Monomania

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This week’s New York Times column is a note of thanks to the gang at Warner Brothers for doing right by the Monogram library — a much-abused and hopelessly obscure body of work that WB most likely acquired for the sake of the studio’s late productions (by then, it had been renamed Allied Artists) including “Cabaret,” “Papillon” and “The Man Who Would Be King.” The Warner Archive Collection has been diligent about getting out Monogram’s apparently endless “Bowery Boys” series — deeply implanted in the minds of many baby boomers because of after-school television broadcasts in the 60s — and in digging up decent copies of the Monogram Charlie Chan films. More recently, they’ve been getting around to some of Monogram’s more adult-oriented fare, including some compellingly sordid work from Monogram’s house directors William Nigh (“Where Are Your Children?”), Phil Karlson (“Wife Wanted”) and the insanely prolific William Beaudine, who went off auto-pilot at least long enough to produce one strikingly cynical noir, “Don’t Gamble with Strangers.” TCM recently ran Alfred Zeisler’s remarkable “Fear,” an unacknowledged remake of “Crime and Punishment” with the robotic Peter Cookson as a medical student who murders a professor who moonlights as a loan shark; it’s one of those fascinating, Ulmeresque exercises in low-budgets expressivity in which it is ultimately impossible to discern between the film’s strengths and its weaknesses. The TCM copy of “Fear” appeared to have been sourced from a beaten-up 16-millimeter television print, which suggests that the Monogram library may be even less well preserved than Republic. Here’s hoping that Warners turns up a watchable version of Nigh’s late career wonderment “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes” (1948), the one adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story I know of that truly captures the sweaty claustrophobia of Woolrich’s unhappy world.

104 comments to Monomania

  • Mike Gebert

    “Fear” wrapped just days before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and it was released after the war was over. But there’s no mention of the war in “Fear,”

    I actually think noir was kind of an escapist genre, because implicit in so many of them is a kind of alternative history where the big bad things of the time– the Depression and war– didn’t happen and people can just enjoy being nasty and conniving free of such concerns. The obvious example is Double Indemnity, with its grocery store set so full of canned goods that in 1944 they needed security guards to prevent extras stealing a can of beets. But lots of movies exist in a world where none of that happened– Mildred Pierce’s daughter gets to grow up to be a wicked brat, nobody in Leave Her to Heaven has to go to war, Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend is in no danger of being called up and can happily pursue his alcoholism, and so on.

  • Barry Lane

    Milland’s portrayal of alcoholism would probably have kept him out of the war. Certainly not a recipe for a successful time in the military. The other characters, certainly in Mildred Pierce are depression era people, pre-war conceptions. Pierce was published in 1941 and Double Indemnity 1936. In any case, most films of the period, unless dealing directly with the war, were set in a never-never land of music, hopelessness, despair and cowboys.

  • Robert Garrick

    Barry Lane, if I ever write a book I’m going to send you the manuscript for fact-checking before it goes to the publisher.

    Mike Gebert, that’s an excellent point. I think you could argue that the whole noir milieu is a metaphor divorced from more specific current events. The atom bomb (since I mentioned Hiroshima) was a player in at least two major noir titles–“The Lady From Shanghai” (1947) and “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955). But even in those films, the “bomb” is more of a MacGuffin than a substantive player.

    It was after World War II that noir really got rolling for about five years, and a number of films from that period involve ex-G.I.’s whose return to the states is marked by darkness and paranoia, and sometimes literal amnesia. But again, we don’t get into current events or anything too specific. What we see on the screen is the American subconscious, writ large.

  • Mike Gebert

    Ironically, my late father-in-law once said that the first movie he saw back in the states when he was demobilized from France was The Lost Weekend. What fun that must have been to come back to….