet: its meaning is literal.
Fresney is a Los Angeles newspaper editor whose sensational headlines have been driving circulation, and now he intends to take on the local mob run by Dyke (Anthony Warde). Fur will fly, or rather something of a higher caliber, and Fresney wants Tim to take over the investigation if Fresney gets bumped off. The paper is owned by weak-kneed Vaughn (Douglas Walton), whose smart-talking and smart-drinking wife Julie (Julie Bishop) still carries a torch for Tim. He carries nothing for her but instantly has his eye on Vaughn’s chic secretary Dana (Anabel Shaw).
Someone takes shots at both Fresney and Vaughn, the latter fatally, and the investigation is underway by Inspector O’Haffey (Toomey, playing virtually the same role as in The Guilty). Tim’s own snooping leads to old-timer Pop Garrow (Francis Ford) and a mysterious “secret file”. Once again elliptical flashbacks begin to manipulate the viewer’s perceptions into making it appear that our narrator may not be on the up and up. Such maneuvers belong to the smoke and mirrors of noir narrative.
High Tide, based on Raoul Whitfield’s story “Inside Job”, is as brisk, disorienting, and unlikely as The Guilty. Neither Whitfield nor his career was long-lived, yet he published many pulp stories and a handful of hard-boiled novels, thanks partly to the encouragement of friend Dashiell Hammett. The DVD booklet details the differences between Whitfield’s story and the film. One of the curious traits of High Tide is that, although shot for the same budget as The Guilty ($150k), it’s much more expansive, with larger sets and oodles of paid extras.
High Tide is among the final films of Lee Tracy, who during the early ’30s had been Hollywood’s go-to guy for fast-talking, wise-cracking reporters and hucksters. His Fresney is a little older and slower yet no less brash. Imogen Sara Smith discusses his career as “the fastest mouth in the west” in another good bonus segment. Film historian Alan K. Rode offers an informed and engaging commentary in which he discusses details from shooting the script and reveals a personal connection to Reinhardt.
Another valuable bonus looks at Wrather, his wife Granville, and Wrather’s college buddy Castle. The Wrathers did a lot to help Castle, a troubled person whose career never took off. By contrast, Wrather was a millionaire from his father’s Texas oil legacy and led a charmed life whose chances he didn’t squander. The Guilty and High Tide were his first two Hollywood projects, made independently for Monogram, and they signaled the start of a very successful career that led to owning the Disneyland Hotel and the Lassie TV series. He also contributed to Ronald Reagan’s candidacy for California governor, and that’s the kind of detail that would factor into a noir film. Everything’s connected.