Knock on Any Door (1949 – US)
Nick Ray directs Bogart as a lawyer with a social conscience, but the closing sermon to jurors is hammered and too late. A young John Derek impresses as a hood on a murder rap.
Bogart is disengaged in this minor Ray, which could have been great. Unusually for a noir, this picture attempts to portray the social origins of criminality, and how social disadvantage and a traumatic event in a young man’s life sew bitterness and rebellion. The movie fails by focusing on the lawyer who engages only at the end when he has to defend the hood after a cop is killed, with the young criminal remaining an enigma, despite some high melodrama that results in a girl’s tragic suicide. Visually pedestrian, the one ‘cinematic’ highlight is the placement of the camera in the court in the closing scenes.
Party Girl (1958 – US)
30s Chicago mob lawyer Robert Taylor falls for a gorgeous Cyd Charisse in Nick Ray’s Metrocolored Cinemascope, but Taylor is wooden. Thankfully Lee J. Cobb chews up the scenery as an off-the-wall Mafioso.
A lot of money and wide-screen Metrocolor fail to infuse this rather dour film with any vitality. Ray’s direction is almost off-hand and the terrible acting of Taylor flattens any impact. Cyd Charisse is a great dancer and looks appealing, but her portrayal as the love interest lacks flair. Taylor who has built his career and wealth as a lawyer and fixer for the Mob, tries to go straight after falling for Charisse, who challenges his crooked life, with predictable consequences. Over-rated.
The House Across the Lake (aka Heat Wave) (1954 – UK)
Toff rip-off of J.M. Cain. A hack novelist falls for ice-cold blonde wife of English country gent played by Sid James.
This movie from English writer/director Ken Hughes, who specialised in Anglo-noirs with a Hollywood feel, is better than it sounds, as there are nuances that add some resonance. A Double Indemnity like scenario is given a cross-over treatment. Expat b-player Alex Nicol as an American writer of pulp novels attracts the perilous attention of the platinum-blonde wife of a wealthy English squire. She is a classic femme-fatale and is played to steely perfection by English actress Hillary Brooke, though the act comes unstuck in a too-melodramatic denouement. What is interesting is that the femme-fatale actually does ‘shove’ when push-comes-to-shove in her spider’s stratagem of seducing the hack into a murderous complicity, and that the hack’s capitulation comes not so much from greed or sexual obsession but from an existential ennui.
Manèges (aka The Wanton 1950 – France)
A cynical, dark and savage history of a femme-fatale and the sucker she destroys. But fate has the final say.
This very dark noir from the director of the superb Une si jolie petite plage (1949 – France), Yves Allégret, has the same essential plot-line as a later film from Julien Duvivier, Voici le temps des assassins… (aka Deadlier Than the Male – France 1956). A mother and daughter team of grifters are out to fleece a poor mug with dough. This time the chump is a naïve middle-aged petit-bourgeois, who runs a horse-riding academy for the local gentry. A young Simone Signoret plays the femme-fatale to the infatuated Bernard Blier. But this picture made straight after Une si jolie petite plage does not match the earlier film. The pace is laborious and the use of iris transitions and a weird sieve wipe to telegraph flashbacks is hackneyed. What is most disturbing is the strident misogyny of the story. All the women in the film are venomous, haughty, or stupid, while even a gigolo on the make has some redeeming virtue. Indeed Allégret hates everything and everyone. Nothing escapes his caustic condemnation: aristocrat, bourgeois, or worker. Even children are targeted: when an instructor is severely injured by a kick from a horse two young girl students observe “workers are always complaining”. The ending is as downbeat and vengeful as you will ever see.