I had seen this film noir twice before on VCI’s DVD, which is typically shoddy in quality, so I was eager to see it in a better quality print and on the big screen when I spotted it on the schedule for this year’s Noir City festival. The 35mm print shown was restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, and it’s certainly a great improvement over the DVD, although it still had some image juddering in a couple of reels. But even with the crappy DVD I was instantly entranced by this strange film, which the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, compared to the work of David Lynch. It has that feverish, dreamlike quality so coveted here at the Dreamland Cafe.
Based on the novel The Black Path of Fear by Cornel Woolrich, who is famous for his nonsensical, nightmarish plots, the story is about Chuck Scott, a homeless Navy veteran of WWII who discovers a wallet with 81 dollars in it. He buys himself breakfast, but then he takes the wallet and the rest of the money to the address of the owner. There he discovers two oddball partners in crime: the sardonic, chain-smoking Gino (Peter Lorre in fine form) and the handsome, sadistic Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). Eddie likes Chuck’s unusual integrity (unlike Gino, who scoffs, “Dumb honest jerk!”) and hires him as a chauffeur. Soon Chuck finds himself driving Eddie’s unhappy wife, Loran (Michele Morgan, ooh la la!), to the Miami beach, where she stares at the sea longingly. But what does she long for, death or escape? Or is it love?
From there the film grows progressively weirder and weirder. There are plot twists that don’t make a lot of sense, and it begins to feel like a Hitchcock film on acid. I actually misremembered some important aspects of the plot, thinking it looped back on itself more than it does. Suffice it to say the dreamlike, nightmare quality keeps pulling the rug out from under the story.
The noir visuals are outstanding. Cinematographer Franz Planer (credited here as Frank Planer) shot a couple of other classic noirs, including Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949), but he was also capable of silky elegance in films such as Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). This film gets darker and darker as it gets weirder and weirder, climaxing in some shots in an attic that are completely black except for planes of light shooting up through the floorboards. Producer Seymour Nebenzal personally connects this film noir directly to Weimar Germany, where he produced such classics as Pandora’s Box (1929) and M (1930). The sets seem to have been influenced by the Surrealists, particularly de Chirico, with Roman busts (a bit of a pun?) decorating barren hallways that are painted with abstract rectangles of shadow. It’s a very striking look.
I can’t really recommend the VCI DVD unless you are able to ignore significant image and sound problems, but this really is a pretty amazing little movie. This was a particularly fine Noir City festival. Three of the four films I saw — The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), Native Son (1951), and The Chase — were real doozies that are hard to see in quality editions. All hail Eddie Muller, the Noir Foundation, and SIFF Cinema for bringing these films to the huddled masses of film geeks.