Wednesday, June 03, 2009
The Verdict (1946), With Thoughts on the Eternal Nature of Greenstreet & Lorre
So last week the Siren finally caught up with The Verdict. (Warm thanks to the fellow blogger who sent it.) No, not the Paul Newman film, although that one is great, but rather Don Siegel's debut movie, the last costarring outing of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. The stars and director alone would recommend it, but it's also a good mystery-thriller with an ending that the Siren didn't see coming. (That doesn't necessarily mean you won't, however. The Siren has great suspension of disbelief and she falls so hard for red herrings you'd think she was a cartoon cat.)
Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Film has a great write-up of this movie, in which he astutely points out that it straddles two traditions, the "crisp, quaint" detective stories of the late 30s and early 40s, and noir. He also does a bang-up job discussing Siegel's visual style, which was well-formed already, with lots of shots angled from above and below. The opening, as the bell tolls for a prisoner being executed at Newgate, is particularly striking. There is enough fog around to supply a whole season of Dark Shadows and what were probably cramped, low-end sets are used to great effect to suggest the narrow streets and close quarters of 19th-century London. It isn't so much an Old Dark House movie as an Old Dark Neighborhood movie. It is similar to John Brahm's Hangover Square in that much of the action takes place in a single house of flats, and the square it faces. Greenstreet's apartment is on the ground floor and the Siren took great pleasure in several shots where someone raps on his window and he sticks his head out to see what fresh crime summons him now. That's the kind of actor Greenstreet was--so damn entrancing he gives a thrill just opening a sash window and talking to someone.
In The Verdict, Lorre is cast somewhat against type as louche playboy Victor, best friend to Greenstreet's Inspector Grodman of Scotland Yard. The inspector views the execution that opens the movie with wintry detachment, but that soon changes when he returns to the Yard only to find that his rival has uncovered an unshakeable alibi witness, a clergyman no less. Grodman's policework has sent an innocent man to the gallows. Not only that, but the victim was the aunt of a neighbor and friend. He's forced into retirement, with nothing but memoir-writing and Victor's champagne and bonhomie to while away the days. No matter though--there is soon another murder to occupy Grodman, and naturally this is where he sees a chance for redemption.
Roderick complains about the musical number shoved in at one point, but this is one of those old-movie things the Siren usually digs, like big florid scores, the hiss of the soundtrack, intertitles and nice lengthy establishing shots. In The Verdict, the music-hall number is about one-third of the way through. It serves to give some relief from tension and also to soften Joan Lorring's trampy character, who up to that point had seemed hard as nails, admittedly in part because it was Joan Lorring. (Lorring usually did play tramps. Her turn as Bessie in The Corn is Green always gives the Siren a little shiver of delight. She has one scene in that movie that she almost steals from Davis, and how many actresses could claim that?) It also goes to the character development for Greenstreet and Lorre. Up to that point Greenstreet has seemed rather formal and stuffy, but it is clear that he isn't perturbed by what passes for London lowlife entertainment, in 1890 anyway. And Victor is half-aroused, half-bored, as Lorre balances the ambiguities of his character to the end.
How well these two always managed to flesh out relationships that were somewhat superficial on paper. In The Maltese Falcon their more-than-business association is startlingly plain, but it's all in the playing. When Lorre attacks Greenstreet, yelling "You, you imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead!" we hear not just a criminal sidekick but also a frustrated ex-lover. If it weren't for the year it was made, you would expect Lorre to follow with recriminations about Greenstreet's lack of libido or how he got too flirtatious with last night's waiter. Three Strangers has them playing two characters who, for once, have no history as a couple nor any potential in that way, but the wary way they size each other up suggests all manner of unspoken perceptions. In The Mask of Dimitrios, where Lorre plays a Holly Martins-type writer drawn into Greenstreet's intrigues, Lorre gives hints that his fascination with Greenstreet may have to do with aspects of the big man's lifestyle that aren't being spelled out on screen. "He was my friend!" Lorre protests at the end of the movie. "Well, he wasn't my friend, but he was a nice man. Compared to you he was..." It could be the epigraph for their whole eight-movie association.
They had very different approaches to acting, as Don Siegel once noted. Lorre was modern, seemingly casual (although no actor as good as Lorre is ever truly that), prone to be dismissive of his parts and (this is the Siren guessing) an actor who strove to keep things fresh in part by doing his preparation on the fly. Greenstreet, born in 1879, was a man of the theatre for many years before making his astonishing debut as Kaspar Gutman. His preparation was meticulous, his adherence to the script absolute. Both of them made a career primarily playing villains, but such was their charisma that, with the mind-blowing exception of M, their characters worm their way into our affections, sometimes more so than the hero.
You frequently find Lorre to one side of a scene, but you always find him and stay with him. Is he chewing on his cane, watching the bubbles in his drink, sizing up the dance-hall girl? Whatever it is, Lorre sidles up to an audience from the margins, he doesn't push himself forward. Lorre understood that the mouse in the center may turn frantic somersaults, but the audience will be watching the cat, because that's where the drama is coming from, sooner or later. Like George Sanders, Lorre had that European knack for seeming too smart for the situation even when he is the lowest player in the game. Unlike Sanders, Lorre's air is not of princely detachment, but proletarian resignation.
Greenstreet always played a man who enjoys every minute spent acquiring his heft and finds it an advantage, not a hindrance. In theatrical parlance, he takes the stage. Watch Greenstreet in The Verdict, gliding to stand near his rival (George Colouris) when first informed of his horrible mistake, letting his bigness speak for the character's imposing career and experience. He is the furthest thing from an apologetic or buffoonish fat man imaginable. Even in Three Strangers, where Greenstreet's role is that of a lonely, venal Monsieur Verdoux manqué, his character is ready to go upstairs with Geraldine Fitzgerald and follow the events wherever they may lead. His villains are never so blackhearted that you recoil, because they have the spirit of romance and adventure in them, even some vestigial chivalry: "I am moved to make one more suggestion. Why, I do not know, because it cannot possibly profit me." (Lorre and Greenstreet have no scenes together in Casablanca, but the Siren always assumed Ugarte and Ferrari did, shall we say, comfortable business together.)
Greenstreet and Lorre are deeply loved, actors who can bring the Siren together with old sparring partners--a while back John Nolte named them as one of the five all-time great screen teams. (I can't find the link, just trust me, I remember it well.) The Siren agrees completely, but here's the thing. She has now seen three of their best outings together; in order of preference, The Mask of Dimitrios, Three Strangers, and The Verdict. The Siren's preference for one over another is not huge--they are all entertaining. The Mask of Dimitrios could even be called great. Not one is on DVD. The Siren offers a marketing suggestion to whoever the hell owns the rights: Put out a boxed set of those three movies. Add The Woman in White, in which Greenstreet plays the Count Fosco of your dreams, and the Lorre vehicle The Face Behind the Mask, a grippingly dark B-thriller directed by the unjustly forgotten Robert Florey. That set would surely sell to a great deal more than the nostalgia market, which seems to be where many worthy old movies get pastured.
Greenstreet retired in 1952. He suffered from kidney disease and had spent eight years making 24 movies, beginning at an age when many healthy men contemplate slowing down. Still, he yearned to play full-out comedy and hadn't had many chances to do it, aside from his delightful boss in Christmas in Connecticut and Pillow to Post with Ida Lupino, which the Siren hasn't seen. (Karen?) According to David Shipman, Greenstreet hinted that he might re-emerge if someone offered a good funny part, but none came, and he died in 1954. Lorre, as Dan Callahan has written, suffered from a career that went from Brecht to all-purpose bogeyman. (Dan relates that when asked how he got through the Mr. Moto series, Lorre replied, "I took dope.") There were some bright spots, certainly, but Hollywood offered precious little worthwhile for this intelligent man after about the mid-50s, until a stroke finally killed him in 1964.
Both Lorre and Greenstreet remain two of the truest pleasures an old-movie lover can have, so much so that when she clicks off the TV the Siren always has to remind herself that they're both dead. So too does David Thomson. Of Greenstreet, Thomson writes: "It is difficult not to believe that he is still in search of the Falcon -- 'Ah yes, sir, the falcon!'" And of Lorre: "He hardly seems dead, just as it is difficult to believe he was ever clinically alive...He must be somewhere still, pattering around Sydney Greenstreet and doing what he can to dodge Bogart's laughter."