Well, I have now seen it twice more in as many weeks, own my own copy, and spent an hour and a half last night screencapping it so I could do a bang-up review. This still isn't one of my favorite noirs, but it's a very good one. And the most patriotic bit of film noir I've ever seen! We'll get to that.
Yes, there will be spoilage. I'll try to mark anything major, okay?
The film opens in a dingy room, with a man (Alan Ladd) lying on a bed. Not asleep, just waiting. The clock beside him shows it's 2:15.
His alarm rings; he sits up; he takes out an envelope and studies it. I include this shot of the envelope solely because the name Albert Baker is important to Combat! fans because a fresh-faced kid by that name has a minor, yet pivotal, role at the end of season one ep "Far from the Brave." So I'm randomly amused by that coincidence, and know at least two people who read my blog will be as well :-)
Anyway, this little guy sits there on his bed in his cramped and shoddy little room, tucking that envelope and a pistol into a big satchel/folder thing. His expression is blank, his eyes not focused on the task at hand. Almost like he's trying to ignore what he's doing.
Not focused, that is, until the gun. He pays plenty of attention to it while he checks it, grimacing, his expression kind of swiveling between disgust and affection. He's fond of this gun, he hates what it does. Or maybe he hates the gun, but he's fond of what it does? We don't know! We haven't heard this guy speak, don't know his name yet, don't know why he has that envelope with the note about somebody being alone at a certain time. Pretty obvious that this guy and his gun are not off on a mission to be kind and helpful, though.
I'm fascinated by how much we learn about this character from two or three minutes of watching him prepare to go do something. He puts on a coat and hat, then sees a kitten outside his rain-streaked window. Suddenly, there's life in his face. His eyes aren't blank and slightly-unfocused anymore -- he rushes to that window and lets in the kitten, pours it some milk, croons to it.
He leaves the kitten to go wash his hands in the little washroom that opens off his room. While he does, a slatternly woman appears with a mop bucket. She asks, in a coarse voice, if she can come clean now. The man doesn't answer -- he's in the little washroom still. The girl spots the kitten because it knocks the milk can over onto the floor. She flies into a rage and rushes at it, yelling and swatting at it with her washrag. Why is she so upset by this kitten? What on earth?
The man rushes in, grabs her and shoves her away from the cat, ripping the shoulder of her dress in the process. She yells at him, calling his cat stupid, and calling him names too. He slaps her and shoves her out of his room.
So now we've seen this guy who's familiar with pistols, who usually has a dead-eyed stare, but who can be kind and sweet to a kitten, yet gets rough and angry with a woman. His first words are a snarled "Go on, beat it!" as he forces the woman from his room. Then he turns sweet again, crouching beside the kitten, stroking it as it laps up the spilled milk. In one swift scene, we know that here is a dangerous man with a gentle side he's desperate to hide. Such great story-telling.
All of that beautifully sets up what happens next. The man, Philip Raven, goes to a different apartment building, an upscale, well-kept one very different from his own. When he enters, there's a little girl sitting on the steps just inside the door. Braces on her legs tell us she probably has polio. Like the kitten, she's helpless, harmless. Harmless, that is, unless you're someone who doesn't want to be seen on the way to do a job that involves a gun hidden in your satchel.
Raven is startled, non-plussed, not sure what to do about this girl. She says hello to him, and he edges past her.
Then he pauses on the stairs above, and they look at each other for a moment. Raven spends a lot of time on stairs in this movie -- I'll get into that more in a bit. Right now, he's going up.
Upstairs, Raven arrives at his destination, is admitted to Albert Baker's apartment, and takes a seat. Baker struts around, gloating about the money he's getting in exchange for some information he was threatening to send to Washington.
Now, when you have two characters in a scene, a lot of time the guy whose head is higher is going to be the one with the power. Unless a person is sitting behind a desk, which gives them power, usually sitting down while the other person remains standing means you've lowered your status, you're acceding to the other person's power. And that's what Albert Baker thinks is going on -- here's this nondescript (unless you're Hamlette, then you'll describe him as adorable and huggable) little man in a faded coat sitting there, a messenger who's going to give him a bundle of cash.
Of course, Raven's actually the one with power. We'll come back to this sitting-guy-secretly-has-the-power motif again, but right now, here's a shot of Raven sneaking a hand inside his satchel. We know what he has in there. But also, they include this shot in the movie specifically so we'll notice Raven's left wrist. It's deformed. This is the first time they've done a close-up on it, but it's been pretty prominently visible a couple times earlier too. Hands are a big deal in this movie -- you're going to see more shots of hands-only coming up.
Unassuming guy who looks normal on the outside, but has a mostly-hidden deformity -- it's so symbolic of Raven himself. Cuz this guy is pretty messed up, as we'll see more and more. Right now, of course, out comes that pistol.
Baker's secretary was spending the afternoon in his apartment, even though Raven's note said Baker would be alone. So he has to kill her too. (Also, draw your own conclusions as to what the filmmakers are saying about what happens to secretaries who get a little too extracurricular with their employers.)
Raven grabs the bunch of papers that Baker, the blackmailer, was going to give him in exchange for the envelope of money. It's a letter to Senator Burnett with a chemical formula in it. Raven flips through it, but it means nothing to him (or me), and he stuffs it in his satchel.
Then back down those stairs he goes, only to be confronted by the same helpless child.
He hesitates, then brushes past her again. But she calls to him, and when he turns around, you can see he's afraid. Afraid she heard the gunshots, afraid she'll be able to identify him when the police come around, afraid of what he might have to do.
She just wants her ball. It rolled down the steps and she can't get it.
He still hesitates, and his hand creeps inside his satchel, reaching for the familiarity of the easy answer to all his problems.
But she's small and helpless like the kitten. He gives her the ball instead, his mask of I'm-not-here disconnect back in place.
Cowboy said he thought this little girl was going to be important later on, and I said that I think she's important just as she is -- she's there to show us that Raven is not the cold, impersonal killer he wants to be. He's fighting with himself, with a tendency to be kind and protective. He doesn't want to be that, doesn't believe he can or should be -- he's working really hard to convince himself that he's a heartless killer. He's got most of the world convinced already, but small and needy creatures stir something in him. He doesn't always like himself for wanting to help them, and yet he does it anyway. Because he secretly doesn't like who he's turned himself into, who he believes society insists he has to be.
Okay, yes, film noir at its best is about falls from grace and redemption and the struggle against our inner darkness and sin, with characters redeeming themselves or failing to redeem themselves, and this is no exception, but I need to get back to the plot.
Okay, so it's the next morning, and Raven's meeting up with his employer, an enormous man named Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) who detests and fears violence, yet is peculiarly fascinated by this violent man he's hired.
Quite fascinated. He can't take his eyes off Raven, to the point that I suspect he's got a bit of an affinity for cute young gunsels, though that is pure speculation on my part because this is a '40s film, after all, and they're not going to go there overtly.
Blast it, Raven, how come every time I want to pick you up and squish you, you turn all mean and nasty? It's most unfair.
Gates laughs nervously and changes the subject by offering Raven tickets to a floor show. Turns out he has an affinity for cute girls with nice legs (perhaps his taste includes both snails and oysters?) and owns a bunch of nightclubs. He tells Raven to use the tickets to take his girl out, but Raven is back in stare-off-into-nothing mode and sullenly says he doesn't have a girl, then leaves.
Gates, it turns out, is just precisely the sort of dirty double-crosser you'd expect. He goes straight to the police, who are out looking for the money he just gave Raven, which was "stolen from his payroll." And here we meet the guy who, according to the opening credits, is supposed to be the hero of the show, Detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston).
And here we go again with the whole guy-sitting-down-has-the-power motif. Gates thinks he's pretty darn smart getting the police to go arrest, possibly shoot, the guy he hired to kill Baker. Tying up his loose ends. But it's Michael Crane who has the power in this scene, the power to get rid of this loose end (albeit unknowingly -- he is a straight cop, not a dirty one) or expose Gates.
Also, look at the beautiful shadows from the Venetian blinds. if that isn't quintessential noir lighting, I don't know what is. Yum, yum, yum.
And now we meet up with our other before-the-title star: Veronica Lake as Ellen Graham. The first thing we see of her is her hand, reaching out from behind a column and doing a little sleight-of-hand trick. (Told you shots of only hands would pop up again.)
Ellen is an entertainer. She sings, she does little magic tricks, she's cute.
It turns out she's auditioning for Gates, for a spot in one of his nightclubs.
Gates is enchanted. He flirts with her, hires her, and then asks her to dinner. (The pin-up picture in the background makes very clear the way he -- and the rest of the nightclub world -- objectifies women, doesn't it?)
But then! The Plot Thickens! Ellen goes back to the dressing room and meets a strange little man there who asks if she's got Gates interested. She says he's hooked, asks what it's all about, and gets a cryptic reply.
Then the plot thickens some more. She gets introduced to a senator (Burnett, by name) who wants her to spy on Gates because they think he's selling secrets to the Japanese. Told you this was going to be a patriotic noir.
Then the Plot Thickens Some More. Guess who Ellen's boyfriend is?
Guess who wants to get married?
Guess who's been instructed not to tell anyone -- not even her copper boyfriend -- why she's taking that job for Gates?
Meanwhile, back at the flop house, here's Raven coming down some stairs again.
Detective Crane has followed the trail here, and Raven overhears his landlord and the cleaning girl telling Crane all about what a weird guy Raven is, how he never talks, never smiles, hits people who are mean to cats, and so on.
And there's a menacing silhouette blocking the exit.
Poor Raven! You're trapped!
Nah, not this smarty. He hides. There's a just-the-hand shot again.
"Goodbye, Michael! I'm only this happy and cheerful because I'm unaware that the plot is about to thicken again!"
Yup, the plot thickens some more. And this is the only thing that keeps me from putting this on my list of favorite noirs, though it may climb up there eventually despite it. But it's just too darn coincidental and convenient and cute that Raven ends up sitting next to Ellen on the train.
Actually, its very cuteness works for it because yummy-yummy-yummy, Ladd and Lake are darling together. You can see why studios immediately put them in a couple movies where they could be romantic leads instead -- these two have great chemistry. Both of them are masters of saying more with their eyes than their dialog. And with taking a line of dialog and using it to say exactly opposite of what the words mean. I haven't seen the other two film noirs they made together yet, but... they're on their way to my house, heh heh.
At first, she's suspicious of him. For good reason.
Ellen watches him while he pretends to sleep, then accosts him for... oh man, this review is sooooooooo long already that I don't even want to go into all this. She shoots him this look, okay? (And isn't she gorgeous?)
But yanno, if this guy was sitting next to me, I'd enjoy the view a while and let him go on pretending to be asleep.
She starts talking to him, though, mad at him a little, but sympathetic too.
He's all rumply and kind of innocent-looking.
They exchange stories, he tells her he's after a fat man who likes peppermint, that he owes this fat guy something. He plays nice, touched by Ellen's obvious kindness and good-heartedness. He looks all plaintive and wishful, like he almost for a minute thinks maybe he could be the kind of guy that a girl like her could like. Even just as a friend. Time for more hugs, Raven. Why can't I just pop through the screen and fix everything for you?.
Before you know it, it's morning and this has happened:
Back comes his mask of indifference.
Just like me, she was about ready to pick Raven up and squish him, but now here he goes, descending into badness. He marches her off to a deserted building.
His mask is slipping a little, but he's determined. He tells her to turn her back. And SPOILER ALERT!!! If you don't want to know how this movie ends, please scroll really quickly down to the Period Drama Challenge logo. It'll be safe to read what comes after that.
Okay, for those of you still tuning in, Ellen escapes. She heads for the Neptune Club, where she's supposed to be joining the cast at rehearsal. This Neptune Club is a pretty weirdo spot, lots of girls in mermaid costumes and fishing gear lounging around. But hey, if that's your thing...
Ellen rehearses another musical number and does a little more magic. The film stalls out until she finishes. Gates is there to see her rehearse and to make sure she's still planning to have dinner with him at his house before that night's show. He offers her a peppermint. And all of a sudden, Ellen realizes that the guy she's spying on is the same guy Raven is here to wreak vengeance on.
But off she goes to his mansion in the hills anyway, trying to pump him for info on chemical formulas, all while he's trying to pump her for info on Raven because he saw them on the train together.
Yeah, that goes well.
Ellen's friend and fellow nightclub entertainer tells dear old Michael that he ought to run up to Gates' house and rescue her from the wolf's clutches because, as she puts it, "By now, she's wrestling." Michael heeds this non-too-subtle warning and rushes off.
While Michael questions Gates' chauffeur/bodyguard/handyman/jack-of-all-sorts-of-nasty-trades, guess who shows up in the shadows outside and finds A Clue?
You can't beat a shy, creepy, murderous gunman for breaking into places and sneaking around, you really just can't.
Where IS my swooning couch when I need it?
So yes... Raven rescues Ellen. Because, despite the best intentions of screenwriter and director and everyone else involved, Raven is turning out to be the hero of this piece. Antisocial, misanthropic, mentally unbalanced, and played by a relative newcomer, but a hero. He can't help himself.
Raven and Ellen also can't help turning her waking-up-from-being-rendered-unconscious-by-bad-guys scene into alllllllllllmost a love scene. He holds her close to help her sit up, and golly bob howdy, the sparks fly.
Oh, I could just eat him up with a spoon!
Now, don't get me wrong -- Ellen really isn't interested in Raven That Way. She's very much true to dear old Michael. But she feels sorry for Raven. She wants to help him.
Buuuut the moment passes and he takes her to the Neptune Club to go after Gates, and holds a gun on her so she won't give him away until he can get Gates alone.
But guess who else is at the Neptune Club, having a friendly little chat with Gates, whom he suspects of having kidnapped his fiancee? Why yes, it's dear old Michael, and he is Not In A Good Mood.
Raven runs. And takes Ellen with him. No copper's gonna get him without a fight! Off they run to a um... gas works or something? Some big industrial place, lots of magnificent shadows.
There they sit on some stairs, and Ellen tells him all about how Gates is selling poison gas to the Japanese, who will use it on Americans, and doesn't he love his country and his fellow Americans and want to stop the Japanese from poisoning people? Hasn't he got any regard for the War Effort? (Okay, she doesn't say that last bit, but she might as well have.)
Ellen's starting to get through to him, but then some Plot Happens, and they have to scurry off to a new set.
Love this shot of the two of them peering into a building in the nearby trainyard to make sure it's empty.
Raven got cut during the Plot stuff, and Ellen kindly bandages him up. He yanks his hand away as soon as she's done, and she says, "You're a funny kind of a guy." He likes it that she takes care of him, but he doesn't like that he likes it. Poor confused, damaged Raven.
And out comes his sad, sad story. Why does he have that misshapen wrist? Because when he was three, his dad went to prison and his mom died, so he went to live with his aunt. And she beat him, tried to beat the bad blood out of him that he'd gotten from his bad parents.
The bulk of Raven's sad story is shot in one long take, focused close in on Alan Ladd. It's masterful. He starts out wide-eyed, kind of looking like a kid again. His eyes get wider, scared of what's coming.
And by the time he gets to the end of his story, he's a bug-eyed madman. When he was fourteen, you see, he tried to eat a piece of chocolate his aunt wanted to use for a cake. She grabbed a hot flatiron and hit him with it. Completely smashed his wrist. So he killed her.
They put him in juvenile detention, where he was beaten too. And constantly told he was evil. (The subtext, obviously, is that bad men are made, not born, and if only people had hugged poor Raven instead of beating him all the time, he wouldn't have turned out a rotten killer with bug eyes.)
As he finishes telling his horrible story, he calms down. Looks sad, wistful, kind of emptied out.
Raven has decided to help Ellen get the goods on Gates instead of just killing him. He even promises not to ever shoot anyone again. Confession is good for the soul, I guess.
Ellen disguises herself as Raven. She's going to run out where the cops can see her and surrender, and that will distract them so Raven can sneak out the back way.
I agree, Raven -- she looks awful cute in your hat and coat.
And look! He's smiling! A nice, happy, genuine, and not creepy smile!
Just before she ducks out the door, Ellen kisses Raven's cheek. He's shocked. I'm not.
Time to hug you again, Raven.
Right, so more plot stuff happens. Raven shows up at the chemical company where Gates works and takes outGates' chauffeur/bodyguard/handyman/jack-of-all-sorts-of-nasty-trades -- and we get another shot of nothing but a hand. I haven't figured out what those are supposed to symbolize, gotta admit.
All-too-conveniently, the chemical company is testing one of their nasty formulas today, and all workers are supposed to wear gas masks. This lets Raven sneak right into Gates' office.
He forces Gates to take him to the real mastermind behind the whole sell-poison-gas-to-the-Japanese plot, an old and horrible man in a wheelchair.
Remember that whole guy-sitting-in-the-chair-has-all-the-power motif? This is where it leads.
Michael has figured out that Gates is the key to all this, so he and his cop buddies are here too, and have dragged Ellen along for the ride because Michael's mad that she won't tell him why she took Gates' job or why she helped Raven.
Raven makes the icky old guy, Brewster (Tully Marshall), to write up a confession about how they're selling poison to the Japanese, just like Raven promised Ellen he would.
But time is running out for Raven. A bunch of excitement ensues. And then Ellen can finally tell Michael the truth about what she's been up to.
Raven does get to smile one last smile, though, when Ellen tells him he got her what she needed. Then poor mixed-up Raven died, a hero and a villain at the same time. And a movie star rises phoenix-like from Raven's ashes and becomes one of the top box-office-draws of the 1940s.
Yup, this movie made my Alan Ladd a star. He's not at all supposed to be the star here, though Raven is definitely the main character. The opening credits go like this:
Ya done good, Alan Ladd.
Okay, all spoilage is past! It's safe to read again. This is my 7th movie reviewed for the Period Drama Challenge, which means it's time for me to talk just a wee bit about costumes. You've seen most of them already, but I'll highlight a few. I have a terrible weakness for men in trench coats and fedoras, and so you know I adore both Alan Ladd's and Robert Preston's wardrobes.
Veronica Lake gets some lovely costumes. Here's the one she's got when we first see her -- it's clingy, but not too clingy. Swooshy, but not too swooshy. And my goodness, she was tiny, wasn't she?
Later, she wears this fox stole and hat, which I'm not keen on, but I like the embroidery on her dress.
After they get off the train, she's wearing this cute pillbox hat with funny wing things on the side.
Later, she wears a little turban with this demure-yet-sexy dress.
There aren't many other costumes in this. This waitress is crisp and spiffy:
And here's one more shot of a mermaid at the Neptune Club.
Time to discuss the whole stairs thing. I think they position Raven on and around stairs so often to highlight that he's a man in transition. At the beginning, he's trying really hard to be bad and sinister, and then later he starts trying really hard to be good and helpful. The story as a whole revolves around this change in him, the way he fights it, then embraces it. Inside, he's ascending and descending from scene to scene, and the stairs are a physical way to portray that.
Now... is this movie family-friendly? Well, there's zero cussing. All violence is bloodless or off-screen. There's a brief kissing scene after Michael and Ellen get engaged, but that's all. Gates does leer at people, but he confines himself to leering and doesn't actually paw anybody. For film noir, it's remarkably non-seedy and non-violent. If you've ever wanted a taste of film noir, but didn't want to have to explore the underbelly of society, this is the film for you.