Sunday 30 July 2017

On Blu-ray and DVD - David Hare resurrects the career of unsung noir master John Brahm

John Brahm
Dave Kehr recently revived five 30s films made at Fox studios by the director William K Howard. They screened, in glorious new 2K and 4K restorations, at the recent Bologna Cinema Ritrovato. The series reminded me, along with some gentle nudging by Geoff Gardner, of a promise I made last year to review a couple of 40s Fox films re-issued in Blu-ray by another “missing in action” auteur, John (originally Ludwig) Brahm. The director's work has long gone unappraised and unacknowledged.
So to make amends here is a group of key Brahm movies. 

One of the two reissued in Blu last year was The Undying Monster. Reviewing the new disc then I said:
"One screen is not enough to sample the multiple Weimar inspired expressionist gems that pop like jewels throughout Lucien Ballard's gorgeous photography for the new Kino Lorber Blu of John Brahm's 1942 Fox Horror, The Undying Monster.
The Undying Monster
"It's amusing after coming back from the bloat of Dragonwyck (1946) and its near suffocation in the drapery of the costume melodrama. Fox happily had a tradition going back to the thirties for running a "B" unit with absolutely superb production facilities and soundstages. Thus Norman Foster's (mostly, other directors rarely popped in) string of Mr Moto and Charlie Chan pictures, which never skimped on sets, costumes, multiple setups, complex staging, tracks and dollies, were virtually serviced as A pictures with B casts and a tight production schedule.
"The Undying Monster is perhaps one of the thinnest of Brahms many pictures for Fox during his stint at the B Unit but it's a relentless exercise in style (to quote Sarris on The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934) and does its business with great aplomb. Brahm was no Mankiewicz, but his lack of reputation overshadows his considerable achievement. His half dozen or so Fox pictures are all of great interest, and one with RKO and master DP Nick Musaraca, The Locket (1946), is a complete masterpiece, and one of the half dozen very greatest Film Noirs."
Henry Fonda, Let us Live
And so it is I go back to the 30s and one of Brahm’s earliest pictures, made at Columbia in 1939 with an A cast but a B budget and schedule in a tight 67 minutes. The film is Let us Live with a screenplay by Anthony Veiller (La Cava’s Stage Door; (1937), Siodmak’s The Killers (1946). Henry Fonda and a glorious Maureen O’Sullivan are the leads, with Fonda and a down-on-his luck buddy wrongly sentenced to the electric chair for a murder they didn’t commit. Fonda, already coming into his peak as an actor, brings huge resonances from past Lang and future Hitchcock to the picture, in particular his role in Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) with Sylvia Sidney, one of the first unofficial Noirs and the prototype of the Bonnie and Clyde” narrative. Brahm marks out the visual territory of Let Us Live with Lucien Ballard as DP for the first of many pictures together in a textbook of unyielding, controlled chiaroscuro and architectural shadow.
Fonda on the way to the Chair, Let us Live
This is the first film I am aware of in which Brahm shoots even the most interior and intimate scenes in medium or wide shot, with lighting dissecting the volumes of the set surrounding a lone figure with vertical and horizontal sectioning, and layers of composition in depth. A unique post Weimar mise-en-scene is clearly at work here in terms of these multiple subjective and objective representations and POVs, as part of expressive narrative pacing. The studio appears to have been so taken aback by such unconventional découpage for a 30s studio feature (the standard being medium wide, two shot, reverse, close, etc) and I believe the post production has optically zoomed three originally long take wide shots of Fonda when he realizes he’s struggling to get his case up, in which the editing is broken up from single medium takes into a faux optical close, then medium shot then back to close then back to original un-zoomed medium, thus breaking the continuity of Brahm’s original longer single take of the dialogue with his jailed buddy. 
The movie’s screenplay also has unmistakable retrospective resonance for us with Hitchcock’s 1957 masterpiece in which Fonda plays another wrongly convicted man, The Wrong Man for Warners in 1957. Where Vera Miles in that picture is the character who falls victim to disenchantment and insanity, it’s Fonda who becomes the critically damaged character in Brahm's movie. Let Us Live is very much in style and mood a precursor to Noir, along with Boris Ingster’s 1940 RKO picture, Stranger on the Third Floor. Let Us Live got a release some time ago on a Sony VOD (NTSC) which was transferred from what looks like a very nice fine grain 35mm. I encourage people to seek it out.
Laird Cregar, Hangover Square
Jumping to the forties and still at Fox, Brahm made a couple of super-atmospheric period thrillers, more accurately known as “Gothic Noir” by the wittier amongst us. The second of these, in 1945, after The Undying Monster from the previous year is Hangover Square in which he’s paired for the first time with the great Laird Cregar, a hulking, towering figure with a magnificent voice and infinitely depressed bottomless eyes which only ever light up in the thrall of some deeply unspoken sexual perversity. The cast for this includes Linda Darnell, surely one of the lushest babes ever to grace the movies and a frequently wasted talent at Fox. The movie is more than widely admired and I need to say little more but to cite the stirring climax with the huge set in flames surrounding a now totally demented Cregar pounding away on the piano playing his Concerto (Bernard Herrmann’s in fact) to Linda Darnell whom he’s just tried to murder.
Laird Cregar, Sara Allgood, The Lodger
Cregar had a talent for nifty improvisation and generally keeps his performances fairly still until the writing or his own inspiration gives him a chance to rise and chew up the not inconsequential scenery and Lucien Ballards high contrast lighting. In The Lodger from 1945, a remake of Hitchcock’s 1927 silent with Ivor Novello, Cregar completely dominates every inch of a scene at the 40 minute half way mark in which Sara Allgood, his landlady discovers a small photograph he hides in his drawer of an extremely beautiful young man. Cregar lifts his shoulders, his eyes and his voice at the moment she looks at him and launches into a towering declaration of both perverse and unquenchable love and obsession with the man in the photo, supposedly (according the Breen Office friendly screenplay) his “brother” whom he worships over all else in life, especially the loathed horrors of “a woman’s flesh” for which he spews the profoundest Leviticus level bile as something invented by the devil to deprave men’s bodies and minds. In most other hands this would be straight fruitcake camp, but Cregar personalizes it through pure self-admission The Lodger was released on Blu-ray last year by Kino Lorber. 
Laraine Day, The Locket
Which now leads us back to Brahm, no longer with Laird who died too young at 30 just after Hangover Square. Brahm was loaned out from Fox to RKO in 1946 where he was given a fine screenplay for The Locket from a novel by Norma Barzman about a psychotic killer told in a series of flashbacks within flashbacks. Brahm was also given a peerless Noir cast including Mitchum, Brian Aherne, Gene Raymond and Laraine Day plus RKO’s top DP Nick Musuraca (Out of the Past), and RKO in house music director Roy Webb. Perhaps the most onieric of Noirs ever made Brahm throws everything he’s got at it in terms of visual set-ups for uncertainty and anti-determinist action.
Laraine Day, Robert Mitchum, The Locket
Of all the many onieric Noirs, this is the most narratively and logically engaging (where Ripley’s near meaningless construction of reality dream, dream reality in The Chase is perhaps the most confusing.) Warner DVD (NTSC) released a serviceable disc some years ago. The source has substantial emulsion damage and some dupey looking material and one hopes the MTI facility will do a 2K restoration of it for Blu in the future.
Alfred Linder, The Brasher Doubloon
The next year Brahm did another Noir at Fox, back with Lucien Ballard, The Brasher Doubloon from a Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe novel, The High Window. The picture is lumbered with two less than ideal leads, George Montgomery as Marlowe, an actor who never seems to stop smiling. And Nancy Guild a budding vedette who’s first movie was also Mankiewciz’s first in 1946, All Through the Night. For all the hopes of her benefactors Ms Guild could not act her way out a bag of popcorn, and the requirements for her to play a woman as apparently frigid (“she dreads the touch of men”) ice queen from prior abuse and some innate feebleness, morphing into full throttle nymphomaniac is, to be blunt, beyond her. She has one potentially juicy scene which Brahm sets up for her as a wide single take, in which she comes into Marlowe’s bedroom door, holds him up with a revolver, and then orders him to take off his shirt so she can admire his body. A dozen takes couldn’t get the meat off this bone as she just doesn’t have the range. Unlike the gorgeous Martha Vickers who delivers in spades as Carmen Sternwood (“this is the first time someone sat in my lap standing up”) for Hawks in The Big Sleep in a not dissimilar role. 
George Montgomery, The Brasher Doubloon
The supporting cast do redeem everything they’re in for Brasher though. Particularly wonderful is Florence Bates as the Matriarch with a more than Oedipal "son" ("Leslie" who resembles a punk teen rentboy in a suit.) It's Bates/Mrs Murdock who hires Marlowe in an opening template sequence almost replicating the opening of Chandler’s The Big Sleep. There is also a very personal bit from Fritz Kortner as the former German Cinematographer who fled the Nazis but ends up as a pornographer and blackmailer. The Brasher Doubloon is also available on a Fox VOD (NTSC) from a good looking source.

And so rests some of the case for John Brahm.

Merle Oberon, George Sanders, The Lodger


  1. If you want weird try Brahm's first movie, the 1930s British re-make of BROKEN BLOSSOMS which he took over from Griffith. Gloriously incompetent despite having a roll call of A List technical talent - Curt Courant, Hal Young, Ralph Kemplen, Bernard Vorhaus, Baynham Honri and a distintive score from Karel Rathaus the first great European film musician. Dolly Haas loses the battle with English which serves her right for trying to follow Lillian Gish and the only one to come out of it with any credibility is Emlyn Williams, in the lead role. He also did the adaptation. His Chinaman is no more outrageous casting than Richard Barthlemess was. Williams doesn't speak for the first reel.

  2. THe entire project sounds like madness to begin with. I have his last big movie Hot Rods on wheels with a now old Dana Andrews who plays geriatric old fart to rebellious teen youth. It's dreadful. He ended his career more roundly with a lot of television work, much of it in notable serirs like Hitchcock, Wagon Train etc. Sarris was probably right when he said of Brahm his career couldn't sruvive the passing of the big studios. The same can be said of many other auteurs of course.


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