Posted by Moira Finnie on February 18, 2009
“How I hate the summer winds. They come in suddenly off the Mojave Desert, and you can taste the sand for days.”
This is the promising voice-over one hears at the beginning of what may be the least known cinematic adaptation of one of Raymond Chandler‘s Philip Marlowe stories. Made into a Michael Shayne mystery starring Lloyd Nolan in 1942′s Time To Kill, the author, still peeved at his story’s treatment in that decent, if workmanlike version and further miffed that he had no more income from any other movies made by the studio that owned the rights to the story, 20th Century Fox reportedly hoped to cash in on the ‘craze’ for crime stories set in the still exotic environs of a dark tinted Los Angeles following the great popularity of such films as Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep.
George Montgomery, at 30, was one of the youngest actors cast to play the character in the movies, is seen in this opening scene approaching an ominously photographed mansion buffeted by the dry, swirling Santa Ana winds pushing the gnarled trees that surround the house against the walls. As he approaches the door, a sylph-like figure admits him into the house, swallowing him up in the same way that this movie seems to have been subsumed in a cinematic vault.
Never having been issued commercially on dvd and only broadcast rarely to the best of my knowledge, I was eager to see this movie when a friend recently lent it to me. In this case, The High Window, Chandler‘s third novel, published in 1942, was fashioned by the stylish director John Brahm and his scenarists Dorothy Bennett and Leonard Praskins into a 72 minute dash through various film noir motifs and presented to a waiting public in the form of 20th Century Fox’s The Brasher Doubloon (1947). You have some of the same atmospheric elements of the other popular movies made from Chandler‘s novels in that period. Actually, after watching this movie recently, I started to wonder if the filmmakers at 20th Century Fox got together around this time to put together a film noir kit with ingredients that should have resulted in a memorable classic. Perhaps this hypothetical film noir kit might have been planned out neatly at a few production meetings that might have gone something like this…
The filmmakers knew that the following items were needed:
1.) A Detective to play Philip Marlowe
In retrospect, I admit that I’ve grown to like the callow George Montgomery‘s breezy style. After growing up seeing this skilled cabinet maker hawk wood polish on the tube, it was news to me that he was also an actor with a once-viable career. Today, as my ongoing cinematic education continues, I’ve begun to enjoy his appearances. The musical delights and petty conflicts of Orchestra Wives (1942), the wartime romance and campiness of China Girl (1942), and Montgomery‘s ironic and funny turn in Roxie Hart (1942), as well as the many Westerns the Montana native made, have taught me that he was much more than singer Dinah Shore‘s ex-husband. Before being seduced into a Hollywood sojourn, his first career choice had been as an interior designer, an artistic path he later happily returned to with considerable success as he became a well known sculptor as well as craftsman.
Still, he was a strapping 6 feet plus presence and he had a good baritone–which is used particularly well for the voice-overs that are sprinkled throughout the narrative of this movie–but I must confess that I had moments of longing for the gravitas, the curdled romanticism and a certain ragged gallantry that the much older Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart brought to the part of gumshoe Philip Marlowe so effortlessly. Of course, this may be because they were the first Marlowes I knew. In Raymond Chandler‘s books, his creation is described as “slightly over six feet tall and weighs about 190 pounds” with an insubordinate air. The writer also mentioned once that “I think [Marlowe] might seduce a duchess, and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin.” This iconoclastic knight errant with a personal sense of honor and a fresh mouth does find expression in Montgomery‘s tender efforts at seducing the skittish girl in this story, but he never quite inhabits the role for me.
Montgomery is just too healthy looking to play a man whom the author described as having a “solid old face” that “was lined and grey with fatigue”. He doesn’t look like the kind of man who’s spent his life in smoke-filled saloons, firetrap offices and crummy apartments being repeatedly disillusioned by others. What he lacks in world weariness, he makes up for in his often disbelieving humor, frank appreciation for his co-star’s innate sensuality, and briskly mercenary bent. He maintains a nice balance between the inherent cynicism of his character and his willingness to protect the hapless girl whose plight interests him as much as her looks. I suspect that after Montgomery returned from Army Air Corps service in WWII, the studio chose him for this rather hastily planned movie because Fox hoped that they could hitch the handsome, if slightly talented actor’s star potential to this wave of dark-themed movies. No, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum and even Robert Montgomery, Elliot Gould and James Garner can rest on their laurels. George Montgomery may not be making those shades of Marlowe too uneasy. I just wish that small voice that whispers, “Marlowe should be smarter than this” at key moments in the movie could have been suppressed more readily by me while watching this detective work so gamely on the case.
2.) A Mysterious Young Woman with a Waterfall of Hair and a Big Problem
Nancy Guild, (“rhymes with wild” according to those cleverpublicity boys at Fox), was a 19 year old college student when she signed a contract at the studio, reportedly almost as a lark following a splash she made in a 1945 Life magazine picture layout about campus fashions while a student at the University of Arizona (a photo from that spread can be seen at left). Thinking that perhaps they’d found an answer to Veronica Lake and Lauren Bacall, and sensing a possible star in the mold of the studio’s own somewhat aristocratic Gene Tierney, Miss Guild‘s debut as a worldly if awfully nice nightclub singer in Joseph Mankiewicz‘s first directorial effort, Somewhere in the Night (1946), paired her with John Hodiak and Richard Conte in a movie that toyed with the emerging film noir conventions even as it kidded them gently. While at first glance, she clearly had “the look” of that period: a comely, streamlined face and figure, a low voice, a slightly deadpan manner, and a mysterious air, it might be pretty obvious to most movie-going observers that her inscrutable vibe is really composed of 2/3 fear and 1/3 cluelessness.
Time and some serious acting lessons might have helped, as would a decent apprenticeship in smaller movies and plays out of the glare of the spotlight, but this young lady did bring a quiet appeal to her scant film appearances. If she had emerged a few years earlier, the studio machine might have been geared toward developing her potential, but the brusque postwar period was marked by a singular dearth of longterm nurturing at the increasingly hard-pressed studios. Talented youngsters might still believe a studio contract would lead to a stellar career over time, but that facade was deteriorating. Later movies for Nancy Guild included Black Magic (1949) opposite Orson Welles before her career slipped into B movie purgatory with appearances in Francis the Talking Mule and Abbott and Costello movies. Eventually wisely leaving full time acting for married life, and free lancing occasional pieces for Architectural Digest, Nancy Guild the actress is barely remembered today.
Despite her serious lack of experience when making this movie, Guild‘s innate grace, sensuality and breathy vulnerability blend to make a viewer care about this girl’s situation, especially since she is quite literally treated like a slow-witted dog throughout the film by her employers, the wealthy Murdocks, a mother and son duo whose attachment seems a tad unhealthy. Guild‘s Merle Davis character harbors a not very mysterious reluctance to be touched by a man, while lending the story some college boy humor as Marlowe offers to teach her to tolerate it, and perhaps even to like it, seems more facetious than an indication of her character’s rather seriously neurotic personality order.
3.) A Dubious Client with Buckets of Money
Florence Bates, the memorable character actress with a face like a toad and a mind as sharp as a paper cut plays the daunting Mrs. Elizabeth Murdock, who hires Marlowe to find a $10,000 coin, the brasher doubloon of the title, that is missing from her late husband’s collection. Perhaps best remembered for her first credited part on film as the scene-stealing “Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper” in Rebecca (1940), the actress does another remarkable turn as another young woman’s bête noire in The Brasher Doubloon.
Her character, ensconced in a similar gloomy solarium in her dark Pasadena mansion seemed to be a much more threatening gargoyle than the frail General Sternwood did as Marlowe’s ancient client in The Big Sleep (1946), in that earlier, fondly remembered if sometimes incoherent Howard Hawks film. Barking the character’s name of “Merle!” at Nancy Guild‘s character to fetch and carry out her orders as she explains in her cryptic fashion what little she wants Montgomery to know, she creates a indelible image of this woman as a voracious spider, with her secretary and wimpy son (played by a very young Conrad Janis) as flies caught in her web. Bates, like the true jurist she was in real life*, uses her skill as an actress to make the woman’s few touches of humanity, especially when she repeatedly says how much she cares for her son and secretary, (who was also with her husband on the last day of his life), more intriguing, despite the limitations of the script regarding her character. In her final scene, when the Bates character is allowed to “go for baroque” in her eccentric characterization, I wondered if she might have received a nomination as a Best Supporting Actress if this film had been a financial and critical success when released.
4.) A Rogue’s Gallery
Among the actors hired to lend color to this film were several wonderful character men playing plug uglies encountered by Marlowe as he tried to unravel the clues and figure out why several bodies are strewn in his path like dried leaves. Among them were Roy Roberts as an exasperated homicide detective who feels as though he’s directing traffic rather than conducting a murder case. Marvin Miller (an actor best remembered as ‘Michael Anthony’ on the early tv hit, “The Millionaire”) plays Vince Blair, a man who runs a gambling joint frequented by Conrad Janis‘ sullen-faced young wastrel.
Other actors, such as Alfred Linder (seen in the group above wearing the straw boater) with a drooping right eye and Germanic hep cat accent pop up to threaten Montgomery in his office at the behest of the somewhat Buddha-like, passive Blair. The jaunty, repellent Linder, (who I would like to know more about), reminds me that Roman Polanski might have had him in mind when he played his much better known “Man with Knife” in the classic Chinatown (1974).
The elderly Housely Stevenson, (right) familiar to those of us who cherish sinister authority figures, such as the plastic surgeon he played in Dark Passage, shows up as a colorfully seedy coin dealer, extolling “the rich, violent history of the brasher doubloon”, which in typically misogynistic tinged Chandler style, is described as being set into motion by a lethal female.
The best of the bad men present in the cast and scattering cryptic clues in his wake may well be Fritz Kortner. The prominent German actor, who languished in California while the Nazis ravaged his homeland and much of Europe, stepped into cinematic immortality as one of Louise Brooks’ more significant conquests in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), but in America in the ’40s he was fortunate if he could find small parts in films such as this one, Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night or Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge, all at 20th Century Fox.
To each of these slim roles, Kortner (left) brought a psychic weight and a humorously confident presence in the briefest of his appearances, lacing each of them with a worldly understanding of human nature. The actor makes most of the dramatic proceedings around him seem like a simple game of checkers, while he, among the types from Central Casting, appears to be playing a game of world class chess in his head. In his initial appearance in the story, as a one-time newsreel photographer trying to jimmy the lock on Marlowe’s office door, Kortner reveals his character’s level of anxious rapacity to the detective during their brief encounter. I kept hoping that Kortner would appear again. Alas, the plot only allows him one more appearance and that, sadly, is without any lines–though his blackmailing of the colorful residents of that Pasadena chateau does set in motion the climax of the film, which, without revealing any spoilers, echoes our society’s increased awareness of the many ways of seeing and experiencing events through a very dark lens.
5.) A Director With Some Style:
John Brahm, the expressionist trained German filmmaker, a contemporary of other expatriate, expressionist influenced directors who had worked at Fox in America, Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger, had hit a career high with his “gaslight melodramas” near the end of the war. Making The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945) with the gifted leading heavy Laird Cregar at the studio and the equally stylish psychological examination of Laraine Day‘s character in The Locket (1946) at RKO might have seemed an indication of a major talent, but, in one of those puzzling choices of the studio system at their height, when dealing with a surfeit of talented individuals, Brahm and his producer Robert Bassler were assigned the perhaps too quickly conceived The Brasher Doubloon as a dubious reward for their efforts. Working with cinematographer Lloyd Ahern, (with whom Brahm would also make the luridly entertaining camp classic Hot Rods to Hell in the sixties), the pair created some startling compositions, with the requisite emphasis on extremes of light and dark, (lots of the customary venetian blind shadows too) , along with some unusually extreme close-ups on characters lurching into the edge of a duskily lit frame. Unlike many of Brahm’s earlier, studio bound if creative and imaginative movies, The Brasher Doubloon uses real Los Angeles area settings to establish the ominous moods of various scenes, effectively filming the sequences at the mansion during a wind storm. When Marlowe goes looking for clues in the Bunker Hill area of the city, we catch glimpses of the once posh and then seedy buildings, “which used to be the choice place to live in Los Angeles. Nowadays, people live there because they haven’t got any choice.” The film shows Montgomery driving up and entering to the three tiered apartment house shown in the middle of the photo at left, where, naturally, he discovers yet another body. Impressed with glimpsing the now vanished setting as much as the plot, I must admit that that I lost track of the body count in this movie at times, even though I love to relish the sight of such lost cityscapes in period films.
With the demise of the studio system, John Brahm went on to an extensive career in television and minor motion pictures. His stylish flourishes found their best latter day expression in some classic episodes of landmark programs such as The Twilight Zone and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour where his gifts for disturbingly dramatic moments on screen are still appreciated today. Interestingly, his movies at Fox have recently been issued on dvd, with three of his films at the studio issued together on a carefully restored set of The Lodger, Hangover Square and an amusing, better than average quasi-horror movie, The Undying Monster (1942), set in what is seemingly a favorite dramatic period in his work , the Victorian era. Why not The Brasher Doubloon? Perhaps others know of some rights issues or perhaps it is one of those cases of a studio only having a certain amount of time and resources to choose from when considering transferring selections from their library to dvds. In any case, based on the recording from an AMC broadcast that I recently saw, I’d guess that this film is in real need of restoration. It’s definitely worth a look, even if it isn’t a perfectly built classic film noir.
*Prior to becoming an actress, Florence Bates was the first woman lawyer in Texas in 1914 at the age of 26.
UPDATE ! The Film Noir Foundation has recently screened this rare film and had one of the stars, Conrad Janis, sit down for a lively discussion of the film in Feb. 2012 before a live audience. Mr. Janis discusses this movie, his co-workers and his many careers as a musician and an an actor from the studio era until now. If Noir City comes to your town, this is the kind of priceless experience you can expect:
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