Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 30 - Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

Don't consider today's film to be a noir classic. Obviously it's not. Made in by director/writer Carl Reiner with writer/star Steve Martin, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is more of a goofball love letter to the genre. For me, it's a Where's Waldo type of quiz.

I first saw this movie on HBO when I was 10 or 11.  I'm can't remember exactly how or why I ended up watching it.  It was black and white and I wasn't terribly familiar with Martin's genius.  I had seen him in The Jerk and All of Me, so maybe the curiosity got the best of me, or most likely, it was the sex jokes..  Regardless, at that time, I had no idea that much of the footage was from much older films.  I did recognize Bogart, but only because of Warner Brothers cartoons.

So I considered today's viewing a test.  Would I know these films now?

For those keeping score at home, I nailed the following films that appear:

The Killers
The Glass Key
Double Indemnity
The Postman Always Rings Twice
The Big Sleep
In a Lonely Place
Dark Passage
Notorious
Suspicion

After checking out Imdb.com, I'm sad to say there are another eight films whose clips I did not recognize, which gives me 53%, not even a passing grade.  To be fair, I still haven't seen The Bribe, or Johnny Eager, but I lose points for missing the White Heat clips.  No excuse on that one.

As for the movie itself, I'm not sure if I'd label it a success or not.  Martin and Reiner are comic legends, so it's a bit of a disappointment this film isn't funnier.  Sure, the script had to fall into the parameters of the clips they had chosen to use, so it had to be difficult to write jokes for the situations presented, but they still fell flat.  Any fun I had during the film was playing spot the movie, not laughing at awkward boob jokes. 

I'm glad I rewatched it, but it will be a while before it happens again.

However, rewatching it did give me an excuse to find that amazing poster, which as usual, is better than the DVD cover.  When will they learn?


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 29 - Out of the Past

There are numerous reasons I consider Out of the Past to be the greatest film noir of all time.  So many, that I broke my month long rule of only watching films I'd never previously seen.  How could I watch a month of noir and not rewatch the film that sets the standard for excellence.

The first reason of many is the high standard of acting throughout. 

Robert Mitchum, yet again, is the perfect protagonist for a dark and seedy film.  While many actors would show the stress of the situations they encounter on their face, flop sweat, facial ticks, nervous smiles, Mitchum just shrugs all that off.  It's just another day whether or not some guy wants him dead.  Gold standard for cool. 

But he's not the only one.  Jane Greer is arguably THE femme fatale.  Other actresses, they can do seductive, they can do mean, they can do innocent, but they might not be able to do all three.  Greer absolutely kills (literally) each aspect of the trinity, then adds manipulative, compassion and about forty other emotions, each convincingly.  It's easy to see why, other than her obvious beauty, Mitchum's private investigator falls for her and forgets everything just to be with her.

Besides the two leads there are stellar turns from Kirk Douglas as a slick gangster, Paul Valentine as his right hand man, and Rhonda Fleming as the woman who has Mitchum's heart now.

The second reason is the writing.  Adapted by Geoffrey Holmes from his book Build My Gallows High,  each line has purpose, nothing is wasted.  The film is structured in such a way that even overused devices such as flashbacks and voice-over enhance the film instead of hindering.  And the classic lines!  When faced with an uncertain future and problems that would crush an ordinary man, Mitchum just looks at Greer, gets ready to kiss her and utters the immortal, "Baby, I don't care."

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the amazing direction from Jacques Tourneur and the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca.  This is a beautiful film, with the necessary dark corners and spotlighted faces.  The locations, from Acapulco to small town outside of Reno to the mean city streets.

But the absolute reason this is the best film noir ever is the inclusion of The Kid (Dickie Moore).  He's the first person we meet at the beginning of the film, and the last person to walk off screen at the end.  So why is he so special?

In my opinion, most good film noirs all have one thing in common, people have secrets.  They will kill for them, they will hide for them, they will do just about anything to hold onto the one thing they can control.  And more often than not, they can't keep them.  But The Kid, he can.  See, he's a deaf mute, and he's also the one friend Robert Mitchum really has.  He's an important character, not just the stock guy who gets in the way.  Without him, the film would be missing something.

I feel like I'm going over this much too quickly, but honestly, I could fill a month worth of blogs on this film alone.  I'm hoping that if you've already seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about,  And if you haven't, I didn't want to spoil anything.  Regardless, go watch the movie again, and write emails and letters to Criterion.  I want a super special edition of this movie.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 28 - Macao

Well, I've down the freak show and the love story this week, I might as well add some musical numbers.

Macao takes place it the titular city, "the Monte Carlo of the Orient," and despite being a good geography student back in the day, I must admit I know little of this interesting place.  Apparently it was a Portuguese colony, but was mostly Chinese.  There was gambling, smuggling, jewels, gold, and the international police had no authority.  Must have been a criminal's wet dream.

So it's a good start when the movie begins with a foot chase through it's city streets and dock area.  There is even some knife throwing.  Too bad it's a cop that got murdered.  Okay, so this isn't the stuff that's in the travel brochures.  Where is the glamor?

Cue the cruise ship, with music, dancing, and Jane Russell.  But don't get too fresh with her!  She throws a mean shoe.  Just ask Bad Boy Bobby Mitchum.  Despite being accidentally hit with her fabulous footware, he still comes to her rescue and manages to secure a kiss for his troubles.  Was the kiss worth his wallet?  Looks like we have a pretty little grifter.

But she's not all badgirl.  She strikes up a conversation with Lawrence C. Trumble, travelling salesman, and gets herself a nice pair of panty hose for her time.  The scene with her putting them on, revealing her garter belt, must have driven the men wild back then.  Certainly made an impression on Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum).

Next we meet Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter) an expatriot American running The Quick Reward, a gambling joint/fencing operation.  He runs this town with the help of Lt. Sebastian (Thomas Gomez) and his moll Margie (Gloria Grahame).  Thanks to Cochran's stolen wallet and passport, the police are aware of him, which means so is Halloran.  Not fooled by Cochran's cover story, Halloran believes he is a New York Cop looking into the earlier murder.  When he presents some stolen gems, he is sure of it.  But that's not all they both want.  Julie (Jane Russell) is a singer and soon lands a job at The Quick Reward.  She gets both men's attentions, and desires, and soon the battle is over more than jewelry.

Halloran thinks he's got Cochran under his heal, but is Cochran the man he should be worried about?

While enjoyable, Macao doesn't offer much beyond it's surface charm.  It's an interesting city, with some interesting locations, but beyond the city and docks, we don't see much else.  Jane Russell certainly is pleasant to look at, and her voice is nice, but acting-wise, she offers little more than sass.

Robert Mitchum plays his role with his usual laid back, sleepy eyed cool.  Hardly a stretch for him, as he could have played this character in his sleep.  Even Gloria Grahame is wasted in her far too small role.  Brad Dexter brought some steely eyed charisma to his role though.  With his confidence and vague menace, it's easy to see how he ruled the city.

It's a decent film, but suffers from predictability, even with it's twist reveal about halfway through the film.  I've read that the film was started by Josef von Sternberg and finished by Nicholas Ray.  It's certainly easy to believe, as the film feels like two different movies, with it's glamourous beginning and dark end.  Perhaps if either of them had the film to themself, it would have been stronger, and taken more chances.

Rating: 3 and a half stars out of 5

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 27 - Sudden Fear

Joan Crawford might just be the best actress I've ever seen, and no further proof is needed after watching Sudden Fear.

Don't believe me?  How about this.  She makes a unlikely romance with Jack Palance seem entirely possible and believable.  The first half of this movie played like a romantic film, and it's because she sells her falling in love with Palance so completely, despite the fact that his facial features remind me of a Dick Tracy villain.  It's not that Jack isn't handsome, he is, in a strange way, but a woman like Crawford wouldn't normally give him the time of day.

Which is exactly why her playwright/financier fires him from her most recent production, he's just not leading man handsome.  Thug?  He can play the hell out of that.  But I've got to give credit to Palance, he does admirable work.

Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) is upset when fired, but when he runs into Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) on a train from New York to Chicago, the two hit it off, and before long are in love and living in San Francisco.  There aren't many acting jobs in San Fran, but Myra makes more than enough money thanks to her own career and her inheritance from her wealthy deceased father.  It should be enough of a cushy life for Lester, but when his ex-girlfriend Irene (Gloria Grahame) shows up, the trouble starts.  She wants Myra's money and Lester, and together, the two hatch a plan to kill her.

But they probably shouldn't have made the plan in Myra's study, where her dictation recorder was conveniently left on.  Of course she ends up hearing the entire conversation, and in a scene which could teach a master class, she slowly realizes that her husband never loved her and wants her dead.

Time for a plan of her own.

I leave the spoilers off for this part, but believe me when I tell you that the final 30 minutes of this film are some of the most suspenseful, thrilling, and best shot scenes I've ever had the pleasure of watching.  They are that good.  Had the film been a bit tighter in the beginning, this would have easily been a five star movie. 

Rating: 4 and a half stars out of 5

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 26 - The Fat Men Sing

Hate to say it, but noir month is nearing it's end.  So here are a few trailers from two of the biggest filmmaking talents, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells.

Shadow of a Doubt



Notorious



Strangers on a Train



The Wrong Man



The Lady From Shanghai



The Stranger



Touch of Evil

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 25 - Nightmare Alley

I've been afraid of travelling carnivals since watching the film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes back when I was a small impressionable lad.  While the fear doesn't grip me the same way now as it did then, it still gives me a solid case of the heebie-jeebies the second I see a big tent.

In other words, I was expecting to be a bit freaked out by Nightmare Alley.I'm pleased to say the film, while basing a great deal of the film in the carnival setting, doesn't dwell on it.  Hell, even the horrors of the Geek show are kept off screen.

Stanton, "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is a young roustabout, working the carnival circuit as hard as he can.  He talks a good game, and seems to be an integral part of the show, but he wants more.  Fortune teller act Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her husband Pete were once big time, thanks to "a code", but have fallen thanks to his hard drinking.  A few more months, and he might be relegated to the Geek show, the only job available to hard core drunks.

Unfortunately for him, Stan accidentally gives him a bottle of wood alcohol to drink instead of the similarly bottled moonshine.  By morning Pete is dead.  Instead of coming clean, Stan decides to hit Zeena up for "the code."  Together they can run the show and get out of the carnival.  With the help of a very pretty sideshow entertainer Molly, the two get good and become a very popular act.  Molly also becomes very popular with Stan, much to the chagrin of her strongman boyfriend Bruno.

When their love is discovered, Molly (Coleen Gray) and Stan are banished from the circus.  Instead of feeling distraught, Stan sees this as an opportunity.  Molly knows "the code" as well, and soon they are playing ballrooms to the rich in big cities.  They have a good life with good money, and are seemingly happy married.

But Stan can't leave well enough alone.  While his act is popular, a chance encounter with both a psychologist and a grieving father give him a new opportunity.  His ability to cold read people gives him an upper hand, and soon he claims to be communicating with the dead.  Molly is apprehensive, but the psychologist, Lilith (Helen Walker) has inside info that can help him.  She records all her conversations with patients, and that information can give him just the edge he needs to score a huge payday.

Stan now has another lady in his life, but he may have met his match this time.  For once, he doesn't hold all the power.  A score goes wrong, and he is double crossed by Lilith.  Any claim he makes will just be viewed as a psychosis thanks to her professional standing.  He sends Molly away to save her, and is soon wanted by the police.

The film ends with Stan destitute, telling stories to hobos.  He wanders to a fairground to ask for a job, and is only offered the job of Geek, the lowest work.  He takes it without complaint, and begins drinking himself into a stupor.  The film ends with a drunken and crazed Stan being found by Molly.

Despite my irrational fears, I absolutely loved this film.  Tyrone Power gives an incredibly seductive performance.  It's not hard to imagine him bewitching everyone around him, as his ability to read people and "sermonize" them is absolutely convincing.  But his is not the only good performance.  All three of his stepping stones, I mean ladies, are great.  Joan Blondell is convincing as the world weary and wise Zeena, and despite the goofiness of her Tarot card readings, she sells her belief in them.  Coleen Gray is excellent as the young Molly, captivated by Stan's charm.  And lastly, Helen Walker is amazing as Lilith, the psychologist who finally gives Stan what he deserves.  She comes off as naive and willing, but it just hides her motives very well.  When she turns on Stan it's a shock, but not a surprise.  We should have expected it all along.

How can a man fall so far?  Easy.  By reaching too high.

Rating: 4 and a half stars out of 5



Friday, September 24, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 24 - Bringing Darkness to Light

"Here's what film noir is to me.  It's a righteous generically American film movement that went from 1945 to 1958 and exposited one great theme, and that theme is...

You're fucked.

You have just met a woman.  You are inches away from the greatest sex of your life, but within six weeks of meeting the woman you will be framed for a crime you didn't commit and you will end up in the gas chamber and as they strap you in and you are about to breathe in the cyanide fumes you will be grateful for the few weeks you had with her and grateful for your own death."      -James Ellroy
               
I should have made this documentary the first thing I viewed/reviewed this month, but honestly, I forgot I owned it.  This 1:08 documentary was an added bonus to the Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 3 box set which included gems such as Border Incident, His Kind of Woman, Lady in the Lake, On Dangerous Ground, and The Racket.

Should you ever want a "Cliffs Notes" answer to "What is Film Noir?" then this is the documentary for you.

Listen to actors, directors, composers, cinematographers, critics, scholars and even entertainers such as the already quoted James Ellroy, Henry Rollins, Kim Newman, Graeme Revell, Janusz Kaminski, Sydney Pollack, Frank Miller, Eddie Muller, Christopher McQuarrie, Paul Schrader, Carol Littleton, Christopher Nolan, Rick Jewell, Edward Dmytryk, James Ursini, Brian Hegeland, Drew Casper, Gordon Willis, Talia Shire, Audrey Totter, Roger Deakins, John Alton, Michael Madsen, William Goldman, Jane Greer, Nicholas Pileggi and a few others, as they talk about everything concerning film noir.

Will you learn much?  Not if you're already familiar with the genre, but it's still fun to listen to.  And if your spouse or friend has no clue what you talk about when you start obsessing about light and shadow, hand them this disc.  Maybe next time they won't roll their eyes at you and will sit down to watch Out of the Past.

And if you are only mildly familiar with the genre, the disc offers clips from many classic examples such as:
Crime Wave, The Set-Up, His Kind of Woman, On Dangerous Ground, The Maltese Falcon, Murder My Sweet, The Asphalt Jungle, Stranger on the Third Floor, Decoy, Clash by Night, Crossfire, They Live By Night, Born to Kill, Gun Crazy, The Lady in the Lake, Border Incident, Out of the Past, The Big Steal, The Narrow Margin and a couple more.

I must say I was pleased I had chosen a few of these films to watch this month.  Should you be interested in watching this documentary, it's also available separately from Netflix.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 23 - Where the Sidewalk Ends

One of the staples of the genre is the cop who doesn't play by the rules, who seems to be hiding something.  I'll admit, I don't get sick of it.  Throw that scenario at me 100 times and I'll watch the movie without complaint, as long as it's a well made film.

Well, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a brilliant film, and it's largely in part to Dana Andrew's portrayal of Detective Mark Dixon.  Right at the beginning of the film, we're invited in to the top brass office as Dixon gets a dressing down from his superiors.  He's been rough and tumble with the "hoods, dusters, mugs, and gutter nickel-rats" one too many times, and he's on final warning.  Dixon doesn't care, he's got a job to do and he's going to do it.  Andrew's doesn't say as much as he shows, with his eyes and tight lips doing most of the talking.  He reminds me of Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential.  Quiet, tough, determined.

His determination is soon given the opportunity.  At an illegal dice joint, a man, Mr. Morrison has won a hefty sum of $19,000 and he's ready to go home.  The man responsible for enticing him there, Paine (Craig Stevens) is a little nervous.  He's into these gangsters, and this man leaving with their money won't leave them happy.  He tries to get Morrison to stay, and soon they are knocking each other around.  When he renders Morrison unconscious, Paine hightails it out of there, leaving boss Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill) to deal with it. 

The cops are called, and when the arrive, Morrison is dead, a knife to the chest, and Scalise is laying the blame on Paine.  The tension and hatred between Scalise and Dixon is AMAZING!  Merrill and Andrews allow the contempt to just bubble under the surface, with Scalise taunting Dixon with past failed prosecutions and an unspoken connection between the two (which will be revealed later).  Merrill, with his sideways smile and constant sniffing of nose spray is perfect as the boss.  He's confident, creepy, and knows his way around a crime.  He's not going to be ruffled by some flat foot.

So now Dixon has a mission, prove Scalise was involved in the Morrison murder.  He quickly finds Paine, drunk and belligerent, and before Dixon has a chance to ask him a question, he knocks Paine on his ass, accidentally killing him.

And this is where the film gets great.  Does Dixon call his partner or the station, admit to killing Paine and be kicked off the force, possibly facing murder charges for the death of a war hero, or does he frame Scalisi?  You know what choice he's going to make.

The rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between Dixon, his supervisor Lt. Thomas, (a stoic and commanding Karl Malden) and Paines widow Morgan (Gene Tierney) whom Dixon has fallen for.  It's a tight suspenseful film that will keep you guessing until it's rather unpredictable end. 

Rating : 5 stars out of 5.

view the trailer here:
http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1238565913/

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 22 - They Live By Night

"In a way I'm a thief just the same as you are.  But I won't sell you hope when there aint any."

Those words, uttered by a truck stop marrying man, $30 for the deluxe package, $20 for the regular, come towards the end of Nicholas Ray's early film They Live By Night.  It's a great quote, and sadly, prophetic about my feelings regarding the film.

I really wanted this movie to be better.

It's my own fault.  When I think of lovers on the run, my mind goes to the classics, Terrance Malick's Badlands, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, even Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.  Desperate couples, barely avoiding capture, spending what time they have enveloped in each other, not caring for the rest of the world.  Unfortunately, most of this film avoids all of that.

Bowie (Farley Granger) meets Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) shortly after a prison escape.  Along with his partners T-Dub and Chickamaw, an injured Bowie holes up at Chickamaw's brothers house, and his niece, Keechie sees to the men.  The attraction between these two naive kids is evident right from the start, and after one more job, the two are completely in love and heading off on their own, leaving their past lives behind them.

But you know that old saying about the past not being through with you, it's apt here.  Soon the exploits of the Bowie the Kid gang are all over the papers and radio, despite the fact that Bowie was the low man on the totem pole.  So Bowie and Keechie get married and go to some cabins she visited as a child.  As a hideout it's good.  They make themselves a little life in it's seclusion, the only problem being that Chickamaw knows about the cabin as well.

Chickamaw and T-Dub have blown through their money, so they need another job.  Despite Keechie's protest, Bowie tags along, his debt to them helping him escape still unpaid.  Everything goes wrong, and T-Dub takes a dirt nap.  Chick and Bowie escape, but Bowie has had enough and ditches his uncle-in-law on the side of the road.

They run from the cabin and travel across the state, living it up as best they can.  It could have gone well, only the radio has reported that Chickamaw is dead, and Bowie is becoming more and more recognizable.  One would think when wanted by the law, it would be best not to go out to dinner, or for that matter, use each others names in public.  After a minor scrape, a man recognized Bowie and takes his gun.  But instead of calling the cops for a reward, he simply lets him go.

By this point, I'd given up all hope on the film.

I realize, from both the sets and the actors used, that this film was made on a low budget.  I was not expecting to see grand heists or shootouts, but even a bit would have been good.  These two have been on the run from the law for most of the film, yet there is zero tension in their plight.  We don't feel the law pushing down on them one bit, so their flight seems inconsequential.  Had they been smart and just disappeared into oblivion with their stash at the beginning, they would have gotten away clean. 

The one thing that works for this film are the characters are done in by their own choices, not the skill of the pursuing detectives, but it's not enough.  It feels slight.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 21 - The Set-Up

Boxing is all about the money.  Sure, the lightning quick fellows dancing and punching each other into early brain damage might feel otherwise, but for those in the stands, particularly those with sweat soaked betting slips, it's all about the mighty greenback.  Who wins is just as important as how and when they win.  A knockout in the fourth might not pay out as handsomely as a fight that's gone the distance.

And when money is involved, you can place another bet that corruption isn't far behind.

In the ring is a familiar face I've seen a few times this month.  Robert Ryan, quality actor, magnetic, and currently getting beat to a pulp.  He's a mid-thirties palooka (yes!  I get to use that term) named Stoker who might just be washed up.  Very few people believe in him anymore, and his wife begs him to retire.  She's afraid one of these nights he'll come home and not remember who she is anymore.  But she's not the worst.  His own corner men, Tiny and Red, have bet against him.  They tell local tough Little Boy that he'll take a dive towards the end of the fight, a payout that would get Stoker and extra $10.  Or it would if they bothered to tell him about it.

Maybe they should have.  Despite being older and slower than his opponent Tiger Nelson, Stoker believes he can win.  After all, it only takes one well placed punch to end the fight and send him to the top spot, a title shot.  Only problem is he's been that one punch away for most of his career.

Most of the films credit should go to director Robert Wise.  Filmed in real time, Wise stages boxing that I would actually pay to go and watch.  Today, boxing is a nearly forgotten sport (go ahead, name the heavyweight champ) on it's last wobbly legs since the self-destruction of Mike Tyson.  Today it's an over-bloated, glitzy, multi-million dollar hype machine for fights few care about except those parked next to celebrities in the pomp and circumstance casinos.

But in The Set-Up, boxing is a down and dirty affair, for men with lofty dreams and heavy fists.  They'll punch each other for pride, glory, women and money.  The smoke filled venues are sardine packed with men and women smoking and screaming for blood; an early 20th century gladiator arena.  The fight is what matters, not the celebrity seating chart.

Robert Wise was smart to focus this film on the fight itself, plus the culture of boxing.  We don't see training montages set to "Eye of the Tiger" or lofty plans to end the cold war with a knockout.  Stoker's fight is the last on the docket, the fight after the main event.  So we wait with him as he sits in the dingy, crowded locker room, conversing with the other fighters as they wait for their turn.  They are all optimistic or nervous, some return victorious, some without control of their mental facilities, but each makes an impact in their short screen time.  Meanwhile Stokers wife walks the streets nearby, not wanting to attend the fight, and definitely not wanting to think about it.  Will she attend or won't she?  It doesn't matter as much as her anguish, knowing her man is going to take a beating.

When the fight finally arrives, it's well worth it.  The entire four rounds are filmed; no middle round highlight reel with title cards here.  We get every second, every painful punch.  Blood and sweat flow with each punch, and I've got to hand it to Ryan and the guy playing Tiger (Hal Baylor), it looks real.  They are beaten and exhausted, and it's as realistic as most of the fights from Raging Bull.  

Will Stoker make it to the end of the fight?  Will he win?  What will happen if he does pull it off?  I'm not going to spoil it for you, but I am willing to place a wager.

And now that I've finished the film, I'm going to start it up again, only this time I'm going to listen to the commentary with Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese.  What are the chances he mentions Raging Bull?

In the meantime, enjoy the montage of pugilistic pummeling.

Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 Stars

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 20 - Pushover

You have to love any film that starts fast out of the gate with an early morning bank robbery.  It's executed well, and in a nice change of pace from the modern day yelling and screaming, it's quiet.  No threats, no pleading, no playing dumb.  Just a show of a gun.  And when it looks like it's going to go over perfectly, a guard makes the mistake of trying to play hero and earns himself a bullet.

This will be a repeating motif.

From the blood to the beauty, we next meet Lona McLean, played by the lovely Kim Novak in her first film performance.  She's come out of a movie theater and attempts to go home, only her car won't start, the damsel in vehicular distress.  Enter the White Knight, Detective Paul Sheridan.  Played by lanterned jawed Fred MacMurray, he offers to help her with her vehicle.  When his efforts to start the car fail, he takes it upon himself to get the car to a mechanic, and Lona to his place.  He's a helpful man, only he's not to keen on sharing one important detail with her, that he is a cop, and that he's going to bring her boyfriend Wheeler in for the bank robbery.  If he manages to seduce her in the meantime, so be it.

But Lona's not so dumb.  She's onto his game, and has a few moves to play on  her own.  She doesn't love Wheeler, and she'd be more than happy to see him take a dirt nap, as long as they take the money.  It's Paul she wants to be with, and why shouldn't they have the money?  Paul's not so sure.

As the film progresses, the wheels in Paul's brain keep turning round and round, working out a plan, seeing all the options and angles, and before he's got a chance to reconsider, he declares he's in.  But there is one problem.  Paul and his boys are staking out Lona around the clock.  One in the window watching through binoculars, one on the phone in case it rings, and another on the streets.  Whatever she does, she'll be tailed.  And it certainly doesn't help that Paul's partner Rick McAllister (Phil Carey) has his eye on a sweet little nurse who lives next door to our blond haired bombshell.

So Paul and Lona work out a plan.  Through some deft maneuvering, Lona will get out of the apartment, Rick will follow her, and when Wheeler shows up, Paul will take care of him.

But with any good noir, problems arise, and arise often.  Suffice it to say, things go bad, and soon Paul is left feeling unsure of which side of the law he's going to fall on.  Some choices are made, and they are not always good.

Pushover is a excellent example of what a noir film is; dark, seductive, and morally ambiguous with a not so happy ending.  While it's not going to go on any top ten lists, it's an fine entry level film into the genre.  Highly enjoyable.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 19 - Richard Widmark...

...or, look how many awesome movies a guy can make in a four year span.

Kiss of Death



Street With No Name



Road House



Night and the City



Panic In the Streets



No Way Out

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 18 - The Postman Always Rings Twice

I'm okay with bad choices.  It's understandable that people are often weak, stupid animals, and despite how evolved we are, sometimes primitive urges get the best of us.  I consider myself a rational person, and would be lying if I said I never made a bad choice based on instinct.

With film noir in particular, bad choices are important.  It's not unusual for a misfiring synapse to start an entire plot in motion, or a momentary lapse of reason to lead to an unfortunate demise.  Hell, sometimes even a bad option is the lesser of two evils.  One of the reasons I enjoy this particular genre is to watch people try to wrestle those demons into submission, and most of the time find out that they are the ones pinned to the mat.

So I can forgive a bad choice, maybe even two.

But a film where almost every choice is the bad choice?  It better be damn good.

A wayward drifter, Frank Chambers (John Garfield) finds himself in a new town, with a new job opportunity, working at a diner for Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway).  Within moments he is smitten with Nick's beautiful wife Cora (Lana Turner) and trouble soon follows.  They fight their desires for as long as possible, but instead of losing each other, they decide to murder Nick instead.

Unfortunately, The Postman Always Rings Twice is not damn good.  The premise is solid, but not believable in execution.  And I had high hopes.  When I was twelve I saw the remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, and perhaps it was just my pent up teenage hormones, but I thought it was quite good.  At the time I didn't realize it was from a David Mamet script, but now I can see why it worked.  Mamet's a smart man, and he realized that the movie needed to be really sexed up to work.  Add more sex, and the brain stops working.

This version didn't have the sex, so my brain worked overtime and came up with the following problems.

Why would a woman who looks like Lana Turner marry a guy who looks like Cecil Kellaway?  Oh yeah, because too many handsome men hit on her.

I can understand hiring the handsome drifter to work for you, but do you really want him that close to your way more attractive wife?  Sure.  And while you are at it, how about having them dance and go off for a late night swim with your permission?

So they decide to run away together.  At least they take the car and some money from the cash register.  Nope.  They just pack some suitcases and start walking. But at least they left him a note.  A note they need to retrieve once they change their mind some miles down the road.

Okay, so leaving is out of the question, at least without money.  I got it!  Kill him.  She did just read an article in a women's magazine that states all kinds of accidents happen around the house.  So just design an elaborate plan involving an electrical wire, a ladder, and a bathtub.  Just make sure a cat doesn't climb up the ladder and ruin the whole thing.

Fuck.  A cat climbed the ladder.

Got an idea.  Next time you want to kill a man, don't design some elaborate Rube Goldberg device that is more complicated than the game of Mousetrap and that setup that served Pee Wee Herman his breakfast.

But he lives, and this is a second chance to forget the whole thing.  So Frank  leaves for Los Angeles.  The miles in between you should cool things down.  Whats that?  You got a job at a place Nick frequents.  Way to separate dude.

And just when you feel Nick hasn't made a bad decision in a while, he thinks it's a great idea to sell the place and move to NORTHERN CANADA so your wife can take care of your paralyzed sister.  Now I get why she wants you dead.

Who could possibly save this film?  How about an oily Hume Cronyn. 

At last, a choice that makes sense.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



And just because.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 17 - Pickup On South Street

On a crowded New York City subway, two non-descript men are keeping an eye on a lovely young woman.  While under their watch, an unsuspecting pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), does what he does best.  Little does he know, Candy (Jean Peters), the woman whose purse he just emptied, happened to be couriering a very important piece of microfilm.  This sensitive information was to be delivered to a Soviet Agent, and now both her ex-boyfriend Joey and the cops are after her to retrieve it.  Only problem, Skip isn't going to be that easy to con.  With the help of  neighborhood informer Moe (Thelma Ritter), everyone is after skip.  But when Joey crosses the line, Skip is finally forced to look after someone besides himself for once.

For me, Pickup on South Street is the tale of two characters, Thelma Ritter's Moe and director Samuel Fuller.  This film is excellent, and every character is fully formed and interesting.  Jean Peters's Candy is a wonderful example of a woman caught in a situation that is far above her head.  She constantly struggles, and it's easy to see why she latches onto Widmark's McCoy.  He might be a small potatoes three time loser, but the guy always seems to have a plan.  Widmark carries McCoy as self-confident, despite his many shortcomings.  When he finally takes action at the films end, it is seen as a long time coming.

But the film belongs to Thelma Ritter.  Moe, a whirling dervish of a woman who just happens to be dressed like a young Grannie from the Beverly Hillbillies, is a woman just doing what she can to get by.  She sees herself as an honest citizen, who for the right price will point the cops in directions they can't find themselves.  Despite what others call her, she is not a "stool pigeon" and only takes money because the cost of living keeps going up.  Don't believe her, check the notebook she carries at all times that contains the most up to date cost of food.  It's not her way to ask too much, just what is needed. 

Her portrayal, while certainly comical (she sells designer ties for $1), is the most tragic of the film.  From the very beginning we learn she performs her services only so she can afford a decent plot and burial at a cemetery out on Long Island.  Every dollar earned goes towards a fancy gravestone, as her worst fear is being buried unmarked and unmourned at Potter's Field, which is odd because everyone seems to like her.  The police, while not always willing to part with their money, have not problem dealing with her.  Even Skip, whose location she sells out, harbors no ill will, realizing that she's just doing what she needs to get by.  Moe seems destined for tragedy, and her death was not easy to take.  She was strong right to the end though.

Secondly, this film is owned by Samuel Fuller.  He's a masterful director, and every frame of Pickup is wonderfully framed, lit, and shot.  A great deal of credit goes to cinematographer Joe MacDonald, but Fullers fingerprints are all over this film.  Anyone doubting he was the man in charge needs only to watch the special features on the Criterion release.

At nineteen minutes, the documentary/conversation with Fuller is far too brief.  Looking like a white suited Mark Twain from the dark side of town, with his wildman hair and cigar, Fuller talks about the movie business, famed producer Darryl F Zanuck, and what it takes to be a director. (Hint: rehearse, rehearse, shoot)  He is an amazingly entertaining man whose advice on shooting an action scene is priceless, and honestly, should be mandatory for most of today's directors.  They don't make them like him anymore.

Rating: 4 and a half stars out of 5.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 16 - On Dangerous Ground

Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground starts out like many of the noirs of its day.  Cops are getting ready for their day, getting dressed, saying goodbye to their wife and/or children, eating a meal, and holstering their weapon.  Soon they are at roll call, being called out.  A Sargent was murdered two weeks ago, and Captain Brawley (Ed Bageley) isn't too happy about it.  Those killers need to be found.

Detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) has a few leads, and with his two partners he pays some visits to his stool pigeons.  From the start, we can see that Wilson isn't your typical cop.  He's sullen and withdrawn, only speaking when he has to quiet someone up.  But he's good at his job.  Soon he's got a location on one of the suspects and when he finds him, he nearly beats the hell out of him.

Despite his success, Brawley has a problem with Wilson's methods.  He's bringing heat down on the department with his constant brutality, and if he can't clean up his act, he's going to be out on his ass.  This isn't exactly a threat for Wilson.  He's fed up with the job, with the people, with the city.  He considers himself nothing more than a garbageman.

"Make your mind up to be a cop, not a gangster with a badge."

As punishment, Brawley sends Wilson up north to "Siberia" to cool off.  A young girl has been murdered, and the small town could use the help of a big city detective.

And this is where the film takes a turn towards uncharted territory.  Removed from the darkness and grime of the city, Wilson finds himself in the stark white and cleanliness of a winter wonderland.  Gone are the shadows, replaced with the brightness of snow. 

There is still a murder to solve.  The townsfolk, particularly the grieving father Walter (Ward Bond) want to catch the killer themselves and deliver some good old fashioned vigilante justice.  Wilson doesn't seem to bothered by this but still has a job to do.  Soon enough (perhaps a little too soon) they are onto the killer, and a foot chase/car chase ensues.  As someone from the snowy north can attest, a high speed chase on winter roads does not end well, and both cars crash into the woods, resulting in another chase.

The trail (thanks snow!) leads them to a remote house, where Mary Malden (Ida Lupino) a young blind woman lives with her conveniently out of town brother.  Walter knows she is hiding the killer, and checks out the house while Wilson talks to Mary and warms himself by the fire.  By this point the metaphor is becoming quite clear.

Mary tells Wilson of her brother, and hopes that he will be the one to bring him in alive.  He promises to do that, and after a night spent by the fire with Walter, they will begin looking again.  Of course they find him, resulting in a mountain-side chase and the accidental death of Danny, the guilty brother.  Walter becomes saddened to realize the murderer he's been so blood thirsty for is nothing more than a mentally challenged boy, and takes it upon himself to carry the dead boy back to the cabin.

Wilson, despite his strong feelings for Mary, heads back to the city, still haunted by her voice and words.


Had the film ended at this point, I would have given it a higher rating, as I'm a sucker for downer endings.  Unfortunately he goes back, and the film ends with them kissing.

"Sometimes the people who are never alone are the loneliest."

I guess I'm okay with that.  Robert Ryan does a tremendous job with his character, portraying his emotions with as little words as possible.  And Ida Lupino does a decent job as a blind, but independant woman.  She moves about her house with the use of strategically placed furniture, and her connection with Ryan's Wilson feels authentic, even though they just met.  Despite my cold cold heart, it was nice to see them end up together at the end.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 15 - The Naked City

"Every murder turns on a bright hot light, and a lot of people, innocent or not, have to walk out of the shadow to stand investigation."

Late at night a cleaning lady mops the floor of a train station.  A local disc jockey wonders if anyone besides his wife is listening to him prattle over the airwaves at this hour.  A beautiful young woman is strangled by two men and dumped in the bathtub, left for dead.

The city wakes up.  Papers are delivered along with the morning milk.  Another murder is committed.  A drunk man is bludgeoned with a wooden board by a friend and pushed into the river.

More people wake up.  They take care of their children and get ready to go to work, both walking and taking the train.  The city roars to life. 

Those murders are discovered.

I shouldn't like The Naked City.  It might have been one of the first groundbreaking police procedural films, but it is still a genre that I quickly grow tired of thanks to endless television repeats of everything from CSI to NCIS.  The actors don't even do a particularly good job of holding my interest.  Everyone is so straight laced, with the exception of the few criminals we meet.  But even they are rather vanilla.

I watch film noir to see the darkest of the dark in a society gone wrong, and the most this film can muster is a few tame murders and some stolen jewels.  That sound is me yawning.

However, The Naked City was one of the first films shot on location in New York City, and for that, you must give it credit.  Director Jules Dassin and Oscar-winning Cinematographer William H. Daniels were smart to make both the city and it's inhabitants major characters in a rather ho-hum story.  I was fascinated by the long shots of sky scrapers and street level views of people just making their way about life.  Each shot is a time capsule of that decade, and honestly, I could hit pause and stare at the excellently framed images for minutes at a time.  Their beauty engaged me more than the plot.

At least until the final shootout.  Filmed on the Williamsburgh Bridge, it was an excellent conclusion to the film.

"There are 8 million stories in the naked city.  This had been one of them."

Rating: 3 and a half stars out of 5


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 14 - Lady in the Lake

Directed and "starring" Robert Montgomery as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Lady in the Lake is definitely a very interesting picture.  Touted as "a startling and daring new method of story telling---a milestone in movie making..." the film certainly delivers.  Could it have been just a gimmick?  Sure, but it works.

Lady in the Lake was filmed almost exclusively from the point of view of Philip Marlowe, with the camera being his, and the viewers eyes.  For you video game junkies out there, it's like a first person shooter game, but for the rest of you, it's a chance to view a case through the eyes of the detective.

From a filming standpoint, it had to have provided some challenges.   The actors had to talk to the camera, which is a bit disconcerting at first, but soon becomes normal.  And clues couldn't be shown in any obvious manner.  They are there, but not easily noticed, which gives the viewer a chance to play at being Marlowe.  A few times I know I wanted to yell "Look to the left" or some other direction.  Frustrating.

So is the film any good?  Yes and no. 

Montgomery, rarely seen on camera, does an excellent job with Marlowe's voice.  He does a good job of expressing Marlowe's emotions without the use of his face, a tough task well handled.

As for the story, it's a good old fashioned detective yarn, the type of story you can expect from Raymond Chandler.  Marlowe, on the pretense of having a story he wrote becoming published, meets with a female editor, Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), who hires him to find Chrystal Kingsby (Ellay Mort), the wife of publisher Derace Kingsby(Leon Ames).  She's been missing for a few months and her husband hardly seems worried.  But Fromsett believes she's run off with a man.  So why does she want Chrystal to be found when her husband couldn't be bothered otherwise?  Marlowe sure she wants to be the new Mrs. Kingsby, and that can't happen with Chrystal still around.  Adrienne is more than happy to point Marlowe in a few directions, and each is met with angry, unhappy people and murder, including the "lady in the lake."

My only complaint is from personal opinion, and not fault of the filmmakers.  I enjoy the lighting of film noirs, the dark shadows and tricks that can be made when using a high contrast light source.  Those are rarely present in this film, which is understandable.  Should Marlowe spend too much time in the dark, as viewers we'd be looking at nothing but a black screen.  So the story is pretty well lit.  Not my favorite style choice, but it suits the needs of the film well.

Montgomery pulled off a pretty neat trick with this story, and that gets him a few extra points with me.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 13 - Can't Escape Comics

A few short days ago, the movies at the ATP New York were all curated by the Criterion Collection.  Of particular interest to crime buffs, was the the Saturday schedule, Criterion Crime Wave curated by Jim Jarmusch.  The following films were shown

-Underworld
-The Killing
-Le Doulos
-Gomorrah
-Brute Force
-A Colt is My Passport
-Touchez Pas Au Grisibi
-Kiss Me Deadly

Other films shown during the weekend included Repulsion and Night of the Hunter

And while a day of these films is always cause for celebration, check out these posters created specifically for the show.  

Brute Force by Scott Morse





































Touchez Pas Au Grisibi by ?





































The Night of the Hunter by Matt Kindt





































A poster was created for each film shown at ATP, but this is all my searching has been able to uncover.  Hopefully Criterion will offer these beautiful pieces of art for sale in some print form.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Monthy of Noir Day 12 - More and More Mitchum

I had fun doing this last week with Bogart and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to spotlight a few other stars of the genre.  After all, September only has 30 days, so there is no way I was going to get around to viewing all of these movies. 

Today I give you my  personal favorite film noir star, Robert Mitchum.  Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear are two of my favorite films from his career, but since I've already seen them, they weren't going to be mentioned this month, which would be a shame.  They are classic, almost required viewing.  Her are the trailers for those two films along with a couple others.   Be on the lookout for more Mitchum later this month.

Night of the Hunter



Undercurrent



Where Danger Lives



His Kind of Woman



Cape Fear

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 11 - Kiss Me Deadly


Kiss Me Deadly started with such promise.
A barefoot woman runs breathlessly down a dark highway, barefoot, wearing only a trench coat.  Cars fly past her, despite her best attempts to get them to stop and help.  As a last ditch effort, she stands at the dead center of the road and dares it to hit her.  It swerves to miss her and ends up on the side of the road.

Mike Hammer(Ralph Meeker) isn't pleased.  She gets in the car, and against his better judgement, agrees to give her a ride to the bus station.  Credits roll as Nat King Cole sings "I'd Rather Have the Blues," the woman sobs, and Hammer continues driving.

He didn't want to pick up this woman, but as she states, if she's just been sticking her thumb out, he wouldn't have stopped.  His mood isn't the best, as it rarely is in this film.  Instead of possibly comforting this distressed woman he threatens to throw her off a cliff.  At least he pretended to be her husband when stopped by a police roadblock.  Turns out his passenger escaped from an asylum.

"Get me to that bust stop and you can forget you ever saw me."

Guess what?  They never make it to the bus stop.  A car cuts them off and snatches them.  Christine (Doris Leachman) is tortured by the three assailants while Hammer is out cold.  They are placed back in Hammers car and pushed off a cliff.  He survives, she doesn't.

I'll give Hammer this much, for being such a prick, he at least wants to enact vengeance on Christine's killers.  In this film, Mike is not an honorable man.  He's a PI that specializes in divorce cases, in which he pimps his girlfriend/associate Velda (Maxine Cooper) out to seduce men, then takes pictures.  He's not above turning the same trick himself, and then plays the husband against the wife.  It's despicable, and even worse, he seems to really enjoy it.

I understand completely that Hammer is not a nice guy.  Even in the books he's written as a brutal and misogynistic man, but Meeker really plays up the narcissistic tendencies.  Perhaps it's because he's a bit more handsome then hardboiled, but every girl he meets just wants to make out with him.  And the violence!  Meeker gets this wild look in his eyes every time he slaps a man around.  That's right, he throws more slaps than punches, whether they be an actual bad guy or someone just not helping him fast enough.  There is glee in those eyes, and that's just slimy.

But the bad acting doesn't stop with just him, as this film is full of annoying characters.  I was openly hoping his mechanic Nick (Nick Dennis) would become a casualty, and mystery woman Lily (Gaby Rodgers ) portrayed one of the worst femme fatales of all time.  Her delivery was more wooden than a baseball bat and equally as dull.

At the 45 minute mark, I was dying for this film to be over, and nearly wept when I realized there was still another hour to go.  Thirty minutes could have been excised from this film easily and made it more tolerable.  The only highlight was a second crooning of "I'd Rather Have the Blues" at a nightclub by Madi Comfort as Mike Hammer drank himself into unconsciousness.  At that moment I envied him.

It's said that Mickey Spillaine was not happy with the adaptation by director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. I can understand his anger.

Rating : 2 Stars out of 5

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 10 - The Killers (1946)

When I decided to do a month long review of film noir, I told myself that I wouldn't review any films I'd already seen. This would be a chance to discover some new stuff, and not just rehash the old. Part of me is a bit sad because that means I can't rewatch In a Lonely Place or Night of the Hunter, but today I'm finding a bit of a loophole.

The Killers (1946) is one of my favorite all time noirs. Based on a short story by Papa Hemingway (+1), directed by Robert Siodmak (+2) and starring Burt Lancaster and Eva Gardner (+3 and 4), it tells the tale of The Swede (Lancaster), an ex-boxer who has gotten involved with mobsters.   Two hitmen find him, kill him, and from there we learn about who he was through flashbacks.

There.  That's the last I'm saying about the film itself, because today I'm reviewing the Criterion Collection edition of The Killers that made it's way into my mailbox a short time ago.

This is what all DVD should aspire to be.  Not only does the film look and sound great, but the extras are educational, and most importantly, interesting.

Stuart Kaminsky on The Killers
It's nothing more than six-time Edgar nominee and winner talking about the film, but the guy knows his stuff.  Way more interesting than looking up the info on Imdb or Wiki.

Biographies
While most discs will give the bios on the stars and/director, Criterion gives information on seven actors/actresses, the director and the composer Miklos Rozsa.

Exploitation
Publicity stills, Production Stills, Behind-the-Scenes, Original Press Book, Original Advertising, and pictures of the Winter Garden Theater in NYC

Source and Adaptations
Hemingway's short story as read by Stacy Keach
Andrei Tarkovsky's The Killers.  Tarkovsky's first short film, which was made while still in a Russian Film school.
Screen Director's Playhouse, broadcast on June 5, 1948

Notes on Film Noir
A case study of noir, written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and published in FILM COMMENT in 1972
 -Introduction
 -War and Post-War Disillusionment
 -Post-War Realism
 -The German Influence
 -The Hard-Boiled tradition
 -Stylistics
 -Themes
 -Three Phases of Noir
 -Neglect of Noir

And for last Siodmak Trailers
 -Son of Dracula
 -Cobra Woman
 -The Killers
 -Cry of the City
 -Criss Cross

This disc is not just a classic of film noir, it is the standard for which all film noir releases should measure themselves up against.  One could easily spend an entire afternoon doing nothing but meticulously going through each and every special feature.

But that's not all.  There is another disc.

Disc two gives us the 1964 edition of the film along with the following special features.

Reflections with Clu Gulager, star of the 1964 version


Excerpts from A Siegel Film pertaining to the making of the movie

Production correspondence including memos from Don Siegel, broadcasting standards reports and casting suggestions

Production and publicity stills with actor biographies, rare behind-the-scenes stills gallery, and advertisements

Notes by Geoffrey O’Brien (Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir)

Here's hoping Criterion continues to mine the old classics and gives them an equally amazing treatment.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 9 - I Wake Up Screaming

Let's get the important stuff out of the way first. Yes, we do get a pretty good look at those famous Betty Grable legs, but honestly, just look at the poster to the left if that's what you're after. Better shot than the mostly below the knee action you get watching the film. Forgive me if I don't get too excited. I hit puberty during the gratuitous nudity 80's, but I can appreciate what a shot of her lovely legs must have meant to both men and boys in the 40's. But hopefully you are watching the film for another reason, perhaps because it's a damn fine film.

On a gentleman's bet, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) decides that he can take a "plain" hash house waitress (Carole Landis) and make her famous in New York's high society.  He's a promoter, and he can make a star out of anyone.   It doesn't hurt that Vicki Lynn is incredibly attractive and in on it.  Unlike most movies where a guy dates a girl on bet, she is actually in on it.  She would love to be famous.

It's a plan that works well.  Frankie gets her to meet all the right people and go to all the right places.  Soon her picture is in the paper and people come calling, including Hollywood.  But before she is able to leave, she turns up dead.

Feeling that he might have not wanted to lose a meal ticket, the police, and especially Detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) place the blame squarely on Frankie's slick shoulders. 

At this point, director Bruce Humberstone pulls out his bag of tricks and shows some real skill.  Both Frankie and Vicki's sister Jill Lynn (Betty Grable) are brought in for questioning.  Each of them tells a side of the story, picking up where the other left off, but told separately and in flashback.  It's a good storytelling device and it works well.

What also works is the staging of the interrogations.  Frankie sits in a dark room, barely lit by a small but bright light.  He's very visible, but everything else is in shadows, allowing cinematographer Edward Cronjager to play with the lighting of characters.  Cronjager also uses his impressive skills when shooting the second interrogation room, which appears to be some sort of cage, and casts some great shadows upon the actors.

Don't let me forget the actor.  It's been said that Victor Mature once claimed to have never acted in any of his movies.  I've seen a few, and I believe him.  Other than a sly grin and a pair of expressive eyebrows, he offers very little to the picture.  His performance is likable, but hardly memorable.

Both Grable and Landis do exactly what is needed of them.  Landis has the better role to show off her beauty, and she plays a woman looking for fame rather convincingly.  She's rather charming, and it's easy to see why the men in the film want to help her.  Grable plays the "plain" role, which could be laughable.  She's too attractive, but she downplays her beauty as best as possible and handles her rare dramatic role quite capably.  Her growing interest in Frankie is subtle and it works.

But the real scene stealer of the film is Laird Cregar as the detective who seems a bit too obsessed with finding Vicki's killer.  He's a tall, imposing figure, and the director does a great job of showcasing that by always having him in close proximity to the other characters.  His clothing is always darker than everyone else and he's shot in shadows for most of the film, which I suspect is the directors way of letting us know something isn't quite right with this guy.  The hints are nice, but unnecessary, as Cregar uses his size and voice to alert the audience of his motives and intentions.  He oozes creepiness, and it's obvious, thanks to an earlier and unnecessary shot, he's got a vendetta.

"I don't scare you enough to commit suicide, but I worry you just the same."

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 8 - He Walked By Night

This is a true story
It is known to the Police Department of one of our largest cities as the most difficult homicide case in its experience, principally because of the diabolical cleverness, intelligence and cunning of a completely unknown killer...The record is set down here factually---as it happened.  Only the names are changed---to protect the innocent.

A well dressed man walks down a city street, bathed in darkness, yet still casting a shadowy figure along nearby surfaces.  He stops at an electronic store.  At this time of night, it is, of course, closed, ant that is precisely why he has chosen to stop now.  The man pulls a lockpick kit from his coat pocket and goes to work.  Unfortunately for him, an officer, off duty and on his way home to his wife, drives by.  He pulls his car alongside the man as he attempts to walk away.  When asked for identification, he instead pulls a gun and emptys a few rounds into the officers car.  He attempts to get in a car and drive away, but the officer, in a final heroic act, crashes his car into the getaway vehicle, forcing the murder to escape on foot, leaving behind some guns and a clue, a navy issued radio.

As the detectives arrive on scene, they interview witnesses.  It seems the officer was able to describe the man before he died.  The police begin a dragnet, pulling in everyone on the street that matches a possible description.  It comes up empty.

The criminal, one Roy Morgan, is no ordinary thief.  It seems he steals electronic equipment, improves their design, then sells them on consignment to a local electronics rental company, Reeves electronics.  Mr. Reeves adores Morgan, complimenting his intelligence and offering him a job.  When Morgan refuses, Reeves tells him of a customer who is interested in a television projector that he once mentioned.  Morgan tells him it will be finished tomorrow, which it is.  Reeves brings in the customer, only to find out the projector was stolen from the very man who intended to buy it.  He notifies the police.  At last a solid lead.

Soon a trap is set up, but Morgan is too smart.  He shoots his way out, paralyzing one of the officers, and escapes.  In order to avoid future detection, he changes his MO and starts robbing stores, while changing his apppearance.

A strong aspect of He Walked By Night is the level of investigation the police bring to this case.  Instead of relying on informants or other familiar tropes of the genre, these officers use laboratory work as well.   Enter the most important part of the film, Jack Webb as Lee Whitey, an early form of a CSI lab tech.  Using up to date technologies, Whitey is able to discover what our criminal looks like, and more importantly, that the gun being used in the robberies is the same that shot the officer. 

The police begin another dragnet, and soon a local milkman offers them an address that proves correct.  As they attempt to arrest him, Morgan once again escapes, this time into the underground spillways of Los Angeles.  They decend upon him, and in a memorable looking shoot out, they get their man.  Dead.

So why was Jack Webb so important?  It is told that during this movie, Webb struck up a friendship with technical advisor, Detective Sargeant Marty Wynn, and was inspired to create first the radio show, then the television program, DRAGNET.  It's not a hard story to believe, as many aspects of this movie, from the opening title card, the the voice over narration, would become staples of that memorable and groundbreaking show.

It's also of interest that this might have been the first noir film I've seen where the criminal is treated as a mastermind.  He's highly intelligent, cunning and adaptive.  He's aware of police procedures, as is evidenced by him listening in on a scanner, and changes his methods accordingly.  He can pick locks, improve electronics, can handle a gun, disguise himself, and actually perform field surgury on himself once he is shot.  Truly an exceptional criminal.  Yet he is still caught be even better police work.

Even if the film wasn't as good as it was, I still would have enjoyed it thanks to it's incredible title. 

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5, with an extra credit star because it helped create DRAGNET.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Month of Noir Day 7 - D.O.A.

I try to always include a trailer for the films I review, mostly because I'm a trailer junkie.  Being late to the theater means missing the best part of going to the movies, so I'm often there twenty minutes early, anxiously awaiting for those lights to go down.  Oddly enough, I couldn't find a trailer for D.O.A. that I could embed.  Normally I'd consider this a problem, but today, it's not so bad, because I was able to find a clip of the films opening ten minutes, which if you haven't seen the film should convince you far better than any words I write. Sp before I start rambling on, take the time to watch the excellent tracking shots of  Edmund O'Brien as he walks through the police station to the homicide division. From there he presents one of the best "hooks" ever to open a film.

"I want to report a murder."
"Sit down.  Where was this murder committed?"
"San Francisco, last night."
"Who was murdered?"
"I was."



Since this movie, that type of scenario has been used numerous times, and of course, it's novelty has worn a bit thin.  But had I been a patron of the moving pictures back in 1950, that would have put my knickers in a twist.  Immediately hooks you into the film.  And just think, without this film, Jason Statham would have never given the world the joys that are Crank and Crank 2.

But once you get past the clever plot device of a man trying to solve his own murder, you still have to have a good film.

Frank Bigelow goes to San Francisco for a weeks worth of fun before returning to his accounting business and his fiance Paula.  She's a bit miffed at him for leaving, but decides they just might need the week alone before settling down.

While in San Francisco, Frank goes out on the town with a group of businessmen.  At an excellent jazz club, Franks drink gets swapped out for another, and by morning he's sick.  A doctor's test reveals that he swallowed a luminous toxin for which...THERE IS NO ANTIDOTE! 

Instead of accepting his own death, Frank decides to find his killer, following each and every lead he can before his time runs out.

D.O.A. is by necessity, a fast moving picture.  People talk fast, they move fast, and they act fast.  The film cruises along at this pace, and is better for it.  We can feel Frank's desperation, knowing that unless two doctors were wrong, he will be dead by the films end.  Will we find out who killed him?

As the film progressed, I realized I didn't care.  I was just happy to be along for the ride.  Along with strong performances by Edmond O'Brien (Frank) and Pamela Britton (Paula), the film is paced well by director Rudolph Mate.  The only issue I had about the film was an annoying as hell slide whistle noise that happened every time Frank saw a pretty lady in the hotel.  It's a small complaint, but damn, it felt like an effect from a Three Stooges short.

D.O.A. is a staple of film noir for a reason.  It's got an excellent cast, great atmosphere, and a pace that doesn't let you go until the final moments of the film.  It is truly worthy of it's hook. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars, with an extra half star for the premise.