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Monday 29 January 2018

The Glass Web (1953)

Director: Jack Arnold
Writers: Robert Blees and Leonard Lee, from the novel, Spin the Glass Web, by Max Simon Ehrlich
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, John Forsythe, Kathleen Hughes and Marcia Henderson

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Kathleen Freeman was a busy girl in 1953. She began it with The Magnetic Monster, which was my last centennial review and, after seven other movies, ended it with The Glass Web, which is my new one. I’m not watching for her this time out though, because her centennial isn’t due until next year; I’m watching for John Forsythe. My American better half knows him well as Blake Carrington on Dynasty and as the disembodied voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels, but I know him from movies, from Destination Tokyo in 1943 to Scrooged in 1988, via such fundamentally different films as Kitten with a Whip, Marooned and The Trouble with Harry. It was as Blake Carrington that he’s best remembered, of course, largely for being the role that landed him six consecutive Golden Globe nods (he won two) and his three consecutive Primetime Emmy nominations (he didn’t win any). However, the latter were far from his first flirtation with the Emmys; he had been previously nominated three decades earlier in 1953, as Best Actor.

And it’s 1953 to which I’m going to turn back time, to a drama/thriller from the ever-reliable director, Jack Arnold, he of Creature of the Black Lagoon, High School Confidential! and The Mouse That Roared fame, to name but three of his admirably varied movies. This one’s based on a novel, Spin the Glass Web, by Max Simon Ehrlich, published the previous year. I know some of Ehrlich’s later books, but his best known novel was The Reincarnation of Peter Proud in 1973, also quickly filmed. Ehrlich is important here as he didn’t just write books; he wrote for newspapers, the stage, for radio and, most importantly, for television, scripting episodes of Suspense, The Defenders and Star Trek, among others. We discover why that’s pertinent one scene into the movie. A young lady is driven up to an open mineshaft in the desert. When she isn’t impressed, her companion shoots her dead, carries her over to the shaft and dumps her body unceremoniously in. And then we pan back to discover that they’re actors on the set of a television show.

It’s a clever reveal and it makes us wonder where the script is going to take us once it’s done with exposition. The company is TVC and the man in charge of the Crime of the Week show is Dave Markson, played by the prolific and ever-reliable Richard Denning. The key players, though, are the writers, Don Newell and Henry Hayes, along with the delightful corpse from scene one, Paula Ranier, with whose delights both men have become entangled. Newell is the primary writer on the series and John Forsythe endows him with a fair amount of depth. He’s a happily married man, you see, who has still managed to find his way thoroughly under Paula’s thumb, lending her money and responding to her flattery until he finds himself taking her to the family cabin in Tahoe for a quiet romantic weekend. Hayes is the wannabe writer, whose contributions are in pointing out continuity errors and complaining about how Newell keeps getting the details wrong. Oh, and giving Paula whatever she wants, whether it be breaks, money or gifts.

As you can imagine, Paula Ranier must be quite the young lady and she is. Actress Kathleen Hughes was merely five years into her big screen career and half a dozen of her fourteen parts thus far were uncredited, but she made a major mark here. She’s a dream, well, until she turns into a nightmare. When Newell tried to break off the affair, she stole his pyjamas and now she’s blackmailing him for the nametape his wife Louise sewed into them. $2,500 was a lot of money in 1953 and, to rustle that much together, he has to plunder his children’s savings accounts. Meanwhile, she also has Hayes, who’s just as smitten, wrapped around her little finger. Given that Hughes was 25 years of age and Edward G. Robinson was no less than sixty at the time, Hayes would be a dirty old man at the very least, especially when looking back from the Me Too era, but Robinson does endow him with a great deal of sympathy. He’s a former court reporter who knows he’d do a better job writing scripts than Newell, but he’s stuck playing second fiddle.
Paula really turns the screws on both of them, with some fantastic dialogue, which may have come from Ehrlich’s source novel or may have been conjured up by the two screenwriters, Robert Blees and Leonard Lee, who weren’t a double act. Blees was starting to build his career, with The Black Scorpion, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and Dr. Phibes Rises Again still to come, while Lee was at the end of his, this being his last screenplay. Whoever wrote it, Kathleen Hughes really knew how to deliver it. She’s a little more subtle to Newell, like a good old fashioned film noir femme fatale. ‘You think you know all the answers,’ she croons at him, as she warms up to her demands, ‘but you don’t even know the questions.’ She knows he has to pay up and rubs it in. She picks her marks, she tells him. ‘None of them have the guts to do anything rash.’ And off he walks. She’s outright brutal to Hayes though. ‘Nothing about me concerns you.’ She calls him a glorified errand boy. ‘You’ve got nothing I need,’ she needles. You never did and you never will.’

This all builds up to the crucial scene, half an hour in, when Paula is murdered in her apartment. We assume that Hayes is the one whodunit but we don’t see it, because we’re outside with Don, who’s sidetracked from going in by a party next door. He’s stuck in the stairwell while the killer gets away but, when he gets out, he finds her strangled on the floor. He takes the opportunity to get out of the mess she’s got him into, but makes a hash of the whole thing. He does find his pyjamas, only to rush out and get caught up by the drunken neighbours, whose attentions even manage to leave his precious nametape lying on the floor. When he makes it back to the bar and realises that it’s gone, it’s too late; the police are on the scene. Now, you might think that this sounds like an everyday sort of mystery, but it has hooks deeper than that. Half an hour of exposition leads us to a quarter more of routine guilt for Don Newell, but then the script ratchets things up considerably and the film finally finds its elevation.
Initially, it just seems twisted. Crime of the Week is a dramatisation show, which claims to tell true crime stories with the minimum of artistic license. So, with ratings not great and the sponsors unsure about another season, why don’t they wrap this one up with the topical story that’s right in their lap? So, Dave Markson asks Don Newell to write about the murder of one of their own, Paula Ranier. Oh yeah, that’s twisted. Now, before you suggest that this is far fetched, let me add that the script was very carefully built to get to this point. The cops are unaware of either writer, mostly because Paula’s estranged husband, Fred Abbott, seems a likely killer: a penniless crook who was in her apartment that night and who has a $10,000 life insurance policy on her. But, if you’re us, just dig a little deeper. For one, Newell and Hayes are each other’s alibi. For two, the latter wants the former’s job, especially after Paula’s digs at his salary, $150 a week compared to Newell’s $500. For three, he clearly suspects Newell from his reactions.

And so we go. Newell twists himself like a pretzel writing a script about the murder of his secret lover, while Hayes takes the bit between his teeth and persuades Markson that he should write a script too, for free, just in case, knowing that she was his secret lover too. All the thrills that weren’t in the first two thirds show up in the last half hour. While Kathleen Hughes steals the show from her far more experienced co-stars early on, she’s clearly unable to do that after being strangled to death. Forsythe plays the tortured man well, talking into his whisky when he needs to, hoping that the cops don’t find the nametape; the neighbours don’t come forward to identify him; and the apartment manager, who’s consulting on the story, doesn’t recall who he is. And, of course, Robinson comes alive, as we might expect from the greatest film actor to never have been nominated for an Oscar. In 1953, Double Indemnity was less than a decade old and we can’t help but see the comparisons as the film runs on.
There’s a lot to praise in the last half hour, though there are moments at which to cringe too. The fifties really were misogynistic and we’re supposed to buy into Louise Newell’s forgiving of her husband’s indiscretions on the grounds that, well, she loves him. That might work on Valentine’s Day, but not on any other day of the year. Another failure is the sparing use of 3D. A year earlier, Bwana Devil had ignited the public’s interest in 3D and the ‘golden age’ for that format had begun. This was quick to jump onto the bandwagon, so quickly that I’m sure that it was shot in 2D and a few scenes were then reshot in 3D to cash in on the craze, but all are crammed into a few minutes around the halfway mark, with Tom Newell wandering the streets both in shock at Paula’s death and in panic at how he’s likely to be picked up for her murder. Suddenly, we’re almost hit by a ladder, drenched by a hose, hit by a stack of newspapers and buried in a load of coal. Until then, the only 3D was the title card exploding and, after then, nothing.

No wonder the audience didn’t care for this as a 3D film. If they cared at all, it was surely for the script, not just the twisty torture of the last half hour but for the dialogue, which works more on a film noir standpoint than a straight drama or mystery. Much of it goes to Kathleen Hughes, of course. ‘Oh, Don,’ she asks Newell, ‘didn’t you know I was a witch in the worst way?’ And hey, how can anyone expect Edward G. Robinson to ignore a gorgeous young thing calling him a ‘small, disgusting old man’? We classic film fans have been conditioned by a couple of decades of fantastic Robinson movies to know that he’s not going to stand for that! As if to be balanced, Robinson gets a great line later in the film at Paula’s expense. A cop asks him, ‘Was she a good actress?’ Deadpan, as only he can deliver, he replies, ‘Her talents were... mostly in other directions.’ That’s priceless. It’s fair to say that the little details that make everything work often come out in the dialogue too, including those delivered at the pinnacle of the finalĂ©.
For Robinson, of course, this wasn’t an early picture. While he’d been acting since the teens, he didn’t really arrive until sound did, with a string of powerful performances in movies like Little Caesar, Five Star Final and Two Seconds. He was almost forty, though, and that made him a different sort of leading man. The Glass Web came a couple of decades later when most of his greatest roles were in the past. However, he was always good, not to mention surprisingly versatile, and he kept on delivering until his final film, playing able support to Charlton Heston in Soylent Green at the age of 79. I’m surprised that Kathleen Hughes, at the other end of her time in the limelight, didn’t have a more successful career. She did keep on working though, both on television and in film, and a glance at her filmography reminds me that I really do need to get round to Cult of the Cobra and she gives me another reason to rewatch It Came from Outer Space after Richard Carlson’s performance in my last centennial review, The Magnetic Monster.

I’m watching for John Forsythe though, who’s the lead here in everything but name. Robinson was the bigger draw but they share a card after the title. Like his co-stars, whom I’ve praised above, he acquired his name in Hollywood. Edward G. Robinson was born Emmanuel Goldenberg, in Romania of all places, and Kathleen Hughes was really Elizabeth Margaret von Gerkan; it’s not much of a shock to see them renamed for the screen and the same goes for John Forsythe, whose birth name was Jacob Lincoln Freund. Born in Penn’s Grove, NJ, his father didn’t want him to become an actor and indeed he didn’t sign up with Warner Bros. until he was 25, but his career was a good one, whether on radio, television or film. His first film role came in 1943 as an uncredited corporal in the Errol Flynn picture, Northern Pursuit, but he became a leading man in 1952 in Robert Wise’s crime drama, The Captive City, following it up a year later with a very different newspaper picture, It Happens Every Thursday, a comedy with Loretta Young.
While his film career ran for sixty years, it wasn’t a prolific one, with only 23 pictures during that time; the last of them, of course, were the modern Charlie’s Angels movies, in which he reprised his famed voice role in his mid-eighties for a cool five million bucks. And it was, of course, on television that he really made his name. He’d been acting there since a TV movie version of Stage Door in 1948, but he cut his teeth on a whole slew of shows, many of them anthology or play-based, such as Studio One, Suspense or Climax!, on each of which he appeared repeatedly as different characters. His first regular show was Bachelor Father in 1957, which ran for five seasons and is still the only primetime show to move across three networks in consecutive seasons (CBS to NBC to ABC). 1966 saw his own show created, The John Forsythe Show, but it didn’t last. Charlie’s Angels did and he could record his work on an episode in minutes, then head off to the track. That was a big part of his life; he was a director of the board at the Hollywood Race Track.

In 1981, when Charlie’s Angels ended, Dynasty began with his career at a new peak at the age of 63. ‘It's rather amusing,’ he said, ‘at my advanced age to become a sex symbol.’ He was the only actor to appear in every episode of Dynasty over the full nine seasons and he reprised his role as Blake Carrington in The Colbys and Dynasty: The Reuinion. Then, as if to challenge the longevity of Kirk Douglas, with whom he had once worked alongside as a waiter, before either had become successful, he found himself in another primetime series, The Powers That Be, starting at the age of 74. His final television role came as late as 1996, voicing a character on the animated show, Gargoyles: The Goliath Chronicles. Given that his career continued to build throughout, it’s somehow odd to see him as a young man here, a mere 35 years of age, doing a solid job opposite a heavyweight like Edward G. Robinson. Why TV loved him more than film, I have no idea, but The Glass Web ably shows what he could have been doing, if the breaks had gone that way.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review.

    I didn't recall many of the details of this movie, but loved Beverly Garland's bit as the tipsy neighbour who wasn't so keen on "classical music". A nice bit of humour as the tension builds.