The Franchot Tone Blogathon: Phantom Lady (1944)

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Hi, everyone! I’m so happy to be back with what will likely be my last post for the month. Today I’ll be celebrating one of the most underrated actors in classic film, Franchot Tone! As always, I’d like to start off by thanking the gracious host of this blogathon, Finding Franchot, for dedicating an entire blog to celebrating such an iconic person and giving us all something really great to write about. I wish your first blogathon all the success possible, and I hope that it could become an annual one in the future! Without further ado, on with the post!

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An original theatrical poster for Phantom Lady (1944).

The first half or so of Phantom Lady (1944) follows engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who prior to the events of the film had an argument with his wife Marcella when she turned down the opportunity to go to the theater with him. Despondent that his marriage isn’t working out, he heads to the nearest bar, where he befriends a mysterious woman wearing a daring black hat. The two decide to go to the theater instead, where they have a fun time despite getting stared at by the skirt-chasing drummer of the show’s band (played by the iconic supporting noir actor Elisha Cook, Jr.), and despite the star of the show Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda, whom I found out was the sister of Carmen Miranda) becoming infuriated with the woman for wearing the same hat as she was. Scott and the nameless woman part ways, and upon reentering his home, he discovers that his wife Marcella has been strangled to death by one of her husband’s neckties and suddenly he’s being questioned by a mob of detectives. Though it’s obvious that he is innocent of the murder from the start, he is unable to cough up an alibi that suits the police. The next day is spent with Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) as the two of them attempt to retrace his steps from the night before. The bartender, the taxi driver who took Scott and the phantom lady to the theater, and Estela Monteiro all claim to have seen Scott, but not the woman that he was with, while Scott himself can hardly remember what she looked like. Due to circumstantial evidence, a judge and jury rule Scott guilty of Marcella’s murder and sentence him to death row.

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Director Robert Siodmak, Ella Raines, and Franchot Tone on the set of Phantom Lady (1944).

Scott’s faithful and lovestruck secretary of fifteen years Carol (Ella Raines) remains by his side throughout the trial, and when he informs her that he has only eighteen days left before he is executed, Carol begins to conduct an investigation of her own. She starts by essentially stalking the bartender, occupying the same booth at the bar night after night for weeks before one day attempting to follow him home. It appears that she has terrified him to the point of attempted murder, as we see him almost push her onto the tracks of the train that they are both waiting for, yet his plan is foiled by the appearance of another passenger. Finally he confronts Carol as she continues to follow him, questioning her motives and attempting to get physically violent with her before strangers interfere and restrain the man. Terrified once again, he runs out into the street and is run over. After the bartender’s death Carol finally gets some help with her investigation in the form of Inspector Burgess, who originally conducted the investigation against Scott, but now Burgess too feels that he is innocent. Carol and the inspector move onto the next witness, the drummer at the show named Cliff, who they plan to get talking by having Carol disguise herself as a trashy dame named Jeannie hoping to earn his affection. The plan works, and after a few drinks and some incredibly impressive drumming that’s said to have been dubbed in by Buddy Rich, one of the most famous jazz drummers of all time, Cliff reveals that he was paid $500 to say that he had never seen the lady that Scott was with that night. Soon afterwards the rest of Carol’s plan is foiled when Cliff finds a police file on him in “Jeannie’s” purse that was undoubtedly supplied by Inspector Burgess, and Carol flees Cliff’s apartment.

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Ella Raines and Franchot Tone in a publicity still for Phantom Lady (1944).

After she leaves, the real murderer is revealed. We find out that Scott’s best friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) was the one who really killed Marcella with Scott’s necktie, and due to Cliff’s loose lips about being paid off Jack strangles him in the same fashion. Soon Jack himself joins Carol and the inspector’s investigation in order to derail it and kill everyone who can help clear Scott’s name, but will the truth be revealed in the end? The most interesting part about this plot is that Jack is revealed to be the true killer about halfway into the film, unlike most mysteries and noirs that save that juicy tidbit for the end. The choice that Phantom Lady (1944) made added some much needed suspense to the film, and every time you see Carol or the inspector on the right track or Jack closing in on them, you really feel like you’re at the edge of your seat and the question is no longer who the killer is, but when the protagonists will find out who the killer is, and if they can before it’s too late. Unfortunately what the plot has in originality and structure, it lacks in just about everything else.

The entire movie supports itself on the search for the phantom lady that Scott was with the night of the murder, but there are two main issues with that pursuit of an alibi:

  1. The first witness questioned the morning after the murder, the bartender, claims that he saw only Scott just after 8pm, after the murder had already taken place. Therefore Carol and the inspector should not have been searching for the lady who Scott spent time with during and after his visit to the bar, but trying to find out where Scott was during the murder so they could form a substantial alibi.
  2. Even if Scott was supposedly with the woman at the bar or the theater during the murder, the fact that the bartender, the taxi driver, the drummer, and the star of the show all saw Scott (which they claimed that they did) should have been more than enough of an alibi for him, and whether they saw who he was with or not should have been irrelevant.
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Franchot Tone and Ella Raines appearing in the most suspenseful scene of Phantom Lady (1944).

Still somehow the entire film was built up around finding this woman, and there lies my biggest problem with it. I must admit that I’m not always thinking while watching films and most plot twists really do end up shocking me, but the fact that I figured all of this out before the film even finished should be a testament to how obvious these mistakes were. Desite the obvious plotholes I really did enjoy Phantom Lady (1944) as a whole, though, and was really impressed with the amount of suspense as well as the performances given. Alan Curtis wasn’t top billed for his portrayal of Scott Henderson, but he really held his own as the main character in the forty-five minute timespan until Franchot Tone first appears onscreen. The fact that anyone can receive top billing when their character doesn’t enter for the majority of the film is baffling to me, but I have to admit that I adored Franchot Tone playing a psychotic villain.  It was very much against type for the charismatic romantic idol of the 1930s, and it made me wish that he had done more challenging roles like this one. Before watching this film I had already seen Ella Raines in the B-movie The Second Face (1950), and after seeing her in such a memorable performance for such an inconsequential picture I was even more excited to see her in this film. She didn’t disappoint, and the beauty and brains that she brought to the role proved to be essential to this movie as a whole. All in all I believe that this film can be easily enjoyed if the audience doesn’t care whether the plot makes sense or not, but if it did, it would probably receive a perfect score from me that I just can’t give otherwise.

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The Agatha Christie Blogathon: My Analysis of Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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NOTE: As it would be nearly impossible to review or analyze this film without including all parts of it, this will be one of my very few posts that is NOT spoiler-free. Read on only if you dare!

I would like to begin by thanking the hosts of this awesome blogathon: Little Bits of Classics and Christina Whener. I apologize that my post is so late, but I am eternally grateful that both of you gave me the perfect opportunity to see this film for the first time, and I’m even more esctatic to be able to write about both Agatha Christie and Lauren Bacall for their birthdays! So without further ado, I send many belated birthday wishes to Miss Christie and Miss Bacall, and on with the post!

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The art deco style title card for Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

I was instantly intrigued by the art deco style of the title cards as well as the chilling score playing over them. It’s clear by the use of color and cinematography — even before we see any of the characters — that this film is from the 1970s, but I’ve always felt that movies from that decade and the one prior shed a new and possibly more realistic light on the 20s and 30s (I find The Sting (1973) and Splendor in the Grass (1962) to be the best examples of this). The use of color in the opening montage was also very functional and deliberate, as the crime scenes and newspapers regarding the disappearance of Daisy Armstrong were tinged with a blue-gray that showed the grief of the incident. The flash of red at the end that paired with the announcement of her murder really grabs the audience’s attention as any clever use of color should, and makes me wonder what sort of connection ties this story to the rest of the film.

The first of the many characters that we meet during the course of the film is our star detective, Hercule Poirot. He is immediately revealed to be a strange yet intelligent man, who surprisingly does not seem to show a great deal of empathy for the lives of others. Next we begin to meet some of the characters who will soon become the passengers of the Orient Express and eventually suspects in the murder of Mr. Ratchett. Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery), followed closely by the woman who we eventually find out is his lover Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave). We see the murder victim in question, Ratchett, and his secretary McQueen (Anthony Perkins) as well as his valet Beddoes (John Gielgud), the elderly Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her maid Hildegarde (Rachel Roberts), Count and Countess Andrenyi (Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset), the twice-wed Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), devout missionary Greta (Ingrid Bergman), the Italian car salesman Foscarelli (Dennis Quilley), Pinkerton’s employee Hardman (Colin Blakely) and the steward on the Express, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Cassel). As Poirot expertly unravels the details of the murder, he slowly but surely finds out that every single suspect was once connected to the Armstrong family.

Agatha Christie attended the premiere of this film when she was eighty-four years old,

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Albert Finney as enigmatic detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

just fourteen months before her death on January 12th, 1976. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) was supposedly the only film adaptation of her novels that she was completely satisfied with, and she praised Albert Finney’s portrayal of the shrewd Hercule Poirot as the closest screen version to her character that she had ever seen (though she was reportedly unhappy with the whimsical moustache that he was given in this film). The film was no walk in the park for lead actor Albert Finney, however, as he was starring in a stage play while filming, and the task of completing both productions allowed Finney hardly any sleep at all. In an attempt to make the actor’s life a little bit easier as he played both parts simultaneously, the makeup department would pick him up every morning in an ambulance and painstakingly transform Finney into Detective Poirot while he was still asleep in his pajamas! To make matters worse for him, Poirot’s famous monologue at the end of the film required take after take as the set did not allow for more than one camera to occupy the cramped train compartment at one time. This of course was no easy feat for the peculiar detective, as his closing speech was over eight pages long.

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Theatrical poster for Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

Finney’s performance certainly paid off as I found the actor’s performance to be delightful, though he was completely unrecognizable in the main role. High praises could also be given to the rest of the all-star cast, including Ingrid Bergman, who won an Academy Award for her performance and had to redevelop her Swedish accent with the help of diction coaches to play the role of Greta. Oscars aside, I must admit that my two favorite performances in the film were those of Anthony Perkins and belated birthday girl Lauren Bacall, who played the suspicious secretary McQueen and the talkative Mrs. Hubbard, respectively. Other notable appearances included the always wonderful Sean Connery as Colonel Arbuthnot, Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Debenham, Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful Countess Andrenyi, Martin Balsam in a wonderful leading role as Bianchi, and of course Richard Windmark as the murder victim Ratchett, who only took on the role in order to meet the array of other stars who would be present during filming. Of course it’s really no wonder that the cast was so impeccable, as I found out that the film boasts fifty-eight Oscars between the members of the cast and crew.

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My favorite performance: Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Hubbard in Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

Despite the valiant efforts of the cast, director Sidney Lumet, and composer Richard Rodney Bennett, I did find a few issues with the film’s plot. Granted, this may be because I have only seen the picture once, but I can’t seem to understand why twelve people, who were all very closely related to the same family and the same crime committed five years ago, happen to be on the same train at the same time on a totally separate continent. Also, if all twelve of these people were so closely related, how did none of them slip up even once to Poirot and reveal that they knew each other? These points lead me to believe that it was either a completely improbable coincidence or that it was planned, and if it was, I noticed no evidence or explanation of this aforementioned plan in the film. I also find it difficult to believe that all twelve of the compartment’s passengers (despite having motive) were completely fine with participating in the murder. The only character to show any remorse at all is Greta, but only because she was committing a crime in the eyes of God. Not a single person seemed worried that they were breaking the law, that one of the world’s greatest detectives was onboard the same train, or that they would more than likely be going to jail. I think more detail could have been provided from the novel to answer these plot holes, or even better I think a sequel that would contain the confessions and backstories of each of the passengers would be a clever way of clearing everything up and tying all of the film’s loose ends. Despite these lingering questions, I still find the film to be a mystery as genius as only Agatha Christie could pen, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who loves a good crime thriller or is a fan of murder mystery dinner theatres, as this was without a doubt the tale that sparked the genre.

Gene Tierney’s 95 Birthday Blogathon: My Analysis of Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

NOTE: This post was actually posted on my Tumblr on November 19, 2015. I am just putting the post here for reference!

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I would like to begin by once again thanking Simoa for hosting this wonderful blogathon and paying homage to such an incredible and kind actress as Gene Tierney. It was an honor to participate in such a wonderful project, and I wish it all the success possible. I’ll be putting the entirety of my analysis under a cut, because this will be fairly long. With all of that being said, I wish the lovely Gene Tierney a very happy birthday wherever she might be, and on with the post!image

I’ll start by saying that this film has so many elements of the typical noir that it almost feels like Ben Hect spun a wheel in order to find some of the elements of this story. The cynical detective who roughs up bad guys, but secretly has a heart of gold? Check. The dame who is somehow mixed up in all of the trouble and puts the detective in jeopardy? Check. The shady villain that somehow knows all of the answers despite the fact that his goons are as dumb as rocks? Check. The moral ambiguity of our antihero and many of the other characters is the bow that wraps up this archetypal noir. Despite all of this, I still feel like the film did not sacrifice any originality, and while it does fit into the genre of noir, I still found the screenplay to be incredibly exciting and was on the edge of my seat during the film’s entirety.

The making of Where the Sidewalk Ends was a Laura reunion of sorts, with Otto Preminger once again taking the helm as director (and this time producer as well), bringing along his very talented director of photography, Joseph LaShelle. It also features in the leading roles both of Laura’s stars, birthday girl Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, in their fifth and final film together. However, the two most notable outsiders to this reuniting shaped the film as well. First we have screenwriter Ben Hect, who was the best of the best by most classic film standards, and by this time already had numerous classics like Queen Christina,Twentieth Century, Wuthering Heights, and His Girl Friday under his belt.

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Left: Marilyn Monroe, circa. 1952; Right: Gene Tierney, Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Also thrown in the mix was costume designer Oleg Cassini, husband of our leading lady. This was his sixth collaboration with his wife, and essentially the last that occurred before their on again and off again marriage collapsed for good. His costumes for Gene in the film are as exquisite as casual wear can be to say the least, seeing as that is exactly what she wears for most of the film. The most notable garment was shown in the beginning of the film, however. A sultry red evening gown shared the same scene in which Oleg himself made a cameo, and it was difficult to focus on one of the other. Gene was offered a chance to keep the gown, but turned it down because the dress was so tight she could barely walk in it. Years later, the dress would be purchased at Cassini’s boutique by none other than Marilyn Monroe, who wore it often in 1952, including to receive her Henrietta Award for Best Young Box Office Personality. The dress was also voted ”the most risque design of the year” by a fashion magazine.

As far as the acting performances in this film go, I’ll first point out that I was thrilled to see Karl Malden in the opening credits, but seeing his small role in the film made me long for his more moving characters in films like On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. Even still, Malden is one of my favorite supporting actors to date, but most of the cast members in this particular film weren’t very memorable. I’ll name the one exception. When I first saw Dana Andrews onscreen in Laura, I suspected that his stellar performance was just a fluke, and that the rest of his acting would be supbar. Where the Sidewalk Endsmade me throw that idea out of the window, and his incredible acting ability is what carries this entire film in my opinion. His portrayal of Detective Mark Dixon reminded me most of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, as both Dixon and Sam Spade are hard-boiled detectives who are self serving during their respective film’s entirety, only to make the good and honest choice in the end.

Unfortunately I found our beautiful Gene’s performance to be forgettable in comparison to the mystique and dangerous Laura Hunt, but her presence onscreen always brightens my day no matter what film she’s in, so I had no real complaints. The two stars’ onscreen chemistry is undeniable and practically on fire, and I will never wonder again why the two made five films together. I’m starting to believe that the two could do just about anything onscreen for two hours and I’d still want them to wind up together in the end. All in all, the sheer talent involved in the making of this film is enough to capture anyone’s attention, and the fast-paced plot, superb screenwriting, and well and Andrew’s acting make Where the Sidewalk Endsa film to remember. I will agree with most critics when I say that it stands in the dark and gritty shadow of Laura’s more sophisticated noir, but that same realistic shadow is what noir is all about.