Saturday, December 26, 2009

Target #66: Fallen Angel (1945, Otto Preminger)

Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Marty Holland (novel), Harry Kleiner (writing)
Starring: Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford, Anne Revere, John Carradine

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

With Laura (1944) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), director Otto Preminger and actor Dana Andrews collaborated to produce two of the great American film noirs. Fallen Angel (1945) also features this winning combination, but unfortunately lacks something more crucial: conviction. Eric Stanton (Andrews) is the perfect noir anti-hero, an unabashed shyster with a knack for opportunism. After stranding himself in a small American town with a dollar in his pocket, Stanton falls for Stella (Linda Darnell), a vivacious young waitress who'll "befriend" any man who can offer her financial security. Stanton claims that he wants to marry Stella, but he's obviously driven by lust, and his hunger leads him to seek money through dubious means – in this case, by wooing and marrying the spinsterish June (Alice Faye). Where Preminger fumbles is in his unwillingness to punish Stanton. Instead, the irresponsibly- flirtatious Stella is murdered, and our hero's innocence – never really doubted by the audience – distracts from the character's own moral crimes.

The film, at least, is thick with atmosphere. The small-town setting creates a distinct sense of claustrophobia, as though one can't run far enough to escape the watchful eyes of the local residents. Dana Andrews, as always, is excellent in the lead role. Linda Darnell exudes a trashy but undeniably voluptuous sensuality; she's a more openly sexual character than Gene Tierney's Laura, and perhaps more along the lines of Tierney in The Shanghai Gesture (1941) or Jean Peters in Pickup on South Street (1953). The characters played by Alice Faye and Anne Revere are underdeveloped and mostly uninteresting; their innocent, righteous personalities feel as though they should have no place in the film noir style. Charles Bickford, however, is very entertaining as a cocky and sadistic retired detective charged with solving Stella's murder. For the sizzling chemistry of Andrews and Darnell, Fallen Angel is a worthy enough noir thriller, but the director and star have done better, both together and with others.

Currently my #10 film of 1945:
1) The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder) *
2) Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock) *
3) Brief Encounter (David Lean)
4) 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
5) Perfect Strangers (Alexander Korda)
6) Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl) *
7) Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang) *
8) And Then There Were None (René Clair)
9) Roma, città aperta {Rome, Open City} (Roberto Rossellini)
10) Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger) *


Friday, December 4, 2009

British Noir: Brighton Rock (1947, John Boulting)

Directed by: John Boulting

Written by: Graham Greene (novel & screenplay), Terrence Ratigan (writer)

In John Boulting's adaptation of a Graham Greene novel, Richard Attenborough plays small-time gang-leader Pinkie Brown, a young man with a rough temper and a paranoid mean-streak. After he murders a police informer, Pinkie happens upon a young waitress (Carol Marsh) who could shatter his alibi if she wanted to. Unable to silence her without risking arrest, Pinkie instead tries to seduce the girl, who naively falls head over heels for the man who'd like to put a bullet in her.

Greene's trademark wryness is present in a tense opening act that sees a desperate newspaper employee (hired as Kolley Kibber, a variation of the Lobby Lud character) pursued through the streets of Brighton. Rarely have bustling crowds of people felt so ominous: how can this man hope to escape detection if, in a sardonic twist, an entire readership is looking out for him? Pinkie eventually murders the man during a carnival horror ride, escaping into the throngs of oblivious day-trippers. The man in which such a heinous crime is swallowed by the clamour of everyday life recalls Dassins The Naked City (1948) and that wonderful reverse dolly shot in Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972).

This sequence is one of several – including the climax upon a foggy ocean pier – whose sheer atmosphere is intense enough to rival the very best noir efforts of Jules Dassin {Night and the City (1950)} and Carol Reed {Odd Man Out (1947); The Third Man (1949)}. Unfortunately, unlike these better films, Brighton Rock (1947) lacks a consistent tone. Director Robert Boulton is skillful at building a strong atmosphere, but intermittent interruptions from Hermione Baddeley's brassy amateur sleuth (accompanied by her own jaunty theme tune) shift the mood from that of a grim British noir to a frivolous Miss Marple outing.

Though Richard Attenborough is a small, unintimidating actor, he somehow uses his slight stature to his advantage. Like a wily mutt, his Pinkie Brown has a ferocious bark, and a bite to match. In stories of this sort, it is typical for the villain to be softened, if only slightly, by the affections of a pretty lady. Nothing of the sort happens here. Pinkie, whose sexual urges are seemingly exhausted in his lust for power, woos and weds waitress Rose purely as an exercise in self-preservation. The young woman's devotion to such a cold-blooded crook is pathetic and heartbreaking, a tragic metaphor for thousands of women trapped in loveless and abusive marital unions.

Currently my #10 film of 1947:
1) Odd Man Out (Carol Reed) *
2) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
4) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) *
5) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves) *
6) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles) *
7) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel) *
8) The Web (Michael Gordon) *
9) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
10) Brighton Rock (John Boulting) *


Monday, September 28, 2009

Bonus Noir: The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947, Felix E. Feist)

Directed by: Felix E. Feist
Written by: Robert C. DuSoe (novel), Felix E. Feist (writer)
Starring: Lawrence Tierney, Ted North, Nan Leslie, Betty Lawford, Andrew Tombes, Harry Shannon, Glen Vernon

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

By all accounts, Lawrence Tierney was one mean customer. He got his break in Hollywood playing the titular gangster in Dillinger (1945), and its success saw him typecast as the ultimate bad-guy. In Felix Feist's The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Tierney gives a powerhouse performance as Steve Morgan, a scheming fugitive who hitches a ride with law-abiding salesman Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North). As a short, sharp low-budget thriller, the film has plenty to recommend, any weaknesses early on compensated for by a mounting air of tension that you could cut with a knife. Steve Morgan is a riveting character from the moment he appears on screen. For one, he's not afraid to speak his mind, even insulting the appearance of the gas station attendant's (Glen Vernon) baby daughter. When Morgan propositions a virginal runaway (Nan Leslie), his flattering advances sound more like threats than complements. Only fellow hitchhiker Agnes Smith (Betty Lawford) can rival his hardness, a callous tramp looking out for herself.

Given the B-movie budget, the other performances as about as good as one could expect. Ted North is almost too amiable as the main character, constantly appearing smitten by the mere thought of his pretty wife. Betty Lawford is good, playing her role precisely as Claire Trevor might have – incidentally, Tierney would co-star with Trevor that same year in Born to Kill (1947). Harry Shannon's San Diego police chief inhabits the quaint universe of B-movie law enforcement, playing poker between phonecalls and recruiting an enthusiastic boy-scout gas station attendant to come along for the ride. These idiosyncracies come with the territory, I suppose – very few low-budget noirs are without the occasional weak performance or dubious plot turn. More damning is that Steve Morgan is denied an ending that befits his mighty presence, the film cutting to the next scene without allowing his fate to sink in. At least the meagre finances allow greater freedom for risk-taking: certainly, no big-budget studio picture would have delegated the young, innocent beauty to lie face-down in a lagoon.

Currently my #10 film of 1947:
1) Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)
2) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
4) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
5) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves)
6) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles)
7) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel)
8) The Web (Michael Gordon)
9) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
10) The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix E. Feist)


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Post-Noir: Farewell, My Lovely (1975, Dick Richards)

Directed by: Dick Richards

Written by: Raymond Chandler (novel), David Zelag Goodman (screenplay)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, Sylvia Miles, Harry Dean Stanton, Jack O'Halloran, Sylvester Stallone

The work of Raymond Chandler experienced a resurgence in the 1970s, thanks to Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski's very Chandler-ish Chinatown (1974). The waning career of Robert Mitchum was also revived by two Chandler adaptations, Farewell, My Lovely (1975) {previously filmed by Edward Dmytryk as Murder, My Sweet (1944)} and The Big Sleep (1978) {previously filmed by Howard Hawks}. Though outside the traditionally-accepted film noir period (approx. 1940-1958), the 1970s provided an ideal climate for a resurgence of the style. The demise of the Production Code in the 1960s had allowed filmmakers the freedom to explore more explicit themes, usually implying an increase in language, violence and nudity. Chandler's novels – which typically dabbled in themes of prostitution, homosexuality and pornography – could now be adapted faithfully without the threat of censorship, though fortunately, in the case of this particular film, director Dick Richards doesn't overdo the sleaze. The source material is one of the few Marlowe novels I haven't read, but Farewell, My Lovely nevertheless seems a loyal interpretation of the author's style.

Philip Marlowe is the sort of role that Robert Mitchum would have nailed in the 1950s, when he always seemed to feel old and weary without actually looking it. Nevertheless – though he lacks the cocky vigour of Dick Powell, or the invincibility of Humphrey Bogart – the aging Mitchum does communicate what is perhaps Marlowe's most defining characteristic: that of a disillusioned, world-weary private dick looking for something in this world, anything, worth fighting for. In his latest case, Marlowe is hired by fearless lug Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran) to find his girlfriend Velma, who vanished while Malloy was serving a prison sentence. As always, what had initially seemed a straightforward assignment soon gets Marlowe embroiled in a complex patchwork of deceits, murders and double-crossings. Crucial to the mystery is Charlotte Rampling (emulating Lauren Bacall) as the adulterous wife of an old millionaire, and Oscar-nominated Sylvia Myles as an alcoholic performance artist. Also look out for small roles from Harry Dean Stanton as Det. Rolfe, and Sylvester Stallone as a lustful thug.

Farewell, My Lovely does a fine job of translating Chandler's pessimistic vision of urban decay and human depravity. The 1940s adaptations are, of course, superbly entertaining, but most of them – particularly The Big Sleep (1946) and Lady in the Lake (1947) – are clearly filmed on a pristine studio set, somewhat offsetting the grittiness of Chandler's characters and plot. Richards' film, to his credit, is incredibly ugly. Aside from Helen Grayle, whose sprawling mansion suffers next to Buckingham Palace, most of Marlowe's witnesses live in appalling squalor; even his own office is drab and bathed in shadow. Yet, despite the unpolished milieu, Farewell, My Lovely most assuredly has a heart. Marlowe's wordless interactions with the son of a penniless musician help us see beneath the detective's front of indifference, hinting at his admiration for the honest working-class, and his fervent distaste towards the decadence of the wealthy. When offered his own wealth, Marlowe unthinkingly surrenders it to someone he deems more worthy, a touching but cheerless ending to a film steeped in the unpleasantness of human existence.

Currently my #6 film of 1975:
1) One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman)
2) Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa)
3) Love and Death (Woody Allen)
4) Pasqualino Settebellezze {Seven Beauties} (Lina Wertmüller)
5) Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
6) Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards) *
7) Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)
8) Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones)


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bonus Noir: The Man Between (1953, Carol Reed)

Directed by: Carol Reed

Written by: Walter Ebert (story), Harry Kurnitz (screenplay), Eric Linklater (screenplay) (uncredited)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Following the release of his masterpiece The Third Man (1949), a refreshingly-offbeat amalgam of British noir and Ealing-style whimsy, director Carol Reed was heralded as one of the era's most promising filmmakers. Critical admirers anxiously awaited his follow-up effort, which was four years coming. Today, the consensus appears to regard The Man Between (1953) as little but a pale imitation of The Third Man. Certainly, the two films share similar scenarios, both involving a foreigner's espionage-tinged visit to a war-torn city (Vienna and Berlin, respectively) that has been divided by opposing powers. However, despite lacking Graham Greene's wry sense of humour, and particularly the boyish charisma of Orson Welles, Reed's follow-up picture is nonetheless an excellent drama, blending romance and tragedy with the director's usual flair for generating atmosphere and international intrigue. The fine chemistry between stars James Mason and Claire Bloom finds a life of its own amid the rubble-strewn ruins of a city still at war with itself.

Young British woman Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom, whom Chaplin had discovered the previous year for Limelight (1952)) arrives in Berlin to visit her brother (Geoffrey Toone), who has married German-born Bettina (Hildegard Knef). Through her sister-in-law, Susanne is introduced to the enigmatic Ivo Kern (James Mason), a professional kidnapper with ambiguous allegiances towards both the Eastern and Western powers. Screenwriter Harry Kurnitz had a talent for illustrating characters with hidden motives and concealed secrets (see Witness for the Prosecution (1957), The Web (1947) or either of his Thin Man features), and his screenplay spends its first half ominously exploring the intentions of Bettina, whose association with Ivo implicitly suggests a family betrayal. Interestingly, the character is effectively abandoned in the film's second half, but to the film's advantage, as Susanne and Ivo are relentlessly hunted in the Eastern Bloc following a botched kidnapping. Here, Reed narrows his dramatic focus, but the doomed romance between Bloom's young idealist and Mason's war-weary criminal remains appropriately understated, inspiring empathy without stooping to melodrama.

Despite the absence of Robert Krasker, The Man Between is a beautifully shot film, with director-of-photography Desmond Dickinson capturing, not only the atmosphere, but the foreboding personality of the crumbling German capital. John Addison's musical score is haunting and graceful, certainly a far cry from Anton Karas' zither, but nonetheless effective in its own right. One thing I've noticed about every Carol Reed film I've seen (and the tally currently sits at seven) is that all the performances are perfect – not only the main and supporting stars, but everybody down to the briefest of speaking roles. James Mason sports a convincing German accent, and Claire Bloom is simply adorable in her naive innocence, with a smile that will melt your heart. A particularly important character is young Horst (Dieter Krause), whose love Ivo instinctively rejects, for such a criminal can never allow himself to form attachments to those he must inevitably abandon. Ultimately, and tragically, it is Horst's devotion that results in Ivo's death, the final proof that love and death are never far apart.

Currently my #7 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)
3) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock) *
4) The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton)
5) Le salaire de la peur {The Wages of Fear} (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
6) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
7) The Man Between (Carol Reed) *
8) The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli)
9) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller) *
10) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)


Target #65: Thieves' Highway (1949, Jules Dassin)

Directed by: Jules Dassin

Written by: A.I. Bezzerides (novel & screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returns from a round-the-world engagement to a home that, at first glance, typifies the ideal American household. His father's working-class singing voice booms across the backyard; his mother fussily busies herself with the daily chores; his girlfriend Polly (Barbara Lawrence) bursts jubilantly into the room, embracing him in a passionate, sensuous kiss. But looks can be deceiving: a well-intended gift of Chinese slippers betrays a recent family tragedy; Polly's disappointed response to another gift hints at a fractured romance, a relationship borne not from love but the love of money. The family's facade of happiness is exposed as a sham, and it's the peeling back of this superficial skin with which Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949) is concerned. A seemingly-innocuous industry, that of fresh fruit cartage and wholesale, is shown to wallow in depravity, thuggery and callous opportunism. In this way, the film might be considered a companion piece to the director's previous effort, The Naked City (1948), which similarly exposed gruelling drama within the confines of the audiences' daily lives.

Richard Conte was one of the most interesting leading men of his era. His big-shot crime boss in The Big Combo (1955) might be the decade's most charismatic villain, but he could also play the resolute hero, as in Preminger's Whirlpool (1949). To Thieves' Highway he brings a cocky self-assurance, the sort of fearless conviction that's bound to blow up in one's face eventually. Lee J. Cobb's conniving fruit wholesaler, Mike Figlia, is a small-time crook, but one who invokes the viewer's contempt through his ruthlessly-capitalist exploitation of the humble working-class American. Only the females aren't as memorably drawn: Barbara Lawrence's Polly is rather abruptly discarded as a self-seeking gold-digger, as though only to allow for a romance with possible prostitute Rica (Valentina Cortesa), who grows a heart of gold. Thieves' Highway no doubt inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot's nail-biting The Wages of Fear (1953), another classic tale of trucking peril, but unfortunately it itself lacks the French director's gritty cynicism, or at least a degree of pessimism as absolute as Clouzot's.

This slackening of tone is seen most tellingly in the film's dramatic climax, a confrontation between Garcos and Figlia. The sequence doesn't work because it's conflicted between two opposing moral viewpoints. In one sense, Dassin appears to advocate Garcos' vigilante action in subjecting Figlia to a physical beating, since he successfully reclaims his stolen payments and achieves some degree of mental closure regarding his father's crippling. However, at this moment, as Garcos collapses onto the bench in exhaustion, policemen enter the diner and arrest Figlia for his crimes – but not before one officer sternly wags his finger at Garcos for taking the law into his own hands. To have an excellent film intruded upon by such an awkward, juvenile moral lesson is bad enough, but the film could have gotten across the same message in a more powerful manner. As the police stormed into the diner, my blood had suddenly run cold with the chilling thought: what if Figlia is dead? Out of pure bloody-minded pride, a good man would have been condemned for life, the ultimate testament that vigilantism is not the answer.

Currently my #6 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed)
2) White Heat (Raoul Walsh)
3) Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)
4) The Set-up (Robert Wise)
5) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
6) Thieves’ Highway (Jules Dassin)
7) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
8) The Big Steal (Don Siegel)
9) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
10) Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock)


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Target #64: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948, Norman Foster)

Directed by: Norman Foster

Written by: Gerald Butler (novel), Walter Bernstein (adaptation), Ben Maddow (adaptation), Leonardo Bercovici (writer), Hugh Gray (additional dialogue)

With such a lurid, evocative title, I entered into Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) with inflated expectations of a film steeped in decadence and depravity. I've often considered the classic film noir mood to be the primal juxtaposition of sex and violence, and this is exactly the stuff promised by Norman Foster's film: one envisions a man's bloodied hands, tinged from murder, and a femme fatale's gentle touch, not only embracing but encouraging her man's brutality. Alas, the true meaning of the title is less literal, and certainly less salacious, and concerns the notion of redemption through love. Burt Lancaster's traumatised war veteran, a man with stunted emotions and a short fuse, leaves behind a shady past of misdeeds he'd rather forget. His salvation comes in the form of Joan Fontaine's lonely, war-grieving nurse, who offers understanding and the hope of a better life. An admittedly conventional storyline is elevated by Foster's keen visual style, with the image of an advancing, goggle-eyed Robert Newton recalling the flamboyant eccentricity of an Orson Welles picture.
Foster's film opens in a pub, as the drunken patrons are shuffled into the street at closing time. There sits Bill Saunders (Lancaster) at the bar, lonely and brooding, so utterly distanced from society that he refuses to follow his fellow drinkers out the door. When the publican becomes forceful, Bill suddenly jerks into action, striking out with a heavy fist that leaves his aggressor dead on the floor. "Chum, you've been and gone and done it," remarks one stunned onlooker (Newton) gravely; "he's dead. You've killed him." This is what film noir is all about: that fundamental moment when there's no turning back. After a thrilling chase through the London streets (though I notice that the characters still drive left-handed vehicles), Bill finds refuge in the apartment of Jane Wharton (Fontaine), whose unexpected compassion leads him to seek a relationship with her. At this point, the film quickly and inexplicably forgets that Bill is a fugitive wanted for murder. Or, perhaps more accurately, it waits for us to forget.

Only after Bill Saunders has reestablished his place in society does his past rear its ugly head, in the form of Robert Newton's grotesquely cavalier black-market fraudster. This isn't the first time in Lancaster's career that his character's past had inescapably returned to haunt him: in Siodmak's The Killers (1946), Swede Andersen accepts his fate with a kind of subdued defeatism. However, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is less fatalistic towards its protagonist, opting instead for an open-ended conclusion that wavers between hope and resignation. That Bill is ultimately offered a second-chance at redemption is quite appropriate, given that he is a victim, not necessarily of his own sense of greed or immorality, but of the War. His unbalanced personality, unwittingly corrupted by the twisted ethics of combat, is a testament to the psychological scars of warfare, previously explored in Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and more peripherally in George Marshall's film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946).

Currently my #10 film of 1948:
1) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
2) Ladri di biciclette {The Bicycle Thief} (Vittorio De Sica)
3) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Oliver Twist (David Lean)
5) The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
6) The Naked City (Jules Dassin) *
7) Macbeth (Orson Welles)
8) Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls)
9) Key Largo (John Huston) *
10) Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster) *