Category Archives: Christmas Noir

Christmas Noir three: Cover Up

Set in December, with all the holiday trimmings in view, Cover Up is definitely a Christmas movie.  Yet, its title clearly implies a noir universe where ulcerous secrets are smoothly skinned over by patterns of social respectability.  In the film, Dennis O’Keefe plays an insurance investigator sent to a small town at Christmas time to investigate whether the death of a policy holder was truly suicide. O’Keefe’s his repertoire of skeptical, somewhat hard bitten, though sometimes sympathetic noir protagonists (The Leopard Man, Raw Deal,T-Men, Walk a Crooked Mile), sets us up for a symbolic stripping away holiday cheer hiding dark secrets.

On the surface, the holiday season seems to characterize this small town as an embodiment the idyllic. Right off the bat, we’re immersed in Christmas cheer and fellowship, as the investigator helps a young woman, Anita Weatherby, returning to her family, so packed with presents that they burst from her arms and off the train.  His Christmas good will in helping her is rewarded by her friendly, joking family inviting this helpful stranger to their house.  He accepts their invitation to visit and share in the brightness, warmth, and humor of their home, filled with cheery Christmas decorations.  Still, the family is not cloyingly saccharine, instead, kidding him and one another pointedly but good naturedly. In the same mood, Doro Merandes plays their housekeeper, Hilda, in Margaret-Hamilton-style – not as a Wicked Witch of the West but with salty comments delivered in perfect dead pan.  That Mr. Weatherby, the pater familias, carries the authority of bank president seems to indicate that his warmth, tempered by dry humor, is the characteristic mode of the town.

Investigator Sam sees this family as not just a haven of goodwill but a magnet drawing out the generosity and friendliness he keeps hidden beneath a protective layer of sharp cracks and skepticism.  He shows up on the Weatherby doorstep, not merely planning to kibbitz and take out Anita on a date.  He is thoughtful enough to bring a compact as an early Christmas present for the younger sister so she won’t feel slighted. He even impresses skeptical Hilda as an acceptable addition to the family circle.  His attraction to the Christmas warmth of companionship is decisively conveyed as he approaches the house in the dark shadows of late December cold, bowed against the wind, then straightens up and smiles on seeing Anita reading in the window, the lit Christmas tree in the background. In fact their friendly banter marks them as embarking on romantic adventure typical of 1940s comedy/romance.

The imagery of the town itself abounds with Christmas warmth.  As the bus carrying Anita and Sam into town from the train station arrives, a Santa Claus is merrily ringing a bell over a pot where he collects donations of holiday charity.  The Weatherby house is bright with daytime sunshine; at night electric lights, Christmas tree bulbs, and flickering hearth light create a comforting contrast to the dark December night.  The rich, warming coats of fur and wool, as well as scarves and gloves, evoke a barrier against winter freezing. There’s even a lovely Christmas tradition of the whole town coming together in celebration when old Dr. Gerrow will light the enormous town Christmas tree and hand out presents to the children.  Light against darkness.

In this moment, though, we can see the corruption skinned over by good fellowship seeping through.  The doctor, at first, is mysteriously absent, then is revealed to be dead, discovered in his out-of-town home by the sheriff.  Significantly, this scene of camaraderie in solstice celebration ends with the faces of disappointed children and the pine tree’s lights flickering against almost enveloping darkness.  Furthermore, as light and warming as are the interiors of the Weatherby home, the night outside where Sam and Anita walk and romance is surrounded by dark shadows and implied cold.  The mansion where Philips died also encompasses Anita and Sam, later Sam, Sheriff Best, and Mr. Weatherby, in shadows that distort, conceal, isolate, and threaten.  In a telling scene, flickers of light in the darkness come to imply perfidy and corruption as the “lovable” maid Hilda resolutely undercuts Sam’s quest for the truth and order by burning a beaver coat that implicates Mr. Weatherby in Phillips’s murder.  Interestingly, the coat no longer suggests protection from hostile nature but implicates the “upright” in crime.  Now suicide is revealed to be murder, while the victim is, himself, revealed to be “a malignant growth strangling the town.”  So, where does justice rest concerning this death?

All the characters Sam faces in his investigation become almost impossible to pin down. The family that had seemed to offer him the warmth and stability he’d never had, he finds cannot be trusted, their dependability, at times even their morality, twisted and tangled by loyalties, fears, or ignorance.  Mr. Weatherby, supposedly a paragon of the town and representative of its order, becomes a major suspect in the murder of Phillips.

Anita, the smart young woman whose wit and warmth had led Sam to see her as a beacon of hope for belonging, betrays his trust in order to protect her father. In fact, the reflection of her in a mirror as she hides from Sam after obstructing justice to protect her father reverses the earlier image of her as the beacon guiding him to human relations.  Here, rather than being before him, she lurks behind him as he stands uneasily sensing something is wrong, threatening.  Though both images were linked to glass, where previously the clear panes revealed her as at peace and content, now she is both more distant, existing as only a reflection, and one step removed, hidden from him, the heavy door and the lines of the mise en scène reinforcing their isolation.

The salty but lovable maid, who had seemed to welcome Sam into the family in her own reserved way, also lurks unobserved and one step removed in the mirror where she hears of Sam’s threat to her family.  She also thwarts his search for truth to protect her clan when she  unabashedly destroys evidence that would lead him to the truth and lies to his challenge, looking him dead in the eye.

Maybe the most interesting of all is William Bendix’s Sheriff Best.  Is the name ironic?  The “best” at what, one wonders, watching him: Deception? Double-dealing? Murder, itself?  How should an audience read the town’s master of law and order when with affable obduracy he insists on his suicide verdict despite all the evidence that Sam demonstrates add up to murder? Casting Bendix keeps audiences guessing by playing on the concept of the availability heuristic. For Bendix is as well-known in the noir universe as much for his lovable tough guys (The Web, Race Street, Detective Story) as for his vicious thugs (The Dark Corner, The Glass Key, The Big Steal).

These two medium closeups of Sheriff Best  capture both incarnations of the Bendix noir personae.

 

 

 

 

Finally, Sheriff Best’s setting up subtle roadblocks to the investigator’s attempts to uncover the truth, as well as his tone of laid-back affability, just suggesting steely threat, then back to easy charm, heightens uncertainty over which noir Bendix holds the power of law controlling the town.

This image from the first meeting of sheriff and investigator, where they sit down to parry verdicts back and forth brings this point home.  They are seated on opposite sides of a desk, like opponents in a chess match.  The Christmas presents  between the two in the shot do not bond them in seasonal amity, but form a barrier between opposing forces – visually emphasizing a subversion of “Christmas fellowship” as much as the men’s amiable sounding but antagonistic verbal sparring and both refusing to face the other. A wreath above and between them, just out of shop, reinforces this point. Even more sinister, in the denouement, a tone of easy good will coats but does not hide the two men’s opposition.  When Sam pleasantly checks Best by pointing out that neither has ascendancy because both carry concealed guns, Best chillingly checkmates him with the easy and reasonable delivery of his assertion that if Sam shoots him it’s killing “a law man,” but “If I [the sheriff] get you with my gun . . .it’s just a lot of votes in the next election.”

Dennis O’Keefe’s place in the noir universe as hard-bitten outsider trying to belong without sacrificing integrity makes him an apt proxy for the audience looking for order and stability in an uncertain and corrupt world. His character’s confrontation with Bendix’s sheriff in the shadows of the murder mansion where he’d planned to lure the murderer into a trap creates a disconcerting, even haunting embodiment of the danger of noir uncertainty. All on Christmas Eve. Interestingly, when the sheriff first enters, the visuals throw us off balance by placing Best more in the light and shadowing Sam, the seeker of truth, in a threatening, sneaky pose in the shadows. Which of the two antagonists can we trust?  Is Sam literally and figuratively in the dark? Is he bringing darkness into the Christmas world or revealing what was there all along? This use of shadows enveloping the men as the scene progresses creates a space of confusion and doubt that mirrors the uncertainty of reality as Sam raises suspicions and presses for honest answers, and the sheriff seeks to control that truth for unclear ends, gradually unveiling indirectly what may or not be honest.

How does the film end?  Well, that would be telling.  I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.  Let’s just say that things are not always as they seem, that the film looks for wiggle room in what the law demands and what is fair, in what you can expect of human beings.  “Merry Christmas” was never such an ironic closing to a movie – I think!

 

 

Christmas Noir II: Beyond Tomorrow

This year, my subject for Christmas noir is Beyond Tomorrow  (1940), an intriguing little dark fairy tale.  Well, aren’t most fairy tales dark somewhere along the line?  Edward Sutherland’s film starts with three “fairy godfathers,” wealthy old gents and business partners.  One Christmas Eve, on a whim ˗˗ and out of loneliness ˗˗ each puts his business card into a separate wallet with ten dollars and tosses it out the window of their mansion onto the snowy Manhattan sidewalk below.  All to see who will return the wallets and perhaps become a new friend to replace the old ones that one partner points out have disappeared into death.
Indeed, fate seems to reward them.  The first wallet is nabbed by a jaded socialite, who keeps it while carelessly tossing the ten bucks  to her chauffeur.  They dodge a bullet missing this brittle babe.  The other wallets are returned by two who promise to fulfill the old men’s wishes for rejuvenating friendship.  The first is Jim Houston, a polite, young, down-on-his-luck cowboy, stranded after a rodeo at Madison Square Garden.   The second is a Jean Lawrence, a sweetly pretty but pert and practical young woman who works and lives at a children’s clinic run by “The Wayne Foundation” (Bruce’s parents?).  Fate scores big for the old guys, as the young people share their lives and open up all kinds of opportunities for fun and giving, especially working with children.  Why the whole set up even earns the approval of the sensitive, spiritual elderly housekeeper (played by who better than Maria Ouspenskaya?)   Of course, the young people brought together by their godfathers fall in love and plan to marry.
A merry Christmas movie, right?  Full of jingle bells, holly wreaths, caroling children, and glittering lights and ornaments.  Um, not exactly.  Characters, plot twists, mise en scène, and lighting combine to create a noir ambience.  Early on, the film does present a cherubic Charles Winniger, as Michael, bursting into a business meeting of his partners at home on Christmas Eve. Laden with presents and releasing overworked secretaries for the holiday, Michael is a kind of redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge.  Yet all this fun and cheer is threaded with dark elements.  There are intimations of something sinister in the past of the crotchety partner George Melton.  The other partner, Chad Chadwick, casts longing glances at photos of a wife and a son long lost to death.  Dear friends scheduled to visit for Christmas Eve have canceled out, leading the men to reflect that those they love are mostly dead and gone.
Even the advent of the fresh, kind, and honest Jean and James is overshadowed, literally, by a noir mood.  Sutherland does use bright filler lighting for the Christmas Eve dinner, but that moment is brief.   When old and new friends and servants Madame Tanya and Josef come to the window to listen to a Christmas band, though inside the window frame  is fairly bright, the area surrounding that square of light, the outside world, is darkly shadowed, even the strolling musicians.  The band is brought inside to play for a comradely sing along, yet shadows encroach on the firelight holding the people.   When James sings a love song, though he and Jean exchange tender looks, the shadows insistently fringe their medium close ups, with soft focus further creating an eerie  effect.  Even the love song, “I Dream of Jeanie” emphasizes longing rather than communion, conveying the effervescence of happiness in a noir world.
Throughout the film, noirish night undermines stability, comfort, and humor.  Jean and Jim’s romantic walk home and funny encounter with a mounted policeman and his sergeant occur in small pools of soft-focus light with darkness shrouding most of the frame.  Jim’s later proposal to Jean, though the two laugh playfully, is not in a sunny Central Park but in a dark, shadowy, late night walk there, only faintly illuminated by narrow key lighting on their mostly shadowed faces and the faint glow of a street lamp.  Such imagery  would not be  out of place in the hauntingly sinister streets of Val Lewton’s eerie New York in The Seventh Victim or The Cat Woman
Later, when the femme fatale lures away Jim as he becomes a successful radio star, they meet in a bright apartment.  Yet through the slits of partially open blinds between them pour in the black  night , with intermittent points of light from skscraper windows piercing in on them like intrusive, glaring eyes. It is the noir world that forms the apex of this triangle, predominating and binding the humans together  beneath in tragedy and corruption.
Elsewhere, Sutherland uses darkness and mise en scène to signal that alienation and tragedy inevitably supplant good fortune.  The reporter getting the story he will spread of Jim’s and Jean’s inheritance from Michael is framed in front of  the two (all three in medium closeup) a black silhouette before and between them, almost blotting them out with his black fedora and his black trench coat.  He looms between them and between them and their future  like Death incarnate.  Even the godfathers and their magical influence are at crucial moments overwhelmed by noir ‘s fateful darkness. 
The afterlife is given the noir treatment as well.  Isolated and alone, like many a noir anti-hero, Melton is drawn into and swallowed  by a photo- negative of inky, roiling clouds after his death, predicated by his dark past. Michael’s call to the beyond, though promising peace and happiness, is portrayed disconcertingly:  bright, thin rays against a black sky striking earth from a mass of black clouds.  The friendliness of the angelic voice calling him is unsettlingly undermined by this nightmare image of the divine- all in the surrounding darkness of Lewtonesque city night.
The plot twists imbue Beyond Tomorrow with the same noir vision as the lighting and setting, sometimes even in conjunction.  Just when the godfathers and the young folk seem happy, hopeful, and excited to live, where many a Christmas movie ends, the business partners are killed in a plane crash.  The signal of their deaths merges this ironic turn with dark imagery to create noir ambience. The lovers’ joy as Jean accepts Jim’s humorously inadvertent marriage proposal is undercut for the audience by unseen newsies’ growing cacophony of “Extra” surging insistently out of the shadowed night surrounding the unwitting lovers, hinting that a dreadful turn is emerging from the darkness. It more clearly emerges as the scen closes with a closeup of a headline proclaiming the three godfathers’ deaths.
Other expectations of “comfort and joy” are obliterated with noir’s relentlessly disconcerting unexpectedness.  The three godfathers return as ghosts and settle in their old study to preside over those they love, comforted by Mme. Tanya’s sense of their presence.  However, just when we and they start to get comfortable with this cozy turn, they are one by one called to leave by a darkening of the screen and a mysterious higher power, two to pain and sacrifice. 
In another noir reversal, Michael’s final godfatherly act in life to leave the young friends some dough to make their lives easier and their dreams come true turns out to be exactly the curse Melton warns him it would be – foreshadowed by the reporter’s ominous depiction darkly splitting the lovers.  The news story on the couple’s luck leads to Jim becoming a radio star who deserts Jean under the spell of Arlene Terry, whose fatale ways with her former husband drive him to shoot Arlene, Jim, and himself.  Just when we become comfortable in our security, happiness, love, and fellowship are all battered by the darkness of the world outside us, and also by the darkness within even the best of us that will reach for that darkness without.
There are happy endings in the film, but not without pain, disillusionment, falls from grace, and even death.  Madame Tanya is proved right in her observation that the power and prestige of being royalty in old Russia is nothing compared with the joy of loving and serving others. Loving sacrifices are rewarded; friendship even redeems Melton’s soul from roiling clouds of bitterness and despair.  And yet, Melton’s sadly cynical recognition of human weakness in the face of the darkness outside and within imbues this Christmas film with a noir outlook:  “To be born innocent is natural.  To die pure is a gift.”  No one dies pure in Sutherland’s film.