Summary Noir Reviews: Desperate Suspense and a Fallen Sparrow

Desperate (1947)

An uber cool Anthony Mann noir. Raymond Burr dominates as an avenging hood. Brilliant chiaroscuro lensing and crazy angles satisfy.

Mann’s Desperate marks the beginning of a prolific three year arc for the director which saw the production of five iconic noirs: Desperate (1947), Railroaded! (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949).  While his legendary collaboration with master cinematographer John Alton did not begin until T-Men, DP George Diskant with Desperate can together with Mann take the kudos for the most stunning scene of the classic noir cycle, when a hapless trucker is given a going over in Burr’s dark  hideout, where the only light source is a swinging room lamp put in motion by the victim’s body as it is pummeled across the room. The scene has been described by Carl Macek as “a stunning example of American expressionist film-making” (Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference, 1979).  A clip of the scene was recently featured at here.

In Desperate a trucker is duped into a fur heist by a gang led by Burr, which goes wrong when Burr’s trigger-happy kid-brother kills a cop after the trucker flashes his truck’s headlights in a desperate attempt to alert the patrolman and the kid is left behind in the scramble to escape.  The brother is caught, and soon after the trucker escapes his captors.  The trucker, now pursued by the cops and Burr, hightails it with his pregnant wife.  The script and direction are taut but the plot is less then plausible as the pursuit drags on.  But the denouement played out on a tenement stairwell is classic Mann and is worth waiting for, and prefigured by a suspenseful sequence featuring a loudly ticking alarm clock.

Suspense (1946)

Monogram’s costliest feature a melodrama on ice only fires at the end when the absurd plot is put on ice. Olympic ice-skater Belita is hot!

Suspense directed by Frank Tuttle (This Gun for Hire (1942), Gunman in the Streets (France 1950), and Hell on Frisco Bay (1955)) features strong performances from the two leads: Barry Sullivan (Framed (1947), The Gangster (1947), Tension (1949), and Cause for Alarm! (1951)) as an ambitious homme-fatale, and Belita as the iconic blonde in a fatal love quadrangle.  The plot revolving around a follies-on-ice venue is novel, as are the extended musical numbers featuring the very nubile Belita.  But the story has a preposterous twist that stretches the suspension of incredulity.  Burdened by this very real weakness, the picture just about comes apart.  The movie is salvaged at the end after a murder propels the protagonists into a vortex of guilt, paranoia, and revenge.  Director Tuttle and veteran DP Karl Struss, who won an Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931, and worked on The Great Dictator (1940) and Journey Into Fear (1943), in the final scenes, reach a richly expressionist synergy.

The Fallen Sparrow (1943)

An anti-fascist thriller featuring a frenetic performance from John Garfield as a vet from the Spanish civil war battling post-traumatic stress and a Nazi spy ring. Compelling.

Garfield delivers a wonderfully nuanced portrayal as a guy suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after being captured and tortured by Nazis during Spain’s civil war.  He returns to New York from a convalescent farm when he learns his best friend has been killed in suspicious circumstances.  He thinks it is murder, and suspects a sinister pair of Austrian refugees, who have ingratiated themselves in a liberal and wealthy social set.  The screenplay by Warren Duff, from a source novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote the stories for Ride the Pink Horse (1947) and In a Lonely Place (1950), is tight and works on the level of a thriller while deftly weaving Garfield’s psychological entrapment into the plot, by linking recurring hallucinations with the search for his friend’s killers.  The dialog is snappy, and scenes between Garfield and a socialite girlfriend are nicely barbed and risqué.  The lovely Patricia Morison who plays the ex is lusciously sexy and engaging – check out the gown she is wearing in her first scene – production code censor Breen must have been asleep to let that one through!  The luminous Maureen O’Hara plays a diaphanous femme-fatale-cum-mata-hari.  Her performance is so elegant that by the end of the film her true feelings still remain a tantalizing mystery.   Director Richard Wallace (Framed (1947) and Tycoon (1947)) and  noted noir DP Nick Musuraca fashion an accomplished mise-en-scène of fluid and flowing takes, moody lighting, and angled shots, ably assisted by Roy Webb’s evocative score, which received an Oscar nomination. There is a memorable peroration towards the end to cement the film’s political intent.

3 thoughts on “Summary Noir Reviews: Desperate Suspense and a Fallen Sparrow”

  1. A terrific trio of trenchant reviews, examining three more celebrated noir vehicles. I haven’t seen the second one, SUSPENSE, but know Tuttle’s work from THIS GUN FOR HIRE. As it is, you were obviously less impressed with that one of the three, despite your acknowledgement that Strauss is a wizard of expressionistic lensing. Just recently saw Strauss’ work in THE GREAT DICTATOR on the big screen.

    Once again Musuraca and Webb collaborate on a memorable 40’s feature, though with THE FALLEN SPARROW they’ve crafted one of their finest. Beautifully written capsule, which astutely establishes the noir underpinnings and that striking John Garfield performance.

    Then there’s Anthony Mann, whose early years were noted for his successes in noir in the string of gems you note in your lead-in. I must say I do agree that some of the plot is partially implausible. But it’s a riveting thriller, superbly paced, written and acted, and as you highlighted earlier this week, that one famous scene is brilliantly lit and choreographed. Burr is deliciously despicable too. I look forward to more on the Mann noirs.

    Magnificent round-up.


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