As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
The mid-fifties were, it seems, a time for Georges Simenon adaptations. Of course, Hollywood had to make his glum procedurals a good deal more optimistic: generally, in his policiers, the only thing staving off total tragedy is the "successful" conclusion of the case. He's too concerned with human frailty and too little interested in law and order for this to ever seem triumphal.
A Life in the Balance, directed by Harry Horner (Red Planet Mars), transfers the action of Simenon's just-published Sept petites croix dans un carne to Mexico, and throws away most of its plot. Still, it has some notable abrasive qualities: we first meet the cops discussing a serial killer on the prowl, murdering women, and they're joking about it. We know this job breeds a kind of desperate, cruel black humor, but probably if they'd been American cops this would have been toned down at the time. It's not certain, at first, if the screenwriters are making a point or are just tone-deaf. Later developments incline me to the latter possibility.
Still: the leads in this tiny film are Ricardo Montalban, Anne Bancroft, and Lee Marvin, all of whom were powerful presences and all of whom were still seriously underrated at this stage in their careers. They're perfectly placed here: Montalban is a musician and deadbeat single father who falls under suspicion when the murderer kills his ex; Bancroft is the lonesome, broke girl he meets on a fateful night; Marvin is, of course, the roving murderer, assigned a kind of religious mania that leads to him practicing a scene he'll later play with Telly Savalas in The Dirty Dozen, discussing the meaning of the phrase "vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord," only here he's playing the other part, seeing himself as the instrument of that vengeance.
Tying all this together is young José Pérez as Montalban's small son, who sees the killer at the scene, realizes his father is a suspect, and starts following the dangerous lunatic through the night, setting off police signal boxes with his catapult in a vain attempt to get help. Unfortunately, the police are idiots, but more fortunately, his father is something of a genius of deduction.
Only the tense situation and the actors here keep it going, though there's some attempt at evoking social conscience, and a few shots even suggest that Bicycle Thieves might have been on someone's mind as an influence. Sure, why not turn De Sica's heartbreaking drama into a serial killer thriller? It'll still be just as good, right? Well, kinda.
Montalban looks terribly handsome and is heartfelt and appealing: he tended to overplay a little, but here he overplays passion and nobility, qualities the writers forgot to emphasize, so it works out quite interesting. Bancroft is just a spellbinder, and it's crazy that it would take another seven years for her to play lead in an "A" picture (though Tourneur's Nightfall is lovely).
Marvin's part is underwritten and inconsistent, and he doesn't yet have the confidence of experience, but the writers remember to supply some pathos, and his physicality is so impressive that his scenes have a real sense of risk. At the end, things seem set to become very effective and moving, but the writers have some atrocious dialogue up their sleeves to stop that from happening.
A Life in the Balance is a little indie film from Panoramic Productions which Fox distributed, but The Bottom of the Bottle is genuinely panoramic in Cinemascope and Gorgeous Lifelike Color by Deluxe, and is a legitimate Fox super-production. And yet it's extremely obscure.
This one has not been supplanted from Paris: Simenon actually traveled to the U.S.A. after the war and lived for a few years in Tucson, of all places. The Bottom of the Bottle was written there and set there, with his neighbors recast as characters in a melodrama about brotherly love and hate. He portrays them savagely: none of them seems to have minded, so long as Arizona came out well, which it did.
Van Johnson has broken out of jail and wants to cross the border to his family in Mexico, but the river is flooded so he has to crash with his despised older brother, grumpy old Joseph Cotten. Such is the close-knit social scene of the local ranch-owners that Cotten can't hide his unwanted guest, in fact he has to bring him to a party at Jack Carson's place. The (other) problem is, these people all drink like fish, and Johnson is an acute alcoholic who goes violently crazy at the taste of booze. Carson and company think it'll be very amusing to have him around, "like a ticking bomb."
It's quite weird, and almost entirely humorless, though when Johnson starts to cut loose there are moments of rudeness that are almost Grouchoesque.
Carson: "You can't talk to my wife like that!" Johnson: "Yes I can. You can't, but I can."
The director is Henry Hathaway, an old reliable for the studio and quite a tough guy. 'Scope seems to restrain his vigorous camera movements a bit but he still keeps things lively. Hawks reckoned Hathaway was one of the best with the camera, but that he still hadn't made any good films: what he really meant, I think, is that Hathaway's characters are highly neurotic, just not the kind of people Hawks liked to watch. Certainly this bunch are wound too tight even for the spacious Santa Cruz Valley.
Cotten's surliness gets a bit tiresome: he's too good at it. It's the opposite of the Montalban Effect. Van Johnson has a nice line in sweaty desperation, but the lines are too clearly drawn, and Ruth Roman as Cotten's wife has the tiresome job of being right all the time. Simenon's original confuses us about who's good, who's bad, who's weak and who's strong. The first thing screenwriter Sydney Boehm (The Big Heat) seems to have done is set up clear demarcation, dispelling the clouds of ambiguity as if with a wind machine. But the film has the imagination to conceive of a different ending for its Cain-Abel story, not dependent on violence.
My favorite moment occurs early on, when Cotten is surprised by Johnson's appearance in his garage. "Blood is thicker than water," says Johnson, while Cotten is framed against the open doorway and the thunderstorm, and he's drenched in red from the car lights. Unsubtle, perhaps, but grand.
Later, the bright desert and foaming rapids make for highly cinematic backdrops: both these films would shine in better quality transfers.