Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

US / 84 minutes / bw / Rampart, Universal–International Dir: Max Opuls (i.e., Max Ophüls) Pr: John Houseman Scr: Howard Koch Story: Brief einer Unbekannten (1922; vt Letter from an Unknown Woman) by Stefan Zweig Cine: Frank Planer Cast: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians, Marcel Journet, Art Smith, Carol Yorke, Howard Freeman, John Good, Leo B. Pessin, Otto Waldis, Sonja Bryden.

This lushly produced romantic tragedy isn’t by any stretch a film noir and there was never any question of its having an entry in the Encyclopedia, yet it has a few of those noirish attributes that can give movies interest to adherents of the genre. Director Ophüls (CAUGHT [1949], The RECKLESS MOMENT [1949]) and costar Jourdan (The PARADINE CASE [1947], JULIE [1956]) made minor contributions to noir, while Fontaine’s contributions were more substantial: SUSPICION (1941), IVY (1947), KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948), BORN TO BE BAD (1950), BIGAMIST, THE (1953), BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956), SERENADE (1956) and of course REBECCA (1940). Also noirish are the flashback-oriented narrative and the sense of inevitably imminent disaster: from the moment that she sees the pianist Stefan Brand (Jourdan) moving in as the new upstairs neighbor, Vienna adolescent Lisa Berndle (Fontaine) is stepping into something almost indistinguishable from the noir quicksand. “This way lies doom,” all the signs say, and yet that’s the route she chooses to take.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - (early)

The young Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) gets underfoot as the movers bring in the new tenant’s furninshings.

Around 1900 in Vienna, Stefan Brand is a prodigious pianist whom the critics are in the lazy habit of comparing to the young Mozart. His neighbors are the Berndles, daughter Lisa and her widowed mother (Christians). In no time at all, Lisa Berndle develops a powerful crush on the handsome, musically prodigious newcomer; Stefan’s butler John (Smith), a dumb-mute, observes with wry smiles and a genuine fondness for the girl. But then Lisa’s mother decides to remarry, taking as her husband the well-to-do fusspot Charles Kastner (Freeman); this involves moving from Vienna to Linz, a move Lisa tearfully resists. As Charles is attempting to get the family aboard the train to their new home, Lisa runs back to Stefan’s apartment, where she waits for hours to declare her love . . . only to witness him arrive with yet another in the long parade of giggling floozies he brings home.

Lisa goes to Linz, where Continue reading

Cobweb, The (1955)

US / 124 minutes / color / MGM Dir: Vincente Minnelli Pr: John Houseman Scr: John Paxton, William Gibson Story: The Cobweb (1954) by William Gibson Cine: George Folsey Cast: Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame, Lillian Gish, John Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant, Tommy Rettig, Paul Stewart, Dayton Lummis, Jarma Lewis, Adele Jergens, Edgar Stehli, Sandra Descher, Bert Freed, Mabel Albertson, Fay Wray, Oliver Blake, Olive Carey, Eve McVeagh, Virginia Christine, Jan Arvan, Ruth Clifford, Myra Marsh, Marjorie Bennett.

By the mid-1950s the studios were becoming seriously worried over losing their audience to the new kid on the block, TV. One stratagem they tried in response to this threat was the star-studded ensemble movie, of which The Cobweb is a prime example. This blackly comedic soap opera isn’t of much direct noir interest, if any, save for its astonishing cast, with noir icons like Widmark, Grahame and Bacall at the top but others like Jergens and Stewart further down as well as actors better known outside noir but who nevertheless made noir contributions, such as Boyer, Wray, Christine and even Bennett.

Dr. Stewart “Mac” McIver (Widmark) is the de facto chief of a psychiatric clinic, although the physician who ran it for many years, the boozy, philandering Dr. Douglas N. “Dev” Devanal (Boyer), is still formally its Medical Director. Mac has instituted a self-government policy for the patients as part of their therapy; in fact, the place seems more like a posh country hotel with psychotherapy laid on than a grim sanitarium.

Meg Rinehart (Bacall) views Stevie’s designs.

All are agreed that the clinic’s library requires new curtains. Victoria “Vicky” Inch (Gish), in charge of administration, assumes she should order something bland from the usual local supplier, Petlee & Sons. Before she can do so, however, two things happen. First, Mac’s seemingly spoilt, shrewish wife Karen (Grahame), visiting the clinic and discovering the situation, decides to take matters into her own hands and, with the connivance by telephone of the Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, the formidable Regina Mitchell-Smythe (Albertson), orders the most expensive drapes money could buy—to be delivered by special airmail, no less! Second, the extraordinarily repressed patient Sue Brett (Strasberg) suggests the patients should design the new drapes themselves, an idea picked up by the suicidal but artistically talented patient Stevie Holte (Kerr) and supported by the clinic’s art therapist, the widowed Meg Faversen Rinehart (Bacall).

Stevie produces his designs for the drapes, and they’re Continue reading

Bad and the Beautiful, The (1952)

US / 118 minutes / bw / MGM Dir: Vincente Minnelli Pr: John Houseman Scr: Charles Schnee Story: “Memorial to a Bad Man” (1951; Ladies’ Home Journal) by George Bradshaw Cine: Robert Surtees Cast: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland, Leo G. Carroll, Vanessa Brown, Paul Stewart, Sammy White, Elaine Stewart, Ivan Triesault.

A love letter to Hollywood—or, at least, a letter expressing a love/hate relationship—with a very noirish cast and some noirish flourishes; it’s occasionally listed as a film noir, although that’s a classification that seems hard to justify.

Shields (left) and Fred find Georgia sloshed at the Crow’s Nest.

Movie mogul Harry Pebbel (Pidgeon) gathers together three major figures in the industry in an attempt to persuade them to participate in a new project that the producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas) is trying to float. All three of them have good reasons to tell Shields to get lost because of the way he treated them in the past, and in three extended flashbacks we learn what those reasons were: Continue reading