Dec 21, 2011

The Man In The Net (1959)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Reginald Rose, from a story by Hugh Wheeler
Producer: Walter Mirisch
Cinematographer: John F. Seitz
Music: Hans J. Salter
United Artists; 97 min, B&W

Alan Ladd (John Hamilton), Carolyn Jones (Linda Hamilton), Diane Brewster (Vicki Carey), John Lupton (Brad Carey), Charles McGraw (Sheriff Steve Ritter), Barbara Beaird (Emily Jones), Susan Gordon (Angel Jones), Charles Herbert (Timmie), Steven Perry (Leroy)

John Hamilton is a former New York commercial artist who has fled with his wife to rural Connecticut to begin a new career as a painter. However, his wife Linda (yes, Linda Hamilton) misses life in the fast lane in The Big Apple, despite John's implications that her former lifestyle contributed to her "illness".  A recovering alcoholic who frets over a grey hair at age 28, Linda is especially upset that John will be turning down a lucrative job offer back in the city, preferring instead to toil away his time in his new career that brings neither acclaim nor fortune.

The implied conjugal tensions outwardly manifest themselves into this John Cheever-ish world when Linda appears one night at a birthday party, inebriated, and with a black eye that she falsely accuses John of giving her. Soon after, when Hamilton returns from the New York trip where he turns down the job offer, he finds that all of his paintings have been slashed, and his wife has disappeared.  In short order, Linda's body is discovered buried in the shed underneath fresh concrete. Since John is already labelled a cad among his friends and neighbours, thanks to his wife's accusation the previous night, he is naturally accused of murdering Linda and flees persecution by the police and the mob of townspeople.

The Man in the Net is a surprisingly enthralling film noir, and also an interesting credit late in the careers of both actor Alan Ladd and its prolific director, Michael Curtiz (who had helmed many Warner classics in the 1940s). At first, this movie seems like a pleasant enough variation on the "falsely accused man on the run" plot. Despite how formulaic this story may first appear, it is made engaging for the panache that Curtiz gives the material- he certainly knows how to set a mood with deceptively simple mise en scene. (And as we will see, this film is deceptive in many ways.) By 1959, Alan Ladd's career had been fizzling- his acting instincts had become tired and dulled, and had to accept star billing in second-rate pictures.  Yet in its own negative way, Ladd's taciturn, world-weary demeanour suits the character of a man who has been put upon both personally and professionally. Carolyn Jones is superbly cast as his estranged wife- with her Bohemian bangs suggesting that she ended up in Connecticut by way of Greenwich Village, Linda is truly a fish out of water in this rural environment- yearning instead for life in the fast lane, despite the consequences.  If you stretch it, this film could be a continuation of her Oscar-nominated role in The Bachelor Party (1957)- "The Existentialist" has left the Beatnik scene for the suburbs. 
ABOVE: Carolyn Jones
Any good film noir reveals the corruption beneath the surface of a supposedly civil society.  Yet rather than depicting a rainy, urban jungle this film juxtaposes the benign suburbia of New England with a story of adultery, blackmail and murder permeating the picture-postcard landscape. And still, despite moving the setting to an uncommon green oasis, this "man on the run" formula is further differentiated as it slowly evolves into a delightfully bizarre allegory.

In the final third of the picture, John receives aid from the children he has befriended while painting out in the meadows. The movie thus becomes a unique Utopian treatise, as the incorruptible kids not only believe John, and enact his complex and clever plot to prove his innocence, but the children forge their own unique society with a moral code of virtue, loyalty, and a tolerance of class, race and gender. (The leader of the kids is a girl, after all. Young Susan Gordon, in one of her few screen roles, is a delight as the kids' captain and den-mother: the Raggedy Ann doll she always carries symbolizes her maternity and strength.) Further, it is a delight to see the African American boy Leroy work and play in harmony with his white friends. (This film is one of the very few from an age of segregation that slyly presents fraternity among mixed races.) The adult world by contrast is Barbaric and archaic, adhering to an outdated structure where race determines class: for instance, Leroy's father is a servant for one of the white kids' parents.  Despite that the current ruling class of this supposedly picket-fence environment is revealed to be full of deceit, one actually finishes the movie with the hope that these children (already exhibiting a maturity beyond their years) shall inherit the world, and seed their goodwill for future generations. Perhaps the children find a kinship with John in that he is an artist, and also lives a supposedly carefree (shall we say? childishly innocent) existence outside of the constrains of the ruling class.

ABOVE: Alan Ladd, Susan Gordon

Sadly, The Man In The Net is nearly forgotten today- hardly considered a career highpoint for any of the people involved.  Seeing a film like this recalls Wheeler Dixon's book Lost In the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood (which I read last month, and will review here soon): its central thesis insists that one would do best to look at the 1950's film and television that have not remained in memory, as they will be the works that more accurately depict the times in which they were made.  Indeed, many works of the decade suggest a society of forced conformity, sexism and segregation; this film on the other hand offers a more hopeful message of harmony and equality.  Released just a few years before such social themes entered the collective consciousness, Man In the Net is a fascinating precursor of the changing times. A programmer it may be- but a wholly diverting one at that.  Like the characters onscreen, this movie has much more underneath than meets the eye.

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