Wednesday, July 31, 2013

FEAR (1946)

The best thing to have happened to movies in the last 30 years is the art of restoration. For the first time since their original releases, classic studio movies are being seen they way they were originally presented. At times, they have the appearance of live television, startling in their clarity.

Then there are the public domain movies -- orphans -- from Poverty Row studios no longer in existence. Low budget to begin with, these movies have been around the block more than once and show their age. Lacking a negative or a clean original print, these pictures still have the faded, battered look people were used to when TVs were connected to rabbit ears. Their overall cheapness takes on a dreamlike -- nightmarish, really -- quality not necessarily intended. Yet this often works when it comes to B-movies, film noir-wannabes in particular. Movies like Monogram's Fear.

It's difficult to picture what Fear looked like during its original 1946 run, with the clarity and contrast that even low-budget movies like this had. Every scene, from the protagonist's apartment to the diner where he eats to the stationhouse, looks grimy. Even the nighttime scene at an innocent city park takes on a foreboding look, like a set from one of Monogram's monster movies (which it probably was).

Prof. Stanley is about to grade his last paper.
The story certainly fits the atmosphere. College student Larry Crain, facing a cut-off of his scholarship, murders his professor, who doubles as the local pawnbroker. (Unusual extracurricular activities on both their parts.) Leaving before the next customer arrives, Larry forgets the dough he killed for. In an overload of irony typical of B-movies, the next day Larry receives $1000 for a magazine article and learns that his scholarship has returned. Sucker! 

Immediately coming under suspicion by Police Captain Burke, Larry plays it cool. But as Burke and his sidekick Detective Shaefer gradually turn the screws, Larry can find no comfort anywhere, even in the arms of  his waitress girlfriend Eileen. When a simpleminded house-painter confesses to the crime, Larry feels he's gotten off scot-free. Relaxed at last, Larry decides to lam it out of town. Spotting Eileen on the next corner, Larry crosses the street, not looking at the traffic light or the truck heading his way...

"Why are we suddenly speaking Russian?"
It's a credit to my intellect that it took me only 50 of Fear's 67-minute running time to realize I was watching a cheapjack update of Crime and Punishment. Not that I'm a scholar of Russian literature. It's just that I recently watched the 1935 movie version starring Peter Lorre and Edward Arnold in what you might call the title roles. It would be generous to regard Fear as Monogram's attempt at class; more likely, it was easier than coming up with an original story, the novel was out of copyright and Dostoyevsky couldn't sue.

Larry orders the leg of Eileen.
But he probably would have returned from the grave had he known that Fear pulls the cheapest stunt in the Hollywood book near the end when we learn that the whole thing was a goddamn dream. There was no police investigation because there was no murder! Instead of getting mowed down by a truck, Larry receives a loan from his professor, a scholarship from the college, and discovers that Eileen is moving into his apartment building. This inexplicable bullshit ending (to paraphrase the late Thomas Edison) had me booing out loud from my armchair. It completely negates the entire reason for the movie's existence. I mean, you know going in that Fear it isn't real. But when you learn it really isn't real, it's like slipping on a banana peel placed in front of you by a tour guide. Bull. Shit.

Not that Fear would have ever been considered a classic in the classic sense of the word. Peter Cookson plays Larry in the key of stiff, although that might have been the idea; he appears to be in a haze just walking up the two flights of stairs to the professor/pawnbroker. (It's really gratifying to know that teacher's standards were low even then.) It's difficult to understand what his sweetie, Eileen, sees in him -- especially when she's played by Anne Gwynne, a dish with dimples the size of Arizona's meteor crater.

Darren McGavin, on the far right, suffers the
 indignity of being upstaged by actors nowhere near
as good as him.
None of the actors playing Larry's college friends registered, until I suddenly recognized a very young, very blonde, uncredited Darren McGavin, known to me as the star of the lamentably short-lived
Kolchak TV series, and everyone else as the father from A Christmas Story. Of all the college kids, McGavin alone shows any kind of real expression; his brief moments preview great things to come for him.

Eileen informs Det. Shaefer her boyfriend
isn't on the menu.

As usual, it's up to the police to clean things
up, both legally and, in this case, artistically. Nestor Paiva's Det. Shaefer is unsettling, a cop who turns up almost magically anywhere Larry happens to be, whether at home, the diner or the park. With an acting style as unusual as his name, Nestor Paiva looks like he should be in B-movies -- he doesn't have a face so much as a mug -- yet possesses the quality of an A-actor all the way. You notice him from the get-go, even start to look forward to his sudden, creepy appearances here. He completely outshines the rest of the major players in Fear...

"Hello, ladies! Like what you see?"
Except for Warren William. Stylish, well-dressed, polite yet a master of mind games, William gives Capt. Burke a manner alternating between respectful and menacing. Sounding almost British -- although born in Minnesota -- he seems too sophisticated for your typical B-movie cop, which isn't a surprise. In his glory days (1932-1935), William was the top leading man at Warner Brothers, the king of pre-code movies and enormously entertaining. He specialized in scoundrels, womanizers, cads and lotharios, ignoring young women's innocence and wedding rings with equal vigor. (I once referred to him as "the poor man's Barrymore" in the '80s. Now, you can't read a piece about William without seeing that phrase, once again proving my enormous power.) But when the censors started cracking down, it appears his type was no longer wanted. Over the years, like too many actors mentioned on this site, he gradually took a one-way ride to low-budget productions before dying two years after making Fear.

Don't get me wrong; there's plenty to enjoy in Fear. The atmosphere. The audacity of Monogram going all Dostoyevsky on its unsuspecting audience. Warren William and Nestor Paiva. (Why does his name look like it's spelled backwards?) You can deal with the so-so actors who hog most of the camera time, because, well, it's a Poverty Row production, and actors who started there tended to stay there for a reason (Darren McGavin excepted). But that ending! That lousy, good-for-nothing ending! For that alone, there's no way any self-respecting movie fan could watch Fear more than once. 

Just why the people involved thought this dream trope was a good idea is a mystery greater than any Monogram ever released. I keep hoping I'm dreaming it, and that I'll wake up to see Peter Cookson get mowed down by a truck, while Warren William heartlessly seduces and abandons Anne Gwynne before moving on to his next conquest. Now there's a movie worth re-watching.


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