Film Noir is a notoriously difficult genre to define and you can often find fans on the internet slugging it out over what constitutes Noir and what doesn’t. For my part, I once had a much narrower definition of the genre which hewed close to big city locations, gun-wielding gumshoes and wrongly accused men on the run, all drenched in shadowy cinematography as they barrelled towards their fateful ends. But the more examples of Noir I’ve seen, the wider-ranging the genre reveals itself to be. Indicator’s new Universal Noir #2 boxset leans into this broader definition, with the films here including a sprightly Screwball Comedy, a Historical Melodrama and a Social Issues film alongside a couple of more straightforward examples of Noir. If some critics remain resolute in their rejection of these borderline examples, I’ve found that embracing a broader definition makes exploring this most rewarding of genres even more fascinating.
LADY ON A TRAIN
Director: Charles David
Screenplay: Edmund Beloin, Robert O’Brien
Based on a story by: Leslie Charteris
Producers: Felix Jackson
Starring: Deanna Durbin, Ralph Bellamy, David Bruce
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 94 mins
Deanna Durbin was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s but her trademark role of idealised, soprano-singing teenage daughter, as seen in Best Picture Oscar nominated films Three Smart Girls and One Hundred Men and a Girl, had a sell-by-date in terms of both musical trends and Durbin’s age. The transition from child star to adult star is often a rocky road and Universal, who she had essentially saved from bankruptcy, quickly struggled to know how best to use her. Lady on a Train is the sort of film that screams of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Its Noirish notion of a murder being witnessed from a train window opens out into a Mystery by way of Screwball Comedy with a pinch of an Old Dark House film, a Christmas Eve setting and musical interludes. It’s kind of a hot mess but also a ferociously entertaining one, and the more it piles on, the more compelling Lady on a Train becomes.
The story of Lady on a Train was written specifically for Durbin by The Saint creator Leslie Charteris and elements of it were later borrowed by Agatha Christie in 4:50 from Paddington, as well as the Return of the Saint TV episode Signal Stop. The most ingenious part of the premise of a young woman witnessing a murder from a train window is that not only does it become a Whodunit but also a Wherewasit, since after the train moves on the woman has no idea where she was or how to find that same nondescript window again. You could build an entire film around that one idea but instead the unidentifiable location becomes just one strand in a plot involving a glamorous nightclub singer, a harassed mystery writer, an ineffectual guardian, a pair of amorous suitors and a pair of bloodied slippers. At first this proliferation of plot points seems to be to the detriment of the film which appears to be struggling to find its identity but ultimately, as the comedic tone asserts itself more clearly, it becomes apparent that the growing complexity is part of the escalating farcical appeal.
The cast of Lady on a Train lean into its absurdity, with realistic reactions often forsaken for those that will prove funnier. At first, when Durbin’s character Nikki has such a calm reaction to having witnessed a murder, I thought it was a flaw but then she segues into a maths-problem as an attempt to work out the location of the killing and this is the key to the film’s tone. While the plot is serviceable and engaging enough, it is subservient to the little bits of comic business that so consistently charm. Durbin and David Bruce make a likeable Screwball couple, Ralph Bellamy, Dan Duryea and Elizabeth Patterson are an amusingly quirky family of the deceased, and Edward Everett Horton as Nikki’s luckless chaperone again proves that no-one can quite do a double take like he can. If the result of all this merriment is something significantly lighter than the average Noir, Lady on a Train at least shows an awareness of the tropes of the genre and plays its hand smartly, setting up high stakes in the final act but never once kidding itself that we’ll think a film this breezy could offer up the sort of gloomy fatalism that often characterises Noir climaxes. The result is a playful, delightful little gem that acts as a wonderful palate cleanser with which to open the boxset.
TIME OUT OF MIND
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Abem Finkel, Arnold Phillips
Based on the novel by: Rachel Field
Producers: Robert Siodmak
Starring: Phyllis Calvert, Robert Hutton, Ella Raines
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 88 mins
If there’s a name guaranteed to make the average Noir fans ears immediately prick up, it’s Robert Siodmak. Though not a household name by any means, Siodmak directed some of the greatest Noirs. The Suspect, The Killers, Criss Cross, Cry of the City, The Spiral Staircase. Taut, edgy, suspenseful classics all. Time Out of Mind, a Melodrama based on the novel by Rachel Field, is often considered the weak link in a startlingly productive mid-1940s period for Siodmak, and the director himself considered it his worst film. A big budget commercial flop, Time Out of Mind was an attempt to make a Hollywood star out of British actress Phyllis Calvert, by way of something akin to the popular Gainsborough Melodramas in which she made her name. Calvert admired The Spiral Staircase and her appearance in Time Out of Mind became conditional on Siodmak helming the film, allowing Siodmak’s agent to negotiate an incredible contract that offered him triple his normal salary and, astoundingly, the right to veto the finished project if he disliked it. In the end, he allowed the film to be released to a combination of indifference and hostility. Calvert, who had a miserable experience making Time Out of Mind, also disliked the film and it was quickly assigned to the dustbin of curios that don’t even acquire a cult following. All of which is rather a shame because I think Time Out of Mind is in many ways a very good film. Hopefully its arrival on Blu-ray as part of this boxset may help it achieve that cult status at the very least.
It’s fair to say that those going into Time Out of Mind expecting Noir may be disappointed. This is first and foremost a Melodrama, what would once have been patronisingly called a “woman’s picture”, and if you’re looking for Out of the Past or Raw Deal then that might not sit well. But if, like me, you’re a sucker for ornate, overwrought romances and accidentally funny outbursts then you might just fall for Time Out of Mind as I did. But it doesn’t have to be that binary. Time Out of Mind boasts a combination of styles within its comparatively brief runtime and Siodmak’s fingerprints are over it, which means Noir fans looking for more than just pithy putdowns and gunplay will find the film pays dividends. Siodmak has directed the hell out of this thing, bringing a sense of Gothic gloom and shadowy beauty to the oceanside mansion of the Fortune family. The big budget is evident and Siodmak’s claim that he and cinematographer Maury Gertsman “had a great time loading the film with every crazy effect we could think of” undersells the fact that this maximalist approach is perfectly suited to such unabashedly passionate material and the results are consistently striking.
Time Out of Mind is not without its flaws, of course. Abem Finkel and Arnold Phillips’ screenplay is frequently very clunky, telling when it should be showing and ramming lots of overly florid dialogue into the mouths of its actors in a way that sometimes stifles the performances. Robert Hutton’s performance in particular is desperately overstated, which is unfortunate given that he is the romantic lead. His descent into alcoholism and despair is unconvincing, at least partially because it is underwritten, but it is undeniably entertaining to watch some of this stuff being overplayed. A scene in which Hutton narrates his emotions with a self-played musical accompaniment can’t help but inspire giggles. Still, it’s frustrating to imagine just how much better the film could’ve been if Hutton’s role had been played by someone like James Mason. Fortunately, Calvert gives a measured, restrained and realistic performance that suggests she could easily have been the next Greer Garson and the focus of the film remains squarely on her, balancing Hutton’s histrionics to the point where they become mere amusing interludes. Throughout, Siodmak’s direction keeps Time Out of Mind visually riveting and between his unforgettable images and Calvert’s anchoring presence the film becomes an involving and pleasurable way to spend 90 minutes.
Director: John Brahm
Screenplay: Seton I. Miller, Robert Thoeren
Producers: Jerry Bresler
Starring: Ava Gardener, Fred MacMurray, Roland Culver
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 79 mins
Thrillers set in and named after exotic locations were already a popular phenomenon before Casablanca came along but that film’s success changed the game, spawning several imitators aiming to emulate its perfect blend of adventure and romance. Singapore is often called a Casablanca rip-off and, while I think that’s a little unfair to a film that does forge its own unique path, the influence of Michael Curtiz’s Best Picture winner is undeniable. It’s there in the flashback structure and the climactic airport scene, it’s there in the difficult but mutually respectful relationship between two characters on different sides of the law, and it’s very pointedly there in the way romantic leads Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardener are made to resemble Bogie and Bergman through costume, hair and bursts of dreamy dialogue. All of this isn’t necessarily to Singapore’s detriment, however. As long as you don’t make a direct comparison of quality, Singapore’s attempts to evoke some of the movie magic of Casablanca make for a fun experience for anyone who loved that classic.
Purely on its own terms, Singapore has enough to distinguish itself as a more than worthwhile entertainment. Though the tragedy-tinged romance is front and centre, it is brilliantly supplemented by an adventure plot in which Fred MacMurray’s smuggler Matt Gordon returns to Singapore in an attempt to reclaim a stash of pearls he had hidden there several years earlier. With the police and local crime lord both onto him, Matt already has his work cut out without also running into the amnesiac lover he believed was dead and her new husband. Though a tad far-fetched and with an ending that feels a little too trite, Singapore nevertheless emerges as a great little Noir with an infectious forward drive. MacMurray and Gardener are decent and iconically beautiful as the leads but the film is made by its colourful supporting cast, with Richard Haydn providing good value as the droll police officer on Matt’s tail, Spring Byington and Porter Hall proving amusing comic relief as a couple of oblivious holidaymakers, and George Lloyd standing out as an oleaginous weasel of a crook.
Singapore was co-written by Seton I. Miller, whose other screenplays include classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Scarface and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. But most instructive amongst Miller’s other work is Calcutta, another exotic Noir that I previously reviewed here. The two films would make a good double bill but Singapore stands as the stronger of the two, trading Calcutta’s hard-boiled but sometimes tiresome cynicism for something a little more optimistic and breezy. It certainly shouldn’t be watched as part of a double bill with Casablanca but neither should that unavoidable comparison be mistaken for a reason to disparage Singapore, which is a great evening’s entertainment in its own right.
A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE
Director: Zoltán Korda
Screenplay: Aldous Huxley
Based on the novel by: Aldous Huxley
Producers: Zoltán Korda
Starring: Ann Blyth, Charles Boyer, Jessica Tandy
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 96 mins
A familiar story about a philandering husband in an unhappy marriage who finds himself on trial for the death of his wife, A Woman’s Vengeance has a lot going for it in terms of the talent involved but director Zoltán Korda just doesn’t quite pull it together. The predictable tale is scuppered by very slow pacing, with Aldous Huxley’s florid screenplay requiring a little more visual verve to prevent it grinding to a halt as it so regularly does. The film benefits hugely from the cinematography of Russell Metty, particularly evident in the undoubted standout scene in which Charles Boyer and Jessica Tandy have a heart-to-heart in front of a large window as a storm rages outside. But highlights like this are few and far between and mostly it’s a tedious wait for the mechanics of the plot to catch up with the viewer.
There’s a thick streak of misogyny in A Woman’s Vengeance that, while hardly unexpected for a 40s film with that title, nevertheless leaves a bad taste. Misogyny is not uncommon in Noir but it usually benefits from some amount of grey area, whereas Huxley’s screenplay instead gives us an elderly doctor who is persistently portrayed as the voice of reason and wisdom but spouts the most stereotypical and misogynistic nonsense about women, often to their faces as they lay in a vulnerable state requiring his medical expertise. Without this unfortunately prominent character, A Woman’s Vengeance might’ve got away with its parade of vindictive, manipulative and hysterical women given that the other male characters are also broadly unpleasant. But the attempt to add a moral centre results only in a rotten core.
As well as Metty’s cinematography, which provides that shadowy Noir atmosphere with a sparing delicacy that accentuates its few flourishes, A Woman’s Vengeance benefits from a great performance from Jessica Tandy. Charles Boyer is decent in the leading role while Ann Blyth suffers from being given the worst role as Boyer’s youthful lover, but Tandy quietly and gradually steals the film with a performance that grows and changes until it completely overtakes the whole production. It’s Oscar-worthy stuff and it’s a shame Tandy didn’t secure a nod from the Academy. By the film’s end she is the only reason to pay attention anymore, even if her storyline, like all the others, drags on much longer than it should. A Woman’s Vengeance ultimately squanders its potential to emerge as a plodding piece that is too predictable to grip and too stuffy to convincingly achieve the fatalistic atmosphere it seeks.
AN ACT OF MURDER
Director: Michael Gordon
Screenplay: Michael Blankfort, Robert Thoeren
Based on the novel by: Ernst Lothar
Producers: Jerry Bresler
Starring: Frederic March, Edmond O’Brien, Florence Eldridge
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 91 mins
An Act of Murder is a film whose latter day categorisation as Noir has been a cause of consternation for many. On the face of it, the film is much more readily identifiable as a Social Issues Drama but given that the issue it tackles is the morality of mercy killing, there’s ample examination of death, grief and the parameters of murder to justify the film being categorised as Noir adjacent at the very least. Those seeking a more familiar Noir aesthetic will find it here just once, in a pivotal scene at a gas station in which lashing rain and building tension culminate in a dramatic peak, yet elsewhere An Act of Murder digs much deeper into the tortured soul of a conflicted judge trying to do right by his terminally ill wife than many readily accepted Noirs ever dare probe their protagonists. This is balanced out by a distinctly un-Noir lack of ambiguity and An Act of Murder becomes much less gripping in its final act as it delivers its message in full directly to the camera, using an offscreen addressee as a conduit for the protagonist to essentially break the fourth wall and wag a pious finger rather than respect an audience’s ability to draw their own conclusions. In the morally black-and-white world of Hays Code Hollywood, it’s noteworthy to find a film that addresses a complex subject like euthanasia at all and the distinction between legal and moral guilt that the film makes is interesting. The way that it ultimately puts this message across, however, is not.
Despite its eventual collapse, for much of its runtime An Act of Murder is a moving, involving study of a man helplessly watching his loved one suffer and desperately weighing the options open to him. For these scenes to work as well as they do it is essential to set up a convincing dynamic and the film begins as a lighthearted Family Drama. Director Michael Gordon, soon to fall victim to the blacklist, displays a talent for uncluttered realism and is able to convincingly introduce moments of levity in what eventually becomes an extremely downbeat experience. He is helped enormously by the casting of real life husband and wife Frederic March and Florence Eldridge, whose genuine love for each other is evident in their touching performances. Edmond O’Brien is listed as the second lead in the credits but his role is comparatively small and surprisingly ineffectual. An Act of Murder is undoubtedly March and Eldridge’s film. Gordon and his actors brilliantly establish a happy existence for the central family with only minor dramatic conflicts. These trivialities, along with any sign of happiness, are obliterated by the devastating diagnosis and it’s testament to how effectively Gordon has laid the table that I desperately didn’t want this to be the case.
If An Act of Murder is extraordinarily immersive for two thirds of its runtime, it is also the sort of film I’ll likely not revisit. I found it intensely depressing which, while not necessarily a flaw, does act as a deterrent from including it in lists of personal favourites. True, I regularly cite Ingmar Bergman’s gloomy Winter Light among the greatest films ever made, but in the case of An Act of Murder the grimness ultimately outweighs the insight to the extent that the experience becomes more unpleasant than it is enlightening. There are additional frustrations, including a melodramatic bent that often undermines the realism, such as the pivotal decisive move made by the protagonist which feels like a concession to Action tropes rather than a believable turn of events. A metaphor involving a coincidental mercy killing of a wounded dog is patronisingly heavy-handed, and in a film that isn’t shy about tipping its moral hand, viewers may well question some of the decisions it seems to endorse, such as keeping a terminal diagnosis secret from a clearly terrified patient. What may ultimately prove most unpalatable is An Act of Murder’s failure to provide a strong viewpoint on its central subject. While its differentiation between moral and legal responsibility is laudable, its position on euthanasia, even the specific example it depicts, is frustratingly inconclusive.
THE LADY GAMBLES
Director: Michael Gordon
Screenplay: Roy Huggins, Halstead Welles
Producers: Michael Kraike
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston, Stephen McNally
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 99 mins
The second Michael Gordon film in the boxset is another Social Issues film, this time on the subject of gambling addiction, but the approach is far more salacious than that of the sober An Act of Murder. The Noir influence is clearer here, particularly in a shockingly brutal opening scene in which a woman caught cheating in a game of dice is brutally beaten up by two men in an alleyway. The woman is Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest actors of the Golden Age and clearly far better than the material she has been given here. That doesn’t stop her giving the role of gambling addict Joan Boothe her absolute all though, which has the effect of sometimes making the film more enjoyable and sometimes exposing its considerable weaknesses by filtering a bad script through a strong performance.
One of the major problems with The Lady Gambles is how familiar the story is to modern audiences. We know the ups and downs of addiction stories so well that the cheaper ones can practically be recited beat for beat. Perhaps this was less the case in 1949 but you can definitely sense the spectre of The Lost Weekend hanging over The Lady Gambles, and while a female protagonist in a film like this may have been a novelty there are definite precursor to that too, with Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman predating this film by two years. The aforementioned films were both alcoholism stories so perhaps the gambling theme was novel and progressive but the presentation of Joan’s descent into addiction is hardly nuanced, especially when it culminates in the shocking twist of her going… gasp… blonde! Still, I appreciate the film’s intentions at least and, as with An Act of Murder, Gordon’s direction is smart and snappy.
Given how predictable it is, The Lady Gambles is at its most entertaining when it gets silly. There are a few particularly daft moments sprinkled throughout, especially in the excruciatingly clunky dialogue, but the most egregious element is the character of Dr. Rojac, played with hysterical detachment by John Hoyt. The third terrible doctor in a row in this boxset, Dr. Rojac seems to do everything he can to make his patients and their loved ones uncomfortable. He refuses to see the beaten, bloodied and unconscious Joan until he has finished his lunch. He refuses to eject a meddling relative seemingly because the drama amuses him. He attempts to stop a suicide by goading someone on a ledge into jumping. I don’t really know what the point of this character is. His role would’ve been sufficiently served by a competent and cooperative medical professional. I can only imagine one of the screenwriters had a grudge against doctors as Dr. Rojac is a bizarre, if also wildly entertaining, plot wrinkle. In all honesty, his presence probably added half a star to my rating!
Universal Noir #2 is released on limited edition Blu-ray by Indicator on 23rd October 2023. The excellent special features include several commentaries and video essays that very much enhance the viewing experience by providing enlightening context. I particularly enjoyed Jose Arroyo’s lengthy examination of Robert Siodmak. The full list of extras is as follows:
* High Definition presentations of Lady on a Train, Time Out of Mind, Singapore, A Woman’s Vengeance, An Act of Murder and The Lady Gambles
* Original mono audio
* Audio commentary with critics and writers Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme on Lady on a Train (2023)
* Audio commentary with film historian Adrian Martin on Time Out of Mind (2023)
* Audio commentary with screenwriter and author Kelly Goodner and filmmaker and film historian Jim Hemphill on Singapore (2023)
* Audio commentary with writer and film historian Pamela Hutchinson on The Lady Gambles (2023)
* Jose Arroyo on ‘Time Out of Mind’ (2023): the writer and academic discusses the film
* Neil Sinyard on ‘A Woman’s Vengeance’ (2023): an in-depth appreciation by the author and film historian
* Christina Newland on Ava Gardner (2023): the writer and critic considers the famed actor’s noir persona
* Wings Up (1943): WWII propaganda film featuring The Lady Gambles star Robert Preston alongside Hollywood legends Clark Gable, Gilbert Roland and William Holden
* Reward Unlimited (1944): dramatised short film about the training of cadet nurses during WWII, directed by Jacques Tourneur and featuring Singapore actor Spring Byington
* The Library of Congress (1945): documentary short, made as part of The American Scene film series, narrated by Lady on a Train star Ralph Bellamy
* French Town… (1945): documentary short offering a portrait of a French town following liberation, narrated by A Woman’s Vengeance actor Cedric Hardwicke
* Welcome Home (1945): documentary short about returning soldiers following the end of WWII, narrated by An Act of Murder star Fredric March
* With This Ring (1954): dramatised promotional film for the Miller Brewing Company, directed by John Brahm
* Mollé Mystery Theatre: ‘The Gioconda Smile’ (1945): radio play based on the Aldous Huxley short story, later adapted as A Woman’s Vengeance
* Lux Radio Theatre: ‘Singapore’ (1947): radio adaptation of the film’s screenplay, featuring Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardner reprising their original roles
* Theatrical trailers
* Image galleries: promotional and publicity materials
* New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
* Limited edition exclusive 120-page book with new essays by Ellen Wright, Paul Duane, Philip Kemp, Tara Judah, Imogen Sara Smith, and Iris Veysey, extensive archival articles and interviews, new writing on the various short films, and film credits
* UK premieres on Blu-ray
* Limited edition box set of 6,000 numbered units for the UK