Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tomorrow We Live (PRC, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles an interesting if quite bizarre movie I’d recorded recently to DVD from TCM: Tomorrow We Live, a 1942 PRC “B” with distinguished credentials both in front of and behind the camera. The producer was Seymour Nebenzal, who’d made some of the greatest films of the later years of the Weimar Republic in Germany (Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera and Siren of Atlantis, Lang’s M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) and then had had to flee the Nazis. The director was Edgar G. Ulmer, one of the most consistently interesting of the PRC directors (a former assistant to F. W. Murnau who’d lost his chance at a major studio gig at Universal when he fell in love with his script girl on his one Universal movie, The Black Cat, not realizing that studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. was interested in her too; Laemmle fired him as soon as The Black Cat was finished, but apparently the two lovebirds stayed together since the script girl on Tomorrow We Live was named Shirley Ulmer!), and the stars were Ricardo Cortez — spiraling down from major-studio stardom (he’d begun his career in the silent era as Paramount’s attempt at a replacement for Rudolph Valentino, and had done fairly well in the early 1930’s) — and Jean Parker, who’d never quite made it in the majors but did some fairly interesting movies at PRC (notably Ulmer’s Bluebeard and Sekely’s Lady in the Death House).

Alas, they were all hamstrung by a truly weird script by Bart Lytton that seemed to be an attempt to combine rustic “rural” melodrama, soap opera and gangster movie. Julie Bronson (Jean Parker) returns home to Butte, Montana (established by stock shots of an appalling darkness that look like PRC may have cribbed them from some of John Ford’s silent Westerns) without finishing her last year of teachers’ college, and moves back in with her father, William “Pop” Bronson (Emmett Lynn). She’s got a boyfriend, Lt. Bob Lord (William Marshall), a serviceman stationed at a nearby base and getting ready to ship out to combat, but Julie meets and finds herself dangerously attracted to Alexander Caesar Martin (Ricardo Cortez), gangster, black marketer and owner of the town’s nightclub, “The Dunes.” Martin is referred to throughout as “The Ghost,” so nicknamed because he survived two attempts on his life from rival gangsters, and he’s blackmailed Julie’s father into helping him with his black market activities (he’s got a large inventory of tires stashed in a shed on the Bronson farm) because it turns out “Pop” himself had a criminal past and was an escaped convict. Martin has to deal with another gang that wants to muscle in and take over the Dunes and the black-market business — their confrontations in Martin’s office at the Dunes are the most dully photographed parts of the movie, staged as master shots with the camera seemingly miles away — and at the end the rival gang kills Martin and torches the Dunes, Lt. Lord ships out and he and Julie make arrangements to meet in San Francisco and marry there just before his unit goes off to war.

Content-wise it’s a pretty trivial movie — a far cry from the rich story material Ulmer got to work with in Bluebeard, Out of the Night/Strange Illusion and Detour — and Ulmer, aside from some inexplicable lapses (like those shots of Martin and the rival gangsters in the office, which might as well have been played in a theatre!), directs it like a film noir, with dark, shadowy visuals and artful compositions that seem more beside the point than usual. Tomorrow We Live is a good example of how a German director could take a piece of classic Americana and make something extraordinarily dark and brooding out of it (Ulmer’s noir sensibility even shone through in a couple of places in Jive Junction, his teen musical!), though the script and directorial style clash rather than reinforcing each other and a lot of Ulmer’s visual virtuosity (including a pretty normal love scene between Lt. Lord and Julie in which Julie’s hair blows up from her scalp and photographs almost stark-white in the backlighting!) seems pretty much beside the point.