Friday, October 31, 2008

Target #35: The Big Combo (1955, Joseph H. Lewis)

Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis
Written by: Philip Yordan (writer)
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Robert Middleton, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, Helen Walker, Ted de Corsia, Helene Stanton

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

New York is a big city, and it's ruled, not by the democratically-elected politician, nor by the Chief of Police, but by the Crime Boss. Contemptible but untouchable, Mr. Brown rules the sprawling metropolis like a tyrant reigning over his kingdom, flaunting his power and success extravagantly and fearlessly, secure with the knowledge that the authorities can't lay a finger on him. Richard Conte's performance in The Big Combo (1955) is the key to the film's success. Though comparatively short in stature, Mr. Brown is nonetheless an intimidating figure, through both his complete confidence in his own eminence, and his denigration towards all those who are below him. With that charisma that apparently comes only to Italian-Americans, Mr. Brown (who, for whatever reason, frequently reminded me of Martin Scorsese) lays down the rules for determining the hierarchy of power: "Hate! Hate is the word, Benny! Hate the man that tries to beat you. Kill 'em, Benny! Kill 'em! Hate him till you see red, and you'll come out winning the big money, and the girls will come tumblin' after."

The film's plot, of an honest cop trying to bring down a titan of organised crime, is not unique; the most readily-recalled example would be Brian DePalma's The Untouchables (1987), but precursors certainly exist. Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) is such an honest cop, almost obsessive in his bid to bring down Mr. Brown, though his fanaticism could just as easily be explained by his lust for the crime boss' abused girlfriend, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace). Diamond is supposed to be the film's driving-force, but he's too dogmatic to make an interesting hero. Unlike the countless flawed anti-heroes who have made so many film noirs memorable – take Marlowe, or Spade, or Hammer, for instance – Diamond's only flaw appears to be that he's a workaholic. Mr. Brown contemptuously describes the detective as "righteous," the word spoken with such derision that he might as well have spit on him. Indeed, so lowly is his opinion of law enforcement that Mr. Brown stubbornly refuses even to address Diamond directly, sardonically issuing threats in the third-person.

I suppose it wouldn't be entirely accurate to describe Diamond as being a complete saint. After all, we must consider his part-time girlfriend Rita (Helene Stanton), whom he treats like a "pair of gloves," offering his affection only when his life seems particularly hopeless. Ultimately, Rita is assassinated in a case of mistaken identity, and her death gives the detective added incentive to bring down Mr. Brown. This character subplot is obviously an attempt to make Diamond appear more of an anti-hero, but it's a thin attempt, and Wilde's character is best viewed as an obligatory vehicle of moral and legal justice. It is the strong performances of Conte and Brian Donlevy (as Mr. Brown's resentful second-in-command) that really make the film, in addition to the imaginative visuals. Cinematographer John Alton here constructs some of film noir's most iconic images, including the fog-swept airport finale that deliberately diverts the ending of Casablanca (1942) into darker territory. The inspired stylistic decision to show Joe McClure's death without audio also inspired Sam Mendes' rainy shoot-out in Road to Perdition (2002).

Currently my #6 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin) *
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges)
4) Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich) *
5) Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
6) The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis) *
7) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
8) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
9) The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton) *
10) A Kid for Two Farthings (Carol Reed)


Friday, October 17, 2008

Target #34: Macao (1952, Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray)

Directed by: Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray (uncredited)
Written by: George Bricker, Edward Chodorov, Norman Katkov, Frank L. Moss (all uncredited), Walter Newman (dialogue, uncredited), Stanley Rubin (writer), Bernard C. Schoenfeld (writer), Robert Creighton Williams (story)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, William Bendix, Thomas Gomez, Gloria Grahame, Brad Dexter

It seems an odd thing for a film noir to be set on a small peninsula off the coast of China, but Macao (1952) nonetheless fits the bill to an extent, in a similar vein to Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944). Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum) wanders in off a ferry, looking as weary as always, and is immediately suspected by the city's resident American crime boss (Brad Dexter) to be a dangerous detective from the States. Cochran, actually a vagrant fugitive traversing the globe, accepts these accusations without batting an eyelid, thus joining the ranks of film noir "innocents" would find themselves unwittingly entangled in a messy affair in which they have no rightful business. Meanwhile, Jane Russell, with a spiteful glare that suggests utter contempt for anything that moves, works hard to avoid falling in love with Cochran; but on whom the sultry singer will ultimately bestow her affection is never in doubt. This film was made purely to bring together the two big stars again, but fortunately it also works as a exotic adventure thriller.

According to the opening credits, Macao was directed by Josef von Sternberg. In actuality, producer Howard Hughes dismissed Sternberg before production wrapped up, and so the film was completed by an uncredited Nicholas Ray. Audiences have always loved to see their favourite stars dispatched to exotic locations – however short distance they were required to travel from the studio back-lot – and the obscure Asian peninsula of Macao adds a spark of Oriental charm to an already-outlandish locale. This is a city where dangerous criminals take sanctuary and open seedy gambling joints, where mysterious Asian henchmen kill their victims with knives rather than guns. Normal societal formalities hold no sway here: Mitchum gets a luscious kiss out of his leading lady within a minute of their meeting, and, incidentally, she gets his wallet. That the screenplay is completely predictable becomes irrelevant next to the strong characterisations and seedy, mysterious atmosphere. This being my first Sternberg film, I'm unsure of his particular directing style, but the dark foot-chases along the sleazy Macao docks struck me as being characteristic of Nicholas Ray's work.

Though Mitchum and Russell carry the film pretty well – and, indeed, are the only reason for the film's existence – an unfortunately-underused supporting cast also does a good job. William Bendix, playing a likable character for once, is a friendly travelling salesman to whom there may be more than meets the eye. Brad Dexter is serviceable as the primary villain, but he's not particularly sinister or intimidating, and his spur-of-the-moment decision to leave the Three-Mile Limit, especially after learning of a plot to capture him, seems utterly contrived. Gloria Grahame (Ray's then-wife, though not for much longer) has a disappointingly-brief role as the villain's shunted lover; early in the film, she and Russell exchange glares than communicate pure mutual contempt. Overall, despite an all-too-familiar storyline, the Oriental-flavoured setting and enjoyable performances make for a film with a fair amount of suspense and intrigue, with just enough laconic humour to keep the story moving along nicely {Mitchum himself reportedly wrote a few scenes to bridge the otherwise-muddled screenplay}. If this one ever comes up on the TV schedule, it's worth a gander.

Currently my #6 film of 1952:
1) Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
2) Limelight (Charles Chaplin)
3) Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
4) On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino) *
5) High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
6) Macao (Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray) *


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Target #33: The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, Boris Ingster)

Directed by: Boris Ingster
Written by: Frank Partos (story & screenplay), Nathanael West (uncredited)

Watching The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), I was conscious of being present at a birth: the birth of film noir, at least in its most readily recognisable form. As if to announce impending delivery, the film's title is superimposed over the classically noirish image of a man's figure – silhouetted behind a pair of blinds – smoking contemplatively at an apartment window. Boris Ingster's visual sensibility, with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, is very strong, despite a relatively slight budget; the film's centrepiece dream sequence is a grippingly-surrealistic succession of nightmarish pessimism, as the story's minor hero is swept along towards execution by the cruel, indifferent hand of fate. Even so, it is still a rather shaky start for a movement that would, for the following two decades, shape and define American cinema. I don't expect that The Stranger on the Third Floor, a low-budget nonentity, had all that much influence on its successors – I suppose that The Maltese Falcon (1941) and High Sierra (1941) were responsible for most of that.

Ingster obviously filmed his picture on a very modest budget; Peter Lorre only appeared because he owed two extant days on his RKO contract, and the extra short running-time suggests a production filmed on the cheap. Perhaps fortunately, the filmmakers recognised that 64 minutes was inadequate time to attempt anything elaborate, and so the film dedicates itself towards one basic idea: the fallibility of circumstantial evidence. This notion is drilled so emphatically that its message comes across almost as a public service announcement. In many film noir pictures, there is more than meets the eye – in this one, what you see is exactly what you get. I had been hoping that the annoying neighbour's murder would ultimately be revealed as an act of violence committed subconsciously by Mike Ward (John McGuire) in his sleep, but, alas, Ingster would probably have considered even the suggestion an insult to his film's noble message.

The cast of The Stranger on the Third Floor is largely average at best, with only top-billed star Peter Lorre (in virtually a cameo role) managing to liven up the proceedings, as usual. The two main co-stars, John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet, do adequately in the film's more relaxed moments, but introduce a dramatic situation and suddenly they become wildly theatrical, exaggerating every emotion to the point of self-parody. Of course, Lorre does this, as well, but he's one of the few actors who've ever been able to pull it off. Channelling his tormented child-killer in Fritz Lang's M (1931), Lorre brings a similarly-tragic pathos to this role; not an entirely frightening character, but quite obviously insane, and liable to do anything. Elisha Cook, Jr. – the mistreated stooge that no noir should be without – attempts rather unsuccessfully to show some sincerity (though he reminded me of Mickey Rooney in a couple of scenes), but he's always been better when playing the faux tough-guy who inevitably catches a bullet in the back.

Currently my #10 film of 1940:
1) The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin)
2) The Grapes Of Wrath (John Ford)
3) Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Fantasia (Various)
5) Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen)
6) Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
8) His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)
9) The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor)
10) The Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster) *