Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932–1957
July 11–August 4, 2014
Organized by Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, and Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film.
Special thanks to Grover Crisp, Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering at Sony Pictures; Rita Belda, Executive Director, Asset Management, Sony Pictures; and Christopher Lane, Worldwide Repertory Sales Manager, Sony Pictures Releasing. All prints and DCPs courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Related Film Screenings
My Name Is Julia Ross
1945. USA. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Screenplay by Muriel Roy Bolton. With Nina Foch, Dame Mae Whitty, George Macready. An unexpected hit for Columbia in 1945, Julia Ross was among the first of many postwar films to blend the fatalism of film noir with the sentiment of gothic romance. Nina Foch, in her breakthrough role, is the lonely young woman who accepts a job as a private secretary to a wealthy old woman (Whitty) but wakes up one morning to find herself a prisoner of her employer’s softly menacing son (Macready, working his way toward his unforgettable performance in Gilda). The veteran B director Joseph H. Lewis films with unrestrained noir panache, creating dense patterns of shadow and wildly distorted spaces. 65 min.
The Reckless Moment
1949. USA. Directed by Max Ophuls. Screenplay by Henry Garson, Robert Soderberg, based on the story “The Blank Wall.” Produced by Walter Wanger for Columbia Pictures, Ophuls’s last American film stars a never-better Joan Bennett as an upper-middle-class housewife who believes that her daughter has committed a murder and anxiously conceals the body. James Mason is the small-time blackmailer who seeks to exploit the situation, only to fall for her. Burnett Guffey’s creeping crane shots and chiaroscuro lighting are perfectly keyed to Ophuls’s brilliant, amoral critique of bourgeois family life and class ambition. 82 min.
1947. USA. Directed by John Cromwell. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, Steve Fisher. With Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott, Morris Carnovsky, Wallace Ford. A returning war hero (Bogart) investigates the sudden disappearance of a paratrooper buddy who’s been accused in a crime of passion, only to get drawn into a Florida Gulf love triangle involving Coral Chandler (Scott), a husky-voiced cabaret singer who harbors deadly secrets, and a smarmy casino owner named Martinelli (Carnovsky). Lizabeth Scott may have been no Lauren Bacall—or, for that matter, Rita Hayworth, who was unable to star in Dead Reckoning because she was committed to her estranged husband’s The Lady from Shanghai—but John Cromwell and Humphrey Bogart seem to be having fun quoting earlier noirs like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. 100 min.
1952. USA. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Screenplay by Harry Brown. With Adolphe Menjou, Arthur Franz, Marie Windsor, Richard Kiley. After serving time in prison as one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten and then caving to the House Un-American Activities Committee by naming names, Edward Dmytryk was hired by producer Stanley Kramer to make this low-budget noir starring Adolphe Menjou, one of the industry’s most notorious Red-baiters. Giving a fine performance as the improbably named police lieutenant Frank Kafka, Menjou joins forces with a sympathetic psychologist (Kiley) in pursuit of a sexually frustrated laundry driver (Franz) who can’t help gunning down pretty brunettes on the panicked streets of San Francisco. Politics aside, The Sniper represents a major step forward in the evolution of the serial killer archetype, building on Chinatown at Midnight and other films toward its ultimate expression in Psycho. 88 min.
So Dark the Night
1946. USA. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Screenplay by Martin Berkeley, Dwight V. Babcock, based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg. With Steven Geray, Micheline Cheirel, Eugene Borden. A B-movie with A-class ambitions, Lewis’s psychologically tinged whodunit stars Austro-Hungarian émigré Steven Geray as a famously obsessive, overworked Parisian detective who falls for an innkeeper’s daughter while on holiday. On the night of their engagement, she and another suitor, a young farmer, mysteriously disappear, leading to a string of perplexing murders. Re-teaming with the brilliant cameraman Burnett Guffey after their sleeper hit My Name Is Julia Ross, Lewis limns his characters’ claustrophobic circumstances in Clouzot-like fashion, using window frames and mirrors, restricted camera movements, deep focus, and shadowy, destabilizing shots to give an increasingly sinister, almost schizoid cast to the bucolic landscape—all the more impressive given that he and Guffey transformed the ragged Columbia backlot into an authentic French countryside without ever once having stepped foot in France. Digital projection. 71 min.
Escape in the Fog
1945. USA. Directed by Budd Boetticher (credited as Oscar Jr.). Screenplay by Aubrey Wisberg. With Nina Foch, Otto Kruger, William Wright. Boetticher’s wartime spy thriller pleasurably mixes Freudian pop psychology, supernaturalism, and tradecraft. A battle-scarred Navy nurse, awakening from a nightmare in which a man is about to be murdered on the Golden Gate Bridge, finds the mysterious stranger standing at the foot of her bed. Very quickly they become enmeshed in a nasty bit of international espionage involving fifth columnists, double agents, and an extremely well-placed MacGuffin. Escape in the Fog was the last of Boetticher’s five B-movies for Columbia Pictures. According to Boetticher, the film was made in only 10 days on a minimal budget, and is enlivened by an intelligent performance by Nina Foch (the star of Joseph Lewis’s My Name Is Julia Ross) and the delightfully sinister character actors Otto Kruger and Ivan Triesault. 65 min.
Man in the Dark
1953. USA. Directed by Lew Landers. Screenplay by George Bricker. With Edmond O’Brien, Audrey Totter, Ted de Corsia, Nick Dennis. The prolific and occasionally personal B filmmaker Lew Landers shot this “three-dimensional chiller” in a breakneck 11 days, enabling Columbia Pictures to rush the film into theatrical release a mere 48 hours before Warner Bros.’ House of Wax and launch a brief 3-D arms race among the Hollywood studios. An experimental brain surgery designed to cure O’Brien of his criminal impulses instead gives him an unfortunate case of amnesia, as his former gangster colleagues kidnap and beat him senseless to discover where he’s stashed the payroll loot. Only the comforts of Audrey Totter, a golden-hearted, golden-haired fatale, can soothe his weary soul. A contemporary Variety review pointed out that “Miss Totter’s figure is a definite 3-D asset,” while Elliott Stein, in a more recent Village Voice review, noted, “This seems to be the 3-D flick that most exploits the short-lived medium. An endless array of stuff comes whiffling at your face—a lit cigar, a repulsive spider, scissors, forceps, fists, falling bodies, and a roller coaster. The prolific Landers may not have been a great director, but he was a pretty good pitcher.” Screening in 3-D, in a newly conformed DCP from Sony Pictures. 3D: Digital projection. 70 min.
1946. USA. Directed by Charles Vidor. Screenplay by Marion Parsonnet. With Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready, Joseph Calleia. Audiences continue to swoon over Hayworth’s performance as the erotic, unattainable Gilda, trapped in a hateful ménage a trois with brooding sadist Glenn Ford and chilly German casino owner George Macready in Buenos Aires. Costume designer Jean Louis is said to have used John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Madame X as the inspiration for the black gown in which Hayworth famously performs her sly striptease, “Put the Blame on Mame". Digital projection. 110 min.
The Lady from Shanghai
1947. USA. Directed by Orson Welles. Screenplay by Welles, based on the novel If I Die Before Waking, by Sherwood King. With Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Ted de Corsia. Like so many Orson Welles films, The Lady from Shanghai is a shadow of its former self, as Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn trimmed Welles’s 155-minute cut by nearly an hour and refused to follow his scoring notes. Nonetheless, this is noir at its best, with Rita Hayworth as the seductive Scheherazade who entangles naïve Irish sailor Welles in romantic intrigue, an insurance scam, and murder. Baroque set pieces on a yacht (on loan from Errol Flynn for the production), a Chinese opera theater, and, most famously, a funhouse hall of mirrors, give Welles free rein with deep-focus, chiaroscuro photography, optical distortions and trickery, and shock editing. New 4K digital restoration by Sony Pictures Entertainment. 87 min.
1957. USA. Directed by Paul Wendkos. Screenplay by David Goodis. With Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield, Martha Vickers, Mickey Shaughnessy. Pulp existentialist David Goodis brings his own crime novel to the screen in classic hardboiled fashion. A botched jewel heist sparks sexual tension, incestuous childhood guilt, and treachery among thieves and crooked cops—and who can blame them, with voluptuous Jayne Mansfield at the center of it all? Eagerly making his feature debut, Wendkos employs various Wellesian devices including a newsreel prologue, a climax in a fun house on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, and a profusion of sweaty, deep focus close-ups. The Burglar represents a transitional, self-reflexive noir made at the twilight of the studio system in the late 1950s, with Goodis’ story also forming the basis for Henri Verneuil’s Le casse, a 1971 serie noire starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Omar Sharif, and Dyan Cannon. 90 min.
Murder by Contract
1958. USA. Directed by Irving Lerner. Screenplay by Ben Simcoe. With Vince Edwards, Philip Pine, Herschel Bernardi. Vince Edwards plays a Melvillian contract killer who executes his assignments with ruthless, Zen-like efficiency, using any potential weapon at hand, while still finding time to take in the tourist sites around town. Unsurprisingly, his fatal flaw is his wary distaste of women, particularly the one he’s hired to kill. Irving Lerner’s perversion of the postwar American Dream—Claude wants to settle down in a humble riverside cottage, and sees his line of business as the swiftest means to that end—resembles the tarnished aspirations of so many Nicholas Ray and Martin Scorsese antiheroes. Indeed, Scorsese dedicated his 1977 film New York, New York to Irving Lerner, citing as influences the film’s spare guitar score by Perry Botkin, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography by Lucien Ballard, and lean storytelling by Ben Simcoe (and an uncredited Ben Maddow). 81 min.
I Love Trouble
1947. USA. S. Sylvan Simon. 93 min.
Chinatown at Midnight
1949. USA. Seymour Friedman. 66 min.
1947. USA. Robert Gordon. 73 min.
In a Lonely Place
1950. USA. Nicholas Ray. 92 min.
By Whose Hand?
1932. USA. Ben Stoloff. 63 min.
The Ninth Guest
1934. USA. Roy William Neill. 65 min.
1944. USA. William Castle. 59 min.
The Big Heat
1953. Fritz Lang. 88 min.
The Power of the Whistler
1945. USA. Lew Landers. 66 min.
Let Us Live
1939. USA. John Brahm. 68 min.
1946. USA. William Castle. 62 min.
The Secret of the Whistler
1946. USA. George Sherman. 62 min.
1952. USA. Edward Dmytryk. 88 min.
Escape in the Fog
1945. USA. Budd Boetticher . 65 min.
1957. USA. Paul Wendkos. 90 min.
Walk a Crooked Mile
1948. USA. Gordon Douglas. 91 min.
Drive a Crooked Road
1954. USA. Richard Quine. 83 min.
The Reckless Moment
1949. USA. Max Ophuls. 82 min.
Murder by Contract
1958. USA. Irving Lerner. 81 min.
So Dark the Night
1946. USA. Joseph H. Lewis. 71 min.