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)