Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Murder at Midnight (1931) and Too Late for Tears (1949)

Still trying to recreate Turner Classic Movies, Siren got something called the Mystery DVD Pack (about $32 including shipping and handling), 50 movies of wildly varying quality on 12 double-sided DVDs. When she's bored or wants a hour's relaxation she's been watching an old B movie or noir. Murder at Midnight (1931) is a lumbering relic of a film that's interesting mainly to show how fast acting technique evolved in the early '30s. But it does illustrate an unusual police interrogation technique. One cop is eating peanuts, cracking them and scattering the shells on the floor. "Will you STOP eating those things! Stop it, I tell you!" the suspect yells. "He'll stop eating them," another officer says grimly, "when you start talking."

I had better luck with Too Late for Tears (1949) (a.k.a. Killer Bait), directed by Byron Haskin and starring Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea and Arthur Kennedy. Scott plays Jane, an average housewife--average, that is, for about one-half of the first scene. Then someone tosses a satchel full of cash into the backseat of the convertible she's riding in with husband Alan (Kennedy). The second they open the case, Jane's sole aim in life becomes hanging onto that money.

Like most film noir femmes, Jane doesn't suddenly go to the bad. You find out fast that she always was bad, just putting on a good act with nebbishy, middle-class Alan, who knows why. Alan warns Jane that the money has an owner who'll be coming back to collect. Sure enough, here comes Dan Duryea, in full-dress bad guy mode, wanting his money. But Jane's sex appeal is a little too much for him. Instead of just beating her until she squawks, he gives her a chance ... and another, and another. Yep, he's hooked.

I liked the snappy plot in which nearly all of the characters have more going on than it seems, even fuddy-duddy Alan. I also liked the dazzlingly pretty Kristine Miller, who's interesting despite playing Alan's nice-girl sister. (Her career seems not to have amounted to much, which is a pity.) The performances are good right down to the minor characters, and the script has wit enough to compensate for gaps in logic.

Too Late for Tears doesn't have the intensity or complex themes of a top-notch noir like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which had made Scott a star three years earlier. And then there's the lackluster, cut-rate look of the thing, despite top-notch cinematographer William C. Mellor. Every room looks like a floor model from a furniture store, right up to the motel room where Duryea hangs his fedora. And the movie also shows why costumes matter. Even when she's supposedly spending the cash, poor Lizabeth has to vamp it up in some of the frumpiest, most ill-fitting ensembles imaginable. Outdated too; you'd never know this movie was filmed two years after Dior's New Look hit the scene. Whoever heard of a femme fatale with such lousy taste? Even trampy Phyllis Dietrichson had a better wardrobe.

A word about this Mystery DVD Pack. The print quality ranges from appalling to adequate. I spent much of the late 1980s watching movies at Theatre 80 St. Marks, where the prints were church-basement-movie-night quality. So I can overlook some glitches, the same way I don't mind the hiss and pops on an old sound recording. Too Late for Tears doesn't look awful in this version, but has a lot of splices that annoyed even me. (So far the worst was The Man on the Eiffel Tower, a DVD transfer from a print so bad I'm unsure whether to discuss it here, since in some sense I can't be said to have seen it. I probably will write it up anyway, as part of my Charles Laughton series.) Anyway, the per-movie price boils down to about 64 cents a movie, so you can decide if that's worth the so-so prints.


Peter Nellhaus said...

I use to go to Theatre 80 St. Marks in the 70s when it specialized in old musicals. I remember seeing the shadow of a rat on the screen one time!

Ms. Scott looked pretty good in her last film, Pulp, in 1972. No specific reason was given, but Burt Lancaster refused to co-star with her after two films.

Exiled in NJ said...

And I found this fourpack of noir where prints run the gamut, Gun Crazy being the best. On the matter of prints,

has anyone ever found one of Hitchcock's The Secret Agent with listenable sound? In his contemporary review of the film, Otis Ferguson noted that for the first time, sound was a character in the film, but every version I have rented is terribly scratchy.

surly hack said...

Are you sure it wasn't the frazzled sound engineer yelling "Will you STOP eating those things! Stop it, I tell you!"? The crunching had to be hell on those early recording techniques.

I have only seen Too Late on friend's a VERY muddy dvd copy. It was so dark and choppy I didn't think it fair to critique the film. I wonder if it was the same source. In the night exterior when the satchel(or whatever held the money)is tossed into Scott's car it was hard to tell what the heck was going on.

The Siren said...

A RAT? Eeeee-yikes! no, no rats. But if you were seated on the far side of the screen you wound up watching the film over your shoulder. All that said, I loved the place and I miss it. When I was dating a guy who lived just north of Columbia we would go to the Thalia. That was a trip too. It had this weirdass dip in the middle of the theater and a pole placed by somebody with a really sick sense of humor. If you were short (I am) and you were sitting at the bottom of the dip it was baaad. So we always got there early.

Exiled, I don't remember a thing about the print of Secret Agent I saw. It was on VHS and we all had lower standards then.

H, this copy was pretty muddy but I didn't have trouble seeing what was happening. This collection has some interesting movies but watching some of them is a challenge. I think I may donate the money I saved on this cheap set to film preservation.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I remember the Thalia. I saw some great double features there like Rebel without a Cause with A Cold Wind in August. The theaters I went to the most included the Thalia, the Elgin, the New Yorker, the Carnegie Hall, and MoMA for classics. During my time in Manhattan (1969-76), I had visited most of the theaters in town at least once including the theaters on 42nd Street that were still showing Hollywood films. I even worked as an Assistant Manager for a couple of months at the Greenwich Theater.