Tuesday 1 January 2019

Noose (1948)

Director: Edmond T. Gréville
Writer: Richard Llewellyn, based on his play of the same name
Stars: Carole Landis, Derek Farr and Joseph Calleia

Index: 2019 Centennials.

Frances Lillian Mary Ridste, better known as Carole Landis, would have been one hundred years old today but, unlike a surprisingly high percentage of those I’ve been covering for my centennial reviews, she didn’t even come close: she committed suicide in 1948, shortly after completing her two final films in the UK. This was the first, released in September, a couple of months after her death in July; the other was The Brass Monkey, which came out in December. She crammed a great deal into her short life, though, starting out her show business career as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub at the age of fifteen, hired only becuse the manager felt sorry for her. After all, she was the youngest of five children, whose father left after her birth, and her mother worked menial jobs to make ends meet. So, after she’d saved a hundred bucks doing her hula dance at the Royal Hawaiian or singing with a dance band, she changed her name to Carole Landis and moved to Hollywood. Carole was an homage to her favourite actress, Carole Lombard.

By the time she made her screen debut, in Gold Diggers of 1937 at the age of only seventeen, she’d already been married twice, to the same gentleman, Irving Wheeler, who had still already become history. The first wedding was in January 1934, when she was only fifteen and Wheeler nineteen, but her mother had it annulled a month later. After gaining permission from her absent father, who lived nearby, they were re-married in August, only for Carole to promptly walk out after three weeks. By the time she began a film career, that whole relationship was over, though neither filed for divorce and Wheeler re-emerged four years later with a $250,000 lawsuit against Busby Berkeley for alienation of affection. His wife had moved up in the world pretty quickly. Relationships weren’t a strong point though. Berkeley did propose but they never married. She did marry Willis Hunt, Jr., a yacht broker, in 1940 but left after two months. Her fourth and fifth marriages, to Capt. Thomas Wallace and W. Horace Schmidlapp, lasted under two years.

That left Rex Harrison, who was married during their affair, and it’s generally accepted that his refusal to leave his wife, the actress Lilli Palmer, prompted Carole to take the overdose of Seconal which killed her only six months shy of her thirtieth birthday. He was the last person to see her alive, as they’d dined together the evening before, and, with her maid, it was he who discovered her body in the morning. Some members of her family cry foul, questioning the coroner’s suicide verdict and suggesting that Harrison was a lot more involved with the incident than merely bookending it. Of course, at this point in time, we’re unlikely to find out if they’re right, but, if they are, it shines a particularly brutal light on Harrison’s choice to attend her funeral with his wife. What Landis left us is a career that included almost sixty features, including one, Four Jills in a Jeep, based on her own book. During World War II, she racked up over 100,000 miles with a USO troupe, more than any other actress, and she wrote about it in the press and in that book.

Her early film roles were mostly uncredited, though they included such classics as A Star is Born (she was a girl in a bar), A Day at the Races (she was a party guest) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (she was a banquet guest). Half her filmography later, with credits on perhaps three films, she started to be noticed and Hal Roach launched her to stardom as a cave girl in 1940’s One Million B.C. A press agent dubbed her “The Ping Girl”, the ‘ping’ a bizarre contraction of ‘purring’, and that set her up for fame not merely on film but also as a pin-up girl; her numerous cheesecake shots were companions to many GIs during the war. She did well in the early forties, partly because she could sing as well as act, but she fell into a relationship with Darryl F. Zanuck, the vice president at 20th Century Fox during her time under contract there. That initially led to bigger roles, such as those opposite fellow pin-up girl Betty Grable in Moon Over Miami and I Wake Up Screaming, as well as a top billed part in Dance Hall with Cesar Romero. That was all in 1941.
By 1942, the relationship was over and so was her stardom. She made fifteen B-movies in the six years before her final two pictures in the UK, but she was no longer the name that she had been. It has been said that Jacqueline Susann based the character of Jennifer North, one of the three primaries in her best-selling novel, Valley of the Dolls, on Landis. Like many fallen stars whose careers moved overseas, her final roles are some of her most interesting. She was top billed in Noose, which saw a later release in the US as The Silk Noose, playing an American journalist whose articles on a black market kingpin in London spark his downfall. The Brass Monkey was a vehicle for radio star Carroll Levis, “Britain’s favourite Canadian”, portraying himself, but Landis was billed second above Herbert Lom, Ernest Thesiger and a host of radio talents also portraying themselves, including Terry-Thomas. That one may be a wilder and more interesting movie, on the lines of Helter Skelter, but this one’s better and not without its own merits.

For a start, it’s a spiv picture, which is a peculiarly British institution. Spivs were petty criminals who provided a valuable service in the early years after World War II when rations were in place to combat shortages of many common products. My first exposure to spivs was probably Private Joe Walker in the sitcom Dad’s Army, but that can’t have been long before Flash Harry in the St. Trinian’s films in the memorable form of George Cole. It’s not difficult to extrapolate the spiv forward to lovable rogues of later decades like Del Boy Trotter in Only Fools and Horses, the title character in Lovejoy or Arthur Daley in Minder (also played by George Cole), none of whom could easily be translated to American television. I’d argue that, outside the moonshiner heroes of The Dukes of Hazzard, who faced off against corrupt authorities, Americans just couldn’t get behind petty crooks as heroes until much later and the Production Code wouldn’t let them. We Brits have an odd tolerance for petty criminals who are lovable rogues that may stem from the spiv.
Another is that the story, about taking down a black market racketeer, is handled in a strange way indeed and that’s driven in large part by Landis’s character, Linda Medbury. The spiv in the story is Bar Gorman, played with relish by Nigel Patrick, who had fought his way across North Africa and the Middle East as a lieutenant colonel in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and subsequently found fame as a debonair lead. This was a deliciously different part for him, a shady character with whom we have a great deal of sympathy. He knows everybody in the immediate vicinity, as evidenced by his stroll to work in which he interacts with most of them, and he does favours for many of them too. He also has a glorious telephone manner, barking rapid responses and hanging up so quickly that the other party may not have got a word out. He works, however, for a man by the name of Eduardo Sugiani, the big boss, who’s much easier translated into the sort of gangsters we see in American films. We don’t have any sympathy for him at all.

Sugiani has built up quite an empire in London, to the degree that he appears to be untouchable. While we’re watching the roguish Gorman charm his way to the office, the rest of London is abuzz with questions about Millie Sharp, whose body has just been found in the Thames off Greenwich. They don’t know what we know, namely that she was strangled with a stocking by Sugiani’s barber, a gruesome soul, and she was the best friend of Annie Foss, Sugiani’s former girlfriend. Enter Linda Medbury by accident, noticing an overwhelmed Annie Foss stumbling around in a club and catching her when she faints. Linda’s supposed to be the fashion editor at the Echo, but, after chatting with poor Annie, she files a story on Sugiani, knowing that it’s important enough that her editor won’t be able to ignore it. Her fiancée, who also works for the Echo, warns her that only two people have tried to write about Sugiani: one vanished and the other was found paralysed and half blind. After “Black Market Terror Unmasked” hits the streets, we have a film!
Well, so far, so routine. At this point, we’re expecting a British Torchy Blane movie, with the guest American star taking the lead, but it’s not really what we get or, at least, it’s not all we get. Linda does keep filing stories, even when Sugiani pays her a visit to buy her off and, after she slaps him for that, threaten her. “I can be nice,” he tells her. “Or I can be not nice.” Right then, he’s being nice, but we have no expectation that he’ll continue to be nice once he’s out of her apartment. We’ve seen his Italian temper already and it’s great to see Joseph Calleia, a talented Maltese American actor, ham it up in a British film as an Italian and Landis refuse to give in to his tactics with elegance and style. There’s a hilarious scene late on in which, after being kidnapped, she steadfastly refuses to leave Sugiani’s offices, even though Bar Gorman pleads with her to leave, not wanting to get caught up in a charge like that.

But, while she keeps on poking the Italian bear, we’re given a secondary story that gives the film its title. Linda’s fiancée, who she’s due to marry in the morning, is an army captain who now works as the Echo’s sports editor and he formulates a plan of his own. He visits Bason’s Gymnasium, run by a gentleman colourfully known as “Pudd’n” Bason, and enlists a whole bunch of his regulars, one and all of them military men eager for some excitement after a few years of quiet. They’ll get plenty of that working Capt. “Jumbo” Hyde’s Operation Noose, under which they’ll work outside the law to take down Sugiani. Now, I should emphasise here that they’re not vigilante killers; nobody’s going to be waiting on a roof overlooking the Blue Moon Club with a sniper rifle. They’re going to use their fists and their wits to scupper whatever operations they can prove the racketeer has going, like relieving Greasy Anderson of the diamonds he’s smuggling over to Amsterdam and most of his clothes, so the cops will pick him up and ask about the rest.
And so it goes. Linda tries to damage Sugiani through articles for the Echo, given that he thrives in the darkness and shining a light on his misdeeds diminishes his stature. Jumbo and his men from Bason’s damage him through his bottom line and also by making him look foolish in the eyes of his competition. And the police... well, the police don’t do much of anything at all. Insp. Kendall, in the recognisable form of Stanley Holloway, is sharp enough to figure out what’s going on and ballsy enough to stay safely out of it, until it’s time to step in, of course, and arrest the bad guys after they’ve been weakened and evidence is easily available. This is all done with a sense of light hearted charm, as if being a force for good automatically negates danger. This is another quintessentially British outlook, one I remember well from comic books like the Beano and the Dandy, in which characters like Desperate Dan, Bully Beef and Minnie the Minx would get into fights every issue but never lose their smiles.

Perhaps that’s why, when tragedy does strike, it feels all the more powerful. I won’t say who and I won’t say where, but I will make note that there’s a real gut punch of a moment that emphasises just how dangerous this lark is and what the consequences are, not just to those taking part but those around them. That isn’t the only decision worthy of mention here. There’s a great use of irony in the finale and a cheap moment that becomes something more when Sugiani’s new flame, an actress named Mercia Lane, is stripped of her dress in a struggle. That’s handled surprisingly well here, given that it’s rarely anything but a cheap thrill. There’s also some interesting camerawork, presumably courtesy of cinematographer Hone Glendinning. When Jumbo’s men are readying to leave on a mission, the camera fast pans left and right to highlight the faces of those about to enter battle; when the barber assassin is drunk, it tilts to show just how much; and when Mercia Lane looks at dancers through a diamond, it goes all kaleidoscopic.
I liked this film and for more reasons than I usually like obscure classic British features. Like most of them, it’s capably done, from the director down to the bit parts. Even with the UK’s workforce devastated by the Second World War, the talent on offer was and remains top notch. The script was by Richard Llewellyn, a British novelist and playwright, from his own play. He was already quite the name, having written How Green Was My Valley and None But the Lonely Heart, both of which had already been adapted to film in memorable fashion. The latter was released in 1944 with Cary Grant, Ethel Barrymore and Barry Fitzgerald, winning Barrymore an Oscar for her efforts. The former was even more successful, famously beating out Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar in 1941; its haul reached five wins out of ten nominations. Needless to say, this wasn’t nominated for an Oscar and the BAFTAs had films of the quality of The Fallen Idol, Hamlet, Oliver Twist and The Red Shoes to sort through for their first awards in 1949.

Nobody here is up to that standard, but Landis does a strong and cheerful job as Linda Medbury, not suggesting in any way the sort of emotions that, so soon afterwards, would claim her life. It’s odd to suggest that she had a bright future ahead of her when there not only wasn’t but wasn’t likely to be, given her career arc, but she shone here as if everything was peachy. Derek Farr, who went on to a major role in The Dam Busters in 1955, is a capable leading man for her and there’s some real chemistry between the pair in their first meeting: they make for a nice silhouette but she squeals even better. Ruth Nixon has some powerful scenes as Annie Foss and Joseph Calleia is a memorable Sugiani, but Nigel Patrick steals the show as the spiv, Bar Gorman. I chose this for Landis and it’s a good pick for her, but I left with an enhanced appreciation of Patrick, early in his film career, which would lead later him to The Sound Barrier, for which he's best known, and The League of Gentlemen. Long live the lovable rogue!

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