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It's hard to determine just what is the greatest scene in Anthony Mann's brilliant film noir Desperate (1947). Is it the scene where Raymond Burr slices himself a piece of turkey while he roughs up a pair of elderly country folk, or the brutal fight scene that occurs off screen while a swaying overhead light illuminates the sadistic faces of the killers in alternating black and white? Perhaps it's the superbly crafted montage which escalates with close-ups centered on an alarm clock as it counts down to an execution, or it could very well be the death of Pete, a slimy extortionist who sits down for a left-over meal but finds himself rubbed out in lightning fashion. There are other fantastic scenes too numerous to mention in this creatively directed, RKO B-picture which hasn't quite received its due as one of the best of its kind.
Desperate was the first in director Mann's important series of noir films which included Border Incident (1949), He Walked By Night (1948, uncredited), Railroaded (1947), Side Street (1950), Raw Deal (1948), and T-Men (1947). Other films such as Strange Impersonation (1946) (recently released to video by Kino Intl.), The Tall Target (1951), and Reign of Terror (1949) (alternate title The Black Book) were dramas and period pieces, but still clearly dripping in the film noir style.
Desperate begins with a mysterious title sequence of two shadows cast against a gray wall. The film moves at a swift speed exploring a slew of dualities (a predominant theme in Mann's later Westerns), culminating in the villain's violent death at the exact same moment his weakling brother is executed for a botched crime and the death of a cop. Mann often takes great pains to contrast the bucolic happiness of Steve Brodie and Audrey Long's country life and unconditional love with the dark and dirty existence of Burr's rat hole and henchmen. But you can't help feeling some sort of twisted sympathy for Burr's Walt Radak (a villainous character generating the same sort of sympathy one finds in Burr's performance as Lars Thornwall in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954)). He's driven by a blind love for his brother, and this sort of love is like an overpowering force when it comes to the milquetoast pleasantries of Brodie and Long. Mann, as is often the case in fine directors of film noir, is drawn to the darker side of love.
Anthony Mann was born Emil Anton Bundesmann in 1906. The son of philosophy teachers, Mann grew up in California acting in theater and working hard at odd jobs where he was paid as little as $10 a week. He moved to Greenwich Village to work for the Triangle Theater and swiftly moved into theater management and stage direction. In 1933, he directed his first Broadway production (The Squall) and formed his own production company. He continued to produce and direct a number of successful Broadway plays which led to recognition by producer David Selznick. Mann was soon hired as a talent scout and casting director. Among other notable Hollywood chores, he directed the screen tests for Gone With the Wind (1939), Rebecca (1940), and Intermezzo (1939) (almost all preserved). Mann moved to Paramount where he found himself as an assistant director to the great Preston Sturges - a director who would demonstrate to Mann two important filmic ideas - the itinerant story, and the thematic use of on-location photography. Mann's first film was soon handed to him: Dr. Broadway (1942), a low budget Paramount picture set-up through a connection with his former stock company.
Mann soon found himself at Republic Pictures in the early 40's where he churned out B movies such as Nobody's Darling (1943), Strangers In the Night (1944), and The Great Flamarion (1945). He briefly moved to the B unit at RKO before returning to Republic, where he made his final film for that studio, a femme-oriented melodrama called Strange Impersonation (1946). This film is another excellent example of the B movie extraordinaire - a woman's picture (written by Mildred Lord) with an unusually subtle feminist undertone, and evocative narrative. It began to explore the numerous stylistic devices the director would realize in his later films, especially the director's uncommon use of violence.
But it was with a return to RKO that Mann made great strides in his technique and style. After making a poor comedy thriller called The Bamboo Blonde (1946), the director's next project was Desperate. He recognized publicly that Desperate was his first 'real' film, a title which allowed him for the first time some artistic control, including a collaboration and credit on the screenplay with the screenwriter Harry Essex. Mann worked exceptionally well with cinematographer George Diskant (a still woefully unrecognized master of film noir photography; Desperate was only his third film) to create chilling atmosphere and innovative storytelling techniques through the use of contrast and deep focus photography. Desperate began what is now considered Mann's seven film noir cycle between the years of 1947 to 1949, some of the finest produced in the history of the genre.
Producer: Michael Kraike
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Dorothy Atlas (story), Harry Essex, Anthony Mann (story), Martin Rackin (additional dialogue)
Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Film Editing: Marston Fay
Original Music: Paul Sawtell
Principal Cast: Steve Brodie (Steve Randall), Audrey Long (Anne Randall), Raymond Burr (Walt Radak), Douglas Fowley (Pete Lavitch), William Challee (Reynolds).
BW-74m. Closed captioning.
by Richard Steiner