Essential: THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1950)

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J for Jordan. There it is. Right after I for Ivers, which of course comes after D for Dietrichson. Thelma Jordan’s file is thick. Like Martha Ivers and Phyllis Dietrichson. They sure had their share of trouble. Maybe that’s what makes them so much fun to watch on screen, thanks to Barbara Stanwyck, who expertly plays three distinct yet related faces of evil.

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Robert Siodmak’s production shares thematic similarities with earlier pictures by Lewis Milestone and Billy Wilder, but this story contains a shadowy subtext. Stanwyck is in full femme fatale mode, playing a woman trying to break free of the past. This time she is involved in the death of another “loved one.” It’s her Aunt Vera (Gertrude Hoffmann). Vera has taken her in, and Thelma functions as the elderly woman’s companion. Though Vera is frail she is nowhere near dying. So Thelma decides to hurry things along one night during a storm.

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Thelma blames her aunt’s murder on a prowler, but the police figure she’s behind it. In order to get away with the crime, Thelma needs the help of a lawyer (Wendell Corey). Cleve Marshall works in the district attorney’s office. He’s very skilled at his job, and he’s very married. He previously met Thelma when she turned up to see his boss. They ended up having a drink and spending time together. He fell in love with Thelma, which she realized she could to use to her advantage to create a new life.

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After Thelma is arrested on suspicion of murder, she works her feminine wiles on Cleve so he will throw the case in her favor.  There are trial scenes which Siodmak and cameraman George Barnes stage very precisely. While the ins and outs of the legal system are observed, most of the action is focused on Thelma’s ability to manipulate the judicial process. Part of her case involves the existence of a “Mr. X” who was with her the night of Vera’s death. Cleve’s boss (Paul Kelly) is unable to figure out Mr. X’s identity until the very end.

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Perhaps the best sequence is the part where the verdict comes in and Thelma is marched over from the women’s jail across the street. She passes reporters on the sidewalk and heads up the steps into the courtroom. Siodmak’s direction is straight forward, and the sequence has a semi-documentary feel to it. It works very well, especially when Thelma is exonerated by the jury.

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One can only imagine how many other crimes Thelma committed that aren’t included in her file. Siodmak and writer Ketti Frings could have added flashbacks, where we saw Thelma pulling earlier scams. And we could have learned what brought her to live with her Aunt Vera in the first place. Then how Thelma persuaded Aunt Vera to change the will and make her the sole beneficiary. Did Aunt Vera see something good in her?

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Of course there wasn’t anything good in Phyllis Dietrichson; she was rotten to the core. And there was very little evidence of goodness in Martha Ivers. But Thelma Jordon’s personality is different. For awhile things are going her way. Until she decides to do the right thing and let Cleve go. After a car accident, she’s taken to the hospital where she confesses some of what she’s done. But she does not want to reveal that Cleve was Mr. X, because he was Mr. Right. And for a time, he made her forget everything that was so schizophrenic about her life.

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…may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Classics you can watch over and over

These aren’t even my favorite films, which sounds funny. Typically my favorites are ones that make me think, where I have to be more mentally alert to appreciate the nuances. But there’s another group of movies I watch repeatedly because they are just so easy to enjoy.

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1. I love NORA PRENTISS (1947). Ann Sheridan is at her sexiest. The plot is crazy over the top improbable but it’s thrilling from start to finish. I also love how this Warner Brothers production smoothly combines several genres (medical, gangster, horror, romance). It works for me.

2. THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959). Not John Ford’s best. Not John Wayne’s best, and not William Holden’s best either. But the leads and the supporting men in the cast work so well together. I feel like I am watching a group of brothers making a movie. The cinematography and on location filming is excellent.

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3. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943). Love that scene where Claude Rains gets splashed in the face with acid. I usually rewind it and watch it again before continuing with the rest of the movie. The singing by Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy is exquisite. Top-notch production values all the way through, Technicolor at its best, and the scene where the chandelier falls is exciting. I think I’ve watched this film 20 times in the past year.

4. THE BLUE DAHLIA (1947). Probably my favorite Alan Ladd noir. Definitely his best pairing with Veronica Lake. The scene where it’s raining and she picks him up and they travel to Malibu is magical. And in case things get too sappy, we have William Bendix going berserk as a would-be killer. This movie always draws me in and doesn’t let go. Raymond Chandler’s script, which I’ve read, presents the characters so vividly.

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5. WHEN TOMORROW COMES (1939). A new one for me. Adored it immediately. Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer are just so wonderful in this picture. There’s an extended sequence where they are caught in a storm that floods out the whole valley, and they take refuge in an abandoned church. It goes from frightening to soothing, and as they fall in love on screen, we can’t help but fall in love with this movie. So excellent on so many levels.

6. WHISPERING SMITH (1948). I’ve probably watched this film a dozen times. It never gets old or goes stale. The use of Technicolor is expertly handled, the story is a bit implausible but still manages to be convincing when it counts. Ladd has top billing but it feels like Robert Preston’s picture. He’s a force of nature. The editing is so smooth that one sequence flows into another and the movie is over before I’m ready for it to be over.

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7. FRONTIER GAL (1945). Honestly I don’t think anyone gave better close-ups than Yvonne De Carlo does in this film. Her skin is flawless, those eyes are mysterious, the hair and makeup are perfect, she has great cheekbones, and then there’s that voice and the body. It helps she’s cast as a fiery saloon singer so she really gets to play it to the hilt. Rod Cameron as a laid back cowboy is the right contrast. The outdoor scenery is amazing. Universal spent a fortune on this movie and it shows. Then we have charming guys like Andy Devine and Fuzzy Knight doing comic relief. The little girl who plays the daughter that De Carlo and Cameron have quite nearly steals the show in the second half. The last fifteen minutes are heart-pounding, what a climactic finale. And De Carlo does her own riding, so the chase scene near the end feels very authentic.

8. GUN BELT (1953). A very routine 50s western. Obviously they did not have a huge budget, and it shows…but the action scenes are very well staged. Typically I am not too enamored with George Montgomery’s acting but I think he does a fine job here. Tab Hunter is on hand as a brother he is trying to keep on the right side of the law. Tab’s acting is frankly not very good, but he tries hard and he’s beautiful to look at. The supporting cast are played by actors who seem to think they’re in lead roles, so they give it their all. It’s a rousing story. All modestly budgeted oaters should be so effective.

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9. IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK (1935). One of the better Jean Arthur movies, which is saying a lot because she worked with more important directors and had bigger hits with bigger costars. But something about her unusual pairing with Herbert Marshall is so satisfying. I love the scene in the beginning when she’s applying for a cook’s job in the home of a gangster (Leo Carrillo) and she teaches him about the importance of how to use garlic. It makes me laugh every time. But what makes this movie so special is how the gangster and his sidekick (the incomparable Lionel Stander) develop hearts and comfort Miss Arthur when that cad Mr. Marshall walks out on her. It turns from being a screwball/romantic comedy into an honest-to-goodness character piece about real human beings with real emotions.

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10. THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND (1949). I’m not bashful when it comes to expressing how I feel about this uproarious Preston Sturges western comedy. As Leonard Maltin says, it’s a broad farce…the situations become increasingly improbable and Betty Grable’s predicament gets more out of control by the minute. It’s like she’s playing a psychotic Annie Oakley. The part where she is teaching kids and takes a gun out to put the fear of god in two hooligans would certainly never fly today but it’s hilarious. In addition to the antics, there is a musical number in the beginning that Grable performs with characteristic skill. I think what makes this movie special is Sturges has populated the cast with people (and this includes Grable) who are all natural scene stealers. So they never really react to the situations or to each other. They are too busy hamming it up and setting up the next gag. It gets wilder and wilder. This forces the audience to do all the reacting, which is how comedy should be done if you think about it. Sometimes I re-watch this movie to see if I will reach a point where it no longer is funny. But that never happens so I have to watch it again to continue my experiment. I have a feeling it will never stop being funny so I will never be able to stop watching it.

Essential: THE DARK MIRROR (1946)

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In this film Robert Siodmak directs Olivia de Havilland as a pair of twins who foul up a murder investigation. The murder takes place in the opening shots, and it’s shocking. Siodmak’s use of unlit stage areas deliberately keeps us at a disadvantage and increases the mystery. We know the assailant is in the room, having just stabbed Dr. Peralta with a sharp object, but we cannot see her face.

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A veteran homicide detective (Thomas Mitchell) is determined to solve the case as quickly as possible. But just when it looks like he is about to nail Terry Collins, his investigation hits a snag. Eyewitness accounts that place her at the scene of the crime are contradicted by several other people who can vouch for Terry’s whereabouts when the murder was committed. Of course, none of the witnesses know Terry has a twin; and neither does the detective until he stops by Terry’s apartment.

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The women are coy with him. They admit nobody at the high rise building where they work know they are twins. This includes the elevator boy Rusty (Richard Long) who has a crush on Terry; as well as Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), a psychiatrist with an office in the building who also has romantic feelings for Terry. Both Scott and Rusty become confused when they learn the truth and realize they actually might have had feelings for Ruth, the sister.

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Soon the ladies are arrested on suspicion of murder. But the witnesses still can’t positively identify one sister over the other. There is a lineup, and more interrogation. But they cover for each other. Their game prevents the police and prosecutors from successfully charging either one of them with murder. Though it is obvious they are obstructing justice, they are allowed to leave the station. But as luck would have it, there might be a way to pin the killing on the correct culprit after all.

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It seems Scott Elliott has written a book about twins. He convinces the women to be part of his ongoing research. Scott is in love with Terry, and he is anxious to prove she is innocent and that Ruth belongs in the electric chair. The script, written by Nunnally Johnson, gets a bit technical in spots with its share of psychological mumbo jumbo. But mostly Johnson and Siodmak keep it simple enough for viewers to understand. And Siodmak’s staging and camera work assist the story at every turn.

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There are some neat twists in the second half of the story. It veers into melodrama when it is revealed that Ruth loves Scott, and she’s jealous of Terry. This reflects the motive for her killing the other doctor, since Peralta had also loved Terry, and not Ruth. In a jealous rage she stabbed Peralta, and now she is going to set Terry up to take the fall so she can swoop in and win Scott, by posing as the more innocent Terry.

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The acting is uniformly good, and Olivia De Havilland gives a standout performance (two standout performances). She has a field day with the ‘which one is she’ set-up, and the scenes where the twins undergo ink blot tests and lie detector tests are expertly played. Given what we know about her real-life conflicts with sister Joan Fontaine, I couldn’t help but think Olivia was deftly spoofing Joan.

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Ayres is also effective, showing the quiet desperation of a man eager to help the woman he loves. This was Ayres’ first picture since the war. A few years earlier he had been unceremoniously dropped by MGM after claiming he was a conscientious objector. It would have been objectionable if Ayres’ career had not been allowed to continue. Just as it is objectionable for one sister to steal the happiness of another sister who still has so much to give.

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THE DARK MIRROR may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)

It starts with simple atmospheric opening credits. Helen McCord (Dorothy McGuire) is on the long winding staircase of the mansion where she is employed as a servant. At one point she hears the wind howling outside and covers her ears. This is ironic since she’s mute and unable to make sounds of her own. Later when she’s targeted by a serial killer, she will struggle to cry out for help.

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The first murder takes place in town. Siodmak presents a group of locals watching a silent movie. The camera tilts up to the ceiling and we see a woman about to change her clothes in the room above the theater. A man is hiding in the closet. We just glimpse his eye. Then there is a shot of her outstretched arms putting on a piece of clothing, being caught off guard by the killer.

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A physician named Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) shows up, but there’s nothing he can do for the woman who’s been pronounced dead. He notices Helen and offers to take her home. They travel by horse and buggy to the remote country estate where she lives and works for an invalid woman named Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also staying at the mansion with Mrs. Warren are her stepson Albert (George Brent) and her son Steven (Gordon Oliver). One of these men is the killer. Not Dr. Parry.

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As Dr. Parry and Helen ride towards the estate, it is clear he is smitten with her. In their relationship he does all the talking, but not all the communicating since she is still able to express her feelings. He drops her a short distance from Mrs. Warren’s home. As she approaches the front gate, a storm comes up. What makes this so interesting is how Siodmak skillfully weaves the more idyllic aspects of life in 1906 Vermont with danger that seems to exist in hidden places. Close-ups linger on Helen’s delicate features, and her mannerisms indicate a fragile quality.

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The other characters at the house are depicted in contrast to Helen. Besides Mrs. Warren there’s Mrs. Oates the clumsy housekeeper (Elsa Lanchester); and a strict nurse (Sara Allgood) that Mrs. Warren drives to distraction. We are also shown a young secretary named Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who is romantically involved with Mrs. Warren’s son Steven. When Blanche becomes the killer’s next victim, Helen believes Steven might be responsible. She enlists Albert’s help, not realizing he is the actual culprit.

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There are effective camera set-ups inside the mansion. Especially when Siodmak and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca zoom in on Albert’s eye watching Helen. Then they show Helen who symbolically has the mouth area of her face blurred. Over the soundtrack is heard the sound of thunder outside. These are very stylized images of activity in the house, mostly from the point of view of a homicidal voyeur, as only Siodmak could create and film them.

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The last sequence is the most spectacular part of the movie. Helen realizes Albert is the killer, and she tries to get away from him. Upstairs Mrs. Warren has realized what extreme danger they are all in now. She has been bedridden for most of the story. But she is able to summon her strength and carefully lifts herself out of bed. Then she gets a gun.

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Mrs. Warren reaches the top of the stairs as Helen is ascending in an attempt to get away from Albert. Mrs. Warren observes what is happening. She is very sick and about to die, but she manages to successfully aim and fire the gun. Albert has been shot in the chest and spirals all the way down to the bottom of the staircase. Steven suddenly shows up and Mrs. Warren dies in his arms. Meanwhile Helen has screamed in horror, suddenly  reclaiming her voice. She makes her way to the phone to call Dr. Parry. Never before has anyone been so happy to hear from her.

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THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE airs occasionally on TCM.

Essential: THE SUSPECT (1944)

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Robert Siodmak had a significant career in Europe before coming to Hollywood in the 1940s. The darker themes of his work make the stylish director stand out from others. He signed with Universal in 1943 and his techniques became so popular his services were sought by other producers. Occasionally, Universal did loan him out. But his best pictures occurred at his home studio, where he was allowed to be more creative and where his background in German expressionism influenced his output.

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At first Siodmak directed some B horror entries, then he was handed important A-picture assignments. PHANTOM LADY was his first noir at Universal. The story was a murder mystery which featured Ella Raines. Siodmak would direct Raines several more times, mostly notably in THE SUSPECT alongside Charles Laughton.

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Laughton was a close friend of the director’s, and under Siodmak, he would give a carefully understated yet poignant performance. He portrays a henpecked husband driven to murder his overbearing wife (Rosalind Ivan). Raines plays a sweet young woman that Laughton befriends. She becomes a very necessary diversion, as well as a catalyst when Laughton decides he must break free from his unhappy marriage.

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The film is set in early 20th century London, and the period touches are expertly handled. Everything from costumes and hairstyles to set design seem authentic. And the performances convey an understanding of how people acted at the time, especially when community busybodies suspected an upstanding neighbor might be seeing someone else on the side. The wife manipulates the local gossips to subject her husband to humiliation so he won’t stray.

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In addition to Ivan’s vicious scene work, the story is bolstered by the efforts of Henry Daniell who plays a blackmailer. Daniell figures out Laughton got rid of the nasty old battle axe, but his silence comes at a price. Laughton tries to keep Daniell quiet, but the greedy blackmailer wants more money, and Laughton refuses to keep paying him. So Laughton kills again, and there’s a truly suspenseful scene when he doesn’t have enough time to dispose of Daniell’s body. Laughton hides it behind a sofa just as his son and the son’s girlfriend arrive home.

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While they are chatting the girlfriend feels something under the sofa and puts her hand down there. It turns out a cat is playing with the dead body. But until she pulls the cat out from under the piece of furniture, we are led to believe, as Laughton does, that his crime is about to be discovered. Laughton’s reactions are outstanding. The camera work Siodmak uses to keep us as unnerved and in as much suspense as Laughton also helps a great deal.

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Of course our sympathetic antagonist will be found out before the end of the story. In the last sequence Laughton has married Raines, and they are going to Canada to start a new life. But the police have been nipping at Laughton’s heels. There is a nice cat-and-mouse moment between Laughton and an investigator just as the ship is about to sail. There is no such thing as a perfect crime, but there is such a thing as a perfectly directed performance. I suspect that anyone who watches the film will find it just as enjoyable as an episode of Columbo.

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THE SUSPECT may currently be seen on YouTube.